Review of Punchline and an interview with Nick Courtright by Heather Stewart

Punchline by Nick CourtrightHeather: After creeping around on your website, nickcourtright.com, I noted that you teach “classes such as Media and American Culture, Methods and Applications of Philosophy, and Survey of Romanticism, among other literature and writing courses.” Obviously philosophy plays a huge role in Punchline, but what about Romanticism? How does Fate as an artifact of Romanticism factor into such poems as “He Does Not Throw Dice,” or how do you purposely dismantle Romantic notions in poems such as “Reluctant Prophet?”

Nick: Haha, that is a hell of a question. The easy answer is that the book was written before I started teaching Romanticism, but that’s not a very fun way to handle such a complex inquiry. The longer answer is all the way back in grad school a professor told me my work was Romantic, and of course I had no idea what this really meant, beyond some loose theoretical associations.

Now I know that there is truth to it: Romanticism, whether through Europeans like Wordsworth and Blake, or through Americans like Whitman and Emerson, I see as a passionate confrontation of the interior and exterior realms, and also an embrace of what there is to embrace. In short, it seems hopeful, even when that hope is a careening mania or impractical irresponsibility, the vagrant thought that the darkness leads to light, and that we can all find redemption, and not just in the afterlife, but right now, right here, with the world we’ve been given. So, fate in the poem “He Does Not Throw Dice” is related to the end of that last sentence: “with the world we’ve been given”—we didn’t necessarily ask for things to be like this, but this is what we have, so we, like Keats might say, should stop kicking so mightily against the walls of our cage, and should sublimely acquiesce to our own inadequacies, and find peace in them. Hume called it Ataraxia, and it’s an idea I enjoy.

As for dismantling the Romantic, such as in “Reluctant Prophet,” there’s also the problem that sometimes we don’t want to accept what we have been given, that we don’t want to lay back and deal with our lot in life. This I see in Gandhi’s evolution of Romanticism: although his practice was inspired by Thoreau’s Romantic civil disobedience, Gandhi said we should strive to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” which means he didn’t just accept his state—he battled it for betterment.

Is there a particular subtopic within philosophy which particularly interests you?

I love them all: the one versus the many, the mind versus the body, the fundamental nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, the existence of a necessary being, the problem of governance, the issue of good/right action…but of all of these, I’d say the one that inspires me most consistently is the last of those, ethics in all its forms. We get bogged down in our world by notions of traditional morality, and the idea of a moral act has been polluted by misinterpretation and dogma, but I think the attempt to “live rightly” or “virtuously” or however you want to put it is the most practical and pressing of philosophical questions. While our role in society and the metaphysical questions have historically gotten a lot of attention, the bottom line is that we are confronted with dozens upon dozens of decisions to make every single day, from whether we cut someone off on the highway to whether we feed our children healthy food to whether we pay attention to the news to whether we tie our shoelaces or let them drag—in all of these issues both magnificent and petty, we have to decide, and ethics I see as the study of trying to find the “correct” answer to these highly circumstantial issues. Of course, like any philosophical question worth its salt, there likely is no answer, or at least not one we can in good faith come to. Still, though, the pursuit is a dogged one, and always relevant.

Who is your favorite philosopher? Why?

That’s a tough one, since I find them all very interesting and wrong in excellent ways. I was always drawn to Spinoza, since he was so obsessed with God that he was, of course, excommunicated, and his peaceful approach to life and acceptance of the absolute I’ve found consistently appealing. But I also enjoy Kant, since he’s brilliant and walks the line between perfect astuteness and utter inscrutability; also, his ethical system I find very useful. And Plato is great because his ideas are so absurd in the context of our material-scientific culture that they help shake those foundations for me mentally—he keeps the head in the clouds, as Socrates would have wanted.

Which poem is your favorite in Punchline?

I hemmed and hawed about this question, so I’ll mention first the runners up: I really like “Fun with Agnosticism,” which is the only poem that I’ve read at all the Punchline readings, and the title track, “Punchline,” which may be the book’s most “beautiful,” and obviously thieving of Whitman. Also, I’m very happy with “Connection” and “What I Have to Say to You.”

Ultimately, though, I’d have to say my favorite is the most risky one in the book: the first poem, “The Despot.” It’s the longest poem in the book, and arguably the most difficult, which means it makes no reasonable sense as the first poem. But I always saw it as setting up the rest of the book’s themes, so it needed to bat lead-off. If I’d been trying to sell a pop album, and put the stylistically and thematically challenging 13 minute opus first, my record label probably would have let me go. But this wasn’t a pop album, so I think I’m safe. Hopefully.

What poets would you say most greatly influenced you in this book of poetry?

The three who likely destroyed me most for this book were Franz Wright, Frank Bidart, and Robert Bly. They are three wildly different poets, with very different ways of approaching the art, but I see in each of them a willingness to confront not just the small issues of a singular life, but the large issues of the cosmos and the absolute and capital T truth. From Wright, I was inspired to write with a spareness I’d never tested fully before, a very, as Nicky Beer said about Punchline, “distilled” approach that left the poems worn down to only the true necessity. From Bidart, I learned to take big risks, and shoot for high themes intellectually, even if it meant the poems sometimes escaped my grasp a little; he was also the poet who taught me to love the single-line strophe and the abjectly mad line break. From Bly, I found a writer willing to try to be “wise” in the way the poets of the old days were “wise”—the Lao Tse-types, the Rumi types, the Mirabai types; Bly gets some crap for seeming like he wants to be viewed as a sage or prophet, but that’s fine by me—I want my poets to be prophets.
How has writing as a journalist (interviewer) manifested itself in your poetry?

Probably the biggest thing about being an interviewer is being able to shapeshift your approach and even your apparent personality depending on who it is you’re talking to. Just like being a teacher (my “real” job), in which you best cater your style to the needs of each classroom dynamic and each individual student’s needs, when you interview you have to be able to meet the interviewee wherever he or she is, and not try to force this person into your preconceived world—if the subject is a fifty year old comedian, or a twenty year old rapper, you need to find a way for that person to trust you enough, and immediately, to open up.

In poetry, I see the parallel being that I want to find a place to meet my readers, and not try to batter them over the head with obtuse language or so much complexity or obscurity that they won’t be able to find an entry point. I understand that poetry, being what it is—a “non-mainstream” art—isn’t going to leap into comprehension and familial comfort with every potential reader, but I do hope that, in different poems, a wide variety of people will be able to find an inroad to appreciation, or enjoyment, or whatever a person wants to get out of it.

Besides that, being an interviewer has just shown me that there are myriad ways to be interesting, and that being “literary” in the much-derided MFA mode isn’t the sole approach to art.

Based on your website, you seem very tech-savvy. Perhaps I am reading too closely into the relationship between internet culture and poetic form, but do you feel that the constant distractions, tidbits and fast pace of the internet age lend themselves to a more fragmented or free-verse style of poetry? Is there a place for form or narrative poetry in the 21st century?

The website, and the savviness it implies, is somewhat of a ruse—I don’t really know what I’m doing in the tech world, just enough to get by; I am, though, very interested in design, and I’ve had some wonderful people who’ve propped me up in this realm, most notable being Justin Runge, who designed Punchline’s cover, and from whose design I stole some of flashier elements of the website.

But to get to the real question, I worry a little about the relationship between the internet and poetry. The internet, as it’s called in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, is basically a “distraction machine,” and distraction isn’t the way to go about an art as fueled by focus as poetry—if you can’t pay attention, and sink yourself into a puzzle of understanding, poetry’s going to pose problems for you. So while I don’t know quite yet what the medium’s impact on form has been, I can guess that it may lead people into a quippier poetry that jumps from topic to topic, with only the most superficial, or Freudian, connections linking the work together.

I love many of the poets called “Neo-Surrealist,” but I think there may be some of this going on there—a love for the jump, for the unexpected transition, for the hyperlink-like surprise you can get when going from one line/image to the next—that circumvents a greater narrative, or “purpose” behind the work. This, along with a prioritization of “entertainment” over “wisdom,” I do think has led to some fragmentation in the poetry of today. Even if I personally don’t adhere much to narrative i.e. “characters and plot,” I do find much good in narrative i.e. “concept and argument,” and, like postmodern art that is driven more by the title or the artist’s explanation of the work than the substance of the work itself, I think we may be losing something.

As someone who is involved in so many disciplines – poetry, journalism, literature (Romanticism), technology, philosophy – do you foresee a movement away from specialization and into a new Renaissance of multi-genre intelligence? What role do you think interdisciplinary studies plays or should play in poetry?

I think interdisciplinary is where it’s at. I don’t know that we’ll have a wholesale movement away from specialization, because we live in a world/economy that often demands of us a very narrow expertise, but I find for myself a much greater satisfaction in diversification. There’s so much to study and experience, so why carve such a small niche? All the old school philosophers were people of many talents, being doctors, scientists, politicians, thinkers, farmers, artisans, whatever, and I do think we’ve given up some of that “worldliness within one’s own space”; this is why I am skeptical of educational paradigms that limit people’s abilities to take classes outside a “major”—there’s so much a sociologist could learn from a biologist, or a lit student could learn from an electrician, or a physicist could learn from a religious studies major, and on and on…

As for poetry, I feel the same way—we need it all. If I were a poet who only read poetry, what qualification would I have to make judgments about the world at large? “Creeds and schools in abeyance,” someone famous once said, and whatever you study most is your school. I am drawn to the writing that is drawn from the elements of the world both close and most distant from the style of that writing, and not just from one’s own graduate school bookshelf.

You recently published a poem in Permafrost in the summer of 2011 entitled “Holiday.” How would you say that this poem relates to the collection exhibited in Punchline?

Very much so, and in a different universe, “Holiday” would have been in the book. They were written as part of the same manic push of creation, but I saw “Holiday” as being very strong as an individual lyric, whereas much of the book relies on the relation between individual poems, very few of them having that big and bold “#1 single” feel to them. The book, as I see it, is not so much a collection of poems as it is one big statement, while “Holiday” is a statement of its own. Because of this, I think the specificity of place of “Holiday” would have felt odd in Punchline. That said, I really do love that poem because it has something different, something tight and direct that most of my work does not have.
There seems to be a theme in both “Holiday” and Punchline about the relationship of the silly or trivial to the divine. What role do you think humor plays in poetry? What role do you think the quotidian plays in poetry, philosophy, or the divine?

The quotidian is just as important as the maximal—they both seem to be part of one system, so I can’t with good conscience spiritually consider one to be of greater importance than the other. That’s Romanticism sneaking in there again…but I do see the small and the large to be, in a way, of one means and one end, even if we are laughably uncertain what those means and end are all about.

Humor is good times. For years I thought humor in poetry was a curséd, foolish thing, and that it was an affront to such a serious, damning art. Then I realized what a snobbish and nihilistic way of looking not just at art, but at the universe, that viewpoint was. So I think there’s funniness to be had, even if I think the typical “joke poem” often falls flat. I at one point thought Punchline was not funny at all, that it was in fact extremely unfunny due to the utter consequence of many of the philosophical meanderings it tackles, but the book eventually told me that that too was craziness, and that I myself needed to remember how ridiculous it is to try to figure out the meanings of our lives, how absurd it is to write a book, and how we should enjoy this magnificent, confounding playground we’ve been given.

Permafrost readers may remember Courtright from the poem “Holiday” published in volume 33 in summer 2011. Following close on the heels of this publication, Courtright’s “Punchline” (Cold Wake Press, 2012) does justice to Courtright’s penchant for philosophical poetry. In this book, as well as in “Holiday,” Courtright manages to balance witty anachronism, Romanticism, and comedy. These tensions are made explicit as his narratorial voice haggles with long-dead and living philosophers in the search for Truth. “Punchline” is smart and sassy in this search with its impeccable timing and timelessness.

The humor in the book is woven into every page. One of the highlights of “Punchline” is its sections organized by the tongue-in-cheek fragmented words of wisdom from various famous wise people such as Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Lorca. The section “…Invent the universe” is footnoted by such a quote:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first…”

~Carl Sagan, astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, author, and, apparently, baker, 1934-1996

As if this quote wasn’t humorously absurd on its own, as per usual Courtright isn’t using text just for laughs. This quote itself acts as a bridging poem which weaves together micro and macro themes of “Punchline” surrounding the section: for example, the poem “The Garden” alludes, obviously, to the Garden of Eden, referencing the “tearful rush of falling,/ and sing each of these seeds” which develop into that Fatal fruit of the tree of Knowledge. Furthering this apple metaphor, the poem “What I Have to Say To You” describes:

One apple who is just that,

core, seeds, stem, meat, skin, in many ways the apple

is us

causing the fall of us.

In addition to this small weaving of themes, the sections weave the book together in terms of the larger themes of the duality of “now” and “then,” the micro and the macro as one and the same, and the unspoken answer/question which echoes through every poem: “Why? Why.”

The title poem, occurring late in the book, teases the reader into thinking they are closing in on the answer to this question:

The Proof now

is the Proof then,

in the ringtones of college students, the darning

needles of grandmothers

and the lawnmowers and skillets of everyone in between. 

The duality of “now” and “then,” is the overarching theme which permeates “Punchline.” No time receives preferential treatment within the poem, as is evidenced by the ringtones of college students falling within the same line as “the darning,” and the same couplet as the “needles of grandmothers.” The use of “darning” broken up by a caesura is an apt choice in diction to interweave the two generations: darning is defined as both an act of weaving (creation), but also an act of mending the destroyed. The various objects in the stanza – ringtones, needles, lawnmowers and skillets – are all objects containing a potential for creation and a potential for destruction. A ringtone can initiate communication, but it can also disrupt it within the classroom setting (a fact Courtright is no doubt familiar with as a college-level instructor). Needles can puncture and needles can weave. Lawnmowers can cut and lawnmowers can maintain control of nature. Skillets can burn and skillets can cook. In all of this is “the Proof”… of what, exactly?

And

it’s in the punchline that is all our being and all our seeking –

these are

the roadsigns of proof, the victory of one definition

over others, the abstract

absurdity of living, here, wherever this is and why.

The movement from capitalized Proof in the first stanza to uncapitalized in the last stanza indicates a movement away from a sort of Romanticized notion of objective Truth, towards a realization of the “absurdity” of the idea of “one definition” for multifarious proofs and truths. By ending on “why” with a period rather than a question mark, the poem plays upon the certainty that every answer is only a question, and emphasizes the finality of the intrinsic impossibility of “knowing” anything.

The gestures Courtright makes towards truth or meaning become virga, dissipating before they can hit the mind. The bridge from Romanticism to modernity The Punchline seems to be that there is no Punchline, or multiple punchlines, because to assume that there is a Punchline would assume an overarching meaning. The tension lies between the emphasis upon the duality of Proof and proof, punchline and Punchline – which leaves the reader delightfully disturbed at the nihilistic absurdity of living.

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