Smells Like American Poetry

I’m so ugly, that’s okay
‘Cause so are you.

“Lithium.” Kurt Cobain


The married couple sleep . . .
The sisters sleep . . .
The men sleep . . .
And the mother . . . .

The blind sleep, and the deaf and dumb sleep,
The prisoner sleeps . . . the runaway son
The murderer that is to be hung next day, how does he
And the murder’d person, how does he sleep?

The female that loves unrequited sleeps,
And the male that loves unrequited sleeps,
The head of the money-maker that plotted all day
And the enraged and treacherous dispositions, all, all

“The Sleepers.” W.W.


I rounded out the semester with Emily Dickinson, a delightful (even if overused) pairing with Whitman. I tried explaining to my students the different ways of critiquing poetry. They were all surprisingly fine with a formalist approach but couldn’t wrangle New Criticism. It’s usually the other way around.

Student: “I think with writers like Poe and Dickinson, it’s just too difficult to separate how they lived from how they wrote.”
Me: “And how they died? Does that influence your reading of Poe or–for next semester–say, Plath?”
Student: [adamantly] “Ho, yes. Especially when they commit suicide.”
Me: “So how do you listen to Nirvana?”
Student: “Well, I don’t really. But, yeah. I hear ‘self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head’ when I hear ‘Lithium.'”
Me: [damned impressed that he referenced “Lithium” instead of “Teen Spirit”] “So, how does that work for someone like me? I mean, I remember Cobain as ‘alive.’ I watched him on MTV. I remember when he died.”

They were all disconcertingly visibly stunned at this revelation. I was not about to tell them that I remembered when John Lennon died. Or (shite) Elvis.

Ah, death. Death and sleep. The two great levelers, Walt would say.

My students were able to manage New Criticism for Bradstreet and Wigglesworth and even Wheatly to some extent; but Dickinson, like Cobain, was more famous for her life (and his death) than they could get past.

Then I thought about Al.

I’m started a new course tonight. I mean–it’s a new set of students, I’ve taught the course before. Just before they finished the course prior, I asked them what they wanted to take on in the next phase. One of the students wanted to know if we could cover more about Thelema; but another “just [has] a bad feeling about Crowley.”

Yea, yea. He was a shitfucker–and I mean that literally–but can we even begin to apply something like New Critical approaches to the study of Thelema? I can if I accept that it was an inspired work, meaning it came from Aiwass and not “just” Al. I have to say “just” since I believe our HGA is also part of our own psyche. If our higher-self elevates our work to greatness (I’m not claiming that Crowley’s oeuvre is “great,” it just a statement for argument’s sake), does our baser-self not degrade our work? Can we approach Thelemic texts and rites without thinking about Crowley’s proclivities? Admittedly, some folks find his lifestyle revolutionary and subversively enthralling. Some, I acknowledge, just find Crowley gross.

How, as a teacher, do I remain objective? I mean, I have fairly strong feelings about the whole affair. And the more I learn, the stronger my feelings become.

It’s why I don’t teach Hemingway.

Papa and The Beast, hmmm.

As ever, I’ll let you know how it goes.

B, Q, and, maybe, 93

9 comments on “Smells Like American Poetry

  1. Crowley was clearly a magical genius, but he used up everyone who got close to him and died alone. However, it’s very unlikely that you and I would have been exposed to the Hermetic tradition had Crowley died, say, before 1904.

    I think the worst thing about him was his attitude about drugs. He was sure that a welldeveloped magical Will could master them. That is, of course, a good recipe for dying with a needle in your arm.

    No, wait, the worst thing was the halfbaked pop psychological interpretation of Theurgy, giving license to generations of occultists to crap all over the Mysteries.

    No, that’s not even the worst … oh, wait, did I start out to defend him? With friends like me, I guess he needs no enemies, eh?

    • These are my sentiments exactly. Love the exposure to the occult his work (however questionable it is) provided–not the dude himself. I have a slightly different list of “worst things”–but only slightly. So, how do I do this objectively?

      I’m dyslexic and read “poop psychology.” Funny thing is, I didn’t think twice about it.

      • “Poop” psychology is appropriate considering the stories of him taking a left-hand-Tantric shit on someone’s drawingroom floor at a party because he was such a Great Sage that his feces were holy. Is that why we exclaim “Holy Shit?”

        As far as objectivity goes, it really seems to me that any account of Uncle Al should take a Rashomon approach. I get the impression that his reality was a hall of mirrors as he perceived it, also.

      • “Shitfucker.”
        And you know that Kurosawa makes my clothes fall off.

  2. Pixie says:

    I’m ambivalent about Crowley, there is part of me that loves him but I’m still creeped out that according to the new Witches Alamanc for the upcoming year we have very similar birth charts. At the same time, another part of me feels like he did a lot of bad things, he was a bad person, and why do I want to study someone’s work who is by all accounts someone I would not associate with if he were alive?
    I just have come to the conclusion that Crowley did what he did because that’s what he needed to do to write the Thelma – and maybe that took a lot out of him as a person. As an artist I firmly believe we have to give up something to do something great. Crowley the person gave up something, maybe empathy, humility, humanity, common sense or whatever to do that. Do I want to do that? Well, not really – but I’ll gladly take his work and use it.
    I think maybe Plath and Cobain gave up too much as well. Perhaps the real lesson we learn from these poets is to choose our limits carefully. Then again, look at Ginsberg and The Beats… what do I know. lol

    • This is a terrifying thing for me to admit. I know that I know that I know that I would not associate with AC if he were alive today. I’m not sure I wouldn’t associate with him if I were alive then. Skeery, eh?

      • Pixie says:

        lol I don’t know, I think it’s much eaiser for us who have the whole story to make the right judgement call. Also we are both making these decisions as grown ups, I mean, depending at what point I met him in my life and his, who knows what could have happened.
        But at this point, the person I am today, I wouldn’t associate with him. That being said, to learn that lesson I have associated with plenty of folks magical and not who could easily give AC a run for his money in the most evil man in the world contests. Ugh. What the hell was I thinking…

      • Exactly! But if I were a Victorian . . .

        Sometimes, sugar, we don’t think, lol. It happens to the Baddest of us. And what doesn’t kill us makes us cynical and prematurely grey–I mean, stronger.

  3. Crowley was definitely a rich bad boy at first and a rogue in the end, but his poetry and especially magickal invocations are ecstatic, and they work. 93/BB

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