Pop Sugar Reading Challenge 2016: Transcendental Studies ( + HOWL)

Poetry is one of those pretentious things we like to pretend we enjoy until we actually engage in it. Some is very good. Some… we pretend it is. I present two poetry books, which incidentally fit into two categories on my reading list. Let’s knock these bitches out.

Transcendental Studies by Keith Waldrop


Keith Waldrop is considered a brilliant avant-garde poet of the modern era. Reading his stuff and understanding how he writes, it’s easy to see he has skills with words and imagery. Unfortunately, the book Transcendental Studies is a complete waste of time.

Finishing the first part, I. Shipwreck in Haven, I had no clue what was going on. It was just words to me, and it didn’t really make sense. I studied poetry in school, I’ve written some that has received some good response. So, to a degree, I get poetry. But, I just didn’t get this. Why?

I took to Google, and I learned why: Because there is absolutely no God damn point. In his own words, Keith Waldrop says:

What I write down is a kind of script for something that sounds. I find people often don’t read it that way. They have a hard time translating from lines on a page to. . .part of this is the way poetry is taught in schools and such. You get a poem and you’re supposed to figure out what it means. Once you know what it means, you throw the poem away because you have the meaning. That is the destruction of poetry. I want the words to remain and if people don’t know the meaning of them I don’t think that’s as bad as losing the sound.

–¬†Keith Waldrop, March 2010

Okay… so the words don’t mean anything per se, but their sounds are what matters. Creating a tapestry of linguistics. Sure. I buy that. It is a bit annoying, I guess, but it is experimental poetry. Let’s roll with that.

Then, in that same article, Keith Waldrop proves he really doesn’t give a shit about art; he just wants to make things, no matter their value.

I put three books in front of me, all prose, a novel, then something psychological, then whatever I happened to have around. I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five six lines. Once I had that I’d make more stanzas of the same number of lines, and when that gave out, after a page or two, I’d say alright I have this poem now and I would take it to the typewriter and type it up and in doing so I would rearrange the stanzas alphabetically.

This is where I lost any semblance of respect for Waldrop as an author. Later in the article, he notes that he instructs translators to do the same thing. If you know a thing or two about other languages, you can understand and appreciate how much this fucks up the concept of a poem. “With” in English is “Avec” in French, “Con” in Spanish, and “Mit” in German. In all three translations, the placing of a stanza starting with “With” moves dramatically across the poem.

This is where I become extremely bothered by the non-art movement. I may come off as a classicist, but I respect contributions that move art beyond the old contrivances. I think ABAB poetry has probably been fully explored and realized, and I find value in free verse, but this – this is spray painting random dots on a wall and calling it art. Quite literally, anyone can do this. Computers do this now. When I was unemployed, I had to write articles that were clearly defined paragraphs, all self-contained. I was paid to write these articles, generic as can be, and then, they went into a machine where they paragraphs were re-arranged as many times as possible. A 5-paragraph article I wrote would generate dozens of articles with the same content, re-arranged. Look around the web, and you will see these.

What irks me about this style of poetry is it takes out the effort of creation and art. Today, there is so much content that can entertain us. Like to read? Check out Kindle Unlimited, Smashwords, your local library, and a myriad of other smaller sites. You’ll have more cheap or free books than you can understand. Like music? TONS of services exist to stream them to you for cheap. Same with movies. Same with TV.

We are no longer at a drought of content; we are in a massive surplus. But that shouldn’t ever stop new writers, painters, musicians, speakers, and animators from creating more. If anything it should inspire you to find new avenues. My novel, for example, isn’t a new concept or anything. I’ve even seen books come out that are far successful than my own that are scary close to my own ideas. And that doesn’t matter. Every voice will be different. It used to be that we hoped for a book that would answer everything for us; like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since Douglas Adams and Terry Prachett have died, we have been longing to fill those gaps. Now, there are tons of people like those in other genres and examples.

Transcendental Studies takes all the pride artists should have. By making something so utterly devoid of artist merit, by his own words at least, Waldrop has devalued the power and value of poetry. This is not how to contribute to the culture; this is how you retain the old system of publishers saying what has merit rather than letting the consumers enjoy everything and filter things out themselves.

Maybe it just isn’t my thing.

0/5 – This book has no merit and nothing was really gained from this experience.


Fortunately, I had another poetry book that worked out a lot better for me.

HOWL – Allen Ginsberg and Eric Drooker


Howl is a ground-breaking poem by American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I am not using the term ground-breaking lightly; the guy straight up changed how obscenity laws work in terms of art. Ginsberg was ballsy as Hell. He wrote a poem that covered sexual acts, many of which were illegal due to sodomy laws, and ousted himself as a homosexual in a time when that was grounds to blacklist him.

He didn’t care; he proved through his experiences and life that he was just really into pushing away the concept of censorship in favor of artistic freedom. That’s a rare act for a literary figure, and he stuck to his guns despite threats of losing his job and livelihood and possibly freedom.

Howl shows what true art can do: it contributes to the cultural vocabulary and arms us all with the ability to combat attacks on our freedom, thoughts, and beliefs. I am a strong advocate doing whatever you want as long as you don’t trod on someone else’s freedom. Language is just a vocalization of thoughts. As George Carlin said, there’s no bad words. We need to not fear the concepts that other people enjoy. A late trend is people posting endless memes of “I wish everyone would stop being offended all the time.” These vapid repostings are as insipid as censorship because they simply mean they wish you wouldn’t talk about something that they happen to value, or are neutral too, but I guarantee that if they have any spine or conviction on any topic, you could offend them.

As you should, offending someone is butting against a core tenet of their lives. I am an advocate for mental health awareness and treating people openly, and I take a lot of offense to the handwaving and eye rolling towards mental illness because it is a very important topic. If I lack these, then I am just a husk that parrots whatever the drivers of my beliefs tell me to.

Howl, way back in the 50s, fought that. And here we are.

The actual book I read was fantastic. Eric Drooker illustrated Howl, which contains 4 parts – Who, Moloch, Rockland, and a Footnote to Howl. The overarching theme of the poems is the lament of the lost youth, who are disaffected by the crushing drudgery of life, industrialization, pharmacology (or medicine in general), and their attempts to break free, though not without scars. Despite being completed in 1957, the series creates a perfect summary of the world today and tomorrow, and every generation.

This book is phenomenal in art and the words are still fascinating and shocking. It’s a great book that needs to be read by everyone at least once.

5/5 – It was a game-changer in the 50s, and now, it resonates with no signs of aging.



  1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-lundberg/a-big-win-for-experimenta_b_365671.html
  2. http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/%E2%80%98howl%E2%80%99-obscenity-prosecution-still-echoes-50-years-later
  3. http://www.wired.com/2015/03/future-news-robots-writing-audiences-one/