RAGE IN AMERICA

 

Those school shooters.  What are we going to do about them?

According to Jim Sleeper in a July 4, 2014 Salon article excitedly titled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day: School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement,” the American spirit is dying in a hail of gunfire from enemies within—“young, white” school shooters.

At the head of his piece, right below his frightening title, Sleeper quotes the Emerson poem on the “embattled farmers” firing the “shot heard ’round the world” in America’s violent Revolutionary War birth for contrast to the recent spate of maniac Americans-on-Americans shootings.

Sleeper, author and lecturer at Yale, has produced one of these reflective yet alarmist pieces that appear every now and then in magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s or The New Republic, in which a moderate Left Think-Tank-type professor makes a sincere spiritual effort to bring moderate Right and Left elements together in a polite way to “fix” an America which has lost its Founding ideals.

Sleeper quickly reveals his hand as a “Small-is-Beautiful” liberal—first, by invoking Emerson’s “farmers” and second, by writing:

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises…

America was opposed to “divine-right monarchy” and “aristocracy.” There are always exceptions, but sure, yes.

“Theocracy,” too, is something America wanted to avoid.  Religious, yes; a state-run religion? No.

But did America’s Revolutionary War oppose “mercantilism?” Sleeper is incorrect here. Every school child knows “no taxation without representation.” The colonists did not like having their mercantile ambitions strangled in the cradle by the Crown, a common practice of the British Empire, an empire whose strategy was to rule as “workshop” in a world of (preferably one crop) “farmers.”

Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale! is so wrong that it staggers the imagination: a desire for”mercantilism” was the chief reason for the Revolution—not something the new American republican citizens were opposing. Paul Revere, for instance, was not a “farmer,” but a silversmith and belonged to a secret and highly educated revolutionary society of artists, artisans, and mercantilists.

There is a prominent strain of rural prejudice which can be traced to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who modeled their beliefs on the more radical French Revolution; much of Jefferson’s actual behavior and Emerson’s “English Traits” reveal men who, in spite of their reputations, were actually less patriotic than is commonly thought. But of course every nation and every revolution is going to feature intricate mixtures of motivations, alliances, and beliefs. But to call the American Revolution anti-mercantilist is absurd.

The strategy of an essay like this is to carefully avoid all the hot button Right v. Left issues, and appear to argue from a middle position of anti-commercialism, gun control, and Global Warming “higher” consciousness, so the Moderate Left position rises to the sparkling heights of purity and wisdom.  It’s finally a platform-building political strategy. One hates guns, global warming and capitalism not as separately thought-out positions, sorting through the pros and cons of each; rather one thinks and feels in an all-or-nothing manner with the tribe known as Moderate Left.  Few have the time to think through all the moral, political, historical issues smartly alluded to in this essay, but no matter: tribe-building is the broad benevolent/cynical goal of the writer. He’s looking to cement agreement among a loose demographic who read the same books, take the same college courses, and shop at the same stores (anti-mercantilist places, of course).

Sleeper does the usual liberal floundering about for spiritual values—without resorting to religion, even as he concedes the Puritan opposition to tyranny was instrumental in America’s birth.  He’s looking for that intangible conviction which rests on civility, that republican virtue, that “public candor” as he call it, the elusive community-minded soul at the heart of a working democracy which can bridge the increasingly rancorous Republican/Democrat divide, and his whole rhetorical strategy is to lower the temperature on the feverish divisiveness which characterizes so much political speech today, and find common ground—admirable, of course, in itself. He takes issues which normally create impasses between Left and Right and calls them merely symptomatic:

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Believing in God can make one fearless in opposing human oppression—and yet even if religious superstition has virtues, intellectuals will still walk in fear of it, so Sleeper quickly assures his Salon audience that he is certainly not advocating a return to Puritanism—even as he all but admits his complaint of America’s moral corruption and vanity is nothing if not a Puritan one.

Not only does Sleeper invoke the virtues of religion, from Founding Puritanism to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers” but old-fashioned patriotism is brought forward, as well, in the person of young Nathan Hale and his famous utterance before his hanging by the British in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He adds the story of three Yale seniors defying the Vietnam War draft and the university chaplain who supported them.

But then he observes:

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

What is the answer, then? How can we rescue America from cynicism and “mayhem?”

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

In the beginning of his piece, Sleeper does a good job of painting a pretty bleak picture of ourselves:

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Yes, we need help. So what are these “touchstones” which can save us?  We can’t go back to the old “touchstones:”

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord.

Sleeper is wrestling with two Great Platitudes: 1) America is in the midst of Roman Empire-type collapse and 2) American civilization and democracy, that which makes America historically virtuous and great, and makes us better than all those crummy little countries which always find a way to “reject democracy,” is based on touchstones and wellsprings not quite religious, definitely not mercantile, and which once “encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms” but I’ll-be-damned-if-I-know-what-can-save-us-now.  According to Sleeper, the essence of the problem is this: “consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions.”

Sleeper is quick to make this dubious historical point: in America, the Puritan virtue which stood up to oppression mutated into evil capitalism.  For Sleeper, the uncompromising Puritan toughness of Khomeini somehow leads to the techno-modernizing evil of the Shah. But this is the wrong script. Khomeini (who the liberal Carter administration supported) filled the vacuum of the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini versus the Shah is a manifestation of the divide-and-conquer tactics of imperial oppressors like the British Empire: create a situation in the colony (Iran) of either/or. For here, incredibly, we have Sleeper identifying a “liberal capitalist republic” as lacking in all virtue, and yet somehow brought about by what he identifies as the Puritan “emphasis on individual conscience.”

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

Of what can this “greater good” consist, if buying and selling things, which by nature always corrupts and destroys love of the greater good, is at the heart of the “liberal capitalist republic” which America is? For Sleeper, it ends up being a world without all the bad things he dutifully lists: violence, sex without love, capitalism, religion, dishonest sports, mindless entertainment. People need to be kinder and nicer and think less about their own greedy and material wants. Well, of course. But we’ve heard these impotent pleas a thousand times before: “Why can’t we all get along?” And here, typically, the plea consists of playing to a certain ready-made audience (the “concerned” moderate Left), with a selective misreading of history.

Sleeper, the “small-is-beautiful” liberal, denies “mercantilism” or capitalism any place at the American table.  And what this typical Moderate Left position does is perpetuate a certain kind of scolding, patronizing sermonizing which identifies one as a member of the Moderate Left: America is great because of all sorts of intangibles: resembling religion, but not really, a little like capitalism, but not really, a bit like patriotism but not really, individualism, but not really.  In Sleeper’s world, democracy is this misty ideal—somehow unique to Americans—and has nothing to do with middle class comforts.

But we all know the truth that professors like Sleeper deny: middle class comforts, and the desire for middle class comforts, and the mercantilism which produces middle class comforts, has everything to do with American supremacy: its democracy, its virtue and its happiness.

By ignoring religion’s role in civilizing citizens (we can’t go back to Puritanism, Sleeper says) and only identifying the school shooters (at the rhetorical center of his piece) as “young” and “white” (young blacks killing young blacks are taking a far greater toll, but that’s not really on Sleeper’s radar) Sleeper misses something crucial, beyond even his mercantile bungle.

The school shooters have been, as a rule, “young” and “white,” but they also “have been males,” and acutely “loveless males.”

If we are interested in “touchstones” and causes, we should probably mention the obvious—which goes unmentioned by Sleeper, except indirectly, when he alludes, for instance, to the entertainment industry’s peddling of sex and violence.  But these issues are “symptomatic,” according to him, and perhaps they are.

Sleeper never does find a cause in his long essay.  He has no answers.  All he can say is we need “new narratives.”

May we make a suggestion.

Love, romantic love—romance—is what secretly holds society together and civilizes the world.

Romantic love has been under attack for at least a hundred years, universally disparaged in humanities and art departments as mere Victorian sentimentality; and it’s not even on the radar screen for political analysts like Jim Sleeper.

No one would deny the extent of it, nor even its importance as a certain kind of social glue, but mostly it is looked upon as “archaic and quaint,” or as a “problem” among the breeding lower classes.

But romantic love is really at the heart of all civilization; Plato and Rousseau knew of its importance, and so did Dante and the Romantic poets, but academic Modernism and post-Modernism, which views anything from the past dyspeptically, has largely shut the door on this whole trope.

All other tropes stem from this one.

Religion, for instance, is Romantic love by other means, with Jesus Christ the “bride” for those unable to experience romantic love in the flesh.

It’s okay for religion to be a fiction.  What matters is how it makes people behave.

Dante’s blending of religion and love in the person of Beatrice is a perfect example of what we mean.

This is not an insignificant trope; romantic love, when it is idealized by great poets and spread among the people, is that wonderful hybrid of chastity, philosophy, kindness, worship, art, beauty, ardency, reflection, chivalry, loyalty and marriage.

It softens the male, which is crucial.

Here is the “touchstone” that we need.

And, oh yes, let’s not be afraid of mercantilism and middle class comforts, either.

We have these things already.  Things are not as bad as they seem.  But to make Sleeper feel better, that’s our suggestion.

 

 

 

 

 

ROMANTIC BRACKET MAKES FOR THE SWEET 16

Marx versus Wordsworth

Marx and Wordsworth both hungered for simplicity; a certain nostalgia characterizes the madly ambitious intellect of the modern world.

Life was anything but simple for Marx and Wordsworth, but a hunger for the ‘simple life’ launched efforts on their part to deconstruct all that was complex.

Both of these gentlemen wanted to get rid of religion—because of its tendency, they thought, to confuse a world with a world, to distort one world with the promises of another.

These men were radical, because religion had not yet been widely questioned in their day; religion represented morality and order—which kept nature, red in tooth and claw, at bay.

Is nature really so terrifying?  For Wordsworth, fresh air, exercise, the beauty and the peace of rambling through the countryside is health—surpassing all the jargon and complexity of religion.

Marx was more urbane; he was not a hiker, like Wordsworth, and condemned, in fact, “the idiocy of bucolic life,” but Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum, not hiking about like Wordsworth, also despised religion, and compared the “fetishism” of religion with the “fetishism” of commodities; capitalism, for Marx, like religion for both, was a trick of the mind, leading to inequality.

Wordsworth wanted simple poems, Marx, simple labor practices; this was dangerous heresy in a complex world, but simplicity proved to be wildly attractive, and very popular as modern (naive) systems of thought. Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, as did Emerson, devotee of Wordsworth, and landlord of Thoreau—the thinker who quietly united Wordsworth and Marx.

One might say Marx was a lot more dangerous than Wordsworth, but one can find politics in Wordsworth if one looks hard enough—but one cannot find poetry in Marx.

WINNER: WORDSWORTH  William Wordsworth has made it to the Sweet 16!

***

Edmund Burke versus Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Burke is best known for his “conservative” objection to the thrills and dangers of the French Revolution.  Coleridge is best known for a few iconic poems, plagiarizing the Germans, talking endlessly, and theorizing iconically as well. Also: unhappiness in love, poor Coleridge! and opium abuse. And his on again, off again, friendship with Wordsworth. I know this crap: Imagination and Fancy, etc because I was an English major, the field of study which truly rocked, but for some reason is dying out, even though grammatical/philosophical literacy remains vital and other fields of study have nothing as interesting as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

WINNER: COLERIDGE Congratulations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you join your friend Wordsworth in the Sweet 16!

***

Edgar Poe versus Thomas Love Peacock

Whence came Edgar Poe?  We can’t get our heads around his greatness. The modern literary genius should come from London or Paris or Boston, not from the slave-owning South! There’s something in that which offends the literary sensibility of cool.  But, too bad; the greatest American literary genius came from the slave-owning South. And also had no money.

To make it worse, Poe’s genius is inescapable and unquestioned; it cannot be trivialized or wished away, though many have tried it, with a shoddy, slanderous, mumbly ignorance.

Since Poe overwhelms opponents to such a degree that it is like watching a helpless person pinned to the ground longer than we think is reasonable, people hate him.  And when someone is always right, or truly looks into our mind and soul with a calm stare that is truthful and honest, we are thrown into moral and even physical agony. Poe is too good to be believed, so good, he annoys, because we have little to do after we accept his ascendency. We cannot dilly-dally with pleasure after we absorb his templates. His inventions force us to be brief and intelligent, or die.

Thomas Love Peacock is a brilliant author, and his “The Four Ages of Poetry” is a masterpiece of criticism, inspiring his friend, Shelley’s, “Defense.”  Peacock’s novels were mostly conversations, like Plato’s dialogues. Peacock was known as “The Laughing  Philosopher.” He and his friend Shelley shared a love of Ancient Greece. Peacock worked in the offices of the East India Company, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill.

But what chance does a Peacock have against Edgar Poe?

WINNER: POE  Poe ushers himself into the Sweet 16.

***

Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Percy Shelley

Ralph Emerson talks about the soul to such an extent that one is quite certain, after reading Emerson, that the soul does not exist. Emerson is the kind of person that when you are thinking about something, says, ‘excuse me, let me do that for you.’ You don’t read Emerson, you surrender to him. Emerson will spend several hours explaining how the soul relates to the natural fact when he could have simply told us the soul is the natural fact—but nothing is simple for Emerson, or for those who attempt to understand him. His prose is poetry—when rearranged a bit with the name ‘Walt Whitman’ attached. Poetry that hectors. Emerson called Poe ‘the jingle man, but Poe’s jingle is melodic and clear compared to the jangle jungle that is Ralph Harvard Divinity School Emerson. The ‘forward-thinking liberal’ who makes superstition seem reasonable? That would be Waldo, the axe-grinder. Emerson wants argument everywhere: even in meters, as he tells us in “The Poet.” But you can’t be good at meters if you are not good at argument, so why does Emerson fault good meters which lack argument? I know a poet good at meters, Emerson says, but the true poet, etc….and here the sermon assures us that sermonizing about poetry is the way to get at it—thus Emerson envied Poe and Emerson’s heir, T.S. Eliot (Unitarian grandfather knew Mr. E.), hated Shelley.

Ah, Shelley! Shelley needs no argument. Shelley argues against religion and God with a music that remakes them. One cannot write like Dante and be an atheist. There is more God in the paganism of Plato than even in the unconscious accents of the modern non-believer. The sun recommends nature and God at once, and Shelley is that type of artist who reconciles, even in despair.

WINNER: SHELLEY

THE 2014 MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND WINNERS!

CLASSICAL

Painter, Carpenter, God (3 beds) PLATO def. HUME

Tragedy is a complete action ARISTOTLE def. SAMUEL JOHNSON

In every work regard the writer’s end POPE def. HORACE

Novelty bestows charms on a monster ADDISON def. AUGUSTINE

The flaming sword which turned every way MAIMONIDES def. VICO

All our knowledge originates from sense  AQUINAS def. BEHN

The four senses of writing DANTE def. DRYDEN

Poet never affirms and so never lies  SIDNEY def. BOCCACCIO

 

ROMANTIC

Religion & Commodities = Fetishism MARX def. KANT

Taste can be measured EDMUND BURKE def. GAUTIER

A long poem does not exist POE def. LESSING

Pure and simple soul in a chaste body EMERSON def. SCHILLER

Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind SHELLEY def. WOLLSTONECRAFT

Four ages of poetry PEACOCK def. DE STAEL

Nothing pleases permanently not containing the reason COLERIDGE def. SCHLEIERMACHER

Language really used by men WORDSWORTH def. HEGEL

 

MODERN

Genius is childhood recovered BAUDELAIRE def. ADORNO

Art is not unique but caught in time BENJAMIN def. ARNOLD

Hard, gem-like flame PATER def. HEIDEGGER

Criticism, Inc RANSOM def. MALLARME

No poet has his complete meaning alone ELIOT def. NIETZSCHE

Not the moment makes the man, man creates the age WILDE def. WOOLF

The first stirrings of sexuality FREUD def. TROTSKY

In language there are only differences SAUSSURE def. JUNG

 

POST-MODERN

Leaves & Huck Finn show U.S. to be like Russia EDMUND WILSON def. JUDITH BUTLER

Beauty will no longer be forbidden CIXOUS def. KENNETH BURKE

What they can know is what they have made SAID def. LACAN

We are directors of our being, not producers SARTRE def. DERRIDA

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority HAROLD BLOOM def. CLEANTH BROOKS

The secret essence of femininity does not exist DE BEAUVOIR def. RICH

All speech is performance AUSTIN def. FANON

Criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught FRYE def. BARTHES

 

It was a genuine pleasure these past three months (March to June) to explore 64 of the world’s greatest philosophical literary critics; look back over the past 3 months at 32 Scarriet articles (called “March Madness”) which re-evaluates these iconic points of view—and feel the excitement!

The rest of the play will quickly follow, as we move into the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the greatest Aesthetic Philosopher of them all.

If we might be allowed to summarize the four Brackets:

The Classical determines WHAT POETRY IS.

The Romantic determines WHAT POETRY IS TO PEOPLE.

The Modern determines WHAT PEOPLE ARE  TO PEOPLE IN TERMS OF  POETRY

The Post-Modern determines WHAT POETRY IS TO LANGUAGE

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

HEGEL TAKES ON WORDSWORTH IN ROUND ONE ROMANTIC BRACKET ACTION

G.W.F. Hegel. In the 20th century, his Continental Idealism lost to Anglo-American Pragmatism.

HEGEL:

A work of art is a product of human activity, and this activity being the conscious production of an external object can also be known and expounded, and learnt and pursued by others. For what one man makes, another, it may seem, could make and imitate too, if only he were first acquainted with the manner of proceeding; so that, granted universal acquaintance with the rules of artistic production, it would only be a matter of everyone’s pleasure to carry out the procedure in the same manner and produce works of art. It is in this way that rule-providing theories, with their prescriptions calculated for practical application, have arisen.

But what can be carried out on such directions can only be something formally regular and mechanical. Being abstract in content, such rules reveal themselves, in their presence of adequacy to fill the consciousness of the artist, as wholly inadequate, since artistic production is not a formal activity in accordance with given specifications. On the contrary, as spiritual activity it is bound to work from its own resources and bring before the mind’s eye a quite other and richer content and more comprehensive individual creations than formulae can provide.

Thus, as it turns out, the tendency just indicated has been altogether abandoned, and instead of it the opposite one has been adopted to the same extent. For the work of art was no longer regarded as a product of general human activity, but as a work of an entirely specially gifted spirit which now, however, is supposed to give free play simply and only to its own particular gift, as if to a specific natural force; it is to cut itself altogether loose from attention to universally valid laws and from a conscious reflection interfering with its own instinctive-like productive activity. From this point of view the work of art has been claimed as a product of talent and genius.

A third view concerning the idea of the work of art as a product of human activity refers to the placing of art in relation to the external phenomena of nature. Here the ordinary way of looking at things took easily to the notion that the human art-product ranked below the product of nature; for the work of art has no feeling in itself and is not through and through enlivened, but, regarded as an external object, is dead; we are accustomed to value the living higher than the dead.

However: Human interest, the spiritual value possessed by an event, an individual character, an action in its complexity and outcome, is grasped in the work of art and blazoned more purely and more transparently than is possible on the ground of other non-artistic things. Therefore the work of art stands higher than any natural product which has not made this journey through the spirit. For everything spiritual is better than any product of nature. Besides, no natural being is able, as art is, to present the divine Ideal.

 

WORDSWORTH:

 

It is supposed, that by the act of writing  in verse an Author makes a formal engagement that he will gratify certain known habits of association; that he not only thus apprizes the Reader that certain classes of ideas and expressions will be found in his book, but that others will be carefully excluded. This exponent or symbol held forth by metrical language must in different areas of literature have excited very different expectations: for example, in the age of Catullus, Terrence and Lucretius, and that of Statius or Claudian; and in our own country, in the age of Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, and that of Donne and Cowley, or Dryden, or Pope. I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which by the act of writing in verse an Author, in the present day, makes to his Reader; but I am certain, it will appear to many persons that I have not fulfilled the terms of an engagement thus voluntarily contracted. I hope the Reader will not censure me, if I attempt to state what I have proposed to myself to perform.

To choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended; and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.

 

Nature is beautiful and the products of Man are not—the exception being art, which finds its beauty in nature.  This sums up the Ancient Greek view of art and that whole range of Criticism with Beauty as its measure.

If it is ugly, it does not get a hearing in art. And this Greek ideal has not gone away. Moderns pride themselves on having richer, broader, and more varied views and appreciations when it comes to art, and Hegel and Wordsworth are typical examples of Art Criticism that makes human interest and variety, not beauty, the apparent concern.

No more cookie-cutter beautiful art! We are modern!

Not really.

Hegel insists art has an ideal/spiritual dimension which springs from “human interest,” and thus “dead” art is superior to “living” nature. But Hegel speaks abstractly and can be dismissed for that reason.

Wordsworth is cleverer and the more profound philosopher of art. W. understands the paradox: if one attempts to praise man-made products (the plain “speech of men,” for instance) as something superior to nature, one turns those very products into “art,” which is the one Greek exception in the simple aesthetic above. The modern attempt to escape the Greek Aesthetic proves impossible, for the simple reason that you become what you attempt to praise. Permit the ugly and you are only, in so many ways, including the ugly as art, not as the ugly.

The truly ugly always remains out of sight. Wordsworth’s “speech of men,” we are so often reminded, is rhyming poetry.

Despite Wordsworth’s ‘modern’ rhetoric, Wordsworth is finally Greek, not modern.

But… not quite.

And this is where Wordsworth’s cleverness enters and why he changed art, poetry, and the world forever. W. understood the challenge of getting out from under the Greek Aesthetic, and the key was Nature—not in the Greek sense, as in a beautiful human body, but in the modern sense: Wordsworth was poetry’s first environmentalist.  Nature becomes not the ideal, but everything.

Wordsworth said: OK, I’m not going to be a Greek; I’m not going to give a damn about Beauty; I’m going to write poetry that is the ‘speech of men.’  And here Wordsworth is betrayed by the paradox: the surface of his poetry is ideally beautiful; it does not really admit any ugliness (plain speech) and so, sorry, Wordsworth, you are Beauty-endowed.

But Wordsworth goes further.  After (and this is why we included that prior passage) laying the groundwork with his observation of previous poetry in history: “certain classes of ideas and expressions” are chosen and “others carefully excluded,” and after his famous pronouncement that he will replicate “language really used by men,” the dense passage runs on (like a mighty river) to add that he will select “low and rustic life,” in which are profoundly and passionately expressed “the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.”

Wordsworth, in modern guise, says he will expand his “language” to include that “really used by men” (which was not true) but then announces “rustic life” will be the theme.  By “selecting” this theme, Wordsworth “carefully excludes” the ugly products of urban Man: Roman poets and their tawdry women, for instance; Roman poets Wordsworth explicitly cited in his previous ‘graph. Wordsworth understands that all poets, no matter how ‘modern,’ must always exclude what they find to be ugly.

Wordsworth is the first Modern Poet to consciously make concessions to the inescapable Greek Aesthetic: Wordsworth’s plain “rural life” is far less “modern” than the Roman poets and their urban floozies with foul language and sexuality and eye makeup—who are older than Wordsworth by two thousand years.

Wordsworth’s sleight-of-hand shows us “language” but gives us “rustic life.”

And “rustic life” is key for what it leaves out.

Sex is conspicuously absent from Wordsworth.  No beautiful Greek bodies in Wordsworth.  Wordsworth’s nature is—nature, the modern nature of environmentalism.  Modern critics may charge Wordsworth with being the environmentalist of “Romantic, Lake District, white males” (is the only ‘true’ environmentalist a black gay woman from New York City?) but the British Empire was in Wordsworth’s day global-conscious and the planet potentially to be managed by the British—interestingly enough, today the most urgent and prominent environmentalist is Prince Charles.  Qualifying Wordsworth’s environmentalism is a quibble we’ll leave aside for the time being.

All poets—no matter how modern—exclude the ugly.  Do contemporary poets, for instance, put ‘hate speech’ in their poetry?  No, of course not, and why?  Because it’s ugly.  The “language” of poetry, the selections of “ideas and expressions” made by poetry, is still limited.

Wordsworth broke through, and broke through, big time (Emerson and other early American liberals crossed the ocean to beat a path to his door) into a modern sensibility, by attaching himself to—what has become today’s secular religion: the Planet.

 

WINNER: WORDSWORTH

SCHILLER BATTLES EMERSON IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

SCHILLER:

 

I would not wish to live in a century other than my own, or to have worked for any other. We are citizens of our own Age no less than of our own State. And if it is deemed unseemly, or even inadmissible, to exempt ourselves from the morals and customs of the circle in which we live, why should it be less of a duty to allow the needs and taste of our own epoch some voice in our choice of activity?

But the verdict of this epoch does not, by any means, seem to be going in favor of art, not the least of the kind of art to which alone my inquiry will be directed. The course of events has given the spirit of the age a direction which threatens to remove it ever further from the art of the Ideal. This kind of art must abandon actuality, and soar with becoming boldness above our wants and needs; for Art is a daughter of Freedom, and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not from the exigencies of matter. But at the present time material needs reign supreme and bend a degraded humanity beneath their tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall and to which all talent must pay homage. Weighed in this crude balance, the insubstantial merits of Art scarce tip the scale, and, bereft of all encouragement, she shuns the noisy market-place of our century.

If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.

 

EMERSON:

 

It is the secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself) , by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or “with the flower of the mind;” not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.

This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication,—which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians and actors, have been more than others wont to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as it was an emancipation not into the heavens but into the freedom of baser places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation and deterioration. But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s voluble sermonizing says so many things at once in such an impressive manner that one can simply believe Ralph Waldo Emerson is saying whatever one wants him to be saying; this might explain his high reputation to this day among both radicals and conservatives. Whitman discovered his poetry in Emerson’s prose, and here then is how America avoided the precision of Poe and embraced the effulgence of the Anything Goes school in the last century. It is hard to believe that, in the passage above, Emerson is sternly cautioning the poet to be sober.  The “nectar” Emerson is selling is clearly not sold anywhere, and his “the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact” and his “abandonment to the nature of things” exist nowhere except in Emerson’s fact-mind and in the thing-minds of those who want to play along with Mr. Emerson—which, as we look over American Letters today, are quite a few.  Beware opium, wine, fires, and mobs.

Schiller (b. 1759), sounding very modern, says things we agree with.

But Emerson is so much more fun.

 

WINNER: EMERSON

 

 

WILDE VERSUS WOOLF

Virginia Woolf: a beauty with an audacious mind. A supreme opponent in Oscar.

WILDE:

 

I should have said that great artists worked unconsciously, that they were “wiser than they knew,” as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere, but it is really not so.

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does.  A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. It is so now, and it has always been so. We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep, scraped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the result of the most self-conscious effort. There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

The longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the invention of one single mind.

 

WOOLF:

 

It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.

No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged.

The blame for all this rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare, then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Coleridge. Shelley was perhaps sexless. Milton and Ben Johnson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoy.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman who came together across the street, and the current swept them away, as I heard far off the roar of London’s traffic, into that tremendous stream.

 

Modern literature and the sexes; modern life and the sexes; life and the sexes; the sexes.  Rather inescapable, isn’t it?

The unhappy marriage is at the heart of all literature.

Literature is perhaps the invention of the unhappy marriage.

Wilde, in the Madness passage quoted, sounds like he would have admired Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” and it’s perfect, for at the top he rebukes Emerson, the anti-Poe.

Woolf strives towards some aesthetic reconciliation between man and woman: is it doomed to failure?  Is it a mere abstraction, this sexual intercourse of the spirit? We think we know what she means, this hankering after the “androgynous” mind of the genius; it’s an attempt to reconcile all unhappy marriages, and what’s so bad about that?

Woolf wants two sexes for the mind. Wilde wants one mind: the self-conscious, critical artist.  One versus two.

 

WINNER: WILDE

 

“YOUR AVANT-GARDE IS NOT AVANT-GARDE” MAZER, ARCHAMBEAU, AND BURT AT THE GROLIER

“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

In the United States in 1949, every other college student had his college education paid for by the GI Bill.  Government sponsored college loans didn’t happen until 1958 (Sputnik).  During the unprecedented growth of American college education in the middle of the 20th century, one poetry textbook was beamed into the brains of two generations of college professors, teachers and students—Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren; Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976.

To know this textbook is to know how you, dear reader—and every living respected poet and critic—thinks about poetry.

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

Understanding Poetry was written by two New Critics; what was known as the New Criticism was not just an ideology, but an influential clique of Southern men with an in; New Criticism was the donnish, government-connected, academic arm of Modernism—the 20th century’s one real school of poetry, which replaced Classical and Romantic Verse with something more free, with something entirely different.

The public’s rejection of Modernism can be summed up simply:  “A very large part of human conduct and human life is loathsome, disgusting, and grotesque.  Poetry has traditionally been an antidote to this.  Poetry discovers the beauty and dignity of human life, of human expression.  Poetry, in the name of modern all-inclusiveness, however, revels in the discordant, the ugly, and the disgusting, and this is…creepy.   We don’t like it.”

We are familiar with the world of objection this elicits from the Modernist: “all-inclusiveness” is truthful; you are backwards to censure the truth.

The “truth,” however, is that there are many avenues to the “truth,” and no profession or craft is defined by the whole truth, but rather by the particular way it approaches the truth; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to define that particular craft or profession.  And this is the truth.

Understanding Poetry, influential Modernist document that it is, comes down strongly on one side of the argument outlined above: for all-inclusiveness.

Here is how poetry is clumsily and pessimistically introduced to the student in the first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, “Poetry As a Way of Saying.” The strategy seems to be: let’s concede to all the insensitive lugs why poetry may indeed suck—this “strategy” turns out, in reality, to be the soul of the book itself.

Poetry is a kind of “saying.” It is, however, a kind that many people, until they become well acquainted with it, feel is rather peculiar and even useless. They feel this way for two reasons: the “way of the saying” and the “nature of the said.” As for the “way of the saying,” the strongly marked rhythms, the frequent appearance of rhyme, and the figurative language may seem odd and distracting; and as for the “nature of the said,” it generally contains neither a good, suspenseful story nor obviously useful information. Poetry, in short, may seem both unnatural and irrelevant.

Think of all the glorious ways the editors could have led off.  Instead, we get this utter sheepishness. Of all the definitions of poetry, this is perhaps the dullest we have ever heard: Poetry is a kind of “saying.” 

In their defense, we are sure, that as text book authors, they were attempting the plainest and least adorned definition possible so as not to scare away the plain-speaking person who has no natural inclination to poetry. The danger of this position, however, is that one ends up arguing, and rallying to, the devil’s case: poetry is “useless,” especially if one is not “well acquainted” with it.  Attempting to “be democratic,” the elitist is just more elitist in the end—and this, in a nutshell, is what happened with Modernist poetry and its mass readership, as the art of poetry got lost in the shuffle: elitism was sniffed out, wearing its democratic dress.  The masses left.

The editors attempt an optimistic recovery in the second paragraph, but it’s too little, too late: “Yet poetry…has survived, in one form or another…we may…consider…it does spring from deep human impulses and does fulfill human needs.”

And in the first actual description of poetry, the editors say poetry is primarily “strongly marked by rhythm.”  Those “strongly marked rhythms” which “may seem odd and distracting” from paragraph one?  Yes, those rhythms.

But if the editors of Understanding Poetry are content to play down poetry and weakly define it, the reason is clear: poetry resists definition because to the Modernist critic, poetry, in its modern guise, is an all-inclusive sort of everything, which simultaneously rejects and converts itself into whatever it is, from the old poetry it is leaving behind.

Those “marked rhythms” that identify poetry?  According to our text book’s introduction, these include “seasons…moon…tides…migration of birds…” and those of the “human body…” a “locus of rhythms,” including “hunger and satiety.”  Rhythm includes “all life…all activity” and is “deeply involved in…emotion…”

We are reminded that “rhythm is a natural and not an artificial aspect of emotion…”

The human is at the center of their definition: in the second paragraph we got “human impulses” and “human needs” and then the human body as a “locus of rhythms” and finally, “emotion,” with the caveat that poetry’s “rhythm,” to properly express emotion must be “natural” and not “artificial.”

The real, natural human appears to be what they are after, in their long reach towards poetry.

Having made much of “rhythm,” they make a weak nod to “rhyme” as a “verbal structure” and memory aid, but they quickly re-visit their thesis: “man is a form-making animal.”

Finally, they get language and its origin in their sights.  The editors agree with Emerson (and quote Owen Barfield) in support of the notion that language is “metaphoric” and they say that “slang” is “healthy” for this reason: “Slang is simply the bastard brother of poetry.”

Understanding Poetry invests a great deal in metaphor: “metaphor represents not only the “way of saying” but also the “said.”  Metaphor might be said to be a fancy way of saying something indirectly, of deferring meaning, of creating a kind of fake synthesis, whipping up a comparative “significance” where none exists.  If I say “X is a lot like Y,” it really doesn’t matter whether X and Y resemble each other, or not.  I will find some similarity, and this will make me cleverer, or even a better poet, than you, even though no one is closer to knowing anything about “X” or “Y.”  The labor used in comparing two objects might be better used elsewhere. Comparing two things is usually not the method for knowing a thing.  We have neither the time or the space to conduct a philosophical inquiry into this subject here, but it might be enough to say that great minds have rejected metaphor, even in poetry, as all-important.

They look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Shakespeare compares himself rather elaborately to autumn.  But why, the editors ask, doesn’t he just say “I am getting old?”

Because, the editors, say, how he feels about “getting old” is also important.   Poetry, they say, is “attitudes and feelings…as they come specifically into experience…action and ideas.”

And then, by page 6 of their 16 page introduction, the editors finally reveal their hand: “poetry is concerned with the massiveness, the multidimensional quality of experience.”

Poetry is just whatever you, in natural, human terms, feel about anything, and the “verbal structure” of poetry is pretty much there to “frame” this “feeling” you have about whatever piece of the “massiveness” of “experience” triggers your feeling.

I could have just said, “I am getting old,” but in order to make you understand how “I feel” about getting old, I throw in some “yellow leaves.”

As the editors put it, “the realm of practical action and that of attitudes and feelings are not separated.”

When poetry is defined this way: as whatever we feel about whatever, we see, finally how “massive” this definition becomes, and this Modernist definition is, in fact, a definition of Modernist poetry, in its suicidal all-inclusiveness.  It sure as hell isn’t a definition of poetry as composed by the genius Shakespeare.  It is poetry reduced to the level of the lug.

The editors’ introduction briefly compares poetry to science, but reject the latter as that which is merely “precise” and “mathematical.”  Science gives us mere H2O, while poetry gives us “water” and thus “associations of drinking, bathing, boating…adventure on the high seas…” etc  Water’s metaphors do massive work.  Mathematics, which scientifically interprets nature, is told to take a hike.

The stake is driven into the heart of science by a quote from Walker Percy:

The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals, included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.

This is a stunning rebuke—by an influential text book by way of Walker Percy—of science and universal truth. Words, by definition, are universals: poetry, too, then, must live in “dead silence” to the individual reader.  This is interesting, but especially in terms of what the editors are trying to say, nonsense, nonetheless.  The “individual” is a word, which we understand only as much as it “resembles others.”  Walker Percy, and the editors of Understanding Poetry, are stuck in a paradox from which there is no escape.  Their rejection of science and a “scientific-technological society” here is nothing but a deeply crackpot protest, if we are to be honest about it.

After dismissing science, the authors keep after the importance of  subjective”feeling:”

At first glance, the field of feeling and attitudes may seem trivial when thought of in contrast to the great bustling practical business of the world or in contrast to the vast body of organized knowledge which science is and which allows man to master, to a certain degree, nature and his own fate.  The field of feeling and attitude may seem to be “merely personal” and “merely subjective,” and therefore of no general interest. But at second thought, we may realize that all the action and knowledge in the world can be valuable only as these things bring meaning to life—to our particular lives, especially.

…Poetry is concerned with the world as responded to sensorially, emotionally, and intellectually. But—and this fact constitutes another significant characteristic of poetry that cannot be overemphasized—this response always involves all three of these elements: a massive, total response—what we have called earlier the multidimensional quality of experience.

…Poetry enables us to know what it “feels like” to be alive in the world. What does it “feel like,” for instance, to be in love, to hate somebody…

Here we have a classic case of the Emersonian Exaggeration: poetry is ill-defined as something anti-scientific, and subjectively and even trivially emotional, and this very definition leads those defining it as such, to subsequently make utterly irrational and exaggerated claims for it, such as “poetry enables us to know what it feels like to be alive…”

First, the editors establish poetry as trivial, emotional, subjective, and then they heap accolades on it which it cannot possibly support.

According to Understanding Poetry, poetry does not exist objectively as an art; it has no verse-like attributes; in the Modernist spirit, it resembles something like an octopus on your face.

The editors inform us that poetry, in all its aspects, is a response to life—in all its aspects.   Poetry, then, is the same as life.  There’s no difference. That, in fact, is their definition of poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.

To prove this, they point out that, “we may have a child chess champion or musical prodigy, but not a child literary critic or dramatist.”  Well, no wonder.  I wouldn’t let a child of mine near Understanding Poetry.  But we might point out that Poe wrote extraordinary poems as a teenager.  And a child (or an adult) is all the wiser for not comprehending the New Criticism.

To keep their (definition of) poetry from drowning in the sea of life, the editors, sensing a complete loss of identity, suddenly begin singing about “vital unity:”

What is crucial to poetry is that these elements—metaphor, rhythm, and statement—are absorbed into a vital unity. The poem, in its vital unity, is a “formed” thing, a thing existing in itself, and its vital unity, its form, embodies—is—its meaning. Yet paradoxically, by the fact of its being “formed” and having its special identity, it somehow makes us more aware of life outside itself. By its own significance it awakens us to the significance of our experience and of the world.

We see, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things that are “poetic” in themselves.

…Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The total relationship among all the elements in a poem is what is all-important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the makeup of some physical object, it ought to be not a wall but to something organic like a plant.

The editors are unable to define poetry in practical, common sense, scientific terms; therefore they make it very important whether we say poetry is “like” a wall, or “like” a plant.  Feeling that “metaphor” is vital to poetry, it is perhaps no accident that they reflect this in their hazy attempt at a definition.

Since quotations always help definitions, the authors, who used Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, now turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Quoting Shakespeare is a good idea.  Instead of this text book, why not Shakespeare’s Works?  Poetry becomes less and less the more the authors write about it.

They quote Macbeth to illustrate  “a lack of…melodious effects…the broken rhythms and the tendency to harshness of sound are essential to the dramatic effect that Shakespeare wished.” When “murder” is involved, poetry becomes broken—and this is a good thing.  We are essentially told that poetry—which the editors still haven’t defined—needs to be mangled for dramatic license.

Perhaps “mangled” isn’t fair.  We’ll quote the Shakespeare passage and a specific observation they make about it:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

…The piling up of the s sounds in the second, third, and fourth lines helps to give the impression of desperate haste and breathless excitement; the effect is of a conspiratorial whisper.  The rhythm and sound effects of the passage, then, are poetic in the only sense that we have seen to be legitimate: they are poetic because they contribute to the total significance of the passage.

This is interesting—even brilliant, and we note again the persistent theme: poetry is nothing in itself except as it mimics life.  We would call this admirable, but we cannot. Are we really to believe that the “s sound” belongs to all poetry evincing “conspiratorial whisper[ing]?”  Is this a rule?  What about the words in that passage which are not sibilant? Should the actor cease to whisper when uttering the word “catch”and “blow” and “time” and “come?”  As much as we like the observation, as much as we admire Shakespeare, we do not think a marvelous hissing sound made by an actor belongs to either the cause or the effect of poetry, except in a very marginal way.

A good actor can make any script sound dramatic in any number of ways.  The truth is, poetry is not, by definition, a script with all sorts of directorial notes hidden within it.  This is to confuse poetry with the dramatic arts; and even Shakespeare is no excuse for this confusion.  The student of poetry, if they listen to Brooks and Warren, will come away believing that bad poetry is really good—because various dramatic situations turn the good to bad which is deemed good.  Not only will the student poet be convinced by his Modernist elders, Brooks and Warren, that his bad poetry is good, he will be convinced his poetry is “dramatic,” as well.

We see the New Critical rationale at work: since ‘the poem’ is considered all, let us really make it all in our definition; let us have life flow in and out of the poem so that they are almost one.  “A situation underlies every poem, and the poem is what the situation provokes.”  The poem is “a little—or sometimes a big—drama.”

The origin and effect of poetry, according to the New Criticism, are largely irrelevant.  The why of a poem’s making and the why of a poem’s impact are thus, irrelevant.

On one hand, for Brooks and Warren, poetry belongs to the “stuff of life,” (making its specific existence vague in the extreme) and at the same time, life is not permitted to ask what poetry is for, exactly, and to what good is it aimed?  Plato asked these larger questions, and is mostly considered rude and inappropriate for doing so.  Aristotle, who focused more on the art itself, influences to a much greater extent, the Modernists. Yet even Aristotle is too precise for them. The Modernist shuns categories, divisions, parts, for the generalized rant:

In an important sense, all poems are fictional, even poems that profess to be autobiographical, for the voice of the poem is inevitably a creation and not a natural and spontaneous outburst.

This contradicts what was said earlier: the authors said a poem’s emotions should be “natural” and not “artificial.”  They said a poem was like “a plant” and not something “mechanical.”  Yet here they insist a poem is never “spontaneous.”  These gentlemen grew up on Romanticism, and are trying to replace it, with all its errors, with something even more replete with error, that they, nor anyone else, understands.

They recommend the “mask” as a dramatic truth-telling device (quoting Yeats, Wilde and Emerson), and point out that Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, was named after Robert E. Lee, began his career in England, and “Yankee-fy’d” his poetic voice “to develop the character that speaks in his poems.”  New Criticism masks the truth, so why shouldn’t it be enamored of the mask?  We can’t deny they make sense when they say, “when we are making an acquaintance with a poem, we must answer these questions: 1) Who is speaking? 2) Why?”  But according to the New Critics, these questions can only be asked of the fiction Their brief analysis of Frost, however, would seem to indicate they know how to unmask, when necessary.  One rule for them, one rule for you.

We speak of an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry as an end to be gained. But some people assume that no preparation, no effort, no study, no thought, is necessary for that experience, and that if a poem seems to make such demands it is so much the less poetry.  This assumption is sadly erroneous…

As they wind up their introduction, they are back to asserting the craven pedantry that “an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry” is more important than learning what poetry actually is, and even questioning its very existence.  True learning names what things are, discriminates, narrows, weeds out; an “enlarged capacity” and “demands” is code for: you’ll clean out my stables before I will call you a poet—and that’s only if I like you.

By way of conclusion we must emphasize two related matters of the greatest importance: First, criticism and analysis, as modestly practiced in this book and more grandly elsewhere and by other hands, is ultimately of value only insofar as it can return to the poem itself—return them, that is, better prepared to experience it more immediately, fully, and, shall we say, innocently. The poem is an experience, yes, but it is a deeply significant experience, and criticism aims only at making the reader more aware of the depth and range of the experience. Second, there is no point at which a reader can say, “I am now ready to experience poetry.”

Why should Criticism only “return to the poem itself?”  Why should Criticism only “better prepare [us] to experience [the poem] more immediately, fully…?”

Understanding Poetry makes the amorphous “experience” of poetry the end of the whole process—a process which should be asking:  Why poetry?  What is poetry?  This influential text instead urges on us a kind of endless “experiencing” of the “experience” of a poem that is the “experience” of life’s “experience.”  Plenty of room for nuance, here, sure.  But also plenty of room for crap, pedantic bullying, emotional grandstanding, and ‘office politics’ corruption.

The introduction is reinforced by chapter one,  “Dramatic Situation,” and its foreword:

We have said that the “stuff of poetry” is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business.  We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper…

The authors want to shove horrible “accidents” in our face and make this the standard of poetry. Poetry, for Brooks and Warren, becomes journalism, or worse:

[Poetic] interest, as we have indicated, is not scientific or practical, but is simply the general curiosity we feel about people as human beings. Even though the account of a painful accident or a sordid murder seems almost as far removed as possible from poetry, it arouses the kind of interest which poetry attempts to satisfy, and comprises the “stuff of poetry.

The editors then present “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost as the first poem in the book.

SCIENCE, MATH AND POETRY

When a philosopher’s science fails to be precise, we call it poetry.

The impulse towards science in ancient times—when few scientific facts were available—ancient cosmogonies, for example, becomes, in retrospect, a kind of poetry by default.

Plato, whose cosmology was the late dialogue, the Timaeus, is often called a poet. It’s not that Plato was a poet so much as he was a scientist who had to rely on a great deal of amazing guessing.

Is poetry really the guess-work of the scientist?

The world—which is born and dies, and which resides below Plato’s eternal Forms—is God’s unique and mutable poem.

Plato’s Forms are God’s truth—or what might be called the poet’s plan.

So Plato’s great theme: The eternal Forms are real and belong to science. The world doesn’t belong to poetry, because the world is already a default poem,  but for the world and the poet to exist, the poet must think like a scientist.  

The planning impulse of the cosmogonist writes the poem to make it more than a mere reflection of the accidents of the world.

We could say it was easier, or more natural for the scientist to be a poet in Plato’s day—precisely because science required so much guess-work.  The scientist needed to be a poet, needed to have imagination, and speculate, in order to make sense of a world belonging to our ancient ancestors’ dimly primitive understanding of it.

Do we believe the world is still a mystery? In that case, guessing and dreaming—not just in poetry, but in what could be called poetic science, is still necessary.

Here, in a masterpiece of classical scholarship—Plato’s Cosmology, by Francis Cornford (1935)—we find the following, and note how Cornford describes the cosmology of Lucretius, all the rage at the moment because of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning bestseller, The Swerve:

The Timaeus is a poem, no less than the De rerum natura of Lucretius, and indeed more so in certain respects. Both poets are concerned, in the first instance, with our practical attitude towards the world—what we should make of our life there and how face the prospect of death. Lucretius believed that atoms and void are the ultimately real things of which everything that exists is built. Plato denied reality to what is commonly called matter; his real things are the Forms, and the bodies we touch and see are not built of Forms, nor are the Forms in them. Accordingly, for Lucretius reality is in the world of sensible things and he can offer statements about its nature which claim to be literally true; for Plato that whole world is an image, not the substance. You cannot, by taking visible things to pieces, ever arrive at any parts more real than the whole you started with. The perfection of microscopic vision can bring you no nearer to the truth, for the truth is not at the further end of your microscope. To find reality you would do better to shut your eyes and think.

There are two senses in which the Timaeus is a ‘myth’ or ‘story.’ One we have already considered: no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. Earlier cosmogonies had been of the evolutionary type, suggesting a birth and growth of the world, due to some spontaneous force of life in Nature, or, as in Atomism, to the blind and undesigned collision of lifeless atoms. Such a story was, to Plato, very far from being like the truth. So he introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.

The Atomists’ belief in innumerable worlds, some always coming into existence, others passing away, was an inference from their assertion of a strictly infinite void partly occupied by an illimitable number of atoms in motion. It was probable, they argued, that world-forming vortices would arise at any number of different places. Granted that our world is finite, that there is unlimited space outside its boundary, and that there are materials left over, from which other worlds might be formed, why should there not be any number of copies of the same model?  The world, according to Plato, is finite.

Francis Cornford rocks.  Re-discover him, people.

The poet is like God, a “divine artificer.”  And the divine focuses on one perfect, finite universe, not an imperfect bunch, based on vague limitlessness.

If we think of Plato as the ancient artificer, Dante, the artificer of the middle ages, and Poe as the great modern artificer, this might be a good time to quote from Poe’s cosmology, Eureka:

Let us begin, then, at once with the merest of words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in nearly all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but an effort at one.

And what an “effort” it is to imagine the entire universe!  Surely it makes writing a poem easier!  Or not.

Infinity is one of the important ideas for Poe, because like his great predecessor, Plato, a finite universe is the scientifically perfect universe Poe imagines; the infinite universe simply cannot work as our one unique universe of tangible lawfulness—and to read Eureka is to understand this fully, as Poe tirelessly makes crystal clear in his great theme of simplicity and oneness throughout the work.

Like Plato, Poe sees invisible creator and visible creation as two very distinct parts of the universe.  And on it goes, the parts, the number, and how they fit together and impact each other in revolutions, orbits, luminosity, and gravitation, over time; all that challenges the cosmologist cannot help but inspire the poet in the most profound manner imaginable.  Here is Poe, toward the end of his prose poem, Eureka, echoing Plato as he warns the reader not to confuse all-important “symmetry” in the world with its more important place in idea

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous—for the analogical—in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical—which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: —thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, belonging to that certain tribe of thinkers who could not follow Poe’s genius in its journey beyond the country village, once said that “consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Emerson surely had a more fragile consistency in mind.

Poe was no village realist.  Poe was truly the idealist heir of Plato.  From Eureka:

The wonderfully complex laws of revolution here described, however, are not to be understood as obtaining in our system alone. They everywhere prevail where Attraction prevails. They control the Universe of Stars. Every shining speck in the firmament is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less, whose still lingering luminosity is not sufficient to render them visible to us at so vast a distance, but which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centers, in obedience to the principles just detailed—in obedience to the three omniprevalent laws of revolution—the three immortal laws guessed by the imaginative Kepler, and but subsequently demonstrated and accounted for by the patient and mathematical Newton. Among a tribe of philosophers who pride themselves excessively upon matter-of-fact, it is far too fashionable to sneer at all speculation under the comprehensive sobriquet, “guess-work.”  The point to be considered is, who guesses.  In guessing with Plato, we spend our time to better purpose, now and then, than in hearkening to a demonstration by Alcmaeon.

The poet, to broaden the definition of poetry, is, like Plato and Poe, one who speculates—in the consistent spirit of one who imagines the universe, or, like a good cook, tells you exactly how God made the pie.

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal? 

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway? 

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal. 

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant. 

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.  

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS? FRANZ WRIGHT BATTLES JAMES TATE!!!

Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

James Tate and Franz Wright, born in the booming, volatile middle of the 20th century, grew in the intellectual climate of the partying 1970s when the Iowa poetry workshop took control of poetry and America went from heroic and expansive to bureaucratic and self-pitying.  Well, America was never heroic and expansive, except when we were fighting the British; since Emerson, American intellectual life has been solidly and politely apologetic and anti-heroic. 

Sometime between the insanity that was WW I and the insanity that was WW II, American poetry became an Africa, and Paul Engle became our Cecil Rhodes. 

The basic elements of literary life are pretty simple when it comes to savvy male poets like Tate and Wright.   Tate and Wright would make great clowns, or fools, in a Shakespeare play: Tate, sarcastic, Wright, sad.  The Romantic poet, or Hamlet—which the modern poet has never escaped—was pathetic/heroic; our contemporaries like Tate and Wright are merely pathetic, and of course I don’t mean pathetic in the modern, slangy sense, but aesthetic pathos.   But pathos is never enough: with Tate, the heroic has been replaced by a rueful humor and Tate’s poetry is wicked, fast, and fun, written on-the-run and off-the-cusp and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t and where’s-the-next-party-anyway?  Franz Wright chooses a different path; the nerdy kid not invited to the party, Franz broods on his poems, he writes them slowly and contemplatively and instead of adding something else to pathos, he’s crazy enough to think that he can keep up the romantic trope and do the pathetic/heroic—in a grand, vengeful, wise-man, nerdy sort of way.

Wright and Tate were only given one poem in Rita Dove’s recent Penguin anthology—which they both triumphed with in Round One, but now their selections must come from elsewhere as they attempt Sweet 16. 

Note here how Wright plays the Romantic pathetic/heroic card.  You can see the heroic in the adjective “vast” and in the stunning image of Romantic-era Walt Whitman at the end of the poem.  Sure, the pathetic exists here, too, but Wright is one of the few contemporary poets who goes for the Romantic heroic trope as well.

WHEELING MOTEL

The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
 
a block down. It’s twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

With Tate, we are fully in the 20th century—no Romantic heroism for him.  This poem reminded me of Becket’s Godot,  and note the pathos combined with the rueful humor:

SUCCESS COMES TO COW CREEK

I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is

inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

“as fast as my boots will allow; as always, neglecting to drown” captures the whole pathos essence of James Tate and the replacement of the Romantic pathos/heroic with the Modern alternative of pathos/self-deprecating humor.

Here is the origin of Slam poetry—as written poetry evolves into stand-up comedy before a live audience.  

Pure poetry is something that is read by one person alone, and there is no design upon that person except that they enjoy a poetic experience, far removed from everything else, and, hopefully, in some way superior to that ‘everything else.’ 

Slam poetry, which, ironically, truly developed out of the poetry workshop atmosphere, and not the tavern, embraces the ‘everything else,’ stoops to it, revels in it, and the ‘live poetry’ experience is all about one person’s design on another, whether to impress a teacher in a worshop seminar, or to get laid in a bar.  Of course reading poems aloud in bars or in the street might seem like something which has always occured and has nothing to do with academics, but this, I maintain, is a romantic falsehood, and the people who go to bars and walk down the street in bygone days had the good sense to know that poetry does not belong in bars—only drinking songs do.

Wright is obviously infected with Slam (his reference to Tammy Wynette) but the irony here is that his reference to Whitman is Slam pathos, too.  Whitman is not pure poetry.  He, too, has designs on us.  Walt was the first Slam poet, before the horror of Slam existed. Whitman has become a circus in himself, and now represents the same cheap, honky-tonk Slam poetry atmosphere which the schools unconsciously promote.

But Wright’s a smart poet, and his “examining a tear on a dead face” is an attempt to reverse this Slam trend and bring Whitman back to some Romantic semblance of heroicism and feeling.

Tate tells better jokes, the guy with boots who “neglects to drown” is brilliant, and perhaps Wright is just sorry and pathetic, but we need to give Wright points for his brooding insights and sensibility. 

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73

PLACES, EVERYONE!

Gertrude Stein posed for this statue (1992) in Paris (1920), but it sits in (William Cullen) Bryant Park in New York City.

Nothing exists but that it also exists elsewhere.  Anyone can pass through a place and be in other places that way, but few can make multiple places seem permanent and their own.  Only two things can do this: empire on a large scale, and the profound soul on the other.

America mostly knows its writers by place—for all of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendent philosophy, we know him by his ‘old manse’ in Concord and Emerson’s plot of New England land is where Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond.

Nathaniel Hawthorne rented from Emerson, too, but Hawthorne’s reputation is linked with nearby Salem.

The Longfellow house, where Longfellow raised his children still sits proudly on Brattle street, next to Harvard University where Longfellow was a professor.

Emily Dickinson, the recluse of Amherst, haunts a few rooms that are still standing; when we think of Henry James, we immediately think of a pleasant drawing room in his beloved London, and William Carlos Williams: a home doctor’s office in rural Rutherford, New Jersey, an old wheel barrow glimpsed outside the window.

Wallace Stevens conjures up an insurance office in Hartford, Connecticut; Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Paris; Pound, Italy.

T.S. Eliot?  There he is at Lloyds in London, speaking in hushed tones. Hart Crane?  He’s jumping off a ship into the north Atlantic. The Fugitive poets have Tennessee. Millay is identified with Maine, and Frost occupies a spot close to the Vermont/New Hampshire border. 

As we think of the minor poets in the 20th century, place becomes even more important: Charles Olson roams Gloucester, poetry schools are named after places: the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance; Jack Kerouac may have written On The Road, but his place will always be Lowell, Massachusetts. 

Even the imaginative soul needs a place to haunt, needs a place that is home, a place that says I am here.

There is no American poet known, to any degree, by the public, who isn’t identified by a place.  Three-quarters of American poets attended Harvard, but where you went to college, or where you got your M.F.A is probably not going to make you beloved of the American public.

Walt Whitman is known as our national Bard because in his writing he ranges, vociferously, far and wide—his reputation is not tied to one place—if Whitman were strongly identified with Brooklyn, for instance, he’d be Walter Whitman, a very minor figure.

It is precisely because, in Whitman’s case, that he is not identified with Brooklyn that he enjoys the reputation he does, for, after all, Whitman’s output is minor—a dozen memorable lines, perhaps; three or four anthology pieces: “O Captain! My Captain!’ and excerpts from “Leaves of Grass,” a few other excerpts from longer poems—poems almost no one reads in their entirety, maybe one or two other short poems.  Whitman, the poet, has made it to the top of the heap precisely because he belongs to no one and belongs nowhere—thus he is the token American who resonates with orphic, orphan, lonesome qualities that define a frontier America in transition, a land almost too big for its people, but growing smaller in the human bustle, and Whitman is the representative of that past and that future.  A Whitman statue could be anywhere—one was just unveiled in Moscow by secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Once established, a writer’s place doesn’t change, but a famous writer, like a Walt Whitman, who has no place, can claim new territory.

There is one American writer who, more than any other, seems to have no real place of his own: Edgar Poe.

Poe rejects place, and has no place.  He said the writer ought to belong to the universe, not to any place on earth; he coined the phrase, “out of place, out of time;” he set his most ambitious tales in France; he rarely took the time to describe an American place; he did so only in little-read pieces of journalism, not in the works that made him famous; Poe remains classical and European in most people’s minds, not American. 

Poe has a abstract quality so powerful that it will drag almost any adolescent mind into its vortex—modern American poetry can almost be defined as one great, long escape from it.  Rejecting Poe has been a rite of passage for every American poet who has wanted to be taken seriously by his or her peers.  The anti-Poe club is not just a large one—it is modern poetry: “A poem should be melancholy? Ha ha ha ha!”

But who will have the last laugh? 

Poe’s tentacles are many.  He can reach you in so many ways. You bury his Philosophy of Composition deep in the ground.  That’s right, MFA student, bury it deep, deep…  Now run from his poetry as fast as you can. Be modern! Run, run, run… run faster, faster!  Have you traveled fast enough?  Can’t you run just a little bit faster?

Is this crazy, or what?  Poe is returning to Boston.

The celebrants of Poe’s recent 200th birthday celebration decided it would be fun to have a debate—which place is most Poe’s place: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Boston?  Poe wrote The Raven in New York, his first detective story in Philadelphia, his childhood and early criticism in Richmond, the Poes are from Baltimore (as well as The Ravens football team), and Poe was born in Boston.

In an odd twist, thanks to the research and debating skills of professor Paul Lewis of Boston college, Boston, of all places, won the debate, and now through the efforts of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston and the Boston Art Commission, Edgar Allan Poe will grace downtown Boston—near the frog pond, Poe’s mocking symbol for New England writers—in a large work of public art.  You can learn about the three finalists here.  Statues can be pompous and boring, but Boston Poe gets an added boost, because these look really interesting.

The statues of the Frog Pond authors must be shaking in their boots.

Professor Paul Lewis is a slender, dapper man with a twinkle in his eye.  Last week at the Boston Public Library unveiling of the three Poe finalist works, he pointed out that Poe’s mother—an actress at the Federal Theater near the Boston Common (now gone)—loved Boston and was loved here; Poe’s mother represents that side of Poe who pleases rather than instructs, soaring happily in a puritan place.  Professor Lewis brings to Poe studies a happy spirit of reconciliaton—he is no Harold Bloom saying, “You must love either Emerson or Poe.”

The proposed Poe public art works—two of the three works feature a life-sized Poe, one with a raven emerging from his trunk, the other with a shrouded female figure at his back—are so wonderful that we couldn’t help but ponder, out of pure fun, some other possibilities.

A statue of Poe on the ground, surrounded by bottles.

A statue of Poe on Emerson’s knee, being spanked.

A statue of Pound, giving a Nazi salute.

A statue of Whitman, naked, with a hard-on.

But enough.

A large-as-life Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of Boston is frightening enough.

Thank you, Boston Poe Foundation!

POE AND THE WOMEN

Rufus Griswold: an investigation of 19th century women poets must go through him—and Poe.

The female poet was a major literary force in 19th century America, and this happy circumstance lingered in the early 20th century, with poets like Edna Millay and Dorothy Parker, but that dream faded as modern tastes took hold, and men dominated the profession once more.  The names of those 19th century women poets are forgotten and no renaissance of any note has been attempted in America in the name of the female poet.  Influential male writers—Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mark Twain, to name a few, were not impressed by female versifiers and made it known they thought women poets were silly.  The ‘Pound Era’ wiped out ‘The Poetess’ for good, as even Millay was abused by the Pound clique, and the whole lot of 19th century female poets fell into neglect—most readers today can only name Emily Dickinson.

Modernism wanted nothing to do with the Romantic or Victorian spirit in poetry—and as a direct result, woman’s poetry, one could say, became a casualty of the 20th century, too.

From the introduction to American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, (Rutgers 1992) the editor, Cheryl Walker, writes:

Given the almost total neglect accorded nineteenth-century popular women poets, it is a pleasure to be able to show through an anthology that these writers were neither all alike nor without merit.

The ability to earn significant amounts of money by publishing poetry in the popular media certainly provided an impetus for women to write verse. Until relatively recently, however, it was assumed that women were composing  their poems in isolated cottages or garrets, cut off from the mainstream of literary life. In Literary Women, for instance, Ellen Moers asserted: “Women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned in travel, painfully restricted in friendship. The give-and-take of literary life was closed to them.” The Bronte sisters and Emily Dickinson were taken to be typical of woman’s lot. Today, in contrast, we know that Emily Dickinson was very much the exception among  American women poets. By and large, literary women on this side of the Atlantic were not isolated from each other, secretly composing in the upstairs bedroom, but were actively involved with a world simultaneously social and intellectual. One feature of this world was the literary salon.

As early as 1830, Lydia Sigourney was earning an income by selling her productions to over twenty periodicals.

…literary life in America was an arena distinctly more favorable to women in the late nineteenth century than it had been in its earliest decades. In an 1887 memoir of Lydia Sigourney, John Greenleaf Whittier reflected: “She sang alone, ere womanhood had known/The gift of song that fills the air today.” By the 1870s the many minor poets who found their way into the popular magazines were about equally male and female.

Today it is fashionable to decry market forces, but women poets in the 19th century benefited from the rise of industry and capitalism.  Female poetry grew with America’s growth.  Enlightenment and Romantic ideals helped women, as well.  Henry James and Walt Whitman may not have taken 19th century women poets seriously, but Edgar Allan Poe did.  Poe was also a casualty of 20th modernist criticism, his rich legacy swept aside by the impatience of gum-chewing, jazz age critics.   Little brass poems and ‘let’s wow ‘em’ experimental poems rejected the old sublime, which lingered, but by the 1930s was dead, hauled off by a little red wheel barrow.  American poetry became odd, and women poets who had written in the old ways were forgotten.  Radio was the sentimental masterpiece now, not books of poems.  With radio and film, women were pretty and sang, they were dolls to movie tough-guys, not poets anymore.

What’s really odd is how much 19th century women’s poetry and Edgar Poe go hand in hand.  You can’t read an account of 19th century woman poets without running into Poe at every turn; Poe, more than any other figure in the 19th century, reviewed and supported women poets, was worshiped by them at the literary salons.  Not only that, the greatest anthologist of woman poets in the 19th century, a Poe rival for the attention of literary women, but  a man known today only because of Poe—not for his literary efforts on behalf of women—is Rufus Griswold, who almost single-handedly mauled Poe’s reputation, putting into circulation the false rumors of the lonely drug fiend and alcoholic in his obituary in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, a prominent poet in Cheryl Walker’s anthology, quoted by Herman Melville and married to a famous humorist, wrote now-suppressed magazine articles of how Poe was beaten and murdered.  Fanny Osgood, another well-known American poet of this time, her husband a reputed portrait painter, supposedly had an affair with Poe.  Helen Whitman, still another poet of note in the 19th century, was going to marry Poe until Greeley and Griswold conspired to put an end to it.

Poe’s murder in 1849 coincided with Griswold’s anthology, Female Poets of America, (1849) and we can’t help but feel that this anthology was Griswold’s attempt to woo women away from Poe with the promise of publication and fame.  Important women poets were in a position to defend Poe, and, in the case of at least one (Oakes-Smith), to give evidence on how Poe really died.  Was Griswold’s anthology a way to keep the women silent?  Keep quiet about Poe and Uncle Rufus will make your poetry live forever.

When Poe gave Griswold power over his posthumous works, in the year of his death, 1849, Poe sealed his fate, and the circle closed in around him.

Was 19th century women’s poetry essentially killed by the same forces that killed Poe, and his reputation, and ushered in the rule of the Modernist Men’s club, Pound and Ford Madox Ford and radical, militaristic, fascist, gold-digging, Golden Dawn crazies who hated American democracy?  The virtuous woman, the respected woman of Letters, was a horror to men like Pound, Eliot, and Ford, who used women in various ways.   The proud, independent, 19th century poetess was an ideal that faded away in the gaudy light of modernism.

The trail is pretty clear: the chauvinist Emerson (who despised Poe) , the chauvinist Whitman (inspired by Emerson) Henry James (sneered both at literary women and Poe;  Emerson was a family friend of the James family) and T.S. Eliot (had issues with Poe, Romanticism, and women; Eliot’s grandfather was Unitarian preacher friend of Emerson’s).

The sordid tale is even more bizarre, if that’s possible.  Margaret Fuller, associate of both Emerson and Horace Greeley (Fuller and Greeley were roommates for years) alarmed the literary salon community by getting together a posse of belles to demand at Poe’s cottage door supposed love letters he had from a married woman, causing Poe to subsequently seek to arm himself against enraged men folk. Fuller’s gambit took place in 1847, two years before Poe’s death, and was just the sort of fearful incident that began to make Poe persona non grata in higher literary circles, and easier to push aside as potential allies were scared into silence.  Unfortunately, in any literary network, the rival phenomenon plays an ugly role, as one reputation may eclipse others—one is only a good a writer as rivals permit one to be.   This was especially true in Poe’s day, when Letters was judged by a more universal standard of ‘Western Tradition’ transparency and democratic popularity: there was one mode of excellence and a writer was original, or not, within that mode, even as comic or tragic, domestic or worldly subjects were chosen.  There was no hiding behind experimental differences—there was no way to do that and call oneself an artist in the community’s eyes.  This made literary rivalries especially cut-throat in Poe’s day, and Poe strove to make himself part of the mainstream of American Letters, which included women poets.  Poe was not one of the producers/publishers of literature; he was merely the best of the writers.  The action taken against him by Margaret Fuller must have really shaken Poe’s reputation.  Two years later, Greeley and Griswold finished the job Fuller had begun, as their Tribune obituary hit the streets hours after Poe’s mysterious murder.  1845 saw Poe gain worldwide fame with “The Raven,” and the salon circuit was good to him as late as 1847, but as Poe’s enemies poured on the drunk/sexually immoral slanders, his salon-fame flower faded by 1848.  Poe turned his attention to comosogony (“Eureka”) as his social star fell behind the hills.  Cheryl Walker again:

Women participated in literary salons from the eighteenth century onward, and in several notable cases they supervised these social occasions themselves, holding salons for the great and near great in their homes. One of the most famous was the New York salon run by Anne Lynch (later Botta) which entertained writers such as Poe, Emerson, Frances Osgood, Rufus Griswold, Margaret Fuller, the Cary sisters, and Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. Edith Thomas’s career was launched at one of Botta’s evening entertainments.  Such salons were often inbred and typically thrived on gossip, but they also played a significant role in establishing networks of literary inter-relationships.  In her autobiography, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith gives a fascinating account of one evening at Emma Embury’s during which Frances Osgood sat adoringly at the feet of Poe and guests engaged in witty repartee. She remarks: “I remember Fannie Osgood and Phoebe Cary rather excelled at this small game, but Margaret Fuller looked like an owl at the perpetration of a pun, and I honored her for it.”

We’ll just print one poem from the anthology of 19th century American women poets, a brief lyric by Anne Lynch Botta, the salon hostess mentioned above.  Do 19th century women poets who can write like this deserve to be forgotten?  This poem contains many merits: artistic unity, descriptive power, force of imagery, and a symbolism which is not static, but unfolds as we read the poem:

LINES on an incident observed from the deck of a steamboat on the Mississippi river

Where the dark primeval forests
Rise against the western sky,
And “the Father of the Waters”
In his strength goes rushing by:

There an eagle, flying earthward
From his eyrie far above,
With a serpent of the forest
In a fierce encounter strove.

Now he gains and now he loses,
Now he frees his ruffled wings;
And now on high in air he rises;
But the serpent round him clings.

In the death embrace entwining,
Now they sink and now they rise;
But the serpent wins the battle
With the monarch of the skies.

Yet his wings still struggle upward,
Though that crushing weight they bear;
But more feebly those broad pinions
Strike the waves of upper air.

Down to earth he sinks a captive
In that writhing, living chain;
Never o’er the blue horizon
Will his proud form sweep again.

Never more in lightning flashes
Will his eye of terror gleam
Round the high and rocky eyrie,
Where his lonely eaglets scream.

Oh majestic, royal eagle,
Soaring sunward from thy birth,
Thou hast lost the realm of heaven
For one moment on the earth!

Perhaps this is not a ‘great poem’ to a 21st century professor bent over it in a library, but imagine a 19th century salon, where poems live in a rich, down-to-earth, social atmosphere: one part gossip, one part entertainment, one part noble tradition.  Would this poem not be perfect?

CURTIS FAVILLE AND THE MODERNIST FALLACY

Curtis Faville was a regular anti-Quietist commentator on Silliman’s Blog before Silliman’s squeamishness cancelled conversation.  Since Emerson’s surly “jingle man” remark, the puritans of modernism have frowned on rhyme.  Now Mr. Faville, on his own blog, The Compass Rose, in “The Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme, parts I and II,” this month, keeps alive Emerson’s animosity with a didactic assault on beauty and expression.  Thomas Brady’s comment (to Part II) and Faville’s response is now an addendum to Part I.

Here is Thomas Brady’s comment:

Faville objects to the glorification of rhyme, which he thinks is nothing but a parlor trick. I have news for Curt. A poem is nothing but a parlor trick and, as far as we know, life, which is made of dust but exists as we see it, is a parlor trick too. Life, the Big Parlor Trick, can deliver more joy or suffering, but with the Little Parlor Trick, what matters is: is the Parlor Trick amusing, or boring? And whatever is not a trick, has no theological or aesthetic interest whatsoever.

Faville is certainly justified in wanting his ‘meaning’ straight, without jingle-jangle. But he is confusing the parlor trick with the parlor. Aspects of the parlor are important, sure: Isn’t that paint starting to peel? Does the parlor need dusting? When is the pizza man coming? Should we use more lights in the parlor? Is there enough diet coke in the mini-fridge? There’s all sorts of things to consider.

Rhyme is merely emphasis, but of course emphasis is a whole world when it comes to music, and expression. There is no ‘meaning’ in a certain word rhyming with another, but neither is there ‘meaning’ in a Beethoven symphony, which again, is a mere accident of sound. But why does a Beethoven symphony have more interest—as well as more ‘meaning’—for us than any prose passage of Curtis Faville’s? Well, it’s nothing but a trick, of course.

Faville admirably defends his position:

I am always amused at how nonplussed people can get when you presume to criticize traditional poetic structures.

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?
Life, despite what Tom says, isn’t a parlor trick. Matter and animate protein aren’t parlor tricks. Not bad jokes. Not simplistic games of chance. Reducing poetry to a branch of clairvoyance, or sleight-of-hand, is a belittlement of literature. I don’t see serious literature as needing to furnish meaning “straight” either. Au contraire.
The parlor used to be a room in the house where private and public met, a kind of limbo space in which visitors could be admitted, without relinquishing the privacy of the family living spaces. The parlor was where manners and propriety were observed, and things were kept trite and harmless. Parlor games were diversions–cards, checkers, etc.–which had no ulterior consequence(s). To be amused or mildly diverted.
Rhyme may be used to create “emphasis” but that isn’t its only purpose. (Unfortunately, that’s often how it’s often employed.) As I tried to make clear, words are not notes, and trying to think of poetry as a kind of musical expression is an error, because the two media are different in their effects and underlying bases. Which is partly why the meaning of rhyme is purely gratuitous. Beethoven’s symphonies aren’t “meaningless” as Tom asserts. There is nothing accidental about musical composition. But it is a mistake to think that meaning in music can be constructed in the same way that it is in verbal composition. The two are analogous, but not parallel.
Comparisons may be invidious, especially when used in an obviously sarcastic way. It is very flattering to have my “prose” compared to a Beethoven symphony, but I’m afraid this is merely a silly misapplication. In no way is a blog essay intended to stand as an aesthetic performance–either as poetry, music, or casual journalism. Tom knows this.

Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Let’s cut right to the chase: Faville singles out rhyme as an object of contempt without taking rhythm into account—even after I pointed out in my first response to his essay that to rhyme nicely one must use rhythm nicely. Faville applied Robert Frost’s “playing tennis without a net” to rhyme, when Frost’s subject was “free verse,” not rhyme.  If Faville is merely objecting to doggerrel, that would be one thing, but like the modernists and New Critics who heaped scorn on their illustrious predecessors such as Shelley, Poe and Byron, Faville chose to pick on Andrew Marvell, describing as “trite” and “gratuitous” the rhyme and metre of “To His Coy Mistress.”  The 900 pound gorilla in the room, as usual, is Edgar Poe—who anticipated Faville’s vague objections with scientific rigor and ingenuity.  Let us grant that poets mindlessly jingling and jangling century after century is a legitimate concern.  Here’s Poe:

Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved, my positions remain untouched. I may say, however, in passing, that several instances of rhyme occur in the Clouds of Aristophanes, and that the Roman poets occasionally employ it. There is an effective species of ancient rhyming which has never descended to the moderns; that in which the ultimate and penultimate syllables rhyme with each other. For example:

Parturiunt montes et nascitur ridiculusmus.

and again—

Litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus.
The terminations of Hebrew verse, (as far as understood,) show no signs of rhyme; but what thinking person can doubt that it did actually exist? That men have so obstinately and blindly insisted, in general, even up to the present day, in confining rhyme to the ends of lines, when its effect is even better applicable elsewhere, intimates, in my opinion, the sense of some necessity in the connection of the end with the rhyme—hints that the origin of rhyme lay in a necessity which connected it with the end—shows that neither mere accident nor mere fancy gave rise to the connection—points, in a word, at the very necessity which I have suggested, (that of some mode of defining lines to the ear,) as the true origin of rhyme.

I quote the above not to refute Faville, for Poe agrees with Faville that rhyme can be “obstinately and blindly” persisted in, but Poe, in this brief passage from his Rationale of Verse, gives us history, rationale, and material solutions.  In his Philosophy of Composition, which reconstructs “The Raven,” Poe does not mention rhyme once.  In one interesting passage, he writes:

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.  The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Now Poe is perhaps the most original author who ever lived; Faville holds a vague opinion that rhyme is rather silly and has gone on for too long; Faville has not written a “Raven” or a Rationale of Verse or a Philosophy of Composition, but it is nice to know that Faville, as he says:

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?

Faville doesn’t “object” to rhyme, and admits that “historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive.”  But after saying this, where is the force of his complaint?   It’s sort of like saying, ‘words were once rather wonderful things, but posterity now slaves itself to a monotonous use of them—perhaps it’s time we did away with them.’  Just like that?

As we can see from Poe, the ‘jingle-man’ himself, verse depends on rhythm, line, meter, stanza, an undercurrent of meaning, and even more fundamental things like unity, limit, duration, and variety.  Rhyme is the icing on the cake, or the percussion in a symphony orchestra, or the glint in a beautiful eye.  To weigh against rhyme is the mark of a dour theorist, indeed.  Shall we censor what can make language charming?  Really?

Faville, with single-minded, modernist glee, having no understanding of the rationale or the history of what he dismisses—“traditional forms”—pursues the general, well-worn path of loosening our collective mental grip on “the poem,” towards any number of holy grails: freedom, realism, social justice, prose-variety, prose-insight, prose-seriousness, prose-acrobatics, prose-morality, and prose-dignity.  But what the modernists have done, starting with the exceedingly clever R.W. Emerson, was not to chuck “the poem,” but to transfer its properties (and more) in a mysterious manner to whatever prose-pursuit happened to be going on at the time, whether it was Yvor Winters yapping about “moral form,” or the Imagistes’ slightly Westernized haiku, or Eliot’s morose pastiches with footnotes, or the Iowa Workshop’s “the poem is my diary!” or Ashbery’s Dr. Seuss-for-grownups-minus-the-rhyme.

The modernist agenda would be necessary if the two centuries previous to the 20th had produced bad poetry and stupid criticism—but it didn’t; Pope to Tennyson was quite remarkable, and Gertrude Stein huffing on her professor William James’ nitrous oxide didn’t exactly improve it.  But fellows like Faville, swept up in the nitrous oxide fun, feel it is their duty to tell everyone not to rhyme. You’ll sound like Shelley which means you’ll sound old-fashioned, so stop is the philosophy in a nutshell.

Like any agenda or manifesto put forward by clever people, it has a grain of truth, a ‘little learning’ about it which is on target.  We Quietists, we defenders of “ye olde traditional forms,” we dinosaurs, wearing big hats and stiff collars, would, with a single hit of nitrous oxide, get it, and groove with Lyn Hejinian at academic conferences all-around-the-world-yea, except for one small detail: Pope thru Tennyson did not produce limericks.

Faville would have a case, if, beginning around the middle of the 17th century, there had been an onslaught of limerick-appreciation, and it quickly infected every poet and critic: Shelley’s A Defense of Limericks, Poe’s A Rationale of Limericks, building on Pope’s An Essay On Limericks, to Tennyson’s Maud: A Limerick, which drove reasonable men to build the Iowa Writer’s Worskhop and write New Critical texts to save us from the limerick-menace (though T.S. Eliot would still allow us to admire the ur-work: The Divine Limerick).

But now, thank God!, there are poets like Rae Armantrout, who decided deep down in their souls they were not going to write limericks—and we are saved.

Poe ‘splained “the Poem” as belonging to the province of Beauty, not Truth or Passion, and Faville may think Beauty means pretty, but it does not; what modernists like Faville need to understand is that “the Poem” requires a length, and that mere fact brings us to the question of how we divide that length, which inevitably encompasses issues like the line, rhythm, meter, stanza, and finally, rhyme—mundane material considerations which good poets bother with and bad poets do not.  Faville would pluck the rhyme without comprehending the whole flower, including root and stem—the whole plant to him is nothing but prose meaning, and everything else that the genius Poe is concerned with, he, Faville, can just throw away.

The limerick belongs to the parlor, obviously, but it also belongs to poetry and, as such, can be made the center, perhaps (is there a modernist who would even dare?) of compromise between my position and Faville’s.

Faville probably thinks “The Raven” is a limerick, or might as well be; he has already demonstrated he thinks “To His Coy Mistress” is a limerick, with Marvell’s “jews” and “refuse” rhyme-combination a bit of silliness no serious, contemporary, educated man should tolerate.  Faville, as a schooled modernist, fears limit.  Faville feels the tiny, artificial pool of “jews, refuse, lose, and ooze” rhymes, which Marvell swims in, is a big slap in the face to one as intelligent as himself.  Faville roams the Towering Forest of Prose Ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson And John Ashbery with his gun—to kill any limerick-rhyme he might happen to see. Faville, unlike Marvell, wanders an autumnal landscape that stretches for eternity—there is Henry James on the right and Walter Benjamin on the left—and contains no parlor games or parlor tricks or anything that could be put neatly inside a game-board or a stanza.  Faville is a colossus—and strides a colossal world.

HENRY JAMES: WORST WRITER EVER?

Poor Henry James.  He took so long to say something, and when he finally said it, there was nothing there.

With Henry James, there was always something that seemed to want to get out, but somewhow, it couldn’t.

Effort was always present in him: great, even herculean effort, but it was always merely towards a kind of grim self-existence: the loud breathing of one panting because of their own weight.

If Henry James is remembered as a poet, it is precisely because what he was trying to say could never be said.

Henry James was always writing prefaces to his novels, and his prefaces were wonderful—because they teased, even tortured, his readers into such refined impatience: oh do please get on with the novel, already, before I expire!

For instance:

“The Wings of the Dove,” published in 1902, represents to my memory a very old–if I shouldn’t perhaps rather say a very young–motive; I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me. The idea, reduced to its essence, is that of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to “put in” before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived. Long had I turned it over, standing off from it, yet coming back to it; convinced of what might be done with it, yet seeing the theme as formidable. The image so figured would be, at best, but half the matter; the rest would be all the picture of the struggle involved, the adventure brought about, the gain recorded or the loss incurred, the precious experience somehow compassed. These things, I had from the first felt, would require much working-out; that indeed was the case with most things worth working at all; yet there are subjects and subjects, and this one seemed particularly to bristle. It was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it–it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a “frank” subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill—a case sure to prove difficult and to require  much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign.

Before reading a Henry James novel, one needs to be carefully informed of how difficult it was for Mr. James to wrestle with how he was going to “work-out” his inescapable theme.  His prefaces are sort of like having one’s brains dashed out—in order to create that proper impressionistic effect which his impeccable, fictional realism requires, as it portrays dashing men—and the thoughtful ladies who love them—sucking their thumbs.

Henry James, the pampered, life-long bachelor who fled rough-and-tumble America for Men’s Club London, was the sort of person most happy when talking about his own novels (and explaining what he was going to do in them), which is why prefaces were so important to his art.

It is no wonder Henry James failed miserably at the theater.  Audience: We’ll give you an hour, or two. Connect with us.  James couldn’t do it.  He was booed and hissed off the stage by his beloved Londoners.

His father, Henry James, Sr., now forgotten, founded Syracuse, was the richest man in America, and most importantly for his son, Henry, knew Emerson—who told young William Dean Howells to publish Henry Jr in The Atlantic Monthly, which was great, because Henry James was not doing much of anything at the time, laying about, feeling guilty for not fighting in the Civil War, and he and Howells were to discover a ‘movement,’ Tea-Cup Realism, which they were very happy with, and Henry now could tell everyone—thanks to papa’s connection to ‘uncle’ Waldo—that he was a published writer.

Henry Sr.’s eldest son, William, experimented with writing things down while on nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, and founded the first psychology department, at Harvard—where he eventually had Gertrude Stein—who was good at automatic writing—as a student.

So the James family gave us the city of Syracuse, Tea Cup Realism, Academic Psychology, and Modernist, experimental literature.  Not bad.

But what shall we do with Henry James’ inflated reputation?  Why, lance it, of course.  If not punctured, the inevitable decay will set in—James has already lost millions of readers to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling, and has a dwindling readership—and that decay will leave a disturbing odor.  Or, perhaps, James’ empty-at-its-core writing will not rot at all, but drift imperceptibly away?  It will be labor lost, then, to make any effort to dismantle James’ rather bulky notoriety—which yet looms over our Letters.

Having said that, we’ll end with a sampling of another of James’ prefaces—not for one of his novels—we won’t torture you further with them—but for someone he loved, a boy he adored: Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I, only a year before Henry James, himself, passed away.  Rupert Brooke is famous for his lines from “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed

Both men, the old novelist and the young poet, adored England.  James met Rupert Brooke a few times in person, and evidently was quite smitten by the lad.  The old novelist wrote the Preface for Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, in honor of the poet’s death. The small book was published by Scribner’s in 1916, the year of Henry James’ death, a short time after Rupert Brooke’s death in the Great War—and Henry James wrote it while the atrocity known as the Great War was still going on.  Has anyone ever written such ugly, tedious, meaningless bombast?  Read for yourself:

Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a  confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of.  With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseperable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly “modern.” This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed—so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day.  I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron’s volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face.  He hugged pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of to-day, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine. Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. How can it therefore not be interesting to see a little what the wondrous modern in him consisted of?

What it first and foremost really comes to, I think, is the fact that at an hour when the civilised peoples are on exhibition, quite finally and sharply on show, to each other and to the world, as they absolutely never in all their long history have been before, the English tradition (both of amenity and of energy, I naturally mean), should have flowered at once into a specimen so beautifully producible.

I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

MR. AUDEN AND THE SONNETS

Three wild and crazy Englishmen (Auden, Lewis, Spender) hang out in Venice

In an earlier post, “Fiction v. Poetry,” we used W.H. Auden’s Introduction to Shakespeare’s The Sonnets (Signet/Penguin 1964) and his argument against “vulgar, idle curiosity” in favor of “anonymous” William Whomever-peare and pure enjoyment of his Platonic “Vision of Eros,” to make our case for elegant poetry, and against gossipy fiction.

Critics complain that TV is killing literature, but so-called literary fiction has been killing literature long before the boob tube arrived.  I Love Lucy didn’t make us stupid.  Henry James did.

The poets of Modernism can be divided into the car-salesmen and those who really were brilliant.

E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and most of their followers, for instance, are merely car salesmen

T.S. Eliot, Chrisopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden were brilliant and talented men, and others in their circle, like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, were consciously involved in politics and cultural change.  The British Empire, which was at its height in 1914, groomed its poets for active work; the poet as soldier has a long tradition in Britain, from Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney to the Cambridge Apostles and Auden’s friend, Sir Stephen Spender, member of the Communist Party and an editor for thirteen years of a magazine secretly funded by the CIA. Nothing like the British poet-spy hybrid has ever existed in America, except, perhaps, for the mysterious Mr. Poe (was he in Paris, was he in St. Petersburg, was he murdered, or not?) and the hybrid practice is hardly on the more plain and practical Americans’ radar screen.

Auden’s insistence, then, that “artists” and “men of action” are two separate creatures—is this a ploy by this world-traveling, transatlantic citizen, once rumored to be part of Kim Philby’s Soviet spy ring?  Emerson, in “The Poet,” goes a long way in establishing this distinction when he calls the Poet a “Sayer” as opposed to the “Knower” and the Doer.”  “Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men,” Emerson says sourly, establishing his pedantic categories. But these fine distinctions Auden and Emerson make are finally a bunch of hogwash: Emerson and Auden would have us believe that Hitler’s speeches had nothing to do with Hitler’s guns, that the material state of our poetry has nothing to do with the material state of our state.

Auden’s poetry was first accepted and published by T.S Eliot, at Faber.  Auden is not considered a genuine modernist; Auden’s poetry rhymes, and he has a marked sympathy for great writers of the past, so on the surface, at least, Auden seems to run counter to the Futurism of Pound, the anti-Romantic animus of Eliot, and experimental modernism, in general.

But Auden could not have been part of this influential, Modernist clique without having some share of the characteristics of that clique, and never mind that Auden chose Ashbery for the Yale Younger, and also Merwin–who attended one of the earliest Poetry Workshops at Princeton—set up by Allen Tate, the leader of the American wing of Eliot and Pound’s European Modernist clique.  Yes, in case you didn’t get it, we’re talking about a clique. 

OK, so talented people get to know each other and help each other out.  What else is new?

Associations, purely in themselves, justify an historical interest, but there’s more involved.   It’s not rocket science.  We need to know two things; first: we need to read the clique members in question, and second, we need to ask: What is Modernism?

Scarriet has already done a lot of work investigating the writings and prejudices of leading Modernists like Pound and Eliot, who were notoriously anti-Romantic and anti-populist.  But for the second question, the art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire (because Anglo-American High Modernism originated in the middle of the 19th century, and mainly in France) will be a great help.

The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past two rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bousset and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.

In this brief excerpt from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), we see American Modernist poetry of the 20th century and all the steps which led to it, in total.

1) we see the spirit of the England’s pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—Baudelaire even refers to Raphael—with its narrow, cult-like, manifesto-ism, 2) the misanthropic spleen aimed at middle-class people who go to museums and are moved by great paintings of the past, 3) the appeal to the “minor poets” (for what is Modernism if not a great hierarchy of minor poets?) and their 4) “particular beauty” (as if major poets have no “particular beauty!”) and 5) “circumstance” (what is Modernism but fragments blown by the winds of circumstance?) and 6) “the sketch of manners.”  As if great artists and poets from the past do not give us “manners!”  Hogarth, anyone?  “The Rape of the Lock?”  But here is Baudelaire busily doing what Pound, Eliot, and their followers will do over the next 100, 150 years, up to our present day: 1) A blanket, or crudely selective, rejection of the glories of the past, especially the 18th century, and the early 19th century, while celebrating the ephemera of “particular beauty” among friends and minor contemporaries. 2) A manifesto-ist misanthropy, 3) A hatred of the lower classes, and their middle class tastes and aspirations.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer.  The Modernists always protest too much.

One more note: 4) A crucial geopolitical fact emerged with the origins of Modernism: the alliance of former enemies Great Britain and France; these two new friends fed each other’s decadence, and discovered together a certain imperial animus towards Germany, Russia, and the United States.  The problems the U.S. had with Britain and France during their mid-19th century, Civil War-era of is a much neglected subject.

But back to Auden and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We would expect, then, that T.S. Eliot-annointed Auden, would tend to be anti-Shakespeare, as this is the calling card for every Modernist: Celebrate obscure minor artists while knocking down the great Past Masters.   Eliot’s attacks on Hamlet, Milton, Poe, and Shelley are well-known; Pound pretty much sneered at every Past Master he possibly could.

So do we find Auden, in his famous 1964 Introduction, attacking Shakespeare, or, at least damning him with faint praise?

We do.

Auden’s first major point is: “it’s good that Shakespeare was anonymous,” a New Critical point (another Modernist calling card, as Eliot and his right-wing American henchman, Ransom, popularized New Criticism).  Here, on the second page of his Introduction, is Auden, the New Critic:

Even the biography of an artist is permissable, provided that the biographer and his readers realize that such an account throws no light whatsoever upon the artist’s work.

Auden, as chummy as he was, could certainly be an ogre when laying down the Party Line: Auden will make it “permissable” to write the biography of an artist, but only if you and I “realize that such an account throws no light whatsover upon the artist’s work.  Thank you, Mr. Auden.

He defends his crazy idea brilliantly, of course:

The relation between his life and his works is at once and the same time too self-evident to require comment—every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure—and too complicated ever to unravel.  Thus, it is self-evident that Catullus’s love for Lesbia was the experience which inspired his love poems, and that, if either of them had had a different character, the poems would have been different, but no amount of research  into their lives can tell us why Catullus wrote the actual poems he did, instead of an infinite number of similar poems he might have written instead, why, indeed, he wrote any, or why those he did are good.

This is great stuff,  isn’t it?  I’d hire this guy as a subversive for my country in a minute.  This is uncannily good reasoning.  Auden first concedes the field to  the anti-New Critical argument: “every work of art is a self-disclosure,” Auden admits, but Auden’s concession is two-sided: the anti-New Critical position is “self-evident,” but also “too complicated ever to unravel:” if Lesbia had been a little different, then Catullus’s poems to her would have been different—but how?  We don’t know.  And therefore we can’t know anything about the relation between the maker and the made.

But is this true?

And is this true for Poe, who wrote his “Raven” not because he happened to have the hots for some particular person, but because he wanted to demonstrate how a popular poem could be written?  Or, for Shakespeare, whose sonnets contain Platonist philosophy, and not just personal gossip?  We grant that connections between life and art are often tenuous and difficult to trace—but should we close the door on attempts to make connections, on micro, or macro, levels?  To do so seems arbitrary and silly.

Auden then proceeds, “Let us forget all about Shakespeare the man, leave the speculations to the foolish and idle, and consider the sonnets themselves,” and begins his discussion of “the sonnets themselves” rather weakly:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets as we have them, is tha they are not in any kind of planned sequence.  The only semblance of order is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.  In both heaps, a triangle situation is referred to in which Shakespeare’s friend and his mistress betray him by having an affair together…

Sometimes batches of sonnets occur which clearly belong together—for example, the opening series 1-17, in which the friend is urged to marry, though, even here, 15 seems not to belong, for marriage is not mentioned in it.

In this brief summation, Auden is utterly wrong.  First, how can Auden say there is “no planned sequence” when the first 14 poems pertain to “increase?”  Auden is being obtuse when he replaces “increase” with “marriage.”  Sonnet 15 does fit, even though it doesn’t refer to “marriage,” for, as we see in its final couplet, “And, all in war with Time for love of you,/As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”  The first 14 poems celebrate “increase” of the flesh.  154 (the number of The Sonnets) is divisible by 14.  Sonnet 15 marks a shift in the theme. With Sonnet 15, immortality is bought not by having children, but by making poems.  Auden saying Sonnet 15 doesn’t fit because it doesn’t mention “marriage” is ludicrous.

Auden is also wrong to assert that every poem in the first 126 are “addressed to a young man (or men),” since the great majority of the first 126 poems are genderless.  Nor are the final 28 poems all addressed to “a dark-haired woman.”  Scolding others for being biographically “foolish,” Auden falls into the same error himself, making all sorts of biographical assumptions.  Auden does have the intelligence to say The Sonnets are not precisely carnal in nature, but that doesn’t prevent him from making all sorts of biographical, carnal speculation—flying in the very face of his own principle.

So according to Auden, the sonnets have no order.

Auden’s second point is that they are “extremely uneven in poetic value.”  Auden quotes some Wordsworth (who Auden admires) calling the Dark Lady sequence “abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless,” with Wordsworth detailing the “chief faults” of the sonnets as a whole, thus: “sameness, tediousness, quaintness, and elaborate obscurity.”  Imagine William Wordsworth accusing William Shakespeare of “sameness.”  The mind boggles.  Wordsworth is the token Romantic the Modernists tolerate, fearing to look like goons if they hate all the Romantics; Wordsworth has that certain dullness which makes him palatable to good, grey Modernism.  Then Auden lets us know what Walter Savage Landor thought: “not a single one is very admirable.”

Auden himself claims to admire only forty-nine of the sonnets, and quickly adds that Shakespeare did not want any of them published, since they are basically a sweaty-palmed, sexual “confession.”

Auden doesn’t give one shred of evidence why Shakespeare should have been embarrassed by these poems—Auden’s theory is founded on the very type of speculation he condemns as “foolish” and “idle” and “vulgar.”

Auden then makes a few scattered formal and rhetorical observations, praising Shakespeare’s skill, citing a few isolated passages, and concludes the essay by putting the Sonnets in a Platonist milieu—the beloved’s “beauty” can belong to the flesh (bad) or to character (good) and loving the beloved unconditionally is the sonnet’s most important trope.  Auden is sure the Sonnets grew out of visionary dream, in which Shakespeare fell into a kind of trance which made him somewhat mad.  Auden wants to turn Shakespeare into a puritanical, visionary, passionate, self-doubting, Catullus. None of it is very convincing, and mostly because Auden can’t stop himself from investing the Sonnets with unfounded and crude, biographical and fictional elaborations:

The story of the sonnets seems to me to be the story of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.

As outsiders, the impression we get of his friend is one of a young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially frivolous, cold-hearted, and self-centered, aware, probably, that he had some power over Shakespeare—if he thought about it at all, no doubt he gave it a cynical explanation—but with no conception of the intensity of the feelings he had, unwittingly, aroused.

In other words, according to Auden—who condemns any historical speculation regarding Pembroke or Southampton—Shakespeare was in love with Auden’s boyfriend, Chester Kallman, and had thoughts of marrying Chester, except, that is, when he was being distracted by a dark-haired woman—who also liked Chester.

Auden ends his Introduction with a long, irrelevant passage from The Two Noble Kinsmen—a passage scholars cannot even be sure was written by Shakespeare Evidently, the publishers were howling for Auden to finish his Introduction, and, drunk on Pinot Noir, he quickly did.

Reading the Sonnets with Auden’s “story” in mind, a reader will quickly be disappointed, for there’s no “story” at all in the Sonnets.  It’s a far more sophisticated document than that.

THE FOUR WAVES: MODERNISM REVISTED

Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.

THE QUESTION: WHAT IS THE MODERN?

has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche.  It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?

1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I

The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, (the Japanese victory in #4 produced a ‘haiku rage’ in the West in 1905, the real reason behind the Imagiste ‘revolution’ and Williams’ ‘Wheel Barrow’) but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention.  “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One.  Well, not really.

The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.

Poetry has a disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to theorizing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault.  I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.

American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.

Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.

In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.”  Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.”  Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.

The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:

In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.

And then, just as boldly:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.

And, just as boldly, this as well:

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.

And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:

Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.

In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.

Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:

Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.

The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong.  All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.

If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.

But to each his own.  Poe had to be “escaped.”  And he was.

Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.

Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”

The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana.  The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933.  Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups.  Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.

Where is criticism now?  It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”

In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.

John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry.  Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”

The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.

Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones.  Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art. 

Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness.  Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.

Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:

The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England.  This is not insignificant.

Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope.  Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork.  Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:

It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.

We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”  The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War.  In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person.  Here he writes on Niagra Falls:

The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.

Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.

According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”

Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.

He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”

He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.”  He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight.  Why shouldn’t he fight?  His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.

Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”

Modernism was not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.

No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—“did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty.  They seemed perplexed and angry.

This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”

Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.

T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.

Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was as likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped.  Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.

THE TEN GREATEST POETRY CRITICISM TEXTS (OR, WHO NEEDS POETRY?)

We shall  proceed more or less chronologically, though it’s tempting to go the way of David Letterman and work up to: “and the Number One Poetry Criticism Text is…”

1.  The Poetics—Aristotle

The ultimate rule-book.  Learn these rules, then break them.  And learn this: Aristotle was the abstract philosopher, Plato the grounded and practical one.  If you ‘get this,’ you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion and heartache.  If you like rules, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

No critic today could write “this must” and “this is impossible” about such fundamental things, but it is good somebody did—for now we can blame Aristotle for “Quietism” and those neanderthals who sell, and everything else. 

2. The Republic—Plato 

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Plato and Aristotle is that they weren’t German.  Both are clear. The practical nature of Plato—who dared, without a shred of sentimentality, to put poetry in the context of society—is inescapable.  Randall Jarrell, John Dewey, and Helen Vendler are pumpkins next to Socrates.  If you haven’t digested The Republic, (or the Symposium, or the Ion) you can’t have a conversation about art or literature; you’re blowing bubbles.

3.  Vita Nuova—Dante

Yes, it has a lot of poetry—good literary criticism usually does.  It also has a story and mystery and passion and zero academic pretense. Beyond all that, it’s a guide to writing intelligible verse.  Dante is the passionate combination of the soul of Aristotle and the body of Plato.

4.  The Sonnets—Shakespeare

Irked by the didactic nature of these poems?  Let your eyes be opened.  We reveal here the long-lost secret.  This famous sonnet sequence (Auden is wrong; it does have an order) is Literary Criticism at its very highest— perhaps the greatest ever written.  Study this book.

5.  Essay on Criticism—Pope

Enlightenment jewel of Literary Criticism.  A fountain of wit. It will sharpen your musical ear, too. Poetry never sounded so coldly sublime.  Criticism never sounded so warmly effusive.

6.  A Defense of Poetry—Shelley

Forget all those other defenses. This one has defensive backs who weigh 300 pounds. Romanticsm deserves a soaring document like Shelley’s—the Wordsworth School (O treason!) would clip Shelley’s wings with socialist-tinged pedantry.  Don’t let it.

7.  Philosophy of Composition—Poe

Like all great great criticsm, this document is a shadow created by divine poetry too bright to read. Lurking behind Criticism is the Poem, lurking behind the philosophy of Plato is the poem of Plato, lurking behind the created is the creator, known only in the space between them. Those who indignantly sputter (and they are legion): “B-b-but P-p-poe can’t say that!” reveal themselves as sheep. Poe is damned for being too formalist, too abstract, too mathematical, just as Plato is, when both are, in fact, the most practical critics we have. America’s Classical Restraint is demonstrated for the world by Emerson’s quiet attack on Poe in his famous essay,”The Poet.”

8.  The Sacred Wood—T.S Eliot

Pre-Raphaelite Criticism comes to fruition in this document of High-Church, Harvard-educated, Anglo-American, Arnoldian, anti-Romantic, French Decadent Modernism.  Eliot is the most concentrated and toxic drink of the literature of decay. Rimbaud’s dying Romanticism sickens us after a while with sweet excess; Eliot, however, flatters our institutional pride; Eliot is the devil as the well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman; Rimbaud’s decadence we can finally keep at arm’s length, but Eliot worms his way into our intelligence; cunningly selective, he is a finishing school for academic slyness, a how-to guide for freezing-out the passionate past with New Criticial hypocrisy.  The undergound streams of Poe and Emerson combined to create a weird Third: a strange specimen of hostile suavity.  Eliot is the pendulum swinging from ‘the sugar of poetry hiding the medicine of learning’  to ‘the medicine of poetry hiding the sugar of learning.’  (The smart ones keep clear of this pendulum entirely.)

9.  Poets In A Landscape—Gilbert Highet

Archaeological criticism—the plain approach to Criticism is exemplified by this sweet evocation of poetry as stories of people in history, in this case, 7 ancient Roman poets. A classical scholar, professor Highet, who translates the poetic examples in this book, was born in Scotland, and was a beloved teacher at Columbia from 1937 to 1972. While his colleagues were exploiting the rise of the Creative Writing business model, or indulging in Nietzchean, Deconstructive, post-Modernist frenzy, professor Highet made an excursion to Italy and wrote this beautiful book, which treats poetry as the result of not only the structure of the Latin elegaic couplet, or the relation of Catullus to Caesar and the woman who broke his heart, but the very surrounding air.

10.  The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—W. Jackson Bate

The document of self-conscious Modernism—by an 18th century expert aware of how belated Romanticsm and Modernism really are. (Beating Harold Bloom’s far less readable Anxiety of Influence to the punch by several years, he made Bloom belated, as well.)  If the modern sensibility is a guilty evasion of the past, if Modernism is nothing but the paranoia of that evasion in the scream of a butterfly, The Burden of the Past is the reasonable antidote to this anxiety.  This little book (a collection of four lectures, in fact)  is so sane and broad in its approach, and unites so many authors and eras in its universal theme, that it will substantially increase anyone’s literary I.Q. in one or two readings.  It’s one of those books in which you’ll feel the need to pick up a highlighter, but it will be useless, because you’ll end up highlighting every line.

WHO ARE YOU?

 

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”  

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.  

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

QUANTUM POETRY

Shelley: He studied Greek.  We study to not be like him.

All poems have plain structures and superstructures. The plain structure is the repeating process of the poem’s sound.Repetition is the essence of all movement, whether it is a series of numbers, putting one foot in front of the other in the act of running or walking, the rotation of wheels, orbits, revolutions, or the reflection of the tree in the lake.

Poems do not move if they do not repeat; the plain structure makes the movement interesting or pleasurable, and on the plain level these two terms are interchangable.

Any series of words repeat and move; the meaning of the words create the superstructure. A series of zeros has a plain structure but no superstructure, and yet a series of zeros has meaning in mathematics. Repetition itself is meaningful. A series of zeros mistaken for ‘ohs’ has sound.

Nothing repeated is something.

Repetition is meaningful, since it is meaningful to repeat something three times rather than twice. Shelley and Emerson have both pointed out that a word can be poetry and this is because of repetition, since repeating letters create a word, a one-letter word such as “O” is automatically repeated as a sound, a single word repeats meanings etymologically, and so on.

Since language has its very essence from repetition, how does a poem emerge out of language, since language is already poetry?

The answer to this question is contained in the word emerge; since a poem cannot emerge out of language, the only way it can be a poem is if it is a poem before it is language. The poem must appeal to an advanced sensibility. The primitive essence, repetition, belongs to language first, so traveling in that direction (toward the primitive) will not help.

The only way to find the poem is to ask how we escape language.

How can the poem repeat in a non-linguistic manner?  How can it beat its divine drum? The answer is: rhythm.

The poem must have rhythm, since rhythm transcends mere repetition. Nature prefers simple repetition. The sun does not dance in the sky, a runner does not dance; if we saw the sun moving in a herky-jerky manner, we would know something was terribly wrong; a dancing runner wastes energy; dancing is not running.

The sun and planets do dance, but only when observed over great time and distance. The discovery that planetary orbits were not round but stretched out and Kepler’s guess at the reason is how the dance of the cosmos is observed, or when a certain chess-piece arrangement is played forward and backward in a patterned unfolding of a particular game in a player’s mind; in these examples we see how recurrance escapes itself, we see how a poem might escape its linguistic chains. The essence of language must give way to something higher even as it remains present as what it is.

How we distinguish poem from language determines what kind of poet and critic we are, and here we note the difference between poet and critic: the poet must find the difference between language and poem—the critic the difference between one poem and another. The poet works vertically, the critic, horizontally;  ideally, both work in both directions.

To speak even more broadly, Man’s comic/tragic life can be defined as a series of exceptions to nature.  We are not nature, but exceptions to it. Primitive nature, the more observed, surprises us, as it becomes more like the human, filled with exceptions to itself—and here is the essence of theology and science.

The first critics of poetry observed grammar. Students learned Greek or Latin grammar and poetry together, which seem tedious to creative writing students today, but there was a method to that madness; grammar, with its numerous exceptions, was how linguistics first escaped from its primitive repeating structure into reasoning speech. ‘Repeat here, but not here’ is how repetition itself is first transcended. Punctuation was the first wall poets built. Ancient critics and students slaved, while the glory was reserved for Homer, who covered their walls with dream.  The poet’s transcendental dreaming was directly proportional to grammatical labor on the critic/student’s part. 

The moderns have managed to reverse this process: critics don’t study grammar, but different tastes in different eras, and meanwhile the students study to be poets in the ‘new way,’ and this ‘way’ (conformist, even as it advertises itself as non-conformist) seeks to transcend not language, but grammar.

Quantum physics observes the universality of measures like mass, but also its exceptions—your weight on Mars is different from your weight on earth.

The moderns lost interest in universals; they chiefly observed differences of place and time, like weights on different planets:

Ezra Pound: “the 19th century is mannered and sentimentalistic…”

T.S. Eliot: “But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century and continued.”

John Crowe Ransom: “the modern poet could accomplish just as elegant a rumination [of Byron] but knows this would commit him to an anachronism…”

What is the quantum of poetry?

We are still discovering it.

Your move.

GINSBERG RUNS ON DICK—RICHARD CECIL SEEKS SWEET SIXTEEN AGAINST THE SAINT OF EAST 12TH STREET

Ginsberg: 3/5 Williams, 2/5 Kvetch.  He once had silken thighs.

Here we go: the penultimate match for Scarriet’s 2011 APR Tournament Sweet Sixteen!

Allen Ginsberg, 3/5 hairy, 2/5 bald, was not a happy old man, writing in his “The Charnel Ground,”

feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head, anus–
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye–
High school youth the inside skin of my thighs was silken smooth tho nobody touched me there back then—

Ginsberg has a remarkably expansive mind—it confesses everything, even as it has no ideas.

The ‘having no ideas’ part is precisely what makes Ginsberg the heir of Williams/Aldington H.D./Pound Imagism; just as Whitman was Emerson’s Frankenstein monster, Ginsberg was Williams‘ No-Ideas-But-In-Things monster: Ginsberg’s poetry is things taking over, the dead coming to life, things cluttering up the mind of all poems.

Emerson had ideas, but since in the end they all contradicted each other, all that remained was passionate rhetoric, transcendent rhetoric that wouldn’t be pinned down, and was poetic just for that: you can try it for yourself: take Emerson and put him into lines, and you’ve got Whitman, the run-away train of magnificent observations sans real thought.

One man’s prose really is another man’s poetry.

This phenomena of prose feeding poetry, the essayist as the model for the poet, the poet merely singing the dead philosopher, has always been the story, not a modern one; poetry solidifies into free verse when captured by the fluidity of prior prose.

What happens with modernist poetry, Whitman-Williams-Ginsberg, etc, is that poetry ceases to think; it thinks, but not as a poem would thinkGinsberg does think, he does have thoughts; but his poems don’t think; they are not realized as poems—they are scraps and jottings: American poetry as Emerson’s Diary.  This experiment will even work: Emerson in lines sometimes sounds like Pound and Ginsberg, too.   The hectoring grumble, the admonition to take off your clothes and wave your cock around!  The whole thing is, unfortunately, finally more homogenous than any sentimental Victorian-verse counterpart.

It is the hell of the avant-garde who finally is trapped in the prison of nothing-to-say.  All that rebellious energy, but no poetry; nowhere, finally, to go.

Why does the rebel Blake sound august, and the rebel Ginsberg like a mere downer?

Why do Williams, Pound and Ginsberg taste like watery wine?  Because their wine was their manifesto, the intoxication of their poetry was ‘make it new,’ which unfortunately translated, poetically, into ‘make it dull.’   Good wine, as everyone knows, is not new.  The intoxication that sold what they were doing to the critics, and professors, and sex addicts, and kids who hated their parents, was in the sell, not in the poetry itself.

MARLA MUSE: Devastating.  I can hear the yowls and yawps of protest already coming over the rooftops.  “Strawman” is already forming on someone’s lips.

We are the hollow men, Marla.  Heads filled with straw.  But with young, silken smooth thighs.

MARLA MUSE: Oh, they’re right, Tom!  You are the most entertaining commentator on poetry alive!

O what shall we do?  Bang or whimper?

MARLA MUSE: Is the game starting?

Yes.  But I have to ask one more question:

So how did the shining clarity of the Red Wheel Barrow evolve into the complaint of Howl?

It happened because “So much depends” was not a thing, and even if it were, it would be like a basketball player content with the look of his face or his uniform. You’ve got to play.

And  Ginsberg can play, Marla.  He runs.  He plays the full-court game.

The Red Wheel Barrow, despite the blind who think otherwise, was not a thing.

It was a manifesto.

A manifesto Ginsberg ran with.

The Red Wheel Barrow did come to the public’s attention, like the poem, “The Raven,” for instance, in a daily newspaper, or from a recitation; the Red Wheel Barrow came to the public’s attention in a text book, a text book honoring it and written by a couple of New Critics who approved of the Red Wheel Barrow just as Williams automatically approved of Ginsberg.  The New Critics loved both the “raw” and the “cooked,” which was division of no meaning, since the belief that a poem is “raw” is like the belief that the Red Wheel Barrow is a thing.

Dumb manifestos lead to dull poetry.

Now by the time Ginsberg ran with Williams‘ bad manifesto, Whitman and Pound had reconciled, which meant Emerson/Whitman were back in the game: the sprawling Ginsberg could sprawl without ideas as long as enough things (raw details) ran up and down the court with him.  The tiny false distinction between raw and cooked quickly closed; Emerson the august brick-thrower, the ‘Made-in-the-USA Nietzsche,’ held sway once more, as modernists could eschew cute imagism for something as mindless, but with more heft: say-anything-you-goddamn-please-in-lines-way-out-to-here.  This formula was magical and had much more staying power than Imagism, which died a quick death—no wonder Pound quickly announced, the very  moment Imagism flopped, that he was writing a long poem—it was a desperate effort to save his career; and it worked—because he had enough crazy friends who believed The Cantos was one poem, and not just a string of unrelated scribbles.  What was so magical about ‘Say-anything-you-goddamn-please’ was not that it produced anything that was terribly interesting (in fact most of it was terribly boring) but because it made good poetry that had been written before look like it wasn’t saying everything, that it had something to hide: Ginsberg was grotesque, but he was telling the truth, and therefore, by comparison, the more reticent—because more crafted—poetry of prior eras, was not.

At least this was the unspoken sell of modernist poetry: the whole freeing and breaking down the doors thing.  Jorie Graham claimed that in her latest book (Overlord) she was doing something wonderful—writing simultaneously like Whitman and Williams—long lines and short lines together.  Her experiment proved to be a muddle (and greeted by po-biz with an embarrassed silence) because Graham’s attempt was nothing more than an elaboration of a bankrupt modernist manifesto.  There aren’t short lines and bad lines; there are only good lines.  If your writing is dull, your little lines will blur into long ones and your long ones will be read as a series of little ones.

MARLA MUSE: I see the game is starting!

Cecil tries to make it a half-court game against Ginsberg, but it’s hopeless.  Cecil’s knotty, prosy lyric, as interesting as it is, doesn’t stand a chance.

Ginsberg, 101-70.

Allen Ginsberg is in the Sweet Sixteen.

AN ANALYSIS OF THE PURITANICAL HATRED OF MUSIC IN POETRY

Thomas Moore, Central Park, New York City

There Silence, thoughtful God, who loves
The neighborhood of Death, in groves
Of asphodel lies hid, and weaves
His hushing spell among the leaves. 

—“Alciphron”  Thomas Moore

Edgar Allan Poe, in an 1840 review of “Alciphron” by Thomas Moore, writes the following:

At page 8, he [Moore] either himself has misunderstood the tenets of Epicurus, or willfully misrepresents them through the voice of Alciphron. We incline to the former idea, however; as the philosophy of that most noble of the sophists is habitually perverted by the moderns. Nothing could be more spiritual and less sensual than the doctrines we so torture into wrong.

Thomas Moore was Ireland’s most beloved poet and a friend and biographer of Byron—their letters read like a 19th century version of Lennon and McCartney trading song lyrics; Moore wrote famous songs, and Poe, ‘jingle man’ that he was, admired the Irish bard exceedingly, and Poe goes so far to wonder in this review whether Moore might not be the best poet of all time—that’s right: No. 1. 

But Poe wrote real Criticism; his reviews were Criticism, not puffs, and therefore we see in the quote above a stern disagreement with a mind he very much admired.  Such things go on in the heaven of Letters, far above the little minds who think classical music is funeral music and Criticism is mean.

When he called Poe ‘the jingle man’ in a private conversation with a young William Dean Howells, Emerson wasn’t being mean; he was just being stupid, for Poe excelled in so many genres never attempted by Emerson that it would jingle the stoic New Englander just to think on it.  It is not that Emerson never rhymed himself; he did, but he somehow fancied that his rhymes harbored a rich philosophy while Poe’s rhymes were only rhymes—well, that is a point not yet resolved, but Poe was not bereft of thought—but why waste our time on a silly remark of Mr. Emerson’s?

The following passage may suffice to illustrate that Poe’s reviews were more than a little thoughtful, at least as thoughtful as Emerson’s colorful sermons which cogitated upon gigantic ideas, while Poe wrote philosophically on actual things:

[“Alciphron”] is distinguished throughout by a very happy facility which has never been mentioned in connection with its author, but which has much to do with the reputation he has obtained. We allude to the facility with which he recounts a poetical story in a prosaic way. By this is meant that he preserves the tone and method of arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantages over his more stilted compeers. His is no poetical style, (such, for example, as the French have—a distinct  style for a distinct purpose,) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, ornamented into poetry. By means of this he is enabled to enter, with ease, into details which would baffle any other versifier of the age, and at which La Martine would stand aghast. For any thing that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse, or go through with the three several demonstrations of the binomial theorem, one after the other, or indeed all at the same time. His facility in this respect is truly admirable, and is, no doubt, the result of long practice after mature deliberation. We refer the reader to page 50, of the pamphlet now reviewed; where the minute and conflicting incidents of the descent into the pyramid are detailed with absolutely more precision than we have ever known a similar relation detailed with in prose.

A remarkable observation from a ‘jingle man,’ but not remarkable to those who have actually read Poe; and his remark on the French is pertinent: Poe wrote in many different ways to a purpose, and Emerson’s ‘jingle man’ gibe is but the jealous growl of a man who wrote in the same style—and not a precise one, either.

One style: this is true of the current followers of Emerson and his line—which includes Whitman, who wrote in the style of Emerson’s prose (except for “O Captain! My Captain!” which modernists hate) and William James, Emerson’s godson, whose nitrous oxide philosophy influenced Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, which brings us right to the present day of scribblers who fancy themselves very modern and very free. 

The moderns’ practice is so free, their writing has no shape at all, for it is but poetry trying to shake free of poetry, form that is trying to shake free of forms, and thus the whole structure of po-biz is one gigantic bee-hive of prose that buzzes sans music, sans philosophy, sans criticism, sans poetry—a prose without any style whatsoever, except that style which rejects all style, like that philosophy which rejects all philosophy; a good example might be the head-scratching ruminations of 1990s Jorie Graham, the strolls in the park at twilight by John Ashbery, the cacophony of thousands of William Carlos Williams-influenced modern poets who race to the end of their lines like school-children hurtling pell-mell out of school.

One style of No style. 

How was such a horror allowed to occur?

My guess is that somewhere along the line, it was decided that, to have a style, and, worse, to be proficient in a number of styles, was insincere. 

How dare Poe write “Ulalume” —and Eurekaand his Criticism— and his humorous tales— and his detective fiction— and his “To Helen” and his “The Masque of the Red Death”—and his Marginalia—and his Sea-faring novel—and his Reviews—and his essays—and his Tone Poems—and his Romances—and his early Science Ficiton—and his tales of horror—how dare he!

Surely Poe was some Victorian prank, and modern poetry, with its frankness and its bare-bones honesty and its one trusty style has saved the best of us from the sin of that populist trash.

So goes the unspoken analysis of the solemn modern who ponders Emerson and Pound with the utmost somber common sense.

But where’s the music? 

Music?

Why, if we allow music, the ‘jingle man’ and his jingling might creep back into the tent, and with him all those styles, the Criticism (O mean criticism!), the poetic stories, all those genres he invented or developed, and that is so much work (what do you think we are?  Geniuses?)—better by far to proceed down the noble path of making poetry as “free” as possible!  Quick! Get me my copy of Aldous Huxley’s send-up of “Ulalume!”

For isn’t this the 800 lb. gorilla in the room?  Poe recounting how Thomas Moore is more descriptively precise in his poetry than anyone else in their prose points a cold finger directly at it: Shakespeare, after all was a poet in his plays and Shakespeare’s works are remarkable for their story-telling popularity as well as for their music; Moore, Shakespeare-like according to Poe, was very popular in his day, that Irish sun hidden now by the prosaic little moon of american modernism.

What poet in our day—and we can include the whole previous century–has the popular, story-telling, philosophical appeal of a Shakespeare, or an Alexander Pope, or a Thomas Moore, or a Poe, or a Byron?

This is a large topic, but something tells me it begins with the moderns’ horror of poetry that has music.

ANGLOSPHERE? THE NEW CRITERION LICKS CHURCHILL’S BOOTS

The neo-cons’ love affair with Winston Churchill is pretty disgusting, but The New Criterion has just taken it to new lows in their January 2011 number, with The Anglosphere & the future of liberty, a symposium of five essays with an introduction by editor Roger Kimball.

According to Kimball and the five essayists, the city of London invented the following things: civilization, fair government, law, individualilty, and freedom, and Winston Churchill, with the help of the British Empire, made sure these things took root and spread to as many people as possible.

Think I’m kidding?  

Think The New Criterion is kidding?

No, and no.

Pretty creepy, huh?

This is bound to happen with a publication that considers all “modernism” absolutely good and all “post-modernism” absolutely evil.

Modernism, for The New Criterion—named after T.S. Eliot’s Criterion—is sufficiently plain to support their prudish conservative views, sufficiently urbane to support their intellectuality, and sufficiently linked to T.S. Eliot to support their anglophilia. 

Post-modernism for The New Criterion, however, marks the Fall: out-of-control sexuality replaces regal order.  Loud, mad Viv is released from captivity to harrass quietly dignified Tom.  For The New Criterion, the 60s, and its cult of victimhood, drowns Emersonian self-reliance.

Keith Windshuttle begins his essay:

In Winston Churchill’s famous 1943 speech at Harvard University on the common ties of the English-speaking peoples, he defined the bond in terms of three main things: law, language, and literature.

 There is no mention, finally, anywhere in this symposium of five essays, of what this “literature” consists.  You’d think the Anglospherists would want to give us some idea, but no. 

The New Criterion prides itself in placing art above mere “politics,” and they are always quick to point out when overt political messages (usually the ubiquitous leftist ones) spoil pure art.  (This is why The New Criterion adores modernist abstract painting—no annoying political messages!)  But here, in defining the Anglosphere, aesthetics is not defined, but government is, and that government values the individual over the state; in other words, the conservative canard of ‘small government’ is the mantra, which is no surprise, coming from the conservative New Criterion.  

According to The New Criterion, the political is not supposed to interfere with art, unless that art is political.  Then it can.  So runs the logic of the neo-cons:  Offensive art may be removed from museums, but not in the name of politics, only in the name of art.    That makes sense, right?

Winston Churchill giving a “famous speech” on the “common-ties of the English-speaking people” at “Harvard University:” It doesn’t get any better for The New Criterion!

Here’s Roger Kimball in his introduction:

“English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth.  It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty.”

This is the way all the essays read.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. 

Madhav Das Nalapat, writing one of the five essays for “The Anglosphere & the future of liberty” symposium, reminds us that Winston Churchill was not exactly pro-India (Nalapat leaves out Churchill’s overt racism and Stalin-like starvation policy towards his Indian nation, however) but he makes up for this lapse in Churchill-worship by roundly abusing those evil, non-English speaking, French and Germans.  Way to go, Nalapat!

Even if one were to agree with The New Criterion’s politics and cultural conservativism, one ought to be horrified by this bumbling, ahistorical, symposium.

Everyone ought to be ashamed of this simplistic boot-licking.

HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity(in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Tate and Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

EMERSON, HE DO DIFFERENT VOICES

Emerson as Whitman

What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions,
if I live wholly from within?
No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this;
the only right is what is after my constitution,
the only wrong what is against it.
A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,
as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.
I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names,
to large societies and dead institutions.
Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right.
I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.
If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass?
I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me.
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.
I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

Emerson as Ginsberg 

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members!

Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater!

The virtue in most request is conformity!

Self-reliance is its aversion!

It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs!

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist!

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind!

Emerson as Ezra Pound

If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’ Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These excerpts from “Whitman,” “Ginsberg,” and “Pound” are from the same page of the same essay: “Self-Reliance.”

SCARRIET PRESENTS NATIONAL ‘POETRY BASEBALL’ MONTH

Hell, let’s play a whole season. 

Here are the teams.  They play in little bucolic ballparks.  No DH.

National League

Philadelphia Poe
New York Bryants
Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers
Cambridge Longfellows
Boston Lowells
Concord Emersons
Brooklyn Ashberys
New Jersey Ginsbergs
Tennessee Ransoms
Maine Millays

American League

Brooklyn Whitmans
New England Frost
London Eliots
Rapallo Pound
New Jersey Williams
Hartford Stevens
New York Moores
Cambridge Cummings
Amherst Emily
Iowa City Grahams

Baseball Poetry Commissioner: the honorable Harold Bloom
Player Union Rep:  Camille Paglia

There are still some hold-outs, most notably W.H. Auden from the Ashberys. 

Scouting Report Highlights:

NL

The brawling Philadelphia Poe features Lord Byron in the clean-up spot and Alexander Pope does mound duties as the ace of a pitching staff not afraid to throw inside.

The elegant New York  Bryants have Abraham Lincoln as their chief twirler and the slugging Thomas Cole hitting no. 4 in a highly distinguished lineup.

The Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers bring William Lloyd Garrison as their ace and Charles Dickens just signed up to play centerfield.

The Cambridge Longfellows have Washington Irving roaming center and Dante and Horace as mound aces.

The Boston Lowells field Mark Twain at short, Robert Browning in left, and Charles Eliot Norton and Leigh Hunt as their dominant hurlers.

Beware the Concord EmersonsWilliam James is their ace, Swedenborg bashes from the cleanup spot, and Thoreau tends centerfield.

The Brooklyn Ashberys have Frank O’Hara leading off and Andy Warhol is their ace.   Kenneth Koch and James Tate anchor the infield, while Charles Bernstein is in the bullpen.

The Ginsbergs of New Jersey have William Blake slugging from the No. 4 hole, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan as their double play combination and Mark Van Doren and William Burroughs on the mound.

The Tennessee Ransoms have Allen Tate at catcher and Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, I.A. Richards, and Paul Engle on the hill.

Rounding out the National League, we have the Maine Millays with Edmund Wilson and Philip Sidney pitching, with Sappho out in center.

AL

The Brooklyn Whitmans have Oscar Wilde and F.O. Matthiessen as no. 1 and no. 2 starters, with Lawrence Fernlinghetti, C.K. Williams and William Michael Rossetti providing up-the-middle defense at second, short, and center.

The New England Frost have William Wordsworth in the clean-up spot with Louis Untermeyer as their no. 1 hurler.

The London Eliots have Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell on the mound with Tristan Corbiere at first, Jules LaForgue at third, and Arthur Symons behind the plate.

The Rapallo Pound are stocked, with Benito Mussollini in right, Hugh Kenner on the mound and Ernest Fenollosa at shortstop.  Negotiations are continuing with Joyce, Yeats, and Duchamp.

The New Jersey Williams have Man Ray as their ace and Robert Creeley in the lead-off spot.  They also want Duchamp.

The Hartford Stevens have pitching depth with George Santayana, Helen Vendler, and  John Hollander.  James Merrill is in the clean-up spot.

The New York Moores have Elizabeth Bishop at the top of the lineup and Pater in the bullpen.  Ted Hughes is their big slugger.

The Cambridge Cummings have Picasso batting no. 3 and Scofield Thayer and T.E. Hulme anchoring the pitching staff.

The Amherst Emily has Thomas Wentworth Higginson as their pitching ace with Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett in the outfield.

Finally, the Iowa City Grahams have Bin Ramke and Peter Sacks as key pitchers and James Galvin powering the middle of the lineup.

Stay tuned for complete team rosters.

We’ll give you updates during the season…every trade, every management dispute… individual stats, stat leaders, and team standings as the season progresses.

“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

VISIONARY VAPORS: WALT WHITMAN’S VISTAS.

 

Walt Whitman.  Prose was not his strength.

Democratic Vistas (1871) has long occupied an uncertain place in  Walt Whitman studies.  Whitman’s two greatest drawbacks are that his poetry sounds too much like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose and that in the poetry there’s little variety of tone or approach—it takes the same leap at sublime, transcendental individualism every time.

Vistas, the only prose article by the poet that gets any attention, sounds uncomfortably like Whitman’s poetry—only worse.

Whitman’s post-Civil War essay is nothing but an embarrassing and dyspeptic slipping of the visionary poet’s mask in a voice that is unfortunately close to the poet’s, and probably should  not have been published, since its misanthropy doesn’t play well in Whitman Land.

Vistas makes most sense when seen as a link between turgid Transcendentalism and fervid, misanthropic Modernism, a rant slavish to Emerson and pointing to Pound, as it petulantly rejects “foreign” literature while trumpeting vague and hopeful novelty:

“Thus we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank.  But the throes of birth are upon us; and we have something of this advantage in seasons of strong formations, doubts, suspense—for then the afflatus of such themes haply may fall upon us, more or less; and then, hot from surrounding war and revolutions, our speech, though without polish’d coherence, and a failure by the standard called criticism, comes forth, real at least as the lightnings.”   —Democratic Vistas

The blather here is not even high grade blather.

Whitman finds popular literature too cheap, ancient literature too old, Romantic literature belonging to “nightingales,” and Shakespeare “poison” on account of his “feudalism.”   Whitman wants nothing to do with any “foreign” stuff; he ends up condemning it all.    A flood is required, leaving Walt Whitman on a mountaintop in the west, chanting of Kosmos and “perfect Mothers” for New World breeding.

The dilemma facing the author of Vistas is the old one: you promote fresh air against the unhealthy bookworm-ism of fops, but since you are doing so in books, you prove yourself a useless and petulant bookworm at last.

There is no greater example of bookworm-ism than the inanity of DV, with its fop author trumpeting in loud tones a condemnation of fops.

Whitman’s career was picking up steam since “O Captain! My Captain!”  He was no longer 37, however; his self-help, fresh-air, vatic utterances were being out-sold by quaint, Victorian, lady authors on every hand; his reputation was rising in 1871, thanks to recognition by the Pre-Raphaelites in England, but his paralytic stroke was only 2 years away.  He must have felt, as a real Man of Letters, that he needed a worthy piece of prose to his name, but he just wasn’t up to it; he looks to sound a progressive note, but he can’t escape the pull of those “lady” authors and their “fictions,” and so he looks forward to the misogynist aspects of Modernism, which we see in the following paragraph:

“The idea of the women of America (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady) developed, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and it may be, even practical and political deciders with men–greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematic attribute—but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments; or, rather capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring themselves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.”  —Democratic Vistas

Note the cheap radicalism, the broad political formulation of what women, according to Whitman, should be, and amidst all the hyperbolic praise, note that he manages to fully insult the female race at the same time.  Women are not part of “stormy life???”  Excuse me?

To see how the froth of Emerson becomes the crankiness of Pound, one must wade through the vomit of Democratic Vistas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1824  Byron dies in Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

1838  Poe’s translated work begins appearing in Russia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1917  Robert Frost begins teaching at Amherst College.

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

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

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

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

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

1923  William Butler Yeats wins Nobel Prize for Literature

1924  Robert Frost wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

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

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

1924  James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children opens.

1925  E.E. Cummings wins The Dial Prize.

1926  Yaddo Artist Colony opens

1927  Walt Whitman biography wins Pulitzer Prize

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

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

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

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

1936  New Directions founded by Harvard sophomore James Laughlin.

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

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

1938  Aldous Huxley moves to Hollywood.

1939  Allen Tate starts Writing Program at Princeton.

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

1940  Mark Van Doren is awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

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

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

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

1948  T.S. Eliot wins Nobel Prize

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

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

1950  William Carlos Williams wins first National Book Award for Poetry

1950  Gwendolyn Brooks wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1951  John Crowe Ransom is awarded the Bollingen.

1953  Dylan Thomas dies in New York City.

1954  Theodore Roethke wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1957  Allen Tate is awarded the Bollingen.

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

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

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

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

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

1961  Yvor Winters is awarded the Bollingen.

1961  Denise Levertov becomes poetry editor of The Nation.

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

1962  Sylvia Plath takes her own life in London.

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

1964  Keats biography by Jackson Bate wins Pulitzer.

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

1967  Anne Sexton wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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

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

1971  W.S Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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

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

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

1975  Gary Snyder wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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

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

1980  Helen Vendler wins National Book Critics Circle Award

1981 Seamus Heaney becomes Harvard visiting professor.

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

1981  Oscar Wilde biography by Ellman wins Pulitzer.

1982  Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems wins Pulitzer.

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

1984  Marc Smith founds Slam Poetry in Chicago.

1984  Mary Oliver is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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

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

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

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

1996  Jorie Graham wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1999  Peter Sacks wins Georgia Prize.

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

2002  Ron Silliman’s Blog founded.

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

2002  Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems published.

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

2004  Franz Wright wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005 Ted Kooser wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005  William Logan wins National Book Critics Circle Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUICK, FIND THE RACIST

It’s the guy on top, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose most ambitious work, “English Traits,” is a treatise on the superiority of the English race to all others: Africans, Indians, the French, and the Irish.

Poe abhorred the sort of pedantic sermonizing for which Emerson was famous; elevating American literature with his breakthrough brand of scientific  populism, Poe navigated the pre-Civil War years working and living in the North as a compromise figure, despised by militants on both sides.  It is easy to forget, even today, that a middle ground between militant pro-slavery and militant abolitionism did exist, where Poe chose to stay, as he transformed and modernized world literature.

So what was a Yank like Emerson thinking, writing his race-baiting tract, in the years leading up to the America civil war?   “English Traits” was published in 1856,  a few years before the gunfire at Fort Sumter.  Poe died in 1849, before the Compromise of 1850, before John Brown’s raids, and Poe never published any papers on slavery or race, staying clear, in a time when it was almost impossible to do so, of those hot topics which eventually produced the divisive holocaust of 1861–1865.

English Traits?  Why English?  Wasn’t Emerson a leading American author?    Wasn’t Emerson aware that England’s global ambitions were responsible for America’s system of slavery in the first place, that England wanted her American colony back and that England was exploiting American division on race to effect that end?  Why, in his “English Traits,” would Emerson assert that India belonged to England because the English race was superior to the Indian race?  Why did Emerson go so far as to remind his readers in “English Traits” that the English “sea kings” had a “long memory” and might rise up and take back their colonies if the times were right?

It kind of makes a Yankee scratch his head—and wonder.

Poe and Emerson famously did not get along.

Perhaps their quarrel was more nuanced and subtle than has been  previously thought?  Perhaps it was more geopolitical, in nature?  Emerson, when he wasn’t living in comfort in Cambridge, Massachussets, was wined and dined in England.  Poe, after visiting England as a boy, and perhaps sailing to Paris as a young man, spent his literary career attempting to establish (while almost starving) America’s literary independence while living in Boston, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York.

It does cause one to scratch one’s head just a little bit, and wonder.

Does it not?

WAS HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER A FICTIONAL TREATMENT OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, REV. GRISWOLD & FANNY OSGOOD?

Did Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) exploit a contemporary, real-life drama in his most famous work?

Two famous poets died in 1850.

One was Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck returning from Italy.   The other female poet was even more famous and more beloved than Margaret Fuller.   She was married to a painter, who painted the oval portaits seen above.  She was widely known in literary circles and was especially close to two men who will be forever linked in history: the anthologist Rufus Griswold and the poet Edgar Poe. (depicted above)

Her name is Frances Sargent Osgood. (depicted above)

Poe (d. 1849) as a dashing poet and a critic sympathetic to women scribblers, Osgood (d.1850) as legendary femme fatale poet and Griswold (d. 1857) Poe’s rival and the best-selling anthologist of his day—these three—helped to create an era that lasted into the 20th century, an era  in which the poetess out-sold the poet.

The Rev. Rufus Griswold’s anthology “Female Poets of America” made him the most powerful man in Letters.

Modernist poetry, more than anything, was about male energy muscling out the Woman’s Muse.   Poe was  libeled and Osgood was forgotten as Ezra Pound’s pedantic, bombastic, Futurist clique took control.

The alleged affair (which may have  produced a child) between Poe and Fanny  hurt Mrs. Osgood’s reputation but Nathaniel Hawthorne was among many literati who came to her defense.

Let’s allow the author of this theory to lay out her fascinating thesis:

“Fanny Osgood was already the most widely written about woman in American literature during the 1840s. Hundreds of stories and numerous poems were written about the Poe-Fanny-Virginia triangle. After their child’s death Fanny’s friends rallied around her to protect her, and the number of stories and poems about her situation increased. Publicly, her reputation suffered; but privately, sympathy was strongly in her court.”

After Poe’s death, and Fanny’s own fatal illness, she came to be regarded as downright saintly by her peers– for having been victimized by society over her relationship with Poe. Fanny Osgood and her plight had become a cause celebre. ‘Fanny worship’ was at an all-time high by the time of her death. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny Osgood was, most certainly, the Scarlet Woman of her time, and therefore, the most deserving of sympathy.

‘Fanny Worship’ was rife in the literary/artistic crowds who adored her. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny’s ‘gypsy life-style’ made her very popular in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, Portland and even Saratoga Springs. Fanny also had many friends in her Transcendentalist and ‘Fourierist’ coteries in and around Boston, where both Poe and Fanny were born.

At one time, she and Sarah Helen Whitman were extremely close to Margaret Fuller, another highly controversial figure living and working primarily in the Boston area. Fanny Osgood knew all the people Fuller knew, and that was everyone: The Lowells, the Hawthornes, the Peabodys, the Fields, the Holmes, and surely, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; but unlike Fuller, who most people (certainly Poe, Lowell and Hawthorne) grew to despise, Fanny was adored as a loving free spirit by virtually everyone.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising to learn that Poe, Fanny and their great romantic tragedy were used as characters by some of the greatest writers of their time. One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed, had experimented with Fourierism at Brook Farm, and whose wife, Sophia Peabody, had herself been under the spell of Margaret Fuller, much to Hawthorne’s displeasure.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, within months of Poe’s and Fanny’s deaths. He felt compelled to write the tragedy of these two dear friends, to vent his own fury and sense of helplessness over the great loss he had suffered.

The characters of Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale are tributes to Poe and Fanny Osgood. The daughter, Pearl, represents Fanny Fay on some level, though Pearl’s personality seems clearly based on Hawthorne’s own daughter, Una, as well as on Fanny’s own childish and mercurial personality. The hideous, predatory Chillingsworth is Rufus Griswold, who was despised by Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, N.P. Willis and virtually every writer of the time.

It must be remembered that Poe supported and mentored Hawthorne, but there were also bonds between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, who indeed, moved in the same circles in the Boston area. The bond between Hawthorne and Poe, between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, and their mutual friends provides an answer to, “Why would Hawthorne write a thinly veiled account of the Poe-Osgood melodrama?” For one thing, ‘it made great copy,’ but a close study of the letters and business transactions of the ‘Hawthorne Circle,’ during this period helps us understand that yes, The Scarlet Letter was intended as both a tribute and a requiem, for both Poe and Fanny.”

Cynthia Cirile http://www.10thhousepress.com/fiction.html

SCARRIET KILLED THE HARRIET STAR

Dear Amber,

We’re sorry.

Your guest appearance on Harriet was kind of a bust.

It wasn’t really your fault.

You could not have known the secret plan of Harriet’s management: (which I’m giving a pretty name, after Emerson) Operation When Half-Gods Go, The Gods Arrive.

The editors of Scarriet were sent packing from Harriet on September 1.

Your reign as guest writer began on September 1.

The fireworks of the summer—tons of comments, thought-provoking responses, nudity (OK, 2 out of 3) proved too dangerous for Harriet (pants and noses were singed).  

 With the Scarriet editors gone, and others embarrassed by Harriet’s house-cleaning (done without any explanation) you entered a Harriet Blog-Site reeling from a bad judgment.

You entered a dead zone.

We’re sorry!

Your Scarriet Buddies

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

BREAK, BLOW, FIZZLE

WHAT HAPPENED TO CAMILLE PAGLIA?

ALL communication is a warning.

The more articulate a person, the more they are experiencing what they are warning us about.

All information presupposes danger.  The menu cries out against the horror of starvation–the diet warns of the menu.  The chef who starves cooks best.

Priests are unable to warn directly, since the more articulate the priest, the more that priest personally knows the very sin against which their sermon is a warning.

The dilemma of the articulate priest is at the heart of all moral philosophy and its intellectual, political, cultural, and pedagogical conflicts.

Loyalty is the quality which attempts to stave off this conflict.  Loyalty to group or tribe warns against the dilemma of the articulate priest.  The truly articulate priest disrupts loyalty and its certainties; this is why prophets are hated in their own land.

Camille Paglia is an articulate priest who smashes loyalites.  She offends all groups.  All have reason to despise her: Democrats, Republicans, independents, feminists, conservatives, gays, Catholics, and scholars.

Paglia is the Barren Mother and the Breeding Virgin of intellectual culture.

She is a lustful Socrates, whose questing, intellectual advocacy is centered on ecstatic pleasures and sexual beauty–hers is a warning against what she, personally, has secretly suffered: chastity.

Obviously it’s nobody’s business how much someone gets laid, but my thesis is based on a guess that during Paglia’s development as a young person, she didn’t get laid.  This was both her strength and her weakness.

Paglia fell in love at a very early age with Amelia Earhart’s lone flights—the poem “Alone” by Edgar Poe probably best sums up her soul.  Paglia was a virgin during the 60s and adopted the brazen lesbian role as a graduate student to hide the shame of her uncool virginity.

Paglia, the scholar of sex, shone, as the scholar, herself, remained virginal, or, if not virginal, deeply ashamed of losing out to more successful schmoozers in sex and career.

The virgin is alone more profoundly when surrounded, and not barred from, sexual activity.  For whatever reason, actual sex wasn’t a fit, so Paglia became an artistic fan of pornography—but not out of a feeling of deficiency, for she was an Amelia Earhart in her soul, flying above the boorish crowd.

We warn of what we know—the awed, hurting mind produces what the sensual, happy mind cannot.

Sexual Personae marked the start of a brilliant career.  Her gadfly presence in magazines and the lecture circuit, in the wake of the success of her historical treatise, was truly exciting.  But the promised second volume of Sexual Personae never arrived.  Then she began to write on politics, speaking of presidents and secretaries of state as if she were making snarky judgments at a high school dance.  It never quite rang true.

Paglia also boxed herself in as a hater of ‘French Theory;’ it was always obvious to me this prejudice of hers was linked to her mentor, Harold Bloom, who, like many academics, is explicitly pro-Emerson/anti-Poe, and this Anglophone school can never forgive the French for loving Poe.

Then she took five years to write Break, Blow, Burn, her book on poetry, a tepid close-reading exercise of some of her favorite poems.

How in the world did the author of Sexual Personae morph into Cleanth Brooks?

And five years…think of it.   That’s the writing career of Keats, the recording career of the Beatles (almost), the entire career of the Doors, to take a few dozen short poems, many loved and adored since childhood, and riff on them…this took five years?

Couldn’t most of us do this in a week?

Paglia still blogs on Salon and most readers hate her; the consensus of Salon readers seems to be, I HATE THIS B***, FIRE HER!!!

Which is great.   We at Scarriet understand.  But what happened to you, Camille?

Really?

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