A Primer on Dan Schneider V. 2

This is the revised Primer to poet-writer-critic Dan Schneider, because I feel like I didn’t do him enough justice in my last Primer. Now that I have gotten to know the writer and his works even more, I will try to characterize who he is, what he has achieved, and why you should care about him and read everything he has to say, even if it seems off-putting at first glance.

For people who might have accidentally wandered into his website Cosmoetica, or chanced upon his movie/lit reviews (probably due to an endorsement from Roger Ebert) – you might know of him as a seemingly contrarian critic who has a lot of powerful opinions on all kinds of subjects. He doesn’t care about what has or has not been classified as a ‘Classic’ by the academic consensus, but uses his own judgment. He has rejected huge names in literature like Shakespeare (to him, the comedies are trite though he has 7-8 great premodern plays), Virginia Woolf (“a rambling piece of vomitus” with regards to To The Lighthouse), Joyce (has moments of brilliance, but is mostly a mess), Faulkner (full of stereotypes rather than real human beings) – and a variety of contemporary poets. Here is Dan ripping apart Ted Hughes:

“There is an ironclad rule when approaching the poetry of Edward J. ‘Ted’ Hughes- &, no, it is not DO NOT FOLLOW HIM TO THE ALTAR! Smartasses! The rule is this- if the poem is under 10 lines long it might be a passable poem. If the poem is over 10 lines- forget it; it’s likely a disaster. This is because TH never wrote a poem over 10 lines long that was any good. He simply lacked the musical skill to keep a poem felicitous, & his intellect was too lacking to come up with any scenario worthy of taking past the 10 line limit. TH was a bad poet, overall. I could go on to show how he relentlessly tried to capture elements of his 1st wife’s poetry in his own, despite the long debunked mythos that it was TH that taught what’shername how to be a great poet. Ever notice that that was never propounded before her headbaking incident? Yes, the wife said it, but that’s because she was stuck on TH’s fishing rod. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to read his late 1970s book length atrocity Gaudete- the longest poem in the English language. OK, not technically, at 200+ pages, but it FEELS like it as the interminably dull narrative plods on.”

Dan is unrelenting in his criticism, and he’ll tear these writers apart regardless of their literary stature. In the meantime, he will uphold as ‘great’ several names of his own choosing, and, the greatest of them all – himself. He has, by his own claim, written more than a thousand great poems, as well as several great books – including a 2 million word book called A Norwegian in the Family.

All of these things are extremely off-putting for any new reader, and will deeply piss off any intellectual type who loves to catch up on the latest review at the NYRB or the Paris Review even more, and will deeply deeply incense any academic who has spent their entire life toiling over several of these classics – and, of those people who are attracted to some of the reviews, there are probably only a percentage who will really dive into everything Cosmoetica has to offer.

There are a bunch of opinions regarding the man himself, scattered throughout the internet. Usually negative and aggressive. Dan has dealt with some of them in his own writings, and I’ll just put one up here as a representative, from a website called Flashpoint Magazine:

There’s cranky. And then there’s Dan Schneider. Dan is a guy who just can’t let it go. It sticks in his craw. It pisses him off like kids leaving garbage on the front lawn or telemarketers calling during dinner.

And what is Dan pissed off about. Taxes? Nuclear war? White slavery? No. Its poetry, no less. Poetry? Yeah, fuckin’ poetry. Can you believe it?

And why is Dan pissed. Well, because no one will recognize that he is the “great poet” he has proclaimed himself to be. And as proof he has made it his mission to attack the current crème de la crème of the poetry world.

The sad fact is personal and ad hominem or not his attacks are generally thoroughly justified. What’s astonishing is that the mainstream poetry world has given him so much grist for his mill.

To merit a ‘This Old Poem’ mugging by ex-gang member Schneider there are four sins the poet getting thumped must commit. These are Schneiders’ cardinal sins and he repeats then ad nauseam for virtually every contemporary poet he attacks.

His four cardinal sins are sloppy enjambment, use of clichés, lack of concision and the stated or implied fact that they are not as ‘great’ a poet as Schneider is.

The astonishing thing is that Schneider’s poetry and the poetry of people he claims to admire are virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes.

I chose this quote because, despite being full of spite and aggression, it does helpfully condense a couple of gripes that people have towards Dan. They charge him with egoism for even DARING to uphold his own poetry & works as greater than the Literary Canon, they attack his own poetry for being “virtually indistinguishable from the poetry he criticizes”, and they also denude his method, since Dan’s critical method of ‘enjambment, clichés, concision, and greatness’ probably seems like some kind of rigid system that reduces and formalizes the splendor of the medium, or something like that.

I’ll get into these points later, but, for now, I have to set up some preliminary set-up as to who exactly Dan Schneider is.

The Man Himself (And His Works)

Regarding Dan’s background, an article entitled “Dan Schneider vs the Rest of the World” saved in the City Pages website has a nice summary of his life. When I checked the website, it was removed, but thankfully you can find a copy of the article with Wayback Machine. I’ll post an excerpt, but you can look it up yourself. Take note that the article fails to actually showcase Dan’s works, and makes him seem like a one-sided critic with nothing to offer:

More importantly, I want to focus on the works themselves which is, in the end, what will be given over to Eternity. If the True Life Memoirs ever reaches the general public, you will get a full picture of the man with much more clarity than I could ever sketch out on my keyboard. You can see some examples of that work here, but most of the links are probably dead, so you might have to do some Waybacking. You can find a list of Dan’s unpublished works over here.

And I did a page showing some of the wordcounts and sheer quantity of stuff he has written over here.

Now, with this we have established that Dan has written more words than Proust, and probably a ton of other people out there (even though part of his wordcount is re-appropriation of old texts, A Norwegian still has more original words than In Search of Lost Time, not to mention Proust spent his whole life writing his novel, while Dan took roughly 17 months and had other books, and a few thousand pages worth of poetry, before that).

A general rebuttal you hear people use against critics is that they are all just talk, and rather than criticize, they should actually ‘do it themselves’ (as though the biography or output of the critic had any effect on the logic of the criticism). Even if we take the criticism as valid, we can see that Dan does not apply by a long shot. He is a prolific creator, as well as a critic.

But Stephen King is also prolific, and he’s a pulp writer! What about the quality of the works in question?

Well, if you’ve read any of my analyses of the works themselves, you can see how Flashpoint’s criticism of “virtually indistinguishable” does not apply.

The website claims that “Clampitt does create little impressionistic bon bons like her poem “Fog” and with far more élan than Schnieder’s crampy squats”. Here is the poem by Clampitt in question. Here is Dan’s Congoleum Footfalls, that uses 5 or so different styles in order to convey a total sense of mood. Here is his American Imperium, that switches between voices (Reverend Samuel Parris, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Nixon, and ends with a segment set in a SF setting) in order to showcase a total vision of America, syncing together with Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series of paintings. Even in terms of smaller works of abstraction and imagery, here are the Holy Sonnets, which are all tight little philosophical posits with surprisingly simple imagery, yet leading up to complex truths. To state that Dan’s poems are “virtually indistinguishable” from those he criticizes, is to show a complete lack of understanding of nuance. American Imperium might have the veneer of a polyphonic work like Ezra Pound’s Cantos, but look at the structure, and the way that Dan sets up a narrative, and it will be more concrete and focused than the digressiveness of Pound. Look at how Clampitt sticks to a single style of poesy and vagueness for the whole poem, while look at how Dan swaps his style around with sound intellectual judgment in Angelus for the Flatiron, to fit the vision that he wants to impart.

But, maybe the lyric might be too subtle for some, so here are some teasers to the daring experimentation that Dan has done in his unpublished poems. I’ll just leave you with little snippets, and hopefully this will inspire some publishing house to step up and spread his works to all:

A poem on Groucho Marx

A faux-epic poem in a very musical style on Paul Bunyan.

A poem inspired by Krazy Kat comics

Another poem on Krazy Kat, where Kat meets the Punisher

A poem on Rod Serling, as mentioned in the City Pages article

A Poem called Confidential, where the whole thing is written like a fake newspaper

A poem on Marshall McLuhan, that incorporates quotes and apes the style of the thinker’s speech

A poem on the 1968 DNC convention and events leading up to it, that mixes together tons of quotes and excerpts from the TV Show The Prisoner

A poem on Star Trek and Gilligan’s Isle

An ekphrastic poem on LBJ that combines a Japanese woodcut painting with the image of LBJ’s brow

Do you know anybody who has written with such range of technique, difference of voice, and subject matter – in published poetry today? Not that I know of.

And let’s not get into the stuff beyond the poetry! I’ve already done some reviews of his plays and parts of his prose elsewhere in the site. Rather than being packaged into any single subject, movement, ‘-ism’, or style – Dan merely aims towards creating a vast bounty of life itself. He uses whatever technique that fits the moment, and is not limited at all. Here is an excerpt of a poetic moment from A Norwegian:

Poetics in A Norwegian in the Family

Dan can pull of the same kinds of poesy as a person like Virginia Woolf, but, in this case, it is only a fraction of the total reality encompassed in A Norwegian. He does not have to lard an entire book with it. And, compared to post-modernist fat books, he actually has living and breathing human characters of every variety walking his pages, rather than caricatures. Just look at the concision that Dan can set up a person’s psychology and background:

Psychological narration in A Norwegian in the Family

Look at the contrast between the more poetic excerpt, and the more psychological one. The ability to dance across so many styles for hundreds of pages, even though his writing speed is a hundred times faster than many writers out there, showcases the absolute peaks of writing ability that any human can achieve.

Now, the main reason why I spent so much time to outline all of the above is to outline a seeming paradox. People who look at Dan’s criticism seem to think of him as too formalistic, reductive, or, basically – too simple. Yet all of the above showcases the opposite in his works – the multiplicity of styles that encompasses worlds upon worlds. Is Dan being hypocritical, or lying to us? To fall into that kind of thinking is merely to misunderstand what Dan is actually talking about in his criticisms. Does his usage of “cliché” mean, for example, to merely cut out words like ‘Sun’, or ‘Moon’, or ‘Rose’ from your own writing? Of course not! This is the part where I spend my time breaking down the elements that frequently appears in Dan’s writings, and how revolutionary such thinking is, even though it seems reductive at first glance.

Cliches, Subversions, and Stereotypes

Let me bring up one of Dan’s criticisms of poet John Dryden over here, where he breaks down a couple of clichés that Dryden uses. The first one is ‘a flame within’. Does this mean that we can never use this string of words for any other poem?

Let’s compare with Dan’s own love poem, You Are All Desire, which also happens to contain the word ‘flame’ within it.

Now notice the clear difference. The flame in Dan’s poem, linked to the idea of ‘oxygen’ and the contrast of ‘needs’ versus ‘desires’ – generates tons more complexity of idea as compared to the feeble way that Dryden uses it in his love poem. He merely expounds on the idea of love being like a fire within, while Dan does the same, but twists this idea and subverts it, having water “quell the instinctual ravening” by the next line. Throughout all 4 stanzas of Dryden’s poem, his flame is the old idea of a flame of romance tormenting him. By stanza two of Dan’s poem, the ‘conflagrations’ he mentions change from being linked to love, into being linked to something higher, like the actual act of writing the poem itself.

What provides Dan’s poem with condensation of meaning is not the image itself, but the structure that it is placed in, and the varied parallels and branches that stem from its connections with the other words within the poem. This is what he means by the need to avoid clichés, or subvert them – to ensure that words are placed in a nexus that generates the most explosions of meaning and layers in the brain.

This seemingly simple command has infinite variations, and can be applied to an infinite number of things. It is a call to have everything cohere, while simultaneously building outwards into newer and newer forms. You can experiment, but make it count in the structure of the text! You can use clichés, but why say the same old thing? Make those clichés shine again in a new light! Don’t be stuck in any single bias, and keep thinking of how to build new constructions upon constructions, which are constant in their subversion and newness! From Dan’s single command to himself to always subvert clichés, and try out new things, and never repeat himself, we get the massive edifice of A Norwegian – a book that always provides something new across hundreds of pages.

This is also why Surrealists embrace the chaos as a method, yet they also sound the same across reams and reams of text. They think that having a flow of words is equivalent to mirroring the great flow of Life itself, and yet this is untrue, because Life flows, but it also gathers, into logic and narratives and coherent structures. It is a chaos that orders itself in parts, and so does Dan – that he can have variety across his pages, but he can knit them together with sense.

And this is why Dan clears out much of the literary canon, for a select few ‘great works’ of his own choosing – like Moby Dick, or Vonnegut, or Hesse, or the early works of Kundera, or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – and this is despite probably having actually read most of the Canon to the point where he can quote extensively from a ton of books in his own works (and the fact that he does not show it off is probably part of the reason why he has been misconstrued as a contrarian or middle-brow at times, because nobody knows what his literary cred is and assume that he’s going up against literary scholars like Bloom with little books under his belt). These books are the books with the most subversion and coherence. They always provide something new, and build up to a complex idea, and, simply put, do not waste the reader’s time with excess.

This, incidentally, leads up to the next point, about concision.

Concision of Meaning

When one thinks of what concision means, one might think of stripped down, emotionless, minimalism – or some kind of style guide like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is not the case, because, as established above – Dan cares about structure more than the words themselves.

You can be as ornate as Melville, or as stripped down and realist as Irwin Shaw, or as sensual and ironic as Kundera – but the best works of such writers are characterized by how they expand outwards in their constant subversion and coherence. Same for movies – in that you can have lengthy Tarkovsky-style shots, or gritty Cassavetes style shots, but the power of such films comes from how they can condense one slice of human reality into a few hours. Shakespeare’s comedies are bad not merely because they are ‘lowbrow’ (just see how Dan uses lowbrow humor in A Norwegian to elucidate the characters of people like Richard Nixon, or create greater symbolic resonances) but because those jokes go nowhere, and are limited in their purposes. Some might flesh out character, but not the bulk.

Of course, the words themselves are related to the structure in some way, which is why he has some pointers there as well. Don’t waste your time proliferating modifiers and “poetics for the sake of poetics” style imagery, especially if it only serves as cosmetics to your story, rather than contributing to that nexus of meaning.

We might find Woolf’s writing, or Faulkner’s writing, beautiful in the moment, solely due to the aesthetic proliferation of images and sounds – but when you are sitting on the bus, or talking to friends – will any of those words ever come to mind after reading? Or are they just little experiences in themselves, separated from all reality? Yet the works of Dan has penetrated my life to the point where I can remember entire scenes even when I’m just walking around or talking to people, and, more than just remembrance (because a teenage fan can remember every single song of some pop star) – I also get a sense of the fuller life and reality that exists beyond each moment. This was probably what Joyce wanted with Ulysses, but how many times does one experience that ‘elevation’ after the moment of reading, and how many days after? And Ulysses will only speak to literary scholars, while Dan’s memoirs are simply written, but complex in the truths that they build up to, and can be picked up by more people of different lives. One might feel the shifting tide of Becoming (or whatever is being propounded) if they read postmodern philosophers like Deleuze or Derrida, but who thinks of deconstruction on the toilet? Yet Dan’s poetic moments of shitting (as seen in that chapter on Richard Nixon) will outline that greater reality, sometimes, even as I am taking a dump.

(Even with regards to my point about the pop-star. Dan’s works are filled with people who attach themselves to small things like the pop culture of his time, so he reaches out to those people as well)

This is what concision of meaning can bring you. It builds up structures within you, so that you feel a multitude of lives within you that you can remember. Dan describes the same feeling in a review of Delilio’s Underworld:

“Of course, the answer is clearly no, as there need be no overlap between assertions of excellence and simply liking something, just as one might think a woman is gorgeous, yet also a raving bitch you cannot stand. They are utterly distinct domains of human reaction. But, while scanning dozens of the book’s blurbs, not a single ‘prominent’ (read- published) critic dared to state the utter sense of apathy that Duncan mentions. Like him, I too, now typing this almost a week after finishing the book, would be almost utterly helpless in describing, even at the macro level of detail I have, any of the events or characters I have, sans my notes, on Post-its, of the book. It utterly washed over me, yet, years later, without looking things up online, I can recall the smell of fresh baked bread, as described in the opening of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the obstinacy of Bartleby in Bartleby The Scrivener, the loneliness of the General, in Sandor Marai’s Embers, as he waits for Konrad’s return, or the addled joy and despair of Billy Pilgrim in many scenes in Slaughterhouse-Five. And this is not because I am a lazy reader, rather because DeLillo simply ran out of story, and tried to bloat a good to very good novella into a monstrosity of a novel without extending the story’s scope and cast of characters to be commensurate to the tale he hoped to tell.”

Such a sense of life can only be created through the condensation of information that the above books pulls off, such that you can see resonances and parallels even in the most innocuous words and ordinary events. When you process information at such speed, no longer do you see the artifice of the text for what it is, but the words are forgotten, and there, instead, is a model of the scene, or the man. Descriptions, unless they contribute to symbols or moods, are also excessive – because people view places based on the ‘internal’ rather than the external. For an example, see how Dan uses anecdotes to characterize a certain bar in a chapter of A Norwegian, rather than describing its exterior. He calls this ‘co-creating’ with the reader, which contributes to his technique of Total Immersion.

Because of this idea of concision, it is also the reason why Dan values enjambment above all other techniques in poetry. Line breaks, which can split apart poetic images and create dualities of meaning, is what defines the medium of poetry against any other medium, even at its most experimental. Sure, prose poetry can exist, but most fail because they do not understand that the existence of line breaks means that we process the information completely differently from poetry. One of the critiques you hear is that bad poetry is just “prose broken up into lines”.

Similar to meter, which may or may not exist, but, even if it does – only contributes a small % to the overall music of the text that contributes to meaning, when assonance and consonance creates more, and all that is useless if the structure is totally devoid of intellectual heft. This is why you can have the most finely metered Romantic verses, and yet remember none of it. Equally silly is the idea that poetry should contain all sorts of imagery to stimulate the senses, like visual imagery, or auditory imagery, or kinaesthetic imagery – when the power of poetry comes from its abstraction and its ability to reach into deeper structures than the senses. If one reads poetry to merely have their senses stimulated, one might as well go to a fashion show instead, or a carnival. Only when these sensory images are combined with meaning, can you get the above effect that Dan talks about, where he remembers the smell of bread in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Rather, all of the above are tools to derive that concision of meaning that can come from the best of poems. Every line is fresh and new, and yet coheres and has multiple layers. The skewed face of a Picasso speaks more to me about war than a thousand realist paintings, because it communicates a deeper meaning about the ridiculousness of conflict, and its comicality.

The end result of all of the above, if done well, is that you get works that are truly, and objectively, great.

Objectively Great

Objectivity is a taboo word, because anyone who claims it is also claiming the burden of order in the midst of fluctuation. The safe bet is always to take relativism as your stance, or, at the very least, a kind of intersubjectivity. After all, with stuff like the sciences, objectivity can be proven by method – but nobody wants to be told that they are objectively wrong with regards to anything related to the Arts. Art is the realm of feeling and personal meaning. You identify with it. There’s no way you could possibly be wrong about it, could you?

The fear is that if a stance is actually taken, then a hierarchy will be formed, which will lead to a dictatorship of meaning. It is the implication that some human viewpoints are going to be more valid than others, and, in this case, Dan is objectively more ‘human’ than anyone else on this Earth.

Yet, the basis of this fear is due to a misunderstanding of what objectivity entails. When objectivity comes into the frame, people will think about poet-machines, and literary AlphaGos replacing authors with their own calculations on how to write literature. They think of critic-cabals shouting down works from totalitarian towers. This is far from what Dan means when he talks about Objective greatness, and you can see from all the above examples of his bountiful variety, that they are all vastly different from one another.

There is still a gap, after all, between the world as we see it, and the totality of things. And Art is merely a translation of that totality known as Reality, turning the fluctuation of human souls into an object, as it were, that one can grasp throughout daily life. As stated here:

“Art can’t fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What’s important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It’s someone’s view of an incident, an advanced starting point.” (Steve McQueen quoted through an essay by Jackson Hawley, which also has a wonderful characterization on what objectivity entails)

When you compare the Love poems of Dan, to the love poetry of any lesser poet before him, which shows more sides of the thing? Which turns it into an object that you can spin around, like a cube, in your head? One merely speaks of love’s loss, but Dan’s poems are full of love’s loss, gain, passing, sensuality, and he even has poems where he’ll link it up to other things, like animal imagery and mythological imagery – and the best of his love poems can condense all of the above within its edifice. Just look at his Twin Towers Canon where he combines a love sestina with a mythological rumination on the towers.

It is more of an Object. It reaches a greater totality. This is a hierarchy in the sense that a cathedral is larger than a house, and can house and uplift much more souls in it. It houses more interpretations and minds. It is less exclusionary, and can open worlds to the reader, just as Melville opened the world of nautical adventure to countless readers who have not even stepped in a boat before, and uplifted it to a cosmic profession.

Dan doesn’t want to be a God (at least, not a monotheistic one… I hope) – but he wants as many humans to be creators of their own worlds, objectified in art, as possible:

“But I believe differently- & perhaps this explains why I don’t fall into the seemingly DIF-inspired trap of envy & irresponsibility for my art. I believe that art’s ‘physics’ hews less to a Classical line than to a more modern ‘Quantum’ line. Classical physics forbids other universes with other sets of physics. Likewise a Classical view of art hews to the DIF. Quantum physics allows for other universes, dimensions, & sets of physics within those dimensions. Likewise the more Quantum view of art allows that each poem/artwork is- in effect- its own universe & must merely be self-consistent to its own artistic principles/physics. & like Quantum physics, which allows that anything is possible but most universes that realize themselves (& are ‘successful’ by that definition) will be physically similar, so too will each poem/artwork/universe in my view have an infinite range of possibility”

Capturing the great flow of life itself, reining it in, and turning it into something concrete, that lasts as long as men have eyes to see.

An Invitation

I have corresponded with Dan about several things since my first primer on him, and I feel that there is one thing I must mention. Going back to the earlier charge by Flashpoint magazine. Is Dan egoistic?

The answer – definitely yes… but what artist isn’t? And egoism is negative only if it is invalid, but if you have a 2-million-word book and several thousand poems, you probably have some right to call yourself great.

But, more than anything, he does not call himself great merely to blow his own horn, but also because he wants to see more great works on the field. Imagine if there was a massive novel like A Norwegian for every country – would that not do better to break boundaries and teach other people about the multiplicity of lives? If people learnt to appreciate great works, would they not reach that totality that exists beyond the narrow scope of their biases and lives? It pains me that the trap known as the ‘Literary Canon’ has ensnared people for hundreds and thousands of years, but it gives me hope to see that a single man from Queens, who has forged his way up from the bottom, can circumvent the trap that has caught thousands and thousands of souls, through his innate talent and sheer hard work. And, according to him, it all started with Whitman – which reminds me of that beautiful stretch of verse:

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun…. there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand…. nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

Young poets, writers, and creators of all types – do not fall for the trap. Contact Dan. Stop moaning about the death of Literature when a contemporary Melville is walking the Earth. Put as much hours into your work, based on the wisdom he has gleamed, and come up with works that will last into Eternity. This isn’t the end of things, but the start of things. Do not be driven by externalities, and foreign words, but drive your own fate and tongue with uniquity. Do not be lazy. The world is waiting for you.

Or, in the words of the man:

“POETRY ITSELF”
“You are not the poet I love most….”
-Marina Tsvetayeva

There is the feeling beside that which is felt,
as if a great artwork beyond consciousness,
whether gazing a church tower, or being sifted through its panes
like alluvial photons. There in a bowl of opening roses,
made majestic by a slice of sight reflecting
the spoke of sun upon a slab where something dead may lay,
is an abstract of insight grown well within your wreath of verse,
brief episode of touch, still opening endlessly and growing,
self-illumined, silent paladins of the muse,
like nothing that ever was:
I know nothing of life.

Yet handfuls of this distanceness flash subtle signals
kissing gently my eyes, my mind which wilders yet prompts
the words which core, then filter, sweetly a stumble of laughter,
themselves into the subject’s smile, removed from thought,
as if you, inflaming the gestures of what may occur within,
as if still seemingly supple to God’s will,
the many illusions of its breath:
I know nothing of it.

And then this love- of life, of it, of you-
as if I were what you are, so strangely
itself, like you:
I know nothing of you.

Then, as if newly formed and felt,
unexpectedly.

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Dan Schneider’s Poem: Angelus for the Flatiron

Sur le Flatiron, Albert Gleizes (1916)

Some of Dan’s most powerful poesy comes from his ‘Skyline Poems’ – a series of poems each focusing on a different famous high-rise building. The verses orient more towards the grandiose and cosmic, possibly trying to emulate the grandiosity of the building’s elevation. So, this analysis, I’ll be looking at one of the shorter ones – Angelus for the Flatiron.

ANGELUS FOR THE FLATIRON
1902

23-skiddoo is what they mean, and say,
to men who lift their eyes that way, to skirts blown
high from the draft from that space. 5th and Broadway
is no place for a lady to stay. Alone,
in the shade the terra cotta made, is shown
lascivity unleashed. In the here and now,
where the end is nigh, I wandered lonely in
a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow,

as the looks grew cool, in a Renaissant way,
and foresaw Revelation: my dress had blown
so high (in culture-abandoned artsy sway!),
and arched through the dream, in which Satan had shone,
the sun catalyzed by this architect’s own
vision. Creation is the subject that now
occupies his Orpheus, this country, known
for its future. Stand beneath its steely prow

where this Gothos of limestone’s illicit ways
make old Gotham’s crush so uniquely its own
time and place; watch as this skyscraper parlays
the elegant loneliness of excellence
into Armageddon (I know not of ends-
save this!), and so I pray to the Virgin. How
I do not know, for such psalms have swiftly grown
into chorals of loss, that bequeath their prow

to the morrow, where reason is the final
straw, where women can rush, and not have to show
their best, in a gust, to strangers, whose looks cull
a crowd, glancing underneath this tower’s prow.

 

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.

 

Stanza 1:

Before peaking into grandiosity, Dan begins with the most surprising of entrances – the slang phrase 23-skiddoo. For about a stanza and a half, the poem focuses on an image of a lady having her skirt blown up, before transitioning the descriptions of the building. This starting point also fits because the phrase has found itself embedded into the mythos of the building, as seen in the Wiki article.

The poem transitions from low slang to a higher image effortlessly in the first three lines, ending with “high from the draft from that space”. Cosmic hues are set so that they can be followed up later. The image of the men staring up the skirt also sets a connection to a phallic thrust as well, followed up later in the imagery. In terms of music, the woosh is conveyed through the “skirts blown high from that draft of space” contrasting against the slower verses before.

The remaining few lines drags back for a moment, focusing on the lady, and preparing sounds for the woosh again in the second stanza. Each line has a contrast between the ending word with ‘o’ sounds and the first part, such that there’s a constant push and pull throughout, and the “I wandered lonely in a crowd, and stood underneath the evening prow” has a slow decline that sets up the next stanza.

Enjambment such as ‘alone’ and ‘I wandered lonely in’ sets up images of a lone smaller figure juxtaposed against the tower (the beautiful image “in the shade of a terra cotta made”). Apocalyptic words are also slowly introduced such as “lascivity unleashed” and “where the end is nigh” to follow up on the theme of decadence that will be introduced later. The reveal that the whole poem is being narrated first-person by the female whose dress is blown only comes with the “I wandered lonely in” – which also brings to mind the famous Wordsworth line, but subverts it with the image of modern alienation “I wandered lonely in a crowd”.

Stanza 2:

The slow ending of the previous stanza is carried over with “as looks grew cool”, and this stanza also opens up with hints at a greater theme of historical progress, with the “in a Renaissant way”. Then, the next two lines begins the cosmic rise of the poem, segueing from the dress blowing up again (intuitively conveyed through the tones of “culture-abandoned artsy sway!”) – and changing into an abstract image of “arched through the dream”. The use of “shone” subverts “shown” and transfers over to the image of the “sun catalysed” in the next line. A possible comparison is to look at The Finn and see how the sun & dream motifs are used there.

The words used in this stanza (and the next) call-back to more Classical styles, especially if you compare it to another one of Dan’s sonnets on Milton. The Latinate words used helps to bolster the sense of ‘construction’ going on, building up the skyscraper – and providing a hardening of the softer syllables used in the first stanza. It merges with the forward ambitions of America, and also fits the ‘Angelus’ format established in the title.

While the initial lines in the stanza each had a verb or image providing something ‘hardier’ to latch onto (“grew cool”, “blown”, “sway”, “arched through”, “sun catalysed”) – lines 6 to 8 of this stanza changes into a comparatively abstracted hue (“Creation is the subject that now occupies his Orpheus, this country, known for its future”), as though standing at the peak of idea after ascending up the steps of the previous lines.

This stanza ends with a return to concrete description of the skyscraper, after spending time in a more abstract realm – with the “steely prow”. This description is given symbolic import from the connection with the “future”, and repetition of the ‘prow’ throughout the whole poem at the end of each stanza, with each repetition giving different connections.

Stanza 3:

The skyscraper is once again compared with decadence in “limestone’s illicit ways”, juxtaposed against “old Gotham’s crush”. I’m guessing this Gotham refers to the nickname for New York City, rather than the Batman city, although there are also possible connections to be made there in terms of the whole ‘dream’ strain – but that depends on the frame of the reader, and is less related to the core of the poem.

If you look at lines 2-5 of this stanza, you can see how each line subverts the one that came before it. The enjambment of line 2 seems laudatory of Gotham, but line 3 establishes its position as mere history (“time and place) and raises the skyscraper above it (“parlays”). Line 4 provides an interesting description of its greatness being “the elegant loneliness of excellence”, and line 5 segues back into the narrator’s high moral voice, decreeing its Armageddon.

With the last part of this stanza, which has the narrator “praying to the Virgin” against the tower’s decadence – the sounds change back again into softer tones with words such as ‘psalms’, ‘swiftly’, ‘loss’. It returns back to focus on the woman and shifts away from the tower. Here the symbol of the prow also shifts away from the steely thrust of ambition, into “chorals of loss/that bequeath their prow/to the morrow, where reason is final”. The symbol has changed to become antithetical to the tower’s soar.

Stanza 4:

Narratively, the poem ends with a return to the small, and it ends with the image of a crowd glancing at the woman’s blown dress under the prow. The grandiose poetics are gone, and the sounds go back to normal.

The two notable subversions in this stanza are: the ‘straw’ that appears after “where reason is the final” – creating an enigmatic feel (you could read it as a segue back into the woman narrator’s internal voice, telling herself that it’s the final straw) – and the last line’s twist on the ‘looks cull’. Before you read the last line, it feels as though the line is talking about the woman narrator feeling the crush of stares on her, but when the “looks cull a crowd” comes into play – this inverts the image as something standing up against the crowd staring at the woman. It provides an image that lingers once you finish the whole poem.

Conclusion:

With complete control of music and constant subversion, Angelus for the Flatiron reaches its cosmic vision while still having a bit of humour in the subject chosen. Compared to the last poem that I scored, American Sonnet 11, it utilizes similar techniques like the ‘rise and fall’, but deals in larger themes. But, compared to something like the Twin Towers Canon, which is a double sestina that combines the cosmic-architectural imagery with a love poem for even more novel juxtapositions, it is definitely smaller. Taking all of the above into consideration, it places at a 97 for me – a mid-great poem.

Dan Schneider’s Unpublished Poem: American Sonnet 11

Dan’s American Sonnets series is a series of poems drawn from Shakespeare’s sonnet. In each American Sonnet, Dan takes one of Willy’s and creates his own using the original as a jumping off point. The American Sonnet I shall focus on now is Sonnet 11 – a sonnet about aging and youth. When I first read through a bunch of the American Sonnets, this was one of those where the lyricism caught my eye immediately. Here’s the original Shakespeare version:

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease,
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
  She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
  Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

And here is Dan’s:

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.

 

Unlike the previous analysis, this isn’t really a comparison, since I want to focus more on Dan’s poem, so I’ll quickly take stock of the first sonnet. Take note how Willy deals with the theme of aging, and reproduction. His poem is places greater weight on youthfulness and children that will help overcome old age through continuation of “wisdom, beauty, and increase” – and ends with a call to “print more, not let that copy die”.

Dan’s sonnet takes the same theme, but doubles off of some of the images in Willy’s while still keeping the poem as, fully, his own work. Think of what significance a ‘copy’ has in Dan’s versus Willy’s.

Lines 1 – 2:

Music is apparent immediately, as the kinetic whirr of the steeplechase is conveyed through the ‘e’ and ‘i’ sounds, but the ‘o’ comes in exactly when it slows, and sets up the sounds for line 3. The image of the steeplechase is given dreamlike ambience through the “faster than true”, playing up what occurs in the eyes of the young, more caught in youthful dream than reality, also doubling on the memory & nostalgia (when the twist in the second stanza comes). The “slowing faster than you” then plays off this, with repetition giving new paradoxical meaning, pointing towards the ephemerality of the moment (or memory). Notice how immediate, concrete, and fresh this is – conveying the feeling immediately – when compared to the explanatory hue of Shakespeare’s opening.

Lines 3-5:

Then line 3 carries over the sounds, as I just mentioned, but carries out of the moment to comment on youth. Even as the tones slow, there’s a sudden spur in the middle with the ‘giggle’ – which is immediately dragged back in by the “out of solemnity” – an interesting way to phrase it “leased out of solemnity” – which brings back to that idea about youth trying to escape out of solemn age.

Line 5-8:

But, the next “once I was called mine” is even more interesting, because it doubles on the ‘I’, but reveals, in the next line, that the ‘mine’ came from the other’s lips. Thanks to the enjambment, the mine can be seen as both a coming into individuality (changing from seeing the self as ‘mine’ into ‘I’) as well as expression of love (calling a lover ‘mine’). Interestingly, although I seem to have this impression of a boy and a girl, there is no indication of gender any place, only hints of the relationship from “your lips, their indeterminate beauty” – and the overall sensuous hue of the lyric.

The first stanza ends with talk about the youthful subjects being “unprodded by follies this new century/will reveal, as we rage into its incline”. The ‘rage’ is a word that sticks out, providing one last rush before dissipating into the sounds of the finale – but notice what a subversion there is as the last part. Normally, we might associate the rage with a “decline” – stemming from other lines like Dylan Thomas’ “rage rage against the dying of the light”. But, Dan uses ‘incline’, which implies a thrust without the downwardness.

Lines 9-11:

The second stanza delivers the twist, and opens with a dreamy flow of lyric as the poem talks about storing the old memory of the amusement park. These languorous tones are immediately broken in line 11 by the sudden harsh tones. Look back at how Shakespeare uses the word ‘harsh’ and see how the effect is multiplied here by the contrast. Furthermore, what makes subjects of the poem ‘harsher’ is the wandering through Dreamland, which is a subversion possibly hinting at people who are too stuck in their memories and become bitter at the present.

Lines 12-14:

Finally, the last 3 lines provides a complete anti-thesis to the initial flow and nostalgia, and it talks about the “forgettance of what made us become” – where, trapped in the memory of the past, forget the rest of the past that led to the present. The subversion of Shakespeare’s ‘copy’ comes at this moment, where the nostalgia leads to becoming “pale copies of children… who never get off, who never decide”.

Conclusion:

In order to be more objective, I will try to rate this poem, basing my own scale on the 100-point scale that Dan uses, as detailed in his TOP analyses and his William Shakespeare/Wallace Stevens essay. This poem is full of twists and subversions (within itself, not just in relation to Shakespeare’s), great images, and the music is excellent at all points – so I would place it as great, in the above 90 category. When you compare to a sonnet like The Passings, though, which has similar themes in change and that sort of thing, but opens up into themes on Art and the Cosmos and many other layers – this poem is narrower in its reach (well, it also doubles as a Love poem, which is less so in the Passings, so it still has a reach in other areas). I feel this would fit somewhere close to a 93. It takes a scenario/idea and explores it fully.

Poetry: Hart Crane Emblems of Conduct vs Greenberg’s Conduct – Good vs Great

The idea for this analysis was given by Peter Clease (the person who interviews Dan in his videos) in a comment over here. Comparing Hart Crane’s take on a poem by Samuel Greenberg to showcase the qualitative differences that one has over the other in terms of how both poets approach the same thing. Here are the two poems:

Conduct (Samuel Greenberg)

By a peninsula the painter sat and
Sketched the uneven valley groves.
The apostle gave alms to the
Meek. The volcano burst
In fusive sulphur and hurled
Rocks and ore into the air—
Heaven’s sudden change at
The drawing tempestuous,
Darkening shade of dense clouded hues.
The wanderer soon chose
His spot of rest; they bore the
Chosen hero upon their shoulders,
Whom they strangely admired, as
The beach-tide summer of people desired.

Emblems of Conduct (Hart Crane)

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
With sulphur and aureate rocks …
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into spiritual gates.

Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations,-
Dull lips commemorating spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally borne a chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.

 

Analysis

The first part is kept mostly intact for both poems, word-wise, but you can already see how the slight variations in enjambment and word-choices in Hart Crane’s version adds to the whole. He chooses to begin with ‘wanderer’ rather than ‘painter’, creating an existential parallax as opposed to the plain old imagistic choice that Greenberg uses (Especially since the fact that he ‘sketches’ makes the occupational description redundant). As is the choice of the word ‘graves’ rather than ‘groves’, which creates that link to historical legacy that will be followed in the later parts. Both word choices also add robustness to the tenor with the roll of the ‘a’ sounds and ‘r’ sounds.

The meaningless enjambs in the 1st & 3rd line of Greenberg’s poem is excised in favor of evocative breaks like “Alms to the meek the volcano burst” and “The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave”.

Then comes the greater additions, with “sulphur and aureate rocks” replacing the comparatively flaccid “fusive sulphur and hurled/Rocks and ore into the air”. The use of the word ‘aureate’, other than being lyrically powerful, condenses the two lines into one. The additions and the enjambment creates a link to the alms given and the ‘spiritual eruption’ that seems to occur in the aftermath – a commentary on morality done in service to religion, mirroring the ecstasy, through explosive lyricism, that a believer might feel in the act committed.

The middle portion is where Hart Crane makes the biggest change, getting rid of the mere image of the volcano, but following up on the idea of religion. Notice the freshness of the imagery such as ‘radio the complete laws to the people’ and ‘bowls and cups fill historians with adorations’. While still keeping to that high rhythm and lyric, there is also a sense of criticism hidden with the “conveyed thought through discipline” and “dull lips commemorating”, and the spiritual gates image will be followed up in the last line to provide the anti-thesis. Greenberg’s description of the volcano has rolls of language, but lacks this leap (negative capability?) that pushes the poem into high idea.

Finally, returning to the wanderer. In Greenberg, the image is used as reprieve from the volcanic outburst in the middle. Hart Crane plays with greater ideas of spirituality instead, and with his foundation set in place, can create deeper connections from the image of the statue. “Marble clouds” and “summer and smoke were past” are gentler in their lyricism, linking up to the decline in tone with “dull lips” and “spiritual gates” from the previous stanza, simultaneously adding to the sense of passing away from the varnish of spirituality. The “chosen hero”, in this instance, takes a kind of Ubermenschian hue, of the human overtaking the spiritual gates. The wanderer has many connections as well, perhaps being the artist who records the aftermath like Ozymandias, or a symbol for all humanity. The link to the leaping dolphin’s curve with the repetition of spiritual gates is lyrical in supreme, an image to remember, and a great way to end the poem with while playing off the whole idea.

In terms of the titles used, then, the addition of ’emblems’ provides deeper resonance – implying something about what drives men to their conduct, and what that emblem might be in the future.

Greenberg’s poem, as an imagistic one, is quite good in how it uses language to sketch the scene, changing to explosive before drifting away, even having a bit of higher idea about how everything cycles amidst such troubles. But Crane’s poem does the same, yet it incorporates higher, somewhat Nietzschean ideas, with fresher levels of imagery, leaps of idea (the descriptive volcano replaced with the spiritual volcano) and lyrical cohesion. When you put both in place, the qualitative levels are plainly demarcated, and one is definitely objectively greater than the other. Supposedly, there are accusations of plagarism with regards to Crane’s version, and but when you look at the words themselves, you can plainly see higher level structures at play here, beyond the mere stealing of words.

Note: Apparently Conduct isn’t the only poem that Crane draws from. The middle section comes from Greenberg’s Immortality – which actually shows even more how Crane could see the intuitive leap between these two separate poems, one highly imagistic, and the other in the vein of the abstract, and combine them into something greater than the sum. Notice that Greenberg’s Immortality also repeats the image of spiritual gates, yet Crane tempered it with his own image, of the dolphins, rather than just letting it hang as mere repetition.

Dan Schneider’s Unpublished Poetry: Advice to Younger Poets

Today’s analysis will be a poem aimed at those out there who are fighting the good fight against the naysayers – and seeking out their own artistic voice. I don’t think I need to go much into a background or set-up. The title is self-explanatory:

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.

 

Honestly, I feel that this poem should be left by itself, and people should ruminate on it without my pulling-apart or interpretations. If you wish to let it sink into your mind on your own, then stop reading here – but if not, then let’s get right into it:

The first six lines of the poems are kind of like self-contained haiku. They cap-off at three lines each. None of the other stanzas are self-contained in such a manner, and they segue into one another. As a result, the overall effect of the poem is to have these two declarations – the primary posit of why we do what we do, and the forces that stand against us – ring out at the start. Then, the rest of the poem becomes a tumultuous river that doesn’t stop until we come to the definitive end of it. A perfect structural representation of what it must be like to step onto this crazy journey into creation.

The first 3 lines has beautiful music and drifts about in a slow way, slightly engineered by the long ‘l’ sounds of the ‘all’. By the next 3 lines, a stronger image surfaces in the ‘stars’ and ‘wind’ – but there’s an enjambment that splits the ‘moaning winds’ to characterize the frustration of the young poet, and the eventual lessening of these doubts. The first stanza was also declarative and definite in each line, while this one begins the merge through that enjambment.

The third stanza seems to begin with a lingering moment of inspiration – when we close our eyes and creativity starts seeping in. The slow pace (heaviness added with ‘thick miasma’) adds to the feeling, but there is a narrative twist in how the stanza ends. The stronger force of ‘begged, borrowed and outright stole’ cuts apart those visions we have of being some kind of Romantic poet dreamily pondering on life. Of course, originality doesn’t just come from our own, but has to be surmounted by extensive and thorough reading of what poets have done in the past – something that Dan knows all too well. Well, this is just my extended interpretation of this part, but the main thing is that the schism of tone exists so that we can read these differences into it. Besides that, the ‘expectation’ can also be read in multiple ways due to the enjambment, being both the poetic expectation of what comes next, and the expectations of life placed upon ourselves.

Then, the next stanza has a listing (‘ideas, lines, forms, and styles’) that carries over the rhythm from the previous line – and it gets stronger with the image of heat. The ‘grotesque concoction’ split can also be read in multiple ways, with the first word showing what we perceive as a mess of inspirations and plagiarisms, and the second showing what potential exists.

The fifth stanza carries over from the fourth, and adds an extra twist to the previous sentence by capping it off with a ‘yelped’ – and this stanza is full of exclamations to parry against the flow of the previous lines. More good enjambments outline the crisis & feeling of fraud that initially comes from the imitation – the ‘denial of our very own’. By cutting off before ‘soul’, it floats up more connections as to what this ‘own’ is pointing to.

All of the declarations in the fifth stanza start with ‘this is’ – so the sixth begins with the same, but shows us the refutation to those doubts, that there is a “path to an end full with greatness”. To undermine the glory of that path & statement, it caps off with ‘in the dark’ – and then begins to show the ugly side separate from those dreams. The music here amps up the gunk of life, and though Dan has frequently warned against excessiveness of modifiers in writing – this is where the modifiers fit in, to clog up the stanza and convey the effect so desired. The centre line of the sixth is the most descriptive line to appear so far, which has the effect of ‘concretizing’ an environment against the poet’s fancy.

The seventh stanza twists again, starting off as what seems to be a declaration of despair, which turns in favour of the poet – to the ‘envy’ of those who cannot enter the realm of poetry. The ‘tasteless farina of vapid doggerelists’ also cuts off the overabundant and chunky modifiers when it reaches the description of the poet ready to fly.

The eighth stanza continues the image, and adds more reinforcement through the ‘moldy and useless’ non-poets (which can be read in many ways thanks to the enjambment) – versus the You that ‘they could not shatter’.

As the end of the poem comes into sight, the repetitive ‘you’ of the ninth stanza becomes declamation of artistic individuality developing. An interesting and enigmatic symbol – ‘orangeing time’ is used here, calling up some sunrise or sunset depending on the frame that you choose to look at it. At this point, it is also good to notice all of the present participles that are floating up, ending with ‘being’ in the penultimate stanza (versus the ‘waiting’ that begins the poem). I wonder whether this was Dan’s intuition or whether he had planned it beforehand.

From here on out, I’ll talk less about the specifics and get into the general feel of the cosmic ending. The tenth and eleven stanzas plays off the initial image of the boiling after continuing the image of the chrysalis birthing – turning what was once grotesque into the ‘bubbling soup of art deep within you’. This then opens into the perennial image of the sky by the end of the eleventh stanza.

But the image of the sky here is twisted again, and it becomes more of an internal sky that you ‘hove’ back into, and also a kind of void (though, Dan structures it such that the ‘going into’ is read simultaneously with the ‘going outwards’ – because the best art is both entering into self and world) – so Dan still leaves that lingering uncertainty that results from being an artist. And then, it’s lifted up again, by changing that uncertainty into joy of being in that uncertainty.

Finally, the stunning conclusion. This is why we do things – not just because of the voice that we as artists find, but also the voice that is left behind to future generations in the form of art. It endlessly communicates even while lacking in body.

The twists in these poems, alternating between the internal and external, doubts and rewards, creation and scepticism – are what makes this poem the complex statement on art that it is. It doesn’t provide an easy view, but understands all of the complexities that goes into art. The structure of beginning inwards, then outwards, then inwards, then inwards AND outwards, and all of the above techniques that I mentioned make it a stunning poem that everyone on the path should read and try to comprehend, and draw their own from it. At the end, there’s only greatness to uncover – Venture On!

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.