Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret

1. the announcement
A Surreal Cabaret will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 2 [2011] at the Orange County Citizens Foundation, 23 White Oak Drive in Sugar Loaf. Admission is free. The event will feature a series of short acts with local artists in performance.
In tribute to Surrealist émigré Kurt Seligmann (on whose estate the Foundation’s offices are located) each work will contain elements influenced by Surrealism. Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” maintains, “in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest.”
Acts may cross genres from poetry and drama to dance and music. The audience can expect conceptual play, experimentation, improvisation, and audience involvement.
The performances will be presented by the Lama Swine Toil. Participating artists are David Horton, Jennifer Kraus, Daniel Mack, Oliver Olive-Eyes, Steve Roe, Patricia Seaton, and William Seaton.
Surrealism Festival events will continue indefinitely.

2. the artists and their works

David Horton is an award-winning artist whose work is included in major museums and collections. To him “making art is like making magic.” He teaches at William Paterson University. His work was titled Culture is not your Friend.
Director, choreographer, and dancer Jennifer Kraus currently dances with Movita Dance Theatre. She is the artistic director of newly founded HUGE CUP Productions, a live arts production company. She honed her directing skills under director Kristin Martin of HERE Arts Center learning the craft of directing. Her piece was Beautiful Evening to Enjoy the Charm of Being Alive
Daniel Mack is best known for his rustic furniture and for the books he’s written on rustic building. But lately, his own work has turned more to the eccentric. Using river bark he collects in Newburgh, he carves female-like figures, called "anima". He is also making small collages in the style of the Surrealists. He performed acts of Fumage.
Oliver Olive-Eyes Folk-punk-rock-funk singer-songwriter Oliver Olive-Eyes brings his creative blend of wit, irony, and hormones to the stage. Typical themes range from pasta to politics, compassion to compulsion. Finding insight in the unexpected, discovering solace through music, laughing, and crying, Oliver's songs are an enriching journey both wholesome and low in polyunsaturated fat. He sang a tune about love disrupted by an extraterrestrial.
Steve Roe is founder of COPE (Council Of Poetic Experimentation), a performance group dedicated to performing classic and original multimedia experimental works. Steve was Associate Producer for the feature film Under Jakob's Ladder, which won best period piece at the Manhattan Film Festival in 2011. Steve played the role of Hans in the film. He presented Bern Porter’s The Last Acts of Saint Fuck You.
Patricia Seaton was a member of The First Majority, a women’s art collective in Berkeley in the 1970s where she exhibited her drawings, paintings, ceramics, and sculptural works. She was an art teacher in San Francisco, Nigeria, the Midwest and NYC before her long career as an art therapist in psychiatric hospitals. She provided intermittent encouragement and direction of audience response.
Poet, critic, and translator William Seaton has been active in performance and spoken words activities since the Happenings of the sixties. A central figure of the Cloud House group in San Francisco in the seventies, he has presented the Poetry on the Loose Reading/Performance Series in the Hudson Valley since 1993. He performed The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, But Only Temporarily.

3. welcoming words of the Lama Swine Toil
Good evening and welcome to the Surreal Cabaret. I am the Lama Swine Toil . You may feel pleased, even blessed, that fate has compelled you to this event. As for those of us on this side of the footlights, we deem ourselves impregnable, since, if you don’t like what we do, we can be pleased to have outraged the Philistines, whereas, if you like it, we will be recognized for the geniuses we are.
As we welcome you to the Cabaret, we welcome Orange County to a blinking recognition of that art has evolved since the opening of the twentieth century. In support of this continuing process, here in the headquarters of the OCCF, I look forward to an ever-brighter future when the indoor areas of the government building in Goshen will be abandoned and the courtyards and roofs given to neo-pagan practices and penny socials; when Woodbury Common will have reopened as a theater of dreams with twenty-five stages enacting fantasies and nightmares and nothing costs a single cent, even the popcorn is free; when tourists at West Point will gaze at rubble and old foundations and marvel at the river and at the unapologetic fierceness of war.
Enough crystal-gazing! Look now before your eyes! Prepare to see visions flash by in succession. Should one not please, it is likely to be the one you need. In any event, wait a few minutes and the next will arrive. You may if you please imagine yourselves gods observing the eons pass: our first little act, perhaps, the Hadean, then the Isuan and Swazian to the present. Or it may be that, with enough imaginative participation, this entire presentation will displace itself in the dream-like abyss of the future. You will know.
And when you depart, you will find that you view the world outside with the same acceptance you give to your dreams and, this evening, to the stage.

A Few Proletarian Writers

American literature has a grand heritage of progressive politics. Simply thinking of our great anti-racist Huckleberry Finn or of such supporters of old John Brown as Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman indicates that this is the main line of the tradition. The world crisis of the 1930s produced an intellectual milieu in which a great many artists considered themselves Marxist and developed theoretical literary perspectives based on their activism as well as producing poetry and fiction they felt would serve the revolution. The American 1960s, when I was in university, provided a weaker echo of this tendency.

Though willing always as a good citizen to do my part to move society forward, I have never integrated my politics with my critical or artistic practice. In this I am not alone. I recall a number of academics whose disjuncture between theory and practice was the mirror image of mine. I took a graduate seminar from a Marxist professor whose home displayed expensive and beautifully framed Cuban graphic art, but who never appeared at campus demonstrations. I recall a European Marxist composer of electronic music who considered his abstruse pieces, heard by a small coterie of intellectual aficionados, to be his contribution to the coming revolution.

And even the most orthodox Marxists must contend with the fact that Marx himself had what might have been called bourgeois, even aristocratic taste, admiring Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Goethe, yet taking little notice of the engagé writers of his day. More pointedly Engels explicitly condemns ideologically driven fiction, what he calls the Tendenzroman, while noting that the novels of the royalist Balzac contain more data on French society than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period.” [1]

It is difficult today for Americans to imagine to what an extent a vulgar sort of Marxist view of literature dominated intellectual circles during the late 1930s. This Depression vogue stimulated an efflorescence of writers whom few today read, yet some of those who might be described as “proletarian” were first-rate, and deserve readers of all tendencies.

Edward Dahlberg, for instance, even in his early work, is a painstaking stylist. His Bottom Dogs the original edition (1929) of which was brilliantly, if oddly, introduced by D. H. Lawrence, who said it depicted “the mass of failure that nourishes the roots of the gigantic tree of dollars.” Lawrence goes on to analyze the American obsession with bathroom fixtures and halitosis as a sign of “secret physical repulsion between people,” a dramatic shift from the European “flow from the heart” that resulted in “thousands of little passionate currents.” Lizzie, the itinerant practitioner of barbering and related trades, reminds me of Neal Cassady’s feckless father, another bottom feeder. The story is told with eloquence and convincing verisimilitude. His rhetoric is straightforward but calculated and cadenced. He became a more ornate stylist (and I fancy this manner as well) in his later books Can These Bones Live, The Sorrows of Priapus and finally Because I Was Flesh.

Charles Reznikoff is well-known today as a central figure in Objectivism and for expanding the sort of use of documentary material in Dos Passos and Williams’ Paterson into the powerful “found words,” the purposeful collages of Testimony and Holocaust. Yet his work received little attention for most of his life as he pursued art and integrity, ignoring money and fame. Reznikoff’s By the Waters of Manhattan (1939) is an unusually poetic version of the Jewish immigrant experience, including, as do most of the genre, the themes of poverty, bigotry, and the labor movement. His hero Ezekiel is convincingly Jewish in his sense of profound social alienation and in his ethical standards. Seeking the best, he praises Icelandic sagas and Aucassin and Nicolette, while, like the author but unlike some of his fellow immigrants, stubbornly resisting economic goals. And in each of these qualities, many non-Jewish readers will, of course, see themselves as well. As always, his words are palpable and well-chosen, laid into a solid masonry on the page, rarely attracting attention, economical and, so very often, just exactly right.

Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) simply and movingly tells the story of the hardships of a poor immigrant family. The fact that so very many Lower East Side Jews prospered in America, moving before long to Washington Heights, Queens, or Jersey, does not invalidate this negative example. Gold was a central figure in Communist Party USA circles for decades. If he sometimes refers all suffering to poverty, flattening his thematics, details such as the bedbugs and Mrs. Fingerman’s parrot make it sufficiently real to carry the reader. When he is not addressing culture (for him Gertrude Stein was an “idiot” and Marcel Proust a “masturbator”), I appreciate Mike Gold’s journalism as first-rate agit-prop.

Nelson Algren’s first novel Somebody in Boots (1935) was originally to be titled Native Son before Algren decided to give the title to Richard Wright with whom he had worked in Chicago’s John Reed Club and the Federal Writers Project. In Algren’s case the “native son” was Cass McKay, a “Final Descendant of the South,” descended from landless, slaveless white workers, an incipient criminal whose native “Americanism” is presented as every bit as ironically as that of Wright’s Bigger Thomas.

Written on an advance of a hundred dollars based on a single story and set in Texas where Algren himself was imprisoned for stealing a typewriter, whatever Romantic attitudes about poverty the author had, he, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Charles Bukowski, earned them.

His other novels Never Come Morning, The Man with the Golden Arm, and A Walk on the Wild Side (which includes material from Somebody in Boots) made him more money, but for me his outstanding work is the short stories in The Neon Wilderness. Algren’s losers are presented with love and sympathy, for all their sordid foolish fecklessness.
His Chicago: City on the Make presents the most emotionally and rhetorically powerful arguments for a simple Marxist view of literature in combination with a defense of progressive tradition among Midwestern writers, a people’s history of Chicago, and a personal memoir. Though he once shocked and alarmed the city fathers (the Tribune called the book “an ugly, highly scented object,” a comment featured on the back of the book), I understand that a statue of the writer has been installed in his old neighborhood in the Polonia Triangle though the local Poles successfully fought against naming the location for him.

On occasions such as that controversy, or the one during the 90s over National Endowment for the Arts funding, or over Chris Ofili’s elephant dung in the Brooklyn Museum, it is clear that right-wing opponents or art know nothing about the subject. Whereas I fear it may be that well-intentioned leftists may sometimes also make artistic judgments on non-aesthetic grounds, I recognize their far more creditable motives, and I am glad to recommend these books regardless of the dubious turns in political line some of their authors may have negotiated. (I am thinking of “democratic centralism” and tailing the Soviet line in particular. So far as I am concerned these policies harmed the American movement.) Now that the Occupy movements have focused the social contradictions on the most significant single element: money, it is well to recall the achievements of a long tradition of right-thinking American writers.


1. Letter to Margaret Harkness. In an earlier letter to Laura Lafargue, he expresses the same admiration, this time in contrast to the leftist writers: “all the Vaulabelles, Capefigues, Louis Blancs, et tutti quanti.” Engels refers to Balzac’s “revolutionary dialectic.” Both are included in Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, Moscow: Progress, 1976. p 93. Marx, too, thought Balzac, with Cervantes, the greatest novelist and planned to write a book on him. Fielding was another of his favorites. (Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, p. 439)

Novalis First Hymn to the Night

Friedrich von Hardenberg, who adopted the name Novalis, was one of the chief figures of German Romanticism. When he was twenty-two, he fell in love with the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn. After she died at the age of fifteen, he made his passion the basis of a love religion in which the beloved, like Jesus, mediates between the worshipper and the divine. His Hymns to the Night were composed, partly in prose, partly in a rhapsodic sort of free verse, shortly thereafter and published in the Schlegel brothers’ journal Athenaeum. His incomplete novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen uses the image of the “blue flower,” a symbol that became an emblem for von Chamisso and von Eichendorf among others. By the spring of 1968, what had been radical to the Romantics had become academic in the eyes of young leftists who used the slogan “Schlagt die Germanistik tot, färbt die blaue Blume rot!” (“Kill German studies, color the blue flower red!”). Novalis died, like his dear Sophie, of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-eight shortly after publishing the Hymns to the Night. Typically, he uses the image of descent and praises the dark while chasing after the sublime. As Wagner had it in Tristan und Isolde: “to drown,/ to founder -/ unconscious -/ utmost joy!” [“ertrinken,/ versinken, -/ unbewusst, -/ höchste Lust!”] Liebestod/ yang and yin inseparable.

What living thing, gifted with senses,
does not love more than all
the manifested marvels
of the world spread before him,
the all-joyful light,
with its beams and waves,
its colors,
its mild ubiquity
in daytime?
As the most secret
soul of life
it is inhaled by the great world
of restless constellations
that swim in their blue sea,
by the glittering stone,
the peaceful plant,
and by the evermoving
polymorphous multiform energy
of animals.
It is breathed too by varicolored
clouds and winds
and most of all
by the splendid alien
with thoughtful eyes,
a swinging gait,
and speaking mouth.
Like a king
of earthly nature
it calls all energy
to countless eternal metamorphosis,
and its presence alone
opens the wondrous miracle
of this earthly realm.
Downwards I make my way
to the holy ineffable
night full of secrets --
the world is far away
as though sunk in a deep grave --
a barren and a lonely place!
Deep depression plucks my heartstrings,
distant memory traces arise,
desires of youth,
dreams of childhood –
brief joys
and vain hopes
from an entire long life
approach in grey gowns
like evening fog
after the sun
goes down.
The world is then far off
with its bright delights.
In other realms
the light still pitches
its breezy camp.
And – if it never returned
to its loving children,
its gardens,
its marvelous house?
Yet what gushes,
so cool and refreshing,
liquid vengeance
to our hearts
and swallows
the soft air of sadness?
Have you, too,
a human heart,
dark night?
What do you hold
under your coat,
unseen but strong,
that touches my soul?
Your seem to be afraid –
priceless balm
trickles from your hand,
from a bouquet of poppies.
In sweet intoxication
you unfold the mind’s heavy wings
and give us joy,
dark and inexpressible,
joy as secret as you yourself,
a presentiment
of heaven.
How poor and childish
seems light then to me
with its colorful things.
How delightful and blessed
the departure of day.
It must only be because
night comes between
you and your minions
that you sow
the vastness of space
with shining spheres
to broadcast your omnipotence
and promise your return
even in the time of your absence.
More celestial than those twinkling stars
in the vastness are the eyes of eternity
opened in us only by the night.
They see farther
than the palest
of that countless host.
Needing no light
they see through the depths
of a loving heart
that fills a space more sublime
with unspeakable ecstasy.
All praise to the world’s queen,
the high herald
of the divine world,
the one who tends
to blessed love –
you’re coming, my lover –
the night is here,
my soul is rapt,
the earthly way is done
and you are mine again.
I look into your deep dark eyes,
see only love and blessedness –
we sink on night’s altar,
on a soft bed –
the veil falls,
and, kindled by your warm embrace,
there gleams
the pure glow
of sweetest sacrifice.

Pestering Allen

The summer of my undergraduate junior year – it was 1966 -- I couldn’t seem to hold a job. I began as a manual laborer for a company that maintained power lines for the electric utility. I had obtained this position through the intercession of the power company’s CEO, the father of a friend. The foreman felt annoyed by this rare directive from the executive offices into his domain, considering me a punk-ass college student. Even if I thought more appropriate terms would be sensitive and artistic, I would, I think, have welcomed being called a bit neurasthenic at the age of nineteen. Whatever the terms, the sequel justified them. I believe I actually passed out digging in the heat or maybe I just felt I was about to, but, at any rate, I resigned, much to my supervisor’s satisfaction.

I then took a place at a drill press in a filthy foundry casting blast furnace parts on the west side of Chicago. This place had an all-black work force on the floor. They had no vacation days whatever, no benefits, cash pay at week’s end. Workers would simply leave for a while when they needed a break and then return, allowing me to insinuate myself as the only white person in this constantly fluid staff. I have no doubt that the place violated every labor and health code in the book, but they had doubtless made arrangements with the regime of the elder Daley. Every afternoon they would pour the molten metal, creating infernal clouds. At the day’s end one would shower on the premises and the water would run black. At home I would blow my nose and find my handkerchief gone quite black and noxious. Here I lasted a week.

A friend then suggested I join him at the Loop employment agency where he had been working for a few weeks with great success. The place paid employment counselors like salesmen: a low base guarantee, bolstered by commissions for every person placed. This system emphasized the common interest of company, counselor, and applicant in such a way that it encouraged unethical, even illegal practices. Where to begin? In training one was initiated into a secret code by which employers could include race among their requirements and their preference would be preserved in a way that was not explicit. In contacting past applicants, whether they had found a job with the company or not, we were instructed to try to find how much money they were presently making and then claim to have an opening that would pay twenty percent more.

My friend had such fluid verbal skills that he had been a roaring success, generally defeating the veterans at winning the weekly bonus that went to the most productive worker. He was willing to say anything to anybody, and had the ability to size people up in a few moments and address them in the most effective way, making small talk and side comments that made people instantly trust him. Well it worked for him, but not for me. After a few days I was off again.

I gave up on employability at this point and headed down to Champaign-Urbana where I could hangout with friends and enjoy the atmosphere of the large depopulated University of Illinois campus. As it happened, that summer the National Student Association had chosen to hold its national convention there. It was to be another year yet before the revelation that the organization had been funded since its formation in 1947 by the CIA, but those reactionary spooks must have been worrying about their investment for some time. The government’s strategy was the same as in covert CIA support of, for instance, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party which ruled for fifty years, that is, to see that socialism made no headway. Created to supplant the leftist student groups of the thirties, some of which were still alive, if feeble, the NSA’s president in 1966 was David Harris.
Harris was the Stanford student body president who had gone south during the Freedom Summer of 1964. He was to resist the draft, indeed, to help found the organization called the Resistance and to serve fifteen months in federal prison. In the summer of 1964, though, the draft was not the issue it became several years later. Apart from discussing the widening war in Southeast Asia, the NSA was set to debate legalization of cannabis, and I discovered that Allen Ginsberg had come to educate the delegates on the benevolence of the good herb. He was to stay for a week.

Led by a slightly older poet, Michael Holloway, a group of four or five of us went in search of Allen. We ran in to him almost at once in front of a dormitory elevator and introduced ourselves as the local poets. Graduate students, undergraduates, drop-outs, seeking then to establish a new American culture, we knew each other through happenings and parties and several had appeared the previous spring in what we regarded as the hip issue of Oblique edited by Holloway.

Ginsberg engaged us at once, taking a aggressive tack and saying to Holloway, “You’re a poet, you tell me. Well, what’s your best line -- the best you ever wrote -- come on -- what is it?” Not surprisingly, Holloway hesitated and, after a dramatic pause, Ginsberg continued, “You know, a beautiful line like my friend William Burroughs, wrote, like ‘Motels . . .motels . . . motels . . . loneliness.’”

After regaining his equipoise, Holloway questioned Ginsberg’s mission. “You shouldn’t be spending time with those guys hung up on politics. Isn’t your place with the artists?” Ginsberg asked if we hadn’t had friends busted for pot, and wasn’t it a love-act to advocate for them. He wanted not just our coterie (where marijuana was pervasive) but the “mainstream” NSA, representing the future, to declare for legalization and, to that end, had painstakingly compiled fact sheets proving cannabis innocuous, citing evidence from scientific authorities, laid out in a logical array, and photocopied on pink pages.

We succeeded in distracting Ginsberg as the marijuana issue only consumed a half-day of the convention’s business. Most evenings he attended parties in funky student apartments and talked for hours. I don’t really recall faculty there, though some may have found their way to the scene. There were some alienated high school students sniffing glue or something in a closet which elicited a warning from the poet: “That’ll cause your brains to drip out your nose.”

I have heard accounts of Ginsberg behaving badly, but I have none to report. I would not count the incident of my straight friend who caught the poet’s eye. Asked to visit the dorm room where Ginsberg was staying, he headed off happily, though even a nineteen-year-old undergraduate might have known what would happen next. Twenty minutes later, he returned, shaken. “Man, Ginsberg just went in the room, and I shut the door, and, by the time I turned around, he was sitting on the floor naked and, oh my god, it was just like this big mass of hair with a penis sticking up!”



Allen Pestering: a postscript of second-hand anecdotes

Fearful of idealizing the poet who meant so much to so many (including me), I add a few anecdotes told me by an Indian friend concerning Ginsberg’s visit there in the early sixties. Being a guest in a culture for which he had such interest and admiration did not obviate the poet’s fondness for shock. Without such a taste, we would never have had Howl and Kaddish, both monuments of twentieth century American poetry.

He enjoyed people’s reactions when he introduced Orlovsky as his wife. More than one thought this term must be explained by some gap between Indian and American use of English. When presented to a prominent writer, son of a previous prime minister, Ginsberg immediately asked the man if he were fond of masturbating. He pressured a leading journalist to help him obtain a visa extension and then not only vanished without thanking him, but, according to my friend, later snubbed him when the Indian was visiting New York and happened to meet him again.

Ambivalence in Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence

Most people have a decided preference for Paradise Lost over Paradise Regained and for the Inferno over Purgatorio or Paradiso. Blake’s explanation of this phenomenon in Milton would doubtless do for Dante as well: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Similarly, the first Canto of Thomson’s The Castle of Indolence, describing a sort of land of all play and no work, will strike the common reader as markedly livelier, more precise, and more beautiful than the second in which the noble knight Industry prevails. One of the last of the dream visions, composed in belated pre-Romantic archaizing diction and expert use of Spenserian stanzas, the poem details the dangers of indolence. The usage of that term in Thomson’s poem comprehends not merely selfish laziness and the extreme of accidie, long recognized as sinful, but threatens to extend to much of what might seem innocent pleasure, as well as to love and art. The simpler delights of indolence, though, begin with comfortable clothing. (XXVI) Even “repose of mind” of a sort associated with Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism is praised by the wizard of Indolence (XVI) as though mental equanimity could be born of pure idleness.

In spite of his clear condemnation, the poet expatiates lovingly on the delights of the Castle which, in fact, operates on the rule of the Abbey of Thélème (and Drop City): “do what you will.” (XXVIII) The luxury is Oriental “Soft quilts on quilts, on carpets carpets spread,” (XXXIII), a richness like the “gay spendour” of “Caliphs old.” (XLII)

The poet’s pose of moral rigor appears in a world so severely problematized as to be almost unlivable. The Castle of Indolence opens in a soporific dreamland of pastoralism in which, contrary to the experience of farmers of all ages, the very sound of the countryside “inclinèd all to sleep.” (IV) Yet the alternative seems to be an even uglier “savage thirst of gain” causing the rivers to run with blood. (XI) The crystal ball which, like Borge’s Aleph reflects the entire world, is called “Of Vanity the Mirror” (L) as though there were nothing further of any significance to be seen. It displays a miserly drudge at work, a spendthrift fool, quarrelsome academics (L-LII) and, vainest of all, war. (LV) Creation belongs to the devil, and his name is not Wickedness but Indolence.

Reality, then, is so very dreary that Morpheus’ dreams are always “gayer.” (XLIV) All the ease-seeking “pilgrims” drink from the fountain of Nepenthe, implying that each must bear a burden in life as onerous as recollections of the Trojan War to its veterans in the tales of “Dan Homer.” Like Helen’s guests, it seems only forgetfulness under the influence of a strong narcotic can free one from “vile earthly care” and open the possibility of joy (XXVII). (Od. 4.220–221)

Given an all-but-intolerable world, indolence, if a vice, is a charming and seductive one. Author and reader may linger in delectation of its joys, yet must condemn it in the end, just as the Pearl-Poet’s medieval Clannesse exhibited the side-show decadence of Sodom only to point a respectable churchly moral, and the New York Post allows its readers to observe the misdeeds of others without ethical peril. This leads to Thomson’s many lyrical nature passages as well as such shocking thrills as the dungeon (LXXIII) and the amazing stampede of hogs at the end. (Canto 2, LXXXI)

But the empire of Thomson’s wizard includes territory beyond what is ordinarily considered the “failing” of indolence. Love, for instance, appears under his auspices only as aggression against a hypnotized maiden, who “sighing yields her up to love’s delicious harms” (XXIII) presumably because it would be too much trouble to be other than complaisant.

Thomson’s persona would have the reader believe that Beauty has “a pale-faced court” (LXXI) whose “only labour was to kill the time.” (LXXII) The text, itself a poem and thus a “killer of time,” presents the villain, the wizard of Indolence, singing to his “enfeebling lute” (VIII, 8) as part of his snares to capture the unwary. In his song, stanzas IX-XIX, he promises that only he can relieve people’s weariness and sorrow, providing instead a “sea/ Of full delight.” (XII) Poetry and idleness are conflated, reminding one of Huizinga’s insistence that “Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it.” [Homo Ludens p. 119] Thomson’s wizard offers an escape from the sordid routines of practical life devoted to self-advancement: business (“to cheat, and dun, and lie, and visit pay”), law (whose practitioners “Prowl in courts of law for human prey”), or politics ( “In venal senate thieve”). All these are equated, in the end, with crime, with those who “rob on broad highway.” (XIII)

The vanity of poetry is represented by the “man of special grave remark” who sang as sweetly as a morning-lark yet who “buried” these talents, (LVII) preferring to ramble among the flowers. Studying the heavens, he constructs “ten thousand glorious systems,” yet allows these “great ideas” to vanish without action. (LIX) There is a nature poet who visits, but will not remain, in the Castle’s precincts (LXV) and another, too lazy to actually write. (LVIII) The fruitlessness of these artists’ lives is mirrored in others: an unkempt recluse (LXI), a hedonist (LXII), hypocritical clergy (LXIX), and politicians (LXX).
Only the idle poet who has renounced the common goal “to heap up estate” (XIX) can attain that dubious “repose of mind,” a condition in which emotion is tamed and decorative, tending to please rather than “torture” or “deform” man. (XVI) In practice the transmutation of reality in art is what makes life livable, or, at any rate, worth living.

Acceptable to many readers as the point may be, it is itself delivered as part of a “witching song.” (XX) There can be no doubt about the diabolical and deceptive character of the “watchful wicked wizard” who snatches victims with his “unhallowed paw” to sequester within the “cursèd gate.” (XXII)

The contradiction persists to the end. In the second Canto, Industry is the antidote to the evils of Indolence, yet, if one works only to acquire goods, what of the dark picture of the resulting vicious competition in Canto 1? This noble knight displays his prowess in successful practice of the arts. (2, VII) Where then is the condemnation of poetry as vain?
The literary text has extraordinary capacity to express opposition, ambivalence, contradiction, and indeterminacy. Thomson’s poem is the most accurate embodiment of the problematic, conflicted dualities from which people generate the activities of daily life. I myself and may be the reader as well, walk a ridgepole. In my own case, delighting in Thomson’s “soft-tinkling streams” (XLIII), and impatient with the drudgework of writing in the hours before I head off to a foreign land, I suppose I am one with the “bristly swine” (Canto 2, LXXXI) of the poem’s conclusion. Yet, at the same time, as constructor of this essay (as Thomson was of his poem and you of your reading), I also resemble the heroic Knight of Arts and Industry. The tension between the two is as essential to life as the Fall to history, positive electrical charge to negative, or, for all I know, matter to anti-matter. Out of this delicate balance emerges a new poem, a new reading, a new thought.