STAYING IS HOW THINGS GO AWAY

Believe it or not, it’s my birthday today.

His dead mother is all dad talks about.

Staying is how things go away.

Nothing should last. But every thought has lasted.

The famous, who never cared for us, get more famous every day.

The minutest feeling comes from something small.

Optimism is the only philosophy.

I can hardly see it on the ceiling.

I cannot believe the sky is here.

What were you doing yesterday?

I swear part of the sky was gray.

I recall…so little:

lines from a great tragic Shakespeare play.

Out of the corner of my eye

is a discussion on how to improve society.

How will I name this day, today?

It hasn’t moved.

Staying is how things go away.

JENNIFER C. EMBARRASSMENT

Miss Embarrassment decided to give her love to me.

Miss Embarrassment! Don’t give your love to me,

Miss Embarrassment spoke right out in the crowd.

I was embarrassed. She was loud.

Miss Embarrassment, Miss Embarrassment,

what are you saying to me?

Do you need to say these things?

In my own poetry?

I refuse to print what you say.

The world will never know the embarrassment of this—

O the embarrassment of this!

There’s one thing good people do:

They avoid embarrassment. That’s it.

I’m afraid I can’t do anything for you.

Miss Embarrassment, Miss Embarrassment,

what did I do? What did I do?

Miss Embarrassment, Miss Embarrassment,

I hope this ridiculous poem is embarrassing you.

It is the one thing which saves me from embarrassment—

you’re embarrassed by some things, too.

Miss Embarrassment, I’m embarrassed—

Do you know what? I loved you.

My discipline is remarkable. I didn’t love

anyone who loved me. You were the only one

who pretended to love me, but did not.

You took advantage of me—

but embarrassment got to you, Miss Embarrassment. Eventually.

I WILL BE WISE WHEN I TALK ABOUT THIS, WHICH I MERELY LOVE

I will be wise when I talk about this, which I merely love.

As long as I’ve lived, the need for wisdom

has tortured me, who only loved. What

to say about this, now, when wisdom for me

finally combines with love? The familiar parts

on the brink of integration (a brief car horn):

the way the cat sleeps with head leaning against the arm of the couch,

the twenty dollar bill in my pocket for tonight’s performance,

the quiet of a July Sunday morning,

this part of the world resting up for something,

the young woman with white top who approached me,

as I traversed familiar streets returning with eleven items from the market,

greeted by the dog, sleepily, the day already hot,

then, swooning in a big chair, perusing marginalia by Edgar Allan Poe,

the epigram sprung by a flowery bank of dreams,

the mind rejecting everything, and by that, knowing itself as a mind,

a dream in which I write more of this, because a nap

arrived—a perfect summer’s nap, a few minutes, unplanned.

Sensation and thought at war as they always are,

my flesh, my flesh having thoughts—a dream,

a poem, continuing. The tired theme:

an old-fashioned one, in which you can’t confess

how much you love. Sleep, instead! You know you

must be wise. She, the one you love,

may think, despite some evidence of wisdom,

despite fate’s obscure star,

that you are weak and mad.

But plainly you are.

WHERE IS POETRY?

Where is poetry? It is nowhere but in words.

It has less relevance to us than the sound of hidden birds.

This is the real earth. We are about to kiss.

What does metaphor and bird calls have to do with this?

What is your lip, that poetry thinks you will

make a plea with it, after we are still?

After we have made love, where is the line

that traces back to poetry,

informing abstraction of the symbol and the sign?

It is nowhere. It does not exist.

Poems cannot compete with tiny hairs upon your wrist.

The German song attached to voice and dainty tune,

makes poetry die beneath the silent moon,

a moon which gives off actual light.

Imagine poems coming into our sight.

How ridiculous. Keep your poems away.

Romance will laugh at this word-play.

But this is a serious affair: a career

of kisses. Poems are forbidden here.

GREAT POEMS SCARRIET FOUND ON FACEBOOK NO. 5

George Bilgere writes uncannily good poems. A respectable modern, he does not stoop to verse. He belongs to the Billy Collins school. Lines of verse exist because of rhythm. Lines of prose poetry are shadows of the verse sun. There is nothing wrong with a good Billy Collins poem, or a good George Bilgere poem.

I believe the way to write one is the following:

Observe, do not judge. Yet judge, still, by the juxtaposition of your observations.

Observe the behavior of people you know. Parents, neighbors, children.

Compare times or places.

Establish names, things or phrases in the beginning of your poem and return to them.

This is pretty much it. The skill is keeping “observation” and “judgment” in your mind separate as you craft a poem which judges—without seeming judgmental.

George is a published poet. Recently, he will occasionally plant a poem on Facebook. How to present your poetry? Online readers can outnumber book readers—and be more attentive to your poems, as well.

Without further ado, here is George:

We spend our lives trying to figure out our parents. And so, this new poem.

Quite Satisfactory

My father was a meat and potatoes guy.
Bacon and eggs. Meat and potatoes.
Such was the rhythm of his days.
The reliable foundation. And if
he went out to a nice restaurant
he was a meat and potatoes guy.
Better meat, better potatoes. But
meat and potatoes. Not once
did he travel outside the country.
Paris, Rome, Madrid remained
unvisited by him. St. Louis, Missouri
was quite satisfactory, thank you.
He wore a dark suit and tie, a pair
of black wingtips to work every day.
He came home, read the paper, ate
his meat and potatoes.
At a certain point he realized
he’d had enough meat and potatoes.
And so, with the help of Jim Beam,
he launched himself far beyond
Paris, Rome, Madrid, and I hope
death for him is a kind of St. Louis.
Solid. Reliable. Quite satisfactory.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS OUTLAWED ANGER

We are safe at last!

The government has outlawed anger.

Hasn’t this been the problem all along? Anger?

Now it’s against the law! Let’s celebrate!

Anger! Who knows where it will lead?

The government opposing anger. This is just what we need!

O wise legislators! Protecting themselves—

and the citizens, too, of course!

Has there ever been such wisdom in the government as we have now?

They are making us all safe!

And showing us exactly how!

There are some who protest!

They are terrifying! I grow pale.

They are angry!

They question our wise government!

Throw them in jail.

I WANT TO DO THAT BUT DON’T ASK ME

Woman: I want to do that but don’t ask me.

I love you, poet, but not your poetry.

I love you, but the world loves me, as well.

I love you more than the world but exactly how I’ll never tell.

Man: I have a puzzling face. I’ve been looking at my face

for years in the mirror and I’ve concluded

I was never handsome. I was seriously deluded.

The physical is all. Our faces cast us and put us on stage:

Lover, comedian, vaudeville singer, and, when we age,

we tend to look the same, as if a weak army

full of useless facts recruited us. My face

was made for the CIA, not charm. I have no trace

of character—like Keats’ chameleon poet—

But, no, I will not ask you again.

Woman: I told you I don’t like your poems. (Sighing.)

Why don’t you listen to me?

(Now the two of them are crying.)

EZRA

My dog breathes five times faster than I do.

He will live one-fifth as long. Time is different everywhere—

the train vibrates madly as I attempt to edit these words.

How can there be one Time?

My dog protects me.

He would attack any stranger, almost too fast to see.

There is so much wretched poetry.

Is there One Wretched Poem? Existing—like Time?

Too long to read. It doesn’t rhyme.

It has no coherence, ideas, or charm.

The cop steps up, seizes Ezra Pound by the arm.

GREAT POEMS SCARRIET FOUND ON FACEBOOK NO.4

What has happened to us? Where is sophisticated love poetry? Spiritual longing and hurt with natural references is all very good, and eroticism is certainly not in short supply, though poetry isn’t really a good medium for it—and the better poets instinctively understand this. But the more sophisticated the poetry these days, the more we get the crunchy weirdness and pain of the Modernism school, which gained access to our schools several generations ago and shows no sign of loosening its grip.

Blame, perhaps, the Creative Writing Workshop and its group analysis—love poems don’t go well in a group setting—a group of students don’t want to be courted. Nor does Criticism. The love poem, presented by a living ‘poet-lover’ to the absent beloved, runs the risk of falling flat (humiliation) in a classroom setting. “Who do you think you are? Byron?” Such attempts can seem embarrassing on a number of levels. Love is like rhyme. It better be extremely good if you try it. Bad poets try it all the time, but that’s why they are “bad” poets. Love and rhyme make up an old language and a new language (Modernism) has taken its place, one which is not romantically presumptuous.

Scarriet found a sophisticated love poem. A true miracle—because only a fool would attempt it today. Here’s the question. How can it possibly be “sophisticated?” How can a bad type of poem succeed, and second, succeed in the hands of a poet who is obviously a fool?

Witness the miracle:

“Beatrice Guides Dante To Paradise” by Deepanjan Chhetri:

Walking past the department of French,
The stairs stared at us as in Hitchcock films;
We talked while my boots traced her footsteps:
“Do we have time?” “We have enough of it.”

Turning away from Comparative Literature,
I looked down from dizzying heights;
A little wind would twirl her hair,
As we spoke of ELT and suicide.

I stood against an infernal heat,
And watched the city through her eyes:
The Hindu Hostel, and the Howrah Bridge;
The moving cars appeared like toys,

And men, like ants, toiled for food:
My views hadn’t altered with altitude.

~~~~~~~~~

Deepanjan Chhetri has climbed into the first rank with this poem—and he has written a series of them.

Life can be grounded or lofty—by asserting there is no difference, in the final line, the poet introduces duality paradoxically—his awareness of the not different is the difference. And the poem is given an added lift, since the final observation flies in the face of expectation. Is it the feigned indifference of the lover?

The difference in height is a symbol for duality in love—a height casually traveled by the two potential lovers together. Are they just stairs? Or stairs of danger? The altitude won’t affect his attitude. This observation is the key to the whole poem, and best expressed, of course, in the last line.

Scarriet Editors

July 31, 2022

INDIGNATIONS, PART THREE. MODERNISM: NO COUNTRY FOR YOUNG POETS?

George Santayana’s student and a famous poet. Pound and Santayana, as war raged in 1940, had an Axis address.

Give a name to something. Add epigrams. Talk goes viral. Books, aspiring PhD students writing little articles, appear. Now it’s a name we all repeat and vaguely define to our own private, half-lazy, satisfaction. But what the fuck is it, really?

It was because somebody died. A new thing must happen because the young watch the old getting old and dying and it scares them, so they substitute mortality, decrepitude and physical death with “we’re different! we’re new! we’re modern!” and this perversity of frightened youth and frightened middle-age (with some old enablers) thinking themselves special goes on for generations—the “moderns” die (surprise!) and the “post-moderns,” young, excited, and fit, rise up in their place.

Not only do frightened mortals name things “modern” or “post-modern” (it can be as simple as pointing to some thing and saying, “modern”—O holy, stamped, new thing!) the “Romantics”—who were called that after they died, the “Romantics,” themselves, were never the “Romantics”—were named. They were just like the “Moderns!” Now do you see how it works? The professors (the worst! Professors!) know exactly how this works.

Don’t tell anyone: Byron’s favorite author was Pope. Keats’ favorite author was Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s favorite author was Plato. Byron was just a guy writing the best things he could—but no! He was a “Romantic” doing something “new,” which is exactly what the “Modernists” were doing! Ha ha ha!

Do you ever wonder why in poetry there are no more guys today, young guys, like Keats and Byron, just writing stuff that’s really good? And instead there’s all these “new verse movements” and “camps” and “schools” and MFA applications, and “hurray!! the Dick Review just accepted my (crummy) poem!” Do you ever, in an honest moment, wonder about that?

(But there’s always been good and bad poetry! Yes. And how does that contradict what I’m saying? There is good…and bad poetry. Agreed. Do you think “good poetry” just drips out of some dropper at a steady rate, completely on its own, without any input from the world? If you believe that and it’s true, then we all need to shut up and if you believe that and it’s not true, then you are stupid and need to shut up for that reason. Therefore, shut up. “There will always be good and bad poetry” is not an argument.)

Anyway, I’m sorry guys, but it’s really, really time for a reckoning. We need to examine our terminology and start talking to each other, calling a time out on our terminology, so we know who we are, and what our terminology (growing with a mind of its own) has become.

I’m sure many have already impatiently anticipated this: why does Scarriet keep going on about Romanticism and Modernism? Doesn’t Scarriet know these are just bankrupt labels? True. I’m only using this quotidian terminology to investigate false literary reputations of actual persons (little matters, but perhaps this does). Meanwhile, those who object to Romanticism v Modernism go on talking about the “Objectivist” school (ha ha)—(my gadfly Kent Johnson solemnly informed me, “Tom, it’s not a school.”) Memo to all would-be geniuses: Objectivism (Pound or Rand), Marxism, Feminism and Capitalism aren’t real things.

I do hope everyone will join me in this discussion. I have most hope for those from India and eastern Europe: independent and happy thinkers, for the most part; others tend to be either too cynical (hello Brits!) or extremely talented—but too imitative. Americans are much too anglophilic–London and New York intellectuals have made John Stewart Mill their God.

I’ll finish this brief piece by copying, anonymously, feedback this week to Scarriet’s latest essays (with my replies) by two brilliant online acquaintances. This will explain more, perhaps:

REACTION 1

“I try not to wander into the poets’ minds. Their rejection of romanticism may have seemed right to them at that point, it may have been correct or incorrect, but that does not imply the poetry is not good.

Similar flaws exist in writing from the Romantic era but more so in those who attempt to write in meter for the sake of it. They like to be haughty and arrogant and cannot differentiate between being grateful for lyrical energy as a tool, elevating and pushing it further to using it as a skill set to just sound high and mighty. I have no concept that poetry that is difficult or inaccessible should not exist. But this set is often like the Bourgeois, approaching meter and rhyme and forms more as hats to wear than foundations to create and offer and sing. One reason is also that each artist must offer something authentic.


Many who write in meter will have their work compared to the extraordinary work created by these old poets. It is difficult to surpass for most apparently. A lot of that will sound cliche’ since its already written, done though I do believe everything can be elevated but do I get to read such poetry? Romantic poetry that truly surpasses, offers me something truly new, a new rhapsody— no. Very rarely. What we see is just as a shadow of what these great poets created and then some are just copying what has been written and the poems just scream dull and cliche’ and simply an algorithmic approach that invokes nothing in the reader. Some of these poems come across as forces as if the poet can’t understand that a form should not have the poem suffocating in it but only singing, belonging, and elevated. A lot of these poems are dull for me and I just cannot read them. I just get bored. A lot of poets I see whose poems are winning awards just because they belong to the “Romanticism” category are no different from the poets whose work is for some reason very popular today but lacks depth and true innovation and just floats on shallow surfaces.

Language is beautiful. It can be celebrated in lyrical wells, and in its complexity of words. Modernist poetry can be very thought-provoking too and overlaps with my senses as someone who likes science or tech or mathematics. New realms.

Both have pros and cons but the essential thing is both have great things to offer as well. Also, give modernism time. Time is needed for art to evolve. Perhaps, combine the two or just something entirely new. We must allow. I like to separate the art from the artists, poets are tricky creatures, but art, in itself, is a shattering rhapsody. Sometimes the music is obvious, harmonious and at other times like the sea, an inner music— more as a landscape, pick the elements and let the alchemy exist more as silence/ cacophony in the self.”

SCARRIET: Thanks. I feel I have not described the situation well. This is not really a matter of meter versus looseness, though that is part of it. Harmony versus Cacophony. The bourgeois reference is a Marxist sword which I’m not prepared to counter. The beautiful transcends the political for me. Harmony transcends the political. The other issue is poetic reputation—fraudulent or true? That’s important, as well. I don’t know what texts are available to you, but if you compare Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and Poe’s Rationale of Verse to Pound’s ABC of Reading or other discourses in the Modernist canon, you should note a tremendous difference. Art on one hand, clownish ambition on the other.

“Poetic reputation can certainly be fraudulent and changes with time. It is essential that as readers we discard that and approach any work of art unbiased. The beautiful does transcend the political for me as well. However, just like I said, sometimes I may differ greatly in the thought approach that artist adopt but if I feel that the art is good, I do not like to deny that. Clownish ambition is something I would certainly not be content with. I related to modern poetry because of a deep sense of disillusionment. I have tried all my life to offer but I have seen life’s apathy and cruelty almost too closely as well. Many aspects of modern poetry help me voice that energy. I also never think of myself just as a poet or writer. I simply see myself existing and find all paths of exploration have their merit. Thought-innovation, mathematics does appeal to a significant part of me, perspectives that I like simply because of the possibilities they open for the human mind. I simply would not like to compare because I don’t see any gain in that. I would like to take or imbibe what is good. I do agree as poets we have responsibility that the artists whose work deserves very much to be read be read and changing the mindset or the mindset is part of that. They are also wildly different in their approaches, the forms, the states of being, the time and era which doesn’t mean that we can’t compare them but it’s certainly a ground that encompasses a lot before any statements can be made. Of course, as a critic you would be engaging more keenly in these. I am yet to understand and accept the entirely of what all being a critic may require of me and I would not make such a commitment until I feel I have developed an entire sense of how to be in this role. For now, I prefer keeping an entirely unbiased view when I read and an open mind. Public opinion or alleged reputations are something I never take into account. History keeps rewriting itself but mostly, I suppose, that is my right as an artist, to reject the opinions of any human being, prize winner or not.”

SCARRIET: I have heard that our sanity depends on having dreams at night. We cannot choose what we dream. If dreams are unpleasant, they are trying to tell us, something perhaps. In waking (and poetry) I feel desperately a desire to choose only what is pleasant. Life to me has never been a dream. Poetry, even less so. My choosing is paramount. Whether I am dreaming without knowing it, I am not certain, except when I choose the pleasant, I believe I am not dreaming. I choose the pleasant dream. You say life has given you the bad and therefore modern poetry allows you to traffic in the bad? I confess I don’t understand this.

REACTION 2

“I think you misunderstand my point. I’m not saying that TSE, EP, MM, WCW, and RF were the same as Keats, Byron, and the other major Romantics, but that they did the same thing, reformed English verse. You don’t have to love all of either group. (As you know, I’m not a big fan of WCW, and I can leave most Shelley and a lot of Byron, as well as all later Wordsworth, pretty much on the shelf.) As for Frost, he was making it new in different ways. He brought the dramatic monologue into new ground, and may be the first poet in English to bring women’s experience to the fore (always excepting Dickinson, who was brilliantly interior). Frost was doing very nearly what Wordsworth had done in the lyrical ballads, writing the lives often left behind. WW would have loved The Code. / A lot of our differences are differences in taste.”

SCARRIET: Taste, as Poe, said is 95% of poetry, and verse is 95% mathematical. Emerson’s effusive hyperbole re: The Poet is silly and garish by comparison. E. leads to Nietzsche and fatalism/fanaticism. The first poem, I believe, which gets a close reading in Understanding Poetry is Frost’s “Out! Out!” (I think that’s the title) about a horrific accident and the death of a child. Boy, is it well done. But I hate it. Likewise, I don’t like everything the Romantics did. Didn’t the Roman poets do dramatic monologue? Catullus, etc. Shakespeare and Browning, the pinnacle of the dramatic monologue. “Reformed English verse” is too broad a term for me. What does that mean? Rhymes in the middle and beginning of lines instead of at the end? Expanding stanzaic forms? Formalism of more rigor? Extending out the iambic line? Or just a general relaxing? Haiku elements? Do Eliot/Pound/Williams sound more like “natural speech,” like men talking to men? Nah, not really. The insertion of “patient etherized upon a table” was nifty, but like Duchamp’s toilet it’s either a one-time laugh, or if it’s persisted in, it destroys civilization.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks and carry on, everyone! And watch out for that Nietzschean Emerson! Seriously!

Scarriet Editors
Salem MA July 29, 2022

MORE LITERARY INDIGNATIONS

Malcolm Cowley: romanticized the anti-Romantic Moderns

A highly well-placed literary friend asked me, after reading my now-famous condemnation of the Modernists: but surely this group was as important as the Romantic Poets were in their time?

And it seems to me, he politely stated, the Modernists compare favorably to others who were writing between 1915 and 1925.

I’m not too sure.

First, Dorothy Parker, Edna Millay, Eugene O’Neil, Amy Lowell, EA Robinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald were not paying attention to Williams, Eliot, Moore, and Pound back then. Hardly anyone was.

Second, The Modernists, as generally advertised and understood, were:

Not popular with the public. Strike one.

Encouraged the semi-educated to write trash and call it poetry. Strike two.

Censored not the whole of the past, but all that was beautiful and popular in the past, insincerely choosing figures whom they believed were difficult and obscure like themselves—this being their sole criterion. Eliot championed Donne and Laforgue. Pound, Villon and the Earl of Dorset. They vilified or ignored Poe, Shelley, Milton, Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson, Millay. Writers most of us read. Strike three.

Even those, like my learned and respected friend, who favors some of them, will admit this to be true of the Modernists in general.

So why do we adore these bums?

Because if you are not perceived as a reader of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, you will draw suspicion upon yourself as someone who can’t finish Moby Dick, and prefers the love lyrics of Keats and Millay—you are therefore dead to the literary world and that is all there is to it. No discussion required.

One must like the Modernists, therefore, and defending them is done quite easily.

First, you defend Pound by the fact that he liked Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, and Browning. Even though not one person in the universe appreciates Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, or Browning because of Pound.

And even though Pound, in his own writing, has none of the charm, or greatness, of Dante, Chaucer, Whitman, or Browning.

Pound’s book-length textbook of literature, the ABC of Reading: its literary judgement is a jumble of hodgepodge, epigrammatic, ejaculations. He hates on Petrarch and Byron. I see. You love Chaucer and Dante, but hate Byron and Petrarch. Got it.

And there’s nothing wrong with hating someone—it’s fun—as long as you show us why.

Pound does not. Where is the close-reading? It doesn’t exist. He sets himself up as someone who knows. But he doesn’t know. How does Pound make us love or hate someone? That’s the question which goes unanswered upon even a cursory examination of Pound’s work.

But all of this doesn’t matter. It just goes back to the Moby Dick/Ulysses syndrome.

If you haven’t read all of Pound (who in their right mind could?) you must concede that important writings must exist (they actually don’t) which connect Pound to other famous authors. Pound, wearing this armor, becomes untouchable, just as Moby Dick is untouchable and just as Ulysses, and all literary bulk in general, is immune to quaint reason.

Pound translated (stole) a few good pieces. All he wrote that is good is either an outright translation or suspiciously archaic-sounding and tied to other translators and their papers.

Pound was associated with Eliot—the one truly talented Modern who was focused enough to write a few good essays, a few good poems. Pound was associated with Joyce, the great talent who is mostly known for writing two large works that people don’t read—but occasionally pretend they have.

And now we are done with Pound and the Modernist Tower, or the pre-and post-all that’s good-Pit—full of bones of Goethe, Poe, Byron, and Millay.

There’s two more strategies I’ll touch on that people use to defend the Moderns.

They slip in authors who don’t belong—they attempt to falsely expand the Modernist roster. Or, they leave out figures who tarnish the Modernist gleam.

Wallace Stevens had discussions with Santayana in 1900 which changed him forever. Way before Pound. Stevens bumped into Williams sometimes, but the polished, formalist, philosophical Stevens has nothing to do with the scraggly Williams.

The Emperor of Ice-cream (Stevens and his wife slept in separate bedrooms), overrated or not, does not belong with Pound’s Modernism.

Sorry. You can’t have Stevens.

You can have Moore—her brittle poetry is more Victorian than the Victorians. She hasn’t the warmth of Millay, whom the Modernists hated.

The starting lineup: Moore, Pound, H.D. (Once Pound’s girlfriend, a minor “Imagiste”) Williams, and Eliot (Eliot was actually good in the way Stevens was good; Pound hardly deserves him, really).

Frost. You can’t have Frost. He witnessed the Pound/Amy Lowell feud in England first-hand. Frost was not impressed with Pound, didn’t join his clique, was not a joiner in general, and the best of his work is not like theirs at all.

Frost is not allowed to buttress the Modernist clique. He belongs more with EA Robinson and Millay. They thrived in the 1920s and 1930s while Pound and Williams sulked, almost entirely unnoticed. Eliot, H.D., and Moore were not exactly famous, either.

Robert Penn Warren’s HS and college textbook, Understanding Poetry, finally got Pound and Williams noticed, post WW II, when they were old men. Stevens was old by the time he enjoyed a little fame, too. Even Frost. (20th century poetry, unlike 19th century poetry, was a poetry of old men.)

Robert Penn Warren knew Malcolm Cowley—childhood school chum of Kenneth Burke—Burke was part of the 1920-1929 Dial magazine clique run by rich boy Scofield Thayer (prep school chum of Eliot’s) who heaped annual Dial prizes on Eliot, Pound, Moore, Williams, EE Cummings, and Burke.

Cowley was a Modernist poet, like his dissipated friend Hart Crane (his dad made a fortune in candy) and Crane’s dissipated friend, Harry Crosby (nephew to J.P. Morgan).

Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, and Malcolm Cowley do belong to Pound’s mad Modernist clique. But they tend to get left out, as Pound looks better standing next to Stevens and Frost—than he does standing next to Crane and Crosby. The latter are to whom Pound really belongs.

Just imagine Eliot, H.D., Pound, Moore, Williams, and Hart Crane, hardly read, in the early 20th century. Have you got this in your mind?

Now compare them to Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge! Are you kidding me?

It’s embarrassing, really.

Malcolm Cowley championed Faulkner, another difficult Modernist, more spoken of than actually read, the convenient ‘Southern token author’ gifted to the Modernists since Poe was out, person non grata, uncool, trashed.

Cowley was also one of a host of failed-poet, journalist, literati who wrote about the “lost generation” and the poets of “exile,” romanticizing unread poets like Ezra Pound because he drank in Paris with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, novelists; sat in the parlor once or twice with poet Gertrude and Leo Stein, modern art collectors.

This is a real perk the Modernist clique enjoys. They are linked, forever, in the public’s mind, with people who actually sold books and made a mint in the modern art world. The Modernists sun themselves in the romantic headlines of “exile.” Never mind neurotic Eliot and Pound were always comfortable and family-supported. Yes, poor Eliot was humiliated by Lord Bertie Russell, who slept with Eliot’s wife in exchange for a place to stay in London—“comfortable” is not quite the proper word to describe Eliot’s sometimes harrowing existence, nor Pound’s, who messed around with fascists. But the larger point here is that “lost” Hemingway and Fitzgerald (who loved Keats) had nothing to do with Pound and Modernism. Hemingway may have been unsentimental and plain, but he didn’t learn this from Pound—the word Modernist in this context is meaningless.

As literary persons, we have a duty, I think, not to succumb to what has to be seen as the greatest literary con of our lifetime.

Where did Pound lead? To the white whale, (thar she blows!) Charles Olson and his wacky disciples.

Modernists, it’s time to sober up already.

LITERARY INDIGNATIONS AND ACCUSATIONS

Henry James, Pound’s Modernist ally

Henry James—like venerable Ralph Waldo Emerson, TS Eliot, and Ezra Pound—was too important to review works of fiction.

James, Emerson, Eliot, and Pound dropped epigrams, but were too busy, no doubt, for close-reading.

We know, for instance, from his “Art of Fiction,” that HJ admired Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (the two men were friends), but it’s a passing judgment in which James asserts novels of mere character alone—without the exciting and curious incident and adventure of a book like Treasure Island—can be equally good.

There’s no “art” of fiction, really, for Henry James. As Emerson—a James family visitor—loftily maintained, “experience” is the real thing, not “art”—which is more for jingly drudges of “taste” like Edgar Allan Poe.

James was free of specifics—which the good reviewer traffics in—and this sums up Modernism: open and non-judgmental; we write whatever we want.

The epigram fever of the Modernists allowed them to escape grounded judgments; it is also telling that the Modernist epigram is typically open and empty. The most famous, “Make it new,” contains no meaning, since “it” obviously refers to “the old,” and therefore “new” is the whole of the epigrammatic thrust—“make the new new” makes no sense; of course “the new” comes out of the old. The epigram merely shouts “new” emptily.

This is really what the Modernists (and this denotes an actual clique of actual persons, not just a word) wanted to do; this was the whole project: leave the old behind. In a flurry of—epigrams.

Time was on their side, just as laziness and sin were on their side. No need to control the classroom and teach the class. Chaos is OK. Lip service to empty literary or academic phrases was all that was needed. They didn’t need to assert what was good. All they needed was the old to fade—secular modernity’s loosening in all aspects of society was their wave—the moral and the material which did not belong to them and had nothing to do with their “literary” or “artistic” aspects.

The simplicity of it has fooled us all—who thought more was going on.

Emerson didn’t need to review books or poems.

All Emerson had to do was write essays (sermons) about the spiritual sublimity of The Poet (as if he were a Marvel Comic Book Hero) in the vaguest possible terms and heave one epigrammatic insult (“the jingle man”) at poet-critic-reviewer (Poe). Poe had done real work in the trenches to elevate young American Letters. Shame on him! Bad Poe! Silly “macabre” man!

Literature takes a great deal of work. Poe dove into the plot intricacies of works he reviewed; Poe took apart his “Raven” piece by piece in “The Philosophy of Composition;” printed out poems he admired in “The Poetic Principle;” Poe’s “Rationale of Verse” is a thorough investigation of the quantity of verse; Pound’s ABC of Reading (bombing with the public, this was Pound’s mid-life attempt at a textbook), by comparison, treats the whole question of quantity in verse with a few remarks which impugn the very idea of a thorough investigation. Pound makes it clear that music in poetry means a great deal to him; but all Pound has to say on the subject which makes any sense is: read Homer in the original Greek and “listen.” Thanks, professor.

We don’t generally think of Pound as an academic. Pound was booted from U. Penn. He knocked around in London (where he swatted Amy Lowell) and Italy (where he swooned over Mussolini).

More than Pound fans will admit, however, there’s evidence that Ezra wished, and failed, to “wear the Ivy.”

For instance, not only did Pound try to pen a text book, which included student exercises (ABC of Reading), on more than one occasion he asked Penn to give him an honorary doctorate. (They told him to get lost.)

Fortunately for Pound’s general fortunes, Pound’s allies, the New Critics, possessed the work ethic (Pound was a lazy bitch) to come through with Understanding Poetry, the successful poetry textbook (praising him and Williams, attacking Poe) published shortly after the ABC of Reading’s loony failure.

Pound’s desire to write a textbook forced him to be more specific than Modernists like to be—the earlier “How To Read” (an article, not a book) made nutty reading suggestions which were roundly criticized by the few who read it.

Pound’s aristocratic “economic problem” which he asserts in ABC of Reading—the book in some ways a vague defense, or apology, for “How To Read”—is absolutely hilarious. Pound really thought (which is perhaps why he abandoned the United States) he was an aristocrat. He bemoans the fact that hour-long lectures (a professor or lecturer paid for the time he puts in) are necessary, and is enraged that it is necessary for him to write more than a few words, when a few words is all he needs (so great is his genius.) He actually says this in his textbook. Pound was seriously crazy. Here are his words, slightly excerpted, on page 83 of ABC Of Reading:

“The teacher or lecturer is a danger. He very seldom recognizes his nature or position. The lecturer is a man who must talk for an hour.”

“I also have lectured. The lecturer’s first problem is to have enough words to fill forty or sixty minutes.”

“The man who really knows can tell all that is transmissable in a very few words. The economic problem of the teacher (of violin or of language or of anything else) is how to string it out so as to be paid for more lessons.”

The American foot-soldier Modernists, the New Critics, were disciplined enough to put in the work and amass the necessary words for pay that resulted in their wildly successful textbook Understanding Poetry—one that did not frighten away its young readers by telling them, as Pound did, that Greek, Latin, French and Italian poetry (as well as prose—Flaubert, for instance) needed to be understood before any English poetry might be appreciated, and further, according to Pound (the genius), all English works worth reading existed almost entirely in the 17th century (Browning and Henry James the exceptions.)

The New Critics (they were somewhat mad themselves) along with TS Eliot, were the (relatively) sober salesmen to Pound’s utterly rascally, Henry James-besotted, madness.

Pound made it clear that he could tell his truth “in a very few words” rather than work for his wages, like a mere commoner, actually earning his living (like poor Poe).

The “economic problem” did not exist for converted Englishman Henry James (his father was one of America’s richest men) or Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of “English Traits” (whose traits are supreme, according to E.). Waldo married a dying woman with a fortune—though, ironically, these two men—James and Emerson—could waste words with the best of them. TS Eliot did alright, once he settled in England (Pound and Eliot were both supported by family money—unlike Poe, forced to write for pay, but Poe had a purpose, so that helped.)

Pound didn’t worry about being specific. Like a good Modernist, he just wrote anything.

This, from Pound, in ABC Of Reading, is typical:

“This doesn’t mean that the reader can afford to be ignorant of the best work of either period. He can look for real speech in Shakespeare and find it in plenty IF he knows what to look for.”

This after ranting in general: “the Spaniards and English imitated the Italians…I suspect that Marlowe started to parody himself in Hero and Leander. He had begun with serious intentions. I recognize that this suspicion may be an error.”

Pound is just stringing sentences together. (The emperor really has no clothes.) Pound never elaborates or gives examples of “real speech” in Shakespeare, or “what we need to look for.” He is just saying things.

Here is Chapter Seven of the ABC of Reading in its entirety:

“It doesn’t matter which leg of your table you make first, so long as the table has four legs and will stand up solidly when you have finished it.

Mediocre poetry is in the long run the same in all countries. The decadence of Petrarchism in Italy and the ‘rice powder poetry’ in China arrive at about the same level of weakness despite the difference in idiom.”

That’s it. Chapter Seven. A table. And a cut on Petrarch.

The table analogy (you got that? it doesn’t matter which leg you make first!) is stunning in its brilliance, but why Pound dismisses Petrarch—and connects the great Italian poet’s “decadence” to China (Petrarch apparently really disappointed Pound) will probably never be known.

That’s Chapter Seven of Pound’s “textbook.”

It makes about as much sense as those white petals on that black bough—or The Cantos. But carry on, avants!

Modernism never needed to make sense. That was never the intention.

The novels/prefaces of Henry James were high on Pound’s list—the only modern writer in English he recommended. Imagine “bad boy” Pound (he reportedly had a handshake like a dead fish) with his most urgent piece of advice: “never use too many words!” choosing as his favorite modern author…Henry James. Smells fishy, doesn’t it?

I bet you didn’t know Henry James (he also sneered at Poe) belonged steadfastly to the Modernist clique of Pound and friends.

Emerson joins the group as the godfather of William James—(Henry’s illustrious older brother) as the friend of TS Eliot’s grandfather—with his own slapdash, wordy, modernist, literary style—and his dismissal of Poe (join the club!)

Now let’s turn to the wordy Henry James, one of Pound’s favorite authors.

Pardon the verbosity. From Art of Fiction:

“Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it—of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison.”

“…there was a comfortable, good-humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it. But within a year or two, for some reason or other, there have been signs of returning animation—the era of discussion would appear to have been to a certain extent opened. Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt… The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory too is interesting…”

“The old superstition about fiction being “wicked” had doubtless died out in England; but the spirit of it lingers in a certain oblique regard directed toward any story which does not more or less admit that it is only a joke.”

“…It is still expected, though perhaps people are ashamed to say it, that a production which is after all only “make believe” (for what else is a “story”?) shall be in some degree apologetic—shall renounce the pretension of attempting really to represent life.”

“…The old evangelical hostility to the novel, which was as explicit as it was narrow, and which regarded it as little less favourable to our immortal part than a stage-play, was in reality less insulting. The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.”

“…as the picture is reality, so the novel is history. That is the only general description (which does it justice) that we may give of the novel. But history also is allowed to represent life; it is not, any more than painting, expected to apologize.”

“I was lately struck, in reading over many pages of Anthony Trollope, with his want of discretion in that particular. In a digression, a parenthesis or an aside, he concedes to the reader that he and this trusting friend are only “making believe.” He admits that the events he narrates have not really happened, and that he can give his narrative any turn the reader may like best. Such a betrayal of a sacred office seems to me, I confess, a terrible crime; it is what I mean by the attitude of apology, and it shocks me every whit as much in Trollope [novelist] as it would have shocked me in Gibbon or Macaulay. [historians]”

James calls it a “crime” to admit fiction is “make believe.”

There being no difference between reality and fiction, James is left with little to say. Extremism cuts our own throats. He did perfect that style in which he uses a thousand words when one will do, after all.

It is the great Modernist experiment: “Experience” and “sincerity” (and eventually the latter, too, becomes suspect) is all one needs. James advanced it. Aristocratic, blank-check Modernism, without apology.

It reminds us of Pound’s impatience in his “textbook.” Why lecture on literature for an hour, or even fifteen minutes? Let us admit that there are no rules and we will know something good when we see it.

Art is a pudding–or let’s add “theory,” or something, it doesn’t matter. Maybe a table with four legs?

If my reader thinks I am being disrespectful, here is how James treats “the question of morality” at the end of his “art” of fiction essay:

“In the English novel (by which of course I mean the American as well), more than in any other, there is a traditional difference between that which people know and that which they agree to admit that they know, that which they see and that which they speak of, that which they feel to be part of life and that which they allow to enter into literature.”

“The essence of moral energy is to survey the whole field…”

“To what degree a purpose in a work of art is a source of corruption I shall not attempt to inquire; the one that seems to me least dangerous is the purpose of making a perfect work.”

“There are certain things which it is generally agreed not to discuss, not even to mention, before young people. That is very well, but the absence of discussion is not a symptom of the moral passion.”

Henry James, full of “moral passion,” is allowing for all sorts of things, and he is not shy about it.

The perfect work of “experience” is desired.

Opiated, we can only do with a very few words. Make it new.

Delicately drop what you “see”—and don’t normally put into literature—into the ears of “young people.”

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law?

THE OLD SONGS

The old songs dreamed of love

but now we’re much too smart.

We analyze the speeches

and tear the songs apart.

Toss sentimentality away:

we’ve been cheated.

We take new paths. We attempt to prove

we are more sophisticated than love.

The piano only wants to kiss.

The guitarist laughed, when I asked for his theory.

“I play until my hands are weary.”

There’s nothing more you can do about this.

What other people want to do

has nothing to do with you.

After my walk, hearing a shadow, and amazed,

I forgot the music.

On you I gazed.

THE SCARRIET READING LIST

There is absolutely a curriculum I carry around in my head. There is a method. There are lists I love. A society needs to be “on the same page” to some extent. “Selecting” the “best literature” and giving everyone a chance to read the “best” should be a top priority.  Focus is our friend, distraction, our enemy. But focus on what? What do we need to know? Professor smart. Street smart. Tech smart. Creativity smart. People smart. Disciplined smart. So many ways to be smart. “How To Read” by Ezra Pound (an article published in 1929 when he was 44—at 60, he would be in a mental hospital) features a reading list. But it’s a crackpot list. Modernist art and literature is, to a great extent, crackpot. 

This is the first thing—which few get, and which they need to get. It’s not very well understood, for instance, how Americans rejected Modern Art/Literature when it came over from Europe—it was gradually, not until the 1930s (very recently) that it began to be accepted. Few people know what mental lakes and rivers they are swimming in. We don’t have a coherent, bird’s eye, view of history and our place in it. Propaganda isn’t just a thing “over there;” it is layered into every thing we view and read. This isn’t paranoid; it’s a simple, historical fact. It’s not nefarious. It’s ordinary. Like “best sellers” replacing real literature. Error can be benign and even comforting, like a bag of cookies for dinner. So that’s the first thing to “get” in making a reading list.

Second, general reading does need to be guided; there needs to be coherence and purpose, a Living-Story of sorts, so we don’t forget: otherwise isolated facts blow away in the wind. 

Third, reading must be enlightening and pleasurable (!) and done critically, not just a boast that “we got through” so many novels, pinning a medal on ourselves that we finished Ulysses or Moby Dick!  Or, 100 novels this summer! I know people who have read thousands of novels and I have never heard them make one interesting literary or philosophical observation. It seems we either have the non-fiction reader (discovering .001% of reality one small bite at a time), the fiction reader who devours novels like bags of cookies, or the person who doesn’t read at all—and why should they? The “readers” don’t seem very wise.

Here’s my list:

1. Plato, the Dialogues. You don’t know these, you are just a robot. How to reason, how to think, how to argue, how society is ordered, how rhetoric works, the whole v. the parts, friendship v. love, what is love? what is wisdom? how are the elements and parts of the universe ordered in an elemental way? what is scientific thinking? what is practical thinking? what entails inspiration? wherefore emotion? what parts do we play in the social world? what is valuable? what is the good? Out of Socrates comes Christ, Dante, Shakespeare, Poe, poetry and the poetic soul. Without Plato, you are a member of the “peanut crunching crowd” and that’s it. Is “your guru” wise, or a fraud? How do you know? You need Plato. 

2. Da Vinci. The notebooks. Amusing (and somewhat true) how he argues painting (which he associates with geometry and astronomy) is much closer to reality than the “hearsay” of poetry.

3. Shakespeare. The Plays and the Sonnets.

4. Alexander Pope The poems. “…what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” 

5. German Lieder. German is very close to English. In terms of poetry, avoid French—which has no verse. Verse needs this: Sy-lab-i-fi-CA-tion. If pronouncing this word properly, with the emphasis on the penultimate syllable, doesn’t give you pleasure, poetry is perhaps not for you. (The French say “Sy-lab-i-fi-ca-tion.” Therefore their language has no verse). With German lieder, you not only get German Romantic verse—of the most passionate kind ever written, you can hear how a genius like Schubert adds music to it. Melancholy love poetry is the best poetry, and having read your Plato, you’ll understand the profound relationship between love—and thought itself. 

6. The Romantic Poets. Byron is fun. Coleridge is delightful. Wordsworth is endearing. (Mary Shelley inspired Poe to write Sci-Fi.) Keats and Shelley are poetry itself. 

7. Poe. The Collected Works, including his non-fiction. Beauty and humor as perfect and less perfect shapes of rhetoric, etc

8. Knut Hamsun. The early novels.

9. Edna Millay. Her exceptional sonnets advance the Romantic notion that the sonnet/the stanza, not the line, is the true unit of poetry.

10. Any modern conspiracy book. Just to loosen up your thoughts. Mainstream, conventional thinking is useful as a soporific, but ultimately you will need to face the fact that the agitated, excitable thinking of others whom you care about may cause you to feel an emptiness inside, like you are missing something.

That’s all you need, really. This reading list is the Light, by which you will be able to “see” everything else. 

The great bulk of modern literature will generally be about people being mean to each other. 

Go! read your lengthy, contemporary novels of men being mean to women, the rich being mean to the poor. Modern literature—and much older examples of modern literature (time does go backwards) will feed you endlessly with tales of injustice and betrayal, and it will move you, and make your heart beat faster, and make you cry. 

But the misanthropy which causes human suffering is for this reason: 

So many refuse, or were never exposed to—my reading list.

GREAT POEMS SCARRIET FOUND ON FACEBOOK NO. 3

Stephen Cole is a prolific poet, always on my Facebook feed. On Facebook, we appear to like one another, so Stephen Cole is a show I always watch. How many years now? I can’t remember. I want to grasp his greatness, but I can’t. It’s like trying to catch a minnow with my hands in the green and sunlight shadow, and every time I catch one, I think, “wait, this is not his best one.” He has so many good poems—although one gets the feeling Stephen Cole doesn’t care whether or not his poems are good. Only his poet does. His theme seems to be The Revenge of Forgiveness. It is really extraordinary, like a dream, that Stephen Cole exists. Fate as a lullaby. If the world were slightly different, Stephen Cole would be famous. I know him only from Facebook and here is a poem from there:

poem

I think my hands disappeared today

I can’t feel anymore.
I cannot pull back the shades of darkness
And let the night music play.
But what is this city to me.
I did not come from here.
I am the stranger here.
I am a stranger everywhere.

The location is as strange as any.
I am at home here it seems
Because words disappear into the air
As they do anywhere.

Say, Good night to the people.
No one hears.
I do not see you
But don’t let that confuse you
Or make you think I do not care
If we all settle peacefully on despair.

It’s the rule of loneliness,
I am not supposed to be here or there.

Either this emptiness will do
or I will speculate
That some other city lies better
About disappointments
Than people do here.
But I am not sure I want to know where.

This city will do for me now
Because dream for dream
It is as likely to fail here
As it would anywhere.

THE MODERNIST

Bullying success against sensitive failure.

The poet urged himself to kill.

“Poets are afraid to harm. But I will.”

The sly reversing of the formula took time,

but not that much time, at all.

Do you know dictators secretly think of themselves as poets?

In their breasts, moving anthems are sung?

A manifesto, or two, was all it took. A charismatic figure who mocked. Poets, like dictators, fall.

Now poetry began to be hurtful. Cement and oil

replaced rhymes and all of those things

for which poets ordinarily toil.

GREAT POEMS SCARRIET FOUND ON FACEBOOK NO.2

This almost needs no comment. The theme and the rhythms are uncanny, beautiful, sublime. I don’t know if it’s a perfect poem, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Shelley presents a singular picture with a rhythm urgent yet calm. This poem roams a bit, but, in its way, perhaps it is perfect. The speaker is implied, is missing, and wants to be known, but we don’t know her. Or maybe we do. It is us, wandering New York, today.

Few dare, and even fewer achieve, these days, a poem as formally powerful as this.

Parody, that is, sublimity seen in glimpses, is fairly common. Maybe 20% of poets can pull it off. But a serious work, profound throughout, like this one, is extremely rare.

The music reminds me of Auden. Not Shelley. Not quite that good. But in the same realm. Do poems get standing ovations?

Poems like this—it found its way to Facebook about 2 days ago and currently has 78 likes—need to be published and collected, reproduced and praised, that a renaissance in poetry (what are we afraid of?) might return.

The poet is Yana Djin.

Morning in New York

If the desert is amnesia,
this city is a tomb.
The stone, as if in a seizure,
erupts from the earth’s womb.

Cinder, rock, scraps of metal
strewn along the ridge.
The D train with a rattle
crosses the Manhattan Bridge.

Blueswoman sings a ballad
with a voice rough and hoarse
about some Southern harlot
and Julliette-the-horse

Take the train to the water.
Lose your thoughts, strip your mind.
Not a thing you can alter.
And the sun is blind.

Coney Island is bare.
Bums and seagulls roam.
Frozen Wonder Wheel stares
like the ruins of Rome.

Buy the bums some booze,
Give the seagulls wet bread.
And feel love like Lazarus
rise from the dead.

PURE AND IMPURE, PART SIX

A necessary text for poets?

This is where it greats really weird, so bear with me.

By a quirk of fate, a book recently fell into my lap, which I have been perusing, somewhat nostalgically, with great delight—The Penguin Book of Lieder.

German Romantic poems with English translations—which also happen to be lyrics to music by some of the greatest composers the world has ever known.

Hundreds of ballads which seduce, whisper, moan, laugh. Which practice irony and subtlety. Tragedy softened by beauty, the wretched transformed into something more wretched—by art. The poet in every instance, no matter what the topic, faithful to a lullaby joy, bending over backwards to make the reader happy: life, a dream; a dream, a life; the real, a symbol; the symbol, real; death, living; sorrow, happy; poetry, poetry.

This book is a library of bliss, including everything but the music itself—which my smart phone provides. Goethe set to Mozart! Forgotten poets lending Schubert their words! Mahler and poetry! Heine and music! What a treasure trove! Achingly beautiful, tender, songs—and since German’s syllabic stress is so much like English (not to mention so many word/wort similarities) the music of the German poetry itself (especially fur mir who hast studied Deutsch a little in school)—are mine to ravish, besides the very competent, sometimes soaring, translations in English, by a German humanities and music scholar who landed in London in 1939.

But here’s where the beautiful dream ends and I return to my strident theme: the betrayal of poetry by the New Critics, by Ezra Pound, by T.S. Eliot (who nastily vituperated both Shelley and Poe, using his acumen in the service of low figures (F. Ford, A. Crowley, J. Quinn, E. Pound) allied with him—the pale, the exquisite, the sensitive T.S. Eliot!—in high-rent ambition, the sort of semi-secret ambition of rashness and prejudices—which tramples beauty and the good will of the world.

The paradigm is drawn by Robert Penn Warren, author of the textbook, Understanding Poetry, in his piece, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review in the late 1930s, that “low, dishonest decade” when Pound was in Italy, T.S. Eliot was warning us about the Jews, and everyone realized their happy and improving life was merely a pause between World War One and World War Two—Brahms wasn’t going to save civilization; industry and bombs were.

In that essay, Warren sneers at “pure poetry,” which the weak want, and with manly hands on hips, professor Warren has a good laugh at a little poem by Shelley, one that Poe had chosen for simple praise. Sometimes a poem is just tender and beautiful–and deserves simple praise. But not then! This was the 1930s. Romanticism, which attempted to make every part of a person’s life holy and beautiful, was beginning to fall terribly out of favor. The 1930s—even more rough and tumble than the 1920s. Men of importance, with sly propaganda ministers and half-starved armies at their side, had ever more important things to do. Edna St. Vincent Millay had to die. Poetry was now “difficult,” or it wasn’t really poetry. Poetry needed an institution and smart men. Difficult men. Impotence and gulags wanted nothing to do with happy Romanticism. The wretched and the “impure” was going to have its say, by God.

So here’s the thing. If one reads carefully the essays, articles, and speeches of Pound and Eliot (with Emerson, who knew Eliot’s grandfather at Harvard, the ghost, cheering them on—see Emerson’s racist, anglophile, Nietzschean “English Traits” —and I won’t go into the enmity between Emerson and Poe) one sees a harrowing purity of prejudice—Eliot and Pound were not just Anti-Semites. They hated everyone: the Third World, the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, never mind the English Romantics.

But their personal failings aside, what is more important (and tragic) is how immense their literary influence was, how narrow it was, and how like the sensibility of the 1930s it was, when the art of the Renaissance succumbed to Picasso, with Pollock just around the corner. How fast it all happened, just like World War Two. Beethoven became “Roll Over Beethoven” in the blink of an eye.

But Modernism had little to do with either Beethoven or Chuck Berry—Romanticism was poetry, was art itself. Modernism was pure energy, pure disruption, pure mockery, pure negativity, an absent presence, fleeting, still-born, anti-matter to whatever was coherent and good, the emptier, lonelier reaches at the edges of Romanticism, a purity of sickness and pain. (Pieces of Modernism can certainly be admired; what’s worse than what it is, is what Modernism dismissed.)

Here is why the Penguin Book of Lieder is such a godsend, as I wrestle with this theme of pure and impure poetry. The most important intellectual wrestling match since ancient times, perhaps: Modernism, stunningly triumphant—yet self-destructive, CIA-funded, obscure, v. Romanticism, defeated, not “cool,” still not trending—yet defining, with its ancient spirit, great art and accessible art.

Pound and Eliot deliberately ignored and dismissed a great deal, but here’s my insight: they ignored with glee (there may be a trivial exception, or two) the treasure that was German Romanticism. The whole Modernist thrust was French, (Villon for Pound, Corbiere for Eliot) not German, even though (as Poe, beloved of the French, pointed out) the French have no verse—none of that stress which unites German and English. (Sy-lab-i-fi-ca-tion says the Frenchman, Sy-lab-i-fi-CA-tion says the American the quickest way to make the point).

Who cares about a Goethe/Mozart song?

How convenient that the “free” verse revolution (and its inane children, such as the awkward crackpot, Charles Olson, or the army of flacid, pretentious poetasters which still overwhelm us today) steered clear of the clarion songs of German Romanticism, whose poetry fed remarkable musicians like Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, Hindemith.

Pure and Impure, as outlined by Robert Penn Warren, must be rejected.

Of course all sorts of eclectic poetry movements will emerge, and quickly perish, or hang on for some convenient reason (I can be bad and call myself a “poet!”) and poetry will always have many houses, but that doesn’t mean we should be completely ignorant about what has occurred over the last one hundred years, and be ignorant of what we need to do—as we escape from ephemeral art “movements,” and ask ourselves: What is poetry? Who are we?

GREAT POEMS SCARRIET FOUND ON FACEBOOK NO.1

Since no one cares about great poetry anymore, or cares to catalog it today—finding the task impossible, like a drunk person unable to keep up with their thoughts—might there be great poems currently written today, right under our noses, if we just know where to look?

For the truly fugitive experience, we are throwing our nets from the electronic shore.

Instagram (populist), Twitter (ambitious), and YouTube (theatrical) are good places for poetry, but we prefer Facebook for sincerity and value.

As an experiment, Scarriet—the world’s top poetry website—rolls out a new feature: Great Poems Scarriet Found On Facebook. GPSFOF.

The first poem we have selected in the series is by Aakriti:

POET

I’m not a poet.

Who is a poet?
What is a poet anyway?

Does poetry come from a poet
or does a poet arise from poetry?

I’m not a poet.
I don’t even know what that means.

All I know is that the odour of blood is romance
and the weeds are lemon glass, lucid so—

I like to forget to breathe.

All I know is that I barely know
but what I know I tell.

I would tell it in silence
but words tend to arrive and shuffle as strings in the body.

They tend to arrive
and I let them.

They wish to be
and so it is.

But I’m not a poet;
all I know is just some things.

‘Things,’ what are they?
Who made all these nouns —The Mad Hatter?

Some things are but what I know.
Some things like not knowing what is poetry.

It merges so fast, it is so thick and thin.
It blurs against everything.

I cannot distinguish it anymore;
from the table to the lamp — a single beat.

Who is a poet?

I’m not.

©️ Aakriti Kuntal

The uncertain is embraced—what is a poet? what is it possible to know?—within a framework of knowing (“Who is a poet? I’m not”) and poets who don’t understand how important these are: to know and not know, and to be alive to what the reader is able to know, not know, and wants to know, so that the poet’s visible efforts and the reader’s (hidden) expectations ironically interact, will probably never be a poet, much less a great one.

Aakriti’s poem appeared in 2019, but I saw it last month, shared as a “memory,” those charming notifications Facebook provides.

The re-posted poem received 59 loves/likes and a number of comments, including:

Wonderful Aakriti! Poetically codifying intuition is a feat. I like how you examine the ontological framework of the self, its habitability, its epistemic limits. —Shabnam Merchandani

She also included commentary on what it was like to encounter the memory, adding to the contemplative and charming experience:

Revisiting an old poem is much like visiting a fragment of the self. For most part, one feels like one is meeting a past self, but it is not entirely true. One is most likely reliving, in parts, a residue that has extended or morphed into the future (the now present) or perhaps, remains precisely the same today as well.

One is pulled back into the lurch of the moment of creation. The moment of creation is a memory; it is a memory of an entire space where a science experiment was conducted, the self being the key component. One remembers oneself writing the poem, and at other times one has no memory of writing the poem at all.

In the latter case, one meets an old poem— and one is suddenly met by the nature of the blatant disappearance of the self for one feels one has absolutely no memory of having written it and in it, one is both mesmerised and terrified by the letters of validity of one’s own existence.

©️ Aakriti Kuntal

Scarriet is proud to begin its Great Poems Scarriet Found On Facebook series with Aakriti’s “Poet.”

“I like to forget to breathe.”

Scarriet Editors
Salem, MA, USA
July 17 2022

IT’S LOVE!

The controlled anger seasoned with humor of the civilized person

intimidates the Caliban stuttering his desire

when decisions need to be made. Where

is the roof and the plane to be made?

It makes the poet vastly uncomfortable that children are everything,

but breeding is the highest joke, funnier than farting

and death; a childless marriage of nothing but sex is like a holiday

in a small resort away from everything, reading

Hermann Hesse between palms and coffee.

Truly William Blake and his Songs of Innocence are more amazing

than Elvis; love enhances sexual attraction—

the really beautiful don’t need love, and this may be

a cynical way to define love, but it’s true;

you have that annoying little brother syndrome;

I want to slap you.

PURE AND IMPURE, PART FIVE

SO we have established the early 20th century Modernists were “impure”—to the consternation of the Romantic and Victorian “purists.”

We have established this truism—with the help of Pulitzer Prize winning Robert Penn Warren, Southern Agrarian, New Critic, author of the essay published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Warren was also co-author of the 20th century textbook Understanding Poetry— whose four editions dominated pedagogy for more than half of the last century, with the last fifty years seeing no change to that legacy except that no one talks about New Criticism, even though that is still what we are doing.

What is New Criticism? It’s nothing. It’s just a kind of vacant, rambling, dumbing-down, with half-finished arguments of the “proof of the pudding is in the eating” variety. New Criticism (and this will save you a lot of time) is empty discursiveness— with cynical gestures inserted towards “grounding in the text”—and this was, and is, the whole point of New Criticism. There’s no rationale or philosophy to it. It’s smoke, not fire.

The textbook, Understanding Poetry greeted every GI Bill recipient who went to college to learn poetry—when the arts changed forever and modern art became “establishment” after WW II. As recently as the 1930s, the American public looked at modern art and said “what is this crap?” as they were still admiring the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay and reading Plato and Keats in school.

The following has also been established: there is nothing different about the Modernist clique of Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams (who all happened to be college buddies and ripped off Haiku as “radical” Imagistes in the early 20th century) and the New Critics—these two groups were allies, who saw the world in the same, opportunistic, unsentimental and impure manner. This is proven by the New Critic textbook Understanding Poetry’s explicit praise of Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow and Pound’s “In A Station at the Metro” and its trashing of Poe’s “Ulalume” with its purist rhyming. The first edition of Understanding Poetry launched in the 1930s—when “conservatives,” “purists,” and the vast majority of the American public, were still resisting the “new impure art.” The New Critics, despite paying lip service to Tennyson and Shakespeare, were fully on board with the “experiments” of Williams and Pound.

The next wave of the avant-garde, it is also established, the one associated with The New American Poetry 1945-1960, belongs entirely to the Williams/Pound sensibility of impurity—a seamless extension of what Pound was doing 50 years earlier and which the New Critics explicitly supported. The Red Wheelbarrow chapter in Understanding Poetry, which praises that poem as a “fresh” way of seeing, akin to looking through a “pin prick in a piece of cardboard” is similar to Charles Olson’s “field” theory reproduced in the New American Poetry 1945-1960. Louis Ginsberg, the poet who frequented nudist camps, belonged to the same social circles as William Carlos Williams, and it is well known that Williams and Louis’s son, Allen Ginsberg, mutually admired one another. New Critic John Crowe Ransom was known to be squeamish about homosexuality. Aesthetically, however, the Modernists of the early 20th century (the ones who hated Edna St. Vincent Millay), the New Critics, and the Olson/Duncan/Creeley/Ginsberg clique were one and the same, a bunch of very white, very male, “radicals,” whose code word, as articulated, by Robert Penn Warren, was “impurity,” in opposition to all that was aesthetically “pure,” i.e., uptight and old.

The cool kids went for the “impure,” obviously; the “pure” was easily mocked as prudish, small-minded, timid, and old-fashioned. It was no contest. No wonder the landscape shifted in a few short years. Both the “radical” Modernists and the “conservative” New Critics were hip to the Red Wheelbarrow, and naturally the “new” was knocking on the door.

That “door” happened to be this—and this sealed the deal. Paul Engle hired Robert Lowell (who left Harvard to study with John Crowe Ransom) to teach in his Writing Workshop. The Writing Program at Iowa (and soon the Creative Writing model would find a home everywhere) welcomed the “new” not just aesthetically, not just pedagogically, but practically. You, new poet, will be paid to teach the new, and we will get rid of all those professors teaching nothing but the old. You will be paid to be new. The new is guided by the New Criticism, which means the “new” can be whatever you want it to be. As long as you can get the academic, professional, New Critic patter down, the world is yours. There’s no need to be creative. And just like touring (1969—present) made the Rolling Stones rich, once they established their catalog (mostly 1965 to 1969) the template of Modernism (1913 to 1962) is all you need.

The door opened. Modernism has swept the field. Byron is in the bin.

Conservatives today, who complain, are ridiculed. “Go home, purists! This is our game, now.”

The New Critics are rejected as “conservatives” today, but this “rejection” is just because the New Critics only seemed to be conservatives in order to lead the radicals into the middle of the camp. If one calmly reads “Pure and Impure Poetry” and sees what that sensibility really is, or reads chapter after chapter of Understanding Poetry and its scattered inanities, chirping bright nonsense, like a car salesman’s pitch, one will get it. Here’s an old fart, a crackpot, winning the day by abetting the kids.

No one dares to defend “purity.” It’s so much easier to defend “impurity,” which is too cool to mock.

Even the “conservatives” today are helpless to resist. Dana Gioia finds the Red Wheelbarrow “scans” exactly like “To Be or Not To Be.” Unable to escape the maze of: Red-Wheelbarrow-approved-by-the-New-Critics, the dead white male, WC Williams is pathetically brought in by Gioia for the sake of the conservative cause. Williams is really Shakespeare!

William Logan, another “conservative,” astute enough to lampoon bad modern poets in his many brilliant reviews, rates Pound high above Shelley.

But this is how much radicalism has triumphed in poetry. All the conservative can do is read purist masterpieces in private. The public square belongs to the radical.

Even this “conservative” has been fooled. I am as guilty as the rest. I fell into Robert Penn Warren’s deception by using his terminology: “pure and Impure.”

I did so in this essay—the “pure/impure,” half-truth, fraud (“a little learning is a dangerous thing”) is now established coinage.

I defended the “pure” against the “impure.” Sucker!

For truly, it is Modernism, it is the Red Wheelbarrow, which is “pure.”

The Raven is a thousand times more “impure” than white petals on a black bough. One has diverse elements in service to something, the other has diverse elements in service to—nothing.

Prometheus Unbound by Shelley and Don Juan by Byron are extremely “impure.”

The theories of Pound and Olson, the aesthetic ideas of the New Critics, are “pure.” Pure bullshit. Olson is a bigger crackpot than Pound—and Pound failed as a pedagogue: the “musical phrase” arises out of a metronome (even Mozart used one) and talent, not because Ezra Pound demands it. And what does “make it new” even mean? What is “it?” Does Pound want originality? That’s not a new desire.

Poe said: The senses sometimes see too little, but they always see too much.

So yes, the impressionist symbolism of the Romantic narrows and “purifies” to a certain extent—which is what the Red Wheelbarrow was pathetically attempting.

Too much “purity” and narrowing finally leads to the death of poetry, just as too much expanding “impurity” does.

Purity and Impurity are stupid terms, finally, just as the Raw and the Cooked, are. We need to stop falling for this crap.

The only escape is a radical calling out of all the bullshit which for the last hundred years or so has hindered us—as we look at the past again, without selling it out in the name of the trendy new and its manifesto short-cuts. A hundred years is not that long, and the pertinent texts are relatively few. This doesn’t have to be overwhelming. We can do this.

And no one has to be a big baby about this, either. No one is saying we can’t also have our cakes and ale, our eclectic likes and dislikes, our politics, our sense of social justice, in every sense, as we call out the bullshit. No one is saying “the old is good and the new is bad,” or any such “pure/impure” nonsense. The only thing is: the bullshit will be called out.

Scarriet Editors

July 13, 2022

PURE AND IMPURE, PART FOUR

A gang of super geniuses

I thank the learned and talented souls who cared enough to join the recent FB debate on my poem, I WANT TO KNOW IF THERE IS ONE WOMAN—even as they were genuinely puzzled and outraged by it. This poem, apparently needs to grow into its audience. Ideally, an audience already exists for a poem, but isn’t it better if a poem creates its audience? Yes—but I have no illusion that if this is happening, it is mostly through artificial and pedantic means. But I’ll take anything I can get.

Additional outrage has greeted my Pure and Impure essays, which have crystallized, mostly badly, Scarriet’s long-standing issue with the Pound/Williams/New Criticism Modernists/NAP, carried on in various guises since Scarriet’s founding in 2009 by Alan Cordle of Foetry.com fame.

In part three, I focused on the objection to my slighting the tiny Red Barrow poem of Willie Williams—an opinion which always generates a lot of hate mail. This is because Modernism dug its fangs in deep and look a very long drink (going on one hundred years—and Dracula, I guess, is still attached).

The outrage and misunderstanding seems to be taking three basic forms.:

The first is demonstrated by Kent Johnson, who shares some of my ideas, but who thinks there is something sacred and untouchable surrounding avants who got a little cult-classic book all for themselves and on their own, to celebrate their pre-published, amateur, college dorm, local bar, poetry (and ideas) in the middle of the 20th century, explicitly:—The New American Poetry, 1945 to 1960, edited by a suit for Greenwood Press who dug the nerdy Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan (mostly Ginsberg, because of his recent obscenity fame, thinking a “movement” of whatever Ginsberg was could earn some money).

Here’s what I said very recently to my friend:

Kent Johnson Kent, I have never said Olson’s laughably stupid theories were a “stealth” New Criticism polemic, but perhaps that’s what Olson thought he was doing, so good job, you’re being influenced by me and you’re now officially an ally… The 1960 NAP was not particularly academic; it was just bad, screed poetry, but its intention was academic and their notoriety grew within academia. That’s not a stretch to say, at all. So “hilariously numbskull” describes Olson and Duncan, not my ideas. I don’t think New Criticism has any intellectual merit either—it, too, was an ambitious striking move into the Academy—professors in love with literature were to be replaced by Creative Writing foot soldiers, poets for the “new,” i.e. their own work. It was vaulting ambition, (explicitly laid out by Ransom in his essay, Criticism, Inc.,) which is normal for a poet, sure, but I’m just calling it out and seeing it for what it is. You apparently can’t see it—because (can it be true?) your hurt pride needs to defend Olson’s inanity as heroic and meaningful. Good luck with that, noble, socialist, iconoclast!

The next objection is illustrated by a person I don’t know at all (one of the glories of online debate). This idea is that Modernism and Poe are one big happy family—Baudelaire always mentioned as the key piece, Eliot was influenced by late 19th century French avant-garde poets, etc. My reply to her sums up this objection pretty well, while giving it its due, since there is some merit in it.

Lorraine Yang Poe was being translated in Russia even before France. Poe was a genuinely popular writer; Baudelaire, who achieved fame due to an obscenity issue (like Ginsberg, Joyce) damned Poe with faint praise, by saying America didn’t understand Poe. Baudelaire belonged to the Cult of Literature and Poets as a sickness—Eliot, too. Thomas Mann, etc. It is an enormously influential trope, and Poe was tarred with that brush (wild-eyed drug addict “macabre” Poe!) which gave Poe dubious, credulous fans, but ultimately hurt Poe’s reputation in the long run, in terms of what fewer and fewer people know him to be: lynx-eyed, sober, brilliant, multi-faceted. Eliot, the smartest Modernist, secretly absorbed Poe, but ended up viciously attacking Poe (as became common to do) in “From Poe to Valery” after TSE won his Nobel, thinking it was safe to do so, apparently). Poe didn’t need these “sneering” cowards (Emerson began the tradition by spitefully calling Poe the “jingle man” in a private conversation years after Poe was dead) as much as they needed him, but yes you are correct to point out that there is an (ironic!) mutual relationship of sorts, yes.

Thirdly, the objection: Hey what are doing for women poets now? You don’t care about women poets, etc. (Let me repeat: my poem “I Want To Know…” is not anti-woman. I’m not blaming “women” for New Criticism. The poem is really just a cry of despair) and any objection based on the falsehood that my poem is anti-woman is not an intellectual objection, but a mere misunderstanding—which a poet should always take responsibility for—or never take responsibility for? That’s another debate.) Here’s my (I know, I know, “mansplaining”) response to the more mild objection of “what have you done for women poets, lately, Thomas?”

Anna Savage Actually, I do speak for women writers, who, thanks to Poe, had more respect in the 19th century than they do now, because an extremely influential men’s club clique, the Modernist Pound/Eliot/Williams clique allied with the Southern Agrarian New Critics, took over poetry, literature, and the Academy. They attacked Millay, made poetry crappy, and the sensibility of their world is now what we’re all swimming in (this clique viciously attacked writers like Poe, Shelley, Edna Millay, and ignored all the now forgotten female poets from the 19th century like Elizabeth Barrett). There’s so much work to be done on the Modernism error—that’s my focus. I do not ignore contemporary women poets who are good, however, though like anyone, I don’t have time to study the tens of thousands of poets writing today. . We need more Critics and Anthologists who honestly bring attention to what’s really going on….

The Scarriet Editors

July 10, 2022

PURE AND IMPURE, PART THREE

Byron—when poetry was sexy and popular and not controlled by the CIA

Peter Cherches—in a lively FB thread resulting from Scarriet’s recent controversial poem on women, the New Criticism and the “chaste” Poe—was kind enough to link an article: John Crowe Ransom, the Kenyon Review were CIA. (Quick aside: my poem is not anti-woman.)

The public is slowly becoming aware of the stunning role of the CIA in modern art. The whole mystery revolves around why the CIA thought modern art was good for the U.S. cause, and can perhaps be unraveled by questioning whether the CIA is ultimately working for the best interests of the citizens of the United States.

Here then, is “Pure and Impure, part three,” Scarriet’s simple and accessible take on Modernism and Poe/Romanticism.

Ransom, CIA? What does that mean?

It means this:

Ransom was instrumental in taking poetry out of the public square and locking it away in the university.

The strategy was three-fold.

1. Promote the “new writing” which the public didn’t like, but was told was significant: Pound/Williams.

Make certain Byron was too “old” too appreciate. Befuddle the public with these critical choices. (WCW is older to us today than Byron was to Ransom back then.) Ransom’s essays “Criticism, Inc.” and “Poets Without Laurels” are the significant texts. I strongly advise you read them.

2. Replace professors who teach time-tested literature with writing professors who are poets themselves, eager, quite naturally, to follow the “new writing” (see no. 1 above) Evidence is overwhelming that the New Critics were on the ground-floor of the Writing Program Era. In fact, these two—New Criticism and Writing Programs—were the same. Engle at Iowa, Lowell at Iowa, were in the New Critic orbit. Allen Tate at Princeton. Even Ford Maddox Ford (Pound associate in Europe, ex-British War Propaganda Minister) who came over from Europe to teach in the U.S., joined the New Critics circle.

3. Make it clear that newspaper reviews are “amateur” and Criticism must be professionalized and made the last word—only in the university. Have the messengers be government education types with funding and influence, in addition to poet/professors such as the New Critics with an inside/textbook-writing track.

Does this sound like CIA? Institutional control, promoting what is “new” as the end-all justification by savvy men in suits—which slowly but steadily eliminates democracy, and, gleefully, sadistically, amorally, from a fake-superior position, dumbs down the population, strangling free-thinking in the public square.

Modernism.

And the New Critics/Pound clique reviled Poe. Why?

Poe was the “amateur” populist who was a writing program/detective fiction/Critical force all to himself and wasn’t “new” in any sort of fake way. Poe represented something the New Critics/New Writing/CIA suits couldn’t stomach.

The boiled-down truth from Scarriet.

PURE AND IMPURE, PART TWO

Most readers responded positively to my essay, “Pure and Impure”—others saw it merely as a defense of “genius” rhyming, with the added caveat that “genius” instinctively understands that there are subjects inherently non-poetic, and to be avoided, since no poetry can be made from these things (porn, trauma, etc).

I offended two types of poets, even as most poets, who fit no type, understood exactly what I was saying.

After all, I gave concrete examples: Grandma’s Cancer, the David Letterman Show, and RP Warren’s important essay of the same name, who none read—I think it is because po-biz has lost all philosophy over the past 50 years and consider 20th century poets major, and who should have 60 foot statues, who are merely cute (we still, thank God, do not worship what provokes disgust). There hasn’t been a major poet in America since Frost—and he was born 3/4 into the 19th century. (Think about that for a moment.)

The two types of poets I offended?

First, the type of Impure poet who is “all in” when it comes to impurity and who considers rhyme a very minor thing, best left to limericks. This Impure type sees “Pure” as code for the sacred and the privileged, and is having none of it. They are nobly democratic, are good and decent people in the main, and want no duality at all, such as Pure and Impure, to stand between them and their Muse. OK, fine, I get it.

The second type is the poet who does appreciate rhyme and is all for Purity, and believes whatever he rhymes he elevates either into the greatest joke of all time or to sublime heights—there is nothing impure which he, the poet, tackles. This second type of poet looks down on the first type of impure poet as common and trivial, but this second type is equally offended by my essay because he feels it seeks to place limits on him, the cleverest poet to have ever breathed.

Before I go further, the following three texts are paramount:

Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry” and these two essays by Edgar Poe:

“The Poetic Principle,” in which Poe merely looks at poems he likes, including “The Indian Serenade” by Shelley, an obscure poem apparently made famous by Poe’s 19th century essay, since Warren speaks of it (and mocks it) as a famous poem in his 20th century essay (fame and poetry were once friends).

“The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe tells the tale of how he composed “The Raven.” (How he composed his poem—for both popular and critical tastes. This is the key.)

One of the readers of my essay and I had a small back and forth (the glory of FB is communicating poetry: censors take note: this might be dangerous) in which I sought to cool his feverish brow by pointing out to him that “The Raven” (Purity) was original (originality is where the pure emerges from the impure) and “The Red Wheelbarrow” was not (the Americans who were proud “Imagistes” were only ripping off haiku). My reader (who is also a poet) responded in a fury:

“Regarding your secondary comment, you seem to be saying that what marks the genius from the non-genius is originality. You say that The Red Wheelbarrow is “repeating haiku” and that nothing like The Raven can be found in history. The Red Wheelbarrow seemed original and fresh in its time and place, and while they called it “imagist” it certainly seems haiku-ish. What was relatively original was how he put it together, simple as it was. But The Raven uses borrowed meter and rhyme scheme and an image of foreboding as old and stale (even in his time) as a black cat. Again, what was relatively original was how he put it all together. I appreciate the music and the skill involved in writing it, but it is tediously long-winded and heavy-handed in its obvious psychological suggestion, and I am sure there are scholars who could write entire books on the influences and predecessors that let up to it.”

There are several things to notice in this gentleman’s remarks.

Robert Penn Warren, one of the authors of Understanding Poetry, the most influential poetry textbook of the 20th century, praises “The Red Wheel Barrow” in the following manner:

“…whatever its content…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly. And the whole composition makes, we may say, an important negative claim—the claim of not being prose.”

Observe, first, the common description of Williams’ miserable, kindergarten, red crayon, pretentious, poem as “fresh”—influence is a mysterious thing; Understanding Poetry is more influential than we know. The Pure is what we seek but it is never what the Cult of the Impure finds. Many refuse to believe that Pound and Williams launched their Imagist careers on a theft of haiku—in the very face of its self-evident truth, or that this theft was aided and abetted by Understanding Poetry—but it was.

Remember, the Pure, to be pure, must be original. Haiku, the form, seeks to use fresh imagery alone as its focus; America was mesmerized by a single poetry textbook which convinced us that Pound’s petals and Williams’ barrow were fresh (new, original)—when they were not. Haiku was conflated with Pound and Williams; the “fresh” boys were on their way. What really mattered (besides the “freshness”) was the license given; the illusion was now that any nice person writing out an image or two could be an original (fresh) poet: here was the whole significance of the delusion—which the impure poet clings to for his very sanity and life.

The New Critics were simply smarter than most poets, which helped to make the hallucination they created irresistible. “…the claim of not being prose.” This is the secret attraction of avant poetry, which the chapter on “The Red Wheelbarrow” cast upon GI Bill students during the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s as a spell. A zombie army was created. Genius fell down dead.

“The Raven” is original, and genius is defined by it. To say it “uses borrowed meter and rhyme scheme” is like scoffing at the Royal Navy for using borrowed materials; the originality of “The Raven” is the very definition of genius going further in its borrowing to effect something really new. As Poe pointed out, originality in its purest sense belongs to God alone—mortals combine; they do not create. Genius is merely hard work. The Pure is the result of working really hard in, and with, the impure. Glory to the con artist who wins the day with the Red Wheelbarrow. The impure transformed into the pure by magic is a rebuke to all human activity: the result is the Lotus Eaters helpless on the beach.

Excuse me, I have work to do…

I WANT TO KNOW IF THERE IS ONE WOMAN

I want to know if there is one woman

who refuted the New Criticism. One.

I don’t mean walked away or ignored it.

Refuted it. I don’t believe there is one.

I am so disappointed in women.

There was a window of time, before the loosening began

when respectable women critics formed the basis

of literature. Franklin and Hawthorne had female minds.

Millions of women in the 19th century for the first time ever

purchased books. Trembling with passion

was no longer accepted as romance.

The mind prevailed. Now the men had to dance.

The dance was sober, somber, and slow.

Prior to modernist sneering, I present to you:

the genius. The chaste Edgar Allan Poe.

THEY WANT A HOUSE AND LEGALITY FOR THEIR MURDER

What I want to say is hidden—your mind will not approve,

even if I laugh. Even if I love.

But stating something breaks the spell, so what should I do?

I’m afraid to say what I think.

What’s this poem, if I’m not honest with you?

There is one who has nothing

until killing makes the victim his.

The murderer knows the secret:

until murder, nothing is.

Nothing makes a child yours—not loving or naming.

When the child grows up, they are on their own.

But look what the genius murderer is claiming:

I want this! I want this!

“But this will never be yours,”

says the victim. The victim who vainly implores.

PURE AND IMPURE

We’ve listened too long to defenders of impure poetry.

Robert Penn Warren, co-author of the most influential poetry textbook of the 20th century, Understanding Poetry—which declared the early 20th century poet WC Williams a genius and the early 19th century poet Edgar Poe an over-rhythmical flop, explicitly wrote on the subject in “Pure and Impure Poetry” where he sneers at a lovely Romantic lyric by implying its author, Shelley, was sexually naive. No pure poetry for Mr. Warren!

It’s a great, old argument, pure v impure. I lean towards pure.

My first roommate in college was a poet and a wild, charismatic, humorous, Byronic lunatic, a transfer who was a couple of years older, and I being still unformed in all sorts of ways (I matured slowly) that rubbed off: it was Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake forever. The quotidian moderns were to be mocked always. Fortunately, looking back, I could have fallen under the spell of much crazier things. But nearly all poetic opinion is against me (and my old roommate) and I acknowledge it’s a worthy punishment. The Modernists couldn’t help but be influenced by what went before (God, it was everything) so I give them no points for that. Anthony Hecht parodying Matthew Arnold (“Dover Bitch”) is a conscious and honest reaction. Done well, it wins the day and I must give kudos. “The Raven” was parodied mercilessly from the day it was produced—which proved its worth. Shelley was a fool—but a fool I love.

There is great misunderstanding, which favors the impure—and it makes perfect sense that misinformation lives with the impure. It profits the impure side to muddy, as much as it can, all waters. This is the best way to be impure, after all.

This misunderstanding is this: I don’t favor pure poetry because I’m a prude or I’m afraid of complexity.

I’m complex enough to realize that poetry which becomes too impure is no longer poetry.

A lot of it is just emphasis.

Trauma, politics, sex, and other sensational subjects which don’t overwhelm, cripple and distract from “the poetry” can only be pulled off by the rare genius. Otherwise we have grotesque gossip parading as poetry. It’s bad enough when this kind of stuff pretends to be “journalism,” but when it pretends to be poetry, civilization is over. Dante’s Inferno certainly travels in trauma and so does Shakespeare. And poetry is better for it.

Shakespeare and Dante survived their blood.

How does that work? Keats rebuked Wordsworth: “Dover? How could you write on Dover?”

“House of Mourning,” a little sonnet by Keats, lays out the pure argument. Keats would not be the great poet he was, had he been impure.

Can we appreciate both?

Poe, of course, is pure all the way (but vast and rich if you read him as a whole, not just the poems, which is kind of the whole point—have many arrows in your quiver).

Wordsworth writing about the poor was a noble example of the impure—this example was provided to me by a learned friend, who was anxious to defend impurity (no surprise). But as Poe said: write an essay on prose subjects. Everyone will be better for it. Unless, of course you are Shakespeare or Dante. But don’t hold your breath for that. Criticism isn’t for the genius. It is for you and me.

“The poor” is a subject which can be one of two things: either sentimental or politically controversial, and neither one is good for poetry. The beloved Wordsworth poems are not his poems on the poor.

Paul Engle was a salesman, a Cold War warrior; he raised money for anti-Soviet poetry; I was at his home many times; Paul and Hualing (his second wife, a novelist) had the most beautiful home in Iowa City; Marilyn Chin was part of their orbit; Paul’s Yale Younger Prize judge was the godfather of the Fugitives, William Percy. Anthony Hecht belonged to Paul’s world—both were at Iowa and Hecht also had the JC Ransom link. (The poetry world is very small.)

The key to understanding the vital importance of the “impure” to Modernism, is RP Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” but a simpler explanation is a trope I’ve long called “Grandma’s Cancer.”

Poetry (great, old, Romantic Poetry with a capital P) is easily deconstructed by poetry—gruesome, trivial, topics of bad-taste (“impure”)—with a small p. I remember in the 70s all the college students (forgetting their Plato, their Horace, their Petrarch) were writing poems about their grandma’s cancer—and I knew instinctively this was wrong: God bless grandma, but grandma’s cancer canceled out the poetry. You cannot rhyme about grandma’s cancer.

Listening to Anthony Hecht read his two most anthologized pieces, “The Dover Bitch” (comic) and “More Light! More Light!” (tragic), Hecht a New Yorker with a mysterious British accent, it struck me, hearing them read, that these were masterful prose pieces, a more sophisticated version of “Grandma’s Cancer.”

Traumatic subjects, the “impure” poetry of the Cold War/Post-Modernist warriors, was a weapon against all that was worth rebelling against: “Purity,” whether it was 1) Soviet Realism, 2) Xenophobic, American, Conservatism, 3) old Romanticism, 4) old Dead White Male civilization.

Whatever is in “bad taste” also feeds the Impure Impulse. The disgusting, the horrific, the sexual, the political. These are all good. Whatever destroys the Romantic is good. The didactic is good, too. So many predilections. It’s a wonder the Pure (poetry which is elevating, accessible, beautiful, and not didactic) has any chance at all. Pure poetry is why Shakespeare is art, rather than melodrama. It’s a subtle difference lost to those who get lost in the impure.

Impurity might be called 20th century, consumerist, virtue-signaling, Neo-liberalism, which is so triumphant in a myriad of ways (it defines our Age), but a winner chiefly through mockery of the old, ushering in the “impurity” of the new. Paul Engle was certainly part of this, just as much as Hecht, Warren, Lowell, and Ginsberg were. The Beats (superficially Romantic) and the New Criticism (superficially Classical) were both Modern and Impure.

Poe, the pure, was isolated—Modernism’s poetry is a torch of impurity which still burns on every rampart.

I’m all for the Impure. This essay is merely a plea for seeing The Pure for what it is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. You probably don’t go on the David Letterman show (or late night talk shows in general) to read your poems. (The poem on grandma, or any of them.) Facing the grin, the jokes, the laughter, (that raucous Impure spirit,) your poems wouldn’t have chance, would they?

A poem by Allen Ginsberg about how the asshole is holy would not do well on Letterman, either.

This is the dilemma impurity always faces—there is always greater impurity (comedy) which will dissolve yours, even if your impurity (you feel) has a kind of religious purity. (The Holy Asshole).

This dilemma is actually the secret which smiling purists hold dear. It comforts them.

Poe: there are some things of which no jest can be made.

We might despair as we think, “impure” is so dominant in poetry today, what chance do any poems have?

However, taste (which Poe said was the key to poetry) does change. The Muse may yet uncloud her mind.

THE POOR

For William Logan

The poor will never be in my poems.

First, there’s the sentimental factor,

which critics can never abide.

Like cliché, the sentimental is the kiss of death.

Second, whatever is poor about me may as well hide.

Third, the poor trigger three rhetorical tropes:

communism, when the poor are not to blame for being poor,

cheap melodrama, when they are,

and money-saving tips.

The whole point of poetry

is that you are never poor. You lie

on the couch, remembering the daffodils,

you lift your head up with Shakespeare

as he points you to the right comparisons.

It is always this way with poetry.

You enter a poem by Keats

and are immediately wealthy.

MY GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER WAS A JERK

All of a sudden I am hearing things.

My experience is writing poetry.

I know—from living long

and sadly examining

the pessimistic wrong

which tortured my ancestors—

joyous poetry which could have been,

the washing of leather shoes with gin.

Experience can finally see

genius—its spontaneity

in the end, in the end!

Every thing I see

is a reaction to a spasm a moment before.

Roaring cleared a space—

this nothing I see was made from more.

A desert is here. Am I found?

I hear a great noise

but what the noise destroyed

is the real sound.

IF I REPLY TO YOU

If I reply to you, it will be another poem

so I will stay silent.

The philosophical mind

(by philosophical I do not mean knowing,

but endlessly open and curious)

gathers all that’s necessary for the poem,

(the poem the only respite from sad reality now).

As a poet, I require neither occasion, theme nor technique—

merely the experience of my mind,

that, having left companions and lovers and family so far behind

I could easily be accused of a crime

even though—is it too strange? The tone?—

I am infinitely happy

and infinitely alone.

AT FIRST WE DID NOT PLAN TO LOVE

At first we did not plan to love;

books of lieder piled by pianos did not exist,

planning itself was all;

shadowy and hungry, we wanted to survive;

it surprised us when our race turned beautiful and tall

and now even taller contestants for beautiful daughters

made pleas. Mothers tearfully assented

as fat husbands peered from the waters.

Time knew there was time for love

and even the buried dreamed of love—

that’s what all did when they were sacrificed,

though no one said what the sacrificed were thinking;

only the lucky imagined,

and people held still for the sacrifice.

In helpless wonder and humility

after the fighting, weary under the trees,

the prophets, old, broken, knew

life would argue, trends of modernity flash,

but nothing—nothing—would stop you.

MY HOBBY IS STARING

I, the more ugly, brought you up from the ugly

into my beautiful eyes—

which saw you for what you were.

Over a period of eleven days

we forgot your ugly disguise.

A hideous mouth became kissable—

teeth knew to wait behind tongue and lip,

breasts, by no means perfect, perfected

by a symbolism I maintained,

in the moonlight, when it rained,

grew by my staring and tasting,

and all our anxiety waited on a well-timed quip;

wit had a part in lambasting.

We laughed, and knew,

you and I could be planned,

if I succumbed to you,

with you succumbing, a little more, to me,

as portrayed in old, stiff, books

which lied about sex and history.

We were unique. This wasn’t going to happen again.

We wanted to love for eleven days.

And it was ten.

WHEN THE FAMOUS WERE NOT FAMOUS

I asked the god of love: what is the highest bliss?

and the god said, “to be completely famous,”

and I had other questions—but this?

Fame is the highest bliss?

Fame? Why would the love-god say this?

I prefer: is food or drink closer to an actual kiss?

When you leave off sighing,

must love descend to lying?

Is love dangerous?

I had a feeling Love would promote the kiss.

Wouldn’t Love rather be saying this?

“The shy-at-first, intimate kiss

is love—and life’s—most extraordinary bliss.”

But Love explained: “Fame must be complete,

so everything the lovers do is sweet.

There are mysteries which pertain

even to those well-known.

Love with these is always over-blown.

Love, even the highest love, must fall

if there are any secrets at all.

Love is a wild proclaiming: I love you!

I love you! and the words

must run to the nests of all the birds.

To kiss and talk with a beautiful face

is love. It leaves you no other place

for accomplishments, for other kinds of fame.”

I listened to love carefully. Food,

in some quarters, is it. Or being in the mood.

I finally met Rosalinda. She was tame.

I stood by a blowing sea. I couldn’t move.

After that, I didn’t know if I could ever love.

NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT

When you accepted this one horror as good

a small leak in your splendid ship

caused you to drown

and still you think you are sailing

with seaweed around your neck

and gray, bloated face, defending

the horror you accepted—the leak

you should have repaired

is now what you feel and speak.

Your life poisoned by one idea

which proudly got through.

Moving away from me at the speed of light,

a beautiful political cult got you.

THE KAMA SUTRA FOR THE HIDEOUSLY UGLY

The Kama Sutra for the Hideously Ugly is not something I will ever read.

Technique is all very good, but beauty’s what I need.

It’s a complicated subject—why

does beauty matter? What advantage for my eye?

Whether I roam through the words of my poetry

or look for food—

what do I even mean by beauty? A strange mood?

Something I love for itself—and not for me?

I don’t know what beauty is good for—

I shouldn’t talk about it anymore.

I’ll write something beautiful for my reader

before they kill—for their glorious leader.

Beauty can be as simple as sleeping on the ground

or a poem—and the poem’s sound.


THE ONES I READ

The ones I read have done for me

far more than I could do for myself.

Yet only I know all that’s in front of me,

all that I am; nothing in my poetry

proves them superior to me—

but if it does, it only proves they did nothing;

ignorant, they lay there, while I fed on them:

Homer, Horace, God, John Milton.

I felt I was falling asleep in their works

and their dreams converted my mind

to one able to feel their breezes

and wander in their streams, every tree

of theirs I studied, producing leaves for me.

And I gain from their minds, poetry,

that is now, in point of fact, my mind,

so their very verses are my landscape,

my personality, instantaneously

leading you to think

I am what I know, I am what I drink,

these walls the bones of poets dead

by this poem built and illustrated,

dipped in eyestrain that was theirs,

capturing their sacrifice and cares,

kindly and with gestures new

that are them and fool you.

1968: WHEN ROCK BECAME ALL BUSINESS

The circular reasoning of old man Depp’s cheerleaders: Depp’s failed marriage and failing career got a boost because social media hated on Amber Heard in a jury trial saturated by social media, “proving” Depp’s failed marriage and failing career was all the fault of Amber Heard.

Wow, such a vindication for Mr. Depp.

A far more complex and interesting scenario: (because 1960s not 2020s) the Dionysian god Jim Morrison and his jealous assassin, Mick Jagger.

There’s a no-nonsense, British, punk rock, animus which doesn’t like Jim Morrison. I met an English, punk rock fan, playwright at the Iowa Workshop in the early 80s and when I said I liked the Doors, he spit out, “they’re depressing. Hello I love you, let me jump in your grave.” OK, I thought.

I remember reading (a long time ago) that Mick Jagger saw the Doors concert at the Hollywood Bowl in July 5th of 1968 and said they were “boring.” Maybe they were. Doors live shows were known to not always be good. I pretty much shrugged when I heard Mick’s opinion.

Apparently—sorting things out from fairly reliable hearsay—Jagger (with a group which included Stones producer Jimmy Miller and Marianne Faithful) flew to LA—immediately after finishing Beggars Banquet—in a mad fit of jealousy, to check out the Doors. Mick offered Jim powerful LSD in hopes of sabotaging Jim’s historical performance at the Hollywood Bowl, the prestigious arena reserved for jazz and classical music titans. Not only that, Jagger watched the Hollywood Bowl concert from the front row with Jim’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, on his lap. Another rumor in this context: it was Marianne Faithful who brought the heroin to Paris (from where the Stones were recording Exile On Main Street in the south of France) which ended up killing Jim.

Beggars Banquet was considered a “comeback” album by the Stones, but this was p.r. hack news, typical of most rock “journalism.” The heralded “comeback” in 1968 by the Stones was nothing of the sort.

First, their 1967 album was, despite some bad reviews by those same rock “journalist” hacks, a gorgeous record, including stunning tracks, such as “2000 Light Years From Home,” the haunting quality of which the Stones would never duplicate again. 1967 is, according to many, the nadir of the Stones. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is corporate industry execs talking. Listen closely to “2000 Light Years From Home.” The drumming alone on this recording is superb, the exact feel of which was later used to energize what is considered their best song: “Gimme Shelter.” This detail alone, along with the song’s overall magnificence, makes “2000 Light Years From Home” a candidate for Best Stones Record. (Most Stones fans would laugh at this. I don’t care.) There was no need to effect a “comeback” from what they did in 1967.

Second, 1968 saw the steep decline of the Stones’ founder and multi-instrumental, musical, genius, Brian Jones—nothing “comeback” about that, either. The Stones turned back into a blues cover band after Brian Jones’ death in 1969. It’s no secret that Brian was reviled and shunned by Keith and Mick (perhaps justifiably). It’s also true the 1960s Stones catalog is stamped with the songwriting credits, “Jagger/Richards” somewhat falsely—how false is difficult to tell. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts quietly made it clear: Jagger and Richards did not write every “Jagger/Richards” song.

The Beatles gave us lots of “John songs” and “Paul songs” (even as they were marked “Lennon/McCartney”) and there are tons of anecdotes on how Beatle songs were written. On the recent Beatles documentary, we see the song “Get Back,” something Paul was fooling around with, become the song we all know—and note how the input of the other 3 Beatles was crucial, even though it is “Paul’s song” (and Lennon gets official songwriting credits with Paul.)

Stones lore, by contrast, is a songwriting mystery—there is not one identifiable song written, from start to finish, by either Mick or Keith. The Stones apparently had “ideas” the whole band worked on. There is one Stones songwriting anecdote—and only one—which gets repeated over and over again (Beatles gossip features hundreds of popular songwriting stories) and that’s Keith waking up and finding the riff to “Satisfaction” on his tape recorder. The Stones first self-written hit (released January, 1965), “Last Time” (Jagger/Richards) features an insistent riff which “makes” the song. The guitarist who plays (and wrote?) this hit-making riff is Brian Jones.

One more anecdote: Thanks to a famous French filmmaker, there’s a clip of Mick, Keith, and Brian working on “Sympathy for the Devil” from Beggars Banquet; the three are sitting in a circle with Brian and Keith each strumming an acoustic guitar to the song-in-process. Mick, sans instrument, is focused, not on Keith, but on what Brian Jones is doing.

Finally, this Stones “comeback” occurred in the following context: touring (in sports arenas while selling merchandise) not songwriting, the rock industry bigwigs figured out, was the way to get rich. This meant Jagger, dancing about in large venues like the Hollywood Bowl, was the “comeback” formula. The shy, self-effacing, genius of a Brian Jones was no longer needed. Jagger ostensibly flew to LA to meet Morrison so he could get tips on performing for large audiences—the Stones had not toured in 15 months. Morrison, lying on his motel bed, resting up for the concert on July 5, listened to Jagger say he was ashamed of his dancing. The witness to this meeting reported that Jim (a newcomer threatening to usurp Jagger as the world’s greatest lead singer) asked Mick about Brian Jones and Jagger rolled his eyes, saying Keith was now with Brian’s ex-girlfriend. The Doors were on the verge of becoming bigger than the Stones in the summer of 1968; that August, “Hello I Love You” hit no. 1, Jose Feliciano’s 1968 cover of “Light My Fire” (1967) was a top 5 hit, and the Doors would begin a successful European tour in September.

How did Morrison do on LSD with Jagger (and Pam) scrutinizing him from the front row? There were complaints he didn’t work the crowd and more or less simply sang. The press said Jim was “boring.”

Jim’s Hollywood Bowl performance was stellar. He smirked a little. If he was unnerved by Jagger and Pam in the audience, or hindered by drug use, it was difficult to tell. Jim was a shaman, oblivious to human concerns and the vain, businessman’s world of Mick Jagger—and this is perhaps one of the reasons that Jim is the greatest front man ever. This is not to take anything away from Mr. Jagger, a tremendous musical force.

One word about the Doors in general: they really were transcendent. The Doors were on another level. Not better. But significantly different. Theatrical, but not in a cheap way. Oddly, strangely, the chemistry of this foursome moved the band beyond the rock template, even though that’s mostly what they were doing. Miraculously, they were almost classical. Not faux classical—like prog rock or jazz fusion, which is not classical at all, and which the Doors themselves sometimes fell into, in undisciplined stretches on stage. On the tight-rope of near-failure, the Doors intimated the touch, the mood, the attitude, the feel, of classical music.

Morrison 1, Jagger 0.

MODELS

Models know this to be true:

What’s real is how it looks to you.

Trust best what the eye can tell:

You don’t need a sound or smell.

The fluoride made her lose her hair

from frequent showering; you shouldn’t care

how clean you are—

How you look gets you into the car.

Houses know this to be true:

What’s real is how these look to you.

Flowers hanging by the windows.

Sun and shadows hide

domestic tragedy. Will you come inside?

TELL US HOW THINGS REALLY ARE

Tell us how things really are, poet.

The smells, the nails of the dogs on the floor,

—the pups want food, to be let outside—

O what does everybody want now?

The fraction, the beyond, the pain others know

more than you. The movement of clouds

has been lately even more slow.

What is it, poet, that you can describe? Life

is not like this, is it? I thought a poem

might describe an actual sorry life: the confusion.

Not the music of Keats. Not Milton’s illusion.

Something we can be certain is real.

Give us that. Not what these women waiting on the staircase feel.

HOW IS IT

How is it that everyone looks exactly as they should look,

except me?

It’s impossible!

I had to say this eventually.

You are getting old. You will die.

But not me.

Those photographs of you—are you,

unfortunately.

But look at this photograph!

That’s not me.

I have warm blue eyes. You can’t really see my eyes.

Seeing? Seeing—sorry, da Vinci—isn’t wise.

Every astronomer knows the world plays its tricks.

I am a golden bee;

my beauty and my use

hidden by sticks.

WAS THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY ANTHOLOGY A FRAUD?

The New American Poetry: as American as Cold War propaganda.

The New American Poetry 1945-1960, features, with the bios and the actual poems, a short preface by Donald Allen, the editor, who was, as far as I can tell, a former English teacher from Iowa and a Grove Press suit.

Mr. Allen is the man.

He makes every American, Cold War-era, avant-garde, poetry, gesture one could expect: half-truths, name-dropping, geography, it’s like jazz! (No formal, literary, apology needed.) It is what it is, daddy-o!

In his preface, Mr. Allen tells his readers it is difficult for him to put his anthology together, since so little of the poetry he includes is actually published. He all but admits the project is a fraud.

Anthologies reflect established taste. This anthology attempted to impose it, simply by offering to the public poets—except for Allen Ginsberg due to an obscenity trial—the public had not seen.

This anthology was not the Zeitgeist but the ghost of the Zeitgeist, the most insidious type of propaganda there is. The poetry was not the poets’—but Donald Allen’s.

The poets compiled by Mr. Donald Allen did not need to be good. It would be odd if they were good. The avant-garde act was the anthology itself—and this would only make sense if the poets were bad. Genius.

The first 60 pages are devoted to Charles Olson and Robert Duncan: semi-learned lunatic raving, which sets the table wonderfully, because it makes the average poets who follow in the volume seem good. More genius.

The mad house which greets the reader in the opening 60 pages of New American Poetry 1945 – 1960 also provided a wonderful opportunity for cult followers: just pretend to understand the rants of Charles Olson—the Black Mountain/Gloucester cult figure—and you, a nobody college student, who thinks Pound is cool in a comic book sort of way, now achieves sudden, secret-handshake, superiority. Still more genius.

The Top Poet of the Cool New Poetry Cult, of course, was Pound. One cannot read of the poets who gained a bit of notoriety in the period which this classic of Modernist poetry anthology covers, 1945 (when Pound was in a cage and close to being shot by soldiers who risked their lives fighting the Nazis) to 1960 (Pound won the Bollingen Prize in 1949) without scenes of religious-type visits by young poets to the hospital of the insane to see Pound (whose life was saved by the official interventions of his politically reactionary friend, T.S. Eliot.)

Ezra Pound (b 1885) himself wrote (translated, stole?) a few good poems (and there are a handful of good poems in Allen’s anthology) but good poetry isn’t the point—the gist is that Pound’s long work, the Cantos, affirms that one only need put in a great deal of educated effort towards a poetry project in any sort of haphazard manner one pleases. This is to be “modern,” allowing one to escape the inhibiting accomplishments of the past and bring oneself into the 20th century world of letters (there must be such a “world” after all) which must have its figures who spread influence—these of course cannot exist abstractly.

What I have stated truthfully and clearly in a negative manner, can—by looking at it from a slightly different angle—be flipped on its head, and seen in a positive light. I completely understand this.

Scholarship places Dante in Florence. Scholarship names Dante’s contemporary associates. Likewise, scholarship places Ginsberg in San Francisco. You see immediately where this is going.

The million anecdotes of Ginsberg—his connected friends will scribble poetry—in and around San Francisco, or New York, or any locale deemed significant, becomes scholarship, which, like a Visiting Deity, connects all and makes sacred all which my factual description offends, making me an outcast more damned than any clown who might strip naked in public poetry readings.

But to pursue the negative just a little further:

And so the question naturally arises, “who are the young, new, avant-garde poets?” I’m glad you asked, says the Iowa, avant-garde, anthologist, car salesman, hoping one doesn’t wonder what the old avant-garde can possibly have to do with the new avant-garde—if, in fact, avant-garde is a real word. Was Shakespeare or Keats avant-garde before they were published? Hush, don’t ask these questions.

For here is the real nub of the matter. The “avant-garde” or “new writing” label is of no use to those who simply love poetry, who swoon and marvel at verses Keats wrote at 20 (“I Stood Tiptoe,” “Sleep and Poetry”) and look at a little prose poem by Denise Levertov at 40 which they really want to like—but think, “well, okay, I guess this is pretty good…”

The ancient poets used all the same strategies which the “new” poets claim for themselves as “new,” whether it is suggestive imagery, metrical deficiency, a baroque manner, or plain, rude speech. To place a line of poetry in front of one’s eyes and to judge it as pleasing or not, has as much to do with the city of San Francisco or the adventures of Ezra Pound, as it does with Britney Spears or yesterday’s ball scores.

The fame of Shakespeare does not belong the individual who was Shakespeare—who once upon a time also wrote in a “new” manner—Shakespeare is an excellence which the wider public knows and loves and understands as such. It has nothing at all to do with derobed individuals featured in Life magazine.

Here is how Donald Allen’s preface begins:

“In the years since the war American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period. It is a period that has seen published many of the finest achievements of the older generation: William Carlos Williams’…Ezra Pound’s…H.D.’s later work culminating in her long poem…and the recent work of E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens.”

Williams, Pound, H.D., Cummings, Moore, and Stevens all belonged to the same tiny, 1920s, circle of well-connected friends who met at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr, or Harvard—all of them—except Stevens—“won” the annual “Dial Prize,” a large sum of money handed to them individually by a wealthy patron, Scofield Thayer, whom Eliot befriended at prep school (Eliot also “won” a “Dial Prize.”) Stevens and Williams belonged to a tinier group which included the poet Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s dad). They were only read by, and published by, each other, until they were turned into syllabus copy in universities by a few well-placed academic carpet-baggers from the South (the Fugitive/New Critics, as it turned out). The preface continues:

“A wide variety of poets of the second generation, who emerged in the thirties and forties, have achieved their maturity in this period: Elizabeth Bishop [she knew Dial editor, Moore; taught at Harvard]…Robert Lowell…[Lowell left Harvard to study with the influential New Critics; was friends with Bishop; Lowell taught for Paul Engle at Iowa]…”

“And we can now see that a strong third generation, long awaited but only slowly recognized, has at last emerged.”

The anthology editor finds a “history” angle to puff his offering. I’m sure this patter (he was smart enough not to go on at length) impressed the undergraduates—and even impressed the graduate students (creative writing) who picked up the book. (A college book, purporting, dishonestly, to be an anti-college book.)

Back to the preface:

“These new younger poets have written a large body of work, but most of what has been published so far has appeared only in a few little magazines, as broadsheets, pamphlets, and limited editions, or circulated in manuscript; a larger amount of it has reached its growing audience through poetry readings.”

Then we get from Mr. Donald Allen a writ-large, avant-garde falsehood:

“As it has emerged in Berkeley and San Francisco, Boston, Black Mountain, and New York City, it has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse.”

This “one common characteristic” is not a characteristic at all. 

The three generations of poetry to which Donald Allen refers in his preface lived and breathed academia and are known only because of academia; Pound and Williams were not read until they were put in a textbook, Understanding Poetry, edited by two New Critics, used everywhere in schools—four editions—from the 1930s to the 1970s. Were Shakespeare Keats, Poe, Byron, the Brownings, Tennyson, Dickinson, professors?

How can Donald Allen say the “one common characteristic” was a “total rejection” (“total”?) “of all (“all”?) those qualities typical of academic verse.”? What does this even mean? Which “qualities of academic verse?” Does he mean the use of words and their meanings?

I understand Donald Allen refers to “qualities” and not to plentiful associations within academia itself, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is what he wants to imply, as well—and neither implication holds any water. To be sexy, his new poets need to be (falsely) separated from academia. But alas. They were as academic as they could be. It was precisely like Charles Bernstein, a generation later, claiming to despise “Official Verse Culture” while constantly angling for it.

Did college students keep poetry afloat in the 19th century? No—that would be the 20th century.

Here is Peter Coyote remembering the Donald Allen anthology phenomenon:

“When I was in college, my friends and I (the black turtle-neck sweater, Camel cigarette crowd), were all fledgling writers and took writing and reading extremely seriously. Our “bible” was Don Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-60. We tore that book apart, reading everything, dog-earing pages, sharing quotes, and inhaling the works of Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure and others. When I left college I came to San Francisco State to pursue a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, largely because Robert Duncan was teaching there.”

Allen’s “the one characteristic” assertion of anti-academia is without merit. The “one common characteristic” of Allen’s poets was not the rejection, but the embracing, of academia—whether support, influence, milieu, or “types of verse.”

He is telling an untruth, even if Donald Allen means that the poets in his anthology rejected time-honored poems which happened to be taught in school long after their authors had passed away. If this is what Mr. Allen meant, he doesn’t quite say it this way—and it would certainly not be in his best interest to say it this way. He wants to give the impression that his anthology’s poets belong to the “open road.”

It’s a myth, of course. The 20th century “open road” leads straight to graduate degrees in creative writing.

But Donald Allen knew exactly how he wanted to present his book. In a thorough, but brilliantly understated manner, he did just that, and as an editor of these poets he deserves kudos, if not cooties.

Another brilliant move was to put an American flag on the cover. America was a big and sexy place, especially in 1960, so this didn’t hurt. Only American poets were allowed in the anthology.

Mr. Allen also divides his anthology into five parts: Black Mountain, Black Mountain, Black Mountain, Black Mountain, and Black Mountain.

The essence of the five groups is captured here in a nutshell (from the preface, again):

“While both publication and instruction at Black Mountain College align Robert Duncan with the first group, he actually emerged in 1947-1949 as a leading poet of the second group, the San Francisco Renaissance…”

Some of Mr. A’s unknown poets met at Harvard— before they drifted to New York. Some went to college together in the Pacific Northwest—before they migrated to San Francisco. Some hitchhiked to Black Mountain (when they weren’t hitchhiking to see Pound) and some thumbed it back to Black Mountain. We are really not talking about a large nation, so much as a small clique, with a few women and one black man.

Young poets will drift about, but Mr. Donald Allen is clever enough to give his Grove Press flock various geographical identities, so he can assign a “San Francisco Renaissance” here and a “New York School” there, to the poets who were writing the kinds of poems which no one, except Grove press—and their own cool cat companions—wanted to read or publish.

Unpublished poets—imagine the nerd factor!—drifting about, with a few magnetic, cult-leader, mentors, Ginsberg, Olson, Duncan, keeping the classroom in line. Donald Allen made this mess seem renowned and sexy. It led to polished publications and decent jobs in academia.

Pure genius.

Nice job, Mr. Allen!

And screw you, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia and David Lehman!*

Scarriet Editors

Salem, MA June 11, 2022

*Donald Hall, with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, edited the “rival” anthology, The New Poets of England and America, 1957. Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” 1991, savaged the state of poetry in America as (just like Allen’s anthology) incestual, institutional, egotistical, and lacking critical vigor. David Lehman (BAP editor 1988 to present) is hated for those he leaves out. All are considered too mainstream.

DO WE KNOW ANYTHING?

“Two old maids sittin’ in the sand, each one wishing the other was a man” —Black Eyed Susie old folk song

As I was lounging on a beach alone,

a small commercial cove not made for swimming,

I noticed, in my daydreaming, aircraft flying overhead

and wondered where this or that one was going,

determining as best I could the flight direction,

as I lay near Boston, on Salem, Massachusetts, sands.

My farthest trip was ten hours to Hungary.

I hate to fly. A vacation to Hawaii

is considered a grand thing, but to spend

all that time trapped in an airplane!

What’s wrong with my little beach here?

Then I was struck with a marvelous dilemma,

and forgot vacations and myself. I calmed down

and I was already delightfully calm.

I thought: if one can fly in a tin can far around the world in 10 hours,

does this indicate the planet is small?

Yes. Only 10 hours? The planet is small.

But then I thought. No. If a plane flying that fast takes ten hours to get to Hungary,

this means the planet we live on is big.

I found it delicious to think I was dealing with pure fact

In trying to know the simplest fact of all:

How easy. Is something big or small?

It is impossible to know this.

I know why factual arguments fail.

I closed my eyes. With good and bad as guides,

I continue to tell my tale.

PHYSICAL IS THE DREAM

Physical ability is precisely like a dream—

physical ability decays.

We wake up to the mind—which is no dream.

Youthful I am, inside the mind’s maze,

as attractive dreams and bodies disappear.

(You once entered my dream with perfect skin.)

Bodies seem real. Even now they do.

But the mind never seemed like it was entirely there.

How is it that what seemed real is not?

Your physical self but a dream!

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge.

My mind fears mind, too, is physical: a decaying dream, too.

I stand aghast. I witness the death of you.

Your mind inhabited the physical and now it, too, is gone.

What sound did your mind, as mind, make?

Did that sound travel on and on?

If the mind is ageless, noting everything age,

is the mind eternal?

The mind feels everything the body feels. Love. Rage.

With confidence, I believe my mind is not a dream.

The body, like the dream itself, is the dream.

We over-value the ripe. We over-value the now.

A dream was the body that was mine. But how?

FIRST THERE WAS

First came the poets of the doorway,

then came the poets of the dictionary,

then the poets of the tape recorders,

then the underground poets of France,

then T.s. Eliot holding an envelope,

then poets of typewriters,

then neo-Romantics with tape recorders, the Beats.

Does it help when reality mugs your poem—

you become lame and you write about it?

I’M SCARED! you write in all caps, I NEED A DRINK!

The first of five groups was led by Charles Olson,

the first one in New American Poetry, like a cult

those meetings and influences. He was just a loon.

Now it doesn’t matter it must end. The 50s

were ruined by the 60s, just as the 60s were cut in half by the 70s

summer of ’59 the New York School was high high high

a giant homosexual sigh

“along the keyboard to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”

but 1959 turned into the 60s and soon Sunflower Sutra just seemed sentimental,

we saw Kerouac drunk on TV. Blackburn? What was he doing in England?

Creeley was livid, the museum broke up.

trim trim trim

Ashbery kept sweetly to himself, thrived.

THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF HAROLD BLOOM’S BEST AMERICAN POETRY ANTHOLOGY WHICH SNUBBED ADRIENNE RICH

The late Harold Bloom, 25 years ago, was asked by David Lehman—who recently ‘liked’ one of my poems on FB—to compile a Best of the Best American Poetry 1988 — 1997 and Bloom complied, but his compilation completely omitted the 1996 Best American Poetry volume by the late lesbian poet, Adrienne Rich. Bloom wrote a scathing introduction saying political correctness was ruining poetry and destroying universities.

Bloom’s 10 year BAP anniversary anthology considered 10 volumes by these 10 guest editors: John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Glűck, A. R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich, and James Tate, 1988 to 1997.

There are several stories here.

The headline grabber, obviously: Bloom snubbed every choice by Adrienne Rich (she did find a few good poems: Marilyn Chin, Martin Espada)—Rich, a distinguished poet who was awarded the Yale Younger Poet prize by king-maker W.H. Auden.

Bloom could have included one or two poems and moved on, but the most famous literary critic of his day decided to make a statement. Series editor Lehman suggested what he thought were worthy poems from 1996, but succumbed to Bloom’s editorial fiat. Lehman has turned out to be a wise editor for BAP. He doesn’t encourage controversy, but he doesn’t run from it, either.

Are you sitting down? Here is Bloom, from his introduction:

“That 1996 anthology is one of the provocations for this introduction, since it seems to me a monumental representation of the enemies of the aesthetic who are in the act of overwhelming us. It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. I ardently wish that I were being hyperbolical, but in fact I am exercising restraint…”

“Sincerity, as the divine Oscar Wilde assured us, is not nearly enough to generate a poem. Bursting with sincerity, the 1996 volume is a Stuffed Owl of bad verse, and of much badness that is neither verse nor prose.”

“[Literary] Criticism…is dying…replaced…by ‘cultural criticism,’ a would-be social science.”

“When I was a young teacher of poetry at Yale, the English Romantic poets were Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats, as well as Blake and Shelley, whose place in the canon I helped restore. On hundreds of campuses now, these poets have to share attention with the ‘women Romantic poets.'”

Bloom doesn’t help himself here. Why can’t women poets (or poets of color, etc) be studied, too? Poems ought to matter as much as poets—there is no such thing as a small group of poets—even if it’s the magnificent Coleridge, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Blake—who wrote only perfect poems. Women writers sold as well as their male counterparts in the 19th century. If Shelley is being canceled, that’s one thing; to ostentatiously lock the clubhouse door—on some lesser known women poets (some of whom are worth reading)—seems a bit much.

“I have seen my profession dying for over a quarter century now, and in another decade it may be dead.”

“Walt Whitman was not only the strongest of our poets…but…the most betrayed…Whitman’s poetry does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermetic, nuanced, and more onanistic even than homoerotic, which critics cannot accept, particularly these days when attempts are made to assimilate the Self-Reliant Whitman into what calls itself the Homosexual Poetic.”

“Authentic American poetry is necessarily difficult; it is our elitist art, though that elite has nothing to do with social class, gender, erotic preference, ethnic strain, race, or sect. ‘We live in the mind,’ Stevens said, and our poetry is either Emersonian or anti-Emersonian, but either way is informed by Emerson’s dialect of power:”

And here Bloom quotes a passage from Emerson’s “Experience” which takes no prisoners in its radical assertion that within the sanctity of the self, everything is allowed. Emerson: “We believe in ourselves, as we do not believe in others. We permit all things to ourselves, and that which we call sin in others, is experiment for us. It is an instance of our faith in ourselves, that men never speak of crime as lightly as they think: or, every man thinks a latitude safe for himself, which is nowise to be indulged to another. The act looks very differently on the inside, and on the outside; in its quality, and its consequences. Murder in the murderer is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or fright him from his ordinary notice of trifles: it is an act quite easy to be contemplated…For there is no crime to the intellect.”

Whoa. Mr. Emerson. Are you really saying this?

But let us be alive to what Emerson (and Bloom, who astutely rode to profit two or three important ideas) is saying here: 1) Human beings are wicked 2) Poetry’s highest calling is to energize itself by both using and getting to the bottom of, human wickedness. Poetry is best when it is an uncompromising vessel for every kind of expression, encouraging a divine individuality of which the “good” and the “fit” and the “beautiful” have no necessary part (though they may). This echoes Plato’s embrace of “madness” as ultimately necessary for creativity (and love).

Poe thought Emerson, and broad, cultural, poetry formulas like this, crazy, recommending instead “method” in the hands of a calm practitioner—think of the “escape from personality” per Eliot. “Beauty” (non-violent madness) was necessary in poetry for Poe—“beauty” wasn’t just one arrow in the quiver; it was the arrow. Emerson, seen through the Poe lens, was hyperbolic and unrealistic, like an ugly guy trying to get laid, enforcing fantastic laws on the universe. One can see here the Poe/Emerson divide which was so important to Bloom (who also apparently thought of himself as an ugly guy trying to get laid). Bloom embraced Emerson-as-Faust—and had zero patience for Poe’s buzzkill.

Bloom couldn’t reconcile.

Back to Bloom’s introduction:

“Every attempt to socialize writing and reading fails; poetry is a solitary art, more now than ever, and its proper audience is the deeply educated, solitary reader…”

The “solitary art” for the “solitary reader” recalls what Bloom just said above: his “onanistic” (it means masturbation) description of Whitman.

Bloom prefers the poetry of the private and squishy, objecting to broader political amorousness. The Yale professor is quite certain that concern for the “injured” belongs to him. Is he right?

“The Resenters prate of power, as they do of race and gender: these are careerist stratagems and have nothing to do with the insulted and injured, whose lives will not be improved by our reading the bad verses of those who assert that they are the oppressed.”

Bloom ends his introduction by quoting from “The Poet,” in which Emerson lauds “insanity,” “questionable facts,” “angels, devils, magic, astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and…departure from routine.” According to Emerson, the best is when the poets, “liberating gods,” have it that “dream delivers us to dream, and, while the drunkenness lasts, we sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.”

The radical individualist will have his private, drunken, transcendent dream. This is the essence of Bloom and Emerson (kind of like geniuses on LSD). Here, then, is their democratic, demonic, elitism of lonely difficulty, where the morals of political correctness declaimed by those like Adrienne Rich are cast out as too “sincere” (Wilde).

Bloom is correct. One cannot have the wayward freedom of the private dream and moralizing politics at the same time; they are too antithetical.

But, in the end, there’s nothing really politically intransigent or personally bitter about this quarrel. (As far as I can tell, Rich never responded to Bloom’s attack.) It’s an academic disagreement only, except Bloom’s academy isn’t some 19th century prison: Bloom protests too much; his and Emerson’s pleas for “drunkenness” are more than satisfied in the Humanities, today—which is no longer a Latin-and-Greek, theological, boot camp. Bloom’s political beliefs (leftist, liberal) mirror Rich and the “Resenters”—who, according to Bloom, hate real poetry.

Adrienne Rich, in her introduction, lays out the method for her selections in the very first paragraph:

“This is a gathering of poems that one guest editor, reading through mailboxesful of journals that publish poetry, found especially urgent, lively, haunting, resonant, demanding to be reread.” (Italics mine)

What could be more bland? “mailboxesful of journals that publish poetry…” It sounds quaint. Especially next to this by Bloom, which is how his introduction begins, and which made Rich smile, I’m sure:

“My epigraph [They have the numbers; we, the heights.] is from Thucydides and is spoken by the Spartan commander at Thermopylae. Culturally, we are at Thermopylae: the multi-culturalists, the hordes of camp-followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commisars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists—all stand below us. They will surge up and we may be overcome; our universities are already travesties, and our journalists parody our professors of “cultural studies.” For just a little longer, we hold the heights, the realm of the aesthetic.”

Wow. 25 years ago—this actually rang across the book marts and the halls of academe.

Bloom ends his first paragraph by defining his criterion for the 75 poems he chose (leaving out Rich’s selections):

“These pass my personal test for the canonical: I have reread them with pleasure and profit.” (Italics mine)

Neither Bloom nor Rich is an Einstein. This is not Baudelaire. Or Edgar Poe. Or T.S. Eliot. This BAP battle has one professor imagining himself as a Spartan commander against another professor who thinks L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poems written by people of color would be an improvement for a Best American Poetry volume. (She writes “Language” with the stars. Do people still do that?)

Here’s Rich, again, from her introduction:

“We need poetry as living language, the core of every language, something that is still spoken, aloud or in the mind, muttered in secret, subversive, reaching around corners, crumpled into a pocket, performed to a community, read aloud to the dying, recited by heart, scratched or sprayed on a wall.”

What say you, commander?

Rich and Bloom are both Emersonian—so no sparks flew, or could fly. Rich’s hip, “living language” pastiche is just Waldo sounding a little more like Paul Simon.

Still, there is a gulf, and here it is:

Bloom wants to preside over the chaotic dream of poetry and be its psychiatrist/critic—the Resenters (they care about freedom, too) don’t want to give Bloom that power; he represents to them exactly what their politics-meddling-with-poetry represents to him; both sides are radicals who differ only where the limited authority should be placed; Bloom wants it placed in him—who will decide which difficult, radical-individual, dream is in fact a good poem; Rich wants authority situated in a set of politically enlightened principles under which poetry can aspire, but not compete.

The final consideration is: how are Bloom’s selections? In his introduction, Bloom names four “major” poets represented in his Best of 1988 to 1997 anthology: Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, James Merrill, and May Swenson—who are no longer living, adding Ashbery and Ammons (then living) as worthy to be in their company.

But as Marjorie Perloff (she agreed with Bloom that Rich’s 1996 volume was aesthetically weak) pointed out (I paraphrase her) in her general response to Bloom in the Boston Review:

1) In his introduction, Bloom did not bring himself to mention any other poets in his Best anthology, focusing instead on Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Stevens, Hart Crane, and especially Emerson. (Bloom loves to quote the dead—who invariably make his points far better than he does.)

2) Bloom, like Rich, is mostly a culture critic, and therefore deserves blame for what he laments: the decline of hard-nosed, close-reading, aesthetics.

Two good points from Marjorie Perloff.

Bloom champions Ashbery—which would seem, at first blush, a little strange. Professor Bloom began his career defending Blake and Shelley; the traditional canon suits him, Bloom quotes Tennyson in his Best introduction as an example of beautiful poetry which transcends politics; Emerson, whom he adores, is always making easily understood (if sometimes snide and psychotic) points; and Shakespeare leads the Bloom parade—so what is it which attracts Bloom so much to this grinning, nonsensical, prose poetry, jokester, Ashbery? Isn’t Bloom afraid the Ashbery hipsters are laughing at him, and not with him?

Bloom was wise to include Ashbery in his canon.

First, Ashbery is apolitical. Bloom had to like that.

Second, Bloom’s avant-garde creds rose enormously by embracing the Harvard poet, who was liked by W.H. Auden. With Ashbery on his side, Bloom, from a distance at least, looks less like a dour, old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy.

Third, Ashbery is never guilty of the dreaded “sincerity”—in his poems, John Ashbery, the real person, is always hiding. If you hide who you are, well of course you can never be sincere. Ashbery learned this hide-John-Ashbery trick from the beginning and stuck to it—in a steady, unassuming manner, to the end of his career.

Finally, Ashbery’s stream-of-conscious, meandering, prose, poetry, is rhapsodic rather than digressive. Especially in lengthier pieces, the line between rhapsodic (good) and digressive (bad) is very fine, indeed; to pull off the former takes a real, but difficult-to-define, skill.

If this is a legitimate poetic talent—I’ve put my finger on it precisely with these two opposite terms (rhapsodic, digressive) which nevertheless hint at being one—then here is where the whole modern poetry experiment (dubious everywhere else) succeeds: in the strange rhapsody of Ashbery.

We can see this quality clearly in one of Ashbery’s shorter poems, selected by Bloom:

The Problem Of Anxiety

Fifty years have passed
since I started living in those dark towns
I was telling you about.
Well, not much has changed. I still can’t figure out
how to get from the post office to the swings in the park.
Apple trees blossom in the cold, not from conviction,
and my hair is the color of dandelion fuzz.

Suppose this poem were about you—would you
put in the things I’ve carefully left out:
descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily
people behave toward each other? Naw, that’s,
all in some book, it seems. For you
I’ve saved the descriptions of finger sandwiches,
and the glass eye that stares at me in amazement
from the bronze mantel, and will never be appeased.

This might be the best poem in the whole volume, but I also love “litany” by Carolyn Creeden, “Histoire” by Harry Matthews, “Manifest Destiny” by Jorie Graham, “Prophecy” by Donald Hall, “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Morning, Noon, and Night” by Mark Strand, “One Train May Hide Another” by Kenneth Koch, and “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone” by Galway Kinnell.

There is something to be said for the compilers art, for these extraordinary poems come from poets who also have published (never mind written) poems which are less than good.

The vanity of poets (who think all their poems are good) will get in the way of truly good poems, such that it may be said the honest anthologist is really the one person to whom poetry gives itself.

One “major” poet of Bloom’s, who to this author is overrated, is Ammons—his long poem included, “Garbage,” feels digressive, not rhapsodic. The reason? It’s sincere (Oscar Wilde—and Bloom agreeing with him—get this right).

From “Garbage:”

…(I hope) to live
from now on on in elegance and simplicity—

or, maybe, just simplicity—why shouldn’t I
at my age (63) concentrate on chucking the

advancements and rehearsing the sweetnesses of
leisure, nonchalance, and small-time byways: couple

months ago, for example, I went all the way
from soy flakes (already roasted and pressed)

and in need of an hour’s simmering boil
to be cooked) all the way to soybeans, the

pure golden pearls themselves, .65$ lb. dry: they
have to be soaked overnight in water and they

have to be boiled slowly for six hours—but
they’re welfare cheap, are a complete protein,

more protein by weight than meat, more”…

This is too sincere by half. Ammons is sharing. This is not rhapsodic. It’s digression.

Why Bloom could not tell the difference I am not really sure. But since Bloom was not a poet himself, and found no elegance except in quoting others—either the dead, or his colleague W. Jackson Bate, from whom he lifted his anxiety of influence theory—perhaps the Yale professor was finally an emotional, miserable, copying machine?

If we don’t separate out Ammons, we can’t see Ashbery clearly. The rhapsody of Ashbery and the digression of Ammons get confused. Aesthetics is blurry without the surgeon’s knife. Casual readers don’t get together and consult each other. Poems don’t talk. The Critic is necessary.

In a bit of irony, I am going to quote a definition of poetry from the 19th century, which answers to that rhapsody we sometimes get from Ashbery, a definition which Edgar Poe, of all people, said of it that this definition of poetry “embodies the sole true definition of what has been a thousand times erroneously defined.”

Here is the definition. It happens to likewise come from an anthologist in a preface to a poetry anthology:

“He who looks on Lake George, or sees the sun rise on Mackinaw, or listens to the grand music of a storm, is divested, certainly, for a time, of a portion of the alloy of his nature. The elements of power in all sublime sights and heavenly harmonies, should live in the poet’s song, to which they can be transferred only by him who possesses the creative faculty. The sense of beauty, next to the miraculous divine suasion, is the means through which the human character is purified and elevated. The creation of beauty, the manifestation of the real by the ideal, ‘in words that move in metrical array,’ is poetry.”

The author of this poetry definition is a man who called Whitman’s poetry “filth” and betrayed his friend, Edgar Poe.

Rufus Griswold.

If you don’t think the lyric Ashbery poem quoted above is sublime in the way Griswold describes, what do you think the “dark towns” are meant to invoke, or the unseen “you,” and what do you think the “eye” represents? As for “metrical array,” it is there, too: spondees pair up brilliantly with anapests in Ashbery’s sonnet-like work.

Well this is nuts. Bloom and Griswold, (along with Emerson) will long be remembered as deeply hostile to Poe. But here is Bloom, with the help of Griswold (and Poe nodding in agreement) hoisting Ashbery high over Adrienne Rich, guest editor of BAP 1996—who did not include Ashbery, or Ammons in her selections. But what I have outlined is really no crazier than anything poetry has given us since America became a nation (one which Rich did not like), including Spartan commander Bloom (from the “heights”) glowering down at professor Rich, the “people’s” 1996 BAP guest editor.

Are all the poems in the 1996 BAP, Rich, ed. inferior to those in the Best of BAP 1988-1997, Bloom, ed.? It would make things easier for critics if it were true. Suffice it to say there are poems Bloom chose from the first 10 volumes—he tended to choose longer poems (going for “difficulty,” I imagine)—which, like “Garbage” by Ammons, have their moments, but which ultimately strike me as pedantic, digressive and yawn-producing (though perhaps this merely indicates I’m not able to appreciate poetry on the “heights.”)

I think it’s safe to say that poems (which are not book-length epics) should be good to us immediately—we shouldn’t need to read a poem on and on for a “story” to develop.

Aesthetics should hit us in the face, and then, and only then, can the story “develop” in a way that pleases us.

Or, how about this? Arresting start, turn, great end: the sonnet.

There’s not much in the way of sonnet-like poems in these competing BAP volumes—except the Ashbery poem quoted (the “Naw” is the turn) from Bloom’s selection. “Like Most Revelations” by Richard Howard (16 lines) is admirable, but the turns are multiple and a little abstract. Richard Howard might be called Oscar Wilde-lite; he had some of the manner but not all of the wit of the great Wilde; unfortunately for 20th century poetry, there is not so much a difference—as the 20th century (great in the horrors of war, certainly) holds its own, but is mostly the 19th century—watered down.

Wouldn’t that be something if the “champion” in this instance were a traditional form poem—by John Ashbery? (Though the wise money is on Kinnell or Carolyn Creedon—stunning poems, really.)

Adrienne Rich’s 1996 volume avoids what Rich explicitly doesn’t like: “the columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line,” like the poem by W. S. Merwin, “Lament for the Makers” which Rich chose. Or Ammons, which she did not. Her selections, compared to Bloom’s, are shorter, edgier, conversational, graffiti-like, shape-y, too consciously attempting not to be digressive, perhaps.

Rich or Bloom? Academic brevity or academic length. It’s basically Emerson, either way.

WISDOM KEEPS INCREASING

Wisdom keeps increasing, but the good

keeps noting two wise camps are at odds,

which is good, good thinks, since this proves

wisdom only fuels what loves.

Good attracts evil—an iron law, which, understood,

is wisdom: the garden of Eden, the infant United States,

everything fresh and innocent looks

with Hopi Indian lenses

inside the leaves for the terrible beauty there.

It says it is what loves.

There, there, there.

HOW TO PUT YOUR PANTS ON IN THE MORNING

What kind of pants are we talking about?

Sweatpants? These which you slept in,

because even though it’s June, it was a little chilly last night?

How many days have you worn these now?

God, they’re comfortable. Cozy, but not too tight,

held up with a tie, not a fake leather belt

(reminder: you should buy a new belt, the one you have is starting to fall apart)

which chafes against your bony waist

(Gloriously skinny; you finally gained middle-aged weight, but your brief bout with Lyme took it off)

No I have no idea how many days in a row I’ve worn these.

(O Christ, one of these stream-of-consciousness poems? Are you kidding me?)

(but he still uses punctuation—what a nerd.)

Since I’ve been working remote, the days are a heavenly blur.

On Christmas day, 2019, imagine if someone had told me:

we’re sending you home, don’t worry about pants anymore, but yes, you’re keeping your job,

I would have crapped my pants—

the ones I no longer need to put on.

THERE IS NO TRUTH

It is what I always suspected:

Life is nothing but emotions and passions.

There is no truth available to any of us.

These learned arguments, the wit of mathematicians and philosophers,

science and its propositions, the axioms

coaxed out of storm-lit chaos,

are shadows, exciting us exactly like the other emotions.

We do what we are permitted to do by nothing, for nothing.

We fly to errands made by a poet for a song.

The love considered forbidden

is, by every utilitarian principle, not wrong.

Our reasoning is devilish. We were meant

for feelings only: virtue carved by secrecy

in the crowded avenue of our real intent,

as pleasure is randomly pursued

by the sponge of helpless conscience viewed,

in a sea of half-meant whispers and fading sounds.

UTILITY, OR, BEFORE THERE WAS MARX, THERE WAS BENTHAM

Young William Hazlitt, Romantic essayist, painter

“That we are not a poetical people has been asserted… Because it suited us to construct an engine in the first instance, it has been denied that we could compose an epic in the second. Because we were not all Homers in the beginning, it has been somewhat too rashly taken for granted that we shall be all Jeremy Benthams to the end.” –Edgar Poe

William Hazlitt (1778–1830) is a ghost who haunts Scarriet. This brilliant writer, who is mostly out of print, hated the Tories, loved liberty, lived in the United States as a boy (a beautiful Unitarian church in Boston was co-founded by William Hazlitt Sr.), glimpsed Napoleon (he was a fan), and published an essay called, “On the Pleasure of Hating.” Adam Smith taught his father, Jeremy Bentham was his landlord (where Milton once lived); Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats were friends. He was an excellent portrait painter. Women troubles, vindictive Tory magazines, and a less than tactful personality severely damaged his reputation.

In this essay, I’ll quote Hazlitt liberally on utilitarianism. Two resurrections at once.

Utilitarianism, a political philosophy mostly forgotten, gained traction all over the world as the American and French revolutions were defining democracy for the ages. It is safe to say one really cannot be a modern political thinker unless one has been tortured by the whole question of Utility, as it applies to logic and politics itself.

The paradox (Bentham and Mill, typical of the stubborn British, obstinately did not think it one) of Utlity is inescapable.

Utility is scientific democracy—calculating the most pleasure for the most people.

The triumph of utilitarian logic unfortunately cancels everything individual, local, Romantic, and usefully mad.

The philosophy of Bentham sees Hobbes and Hume trample Socrates and Christ into dust.

Hazlitt was certain Bentham was wrong. This ruined Hazlitt’s career.

Bentham’s philosophy was the excuse for the over-reach of Empire (Hazlitt lived and worked in the belly of the beast) as well as the logical engine of increasing democracy (and fashionable hedonism). Opposing Bentham left Hazlitt and other Platonists like Coleridge and Keats high and dry. Blackwood’s clobbered both Keats and Hazlitt. The Tories, with their hatred of Napoleon and fear of the French Revolution, finally carried the day.

Hazlitt would be a conservative today. He was a liberal in 19th century Britain.

Here’s where I flash-forward to the present, to remind us of how utilitarianism, though largely forgotten, continues to shape democracy and liberalism as we understand them. It is still the paradox which cannot be escaped.

In 2022, colonialism not only persists, its effects seem to be growing. “White privilege” and “cultural appropriation” are considered extremely dangerous and extremely real, as if the labor of small white nations—15th century Portugal and Spain, (joined by the Dutch and the English in the 16th century)—ruling the entire world were now closer than ever to occurring.

Blacks in the United States feel more disenfranchised, more ready to blame whites than ever. The two political parties in the United States, Republicans and Democrats, increasingly appear on the brink of civil war, their voters as different as night and day, their leaders threatening to jail each other.

It is very much like the passionate Whigs and Tories, the Catholics and Protestants in Renaissance England—torn by vicious civil war as a prelude to Britain almost taking over the globe.

Even as the left accuses the American conservatives (average law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes) of racism, white supremacy and fascism, and even as the right accuses liberals (average law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes) of mass psychosis and treason, there is a nagging suspicion among a few of us that indeed the white people are finishing what they started in the late 15th century—when Columbus and Magellan discovered where India, China, Indonesia, Japan, Oceania, the West Indies, and the Americas were—and the British East India Company (with one minor setback in Yorktown) said, “well, look what we’ve found.”

Even when whites fight each other, terrible as this is to admit, they win. The British and Americans, sworn enemies, as we all know, eventually become friends. English is the globe’s language. Germany kicked up a devastating fuss in the 20th century—turning the United States into a Superpower, a platform—from which a New World Order of Woke Corporations consolidating left and right, public and private, government and business; old opponents now indistinguishable, is poised to take the colonial model even further. The United States is a kind of meaner, leaner British Empire 2.0 for the 21st century.

The British Empire had no trouble losing its identity in pursuing open borders (the price you pay when taking over the world).

Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson, conservative, U.S. patriots, (some say racist jingoists) sounded the alarm against America submerging its identity in open borders, per the old British Empire.

Foolish Ann and Tucker: if the people you favor— those whom you consider Americans—won’t breed, America has no choice but to import foreigners at a sufficient rate. The liberal today intuitively understands this. The principled conservative does not.

Liberalism can indeed be traced to Jeremy Bentham, (with whom Edgar Poe strenuously disagreed) and Bentham’s once-famous philosophy of Utility. Utilitarianism is pragmatism which thinks outside the box. War, inflation, and disease can very well be good things in the Darwinian universe of utilitarianism.

Birthrate is the sort of hyper-practical consideration which may occasionally escape the notice of patriots—but not utilitarians. Birthrate is fast becoming the Musk v. Gates, not-so-secret, political buzzword of our age. Think of all the controversial and vital ramifications associated with that one word.

Deliberate policy failure at the top cripples lives at the bottom and shocks the understanding of the middle classes. A Malthusian nightmare inhibits Godwin’s utopia as calculated by Bentham—and only Hazlitt, the aesthetic journalist of full-blown wariness and common sense, can figure it out.

More than ever, we need profound and oracular wisdom to sort out for us the policy disasters which manage to burn to the ground both “right” and “left” solutions. The mind is squeezed. The art critic, the journalist, the poet, even the philosopher, are frozen. Chomsky and Nixon have become the Byron and Wordsworth of our soul. We have been Benthamed.

Hazlitt made vivid and pertinent remarks on Bentham as he strongly disagreed with him (all quotes are from William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age):

“Mr. Bentham is one of those persons who verify the old adage, that ‘A prophet has most honour out of his own country.’ His reputation lies at the circumference; and the lights of his understanding are reflected, with increasing lustre, on the other side of the globe. His name is little known in England, better in Europe, best of all in the plains of Chile and the mines of Mexico. He has offered constitutions for the New World, and legislated for future times.

**

“Mr. Hobbhouse is a greater man at the hustings, Lord Rolle at Plymouth Dock; but Mr. Bentham would carry it hollow, on the score of popularity, at Paris or Pegu. The reason is, that our author’s influence is purely intellectual. He has devoted his life to the pursuit of abstract and general truths, and to those studies—“That waft a thought from Indus to the pole”— and has never mixed himself up with personal intrigues or party politics.

“Mr. Bentham is very much among philosophers what La Fontaine was among poets:—in general habits and in all but his professional pursuits, he is a mere child. He has lived for the last forty years in a house in Westminster, overlooking the Park, like an anchoret in his cell, reducing law to a system, and the mind of man to a machine. He scarcely goes out, and sees very little company.

**

“His eye is quick and lively; but it glances not from object to object, but from thought to thought. He is evidently a man occupied with some train of fine and inward association. He regards the people about him no more than the flies of a summer. He meditates the coming age. He hears and sees only what suits his purpose, or some “foregone conclusion;” and looks out for facts and passing occurrences in order to put them into his logical machinery and grind them into the dust and powder of some subtle theory, as the miller looks out for grist to his mill!

**

“The gentleman is himself a capital logician; and he has been led by this circumstance to consider man as a logical animal. We fear this view of the matter will hardly hold water. If we attend to the moral man, the constitution of his mind will scarcely be found to be built up of pure reason and a regard to consequences: if we consider the criminal man (with whom the legislator has chiefly to do), it will be found to be still less so.

“Every pleasure, says Mr. Bentham, is equally a good, and is to be taken into the account as such in a moral estimate, whether it be the pleasure of sense or of conscience, whether it arise from the exercise of virtue or the perpetration of crime. We are afraid the human mind does not readily come into this doctrine, this ultima ratio philosophorum, interpreted according to the letter. Our moral sentiments are made up of sympathies and antipathies, of sense and imagination, of understanding and prejudice. The soul, by reason of its weakness, is an aggregating and exclusive principle; it clings obstinately to some things, and violently rejects others.

**

“Mr. Bentham’s plan would be a feasible one, and the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, would be the best possible ground to place morality upon. But it is not so.

**

“All pleasure is not (morally speaking) equally a good.

**

“There are some tastes that are sweet in the mouth and bitter in the belly; and there is a similar contradiction and anomaly in the mind and heart of man.

**

“It has been made a plea (half jest, half earnest) for the horrors of war, that they promote trade and manufactures. It has been said, as a set-off for the atrocities practiced upon the negro slaves in the West Indies, that without their blood and sweat, so many millions of people could not have sugar to sweeten their tea.

**

“You may as well preach philosophy [utilitarianism] to a drunken man, or to the dead, as to those who are under the instigation of any mischievous passion. A man is a drunkard, and you tell him he ought to be sober; he is idle, and you recommend industry to him as his wisest course; he gambles, and you remind him that he may be ruined by this foible; he has lost his character, and you advise him to get into some reputable service or lucrative situation; vice becomes a habit with him, and you request him to rouse himself and shake it off; he is starving, and you warn him if he breaks the law, he will be hanged. None of this reasoning reaches the mark it aims at. The culprit, who violates and suffers the vengeance of the laws, is not the dupe of ignorance, but the slave of passion, the victim of habit or necessity. To argue with strong passion, with inveterate habit, with desperate circumstances, is to talk to the winds.

**

“The charm of criminal life, like that of savage life, consists of liberty, in hardship, in danger, and in the contempt of death: in one word, in extraordinary excitement; and he who has tasted of it, will no more return to the regular habits of life, than a man will take to water after drinking brandy, or than a wild beast will give over hunting to its prey.”

Hazlitt is saying to Bentham “you can’t legislate morality,” which is Shelley’s message in his “Defense of Poetry” and Poe’s throughout his works—according to Poe, didactic approaches are less successful than reverse-psychology; the human soul is not a machine.

This doesn’t stop Bentham’s logic holding sway, however, in abstract realms, which is more than sufficient to both confuse and shame our selfish, illogical souls. It takes a great deal of individual conviction to resist utilitarianism; it is one thing to say “passionate criminals won’t heed your utilitarian logic,” and quite another to contemplate one’s own intransigence in the face of pure logic’s pure good. It is our fate, since Bentham, to understand we are always wrong in whatever political stance we take: either the “many” are deprived of pleasure, or the “many” see to it that everything we hold dear, including our own unique soul, has no validity.

It isn’t a question of which side is right—it is the realization that both sides are wrong, and how this realization politically paralyzes every sensitive and thinking person.

The only major difference between the previous U.S. president and the current one on race is that Joe Biden is allowed to be racist; whites promote racism against themselves because they know a race war ultimately benefits themselves—thanks to those like Biden who damn themselves with a smile; just as in the same manner inflationary, eco-conscious, anti-business environments favor the biggest and strongest companies: “survival of the fittest” is the ultimate foil against any utilitarianism which might trouble the conscience of those who lobby for uniqueness and freedom.

The winning formula: Divide-and-Conquer Empire, pushes right past both Utility and its opposite, Romanticism, while stealing energy from both.

The fracture, the divide, which most of us know as political reality, the deal sealed by belonging to one of the two sides (Whig, Tory; Liberal, Conservative), is but the prerequisite landscape of the higher political adventure most of us fail to see, or understand.

Politics is finally the sneering: “What are you (victim of political strong-arming, propaganda, or corruption) going to do about it?”

Therefore the enlightened who want to effect reform flee to religion and art—unless these are crushed by politics, which is the case today; and so politics becomes once again the arena, and art climbs back to significance on the back of politics (lose/lose since art, by definition, is not politics) or by an artistic breakthrough of some kind, which unfortunately we are not seeing today.

Free speech, real debate over ideas, is as enlightened as the art of discourse and rhetoric is going to get. Remember when religion, politics, and literature existed almost as one entity, (thanks to writers like Hazlitt) in Great Britain during the early 19th century, during (was it coincidence?) the poetry renaissance of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron? Much of this was due to the response, then, of the most materially advanced nation on earth—a fiercely party-divided Britain, to the American and French revolutions.

Recall that Hazlitt told us the stay-at-home-former-priest Jeremy Bentham, the most influential philosopher outside of Britain, had no party affiliations.

A similar figure was Thomas Malthus, a priest and literary figure whose economic theories were off-the-charts influential and controversial. “If you have too many children they will starve to death” clashed with “death is the result of not having children.”

Hazlitt, in the calmest and most logical manner possible, destroys Malthus. He not only caught the famed economist in a plagiarism; Hazlitt toppled Malthus precisely where his famous pessimistic formula lives: “There is evidently no inherent difference in the principle of increase in food or population; since a grain of corn, for example, will propagate and multiply itself much faster even than the human species. A bushel of wheat will sow a field; that field will furnish seed for twenty others.” (The Spirit Of the Age) Everyone says we had to wait for 20th century improvements in farming techniques before the anti-utopian Malthus could be decisively debunked, but Hazlitt (ignored on this count) simply and prophetically wasted no time.

Titanic ideas both inform and transcend party politics. In the name of free speech, we should, as both citizen and critic, embrace heavy debates, and not run from them. Hiding from these debates in the momentary safety of political party affiliation is finally cowardly and unenlightened. And not good for art, either.

One important caveat, however: when I say “embrace” these debates, I do not mean embrace the lunacy, exactly, which the last few hundred years of rhetoric in the West has produced. We need to look at where these ideas come from precisely to “dial down” the crazy. Bentham is inescapable—which is why we need to unpack and disarm him.

Welcome back, Hazlitt.

Scarriet Editors

Salem, MA 6/3/2022

IT WOULD BE ABOUT US

It would be about us

except we are boring. I know

what you think about things. A person

has only so many cards in their deck

which makes them who they are.

I haven’t seen you in years, but I’m not interested.

I know you’re flipping through cards

I know already, over and over again.

Unfortunately life limits us like this.

That’s why men and women kiss

and go for walks by the sea.

Together, we escaped you.

Together, we made an end of me.

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