The Pitfalls of Playfulness
Review of: The Frantic Force: Essays by Norman Ball
Riverside, CA: Petroglyph Books, 2011
There is an old Latin proverb Stilus virum arguit, or “Style proclaims the man.” Schopenhauer put the notion into clearer focus when he said that a writer’s style is the physiognomy of his mind, thereby suggesting that choice of diction, syntactical preferences, and predilections for certain types of tropes, figures, and idioms betray an author’s entire outlook and habits of perception. Like all clichés it is partially true, but it tends to be truer in those cases where a style is florid or mannered in the extreme.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a florid style (what ancient orators would have termed the Asiatic manner as opposed to the Attic). I see no reason not to slip into it when the occasion demands, or even just for the hell of it, to annoy puritanical modernists. A self-conscious delight in linguistic imbrication can produce all sorts of pyrotechnics, from the rhetorical copia of Lyly’s Euphues to the complex whirligigs of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, right up to the dazzling prose of Edward Dahlberg’s The Sorrows of Priapus.
Norman Ball, a contributor to this website, writes in a style that makes judicious use of such fireworks. In the hands of a lesser writer this might lead to nothing more than pomposity or bombast or narcissistic show-offery. But Ball is a very good writer, and a wide-ranging thinker to boot. Reading this collection of his previously published essays is a delight, even when Ball is completely wrong or misguided in his opinions. I found plenty to disagree with here, but absolutely nothing that I could dismiss as badly written or overwrought or pointlessly obscure. Only second-rate modernists with democratized minds think that using rare words or syntactical tricks makes you “verbose” or “out of touch.” Ball shows that in the hands of a genuine wordsmith, such things give your writing solid heft and punch. Ball is nothing if not up to date, but sometimes his prose reads like Carlyle on speed.
The Frantic Force is a mixed bag—mostly essays, but also some brief fictional narratives, and a few pieces that appear to be prose poems or meditative flights of fancy. If you wanted to find one common thread in all this disparate material, I suppose you could do no better than quote these words from Ball’s essay on Jasper Johns:
There is no destination, only process… Death offers the only release from
the interminable process of arriving. (p. 162)
Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at life. Being totally product-oriented, I don’t share the viewpoint. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an interesting and at times compelling collection of prose, written in a wildly eccentric style that can be amusing, profound, and maddening all in the same paragraph.
Not that Ball can’t be concise and direct when he wants. I found myself cheering out loud at certain pithy and telegraphic passages like the following:
Liberals, when they break faith with full-bodied tolerance, are every bit
as dangerous as the wild-eyed jihadists of media-lore. (p. 60)
Or consider this perfect encapsulation of our fatuous self-help addiction:
We are awash in gurus clamoring for seminar attendees. (p. 6)
And here’s a well-deserved put-down of a pop-cultural fraud:
Bukowski represents the nadir of poetry’s collaboration with celebrity:
poetry kidnapped for the seedy joyride of fame. (p. 120)
And I truly savored this comment on the cult of emotion-mongering that passes for a literary sensibility today:
Poetic sensibility is not the same as teenage sensitivity… This is a rejoinder
to the many bleeders out there. We, your fellow sufferers, don’t care to visit
your pain unless you’ve cobbled it into some decent poetry. Otherwise we’re
perfectly happy crying in our own beers, thank you very much. (p. 84)
That sort of in-your-face concision isn’t going to garner the writer many friends in the workshop circuit, but what’s refreshing about Ball is precisely this freedom—his unhesitating willingness to say whatever he thinks on any subject regardless of the possible bad reactions of others. Intellectual freedom of this sort is as rare today as incunabula. Paul Fussell had it; Gore Vidal had it; but very few persons intimately connected with the po-biz world have it.
Apropos of this, Ball complains of “the guild-like structure pervading much of the modern poetry establishment,” and how it stifles genuine poetic talent with an officious We-Know-Best orthodoxy of conformism. He goes after “that hyper-collaborative cauldron known as the Internet poetry workshop,” a place where “I’ve seen distinctive poetic voices get bullied into bland conformance on more than one occasion.” That hits the nail on the head—most of these damned workshops are political re-education camps, where deviations from a certain smug orthodoxy of niceness, moderation, and mainstream liberalism are punished with ridicule or expulsion.
But let’s get back to Ball’s style. There is one problem intrinsic to the florid rhetorical manner, and that is its tendency to allow exuberance to trump exactitude or truth if the exuberance has produced a bon mot of sufficiently fascinating design. Ball falls victim to this tendency every so often, as for example when he says this at the close of a particularly irksome essay about “Poetry” in the abstract:
The Road Runner is Poetry, maddeningly elusive, laughing at Acme Words
and its many capture-contraptions, an asymptote with feathers. No one ever
captures Poetry. (p. 149)
This is cute, but essentially meaningless; like many verbal constructs it arrests one’s attention for a moment, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The passage is from an essay dealing with Emerson, so perhaps Ball can be forgiven the lapse. When German Idealism fornicates with post-Puritan gaseousness, you get this kind of rhapsodic vagueness about a hypostatized “Poetry.” And it does come at the closure of an essay, where writers are traditionally allowed some rabbit punches and lacing.
The same thing happens in an otherwise sensible essay on the human impossibility of summoning up ever more outrage over each successive atrocity in the daily headlines. Ball very forthrightly says “I will be the first to confess I grow less outraged with each new day.” But in some kind of compulsive need to escape that brute fact, he insists on dragging poetry into the fray, and he does so by means of bizarre stylistics:
As language, the great sin eater, struggles to embrace unspeakable,
cascading outrage, we become less intelligible, less poetic in the telling;
nor is seeking refuge in a moral sphere—that dim hall of venerable rights
and wrongs—permissible. Poets are commanded to embrace far more
than enlisted norms if they wish to bear Ishmael’s burden. They are the
canaries in the mineshaft, charged with dying slowly in the noxious fumes.
As they succumb, the queer odor, texture and substance of the fumes report
back to the others who, though dying themselves, lack the facilities to
articulate their demise. (p. 27)
What is this actually saying? That poetry has some sort of extra-verbal job to do? That poets are required to “die”? That they must use their linguistic skills to “eat sin”? Other than being “curiously wrought,” as Doctor Johnson might have put it, does the passage tell us something we can really believe about poetry and the poetic task?
My answer is No. Ball is asking poetry to do more than it has ever been required to do. But that’s often what happens when an emotional wish collides with a mundane reality in the mind of a writer—he assumes that linguistic virtuosity will somehow save the day. And that is one of the sources of the impulse to rhetorical lushness—a need to let language have carte blanche, as if language in itself were salvific. That’s my main objection to Ball’s viewpoint—his irrepressible notion that a madcap linguistic playfulness, given free rein, will spontaneously generate previously unthought-of solutions to save us from ourselves. It ain’t gonna be, dude. As Auden succinctly put it, Poetry makes nothing happen.
A great deal of The Frantic Force is dedicated to refuting this proposition; indeed, Ball calls Auden’s statement a “wet blanket of a line.” Instead he wants poets to become involved and active “in an effort to find new approaches to old problems.” Puh-LEEZ! I thought we had outgrown that 60s shit about poetry’s need to be “relevant.” The staggeringly self-important presumption that poets have an obligation to take responsibility for the world is precisely what chokes contemporary poetry like an asphyxiating cloud of volcanic ash. The Drumroll of Great Significance, the Fanfare of Profound Insight, the Epiphany of Divine Revelation… Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, these things have made poetry as unpleasant as root canal. Face it, Norman Ball: today all of these stances have become postures and photo-op poses. We already have a plethora of such fakery. Why encourage poets to produce more of it? We are not responsible for the evils in the world, and what’s more, half the things that left-liberals call “evils” are mere facts of the conditio humana. Just live with the givens of existence, and write your friggin’ poetry.
But despite these basic aesthetic disagreements, I am heartened by many of the things Ball says that indicate a growing national awareness of what’s really happening, and an acceptance of positions that a mere ten years ago would have been dismissed as “hard right.” Consider Ball’s judgment on our insane imbroglio termed the War on Terror:
I’ve always been troubled by the amorphous and geographically imprecise
nature of the War on Terror… a war on terror, with its boundless potential,
possesses eerie Orwellian perma-war implications. After all, certain elements
in the world will always seek to elicit terror. How then does a war on terror,
once commenced, ever end? (pp. 14-15)
The light is beginning to break at last, it would seem. The War on Terror is a product of neocon scum who are simply liberals in combat fatigues, with a dangerous itch to remake the world in their own image. Thank God we’re beginning to notice.
Also satisfying is Ball’s comment on the Federal Reserve System, one of the biggest and most criminal frauds ever perpetrated on the American people:
The direction of America changed inalterably in 1913 with the establishment
of the Federal Reserve System. Indeed it is not ‘Federal’ at all as it is not a
government entity. Rather it is a private banking cartel… The US government
delegated its constitutional prerogative to ‘make money’ to a private entity for
which we pay exorbitant interest to service our ‘debt.’ (p. 25)
Finally! Someone other than a hard-right partisan speaks the truth. After a breakthrough like this, we may begin to hope for a public airing of other off-limits topics.
Ball also comes up with some amazingly pertinent observations and epigrammatic gems. He sees right through the liberal left’s current fixation on “diversity” and “inclusiveness” when he says “Alas heterogeneity comes at the price of cacophony.” Here’s a particularly apt comment on the moral cancer known as mass advertising: “Face it. We live in the era of cultural crossovers and brand identities where promotional synergies are exploited to sell product.” Or consider this self-judgment on his own disinclination to argue with an airhead solipsistic girlfriend: “Oh well, sometimes getting laid involves acquiescing to a modicum of bad faith.” That reminded me of something I wrote once in an essay here at The Pennsylvania Review:
“Men put up with a lot when a woman is putting out.”
But you can cherry-pick any writer for cute sententiae. The larger issue is whether you share, in a programmatic way, that writer’s view of the world. Here I have to declare a different allegiance and Weltanschauung. Ball says “Beyond structure, the internal logic of poetry suggests an alternate, parallel world.” But he deduces from this premise the erroneous conclusion that poetry should reject linearity, easy comprehensibility, and clear narrative. As he asserts in the same essay, “It cannot be stressed enough how oppositional the poetic mode is to the expository approach.” Come again? People have been writing expositionally clear and sequential poetry for centuries. Where does Ball get the idea that suddenly we all have to be John Ashbery?
I too think that poetry creates an alternate, parallel world. For me, poetry is (as I have said over and over again) a licensed zone of hyper-reality. And therefore you are free, in the poetic universe, to please yourself in whatever manner you see fit. But if this is so, you are under no obligation to produce any particular type of poetry, responsible or irresponsible, clear or opaque, progressive or retrograde, nasty or nice. And you certainly don’t have an obligation to solve the world’s problems, or even contribute to a discussion about them.
Here, in my view, is where Ball’s focus on the primacy of “process” blends with his penchant for the florid style. When you think that process is everything, you are disinclined to come to a slam-dunk conclusion (my guess is that Ball considers such conclusions “totalitarian” or “fundamentalist,” his two most common demonization terms). Therefore Ball is constantly negotiating what he himself calls “a minefield of qualifications.” As a result his verbal flights and linguistic pirouettes can be all over the map, saying one thing in one sentence and disavowing its consequences in the next. Thus a florid style allows him to play for all sides while avoiding ultimate commitment to any one of them.
For example, in an essay on the sonnet form Ball starts out by saying this concerning the mindless hostility that formal poetry faces in the po-biz community:
The aversion to formal verse among many contemporary poets borders
on the hysterical. For some, formalism is the literary equivalent of house
arrest. Bring up free verse however (or better, free verse and free pizza)
and the hangdog expressions vanish. Imagine traipsing naked through a
flower-strewn field without fear of bumblebees or nettles. That’s the free-verse
compositional work-plan as many novice poets understand it. (p. 141)
Yet on the following page he apologizes for this statement, expressing “contrition” for his “guilty pleasure” in the sonnet form, and bad-mouthing it as “overbearing” and “deterministic,” while comparing his admiration of the sonnet to his admiration for the cockroach (!) And all this is done in a welter of syntactical complexity and verbal spin that leaves the reader dizzy.
Do you see the agenda here? Ball is essentially thinking Let me play to both the sonneteers and the free versers, shooting linguistic flares in all directions like a Roman candle. That way I avoid the “totalitarianism” of taking a clear stance, and I stay friends with everybody. You can get away with this tap dance occasionally, but when a writer employs it as a standard stylistic device we have a right to question his seriousness. Balance, moderation, and even-handedness are the last refuge of the scared and bet-hedging liberal.
Nevertheless, The Frantic Force proves one thing: there are some writers left out there with a genuine sense of style, and who realize our language is not just a useful megaphone to address the largest number of human cattle. Language has a frantic force of its own deriving in equal measure from its history, tradition, idiomatic peculiarities, and innate mannerisms. Can it go too far in asserting this identity when it makes use of the florid style? Sure—but I’d rather read an overblown floridity that says something than the milk-and-water inoffensiveness that has become standard in current prose. Ball is off base on many things. But at least he knows that a crucial purpose of language is not to network, but to kick ass. More power to him for that.