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.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil

The Lama Swine Toil first appeared last December at the Surreal Cabaret at the Seligmann studio in Sugar Loaf. He has returned a number of times since, most recently at the Spoken Aggregate performance produced by Adrianna Delgado and Glenn Werner in the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale August 26.


I am the Lama Swine Toil
I am the belated Surrealist chaplain.
I am a guru without disciples.
I am the yogi who arrived late and whose stomach rumbled out of a full lotus for the next hour, distracting all seekers alike.
I am wise though one would never guess it from the crumbs all about my place at dinner.
My mind wanders the heights and still calls out plaintive as the wild goose.
My shoelaces were untied and as I dozed the novice monks tied them up in an original manner so that when I woke and stumbled, I fell into perfect enlightenment.
My words are precisely as effective as the voice from the radio, but I cannot stop speaking them nonetheless.

The Old Lama

My master taught an end to all masters and yet taught with cranky authority.
One day he would strive with all his might, seeking an end to striving, and the next he would drift, scarcely knowing any goal at all.
He followed the North Star of enlightenment as a way to while away the time.
Among his scriptures were Pogo, Nancy, and the divine Krazy Kat.
My master said that for him rocks were rocks and water was water. (Though he realized that this was not, strictly speaking, true, yet he found it served in most circumstances.)
My master said that he became a lama in order to avoid selling snacks in the market. As good a reason, he thought, as any.
My master could read the irregularities on the surface of a loaf of bread. A croissant was to him a novel, a brioche a hymn.
My master knew that, in spite of differences, his big toe’s fate was bundled with his tongue’s and thus he found it wise to be wary.

Spiritual Exercise

Think of nothing.
Seize upon what you thought of when attempting to think of nothing.
Regard it from every side noting how unique and exquisitely commonplace it is in every aspect.
Discard it whether it seems a precious leaf in the wind or a dead pearl.
After a time, gaze upon your rubbish until you spot a comely match:
coffee grounds besmirching high-minded lemon rind,
cantaloupe seeds victorious over yesterday’s news
proliferation of feathery pale mauve mold covering all.
Here, here you may found your credo,
safe from all challengers however many may venture here to follow.
You may tell the rest, but they will hear only the hum of their own intent search,
Place this discovery on a chryselephantine altar and be glad.
You need search no more. Know one can go no further.

Apothegms of the Backbrain

Chasing after anything will surely make it run. Your breath has better uses.

The flame is bold and glorious for consuming itself; the clod hermetic and wise for doing nothing whatsoever.

Definitions slip and slide. Our vision’s is made of concepts, concepts of words. The deer in the woods sees things straight on, and eludes pursuers even when killed.

The toil of a swine is beautiful to behold; the slime on the tireless worm’s back reflects galactic shine.

In the end we all are in the same boat, and we know it has sprung a leak, and we hold hands in dread and in this way our comfort and our fear are as one.

The artist and the saint are muddlers very like yourself.

If the saints of an earlier era were giants, the fleas they scratched must have been more powerful yet.

In the corridors of the maze of time, nothing else is visible, but one may change
perspective without changing location.

The true base of morality is aesthetic: great-hearted deeds are muscled cats exploring new territory, small-minded ones make of the brain a hard and shriveled pea.

You depend on the creeping insect half a world away as it in turn must have your love.

There is no questioning joy.

The Lama’s Vision

In the middle of the open air’s a sign,
a letter hidden to common view,
a signal ample to the knowing.
I answered a knock at my door
and found a discarded plastic bag
in a suit with a narrow tie
peddling eternal life.
I rode out upon the highway
and saw specters of desire
on every side of the interstate.
I opened a can of pintos
and saw between the beans
ties and animosities,
contending armies and one small chance for love.
I leaned down and saw the angle of an ant’s knee,
that calculated forwards and backwards
corresponded to the movements of history.
In the pain of my lower back I saw an opening,
dived through it, and seized the fish
that had eluded me for years.

The Lama’s Confession

I participate in every vice, though I am too lazy or dull to actually enact any but the most trivial.
I am a fraud and only my cheerful admission of this fact preserves my ability to assist the needy.
I know nothing whatever of immortality or the divine will and this ignorance keeps me pure and thoughtful.
I like to play at being a lama and consider it less harmful than playing at business.
And if I detailed my failings further, you would be repulsed, and the world needs no more ugliness.

The Guiding Paw

We may receive the aid of tutelary spirits if we conceive them aright, and for me the cat’s guiding paw points out the path of wisdom.
For the pounce is all act and a performance we might emulate with advantage.
For the cat’s whiskers are sensitive antennae, taking the measure of the world and
asserting herself most delicately.
For the cat kills without anger or compunction to illustrate that life can live only on life and that is why the world is always moaning,
and if she toys with her mouse, it is only to express wonder at the spot in which they both find themselves.
The cat produces a great variety of articulate sounds to express the stirrings of her heart: indignation, alarm, and an inquisitive attitude.
And most memorable among these sounds is a meditative mantra of purr.
For the cat is so tidy as to lick her own anus.
For the cat rests, realizing that nothing need be done.

The Lama’s Dietary Laws

It is easy to imagine oneself a kale plant,
plunging forward with baroque and curled leaves,
or a radish, all the more pungent for being shallow.
See how bright and hopeful the chives!
Such light plays sometimes on all.
But few can see with rabbit’s eyes,
or move with chicken’s abrupt readiness,
and fewer yet can bathe in the sea
of bovine eyes. The lama says,
eat only what you can understand.
Spare monkeys and neighbors,
for they will be always surprising.
Hot pepper’s cock-a-doodle’s a wager often won.
Allspice will conjure for the true believer.
We’re prairie beasts, we live on grass.
Milk is booty from our raids.
As food may be the greatest art,
each eater must make menus alone,
each digestive tract tale unique.
What more obvious karma than a meal?
Reckon your flavors and bulk and belch
and stomach’s turns and draw your own conclusion.


Neither more nor less pleasure and pain in your future, neither more nor less beauty; if you want to experience the future -- know! -- you are already doing it. Now!

The branching maple of your ego is there and is not there. If one digests this stubborn fact fear will have no space to sit..

Why rush? The finish line will not dash off, and when you glimpse it, you will be sure to feel needless regret.

How silly to grasp – no need, no need!

Holding the reins of dark and light, you will ride steadily onward. On the ridgepole of ignorance and wisdom, you will stride with confidence.

After all is known, nothing is changed.

The Lama’s Blessing

You are elect already as you are here.
You cannot step outside your nature even for a moment. Carry on exactly as you are. Correct!
How grand an assemblage of distinguished minds, distinguished for one thing of not for another!
How hopeful a congress for the future only the event will tell.
Feel on all sides the brains of your fellows, pulsing in exhilarated sine waves, and know that your own self’s surf is no less grand.
May a waterdrop fall upon your head and with its cool arrival may you know all is well and proceeding according to plan.
Embrace those specters to your right and left, your neighbor – it can be chilly here on earth.

Robert Johnson and the Devil

Robert Johnson’s diabolism is a significant part of his image. Some admirers are fascinated with the story that attributes his genius to a Faustian deal with the devil; others fancy traces of the Yoruba trickster Legba. Such enthusiasts should be given pause by the fact that Johnson’s records were not major hits, and, in his own lifetime, he was an all-but-unknown artist nationally. An aetiological myth explaining his preternatural skills would make no sense at a time when he appeared indistinguishable from a mass of other singers. Though some Delta informants including Son House volunteered to support the story, it never appeared until the Folk Renaissance of the early 60s and Johnson’s subsequent recognition as the paramount bluesman by hip young whites who considered themselves outsiders or outlaws. In this way they are similar to bikers and heavy metal fans who likewise enjoy flirting with satanism primarily in order to annoy others and express disaffection. I do realize that Southern black (and white) culture considers secular and church music to be sharply opposed, and the blues artist is unlikely to be a good Christian church-goer.

Still, the definitive answer about the relevance of the story to Johnson’s oeuvre must emerge from the texts. A study of his lyrics indicates no diabolism, only a very conventional, even cautious, use of the Christian devil to serve his lyric ends.
The central text cited as evidence for Johnson’s deal with the devil is “Crossroad Blues,” yet the song itself simply describes his failing to hitch a ride. Some commentators have linked his rejection by the passing drivers (“didn’t nobody seem to know me”) and anxiety about dark descending with the threat of racist violence, but in the song it simply sets the emotional tone for the singer’s frustration in love. “I haven’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that/ love and feel my care.” His loneliness is only rendered more concrete and poignant by his message to a male friend saying that he is “sinking down.” Far from seeking to deal with satanic powers, the singer “fell down on [his] knees” to pray in ordinary Christian supplication and need.

Though it has received less attention in this connection, “Me and the Devil Blues” is more suggestive. In this song the devil appears at the singer’s door and they go walking together when these startling lines appear:

I'm going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

His excuse for this vicious threat is that she has been “dogging” him, not “doin’ me right.” Both he and his lover seem possessed by that old evil spirit/ So deep down in the ground.” Their mésalliance seems destined to continue: the singer imagines his lover taking care of his funeral arrangement. Only then can he indulge in a dream of liberation when his “old evil” spirit can “get on a Greyhound bus and ride.”

In this song, the most explicit about the singer’s companionship with the devil, the association seems to relate to the tangle of their relationship rather than to any bargain for blues mastery.

Hellhounds are known from a great many cultures, both in myth and in folklore. Most commonly the devil-dog is an omen of death, though similar terms are used in African-American religious rhetoric as emblems of temptation. In Johnson’s “Hell Hound On My Trail” they simply embody his suffering. The song opens with a defensive lament:

I got to keep movin’, I've got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail.

This suffering plaint is then repeated in different language.

And the days keeps on worryin' me,
there's a hellhound on my trail,

Here the hellhound is clearly not moral temptation, but simply the pains and difficulties of life. The singer imagine respite from his woes.

If today was Christmas eve
If today was Christmas eve,
and tomorrow was Christmas day

If today was Christmas eve,
and tomorrow was Christmas day
(spoken: Aow, wouldn't we have a time, baby?)
All I would need my little sweet rider just,
to pass the time away, huh huh, to pass the time away

This idyll is broken however by the beloved’s betrayal. She is practicing hoodoo rituals, “hot foot powder,” generally used to rid oneself of an unwanted individual, against the singer. This persecution leaves him with a “ramblin’ mind.”

The song concludes with a lovely lyric stanza reminiscent of troubadour conventions. The “wind risin’” and the “leaves tremblin’ on the tree” signify the vitality of nature which fits uneasily against the singer’s anxious uncertainty in a way similar to the medieval nature introductions. (And, indeed, his “Preaching Blues” is probably the purest and most intense lyrical expression of the blues, rather like Bernart de Ventadorn’s “Non es meravelha s’eu chan”).

It is a harmful distraction even playfully to displace the drama of Johnson’s powerful and lovely poetry from troubled eroticism and life’s suffering to some sort of diabolism. The move reveals more about the fantasies of the countercultural explorers to whom we owe the rediscovery and celebration of his work than about African, African-American or uniquely Johnsonian myth. When Son House expressed his admiration for Johnson’s rapid technical improvement in a way that gave the tale publicity years after Johnson’s death, he delighted the singer’s new fans even as he misled them. Let us listen to the music.

Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen]

Crome Yellow [Huxley]

I should confess at the outset a weakness, for Saki’s Clovis and even -- dare I confess it? -- for Ronald Firbank. In Huxley’s novel, the same aestheticism verging into camp appears in somewhat diluted, digested, and intellectualized form. This roman-à-clef of the scene at Lady Ottiline Morrill’s might be a grandchild of Thomas Love Peacock and a child (on the other side perhaps) of Oscar Wilde.

The fashions of the advanced thinkers of the time are naturally for the most part altogether absurd, though Mr. Barbecue-Smith’s salable profundities would probably rank as high today on the best-seller list as they did in his own. With becoming self-mockery, the author himself is represented by the ineffectual poet Denis Stone.

Modern readers are likely to be particularly interested in the utopian schemes of Mr. Scogan. Surely the most quoted passage in the novel is Scogan’s description of a future generation spawned in state incubators, initiating a time when “Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”

The Pit [Norris]

Norris’ novel of the futures markets in Chicago, one of his three part wheat series, is very much au courant in its depiction of the addictive psychology of speculation. The ego-foolery of high finance is reminiscent of Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities.

Apart from the unusual interest in economic forces, though, the novel is quite conventional. Though Laura is, at first, rather flippant and self-absorbed, a bit of a rebel, she ends up as traditional a good wife as one could imagine. And a male with aesthetic interests like Sheldon Corthell can never hope to gain such a love.

Every now and then Norris deploys a rhetorical flurry on “the pit,” implying people’s helplessness in the face of fate or some such “naturalist” lesson from our “American Zola,” and Curtis Jadwin would like to think his addiction something quite beyond his control, but these notions seem adventitious. The true characters here are motivated just as in the age’s popular stories

McTeague and The Octopus seemed more absorbing as stories, though The Pit was popular enough when new to have been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.

Shobogenzo [Dōgen]

Neither a Japanese scholar nor a practitioner of zazen, I nonetheless fancy that I read Buddhist texts both to ameliorate my Eurocentric education and to pursue enlightenment. If Dōgen is correct that anything less than total commitment is fruitless, my remarks may only, I suppose, mislead, but I stubbornly offer them regardless.

Dōgen, the thirteenth century Zen master, founded the Soto school, sometimes insulted as “farmer Zen” by Rinzai adherents because of its popularity. Though Shunryu Suzuki taught Soto at the San Francisco Zen Center and reached many more through his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, many Americans with a literary connection to Buddhism will be attracted to the more dramatic style of Rinzai.

How to Raise an Ox is a partial translation of Dōgen’s Shobogenzo with a substantial introduction by Francis Dojun Cook. These editorial materials and the selections from Dōgen stress practice, while keeping a clarified eye on the most basic facts: the paramount importance of meditation, the illusory conundrum of ego (here magically solved by the bodhisattva’s pledge to await the enlightenment of all sentient beings before accepting his own).

Prof. Cook is an academic as well as a Zen adept, so one can only appreciate it if he sounds a bit preachy in his introductory remarks. He does, after all, want to bring us all to nirvana. It is not surprising and a sign of the best intentions if the strain shows just a bit.

A Brief Literary Life

Perhaps the single individual who inquired is the only one curious about my background. Having been brought up in a strongly anti-academic counter-cultural tradition yet loving the close reading of poetry and every language in which it has been written, dead and alive, I have always divided my time between the research library and the street. Neither has an exclusive title to literature.
This is by no means an outline of an autobiography. It says nothing about non-literary aspects of my life.

William Seaton was born August 13, 1946 in Sioux City. His parents were both from rural Iowa. His father, a lawyer, worked for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., ending his career as general counsel. His mother, a schoolteacher with a M.S. in counseling, encouraged her children’s education.

His family moved to Glen Ellyn near Chicago in 1954 where he attended public schools, graduating a year before his class in 1963. Reading the classics from an early age, he was also influenced by the Beats and by Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960, which provided small press addresses through which even a suburban lad might obtain the poetry of his own American moment. During high school he also attended Paul Carroll’s Big Table reading series at Second City in Chicago. An Edmund J. James Scholar, he graduated from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1967 with a major in English and minors in Classical Greek and German. His senior honors thesis was on Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno.

During his undergraduate years he read his poetry in local venues and published in the “hip” issue of Oblique edited by Michael Holloway. He also read his poetry in local and college venues and appeared in a number of “happenings,” including one directed by dancer Terry Temener and another by John Cage.

During the six years following his graduation, Seaton traveled for nine months in Europe and Africa, crossed the USA a number of times, spending time in the Haight-Ashbury (including during the summer of ’67), worked as a VISTA volunteer in Chicago and Minneapolis and as an editor for Scott, Foresman (producing three years of the ACE English series). He also enrolled twice in graduate school only to withdraw, though not before study in the University of Iowa Translation Workshop under Anselm Hollo and Stavros Deligiorgis.

In the spring of 1973 he returned to the Haight in San Francisco where he read widely at such venues as the Intersection, the Mediterraneum, the Starry Plough, and Project Artaud. With Artful Goodtimes he produced the Wordriver event at the Blue Dolphin performance space. Goodtimes introduced him to Kush who had come to the city from New York to found Cloud House, a poetry storefront. Cloud House had readings most days, but it was unique in its program of street readings, exhibits of art including words, outreach to North Beach poets of the previous generation, and archives.

In 1978 he went to Nigeria where he spent a year teaching at Unity School in the hot and steamy bush of the Niger Delta. He then enrolled in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Iowa. Iowa’s program was heavily theoretical and post-structuralist. The student was expected to discuss Derrida, Barthes, and de Man, and only rarely to descend from the empyrean to comment on an actual text. For Seaton, who had eschewed criticism in general, it was an initiation, yet, working under the direction of Stavros Deligiorgis, he eventually produced a thesis on the Transformation of Convention in the Medieval European Love Lyric. During these years he published several scholarly essays, presented many research papers at professional meetings, passed his comprehensive examinations (including one on “all English poetry from Old English to the present”), yet failed to defend his dissertation successfully.

His artistic activity in Iowa City included producing Words in the Air for the university’s cable station and participating in several experimental events, including outdoor performances and a late-night Electronic Poetry Shotgun (also on cable television).

In 1985 he accepted a position as medievalist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, though the post was eliminated three years later. He then taught on a one-year appointment at Adelphi University, after which he acquired a leaching certificate and worked in Brooklyn high schools. Since 1992 he has lived in the Hudson Valley where he has taught on adjunct appointments for SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Orange, and other universities. His Poetry on the Loose Reading/Performance Series has presented readings and other events since 1993. In 2009 he was a founder of the Northeast Poetry Center and its College of Poetry where he continues to teach. He is also active in the Seligmann Center for the Arts where he has presented the two Surreal Cabarets of performance events, the second co-curated by David Horton.

He reads his work frequently in the Hudson Valley and, within the last decade, in Budapest, Kathmandu, Prague, and London as well. His poetry, translations, and criticism have been widely published in journals, chapbooks, anthologies, and online. His Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems was published in 2008 by FootHills.

He is the recipient of the Helen Fairall Scholarship Award in Comparative Literature, the Ada Louise Ballard Fellowship in the Humanities, numerous public and private grants, and two Pushcart Prize nominations.

A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy"

One of the most significant attempts to pursue literary theory between Sidney and Peacock, Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesy provides a thoughtful, if not systematic, account of neo-classical ideas. The frame of Dryden’s dialogue describes the party of four discussing literature while on a pleasure excursion as the British battle the Dutch at the mouth of the Thames. This dramatic situation not only emphasizes the provisional character of the “essay” form emphasizing relativism, dynamic truth, and a social nexus; it also introduces the patriotic motif that will be significant to Neander’s value judgments.

Dryden’s fundamental error is his acceptance from his classical antecedents of the notion that art is imitation. He links his literary values to this unconvincing basic concept. Now even in common sense terms there would be little point in seeking to imitate a reality which is itself fully manifest always. Were art mimesis alone, it would never have taken such a central role in human culture. Plato would have been quite right in maintaining that art could only be second-rate were the imitation of lived reality its goal. He might have thought, though, that just as his form or idea of a chair or of love is related to, but not identical with, the chair in my living room, a chair or an affection represented in art will be similarly different from their kin in lived experience, though art’s image is richer in information. Whereas Plato’s “ideas” are simply generalizations, though weighted in the end with the burden of ultimate reality, art’s images suggest at once an individual object and the sum of its occurrences in the reader’s experience, as well as a host of implied, allusive, and symbolic associations.

The representation of art not as imitation (a mirror in Abrams’ terms) but as creation (a lamp) is a Romantic one. As most of our assumptions remain Romantic today, Dryden’s ideas will find little sympathy from the modern reader. The very idea of “decorum,” which he assumes, has hardly survived into our time in which attempts to violate decorum are part of the stock in trade of the off-Broadway theater. As he finds the French style, so admired by Lisideius, “icy” with the beauty of a “statue” not a play (as though a statue could not be moving), we suspect that Dryden may have the same intuitive reactions as we, though he is bound to express them in terms acceptable to his theory. This assumption is strengthened by Dryden’s insightful analysis of The Silent Woman and his preference for Shakespeare over the more academic Jonson in contrast to many of his generation.

Yet he then uses this same measure of faithfulness to nature and realism to justify what seem to us moderns as assertively artificial conventions. The notion of the “unities” figures prominently in the discussion, though the author is aware that its strict observance is based neither on Classical precept nor example. Indeed, he finds the French playwrights often violating the rules. What will strike the contemporary reader as odd is that to Dryden, the unities are good because they enhance verisimilitude: one place need not change into another, nor need time be manipulated. The very conventions that would seem to signal a highly conventionalized, unrealistic style are for him the opposite. Now, of course, no one could mistake the doings of actors on a stage for anything other than “fictional,” and the same is true a fortiori for words on a page. Neither competes with lived experience. The observer evaluates each in entirely different terms. When plays or poems are composed according to rule or convention, the first bit of information the consumer receives from the rule is in fact the work’s artificiality, its fictional character.

Lisideius’ definition of drama, later adopted in shorter form by Neander is “a just and lively Image of Humane Nature, representing its Passions and Humours, and the Changes of Fortune to which it is subject; for the Delight and Instruction of Mankind.” Yet Dryden knows no likelier source for pleasure than plausibility, as though we do not also find entertainment in the unexpected, the wholly fantastic, in formal patterns and a host of other sources. While discussing the propriety of fights and “tumult” on stage, Neander sensibly comments that, if he can accept that the figures before him are kings and princes, he can equally accept that they strike blows in earnest, not to mention the supernatural pagan deities in Corneille. Where, then, is the boundary of the suspension of disbelief?

Just as there is an inevitable relation but no direct correspondence between the literary description and the thing described, there can be no point before unintelligibility at which the gap between the two is too large.

Dryden does no better with the other Horatian end of poetry: instruction. In his reductive view, this involves setting out the morally, perhaps in the end religiously, proper behavior for the benefit of the reader. His faith in the standard of imitation blinds him to any notion of art’s unique ability to investigate contradictions, ambiguities, ambivalences, and the unknown.

Yet, in spite of our dissent from his conclusions, he has in this dialogue created a memorable scene in which the cultivated idlers toss ideas between them on a lazy afternoon, leaving sea battles to others, however satisfying one’s own nation’s victory may be. What better use for the human consciousness? And surely Britain’s rule on the waters must have seemed to reinforce the claims of her poets. One may regret the erosion of ancient authority whose decline has been more rapid than that of the British Navy in the years since Dryden, but perhaps critics have approached a bit closer to the grand and chryselephantine image of the muse herself in the sancta sanctorum of the reader’s mind.