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On not being boring

By Sina Queyras

I’m not sure what is worse, being boring or being bored. Being boring is perhaps more egregious. Being bored I can cut the borer some slack by reminding myself of my relative impatience around someone recounting, in too great detail, local traffic lights and their illogical timing: an irritation perhaps, but hardly a conspiracy, and hardly fodder for an extended monologue over dinner, for yes, when the boring are on a roll there seems to be no stopping them.

In an essay in the New York Times this morning Jennifer Schuessler notes the following:

Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story.

There is, in the margins of the dull conversation, plenty of room to create alternative narratives, practice description, recombine sentences, analyze their structure, work backwards to recreate the childhood that creates the mind that creates the rather dull story one is forced to endure, cocktail in hand. But what of poetry?

How does one deal with the boring where poetry is concerned? It’s all very fine to encounter a dull book, one can set it aside, but when one is settled into a reading? There are certain qualities, noted above, that simply create room for one’s own work churning away between the lines. Some qualities of boring make one want to pull one’s head off. Others, when taken to extreme, can become something else entirely. Riffing off of John Cage, Kenneth Goldsmith notes, “there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy.” There is also, as Vanessa Place notes of her own “Statements of Facts,” a moment “where the unboring goes into boring which is unboring as the boring becomes an unsettling.”

What are the qualities of the unboring boredom? What makes something irritate as much as engross? What makes one set one’s own narrative aside; allows one’s own creative muscles to relax and simply receive? Or does one ever simply receive? I am thinking of the reading (I’ll talk about the actual reading of the book in another post) that blindsides one’s creative impulse, at least momentarily, that makes one feel one has been elsewhere.

Goldsmith makes the following distinction: “Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one.” Goldsmith’s relationship with boring is fascinating, and his essay on the same is worth the read. My own relationship is less distinct. I am not at all sure what the line is between productive and unproductive boring, or irritating versus stimulating. I’m fascinated by the qualities of such experiences, and the challenge of trying to describe that qualities: does it have something to do with the language—how worked it is, how polished, or unpolished? Is it to do with a relatable speaking subject? A particular rhythm? A performative presence or gesture? The quality of the reading voice? Is it content? All of the above? What is the percentage of irritating and stimulating that evokes in me a blissful combination of presence and non-presence? Is it different for every case?

It’s impossible, surely, to make a broad statement as much as I am trying here. But I like what Stein says: “If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic.” Occasionally I become aware of myself  being at once painfully present or blissfully transported in the middle of a reading, but often it is not until after, until I am safely on the other side of the event that I can appreciate what has just happened.

I won’t recount the outright boring, but I can list the stimulating. I have found it hearing Seamus Heaney at Princeton, Allen Ginsberg in Montreal, Christian Bök at the old Soft Skull Bookstore in Brooklyn, Caroline Bergvall at Blue Stockings in New York, Lisa Robertson at Haverford, Paul Durcan at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, Anne Carson at Hunter, and Kenneth Goldsmith at Issue Project. The experience was very different in each case, and not necessarily about taking the top of one’s head off, but rather about creating a space in which one is  very present, and very transported. There is the matter of trusting wholly in the work as an adequate vessel for the ride. And the fact of not being in the least boring.

Comments (50)

  • On January 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    One of the greatest, most transcendentally terrifying treatments of boredom can be found in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, as Gradus sits in the hotel lobby, waiting…

  • On January 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm Miriam Levine wrote:

    I’m also thinking of waiting, all the waiting in Samuel Beckettt’s work.

    But I run from bores at parties. It’s not necessarily their subject matter that bores me but their aggressive inability to stop talking.

  • On January 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Thanks for that Kent. And yes, Beckett, absolutely. He was swirling around in my head as I was writing that…

    There is also the fact of the poet who talks excessively in between poems, possibly nervously to be fair, but certainly not helping to create a transporting atmosphere, particularly when the poet effectively paraphrases the entire poem in the preamble. Of course this can also be very effective.

  • On January 23, 2010 at 4:52 pm Don Share wrote:

    As we know from what I called, ages ago on Harriet, “Kneejerk Poetics,” it is obligatory to quote from this poem whenever the word “boring” rears its weary head:

    Dream Song 14
    by John Berryman

    Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
    After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
    we ourselves flash and yearn,
    and moreover my mother told me as a boy
    (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
    means you have no

    Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
    inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
    Peoples bore me,
    literature bores me, especially great literature….

    [etc.]

  • On January 23, 2010 at 8:54 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    Yeah, yeah, how come no one’s mentioned the Pet Shop Boys.

  • On January 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    tags: boring kenny goldsmith

  • On January 23, 2010 at 9:52 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I was humming the Pet Shop Boys the entire time. They were irritating Beckett who thinks them the height of boring by the way.

  • On January 23, 2010 at 10:01 pm vanessa place wrote:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8v-uDhcDyg
    the boring can be quite beautiful

  • On January 24, 2010 at 11:37 am Sarah Sarai wrote:

    My days of being bored in high school long ago are halcyon in memory, although filters of teen movies–Ferris Bueller, 16 Candles & co.–have become my memories and grant possibilities to late adolescence I never realized. At readings, if I’m bored, is mostly by well-received poets whose work doesn’t interest me and I’m at the reading to learn about them.

    Impatience and boredom are the Thelma and Louise of my life.

    Pomposity is more boring than anything I can think of so it’s people who believe they’re enchanting when they’re mundane who annoy who bore—but that really is a minority when it comes to poets. If I am bored I edit what I’m hearing so the experience becomes a mental exercise. Boredom is also an affect masking all sorts of feelings, from intimidation to admiration. It has a beholder with an eye.

  • On January 24, 2010 at 11:53 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Corey Frost points to a chapter in his dissertation that gets at the qualities discussed here. He also mentions Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion: Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

    http://quesauraije.blogspot.com/

  • On January 24, 2010 at 11:56 am Peter Greene wrote:

    I like the part about boredom being a mask. Good eye, there. Curious: if a person’s work does not interest you, is learning about them a worthwhile exercise, or should you follow the winds of your desire in these things? I’ve never been good at getting up and leaving once i’m in, be it restaurant, reading, or trouble, so the transformation of boredom into a series of exercises is familiar to me. Lately, however, I find it is becoming impossible to be bored. The emptier of event one’s days become, it seems, the more there is to interest one (strains of ‘Countin’ Flowers On The Wall echo madly in the background). I expect that these words, like most others, will fall into the void near unheard and unremembered, but it has been fun sharing them with you.

    PG

  • On January 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Being bored is one of the gateways to enlightenment, like sneezing or dying.

  • On January 24, 2010 at 1:50 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    A training in learning to tolerate discomfort. I remember a reading at the Naropa Summer Writing Program about five years ago – – one particular reader was thirty or more minutes into his slot (five readers on the bill); it was as if he did not see Anne Waldman making aeroplane landing team/Walang Batur arm movements in the auditorium below the stage. I felt as if I might crawl out of my skin with the late hour and how bored I was, though Anne’s agitation and mimed throat slashes added an element of tension and risk to the whole experience. Nevertheless, the only exit was next to the stage, and so – – a person, so bored they were numb — could not move. Finally, I went to the back of the room and lay on the floor. The pulse of boredom, I remember suddenly understanding, is actually anxiety. The kind of anxiety allieviated (sp?) neither by departure nor breath; but by a radical substitution. The next morning, still hungover from the extreme boredom, depressed from it maybe, I went up the canyon to the underground hot springs. That helped take away the bad feeling from the night before. I would much rather be delayed in a dentist’s waiting room than listen to poetry that is not written for others.

  • On January 24, 2010 at 5:21 pm Aaron Belz wrote:

    It seems the beginning of Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” must be mentioned in this thread. He says things like, “Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”

  • On January 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm Aaron Belz wrote:

    It seems, too, that my poem “You Bore Me,” which I wrote before encountering the salient passages in “Either/Or,” must be mentioned:

    http://www.denversyntax.com/issue7/poems/belz/bore.html

    How relevant!

  • On January 24, 2010 at 6:51 pm mearl wrote:

    I’ve never read such a boring post in my life. Instead of citing yet another one of Gertrude’s inanities, or Henry, why not quote Stalin: “I trust no one, not even myself.”

  • On January 24, 2010 at 6:59 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Hey, thanks for the comment, Mearl. It had to be said.

  • On January 24, 2010 at 8:39 pm Peregrine wrote:

    Yes–the ever-present question of what kinds of action/non-action are generative. What actually comes of stultifying, frustrated boredom–does it build up, like a pressure-cooker, to explode into action/creative production that otherwise wouldn’t have such emotional or critical mass? I live in hope. Written in the front of my current notebook (Thank you, synchronicity):

    For thinkers and all sensitive spirits boredom is that disagreeable windless calm of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and wait for its effect on them.
    – Nietzsche, The Gay Science

  • On January 24, 2010 at 11:46 pm evie wrote:

    That last statement of yours, Bhanu, is profoundly well put. It is also my sentiment exactly. I would have thought it was my own statement, but I’m too deeply inclined to hyperbole. I could never have been so restrained (and thus so elegantly *accurate*) in selecting a point of comparison.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 10:41 am Karenee wrote:

    Everything from physics to peanut butter sandwiches is boring when the heart desires some indefinable other-thing to be delicately ladled through the seeking tendrils of interest or pounded into the soul with a shock of searing spike-laden perspective. But then, this is voluntary boredom.

    When left to our own devices, that is the time to find dry twigs of concept to rasp together until they burst into flame, condense moisture from gusts of hot air with an array of cool thoughts, brew a relaxing tea from dried ideas, then sit back and pity those who are not so resourceful.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 11:12 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Aaron: Your poem was OK. I sure like the look of the Denver Syntax website.
    PG

  • On January 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Peregrine, thanks for your post. I was not quite intending to critique boring as much as think about the aspects of it that are generative. One must gets one’s knuckles wrapped for bringing it up, but why? It’s an interesting question to me. What kinds of action/non-action are generative, as you say.

    Is it requisite to say I am never bored when alone? Or, you never bore me? Some comments suggest that even to acknowledge that boring exists is to show a lack of imagination. I don’t think so.

    Of course, the uncomfortable boring, as Bhanu points out, is often about being held captive, and that is a training, yes, I agree…the only boring that I find difficult to bear is the kind accompanied by the distinct feeling that myself, or the audience as the case may be, ceases to exist for the speaker.

    Aaron, this does add an interesting fold: “Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads.” But your comment about Canadians? Hm.

    Peter, my point wasn’t so much about the boring readings as wondering what makes a certain reading so transporting, but I can see that didn’t quite come across.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm Don Share wrote:

    “…is repetition boring? Or only inactivity?” — James Schuyler, Poetry magazine, 1973

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:24 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    A good question, Don. Repetition can be so dull I want to pull my head off…or so mesmerizing I can’t get enough. This is something I tried to work out for myself in Lemon Hound–I tried a variety of repetitive structures, some more satisfying than others. It’s not as easy as it sounds to make repetition engaging. List poems aren’t easy to do either. People think they’re just lists…not so easy to make a list poem work.

    Agha Shahid Ali suggested that the repetition of the final word in the couplet created a kind of call and response, making the reader/audience a collaborator, shouting out the final, repeating word. With few exceptions that particular repetition has the opposite effect on me.

    Of course, as you know there are those who don’t shape repetition at all…I do. I’m guilty of heavily shaping whatever I am repeating. Whether or not that is boring or not I’ll leave up to the reader.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    Wonder why folks who find repetition in poem-rhyme to be intrinsically boring like it in popular music? I’m not advocating rhyme in poems, mind you; just asking. I adore repetition myself. Then again, I’m the kinda guy who loves, say, Terry Riley… and waiting in long lines…

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:34 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I’m referring to the ghazal, sorry! I hit the button too soon.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:36 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    http://lemonhound.blogspot.com/2010/01/nick-thran-inventory-day.html

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm mearl wrote:

    I’m glad Arron has brought in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The Existentialists in general are a wellspring on the subject of boredom, which could be said to have been one of the chief drivers of their project. Sartre’s war diaries are full of it, what to do with it, how to stave it off, how to use it. Nietzsche, to my mind, seems to have invented our modern version, which is related directly to the God problem. He talks about God’s boredom after the seventh day of creation as being the subject for a great poet. Sontag, whom I think no one has mentioned in this thread, taking up where Nietzsche left off, considered boredom to be at the root of the art instinct in western culture. In On Photography she says: “Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside the situation, and one leads to the other.” Her idea of the writer was someone who was interested in everything. She said that “[t]he life of the creative man is led, directed, and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” The question of “inside/outside” is central. Most of you seem to be thinking from the inside. My comment yesterday was to try to push the discussion to the outside. Much of the misery in classical literature stems from the fact that the gods were easily bored. Stalin was bored and boredom is what drives utopian systems and turns them into totalitarian murdering machines. Robert Payne in his 1965 book, The Rise and Fall of Stalin, tells us how Stalin felt when he sent people to their death, bored. Related: violent death on a massive scale as the modern media purveys it seriously challenges our indifference. I think boredom calls for more than either and academic discussion on the one hand, or an anecdotal one on the other. Boredom is one of the most serious challenges faced by the contemporary poet. And more than a few of us are simply adding to the problem.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    IMHO, repetition in poetry can never be as dull as the lack of it.

    -o-

    P.S.: As an aside, it’s nice to see a fellow Manitoban here, Sina. I spoke to John Cunningham on the phone yesterday about your radio interview. He says “Hi!”

  • On January 25, 2010 at 2:41 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    We argue about this or that being boring… but isn’t the root of all boredom a boredom with oneself? The mind is stalled… unable to think energetically or creatively… nothing outside the mind is intrinsically boring. Boredom is a mental state for which we are responsible, since we ourselves are its cause…

    – when we write in a boring way, it’s usually because we are trying to FORCE it – being dutiful to some supposed rule or demand… because we’re bored, & hoping this will end it…

  • On January 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    I tend to think it’s scale that offers contemporary poetry and art the biggest challenge–scale of materiality, scale of destruction–but that does tie in to boredom as well, so yes, you have a point.

    Thanks for the Sontag, a great essay. And that reminded me of Sianne Ngai’s “Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics…” which deals more directly with language…and in fact describes very well some of the distinctions I was reaching for in my post…but I am out of time today. I believe that essay is in UGLY FEELINGS. It’s also in Dworkin’s THE CONSEQUENCES OF INNOVATION…

  • On January 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm vanessa place wrote:

    “The power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.” Benjamin

    “I love repetition.” Stewie

  • On January 25, 2010 at 5:03 pm Don Share wrote:

    Hm, Borges could have said both of those things…

  • On January 25, 2010 at 5:18 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Boredom… a symptom of acedia… tending toward sloth : one of the traditional 7 deadly sins. The monks’ disease – restlessness, inability to contemplate, inability to pray.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia

  • On January 25, 2010 at 5:23 pm mearl wrote:

    He also said the difference between reading and copying was like walking down a country road or flying over it.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Sina: Re: boring readings and transportation: I take your point. I was off track there, wandering in the comments. I think one of the things that makes a given performance boring/not-boring/stimulating/glorious is mood and readiness. I’ve been driven mad with annoyance by some of my favourite things, and bored to tears with some of the most complex and investigable pieces of art, only to find later joy in them. The combination of being ready, pollinable and receptive, and experiencing really good art – that is the whack that’s as good as a clean hit.

    And nothing else is. It’s worth being bored a LOT to get there once every now and then. As someone else said on this chain, though, being ready to find ‘that’ in the mundane is the greatest whack of all. And so ‘boredom’ disappears into the real.

    Re: repetition in art: Can be good, can be bad. Absolutely cannot say why. A matter of personal frequency, like a dog’s leg twitching to nerve stimulus? To me, Fat Boy Slim is like being hit in the head with a hammer, and yet similar wax-flickin tricks mesmerize me in a bit of thievery corp. Avante-garde theme-mining in modern classical dives me crazy with boredom, but the endlessly repeating, simple line of Jimi’s Jam Back At The House or his Tax Free make me hit replay. I think maybe not so much gustibus as personal gigahertz.

    All this said, I recently rhymed ‘and’ with ‘and’ three times running without noticing, and then liked it.

    Enjoying the discussion,
    PG.

  • On January 25, 2010 at 11:36 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    And then this other guy said this really smart thing about boredom, but my real point is that I’ve read this guy, aren’t I special?

  • On January 26, 2010 at 12:42 am john wrote:

    My old friends in the great Chicago institution, Theater Oobleck (in collaboration with the Neo-Futurists, another Chicago institution) put on an evening of plays called, “The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in a Dustbin in Paris in an Envelope (Partially Burned) Labeled: Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever! Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue From the Grave!!!”

    One of the two most memorable bits, as described in the “New York Times” review: “In ‘If,’ a female figure (Mr. Schneider in a [very Beckettian, ed.] dress and wig) calls out ‘more,’ after which the treacly 1970’s song ‘If’ by Bread plays from beginning to end, then plays again after another ‘more,’ and again, to mounting groans from the audience.”
    http://theater.nytimes.com/2006/06/14/theater/reviews/14absu.html

    I saw the show, and the boredom-meter for “If” — wow! Off the charts! And painfully funny too. Don’t remember how many times they played the song through — 4? 5?

  • On January 26, 2010 at 10:57 am Kathleen Ossip wrote:

    Boredom’s a withdrawal of attention. With ingenuity, you can always find a way to be interested in anything.

    People or poems become boring when they insist on the listener being interested in exactly and only the way they want her to be.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 11:42 am Peter Greene wrote:

    (scandalized tone) Michael! Such things come from your mouth! And here, in this nice place!
    (smiley icon, don’t know how to use them)
    PG

  • On January 26, 2010 at 2:19 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Thank God for wikipedia. That clears things up.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 2:20 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    There’s the difficulty, Peter:
    “repetition in art: Can be good, can be bad. Absolutely cannot say why. A matter of personal frequency, like a dog’s leg twitching to nerve stimulus?”

    It’s a life’s work.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 2:31 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Why the snarkiness? The connection between boredom & acedia seems an important dimension to the concept. Your consistent negative attitude toward my posts – no matter what the subject – is starting to bore me.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Apparently not. Tone is hard to read isn’t it? I thought that was funny.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 2:56 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    By the way, I’m not sure what posts you are referring to. I don’t recall commenting on any of your posts.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 3:31 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    ?? Funny as in sarcasm? That’s how I read your statement.

    As for the past : just the most recent, you questioned the logic of my comments, twice, on something that seemed pretty transparent to me. Then, you alluded sarcastically – & irrelevantly, I thought – to my run-in with F. Wright.

    That’s all fair, well & good. You have a perfect right to your opinions, & I don’t begrudge them one bit, Sina. But I do have a right to be bored with consistent antagonism.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 3:47 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    That’s one way of reading my statement. And yes, we may simply be misreading each other’s signals. But really, I have just gone through all of the comments on my posts and as far as I can see this is our only interaction so I’m very confused as to what you are basing your accusation of consistent antagonism.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 4:02 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Hi back by the way, Colin. Hoping to get to Manitoba soon.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I was referring to several comments you made at the “Desiring Criticism” post. But forgive me, please, for making a mountain out of a molehill (to use a boring phrase). Nothing more boring than that.

  • On January 26, 2010 at 9:35 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Henry, fair enough. Onward ho.

    Now that I’ve set myself up to always be called boring. But that’s okay, as Martin reminds us, it’s the artist’s task to evade boredom, or as Kenney/Cage says, just look further into it. I want to say something about boring and domesticity, but that’s for another post. Suffice to say my mother knew something of boredom and she was the least boring person I know. Knew. Difficult to get used to that.

Tags: ,
Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, January 23rd, 2010 by Sina Queyras.