THE SANE FACE OF INSANITY: THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY, PART II

Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—”realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist--ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.’”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

Yes.

If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.

SETH ABRAMSON: HIS MFA RESEARCH & QUIXOTIC SUCKING-UP TO THE AVANT GARDE

Allen Tate: radical, avant-garde, anti-critic, and poet: one of the make-it-New-critics. 

Seth Abramson is following in Thomas Brady’s footsteps—Seth is trying to comprehend what I figured out a few years ago: the crucial Fugitive/Southern Agrarian/New Critic role in modern American poetry, especially in the Creative Writing Program Industry, or, as it’s come to be known, the Program Era.

Seth commented on our blog last week and we are quoted on his blog in “There’s A War On in American Poetry (Part II): Were the New Critics the Original MFA-Killers?” July 8, 2012:

I saw a textbook example of the confusion over the role of the New Criticism in the advent of “creative writing” just yesterday, in a mini-essay on a poetry discussion blog. Someone wrote, on that blog, that “[t]he New Critics–who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee–hatched the Creative Writing Industry.” The first part is, of course, true: the New Critics were the “next phase” of the Southern Agrarian group. The second part is entirely a fiction. Not only does the historical evidence reveal no association between the New Critics and the Program Era, it also strongly suggests that the New Critics were aspiring MFA-killers many, many years before their ideological cousins, the avant-garde, attempted the same feat. 

Seth doesn’t want to believe the New Critics were associated with the Program Era.

The reason is simple, and Seth’s agenda, despite the great research he’s doing, is very transparent.

Seth wants to be one of the cool kids.

He wants his beloved MFA programs to be considered cool by the Avant-Garde.

As Seth sees it, the academy is not cool.  Nor are Southern Agrarian/New Critics. The New Critics are way not cool.

Seth would sleep with Marjorie Perloff before he would read one of John Crowe Ransom’s rhymes, or admit that Shelley was a genius and ought to be taught in the academy (shudder).

No, Seth wants nothing to do with classical learning or the Romantics or the New Critics.  Seth embraces the “free studio” Writers Workshop model in highly subsidized MFA programs where teachers humbly “get out of the way”and let fortunate and funded students “find themselves” among their comrades in hip,”radically democratic, non-academic”creative writing environments.

Seth’s dilemma in a nutshell: he’s for democracy and believes in the democracy of teaching poetry in the “free studio” atmosphere of funded MFA programs, but the avant-garde, which he loves, is not democratic, and never will be.  Both the avant-garde and the New Critics are elitist and Seth’s real agenda is to make the avant-garde more democratic.

Seth’s quixotic vision is admirable on the surface. He imagines poet millions trampling on professors, professionalization, elitism, priviledge, hierachy, and genius. As Seth sees it, the New Critics wanted to turn poets into professors.  (If one reads the New Critics, one sees this is not the case, at all.) The New Critics themselves didn’t start MFA programs; on the contrary, they wanted them killed. (This is not really true, either.  They may not have started MFA programs, but their surrogates did.  Iowa belonged to the Fugitive/Agrarian/New Critics—Paul Engle was one of them).

In Seth’s rush to be cool and to make Creative Writing and MFA programs seem cool to people like Marjorie Perloff, he’s been blinded by labels and categories.  (“Cool” is invariably fooled by over-reliance on false categories and labels.)

Seth’s two key distinctions are: One is either academic or not; one is either creative writing, or not.

Seth would have us believe that Paul Engle and Jorie Graham are not academics, or that someone with an MA or BA in English cannot be a “creative writer.”

In terms of history, Seth thinks that because none of the New Critics founded MFA programs, or because the New Critics served as Think Tank professors and textbook authors in the academy, this is proof they were hostile to MFA programs and Creative Writing, in general.

Now, Seth is correct that Creative Writing, per se, was never the ultimate goal of the New Critics.

The New Critics were highly influential businessmen—and their mission was simple: their own writing’s acceptance in the academy.  But their execution, one might say, was complex.  The New Critics were not really Critics, so much as Critic-bashers.  They crudely assaulted other methodologies—in order that they might impose their own, which was merely a grab-bag of outrageous rhetoric intended to bomb the enemy—the academy as it existed—into submission.  Read Allen Tate’s “Is Literary Criticism Possible?” and you’ll see exactly what we mean.  How did Tate answer his titular question? No, it’s not. Only poems are possible.  So much for the idea that the New Critics were more interested in Criticism and Hiearchy than in the flowering of new poems.

New Criticism’s rhetoric is the whole basis for the Creative Writing Workshop.

Here is the poet and prominent New Critic, one of the original Fugitive and Southern Agrarian members, Allen Tate, in that essay just mentioned:

There is no competition among poems. A good poem suggests the possibility of other poems equally good. But criticism is perpetually obsolescent and replaceable.

Is this not, in a nutshell, the philosophy of English and poetry in Higher Ed which has led us away from the rigorous teaching of classical learning right up to the Romantics and Poe, to the Brave New World, 20th century, freedom of the Creative Writing workshop?  It is, indeed.  Until Seth does a close reading of what the New Critics actually wrote, he should not be so certain that the New Critics had nothing to do with Creative Writing.

The New Critics need to be seen in both their narrower, self-interested context, as well as in their wider, historical context—as the American arm of Pound’s Euro-Modernists.  The men who came to be known as Fugitives, and then Southern Agrarians, and then New Critics, did not wake up each morning concerned with the categories which Seth Abramson has assigned overriding importance—but a hard look at what really occured in these individual’s lives will impact, or should impact, Seth’s research, nonetheless. Seth must certainly understand that we should let the material provide us with ideas, rather than imposing our ideas on the material.

Seth sees division of labor within a company and confuses it with that company’s supposed ideology.  He doesn’t understand the New Critics. But nobody really does.  We will clear that up.

The ground has to be softened up.  College administrators are simply not going to allow books of poetry to serve as the sole determination for undergraduate or advanced degree requirements overnight, or ever—no matter how attractive Seth, or students who hate to learn, find the idea. 

Teaching kids “creative writing” might be OK for some poets, but founding and administering and making it successful is the sort of dirty work the New Critics were not not interested in doing.  To effect a revolution in the academy requires “academicially conservative” creds.  Yahoos don’t effect changes in school curricula.  You need professors and theorists with an air of respectability—such as the New Critics, throwing off their quasi-racist Southern Agrarian robes, earned gradually over the years—to do that. 

This is a common error the avant-garde, or radical democrats, such as Seth, make: they believe stuffy or high-brow always means conservative. The New Critics’ conservative exterior was nothing more than a necessary front that allowed them to deconstruct the academy.

The New Critics, with their Confederate flags and gin, made very clear in learned essays written in the 30s, 40s and 50s, that they hated the academy as it then existed.  It was similar to the hatred Ezra Pound, for instance, had for it. 

To put it in really simple terms: the Modernist poets in the early 20th century were outsiders who wanted in.  In, if it couldn’t be popularity, was the Academy.  The simplicity of this—a certain group of ambitious poets and poet/critics who associated with one another in various ways, and who were outside, and wanted in—should not put us off.  In fact, ambition is the bouncing ball we should keep our eye on.  What else is more real?  Methodology?  School loans?  Academic professionalism? 

One doesn’t need to get into a lot of ideological claptrap or aesthetic theory to tell this story.  One doesn’t have to stop at a certain number of “Modernist poets” or worry about that label, or take it too seriously; it’s merely an historical handle.

We know the players: Ezra Pound, his colleague T.S. Eliot (father of New Criticsm), and so on and so on, with the various circles, connections, motives, and general aesthetic ideas.  We know the places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Harvard, Iowa.

The connections are not always easy to trace.

Just to take one example: Paul Engle, perhaps the most important player in Creative Writing, had Fugitive links.  He was awarded his Yale Younger in 1932 (which gave him an important credential or calling card at the time) by a member of Ransom’s Fugitive Circle for his Iowa Master’s thesis.  At this time the “New Critics” were still the “Southern Agrarians.”  As one can readily see, this gets complicated very quickly and such research, as Seth already knows, is not for the faint of heart.  Engle was also a  Rhodes Scholar and studied in England—like almost all of the Fugitive/Southern Agrarians.

Robert Lowell was the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster: Lowell’s psychiatrist was—another Fugitive!—and he sent Lowell from Harvard to the New Critics’ castle in Tennessee, where Lowell famously camped out on Allen Tate’s lawn.  Lowell studied with Ransom (and roomed with Jarrell) at Kenyon; Lowell and his famous name then became the first celebrity Workshop teacher at Iowa for Paul Engle. 

Seth is a sincere radical democrat and so the actions of a small band of ambitious poets is not going to impress him, I know.  But surely he needs to acknowledge that here the seeds of Creative Writing were being sown.  Origins are everything: the rest tends to arrive with a little shrewd administration.

Let’s look at a passage from New Critic and poet John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc.”  Read this carefully, and it is easy to see that “criticism” is not really this New Critic’s concern.  What Ransom is really interested in is “Contemporary Literature” (that is, poems written by himself and his friends like Allen Tate—well, this is natural, isn’t it?).  The enemy to the New Critics in all their writings were the English Professors lovingly protecting their historical periods—while ignoring the new writing.  This was the nut that had to be cracked.  Creative Writing—getting contemporary poets into the academy as teachers—was simply one practical way of doing that.  The New Critics pushed for the new writing against all sorts of already established criticism and scholarship—the New Critics, wearing their ‘scholarly, critical,’ respectable garb, were, in fact, soldiers for Pound, Williams, and the avant-garde. (Pound & Williams are both praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry (first ed. 1937) whereas Poe, for instance, is attacked.)  Listen to Ransom, without any evidence, making his grand pronouncements, and note the attack-dog method:

It is not anybody who can do criticism. And for example, the more eminent  (as historical scholar) the professor of English, the less apt he is to be able to write decent criticism, unless it is about another professor’s work of historical scholarship, in which case it is not literary criticism. The professor may not be without aesthetic judgments respecting an old work, especially if it is “in his period,” since it must often have been judged by authorities whom he respects. Confronted with a new work, I am afraid it is very rare that he finds anything particular to say. Contemporary criticism is not at all in the hands of those who direct the English studies. Contemporary literature, which is almost obliged to receive critical study if it receives any at all, since it is hardly capable of the usual historical commentary, is barely officialized as a proper field for serious study.

Here is contmporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?  They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods. So are their favorite pupils.

Note the awareness of succession—”so are their favorite pupils.”  The New Critics were in this for the long haul. Like any avant-garde, Ransom and the New Critics knew what they were up against: the historically-minded English Departments.  Ironically, it wasn’t criticism that motivated the New Critics; it was “contemporary literature” that motivated them, and criticism of it, criticism that should have been given to it—i.e., their writing and the writing of their friends—the whole Modernist, little magazine, avant-garde, unpopular, crew.

In this same essay, Ransom seeks to severely limit criticism as it had been practiced up until that time.  And recall the remarks of Tate quoted above. The New Critics, as conservative as their reputation was and is, were and are, in fact, far more New than Critic.  The New Critics were the tweedy American wing of Pound’s Avant-Garde Modernism.  Listen to Ransom again, attempting to curtail criticism. Note the attack on book reviewers, as well as professors of literature.  This is the angry voice of the avant-garde, begging to be included:

What is criticism? Easier to ask, What is criticism not? It is an act now notoriously arbitrary and undefined. We feel certain that the critical act is not one of those which the professors of literature habitually perform, and cause their students to perform. And it is our melancholy impression that it is not often cleanly performed in those loose compositions, by writers of perfectly indeterminate qualifications, that appear in print as reviews of books.

Professor Crane [ally of Ransom's at U. Chicago] excludes from criticism works of historical scholarship and of Neo-Humanism, but more exclusions are possible than that.  I should wish to exclude: 1.Personal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the art-work upon the critic as reader. …2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content taken out of the work.

Why exclude all these things? Ransom wants to destroy humanistic, critical scholarship.  This is transparently his goal, and for the aforementioned reason: the old gasbags in the English departments are failing to give contemporary (avant-garde) literature by people like Ezra Pound and Allen Tate, a chance.  To place so many restrictions on criticism, as Ransom does, is to leave it with nothing but a false objectivity (because all its tools have been taken away from it) and so it can do nothing but react blandly and favorably to the contemporary work, such as Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At a Station in the Metro,” which are highly praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry.

Isn’t this what Creative Writing does?  It throws out critical scholarship, historical scholarship, and virtually all teachable criticism in the name of indiscriminate “creativity” in a “free” environment.  The philosophical underpinnings, as well as the practical work being done by Rhodes Scholar Paul Engle at Iowa—the Mother Ship—come right from the Rhodes Scholar crew known as the New Critics. The English contribution (Richards, Leavis, Empson, Austin) will have to wait for another day.

Seth is correct that the New Critics were not interested in bringing an MFA program to every college in the country—that had nothing to do with their personal ambitions—but this doesn’t change the fact that the New Critics, for their own personal motives, created the philosophical model—which is a kooky one, since, let’s face it, teaching “creativity” by essentially not teaching it, by essentially not having any criticism, is just a kooky idea.

Much is made of creative writing teachers “getting out of the way” of their students.  Can you imagine Edgar Poe “getting out of the way,” if he were an instructor?  Of course he would not.  Poe was the original “genius” who believed anyone could be a “genius” with the proper method. He would have something to teach.  We can read Poe’s essays and know this.  The idea of a teacher “getting out of the way” is absurd, and feeds into the idea that students can magically “learn” by not being taught anything and grooving on Deweyesque “experience.”  This is not to say that there are times the teacher should know when to shut up, but teaching either occurs or it doesn’t, and if  it doesn’t, why do we need the pretence of any sort of “program” in the first place?  “Experience” can be had anywhere.  (Of course we know the answer: it becomes all about who gets credentialed, etc)

Historically, Seth has made much of the fact that Creative Writing really began at Harvard in the 1880s. But there’s no evidence that Harvard in the 1880s was a literary renaissance, as Seth implies. And why did it take so long for MFAs to arrive after the 1880s?  Seth trumpets the accomplishments of the Harvard Monthly during that period, but as Seth quotes the rival Harvard Advocate back then, it was just the “latest literary fad” which occupied the minds of the Monthly editors.  Seth insists that “creative writing” is, by nature, “radically democratic.”  But these are finally just labels. They don’t help us.  The New Critics are labeled “conservative.” This is not even close to the truth.

To say, as Seth does, that American poetry was in a woeful state in the late 19th century and needed Walt Whitman to rescue it, is mere opinion.  Little radical uprisings here and there do not a “Renaissance” make.  Whitman was a woeful prose writer who wrote a few inspired passages of poetry which the pre-Raphaelites admired—to make Walt Whitman a key pillar in the history of American Poetry and Creative Writing is quaint, at best.

Once again, Seth, is half-right.  Harvard in the late 19th century/early 20th century is crucial in following the development of Modernism in literature.  William James, who, with the help of nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, taught Gertrude Stein there.   T.S. Eliot went to school there.  George Santayana taught Wallace Stevens there. Wallace Stevens ran in the same circles as Allen Ginsberg’s poet father; Marianne Moore, who edited “The Dial” in the 20s; and William Carlos Williams. Stevens and Ransom traded essays praising each another.  The answer is not so much what as who.

This is the same old avant-garde story which crops up every decade or two: the pretentious and insistent carping at mainstream culture and literature due to jealousy and/or loose morals.  We see it at Harvard in the 1880s, we will see it with Pound, we will see it with Ransom/Tate. 

Seth tells us that the brightest at Harvard in the 1880s hated American literature as it then existed and turned their weary eyes to Europe.  Sound familar? 

Seth quotes Santayana (who will later reside comfortably in fascist Italy) from those golden days of Harvard in the 1880s, not only attacking “the polite and conventional American mind,” but uttering this bit of wisdom: “We poets at Harvard never read anything except our own compositions.” (!!)  Here, in the 1880s at Harvard, is the solopsism of the insular creative writing workshop mentality fully on display.

So perhaps Seth is onto something.

The problem with Seth’s radical ‘creative writing’ democracy is this.  He ends up winning the argument by saying: My response to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition is: a billion trillion poems!!  This comes out of Allen Tate’s radical formula: one good poem suggest another. and another. and another. and another.

You can’t teach a billion trillion poems.

MERWIN V. WALCOTT IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

W.S. Merwin, who just finished serving out his Poet Laureateship, was born in NYC.  But Scarriet put him in the South bracket because Merwin is associated with Robert Graves (early Fugitive) and with Princeton—where Southern Fugitive and Agrarian, Allen Tate, started one of the nation’s first Poetry workshop there in the early 40s.  The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry, and agrarianism, or environmentalism, for some odd reason, is tied up with the origins of the writing workshop industry: think of conservationist Wallace Stegner, the first Writing Workshop director in the west, and his student Wendell Berry, for instance.  Merwin has eco-creds and poet-creds galore, and Merwin has to be seen as part of this early agrarian movement.  When Merwin came of age as a poet in the 50s, the editor everyone worshiped was John Crowe Ransom, the leader of the agrarians/turned New Critics.  Berryman (at Princeton) and Lowell (a student of Ransom and Workshop teacher) were part of this clique, as well. Merwin’s friend Robert Graves preached psychodelic mushroom consumption when he was professor of Oxford in the 60s. American intellectual life and British hippie philosophy cohere in many ways, and Merwin is nothing if not a back-to-the-earth hippie.   The South/Midwest brackett was dominated by black poets this year, because Rita Dove put them in her Penguin anthology.  Now we have Merwin, the one white player in this division, trying to enter the Final Four and win the Midwest/South—against Derek Walcott, the Nobel poet of Caribbean lore.   If 19th century poetry featured introspection, beauty, and the sublime, 20th century poetry was mostly about nature, place and transience.

Walcott sings of the classical, but from the fringes, where his poetry bodies it as if it still exists.  The following is an excerpt from Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, and appears as it does in Dove’s anthology.  “Another River” is Merwin’s.

Good luck, gentleman.  One of you will advance to Scarriet’s 2012 Final Four.

from Omeros, Book VII

I sang of Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity—
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
Who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead, whose fist of iron

would do me a greater honour if it held on
to my casket’s oarlocks than mine lifting his own
when both anchors are lowered in the one island,

but now the idyll dies, the goblet is broken,
and rainwater trickles down the brown cheek of a jar
from the clay of Choiseul. So much left unspoken

by my chirping nib! And my earth-door lies ajar.
I lie wrapped in a flour-sack sail. The clods thud
on my rope-lowered canoe. Rasping shovels scrape

a dry rain of dirt on its hold, but turn your head
when the sea-almond rattles or the rust-leaved grape
from the shells of my unpharaonic pyramid

towards paper shredded by the wind and scattered
like white gulls that separate their names from the foam
and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog

that skitters from the wave-crash, then frown at his form
for swift second. In its earth-trough, my pirogue
with its brass-handled oarlocks is sailing. Not from

but with them, with Hector, with Maud in the rhythm
of her beds trowelled over, with a swirling log
lifting its mossed head from the swell; let the deep hymn

of the Caribbean continue my epilogue;
may waves remove their shawls as my mourners walk home
to their rusted villages, good shoes in one hand,

passing a boy who walked through the ignorant foam,
and saw a sail going out or else coming in,
and watched asterisks of rain puckering the sand.

ANOTHER RIVER

The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Both of these poems are enveloped in nature and celebrate nature, more so than even in the works of Wordsworth— who seems a man standing apart from nature, compared to the effusions of these two poets, who are washed away by the waves.

Walcott is a little more skilled in depicting nature and putting charm in his verses.  Merwin is plainer and writes almost with a hushed address, as if his voice were intentionally small and far away. 

Walcott 81 Merwin 77

DEREK WALCOTT MAKES THE FINAL FOUR!

A POEM IN HONOR OF WILLIAM LOGAN’S UPCOMING APPEARANCE AT THE SEWANEE WRITER’S CONFERENCE

The haunting image of Allen Tate—who is buried at Sewanee

SEWANEE

Though his poems today don’t rate,
You may see the ghost of Allen Tate,
Staring at you, with a muddy smile!
Speak Ransom’s ‘Amphibious Crocodile,’
To scare him—and if you’re still shaking,
Recite at the top of your voice, ‘Janet Waking.’
But if Pound should come around,
Begin your leave-taking.

The Southern Agrarians
Were exquisite contrarians
But Ezra Pound
Laughs underground,
Drifting through Sewanee, drifting through Sewanee.

And Edgar Allan Poe?
You don’t want to know
How Matthiessen tied him up
So long ago,
And Eliot killed him
With spear and bow.

—Scarriet Editors

JANET WAKING

Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother.
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, old Chucky!” she cried,
Running across the world upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

—John Crowe Ransom

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?

THE RAW AND THE COOKED: COOKED UP?

Insiders knew “cooked” meant electro-shock therapy and “raw,” the result.

Robert Lowell, in his acceptance speech for a major book award in 1960, welcomed the Beats to the party.  Poetry didn’t have to be written for the graduate seminar, Lowell said, it could be street-wise and accessible.  It didn’t have to rhyme—it could just talk.

Lowell was doing nothing, however, but furthering his own career.  He had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during WW II, and then won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for a book of bombastically formalized verse: a few good lines, but mostly trash.  Lowell was clearly a mediocrity, but he was a Lowell and he was a Beat before the Beats: iconoclastic, capricious, and mad.  Also, crazy.  And mad.

The ‘raw v. cooked’ formula was simply an acknowledgement on Lowell’s part that he was swinging from ‘cooked’ to ‘raw’ in his writing and he sensed that ‘raw’ had become sexier.

Nothing concerns a man in his 40s more than loss of sex appeal.  The womanizing southerner Allen Tate was very sexy to Robert LowellLowell walked away from WW II and walked away from his wife in a car wreck, but when Tate said Lowell couldn’t move in with him, Lowell pitched a tent in Tate’s yard and lived there for two months.  Tate was the American Pound: in the mid-20th century, Pulitzers, Bollingens, booze parties and new Writing Programs went through TateTate was the transatlantic star of the Euro and American wings of Pound’s modernist clique, praising the The Waste Land, starting up Princeton’s Writing Program where Merwin and Berryman established themselves, hosting Ford Madox Ford’s visit to the U.S, the Confederate to Lowell’s Union.  Lowell paid homage to Tate’s glinting poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” with his For the Union Dead. 

Lowell bumped into New Critics for most of his career: leaving Harvard to study with  Ransom at Kenyon, befriending Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana, besotted with Tate.  Lowell also taught at Iowa with Paul Engle. And then he’d teach Plath and Sexton.  The myth of Lowell sometimes makes us forget that he was basically a well-connected Workshop teacher created by the New Critics.

The “Confessional” label was given to Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal, which tremendously helped Lowell’s career.  This was part of Lowell’s ‘new sexy,’ the ‘raw’ establishing itself against the graduate seminar ‘cooked.’   It was simply another calculated move by the Pound clique to build a New Critical, rich-boy, mediocrity into a star.  In his NY Times obituary, Rosenthal is described the following way: “he had an affinity for the work of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.”  There they are: the four horsemen of Modernism.  The second phase of Modernism was insinuating itself (because ignored by the public) into the Academy and the Canon: these soldiers were Rosenthal, the New Critics, and Robert Lowell.

As for Lowell’s famous “Raw and Cooked” formula itself, it is without merit.  How, for instance, is Donald Hall or Louis Simpson in 1960 “cooked,” and not “raw?” Would the poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath be considered “cooked” or “raw?”   Plath was a student of the New Critics and dreamed of being accepted by the Kenyon Review. “Daddy” makes expert use of all sorts of formal devices, and yet it’s certainly a “raw” poem.  The Romantic poets were both “cooked” and “raw” in the ways Lowell was using those terms, primitive yet learned.  Lowell, however, was not astute enough to really know what he was saying; Lowell had no critical powers; his statement was merely self-promoting.

As we see in the following bit of history, whatever window there was quickly closed:

Seventeen years after his “raw” and “cooked” proclamation, Lowell did a joint reading with Allen Ginsberg at New York’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. The poets shared a podium—a hint that, in the interim, the battlelines had blurred. Gregory Corso rambunctiously heckled Lowell as he read his poem, “Ulysses and Circe.” “Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid,” Corso called out. Lowell responded with a quick “Point taken” and continued. “You treat us like a classroom,” Corso shouted. Lowell responded that he, in fact, was a teacher and tried to let it go at that. The event was shaping up like a lopsided showdown when Ginsberg finally stepped forward and proposed that the crowd collectively invite Corso to “shut up.” They did and Corso amicably exited, boots in hand, wife and baby at his side. To Lowell, the reading had turned into a veritable “happening.” In retrospect, it signaled a reprieve. The “raw” and the “cooked” were no longer warring, and the tribes needed new names.   –Tina Cane, Poets.Org

As this excerpt points out, the so-called “raw and cooked” in American poetry quickly blurred, and it is doubtful whether the actual division Lowell intended existed at all.

America had no critic of note in the 20th century. New Critic-connected Randall Jarrell, Lowell’s roommate at Kenyon, where Jarrell taught, was merely OK.  Eliot took his historical depth to Britain. Poe was insulted by the New Critics and stashed away in the cellar.  Brooks,  Penn Warren, Tate and Ransom had their day—but who reads them now?

It is no surprise, then, that one of America’s best-known 20th century critical pronouncements is weak, ambiguous, and ahistorical.

The change from 1960, when Lowell uttered the “raw and cooked”  formula, to 1977, when Ginsberg and Lowell read together, can best be summed up by looking at the difference between Lenny Bruce and George Carlin.  The former went to jail on obscenity charges in 1964, despite support at his trial from Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Allen Ginsberg, and died a broken man in 1966.  The latter became successful by using the same “dirty words” in a 1972 comedy album.

The “cooked” might refer to cooking up poetry prizes.

In the end, Lowell going for “raw” when he was “cooked” is just one more silly event in the chapter of Modernism.

“IF THEY HAVE SINNED NOBODY KNOWS” –W.B. YEATS

Until now. 

Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney-Lite, sins against good taste, and we, being in a frightfully bad mood, and deciding we don’t need the New Yorker, anyway, have decided to kick over a toadstool, or two.

It really isn’t poor little Dan Chiasson’s fault for putting Muldoon’s new book of poems on his Eleven Best Poetry Books of 2010 , published by Chiasson in the New Yorker.   Young Mr. Chiasson merely seeks to advance his career by pleasing his elders.   It’s just embarrassing that it had to be done so publically, and at the risk of  Chiasson never being trusted as a critic, again.  Muldoon, Chiasson’s senior poetry editor colleague at the revered New Yorker, should have had the good taste to nix himself from the list, whether Muldoon’s book is actually good, or not.  Perhaps as a result of this article, Chiasson (no, it would be more proper if it were Muldoon) will send us a copy so we can read it.

The bad taste shown in letting himself be included in Chiasson’s list, however, can easily be found in any old poem by Muldoon, for, like Heaney’s  poetry, which errs by being overly metaphorical,  Muldoon’s poetry is fraught by a related, but greater error: simple bad taste, where the poet cannot resist being continuously clever, despite spoiling all sense of keeping and decorum and beauty which enjoyable poetry demands.

When I say enjoyable, I mean enjoyable to others.  Unfortunately, Muldoon, in his rhapsodic solipsism, can’t tell the difference.

The garbling, the encoding, the slipping and slopping, the gestures to Joyce and Heaney, the making hay by using a dozen terms for hay, the errata that’s wrong, then right, then accidentally wrong, then accidentally right, then wrong again, is a mighty effort, the kind applauded by the type of critic who runs the show now, besotted with difficulty for difficulty’s sake: this critic would consider it heresy to ask: is it worth the reader’s effort to dig for this?

The reader?  What reader?  Po-biz, as everyone knows today, is a kleptocracy.

“You have not understood Muldoon, though, unless he perplexes you,” writes Richard Eder in a positive review in the Times of Poems 1968-1998; but since all writing that is bad—but which is taken as good— perplexes, we wonder if this is a good recommendation.  “His Mona Lisas frequently wear mustaches,” Eder tells us; but no, they always wear mustaches.

Sadly, many believe, when it comes to poetry, that the perplexing leads to a host of virtues; but this is not the case, except in the minds of poets like Paul Muldoon, who, as Poetry Professor both at Oxford and Princeton, has been in the unique position to exemplify this falsehood.   The New Critics were schooled at Oxford, and Allen Tate, Fugitive and New Critic, got one of the first Writing Programs in the country going at Princeton.   20th century Oxford is where language was shorn of ideal qualities and treated as a mundane act.  Language Poetry was born from this, as was the New Criticism, taking its lead from T.S. Eliot that poetry should be “difficult,” and from John Crowe Ransom, that poetry should not please, or spiritualize readers, but should rather be an academic study overseen by “professionals, not amateurs” and those “professionals” should be “professors.”  Gone, the Romantic poet with emotionally inspired readers.  Enter, professionalized perplexity.

Heaney pants after Eliot’s New Critical empire, and the Mossbawner makes perfectly complex New Critical poems out of country labors; Muldoon, too, funny in the tongue, is always properly bucolic in that third-world Irish way.

“Monarch and Milkweed” is one of Muldoon’s best-known poems, and often praised.   Richard Eder:

“This comes as close as Muldoon ever does to making the neck hair rise. (His tonsorial kinetics tend more to stimulative tugging and twisting.) And even here he expresses sorrow by distraction, by an inability to remember or grasp. His parents’ graves blur; he thinks of something else. Grief is its own inability; Muldoon gets us to feel both.”  —Richard Eder

And here’s the poem:

Monarch and Milkweed

As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
filled his mouth. It seemed as if he might smother.
Why should he be stricken
with grief, not for his mother and father,
but a woman slinking from the fur of a sea-otter
In Portland, Maine, or, yes, Portland, Oregon-
he could barely tell one from the other-

and why should he now savour
the tang of her, her little pickled gherkin,
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father?
He looked about. He remembered her palaver
on how both earth and sky would darken-
‘You could barely tell one from the other’-

while the Monarch butterflies passed over
in their milkweed-hunger: ‘A wing-beat, some reckon,
may trigger off the mother and father
of all storms, striking your Irish Cliffs of Moher
with the force of a hurricane.’
Then: ‘Milkweed and Monarch ‘invented’ each other.’

He looked about. Cow’s-parsley
in a samovar.
He’d mistaken his mother’s name, ‘Regan, ‘ for Anger’;
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
he could barely tell one from the other.

Paul Muldoon

But we feel the poem is spoiled when Muldoon inserts the idiomatic ‘mother of all storms’ into his ‘mother and father’ refrain.  He couldn’t resist this bit of cleverness, even in the face of a poignant elegy, and the poem, its bells and whistles of New Critical symbol and metaphor unable to save it, pays for his sin.

WITCH-HUNTING: IT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN IN SALEM

Byron and the Romantics (including Poe) were witches to the Moderns

“Today, many scholars see the witchcraft trials as a product of tensions in and around Salem. There was a strong divide between the town of Salem, a prosperous port town, and the village of Salem, which was a poorer farming town. The village of Salem formed its own congregation, and it was divided bitterly over the choice of minister, but eventually selected Samuel Parris, who was the choice of one prominent Salem clan, the Putnams. It was Parris’s daughter Betty and her cousin who first displayed the symptoms that were quickly labeled the result of witchcraft, and the girls were soon joined by one of the Putnam daughters, Ann. The Putnams were enthusiastic witch hunters, with Ann’s mother, also named Ann, accusing fellow townspeople as well. In general, people who were accused of witchcraft fell into two categories. Some were easy targets — they were old, social misfits, or generally unpopular. Others were upstanding citizens but their accusers had something to gain, either property or status, from the downfall of the people they accused.”  —The Writer’s Almanac, July 19, 2010

The ignorance and hostility towards the Romantics (also Poe) by Eliot and Pound are well-known, but the European Modernists’ allies in America, the influential Fugitive cum reactionary Southern Agrarians cum New Critics cum Engle/Tate/Ransom/Winters writing program industry pioneers had a royal disdain for the Romantics (sometimes with a soft spot for Wordsworth) as well.

In an essay published in 1938, poet, critic, and respected academic John Crowe Ransom, asserted that Byron, born exactly 100 years before Ransom, was an obsolete writer, as Mr. Crowe quoted Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”

“Thou,” “Ocean” in caps, and the exclamation point all prove Byron is a witch and cannot be trusted.

Ransom:

“A passage of Byron’s if sprung upon an unsuspecting modern would be immediately felt as ‘dating;’ it would be felt as something that did very well for those dark ages before the modern mind achieved its own disintegration and perfected its faculties serially.” 

Ransom could have quoted any number of Byron passages which sound strikingly modern, even today, if by ‘modern’ we mean, ‘good’ (hopefully it means something positive to Ransom) but here’s what Ransom in his essay selects for praise instead, from modern (and friendAllen Tate (beloved poet, read the world over):

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms; and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in his rotten skiff.

Allen Tate (d. 1979)

Stand back, Byron!  Here comes Allen Tate’s “rotten skiff!”

Byron, savaged by skiff-lover Ransom for being “dated,” was born 100 years before John Crowe Ransom—and 110 years before little Allen Tate.

Let’s put things in perspective: William Carlos Williams was born 127 years ago—and counting.

WC Williams is 27 % older to us now than Byron was to Ransom then.

Roll, thou Modernist Clique and your toadies, roll!

In any textbook or commentary plucked at random, one can read how the Romantics were rebels against the Enlightenment, how the Romantics rejected “ornament” and embraced “nature” and “common speech.”   

But this universal rhetoric is a lie, for Byron, Shelley, and Keats were not “nature poets.”  They did not embrace “plain speech.”  (Certainly not the “plain speech” of Allen Tate or the “nature” of John Crowe (Southern Agrarian) Ransom or the “plain idiocy” of William Carlos Williams and his friend Ezra Pound.)  The best of the Romantics saw Letters as a unity and they embraced the best of what had been written and thought before; Byron, Shelley and Keats, even when they sailed in “skiffs,” were not Manifesto-ists, defining themselves by how much they hated a previous age (Pope, for instance, who wrote some pretty nice nature poems).

But let us see…

who were the scholars who defined the Romantics as Manifesto-ists, as ‘nature poets,’ who rejected the past…

Ahh, it was the Modernists, who had everything to gain by playing by different rules—so they could concentrate study on themselves and the importance of their modernism—a trend which owed its existence to ignoring all those vices of the past, ignoring those evil Romantics.

THE MYTH OF QUIETISM

The School of Quietism, a coinage Professor Silliman partially ripped from Poe, supposedly represents the smug, reactionary mainstream, what Professor Bernstein, fresh out of Harvard (philosophy) used to call “Official Verse Culture.” 

The SoQ, to these professors and their followers, is the great nemesis to all progressive “movements,” avant-garde experimentation, modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist, flights, spiraling, downward into the lower regions of Creative Writing Workshop hell, where such texts as American Hybrid (Iowa, say “hello” to Brown!) greet the sad victim.

The binary of Quietism v. Avant-garde is an outrageous falsehood that would matter if there were still a pulse on the American poetry scene—last time we checked, there was none—so Scarriet will have to step in and pretend to care, for we do take a malevolent delight in stirring things up. 

The educated person seriously interested in pedagogy and history who studies the ethical, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical issues of American poetry cannot help but laugh at the notion that the American avant garde is “progressive.”  How is the American poetry avant-garde, in any of its forms, “progressive?”   One must be a complete ass to believe this.

The history of modernist poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, is not even faintly “progressive.”  To point fingers at some of these writers as “Quietists” misses the whole point; the label is without merit; it doesn’t matter which side of the radical line one is on.  The Quietist label of Silliman’s is pure mystification. 

A literature which is incoherent, incomprehensible, and not in the least amusing or interesting to anyone, except a few professors, is not “progressive.”   One cannot be “progressive” while befuddling and confusing the downtrodden, the middle class, and 99.9 % of the highly educated.

Even admirers of  The Red Wheel Barrow, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, the Maximus Poems, and LangPo admit these works are not improvements on the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they reflect a change of taste over time.

Progress requires improvement.

Yet “progressive” is automatically linked to every inanity which flies under the banner of  “manifesto” or “movement,”  save those asserted as “new,” such as the New Formalism, a milk-and-water attempt that is retrograde on account of its weak and pedantic nature. 

But so are avant-garde movements in American poetry retrograde,  and for precisely the same reason. 

The “progressive” nomenclature is a con, for no measurable “improvement” exists.  Decreasing accessibility, coherence, beauty, popularity, excitement, and literacy in Letters cannot, in any shape, excuse, or form, be termed “progressive.” 

What sort of “progress” can be asserted?  Material?  Scientific?  Social? 

No, no, and no.

So the next time you hear some avant clown referring to themselves as “progressive,” wag your finger at them and say, “No, no, no…”

Asinus asinum fricat.

“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Allen Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

 Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction are merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
.

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S. POETRY: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

1650 Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America: By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts published in London.

1773 Phillis Wheatley, a slave, publishes Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

1791 The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is published in Paris, in French.  Ben Franklin’s Autobiography appears in London, for the first time in English, two years later.   Had it been published in America, the Europeans would have laughed.  The American experiment isn’t going to last, anyway.

Franklin, the practical man, the scientist, and America’s true founding father, weighs in on poetry: it’s frivolous.

1794  Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey make plans to go to Pennsylvania in a communal living experiment, but their personalities clash and the plan is aborted.  Southey becomes British Poet Laureate twenty years later.

1803  William Blake, author of “America: A Prophecy” is accused of crying out “Damn the King!” in Sussex, England, narrowly escaping imprisonment for treason.

1815  George Ticknor, before becoming literature Chair at Harvard, travels to Europe for 4 years, spending 17 months in Germany.

1817  “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant appears in the North American Review.

1824  Byron dies in Greece.

1824  Lafayette, during tour of U.S, calls on Edgar Poe’s grandmother, revolutionary war veteran widow.

1832  Washington Irving edits London edition of William Cullen Bryant’s Poems to avoid politically offending British readers.

1835 Massachusetts senator and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier mobbed and stoned in Concord, New Hampshire.

1835  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appointed Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard.

1836  Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes 500 copies of Divinity School Address anonymously.  He will not publish another book for 6 years.

1838  Poe’s translated work begins appearing in Russia.

1843  Transcendentalist, Unitarian minister, Harvard Divinity School student Christopher Pearse Cranch marries the sister of T.S. Eliot’s Unitarian grandfather; dedicates Poems to Emerson, published in The Dial, a magazine edited by Margaret Fuller and Emerson; frequent visitor to Brook Farm.  Cranch is more musical and sensuous than Emerson; even Poe can tolerate him; Cranch’s poem “Enosis” pre-figures Baudelaire’s “Correspondences.”

T.S. Eliot’s family is deeply rooted in New England Unitarianism and Transcendentalism through Cranch and Emerson’s connection to his grandfather, Harvard Divinity graduate, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington U., St. Louis.

1845  Elizabeth Barrett writes Poe with news of “The Raven’s” popularity in England.  The poem appeared in a daily American newspaper and produced instant fame, though Poe’s reputation as a critic and leader of the Magazine Era was well-established.  During this period Poe coins “Heresy of the Didactic” and “A Long Poem Does Not Exist.”  In a review of Barrett’s 1840 volume of poems which led to Barrett’s fame before she met Robert Browning, Poe introduced his piece by saying he would not, as was typically done, review her work superficially because she was a woman.

1847  Ralph Waldo Emerson is in England, earning his living as an orator.

1848  Charles Baudelaire’s first translations of Poe appear in France.

1848  James Russell Lowell publishes “A Fable For Critics” anonymously.

1848 Female Poets of America, an anthology of poems by American women, is published by the powerful and influential anthologist, Rufus Griswold—who believes women naturally write a different kind of poetry.  Griswold’s earlier success, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842) contains 3 poems by Poe and 45 by Griswold’s friend, Charles Fenno Hoffman. In a review, Poe remarks that readers of anthologies buy them to see if they are in them.

1848  Poe publishes Eureka and the Rationale of Verse, exceptional works on the universe and verse.

1849 Edgar Poe is murdered in Baltimore; leading periodicals ignore strange circumstances of Poe’s death and one, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, hires Griswold (who signs his piece ‘Ludwig’) to take the occasion to attack the character of the poet.

1855 Griswold reviews Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and calls it a “mass of stupid filth.”  The hated Griswold, whose second “wife” was a man, also lets the world know in his review that Whitman is a homosexual.  Whitman later includes the Griswold review in one of his editions of Leaves.

1856  English Traits, extolling the English race and the English people, saying it was English “character” that vanquished India, is published in the U.S. and England, by poet and new age priest Ralph Waldo Emerson, as England waits for the inevitable Civil War to tear her rival, America, apart.

1859.  In a conversation with William Dean Howells, Emerson calls Hawthorne’s latest book “mush” and furiously calls Poe “the jingle man.”

1860  William Cullen Bryant introduces Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union; the poet advises the new president on his cabinet selection.

1867  First collection of African American “Slave Songs” published.

1883  “The New Colossus” is composed by Emma Lazarus; engraved on the Statue of Liberty, 1903

1883  Poems of Passion by Ella Wheeler Wilcox rejected by publisher on grounds of immorality.

1888 “Casey at the Bat” published anonymously. The author, Ernest Thayer, does not become known as the author of the poem until 1909.

1890  Emily Dickinson’s posthumous book published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson.  William Dean Howells gives it a good review, and it sells well.

1893  William James, Emerson’s godson, becomes Gertrude Stein’s influential professor at Harvard.

1897  Wallace Stevens enters Harvard, falling under the spell of William James, as well as George Santayana.

1904  Yone Noguchi publishes “Proposal to American Poets” as the Haiku and Imagism rage begins in the United States and Britain.

1910  John Crowe Ransom, Fugitive, Southern Agrarian, New Critic, takes a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

1910  John Lomax publishes “Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads.”

1912  Harriet Monroe founds Poetry magazine; in 1880s attended literary gatherings in New York with William Dean Howells and Richard Henry Stoddard (Poe biographer) and in 1890s met Whistler, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Aubrey BeardsleyEzra Pound is Poetry’s London editor.

1913  American Imagist poet H.D. marries British Imagist poet Richard Aldington.

1914  Ezra Pound works as Yeats‘ secretary in Sussex, England.

1915  Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology published.  Masters was law partner of Clarence Darrow.

1917  Robert Frost begins teaching at Amherst College.

1920  “The Sacred Wood” by T.S. Eliot, banker, London.

1921  Margaret Anderson’s Little Review loses court case and is declared obscene for publishing a portion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is banned in the United States.  Random House immediately tries to get the ban lifted in order to publish the work.

1922  T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land” awarded The Dial Prize.

1922  D.H Lawrence and Frieda stay with Mabel Dodge in Taos, New Mexico.

1923  Edna St. Vincent Millay wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1923  William Butler Yeats wins Nobel Prize for Literature

1924  Robert Frost wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1924  Ford Madox Ford founds the Transatlantic Review.   Stays with Allen Tate and Robert Lowell in his lengthy sojourn to America.

1924  Marianne Moore wins The Dial Prize; becomes editor of The Dial the next year.

1924  James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children opens.

1925  E.E. Cummings wins The Dial Prize.

1926  Yaddo Artist Colony opens

1927  Walt Whitman biography wins Pulitzer Prize

1930  “I’ll Take My Stand” published by Fugitive/Southern Agrarians and future New Critics, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allan Tate defend ways of the Old South.

1932  Paul Engle wins Yale Younger Poet Prize, judged by member of John Crowe Ransom’s Fugitive circle.  Engle, a prolific fundraiser, builds the Iowa Workshop into a Program Writing Empire.

1933  T.S. Eliot delivers his speech on “free-thinking jews” at the University of Virginia.

1934  “Is Verse A Dying Technique?” published by Edmund Wilson.

1936  New Directions founded by Harvard sophomore James Laughlin.

1937  Robert Lowell camps out in Allen Tate’s yard.  Lowell has left Harvard to study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College.

1938  First Edition of textbook Understanding Poetry by Fugitives Brooks and Warren, helps to canonize unread poets like Williams and Pound.

1938  Aldous Huxley moves to Hollywood.

1939  Allen Tate starts Writing Program at Princeton.

1939  W.H. Auden moves to the United States and earns living as college professor.

1940  Mark Van Doren is awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1943  Ezra Pound indicted for treason by the United States government.

1946  Wallace Stegner founds Stanford Writing Program.  Yvor Winters will teach Pinsky, Haas, Hall and Gunn.

1948  Pete Seeger, nephew of WW I poet Alan Seeger (“I Have A Rendevous With Death”) forms The Weavers, the first singer-songwriter ‘band’ in the rock era.

1948  T.S. Eliot wins Nobel Prize

1949  T.S. Eliot attacks Poe in From Poe To Valery

1949  Ezra Pound is awarded the Bollingen Prize.  The poet Robert Hillyer protests and Congress resolves its Library will no longer fund the award.  Hillyer accuses Paul Melon, T.S. Eliot and New Critics of a fascist conspiracy.

1950  William Carlos Williams wins first National Book Award for Poetry

1950  Gwendolyn Brooks wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1951  John Crowe Ransom is awarded the Bollingen.

1953  Dylan Thomas dies in New York City.

1954  Theodore Roethke wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1957  Allen Tate is awarded the Bollingen.

1957  “Howl” by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg triumphs in obscenity trial as the judge finds book “socially redeeming;” wins publicity in Time & Life.

1957  New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simspon, eds.

1959  Carl Sandburg wins Grammy for Best Performance – Documentary Or Spoken Word (Other Than Comedy) for his recording of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the New York Philharmonic.

1959  M.L Rosenthal coins the term “Confessional Poetry” in The Nation as he pays homage to Robert Lowell.

1960  New American Poetry 1945-1960, Donald Allen, editor.

1961  Yvor Winters is awarded the Bollingen.

1961  Denise Levertov becomes poetry editor of The Nation.

1961  Louis Untermeyer appointed Poet Laureate Consultant In Poetry To the Library of Congress (1961-63)

1962  Sylvia Plath takes her own life in London.

1964  John Crowe Ransom wins The National Book Award for Selected Poems.

1964  Keats biography by Jackson Bate wins Pulitzer.

1965  Horace Gregory is awarded the Bollingen.  Gregory had attacked the poetic reputation of Edna Millay.

1967  Anne Sexton wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1968  Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, directed by Zeffirelli, nominated for Best Picture by Hollywood.

1971  The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner published.  Kenner, a friend of William F. Buckley, Jr., saved Pound’s reputation with this work; Kenner also savaged the reputation of Edna Millay.

1971  W.S Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1972  John Berryman jumps to his death off bridge near University of Minnesota.

Berryman, the most “Romantic” of the New Critics (he was educated by them) is considered by far the best Workshop teacher by many prize-winning poets he taught, such as Phil Levine, Snodgrass, and Don Justice.  Berryman’s classes in the 50′s were filled with future prize-winners, not because he and his students were great, but because his students were on the ground-floor of the Writing Program era, the early, heady days of pyramid scheme mania—characterized by Berryman’s imbalanced, poetry-is-everything personality.

1972  Frank O’Hara wins National Book Award for Collected Poems

1975  Gary Snyder wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1976  Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s novel on Delmore Schwartz, wins Pulitzer.

1978  Language magazine, Bernstein & Andrews, begins 4 year run.  Bernstein studied J.L Austin’s brand of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ at Harvard.

1980  Helen Vendler wins National Book Critics Circle Award

1981 Seamus Heaney becomes Harvard visiting professor.

1981  Derek Walcott founds Boston Playwrights’ Theater at Boston University.

1981  Oscar Wilde biography by Ellman wins Pulitzer.

1982  Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems wins Pulitzer.

1984  Harold Bloom savagely attacks Poe in review of Poe’s Library of America works (2 vol) in New York Review of Books, repeating similar attacks by Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot.

1984  Marc Smith founds Slam Poetry in Chicago.

1984  Mary Oliver is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1986  Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a novel in verse, is published.

1987  The movie “Barfly” depicts life of Charles Bukowski.

1988  David Lehman’s Best American Poetry Series debuts with John Ashbery as first guest editor.  The first words of the first poem (by A.R. Ammons) in the Series are: William James.

1991  “Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is published in The Atlantic. According to the author, poetry has become an incestuous viper’s pit of academic hucksters.

1996  Jorie Graham wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1999  Peter Sacks wins Georgia Prize.

1999  Billy Collins signs 3-book, 6-figure deal with Random House.

2002  Ron Silliman’s Blog founded.

2002  Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club wins Pulitzer Prize.

2002  Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems published.

2004  Foetry.com founded by Alan Cordle. Shortly before his death, Robert Creeley defends his poetry colleagues on Foetry.com.

2004  Franz Wright wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005 Ted Kooser wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005  William Logan wins National Book Critics Circle Award

2006  Fulcrum No. 5 appears, featuring works of Landis Everson and his editor, Ben Mazer, also Eliot Weinberger, Glyn Maxwell, Joe Green, and Marjorie Perloff.

2007 Joan Houlihan dismisses Foetry.com as “losers” in a Poets & Writers letter. Defends the integrity of both Georgia and Tupelo, failing to mention Levine is her publisher and business partner.

2007  Paul Muldoon succeeds Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker.

2008 Poets & Writers bans Thomas Brady and Christopher Woodman from its Forum. The Academy of American Poetry On-Line Editor, Robin Beth Schaer, is shortlisted for the Snowbound Series prize by Tupelo at the same time as Poets.org bans Christopher Woodman for mentioning the P&W letter as well.

2009  The Program Era by Mark McGurl, published by Harvard University Press

2009  Following the mass banning of Alan Cordle, Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman from Harriet, the blog of The Poetry Foundation, a rival poetry site is formed: Scarriet.

“I GAVE UP EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING TO BE A POET” –FRANZ WRIGHT


James and Franz Wright, poets, and miserable sons-of-bitches.

“A Blessing” by James Wright is maudlin crap, perhaps the worst poem ever published.

The lust for horsies and the ‘break into blossom’ trope is embarrassing in the extreme.

“Northern Pike” is a close second: “we prayed for the muskrats”

“I am so happy.”    Good grief.

His football poem isn’t much better; “gallup terribly” is a trite way to describe the violence of football.  One can tell he’s just a nerdy observer.

“Their women cluck like starved pullets,/Dying for love.”  Lines like these are destined for the ash heap.

Don’t get me started on the treacly, self-pitying exploitation of George Doty, the executed killer.

What to do with James Wright, who is nothing more than smarmy Whitman-haiku?

[Note: No woman poet seeking entrance to the canon would be permitted to get away with Wright’s metaphorical slop.]

“Depressed by a book of bad poetry…”

“I have wasted my life.”

Yea.

The times (1972) were right for Whitman-haiku poetry, so James Wright’s Pulitzer is no surprise.  Plus, Wright was associated with a lot of big names: Roethke, Kunitz, Tate, Berryman, Bly.

Franz faced a difficulty as a poet.  His father was a name.  Say what you will about Whitman-haiku, his father did it well.

Franz seems to have genuinely admired his father’s poetry and made no attempt, as a poet, to get out from under his father’s shadow.

Junior poet looks up to senior poet and uses the same straight-forward, plain-speaking, self-obsessed, sentimentality of approach: Look, reader, here is my transparent chest; take a look at what I am feeling.  You might think I’d be sad—and good Lord, I have reason to be—but something about the inscrutability of the universe and my inner faith makes me happy.

Recently on Harriet, Franz Wright wrote the following, which Franz never should have written and which Harriet never should have published, and which we publish here because…oh, we forget why.

[Warning: Wright’s comment on Harriet does contain abusive language]

Henry–I have no opinion about your “work”, or the “work” of others like little Kent and the others you masturbate with. My suggestion to all of you is: give up everything for the art. Everything. Can you do that? I did it 35 years ago–do you think that might have something to do with what you little whiners call “being on the inside”? I am not on the inside of shit. I gave up everything, everything, to be a poet. I lived in financial terror and homelessness, sometimes, for nearly 40 years. Can you do that? You little whining babies. Franz Wright, 12/20/2009 Blog:Harriet

Now, that’s poetry.

Granted, it’s hyperbolic to say you gave up everything to be a poet.  What does that even mean? No one wants to suffer, and to say in hindsight that you suffered for your art is arrogant, because even if you thought it were true, it can never be proven by anyone, anywhere, that the more outrageously you suffer, the better your art will be.   There’s no substance to such a “brag.”

But we love the balls of it.

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

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Paul Valery (top), Polonius & T.S. Eliot

The last 100 years have seen more pedantry in poetry than in any other age.

Remember when poetry as a topic brought out the best in thinkers?

Socrates may be a villain to many poets, but Platonic arguments are grand, necessary, and…poetic.

Horace and Aristotle laid groundwork so vital we can overlook their pedantic natures.

Dante’s Vita Nuova is without the pretence of pedantry.

Shakespeare, another enemy of pedantry, made it a popular trope: Rozencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius in one play alone.

Pope and Swift fought pedantry as a natural impulse.

Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Poe were against it in their souls.

Yeats, at his best, displayed a hatred of pedantry: “Old, learned respectable bald heads edit and annotate lines…”

These artists are practically defined by their opposition to pedantry.

Something went wrong in the 20th century, however, as Manifesto-ism became a way to get attention in a field of diminishing returns

Here’s Scarriet’s Top Ten Pedant List:

1. Yvor Winters

Claimed the formal is moral, while convincing himself that Allen Tate’s poetry was better than Shelley’s.

2.  Harold Bloom

A pedant’s pedant’s pedant.   Shakespeare’s great—OK, we get it.

3. Jacques Derrida

One part Nietszche, one part William James, one part Analytic Philosophy, one part New Criticism, one part absinthe.

4. Ezra Pound

“Make it new” is a very old pedantry.

5. Cleanth Brooks

Ransom and Warren kept him around to feel like geniuses by comparison.

6. T.S. Eliot

Hated Hamlet.   Afflicted with Dissociation of Verse Libre.

7. Allen Tate

Modernism’s Red-neck traveling salesman.

8. Helen Vendler

A drab sitting room with a Wallace Stevens poster.

9. Charles Bernstein

“Official Verse Culture” was in his own mind.

10. Paul Valery

Always too correct.  Proves the rule that Poe sounds better in French than modern French poetry sounds in English.

BONUS—11. Charles Olson

Take a deep breath.  And blow.

–T. Brady

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