and here we are again
the phone is in his hand


for connections

who knows what he’s thinking
(perhaps hiding)
from lack of words, the

yawning gulf
in the middle of
the lunch table


Critical Reading: Ever Wish You Could Stop?

Remember the delicious thrill of students, right before the start of the school hols.? Months of blissful nothing lying ahead; and while for others this meant Cartoon Network and video games (or, for many of us poor Singaporean kids, more tuition), for me it was the delightful prospect of weeks spent lounging about like a fat cat on the sofa with my whiskers getting all tangled up in books. Whenever school hols started Dad would drive us all to the library, from which we’d troop back hours later, dragging a huge bag of books between us. Had to be a canvas bag, because plastic always broke; what with sixteen books each for me and my sister, and sometimes more (we’d purloined our grandparents’ cards too so we could borrow extra books). So much time then, and so much to read! I’d plunge into the books with a child’s abandon, yielding completely to the magic of the moment.

Then came Literature. The academic discipline. And with it came timelines and deadlines. Texts had to be dissected, some forced down our throats (Herland, for example, was a piece of total propaganda that bored me to tears). Teachers would drone on, and the notes and homework they flooded us with together with their general lack of help and enthusiasm often desiccated great works in the process, which I would only later learn to enjoy. Critical reading, they called it. With the encounter of better teachers, I learnt, gradually, to not only do it but also love it for its fruits. In uni, however, this had to be done fast.

My (rarely achieved) goal was about four books a week, some of them as thick and tedious as Tristram Shandy. In addition to my curriculum texts, I was determined to keep up with my proliferating shelf of recreational reading books. But my overloaded schedule meant that every second of free time had to count. Social life was the first thing to go. Next went sleep; I had to seize not just the day but also the night. If Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, another shot for me wouldn’t hurt …

But something else left me, too. The innocent pleasure of absorption that I’d had as a child, the joyous thirst for story with its anticipation of fulfilment–all that had disappeared, though in my hectic life I was barely conscious of it. I plodded on. There was no time to be enchanted, no time to enjoy the show; I had to head straight backstage to study the pulleys and levers, the props and the puppet strings. Attempts at succumbing to the author’s spell met with varying degrees of failure, as every moment in the journey was shadowed by the next essay or review waiting to be hammered out. Books were rifled through rather than savoured; like many other moderately diligent students I skimmed over whole forests, swooping in occasionally with the all-too-easy command+F to reap it for technicalities, messages, cultural resonances. Secondary sources became unhealthy acquaintances; the noise of my search helicopter drowned out the whisper of the leaves.

Hammered by the driving curse of carpe diem I Googled speed-reading courses, trying to turn my brain into some kind of super-sponge, wishing I could download whole libraries into it like learning kungfu in The Matrix. I was greedy; I wanted it all. Books piled up, in my Kindle and in my shelves, read once and slotted in neatly again–I’ll come back, I promised them, next month, or the month after–but there were always more new fields to plough. When I could mark another book as ‘Read’ I’d feel a trivial, and perhaps rather perverse, sense of satisfaction.

I had, of course, other reasons to read: for wisdom and insight, for admiration of an author’s skill, for pleasure in a language exquisitely wrought. Nevertheless I could never read again with the same absorption I’d had as a child, when disbelief was not so much willingly as automatically suspended because the possibility of not doing so simply never occured to me.

This is what J. Harris Miller calls the ‘aporia of reading‘. As a child I read speedily, and even took pride at how fast I read, flying through plot after plot without thought for the author’s craft; as an adult I still read quickly, (well at least I try to, though careful reading always slows things down), mining texts for both craft and content, but no longer dragged hook, line and sinker into the author’s painted world. Miller insists, despite their apparent contradiction, that we must perform both ways of reading simultaneously.

Is this even possible? Perhaps some of you have no problem with this, but it seems to me that every time I think about the author’s technique I am jerked out of the story. It’s with a different sense of enjoyment that I read now, and although some may say the development of the critical faculty is always good, I can’t help but miss the times when I could just drift off on the words of a book, and remain carried by its currents of dream without looking down to see how the propellers work.

Lately, though, I’m finding more and more that slow reading brings me close to a resolution of sorts. Reading slowly, I can luxuriate in the intricacy of the crafted spell, and even let it seduce me a little, because the time taken to savour it allows me also to willingly or actively yield myself to its power. Good reading, Miller says, demands slow reading. He’s referring specifically to critical reading here, the necessity of being ‘suspicious at every turn’; but I think that this isn’t wholly incompatible with the first, unsuspicious way of reading. We may compare this with slow food: eating slowly when we’re hungry would prolong hunger and perhaps delay gratification, but ultimately we get to satiate our appetites and enjoy the finer details of taste, texture and culture that gobbling would leave out. In the same way, slow reading may interfere with the pace of, say, a climactic scene in an Agatha Christie novel, but may enable us to gain the two key, distinct experiences of a text–absorption into a world and enjoyment of the author’s craft–just a split second short of simultaneity.

Still, it’s an imperfect solution to the reading aporia. Perhaps every book should be read at least twice–once for the credulous reading, and once again for the critical one. What do you think?

Against Grammar Nazism

(A modified version of this article was first published on Book Riot under the title “Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules“.)

We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives; the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar Nazi’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for ‘bad writing’.

I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Stylemongers’. Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so enthusiastically slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change ‘guys’ to ‘boys’ regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.

I don’t blame the teachers. They have to play by the rules laid down by the Ministry. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school. Recently, a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be shown to school students, and the school teachers who made the edits corrected words like ‘thanks’ to ‘thank you’, complaining that the former was too informal; and, of course, throwing believable dialogue out of the window. This is an extreme case of linguistic Nazism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing but paying scarcely any attention to the book’s contents; critics or Goodreads reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing FictionThe Golden Rules For A Good PlotTop 5 Grammar Rules Not To Break; guided, of course, by articles like 5 Data Insights Into Headlines Readers Click. Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be–God forbid!–ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.

We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is no doubt a good practical skill, as is the knowledge of effective story structures. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. Writers and readers alike should see them as tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity; perhaps to be followed temporarily by students for training purposes, but able to be artfully used, manipulated or broken after they’ve been mastered. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, let us consider them with open minds instead of shredding his manuscript at once.

It’s part of the job of Language Arts educators to mark the works of young writers. This means evaluation. Which means, like it or not, they contribute almost as much as critics do in setting the course of literary taste and standard for next generation. The way young writers are graded would influence their judgment of other works. If what we are teaching is a greater concern for arbitrary rules than with the sound and signification, the poetic style and usage, of language, then one generation of grammar Nazis would breed another; and soon we may find ourselves suffocating in a dreadfully dull, colourless literary landscape, with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.

Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.

Kindling A Passion For Print: On the E-book vs. Print Book War

On the surface of things, liking print books makes no sense.

Recently, a friend saw my shelves and floor strewn all over with books and accused me of being a hipster. “Who buys physical books anymore?” he scoffed. And he went on to wax lyrical on the comparative merits of the Kindle, which I won’t get into here as that topic has already been covered in-depth by many. Unless you’re technologically challenged, my friend insists, or you live under a rock, there’s no good reason for a real book lover to continue buying books in print. Claims about the ‘feel’ of a physical book, often glossed over as something ‘indescribable,’ are founded on irrational sentiments such as nostalgia, which ought not to have an impact on a real book lover’s choice of book format. After all, if I really loved books, my decision would be based on practical considerations; so anything that allows me to read more often and widely would be the winner. A Kindle allows ease of travel, greater access to more books at cheaper prices, word search functions, and it isn’t even any worse for your eyes than a book-book is. So, my friend concludes, the only reason why anyone would to buy book-books is that they want to look good–whether to others or just themselves.

I must say I agree with him on the merits of the Kindle–I don’t go anywhere without mine–but I wouldn’t dismiss physical books entirely. When studying complex subjects or texts that require multiple cross-references, it helps to lay out print versions of books and essays all around me. I work on the floor, Japanese-style, so I have a whole circle of space around me for me to get a bird’s eye view of my research, draw links between different sources, and jot down notes. Mapping ideas out physically helps me remember them better than just highlighting them in an e-book. And when I want to recall something I read, in a physical book I’d remember roughly where to flip to; whereas if I can’t remember any keywords, the Kindle’s search function would be useless . Of course, the search function is also invaluable in research, so sometimes I would get both the print and electronic versions of the same text.

But I’ve always felt, vaguely, that when reading physical books my brain feels sharper, more focused, and I can concentrate for longer periods of time. With my Kindle I seem to need lots more discipline. I thought this feeling was purely psychological, so I did some quick Googling and found that it’s actually backed by evidence: apparently, a study done by researches in Norway’s Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle fared significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occured in a mystery story. In immersion, empathy and other emotional responses, though, Kindle fans would be glad to know that both Kindle and paper readers performed equally.

My Kindle’s my workhorse but reading on it made me appreciate printed texts more.

Well, this is only one study. Would future generations fare better on Kindle if that’s what they grow up with and are used to? I don’t know, but it does help explain why reading texts the old fashioned way feels better to me, especially when it comes to non-fiction. There’s a flow to it that’s supported by the tactile feel of flipping pages, the subconscious awareness of a sheaf of paper rising and falling from one hand to another as you course through the novel. A Kindle, for all its provision of greater mobility, doesn’t have seem to allow you this same ease of travel, because its hardware remains static and its screen fragments the narrative into framed and uniform pages that seem disjointed from one another rather than parts of an organic whole.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of passing down physical books. I love my second-hand novels, scribbled with the annotations of strangers, some of them so old they have become ghosts, genius spirits whose names I don’t know but who share my heart and whose voices I hear whispering through these yellowed, dog-eared pages. Every print book collects in its physical form its own history of readership, and so abounds with its own mystery as it evokes in one a sense of worlds and minds beyond one’s own. It’s a vague, delicious sense of transcending space and time. An e-book is only ever yours, replicated in binary code through a multitude of devices, easily replaceable if burnt; and with the current turnover rate for electronics, I won’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren aren’t using Kindles any more.

“So,” you ask me, “should I get a Kindle?” Well, it depends on how you read. Do you devour your books, or savour them? I like to do both, so while I won’t be throwing out my Kindle any time soon, I’ll definitely still be haunting my local of bookstores and libraries, on pain of being called a hipster. Sadly, though, this pool seems to be drying up far too quickly.

A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham‘s A Wild Swan is a collection of short stories that give the classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm a grittier, modern twist. I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker ones, and this innocent-looking little white book didn’t disappoint. With prose as stark and disturbing as its illustrations by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu, Cunningham’s stories undercut the simple idealism of such traditional tales as Rumpelstiltskin” and “Snow White.” Sometimes he places a tale in a contemporary setting, leaving characters like the tin soldier and the ballerina to fend for themselves after marriage in our imperfect world; sometimes he writes from the perspectives of forgotten or villainised characters, fleshing out their complexities to depict them as scarred and lonely beings plagued with existential anxieties.

I especiaharp.jpglly like the way some of the stories portray love. We’re all used to, and perhaps a bit weary of, the conventional ideas of love as this grand, self-sacrificial thing. But some tales, like his fractured version of “Snow White,” remind me of the flawed and selfish nature of human love, which often requires an ideal image of the other to be sustained. So Snow White must be kept behind glass, still as a corpse and framed with a rose, in order to be beautiful. Rapunzel’s lover must remain blind in order to revel in the locks that were chopped off before his eyes. And the tin soldier loves the ballerina because she had one leg out behind her and he thought she was deformed, just like him. This last story I especially love, because of its realistic optimism: though the couple’s idealised image of each other dissipates and their initial, passionate fairy tale love unravels, over the years this love dulls, or perhaps grows, gradually into a steady acceptance of each other’s distance and differences. Cunningham is careful to remind us that this doesn’t mean complete understanding; yet both of them ultimately arrive at some sort of contented equilibrium. And unlike some preachy old folks I sometimes meet in church, he doesn’t try to paint this latter sort of love as better or stronger in any way, but seems to be merely stating life as it is, how married life is like. It leaves me wondering whether I’d like it.

Cunningham’s Rumpelstiltskin adaptation’s is another one of my favourites from the book; great characterisation, with the dwarf being hideous yet kind-hearted yet lashing out in jealousy, and the queen beautiful and pleasant, feeling some moral obligation yet ultimately acting self-centredly. Same storyline, but suddenly the characters come alive, and because of these depths of character revealed, suddenly there’s no longer a happy ending, just a heartbreakingly plausible one. The dwarf, the Beast, is rejected by Beauty and refused of a child. So refused of love, in bitter rage he breaks in two, and is doomed forever to live with that handicap of self struggling against self. It’s a feeling that not just all who have been rejected can identify with. It’s a feeling of bitter isolation, impairment, and alienation from the self.

I’m hungry for more contemporary fairy tale adaptations. Does anyone have any recommendations?

On Bullshit

As a hermit whose first step out of her shell was partaking in social media poetry, I was instantly made aware of how much bullshit there was in the world. The scary thing was, I was also made aware of how susceptible I was to it. So, at a recommendation from my boyfriend (if writing is my whetstone, Keith is my blacksmith–and it often hurts), I read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit“.

What Frankfurt’s trying to do here isn’t to give a decisive definition of what bullshit is but rather to distinguish between some common modes of misrepresentation, so that we may be wary of them. Frankfurt identifies, inter alia, two ways in which truth can be misrepresented: 1. through lying, that is, communicating something false, and 2. by ‘making assertions that purport to describe the way things are’ (15), without caring about whether these assertions are true or false. The second mode of deception is what he calls bullshit.

In normal contexts, of course, as Frankfurt recognises, we use the term far more loosely. (My boyfriend likes to snap, “Bullshit!” whenever he thinks I’m lying to him. I’m not a very good liar, so he’s usually right. 🙄 ). But for communication purposes it helps to think of bullshit and lying in separate terms.

Bullshit is much more dangerous than a lie, Frankfurt says (I think they’re both equally dangerous), because underlying a truth or lie is still the assumption that there are facts that can be known, and hence communicated or concealed. But bullshit has no concern for the facts at all. It may be true or false; it doesn’t matter, because what the bullshitter is concerned with isn’t truth or its concealment, but the promulgation of a certain image of himself. The essence of bullshit is its ‘indifference to how things really are’ (8).

In his book Lean Logic, under “How to Cheat in an Argument”, David Fleming lists out some hazards, or fallacies, that often misguide or confuse thought. ‘Bullshit’ is one of them. This he defines generally as the act of ‘talk[ing] at length about nothing’ (xxiii), and more specifically as

  1. The waffle produced by someone who is expected to know what he is talking about, but does not
  2. An accusation thrown at a person who is attempting to lift the discussion from the reductionist torpor into which it has sunk
  3. Brief description of a content-free argument.

The first one echoes Frankfurt. The second, dry humour notwithstanding, shows just how hard it is to tell a bullshitter from someone with good intentions. When we think about what it is about bullshit we need to be wary of, though, I find the third definition most enlightening. After all, I wouldn’t know if a person doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about, unless I can identify that his argument has no content, or is, in other words, unsubstantiated.

Well then, what makes for a content-free argument? Petter Naessan, quoting from Grice’s Logic and Conversation, suggests a number of conditions that would sufficiently qualify something as bullshit, in addition to the necessary condition of its speaker’s indifference to the truth: 1. conveys not enough information, 2. conveys too much information, 3. lack evidence, 4. are irrelevant to the topic at hand, or 5. are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly. Some of the fallacies Fleming lists are also useful in identifying content-free arguments: ‘assertion’, for example, which is to ‘simply assert your case, without any argument’, or ‘counterexample: cite one instance which disproves the other side’s entire belief system: “But I have a friend who …”‘

Oh good, I thought. So now I can more justifiably say that something like

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 17.49.19.png

is bullshit (I won’t identify the ‘poet’, if she can be called that, but for some reason it’s got 227 likes on Insta so far, and it’s worthwhile to consider why). Boy does it fulfil condition 5.

And yet–can I discount the fact that this unfathomable combination of words may mean something, may even shed light on some truth, to some people? Here’s what someone commented:

… it’s a beautiful and haunting way to explain what could be considered a higher being or the meaning of life itself–the human mind cannot fathom or comprehend the beauty and the destruction … that can bring forth existence and then tear it down.

I have no idea how this person derived this meaning from such a pleonastic text flooded with ‘unintelligible murkiness’, but wouldn’t it be presumptuous, even egotistical, of me to dismiss that person’s view entirely, just because I didn’t get that meaning (or any meaning whatsoever) from the text myself? Doesn’t the beauty of poetry stem, at least in part, from its potential to generate infinite meanings, so that a single image can take on several meanings to different people? But if this is the case, if the very art of poetry lies in its use of figures of speech, metaphors etc. that deliberately obscure meaning or leave it ambiguous, how can you tell bullshit from truly profound art?

Frankfurt might say that the difference between poetic bullshit and art lies in the intent of the speaker, but practically, how can one tell what someone else’s intent is? Even if a computer can sound like Deepak Chopra, I can’t in good conscience judge beyond reasonable doubt that Deepak Chopra as a phony unconcerned with truth, especially when I don’t even know him in person.

Even a poem that simply makes a statement about the poet’s subjective view would by Frankfurt’s definition be considered bullshit. Because he doesn’t even believe one can make any genuine claim about oneself!

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial–notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit (16).

What Frankfurt seems to be suggesting here is that even if we think we’re being sincere, telling a truth about ourselves through our art, we’re actually just bullshitting. Ouch. So much of art is an expression of the artist’s mental or emotional state, it really makes me wonder if bullshit in art can’t be helped.

I’m not saying that all poems necessarily make ambiguous or unsubstantiated claims, although a lot of them certainly seem to. (Just think of haiku, which by the very nature of its form implies some sort of ‘enlightenment’, some truth or insight about the poet’s internal or external reality.) But if there’s any substantiation to be found in the sparse words of a haiku, it would be more likely found in the reader’s experience and not in the poem itself as clear and objective evidence.

So now I’m starting to think that, although when reading poems we often assume, if not expect, that the poet is sincere or genuine, perhaps that shouldn’t affect our value judgments at all. Perhaps poetry can be fake and still be good–that is, can still be art. Frankfurt does recognise the mode of creativity behind the notion of the ‘bullshit artist’ (13). Why should we judge the poem produced by the insincere poet to be of any lesser quality than that produced by the genuine one? What is their comparative value, especially if they both use language in equally esoteric ways? ‘Bullshit’ implies worthlessness, and Frankfurt certainly seems to think society would do better without it, but someone’s bullshit may just be someone else’s elixir.

That seems intuitively wrong to me, though. If Wordsworth were to rise from the grave right now and announce that he’d created all his poems with a bullshit generator using algorithms and buzzwords, I don’t think I’d ever read a line of his again. I’ve always felt that art should reveal some kind of truth, that we ought to get from art some sort of revelation and not just pleasure from its beauty, or there’d be nothing distinguishing Van Gogh from a flower or a friendship or my sister’s pretty mass-produced teddy bear.

And now I find myself deleting draft after draft of Twitterpoetry, my thumb hovering, constipated, over the Tweet button. The already formidable task of poem-ing now appears even more difficult. If I can’t make any sincere truth claims about myself, how can I express myself poetically without bullshitting? Must I resign myself to the fact that ‘[e]ach of us contributes his share [of bullshit]’ (1); that I can’t ever be wholly genuine due to the vast portions of myself hidden from me, and so every statement I make about myself is bullshit?

Maybe I’m missing something here. I’m probably unwittingly making some unwarranted assumptions. Comment below to to let me know what you think! Any recommendations for further reading would also be appreciated. 🙂