100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

SCARRIET’S NEW HOT 1OO!!

1. John Ashbery –Still the most respected living U.S. poet
2. Billy Collins    –Still the most entertaining living U.S. poet
3. Kenneth Goldsmith  –Does the avant-garde still exist?
4. Stephen Burt  –Is Criticism respected anymore?
5. Marjorie Perloff   –Has avant-garde criticism any controversies left?
6. Helen Vendler  –the 21st century Pater
7. Harold Bloom  –the 21st century Emerson
8. Frank Bidart  –cooked until raw
9. Sharon Olds  –the honesty of woman
10. Robert Pinsky  –the 21st century Untermeyer
11. Paul Muldoon  –New Yorker poetry editor
12. David Lehman –Best American Poetry editor
13. Don Share  –Poetry magazine editor
14. Al Filreis  –Video Education Guru
15. Garrison Keillor  –Folksy Poetry Lives!
16. William Logan  –Knife Wielding Critic
17. Anne Carson –Brainy School
18. Ron Silliman –avant-fustian, necessary
19. Natasha Trethewey –Second term U.S. Poet Laureate
20. Kay Ryan –Cute School
21. Jorie Graham –Sky-Is-Falling School
22. Mary Oliver –21st century Wordsworth
23. Derek Walcott –21st century Southey
24. W.S. Merwin –21st century W.S. Merwin
25. Tony Hoagland –plain-talking hipster poetry
26. Philip Nikolayev –Fulcrum editor, Russian translation
27. Franz Wright –21st century John Clare
28. D.A. Powell –the quite good gay poet
29. Marilyn Chin –de Stael of Asian chick poetry
30. Charles Bernstein –Langwhich
31. David Orr –NYTimes Poetry reviewer
32. Rita Dove –anthologist who freaked out Vendler and Perloff
33. Erin Belieu –VIDA
34. Michael Robbins –”Where competency ends,” Ange Mlinko “begins”
35. Kevin  Young –Studied with Heaney
36. Ben Mazer  –Studied with Heaney
37. Ron Padget  –LA Times Book Prize
38. Lucie Brock-Broido –rococo
39. Louise Gluck –quiet confessionalism
40. Rosanna Warren  –Robert Penn Warren’s little girl
41. Christopher Ricks –professor at B.U.
42. Anis Shivani  –MFA smasher
43. Amy King –twist and shout
44. John Koethe –a philosopher poet
45. Carl Phillips  –teaches at the college founded by TS Eliot’s grandad.
46. Charles Simic –compares elegant checkmates in chess to elegant endings of poems…
47. Robert Bly –at Harvard with Rich, Koch, O’Hara, Hall, Ashbery…
48. Vanessa Place –avant-garde book of dollar bills
49. Dana Gioia –the essay that shamed us all…
50. Robert Hass –has a book, “20th century pleasures”
51. Simon Armitage –leading Brit
52. Frederick Seidel –controversial, 1962, first book prize
53. Cole Swensen –post-Language school
54. Matthew Dickman –works as a baker
55. James Tate –teaches at Amherst
56. Lyn Hejinian –”it is not imperfect to have died”
57. Eileen Myles –diary poetry
58. Geoffrey Hill –gnarled syntax
59. Paul Hoover –institutional ‘new’
60. Alfred Corn –Harold Bloom called him ‘visionary’
61. Rae Armantrout  –avant-garde, in brief
62. Terrance Hayes –began as a visual artist
63. Henri Cole –a Thom Gunn award winner
64. Seth Abramson –pro-MFA lawyer poet
65. Peter Gizzi –tenuous lyric
66. Mark McGurl –Program Era author
67. Janet Holmes –we can never remember how to spell Ahsahta…
68. George Bilgere –Billy Collins in waiting…
69. Matthew Zapruder –editor of Wave books
70. Ange Mlinko –see #34
71. Cate Marvin –VIDA, too
72. Maya Angelou –remember her?
73. Brenda Hillman –”Allow form.”
74. Galway Kinnell –why don’t these legends write tell-alls?
75. Dorothea Lasky –teaches at Columbia
76. Nikki Finney –”us giving us away”
77. Noah Eli Gordon –#34 called his work “simply dead.”
78. K. Silem Mohammed –was a featured writer for Blog Harriet
79. Ariana Reines –”I know that really beautiful women are never alone.”
80. Richard Wilbur –Old Man Rhyme
81. Rowan Ricardo Phillips –When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness
82. Garrick Davis –editor, Critical Flame
83. Alan Cordle –the foetry revolution!
84. J.D. McClatchy –Yale Review editor
85. Philip Levine –’Whitman of the industrial heartland’
86. Clive James –from down under
87. Robert Archambeau –his blog is Samizdat
88. Matthea Harvey –skittery queen?
89. Laura Kasischke –”not only the hysterical giggling of girls, but the trembling of the elderly”
90. Paul Legault –The Emily Dickinson “translations.”
91. Lynn Xu –Waste Land’s child
92. Laura Jensen –Donald Justice-era Iowa Workshop grad
93. CA Conrad –pop-inflected Bukowski
94. Jynne Martin –”Draw any beast by starting with a circle!”
95. Traci Brimhall –believes in The Next Big Thing
96. Adam Fitzgerald –amour de soi
97. Cyrus Cassells –Lambda Literary award winner
98. Richard Siken –”no one will ever want to sleep with you
99. Naomi Shihab Nye  –fights terrorism & prejudice
100. U.S. Dhuga –Battersea, baby!

 

A STONE’S THROW FROM TINTERN ABBEY

Professor Robert Archambeau.  Don’t be fooled by that knowing look.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” concerns neither childhood, loss, nor Tintern Abbey. The mistaken readings of this famous poem are so acute and widespread that it’s safe to say if you know nothing of the poem, the professor who has studied it knows a great deal less. In the case of “Tintern Abbey,” ignorance may not be bliss, but it is less ignorant.

Professor Robert Archambeau recently published an essay on “Tintern Abbey” on his respected literary blog, Samizdat, but he’s apparently writing on a different poem—one that exists in his own mind.

Tintern Abbey is nowhere in “Tintern Abbey,” whose full title is “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour: July 13, 1798.”

The abbey is a several miles away: out of sight and out of mind—it is not mentioned in the poem at all. Wordsworth is a Nature poet. It makes sense.  But here is Professor Archambeau in his “Tintern Abbey” essay:

For Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey was a haunted place— shrouded with past associations…

Here, the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child

When he sees the abbey now, he experiences it screened through thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience.

Wordsworth had his experiences at the dramatic ruins of an ancient abbey…

It would have seemed undignified and odd to locate significant experiences in a place as trivial as an old beat-up building…

The differences between the old abbey and the Tintin books…

Professor Archambeau has the building on his brain, and we can see it there in his mind’s eye as he writes. The trouble is, Wordsworth’s experience of the building doesn’t exist—it is mentioned in the title of the poem as a general marker (“a few miles above”) and that’s the end of it.

How is this possible? How can a man who is paid to teach literature get a short and very famous poem entirely wrong? Poe wrote a “thousand scholars are wrong—because they are a thousand.” Herd mentality promotes error—and keeps it going—like nothing else.

Archambeau not only gets the abbey wrong in his essay, putting Wordsworth in the middle of the abbey’s “dramatic ruins,” with its “past associations,” “thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience,” but professor Archambeau gets the whole thrust of the poem wrong.

He writes:  “the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child.”

Wordsworth never visited the abbey, or the scene of the poem, as a child.

Nor is Wordsworth’s poem about, as Archambeau tell us, “how Wordsworth came to understand what he’d lost in terms of childhood perception.”

This is not the poem’s message.

Archambeau is not alone.

Billy Collins perpetuates the misreading of the 1798 poem in his 1998 poem, “Lines Composed Over ThreeThousand Miles from Tintern Abbey,” in which Collins wittily glosses the commonly accepted theme of the poem:

I was here a long time ago/and now I am here again…But the feeling is always the same/It was better the first time…as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood/and mills around in a field of weeds

Collins, like Archambeau, thinks “Tintern Abbey” concerns loss of childhood’s sensory thrill—an adult awareness, by the adult speaker of the poem, of the loss. As Collins puts it, simply:

I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then…Something is always missing—/Swans, a glint on the surface of the lake

Archambeau says the same thing, slightly more elaborately, comparing Wordsworth’s “loss” to his own, as he, Archambeau, now reads “Tintin” as a grownup quickly for plot, though as a child he dreamed over intriguing details of the comic in a glowing, mystical, one-with-the-universe, ocean-of-feeling, sublime.

Collins’ poem is charming, Archambeau’s essay, due to its length, less so.

But the point is Collins, Archambeau, and experts galore continue to grossly misread the most famous poem in the canon.

Wordsworth was a Nature poet, and more, he was an environmentalist. And even more, Wordsworth was part of the great intellectual tide still washing over us—the secular, we-are-part-of-nature, not-Christian-subduers-of-it, tide.

In this poem, W. is out to convince us that Nature civilizes us and inspires us as adults. Nature makes us kinder and more human; Nature, W. wants us to see, is a meditative force for social good—not simply a haunt for restless adolescents, a tree-climbing adventure for thoughtless youth. “Tintern Abbey” is not about childhood loss. “Tintern Abbey” is about adult gain,  due to Nature’s gifts. “Tintern Abbey” attempts to make Nature sublimely healthy, social, and respectable in the eyes of grownup readers—at that time, a still unorthodox view.

“1798″ is in the title—Wordsworth was 27 when he wrote the poem. “Five years have past” is how the poem begins—Wordsworth’s sole previous visit to the banks of the Wye was when he was 23 (ending a phase of his life with French girlfriend and child).  Wordsworth is a 27 year old reflecting on his experience as a 23 year old—there are no childhood memories or impressions involved at all. Wordsworth’s childhood is referenced once, parenthetically, and dismissed: “(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days and their glad animal movements all gone by.)”

Nor is there any loss. Quite the contrary. Five years ago he was alone ; now with his sister, in the present, in the sublime occasion of the poem’s conclusion, W. gushes, not about how things are not as good now, but:

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her; tis her privilege, through all the years of this our life, to lead from joy to joy; for she can so inform the mind that is within us, so impress us with quietness and beauty and so feed with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men…shall e’re prevail against us…I, so long a worshiper of Nature, hither came, unwearied in that service; rather say with warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal of holier love.

Wordsworth, in the present, is “unwearied,” and feels “warmer love” and “deeper zeal.”

In addition, during the last five years, when he was away from the banks of the Wye, leading up to the present, the scene’s “forms of beauty” do this to him:

passing even into my purer mind with tranquil restoration feelings too of unremembered pleasure; such perhaps as may have had no trivial influence on that best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love…another gift, of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood in which the burden of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lighten’d—that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, until, the breath of the corporeal frame, and even the motion of our human blood, almost suspended, we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

This, the most powerful and sublime rhetoric of the poem, is reserved for how Wordsworth interacts with Nature now—not in youth or childhood.

Archambeau quotes one portion of the poem, the famous, “when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains” passage, in which W. makes some reference to how he has “changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first I came among these hills” (at 23, not as a child) and how “nature then…was all in all.”

But it is laughably wrong to think Wordsworth had previously been in some joyous youthful state of oneness with nature—for even in the passage Archambeau cites, W. says (of his former experience) he “bounded o’er mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, wherever nature led; more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.”

Flying from something you dread does not fit with misty, lost ideals of something sadly lost.

Immediately after the passage quoted by Archambeau, Wordsworth (now in the present) states “other gifts have followed, for such loss, I would believe, abundant recompense. For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth…”

Wordsworth presents his silent sister, Dorothy, as containing his past naive feelings—yet she’s only a year younger than Wordsworth.  Archambeau could have made something of this, in light of the male-dominated Tintin of his youth—but professor Archambeau was distracted, no doubt, by his bungled reading of “Tintern Abbey.”

CONCEPT OR THING?

Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

POEMS OF SCARY DEPTH: BILLY COLLINS SEEKS TO ADVANCE PAST LORD BYRON

Byron: hated by husbands and modern poets. Can Billy Collins match up with him?

The chief objection to the poet from the typical sports watching lay person is that the poet ‘makes shit up.’

Yup, the poet does ‘make shit up’ and this is why philosophers like Plato object to them and why citizens immersed in reality have no time for them.

The world is full of shit, and shit is what most people are busily involved in—it’s the making the poets supposedly do which arouses suspicion and distaste for poets, because first of all, only God and people who work with their hands can ‘make’ something, and secondly, anyone who ‘makes’ something with words has got to be suspicious right from the start.

Common sense keeps words docile and doesn’t let words do anything tricky; poetry, on the other hand, lets words do anything they want; why should someone who maybe doubts their ability to keep all words under control, never mind all word-combinations under control, trust poetry?

It’s not surprising that poetry doesn’t have a lot of fans.

One might object by asking: what of the fabulist, the fictioneer, the novelist, the TV or movie script-writer? They get more love than the poet. Why?  Don’t they make up stuff with words, too?

Unlike the poet, the strict story-teller uses reality’s language, even if fantasy or sci-fi is the genre: words behaving themselves can talk about anything, but poet’s words do not behave. Misbehaving words afflict the mind itself, transforming the reader into something they may not recognize about themselves. This is scary.

The reader needs to feel safe: they prefer moral instruction which keeps their own mind intact as a reality construct, receiving reality’s information. Keeping a ‘made-up story’ at arm’s length is safe. Having your mind invaded by tricky words is something totally different.

The predictability of genre, reviewing, reader feedback and the ‘best seller’ phenomenon is crucial: this is why readers choose books by genre, by reviews, by recommendation, and by what’s on the ‘best-seller’ list.  The moral arc of predictable story-telling comforts the reader. The brains of most readers cannot receive beauty in language; words simply tell them what they can understand, and this is all that reading is for them.

Poets don’t cooperate with this system, because words which don’t obey a certain moral-reality-paradigm literally alter one’s brain and one’s morals.  Not all poets can do this, of course, nor could most readers have their brains altered by what they read even if they tried; but this is the perception in terms of readers generally choosing what they like or do not like.

Two poets who have more fans than most are contemporary poet Billy Collins, and 19th century poet Lord Byron, who had celebrity status from his poetry.

Collins takes great pains to not sound like a traditional poet.

Selling books is like herding bovines. Large house editors and publishers, if they really wanted to, could make Byron’s Don Juan a best-seller again: it would just require a large enough advertising budget and a movie tie-in.

It is not in the interest of publishers to do so, however, since if the industry can sell millions of books written in the plain style of King or Steele or Grisham, why raise the bar, Byron being so much a better writer?  Why build a cathedral when a wooden church will do?

Byron (beautiful, smart, funny) is dutifully kept in his place by the publishing industry; first of all, to make sure no authors feel they have to write well (like Byron) to sell, and secondly, Byron today occupies a down-trodden, sub-sub-position even within wretched poetry which, since Byron’s death, has morphed into a ‘modern’ product of plain speech and easy-to-grasp morals—as part of fiction’s publishing strategy of ‘most efficient bovine herding.’

Byron doesn’t sell today on account of being one of those tricky poets who ‘make shit up,’ barred from the lay reader’s comprehension.

Not only that, however: Byron is not even respected among poets today as a poet, rejected by them precisely because he is comprehended.

During poetry’s transformation from pretty to plain during WW I—when poets who wrote prettily (Brooke, Thomas, Owen) were literally being slaughtered in the trenches—as poems became plain-spoken to fit in with mass living, a last-minute alteration occured: seeing poetry had nothing now to distinguish it from plain speech, in a calmly calculated effort to keep poetry as the ‘elite’ art form everyone understood poetry to be, poetry labeled itself “difficult,” so that in its new plain state at least it would not completely disappear.

The anglo-american poetry industry made a Faustian bargain: poetry will continue to exist as a “difficult” genre the lay person cannot trust—and this will be poetry’s sole (but vital) distinguishing characteristic. It would attract a small following of the mad, but at least it would still exist as what the mad groupies were sure was “poetry.”

Not everyone in Modernville was happy this happened, but it did. Exceptions, of course, exist. Poets, determined to be understood, have written easily understood poems: on wheel barrows. But once an industry criterion is established, it doesn’t easily go away: a wheel barrow in a poem has deep meaning whether it really does—or not.  This is the iron law.  It has long since been established as poetry’s trade-pamphlet reality: all poems are/ought to be “difficult,” even little ones about wheel barrows. 

Poetry—whether by Byron, or not—is not popular today because not being popular became poetry’s identifying marker when poetry self-consciously became ‘modern’ and jettisoned all its previous charms.

Again, exceptions exist; elements of the public yearn to reverse the Modernist Faustian Bargain, and popular poems do peep through the cement occasionally. But obscenity-trial “Howl” was an ugly flower; the public still mistrusts poetry; “difficulty” lingers on as poetry’s identifying elitist marker.

Byron (past) and Collins (present) are good examples of populist, anti-modernist poetry; they are welcome participants in Scarriet’s 2013 Madness Tournament.

Collins writes plainly; it is the equivalent of one approaching a doe in the woods: “It’s okay! Don’t be afraid! I won’t hurt you!”

“At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats,” is the first line of Collins’ Madness Tournament entry, “Passengers.” 

There is no meter, no rhyme; just one line after another, as if it were prose—but easier.

Gently the doe is offered food: “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.”

PASSENGERS–Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Collins does not ‘make shit up,’ he merely records his quirky ruminations—the charming thing about “Passengers” is that it exists as an actual document of someone thinking about something which he cannot share.

The very people Collins could share it with are not allowed to access his thoughts—and the reason it cannot be shared is the very reason for the poem itself.

The “police” are absent censors until the poem is liberated in front of us—who become the “passengers” of Collins’ poem.

Byron is represented with a random excerpt from his long poem, Don Juan:

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Byron is self-consciously rejecting old poetry with his jokey, “Hail, Muse! et cetera.”  Byron is more modern than many moderns would like to admit. Maybe it’s time to come out and admit that “Modern” is merely a brand. 

Byron, like Collins, also conveys the forbidden: love/sex/marriage advice: highly embarrassing to the public at large, which would prefer Byron to be a character in a novel, not a free-thinking poet speaking out in a poem as a thinly-veiled version of himself.

The chief fault with the Byron is the tone of lecturing, combined with the feeling that too much sweat is spilled for the sake of wit and rhyme that attempts to mitigate that same tone.  Otherwise, it’s just brilliant.

Collins, despite his prose, does use poetic language; note the assonance of: “some spaceless, pillarless Greece.”

One might say Collins and Byron are apples and oranges, but a winner there must be.

Collins 90, Byron 88.

Lord Byron goes down!

THE 2013 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS BRACKETS!!

Here they are!!

Competition will start immediately!

The four number one seeds: Goethe, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, no surprise there…

Let the Road to the Final Four begin!!

ROMANTICISM: OLD AND NEW

THE NORTH

1. HOLY LONGING-GOETHE
2. STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING-FROST
3. LESBIA LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE-CATULLUS
4. THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS-LARKIN
5. WHY SO PALE AND WAN FOND LOVER?-SUCKLING
6. MISS GEE-AUDEN
7. DELIGHT IN DISORDER-HERRICK
8. PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER-STEVENS
9. SONG: HOW SWEET I ROAMED-BLAKE
10. I KNEW A WOMAN-ROETHKE
11. A RED, RED ROSE-BURNS
12. SYRINGA-ASHBERY
13. EDEN-TRAHERNE
14. LINES-RIMBAUD
15. FOLLOW THY FAIR SUN-CAMPION
16. IN BERTRAM’S GARDEN-JUSTICE

THE SOUTH

1. ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE-KEATS
2. LADY LAZARUS-PLATH
3. WHOSO LIST TO HUNT-PETRARCH
4. L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE-BAUDELAIRE
5. AMORES I,V-OVID
6. A SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG-BJETEMAN
7. THE GARDEN-MARVELL
8. PRIMITIVE-OLDS
9. TANTO GENTILE-DANTE
10. THE GROUNDHOG-EBERHART
11. A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT-BARRETT
12. A COLOR OF THE SKY-HOAGLAND
13. ON THE BEACH AT CALAIS-WORDSWORTH
14. THE FISH-BISHOP
15. DORCHIA-POSEIDIPPUS
16. LITMUS TEST-NIKOLAYEV

THE WEST

1. THE CLOUD-SHELLEY
2. AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION-THOMAS
3. MARIANA-TENNYSON
4. AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE, BELOVED DUST-MILLAY
5. O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN-PROPERTIUS
6. I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO ARE TRULY GREAT-SPENDER
7. DON JUAN (FROM CANTO III)-BYRON
8. MEETING AT NIGHT-BROWNING
9. UNDER THE LINDENTREE-VOGELWEIDE
10. PASSENGERS-COLLINS
11. LA! MORT QUI T’A FAIT SI HARDIE-D’ ORLEANS
12. RIVER ROSES-LAWRENCE
13. ODE ON SOLITUDE-POPE
14. LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE-YEATS
15. SONG FOR ST. CECILIA’S DAY-DRYDEN
16. DOVER BEACH-ARNOLD

THE EAST

1. KUBLA KHAN-COLERIDGE
2. THE RAVEN-POE
3. WAS THIS THE FACE-MARLOWE
4. HYSTERIA-ELIOT
5. WHEN IN THE CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME-SHAKESPEARE
6. THE BLUE GIRLS-RANSOM
7. THE GOOD MORROW-DONNE
8. WORKING LATE-SIMPSON
9. LOVE-HERBERT
10. HERE AND NOW-DUNN
11. SINCE THERE’S NO HELP COME LET US KISS AND PART-DRAYTON
12. CYNARA-DOWSON
13. GOLDEN SAYINGS-NERVAL
14. WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY-HOUSMAN
15. BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN-ANONYMOUS
16. AT THE TABUKI KABUKI-MAZER

ANIS!! LEFT-WING HUFF POST CRITIC OF THE TWITTER AGE

Anis Shivani might be a bitter guy, but as a literary critic at the Huffington Post  he exemplifies the sort of high-brow hating which pleases like a good nerdy fuck.

Let’s say this much of criticism which pummells its subjects: it will always be closer to the truth. 

Think about your own life.  Really knowing your friends, your lovers, your spouses, your places of unemployment, are you not palpably aware of numerous flaws, faults, stupidities, culpabilities and insanities, and isn’t your intimate experience the reason for this—not because you happen to be mean? 

Criticism is—criticism.  Why shouldn’t we expect criticism to provide the insights of the inevitable flaws?  Sure, there are perfect poems here and there, perhaps a flawless short story, but when reviewing the corpus of a fashionable writer, life being what it is, there’s got to be let-downs, just as we are disappointed by our friends, our lovers, our jobs

Social decorum should keep us from attacking our personal relationships—but why shouldn’t we be honest regarding a book that wants out time and money? 

Anis Shivani is correct—both in his criticism and by what his criticism symbolizes: In Literary Criticism, the bland and cheery is always bad, always a lie.

Anis Shivani is correct—even as we disagree with him; disagreeing with him (he over-values High Modernism, for instance) is not the point, for Shivani’s whole impulse his correct, and his audience responds—people deeply want honest criticism, and despite what the status quo sometimes says, they shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting it.

We disagree with Shivani when he writes of Billy Collins’ work: “escapist denial of death is pervasive.”  Has Shivani read Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up comedy.”  We forgive Shivani, for this nice observation alone: “[Collins]poems have lately become mostly about writing poems–in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

We also like that Shivani is well-acquainted with all genres; there’s nothing we hate more than ghetto-izing and niche-ing.   In his recent The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, 7 are fiction writers, 6 are poets, and 2 are critics.

Shivani opens with a moral, common sense overview:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat–awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism–very desirable in this time of xenophobia–is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed “dangerous,” and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability–Marilynne Robinson, for example–to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

It’s hard to argue with his general points, and we like his pedagogical earnestness, too: “If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.”

Here are the summary observations on the 15, and Shivani is definitely a critic of the twitter age, as he packs each line with left-wing, moral outrage:

Ashbery: When reality = language (as his carping cousins the language poets, have it) politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can, and will step in.

Collins: Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian…

Cunningham: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages. 

Diaz: Replaces plot in stories and novels with pumped-up “voice.”

Foer: Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of the moment.

Gluck: Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.

Graham: Started off modestly, but with increasing official recognition, her abstractions, pseudo-philosophizing, self-importance, and centerless long lines have spun out of control.

Kakutani: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.

Lahiri: Utterly unwilling to write about any thing other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares and making easy adjustments to top of American meritocratic pyramid.

Nelson: Workshop writing, dysfunctionality is thy name, and there is no better writer to learn family dysfunction from…

Oliver: A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany.

Olds: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession…

Tan: Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.

Vendler: Zero poetic feeling…has never uttered one original insight…

Vollmann: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism.

It does not matter, for instance, that we feel Sharon Olds has written some moving poems: Anis Shivani is entitled to his opinion of Olds’ poetry—and if that’s how he feels about it, he should be allowed to utter it, and everyone should be encouraged to be that opinionated—if only to combat the reverse condition: the true literary nightmare of know-nothing politeness.

A POEM’S LANGUAGE IS—LANGUAGE

Tony Hoagland: A Quietist.  But always starting trouble!

A Tony Hoagland “mic-grabbing” tantrum (?) at AWP Boston in the  name of accessible poetry against obscure, academic, show-off poetry has proven to be a lightning rod on John Gallaher’s blog, which has been moving slowly for months. Peter Campion, an LA Times poetry critic, locked horns with Hoagland on that AWP panel, and made an appearance on Gallaher’s thread.

Matthew Cooperman, a Poetry MFA professor, joined the conversation and recommended an essay on accessibility by Josh Wilkinson (The Volta).  We visited, mentioning the C.Dale Young APR essay on accessibility Scarriet just reviewed.  The following is our take on the piece by Wilkinson, who cleary belongs to the Inaccessible School—which Hoagland railed against at AWP.

Wilkinson begins by taking exception to Times editor Bill Keller’s, “I prefer craft to spontaneity;” for Wilkinson, this is equivalent to “declawing” poetry and putting it in a “‘zoo.”

The trouble with this sort of rhetoric?  It’s trapped in abstract dualities.  The wag can always retort: “Can’t we have craft and spontaneity?”  The wag  beats vague every time, and the colorful “zoo” metaphor is no help. 

But now Wilkinson moves onto a 3-dimensional reality.  The following by Wilkinson is something we can sink our teeth into:

We are told, again and again, that for poetry to be digestible in a broadly appealing way, apparently it must be poetry paired up with something else. For Natasha Tretheway to be invited to Fresh Air, there must be a pitch; poetry beside a familiar topic. “Poetry plus” is what Marjorie Perloff calls this.

For Tretheway, that means poetry plus her biracialness. Which allows Terry Gross to ask, “What does [Obama’s election] mean to you?” For former poets laureate it is poetry plus the homelessness of a brother (Robert Hass) or poetry plus the death of a parent (W.S. Merwin); and really why should this surprise us? It just exploits the fact that poetry can speak to literally anything. And so long as the host sticks to the topics we are safe with (politics, death, family) then we will avoid having to talk about what animates poetry (the language itself, of course).

Nicely said, but when Wilkinson finishes up with “the language itself, of course,” it should give us pause, since language, as we all know, has both a specific and a uniting purpose, whether or not we speak of “biracialness” on one hand, or whatever non-subject Wilkinson has in mind, on the other.  We would love to see an example at this point in Wilkinson’s essay of a non-subject poem, or hear why “language” is barred from any discussion of a poem when it’s “paired up with something else.”  This is not to say a poem’s subject qua subject is not vitally important, but this is not really what Wilkinson is after; he is hunting “the language itself (of course.)”

We’ve heard this a million times: a poem is not what is said, but how it is said—but this does not mean nothing is said. 

Wilkinson, the poem’s language is—language.  Duh. 

The wag wins, again.

Now Wilkinson mentions the popularity of Billy Collins’ “accessibility,” and asks why we have to “diminish” poetry with “access?”

But isn’t this another abstract duality?  Why does Wilkinson assume that access has to equal diminishment?

We know what Wilkinson is saying, of course: Poetry shouldn’t stoop to the less educated reader, etc. 

But again, isn’t this just another truism which hinges on two vaguely opposing things: the educated enough reader versus the not-educated-enough reader?  If we can’t define these terms better, (how do we know when someone is educated enough?) the rhetoric which uses theses terms is empty.

Our readers probably can see now that we are not disagreeing with Wilkinson here; we cannot disagree with Wilkinson—we are merely indicating in a Socratic manner that his rhetoric is inconsequential.

Wilkinson then mentions how much poetry is available on-line through sites like poetry.com and asks,

Do we really believe that there is some drought of poems that we might call “accessible”?

But we fail to understand what this has to do with anything: Wilkinson doesn’t mention a single one of these poems available on-line, or to what extent these poems are “accessible,” or not.  The root question of accessibility still remains.

We then get a phrase, “immediately familiar,” which Wilkinson uses to defend critics Harold Bloom and Charles Bernstein from the “elitist” charge.  Our differences with these critics have nothing to do with whether they are “elitist” or not, but rather with errors in their judgment, but here’s the issue and we are glad Wilkinson used the phrase “immediately familiar” as a way of defending the inaccessible:

All literary works contain parts (words, chapters, stanzas, lines, etc) and no temporal work of art can be “immediately accessible,” and therefore works can be highly complex, even as each individual part is “immediately familiar.”  It might even be asked: if we do have a highly complex work with many parts, why shouldn’t we ask that each part be “immediately familiar,” to facilitate the ease of understanding the complex work, and wouldn’t the more complex work of the demanding genius be understood better if that same genius created each part fitting spectacularly together  “immediately familiar” in its identity as a part as all of those parts fit subtly into the whole?  What could possibly be gained by making the parts, in this instance, not “immediately familiar?”  And if each individual part is not “immediately familiar,” do they really exist as parts—since the poet, by creating something which is complex, is responsible for every part. (And complexity, of course, cannot exist without parts.)

This is kind of what Billy Collins is quoted as saying later in Wilkinson’s essay—and Wilkinson does concede this one (very crucial) point in favor of accessibility to Collins: “accessibility,” says Collins, is a kind of “Trojan Horse,” a “ruse,” in which he, the poet, Collins, leads the reader towards what might be called the complex and the unfamiliar. 

Speaking of parts, Wilkinson now says in his essay that a poem could be defined by “our inability to reduce it,” which makes us think of classical “unity” and New Criticism (a poem cannot be paraphrased) and all sorts of time-honored things, but as true as the whole experience of anything naturally pre-supposes “our inability to reduce it,” (it meaning our experience of it) we should never forget what we have just outlined above—the parts which must exist in anything which partakes of temporality.  And in addition, “inability to reduce” would also pre-suppose something else: clarity, accessibility: since how else could we perceive that threshold of irreducibility?

More in this vein:

Wilkinson quotes Susan Howe asking “why should things please a large audience,” but this is like asking, why should language be understood?  Obviously things don’t have to please a large audience, but what reason can we give for language not being understood, or for a large audience not understanding a thing?

Wilkinson quotes Wittgenstein: a poem is “not used in the language-game of giving information,” but “giving information” has little, or nothing to do with the accessibility of the poem’s temporal existence itself—even as it naturally flies under the radar of “giving information.”

Towards the end of his essay, Wilkinson refers to the well-known Onion piece, “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace, as if the Onion were not making fun of contemporary, inaccessible poetry, but was instead making fun of those who want poetry to be accessible; we think the former is closer to the Onion’s intent, and, similarly, Wilkinson wonders what we “lose” in a defensive response “against” inaccessible poetry, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the question could just as easily be asked the other way: what  do we lose in a defensive response for inaccessible poetry?

And so Wilkinson’s essay entertains—like a dog chasing its own tail.

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…

THE THREE TYPES OF POETRY

I like discovering new poems.  I almost said new poets, but that is too personal: poetry is marvelous because it allows us to experience human delight without all the messy and inconvenient aspects of humanity—poetry sweetly bars the heavy and smelly poet—bragging, disappointing, spotted, ruined, dying—from our sight.  The minute I start following a poet I will cease to love poetry.  My lover certainly ought to be poetic, but they don’t have to write poetry, and I don’t need more lovers; I don’t need poets—keep them away!  A poet will invariably disappoint with a new poem.  A poem is what we should be looking for when we pursue poetry, and no poet has a monopoly on poems.

Scarriet has defended Billy Collins, but this doesn’t mean we believe every Billy Collins poem is good.  Defending Billy Collins only indicates that there is something that we recognize as a “Billy Collins poem” that is worthy of notice.

Critics have nothing to do with the ‘likes and dislikes’ of readers.  Worthy of notice is just that—worthy of notice.  To hear these Collins detractors, you would think they were forced to kiss Billy Collins.  The whole matter of whether Billy Collins is worthy of notice, or not, is one of pure intellectuality, and it involves a sensible acknowledgement of poetic classification.

There are three distinct kinds of poetry, and the Collins poem happens to be one of them.

These three types of poetry are important not just as frozen types—they have a history—we can trace their development over time.  The Billy Collins poem, for instance, goes back as far as “Dover Beach.”  Along the way, the rhyming aspect of “Dover Beach” is jettisoned, and the poet learns to navigate without it, keeping the spirit the same.

Another feature which makes the three types essential, and not merely arbitrary, is this: these three types strongly repel each other; the three kinds of personalities which enjoy these three kinds of poetry would fight if they were left in the same room.

I recently discovered a new poem—a major discovery, because it is a perfectly realized Collins poem—but not written by Billy Collins.  It therefore flashed upon me that I was in the presence of a powerful type of poem, and this poem both attracted and repelled my critic’s nature so forcefully, that almost immediately the three types of poetry sprang up before me.

Here is the poem, by George Bilgere:

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
They’re happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But I’ll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cézanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.

This poem is wonderful in a way that would repel the likes of Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout and the avant-garde, simply for its clarity.  Those who believe that poetry is verse and not prose would also dislike this poem.  But here it stands.

Briefly, then, the George Bilgere poem is wonderful because of the way it begins with “They sit around the house,” referring to unused objects of human imagination and improvement that bespeak, universally: limits, despair, and finally longing, gently mocking human limitation with the very longing that hovers about the unused objects themselves, unused because there is too much longing? not enough? and finally it is words themselves, objects that “sit around” in the poem itself which is the poem’s grand, secret symbol in its playful and longing imagination that fights against the despair of not having enough will to improve, or imagine, or be useful.

The poem has a Newtonian logic—moving forward (in humor and optimisim) with a force equal to its moving backwards (in realism and pessimism).  The language learning tapes are transformed from an object into something human, and even passionate, in a manner that is logical, humorous, and delightful.

But how different is Bilgere’s poem compared to something like this:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott”.

This is Part I of the famous Tennyson poem; notice how the poem not only gives us luxurious sound, but it paints a scene, as well.

Ekphrasis is overrated, for it is a hundred times better to paint—with a poem—a painting that doesn’t exist yet, than to merely describe one that already does exist.  And this is what the—currently underrated—Tennyson does.

By comparison, the work by Mr. Bilgere exists in the realm of idea only—it’s a funny story about neglected hobbies; it is not a painting; the Tennyson, however, begins, “On either side…”  Tennyson paints a world; the Bilgere is jokey and anecdotal: “They sit around the house…”  These two poems are different kinds of art.

The third type of poem is currently the most common and it owes more to simple human nature than to anything else. We all know “The Lady of Shalott”—and we all know human nature.  Human nature produces envy on a whim—if someone else has something nice, we decide we don’t like it, on account of the fact that it is nice.  We disparage the nice; secretly at first, and then more boldly, as we find peers who feel the same envy we do, and then even more boldly as we equate nice with evil itself, in political terms…the rich have nice houses and the rich are unkind and therefore the nice itself is—not really nice!

And so the third type of poem is all-encompassing and attracts many people: amateurs, puritans, students, and scholars, alike, and identifies itself as avant-garde, experimental, politicalThe whole point of this third type of poetry, avant-garde poetry, is to be unpleasant and ugly.

One example will suffice.  From William Carlos Williams, published in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002:

LEAR

When the world takes over for us
and the storm in the trees
replaces our brittle consciences
(like ships, female to all seas)
when the few last yellow leaves
stand out like flags on tossed ships
at anchor—our minds are rested

Yesterday we sweated and dreamed
or sweated in our dreams walking
at a loss through the bulk of figures
that appeared solid, men or women,
but as we approached down the paved
corridor melted—Was it I?—like
smoke from bonfires blowing away

Today the storm, inescapable, has
taken the scene and we return
our hearts to it, however made, made
wives by it and though we secure
ourselves for a dry skin from the drench
of its passionate approaches we
yield and are made quiet by its fury

Pitiful Lear, not even you could
out-shout the storm—to make a fool
cry! Wife to its power might you not
better have yielded earlier? as on ships
facing the seas were carried once
the figures of women at repose to
signify the strength of the waves’ lash.

There is no way to reconcile whatever this poem is doing—or thinks it is doing—with the first two types of poetry.  But a certain perversity in human nature will defend this third kind against the other two, and none will be reconciled.

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

ROUND 3 BEGINS: BILLY COLLINS V. BEN MAZER

Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012

Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.

This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.

The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?”  The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore.  It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness.  What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem.  The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry.  The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.

Part of the problem is that editors  no longer know what The Famous Poem is.

The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.

And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously?  The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?

So the irony.   Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels.  Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.

Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe.  Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney.  But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact.  To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn.  Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way.   One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there?  Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground.  You can’t make someone risk their life for their art.  You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.

The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned.  Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.

What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all.  Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is.  What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?

“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw?  How can “universally admired” be anything but good?  Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.

In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book).   These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.

But back to Collins versus Mazer.  Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore.  It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.

We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!  

Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney!   Can he do it again?

HERE’S THE SWEET 16!

Before we formally congratulate the Scarriet Sweet 16 poets of 2012, who, pound for pound, are probably the most entertaining poets alive today, the poets least likely to bore you, the poets who simply have a high batting average of poems sure to interest, amuse, or move the common reader—before we congratulate them, we should address the burning issue which always seems to loom over this enterprise: we refer to the poets and readers of poetry who balk at the idea of poetry used as fodder for competition.

First, we would say the competition is the fodder, not the poetry.  The ancient Greeks, who had drama competitions in front of crowds, understood this. 

The poetry contest, of which distinguished U.S. poets have so long been a part, is competitive—but since the process of picking winners is shrouded in secrecy, the process does not offend. 

But there is absolutely no difference between what Scarriet does with March Madness and what the more distinguished elements of po-biz do with their contests and prizes.

The reason competition offends probably has to do with sex. Sex is all about ‘who is hotter,’ whereas love entails ‘being loved forever for who I am.’   The former creates anxiety, the latter comfort. Love rules morals. All literature has a moral basis.  These unspoken laws are surely the underpinning to the disquiet and protest which greets Scarriet’s attempt to toss poems onto a horse track.

Judgment, or the Critical Faculty, ride the horses, however.  “Judge not” is a moral injunction, not a literary one.  To write is to get on a horse.

Love cannot be escaped when we make moral judgments—but poems are not moral in the same way people are.  We hope the morals of the people are in the poems.  Morals, however, do not make us love poems as poems—which exist apart from human moral issues, simply because they are poems, not people.  This does not mean that poems are not moral, or that poems camot create a moral universe; what it means is that poems themselves are immune to moral concerns.  The decree against poems competing arises from the mistaken idea that poems are morally attached to their authors—they are not; and if they are good poems, this is especially true.  The moral person makes the moral poem, but something happens when the moral travels from the person to the poem—it transforms into something which is no longer moral, even though morals was the impetus.  The objection to poems competing assumes poems are continually creating the moral worlds of their authors in such a manner that they cannot be interrupted from that task, ever.  Which is pure folly.  Those who are really moral persons do not rely heavily on moral attachments between poem and person.  This is my poem, do not touch it! is the sentiment of the moralist who will never write a good poem in the first place. 

There are many people who cannot reconcile the fact that morals are both oppressive and good.  But here’s the happy thing about poems.  The good should be present in the person writing the poem, even to an oppressive degree, but once the poem comes into existence, this moral creation, because it is a poem, escapes the oppressive  aspect of morals entirely while still being moral—that is, written by a moral person.  Art is the means by which the moral escapes its oppressive character. 

Judging art is not a moral act, but an entirely free act;  judging cannot escape competition; judging cannot escape the horse race, for comparison is always at the heart of the knowing that is judging.  Comparison cannot escape competition. The horses cannot stand still while we judge.

Here they are, most from the Dove anthology, and all living:

EAST: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, Mary Oliver,

MIDWEST/SOUTH: Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Patricia Smith 

NORTH: Phil Levine, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dunn, Louise Gluck

WEST: Sharon Olds, Matthew Dickman, Heather McHugh, Marilyn Chin 

Congratulations to the winners!

BILLY COLLINS AND MARIE HOWE IN SWEET SIXTEEN SMACKDOWN!!

Billy Collins has a popular appeal which annoys the poetry avant-garde—who have no popular appeal.  The reason, the sophisticated say, is that the populace is simple and Collins is simple, and thus the appeal.  But this is too simple. 

A Collins poem is vivid.  That’s his secret.  A Collins poem is first constructed as an objective thing in space, with a certain size and shape.  The poem proper is Collins describing the first poem.  Collins makes his poems twice.  The first constuction exists as a visible three-dimensional object, with light and atmosphere, and all that makes a visible object visible as a visible entity. The second construction is the poem—a translation of the first vision.

It has nothing to do with Collins’ easily understood ideas.   Difficult ideas belong to philosophy, not poetry, for obvious reasons. 

Comforting ideas are dismissed as easy ideas, but this is a gross error.  Philosophy was never meant to comfort—it has to do with the understanding only.  But when ideas do comfort, this is a rare and profound pleasure, like beauty, and poetry is the ideal place for comforting ideas, and to express comforting ideas takes skill and vision.  Authentic comfort requires the sort of vision which produces the vivid effects we get in Collins’ poems.

The following poem, in which Collins banks on advancing to the Sweet 16, is comforting and moral, but note how these qualities exist,  not in the telling, or in metaphor, or in any rhetorical tricks, but in the purely visual aspect of the poem:

THE DEAD

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Collins is underestimated by those who fail to see his poems, and also by those who mistake comforting ideas for easy, or trivial ones.

Here Collins may have met his match, however. 

The following poem by Marie Howe may seem like a Billy Collins poem.

But it’s not.

Collins’ poems exist vividly in time and space, such that their existence precludes the need for metaphor.

Marie Howe’s poem is disturbing/comforting and it all revolves around a metaphor.  The poem is strange, and it’s not fully realized in the way the best Collins poems are.  It does not feel that it is necessary that we be comforted in this manner.  That’s the difference.  The great poem feels strange but inevitable; the almost-great poem always feels strange rather than inevitable.

WHAT THE ANGELS LEFT

At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless.
They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house,
at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs,
lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water.
Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow,
I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began
to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable
when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed
to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occurred to me finally
that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction,
I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

—exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn.
The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone.
In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.

What are these scisssors and why do they want to be used?  The poet tells us the scissors feel like “grace,” but do they to the reader? They accumulate, then they are put outside, snowed on, and when the spring mud appears, they are gone.  It’s a very interesting poem, but it feels slightly more odd than necessary.  Is it nature triumphing over man-made things?  In that case, maybe the poem does feel necessary.  But in that case does it feel a little too easily done?

Collins feels like the master who creates a comforting mystery with a few strokes.  Howe is the mannerist who follows in the master’s footsteps, though in this poem she is perhaps equal to him.

Collins 69 Howe 68

BILLY COLLINS, NO. 4, SEED BATTLES CAROL ANN DUFFY, BRITISH POET LAUREATE

Duffy, the British poet laureate, takes on the best-selling Billy Collins.

Billy Collins is a popular American poet who teaches poetry; born in 1941, he is the same age as the Creative Writing Program era, and represents (in many people’s minds) the comfortable, jokey, white middle class.  This following poem was chosen by Dove to  represent Collins in her anthology of 20th Century American poetry, and it features Collins as poetry teacher acting defensively towards the masses who want poems to ‘mean something:’

INTRODUCTION TO POETRY

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

What I find ironic about this is that Collins has succeeded precisely as a ‘poet of meaning;’ all his success turns on meaning; he takes extra pains in his poems to make himself understood by the common reader in poems that boil down, essentially, to jokes one could tell in a bar.  “Introduction to Poetry” has a meaning: poems don’t need to mean anything, and so, ironically, it’s a very typical Collins poem—because it has meaning. 

But there’s an extra pleasure to Collins, and this is why he’s good, and the best selling poet alive today.  He manages—with humor’s exaggeration—to laugh at the whole enterprise: he wants his students to “waterski across the surface of a poem,” which, when you think about it, is absurd, and parodies the nutty creative writing teacher lording it over his students who just want to understand.  On one (obvious) level, the poem defends Creative Writing’s modern flip-off—meaning is so 19th century, man!—but on another, more secretive level, the joke is on the modern Creative Writing teacher—urging students to “waterski” (??) on the poem.

Meaning means 3 point shots, lots of them, and lots of points—which one can see on the scoreboard.  Collins piles up the points.  He scores.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-) comes from middle class Great Britain and became British poet laureate in 2009, the first woman to ever hold that distinguished position.  Her poem, “Valentine,” has meaning in the form of an equation: onion = love.  The poem’s metaphorical formula is all the poem is.  You cut onions, luv.  The smell gets under your fingers.

VALENTINE

Not a red rose or a satin heart.
 
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
 
Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
 
I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

 
The onion has many uses.  Why shouldn’t an onion be a metaphor for love?   One admires the novelty of the metaphor, which manages to invoke beauty (moon) and earnestness (its fierce kiss will stay on your lips) but the wide-ranging and flexible character of an onion works better for the onion than it does for Duffy’s poem, which finally seems nothing but a clever riff on that flexibility.  The poem never really transcends ‘love is like an onion’ in its conventional, formulaic sense.  The term “lethal” at the end seems forced.  The metaphoric exercise never really comes to life, remaining on the level of a string of nice and somewhat unusual comparisons.  The poem is nicely pasted together, but it never really gets up and walks.  Do onions make us cry like love does?  Of course not, but here, for “Valentine” to work, it would seem the answer, at least for a moment, needs to be yes, because, the poem is finally about…an onion…and not love.  We suppose one could say there aren’t many poems that do much more than this poem does: ride the horse of metaphor for all its worth: “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”  An onion.  But where does the poem finally go?  It doesn’t seem to go anywhere in that last stanza.  This poem is not “cute!” Duffy is careful to tell us. 
 
In case we miss the meaning.
 
Collins romps 90-77.

BLAH BLAH BLAH: INTRODUCTIONS, BLURBS

Don’t we hate them?  Those introductions praising a poet before they go on?  Why do they have them?  They are stupid, and they seem more stupid the more clever they are.  They are not necessary.  Shut up.  I don’t care how many prizes this poet has won.  Let the poet get up on the podium and read their goddamn poems. Enough with this tradition already.  The oily professors and graduate students with their prefaced remarks for the visiting poet: look how clever I am!  Bet you didn’t know how many layers of meaning gleam in the title of our poet’s latest book!  Maybe I’ll get laid!  The poet doesn’t need an introduction.  Imagine how annoying it would be if you went to the theater, and before the play: “Before we begin, I’d like to make a few remarks about our playwright tonight.  William Shakespeare, as you all know…”  Save it.

And then blurbs.  Has there ever been a blurb which does not negate everything we mean when we utter the sacred word, poetry?  The blurb is like the Introduction, but a frozen version of it, a cold stain.  Shall we do away with blurbs forever?  Yes.  Just give me a plain book that says “Poems” on it, and, in smaller letters, the author’s name.   The blurb is a sugary humiliation, a confectionery wreck, a cotton candy tomb, a blah blah blah that chokes and humiliates.  Have we no shame?

Therefore, without introduction, we present the 2012 Scarriet March Madness EAST BRACKET!

EAST

1. John Ashbery
2. Seamus Heaney
3. Geoffrey Hill
4. Billy Collins
5. Jorie Graham
6. Robert Pinsky
7. Mary Oliver
8. James Tate
9. Paul Muldoon
10. Charles Simic
11. Charles Bernstein
12. Marie Howe
13. Carol Ann Duffy
14. Franz Wright
15. Carolyn Forche
16. Ben Mazer

Blurbless, sans introduction, these names stand before you.

These poets want to do one thing: Win.

They want to win, because the winner will spend an entire night with Marla Muse.

Marla Muse:  I beg your pardon?

Marla! You’re supposed to say, “And they will never forget it.”

Marla Muse:  I never agreed to do that!  And I don’t think it’s funny!

I was just kidding…in the name of poetry…these poets…don’t you think the winner…?  I wasn’t implying…

Marla Muse:  It’s not funny.

Sorry.  Well, they still want to win…

Marla Muse:  Of course they do.

And soon we’ll announce what poems the poets will be going with in the first round!

Marla Muse:  Stay tuned!

It’s so cute the way you say “Stay tuned…”

Marla Muse:  Thank you.

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011′s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28′s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember? 
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now

SCARRIET’S BEST POEMS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

Here, in no particular order, are Scarriet’s best poems of the 20th century.

Why these poems?

Because they hide from nothing, and all, on some level, break your heart.  Poe was right when he said poetry appeals to the heart and not the head.  Because many heads get this wrong, and think poetry is some kind of mental exercise, the universe has been turned upside-down for the last three-quarters of a century by a certain never-resting snobbery infesting perches in the taste-making branches of higher learning.  The poems on this list don’t get lost in minutea,  have no interest in proving how smart, or intellectual, or street they are.  They all aim for that middle ground which has intercourse with the earthy and the abstract, filtering each, as they combine nature with nature to make art.

If art is what we do to become gods, if art is what we consciously do, we don’t see why art should express the suicidal, or make us miserable, or should express the ugly, or the random.  Certainly melancholy approaching pain is allowed, but misery?

The usual coteries, which have slathered their cliquish influence over American Letters, are notably absent.   Our list reflects poetic talent, whether or not it happened, or happens, to reside within machinations of puffery. Some poets may be puffed, but not all the puffed are poets.

The Vanity of the Blue Girls -John Crowe Ransom
The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
litany  -Carolyn Creedon
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost
Recuerdo  -Edna Millay
When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Galway Kinnell
Sailing To Byzantium  -William Yeats
Dirge Without Music  -Edna Millay
The Groundhog  -Richard Eberhart
Musee Des Beaux Arts  -W.H. Auden
Elegy for Jane  -Theodore Roethke
I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great  -Stephen Spender
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Dylan Thomas
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -T.S. Eliot
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Randall Jarrell
In California During the Gulf War  -Denise Levertov
Wild Peaches  -Elinor Wylie
Moriturus  -Edna Millay
Whitsun Weddings  -Philip Larkin
A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
Aubade  -Philip Larkin
Patterns  -Amy Lowell
A Supermarket in California  -Allen Ginsberg
Her Kind  -Anne Sexton
Not Waving,  But Drowning  -Stevie Smith
i stopped writing poetry  -Bernard Welt
Dream On  -James Tate
Pipefitter’s Wife  -Dorianne Laux
On the Death of Friends In Childhood  -Donald Justice
Daddy  -Sylvia Plath
Resume’  -Dorothy Parker
Time Does Not Bring Relief  -Edna Millay
If I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way  -Edna Millay
Evening in the Sanitarium  -Louise Bogan
At Mornington  -Gwen Harwood
Those Sunday Mornings  -Robert Hayden
Psalm and Lament  -Donald Justice
The Ship of Death  -D.H. Lawrence
One Train May Hide Another  -Kenneth Koch
Encounter  -Czeslaw Milosz
Anthem For Doomed Youth  -Wilfred Owen
The Little Box  -Vasko Popa
For My Daughter  -Weldon Kees
The Golden Gate  -Vikram Seth
The Grass  -Carl Sandburg
Mending Wall  -Robert Frost
Peter Quince at the Clavier  -Wallace Stevens
The Fresh Start  -Anna Wickham
Bavarian Gentians  -D.H. Lawrence
River Roses  -D.H. Lawrence
The Hill  -Rupert Brooke
La Figlia Che Piange  -T.S. Eliot
“Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments” -Archibald MacLeish
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why  -Edna Millay
What They Wanted  -Stephen Dunn
Down, Wanton, Down!  -Robert Graves
Cross  -Langston Hughes
As I Walked Out One Evening  -W.H. Auden
Love on the Farm  -D.H. Lawrence
Who’s Who  -W.H. Auden
The Waste Land  -T.S. Eliot
Snake  -D.H. Lawrence
At the Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop
And Death Shall Have No Dominion  -Dylan Thomas
Reasons for Attendance  -Philip Larkin
Fern Hill  -Dylan Thomas
Distance From Loved Ones  -James Tate
The Hospital Window  -James Dickey
An Arundel Tomb  -Philip Larkin
My Father in the Night Commanding No  -Louis Simpson
I Know A Man  -Robert Creeley
High Windows  -Philip Larkin
The Explosion  -Philip Larkin
You Can Have It  -Philip Levine
Diving Into the Wreck  -Adrienne Rich
Pike  -Ted Hughes
Pleasure Bay  -Robert Pinsky
The Colonel  -Carolyn Forche
Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  -Billy Collins
The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite  -William Kulik
The Year  -Janet Bowdan
How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin
Amphibious Crocodile  -John Crowe Ransom
The Mediterranean  -Allen Tate
To A Face In A Crowd  -Robert Penn Warren
Utterance  -Donald Davidson
The Ballad of Billie Potts  -Robert Penn Warren
Preludes  -T.S. Eliot
Sweeney among the Nightingales  -T.S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi  -T.S. Eliot
The Veiled Lady  -Maura Stanton
Prophecy  -Donald Hall
Archaic Torso of Apollo  -Rainer Maria Rilke
Of Poor B.B.  -Bertolt Brecht
Women  -Louise Bogan
Bored  –Margaret Atwood
A Happy Thought  -Franz Wright
The Idea of Ancestry -Etheridge Knight
Smiling Through  -Reed Whittemore
Histoire  -Harry Mathews
The Request  -Sharon Olds

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

William Logan: School of Smirking Badass

The best reviewers make us laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IndyMac:

Able to exploit pre-
existing.

Tain.

Per.

In.

Con.

Cyst.

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

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

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

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

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

The blue triangles
on the rug
repeating.

Coming up,
a discussion
on the uses
of torture.

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

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

But they’re lying,
which degrades them.

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

I look away before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

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

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

THE 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?

WOODY ALLEN HAS A LAUGH AT HEMINGWAY IN HIS LATEST FILM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to modernism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BILLY COLLINS WINS WHITE HOUSE READING

 

There’s no crying in poetry criticism.

So why is everyone afraid to actually judge the recent White House poetry reading?

The post-modern school of U.S. poetry is always pushing forward, like commuters on a platform when a train pulls in late, or frantic competitors buying tickets for a plane in the award-winning Amazing Race reality show.

Eager to find the newest way in which the mundane can be declared poetic, the avant-garde scrambles up the next peak of platitude to plant a flag marked ‘poetry.’

The whole modernist/post-modernist history of the avant-garde, from Rimbaud to Apollinaire to Kenneth Goldsmith, is wrapped up in a single concept: the ‘Found Poem Syndrome,’ in which the avant-garde artist, like King Midas, turns everything to poetry-gold with a mere touch.

There is a different tradition.   

In this tradition, poetry seeks to connect in a far different manner.  Milton hints at this tradition cunningly, if bombastically, in Book I of his Paradise Lost:

my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This tradition is typically characterized by the Greek ideal of arete, or excellence, the Romantic sublime, or Shelley’s “scorner of the ground,” but it can be explained in a more humble light: it is simply the reverse of the Found Poem Syndrome.

Instead of trying to make everything poetic, the sublime tradition defers poetic appropriation, and takes the wary, Platonist approach, exploiting the tension between the poetic and the not poetic.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 is a good example of the poet eager to explore the poetic as desire in the Platonist tradition—rather than a ‘found poem,’ we get the tantalizingly lost:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom:
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life saying ‘not you’

We have, then, the ‘Rare’ tradition on one hand, and, on the other, the modernist Found Poem tradition—which asserts the poetic in as many ways as possible.

Both traditons showed up at the May 11 White House poetry reading, but only one poet gave us the arete or sublime, tradition: Billy Collins.

Jack Powers ran a poetry group in Boston called “Stone Soup Poetry,” consisting of misfits on welfare who met in a restaurant until they were banned—for anti-social behavior: being rude to the servers or hogging a table for hours to drink one cup of coffee—only to move on to the next restaurant.   The poetry was awful, but anyone calling themselves a poet had an audience and a scene, and since helping misfits, even while harming restaurants, carries with it a moral lift, Jack, of tall stature, bass voice and plain manner, was a bit of a local hero for decades.  Blowing into town, I noticed the misfits, and being a  young, unpublished poet myself, I swore to myself I would never bring myself to mingle with that crowd, which had the whiff of the mental hospital about it: I said to myself: “These people are not misfits because they are poets.  They are poets because they are misfits.”  

Of course I was being a snob, and my fear of this crowd may have had much to do with the fact that I was something of a misfit myself.  I certainly did not believe that ‘smooth’ persons were better poets than eccentric ones, nor did I avoid eccentric persons as a matter of course—I did not, and still do not. The oddball can be a fascinating conversationalist and an interesting person, but there’s no guarantee that poetry is in the cards for such a person.  When I did inevitably succumb, and found myself drinking a beer at a Stone Soup reading, the poetry that was read was exactly what I expected: a little bit of it good, some it funny, most of it coarse, self-absorbed, and stupid.

The White House poetry reading felt very Stone Soup.  The poets, except for Billy Collins, were anxious to drape the world in poetry: Rita Dove’s homage to her childhood public library loved every unconnected detail it presented, so the result was smarmy, loose and rambling. Alison Knowles was an artsy-fartsy nightmare, taking off her shoes and dully talking about them. The young Moira Bass read a short poem that had a lot of “aints” in it.  The other HS student, Youssef Biaz, looking somewhat like a young president Obama, recited a Sharon Olds poem that encompassed genocide, vocabulary, pedagogy, sex and so many other subjects, it all blurred together—and it was recited in a smooth, and yet also odd, affected way. Kennth Goldsmith read a found poem. I found him not quite as embarrassing as Alison Knowles, but close. Jill Scott went for perky feminist uplift, the rapper Common, for earnest Martin Luther King, Jr. uplift.  They both had a certain amount of charisma, but in both cases, the poetry itself bordered on annoying.

The assumption is that general interest increases when poetry finds new ways to thump us over the head, and when poetry tackles all sorts of subjects and when poetry keeps ‘finding’ new poetic objects.  President Obama, in his brief introductory remarks, said poetry is “different” for everyone. 

But why does poetry as a general interest keep declining?  Because general interest requires us to feel the same about something. General interest is not enhanced by shouting, or by the greatest possible number of small fires burning in idiosyncratic, private, differences.

Obama’s “difference” is a political ideal, not a poetic one.  All our personal differences should be respected.  But poetry doesn’t build general interest by breeding difference.  Obama’s first example, the War of 1812 poem which united people as America’s national anthem, betrays his notion that poetry is about everybody feeling differently.

Billy Collins was funny and entertaining.  He was the only poet I genuinely enjoyed, and you could tell by the laughter that he was the genuine hit of the evening.

Both poems Collins read were the opposite of the artsy-fartsy found poem.

Say what you will about it, “The Lanyard,” read pefectly by Collins, is  quintissentially anti-Kenneth Goldsmith, a direct hit against the found poem, against the avant-garde impulse that would ground everything in poetry.  A hand-crafted lanyard becomes Collins’ humorous sacrifice:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The other poem Collins read, after some jokes about how “jealous” other poets would be that he was at the White House—good jokes because you weren’t sure if he was kidding or not—was the marvelous “Forgetfulness.”

The first line of “Forgetfulness” is “The name of the author is the first to go.”  

Collins’ poem is in the same spirit as Shakespeare’s Sonnet #145. 

Billy Collins is an antidote to the artsy-fartsy Found Poem artist who is in a hurry to make all casual objects poetic.

The sublime poets, like Collins and Shakespeare, have a whole different strategy in mind.

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS APR SWEET SIXTEEN WINNERS!

EAST BRACKET

BARBARA GUEST

LESLIE SCALAPINO

GILLIAN CONOLEY

CAROLYN CREEDON

NORTH BRACKET

PHILIP LARKIN

BILL KNOTT

HOWARD NEMEROV

MAURA STANTON

SOUTH BRACKET

TESS GALLAGHER

EILEEN MYLES

STEPHEN DOBYNS

SHARON OLDS

WEST BRACKET

ALLEN GINSBERG

JOY HARJO

CAROLYN MUSKE

STEPHEN DUNN

In the East Bracket, four relatively unknown poets emerged victorious from competition with John Ashbery, James Wright, Robert Creeley, James Tate, Stanley Kunitz, A.R. Ammons, and Jack Spicer.

Poetry tournaments are richer and more exciting with upsets than other types of competitions, and this is because reputations of clique-poets tend to be artificially inflated.  But kiss-ass and in-crowd behavior don’t help when you’re under the net and playing for a win in front of crowds!

Poems matter when it comes to winning, not poets. 

We’ve all dreamed of writing that one great poem that will ensure our place in eternity.

Poets’ names travel faster than poems, and poems these days don’t travel very fast at all.  Editors, publishers and critics need to identify the best poems; but what usually happens is poets—who are more ambitious than poems, as it turns out—fight to the top and occupy mouths and ears and anthologies.  A poet’s name is sung and the poems follow, even in the wake of the famous poet, obediently and hardly read.

Poets’ names should come attached to poems; instead we get poems meekly following poets’ names.

It give us great pleasure then, to present sixteen poems which have tangled and tussled and proven themselves.

We are proud of the poets, too, but you can be sure their place in the sun is deserved.

The 2010 March Madness Tournament used the BAP volumes (David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series) from 1988 (its founding) to 2009.  Billy Collins’ “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” won that tournament.

These 2011 March Madness poems are from one anthology, the best of APR, (the American Poetry Review) from its founding in 1972 to 2000, and produced by the editors of APR, Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.  So these poems are seen through that lens—the editors did not include Billy Collins—but it’s an important lens, and shows basically what American poetry was doing in those years.

Two big names have survived so far: Larkin (one of a few Brits in the collection) and GinsbergSharon Olds is well-known, and Stephen Dobyns has some renown.

The poems will be examined, because they have to win more to get to the top: Elite Eight, Final Four, and the Championship.

Thanks for watching!

THE TOP TEN HATREDS IN POETRY

Hate?  A strong word.   Do Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout and the rest of their friends hate Billy Collins?  In civilized, professional behavior, we keep hate hidden, but it only takes a word for it to slip out. We know it, we recognize it, we feel it; we know it’s there.  Maybe it’s not hate, exactly… we might refer to it as jealousy, disgust, dislike…but let’s just call it hate, and not beat around the bush. We prefer, most of the time, that it remain hidden, and most of us don’t like to feel hatred or be hateful or see hatred in another—that’s true…but we’d be naive if we pretended it didn’t exist in any of our hearts at all.

Scarriet had it’s best week ever last week (in terms of views).  Ron Silliman comparing Billy Collins to Edgar Guest (and us pointing it out) began the firestorm.

On Friday of last week, Billy Collins made the front page of  my local paper:

“A Poet Achieves Rock-Star Status. Meet the ‘phenomenon’ that is Billy Collins—a man who has made poetry popular (again). More than a million copies of his books are print. ‘A good poem is like a pair of flannel pajamas. Comforting’–Billy Collins”  —Dorothy Robinson dorothy.robinson@metro.us

Ron Silliman’s Quietist Nightmare!

As usual, Scarriet reflects wisely on the significance of it all, and pardon us as we do so, before giving you the Top Ten Hatreds In Poetry:

The matter here may be as simple as what should be kept and what junked.

Poetry isn’t a matter of life and death; no lives depend on poetic reputation, but if poetry as a companion to thought and civilized pleasure is important at all, then we should, at the very least, dump trash and keep the valuable (which if not done in the real world would quickly drown us in garbage and lose value so as to be the end of us all).  Such a task is no small matter—it is not for the Garrison Keillors and their Good Poems only; it is the most important task of all poets at all times; if we think on it, this is the only task of poetry: sorting good from bad, whether composing, publishing, or reviewing; in truth, all are critics all the time, and except for inspiration, divine and invisible—which belongs to a separate realm—this is the only business of poetry: sorting good from bad. All we mortals do is sort—honestly and truthfully—or not.

It used to be like this, at least more than it is today: universities taught and collected the best, and the collecting and the teaching were essentially the same enterprise: sorting out the heavens, sorting with our backpacks in the wilderness, sorting the lines and poets who went before.

This all changed right after WW II.  Colleges multiplied, and they changed. Professors in the Humanities no longer sorted.  Professors no longer pulled weeds.  Homer and Shakespeare and Keats were no longer used as sorting tools. Keats was no longer a living flower, but a dead one, and to be a flower was to be dead. Writers sprung up like weeds in the Creative Writing programs. The weeds were all different and marvelous in their variety—from the perspective of the weeds. But from a distance, from the public’s perspective, all the weeds looked the same—and they looked like weeds.  But the public is wrong, thought the weeds, and the Creative Writing programs assured the weeds that indeed the public was wrong and provided loans and money for their MFAs.

Modernism was the first era or school to trash preceding eras—no matter the quality of the individual poets from those preceding eras.  It would be far better if we talked of poets and not these damned eras and schools, but this was modern scholarship’s gift to the world. You can’t talk about Modernism without talking about the Modernists. With the Romantics, you can talk about individual poets, because the “Romantic” poets were not aware of themselves as Romantics—the Modernists called them this.

Byron loved Pope, Keats adored Shakespeare, Shelley loved Plato,  Poe scolded his contemporaries, but ours is the first era where all “Modernists” join in dismissing the best that went before.

True, the Romantics did play the ‘Melancholy Resignation’ card once too often; ‘We Shall Go No More A Roving’ threw its sonorous, sentimental shadow over poetry for a hundred years, and more—Archibald MacLeish, Amy Lowell, and thousands of others were doing ‘Romanticism’ well into the 20th century. (We forget that Byron was also the first Beat poet, as well, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Japanese art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cooled many a feverish brow with placid images; the proud West took haiku into its heart and Romantic sentimental virtuosity finally beat there no more. The icy, ‘classical’ poems of H.D. lasted hardly a day, but painting became abstract, with the Bauhaus movement architecture turned efficient and brutal; fascism and political cruelty and genocide countered the old Sentimentality of the previous century with a ferocity few could have imagined; leaflets and bombs fell from the sky, two world wars produced sentimental poetry (WW I) and a GI Bill that produced high enrollments of sentimental poets (WW II). Western sentimentality returned in the writing programs in the universities, but not of the Byron type: it was not a sentimentality of universals, but one of dizzying variety—poetry felt it could serve the classroom and the quirks of every individual and it could, and it did—and by doing so brought on its eventual destruction—but only because it forgot to sort good from bad.  Good poetry was still being written but no one knew where to look for it. Colleges produced, but did not discriminate—or they discriminated artificially and incestuously, away from the public’s eye. The factory produced and produced and refused to throw away.

In youth soccer, some  parents yell instructions from the sidelines at their children, while other parents watching from the sidelines murmur, ‘poor kids, they already have a coach, they don’t need more coaches.’ The ‘One Coach’ theory finds it sufficient to let poets find their way without criticism or instruction from anyone else. ‘The Coach’ here represents all poetry learning that is handed down to all of us. ‘The Sillimans and the Armantrouts are playing the best they can, so leave them alone.’  This is the One Coach Theory.

The ‘Multi-Coach’ theory believes that everyone is a coach, or ought to be one; that Sillimans and Armantrouts need extra encouragement.   ‘As a parent, I care.’  The Coach can’t do everything.  Scarriet believes in the Multi-Coach Theory.

Poetry needs local passions. The invention of the atom bomb made the world ‘one village,’ but poetry doesn’t thrive in a village; poetry needs a city, a town, a wilderness to thrive—poets hate situations where everybody knows everybody and news is the same for all. One village of contemporaries loving their ways together is a nice idea, but unhealthy in practice, especially when it comes to poetry.

Silliman hates because he cares. Hate on, you poets, and don’t be ashamed of your hate.

Here then, without further ado, are the Top Ten Hatreds in Poetry:

10. Byron for Robert “Bob” Southey

9. Pound for the Russians. (He  called them “Roosh-uns” and bragged that he never read them.)

8. Samuel Johnson for the ‘Metaphysical Poets.’  Johnson coined the term, and thought they were stiffs.

7. Alexander Pope for his contemporary “dunces.”

6. Ron Silliman for the “phenomenon” that is Billy Collins.

5. Harold Bloom for Edgar Poe.  Bloom’s dismissal of Poe is either stupidity or hate; we have to assume it’s hate.

4. Rufus Griswold for Walt Whitman. In a review, Griswold called “Leaves” a ” mass of stupid filth.”

3. Charles Bernstein for T.S. Eliot—the only “name named” of the “Official Verse Culture.”

2. John Crowe Ransom for Byron.  In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” Ransom made it clear, once and for all, that Byron must be put on the shelf.

1. T.S. Eliot for Edgar Poe.  The bullet was “From Poe to Valery.”

“BEFORE THERE WAS BILLY COLLINS & TED KOOSER, THERE WAS EDGAR GUEST” –RON SILLIMAN

 

Billy Collins: hated by the Olson-ites.

Ron Silliman knows that Billy Collins does not write like this:

And I can live my life on earth
Contented to the end,
If but a few shall know my worth
And proudly call me friend.

–Edgar Guest (1881–1959)

Every poet knows Billy Collins is nothing like Edgar Guest.

Silliman’s remark is nothing but a rankle: he and his friends are not popular, and he fears they never will be popular.   How sad, then, that Ron feels it necessary to equate a witty, free-verse writer like Billy Collins with a hack doggerelist who happened to be popular for a time.

Dorothy Parker (another popular poet like Collins) wrote of Edgar Guest:

I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test
Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest

We ought to pause here and ask a simple question: what is the popular?

The answer is simple: the popular is neither good nor bad in itself, though all want it; the popular may be vain—but it is also human.

A popular poet, as instanced by Edgar Guest, may not be original or intricate or profound and it’s true that popularity and sentimentality go hand in hand.

But if Silliman and his friends are to ever have the popularity Billy Collins enjoys, and that they so obviously want, they will need to reach out to the public.  The public is sentimental—sentimentality is the stuff of which the  public’s interest in poetry is made.  There are levels of sentimentality, of course, but the trick for the poet is to be sentimental artistically, or artful sentimentally.  The sentimental is human and the human is popular and none of this can be avoided, not even in the hearts of the Language Poets. 

Did Charles Bernstein have Edgar Guest in mind when he coined the term ‘official verse culture?’ Does Bernstein feel personally oppressed by the aesthetic failure of doggerel? Is there an official culture of doggerel? 

When Gerald Stern asked Bernstein to “name names” at a 1984 poetry conference in Alabama, Bernstein was rather tongue-tied; when pressed to name names of poets who belonged to this official verse culture of Bernstein’s, he could only name one poet: T.S. Eliot. The reasons we might entertain for such a choice are obviously complex, but Bernstein has wanted critics to be included as poets; include the theoretical, not just the pretty, is the real issue, quite obviously, for Bernstein.

But sentiment, the key to the public, to popularity, can certainly co-exist with intellectuality and theory. That’s what the genius is able to do. That defines the artistic genius.  If you asked the Language Poets to point to specific elements in their poetry that cannot be popular, would they be able to point to such elements? And if they couldn’t, the question then must be asked, ‘Why aren’t they popular?’

If the public expects certain attributes in their poetry, should the Language Poets refuse them? I shouldn’t be speaking of the Language Poets as a group, since they don’t compose as a group, except to include them in that large group of poets who have no popular poems.

It will not do to pretend that sentiment can be avoided (in poetry it can’t), or to pretend sentiment cannot be avoided except when one is making jokes at its expense—one will never be popular if one persists in either of these two approaches. Sentiment is the clay, and how it is shaped makes all the difference; but when one attempts to deny the clay itself, one will inevitably be obscure. Without sentiment, you lie under sediment.

It is not that Guest or Collins are more sentimental than the poetry of the Language poets, than the poetry of Silliman and Bernstein and Armantrout; Billy Collins shapes sentiment into more interesting shapes than the Language Poets do, and thus Collins enjoys and deserves more popularity. If repeated successes in publishing and award-giving finally push the Language poets, all pushing 70 now, onto a threshold of potential popularity, the only thing that will push them over the threshold into real popularity will be a sincere appeal to the public and its sentimental nature.  There is no other way. If the other elements in the Language poetry agenda are crucial to mankind’s well-being, all the more reason for that poetry to be popular and reach as many people as possible.

No excuses, such as I am not Edgar Guest, are allowed.  

Silliman and his Language Poet friends are a self-enclosed tribe whose secret handshake is: ‘do not write like Edgar Guest.’  They learned this from their forerunners, the Modernists. Successful, these poets all, in killing the ant, Edgar Guest, but meanwhile the real dragon, Obscurity, wounds them. The Olson-ites are pleased to have killed all the villagers of Guest-town and they are looking for thanks and applause, but the villagers of Guest-town are all who might have loved them, and now they are dead.

Silliman and his friends oppose themselves to the “Quietists.”

But they are so quiet themselves.

LOOK OUT! IT’S ANOTHER SCARRIET HOT 100!

1. Billy Collins  -a poet of wit and popularity
2. Dana Gioia  -his famous essay still resonates
3. David Lehman  -BAP takes the pulse better than prizes/contests do.
4. Louise Gluck  -the new Jorie; has stepped down as Yale judge.
5. John Ashbery  -the most famous unknown person ever
6. W.S. Merwin  -emerging as the e.e. cummings of our time
7. David Orr  -elegant critical manner, writes poetry, too
8. Helen Vendler  -when the dust settles, what has she done, exactly?
9. Paul Muldoon  -as long as he’s at the new yorker, he’ll be on this list.
10. Harold Bloom  -will he ever live down his nutty hatred of Poe?
11. Glyn Maxwell  -a one-man british invasion
12. G.C. Waldrep  -he’s all the rage, and deserves it
13. Anne Carson  -managed to secure that all-important ‘classical’ rep…
14. Robert Hass  -he sort of reminds us of Paul Engle…
15. Mary Oliver  -popular ’cause she feels, rather than thinks, nature poetry.
16. James Tate  -founder of the funny/absurd/surreal/realism school
17. Dean Young  -James Tate lite?
18. Sharon Olds  -nobody does frank sexuality so morally and deftly
19. Charles Simic  -perfected the small, vivid, cinematic poem
20. Marvin Bell  -long time U. Iowan
21. Donald Hall  -our Thomas Hardy?
22. Karen Solie  -2010 Griffin Poetry prize and good poet
23. Terrance Hayes  -beautiful, black, and a National Book Award…
24. Robyn Schiff  -Jorie love-blurbed her madly, UG Iowa Wrkshp dir…
25. Adrienne Rich  -for the sisters
26. Barbara Hamby  -rides the new ‘excessive’ style
27. Lucia Perillo  -2010 BAP; rocks the newly minted ‘A.D.D. School’
28. Matt Donovan  -2010 Whiting Writers award
29. Ron Silliman  -this is his time
30. Amy Gerstler  -2010 Best American Poetry editor
31. Henry Hart  -found a poem I liked by someone on the web, damn!
32. Sandra Beasley  -this gal is worth checking out!
33. Shane McCrae  -warning: this poetry may actually be good…
34. Philip Gross  -2010 T.S. Eliot Prize
35. Simon Armitage  -the closest brit who possesseth any wit
36. L.S. Klatt  -2010 Iowa poetry prize winner
37. Margaret Atwood  -she’s never boring
38. Carolyn Forche  -that ‘bag full of ears’ poem, seems like only yesterday…
39. Matthew Yeager  -2010 BAP, “Go now, my little red balloon of misery!”
40. Stephen Burt  -one day vendler’s empire will be his
41. Barrett Watten  -selling Language Theory to British academia
42. Cole Swensen  -Iowa City/Paris gal
43. Christopher Reid  -first poetry book to win Costa since ’99 (Heaney)
44. D.A. Powell  -seems to be making all the right moves
45. Frank Bidart  -actor James Franco digs his poetry
46. Carl Phillips  -one of our most understated, thoughtful poets…
47. Rachel Hadas  -writing, judging…
48. Alan Cordle  -the david who slew goliath
49. Bin Ramke  -has that ‘Bladerunner’ fallen angel look…
50. Donald Revel  -the blue twilight school
51. Jorie Graham  -has her move to p.c. extremism doomed her?
52. Natasha Saje’  -we like her poetry
53. Paul Hoover  -tortured, philosophical poetry, but good…
54. Conor O’Callaghan  -Bess Hokin winner
55. Terri Erickson  -exploded onto Scarriet, and won Nooch’s heart…
56. George Szirtes  -Hungarian Brit
57. Abigail Deutsch  -Poetry magazine’s 2010 reviewing prize…
58. Jason Guriel  -poet/reviewer making his mark with Poetry…
59. D.H. Tracy  -fastidious, not fawning, as Poetry critic…
60. A.E. Stallings  -studied classics in Athens!
61. Dan Chiasson  -belongs to new crowd of poet/critics
62. Mark Levine  -the David Foster Wallace of workshop poetry…
63. Katherine Larson  -2010 Yale Younger, Gluck’s last pick…
64. Dara Wier  -workshop queen at Amherst & has a Selected…
65. Joseph Donahue  -”the angel’s jibe would harry the glitter from the dew”
66. Robert Casper  -poetry society of america, jubilat
67. Ben Mazer  -Man of Letters: poet, editor, critic?  He has first two…
68. Eileen Myles  -will not self-edit, thank you…
69. Derek Walcott  -his Pure Style, like buttah…
70. Bob Hicok  -the school of manly sentimentalism…
71. Janet Holmes  -’ass hat uh’ press is how you pronounce it, I think…
72. August Kleinzahler  -he chased Garrison Keillor away…
73. John Barr  -runs the Evil Empire?  Blog Harriet: zzzzzz
74. Philip Schultz  -his 8 year-old son told him he won the Pulitzer…
75. Seamus Heaney  -his iconic Bog-status is nearly blinding…
76. Kevin Young  -curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library…
77. Charles Bernstein  -his school producing a new generation of folly?
78. Tony Hoagland  -he dares to write like Billy Collins…
79. Ilya Kaminsky  -the spirit of translation…
80. Matthea Harvey  -carries a flag for a style which others do better…
81. Mary Jo Salter  -the most respectable force in poetry ever!
82. William Logan  -if his critic ever reads his poetry, he’s done…
83. Alice Quinn  -20 years picking poems for New Yorker
84. Julianna Spahr  “MFA is under-realized, under-theorized…”
85. Rae Armantrout  -one of the greatest little poem poets…
86. Rita Dove  -Clinton was prez, she was poet laureate, Oasis was cool…
87. Seth Abramson  -ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client’s poetry…
88. Adam Kirsch  -the Harvard kid who made good…
89. Daniel Nester  -We Who Are About To Die is a funny website…
90. Meghan O’ Rourke  -poetry’s audrey hepburn
91. Jim Behrle  -funny, creative, but can’t get laid!
92. Martin Espada  -”Latino poet of his generation” says his website
93. William Kulik   -scarriet march madness final four
94. Patricia Smith   -slam queen, rattle prize winner
95. C.D Wright  -tickled by the Elliptical…
96. Philip Nikolayev  -where’s Fulcrum?
97. Carl Adamshick  -latest Walt Whitman winner
98. Dora Malech  -everything going for her but poetic talent
99. Eleanor Ross Taylor  -best 90 year old poet around
100. Valzhyna Mort  -beautiful russian-american…uh…poetry.

101. Marcus Bales  -anybody like skilled verse?

WHY IS BILLY COLLINS POPULAR?

Because he’s classical. 

The world of literature is small, rounded by misty pre-history on one end, and mad post-modernism on the other, with Greeks and Romans and all their imitators, Donne, Pope, Shelley, Tennyson, and Eliot, in-between. 

We sometimes kid ourselves that this iron limit doesn’t exist, but the true classicist knows it does, and is always resigned to this limit, and, placidly nursing the secret, learns quicker than his fellows, and does so with honor, and a smile.

The fickle modernist, proud of his infinite world, (here comes another boring, eye-lash intricacy) grinds his teeth at the classical popularity.

Horace, like Collins, wrote often of other poets—not passively, in mere manic, modernist, observation—but socially, playfully, and self-consciously, making the admiration a part of his own art:

Borne by strong winds, Pindar the Theban swan soars
high above, Antonious,  through the lofty realms
Of cloud: while I, in another fashion—
just like a small bee
sipping each sweet blossom of thyme and roving
through the thick groves, over the slopes of Tibur
rich with streams—so, cell upon cell, I labor
moulding my poems.

In Collins’ latest, “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ By John Donne,” in November’s Poetry, classical tropes are on display: memorizing a well-known poem, engaging with the whole work (not a fragment), and assimilating that work optimistically, romantically, mystically, ecstatically:

Every reader loves the way he tells off
the sun, shouting busy old fool
into the English skies even though they
were likely cloudy on that seventeenth-century morning.

And it’s a pleasure to spend this sunny day
pacing the carpet and repeating the words,
feeling the syllables lock into rows
until I can stand and declare,
the book held closed by my side,
that hours, days, and months are but the rags of time.

But after a few steps into stanza number two,
wherein the sun is blinded by his mistress’s eyes,
I can feel the first one begin to fade
like sky-written letters on a windy day.

And by the time I have taken in the third,
the second is likewise gone, a blown-out candle now,
a wavering line of acrid smoke.

So it’s not until I leave the house
and walk three times around this hidden lake
that the poem begins to show
any interest in walking by my side.

Then, after my circling,
better than the courteous dominion
of her being all states and him all princes,

better than love’s power to shrink
the wide world to the size of a bedchamber,

and better even than the compression
of all that into the rooms of these three stanzas
is how, after hours stepping up and down the poem,
testing the plank of every line,
it goes with me now, contracted into a little spot within.

In a loving tribute to the Roman classical poets, Poets In A Landscape by the scholar and translator Gilbert Highet (d. 1978), we are told

“Except to schoolboys, the odes of Horace have been, for nearly two thousand years, one of the best-loved books of poetry ever written.  They are one of the few absolutely central and unchallengable classics in Latin and in the whole of western literature.  For many generations, a man was not considered educated unless he knew them.”

Highet also points out that to translate the complex music of Horace is impossible; the attempt to translate in an utterly faithful fashion crashes and burns; the best way to render Horace is to write like Collins, steadily, sincerely, and without fireworks.

Billy Collins is our Horace.  This is why he is popular.

Poetry’s popularity does not, and will never, derive from the experimental; poetry’s appeal springs from the classical; for the classical is not old, but  human.

And here, then, is the Donne poem, which (O! clever Collins!) is necessary for the Collins poem—which forever takes after the Donne:

        BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
        Late school-boys and sour prentices,
    Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
    Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

        Thy beams so reverend, and strong
        Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
    Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

        She’s all states, and all princes I ;
        Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
        Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
        In that the world’s contracted thus ;
    Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
    To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCARRIET

From Infant to All-Too-Human: Scarriet’s First Year

Could any living creature survive the dynamic changes wrought by and upon Scarriet in its first year of existence?  We doubt it. And yet Scarriet IS a living creature, its blood and viscera made up of its manifold contributors and admirers, a roster that runs the gamut from the illustrious to the notorious, from Billy Collins down (or is it up? Let the Muse judgeth!) to horatiox. Its spark of life, however, its animating spirit, is its poetry, ranging from ABBA to Zukofsky. There is room for all, for as the children of the ‘50s were all Mouseketeers, so all those who are childlike in spirit in the noughties and tennies are all Scarrieteers. The blog is named Scarriet for a reason — no prim Harriet reciting in a stuffy drawing room, but rather a rushing birth of blood, placental fluid, and, within the mass of sodden tissue, life itself. The wail issues out of said mass: Scarriet liveth. Liveth in the offices, supermarkets, alleys, factories, in blue jeans or ties, democratic without being demotic, and aristocratic only in matters of the spirit. Heroines most welcome, even nigh deified; heroin disdained as a soul-killing crutch. A manifesto? Let it be so, and let it be burnt.

Cut to the present: the same infant now grown to full immaturity, eager to sift and build upon the ruins of worlds past. And how much built after one short year!  A year of tumult, that witnessed the phenomenal success of March Madness, an expansive merriment that served as nothing less than a lightning rod for the poetry world. Sparks flew, sweat poured, backboards were shattered, and, in keeping with Scarriet’s primal origins, blood flowed – and out of the agony and ecstasy came a greater realization of the role poetry continues to “play” in our contemporary world(s). Scarriet’s world(s). Not all were happy, as not all can ever be, save in that Paradise in which the mass of men once put great hope. A founder of Scarriet, Christopher Woodman, departed from the masthead, never to return. The pain was felt keenly amongst those who treasure the art of poetry and discriminating criticism of same, especially with regard to the lyric bards. His voice is still heard on occasion, and his posts still extant – but as the balladeer Carly Simon has sang, “I know nothing stays the same/but if you’re willing to play the game/it’s coming around again.” And so it is. And so it always shall. Selah.

More on March Madness, for this was a threshold for Scarriet, a crossing of the Rubicon, and like all momentous undertakings, was not without peril or controversy. Was the event, which ran coeval with the NCAA basketball finals, closer in spirit to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or F. Roosevelt’s invasion of Europe?  The debate continues to rage in precincts where strong drink and stronger poetry are freely indulged. Did Scarriet lose its soul during March Madness, or did it gain it, and the world as well? Was it a “faustin bargin” or just “fargin baustin”? Numbers don’t tell a whole story, certainly, but they can instruct when viewed in a spirit of equanimity and in the proper light. And Scarriet’s numbers soared during the March festivities. But was quality sacrificed to attain popular success (a phenomenon certainly no stranger to those of us who have ever owned a crystal radio set or subscribed to a national newsweekly) ? We doubt it, for March Madness was met with approval ranging from guarded to raucous from world-class poets such as Alan Shapiro, Lewis Buzbee, Stephen Dunn, Janet Bowden, Reb Livingston, William Kulik, Billy Collins, Bernard Welt, Robert Pinsky and Brad Leithauser. No visit from Sharon Olds, but then she didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen.

So the numbers were there, along with approval by world class, nay, heaven class poets — where was to be found the always present snake in the garden?  Why, where he always lurks, in our hearts, in the hearts of all who draw breath. And yet the snake was tamped down for those precious moments in which great poetry was shared and exalted and glorified – not placed into a glass case for bored schoolchildren to parade past, but ricocheted off a glass backboard and hurled recklessly down a parquet floor as poets strutted their most glorious moves in all their testostrogen-fueled glory. A celebration of fertility over futility. Of passion over pedantry.

Of poetry over prose.

Happy Birthday, Scarriet.

It’s been one hell of a year.

ARE YOU A POET, A GROUPIE, OR A MANIFESTO-GEEK?

Take the official Scarriet Poetry test and find out!

1.  You have graduated from, or are in, an MFA program.

2.  You mostly read poems written by your teachers and friends.

3.  You mostly read poems by moderns and post-moderns.

4.  You have published at least two favorable reviews of work by your friends.

5.  You have published in some form the work of at least two of your friends.

6.  You have organized readings for at least two of your friends.

7.  A friend has published a favorable review of your work.

8.  Your work has been published by a friend.

9.  A friend has organized a reading for you.

10.  Your friends are mostly poets.

11.  You never argue about poetry.

12.  You only have friends in your poetry circles.

13.  You have little interest in quibbling about the definitions of poetry.

14.  You admit to strangers pretty quickly that you are a poet.

15.  You consider yourself a poetry critic.

16.  You wish poetry conversations were more civil.

17.  You prefer John Ashbery to Walt Whitman.

18..  You prefer Charles Olson to Edna Millay.

19.  You prefer Ezra Pound to Edgar Poe.

20.  You prefer Geoffrey Hill to Percy Shelley.

21.  You prefer Tony Hoagland to Rae Armantrout.

22.  You prefer Allen Ginsberg to Robert Creeley.

23.  You prefer Charles Bernstein to Charles Bukowski.

24.  You prefer Jorie Graham to William Carlos Williams.

25.  You prefer Jennifer Moxley to Billy Collins.

26.  You prefer Walt Whitman to Alexander Pope.

27.  You prefer Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens.

28.  You prefer Emily Dickinson to William Wordsworth.

29.  You prefer Dante to Robert Lowell.

30.  You prefer Pound’s Cantos to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

31.  You prefer Li Po to Leslie Scalapino.

32.  You prefer 20th century translations to Tennyson.

33.  You read more poetry than prose.

34.  You read more poetry criticism than poetry.

35.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the poems.

36.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the commentary.

37.  The first thing you do when you see a new anthology is to check to see which poets have been published in it.

38.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it matters to you how many poems/pages are allotted to each poet—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

39.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it  matters to you which poets have been left out/included—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

40.  You are naturally more interested in living poets than dead ones.

41.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1900.

42.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1960.

43.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1990.

44.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems.

45.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems by living poets.

46.  You would rather read a new, self-published book by an unknown poet than a book of reviews by William Logan.

47.  You would rather read a new book by an unknown poet published by an establishment press than a book of reviews by William Logan.

48.  You would rather read essays by Stephen Burt than by William Logan.

49.  You prefer the prose of Walter Benjamin to the prose of Coleridge.

50.  You would rather read essays by Robert Hass than letters of Byron.

51.  You would rather read an anthology of contemporary female poets than a book on Shakespeare’s London.

52.  You would rather read the latest book of poems by Peter Gizzi than a recently published anthology of essays by New Critics.

53.  You would never read a poetry textbook if you didn’t have to.

54.  You prefer Charles Simic to Philip Larkin.

55.  You would rather read a book of poems by Sharon Olds than an anthology of WW I poets.

56.  You would rather go to a poetry reading than attend a movie.

57.  Everything else being equal, you would always choose a poet for a lover.

58.  Your poems never rhyme.

59.  You teach/have taught in the Humanities.

60.  You teach/have taught  poetry, exclusively.

61.  You administer poetry contests.

62.  You enter poetry contests.

63.   You have won a poetry contest.

64.  You have won a major award.

65.  You have published in mainstream publications.

66.  You’ve met Franz Wright on a blog.

67.  You think Jim Behrle is hot.

68.  You have a private method or trick to writing poems.

69.  Ron Silliman has good taste in poetry.

70.  You read ‘Poets and Writers’ from cover-to-cover every month.

71.  You read books of poems from cover-to-cover in one sitting.

72.  You are proficient in at least one other language beside your native one.

73.   You have a degree other than in English or Creative Writing.

74.   Jorie Graham deserves her prestigious Chair at Harvard.

75.  Poetry is ambassador to the world’s peoples.

76.  You have a secret crush on Alan Corlde.

77.  Metaphor is the essence of poetry.

78.  You want to sit at Daniel Nester’s knee and have him tell you the ways of the world.

79.  You understand what the post-avants are talking about.

80.   Flarf is really cool.

81.  Conceptualism knocks your socks off.

82.  Poets turn you on.

83.  You want desperately to have a wild affair with a poet.

84.  Your secret goal is to teach poetry.

85.  When you are published in a magazine you buy copies for friends.

86.  At least one of your parents is an artist.

87.  It really bugs you that poetry has become prose.

88.  Marjorie Perloff is the bomb.

89.  Poetry is a way to explore political identity.

90.  Poetry is the best way to communicate the deepest truths.

91.  Humor for a select audience is poetry’s most important function today.

92.  The bottom line is that poetry helps nerds get laid.

93.  Poetry contributes to the dignity of the human race.

94.  Slam poetry is a great antidote to bookworm-ism.

95.  Your favorite poetry event is a slam poetry fest.

96.  You are wary that you might be a ‘school of quietude’ poet.

97.  You dig Language Poetry.

98.  You look for trends in poetry, but just so you can be informed.

99.  You write songs/play songs/are in a band.

100.  Poetry breaks your heart every day.

TONY HOAGLAND, STAND-UP COMIC?

When he gets on a roll, Tony Hoagland is very entertaining, almost like a warm-up act for a big name comic; but then he’ll veer suddenly towards the more serious—like films with famous comics that display the comic’s sad, sentimental side: behind the laughter there’s a wound needing love, honesty and affection.

The themes of Hoagland’s poems, such as ‘men are such clods, will women ever really love them?’ are perfect stand-up comedy material.  Hoagland is not fully ‘stand-up,’ though, because he can’t get the non-poetry guys who have been dragged to his readings by their pretty poet girlfriends to laugh along; Hoagland cannot reach that audience; I imagine if he could, he would be making millions with his comedy, and not merely a thousand here or there with his poems.  But comedy has that problem, too; if you really connect with the males in the audience, there might be some females in the audience who hate you, and vice versa.  Comedy is about hate as much as it is about laughter. 

If there’s no one being ridiculed in some way, there’s no comedy.  We all know that all men are not clods, but the comic goes with this idea and we laugh because…well maybe all men are…we don’t finally know and our implicit ignorance is what unconsciously makes us laughwe are being ridiculed—for our intellectual nature which is trapped in categories.   We laugh at ourselves by participating in categories; we are those failures being ridiculed the moment we accept the comic’s categories: men, women, whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans, etc.  To laugh is to intellectually surrender to an abstraction—this is the basis of all humor.  It is the lowest form of communication: low, but powerful.  Humor is the intellectuality of the unlearned, and humor’s intellectual force is all the more powerful for not being understood as such. 

I saw the poet Hoagland read in Salem, Massachusetts the night before last at the Salem Athenaeum.  

Salem State College, which sponsored the reading, also was in the middle of a student invitational poetry seminar; college students read their poems before Hoagland took the stage. 

The difference between the students and Hoagland, the U.  Houston professor, was startling.  The students’ poems were heartfelt, some were even metaphorically interesting, if somewhat artless and sentimental.   The chief difference between the students and Hoagland was that Hoagland exploited categories: the student poets (they were all female) read poems about some particular man; Hoagland poems were about men, or some category, and thus his poems rose to the level of humor, and when they weren’t humorous, they were metaphoric in a very grandiose way; in one Hoagland poem which recalled an ex-lover’s sexy body, a graveyard was the analagous relic: bodies, graveyards…Hoagland’s abstractions are…palpably abstract.  Thus, funny.

Hoagland confessed that he was a bad poet for many years, didn’t learn anything from Iowa in the 1970s…”my teachers told me my poems didn’t work…I knew they didn’t work!”  Another insight about Iowa in the 1970s: “I couldn’t believe how depressed and serious everyone was…this was before anti-depressents!   How many poems could people write about Italian statuary?  I knew I didn’t want to be a funereal poet.”

Bad poetry in the 1970s was serious poetry unintentionally funny; and why?  Because it couldn’t avoid the landmine of the grandiose; the details kept sliding away into categories and abstractions.  Like visiting an ex-lover’s body in one’s mind and comparing this mental visit to visiting a graveyard?  We’ve all seen it, known it, done it, and poets who were writing in the 1970s espcially know this, and Hoagland, by his own admission, was writing this bad stuff in the 1970s, and he also realized he didn’t want to be too serious.

Enter the Iowa poem of the 1980s: Billy Collins and Mark Levine and Dean Young and Tony Hoagland.  The serious poets who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two and the Bomb and the Vietnam War gave way to a Ironic, Smart-Aleck, “What, Me Worry?” Generation who grew into poetic awareness during the goofy, corporate 1970s, and learned from O’Hara and Ashbery and Koch, the funny guys from the 1950s, when TV comedy was on the rise and things were relatively prosperous and stable.

The invention of the funny Worskshop poem of the 1980s was the bad 1970s Workshop poem diligently pursued until it worked as comedy.

Hoagland is overtly 1960s as well; this is where Hoagland parts ways with a sophisticated, apolitical, and essentially 1950s poet, like Ashbery.  Ashbery kids in a blank sort of way; Hoagland wants to talk about what’s real, man.  Hoagland is exciting in a curious, engaged, politically and socially sincere, albeit somewhat naive, 1960s kind of way.

I reflected on why Hoagland and many other poets have taken on a 1960s sensibility even as society at large has passed it by, and then it struck me: the demographics of the 60s was such that half the population was under 30, and what is the MFA teacher’s audience?  Twenty-somethings.  Voila!  The MFA is a demographic microcosm of the 60s.

Peace.

THE ROAD ENDS HERE: BILLY COLLINS V. WILLIAM KULIK, REB LIVINGSTON V. JANET BOWDAN

Live from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts:

The distinguished Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Committee  delivers its Laurel Leaf Prize to the Best American Poetry poets who successfully traveled the road to the Final Four.

Janet Bowdan, Billy Collins, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, this high honor has no other attachments but recognition of your service to poetry, to glory, and to song.  You four began with your obscure births a journey to this moment.

In the presence of our judges, your families, your friends, Garrison Keillor, and these poets who love you, on this day, April 3, 2010, I present to each of you the Scarriet Laurel Leaf Prize.

(Applause)

All four poems feature lucid movement through a dramatic landscape, a sleek impressionism, an original beauty, a fluid design, a combined emotive and cognitive power, and clues to life, as well.

The final Order of the Poems:

4.  The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite –William Kulik

3. The Year –Janet Bowdan

2. That’s Not Butter  –Reb Livingston

1. Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  –Billy Collins

Thanks to all participants in this year’s Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness.

A final farewell to the No. 1 seeds in the tournament: Galway Kinnell (East), Louis Simpson (North), Sharon Olds (West), and Donald Justice (South).

We hope you all enjoyed the excitement during the road to the Final Four, and learned more about all these poets.

64 excellent poems, chosen from 1,500 Best American Poetry selections 1988—2009, were selected to the tournament itself and Kulik, Bowdan, Livingston and Collins were the top four.

Congratulations!

FINAL FOUR: BOWDAN, COLLINS, KULIK, LIVINGSTON!

The philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1918) wrote the following to William James:

“Philosophy is past.  It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.”

The experiment of March Madness has been interesting.  We have examined whether or not poetry, like the philosophy portrayed in Blood’s essay, “Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism,” can be known best if we become profoundly self-conscious as poets and readers in a group dynamics medium in which immediate experience and practicality are pushed to their limits within that context.

20,000 fans, spilling soda and popcorn, screaming at the top of their lungs in response to a contest between, let’s say, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, a 16th seed! and “Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock” by Lewis Buzbee, upset winner over Mary Oliver’s fifth seeded “Flare” in first round play in the West Bracket, experienced the poem in such an intense manner—however the partisanship might have expressed itself—that the delight based on the pure excitement itself propeled the imaginative response—which has always relied on a certain suspension of disbelief—to new heights, in which the suspension of disbelief was simultaneously extended and dismantled by the crowd.

The vision of this collective consciousness, at once critical, reflective and wholly reactive, is not meant to be defined here as a definitive vision, nor should the results of these contests fill anyone with either joy or dismay.  Combatants, were these none.  The riotous fans have been, and were, you and I; once a mob, now a critic, once weeping and hollering, now holding steadily the iron pen.  Let the tattooing begin.

How shall we describe Janet Bowdan’s “The Year?”  How shall we describe her victory?  How shall we describe the young fan, who, in a fit of ecstacy, nearly fell from the top of the stadium upon the heads of the throng below, this young worshiper of this terrible and haunting poem?  How to describe the look of Buzbee in defeat, Tarzan and Jane beside him, the barely comprehending Cheetah on Tarzan’s shoulder, looking wildly around?

We sought out Bowdan for an interview, but she was gone.  The crowd had carried her away.

Earlier, at the crack of dawn, with a youngish Wordsworth showered and shaved, Billy Collins advanced to the center of our beloved March Madness court, the polished wood of the court gleaming, the clever concession stands spread around, and dominated Stephen Dunn, making sure he couldn’t breathe for a second.  “John Donne, eh?  Are you done?’  The voice of the haughty no. 2 seed in the East resounded for eons after Dunn’s poem was read.  We have to go back years before we find a game that was like this, or, find any game.  The gods were, of course, anxious.  Rules, there were none.  The fans were not silent for a moment.  The rooting was astonishing.

Bernard Welt’s “I stopped writing poetry…” plied poetry long into the evening, almost as if to send Reb Livingston away, but she stood her guard, unblinking.  Some fans in the second half had a revelation and got the brilliance of Welt’s trope: the reasons he gave for not writing poetry were actually powerful incentives to write poetry, and this was the fuel of the poem itself, but the commotion in the second balcony as Livingston was shooting her free-throws was lost on the broadcasters—they  ignored it, thinking it was just the crowd being a crowd, a 190 line poem being a 190 line poem, and fans on the floor only saw it in separate parts.  Some Welt fans ran outside, but it was too late.  Livingston was stoic as Welt’s voltage melted.

William Kulik dazzled with a ferocity not seen yet in the tournament and Margaret Atwood froze with a searching look.  Kulik started to tick tick tick as soon as the contest started, the moss covered walls closed in, and no matter how hard Atwood looked, the drama of Kulik continued to drown.

“Bored” is sure of itself, as Atwood is; she was tranformed by Kulik into what went sadly down into the shadows.

The crowd implored those shadows.

Don’t trust crowds, they say.

We trusted this one.

Tom, this is Marla Muse, down at courtside…the crowd has seen four thrillers and they want more…this is how poetry should be…I’m being lifted by this crowd and that’s how I like it…I’m looking for my little notebook….have you seen it?

No, Marla, I haven’t.

ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR: ANALYSIS

So I’m here with Marla Muse, once again, as we are about to begin play that will bring us closer to crowning a Best American Poetry Champion in 2010. 

Marla, could it be a Canadian?

It could.  Magaret Atwood’s poem from Richard Howard’s 1995 volume, “Bored.”  Atwood broke Franz Wright’s heart in triple-overtime in Sweet Sixteen.  We won’t soon forget that one!

No, we won’t.   Atwood goes against William Kulik in the North final.

What does Billy Collins have to do to advance against Stephen Dunn?  Dunn, if you remember won his game in the last second against Robert Pinsky.  Meanwhile, Collins rolled over Harry Mathews with a swarming defense as “Composed Over Three Miles From Tintern Abbey” proved too much for “Histoire” to handle.

Tom, I think Billy has to get it to Wordsworth.  That’s the guy who has taken him this far. And the lambs have to bound, Tom, the lambs really have to bound.

They’ve been bounding and bounding well.  How about the two American women left in the tournament…not well known…but they’re very tough…

They are…Reb Livingston in the South final will be facing Bernard Welt…who is nervous, we’ve already seen that…and Janet Bowdan will be defending her chance to go to the Final Four in the West against Lewis “Buzz” Buzbee, who, in contrast to Welt, seems very relaxed.

Tarzan has brought his hammock to the West bracket final…

And Jane and Cheetah, of course…

Bowdan’s poem is lovely, isn’t it?

Yes, Tom, Bowdan’s poem is from Rita Dove’s 2000 volume.   Bowdan could go all the way.

We can feel the tension in the air here as the poets and publishers pour into the arena for these four contests.  I’ve never felt such excitement, really, since Athens, and those playwrighting contests, when I was just a young girl…

Marla Muse, you don’t look a day over 2,000!

Thanks, Tom!

AND WE’RE DOWN TO EIGHT…THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY’S ELITE EIGHT

 

Ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Welcome poets, judges, and all you fans!

(Wild cheers)

The Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Road To The Final Four Tournament has been a whopping success.

(Applause)

Just as a play-within-a-play charms us within the context of the play precisely by a ratio of two to one, so the best of ‘the best’ cannot help but double the enjoyment of any who would enter into the spirit of climbing to the top—of what isn’t there.  Of course there’s no best.  Of course there’s no God.  But that is why our belief is so fanatical.

(Scattered clapping, hoots and hollers.)

Margaret Atwood, Janet Bowdan, Lewis Buzbee, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, and Bernard Welt…

(Terrific applause…standing ovation…)

…have climbed to the top of a mountain, a mountain as real…

(continued applause)

…as anything contained in the 1,500 poems published in the Best American Poetry’s 21 year existence. 

(Mad cheering)

This is not to slight the reality of those poems…including the poems themselves which made it to the Elite Eight…

(clapping, foot stomping…)

but we all know that to write poetry is to translate doubtful thoughts on doubtful objects into a doubtful product for those who doubt, so that…

(Hoots and hollers)

…we might deliciously doubt our own doubts on what is so deliciously doubtful.

(Applause)

What could be more real than that?

(Laughter)

And now may I present to you the expert on Good Poems…

Here’s Garrison Keillor!

 (Applause)

 

Ahem. Thank you.  You know, with all the excitement around Best American Poetry March Madness, I’m tempted to say sports is more poetical than poetry…

 (Laughter, cheers)

Who thought the Muse looked like… Howard Cosell?

(Laughter)

Well, John Ashbery is out of the tournament.  He’s become the audience.  He’s becomes his admirers.  There you are…Hi, John!  You dominated BAP.  How can you be out of this tournament? Knocked out in the first round, right?   What happened?  (Pause for comic effect…)

 (Laughter)

 [Audience member:  “Nathan Whiting!”]

 Oh, yes…14th seed.   The dog poem.  Nathan Whiting turned John Ashbery into a stag.

 (Laughter)

 And think of the poets who didn’t make the tournament.  August Kleinzahler?  Where is he?

 (Nervous Laughter)

 Ron Silliman?  Is he here?   Where is the School of…Noise?  

 (Groans, Laughter)

Charles Bernstein?  The School of Language.  Try to give us something more than objectivity and cleverness, fellas…

 (Nervous laughter)

All kidding aside, I have a B.A. in English, so what do I know?   And not from Harvard, either.  The University of Minnesota.

(isolated cheer or two)

There’s a Golden Gopher.   That has a poetic ring to it, doesn’t it?  Golden Gopher.  Could anyone write a poem on that?   Ode to a Golden Gopher?  It would sound too strange…words are funny, aren’t they?  That’s the challenge of poetry, isn’t it?   To make words behave.   Golden Gopher ought to sound poetic, but once we hold it aloft…once we think on it…the whole thing sounds…

(Laughter)

Let’s have a great round of applause for the Scarriet Best American Poetry Elite Eight!

(Applause, Cheers)

Congratulations, Scarriet!  You’re getting more hits than ever.  You are now the 46,793rd most popular poetry website!

(Laughter)

Scarriet will never be the heroin of poetry appreciation.  Poems are not  appreciated on Scarriet so much as thrown off a building to see if they will fly. 

To those who are still alive in the tournament, you’ve earned it.

Congratulatons!

BILLY COLLINS, HARRY MATHEWS BATTLE IN MARCH MADNESS EAST SEMI-FINAL

the idiocy of rural life” –Karl Marx

let the young Lambs bound”  –Wordsworth

Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey

I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.

The fellow may be gazing
over an English landscape,
hillsides dotted with sheep,
a row of tall trees topping the downs,

or he could be moping through the shadows
of a dark Bavarian forest,
a wedge of cheese and a volume of fairy tales
tucked into his rucksack.

But the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time it is not nearly as good.
I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

Something is always missing—
swans, a glint on the surface of a lake,
some minor but essential touch.
Or the quality of things has diminished.

The sky was a deeper, more dimensional blue,
clouds were more cathedral-like,
and water rushed over rock
with greater effervescence.

From our chairs we have watched
the poor author in his waistcoat
as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood
and mills around in a field of weeds.

We have heard the poets long dead
declaim their dying
from a promontory, a riverbank,
next to a haycock, within a copse.

We have listened to their dismay,
the kind that issues from poems
the way water issues forth from hoses,
the way the match always gives its little speech on fire.

And when we put down the book at last,
lean back, close our eyes,
stinging with print,
and slip in the bookmark of sleep,

we will be schooled enough to know
that when we wake up
a little before dinner
things will not be nearly as good as they once were.

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray,

the glossy gardenia drooping
in its chipped terra-cotta pot.
And on the floor, shoes, socks,
the browning core of an apple.

Nothing will be as it was
a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
before our naps, back in that Golden Age
that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch.

Billy Collins (1998, Hollander)

Histoire

Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
“O.K.,” she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day’s specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

During the meal, Seth took the initiative. He inquired into Tina’s fascism,
About which she was reserved, not out of reticence but because Seth’s sexism
Had aroused in her a desire she felt she should hide – as though her Maoism
Would willy-nilly betray her feelings for him. She was right. Even her deliberate militarism
Couldn’t keep Seth from realizing that his attraction was reciprocated. His own Marxism-Leninism
Became manifest, in a compulsive way that piled the Ossa of confusion on the Pelion of racism.

Next, what? Food finished, drinks drunk, bills paid – what racism
Might not swamp their yearning in an even greater confusion of fascism?
But women are wiser than words. Tina rested her hand on his thigh and, a-twinkle with Marxism-Leninism,
Asked him, “My place?” Clarity at once abounded under the flood-lights of sexism,
They rose from the table, strode out, and he with the impetuousness of young militarism
Hailed a cab to transport them to her lair, heaven-haven of Maoism.

In the taxi he soon kissed her. She let him unbutton her Maoism
And stroke her resilient skin, which was quivering with shudders of racism.
When beneath her jeans he sense the superior Lycra of her militarism,
His longing almost strangled him. Her little tongue was as potent as fascism
In its elusive certainty. He felt like then and there tearing off her sexism
But he reminded himself: “Pleasure lies in patience, not in the greedy violence of Marxism-Leninism.”

Once home, she took over. She created a hungering aura of Marxism-Leninism
As she slowly undressed him where he sat on her overstuffed art-deco Maoism,
Making him keep still, so that she could indulge in caresses, in sexism,
In the pursuit of knowing him. He groaned under the exactness of her racism
- Fingertip sliding up his nape, nails incising his soles, teeth nibbling his fascism.
At last she guided him to bed, and they lay down on a patchwork of Old American militarism.

Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism,
Easing one thumb into her fascism, with his free hand coddling the tip of her Maoism,
Until, gasping with appreciative racism, both together sink into the revealed glory of sexism.

Harry Mathews (1988, Ashbery)

These two remarkable poems show that optimistic humor is ideally suited to poetry.  This sometimes gets lost amid the elegy and experimentation which  dominates modern verse.

There’s a bright, snappy, Enlightenment verve to poems like these.  Both Collins and Mathews slay dug-in sensibilities—Collins explodes the nostalgic notion of the good old days, or good old golden age, while Mathews has fun with the high-church seriousness of political beliefs.

Here is wit, but not the brief variety; these authors take stock of their subject first, and draw the reader in with conversational intimacy.  They convince with repetition, they accomplish their aim by placing their art within a frame of inevitability, but within that frame is a rhetorical looseness; one could fault Collins for the awful line, “as frequently as rain occurs in life” but this would be to miss the point.  Such ‘badness’ contributes to the necessary looseness, which in turn contributes to the trust between author and reader; such badness is like air in food which gives it lightness.  Mathews is under the same burden; the joke of his poem forbids elegant rhetoric from occuring, but the details add up differently, badly, in fact, but this is how the joke must work and the joke works in the only way it can, by distorting details for the sake of the whole, which adds up to satire against another existence, one smoother, apparently, than the Mathews poem, that of political pretense.

There has been some discussion behind the scenes of Scarriet lately on the nature of poetry, for when a large variety of poems are forced to compete, as in this March Madness tournament, one naturally begins to wrestle with the question of not only which of the poems is better, but which of the two is more like a poem. Why this question: which one is more like a poem? should even arise, I do not know, but it is almost as if, when we are faced with two poems we enjoy equally, to choose the best, we fall back on this question, it being human nature, or perhaps the nature of thought itself, to slightly favor whatever is more universal over what is more particular.

To be brief: a poem is, in words, whatever takes place in a certain space.

How do words make something take place and how do words create a certain space?

Meter and rhyme can create their own artificial space (a stanza) without the words having to mean anything.  Poems have traditionally featured a series of stanzas in which meaning is conveyed.

But meaning itself can create space—without stanzas.  Stanzas made it necessary for meter and rhyme and even the verse line to exist; not the other way around.  Most of us assume that the stanza is a mere outgrowth of the line, when the reverse is true: the stanza actually came first.  The stanza is the space, the room, in which poetry behaves as poetry.

All modern forms follow from this idea.  In today’s poetry, the room, or space (stanza) and things taking place within that room or space, (stanza- action) occur more frequently in word-meaning rather than word-sound.  I think this sums up the whole matter quite nicely.   The Divine Comedy has more rooms and more occurances, but otherwise is the same, in terms of form and content, as the haiku.

Billy Collins carves out space like so:

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray

As long as Collins works in stanzas, he doesn’t really need the line, or he can get away with lines of no interest whatsoever, such as “the walls and windows now.”    His lines can have no interest, the lines of a Billy Collins poem can be invisible, more or less, as long as he uses stanzas; few critics really understand how Collins’ poetry can even work. These critics are blind to the stanza-principle and in their blindness dismiss Collins as middle-brow fluff, going so far as to say that it is not  poetry at all.  The error involves the false belief that the line precedes, and gives rise to, stanza when, in fact, the reverse is true.  The fact that Billy Collins is successful without bothering to write good lines is proof of the thesis here outlined: the stanza, (the room) not the line (sequential unit), is the essence of poetry.

Highly musical poetry can be stanza poetry. Prose can also be stanza poetry.   The advocates of the line tend to favor either the highly musical poem or the highly prosaic poem, but not both.

Simple folk with no theory enjoy both. For the over-learned, too proud to enjoy Billy Collins, or too cutting-edge to enjoy Shelley, I have just provided a way out of your essential confusion; likewise for the formalists who cannot reconcile in their minds a Shelley and a Collins.

One might have a tendency then, to choose the Mathews over the Collins because “Histoire” by Mathews is a sestina, and features language with more repetition, and thus would appear to be more poetic, but this is to put a minor principle (with some merit) before philosophy plus perception (which has a great deal more).

Billy Collins is the winner.

MARGARET ATWOOD “BORES” INTO FRANZ WRIGHT’S “BRIGHT” IN FIGHT WHICH WILL CUT IT TO EIGHT.

BORED by Margaret Atwood

All those times I was bored
out of my mind.  Holding the log
while he sawed it.  Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded.  Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled.  It
wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details.  Myopia.  The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover.  The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the greying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would.  The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes.  Such minutiae.  It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.  He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail.  Why do I remember it as summer
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else.  Perhaps though
boredom is happier.  It is for dogs or
groundhogs.  Now I wouldn’t be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.

Richard Howard selected this Margaret Atwood poem in 1995.  As editor that year, he made his own rule that he would not select poems from poets who had appeared three times previously in the Series, and so, we got an Atwood in 1995, instead of an Ashbery or an Ammons, and so if a Canadian should happen to win the Scarriet All-Time Best American Poetry Tournament, we can all blame Richard Howard.

Franz Wright was not born in the United States and there is something German Romantic about Franz.  Billy Collins picked Wright’s “A Happy Thought” for his 2006 volume, and Billy’s as American as they come, vigilant in his satire of old poetic styles, Roman, French avant garde, Romantic, and Billy likes jazz, and is just a melting pot of humor and wit.  So that’s good.

OK, we’ve seen what Atwood’s got. 

Wright comes out of the tunnel—into the light, ready to play!

Marla, listen to that crowd!

I love crowds. 

Wright knows this could be his last game, in this single-elimination playoff, but he says he’s going to play this like it’s any other game,  like it was his first.

This is to play in the North final.

A Happy Thought

Assuming this is the last day of my life
(which might mean it is almost the first),
I’m struck blind but my blindness is bright.

Prepare for what’s known here as death;
have no fear of that strange word forever.
Even I can see there’s nothing there

to be afraid of: having already been
to forever I’m unable to recall
anything that scared me, there, or hurt.

What frightened me, apparently, and hurt
was being born.  But I got over that
with no hard feelings.  Dying, I imagine

it will be the same deal, lonesomer maybe,
but surely no more shocking or prolonged—
It’s dark as I recall, then bright, so bright.

Beautiful, hopeful poem.

Wright will make uncanny shots and then miss easy ones.  Let’s see if he’s consistent enough to bring down the tenacious, novel-made-into-major-motion-picture, Booker Prize winning Margaret Atwood.

Wright is playing like he’s possessed!  In a trance, almost, not forcing anything, a long jumper, from waaaay outside…swish!

Wright’s playing with ice in his veins…He’s hitting everything…!

First half, big lead for Wright…

But as we start the second half…oh…another miss…Wright can’t make anything fall…his big lead dwindling…Atwood’s poem has more details and that’s starting to add up for the Canadian….!

Marla, the pictures used for the two poems…Atwood’s may have been more emotionally effective…

That does a play a part, Tom…the photo used for Wright’s poem may have been a little too literal…as you know, these are factors that the poets can’t control…[Richard] Howard may be out-coaching [Billy] Collins here a little bit…

Atwood showing emotional toughness…her poem has all those rich details…Wright trying to find some image he can fall back on…Atwood scores…and we’re tied!  I don’t believe it! 

We’re going into overtime! 

It’s “Now I would know” against “then bright, so bright.” 

What a contest!

Who are you rooting for in this one, Marla?

I soar, I don’t root.  I’m not paid to root, Tom.

Okay, Marla, it’s going back and forth here…

And we’re tied!  Second overtime!

No one’s “bored” by this one!  

Tom, shut up.

Sorry, Marla.  Are you a Dame, by the way, Marla?  Is Margaret a Dame?

Tom, please…earthly titles?  Ha!

These poets want it, and they want it badly.   Both poems…so courageous…and deep…it’s like a couple of badgers tearing at each other…

What a game!

Seconds left, and we’re tied, at the end of the third overtime!

Atwood at the free-throw line.  She has two shots.  If she makes one, she wins.

First shot…

No good!

Here’s the second one…

Good!!!!!!! 

Atwood wins!!!!!

O, Canada!

Damn you, Richard Howard!

There’s nothing left to say…

Atwood is in the Elite Eight.

BILLY EDGES JORIE IN SWEET SIXTEEN

The Best American Poetry March Madness Tournament is down to 16 poets.

“Poets don’t know a lot of math, but I can count to sixteen,” a grinning Billy Collins said after his close win over Harvard professor Jorie Graham

“Don’t you count syllables in your poems?” a reporter yelled from the back of the Kennedy Center lobby.  

“I count wins,” Collins quipped, obviously on cloud nine after making the Sweet Sixteen with a hard fought victory.

Billy’s poem, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey,” looks back at Wordsworth looking back; it resonated a little more than Jorie Graham’s “On Difficulty,” which looks down at Adam and Eve looking up.

They can look up and wonder no longer.   Adam and Eve are going home.

John Hollander chose the Collins poem for the 1998 volume.  Ashbery chose the Graham poem for the first BAP 1988 book.

Collins is the only one who has made the Sweet 16 as BAP poet and BAP editor (2). 

Heather McHugh (3) has the most editor selections in the Sweet 16.  Richard Howard (2) and Donald Hall (2) are making strong showings as editors in the Sweet 16 as well.

Sweet Sixteen Results:

Let’s start with the EastBilly Collins, Stephen Dunn, Robert Pinsky, and Harry Mathews have survived.

In the North, jubilation for Louis Simpson, William Kulik, Margaret Atwood, and Franz Wright.

In the West, the winners were Brad Leithauser, Janet Bowdan, Dean Young, and Lewis Buzbee.

And finally, in the South, rounding out the Sweet 16, are Kenneth Koch, Alan Shapiro, Bernard Welt,  and Reb Livingston.

Able to stop Jorie Graham, Billy Collins now has to be the favorite to go all the way.  

Can anyone stop the Tintern Abbey train?

VENDLER GOES BALLISTIC

The Poetry March Madness Committee stayed here well into the night, in the first of many meetings.

It’s already started.

The Best American Poetry 2010 March Madness Tournament may be the most visible contest between major contemporary poets ever. 

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering is becoming intense, and poets’ emotions are running high.  It goes without saying that Scarriet will bring you every piece of delicious gossip and every rumor swirling around this unprecedented event. 

Helen Vendler is denying that she stormed out of a Poetry March Madness committee meeting when she learned that her friend, the poet Jorie Graham, was being placed as a lowly 16th seed in the East division of the tourney.

“I was very civil,” Vendler said.  

One March Madness committee member was heard to say, “Jorie’s BAP poems are dreary.   Half-breathless, half-insouciant magnification of desultory, cryptic observance in her now-famous sly, line-mangled, parenthetical parlance is just not a winning formula anymore.  Frankly, I find it tedious. What used to seem dignified and mysterious now seems self-important, almost school-girlish.”

“Jorie’s poetry is boring,” another member was overheard to say on the stairwell later that night, “she’s lucky to be in this tournament.”

What some people are saying is that it isn’t so much Graham’s rank that has Vendler upset, but the fact that Graham may have to face Galway Kinnell’s sonorous “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone” in the first round, if that poem is chosen as the no. 1 seed in the East, as most feel it will.  Critics say Kinnell’s poem will be hard to beat, and no poet wants the embarrassment of an early exit from this single-elimination tourney.

The Graham entry has not yet surfaced, though most believe it will be “On Difficulty,” chosen by John Ashbery for the first volume back in 1988. 

“This is all speculation right now,” David Lehman, obviously ruffled by the incident, said after the meeting.   He admitted Vendler did exit the meeting abruptly, but would not comment further. “We want this to be fun, and good for poetry.  We don’t want this to become a battle of egos.  I have the greatest respect for Helen Vendler.  And no, I have no idea whether Ashbery will be a no.1 seed.”

Reached the following morning, Vendler was in good spirits and wished all the poets the best of luck.

A poet gets only one poem to fill one of those 64 seeds.  In other news, Billy Collins was sending out thousands of surveys to help him decide which one of his many BAP poems should enter the tourney and bring him a championship.  “I know Billy well,” a friend said, “and he really wants this bad.  He wants a No. 1 seed and he wants to go all the way.  He wants a title.  The BAP has been good to him and he’s been good to the BAP.”

HOW MANY KINDS OF POETRY ARE THERE?

First and foremost, there is this kind:

(found on the internet)

Twas the night of Thanksgiving and out of the house
Tiger Woods came a flyin’, chased by his spouse.
She wielded a nine iron and wasn’t too merry,
Cause a bimbo’s phone number was in his Blackberry.
He’d been cheatin’ on Elin, and the story progressed.
Woman after woman stepped up and confessed.
He’d been cheatin’ with Holly, and Jaimee, and Cori,
With Joselyn, and Kalika. The world had the story.
From the top of the Tour to the basement of blues,
Tiger’s sad sordid tale was all over the news.
With hostesses, waitresses, he had lots of sex,
When not in their pants, he was sendin’ them texts.
Despite all his cryin’ and beggin’ and pleadin’,
Tiger’s wife went investin’ — a new home in Sweden .
And I heard her exclaim from her white Escalade,
“If you’re gettin’ laid then I’m gettin’ paid.”
She’s not pouting, in fact, she is of jolly good cheer,
Her prenup made Christmas come early this year.

…………………………………………………….Anonymous

 

Next in level of popularity, there is this:

THE DEATH OF THE OLD YEAR

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing:
Toll ye the church bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak low,
For the old year lies a-dying.
Old year you must not die;
You came to us so readily,
You lived with us so steadily,
Old year you shall not die.

He lieth still: he doth not move:
He will not see the dawn of day.
He hath no other life above.
He gave me a friend and a true truelove
And the New-year will take ‘em away.
Old year you must not go;
So long you have been with us,
Such joy as you have seen with us,
Old year, you shall not go.

He froth’d his bumpers to the brim;
A jollier year we shall not see.
But tho’ his eyes are waxing dim,
And tho’ his foes speak ill of him,
He was a friend to me.
Old year, you shall not die;
We did so laugh and cry with you,
I’ve half a mind to die with you,
Old year, if you must die.

He was full of joke and jest,
But all his merry quips are o’er.
To see him die across the waste
His son and heir doth ride post-haste,
But he’ll be dead before.
Every one for his own.
The night is starry and cold, my friend,
And the New-year blithe and bold, my friend,
Comes up to take his own.

How hard he breathes! over the snow
I heard just now the crowing cock.
The shadows flicker to and fro:
The cricket chirps: the light burns low:
‘Tis nearly twelve o’clock.
Shake hands, before you die.
Old year, we’ll dearly rue for you:
What is it we can do for you?
Speak out before you die.

His face is growing sharp and thin.
Alack! our friend is gone,
Close up his eyes: tie up his chin:
Step from the corpse, and let him in
That standeth there alone,
And waiteth at the door.
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.

……………………………………Tennyson

The two most popular versions of poetry, then, are poems of Humor and Elegy.   The anonymous joke-poem now popular on the internet appeals to the spirit of satire and fun.

The 19th century boasts triumphs of melancholy and sadness, like “The Raven,” a poem which itself was quickly satirized.

Is it an accident that the two most popular versions are two defining moods on opposite ends of the human emotional scale: jest and buffoonery on one hand, quiet, dignified sorrow on the other?

The next level of popularity are probably the twin types of Wisdom and Love.

Poems with a simple, yet philosophical message tend to be sonnet-length;  Shakespeare’s sonnets can be found in this category, and, most recently, perhaps, Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken.”

Poems of “wisdom” have been on the wane these last 50 years, or at least successful ones of this type, as anything resembling the didactic has been banned by the sophisticated indirectness currently fashionable.

“Do Not Go Gentle” is more a pleading than a piece of advice, but more recently the wisdom bird has been spotted in the poetry of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, for instance.  This may be the essence of both these poets’ appeal: plain-spoken wisdom.  So perhaps this class of poem has not disappeared, after all.

The Love poem, like the Wisdom poem, seems to have declined among the critically acclaimed in the modern, and especially post-modern eras.   You just don’t find MFA grads expressing “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways” sentiments in poetry.

From Petrarch through Auden, love was nearly the sole subject of the lyric.  In poetry today, how far has love fallen?  Opening at random one of those big anthologies, I find this ‘Song’ from Thomas Stanley (d. 1678), and here are the first two of its five stanzas:

I prithee let my heart alone,
Since now ’tis raised above thee,
Not all the beauty thou dost own,
Again can make me love thee;
 
He that was shipwrecked once before
By such a siren’s call,
And yet neglects to shun that shore,
Deserves his second fall.
………………………………………Thomas Stanley

 How delightful that we get not only the Love poem, but a Wisdom poem, too.    This makes a kind of sense in the popularity scheme we are constructing, with Humor and Elegy on the top tier and Love and Wisdom existing together on the second.

Characteristics of the genres can certainly mingle, and many an ambitious bard has probably sought to conciously use Love and Wisdom and Humor and Elegy all in the same poem in order to produce a masterpiece of popularity: one comes to mind right away, in fact: Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress.”  It has the properties of all four, does it not?  It is elegaic: it mourns the swift passage of time; it is a love poem, certainly; it surely has an archness, which is a part of its appeal, and it contains a common-sense argument, as well, and thus is also a wisdom poem.  And as the centuries pass, “To His Coy Mistress” is moving up the ladder of most popular poem of all time.

Is it possible that contemporary poems do not stick in the mind for the simple reason that without one of these four types to guide it, Humor, Elegy, Wisdom, or Love, the popular taste feels immediately at sea, no matter how skilled the versifier?    Might this be some kind of natural law?

Let us, again, open another book at random, this time to a poem from a contemporary; here is the first stanza, from “Victim of Himself” by Marvin Bell:

He thought he saw a long way off the ocean
cresting and falling, bridging the continents,
carrying the whole sound of human laughter
and moans—especially moans, in the mud of misery—
but what he saw was already diluted, evaporating,
and what he felt were his teeth grinding
and the bubbles of saliva that broke on his tongue.

………………………………………………Marvin Bell

Bell is certainly no slouch as a poet, but reading this, why is it pretty certain this poem will never be popular?

.

POETRY: COMEDY FOR PEOPLE WHO AREN’T FUNNY?

Billy Collins: So this poet walks into a poem…

To read Best American Poetry 2006, when Billy Collins was the judge, is to be struck by the ‘stand-up comedy’ style of its poetry.

Reading over the clever, flamboyant, frank poems in BAP 2006 with more care than they perhaps deserve, we notice the “voice” in these poems tends to be humorous and idiosyncratic—but not quite ‘comedy club’ humorous.  And yet, this seems to be, by default, the target audience.   There’s some success and some charm which follows from this style, but it’s also problematic, since it ultimately doesn’t work as poetry,  and yet it doesn’t work as comedy either; it flounders in a never-never land, between the two genres.

I like to laugh as much as the next person, and when I’m laughing, I don’t care whether what I’m reading is supposed to be poetry, or not.   But what if the material isn’t really funny?  What if that’s the intent, but, in reality, it’s finally just weird? There’s a desire to repeat a good joke, but the merely odd tends to be forgotten.  This is what happens to all contemporary poetry, it seems.

The following is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”  When Collins tries to say how the “voice” feels like something he can “trust,” he gets into  trouble.   When you ask a poem—which is a fiction—to be “honest,” as Collins does, you move  into tricky territory.

Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose the familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurring of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat.  Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern.  It’s the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs.   What has come to replace this system of trust, if anything?  However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice.  As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines.  Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims itself–usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly–or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger?

–Billy Collins, Introduction to BAP 2006, David Lehman series editor

How does Collins expect the reader to figure out that the poem he happens to be reading is not by a “stranger?” The Collins criteria have no merit: “fallibly but honestly?”   Should we trust a poem that begins: Goo goo ga ga goo goo. Fallible?  Yes. Honest? Yes.

But Collins says:  Nothing “grandiose.”  No “riddles.”  Nothing “foisted.”

Let’s be honest, here.  Collins isn’t really talking about a ” voice” that he can “trust.”   That’s just the professor in him talking.   What he’s really looking for are comic bits.    Here, chosen at random, are the opening lines of some poems in BAP 2006:

“Into every life a little ax must fall.”   –Kim Addonizio

“I just found out that my new husband/May have never married me at all.”  –Laura Cronk

“When a sentence is composed of two independent /clauses, the second being weaker than the first/it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it/purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called Ring/Dropped In Muddy Creek, or if elegantly composed, Wasp Fucking Orchid.”Tom Christopher

“At the Miro exhibit in the Centre Pompidou,/I hear a guy say to his girlfriend…”   –David Kirby

“I’ve been smoking so much pot lately”  –Jennifer Knox

“Nose out of joint, City Slicker?/Blown a gasket, Hot Shot?/Fit to be tied, Arty Farty?/Going through the roof, Curtain Raiser?”  –Mark Pawlak

“I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you, he said,/which meant what exactly?”   –Liz Rosenberg

“Because we know our lives will end/Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.”   –Charles Harper Webb

It’s just a hunch, but we think Collins is a better poet for not being able to articulate a thing about poetry.

“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”

BILLY COLLINS KISSES BILL KNOTT ON THE CHEEK ALONG WITH THOMAS BRADY

In the glory days of Harriet, back in the summer of 2009, the following exchange took place between one of our Scarriet editors, Thomas Brady, and the poet, Bill Knott.

“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”  — Thomas Brady

.

“Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed!  Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!” —  Bill Knott

.

Brady writes:

I don’t think the crisis in poetry is a social engineering issue.

It’s not a question of ‘how can we bring poetry to the people?’  Or, if this is the question, the question is not a large, complex one, but only a matter of refinement.

Despite the efforts of ground-breaking poet-academics like John Crowe Ransom (whose ashes are scattered on the Kenyon campus), there is no expertise anywhere that can decide how or what kind of poetry should be delivered up to ‘the people.’ I think we need to cure ourselves of this notion right away. Poetry is not for experts. Poetry is how the people short circuit the experts. Science demands a certain a certain amount of expertise; poetry is the joy of science sans expertise.

The people get all the poetry they need from old poetry or pop songs or prose or opera, or comedy, and these avenues will never be supplemented by contemporary poetry of the difficult variety to any significant degree.

Contemporary poetry is mostly lyric poetry and this is in keeping with our ‘short attention span’ age—which began with the rise of the penny presses 200 years ago and coincided with Poe’s famous words, “A long poem does not exist.”  How could it?  No recordings of Poe reading exist, but we do have Edna Millay and Dylan Thomas: listen to them reading their brief poems—how could one take that intensity for long?

John (Harriet comment) asked about the first ‘lyric poetry reading.’  Poe in the 1840s was asked all the time at salons in NYC to read his “Raven.”  John is absolutely right; not only does a long poem not exist, but short poems should not be read for long; they should never be a big imposition.

Perhaps we need to stop apologizing for the ‘short attention span.’  What if it’s not a flaw at all, but a feature of our advanced, busy, speedy-communications age?

Instead of slamming that square peg into that round hole, why don’t we accept that ‘short attention spans’ are part of who we are now; simply a reflection of how we are adapting to our times, and if poetry is not popular, it’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.

POSTED BY THOMAS BRADY: ON ON JUNE 2, 2009 at 4:07 PM

.
Knott’s response:

“It’s not because the public is too ‘stupid’ to ‘get’ difficult poetry; the poets, and their friendly critics, are stupid in their refusal to stop cultivating ‘long attention span’ poetry.”

–I agree totally with Brady’s point there.

But WHY do (we) poets do this?  Doesn’t the answer lie in the realm of the psychoanalytic…

Almost all writers begin in adolescence by writing poetry—what differentiates those who continue in this futile practice while others (call them adults) go on to write prose…

Given that poetry is the least rewarded/ the least funded of all the writing genres, and indeed of all the arts,

–knowing that, why would anyone willingly opt to pursue this abject vocation…why would anyone seek such inferior status; why would anyone in their right mind join this subgroup, this slaveclass—

Masochists, manic depressives, suicides, all poets are neurotics of the death instinct, losers and failures who embrace the misery of their wretched trade, who wallow in its servile aura of diminishment and squalor—its paltry practice.

But among poets, those dismal defeated schlemiels and corner-biting cowards lured by vile Virgils into the abyss of verse, a fortunate few manage to inhabit the upper circles, its higher hellblocks—

Even among the damned there are divisions…there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed!  Who want their poetry to be read! Who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—

What traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)

No wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver

POSTED BY BILL KNOTT:ON JUNE 2, 2009 AT 5:10 PM

And did Martin Earl take this sitting down, and did Bill Knott not come back with post after post that broke every rule of length and frequency Travis Nichols had ever dreamt of, and did the fracas not wake everybody up and get all the bells in Parnassus ringing?

Oh yes, and yes, and yes!

Yet shortly after Thomas Brady and his friends were punished for writing too much too often, Bill Knott, Eileen Myles, Martin Earl, Annie Finch and all the other passionate irregulars stopped bothering, and despite the best efforts of the new Contributing Writers, Harriet stalled to a  Members Only Chat-roomlike it is.

What a failure of The Poetry Foundation mission!

The Scarriet Editors


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.

BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Robert Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as herself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

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