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Poetry: Martial Logic and The Arts

August 6, 2007

Combat Techniques
I’ve been thinking about a poem, I first read on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It’s by Bay Area local poet and professor, Joshua Clover. However meandering my own thoughts about the poem, it relates to the martial and the arts in the phrase martial arts. It made me wonder (among other things) why business people say they read books like The Art of War, and why business people really read books on the art of war. Joshua’s poem is written in an unusual form; I’ve included a definition of sestina after the author biography.

Joshua Clover has written an introduction for us:

This was a commissioned poem; I don’t write a lot of sestinas. But
they’re good for obsessives, because they make you hear that your
obsessions are sort of stupid. They also hold together varied ideas
as if they were somehow related. Obviously I was thinking about the
transparent fact that “self-help” books in the business world,
despite endless language about teams and cooperation, are finally
about getting money which, reality check, never comes from nowhere.
It’s a curious military order: in business, you conquer your own
workers. At the same time, I was thinking about experiments in living
life outside such martial economic logic, and how the lessons of
recent history all seem to instruct us that resistance is hopeless.
Myself, I’m a big fan of Machiavelli, Saint-Just, of Azar Gat’s The
Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz
Oddly, the cover design my first book of poetry was initially
rejected because the marketing department felt that “it looked like a
military manual.” To which I asked if those sold worse than poetry
books? I got the cover in the end; it’s a image by Guy Debord, who
was a big fan of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and designed his own board
game of basic military strategy, “Kriegespiel.”

Das Kissenbuch


On the subway businessmen are reading Machiavelli and Sun Tzu
Just like they used to read biographies of Napoleon; d’you think it’ll work?
I totally accept the idea that you need some kind of strategy or things
Will go from bad to worse, ending with swigging Coca-Cola in bed and
The days starting to slip away with no one under yr thumb. Poets,
I urge you to title yr books of the future The Principal, or The Capital,

So poetry shelves in Berlin will be filled with books called Das Kapital.
Do not call it My Struggle; this will lead to mishaps as all lines lead to Zoo
Station. Die Kunst des Krieges, that wd be a title worthy of a poet!
Soon the gentlemen of business will be seen reading Hesiod, Works
And Days
, concerning the two forms of strife: “one fosters evil war and
Battle, being cruel,” but the other stirs up envy, greed, and such things

As lead to labor, “and this Strife is wholesome for men.” Y’know, things
One cd use. One evening some years later it was raining in the capital
Of Europe where scavenged shopping carts passed for window grates and
We walked beside the artificial lake, considering the immortal Lao Tzu,
Dead a long time; late in the Spring and Autumn Period he found work
As an archivist in the Imperial Library, and was apparently a bit of a poet,

Unlike Sun (no relation), a general. One makes one’s way as a poet
Amid libraries and bookstores though “the way is deeply hidden in all things”
According to Lao, and the businessmen are seeking it en route from work,
Riding the subway adrift in the grim luxuries of text here in one capital
Of the book. Words are stretched over reality’s breadth like gold tissue,
Who said that? There’s another way to look at it, according to Arbeiten und

Tage, on the depressing side of the sublime: “All your talk will be in vain, and
Your word-play unprofitable.” Zat a threat or a promise? He was less a poet
Than a motivational speaker, Hesiod, less flowers of wisdom than the kudzu
Of endless increase. An object shd be replaced swiftly by a like thing
Once the first is exhausted or the whole primitive accumulation of capital
Risks rack and ruin—oh great, just like 1992, everybody out of work,

Anarchist squats, that’s yr plan for a world system? The wave of work
Keeps going like a sentence keeps going, gathering material as it goes, and
One lives among this jetsam, is of the jetsam, is quizzical at being a capital
I at this late date, when I lived among the businessmen and the poets
And nobody read past the second of six books On The Nature of Things,
We floated between the horizons of the general and the librarian, Sun Tzu

And Lao Tzu, and this was not such a terrible place to be, in the capital
Of the XXIst century, reading at work. The poet Sei Shonagon placed paradise
And the course of a boat on a list, “Things That Are Near Though Distant.”

Joshua Clover is the author of The Totality for Kids (2006), The Matrix (2005) and Madonna anno domini (1997). He is Associate Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Davis, and contributes to the Village Voice and The New York Times.

Definition of sestina, from Wikipedia:
A sestina is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza’s lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza’s lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to as retrogradatio cruciata (“retrograde cross”). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet’s first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist…)

Image from Blue Snake Books title:

Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua

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