January 2007


Some married fiftysomething named “Don” has been checking out my Friendster page. This would be fine, if perhaps slightly odd, but said “Don” is also looking for “dating women,” even though he’s married, and “Don” happens to be the name of the (married, fiftysomething) chair of my department. The result is that I can no longer make even infrequent visits to Friendster without feeling a slight but pervasive sense of skeeve, paralyzed with fear lest “Don” send me a smile.

Meanwhile, my old pal in Northampton has joined gay.com because “match.com is kind of played out.”

Meanwhile, one of my students is writing a paper on how “MySpace is changing the speed and efficiency of relationships.”

I know I’m parochial beyond my years, but “speed and efficiency”? Last I checked, the only thing having relationships with “speed and efficiency” got you was maximum possible exposure to the herpes virus, and lining up dates like they’re bowling pins seems unnecessarily jaded and Annabel Chong-ish to me. Isn’t, after all, the whole joy of dating the ability to dupe yourself into believing, if only for as long as it takes to get your pants off, that the object of your desire might just be “the one”? The idea that, as you gaze into the eyes of the beloved, time will stand still, not march smartly forward with “speed and efficiency”? Apparently, my traditional family values are passé; everyone, it seems, is finding “love,” by which I mean “a preference-appropriate set of genitals attached to someone whose sartorial aesthetic doesn’t make you gag,” online.

Dissenters are going to claim I know not whereof I speak. And it’s true that I’ve never had a date/shag/outing with anyone I met online. But I have tons of vicarious experience: my best friend of many years was an inveterate ad-placer. She had postings on Craigslist from north to south, guys flying hundreds of miles to sleep with her, group sex in parks with college students, phone sex with obese Casanovas whose corpulence she eventually managed to overlook, etc. — and all grâce à l’Internet. I, of course, held the high honor of Chief Smut Advisor and Confessor. And after a while, I began to notice a pattern: all of the relationships went from zero to sexy in less than three seconds; all of them involved long, intense, heartfelt emails/messages that really delved into the inner workings of the psyche (which probably helped: when someone already knows all your secrets, showing them your hoo-ha doesn’t seem like such a big deal), before, even, the first meeting; and all of them evaporated with equally precipitous speed, leaving my pal sexually frustrated and mildly piqued, to spend her days scouring the personals to find their new ads and wondering what went wrong.

From this, I concluded that Internet dating was a waste of time. Internet slutting is an entirely different story: if your goal is to meet some silver-tongued Lothario (or succubus) who will amuse you with witty e-banter, then meet up with you to, since you have such a deep intellectual connection, pull a Liz Phair on your naughty bits, the Internet seems like the way to go. But my friend didn’t just want to get laid. She ostensibly wanted to first indulge in some witty banter, then get laid, and then realize the Glittering Promise that every American romance novel (and Hollywood film) holds out: you’re ripping each others’ clothes off with such alacrity because you are kindred souls. The promise of those finely crafted emails will be borne out not only in multiple orgasms, but in your future as soul mates. No one else would have coaxed your inner tart out of its shell in quite so unctuous and delicious a manner. It was meant to be.

It’s not that I’m anti-sex, or even anti-slut; for years my standard response to the question, “How long should you wait before sleeping with someone you’ve started dating?” has been “Oh, about forty-five minutes.” But there seems to be something implicitly dishonest about Internet dating, not least because bringing out the heavy verbal artillery (most people don’t start divulging their secrets IRL until well after the first few lazy mornings in bed) before even meeting someone overdetermines your relationship: you are now obligated to act out your attraction when you do meet, even if you find that the attraction seems to be coyly hiding in your inbox. Having swapped confidences with a potential paramour this way sets you up for a whole lot of mental tergiversations; you’re committed yourself to a two-dimensional ideal determined entirely by the other’s skill with prose and Photoshop.

Internet dating aficionados know this. They claim to not have time, etc., to meet “quality” people IRL, but what they really mean is they know their strengths: they look good onscreen and they want to maintain control of the ‘knowledge feed’ that goes directly into your head: they realize that, if they play their cards right, a lot of people will give a sigh of resignation and fuck them out of sheer inertia once they finally meet.

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When I came downstairs, K. was sitting in the sunny window flipping through Aquamarine, by Raymond Carver. “These aren’t really poems,” he said, turning pages at a speed that prohibited reading. “they’re kind of prose poems.” Now, Carver’s work is written in free verse, but I didn’t argue with what I think he meant: the poems in Aquamarine are largely narrative and personal and deal with the humbler details of life, e.g. a man’s reflecting that lighting a cigarette in repose is like after sex, but not really; it’s the kind of thing aficionados might call “poetry of the humble quotidian,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that I don’t particularly like Raymond Carver’s poetry either (I find his gifts better suited to prose), so I’m not going to bother arguing. There are other poets who deal with the humble quotidian, though — Robert Creeley, for example — whose work I think is genius, and who would be ill-suited to prose (as anyone who’s read Creeley’s prose knows).

However, this little interchange got me thinking about poetry and how we read it. A few weeks ago K. (who is a more credulous and patient reader than most, despite my unwitting defamation here) was flipping through Michael Palmer’s poetry collection The Lion Bridge. Later, he said to me, “How do you read that stuff? How? Because I feel like I’m doing it wrong.” Apparently, he had more interest in Palmer than in Carver (and I tend to agree) as a poet, but his befuddlement, and the celerity with which Carver’s pages were flipping this afternoon, made me wonder if we’re losing the ability to see poetry at all.

I had developed an explanation for reading poetry, one that sounded reasonable, one that had something to do with holistic experience of language and the importance of reading for sound and (verbal, visual) pattern in addition to narrative/meaning, but I never got the chance to give it. The reading of poetry seems to be growing increasingly problematic, however, maybe for the same reason one of my students recently told me that, when texting, she often leaves the “h” out of “when” to save time: language is becoming a means of transmitting information and less a formal experience in its own right, and as we habituate ourselves to reading for the simplest apparent meaning, we lose the ability to appreciate nuance. Thus some of Creeley’s beautiful understatement, such as this poem, called “A Token”:

My lady
fair with
soft
arms, what

can I say to
you --words, words
as if all
worlds were there.

This poem, a poem that always leaves me breathless with awe at its delicate economy, becomes merely prosaic in the eyes of someone who is reading for meaning, who has taught him- or herself to disregard all cues that don’t lead to a coherent message. The pauses are meaningless to these people; in fact, if you listen to a bunch of under-twenties talking to each other, you’ll see why: the spoken language is becoming less and less inflected, and we may be moving towards sentence stress rather than word stress. Ordinarily, that would strike me as a pleasantly Romance phenomenon, but in our weightier language, you’ll find that it’s infuriating to listen to, not least because the emphasis on getting from one word to another as quickly as possible means that the words themselves are chosen from whatever is closest at hand and the whole is presented in muttering monotone.

I’m starting to think we should reinstate Elocution as a public-school requirement.

The problem here, however, is bigger than just failing to savor the sound of words. The problem has something to do with a failure to savor the form of language at all, mostly because the necessary degree of mastery has become so rare that it’s onerous for most people to read at all. Language and concrete poetries are out, but what about New (or Old, for that matter) Formalism? Surely rhyme and meter provide, at least, a predictable (and therefore transparent) form for verse?

Not so, though. Just as poetry that insists on language baffles those whose scanners are set only on gleaning information, poetry that insists on form (and which can often sacrifice meaning to get there) seems childish and silly to these readers, like a graceless mock-up of Dr. Seuss.

No matter how I slice it, I keep coming up with the verdict that poetry is becoming totally unreadable. For in order to be readable in the current climate, it has to be formally invisible, which precludes the idea of verse at all.

You probably have no idea who Andy Lau is, which is the only reason the failing and increasingly fickle Scorsese can get away with putting Matt Damon in his shoes. Scorsese’s blatant rip-off of Hong Kong’s genius Infernal Affairs in the fulsome and Cro-magnon hamfistedness of The Departed is unfortunate for all kind of reasons: the religious clichés, Damon’s chinny stone-face, the explicitly articulated insistence on the film’s drama residing in the emotional trauma these torn loyalties cause our heroes (in other words, a total lack of affective subtlety portrayed, to add insult to injury, by Damon’s total lack of affect), the fact that Jack Nicholson has been playing the same character for thirty years, Leonardo Dicaprio’s hairstyle (who does he think he is, Gavin Newsom?)…

but let me assure you that, had you any idea who Andy Lau is, you would be even more appalled. His subtle (there’s a new vocab word for you, America!) portrayal of the gangster mole rising through the ranks of the force and Tony Leung (you may remember him from almost everything Wong Kar-wai has ever done, and with good reason)’s heartbreakingly restrained cop planted at the big boss’s right hand exist in luminous monochrome that puts the greasy technicolor of The Departed to shame.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Matt Damon was great in Team America: World Police. But he should stick to what he knows. By participating in this travesty of plagiaristic xenophobia, Damon’s invited some pretty harsh criticism, and now a billion more people are wondering, why is this guy famous?

It’s started happening: even my friends are leaving out their apostrophes. This is a feat of laziness I can only begin to imagine must be pleasurable or liberating (I imagine this because I cannot otherwise justify doing such needless violence to the language) for some people, mostly the kind of people who still write like the main character in “Flowers for Algernon,” with backwards r’s and a huge, childish scrawl; I dislike imagining that my friends are these people. I knew someone once who sent emails with no apostrophes whatsoever: his missives were full of “wont” and “cant” and no matter how often I explained to him that those are actually words, by themselves, and they mean very different things without that cute little punctuation mark, he never got it. He would look at a point somewhere to the left of my feet and mumble, “Usually Word puts them in for me.”

I see. So Word has now become your codependent enabler. The Microsoft empire has so seduced your mind that you can no longer produce language without its sterile, context-insensitive, mortifyingly generic little “editing” tools. You and Word are a team. You need each other. You understand each other. And here I have to come along and oppress you by demanding you actually pay attention to the words that are flowing into your keyboard, where your haphazard spelling will be deciphered willy-nilly by Spellcheck (r), resulting in such bits of prose genius as “he went to prison and was castrated for six years without parole,” and “the hill had been worn down by years of eroticism.”

I’m sorry, dear people, but I can’t let you get away with this. I was trying to hone the principle of the thing to a fine point, with which I would then eviscerate y’all, but I think the real reason you can’t get away with it is simple, and probably much more compelling:

It makes you look like fools.

Please, America, have some pride.

Not to keep harping about my day job, but…

Remember those studies you read round about ten years ago that said that some astronomical percentage of American high school students couldn’t locate the U.S. on a map? The studies you thought had to be wrong because of your educationally privileged upper-middle-class upbringing spent attending Model U.N conventions with bong-sucking peers, all of whom could not only locate the U.S., but had probably already driven their parents’ SUVs all over it on the way to visit some exclusive private college or other?

Well, it was all true. But I can do you one better: I just got a research proposal that proposes writing a term paper about famine in Africa.

With a particular focus on Cambodia.

And this is college.

I have become increasingly dubious about Kenneth Branagh. He’s jowly, he’s pompous, and let’s be honest: that bleach job in Hamlet made him look like a bloated and badly aging version of Spike, the evil-cum-evil vampire Buffy alternately rejected and shagged as her series died its painfully slow death. But I have to give him one thing: he immortalized Henry V’s courtship scene for me. Forever. So much so that, as I was just trying to justify Shakespeare’s genius to a student of mine, my head was full of nothing but a brash and smirking Branagh asking Emma Thompson if any of her neighbors could tell whether she loved him. I’ve read that scene dozens of times, and it’s genius, but I have to admit I only noticed how genius after that fateful day as a high school freshman, sitting next to my nail-biting friend in the theatre and quivering at Branagh’s sexy audacity.

There. I said it.

Go on, y’all. Your Netflix is waiting.

It’s been fifteen days since I contacted the head of Burgerville, and still no response. Despite my better efforts to get their attention — smoke signals, handbills plastered all over headquarters, the brief John-and-Yoko-esque “Brussels Sprout Bed-in” — their french fry bags still compare potatoes to the “brussel” sprout.

Belgians everywhere: on behalf of my ignorant countrymen, I apologize.