April 12, 2016

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

National Poetry Month 2013: Dennis Kirschbaum & The Useless Machine

Poet Dennis Kirschbaum won the "Most Viewed Post" prize for his 2012 National Poetry Month treatise ("treat us?") on writer's block.

Today, Dennis is back and ready to take on the TechnoVerse. I'll just step out of his way...

The Useless Machine

Every age has its idols. Ours is the idolatry of the useful. Oscar Wilde said, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” By this standard, civilization has become unforgivable. We do not merely admire that which is useful, we worship it.

Take a look at the modern kitchen. How many useful gadgets to be found there? Coffee makers that grind beans make cappuccino and froth milk at a pre-set time. Microwave ovens know exactly how long to nuke a potato. It goes without saying that most people no longer know how to cook. We defrost, open packages and jars, we call for delivery. Coming soon: Refrigerators that know when you are running low on milk and add it to your shopping list or perhaps just order it directly from the internet. We could, of course, walk though every place in the house, every part of our lives identifying useful things.

Men’s pockets have always been the dominion of the useful. The number of pockets routinely included in our clothes is one of the two truly great things about having been born a male. A man who wears a suit to work could easily have seven or more pockets at his disposal and these days, I need every one of them. Wallet, keys, coin, comb (for a while yet anyway), pens, and a Smartphone. 

Yes, that’s right, that most useful of all objects, the Smartphone. Mine (an iPhone) holds my calendar and address book, more books than I could read in a lifetime, photos of my friends and family, everything good or bad that I have written in the last five years, music and movies, and an app on which I can check off how much I have gotten done (i.e. how useful I have been) today.

This is, of course, the measuring stick of a person’s importance in the 21st century. It is no longer, how physically attractive we are, not what kind of car we drive, or how much money we have. The new gold standard for success is that we live, in the words of the title of a bestselling self-improvement book, a purpose driven life.

The Purpose Driven Life has its own website!
The Chief Rabbi of the Untied Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks defines happiness as the confluence of three things: something to do, someone to love, something to look forward to. This is an attractive definition because it seems true and is so simple but note what is first on the list. Something to do. In other words, to be happy, Sacks claims, person needs a purpose, some way of being useful to others.

I am not against being useful. Being useful has, well, its uses. Without useful people, we’d have no teachers, no plumbers, no electricians. There’d be no one to deliver the very useful newspaper, pick fruits and vegetables, clean buildings, or secure food and prepare meals. Yet there is something to be said for the useless.

I enjoy a fascination with antiquated office technology. Stuff that was once useful but is, for the most part, now out-moded. I have a Model B Bates Stapler circa 1936 that makes its own staples from a spool of brass wire that still works well and is in daily use on my desk. Fountain pens, can of course, still be used, but what a pain! Cleaning them, filling them, blotting the wet ink on the paper after writing! It is almost impossible to fill a fountain pen with ink without getting at least some ink on your hands and very often your clothes. I use a fountain pen.

Model B Bates Stapler from OfficeMuseum.Com
For the most part, however, the items in my collection share two characteristics. They still work perfectly and are now virtually useless. My 1941 Royal Typewriter, my Dad’s Pickett Slide Rule, an old film camera, a package of carbon paper, all as functional as the day they were made but so cumbersome and inefficient in comparison to the technology of today that they are relegated to a role in which their sole purpose is to be admired. They are useless. In other words, they have become art, which is to say for the most part, they have been forsaken.

Who has time for art, for the useless? In our rush to embrace purpose, we have forgotten pure beauty, the loveliness that comes with being useless. And yet, somewhere deep in its depths, the human soul longs for the useless. And it may not be buried quite as deep as we think.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal documented the quiet return of an object that first debuted in the 1950. Dubbed, “The Useless Machine” it is a device that has no purpose other that to turn itself off after a person has turned it on. 

According to the article, Coca-Cola repair man, Brett Coulthard, of Saskatchewan saw a video of the machine and knew that he had to build one for himself. Perhaps even more remarkable, he thought there might be a market among the like minded and he began selling kits for others who wanted to build a Useless Machine. If you don’t need a kit, but want to build one on your own, Mr. Coulthard will give you the plans for free! Could such a venture be successful? Let’s just say that Mr. Coulthard no longer repairs Coca-cola machines.

That such a venture could be commercially viable I found it at least somewhat surprising. Why? Because though there is a part of the human spirit that is drawn to the useless, we are rarely willing to pay for it. Which brings me to poetry, arguable the most useless of all the useless arts. Poetry is utterly useless.

Generally, how useful something is directly proportional to how many people are willing to pay for it. Cars? Computers? Useful. Many are willing to pay for them. A house? Really useful. Lots of people own houses. (Glass houses less so in our stone throwing society and you see far fewer of them.)

Of the arts, music is somewhat useful for the pleasure it gives, movies for their entertainment value. Paintings can set a mode or a tone or can be purchased for the sole purpose of matching the color scheme of the sofa. Fairly useful. Creative writing, perhaps less useful. Most modern novels are read and toss. Anything older than 6 months sells for a few dollars used on Amazon. Finally, least useful of the useless – poetry.  It is telling, that virtually no one supports him or herself by exclusively writing poetry. Even our most widely known poets, mostly also worked as college professors or in more useful occupations. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. His friend Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company.

This plaque is still at a New Jersey hospital.
 Last year I attended an event at a major DC venue where Billy Collins and Mary Oliver both read from their work. These two juggernauts of poesy were able to gather a nice crowd though the hall was far from sold out as it was when I saw singer-songwriter Randy Newman perform there the year before. But as Collins himself pointed out nearly everyone in the audience was a writer of poetry or at least a writer. Except for people who write poetry, most people just have no use for it. When I told my non-poetry writing friends whom I had seen, most of them gave me blank stares. They had no idea who these writers were. Consider that these are the two most famous living poets working in America today! Try this: ask any friend who is not a professor of literature or a poetry writer to name a living American poet. My experience is that most can’t name a one. In all likelihood many folks can’t even name dead one.

Reading or hearing poetry won’t help you earn more money. It won’t organize your day. It won’t prepare a meal or make a hotel reservation. Rather than make your life easier in any way, poetry actually makes your life harder. It is impertinent, intemperate. It makes demands. It requires you to bring yourself, to complete it, to change, to wonder. It may delight, amuse, or even irritate but ultimately it is like the machine that serves no useful purpose.

So what is the point of art in general or poetry in particular? Or is there a point? Alas, it is another sign of our era that we even dare to ask such a question. Only in the 21st Century is useless synonymous with pointless. You may as well ask, what is the point of a flower? What is the point of a rock. Or love?

We create art specifically to remind us that not everything must be useful. Form need not follow function. The only point of art is to connect us more fully with our humanity and to express the beauty and existential uselessness of the human condition.

As Wilde concluded in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”

Here is a useless persona poem in which I attempted to channel my inner Wilde.
Holloway Prison, where Oscar Wilde was jailed for indecency.
After Reading Gaol

Prosperity, pleasure, and success may be rough of grain and common in fibre, but sorrow is the most sensitive of all created things…Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.
–Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

There are two kinds of gaols.
There is the gaol without and the gaol within.
One confines the body; the other contains the soul.

I believed beauty was an indulgence,
the satisfaction of appetite: a buttonhole of Parma violets,
a handsome young man to be entertained,
a hundred neatly rolled cigarettes from the tobacconist,
my name inscribed on each in gold ink.

Ugliness was something to be hidden and locked away
like a simple woman or a portrait growing loathsome
in a schoolroom at the top of the stairs.
Art was reality. Life, mere fiction.

I finally understand that beauty is a raw thing
and the edges of love are jagged and sharp.
If those two years at Reading
taught me anything it was this:

A bouquet of rotten fruit can smell like heaven.
A cold, wet morning may warm one’s heart.
Only in loneliness are the seeds of repose.

There is beauty in the bud
and the impulse that causes it to open
must diminish it.

by Dennis Kirschbaum
Posted with permission of the author. Watch Dennis read a poem here!

Author Photo.jpegDennis M. Kirschbaum grew up in Baltimore. He has a B.A. in English from Guilford College and an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Baltimore Hebrew University. He is an Associate Vice President at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and an Adirondack 46er, having climbed to the summit of the highest mountains in New York State.  His poetry chapbook, Clattering East will be published by Finishing Line Press later this year. He lives and writes in Washington Grove, Md.

Dennis, I think many of us feel--from time to time--that technology is "A bouquet of rotten fruit [that] can smell like heaven."

Tomorrow, poet Regina Sokas explores the global connections the TechnoVerse offers. Regina is compiling a book of found poems, composed from newspaper articles and columns written by her late brother.


Linda B said...

It's difficult to share a comment, because your writing demands a conversation instead of a few words of response. I enjoyed the argument for uselessness as we move further into the century of needing to have usefulness. I also thought of the social response that you didn't write, concerning people who are no longer, or have never been, useful. To be in the moment with the flower is often ridiculed, isn't it? Yet I am still happy there are poets in our world. Thank you for all you shared today!

Matt Forrest Esenwine said...

Terrific post, Laura! Ultimately, there is beauty - and usefulness - in everything, although not everything is beautiful and useful to everyone. Poetry may be useless to the vast majority of this planet's life forms, but fortunately it IS useful to enough of us that hopefully it will continue to exist...even if it turns itself off after we're done with it.

Unknown said...

Beautiful essay Dennis and beautiful poem. I am left thinking about how"use" is defined by our goal. I find myself preparing to welcome a child into this world and how how my days of multitasking are over, or at least heavily reduced. When I go to the park with my dog, I challenge myself to just "be" with my dog instead of maximizing my time there and (also making a phone call). The phone often wins, but when my goal switches to be less industrious and more "present", the "use" of my time becomes about accepting my current moment, which I often fail to do when I choose multitasking. And...(I know I am taking a really long route to my point, but I do have one) Studies show there is a cost to multitasking, and a cost to always trying to be useful. The key word here is 'trying'. As I put on my life coach hat, I often ask my clients, how do you want to 'feel' as you set and accomplish your goals, rather than simply, 'what' do you want to accomplish. One question may seem less useful, but in the end, I think it brings us far more purpose in our life.

Thanks for sharing your beautiful writing.

Rachel Hall

Henry said...

I'm writing this comment on a machine. One that forbids the writing of non-company related information. But we do it anyway. We write emails, we Google for answers, we troll the headlines. And sometimes look at poetry. Sometimes, dare I say, we write it. I don't know how this particular machine feels about poetry. Maybe somewhere in its silicone soul it feels the tinge I felt last night sharing Frost's "Out Out" with a friend who'd never seen it. Maybe there's a rogue bit that squirms a little.

Leah Johnson said...

Dennis- Thank you for a wonderful, thought-provoking post. I'll bet Whitman would join you in celebrating uselessness. As I was reading, I remembered Jackson Pollock's response to a query about when he knew he was finished with a painting: "How do you know when you're finished making love?"

Author Amok said...

Hi, Linda. I was just telling Dennis what a brilliant essayist he is. I'm glad to have at least one skeptic joining us in the TechnoVerse.

You're right. Being in the moment with the flower is ridiculed, but more in Western culture than in the East -- maybe why so many of us are curious about Zen and yogic practices.

Author Amok said...

Matt -- all kudos go to Dennis. He wouldn't even tell me his topic until the post arrived in my in-box. I agree, every morsel has a kind of beauty. (Have I ever mentioned that I love insects? Fascinating beings.) Maybe poetry is useful as a reminder that each of the planet's life forms are deserving of focused attention.

Author Amok said...

Hi, Rachel. Thank you for the comment. A friend of mine was just telling me about that study on multi-tasking. Researchers found that focused activity was more productive for the brain. Once again, I think of zen practice, focusing the mind on one task at a time, even if that task is breathing.

Unknown said...

Dennis, this is beautiful --- and beautifully written --- and helped me slow down a bit to appreciate all that is "useless" in my life. It reminded me also of what that great poet, William F Buckley, wrote when asked to describe his favorite peanut butter: "I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as Skippy."

Unknown said...

This gave me lots to think about, and that, quite truthfully, has been quite useful. Jennifer