On Bullshit

I recently found that T.S. Eliot wrote a throwaway poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” which many people consider to be the coining of the term bullshit as we understand it today.

Given our current political climate, i.e., the fact-free campaigns of many current political candidates in general and Donald Trump in particular, I was hoping Eliot’s poem would be a statement on the broader culture. Unfortunately it is not. The poem is a petty jab at female poetry critics with the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.”

I’m a fan of Eliot in general. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the founding poem in my origin story as a poet, the first poem that blew my mind and made me think about the world differently. But Eliot has characteristics that I find unseemly: he’s elitist, sometimes anti-Semitic  and given to some statements that people today would find extremist. For instance, in his essay on Baudelaire, he writes:

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.”

This passage sticks out in my mind as the most bullshit statement in poetry that I’ve ever read. I’m using bullshit in a particular way, in this case, a statement made by a major figure that sounds like philosophy but is really nonsense. This sense is different from political bullshit, which I’ll get to later.

Eliot’s statement is ten kinds of bad. The argument relies on an either/or fallacy. As a human, if I’m sitting alone on my couch watching a rerun of Fringe and I sneeze, that sneeze is neither evil or good, it just is. I could imagine a scenario of an evil sneeze wherein I could sneeze extra loud to purposely distract a driver and cause a deadly car accident. But my solo sneeze just is. I suppose you could argue that an involuntary sneeze is not an act in the sense of “do”-ing. But come on. Not all acts are either evil or good. From that premise we get to the faulty conclusion that it’s better to do evil than nothing. Which I’m sure all sorts of evil people have used to justify themselves.

I can think of several caveats to defend Eliot’s passage. He his after all abstracting Baudelaire’s aesthetic from the man’s work, so you could say that this passage Eliot means to say that “In Baudelaire’s mind . . . .” Or you could say that Eliot means that this kind of thinking is endemic to human brains. But the rest of the paragraph says otherwise: “It is true to say that the glory for man is in his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is in his capacity for damnation.” Again, this could be some kind of yin-yang, you-need-to-have-evil-to-have-good definition, a Blakean turning things on their heads along the lines of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, but the conclusion I find problematic. I can think of a million cases where it is better to do nothing than to do something evil. So I call bullshit.

But it is erudite bullshit. I’d say a faulty conclusion, but based on extensive research and thought, perhaps due to some arrogance or hubris, but I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s what Eliot actually thought.

So it’s bullshit of a different order than Donald Trump bullshit. Trump’s bullshit is all about impressing us. Whereas Eliot is misguided, Trump is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Here’s Harry Frankfurt on the subject

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

For a man whose attraction for many is that he “tells the truth,” Donald Trumps lies are clearly demonstrable. I mean, we have the internet now. We can look things up.

Besides the big lies, I’m struck by the blatant gaslighting. For example Trump was booed at an event, and on the way out told reporters, “those weren’t boos, those were cheers.”

But concerning the big lie, Trump’s recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. is the biggest bullshit so far. In his announcement he cited two polls. First, a possibly non-existent Pew poll and another poll. He said:

a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”

He said this, reading from a printout, which is a sure sign he’s laying it on deep. Of course the Center for Security Policy is known to be an anti-Muslim think tank, but more problematically the data was gathered using a self-selected group of people who answered questions on a website. This, in social science, is known as a convenience sample. In academic circles, that’s shorthand for “totally worthless” and the number one warning against such polls is that they are absolutely not generalizable to any larger group. Fact-free bullshit, in other words.

But it doesn’t matter. If you criticize Trump, he deflects. On the morning shows today, he was pathetic. He tried to charm, bully, and red-herring his way out of the criticism, but at least Joe Scarborough stood up to him

Trump’s actually not hard to figure out. He lives by three principles:

  1. There’s no such thing as bad press.
  2. Say whatever benefits me personally.
  3. Never ever admit mistakes or apologize.

The rest, such as always speaking in superlatives, is style. Because he is fabulously wealthy, and therefore not dependent on campaign donations, this mix is toxic. Most people see through him as the great exaggerator, but if you take him at his word, he’s running for Dictator In Chief. It would require unprecedented power for a U.S. President to enact everything he promises he would absolutely do so fast your head would spin.

We’ve seen the pattern before yesterday’s proposed Muslim ban.   Outrageous statement, walking back and/or misdirection, new topic. Yesterday he called for “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Today we find out he doesn’t mean American citizens, not exactly “total and complete.” I expect at one point for him to say “I never said ‘total and complete.’”

It’s kind of transparent, but even though he’s not hard to figure out, his staying power in this campaign is perplexing, unless you understand the power of bullshit, which is all but impervious to information.

I began my teaching career at the dawn of the internet as we know it today. I got my first real email address when I began my current job. At the beginning of my career I was frustrated by the amount of bullshit that my students were willing to accept and replicate, and I was also frustrated by the bullshit in the media, especially because I taught academic writing and argumentation. Because of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle grading papers that contained bullshit required extra work. I hoped for the day when we would realize the information superhighway. I found my students alarmingly uninformed about many issues and thought if they had better access to information there would be less bullshit.

That did not come to pass. People are willing to believe bullshit now more than ever. In fact, what has happened is that people now have easier access to bullshit.   I don’t want this post to turn into a bunch of griping about students, but I am astounded at some of the things I hear a few of them say, such as the Civil War was not about slavery, or that the United States Constitution is based on The Ten Commandments.  It’s not just shocking that some students say these things, but that they say them when they carry around access to huge amounts of information in their pockets. It is a small minority of students who believe such bullshit, but it is also a minority of Americans who are true Trump supporters. I believe that most political differences come from competing values and most of those values are valid. But I have to speak out against fascism and xenophobia.

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is ten kinds of bullshit. For many reasons but for one that it is impractical. Again on Morning Joe, when asked how the government would know if someone was Muslim or not at the border he said they would just ask. Because no terrorist would lie about that. A sure sign of bullshit is that it lacks even superficial practicality (deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a 2,000 mile wall at no cost, etc.).

I believe that the greatest force on Earth is denial. People who might still support Trump are in denial of facts. They are understandably afraid of terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty, but when those emotions turn into scapegoating and hatred and support of fascistic ideas, the key ingredient is denial: denying both basic facts and denying other people of their basic humanity. When people cling to fear, they deny reality.  When this behavior accumulates, terrible things are possible, holocausts and pogroms and slavery. Us vs. them. A level of bullshit like no other. Evil bullshit.

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass, Donald.


OMG, What!?

It’s been four years since I posted here. I kept another blog for quite awhile here:


But it’s been two years since I posted there.

I ran into some of life’s difficulties. First, my children’s health. My younger son was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma) in 2013 at age 7. He just finished his chemo this August.   My older son has epilepsy. Both of them are autistic. Yay us.

I also ran into some conflict that has led me to become estranged from my birth family, which left me loathe to reveal any information publicly. Hence blogging went away. I struggle with how much of myself to reveal to a wider audience, and I got burned with some painful blowback that shut down most of my writing for a good part of two years.

Also, fate has dealt me a combination of ADHD and anxiety, hence, hence, hence . . .

But I’m back.

I’m starting to gain some momentum as a writer and editor again. I’m lucky to have secured a sabbatical this semester.   My project is The Michigan Poet, a publication I co-edit. I’m editing a book of poems. And I’m also working on my own writing again, finally, ready to start submitting my poetry manuscript to contests and journals. I’m also growing a beard. Funny, the last time I tried that, it didn’t have any gray in it.

Today was a good day.

I got the strange notion this morning to rewrite a newer poem as blank verse and I like the result. Of course, I always like the result of writing in the short term. One feature of my ADHD brain is I’m forgetful, and highly subject to context and feedback. If I write a draft of something and it goes well, I feel I can do anything. After this morning’s draft it felt great to hang out with the kids all day while my wife went to rehearsals. The sun seemed brighter and the fall landscape out the windows looked right perfect all day. The other side of that coin is as soon as I run into a roadblock or get a string of rejections, I’ll feel like a hack again.  I’ll get into my everything-sucks mood again, which feels like my baseline state when I’m in it.

I honestly believe I have the talent and ability for writing, but in the literary sphere you have to endure tons of rejections and I am ill-equipped for that.

In other words, I have a muse, but she’s skittish.


Riverwalking: The Story of “North”

The impetus for my poem “North” came from an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Moose.”  The premise of Bishop’s poem is that the speaker is riding a bus, leaving a familiar town, and a moose blocks the road in the countryside.  The poem is memorable for the description of the moose, but the angle I was after was the description of the journey leaving town.  I attended the Bear River Writer’s Conference a couple years ago, and writing a “departure” poem was one of the assignments in the workshop I attended with Richard Tillinghast. He handed out Bishop’s poem for us to get in the mindset of description.

List of sub-national animals

The poem I wrote at the time didn’t work out, but I kept the idea, writing about a departure, and later came back to it, with the idea of writing a poem about leaving Big Rapids on foot.  There is a river trail (the Riverwalk) that I can walk to from my house that meets up with the White Pine Trail.  The impetus for a poem is important to me: one question I continually ask as a poet is what are poems about? Because each time I sit down to write, I swear I don’t know.

Walking is also important to me.  It helps clear the mind, which is important, since I have adult ADD.  When life gets too overwhelming, I walk (because I’m usually too out of shape to run).  Lots of poems occur to me on walks and bike rides or while running. I think the exercise helps focus the mind, and some vague notions I might have floating around crystallize.  The excursions themselves often become the subjects of poems, and I’ve been known to dictate lines into my iPod Touch while walking.

In this case, after a particularly bad day, I went for a long walk, about four miles round trip.  I decided to walk until I felt better and then turned around, but I kind of waited too long and my legs let me know it on the way back.  At some point later on, I thought I wanted to write about that feeling, about feeling closed in, wanting to escape, not getting relief for a long while, realizing I went too far. In the writing, I wanted to recreate that feeling as reflected in the landscape going by during the walk.

I wrote the first draft of the poem longhand in a Moleskine notebook with my horrible, all-caps handwriting. I’m kind of a notebook snob: Moleskines are expensive, but have fantastic paper and binding.  I don’t have to have a Moleskine to write, but I like them a lot.  (If you want to buy me a Christmas present . . .) I was also writing with a fountain pen at the time,  but I usually can’t keep ink in it and so will write with whatever cheap stick pen I have around.

After a couple of days I typed it, making edits as I worked.  And I put it away for awhile and revisited it later.  Other than changing it to couplets and tweaking word choices and line breaks, there weren’t any major rewrites on this poem.

I chose the form of couplets with somewhat regular line lengths because I like the opportunities such a form creates.  The line breaks help emphasize certain words, and the frequent stanza breaks also emphasize the beginnings and endings of stanzas and each stanza can be seen as a “step” on this journey.  I realized, sometime after this poem, that my overall basic line unit was being dictated by how many words I can fit on a line in my notebook, so I often use different sized notebooks or double up the lines when I type to get out of that rut now.

I also like using second person, “you,” to write about myself.  Using “I” can seem too much like complaining sometimes, too confessional in a bad way, and talking about yourself in third person is just weird (and is currently the territory of Herman Cain).

Now, it’s important to note that if you walk away from my house for two miles, you will find the places I describe but not in the order I describe them.  To me, a poem is art with words that expresses some truth.  The goal I am after in an autobiographical poem is to render the “truth” of an internal state of being  through the emotional colorings of words on the page.  In order to do that, I don’t have to be 100% accurate in the factual details.  In some way, what actually happened doesn’t matter so much as what I do with what happened. There is a relationship between the events, my memory, and the poem; I’m not writing about walking on Mars or something.  But I don’t have to burden myself with being totally accurate in the external details if it doesn’t dramatize the internal state I’m after.  Plus, I have a poor memory for certain details anyway (ADD, remember?).  I remember images strongly, but not the order of them or names attached to them.  In fact, when I read someone else’s poem in a journal or in a workshop, I am often not that interested in the actual story of an autobiographical poem than in what the poet does with it.  If the language and sentiment and form are interesting, I don’t care so much about the plot.  You could write about Spongebob and it would be interesting to me if it were fresh and full of insight.

SpongeBob's Truth or Square

I was pretty happy with the result, and thought I could submit it to journals.  I submitted it to three different journals over time and it was rejected without comment from each.

In February of 2009, on a really snowy Michigan day, I met Foster Neil at a reading.  As part of the Festival of the Arts in Big Rapids, Phillip Sterling, one of my colleagues at Ferris State University had organized a faculty reading.  It was a great event, held at the Comstock House, a bed and breakfast in town.  Upwards of twenty faculty members from all disciplines brought their own writing to read, and we had a great time.

Foster is a local poet, originally from Big Rapids, who had earned a degree in poetry from Antioch and came back home.  He’s made it his life’s work to bring poetry to the public since then.  He runs a publication, The Michigan Poet, and he prints broadsides (posters) that he distributes in local businesses and schools and anywhere else someone might hang a poster.  At the time, he just wanted to talk to other local poets.

After I knew him for a while, he asked me if I had any poems that might fit his project.  There are some limitations to what he considers for publication: the poems have to be 25 lines or less to fit on the poster and, because he gives them to local schools, they can’t have anything overtly sexual, religious, political, etc.  It’s also helpful if they reflect the season or the Michigan landscape in some way.

I prepared a few poems for submission, and “North” fit every criteria except the length.  In the version I submitted, I end with these lines:

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.

The last line is not a couplet, so it breaks the “rules” of the poem, but a form works in part through both regularity and variation, so I don’t have a problem with that.  It gives extra emphasis to the last line, and suggests that there’s more than one meaning there.  An alternate version I have (and the version I keep on my blog) adds these lines:

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.

I kind of like the jays in crows in there, but these extra lines may be more telling, not showing, so I’m not sure which is the best version.  If this poem ever makes it into a book collection, then I’ll have to make a choice.

In December of 2010, the poem came out.  Foster posted it around town and in schools and online.  I’ve published poems before, and they often seem like they disappear into the ether.

Not this time.  For the next two months, I got comments from all sorts of people: other faculty members, students, and acquaintances.  They often would say, “Hey, I saw your poem at Snyder’s.  Cool!”  It was very satisfying to feel like I had actual readers for awhile.

The poem still hangs on my office door and in the hallway in my building, and students and colleagues comment on it sometimes. Very recently a friend and I had a good conversation about it.  One day, when I wasn’t there, her middle school son was with her in the office and had read the poem and said, “Hey, what’s he got against middle schoolers?”  She told him that the poem was me giving advice to my own son, who is autistic.  Although that wasn’t my intent with the poem it’s not an unreasonable assumption because I write a lot of poems about raising a son with autism.

I’m not given to the idea of the correct interpretation of the poem.  There has to be some connection between the poem and the interpretation (the interpretation has to be defensible with evidence from the poem), but I’m okay with a different reading of it.  I had never thought of my poem in that way, and that’s been the best outcome of publishing this poem, the continuing conversation.