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

 

 

 

THE WEST, THE WEST…JOHNNY DRYDEN V. DYLAN THOMAS, AND YEATS BATTLES TENNYSON

A funny thing happens when poems gather for battle: the superficial aspects of song take on a new prominence; the mind cannot take in all the “nuances” of “poetry,” and so, as poems eager for a crown press upon us in the public tumult, where emotional cries punctuate the slopes of ideas, the surface-joys of music become our pleasure, almost as if we were at home with a phonograph, or at a rowdy concert, letting our minds go…

Oh if you can just get past JohnJohnny” Dryden’s “Nature underneath a heap/Of jarring atoms lay,/And could not heave her head,” knowing Nature cannot heave her head because the world has not yet arisen, and all the pre-world atoms are still in chaos…if you can not worry this idea too much, musically you’ll be better off…

To hell with Ezra Pound, already, and his grumbly precepts against the full-on joys of music. 

Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” tickles our senses like a brass band:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard, and straight appeared -
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Ta Da!!

Of course there is a philosophy here, but it’s such a deep one, it’s shallow: music is the cause and effect of both the world, and the world beyond.  Who cannot groove to this?  “More than dead” is how Dryden describes the cold universe before the world was made, and up the world arises—sweeter and more miraculous than any zombie movie.  Can you dig it, baby?

Dylan Thomas, the favored seed in this Western Bracket contest with Dryden, presents what has to be experienced by the crowd in the Scarriet Madness arena as music, and it creeps upon us with the same magic in the same manner that Mr. Dryden’s did:

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Dylan Thomas was a glorious, and yet a lazy, sloppy poet—he found gold with

Though lovers be lost love shall not
And Death shall have no dominion.

But we wish he had worked on “Dominion” more—even made more stanzas, because the template is so admirable; look how the third and final stanza droops with vague talk of “gulls” and “daisies”—to finish a magnificent poem so poorly!  What was Dylan thinking?  Speak the first two stanzas aloud to yourself and it will bring tears, and then stumble over the third, ruining the climax…”No more gulls cry at their ears”??? 

Let’s move quickly to the second contest, Marla Muse, recovered from your fainting spell…

Marla Muse (a little wearily): Thank you, Tom.

You’re welcome, Marla.  I like your green dress.

William Butler Yeats is a poet the Official modernists do not know what to do with, because Yeats—does not rhyme with Keats—sang like the Old Romantics, or at least, superficially, he did…if you really listen, Yeats is close to a doggerelist when compared to Shelley and Keats…but then analysis of any kind is barred when it comes to authors like Yeats, covered as they are with the whole Irish thing, exploited by every hypocrite that leaves his native land to make it big in London.  One simply can’t be reasonable, honest, or discerning inside that green, blathering cloud.

But this poem of Yeats’ is uncannily beautiful—everything seems right.  It probably is Yeats’ best poem, even though it lacks a lot of the fussy symbolism and foreboding pomposity of his ‘major’ poems, and it merely copies Wordsworth.  But who cares?  To read this poem is to fall under a sweet and delicate spell, each and every time. 

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is something about the confidence of that first line: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” which lures one in…

And Yeats’ opponent today—Tennyson!!   Once that name—Tennyson—was equated with poetry itselfBut like Longfellow, hairy, tobacco-stained, Tennyson doesn’t thrive in post-modernity’s placid, plastic glare. Lord Tennyson, reputed as that stuffy, imperialist, Victorian, Englishman, falters, fades in the gloaming by the moat…  The memory of Lord Alfred Tennyson in poetic circles seems to moulder even as the memory of William Butler Yeats, the Irish mystic, flies on, steadily…

But now the music begins, the music arrives in the dark of our subjectivity…  Listen!  Here is the song that surely made young Emily Dickinson fear for her soul…but it freed her, for what self-pity was allowed her, the poor recluse, after this!

MARIANA—Tennyson

WITH blackest moss the flower-pots
    Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
    That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
    Unlifted was the clinking latch;
    Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
    Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
    Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
    When thickest dark did trance the sky,
    She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
    Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
    From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
    In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
    Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
    A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
    The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
    All silver-green with gnarled bark:
    For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
    And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
    She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
    And wild winds bound within their cell,
    The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
    Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call’d her from without.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
            I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
    When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
        Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
            He will not come,’ she said;
        She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            O God, that I were dead!’

This poem, with its never-ending, melancholy gloom, reaches a peak of that kind of sad expression which seems fantastical, in the way Tennyson expresses it, but which actually is ordinary and wraps itself around us all. 

“Mariana” had to be written, so that Victorianism could end, and Modernism could begin. Tennyson brought us to the top of the old heights, so the new low ground could be made ready.

But will such music ever end?

Who prevails, in the end, in the very end, the Yeats, or the Tennyson?

In our action today, we see Dryden triumph over Thomas, 72-69.

And here, in the corner of the stadium, Tennyson weeps, for by a score of 80-79, Yeats has won.

JANUARY 2013 POETRY MAGAZINE REVIEWED, PART 2

Baudelaire: Scared the hell out of Poetry magazine contributor Daisy Fried

We now come to the prose part of Poetry’s January issue, which includes a series of “Reconsiderations” of well-known poets, called “Antagonisms” in the Poetry Table of Contents—which is a terrific idea, and we think it should be a regular feature.

Some of the Poetry hires go right after their famous counterparts, but others get cold feet, apologizing to the editors: I want to take apart Baudelaire b-b-but I just can’t!

Dylan Thomas is the first titan up, and Michael Robbins fearlessly takes him on .

“Reconsidering Dylan Thomas,” or “The Child That Sucketh Long” begins with an amusing Michael Robbins observation: phrases from Thomas’ poems sounds like the names of Heavy Metal bands:

They appear to be the names of  heavy metal bands: Plague of  Fables; Star-Flanked Seed; Serpent Caul; Murder of Eden; Altar of Plagues; Seed-at-Zero; The Grave and My Calm Body; Dark Asylum; Mares of  Thrace; Herods Wail; Christbread; Binding Moon; Red Swine. In fact they are phrases culled from Dylan Thomas’s poems — except that I threw two actual metal bands in there. Didn’t notice, did you?

When Robbins indulges in pure fun, as above, he’s enjoyable to read, but we’re afraid we’re going to have to take Robbins to task for some of his Thomas-bashing.

Robbins faults Thomas for “disregard[ing] what part of speech a word usually is,” but in Robbins’  example, “I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain, /  Let fall the tear of time,” the culprit is metaphoric vagueness, not the word, “fellowed.”

Robbins errs again when he calls the following “sentimental:”

No. Not for Christ’s dazzling bed
Or a nacreous sleep among soft particles and charms
My dear would I change my tears or your iron head.
Thrust, my daughter or son, to escape, there is none, none, none,
Nor when all ponderous heaven’s host of waters breaks.

Robbins follows the quote with: “Who does the guy think he is?”

Modern and post-modern critics, habitually rejecting what has come to be known as Victorian sentiment, are often blind to every modern lapse which plagues contemporary poetry: obscurity, ugliness, and pretentiousness.  Robbins is wrong: if there’s a problem with the Thomas passage it’s the failure to depict more accessibly its sentiment.  It is Robbins, the critic, who is being sentimental here.

Robbins correctly finds the Hopkins influence: “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…” and says,

Hopkins sincerely believed the state of his soul was at stake. All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed. 

Sincerely believed?  Now who is being sentimental?

Expression is all—whether we judge Tennyson or Ashbery, and supplying biographical information to imply that one poet “sincerely believes” more than another is, well, sentimental.  We are not sure how the desire to “gorgeously express a sentiment” translates into “self-pity,” but worrying about the “state of one’s soul” does not. The confusion Robbins suffers from arises, not because moderns are no longer mawkish, but because they’ve erected an anti-mawkish standard on what they don’t seem to realize is mawkish ground.

“Who does the guy think he is?” Robbins cries, but he should look in the mirror and see how he resembles the old Moderns who looked back at Keats, Shelley and Byron, and cried, “Who did these guys think they were?”  The response is, “Who do you think the guy has to be?”

Robbins finishes his essay on Thomas by pointing out some other moderns who fell into what Robbins calls  “mannered mush.”  But here’s the problem: All poetry worth the name is, in some way, mannered and courts, to a some degree, sentiment.  When we are shocked to find, upon careful inspection, that modern poetry rises (or falls) to mannered sentiment, well, we shouldn’t be.  The critic needs to tell us how the manner and the sentiment fail—because of course they often do, in every modern poet there is—it is time we stop hiding, in our false modern haughtiness, behind the generalized and slap-dash accusation of “mannered mush.”

Like Hart Crane’s, Thomas’s faults protrude embarrassingly from the wazoo. Crane’s are easier to forgive, since he had vision, and Thomas was myopic. But at his best he has, like Crane, a towering presence of mind, a stranglehold on the language. Perhaps I’d love him more if   I hadn’t loved him so much, so early. I’ve made my peace with other early crushes who came to seem so much mannered mush: James Wright, Rilke, Neruda. Rereading Thomas now for this piece, I found myself thawing toward him, as I slowly did toward those others, whom now I love anew, love more clearly. So get you gone, Dylan Thomas, though with blessings on your head.

We give Robbins’ essay C+.

Jason Guriel goes off on E.E. Cummings—who was at Harvard with T.S. Eliot and belonged very much to the Eliot/Pound/Moore/Williams Dial clique—who is an easy target, and Guriel doesn’t miss.  The essay’s title, “Sub-Seuss,” bodes its take-no-prisoners approach.

The message Cummings communicates here — and which langpo
types and concrete poets continue to internalize — is remarkably 
unambiguous: words are toy blocks, and poems, child’s play. No one else has made making it new look so easy.

But Cummings’s poems themselves were only superficially “new.” Beneath the tattoo-thin signifiers of edginess — those lowercase i’s, those words run together —  flutters the heart of a romantic. (Is there a correlation between typographically arresting poetry and emotional arrestedness?) He fancies himself an individual among masses, finds the church ladies have “furnished souls,” opposes war. He’s far more self-righteous, this romantic, than any soldier or gossip — and far deadlier: he’s a teenager armed with a journal.

Guriel gets the job done.  A-

Thank God for Laura Kasischke.  She punctures Wallace Stevens with delicacy, modesty, and humor, and it’s a rip-roaring good time because she calls out this overrated, sometimes Sub-Seuss, poet.

I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, 
a poet, and a human being that I don’t like the work of  Wallace Stevens. I know that there are scholars who have devoted their lives to his work, and done so out of  the purest motives. I know that there are poets who, without Stevens’s work to inspire them, would never have taken up the pen themselves. I know that there are students for whom “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” upon first being encountered, cracked open a world of thought and language and helped them to pull themselves out of the gutter of cable television and to worship forever after at the altar of Wallace Stevens. I know that hundreds — thousands! — of far better readers, thinkers, poets, and human beings love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Spiritually. In all sincerity. And completely.

But, honestly, how can they? I placed a jar in Tennessee…?

“No! Don’t! Please!” someone (perhaps that poor secretary to whom he supposedly dictated the poems every morning) should have said. She should have said, “Wallace, no. Don’t use the word ‘placed.’ It makes you sound so… so …  so full of yourself ! As if you think that every time you toss a candy wrapper out the window the landscape rearranges itself around you. The whole idea that someone (you) has put (I mean placed) a jar on a hill and then written
a poem about it — that whole idea is so ludicrous and disturbing that it will be discussed for decades in cold rooms with bad lighting. And the music of it! omg! It did not give of bird or bush… 
You really are joking now, aren’t you? This is like that other line, the one with the concupiscent curds in it? Right? You’re just trying to make the kids in Poetry 101 with hangovers start up with the cold sweats, right?”

But perhaps she never dared to say that. He was a powerful man. He was never told by anyone that a poem with a line that required pronouncing the name “Tehuantepec” repeatedly, followed by a line about the “slopping” sea, was stomach-churning. And no one ever asked him to explain how, exactly, a man and a woman and a blackbird can be one. No one said, “Nuncle, you must reconsider this hoo-hoo-hoo and shoo-shoo-shoo and ric-a-nic. And, of course, ‘cachinnation’ is going to require yet another footnote, you know. Maybe just say ‘loud laughter’?”

Just now I took out the Norton, thinking I must be misremembering these lines. No poet as beloved as Wallace Stevens could have written them. But the first Stevens line my eyes fall upon is “Opusculum paedagogum.  / The pears are not viols.” At least I don’t have to worry about those lines getting stuck in my head all day.

Was that “poor secretary” Helen Vendler, by any chance?

Stevens is often viscerally annoying—and any metaphysical apology misses the point.  More than that: Stevens, as Kasischke reminds us, is pretentious (or just silly) in sound as well as sense—and it’s natural to get called out this way since we are talking about poetry.

Laura Kasischke, you get an A.

Peter Campion finds the novels and essays of D.H. Lawrence stronger than the poetry, but we think his best poems hold up better than his prose.  But I suppose if one slogs through Lawrence’s “Collected,” the preachy pessimisim would probably overwhelm.  We feel the best of his poetry will outlast everything else.

Campion finds the “fatalistic and tender” a important feature of Lawrence and British poetry (Larkin, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald).  We suppose he has a point.

We’ll give Campion a solid B.

Daisy Fried is clearly intimidated by Baudelaire, and in a fit of American self-hatred, finally succumbs to his lurid seduction.

After all, he and Poe invented poetic goth. It’s not Baudelaire’s fault his modern-day followers are goofballs. And not their fault I’m a boring middle-aged American. 

Objections to sexism in this passage are anachronistic; Baudelaire’s always most revolted by himself.
We in America could use more romantic self-disgust. (Frederick Seidel thinks so. Ooga Booga is the Fleurs du Mal of our time.)

Fried earns a B.

Ange Mlinko was given the most difficult task: Elizabeth Bishop, who is virtually untouchable these days.  The dialogue format she chooses works pretty well, but the content isn’t terribly interesting.  Mlinko finds Bishop chummy, congenial, wishy-washy, and formally rote.  Which seems completely wrong.  Bishop is actually quite surly in her poems.

We give Mlinko a C.

We now come to the final two January 2013 Poetry essays—by Ilya Kaminsky and Peter Cole; instead of short and sweet “antagonisms, these are lengthy, dreary affairs, tedious, and self-important, the sorts of essays that blot the literary landscape with cool quotes, cool locales, cool names—and rhetoric which serves no other purpose than background to the cool quotes, cool locales, and cool names.

Take Ilya Kaminsky’s “Of Strangeness That Wakes Us” (on Paul Celan).

Cool quotes: W.H. Auden: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Theodor Adorno: “It Is Barbaric To Write Poetry After The Holocaust.”  Anne Carson: “Celan is a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.”  Eavan Boland: “It is the poet’s process that needs to be translated.”Emily Dickinson: “I Felt A Funeral, in my Brain.” Robert Kelly: We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.” Check.

Cool locales: Czernowitz, Vienna, Paris.  Check.

Cool names: Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo, Walt Whitman, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ovid, Breton, John Berryman.  Check.

Kaminsky ponders at the start of his essay, “Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim?”

The answer is simple in ratio to the rhetorical labor Kaminsky expends to prove otherwise: Yes, it is too obscure.

If we are honest, and admit obscurity right away, we don’t have to waste our time quoting Emily Dickinson, Eavan Boland, and Robert Kelly.  As long as Kaminsky can dance and beat a drum, he drags in another well-known quote to prove the impossible, and it is painful to watch.

Kaminsky quotes Zbigniew Herbert (of course!):

INTERVIEWER: “What is the purpose of poetry?”
HERBERT: “To wake up!”

But how does it wake us up?  And it wakes us to what?

Kaminsky gives us the answer (rather gallantly) by quoting from Genesis (a Biblical quotation!) backwards and claims there’s “more poetry” when we read the passage in reverse. 

“And there was light let there be God and said waters.” 

I suppose it might please an atheist to read “let there be God,” but poetry isn’t meant to please one belief system over another, is it? 

Kaminsky can’t seriously be saying any text read backwards will be more poetic, and thus, wake us up

What Kaminsky does explicitly say is that lyric poetry “wrecks normal language,” but this observation, which is nearly a truism, cannot make obscure poetry less obscure.

In the Genesis example—the crowning jewel of the essay—Kaminsky takes sacred, elevated language (Genesis) and “wrecks” it.

The backwards reading of Genesis, altering the intended meaning, takes authority away from God and gives it back to language. Since humans are limited in their perceptions, the atheist position is how all humans (correctly or incorrectly) experience the universe. So the backward phrase, “let there be God,” which finds the human-writing (truth) of Genesis, “wakes” us up to the atheist reality within a sacred text.

This is an interesting religious argument, but it has nothing to do with Kaminsky’s defense of Celan’s poetry.

Likewise, distorting or punning on famous words, as Kaminsky does with Genesis, is done all the time in the popular press—would Kaminsky call this “poetry” that “wakes us up?”  If a pun gives a ‘haha’ moment, perhaps ‘wrecking’ language can give us an ‘aha’ moment. 

This is an interesting linguistic argument, but it has nothing to do with reading Paul Celan.

Kaminsky is not writing an essay, but tip-toeing through the tulips of argumentation, dazzling with quotations; in Kaminsky’s rarefied realm of Zbigniew Herbert quotes, he appears to miss the common sense implications of his own rhetoric.

This is how Kaminsky reads Celan in the opening of his essay:

The deciphering of the text proves the worthiness of the reader.

Some of Celania’s poems are modern psalms; here is one:

Of  too much was our talk, of
too little. Of  the You
and You-Again, of
how clarity troubles, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

Of
that.
On the day of an ascension, the
Minister stood over there, it sent
some gold across the water.

Of  your God was our talk, I spoke
against him, I
let the heart that I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
quarreling word —

Your eye looked on, looked away,
your mouth
spoke its way to the eye, and I heard:
We
don’t know, you know,
we
don’t know, do we?,
what
counts.
Zurich, the Stork Inn, tr. by Michael Hamburger

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” says Mahmoud Darwish. “Clarity troubles.” Celan, often considered a difficult poet, is in this poem at his clearest.

Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim? Is it too hermetic? Too difficult? Real poems, Celan wrote, are “making toward something   …    perhaps toward an addressable Thou.” I would argue that, for any poet writing toward such a subject, regular words and syntax soon become inadequate (Hopkins, anyone?). Celan is an extreme case though, because he also had to contend with the inadequacy of the German language to express the experience of the Jewish poet, post-Holocaust. His is the lyricism of privacy (prayer is private, no matter with how many fellow congregants it is uttered or in how many prayer books it appears), not of hermeticism. In fact, Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that he was “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch.” Absolutely not hermetic.

Does Kaminsky read Celan’s “modern psalm” backwards to understand it better? 

No.

Is Celan a punster? 

No.

Is Celan’s poem clear?

No.

Is Kaminsky able to make Celan’s poem less obscure for us?

No.

Is it at all clear what this “adressable Thou” is?

No.

The subject of Kaminsky’s essay simply doesn’t know itself.

Finally, Kaminsky’s main point is the “privacy” of the lyric poet—and he ends his essay:

A great poet is not someone who speaks in stadiums to thousands of  listeners. A great poet is a very private person. In his or her privacy this poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.

But this doesn’t make any sense.  If one hears a poet’s words in a stadium among thousands of listeners, one is still responding as a private person to those words. “Creating a language to speak, privately, to many people at the same time” could signify a poet speaking in a stadium to thousands.  Why not?  And so where does this leave Kaminsky’s definition of lyric “privacy?”

We must give Kaminsky’s essay a C, because for all it brings, it is hollow at its center, arguing from scattered quotes rather than from common sense.

Peter Cole has something called, “The Invention of Influence: A Notebook/A Notebook: Seeking higher powers in the Middle East” in which he rambles, endlessly; like Kaminsky, Cole proffers quotation after quotation, never stopping long enough to  explore any one issue.  It’s the School of Harold Bloom: peeling the onion of reference after reference after reference to find at the center nothing but a tremendous ego who reads a lot.  Surely Peter Cole should be interesting—he reads so much! 

Cole’s essay is more personal than Kaminsky’s, which makes it ‘warmer,’ but also more helter-skelter; Cole made a much freer space for himself—though you end up wishing he hadn’t.  Cole tries to gives us: ‘here’s how I write/here’s how I think/here’s what’s going on,’ but ends up giving us, ‘would you look how much I travel/would  you look how much I observe/would you look how much I read.’  One cannot tell whether the failure of the essay is from the sort of person Cole is, or whether the failure is from the form the essay happened to take—and it speaks even worse for Cole that we cannot tell.  The essay is briefly everywhere and thus, nowhere.

When you read stuff like this from Cole’s essay, one can only think, will you please shut up?

Why did I have such a hard time coming up with an “antagonism” to write about for Poetry? Do the dead bite back? Or is it that I’m by temperament and training now so fastidiously turned against myself
that I lean into my antagonisms until they give way at a certain point like a secret door-in-the-wall to enthusiasm? James Merrill, for instance. Or Pope.

It’s a translator’s gift, and curse. A strategy of masking and, I suppose, also of evasion. Not only an ability to inhabit difference, but a desire and need to. As a source of pleasure, and nourishment — even wisdom. What others find in fiction?

Hence, too, the obsession of late with couplets, which I once despised. The desire to compose in rhymed couplets in such a way as to highlight the openness lurking in a certain closure. As organic as a pulse, or respiration.

It’s embarrassing to watch how ‘open and nice’ strive to hide ‘crazy and nasty.’  He’s too nice to give the Poetry editors an “antagonism.”  Well, not so much nice, as fastidiously turned against himself.  Too bad, Poetry editors. Mr. Cole fastidiously refuses.

Cole once “despised” couplets??  How can one “despise” couplets?  Oh, but dear friends, Peter Cole is now obsessed with couplets—in order to highlight openness lurking in a certain closure—and this (of course!) is organic. 

Good grief.

Cole gets a C-.

Finally, one lively Letter to the Editor is published, in which Philip Metres takes Clive James to task for “the idea that poems exist only for the page, [which] is lamentably myopic, and part of the predicament of  poetry’s marginalization in American culture.”

The lesson here, as we judge Poetry’s prose in their January issue,  seems to be: in Letters, antagonism is life and its opposite, death.

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

WHAT TO DO ABOUT MODERNIST CRACKPOTISM?

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues” (1965)

There is nothing wrong with crackpotism and literary experimentation in the salons; it is certainly welcome in private places; but what happens when it’s fed to the young?

Crackpotism is harmless unless it becomes institutionalized, and corrupts and confuses millions of young people.   The very clever may assimilate themselves to the crackpotism of the system and thrive in it, eventually becoming crackpot professors, but the vast majority of students, once exposed to modernist crackpotism, never read literature or philosophy again.

In our review of the Norton (2003) Vol. I of Modern poetry, we found that 16% of the pages were devoted to “poetics,” (the rest to poetry) and remarked on the prose’s poor quality.

Poetry has no need for Apology or Defense; no one bothers to attack poetry anymore—because poetry no longer has a public; thus the reason for “poetics” is drying up.

We would expect things only to get worse; and it has.  If we look at Norton’s Vol. II Contemporary Poetry volume, we find merely 8% of its pages devoted to “poetics” and gibberish is even more the norm:

Olson:  Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed to have the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions.

Dylan Thomas:  If you want a definition of poetry, say: ‘Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing’ and let it go at that.

Larkin:  But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on.

Frank O’Hara:  But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them.  Improves them for what?  Death?

Ginsberg:  Mind is shapely, art is shapely.  Meaning mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image and gets to last thoughts.  Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies…

Baraka:  The most successful fiction of most Negro writing is in its emotional content.

Levertov:  Rhyme, chime, echo, reiteration: they not only serve to knit the elements of an experience but often are the very means, the sole means, by which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception can be transmuted into language, apperceived.

Rich:  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

Heaney:  Looking back on it, I believe there was a connection, not obvious at the time but, on reflection, real enough, between the heavily accented consonantal noise of Hopkins’s poetic voice, and the peculiar regional characteristics of a Northern Ireland accent.

Louise Bennett:  Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican Dialec is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

Charles Bernstein:  Not “death” of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn (fills vats ago lodges spire), or, that much rarer case…

A.K Ramanujan:  One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers.  When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.”

Derek Walcott:  Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow…

And we are done.  We have represented all the writers on “poetics” from this 1,200 page anthology, and I believe we are correct when we say these excerpts speak for themselves, and require no commentary.

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?

.

THE GREATEST STANZA OF ALL TIME IS…

The stanza is the aria of poetry.  If the line zings, the stanza sings.  The stanza is poetry’s true voice, where the poet displays not just melody, but harmony, as well.

The stanza presents not just an image, but an image moving into another.

The stanza is the line out for a spin on the racetrack.

The stanza is the line on the dance floor, the line proposing marriage.

The stanza is the beginning, the middle and the end of the meal.

If a line is a puff, the stanza is the whole cigarette.

If the line skitters, the stanza is the release, the fall, and the landing.

The stanza is the full-length portrait of Painting, the torso of Sculpture, the pillar, the room, of Architecture.

We like poets of the line.  We study poets of the poem.  We  worship poets of the stanza.

Lines can be dropped into letters or conversations or prose.  Stanzas raise the curtain on the muses.

Lines are bites.  Stanzas are plans.

The art of the stanza takes many forms.  It can beat a folk tune in 4/4 time:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

………………………………Andrew Marvell

Or, it can sound almost symphonic:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

……………………………………………………..Edgar Allan Poe

The most remarkable stanzas have a unique design, and are more than simply couplets joined together.

The line exists as a unit of sound/meaning.

The stanza, though it has more parts, and can be pedantically categorized (tercet, quatrain, ballad stanza, Ottava Rima, Spenserian, etc) exists independently as a unit of sound/meaning, as well.

We might say that the “free verse” revolution of the 20th century was not so much a joyous act of freedom as it was an anxious flight from the stanza.

The poetic line did not become important in a vacuum; the shackles were real, and those shackles?

The stanza.

The sociological explanation invariably ignores this, equating ‘old’ poetry with ‘old’ times and ‘new’ or ‘modern’ poetry with ‘new’ or ‘modern’ times.  But this is to push history aside for a vain celebration of the present.

The ‘modern’ poets were not celebrating the ‘modern,’ for the poems never know if they are ‘modern,’ or not.  The poems only know what they are as poems, in terms of line and stanza.

A poem can never say it is modern in a way that history will be convinced.

In the middle of the 19th century, with the rise of prose fiction and prose journalism, poetry was poised to improve on the stanza.   Poe’s ‘Raven’ was a sensation as music, with its unique stanza.   Poe was once accused of stealing his stanza-idea from Coleridge, but Poe said in his defense that the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s” stanza was different in 19 ways, and—we doubt that anyone is surprised—Poe listed every one.

Poe understood (oh that rascal understood everything) that with the rise of prose (Poe was leading the charge with short fiction, essay, prose poem, science fiction and detective fiction) poetry had only technique to save it and the stanza was the key to poetic technique.

Poe saw the tidal wave of prose coming.

Some modern poets pondered protection in houses of stanza and thought, “No way.  This tidal wave’s too big.”

Many modern poets built their poems on sand, and others, rather than be drowned by prose, tried to breathe in prose.

The poets turned into fish.

And drowned anyway.

Is it surprising that the poets most popular in the 20th century, such as Dylan Thomas, Millay, Frost, and Plath, were adept at the stanza?

Millay’s marvelous sonnets—what are these but stanzas?

Plath’s “Daddy” has one of the most original and interesting stanza schemes ever produced.

THE POEM OF MELANCHOLY HORROR

For the poem of melancholy horror to succeed, the reader must fall under its spell.

But just a tincture of the didactic and the effect is ruined.  Modern poets are especially prone to spoil this type of poem; they write of the horrible, but rarely combine horror with melancholy—which produces the sublime effect we have in mind.  The poem of melancholy horror peaked between 1800 and 1960.

American poetry in the last 20 years seems to be wholly absent of what we call melancholy horror.   We always seem to say, ‘That’s not melancholy, that’s depressing.’   We could assign this recent phenomenon to what we might term the scientific ego in the contemporary poet, a sort of clever hardness which will have no part of Victorian or Romantic sorrow.

Molly Peacock, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Lowell, to name some slightly older poets at random, have written poems of melancholy horror, but a determined busy-ness and verbosity, combined with a didactic intent, ensures failure.  Fred Seidel often gives us horror—and ego.  But there’s no melancholy, no shadow.

Part of the problem involves an acute misreading of Poe’s Heresy of the Didactic.  The issue is one of appearance: one must not appear to impart a moral or a lesson to the reader.

It is fine to impart a lesson; one just cannot seem to do so.

Poe made this quite explicit.

In terms of appearances, we all know that the best way to call attention to something is when we bungle the hiding of it.

This is what the modern poets do:  They know they cannot preach, but they cannot resist doing so, and because the moderns, in being good moderns, have chucked the stage devices of cheap, theatrical effects of the “old” poetry, and because the moderns suffer no hesitation in being frank and discursive in the above-board modern style, they tend to blurt out their lessons, which are poor lessons to begin with—since these moderns are not in the habit of really having anything to say, having been taught that the didactic should be avoided.

Pondering their Poe and the writings of the New Critics, with its ‘heresy of the paraphrase,’ the modern poets have come to think that one can write poetry while having nothing to say at all; if one cannot paraphrase their poem, they think, if their poem has no message or meaning, this is all the better, and perhaps, one day, they may even reach that ‘pure’ style of non-style all moderns affect,  and yet, given the modern style, in which melancholy surfaces and all sorts of cheap Victorian effects are to be eschewed, what remains is a kind of didacticism by default, sans lesson, sans moral, sans theme, just a kind of blathering that “wins” by avoiding the pitfalls Poe and the New Critics superficially laid out.

What Poe really meant—no one knows what the New Critics meant, since they never really thought the problem through—was this: The poet must not appear to be didactic; if the poet can impart a message without anyone noticing, good for the poet.  Thus a Wordsworth, who does have something to say, can succeed even in the face of Poe’s “heresy,” while a Robert Lowell, let’s say, stumbles, for Lowell imparts only the vaguest half-lessons, not because his lessons are well-hidden, but because he discursively bungles the HIDING ITSELF precisely because there is very little worth hiding in the first place.

If Lowell’s poem, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” for instance, were coherent in what it were ‘trying to say,’ the melancholy horror might work; but as it is, the poem is unfocused, flat, the transition from the stated theme to “as a small boy…” is clumsy; the poem has no emotional impact not because the theme lacks horror, but because the poet lacks wit.

Here, then are some of the best Lyric Poems of Melancholy Horror, certainly not meant to be definitive:

  1. Darkness  –Byron
  2. Because I Could Not Stop For Death  –Dickinson
  3. Mariana –Tennyson
  4. Bluebeard  –Millay
  5. La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –Keats
  6. The Truth the Dead Know  –Sexton
  7. In the Waiting Room  –Bishop
  8. In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned   –James Wright
  9. Pike  –Ted Hughes
  10. Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
  11. Lady Lazarus   –Plath
  12. A Brown Girl Dead  –Countee Cullen
  13. Mental Traveler   –Blake
  14. O Where Are You Going?  –Auden
  15. Sweeney Among the Nightingales   –Eliot
  16. The Men’s Room In the College Chapel  –Snodgrass
  17. Alone  –Poe
  18. The Phantom-Wooer  –Beddoes
  19. My Last Duchess  –Browning
  20. The Tourist From Syracuse  –Donald Justice
  21. Rime of the Ancient Mariner  –Coleridge
  22. Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
  23. Blue-Beard’s Closet  –Rose Terry Cooke
  24. Death of The Hired Man  –Frost
  25. Second Coming  –Yeats
  26. In A Dark Time  –Roethke
  27. Piazza Piece  –Ransom
  28. Nerves   –Arthur Symons
  29. Hunchback in the Park  –Dylan Thomas
  30. Suspira   –Longfellow

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

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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


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