Imagine, first, 10 BC.
Virgil is dead. Augustus is king. Cicero's severed head is still nailed to the Rostrum, the public lectern in the Forum where his opinions did him in.
In these first few years of Empire, the dominant theme in Roman literature is a consciousness of decline. This is before Petronius and his outspoken Satyricon. Before Apuleius and The Golden Ass. This is before Latin authors snapped out of their fear of the Empire that swallowed them whole. It is 10 BC. Horace at this time is the first court poet of Rome and sees himself surrounded by the degenerate efforts of the present to blandly blend into the past. In this year he sits down to compose 23 farewell letters to his friends, each set into conversational iambic hexameter. "This letter to you," he writes in one, "will therefore be the last of my words that I allow myself to set into print." Within nine months he is dead.
The Epistles, as we have come to know the last of Horace's letters to his friends, include what is considered the very first ars poetica to be written, "Epistle to the Pisones." Lively, entertaining, quick-witted, but stern, the letter begins with the opinion that all great poems should be a unified whole—yet dissolves itself into ramblings. Jumping from ruminations first on poetry, then on family, then history, war, faith, the poem is so ironically audacious in its structure that it expresses, formally at least, more than a little sympathy with the wild, amorphous work of the mad poet who is ridiculed so famously at its end:
As with the man who suffers from a skin disease or jaundice …
sensible people are wary of touching the crazy poet
and keep their distance; children unwiselyfollow and tease him.
Away he goes, head in the air, spouting his verses….
A poem on poetics: it was a highly original achievement in first-century Rome, however ordinary it seems today. Long before Aristotle's Poetics was rediscovered in Turkey in 1535, Horace's "Ars Poetica" was the only definitive guide to the classical literary tradition of criticism, and as such it is the oldest essay on criticism that has been known with continuity from the time of its conception. Where the poem retains its most disarming novelty, however, is in its awkward relationship between argument and form. Horace's "Ars Poetica" may argue for decorum in poetry, but it is joltingly arbitrary in its organization of that claim. And yet almost immediately following Horace's death and the publication of his Epistles, Quintilian declared the work genius, coining the term "ars poetica" especially for it. It is the combination of Quintilian's own return to Ciceronian ideals at this time, his publication of the Institutio Oratoria in which is outlined the proper training expected of a citizen, and the spotlight he casts on the "Ars Poetica" as a primer that finally jolts Roman writers out of the doldrums of the bland literary franchise that had been passing for art under the fist of empire.
IMAGINE, NOW, GENERATION X. If you are having trouble doing so, that is perhaps the point of Joe Wenderoth's new book, Letters to Wendy's, an unclassifiable mix of genre, tone, and intention. "I love you," Wenderoth writes, "even if you don't understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you, even if you are no one, nowhere. After all, I warm my hands by the same fires."
At once a love story, cultural critique, and commentary on literary theory, Letters to Wendy's combines Horace's conflicting mix of argument and form to create what has already become an underground Internet favorite, and what is likely to be known eventually as the most apt, able, and adventurous ars poetica to be produced for and by Generation X.
One watches the others order. An aesthetics develops. It's not the worst thing that could happen. Yes, a weariness lurks, often, in the obvious next step—the dream of a school. The only thing worse than endeavoring to create a school is endeavoring to maintain a school. Which is why I like, above all, those customers who, in the middle of their order and quite without warning, change their minds.
Conceived as a year's worth of daily responses on customer comment cards to the Wendy's restaurant chain's claim that "WE CARE!", the collection is comprised of approximately three hundred epistolary prose poems of one hundred words or fewer in length, detailing the speaker's love of chocolate shakes, plastic seats, bowel movements, fellatio, language, and meat. "Today I had a Biggie," Wenderoth writes:
Usually I just have a small, and refill. Why pay more? But today I needed a Biggie inside me. Some days, I guess, are like that. Only a Biggie will do. You wake up and you know: today I will get a Biggie and I will put it inside me and I will feel better. One time I saw a guy with three Biggies at once. One wonders not about him but about what it is that holds us back.
Where this book's popular appeal lies, I am thinking, is in its willingness to not hold back: not its embarrassingly bald thoughts; not its uncomfortably familiar feelings; and not even its very, very rough spots. Raised, trained and now writing in the aftermath of American postmodernism, Wenderoth and his generation are the products of a cultural empire that has even managed in recent years to commercialize the aesthetics of irony. Called as well "the cynical generation," as children they watched the space shuttle Challenger explode, reached puberty just as AIDS was spreading to America, and with the help of the Internet earned their first million dollars by the time they were thirty. Then lost it all by 31. It is a generation, in other words, that has known impermanence. Having come of age just as MTV was coming into power, their cultural milestones are more like franchises recycled from earlier generations: punk in the early 1990s; swing in the mid 1990s; Woodstock in the late 1990s. If the core tenet of postmodernism was that there is no single right way to do anything, is it any wonder that, in the squishy nameless days following postmodernism, Wenderoth's generation is seemingly indifferent to everything? That "irony" has evolved into mere insincerity?
"Post-irony," therefore, is what many emerging writers of Wenderoth's generation have been calling their aesthetic of choice—an attempt to satisfy, as one writer has put it, "a desire to see the world directly, without distortion, and without reflecting back on how and from where one is looking." The New Sincerity, as some have been calling it.
In the fast-food world, Wendy's is about as close as one can get to sincerity. It is a restaurant that has somehow fashioned for itself a peculiarly unironic atmosphere of decency. Named after the daughter of founder Dave Thomas, the corporation annually donates an undisclosed but rumored 15 percent of its proceeds to adoption programs. And it has consistently refrained from joining the promotional wars that rage every year between McDonald's and Burger King. (You may have seen this past year's dueling commercials by the Backstreet Boys and 'NSync on behalf of those two fast-food giants.)
Where better, then, for Joe Wenderoth to set up camp for a year during his post-ironic ars poetica experiment? "I wonder what 'beauty' really is," he writes in the first philosophical turn in the book:
I know that the little girl, Wendy, who is pictured on your cups and bags, is beautiful, and so is the green green descent into the valley. Within this descent, I can feel the overpowering order within which I am but a temporary eccentricity. This overpowering, anticipated but absent, is beauty. I'd like to spank Wendy's white ass and fuck her hard.
The abruptness of that transition is Wenderoth's key interest. Here the juxtaposition of those two exaggerated tones—one a brand of thinking that is heavy with theory and the other a crude outburst of red ground emotion—is attempting to prepare the reader for what will be, throughout the book, a conversation—or collision—between these two tones, two worlds. For Wenderoth, language, and therefore poetry, has essentially been stripped of all authentic forms of expression that it might have, once, long ago held—
I was overwhelmed by the chicken sandwich pictured there, but had no words for it. I kept saying, 'there, that one … the man dressed like a woman.' It's hard to get served when one understands the signifier as a process—
but this is not, of course, a new predicament in literature. Instead, the new thing here is Wenderoth's insistence on confronting the deconstructed world that his generation's been reared in, and making it confront the heartbreak of inexpressive language. "Wendy is not a girl," Wenderoth writes at the height of his infatuation with her, "she is a sign…. She is only a girl in the mind of the customer, the lonely hermaphroditic homestead of significance."
One can feel Wenderoth searching in this book for an in, a return to perhaps what Allen Grossman has termed "the lyric shift"—that moment that marks the origin of poetic speech—before irony, before "post-irony," before the franchise of American language. "American poetry has moved, for the most part, away from dwelling in this moment," Wenderoth has written elsewhere:
Many of our esteemed poets have implicitly declared that the origin of poetic speech is not this moment, but is the everyday someone who has always weathered this moment, and who speaks from near it, from after it—not from within or under it. Such an everyday someone, when claiming to speak poetically, is not given to this moment in a creative way but, rather, is using this moment. Such a poet is, ironically, warding off the opportunity for poetic speech to begin…. If one is truly in the need for a poem to begin, one is, in some sense, where nothing has ever been said.
Whether nothing in Letters to Wendy's has ever before been said is difficult for me, alone, to discern: I have not read everything. But the book is an earnest one, an ambitious and charming and bold innovation. Wenderoth's encounter with the Virgin Mother, for example, is priceless ("She was holding two baked potatoes with sour cream and chives"); his "Butt-Fuck Week-End with the Lord" is uproarious; and his unrelenting suggestions that Wendy's loop soundless pornography on monitors in its dining rooms ("just a reassuring view of the signifier itself as it finds its way to its ancient hiding place") are unnerving in their consistently matter-of-fact tone.
The book's conceit is one of irony, certainly—set in a fast-food restaurant, tonally ambiguous, prefaced with a disclaimer that these poems make up a novel ("imaginary figures, possible images, the stuff of collective dreams")—yet Wenderoth's argument within it, we sense, is deeply felt. "Let's say Wendy's is an airplane," he writes, toward the end of the book, "[t]raveling at ten thousand feet":
Let's say there's no landing gear and nowhere to land. And fuel is limited. And one has a general idea of when the fuel is going to run out. Given this knowledge, is travel really the right word? And if not travel, then what? One sees one's life quite differently when one knows it isn't going to land.
It is, in the end, a book about faith. "Some kids drift by, talking," Wenderoth notes one afternoon with awe. "One of them says, 'that sucks dead donkey dicks,' and the other agrees. Imagine." Language, one senses ultimately for Wenderoth, is not dead. It is just, perhaps, on vacation. In its stead is a kiosk on the outskirts of town, selling bad burgers on a monthly lease. "Poetic speech," Wenderoth has written, "betrays this country more deeply than any other country in history…. It is, therefore, increasingly difficult to resist settling for a poetry that arises from near, or after, the painful moment of its origin." Resistance, he insists, is called for. "Reality itself is at stake."
Urging us back toward that moment of origin, Wenderoth's ars poetica, like Horace's very first, is formally incongruous with its rather conventional argument. But I am thinking for the moment that this is all intentional: its avoidance of lines; its classification as fiction; its choice as the publisher's flagship debut, hoping as the press does "to rescue American poetry from the high tower of Post-Romanticism." It is not ironic that Wenderoth's form is not mimetic of his argument. It is—more painfully, more potently—elegiac of what's at stake. •
John D'Agata is author of Halls of Fame, a book of essays.