POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

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6 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 20, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    As a postscript to the above I would like to quote two 20th century critics, Yvor Winters and John Crowe Ransom, both of whom were acutely aware, early in the past century, of the great decrease of poetry’s impact on society.

    Winters wrote in 1937

    I do not like the expression ‘imaginative literature,’ for in its colloquial acceptation the phrase excludes too much: it excludes the the persuasive and hortatory, for example, the sermon and the political tract; and imagination as a term of sophisticated criticism has been used so variously and so elusively, especially during the past hundred and fifty years, that I am not quite sure what it means. But the power of artistic literature is real: if we consider such writers as Plato, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Voltaire, Emerson and Hitler, to go no further, we must be aware that such literature has been directly and indirectly one of the greatest forces in human history. The Gospels gave a new direction to half the world; Mein Kampf very nearly reversed that direction. The influence of Rimbaud and of Mallarme is quite as real but has operated more slowly and with less of obvious violence. It behooves us to discover the nature of artistic literature, what it does, how it does it, and how one may evaluate it. It is one of the facts of life, and quite as important a fact as atomic fission. In our universities at present, for example, one or another of the hedonistic views of literature will be found to dominate, although often colored by Romantic ideas, with the result that the professors of literature, who for the most part are genteel but mediocre men, can make but a poor defense of their profession, and the professors of science, who are frequently men of great intelligence but of limited interests and education, feel a politely disguised contempt for it; and thus the study of one of the most pervasive and powerful influences on human life is traduced and neglected.
    ………………….Yvor Winters, Foreward to Primitivism and Decadence

    Note the different tone regarding poetry’s influence in 1937—from a future Poetry Workshop teacher (Stanford), as it happens, than we would find in 1987 or 1997 or 2007, when professor/critic/poets brag of poetry’s popularity and health; the rose-colored glasses came out when poetry writing and judging found a home in the university. Winters’ grumbling here is similar to Ransom’s, another creative writing founder, but Ransom had a better handle on the issue of poetry’s diminuation than Winters, whose over-thinking the problem led him to all sorts of unreliable judgments. Here’s Ransom (with a very wide brush) on the subject of religion and poetry:

    Poets used to be bards and patriots, priests and prophets, keepers of the public conscience, and naturally men of public importance. … But modern poets are of another breed. It is as if all at once they had lost their prudence as well as their piety, and formed a compact to unclasp the chaplet from their brows, inflicting upon themselves delaureation, and retiring from public responsibility and honors. … Apostate, illaureate, and doomed to outlawry the modern poet may be. I have a feeling that modernism is an unfortunate road for them to have taken. But it was an inevitable one. …Modern poetry is pure poetry. … Our period differs outwardly from other periods because it first differs inwardly. Its spiritual temper is puritanical; that is, it craves to perfect the parts of experience separately or in their purity, and is a series of isolated perfections. … The development of modern civilization has been a grand progression in which Puritanism has invaded first one field and then another.

    The first field perhaps was religion. The religious impulse used to join to itself and dominate and hold together nearly all the fields of human experience; politics, science, art, and even industry, and by all means moral conduct. But Puritanism came in the form of the Protestant Reformation and separated religion from all its partners.
    ………………….John Crowe Ransom, Poets Without Laurels (1938)

    Winters and Ransom wrote the above on the brink of poetry’s academic, creative writing, coup, and they were very much part of that coup precisely because they knew how to articulate poetry’s woes which occured during Modernism’s golden age of poetry; well, not quite. Frost and Millay were popular, but not the High Modernists: they never had a golden age; we only think they had one, due to the sudden and miraculous upsurge in their popularity because of various historical events: the GI Bill following World War Two, Creative Writing Programs, and textbooks written by poetry/professor friends of the High Modernists.

    Aside from this, both critics are conscious of poetry as primarily a religious advocation; Winters comes across as more unhappy and quixotic only because Ransom is happy to believe that modern poetry is simply riding the wave of specialization, which, for Ransom, is modernity’s religion. I’m not sure if Ransom’s thesis still holds. Contemporary poetry seems anything but ‘pure,’ anything but a working through of isolated perfections—and yet, this may be what is going on in far-flung manner, and we are just not aware of it.

    • Nikki said,

      July 9, 2017 at 11:33 pm

      Whoever edits and puehislbs these articles really knows what they’re doing.

  2. noochinator said,

    June 17, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Speaking of Milton: the passage below is from An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France And also Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations From Homer to Milton (1727) by Voltaire

    “Milton”

    Milton is the last in Europe who wrote an epic poem; for I waive all those whose attempts have been unsuccessful, my intention being not to descant on the many who have contended for the prize, but to speak only of the very few who have gained it in their respective countries.

    Milton, as he was travelling through Italy in his youth, saw at Florence a comedy called Adamo, writ by one Andreino a Player, and dedicated to Mary de Medicis Queen of France. The subject of the play was the Fall of Man; the actors, God, the Devils, the Angels, Adam, Eve, the Serpent, Death and the Seven Mortal Sins. That topic so improper for a drama, but so suitable to the absurd genius of the Italian stage (as it was at that time), was handled in a manner entirely conformable to the extravagance of the design. The scene opens with a chorus of Angels, and a cherubim thus speaks for the rest: “Let the rainbow be the fiddlestick of the fiddle of the heavens, let the planets be the notes of our music, let time beat carefully the measure, and the winds make the sharps, etc.” Thus the play begins, and every scene rises above the first in profusion of impertinence.

    Milton pierced through the absurdity of that performance to the hidden majesty of the subject, which being altogether unfit for the stage, yet might be (for the genius of Milton, and for his only) the foundation of an epic poem. He took from that ridiculous trifle the first hint of the noblest work which human imagination hath ever attempted, and which he executed more than twenty years after. In the like manner Pythagoras owed the invention of music to the noise of the hammer of a blacksmith. And thus in our days Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.

    If the difference of genius between nation and nation ever appeared in its full light, ’tis in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The French answer with a scornful smile when they are told there is in England an epic poem, the subject whereof is the Devil fighting against God, and Adam and Eve eating an apple at the persuasion of a snake. As that topic hath afforded nothing among them but some lively lampoons, for which that nation is so famous, they cannot imagine it possible to build an epic poem upon the subject of their ballads. And indeed such an error ought to be excused; for if we consider with what freedom the politest part of mankind throughout all Europe, both Catholics and Protestants, are wont to ridicule in conversation those consecrated histories—nay, if those who have the highest respect for the mysteries of the Christian religion, and who are struck with awe at some parts of it, yet cannot forbear now and then making free with the Devil, the serpent, the frailty of our first parents, the rib which Adam was robbed of, and the like—it seems a very hard task for a profane poet to endeavor to remove those shadows of ridicule, to reconcile together what is divine and what looks absurd, and to command a respect that the sacred writers could hardly obtain from our frivolous minds.

    What Milton so boldly undertook, he performed with a superior strength of judgment, and with an imagination productive of beauties not dreamed of before him. The meanness (if there is any) of some parts of the subject is lost in the immensity of the poetical invention. There is something above the reach of human forces to have attempted the creation without bombast, to have described the gluttony and curiosity of a woman without flatness, to have brought probability and reason amidst the hurry of imaginary things belonging to another world, and as far remote from the limits of our notions as they are from our earth; in short, to force the reader to say, “If God, if the Angels, if Satan would speak, I believe they would speak as they do in Milton.”

    I have often admired how barren the subject appears, and how fruitful it grows under his hands. The Paradise Lost is the only poem wherein are to be found in a perfect degree that uniformity which satisfies the mind and that variety which pleases the imagination, all its episodes being necessary lines which aim at the center of a perfect circle. Where is the nation who would not be pleased with the interview of Adam and the Angel? With the Mountain of Vision, with the bold strokes which make up the relentless, undaunted and sly character of Satan? But above all with that sublime wisdom which Milton exerts whenever he dares to describe God, and to make him speak? He seems indeed to draw the picture of the Almighty as like as human nature can reach to, through the mortal dust in which we are clouded.

    The heathens always, the Jews often, and our Christian priests sometimes, represent God as a tyrant infinitely powerful. But the God of Milton is always a creator, a father, and a judge, nor is his vengeance jarring with his mercy, nor his predeterminations repugnant to the liberty of man. These are the pictures which lift up indeed the soul of the reader. Milton in that point as well as in many others, is as far above the ancient poets as the Christian religion is above the heathen fables.

    But he hath especially an undisputable claim to the unanimous admiration of mankind, when he descends from those high flights to the natural description of human things. It is observable that in all other poems love is represented as a vice; in Milton only ’tis a virtue. The pictures he draws of it are naked as the persons he speaks of, and as venerable. He removes with a chaste hand the veil which covers everywhere else the enjoyments of that passion. There is softness, tenderness, and warmth without lasciviousness; the poet transports himself and us into that state of innocent happiness in which Adam and Eve continued for a short time. He soars not above human, but above corrupt nature, and as there is no instance of such love, there is none of such poetry.

    How then it came to pass that the Paradise Lost had been so long neglected (nay almost unknown) in England (till the Lord Sommers in some measure taught mankind to admire it), is a thing which I cannot reconcile, neither with the temper nor with the genius of the English nation. The Duke of Buckingham in his Art of Poetry gives the preference to Spenser. It is reported in the Life of the Lord Rochester, that he had no notion of a better poet than [Abraham] Cowley. Mr. Dryden’s judgment on Milton is full more unaccountable. He hath bestowed some verses upon him, in which he puts him upon a level with, nay above Virgil and Homer;

    The Force of Nature could not further go,
    To make a third he join’d the former two.

    The same Mr. Dryden in his preface upon his translation of the Aeneid, ranks Milton with Chapellam and Lemoine the most impertinent poets who ever scribbled. How he could extol him so much in his verses, and debase him so low in his prose is a riddle which, being a foreigner, I cannot understand.

    In short, one would be apt to think that Milton has not obtained his true reputation till Mr. Addison, the best critic as well as the best writer of his age, pointed out the most hidden beauties of the Paradise Lost, and settled forever its reputation.

    It is an easy and a pleasant task to take notice of the many beauties of Milton which I call universal. But ’tis a ticklish undertaking to point out what would be reputed a fault in any other country. I am very far from thinking that one nation ought to judge of its productions by the standard of another, nor do I presume that the French (for example) who have no epic poets, have any right to give laws on epic poetry. But I fancy many English readers, who are acquainted with the French language, will not be displeased to have some notion of the taste of that country, and I hope they are too just either to submit to it, or despise it barely upon the score of its being foreign to them.

    Would each nation attend a little more than they do to the taste and the manners of their respective neighbors, perhaps a general good taste might diffuse itself through all Europe from such an intercourse of learning, and from that useful exchange of observations. The English stage, for example, might be cleared of mangled carcasses, and the style of their tragic authors come down from their forced metaphorical bombast to a nearer imitation of nature. The French would learn from the English to animate their tragedies with more action, and would contract now and then their long speeches into shorter and warmer sentiments. The Spaniards would introduce in their plays more pictures of human life, more characters and manners, and not puzzle themselves always in the entanglements of confused adventures more romantic than natural. The Italian in point of tragedy would catch the flame from the English, and all the rest from the French. In point of comedy, they would learn from Mr. Congreve and some other authors, to prefer wit and humor to buffoonery.

    To proceed in that view, I’ll venture to say that none of the French critics could like the excursions which Milton makes sometimes beyond the strict limits of his subject. They lay down for a rule that an author himself ought never to appear in his poem, and his own thoughts, his own sentiments must be spoken by the actors he introduces. Many judicious men in England comply with that opinion, and Mr. Addison favours it. I beg leave in this place to hazard a reflection of my own which I submit to the reader’s judgment.

    Milton breaks the thread of his narration in two manners. The first consists of two or three kinds of prologues, which he premises at the beginning of some books. In one place he expatiates upon his own blindness; in another he compares his subject and prefers it to that of the Iliad, and to the common topics of war, which were thought before him the only subject fit for epic poetry; and he adds that he hopes to soar as high as all his predecessors, unless the cold climate of England damps his wings.

    His other way of interrupting his narration is by some observations which he intersperses now and then upon some great incident or some interesting circumstance. Of that kind is his digression on love in the fourth book;

    Whatever hypocrites austerely talk
    Defaming as impure, what God declares
    Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all.
    Our Maker bids increase, who bids abstain
    But our Destroyer foe to God and Men?
    Hail wedded love, etc.

    As to the first of these two heads, I cannot but own that an author is generally guilty of an impardonable self-love when he lays aside his subject to descant on his own person, but that human frailty is to be forgiven in Milton; nay I am pleased with it. He gratifies the curiosity it raises in me about his person; when I admire the author, I desire to know something of the man, and he whom all readers would be glad to know is allowed to speak of himself. But this however is a very dangerous example for a genius of an inferior order, and is only to be justified by success.

    As to the second point I am so far from looking on that liberty as a fault that I think it to be a great beauty. For if morality is the aim of poetry, I do not apprehend why the poet should be forbidden to intersperse his descriptions with moral sentences and useful reflections, provided he scatters them with a sparing hand, and in proper places either when he wants personages to utter those thoughts, or when their character does not permit them to speak in the behalf of virtue.

    ’Tis strange that Homer is commended by the critics for his comparing Ajax to an ass pelted away with stones by some children, Ulysses to a pudding, the council-board of Priam to grasshoppers: ’tis strange, I say, that they defend so clamourously those similies though never so foreign to the purpose, and will not allow the natural reflections, the noble digressions of Milton though never so closely linked to the subject.

    I will not dwell upon some small errors of Milton, which are obvious to every reader, I mean some few contradictions and those frequent glances at the heathen mythology, which fault by the by is so much the more unexcusable in him by his having premised in his first book that those divinities were but devils worshipped under different names, which ought to have been a sufficient caution to him not to speak of the rape of Proserpine, of the wedding of Juno and Jupiter, etc. as matters of fact. I lay aside likewise his preposterous and awkward jests, his puns, his too familiar expressions so inconsistent with the elevation of his genius and of his subject.

    To come to more essential points, and more liable to be debated. I dare affirm that the contrivance of the Pandemonium would have been entirely disapproved of by critics like Boileau, Racine, etc. That seat built for the parliament of the devils seems very preposterous, since Satan has summoned them all together and harangued them just before in an ample field. The council was necessary, but where it was to be held ’twas very indifferent. The poet seems to delight in building his Pandemonium in Doric order, with frieze and cornice, and a roof of gold. Such a contrivance favors more of the wild fancy of our father Le Moine than of the serious spirit of Milton. But when afterwards the devils turn dwarfs to fill their places in the house, as if it was impracticable to build a room large enough to contain them in their natural size, it is an idle story which would match the most extravagant tales. And to crown all, Satan and the chief lords preserving their own monstrous forms, while the rabble of the devils shrink into pigmies, heightens the ridicule of the whole contrivance to an inexpressible degree. Methinks the true criterion for discerning what is really ridiculous in an epic poem is to examine if the same thing would not fit exactly the mock-heroic. Then I dare say that nothing is so adapted to that ludicrous way of writing as the metamorphosis of the devils into dwarfs.

    The fiction of Death and Sin seems to have in it some great beauties and many gross defects. In order to canvass this matter with order, we must first lay down that such shadowy beings as Death, Sin, Chaos are intolerable when they are not allegorical, for fiction is nothing but truth in disguise. It must be granted too that an allegory must be short, decent, and noble. For an allegory carried too far or too low, is like a beautiful woman who wears always a mask. An allegory is a long metaphor, and to speak too long in metaphors must be tiresome, because unnatural. This being premised, I must say that in general those fictions, those imaginary beings, are more agreeable to the nature of Milton’s poem than to any other; because he has but two natural persons for his actors, I mean Adam and Eve. A great part of the action lies in imaginary worlds, and must of course admit of imaginary beings.

    Then Sin springing out of the head of Satan seems a beautiful allegory of pride, which is looked upon as the first offense committed against God. But I question if Satan getting his daughter with child is an invention to be approved of. I am afraid that fiction is but a mere quibble; for if sin was of a masculine gender in English, as it is in all the other languages, that whole affair drops, and the fiction vanishes away. But suppose we are not so nice, and we allow Satan to be in love with Sin, because this word is made feminine in English (as Death passes also for masculine), what a horrid and loathsome idea does Milton present to the mind, in this fiction? Sin brings forth Death; this monster inflamed with lust and rage lies with his mother as she had done with her father. From that new commerce springs a swarm of serpents, which creep in and out of their mother’s womb, and gnaw and tear the bowels they are born from.

    Let such a picture be never so beautifully drawn, let the allegory be never so obvious and so clear, still it will be intolerable on the account of its foulness. That complication of horrors, that mixture of incest, that heap of monsters, that loathsomeness so far-fetched, cannot but shock a reader of delicate taste. But what is more intolerable, there are parts in that fiction, which bearing no allegory at all, have no manner of excuse. There is no meaning in the communication between Death and Sin, ’tis distasteful without any purpose; or if any allegory lies under it, the filthy abomination of the thing is certainly more obvious than the allegory.

    I see with admiration Sin, the portress of Hell, opening the gates of the Abyss, but unable to shut them again: that is really beautiful, because ’tis true. But what signifies Satan and Death quarrelling together, grinning at one another, and ready to fight?

    The fiction of Chaos, Night, and Discord, is rather a picture than an allegory; and for aught I know, deserves to be approved because it strikes the reader with awe, not with horror.

    I know the bridge built by Death and Sin would be disliked in France. The nice critics of that country would urge against that fiction, that it seems too common, and that it is useless; for men’s souls want no paved way to be thrown into hell after their separation from the body. They would laugh justly at the Paradise of fools, at the hermits, friars, cowls, beads, indulgences, bulls, relics, tossed by the winds, at St. Peter’s waiting with his keys at the wicket of heaven. And surely the most passionate admirers of Milton, could not vindicate those low comical imaginations, which belong by right to Ariosto.

    Now the sublimest of all the fictions calls me to examine it. I mean the war in heaven. The Earl of Roscommon, and Mr. Addison (whose judgment seems either to guide or to justify the opinion of his countrymen) admire chiefly that part of the poem. They bestow all the skill of their criticism, and the strength of their eloquence, to set off that favorite part. I may affirm that the very things they admire would not be tolerated by the French critics. The reader will perhaps see with pleasure in what consists so strange a difference, and what may be the ground of it.

    First, they would assert that a war in heaven being an imaginary thing, which lies out of the reach of our nature, should be contracted in two or three pages rather than lengthened out into two books, because we are naturally impatient of removing from us the objects which are not adapted to our senses. According to that rule, they would maintain that ’tis an idle task to give the reader the full character of the leaders of that war, and to describe Raphael, Michael, Abdiel, Moloch, and Nisroch as Homer paints Ajax, Diomede, and Hector. For what avails it to draw at length the picture of these beings, so utterly strangers to the reader, that he cannot be affected any way towards them? By the same reason, the long speeches of these imaginary warriors, either before the battle or in the middle of the action, their mutual insults, seem an injudicious imitation of Homer. The aforesaid critics would not bear with the angels plucking up the mountains with their woods, their waters, and their rocks, and flinging them on the heads of their enemies. Such a contrivance (they would say) is the more puerile, the more it aims at greatness. Angels armed with mountains in heaven resemble too much the Dipsodes in Rabelais, who wore an armour of portland stone six foot thick.

    The artillery seems of the same kind, yet more trifling, because more useless. To what purpose are these engines brought in? Since they cannot wound the enemies, but only remove them from their places, and make them tumble down: Indeed (if the expression may be forgiven) ’tis to play at nine-pins. And the very thing which is so dreadfully great on earth, becomes very low and ridiculous in heaven.

    I cannot omit here the visible contradiction which reigns in that episode. God sends his faithful angels to fight, to conquer and to punish the rebels. Go (says he, to Michael and Gabriel)

    ——— And to the brow of Heaven
    Pursuing, drive them out from God and bliss,
    Into their place of punishment, the gulf
    Of Tartarus, which ready opens wide
    His fiery chaos to receive their fall.

    How does it come to pass, after such a positive order, that the battle hangs doubtful? And why did God the Father command Gabriel and Raphael to do what he executes afterwards by his Son only.

    I leave it to the readers to pronounce if these observations are right, or ill-grounded, and if they are carried too far. But in case these exceptions are just, the severest critic must however confess there are perfections enough in Milton to atone for all his defects.

    I must beg leave to conclude this article on Milton with two observations. His hero (I mean Adam, his first personage) is unhappy. That demonstrates against all the critics that a very good poem may end unfortunately, in spite of all their pretended rules. Secondly, Paradise Lost ends completely. The thread of the fable is spun out to the last. Milton and Tasso have been careful of not stopping short and abruptly. The one does not abandon Adam and Eve till they are driven out of Eden. The other does not conclude before Jerusalem is taken. Homer and Virgil took a contrary way: the Iliad ends with the death of Hector, the Aeneid with that of Turnus. The tribe of commentators have upon that enacted a Law, that a house ought never to be finished, because Homer and Virgil did not complete their own; but if Homer had taken Troy, and Virgil married Lavinia to Aeneas, the critics would have laid down a rule just the contrary.

    • Mr. Woo said,

      June 23, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Great Scarriet piece, and thanks for the Milton via Voltaire, Nooch. Which poets from the 20th century could we put in the poet/priest category? Rilke comes to my mind in the first half, and Robert Bly in the second.

      Made me think of this passage from a Tony Hoagland (our Voltaire: har har) essay in his book “Twenty Poems That Could Save America”:

      I once saw Robert Bly ruin the evening for a whole auditorium full of happy people. This was in the seventies, in Fairfield, Iowa, a small town fifty miles south of the University of Iowa, where I was an undergraduate. On the bulletin board at the health food store, I had seen an advertisement–Robert Bly was going to read his poems at Maharishi International University in Fairfield! And so, three of us drove down. I, my sort-of girlfriend, Lynn, and my friend Dave. It was one of those moonless winter nights, a deep oppressive dark around the road, making our tiny car headlights seem solitary and perishable. Midwest deep winter nights, like those in the Northeast, can be suffocating in their gloom, malevolent and unnatural seeming.

      …the many Maharishi students and faculty present at the reading: fresh-faced people who seemed excessively cheerful and friendly, as if in possession of a secret beyond the ken of civilians. Maybe they were just being nice; on the other hand, maybe they were acting on orders from the public relations department.
      That night, however, Mr. Bly wasn’t in the mood for bliss. Well over six feet bulky of girth, with an unkempt rooster comb of thick dark hair, he stood on stage at the front of the auditorium in a Peruvian serape, and, for two hours, alternately rad poems and harangued the crowd. He would finish a poem, and look up at the audience of a hundred or so, “Why are you smiling?!” he would say. “Why are you smiling? Do you think that poem is funny? You look ridiculous. I’ve never seen such a zoo full of grinning monkeys! You can’t be happy unless you know the darkness inside yourself. If you’re a human being, you don’t get to skip steps! Are you human?”
      Not knowing what else to do, confused, the audience of cheerful Transcendentalists helplessly continued to grin, grimly hanging on to their smiles as he flayed them like paint stripper. “Now I’m going to read a poem by Rilke. This is about the loneliness a man feels that has spent his life in the wrong way.”

      Whatever you might think about his writing, what a delicious character.

  3. Desi Chinese said,

    July 5, 2017 at 8:54 am

    My family members every time say that I am wasting my time here at web, except I know I am getting knowledge
    everyday by reading thes fastidious posts.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 5, 2017 at 11:24 am

      Desi, Scarriet is better than college. Read us and prosper. 😉


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