THERE IS A RADICAL ERROR

There are two ways to respond to any impressive performance: “Bravo!” or “How did you do that?”  The second response will sometimes unnerve the performer, and of course it’s also the basis of education and pedagogy.

Edgar Poe, before Modernism, before the Writing Era, before Post-Modern Theory, asked in his “Philosophy of Composition,” why poets never recorded how they wrote a poem, and thought “authorial vanity” the chief reason. Poe goes on to illustrate, step-by-step, how he wrote, “The Raven.”  Poe, here, was destroying the Romantic notion that a poem was “organic,” that a poem had to be written because of some fountain of passionate expression in the poet’s soul, that a poem was a mystical, religious experience glimpsed through a burning window. Poe merely said we can put together a poem like a piece of machinery.  The New Critics and T.S. Eliot, with their anti-Romantic, perfunctory, ironic, modern, intelligence, learned it all from this one essay.  Much was made of (and the moderns mocked) Poe’s “Death of a beautiful woman” formula; but this was just Poe (as usual) having it both ways: machinery/tenderly human.  The point Poe was making was that the poem-machinery still needs a human theme to work like a machine: machines work for people, after all.   “The death of a beautiful woman” really wasn’t the point at all.  It was just an example.  His machine, as he tells his readers, was a “popular” poem machine; you need a popular theme for a popular poem to work.

The poet must be a critic of himself even more than the critic needs to be a critic of the poets, for the former produces great poetry; the latter only points out bad poetry.  We can crudely puff ourselves, too, investing in “Bravo!” over “How did you do that?”  This third option is by far the worst.

Poets should be critics, but should they be fiction writers, too?  Or historians, as well?  How much should the genres mingle?  Critically, how much can be surveyed at once?   Is there enough time to become expert in more than one field?

And is it philosophy that should bind all these up—criticism, poetry, fiction, and history?

Any poet will give short, competent answers to these questions in interviews, and every intellectual revels in a certain number of disciplines, but philosophically we’re winging it.  No one really knows very much, beyond a suave, surface nominalism capable of fooling people for an afternoon in front of a classroom.  In our hearts we know we are frauds.  Inspiration may visit.  But not for very long.

The following is merely a good place for this discussion to start because it manages to cover it all: poetry, fiction, history, and criticism.  It is from Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.”

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

The analysis and criticism of literary fiction invariably involves talk of three things: “character,” “point-of-view,” and some “essay topic theme” by which the work is generally characterized and marketed: Man v. Nature, Boomer Romance Comedy, or topical news interest such as immigration, gun control, health control, cyber-bullying.

These things, however: character, p.o.v., and theme, though commonly discussed, are crude markers.  A new vocabulary for discussing fiction is necessary.

The one thing we all want is to know and reflect the truth—if such a thing exists, and let’s assume, for the moment that it does.  So poems, stories, criticism of those poems and stories, history, philosophy should express—in their various ways—truth.  Truth, for the reader of fiction, might be truth of character, a small insight into life, a slice of political truth—it doesn’t have to be truth with a capital “T,” just so we know what we are generally aiming for, here.

Edgar Poe makes the radical assertion that he prefers writing a story without a “thesis” from “history,” or “one suggested by an incident of the day.”  Then he goes on to say that he will select an original and vivid “impression” to affect the “susceptible” reader, using “incident” and “tone” and looking “within” to find the right “combination” of such.

We can hear the howls of protest from those looking for “truth.”  Mr. Poe, by walling himself off from history and life, and starting with the impressionable reader, seems determined to get as far away from the truth as possible, to say nothing of “looking within” for “combinations.”

Poe, are you mad?   Yes, mad like a fox.

Here’s how we imagine Poe would respond: Why insult history, and worse, Truth herself, by saying fiction is true? Why make fiction into a kind of half-history/history lite, incident-of-the-day-illustration, or an essay chock full of half-truths that yet satisfies a blowhard’s opinionated animus in a certain literature-approved direction? A reader’s susceptibility is simply the coin of fiction; why pretend otherwise? If the bad routinely preys on this susceptibility, why not genius, too? As for the ‘walling off’ and ‘looking within,’ charge: removing fiction from history’s realm—where history is merely turned into half-truth by the untrustworthy—we free up fiction to be more itself: combinations of tone and incident fashioned within by the only one worthy to fashion, in a novel manner, these combinations: the author.

“Incident” is just the right word, too, as bland as it might sound to modern ears.  “Incident” refers to both character and plot, neither of which can exist without the other.  We hear lovers of literary fiction go on about “character,” as if mere “plot” belonged to the cruder arcs of genre fiction, “character” distinguishing high-brow productions from their populist kin.  We recall Poe scolding a critic, who, in speaking of Hamlet, the character, wrote of Hamlet as if he were a real person who walked among us, and not simply the coinage of Shakespeare’s brain.  As the religiously superstitious over-anthropomorphize, so the critic of literary fiction inevitably mistakes fictional characters for real persons—they are not.  “Character” is merely a piece of machinery belonging to the fiction, belonging to the “incidents,” and is no more genuine than a plot device—for each part of the machine cannot exist without the other; the “combination” of the “incidents” is all—and the “character” merely a piece existing for those “incidents” and their “tone,” a tone which belongs solely to the author, and if we think the tone has anything to do with “character,” we err in the manner just alluded to in the Hamlet example.

When Poe, the author, constructs a story, obviously “the real” seeps in, but to acknowledge this is only to recognize what the more history-based author makes paramount, anyway.  The issue here is “Who is in charge?”  The author, or the historical incident Both have integrity, and this is precisely why we don’t want to mix them up.

Much is made of “point of view,” also.  But “incident” can cover this, as well.  The author needs to best determine whether first or third person will work better for the nature of the story being told.  Again, this has nothing to with “character,” for instance, or the sorts of topical or historical truths the reader of literary fiction is often on the hunt for: it still boils down to Poe’s simple formula: “combinations” of “incidents” and “tone.”

Poetry is beholden even more rigorously to the same laws.  If one writes a poem about one’s grandmother dying of cancer, the poem will be obliterated by the grandmother, and the cancer.

There are “incidents of the day,” there are historical themes, of which no poem could be the register—and still be a poem.  John Updike, the distinguished fiction writer who dabbled in poetry, published a poem about the poignant death of a family puppy—with tears running down our cheeks we deny not the pup, but the poem.  If gossip-as-art lives, true art dies—this would be the more hysterical type of warning we might give.

The fiction writer might think himself free of the principles set down by the master, Poe, who was determined that the short story be like the poem in its artistic and imaginative rigor.  But these are questions for the critic and the philosopher, if not for the magazine or newspaper reviewer.

The protest will surely sound something like this:  I wrote this story because my puppy died.  How dare you ask me how it was done!

THE TWO ACADEMIES

The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.

CULTURAL FASCISM


“I Want To Hold Your Land…”

The world’s intellectuals have little trouble discerning the signs of political oppression: a great gulf between rich and poor, military extremism, leaders who feed—vampire-like—upon the people, buying-and-selling for short-term gain, a high degree of domestic abuse, social intolerance, poor buildings, poor roads, poor nutrition, poor health, and science crushed by superstition.

Unfortunately, these same intellectuals are often eager to applaud and cultivate cultural fascism.  They support art which is ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

Why do they support such art?

The answer is simple.

Because it is art.

The intellectuals support this art, not because they are in favor of ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity, obviously, but because they feel they would not be true intellectuals if they did not allow art to be this way if it so chooses.

On issues of politics, the intellectuals, almost to the last, oppose, with all their might, these negative qualities; they oppose them in life, and yet, the sad fact is, political states everywhere are in thrall to these negatives: ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity.

Why, then, should we be surprised, that these qualites dominate in art?

Contemporary poetry is ignored by the masses, and for the rest of us, the highly educated who read it, poetry produces knowing smirks more than anything else.

The intellectual understands this political/art issue to be absolute: no protest can be made upon this count, for art must be free.   After all, art is not life, art is not politics, and bad politics would tell art what to do.   Therefore good politics does not tell art what to do.

Socrates, the wisest philosopher, is shown the door, is led away, down the hill, to that near meadow, to stand speechless, neglected among the buzzing of the flies, lost in thought, perhaps never to speak again.  Plato’s offerings must be opposed completely—no compromise is possible in opposing Plato’s philosophy of art, even if art itself comes to resemble the very totalitarian regimes the intellectuals oppose: ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

The intellectuals never think that maybe this is a trick the oppressive and totalitarian forces have played on us, to enforce their will not only on political regimes, but upon poetry, as well, so we never think about what poetry should be; we only use it to reflect what is.   Big fish will eat the little fish; the leisure of the college creative writing instructor will eat, with its stream-of-consciousness intelligence, all other fish in the blindness of the infinite, William James/nitrous-oxide, sea.

Most of the blame lies with other arts, those more emeshed in the machinery of crass, pornographic, violent sensationalism, but all are guilty, for instance, in the way the film Bright Star was ignorantly reviewed and received in all quarters, and in countless gestures among intellectuals, poets and artists everywhere who whore out the ideal in small ways every day.

After all, there are only, finally, two things: nature and the moral; nature provides the building materials; we build.  How we build is moral and ideal.  Confusing the two—nature (reality) and the moral (the ideal)—tends to be where all the trouble  starts.

Building a house keeps the two distinct.

Making art does not; this is why Plato famously questioned the latter activity.

Nothing shall oppose the onslaught of the ignorant, the oppressive, the violent, the backward, the pedantic, the cynical, the horrific, and the stupid.

And why should anything oppose this onslaught if our art will not?

The license to describe the thoughts inside our thoughts inside our thoughts is the one ruling principle today, and we have become a slave to it.  We have surely caught the self-justifying, William James/John Ashbery disease.  The vanity of  infinitely self-reflexive thought  is the only trump in our deck.   Stream of consciousness has drowned common sense.  “Enough of this nonsense!” we want to cry, but we dare not, because we really believe that educated nonsense is our last freedom, the last thing between our intellectual legitimacy and the absolutist wolf at the door.  We don’t mean good satire. We mean nonsense, the obscurantist crap which passes for poetry these days. We’ve confused freedom with crap.

This treatise is not a cry for any kind of censorship, but rather a discussion of how opposing censorship at all costs affects aesthetic philosophy.

And so we shall have paintings that are not paintings, poems that are not poems, music that is not music, criticism that is not criticism, and prose that is self-indulgent in its trivialities to an extreme degree; we shall have the daintily lurid, the sweetly sensational, and the brazenly corrupt.  The criminals shall have their way because to poets today criminality cannot exist in theory; wrong exists only in reality where cops and robbers are even now having a gun-fight, far from modern art’s purities.

But now the lords of cultural fascism cry, “Poems that are not poems!”  You are the fascist, trying to tell us what a poem is!   But we cannot write a poem if we don’t know what a poem is first,  just as Michelangelo doesn’t just start randomly hacking away at the block of stone.  The lords of cultural fascism will always steer the discussion back to simple-minded issues of censorship, but in reality the issue here is about pedagogy.

True, poetry has made itself so obscure that its effect on society hardly exists when we exclude the thousands of Creative Writing aspirants.

Not making good art, thanks to the license in which every kind of bad art is permissable—and thus, forever, actual—hurts millions in ways we cannot imagine.

Will the obscurantists wake up?    Will the wild and wilder drums wake them?  Or thrum them into a deeper sleep?

Roll over, Black Mountain.

Tell Ashbery the news.

IN THE SUNLIGHT

One of the most curious episodes in Letters is T.S. Eliot’s declaration in 1920, in the wake of J.M.Robertson’s similarly-themed book in 1919, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an “artistic failure.”

In that infamous essay, Eliot attacks the Bard’s greatest work as “puzzling and disquieting…” Eliot berates Hamlet chiefly because, according to the young banker, Hamlet’s “madness” and the “delay” in killing the king are dubiously presented, and the fault is that Shakespeare sloppily complicates Thomas Kyd’s straight-forward “revenge” tragedy by relying on “the guilt of a mother” which lacks emotional correlation in Hamlet’s updating of Kyd.

Eliot’s hackneyed notion that Gertrude’s guilt and Hamlet’s torn feelings are not sufficiently developed is ludicrous, but what’s even funnier is the way the author of The Waste Land, makes his point:

“The subject [Hamlet’s delay and Gertrude’s guilt] might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these [Othello, Antony, Coriolanus], intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

The sickly hodge-podge of The Waste Land—which saw publication thanks to the efforts of Eliot’s wealthy friend, Scofield ThayerEzra Pound, and the slick, modern-art-collector-and-lawyer, John Quinn—and all the rat’s nest poetry from Pound and Pound’s insane asylum visitors which followed in its wake, are the last things anyone could, or would want to, “drag to light.”

Eliot’s “objective correlative” dagger, used to cut Milton, Pope, the Romantic poets, and whole swathes of literary eras, flashes forth for the first time in this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet.

Is the young employee of Lloyd’s Bank writing of Shakespeare when he cites poetry “full of some stuff the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art?”

Or himself?

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