A WORDY BORDER

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus looms over the Modernist School

A poem is a philosophical song.

The poem’s hub may be mad hilarity or too grim, or secretive, for words, but a poem’s circumferance will always be a wordy border, patrolled by pedants indifferent to its passionate origins, scratching their graying heads, asking, “Is this poem great?  Is it culturally relevant?”

In the year 2000, David Lehman, poet and editor of  the annual Best American Poetry series (1988—present) graciously asked all of his previous guest editors up until that point (13 and all prestigious American poets) to name their top 15 poems of the 20th century—a pretty simple request, and, we think all would agree, an interesting assignment.  The results were published in the back of The Best American Poetry 2000 volume.

Two of the Best American Poetry Guest editors—Louise Gluck and Adrienne Rich—refused to play.

One—Richard Howard—didn’t follow the rule, and listed books instead of poems.

Three—Howard, Mark Strand and Donald Hall—limited themselves to dead poets.

David Lehman added his list as well—so a total of 12 important American poets participated.

We are not here to impugn the results—only to analyze them.  We might as well get this out of the way first: the VIDA score of “The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (as Lehman titled the section) was abysmal: 16% of the choices were by women, although 30% of the editors originally asked by Lehman were female.  It didn’t help the women that two women editors refused to participate.  And, if you remove Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore from the choices of the best poems of the 20th century by this distinguished panel, the VIDA score drops to 5%  Not one poem by Edna Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds was chosen.

The Best American Poetry editors all seemed to run in fear of the popular poem.  The quality of the choices can be disputed, but there was a glaring sameness about the choices, a definite lock-step approach by the group.  Not only did the individuals within the group select the same authors and the same poems with great frequency, but poems with the same themes. 

According to the nearly 200 poems selected by the group in the category: Best Poem of the 20th Century, the easy winner was: Elizabeth Bishop writing about an animal.  Only Frost got more votes than Bishop.

Compiling all the votes, here’s how the Top 15 Greatest Poems of the 20th Century, according to John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck (Didn’t play), A.R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich (Didn’t play), James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and David Lehman:

1.    The Waste Land -TS Eliot 1922
2.   The Bridge -Hart Crane 1930
3.    In Praise of Limestone -W.H. Auden 1948
4.    Little Gidding  -TS Eliot 1941
5.    Book of Ephraim  -James Merrill 1976
6.    Voyages  -Hart Crane 1926
7.    Asphodel, That Greeny Flower  -WC Williams 1962
8.    77 Dream Songs  -John Berryman  1964
9.    After Apple Picking  -Robert Frost  1914
10.    Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost  1923
11.     At The Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop  1955
12.    The Comedian As The Letter C  -Wallace Stevens  1923
13.    Spring and All  -WC Williams  1923
14.    The Auroras of Autumn  -Wallace Stevens  1950
15.    Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror  -John Ashbery  1974

The selections are all permeated by a similar theme and approach: turgid language; a restlessness of philosophical meditation; a singular, yet ever-shifting landscape; rhetoric far more descriptive than emotive; given to lyrical flights of prose, broadly metaphorical, using more frequently the ideas of Heraclitus, famous for his, “no man ever steps in the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.”

Number eleven on the list, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, is pure Heraclitus.  Her poem ends:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Auden’s poem, at number three, “In Praise of Limestone,” as you can see from the opening lines, is remarkably similar:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish

“The Comedian As The Letter C” by Wallace Stevens, at no. 12, is self-consciously Heraclitean in its prose-poetry:

gaudy, gusty panoply…

That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last…

Shebang. Exeunt omnes. Here was prose
More exquisite than any tumbling verse…

The bombast of Hart Crane was extremely popular with the voters:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

They say the wind is sucked, not blown.  Most poets and critics, even as they wear the gowns of culture and history, are pulled along by group-think, sucked into judgement without will, trapped by the tuggings of trends and fashions.

All of these choices seem to be driven by the same post-World War I, European Modernist sensibility.  Gloomy meditations on the two world wars belong to T.S. Eliot’s English point of view in “The Waste Land” and “Little Gidding.”   Since Auden was included as an American, it seems poets like Louis Simpson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Stephen Spender should have been included, especially since the Modernism these Best American Poets so admire is very European.

The last quarter of the 20th century was almost completely neglected.  Poets such as Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Robert Pinsky, and Jack Spicer got no votes at all.  Ginsberg got only one vote—for “Howl” by Rita Dove.

Were the voters seeking to silence their contemporary rivals by focusing on the first half of the twentieth century?

Other poets getting more than one vote for their poems were Pound, Roethke, Robinson, O’Hara, Lowell, Creeley, Schuyler, Wilbur, Warren, Jarrell, and Ammons.

CLAP YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR EARS! IT’S THE CRITIC WILLIAM LOGAN!

William Logan: School of Smirking Badass

The best reviewers make us laugh.

Laughter is just reward for the pain of pretentious, tedius, over-inflated writing.

The bad writer turns gold (nature) into lead (his work), and when, in turn, honorifics are bestowed upon that bad writing, the lead becomes millstones about our necks.

The good critic turns this lead and these millstones into gold (laughter).

There is no single individual (they are always alone) so vital in Letters than a good reviewer.

Without the good reviewer, our literary gardens would be weeds—and worse, the weeds would all be thought of as fruits and flowers.

Ron Silliman includes William Logan in his School Of Quietude, but this is a vile misnomer: Logan, like Poe (responsible for the term) provokes loud noises (both indignant on one hand, and merry on the other) with an eye that sees through quackery.

Join us for a little merriment, then, with our greatest living critic, William Logan:

Rae Armantrout’s poems are micro-dreams of sly vanity, their brute coyness typical of much late-generation avant-garde poetry. Money Shot lives in stark juxtapositions—sometimes there’s a snippet of science (“each// stinging jelly/ is a colony”), sometimes a scrap of old-fashioned suburban imagism (“Stillness of gauzy curtains// and the sound/ of distant vacuums”), sometimes a touch of cut-rate surrealism (“Give a meme/ a hair-do”).

The “money shot” is a porn-factory term for filmed ejaculation, the eruptus of coitus interruptus. The dust jacket demurely shows the Duchess of Alba’s hand from Goya’s famous portrait—the connection is scarcely less mystifying than a few of the poems, though it could allude to her alleged affair with the painter, her supposed appearance as “The Naked Maja,” the price of Goya’s commissions, or any number of things. It’s a tease, as much of Armantrout’s work is a tease.

Most of her poems offer little resistance to the conscientious reader (the book could be read on a lunch break), but now and then they revel in the iffiness to which experimental poetry is dedicated:

IndyMac:

Able to exploit pre-
existing.

Tain.

Per.

In.

Con.

Cyst.

IndyMac was one of the big failed banks, the Independent National Mortgage Corporation.

Armantrout commented on this passage in an interview with Chicago Weekly Online: “‘Mac’
. . . suggests McDonald’s, but also now ‘Mac’ing down’ on something, or ‘pac-man’—suggests a greedy franchise. And it’s paired with the word Indy, which suggests independent boutiques.
. . . Then ‘Able to exploit pre-/ existing’—that’s a phrase that I got from a newspaper article about banking. . . . You know, the banking system was able to exploit the pre-existing blah-blah-blah. And then the poem breaks into single syllables: ‘Tain.// Per. In. Con./ Cyst.’ All those syllables . . . occur in words like maintain, retain, persist, insist, consist, and then there’s just the word—cyst. I guess the words that are just syllables are a kind of cyst, free floating references to acquisition and attainment.”

This is not nearly as helpful as it is hilarious—I don’t know which is better, the loopy free-association or the blah-blah-blah. Yet how private these associations are, and how hopeless the road map to them. (There are free-floating cysts in the iris; but how you get from IndyMac to Pac-Man is a mystery—as criticism this is the Higher Ditziness of the Humpty Dumpty School.) If the Mac in IndyMac can mean McDonald’s, then Indy can mean Indiana Jones, independent film, Indianapolis, or any number of irrelevant things. As for that jumbled wordplay, sure—persist, insist, consist, as well as pertain and contain (though not intain). As for maintain and retain, it’s as if she hasn’t read her own poem.

Armantrout relies on a cloud of knowing to organize this unknowing, but you have to be Armantrout to live in the cloud. The temptation to make meaning by juxtaposition can be overwhelming, but it’s a temptation that should sometimes be resisted:

The pressure
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
as pain.

The blue triangles
on the rug
repeating.

Coming up,
a discussion
on the uses
of torture.

This is funny, then not funny at all. The self-absorption of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet should not come at the expense of those who have suffered real torture.

The defense of a poetry of splinter and shard, of tessera and ostrakon, has long been that our fragmentary, disconnected modern lives are best reflected in fragmentary, disconnected forms (no wonder that after a little post-post-modernism a reader would kill for a little story). But why should art always imitate life—and why should its form somehow be imitative, too? (I doubt that life seems more fragmentary and disconnected now than during the Wars of the Roses.)

But they’re lying,
which degrades them.

An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.

I look away before.

You can say various things about this poem, which seems perfectly easy to interpret. Ah, but I confess I just opened the book at random and picked out a stanza here or a line there—we have long needed a postmodern sors Vergiliana, and Armantrout is just the woman to provide it.

Armantrout is a museum exhibit of how unexperimental experimental poems have become. She relies on a very small bag of tricks, many of them old when free verse was young: the short, breathless lines; the smirking ars poetica (“‘Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’// Why don’t I?”), the bodice-heaving antithesis (“The fear/ that all this/ will end.// The fear/ that it won’t”), with enjambments like stop signs—or, worse, bottomless abysses. Does she end a poem on “the”? Of course she ends a poem on “the”! Wallace Stevens once ended a poem on “the,” but he used it as a noun—and the poem was a much better poem. It wasn’t trying to imitate some fall into the emptiness of unmeaning.

I love Armantrout’s idea for a film genre called “diversity noir” (“a shape-shifter/ and a vampire// run rival/ drinking establishments”). She has a gift for the sneaky phrase (“Money is talking / to itself again”), but like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about. Poems that tease are appealing, but not ones that are teasing and bullying at once, that have a come-hither look and a go-thither command. The best poems here don’t try so hard to force the reader to go where the poet wants. Far too much experimental verse comes out of two phrases William Carlos Williams wrote in haste and perhaps regretted at leisure, phrases for which anthologists have been grateful ever since: “So much depends upon” and “This is just to say.” You could staple one or the other to the beginning of most avant-garde poems, and the poems would be no worse. They might even be better.

Those who think Logan is “being mean” miss the point.  Armantrout is not funny; she may be clever, but she is not funny.  Logan makes her funny, and this is a good that transcends right, or wrong, or mean. It allows the polite smile of approval to explode into merriment and glee, and gladness makes us see. Polite smiles are blind. Poetry may make nothing happen, but criticism—which makes us laugh—-does.  For laughter changes the way we think.  If we think like Armantrout wants us to think, if her poetry is “successful,” then, indeed, nothing happens.  But if Logan changes the way we ought to think about Armantrout, something does happen: a dialectic, felt in the body as laughter, and this moves society’s stream.

It is also important to note that in his brief review, Logan presents Armantrout’s own words—the mere arrangement, the voice which tells us it’s OK not to like this, these two do most of the work: what we feel about her work is already there and Logan merely brings it out.  Logan also points out what he likes; the dislike gets the attention—but this is not Logan’s fault.

What about Ashbery?  He is funny.  What does Logan do with him?  As you might expect, he makes him even funnier.

John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’sense. What he does well is nearly inimitable, as the mutilated bodies of his imitators show (what he does badly nearly anyone can do, though most poets wouldn’t even try). In the past decade, as old age has stolen upon him, he has published over nine-hundred pages of poetry—if there were a poetry Olympics, Ashbery would take gold, silver, and bronze, as well as brass, antimony, tin, and lead. He turned seventy-three this year—when did poetry have a more boyish septuagenarian? Will Ashbery ever grow up?

In Your Name Here (a witty title that reminds us of all the sneaky things he can do with language), Ashbery has started making sense. This will come as a shock to most readers, because his poetry has lived a long time on the subsidizing strategies of sense without making much sense at all—Ashbery writes poems that promise everything and deliver nothing. He’s the original bait-and-switch merchant, the prince of Ponzi schemes. Over and over, you’re lured into a poem, following along dutifully in your poetry reader’s way; then the trap door swings open and you’re dumped into a pit of malarkey—or a pile of meringue. And that has been the pleasure.

This was from a review in The New Criterion (where you can always find Logan) from 10 years ago, and you can see how Logan won’t let himself take seriously the poets who don’t want to be taken seriously.  No, Logan isn’t mean; quite the contrary—it’s the poets and the blurbists who waste our time who are mean—Logan merely presents the soul of wit in a 500 word review.  Logan gets Ashbery better than anyone; Logan merely seems mean because he doesn’t pile on the reverence—the coin of ‘blurb my book and I’ll blurb yours’ po-biz.

Logan is very much at ease trashing poets who hide beneath trash; the flip, the caustic, and the hip go down just like the rest of them:

The title of Tony Hoagland’s new book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, is the funniest thing about it. Along with Billy Collins, Dean Young, and a giggle of others, Hoagland has thrived among the gentle practitioners of gentle humor, sometimes with a gentle dash of the gently surreal, who have given American verse a New Age school of stand-up comedians.  (Their motto: Humor, or else.)  His new poems celebrate that great American religion, shopping, and that great American temple, the shopping mall.  The art of American consumption was part of our literature long before Babbitt and The Theory of the Leisure Class—Henry James knew all about the golden bowls of the Gilded Age, Trollope’s mother went broke starting a Cincinnati bazaar (right idea, wrong location), Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses almost bankrupted her husband, and even Whitman was astonished by the ready commerce and “gay-dress’d crowds” along Chestnut Street.  You might say that the subject of Americans and what they buy, from Thomas Jefferson’s rare books (or, when he went on a spree, the whole Louisiana Purchase) to O. J. Simpson’s Bruno Maglis and Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, is an embarrassment of riches, or just a bunch of crap: “the little ivory forks at picnics and green toy dinosaurs in playrooms everywhere;// the rooks and pawns of cheap $4.95 chess sets made in the People’s Republic of China.”

There’s not a lot to say about American consumerism that wasn’t said by Veblen, even if shopping is a Darwinian metaphor for the manners and mores of American life. Hoagland wisely turns his eye to all those lives impoverished—or, who knows, made infinitely richer—by that endless buying, buying, buying.  Still, when he thunders on about the “late-twentieth-century glitterati party/ of striptease American celebrity” he sounds as if he’s channeling Billy Graham channeling Billy Sunday.  Denouncing Britney Spears is like invading Rhode Island.

Hoagland has a superficial ease and charm—he’s likable, and his poems are likable, but they’re often less than they promise.  He’s a wonderful collector of the junk with which Americans furnish their lives, but it’s hard to turn junk into poems.  Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.  All too soon, Spears will seem dated as a Stutz Bearcat or a man shouting “Twenty-three skidoo!” There’s a quieter and more unsettled poet inside all this bric-à-brac:
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knifepried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in time of war.

“The ones who will survive,” he told us,
looking at us hard,
“are the ones who are willing do [sic] anything.”
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

Hoagland doesn’t quite know what to do with the complicated feelings this evokes—it’s smug for him to say, “That was Lesson Number 4/ in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.” (Things could have been worse—he might have turned the scene into Deliverance2.)  In the silent desperation here, the real subject might have been the father’s misplaced expression of love.

Hoagland is skittish about love, though he knows that romance is often absurd and comedy the catharsis of fear. His hymn to American courtship scares me:

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a bench,
holding hands, not looking at each other,and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved.

This goes on to peacocks and walking-stick insects (“she might/ insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck”), but you get the idea: Man is the animal who spends a lot of time thinking he’s not an animal.  Like so much of Hoagland’s work, the poem softens into sentimental mush; yet for a moment the poet has seen the darkness in love, the animal passions released and endured.

These whimsical, mildly satirical poems about modern anomie, composed with far too much corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, want to rouse primal fears, then comfort the reader with a warm glass of milk.  Sometimes this arch joker forgets the point of humor—a poem on the D.C. sniper, which starts with the mystery of God (that riddle ever invoked when life is cruel or unfair), comes all too close to ridiculing the dead.  Next he’ll be making fun of Holocaust victims.

Poets who often take themselves too seriously—Mary Oliver, Franz Wright, Don Paterson, or Carl Phillips, for instance, are easy targets for Logan; but again, he’s not mean when he reviews these poets, for a critic’s job is always to see—not to support.  And if seeing poetry is easier for a critic than for the poet investing his or her life in their own work, this is not the critic’s fault.  Critics who are “mean” are merely mean the way Nature is mean, and this is true in every case of mean.  Even a critic with a grudge is better than a critic with a blurb. Grudges are more interesting and more complex—in their origins and their results—than blurbs.  It doesn’t matter how we look at a poet, as long as that look is an interesting one.  Every poem should be able to handle, and gain from, a different look—even if it’s mean.

And when Logan’s bullets bounce off a poet, as here in this review of Billy Collins’ latest, the result is still funny, entertaining, and enlightening:

Billy Collins is funny, everyone agrees.  The birds agree, the bees agree, even the fish in the sea agree: Billy Collins is funny.  Yet why do I feel, half an hour after closing a Billy Collins book, a sharp grinding in my stomach, as if I’ve eaten some fruit cake past its sell-by date?  His wry, self-mocking poems wouldn’t hurt a fly—but they couldn’t kill a fly, either, even if they tried.  Readers who have whetted their appetites for drollery on previous books may open Ballistics and be puzzled.  Our Norman Rockwell of sly winks, and elbowing good humor, and straw-hatted, flannel-shirted American whimsy is no longer funny. Worse, some of his new poems take place in Paris.

Billy Collins’s method has been to borrow a dry nugget of fact or some mildly absurd observation and see how far he can go.  Say you read that the people of Barcelona once owned an albino gorilla, or remember that Robert Frost said, “I have envied the four-moon planet,” or find yourself talking to a dog about the future of America.  Why, the poem would almost write itself! Collins’s gift was to make the poem a little odder than you expected.  The problem with his new book is that the ideas are still there, but the poems have lost their sense of humor. Here’s what happens to that gorilla:

These locals called him Snowflake,
and here he has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping his pallid flame alive
and helping him, despite his name, to endure
in this poem where he has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

There must be a lot of comic things to say about albino gorillas, things that don’t require sentimental guff with a twitch of self-pity.

Say you recall the day Lassie died, when, after you finished your farm chores and ate your oatmeal, you drove to town and scanned the books in Olsen’s Emporium—and what books they were!  An anthology of the Cavalier poets, The Pictorial History of Eton College, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po.  Why, who knew?  This is a send-up of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”—the book titles mock his purchase of New World Writing (as he said, “to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing”).  But then what?


I’m leaning on the barn door back home
while my own collie, who looks a lot like her,
lies curled outside in a sunny patch
and all you can hear as the morning warms up
is the sound of the cows’ heavy breathing.

And that’s it.  This labored parody of O’Hara’s famous ending (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/ leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”) isn’t side-splitting at all.  The premise has become just another excuse for softheaded mush—Collins doesn’t even get round to mentioning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Lassie was played by any number of dogs, that she was male (because males have glossier coats), and that, besides, Lassie is immortal and can’t ever die.

Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past—dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, well, who can?  When he pokes fun at writers’ guides (“Never use the word suddenly just to create tension”), or of teachers who ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” he’s still our best poet at piercing the pretensions of the whole literary shebang.  Get him off the subject, however, and the poems are suffused with mild gloom and misanthropy.  He writes of having tea “with a woman without children,/ a gate through which no one had entered the world.” You think that he’s blundered, that he can’t possibly be talking about her vagina.  Oh, yes, he can!  “Men had entered the gate, but no boy or girl/ had ever come out”—I’m not sure whether this is wickedly inventive prudery or plain bad taste.

When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way, reason enough for a man to take off his rose-colored glasses and book a flight to Paris.  Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet.  Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.

Logan is simply wrong here: Collins’ “Oh, Snowflake” and “the cows’ heavy breathing” is funny.  But no matter: Logan’s sense of humor still prevails, and so the review, attempting to neutralize Billy Collins (O what do we do with Billy Collins?) is a great read.  Poets are the first to tell you poetry transcends objective standards of wrong and right.  And so does humor, when it reaches a certain charming pitch.  When William Logan crashes into Billy Collins, pure joy ensues.

THE TEN GREATEST POETRY CRITICISM TEXTS (OR, WHO NEEDS POETRY?)

We shall  proceed more or less chronologically, though it’s tempting to go the way of David Letterman and work up to: “and the Number One Poetry Criticism Text is…”

1.  The Poetics—Aristotle

The ultimate rule-book.  Learn these rules, then break them.  And learn this: Aristotle was the abstract philosopher, Plato the grounded and practical one.  If you ‘get this,’ you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion and heartache.  If you like rules, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

No critic today could write “this must” and “this is impossible” about such fundamental things, but it is good somebody did—for now we can blame Aristotle for “Quietism” and those neanderthals who sell, and everything else. 

2. The Republic—Plato 

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Plato and Aristotle is that they weren’t German.  Both are clear. The practical nature of Plato—who dared, without a shred of sentimentality, to put poetry in the context of society—is inescapable.  Randall Jarrell, John Dewey, and Helen Vendler are pumpkins next to Socrates.  If you haven’t digested The Republic, (or the Symposium, or the Ion) you can’t have a conversation about art or literature; you’re blowing bubbles.

3.  Vita Nuova—Dante

Yes, it has a lot of poetry—good literary criticism usually does.  It also has a story and mystery and passion and zero academic pretense. Beyond all that, it’s a guide to writing intelligible verse.  Dante is the passionate combination of the soul of Aristotle and the body of Plato.

4.  The Sonnets—Shakespeare

Irked by the didactic nature of these poems?  Let your eyes be opened.  We reveal here the long-lost secret.  This famous sonnet sequence (Auden is wrong; it does have an order) is Literary Criticism at its very highest— perhaps the greatest ever written.  Study this book.

5.  Essay on Criticism—Pope

Enlightenment jewel of Literary Criticism.  A fountain of wit. It will sharpen your musical ear, too. Poetry never sounded so coldly sublime.  Criticism never sounded so warmly effusive.

6.  A Defense of Poetry—Shelley

Forget all those other defenses. This one has defensive backs who weigh 300 pounds. Romanticsm deserves a soaring document like Shelley’s—the Wordsworth School (O treason!) would clip Shelley’s wings with socialist-tinged pedantry.  Don’t let it.

7.  Philosophy of Composition—Poe

Like all great great criticsm, this document is a shadow created by divine poetry too bright to read. Lurking behind Criticism is the Poem, lurking behind the philosophy of Plato is the poem of Plato, lurking behind the created is the creator, known only in the space between them. Those who indignantly sputter (and they are legion): “B-b-but P-p-poe can’t say that!” reveal themselves as sheep. Poe is damned for being too formalist, too abstract, too mathematical, just as Plato is, when both are, in fact, the most practical critics we have. America’s Classical Restraint is demonstrated for the world by Emerson’s quiet attack on Poe in his famous essay,”The Poet.”

8.  The Sacred Wood—T.S Eliot

Pre-Raphaelite Criticism comes to fruition in this document of High-Church, Harvard-educated, Anglo-American, Arnoldian, anti-Romantic, French Decadent Modernism.  Eliot is the most concentrated and toxic drink of the literature of decay. Rimbaud’s dying Romanticism sickens us after a while with sweet excess; Eliot, however, flatters our institutional pride; Eliot is the devil as the well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman; Rimbaud’s decadence we can finally keep at arm’s length, but Eliot worms his way into our intelligence; cunningly selective, he is a finishing school for academic slyness, a how-to guide for freezing-out the passionate past with New Criticial hypocrisy.  The undergound streams of Poe and Emerson combined to create a weird Third: a strange specimen of hostile suavity.  Eliot is the pendulum swinging from ‘the sugar of poetry hiding the medicine of learning’  to ‘the medicine of poetry hiding the sugar of learning.’  (The smart ones keep clear of this pendulum entirely.)

9.  Poets In A Landscape—Gilbert Highet

Archaeological criticism—the plain approach to Criticism is exemplified by this sweet evocation of poetry as stories of people in history, in this case, 7 ancient Roman poets. A classical scholar, professor Highet, who translates the poetic examples in this book, was born in Scotland, and was a beloved teacher at Columbia from 1937 to 1972. While his colleagues were exploiting the rise of the Creative Writing business model, or indulging in Nietzchean, Deconstructive, post-Modernist frenzy, professor Highet made an excursion to Italy and wrote this beautiful book, which treats poetry as the result of not only the structure of the Latin elegaic couplet, or the relation of Catullus to Caesar and the woman who broke his heart, but the very surrounding air.

10.  The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—W. Jackson Bate

The document of self-conscious Modernism—by an 18th century expert aware of how belated Romanticsm and Modernism really are. (Beating Harold Bloom’s far less readable Anxiety of Influence to the punch by several years, he made Bloom belated, as well.)  If the modern sensibility is a guilty evasion of the past, if Modernism is nothing but the paranoia of that evasion in the scream of a butterfly, The Burden of the Past is the reasonable antidote to this anxiety.  This little book (a collection of four lectures, in fact)  is so sane and broad in its approach, and unites so many authors and eras in its universal theme, that it will substantially increase anyone’s literary I.Q. in one or two readings.  It’s one of those books in which you’ll feel the need to pick up a highlighter, but it will be useless, because you’ll end up highlighting every line.

BORED WITH POETRY COMMENTARY, MORE ORIGINAL POEMS

HOW DO WE KNOW?

How do we know the movie starts or the poem begins?
If we cheer the anti-bourgeois,
Do we do so because somebody sins?
If these fragments please us,
What mind or book
Shall eventually please the greedy advertisers?
Will unfaithful sex lead to good,
At least in the abstract?
Can all these vagabonds fit in this wood?
How long has my memory of Rimbaud been under attack?

ON A MODERN POEM

The first time I read it,
It blew me away—
The next time I read it,
I said, yeah, OK. 

The third time I read it,
I skimmed it quite fast—
The fourth time I read it
Was probably the last.

THREE NEW POEMS BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

TRANS-LA-TION

Translation is Alchemy in reverse:
O! Magic truth! She makes every poem worse.
Turning French gold into English lead—
Hypocrite! Write your own poems instead.
Easier to catch Dian than trap a French rhyme;
Babble mocks you from above—and behind.
You look silly in Rimbaud’s pants.
Don’t dance for us, when you cannot hear the dance.

SONNET

The yellow night, which began to feel sick
In the afternoon, reveals a tiny midnight moon
Because I didn’t close the curtain,
Who is pouring silver light like a laser beam
Adding guilt to the other layers of my dream.
The tears on the back of her powdery neck
Symbolize INDIFFERENCE.  Holy cow.
I am lucky to have thick curtains
To draw across my mind so that in my dreams
I almost believe nature is kind.
How can the long rows of corn, the grass,
Be unkind? Are you kidding?  To a poet?
Once I fell in love with the first line, I fell in love with all, that was it.
Help me, God,  my schoolmates snicker at me
Because I love my mother passionately.

MORTE

Have the young students been taught
The size of the universe?
The styrofoam ball that was Jupiter
Sits in a cup in the kitchen,
The project rolling languidly through the house.
Now trillions of stars appear
As the children trail to bed,
The nodding-off of the youngest
A wink in serpentine skies.
(Getting ready for school is such a chore!)
Summer clouds evaporating before a dry wind
Symbolize a pact I have with God,
Picturing myself reasonable and Christian,
Entertaining the size of galaxy after galaxy,
The unimaginable length of our world,
Not to mention the philosophical questions
Of infinity and existence in repetition,
And how we dream of the end, this end.
A motorcycle in the distance buzzes.
I get up to turn off the light.
The middle child, up in her room, with her mother,
Is about to ask the terrible question.

THE SCARRIET 2011 FINAL FOUR

Poetic reputation: do we want to know how the sausage gets made?

Last year, the Scarriet Final Four, using David Lehman’s Best American Poetry volumes 1988 through 2009, was “That’s Not Butter” by Reb Livingston, “Composed Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” by Billy Collins, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, and “The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite” by William Kulik.

This year, using Berg and Vogelsang’s American Poetry Review’s anthology, The Body Electric, we got “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, “Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles, and “What They Wanted” by Stephen Dunn.  How the Brit Larkin slipped in, we’re not sure, but he was included in the APR, and won his games fair and square to advance to the Final Four.  Creedon, Dunn, and Myles are not exactly household words.

Last week Jeopardy! had an American Poetry category: Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Ginsberg were the five answers: Stevens‘ most famous poem, “The Emperor of Icecream,” drew a blank, as did Ginsberg and Hughes; only Frost and Nash were recognized by one of the three Jeopardy! contestants.

As we have watched a field of 64 get reduced to four, and then one, for two years now, we wonder if Scarriet’s March Madness Tourney is the only such competition in the world.

There are many who sneer at poetry and competition.  But look, when a poet wins a major prize today, when a poet wins recognition, should we really be so naive or hypocritical in convincing ourselves that the renown of someone like John Ashbery is not the result of poems and poets competing against each other?

And if not, what the hell is it?

What pushes someone like Ashbery to the top?

I ask this, because to win a March Madness Tournament, you have to have a poem entered that’s good enough to beat other poems, in match-up after match-up, and I don’t know that Ashbery has one poem that has that ‘breakthrough’ quality to win against “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, for instance.  Ashbery’s poems all read like clever jokes, and such poems don’t tend to win against the really accomplished poem of poignancy and beauty. I doubt an Ashbery poem could go very far in a March Madness Tournament, under the scrutiny of refs and rabid fans.

Ashbery defeated O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poetry Prize—one judge, Auden, played his own “March Madness Tournament,” after smoking a few hundred cigarettes, and Ashbery won that Tournament.   From a just issued review:

Wasley’s book [The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene, Princeton U. Press] vividly catalogues Auden’s social connections, friendships and influence among East Coast, Ivy League-educated, formal, emerging poets. Ginsberg and Ashbery wrote college essays on Auden; the pre-Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath adored Auden’s “burlap-textured voice”. We’re taken to parties and table talk, and to theatres where Auden explains a play’s reference to the entire mezzanine: “Shelley, my dears!” Still, must we learn who drilled the peephole to the toilet? Who looked?

This lineage study is redolent of smoking-jacket, anecdote and club. Auden dislikes the Yale Younger Poets submissions; he asks Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for manuscripts (or Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover, does); Ashbery’s poems are selected. Nowadays, if a public university manages its competitions this way, it will be exposed and condemned (as in the case of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series). Nearly everyone – poets, critics, even Wasley’s back-cover blurbers – is from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton.

Did you catch that?  Both Ashbery (Harvard) and Ginsberg (Columbia) wrote Ivy League college essays on Auden.

Iowa wasn’t the only place where the U.S. Poetry Workshop formula was being pushed in the 1940s; Allen Tate, one of the leading figures in the Anglo-American Modernist Clique—which got its ultimate marching orders from Pound and Eliot—started the ball rolling at Princeton, and Auden was Eliot’s chosen trans-Atlantic successor.

Maybe Chester Kallman ran into Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery, or Allen Ginsberg in a men’s room, and the rest is history?

Anyway, the point is, there’s always going to be competition—winners and losers—and to pretend this is not the situation, is silly.  To pretend ignorance only make the “winning” that much more dubious, and perhaps, unfair.

Note, also, how the work of Foetry.com (which exposed the U.GA Poetry Series when Alan Cordle caught Bin Ramke cheating) is now part of the normal poetry dialogue these days.  We hope you caught that, too.

Everyone in their hearts knows there are winners and losers in poetry; the question is, do we have the courage to make the process as transparent as possible?

ASHBERY TRANSLATES RIMBAUD. YAWN.

Lydia Davis.  A failure to illuminate.

So a cushy, middle-class American academic, John Ashbery, with a sense of humor so dry it crumbles, has translated a 19th century French teenager, Rimbaud, whose poetic sensibility was largely shaped by a missing father—a situation exploited by a nasty relationship with an older French Symbolist poet, Verlaine. 

Well, isn’t that swell?

Ashbery might be summed up like this:

Moe:  Say…that’s no poem!

Curly:  Sure it is!  It rhymes, don’t it?

Larry:  But poems don’t have to rhyme no more!

Curly(with Moe): Yea!

Moe (with Curly): Yea!

Curly (exchanging a look with Moe):  Huh?

Moe (exchanging a look with Curly):  Huh?

Larry:  Huh?

Moe:  Wait a minute…what did you just say?

Curly:  He said poems don’t have to rhyme no more, and you agreed!

Moe:  I did, did I?

Larry: Fellas, here comes John Ashbery!  Scram!

Lydia Davis has given us a slavishly perfunctory ‘two-thumbs-up’ “review” of Ashbery’s review of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and Blog Harriet’s reaction is “Wow.”

True Criticism continues to die, killing literature for good, and all Blog Harriet can do is approve with girlish glee.

A true critic can see what’s going on: Lydia Davis, once married to Paul Auster,  is trying to be the Gertrude Stein of the 21st century, with that fictional style two parts laudanum and one part tedium, which wows  undergraduates who have a lot of creative urges, but don’t know how to write a proper sentence.

Lydia Davis’ fiction sells about as well as Ashbery’s poetry: not well at all, and there’s a real danger that as the years pass, they will simply be forgotten.

But riches and fame are possible if one translates a timeless work—even if knowledge of the author, time and language is spotty. There’s always plenty of English translations to consult, after all.  Tweak an existing text and voila! a “translation.”

Lydia Davis—esteemed translator of some Proust and Bovary— in her Times review, has not even one suggestion regarding Ashbery’s translation: it’s perfect, according to Davis.   The nuanced French of RimbaudAll that nuance bodily moved from one entire, vastly different language to another!  And Davis agrees with Ashbery down to the last sentence, the last article, the last punctuation mark!

Memo to Ashbery: you owe her one.

One suck-up review for man, two reputations made for mankind.

The editors of Blog Harriet, in triplicate swoon (Rimbaud, Ashbery, and Davis) practically speechless themselves, eagerly quoted the following to prove the genius of all three.  Note the sheer audacity of Davis’ suck-up:

In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions — or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.

Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.

It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.

This is what Davis selects to prove Ashbery’s translating genius?  “Of no interest” for sans intérêt? 

Is she kidding?

And let’s just randomly insert “echos of the King James” into—Rimbaud!  Shall we?

And I’m so anxious to read Rimbaud for “hued” and “clad.”  That “mildy archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” is just what Rimbaud needs!

Did Ashbery manage to slip in any references to Popeye?

Lydia Davis, in her Times review gives the standard “lice-infested” gloss on Rimbaud, the standard: ‘a ruffian, good golly, but boy, what a genius!’

Rimbaud is, well, cool.  But the hipsters, in their worship of his gin-soaked, hyperbolic poetry, tend to leave out the uncomfortable facts: Rimbaud, the Catholic, Latin-learned, strictly-brought-up boy with a soldier father who left him for good when he was 6 years-old, pitifully looking for a father-figure, was essentially kidnapped and raped at 17 by the woman-and-child-abusing, murderous, grotesque scumbag, Paul Verlaine.  We hear a lot about Verlaine “the Symbolist” (that over-used term) but little about the actual sickening human being, Rimbaud. As for Rimbaud’s France, it was shaped, among other things, by another scumbag, the aggressive, Opium War, Empire-building, Napoleon III.

Baudelaire, Poe’s translator, a generation earlier, had already done Rimbaud; Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” pretty much sums up the whole thrust of Rimbaud, except with Rimbaud we add in a lot of joyous, colorful, bad taste.

But John Ashbery has translated Rimbaud’s garish French into “mildly archaic” English, and Lydia Davis and the New York Times approves!  Hurray!

ARE MEN SUPERIOR TO WOMEN? CAN CAROL MUSKE-DUKES GIVE STEPHEN DUNN THE KISS OF DEATH?

Can Carol Muske-Dukes make it three out of four women in Scarriet’s 2011 March Madness APR Final Four?  Does she have what it takes to beat Stephen Dunn?  Both of their poems concern kisses, and maybe this is typical, maybe not—the man’s is a wild desire for one, the woman’s an actual dull one.

Women poets have done extremely well in the Scarriet March Madness Tournament, despite the pool being typically under-represented by women in the APR anthology, The Body Electric.  The split in the APR anthology is about 70/30 in favor of the men—yet 10 women poets reached the Scarriet Sweet Sixteen.

Vida has made headlines in American Letters recently by simply publishing some inescapable statistics: the percentages of women writers published in major literary magazines and anthologies—and the numbers are not good for women, especially in essays, criticism and poetry: women trail men in the Fine Arts of Letters—poetry and essays—by two to one.

We’re not talking about construction jobs, or all-time sports heroes, or U.S. presidents, or 19th century composers, or Italian homemakers. We’re talking about U.S. poetry and criticism in 2011: two to one in favor of men.  These numbers are staggering, and should be a wake up call to women everywhere.

The overall author split is 60/40 in favor of men, not too horrible, but in terms of reviewing (or criticism) the ratio is 4/1 in favor of men, and as Vida showed, the ratio of reviewing in The New York Review of Books is 5/1 in favor of men.  As we get more high-brow, as we get more intellectual, as we get more opinionated, as we get more philosophical, the women flounder, in terms of representation.

For every Harold Bloom, there’s a Helen Vendler or a Camille Paglia, for every Billy Collins, there’s a Mary Oliver or a Louise Gluck, for every John Ashbery, there’s a Jorie Graham or a Kay Ryan , for every Seamus Heaney, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Margaret Atwood. 

Generally, women have had great success in writing, and, in numbers of readers, women are surely equal, or very close to men, just in terms of literacy.  Women are well-placed in the readership and marketplace of Fine Letters; there is no craven, muscle-bound machismo element keeping them down.

Why, then, are the women so woeful and backwards in these key areas of poetry and essays and reviewing and criticism?

So, girls, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Criticism is the Head of Letters.  If you’re not reviewing consistently, or writing philosophical essays, or making your opinions known about writers and writing, then what do you expect?

We know you have opinions about nearly everything—why not writing?   You are nearly 50/50 in fiction, and fiction is great, but we all know most fiction is either thinly disguised diary and memoir or vampires having sex with each other. If Criticism is the Head, Fiction is the Rear.  And, in terms of opinions about writing, we don’t mean sweet, supportive blurbs for the sisters—we mean real criticism.

And here’s the thing: if you won’t write essays or reviews or philosophy or criticism, you’ll never change these numbers.

Vida, your numbers are shocking, but what do they really mean?  And how are we going to make those numbers better?

Any ideas, girls?

I recently found myself having an email dialogue, quite by chance, with one of the founders of Vida, whose stated mission is “to explore cultural and critical perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”

The conversation came about because she, the Vida founder, wanted clarification from me concerning gossip linking her to a powerful male poet mentor.  But such talk does not belong in public.  It has that smell which consigns it to the garbage pail. Robert B__ eloping with EB is glorious. Put it on the front page. Professor B__ helping to market EB’s poems?  Eh, not so glorious.

But every consideration, glorious or not, involving men, women and Letters has an impact every day on the cold facts of Vida’s statistics.  Somewhere, between the numbers, and the sorry state of things which those numbers point to, are actual stories involving actual men and women. Do we dare speak these stories and these names? Or do we traffic forever in statistics and polite reactions to them?

We can’t run from theses numbers, but we can run from the truth—of its smelly and corrupt windings—which those numbers signify.

Or, we can follow Ariadne’s thread; we can do the patient, historical work of patiently examining the lives of actual literary men and women, and what it finally means, philosophically.

Here’s an example: Elizabeth Barrett was an extraordinary poet, and better known than the male poet who eventually eclipsed her, Robert Browning.  When Mr. Browning came courting in 1845, Elizabeth was the famous poet, not Robert, and she had already published, to much acclaim, the type of dramatic poem Robert Browning would later glory in.  This is not to diminish the remarkable Mr. Browning, but only to point out how Miss Barrett fell under Browning’s shadow.  Barrett was depicted in the modern era as a rescued recluse known for one poem penned—to Browning, which fit right into the Victorian stereotype.  Who perpetuates such stereotypes?  The critics.  And the critics are men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fades away, and takes with her a more accurate picture of the Victorian period, a richer selection of poetry, and a powerful example of a powerful woman poet.  All the male critics had to do was refute the Victorian era.  Women are larger-than-life figures—unless they are reduced by abstract critical thinking which rejects, in the name of “modern progress,” the actual life of women in the past.  The “progressives” are then insidiously reactionary.  All ahistoricism is reactionary.  Let us have improvements, but please let’s not pre-suppose that means chucking history.

A second example: Edna Millay, who wrote sonnets as good as any in the history of literature, was abused in the press by Ezra Pound’s clique: Hugh Kenner and Horace Gregory, to name two. We all know how one well-placed review can harry and destroy. This is the sort of ugly side of Letters which might be characterized as gossip, but we demean Letters by being squemish—so that we brush the ugly side of Letters under the rug. Unfortunately, thugs and bullies exist in “polite literature.”  But the bigger problem is, that because Pound and his group was associated with a certain avant-garde progressivism, “make it new” and all that, critics are not always objective in writing literary history or making critical judgments.  Because there is this excitable and revolutionary assumption that the avant-garde is always liberal and forward-thinking, we are blind to when the opposite is true.

It’s not too late to undo these mistakes, since literature always has a past, and is always being made anew within the context of that past.  But if women are on avant train they think is going in the right direction, but is not, those Vida numbers could get even worse.

One more example: Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) is a marvelous poet, an amazing, crazy, lyrical, predecessor to Plath and Sexton, but like MillayWylie fell off the Parade Float of Modernism.  The better-known American women poets, who were quietly conservative, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, were close to Pound’s clique or Robert Lowell; actually, Moore was Bishop’s mentor, and Robert Lowell fell in quickly with Pound’s group via Tate and Ransom, so it’s all pretty cozy.  Wylie is a strong, but neglected, poet who would appeal to the same audience inspired by Sexton, and it certainly does not diminish a poet like Sexton to comprehend the significance of Wylie as her influence.  (Another neglected poet if we go back futher: Ellen Wheeler Wilcox.) Women in Letters will be hurt if women don’t celebrate good women poets right under their nose, or they only celebrate women poets annointed by men.  When it comes to literature, networking in the present can only go so far. Knowing history is invaluable.

So here’s the advice, so far.  1. Be critical, not timid and polite. 2. Be historical, intensely so; follow historical threads back to motivations, and groups who act clandestinely and corruptly.  These historical phenomena tend to be the rule, not the exception.  If the women say, “Leave the conspiracies to the men,” the women will only suffer accordingly, and the Vida numbers will get worse.

As far as The New York Review of Books, which we now know is 80% male, thanks to Vida, women, I think, would make an important statement if they boycotted that magazine, rather than pleading to be let in. The New York Review stats should not be read as an indication of failure by women, but rather as a failure by the New York Review, a scholarly failure, since the editors are infatuated with the very Modernism school that joyfully throws poets like Barrett, Millay and Wylie under the bus, and they review the same handful of canonized figures over and over again.  The researchers at Vida should analyze a few issues of the New York Review, and discover for everyone not just the numbers, but the faulty philosophy, history and scholarship.  Remember: Criticism, ladies, criticism!  Get in the face of the New York Review!  And enjoy doing it!  Letting the 5/1 ratio just sit there without comment, after the initial gasps, implies that women lack the talent to write for the New York Review and women better get cracking and improve themselves!  Is this the impression Vida wants to give?  No!  Go on the offense!

And speaking of offense, Carol Muske-Dukes, in her poem, “A Former Love, a Lover of Form,” is not particularly nice, which is not necessarily a bad thing:

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

She’s trapped by a dull kiss.  She’s a victim.

The following sounds too much like all that bad confessional poetry composed in the 1970s:

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

The poem ends with more puzzlement and complaining:

 Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

The Stephen Dunn poem features a narrator questioned by a crowd, and gender is completely hidden.  It also features a mysterious, yearning self-sacrificing love.

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

Stephen Dunn wins!  Stephen Dunn is in the Final Four!

THE SHERIFF

We felt.  We weren’t thinking.
Each hour the leafy sinking
Diminshed, but in our brains
We were sinking in wet leaves just the same.

The piles from the wood broke
Into flame; the dry season spoke
Its smoky roof; you felt autumn was to blame—
But spring and summer, I reminded you, was the same.

Years later, we left, and for years, brutal rains
Flooded the countryside.
We came back, and huddled in our boat, knew someone had lied.
When the rescuers dug us out,
We could no longer shout.
Someone should have told us: you’re either nice, or you have brains.

DO WE HAVE TO PLAY THIS GAME? PHILIP LARKIN AGAINST MAURA STANTON

 

Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is a 60-line, ababccdeed, iambic pentameter (penultimate line trimeter) meditation-on-death powerhouse.

What was Hull, England’s Philip Larkin even doing in the APR, Vogelsang, and Berg, eds? 

Berg studied with Robert Lowell & attended the Iowa Workshop; Vogelsang has taught on the west coast, and they made APR into a journal of Iowa free verse, not British formalism.

But here’s Larkin and his “Aubade” in APR’s Body Electric anthology, and thus in the Scarriet 2011 Tournament, bullying his way to the top of the heap against poems without rhyme or meter. 

“I work all day and get half drunk at night” is throwing fear into all opponents. 

Is this why certain poets hang together? Among themselves, they are poets, but next to poems like Larkin’s “Aubade,” they are not?

Larkin’s poem says ‘death is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it’ and the rhymes don’t soften this message—they harden it.  Verse is soft and prose is hard, verse is ‘la la la’ and prose is pointed—at least this is what modernist aesthetics would have us believe, but Larkin proves otherwise: his verse is a cold knife, and most of these APR prose poets are waving fake magic wands, by comparison.

Maura Stanton, then, in contemplating facing Larkin’s “Aubade” with her poem, “The Veiled Lady,” must be feeling what Larkin in his poem expresses: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare” and “Unresting Larkin, a day nearer now” and “the sure extinction that I travel to” and “This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels. APR used to try” and “Courage is no good.”

Stanton’s poem features an atmosphere of 19th century seances and ends up saying our real selves are conjurer’s tricks, ending with:

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

This is lovely, but one can safely object: The woman I love does exist, and I can embrace her.

The Larkin poem, however, imprisons you with its whole self.

One can see in this interview that Maura Stanton, a Vietnam War era Iowa Workshop student, knows many of the poets in APR’s Body Electric. It’s her world.

But Philip Larkin is a poet not for Iowa City, but for the ages.

Larkin 99, Stanton 66.

PHILIP LARKIN IS IN THE FINAL FOUR.

IN YOUR FACE: STEPHEN DOBYNS AND EILEEN MYLES GO FOR THE FINAL FOUR

DOBYNS BEAT LOTS OF GOOD POETS TO GET HERE, AND SO DID EILEEN MYLES. NOW ONLY ONE CAN ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR.

WE ASK ONLY THAT THESE TWO POEMS STAND IN THE LIGHT SO THAT WE CAN TELL WHICH ONE IS BETTER.

‘BEING’ IS EASY, BUT TO BE BETTER—TO BE THE MORE LOVED, TO BE MORE FAVORED—TAKES IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL, SOCIALLY, PHILOSOPHICALLY & AESTHETICALLY—DESPITE THE PROTESTS OF THE WEAK.

PERCEPTION ITSELF DEPENDS ON WHAT IS, OR IS NOT, BETTER: CREATION, IMAGINATION, JUDGMENT, ACTIVISM, THE SENSES, AND LOVE ITSELF, MUST CONSIDER ‘BETTER OR WORSE.’  WHY IS POETRY ANY DIFFERENT? IS POETRY LACKING IN APPEALS TO THE SENSES, OR IMAGINATION, OR JUDGMENT?  WHO WOULD PERISH IN AN EARTHEN JAR JUST TO SPITE THE HIERARCHY LEADING UP TO THE HEAVENS!

MARLA MUSE: Tom, what soaring rhetoric to start this match-up between these two excellent poems!

DOBYNS!

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.

WHAT AN OPENING STRATEGY!  DOBYNS TAKES IT RIGHT TO EILEEN MYLES’ FACE!!

“LET’S SAY YOU ARE A MAN (SOME OF YOU ARE)” WHAT A PROVOCATION ON THE PART OF DOBYNS AGAINST MYLES!!

LET’S SEE HOW SHE REACTS!

MARLA MUSE: What an image by Dobyns!  And right in Myles’ face!  This contest is freaking me out already!

MYLES!!

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty

MYLES COMES BACK STRONG!  SHE COUNTERS DOBYNS’ OUTDOORS SCENE WITH A ‘HOME ALONE AT NIGHT’ AND FENDS OFF THE HUMAN BREAST IMAGERY WITH PATTING AND STROKING HER FEMALE PET DOG!!  BEAUTIFUL: COUNTERING OUTRAGEOUS, SURREAL OUT-OF-LEFT-FIELD, SEXUAL IMAGERY WITH QUIET, DOMESTIC INTRIGUE!  MYLES DOESN’T PANIC.  SHE STANDS HER GROUND!  THE DOG IS A BRILLIANT TOUCH, AND ‘PROCLAIM HER BEAUTY’ IS DEFT, INDEED!

BUT DOBYNS COME ROARING BACK!

You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.

A MORAL LESSON FINDS ITS WAY INTO DOBYNS’ GAME PLAN!  OR IS IT FATE? ONE GARISH IMAGE FOLLOWED BY ONE EVEN MORE INTENSE: SEX, AND THEN ROT! WHOA! CAN MYLES STAY WITH DOBYNS HERE, OR IS HE GOING TO BLOW THIS GAME WIDE OPEN? NOW…WHAT’S THIS? “WE PAUSE AND INVITE IN A TRIO OF EXPERTS?” DOBYNS GOING TO HIS BENCH ALREADY! HE SLOWS DOWN THE GAME! DID MYLES EXPECT THAT?

MYLES TRYING TO COME BACK:

&
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.

JUST LIKE THAT MYLES DRAWS EVEN WITH DOBYNS!!  THE AMPERSAND SIMPLICITY, EVOKING TENSION WITH “SOMETHING WAS WRONG. & THEN I SAW HER.” BEAUTIFUL! MYLES MAKES AN IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK AS THE FIRST QUARTER DRAWS TO A CLOSE!

DOBYNS LOOKS A LITTLE SLUGGISH TO BEGIN THE SECOND QUARTER:

The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.

DOBYNS IS APOLOGIZING FOR HIS POEM!! AN INTERESTING STRATEGY, BUT IT DOESN’T SEEM TO BE WORKING.

AND NOW MYLES COUNTERS:

It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all.

MYLES ALSO TURNS MATTER-OF-FACT, BUT SHE STAYS WITH THE PICTURE OF THE DOMESTIC SCENE, NOT WAVERING FROM THAT, AND “IT IS THE LADY I THOUGHT” KEEPS THE TONE OF MYSTERY AND REVERENCE AMID THE PLAIN. MYLES BOLTS INTO THE LEAD!

AS WE START THE SECOND HALF, DOBYNS WORKS CAUTIOUSLY:

The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.

WHAT A MOVE BY DOBYNS!  AN ANT! IS THIS A DELAYED RESPONSE TO MYLES’ DOG?

MYLES STRUGGLES TO MAINTAIN HER ADVANTAGE:

I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

WHAT A MOVE BY MYLES! SIMPLE, ELEGANT, INSPIRING, THIS “SIMPLE CATHOLIC GIRL” PUTS HER FINGER ON WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT: “FINDING THE PAST IN THE FUTURE & THE FUTURE IN THE PAST.”  AND THE AMPERSAND SEEMS TO BE GIVING DOBYNS PROBLEMS.

AS WE ENTER THE FOURTH QUARTER, MYLES HOLDS ONTO A SLIM LEAD…

DOBYNS:

The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?

DOBYNS GETTING A LITTLE HEAVY ON THE RHETORIC…HE’S NOT GOING TO CATCH MYLES THIS WAY…HE’S GOING TO HAVE TO BE MORE AGGRESSIVE…

MYLES:

& she didn’t
go, she
remains a stain
on the bathtub
cover

NICE!  THE THEME OF PERMANENCE, BUT DONE WITHOUT A SHRED OF HYPERBOLE!

DOBYNS:

The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

DOBYNS TRAILING IN THIS GAME, AND HE’S STARTING TO GET FRUSTRATED. HE THREATENS HARM TO HIS ANT! DOBYNS IS STILL TRYING TO RECONCILE HIS POEM WITH HIS OPENING FANTASY IMAGE, AND ITS CAUSING HIS PLAY TO BECOME TOO PONDEROUS. HE’S THINKING TOO MUCH OUT THERE. “LUCKY ANT.”  AN EXISTENTIALIST CRY OF DESPAIR?

MYLES:

 along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
holes
four of
them and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

MYLES HINTS AT THE DOG AGAIN WITH A MENTION OF THE DOG’S LEASH, SYMBOLIZING MAN’S CONTROL OF NATURE; THE ARTIFACTS OF HER HUMAN LIFE, HER “STAINS” AND “STICKERS,” A BRIEF REFERENCE TO LESBIANISM, BUT NOTHING HEAVY-HANDED HERE, “THE LADY” GETS A LAST MENTION, AND THEN THE POEM CLOSES IN SILENCE: “& I DON’T HAVE TO TELL ANYONE.”

AND THAT’S IT! MYLES WINS! EILEEN MYLES IS GOING TO THE FINAL FOUR!

MARLA MUSE: What a thrilling contest! Congratulations, Eileen!

“MY RIVAL,” A NEW POEM BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

MY RIVAL

I lived in a storm for seven days.
My rival lives in a storm always.
Electricity races up his spine—
Mere fear and cowardice crawl up mine.
When song hums, he makes humming speak.
I listen to hymns at the end of the week.
I push the brake when I’m on the road,
He knows no stopping, carries no load.
I move quickly when the appointment is near,
He is the appointment itself that I fear.
I favor this, or do not like that.
He wears all things under his hat.
I describe the painting which you cannot see,
He is the picture and the original tree.
I spend time pouring water from a jug—
The water girl begs my rival for a hug.
I say in silence what I should say out loud;
He whispers and parts the surliest crowd.
After I’m drunk, I speak my mind,
My rival is quiet and kind.
I frown when I think, laugh when I do not.
He smiles to know all the knowledge he’s got.
When I am sorry, I apologize it worse.
He laughs when he puts it into reverse.
I wait for my betters to give the word,
He proves, by a look, authority absurd.
I go for my pillows and my comforts here;
He brings a comfortable atmosphere.
I size you up to see what I can get—
He makes sure you don’t forget.
I saw him with a young, beautiful girl—
He had nicer skin, and a swifter curl.
Surrounded by cats, large and clawed,
He wasn’t looking at them, or awed.
He lifts weight as if it has no weight;
I try the feather and find it great.
I saw him in Necropolis, at night,
Feeding the hungry a bowl of light.
I puzzled over what a poem could do;
He wrote one; as he wrote, it sang and flew.
When I told  him, “You bested me, but everything dies,”
He vanished in clouds that grew bigger in the skies.

HEY, FOETS: ANIS SHIVANI AND ALAN CORDLE ARE COMING AFTER YOU

Will this dubious po-biz hustle one day be a thing of the past?

Get used to this name: Anis Shivani.

Anis Shivani stirs the poetry pot like no one else these days, and bad news for foets: he’s coming after you.  In a comment beneath his recent Huffington Post article on how poetry contests ought to be done away with, Shivani writes:

After publishing this article, I was happy to be contacted by Al Cordle, who ran the Foetry.com website in the mid-2000s (see info. about Foetry’s exposure of rigged contests here:  http://en.­wikipedia.­org/wiki/F­oetry.com).  Al suggests pursuing legal action against demonstrab­ly corrupt contests where a relationsh­ip between a judge and a contest winner can be shown.  I think this is an excellent idea, and maybe the only way to bring down the contest model, delegitimi­ze it, and replace it with a better alternativ­e.  Aggrieved poets who know of clear conflicts of interest or improper means of selection should consider pursuing for damages through legal means.  I’m all for it.

Meanwhile, still waiting for a direct response from Brian Turner and Lory Bedikian as to whether there was a prior relationsh­ip/friends­hip/connec­tion of some sort which helped Lory become the winner of the contest, despite the fact that both judge and winner attended the same MFA program at Oregon, when entries must have been received from all over the country.

—Anis Shivani, Huffington Post

Why is Foetry.com still making itself felt in po-biz after Alan Cordle’s site closed four years ago?  The front page story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Stephen Burt hit piece in the Boston Globe, the Joan Houlihan attack in Poets & Writers have apparently made Foetry famous forever.

Foetry is an attractive theory because in a poetry world of crackpot theory—a legacy of Modernism’s clique-y, reactionary, manifesto-ist, post-war takeover of the university (think: Ezra Pound, a core of associates, and their associates)—Foetry effectively reifies a number of tropes at once, bringing persons back into the poetry mix in an accessible post-Romantic manner.  “Naming names” was Cordle’s cry on the old Foetry.com, and this is what makes Foetry so volatile (and exciting): it may have begun as Cordle asking poetry contest moderators to play fair, and, in many ways, Foetry.com was simply a consumer protection site causing cheaters to howl; but a serendipitous expansion has occured in which Foetry is coming to stand for an explanation of all aspects of poetry, if not for life itself.

What is foetry?  Foetry is not just a noun, but a verb: it refers to a whole range of things which persons, on behalf of poetry, doFoets are poets who are foes of poetry in various ways, insidious foes of poetry because they appear to be friends of poetry, chiefly acting in the paradoxical manner of either making poetry more expensive, and because of this, cheapening it, or cheapening it, and thus making it rare.

There are two basic kinds of Foets: the social kind, who secretly pick their friends in public poetry contests, and the theoretical kind: the windbag theorist who makes poetry more “difficult” and ends up making poetry an elaborate game for simpletons.

Foetry is more concerned with persons than poets or poetry, but then every theory on poetry is a sly attempt by the theorist to stack the deck in his or her favor: please read poetry the way I write it.  But since Foetry is concerned with sly behavior in a reified manner to begin with, it ends up self-reflexively hitting the jackpot of a method that historically, socially, and psychologically is able to see through the rubbish of post-modernist, theoretical over-kill, to arrive at inclusive, grounded, practical answers to what poets as human beings are doing.

Read Scarriet, the sudden, inspired brain-child of Alan Cordle.  Watch and learn.  Monday Love of Foetry.com is now Thomas Brady. 

Censorship, bullying and banning by Blog Harriet produced Scarriet.

Former Scarriet editor Christopher Woodman’s pocket was being picked by Tupelo Press when he read about the scam in Foetry.com

Woodman ditched Scarriet a year ago because he could not stomach attacks by his Scarriet co-editor on Red Wheel Barrow modernism.  Woodman has a weak stomach. He ate too much fallen High Modernist fruit.  He got high on High Modernism and lost his way.  But the point isn’t whether you like the Red Wheel Barrow or not—it’s whether you can handle criticism.

Poetry is not a lame feel-good exercise. You may find things you like in poetry, but poetry itself is not a feel-good exercise. The coterie-mind thinks: “you are a poet, so you must be my friend.!”  The coterie-mind sucks Criticism out of poetry.  The most boring (and most tyrannical) people are those who won’t accept Criticism. Development requires Criticism.  The world needs Criticism—not censorship.

If Foetry can be summed up as a philosophy it might be this way: Art is not an object, poetry is not a text; art and poetry are what people do to each other in the widest sense.

Brian Turner and Lory Bedikian, what do you think?

WOODY ALLEN HAS A LAUGH AT HEMINGWAY IN HIS LATEST FILM

Allen directing: 1920s Paris is a mere backdrop to the chief concern: get the pathetic lead character laid.

I found Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, to be a somewhat amusing good time, as Owen Wilson plays the lastest young stand-in for the Woody persona: schlubby romantic who charms us with a blend of humility and humor.

I couldn’t help but think that Woody Allen, filmmaker, resembles Billy Collins, poet, but Collins is relatively more successful in his field than Allen is in his right now, only because there is no blockbuster mainstream success in poetry to compete with Collins.  In poetry today, Woody Allen is the blockbuster.

Compared to Billy Collins, can we say Tennyson is real cinema? Or is Milton’s “Paradise Lost” akin to a D.W. Griffith epic? Woody Allen appeals to the same audience as Billy Collins does: their feel-good humor is the same, but, amazingly, these days Collins probably has the larger audience, though Woody Allen is more of a household word.

How much influence film has on the public at large is a debatable point, but the question begins to take on some reality as film gets a history.  Do cinephiles dare to look back and stare this question in the face?  By the time Woody Allen released Manhattan in 1979, it felt like American culture worth thinking about was Woody Allen; the zeitgeist was being shaped before our eyes by this standup comic turned movie maker. Every film of his was an intellectual must-see. Woody Allen was both intellectual and anti-intellectual, the Guru of Laughter; Allen’s films were mainstream and iconoclastic at once; Woody Allen embraced and poked fun at fashionable rebels— the voice of common-sense getting laughs in a crazy world.

The ebbing of Allen’s importance after Manhattan is probably three-fold: 1. Allen’s brand of stand-up cinema began to be eclipsed by the splashy Spielberg era which began with Jaws in 1975, 2. Who can maintain that kind of hold on a public for that long—the decline was inevitable, and 3. The Eww Factor.

I wonder if anyone remembers the two Oscar nominations the critically acclaimed Manhattan received: one was for Allen’s writing (Best Writing; Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and the other was Best Supporting Actress for the role of Tracy, a 17-year-old girl dating Isaac, the 42-year-old, twice-divorced TV writer, played by Woody Allen.

That Manhattan nominated actress was the young and sexy Mariel Hemingway, grandaughter of the first wife of the author of Moveable Feast, a woman who co-stars in that book by then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, on 1920s Paris—where hip and sexy Modernism festered in a metropolis of timeless beauty.

Mariel Hemingway is precisely where the Eww Factor whispers started. Woody Allen reacted to the Eww Factor by rejecting it, marrying the saintly Mia Farrow—and then did what Irish wit Oscar Wilde sarcastically recommended. Middle-aged Woody Allen found the best way to resist temptation was to give in to it:  You think I’m Eww?  Well, I’ll show you Eww.  In your face, world.

Welcome to modernism.

Allen’s new film is hackneyed in many ways, but has garnered good reviews, and it’s probably because the director of “Manhattan” found a good hook for himself: A contemporary, nostalgic, regular-guy time-travels to 1920s Paris.

Gil, the Everyman, is engaged to a sexy but practical woman who shares none of his nostaglia for 1920s, writing-life, Paris.  She has an affair with a wolfish, British, history professor who is smarter and more credentialed than Gil. Like all Woody Allen leads, Gil, played simply and clumsily by Wilson, is inferior to everyone around him, but his humor and his lust keep us interested.  Cheating is always a good thing in Woody Allen films—they are always a re-shuffling of relationships, and they improve things.  This is how the brilliant Woody Trope pushes away pesky morality.

Gil has a fling with a mistress of Picasso’s, who happens to be nostalgic for 1890s Paris, and herein lies the main theme of the picture: there is no Golden Era;  be happy today with a partner who likes to walk in the rain like you do—Gil’s girlfriend who cheats on him hates even Paris in the rain.

Woody Allen’s Paris is picture- postcard-and-TV-episode 1920s Paris; the atmosphere evoked is hardly beyond what might be necessary for a TV sitcom.  The famous Modernist writers and artists who inhabit 1920s Paris are insubstantial—and so is the soundtrack, the editing, and the cinematography; the whole atmosphere is spotty, at best, and the plot is very weak.  Allen’s directing style of having characters stutter, appear awkward, or have nothing to say, in what feel like ad-libbed moments of ordinary life, are embarrassing at times, sometimes just annoying.  I understand the intention: it helps the moments of humor—and with Woody Allen it’s always the undercutting, common-sense variety.

For instance, after Gil arrives in his hotel after his first time-traveling bout (he climbs into a car at midnight and returns in the wee hours) the camera simply shows him in bed staring with a wide-eyed WTF? expression—and this is one of the funniest moments in the movie.

If Woody Allen’s film took itself too seriously, and went for serious atmospheric motifs, it would only appear to be emptier and sillier than it actually is.  Woody Allen knows his limits, and sticks to them.  He knows there’s no talent around that can really show us Hemingway in 1920s Paris, so when Hemingway looks squarely at pathetic Gil and spouts cartoonish, macho Hemingway-speak, those who have read Hemingway laugh, and that’s all Woody Allen is going for in this film.  Obviously, the cliched Woody Allen persona is going to have a laugh at the expense of the cliched Ernest Hemingway character.  You could have guessed that right from the start, and Woody Allen, and the critics apparently, are satisfied with this.

Vincent Canby (1924-2000), who ruled the roost for years as film critic at the NY Times, was perhaps the greatest ‘make-or-break’ reviewer ever, supported Woody Allen, and Canby was also a huge Hemingway fan.

Vincent Canby panned Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988), a powerful film that takes a hard look at the Eww Factor of 1920s Paris and the modern art world: the sex, the fraud, the thuggishness and the despair.  Rudolph’s film de-romanticizes the Moderns with smokily atmospheric beauty and his Paris simply blows Woody Allen’s away.   The film also has a good plot and a great performance by John Lone (The Last Emperor), one of many wonderful things about The Moderns completely overlooked by Canby.

It’s strange how angry some people get when de-romanticizing Modernism is de-romanticized.  Canby’s companion of many years, Penelope Gilliat, who reviewed films for the New Yorker, died at 61 of alcoholism. Canby was perhaps offended that his beloved Hemingway was portrayed by Rudolph as a drunk; but Hemingway was a drunk, and film critics ought to be more objective; Canby belittled a great picture, and hopefully Woody Allen’s fluffy movie will get a few people to see The Moderns, a stunning, overlooked film.

CAROLYN CREEDON, YOU’RE IN THE FINAL FOUR!

We believe that poetry can be popular again.

If the best poems by our poets were consistently and selflessly collected, advertised, anthologized, and taught, so that work of true merit were allowed to circulate in the public and academic spheres, the art would regain its former status as one of the fine arts.

After years of Modernist propaganda, poetry is equated with basket-weaving and the trinket market. The public at large views poetry as self-indulgent, as does the remaining professional class of poets and teachers of poetry—who define their poetry as whatever is stripped of all self-indulgence.  But the “self” has nothing to do with it.  Self-indulgence will always accompany the genius and the flub alike: great athletes can be self-indulgent, as can any great artist.  But they are still great athletes and great artists.  To make a rule that poetry ought not to be self-indulgent, ought not to be an indulgence, a selfish act, or express aspects of the self, misses the whole point: it only matters if poetry aspires to win both the critical and popular judgment, and it matters not how this is done, as long as it is done.

The poet who scorns popular taste is a cold-blooded creature; a lizard happy to stay where the rock is warmed by the slanting rays of his or her coterie.

The poet who scorns the critical taste, who is happy to be unread and unlearned, and who seeks to please only with crude sensationalism, cheap politics, and coarse music, is the jelly-fish feeding in warm shallows, eventually blending in with its surrounding element, and, when all is said and done, finally making less of an impact than the cold-blooded lizard on his rock.

The poet, however, who does both: who loves the public and is able to please this child of the ages—for here is humanity waiting to be fed—and pleases the select, the elite, the learned at the same time, is the true poet.

All sorts of excuses and obstacles exist to prevent this happy occasion: the trouble really began when Modernism cashed in on the idea that artistic and offensive were the same thing.

This wasn’t just a matter of a few crackpot theorists in the 1920s converting the world to their view, because the public, as gullible and distracted as it sometimes is, is not that easily persuaded.  What happened in the early 20th century was that art fraud made such a killing, art has not been the same since.  Modern art—the kind the public found to be rubbish—was bought cheap by insiders with a lot of money, and then, after critics and museums were purchased to increase the value of what had been bought, the insiders with a lot of money made even more money, so much money, that fraud became beautiful, and reality, by money, was turned upside down.  The ugly was now beautiful because the dollar said it was so.  The poet or artist once had to be talented—now they merely had to know the right people and cash in on fraud.  People like William James and John Dewey and Getrude Stein (she and her brother Leo belonged to those insiders with money who bought art for little that would soon make a lot) made it happen.  It is no accident that William James was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s godson, and that Gertrude Stein, taught by William James at Harvard, not only impacted modern art, but modern poetry, and John Ashbery wrote about Gertrude Stein, and O’Hara and Ashbery were in the Modern Art scene.  This wasn’t an accident.  Scams need scam artists and the best scam artists appear respectable, and the greatest scam artists pass for artists—or poets, or philosophers, or art critics.

Fraud, unfortunately, makes a great deal of money, so much money, that fraud then becomes the philosophical, economic, and aesthetic coin of the realm.

But we shouldn’t be too depressed by all this.  Beauty and wisdom and life remain—and laughter—as the wise laugh at the frauds.

Poems are still written and songs are still sung which are not offensive, which please both the popular and the critical taste.

Carolyn Creedon’s “litany” is one of those poems (and they are being written today) which should be celebrated and put in the spotlight.   Bad poems will always be written, but if the good poems are collected and celebrated, the public may trust the process again, and return to poetry.  The public is wary, however.  Fraud made its play, and won.  It will be a long process to woo the public back.

Gillian Conoley’s poem, “Beckon,” is too obscure to satisfy the popular taste; she has befuddled the opposition as she has advanced, but against the exquisite clarity of “litany,” Conoley’s words seem but islands, isolated and alone.

Again, we present one of the best poems of the 20th century, by Carolyn Creedon:

litany

Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?
i will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and i will eat it and call
it a carolyn sandwich. then you will kiss my lips and taste the mayonnaise and
that is how you shall love me in my restaurant

Tom, will you come to my empty beige apartment and help me set up my daybed?
yes, and i will put the screws in loosely so that when we move on it, later,
it will rock like a cradle and then you will know you are my baby

Tom, I am sitting on my dirt bike on the deck. Will you come out from the kitchen
and watch the people with me?
yes, and then we will race to your bedroom. i will win and we will tangle up
on your comforter while the sweat rains from our stomachs and foreheads

Tom, the stars are sitting in tonight like gumball gems in a little girl’s
jewelry box. Later can we walk to the duck pond?
yes, and we can even go the long way past the jungle gym. i will push you on
the swing, but promise me you’ll hold tight. if you fall i might disappear

Tom, can we make a baby together? I want to be a big pregnant woman with a loved face and give you a squalling red daughter.
no, but i will come inside you and you will be my daughter

Tom, will you stay the night with me and sleep so close that we are one person?
no, but i will lay down on your sheets and taste you. there will be feathers
of you on my tongue and then i will never forget you

Tom, when we are in line at the convenience store can I put my hands in your
back pockets and my lips and nose in your baseball shirt and feel the crook
of your shoulder blade?
no, but later you can lay against me and almost touch me and when i go i will
leave my shirt for you to sleep in so that always at night you will be pressed
up against the thought of me

Tom, if I weep and want to wait until you need me will you promise that someday
you will need me?
no, but i will sit in silence while you rage. you can knock the chairs down
any mountain. i will always be the same and you will always wait

Tom, will you climb on top of the dumpster and steal the sun for me? It’s just
hanging there and I want it.
no, it will burn my fingers. no one can have the sun: it’s on loan from god.
but i will draw a picture of it and send it to you from richmond and then you
can smooth out the paper and you will have a piece of me as well as the sun

Tom, it’s so hot here, and I think I’m being born. Will you come back from
Richmond and baptise me with sex and cool water?
i will come back from richmond. i will smooth the damp spiky hairs from the
back of your wet neck and then i will lick the salt off it. then i will leave

Tom, Richmond is so far away. How will I know how you love me?
i have left you. that is how you will know

WHEN I WAS A CLOWN

David Meltzer in his day

T.S. Eliot painted his face green, had a nervous breakdown, and imprisoned his wife, but he took poetry seriously.

John Berryman was a stinking drunk, but he taught Shakespeare.

When did poets start disliking poetry?

When did poets start being ashamed of poetry, so that all of a sudden poets were not talking about poetry anymore, but themselves and the scene?

Just take this piece by Garrett Caples from Blog Harriet, “The Maestro: David Meltzer, Part I” 5/24/2011.  It is brief enough that we may quote it in full:

Michael McClure invited Andrew Joron and me to a reading in the Berkeley Hills, as we wanted to consult him in the course of editing the (forthcoming) Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Contact was made, a meeting was set up, and McClure would provide much valuable information regarding Lamantia’s activities in the late ’50s. His devotion to Philip is both inspiring and moving.

But something else would also happen that evening in the hills. Reading with McClure was David Meltzer, whom I’d previously met once when he read at City Lights with Andrew and Micah Ballard. Meltzer had done the cover collage for Ballard’s book Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions, 2009), so it seemed fitting to add him to the bill, and he read a new poem called “When I Was a Poet.” A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers
to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low-key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

Ferlinghetti was out of town when Meltzer read at City Lights. But when I arrived at the reading in the hills, there was Lawrence! I say “!” because I’ve never just bumped into him at a reading before, in Berkeley to boot. At the time, besides editing for City Lights, I was also working as his assistant, so naturally I never knew where he’d be. The reading was actually an opening for a sculpture show by Amy Evans McClure, in a small art gallery attached to a large
house whose owners are Lawrence’s friends, so he decided to make the scene. Clearly some stars aligned that night. Meltzer again ended his set with “When I Was a Poet,” wowing the packed audience. After the reading, I made my way over to Lawrence. He seemed excited.

“What’d you think?” I asked.

“That was an extraordinary poem!” Lawrence said with decision. “We should publish it!” He paused a moment, then almost sheepishly added: “Ask him if it’s available.” Though Meltzer was only a few yards away, Lawrence is actually a little shy—back in 1955, when he caught the first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, he sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day asking to see the MS—so his reticence here was hardly surprising. As I slipped through the crowd
over to Meltzer, two thoughts occupied me: 1) This is so fucking cool—it’s like “Howl”; 2) A big shot like Meltzer must have books in the works, so someone’s probably already claimed the poem. As it turned out, however, Meltzer and his poem were both available, and pleased to be asked. As it also turned out, the most recent volume in the Pocket Poets series was #59. Wouldn’t Meltzer make a good #60?

“Yes,” said Lawrence.

Yes!

The scene is everything—we get people’s names, addresses, books, presses—and the poem, raved about, is not even worth quoting.  Not a line of the poem, but there’s time for a cool reference to a long Blonde On Blonde song and a jazz artist. (It’s Lennie, not Lenny, Tristano, by the way.)

“A short long poem—the best kind” it seems, but the “best,” how short, or long, is it?  A car alarm is always too “long,” so if we were to say a “short long car alarm—the best kind,” it would have no meaning.  Since we haven’t the faintest idea of how good the poem is, the reader has no appreciation of “short long,” unless we mean Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” but that work of Poe’s considered a famous poem, “The Raven.”  “When I Was A Poet” is unquoted and unknown.  Beat culture has that tendency to have no real poems,  short, long, or short long; the Beats’ most famous poem, “Howl” is boring half-the-way-through, (can anyone quote the last two-thirds of that poem?) but no matter, the scene around the poem is all we need.  The 1955 Gallery Six reading—which of course gets a nod by Caples—a handful of drunks nodding off in a little room—is now mythic, even though an obscenity trial and Look magazine put “Howl” on the map, not any actual utterance of its inanities in public.  But the subject of Caples’ piece is a poetry reading and the discovery of a “short long poem,” not Main Street v. Obscenity—so rose-colored Gallery Six it is.

Caples’ ecstatic “Yes!” at the end of his piece reminds me of John Lennon climbing the ladder of Yoko Ono’s art exhibit in London, before they were a couple, and finding the tiny word ‘Yes’ written on the ceiling.  A 1960s icon died at that moment.  Had only the ceiling said, “No.” Then the 1960s might not have turned back into an even more stupid 1950s, disguised as the 1970s.  From the moment John was inspired by that “Yes,” it was only a matter of months before the song-writing Beatle genius with wife and son and twenty-five number one hits, would transform into the self-pitying junky of the Plastic Ono band, with one number one hit left in him, a song performed with Elton John.

Yes. 

After landing John, Yoko, the artist, would surround herself with yes-men; sadly for all mankind, one of her yes-men turned out to be John himself—as it began with a yes, continued with heroin, and fizzled into May Pang and LA benders, finally dying in the mawkishness of “Starting Over.”  Starting over?  In a self-imposed prison with Yoko?

Caples positively revels in the positive, yes yes yes “so fucking cool” vibe of the hipster clique—the rule is: ‘yes, yes, and always yes, while sitting in the circle of the clique.’  Everything revolves around good vibes and friends, all poets, and every poem written and read is magic.

Here, again, is the description of the Beat poet, the Beat Maestro, the Beat WCW, the Beat Dylan, and the Beat poem with lines that “feel almost unwritten:”

A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

And now, without further ado, we quote the first portion of the poem itself:

When I Was A Poet

When I was a Poet
I had no doubt
knew the Ins & Outs of
All & Everything
lettered
in-worded
each syllable
seed stuck to
a letter
formed a word
a world

When I was a Poet
the World was
a cluster of Words
splattered upon white space

When I was a Poet
I knew even what I didn’t
I thought I knew the Game
whereas the Game knew me
played me like an ocarina

When I was a Poet
I was an Acrobat
a Tightrope Walker
keeping balance
in my slippers
on a wire above
Grand Canyon
Inferno
Vertigo

Oh I did prance
the death-defying dance
whereas now
death defines each second
of awaking

When I was a Poet
everyone I knew
were Poets too
& we’d gather at spots
Poets & Others
met at & yes
questions yes
w/out pause
w/ no Answer

Ultimates
certainly
Absolutes
absolutely
but otherwise
Nada
Zilch
great Empty
blank page
blank stare
into the core of it All

When I was a Poet
Willie Nelson
was back to back w/
Paul Celan
side by side
on the Trail of Tears

—from David Meltzer’s “When I Was A Poet,” published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

This poem, with its childish platitudes and hammy beats, was a showstopper?

I guess you had to be there.

KEEP ON REMEMBERING: 3 POEMS BY GARY B. FITZGERALD

 
Memorial Day
 
Rather, we should, than gather
in rainy cemeteries to remember,
have dances and dinners in halls
with the pictures of those we loved
now gone
hung upon the walls.
 
We should sing and laugh and make merry,
celebrate their living and the joy
they gave us in their lives
before their most courageous
sacrifice,
which is why, after all,  we have gathered
in this soggy graveyard.
 
 
Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald
 
 
 
      Natchez National Cemetery
 
 
Thin sticks of white stone standing
like soldiers in columns and rows
across a hundred horizontal green acres.
A wide plain of vertical markers spread
as far as the eye can see, like first snow
on fallow fields, bright and cold.
The ranks stand together at attention,
once all so different, now all the same,
each like the other but for the cut of a name,
the date of a death and a birth,
stabbed like the swords of the fallen
in the heart of the earth.
All so alone. All so dead.
 
Ironic, my brother, the soldier,
here standing and sleeping as well.
So different than any and better than most,
sang in the choir and prayed to the Host,
crossed himself twice for the Holy Ghost,
now immortalized here so exactly
by a pale, rectangular rock post,
like all of the others but for the cut of a name.
He also alone and so dead.
 
 
Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems. Gary B. Fitzgerald
 
 
 
 
                       Hardwood
 
 
I rise each day and find these trees
stand exactly where they did the day before,
stood unafraid in a darkened wood
through the cold and empty hours
to welcome in a new day’s pearly light.
But each day, it seems, I also find another
who has ventured past that unseen door,
has left us, we can only pray,
for something good and something more
and something less than standing through the night.
 
Proud these trees stood still when we returned
from the solemn procession and burial,
on a day of tears and a last goodbye, of dying flowers,
the lifting of a polished hardwood casket.
And though weary when returning from the funeral,
I take time tonight to walk beside the wood
and of these hardwood trees and life I ask it:
where stand and how grow until the day it’s I
who, dressed in hardwood, awaits a morning bright?
 
 
Copyright 2008 – HARDWOOD-77 Poems. Gary B. Fitzgerald

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