A Gray Hand-Mirror: Curtis Yarvin’s Poetry

image by Tom Will

I

The subject introduces himself perfectly:  

Perhaps you have had the misfortune to attend a poetry reading. At least in many places, such as Berkeley, there is a sort of convention for those in the audience who feel moved by a poem. One does not clap (except at the end). But one can make a sort of noise that is somewhere between “oh,” “ah,” a sigh, and just an especially loud breath. “Ah, that was so nice,” is the canonical response. (I myself often feel this way after an intense bowel movement.) — TRYFON TOLIDES: AN ALMOST PURE EMPTY POETRY, MENCIUS MOLDBUG · NOVEMBER 29, 2007

It is now ten years prior to the above quip. It is 1997, at a Berkeley open mic. A man walks on stage, or rather, he appears in front of a camcorder. And there he is. Round glasses, turtleneck, ponytail, single gold earring; all Berkeley regalia present and accounted for. Little does this techboom-cum-art-cat know that ten years later in 2007 he will coolly describe in a blog entry the spiritual dread of the aridity of the of-some-minor-consequence poetry reading, and that then in 2009 with his jawbreaking “A Gentle Introduction To UR,” he will, with a certainly similar but perhaps misguided coolness, almost boast that his now controversial views on his now controversial blog have never gotten him one, not even one(!), mean email or unkind comment (I am paraphrasing but this is a common and somewhat ironic UR riff pre-2016). 

(Briefly flash to the present (sometime-in-no-time-post-Jan-6-2021), a smoke-filled bedroom much like the final third of Mulholland Drive. Wake up and check the email inbox and see another Gray Mirror substack regarding Scott Alexander turf skirmishes. Flip through twenty-five tabs left open from the night before, all of them HuffPost-esque hit piece after hit piece, “SUBSCRIBE NOW” pop-ups run amok, smear after smear, rumor after rumor. Peter Thiel. SOURCES. Urbit in the oval office. Rumor after rumor. Look at your calendar and see it is 2021 and make coffee in the Mulholland Drive coffee machine and wonder what the last adjective Curtis Yarvin used in a poem is. Wait, where is this scene taking place? In the writer’s house? In Curtis’ house? In the reader’s house?)

But let’s back back up; let’s not get too far ahead…why is our story’s hero, why is Curtis AT a Berkeley open mic in 1997? Doesn’t he know those are…yknow??? What HE said??? Bowelsome? 

The reason is simple; to read poems. And read poems he does. Curtis reads three poems of varying subject, form and length, and finishes before we or they know what happened. Did something happen? Well, we can watch the video as many times as we care to and figure that out. The video in question of this 1997 open mic was innocently added to YouTube in 2012 by “bcitizen” and is barely two minutes long. An emcee’s dream! 

II

The first two poems in said video are largely environmental in nature (a bad pun yes). 

The first poem is a surveyance of Pacifica, bearing just that name. The poem is a statement of observing, of the way the eyes move, where they move, where they choose to settle within the place the observer has chosen to settle. Plot points aside, what sticks with me from “Pacifica” is the following line: “my eyes sliding easily as if they rolled on bearings, or had been oiled.” An “as if” simile, not a “like” simile. That’s moxy! That’s grit! I like that! And most importantly it’s a good line. It sticks in your teeth, which is all I ask for in a poem really. I wonder if Patrick Kurp would agree?

The second poems “Progress” (“Ah the man must be a progressive!” the audience must have lovingly divined) crosses the United States and sends us to the east coast (“Ah! A man of the world!” the audience wows) to the George Washington bridge in New York. A large iron suspension bridge, where we find our poet biting down on some bridge beams “plugged in like a tick” and succubussing (incubussing to be respectful) the structure, the city, the country, the times(!) for all they are worth. Bite down and tune in.

It seems so far I am just a sucker for Curt’s (can I call you Curt?) metaphors. His likes or ases. They serve him well, I think. Like his Tick-self, his metaphors bite down and hang around. I hope you will be somewhat tempted with this second poem to do some divining here, to see this poem as something of a founding myth, if not major than minor. At least consider it. It is so nice an origin story plank, potentially, such a sweet little foreshadowing of a devouring of progress, of a tick-like insistence to taste structure, to keep enemies close; an ebullient but modest suggestion of knocking whole buildings down, whole cathedrals, whole schools. Oh, and whole governments. And he began as a poet, ladies and gents! Out of the mouths of babes!

III

I am beginning to start to do something I do not like to do. Now I love to talk about things I like: poems, movies, songs, noses. Get a drink with me and see. Bring a cocktail shaker and I’ll bring the calipers. But I hate to try and give anything I like, especially poems, a blow by blow, a verse by verse, a (shudder, retch) close reading. I’m no JR, and I’m no King, and I would like to take a detour here to say that some of the worst iterations of the almost always charming 33 1/3 anthology are mortal committers of this sin of “let me closely describe the track listing, in sequence, note by note, vowel by vowel to you, closely; let me describe a description into your goddamned ear drum, dear reader.” I would recommend avoiding entirely the Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society volume of the 33 1/3 series because of just this. Detour over. And I like talking about Curtis’ poems. But to talk blow by blow about a poem, or worse, poems, is to be put to sleep, and to put them, the poems, to sleep. To ruin something that is good, something not needing to be ruined. Who was it that said the only way to respond to a poem is with another poem? Bloom, I think. 

I am only bringing up and somewhat not closely talking about Yarvin’s poems because I think they are pretty good, to put it flatly, and that they are worth a read by you yourself. 

Oh! And he has more poems, I should have mentioned. Not just his three performed poems from that 1997 Berkeley open mic. Dashed in between blog entries on UR about Crypto and Carlyle there are about thirty or so more poems, which I would like to think were written some time after 1997 (Shall we call them “latter day” poems?). I will now attempt to read them non-closely, and report on them from a fairly safe distance: 

  1. There is here a paucity of the poet’s adjective. That is, his nouns are wearing light summer clothing. His poems live in very warm climates with little need of bulky coats for those brief winters. A “breeze” is “perfect”… a “sword” is “good”… a “heart” is “perfect.” It is worth noting that for the dizzy heights of literary and otherwise adjectival endeavor in his, er, nonfiction writing, Yarvin’s poetry has very practical shoes on in terms of adjectives. 
  2. Some of the UR poems come off (or come on) as content shoehorned into form, such as “Grant’s Tomb” and “Standards.” 
  3. That being said some of the prosaic poetry is far too brief such as “The Novelist.” A bit too light still (as if I am one to talk) but I don’t think I wouldn’t mind it so much if it was buried in a eighty page book of poems. 
  4. He is generally though, I would say, best when he is brief; or rather he is briefer by the good sense of necessity when he is focused upon a singular object. “Horseshoe Pit in Golden Gate Bridge” being a prime example of this virtue. “…They don’t sleep anymore on the beach…” holds true for horseshoes in Cali, sadly. That poem is lovely little Ozymandias of the Thalia Field, Bird Lovers Backyard, urban planning follies variety. “The Raven” coincidentally, is also a lovely little bird poem. Brevity also wins the day for “A Note On Demons” and for “Halogen.” 
  5. I love a good pit poem and I love a good moth poem. 
  6. “Kendo” is the best of all in the UR batch. A VHS-colored indulgent dream of swords and Kawasaki ninjas,  the cure for the common house show, or maybe the common poetry reading. Poems like Kendo are the sort that make you forget the guy knows how Peter Thiel takes his coffee(does he even drink coffee?). 
  7. And yes, a poet thinks with his poems, I agree actively here with WCW, but I think Yarvin’s best poems are his dreamier, more thoughtless ones; ones like “Kendo,” and not his more reference laden, thoughtful ones(thankfully he doesn’t hyperlink in these poems YET (SEE UPDATE #2)).  Although he does order thought into verse deftly in many cases, such as in his poem “Dominion.” But his most audibly intellectual, political poems seem to me to be a two edged kendo sword for Yarvin, with poems either succeeding easily (like “Dominion”) or failing just as easily (in the case of “Lycidas’ Bull” which I can paraphrase in this way: “something used to be strong and Greco and pure, man, and we tied it up with like, ethernet cords and now it’s all sad.” The thought Is clearly there, and it is quite poignant, but that doesn’t always make a good poem for Yarvin.). 
  8. My favorite tempering and mating of Yarvin’s poetics with his full bore en-are-ex non-fiction UR content, is his poem “Dominion.” I would call “Dominion” the downy softest, the briefest, the Most Gentle Introduction To UR that there can possibly be. It’s the most wholesome damned reactionary text you will ever come across. Like Burke smelling of baby oil and applesauce. Like Carlyle doing a Mrs. Doubtfire.

But enough of that. Go read em.

IV

As it stands, Curt’s critical writings on poetry in UR are quite good as well. You can knock just about everything about Curt (I’m calling him Curt) if you like, but you really can’t knock his tastebuds too hard. Kees, Sissman, Cavafy. Good stuff; and as always on UR, off the trodden canon’s paths by a few campus acres at all times. Of all the poets brought up critically in UR I think the one most kindred and relevant to Yarvin’s own work is Sissman, with a consistency of individual tone being the key link. Yarvin writes poetry with a voice all his own and he does so consistently even in his poems that I don’t really care for. You never get the feeling you have wandered off into someone else’s poem. After about three or four of his poems you feel the tone seeping in like three shots of drink. Then you’re sober, then you have your sea legs. 

And three-to-four poems is a pretty good onboarding period as far as poets go. For most poets 20th century and onward it seems you don’t get their tone so simply, you just don’t get them mannnn, until you’ve read every page and every errata and their manifestos, a sort of infernal obamacare poet that has to pass the house and the senate and then you pass your MFA course and sign the promissory note to fedloan for 80K and then you get to look back over your shoulder and really read em and find out what’s in that bill after all, find out that they really don’t have any tone at all, none of them have any tone at all, and who’s in there after all, in that bill you just passed; and then, when it is far far too late you get to find out if you like being a reader or writer of poetry, after all.  

V

This brings me to the $64,000 question. Poems in 1997 and 2007 suggest something in the middle, yes? What I am especially curious about here, with all this, is what the hell happened in between 1997 and 2007 in the poetical life and soul of Curtis Yarvin. Those hidden years. Those wilderness years? How many poems? Of what? And of where? Is it a trove? To date there are maybe thirty give-er-take Yarvin poems that we know of on UR, about three thousand words gross at most. Compare that to his UR output overall; it would have to be a ratio of one to ten thousand in terms of sheer verbiage. Yarvin barely clears his throat in three thousand words. 

Are these supposedly real perhaps imaginary unpublished poems ever to see the blue backlit light of day? Is he afraid that it would seem an anticlimax? Somewhere between a hiccup an a pivot? Like ex-officio George Bush taking up his old flame again of painting dogs and cats in oil on linen? Maybe Curt could up and pull an Urbit? Get a nice little volume of poems up and running and then walk off into the mists of Silicon-upon-Avon, no press, no reviews, no nothin. Or is he unafraid but crafty; using a pseudonym perhaps? Or nyms? Can’t be too careful these days! They put Pound in a cage after all!

Regardless of how many poems the guy has written, I think they are worth a read. It beats an MFA stooge any old day, and I bet those wilderness years poems are good if they are anything at all. How can you read L.E Sissman and be bad (although somehow I managed this for years)? 

And it would be such a little scandal wouldn’t it? The literary event of the decade, for a decade that so far has not had, and potentially will not have, any literary event or events beyond say, Rupi Kaur marrying both of the Winklevoss twins in rapid succession in 2023, or that Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate The Hill We Climb Ted Talk Fraulein starting a new 503(c) in 2022, 2024, 2026, and so on and so on…

Speaking of literary events, when Curtis Yarvin gets his COMPLETE WORKS published in 2025, maybe we can have a poetry reading for it?

An Update to The Original Piece

Proof yet again that I am resigned to riding astride the grand old timeline, the singularity, the world, the universe, the godhead, my bookshelf, the etc etc…After writing this piece more or less in toto in February of 2021, I see now as I am re-visiting and re-editing the piece in August that several relevant things have come about in relation to my piece and its subject in the since arriving months: 

  1. Curtis Yarvin is writing poems again and putting them on his substack, Gray Mirror; many of them are quite good.
  2. As I feared, Curtis Yarvin is hyperlinking directly from the text of his poems now.
  3. Curtis’ wife Jennifer died on April 6th of this year, at the age of fifty, a fact I have been struggling to address correctly in the essay as I revise it, but I can see no way to not include it. Even more difficult to address is the tranche of poems he has written for her, especially one written before the fact(“Cath Lab”) and one written after the fact (“The Tubmaster”). I only want to say that I think that “Cath Lab” and “The Tubmaster” are beautiful, bitter, sentimental, witty poems, and that they are some of his best. 

— Tom Will is a poet and has a Twitter account