YOU ARE NOT WRONG

You are not wrong
Who have a faith which cannot be shaken.
If you skip one step, it appears
Any sequence is smarter than you,
And so the world makes us seem mistaken,
And so we fail in philosophy and song.

Parts are infinite, and so is our part
In them. But we are never wrong
Who have a faith which cannot be shaken.
Faith is founded on what cannot be measured or seen.
Faith lives in the heart.
There is no winter there, and the lawn stretching to infinity is always green.

HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

 

YEAUHHHHHH!!!! SWEET 16 IN THE POST-MODERN BRACKET!!!

Edmund Wilson, who bullied his way into the Sweet 16: Yea, I’m an asshole, what of it? he seems to be saying. In Letters, arrogance goes a long way.

EDMUND WILSON VERSUS NORTHROP FRYE

Wilson (d. 1972) was a magnificent snob, believing himself above government, morality, tact, and popular literature. He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years after World War Two and got off with a slap on the wrist. He served on the Dewey Commission in the 1930s, an elaborate effort by a few American intellectuals to clear Trotsky against the Soviet findings of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky wrote the following re: the Commission:

The Moscow trials are perpetrated under the banner of socialism. We will not concede this banner to the masters of falsehood! If our generation happens to be too weak to establish Socialism over the earth, we will hand the spotless banner down to our children. The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside. In time of reaction it is more convenient to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But all those for whom the word ‘Socialism’ is not a hollow sound but the content of their moral life – forward! Neither threats nor persecutions nor violations can stop us! Be it even over our bleaching bones the truth will triumph! We will blaze the trail for it. It will conquer! Under all the severe blows of fate, I shall be happy as in the best days of my youth! Because, my friends, the highest human happiness is not the exploitation of the present but the preparation of the future.

“It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be a severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside.”

These are indeed fighting words. “Give up physical comfort” to spread Socialism over the face of the earth. “It will conquer!” Etc. Here’s the world which Wilson, Princeton man, snobby blue blood and literary critic, swore by and lived in. One can say, “despite his pedigree, Wilson was fighting for the salt of the earth,” or, Wilson was a dangerous political lunatic, who thanks to his pedigree, was able to do as he pleased.” Take your pick.

Wilson dismissed J. R. Tolkien as “juvenile,” and asked Anais Nin to marry him, claiming he would teach her how to write. Wilson was interested in “Symbolist” literature, a genre which cannot be defined; those like Wilson, who were interested in it, claimed it was post-Romantic. Wilson, a typical Modernist, defined Romanticism as something silly which preceded Realism. Wilson’s opinion of Poe was that Americans were too “provincial” to appreciate him, unlike Wilson himself, who thought Poe “insane” and whose whole understanding of Poe was that Poe was a bridge between Romanticism and Symbolism—which is ignorant. We always hear that Wilson had “many wives and many affairs,” but why any woman would be interested in this pompous hack is hard to fathom. My guess is that he tried to have affairs and they came to eventually be reported as affairs. He could get literary women published, since he was a well-connected reviewer; perhaps he had personal charisma; perhaps his socialist opinions made him seem gallant with a certain set. His writing  is pedantic, dreary, worthless. A writer who believes in world socialism and makes Baudelaire his specialty has to be suspect. Wilson hung around Edna Millay a great deal; it calls to mind for us Yeats and Maude Gonne: great women harmed by politically motivated men who did more than admire them. Millay was a thousand times the genius Wilson—the more worldly—was.

Northrop Frye, unlike Edmund Wilson, was not worldly. He was merely a professor, and a very good one. He came under scrutiny from the Canadian government for his opposition to the Vietnam War, but Frye’s influence was chiefly literary.

Frye’s influence can be summed up this way: Harold Bloom. Criticism eclipses Reviewing. Useless and pretentious literature gets a free pass because it fits into the professor’s “scientific” view of literary “tradition.”  Frye, like Bloom, excuses all sorts of nuttiness in the name of Profound Scholarship. One doesn’t read a book. One takes a book and fits it into an ever-changing tradition that includes the Bible and various texts throughout recorded history, in a way that changes those texts: modernism, as invented by its godfather, T.S. Eliot. The one thing that is not allowed is common sense. The unstable and the ‘highly significant’ rule. Reality as understood in a populist context is forbidden.

Edmund Wilson falsely presented himself as an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to “upset” theological authority. Frye/Bloom has the same ambition, a bold one. Confuse, and then attempt to be influential within that confusion. Literature as Fabricated Contemporary Religious Scholarship. Literature, for the Ambitious Modernist Critic, is not something which comes into the life of someone who peruses a story or a poem for a half an hour from its beginning to its end, the story or poem succeeding or failing on its own terms. Literature is rather a vast joint corporate enterprise which demands abstract expert-ism as far removed from the ordinary reading experience as possible. Welcome to John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” Welcome to Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety.” Welcome to Edmund Wilson’s “Symbolism.” Welcome to Northrop Frye’s “Science.”

Words, words, words.

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

*

HELENE CIXOUS VERSUS J.L. AUSTIN

Austin exists in the present, with his theory of performative language: language, in the most radical sense imaginable, does not mean; it does.

Cixous (pronounced seek-soo, or ‘looking for Sue’) exists in the past, since her work comes out of her academic success in the radical 60s and 70s in France, when French Writing (Ecriture) Theory exploded onto the scene, casting aside German Idealism and Anglo-American pragmatism as the sexiest thing around. Why sexy? Why the past? Because Western Tradition had repressed everything that was not Male and Ideal; and now Cixous was ‘writing’ the ‘female body’ in order to redeem the past—which clings to the effort.

Austin worked for British intelligence; in him, Anglo-American pragmatism, in its smug complacency, triumphs over the French Theory and the Freud and the Feminism and the Derrida and the Lacan of Cixous—who finally over-argues her case.

If the goal of the woman is to triumph over her mere flesh, while the man’s ambition is to reduce the woman to mere flesh for his pleasure, it is clear that feminist projects which rely on dualisms of past/present, A/not A, penis/no penis, male/female, light/darkness, many/one, speech/language, West/East, body/mind, beautiful/ugly, are doomed to fail, for even with conscious efforts to subvert these dualisms, the French Theorist either remains trapped in them, or drifts off into over-heated incoherence.

Austin, by showing that language is performance, brought flesh to language in a way the French Theorists, with their deferrals of meaning and their difference, could never quite pull off; non-gendered flesh, too, and thus deliciously feminist/not feminist.

WINNER: AUSTIN

*

EDWARD SAID VERSUS SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

The one overwhelming thing which Modernism did, and here we include everything, whether it is the feminism of a De Beauvoir or the postcolonial historicism of a Said, was the squashing of sincerity.

Is sincerity a good in itself?

If it is naive, and based in ignorance, if it lacks irony or a sense of humor, they will say sincerity verges on stupidity.

We speak of a useful sincerity, however, free of pain, which, even within its “stupidity,” has the potential to abide and achieve and discover hidden good.

There is a kind of false and bitter “sincerity” which depends on a surrounding insincerity for its existence, an energy possessed by the socialist who needs to convert the world to its vision of simple good, for example. But such ‘save-the-world’ proselytizing is rarely sincere. It assumes too much insincerity in the other.

The kind of sincerity which Modernity has destroyed is the pure and simple kind, guided by love and hope and innocence, neither afflicted nor distracted by deep anxieties or doubts.

This type of sincerity, we imagine, is at the heart of Mozart’s music, and any sustained action of genius: naive, focused, splendid, unique, human, alone, happy.

At first blush, this good type of sincerity is described (and attacked) as sentimentality. The cynic dare not call it stupidity, for the cynic is well aware of how everything is stupid or ‘not what it seems,’ this knowledge characterizing the unsentimental cynic in the first place.

Simone De Beauvoir had to attack sentimentality to ‘free’ women from the dire effects of Victorian romance. For Said, the citizens of the West had to be made aware of the blood on their hands—not just employees of the East India Company—everyone is somehow guilty.

Sentimentality as it existed in the 19th century in the great writings of the Romantics and even in writers like Wilde, who used his wit to keep the spirit of the Romantics alive, was banished in the 20th century, and with it, the more important, and more beneficial, sincerity; the sincerity which stimulates people in a reciprocating atmosphere of cheerfulness and good withers, as churlish cynicism triumphs among the self-aware, chattering classes.

Stupidity of the brain is sometimes necessary for wisdom in the heart.

As De Beauvoir writes:

To recognize in woman a human being is not to impoverish man’s experience: this would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it were to occur between two subjectivities. To discard the myths is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask, that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth.

She protests too much.

Said, who spent his childhood in the British colony of Palestine, wrote:

Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me (and I hope will convince my literary colleagues) that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together. In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be be perfectly understood.

The genie is out of the bottle. Not only is war impossible, peace and reason are, too. Where the phrase “anti-Semitism” exists, sincerity cannot exist. Luckily, one can get back a certain amount of sincerity by stepping off the stage, putting aside certain books, and ignoring certain individuals. But the problem with the landscape remains.

WINNER: SAID

*

SARTRE VERSUS HAROLD BLOOM

We expect critics to be critical. As Northrop Frye has said, we can’t teach literature, only the criticism of literature, and this is why so many poets hate critics—precisely because critics are critical in Frye’s sense. And, since Frye is correct, Criticism dominates learning, our learning, whether we want it to, or not. And more than this, Criticism writes our poetry, as well. Wilde and Poe both explicitly stated the obvious: the critical sense is what writes the poetry; the so-called creative or imaginative faculty is merely the critical faculty reversed. Criticism does not create, it judges; exactly, and the creative faculty does not create either (only God does)—the creative faculty combines; and every moment of the combining process is effected by the judgment, by the critical intelligence of the artist.

Harold Bloom is a successful critic for the same reason Poe was a successful critic: a host of minor poets strongly dislike them. Bloom pursues the logic laid out here by vilifying Poe and championing Emerson; Poe’s test was more severe: one was less a critic if one was not a poet (Bloom is not) while Emerson’s test simply said that any strong argument was poetry. Poe’s rivalry is something Bloom cannot face. Bloom is therefore not critical, precisely because his critical choices are driven by the fact that he is not a poet himself—which fulfills the prophecy.

Sartre is too anti-Literature to be a poet or a critic; Sartre is like Bloom, then, but one who knocks over Bloom’s chess pieces, even as Sartre agrees with Emerson that argument is finally all.  Listen to Sartre here:

There is no ‘gloomy literature,’ since, however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, one paints it only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it. Thus, there are only good and bad novels. The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.  One can imagine a good novel being written by an American negro even if hatred of the whites were spread all over it, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through his hatred. But nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism. For, the moment I feel that my freedom is indissolubly linked with that of all other men, it cannot be demanded of me that I use it to approve the enslavement of a part of these men. Thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist, whether he speaks of individual passions or whether he attacks the social order, the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject—freedom.

Sartre is still playing chess, with white and black pieces, even though some have run away in an attempt to be “free.” Bloom plays a more elaborate game of chess, one that keeps the pieces upright, even as we have no idea how the game is proceeding, though we do know Shakespeare is Bloom’s king and Emerson, the queen, perhaps. Literature can be ‘too gloomy’ for Bloom—he accused Poe of precisely this, even as he praised Emerson’s health and clarity. But those who accuse Poe of playing too much in a minor key tend to be those who play in no key at all and instead do a lot of thumping: Sartre thumps very loudly in order to flatter a certain sensibility. Bloom sings fragmented medleys, flattering in a far more rarefied fashion.

WINNER: BLOOM

The last of the women—de Beauvoir and Cixous—have fallen!

The Post-Modern bracket is now Wilson, Austin, Said, and Bloom!

 

 

REPORTER AT LARGE: MARILYN CHIN AND AFAA WEAVER AT THE GROLIER

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.  The last American poem to be famous?

Poetry tells of larger things, and it is entirely in the telling that it succeeds or fails, to tell of those larger things. If Poetry tells of a small thing: the fashion or style of someone’s appearance, or of a large thing: war, history, law, it will all be big or small, or significant, or insignificant, because of how it is told. Poetry is the ‘telling’ game, and what is told does not finally matter in poetry.

The smallest matter gets our attention if it is told to us by a friend; if a stranger wants to tell us something vital and personal, we are less interested—this is the rule of friendship; we may even tell the stranger to shut up, or go away, even if the news is important to the stranger.

Telling has rules and nuances governed by the complexities of the life we are living.

How we tell something may impact what we tell, and if how we tell impacts what we tell significantly, we have moved into the realm of art: rhetoric, poetry, song.

If everyone were friends, we would not need government. Government protects strangers from each other.

A poem, if it is really good, demands, because it is good, that strangers experience it, too.

However, unlike government, poetry isn’t necessarily for strangers.

Poetry, like gossip, like heart-to-heart talks, can simply be for friends only.

The only time a poem can be ‘known to strangers’ (famous) is if it deals with the business of strangers, and the business of strangers pertains to one of two things: 1) some extravagant aesthetic pleasure or 2) the government’s role of protecting strangers from each other.

(We could add a third: Pedagogy concerns strangers. Poems in textbooks can make a poet famous, and when the New Critics’ Understanding Poetry was one of the few, this did make a huge difference—but that was over 50 years ago. Scarriet has discussed this angle elsewhere, so we’ll leave it aside for the time being.)

The first—aesthetics—has withered away in terms of poetic fame: how poems traditionally tell what they tell is no longer a standard for a large audience: we only understand aesthetic excellence in context; when that context no longer exists, widespread appreciation is no longer possible. The Bee Gees became big in 1967 because they sounded like the Beatles; the Bee Gees did not sound exactly like the Beatles, but the Bee Gees succeeded within the parameters of a recognized template. Popular music, as unique as any particular song might be, succeeds in terms of a template. The popular song, or the popular music concert, meets the popular criteria of ‘extravagant aesthetic pleasure,’ based on a template: whatever the lights, singing style, dancing, lyrical content, personal appearance, etc. happen to be. What used to make poems famous: rhyme, meter, and other rhetorical devices which mark telling as exceptional within poetry’s traditional template, no longer exists in criticism and practice. The experimental has unstrung the bow. There is no longer any way of telling whether a poem as a poem, is excellent or not.

The second—impact in the sphere of government—since the withering away of the first, is now the only route to poetic fame, and the facts prove the case. “Howl,” the last poem to achieve some degree of fame in the United States (if we do not count Plath’s suicide) was read by the government (judged as obscene or not) before it was read widely by the people. The same is true of Fleurs du Mal; the French poet Baudelaire’s template-shattering poetry was published—and examined by government censors—one hundred years before “Howl.” True, Baudelaire rhymed, but translated into English, the subversive, prosaic content became the manifest effect and major influence on poets like T.S. Eliot. The ‘poetry template’ was still in place for poets like Frost and Millay, appreciated in their time, but over the last 50 years or so, the template has been eclipsed by pure content—thus it is no longer possible for poetry to be famous as poetry, since content generates interest everywhere, and poetry has no ownership of content in any competitive sense at all.

Stephen Burt, in his just published New York Times review of Patricia Lockwood’s second book of poems declares that “Rape Joke, ” the poem that went viral on the web last year, is the least funny poem, and not the best poem, in her collection. “Rape Joke” tells of Lockwood being raped by her boyfriend, and the painful, ambiguous, non-legal aftermath.

It is true that Lockwood’s poem has not been ‘read by the government,’ but it is about sex, and sex as potentially regulated—or not—by the government has reached a threshold of interest, and is the essential content of “Rape Joke.”  I was raped. Doesn’t anybody care? This is the deftly turned plea of “Rape Joke.” It is a cry for government attention on a serious level. We must protect the vulnerable in a legally representative manner in this specific area: sexual freedom collides with sexual harm in a way which puzzles and perturbs the law, just as “Howl,” which had to be judged by legal officials, puzzled censors of public morality. Is this OK? Do we need to be protected from this?  This question—asked specifically of “Howl,” is a question for strangers—it is not a question for friends only—and is thus a ticket to fame.

There’s a line dividing the country now, a line so prominent and defined that it is spilling into discourse of every kind: secular progressives versus religious right-wingers increasingly steals into every conversation.

But the debates that boil over in a far-reaching manner are characterized by profound legal ambiguity: a lot of strangers are certain, but divided, even within the context of the Constitution.

If the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects the free exercise of religion, not sexual activity, and if religion promotes chastity, all sexual issues, including issues like gay rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, will bump up against the government, whether it is explicitly a legal issue, or not. “Rape Joke” fits into this category. In the past, with obscenity trials, the subversive in the work may have been a genuine factor, but when freedom, and government regulation of freedom, is the overriding concern, the role mentioned above: ‘government protecting strangers from themselves,’ becomes paramount. Patricia Lockwood may be subversive, but her rapist is more so.

To repeat: fame is possible only when strangers are impacted—either aesthetically or in terms of government. If “Howl” and “Rape Joke” succeed aesthetically, it is impossible to tell in any immediate or measurable way. The legal issue is what perches on the bust and remains.

The Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision recently caused a stir, precisely because of a legal controversy which refuses to be resolved.  Protected religion, promoting chastity, denies sexual rights and even condones bullying of gays, according to some: but is the bully at fault, or Christ? The city of Salem, in reaction to the Hobby decision, severed a contract with Gordon college, a Christian institution, and Salem’s mayor was applauded on Facebook when she advertised that she was donating five dollars to a North Shore Gay Youth Center for every call of complaint received in her offices, calls apparently fueled by a prominent right wing author and media personality. The argument here is that Christianity, protected by the Constitution, promotes bullying of gays; therefore the Constitution promotes bullying of gays. Amendment to the Constitution, anyone? Legal division feeds uproars of strangers more than anything else.

Last evening we had the pleasure to attend a poetry reading in Harvard Square by two poets, both in the activist mode: Marilyn Chin and Afaa Weaver: one starting out as a poor immigrant from Hong Kong, one as a frightened kid from America’s black ghetto. Weaver, the black man, brought to his audience at the Grolier Poetry bookstore, Chinese nature poetry, and Chin, the petite Asian woman, blues and rap inflected libidinous poems. They were lovely together, and questions rained down upon them from the rapt, standing-room-only audience following the reading.

In the question and answer session, Weaver, who just won the Kingsley Tufts Award of 100,000 dollars, and read from his 12th collection, The Government of Nature (U. Pittsburgh), spoke in restrained accents of the African slave trade, the diaspora which he called truly the worst holocaust, for its 18 million estimated deaths. Marilyn Chin, who teaches in California, in town to promote her latest book, Hard Love Province (W.W. Norton), a dynamic collection of elegies and yawping utterances in a fermenting hybrid of songs/forms, called herself an “activist”—as poet and teacher—and being in her presence, one really feels it springs from her whole being: she’s not just playing at this; she’s a mother in the flesh giving birth to this, forever and always. Which is not an easy thing to do. There are pauses after she makes a joke or says “okay, okay!” in which life, plain life, intervenes: and a little voice whispers: is this Chinese Poet Activist Mother thing—for real? It is.

Marilyn Chin is almost famous for her poem which begins:

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin

“How I Got That Name” tells us her dad named her for Marilyn Monroe, adding that no one questioned his impulse because we know “lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency.”

Marilyn Chin, by putting her finger on “lust,” slyly takes on male poets like Whitman, Pound and Ginsberg, all famous for poems which “list.” We know why Marilyn Monroe was famous, and yet the name itself is famous, and millions of strangers are named Marilyn. The themes of “How I Got That Name” are many; some are: fame and lust and being named, and ‘that name’ rather than ‘my name’ is the key, perhaps, to this very teachable poem, and it would be deliciously ironic if “How I Got That Name” made Marilyn Chin truly famous at last.

Marilyn Chin likes to banter between poems; she enjoyed teasing Weaver, her ‘big brother.’ Laughing, she looked at him as she punned multiple times on the word sin (sincerity) making reference to Weaver’s Chinese scholarship: Sinologist. It was quite an evening.

Weaver, stoic and solid, is just as fascinating as a person, though he doesn’t ooze the energy of a famous person like Marilyn Chin does. Weaver appeared quietly happy, but one could tell that here was a physically large man who had been laid low a time or two in his life by forces beyond his control. The Tao Te Ching saved Weaver’s life when he was in his 20s, a college dropout learning to be a poet, working long years in a Baltimore factory.

Race—and every attendant cultural nuance—is at the heart of Weaver and Chin’s politics. Racial bigotry is still on America’s radar, but in terms of fame, in our era, it hasn’t got a chance against sex, and this is because fame has little to do with history and everything to do with contemporary legality. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution leave no room for debate—at least legally.

This has nothing to do with ‘sex sells,’ per se. Chin writes quite a bit about sex—even with haiku, in her latest collection! But this alone will never lead to poetic fame. Now if a book is banned for sex, that’s another manner. That will make you famous.

 

 

 

 

NEXT TO BE SAD

She traded Henry for James
And now James is glad,
But James doesn’t know he’s
The next to be sad.

The one she abuses
Learns a lesson, Jimmy, lad;
T
he one she chooses is
The next to be sad.

The man she refuses
Is rejected a tad,
But the man she chooses is
The next to be sad.

If you are the next,
For a while you’ll be glad—
But her next is, you ought to know,
The next to be sad.

MISS UNIVERSITY

Put down your device and listen to me.
Do you know Miss University?
We owe her a trillion dollars in debt.
Are you listening yet?
Professor Benjamin took a suicide pill.
Hunted by Nazis: no money, no will.
America hunted the Nazis down.
Miss University was burned to the ground.
They cancelled many a college course
As Miss University was handled with force.
The intellectualization
Of Miss University never saved a nation.
When groups like Nazis start to hold sway
Miss University just does what they say;
But every poet and scientist is dead
Unless Miss University lets them get read.
She is the girl every intellectual desires,
The lovely of brick and ivy covered spires;
But these days any building will do
To pull the ass-kissing degree-seekers through
For vanity and pride, a printed degree,
A victim of Miss University.
A program to please every trend and taste
As the competition must be laid to waste,
As ‘on-line’ and ‘psycho-babble’ mix and blend;
(With most of the courses cancelled in the end)
Miss University’s catalogue advertises
Plenty—in cynical disguises.
University accepts every crazy and flake—
She has enrollment goals to make,
And retention numbers to count,
As crushing debt continues to mount,
As graduates find out a degree
Doesn’t equal opportunity:
You’ve been pleasured by Miss University.
She knows how to avoid disasters:
A teacher to keep teaching must get a masters.
Just make it necessary
To bow and scrape for her degree
And make her’s the kind of place
Which teaches the same disgrace
Of paper pushing guile
Which first made her smile.
The deans and bureaucrats multiply
And become the very reason why
The whole business exists at all.
Raise money to buy a new hall
For Miss University to dance
On corpses, so you, hypocrite!—might have a chance.

 

 

 

 

WHAT COULD BE MORE WRONG THAN A POEM STOLEN FROM A SONG?

 

 

Dante may have rhymed like the Cat in the Hat,
But who will take you seriously if you rhyme like that?
A mournful picture which takes your breath away,
A rain covered river in a mist of gray,
The reedy banks and the green hanging over,
The river swollen, the foliage sinking lower,
Makes an impression on the eye—
But too much rhyme makes the reader want to cry…
If you want an orchestra to support your art
Poetry can play only a small, wordy part.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song

Poetry is somber and grammatical.
It sympathizes with the painter’s art
To find in objects a sympathetic heart,
To find in nature where nothing but cruelty is
A bird’s flute or a hesitant kiss.
But the poem lives in shadows
And cannot turn towards the light
For it lives with reason only,
Not with laughter—or any sensual delight;
It does not drum. It has no sight.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song.

Good night, poetry, in your safe lake of death.
You have no music, no eyesight, no breath.
Music marches and pictures tease.
A poem is only marks on a frieze.
A poem is a meditation on a grave;
It brings silence to the mind.
Sober poetry’s thoughts are of a different kind;
It knows not music’s immediate bliss;
It thinks of—but is not—the kiss:
Yet without this there is no genius.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MODERN BRACKET HURTLES TOWARDS SWEET 16

Baudelaire versus Saussure

Baudelaire learned from Poe that melancholy is the most beautiful in art, but for everyone but the genius melancholy begins to hurt too much, and turns to pain, and the beautiful is lost and replaced with envy and despair. Poe was sober, chaste and truly loved the beautiful.  Not Baudelaire.  Baudelaire is the vermin song in the spot where Poe the angel was. In Baudelaire’s shadow we sink further from the master. In Baudelaire’s famous poem, “Au Lecteur,” Ennui, or Boredom, presides over the other devils. If Baudelaire had been honest, he would have written somewhere in Fleur du Mal of his own envy which gnawed at him (the real king of his demons) and ushered in Modernism—which envies the Classical.

Ferdinand Saussure was born in 1857, the year Fleur du Mal first appeared in Paris bookshops. Just as Romanticism was born in the 18th century—not the 19th, as traditionally taught, Modernism was born in the 19th century—but what we find interesting is that language-obsessed post-Modernism which owes so much to Saussure arrived later in the 20th century only because Saussure’s ideas were transmitted tardily.

Materially, the various eras follow each other in perfect order: cotton gin, camera, automobile, etc.

But in terms of art and ideas, eras exist in no order at all-–scholars simply assume that people ‘thought this way’ or ‘thought about these kinds of things’ during this or that era; the divisions are made based on convenience, or ideology; all is slippery and evasive—and because ideas are more important than things or technology, the truth, we can be sure, is lost.

Saussure made the incredible claim that all knowledge, all thought, all ideas, don’t exist until they are put into language.

He then posited that language is arbitrary and has no positive definition; it is a field of negatives: this is not this, etc.

Here is the dangerous Post-Modernism idea generated by Saussure: there is nothing real behind language.  Further, whatever we do, or speak, exists from a blind allegiance to social convention: we are hopelessly trapped in group-think from one end of our minds to the other. We may smile, we may shout, we can attempt to authenticate expression in any number of performances imbued with the highest feeling: no matter.  We are only robots exhibiting group behavior.

However: Can I not walk down the street and see someone walking towards me, observing how they grow increasingly larger as they approach?   I do not need language to note this principle.

Saussure is wrong. There is a world of thought which does not need a language to exist.  Saussure does not deny pre-linguistic thought; he only says it is a confused jumble.  But what is confused about perspective?

It is certainly more difficult to think without language; but is it thinking we are doing with language?—perhaps all the thought worthy of the name is precisely that which comes into existence before we try it out in mere words.

What does it mean for us if the Saussurean principle is rife with error?

WINNER: BAUDELAIRE

Benjamin versus Freud

Freud was an old man when the Nazis came to power, escaping to London at the end of a distinguished life; Benjamin was middle-aged and a failed professor when the Nazis took over, killed trying to escape. Freud read Shakespeare in English. Benjamin translated Baudelaire into German.  Freud, intellectually free, grounded by studies of insanity and the science of human pathology, influenced by great masters, such as Schiller, willing to seek all paths and byways, changed sex into religion. Freud’s involvement with hypnosis, free association, transference, will make him forever significant from a literary standpoint. It could almost be said that Freud took literature and turned it into science.  Not literature-as-scientific-study. Science formed by literature.  Freud changed the world. Benjamin was crushed by it.

WINNER: FREUD

Pater versus Wilde

Pater narrowed Letters in a vague manner. Wilde expanded Letters in gem-like, aphoristic glee.

WINNER: WILDE

Ransom versus Eliot

This is an interesting match, since Ransom represents the American, and  Eliot, the European strain of conservative High Modernism.  Both men were born in 1888, Ransom in the spring, Eliot in the fall.

T.S. Eliot, which Scarriet never tires of pointing out, since it is highly significant and no one else ever points it out, traces his literary heritage back to Emerson through his distinguished grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, and grand uncle, Christopher P. Cranch, Dial poet, both friendly with Emerson—who made important pilgrimages to England: setting the groundwork for Eliot’s Anglo-American snobbery and Eliot’s hatred of the patriotic Irish-American, and enemy of Emerson, Edgar Poe. (Ransom’s New Critics, though Southern, disliked Poe, too.)

Modernism was the sickly, over-intellectual, internationalist reaction to American idealism—embodied by a writer like a Poe, who worshiped all sorts of ideals: Beauty, Country, Woman, Romance, Love, Verse etc, simple ideals easily mocked, distorted, and mangled by the morbid, cutting, intellectualizing of characters such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Modernism wasn’t progress; it was rudeness elevated to art: a vast generalization, perhaps, but with a grain of truth, which we assert for that important grain. Rudeness is as old as the hills—there’s nothing ‘modern’ about it; but since Eliot and Pound are ‘of’ our time, we assume they are more ‘modern’ than Poe, or that Poe’s idealism must belong to the past.

John Crowe Ransom, Southern Agrarian and New Critic, was clever, wrong-headed, Modernist, and superficially conservative like Eliot, and worked with Paul Engle, Robert Lowell, and Robie Macauley (Iowa Writers Workshop, CIA, Playboy fiction editor) to get the Program Era rolling. Eliot went to Europe and moped over England’s loss of influence, etc. During the 30s, Eliot made his speech against the Jews, Ransom published the reactionary “I’ll Take My Stand.” But for the most part, these were highly intelligent men. Ransom enjoyed himself more, was more well-rounded, and actually got more done. Both Eliot and Ransom slammed the Romantics; Eliot, a kind of craven prude, attacked Shelley personally; Ransom dismissed Byron as old-fashioned. They were of their time and rode the time as Modernist scolds with a mandarin, reactionary fervor.  Loony Post-Modernism makes Eliot and Ransom seem sensible by comparison; however as brilliant as they were, they were not.

WINNER: RANSOM

 

RAGE IN AMERICA

 

Those school shooters.  What are we going to do about them?

According to Jim Sleeper in a July 4, 2014 Salon article excitedly titled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day: School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement,” the American spirit is dying in a hail of gunfire from enemies within—“young, white” school shooters.

At the head of his piece, right below his frightening title, Sleeper quotes the Emerson poem on the “embattled farmers” firing the “shot heard ’round the world” in America’s violent Revolutionary War birth for contrast to the recent spate of maniac Americans-on-Americans shootings.

Sleeper, author and lecturer at Yale, has produced one of these reflective yet alarmist pieces that appear every now and then in magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s or The New Republic, in which a moderate Left Think-Tank-type professor makes a sincere spiritual effort to bring moderate Right and Left elements together in a polite way to “fix” an America which has lost its Founding ideals.

Sleeper quickly reveals his hand as a “Small-is-Beautiful” liberal—first, by invoking Emerson’s “farmers” and second, by writing:

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises…

America was opposed to “divine-right monarchy” and “aristocracy.” There are always exceptions, but sure, yes.

“Theocracy,” too, is something America wanted to avoid.  Religious, yes; a state-run religion? No.

But did America’s Revolutionary War oppose “mercantilism?” Sleeper is incorrect here. Every school child knows “no taxation without representation.” The colonists did not like having their mercantile ambitions strangled in the cradle by the Crown, a common practice of the British Empire, an empire whose strategy was to rule as “workshop” in a world of (preferably one crop) “farmers.”

Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale! is so wrong that it staggers the imagination: a desire for”mercantilism” was the chief reason for the Revolution—not something the new American republican citizens were opposing. Paul Revere, for instance, was not a “farmer,” but a silversmith and belonged to a secret and highly educated revolutionary society of artists, artisans, and mercantilists.

There is a prominent strain of rural prejudice which can be traced to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who modeled their beliefs on the more radical French Revolution; much of Jefferson’s actual behavior and Emerson’s “English Traits” reveal men who, in spite of their reputations, were actually less patriotic than is commonly thought. But of course every nation and every revolution is going to feature intricate mixtures of motivations, alliances, and beliefs. But to call the American Revolution anti-mercantilist is absurd.

The strategy of an essay like this is to carefully avoid all the hot button Right v. Left issues, and appear to argue from a middle position of anti-commercialism, gun control, and Global Warming “higher” consciousness, so the Moderate Left position rises to the sparkling heights of purity and wisdom.  It’s finally a platform-building political strategy. One hates guns, global warming and capitalism not as separately thought-out positions, sorting through the pros and cons of each; rather one thinks and feels in an all-or-nothing manner with the tribe known as Moderate Left.  Few have the time to think through all the moral, political, historical issues smartly alluded to in this essay, but no matter: tribe-building is the broad benevolent/cynical goal of the writer. He’s looking to cement agreement among a loose demographic who read the same books, take the same college courses, and shop at the same stores (anti-mercantilist places, of course).

Sleeper does the usual liberal floundering about for spiritual values—without resorting to religion, even as he concedes the Puritan opposition to tyranny was instrumental in America’s birth.  He’s looking for that intangible conviction which rests on civility, that republican virtue, that “public candor” as he call it, the elusive community-minded soul at the heart of a working democracy which can bridge the increasingly rancorous Republican/Democrat divide, and his whole rhetorical strategy is to lower the temperature on the feverish divisiveness which characterizes so much political speech today, and find common ground—admirable, of course, in itself. He takes issues which normally create impasses between Left and Right and calls them merely symptomatic:

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Believing in God can make one fearless in opposing human oppression—and yet even if religious superstition has virtues, intellectuals will still walk in fear of it, so Sleeper quickly assures his Salon audience that he is certainly not advocating a return to Puritanism—even as he all but admits his complaint of America’s moral corruption and vanity is nothing if not a Puritan one.

Not only does Sleeper invoke the virtues of religion, from Founding Puritanism to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers” but old-fashioned patriotism is brought forward, as well, in the person of young Nathan Hale and his famous utterance before his hanging by the British in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He adds the story of three Yale seniors defying the Vietnam War draft and the university chaplain who supported them.

But then he observes:

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

What is the answer, then? How can we rescue America from cynicism and “mayhem?”

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

In the beginning of his piece, Sleeper does a good job of painting a pretty bleak picture of ourselves:

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Yes, we need help. So what are these “touchstones” which can save us?  We can’t go back to the old “touchstones:”

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord.

Sleeper is wrestling with two Great Platitudes: 1) America is in the midst of Roman Empire-type collapse and 2) American civilization and democracy, that which makes America historically virtuous and great, and makes us better than all those crummy little countries which always find a way to “reject democracy,” is based on touchstones and wellsprings not quite religious, definitely not mercantile, and which once “encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms” but I’ll-be-damned-if-I-know-what-can-save-us-now.  According to Sleeper, the essence of the problem is this: “consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions.”

Sleeper is quick to make this dubious historical point: in America, the Puritan virtue which stood up to oppression mutated into evil capitalism.  For Sleeper, the uncompromising Puritan toughness of Khomeini somehow leads to the techno-modernizing evil of the Shah. But this is the wrong script. Khomeini (who the liberal Carter administration supported) filled the vacuum of the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini versus the Shah is a manifestation of the divide-and-conquer tactics of imperial oppressors like the British Empire: create a situation in the colony (Iran) of either/or. For here, incredibly, we have Sleeper identifying a “liberal capitalist republic” as lacking in all virtue, and yet somehow brought about by what he identifies as the Puritan “emphasis on individual conscience.”

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

Of what can this “greater good” consist, if buying and selling things, which by nature always corrupts and destroys love of the greater good, is at the heart of the “liberal capitalist republic” which America is? For Sleeper, it ends up being a world without all the bad things he dutifully lists: violence, sex without love, capitalism, religion, dishonest sports, mindless entertainment. People need to be kinder and nicer and think less about their own greedy and material wants. Well, of course. But we’ve heard these impotent pleas a thousand times before: “Why can’t we all get along?” And here, typically, the plea consists of playing to a certain ready-made audience (the “concerned” moderate Left), with a selective misreading of history.

Sleeper, the “small-is-beautiful” liberal, denies “mercantilism” or capitalism any place at the American table.  And what this typical Moderate Left position does is perpetuate a certain kind of scolding, patronizing sermonizing which identifies one as a member of the Moderate Left: America is great because of all sorts of intangibles: resembling religion, but not really, a little like capitalism, but not really, a bit like patriotism but not really, individualism, but not really.  In Sleeper’s world, democracy is this misty ideal—somehow unique to Americans—and has nothing to do with middle class comforts.

But we all know the truth that professors like Sleeper deny: middle class comforts, and the desire for middle class comforts, and the mercantilism which produces middle class comforts, has everything to do with American supremacy: its democracy, its virtue and its happiness.

By ignoring religion’s role in civilizing citizens (we can’t go back to Puritanism, Sleeper says) and only identifying the school shooters (at the rhetorical center of his piece) as “young” and “white” (young blacks killing young blacks are taking a far greater toll, but that’s not really on Sleeper’s radar) Sleeper misses something crucial, beyond even his mercantile bungle.

The school shooters have been, as a rule, “young” and “white,” but they also “have been males,” and acutely “loveless males.”

If we are interested in “touchstones” and causes, we should probably mention the obvious—which goes unmentioned by Sleeper, except indirectly, when he alludes, for instance, to the entertainment industry’s peddling of sex and violence.  But these issues are “symptomatic,” according to him, and perhaps they are.

Sleeper never does find a cause in his long essay.  He has no answers.  All he can say is we need “new narratives.”

May we make a suggestion.

Love, romantic love—romance—is what secretly holds society together and civilizes the world.

Romantic love has been under attack for at least a hundred years, universally disparaged in humanities and art departments as mere Victorian sentimentality; and it’s not even on the radar screen for political analysts like Jim Sleeper.

No one would deny the extent of it, nor even its importance as a certain kind of social glue, but mostly it is looked upon as “archaic and quaint,” or as a “problem” among the breeding lower classes.

But romantic love is really at the heart of all civilization; Plato and Rousseau knew of its importance, and so did Dante and the Romantic poets, but academic Modernism and post-Modernism, which views anything from the past dyspeptically, has largely shut the door on this whole trope.

All other tropes stem from this one.

Religion, for instance, is Romantic love by other means, with Jesus Christ the “bride” for those unable to experience romantic love in the flesh.

It’s okay for religion to be a fiction.  What matters is how it makes people behave.

Dante’s blending of religion and love in the person of Beatrice is a perfect example of what we mean.

This is not an insignificant trope; romantic love, when it is idealized by great poets and spread among the people, is that wonderful hybrid of chastity, philosophy, kindness, worship, art, beauty, ardency, reflection, chivalry, loyalty and marriage.

It softens the male, which is crucial.

Here is the “touchstone” that we need.

And, oh yes, let’s not be afraid of mercantilism and middle class comforts, either.

We have these things already.  Things are not as bad as they seem.  But to make Sleeper feel better, that’s our suggestion.

 

 

 

 

 

I’M THE ONE WHO DOES ALL THE WORK

My novels are long, ten times longer than yours,
My intricate poems take years to write;
I assembled my wardrobe with more effort than you can imagine,
The colors that match and the expensive material should tell you something,
And you can’t possibly appreciate the mammoth undertaking
That went into my cleanliness or my clever jokes
Aimed at dismantling the system
Which oppresses, oppresses
Even from its bed, even while it is naked, held by
The lover that loves.

THE PRICELESS FUTURE–FOURTH OF JULY POEM

Call it the love that it is:
Body of flesh pointing to the future,
Venus of reproduction, a daughter
Not down here for poetry or dance
Or the lesbian alternative.
Sexy prophecy of now,
More lovely than a golden cow.
The only reason for her sexiness:
Bearing children in the priceless future.
Hips, breasts, the good flesh,
A conspiracy of reproducing nature.
Nature will let you touch the breast
After painting and poetry have spoken,
After the speech, perhaps the sacred portal will open.
Life—without reason—will begin.
Here is accident without nuance.
Here is the clumsiest dance.
Sacrifice to silence and pilgrimage.
You, ashamed to kiss
Pure quantity?
Call it the love that it is.

 

 

FAME: IS IT REALLY HOLLOW?

Fame is not anything like we expect.  Fame is an ‘outside’ experience which has no correlation with our ‘inside’ experience—with ourselves, with who we are.  This is why fame so often leads to madness.  It splits the person.  But what if the ‘inner self’ wishes for fame and does not get it, that could ‘split us’ and lead to madness, as well.  “Sweet fame” is how the Romantic poets referred to it—it was considered a worthy ambition for the poet. Perhaps fame is a comfort to some, a vindication, a desire to spread goodness and beauty.  We are not here to simply disparage it.

But we suspect fame is often misunderstood.

How is it…hollow?

Let’s see…the first myth of fame which needs destroying: fame is not adoration; it is, in fact, its opposite.

To be “talked about” is the last thing a good moral reputation needs.

And, as the famous Poe once quoted, “No Indian prince to his palace has more followers than a thief to the gallows.”

A hanging draws great crowds, and disgusting curiosity is enough, in itself, to crown fame upon almost anyone.

We hear that some writer is famous, and we often don’t know how they came by that fame.  We often have no idea.

We assume their fame is because they write well.

This is mostly naive.

There are millions of beautiful women.  Why do only some—for their “beauty”—become famous?

Think about it.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, James Joyce and his Ulysses, Charles Baudelaire and his Fleur du Mal, Allen Ginsberg, and his Howl, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, just to name six famous modern examples, all owe their fame to law courts and cases of public morality. (one might note: the authors here are all men)

These are not just six ‘juicy’ works—these are icons in the top ten of Modern Literature, period.

Fame by cheating?

Poe—mentioned above—was chaste in manner, but his fame exists for another dubious reason: parody.

The Raven, Poe’s famous poem, was immediately parodied when it was first published.  Poe was reviled, as a harsh critic, in certain circles: parody and dislike often leads to fame, as well.

Another example which quickly springs to mind is the ridicule which greeted works of modern art—Marcel Duchamp and his museum-placed urinal—or the indignation elicited by new works of music.

The Beatles, in a sense, were parodied by The Monkees, a “manufactured” Beatles-type band for TV, and this leads to the question: is fame always a formula?

Those who worship the Beatles as sophisticated musicians often forget that children made up most of their audience when they first attained fame, and later, too, with their film and album, Yellow Submarine.

But is this such a bad thing?

We can almost say that fame is produced in two ways:

1. Sexually, offending child-like innocence—Flaubert, Joyce, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, Nabokov, and Lawrence.

2. Naively, offering up child-like innocence for sophisticated adult disapproval—Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary”) The Beatles (“Yea, yea, yea”).

We could simplify the two types above by calling them the 1. Tragic and 2. Comic routes to fame.

The really famous will often feature a hybrid of the two:

For instance, when people found drug references (not innocent) in Beatle John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” song, inspired by a drawing done by his kid (innocent).

Poe was ridiculed for a “childish” poem, “The Raven,” but was attacked for depraved habits, as well.

This interpretation of fame which we are now outlining is more accurate than the commonly used: Offends bourgeois taste.

Flaubert and Baudelaire date from 1857, and “Howl” went to trial in 1957, so we are looking at a 100 year window of sex, fame, and modernity, the so-called Tragic path.

T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edna Millay, W.C. Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath have had some success, but since Plath’s “Daddy” was published in the wake of her suicide in 1962, not one poem has become famous, not like “The Raven,” anyway, or one of Frost’s little gems; that’s a drought of 50 years, and we now live in a ‘social media’ age where things “go viral” all the time.

Recently, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, a poem by Patricia Lockwood called “Rape Joke” made a stir.  The numbers were not phenomenal, but they were pretty good for the ‘poetry world.’

The raw content of “Rape Joke” could easily be filed under Tragic, and yet in a gesture to the “hybrid” characterization mentioned above, Lockwood’s poem “jokes,” also—if grimly.

We published a response to “Rape Joke” on Scarriet.  One reader reacted to it angrily, which we—writing about our experience as an innocent child—never saw coming.

Perhaps we have entered a Post-Famous-Poem Age.

Maya Angelou asks in her 1978 poem, “Still I Rise:” “Does my sexiness upset you?”

Patricia Lockwood makes this rueful comment in her poem, “Rape Joke:”

“The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”

 

 

 

ROMANTIC BRACKET MAKES FOR THE SWEET 16

Marx versus Wordsworth

Marx and Wordsworth both hungered for simplicity; a certain nostalgia characterizes the madly ambitious intellect of the modern world.

Life was anything but simple for Marx and Wordsworth, but a hunger for the ‘simple life’ launched efforts on their part to deconstruct all that was complex.

Both of these gentlemen wanted to get rid of religion—because of its tendency, they thought, to confuse a world with a world, to distort one world with the promises of another.

These men were radical, because religion had not yet been widely questioned in their day; religion represented morality and order—which kept nature, red in tooth and claw, at bay.

Is nature really so terrifying?  For Wordsworth, fresh air, exercise, the beauty and the peace of rambling through the countryside is health—surpassing all the jargon and complexity of religion.

Marx was more urbane; he was not a hiker, like Wordsworth, and condemned, in fact, “the idiocy of bucolic life,” but Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum, not hiking about like Wordsworth, also despised religion, and compared the “fetishism” of religion with the “fetishism” of commodities; capitalism, for Marx, like religion for both, was a trick of the mind, leading to inequality.

Wordsworth wanted simple poems, Marx, simple labor practices; this was dangerous heresy in a complex world, but simplicity proved to be wildly attractive, and very popular as modern (naive) systems of thought. Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, as did Emerson, devotee of Wordsworth, and landlord of Thoreau—the thinker who quietly united Wordsworth and Marx.

One might say Marx was a lot more dangerous than Wordsworth, but one can find politics in Wordsworth if one looks hard enough—but one cannot find poetry in Marx.

WINNER: WORDSWORTH  William Wordsworth has made it to the Sweet 16!

***

Edmund Burke versus Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Burke is best known for his “conservative” objection to the thrills and dangers of the French Revolution.  Coleridge is best known for a few iconic poems, plagiarizing the Germans, talking endlessly, and theorizing iconically as well. Also: unhappiness in love, poor Coleridge! and opium abuse. And his on again, off again, friendship with Wordsworth. I know this crap: Imagination and Fancy, etc because I was an English major, the field of study which truly rocked, but for some reason is dying out, even though grammatical/philosophical literacy remains vital and other fields of study have nothing as interesting as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

WINNER: COLERIDGE Congratulations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you join your friend Wordsworth in the Sweet 16!

***

Edgar Poe versus Thomas Love Peacock

Whence came Edgar Poe?  We can’t get our heads around his greatness. The modern literary genius should come from London or Paris or Boston, not from the slave-owning South! There’s something in that which offends the literary sensibility of cool.  But, too bad; the greatest American literary genius came from the slave-owning South. And also had no money.

To make it worse, Poe’s genius is inescapable and unquestioned; it cannot be trivialized or wished away, though many have tried it, with a shoddy, slanderous, mumbly ignorance.

Since Poe overwhelms opponents to such a degree that it is like watching a helpless person pinned to the ground longer than we think is reasonable, people hate him.  And when someone is always right, or truly looks into our mind and soul with a calm stare that is truthful and honest, we are thrown into moral and even physical agony. Poe is too good to be believed, so good, he annoys, because we have little to do after we accept his ascendency. We cannot dilly-dally with pleasure after we absorb his templates. His inventions force us to be brief and intelligent, or die.

Thomas Love Peacock is a brilliant author, and his “The Four Ages of Poetry” is a masterpiece of criticism, inspiring his friend, Shelley’s, “Defense.”  Peacock’s novels were mostly conversations, like Plato’s dialogues. Peacock was known as “The Laughing  Philosopher.” He and his friend Shelley shared a love of Ancient Greece. Peacock worked in the offices of the East India Company, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill.

But what chance does a Peacock have against Edgar Poe?

WINNER: POE  Poe ushers himself into the Sweet 16.

***

Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Percy Shelley

Ralph Emerson talks about the soul to such an extent that one is quite certain, after reading Emerson, that the soul does not exist. Emerson is the kind of person that when you are thinking about something, says, ‘excuse me, let me do that for you.’ You don’t read Emerson, you surrender to him. Emerson will spend several hours explaining how the soul relates to the natural fact when he could have simply told us the soul is the natural fact—but nothing is simple for Emerson, or for those who attempt to understand him. His prose is poetry—when rearranged a bit with the name ‘Walt Whitman’ attached. Poetry that hectors. Emerson called Poe ‘the jingle man, but Poe’s jingle is melodic and clear compared to the jangle jungle that is Ralph Harvard Divinity School Emerson. The ‘forward-thinking liberal’ who makes superstition seem reasonable? That would be Waldo, the axe-grinder. Emerson wants argument everywhere: even in meters, as he tells us in “The Poet.” But you can’t be good at meters if you are not good at argument, so why does Emerson fault good meters which lack argument? I know a poet good at meters, Emerson says, but the true poet, etc….and here the sermon assures us that sermonizing about poetry is the way to get at it—thus Emerson envied Poe and Emerson’s heir, T.S. Eliot (Unitarian grandfather knew Mr. E.), hated Shelley.

Ah, Shelley! Shelley needs no argument. Shelley argues against religion and God with a music that remakes them. One cannot write like Dante and be an atheist. There is more God in the paganism of Plato than even in the unconscious accents of the modern non-believer. The sun recommends nature and God at once, and Shelley is that type of artist who reconciles, even in despair.

WINNER: SHELLEY

BADASS, FUNNY, BUT ALAS, NOT CRITIC-PROOF

David Kirby: Makes a good salary. Doesn’t go to Olive Garden.

Philip Sidney, back in the 16th century, defended poetry against the charge that poetry is nothing but a pack of damn lies rather snarkily: “The poet never affirmith and therefore never lieth.”

Call this the Smart-Ass Defense: Poetry can be as naughty and lying as it wants to be because it’s only playin.

So Plato’s objection is put to rest, if we just don’t take poetry seriously.

But the rub here is that Sidney—who wasn’t “playin” when he died fighting Spain for Queen Elizabeth—was a secret Platonist.

The Shadow of Plato covers all: between science, religion, censorship and Ezra Pound, no one takes poetry seriously these days.

In the 19th century, poetry found its place as an expression of love, and this worked for awhile: you express love, but affirm nothing; love in its pure, unrequited state: OK, not bad.

But hubris struck hard in the 20th century as the poets suddenly wanted to be taken seriously again.  Poets woke up to the fact that Plato had won.  They didn’t like that, really.

Yes. Taken seriously.  Not as a way to learn Latin. Not as a way to learn to Greek. Not as a way to express love.  But seriously.  We are Modernist!  We are serious! We are interesting!  We are historically significant!

Seriously?

Ezra Pound and a few friends began an Imagiste movement.  They made a manifesto.  But no one took them seriously.  You’re just doing haiku, they said.

But haiku is pretty serious stuff.  It affirms the natural fact, anyway.

Some kind of serious progress, in the name of “serious,” was being made.

But no one read these Modernists, printing their little poems in their little magazines. Yet something was happening in the world, something weird.  Everyone was getting very serious.  The Nazis. Modern art. It was all very, very weird.  And serious.

And international.  Ah, here was something.  For Plato’s moral objection to art was based on making the state a strong, defensible entity.  Morality is defense. The good is a wall.

But Internationalism has no walls. 

Nazism was internationalist. Communism was internationalist. Modernism was internationalist.

Eliot in London, Pound in Axis Italy, Stein in Paris, Auden and Isherwood in Berlin and China, Bauhaus and Duchamp in New York.

But World War II defeated internationalism.   The USA—and nationalism—emerged as strong as ever.   Would the poets ever beat Plato?

Then came poetry—serious, international poetry’s—big chance: the university.

The Creative Writing Program model replaced the English Major model: living poets replaced dead poets.

Affirmation was back. You don’t pay tuition fees to poets unless you take them a little bit seriously.

Pedagogy in a university is nothing if not affirming and serious, and this pedagogy—we see it in Understanding Poetry, the New Critic’s textbook (the New Critics, allied with Pound and Williams)—brought Modernism into the Academy.

Game changer.

Poetry is serious again.  Poets are now professors.  They collect salaries.  And their students now choose Creative Writing over Study of the Past.

So here we are in the present, and now we turn to our sordid tale of Professor Kirby, poet and fun-loving bad-ass known affectionately to his friends as “The Kirb.”

Since poets are affirming again, they are no longer critic-proof; for critics may now call them out—and, to put it bluntly, accuse them of lying.

This is what happened to David Kirby—depicted above in a photo gracing the cover of his latest book of poems, A Wilderness of Monkeys.

In a review of A Wilderness of Monkeys, here’s what a critic said:

 

I have an issue with David Kirby’s A Wilderness of Monkeys. I have a problem with this poetry!

But first, consider this: Kirby’s poems are fun, crazy, free-fall, a tumbling of words, a stream of whatever. Is he going somewhere? Is this random? Is it okay to be random? What does it all mean? Who really was the fattest president? Is Kirby simply being funny? Can a book of poetry be a series of jokes?

In “Legion, For We are Many,” he writes:

I’m doing a couple of yoga stretches in
a quiet corner
of the Atlanta airport because my
flight’s delayed,
though having said “Atlanta airport,”
I realize
that I don’t have to say “my flight’s
delayed.”

I love that! Poetry can be so self serious! As with Alexie, it’s nice to see some humor!

“Massages by Blind Masseurs” starts off:

My tree guy and I are watching as the
man with the chipper
arrives, and I say, “Mr. Pumphrey,
every once in a while
I read that somebody gets tired of his
wife and knocks her
on the head and passes her through
one of these chippers,”
and he says, “I know, Mr. Kirby—
terrible isn’t it?” and then
he says, “And it doesn’t do the chipper
any good either.”

Hilarious. A number of the poems in this collection are just as strange and funny.

But still, I have an issue. It lies in the poem “Good Old Boys,” where David Kirby mentions people who got take-out from the Olive Garden and left their puppy nearly to die in an overheated truck cab. He derides them, saying,

Besides who gets
take-out from the Olive Garden?
You miss out on the endless
breadsticks and salad that way.

Here, here is the rub. Mr. Kirby writes about Olive Garden as if he actually goes to that restaurant. But in the author’s photo on the back of the book, Mr. David Kirby sits on a porch next to a black wrought iron fence, wearing a smart haircut and a splendid poet’s uniform of black sport coats and (I believe) dark jeans, with a Robert O. Lawton Professor of English at Florida State University annual salary of $127,080. All of which leads me to believe he has not set one foot inside an Olive Garden for the past 15 years.

If this is true, clearly it undermines his credibility as a poet who can write authentically about Olive Garden! Even if he has gone there recently, we may guess that he went with irony, with a “slumming” self-awareness that he was going someplace faux-classy like Olive Garden.

So tell us Kirby: what is the deal with Olive Garden? We want to give you a fair shake. We’d like to give you credit. Author photos and biographies can be deceiving. People are different ways. But we just don’t know. This anti-review may just have to leave off with a brocade of doubt stitched into its David Kirby section.

(Then again, that may be the point of an anti-review.)

The whole review, by Joe Hoover, which looks at a number of poets, can be found here.

Ever since Ezra Pound settled in fascist Italy, began his fascist Broadcasts, and was lauded in the influential New Critics’ textbook, Understanding Poetry, and the Program Era began in earnest, poetry is serious business.

Sure, here we have Olive Garden in this instance, as opposed to Mussolini and the Cantos in the other, but here’s the real issue: the poet now affirms, and is meant to be taken seriously.

John Ashbery is critic-proof, because no one quite knows what he is talking about.  Ashbery “never affirmith,” sly devil.  He belongs to Sidney’s world.  Poetry as a waking dream, perhaps.

Not Kirby.  He, with his professor’s six figure salary, belongs to the new poetry of affirmation. He writes truthfully of real things: Olive Garden.

Or, and perhaps this is what annoyed the reviewer: “Good Old Boys.”

Working class people from the South.  People who don’t make 127,080 a year. People like the orphaned newspaper reviewer, Edgar Poe, slammed for his “pure poetry” in the same textbook that praised Ezra Pound and his friend William Carlos Williams, poets of real things and natural facts.

Kirby, as a poet, has a great sense of humor, as Mr. Hoover—who seems like a pretty good reviewer—points out; but wit can hide a sting, and in this case, Mr. Hoover finds Kirby’s sting offensive: professor Kirby uses Olive Garden to “deride” the “good old boys” of his poem.

When your poem contains the following information, “good old boys who got take-out from Olive Garden left their puppy nearly to die in an overheated truck cab,” you are affirming. 

When you affirm, you make the mistake of not listening to Philip Sidney.  As a poet, you open yourself up to a world of hurt.

The critic, like a pickerel waiting in the reeds, strikes: “Mr. Kirby writes about Olive Garden as if he actually goes to that restaurant.”

Uh oh.

“But in the author’s photo on the back of the book, Mr. David Kirby sits on a porch next to a black wrought iron fence, wearing a smart haircut and a splendid poet’s uniform of black sport coats and (I believe) dark jeans, with a Robert O. Lawton Professor of English at Florida State University annual salary of $127,080.”

Ouch.

Does he really make that much money? 

Affirmative, captain.

“All of which leads me to believe he has not set one foot inside an Olive Garden for the past 15 years.”

The stinger has been stung.

The reviewer has strayed from the poem to the poet.

But remember that Sidney said, “the poet never affirmith.”

Once you affirm, not only is your poetry fair game for the Platonist critique, but so are you.

Rumor has it that Kirby is incensed, but the whole thing can, perhaps, be laughed off as a tempest in a teacup.

But we see Kirby v. Hoover as a significant skirmish in the endless campaign by the poets to 1) be taken seriously and 2) defeat Plato—who would never pay a poet 127,080 a year.

 

 

 

NOTHING MUCH HAPPENS HERE (New Scarriet poem)

Nothing much happens here after four.
Five will show up, in his usual place,
always looking suspiciously
ready to make a disclaimer regarding his appearance,
but we’re used to that. Five becomes quiet when Six arrives.

We’re getting rather tired of him, too.
What does Six talk about?  The usual stuff about what happens
between five and six, but we suspect he has no idea what he’s talking about.
He doesn’t talk much about what happens between six and seven,
and becomes very depressed when he does, almost like his time is running out.

Once, he began crying softly for ten minutes. Only when Seven came did he shut up.
Seven is a somber character and she becomes more somber as the evening goes on.
She keeps asking where the others went. Isn’t that obvious?
You and I sit here because we like to be with each other; we’re in love, and we talk almost as an afterthought,
because it’s what people do— they talk, and we hold each other, less shyly as evening comes on.

Eight arrives. In the summer, it’s day, and we see him, dressed like sundown, a brilliant shadow of
A third world person, obsessed with clouds; he chirps more like a cricket than a bird.
Nine shows up, has given up looking for work, given up on a lot of things, but likes to read
And will carefully sing to us about what he’s read. We would love
to have a really interesting conversation, but we can’t. We are falling asleep.

We keep thinking someone else is arriving. Even when I hold you, you look at your watch,
But I am happy to be with you, on an island, in the shadows, for a short hour.

SINCE THE WOMAN IS SUPERIOR SHE SAYS NO

Since the woman is superior, she says no;
Because she is the jewel
To have, she makes
The man, sad, come and go.

Since the man is inferior, he says yes;
Because she is the jewel
To have, she makes
The man run and stop and guess.

Because she is everything, she says no.
Because he is nothing, he whispers
Beatrice! Beatrice! I love you so!

PAINTERS AND ARTISTS NEED TO SHUT UP

We hate the heartbreak and pain and ugliness of actual madness. Are we hypocrites to celebrate it in art?

Scarriet is a “Poetry & Culture” site, but we are highly indebted to art and painting, the glory of depiction and soul. Poetry ain’t got no soul; we know that: writing in complete sentences belongs to the reason and the intellect, and part of the falling off of poetry since Modernism has been that the poets have stopped writing in complete sentences, in the attempt to be like hip painters. But writing will never be hip painting, and when writing attempts this it ends up being a crappy, pretentious, ungrammatical horror show. Okay for texting, but not for literature.

But today we want to lecture the painters and tell them how stupid they have been.

Painting, unlike poetry, and like certain kinds of music and dance, does have soul. Precisely because it can say what it needs to say immediately and without any blah blah blah.

But just as education is ruining literature and just about everything else—including education—as well as destroying the life of a great nation with 1.1 trillion dollars of school debt, education is also destroying the painters.

Painters now feel compelled to support their “artistic mission” with writing, with words, with explanations, those teachable explanations good for the education biz, but destructive of art and soul.

You know what we are talking about: the ubiquitous “artist statements” which accompany every work of art: “My art reflects society’s oppression of women/blacks/gays/the environment.” Or my art “celebrates” blacks/gays/the environment. Or “my art explores ordinary objects/ animals/clothing/sports/erotica/poverty/fashion/families and what they mean in our contemporary society,” etc etc.  (There is nothing wrong with these topics, per se.  We question only the crippling effects of the pedantry.)

We look from the apology for the art to the art itself—and, honestly, we see nothing but weak apology and weak art.

Inevitably, what this whole poisonous attitude has done, an attitude which is tailor-made for the sociological babbling of earnest truisms in schools and colleges and institutes and academies, is force art into a pedantic hell of feeble and abstracted ‘topic & thing-ism’ (sometimes flattered with the misnomers ‘Expressionism’ and ‘Impressionism’).

The art work no longer stands on its own in a purposeful and beautiful manner.

The artistic term Impressionism has nothing to do with “we are impressed!” Or “to make a memorable impression.” It means “fleeting impression.” Or, in other words, we painters have given up. All we are good for is the trivial and the fleeting. That teenager in the 1400s? Durer? We can’t do as well as him.

Art history must share a great deal of the blame, too; and nowhere else but in art history do we see words whored out to ‘explain’ why the ugly and the unexceptional and the unskilled is worthy.

Even good explanations should not be trusted, for as soon as words begin to convince us of the worth of painting, we should close our ears for our own protection. Painting should never need words. Isn’t that the whole point, after all?

So when we read that Van Gogh’s distorted interiors are distortions of a mind illuminating the inherent complexity of reality, a reality which challenges the artist to see beyond dualities of ‘chaos and order’ and ‘ugliness and beauty’ and make art that is both of that reality and inside it, such that this ‘inside’ is the artist’s whole being, imaginatively and empathetically co-creating the viewer’s ‘outside’ experience, making the viewer an artist, too, we should laugh and scorn these words, for no painting needs it— and as much as it does, the painting fails.

It is heretical to challenge the primacy of Van Gogh, obviously, whose underdog status and value—more monetarily secure than a dollar bill—makes him absolutely untouchable; but perhaps more than with any other artist, here we learned what Expressionism really means: the artist is crazy— and therefore judge the art through the lens of psychology and not art— and here the ugly entered the tent where once only beauty was allowed. ‘Crazy’ eclipsed beauty, and every danger imaginable has followed from that.

We hate what is actually and nastily crazy but we hypocritically adore it in painting.

A great artist with effort and sensitivity can portray crazy. Van Gogh didn’t portray crazy. He was crazy. And there’s the chasmatic difference.

The art historian’s words elevated the ‘bad painting’ of Van Gogh to a status which has nothing to do with Van Gogh, per se, and everything to do with the door it opened.

Words, not painting, opened the Crazy door, and only great painting can close that door again.

Painters, stop trusting words—now.

Art schools: stop teaching art history. Art history, especially modern art history, is poison. Eliminate it and forget it. Teach the craft of painting, the skills of drawing; teach the techniques of art—and leave “artist statements” to the wind which blows the dead leaves around your academy.

The poor painters today now have to compete not only with Nature (who always paints better and has always been the painter’s greatest rival) and other painters, but also the blah blah blah of the art historian and art critic. The rise of abstract painting, if the secret reason for that fashion might now be told, was not to escape “representative painting,” but to escape words: for the “perfection” of the purely abstract is that it is free of blah blah blah. The viewer just has to look. But Abstract Painting was a dead-end and a false escape, for those who love painting will never shut up about it. Words will always feed like ravens upon the corpse.

Painters will just have to suck it up and transcend fleeting impressions and crazy expressions and make art that is actually good: see Albrecht Durer’s teenage work.

Paint crazy.

Being crazy will no longer cut it.

Nor will: “Before you can appreciate my painting, I must inform you blah blah blah…”

 

 

 

 

 

POET

Poet! Ungrateful child!
Lover of beauty for its own sake!

Did you expect the moon, your mother,
To give and give, and never take?
To always be a light for you?
In this day, where there is no poetry,
You long for a night that will never return,
When night held you, before the sun rose
And son was the pun too bright to learn.
Listen to me: there is no beauty
For its own sake. Do your duty.
Look inside yourself. You are a dark, indifferent tune.
You need to be a mother.  You need to make another moon.

 

THE CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHERS DESIRE THE SWEET 16!

Plato of The Republic matches up in Round Two with Philip Sidney, poet and author of “A Defense of Poetry,” who died fighting for Queen Elizabeth against Catholic Spain.

Plato was the greatest pro-poetry philosopher, despite those who think the opposite is true.

Sidney, in his Defense, praises Plato, and well, of course. The poet never affirms, and therefore he does not lie, says the clever Sidney, and this is true of The Republic, too, an invented place. In the ideality of its invention, a poem is going to kick the poets out, for only one poet belongs to the true poem. The poet is not in the Republic. The poet authors it. And only then do we begin to understand.

As poets, we each carry around our own Republic, in which no other poet is admitted.  And this is how Plato shows the way to the true—Republic.  There are many heavens inside of heaven.

Plato defeats Sidney in Round Two. PLATO IS IN THE SWEET 16!

***

Aristotle must get past Dante to advance in the tournament: another philosopher battles his student—Dante lived in the dark ages before Plato was widely translated, when Aristotle was “the Philosopher” among scholars and poets.

Dante’s mission, like that of Thomas Aquinas, was to reconcile Aristotle’s scholarship with Christianity, and, clever Dante puts Aristotle’s moral divisions (from Aristotle’s Ethics) in hell, and Christianity reigns in heaven. Reconciliation, indeed!  It is similar to how poets like Sidney reconciled “defenses” of poetry with Plato: the Poem, the Republic, Heaven, the Ideal, is true, self-justifying, and knowledge-seeking.

Dante upsets the mighty Aristotle and advances to the Sweet 16.

***

Is it some accident of fate that places Aquinas against…Pope?  The latter is a poet of such remarkable dexterity and reasoning on all things human, poetic and divine, that what chance does a mere 13th century theologian, dividing up reality to serve Aristotle—the body—the soul—and virtue, in the name of eternal salvation, have?

Presumptuous Man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind!
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why JOVE’S Satellites are less than JOVE?
Of Systems possible, if ’tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?
Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
Nay, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho’ labour’d on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
When the dull Ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God:
Then shall Man’s pride and dullness comprehend
His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;
Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought;
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Alexander Pope

It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways. First, because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion, as is evident from induction. Now it has been already proved (Q. 2, A. 3), that God is the First Mover, and is Himself unmoved. Therefore it is clear that God is not a body. Secondly, because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality. But every body is in potentiality because the continuous, as such, is divisible to infinity; it is therefore impossible that God should be a body. Thirdly, because God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.

Thomas Aquinas

This is what invisible reason looks like: in verse, colored by a hectoring poet; in theology, manifested by a theologian logical to a fault.

Pope and Aquinas both belong to that long line of thinkers (dead white males) who justify the ways of God to Man and believe the world made by God is “the best of all possible worlds.”

This sort of thinking cannot be justified by the modern mind or the modern temper, which fixes on known imperfections and slides along with its morality based on that.  The perfection does not translate into what the moderns understand, and Pope: “Of course it’s not going to look like perfection to you, you worm!” doesn’t make the modern feel much better.

The issue is really one of: what is the universe? And how much of the universe can we trace downward to particulars and upward to abstraction at the same time?  Those who contemplate this are philosophers and worthy of the name.  Poets, and all who involve themselves in Letters, ought to pursue this question, as well.

Pope’s poetry propels him to victory.   Alexander Pope is in the Sweet 16!

***

In the last Classical Bracket contest, Addison duels Maimonides.

We shall look, very much at random, at a sample of writing, and therein determine the winner on the basis of this. Addison wrote an exemplary play and both men wrote so much; we can only look at moments.

 

I mentioned several characters which want explanation to the generality of readers: among others, I spoke of a Pretty Fellow; but I have received a kind admonition in a letter, to take care that I do not omit to show also what is meant by a Very Pretty Fellow, which is to be allowed as a character by itself, and a person exalted above the other by a peculiar sprightliness, as one who, by a distinguishing vigour, outstrips his companions, and has thereby deserved and obtained a particular appellation, or nickname of familiarity. Some have this distinction from the fair sex, who are so generous as to take into their protection those who are laughed at by the men, and place them for that reason in degrees of favour. The chief of this sort is Colonel Brunett, who is a man of fashion, because he will be so; and practices a very jaunty way of behaviour, because he is too careless to know when he offends, and too sanguine to be mortified if he did know it. Thus the colonel has met with a town ready to receive him, and cannot possibly see why he should not make use of their favour, and set himself in the first degree of conversation. Therefore he is very successfully loud among the wits, familiar among the ladies, and dissolute among the rakes. Thus he is admitted in one place, because he is so in another; and every man treats Brunett well, not out of his particular esteem for him, but in respect to the opinion of others. It is to me a solid pleasure to see the world thus mistaken on the good-natured side; for it is ten to one but the colonel mounts into a general officer, marries a fine lady, and is master of a good estate, before they come to explain upon him. What gives most delight to me in this observation, is, that all this arises from pure nature, and the colonel can account for his success no more than those by whom he succeeds. For these causes and considerations, I pronounce him a true woman’s man, and in the first degree, “a very pretty fellow.” The next to a man of this universal genius, is one who is peculiarly formed for the service of the ladies, and his merit chiefly is to be of no consequence. I am indeed a little in doubt, whether he ought not rather to be called a “very happy,” than a “very pretty” fellow? For he is admitted at all hours: all he says or does, which would offend in another, are passed over in him; and all actions and speeches which please, doubly please if they come from him: no one wonders or takes notice when he is wrong; but all admire him when he is in the right. By the way it is fit to remark, that there are people of better sense than these, who endeavour at this character; but they are out of nature; and though, with some industry, they get the characters of fools, they cannot arrive to be “very,” seldom to be merely “pretty fellows.” But where nature has formed a person for this station amongst men, he is gifted with a peculiar genius for success, and his very errors and absurdities contribute to it; this felicity attending him to his life’s end. For it being in a manner necessary that he should be of no consequence, he is as well in old age as youth; and I know a man, whose son has been some years a pretty fellow, who is himself at this hour a “very” pretty fellow.

Joseph Addison

 

Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.”

Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration. “It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfectionwhich is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. This is equivalent to saying that a certain man was rebellious and extremely wicked, wherefore his nature was changed for the better, and he was made to shine as a star in the heavens.” Such was the purport and subject of the question, though not in the exact words of the inquirer.

Now mark our reply, which was as follows:–“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition. Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation; namely, the intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that “man was created in the form and likeness of God.” On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandments, as it is said: “And the Lord God commanded Adam” (Gen. ii. 16)–for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding. Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g., it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical,” it is “good” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tob and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Ps. viii. 6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper. Then he fully understood the magnitude of the loss he had sustained, what he had forfeited, and in what situation he was thereby placed. Hence we read, “And ye shall be likeelohim, knowing good and evil,” and not “knowing” or “discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words “true and false,” not “good and evil.” Further observe the passage, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. iii. 7): it is not said, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw”; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong. Besides, you must know that the Hebrew word pakaḥ used in this passage is exclusively employed in the figurative sense of receiving new sources of knowledge, not in that of regaining the sense of sight. Comp., “God opened her eyes” (Gen. xxi. 19). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah xxxviii. 8). “Open ears, he heareth not” (ibid. Xlii. 20), similar in sense to the verse, “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. xii. 2). When, however, Scripture says of Adam, “He changed his face (panav) and thou sentest him forth” Job xiv. 20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away. For panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires. In accordance with this interpretation, our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labour, as it is said, “Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee” (Gen. iii. 18), “By the sweat of thy brow,” etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, “And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken.” He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: comp., “Thou shalt eat the grass of the field” (Gen. iii. 18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, “Adam unable to dwell in dignity, was brought to the level of the dumb beast. May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed.”

-Moses Maimonides

Maimonides reasons like a champion when he discourses on the punishment of Adam, pointing out that truth and falsehood are not the same as (moral) good and bad—the “apparent” truths.  But we are thoroughly charmed by Addison’s “Very Pretty Fellow,” a wonderful observation of human nature—who reminds us of the Adam of Maimonides.  It is true: humans are obsessed with good and bad—with morality, to the degree they do not discern pure truth from falsehood, and this is our “curse.” It is not that morality is not important, but it is a step down from the reasoning power of the intellect.  The contestants compliment one another, even as they fight to eliminate the other, and in this case, the more modern moment of example-citing triumphs, though we hate to say goodbye to the Jewish scholar.

Joseph Addison wins, and advances to the Sweet 16!

IN THE MORNING–SONG

Cargo pants,
I’ll take you to the dance,
And we’ll have fun
In the morning, in the morning

Take my hand
In the military band
And we’ll have fun
In the morning, in the morning

I am free.
No one needs me,
And watch me pee
In the morning, in the morning

A golden ring,
And the markets sing;
I am lingering
In the morning, in the morning

RAPE JOKE BY PATRICIA LOCKWOOD: A RESPONSE

RAPE JOKE II

The rape joke is that I could never have seen it coming.

The rape joke is that I was 7 years old.

The rape joke is that there wasn’t a wine cooler in sight.  I was a boy alone with a strange man in an elevator which made a soft whoosh as it passed each floor.

The rape joke is it was New York City and I normally walked home from school alone.

But maybe this isn’t a rape joke because it was years ago and life was safer then.

The rape joke is the only thing I could think was: “Oh please don’t bite it off.”

The rape joke is there were no women, only a boy and a man who preferred dick to pussy, apparently.

“Dick to pussy” almost sounds like a dirty joke.

Doesn’t it?

How much does it matter if you don’t get the rape joke? Even if you were “there?”

Wait, it gets funnier.

Don’t worry, Miss Geography!  It gets funnier!

Why is celebrating being a victim good?

OK, the rape joke understands that.

But why is celebrating not being a victim bad?

Let them enjoy rape jokes.

Let them admit as they laugh it’s great not to be raped.

Give them that much, will you?

Can you?

The rape joke is my mother opened the apartment door after he ran down the stairs and I was never happier to see her, before or since. Four years before, she had lost a child.  She asked me questions and then it was forgotten. Was it pre-internet stoicism? Today a word makes the news. The rape joke is my innocence (soul) remained untouched.

The rape joke is in the elevator he began to fondle me and not knowing it was wrong I continued to speak as politely as I could to the grownup whose wishes were superior to mine.

The rape joke is I didn’t know it was wrong and I felt nothing afterwards.

Is this wrong?

The rape joke is how matter-of-fact it all was.

The rape joke is that sexual attraction is always the beginning of love.

The rape joke is that sexual attraction is not the beginning of friendship.

The rape joke is the Rape Joke is linguistic only.

I know the story.

The Rape Joke author went to a comedy club and thought:

Jokes about rape?  Really?

The deeper story is that Edgar Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” said length is crucial for popularity and “Rape Joke” is the same length as “The Raven.” Lockwood doesn’t have a college degree. Poe didn’t have a college degree. (Wait there’s more. More more more) The “Rape Joke” went viral after appearing on Facebook.  “The Raven” went viral after appearing in a daily newspaper.

The rape joke is the raven enters and tells a joke that is not funny over and over again. How can painting compete with nature?  Poetry is not found in nature, but painting reproduces nature, so how can painting possibly compete with the world? How can painting compete with nature?  Because of interiority.  Because we need pictures inside.

Remember the bouncer part of the Rape Joke?

Are jokes poems?  Are jokes deep?

The Rape Joke is funny/no it isn’t.

Have your cake and eat it.

Funny—but not funny.

Slimy and clean.

Have empathy for the victim but the victim’s poem is smoking hot.

Let’s see how the rapist feels—not!  

“Smoking hot” is actually quite complex.

Patricia Lockwood knows this: the worst thing is when your enemy has better jokes.

Does she know: the Joke insults the Poem, the Poem insults the Joke?

Does she know how it feels when someone says please stop joking. Please. I love you.

I know she knows that nothing disturbs us more than a joke we don’t get.

And she knows this: whether a joke hurts or heals, they laugh.

This rape joke is bullshit!

The rape joke is I don’t want to blame or pass judgment.

The rape joke is I would have pleasurable flying dreams, flying down the stair landings of the thirteen story building, the stairs where my rapist ran down, after trying to give me a blow job.

The rape joke is it feels stupid to say “my rapist” since I was only 7 years old.

The rape joke is that language doesn’t seem like the right choice for an event such as this.

The rape joke is I am guilty of exploiting my rape.

The rape joke is that when I look in my heart I am only writing this to get attention.

The rape joke is that even as I say sorry I get a thrill because I will seem sensitive as I confess my selfishness to the rape joke.

Where will it end?

The rape joke is that years later I was trapped alone in an elevator and it was far more terrifying.  I think.

The rape joke is loneliness seems unlimited and sympathy has limits.

The rape joke is you’ll never look away.

Admit it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE 2014 MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND WINNERS!

CLASSICAL

Painter, Carpenter, God (3 beds) PLATO def. HUME

Tragedy is a complete action ARISTOTLE def. SAMUEL JOHNSON

In every work regard the writer’s end POPE def. HORACE

Novelty bestows charms on a monster ADDISON def. AUGUSTINE

The flaming sword which turned every way MAIMONIDES def. VICO

All our knowledge originates from sense  AQUINAS def. BEHN

The four senses of writing DANTE def. DRYDEN

Poet never affirms and so never lies  SIDNEY def. BOCCACCIO

 

ROMANTIC

Religion & Commodities = Fetishism MARX def. KANT

Taste can be measured EDMUND BURKE def. GAUTIER

A long poem does not exist POE def. LESSING

Pure and simple soul in a chaste body EMERSON def. SCHILLER

Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind SHELLEY def. WOLLSTONECRAFT

Four ages of poetry PEACOCK def. DE STAEL

Nothing pleases permanently not containing the reason COLERIDGE def. SCHLEIERMACHER

Language really used by men WORDSWORTH def. HEGEL

 

MODERN

Genius is childhood recovered BAUDELAIRE def. ADORNO

Art is not unique but caught in time BENJAMIN def. ARNOLD

Hard, gem-like flame PATER def. HEIDEGGER

Criticism, Inc RANSOM def. MALLARME

No poet has his complete meaning alone ELIOT def. NIETZSCHE

Not the moment makes the man, man creates the age WILDE def. WOOLF

The first stirrings of sexuality FREUD def. TROTSKY

In language there are only differences SAUSSURE def. JUNG

 

POST-MODERN

Leaves & Huck Finn show U.S. to be like Russia EDMUND WILSON def. JUDITH BUTLER

Beauty will no longer be forbidden CIXOUS def. KENNETH BURKE

What they can know is what they have made SAID def. LACAN

We are directors of our being, not producers SARTRE def. DERRIDA

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority HAROLD BLOOM def. CLEANTH BROOKS

The secret essence of femininity does not exist DE BEAUVOIR def. RICH

All speech is performance AUSTIN def. FANON

Criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught FRYE def. BARTHES

 

It was a genuine pleasure these past three months (March to June) to explore 64 of the world’s greatest philosophical literary critics; look back over the past 3 months at 32 Scarriet articles (called “March Madness”) which re-evaluates these iconic points of view—and feel the excitement!

The rest of the play will quickly follow, as we move into the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the greatest Aesthetic Philosopher of them all.

If we might be allowed to summarize the four Brackets:

The Classical determines WHAT POETRY IS.

The Romantic determines WHAT POETRY IS TO PEOPLE.

The Modern determines WHAT PEOPLE ARE  TO PEOPLE IN TERMS OF  POETRY

The Post-Modern determines WHAT POETRY IS TO LANGUAGE

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

MISANTHROPE’S DELIGHT: A TOP TWENTY FIVE

25. Suddenly realizing someone is incredibly stupid.

24. Rolling your eyes when they are not looking.

23. Rolling your eyes when they are.

22. Finding out someone’s taste in film and music is really lame.

21. Reading their poems and being completely unmoved.

20. Realizing you have no interest in what they are saying.

19. Discovering the truth that people who laugh all the time are really unhappy.

18. Knowing every ‘life of the party’ person is secretly depressed and alone.

17. Knowing everyone is secretly depressed and alone.

16. Knowing life will never get better.

15. Knowing the young will one day be old.

14. Finding out the richer they are, the more worried and secretly miserable they are.

13. Discovering that having children makes people less happy.

12. Finding out everyone secretly hates everything.

11. At the home team stadium when the home team loses.

10. When the smiling bitch lets a nasty word slip out.

9. When the ‘one-in-control’ is exposed as a coward.

8. When the ‘wise’ one completely fucks up.

7. When feelings of love suddenly vanish.

6. Summer that brings skin cancer.

5. Spring that brings allergies.

6. Fall that brings student debt.

5. Winter that brings winter.

4. People having a ‘good time’ not really having a good time at all but trying hard to pretend they are, and failing at it.

3. The proud misanthrope trying to be more misanthropic than you, and ending up as the most miserable of all.

2. An environmentalist eaten by a bear.

1. Stars Without Makeup.

 

NORTHROP FRYE VERSUS ROLAND BARTHES IN FINAL FIRST ROUND ACTION!

Barthes: the tenacious theoreticalism of the French is always good for a little hilarity

FRYE:

Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not that he is learning nature.

Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to “learn literature:” one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature.

Similarly, the difficulty often felt in “teaching literature” arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught.

So while no one expects literature itself to behave like a science, there is surely no reason why criticism, as a systematic and organized study, should not be, at least partly, a science.

Certainly criticism as we find it in learned journals has every characteristic of a science. Evidence is examined scientifically; previous authorities are used scientifically; fields are investigated scientifically; texts are edited scientifically. Prosody is scientific in structure; so is phonetics; so is philology.

And yet in studying this kind of critical science the student becomes aware of a centrifugal movement carrying him away from literature. He finds that literature is the central division of the “humanities,” flanked on one side by history and on the other by philosophy.

Criticism so far ranks only as a subdivision of literature; and hence, for the systematic mental organization of the subject, the student has to turn to the conceptual framework of the historian for events, and to that of the philosopher for ideas.

The literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange is pseudo-criticism. That wealthy investor, Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish.

This sort of thing cannot be part of a systematic study. The texture of any great work is complex and ambiguous, and in unravelling the complexities we may take in as much history and philosophy as we please, if the subject of our study remains at the center.

The only weakness in this approach is that it is conceived primarily as the antithesis of centrifugal or “background” criticism. Antitheses are usually resolved, not by picking one side and refuting the other, but by trying to get past the antithetical way of stating the problem.

I suggest that what is at present missing from literary criticism is a co-ordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomenon it deals with as parts of a whole.

We speak of the rhythm of music and the pattern of painting; but later, to show off our sophistication, we may begin to speak of the rhythm of painting and the pattern of music.

Rhythm, or recurrent movement, is deeply founded on the natural cycle, and everything in nature that we think of as having some analogy with works of art, like the flower or the bird’s song, grows out of a profound synchronization between an organism and the rhythms of its environment, especially that of the solar year. With animals some expressions of synchronization, like the mating dances of birds, could almost be called rituals. But in human life a ritual seems to be something of a voluntary effort (hence the magical element in it) to recapture  a lost rapport with the natural cycle.

Patterns of imagery, on the other hand, or fragments of significance, are oracular in origin, and derive from the epiphanic moment, the flash of instantaneous comprehension with no direct reference to time, the importance of which is indicated by Cassirer in Myth and Language.

The myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle.

 

BARTHES:

In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and to foresee in its full extent the necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner. For him, for us, too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality (not at all the to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realist novelist), to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’ Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader). Valery, encumbered by a psychology of the Ego, considerably diluted Mallarme’s theory but, his taste for classicism leading him to turn to the lessons of rhetoric, he never stopped calling into question and deriding the Author; he stressed the linguistic and, as it were, ‘hazardous’ nature of his activity, and throughout his prose-works he militated in favor of the essentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which all recourse to the writer’s interiority seemed to him pure superstition.

Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation between the writer and his characters; by making of the narrator not he who has seen and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel—but, in fact, how old is he and who is he?—wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modern writing its epic.

I can delight in reading and re-reading Proust, Flaubert, Balzac, even—why not?—Alexandre Dumas. But this pleasure, no matter how keen and even when free from all prejudice, remains in part (unless by some exceptional critical effort) a pleasure of consumption; for if I can read these authors, I also know that I cannot re-write them (that it is impossible today to write ‘like that’) and this knowledge, depressing enough, suffices to cut me off from the production of these works, in the very moment their remoteness establishes my modernity (is not to be modern to know clearly what cannot be started over again?).

Is Frye correct when he says literature cannot be taught, only the criticism of literature can be taught?  We think he is right. What does this mean for Creative Writing?  Is this why Creative Writing has replaced the English major? Critical theory bores people, but criticism of your work and your peers’ work will always fascinate?

Barthes, the “Death of the Author” critic, belongs to the text-mad tradition, and was this the real goal, after all? when he says,  “Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader).” The reader?

What shall we do with the reader?

In Creative Writing, the reader and the writer become one, and the question is finally, does this hurt them both?

In Theory, the reader becomes a mole, burrowing into the text, as if to hide from the world.

The readers of popular works don’t count at all, of course.

Barthes is actually rather enjoyable to read, and we like his definition of Modern: to know that we cannot start over.

Frye attempts to bring readers back into the sunshine of a unified reality, but that’s perhaps the problem; in his unified myth, he simply bites off more than he can chew.  But we admire the attempt.

 

WINNER: FRYE

 

THIS FINISHES THE FIRST ROUND ACTION!

WE HAVE REDUCED THE FIELD OF GREAT LITERARY PHILOSOPHERS FROM SIXTY-FOUR TO THIRTY TWO!

NEXT: THE SWEET SIXTEEN!

SAUSSURE TAKES ON JUNG IN LAST MODERN BRACKET ROUND ONE CONTEST

Carl Jung: antidote to Freud?

SAUSSURE:

 

Every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior or—what amounts to the same thing—on convention. Polite formulas, for instance, though often imbued with a certain natural expressiveness ( as in the case of a Chinese who greets  his emperor by bowing down to the ground nine times), are nonetheless fixed by rule; it is the rule and not the intrinsic value of the gestures that obliges one to use them. Signs that are wholly arbitrary realize better than the others the ideal of the semiological process; that is why language, the most complex and universal of all systems of expression, is also the most characteristic; in this sense linguistics can become the master-pattern for all branches of semiology although language is only one particular semiological system.

Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.

The characteristic role of language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition. Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that “thought-sound” implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.

I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified and signifier; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts.

To determine what a five-franc piece is worth one must therefore know: 1) that it can be exchanged for a fixed quantity of a different thing, e.g. bread; and  2) that it can be compared with a similar value of the same system, e.g. A one-franc piece.

In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only concepts and phonetic differences that have issued from the system.

 

JUNG:

Only that aspect of art which consists in the process of artistic creation can be a subject for psychological study, but not that which constitutes its essential nature. The question of what art is in itself can never be answered by the psychologist, but must be approached from the side of aesthetics.

If the essence of religion and art could be explained, then both of them would become mere subdivisions of psychology. This is not to say that such violations of their nature have not been attempted. But those who are guilty of them obviously forget that a similar fate might easily befall psychology, since its intrinsic value and specific quality would be destroyed if it were regarded as a mere activity of the brain, and were relegated along with the endocrine functions to a subdivision of physiology.

Art by its very nature is not science.

The fact that artistic, scientific, and religious propensities still slumber peacefully together in the small child, or that with primitives the beginnings of art, science, and religion coalesce in the undifferentiated chaos of the magical mentality, or that no trace of “mind” can be found in the natural instincts of animals—all this does nothing to prove the existence of a unifying principle which alone would justify a reduction of the one to the other. For if we go so far back into the history of the mind that the distinction between its various fields of activity become altogether invisible, we do not reach an underlying principle of their unity, but merely an earlier, undifferentiated state in which no separate activities yet exist. But the elementary state is not an explanatory principle that would allow us to draw conclusions as to the nature of later, more highly developed states, even though they must necessarily derive from it.

These theoretical reflections seem to me very much in place today, when we so often find that works of art, and particularly poetry, are interpreted precisely in this manner , by reducing them to more elementary states. Though the material he works with and its individual treatment can easily be traced back to the poet’s personal relations with his parents, this does not enable us to understand his poetry.

The school of medical psychology inaugurated by Freud has undoubtedly encouraged the literary historian to bring certain peculiarities of a work of art into relation with the intimate, personal life of the poet. But this is nothing new in principle, for it has long been known that the scientific treatment of art will reveal the personal threads that the artist, intentionally or unintentionally, has woven into his work. The Freudian approach may, however, make possible a more exhaustive demonstration of the influences that reach back into earliest childhood and may play their part in artistic creation. To this extent the psychoanalysis of art differs in no essential from the subtle psychological nuances of a penetrating literary analysis. The difference is at most a question of degree, though we may occasionally be surprised by indiscreet references to things which a rather more delicate touch might have passed over if only for reasons of tact. This lack of delicacy seems to be a professional peculiarity of the medical psychologist, and the temptation to draw daring conclusions easily leads to flagrant abuses. A slight whiff of scandal often lends spice to a biography, but a little more becomes a nasty inquisitiveness—bad taste masquerading as science.

This kind of analysis brings the work of art into the sphere of general human psychology, where many other things besides art have their origin. To explain art in these terms is just as great a platitude as the statement that “every artist is a narcissist.”

The reductive method of Freud is a purely medical one, and the treatment is directed at a pathological or otherwise unsuitable formation which has taken the place of normal functioning. It must therefore be broken down, and the way cleared for healthy adaptation. In this case, reduction to the common human foundation is altogether appropriate. But when applied to a work of art it leads to the results I have described.

 

Ferdinand Saussure, born in Geneva, Switzerland, 1857, brings the most rigor to the science of language, and this passage shows this most acutely.  What he laid down gave rise to a great deal of nonsense, for his views of thought and language seem radical and inescapable.  Is there no thought before language?  Is language only negation?  Reading Saussure, not Nietzsche, may be the true gaze into the abyss.

Jung, also born in Switzerland, 1875, in this passage, seems careful and rigorous, not at all the crazed, “New Age” figure of legend. His warning that Freud goes too far seems a necessary brake on analysis—but why should there ever be a brake on analysis?

 

WINNER: SAUSSURE

 

 

 

SPORTS AND POETRY: HOW CAN WE MAKE POETRY POPULAR AGAIN?

Can a public for poetry be revived by competition? What is competition, and why do so many feel that it violates the spirit of aesthetics, literature and art? Prizes for literature and art are numerous, and the top awards certainly help drive sales and popularity to a certain extent.

Let’s look at sports for a minute. Competition in professional sports exists solely as contest-–the selection process itself is what sport, by definition, is.

Book prizes, by contrast, downplay the selection effort itself—faceless judges quietly choose behind the scenes: the book is what matters, the contest, itself, a kind of embarrassing obligation.

Sport, which foregrounds competition itself, is immensely popular. What if the millions of sports viewers were not able to know who was winning or losing the games they were watching? What would happen to sports if games had no winners?

Sport, as a public event, would surely suffer a complete collapse in popularity. Who can deny this simple fact?

There is nothing intrinsically more interesting about a sports contest than a poem. But the popularity of sports hides this fact. For let us see how much interest a football game generates when no one keeps score.

Why shouldn’t poetry use what sports uses to be popular?

The intrinsic product (people running, words on a page) is an isolated entity in both sports and poetry; why should sports add a quality apart from its intrinsic nature which enhances interest, and poetry, not?

The event of a basketball going through a hoop is separate from counting baskets in order to keep score. What is a ball going through a hoop, or a man catching a football, without mathematics, without keeping score?

Now, fiction prizes do sell books. Poetry books win prizes—which helps sales, but poetry book sales are pitifully low.  One of the problems for poetry is that poetry’s true unit is the poem—a book of poetry loses its identity when placed beside the novel.  The true unit of fiction is the book.  The true unit of poetry is the poem.  This fact hurts poetry in the current publishing climate. Who buys a poem these days? What is there to buy?

No significant prize or contest of any kind exists for a poem, unless it happens to be a book-length poem, and long poems are not popular today. The poem, in terms of competition, even in the lesser terms of book-prize-competition, is invisible.

Let’s turn our attention to the origins of art and poetry.

According to Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” the two types of human expression, formal Apollo (history, rhetoric) and intoxicated Dionysus (dance, song), were in opposition until their union in Tragedy created the first real poetic art form in the West, the iconic Greek drama, and Greek drama first became popular in Athens during public festivals of drama competitions.

Even the early Dionysian performances of song, which led to the Drama, were competitions.

And think of the Top 40 of popular music in our era. What is this but competition?

Homer, roughly similar to Greek Drama in terms of chronology, was used to teach rhetoric: Homer, for the Greeks, was the equivalent of college.

Religion, or worship of the gods (Dionysus, etc) was in the mix—ancient poetry served many roles which it has since relinquished to popular recorded music, the cinema, philosophy, rhetoric, history, and religion; poetry will never be the center of society like that, again.

Yet the subject here: Competition and popularity is still relevant.

How, after all, does anything become known?

Through self-conscious selection—which is another word for the mechanism, in society, of competition.

Bird song, as Northrop Frye points out, is archetypal to the study of literature, and this ‘poetry’ of the birds establishes turf and furthers breeding in a competitive manner.

The whole notion we are arguing for, then, has roots in the utilitarian, the literary, the historical, and natural science.

Here are two recent commentators talking about popularity, poetry and sports:

Here’s an idea: Poetry should have the same kind of social acceptability and vernacular expertise as sports. After all, most American men, and many women, too, are not just sports fans but sports intellectuals, with personal experience playing the games, statistics and facts at the ready, deep historical knowledge—all without ever having taken a course in the subject. People adore sports not as therapy or middlebrow self-betterment but for sports’ own formalist sake: I hate to admit it, but l’art pour l’art is a jock construct.

–Chase Madar, Aljazeera America, “Poetry is Dead. Long Live Poetry”

 

 No, I am with Dana Gioia in that we should get back to poets being super important parts of American life but I do think we need someone who is willing to be the person who travels around showing poetry in America is very much alive.

And I am certainly not suggesting that poetry should be accessible for the sake of sales, etc. Poetry should be chaotic thought, but I do feel there should be a way into that chaotic thought. I do not think that the poetry community does anything for language/writing or any community by being more available to be popular to the general population, which is unlikely to happen, regardless. However, that does not mean that poetry should not have a way in and I believe [Richard] Blanco is a perfectly interesting way into the world of poetry.

Blanco feels he has a task in attempting to get poetry back out of the classroom and into the hands of ordinary citizens. I mentioned to him that Jackie Robinson took it upon himself, after his years in baseball, to become an ambassador of sorts for Civil Rights in his country. He felt he was in a unique position to help the movement by speaking his opinion.

—Amish Trivedi, The Trivedi Chronicles, “Some Thoughts On Richard Blanco”

 

We might have to ask ourselves at this point, how would we create a Poem Competition?

Why not a giant spectacle?  Words on a giant screen?  A giant venue?  All sorts of added attractions, common to any big arena event?

Make it happen, people.

 

 

THE FIRST SUN

The first sun will not look like the last:
Nothing seems new—except as we look back at the past.
Bright the sky, bright trying to look through the blue
Radiance—the radiance of a sun burning, and all dark things, too.

The dream you have when you wake up
Will look different in the evening,
And by tomorrow it will
Not be friendly at all.

The one you want most
You can’t have,
Not because you fail, or they fail you,
But because wanting is not having.
Amazement was left on the pavement
As the skyscrapers grew.

The worst, that will spoil all your fun:
You will love several;
You will not love one.

 

 

 

NOT EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL

Not everyone is beautiful
Because beauty has less to share
Than confusion, pity, deformity,
Fear, and the heaviness of what is simply sitting there.

Not everyone is beautiful
And this is beauty’s fame:
Beauty is what we desperately seek
If only in a name.

For beauty has lips and eyes,
And everyone has those,
And I once knew a lover
Who loved his beloved’s nose.

Why is beauty rare?
If everyone has eyes?
If everyone has ears
To listen to the wise?

MY LIPS HAVE BEEN WHERE HER LIPS WERE

My lips have been where her lips were
Because I sipped her tea,
But if my lips would touch her lips,
Lips with lips intentionally,
Oh! I would die like radar blips
Descending the dark cold sea.

Her lips have been where my lips were
Because she sipped my tea,
But if her lips would touch my lips
And she would drink of me,
I would die like shipwrecked ships
Drowned in the dark cold sea.

My lips are cold, like the cold sea;
There isn’t any poetry
More than sipping of hot tea,
The heat against the cold,
Youth’s fight against the old,
Some image of beauty we barely see
In the gruesome dark, as we
Trace in the shady portals, our love,
Chance light shifting in the paths of the hollows.

 

BOCCACCIO BATTLES SIDNEY

Philip Sidney: loved Christ, poetry and Plato

BOCCACCIO:

They say that poetry is absolutely of no account , and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of the gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things. They cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors.

Poetry proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adores the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction. Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, nay, counterfeit sky, land, sea, adorn young maidens with flowery gardens, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry. Yet if any man who who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a laudable poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be wrought out are wanting—I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric.

 

SIDNEY:

 

Now for the poet, he doesn’t affirm, and therefore never lies.

The poet never makes any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.

Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Poetry may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of its sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused.

Now Plato his name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all the philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical. Yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides like ungrateful apprentices, were not content to set up shops for themselves but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which, by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them, the more they hated them.

Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. The poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods, not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. One may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the cause why oracles ceased, of the divine providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams, which the poets indeed superstitiously observed, and truly (since they had not the light of Christ) did much better in it than the philosophers, who shaking off superstition, brought in atheism. Plato therefore (whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist) meant not in general of poets to misuse, but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief), perchance (as he thought) nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning: who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.

 

We love how Sidney understands that “Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry.”  Sidney is more subtle than Boccaccio, handling the same theme: poets are bad/good. If only poetry had a monopoly on “lewd;” it would be more popular: Boccaccio is right of course, as is Sidney, poetry can be naughty or nice; it isn’t poetry that is ever the problem—the question is, who is using it and what are they using it for? Today we don’t ask this question: we merely whine that no one reads it—without defining what it is.

 

WINNER: SIDNEY

TEN BEST REASONS TO RHYME

Would rhyme have saved them?

10. THE CHALLENGE FACTOR –Because it is very difficult to do well. Can YOUR ass do it?

9.  THE CAUSE AND EFFECT FACTOR–One cannot rhyme well without comprehending and skillfully organizing other aspects of speech, of which rhyme is the crowning emphasis: rhythm, syntax, stress, assonance, alliteration, movement, meaning.

8.  THE AGREEMENT FACTOR –We like things to agree.  We enjoy symmetry; it is why a crystal or a flower pleases us. Rhyme has this primitive quality.

7.  THE HARMONY FACTOR  –Since rhyme brings together different words in a purely musical way, it has the ability to harmonize.

6. THE MNEMONIC FACTOR –Rhyme is even utilitarian

5. THE LOVE FACTOR –The poem that rhymes beautifully and delicately is old-fashioned, but love today is old-fashioned. Poetry is traditionally associated with love—and rhyme is traditionally associated with poetry.  Leave no doubt in the beloved’s mind that poetry, the real article is your intent. Romeo and Juliet rhymes. Howl does not. Which one puts you in the mood for love?

4. THE PHYSICAL BEAUTY FACTOR –Rhymed speech has the potential to be more tangibly beautiful than speech which does not rhyme.  Speech, as speech, possesses neither color, melody, touch, nor scent.  Rhyme pleases, and does so physically; rhyme helps talk become a body.

3. THE DIVINE COMEDY FACTOR –Dante’s famous poem is the greatest poem ever written; this Italian work contains so many Italian rhymes that it cannot be translated into English.

2. THE OUT-OF-FASHION FACTOR –The critically acclaimed eschew rhyme–but what if fashion changes?  (Which slowly, it seems to be doing.) Knowing rhyme’s intrinsic worth, this is your chance.

1.  THE PRETENSE FACTOR –Imagine Dr. Seuss without rhyme.  How much of the appeal would be lost?  All.  How much gained?  Nothing.  It is not always better to rhyme. Yet the pretentious convince themselves that absence of rhyme, in itself, automatically confers superiority. But as we see from our Dr. Seuss example, the “sophisticated” rationale is baseless.  HERE, THEN IS THE NUMBER ONE REASON: faulting rhyme in principle is nothing but pretense.

 

DANTE VERSUS DRYDEN

John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England

DANTE:

Exposition must be both literal and allegorical. To convey what this means, it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses . The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that with his lyre Orpheus tamed wild beasts and made trees and rocks move toward him, which is to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow tender and humble and moves to his will those who do not devote their lives to knowledge and art; and those who have no rational life whatsoever are almost like stones.

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils; as, for example, in the Gospel we may discover that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, of the twelve Apostles he took with him but three, the moral meaning of which is that in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.

The fourth sense is anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power. In this kind of explication, the literal should always come first, as being the sense in whose meaning the others are enclosed, and without which it would be impossible and illogical to attend to the other senses, and especially the allegorical. It would be impossible because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to arrive at the inside without first arriving at the outside; consequently, since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal.

 

DRYDEN:

To instruct delightfully is the general end of all poetry. Philosophy instructs, but it performs its work by precept; which is not delightful, or not so delightful as example. To purge the passions by example is therefore the particular instruction which belongs to Tragedy. Rapin, a judicious critic, has observed from Aristotle, that pride and want of commiseration are the most predominant vices in mankind; therefore, to cure us of these two, the inventors of Tragedy have chosen to work upon two other passions, which are fear and pity. We are wrought to fear by there before our eyes some terrible example of misfortune, which happened to persons of the highest quality; for such an action demonstrates to us that no condition is privileged from the turns of fortune; this must of necessity cause terror in us, and consequently abate our pride. But when we see that the most virtuous, as well as the greatest, are not exempt from such misfortunes, that consideration moves pity in us, and insensibly works us to be helpful to, and tender over, the distressed; which the noble consider the most god-like of virtues. Here it is observable that it is absolutely necessary to make a man virtuous, if we desire he should be pitied: we lament not, but detest, a wicked man; we are glad when we behold his crimes are punished, and that poetical justice is done upon him.

Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked; Phaedra, for instance. Shall we therefore banish all characters of villainy? I confess I am not of that opinion; but it is necessary that the hero of a play be not a villain; that is, the characters, which should move our pity, ought to have virtuous inclinations, and degrees of moral goodness in them.

 

Dryden is the more modern philosopher for saying that “example” (the flesh of fiction) is more “delightful.”

Dante says the “example” is simply a matter of what we experience first so we may comprehend the secret of the moral.

Dante has it right, for he sees morals correctly as a secret; for why bother to expound (in fiction or otherwise) what is self-evident?   Secrecy is loved for itself by the genius. Dante: “truth is hidden beneath the cloak of beautiful fiction.”  “The third sense is the moral that teachers should intently seek to discover…”  And just so we get it, in Dante’s example: “in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.”  Dante “encloses” three levels of knowledge within a first level, the literal, and we can see if we try, in what appears to be a bit of pedantic prose, the grand design of the Commedia itself.

Dryden worries that “chief characters” not be “too wicked,” but Dante worries not: his “characters” can be as “wicked” as he wants them to be, enclosed as they are in the moral levels of Dante’s fiction, while the “chief character” is Dante, the poet himself.

Genius extends its fiction to the very form of the work itself, to the walls and passageways, where the poet and the poem walk through the mists of the moral plan.

 

WINNER: DANTE

HEGEL TAKES ON WORDSWORTH IN ROUND ONE ROMANTIC BRACKET ACTION

G.W.F. Hegel. In the 20th century, his Continental Idealism lost to Anglo-American Pragmatism.

HEGEL:

A work of art is a product of human activity, and this activity being the conscious production of an external object can also be known and expounded, and learnt and pursued by others. For what one man makes, another, it may seem, could make and imitate too, if only he were first acquainted with the manner of proceeding; so that, granted universal acquaintance with the rules of artistic production, it would only be a matter of everyone’s pleasure to carry out the procedure in the same manner and produce works of art. It is in this way that rule-providing theories, with their prescriptions calculated for practical application, have arisen.

But what can be carried out on such directions can only be something formally regular and mechanical. Being abstract in content, such rules reveal themselves, in their presence of adequacy to fill the consciousness of the artist, as wholly inadequate, since artistic production is not a formal activity in accordance with given specifications. On the contrary, as spiritual activity it is bound to work from its own resources and bring before the mind’s eye a quite other and richer content and more comprehensive individual creations than formulae can provide.

Thus, as it turns out, the tendency just indicated has been altogether abandoned, and instead of it the opposite one has been adopted to the same extent. For the work of art was no longer regarded as a product of general human activity, but as a work of an entirely specially gifted spirit which now, however, is supposed to give free play simply and only to its own particular gift, as if to a specific natural force; it is to cut itself altogether loose from attention to universally valid laws and from a conscious reflection interfering with its own instinctive-like productive activity. From this point of view the work of art has been claimed as a product of talent and genius.

A third view concerning the idea of the work of art as a product of human activity refers to the placing of art in relation to the external phenomena of nature. Here the ordinary way of looking at things took easily to the notion that the human art-product ranked below the product of nature; for the work of art has no feeling in itself and is not through and through enlivened, but, regarded as an external object, is dead; we are accustomed to value the living higher than the dead.

However: Human interest, the spiritual value possessed by an event, an individual character, an action in its complexity and outcome, is grasped in the work of art and blazoned more purely and more transparently than is possible on the ground of other non-artistic things. Therefore the work of art stands higher than any natural product which has not made this journey through the spirit. For everything spiritual is better than any product of nature. Besides, no natural being is able, as art is, to present the divine Ideal.

 

WORDSWORTH:

 

It is supposed, that by the act of writing  in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different areas of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terrence and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which by the act of writing in verse an Author, in the present day, makes to his Reader; but I am certain, it will appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. I hope the Reader will not censure me, if I attempt to state what I have proposed to myself to perform.

To choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

 

Nature is beautiful and the products of Man are not—the exception being art, which finds its beauty in nature.  This sums up the Ancient Greek view of art and that whole range of Criticism with Beauty as its measure.

If it is ugly, it does not get a hearing in art. And this Greek ideal has not gone away. Moderns pride themselves on having richer, broader, and more varied views and appreciations when it comes to art, and Hegel and Wordsworth are typical examples of Art Criticism that makes human interest and variety, not beauty, the apparent concern.

No more cookie-cutter beautiful art! We are modern!

Not really.

Hegel insists art has an ideal/spiritual dimension which springs from “human interest,” and thus “dead” art is superior to “living” nature. But Hegel speaks abstractly and can be dismissed for that reason.

Wordsworth is cleverer and the more profound philosopher of art. W. understands the paradox: if one attempts to praise man-made products (the plain “speech of men,” for instance) as something superior to nature, one turns those very products into “art,” which is the one Greek exception in the simple aesthetic above. The modern attempt to escape the Greek Aesthetic proves impossible, for the simple reason that you become what you attempt to praise. Permit the ugly and you are only, in so many ways, including the ugly as art, not as the ugly.

The truly ugly always remains out of sight. Wordsworth’s “speech of men,” we are so often reminded, is rhyming poetry.

Despite Wordsworth’s ‘modern’ rhetoric, Wordsworth is finally Greek, not modern.

But… not quite.

And this is where Wordsworth’s cleverness enters and why he changed art, poetry, and the world forever. W. understood the challenge of getting out from under the Greek Aesthetic, and the key was Nature—not in the Greek sense, as in a beautiful human body, but in the modern sense: Wordsworth was poetry’s first environmentalist.  Nature becomes not the ideal, but everything.

Wordsworth said: OK, I’m not going to be a Greek; I’m not going to give a damn about Beauty; I’m going to write poetry that is the ‘speech of men.’  And here Wordsworth is betrayed by the paradox: the surface of his poetry is ideally beautiful; it does not really admit any ugliness (plain speech) and so, sorry, Wordsworth, you are Beauty-endowed.

But Wordsworth goes further.  After (and this is why we included that prior passage) laying the groundwork with his observation of previous poetry in history: “certain classes of ideas and expressions” are chosen and “others carefully excluded,” and after his famous pronouncement that he will replicate “language really used by men,” the dense passage runs on (like a mighty river) to add that he will select “low and rustic life,” in which are profoundly and passionately expressed “the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Wordsworth, in modern guise, says he will expand his “language” to include that “really used by men” (which was not true) but then announces “rustic life” will be the theme.  By “selecting” this theme, Wordsworth “carefully excludes” the ugly products of urban Man: Roman poets and their tawdry women, for instance; Roman poets Wordsworth explicitly cited in his previous ‘graph. Wordsworth understands that all poets, no matter how ‘modern,’ must always exclude what they find to be ugly.

Wordsworth is the first Modern Poet to consciously make concessions to the inescapable Greek Aesthetic: Wordsworth’s plain “rural life” is far less “modern” than the Roman poets and their urban floozies with foul language and sexuality and eye makeup—who are older than Wordsworth by two thousand years.

Wordsworth’s sleight-of-hand shows us “language” but gives us “rustic life.”

And “rustic life” is key for what it leaves out.

Sex is conspicuously absent from Wordsworth.  No beautiful Greek bodies in Wordsworth.  Wordsworth’s nature is—nature, the modern nature of environmentalism.  Modern critics may charge Wordsworth with being the environmentalist of “Romantic, Lake District, white males” (is the only ‘true’ environmentalist a black gay woman from New York City?) but the British Empire was in Wordsworth’s day global-conscious and the planet potentially to be managed by the British—interestingly enough, today the most urgent and prominent environmentalist is Prince Charles.  Qualifying Wordsworth’s environmentalism is a quibble we’ll leave aside for the time being.

All poets—no matter how modern—exclude the ugly.  Do contemporary poets, for instance, put ‘hate speech’ in their poetry?  No, of course not, and why?  Because it’s ugly.  The “language” of poetry, the selections of “ideas and expressions” made by poetry, is still limited.

Wordsworth broke through, and broke through, big time (Emerson and other early American liberals crossed the ocean to beat a path to his door) into a modern sensibility, by attaching himself to—what has become today’s secular religion: the Planet.

 

WINNER: WORDSWORTH

FREUD VERSUS TROTSKY IN THE MODERN BRACKET

 

FREUD:

It is never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted.

Dreams reproduce logical connection by simultaneity in time. Here they are acting like the painter who, in a picture of the School of Athens or of Parnassus, represents in one group all the philosophers or all the poets. It is true that they never were in fact assembled in a single hall or on a single mountain-top; but they certainly form a group in the conceptual sense.

Every attempt that has hitherto been made to solve the problem of dreams has dealt directly with their manifest content. We are alone in taking something else into account: their latent content.

Oedipus Rex is what is known as a tragedy of  destiny. Its tragic effect is said to lie in the contrast between the supreme will of the gods and the vain attempts of mankind to escape the evil that threatens them. The lesson which, it is said, the deeply moved spectator should learn from the tragedy is submission to the divine will and realization of his own impotence.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first murderous wish against our father.

There is an unmistakable indication in the text of Sophocles’ tragedy itself that the legend of Oedipus sprang from some primeval dream-material which had as its content the distressing disturbance of a child’s relation to his parents owing to the first stirrings of sexuality.

Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish. Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation. The distaste for sexuality expressed by Hamlet in his conversation with Ophelia fits in very well with this: the same distaste which was destined to take possession of the poet’s mind more and more during the years that followed, and which reached its extreme expression in Timon of Athens. For it can of course only be the poet’s own mind which confronts us in Hamlet.

 

TROTSKY:

The poet can find material for his art only in his social environment and transmits the new impulses of life through his own artistic consciousness. Language, changed and complicated by urban conditions, gives the poet a new verbal material, and suggests or facilitates new word combinations for the poetic formulation of new thoughts or of new feelings, which strive to break through the dark shell of the subconscious. If there were no changes in psychology produced by changes in the social environment, there would be no movement in art; people would continue from generation to generation to be content with the poetry of the Bible, or of the old Greeks.

The only theory which has opposed Marxism in Soviet Russia these years is the Formalist theory of Art. The paradox consists in the fact that Russian Formalism connected itself closely with Russian Futurism, and that while the latter was capitulating politically before Communism, Formalism opposed Marxism with all its might theoretically.

The Formalists are not content to ascribe to their methods a merely subsidiary, serviceable and technical significance—similar to that which statistics has for social science, or the microscope for the biological sciences. No, they go much further. To them verbal art ends finally and fully with the word, and depictive art with color.

The quarrels about “pure art” do not become us. Materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian, and quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a “pure” or of a frankly tendentious art.

 

Freudian psychology used to be everywhere—it became a religion for 20th century intellectuals, and it still reverberates.  Freud conquered Christianity, manners, sex, art, pillow talk, literary criticism, and although the bomb went off several generations ago and the sound of its explosion has passed, its effects are still here; the ideas no longer need to be argued, they are in us.  But are they true?  Are they good?

Psychology occupies a privileged position between philosophy and poetry—with the withering away of both, Psychology has grown into a colossus.  Undergraduates study it, corporations manage people with it, and millions of people try and figure out themselves and others with it. Freud starts fires; Freudian psychology is a Dionysian force against religion, art, statesmanship and work, which orders and pacifies people.

Just look at what Freud does to not only Hamlet, the play, but to Shakespeare himself, just from the brief excerpt above:

Freud is certain that Hamlet, Shakespeare’s character, delays killing his uncle because Hamlet naturally feels he is a sinner in the same way: Hamlet, like all of us, wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother; not only this, Hamlet’s “distaste for sexuality” is quickly held aloft by Freud as a pathology, and then just as quickly ascribed to Shakespeare, the author.

Was the New Criticism, and other sorts of complex literary commentary, merely a fire wall against this sort of fiery Freudian Criticism?  We sometimes forget how very influential Freud was. One thinks of Princess Marie Bonaparte, a member of Freud’s inner circle, and her 700 page ‘psycho-biography’ of Poe (1933), which helped to cloud, mitigate, distort, and even destroy, the literary reputation of that famous author.

Trotsky reminds us that Futurism fit in with Soviet art, but “purist” Formalism did not, even though the two went hand in hand in the Modernist upsurge. Trotsky, writing for “the state,” can’t abide “purist” art, which is not a big surprise.

 

WINNER: FREUD

 

 

 

WHAT REJECTS IS WHAT LOVES

When the sun confuses the sky,
And the warmth and the shades and the light
Which shouldn’t exist, springs into sight,
I have my opinions of you anyway,
Which I ponder in secret agony
Despite the swimming day.
Every miracle that you can think of is nothing
Without my thinking it so,
Without me, nothing exists at all—
Nothing triumphs without me,
Without me, nothing can fall.

It took me a long time,
Because I was blinded by myself,
To see how much you were
Yourself in your own soul,
How much the existence I
Took for granted was really myself,
A miracle for you
And also a poem
That could never be written,
Not because you are not a poet,
But because you are,
Understanding limits in a perfectly
Positive way; so when I
Fell upon your silences
As things too wide and tall,
You made no effort to acknowledge
The silences at all.

I thought you rejected me,
But you rejected silence by being
Silent about it, these silences
The space you needed
To have space as yourself
In each particular case
So that I, myself, could not possibly know,
Hanging over here in my space,
The whole context a little piece of the all
Which surrounds your face,
Silent, and this is why I am in your thrall.

IS A POEM A PERSON OR A THING?

All poets I know would say a poem is a thing,
A piece of rich imagining,
A thing other things are holding
For some other time.
A life, a soul, a rhyme.

But I know a poem is a person,
I know this poem is me.
And you—my love! reading this poem—
Can I count on you to agree?

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ‘em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

ALL FICTION IS NON-FICTION

 

For the most wild, yet homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.  –E.A. Poe, “The Black Cat”

Laura Runyan, an MFA Fiction graduate and occasional visitor to this little blog, has taken immense pleasure in reminding me every now and then that my attempt to neatly categorize much of literary fiction as “autobiographical” is terribly misguided.

When I first made this assertion, she reacted as if I had insulted not only herself, but all respectable Creative Writing Programs  and even literary fiction itself.

Oh the idea that literary fiction—the holy craft of literary imagination—would be, or could be, or would dare to be, merely thinly disguised memoir!  The sacred author reduced from architect, researcher, scientist, god of creativity to—a mere child with a diary!  How dare I make such an assertion!

Let me re-assert my point.  Laura’s objection rests on nothing but authorial vanity.

Let me go even further.  All fiction is non-fiction.

And by non-fiction we mean just this: the simple, naked truth.  And the simple, naked truth is that all discourse, whether it be labeled fiction or non-fiction, is a human talking—and this act itself is nothing if not an autobiographical act.

The truth is this: We don’t read stories.  We don’t read books.  We don’t read poems. We don’t read philosophy. We read a person.

The modernist/writing workshop agenda: “show, don’t tell” is a false belief that the person can hide behind things like “character development” and “research” and “invention,” in which discourse magically turns into reality, or heightened reality.

Characters (people) do not exist in fiction.  There is only one ‘character’ in fiction: the person who is writing the fiction.

In addition, the whole idea of “narrative” is falsified, as well, as “let’s see what happens next” is the false magic which replaces a well reasoned discourse or well-reasoned argument.

The good argument is good, whether we know the ending, or not.  In fact, the good argument finds its end in its beginning.

Narrative, however, is supposedly best when it surprises us—which is another way of saying:

A good narrative is a bad argument.

A true surprise is random, but no good argument is random; a Narrative, however, filled with true surprises, pleases as ‘exciting’ narrative, but exists thereby as a flawed and wretched Argument.

Fiction chases away Philosophy.

Plato was right: there is an ancient quarrel between the Poets and the Philosophers—and discourse of all kinds is autobiographical, and neither poetry (fiction) nor philosophy (non-fiction) can hide from the “Living Voice” by tricks of “craft,” which is just another word for the deceptions of fiction’s narrative surprises, or the tricks of “writing” which characterizes the worst modern philosophers (Derrida, etc).

Recall Derrida’s agenda: to attack Plato, while favoring Writing (Text) over (Living) Speech.

So what does it mean to say that we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, a person?

Aren’t we reading ‘craft’ that is executed well, or not?  Aren’t we reading facts that are true, or not?  Are we really reading a person?

Yes.  We are reading a person.

This is the fact, the truth, of everything we read.

A person who is either tricking us, or not.

To read Plato is not to read a pretty good book.

To read Plato is to experience the living voice of an extraordinary human being—of which there is no substitute in any other book.

Autobiographical?  Absolutely.

 

YOU BETTER PUT ME DOWN FOR ONE

Complexity was my delight;
When the shadow had a name, I got the shadow right,
And all around my cunning memory
The people honored me.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I endeared myself to all,
My poems were glaciers, which I made small
In a trick I learned last year
When the critic, my love, swung near.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I fabricated delights for all
Who came into the leafy valley beaten and small;
I took the law from the primitive tree.
I made the law me.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I tried to show what I could know
In difficulty—night, fog, the valley, snow.
I knew a thousand poems by sight
Even when they were covered by night.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I thought it was the thought you feared,
But that was only how the thought appeared;
We had not wanted to imply
That our thought needed to ask why.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

I thought I could love you all,
Where the great woods shadow the sibilant call,
And the rain and lake plunge pleasantly
To the green sea.
But that was under a different sun.
You better put me down for one.

 

FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER BATTLES S.T. COLERIDGE IN ROMANTIC BRACKET

Schleiermacher: Common sense alternative to the New Critics and other text-obsessed thinkers.

SCHLEIERMACHER:

As every discourse has a two-part reference, to the whole language and to the entire thought of its creator, so all understanding of speech consists of two elements—understanding the speech as it derives from the language and as it derives from the mind of the thinker.

Every discourse depends on earlier thought.

It follows that every person is on one hand a locus in which a given language is formed after an individual fashion and, on the other, a speaker who is only able to be understood within the totality of the language.

Grammatical and Psychological are completely equal: the psychological is the superior only if one views language as the means by which the individual communicates his thoughts; the grammatical is then merely a cleaning away of temporary difficulties. The grammatical is the superior if one views language as stipulating the thinking of all individuals and the individual’s discourse only as a locus at which the language manifests itself.

Only by means of such a reciprocity could one find both to be completely similar.

Exposition is an art. Every part stands by itself. Every composition is a finite certainty out of the infinite uncertainty. Language is an infinite because every element can be determined in a specific manner only through the other elements.  And this is also true for the psychological part because every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon. A composition composed of such elements cannot be defined by rules, which carry with them the security of  their applications.

Should the grammatical part be considered by itself, one would need in some cases a complete knowledge of the language, or, in others, a complete knowledge of the person. As neither can ever be complete, one must go from one to the other, and it is not possible to give any rules as to how this should be done.

The text is not always the focus of attention. Otherwise the art would only become necessary through the difference between text and discourse; that is to say, by the absence of the living voice and by the inaccessibility of other personal influences.

 

COLERIDGE:

 

The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions  to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by meter, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known  enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.” and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class  to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of meter, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If meter be superadded, all other parts must be consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.

 

Do you know why art and poetry used to be really beautiful?  Because of thinkers like the two above.  To put it as simply as possible, they understood parts, and how parts relate to the whole.

Schleiermacher (b. 1768) makes a useful distinction between two vital aspects of writing: Psychological and Grammatical. Philosophers tend to get bogged down in one or the other; they become obsessed with text, and forget the “living voice,” or they become excited by various insights of their own (think of typical modernist extravagances: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Olson, etc) which don’t translate into speech that is scientifically sound (we don’t usually think of grammar as scientific, but it is).

Coleridge offers wisdom to both sides of the verse/free verse/what is poetry? debate: poetry is not an empty shell of metrics, but neither is it truth-telling prose—the end of poetry involves three things: pleasure, unity, and the compatibility of each part with its unity in the communication of that pleasure. One can see how metrics may very much be involved in this end—or not. One can also see how the pretentious poetaster of prosey ‘truths’ will not get much of a hearing.  Poetry is difficult to define; Coleridge may have come closest.

 

WINNER: COLERIDGE

J. L. AUSTIN AND FRANTZ FANON IN FIRST ROUND POST-MODERN ACTION

Fanon: Saw 9/11 coming in the 1950s

AUSTIN:

Philosophers have assumed utterances report facts or describe situations truly or falsely. In recent times this kind of approach has been questioned—in two stages.

If things are true or false it ought to be possible to decide which they are, and if we can’t decide which they are, they aren’t any good but are, in short, nonsense.

Secondly: people began to ask whether statements dismissed as nonsense were really statements after all. Mightn’t they perhaps be intended not to report facts but to influence people in this way or that, or to let off steam in this way or that? Or perhaps these utterances drew attention in some way (without actually reporting it) to some important feature of the circumstances in which the utterance was being made? On these lines people have now adopted a new slogan, the slogan of the ‘different uses of language.’ The old approach, the old statemental approach, is sometimes called even a fallacy, the descriptive fallacy.

I want to discuss a kind of utterance which looks like a statement and grammatically, I suppose, would be classed as a statement, which is not nonsensical, and yet is not true or false. These are not going to be utterances which contain curious verbs like ‘could’ or ‘might,’ or curious words like ‘good,’ which many philosophers regard nowadays as danger signals. They will be perfectly straightforward utterances, with ordinary verbs in the first person singular present indicative active, and yet we shall see at once that they couldn’t possibly be true or false. Furthermore, if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say that he is doing something rather than merely saying something.

When I say ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ I do not describe the christening ceremony, I actually perform the christening.

If I say ‘I congratulate you’ when I’m not pleased or when I don’t believe the credit was yours, then there is insincerity.

If I say something like ‘I shall be there,’ it may not be certain whether it is a promise, or an expression of intention, or perhaps even a forecast of my future behavior, of what is going to happen to me; and it may matter a good deal, at least in developed societies, precisely  which of these things it is.

By means of these explicit performative verbs and some other devices we make explicit what precise act it is that we are performing when we issue our utterance. But here I would like to put in a word of warning. We must distinguish between the functions of making explicit what act it is we are performing, and the quite different matter of stating what act it is we are performing.

Consider the case, however, of the umpire when he says ‘Out.’ Performing has some connection with the facts.

Statements, we had it, were to be true or false; performative utterances on the other hand were to be felicitous or infelicitous. They were doing something, whereas for all we said  making statements was not doing something. Now this contrast surely, if we look back at it, is unsatisfactory.

Ills that have been found to afflict statements can be precisely paralleled with ills that are characteristic of performative utterances. And after all when we state something or describe something or report something, we do perform an act which is every bit as much an act as act of ordering or warning.

 

FANON:

The national middle class which takes over power at the end of the colonial regime is an underdeveloped middle class. It has practically no economic power, and in any case it is in no way commensurate with the bourgeoisie of the mother country which it hopes to replace.

 

Colonialism pulls every string shamelessly, and it is only too content to set at loggerheads those Africans who only yesterday were leagued against the settlers. The idea of  the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572 massacre of Protestants in Paris) takes shape in certain minds , and the advocates of colonialism laugh to themselves derisively when they hear magnificent declarations about African unity. Inside a single nation, religion splits up the people into different spiritual communities, all of them kept up and stiffened by colonialism and its instruments. Totally unexpected events break out here and there. In regions where Catholicism or Protestantism predominates, we see the Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions. The Islamic feast-days are revived, and the Moslem religion defends itself inch by inch against the violent absolutism of the Catholic faith. Sometimes American Protestantism transplants its anti-Catholic prejudices into African soil, and keeps up tribal rivalries through religion.

 

Austin is not well-known, which is a pity, for this brainy, nerdy, Harvard/Oxford/military intelligence 1940s-1950s professor is very easy to understand and articulates the crucial idea about language which goes to the heart of every philosophical debate from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Derrida; linguistic theory, poetry, science and religion cannot be understood without understanding what Austin is talking about in the brief excerpts above: All language is performance. This is Austin’s conclusion. Language doesn’t lie or tell the truth—it does things, and it does things whether or not it lies or tells the truth. Language poetry comes out of this whole notion that language is performance.  But in a misguided manner, since language poetry is so awful, and since the poets have always understood that poetry is precisely that which is neither true nor false, and yet is not nonsense—due to both its pleasurable effect and its grammatical epistemology.

Fanon confines himself to the facts of colonialism—a completely different topic one would think, but not really: “Moslem minorities flinging themselves with unaccustomed ardor into their devotions” is a prophecy of 9/11 made in the 1950s. Religion—the realm where language is performance—dominates politics, or, it might be said, is politics, and always will be. Liberalism has unconsciously known this, and its victories in the university and in Washington—uneasy, dumbing-down, ravenous sorts of victories, threatening to collapse all that Liberalism ostensibly stands for—are due precisely to this knowledge. If science and democracy often seem irrational, this is why.

 

WINNER: AUSTIN

 

THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST ROCK SONGS OF ALL TIME

It is difficult to put rock music in perspective. Sure, smart people have written about rock music, and rock music is very popular, and has been so popular for so many years that old rock songs are still popular.

It could be said, that for the last three generations, rock music has become America’s poetry—shaping the sensibility of millions of young—and even old—people.

Why, then does rock still seem mindless, schlocky, obscene, and low-brow?

Because most of it is.

If literature is a polite form of sex, rock music is an art form which some feel veers too close to sex to be a socially healthy alternative to it.

But with rock’s continued popularity, it is fast becoming our religion, our poetry.  It is now America’s elevator music, shopping-mall music, American Idol music, nostalgic radio and TV music, and has not stopped being our Top 40 music, even as Country and Rap sells millions. All popular American music, even jazz, is just a form of rock music.  A jazz solo sounds like an electric guitar solo; folk, country, jazz, and rap fit under rock’s umbrella—not the other way around.  It is all rock music, really.  Sonically speaking, American art is rock.  Classical music peaked in the 19th century, when America was still a relatively small and backward place; it may not be long before classical music will be a subset of rock music—and such is already the case in many musical listeners’ minds. Rock may not be the best kind of music; but right now it is the biggest sponge.  Rock is currently the place where all roads lead.

The look of rock has certainly been vital to its fame in a modern, media-saturated society.  The personalities, the costumes, the personal stories, the videos, the pyrotechnics, the idols, all that extra-musical material every rock fan is familiar with, is part of rock’s popularity; but rock songs still exist as rock songs: they have their profound impact, in the dark, emitted from a tiny speaker.  It is finally the sound, the song, in its harmonic and emotional aurality that matters.

But why—how—has rock, this silly electrified music, scaled the heights of culture?  Four basic reasons.

The best of it absorbs all other music, from classical, to jazz, to folk.

It has no avant-garde.  It has not yet fallen victim to the zany and the pretentious.

It lives outside the academy.  To see how dead rock music can be, watch American Idol, a display of what happens when rock is systemized, archived, sent to school, judged.

It strikes a perfect balance between writing/creating and playing/performing: both are equally important.

When rock has nothing left to rebel against, when rock has nothing left to absorb, will it finally die? And what will take its place?  Right now, rock music stands alone.

The criteria for The List are as follows:  Interesting All the Way Through. Rock songs thrill immediately; many good ones begin brilliantly but then we lose interest once the beat of the song is established. Great lyrics, Melody, harmony, originality, sound quality, emotional power, are all crucial.

A good List should seem inevitable, yet surprising.

A good List should not be enslaved by stars and big names, but obscurity should be avoided as well.  We are talking about popular music, after all.

If some favorites are not included, one should at least feel that every type has been represented, and often in terms of origins and templates.

 

 THE LIST:

1. WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER  –THE DOORS– Jim’s screams; a mini-symphony from the Beethoven of Rock bands.

2. BE MY BABY –THE RONETTES– Chorus agrees with singer so sweetly and exuberantly, for two minutes the world and love seem one.

3. GREEN FIELDS –THE BROTHERS FOUR– The ultimate ‘white blues’ song. Has a hushed power. Released in 1960.

4. MRS. ROBINSON– SIMON & GARFUNKLE– The energy, polish, and delicacy of late 60s S & G songs are unmatched.

5. LATHER– JEFFERSON AIRPLANE– Very few songs can truly be called mind-blowing; haunting, artistic, weird.

6. DAY IN THE LIFE– THE BEATLES– The musicians took over the control board: the final effort of an era’s performers turning profoundly and self-consciously inward. More than a song: the world’s greatest entertainers descend into the despondently poetic.

7. SEA OF LOVE –PHIL PHILLIPS– If Bach were alive in the 1950s…if Puccini were a hep cat…a catalogue of art music in two minutes.

8. CRY — JOHNNY RAY– Was he the father of rock n’ roll?  This magnificent recording came out in 1951.

9. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER –ARETHA FRANKLIN– Urban gospel jazz classical sweetness.

10. HOW SOON IS NOW –THE SMITHS — This song has it all: brain-filling sound, lyric, singer, intangible menace-melting-into-cool.

11. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –NIRVANA– A moment when rock looked at itself, said Oh Fuck and squirmed back.

12. LIGHT MY FIRE –THE DOORS– For about 100 days these guys were rock music and no one else was.

13. WILD THING — THE TROGGS– With a recorder solo! In terms of insouciant understatement, most iconic rock performance ever. Hold me tight.

14. WHAT’S GOIN ON? –MARVIN GAYE– Maybe the greatest pop singer ever. A delirious—and serious song.

15. LIKE A ROLLING STONE — BOB DYLAN — He made angry lyrics an art form; looking back, folk to rock was a big challenge.

16. SPACE ODDITY –DAVID BOWIE– A song that does many things; one of the great Wagnerian efforts of mature rock.

17. HOUSE OF THE RISING SUNTHE ANIMALS– On the back of an electric keyboard, a classic folk tune reaches rock immortality.

18. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN –LED ZEPPELIN– No matter what anyone says, this band’s best song. Melody, dynamics, atmosphere.

19. WILD WORLD — CAT STEVENS– The best of the ‘sincere’ singer/songwriter phenomenon from a male perspective.

20. ME AND BOBBY MCGEE –JANIS JOPLIN– She emoted in a way that was almost too good to be true.

21. VIVA LA VIDA –COLD PLAY– They could have had hits in the 60s!

22. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL –THE ROLLING STONES– They actually wrote a lot of pretty pop songs.

23. SHE LOVES YOU –THE BEATLES– It was the simple sophistication of ‘she’ loves you rather than ‘I’ love you. It was joy.

24. KANSAS CITY –LITTLE RICHARD– A British Invasion starter. A 1955 record issued in 1959 in the U.K. where Little Richard was huge, never having set foot there.

25. NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — SINEAD O’CONNOR– Big, slow beautiful ballad that came out of nowhere in the moribund 90s.

26. WHITER SHADE OF PALE — PROCOL HARUM– Help from Bach and Chaucer; a song that keeps on giving.

27. JAILHOUSE ROCK — ELVIS PRESLEY– Performer, not writer; good at choosing songs, but a truly great song never chose him.

28. STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE — FOUR TOPS– A hit-making machine for Motown, all went to the same high school in Detroit.  There was uplift, but also an exquisite sound of moral desperation in their songs.

29. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE — LOU REED– This was rock becoming self-consciously cool, almost as it always had been.

30. JUST SAY I LOVE HIM — NINA SIMONE– Genre-wise, “Forbidden Fruit” (1961) which contains this tender song, is jazz/blues/folk. The underrated album is a monster.

31. DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING– GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS– One of the sweetest recordings of all time.

32. WATERLOO SUNSET — THE KINKS– Ray Davies writes and sings; his brother pushes the song into another zone with his guitar; successful bands usually contain family, love, rivalry.

33. HE’S A REBEL — THE BLOSSOMS–  Loving the rebel.  Credited to the Crystals, a girl-group not available on short notice to record it.

34. SCHOOL’S OUT — ALICE COOPER– What most people think of when they think of rock music.

35. ELENORE –THE TURTLES– Before rock turned dangerous, it grew into what it was simply as an innocent (?) love-drug. “So Happy Together” would work as well.

36. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME — TOMMY EDWARDS– The tune was composed in 1911 by a future Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Charles Dawes.

37. BILLY JEAN — MICHAEL JACKSON– A song impeccably produced by Quincy Jones, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Lesley Gore.

38. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER — BUFFY ST. MARIE– This anti-war song, written by the sexy Native American singer, was covered by Donovan.  Her version is much better.

39. CALIFORNIA DREAMING — MAMAS AND PAPAS– Folk rock can be a great way to speak.

40. I WANNA BE SEDATED — THE RAMONES–  Punk has its anthem.

41. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? — CULTURE CLUB– Melancholy cool at its best.

42. WHAT THE WORLD  NEEDS NOW IS LOVE — JACKIE DESHANNON– A perfect example of sophisticated, urban, socially holy, feel-good, sentimentality.

43. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER — SIMON & GARFUNKLE– There was an inescapable magic about these two.

44. MAGGIE MAE — ROD STEWART– A raggedy rock classic.

45. HURDY GURDY MAN –DONOVAN — The backing band for this great hippie singer’s 1968 hit (and he had many) was the future Led Zeppelin.

46. HEY YA! — OUTKAST–  It was nice to hear this in 2003.   This is how it’s done.

47. I’M A BELIEVER — THE MONKEES–  The emergence of this ‘audition for TV show’ Beatles-clone band inspired the Beatles to go deeper.

48. TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM — THE TEDDY BEARS– Freud could say Phil Spector used music to get women to worship the father.

49. PINE TOP’S BOOGIE WOOGIE — PINE TOP SMITH– The template for all forms of popular rock exists in this 1928 recording. “And when I say, get it, I want you to shake that thing.”

50. SPIRIT IN THE SKY — NORMAN GREENBAUM– A one hit wonder which really is a wonder.

51. UNDER THE BOARDWALK — THE DRIFTERS– We don’t have to talk about the heroin overdose death of the lead singer the day before the song was to be recorded. Just a great song.

52. SOMEONE LIKE YOU — ADELLE — A woman holding her heart in her hand. Magnificent.

53. EARTH ANGEL — THE PENGUINS — An art song of sentimental naivety.

54. NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941 — THE BEE GEES — Nothing bubblegum about this.

55. WHAT’D I SAY — RAY CHARLES — If this song doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, you’re not alive.

56. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU — SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS — What can one say about this?

57. ICKY THUMP -- THE WHITE STRIPES — The art of controlled hysteria with poetry inside.

58. I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU –THE FLAMINGOS — A gorgeous declaration of love, as 1959 covers a 1934 tune.

59. SHE’S NOT THERE — THE ZOMBIES — Moody, soft, melodic, and to the point. Rock that dazzles.

60. WE ARE YOUNG — FUN — The chord progression of the chorus is epic.

61. TIME — PINK FLOYD– A special-effects-saturated, self-examining exercise in English self-pity at the center of the best-selling album of all time.

62. AT THE HOP — DANNY AND THE JUNIORS–  The most efficient twelve-bar blues ever.  1957. When templates were perfected.

63. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — THE SEX PISTOLS — This was a new kind of music: real limits were being pushed. Rock has many, many houses.

64. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED –DON MCLEAN — The danger here is sentimentality, but the moral, historical, self-reflexive story telling is important.

65. STAYIN’ ALIVE –THE BEE GEES — No one saw this coming: a band of melody becoming a band of beats.

66. HEY JUDE — THE BEATLES — A hopeful A.M. radio era anthem before all the F.M. splintering began.

67. DANCING QUEEN –ABBA — The well-tempered clavier meets disco.

68. MACK THE KNIFE –BOBBY DARIN —  Kurt Weil had his own invasion.

69. YOUNG FOLKS — PETER BJORN AND JOHN– Some day ‘catchy’ may be the most important term in the world.

70. SLOW RIDE — FOGHAT — A great example of a rocker’s rock song.

71. AQUALUNG –JETHRO TULL — The ‘Sgt. Peppers/Tommy’ era was extraordinary: Globe Theater rock.

72. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN — THE MOODY BLUES — One of those haunting ‘classical music’ rock tunes which sound good even when its simple chords are strummed on an acoustic guitar.

73. TEMPTATION EYES — THE GRASS ROOTS — Life is too short to be snobby towards The Grass Roots.

74. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED — JIMI HENDRIX — Hendrix was a fanatic about sound, almost in a John Cage sort of way.

75. FREE BIRD — LYNYRD SKYNYRD — The song became a joke, but only because it was good.

76. BORN TO BE WILD — STEPPENWOLF — All the elements of a great rock song and the first to really sound like a machine, among other things.

77. THE END — THE DOORS — Early rock n’ roll was Greece, the Doors, Rome.  The rest is imitative.

78. LOUIE LOUIE — THE KINGSMEN — One of those mysteriously great hits which seem like many great songs inside of one.

79. MY SHARONA — THE KNACK — Nearly the parody of a great rock song.

80. SMOKE ON THE WATER — DEEP PURPLE — Something important about this song. No, never mind.

81. ROCK LOBSTER — B-52S — The best example, perhaps, of New Wave’s goofiness.

82. BENNY AND THE JETS — ELTON JOHN — John/Taupin was like one of those old music & lyric writing teams.

83. NORWEGIAN WOOD — THE BEATLES — The best world music riff of all time.

84. AS TEARS GO BY — THE ROLLING STONES — If you can please with a slow tune, it proves you’re not just a dance band.

85. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART –JOY DIVISION — Of Ian Curtis his band mates said, “we didn’t realize he meant it.”

86. I CAN SEE FOR MILES — THE WHO — The Who had remarkable parts which came together in a mix good and bad precisely because they tried so hard to be pop and rock.

87. JOY INSIDE MY TEARS —  STEVIE WONDER– A comfort song as only Stevie Wonder can bring, from the pretentiously named 1976 double album, “Songs in the Key of Life.”

88. MAYBELLENE — CHUCK BERRY — Let’s face it: so much of rock music can be annoying.  And also iconic.

89. JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH — BLACK EYED PEAS — The new hedonism of rock adds competition: my party in my video has more naked, beautiful people than yours.

90. HEY THERE DELILAH — PLAIN WHITE T’S — The best love song of the 21st century so far?

91. STORMY — DENNIS YOST & THE CLASSICS IV– It’s a little hard to find this song, but for simple, unpretentious songwriting it’s as good as it gets. Epitomizes 70s ear candy.

92. LET’S STAY TOGETHER –AL GREEN — Every woman in the world loves this song.

93. VACATION — THE GO-GOS — This genre, which includes Katrina and the Waves, Cindi Lauper, Blondie, the Bangles, the Vapors, Shocking Blue, the Breeders is quite a lot of fun.

94. CHASING CARS — SNOW PATROL — One of the best things rock can do is create tension which makes passionate insouciance memorable.

95. IRREPLACEABLE — BEYONCE — Not a love song.

96. DREAM BROTHER — JEFF BUCKLEY — A meditative urgency which rock can do so well.

97. CALL ME MAYBE — CARLA RAE JEPSEN — Sort of a love song.

98. WHITE RABBIT — JEFFERSON AIRPLANE — The structure of this song is a rabbit hole. A masterpiece.

99. GOOD NIGHT IRENE– THE WEAVERS — This 1950 hit, a white group playing a black man’s (Leadbelly) music, could make a case for the song that began it all.

100. ODE TO JOY, FOURTH MOVEMENT, NINTH SYMPHONY– BEETHOVEN — Here’s a secret: this is when rock music really began.

 

 

 

 

 

BEAUTIFUL AND TRUE

 

 

Was I the one who leaned into your life—
Protected, soft, and safe from strife?
Was it I who entered the door of your mind,
Disrupting its innocence with ideas unkind?
Was I the one who hunted the prey,
Who hoped in her heart, “Please, please go away?”
Did I come armed with words untrue
Which flattered the sweetest part of you?
Did I know what you wanted to hear,
And poured only that into your ear?

Was I the one who mesmerized you?
Who took you away from the beautiful and true?
But the beautiful and true is a world of lies:
Smiles smiling with beautiful eyes.

I was the one who was mesmerized.
I was the one forsaken.
I was the one seduced by you, captured by you, and taken.
I was the one deceived by you—
Whether or not the beautiful is beautiful. Or true.

JUST BEFORE DAWN, BIRDS SINGING

As the present presently becomes the past,
It is no longer a question of when or how fast
Will this fade, will we die, for nothing can last
At all; death is already here; all that is known is past.
All this lighted love, love’s fat desire and being,
All this love wants and smells and is seeing
Is dead already; we are gone, dead; dead in the past of the past.

Why did philosophy tell us things could last?
By the booming microphone’s voice, his hand shook as he drank his water.
Voices say so many things, their bodies already dying:
“You like my poems? You can have my daughter!”
Old poet, depressed by the pastness of everything,
Poet, put your poems away; they cannot sing.
Lover, love; lover, act; let’s see what this dead past can bring.
No one can give away their daughter; she is plucked
By death. And your lover has too many memories;
Your lover lives in death between each breath.

But you, the one I love the most; recently you have not spoken to me
And I have this terrible fear I am but a memory among many
To you, who now finds comfort in how death stays
In songs, in thoughts, in winding, unseen ways
Where you live, and I do not; my breath
Far from the life which floats inside your death
In a languor I dare not reach, I dare not stir
Because not only will you not be; it will be as if you never were.
The poet addresses the crowd, and they remain.
I close my eyes and count to ten,
Then to infinity. Don’t ask me why, or what, or how.
Please make this seem this is happening now.

MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France

DE STAEL:

Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.

 

PEACOCK:

Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

 

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.

 

WINNER: PEACOCK

 

 

BECAUSE YOU DO NOT SPEAK

Because you do not speak,
You are the one I seek.
You spoke to me before
And now, in the cold mist, I wander the cold shore.
Cordelia said little to her father, the king,

A little more than nothing;
She said enough, we knew,
Before tragedy, in the form of rage, broke through.
We might attempt to describe our love,
But when the king’s in a rage, it will never be enough.
Make a play of silence, instead.
Hate will still fall on your head.
Since I am not a king
I hardly need a thing.
How much do I need to know?
A hint of love will exterminate my woe.
I wait in the shade
Where woe and jealousy are made.
Do not think your silence recommends you;
So vast is silence,
A single moment it spends, outspends you.
A single word—from you—to me–
Will stop my crying by the crying sea.

THE PROBLEM WITH RHETORIC

The problem with any argument, whether it be by politician, philosopher, priest, or poet, is this: any argument will always be prejudiced by its conclusion.

A good argument, we think, leads to its conclusion without any pre-knowledge of its conclusion; otherwise we find ourselves rejecting the argument as being made in bad faith: a mere adornment of a foregone conclusion.

Socrates is often faulted for winning his arguments too easily against fictionalized opponents— the inevitability of the conclusion results not in Socrates’ favor, but as an indictment of Plato ‘stacking the deck.’ So runs the case against Socrates, in many critics’ minds.

The seducer has one goal: carnal conquest; the unwilling victim must be persuaded by an argument guided by a conclusion which already exists. A politician’s speech, an essay, or a piece of fiction may all fall into this same unpleasant category: the conclusion comes first; the argument, no matter how elaborate, no matter how convincing, no matter how seemingly inevitable, was fashioned second, to fit the end—arrived at, for some hidden, sordid gain, in the beginning.

The bad faith argument only seems to be: ‘if these things are true, must not this be true?’ The bad faith argument is really: ‘I desire this, and to get it, I have laid out a masterpiece of an argument before you.’

Here is the great rhetorical dilemma: what sort of argument is it, if it is not prejudiced by its conclusion? It is no argument at all. An argument without a conclusion is not an argument. Yet an argument enslaved by a foregone conclusion is not an argument, either.

How does one rationally argue towards a conclusion which is unknown?

If conclusions are wants, goals, and desires, and all good arguments depend on every goal being unknown, then what in the world are good arguments for, and how can we even say what a good argument is? What sort of argument is it, which is separated from all that human beings want?

We are always reading books and recommending books to others. Do we really believe that in the great rhetorical climate of social and political communication in which all of us swim, there exists only the purest thoughts and actions, absent of all desire and ambition?

Of course we don’t believe this. Truly, conclusions exist. Desires exist. Arguments—ideal arguments, good arguments—do not exist. They can’t.

When someone says they don’t buy your argument, they are lying. Your conclusion, your desire, happens to clash with theirs.

When there is one desire, “good” arguments abound.

Where there are two conflicting desires, wonders! no “good” argument will ever be found.

If good arguments do not exist, and desire makes everything occur, then reason does not exist, or, if reason exists, it truly exists as feeling.

Reason, we think, takes time to unfold; this is what we call a ‘reasonable argument;’ but this is what we have just proved does not exist.

Last weekend my kids and I had to decide what we wanted to do for the day, and there were limits: distance to travel, cost of the event, interest in the event by the various parties, etc.  The conclusion (what we ended up doing) was already contained in the restrictions.

Today I noticed blossoms beginning to fall off the dogwood.

What is the conclusion of the dogwood?

The blossoms?

Or their death?

Reason, perhaps, if it is the same thing as emotion, manifests itself instantaneously, as feelings do.  There is debate on which is faster, light or gravity?  Perhaps the same argument could be made for swiftness of reason versus the swiftness of emotion?

I know what I want immediately.

My argument?

That is hardly relevant at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MADNESS IN THE FAMILY: MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT VERSUS PERCY SHELLEY!

Hey. It’s Wollstonecraft. Don’t mess with her. 

 

WOLLSTONECRAFT:

 

Milton describes our first frail mother, though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls.

Soldiers, as well as women, practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. The great misfortune is they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have, from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. Officers are particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry—they were taught to please, and they only live to please. Yet they do not lose their rank in the distinction of sexes, for they are still reckoned superior to women, though in what their superiority consists it is difficult to discover.

Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.

It follows then that cunning should not be opposed to wisdom, little cares to greater exertions, or inspired softness, varnished over with the name of gentleness, to that fortitude which grand views alone can inspire.

 

SHELLEY:

 

The poems of Homer and his contemporaries were the delight of infant Greece; they were the elements of that social system which is the column upon which all succeeding civilization has reposed. Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector and Ulysses: the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object, were unveiled to the depths in these immortal creations: the sentiments of the auditors must have been refined and enlarged by a sympathy with such great and lovely impersonations, until from admiring they imitated, and from imitation they identified themselves with the objects of their admiration.

The whole objection to the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. Ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created, and propounds schemes and proposes examples of civil and domestic life: nor is it for want of admirable doctrines that men hate, and despise, and censure, and deceive, and subjugate one another. But Poetry acts in another and diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar: it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it coexists. The great secret of morals is Love: or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.

 

Here we go. Percy Shelley, his iconic “Defense of Poetry” in hand, faces his mother-in-law, the great feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Percy’s future wife—Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

Wollstonecraft indicts gentleness as a damaging piece of flattery to women, while Shelley, a man, glories in it.  Feminism is correct even as it enslaves the female mind, for complaint breeds complaint; women, to improve themselves, imprison themselves in a better nature, or a search for a better nature, even as old and new conspire to make it impossible, while men—in this case, Shelley—slip out of their nature and identify with beauty not their own, making exalted poetry, while feminism festers in combativeness.

Wollstonecraft steels herself—to die. Shelley swoons—to live.

The contest is stacked against the woman, not because she is a woman, but because she attempts to argue as one in the first place. All feminist thought contains the seed of its own destruction. If women could only leap over themselves, they would be exalted and discover freedom on the other side. They would find gentle Shelley, poetry, wisdom. They would find bodies in a mist, sexless streams, and paradise.

This is not to say that Mary does not get it.  She does.    “…if virtue has only one eternal standard…”   Yes.

 

WINNER: SHELLEY

THOMAS BRADY: MUSICIAN OR POET?

CLEANTH BROOKS LOCKS HORNS WITH HAROLD BLOOM

The owlish Cleanth Brooks.  In his eyes, the “process of composition” has nothing to do with “the thing composed.”

 

BROOKS:

 

To make the poem or the novel the central concern of criticism has appeared to mean cutting it loose from its author and from his life as a man, with his own particular hopes, fears, interests, conflicts, etc. A criticism so limited may seem bloodless and hollow. It will seem so to the typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends. It will certainly seem so to the young poet or novelist, beset with his own problems of composition and with his struggles to find a subject and a style and to get a hearing for himself.

And to emphasize the work seems to involve severing it from those who actually read it, and this severance may seem drastic and therefore disastrous. After all, literature is written to be read. Wordsworth’s poet was a man speaking to men. In each Sunday Times, Mr. J. Donald Adams points out that the hungry sheep look up and are not fed; and less strenuous moralists than Mr. Adams are bound to feel a proper revulsion against “mere aestheticism.” Moreover, if we neglect the audience which reads the work, including that for which it was presumably written, the literary historian is prompt to point out that the kind of audience that Pope had did condition the kind of poetry that he wrote. The poem has its roots in history, past or present. Its place in the historical context simply cannot be ignored.

I have stated these objections as sharply as I can because I am sympathetic with the state of mind which is prone to them. Man’s experience is indeed a seamless garment, no part of which can be separated from the rest. Yet if we urge this fact of inseparability against the drawing of distinctions, then there is no point in talking about criticism at all. I am assuming that distinctions are necessary and useful and indeed inevitable.

The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men—that they do not somehow happen—and that they are written as expressions of particular personalities and are written from all sorts of motives—for money, from a desire to express oneself, for the sake of a cause, etc. Moreover, the formalist critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read—that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas. But the formalist critic is concerned primarily with the work itself. Speculation on the mental processes of the author takes the critic away from the work into biography and psychology. Such explorations are very much worth making. But they should not be confused with an account of the work. Such studies describe the process of composition, not the structure of the thing composed, and they may be performed quite as validly for any kind of expression—non-literary as well as literary.

 

BLOOM:

 

The best critics of our time remain Empson and Wilson Knight, for they have misinterpreted more antithetically than all others.

When we say that the meaning of a poem can only be another poem, we may mean a range of poems:

The precursor poem or poems.

The poem we write as our reading.

A rival poem, son or grandson of the same precursor.

A poem that never got written—that is—the poem that should have been written by the poet in question.

A composite poem, made up of these in some combination.

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority. The failure to have begotten oneself is not the cause of the poem, for poems arise out of the illusion of freedom, out of a sense of priority being possible. But the poem—unlike the mind in creation—is a made thing, and as such is an achieved anxiety.

How do we understand an anxiety? By ourselves being anxious. Every deep reader is an Idiot Questioner. He asks, “Who wrote my poem?” Hence Emerson’s insistence that: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts—they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Criticism is the discourse of the deep tautology—of the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet that what he says is wrong. Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.

 

The New Critics were not new. They belonged to the band of revolutionary Modernists determined to remove from the Academy, in Brooks’ words, the “typical professor of literature in the graduate school, where the study of literature is still primarily a study of the ideas and personality of the author as revealed in his letters, his diaries, and the recorded conversations of his friends.”

This early 20th century enemy, the “typical professor,” which Pound and Ransom likewise attacked in their writings (see “How To Read” and “Criticism, Inc”) was in the way, not because they took no “account of the work” (a pure straw man argument) but because they took “account” of Milton, Shakespeare, and Keats, rather than Pound, Eliot, and their New Critic friends. The New Critic’s approach had nothing to do with theory, criticism, or pedagogy.  Brooks’ back-pedaling apology above rings hollow—because it is.  (God forbid “biography” or “psychology” be in the mix!) The New Critics’ plea to look at “the work” instead of “the ideas and personality” of the author was secret code for: get the famous authors like Keats and Milton out of the Academy; let us in.  It was really that simple. Where is the proof that “the work” was not studied in the cases of Keats and Shakespeare? The New Critics merely said it was so, and it was so. The Creative Writing push by the New Critics (Allen Tate) and their allies (from Paul Engle to Ford Maddox Ford) soon followed, the ultimate example of: “focus on the work” and never mind those “famous authors” and their “diaries.”  The “new” wasn’t ideological.  It was personal.   The “new” wasn’t philosophy.  It was ambition. This was the great secret of Modernism.

As for Harold Bloom, (who later on in his career became more mainstream in his populist writings: Shakespeare-worship, etc) the agenda in his Anxiety of Influence is basically the same: focus on “the work” in an effort to overthrow the larger, more sane view currently in place.

Bloom’s “The meaning of a poem can only be another poem” is just a more crackpot focus on “the work” than even the New Critics offered.  A writer like Edgar Poe (excoriated by both Brooks and Bloom) can no longer be regarded as standing for sane, or wise, philosophical principles. Everything has to be yanked down to a Alice-in-Wonderland universe of  ‘close-reading,’ in which poems mean each other, etc.  Tunnels (“hidden roads”) wind about. Scholarship becomes mystical, hermeneutical, claustrophobic. Criticism becomes its own ‘poem.’ The fresh air of the heavens, in which philosophy takes the broadest view possible, is refused for the swamp of intra-textual hermeneutics. Obscurity is rewarded. Only those who can breathe for long periods underground will be worthy to effect the revolution from within.

 

 

WINNER: BLOOM

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