Quiet, You Ignorant Booby!

October 3, 2010 in Articles, The Grapevine

A booby trap.

Anything an author does (or says) is viable to be used as evidence against (or for) her (or him). Their actions and words are commonly seen as shedding an invaluable light on the work they’ve given the world – and to a certain extent this is of course true. It’s hard to understand the poetry of Ezra Pound if one refuses to see his (personal) fascist tendencies – they may not detract from the poetry, per se, but they do belong to it, they do inform it, enliven it.

Lifestyles and opinions impregnate the poetry of poets from Jack Spicer to Emily Dickinson to Li Po to Gertrude Stein to Sylvia Plath to William Carlos Williams, Tor Ulven, Ingeborg Bachman and Pablo Neruda. We could for instance ask ourselves what would’ve become of Allen Ginsberg had he succeeded with his original plan of becoming a lawyer – or had he just been hetero? What would an indian summer of peyote abuse have done to someone like TS Eliot? Where would the Flarf poets be if they were pastoral hermits deprived of Wi-Fi’s and iPhones? What would a Margaret Atwood sound like, if she had the opinions of an F.T. Marinetti?

We live in times of continuously repeated 15 minutes of fame for everybody – we’re all bloggers, tweeters, facebookers, tumblrs, flickrers; exceedingly sophisticated self-promoters, and we’re all famous ALL THE TIME. This is a well-known and well-documented fact (“nauseamus igitur”). And in this system of self-promotion noone is as suspect as he or she who actually has something to promote. Celebrity Tweeters, like British author and comedian Stephen Fry, can’t possibly tweet without a hidden agenda of also peddling their crap, no matter that their crap sold out weeks ago and actually sounds kinda interesting. It’s still suspect. We know this and they know this.

Most authors (or artists /entertainers in general) live in a universe where they’re forced to admit that even though they might be irrelevent small potatoes today, their Twitter feed, their emails, their scribbled grocery lists and the rate of their production of used-condoms and /or bastard children might be used to “devise their literary intentions” if luck (good or bad) would happen to make them famous. And if they happen to become VERY famous, the devising will be maniacally thorough and the exegeses increasingly inspired.

This, as you may imagine, is a recipe for paranoia and permanently suspended intellectual animation for all partakers – which is why so many contemporary authors stay silent on matters concerning anything under the sun: you know you’re just gonna use it against them. Most authors are even scared witless of writing their own books. It doesn’t mean that the books’ll be bad – but the myth that neurosis is a helpful tool for increasing creativity is about as true as poets having to be alcoholics to write interesting poetry. That is to say, it’s mostly a funny anecdote – a part of 20th century mythmaking and image-related careerisms. Not only was it never true, as an idea it’s also totally passé.

Self-doubt? Yes. – Paranoid delusions? No, not really.

As everyone knows the founding document of Icelandic thought is the Elder Edda – a curiously repetitious ode about the importance of never seeming stupid. In Auden’s translation:

The ignorant booby had best be silent

When he moves among other men,

No one will know what a nit-wit he is

Until he begins to talk;

No one knows less what a nit-wit he is

Than the man who talks too much
.
[…]
.
Wise is he not who is never silent,

Mouthing meaningless words:

A glib tongue that goes on chattering

Sings to its own harm
.
[…]
.
Of his knowledge a man should never boast,

Rather be sparing of speech

When to his house a wiser comes:

Seldom do those who are silent

Make mistakes; mother wit

Is ever a faithful friend

… and so forth.

These are the verses etched in the wretched souls of Icelandic poets – and poets worldwide. For us, the bitches of Icelandic tradition, that’s where it all began. With a clear and concise precept: Booby, behave! Booby, be still!
And Booby, be sure to be quiet.

Originally appeared in the Reykjavík Grapevine.

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