POETRY, META-MODERNISM, AND LEONARDO DA VINCI

It might help us to speak not only of what poetry can do, but of what it cannot do.

Seth Abramson is excited about what he calls meta-modernism:

I believe that poetry is on the cusp of something big—a sea change in which we begin to arc generatively toward other creative genres (most notably, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, music, and stand up comedy) rather than retreating farther still into the more obscure recesses of literary theory and those 1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.” 1/3/14 Facebook

Abramson’s list of “other creative genres” leaves out the visual arts, which turns out to be part of the problem (1950s conceptualist techniques).

Two things must be said at this point.

First, pre-modern, pre-Painted Word, pre-Conceptual painting can be a great help to us here in terms of how the known, physical universe is depicted scientifically.

Second, Abramson’s “sea change” of meta-modernism (growing out of Modernism and post-Modernism’s eclectic freedoms) in its multi-genre mingling, calls to mind a passage from Da Vinci’s 500 year old argument, in which painting (not respected then as much as vocalized, self-praising poetry) is found vastly superior to poetry for ostentatiously simple reasons: painting can reveal harmony instantaneously, permanently, and uniquely, even to animals, whereas poetry must laboriously and slowly show a face, for instance, part by part, so that any united proportion is hopelessly dismembered.

Poetry does not imitate nature. It imitates spoken words.

Now listen to how modern and how like Abramson! Da Vinci sounds when discussing what poetry can do:

…the poet remains far behind the painter with respect to the representation of corporeal things, and, with respect to invisible things, he remains behind the musician.

But if the poet borrows assistance from the other sciences, he may be compared to those merchants at fairs who stock varied items made by different manufacturers. The poet does this when he borrows from other sciences, such as those of the orator, philosopher, cosmographer and suchlike, whose sciences are completely separate from that of the poet. Thus the poet becomes a broker, who gathers various persons together to conclude a deal. If you wish to discover the true office of the poet, you will find that he is nothing other than an accumulator of things stolen from various sciences, with which he fabricates a deceitful composition—or we may more fairly say a fictional composition. And in that he is free to make such fictions the poet parallels the painter, although this is the weakest part of painting.

Da Vinci’s poet as broker speech, if never met before, has to give the modern reader pause–Da Vinci’s poet as “accumulator of things stolen from various sciences” recalls every modern trope from the Cantos to collage, such that claims for “the new” by moderns are perhaps more mundane than people think; Abramson’s “poetry is on the cusp of something big” with “other creative genres,” depends, too, on Da Vinci’s formula, though of course we hate to rain on a poet’s parade.

More importantly, however: when Da Vinci says things like

Poet, your pen will be worn out before you have fully described something that the painter may present to you instantaneously using his science.

he is not hiding behind what Abramson calls the “recesses of literary theory” or “1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.”

The physical universe and the manner in which poetry and painting are able to imitate it does not belong to speculative theory; it belongs to science, and poets would do well to understand it.

Poets cannot escape the eye and its expectations. The comparison with painting is not something the poet can brush aside; poets, painters, and their different mediums live in the same world and imitate the same things—but how differently!

As Da Vinci advises:

The only true office of the poet is to invent words for people who talk to each other. Only these words can he represent naturally to the sense of hearing because they are in themselves the natural things that are created by the human voice. But in all other respects he is bettered by the painter.

For a poet to close his ears to this will not help the poet at all. Even if Da Vinci the painter were merely bragging, it will profit the poet to wrestle with the whole notion of strengths and weaknesses of methods of imitation.

Most poets assume that words can do anything, and poetry is immune to material laws.

But is it?

CAN THE MFA SAVE LITERATURE?

Can it, really?

There are so many positions one can take on education and literature—in fact, one could have a lengthy debate on which is more important, literature, or the education of literature, and that’s before we even get started.

Let’s see if we can sum up quickly the various positions regarding Creative Writing and the Academy under the umbrella: what is literature and how should we teach it?

First, the one relevant fact:  The Creative Writing degree is replacing the old English degree, not only on the graduate, but on the undergraduate level.

Now, the positions:

1. First, “The Old Man” position. We quote him in full—from a recent Scarriet comment, because we don’t think anyone could say it better:

Creative Writing, along with Today’s MFA is part of the campaign to replace canonical literature as the “jewel in the crown” of English Studies. There is a tacit alliance among the supporters of Postmodern Poetics, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Womens’ Studies and Creative Writing (in all its forms and levels of instruction) to topple the traditional curriculum. Contemporary fiction and poetry overshadow the great writing of the past. Creative writng students do not have to read Milton, Pope, Keats and Yeats. Either they read their peers in the class or the “so called” free verse of the hour. As creative writing gradually eclipses literature, instructors follow suit. Soon the majority of teachers in the typical American English Department will no longer feel comfortable about grading a comprehensive literature exam in an Honors Program – – or even the typical MA English Comprehensive Exam.

This position is the Outsider, Conservative one:  Creative Writing is part of a wider modern problem which sees canonical excellence swallowed up by all sorts of things which are beside the point.

2. Second, “The Seth Abramson” position, which all who are bothering to read this, are surely familiar with by  now: the MFA is a beacon of democratic insurrection and radical experimentation, a thousand flowers blooming in the desert of academic dullness.

This position is the Insider, Radical one: Creative Writing, through its democratic open-ended, open-exchanged fertility, will lead us to the Promised Land of Democratized Freedom.

3. Third, “The Laura Runyan” position, and we take the liberty of excerpting her Scarriet comments:

Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.

I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.

Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.

I couldn’t stand the prospect of majoring in English because I couldn’t stomach “critical theory,” by which art is reduced to cultural studies and very bad postmodernist “philosophizing.” So much of the reasoning behind critical theory is dreck, it’s bloated with jargon, much of the writing in the “scholarship” associated with that group of sub-disciplines is dreadful, and had it been embraced by my MFA professors, I wouldn’t have survived more than a semester there. (As an undergraduate, I majored in “analytic”–Western–philosophy.by the way.) My first semester as an MFA student, I asked one of the fiction faculty members which lit professors to avoid (we were one of those so-called “academic” MFA programs). As soon as I said that I didn’t want to take a lit-crit-style literature class, this professor knew immediately what I was talking about and advised me on which classes I would probably want to avoid. In fact, not one faculty member in my MFA program was “into” the critical theory stuff. If anything, they were contemptuous of it.

Laura Runyan’s is the Insider, Conservative position: Creative Writing, at least as practiced in the best MFA programs, is an escape from the postmodern-corrupted English MA programs. Runyan is pro-MFA, but for a very different reason than Abramson.

4. Finally, that leaves the Outsider, Radical position on Creative Writing, rejecting it altogether, either from an anti-institutional stance or an anti-canonical stance even more radical than Abramson’s, a radical political position suspicious of canon and institution, anything smelling at all like the status quo.  This final ‘catch-all’ category contains poor people, eccentric rich people, slam poets, the Ernest Hemingway/Jack Kerouac anti-intellectual, manly type of independent writer, or someone like Eileen Myles.

So the four main pedagogical threads are

1. Old Man: MFA is part of a radical, post-modern conspiracy

2. Laura Runyan: MFA is the new throw-back canonical MA

3. Seth Abramson: MFA is the crown of forward-looking, post-modern legitimacy

4. Eileen Myles: MFA is one more brick in the wall

As we can see, roughly speaking:

1 (Old Man) and 3 (Seth Abramson) are philosophical opposites, as are 2 (Laura Runyan) and 4 (Eileen Myles).

1 (Old Man) and 2 (Laura Runyan) are philosophically similar, as are 3 (Seth Abramson) and 4 (Eileen Myles), but these two pairs disagree on how the MFA works—or doesn’t.

Where do they all agree?

If one could afford to hang out in Left Bank cafes with interesting writers of all kinds, the Old Man, Laura, Seth, and Eileen might all be able to agree on this scenario.

We have ventured the opinion that ‘hanging out’ and writing really don’t go together at all, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.

Most of those in mainstream, institutional life, the Old Man and the Laura Runyan schools of thought, would probably see eye to eye on this:

Literature provides a necessary social glue: despite various political differences in any population, it is crucial that, intellectually and artistically, there is a place for all of us to be more or less on the same page, even as we work through various political differences based on class, race, sexual orientation, and philosophical opposition.

This point alone makes both the Old Man and the Laura Runyan positions attractive.  Chucking the canonical in favor of the new is counter-productive and common sense cries out against it.  Is life so radically different now that as a society we can say for certain that the best of the past should be demolished?

We can talk about political differences all day, but there is one aesthetic matter which seems to participate in these divisions more than any other: Good Storytelling. Laura Runyan captured this idea when she wrote:

A friend of mine who finished the MFA program at Iowa in the 80s, after he’d established a career as a pharmacist, told me the following about Frank Conroy, then the well-known director of the Workshop, and whom my friend had as a teacher. He said that often, Conroy–who was hardly gentle on students–would often say in workshop in response to a meandering piece of prose by a student, “Beautiful prose in the service of WHAT?” (That comment was repeated by another person I know who’s a grad of Iowa’s MFA program.)

What did he mean by that comment. Simply this–which isn’t so simple to many aspiring fiction writers: that the story, with all its musing and imagery, HAD NO STORY! No Aristotelian rise and fall, no obvious conflict, nothing that made you wonder what would happen next!

Story-telling can bring together many politics and philosophies under one roof, so much so, that this might even seal the deal for universal agreement.  Let’s rally round, with all our differences, the articulate story-teller, and let every radical impulse fit in—or not—with this mandate.

All in favor, say aye.

Just as we thought: a lot of ayes.

But not so fast.  “Wondering what happens next” is a primitive impulse and not necessarily one we should promote.  Narrative is a slippery pedagogical subject, if we are honest about it, and take the time to look at it more closely.  Scarriet recently examined this in a post titled, “Does Narrative Make Us Stupid?” (May 2013).

To truly unite literature and education, we grant narrative a high place, but not the highest place.

Our criteria, in order of importance are:

1. Philosophical Truth

It seems to us that Plato’s dialogues should be central to any advanced literary and writing education, with the Phaedrus, the Symposium, the Ion, and the Republic as must-reads.  Add to that Edgar Allan Poe, who is, if truth be told, a canon all to himself.  Both Plato and Poe are rigorous, accessible and free of both dogma and triviality.

2. Beauty

In the broadest possible terms, the beautiful encompasses good taste (which is not trivial) and all we associate with the ‘well-put-together,’ and pertains to whatever is uplifting, sublime, and brings people together in passionately fused thought and feeling.

3. Undercurrent of Meaning

This hardly needs explanation.  Without this, stories will be either trivial or flimsy pieces of moralizing.

These three are far more important than storytelling, per se, though Frank Conroy’s advice certainly has merit.

HOW SHOULD WE TEACH WRITING?

A recent comment by one of our readers on our “The Two Academies” essay gave us an idea for another essay: how, exactly, is the art of writing, teachable?

The Scarriet article, inspired by Seth Abramson’s work, called into question the creative writing business within the academy—the Writing MFA.

The comment, by a sensible person who has long read Scarriet, defends the Writing MFA in the typical manner: “experimental” writing in the MFA programs is not the norm; MFA students study “formalist” poetry and read “lots and lots” of books, including many written “before 1900.”

In other words, the new Writing MFA is similar to the old English MA.

It shouldn’t surprise us, really, that the old model, in many respects, lives on.   Writers, as much as plain students of literature, should read, and read widely.

But won’t the MFA student who reads in order to write, read better and learn more?

Whatever else we might say of the MFA, then, we should be able to say the MFA is as pedagogically sound as the old Masters in English, and perhaps more so.

Or is it?

Here’s a fact we must agree on: The instinct to write, the desire to write, exists prior to enrolling in either an MFA or an MA program.

The would-be-writer is reading in order to write with, or without, the MFA program.

And the commenter herself, because she is sensible, pointed out all the great writers who existed before there were any MFA programs.

The question becomes: what kind of special instruction or special reading is offered by the MFA, above and beyond the MA?

Writers cannot, any more than “ordinary” professors, teach others to write.  There is universal agreement on this.  One can teach grammar, but this is not the job of the advanced writing teacher or the graduate English professor, though tips are always welcome.  All a writer can do is teach others what they are reading—and this begs the question: what are the students reading?

We really cannot say.  There’s the canon an MA student would be expected to read, and we have to assume the MFA candidate’s canon is the same.

If the student wants “connections” to the publishing industry, who is to say that the MA professor cannot be in the same position to help the student as the MFA writing teacher?

And if the MFA writing teacher, who also happens to be a writer, is using his students to gain an audience for his own writing, is this even ethical, much less pedagogically superior to the MA professor who simply teaches “good literature?”

Numbers across the country show conclusively that creative writing students are replacing the old English major, but shouldn’t it be cause for concern that we cannot define the Writing program—which is replacing the time-honored English program?  Shouldn’t it be a cause of concern that we cannot say, why, exactly, the MFA is replacing the MA, since they are the same thing?  Unless of course, there’s something unethical going on?

How is the MFA different from the MA?  Except for the potential fact that the MFA allows writing instructors who are writers a chance to exploit the system in a way that exploits students?

We need to be honest here.   Why is the MFA replacing the MA?

Is it the lure of “being a writer” trouncing the lure of actually studying literature?

Is it only for cynical reasons?  Is it merely vanity occupying the academy in the form of “so you want to be a writer?”

If a certain vagueness attends the writing program investigation, it may lie with the mundane fact of what writing—apart from the other arts—actually is.

Is the MFA system a true guild system?

Here we might ask: How is writing different from art and music?

Painting, photography, and music speak a language which needs translating based on technique.

One can hear music without knowing what the notes are.  One can be pleased by music—without understanding why.

One can see a painting without knowing what techniques were used to create that painting.  One can be pleased by a painting—without understanding how it was done.

Reading a text, however, one immediately understands that text as a text: there is no further art or technique involved—as far as the act of reading is concerned.

If we can read, we can understand.

Writing is different, then.

Writing is a far different art than painting or music, then, and writing’s craft is not a matter of advanced education.

We wonder if anyone has contemplated this fact?

A text may require extra information to understand, but this extra information belongs to that extra information’s specific body of knowledge—the art of writing reveals itself as itself, unlike art and music—to whomever can read.

If one were to go and study with a painting master, as used to happen in Renaissance studios, for instance, the apprentice is happy to immerse themselves in the master’s technique and literally paint part of the master’s painting.  This immersion does not rob the apprentices’ identity; the technique mastered is necessary to further accomplishment.

Writing, however, has a completely different learning curve.

If one were to approach William Shakespeare and say, “Teach me to write,” he would laugh.   There is no technique in writing—unlike painting and music—which cannot be picked up in the text itself.

Even music, which only has “a few notes,” and features remarkable prodigies, is governed by a language and a craft that is not self-evident to any literate person.

As complex as language is, once a person becomes literate, there’s nothing left to teach as far as the act of writing goes, no matter how many MFA programs there are.

We are not saying writing is easy—that is not it at all.   We are only looking at the teaching of it—which is quite a different thing.

As for immersion, a seminar in which a group studies Keats will lack nothing in comparison to a group that studies their own writing.

And one wonders how educational it is to study the work of one’s fellow writing student, as opposed to say, Keats.

To study the work of one’s classmates and to have a writing instructor study one’s own writing (since we agreed no one can be taught to write) cannot possibly be as enlightening as simply studying the great writers.  Isn’t this an actual fact?

An MFA program might actually make a writer worse, as systemic mediocrity, worried about education bills, drags others down to its own level.

To find out one is a bad writer (based on critiques from one’s instructor and one’s classmates) is not what the MFA program will ever admit to doing.  And how a bad writer finds out they are bad should not be the concern of any positive educational enterprise.

To find out one is a good writer is not something a truly good writer needs “to find out.”   Education should not be necessary for the good writer.

So what does the MFA do?

What is it?

SILLIMAN’S LINKS (WHEW!) PART 3

And the critical look at the Silliman Links of 8/12/13 continues…

61. Galleycat reports that “USA ranked 23rd in World for Time Spent Reading” which we have a feeling is one of those stats that means absolutely nothing.

62. The TYEE, British Columbia’s “Home for News, Culture and Solutions” asks “What’s Happened to Canadian Literature?”  This might sound cruel, but, who cares?

63. Janet Maslin reviews David Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which to us sounds like the worst title for a novel, ever. But the well-written review makes this book sound pretty darn good.  The rollicking “Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the house” meter of Anaspestic Tetrameter is used to tell a largely tragic American tale of Dickensian dimensions and we say bravo to the late David Rakoff for writing it and the NY Times for noticing it.

64. Lisa Darms reviews her own book, Grrrl, Collected, ‘zines of feminist punk, the 90s Riot Grrrl era, in the Paris Review.  Women will always be women, no matter how many different styles of attractive walls they put around themselves.  Go, Riot Grrrls!

65. “America, Meet Your Poets,” says Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post.  America’s Poets, according to Abramson, are the exploding population of Writing Program graduates—and this is a good thing. The English Major is dying, Abramson points out, but no need to worry: Creative Writing is here to stay, and Abramson quotes John Ashbery saying “what first awakened him to the joys of poetry” was realizing that poetry was not something “lifeless” in a “museum,” but “must have grown out of the lives of those who wrote it.” This is not only wrong on many levels, but also a big flag with John Crowe Ransom’s name on it: the document that Abramson needs to read and the truth he needs to get can be found in Ransom’s 1930s essay, “Criticism, Inc.” The English Major who studies Shakespeare does not study something “lifeless.”  And if a living poet is a bad poet, as far as he is a poet, that he is “living” is a bad thing.  Ransom’s complaint that professors of Keats were just “watering their own gardens” and his solution: professional critics trained by the academy to understand “the new writing” is the template of the Program era.  Poets breeding in universities is not precisely what Ransom set down, but he was smart enough that we can easily blame him.  Today it is simply out of control, and so everyone is to blame.  Poets like Abramson, who are simply perpetuating the problem, are not nearly as clever as Ransom—who started the problem.

66. Scottish Review of Books presents Iain Bamforth and Rob Mackenzie.  “Crackling tower” and “roots of mountains” poetry.

67. NPR reviews Robert Pinsky’s Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. Note the prominence of “write” over “read”—a result of the Program Era.  Also note “Masters”in the title: again, a reaction to the Program Era—Pinsky is going over the heads of contemporary poet professors in the university and conjuring up a pre-Program Era golden age when poets learned their craft, not from some obscure poet who managed to get a cooked-up writing prize and land a teaching position, but from the masters. We have only a couple of things to say re: verse and song in poetry: 1. Edgar Poe’s long essay “The Rationale of Verse” is all one needs to read on the subject.  2. The current fashion of talking about verse in terms of what your lips, teeth and saliva ought to be doing is absolutely disgusting, not to mention the inanity of “breaths” and “white spaces” and “line-breaks” and “sentences” and “cadences.”  Just shut up, all of you.  We’ll tell you what you can do with your “Singing School.”

68. “On being too old for Saul Bellow” brings us to “Slate’s Best and Worst Summer Romances.”  Wrong link.   But let’s push on…

69. Poetry Daily looks back 10 years: Bush was president, Dana Gioia was the NEA Chairman, and Laura Bush had cancelled the Poetry at the White House.  Daisy Fried’s “Snapshots at a Conference,” takes a journalistic peek at a state poet laureate pow wow in New Hampshire in April, 2003.  Fried observes, ruminates, and tries hard not to be condescending.  A good piece of writing.

70. Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks, a story in the NY Daily News.

71. Black Mountain College archive snapshots reveal the rather mundane “farm life” aspect of this storied avant-garde institution.

72. continent.  More hackneyed philosophical musings from this amusingly pretentious website. “What is a Compendium? Parataxis, Hypotaxis, and the Question of the Book” earnestly defines terms like hypotaxis until you wish you were just curled up with a good dictionary. They quote Sartre at one point, and this sums up the whole tenor of their approach: “For when one has nothing to say, one can say everything.” Right.

73. Here’s an exciting story from the NY Times: U. Texas, Austin, acquires archives of McSweeney’s.

74. Stephen King and his wife got their kids to record books-on-tape for them.  The NY Times magazine looks at the King family.

75. Public Radio East reports that Barbara Mertz, mystery novelist, dies.

76. Rob Wilson attempts to prove in his paper “Towards the Nuclear Sublime: Representations of Technological Vastness in Postmodern American Poetry” that the “nuclear sublime” dwarfs all other literary sublimes and fails—the premise is bankrupt.  It doesn’t matter how big a nuclear explosion is, or how many people are afraid of it; the literary sublime exists in words. We don’t like to state the obvious, but in the face of Wilson’s pedantry, what can we do?  Not that the paper is not without its minor interest (as Wilson quotes Robert Lowell, we catch a whiff of Mark Edmundson!) but the Post-Modernist audacity of favorably comparing the atom bomb to Niagara Falls in terms of aesthetic sublimity, is merely cute—and block-headed.

77. Here, in his infinite wisdom, Ron Silliman links Scarriet: “Poetry Will Be Dead In 15 Minutes, Or Modernists, Flarfists and Po-Mos Just A Bunch Of Assholes?”  Now that’s sublime.  Ron’s link says,
Scarriet declares itself both anti-modern and pre-modern.” Yes.  A time-traveling aesthetic is a noble thing.

78. Australian director Brian Fairbairn has made a short film on “What English Sounds Like To People Who Don’t Speak It.”

79. The LA Times calls for Op-Ed-Poems in old-fashioned forms (no foul language) for its August 25 issue.

80. The Missouri Review offers “10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn.” The 11th is: ignore this list.

81. The poet David Kirby heaps praise on emerging poet Adam Fitzgerald in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. To make his review more believable, Kirby goes out of his way to acknowledge how much “bad poetry” there is today as he insists that Adam Fitzgerald is a “new and welcome sound in the aviary of contemporary poetry.”  But then we get a sample of Fitzgerald’s poetry:

These stanzas from “The Map” suggest the silky luxury of the entire book:

I was shipwrecked on an island of
clouds.
The sun’s pillars bored me though, so I
set foot on a small indigo place
below orange falls and hexagonal
flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,
restlessly roaming the buttered air
inside tropical rock enclosures,
caves of foliage that canopied dankness.

Humming water and fetid air felt nice.
But the gentle leisure of itching, staring,
distracted me. I frequented streets
in dreams, or in the paintings of dreams.

This is perhaps the worst poetry we have ever read.  “I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds” is not something even A.A. Milne would have Winnie-the-Pooh say.  Winnie-the-Pooh rose into the sky by a balloon with the purpose of getting honey from a nest of bees in a tree.  But the poet Adam Fitzgerald finds himself “shipwrecked on an island of clouds.” He gets “bored, though” and so “set[s] foot on a small indigo place” and is “able to stay there a fortnight,” and there “restlessly roam[s] the buttered air.”  How to imagine this: buttered air.   Restlessly roaming the buttered air.  Then it gets all the more wonderful, as the poet finds that “humming water” and “fetid air” feels “nice.” But oh no!  “The gentle leisure of itching, staring,/ distracted me, I frequented streets/in dreams…”

82. continent, in a brief July 9 post, opines that “to love literature is to be in love with the dead. Necrophilia.”  Well, I’ll be damned!

TO BE CONTINUED

SILLIMAN’S LINKS

File:Ruins of an Ancient City by John Martin, 1810s.JPG

We thought it might be amusing for Scarriet to take a full tour of Ron Silliman’s Poetry Links.

Ron provides this service every couple weeks, an internet feast of what’s happening in the poetry/art world.

So without further ado, let’s get started!  There’s 134 links!

Scarriet looks at August 12, 2013:

1. Rae Armantrout interviewed by Poetryeater blog—Worshipful, boring.   Long question re: “Section breaks.” zzzzzzz  Interviewer: “current fetish for metrics.” ???  “I wish I could write like E. Dickinson” –Rae A.  Uh…quit being so damn clever in the modernist mode and write poetry. 

2. USA Today story: Jane Austen replaces Charles Darwin on 10 Pound Note, as English women pushed for more representation after Winston Churchill replaced Elizabeth Fry on another piece of money.  Bad for Darwin, good for Darwinism?

3-6. BBC stories on twitter abuse against women campaigning for Austen; Tony Wang, Twitter UK boss, apologizes; male is arrested for the twitter crime.

7. Book Riot reports singer Kelly Clarkson cannot have the Jane Austen ring which she purchased; it belongs to England!

8. Jacket Book promotion: Boston scenester poet William Corbett (recently moved to NYC) remembers good times with his friend, the late Michael Gizzi.

9. Fanny Howe wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize, the Vineyard Gazette reports.  Shit, there is money in poetry.

10. Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets Blog features Kenneth Koch’s daughter Katherine. She has written an essay on growing up among the New York School scene, which basically highlights the fact that few New York School poets had kids, and they didn’t pay much attention to kids when they were around.

11. “33 Reasons Not To Date A Small Publisher” from Five Leaves Publications Blog’s Ross Bradshaw.  Now this link is really worthwhile!  Hilarious!  “He will be broke.”  “He might be a poet.” “He will talk non-stop about how terrible Waterstones is.”  “His office will be very untidy, spilling over with unsaleable books.”

12-13. Guardian on the 500 fairy tales recently discovered in 19th century archives of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth and one copied out: “The Turnip Princess,” which is not very impressive: cluttered, contrived, confusing.  Perhaps we have enough old fairy tales?

14. Kenneth Goldsmith in the Globe & Mail says he likes “smart dumb” and lists The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola.  But couldn’t this list go on forever?  How about Victorian poetry?  American sitcoms?  Yoko Ono.  Yoko Ono, by the way, seems conspicuously absent in all these Conceptualist discussions.  Everyone remembers her “Yes” at the top of the ladder John Lennon climbed.  Duchamp already told the joke that’s being told over and over again, but even Ono makes Goldsmith seem old hat.   Isn’t all comedy “smart dumb?” Aren’t Shakespeare’s clowns “smart dumb?”  Isn’t everything “smart dumb?”  Goldsmith is spreading himself too thin, like the Risk player taking too many countries at once.  This can’t end well.

15. And Kenneth Goldsmith, according to the News & Record of Greensboro, NC, does “Printing Out the Internet,” where about 600 people send tons and tons of printed out internet pages to a gallery in Mexico.  It’s a memorial for Aaron Swartz, somehow, the JSTOR downloading suicide, which, we suppose, makes it criticism-proof, since it’s a memorial.  But really, who has time for this?  Well, we suppose if one does have time for this, that does make one superior, somehow, in an elitist sort of way…  Just having time for something is a statement of sorts…Look, we might as well admit it…Kenneth Goldsmith is on a roll…

16. Over at Rumpus, Marjorie Perloff tries to shout down Amy King in the Comments section to Amy King’s “Beauty & the Beastly Po-Biz” piece, pointing out “Conceptualism is the only game in town” is not really what she said, but it is what she said, because her only stated alternative is “the return of the lyric” as “found poetry,” which is Conceptualism, anyway.   Perloff’s objections are hollow.   More interesting was David Need’s comment, who questioned “fighting capitalism” as the “standard  that MUST BE MET, for art to be credible.”  How about this standard, instead, he asked: “Successfully bringing up a child.”  We like that. 

17. On Blog Harriet, Robert Archambeau defends Conceptualism (while pretending not to) with his piece, “Charmless & Interesting.”  Again, the ghost of Duchamp is raised, as Archambeau says Conceptualists are not charming, but they are interesting.   Really, Bob?  We thought it was the other way around.  But more importantly, the Conceptualist joke is charming once, but not over and over again.

18.  More Conceptualist ado, this time from the ever long-winded but keen Seth Abramson on the Volta Blog: Conceptualism doesn’t exist, according to Abramson, because the concept self-negates the work and Goldsmith is wrong that anyone will be interested in discussing the concept, so that leaves nothing.  Like an enraged New Critic, Abramson points out Conceptualism makes us look at the poet rather than the poem.  Abramson defends the avant-garde, though, which makes his attack all the more interesting.  Or problematic?

19. Jeffrey Side, in his blog, also raises the ghost of Duchamp as Conceptualism’s modern founder.   A popular guy, this Duchamp, all of a sudden.  Side quotes Archambeau: “In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry?”  Side says it is not poetry.

20. Tony Lopez on his blog, discussing something called the Dublin Pound Conference, says it’s great to “go out in Dublin for drinks and dinner.”  Good thing he didn’t talk about Pound.  Thanks, Tony!

TO BE CONTINUED…

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS, THE ROMANTICISM VERSION, CONTINUES: HOAGLAND V. PLATH

“A man in black with a Meinkampf look”

The biography of the poet—how important is it?

For Romantic Poetry, it is of paramount importance, for Humanist and Renaissance and Platonist reasons—the poem is a reflection and extension of the human.

Our interest in John Keats, for instance, cannot be separated from an interest in the poetry of John Keats.

Biographical interest was considered heretical by the New Critics, who, as self-appointed “moderns,” were anxious to leave the Romantic era behind and root out those Keats professors merely interested in—“watering their own gardens,” as John Crowe Ransom impatiently put it—to replace them in the universities with what Ransom called “the new writing” professors.  Ransom’s 1930s essay was called “Criticism, Inc.” and is one of the crucial founding documents of the Program Era, though it is forgotten/ignored by the avant-garde today.

The now-famous Program Era was ushered in by the New Critics and their allies like Professor Crane at U. of Chicago and Paul Engle at U. Iowa—who was awarded his Yale Younger Poets prize back in the 30s by one of the Fugitive set.  Ford Maddox Ford, who met Pound off the boat in Great Britain, was an associate of the New Critics and helped to launch the Program Era in the U.S.  If you are still following this, the Fugitives, the Southern Agrarians and the New Critics (all Rhodes Scholars) were a single evolving animal, and very influential in terms of text book and canon in the last century.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist master, went out of his way to attack Shelley’s character; Eliot was fiercely anti-Romantic in his writings.  People write poetry; one cannot eliminate biography entirely, but Modernism sought to dismantle its importance—Shelley, the Heroic Natural Man was replaced by Prufrock, the Grotesque Fictional one.  Writing became detached from reality.

The current debate re: Conceptualism is problematic for the very reason that its really a natural outcome of the Modernist Avant-garde: Writers like Amy King and Seth Abramson, Program Era products, attack anti-humanist Conceptualism without understanding its roots—or, understanding its roots but without any understanding of how they themselves are tangled up in them, having themselves completely swallowed the doctrines of the Modernist avant-garde.

One has to embrace the Romantics, as Scarriet does, and see the Modernists for what they are, to escape the “conceptualist” dilemma.

Suppressing biography to enhance the poem was an interesting experiment, especially in light of the fact that all the New Critics are now unknown, overshadowed by a single Romantic Ballad-like poem : “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, dripping with blood and biography.

In the Tournament contest today, Plath faces off against living poet Tony Hoagland and his poem, “Why the Young Men Are So Ugly.”

Hoagland’s poem is about young men in general.

Plath’s is about her father and her husband.    (The poem is explicitly about Hughes, but this fact is often overlooked.)

Guess which one wins?

WHY THE YOUNG MEN ARE SO UGLY

They have little tractors in their blood
and all day the tractors climb up and down
inside their arms and legs, their
collarbones and heads.

That is why they yell and scream and slam the barbells
down into their clanking slots,
making the metal ring like sledgehammers on iron,
like dungeon prisoners rattling their chains.

That is why they shriek their tires at the stopsign,
why they turn the base up on the stereo
until it shakes the traffic light, until it
dryhumps the eardrum of the crossing guard.

Testosterone is a drug,
and they say No, No, No until
they are overwhelmed and punch
their buddy in the face for joy,

or make a joke about gravy and bottomless holes
to a middle-aged waitress who is gently
setting down the plate in front of them.

If they are grotesque, if
what they say and do is often nothing more
than a kind of psychopathic fart,

it is only because of the tractors,
the tractors in their blood,
revving their engines, chewing up the turf
inside their arteries and veins
It is the testosterone tractor

constantly climbing the mudhill of the world
and dragging the young man behind it
by a chain around his leg.
In the stink and the noise, in the clouds
of filthy exhaust

is where they live. It is the tractors
that make them
what they are. While they make being a man
look like a disease.

DADDY

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

 An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
and drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat, black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Plath wins, 69-43 and advances to the Sweet Sixteen!

IS POETRY BECOMING STUPID AND RACIST?

What to make of this recent article in The Atlantic, which finds that any critique of contemporary Letters is, by definition, an attack by an angry white male?

Joel Breuklander in The Atlantic takes eleven writers—Joanathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Verlyn Klinkenborg, J. Robert Lennon, Lee Siegel, Philip Roth, Ted Genoways, George Steiner, Frank Kermode, Alvin Kernan, and Mark  Edmundson—and with a few quotes and great deal of innuendo, finds them all guilty of 1) literary criticism and 2) being straight, male and white.

Merely using random quotes out of context, the author of this brief Atlantic piece, titled “Literature Is Dead (According to Straight White Guys, At Least),” beats the old theme of eroding white male privilege, yet in none of his examples do any of the accused white male authors say literature is dead or dying because there’s not enough straight white males writing it.

In fact, not one shred of actual racist or sexist content is unearthed by The Atlantic.  The charge of racism and sexism against white males is made simply because examples found of “Literature is dead or dying” critiques are written by white males.  So The Atlantic is either racist or stupid.  We’re going to be nice, and say stupid.  Here’s what a stupid person “wracking their brain” sounds like:

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren’t doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair.

The Atlantic’s ire is focused on the author of the recent controversial Harper’s essay, Mark Edmundson, the villain who is guilty of wanting the poet to speak for everyone.  Joel Breuklander is so irate at this notion that he loses all perspective and claims that Edmundson’s wish is somehow “factually untrue:”

Edmundson’s point is factually untrue. Poets of all kinds still use ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us.’ But if they do so from the perspective of a gay man, a woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, their attempts to look at big themes are often overlooked or dismissed rather than championed.

The Atlantic says the desire for the poet to speak to all races is racist.  The poet, according to The Atlantic, can only use “we” when speaking to their group.

We have now arrived at the Great anti-Racist Racist Ideal: Universality is racist.

Feeling confused?  Feeling like no matter what you say, you are racist?  Welcome to the club.

Joel Breuklander trots out the example of Richard Blanco’s Inauguration Poem and then points an accusing finger at Edmundson:

Does Blanco, who is gay and Latino, even count for Edmundson?

Yes, Mr. Breuklander, obviously, Richard Blanco, the poet, doesn’t count for Mr. Edmundson, because he is gay and Latino.  There is no escape for Mr. Edmundson.  He is obviously guilty!

And horrors!  Edmundson “ignores the entirety” of a poet’s work—and that poet is a woman!  Whenever someone makes a negative comment about a poet we like, we can always satisfy ourselves by saying the malicious critic is “ignoring” the “entirety of the work” which looms over whatever the point happens to be.  In this case the point is “sex as a major subject of poetry,” and Breuklander “proves” his point by selecting from the “entirety” of Carson’s work one quote–-which dismisses sex as a subject!   “Sex is a substitute…”

Edmundson dismisses Anne Carson, too, as “opaque” and “inscrutable”—the same Anne Carson who became a hit when her compulsively readable, gay coming-of-age “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red was name-dropped on Sex and the City. When Edmundson asserts that “no well-known poet” writes about big subjects like sex, he ignores the entirety of Carson’s work. Take just one example from her collection Plainwater: “Men know almost nothing about desire / they think it has to do with sexual activity / or can be discharged that way. / But sex is a substitute, like money or language.”

As a woman, though, does Carson count? Do her broad statements on gender and sex not matter for Edmundson’s thesis?

Maybe it’s just that Edmunson doesn’t like the hyped-up Carson’s poetry.   Should this be a source of outrage?

For Breuklander, accusing someone of racism without evidence is fine, but not being wowed by someone’s poetry is a crime against humanity.

Breuklander hasn’t considered that literature’s “decline” hurts everyone, not just white people.

Literature would hardly seem in decline to the women or ethnic or sexual minorities just now getting access to its hallowed halls. That’s why Edmundson’s silliest assertion is that nobody finds themselves represented by poetry anymore. “No one,” he writes, “will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: ‘This is my music, this is myself.'”

But if Edmundson only recognizes himself in older, white, male poets, it may just be because he’s older, white, and male.

We quote The Atlantic a final time—note the illogical leap here: somehow it is racist to accuse contemporary literature of “technical narrowness,” being “boring,” or being “professionalized.”

I’ve suspected for a while that these essays, as a category, might somehow be rooted in declining privilege: Literature has never been a majority interest in America, so I’ve wondered if these writers might be projecting some kind of status insecurity onto literature. Still, until recently I’d never thought to look at the identities of the authors before. And I certainly never thought I’d discover that every last author whose work I had read on the subject would be a white male—or that all but one was straight.

Take The New York Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg, who recently wrote that a “technical narrowness” is responsible for the “decline and fall of the English major.” A few months prior, J. Robert Lennon derided contemporary literary fiction as “fucking boring” in Salon. Before that, Lee Siegel informed us that today’s fiction is “irrelevant” because it is too professionalized, and because nonfiction got quite good.

We don’t know if Seth Abramson is safe, or not.   In a very recent piece in the Huff Post, he dismisses Edmundson’s “jeremiad” as “poorly researched.”

“Poorly researched” in this case means that Edmundson did not read the “entirety” of every poet’s work now writing in the United States.

But then Abramson—a white person!!—risks a “Literature is Dead or Dying” critique of contemporary literature:

American literary study and discourse has, regrettably, devolved since Epstein’s and Goia’s direct assaults on the state of poetry a quarter of a century ago.  According to a recent article in The New York Times, in 1991 Yale University graduated 165 English majors; it graduated 62 in 2013…

What?  No mention that Joseph Epstein (Who Killed Poetry?) and Dana Gioia (Can Poetry Matter?) are white?

But wait, perhaps Abramson is safe, because he claims that literature is not really dying at all:

Yet the recent history of literary study in the U.S. isn’t nearly as grim if we consider the evolution of creative writing, an English department specialization that from 1971 to 2003 grew by 908 percent—that’s not a typo—if we measure the discipline by how many terminal-degree graduate programs are devoted to its study.  The effect of this unprecedented growth is that in 2013 there are aproximately 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States. In 1991, when Gioia wrote of his concern about the future of American poetry, there were but fifty such programs (and half of these had, at that point, graduated five or fewer classes of poets).

Welcome to the Program Era, where literature is dead, but everybody is writing it.

And now Abramson rises to the occasion, quoting the aged poet John Ashbery:

As the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet, John Ashbery, once detailed in an interview with The Paris Review, what first awakened him to the joys of poetry was seeing that “poetry wasn’t just something lifeless in an ancient museum, but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”  Ashbery, still a working poet today, is exactly right: If we want the nation’s youngest readers to take up an interest in poetry, we must introduce them to more working poets and fewer academics, and indeed make exposure to working poets in real-time mandatory precursor to the reading of contemporary American poetry.

So here is Abramson, who evidently thinks there is something magical about the phrase “working poet,” selecting for a rare specimen of wisdom an utterance from “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” and what is this wisdom?

If something that someone has written is in a museum, an “ancient” museum, (!) it is “lifeless” and has not “grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”

This is absolute rubbish.  Can it be “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” in the U.S. actually believes this piece of stupidity?

Surely poetry is not afflicted with the racism The Atlantic has “discovered”—and stupidity like this from John Ashbery as well?

METAMODERNISM? LOL

Andy Mister, who I read with at St. Mark's

Metamodernism personified: Andy Mister

Excuse us while we laugh at Seth Abramson’s latest piffle: “On Literary Metamodernism.”

Should we be writing that in all caps? METAMODERNISM!

Edgar Allan Poe, the greatest literary innovator in the history of Letters, never struck a “modern” note. Poe’s idea was to be original, not modern, for “modernism,” the buzz word, has always been a stylistic vacuity blaring from the presses. Poe was anxious to discover truths just as true for the ancients as for us. In verse, the vibrations and durations underlying the scientific truths of measured poetry affect all humans with a pulse the same. None of this “now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently!” pretentiousness for the short story master who gave us detective fiction and sci-fi.

“Now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently” is a phrase that nicely sums up the con of the modernism pretense. We are always rushing into a vague future with a tenuous connection between poetry and something else: skyscrapers, automobiles, language, young people, and now for Seth—wait for it—young people in MFA programs.

This is the cause of Seth’s stated  innovation, sort of the way an apple is the cause of gravity—because people are in MFA programs, there is an innovation, a new thing, a new modernism, a METAMODERNISM, which, if we press Abramson to define it, will be defined as modern, very, very modern, more modern than Modernism or Post-modernism, oh rest assured!

Abramson does two things in his essay. First, he describes, in great sweep, the condition of poetry culture and then he offers a few lines—sentences?—by a poet named Mister, (MFA, Montana, 2003), to prove the actual identity of a new “rebel” poetry which “risks sincerity” and manifests meta- reality in the face of other  highly ironic and cynical  modern and post modern poets (New Critical, Language and Loner) thrown together by the Program Era: the MFA culture has come to small towns and can’t be escaped.

The M-gen poets (MFA  generation poets) are here to save the day by pushing previously safe distinct poetries towards possible  social humiliation. This general idea, though somewhat crazy, we like, for here Seth shows a proclivity for party organizing. We can see Seth throwing a poetry blast which everyone would want to attend, even Thomas Brady.

Metamodernism’s brave new avant-garde world belongs to social nuance, as Seth’s “new sincerity,” or should we call it the “new sincere sincerity?” challenges the old hollow snarkiness of Internet Age insincerity, irony, and artificiality with the “hyper-real” vision of an inspired and socially connected MFA student, eschewing language games, formalist, ironical New Critical strategies, and loner, street, maudlin strategies, plunging into an eclectic soup of past modernism transcended, a Henry James-sensitive soup to be sipped politely, and yet with great risk, as the new meal is nothing less than the avant-garde at last breaking into clear clarity, sincere sincerity, and real reality. Now if this sounds crazy…well, here’s Seth Abramson in his own words (with the help of David Foster Wallace):

The challenge today’s younger artists face is to find wholeness of being and clarity of emotion in the midst of a cacophony of Internet-Age stimuli. These stimuli are forever wrenching them back into our noisy American culture, one that impels them to a multifaceted, Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential. The situation has all the markings of a catch-22: To be sincere, one must, presumably, deny the contemporary poet’s multiple “artificial” selves, and therefore be insincere to the real state of affairs; yet to indulge the contemporary poet’s multiple artificial selves is to sincerely detail the insincerity our culture sometimes forces upon us, and therefore be, however inadvertently, insincere in content if not design.

[David Foster] Wallace implicitly acknowledges this catch-22 in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” assessing the development of a genuine avant-garde in relation to the critical concept of risk. As Wallace writes, “The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal…[t]oday’s risks are different. The new rebels might be willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs…to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”

Prior to the Program Era’s promulgation of hundreds of literary micro-communities across the country, the particular brand of rebellion spoken of by Wallace was next to impossible.

Metamodernist poetry’s task, then, is to take “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential” and make it so, and with all these MFA “micro-communities” uniting poets across the land as never before, there is a great opportunity for the truth and essential in poetry—and thus in life!—to happen.

What this sounds like to us is that Seth Abramson, as part of his vocation as MFA-defender, has been thinking very hard about ways to make MFA programs seem important, and since MFA programs are explicitly about nothing—nothing is taught, MFA officials admit, but what does happen is students and instructors of poetry come together and create intelligent space for poetic things to happen—Abramson, desperate to defend the institution of the Poetry MFA, has decided he will play up the fact that MFA communities are growing in number and herding poets together must have some benefit; and here it is: Metamodernism.  Just put a lot of studious poets in the same room for awhile, Abramson thinks, and new and interesting things will happen.

Poetry, in other words, is not an art, but a response to each decade’s news flashes: Pound was troubled by a world war, Eliot by Michelangelo, Charles Bernstein by language, and now Seth Abramson, by the Internet—or rather, the “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential.”

Each day in his bunker, the news-deprived, would-be poet asks, “What, during this decade, troubles me?”  All he needs to do is read Time magazine, or get an MFA in poetry, and problem solved!

The coolest poets are, at this very minute, writing poetry to fix the problem of the day, which you, Internet-savvy person, should appreciate, and if you can’t appreciate it, you need to borrow money for an MFA poetry program, and get in on this metamodernist turn in poetry, before it’s too late!

Modernist, post-modernist, and meta-modernist movements appear and die as quickly as swarms of gnats on a summer evening, and these responses—the new poetries which have replaced the old poetry—cannot be learned in a day, so get off your ass and hie you to your nearest low-residency MFA community in due haste!  Hurry!  Metamodernism is happening!

Let us give Abramson his due: he may be mad, but see how he describes the whole scenario down to its last nuance and fact:

The bohemians of New York City could argue (if not credibly) that they were forever butting up against the disapproval of the New Critics of the academy, and the long-hegemonic New Critics could falsely opine about suffering the stranglehold of conventional academia. Meanwhile, the isolatos could bemoan their interminable cultural irrelevance and personal despair. But to contend that any of these groups truly “risked” the disapproval (let alone hostile influence) of the others would be farcical. Each of these quadrants of American literature operated largely independently of the others. The Language poets never felt the cold jackboot of academia on their necks until they so desperately and emphatically sought its approval that a short-lived and entirely-manufactured confrontation (followed by a much longer détente) was inevitable; the New Critics were ascendant in the academy for decades (roughly, from 1930 to 1970), meaning that any claims of persecution could never have been more than rank self-mythologizing. And perhaps the sole benefit of being a solitary genius in America is never having the clammy hand of convention clapped down upon one’s shoulder.

What was required to produce the condition of “risk” Wallace wrote of in the 1990s was some mechanism that would, on a national scale, blindly throw poets together with one another in close quarters, that would so violently juxtapose creative and performative spaces that a young artist desiring rebellion would have no choice but to perform her resistance in full view–literally in the very same room as–those whose disapprobation she sought to invite or risked inviting. The dramatic expansion of the nation’s network of graduate creative writing programs across the whole of the United States in the 1990s and aughts provided just this opportunity, especially as it produced collisions not only among student poets but also among formerly isolated non-students who suddenly discovered vibrant, university-affiliated literary communities in their backyards. It is one thing to be an isolated author living in Wichita, it is quite another to be an author in Wichita as that city’s literary scene expands rapidly via a horde of creative writing graduate students at Wichita State.

Fear not, you isolated non-students!  Even Wichita has a literary scene now, thanks to the MFA Program Era!

But what exactly is this Metamodernism?  What does it look like?

Again, Seth delivers the goods here, too.  He has a poet, Andy Mister, and Mister’s actual writings demonstrate for us what Metamodernism is:

Evidence of this seismic shift in poetry’s ambitions is present throughout Mister’s collection, as in this passage: “The weather doesn’t start to take shape until spring, then you’ll see it all around you. Scattering out from a point. That point is not you. Or me.” We are suffused, in short, in a reality that is both not our own yet encompasses entirely our environment.

It’s comforting to know that with “metamodernism” we are still, with all the other Modernisms, escaping the ego of Romanticism: “…not you. Or me.”  Okay, fine, but Seth brings even more to the table:

The previous generation of avant-gardes so little understands metamodernism that one can imagine, in advance, their howls of protest as metamodernism begins its steady ascent in American literature. These are mere topical preoccupations, they might say; they are not, first and foremost, linguistic. What these former scions of American literary innovation fail to see is that the time for merely edifying America as to the realities of language is over; the time for speaking primarily in the language of realities is beginning.

Yes, this is a big nut to crack.  Where are the “linguistic” concerns?  But Seth is undeterred. He’s after the biggest catch of all: “the language of realities.”  And it’s just “beginning!”  And all you have to do is get an MFA in poetry to know it intimately yourself!  Aren’t you thrilled?

Seth continues to quote the poet Andy Mister, his great example:

Liner Notes is a book energetically engaged in exploring hyperphysicality from all sides and in all forms, and few sentences in the book fail to perform this monumental task with an almost shocking clarity. For instance: “Ian Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. He left a note that read: ‘At this very moment, I wish I were dead.'” Curtis thus (with Mister as his witness and amanuensis) instantiates the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality; the writer (Curtis and Mister alike) testifies to the portal through which the self passes when it seeks union between the physical narrative of Life and the hyperphysical narrative of (actual or subjective) Death. Or consider: “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.” Mister acknowledges, here, that encoded within the artifice of the Image is the Image-in-motion, the same cinematic self so often glorified in American culture. What is prescient, though, is how Mister so thoroughly intertwines Art (the Image) and Life (as cinema) that the notion of man-as-moviegoer may be treated as implicit in all real-time action. So it is that Mister must clarify that his poet-speaker is not attending the cinema, but merely performing a workaday task.

In postmodernism, cinema is not acknowledged as a universal preexisting condition, but merely one of many ephemeral guises a man or woman might adopt: that is, a performance. By foreclosing on the premise that the cultural self is elective, Mister forecloses, too, on the possibility of irony and the limitations of postmodernism. Instead, we see sincerity opening its eyes and accepting what it sees–including the presumptive insincerity of multiple selves and multiple realities–as ineluctable, true, and essential. Mister is not a man going to the bank rather than a movie, he is a movie being a man instead of a matinee. Liner Notes so consistently seeks and achieves this superlative level of engagement with metanarrative, metaxy, hypotaxis, hyperreality, hyperphysicality, superconsciousness, and hyperconsciousness that to call it anything less than genius is an insult to both its complexity and ambition.

How can one possibly top “the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality,” in a rock star’s suicide note, no less?

And we especially like, “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.”

A refund check from the financial aid office at his MFA university, no doubt.

Our final quote from Abramson’s essay is a look at what Abramson does best: New Critical close reading (at least he does it ambitiously).  Seth’s analysis of Mister’s “paragraph” is showy, but it does sound learned.  Of course there’s nothing new about conflating the metaphorical with the literal—the “drowning” example—why in the world does Abramson think this is metamodern, much less new? 

Reading metamodernistic verse is bewildering if done correctly, and Mister’s Liner Notes is no exception. Consider this paragraph: “Once when I was riding home in the school bus, I drowned. I had to convince myself that I was breathing. Just for a moment. People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” In conventional lyric-narrative verse, the word “drowned” would here function as a metaphor; presumably, our hypothetical lyric-narrative poet would intend a comparison between panic attacks and drowning, which is to say that drowning and panic share traits in common, per the poet. At the first level of such a comparison, simile, one might say, “I felt like I was drowning”; at the second level of such a comparison, metaphor, we could expect the two terms (“panic” and “drowning”) to be even more closely aligned, as in the implied comparison of the metaphoric construction “I was drowning”; at the third level of comparison we have actually moved beyond mere relation to actual equity, or what Mikhail Epstein calls metabole: Panic is not like drowning, in this new equation, it literally is drowning, as the contemporary subject-cum-poet-speaker loses the ability to distinguish between alternate realities with shared traits (the one in which literal “panic” is operative, and the other in which literal “death” is) and thus finds wholeness, form, and sincerity in the singularity, literality, and accuracy of these concepts’ metabolic combination (“drowning”).

In the metabolic function, as opposed to the metonymic or metaphoric functions, the two presumptive originary terms–“panic” and “death,” in the example above–are both elided in favor of a common denominator, “drowning.” “Drowning” is consequently elevated by the poet to the level of discourse; it becomes, in short, the poet-speaker’s metareality. Mister achieves this effect by doubling down on his investment in the word “drowning” not once but twice: “I had to convince myself that I was breathing”; “Just for a moment.” The poet here confirms that he means not to compare two realities but to unify and resolve them through metamodernistic linguistic operations. His rhetoric is not merely gestural–that is, he is not merely evoking the concept of drowning–it is essential to his always-already ambition of self- and world-creation. Thus lines which may at first appear ironic (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “panic”) or sincere (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “death,” thus implying a common and sincere fear of same) must be read as existing outside, or above, either irony or sincerity. In this way the poet-speaker creates a new metareality, one in which all elements of constituent realities are true but by themselves terminologically insufficient. In the Internet Age, the young do not feel “like” their essential selves are dying, for to say so would be to stand apart from those selves and ironically comment upon them; nor do they deny the breadth and depth of their desperation by wielding the weak sincerity of the word “panic.” Instead, they accept myriad planes of reality as and for what they are: The immersion in dialogues from which there is no escape because, in fact, there is no outside to escape to.

We might perform a similar analysis on the two-sentence sequence, “People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” The poet-speaker is here isolated from his culture (“I don’t stop”) and simultaneously impoverished by it (“I don’t have any money”), yet at the level of metabole–the level at which these two sentences operate combinatively–we see neither the words “isolation” nor “poverty.” Nor, indeed, could we even report conclusively that this poet-speaker is either isolated or impoverished, for consistent with the metabolic function, both of these originary terms have been elided from the discourse. Instead, we’re greeted by a new reality, a metareality, in which the poet-speaker is caught in a sociocultural cycle of participation and non-participation, profit and non-profit. The poet-speaker knows how to access information in the Internet Age, but lacks the resources to engage any information-seeking processes. This is not “like” being isolated or impoverished, it is literally an always-already (that is to say, eternally preexisting) inability to process culture that is a permanent constituent of the self-as-subject. Mister expresses this idea in metabolic language, and thus over-leaps both the sincerity-irony spectrum and also the sort of theory-as-poetry or immanent language that might respectively define or perform it. Mister is, in short, describing without description, thereby avoiding and resolving the late Ed Dorn’s longstanding complaint about description–that it destroys the actual self. Indeed, metamodernistic poets habitually find mechanisms to describe the self that are deadly accurate but avoid representation altogether, and thereby speak of the self in terms so suitable and exacting we may term their resultant self-identities “hyper-real” or “superconscious.” This solution to the problem of the lyric “I” is far more elegant and ambitious and relevant to contemporary culture than any the previous generation of avant-gardes devised.

Andy Mister avoids panhandlers, those who “tell you things,” because he (Mister) doesn’t “have any money.”

College loan debt has recently surpassed all credit card debt—surely this is what Mr. Mister, and his Program Era Metamodernism, by way of Seth Abramson, “at the level of metabole,” is trying to tell us?

THE TWO ACADEMIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RASULA AND CHASAR: HEAD BUTT OVER THE POETRY GLUT

BILLY COLLINS AND MARIE HOWE IN SWEET SIXTEEN SMACKDOWN!!We already have a glut of this ‘poetry glut’ nonsense and “Glut Reactions,”  a conversation between two author/professors, Jed Rasula and Mike Chasar in the Boston Review, highlights its nonsensical nature nicely. As in Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” the actual letter goes unread—the subject, poetry, isn’t touched, as Rasula and Chasar talk past each other in a verbose, socio-economic chest-beating act of who can sound more anti-capitalist.

Henry Gould, in the first comment to the on-line “Glut Reactions,” (The “Comments” are always the saving grace of these on-line articles: take note, Blog Harriet, Silliman.) asks: “What about aesthetics?”  You forgot about what’s important, fellas. The second comment (poet Bill Knott) blows Chasar and Rasula out of the water in its anti-capitalist paranoia, so that even a capitalist could applaud Knott’s audacity:

Too many poets?  Compared to what?  There’s too many marines, bomber pilots, priests, politicians, police, too many millionaires and billionaires. Po-Biz authorities who complain about too many poets [are making] subliminal petitions directed at the police-state officials, the FBI CIA National Guard et al, urging those agencies to raise their yearly quotas for the murder of poets.

Knott’s comment is quickly praised in a comment by aesthete Joan HoulihanKnott has stolen the show.

Now of course there is a poetry glut in the sense that we no longer have time to read all the poetry being written—it is no doubt the fact that more poetry was written yesterday than we should read in a lifetime—notice we say should, a word of more significance than the more factual can.

Humans are physically limited—what else is new? We can’t picnic on Jupiter and we can’t read every poem—so what? Neither can we blink our eyes and make Jupiter or capitalism or John Keats go away, no matter how much we don’t like these things.

John Keats is not only important because he’s good; he’s important because he’s a standard, and if a ‘poetry glut’ is a bad thing, it’s only because 1) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are crap next to Keats.

Some (Chasar, Rasula) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 2) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are as good as Keats.

Still others (Burt, Perloff) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 3) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates make Keats look like crap.

These are the three aesthetic positions which clarify where one stands in the glut debate.

The loss of standard is acute. 

Look at how Chasar and Rasula can’t agree: Rasula (classic example of myopic-doctrinaire-politically-correct-lefty-who-can’t-get-laid) posits long works (Silliman, Waldman, Hejinian, Notley) as a standard. Chasar (who seems a little sexier) greets Rasula’s suggestion of a standard with a yawn in his face: “I don’t have a lot of patience for the types of long texts you mention [Chasar writes] so I’m not the best person to ask.” (Take your Hejinian long poem and shove it.)

Both share buzz-words—“capitalism’s floating signifier,” “anthology wars,” “Derrida,” “Nietzsche,” “commodity,” “escalating pattern of consumption,” “binaries,” “prizes,” “elitism,” “consideration v. use”—but they can’t do anything but quarrel in the murk of their 1970s, socio-political rhetoric. 

Rasula, at the end of the conversation:

What’s simmering under our exchange is the tension between poetry as something approachable, welcoming multitudes, and poetry in [Laura] Riding’s sense as “the most ambitious act of the mind,” which clearly invites charges of elitism.

But it’s not even a good fight. 

The “tension” Rasula refers to doesn’t really exist, because the two men are lost in the same Marxist muck. 

Even Marx himself didn’t hate capitalism as much as these guys.

Rasula’s Adorno-ism, “flagrant uselessness of artworks as a mote in the eye of global capitalism,” which is justification for Rasula’s elite “standard” of long, tedious (some would say unreadable) poems, is countered by Chasar’s “democractic” : “Many elements of popular or vernacular culture value the uselessness, apparent uselessness, or non-instrumentality of things.”

Both Rasula and Chasar are going to punish capitalism with the useless—just in different ways.  It’s all about subverting some old-fashioned idea of capitalism. Rasula wants to kill capitalism with long, boring poems that no one reads; Chasar thinks we can kill capitalism with Knock! Knock! jokes.

It’s the cartoonish totem of capitalism which these two (and so many professors like them) dance naked around which finally renders their exchange insignificant.

Rasula, like Seth Abrahmson, despite all his research, is blind to the real circumstances of the reactionary Modernists/New Critics creation of the Program Era.  He makes the occasional good point, but doesn’t connect it to anything; he just keeps peeling the Marxist onion.

Rasula and Chasar don’t get it: the “anthology wars” was a friendly competition between Ivy-Leaguers: Creeley and Ashbery were Harvard and Ginsberg was Columbia.  The real ‘War’ of the 20th century was Modernism against Everthing Else; it was Pound against Poe.

Chasar writes at one point: “Capitalism 1, Poetry 0.”

No.

Obsession with Capitalism 1, Chasar and Rasula 0.

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seth wants to be one of the cool kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The connections are not always easy to trace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So perhaps Seth is onto something.

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

You can’t teach a billion trillion poems.

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

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

CRASH!

Poetry MFA graduates

The recent hubbub over the respectable poetry press which demanded their authors pay for the cost of producing their own book struck a real nerve.

Why?  Because an uncomfortable truth was brought into the open: U.S. poetry market inflation is so severe, a book of new poems not only has no value–it has a negative value.

In today’s marketplace, a new book of poems represents not growth, but a grave—new poetry not only does not add wealth, it takes wealth away from the world.

The truth will be argued away by some, convinced their poetry is worth something.

But this rationale fails, since the economic fact of this uncomfortable truth is no less true for being a general truth.

At least when a publisher asks you to pay for your book’s publication costs, it’s better than the contest system—where you pay for the publication of someone else’s book, and unethically so, in the crooked contest system judged or run by once respected poets such as Jorie Graham and Bin Ramke, who were exposed by Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com.

The press which asked its own authors to pony up did so because it couldn’t stomach the contest system.  Ironies such as this will breed when a market collapses—and the market for new poems has collapsed big time.

Hence, it is no wonder that financial aid is the chief criterion in rating MFA programs.

What other criteria could there possibly be?  Earning an MFA degree in poetry is nothing more than an individual poet’s desperate gamble against inflation—even as MFA numbers add to that inflation.

The poets swim in the sea of their own doom, unable to be a poet unless they get wet.

A bunch of MFA profs and administrators have signed a letter of protest against the Poets & Writers rankings of MFA programs put together by Seth Abramson.

It’s unfair, say the protestors, who include relative titans such as Robert Pinsky and Tony Hougland, to weigh financial aid so heavily; there are other criteria, they protest, such as teaching methods.

Really?  What teaching methods?  Even the MFA programs themselves admit they don’t teach anyone to be a poet—the programs only give one time to make the attempt, with varying degrees of informal contact with peers.

Classical criteria, based on quantity and measurement, never did grace Poetry MFA curricula.  The aesthetics of Plato, Aristotle and Horace would seem horribly old-fashioned in today’s MFA.  Classical learning is not even included in a hybrid.  It is the enemy.  It is out. Byron is out, because he may have read a classical author once.  The exclusion of the old is total.  Intelligence is the only hallmark: intelligence left to swim on its own.  This is poetry education: We can’t teach you is what we will teach you.

Modernists outlawed quantity about 90 years ago, and these same gentlemen established the MFA programs 60 years ago.  The result?  Inflation as the world has never seen.

Scarriet’s MFA Poetry program criterion is simple.  Find one book of poems published by administration or faculty in the MFA program which has been purchased freely by a general reader. Then, check out the financial aid package.

LOOK OUT! IT’S ANOTHER SCARRIET HOT 100!

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

101. Marcus Bales  -anybody like skilled verse?

THE SCHOOL OF QUIETUDE IS COMPRISED OF POEMS, NOT POETS —SETH ABRAMSON

And we can start to make a definitive list:

1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening -Frost
2. Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Thomas
3. Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -Eliot
4. The Road Not Taken  -Frost
5. Daddy  -Plath
6. This Be The Verse  -Larkin
7. Dirge Without Music  -Millay
8. When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Kinnell
9. Nostalgia -Billy Collins
10. Musee des Beaux Arts  -Auden
11. The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
12. Her Kind -Sexton
13. Those Winter Sundays  -Robert Hayden
14. Resume  -Dorothy Parker
15. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Jarrell
16. Bored  -Margaret Atwood
17. Wild Geese  -Mary Oliver
18. Madman’s Song  -Elinor Wylie
19. That’s Not Butter  -Reb Livingston
20. The Wellspring  -Sharon Olds
21. Question  -May Swenson
22. Patterns  -Amy Lowell
23. A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
24. Sailing To Byzantium  -Yeats
25. How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin

These 25 poems are similar to what most poets today would bring to the table if pressed to name well-known poems, or poems they know, or personally like.

I don’t think anyone would argue that most, if not all, of these poems are exceptional, pleasing to read, and fit right into ‘The School of Quietude,’ if anyone really understands this particular category at all.

Could we find 25 poems that do not fit ‘The School of  Quietude,’ and would these poems be to anyone’s liking?  Would they find favor with the mass, or, would they be either pretentious, dull experiments, too obscure, or, further, if they were found to be pleasing, fit for inclusion in ‘The School of Quietude’ list?

We have a dilemma, I think.

Abramson’s intentions are good: let’s base the whole matter in actual poems.

However, if we look at our list above, aren’t we simply left with a bunch of anthology pieces?  Is this the result?  A nice little poetry anthology of favorite poems?

Perhaps it is, and all the theorists can go hang.

But poetry that lives for tomorrow, poetry that exists outside the mere appreciation of anthology pieces, where is it, then?  It seems to be this territory is vast and it falls to Silliman-ism by default, if we use Abramson’s strategy.

Either ‘The School of Quietude” is a mirage, or we need a different way of assessing it.

COME ALONG QUIETLY

 

Edgar Poe’s take on quietude in this passage from late 1847 is almost identical with Ron Silliman’s general use of the term:

 “It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity–that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the North American Review, is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.” And this is, indeed, the one thing they should be permitted to enjoy, if only upon the Christian principle of give and take.”   —Poe (reviewing Hawthorne)

Silliman would never agree with Poe’s idea that “the popular mind most keenly feels the original” since Silliman’s avant-garde poetry stars are anything but popular.  But Silliman would appreciate Poe’s whack at the “cultivated old clergymen” and their “repose.”

Poe qualified his original praise of Hawthorne (1842) when he reviewed the Salem author again, in 1847.  It’s pretty obvious why Poe downgrades Hawthorne from an imaginative original in 1842 to a merely fanciful one in 1847:  Hawthorne was getting in too deep with the Transcendentalists.  He was renting from Mr. EmersonPoe pleads with Hawthorne at the end of his piece: mend [your] pen, [Mr. Hawthorne!] get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of “The Dial,” and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of “The North American Review.” [!!]

Should Poe have changed his mind on Hawthorne just because Hawthorne had become friends with Emerson?  The Transcendalists hurt Poe into Criticism, so I say: why not?   The genius of Poe can love while it is hating, and it’s a pleasure to observe how Poe’s mind siezes on new insights as it ruefully revises in the 1847 article.

It might be worthwhile to take a peek at what Poe has to say regarding this “Quietude” business, since Poe did in fact originate the designation Silliman has for some time leaned on, and Seth Abramson is currently taking great pains to wrestle to the ground.

According to Poe, the novelty of a work is multi-dimensional, but quietude is simpler—either a work calms or agitates.  But it is possible, Poe contends, for a work to have both “repose” and originality, and this is what he praised in Hawthorne.

Originality in fiction, according to Poe, needs to aim at a middle ground above the merely “peculiar,” and below that “metaphysical originality”—reserved for science; the ‘higher’ type of originality will merely irritate the reader of fiction—who is looking for pleasure, not instruction.

As usual, Poe divides poetry from truth.  He also makes a case for literary talent as a quality worthy by itself and in itself and to be demonstrated, first, in a “rhymed composition which can be perused in under an hour” and owes its power to “rhythm,” and, secondly, in a work of short fiction naturally unshackled by that which contributes to beauty—the artificiality of rhythm.

Most moderns consider this all too neat and tidy, of course, but Poe’s course has the advantage of leaving a wider field for invention, creativity, energy, experiment and effort—precisely because he establishes the ‘neat and tidy’ in the beginning, and gets it out of the way.  No matter how rough-edged and complex we consider ourselves, the ‘neat and tidy’ eventually comes around to bite us.  Our metaphysics longs for smoothness at last. 

For instance, look at Seth Abramson.  He doesn’t begin where Poe begins.  Abramson stakes out his analysis this way: he chops the last 100 years of poetry into two tropes: transcendent (language as signifier) and immanent (language as signified).  But why should a writer ever consistenly divide himself, or limit himself, thus, especially since language cannot be interesting unless it do both at once, pretty much all the time?  An artificial division such as this one by Abramson cannot stand, without making a mockery of poetry, and if poetry over the last 100 years is a mockery in many respects, the public having totally deserted it, so much greater the urgency to bring sanity back all clean and such, and easy to demonstrate and see. (“get a bottle of visible ink“—Poe to Hawthorne in 1847)

Poe asks only for originality in a rhymed composition (unless you want to go for the short fiction).  He doesn’t care if it is transcendent or immanent in its use of language, or what manifesto or tribe, or agenda, or school, or what theory attend it.  Rhyme, and if you can’t rhyme, you’re doing it wrong.  You start with one or two simple rules, the simpler the better, and let genius make all the rules after that.

IMMINENT IMMANENCE

Seth Abramson was corrected by notevensuperficial when he (Seth) wrote: “The greatest divide in poetry, by far, of the past hundred years has been between poets who treat language as a locus for imminent meaning and those who treat it as a locus for transcendent meaning.” 

Surely Seth meant immanence, not imminence.   Immanence is the opposite of transcendence, right?

Not so fast.

In the sense that Seth uses immanence, a pun is divine.

The Latin root of immanence is ‘within.’    This, of course, implies a duality: within/without.   Immanence itself implies transcendence.  That’s only the first of many difficulites which Seth has brought upon himself.

In theological terms, immanence features a mere earthly object glowing with transcendent radiance; in philosophical terms, immanence means self-defined, but neither of these meanings works in Mr. Abramson’s schema.

The issue here is a metaphysical conundrum for those who enjoy that sort of thing, or for those who waste their philosophy on philosophy, or for those post-avants who occasionaly fool themselves into thinking they know what they are talking about.

For the religious, immanence does imply a holy radiance like the halo around Christ’s head, because, theologically, it is God shining within and through the created world, shining outward from the center of the world, as it were, as if the divine were here and now, and we experience the divine here and now, and yet, it can also be interpreted as ‘within,’ as in the sense of being inside and not radiating its divinity, but hidden— just to put it in stark theological terms.

But Seth was positing two uses of language:

1)  we read a word as referring to something else: red, meaning ‘the color red’ and thus the word red is transcendent, pointing to its referent, the actual color red.

2)  we read ‘red’ as a pun on ‘read’ or we use ‘red’ to rhyme with ‘bed,’ and thus ‘the word itself’ has an immanence in the sense that is has a significance in itself.

However, ‘red’ used as a rhyme or as a pun has no interiority.  The word in this case is not significant in itself, but significant as itself, as mere ‘surface effect’ —so we could say imminence is more correct, for imminent implies here it is about to happen, which is closer to what Seth actually means than interiority (which is the Latin root of immanence).

The pun is imminent.  And I am afraid.

“SO HAVE THE CRITICS NEARLY ALWAYS BEEN AMATEURS” -J.C. RANSOM

The professional hates the amateur. 

Poetry was for amateurs before the man in the photo above came along (John Crowe Ransom).  He put Modernism into the university and professionalized poetry at the same time. 

The Romantic artist was an amateur.  Beethoven and Keats didn’t need no credentials; their only credentials were symphonies and odes.  Modernism changed all that. 

The amateur creates commerce.  The professional controls it.

The amateur is hot Sturm and Drang.  The professional is cold New Criticism. 

The professional is passion deferred.  The amateur is passion right now. 

The amateur is “I’ll show you!”  The professional is “It has been said…” 

The professional is the person of obligation, responsibility, work, connections, and material reward.  The amateur is the irresponsible, inspired bum. 

The professional is the sly method.  The amateur is the sly method exposed.  

The professional is the explainer.  The amateur is the explained. 

It takes 100 years for the professional to absorb the amateur.* 

*Pound agrees with Stendhal that it takes 80 years.  So be it. 

One always betrays the other and they can never be friends—even in the same person.

Take Franz Wright.  His ‘professional’ side and his ‘amateur’ side are at war; the poor man has to keep apologizing for both: the amateur Franz Wright to his professional colleagues, the professional Franz Wright to his fans and friends.  My guess is that most of the time it is his professional side that does the bulk of the apologizing and feels the most guilty, so it must be a pleasurable vent when he ventures onto Scarriet to scold us for our amateur status, allowing the professional Franz Wright, who spends most of the day hiding, a chance to shine.   Same with Bill Knott, the adored amateur poet, who came on Scarriet recently to wax professionally indignant over copyright law.  Seth Abramson, another professional, came here recently to claim that the MFA/professionalization of poetry was not a game of Modernism or New Criticism, not a system created by Ransom, Tate and their friends, but was rather some kind of courageous neo-Romantic movement—against all historical evidence.  It’s easy to see why Abramson would rather his beloved MFA system be identified with amateurs and Romantics than with professionals and New Critics.  It’s for the same reason that finds Franz Wright with a divided and irritable soul.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  We want to have our cake and eat it.  We want to be both professional and amateur, but it’s impossible, for it’s the whole role of both to cut out the other.

Despite the professionalization of poetry that has occured since Ransom’s academic Modernist/New Criticism coup a couple of generations ago, the artist-as-amateur, beholden to no creds and nobody, still lingers as a Romantic ideal.  In our hearts, we all know we’re amateurs and that history will eventually judge us that way, and so professionalism is sought after by almost everyone—but still loathed.  

As  academic, anti-Romantic Ransom put it in 1937, in his now-famous essay (thanks to us): “Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.  Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.”

TENETS of FAITH: Being Right on the AWP, BAP, P&W, AoAP and even the PFoA.

It’s like all attacks on orthodoxy — if a criticism contradicts a tenet of faith it’s not only inapplicable but invalid!

Ask Barack Obama about that one right now, ask any Israeli or Palestinian, ask a Urighur or even the Dalai Lama. But hey, why not ask yourselves about your Poetry Faith too, the cards you carry as a Poet, the cabals and clubs and cartels you belong to, the schools, schedules, scores, deals, bonds and promisory notes you honor, even as poets? Ask around your Department, for example, or ask down the corridors of poetry power. Because even when there are such good people involved in such good work, so much good will and so many good reasons to make sense out of such good, good intentions, in Alabama, Chicago or the Upper West Side — oh, watch the Big Sheriff in you take over, the Travis Nichols right under your big cowboy hat and the “peacemaker” strapped to your hip.

Thomas Brady -6

Let’s look at this.

If the tenet of faith is that guns make you free, then guns are a non-negotiable matter. If it’s a tenet of faith that sex is bad then sex-education is a non-negotiable matter. If it’s a tenet of faith that men have a much higher sex drive than women, as it is in a great many cultures in the world today, including where I live, and that true men are truly driven by sex, then you get boys taken by their fathers to brothels at 14 while the mothers wait at home with the daughters until they can be married off as pure virgins–and the crowning irony of that absurd tenet of faith is that in addition to brothels on every street corner you get men who are butterflies and women who run the whole show!

The tenet of faith in American poetry is that the true poet is the product of not just higher but higher and higher and even higher “learning,” and that the more a poet pays (or gets paid) for it the more right he or she has to be called “successful,”  and the final arbitrator in doctrinal disputes!

Anyone who suggests that the poets, critics, editors or publishers who are running this extravagant industry are self-interested, or even, God-forbid, in it for profit or life insurance, is considered not a real poet. Indeed, I myself have been mocked as a jealous “loser” a number of times, and dismissed as “the product of a willful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry in America!”

And you know who used those specific words? A famous contemporary “poet” and “critic” who is also involved in the business of getting poets published. [click here]

And you know where she spoke those words? In Poets & Writers magazine, that bastion of our contemporary Faith in exactly what sort of training you need to get published in America today, plus the retreats, conferences, camps, travel groups, summers abroad in castles and wine tastings and weekends you have to attend– and what they cost!

But you say you think the son should at least wash the dishes before he goes out to the brothel at 14 with his father?

Just ask the mother for an answer to even that question. “You must be joking,” she’ll reply. “Any true mother would keep her daughter carefully cleaning as well as clean at home so she can attract a true man for a husband!”

Ask David Lehman about Stacey Harwood. Ask Stacey Harwood about Seth Abramson. Ask Joan Houlihan about me!

So that’s a problem, both for the sex where I live and for poetry in America.

Yes indeed, ‘tenets of faith’ always polarize, always lead to intolerance, always lead to abuse.

There’s nothing wrong with virginity per se, of course there isn’t, any more than there’s anything wrong with sex. But oh the heart-ache when too much stock is placed in either!

There’s nothing wrong with training poets either, even in castles, it’s just when you make a religion out of it, install priests at all the altars, and charge an entrance fee not only to get into church but heaven!

And, of course, excommunicate those who say it ain’t necessarily so or, God forbid, come up with some statistics that don’t quite fit in like Seth Abramson!

Christopher Woodman

Harwood to Abramson: WTF?

David Lehman P&WReady To Serve
Stacey & SethP&W Rankings

Poets and Writers magazine published Seth Abramson’s (middle left) MFA program rankings in the last issue of 2009 [click here].  Stacey Harwood (bottom left), wife of Best American Poetry series editor, David Lehman (top left), wrote on the BAP blog that Abramson’s ratings are “based on bogus research methods. The author of the rankings has no credentials as a pollster.”

In the comments field she says, “we have received several comments from Mr. Abramson, which we cannot post not only because they are far too long but because they are inappropriate and defamatory.”

One wonders if the “inappropriate” comments mentioned that Lehman published Harwood as one of the best American poets without acknowledging their relationship.

AWP sided with Lehman and Harwood.

Now Seth Abramson’s blog is missing.

Luckily, I saved his response to Lehman, which reads in part,

Three years ago I objected (as an artist) to the editorial work of David Lehman on the Best American Poetry series on the grounds that habitually and indisputably publishing your friends, co-workers, students, assistants, and family members in a nationally-publicized, highly-selective annual anthology is not a creditable editorial policy per se–and is therefore an affront to art . . . more than two years ago–I became embroiled in a Wikipedia-editing debate with Mr. Lehman’s wife (Stacey Harwood) about whether the Wikipedia entry for Best American Poetry should acknowledge that, historically, the series has been criticized in the poetry community for cronyism.

Alan Cordle

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,257 other followers