We loved your latest Hawaii/Benazir Bhuto dream essay, but we noticed you haven’t been participating in the conversations of other posts on Harriet.

It’s not enough to just send missives.

You need to be present.

That blog needs your help.

And you can help yourself by sharpening your intellectual teeth there.

I know there’s not much to choose from.   Harriet doesn’t have much going on.

Perhaps you feel intimidated.

Allow us to break down for you a recent Harriet post and comments.

A post by Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Christian Bok (it’s the one with the guy who looks like he’s got indigestion, holding a book in front of the mike, blue background).

Christian Bok is a Canadian professor who wrote a best-selling novel consisting of chapters which use only one vowel.   He read the dictionary five times before he wrote it.    That’s all you need to know about him, really.  Not particularly original, he’s one of those contemporary exotics doing wild experiments in the corner of some ancient fingernail.

Let’s look at the key portion of the lengthy Bok quotation in Goldsmith’s Harriet post.

We”ll look at it in two parts.

First part:

“I’m probably technically oriented and it seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that discipline actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.”

Don’t be freaked out by this, Amber. It’s pretty simple.

This is lifted right from the Greek philosopher Plato “If they [the poets] knew something, they’d be in that discipline and actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever…”

Plato’s argument is quite sound and the only decent refutation of Plato’s point of view comes in the form of poems—by poets who happened to be very much tinged with Platonism themselves: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats–which is all that can be expected.

Your typical inferior poet, however, becomes upset when they hear Plato’s argument.  They’re not up to Plato’s challenge.

This is the first part of Bok’s quote you need to understand.

Here’s the second part (as quoted by Kenneth Goldsmith in his Harriet post) :

“I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that. If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You know you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.”

Again, this doesn’t require much thought.

Here Bok is making use of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.   Aristotle didn’t ban the poets from his ideal “Republic” as Plato did.   Aristotle accepted poetry as something humans do, and focused on whether it is done well, or badly.

Aristotle would not have accepted the notion we are all poets, and Bok, when he mentions “people have dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice…” is implicitly agreeing with the philosopher.

Bok didn’t mention this, but I want to mention it to you:  Aristotle did pay heed to Plato’s objection that poetry makes us “soft” with fake emotionalism; Aristotle got around Plato’s objection by saying that poetry’s indulgence in emotionalism purges these emotions from us.  Aristotle managed to turn a drawback into a virtue.

But here is why Platonic poets tend to be the best: They take to heart Plato’s objection, rather than using Aristotle’s glib betrayal of it.

As soon as you start believing in Aristotle’s purging theory (Catharsis) you make a fatal error; you buy into the idea that poetry’s emotion is a separate thing from it, and then you essentially become a pedantic, doctrinaire kind of poet.

Anyway, the important point that Bok is making in the second part of the quote here is the Aristotelian one: there’s a proper way and form and method to making poetry.

As he did with the purging theory, Aristotle resorts to a doctrinaire pedantry in order to ‘get one past’  his master (Plato was Aristotle’s teacher).

This is important to understand, Amber.   You’ve got to go Greek, and you’ve got two choices, Plato’s truly challenging road, or Aristotle’s pedantic road.  Most people don’t go Greek at all and groan under both Plato and Aristotle.  But you can’t escape them, really.

You can see this in the reactions to Bok in the comments to Goldsmith’s post:

Carolyn, the first one to comment seriously, writes this, “I honor people’s attempts to express themselves in whatever manner suits them.”

Here is the typical modern response.   As you can see from her statement, and from what I told you above, she rejects Plato and Aristotle.  She has no Greek.  She is ignorantYou can ignore these people.  Better to be a pedant than to be someone who says ‘express yourself in whatever manner suits you.’ This point of view loses in philosophy what it gains in being nice.  It is a tempting vice, this point of view.  Avoid it at all costs.

Silem’s post #7 basically sums up the Plato and Aristotle positions and then repeats Bok’s mention of “the uncanny,” which is largely the basis of Romanticism: the “Sublime,”  produced when Platonism contradicts itself and produces poetry–a sly but positive phenomenon which I alluded to above.  As Longinus said in his famous treatise “On the Sublime” 3rd century, AD, the sublime is both “moral” and “fearful.”  The sublime is a contradictory idea–which is the secret of its religious power and appeal.

Comment #8 is by Henry Gould. We can sum up all his comments this way: Mumble.

Comment #9 is by Kent Johnson, who is poison.  Here’s a sample.  It should make you shudder:

“I strongly suspect that from the bourgeoning technical-hip formation represented by Bok and Mohammad (and both of them very brilliant, to be sure) a more elevated measure of professional status for the poetic vocation will come, via ever more sharply defined knowledge-sets and rigorously applied instrumental techniques.”


Gary Fitzgerald made a witty remark, but was buried by negative votes.

Conrad and ZZZZ had a brief dispute on what position the “avant garde” should take in relation to the mainstream.  Pedestrian stuff, really.  Not worth your while.

The remaining comments fizzle away into inconsequence.

Maybe Terreson will add something interesting.

(But we’d rather not encourage him.)

And there you have it,  Amber.    Harriet 101.   I hope this helps!


  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 11, 2009 at 2:38 am

    You’re so charitable, Tom — you only quoted the innocuous part of Kent Johnson’s comment.

    This is what follows:

    And the bonus will be that such systematizing of method and purpose will nearly always fit together smoothly (to use Mohammad’s phrase) with institutional systems, methods, and purposes that grant disciplinary identity.

    We already have our Neo-Vanderbilts, here and there. The New Kenyons are on the way, it’s safe to bet. Culture recycles in its interesting ways.


    Can you imagine taking yourself and your buddies that seriously? It’s a business, boys, and a business structured just like a pyramid — oops, like a ponzi, because the only ‘poets’ or ‘readers’ that benefit from the “institutional systems, methods, and purposes that grant disciplinary identity” are the ones that are granting the disciplinary identities (I almost said “grants!”)!

    Because who actually reads this stuff, or is that not the point, that poetry is too high and mighty to need to be actually read? The avant garde’s real break-through was to discover that poetry was better without readers, that if the readers were kept out of the picture poetry could fly anywhere unfettered.

    NO ACCOUNTABILITY, that’s the scandal — no one challenges Kent Johnson’s sort of discourse for fear of looking stupid, as simple as that.

    Because it’s Power that restructures in interesting ways, Kent, just as it was Power that restructured Harriet. Indeed, what you’re confirming is nothing less than the hostile takeover of a company owned by shareholders who are quite willing to hand over not only their voting rights but their minds! Because of course nobody blows the whistle on a court-tailor like Kent Johnson because, like Madoff’s friends who got ripped off, everybody is pretending they’re part of the picture — in on the act and just fine!

    Why isn’t there any outrage on Blog:Harriet? Why is everybody in the poetry business so willing to invest in such an obvious delusion?


  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 11, 2009 at 3:45 am

    I spoke a little too early. Yes, Gary B. Fitzgerald got closed down for mentioning poetry on Harriet, but there’s still room for this:

    These “rules of thumb” strike me as oriented to the poet and his search for achievement. These certain criteria have been met. I have achieved success. This creates a closed loop between poet and poem. Where does the reader fit in? Isn’t the reader the ultimate interrogator, so to speak, of the poem. Shouldn’t his values and judgements have a role? This seems a Poundian way of writing poetry. Elite symbols for elite readers. Won’t thinking like this keep poetry marginalized? I sometimes think there are poets unconcerned and even satisfied with this position.

    POSTED BY: M D ON DECEMBER 10, 2009 AT 7:09 AM

    Spot on, but listen to the deference even in a comment like this one. What are you afraid of, M.D? Looking stupid? Getting a red vote from Travis? Having such views go on your record?

    And is it really true that sometimes you even think there are poets “unconcerned and even satisfied with this position?” Can you be more specific, M.D? In what situations don’t you think this? Any times you can think of on Harriet since September 1st?


  3. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 11, 2009 at 4:18 am

    John Oliver Simon,
    You always have me foxed, and a number of times on Harriet I tried to say why. [Click here] Why, for example, were you one of the loudest regulars baying for my blood last summer? And why did you give more support than almost anybody to the myth that I wasn’t me when you were also the one that was most in a position to understand me? [Click here]

    You are so immersed in cultures of such wild fantasy and invention, John Oliver Simon. I mean, if what you suggested had actually been so, shouldn’t you have rejoiced and not stoned me? Because who stones a prophet in Chile or Peru but a warlord or tin-pot reactionary, and that isn’t you, surely?

    So it’s not surprising I am foxed by your Christian Bok comment as well:

    Where Christian goes off the track is the assurance that the blind rules of thumb will always produce something of merit. But sometimes you gotta follow the rules of thumb blindly until you learn to see.


    Is that what you were doing with your blind rule of thumb, waiting to see what would become of me? And have you seen now?

    The Buddha said that every spiritual practice, including meditation, was like a shoe you wore on your foot to walk with. The goal was not to worship the shoe or to believe in it or redesign it as an end in itself, or even to change it, because in fact the shoe had no meaning or dignity in itself. Indeed, the shoe is an actual barrier to the foot touching the ground, and it’s sole purpose is to wear out and be discarded!


  4. thomasbrady said,

    December 11, 2009 at 1:54 pm


    Harriet was a “shoe,” then?

    Ah, this grass on my feet feels nice…


  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 11, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Yes indeed, and was a slipper, and a clog.

    I really don’t know if we can take credit for it, Tom, but each one of them experienced a moment of such hope and joy while we were there, and each one of them choked on the freedom and pleasure.

    They burped and they gagged, and like Harriet grew grey and then shriveled. Indeed, all their best people are now here walking barefoot on Scarriet!


  6. thomasbrady said,

    December 11, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “Where does the reader fit in? Isn’t the reader the ultimate interrogator, so to speak, of the poem. Shouldn’t his values and judgements have a role? This seems a Poundian way of writing poetry. Elite symbols for elite readers. Won’t thinking like this keep poetry marginalized?”

    Yup. Thanks, M.D.

    As for John Oliver Simon, well, all I can do is quote Shakespeare’s sonnet 66:

    Tired with all these John Oliver Simons, for restful death I cry,
    As to behold desert a beggar born,
    And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
    And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
    And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
    And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
    And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
    And strength by limping sway disabled
    And art made tongue-tied by authority,
    And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
    And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
    And captive good attending captain ill:
    Tir’d with all John Oliver Simons, from John Oliver Simons would I be gone,
    Save that, to die, I leave my Scarriet alone.

  7. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 18, 2009 at 1:11 am

    One final comment for Kenneth Goldsmith’s Christian Bok post.



    Merry Christmas.

    -2 ~ Like/Dislike


    People on Blog:Harriet vote you down for sport, Gary. You’re always right but Harriet makes you look as if you’re always wrong. Do you like to be laughed at, do you like to be the butt of all their prissy jokes?

    Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I have ever known.

    Come away.


  8. thomasbrady said,

    December 18, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Gary likes to be abused by people he considers important: the vasty genius that is Harriet…

    To be fair to Gary, I continued to post on Harriet even with the negative votes; it’s like scratching an itch; you can’t see the people who are voting you down and you can’t believe they REALLY exist.

    But now that I have Scarriet, I’ve hit upon a truth.

    Yes, Gary come away…

  9. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

    12. THE SAD (BUT REALISTIC) TALE OF BRIAN JUMPERS (from “Send Bygraves”)

    Martha Grimes

    Little Brian Jumpers, the main waif in
    Little Puddley, pale and sad and sickly,
    Little threadbare jacket out at elbow,
    Face all tear-streaked, socks around his ankles,
    Worked all day at shining shoes and sweeping
    Chimneys, blacking things that needed blacking:
    Bottles, tar pits, coal cellars, macadam.

    Little Brian Jumpers did the awful
    Jobs nobody wanted–scrubbing gravestones,
    Cleaning loos–all that was wretched, nasty,
    Only asking for his tiny pittance.
    (No one paid him in the decimal system,
    Only in old currency like shillings,
    Sixpence, tuppence, bobs, and ha’pennies,
    He was saving for his operation.)

    Little Brian Jumpers had a boxful
    Of treasures found down wells or up in chimneys,
    Letters rescued from some burning embers,
    Jar of marmalade, a broken locket,
    Bloodstained glove he’d found by an old gravestone–
    Little Brian knew his solemn duty
    Was to take this lot to the police.
    Brian walked all night across the moor, but…
    Little Brian Jumpers never made it.

  10. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 27, 2010 at 9:00 am

    NAMING OF PARTS (from “Lessons of the War”)

    By Henry Reed

    To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
    We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
    We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
    To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
    Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
    And to-day we have naming of parts.

    This is the lower sling swivel. And this
    Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
    When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
    Which in your case you have not got. The branches
    Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
    Which in our case we have not got.

    This is the safety-catch, which is always released
    With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
    See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
    If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
    Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
    Any of them using their finger.

    And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
    Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
    Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
    Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
    The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
    They call it easing the Spring.

    They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
    If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
    And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
    Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
    Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
    For to-day we have naming of parts.

  11. The Noochie-Coochie Man said,

    July 29, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    The pow’rless have it lousy,
    And so they get attention.
    Their own collusion in their fate
    Is not polite to mention.

    Poetry is the last defense,
    A pow’rless man’s last armor.
    It cannot keep that man from death
    But dying, mocks the harmer.

  12. Noochinator said,

    September 5, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Hayfoot, strawfoot
    Five miles more
    Then with a smack goes my pack on the floor
    Come on, doggies don’t get sore
    Get hep hep hep in your step

    Hayfoot, strawfoot
    Four miles more
    After this tramp there’s a camp cot in store,
    Come on, doggies don’t get sore
    Get hep hep hep in your step

    The sun grins with glee
    And I start to shrink
    I can’t grin like he
    I’m carrying everything, but the kitchen sink

    Hayfoot, strawfoot
    Three miles more
    Where in the heck is this mechanized war?
    Come on, doggies don’t get sore
    Get hep hep hep in your step

  13. Noochness said,

    January 1, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Oh freddled gruntbuggly/thy micturations are to me/As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
    Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes. And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
    Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, see if I don’t!

    attributed to Jeltz, of the Vogon school

    • Noochness said,

      January 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

      Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
      Thy micturations are to me
      As plurdled gabbleblotchits
      On a lurgid bee
      That mordiously hath bitled out
      Its earted jurtles
      Into a rancid festering [drowned out by moaning and screaming]
      Now the jurpling slayjid agrocrustles
      Are slurping hagrilly up the axlegrurts
      And living glupules frart and slipulate
      Like jowling meated liverslime
      Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes
      And hooptiously drangle me
      With crinkly bindlewurdles,
      Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon
      See if I don’t.

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