A few weeks back on YouTube, I came across a video Guided By Voices made for one of their recent singles. In it, a magician (played by comedian Jon Glaser) sits in front of a dressing room mirror before a performance, practicing his tricks for the imminent show. You don’t get the idea he’s an especially good magician. The waistcoat’s garish and a size too big, the hand movements are hammy, the routine cliché—coin from ear, now you see it now you don’t, pick a card. The clip ends as he taps his wand to the inevitable top hat and steps out of the mirror’s frame, braced to take the stage.

I’m sure anyone who writes can find at least a little pathos in the clip, which presents two competing “authorly” perspectives in stereo. On the one side there’s the magician, cocksure and prepared for applause; on the other there’s us, looking in secret over his shoulder, assessing his act in a colder light. I’m tempted to say the gap between the two is the difference between poetry and prose. Poetry’s the sleight of hand that makes the most commonplace things we share—our words—seem surprising and strange. Prose is the medium for analysis and second thoughts, the front-row skeptic spotting the coin slipped out of the sleeve.

The trick to writing poems, I find, is being both at once: the magician in front of the mirror and the audience in on the hokum. It’s hard to tell in the video if our magician’s deluded about his gifts, or just pumping himself up to exceed his mediocrity. Either way, by making the gestures expected of magicians—more exactly, by watching himself make those gestures—he generates the illusion (or delusion) essential to becoming “Magician.” It’s something any one of us might do when writing a poem, working the cards and coins, face and hand movements that go with our shared idea of poeticity in hopes that what comes out might be applauded, or even just recognized, as “Poem.”

The song’s lyrics, repeated three times in a kind of cryptic Greek chorus to the action, run as follows:

Keep it in motion
Keep it in line
Keep it in motion
Keep it on time
Walk it down the line
Walk it all the time
Keep it in line

While the “it” stays open-ended and ambiguous, Stanzas in Meditation-style, the mood seems vaguely affirmative, a bro-ish pat on the rear for our second-string illusionist as he psychs himself up to perform. From that angle, the “it” here is cousin to the “It” of Nike’s “Just Do It,” freeing verb from the draggy specificity of noun. It makes sense that Bob Pollard, a self-described “hick from Ohio” who played make-believe rock star in his basement until he became one, would sympathize with our posturing magician. In fact, the whole conceit of the backstage performer running through his vocabulary of moves applies just as easily to Guided By Voices themselves, whose music’s always favored gesture over structure, posture to product, snippet to finished song. The predicament of trying to make familiar tricks look new, or worn riffs sound fresh, calls for the same kind of humor, chutzpah, self-deprecation, and self-reflexiveness that the video stages. The sanest response to it, the video seems to say, is a kind of faith, not so much in one’s self, but in the gestures one’s chosen to perform—“keep in motion”—to mimic a better self.

In his A History of Urdu Literature, Muhammad Sadiq tries to make the poetry of Momin, Ghalib’s famous frenemy, come alive for a modern English-speaking reader. “Momin’s place in poetry,” he writes,

will depend on what we take poetry to mean. Is it the spontaneous and forthright expression of one’s feelings and thoughts in appropriate language? Or is it merely a name for dressing up conventional feelings in an elaborate garb?

Poets like Momin had a keen feeling for poetry as dress-up. They used poetic conventions like a trunk full of wigs and costumes, to play with (and against) in combinations surprising, subversive, original, or banal. The conventional nature of the literary culture—the expectation that the poet “keep it in line,” meet the listeners’ idea of what a poem should be—allowed for a shorthand of allusions, images, postures, and sentiments that’s hard to appreciate without a grounding in the tradition as a whole. Urdu poets like Momin embraced their clichés—like Pollard’s prestidigitator, or like Guided By Voices itself—in return for a gain in economy and expressive power with an audience who already knew the codes. The trick for them isn’t so much to “make it new” as to “keep it in motion,” turn Sadiq’s “either/or”—forthright expression or elaborate dress-up—into a nimble “both/and.” Spontaneous gesture and knowing pose, hick and rock star, self and mirror, cliché and coup de foudre.

“The heart of a book,” according to Margaret Magnus in her eccentric, iconoclastic Gods of the Word: Archetypes in the Consonants, “is always a way of being. The writing itself is only a by-product that an author hopes will be passed by as soon as the posture that underlies it has been clearly felt. The concrete result of the work exists only to awaken us to the possibility of this underlying posture.”

I don’t know—do you think Bob Pollard’s read it?

Originally Published: August 7th, 2014

Koeneke was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles. He is the author of the full-length poetry collections Body & Glass (2018), Etruria (2014), Musee Mechanique (2006), and Rouge State (2003). His scholarly work includes the book Empires of the Mind: I.A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929-1979 (2004). Koeneke earned his BA...