Tryfon Tolides: an almost pure empty poetry

There are many reasons to respect the New Deal state, and many reasons to despise it. I’m afraid for the former, you’ll have to go elsewhere. For I am a hater.

(Recently I found myself, albeit in conversation with someone I dislike almost as much as the New Deal state, describing UR as a “neofascist hate blog.” I am not endorsing this label, of course. But I’m sure some would.)

It is impossible to count the New Deal’s crimes. The list must include everything short of mass murder. And even that is arguable. And what is crime, really, at the hands of the State? Is there really a higher law? Is the concept even meaningful? Who shall pass sentence?

So I hope you won’t accuse me of a failure of proportion when I say that, of all its crimes, the most despicable is the way the New Deal state seduced, devoured and destroyed the arts.

Conrad Roth and I have a little disagreement over the fate of the Western university. He believes that Western academic humanism, though definitely diseased, is not beyond repair. I believe that the entire Western university system needs to be crushed, broken, pulverized, autoclaved, autoclaved again, thermally depolymerized, mixed with radioactive strontium, and shot into the Sun. That is, if the Sun can handle it. If it starts developing huge festering brown spots after ten or twenty years, we’ll know we should have gone with the Oort Cloud instead.

Science, of course, cannot settle this debate. Mere anecdote is our only recourse. So please allow me to present: An Almost Pure Empty Walking, by one Tryfon Tolides.

Please do not click these links. There is nothing interesting behind them. Instead, let’s have a look at the cover of Mr. Tolides’ book:


Attractive, ain’t it?

I hasten to note that no one could possibly consider An Almost Pure Empty Walking a major work. In fact, it is unusually bad. But it is not atypically bad. And its badness has a kind of Platonic simplicity to it—an almost pure empty badness—that will help us, I feel, in the ugly work of diagnosis that lies ahead.

But do note that An Almost Pure Empty Walking comes to us from a major publisher, Penguin. Note also that it is a winner of the National Poetry Series, “selected by Mary Karr.”

What does this mean? We’ll see in a moment. But first, let’s dive right in, with a randomly (I swear to God) selected poem. From page 23:


Because of the morning bird singing, song will persist inside me. Because of the sound of traffic, I will always wonder, and I shall be troubled at what remains Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox, and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love.

What can one say about this poem? “Slowly, we turn toward love.” I feel this should be uttered with a rich, caressing NPR diction, as if one were, say, John Hockenberry. “This is John Hockenberry, for National Public Radio. Slowly, we turn toward love.”

As Mrs. Moldbug put it, “this is the kind of poem I was writing in 4th grade.” Let’s try another:


I pick strawberries in the garden. Three long rows behind the monastery, before the midday sun gets too hot. I set down a stool every few yards and reach out my hands, first for what is visible, then shake and lift the leaves for fruit and color. With a slight pull, I test each berry’s readiness for being plucked, having found my rhythm in the field. All morning I fill a blue crate, carry it to the refectory, then rest in my cell to the sound of cicadas and flies through the open window. The evening dessert is red glistening strawberries, piled onto shining metal plates, next to glasses of wine, vases of water, whole tomatoes, bean soup, fresh bread, olives: others’ work, all set on a common table. Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean ripples with infinite small lights, the trees of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night. Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.

“It is no mystery, seeing.” But this poem, while certainly no less banal, is at least longer. And we can start to see some of the gears inside the Tolides poetry juggernaut.

First, obviously, the author is Greek. As such he gets to write about Greek stuff. Greekitude. Mrs. Moldbug, proud holder of an MFA from this institution, has a good term: “race opera.” While Dienekes and Arthur Kemp may still be debating the eternal question of whether Greeks are white (and what about Eyetalians?), Tolides delivers a resounding vote for the negative.

Imagine if you were from Virginia, and you wrote a poem in this style about climbing Stone Mountain. Or about your plebe year at VMI—before it was girlified. (Unlike Mount Athos.) Now that would be some real “race opera.” But somehow I doubt Penguin would print it.

As a kid I lived in Cyprus for a couple of years, and let me tell you—Greek nationalism is the worst. It’s a serious plague. For example, in one of the main squares of Nicosia, there’s a statue which depicts a man throwing a handgrenade. The man is EOKA terrorist Markos Drakos, and while I can’t find a reference for this online, I was told that the target of his grenade was a schoolbus full of British children. Certainly not shocking by EOKA standards.

Besides sheer Balkan nastiness, the ugly nature of Greek nationalism probably has a lot to do with its roots in the 1820s. This was the first major outbreak of romantic nationalism after the Napoleonic wars, attracting the support of proto-Che Guevara types like Byron (who it killed) and Shelley (who it probably should have killed). All the outlines of modern Third World anticolonialism are visible in this conflict, which lost none of its demonic energy over the next 150 years. The Greeks do seem to have chilled out a little lately, but who knows? It was Orwell who told us to “trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek,” and I certainly see no reason to contradict him. (Snakes, in fact, are quite trustworthy.)

Anyway. This is a poetry review, not another racist rant. My point is that Arendt really was onto something when she drew that link between banality and evil. Tolides, with his mild Greek race-opera ethnokitsch, certainly does not intend the reader to free-associate in the direction of hand-grenades and schoolbuses. But if he was German rather than Greek, would he go there? Would he wax all dreamy about the Teutoburger Wald? Somehow I doubt it. And if I was in the room, I would tell him to stop. That makes one of us who treats all cultures as equal, and it ain’t him.

But let’s get back to the poem. Note that “From Mount Athos” has three clear parts. Part three is the last two lines. Part two is the four lines before those. Part one is everything else.

Try a little experiment, and see what the poem looks like with just parts one and two. Scroll back up and put your finger over the screen, or something, to cover the last two lines.

It’s better, isn’t it? It’s definitely better. That little cringe moment has been removed. And now the poem is just…

Well, it’s just empty. It really is a pure empty poetry. It has no content at all. All that’s left is a kind of greeting-card prettiness. Our speaker is an American tourist on vacation. He has gone to stay at a monastery and spend a day as an ersatz, Marie-Antoinette farmworker. Everything feels fresh, new and real to him, just as it probably did to Marie Antoinette, when she was milking those cows in the stable at Versailles. Anyone can have the same experience as our speaker, unless of course anyone is a woman. In which case she can just rent a basket at Knott’s Berry Farm, or something.

Have you ever been in a traditional Middle American home? The kind that might have, say, a crocheted angel in the bathroom? And a lot of oak, and maybe some Hummel figurines?

To you, it might feel stifling, tacky, and a little frightening. But to whoever lives there, it feels comfortable and safe and, most of all, meaningful. Which is why they decorated their house that way. No one engaged in kitsch thinks of it as kitsch. It is always profound and true.

Perhaps you have had the misfortune to attend a poetry reading. At least in many places, such as Berkeley, there is a sort of convention for those in the audience who feel moved by a poem. One does not clap (except at the end). But one can make a sort of noise that is somewhere between “oh,” “ah,” a sigh, and just an especially loud breath. “Ah, that was so nice,” is the canonical response. (I myself often feel this way after an intense bowel movement.)

The type of poetry that Tolides writes—comprising at least 90% of the vast colonic output of the US poetry industry, the other 9.9% finding some completely different road to awfulness—is essentially the crocheted angel or Hummel figurine for the NPR market. (Note that NPR’s ratings are skyrocketing.)

To the discerning UR reader, it may read as banal. But the UR reader is a very special cat. He or she is someone who understands Universalism enough to reject it. Perhaps you didn’t, like me, grow up listening to NPR, but you surely have felt the call at one point or another.

Do you ever go to Starbucks? Perhaps you’ve seen the banal little messages they print on their coffee cups. Every last one of them is pure, orthodox Universalism. If I was still in college, I’d probably be trying to figure out how to make a batch of Starbucks cups that say

Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian. —George Orwell

and slip them in behind the register. But sadly, I am now too mature for this.

Mrs. Moldbug once explained a terribly useful concept to me: the idea of Seventeen magazine. The point of Seventeen is that it’s not for 17-year-olds. It’s for 14-year-olds. As they say in the marketing department, it’s aspirational.

Starbucks, similarly, is aspirational. If you’re anyone who’s anyone and you live in San Francisco or Berkeley, you will not set foot inside a Starbucks. (I once had this horrible fat hippie woman tell me this at a party. She was boasting that never once, in her entire life, had she patronized Starbucks. I couldn’t help but be impressed.) No, if you are a proper Bay Area Brahmin, you go to Peet’s, which costs about 10% more and really does have better coffee. Or, better yet, you go to an actual independent local cafe, which certainly sells “fair-trade” coffee and probably has some kind of Communist revolutionary theme. (My first date with Mrs. Moldbug was at the now-deceased Cafe Macondo, which was basically a shrine to Patrice Lumumba.)

The point of Starbucks is that it allows an enormous slice of America, a slice certainly far bigger than the 20% or so who can actually claim to be Brahmins, to feel like they are part of the ruling class for 15 minutes or so. Perhaps it is different in Omaha, but what you see when you go into a Starbucks in SF is Vaisyas, Vaisyas, Vaisyas. Good ordinary people, who get to pay $3 for a pretty good coffee, and feel like they went to Harvard and work for a nonprofit.

And this, in a very similar sense, is the point of “almost pure empty poetry.” The goal of the poem is to make the reader feel like a person who reads poetry. The “ah” is an essentially narcissistic vibration. It says, “ah, yes, me. I have just listened to and enjoyed a poem. I am the sort of person who listens to and enjoys poetry.”

The tactics by which the almost-pure-empty poem achieves this effect are also fascinating. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the entire school is derivative of this one poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams was certainly a great and The Red Wheelbarrow is not at all unworthy of the attention it has received. But this note has been replayed so often that it’s about as easy to appreciate in a pure aesthetic sense as, say, Norwegian Wood.

The problem of the almost-pure-empty poem is simple. Its goal is to express a thought which is banal and sentimental, but still feels somehow slightly fresh. Its method is to remove almost all content from the verse, leaving just enough to suggest some banal, sentimental Universalist thought to a reader who, being trained in the art of reading and enjoying almost-pure-empty poetry, can insert it without the feeling of being forced to do so.

Let’s revisit “From Mount Athos” one more time, and see how this trick works. This time, remove not just part three, but also part two—i.e., the last six lines.

The result is completely flat and content-free. It does nothing at all. It doesn’t even begin to work. It is not almost-pure-empty or even pure-empty, it is just empty. It’s like someone’s vacation email got screwed up by a Greek ISP and acquired a few extra line feeds.

As we’ve seen, the best version of the poem (still not very good, even for almost-pure-empty poetry) removes the unintentionally hilarious part three, but keeps this:

Afterward, from high on the balcony, the Aegean ripples with infinite small lights, the trees of the mountain move like the sea, the air brings a mixed scent of pine and iodine and night.

Now, is this good? I’m not sure I would go that far. But it is serviceable. As the poetic hook for an almost-pure-empty poem, it will do. It conveys a vague sensation of languorous, melancholy tourism, perhaps mixed with an ouzo or three. Pretty much how everyone wants to feel on their Greek vacation. (Note that that the speaker is alone, on his balcony, with the Aegean, and the pine, and the night. I.e., there are no yelling purse-snatchers on mopeds. No six-year-old Gypsy pickpockets. No one is even trying to sell him anything. He is just sitting there, with his ouzo, contemplating the delightful vision of a Greece without Greeks.)

But part three pushes it too far. It is, frankly, amateurish. It supplies the actual thought, which is just as banal and sentimental as you’d expect. We’d do far better to pile Pelion on Ossa, and graft it onto “The Tree”:


Because of the morning bird singing, song will persist inside me. Because of the sound of traffic, I will always wonder, and I shall be troubled at what remains Unknown. But I shall hope. And because of the mailbox, and the road, and the tree. It is hard to despair because of the tree. Slowly, we turn toward love. Beauty is more evident in this quiet. You see it through a clearing inside yourself. It is no mystery, seeing.

Now that is a poem. “It is no mystery, seeing.” I think I speak for all when I say, “ah.”

But forgetting the banality of evil for a moment, it’s pretty hard for anything in the verse department to match the banality of blurb. It’s not quite readable in the GIF I made, so here’s what’s on the back cover:

In his debut collection, chosen by Mary Karr as a winner of the 2005 National Poetry Series, Tryfon Tolides weaves together poems that speak of desire, loss, and small boys. Tolides was born in a tiny village in Greece and his work is rooted in the mountains and the wind and the deep interior of that place; his poems express a longing and a searching for peace, for home, for beauty, for escape. These poems constitute a lament, whether they concern themselves with the difficulties of assimilation or the question of whether it is possible for people to live with another in a spirit of true understanding. They prove that the physical and the metaphysical can share residence, can even be one and the same.

Okay, it’s “small joys,” not “small boys.” I just felt I had to add something to get you through that. You might think that Tolides can’t be blamed for the blurb, since it is the publisher’s responsibility, but in fact he almost certainly wrote it himself. If he didn’t, he certainly had signoff. Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t it just the most awful thing?

And what is this “chosen by Mary Karr?” Again? Well, here is the interesting part. Inside the book, we see the usual acknowledgment page, on which is written:

Thanks to my teachers: Edward Ifkovic, Steve Straight, Elizabeth Cooke, Alice Bloom, Wes McNair, Dan Gunn, Pat O’Donnel, Brooks Haxton, Michael Burkard, Bob Gates, and Mary Karr.

This man has had more poetry teachers than some of us have had sex partners. (Hopefully this list does not overlap.) On the previous page, we see what they say about him:

“Because he sees with the humility of a searching heart, on the path to the spring in the village where he was born, on his pizza delivery route in small-town USA, Tryfon Tolides sees us as we are, as souls on pilgrimage to the world. The depth of this attention makes his poems not just confessions of the skill of his extraordinary mind, but revelations of the consequence of being.”

Brooks Haxton

Revelations of the consequence of being! And I like “souls on pilgrimage to the world,” as well. You don’t get more Universalist Starbucks-motto than this.

“How he surprises us—this young Greek poet—again and again in these brilliant, Chaplinesque, Zen-soaked, Vermeer-like cameos, craftily echoing Cavafy and William Carlos Williams and Gilbert and others. In the things of this world, which we so often fail to notice, Tolides finds worlds within words, pulling them out of his gypsy bag and holding them up to the light like the tiny diamonds they are, one after the other: the door, the dogs, the barbed wire fence, the dying mother, the holy air. This is his first book and already he has managed to stake out himself—and for us—a brand new, ancient, brave new world.”

Paul Mariani

Mariani is not listed as a teacher of Tolides. He is probably a teacher of one of the teachers—a sort of capo di tutti capi. I think I have his Hart Crane biography somewhere. I’ll have to make sure I get it out of the house, before it breeds.

And then, of course:

“Tryfon Tolides has followed the territory set out in his native Greece by C. P. Cavafy and later followed (in geography and sensibility) by Jack Gilbert. But Tolides trades the darkness of those poets for a more illuminated grandeur. Tolides is the shaman of epiphany. He makes for his reader keen and particular moments of revelation seized from his fierce and fleshly occupancy on the planet. In the wide-eyed consolation these poems offer up, the starlight they emit, he conjures Tomas Tranströmer and other poets of profound spiritual power. At a time when the planet is in flames, he gives being human a good name.”

Mary Karr

Here at UR, we do our damnedest to give being human a bad name. But one must sometimes emit a little starlight, and I do have to marvel at the gall of mentioning Cavafy in the same breath as this two-bit hack, this perma-student, this droning and gelatinous bore. (Yes, the poems I have quoted really are typical. Here is another one. I’m afraid I can indeed think of “something after that.” Maybe it should be the Oort Cloud, after all—you can’t be too safe.)

However, this is not the limit of Ms. Karr’s gall. Because what has she done? Serving as a judge, or at least meta-judge (I’m sure she did not actually comb through the slushpile herself), in a contest open to the public with a $30 submission fee, receiving God only knows how many entries, from aspiring poets all over America if not the world, men and women who slaved over their little precious gems, most of which I’m sure were awful, many of which I’m sure were quite a bit more competent than “The Tree,” she has cut the Gordian knot by selecting one of her own students.

Believe it or not, this is actually quite a common practice. (Indeed, Tolides and Karr were officially nailed on this very site.) I’m sure that in the last year or two, if nothing else as the result of the Times story, some rules have been revised.

But this is a little like finding a pubic hair in your soup. “Waiter,” you say, “there’s a pube in my soup.” Your waiter comes over and inspects. “Indeed,” he says. And fishes out the hair. “Sorry about that. Enjoy your meal, folks.”

Note that there is absolutely no shame in the way Karr, Tolides or Penguin handled this blatant conflict of interest. Deleting Karr’s name from the acknowledgments would have been trivial. If it wasn’t done, it was only because no one thought they were doing anything wrong.

How do you think moral compromise happens? Sometimes one person decides to do something appallingly, flagrantly corrupt. (Note how well the corruption of poetry fits my general theory—the National Poetry Series is, indeed, not what it appears to be.) But more often, what happens is a general decline in ethical standards across an entire field of human endeavor. Typically driven by a “race to the bottom” in which only the unscrupulous survive.

Now we can fit our pieces together, and look at how the New Deal destroyed poetry.

Poetry is an industry. It has always been an industry. It is something that people do. Writing poetry is work. You may be paid for this work in money, or you may be paid in the esteem of your peers, or you may be paid only in your own satisfaction. But you are paid.

Before the New Deal, poets were paid either in the esteem of their peers, or in book royalties. To say that poetry as a consumer business worked perfectly would be wrong. For most of the 19th century, the public’s taste in verse was—at least by my standards—lamentable. Your mileage may vary, but I am simply unable to process any poetry written in the 19th century, except for freaks like Emily Dickinson. When I look at, say, James Russell Lowell or Tennyson or even Swinburne, I wonder how anyone slogged through this kitsch, these dreadful archaisms and Romantic artifice. (Of course, I’m quite confident that future generations will think the same of our NPR banalities, race-opera and refried surrealism.)

Certainly the best poetry of the 20th century was written from the ’20s through the mid-’60s. These poets—I am particularly fond of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, etc.—sometimes did reasonably well in the sales department, but they were invariably of a highly critical and negative disposition, and peer esteem was their real currency.

In the ’60s, though, something awful happened. Poetry became a Federal jobs program. To use the terminology from my theory of corruption, it became a form of edupatronage.

The great disaster was the enormous expansion of higher education in the ’60s and ’70s. There is a reason so many college campuses have that abominable Brutalist architecture. Almost everyone who went through this gigantic, state-sponsored indoctrination machine had no reason at all to be there (please allow me to introduce you to Albert Jay Nock). They were there to be promoted in social class, perhaps also to avoid the draft. They were certainly not acquiring either vocational skills or wisdom and perspective. And nor are they still—certain areas of science and engineering, of course, excepted.

The overwhelming force behind this expansion was a massive injection of Federal subsidies. (Of course this was the Great Society rather than the New Deal proper—I hope you’ll excuse me for seeing the whole as a single, gigantic, 75-year-old octopus.) Education, for New Deal Democrats, is just like immigration—a way of making more Democrats. Of course, no one thinks of it this way, but the machine works whatever its parts are thinking.

Here is the way poetry works now. The business is teaching. The currency is the book. Now that Tryfon Tolides has a book, and one published by Penguin at that (rather than, say, Dirt River Press), he can get a teaching job. His teacher, Karr, has “made” him. Just like Christopher Moltesanti.

(Hardly anyone will buy Tolides’ book, for obvious reasons, but this does not matter at all. Except for Billy Collins, Jewel, etc., poetry is not an economically significant arm of the publishing industry. Major publishers, like Penguin, continue to produce it only because they would lose prestige if they shut it down. Poetry is like short stories—the only people who read it are people who write it.)

When I say “teaching job,” of course I don’t mean eighth grade. With a Penguin book, Tolides is qualified to teach creative writing anywhere that has an opening. Of course openings are scarce these days, because everyone with an IQ over 95 is going to college and the system simply cannot be expanded. The glory days of wild metastatic growth are long gone. The university is assuming its grim, Brezhnevian mature form.

And what has entirely disappeared, as the quotes above should make quite clear, is any sense of a mutually critical aristocratic elite. Instead, one ascends in the poetry world exactly the same way that one ascended in the Soviet intelligence services: by joining the right clique and remaining loyal to it. It is a pure pyramidal patronage system.

There is not even a concept of what it would mean to “succeed” outside this system. There is simply no independent pool of taste. There is only a vast river of books released by an endless stream of careerists. A consumer, even if he or she has the best taste in the world, will never, ever be able to filter this Ganges. Which is exactly why no one reads poetry anymore.

And worse, what these careerists seek is not even good filthy money. Teaching poetry is an abominable career. Unless you are ridiculously lucky, your students are subhuman morons, your pay is laughable, your prospect of tenure is nonexistent.

However, you are paid with something that no money can buy, the social status of poet. And no one—and I mean no one—in the world looks down on a “published poet.” Whether it’s men, women, poetry teachers, sheep or little Greek boys he prefers, Tryfon Tolides will always be able to get laid.

What a pathetic and contemptible system! These people are nothing but bureaucrats. And the situation is only getting worse. It’s no surprise that degenerate tropes such as race opera, let alone these greeting-card banalities, flourish in the horrid Petri dish of the modern university. It is tailor-made for virulent Universalism of every sort. The more fanatical and banal your doggerel is, the easier it is to form alliances with other writers of banal, fanatical doggerel.

The blurbs I copied above remind me of nothing so much as the efficiency reports my father used to bring home from the State Department. Every one, if you read them literally, as if they just said what they meant in English, praised him as a sort of low-level Napoleon, a paragon of energy, discipline and effectiveness. Perhaps next year they would make him President, or at least a deputy secretary?

Then he would show me where the report was actually trying to rip him a new asshole, and ensure that he never got promoted ever again. Everyone’s efficiency report looks like one of these blurbs. But those who know could tell the difference. I wonder if the same is true in the poetry world. Perhaps if Paul Mariani hadn’t spent ten minutes curled up on the floor, just dying, shaking with massive spasms of uncontrollable hilarity, after reading “The Tree,” he would have compared Tolides to Rembrandt or Michelangelo, instead of just Vermeer, and got him in as an adjunct at a good state college, none of this “community” crap.

And this is why no one even thought of thinking that it might look bad for Karr to select Tolides, and Tolides to thank Karr. It’s because complaining about conflicts of interests in the poetry industry is like complaining about salacious language in a whorehouse. The entire industry is one giant conflict of interest—a classic self-licking ice-cream cone.

To be precise, the interest it serves is its own, and the interests it conflicts with are everyone else’s. Because not even the students are served. Those who lack the talent to write poetry, which is of course almost all of them, are wasting at the very least their time and very likely a good bit of money as well. No one ever tells them this—it would be considered unethical. And as for those who do have talent, picture them instructed by one of these bloviating quacks, these bureaucrats of love, these revealers of the consequence of being.

No. I’m definitely thinking Oort Cloud here. We really can’t be too sure.