Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Not Sisyphus (bonus – This Is Not About Stalin)

The best of poems feels like a great riddle being posed and can be more intriguing than the tightly crafted mysteries of many detective novelists. Varieties of meaning can hinge on mere shifts of words – and nothing is more interesting than tracing back how the poet led you down a certain pathway. A clear example of this is the poem Not Sisyphus by Dan Schneider – which grabbed me with its puzzle the moment I read it – and, even after I’ve come up with my own interpretation of it, I still feel as though there is something simply uncanny about its construction.

Copyrighted by Dan Schneider

The way the narrative voice sounds, the re-interpretation of the myth, and the revelation of the last line – reminds me a lot of some of Kafka’s parables, except that the sonnet is greater because it layers more paradox through the enjambment and has a wider span of techniques. The intrigue starts from the very beginning, with its title.

There are a few such works in Dan’s Collected Poems that does the same thing – overtly negating a certain subject, which all the more serves to draw your attention to it through reverse psychology. He has a bunch of poems named ‘This Is Not About Stalin’ (edit: as noted in the comments, its a 3 poem cycle with slightly different names)  where he mixes metaphors that bring to mind Communist elements like factories or mechanism – but uses it to talk about a completely different subject. You can see one example here:

Copyright by Dan Schneider

Using the destruction of individuality that Communism brings as a metaphor of the ego-negation that occurs during sex/love is absolutely wild – but let’s go back to Not Sisyphus.

Now, the very first thing that Dan does in this poem is call up the myth of Sisyphus itself. An unnamed narrator describes being stuck in a punishment much like Sisyphus, but we aren’t exactly sure yet. The next two lines begins the narrative twist. The narrator is someone sitting on the side – most likely a God – watching Sisyphus. This creates a mythic parallel & ironic re-interpretation – where it is the God that has to suffer the punishment of watching Sisyphus – while, to reference Camus & his existential interpretation of Sisyphus – Sisyphus remains blissfully happy. Incidentally, Dan has used Camus’ book before as an epigraph for his poem First Murder – although I do not know if he had the quote about ‘imagining Sisyphus happy’ in mind when he wrote the poem. In any case, when he writes how Sisyphus ‘smiles’ – that reference comes to mind.

The voice of the narrator, with words such as ‘old ghost’, ‘demeanor’, ‘sipping my ice tea’ and the barrage of alliteration in the later lines – recalls less of a God and more of a grinning Dandy or Clown musing lackadaisically about the vision before him. It is this jesting voice that brought my mind to Kafka – and it shows the range of voices that Dan can encompass in his writings.

The reinforcement of the idea that the narrator is a God comes from a ‘nymph’ that tells him of Sisyphus crimes. Notice how the rhythm & jest abruptly picks up during the nymph’s descriptions, manufactured by Dan’s intuitive poetic feeling – which could draw the reader into what Sisyphus might have felt (the thrill and whirl) at the moment of his crime before being caught. It returns to a calmer rhythm after ‘But all fails’.

The actual nature of Sisyphus’ crime is left unknown – but we merely know of the act of swindling. This helps to leave this aspect of the poem open to a multitude of possible interpretations. Yet, at its core, it describes a person full of bullshit, the transience of his moment (and his lack of awareness about its transience – Death), and the eventual downfall. Knowing what Dan loves to rail against – it could easily be a hack artist or writer like Andy Warhol that he had in mind when writing the poem – the punishment, of course, comes from the narrator having to watch these antics from his own higher understanding of Art – shaking his head at the sheer baseness of it all. Or, it could be about Crime in general – or Politics. The divide between Sisyphus and the narrator is heightened through the “Now only I bask” enjambment – and this kind of thing places it in the same element as Dan’s poem about killing a spider.

And then, we are left with the banger of an ending – which really knocks it out of the park by adding layers to the title and giving the poem so much intrigue. It is unexpectedly emotional too – throwing away the jesting voice of the previous lines with the rough and sudden ‘clutched to my core’. This is the true tragedy of Sisyphus – who, when he imagines himself happy – does not allow for the progress of the stone. In a way, it reflects cycles that are reinforced through the crimes or lacks that people commit. Lack of progress through pettiness and smallness in art, through deception in politics, or through corruption and crime. This makes the stone a large symbol that can encompass many facets of humanity that are limited by the constancy of certain lesser elements – the ignorant that are unaware of knowing when to give up. The narrator, the god or higher visionary, can laugh it off – but ultimately there is a tragedy to it all – things that need to be transcended.

Such lines are what makes these things memorable built through the great technical and intellectual labyrinths of the poet. Watch, read, and learn.

Dan Schneider’s Poetry: Stevens on Safari

Great poetry blooms in its individuality, yet it doesn’t deviate from certain fundamentals – seeking music through subtle flow, escaping from the realm of clichés, and teasing out multiple meanings through good line breaks & enjambment. These tenets might sound simple, but they hide 3 vaster domains that every writer must be somewhat aware of – Form, Content, Structure/Narrative. Or, to draw another comparison in painting & art – the style of the stroke, subject of the painting, and composition of the elements.

Escaping from the realm of clichés requires some knowledge of previous (good) poets to stake out a future. When Dan posted up his video of writing the poem Ed Gein Becoming – you can see this process in action. He thinks about the subject, weighs out how other writers might have approached it, and chooses his own path.

Which then leads to the question – how would you apply the same method to an enigmatic and abstract poet like Wallace Stevens?

Let’s try to imagine how Dan might have thought of the process in writing this poem – Stevens on Safari – much like how he does in his Ed Gein video. So, without further ado, let’s get into the ‘planning phase’:

In order to write a poem about Stevens that escapes from his grasp, I feel as though dropping a ‘calling card’ is necessary to set up the narrative shifts and twists in the later parts of the poem. Something that declares the lineage of the sonnet clearly. When I think about Wallace Stevens – I think about his beautiful lines that are steeped in abstraction, and his own philosophical symbology that he repeats throughout several poems (e.g. winter & the idea of coldness).

As an example – let’s look at Man Carrying Thing. Within this poem of 14 lines – there are only a miniscule amount of concrete (relative to the rest) elements to cling on to: brune figure in winter, first hundred flakes of snow, storm, night – and some things that seem like concrete elements but are steeped in ambiguity – the thing that the man carries, the certain solid, the bright obvious. Yet, it is the ability of Stevens to bring these abstractions into fruition, allowing something higher to glimpse from beyond, through his placement of the elements on his canvas – that distinguishes him from other poets who try abstraction and fail.

From this idea comes a flicker of possibility – of stretching that core abstraction to its very limit. And so, we find some inkling of our ‘calling card’.

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

I have a feeling that any lover of poetry who understands the significance of this style might lightly snicker. The repetition of ‘change’ and sheer ambiguity is parodic to the extreme – but this is not merely reference aping the style for its own sake. For example, the sly use of ‘can not’ rather than ‘cannot’ in the first line forces a pause that implies much. The enjambment in the first line makes it ambiguous as to whether it talks about a past element remaining past (e.g. memory) or the past element carrying over into the present as a tangible thing – and allows for both views. Yet, even when we get inklings of a fixed element or stability, there is also something moving and changing – ‘a feel for change’. Then, it remains fixed again – “yet not through change itself”.

So, in this way we approach Stevens and his love of abstraction – as well as his frequent philosophical theme of the need for stability & clarity. This sets up how the poem will flow, and where Dan prepares the cut from his predecessor.

STEVENS ON SAFARI

It can not ever change. What once was there
is still there because it will not be changed,
but something is changing. A feel for change
can be attained- yet not through change itself,

but rather without- through a change in view;
this pain beyond logic just rearranged,
like a leopard sneaking up into range,
of a young gazelle in ignorant health-

then the chase begins, the break from all things
thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare,
in a dutied life subsumed in a blue
besides color, or its recognition:

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Once you read the poem, note where the first concrete image comes in, and also note the moments where the poem veers away from that great abstract voice of Stevens.

Setting up the image of the leopard going after the young gazelle, Dan starts with a permutation of ‘change’, where he escapes from the abstraction of the first stanza to lead it into something else – a ‘change in view’ (mirroring the line before in grammar). Then, he brings in the direct element of ‘pain’ – as though a foreign element were contaminating the hermetic universe of the first stanza. In terms of form, he also sets up the transition through the rhyming sounds ‘range’ in lines 6 & 7 – giving a feel of actual re-arrangement. The sounds in line 8 are light and they linger off which hammers in the chase and hardness of ‘break’ in the next stanza.

Showing that Dan can have as beautiful abstractions as Stevens – there’s the line “thought as commonplace, yet hoped for as rare” – which grabs us in terms of how so many of us want the world to be – stretching out from tedium in the constant into a ‘safari’ of the unknown. Here comes the great shift in Stevens’ symbology – his love for that Zen kind of clarity that comes at the end of many of his poems. Instead, that clarity over here is a “dutied life subsumed in blue/besides color, or its recognition” – which can also be read biographically if you knew about Stevens as a poet who chose to remain an office worker – but doesn’t have to be. This life of blue lacks color or recognition of such. The philosophical paradise of Stevens is an empty realm separate from the wild color of life. In which case we might get a bit of a laugh to see Dan so blatantly pounce on his style in this poem.

from a bower a glower, and the cat brings
forth the death of youth, this love of clear vision!

Would Stevens ever write such a shout in his poems? Not from those I’ve seen – so this is probably Dan, right down to the love of assonance, internal rhyme & rambunctiousness. The great big cat cleaving ‘clarity’ in two (although, the comma means that there isn’t exactly a clear link between the death & the love) – allowing the safari to manifest.

This poem is fun. Any lover of poetry would be thoroughly entertained by how Dan treats the subject – the stuffy elegance of Stevens (although, of course, there’s also a greater philosophical comment about change & reality) – in his own distinct manner. More importantly, it communicates that fun rather than just existing as fun in itself – as many of Stevens’ lesser poems seem to be in their idle abstraction. You can hear the laughter behind the words. That, really, is how things should be written.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poetry: Congoleum Footfalls – The Logic of Moods

Those of you who have read Dan’s essays on Cosmoetica may have remembered this little claim that he made in his Wallace Stevens/William Shakespeare essay.

  OK, Yellow Afternoon 1st. This is a poem that conceptually is light years beyond the Elizabethan mind. It is in my view probably Stevens’ best poem, yet it is almost absent from anthologies or discussions of Stevens. Not only is it a great poem but it is damned near a perfect poem- something that is a quantity parallel to greatness in that great poems can have flaws & still be great while a perfect poem merely has nothing which could replace it without lessening it. It succeeds so well at what it endeavors that to change it is to destroy it. Oddly, a perfect poem is not always a great poem. I’ve written a few perfect poems & a lot of great poems. Once I wrote a poem called Congoleum Footfalls that was as perfect a dream poem as I’ve ever read- it so totally invoked the dream states, yet in doing so it could not be great. It was just a perfect illustration- nothing else could be construed nor imbued into it. Not a great poem but perfect. Yellow Afternoon, however, achieves this dufecta! I think it stands as both a summation of & a turn away from the rest of Stevens’ corpus. It rivals Plath’s Among The Narcissi, Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, Crane’s The Broken Tower, Cullen’s Incident, Shelley’s Ozymandias, & Berryman’s The Ball Poem as great poems which are perfect, & poems which top off, turn away from &, yet, embody a poet’s oeuvre.

And for those of you who might be wondering exactly what this ‘Congoleum Footfalls’ is all about anyway – well, that’s exactly the poem I’ll be touching on in this article!

Now, my usual method of analysis so far has been a line by line reading of a poem, teasing out the meaning – and showing various interpretations that could be taken by different frames of mind. But I feel that I cannot do such a thing for Congoleum Footfalls for the reason that Dan stated – that, in the end, CF is more of a mood poem than a meaning poem – and it is more about the effect it invokes than a specific comment. Of course, this isn’t to say that interpretation isn’t possible – but that I feel it is a better strategy to attack this poem from the direction of mood, and compare and contrast it with other poems of the same sort that invoke such things – and see how Dan innovates to push CF above many other poems of its sort.

So, before I move into the poem – here is a modest selection of many other poems (taking the entire spectrum good to bad) that have been described as dreamlike, or have had that kind of waking/sleeping imagery imbued into them. If you Google ‘dream poem analysis’, the immediate first result you get is the definitive dream poem – Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. But here are a few others:

Plath’s Ariel

A random prose poem from Trakl

Morning of Drunkenness by Rimbaud

A Dream Within A Dream by Poe (less dreamlike than the name implies)

A random prose poem from Surrealist Don Andre Breton

John Donne’s The Dream (Contains more meaning than just being about dreams)

Parisian Dream by Baudelaire

On A Dream by Keats (Also less dreamlike than the name implies)

Relating to Robinson by Weldon Kees

The Solar Anus by George Bataille

And, just for an extra, the short story Super-Frog Saves Tokyo by Haruki Murakami

And, after going through that modest selection – we move on to Congoleum Footfalls!

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

Now, this label of ‘dreamlike poetry’ has been constantly abused for the sake of slapping together varied imagery that has a loose internal logic. Yet, our dreams are a lot more structured than we think – and there is a shifting logic between states even though the content itself is less structured. There is also the overall structure of sleeping to wakening (best shown in Plath’s Ariel) itself. It is more powerful to create a dreamlike vision through enforcing a strong sense of environment, and then twisting it – like what Kees, Coleridge, and Trakl have done. On the other hand, Breton is sloppy:

“The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, misteltoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either.”

Imagine if you had placed this chunk of text as the stuff that Robinson begins spouting in Kees’ poem. It would have made the poem worse, and more overwritten, but it would have given Breton’s text a greater sense of the uncanny through the context it was placed in.

Dan’s poem is one where form follows function, and his structure makes it one of the most cohesive invocations of dream to have been written. The 5-part structure is built like this:

Primary Invocation (process of sleeping)
Sestina (hazy slumber)
Proem (core dream)
Whitman/Ginsberg-esque Anaphora + fragmentary poesy (regaining control)
Repetition of Primary Invocation (process of waking)

Besides that, the environment comes together in spurts through the first part & the sestina, hardens into a concrete place in the Proem, and loosens up by the fourth part. There are even little transitions in between the parts (L’envoy & the “…congoleum footfalls dopplerize”) to further create the flow between states.

I feel like the greatest innovation of the poem is the Sestina in Mindstorm, because of how well it syncs to the title. The repetition of last words in differing order, combined with the setting of the nightmare corridor where the footfalls thud on the Congoleum pushes the sensations all the way – and, in fact, the first connection that my mind made was to the Silent Hill series of horror games, where you wander in dark nightmare corridors fighting off mannequins and twisted body shapes.

But, the structure would also fail if there was no music in its parts, and here are some examples of the music:

Internal rhyme ‘ing’ in “Bedouin scrambling down the halls shrieking

‘O’ sounds in – “building dark diapasons loosing forth in the congoleum

footfalls, renting a dream dying from the limb” – ‘O’ sounds cut off with the comma, segueing into two internal rhymes & ‘e’ or ‘I’ sounds.

rolling down the chambered hall churning as it envies” –motion invoked through ‘ll’, ‘ch’ and ‘ng’ sounds.

gangrened in the dissected dolor of this congoleum” – ‘O’ sounds in latter part.

And there are also alliterations in all the lines above.

Then we come to the proem, which shows how you should actually do rhythm for such a form.

Night. Alone. In a dormitory. Congoleum footfalls dopplerize.” – the repetition of this 7 ‘O’ sounds opening creates a strong sense of somnolence.

A knock. I cast back shadings of the lunar glow as I rise from my bed. A knock. Katydid chirps return to the background fuzz. A knock. I walk to the door and open. Two girls. Fear in their eyes. Congoleum footfalls mean trespassers to them. Two girls fearing for their safety, I reassure. I will check things out. To their room across the hall I send them.

The starting part of this proem utilizes short bursts of sentences before the later parts will go into longer lines with less punctuation. Notice how tight the mood is as opposed to either the Solar Anus or the Breton proem. But it’s a lot closer to Trakl in its style of setting up a dark expressionist environment. When the narrator actually steps into the corridor to search, only then does the poem expand.

Tenigued, I venture down the bare lit hallways suffused in dim amber with footfalls just ahead, just around the corner, just beyond the closed door to the stairwell. Up to the second floor I stride still behind the footfalls cynosial to my quest.

And there are also a lot of Latinate science & medical/biological invoking terms to create that abandoned hospital/zombie movie atmosphere – ‘petri’, ‘fetus’, ‘hypnogogy’, ‘hypnopompic’, ‘corneal’, ‘jaundiced’ etc… I am not sure what cynosial means because nothing comes up on Google, but it reminds me of cyanosis, and the word itself has that medical mood that fits.

(edit: As Dan clarified in comments – Cynosure)

Around halfway through, the mood becomes thicker and ornate in its imagery – doubling up on the grotesque feeling of the circus, bringing up a couple of references (Romero, Alice in Wonderland, Mardi Gras), outlining the feeling of the hallway with thick descriptions of ambiguous horror states (arms & faces coming from the walls, looking into dim mirrors and fearing their pull). A lot of these are horror tropes, seen frequently in movies & video games, taken to powerful extremes through the language. It all culminates into the description of two figures – a vomiting zombie-thing and the narrator’s dad – and then he runs into a crowd of people to chase the zombie-thing, and then the entire crowd warps into zombies too, and the dream peters out into the small bursts of sentences like before.

Moving on to Subsumption – this is where the poem seems to mirror the flow in Ariel – the sense of waking up and regaining control. The anaphora of ‘I am’ pushes the focus in, while also linking up with an earlier repetition of ‘I am’ – yet, the imagery in every part of this section is still in that disjunctive dream state, which helps outline the struggle.

Eventually, the poem ‘dives up’ into the reconstitution of the self upon wakening, also reflected in how the lengthy ‘I am’ lines condense into small spurts of poetry.

Finally, we come to the last part – which parallels the start to invoke the sense of slumber dimming into clarity. The imagery changes from the nightmarish ‘expressionistic horror of a looming menace’ into ‘stone apathy’, ‘no menaced pulse reflecting’, ‘late rumblings of a wraithic gait’ – a softer thrust.

We can see this perfect invocation of a mood in glimpses through past poetry – but everything comes together here. Wakening & fragmentary short poesy in Plath Ariel. Dark atmosphere & prose poetry in Trakl. Surrealistic spasms of imagery done better than many so-called Surrealists. Twisting of the normal into the uncanny from Kees. The ornate symbols of the Romanticists and the Gothics. Congoleum Footfalls encompasses all of them into its structure. It showcases a fine-tuning of all these techniques into a poem that best encompasses the experience of dreaming. Although it lacks a cohesive meaning – it shows more of the poet’s sprawling expertise than anything else.

I think this poem also proves that even if a poet merely wants to invoke a mood or atmosphere rather than meaning – there are also complex and imaginative ways to create such a thing without merely diving into pure feeling or automatic writing like Breton did. Like how composers of Symphonies will have specific structures within their works even though music is all about feeling, the structure of the poem has a sound logic even though the content within is dreamlike. And it is this logic of form, and not the merely the content’s mood – that defines the poem as perfect.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: To Look Away

Poetry can be about anything: even Spider-man! To prove this point, I share with you one of Dan’s superhero sonnets. A part of his countless portraits of characters throughout pop culture.

Although this poem is significantly less dense than many of his other greater works, it still contains an interesting twist & view of the message – and thus, might be more instructable as to how a person should understand this idea of writing to communicate.

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

It was only when he first read of Mauthausen,
and of the little Jewish girl- Hildie Meyer,
that Peter Parker understood what he had done
by not stopping the thief who- then- killed Uncle Ben:

Mauthausen, as you can infer from the poem, refers to a concentration camp.

These four lines state the primary thrust of the text – splitting apart the historical reality of war & Peter Parker’s realization of what it means to be a hero. They serve as scene-setting for the inversions of the next two stanzas.

In terms of technique, there is a particular subtlety in leaving the 3rd line open through enjambment. Expanding the guilt beyond not stopping the thief – to a host of other deeper implications that will become clearer as the poem passes. Also interesting is the word ‘then’ – which reinforces the split between historical & present, although this interpretation probably has lesser weight compared to the form of the poem itself – where the ‘historical’ section thrusts itself outwards from Parker’s present.

Beyond that structure, the entire poem utilizes a rhyme scheme – which gives it a lighter tone, helping fit the theme of the poem – which, is ultimately about immaturity. (In other words, as per Dan’s view of how form should contribute to meaning, it is not forced/cliched rhymes for the sake of rhyming)

For in 1943, in her own death mill,
young Hildie always chose to look the other way
as her playmates and friends were led to the showers.
But, what could she do? She had no superpowers,
was weak, starved, only twelve years old. And, anyway,
they were Gypsies, Slavs- she had her family, still…

If I were to point to the line which constitutes the stanza the most – it would be the very first line, because you could call it the ‘head-turner’. On very first glance, I thought that the poem was talking about Hildie as a victim of the concentration camp – but the later lines paint her out as one of those who seems to have escaped it, while her ‘playmates and friends’ went to the showers. Once you get this clear in your head, the ‘death mill’ takes on a different level altogether. In a way, it is one of the many images of an unaware mind (also appearing in ‘Tis Better… – and other ‘de-mythologization’ poems like The Finn & War Comix #1452) that Dan always loves to touch upon throughout many of his poems.

The last 3 lines of the stanza seems to transition into her inner monologue justifying her lack of action against the Nazis. The irony here is that all three races, Gypsies, Slavs, and Jews – would be what the Nazis considered Untermensch, or inferior people. Yet, this doesn’t just serve to outline the historical background – a mere fact – but it brings that divide into our current time. In other words, Hildie isn’t just inferior in terms of her race classification – but her lack of action & status as a child.

Now, the above interpretation might seem like it requires historical background to become clear – but even if you don’t know the details of it, you can still see inklings of the divide. The fact that she was “weak, starved, only twelve years old” or that she had “no superpowers” – and also that she sticks to her joys and ignores others miseries with “she had her family, still”. All of these qualities are immanent in the poem – although they become illuminated with context, and point to what must have been illuminated within Parker’s head – in the narrative of the poem. In fact, the existence of this divide gives a deeper possible meaning to the ‘showers’ that Hildie’s friends are pulled away to – although this meaning is more like a flicker and requires a bit of a stretch to see.

This is where I drop a cultural sidenote that is separate from the core elements of the poem: given that Superman, the definitive superhero & one of the main progenitors of the genre, was born from the idea of an Ubermensch – this provides another cultural layer to the text. Now, Peter Parker is an interesting choice to pick as the main character within the poem – since it’s not only that his backstory fits (“with great power comes great responsibility”) – but also that his character is the exact opposite of the Ubermensch signified by Superman. He’s frequently viewed as the ‘awkward nerd’ superhero – and, in a way, he’s also an avenue for such escapisms.

So, we have all these mappings & connections in place – about the divide between Untermensch & Ubermensch, between those who have the will to stop crime and those who don’t, and between childishness and maturity.

This was where young Parker closed the book, and began
to see that inaction can lead to a pyre –
like millions of Hildies, and that to not be one
could free the world from its need for a Spider-Man.

Poetry can be about anything – as long as we understand the deeper movements and essentials that drive humans to do what they do. Once we understand that, we can use any starting point as a means of communicating those general essentials.

Like, our need to close the book, put away those superhero films, and face a quality of life higher than what we’ve been kept in all this time – to go beyond ‘young Parker’. Our need to, as the first line so slyly enjambs – ‘begin’.

In my first reading of this poem, I went through it faster than I should have – and my mind made a slight psychological misreading at the last line. I read ‘its need for a Spider-Man’ – and then constituted the last two lines in my own mind as somehow just being a recapitulation of Parker’s will to become a superhero. I didn’t read the ‘free the world’ part. Yet, this act of misreading added an extra layer to the text for me.

Our minds are, after all, prone to seeing what we want to see.

In going through Dan’s poetry, there is a constant reminder to be larger than what you are, at any given moment in time. That there are hidden realities just out of reach, and there is a deep mystery at the bottom of everything. Even though a work like Watchmen attempted a sort of critique of the childish dreams implicit in the genre – it failed to be larger than what it was because of a keen sense of nostalgia & too much limits to its vision – an inability to truly extricate itself from the detritus of the genre.

We must go higher. We must say bigger things. The work of Literature is just beginning.

Dan Schneider’s (Unpublished) Poem: ‘Tis Better To Live Than To Perceive

Poetry can be about anything. The proof of such a statement comes when you flip through the whole 3000+ pages of Dan Schneider’s Collected Poetry. There is no subject that cannot be written about, nor is there any reason not to try. Yet, many people confuse this precept for superficial innovation – believing that even nonsense strings of communicatively disparate words can provide a depth of communication.

One can write about anything – and this is true in the same way that you can have a conversation with friends about any topic. But, at the very bottom of the myriad throng of things and surfaces, there are still a few human essentials that will abide, no matter what you write about.

All this sounds a bit too abstract – but all you have to do is to compare several poems from completely different poets to get a grasp of an essential movement underneath all of the hubbub. If you look at Philip Larkin’s High Windows, Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man, Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, Du Fu’s Ballad of The Ancient Cypress, and ee cummings’ ‘I carry your heart…’ – there are movements from smaller to larger, despite all of the above poets writing in completely different styles. There is some knot that binds the ‘high windows’, the Archaic Torso, the ‘nothing that is not there’, the Ancient Cypress tree, and the ‘root of the root and the bud of the bud’. A bind that seems to encompass the widest scope of things born from the most particular things. If you take an Eastern view of life – this might be best represented by that ambiguous word The Tao. Perhaps, if some future scientist were to discover some Theory of Everything – he might find an abstract mathematical structure behind all of these poems – but such an idea is mere speculation for now.

If you look at the poems of Dan Schneider, you can see the same thread knotting together several of his poems – some of them that I’ve already analysed. For example, the image of the Mothman in The Mothman, the “no feeling I do not create” in George Schneider Plays Handball, the ‘body of perfection’ in Holy Sonnet 1, and Part 3 of Big Red. There is a clear hierarchy at work here, hiding underneath all these words – and it is not a hierarchy determined by any tangible quality or stiff aesthetic formula – but different scopes of smallness and largeness.

Okay, I’ve blathered on a bit too long on this point – so let me move into one such poem that dives into such a hierarchy. This sonnet is called ‘Tis Better to Live Than Perceive

‘TIS BETTER TO LIVE THAN PERCEIVE

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

This poem is copyrighted by Dan Schneider.

 

With that said – let’s break it down.

My cousin never paid attention to the huge oak tree
slowly growing on France Avenue; his youth pursuing
selfish inward things, his eyes remaining dim cherubim
in the hyena dark of suburban monotony.

When reading this poem, always keep the enigma of a title in the back of your mind – because this interplay of what it means to ‘live’ and to ‘perceive’ is a constant strand throughout the poem itself.

The very first line, despite being simple in its statement – sets up the divide. We have a cousin who cannot perceive, and a huge oak tree – possibly symbolic of ‘living’ (and the final statement of the poem fits it as such). Those of you who are more well-read in poetry might want to take note of other such poems where the symbol of the tree has been designated as something higher – like the Ancient Cypress as mentioned above, or Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. You can compare how they choose to go about their subject matter and weigh out in your mind – who deals with the image in the widest possible manner.

But I’ve only been discussing content so far. Even in the very first line, despite the lack of punctuation, the way the statement is read can allow for a slight pause after ‘attention’ – furthering the divide.

Moving on to the next line, we return to Dan’s characteristic sly enjambments. By cutting off at ‘pursuing’, it leaves the verb hanging open, which you can cognitively map to either the ‘huge oak tree’, the ‘slowly growing’ or the ‘selfish inward things’ of the next line. Of course, the grammar of the poem links the pursuit to the lesser inward things – but the very fact that the other connections exists pose the question as to what is possible. For example, you can read the huge oak tree as representative of nature, and the fact that youth pursues that, as well as selfish inward things – can create the interpretation that ultimately, all of our selfish acts and desires are born from the same root of nature as the tree itself – and we pursue the dark roots in our own selves. But, this is merely example, and to narrow it down to this interpretation only cheapens the poem. In any case, at the bottom of it all, you can still see the hierarchy of something larger and something smaller at work.

‘Dim cherubim’ is a very interesting image – because it can link to youth & naivete, but is also slightly religious & cosmic – so it has a higher link that could be characteristic of the state that all men who lack vision fumble around in. Take the thread too far and you could even view it as a critique of religion fostering such lack of vision, but we shall not follow that because it feels too spread out from the core communication of the text. The final line of the first stanza poses a strong, kind of gothic, image for the environment that coddles the cousin in his lack of perception.

Now, realize something. If you had been keeping the title at the back of your head all this while – you would have noticed a kind of contradiction. The title poses, clearly, that perceiving is worse than living – but this first stanza seems to be a critique of a lack of perception. It seems to be attacking the cousin for fumbling around in the darkness without any deeper insight to life. With this question in the back of our mind, we can continue on to the next stanza.

As the years struck by, they lunged at recognition
until one day his frail body hove back and roared
in a reptilian blood – in the colder snows,
of January winter, my cousin in worse

The very start of this stanza provides hints of the answer to the enigma posed in the title. The strong kinetic thrust of the words – ‘struck’, ‘lunged’ – linking time to recognition. In the end, a human cannot escape its own self-awareness, as the mind will force it in times of struggle. The enjambment places recognition as perception in a general sense – but it could also be recognition of the tree, which reinforces the divide.

The next line narrows the state in which this recognition was inspired – it was created through the frailty of the body. The description of a body that ‘hove back and roared’ gives me a twisted image of an Ouroboros-like sick man turning into himself. The ‘reptilian blood’ of the next line links it to something deeper in nature – maybe even prehistoric. Perhaps, something of a comment on how consciousness – and self-perception – was born from the earliest animal’s need to perceive and engineer his environment around him to survive.

That interpretation aside – the effect of the image has multiple layers. It pulls out into the ‘coldness of insight’ (ala Stevens’ wintry view of the world in the Snow-Man), and also the wintry season of old age where we are in deterioration, or the ‘worse’. The primary movement across this stanza is a kinetic struggle turning over to a winter (whether in mind or body) state – and this has a lot of implications for how we, as humans, experience life itself.

condition than the newfound ophidian flexion
of his mind – so he taunted, raved and clawed
at the glaring eyes of the universe

The image of the snake (or Ouroboros) is reinforced through ‘ophidian’ – which, incidentally, refers to the class for snakes and other related reptiles. The enjambment here links the flexion to ‘in worse condition’ and ‘of his mind’ – which poses an interesting idea that the cousin (or his body) was in a worse condition than his mind. How many sick people are there in wards that have to suffer through the awareness of their own misery – unable to escape the dark circle that the mind creates for itself?

To follow up on this, the ‘taunted, raved and clawed’ can be linked to both ‘of his mind’ and ‘the glaring eyes of the universe’ – pointing to both the struggle within himself and the struggle against a higher cosmic force. This is the perception that is worse than life – the constant sight that we have to live under – both witnessing the good and bad things within ourselves.

probing his own, a protozoan; under glass
he laughed, then suffocated and became
what he is. And the tree remained growing.

By this point, I feel that the poem has become clearer in sight and I need not explain it to myself anymore – and I no longer merely perceive it, but it has started to live inside me. I am reminded of a moment in the Army during Field Camp – when we had to sit around in the forest and wait for the next bout of torturous training that the sergeants would inflict on us. We couldn’t bring any books, nor could we bring any phones – and so we merely had the existence of our own bodies and minds to keep us company. Most of the soldiers were engaged in chatter, and some were so tired that they were trying to rest by closing their eyes and hugging their guns. Some of them would make complaints and fling expletives to no one in particular. In such a state, I took the second option, and tried to curl up into myself.

Yet, there were the trees, and they had been there from the very start, and had probably witnessed countless batches of soldiers in such a state. If, at that point in time, I had had the vision to look up and perceive that properly – as what they were – I might have pondered the elegance of the life force inside them that allowed them to stay up in such a fashion – across the years.

Now I have the words to describe the thought. And if I had read a poem like this back in those days – I would have surely had those words on my lips, at that moment of barest life.

‘Tis better to live than perceive!

The Infancy of Art – How to Instruct?

Somehow, after talking about how Art is still in its infancy – I saw this video from the Man himself.

Which led me to think – how does one really teach the idea that art is supposed to be communicative in its meaning rather than stuck to any technique or lame ideology? As in, how do you teach that Art is not just communicating about yourself, but has a general thrust that opens outwards beyond your own message – since the self is tailored by the world.

A term I picked up from Alex Sheremet was the difference between instructive art and great art. Instructive art is helpful because it teaches you due to how accessible it is – while not necessarily being great. On the other hand, not all great works of art are accessible. One example he gives is Heritage by Countee Cullen – because this poem is an extremely lyrical and simplistic sounding poem that is easy to process – but contains a large amount of depth to it. Getting into Countee Cullen places one on the road to perceiving others like Wallace Stevens or John Donne. In Art he calls Francis Bacon a more instructive artist than the complex Picasso.

How does one impart the idea that there are no rules – and that you can use whatever fits the mode of communication? Are there any works that are accessible enough to impart this while still containing something of a thrust that leads to the prospect of other works with great communicative intensity?

Quite frankly, of all the works that my small span of life has come into contact with so far – SCA-Ji Novels have been the most instructive as to the possibilities of the medium. This is because with a writer like SCA-Ji, despite neither being the most precise nor poetic writer, understands that the communicative gestalt rises above anything else – and he always makes sure to spell out his message clearly and unites all the other parts of the work in service of this message. He has grand ideas, and he violates genre all over the place, and he is fun, and he is still instructable because he is good at making large ideas simple. Of course, if I rate him away from my own biases, he is probably too ghetto-tized within the facets of the Otaku subculture, but his works uses the subculture as a foundation to imply an outwards thrust into life itself. In that way, I consider him the best Young Adult writer there ever is (and this is despite SubaHibi containing tons of fucked up NSFW shit) – and this is not a derogatory term (I’m not using it in the sense of how Western publishing industries uses it) – but merely to say that his works encapsulates that first step into the potential of art. It speaks to teen angst, budding sexuality, a love for the apocalyptic grotesque, a love for overwhelming extremes, a love for raw beauty, and a love for youthful vigor – while opening ways out of that mindset. It cherishes youth while providing the turn away. It is aware of its own artifice and celebrates that artifice – and the characters that populates his worlds are all archetypes and figures in a massive Platonic dialogue. And, the whole of Sakura no Uta in general is a refutation of artistic narrowness.

The trap comes when people take the content of those messages as an end rather than a beginning. For example, take the fact that people are keen to describe Sakura no Uta as a story that depicts/is daily life – when the daily life depicted in SnU is an idealized artificial form that skims the best bits – taken to an extreme through the use of techniques honed in Slice of Life works. This is no knock against Sakura no Uta – because SnU is aware of its own artifice but uses it in service of the communicative intensity. It’s similar to how the ‘daily life’ in a Yasujiro Ozu film might be too slow and sparse, or the ‘daily life’ in a Scorcese/Cassavetes film might be too hyperactive – but it still commentates something on life itself because it condenses rather than misrepresents. Art is communication in how it translates reality to service its message – and Sakura no Uta’s representation of a beautiful daily life is a translation of reality no different from Ozu’s solemn/elegiac daily life.

But it is important not to forget that it is artistry that is behind Sakura no Uta – that is – the bits and pieces of reality (human reality, which includes its ideals, myths, and simulations – and not just material reality) arranged in a specific format to ground the communicative thrust of the work. And SCA-Ji’s work is instructive because it communicates the question while providing several outs for the human mind to cling onto with no definite answer. Yet, beyond the mere message – it imparts this through artistic intuition – the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ – and this is why the work as a whole is a greater criticism of artistic narrowness than the individual moments where it directly states those messages.

After experiencing Sakura no Uta, there might be those who are wondering what the next step is. Where is that artist that acknowledges that Art is both an intersection of the human and the world – and seeks to communicate both Heaven and Earth? That cherishes daily life while standing firm with an eye to the higher vision? Do I really need to answer that question…?

(Reminds you of a certain type of philosophy doesn’t it?)