I was reading “The Franz Wright Critique of the MFA Generations” on John Gallaher’s blog where Seth Abramson and Curtis Faville went toe to toe and Franz Wright threatened John Gallaher with a lawsuit, and I saw pro-MFA and anti-MFA sides agreeing that the 1920’s was the best decade of American poetry.  Not only does Abramson, for all his current creative writing program expertise, seem ignorant of the program era’s history, but everybody, even avant MFA advocates, are certain the 1920’s was the best decade for poetry.

Just a brief side note: MFA-defender Seth Abramson said something great on Gallaher’s blog: Ambramson mocked the non-MFA poet as someone who writes “Coleridge knock-offs on napkins to get laid.”   This speaks volumes.  Note the Romantic reference, (Coleridge) the bane of T.S. Eliot, the Modernists, and the New Critics.  Note the professional’s disdain for love (getting laid).  Note the academic’s contempt for bread and butter (napkin).  Note the ivory tower sneer at mixing art and life (writing poetry on a napkin).   Abramson is absolutely a New Critical animal.

As for the 1920’s, love of the 1920’s might seem a little odd, but think about it: who was the architect of the creative writing era?

Paul Engle.

Who were Engle’s professional associates and influences?

The Fugitives (a member of the Fugitives chose Engle’s college thesis for the Yale Younger in 1932) and the Rhodes Scholar-Fugitive’s friends, the Modernists, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Tate, Ransom, Burke, Warren and Brooks.

What’s important to remember is that Tate, Ransom and Warren were not just poets who got jobs as university professors, they were the first poets to ever get university jobs because they were poets.

Frost was a famous poet and became a college teacher because he was Robert Frost, and that did help start the ball rolling.

Longfellow was a professor at Harvard, but he was hired because he knew lots of languages, not because he was a poet.

In the middle of the 19th century, less than 50 years before Ransom was born, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford delivered his lectures in Latin.

Ransom, Engle, Tate and Warren created the system, the very conditions in which poets became alternatives to scholars of history or languages to teach English in the universities.

The heresy of amateur poets, with little or no history or language credentials, teaching their amateur poet pals as core English in major universities was sold to the deans, presidents, chairs and trustees as a necessity due to their pals’ poetry’s modern relevance.

The Modernists’ modernism was the pre-condition to themselves  teaching and being taught at the university.

That no one can agree what modernism in poetry even is, much less why it’s important to English degrees is a fact uttered too late.

The camel has long occupied the tent, the New Critics, championing the Modernists, have long since occupied not only the English departments but made out of  one revolution another, the university Creative Writing program, the two revolutions, in actuality one, since poets teaching their friends at university in the name of  modern relevance—languages and history pushed aside in the great ‘relevance’ stampede—naturally flowered into ‘creative writing teaching,’ because what else could Paul Engle, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and their ever-increasing band of friends teach, anyway?

They couldn’t teach languages and they couldn’t teach history.   They couldn’t teach classical poets because languages had that covered, and they couldn’t teach Romantic poets because the English professors had that covered, so their credentials for teaching were: their friends! They were experts at that.   They were experts on poets who were riding a “modernist revolution” in little magazines read by six or seven people.

T.S. Eliot, it turned out, was the godfather of both Modernism and New Criticism.  He found fame in the 1920’s.   Modernism and New Criticism was the coin that paid for and built the Creative Writing Program era which, in 2010, is humming along on the aspirations of thousands of would-be poets.

This is why po-biz today is still in thrall to the 1920’s.

So Scarriet has decided to decide this thing here and now: What was the best decade for American poetry?



  1. Seth said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:04 am

    I don’t know why I bother… But for those counting at home, no, of *course* I didn’t say that non-MFAed poets are people who write “Coleridge knock-offs on napkins to get laid.” That would be ludicrous. Anyone who believes someone would say that would also be inclined, I think, to believe the President is a Muslim born in Kenya who wants the terrorists to win.

    Curtis Faville had put forward the theory, supported by at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning poet in that thread, that poets should write in total isolation from one another. I pointed out that that has never been the common practice of talented, committed poets (we can all think of the occasional exception, e.g. Dickinson). I told Faville that the sort of poet who believes s/he doesn’t need *any* contact with other poets, whether it be guidance or advice or simply mutual inspiration — and this had nothing to do with whether one was in an MFA program or not — was the sort of poet who writes “Coleridge knock-offs on napkins to get laid.” And I explained that the reason that poet would likely seek to emulate the Romantics is because no one would ever have told them of the importance of reading contemporary poetry — and in the U.S. most high school instruction is based almost exclusively on the Romantics and the Modernists, so any aspiring poet who isolates themselves is likely to think themselves their own best teacher (and the best judge of their own, privately-written and privately-maintained poetry) and then go ahead and read nothing written after, say, 1850.

    Guys, I know the point of this blog is for you guys to be jerks and all, and I’m all for ruffling feathers that need to be ruffled. But the thread you refer to was contentious as hell and had 100+ comments. It got ugly. Is there *really* any need to make that train wreck worse than it already is (or was) by misquoting me and trying to start a new fight over something I never said?

    P.S. The decade I consistently derided in that conversation was the 1950s, not the 1920s. I agree the 1920s were an extraordinary decade for poetry. Also for the record, the Creative Writing Program era (emphasis on “program”) did not begin until the 1930s, when the IWW was founded. That said, there had been creative writing *classes* in universities as far back as the 1890s.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm


      You must be exhausted.

      Why don’t you own your “Coleridge knock-off poems written on napkins to get laid!” remark.

      It’s terrific! It was by far the best line in that 100 comment thread.

      Instead you spend all this energy on this comment thread, on a site sympathetic to you, backing away from it. You explain that you were talking of “isolated” poets, not non-MFA poets, but this distinction—is it viable? Since you expressly equate “isolation” with non-MFA and tout the “tapped into in-person communities of writers” as a great strength of the MFA?

      Then you write, “I consistently derided…the 1950s” and “agree the 1920s were an extraordinary decade…” but this was my whole point and the gist of my post: 1920s worship by all po-biz stripes today.

      It doesn’t surprise me that you missed this, because as I said, you spend so much energy and rhetoric defending and wrangling every little detail of your thesis, that you kind of lose sight of other things, and weary and sleep-deprive and over-extend yourself in the process.

      As I have often said before, “the Creative Writing Program era” did not just happen; it has a history, a history of names, names of writers with specific aspirations, credentials, philosophies, etc and the documents supporting this are easy to find, and I’m the only one I know that’s writing that history right now. Mark McGurl’s book, “The Program Era,” Harvard U. Press.2009 focuses on fiction workshops, but is still valuable. The key is the bridge between Eliot and the ‘euro-modernists’ and the Fugitive/New Critics, plus the analytic philosophers at Oxford—where all the Fugitives, including Engle, studied as Rhodes Scholars… James Woods told me there’s a Harvard doctoral student writing a thesis on Paul Engle and the CIA, but I haven’t brought that into play as yet! I’m sure you’d love that! LOL

      As for ‘communities,’ it isn’t just ‘community’ that’s important, but what community? what agenda? tapped-in how and for what? I’ll put up exiled, isolated poet’s work, Dante, Poe, Plath against poets tapped into ‘MFA communities’ any day of the week, if that’s your argument, though I would never tangle with you on the ultimate importance of the MFA, per se…I’ll leave that be! However, since the printed word, poets don’t need other human beings to experience poetry…’communities’ if they are just that, are good, but better, the mind of the poet, and the clique with a philosophical agenda connected to special, extra-poetic avenues of influence…


      • Seth said,

        May 16, 2010 at 3:49 pm

        Tom, in answer to your original question, I don’t know why I do half of what I do. In my experience in two MFA programs the favorite decade of the student-poets has been, far and away, the 1960s. I don’t equate non-MFA status with isolation — many poets without MFAs find community another way, and I’ve said before (and said in that thread) that an MFA is absolutely not necessary to be writer. Also, FWIW, it seems unfair to say I’m one of the MFA’s biggest defenders without also saying I’m one of its biggest critics — I’ve said before that I believe unfunded MFA programs should die, I’ve contacted programs directly to force them to comply with the CGSR Resolution, &c &c, and am now the focus of anger at dozens of MFA programs because of the rankings I author. P.S. I think you and I might be working on the same book, just FYI.

  2. Al Cordle said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:27 am

    Al Maginnes posted on Facebook:

    If Franz Wright believes that the best of the current MFA writing doesn’t “make bad toilet paper,” he should stop reading at schools that offer the MFA or teaching at them (I don’t know his current professional status, but I know that when he got the Pulitzer, he was teaching at the University of Arkansas, which has one of the older MFA programs in the country). The same goes for August Kleinzhaler. There’s plenty to criticize about MFA programs or the idea that at twenty something one can be master of anything, but it’s another to say all that, then bounce from one program to another, pausing only to siphon up a few more gallons of grant money. If Franz wants to get his hands dirty and do some real teaching, the community college where I work is hiring a number of new instructors to teach all the classes we have to add for the students who are flooding in.”

  3. Al Cordle said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Diana Manister

    Well maybe he’s trying to improve the MFA experience for students by sharing his thoughts. Whether he achieves that is not the issue. I’m sure he believes he can bring a helpful point of view.

    Too many MFAs are rich kids whose parents want them to go to college and the MFA is a fun ride. I haven’t read the article yet, but I do know that no poet I admire has an MFA. Art becomes something else in an academic setting.

  4. Al Cordle said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:30 am

    Al Maginnes

    Not one? I find that a little hard to believe. What contemporary poets are you reading?

    By the way the comments are worth reading as FW gets a bit out there.

  5. Al Cordle said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:30 am

    Diana Manister commented on your post:

    “Dear Al,

    I like Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe. I don’t care for chatty easy reading, especially when it’s I-centered.

    I will read the piece tomorrow and post about it here.”

  6. Al Cordle said,

    May 16, 2010 at 4:31 am

    Al Maginnes

    All of whom teach in MFA programs.

  7. Seth said,

    May 16, 2010 at 5:19 am

    To echo Al, not only did/do all those poets write their poetry while working in the Academy, I will say that those four poets are probably among the twenty or thirty most talked-about poets in doctoral programs — i.e., their work is seen as being incredibly “ripe” for dissection by the Academy. Probably because the poetry was in part inspired by theories derived in and popularized by the Academy. It’s poets like Tony Hoagland who are “non-academic,” and who would never be and could never be the subject of a doctoral dissertation. So it seems especially odd for an anti-Academy poetry reader to laud those four poets — as these are four poetry who are in nearly every way a product of the Academy, and I include even Howe, who though a prodigy of sorts has nevertheless striven for years to play the part of an academic in her essays. But yes, as Al says, it’s impossible to read poetry widely and not be reading MFA graduates. If you’re reading any poet who’s under 40 there’s better than even odds you’re reading someone who did an MFA. And the list of well-known writers who did an MFA and who folks don’t realize did an MFA is just very, very long, everyone from C.D. Wright (Arkansas MFA) to Ron Silliman (SFSU MA) to Joshua Clover (Iowa MFA) to Lisa Jarnot (Brown MFA) and on and on and on.

  8. notevensuperficial said,

    May 16, 2010 at 5:41 am

    I think Young, Young & Scott are long overdue for a spate of doctoral dissectoration.

    I know I ain’t doin’ much
    But doin’ nothin’ means a lot to me

    Surely a Master Debater of Fine Arts could produce, generate, and in fact manufabricate a seminar textplicating this immortal decouplet.

  9. Marcus Bales said,

    May 16, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Billy Collins Endorses Nikki

    At a party last night I saw
    A forty-something teacher and poet,
    Handsome, loofahed, barbered, LL Beaned,
    Listening politely as a pretty woman
    Enthusiastically recounted Nikki Giovanni’s scathing comments
    Dissing Condoleeza Rice:
    how Rosa Parks’s casket must have moved away
    from Rice’s touch,
    how is the best that Rice can do now,
    her a Birmingham girl who knew
    the families of those little girls,
    is carry water for George W. Bush?

    There was the kind of pause
    That lasts a beat too long until the poet said
    “Oh, yes, I agree,
    and I agree across the board with everything she said,”
    and shifted his weight
    from one tassled-loafered foot to the other,
    “but if it were me, I’d have to consider that I
    have got to get invited back.”

    In our local silence
    He scooped some crab dip
    On a cracker, and put it on his plate beside
    The chunk of Brie.
    We followed his gaze around the room,
    And saw a redoubt of foundation staffers,
    And his eyes,
    gently crinkled at their corners with his smile,
    Shone like two shiny nickles.
    He turned his back on us
    And walked toward them.

  10. Ron Silliman said,

    May 16, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I was an undergraduate at San Francisco State, before transferring to UC Berkeley (with a stop at Merritt College in between) — no degrees at any of them. My “degree” is a diploma from Albany High School, class of 1964.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    May 16, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    My Confessional Sestina

    Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas
    written by youngsters in poetry workshops
    for the delectation of their fellow students,
    and then published in little magazines
    that no one reads, not even the contributors
    who at least in this omission show some taste.

    Is this merely a matter of personal taste?
    I don’t think so. Most sestinas
    are such dull affairs. Just ask the contributors
    the last time they finished one outside of a workshop,
    even the poignant one on herpes in that new little magazine
    edited by their most brilliant fellow student.

    Let’s be honest. It has become a form for students,
    an exercise to build technique rather than taste
    and the official entry blank into the little magazines—
    because despite its reputation, a passable sestina
    isn’t very hard to write, even for kids in workshops
    who care less about being poets than contributors.

    Granted nowadays everyone is a contributor.
    My barber is currently a student
    in a rigorous correspondence school workshop.
    At lesson six he can already taste
    success having just placed his own sestina
    in a national tonsorial magazine.

    Who really cares about most little magazines?
    Eventually not even their own contributors
    who having published a few preliminary sestinas
    send their work East to prove they’re no longer students.
    They need to be recognized at the new arbiters of taste
    so they can teach their own graduate workshops.

    Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
    churning out poems for little magazines
    no one honestly finds to their taste?
    This ever-lengthening column of contributors
    scavenging the land for more students
    teaching them to write their boot camp sestinas?

    Perhaps there is an afterlife where all contributors
    have two workshops, a tasteful little magazine, and sexy students
    who worshipfully memorize their every sestina.

    Dana Gioia
    “Poetry” magazine, 1983

    Looking at all the decades in American poetry, I came across this poem by Gioia, which has got to be one of the best of the 80s, if not the century.

    Here’s why it’s good: because it has that non-official, ‘aside,’ truth factor, which when you think about it, all great poems must have.

    There’s always these two points of view: the public, official one and the non-official, private one.

    When was the ‘official truth’ ever true?

    When was the ‘non-official truth’ ever not true?

    The poem which attempts to utter ‘public truth,’ that is, truth which is ‘out of,’ rather than ‘against’ the system it finds itself in, is doomed to failure.

    The poem which discovers an ‘unofficial truth,’ one that is not merely a cliched gripe or an embarrassing silliness, but one that engages and cuts into the ‘public truth’ of the system it finds itself in, is guaranteed a certain success, as long its provocation is articulated in a pointed and powerful manner.

    Just as Ashbery satirizes official verse’s pomposity by taking its vocabulary and speaking against it through its own speech, Gioia’s sestina satirizes itself (‘itself’ here being a whole system, a system, of which the very poem is both a mere sub-set and a defining model).

    The satire of the ‘private truth poem’ must be directed against a concretized, social system, not merely an abstract, ‘language’ one. These are the truly successful poems of this type.

    Poems like this by Gioia eat other poems, other poetires, other systems, and finally all great modern poems are satiric at heart. Otherwise they are sentimental.

  12. Seth said,

    May 16, 2010 at 3:26 pm


    I apologize. That was my mistake. I believed you had attended undergrad somewhere other than SFSU, so when I read Sina Queyras’ March 16th article on Harriet (“On the Matter of Career”), and Sina wrote, in the context of discussing creative writing Master’s programs, “[Ron] Silliman studied creative writing at SF State in the late 1960s ‘because it put me in touch with other writers–it was never about a job,'” I naturally assumed you were speaking of SFSU’s then-MA program in creative writing. I was obviously wrong and won’t repeat the mistake.

    I’ll admit, though, that I’ve never heard anyone discuss their reason for attending college (in the 60s at least) being to “stud[y] creative writing” (Queyras) “because it put me in touch with other writers–it was never about a job” (you). My guess is that you are/were one of the earliest Americans to attend college largely to study creative writing, and/or to view college primarily as a place to meet creative writers. The way you spoke of your time at SFSU is the way most people speak of Master’s programs, as I think most everyone would agree that going to college is indeed very *much* “about [getting] a job,” and not at all (given the sorry state of creative writing courses in the 1960s) to be “put…in touch with other writers,” and it’s only in an art-school Master’s where we’d feel the need to specifically disabuse others of that notion.

    Again, though, I was wrong and I apologize for the error.


  13. Poetry Police said,

    May 16, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    The language of all participants, with the exception of one or two, seems very pedestrian to read, to be fair. Gallagher’s premise for launching into his assault on Wright, is laughably weak. He wants to alert the Reader to what, he thinks of as, the illogicality of a blurb written by Wright.

    Gallagher then creates a point-by-point deconstruction of the blurb that, for this reader, is unintentionally funny because he uses the dry and unexciting language one associates with a lawyer; to take issue with the language Wright has created that, by comparison, is far more exciting to read

    For example, Wright begins by opining Dickman’s poetry is:

    ‘hiddenly heralding the end of the randomness’ – which is a very memorable and sonically skillful line. The first two words’ voiceless glottal fricative, smoothly contrasting with the feminine, unstressed i and e of hiddenly heralding; before seguing into the end and -ness of the fourth and seventh words; creating in the process four deft, unstressed chimes with the e vowel that make this a memorable, poetic line.

    Yet Gallagher seems uninterested in the originality of language; instead wanting to pan Wright because of something I still can’t quite figure because his language is too boring to bother with trying to find out.

    This is the problem I had with the comments; the linguistic inventiveness was non-existent; and no sense of irony: That here are the supposed great and good of AmPo’s blogosphere making prissy points in instantly forgettable language. A duller, less cerebral version of last week’s other kerfuffle based on nowt much, between Armband and Brady, toing and froing on the question of the Cambridge School of poetry being Political or not.

    The one component fortgotten by most in this marathon bleeder; is the Reader’s enjoyment. It’s just a point-scoring boreathon between raging squares with as much poetic nous as my ass, moan.

    Well, maybe not, but who gives a fig about to MFA or to not MFA. The bottom line is the poetry, and that will come through regardless of where the vessel for it physically drifts.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    May 16, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    “The bottom line is the poetry.” –Poetry Police

    No, it’s not. It’s more complex than that.

    The best is thought…nothing like Thinking Workshops would be taken very seriously by intellectuals, for ‘teaching to think’ is even more dubious an idea than ‘teaching to write,’ however, having said that…Pre-cognition IS the best way (despite Auden’s “I don’t know what I think until I try and write it”) since only when excited by an idea will the writer be excited enough to find the means to say it.

    Focusing on ‘the means’ when one doesn’t have any thing to say in the first place is extremely self-defeating and labor-intensive, like learning to build a house without any idea of what a house is, or what sort of materials are available, etc. You’re just a slave who hammers nails. This what ‘the bottom line is poetry’ entails, I’m afraid. Slavery and ignorance.

    For look: if you get excited by an idea, that idea you have (as ‘a thinker,’ as opposed to ‘a poet’) might be best expressed in a short story or an essay, but if you begin with ‘write a poem’ you must naturally begin with a thought for one, but poem-thoughts are too slippery to obey mere poems which do not yet exist; the thought MUST exist before the poem because IF the poem-not-yet-written exists, that, by definition is: A poem-in-your-thoughts, so we can clearly see, irrefutably, that the thought MUST in every case exist first.

    The ‘bottom line is the thought, not the poetry.’

    If the poem directs the thought, one can immediately see that something is wrong, since it is the thought which should direct the poem, and if thought does earn this mastery, it will not do so enslaving itself to whatever demands it do its bidding.

    We would never tell thought, ‘think this, but not that,’ for great thoughts are free, at least creative ones are.

    Yet great poems work precisely the OTHER way: they DO tell us ‘this, not that,’ for the correct choices made in the poem, the inevitable form, and meaning, of the poem, and the way it brings these about, is the impressive thing, not the poem’s ‘freedom.’ The free thought, free qua free, which we don’t see, makes the poem qua poem.

    The poet who designs an MFA syllabus is bound to be a better poet than the poet who merely attends the MFA. The poet who designs the MFA era itself is also bound to be a better poet, for thought qua thought makes the great writer, not the mere student of something as narrow as poetry.

    (Paul Engle was a terrible poet, but he did not design the program era; he took a simple idea: the U.S. does not subsidize its artists enough and practically went about finding a solution; the intellectual design of the program era itself fell to John Crowe Ransom, whose essays are some of the best in the 20th century, and whose poetic excellence was of a high order, if only in flashes.)

    Poe was a great poet in the narrow sense BECAUSE HE WAS A THINKER who also created fiction, science fiction, scientific essays, humorous essays, codes, puzzles, criticism, etc The success of Poe’s ‘narrow’ poetry was precisely due to his WIDE THINKING.

    The arrogant poet who attempts to excell as a poet only by trumping the narrow accomplishment of Poe as poet, by enslaving his thought (the arrogant poet’s) to pursuing what he (the arrogant poet) thinks is a widening of poetic effect, commits a HUGE ERROR.

    The pedagogical separation of writing into poetry and fiction and essay writing is a grave error, for it curbs thought which would be free.

    The poets remembered 100-200 years from now will be those who thought, as well; writers such as T.S Eliot and John Crowe Ransom and Dana Gioia. Emerson’s poetry will live because of Emerson’s essays. I cannot think of a poet in the modern age who will be remembered (or let’s say be important or famous) only for the poetry.

    The bottom line is absolutely NOT the poetry—even among poets.

  15. Seth said,

    May 16, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    According to Creeley the thought and the poem are concurrent phenomena — he called it “thinking *through* the poem.” That was the first major revolution against Modernism (in conjunction with Olson, obviously, as well as others who wrote in that vein, including O’Hara and Spicer). The post-avants, many of whom have ultimately ended up intimately linked to the Academy, reversed course in saying that, no, every poem must be carefully planned — form preceding content, rather than form as indistinguishable from content (though Creeley and Olson are still sufficiently romanticized in the post-avant community that the claim is nevertheless made, by post-avants, that they are not cloaked Modernists but in fact disciples of Creeley. And yet you could not get further from Jack Spicer than the conceptual poets).

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 17, 2010 at 2:37 am


      That’s interesting.

      I don’t believe that ‘the thought and the poem [can be] concurrent phenomena,’ though I suppose it’s a noble effort to try and make them concurrent.

      Even if a poem expresses a clear idea, the thinking behind the expression of that idea will always be distinct from that expression, as well as the idea—whether you believe this or not will go a long way in shaping your poetic taste…and if you do believe the idea expressed by the poem is the poet’s thought ‘in the flesh’ I suppose the tendency might be to not express any clear ideas in your poem, so that your thought can artistically hide itself, as it were…


      • Seth said,

        May 17, 2010 at 3:17 am


        You misunderstand; I am speaking of writing process. Some poets are “animistic” rather than “classicalist,” to use some terms increasingly being used. These poets will tell you they literally do not know where the poem is going to go as they’re writing it. And yet by no means can these poems be said to be obfuscatory, as there is more than one type of sense in the world, Tom. Any poem that does not tap into the unconscious as it is being written is unlikely to appeal to the unconscious of the one who later reads it, and in failing to do so will ultimately be unsatisfying, as it ignores perhaps the most mysterious and magical element of human existence. Indeed, a lack of attention to the unconscious is why so much poetry is dry — the poet of such verse knew where it was going all along, s/he was not “surprised” by the work, and thus (voila!) there is no surprise in the work for the reader, either. Many of the best poets of the last 50 years wrote this way, and it informed how they edited their own work, too — O’Hara more or less said that he never revised a poem once the ten or twenty or thirty minutes he’d spent writing it was over; if he learned something new about poetry and his own poetics after the writing was done, he’d apply that knowledge to the next poem, not the current one. John Ashbery, profiled in The New Yorker a few years ago, had/has a writing process described, in paraphrase, as banging out a poem in twenty or thirty minutes on his typewriter without even pausing as he writes. These men (and women, of course; I’d place Barbara Guest in this category in some of her work, as well as many others) are true postmodernists in that they understand that there is more sense in the world than merely that produced by logic and reason, as logic and reason lead us astray — into irresolvable contradictions — as often as not. This is a concept well-understood, now, in America, and in fact most of the students I’ve taught at the college level have secretly confessed to writing this way, i.e. animistically, not in the manner of the Modernists or the New Modernists (who call themselves “post-avants” now). Again, take a poem by Susan Howe, with its rigid method of construction (often dressed up as aleatory; do not be deceived, though by this I don’t mean to impugn the poetry itself, which is often marvelous) and compare it to O’Hara, and you will find that it is the Romantics who are linked to the poets of the sixties, and the Modernists who are linked to the avant-garde of the twenty-aughts, and as MFA students now obsess over O’Hara and Creeley and Berrigan and Spicer and Schuyler and Olson and Ashbery and Koch (largely a group of men, and that largely because these men studiously excluded women from their community), whereas those who despise the MFA are more commonly New Modernists, this idea that Modernism is linked to the MFA is patently absurd. You want to see worship of Modernism dressed up as a celebration of an aleatory poetics, go to Ron’s blog or the blogs of the flarfists or conceptualists. These are High Modernists who perversely hate their patron, Eliot. Meanwhile, the younger generation of MFA poets (e.g., Matthea Harvey, Catherine Wagner, Josh Bell, hundreds of others) are worshipping fairly unabashedly at the altar of the worldview and sense of self — if not the writing process — of the Romantics, and then, too, the writing process of the neo-Romantics of the sixties. There are no closer kissing cousins than the conceptualists of today and the New Formalists of the 80s and 90s, though they might well be disgusted by one another’s politics. But the key difference in poetry, Tom, is between animism and classicalism, between an aleatory and a mastery-based poetics, between the inductive and associative thinking of the sixties poets and many of today’s best young poets and the deductive, fundamentally destructive thinking (thinking “against a limit”) of the Modernists (who wanted most poets to drop dead immediately to make room for their own genius) and the New Modernists-cum-“post-avants” (who, surprise surprise, would also like to see most everyone else drop dead, and most literary magazines fold, and most small presses be shuttered, and no one attend an MFA program, the better to place their own mastery on the mountain-top for all to admire).

        The MFA is indeed at the center of an aesthetic revolution, but it is one which will wrest from the hands of the post-avant the tradition they _want_, which is decidedly not the tradition they _use_ — everyone wishes to be a byproduct of, say, Frank Stanford, but there’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. When the history of the last thirty years, i.e. the MFA boom, is written, it will say that it destroyed the post-avant/SoQ fiction conclusively because it revealed that there were three major traditions in America poetry (at a minimum!) and that the post-avant tradition was fundamentally Modernist, the “mainstream lyric” tradition hailed from poetry of the late 1800s, and the MFA-driven aesthetic had its birth in the Romantics, then Whitman, then Apollinaire, then the neo-Romantics, and now whatever untrodden field we’re headed into. I believe that future field will be metarealistic in nature, i.e. a nonexistent, fabulatory field, but others have different views.

        Anyway, that’s where the battle is, Tom. At least in America. I can’t speak to Britain, though I’ll say that when I joined a conversation of British poets several months back the notion of an aleatory poetics was wholly foreign to them — I sensed it was still, 75 years on, Eliot or bust. Which means they have more to say to the post-avantists of America than they might realize.


  16. Poetry Police said,

    May 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    ‘No, it’s not. It’s more complex than that.’

    For you perhaps; but not for me.

    I’ve always worked on the principle that if an argument is valid, it will be easily grasped; but your argument here, comes across as opaque at best Thom. I don’t understand what you are trying to say, because you aren’t really saying anything, and what you are trying to say, is impelled by the general desire to trash the MFA, in a train of language that doesn’t communicate anything to me as a reader.

    Perhaps it’s the ‘community’ you are in; isolated and only ever saying what’s wrong with the poetry world, rather than having a close circle of on-the-ground poet pals with whom to share and evolve.

    You should come to Dublin and you’d get a wholly different take on things; meet poets who are part of a warmer set-up; who aren’t isolated and with a strong sense of tradition and connection to something bigger than the individual.

    The Reader couldn’t care less about the politics of poets jockeying for their Theory to be heard and discussed; all we care about is the poem.

  17. Poetry Police said,

    May 16, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    I suppose it all boils down to an individual’s experience of writing poetry. How the poems come about. If there’s that element of mystery and spiritualness to writing your pieces.

    If you’ve only ever written poetry devoid of ecstatic inspiration, whose compositional method hasn’t got past first base; that doesn’t involve the deeper reaches of imbas; then you’d be unable to connect with the idea that the poetry is all that matters, and rather than comprehend poetry as a mystic art, perhaps view it as a battleground for ideas and intellectual point-scoring with other people in the same baot: who haven’t developed their capacity to the extent of experiencing the otherworldly aspect of writing ditties.

    The sort of poets in my own circle who form the datum-points with which to assess and measure the rest of the village dabblers; poets like Paul Casey, Tim Costello, Orla Martin, Noel Sweeney and numerous others, are rooted firmly in the human and transformative perspective of poetry, rather than seeing it as a theoretical court or green on which to test out abstractions that live only on a page.

    Another important difference would be the Live component; of going out every week and making the poetry live as verbal objects; keeping a balance and not focussing soley on proving some grand airy castle in our mind, to people we know only through print.

    This balance, of person with print, is what seems to be missing in all the waffle.

  18. thomasbrady said,

    May 17, 2010 at 2:26 am

    No, Poetry Police, ‘the bottom line is the poetry’ is opaque, not my argument; my argument is an attempt to clarify the mud which is ‘the bottom line is the poetry’ because this is like saying ‘the bottom line is that I’m wearing pants.’ ‘The poetry’ can refer to a million things, the words, the sounds, the live performance, as you’ve mentioned yourself, the thought behind the poem, whether the poem is good or not, or whether I like it or not, and why or why I don’t like it, and so on and so on. It isn’t the simple phrase that’s always simple unfortunately. Your utterance ‘it’s just the poetry’ may have you thinking you are being simple, but it’s not simple by any means. The poem is simple in that it is ‘here, here it is, here’s the poem,’ but that doesn’t mean the poem is simple. That’s a crucial distinction. Do you mean the poem is simple in that it’s in your brain and you don’t want anyone messing with it? That’s a valid state of things…my brain wants the poem, it doesn’t want you talking about the poem in addition. That’s a valid objection to any additional thing I might add to any poem which you experience. This I understand and respect. But that still doesn’t mean the poem is simple, or that ‘the bottom line is the poetry’ is simple. It only means, ‘don’t bother me. my girl (muse) and I are talking. get lost.’ Doesn’t mean your girl or the world she lives in is simple.

  19. Poetry Police said,

    May 17, 2010 at 7:53 am

    I don’t think you have developed the praise side of your critical practice Thom; and consequently are unable to acknowledge the joyful side of poetry, beyond paying it lip service.

    You claim the statement the bottom line is the poetry, is ‘opaque’; and then say it is like saying ‘the bottom line is I’m wearing pants’; before waffling more stuff whose logic I don’t follow.

    The bullshit baffles brains school of thought; throw a lot of gobble dee gook at the audience to confuse them and start babbling nonsense.

    No Thom, when you say the bottom line is not simple; that’s like saying the top line is mechano elephants; clearly distressing for the tautology of the morphological mechanism that dictates the rational of poetry per se vis a vis; talking rubbish mate.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 17, 2010 at 10:29 am

      poetry police,

      i’m sorry if i’m coming across as harsh or doctrinaire or bullying.

      enjoying live poetry, being an audience in a slam or getting up at the mike yourself, that’s great stuff, and just reading a poem by yourself and going wow, i have those moments constantly

      i usually find that if the poem has done it’s job, no additional utterance means anything, so when i do speak of poetry, i critique

      i even thought yesterday to myself, hey what about those anonymous old folk songs you love, like barabara allen or michael rode the boat ashore, you don’t critque them, do you? no i don’t, and i must admit that got me to wondering…old folk ballads are my untouchables…i love them without thought…maybe i’m just a hopeless populist…i dunno…


  20. thomasbrady said,

    May 17, 2010 at 11:01 am


    Thanks for laying out the battle…I hadn’t thought about things quite that way…the position of O’hara/Ashbery and ‘automatic’ writing traces back to Gertrude Stein, of course, and her teacher, Emerson’s godson, the ‘nitrous oxide’ philosopher, William James.

    The first line in the first poem in the first BAP is by Ammons and the first ‘words’ are William James.

    James was colleagues with Santayana who taught Wallace Stevens (and of course T.S Eliot was there at Harvard then, too). John Crowe Ransom, in his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” discussing his Modernist friends who, he says, have gone out of their way to turn their backs on the public, cites Wallace Stevens (‘Sea Clouds’) as an example of ‘pure poetry,’ the ‘purity’ a natural ‘puritan’ movement of modernity in which each separate vocation purifies itself in a deliberate act of division of labor. No longer does poetry work for God and country; now it perfects itself. This was in the 1930s, when Marxism was strong and Auden was writing working-class ballads, etc.

    But Ransom and his aging Modernist friends were calmly and steadily working away from working-class populism and towards ‘the red wheel barrow’ purity of Modernism, to be taught in the Academy. The whole thing seems absurd, but Ransom and his friends won, (Warren and Brooks’ ‘Understanding Poetry’ which praises ‘wheel barrow’ and ‘station in the metro’ and attacks Poe becomes the poetry text for the GI bill era).

    To me, the Emerson/James/Gertrude Stein/Wallace Stevens/T.S. Eliot/John Crowe Ransom/O’Hara/Ashbery/MFA writing industry is a piece. Not a perfectly smooth piece, but a piece, and it all revolves around this idea of ‘automatic writing’ or the unconscious. Some of the supporters of this were more ‘rational’ such as Ransom, who took pains to make sure that his readers knew he didn’t personally like where things were going, but the age was going that way, and it couldn’t be resisted…you’ll see if you read, “Poets Without Laurels.” Ransom essentially said, ‘morality in art was dead.’ It could only be interesting as Henry James, liked to say. This was where the great ‘purifying’ modernism was leading. This fit right into politically conscious moderns who could alter the formula slightly, ‘the old morality was dead.’ It was quite a wide tent, actually. And Ransom and his friends were ALSO designing the academic set-up which would lead to the MFA era, etc.

    In his other important essay, “Criticism, Inc’,” (again, we’re in the 30s) Ransom says the English professors who care about history are useless because all they do is appreciate the old writers; journalists are useless; we need critics trained in the university to criticize the ‘new writing’ (Ransom’s poems and his friends’ poems was the unspoken, here). Anyway, you see how it goes.

    So, I don’t place as much importance on these factions as you do.

    As far as the unconscious itself, I think it’s overrated, a red herring, in fact. When Willie Mays made the catch off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series and spun and threw all in one motion to keep the runner from tagging up and scoring, was that his ‘unconsious’ doing that? Well, yes, great athletes use instinct and what we would call ‘the unconscious’ to do amazing things. But Willie said he was talking to himself as he was going after that fly ball, “Now when you catch this, Willie, you have to throw back to the infield or that guy on third is going to score…”

    I don’t see why you can’t have both, and why you would ever choose to use one: why would you use ONLY the unconscious and not the conscious, too, if you could? Writers who say they ONLY use the unconscious are not quite telling the truth, and if they say conscious writers don’t ALSO use the unconscious as well, they are somewhat mistaken. I think the whole issue is suspect.

    You said that the unconscious brings surprise, and perhaps it does, but so does pure randomness. Let’s put it this way: If you really wanted to surprise someone, and vowed to a third party you could do it, if it were guaranteed that it was going to happen—would you finally rely on unconscious randomness to effect that surprise, or a conscious plan?

    I could go on and go here, and I haven’t touched on enough points, but that’s just my initial reaction to what you’re saying.

    As for the Romantics, you can’t lump them; the best of them were classical; Eliot wasn’t really classical, though he tried to pretend he was; he was really Romantic, in the non-classical way. Byron and Shelley and Keats looked back to Pope and Shakespeare and Plato and so forth; Wordsworth and Coleridge and the popularized version of Romanticism was much different.

    I would distinguish between the Romantics, while you would distinguish between various parts of Modernism, which I see as essentially the same.

    Post-modernism and modernism are not that different for me, or at least, not different in the ways you see it; even though I grant you, if this is the way the young poets see it and are talking about it, this will, then, affect and create the machinations of which you speak. I think the ‘unconscious’ is very overrated as a device. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exist). I don’t see how Ashbery-ism can last, really.


    • Seth said,

      May 17, 2010 at 2:32 pm


      Be fair — I didn’t argue for an entirely unconscious poetics, I said that any poetry that leaves no room for the unconscious in the writing of it will leave no room for the unconscious in the reading of it, will be unsurprising, and will therefore be unsatisfying. I generally agree with Eliot’s prescription that, in paraphrase, “the bad poet is conscious when he should be unconscious, and unconscious when he should be conscious.” But there’s the problem — Eliot said that, but he didn’t practice that his whole life, or better said once he became the tyrannical New Critical don he didn’t appreciate the unconscious in anyone else’s work because it couldn’t be easily parsed by the New Critics like himself. (And we still see this same derision among some academics now; i.e., as academics we can read and speak of Howe so she is good, we struggle to fully access everything in O’Hara so he is bad — I had to switch from an MFA to a doctoral program to realize how despised O’Hara is by academics, even as he is lauded by those poets, many post-avantists, whose work is loved by academics). You have to distinguish between early and late Eliot, obviously religious conversion plays into his biography and it changes how we must speak of him and his views and the role he played in American and British literature.

      I’m no fan of Ashbery; the fact that animistic (which is not synonymous with “automatic,” though at times they may briefly overlap) writing should be able to produce such differing poets as Ashbery, Creeley, Spicer, O’Hara, Dorn, Olson, Stein, Guest, et. al. — or perhaps we can also go back to Coleridge (“Kubla Khan”?) and Whitman, really it’s rather endless — is a sign that it’s a far richer tradition than you allow, and will be more fruitful going forward than you surmise. You must rethink your view that the unconscious is the same as randomness — you couldn’t possibly believe this, Tom, and if you do, re-read your Jung and your Joseph Campbell and I’d add, too, your Nietzsche (e.g. “On Truth and Lying in the Non-Moral Sense”). The partly-articulable, associative “sense” of the psyche is to randomness as automatic writing is to the mastery- and craft-driven poetics you are espousing — seems odd to consider, until you realize that in both analogies we are taking a concept to its natural end-point via reductio ad absurdum. If mastery could be achieved it would be a blueprint anyone could learn and follow and writing would become automatic; likewise, if any piece of writing were exclusively a *true* product of the psyche (entirely unconscious, as you say, which I’ve never proposed) you’re correct that it would appear random probably even to the poet. Animism is not “automatic” writing because the poet balances instinct, intuition, reason, experience, delight, &c &c in a condensed (but not “automatic”) writing process. In the poetics you’ve described, where thought *must* precede the poem, everything must be choreographed — and to the extent the young poets of today have changed the course of American poetry it is that they are tired of entirely choreographed productions, including vast metaphorical and rhetorical setpieces, and I think that goes, too, for what they perceive to be the gimmickry of conceptualism (though I’m much kinder to it than most, I’ve been reading Goldsmith’s “Fidget” and find it a worthwhile exercise so long as it is almost never repeated; likewise with Bok’s recent genetics-based project, flarf, individual iterations of Oulipo, and so on).

      In any case, Tom, your primary submissions simply cannot stand because they are false. The unconscious is not entirely random; no one advises an entirely unconscious poetics; animism is, factually, not “automatic” writing; Eliot early and Eliot late are two different beasts and cannot be spoken of as one; animism has produced wildly different poets, not just Ashbery clones; finally, this version of history —

      “Emerson/James/Gertrude Stein/Wallace Stevens/T.S. Eliot/John Crowe Ransom/O’Hara/Ashbery/MFA writing industry is a piece”

      — is just not tenable. Stevens is still much read and respected in MFA programs precisely because he is, in fact, often unconscious, in a way (say) Hart Crane and Marianne Moore (the latter of whose work I do enjoy) are really not. Or Ezra Pound, whose collages never feel organic — not for an instant. Ransom and O’Hara would literally get in a knifefight in a dark alley if possible — I can’t believe you’ve lumped these two together, have you read “Personism”? Nor (not that I’ll rehash this) is the MFA an “industry,” as what’s happening at one program bears no relationship to what’s happening at another, and only demagoguery would have it so. No — as well to say that Cole Swensen and Philip Levine teach and talk about poetry the same way, or that the same sort of student (in terms of aesthetic and inclination) goes to the IWW as goes to, say, the University of South Carolina, as to say… well, as to believe there is any version of history whatsoever that could link Ransom and O’Hara.

      You’re wrong about the Romantics, too; I absolutely distinguish between them, it’s why Clare is very important to me and Wordsworth much, much less so.


      • thomasbrady said,

        May 17, 2010 at 4:10 pm


        OK, you’re backing away from your animistic v. classical trope which does make sense to me and I like it…I wasn’t disagreeing with all of it…you have a tendency to make wonderful distinctions and then back away from them, for fear of someone reducing your argument to absurdity…fear not…I was just thinking out-loud and clarifying your position for myself….so now you’re saying every poet uses both the conscious and the unconscious…well, that’s no fun!

        I was enjoying your animistic neo-Romantics MFAers V. Modernists, and grumpy old new Modernists, who hate on the MFA and want less, not more, publication/production and disguise themselves at animistic but are really not!

        I think the aleatory is a wonderul thing and we shouldn’t understimate the unconscious ability to generate the random. But the ‘surprising’ is certainly more readily attainable by the conscious, don’t you think?

        I synthesize more than most…you prefer to see distinctions where I look for similarities. For instance, “patient etherized on a table” I see as an Ashbery moment…really doesn’t matter if that was a conscious or unconscious gesture on Eliot’s part (you seem very certain when a writer is being unconscious or not, but I’m not that certain)…and the moment is significant because of the similarity…if everything is different there is no significance, per se…I know early Auden poems which sound just like Ashbery and where do you place Auden? I find him VERY ‘conscious’ and yet he got the Ashbery thing down before Ashbery…you have more faith in this neo-Romantic, truly post-modern, animistic thing than I do, obviously…


  21. Seth said,

    May 17, 2010 at 5:09 pm


    I don’t know, we must be talking past each other. I indicated that I liked the implication of Eliot’s famous maxim, which is that a good poet is both conscious and unconscious, and that submission is wholly in keeping with a) me deriding the “all conscious” poetics you’re espousing, b) me saying, as I started out by saying, that poetry must make room for the unconscious (it was you who attributed to me something I did not say, which is that poetry-writing should be “all unconscious”), and c) my definition of animism, which was never “automatic” (i.e. all unconscious) writing — that was your definition, not mine. You need to re-read what I’ve said, I’ve been consistent. And me quoting Eliot’s prose and then calling him a hypocrite as to his poetry, particularly his later poems, and a hypocrite as to his performance as a don of New Criticism, is in no way equatable, as you seem to think it, with saying all the Modernists wrote unconsciously (nor does pointing out that Stevens at times does balance the conscious and the unconscious mean that Modernism is the MFA tradition, as Stevens is lumped with the Modernists but is idiosyncratic for his era in many respects — it’s his complexity that gets him labeled a Modernist, whereas I’ve been aligning Modernism, as I think appropriate, with an attitude toward poetry-writing).

    I stand by, 100%, my animistic versus classicalist meme. Eliot was in general terms a classicalist, as was Pound, however the former may have said some nice things about the unconscious *in his essays*. I did not say that Stevens was an animistic writer, as in tracing a tradition it’s not much of a “tradition” if there’s no development — i.e., if Stevens was wholly an animist in the way today’s younger poets often are there would be no progression or lineage to speak of, whereas in saying that he at least embodied a part of Eliot’s claimed philosophy (while diverging much from his poetics) I am placing him in a line of influence that would of course continue to progress after him.

    In any case, as I said, I believe this is just a matter of miscommunication — when working with complicated questions of poetics that sort of thing is likely. Now, do I think the conscious more readily creates surprise than the unconscious? No, I absolutely don’t. In fact by definition it *cannot*, as “all conscious” writing depends entirely on reason, and if I can trace the reason of a poem I can anticipate where it’s going in advance. And so I am not surprised. The best an “all conscious” poetry can do is meet my expectations. The best an “all unconscious” poetry would do (not that I support such an idea, and not that that’s what animism is, because it is not) would be to surprise me 100% of the time. So: No, I do not believe, as you think I do, that all poets are both conscious and unconscious. Eliot advised it but not only did he not often follow it himself, most “mainstream lyric” poets today do *not* follow that prescription, and some who do follow it are following it in a way which would still not be animistic (it is you, not me, who are simultaneously defining animism as “all unconscious” writing and *also* as any writing that has *any* element of the unconscious, which is really just a way of defining the term out of existence altogether).

    You’re right, though, that I presume too much in terms of seeming to think I know from whence a given line of poetry came — the conscious or the unconscious. And yet it’s no coincidence that you choose “Prufrock” to suggest Eliot was capable of the unconscious, as if you’d asked me I’d have said (and have already implied above) that Eliot’s earlier work was different from his later work, which itself was different from his criticism, which itself was different from how he conducted himself within the American/British poetry community as a don. His earliest work never achieved the truly “aleatory” but I’m certain there were moments of unconsciousness. I don’t see even that in the later work.

    Any poet can sound like any other poet on any given day. I can’t tell you how many poems I read, in 2010, which sound like Apollinaire’s “Lundi rue Christine” from 100 years ago. But the point is to see trends, not to find exceptions which make any conversation about anything more or less impossible.


  22. Seth said,

    May 17, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    P.S. One other interesting thing is that if you track academic criticism of post-avant poetry you will encounter gross misusage of the term “aleatory” — it is applied, incredibly, to poets like Susan Howe. This is additional evidence of the post-avants/New Modernists wishing to claim a lineage other than their rightful one, because embracing Eliot as their temperamental forefather would require acknowledging, too, the unique relationship of their poetry with the Academy. In fact, it’s vital that post-avants redefine the Academy as being comprised of MFA programs because otherwise it would be constituted entirely by the doctoral programs where post-avant work is taught and adored. The MFA, which is wholly an art-school degree, is in fact more closely aligned with the San Francisco, Black Mountain, and New York School communities in its conception, which is why the post-avants are so terrified of it and why the MFA boom didn’t happen until decades after that period (the 30s) in which Modernism was king. The MFA is not the “Academy” — that’s laughable. SUNY-Buffalo’s Ph.D. in Poetics, where post-avant godfather Charles Bernstein teaches? Now *that’s* the Academy.

    Tom, you’re being bamboozled here; the post-avants are trying to revise history and I think you’re implicitly allowing them to do it.

  23. thomasbrady said,

    May 17, 2010 at 8:45 pm


    You have given me some food for thought…the MFA as an art-school separate from The Academy…I’ll have to think about that one…

    I felt I was just starting to get a handle on your formula: unconscious (romantic & MFA) v. conscious (classical & modern) but now you seem to be…no, I won’t say backing away from…but qualifying with a quote from Eliot and centering Eliot’s complex relation to himself and to all sides of the debate…

    Certainly I’ve been hasty in some of my replies and not given the whole matter as much time and attention as I’d like…

    but I now have two new delightful terms to throw around…aleatory and animistic…two new toys…I feel like a kid at Christmas…

    Let me chew on all this some more…thanks, Seth!


  24. May 17, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Since everybody seems to be taking a breath now, it looks like a good time to interject:

    First, the name is John GALLAHER, not Gallagher.

    Secondly, don’t we mean the ‘subconscious’ as opposed to the “unconscious”?

    (Although I will admit that most of the poetry I’ve seen lately appears to have been written in a state of unconsciousness.)


  25. Seth said,

    May 17, 2010 at 9:52 pm


    Sounds good.


    I think that’s fair. Particularly as I think Eliot’s “unconsciousness” probably had to do more with preparation in the “art” of craft leading to professional (*shiver*) instincts, whereas yes, I’m talking about a form of knowledge it is extremely difficult — but not impossible — for us to access, that has nothing to do with craft and everything to do with the psyche and the necessary emotional element in poetry (the only intersection with craft here is on the question of “authenticity,” which animists and classicalists would likely define differently). So “subconscious” is the better (and right) term. Thanks.


  26. May 17, 2010 at 10:17 pm


    We all miss your blog! Even Silliman! Get back to it, will’ya?


  27. May 17, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Having just read this entire thread (whew), I think I must come down on the side of Seth, whose defense of the eclectic streams of American tradition are misappropriated and largely misapprehended by Tom. If I had known, by the way, how hostile someone was to WCW’s poetry, I would certainly not have been so cavalier-sounding about the good doctor’s poetry. I think an equally vicious and gratuitous catechistic dressing-down could be done with almost any blurb, even those which adorn the dustwrappers of your favorite poet named [ fill in the blank ].

  28. thomasbrady said,

    May 18, 2010 at 10:39 am


    You are a conscious, new Modern historical expressionist, and therefore I’m afraid you can have no opinion of ‘the unconscious mind’ v. ‘the subconscious mind.’

    So much depends upon these labels that I’m going to have to ask everyone to produce their pedigree chart before they speak.


    I only know you from your WCW worship on some blog, and I believe you gave Seth his money’s worth on Gallaher’s, though I think you were beaten down at last, as all are by Seth, I reckon. I have never been guilty of WCW worship, or even of WCW liking, and I pity those who feel obligated in this direction. If there is neither pleasure nor learning in something, I tend to reject it somewhat quickly.

    I am not being aleatory now, but hope to fall into it soon, as my conscious mind is becoming impatient with myself.

    Good morning, gentlemen!

    Where’s my coffee and my Allen Tate?


  29. May 18, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    What we like is often more difficult to define than what we despise. I despise the work of Jorie Graham, but how much effort should one expend in vanquishing what one despises? Isn’t ignoring what one wishes would simply go away a better strategy than ennobling it with serious criticism? Pretending that bad work simply doesn’t exist may be the best antidote.

    On the other hand, if the chorus of praise becomes deafening, one is moved to shriek, even in the cathedral. Logan has my encouragement–which of course he doesn’t need–to attack everyone, if it pleases him. It may be a flaw in my nature, but I find negative criticism more entertaining by far than panegyric. One of my early idols was Dwight MacDonald, a master of mean.

  30. thomasbrady said,

    May 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm


    I imagine someone will play a trick on me and put on my grave: “He Loved The Red Wheel Barrow by William Carlos Williams.”

    I suppose that would serve me right.

    Meanwhile, I’ll tell everyone how much I despise him, if only because I find him over-praised. It isn’t him. It’s all that praise.

    Saying what you don’t like is easier, for speech itself was born in want and need and sorrow, in the desire to say what’s wrong.

    This is why poets resent critics so much—because the poets know in their hearts that they are the critics.


  31. May 18, 2010 at 8:13 pm


    “Gary, you are a conscious, new Modern historical expressionist, and therefore I’m afraid you can have no opinion of ‘the unconscious mind’ v. ‘the subconscious mind.’”

    Aw, Jeez, Tom…you know I’m just a poor, drunk Taoist Nature poet.


    • thomasbrady said,

      May 19, 2010 at 1:56 am


      You are the man of the hour!

      “The subconscious” for “the unconscious” and you saved the day!

      By the way, the red-hot Boston Lowells used you out of the bullpen! Your first appearance in the Scarriet Baseball Poetry League! OK, you faced one batter and you walked him, but we can’t expect big things right away. You’re on a pitching staff with Oliver Wendel Holmes, Henry Adams, and Virginia Woolf!


    • thomasbrady said,

      May 20, 2010 at 1:38 pm


      I wrote this in the train this morning, one stop. I really have to believe this qualifies as a Taoist Nature poem. (But I wasn’t drunk.)

      Trying Verse

      These pigeons are better than we
      When they fly around the city
      While we sit in our trains and cars
      Looking down, competitive, complex,
      Trying verse to contemplate our marriage,
      Thinking of something to say.
      One pigeon, wearing wings, came around
      The corner of the train depot just now,
      Silent and swift: surprise.


  32. notevensuperficial said,

    May 19, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I cannot think of a poet in the modern age who will be remembered (or let’s say be important or famous) only for the poetry.

    Not one? What else will Cavafy be remembered for? (Possibly the letters?) Celan? (Excepting The Meridian.) Akhmatova? Is there a picture of Roberto Juarroz?

    It’s a fair point, though – why limit it to “the modern age”? Haven’t most poets tried their hands at writing a variety of things – pieces interesting more or less to the degree that their poems were -?

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 19, 2010 at 10:34 am

      Anonymous folk ballads sung and handed down through the oral tradition tend to have a much longer shelf life than poetry celebrated in its day.

      I think it’s got to be sung or be a story to last. I know that’s the sort of ultimate corniness that no serious poet wants to hear. “Story or song, son!” But unfortunately—or not—it seems to be true.

      Now things may change, with the Academy, which is strong and which is determined that more nuanced things last.

      I wish I could stand 500 years from now and see. It would be very interesting. Everyone singing, “Old Joe Clark,” ‘The Waste Land’ utterly forgotten.

  33. May 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

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