Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Poetry of, Like, Alienation and Stuff

A former media critic for, short-fiction writer and author of the Criterion Recollection, Mark Brendle is also a regular reviewer of literary fiction for Et tu, Mr. Destructo. His last piece, "Huck Finn and the Nigger in the Woodpile," examined the new bowdlerized edition of the classic Twain novel. In his private life, he has inspired the television series Portlandia and been romantically linked to both Winona Ryder and Adam Duritz. He uses a different open-source operating system for every mood. You can follow him on Twitter.

Guinness World Record: A Hipster Say '...'

i don’t hide my sadness
and i don’t glorify it either
my sadness is displayed exactly as it should be
Poetry that matters reflects contemporary society upon itself, in its funhouse mirror way, with various layers of meaning, allusion and intent. Lehan Li's self-published book of poetry, "", gives voice to the information-riddled, developmentally arrested, yet surprisingly self-aware modern manchild. An overarching theme of intimacy versus irony ties this collection of short, funny poems together in a way that produces a cohesive worldview, one shared by many people in their twenties, of absurdity, loneliness and destructive wit.

The title of the book, "", lends itself to multiple interpretations: the ellipsis as silence, the ellipsis as gap between sentences, the absurd symbol of failed communication or the popular catchphrase of many a Final Fantasy protagonist. In past forms, an author typically chose between irony and sincerity, clueing in the reader to the mode in which they were operating. In "" however, no such distinction exists. More than a narrative technique, the simultaneity of ironic sincerity betrays an emotional compartmentalization that drives the author and readers who share his malaise through a cycle of mockery and desperation.

We've internalized the mechanisms of too many cartoon anti-heroes, sarcastically dynamiting anything sincere and pointing out the inescapable vulnerability in those who fail to armor themselves with ironic distance. TV characters spout witticisms in every direction, blow up every sacred bond and ideal, yet exert an image of unattainable happiness, appearing inhuman, unreal, like media golems forged from the worst pieces of our realities and the best phantoms of our desires.

Yet human blood flows in our veins, and as we toe the line between actual digitalization and our half-serious fantasy of bodily escape, we face more alienation than ever. This comes despite, or perhaps because of, the gargantuan leaps in communications technology that fundamentally reinvent the infrastructure of our social interaction every time a new software update is released, or a social networking site becomes the hot new thing.
i will overcome my fear
and yet i don’t believe my own words
i don’t believe my own thoughts
i don’t believe in religious doctrine
and i don’t believe in the laws of logic and mathematics
even that
is not sacred
Unlike the nihilism of the past, which was forcefully espoused as rebellion against social and physical order, the nihilism of the new generation mourns the loss of meaning like a misspent inheritance never to come. The old appeals to authority, to tradition, to inherent morals fall well short of the sharpened expectations of today's wretched adolescent-men and -women, taught to stifle their subjectivity in the name of some alien objectivity, to purchase the right combination of name brand products in order to achieve the happiness that eludes them. Homogenized as consumers, told from one side of the mouth, "You can be anything you want to be," and from the other, "You aren't good enough," these over-educated, under-socialized creatures slouch through the materialist wasteland frantically searching for something "pure," something "beautiful," but careful not to expose any of their inner selves for fear of ridicule, and doubly careful to offset those words in quotation marks.

But we cannot deny the urge for self-expression, so how does one express one's true vulnerability in a predatory social milieu? By preemptively acknowledging the irony of one's feelings, one steals, to some degree, the thunder of those who would pounce on sincerity. By out-witting, out-ironizing, one's peer judges, one can express something meaningful without expectation of retort. The meaning hides under defensive layers of comedy and nonchalance, dripping almost accidentally from the most jaded and poisonous satirist. Lehan Li's poems oscillate from complete armored irony to naked sincerity, with plenty of gray area in between. Though minimalist in approach, several pages having only a dozen words or so, each poem, when considered through this kaleidoscope of ironic sincerity, resounds with meaning, laughter and sadness.

Self-consciousness plays a large role in the success of poems like these to earn our trust. The more self-aware the poet is — the more he acknowledges the infinite other attempts to express these same thoughts, the more he undercuts his sincerity with objective absurdity — the more comfortable we feel about accepting what is sincere as legitimate. Any attempt to express sincerity without a clear acknowledgement of one's absurdity comes across as sentimental and unrealistic and welcomes mockery and disdain. This generational subset operates from a center of lack, confusion and uncertainty:
If i'm not mistaken
my finances are in order
my body is a temple
and my mind is a lake
that's placid
i don't need to wallow in misery
if i'm not mistaken
Of course a reader immediately assumes that he is mistaken, precisely because in the context of this poem, these ridiculously trite platitudes seem wholly incongruous with our everyday experience. While he mocks the platitudes, he does not outright refute them. If surety signals pretension, confusion signals sincerity. The order of the platitudes comments on societal priorities as well. First, one must take care of one's money. The body — attractiveness, health — comes second. The mind trails in third place, our concern only on its tranquility, as if the natural and normal state of mind is calm. Billions of dollars funnel through pharmaceutical companies, among others, with promises to bring "placid normalcy" to the masses. The obvious reality confronts us in the empty space on the page of this little poem: misery and disorder form the basic foundation of conscious experience, not happiness and peace. Or maybe the mistaken assumption that finding happiness is a peaceful process renders disorder a misery rather than a normalcy, something playfully, if warily, to be engaged as a given and a necessity.

When T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, he amalgamated snippets of other artistic works to present an allusion-rich landscape, juxtaposing one piece against another to create a kind of artistic dissonance that defined the modernist movement. Lehan takes a similar approach in amalgamation; however, his found objects are consumptive and technological waste products.

Replete with internet memes (a form-poem about goatse) and brand name ephemera (referencing Totino's pizza rolls, McDonalds, Chuck-E-Cheese,) he constructs a garbage pile of words, of references that only have meaning in the instantly obsolete context of western capitalism, with the objective cynicism of a future alien race digging through our landfills to determine the basic qualities of our species. Memes existed long before the internet, but only with this rapid and (basically) democratic method of dissemination has the meme come to symbolize the ever-shifting cultural landscape of our social interrelations. As people rely more and more on shared media assimilation in order to relate to each other, memes gain importance as units of social integration. But despite the qualitative differences of the content they reference, "" and The Waste Land utilize the same basic formula of ironic allusion, removing a common idea from its comfortable, recognizable context and lodging it into a chaotic, decaying mound of tragedy.
i suddenly came to the realization that my life was not only a lie but a vast global conspiracy on the same level as all the oppressive groupthink ideas being implanted in the mind of every human being through media propaganda, religion, and quote unquote cultural activities and i smiled unironically and patted myself on the back for my superior intelligence but also shook my head at the existential despair I would be facing for the rest of my life
This conflation of intellectual superiority, hyperawareness, and total helplessness defines the internet generation (those that grew up as the internet developed, as opposed to those who reached adulthood before the internet, or those who take the internet for granted as it has existed for most of their lives). The materialist hedonism of the 1980s, along with its child-directed technologies such as video games, bred this generational subset of people with high personal expectations, low failure tolerances and sometimes permanent blocks when approaching any kind of intimacy.

Nearly sixty years ago, sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, wrote about how society was trending away from exceptional individualism and towards cooperative mediocrity. However, those who grew up on fast food and technology tend to lack the advanced social skills necessary to succeed in this new cooperative, "other-directed" world. Their intellects and creative faculties developed to a high degree, while their socialization floundered in an absence of direct stimulation.

Writers write what they know and of the times in which they live, so today's western writer, to be honest about the world in which he or she lives, must reflect these monuments to corporate domination of symbolic space and the grueling and often fruitless searches for meaning among their shambled ruins.
when you feel depressed imagine a magical kingdom filled with a myriad of cute talking cartoon animals all cheering for you, helping you gather the courage to shuffle yourself off this bitch ass mortal coil
As absurd as this Mickey Mouse dreamland sounds, mass media literally fills the heads of children with the notion of this magical happiness, soulless and undead, without the intrinsic self-contradictions that define anything meaningful. When this dream bubble bursts, the hapless children thrust into an indifferent and often cruel reality, existential crises, long repressed by the reassuring hand of the media, explode violently. Lehan's connection between talking cartoon animals and suicide becomes more than a Dadaist absurdity; it becomes a poignant reminder of the cognitive dissonance of our society, our dual roles as fantasy worshippers and self-destroyers.

However, the book's existence reveals a certain optimism among all of this garbage, horror and absurdity. Man's capability to assimilate the worst parts of his existence and transmute them into art remains his saving grace amid the exponential decay of meaning. That Lehan took these feelings, made them into poetry, and shared them with other people who can identify with it, proves that meaning is not lost.

Even if we only share our resentment at the loss of meaning with one another, so long as we do so in a creative and artistic way, we buttress meaning itself by revealing that people can still connect on a fundamental level, that we are still creatures of the heart, regardless of how much symbolic armor we wear.

Poetry, like comedy, serves us as a tool of rebellion against the universe, against evil, against meaninglessness. No matter how terrible our external circumstances, no matter how fragmented our inner selves, as long as art and laughter echo through this gay void, human beings continue their struggle to live in a world full of meaning and connection or whatever.

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Purchase "..." from
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