WILDE AND BAUDELAIRE TANGLE FOR THE LAST FINAL FOUR SPOT!

 

WILDE:

All art is immoral. For emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art, and emotion for the sake of action is the aim of life, and of that practical organization of life that we call society. Society, which is the beginning and basis of morals, exists simply for the concentration of human energy, and in order to ensure its own continuance and healthy stability it demands, and no doubt rightly demands, of each of its citizens that she should contribute some form of productive labor to the common weal, and toil and travail that the day’s work must be done. Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us are hateful in its eyes, and so completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal that they are always coming shamelessly up to one at Private Views and other places that are open to the general public, and saying in a loud, stentorian voice, “What are you doing?” whereas “What are you thinking?” is the only question that any single civilized being should ever be allowed to whisper to another. They mean well, no doubt, these honest, beaming folk. Perhaps that is the reason why they are so excessively tedious. But someone should teach them that while, in the opinion of society, contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty, in the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.

It is far more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it. Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual. To Plato, with his passion for wisdom, this was the noblest form of energy. To Aristotle, with his passion for knowledge, this was the noblest form of energy, also. It was to this that the passion for holiness led the saint and the mystic of the medieval days.

It is to do nothing that the elect exist. Action is limited and relative. Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits and ease and watches, who walks in loneliness and dreams.

BAUDELAIRE:

If I speak of love in connection with dandyism, this is because love is the natural occupation of the idle. The dandy does not, however, regard love as a special target to be aimed at. If I have spoken of money, this is because money is indispensable to those who make a cult of their emotions; but the dandy does not aspire to money as to something essential; this crude passion he leaves to vulgar mortals; he would be perfectly content with a limitless credit at the bank. Dandyism does not even consist, as many thoughtless people seem to believe, in an immoderate taste for the toilet and material elegance. For the perfect dandy these things are no more than symbols of his aristocratic superiority of mind. Furthermore to his eyes, which are in love with distinction above all things, the perfection of his toilet will consist in absolute simplicity, which is the best way, in fact, of achieving the desired quality. What then is this passion, which, becoming doctrine, has produced such a school of tyrants? what this unofficial institution which has formed so haughty and exclusive a sect? It is first and foremost the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limits of the properties. It is a kind of cult of the self which can nevertheless survive the pursuit of a happiness to be found in someone else—in woman, for example; which can even survive all that goes by in the name of illusions. It is the joy of astonishing others, and the proud satisfaction of never oneself being astonished. A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer; but in this case, he will smile like the Spartan boy under the fox’s tooth.

Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence; and the type of dandy discovered by our traveler in North America does nothing to invalidate this idea; for how can we be sure that those tribes which we call ‘savage’ may not in fact be the disjecta membra of great extinct civilizations? Dandyism is a sunset; like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride and pouring floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors.

Wilde and Baudelaire!  Connoisseurs of the decadent! Pronounce the sweet success of the manque!  Hold in your hands the flower of bad poetry!

The Modern flips the Classical: all that is holy, energetic and good for the latter is sterile and stiff and empty for the former.

The flip is all that matters.  The elements themselves do not matter. The new mood is all.

I once loved all that you were. Time passed. I became bored. Now I hate all that you were. Ah, the history of art!

The Modern bracket had to come to this. Wilde. Baudelaire. My twin!  My double! — Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

You are me.  And I hate you.  For the dandy must resent not only “the rising tide of democracy” but the rival dandy, as well.  Easy to identify, as Baudelaire does, a tribesman across the sea as a dandy: no chance they will rival you.

Wilde and Baudelaire both define the dandy beautifully—and of course the dandy is timeless, not merely modern—but we finally trust Wilde a little more.  Baudelaire slips, we believe, with his dying-ember praise of “warriors.”  Wilde wins by simply refusing to stir.

 

WINNER: WILDE

 

 

BIRTHDAY POEM FOR MY SON

 

A teen playing video games, watching TV, spoiled by his mom.
Here’s where patience comes in. Not the same patience as
When he was a baby and had that fever,
Or when he was loaded into the ambulance as a boy, with that terrible cough.
I prayed he would be okay and told God I would do anything please make him okay.
He doesn’t drive a car yet. He’s a nice boy—okay, a little spoiled—but he doesn’t worry me
The way I worried about him when he was young.
As a child he was joy itself, beaming.
Now my brown-haired boy’s a teen, with jokes and secrets.
What do I need patience for, now?  Am I waiting for him to become a man?
I remember always saying to myself, Children are not yours.
You “have” them, but they belong to themselves, to everyone.
Don’t get possessive.  Don’t worry too much about them.  They’ll be okay.

Edgar Poe had no children. He lived when babies were lost all the time—
Let Ralph Waldo Emerson tell you about that horror;
But no, stern Ralph said little;
Perhaps the less said about it the better.

I won’t lie.  I wanted my son to evince athletic skill, and when he dragged his feet
On the soccer field, it was sad to me, as when classical music
Not only bores him, it makes him sad and depressed. I would listen
To my father’s classical records with sweetness and awe. What is continuing
Here? What does he love that I love?  I find Pokemon inane.
He knows his way around a computer in a way that makes me look like an idiot.
He doesn’t want to go outside with me.  There’s no outdoor playground now
That interests him. I know there are things about life which I don’t know.
That I will never know. That I think I should know.  Should I know them?
What are they? A cake? Candles? Happy birthday?
Here’s to now.  Sweet now. And the future.  The sweet future.
Happy birthday, my dearest son.

THE GREAT TRAGEDY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE

The great tragedy of human existence:
To fight is easier than to love.
Deny them, deny them is the least resistance.
Downward is the reason for above.

And now there is nothing more to say—
Obligation has killed desire.
I wish every guest would go away.
The seller, too, must be sold to the buyer.

The sweet sensual time we had
Was not from love, but from war.
Sweetly we hated; good rejoiced in bad.
“Don’t do it!” Oh then we must do it all the more.

J.L. AUSTIN AND EDMUND WILSON IN POST-MODERN BRACKET SEEK TO ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR

J.L. Austin: Can this Englishman advance past Princeton’s Edmund Wilson to the  Final Four?

WILSON:

The old nineteenth-century criticism of Ruskin, Renan, Taine, Sainte-Beauve, was closely allied to history, and novel writing, and was also the vehicle for all sorts of ideas about the purpose and destiny of human life in general. The criticism of our own day examines literature, art, ideas, and specimens of human society in the past with a detached scientific interest or a detached aesthetic which seems in either case to lead nowhere. A critic like Herbert Read makes dull discriminations between different kinds of literature; a critic like Albert Thibaudet discovers dull resemblances between the ideas of philosophers and poets; a critic like I.A. Richards writes about poetry from the point of view of a scientist studying the psychological reactions of readers; and such a critic as Clive Bell writes about painting so exclusively and cloyingly  from the point of view of the varying degrees of pleasure to be derived from the pictures of different painters that we would willingly have Ruskin and his sermonizing back. And even Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey have this in common with Clive Bell that they seem to feel they have done enough when they have distinguished the kind of pleasure to be derived from one kind of book, the kind of interest to be felt in one kind of personality, from the kind to be found in another. One is supposed to have read everything and enjoyed everything and to understand exactly the reasons for one’s enjoyment, but not to enjoy anything excessively nor to raise an issue of one kind of thing against another. Each of the essays of Strachey or Mrs. Woolf, so compact yet so beautifully rounded out, is completely self-contained and does not lead to anything beyond itself; and finally, for all their brilliance, we begin to find them tiresome.

AUSTIN:

The more you think about truth and falsity the more you find that very few statements that we ever utter are just true or just false. Usually there is the question are they fair or are they not fair, are they adequate or not adequate, are they exaggerated or not exaggerated? Are they too rough, or are they perfectly precise, accurate, and so on? ‘True’ and ‘false’ are just general labels for a whole dimension of different appraisals which have something or other to do with the relation between what we say and the facts. If, then, we loosen up our ideas of truth and falsity we shall see that statements, when assessed in relation to the facts, are not so very different after all from pieces of advice, warnings, verdicts, and so on.

We see then that stating something is performing an act just as much as is giving an order or giving a warning; and we see, on the other hand, that, when we give an order or a warning or a piece of advice, there is a question about how this is related to fact which is not perhaps so very different from the kind of question that arises when we discuss how a statement is related to fact.  Well, this seems to mean in its original form our distinction between the performative and the statement is considerably weakened, and indeed breaks down. I will just make a suggestion as to how to handle this matter. We need to go very much farther back, to consider all the ways and senses in which saying anything at all is doing this or that—because of course it is always doing a good many different things. And one thing that emerges when we do do this is that, beside the question that has been very much studied in the past as to what a certain utterance means, there is a further question distinct from this as to what was the force, as we may call it, of the utterance. We may be quite clear what ‘Shut the door’ means, but not yet at all clear on the further point as to whether as uttered at a certain time it was an order, an entreaty or whatnot. What we need besides the old doctrine about meanings is a new doctrine about all the possible forces of utterances, towards the discovery of which our proposed list of explicit performative verbs would be a very great help; and then, going on from there, an investigation of the various terms of appraisal that we use in discussing speech-acts of this, that, or the other precise kind—orders, warnings, and the like.

The notions that we have considered then, are the performative, the infelicity, the explicit performative, and lastly, rather hurriedly, the notion of the forces of utterances. I dare say that all this seems a little unremunerative, and I suppose it ought to be remunerative. At least, though, I think that if we pay attention to these matters we can clear up some mistakes in philosophy; and after all philosophy is used as a scapegoat, it parades mistakes which are really the mistakes of everybody. We might even clear up some mistakes in grammar, which perhaps is a little more respectable.

And is it complicated? Well, it is complicated a bit; but life and truth and things do tend to be complicated. It’s not things , it’s philosophers that are simple. You will have heard it said, I expect, that over-simplification is the occupational disease of philosophers, and in a way one might agree with that. But for a sneaking suspicion that it’s their occupation.

Here we have two classic different types of Criticism: Austin (b. 1911) is asking what we are really doing when we say things, while Wilson (b. 1895) is asking what did those people over there say that gave us, or did not give us pleasure? The one is a philosopher, the other a critic.

Both these approaches do share a belief that meaning exists behind, not in, the text. We know what “shut the door” means, says Austin, but does it mean, “shut the door, or else!” or “oh I beg you, please, please shut the door”? Language, according to Austin, is the door, but there is something besides language which is coming through the door to potentially help us, or do us harm. The performative reality of ‘shut the door’ is precisely what fiction and poetry convey, by dramatizing expression.

So in that sense, a critic of literature like Wilson is following Austin’s philosophy by judging dramatic expression—literature.

Would Austin agree that literature is a “speech-act?” If so, it is interesting how Austin attempts to go beyond speech to something more real—and then runs smack into fiction. And does not literature make warnings and give advice?

On the other hand, a book could never order us to “shut the door.” But by replicating actions and showing intelligence, literature has that performative “force” which Austin is trying to get us to understand is always involved in even ordinary language.  Not just what an utterance means, Austin says, but its force. The question of charisma and force of personality arises; some individuals have forceful personalities even as they may not be big in stature or smart; but somehow their word is law. Then we have law itself, and its force.

There are complex forces of which words are merest shadows, and words’ attempt to describe the sun only enhances their shadowy nature. Between the thing and its representation there is something far more important: “I pronounce you man and wife” has a meaning, but more importantly, it is a performance, and it is with the performative that we escape the inexplicable sun and its shadow, “sun.”

Telling someone what to do is where language is clearest, and means the most.

Wilson prefers the 19th century novel of “life” to the exquisite vagueness of the modern literature; he thinks the novel is where the classical epic lives, not in contemporary poetry.

Austin seeks the performative “life” behind the meaning of language; Wilson, the “life” behind literature.

As Austin says, “it’s not things, it’s philosophers that are simple.” Wilson and Austin are really quite simple in what they say. Wilson and Austin are both asking us to read vertically, not horizontally—deeply more than widely. They are not New Critics. They are Old Critics. Throwbacks. They believe life is more important than speech.

Since philosophy of the kind Austin practices is mainly instinctual and steeped in common sense, in the long run it is probably less useful than Wilson’s, which is historical and more particular, and in many ways doing the same thing: criticism analyzing literature is like philosophy analyzing language—since it is finally what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ (Is this person good, or bad? What do they want? How are they trying to get it?) which is the object of our search, and there will never be one way to do this kind of search, given the complexity of human nature and human action.

WINNER: WILSON

COLERIDGE AND POE: TO THE FINAL FOUR ONLY ONE CAN GO

COLERIDGE:

What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet’s own mind.

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake, and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

“Doubtless,” as Sir John Davies observes of the soul (and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately, to the poetic imagination):

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms,
To bear them light on her celestial wings.

Thus doth she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Finally, Good Sense is the Body of poetic genius, Fancy its Drapery, Motion its Life, and Imagination the Soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.

“The man that hath not music in his soul” can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery; affecting incidents; just thoughts; interesting personal or domestic feelings; and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem; may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talents and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the particular means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”

 

POE:

Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study—not a passion—it becomes the metaphysician to reason—but the poet to protest. Yet Wordsworth and Coleridge are men in years; the one imbued in contemplation from his childhood, the other a giant in intellect and learning. The diffidence, then, with which I venture to dispute their authority, would be overwhelming, did I not feel, from the bottom of my heart, that learning has little to do with the imagination—intellect with the passions—or age with poetry.  “Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow/He who would search for pearls must dive below,” are lines which have done much mischief. As regards the greater truths, men oftener err by seeking them at the bottom than at the top; the depth lies in the huge abysses where wisdom is sought—not in the palpable places where she is found. The ancients were not always right in hiding the goddess in a well: witness the light which Bacon has thrown upon philosophy; witness the principle of our divine faith—that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of a man.

We see an instance of Coleridge’s liability to err, in his Biographia Literaria—professedly his literary life and opinions, but, in fact, a treatise de omni scibili et quibusdam aliis. He goes wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray—while he who surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below—its brilliancy and its beauty.

Of Coleridge I cannot speak but with reverence. His towering intellect! his gigantic power! He is one more evidence of the fact “que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu’elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu’elles nient.” He has imprisoned his own conceptions by the barrier he has erected against those of others. It is lamentable to think that such a mind should be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyctanthes, waste its perfume upon the night alone. In reading his poetry, I tremble—like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below.

Because, in poetry, there is no end of lines of apparently incomprehensible music, Coleridge thought proper to invent his nonsensical system of what he calls “scanning by accents,”—as if “scanning by accents” were anything more than a phrase. Whenever “Christabel” is really not rough, it can be as readily scanned by the true laws (not the suppositious rules) of verse, as can the simplest pentameter of Pope; and where it is rough these same laws will enable anyone of common sense to show why it is rough and to point out, instantaneously, the remedy for the roughness.

A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false in rhythm—unmusical. B, however, reads it to A, and A is at once struck with the perfection of the rhythm, and wonders at his dullness in not “catching” it before. Henceforward he admits the line to be musical. B, triumphant, asserts that, to be sure, the line is musical—for it is the work of Coleridge—and that it is A who is not; the fault being in A’s false reading. Now here A is right and B wrong. That rhythm is erroneous , (at some point or other more or less obvious,) which any ordinary reader can, without design, read improperly. It is the business of the poet so to construct his line that the intention must be caught at once.

Is it not clear that, by tripping here and mouthing there, any sequence of words may be twisted into any species of rhythm? But are we thence to deduce that all sequences of words are rhythmical in a rational understanding of the term?—for this is the deduction, precisely to which the reductio ad absurdum will, in the end, bring all the propositions of Coleridge. Out of one hundred readers of “Christabel,” fifty will be able to make nothing of its rhythm, while forty-nine of the remaining fifty will, with some ado, fancy they comprehend it, after the fourth or fifth perusal. The one out of the whole hundred who shall both comprehend and admire it at first sight—must be an unaccountably clever person—and I am by far too modest to assume, for a moment, that that very clever person is myself.

And here the two titans, Poe and Coleridge, battle to win the Romantic Bracket and go to the Final Four—in the 2014 Scarriet March Madness Tournament of Literary Philosophy.  Plato, defeating Dante, has already made it to the Final Four; Wilde and Baudelaire, Austin and Wilson compete for the other two spots.

Coleridge is profound.

Poe laughs at Coleridge’s profundity.

Coleridge is clever by what he says: “The poet diffuses and fuses…” etc.

Poe is clever, not by what he says, but by what he points out—see his lesson: “A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false…”

With Coleridge, we have: Before you use language, be sure you are very good at it.

With Poe, we have: Before you use language, don’t trust it.

With Coleridge, we have: the Poem is the Poet and the Poet is the whole world!

With Poe, we have: the Poem is rhythmic law.

Coleridge uses metaphor.

Poe uses sarcasm.

Coleridge hears.

Poe sees.

WINNER: POE

 

 

SHELLEY KNEW THAT LOVE IS MEAN AND VILE

Shelley knew that love is mean and vile

Because we must select one among the many.

This is how love must be, if there is to be any.

You have one—but the many attracts you all the while.

Beauty lives in many eyes,

But all that is many falls into the many and dies.

Shelley knew that love is mean and vile

So he wrote poetry for awhile.

 

 

 

IN VAIN, IN VAIN!

In vain, in vain,
All this sunshine and this rain.
Children have no children here,
This greenery is a green disguise,
This fertility is merciless and sere,
Love not for the womb, but for the eyes.

In vain, in vain,
To sit beside you on the train;
There won’t be any meeting here.
Breeding’s forbidden,
Romance is killed by fear,
The reason for the future hidden.

In vain, in vain,
All this beauty made in pain;
Pain by too much thought made weak;
This beauty fails to dream or speak;
Beauty silent, hopes to stay
With hope alone, but alone silently fades away.

 

 

THE POEM THAT NO ONE READS

The poem that no one reads
Has been sitting here for hours,
Resting by the brook
With a few dried flowers.

The poem that no one reads
Has been sitting here, among
Songs that are never sung,
Even though the harmony of their notes
Would sound from lips’ loveliest throats
In manner of major and minor key,
Beautiful in a melody
Which everybody needs.

But placed before my eyes,
Eloquence sings and cries
From a previously hidden source:
The poem no one reads, of course.

THIS NOVEL HAS MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU NEED, OR: WE REVIEW A BOOK WITHOUT A NAME.

EDITORIAL

I’m reading a novel that a friend highly recommended—she “couldn’t put it down” and “it made her cry in the end”—a “New York Times Bestseller” published about five years ago, a “chick novel,” a “journey” of “hope” and “love” the blurb says. It is packed with information—not surprisingly—because it is “historical fiction,” with real times and places, informed by actual historical events.

The research the author has done cries out to be noticed; the young heroes, who later, are old, demand to be loved; the historically-laced bigotry demands to be hated. Oh such demands.

I am still trying to understand what it is that makes so many people—who would never be considered literary, who never read poems, who never analyze anything, who don’t read philosophy, or literary criticism, who couldn’t articulate a literary or philosophical idea if their life depended on it, and who don’t know history at all—consume with relish literary/historical productions of  several hundred pages. Why do people spend so much time reading what is neither wise, nor strange, nor beautiful? The writing of a typical “best-selling” novel is plain, verbose, and matter-of-fact (always necessary for historical, realistic, and best-selling fiction) and takes perhaps weeks to resolve itself.  Why the hell do people read novels?

I am reading this novel, and plan to finish this novel, because I love my friend; I am on…page 120, almost half way through! I began the book two days ago. I’ve had to force myself to keep going, more than once; I find the experience, to be frank, terribly boring, as if forced to listen to a long-winded friend: Get to the point! What’s your point? Why do I need to know all this information?

I will admit three things: First, I know a little more about a certain time and place than I did previously. Second, when I was wakeful last night, reading 10 pages was a wonderful soporific. Third, reading a book recommended by a friend which, through, language, presents a coherent “world” of “a life,” past and present, calms me, and makes me less inclined to get drunk, or watch TV, or indulge in lonely, self-pitying thoughts. Admittedly, this is socially important.

Socially, very important.

Novels are sleeping pills. Calming drugs.  That’s what they really are, in terms of practical use.  It’s very similar to having a pet.  You ask your cat when you arrive home, “what did you do today, pumpkin?”  The cat doesn’t say, but you know the cat did something and you imagine what it was.  Similarly, we ask the novel we happen to be reading, “what were you doing today?”  The novel doesn’t answer, but someone (the author of the novel) has imagined it for you. And this inevitably involves the manners and habits of other people.  We are interested in other people, especially if we don’t really have to bother with them. This, too, is highly attractive.

I think all three of these are related: humans like to share information, participate in something larger than themselves, and feel calm and relaxed.

We are endlessly curious, like ants on an ant hill who, with wavering antennae, are bred with a need to know everything about their surroundings, and humans extend this to an extreme degree, curious about other times and places and things which have nothing—or perhaps because of language—seemingly everything—to do with themselves.

And this is why people read novels.

But I don’t like novels.  How many can one read, before one gets sick of them?  I can’t imagine becoming addicted to them, as so many people are.

I like beauty, and hate to be enslaved by curiosity, and trapped in an informational nexus of clichéd ideas and mere information for information’s sake.

I hate the ant-existence. I have no patience for ants, with their little antennae moving about, who read novels.

I prefer one sly smile to a million words.

I’d rather look at a beautiful face than hear a conversation.

I don’t need any other reason; I hate modern art because it’s—ugly.  I hate novels because the writing is—ugly, even as it’s evoking a tender sentiment.  I don’t care what you think. Give me beauty or give me nothing.

Call me misanthropic, if you wish. You will have to get to know me better to find out that I am not. Nor would I make you choose between humanity and me. I know I am part of humanity. I know I am an ant, too. I only hope you will show me a little patience as I write what must seem to you a misanthropic rant.

And I know what you, the self-righteous, are thinking. I know exactly what you think of me. And this is why I am so bored with you—and “New York Times Bestseller” novels.

I am not made of language. I am made of flesh. And I love poetry because it has flesh—which weak, matter-of-fact, informational prose does not. I want to live and die by what I really am: flesh.

But if I make a plea for poetry instead, I must admit that poetry has none of the practical and social attributes the novel has; poetry demands more; it does not comfort, at least for any length of time. Poets are weird, simply because they do not write novels—which do have all these practical comforts. Poets are too lazy to finish a novel. Poetry takes one away from real life into weirdness.  The poem hasn’t a chance against the novel. If a poem were a sweet little song, that would be one thing; it might be added to a reader’s menu: a little desert after dinner.  But poetry is too proud to be an after-dinner mint.  Unfortunately it wants to be more. The poem wants to call into question novel and history and cat and house and sleep.  Bad poem.  You should know your place.

It really was the novel that killed poetry.

Update: I have finished the novel my friend recommended. 

I liked the book.  It portrayed a lost love, lost to many years, and reading the book, I participated in this loss, triggered by historical events of war and prejudice and, fed by the romantic events and travails of youth and love and circumstance; historical events (was the history the food, or the sauce?) fed my mood-altered curiosity, too.

I experienced the appeal of the historical/romantic novel in all its unfolding glory: the early pages of “hard work” becomes a platform from which the invasion is launched, as the characters and their lives resolve themselves in the ongoing story—whose length allows nostalgia to seem “real” in terms of the work itself. A pretty neat trick is played. Young, chaste, innocent love is prevented from flowering, and the reader’s captured heart, sweetly indignant, races to the end of the book to see if there will be justice, or despair. We compare our bitter, and incomplete, and long life to the  model of similar aspirations; time–time–time is the fuel in which we, and the novel, burns.

By a ratio, similar, I would guess, to a falling object’s acceleration, I found myself reading more quickly and enjoying the book more with each chapter: I enjoyed the third quarter of the book twice as much as the first half of the book; I enjoyed the final quarter of the book four times as much as the third quarter of the book. There is something about getting near the end, and then reaching the end, of a novel, which gives the reader a pleasure aside from the book itself, a pleasure which is difficult to pinpoint, but which perhaps makes the reading of novels addictive.   Call it the ‘Falling Syndrome.’

The pleasure of looking at a painting—those old paintings which tell a story in a glance—is immediate; how different, the slow progress of reading a novel!  The effect is the same: a story is conveyed.  But with a novel, a thread is placed in our hand; we work our way through the maze until we get to the final room, where the Minotaur bellows, and the echoes, in the mazy distance, as we approach—clutching our winding thread—thrills.

The novel is a thread of sentiment; the matter of the novel is less important than the illusion that we are traveling in a little boat, with those we half-know, to our doom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARJORIE PERLOFF, ADAM KIRSCH, AND PHILIP NIKOLAYEV AT THE GROLIER

The Hong Kong.  Is there where Concrete Poetry finally met its end?

So the trouble with the contemporary poetry scene is it lacks focus, while at the same time a single thought throws its shadow over all: why don’t non-poets read poetry anymore?

We should focus on the single thought, since surely it is telling us something, while none of us are able to focus.

This demands an analysis, not haphazard, but of exactly what we seek: popularity.  Our scientific investigation needs to ask precisely: what causes/what has caused strangers to read poetry?

Do we know this? Can we list reasons?

The first reason which usually comes up in discussion is: poetry has more competition from other media, from other forms of communication and entertainment than ever, but what we notice immediately is first, this is a reason people don’t read poetry; we must be careful to list reasons why strangers do read poetry. And secondly, poetry will always have competition: any activity that doesn’t involve reading poetry, and this is a rabbit hole we need to avoid, rather than blame other media. Let us dismiss this “reason” at once.

Before we list the reasons why a poem is of interest to a roomful of strangers, we should define what we mean by stranger: Two friends are having a conversation in a public place and a stranger advances upon them, eager to join the conversation. The resistance to this intrusion indicates the issue involved; work needs to be done to effect intercourse between strangers—and this work needs to be done with poetry as the medium; the poetic might not be doing the work, but the poem must nonetheless be at the center of the process.

When talking of popularity or fame, we mean a lasting impact upon a number of people, not a furtive reading of a poem on a sudden in the presence of a couple of strangers—why should humanity at large want to know your poem? This is the important question, that single question which dogs every poet and critic today.

You write of a street in your poem—strangers, being strangers, will not be interested in your street, unless there is something very special about your street—and then it becomes interesting because it is a street, not your street—the street, of course, is not poetry and we should not confuse the two;—describing their street would interest them, but you cannot do that, because you don’t know them or their street—for they are strangers. We have exhausted all the options, then, and a poem about a street cannot then, be popular. Imitate discourse between friends having a conversation about the streets where they happen to live and you will not produce a popular poem: you cannot know their streets; your street is not interesting if it is not theirs, and “a street,” if it have a special interesting feature does not require this feature to be conveyed by anything we might call poetry. Here is the challenge.

How do we write a popular poem, then?

There are questions—such as what is a poem?—that seem to have no answer because of the scope of the question. But if we eschew detail and use the scope of the question to our advantage, we can define the definition as one which excludes all that pertains to the definition itself, so that if the question remain unanswered as it pertains to anything, we can assume whatever this is, it is not a poem, and we can be satisfied that leaving all these objects aside that instill themselves before us as they are, whatever escapes the definition’s “not,” is then, poetry, as much as it satisfies our general idea informed by those elusive predicates which combine to portray what we believe (without knowing) is the essence of our search. Poetry is the essence of an essence, the former “essence” the result of our searching (as failure) and the latter what we mean by the question (whose conscious act of questioning is, by that act, a “success”).

To define poetry simply: Poetry is language which elevates any subject—now, this definition apparently rejects the subject as vital, and would seem to include form or language only-always troubling to those who want poetry to be “important” and not simply about “style;” it is a definition too narrow and Victorian for our modernist pride. But the pride of the modernist is the ignorance of chronology, which peoples the 20th century with amazing things—things which inevitably bury not only poetry but any inquiry about it:—we are left with pedantry, half-theory and laughter.

To “elevate a subject” is not an action which ignores the subject; quite the contrary—there are subjects which will not be elevated and poetry is necessarily involved in best selecting the best subjects to elevate.

Further, poetry is not a text, but an action, for “to elevate” is an action—and so “subject” has a triplicate identity in the poem as

1. A generic vehicle: “any subject to be elevated”

2. A selective vehicle: “any subject worthy to be elevated”

3. A specific action: the “elevation” as subject

It is not only about style or form.

To return to the original subject: Here are reasons for a poem being interesting to strangers:

1. Mastery of that speech which elevates subjects worthy to be elevated in such a manner that strangers are convinced that that speech is poetry—of an excellent sort. Combined, of course, with all the usual notices which brings this poetry to their attention.

2. The textbook taught in the university for prisoner-strangers, i.e. Students

3. Legal issues which make news—Obscenity Trials, Freedom of Speech… Baudelaire, Joyce, Ginsberg

4. The poet famous or notorious as a person—Plath, suicide; Keats, young death

To return to our two friends having a conversation (emotion plus fact expressed) in a public space—cafe, bar, or restaurant—What notice from “a stranger” would they allow and even relish invading their private space that would have some kind of impact?

What if the TV flashed a news headline: Lana Turner Has Collapsed?

And with this, it is time to review our evening with Philip Nikolayev, Adam Kirsch, and Marjorie Perloff—the latter, best known, but all brilliant, well-known critics in poetry circles today.

These illustrious personages of the poetry world, in a panel at the Grolier bookshop in Harvard Square, pondered these ideas in public, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner than we are evincing here, but “sophistication” by now has become the poetry world’s undoing, and Perloff, et al, were refreshingly blunt and plain in their attempts to repair the present and point to the future.

The lack of focus in poetry today propelled the usual anxiety, expressed by the panel, and Scarriet crowned it with a question about popularity and fame, that evening at the Grolier, which launched in our mind the essay you are reading now.

As an example of “lack of focus,” Kirsch despaired that poets don’t seek “greatness” any longer; Perloff said no critic agrees on who the important poets of our time are, in contrast, for instance, to the wide concensus on the Eliot/Pound/Williams/Stevens/Crane/Moore  modernist canon; Nikolayev scorned the tendency to forget “the perfection of the art” while focusing endlessly on the nuances of “poetics.” Some specific likes and dislikes were expressed: Kirsch (yea) and Perloff (nay) disagreed on the worth of Derek Walcott; Perloff confessed she found Elizabeth Bishop’s output too small to mark her as terribly important.

I had the good fortune to speak with Perloff after the panel presentation, and found, to my delight, a lively intelligence combined with common sense, even a love of the hoary, informing her person; she is not the avant-garde besotted figure she is reputed to be. She agreed with our judgement that Ron Silliman is far too narrow in his approach to poetry, and that a Coleridge revival would be a good thing. And Auden, the young don’t read Auden anymore, she said. This was refreshing, indeed.

In my question at the Grolier, a rant more than a question,(what do you expect from Scarriet?) but which nevertheless elicited some positive response, I briefly made the often-argued Scarriet point that Modernism/New Criticism/CreativeWriting as a joint venture relied on Reasons 2 and 3 above while eliminating 1 and 4; it is hard to argue this in 15 seconds; Perloff agreed with me the Modernists hated the Romantics but felt it was merely a rhetorical flourish in a forward-looking movement. But Eliot was a skilled versifier in the lyric Romantic tradition even as he publicly reviled Poe and the Romantics—and it was this Critical gesture, widely followed as the 20th century proceeded, far more than Eliot’s skilled yet tiny poetic output, as small as Bishop’s, even if we include that one oddball/dead end poem, “The Waste Land,” which has led to the current waste land of poetry today which Perloff, Kirsch, Nikolayev, and others decry.

Nikolayev responded to my question with the common sense ‘how can popularity be a standard when so much that is popular is bad?’ I pointed out that Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition” (which if you read you don’t need an MFA) mentions the standard sought for “The Raven” is both critical and popular; critics are still needed, even as popularity is seen as a good; and to stay focused on our goal we mustn’t give in to the false notion that popularity in itself is somehow bad (a similar error is to assume “difficulty” is a good) for we mean ‘the popular is good’ in the simplest manner possible, as in ‘sunshine is popular’ or ‘love is popular’ even as we, of course, need critics to remind us to use sunscreen, or philosophy and manners to temper the lust of our love.

Perloff, in her response to the Scarriet question of whether it might not be useful to focus not so much on poetry but poetry which appeals to strangers (Kirsch: “today only poets read poets”—imagine if only football players watched football) was pleasantly open to fame as a criterion; she had made O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and “Lana Turner Has Collapsed” the focus of her talk: “Lunch Poems sells briskly,” Perloff said.

At the Chinese restaurant around the corner from the Grolier, I was between Nikolayev and Perloff, and after some preliminary talk of the Digital Humanities, an industry useful but philosophically overrated according to the nimble tongued Perloff, (exceedingly youthful for someone in her 80s) we got down to a discussion, powered by the questioning of Perloff by a healthily skeptical Nikolayev, which was right up Scarriet’s alley: Concrete Poetry. Perloff has the highest respect for it, but for Scarriet, it represents all that is overrated and crippling in the ‘white spaces’ fame of the mediocre modernist William Carlos Williams, who attempted to be a rhyming Romantic in his early work, and failed, and whose final worth was inflated by the influential New Critic’s textbook, Understanding Poetry.

What follows is an argument against Concrete Poetry formulated with the help of the discussion at the Hong Kong:

It is the critic’s duty not to confuse concrete existence with the art itself; if a performer has a bad cold and performs a piece of music differently as a result, this has nothing to do with the music as the composer has written it; if an orchestra plays the same piece of music, first printed in blue, and then printed in black ink, and performs the latter more vigorously, this has nothing to do with the music, nor does it alter music’s temporal nature. Poetry is a temporal art, as well—not partly temporal, not 99% temporal, but 100% temporal—duration manifests its beginning, middle, and end; poetry has no existence, no beginning, middle, and end without duration. White spaces on the page do not matter in terms of poetry’s temporal nature—despite the white spaces’ concrete existence. The white spaces do not belong to a poem in any significant or meaningful way, just as musical notes printed in blue or black ink do not contribute to music.

Temporality, it may be argued, springs from written (concrete) words in poetry and written (concrete) notes in music, so that in the very temporality exists the concrete: words and notes as they appear on a page—true. However, the manifestation of duration, in each case, is the resultcolor strikes our eye; painting has no temporal existence, even though it takes a certain time for the eye to traverse a painting; the painting qua painting does not exist as a temporal object, despite the fact that different viewers spend different amounts of time looking at various aspects of a painting. These “looking” differences equal a “concrete fact,” but this “fact” has nothing to do with the painting’s spatial existence—the duration of the viewer’s looking and the painting itself are indifferent to each other, just as the look of a poem and its temporal existence as an art form are separated, distinct and absolutely indifferent to each other.

A person—with a speech impediment—reads aloud a poem—and can do so in as much as it is a poem and not a picture. The same poem is then read aloud by Sir Laurence Olivier. This concrete experiment is absolutely null and void as it pertains to the poem as composed by the poet.

Further, let us assume there is a certain amount of white space, a very specific shape of white space, on the page. How is the white space “heard” in the person-with-the-speech-impediment’s reading? Or in Olivier’s reading? It is not. How could it be? How could a person with a speech impediment “misread” white space?

Or, take a poem which a critic dislikes. If one added, or subtracted, white space, and white space alone, to that poem, it would be absurd to say this act could make the critic now like the poem.

Or let us say the critic hears Olivier read the poem aloud. It is possible that if the performance is outstanding, the critic might enjoy the poem upon hearing it: but this change would be effected entirely by Olivier’s temporal performance.

It could not possibly have anything to do with Olivier “reading” the white spaces of the poem—which, in this experiment, of course, in both instances: the poem first disliked, and then liked because of Olivier’s reading, we keep the same.

At one point, over the spicy shrimp, Philip Nikolayev asked Marjorie Perloff to name the first Concrete Poet. An unfair question, perhaps? She couldn’t. The first Concrete Poet was a publisher, I imagine.

But we’ll discuss this another time.

That is, if Lana Turner ever gets up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TO GET AWAY FROM RELIGION

To get away from religion,
I did what I pleased today.
I greeted the sun—which owns light and its dome of blue—
As if it were a cloud, or a dying thought of you—drifting away.

My morning was a yawning blank.
There was no one who needed me, and no one to thank.
No altar, temple, or undertow
To people belief or fill a church with one sometimes as kind as you,

There was no candle for my cave, no chanting music graced my den;
No buildings were built, no slaves were made
To build canopies of comfort and shade;
Sweetly alone, I watched my loneliness well.

There were no reminders or alarms;
No fruits or candies, no gauzy charms;
The hours did not feel like hours and there was no bell.

No meal was cooked, no plates set in rows.
Noon never came, with trumpet or horn.
There were no friends, nor friends of foes;
No voices. No praise. No scorn.

No face of saint was judged too pale,
Or lacking the right artistic touch,
No harrowing stories of bloodshed or whale,
No heroes, no descendants of such-and-such,
Disturbed the peace of my contemplative sleep.
No mourners with candles entered the evening to weep.

I didn’t have to worry about my dress,
Or what sandals surrounded my toes,
Or the best thorns for my crown,
For when had we ever considered those?

You walked naked in the naked day
For you belonged to me naked, in the naked night.
For the naked in this naked world, loneliness is right.
Take the lily from my brow, for I just burn it up,
Take away my incense, my icon, my carved and painted cup.
I’m devoted to myself. The sun. The sun has not come up.

 

 

 

DANTE VERSUS PLATO!

This battle between Plato and Dante is not merely a war between Greece and Rome.  Because we are speaking of Plato and Dante, this contest takes place in heaven.  The laws, which govern there, are simple, but perhaps strange to the uninitiated, and so Scarriet will be a guide, for we have an understanding of these secrets, which nonetheless dwell in every eye.

That Dante was moved beyond all else by Beatrice is well known. To know how Dante’s philosophy is manifest we need only read the following poem simply, and in steps, and  not allow our amazement to dim, or contort, our knowing.

Love that makes men gentle and how that love is conveyed is Dante’s theme in the poem, or Canzone,  below.

Since Dante’s poem conveys love, and how love is conveyed is the subject, the subject of the poem is partly the poem, only for this reason.  As a mortal individual, Dante realizes he cannot express love as it should be expressed, so he elicits help not only from Beatrice, but from gentle ladies who keep her company.  The “courteous man” in the last stanza is not plural, like “ladies” for reason of modesty; Dante is not interested in a Broadway number, pairing up men with ladies; his subject is more simple serious and august than that, though Dante wishes to acknowledge that men can be gentle, like ladies.

The poem is Dante’s messenger, and we see in the Diotima section quoted from Plato’s Symposium father down, the same crucial theme:

“To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.”

The universe, Plato warns, will fall “into two separate halves,” mortal distinct from immortal, if spirits of an “intermediate nature” do not “bridge the gap.”

Everything in the universe is attached, but there are highs and lows, bright and dark, good and evil, because for the universe to exist, there must be divine will and space for that divine will.

If the space is real, and if the divine (the spark, the life, the spirit, etc) is real, the divinity will not fill equally that space; the glory of God is not everywhere, just as light shines more in some places than others. If that is the one thing we take away from Dante and Plato in this contest, that will be enough.

So with Dante and Plato, there is not a fiendish desire to invent, as much as a desire to describe the (moral) task that needs to be done; and this is the realm of poetry, a humble, yet important one, and that is what makes these aesthetic thinkers classical and conservative, as opposed to modern and progressive.

Plato’s insight is important: Love is not beautiful; Love is that which desires beauty. Beatrice is not love, but the rare thing which rarefies love or desire; the poem is the “bridge,” the transaction of love; and so the poem is not beautiful, but its object is beauty, and is beautiful only as much as its object is beauty (so intention and subject are as crucial as form or design).  Dante’s poem is the love between Beatrice and Dante; a love which is a bridge, a desire, a transaction, both message and messenger, so object, person, and action are one—the poem both belongs to, and is, this holy task.

According to Plato, what Love “wins he always loses,” and we see this is true of Dante, who “loses” Beatrice, because heaven lacks her, heaven’s “only defect,” as Dante says. Movement is crucial in Dante’s  universe, and makes all things happen: Where is Beatrice?  Will her greeting travel from her to me?  Will my poem travel from me to her? How are the stars arranged? How does sin and mortality move and fit in the world of souls?  Everything is about placement, the obsession of the ancients: poetry and astronomy and love are the same.

DANTE:

Ladies Who Have Knowledge Of Love,

I wish to speak with you about my lady,
not because I think to end her praises,
but speaking so that I can ease my mind.
I say that thinking of her worth,
Amor makes me feel such sweetness,
that if I did not then lose courage,
speaking, I would make all men in love.
And I would not speak so highly,
that I succumb to vile timidity:
but treat of the state of gentleness,
in respect of her, lightly, with you,
loving ladies and young ladies,
that is not to be spoken of to others.

An angel sings in the divine mind
and says: ‘Lord, in the world is seen
a miracle in action that proceeds
from a spirit that shines up here.’
The heavens that have no other defect
but lack of her, pray to their Lord,
and every saint cries out mercy.
Pity alone takes our part,
so that God speaks of her, and means my lady:
‘My Delights, now suffer it in peace
that at my pleasure she, your hope, remains
there, where one is who waits to lose her,
and will say in the Inferno: “Ill-born ones,
I have seen the hope of the blessed.”’

My lady is desired by highest Heaven:
now I would have you know of her virtue.
I say, you who would appear a gentle lady
go with her, since when she goes by
Love strikes a chill in evil hearts,
so that all their thoughts freeze and perish:
and any man who suffers to stay and see her
becomes a noble soul, or else he dies.
And when she finds any who might be worthy
to look at her, he proves her virtue,
which comes to him, given, in greeting
and if he is humble, erases all offense.
Still greater grace God has granted her
since he cannot end badly who speaks with her.

Amor says of her: ‘This mortal thing,
how can it be so pure and adorned?’
Then he looks at her and swears to himself
that God’s intent was to make something rare.
She has the color of pearl, in form such as
is fitting to a lady, not in excess:
she is the greatest good nature can create:
beauty is proven by her example.
From her eyes, as she moves them,
issue spirits ablaze with love,
which pierce the eyes of those who gaze on her then,
and pass within so each one finds the heart:
you will see Love pictured in her face,
there where no man may fixedly gaze.

Canzone, I know that you will go speaking
to many ladies, when I have sent you onwards.
Now I have made you, since I have raised you
to be Love’s daughter, young and simple,
to those I have sent you, say, praying:
‘Show me the way to go, since I am sent
to her of whom the praise is my adornment.’
And if you do not wish to go in vain,
do not rest where there are evil people:
try, if you can so do, to be revealed
only to ladies or some courteous man,
who will lead you there by the quickest way.
You will find Amor will be with her:
recommend me to him as you should.

 

PLATO:

Diotima Explains Love To Socrates

 

Is Love ugly and bad?

Don’t say such things; do you think that anything that is not beautiful is necessarily ugly?

Of course I do.

And that anything that is not wisdom is ignorance? Don’t you know there is a state of mind half-way between wisdom and ignorance?

What do you mean?

Having true convictions without being able to give reasons for them.  So do not maintain that what is not beautiful is ugly, and what is not good is bad.

What can Love be then? A mortal?

Far from it.

Well, what?

He is half-way between mortal and immortal.  He is a great spirit, Socrates; everything that is of the nature of a spirit is half-god and half-man.

And what is the function of such a being?

To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.  Spirits are many in number and of many kinds, and one of them is Love.

Who are his parents?

Poverty, thinking to alleviate her wretched condition by bearing a child to Invention, lay with him and conceived Love.  Love was begotten on Aphrodite’s birthday and became her follower and servant. He is always poor, and, far from being sensitive and beautiful, as most people imagine, he is hard and weather-beaten, shoeless and homeless, always sleeping out for want of a bed.  He schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good; he is bold and forward and strenuous, always devising tricks like a cunning huntsman. What he wins he always loses, and is neither rich nor poor, neither wise nor ignorant.

 

 WINNER: PLATO

Socrates is going to the Final Four.

 

 

 

 

YOU GET ME

Slender beauty who hides in the baskets and the tea,
The gypsy who hungers, and Ursula, who writes poetry
Are better at making signs than taking advice,
For they do not understand: you get me.

This is not the most attractive thing about being nice,
Which, if understood, is how we build up our pride—
Being attractive amounts to letting the other decide.
What is best at being insanely lovely
Is how the sad world is led inside;
The leaf and flower are waiting: you get me.

They want each choice to be right.
They will have me, they think, tonight.
They will be the moon—there are many,
Or a day, or a thought—there are many.
If the world needed children, it would let me.
But no, darling; you get me.

 

WILDE AND FREUD MIX IT UP IN MODERN BRACKET

Can Oscar Wilde move on to the Elite Eight?

Oscar Wilde’s “Critic As Artist” (1891) predates Sigmund Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” (1899, English translations soon followed) and comparing two key passages from these works suggests a similar world-spirit.

Wilde:

The difference between objective and subjective work is one of external form merely. It is accidental, not essential. All artistic creation is absolutely subjective. The very landscape that Corot looked at was, as he said himself, but a mood of his own mind; and those great figures of Greek or English drama that appear to us to possess an actual existence of their own, apart from the poets who shaped and fashioned them, are, in their ultimate analysis, simply the poets themselves, not as they thought they were, but as they thought they were not; and by such thinking came in strange manner, though but for a moment, really so to be. For out of ourselves we can never pass, nor can there be in creation what in the creator was not. In fact, I would say that the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is. Shakespeare might have met Rosencrantz and Guilderstern in the white streets of London, or seen the serving men of rival houses bite their thumbs at each other in the open square; but Hamlet came out of his soul, and Romeo out of his passion. They were elements of his nature to which he gave visible form, impulses that stirred so strongly within him that he had, as it were, perforce, to suffer them to realize their energy, not on the lower plane of actual life, where they would have been trammelled and constrained and so made imperfect, but on that imaginative plane of art where love can indeed find in death its rich fulfillment, where one can stab the eavesdropper behind the arras, and wrestle in a new made grave, and make a guilty king drink his own hurt, and see one’s father’s spirit, beneath the glimpses of the moon, stalking in complete steel from misty wall to wall. Action, being limited, would have left Shakespeare unsatisfied and unexpressed; and, just as it is because he did nothing that he has been able to achieve everything, so it is because he never speaks to us of himself in his plays that his plays reveal him to us absolutely, and show us his true nature and temperament far more completely than do those strange and exquisite sonnets, even, in which he bares to crystal eyes the secret closet of his heart. Yes, the objective form is the most subjective in matter. Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Hello. Is this not a precise metaphor for psychoanalysis?  “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”  Free association “covers” conscious, rational speech, allowing the speaker to speak from somewhere else in their soul. Wilde’s belief in subjectivity brings him right to the doorstep of Freudian psychology—before Freud. But more than that, Wilde reaches a passionate level of truth which turns his Criticism into poetry. The Creative Faculty of Shakespeare is not merely described by Wilde; he briefly inhabits it: “where one can stab the eavesdropper behind the arras…” We feel that Wilde is confessing what few dare: the poet who writes profoundly of murder does indeed entertain murderous thoughts as much, or more, than any actual murderer. The unconscious is real, but more so in the poet; poetry, or rather Criticism, invented psychology; it is no accident that Freud appears in the wake of the Romantics—who rediscovered Plato and Shakespeare—and in the Zeitgeist throes of Poe and Wilde.

Here’s the Freud passage:

Another of the great creations of tragic , Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex. But the changed treatment of the same material reveals the whole difference in the mental life of these two widely separated epochs of civilization: the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind. In the Oedipus the child’s wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and—just as in the case of a neurosis—we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences. Strangely enough, the overwhelming effect produced by the more modern tragedy has turned out to be compatible with the fact that people have remained completely in the dark as to the hero’s character. The play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations and an immense variety of attempts at interpreting them have failed to produce a result. According to the view which was originated by Goethe and is still the prevailing one today, Hamlet represents the type of man whose power of direct action is paralyzed by an excessive development of his intellect. The plot of the drama shows us, however, that Hamlet is far from being represented as a person incapable of taking any action. We see him doing so on two occasions: first in a sudden outburst of temper, when he runs his sword through the eavesdropper behind the arras, and secondly in a premeditated and even crafty fashion, when, with all the callousness of a Renaissance prince, he sends the two courtiers to the death that had been planned for himself. What is it, then, that inhibits him in fulfilling the task set him by his father’s ghost? The answer , once again, is that it is the peculiar nature of the task. 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.

The real person—which is the highest and most important reality—is the chief topic for Wilde and Freud. By failing to act as a murderer, Shakespeare, nonetheless feeling within himself the reason and passion of murder, creates an “objective” document—the play, Hamlet, and the actions and speech of the character, Hamlet—which is, according to Wilde, a wholly subjective creation of the real person, Shakespeare. Reality, according to Wilde’s Romantic, artist-centered view, is a projection of a person’s soul, of Shakespeare’s soul: the passiveness of Hamlet is not the important thing, for Shakespeare has Hamlet wrestle in a new made grave and stab a royal official to death as he confronts his mother; and Freud agrees. Both Freud and Wilde reject the conventional wisdom that Hamlet doesn’t act—Hamlet very much does act, in a play that is an expression, not of history or convention or tradition or theme or playwright-method or language, but Shakespeare’s unique soul.

Freud, however, raises the stakes to a scientific level, whereas Wilde is content to let the unique art product be a sufficient reason for itself; the art creates criticism because criticism created the art in the first place; criticism for Wilde is not adversarial or analytic but creative; the objective is really subjective.

Freud, the doctor, is, as the critic, much different; Freud asserts that Hamlet refuses to kill his usurping uncle, the new king, because Shakespeare, like all men, has a repressed desire to murder his father and marry his mother.

Freud’s assertion is two-fold: the universal desire of patricide/mother-love with the repression of this desire: the repression creates a crucial objective/subjective split: but since the objective truth lurks within the repressed person, Freud’s “scientific” truth runs smack into Wilde’s literary one: the “objective truth” of Hamlet comes straight out of Shakespeare’s “subjective” soul. And this “subjective” soul, which meditates on murder so intensely that a famous play is the result, is by its very reason of meditating powerfully on murder, “repressed” in its nature and manner.

Wilde, then, can be said to prefigure Freud, for Wilde’s assertion, that objectivity is really subjectivity, intimates “repression” as that which necessitates Wilde’s assertion in the first place.

Freud posits “repression” or objectivity lurking in subjectivity as his thesis—it is the same as Wilde’s, generally. Freud, however, makes a wider assertion that objective reality itself is hiding another reality, beyond the subjective behavior of men, and therefore a certain kind of subjective behavior is determined by an objective truth in a universal (scientific) manner.

Two things must be said at this point, in favor of Wilde.  Freud’s Oedipal idea is subjectively Freud’s, firstly, and secondly, Freud’s Oedipal “truth,” which maintains that the objective is really subjective which is really objective is nothing but an endless binary sequence that demolishes, as it seeks to establish, the ‘subjective hiding the objective’ duality: Hamlet is Shakespeare’s subjective creation. This is a circular truism which spins due to the subjective/objective aspect of reality in the first place: the critic/doctor/psychoanalyst/scientist/lover/audience seeks “the truth” (objectivity) in a state of curious ignorance (subjectivity). Shakespeare plays his audience; Freud, in turn, plays Shakespeare, but Freud, like everyone else, is stuck in Shakespeare’s audience. The truth of the character Hamlet—why did he behave the way he did?—can never be known. The truth of Oedipus can likewise never be known, since the “repressed” loop of its subjectivity-becoming-objective is a “play” which blocks any attempt by an audience member to objectify it in a scientific manner.

According to Freud, Hamlet could not kill his uncle because he “knew” that he, Hamlet, was guilty in the same manner his uncle was, due to Hamlet’s own repressed desire to murder his father and sleep with his mother. And this, according to Freud’s startling critical analysis, is why Shakespeare, the author, portrayed Hamlet as he did. Freud ‘s “objective truth” necessarily travels through Shakespeare’s “subjective truth.” Hamlet cannot kill himself, or his subjectivity cannot kill his objectivity. So Freud repeats Wilde’s idea that the objective is really subjective, but Freud is attempting to “direct” the Subjective Shakespeare, which the very dynamic of ‘subjective versus objective’ as it has been examined here forbids him to do.

Where is the evidence that Shakespeare/Hamlet wants to kill his father and sleep with his mother? There is none. Hamlet expresses admiration for his father and disdain for his uncle before his mother; Hamlet champions his father, which is the very opposite of the Oedipal impulse. Freud’s analysis is subjective, then, and so for Wilde, becomes a kind of objective truth, if we follow his own reasoning. So we can almost say that Freud’s thesis is bunk, but it thrives in the atmosphere of Wilde’s half-agreement.

As an example, let us say the door to the men’s room in a restaurant somehow becomes shut, although the room is unoccupied, during restaurant hours. For a certain time, the assumption will be that the rest room is occupied. The objective truth is that the restroom is unoccupied. The (group) subjective perception is that the restroom is occupied. As long as men slip into the women’s restroom and a line does not form in front of the men’s room, the discovery of the locked men’s room door hides the truth; the closed door, whose message is “occupied” is hiding the truth: unoccupied. Hamlet does not attempt to enter the men’s room because he thinks it is occupied. The reason is very simple. It is because the door is shut. Hamlet does not attempt to kill his uncle. The door is shut on his attempt. The reason for Hamlet’s inaction and the fact of his inaction become one: the hidden or repressed fact of a closed door. Freud has found a trope as simple and profound as a closed door. But like the simple error which spread among the male patrons of the restaurant and became an “objective truth”, Freud’s theory caught on with its simple explanation, which turns out to be an error just as simple, and thus prone to be believed.

The restroom is not occupied. Hamlet’s hesitation in murdering his uncle is not due to Freud’s Oedipal theory.

The restroom is not occupied. Wilde opens the door and finds the objective truth. Now it is occupied. And you may not enter.

WINNER: WILDE

 

 

ALL THE POET DOES

All the poet does— to keep steady and calm—
Is convert the many words of worlds to one world’s few—
Even as his wants increase—for he must,
In the vision of his passion, remain dedicated to you.

You are larger than worlds, better than words,
In the eyes of the one dedicated to you.
You are human. You are better than the birds.
And the poet dedicated to you? By the laws of praise,

You are better than all his dedications, too.
The poem falls short, always,
As all the moments and all the efforts do.
But look how everything is saved!
The poem lives because the poem thinks to mention you.

 

 

 

JOHN CROWE RANSOM TAKES ON BAUDELAIRE IN THE MODERN BRACKET

Ransom was the Southern American T.S. Eliot. He battles ‘the Father,’ Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire and John Crowe Ransom are icons of Modernism.

Ransom, the New Critic, defined Modernism explicitly, brilliantly, in his little known essay, “Poets Without Laurels, which he published in 1938. Baudelaire, closer to the origins of it, but just as self-consciously, in his Art criticism, defined Modernism, too.

Temperamentally, Ransom and Baudelaire are quite different: Baudelaire is the dandified Modernsist-rebel, Ransom, the stuffy Modernist-matter-of-fact. The arc of Modernism from Baudelaire to Ransom is highly instructive, though: the Modernist “rebel” of the 19th century is erased by Modernity’s 20th century “victory;” Baudelaire’s cry of “Join the Artificial Revolution!” is a tad redundant when it rings out in the 20th century surrounded by skyscrapers, airplanes, and TVs.

Baudelaire rebelled against nature: “Woe to him who, like Louis XV [died 1774] carries his degeneracy to the point of no longer having a taste for anything but nature unadorned.” The 18th century—which featured Pope saying Art is nothing but the Greeks and Nature, and which prepared the way for Romanticism’s humble embrace of the same—found itself attacked by Baudelaire:

We know that when [Louis XV's mistress] wished to avoid receiving the king, she made a point of putting on rouge. It was quite enough, it was her way of closing the door. It was in fact by beautifying herself that she used to frighten away her royal disciple of nature.

But when we reach the 20th century, it is no longer possible to be a rebel by hating nature—for nature had been overthrown. Rousseau and his Nature worship becomes the hero of protest; Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are sarcastic, ironic: a joke at the expense of Baudelaire’s sacred artificiality. Post-modernism freed us from Modernism’s Futuristic and Artificial Pride by laughing at it—but unfortunately, or not, Modernism has had the last laugh: artificiality, like it or not, has won. Louis XV and Al Gore are both seen to love nature artificially, and what seems more artificial to us now than Alexander Pope? Cosmetics are all the rage, and nature poets are wise more than they are natural, just as natural and organic diet gurus are wise; American poetry, whether it is rap, Slam, Ashbery, or Collins, could not be more artificial or more removed from nature poetry: even Mary Oliver is wise rather than natural; we kill trees to publish books on saving trees. Baudelaire is an anti-Nature prophet, then, more than he is a rebel: he looked around at the teeming cities, the material improvements, the women making themselves lovely and available with their cosmetics and their freedom, and thought: here is the Future. As Baudelaire put it in his essay, “In Praise of Cosmetics:”

Nature teaches us nothing. I admit that she compels man to sleep, to eat, to drink, and to arm himself as well as he may against the inclemencies of the weather; but it is she too who incites man to murder his brother, to eat him, to lock him up and torture him; for no sooner do we take leave of the domain of needs and necessities to enter that of pleasures and luxury than we see that Nature can counsel nothing but crime. It is this infallible Mother Nature who has created patricide and cannibalism, and a thousand other abominations that both shame and modesty prevent us from naming. On the other hand it is philosophy (I speak of good philosophy) and religion which command us to look after our parents when they are poor and infirm. Nature, being none other than the voice of our self-interest, would have us slaughter them.

A prophet, indeed; for Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were primitives who followed nature; they had no philosophy or religion. Philosophy and religion are means to fend off nature’s ultimate, all-encompassing self-interestedness—and find pleasure and sanity in a more subtle and piecemeal and laissez faire sort of way. Good philosophy listens to a host of small voices, and ignores the big ones. Communists and fascists are not philosophers and religious fanatics are not religious. Communists, fascists, and religious fanatics listen to the big voices. You would never find any of them speaking as Baudelaire does here:

Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible. By reflecting in this way the philosopher-artist will find it easy to justify all the practices adopted by women at all times to consolidate and as it were to make divine their fragile beauty.

Whether this is sexist rot or women’s liberation brilliantly and empathetically imparted, we are sure this is not how the Ayatollahs or the Communists or the Nazis talk: it is a beautiful antidote to that. It is a small voice worth listening to.

Ransom, in his description of Modernsim, is equally trivial and modest; Modernism, as Ransom sees it, is simply a practical method in which expertise is fragmented to handle things compartmentally. This might not be ideal. But Ransom essentially agrees with Baudelaire; he is talking in the same way. Ransom sees Modernism as that which rejects nature and big schemes and listens to the individual and his or her small voice, even if this produces a certain amount of alienation and dullness. We’ll quote the beginning of Ransom’s essay, “Poets Without Laurels,”; note how Ransom uses fanaticism’s “red banner” jokingly and ironically. Ransom begins with poetry; he then moves into Modernism as it applies to all aspects of life:

The poets I refer to in the title are the “moderns:” those whom a small company of adept readers enjoys, perhaps enormously, but the general public detests; those in whose hands poetry as a living art has lost its public support.

Consequently I do not refer to such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost, who are evidently influenced by modernism without caring to “go modern” in the sense of joining the revolution; which is very much as if they had stopped at a mild or parlor variety of socialism, when all about them the brave, or at least the doctrinaire, were marching under the red banner. Probably they are wise in their time; they have laurels deservedly and wear them gracefully. But they do not define the issue which I wish to discuss. And still less do I refer to poets like E.A Robin. son, Sturge Moore, and John Masefield, who are even less modern; though I have no intention of questioning their laurels either. I refer to poets with no laurels.

I do not wish to seem to hold the public responsible for their condition, as if it had suddenly become phlegmatic, cruel, and philistine. The poets have certainly for their part conducted themselves peculiarly. They could not have estranged the public more completely if they had tried; and smart fellows as they are, they know very well what they have been doing, and what they are still stubborn in doing, and what the consequences are.

For they have failed more and more flagrantly, more and more deliberately, to identify themselves with the public interests, as if expressly to renounce the kind affections which poets had courted for centuries.

Poets used to be bards and patriots, priests and prophets, keepers of the public conscience, and, naturally, men of public importance. Society crowned them with wreaths of laurel, according to the tradition which comes to us from the Greeks and is perpetuated by official custom in England—and in Oklahoma. Generally the favor must have been gratefully received. But modern poets are of another breed. It is as if all at once they had lost their prudence as well as their piety, and formed a compact to unclasp the chaplet from their brows, inflicting upon themselves the humility of delaureation, and retiring from public responsibility and honors. It is this phenomenon which has thrown critical theory into confusion.

Sir Philip Sidney made the orthodox defense of poetry on the ground of the poet’s service to patriotism and virtue.

“He doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, a will entice any man to enter into it”

And what was the technique of enticement?

“With a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner”

The poets, therefore, told entrancing tales, which had morals. But the fact was, also, that the poets were not always content to win to virtue by indirection, or enticement, but were prepared to preach with almost no disguise, and to become sententious and repetitious, and the literature which they created is crowded with precise maxims for the moralists. There it stands on the shelves now. Sometimes the so-called poet has been only a moralist with a poetic manner. And all the poets famous in our tradition, or very nearly all, have been poets of a powerful moral cast.

 

Ransom is trying to hide his bias in talking about the old poets; he is trying very hard not to show his hand—which is full of “moderns.” He succeeds, we think; I doubt even one in a hundred readers would be able to detect in Ransom’s carefully worded rhetoric his flagrant hatred of the old poet, together with his deep prejudice in favor of the “modern” poet.

First of all, who is Ransom talking about when he says, “the poets…were prepared to preach with almost no disguise?” The “poets famous in our tradition” are precisely those who transcend mere moralizing; further, Ransom writes of “precise maxims for the moralists” as if morality did not belong to him and you and me, but thrived in a shadowy group of inquisitorial persons to which the old poets like Sidney were slaves: “the moralists.” Who are these “moralists?” They are nobodies. They are the unnamed invention of Mr. Ransom, who intends to snatch autonomy away from the old poets and make them seem mere servants—as opposed to the “moderns,” who happen—who just happen—to be ambitious poets who are friends of the critic and poet Mr. Ransom. (Ransom examines “modern” poems by Mr. Stevens—“pure” and Mr. Tate —“obscure” in “Poets Without Laurels.”) Poe explicitly wrote on disguising one’s morals; did Poe, one of the “poets famous in our tradition” as referenced by Ransom, write only to invent “precise maxims for the moralists?” Or Baudelaire? Did Baudelaire busy himself in making “precise maxims for the moralists?” Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning? Did they all throw their souls into the task of making “precise maxims for the moralists?” Really, Mr. Ransom?

We felt it was only fair to expose, for our Scarriet readers, the grubby truth underlying Ransom’s effort, which we nevertheless consider brilliant (if crooked and corrupt) in its gloss on Modernism. Again, to pick up Ransom where he left us:

So I shall try a preliminary definition of the poet’s traditional function on behalf of society: he proposed to make virtue delicious. He compounded a moral effect with an aesthetic effect. The total effect was not a pure one, but it was rich, and relished highly. The name of the moral effect was goodness; the name of the aesthetic effect was beauty. Perhaps these did not have to coexist, but the planners of society saw to it that they should; they called upon the artists to reinforce morality with charm. The artists obliged.

Note how Ransom slyly implies the “planners of society” are telling Shakespeare and Poe what to do. But no one would call the New Critics, who worked with the U.S. Government as Education officials (poetry textbook writers) or Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, or any of the “moderns,” those laurel-less renegades, “planners of society.” Ransom, the non-planner, continues:

When they had done so , the public did not think of attempting to distinguish in its experience as reader the glow which was aesthetic from the glow which was moral. Most persons probably could not have done this; many persons cannot do it today. There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas. But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land. He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.

There are distinct styles of “modernity,” but I think their net results, psychologically, are about the same. I have in mind what might be called the “pure” style and what might be called the “obscure” style.

A good “pure” poem is Wallace Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds…”

Poetry of this sort, as it was practiced by some French poets of the nineteenth century, and as it is practiced by many British and American poets now, has been called pure poetry, and the name is accurate. It is nothing but poetry; it is poetry for poetry’s sake, and you cannot get a moral out of it. But it was expected it would never win the public at large. …

As an example of “obscure” poetry, I cite Allen Tate’s “Death of Little Boys.” …

Tate has an important subject, and his poem is a human document, with a contagious fury about it: Stevens, pursuing purity, does not care to risk such a subject. But Tate, as if conscious that he is close to moralizing and sententiousness, builds up deliberately, I imagine, an effect of obscurity; for example, he does not care to explain the private meaning of his windowpane and his Norwegian cliff; or else, by some feat, he permits these bright features to belong to his total image without permitting them to reveal any precise meaning, either for himself or for his reader. …

Pure or obscure, the modern poet manages not to slip into the old-fashioned moral-beautiful compound. …

Personally, I prefer the rich obscure poetry to the thin pure poetry. The deaths of little boys are more exciting than the sea surfaces. It may be that the public preference, however, is otherwise. The public is inclined simply to ignore the pure poetry, because it lacks practical usefulness; but, to hate the obscure poetry, because it looks important enough to attend to, and yet never yields up any specific fruit. Society, through its spokesmen the dozens of social-minded critics, who talk about the necessity of “communication,” is now raging with indignation, or it may be with scorn, against the obscure poetry which this particular generation of poets has deposited. Nevertheless, both types of poetry, obscure as well as pure, aim at poetic autonomy; that is, speaking roughly, at purity.

Modern poetry in this respect is like modern painting. European painting used to be nearly as social thing as poetry. It illustrated the sacred themes prescribed by the priests, whether popularly (Raphael) or esoterically and symbolically (Michelangelo)… But more or less suddenly it asserted its independence. So we find Cezanne, painting so many times and so lovingly his foolish little bowl of fruits. …

Apostate, illaureate, and doomed to outlawry the modern poet may be. I have the feeling that modernism is an unfortunate road for them to have taken. But it was an inevitable one. …

Poets have had to become modern because the age is modern. Its modernism envelops them like a sea, or an air. Nothing in their thought can escape it.

Modern poetry is pure poetry. The motive behind it cannot be substantially different from the motive behind the other modern activities, which is certainly the driving force of all our modernism. What is its name? “Purism” would be exact, except  that it does not have the zealous and contriving sound we want. “Puritanism” will describe this motive…

The development of modern civilization has been a grand progression in which Puritanism has invaded first one field and then another.

The first field was perhaps religion. The religious impulse used to join to itself and dominate and hold together nearly all the fields of human experience; politics, science, art, and even industry, and by all means moral conduct. But Puritanism came in the form of the Protestant Reformation and separated religion from all its partners. Perhaps the most important of these separations was that which lopped off from religion the aesthetic properties…the ceremonial became idolatry. …

Next, or perhaps at the same time, Puritanism applied itself to morality. Broad as the reach of morality may be, it is distinct enough as an experience to be capable of purification. We may say that its destiny was to become what we know as sociology, a body of positivistic science. …

Then Puritanism worked upon politics. … Progress in this direction meant constitutionalism, parliamentarianism, republicanism. The population, not being composed exclusively of politicians, is inclined to delegate statecraft to those who profess it. …

It was but one step that Puritanism had to go from there into the world of business, where the material sciences are systematically applied. The rise of the modern business world is a development attendant upon the freedom which it has enjoyed; upon business for business’s sake, or pure business, or “laissez faire,” with such unconditioned principles as efficiency, technological improvement, and maximum productivity. …

All these exclusions and specializations, and many more, have been making modern life what it is. …

Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism. They pursue A, an aesthetic element thought always to have the same taste and to be the one thing desirable for poets. They will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade. In lemonade the A gets weakened and neutralized by the M. …

Now some poetry, so-called, is not even lemonade, for the ingredients have not been mixed, much less compounded. Lumps of morality and image lie side by side, and are tasted in succession. T.S. Eliot thinks that this has been the character of a great deal of English poetry since the age of Dryden. … It is decidedly one of the causes of that revulsion of feeling on the part of the modern poet which drives him away from the poetic tradition.

And that is Ransom’s Modernist gambit, justifying Modern Poetry’s “independence” from “morality” on the historical “fact” that modern life is now more “pure” than ancient life. But does Ransom’s analogy work? Is a lobbyist-influenced politician in a modern democratic society more “pure” than a Feudal lord, or king? Is the poetry of Allen Tate more “pure” than Shelley’s? Is efficiency and improvement and productivity in a specific area something which only arose in France in the 19th Century? Was it Modern Poetry’s destiny to gain a certain ascendency in the 20th century for the very same reason that drove Martin Luther to question the sincerity of the Catholic Church?

We think not. We strongly suspect that “Modernism” is nothing but a fancy word, and that John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot are nothing but Highbrow Car Salesmen. Purely so, of course.

WINNER: BAUDELAIRE

 

 

 

 

COLERIDGE AND SHELLEY BATTLE FOR ELITE EIGHT SPOT!

Coleridge. Not a happy life. But a happy mind.

William Wordsworth is not a Romantic Poet. In his heart, Wordsworth is a Park Ranger. At least compared to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge can make even Shelley look like a cold philosopher.  A Wild and Desperate Love is at the heart of Coleridge’s Romanticism. Wordsworth trusts in Nature’s God, Shelley in the One, but Coleridge, the Heart-Riven Atheist, trembles before the Unknown:

Reality’s Dark Dream

I know ’tis but a dream, yet feel more anguish
Than if it were ’twere truth. It has been often so:
Must I die under it? Is no one near?
Will no one hear these stifled groans and wake me?

It is not that Coleridge was simply a World of Hurt; he was a thinking man, and always reflecting; Coleridge, the Poet, is Pain Spoiled by Too Much Thought. The “I know ’tis but a dream” above only manages to deepen the gruesome “reality.” Coleridge knows the darkness and escapes the darkness with thought in such a way that manages in its workings to bring more darkness on. And since Coleridge is a genius, the fault seems never to be Coleridge’s but the world’s, the bad luck of a great man proving to be more melancholy than any human flaw or philosophical belief.

Coleridge is the Hamlet of Hamlets, the “sole unbusy thing:”

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

from “Work Without Hope”

As for love, as the quintessential Romantic Poet, Coleridge believes it to be all. From the poem, “Love:”

All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love
And feed his sacred Flame.

“Sacred.” Of course. The orgy of the Romantic is always sacred, and this paradox is at the heart of that type of poetry’s beauty and wonder; to feel the sternly Modernist tainted and cynical profanation of Romanticism is to know truly what Romanticism is.

To be Romantic is to adore the Past in such a manner that one can, like Coleridge, reproduce Homer’s hexameter, but tragically, only in moments:

Strongly it bears us along in swelling and limitless billows,
Nothing before and nothing behind but the sky and the ocean.

The Romantic cannot be Classically heroic; the sad attempts break apart into the fragments of dream, and in the failure, a rich lyric beauty is born, as if the body of a strong animal were tenderized, cooked, and eaten. Appetite is born of ruin. Modernism, the mere cold leftovers of the sacred feast.

Coleridge was more optimistic when he was younger: he was capable, for instance, of this simple, stunning observation, as he writes of his infant son in “Frost at Midnight:”

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! He shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

There you have it: Coleridge, bursting with faith and paternal care, with the magnificent ” by giving make it ask.”

In one of those strange accidents of history, Coleridge was friends with the steadier but less talented Wordsworth—calling him in “To William Wordsworth,” “Friend of the Wise! and Teacher of the Good!” Although Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, compared to Mr. W., had superior minds, tougher hearts, were better verse writers, and were more in the spirit of Romanticism, the contrast of the hard-luck and dissipated Coleridge, and the early deaths of the other three, came to make Wordsworth seem, in the eyes of certain dull but well appointed critics (Matthew Arnold was one) the greater poet, and this peculiar state of things still exists today. Wordsworth’s best known poem, “Tintern Abbey,” is not even read correctly (the famous theme of the lost joys of childhood is nowhere in the poem. *Scarriet has written on this elsewhere)

The cold-hearted Modern, T.S. Eliot, he of the icicle breath, the various Orthodox trappings, strangely mixed with ingenious vulgarity and wise-acre irreverence, cut down the Romantics and elevated Donne and the Metaphysical School—(the term “metaphysical school” is actually Samuel Johnson’s.) The Romantics will have their revenge, sooner or later, and Coleridge will smite Donne. Speaking of which, here is Coleridge on Donne:

With Donne, whose muse on dromedary trots,
Wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots;
Rhyme’s sturdy cripple, fancy’s maze and clue,
Wit’s forge and fire-blast, meaning’s press and screw.

Here, Coleridge, the Romantic, has dashed off what dances with Donne and Eliot, and looks ahead to Plath.

Shelley was simply the most optimistic poet who ever lived:

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wreaks of a dissolving dream.
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
From waves serener far;
A new Peneus rolls his fountains
Against the morning star.
Where fairer Tempes bloom, there sleep
Young Cyclads on a sunnier deep.
A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
Fraught with a later prize;
Another Orpheus sings again,
And loves, and weeps, and dies.
A new Ulysses leaves once more
Calypso for his native shore.
Oh write no more the tale of Troy,
If earth Death’s scroll must be!
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
Which dawns upon the free:
Although a subtler Sphinx renew
Riddles of death Thebes never knew.
Another Athens shall arise
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendor of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live,
All earth can take or Heaven give.
Saturn and Love their long repose
Shall burst, more bright and good
Than all who fell, than One who rose,
Than many unsubdued:
Not gold, not blood, their altar dowers,
But votive tears and symbol flowers.
Oh, cease! Must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past,
Oh, might it die or rest at last!

Shelley is almost too correct in his feelings of triumph, in his magnificent versification. We feel more sympathetic for the homely heart and playful mind of Coleridge today.

WINNER: COLERIDGE

Samuel Taylor Coleridge advances to the Elite Eight!!!

 

 

 

 

WHAT IF MY POETRY IS WRONG?

My poetry wants you to love me
And maybe this is wrong.
There is always a story
Underneath the song.

They say there is a crime
Behind every care,
They say that hidden blood
Is on all we eat and wear.

Unchanging love
Changes love that went before.
Fewer words mark the poem—
The story’s always more.

It’s nobody’s business
What this poem says to you,
With its effort to be pretty,
And its secret for the Jew.

DANTE AND POPE BATTLE FOR CLASSICAL BRACKET FINAL

All poets are beautiful.  Is Alexander Pope not beautiful?

POPE:

It would be a wild notion to expect perfection in any work of man: and yet one would think the contrary was taken for granted, by the judgment commonly passed on poems. A critic supposes he has done his part, if he proves a writer to have failed in an expression, or erred in any particular point: and can it then be wondered at, if the poets in general seem resolved not to own themselves in any error?

This seems strange: Pope, author of “The Confederacy of Dunces,” himself a poet best known for using his poetry to criticize and excoriate lesser poets, who took sweet delight in crushing denser wits with his superior wit, in this piece of prose, defends poets against harsh criticism. What? Was Pope really soft? In any case, no Critics from the 18th century are even known today, even as one as mighty as Pope seems to fear them. The critics are all forgotten.

But Pope was prophetic: civilization means that poetry is not only read, it is discussed and criticized: but finally the poets prove too thin-skinned, and resolve “not to own themselves in any error,” which is precisely what happened with modern poetry: its desultory prose style simply cannot be measured as faulty; the loose address of an Ashbery is simply beyond criticism. So is every one happy? Would Pope, who rhymes, be?

Next, Pope puts his finger on another modern ailment: poetry is essentially trivial:

I am afraid this extreme zeal on both sides is ill-placed; poetry and criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.

Finally, Pope makes further modern remarks regarding the poet in society—the genius does not appear out of the blue; they must grow up to an audience; but how? Most likely even the genius—in the early stages of their career, especially—will be shot down, envied, and hated. Is Pope merely feeling sorry for himself? Critical reception is made of flawed and envious humans, and the best thing the genius can hope for is “self-amusement.” So we are back to “idle men in closets.” We are surprised to find Pope, in his prose, to be self-pitying, sensitive, and quaintly tragic. Pope was the first Romantic. He was Byron’s favorite poet, after all.

What we call a genius, is hard to be distinguished by a man himself—if his genius be ever so great, he cannot discover it any other way, than by giving way to that prevalent propensity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken. The only method he has is appealing to the judgments of others. The reputation of a writer generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world, and people will establish their opinion of us, from what we do at that season when we have least judgment to direct us.  A good poet no sooner communicates his works with the same desire of information, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature given up to the ambition of fame; when perhaps the poor man is all the while trembling with fear of being ridiculous. If praise be given to his face, it can scarce be distinguished from flattery. Were he sure to be commended by the best and most knowing, he is sure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority; for it is with a fine genius as with a fine fashion, all those are displeased at it who are not able to follow it: and it is to be feared that esteem will seldom do any man so good, as ill-will does him harm. The largest part of mankind, of ordinary or indifferent capacities, will hate, or suspect him. Whatever be his fate in poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it. There are some advantages accruing from a genius to poetry: the agreeable power of self-amusement when a man is idle or alone, the privilege of being admitted into the best company…

DANTE:

The author of the Comedia, here in a prose section of his earlier, Beatrice-besotted Vita Nuova, speaks of several apparently unrelated things at once: the poet describing love as if it were a person, the use of high and low speech as it relates to rhyme and love, and how these uses should be understood in a prose manner.

Dante quotes examples in classical poetry (mostly figures of speech) to defend his own practice in his “little book” (the Vita Nuova) of personifying love.

The dramatizing license is all well and good, but Dante also makes the fascinating point that poets began to write in the common tongue (as opposed to literary Latin) in wooing (less educated) females, and that rhyme is best used for love. How does one get one’s head around this radical, grounded, democratic, proto-Romantic notion?

For Dante, poetry and love overlap in a corporeal manner in three ways: personification, rhyme, and wooing, the first belonging to rhetoric, the second, to music, and the third, practical romance. The whole thing is delightfully religious in a mysterious, trinitarian sort of way: Personified love, Christ, the son; Rhyme, the Holy Spirit; and Wooing, the Creative Love of God. Or, on a more pagan religious level, personified love can be any messenger; rhyme, the trappings of religion’s austere/populist articulation; and wooing, the conversion of the poor.

It might be that a person might object, one worthy of raising an objection, and their objection might be this, that I speak of Love as though it were a thing in itself, and not only an intelligent subject, but a bodily substance: which, demonstrably, is false: since Love is not in itself a substance, but an accident of substance.

And that I speak of him as if he were corporeal, moreover as though he were a man, is apparent from these three things I say of him. I say that I saw him approaching: and since to approach implies local movement, and local movement per se, following the Philosopher, exists only in a body, it is apparent that I make Love corporeal.

I also say of him that he smiles, and that he speaks: things which properly belong to man, and especially laughter: and therefore it is apparent that I make him human. To make this clear, in a way that is good for the present matter, it should first be understood that in ancient times there was no poetry of Love in the common tongue, but there was Love poetry by certain poets in the Latin tongue: amongst us, I say, and perhaps it happened amongst other peoples, and still happens, as in Greece, only literary, not vernacular poets treated of these things.

Not many years have passed since the first of these vernacular poets appeared: since to speak in rhyme in the common tongue is much the same as to speak in Latin verse, paying due regard to metre. And a sign that it is only a short time is that, if we choose to search in the language of oc [vulgar Latin S. France] and that of si, [vulgar Latin Italy] we will not find anything earlier than a hundred and fifty years ago.

And the reason why several crude rhymesters were famous for knowing how to write is that they were almost the first to write in the language of si. And the first who began to write as a poet of the common tongue was moved to do so because he wished to make his words understandable by a lady to whom verse in Latin was hard to understand. And this argues against those who rhyme on other matters than love, because it is a fact that this mode of speaking was first invented in order to speak of love.

From this it follows that since greater license is given to poets than prose writers, and since those who speak in rhyme are no other than the vernacular poets, it is apt and reasonable that greater license should be granted to them to speak than to other speakers in the common tongue: so that if any figure of speech or rhetorical flourish is conceded to the poets, it is conceded to the rhymesters. So if we see that the poets have spoken of inanimate things as if they had sense and reason, and made them talk to each other, and not just with real but with imaginary things, having things which do not exist speak, and many accidental things speak, as if they were substantial and human, it is fitting for writers of rhymes to do the same, but not without reason, and with a reason that can later be shown in prose.

That the poets have spoken like this is can be evidenced by Virgil, who says that Juno, who was an enemy of the Trojans, spoke to Aeolus, god of the winds, in the first book of the Aeneid: ‘Aeole, namque tibi: Aeolus, it was you’, and that the god replied to her with: Tuus, o regina, quid optes, explorare labor: mihi jussa capessere fas est: It is for you, o queen, to decide what our labours are to achieve: it is my duty to carry out your orders’. In the same poet he makes an inanimate thing (Apollo’s oracle) talk with animate things, in the third book of the Aeneid, with: ‘Dardanidae duri: You rough Trojans’.

In Lucan an animate thing talks with an inanimate thing, with: ‘Multum. Roma, tamen debes civilibus armis: Rome, you have greatly benefited from the civil wars.’

In Horace a man speaks to his own learning as if to another person: and not only are they Horace’s words, but he gives them as if quoting the style of goodly Homer, in his Poetics saying: ‘Dic mihi, Musa, virum: Tell me, Muse, about the man.’

In Ovid, Love speaks as if it were a person, at the start of his book titled De Remediis Amoris: Of the Remedies for Love, where he says: ‘Bella mihi, video, bella parantur, ait: Some fine things I see, some fine things are being prepared, he said.’

These examples should serve to as explanation to anyone who has objections concerning any part of my little book. And in case any ignorant person should assume too much, I will add that the poets did not write in this mode without good reason, nor should those who compose in rhyme, if they cannot justify what they are saying, since it would be shameful if someone composing in rhyme put in a figure of speech or a rhetorical flourish, and then, being asked, could not rid his words of such ornamentation so as to show the true meaning. My best friend and I know many who compose rhymes in this foolish manner.

 

Pope, the great poet, already, in the 18th century, as a philosopher, has that Modernist smell of trivializing apology about him. Not so Dante, who is an ardent, mysterious flame burning on the candle of the Muse.

WINNER: DANTE

Dante will face Plato in the Classical Final for a spot in the Final Four!

ALAS! ALACK!

If there are twenty as beautiful as you,
Let me love them, and be twenty times untrue—
And be untrue to each of their charms,
Forty times untrue with their beautiful arms—

And as I kiss each beautiful back,
Their breasts cry, “alas, alack,”
Or as I sigh at the top of their head,
Their feet demand I love them instead;

I’ll be untrue in every eye,
Which envies the other, although nearby;
But there are none as beautiful as you.
I love the many. I am not untrue:

I love your thoughts, what your thoughts do,
Your wants, your needs; I love you, you, you.

 

 

 

 

 

HAS ADDISON A CHANCE AGAINST PLATO?

Addison brought the charm to philosophy and philosophy to the life, in essays speaking from the bowels of the British Empire. Philosophy and poetry, like brains and passion, combine to civilize everything under the sun, in fields where exchange and commerce were once all. Is Addison describing here earth, or heaven?

There is no place in the town which I so much love to frequent as the Royal Exchange. It gives me great satisfaction, and, in some measure, gratifies my vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting together upon the private business of mankind, and making this metropolis a kind of emporium for the whole world. Agents in the trading world are what ambassadors are in the politic world; they negotiate affairs, conclude treaties, and maintain a good correspondence between those wealthy societies of men that are divided from one another by seas and oceans, or live on the different extremities of a continent. I have often been pleased to hear disputes adjusted between an inhabitant of Japan and an alderman of London, or to see a subject of the great Mogul of Delhi entering into a league with one of the Czar of Muscovy. I am infinitely delighted in mixing with these several ministers of commerce, as they are distinguished by their different walks and different languages; sometimes I am jostled among a body of Armenians; sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews; and sometimes make one in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times; or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what countryman he was, replied, that he was a citizen of the world.

This grand scene of business gives me an infinite variety of solid and substantial entertainments. As I am a great lover of mankind, my heart naturally overflows with pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy multitude, insomuch that at many public solemnities I cannot forbear expressing my joy with tears that have stolen down my cheeks. I am wonderfully delighted to see such a body of men thriving in their own private fortunes, and at the same time promoting the public stock; or in other words, raising estates for their own families, bringing into their country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.

Nature seems to have taken a peculiar care to disseminate her blessings among the different regions of the world, with an eye to this mutual intercourse and traffic among mankind, that the natives of the several parts of the globe might have a kind of dependence upon one another, and be united together by their common interest. Almost every degree produces something peculiar to it. The food often grows in one country, and the sauce in another. The fruits of Portugal are corrected by the products of Barbadoes, the infusion of a China plant sweetened with the pith of an Indian cane. The Philippic Islands give a flavor to our European bowls. The single dress of a woman of quality is often the product of a hundred climates. The muff and the fan come together from the different ends of the earth. The scarf is sent from the torrid zone and the tippet from beneath the pole. The brocade petticoat rises out of the mines of Peru, and the diamond necklace out of the bowels of Indostan.

If we consider our own country in its natural prospect, without any of the benefits and adventures of commerce, what a barren uncomfortable spot of earth falls to our share! Natural historians tells us no fruit grows originally among us, besides hips and haws, acorns and pignuts, with other delicacies of the like nature; that our climate itself, and without the assistance of art, can make no further advances towards a plum than to a sloe, and carries an apple to no greater a perfection than a crab; that our melons, our peaches, our figs, our apricots, and cherries, are strangers among us, imported in different ages, and naturalized in our English gardens; and that they would all degenerate and fall away into the trash of our own country, if they were wholly neglected by the planter, and left to the mercy of our sun and soil. Nor has traffic more enriched our vegetable world, than it has improved the whole face of nature among us. Our ships are laden with the harvest of every climate, our tables are stored with spices, and oils, and wines; our rooms are filled with pyramids of China, and adorned with the workmanship of Japan; our morning’s draft comes to us from the remotest corners of the earth; we repair our bodies by the drugs of America, and repose ourselves under Indian canopies. My friend Sir Andrew calls the vineyards of France our gardens; the Spice Islands our hotbeds; the Persians our silk-weaver, and the Chinese our potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare necessaries of life, but traffic gives us a great variety of what is useful, and at the same time supplies us with everything that is convenient and ornamental. Nor is it the least part of our happiness, that whilst we enjoy the remotest products of the north and south, we are free from those extremities of weather which give them birth; that our eyes are refreshed with the green fields of Britain, at the same time that our palates are feasted with fruits that rise between the tropics.

For these reasons there are not more useful members in a commonwealth than merchants. They knit mankind together in a mutual intercourse of good offices, distribute the gifts of nature, find work for the poor, add wealth to the rich, and magnificence to the great. Our English merchant converts the tin of of his own country into gold, and exchanges his wool for rubies. The Mahometans are clothed in our British manufacture , and the inhabitants of the Frozen Zone are warmed with the fleeces of our sheep.

Addison, in this article from 1711, does not mention the slave trade. Is this a costly error? Does it the mar the beauty of his piece? Merchants are valuable, and, ironically, Salem, MA merchants during the American Revolution, operating as pirates (the Colonies had no navy and yet challenged a naval Empire) captured 450 British vessels; privateers from a little ‘witch town’ changed world history.

Now Plato:

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

Brilliant! With one stroke, the great philosopher pins the journalist and advances to the Elite Eight!

 

WINNER: PLATO

I’M ONLY DUMB ABOUT THE DUMB THINGS

When am I right? What is the name of this bird?
How many miles to Cincinnati?
Is the truth direct? Or must it be overheard?
Does this go in there? Is there a cost and a fee?

Has the poem started yet?
Can I stop when I know you have understood?
Do I know how much I forget I forget?
I don’t know if you are reading this but I did and I wish that you would.

I’m only dumb about the dumb things.
When the orchestra begins playing
All the audience was saying
Stops. And the soloist sings.

 

KNEW, DID NOT LOVE; LOVED, DID NOT KNOW

The only purpose of this bird
Hidden from you by the trees
Is that its signature be heard—
And one sharp note will do,
Gallant among the melodies,
Announcing its joy to you.

You sing to birds with human songs in vain.
You have edges but not a center.
Shadows of shadows sing shadow songs in your brain.
The smell and sound of the rain may enter
But not the rain.

 

IF THE POEM ASK

If the poem ask, what is my beginning?
Its hesitation is the reason for its sinning,
For truth starts right away
To be good. Night at once begins the day.

If the poem ask, why is there sorrow?
Even as you read this line tomorrow
The answer, like every seed, will fall,
And one will grow into many, only to confuse them all.

If the poem ask, is there lasting joy?
This question will annoy
The barren and the sad—
And ruin the joy felt by the glad.

If the poem ask, do not answer.
Treat all questions as if you were a sculptor or a dancer,
Or any craftsman building things in space.
Questions are the weakness of the human race.

If the poem ask, why is there death?
Even as you speak that line with your own dear breath
Meaning will be emptied of its cup,
The line will end, and the grass will spring back up.

 

 

POE AND WORDSWORTH IN ELITE EIGHT ROMANTIC BRACKET BATTLE!

Wordsworth, who recently defeated Marx, contemplates advancing past Poe to reach the Elite Eight

If one reads Scarriet one is not under the usual illusions about Edgar Poe; one understands he was a thousand times more than the “macabre” writer as perceived by those who have been sadly deluded, and we include here the editors of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and the various busybodies of the ‘book world’ who are clueless in the typical snobbish manner of the helpless bookworm.

It is important that art does not get reduced to content; art’s medium is not simply a blind receptacle for politically-approved, fashionable rhetoric—the sort of ‘meaning’ which the dense and unphilosophical type is always searching for in order to have their uninspired world view confirmed.

The ‘medium is the message’ is not the point either; it is precisely the duality of medium and message, the way they interact, which is crucial.

Poe, by inventing genres, by being a master and inventor of so many mediums, is the most important literary figure America has produced. The rest is mostly content or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ fiction: the South as presented by Faulkner, the Cubist reality of Joyce, the junkyard collage of Pound, with the whole Modernist project the same: foster illusion by dismantling the medium. The illusion, or the fiction, in the common parlance, is the autobiographical content in which the writer’s guts unspool, as it were, and the Fiction Writing instructor urges the color of ephemeral detail fill up every line in the “realist” project.

The paradox of Fiction striving, at all costs, to be realistic, to break the rules of form in such a way that content (data, info, ‘what is said’) is all, so that the medium disappears in the sprawl of what is communicated—this paradox of The Attempt To Be Real dressing itself up and calling itself Fiction (or Poetry) seems to be lost on many, who don’t see it as a paradox at all. But it certainly is.

Defenders of paradoxical ‘Real Fiction’ may reply: the Real is paradoxical, the Real is always an attempt, and not realized, and Fiction just happens to be one flexible and very important way to reproduce or experience the Real.

This response will satisfy some, but we object to it for the following reason: the Real is always an attempt, true, but this defines Fiction as failure—either it reflects our failure to know Reality or it reflects Reality the Unknowable. In either case, such a project is bound to be haphazard. The Socratic admonition to know what we don’t know is not the same thing as celebrating ignorance, or not knowing. The medium is something we can know, and for this reason alone, it deserves our attention; if proportion and pleasure belong anywhere, they belong to the way the medium captures reality, for this is what art, by definition, is; this is all we mean when we refer to form—form, or, more accurately, the form in space and time—the form of form—which is what we as artists know; otherwise we have no way of distinguishing reality from art, and reality trumps all understanding and becomes experience—the kind of experience which is experienced, and for that reason has no public or social existence, no art. Without the medium, there is no science. The painter begins with a rectangle laid against reality, and through this “window” discovers what can be scientifically known—the artist becoming an artist only insofar as he is a scientist.

Back to Poe, America’s Daedalus. Poe was scientific, not fictional. Detective fiction is a template, and not in the least concerned with persons and cultures. The writing of the populist poem, “The Raven,” with every formal aspect contributing to a unified effect as of a framed painting, with the accompanying essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” was like the work of a Renaissance Master in the studio. The science of perspective was behind the advances of Renaissance painting; these profound advances occurred precisely because the artist made this question paramount: how is reality to be portrayed in my painting? For when the artist wrestles with perspective, with how every part of the painting is viewed in space and time by the human eye in time and space (when the viewer ‘walks by’ a portrait, do the painting’s “eyes” follow, etc) measurement comes to the rescue of mere seeing.

Art which abandons perspective destroys art’s scientific medium and gives it over to that realm of imitation in which the viewer is charmed by mere colors. Do the colors charm the viewer “in reality?” Yes—and no. Do we “see” the moon as larger than it normally appears—when the moon is near the horizon, with objects that are closer—“in reality?” Yes. But here we see what Plato and the Renaissance painter were onto, in becoming self-conscious of imitation and human weakness and measurement: the issue, if looked at in the right way, is not  about being anti-art, at all, but rather it is about creating, or exploring, standards (based on science) for great art.

The rediscovery of Plato fueled the Renaissance. Here is Plato (Book X, The Republic):

Has not imitation been shown by us to be concerned with that which is thrice removed from the truth?

Certainly.

And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed?

What do you mean?

I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance?

True.

And if the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water, and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the act of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.

True.

And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding—there is the beauty of them—and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?

Most true.

And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rationale principle in the soul?

Plato is not saying to ignore or eliminate human weakness with its merely imitative propensities; Plato only asks that we become aware of error as we make art; it is the triumph of Platonism to bring about this self-consciousness in the artist; Plato’s condemnation of imitative projects, in which the medium is played down or ignored, is only one superficial aspect of Plato the Republic-builder’s intent. And why is the medium, as medium, so important? Because the medium is precisely that measuring vessel which brings us closer to reality as we make art with the medium as our guide (not as an end). This is true for perspective in “illusionistic” painting as it is true for formalism in “idealistic” poetry, aspects which Modernism and its obsession with trashy/fragmented reality has intentionally destroyed, as it seeks to define ‘the medium’ as something artificial, which interferes with reality and needs eventually to be sloughed off, like a Futurist snake shedding its ancient skin. But how deluded! And here we see the error of modern art in a nutshell.

“Artistic illusion” is when the medium is dismantled and disappears; the illusion becomes, in fact, delusion, as when we think a painting is “real.”

Perspective in painting is not simply an imitation of perspective in life—it is an investigation of the visual system itself, which includes both the perceptive mechanism of the individual viewer and geometric or mathematical truth, which, together, navigates and attempts to know higher reality within various contexts.

Let us quote from Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art:

I do not think there ever is “false belief or conception” when we look at a work of art. Arthur C. Danto’s discussion of illusion (in the sense of false belief or conception) shows clearly why we should hold this view:

“If illusion is to occur, the viewer cannot be conscious of any properties that really belong to the medium, for to the degree that we perceive that it is a medium, illusion is effectively aborted. So the medium must, as it were, be invisible, and this requirement is perfectly symbolized by the plate of glass which is presumed transparent, something we cannot see but only see through (as consciousness is transparent in the sense that we are not conscious of it but only of its objects)…So conceived, it is the aim of imitation to conceal from the viewer the fact that it is an imitation, which is conspicuously at odds with Aristotle’s thought that the knowledge of imitation accounts for its pleasure. In Plato’s it evidently did, and it is this form of the theory I am working with now. Taken as a theory of art, what imitation theory amounts to is a reduction of the artwork to its content, everything else being supposedly invisible—or if visible, then an excrescence, to be overcome by further illusionistic technology.”

Art can be pro-Medium or anti-Medium; the Medium can be seen as a glory, or at least as a necessity, as it was for the Renaissance painter exploring perspective, as it was for Plato, in which the Medium equalled “measurement” which comes to the “rescue” of blind imitation, as it was for Shelley, who said the poet would be a fool not to use rhyme, and as it was for Poe, a Medium-based writer if there ever was one, frustrating the typical reader of autobiographical content. An important point here: the glory of the Medium is not something “artificial,” even as it escapes the “ephemeral fact” in the “scientific-how-to” of its Medium-ness. The rectangular window of the Renaissance painter pictures reality not artificially, so much as naturally and scientifically. Rhyme and meter belong to science; they are not artificialities getting  in the way of reality, so much as a concession to how vast and unknowable reality qua reality is, making measurement and limit necessary, not only for art, but for knowing reality at all. And further, the Medium works with Content; the Medium does not simply exist statically by itself.

And then we have the anti-Medium school, which really does believe in a Reality better known without the nuisance of the bullying, “old-fashioned” limitations of the Medium. This includes, really, the entire Modernist project of the last 200 years, which attempts to either fight free of the Medium’s limitations, or hold it up as a joke or a gimmick.

So here we are: Wordsworth is an early Modernist who is best known—even as he worked brilliantly in poetic forms—for praising poems which imitated the “real speech of real men:” the implication of this revolutionary project is that reality—the real speech of real men— can be conveyed “without poetry, or that cumbersome Medium known as “Verse,” which, the Reality-loving Modernist is quick to point out, is “artificial,” just as Renaissance perspective is “artificial.” To the Modernist, all art is “artificial,” and the quicker we get rid of this diversion, the better. We have already pointed out how wrong-headed this is; but we should point out here that indeed, if the Medium is too removed from Reality, if it is badly or ineptly wrought, then, yes, it will be artificial and inept, in the very sense of the Modernist critique. But the Modernist threw out the baby with the bath water. For the Modernist, the Medium itself, no matter how excellent, became a nuisance and an enemy.

Perhaps we are being unfair to Wordsworth; since he did work in the medium of poetic formalism, what he meant perhaps, with his explicit talk of the “the speech of real men” was only his way of saying that his medium was a vehicle for the real, and not a medium, only. Just as Plato called measure beautiful, Wordsworth, in the same vein, was insightful enough to intuit plain speech as poetry. But no so. Art either stoops or elevates. It either pretends to give us reality-without-medium or acknowledges that art is reality-through-medium. The gods of Keats are more artistically profound than the beggars of Wordsworth, or, more importantly, Keats’s gods are not further from reality than Wordsworth’s beggars, and are closer to reality, if Keats uses the Medium of Verse better. No one can claim an over-arching reality which is superior to medium and form. Ever.

Poe laughed at Wordsworth’s apology for his own poetry’s “awkwardness” in W.’s “Introduction to Lyrical Ballads;” the medium of music was necessary for poetry’s enjoyment, Poe felt, and in his little essay, “Letter to B.,” Poe quotes some awkward lines of pure doggerel from Wordsworth for the purpose of ridicule, and refers to the “doctrine” of the “Lake School” as overly “metaphysical.” By contrast, Poe had nothing but good things to say of Keats’ poetry. Pleasure. Idealism. Medium. Music. These are mandatory for the poet. If one wishes to be “wise” or “political” or “realistic” or “informative,” let the author use prose. This advice could not be more simple. Which is why, perhaps, the educated today ignore it.

WINNER:POE

 

 

 

J.L. AUSTIN, PERFORMATIVE LANGUAGE PHILOSOPHER, SEEKS TO ADVANCE AGAINST PALESTINIAN SCHOLAR OF LITERATURE EDWARD SAID

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Edward Said (d. 2003)

J.L. Austin worked for British Intelligence.

Great Britain, losing its Empire while cozying up to the American one, was trying to save its ass: a dying Empire, known for its spies, using a spy, Austin, to cook up a philosophy to save itself, should make us curious, at least. Austin was a plain-looking, bespectacled man, like Philip Larkin; Larkin quietly became Britain’s best poet since Tennyson, and Austin is the philosopher we need to read because his take on language is so brilliant, and really quite restorative.

Britain and the West suffered a tremendous decline in the first part of the 20th century; it was a Futurist age in which Things came to dominate in Art and Architecture, War and Wit; the Body of the World was revealed in all its horror: morality and all it’s beautiful delicacy was crushed by the steely, large, obscene, photographed, Object; Modernism emerged all decked out in haiku imagery and Bauhaus cement and Ezra Pound and Marcel Duchamp and Coco Channel and Blimps and Auto cars and Cubism and Jew-hating, Gertrude Stein-loving Paris. Bing Crosby and Abstract Metal Sculpture stepped out together in an orgy of bad taste: tough guy, ethnic-obsessed, Skyscraper, Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra bullshit took over.

The West finally let its hair down in 1963 with the Beatles’ first LP and Beauty returned. The Big Sophistication of Modernism fell and Technology that was small and nimble saved our lives. Ugly politics continued, of course: US/West versus Russia/Middle East, but Technology triumphed over fake, stylish Symbol in the meantime; science conquered empire for a while. The ingenuity of Franklin and Poe fought the tyranny of oil and opium to an uneasy standstill. Uneasy, to be sure. Did the Beatles bring us love or drug addiction? It was hard to tell, but at least, in our materialism, we got to decide. The planes of 9/11 were actually a Hindenburg type disaster, belonging to Modernism’s last horror gasp.

J.L. Austin said ALL language worked like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Language was not a thing; it was a performance. What matters is what something does, not what it is. The truth was not a ‘that’ or a ‘this’ but a ‘thus.’ It was Socrates who told us this a long time ago. Modernism brought in Ayn Rand and literal-minded Aristotle. Shelley, Plato, Beauty, and the Romantics were dumped.

Modernism insisted on ‘the new,’ but “I now pronounce you man and wife” will never get old; Byron’s rhymes do a little more than Pound’s twists and turns and junkyard thing-ism. The American liberal, a holdout of Modernism, proudly insists that Religion is “not true,” that reality is much closer to the rascality of Pound—but the American liberal misses the point that it is not what something is, it is what something does, which finally matters.

Edward Said, who spent his life attempting to enlighten the West about the civilized heritage of the Middle East, before he died in 2003, founded, with Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, so that Israelis and Arabs might perform Beethoven together. The orchestra is named for a work of lyric poetry by Goethe inspired by Hafiz, the Persian poet.

The orchestra is surely more meaningful than most modern philosophies could possibly be.

WINNER: J. L. AUSTIN

Austin and Edmund Wilson will battle for the Post-Modern championship and a spot in the Final Four!

 

 

 

 

THE ROAD TO CRITICISM’S FINAL FOUR

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Two more wins.  That’s all Harold Bloom or Edmund Wilson needs.  As the fate of the other philosophers in the Classical, Romantic and Modern brackets smashes on the rocks of wit and time, in the Post-Modern Bracket, Harold Bloom and Edmund Wilson prepare to advance to the cherished spot atop the Critical Parnassus.

What claims do these two professors have on us? Both are classic ‘old white guys’ defending a Canon of old white guy literature, if we might be crude and blunt about it. They are both ‘conservative’ in the way all English professors are generally conservative—and when they are not, students think “cool.” Bloom and Wilson are not cool. They both embody, “Hey kids! Get off my lawn!”

Were the giants of canonical literature ever cool? Or is cool whatever is not canonical? Do we have two choices: the Great or the cool?

Yup, that’s it. And sometimes the cool is great (a great jazz musician) and the great is cool (Byron’s jokes, Homer’s mayhem).

The present is a tiny window. Those who study history belong to a much larger window, but the problem is: how do you fit the larger window into the smaller one? Sure, the brain can hold a lot of information, but the brain quickly forgets a lot of information, too; education for the sake of education tends to be a useless exercise of ‘info in, info out.’

Let’s say we feed the brain with ‘Homer to the Present'; how do we stop it from all just leaking out? Never mind those not interested in learning literature at all; even the earnest, the curious, the devoted may forget tomorrow what they learn today, especially if what they learn is just a massive pile of facts. What we need is a thread of learning, a kind of meaningful theology or creed which holds the facts in place and transforms them into a second language. The first language, our native tongue which we share with our peers, enables us to communicate with each other; few forget the first language, and even without formal literary study, many become quite adept at this first language, and use it to do all kinds of amazing things–after all, language itself, literary or not, is amazing. Who needs that second language, then? What is it?

Selection is the key term; literature is nothing more than the history of language, and selecting for the smaller window of the present from the larger window of the past is what it’s all about. The whole thing is quite simple. The critic, the professor, in this case Bloom and Wilson, succeed or fail in how well they select. In fact, we who use the first language (the language we all speak and share in order to communicate) succeed in the same way, pulling in from ‘our second language’ all which makes how we communicate in the first language interesting, drawing from the larger into the smaller, so that we are more than just a speaker of a language, more than the sum of our (speaking) parts.

This second language is like our soul which inhabits the first language (our body). Everyone has a body; the body is a common thing, but it is ultimately how we ‘do’ things, just as it is with this first language that we always speak, even as those rich in a ‘second’ language pour their second language into the first.

Speech that is very refined—and some would say ‘uncool’ and pretentious—is the Second Language glimpsed in its exposed existence as a Second Language: this, for some, is what Literature is. The simple act of emoting or singing might bring about this effect: the soul is ‘speaking!’ But if someone cannot sing, and if the emoting fails to move or amuse, we immediately sense that here no soul exists; the attempt was made to draw on the Second Language but apparently the person has no Second language, even as they may be perfectly adequate in expressing themselves with their First Language. We say they have no poetry, no drama, no flair; and if they persist in singing and emoting poorly, we call them a fool; and if they stick to their first language, we are satisfied, and finally judge them as not being a dramatic type; we would not go so far as to condemn them as really having no soul, however, even if perhaps we might find ourselves whispering behind their backs that they are a little dull.

We notice several things here. 1) The second language can disappear into the first; both are languages; 2) the second language can be seen in its naked state as something distinct from the first language—and here 3) it is immediately judged as something that annoys or amuses.

The whole of the Literary Canon, then, including the contemporary poet uttering their poem today, hoping to have an impact now, is subject to our judgment: does this amuse or annoy? We cannot escape this judgment, no more than we can taste food without subjecting ourselves to its tastiness or lack thereof.

The first language cannot, and is not, judged in this way: it merely tells us something; the first language is like the food’s nutrition; it is below the radar of our taste and conscious judgment. Learning the first language in our earliest days, we taste it not; we are fed it without being conscious of pleasure or annoy—the act of communication—putting pieces together to communicate—is all. But what is really happening at this stage is that we ourselves in our pre-literate animal state are the real first language, and what we have been calling the ‘first language’ is our ‘Second Language’ until gradually the real Second Language (the literary history and soul of the human race) falls upon us with its shadow, brightening our first two languages.

We become mature speakers when we can ‘taste’ nutrition; instead of merely being attracted to sugar and sweet taste, our taste and the good (what is good for us) coincide. Some, the non-literate, the soul-less, are forever split: they like what is sweet and bad for them and they  hate what has no sweet taste but is good for them. They are like children always annoyed by learning. Life has taken pity on them; they have learned their first language and forever benefit from it; and having a First Language guarantees the Second Language may visit them and carry them along with its pull.

The Second Language is the Good disguised as something Sweet; it is the large converting itself to the small so that the pitifully narrow present might be guided by the vast truth of the past. Again, selection is all; the sweet which can best cover the good is selected; the good is selected, the sweet which is sweet, but not too sweet, is selected; every necessary combination is selected, and then all those selections are selected. The poet selects an audience, selects selections for that audience; the audience selects from poetic selections, the critic selects from poetic selections and audience selections alike.

The critic—Bloom and Wilson—use the first language to describe the second language; both their first language and the first language of others, to judge the second.

The second language, literature, what we have called the history of language, is judged precisely as that, with a language which is purely useful and not itself up for judgment. Critics are those who wish to judge, and not be judged. They wish to admire, not be admired. They wish to teach, not be taught. They wish to select from the larger and convert it to the smaller; this is what they in fact must do.

Let us turn to Wilson, the conservative critic, doing exactly this.

Observe how he crushes the pretense of Valery:

It seems to me that a pretense to exactitude is here used to cover a number of ridiculously false assumptions, and to promote a kind of aesthetic mysticism rather than to effect a scientific analysis. In the first place, is it not absurd to assert that prose deals exclusively in “sense” as distinguished from suggestion, and that one has no right to expect from poetry, as Valery says in another passage, “any definite notion at all”? Is verse really an intellectual product absolutely different in kind from prose?  Has it really an absolutely different function? Are not both prose and verse, after all merely techniques of human intercommunication, and techniques which have played various roles, have been used for various purposes, in different periods and civilizations? The early Greeks used verse for histories, their romances and their laws—the Greeks and the Elizabethans used it for their dramas. If Valery’s definitions are correct, what becomes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe? They all of them deal in sense as well as suggestion and aim to convey “definite notions.” These definitions have, however, obviously been framed to apply to the poetry of Valery himself and of Mallarme and the other Symbolists. Yet it does not really apply to even them. As we have seen, Valery’s poetry does make sense, it does deal with definite subjects, it does transmit to us “something intelligible that is going on inside his mind.” Even though in calling his book of poems “Charmes,” he has tried to emphasize its esoteric, magical, non-utilitarian character, we cannot admit that it is anything but an effort like another of articulate human speech. What happens when we communicate with each other, in literature as well as in curses and cries for help, and in verse as well as prose—what part is played by suggestion, and whether sense and suggestion are different and separable—are questions which take us far and deep: I shall return to them in a later chapter. But Valery has already let us see—it is even one of his favorite ideas—that he understands the basic similarity between the various forms of intellectual activity; he has taken pride in pointing out the kinship between poetry and mathematics. And if the function and methods of poetry are similar to those of mathematics, they must surely be similar to those of prose. If Valery resembles Descartes, as he seems willing to indulge himself in imagining, then it is impossible to make a true distinction between the philosophical or mathematical treatise and however Symbolistic a poem. Valery betrays himself here, it seems to me, as a thinker anything but “rigorous;” and he betrays also, I believe, a desire, defensive no doubt at the same time as snobbish, to make it appear that verse, a technique now no longer much used for history, story-telling or drama and consequently not much in popular demand, has some inherent superiority to prose. He has not hesitated even to assure us elsewhere that “poetry is the most difficult of the arts!”

Now Wilson on T.S. Eliot from the same work, Axel’s Castle:

It will be seen that Eliot differs from Valery in believing that poetry should make “sense.” And he elsewhere, in his essay on Dante in “The Sacred Wood,” remonstrates with Valery for asserting that philosophy has no place in poetry. Yet Eliot’s point of view, though more intelligently reasoned and expressed, comes down finally to the same sort of thing as Valery’s and seems to me open to the same sort of objection. Eliot’s conclusion in respect to the relation of philosophy to poetry is that, though philosophy has its place in poetry, it is only as something which we “see” among the other things with which the poet presents us, a set of ideas which penetrate his world, as in the case of the “Divina Commedia:” in the case of such a poet as Lucretius, the philosophy sometimes seems antagonistic to the poetry only because it happens to be a philosophy “not rich enough in feeling…incapable of complete expansion into pure vision.” Furthermore, “the original form of philosophy cannot be poetic”: the poet must use a philosophy already invented by somebody else. Now, though we admire the justice of Eliot’s judgments on the various degrees of artistic success achieved by Dante, Lucretius and others, it becomes plainer and plainer, as time goes on, that the real effect of Eliot’s, as of Valery’s, literary criticism, is to impose upon us a conception of poetry as some sort of pure and rare aesthetic essence with no relation to any of the practical human uses for which, for some reason never explained, only the technique of prose is appropriate.

Now this point of view, as I have already suggested in writing about Paul Valery, seems to me absolutely unhistorical…

Edmund Wilson, to put it simply, accuses the Modernists Valery and Eliot’s redefinition of poetry as something excessively pure, in the small window of their present day, as betraying the Second Language, the larger window of literary history which includes “Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.” And Wilson is right. Call him “conservative,” but he actually speaks for a larger window—one that can easily fit into the smaller window of our time. Why “easily?” Precisely because of the nature of the geniuses Wilson lists: who are essential for their ability to say more with less. Eliot and Valery fret over the relationship of poetry to philosophy, worrying that the former cannot contain the latter. But as Wilson implies, this “unhistorical” position demeans poetry. Valery and Eliot might argue that verse is no longer a vehicle for prose-subjects as it once was, and the task now is to find ‘the poetry’ or the ‘poetic vision’ in writing which is neither quite verse nor quite prose, and to call this “unhistorical” is a grumpy attempt to stifle progress. But the Modernist position, which has prevailed—who reads Wilson anymore?—is abstractly and vaguely argued and has proved to be rather impotent.

Harold Bloom has spent his latter career championing Shakespeare’s dramas, and since Bloom is no poet, this activity is free of all “anxiety.”  Shakespeare invented Freudian psychology, Bloom asserts, but he never acknowledges how Plato’s dialogues influenced Shakespeare’s plays, though Bloom is full of “precursor” talk in general. Bloom favors Emerson over Poe to such an extreme degree that Bloom’s judgment cannot possibly be trusted anywhere else. Bloom believes “study” and “reading” are “holy,” and his attempt to see all of poetry as One Poem is admirable, but unfortunately with him, as with Eliot and the Modernists, this attempt is finally bookish and separated from the real world of love which lives behind the poem.

WINNER: WILSON

NOTHING WILL GET DONE

She is loving you because she hates somebody else.
To know something, you must hate it.
You never know what you love.
The mist which covers love is more important than love.
The worst offense is to reveal the ignorance of someone’s pleasure: let them be wrong;
It is the wrong itself which pleases them.
Beauty doesn’t waste time. Efficiency is beauty.
Beauty says all with less;
Beauty isn’t love; beauty is love beginning immediately;
Beauty is the innocence resented by wealth
Whose wealth took a long time to grow.

I AM JEALOUS OF YOU

I am jealous of you,
Who read what I write,
Not because of who you are,
Or who you are not.

I am jealous of you
Because I am certainly dead,
Given the swiftness of time—
Here you are, alive, and reading
With light the swiftness of my rhyme.

I am jealous of you,
Who came into my life,
And now I don’t remember…
Was there a child? A wife?

I am jealous of you,
Who are walking behind
Among the cloudy flowers—
And I, on this same path, am now only a mind.

 

NORTH CAROLINA AND POETRY CREDS

The North Carolina controversy is now familiar to all in po-biz. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory awarded the poet laureateship to Valerie Macon, a 64 year old state worker without academic creds; there was an uproar in the creds universe, and as a result, Macon resigned.

The North Carolina Arts Council—complaining vociferously—was not consulted by the governor in his choice of Macon.

The NC law says the governor appoints the laureate,  which is how it happened the first time in 1948; governor Gregg Cherry, and the first poet laureate of North Carolina, Arthur Talmage Abernethy, who never published a book of poems, were friends.

The appointment was lifetime until Governor Jim Hunt told Fred Chappell he had 5 years; when Chappell stepped down in 2002, he was only the fourth laureate in over 50 years; since 2002 there have been four, including Macon: Byer, Bowers, Bathanti—with Bowers, the appointment was sliced to 2 years.

Compared to Fred Chappell, Byer, Bowers, Bathanti, are, in terms of reputation, nobodies.

Macon is to Bathanti what Bathanti is to Chappell. 

That didn’t prevent the Council from choosing Bathanti.

Macon is not the issue.

Bad poetry is.

A quick glance at poems available on-line reveals that no North Carolina Laureate, no Arts Council member, no poet, no journalist alive today in North Carolina is a substantially better poet than Valerie Macon. So what is all the fuss about?

If the following poem was written by Louise Gluck, the gods of po-biz would swoon in appreciation.

Clicking into Vinny’s Pizza
in Jimmy Choo platform pumps,
a woman, six feet tall
and straight as a sunflower,
in high-waisted leggings
and gold cropped tee.
Her boyfriend,
a weed sprout beside her,
ambles in Old Navy flip-flops.

She holds her yellow head high
like a flower tilted towards sun,
scans the chalked daily specials,
tapping Black Truffle acrylics
in the rhythm of a gentle spring rain.

She orders vegetarian pizza.
The boyfriend, arms coiled around her,
orders the meat lover’s special.

Unfortunately for this poem, the author is Valerie Macon.

We don’t say this is a great poem—not at all.

But we know what the fuss is all about: bad poets with more creds than Macon wanted the Poet Laureate job.

The Star News story announcing Macon’s resignation quoted poet (with creds!) and journalist Chris Vitello—no doubt aching to be poet laureate—who wrote in a blog:

She’s a dabbler as a poet and a question mark as a thinker, educator and advocate.

Star News got Vitello’s name wrong—the graduate of The Naropa Institute spells his last name Vitiello, in case you want to google this genius.

Here’s a sample of the previous North Carolina Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti’s poetry:

The City Jail spiked out of Fifth Avenue
in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh.
When we drove by it, my father would pause
and signify in its direction,
never uttering a word. Riding shotgun,
my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed
our imaginary condemned prisoner
in the jail’s uppermost barred window.

In this whole ‘creds’ controversy, it seems no one has bothered to look at the actual poetry of the participants in this North Carolina drama.

The above lines ends the controversy for us.  Let Macon be the poet laureate.  No law was violated. Macon’s poetry is equal to Bathanti’s.

Let us firmly assert that there is not a shred of poetry in the above excerpt from Bathanti.

Poetry is known immediately by its passion, inspiration, sublimity, beauty, unique expression, and the above is clearly nothing more than the prosaic opening of a short short story randomly brokenly into lines.  “Fifth Avenue?”  “downtown Pittsburgh?”

Is Mr. Bathanti familiar with this sonnet by John Keats?

If not, he should acquaint himself with it, forthwith, and then, as punishment for his insolence, he should go about North Carolina reciting it.

The House of Mourning written by Mr. Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr. Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour -
All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it?

Defenders of Bathanti and his “downtown Pittsburgh” verses will say:

Look at the detail!  Bathanti avoids Hallmark cliches! He gives us ‘real life’ by evoking “downtown Pittsburgh” with phrases like “Fifth Avenue!”

Bathanti writes about what he knows; about his lived life: “my father would pause” and “my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed!”

Bathanti paints the scene! “When we drove by it” and “Riding shotgun” and “the jail’s uppermost barred window.”

Good. Let Bathanti publish fiction if he wants.

We say: take the laurel from his head, and shame on everyone who embarrassed poor Ms. Macon—who writes no worse than Mr. Bathanti.

 

 

 

SAY THINGS YOU SAID TO ME BEFORE

Say things you said to me before—
The memory of what you are is driving me mad:
That beginning of that unlikely tour
When our love was discovered, when shy as we were, we became bad.
Love, when it wins,
Creates lovely prisons
Of loves who forget how it used to be.
Passion is needed now, not tranquility.

Say things you said to me before—
The poems passed to me in secret made me glad then.
How cunning it is to secretly adore
Love secretly discovered: as good as we were, we became bad then.
Love domesticated
Seems less fated.
Love needs to remember how it used to be.
Passion is needed now, not tranquility.

I was yours from the first minute
We both announced to each other we were in it
And we decided to open up the door.
I can’t say what we need to do;
The world is a word articulated by you.
Say things you said to me before.

 

AN AUDIENCE OF ONE

Now that I am famous
Do you think I want less
Of the lovely moon
Who rises too soon
With beaming song and misty dress
Desired, as she is, by everyone?
Or the grand triumphant sun?
No. I’ve always had an audience of one.

Do you think the careless crowd
Boisterous and loud,
That crowd whose crowding is never done
Thronging, tumultuously wronging
All that is delicate and small
Will be enough
To eclipse my love?
No. I will always have an audience of one.

When I wish before the mirror,
When I sigh before the sun,
When I put my dreams into a face,
Do I want expansion?
Do I want life to split into hundreds of pieces and run?
No. I will always have an audience of one.

Have you seen reactions
In the flowers
Trembling in the wind on flowery hills for hours
When worship determines its fractions
In the way fragility is moved,
In the way innocence is loved?
Do you remember those few hours
When fame finally landed on earth with the sun?
I’ve always had an audience of one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 lawns stretching to infinity are 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.

 

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