THE CHAMPIONSHIP: MARILYN CHIN V. BEN MAZER

 
A mid-summer evening as Scarriet’s March Madness finally draws to a close.
 
West coast poet Marilyn Chin and east coast poet Ben Mazer clash in the championship game of Scarriet March Madness 2012. 
 
64 poets, and we are now down to two.
 
In 2010 and 2011 (this is our third annual tournament) a poet and his or her one chosen poem battled to the top, but this year a poet used a new poem in every contest, so it becomes a question of: well, poet, how many great poems have you got? 
 
In our first year, using Lehman’s BAP, a Billy Collins poem won it all, a playful take on a Wordsworth trope, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey”—the title itself sums up David Lehman, Billy Collins, and cheerfully post-modern, late 20th century poetry.  In year two, using an APR anthology, Larkin’s “Aubade” swept to the title: a dead English poet’s rueful, fearful, honest, atheistic, speculation on death. 
 
This year we used Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry, the book with a lot of black poets and ‘traditional,’ Iowa workshop, free verse lyrics.  Marilyn Chin is in Dove’s anthology; Ben Mazer is one of a handful of poets not in the anthology—the Scarriet selection process is too complicated to explain.
 
Mazer has emerged as a new Ashbery, an Ashbery not ashamed of running, hat flying off, down Romanticism Lane—which is refreshing, since every last bit of Modernist poetry for at least 100 years has been a rejection of anything resembling Romantic poetry, or Tennyson, or anything Byronic.  We sometimes wonder: what do they mean when they say Writer’s Workshop poems are all the same?  They are not the same—they are clearly free, and different.  But they are the same in this: they eschew Shelley and Byron and Keats. Workshop poems might be a little like Wordsworth—because Wordsworth, well, he genuinely liked trees.  But the sublime of Keats, Byron, Shelley?  Not allowed.  The New Critics, supposedly ‘conservative,’ wrote in tremendous opposition to the Romantics, as did T.S. Eliot and Pound and Williams, and this is really what Modernism felt obligated to do—even more important than the poetry that it did write, was the poetry it didn’t.  Modernism didn’t write on modern subjects, necessarily; its ‘experiments’ were finally wan or cute, when they were not lengthy & unread; it didn’t distinguish itself in any manner at all with the public—except to retire from its notice with a shrug and a smirking apology.  The modern poems of Frost, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Auden, Jarrell, and Larkin that did make a dent on the public all sounded like Tennyson, or maybe Tennyson’s anti-war, younger brother.
 
If poetry is a language, that some people speak and some do not, the only difference between English and French or Italian or Japanese or Arabic and poetry is that poetry is 1) easier to learn and 2) is characterized by sounding good. Since Tennyson sounds good, this is how we know the language known as poetry.  We speak poetry because our speech is good, not because we know the meanings of French words.  Speech is good as speech, not as individual words or isolated debating points—sustained good speech is the simplest and most accurate definition of good poetry. 
 
This is what Keats meant when he said you dive into a lake for the sensual experience, not to ‘work out the lake.’  Poetry isn’t a banner waving; it is swimming in a lake.  It is intellectualization sensualized.  Theory walks along the edges of the lake; the water or the swimming is not for theory.  Theory needs to know its place.  ‘Conceptual’ art is art infected with the dried-up-lake of theory.
 
Women poets are more susceptible to theory and banner-waving these days out of an inferiority complex thrust upon them by the men, which is too bad.  Women are being led astray by modern experiments.
 
Marilyn Chin is somewhat immune to theory, for she has history and wit. 
 
We offer this as her poem, and following that, Mazer’s.
 
Who immerses themselves in the lake?  Who gives us the lake?
 
The poet who gets us soaking wet will win. 
 
 

THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING

 War chariots thunder, horses neigh, the barbarians are coming. 
 
What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall,
    the barbarians are coming. 
 
They have heard about a weakened link in the wall.
    So, the barbarians have ears among us. 
 
 So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman,
    holding one broken brick in the wall. 
 
So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter,
    that brick and that wall.

The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless
with a top knot.

The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers,
    teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other.

The barbarians are coming:
    If you call me a horse, I must be a horse.
    If you call me a bison, I am equally as guilty.

When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles
    the blame by not admitting it: so, Chuangtzu, himself,
    was a barbarian king!

Horse, horse, bison, bison, the barbarians are coming

and how they love to come.
The smells of the great frontier exalt in them!

 

  

Crisping the Comedian C

 
And with my sword cane I rapped the dog on its head.
To its master I said:
“The soul’s expanding to make room for you
among the piles of rusted bric a brac
that make men grimace, revile themselves in church. . .
I felt the ground beneath begin to lurch,
increased my laughter with its rolling waves
laughter increase. . .
as he lunged forward trying to save himself. . .
I was an honest man. What could I do?
I pushed him forward where the great vacuum grew
and marvelled as he fell. . .
into the silence of the pits of hell.
“That’s one less editorial to write,”
I thought, and blinkered to recall the light,
and blinkered to recall the blight. . .
the scourge of man. . .
I like to help them any way I can.
In my emotions not a thought of man. . .
but that his docile sudden-widowed wife
might serve the lord. . .
replace, with some improvements in accord
with justice and increase, a missing life. . .
I dyed my hair.
A most enticing shade of emerald green,
and knowing the precise dimensions of her lair,
(and its location)
I took me there. . .
in search of satisfaction, and a queen.
She was the best damned thing I’d ever seen.
I smiled to mechanize my spotless luck.
As we proceeded. . .
no human call we heeded. . .
I do not think that men will speak to me.
But wider, wider, like a churning sea
of foaming lavender and sapphire green
I met my match. . .
How can the blameless blame me for my snatch?
I laughed to see
that God had spread his vistas out for me,
his servant lord,
no matter how much I murdered or I whored. . .
I was quite sane.
And turned to mark my profile in a pane
of ice that served my child-bride for a heart. . .
She promised a new start. . .
and I was wondrous, seeing how I’d changed;
the souls of men were cobbled there and ranged
across the germ of my experiment. . .
But at the crack of dawn these visions went,
and I was back among the human race;
answering servants in my modern palace. . .
though one thought, ordinary, flamed and flitted
of how my research proofed that I had fitted. . .
and I was not incognizant of place. . .
answering letters in unbridled solace. . .
an evening like a fortnight had them piled
and crumpled on my desk. . .
Although I cannot, I afford a smile. . .
and set out half a mile. . .
My soul was stirred, and hungered to be reviled,
revived and furnished. . .
where the creature’s dignity was burnished
on all she touched. . .
I bowed my head. My emerald locks she brushed. . .
grew wiry and strange…
yes, in that glass I recognized a change
of heart. She wept and promised a new start. . .
But how can I begin. . .
A child sees vistas in the hammering rain,
and does not ask if everything’s the same. . .
one night I fell. . .
and nothing shall restore me to His Grace.
Yet in its infancy the new-born face
is pocked and filed. . .
and strangely familiar. Something in me smiled.
It’s hard to find a perfect spot of shade. . .
Life is the best thing that I ever made. . .
 
The Mazer poem is uncanny. 
 
The Chin poem is attempting to be uncanny.  Marilyn Chin’s poem keeps waking from its dream—what did I mean by horse?  By Bison?
 
Mazer’s poem does not allow us to wake from its dream.
 
*
 
*
 
*
 
Mazer 90 Chin 81
 

BEN MAZER IS THE 2012 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS CHAMPION!!

6 Comments

  1. noochinator said,

    July 22, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Wordsworth as a ‘Green’,
    Yes, it’s so clear!
    Do those in the Green movement
    Hold his name dear?

  2. noochinator said,

    July 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Here’s a link to the winning poem—
    Clear the stage, avaunt!
    I placed it here because I liketh
    Not the Scarriet font:

    http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-amazing-mazer-new-poem-by-ben-mazer.html

  3. bill said,

    July 25, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks for hosting this great tournament, Tom. What happened to Marla, did she make an inappropriate joke and get canned by management?

    Starting from an anthology gives you a good anchor in the marketplace. Maybe next year it should be open to all comers: start with the best 64 poems that are nominated by your readers. A reader can nominate up to 10 poems, 100 lines total max.

    You’ve put a huge amount of work in this and turned out a lot of worthwhile criticism, as well as occasionally introducing good poems.

    Thanks again. Can’t wait till next season!

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      Hi Bill,

      You’re very welcome!!

      I think we are going to use a somewhat informal reader nomination process next year. I already have heard in private from respected sources saying, “Why not this poet and that poet?” I’m not sure if we should use living poets only or not. I think it’s more fun to use living poets, but then contests between the living and the dead do have their interest, I suppose.

      It’s amazing how many poetry anthologies are published. I just saw a new hefty 20th poetry anthology which arranges the poems by each year of the century, so it allows you to track the century’s ‘progress’ year by year. I found that kind of interesting.

      Tom

  4. Anonymous said,

    August 4, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Isn’t it disingenuous that the winner of the tournament is a friend and long-time acquaintance of the editor?

    I guess the foets haven’t gone anywhere… they’re all on Scarriet now.

    Tom Graves = Jorie Graham

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm

      Anonymous,

      Scarriet’s March Madness is far more transparent than what Jorie Graham did.

      One can see the poems that are up against each other and I justify the winners in plain sight. One can trace the path the winner took, and the winner is not getting a cash prize or a book publication. The Scarriet competition itself and the sharing of poems is what is most important, not the winners, though the winners in my presentation hopefully shed pedagogical light. Scarriet shares knowledge of poetry and this is all March Madness is meant to be.

      Poets who submit to a Jorie Graham judged contest simply have their poems rejected without anyone seeing them, and without knowing that Graham is (in the most famous instant) the winner’s lover.

      Mazer and I have never been friends—we ran into each other many years ago and I know of him, but we don’t hang out.

      I really do like his poetry, and since we are now friendly because of March Madness, I would never sign on to judge his work in a poetry contest—because that’s different; his peers would be paying admission fees, etc

      Also, the poets Ben ‘defeated’ were Ashbery, Heaney, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, and Marilyn Chin—Ben did not roll over any young unknown hopeful, and even if he did, the young hopeful would see his work in print and would see the battle take place live and with commentary.

      Next year the contest will have poets that are nominated by our readers, so you, for instance, may nominate any number of poets, and if they are good, they may win. And if they don’t win, they will still have a poem in the game and get a critical reaction to their poem.

      I do appreciate your feedback. Foetry is something we always have to keep our eye on. Your point may be legitimate.

      The foetry issue was always about talking about it and making it known without getting all freaked out about it and defensive. I really was struck by Mazer’s poetry as I read it as March Madness proceeded; I never pre-planned Mazer to win. Much of it had to do with my judgment of the poets he played—I was rather disappointed by Ashbery’s “Portrait in A Convex Mirror,” for instance, and I said why.

      Tom


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