Esteemed poetry professors across the country are taking a stand.  We have a breaking story from The Permanent Poetry Institute where a conference has been quickly organized to protest what university officials are calling, “an insult to poetry, run by amateurs.”

Let’s go live to an official who is reading a paper by Wimsatt and Beardsley, we believe, called “The Affective Fallacy…”

Let’s listen in…

“We believe ourselves to be exploring two roads—”

“Final Four!”

“—which have seemed to offer convenient detours around the acknowledged and usually feared obstacles to objective criticism—”

[crowd in back] “JA-NET! JA-NET!”

“Order!  Order, I say!  You people need to listen!   Thank you.  Where was I?  Oh, yes…we are exploring two roads which have seemed to offer convenient detours around the acknowledged and usually feared obstacles to objective criticism, both of which, however have actually led away from criticism and poetry.   The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins—”

“SIXTEENTH SEED!” [Laughter]

“—a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy.”


“Will you please!”   Thank you!  This fallacy begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography—


“Silence!    …biography and relativism.  The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results—“

“FINAL FOUR!!!!” [Laugher, Clapping]

“…a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does),
a special case of epistemological skepticism, though usually advanced as if it had far stronger claims—


“—than the over-all forms of skepticism.  It [this fallacy] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism form the psychological effects of the poem—”


“—and ends in impressionism—THROW THEM OUT, PLEASE—and relativism.   Is Ms. Bowdan gone?  Good.   To continue…The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.”

[Dignified pause.]

“Plato’s feeding and watering of the passions was an early example of affective theory, and Aristotle’s countertheory of catharsis was another.  There was also the ‘transport’ of the audience—”

Marla, are you there?  We seem to have lost transmission…I hope nothing has happened…



The philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1918) wrote the following to William James:

“Philosophy is past.  It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.”

The experiment of March Madness has been interesting.  We have examined whether or not poetry, like the philosophy portrayed in Blood’s essay, “Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism,” can be known best if we become profoundly self-conscious as poets and readers in a group dynamics medium in which immediate experience and practicality are pushed to their limits within that context.

20,000 fans, spilling soda and popcorn, screaming at the top of their lungs in response to a contest between, let’s say, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, a 16th seed! and “Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock” by Lewis Buzbee, upset winner over Mary Oliver’s fifth seeded “Flare” in first round play in the West Bracket, experienced the poem in such an intense manner—however the partisanship might have expressed itself—that the delight based on the pure excitement itself propeled the imaginative response—which has always relied on a certain suspension of disbelief—to new heights, in which the suspension of disbelief was simultaneously extended and dismantled by the crowd.

The vision of this collective consciousness, at once critical, reflective and wholly reactive, is not meant to be defined here as a definitive vision, nor should the results of these contests fill anyone with either joy or dismay.  Combatants, were these none.  The riotous fans have been, and were, you and I; once a mob, now a critic, once weeping and hollering, now holding steadily the iron pen.  Let the tattooing begin.

How shall we describe Janet Bowdan’s “The Year?”  How shall we describe her victory?  How shall we describe the young fan, who, in a fit of ecstacy, nearly fell from the top of the stadium upon the heads of the throng below, this young worshiper of this terrible and haunting poem?  How to describe the look of Buzbee in defeat, Tarzan and Jane beside him, the barely comprehending Cheetah on Tarzan’s shoulder, looking wildly around?

We sought out Bowdan for an interview, but she was gone.  The crowd had carried her away.

Earlier, at the crack of dawn, with a youngish Wordsworth showered and shaved, Billy Collins advanced to the center of our beloved March Madness court, the polished wood of the court gleaming, the clever concession stands spread around, and dominated Stephen Dunn, making sure he couldn’t breathe for a second.  “John Donne, eh?  Are you done?’  The voice of the haughty no. 2 seed in the East resounded for eons after Dunn’s poem was read.  We have to go back years before we find a game that was like this, or, find any game.  The gods were, of course, anxious.  Rules, there were none.  The fans were not silent for a moment.  The rooting was astonishing.

Bernard Welt’s “I stopped writing poetry…” plied poetry long into the evening, almost as if to send Reb Livingston away, but she stood her guard, unblinking.  Some fans in the second half had a revelation and got the brilliance of Welt’s trope: the reasons he gave for not writing poetry were actually powerful incentives to write poetry, and this was the fuel of the poem itself, but the commotion in the second balcony as Livingston was shooting her free-throws was lost on the broadcasters—they  ignored it, thinking it was just the crowd being a crowd, a 190 line poem being a 190 line poem, and fans on the floor only saw it in separate parts.  Some Welt fans ran outside, but it was too late.  Livingston was stoic as Welt’s voltage melted.

William Kulik dazzled with a ferocity not seen yet in the tournament and Margaret Atwood froze with a searching look.  Kulik started to tick tick tick as soon as the contest started, the moss covered walls closed in, and no matter how hard Atwood looked, the drama of Kulik continued to drown.

“Bored” is sure of itself, as Atwood is; she was tranformed by Kulik into what went sadly down into the shadows.

The crowd implored those shadows.

Don’t trust crowds, they say.

We trusted this one.

Tom, this is Marla Muse, down at courtside…the crowd has seen four thrillers and they want more…this is how poetry should be…I’m being lifted by this crowd and that’s how I like it…I’m looking for my little notebook….have you seen it?

No, Marla, I haven’t.


So I’m here with Marla Muse, once again, as we are about to begin play that will bring us closer to crowning a Best American Poetry Champion in 2010.

Marla, could it be a Canadian?

It could.  Magaret Atwood’s poem from Richard Howard’s 1995 volume, “Bored.”  Atwood broke Franz Wright’s heart in triple-overtime in Sweet Sixteen.  We won’t soon forget that one!

No, we won’t.   Atwood goes against William Kulik in the North final.

What does Billy Collins have to do to advance against Stephen Dunn?  Dunn, if you remember won his game in the last second against Robert Pinsky.  Meanwhile, Collins rolled over Harry Mathews with a swarming defense as “Composed Over Three Miles From Tintern Abbey” proved too much for “Histoire” to handle.

Tom, I think Billy has to get it to Wordsworth.  That’s the guy who has taken him this far. And the lambs have to bound, Tom, the lambs really have to bound.

They’ve been bounding and bounding well.  How about the two American women left in the tournament…not well known…but they’re very tough…

They are…Reb Livingston in the South final will be facing Bernard Welt…who is nervous, we’ve already seen that…and Janet Bowdan will be defending her chance to go to the Final Four in the West against Lewis “Buzz” Buzbee, who, in contrast to Welt, seems very relaxed.

Tarzan has brought his hammock to the West bracket final…

And Jane and Cheetah, of course…

Bowdan’s poem is lovely, isn’t it?

Yes, Tom, Bowdan’s poem is from Rita Dove’s 2000 volume.   Bowdan could go all the way.

We can feel the tension in the air here as the poets and publishers pour into the arena for these four contests.  I’ve never felt such excitement, really, since Athens, and those playwrighting contests, when I was just a young girl…

Marla Muse, you don’t look a day over 2,000!

Thanks, Tom!


We hadn’t checked it out since New Years, so what a shock to find it simply hadn’t moved on at all — same shops, same chaps, same figures.

Yes, there’s Christopher Woodman’s name still down there at the bottom, as if the PFoA were just waiting for him to come in again. The last time he tried was in response to Annie Finch on J.D.Salinger comin through the rye, poor body, but the comment he submitted just drew a blank. So he hasn’t tried again, though sometimes he’d like to.

Because he’s not at all happy with what’s happening at Scarriet either, and feels he might be happier back in the PFoA fold, he’s that old. True, there’s no commentary there (how many comments did you say there were  last week?), but at least he wouldn’t have to compete with Marla Muse praising Bob-and-Tom for dunking a new poem a second — or listen to that awful deaf-to-English-Fox that Scarriet calls our ‘coverage’ of the big Poetry Game.

Not a parody but a travesty!

And what an irony, because Scarriet’s numbers are truly running riot! But is this really what you want, my friends? Are you here just for the beer, is that it, or are you laughing at us, at the comics and antics we offer instead of poetry?

Why are you here, in fact? To watch us self-destruct on that rock in the Rhine, or sail on for another day and more questions than answers down the river?

Give us some feedback before it’s too late!

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten dass ich so traurig bin

Lyric Poetry

Sung to the lyre, it has a certain fascination. American lyrics from Irish ballads to Emily Dickinson to Annie Finch. Whitman, that lyric maelstrom. What about Heine? Could any man write these lyrics now? Is lyric poetry only written by women today? And then there’s Dylan (Bob) with the “lowest form” of lyric: the song lyric.

Most poetry is lyric, isn’t it?




………………………………….What happens to a dream deferred?

………………………………….Does it dry up
………………………………….like a raisin in the sun?
………………………………….Or fester like a sore—
………………………………….And then run?
………………………………….Does it stink like rotten meat?
………………………………….Or crust and sugar over—
………………………………….like a syrupy sweet?

………………………………….Maybe it just sags
………………………………… like a heavy load.

………………………………….Or does it explode?

………………………………………………………………..Langston Hughes



Ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Welcome poets, judges, and all you fans!

(Wild cheers)

The Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Road To The Final Four Tournament has been a whopping success.


Just as a play-within-a-play charms us within the context of the play precisely by a ratio of two to one, so the best of ‘the best’ cannot help but double the enjoyment of any who would enter into the spirit of climbing to the top—of what isn’t there.  Of course there’s no best.  Of course there’s no God.  But that is why our belief is so fanatical.

(Scattered clapping, hoots and hollers.)

Margaret Atwood, Janet Bowdan, Lewis Buzbee, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, and Bernard Welt…

(Terrific applause…standing ovation…)

…have climbed to the top of a mountain, a mountain as real…

(continued applause)

…as anything contained in the 1,500 poems published in the Best American Poetry’s 21 year existence.

(Mad cheering)

This is not to slight the reality of those poems…including the poems themselves which made it to the Elite Eight…

(clapping, foot stomping…)

but we all know that to write poetry is to translate doubtful thoughts on doubtful objects into a doubtful product for those who doubt, so that…

(Hoots and hollers)

…we might deliciously doubt our own doubts on what is so deliciously doubtful.


What could be more real than that?


And now may I present to you the expert on Good Poems…

Here’s Garrison Keillor!


Ahem. Thank you.  You know, with all the excitement around Best American Poetry March Madness, I’m tempted to say sports is more poetical than poetry…

(Laughter, cheers)

Who thought the Muse looked like… Howard Cosell?


Well, John Ashbery is out of the tournament.  He’s become the audience.  He’s becomes his admirers.  There you are…Hi, John!  You dominated BAP.  How can you be out of this tournament? Knocked out in the first round, right?   What happened?  (Pause for comic effect…)


[Audience member:  “Nathan Whiting!”]

Oh, yes…14th seed.   The dog poem.  Nathan Whiting turned John Ashbery into a stag.


And think of the poets who didn’t make the tournament.  August Kleinzahler?  Where is he?

(Nervous Laughter)

Ron Silliman?  Is he here?   Where is the School of…Noise?

(Groans, Laughter)

Charles Bernstein?  The School of Language.  Try to give us something more than objectivity and cleverness, fellas…

(Nervous laughter)

All kidding aside, I have a B.A. in English, so what do I know?   And not from Harvard, either.  The University of Minnesota.

(isolated cheer or two)

There’s a Golden Gopher.   That has a poetic ring to it, doesn’t it?  Golden Gopher.  Could anyone write a poem on that?   Ode to a Golden Gopher?  It would sound too strange…words are funny, aren’t they?  That’s the challenge of poetry, isn’t it?   To make words behave.   Golden Gopher ought to sound poetic, but once we hold it aloft…once we think on it…the whole thing sounds…


Let’s have a great round of applause for the Scarriet Best American Poetry Elite Eight!

(Applause, Cheers)

Congratulations, Scarriet!  You’re getting more hits than ever.  You are now the 46,793rd most popular poetry website!


Scarriet will never be the heroin of poetry appreciation.  Poems are not  appreciated on Scarriet so much as thrown off a building to see if they will fly.

To those who are still alive in the tournament, you’ve earned it.




“The Business of Love Is Cruelty” by Dean Young v.
“Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock” by Lewis Buzbee

It scares me DY

When the King LB

Buzbee comes out strong to take the early lead! Young is showing nerves early…

of the jungle first wakes up LB

the genius we have
for hurting one another DY

A ferocious rebound by Young! No foul called! Buzbee turns sluggish…Young now in front…

I’m seven
as tall as my mother DY

Buzbee getting some height mismatches and takes back the lead!

he thinks
it ’s going to be a great day, as laden with possibility
as the banana tree with banana hands, but by ten LB

Buzbee playing with confidence now, leads by 3, 10-7.

and she’s kneeling and somehow I know DY

Young goes to the floor to get a loose ball…

exactly how to do it, calmly
enunciating like a good actor projecting DY

Young now playing with more confidence…the team is talking to each other, communicating well…score is tied, 15-15…

he’s still in his hammock, arms and legs as dull as
termite mounds. He stares at the thatched roof and realizes
that his early good mood was leftover from Saturday. LB

Buzbee standing around out there! Young regains the lead! 24-17, Young.

when he got so much done: a great day, he saved
the tiger cub trapped in the banyan, herded the hippos
away from the tourists and their cameras and guns,
restrung and greased the N-NW vines, all by noon. LB

But Buzbee puts on a 12-0 run and leads at the half! 29-24, Buzbee.

Welcome to the March Madness Best American Poetry Half-Time Report
“What does Buzbee need to do in the second half to hold on to the lead?” Keep giving it to Tarzan…get him into his rhythm…Tarzan needs to get his hands on the ball, Marla… “Young has to keep up the aggressive play and shoot better from the outside…only 1-7 from 3 pt range…Look for Bride of Frankenstein off the bench in the second half, that’s signature Young…” Right, Marla. It’s going to come down to the play of No. 7 for Young and Tarzan for Buzbee…

to the last row, shocking the ones
who’ve come in late, cowering

out of their coats, sleet still sparkling
on their collars, the voice nearly licking
their ears above swordplay and laments: DY

As the second half opens, Young thinks he’s in a theater, he seems to forget he’s playing hoops! Buzbee increases his lead, 34-26.

All day he went about his duties, not so much Kingly duties
as custodial, and last night, he and Cheetah went for a walk
under the ostrich-egg moon. LB

Buzbee turns the ball over on traveling, and oh, Young hits a 3 pointer! Buzbee up, 34-29.

I hate you DY

Young, playing more aggressively now…Buzbee a one point lead, 36-35.

This morning nothing strikes him.
The world is a stagnant river, a scummy creek’s dammed pool.
Cheetah’s gone chattering off LB

Oh! Buzbee didn’t like that call! Technical! Young goes up, 39-36!

Now her hands are rising to her face.
Now the fear done flashing through me,
I wish I could undo it, take it back,
but it’s a matter of perfection DY

Young is psyching himself out…it’s getting nasty in the paint…too much second-guessing out their by Young..oh, that shot won’t fall…he threw it out-of-bounds…Young has lost all sense of rhythm…Let’s see if Buzbee takes advantage…Young’s guards need to control the tempo and they’re playing sloppy right now…

Jane is in town,
and the rest of the animals are busy with one another—
fighting, eating, mating. Tarzan can barely move LB

Buzbee’s center has come up limping! But the rest of the team is hanging tough…playing like animals! …shot is good! What a lay-up! There’s another drive…good! Buzbee goes on an 8-0 run, leads 44-39. But there is some concern about Buzbee’s center…not moving well out there…

carrying it through, climbing the steps
to my room, chosen banishment, where
I’ll paint the hair of my model
Bride of Frankenstein purple and pink

heap of rancor, vivacious hair
that will not die. She’s rejected DY

Oh, there’s a blocked shot by Young! This team will not die! The Purple & Pink are playing ugly, but getting it done here as we head into the final 10 minutes…52-50 lead for Young…

He does not want to move. Does the gazelle ever feel this
lassitude, does it ever want to lie down and just stare,
no loner caring for its own safety, tired of the vigilance?
Does the lion, fat in the grass, ever think, fuck it,
let the wounded springbok live, who cares? LB

Buzbee calls a timeout…coach is screaming, “You got to want this! You’re giving me prose out there! Where’s the poetry?”

Of course her intended, cathected
the desires of of six or seven bodies

onto the wimp Doctor. And Herr Doktor, DY

Young in foul trouble, tossing in bodies off the bench in a desperate attempt to stay in this thing…both Young’s guards are hurt…it’s become a war of attrition…both teams exhausted…5 minutes to go and we’re tied at 55-55.

Tarzan thinks maybe he’ll go to the bathing pools
and watch the girls bathe, splashing in the sun,
their breasts and thighs perfect. He wishes someone
would bring him a gourd of palm wine, a platter
of imported fruits—kiwi, jack fruit, star fruit,
or maybe a bowl of roasted yams slathered in goat butter LB

Buzbee’s center has got to focus! Out of bounds…Young’s ball…

what does he want among the burning villages
of his proven theories? Well, he wants
to be a student again, free, drunk,

making the cricket jump, but DY

Young burning time off the clock, holding onto the ball, trying to find a good shot…2 minutes left! We’re tied at 57…

Maybe Jane will bring him a book.
He hears far off in the dense canopy a zebra’s cry for help LB

Buzbee goes up for a shot—hammered underneath! 2 free throws! First, no good, 2nd good, 58-57, Buzbee up…

his distraught monster’s on the rampage
again, lead-footed, weary, a corrosive
and incommunicable need sputtering DY

Young, not much gas left in the tank, but draws a foul! Oh, but he misses both free throws!

Buzbee leads by 1, with 24 seconds left…

Those damned jackals again, but no, he will not move. LB

Tarzan holds the ball, Young needs to get the ball back, and fouls.

Let the world take care of itself, let the world eat the world LB

Tarzan misses the first, makes the second. Buzbee leads by 2, 59-57. 19 seconds…

his chest, throwing oil like a fouled-up
motor: how many times do you have to die
before you’re really dead? DY

Young with the ball…8 seconds…3 point shot… GOOD!!! Young goes ahead 60-59 with 7 seconds left!!!

Buzbee calls time out. Here’s the throw-in from mid-court…

He can live without the call of the wild. LB

A drive to the basket, a pass back to the foul circle, here’s the shot…

He thinks. LB

at the buzzer!…GOOOOOOOOOD!!!!!!

Buzbee wins 61-60!!!

Everytime we play this game it comes out the same…?

Lewis Buzbee is our final poet in the Elite Eight.

We have our Elite Eight!


A Good List
(Homage to Lorenz Hart)

Some nights, can’t sleep, I draw up a list,
      Of everything I’ve never done wrong.
To look at me now, you might insist

      My list could hardly be long,
But I’ve stolen no gnomes from my neighbor’s yard,
Nor struck his dog, backing out my car.
Never ate my way up and down the Loire
      On a stranger’s credit card.

I’ve never given a cop the slip,
      Stuffed stiffs in a gravel quarry,
Or silenced Cub Scouts on a first camping trip
      With an unspeakable ghost story.
Never lifted a vase from a museum foyer,
Or rifled a Turkish tourist’s backpack.
Never cheated at golf. Or slipped out a blackjack
      And flattened a patent lawyer.

I never forged a lottery ticket,
      Took three on a two-for-one pass,
Or, as a child, toasted a cricket
      With a magnifying glass.
I never said “air” to mean “err,” or obstructed
Justice, or defrauded a securities firm.
Never mulcted—so far as I understand the term.
      Or unjustly usufructed.

I never swindled a widow of all her stuff
      By means of a false deed and title
Or stood up and shouted, My God, that’s enough!
      At a nephew’s piano recital.
Never practiced arson, even as a prank,
Brightened church-suppers with off-color jokes,
Concocted an archeological hoax—
      Or dumped bleach in a goldfish tank.

Never smoked opium. Or smuggled gold
      Across the Panamanian Isthmus.
Never hauled back and knocked a rival out cold,
      Or missed a family Christmas.
Never borrowed a book I intended to keep.
. . . My list, once started, continues to grow,
Which is all for the good, but just goes to show
      It’s the good who do not sleep.

–Brad Leithauser

The Year by Janet Bowdan

When you did not come for dinner, I ate leftovers for days.  When you
missed desert, I finished all the strawberries.  When you did not notice
me, I walked four miles uphill past you and into Florence and five miles
the other way. When you did not like my dress, I wore it with gray silk
shoes instead of gold ones. When you did not see my car had sunk into
a snowdrift at the turn of your driveway, I took the shovel off your porch
and dug myself out. When you stopped writing, I wrote. When you sent
back my poems, I made them into earrings and wore them to work.
When you refused to appear at the reunion, I went to the dentist who
showed me X-rays of my teeth. When you did not tell me you would be
in town, I met you on Main Street on the way to the library. While you
had dinner with me, I walked past the window and looked in.  You were
not there.

Marla Muse, it’s time for one these gorgeous poems to eliminate the other, and I don’t think I can watch.

Then, don’t.   I’ll just announce the winner…

No, I couldn’t stand that, either.  You can’t X-ray love!  You can’t find the better poem between these two!

Then they will have to play…

OK, Marla, they’re playing.  They want to play.  It’s like a dance…but I still can’t watch…








OK, enough of this..announce a winner.

Leithauser represents the last  New Formalist in the tourney, and there’s a strong desire to see a New Formalist make the Final Four, but we should take a moment to observe that in 21 years of BAP how few strong poems there are which use  rhyme and meter—we can almost count them on one hand.  Should we conclude that what Shakespeare and Keats and Tennyson did can never be done again?  Or should never be done again?  Is that really the thinking, and has this thinking made it so?  Shakespeare was a deadline-driven playwright, but somehow today’s formalists always manage to come across as facile by comparison.  Is Lorenz Hart the best we can do—and what is Hart, really, without Rodgers?   Would Keats need Rodgers?  It’s a puzzle, this lapse, and I have no idea whether the BAP deserves any blame.   It is with utmost respect for Keats and Tennyson and Shakespeare and with utmost respect for poetry itself, that I find the New Formalists something of a failure.   It is with utmost respect and admiration for Brad Leithauser’s “A Good List” that I find our winner to be:

Janet Bowdan.

Welcome to the Elite Eight, Janet!


the idiocy of rural life” –Karl Marx

let the young Lambs bound”  –Wordsworth

Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey

I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.

The fellow may be gazing
over an English landscape,
hillsides dotted with sheep,
a row of tall trees topping the downs,

or he could be moping through the shadows
of a dark Bavarian forest,
a wedge of cheese and a volume of fairy tales
tucked into his rucksack.

But the feeling is always the same.
It was better the first time.
This time it is not nearly as good.
I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then.

Something is always missing—
swans, a glint on the surface of a lake,
some minor but essential touch.
Or the quality of things has diminished.

The sky was a deeper, more dimensional blue,
clouds were more cathedral-like,
and water rushed over rock
with greater effervescence.

From our chairs we have watched
the poor author in his waistcoat
as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood
and mills around in a field of weeds.

We have heard the poets long dead
declaim their dying
from a promontory, a riverbank,
next to a haycock, within a copse.

We have listened to their dismay,
the kind that issues from poems
the way water issues forth from hoses,
the way the match always gives its little speech on fire.

And when we put down the book at last,
lean back, close our eyes,
stinging with print,
and slip in the bookmark of sleep,

we will be schooled enough to know
that when we wake up
a little before dinner
things will not be nearly as good as they once were.

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray,

the glossy gardenia drooping
in its chipped terra-cotta pot.
And on the floor, shoes, socks,
the browning core of an apple.

Nothing will be as it was
a few hours ago, back in the glorious past
before our naps, back in that Golden Age
that drew to a close sometime shortly after lunch.

Billy Collins (1998, Hollander)


Tina and Seth met in the midst of an overcrowded militarism.
“Like a drink?” he asked her. “They make great Alexanders over at the Marxism-Leninism.”
She agreed. They shared cocktails. They behaved cautiously, as in a period of pre-fascism.
Afterwards he suggested dinner at a restaurant renowned for its Maoism.
“O.K.,” she said, but first she had to phone a friend about her ailing Afghan, whose name was Racism.
Then she followed Seth across town past twilit alleys of sexism.

The waiter brought menus and announced the day’s specials. He treated them with condescending sexism,
So they had another drink. Tina started her meal with a dish of militarism,
While Seth, who was hungrier, had a half portion of stuffed baked racism.
Their main dishes were roast duck for Seth, and for Tina broiled Marxism-Leninism.
Tina had pecan pie a la for dessert, Seth a compote of stewed Maoism.
They lingered. Seth proposed a liqueur. They rejected sambuca and agreed on fascism.

During the meal, Seth took the initiative. He inquired into Tina’s fascism,
About which she was reserved, not out of reticence but because Seth’s sexism
Had aroused in her a desire she felt she should hide – as though her Maoism
Would willy-nilly betray her feelings for him. She was right. Even her deliberate militarism
Couldn’t keep Seth from realizing that his attraction was reciprocated. His own Marxism-Leninism
Became manifest, in a compulsive way that piled the Ossa of confusion on the Pelion of racism.

Next, what? Food finished, drinks drunk, bills paid – what racism
Might not swamp their yearning in an even greater confusion of fascism?
But women are wiser than words. Tina rested her hand on his thigh and, a-twinkle with Marxism-Leninism,
Asked him, “My place?” Clarity at once abounded under the flood-lights of sexism,
They rose from the table, strode out, and he with the impetuousness of young militarism
Hailed a cab to transport them to her lair, heaven-haven of Maoism.

In the taxi he soon kissed her. She let him unbutton her Maoism
And stroke her resilient skin, which was quivering with shudders of racism.
When beneath her jeans he sense the superior Lycra of her militarism,
His longing almost strangled him. Her little tongue was as potent as fascism
In its elusive certainty. He felt like then and there tearing off her sexism
But he reminded himself: “Pleasure lies in patience, not in the greedy violence of Marxism-Leninism.”

Once home, she took over. She created a hungering aura of Marxism-Leninism
As she slowly undressed him where he sat on her overstuffed art-deco Maoism,
Making him keep still, so that she could indulge in caresses, in sexism,
In the pursuit of knowing him. He groaned under the exactness of her racism
– Fingertip sliding up his nape, nails incising his soles, teeth nibbling his fascism.
At last she guided him to bed, and they lay down on a patchwork of Old American militarism.

Biting his lips, he plunged his militarism into the popular context of her Marxism-Leninism,
Easing one thumb into her fascism, with his free hand coddling the tip of her Maoism,
Until, gasping with appreciative racism, both together sink into the revealed glory of sexism.

Harry Mathews (1988, Ashbery)

These two remarkable poems show that optimistic humor is ideally suited to poetry.  This sometimes gets lost amid the elegy and experimentation which  dominates modern verse.

There’s a bright, snappy, Enlightenment verve to poems like these.  Both Collins and Mathews slay dug-in sensibilities—Collins explodes the nostalgic notion of the good old days, or good old golden age, while Mathews has fun with the high-church seriousness of political beliefs.

Here is wit, but not the brief variety; these authors take stock of their subject first, and draw the reader in with conversational intimacy.  They convince with repetition, they accomplish their aim by placing their art within a frame of inevitability, but within that frame is a rhetorical looseness; one could fault Collins for the awful line, “as frequently as rain occurs in life” but this would be to miss the point.  Such ‘badness’ contributes to the necessary looseness, which in turn contributes to the trust between author and reader; such badness is like air in food which gives it lightness.  Mathews is under the same burden; the joke of his poem forbids elegant rhetoric from occuring, but the details add up differently, badly, in fact, but this is how the joke must work and the joke works in the only way it can, by distorting details for the sake of the whole, which adds up to satire against another existence, one smoother, apparently, than the Mathews poem, that of political pretense.

There has been some discussion behind the scenes of Scarriet lately on the nature of poetry, for when a large variety of poems are forced to compete, as in this March Madness tournament, one naturally begins to wrestle with the question of not only which of the poems is better, but which of the two is more like a poem. Why this question: which one is more like a poem? should even arise, I do not know, but it is almost as if, when we are faced with two poems we enjoy equally, to choose the best, we fall back on this question, it being human nature, or perhaps the nature of thought itself, to slightly favor whatever is more universal over what is more particular.

To be brief: a poem is, in words, whatever takes place in a certain space.

How do words make something take place and how do words create a certain space?

Meter and rhyme can create their own artificial space (a stanza) without the words having to mean anything.  Poems have traditionally featured a series of stanzas in which meaning is conveyed.

But meaning itself can create space—without stanzas.  Stanzas made it necessary for meter and rhyme and even the verse line to exist; not the other way around.  Most of us assume that the stanza is a mere outgrowth of the line, when the reverse is true: the stanza actually came first.  The stanza is the space, the room, in which poetry behaves as poetry.

All modern forms follow from this idea.  In today’s poetry, the room, or space (stanza) and things taking place within that room or space, (stanza- action) occur more frequently in word-meaning rather than word-sound.  I think this sums up the whole matter quite nicely.   The Divine Comedy has more rooms and more occurances, but otherwise is the same, in terms of form and content, as the haiku.

Billy Collins carves out space like so:

Something will be missing
from this long, coffin-shaped room,
the walls and windows now
only two different shades of gray

As long as Collins works in stanzas, he doesn’t really need the line, or he can get away with lines of no interest whatsoever, such as “the walls and windows now.”    His lines can have no interest, the lines of a Billy Collins poem can be invisible, more or less, as long as he uses stanzas; few critics really understand how Collins’ poetry can even work. These critics are blind to the stanza-principle and in their blindness dismiss Collins as middle-brow fluff, going so far as to say that it is not  poetry at all.  The error involves the false belief that the line precedes, and gives rise to, stanza when, in fact, the reverse is true.  The fact that Billy Collins is successful without bothering to write good lines is proof of the thesis here outlined: the stanza, (the room) not the line (sequential unit), is the essence of poetry.

Highly musical poetry can be stanza poetry. Prose can also be stanza poetry.   The advocates of the line tend to favor either the highly musical poem or the highly prosaic poem, but not both.

Simple folk with no theory enjoy both. For the over-learned, too proud to enjoy Billy Collins, or too cutting-edge to enjoy Shelley, I have just provided a way out of your essential confusion; likewise for the formalists who cannot reconcile in their minds a Shelley and a Collins.

One might have a tendency then, to choose the Mathews over the Collins because “Histoire” by Mathews is a sestina, and features language with more repetition, and thus would appear to be more poetic, but this is to put a minor principle (with some merit) before philosophy plus perception (which has a great deal more).

Billy Collins is the winner.



Robert Pinsky’s “Pleasure Bay” (Hall, 89) clawed its way to a last-second victory over Louise Gluck’s “Time” (Hass 01) in the highly competitive East bracket. 

Stephen Dunn, meanwhile, upended T. Allan Broughton’s haunting “The Ballad of the Comely Woman” (Creeley 02). 

Pinsky’s masterful “Pleasure Bay” now faces Dunn’s intriguing “Where He Found Himself” (McHugh 07). 

Pleasure Bay

In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price’s Hotel and Theater.
And here’s where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whiskey,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch,
The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filling
The humid August evening near the inlet
With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies
Not moving in the open car among the pines,
A sliver of story. The tenor at Price’s Hotel,
In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered
In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers
That hold like splashes of light on the dark water,
The aria’s closing phrases, changed and fading.
And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause
Audible in the houses across the river,
Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted
Inside the music. Never the same. In Berlin
The daughter of an English lord, in love
With Adolf Hitler, whom she has met. She is taking
Possession of the apartment of a couple,
Elderly well-off Jews. They survive the war
To settle here in the Bay, the old lady
Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels
And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi
Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures,
The elegant story that was theirs and now
Is part of hers. A few months later the English
Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park,
An addled, upper-class girl, her life that passes
Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives–the Chief and Mrs. W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver’s barrel,
Shivers of a story that a child might hear
And half remember, voices in the rushes,
A singing in the willows. From across the river,
Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again,
Ranging and building. Over the high new bridge
The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack,
With one boat chugging under the arches, outward
Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here’s where the people stood to watch the theater
Burn on the water. All that night the fireboats
Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already
Soaking back into the river. After you die
You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs
Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing–maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was–
Here’s where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

Pinsky’s poem is consistently brooding and melancholy, a landscape tone-poem, with teasing hints of history, a richly suggestive panorama which transforms the reader in the end to a ghost, that the ghostly secrets might be unfolded, the secrets of Pleasure Bay.  Pleasure Bay is vividly drawn as an actual place—with its flora, its entertainments, its tragic history—as well as a dreamscape, a place touching eternity, where the oft-repeated Pleasure Bay (once in the title, three times in the poem) could mean pleasure, stay!

Does Stephen Dunn have a chance against this poem?  Let’s read his poem and find out.

Where He Found Himself

The new man unfolded a map and pointed
to a dark spot on it. “See, that’s how
far away I feel all the time, right here,
among all of you,” he said.
.         .”Yes,” John the gentle mule replied,
“alienation is clearly your happiness.”
But the group leader interrupted,
“Now, now, let’s hear him out,
let’s try to be fair.”  The new man felt
the familiar comfort of everyone against him.
.                                   .He went on about the stupidities
of love, life itself as one long foreclosure,
until another man said, “I was a hog,
a terrible hog, and now I’m a llama.”
To which another added, “And me, I was a wolf.
Now children walk up to me, unafraid.”
.             .The group leader asked the new man,
“What kind of animal have you been?”
“A rat that wants to remain a rat,” he said,
and the group began to soften
as they remembered their own early days,
the pain before the transformation.

An uncanny poem of uncanny power, eliciting with a few deft brush strokes both the oppression of socializing group-think and the rebel who is self-oppressive.  One wants to brood upon this poem forever.

We’re moments away from tip-off, and I’m here with Marla Muse.  Any last thoughts, Marla?

Two great poems, Tom.  Can’t wait for the head-to-head.

Pinsky’s team has ‘Pleasure Bay’ emblazoned on their shirts in deep blue lettering.  The starting five: Unity Mitford at center, the Police Chief and Adolf Hitler at the forward position, the Poet and the Catbird at guard.

Dunn’s team has the Llama and Mule at forward, Wolf and Rat at guards, and the poet, Dunn, plays center.

There’s the tip…Dunn controls, a pass ahead to a cutting Rat.  Rat comes out to the corner, Rat is triple-teamed, Pleasure Bay jerseys all ove Rat.  Oh, and there’s a jump ball as Rat is tied up!  Possession arrow to Pinsky.  Pleasure Bay brings it up now…Pinsky all the way to the foul circle, looks around, he passes…oh intercepted by Rat…three on one break for Dunn! Rat keeps it…misses…no foul! Rebound taken off the glass by Unity Mitford…quickly to Hitler, who bombs from outside…oh, no good…out of bounds, back to Dunn…Llama dribbles up center court…in the corner to Mule…shoots…blocked by the Police Chief! A scramble for it on the floor…Mule gets it back…pass inside to Dunn…who scores!

Catbird brings it up for Pinsky, singing away, guarded by Wolf…over to the Police Chief, back to Catbird who takes it himself on a drive…good!  And he’s fouled by Wolf, chance for a 3 point play!  Catbird sinks the free shot, and it’s 3-2, Pleasure Bay.

Time out called by Dunn…the team is examining a dark spot as they write out a play…

Who’s the true group leader overe there, for Dunn, Marla?

I don’t know…some kind of animal…

If I might intrude here: this raises the issue of pure v. impure poetry.  What is a pure poem?  Can a pure poem have an idea?  In a reverse of the old formula, can an idea, or moral, be the sugar-coating, while the poetry, the pure poetry, is the medicine?  Both the Dunn and the Pinsky are highly suggestive, but the Pinsky poem would seem to be a textbook case of the New Critical teachings of Yvor Winters, Crowe Ransom, and Robert  Penn Warren by way of T.S. Eliot’s and Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana.  Here is Robert Penn Warren from his essay “Pure and Impure Poetry:”

“even in the strictest imagist poetry idea creeps in—when the image leaves its natural habitat and enters a poem it begins to “mean” something. The attempt to read ideas out of the poetic party violates the unity of our being and the unity of our experience. ‘For this reason,’ as Santayana put it, ‘philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or, rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all.  Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.'”

Nice way to “intrude…” we’ve missed most of the game! 

Catbird scores again!  And he never scores quite the same way twice…

But Rat scores…as Dunn gnaws into Pinsky’s lead…

What is the Pinsky poem finally saying?  It would seem all the elements are there in order to figure out what it is saying, as the Pinsky poem is slightly more literal in its intent; despite its rich suggestiveness, the Dunn is even more suggestive, Dunn’s design on the reader is even more hidden…thus the poem is more pure

A steal by Rat!…three on two break…Llama… to Mule… to Dunn who lays it up…good!   Dunn leads for the first time in this contest with just seconds left…!

The attempt to read ideas out of the poetic party violates the unity of our being and the unity of our experience.  —Robert Penn Warren

Why does this phrase of Warren’s keep haunting me?

Focus on the game, Tom!  The game!

Yes, Marla…of course…

Has Unity Mitford violated the unity of our experience?

The ghost of Mrs. W. off the bench has been scoring well for Pinsky in the second half.   She takes a shot here…goooood!!

Three seconds to go…

Stephen Dunn across the mid-court line…he has to hurry…

Stephen Dunn shoots from way outside…


Stephen Dunn has just knocked off one of the best poems of the late 20th century, “Pleasure Bay!”  

I don’t believe it!!

Dunn being mobbed by Rat, Mule and Llama at mid-court…holy cow!!



Of his poem, “I stopped writing poetry…,”  Bernard Welt, a Jeopardy! champion from Texas, writes in ‘Contributors’ Notes & Comments’ in the 2001 Best American Poetry (Lehman, Hass, eds) “‘I stopped writing poetry…’ almost didn’t get written, because—well, I’d stopped writing poetry.”

I stopped writing poetry…

Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life.  —Flann O’Brien

No one is more confident than a bad poet.  —Martial

I stopped writing poetry
When I was just starting to get good at it. First
I got good at rhyme, so I cast it away.
Then I got good at line and stanza construction—
So good I hardly needed to say anything at all.
My meanings emerged
..                                           .in the spaces between.
So I got rid of that, too.  Metaphor, metonymy,
Allusive echoes of my betters—well, frankly,
I was whizz at that stuff pretty early on.
So I emptied out the file-drawers
Of rhetorical strategy, musical form,
Continuity or criticism of tradition,
And I just wrote.  Finally I found
I was writing…prose, like everyone else.
But it was prose with a difference: prose with a rich,
Totally hidden other life lying behind it, unglimpsed
(I think) by the reader.  Not like a prostitute
Who reforms and becomes a nun.  I’ve seen
The movie.  More like a nun who becomes a prostitute.

I stopped writing poetry
at 16 (seriously), then again at about 20
but only for six months, once again
at 27, that at 32, 35, 40 and 42.
I’ll keep you posted.

I stopped writing poetry
when I realized that I understood romantic and symbolist
poetry sound sculpture objective verse conceptual art
pure language the confessional and elegaic modes and still
everything i wanted to do in poetry pretty much everything
I wanted anyone at all to do had been done already and much
better by don marquis in the archy and mehitabel poems

I stopped writing poetry
when everyone else did—in the early 90s, when television
became more interesting than culture.

I stopped writing poetry
when they came and deactivated my poetry button

I stopped writing poetry
when I got married—I mean settled down—
since the laws of the state of Maryland do not allow me
to marry the love of my life—though I’m not here
to whine about it—and maybe marriage would ruin me
as it seems to have ruined others—but one thing I know—
it is certainly nice to have someone to blame
for taking it easy and resisting inspiration when it inconveniently
insists on arising occasionally no matter what you do
(PS thanks for the dashes Emily Dickinson)

I stopped writing poetry
because the last thing I ever wanted
was to develop the obnoxious false
self masquerading as voice the way artists
as soon as their style becomes identifiable
are stuck in it and in what it will allow them
to think style isn’t a correlative of personality
or a way to explore transcendent issues
that lie beyond mere worldly content style is
exhaustion ennui and fashion and death

I stopped writing poetry
when I received the praise of people I admired.
It’s a terrible thing to receive exactly the attention you want
when you are unprepared to admit you might deserve it.
Of the many ways in which poets are always going on
about how poetry not only receives inspiration from love
but imitates it in form and feeling, this just may be the worst.

I stopped writing poetry because I saw what it was doing to people’s prose style.

I stopped writing poetry—
well, basically, because I’m white. I don’t
like being white, it isn’t a choice I’d make freely,
and to get argumentative I don’t think it’s entirely fair
that I have to be white right now when it’s so 10 minutes ago
when if I’d been born fifteen years earlier most racists
would have considered me anything but, what with
the whole Jew-as-vermin thing, but OK, OK, I concede
the point, I culturally white, or whatever, dammit,
and in case you haven’t noticed, this just isn’t
white people’s moment, poetry-wise. Don’t even
get me started on the griot tradition and that stuff,
I mean, just look at rap—poetry that communicates
exquisitely within its chosen boundaries of class
and common interest, and hardly at all outside it,
except  for those to whom it stands as aspiration to cool.
Just like Shakespeare and Donne. What have white people
contributed to culture recently?  Postmodernism?  Please.
My own revelation came when I realized
Little Red Corvette meant more to me than any poem
published since the early 1970s. On the not-very
mean streets where I learned versification, poetry
wasn’t a mode of expression spontaneously developed
from living people’s lived experience, it was a regime.
Well, that’s over now. Get over it.

I stopped writing poetry
When I just ran out of steam.
It’s really not a whole lot
More complicated than that.

I stopped writing poetry
When my friends started dying.  Some of my friends
Wrote beautifully about the condition of their illness,
And insightfully about mortality and their own impending
Death. Some wrote angrily about their invisibility
And created a literature of testimony in which we learn
What it was like to walk in the streets of American cities
As a ghost. Some wrote poems to memorialize their lovers,
Or to embarrass right-wing senators or arts funding agencies.
But I just counted 67 people I knew and was fond of
Who’ve died of “AIDS-related illness,” and not once
Have I genuinely felt I could respond to their suffering or death
In poetry. Is it poetry? Is it me? The era? I am willing to believe
That if Milton and Shelley and Tennyson could do it,
It can still mean something. Why should I think their ages
Made death any more manageable a subject than mine?
But whenever I sat down to try, I stopped in despair.
Whatever the political advantages of slogans
Of the time, it wasn’t the right words I looked for
But some way to make silence heard in lines
Of verse, and I never found it.
.                                                        .Now even that
Sounds like a device to me, like special pleading.
Fuck it. Just fuck it. Let someone else do it.

I stopped writing poetry
but I still love the stanza. All the other cool stuff—
tropes, the caesura, enjambment—I can live without.
But the stanza—wow.

I stopped writing poetry
after I went to my first MLA conference,
where they were attacking a way of reading
and understanding literature they called
“mainstream” and “dominant” that I’d never even
encountered. It was like what they meant by “book”
was totally different from what I meant by “book”—
as different as “washing machine” and “golf ball.”
I stopped writing poetry when it was eclipsed by criticism
for purely sociological and economic reasons.
I stopped writing poetry when people began writing
scholarly articles explaining how to read Frank O’Hara’s
Lunch Poems and it never occurred to them to mention
that you should read them during lunch. I stopped
writing poetry when it became popular. I realize
Robert Frost read at Kennedy’s inauguration but now
Ethan Hawke is telling Vanity Fair that he keeps
your book by his bed, and poetry as adjunct
to commercial culture and the veneration of celebrity
is so much more deliciously embarrassing for everyone
than even poetry in the service of the state.
I stopped writing poetry when taking it seriously
started seeming more likely to indicate
intellectual complacency than intellectual liveliness.
I stopped writing poetry when it got boring.

I stopped writing poetry
when the internet replaced the telephone
(since now that everyone has a phone,
and takes it everywhere, it’s obvious
the telephone is over). Ted Berrigan I thought
destroyed the sonnet by inviting the beloved
to just pick up the phone and call him
sometime—thus no more need to plead
and seduce through verse—so the channel
changed: it works both ways. Now we are all
(gay str8 bi-curious) pleading and seducing
in lower case as only freest verse used to
hitting reply b4 the intimacy of communication
has time even to register killing off poetry
by creating the first real audience for it in centuries.

I stopped writing poetry
because I promised to. I read something
at the Ear Inn around 1984 in which I encouraged everyone
to give up writing—as I engaged to—and it went over
real big. Afterwards any time I ran into any of the
poetry crowd they’d always ask me if I was still
not writing. I understood it was a performance piece
and so did they but I kept getting this gnawing feeling
I was abandoning a principle by continuing to write.
It was entirely superstition, like actually feeling sick
when you call in sick, but I suppose I have been a victim
of the terrible conviction that you must mean what you say.

I stopped writing poetry
when I had dedicated poems to everyone I knew, at least everyone I wanted to impress.
I promise to start writing poetry again as soon as I meet some new people.
Interesting people, anyway.
interesting people I can’t just come out and say things to, anyway.

I stopped writing poetry
but as satisfying as it has been to turn my back on it
as on a distant homeland fallen under the spell of a fascist party
still a breeze reaches me from time to time fragrant of verse
and suddenly I am as nostalgic as an exiled Russian
grand-duke waiting on tables in Paris in a screwball comedy
sometimes I wonder would it really be so terrible
If I wrote just one more line.

Depending on how you look at it, Welt’s poem is either a bunch of bitching or the most representative poem of its age.  What do you think, Marla?

I guess it’s a representative bitch.  A bitch to represent.   Also a bitch to play against in crunch time.  This poem could go all the way.

It’s many things, isn’t it?  AIDS elegy, ars poetica, confession…

Alan Shapiro is going to have his hands full with this baby.  Let’s take a look at Shapiro’s Sweet 16 entry, “Country Western Singer,” from the 2007 Heather McHugh volume, which some feel is the all-time best in Lehman’s BAP series.

Yes, Tom!  Right next to Alan’s poem in this volume is “The Death of the Shah” by Fred Seidel, which almost made the 64 team cut for this tournament but which was finally just a little too…creepy.  (shudder)

I love your aesthetic judgments, Marla.

They’re visceral.  What’s wrong with that?

OK, here’s the poem:

Country Western Singer

I used to feel like a new man
After the day’s first brew.
But then the new man I became
Would need a tall one too.

As would the new man he became,
And the new one after him
And so on and so forth till the new men made
The dizzy room go dim.

And each one said, I’ll be your muse,
I’ll trade you song for beer:
He said, I’ll be your salt lick, honey,
If you will be my deer.

He said, I’ll be your happy hour,
And you, boy, you’ll be mine
And mine won’t end at six or seven
Or even at closing time.

Yes, son, I’ll be your spirit guide;
I’ll lead you to Absolut,
To Dewars, Bushmills, and Jamesons,
Then down to Old Tangle Foot.

And there I’ll drain the pretense from you
That propped you up so high;
I’ll teach you salvation’s just
Salivation without the I.

To hear his sweet talk was to think
You’d gone from rags to riches,
Till going from drink to drink became
Like going from hags to bitches,

Like going from bed to barroom stool,
From stool to bathroom stall,
From stall to sink, from sink to stool,
From stool to hospital.

Now the monitors beep like pinball machines,
And coldly the IV drips;
And a nurse runs a moistened washcloth over
My parched and bleeding lips,

And the blood I taste, the blood I swallow
Is as far away from wine
As 5:10 is for the one who dies
At 5:09.

This is a smooth poem.

Bernie Welt’s gotta play ‘in-your-face’ defense to throw off Shapiro’s text-book shooting rhythm.

Welt’s expansive prose takes on Shapiro’s elegant rhyme.

Classic matchup.

Here’s the tip:

Bernie takes the early lead.  His title alone carries so much interest.  Bernie is saying what we think, but don’t say—at least not in poems.

Alan’s having trouble with this defense.  Is his poem finally too ‘country western song’ facile and clever?  He looks a little confused out there, Marla.

And so on and so forth till the new men made
The dizzy room go dim.

That’s weak…’And so on and so forth…’ you can’t have banal language like that in a poem of precise rhymes.  And the seductions of drink are falling into cliche: “dizzy room go dim.”

Meanwhile Welt is scoring easy buckets.

I stopped writing poetry
when everyone else did—in the early 90s, when television
became more interesting than culture.

Big lead for Welt!

The rhyme of “Absolut’ with ‘Old Tangle Foot…’  Ouch!

Welt leads 49-28 at the half.


Second half.  Shapiro needs a rally.  This won’t do it:

Till going from drink to drink became
Like going from hags to bitches

Welt continues to score:

Ted Berrigan I thought
destroyed the sonnet by inviting the beloved
to just pick up the phone and call him

A one-sided contest, Marla.

It’s never over until the nightingale sings.

Shapiro makes his move:

Like going from bed to barroom stool,
From stool to bathroom stall,
From stall to sink, from sink to stool,
From stool to hospital.

Good rhyme, alliteration, assonance…Shapiro cuts into Welt’s lead!  But is it too late?

A steal by Shapiro!  A drive…good!…and fouled!  Welt starting to show frustration!  Shapiro completes the three point play from the line, but he’s still down by 13.

Now the monitors beep like pinball machines,
And coldly the IV drips;
And a nurse runs a moistened washcloth over
My parched and bleeding lips,

And the blood I taste, the blood I swallow
Is as far away from wine
As 5:10 is for the one who dies
At 5:09.

A great finish by Shapiro!    But it’s not going to be enough…

Welt wins, 99-90.

Welcome to the Elite 8, Bernie!


BORED by Margaret Atwood

All those times I was bored
out of my mind.  Holding the log
while he sawed it.  Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded.  Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled.  It
wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details.  Myopia.  The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover.  The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the greying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would.  The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes.  Such minutiae.  It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.  He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail.  Why do I remember it as summer
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else.  Perhaps though
boredom is happier.  It is for dogs or
groundhogs.  Now I wouldn’t be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.

Richard Howard selected this Margaret Atwood poem in 1995.  As editor that year, he made his own rule that he would not select poems from poets who had appeared three times previously in the Series, and so, we got an Atwood in 1995, instead of an Ashbery or an Ammons, and so if a Canadian should happen to win the Scarriet All-Time Best American Poetry Tournament, we can all blame Richard Howard.

Franz Wright was not born in the United States and there is something German Romantic about Franz.  Billy Collins picked Wright’s “A Happy Thought” for his 2006 volume, and Billy’s as American as they come, vigilant in his satire of old poetic styles, Roman, French avant garde, Romantic, and Billy likes jazz, and is just a melting pot of humor and wit.  So that’s good.

OK, we’ve seen what Atwood’s got. 

Wright comes out of the tunnel—into the light, ready to play!

Marla, listen to that crowd!

I love crowds. 

Wright knows this could be his last game, in this single-elimination playoff, but he says he’s going to play this like it’s any other game,  like it was his first.

This is to play in the North final.

A Happy Thought

Assuming this is the last day of my life
(which might mean it is almost the first),
I’m struck blind but my blindness is bright.

Prepare for what’s known here as death;
have no fear of that strange word forever.
Even I can see there’s nothing there

to be afraid of: having already been
to forever I’m unable to recall
anything that scared me, there, or hurt.

What frightened me, apparently, and hurt
was being born.  But I got over that
with no hard feelings.  Dying, I imagine

it will be the same deal, lonesomer maybe,
but surely no more shocking or prolonged—
It’s dark as I recall, then bright, so bright.

Beautiful, hopeful poem.

Wright will make uncanny shots and then miss easy ones.  Let’s see if he’s consistent enough to bring down the tenacious, novel-made-into-major-motion-picture, Booker Prize winning Margaret Atwood.

Wright is playing like he’s possessed!  In a trance, almost, not forcing anything, a long jumper, from waaaay outside…swish!

Wright’s playing with ice in his veins…He’s hitting everything…!

First half, big lead for Wright…

But as we start the second half…oh…another miss…Wright can’t make anything fall…his big lead dwindling…Atwood’s poem has more details and that’s starting to add up for the Canadian….!

Marla, the pictures used for the two poems…Atwood’s may have been more emotionally effective…

That does a play a part, Tom…the photo used for Wright’s poem may have been a little too literal…as you know, these are factors that the poets can’t control…[Richard] Howard may be out-coaching [Billy] Collins here a little bit…

Atwood showing emotional toughness…her poem has all those rich details…Wright trying to find some image he can fall back on…Atwood scores…and we’re tied!  I don’t believe it! 

We’re going into overtime! 

It’s “Now I would know” against “then bright, so bright.” 

What a contest!

Who are you rooting for in this one, Marla?

I soar, I don’t root.  I’m not paid to root, Tom.

Okay, Marla, it’s going back and forth here…

And we’re tied!  Second overtime!

No one’s “bored” by this one!  

Tom, shut up.

Sorry, Marla.  Are you a Dame, by the way, Marla?  Is Margaret a Dame?

Tom, please…earthly titles?  Ha!

These poets want it, and they want it badly.   Both poems…so courageous…and deep…it’s like a couple of badgers tearing at each other…

What a game!

Seconds left, and we’re tied, at the end of the third overtime!

Atwood at the free-throw line.  She has two shots.  If she makes one, she wins.

First shot…

No good!

Here’s the second one…


Atwood wins!!!!!

O, Canada!

Damn you, Richard Howard!

There’s nothing left to say…

Atwood is in the Elite Eight.


“A Time Zone” by Kenneth Koch begins with a quote from Apollinaire, which we won’t look at, because first, it’s in French, and secondly, the French have never understood poetry as competition; they understand it as wine or as a pancake.

LivingstonReb Livingston.  Sigh.  Does she have a chance?  Marla?

She does.

It’s the semi-final in the South Bracket. OK, let’s get right to it.  The Koch poem is a little self-indulgent and at times boring and David Lehman’s interested in the New York School so you know why this poem got in there but here it is in Sweet 16 do I really like this poem I don’t know I do love the ending, though:

De Kooning’s landscapy woman is full of double-exposure perfections
Bob Goodnough is making some small flat red corrections
Jane is concentrating she’s frowning she has a look of happy distress
She’s painting her own portrait in a long-sleeved dark pink dress
I’m excited I’m writing at my typewriter it doesn’t make too much sense

What about this, Marla?  Too patchy, name-droppy and cut-out, too satisfied with its snapshot surfaces?

Tom, Kenneth Koch is unfortunate for one thing.   His name is… Kenneth.  Imagine if he had a name like John…or Frank.  He’d be huge.  He’d be unstoppable.  You can’t top that “long-sleeved dark pink dress.”  I know.  I’ve been a Muse for a long time…  Koch’s poem is witty, smart, fun…

Fun?  Did you just call a poem fun?


Sorry, Marla.

Here’s another clip of Koch and his “A Time Zone:”

At a John Cage concert there’s hardly a sound
It’s the paradise of music lost and music found
I find it pure and great as if a great big flash of light were going off underground
Satie and Webern are hitting me in the head and so finally with The Cantos is Ezra Pound
Frank and I are writing very long poems

Reb Livingston looks very nervous.  “That’s Not Butter,” according to Reb, is “loosely based on Little Black Sambo, a once-popular children’s story no longer taught due to its offensive racial characterizations. Few people my age are familiar with the story or its history, although my kindergarten teacher read it to our class. As young children oblivious to British imperialism, we loved the tale because to us it was about pancakes and a little boy who outsmarted tigers.”

“Long poems” v. a story in kindergarten.  Marla, does Livingston really have a chance?

The Muse has a tender heart, Tom.  Livingston has a certain look in her eye.  Uhhh…Kenneth’s clothes are slightly unkempt.  Uhhh…anything can happen.

The opening 6 lines of “That’s Not Butter:”

Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.
No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.
The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,
mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.

Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,
like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese, and church bazaars.

Here is world of “divorce” and Chuck E. Cheese.  We all know this world: crass, yet plastic and efficient.  Unpoetic.

“That’s Not Butter” is a twist on Lewis Carroll: Alice (and her young companions) are as nasty as the Red Queen, while animal citizens of this Wonderland are normal, sane, and helpful.  Livingston shows modern children as menacing rather than innocent, but “That’s Not Butter” is more than just an anti-Rousseauian treatise.  The poet is not saying childhood is lost, so much as it is here, with a vengeance.  Capitalism’s efficiency produces a host of superficial choices and turns adults into egotistical children.  By using “Little Black Sambo” as sub-text, Livingston does two interesting things.  First, she contrasts the Victorian tale’s “beautiful little red coats” and “beautiful little blue trousers” with clothes “purchased at Sears, mass produced.”  Secondly, she sidesteps the famous racial controversy of that tale, focusing instead on “gangsta” kids in a Benneton universe of diversity and scheming opportunity.  Livingston’s social commentary is funny, spot on, and brutally honest.  Koch’s “A Time Zone” seems almost quaint by comparison.

Reb Livingston’s poem closes as follows:

“Can we smoke that?” inquired Little Speckled Sarah.
“I don’t think so, but I bet we could cook with it,” said Little Freckled Furman.
So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers
and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.

When the mothers saw the melted butter, they were pleased!
“Now we’ll all have pancakes for supper!” and the whole family
sat around a huge big plate of most lovely
pancakes, yellow and brown as little tigers.  The mothers each ate
twenty-seven pancakes, the fathers came over and each ate fifty-five,
and the children each ate a hundred and sixty-nine
because they were so hungry.

So Reb Livingston steps into a lot of themes.  Koch passes to Jane who throws it inside to Rivers back outside to Ashbery who broods with it near mid-court, then chuckles and passes to O’Hara who drives hard, puts it up, off the rim, rebound Koch…Koch to Ballanchine to Freilicher, too many players on the court, whistle.  Reb has the ball, to a tiger, another tiger, back to Reb, a pass to Little Taupe Tabitha, who smirks, then laughs, and puts it up…GOOD!  What’s this?  It’s over?  I don’t belive it!  Livingston wins!  Livingston wins!   It’s official!  Reb Livingston is in the Elite Eight!

Marla?…when you get a chance…Marla, are you there…?…show the people at  home the whole poem…the fans are going crazy!….we’re getting mobbed here…!  Help…! 


He isn’t a religous man.
So instead of going to church
On Sunday they go to sea.

Opening lines of The People Next Door by Louis Simpson (BAP 1989)

Reading Louis Simpson’s “The People Next Door” is like having a ‘life flashing before your eyes’ event, and it feels like your own life and not someone else’s, because Simpson doubles the narrative in a clever way, so that you, as the reader, observe a family’s current comings and goings—through a middle class narrator having a memory of his own travails raising a family.

I envy their content.  And yet
I’ve done that too, and know
that no hobby or activity
distracts one from thinking
forever.  Every human being
is an intellectual more or less.

The activities and hobbies of middle class families, which seem unthinking and routine, are not—well, in any case, Simpson will not allow this prejudice to pollute his poem; he tackles this prejudice head on in order to head off what might prevent empathy; it’s an adroit maneuver, and we find ourselves won over by the poet’s sensitivity towards his enterpise.  Simpson is working to break down the distance between the reader and his subject: the middle class family.  This is crucial, because the final image, which I find very moving, is one of great distance:

It gives me a strange feeling
to think how far they’ve come
from some far world to this,
bending their necks to the yoke
of affection.   

…………….And that one day
with a few simple words
and flowers to keep them company
they’ll return once more to the silence
out there, beyond the stars.

Very effective poem, Marla.

And now introducing…The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite by William Kulik.

Kulik’s poem seduces us with its drama, its immediacy:

Am I cool or an asshole?  Check this: I’m at this artsy-fartsy faculty

But the immediacy is the very thing that will doom the participants in this poetic drama, because right away Narcissus and Aphrodite attempt an impossible conversation, impossible because of their vanity, and as their conversation takes place, everything changes (metaphorphosis being at the heart of all myth), at first gradually, then swiftly, the punishment for their vanity everywhere, cruel and inevitable, contributing to what feels like the inevitable nature of the poem itself—the ego of Narcissus, his subjective refusal to face the great change, the perfect engine for this ride.   

The walls are covered with moss.  Water drips down onto the rock floor.  I’m bent almost double, I can’t see her at all, and all I hear is someone laughing. I stare at my shivering hand.  There’s my pinky ring.  I’m still cool.

In both poems, there is a doubling, a clear subjective/objective dance towards change and death, a Greek inevitability about them.   The Kulik poem has excitement—it happens, where the Simpson is more wistful.

Kulik looks around, passes to Narcissus, who gives the ball to Aphrodite.  Simpson attempts to steal, and fouls.  Aphrodite goes to the line.  Aphrodite dribbles three times, shoots, misses, Simpson, the rebound, he dribbles up court, passes to the father who stuffs over Kulik!  Kulik back the other way, not much time…the pass to Aphrodite in the corner, back to Narcissus…who shoots from 3…GOOD!!  Kulik Wins!  Kulik Wins!


Marla Muse, can you believe it?

Well, you better believe it, Tom!   William Kulik has made it to the North final!

Let’s let the audience read the winning poem in full:

The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite

Am I cool or an asshole?  Check this: I’m at this artsy-fartsy faculty
party wearing a mauve turtleneck, white blazer, granny glasses and a
tooled-silver peace symbol on a leather thong around my neck. Perfect
for this crowd, right? I figure I’ll test it out. So I lay some heavy eyes on
this knockout blonde, about five eight with legs up to here, and when
she giggles and whispers in her girlfriend’s ear, I read green and move
on her, tearing a can from my six-pack. “So,” I begin, popping the top,
“What do you think of the new Pei student center?” The beer foams up
over the edge of the can; I suck it swiftly, but not before some dribbles
onto my jacket. She titters, brushing a Veronica Lake curl from her
face. “O I thought it was totally awesome”—a bimbo, for sure, I think,
with pretensions—“Form following function but with a dramatic
sweep one ordinarily finds in the work of architects intending merely
to outrage the sensibilities. And, ” she adds, “without the stark serenity
of Aalto’s last works, y’ know? Like the Nordic Ski Center he did for
the Sibelius house.” She tugs at her mini, I pull a lapel aside to show
her my gut, flat and rock-hard from five workouts a week. She’s got a
foot-wide smile, best caps I’ve ever seen, skin flawless even in the glare
of the floodlights. It’s clear she’s a cute little smartass who loves repar-
tee, so I give her some: “Bet you don’t remember Ted Williams’ last
game!” I go to straighten up gain an inch look even more imposing, but
my back has gotten stiff. It’s these new shoes, I think.  And the hostess
must’ve dimmed the lights. That’s cool: more romantic. Still, she
doesn’t look as clear-skinned now and her smile’s lost maybe a little
luster. “O, I don’t?” she comes back, a slight tremor and something savage
in her voice. “He went four-for-four with a three-hundred-fifty foot homer
his last at-bat ever!” She wipes a fleck of spit from her mouth. “And I
saw every Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie ever made. Stood in line
the night they opened. Got the ticket stubs from each one.” Her neck’s
thrust out at me and I could swear she’s got a wattle. She’s trembling
with rage, but you know how cool I am? Even with the sudden ache in
my hands and the stiffness in my neck I manage to taunt her with
something I think will stop her cold: “I useta party with Dante!”  Is it
getting darker? And somebody turned off the heat.  Her girlfriend’s
gone and all the other guests, too. There’s just a guy sweeping up who
stops and leers at us. It pisses me off some, but I lean forward to hear
her cause there’s this buzz in my ears like a hive of bees, and I realize
she’s been yapping at me all the while. “Phaeton!” she screams, “When
he drove Apollo’s chariot across the sky and fell to earth in flames. I was
THERE!” Her teeth are yellow and crooked, she’s leaning on a stick,
her clothes are rags. Now she’s just an ectoplasmic outline, a gray halo
in the cold dark. (Do I need a new prescription?) The walls are covered
with moss. Water drips down onto the rock floor. I’m bent almost double,
I can’t see her at all, and all I hear is someone laughing. I stare at my
shivering hand.  There’s my pinky ring. I’m still cool.

As the lights go down inside the Kennedy Center, into the joyous evening pour the happy fans.


The Bride luxuriates in her Lucullan locker room after narrowly avoiding elimination from the ‘Sweet 16’

James Tate’s celebrated “Distance From Loved Ones” was seeded no. 3 in the West Bracket, and was 40-1 odds to go all the way in the 2010 Best American Poetry March Madness Tourney.

Dean Young’s “The Business of Love Is Cruelty,” with its Bride of Frankenstein trope, was given odds of 800-1 before the tournament began, and was the 14th seed in the West.

Dean Young’s upset of James Tate in the March Madness has shaken the poetry world.   Tate won a Yale Younger Prize while a student at Iowa when Dean Young was a mere 12 years old.

Sometimes it’s all about the Muse.

Lewis Buzbee’s “Sunday, Tarzan in Hammock,” also 800-1 to win it all, takes on Dean Young in the next round.  The winner makes it to the Elite 8.

This is Marla Muse reporting from the Kennedy Center.


…………………Sketch by George Romney  1734-1802

She’s been covering gods, warriors, muses, and poets for centuries!

Our own Marla Muse!

She’s a child of nature.

But she did get with the program in 1932, earning her undergraduate degree at Iowa the same year Paul Engle’s Iowa Master’s Thesis won the Yale Younger Poets Competition.

She has studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford, Alan Tate at Minnesota, John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon, and Richard Howard at Columbia.

Marla also claims to have been the muse, for at least a few months, to the following: Sappho, Zhang Ji, Milton, Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Sigourney, Helen Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett, Paul Valery, Rudyard Kipling, Yone Noguchi, Philip Larkin, Syd Barrett, Tony Hoagland, and Lewis Buzbee.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Marla Muse!

Scarriet’s Sweet Sixteen Bracket

Click the image for a full-size printable bracket.


John Crowe Ransom.  His circle included Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Ezra Pound, and Paul Engle.  Robert Lowell left Harvard to study with him at Kenyon.

“One truth about creative writing instruction seems undeniable: the kids love the stuff.  They love it suspiciously much, and on the graduate level, too, one rarely hears of a shortage of applicants to creative writing programs, most of them willing to go into debt for the privilege of attending one. This is partly why creative writing programs are a relatively easy sell to university administrators and also why—the odds of any one student making it as a professional writer being vanishingly small—they are subject to being criticized as entrepreneurial exploitations of the American Dream of perfect self-expression.  Creative writing is, in sum, as American as baseball, apple pie, and homicide.”  —Mark McGurl  “The Program Era”

 In John Crowe Ransom’s 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” the influential critic rejects poets and philosophers as true critics, arguing the job must fall to university professors—the group least likely to commit the fatal error of behaving like “amateurs.”   The mere reviewer, or journalist, is beneath contempt, not earning a mention in Ransom’s utopia.

These professors should be “scientific,” but if the professors’ science is not a real science, it doesn’t matter, Ransom says, because, after all, “psychology and sociology” are” not real sciences,” either.   True.

“I do not think we need to be afraid that criticism, trying to be a sort of science, will inevitably fail and give up in despair, or else fail without realizing it and enjoy some hollow and pretentious career.”

A “sort of science” is the best one can hope for, surely.

“It does not matter whether we call them sciences or just systematic studies; the total effort of each to be effective must be consolidated and kept going.”

Here it is, then: a consolidated industry of poetry criticism in the university.   Ransom asked for it, and it happened, with the rise of the Workshop Era, an era accompanied by that specialized, modernist zeal to push out voices of the past.

“Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.  Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have an idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc, or Criticism, Ltd.”

An East India Company of professional opium trade?    Professionalism’s stamp is dubious enough, and to insist on it for the study and criticism of poetry is more dubious still.   But let us assume Ransom’s intentions are good, and his desire for professionalism is an ordinary good thing.

Ransom has chosen university professors as the new vanguard of criticism and there they are, an already well-established, professional class of scholars, with impressive historicist credentials.

But here’s the problem.  These professors teach literary history.   Ransom wants critics, not curators who preserve the past.   The professors of history must be purged.

Here’s the Stalinist plan:

“The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.”

In other words, take the history scholars out back and shoot them.  Every student “of the future” will become his own  critic. 

What follows, naturally, is the every-student-is-a-poet of the Creative Writing Era.   Every-student-is-a-critic was a mere brief step in Ransom’s revolution, one the University of Chicago was already putting into practice.

“At the University of  Chicago, I believe that Professor Crane, with some others, is putting the revolution into effect in his own teaching, though for the time being perhaps with a limited program, mainly the application of Aristotle’s critical views.”

Aristotle?  Plato would not work, of course, for then students would have to be critical even of things like Criticism, Inc, but we really wonder if it was Professor Crane’s teaching of Aristotle that had Ransom in such a revolutionary mood.

“It is true that the historical and ethical studies will cluster round objects which for some reason are called artistic objects.”  In this concession, Ransom admits university professors who care about history (Aristotle, etc) teach aesthetic criticism as a matter of course—to learn ‘about’ Aristotle is to study criticism as much as one can study that subject.  Ransom knows this, obviously, but he pushes on: “But the thing itself [the artistic object] the professors do not have to contemplate” and here Ransom makes up a quote of an aggrieved student and its phantom response by one of Ransom’s straw-men history professors, ripe for future slaughter: “This is a place for exact scholarship [Ransom has the professor say] and you want to do criticism.  Well, we don’t allow criticism here, because that is something which anybody can do.”

The ‘oppressed’ student who is forced to study Aristotle and not allowed to ‘do criticism.’    Surely Ransom is joking.  No, he is very much not joking, for now arrives the reason for the entire essay, the “Make It U.” of  Ransom’s dreams, back there in 1937:

“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?  They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods.”   These foul, unweeded gardens containing Aristotle and Plato and all the ages of literature, choking the poor student who is not allowed “to do criticism.”

Here’s the rub.  These gardens are foul because, for Ransom, they are pulling attention away from “contemporary literature.”

Ransom’s essay is not really about “professionalism” at all.

It is also not about the philosophy of Professor Crane and Aristotle.

For who remembers Prof. Crane?  And today, in Ransom’s brave new world of English Departments and MFA poetry workshops—where every student is a poet-critic—who even remembers Aristotle?

Ransom’s dream of MAKE IT U. is here.

Where are the professors—of literature?  Ah, where are they?

The professors are watering their own gardens.

They are publishing their poems and the poems of their friends.

These professors have absorbed the great lesson of “Criticism, Inc.,” the great wisdom of Ransom, the modern poet-critic, and Ransom’s modern poet-critic friends:

If the public won’t buy your poetry, find a professional niche and build up its significance there, within the safety of that thickly-grown niche where “amateurs” and their “simplistic ideas of good and bad” cannot penetrate. 

The “revolution” is complete.

Welcome, university students and university professors of the future!

Make it you.


Because I Remember You

Because I remember you,
How can you, then, forget me?
Separation divided us two,
But this division creates three:
Our past with its helpless memory,
The two of us as we stand now,
And my image of you—idea forever
Unresolved!—existing, and though it were
My image and my image alone,
It is you, by the stream, happy and known.


………………………………………….Jacques-Louis David, “Cupid and Psyche” (1817)

It’s a silly painting — but delicious.

One can only wonder at what point Jacques-Louis David decided on that silly model, or did he realize the subject couldn’t be anything but delicious and silly, having looked at so many other recent failures in the great houses of Europe. Did he realize that the nakedness of Psyche was the sole interest, and that if Cupid was to be included he would either have to have a tiny wee wee as was the convention, and be a joke, or try to paint a real young man with the equipment that could satisfy her. A clever denouement in the end, in fact — a real-life adolescent Cupid smirking, embarrassed to be seen in this predicament.

“No, you can’t see what I’ve got — the art world’s not yet ready for it!”

Which in a way was the whole purpose of the original story, the myth itself, wasn’t it, that for perfect beauty to actually be anatomically in the embrace of love is never a pretty sight, that if you light a lamp and show it all you’ve just got pornography. That’s the joke here too, I think — and of course it’s brilliant. Jacques-Louis David takes a favorite theme with which to show off flesh, and in doing so makes a god a bumpkin hero!

Sex is always a bummer,  and any lover a bumpkin game-keeper in too much light — and what a ruckus was kicked up when an artist finally did decide to show it all as it really was,  although not of course in painting. Indeed, it’s actually quite hard to show it all in painting because when the embrace is all there it’s anatomically not visible. It’s only when it’s just getting started or when it’s all finished, ugh, that you can show it all, and porno stars in front of cameras trying to shoot the full monty in the middle have to be contortionists, and needless to say that’s not much pleasure for the lovers, even if they are divine!

So of course the light must not be lit — there are some things that can’t be seen, and ecstatic love is one of them. I was referring to D.H.Lawrence just before, of course, who also tried very sincerely and with considerable skill but still failed — which is all the more reason for sheltering Sharon Olds from the prurience of those who are allowed to look at her in the very arms of the god of love and just snicker!

And John Keats? What happens when you say you’re going to show it all and at the same time place Psyche on the altar? Can this be done?

It’s a remarkable poem, one of my favorites, and I’m so glad he tried, the fool — but still it’s a failure!



O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awakened eyes?
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:

‘Mid hushed, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touched not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retired
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain dryads shall be lulled to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreathed trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

…………………………………..…...John Keats


The Best American Poetry March Madness Tournament is down to 16 poets.

“Poets don’t know a lot of math, but I can count to sixteen,” a grinning Billy Collins said after his close win over Harvard professor Jorie Graham

“Don’t you count syllables in your poems?” a reporter yelled from the back of the Kennedy Center lobby.  

“I count wins,” Collins quipped, obviously on cloud nine after making the Sweet Sixteen with a hard fought victory.

Billy’s poem, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey,” looks back at Wordsworth looking back; it resonated a little more than Jorie Graham’s “On Difficulty,” which looks down at Adam and Eve looking up.

They can look up and wonder no longer.   Adam and Eve are going home.

John Hollander chose the Collins poem for the 1998 volume.  Ashbery chose the Graham poem for the first BAP 1988 book.

Collins is the only one who has made the Sweet 16 as BAP poet and BAP editor (2). 

Heather McHugh (3) has the most editor selections in the Sweet 16.  Richard Howard (2) and Donald Hall (2) are making strong showings as editors in the Sweet 16 as well.

Sweet Sixteen Results:

Let’s start with the EastBilly Collins, Stephen Dunn, Robert Pinsky, and Harry Mathews have survived.

In the North, jubilation for Louis Simpson, William Kulik, Margaret Atwood, and Franz Wright.

In the West, the winners were Brad Leithauser, Janet Bowdan, Dean Young, and Lewis Buzbee.

And finally, in the South, rounding out the Sweet 16, are Kenneth Koch, Alan Shapiro, Bernard Welt,  and Reb Livingston.

Able to stop Jorie Graham, Billy Collins now has to be the favorite to go all the way.  

Can anyone stop the Tintern Abbey train?


Yesterday evening at Harvard, David Orr, Srikanth Reddy and Rebecca Wolff presented a poem chosen for its contemporary character and talked criticism for 90 minutes.  The panelists were advertised as poet-critics; Wolff, however, admitted to being a poet-publisher: every other word she said was Fence.   

Orr read a variation of a villanelle.  He liked its movement, pointed out a flaw, or two.

For his “contemporary” poem, Reddy interestingly chose one that lacked contemporary signposts; it took place in a forest, but seemed contemporary.  Probably because it was incoherent.

Wolff read part of a Fence poem (natch) with racy language that she said pleased her because it “perversely repels any influence or imitation.”   Double whammy! It’s perversely perverse!

Orr joked into his sleeve at one point that “contemporary” = “sucks.”   Those present were not quite Zeitgeist-ready to laugh, but sadly, to the vast majority, this is true.

Wolff said in terms of poems trying to be new these days, “the stakes are so low,” not only because no one reads poetry anymore, but because “so much else is going on.”  When asked by the Poetry Society of America host (a pleasant man who kept using “irony” incorrectly) when there had been a time when so much else was not going on, Rebecca Wolff did not know what to say.

The question arose among the panel: is there any contemporary poetry that’s changing poetry now?  Shrugs all round.

There was a Foetry moment.

When the issue of “professionalism “came up, the host, who invited all the panelists, said he sent a poem to Fence; he trusted Rebecca, his friend, would feel OK about rejecting it. 

Reddy: “Well, did she publish your poem?” 

Host: “Yes, but I sent poems to my friend at Verse and he rejected them.”

 Reddy: “Ah, and he’s not here, is he?”


But there was an 800 pound gorilla in the room. The poems read by the panel were not criticized.

The panel’s critics were not being critical.  (To be fair, David Orr, who can be a sharp critic, made a half-hearted effort, but he must have sensed, with the yawns that greeted the poems, and the ‘be nice, say nothing’ atmosphere pervading the room, the gambit would have been useless.)

Say what you will about him, here’s the importance of Simon Cowell, the famous judge of “American Idol.”  The T.V. show may be trash, Cowell may be a jerk and he may not always be correct, but he really, really cares whether a singer’s performance is good or not.  He’s a passionate judge. 

The audience was small last night, and nearly half left before the event was over.   Had Simon Cowell been in that audience, I can hear him saying to the panel in that nasty voice of his:  But you’re not being critics.

I don’t see how art can thrive in the public square without Cowell’s kind of passion.  

Correct judgment is not the issue.  Well, it is, but only ideally; first you need passion for correct judgment.  You need to want to know what is good and, when you think you know what is good, be honest and say it, so others can hear you.  In contemporary poetry this seems to be almost wholly absent.


In Bracket South, the poems that were supposed to advance, did. 

Amid anti-School of Quietude protests, the sleepy ol’ South top seeds put a whoopin’ on their opponents.

First seed Donald Justice’s tribute to a fellow scribe, “Invitation To A Ghost,” turned Susan Stewart’s slightly pedantic “Apple” every way but loose.

No. 2 seed and Cincinnati native Kenneth Koch’s extensive tribute to his New York School friends, “Time Zone,” tanned the hide of the brief and witty “The Poets March On Washington” by James Cummins.

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It” (3rd seed) put the fear of God into Lynn Xu’s “[Language Exists Because].”

“Country Western Singer” by Alan Shapiro stomped all over “The Only Dance There Is” by Rebecca Byrkit.

Catherine Bowman’s “No Sorry” wrung the neck of “Lifeline” by Vijay Seshardi.

“I Stopped Writing Poetry” by Bernard Welt made mincemeat out of “Gratification” by Susan Wood.

Dorianne Laux’s “The Shipfitter’s Wife” advanced from the no. 9 spot and rounding out the winners: “That’s Not Butter” by Reb Livingston.

So, we’re down to 32 contestants.

Here’s the next round of matchups:

East:  Collins v. Graham, Dunn v. Broughton, Pinsky v. Gluck, and McClatchy v. Matthews.

 North: Simpson v. Whiting, Hall v. Kulik, Levertov v. Wright, Yezzi v. Atwood.

West (which featured many upsets):  Kooser v. Bowdan, Leithauser v. Koertge, Dennis v. Young, Buzbee v. Moritz.

South: Justice v. Livingston, Koch v. Laux, Komunyakaa v. Welt, Shapiro v. Bowman.

Toughest calls:  Dunn v. Broughton in the East, Hall v. Kulik in the North, Leithauser v. Koertge in the West, and Koch v. Laux in the South.

These eight poems are all perfect in their way.

The avant protestors want all these poems to lose, however. 

“Too quiet!” 

“Boo!  Hiss!”


The Christos Acheiropoietos or ‘Christ-not-made-by-hand’, a much revered 12th century Russian Orthodox icon, celebrates the miracle in which Jesus healed King Abgar of Edessa by sending him an image of his face imprinted on a piece of linen cloth. Such an icon is said to have been “written” by the word of God, not painted by a person.

Poems that have spoken to us in the past have, like friends, the absolute right to our special attention in the present.

Our doors are always open to them, so to speak, and because such poems have already proved their trustworthiness, the critical small-talk can be skipped over. They’re let straight into our most intimate spaces, they’re sat down to supper and even have the right to stay all night if they wish.

However much of an historical accident the elevation of  “In A Station of the Metro” or “The Red Wheelbarrow” might have been, they  have now become close friends to most contemporary poets and readers. A poem that reaches this level doesn’t have to prove anything any more. It simply is.

Which is true of many older works of sacred art too, like the Willendorf Venus, the Lady of Warka, and the Mexican Madonna. Closer to home, nursery rhymes, Saturday Evening Post covers, and relics from our childhood altars, or those of our grandparents, Irish, Tamil, Armenian or Hmong, such artifacts are permanently numinous. However kitschy they might have been at the start they have achieved the status of  “antiques” — even if they were just five-and-dime store knick-knacks to begin with. They’ve been rubbed all over with the wax of human love, familiarity and coherence, and as a result have a sheen deeper than intention, or skill, or even what they might, or might not, have meant, or mean. Indeed, like all great religious ‘icons,’ they mean without meaning, and can speak and weep through the humblest paste and cardboard.


Scrabbling around in the trunk at the foot of my bed, I discovered the following poem. It illustrates beautifully what I mean because it got placed there during a period in my life when I was down on my knees most of the time. At this point I’ve lost all connection to the religious content of the poem, I’m afraid,  yet still it speaks to me with utter conviction, sincerity and passion — indeed, as I feel it must have spoken to Simone Weil, “Love” having been among her favorite poems as well.

Look at “Love” through Simone Weil’s eyes and I think you’ll see what I mean when I say that certain poems like friends are hors de contest.

Christopher Woodman



………………………Love bade me welome; yet my soul drew back,
……………………. …. .Guilty of dust and sin.
………………………But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
……………… … ..     …From my first entrance in,
………………………Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
……………….      . ……If I lack’d anything.

………………………“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here:”
………….      …. ………Love said, “you shall be he.”
………………………“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
…………..      … ………I cannot look on Thee.”
………………………Love took me by my hand and smiling did reply,
……………………………“Who made the eyes but I?”

………………………“Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
…………………………….Go where it doth deserve.”
………………………“And know you not,” says Love, “Who bore the blame?”
……………………………“My dear, then I will serve.”
………………………“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
……………….. ………….So I did sit and eat.

…………………………………………………………………………George Herbert



Upset City in the Western Division!

Sharon Olds couldn’t hold off a late charge by Janet Bowdan.

Ron Koertge found a way to beat May Swenson.

Dean Young beat James Tate at the buzzer.

A. F. Moritz slipped past big favorite David Kirby.

Lewis Buzbee upended Mary Oliver.

What in Lord Byron’s name is going on here?

The top 5 seeds in the West all failed to advance!

In the 8 contests out West this afternoon, only 2 favorites prevailed: 6th seeded Ted Kooser and 7th seeded Brad Leithauser.

Also advancing in the West is 9th seed, Carl Dennis

The top seeded poems in the West were all heavy favorites.  

Here’s a look at the “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, the 16th seed, which knocked off no. 1 in the West, Sharon Olds.

Right now, this poem has got to feel like the best poem in the world: 

The Year

When you did not come for dinner, I ate leftovers for days.  When you
missed desert, I finished all the strawberries.  When you did not notice
me, I walked four miles uphill past you and into Florence and five miles
the other way. When you did not like my dress, I wore it with gray silk
shoes instead of gold ones. When you did not see my car had sunk into
a snowdrift at the turn of your driveway, I took the shovel off your porch
and dug myself out. When you stopped writing, I wrote. When you sent
back my poems, I made them into earrings and wore them to work.
When you refused to appear at the reunion, I went to the dentist who
showed me X-rays of my teeth. When you did not tell me you would be
in town, I met you on Main Street on the way to the library. While you
had dinner with me, I walked past the window and looked in.  You were
not there.

–Janet Bowdan, first round winner

Say goodbye to Sharon Olds, seeded best in this wild west!

The Wellspring  by Sharon Olds

It is the deep spring of my life, this love for men,
I don’t know if it is a sickness or a gift.
To reach around both sides of a man,
one palm to one buttock,
the other palm to the other, the way we are split,
to grasp that band of muscle like a handle on the
male haunch, and drive the stiff
giant nerve down my throat till it
stoppers the whole of the stomach that is always hungry,
then I feel complete. And the little
hard-hats of their nipples, the male breast
so hard, there are no chambers in it, it is
lifting-muscle.  Ah, to be lifted
onto a man, set tight as a lock-slot down
onto a bolt, you are looking into each
other’s eyes as if the matter of the iris were the
membranes deep in the body dissolving now—
it is all I want, to meet men
fully, as a twin, unborn, half-gelled,
frontal in the dark, nothing between us but our
bodies, naked, and when those melt
nothing between us—as if I want to die with them.
To be the glass of oily gold my
My father lifted to his mouth. Ah, I am in him,
I slide all the way down to the beginning, the
curved chamber of the balls.  I see my
brothers and sisters swimming by the silver
millions, I say to them Stay here— for the
children of this father it is the better life;
but they cannot hear me. Blind, deaf,
armless, brainless, they plunge forward,
driven, desperate to enter the other, to
die in her wake, sometimes we are without desire—
five, ten, twenty seconds of
pure calm, as if each one of us is whole.


In North Division play this afternoon, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, David Yezzi, and Franz Wright coasted to victory, while Margaret Atwood, 8th seed, won a nail-biter over 10th seeded Amit Majmudar.

The big news were the two upsets.  

Runner/dancer Nathan Whiting knocked off John Ashbery’s quirky but poignant “The Problem of Anxiety.”  

Ashbery has been a BAP fixture since it began, and was seeded no. 3 in the North.

Whiting’s 14th seed “In Charge,” a short lyric about owning 16 dogs, managed to be as quirky as the Ashbery, more grounded, and, according to many at the Kennedy Center today, strangely uplifting.

After his stunning victory, a smiling Whiting thanked his dogs.

13th seeded William Kulik’s “Triumph of Naarcissus & Aphrodite,” a harrowing classical tale in miniature, eked out a victory over Seamus Heaney’s haunting poem, “A Shooting Script,” (4th seeded) chosen for the 1988 BAP by John Ashbery (when the Irish poet was living in America as a Harvard professor).

Heaney and Ashbery stood during a lengthy ovation at the Kennedy Center; the crowd hated to see them go.

West and South division action gets underway tomorrow.

Until then, we’ll close with aphorism #4 from James Richardson’s “Vectors” (2001) which lost (East) in the first round:

Say nothing as if it were news.



Galway Kinnell after the loss: “We compose the poem in a dream and the audience hears the poem in a dream.  What can we finally expect from a dream?” 

Kinnell had a big lead over Jorie Graham, but as the evening wore on, something happened.  The repeating phrase, “When one has lived a long time alone” somehow drifted away from the other lines in the poem.  It didn’t come together for Galway last night, reading the poem on a bare stage at the Kennedy Center.

It was a stunning win for Jorie Graham.  This changes the whole playoff picture.  The feeling is that anyone can win now.   The performance of “On Difficulty” was brilliant.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were low-key as Adam and Eve.  “It’s a brilliant poem,” said Helen Vendler afterwards, “it brings an extra dimensionality to poetry.  My head was lifted off my body when I first read it.”

The other top seeds prevailed in East play last night.   Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, Robert Pinsky, J.D. McClatchy, Harry Matthews, and Louise Gluck are all moving on.  Finally, the 9th seed, T. Allan Broughton, got past 8th seeded Marc Jafee.



1.  When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone–Galway Kinnell (90)

2.  Lines Composed Over 3,000 Miles From Tintern Abbey–Billy Collins (98)

3.  Where He Found Himself–Stephen Dunn (07)

4.  Pleasure Bay—Robert Pinsky (89)

5.  Jihad—J.D. McClatchy (03)

6.  Histoire—Harry Matthews (88)

7.  Time—Louise Gluck (01)

8.  King of Repetition—Marc Jafee (04)

9.  The Ballad of the Comely Woman—T. Allan Broughton (02)

10.  Vectors: Forty Five Aphorisms & Ten Second Essays—James Richardson (01)

11.  Concerning the Land to the South of our Neighbors to the North—Mark Bibbins (09)

12.  Birthday—Christopher Edgar (00)

13.  Divide and Conquer—Alan Sullivan (08)

14.  Recognition—Eve Wood  (97)

15.  Counterman—Paul Violi  (06)

16.  On Difficulty—Jorie Graham  (88)


1.  The People Next Door—Louis Simpson  (89)

2.  Letter With No Address—Donald Hall  (98)

3.  The Problem of Anxiety—John Ashbery (97)

4.  A Shooting Script—Seamus Heaney (88)

5.  In California During The Gulf War—Denise Levertov (93)

6.  The Call—David Yezzi  (06)

7.  Bored—Margaret Atwood  (95)

8.  A Happy Thought—Franz Wright  (06)

9.  What Bee Did—Julie Larios (07)

10.  By Accident—Amit Majmudar  (07)

11.  The Opaque—Mark Halliday  (03)

12.  Favorite Iraqi Soldier—Stephen Dobyns (93)

13.  Triumph of Narcissus & Aphrodite—William Kulik  (99)

14.  In Charge—Nathan Whiting  (02)

15.  the mississippi river empties into the gulf—Lucille Clifton (99)

16. Heavy Handed Dance—Jayne Cortez  (97)


1.  The Wellspring—Sharon Olds  (89)

2.  Dummy, 51, To Go To Museum, Ventriloquist Dead, 75–May Swenson (88)

3.  Distance From Loved Ones—James Tate  (90)

4.  Ode to the Personals—David Kirby  (07)

5.  Flare—Mary Oliver (99)

6.  The Hall of Bones—Ted Kooser (03)

7.  A Good List—Brad Leithauser  (07)

8.  Sea of Faith—John Brehm (99)

9.  History—Carl Dennis  (97)

10.  Healing—George Bilgere  (92)

11.  What Every Soldier Should Know—Brian Turner  (07)

12.  Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock—Lewis Buzbee  (95)

13.  April Fool’s Day, Mt. Pleasant Cemetery—A. F. Moritz  (93)

14.  The Business of Love Is Cruelty—Dean Young  (93)

15.  Found—Ron Koertge  (06)

16.  The Year—Janet Bowdan  (00)


1.  Invitation to a Ghost—Donald Justice  (93)

2.  A Time Zone—Kenneth Koch  (91)

3.  Facing It—Yusef Komunyakaa  (90)

4.  Country Western Singer—Alan Shapiro  (07)

5.  No Sorry—Catherine Bowman  (97)

6.  I Stopped Writing Poetry—Bernard Welt  (01)

7.  The Plan—Jack Turner  (97)

8.  What the Paymaster Said—Kevin Prufer  (03)

9.  The Shipfitter’s Wife—Dorianne Laux  (99)

10.  That’s Not Butter—Reb Livingston  (06)

11.  Gratification—Susan Wood  (06)

12.  Lifeline—Vijay Seshardi  (97)

13.  The Only Dance There Is—Rebecca Byrkit  (94)

14.  [Language Exists Because]—Lynn Xu  (08)

15.  The Poets March On Washington—James Cummins  (05)

16.  Apple—Susan Stewart  (01)


Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.”  — Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

We caught the Adam and Ilya show over on the Poetry Foundation site: the critic and former-Seamus-Heaney-student-at-Harvard critic and the Russian-transfer-student-professor poet were debating the finer points of translation—points, thankfully, which are easily translatable.

Ilya Kaminsky was for it, Adam Kirsch was wary of it.  Ilya was climbing the tower as fast as he could while Adam was standing on the ground, looking up, saying…I don’t know…

Ilya Kaminsky was selling his book (The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry) and Adam Kirsch was selling valid notions of translation.

Then Sam Hamill commented on the discussion:  

“I’ve grown very weary of these arguments, especially when they are relentlessly Eurocentric. Not a single mention of a Chinese poet, or Japanese or Vietnamese, no poem from Tamil, from Sanskrit, from Thai; no thought of Native American languages and traditions.” 

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, reprinting a remark which followed the debate by two young titans, but grouchy Hamill helps us to see how problematic the whole issue is: Fail! no poem from Tamil.  The tower is big, baby.

The tower is big, so big, it’s probably best to stay on the ground and hang out with Philip Larkin, who, when asked about Jorge Luis Borges, retorted, “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”   Just congratulate yourself that you speak English, which practically the whole educated world speaks, and note that English is a language both Romance and Germanic, as close to an Ur-language as ancient Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit.

Fluency in English is enough.  Who needs to learn other languages when you’ve got Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Keats?   If studying Latin and Greek made those old English poets better, it was because English is fed by Latin and Greek, on a purely practical, mechanical, nuts-and-bolts level; it makes as much sense, then, to study Latin today, as it did then.  (Are MFA poetry students studying Latin, today?  Nope.)   Or, to study Pope, because he knew French, Italian, Latin and Greek.   A reader not fluent in English, unable to appreciate Pope, what can they defend?  

We think it richly, funny, then, this whole silly debate, for one either knows a language fluently, or one learns another one, but if neither the poet, nor the reader, nor the translator, is an Alexander Pope, it is a hypocritical farce, all this blather about ‘translation’ and ‘international poetry.’

Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end? 

That is the question. 

Poetry must ask this question all the time, whether it involves translation, or not.  Translation is the last of our worries, really.   Study French or Italian or German or Latin or Greek or Chinese or Shakespeare or Pope to make your English better and shut up.  Don’t tell me I need to read some comtemporary Russian poet or some contemporary Greek poet or some contemporary Vietnamese poet translated into contemporary English. 

Now, I could read the mumblings of WC Williams or the rantings of Ezra Pound, or the kickapoo of Jorie Graham.   Would that make me more internationalist, or just hopelessly pretentious?  I suppose it depends on which American academic dialect one speaks.  It doesn’t take a linguist to warp and bend my native tongue into something new and strange.  It doesn’t take a Russian to mangle English; a speaker who only knows English can do that just fine.  Neither does it take a Russian to teach me facts about Russia; the human is universal enough that I can ‘get’ Russia through English reporting.  Personalities vary enough within one language, differences are profound in one country, even within one family, that it’s not necessary to seek difference in another tongue.   What seek I in another tongue, then?   Only an advantage to myself, only an advantage to my language, or, if I were going to resettle in another land with another tongue, but now we are in a practical realm far from poetry, or, close to poetry, depending on who my new neighbors are. 

If I could snap my fingers and know all languages, of course I would.  Duh.  But poetry is any language that is good; Pope in English is better than WC Williams in 600 languages.   Let us come right out and say it: poetry is the cream of language, by its very definition, and those who peddle ‘international poetry’ because the product happens to be ‘international,’ when it turns out the poetry itself is pedestrian, are doing good work as a matter of course, but let’s be really honest: in terms of poetry and pedagogy, in terms of real interest in language, contemporary translations of contemporary international poetry is important only in terms of polite diplomacy and in nothing else; in terms of real learning and real poetry it probably does more harm than good, ultimately.   Let these MFA poets who feather their nest with ‘translation’ creds take note: before you vacation in Italy, why not spend some time learning Vietnamese?

Professor Kaminsky struck what seemed to be a mortal blow against his opponent when he said politely, responding to Adam (“wouldn’t you agree there is no such thing as an international poem?”) Kirsch’s wary approach to translation:

“I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay.”

I thought, at that point, Kirsch will never get up from that mat.  But he did.  Kirsch said that well-known examples of successful translations are really not so much translations as “reinventions.”  Kirsch delivered a knock-out blow of his own with: “the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa.”

The question then comes back to what I said earlier:  Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end?

Translation is heated lovemaking, and both lovers, in every successful case of translation, transcend ‘the heated babble’ of the ‘translation debate’ itself.  The rest is a mere lover’s spat by mediocre translators.



Rae Armantrout:  Not Worthy?


2010 Best American Poetry March Madness memo to the heart-broken:

The competition leading up to the tourney this year was not kind to the sly, modest poem of aphoristic insight.

The Rae Armantrouts, the Charlie Bernsteins, the Robert Creeleys were thumped by poems of lean muscle and fine excess.

The insouciant observation, mixing humility and pun, the delicate flower of look-what-I-found philosophy got hurt and hurt, often. 

The playoff atmosphere isn’t kind to the little poem read silently in the corner with a bemused smile.

The well-known risk of using zen puzzles in a poem increases during March Madness: if the audience ‘gets’ the poem, digestion could mean forgetting; if the audience does not ‘get’ it, befuddlement could mean frustration. 

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

“Do you like the poem, or not—yes or no?” is not necessarily a fair question, even when it’s only a soft voice in the back of the reader’s mind, but it’s one that emerges, and loudly, during a fast-paced tournament.   Some types of poems are simply not up to that question. 

But it will be asked.

And it wants an answer.

In the March Madness pressure-cooker, poems with backbones, poems with force and weight, prevail. Judgment in playoffs is different from normal judgment; adrenaline tends to see through coyness that ordinarily charms.

We really ought to point out that, likewise, in the hurricane winds of playoff intensity, poems that try too hard to be funny, poems that force their points, or take too long to get to their points, get blown apart.  Not only the small, but the bloated, fail at playoff time.

We know the School of Ron Silliman will be broken-hearted when it learns Rae Armantrout failed to make the tournament.  Part of the problem is that her best work has not appeared in the Best American Poetry series.

Rae Armantrout’s “Almost” (Hejinian 2004) almost made the tournament.

Here’s the danger of using self-conscious language: what strives to be memorable may fall into the black hole of the poem’s self-effacing scientific observation.

When Armantrout ends her poem:

come find me
I stand
behind these words.

She aggressively tropes a cliched formula:  the poem’s life having an actual existence in two places: in its words and behind its words, and what better way than for the poem to speak of “these words?” 

Armantrout builds up to her assertion (that a life exists behind her words) with what sounds like a couple passages lifted from her diary, in which she reflects how words spoken between friends (or perhaps lovers) are gone, and if they were retrieved, hauled back into the light of day, out-of-context, the speakers would be embarrassed by them. 

The “tenor” of their “talk,” she writes, in the first part of the poem, is worthwhile and has been consistent and lasting—she compares “tenor” to “soul”—and then she praises their word play which deliberately “suppresses content/ in advance/ of time’s rub-out.” 

In part two, (the poem contains two parts, part one about 60 words, part two about 30) Armantrout describes a playful billboard message which reads “Size matters,” and hides its product in the corner “so we need to search for it.”   Then we get the ‘look for me behind the words’ ending.

The poem’s observations are somewhere between the scientific, on one hand, and late night dorm room bonding with just the right combination of homesickness and weed-toking on the other: these ingredients certainly can add up to a poignant poem.

Unfortunately, Armantrout’s poem founders on the rocks of its own unoriginal trope.  Too much empathy is required of the reader to rescue Armantrout’s poem by “finding” her poem behind her poem.

And so Rae Armantrout failed to make the cut. 

Few poets do.

Don’t see your favorite poet in the 2010 March Madness brackets? 

Another poet wanted it more.

Sorry, Mr. Silliman.  It’s playoff time.


Mmmmm.  So much depends upon a good cigarette….  

20,679 physicians say William Carlos Williams is less irritating!

Take your Remington typewriter with you!  It’s portable.  Oh, and bring along your portable William Carlos Williams, too!

Hey, fellas, if you want to impress that special someone, remember to always carry your William Carlos Williams for that special moment!

Nothing makes you look smarter than a slim volume of free verse!

After a hard day on the trail, I like a hot bath, a hearty meal…and William Carlos Williams!

Taste that modern poetry!   Smooooooth.

Ahh, the smell of leather, pine soap, model airplane glue, and the musty scent of an old hardcover book by William Carlos Williams!  That’s the ticket!

Let’s travel to jazzland!  And let’s not forget our William Carlos Williams!


Scarriet has learned of a petition protesting Jorie Graham’s Best American Poetry tournament position as a 16th seed, saying the Harvard Humanities Chair professor and Pulitzer-prize winning poet ought to be a top-seeded choice in the 2010 March Madness competition.

The petition is signed by Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery, Peter Sacks, James Galvin,  James Wright, Marvin Bell, Joshua Clover, Bin Ramke, Don Share, Joan Houlihan, Brad Pitt, Michele Glazer, Joanna Klink, and Mark Levine, earning tens of thousands of Poetry MFA student signatures across the land.

The Best American Poetry March Madness Committee released a brief statement in response:  “We have not officially released the 2010 brackets.  When released, our choices are final.”



Galway Kinnell just wants to be left alone. 

Reporters have been knocking down his door to get some kind of reaction to the whole controversy attending his poem, “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone,” which is slated to oppose Jorie Graham’s “On Difficulty”—with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie playing Adam and Eve for Graham’s poem—in the first round of Best American Poetry March Madness.

Kinnell is just going to read his poem, and most were feeling Graham’s strategy would backfire and lead to a humiliating defeat for “On Difficulty” and its Adam and Eve pageant.

But now Jolie has issued a statement:

“Brad and I are thrilled to participate in this event. We both love poetry. Yes, we’ll be naked. We feel it is an honor to use art to raise awareness. Adam and Eve were the first homeless people, you know.”

Here’s the passage from Graham’s poem, “On Difficulty,” that reporters are slobbering over:

If you asked them, where they first find the edges of each other’s
bodies, where
happiness resides
they’d look up through the gap
in the greenery you’re looking down through.
What they want to know—the icons silent in the shut church (to the left),
the distance silent in the view (to the right)—
is how to give themselves away,
which is why they look up now,
which is why they’ll touch each other (for your

With Brad and Angelina now being so seriously involved, those in Kinnell’s camp have new fears that, despite Kinnell being the no. 1 seed with his outstanding poem, he cannot possibly win.

Kinnell would not talk to reporters; he was clearly annoyed by all the attention, and to make them go away, he finally threw a scrap of paper at them.

This reporter made off with it, and now Scarriet is able to show the world Kinnell’s “reply” to the storm that’s raging. 

Kinnell did not sign this piece of paper, but we feel certain this is a genuine Galway Kinnell poem, and in a Scarriet exclusive, we present the puzzling work for the first time anywere, here:

by Galway Kinnell???

All She’s Thinking About Is Money 

When the pale sky spreads against the night at dawn,
All she’s thinking about is money.

When the heat of day begins to warm the rocks, money.

When the gray geese stir in the reeds, money.

When the brown beaver gnaws in the shadow, money.

When the red woodpecker awakens his meal, money.

When the yellow butterfly drowses on the green moss, money.

When the lake swoons into a deeper shade of blue at the beginning of the evening, money.

When night descends, bough by bough, through the pine, money.

When the moths mate in the dark,

I bring her some.


The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will host BAP March Madness

BAP March Madness regulations allow poets to perform their poems in any manner they choose.

Jorie Graham, fearing elimination in the first round, has pulled off a coup.

The Harvard professor and Pultizer prize winning poet will have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play Adam and Eve in her poem, “On Difficulty” (1988, Ashbery, Lehman, eds.)

The tournament’s 64 seeds will not be officially announced until Monday.

But this reporter was able to confirm that Graham’s “On Difficulty” has made the tourney as a 16th seed, and will have to face Galway Kinnell’s masterpiece, “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone,” the no. 1 seed in the East, in the first round.

In Graham’s poem, the reader peers down voyeuristically as Adam and Eve touch one another.

The annoucement has put not only the poetry world, but the entire entertainment world, on red alert.

Is this for real?

Apparently it is.

Poets quickly took sides, some expressing outrage that Hollywood’s most famous couple could sway the outcome of an important poetry contest.

Tony Hoagland, reached by phone, spoke for many: “Kinnell’s poem is probably the best published in this country in the last 25 years.  It would be a travesty of justice if Brangelina tips the scales against ‘When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone.’  I won’t believe it until I see it, though.”

Robert Pinsky, however, said in a statement this morning:  “Jorie Graham has courageously fought during her entire career for difficult poetry, believing the difficult can be accessible.  She refuses to dumb down.  A poet of her intelligence and skill can and should be heard. I salute her.”

At this point, Scarriet will say just a quick word on “difficulty.”   Someone without any musical ability, jotting down various notes at random, would produce a composition more difficult to play and hear than any dreamed of by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Mozart, or Cage.   Popular and accessible pieces of music are often more difficult to play than anything else in the repetoire.  Difficulty as a quality or virtue in itself has no merit.  T.S. Eliot created much mischief using that word.  It should be retired, once and for all.

Hiring Brad and Angelina: now that’s difficult, or, more properly, a difficulty happily overcome.

Rumor has it that James Earl Jones was being asked by one of Kinnell’s friends to read “When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone.”  Mr. Kinnell and Ms. Graham have so far refused to comment.


Harold Bloom is no stranger to Best American Poetry controversy. 

Bloom was invited to make the only comprehensive attempt (before Scarriet 2010) to make a BAP ‘best of the best,’ looking back 10 years on David Lehman’s successful project.  

The Yale professor got his own book to make his case, The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988 to 1997, published by Scribner in April, 1998.  

Bloom chose 75 poems from the 750 published by Lehman—with help from his annual guest editors, Ashbery, Hall, Graham, Strand, Simic, Gluck, Ammons, Howard, Rich, and Tate.

Bloom’s selection process was addled, and even offensive; but Lehman’s series benefited from the controversy.

Bloom selected no poems from Adrienne Rich’s 1996 volume and made a rather big deal about it, which might have been OK if his overall picks were not so untrustworthy and aimed at solidifying the reputations of a handful of his friends and colleagues, which again, is to be expected and easily passes the smell test these days, but, unfortunately for Bloom, what most came across was his inability to tell good from bad.

Bloom indulged his taste for mannered festoonery and sourly defended his  oddball choices.

It was not surprising, then, that  Bloom’s appearance at the opening festivities of the Best American Poetry March Madness tournament brought protest and ridicule.

Back in 1997, Bloom was limited to 75 poems and yet he alloted a quarter of those slots to a half-dozen poets, and those 18 poems by those 6 ”great” poets were some of the worst poems published by the series.   

The BAP’s 20 year anniversary came and went without Bloom (or anyone) asked to duplicate the controversial 10 year anniversary ‘best of the best’ volume.

Go home, indeed.

Professor Bloom is not the only one who has voiced disagreement with Lehman’s choices, however.  

The BAP series, known to many as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of  Sex & Humor, has come under fire for various reasons:

1. There’s no such thing as “best!”

2. Billy Collins is not a poet!

3. The poetry sucks!

4.  The editors pick friends; they pick the same old names.

All of these charges may be legitimate, but Lehman has provided a platform for a variety of voices.

Today we have 1,500 poems vying for 64 spots and a chance at the Final Four.

Let the contest begin.

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