Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity (in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anyway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!


He better.

Behrle’s hosting a Boston poetry marathon reading with 88 poets reading for 8 minutes this weekend.  88 poets for 8 minutes.  Cute.

“36 poets will read over the course of 10 hours.  Behrle will sit through it all.” —The Boston Phoenix July 30,2010

What torture.

Jim, tell us if you get laid, at least.

We wanna know.


I was trekking nostalgically through Youtube, as I occasionally do, last weekend and Cat, you made me cry three times.   “Tea for the Tillerman” was one of those iconic records I heard in my adolescence and your intense, yet gentle singing style really knocked me out.  I think it was my sister’s record, not mine, but I grew to really like it.

Now that I have a young son and daughter, there’s an added emotion for me to the songs “Father and Son” and “Wild World” (the latter is about a girlfriend, but it could almost be about a daughter) and as soon as I heard these two songs: instant tears.

It’s a good thing my kids didn’t see me blubbering at the computer—I don’t know what they would have thought.  My sentimental music tastes freak them out enough, already.

Then I decided to watch Yusuf Islam, a much older Cat Stevens, play “Father and Son” to a gathering of Muslims, and that, too, made me cry.  Maybe because he was older and singing the same song, maybe because he was singing it to a different people who were enjoying the same song in the same way, but it really got to me.

Cat Stevens, you bastard.

But, unfortunately, the pedant in me would like to say a little more.  The lyrics of “Wild World” and “Father and  Son” have parental, moral, and sentimental strains which are the basis of all art—and all religion.

Every impulse in both art and religion has some kind of parental or authoritative guidance, and this is inescapable.

The poet who has no morals is still a moral lesson.  Art is trapped in morality; to be a poet is to be a priest: from this there is no escape.

In the lyrics to “Wild World,” the narration quickly moves from the painful Petrarchan trope  of the indifferent beloved (she’s leaving him) to tender, paternal guidance and concern; the poet escapes from the hell of disappointment into the heaven of care.  Amor’s resentments and regrets are quickly transformed into a kind of selfless agape.

Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you wanna start something new
And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’
Baby, I’m grievin’
But if you wanna leave, take good care
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
and I’ll always remember you like a child, girl

You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do
And it’s breakin’ my heart in two
Because I never wanna see you sad, girl
Don’t be a bad girl
But if you wanna leave, take good care
Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there
But just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware

Imagine if such passionate advice-giving took this form:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This little poem seems a radically different address; and yet, would equals speak to each other like this?   No.   If your friend turned to you and said, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow…” you would laugh in his face. The power, if it has any, of this poem is in its moral guidance.  There is an implicit authoritative voice (religious, if not poetic) speaking to a child or devotee or follower:  here is my wisdom.

The “Wheel Barrow” wisdom is not the wisdom of “Wild World:” be a good girl, beware of a__holes, but rather: be attentive, don’t forget mere things are important, too.

Even though “Wild World” and “Wheel Barrow” seem to be very different, they are not.  Both rely on:  the advice of some kind of authority. They are both highly moral.


The Garish School?  Yes, Matisse was a laughingstock—until Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased this painting in 1905.

Everyone knows the ‘story’ of modern painting: how brave ‘experimenters’ kept pushing the envelope of color and primitivism and hedonism, how the inevitable ‘movements’ kept moving forward, forward, forward in spite of bourgeois close-mindedness, in spite of Nazi and Soviet Realist opposition, how the cutting-edge manifestos and theories manifested themselves brilliantly in strange and original masterpieces of the new—which to this day only scientific geniuses and the very hip can comprehend.

We all know this ‘story.”  It’s been repeated so often that to question the basic premise of this story would be heresy.

Here’s the theme of the story:

1. Modern art had to develop the way it did, step by step, movement by movement.

2. Moral representation was replaced by painterly hedonism.

This is the all-important theme, and this theme, as much as modern art itself, is part of us, and, by now, even ‘the uncool’ have bought into its coolness, and the rich, based on painting price tags, have, of course, bought it, too.   The iconography has worn us down, simply on account of its being seen enough times, and the icons of modern art have become our vision and our story—whether we are pleased by it, or not.

It is almost as if we have been invaded by the iconography of modern art, and just by having been seen enough, the invaders have won, for this is all iconography asks:

‘I came, I was seen, I conquered.’

Modern art has been converted into coin—the blockbuster prices of Van Goghs and Picassos and Pollocks and Warhols, if nothing else, convince even the doubters: something is here, something is going on.   But what is going on?  What really is ‘the story?’  Is it the one we are told, over and over again?

Shakespeare is performed all the time, all over the world, and no one doubts that this is so because Shakespeare is good: there is depth and truth in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s work doesn’t cost a pretty penny; there is no coin to own.  Shakespeare belongs to the people’s hearts and minds; Shakespeare doesn’t belong to iconography in the crude sense of an invading army: the visuals of its armor gleaming in the sun.  The poetry of Shakespeare does not belong to our eyes, but to our souls.  By its very nature, Shakespeare’s poetry cannot be owned by one museum or one man, the way a modern painting, worth millions, can.

Art that we cherish as a society belongs to everyone.

Genius belongs to everyone.

Manifesto belongs to some.

Some art belongs only to a few, the few who can manipulate it and buy it.  But art that interests the few, and belongs to the few: is it really art?  Or is it agenda?  Manifesto?   How do we know what art is really worth?  Does great art really have ‘worth’ in the material sense?

Can we put a price on The Mona Lisa? If DaVinci’s painting went on the market tomorrow and were ‘sold’ for a certain price,  how much would that ‘price’ be based, not on the work itself, but on its iconographic status, on its status as a recognized icon? And how could its ‘worth as art’ possibly be separated from its status as icon?

Wouldn’t the price fetched by The Mona Lisa dwarf what a Pollock or a Warhol goes for these days?  But The Mona Lisa, as well as most old art treasures, would never go on sale, and therefore the ‘art market’ isn’t a real market—it’s very artificial and weighed towards those newer works that do not belong in the category of The Mona Lisa, a painting that will never be ‘for sale.’

It’s not that Andy Warhol could not compete with The Mona Lisa, but that no market can ever tell us what art is worth, (or not worth) to a society.  Art either belongs to society, the way Shakespeare does, or it does not; the rest is merely iconography and market manipulation: artworks facilely converted to coin by private enterprise.

One could certainly invest in works of anti-art, because anti-art does not truly belong to the people—which makes it a great deal for an investor who wants to own something that no ordinary person could, or would, own.   Money, circulated coin, belongs to people, even poor people, occasionally, but the yacht and the painting can only uniquely belong to the wealthy in their desire to display what they own.

Is modern painting anti-art? Is this the very reason why certain elites love it?

Andre Derain is a forgotten modern master, a Fauvist right there with Matisse, better known and more important than Matisse in his day.  Why is this garish colorist and primitivist painter, as garish as Matisse, forgotten by everyone today?  Because Derain doesn’t fit ‘the story.’ The Nazis loved him, and wined and dined him in Germany, in 1941.

We can’t spoil a good story, now can we?  The Nazis supposedly hated modern art.  That’s one of the pillars of ‘the story.’

The modern painters ostensibly stood for freedom, not for reaction, and this ‘story’ must be upheld, even if it makes no sense, even if freedom is only being used as a word, and art is not really free, anyway.  The important thing is how ‘the story’ plays on the street.  That’s the important thing: how it plays.

Another modern master who is never included in ‘the story’ of modern painting is James Whistler.  Why?  Because he, too, doesn’t fit ‘the story.’   Whistler is at the absolute forefront of modern painting, and yet artists like Manet and Monet and Matisse completely overshadow him when modern painting is discussed.

Look at Whistler’s modern art creds:  1. Exhibited at the Salon des Refuses with other icons of modern art, such as Manet.  2. Was involved in a highly public libel case with art critic John Ruskin in which Whistler’s “Art for Art Sake” ideals were put on trial against Ruskin’s Victorian morality.  3.  Was one of the first painters to use color and painterly interest for its own sake.  4.  Was an extremely well-known,  talented, and controversial painter.

Why, then, doesn’t Whistler ‘fit the story?’   How often do you hear  Whistler’s name when the history of Modern Painting is outlined?



Because Whistler was his own artist.  Whistler belonged to no movement and Whistler obeyed no manifesto.  He didn’t paint one way, and therefore did not fit into any pedantic directionalism.

Whistler’s painting (1874) which John Ruskin hated.  Whistler worked in many styles.

We tend to assume that every Modernist art movement and manifesto is progressive, when the truth is, Modernist art movements and manifestos are retrograde and reactionary, whirlpools of slick pedantry which kill individualism, common sense, and art.




whacked to pulp
between slits
in cinder
blocks laid
in gravel.
A path
to these
porch steps,
their chipped
blue paint
–the rain-
stained wood
cracked through.

“Path” is a work that aims at perfection in all dimensions. As an act of description – [Joseph] Massey is principally a descriptive poet – the attention to the minutest detail is immediately evident. Although the title offers one focus, the two sentences that make up the poem’s body present the literal path of the occasion from two very different vantages, the first being the weeds that are not allowed through the cinder blocks, the second being the stairs at its end.

Ron Silliman on Silliman’s blog, July 26, 2010

Yea, it’s been a long, hot summer.   Not all of us are thinking clearly.   Still, we need to nip this madness in the bud.  Whatever else we may say about it, there is nothing precise or “detailed” about “Path” by Joseph Massey.  I know the humidity, combined with too much coffee, can make us a little crazy, but that’s no excuse for slipshod criticism.   American Letters is not a joke, or it is, or it is not, depending, but we think Ron Silliman is serious in what he says, and this may be cause for alarm, since summer heat can sometimes be dangerous.  We just want to make sure Ron is alright.

Ron writes: “the attention to the minutest detail is immediately evident.”

Evident to whom?

Whose “attention?”

“minutest?”  More minute than what?

Silliman uses a comparative, “minutest,” and yet “weeds” are not minute. They are quite visible.  Further, the poet, young Mr. Massey, does not distinguish one weed from another, nor does Mr. Massey examine a weed with any sort of attentive eye to detail at all.  How and why does Silliman believe that Mr. Massey earns the plaudit: “attention to the minutest detail?”  There is none.  No “attention to minute details” at all.  “Weeds,” “path” “steps” and “chipped blue paint” (oh pardon me!  “chipped/blue paint”) are observed, but there is nothing in the poem in which “attention to the minutest detail” is even faintly approached.  Where is Mr. Massey’s microscope?  Never mind the microscope, where is Mr. Massey’s knowledge of weeds?  There are many kinds of weeds, but “Path” is so bereft of detailed observation that no “weed” is identified.

I think we can all agree that Criticism, at the very least, should be accurate, even in the middle of a hot, humid summer, a hot, humid summer choked with “weeds.”

Careful, Ron, that you don’t trip on that “path.”


Byron and the Romantics (including Poe) were witches to the Moderns

“Today, many scholars see the witchcraft trials as a product of tensions in and around Salem. There was a strong divide between the town of Salem, a prosperous port town, and the village of Salem, which was a poorer farming town. The village of Salem formed its own congregation, and it was divided bitterly over the choice of minister, but eventually selected Samuel Parris, who was the choice of one prominent Salem clan, the Putnams. It was Parris’s daughter Betty and her cousin who first displayed the symptoms that were quickly labeled the result of witchcraft, and the girls were soon joined by one of the Putnam daughters, Ann. The Putnams were enthusiastic witch hunters, with Ann’s mother, also named Ann, accusing fellow townspeople as well. In general, people who were accused of witchcraft fell into two categories. Some were easy targets — they were old, social misfits, or generally unpopular. Others were upstanding citizens but their accusers had something to gain, either property or status, from the downfall of the people they accused.”  —The Writer’s Almanac, July 19, 2010

The ignorance and hostility towards the Romantics (also Poe) by Eliot and Pound are well-known, but the European Modernists’ allies in America, the influential Fugitive cum reactionary Southern Agrarians cum New Critics cum Engle/Tate/Ransom/Winters writing program industry pioneers had a royal disdain for the Romantics (sometimes with a soft spot for Wordsworth) as well.

In an essay published in 1938, poet, critic, and respected academic John Crowe Ransom, asserted that Byron, born exactly 100 years before Ransom, was an obsolete writer, as Mr. Crowe quoted Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”

“Thou,” “Ocean” in caps, and the exclamation point all prove Byron is a witch and cannot be trusted.


“A passage of Byron’s if sprung upon an unsuspecting modern would be immediately felt as ‘dating;’ it would be felt as something that did very well for those dark ages before the modern mind achieved its own disintegration and perfected its faculties serially.” 

Ransom could have quoted any number of Byron passages which sound strikingly modern, even today, if by ‘modern’ we mean, ‘good’ (hopefully it means something positive to Ransom) but here’s what Ransom in his essay selects for praise instead, from modern (and friendAllen Tate (beloved poet, read the world over):

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms; and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in his rotten skiff.

Allen Tate (d. 1979)

Stand back, Byron!  Here comes Allen Tate’s “rotten skiff!”

Byron, savaged by skiff-lover Ransom for being “dated,” was born 100 years before John Crowe Ransom—and 110 years before little Allen Tate.

Let’s put things in perspective: William Carlos Williams was born 127 years ago—and counting.

WC Williams is 27 % older to us now than Byron was to Ransom then.

Roll, thou Modernist Clique and your toadies, roll!

In any textbook or commentary plucked at random, one can read how the Romantics were rebels against the Enlightenment, how the Romantics rejected “ornament” and embraced “nature” and “common speech.”   

But this universal rhetoric is a lie, for Byron, Shelley, and Keats were not “nature poets.”  They did not embrace “plain speech.”  (Certainly not the “plain speech” of Allen Tate or the “nature” of John Crowe (Southern Agrarian) Ransom or the “plain idiocy” of William Carlos Williams and his friend Ezra Pound.)  The best of the Romantics saw Letters as a unity and they embraced the best of what had been written and thought before; Byron, Shelley and Keats, even when they sailed in “skiffs,” were not Manifesto-ists, defining themselves by how much they hated a previous age (Pope, for instance, who wrote some pretty nice nature poems).

But let us see…

who were the scholars who defined the Romantics as Manifesto-ists, as ‘nature poets,’ who rejected the past…

Ahh, it was the Modernists, who had everything to gain by playing by different rules—so they could concentrate study on themselves and the importance of their modernism—a trend which owed its existence to ignoring all those vices of the past, ignoring those evil Romantics.


Instead of defining “The School of Quietude,” which would seem to include every legitimate work of literature in the universe, it might be simpler to define its opposite:  The Silliman Claque.

1. Sprang from the School of Pound, that ill-defined sack of half-baked platitudes which happily expands the definition of poetry to include kitchen sinks (as long as the kitchen sinks are modern—or disguised as Greek artifacts).  The Pound method is something like this:  Burn all the metronomes which happen to be at hand.  (Sing and dance around the flames.  Fornicate, even, while the metronomes burn.)  Write whatever comes into your head for about an hour.   Call what you’ve written a “canto.”  Write more of these.  Call the work “The Cantos.”   You will be called either a presumptuous ass—or a genius.  Add a manifesto or two for those who believe you are a genius.  Get yourself accused of treason.  In the hospital for the criminally insane, entertain a few young poets, the ones who lack admission into writing workshops now popping up around the country.  Be yourself, but flatter these brave, ambitious visitors enough to win a few disciples.  Your legacy is assured.

2.  Push regionalism.  This has the advantage of defining your Claque in the absence of any actual common sense pertaining to it. Pretend a mimeograph closet, or a tree, or a bridge, in California is radically different from one in Massachusetts.

3.  Close-reading.   See deeper than Wordsworth, go beyond the Transcendentalists, bring more powerful microscopes than even the New Critics feigned using, as you penetrate, with your powerful acumen, in a magic spell of gravitas, every speck in (or even around and above) the poem.  Never be pedantic enough. Always strive for more pedantry and close-reading wizardry.  Show how a comma in Creeley will out-live Hamlet, or a colon in Olsen is more important than the “Paradise Lost,”or that a hypen in Duncan is more significant than all the odes of Keats (though hint at such wonders—do not assert them; make poetry an adventure, not a competition—none of Arnold’s Touchstones, only touch the wonders of the subtle and the small, in new and strange and remarkable ways…)  For example, from Creeley.  If you would escape the dread “School of Quietude,” contemplate the following until a bowel movement comes.  Think of it as more than mere poetry-analysis; think of it as a way to know the zen of your mind and your body, as everything waits for you:

It the moon did not . . .
no, if you did not
I wouldn’t either, but
what would I not

do, what prevention, what
thing so quickly stopped.
That is love yesterday
or tomorrow, not

now. . . .


My soul I despise.
For where does it dwell?
In the jungle of sighs.
I cannot realize
The sound of the bell.
The bell’s tolling note
Musically floats
Askance of me,
In a nebulous key,
In sunset and sunrise,
Daily, strange, nightly, wise.
My soul I despise.
For where does it dwell?
Oh, it does well
In the jungle of sighs,
In the sad hearted jungle of sighs.

She is good and she is true.
Now what do I do?
Her soul I despise,
For my soul stays,
In my days upon days,
In the jungle of sighs.
With a language of sighs
I do what I do.
With a language of sighs
I pretend to be true,
In a language of sighs
Which breathes and swells
And hums over valleys
And liquid dells,
And laughs to discover
Ignorance all over,
Fortuitous disorder,
And the undaunted valleys
And the broken bells.
My speech it dwells
With languishing lies
In the jungle of sighs.

And I grope and I gasp—
I pray it will pass,
The fever that darkens,
The pleasure that hearkens
Too fast—too fast!
But I know forever the fever will last,
(Yes I know forever the fever will last)
I know this as well
As I know my own past.
Oh, the bell! The bell!
What can it tell?
That I could know faster,
That I could see well!
That I might love it!
That music to master,
That knowledge might touch it!
Old, old bell!
Oh, melodious bell,
Do you know where I dwell?
With the senseless throng.
Then send me a song
Past these hideous trees,
Traveling long!
Longer than starting, hesitating breezes,
Longer than life’s uncovered diseases.
I lie at my ease—at my ease!
I breathe the scent which lingers in trees,
That will not relent—
Oh torturous spell!
Inside my tent
I drink at my ease,
I find the disease
My conscience and cry.
But my soul is outside,
My soul I despise,
For with it I dwell
Away from the bell
In the jungle of sighs.


And we can start to make a definitive list:

1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening -Frost
2. Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Thomas
3. Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -Eliot
4. The Road Not Taken  -Frost
5. Daddy  -Plath
6. This Be The Verse  -Larkin
7. Dirge Without Music  -Millay
8. When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Kinnell
9. Nostalgia -Billy Collins
10. Musee des Beaux Arts  -Auden
11. The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
12. Her Kind -Sexton
13. Those Winter Sundays  -Robert Hayden
14. Resume  -Dorothy Parker
15. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Jarrell
16. Bored  -Margaret Atwood
17. Wild Geese  -Mary Oliver
18. Madman’s Song  -Elinor Wylie
19. That’s Not Butter  -Reb Livingston
20. The Wellspring  -Sharon Olds
21. Question  -May Swenson
22. Patterns  -Amy Lowell
23. A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
24. Sailing To Byzantium  -Yeats
25. How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin

These 25 poems are similar to what most poets today would bring to the table if pressed to name well-known poems, or poems they know, or personally like.

I don’t think anyone would argue that most, if not all, of these poems are exceptional, pleasing to read, and fit right into ‘The School of Quietude,’ if anyone really understands this particular category at all.

Could we find 25 poems that do not fit ‘The School of  Quietude,’ and would these poems be to anyone’s liking?  Would they find favor with the mass, or, would they be either pretentious, dull experiments, too obscure, or, further, if they were found to be pleasing, fit for inclusion in ‘The School of Quietude’ list?

We have a dilemma, I think.

Abramson’s intentions are good: let’s base the whole matter in actual poems.

However, if we look at our list above, aren’t we simply left with a bunch of anthology pieces?  Is this the result?  A nice little poetry anthology of favorite poems?

Perhaps it is, and all the theorists can go hang.

But poetry that lives for tomorrow, poetry that exists outside the mere appreciation of anthology pieces, where is it, then?  It seems to be this territory is vast and it falls to Silliman-ism by default, if we use Abramson’s strategy.

Either ‘The School of Quietude” is a mirage, or we need a different way of assessing it.



Edgar Poe’s take on quietude in this passage from late 1847 is almost identical with Ron Silliman’s general use of the term:

 “It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity–that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the North American Review, is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.” And this is, indeed, the one thing they should be permitted to enjoy, if only upon the Christian principle of give and take.”   —Poe (reviewing Hawthorne)

Silliman would never agree with Poe’s idea that “the popular mind most keenly feels the original” since Silliman’s avant-garde poetry stars are anything but popular.  But Silliman would appreciate Poe’s whack at the “cultivated old clergymen” and their “repose.”

Poe qualified his original praise of Hawthorne (1842) when he reviewed the Salem author again, in 1847.  It’s pretty obvious why Poe downgrades Hawthorne from an imaginative original in 1842 to a merely fanciful one in 1847:  Hawthorne was getting in too deep with the Transcendentalists.  He was renting from Mr. EmersonPoe pleads with Hawthorne at the end of his piece: mend [your] pen, [Mr. Hawthorne!] get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of “The Dial,” and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of “The North American Review.” [!!]

Should Poe have changed his mind on Hawthorne just because Hawthorne had become friends with Emerson?  The Transcendalists hurt Poe into Criticism, so I say: why not?   The genius of Poe can love while it is hating, and it’s a pleasure to observe how Poe’s mind siezes on new insights as it ruefully revises in the 1847 article.

It might be worthwhile to take a peek at what Poe has to say regarding this “Quietude” business, since Poe did in fact originate the designation Silliman has for some time leaned on, and Seth Abramson is currently taking great pains to wrestle to the ground.

According to Poe, the novelty of a work is multi-dimensional, but quietude is simpler—either a work calms or agitates.  But it is possible, Poe contends, for a work to have both “repose” and originality, and this is what he praised in Hawthorne.

Originality in fiction, according to Poe, needs to aim at a middle ground above the merely “peculiar,” and below that “metaphysical originality”—reserved for science; the ‘higher’ type of originality will merely irritate the reader of fiction—who is looking for pleasure, not instruction.

As usual, Poe divides poetry from truth.  He also makes a case for literary talent as a quality worthy by itself and in itself and to be demonstrated, first, in a “rhymed composition which can be perused in under an hour” and owes its power to “rhythm,” and, secondly, in a work of short fiction naturally unshackled by that which contributes to beauty—the artificiality of rhythm.

Most moderns consider this all too neat and tidy, of course, but Poe’s course has the advantage of leaving a wider field for invention, creativity, energy, experiment and effort—precisely because he establishes the ‘neat and tidy’ in the beginning, and gets it out of the way.  No matter how rough-edged and complex we consider ourselves, the ‘neat and tidy’ eventually comes around to bite us.  Our metaphysics longs for smoothness at last. 

For instance, look at Seth Abramson.  He doesn’t begin where Poe begins.  Abramson stakes out his analysis this way: he chops the last 100 years of poetry into two tropes: transcendent (language as signifier) and immanent (language as signified).  But why should a writer ever consistenly divide himself, or limit himself, thus, especially since language cannot be interesting unless it do both at once, pretty much all the time?  An artificial division such as this one by Abramson cannot stand, without making a mockery of poetry, and if poetry over the last 100 years is a mockery in many respects, the public having totally deserted it, so much greater the urgency to bring sanity back all clean and such, and easy to demonstrate and see. (“get a bottle of visible ink“—Poe to Hawthorne in 1847)

Poe asks only for originality in a rhymed composition (unless you want to go for the short fiction).  He doesn’t care if it is transcendent or immanent in its use of language, or what manifesto or tribe, or agenda, or school, or what theory attend it.  Rhyme, and if you can’t rhyme, you’re doing it wrong.  You start with one or two simple rules, the simpler the better, and let genius make all the rules after that.


Don’t see this movie.  It’s 148 minutes long and threatens to be enjoyable for about 12 of those minutes.  Don’t waste your time.

Ron Silliman, who tends to go ga-ga over dreck-poetry, loved this movie.   What is it about ‘found poem’ LANGUAGE poetry, modernist, post-avants which makes them pee their pants over homages? 

Found Poem, Homage, Homage, Found Poem.     Gee, I wonder?

Here’s Ron:

“These levels of complexity are layered even further with homages – blatant ones – to a slew of other films. The fight sans gravity may remind you of The Matrix not because the antagonists are bouncing off the walls, but because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wearing the same clothes as Hugo Weaving in that earlier movie (lacking only the mirror shades). Marion Cotillard, who won her Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf…” 

Thanks, Ron.

(By the way, did anyone see that Edith Piaf film? It was awful.)

Luther Blissett (writing on Silliman’s blog) nails it:

“Really? The movie I saw built up for nearly an hour what seemed like it was going to be a psychedelic dream sequence, full of non-Euclidian geometry and Borgesian labyrinths.

Instead, what we got was a pastiche of bad adventure movies — but without the wit of classic Bond or *Ocean’s Eleven*. Even the adventure sequences themselves played more like video games than imaginatively choreographed struggles.

Not a single character had the motivation to make me care about his or her journey. Ariadne seems instantly addicted to the infinite possibilities of dream architecture — except that the dreams fail to display any imagination. And even as she’s aware that DiCaptrio is a selfish sociopath, she tries to help him. Cobb’s journey lacks anything like the emotional weight of Odysseus’ nostos; he was a self-obsessed husband and father, and there’s no sign by the end that he’ll be any better. And the tycoon’s daddy issues are like a silly re-write of *Citizen Kane*. Never mind that these issues are manufactured by others — his father really *was* disappointed in him, and his future actions are simply brainwashed determinism.

I sort of admire the sheer audacity of pastiching this many films in one. It’s like *Fantastic Voyage* without any sense that the author understands neuroscience or cognitive psychology. It’s like *Superfly* or any other “last big score” film that tries to justify sociopathic behavior as a means to an end equation: I will kill you all just to get home.

All of which would have been all right if it was at all a visually stimulating movie. It’s about dreams, for crying out loud, and as Salon’s movie critic wrote, it seems as if Nolan’s dreams are scripted by Michael Bay.”

Yea, this is definitely not an ‘actor’s movie,’ and the story is predictable as hell.  

Don’t expect another Memento. 

As another reviewer (Telegraph, U.K.) put it:

“It’s like watching a Bond film in which you know that Bond’s life is never at risk. Actually make that two Bond films because Inception’s running time is an agonising 148 minutes. That’s 148 minutes in which nothing is ever at stake.”




My oblivion won, my sleep wins and my death
Will lose to oblivion too,
So a blank page to leave words
Is more interesting to me than you,
Unless you can be a record
To what I think and do,
A partner to defeat oblivion
Before it smooths out eternally the false and true.

Some, their life materially feeble,
Project their dreams onto gods,
Trading their individuality for authority
And the mindless rituals of their religion,
Converting their smashed selves into happy pawns
Who dream an afterlife with feasts draped on heavenly lawns,
And who can blame them for wanting simple perfection?

But I have huge desires, The New Yorker, the internet and TV.
The simple rabble will never understand
The intricacy of what I say.
They cannot possibly know my character
In their rice boats covered in mist,
Or in their cold tents surrounded by hot sands stretching far away.



A few years ago, San Francisco Renaissance poet Landis Everson was yanked out of obscurity in California by an ambitious young poet and editor from Cambridge, MA: Ben Mazer.  Ben’s not an intellectual, but he’s ambitious and he’s got a nose for the scene and writes poems as good as anyone alive today and he’s also a musician and eccentric and personally intense;  he’ll write the most famous poets in the world and get them to blurb his work.  Thanks to Ben Mazer, who writes for the defunct-while-it-waits-for-more-funding Fulcrum, Landis Everson of Jack Spicer’s circle came back to us for awhile.

I knew a gay Boston poet, Antonio Giarraputo, who went to Harvard with Frank O’ Hara, knew Robin Blaser, when Blaser worked at Harvard’s Widener library and Jack Spicer, when Spicer worked at the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and John Wieners from around town, because Tony moved in his circles.  Tony had lots of stories about them.

I rented a room in his Coolidge Corner, rare-book-african-art stuffed apartment during the last decade of his life and made some tapes of his reminicences, which I have somewhere.  Tony spoke his mind.  To John Ciardi, when John said he was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know Italian!”  Tony did, and several other languages fluently besides; he also sang opera, and once John Wieners told Tony he wasn’t wanted by his circle by writing Giarraputo a note: “Renaissance Man, go home!”  Tony was too blunt, too classical, too ‘old school,’ for the ‘revolutionaries’ of the San Francisco Renaissance.   Tony was put off by O’ Hara cruising the men’s room at Widener.  Tony was a proud Harvard graduate, a Fulbright scholar, and he fought in World War II, at D-day.

When I knew Tony, in the last years of his life, he was an overweight diabetic who lolled about watching his favorite TV show, “All in the Family,” passionately hating on Archie Bunker (Tony was a die-hard Democrat) the tough Irishman who represented the bullies who picked on Tony when he was a sensitive kid of Sicilian immigrants from the slums with a bricklayer father who hated the fact his son wrote poetry.  Tony used to boast that he was a bigot: “I hate everybody.”  He was a erudite bigot: he could tell you what was wrong with the Florentines, and what was wrong with the Venetians.  But Tony walked the walk.  He wasn’t a professor, or a poet who won prizes; his career was teaching black kids in the Boston public schools, and he started local poetry clubs to which every street urchin was welcome: and they all came, and eventually the mayor of Boston proclaimed an Antonio Giarraputo Day.

I wasn’t wild about Tony’s poetry in English; most of it was too ‘modern-zen’ for my taste: he returned the favor by ridiculing my love of Poe.  I once came upon some exquisite lyrics in Italian (metrical, rhymed) he wrote.  “Tony, these are beautiful!”  Tony just waved his hand, “Oh, those…”

It was rare that Tony went to a party, but when he did, he was the life of it.  He was sad most of all in his last days because he mourned how the gay lifestyle was unkind to the old and the ugly.  He did not remember O’Hara, Blaser, Spicer, and Wieners kindly; personally he couldn’t stand them.  I can still hear the way he spat out their names.  Did Tony give into bitterness and self-pity to a certain extent?  He was traumatized by his war experience; I didn’t know him when he was young, so it’s hard to say where he was coming from.  Maybe he was jealous.  I don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why Tony is forgotten and no poem of his can be found on the web, except the one below, which I happen to have, and am keeping alive.

Tony always meant to write a book on Cambridge and Boston’s poetry bohemia of the 40s and 50s.  Tony, however, was a gregarious lyric poet, not a meticulous scholar, and he burned-out teaching public school in Roxbury, where they “pelt you with rocks and bury you,” as Tony would say. The book was never written (though there must be notes somewhere) and a lot of history was lost forever.   Tony predicted that when he died, the “vultures will descend.”   They did, scooping up his rare books and art collection and his personal papers.  I had moved out, by then, and sadly remember how his writing life just disappeared.

Epitaph for an Unknown Soldier
(St. Lo, Normandy, 7/17/1944)

First of the fallen angels I have known,
I came upon you in obscurity
and found your arms embracing all the sky
as life escaped you.  In the midst of dull,
engulfing battle, thunder and black flame,
this peace is terrible.  Your eyes are glacial lakes;
your lips are dry: you are still beautiful.

I twist my helmeted neck to meet your gaze,
but stand dark, unreflected in those lakes
now frozen by an age which has no end.
I bow and hover, too afraid to touch,
unable to breathe life on wrinkling lips,
to see them tremble–and return to pain.
I bend to drink your death, and numbly wish
to halve my useless living and to share
what I have too much of, if you have none.

Antonio Alfredo Giarraputo


“When Ron complains about formalism, he disses the thought and technical tricks as boring and weak. That’s fine—most ambitious stabs at rationality fail.
But when he tries to compliment a poem filled with non sequiturs and irrational metaphors and puerile little turns, he waxes about its glorious invention.
–Curtis Faville, on Silliman’s blog, Norma Cole post, July 16
Je ne suis pas censé aimer ceci

The children will explain this
(we adults have given up)
you try if you like
praise for your friends
never ends, never ends
fellow: traveler
starfish foot, my summer house
what the children imagined it would be
it was

what is sheer magic for one
is precious & pretentious to another
you blubbered before
the drunk driver killer
you are not
onto something new

Oh Paris, London
Oh well

Your work is being eclipsed by my life

—Thomas Brady

: Well

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

A starfish sits on your foot, an effect of fog in London
or Paris

There is a thin film of dust on the leaves. We
eat this dust

Life is eclipsed by work, an island of fire in the
burning sea, consolation of desire

The invisibilities would live inside the well
dropping their arms

“with such grace” untimely in our summer house

“As for sleep”

the space refuses rationalization

—Norma Cole

This is a poem that will, I think, resist attempts at explication. Action is minimal: telling stories, eating dust, listening (an action so slight, at least from outward appearance, we might miss it entirely). There are the great foreign cities of Westciv, but there is an island also, a very isolate thing, related here to work & to desire. And there are moments of sheer magic: the starfish that sits on your foot, the creatures that cannot be seen but which we know (as only children can) live inside the well. There is an entire infrastructure invoked by that noun, as by island in the previous couplet, and neither have anything to do with London / or Paris. Tho they might with summer house. When I read that final line, I hear it both in a mathematical & a psychological sense.

This poem took my breath away when I first read it. Its tone reflects total confidence with the language. Cole knows how ungainly, how proselike, that truncated or Paris looks. In fact, that is precisely what she is after, something to offset the starfish magic, to lend the poem its dreamlike quality (hence, many lines later, sleep). That distance, could we but capture it, would indeed be the difference between the real & the remembered, between shitting pearls & islands of desire. Do I hear Olson here?

Offshore, by islands hidden the blood
jewels & miracles

The very first words of The Maximus Poems come very close to “: Well,” perhaps more so in spirit than as actual reference. It is only at the end of Cole’s poem that I realize both why the colon in the title as well as the absent article. This is not The Well, which it might have become in any lesser hands. Rather, the world of memory & desire, of stories, even of work, lead inevitably to it, an object or trope from childhood endowed with the powers of youthful imagination. That is why (& how) life, work & stories are entangled here, and why sleep is posed as “untimely” – this is about dream, not rest.

This is one of those poems that lets you know its writer could do / can do anything. I stand in front of it much the way I did the first time I saw the great Jackson Pollock No. 1 at the National Art Gallery in DC, tears streaming down my face just to realize that somebody could do this, that I live in a world where such grace is possible. Against all odds. Against tent cities in Haiti, fighting in Darfur or the valleys of Afghanistan, the poisoning of the entire Gulf of Mexico & the utter prevarication that inundates us the instant we turn on “the news.”

I read poetry, have read poetry my entire adult life, since I was 16 years old, precisely because from time to time I will come across something like this, which throws everything I know into relief. And I wonder if I am alone in “getting” just what a great poem this is. I hope not.

Going backward from “: Well” toward the beginning of this book, it seems apparent that Cole had been building up to such utter clarity for several years, more than I had recognized back when I lived in San Francisco & would see Norma regularly at readings & other literary occasions. And reading the remainder of Where Shadows Will, it’s evident that she has gone forward in her mastery. She has had health problems in recent years, but if there has been any diminution in her powers as an artist, it sure is not evident in this book. It makes me hungry to know what comes next.

—Ron Silliman



Stephen Burt’s ill-tempered reply to David Biespiel’s call for poets to participate more in life outside the ivory tower is a stark example of how far our faith in poetry has fallen.

Burt is about as far away from Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” as one can get:

“Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general, [Burt writes] to solve public problems risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”

Can you imagine Shelley saying that we “risk underemphasizing the power of facts…”?

But, never mind Shelley, why would anyone indulge in such tepid rhetoric, the limpness of which is downright embarrassing?

First of all, Burt’s reasoning is hopelessly circular: what about the “risk” of “overemphasizing facts” and thus “underemphasizing poetry?”

Secondly, since when did poetry imply a hatred of facts? Why is Burt preaching this red herring?

If Burt is saying not all poets are good enough to bring their sensibilities as poets into other areas of life, he is certainly making a very good case for himself. The art of rhetoric seems to elude him.

A clue to Burt’s wretched pessimism might be gleaned if we examine this again: “Writers who overemphasize the power of poetry in particular, or the power of rhetoric in general…”

Unlike the soaring Shelley, Burt is unable to reconcile “poetry in particular” with “rhetoric in general.”

It’s really no wonder, then, that Burt finally takes Biespiel’s essay personally, and Burt defends himself thus:

“I have made telephone calls or knocked on doors for at least one Democrat in nearly every election (including Congressional midterms and the St. Paul, Minnesota, city council) since 2000.  That volunteer work led me to write poems I would not otherwise have written.  But those poems did not do much to unite America, elect progressive officials, or fight climate change; I hope that they will last because some people like them (though the odds are long).”

Burt can find millions of examples (not just his own) in which “poems” do not “fight climate change.”

But isn’t this precisely what Biespiel is saying:  that we ought to bring poetry in all its aspects more into contact with public life?  Burt is attempting to refute Biespiel’s solution by merely pointing out the problem—which suggests the solution!

Burt assumes writing a poem requires a very narrow set of skills that has very little to do with solving larger problems of life, but this is the sort of thinking which naturally takes root in an ivory tower.  By taking this view, professor Burt, successor to Helen Vendler, can forever ‘prove’ that poetry has little to do with life, and with a certain smug satisfaction, tell Biespiel to be on his way.

We know the qualities shared by some poets and outstanding citizens: wit, imagination, curiosity, boldness, vision, ingenuity, and erudition.  What is wrong with wanting to spread these qualities around?   If Burt is correct, and none of these qualites in the poet pertain anywhere else, we probably ought to ignore Biespiel and, at the same time, stop reading poems.

Biespiel’s exhortation may be quixotic, but only if we submit to a very limited and limiting notion of poetry.   We could, in response to Biespiel’s suggestion—which may come down to: how do we make poetry respectable in the public square again—smile, nod, and agree in a helpless sort of way, but Burt’s bitter attack: where does that come from?  Is it because Burt is saying, in essence, “How dare you try and make poetry respectable!  That’s not its purpose!”    Does Burt really feel there are no Shellean qualites shared by poets and exceptional human beings?   How can one argue, as Burt does, against such an assertion, when Shelley has almost singlehandedly made it a truism?  Does Burt believe that a poet must have a certain cramped, dwarfish nature in order to write poems, and is Burt really making, with eyes wide open, this sweeping and negative assertion against Biespiel’s hopeful, simple and general good?

I hope not.  But it sure looks that way.


These guys wanna know.  We all wanna know.

PGillespie has thrown down the gauntlet in reply to Ron Silliman’s latest “School of Quietude” essay on Silliman’s blog. (July 7, 2010)

We hope PGillespie will pardon us as we quote his comment responding to Mr. Silliman in full:

–“Well into the 1950s (and in some realms perhaps even today), men were simply the unmarked case of people….”

Beginning with this paragraph, you associate the unmarked case with bigots, racists, sexists and the like. You could have been looking for familiar examples but it seems as likely that you were trying to cast the idea of the “unmarked case” in as negative a light as possible. That’s called framing your argument and it makes it very hard for someone to disagree without being associated with the ignorance of bigots, racists, sexists, etc… Don’t believe me? Silliman drives home the comparison just in case anyone missed it:

–“…the phenomenon is invisible precisely to those who in turn are defined by it, just as the exclusionary maleness of “men” was once invisible to guys.”

In other words, those who disagree with you are like those men who are blissfully ignorant of their own prejudices.

–“One might argue that these poets just weren’t terribly good, but these were all Pulitzer winning poets…”

*If* they were awarded the Pulitzer prize *then* they must have been good poets? The unstated assumption is that the Pulitzer prize is like mercury in a thermometer. It doesn’t lie. But such an assumption borders on cultivated naivety. It’s more likely that A.) not only were these poets ‘not terribly good’ but that B.) those who awarded the Pulitzer Prize were not terribly good arbiters of poetry.

In fact, when reading posts like these, I get the impression that you have more in common with the unmarked case than those you’ve labeled. You seem blissfully unaware of your own proclivities and biases.

–“All of which suggests to me that the School of Quietude would benefit from acknowledging its own existence…”

Because, according to the manner in which you have framed the argument, those who disagree with you are like the historical racists and patriarchal sexists. And yet it’s equally possible that SOQ is an arbitrary and vacuous label. If you can compare those who don’t accept the SOQ label to racists and sexists, then there’s no reason why your own assertions shouldn’t be compared to the compulsions of a phrenologist – a poet’s phrenologist – tapping at the crania of dessicated poems and poets, measuring, weighing, cataloging, taxonomizing, all the while insisting that their remains confirm your expectations. Perhaps we should eventually expect a fine body of work entitled: The Anatomy and Physiology of Poetic Schools in General, and of Poets in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Poets and Readers, by the configuration of their Lexicon

–“If a term like School of Quietude isn’t to their liking, I’d suggest that they come up with one of their own.”

Or perhaps they would argue against the necessity for such a term?

Define your terms, Ron, and do it honestly. I google the term ‘School of Quietude’ and I read post after post after essay of confusion, uncertainty and muddiness. Wikipedia doesn’t bother defining it.

Define the term. Be explicit. Be clear. Be forthright.

Who’s in. Who’s out.

If you, yourself, can’t clearly and objectively define your own terminology (such that others can clearly and concisely argue for or against your phrenology), then there’s no reason why anyone should take you seriously. The scrap heap of history’s cemetery is wide and accommodating – especially to poets and their critics.

PGillespie’s right to ask for more definition, so we can get “School of Quietude” on Wiki already.  

It’s pretty simple: name the “School of Quietude” poets and then we’ll know where we stand.

Who is cool—and who is not?

This whole matter reminds me of the 1984 Conference in Alabama, when Gerald Stern asked Charles Bernstein to “name names” of the so-called “Official Verse Culture.”   Bernstein was trying to blame poets on holding back the advance of poetry when other panelists were blaming the critics.   Bernstein was enjoying a maverick status at the conference, claiming that poetry and criticism were basically the same thing, but when confronted by Stern re: specifics on “The Official Verse Culture,” Bernstein could only sputter forth a single name: the long dead, revolutionary modernist poet-critic, T.S. Eliot.

So much for the crimes of “Official Verse Culture.”

Is “The School of Quietude” just another blue unicorn—like “Official Verse Culture?”


Seth Abramson was corrected by notevensuperficial when he (Seth) wrote: “The greatest divide in poetry, by far, of the past hundred years has been between poets who treat language as a locus for imminent meaning and those who treat it as a locus for transcendent meaning.”

Surely Seth meant immanence, not imminence.   Immanence is the opposite of transcendence, right?

Not so fast.

In the sense that Seth uses immanence, a pun is divine.

The Latin root of immanence is ‘within.’    This, of course, implies a duality: within/without.   Immanence itself implies transcendence.  That’s only the first of many difficulites which Seth has brought upon himself.

In theological terms, immanence features a mere earthly object glowing with transcendent radiance; in philosophical terms, immanence means self-defined, but neither of these meanings works in Mr. Abramson’s schema.

The issue here is a metaphysical conundrum for those who enjoy that sort of thing, or for those who waste their philosophy on philosophy, or for those post-avants who occasionaly fool themselves into thinking they know what they are talking about.

For the religious, immanence does imply a holy radiance like the halo around Christ’s head, because, theologically, it is God shining within and through the created world, shining outward from the center of the world, as it were, as if the divine were here and now, and we experience the divine here and now, and yet, it can also be interpreted as ‘within,’ as in the sense of being inside and not radiating its divinity, but hidden— just to put it in stark theological terms.

But Seth was positing two uses of language:

1)  we read a word as referring to something else: red, meaning ‘the color red’ and thus the word red is transcendent, pointing to its referent, the actual color red.

2)  we read ‘red’ as a pun on ‘read’ or we use ‘red’ to rhyme with ‘bed,’ and thus ‘the word itself’ has an immanence in the sense that is has a significance in itself.

However, ‘red’ used as a rhyme or as a pun has no interiority.  The word in this case is not significant in itself, but significant as itself, as mere ‘surface effect’ —so we could say imminence is more correct, for imminent implies here it is about to happen, which is closer to what Seth actually means than interiority (which is the Latin root of immanence).

The pun is imminent.  And I am afraid.



‘Ah far be it,’ said he, ‘dear dame, for me
to hinder soul from her desired rest,
Or hold sad life in long captivity

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Modern poetry began when poetry became imprisoning, when its function as charming story-telling fell into the cul de sac of self-conscious pedantry.

Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” was meant, in Pope’s words, “to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but their own.”   Pope’s poem “was communicated with the air of a secret” but “soon found its way into the world,” as an “imperfect copy” was “offered to a bookseller.”

Once upon a time, a poem was a secret that had to get out, and booksellers were only too happy to comply. 

Pedantry, however, banned the delicious secrets sprung entirely from the machinations of the sexes, and turned poetry from rare and extravagant gossip desired by booksellers, into the universal and moral platitudes of the learned—no wonder the public for poetry became disenchanted and gave up.   Byron said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”   Alas, the Romantic age is over. In our modern age it takes a poet fifty years to become  famous and this is because the poet no longer has secrets the impetuous crowd clamors for—unless a Joyce, a Ginsberg or a Rushdie arrive with a book banned by self-appointed moral guardians.  Banned books, of course, are not necessarily good.  Pope and Byron gave the ladies great art.

But pedantry, telling us poetry ought to be this and ought to be that, that it was that and now must be this,  that it was this and can never be this again, that it is some mysterious project that has to do with wisdom;—pedantry, by doing this, has perverted poetry from its true purpose and made it an artificial product of academia.

It began with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which, in the spirit of its time, contains enchanting story and rhyme, but which the pedants insisted was excellent due to Wordsworth’s dull moralizing.  The old wisdom, which said, ‘never forget delight’ was forgotten, and a new wisdom put in its place, in which scholars became guardians of trends, movements, and schools, and poetry became a school-subject with a history of change and discovery of itself, for itself and in itself, as if poetry were a science and the world at once, an ever-evolving world scientifically elaborated—instead of a source of charm, teaching in a manner apart from learning, per se.

Now pedantry covers all.  First, it was decided that poetry is really an intimate lyric of personal reflection.  Dull, sentimental and tedious examples of this, such as “Tintern Abbey”— and “The Prelude” offered by old Wordsworth, England’s poet laureate, were put in the very foreground of the canon, eclipsing even Pope and Byron (too charming and playful compared to the professor-worthy and serious Wordsworth) and thus every wag who dallies with the muse turns Wordsworth at last—believing every personal reflection made is memorable.  Even so-called modern poets, priding themselves on the fierce pedantry of trends and schools and the ‘new,’ were going up and down and up and down old Wordsworth Hill, as we see in the following by Modernist Robert Penn Warren:

At night, in the dark room, not able to sleep, you
May think of the red eyes of fire that
Are winking from blackness.  You may,
As I once did, rise up and go from the house.  But,
When I got out, the moon had emerged from cloud, and I
entered the lake.  Swam miles out,
Toward moonset.  Montionless,
Awash, metaphysically undone in that silvered and
Unbreathing medium, and beyond
Prayer or desire, saw
The moon, slow, swag down, like an old woman’s belly.

Getting back to the house, I gave the now-dark lawn a wide berth.

At night the rattlers come out from rock-fall.
They lie on the damp grass for coolness.  


What I remember, but do not
Know what it means


All I can do is offer my testimony.

–Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989)  from Rattlesnake Country

This is over 100 years after Wordsworth, and written by a poet-critic explicitly embracing the modernist  intoxication of new! new! new! but this is…pure…Wordsworth.  The pedants managed to cover up an obvious truth: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope were the seeds of Romanticism, and Wordsworth, Arnold, and TS Eliot  the sticks and stones of  Modernism.  Wordsworth took Romanticism and turned it into Victorianism; in other words, Mr. W. took joy and turned it into a moral.  Byron and Shelley and Keats were closer to Pope was than what Wordsworth became.  Byron, Shelley and Keats were not textbook-nature poets, nor did they hammer down with pedantry what poetry could be into dull lessons of Dutch-realism.

Byron was already ‘post-modern,’ and not all anxious and morbid about it:

To turn,—and to return;—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can’t well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I’ll take another when I’m next at leisure.

—Byron (1788-1824)   from Beppo

Byron can be annoying, but at least he’s never pedantic.

We think of Ashbery as a post-modern wit, but in fact Ashbery’s academic audience (he doesn’t really have a public one) admires him for anxious pedantry like this: 

You can’t say it that way any more
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing
And rest.


Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths


—John Ashbery (1927-)  from And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

The idea of escaping from old forms, old sentiments, old ways of communicating is as old as poetry itself.  Even the Father of Moral Modernism, Wordsworth, could playfully ponder the prison:

I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures:
Oh gentle muses!  Let me tell
But half of what to him befel
For sure he met with strange adventures.


The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travelers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.


And thus to Betty’s questions, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.’
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.

Wordsworth (1770-1850)  from The Idiot Boy

Moderns are besotted with the dull sticks-and-stones-ism of Wordsworth.  But even Wordsworth couldn’t have foreseen the yoke of pedantry poor poetry now bends under; we saw Ashbery pedantically alluding to Rousseau; here Elizabeth Bishop feels obligated to mention Baudelaire in a manner that might be charming to modern academics, but would probably leave Pope’s “ladies with a sense of humor” cold.

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Asorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

—Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)  from The Bight

The Wordsworth-style aside, Bishop almost had me going until she pedantically name-dropped.  She can be playfully attentive.  Her sly Baudelaire/marimba musicreference is sure to win three out of four readers, today, (just those relatively few who bother to read Bishop) but that’s only because we live in a pedantic prison—and, sadly, we know it.


Take the official Scarriet Poetry test and find out!

1.  You have graduated from, or are in, an MFA program.

2.  You mostly read poems written by your teachers and friends.

3.  You mostly read poems by moderns and post-moderns.

4.  You have published at least two favorable reviews of work by your friends.

5.  You have published in some form the work of at least two of your friends.

6.  You have organized readings for at least two of your friends.

7.  A friend has published a favorable review of your work.

8.  Your work has been published by a friend.

9.  A friend has organized a reading for you.

10.  Your friends are mostly poets.

11.  You never argue about poetry.

12.  You only have friends in your poetry circles.

13.  You have little interest in quibbling about the definitions of poetry.

14.  You admit to strangers pretty quickly that you are a poet.

15.  You consider yourself a poetry critic.

16.  You wish poetry conversations were more civil.

17.  You prefer John Ashbery to Walt Whitman.

18..  You prefer Charles Olson to Edna Millay.

19.  You prefer Ezra Pound to Edgar Poe.

20.  You prefer Geoffrey Hill to Percy Shelley.

21.  You prefer Tony Hoagland to Rae Armantrout.

22.  You prefer Allen Ginsberg to Robert Creeley.

23.  You prefer Charles Bernstein to Charles Bukowski.

24.  You prefer Jorie Graham to William Carlos Williams.

25.  You prefer Jennifer Moxley to Billy Collins.

26.  You prefer Walt Whitman to Alexander Pope.

27.  You prefer Robert Frost to Wallace Stevens.

28.  You prefer Emily Dickinson to William Wordsworth.

29.  You prefer Dante to Robert Lowell.

30.  You prefer Pound’s Cantos to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

31.  You prefer Li Po to Leslie Scalapino.

32.  You prefer 20th century translations to Tennyson.

33.  You read more poetry than prose.

34.  You read more poetry criticism than poetry.

35.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the poems.

36.  Your favorite part of ‘Poetry’ magazine tends to be the commentary.

37.  The first thing you do when you see a new anthology is to check to see which poets have been published in it.

38.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it matters to you how many poems/pages are allotted to each poet—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

39.  When you look at any poetry anthology, it  matters to you which poets have been left out/included—whether or not the poets are living or dead.

40.  You are naturally more interested in living poets than dead ones.

41.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1900.

42.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1960.

43.  You generally think poetry as an art has improved since 1990.

44.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems.

45.  Over half of the books on your nightstand right now are books of poems by living poets.

46.  You would rather read a new, self-published book by an unknown poet than a book of reviews by William Logan.

47.  You would rather read a new book by an unknown poet published by an establishment press than a book of reviews by William Logan.

48.  You would rather read essays by Stephen Burt than by William Logan.

49.  You prefer the prose of Walter Benjamin to the prose of Coleridge.

50.  You would rather read essays by Robert Hass than letters of Byron.

51.  You would rather read an anthology of contemporary female poets than a book on Shakespeare’s London.

52.  You would rather read the latest book of poems by Peter Gizzi than a recently published anthology of essays by New Critics.

53.  You would never read a poetry textbook if you didn’t have to.

54.  You prefer Charles Simic to Philip Larkin.

55.  You would rather read a book of poems by Sharon Olds than an anthology of WW I poets.

56.  You would rather go to a poetry reading than attend a movie.

57.  Everything else being equal, you would always choose a poet for a lover.

58.  Your poems never rhyme.

59.  You teach/have taught in the Humanities.

60.  You teach/have taught  poetry, exclusively.

61.  You administer poetry contests.

62.  You enter poetry contests.

63.   You have won a poetry contest.

64.  You have won a major award.

65.  You have published in mainstream publications.

66.  You’ve met Franz Wright on a blog.

67.  You think Jim Behrle is hot.

68.  You have a private method or trick to writing poems.

69.  Ron Silliman has good taste in poetry.

70.  You read ‘Poets and Writers’ from cover-to-cover every month.

71.  You read books of poems from cover-to-cover in one sitting.

72.  You are proficient in at least one other language beside your native one.

73.   You have a degree other than in English or Creative Writing.

74.   Jorie Graham deserves her prestigious Chair at Harvard.

75.  Poetry is ambassador to the world’s peoples.

76.  You have a secret crush on Alan Corlde.

77.  Metaphor is the essence of poetry.

78.  You want to sit at Daniel Nester’s knee and have him tell you the ways of the world.

79.  You understand what the post-avants are talking about.

80.   Flarf is really cool.

81.  Conceptualism knocks your socks off.

82.  Poets turn you on.

83.  You want desperately to have a wild affair with a poet.

84.  Your secret goal is to teach poetry.

85.  When you are published in a magazine you buy copies for friends.

86.  At least one of your parents is an artist.

87.  It really bugs you that poetry has become prose.

88.  Marjorie Perloff is the bomb.

89.  Poetry is a way to explore political identity.

90.  Poetry is the best way to communicate the deepest truths.

91.  Humor for a select audience is poetry’s most important function today.

92.  The bottom line is that poetry helps nerds get laid.

93.  Poetry contributes to the dignity of the human race.

94.  Slam poetry is a great antidote to bookworm-ism.

95.  Your favorite poetry event is a slam poetry fest.

96.  You are wary that you might be a ‘school of quietude’ poet.

97.  You dig Language Poetry.

98.  You look for trends in poetry, but just so you can be informed.

99.  You write songs/play songs/are in a band.

100.  Poetry breaks your heart every day.


“The greatest divide in poetry, by far, of the past hundred years has been between poets who treat language as a locus for imminent meaning and those who treat it as a locus for transcendent meaning.”  –Seth Abramson from Why You’re Wrong (Yet Again): A Note to Silliman.

I Hope You’re Not Right: A Note to Abramson

The ratio of imminent and transcendent words depends on the rhetorical purpose.

Serious prose will feature the latter.

Punning, or humor, will feature the former.

Poetry, aiming at its particular effect, will display itself splendidly in-between.

The pun, as we all know, humorously calls attention to the imminent nature of words.

Pope’s line, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense,” glimpses the ideal combination of  imminent and transcendent, long identified with poetry.

Now, if contemporary poetry is defined by a split between imminence and transcendence, as you assert in your powerful rebuttal to Ron Silliman’s ‘Quietude/Neophobe’ 7/7/10 blog-post, all the worse for contemporary poetry, torn asunder by strict followers of imminence on one hand, and transcendence on the other—since the art of poetry depends on a skillful combining of the two.

A post-avant serious treatment of humor, and likewise, the post-avant humorous treatment of the serious, default to serious and humorous, respectively—they are merely the two categories stated above: the transcendent and the imminent, and here may be why poetry has lost its way: the ideal combination in actual practice has been cast aside for pedantic and inartistic reasons—which have taken on a life of their own, in a self-fulfilling, downward spiral.


Pssst!  Don’t worry, folks.  Your days of ‘quietude’ are almost over. 

You have a new name: the Neophobes.   Which means… you can join society again! and make all the noise you want! at baseball games, for instance, where people yell for a base hit like they have since the Civil War!  Neophobes are everywhere!  Filling concert halls, going for walks, taking the bus, driving cars, watching movies, dining out, preparing meals at home, making romance and making love, protesting, legislating, talking, writing, enjoying all the routines that people do.

Free at last!  You poor, beleaguered members of the ‘school of quietude!’  Join the millions of neophobes all around the world.  Welcome home! 

Just stay away from those avant-garde poets, though.  

They’re special and they have work to do.

They have a planet to change.

They are new!

They’re winning their Pulitzer Prizes in Poetry and they want to be left alone!  It takes a lot of work to be new, looking for that next ‘found poem’ and writing those westernized haiku!  They are changing the world.  Give them room.

Ab ovo, ab hinc.



Hey, Nick Lantz, can I have a little poetry with that philosophy?

It isn’t even poetry, yet it wants to be philosophy.

Or, should we say, since it isn’t poetry, philosophy is a very fine thing for it to be?

Poetry has been traditionally tangible:  language (a means of communicating) crystallized into art (a means made tangible).

Philosophy is an inquiry, not an art, and yet today it seems the esteemed poets want to be philosophers.

Exceptional critics have always been philosophers on poetry, but in our day it seems critics wait for their philosophical crumbs to fall from the tables of the poets.

Philosophy has shifted from critic to poet as art has fled, ashamed.   In the halls of learning, inquiry has always been respected, while art, the finished product, is viewed with suspicion.  Endless inquiry is the breath of philosophy; the art-piece chokes it.  Wearied by endless speculation, philosophical minds rest awhile in the finite couch of art.  Contemporary poetry, however, has been denuded of its finitude, its art; the poets cast about as philosophers, and the critics, the poets’ fawning philosophically-minded shadows, welcome them as brethren in a shifty enterprise of shadows, bereft of both disinterested inquiry and entertaining art.

As an example (there are so many from which to choose) here’s a very recent “poetry review” from Raintaxi.  It begins with the usual slavering worship of prizes:

Nick Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House are both phenomenal books—the former is the 2009 Bakeless Prize-winner for poetry, the latter the 2010 Felix Pollack Prize-winner. Let’s acknowledge that any writer who won just one of those contests would be worth attention; to win both prizes, and to have the books come out basically simultaneously, is the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run not just in his first at-bat, but off his first pitch.

In the next paragraph, the reviewer continues to skip the book under review—using his own eyes and ears to impress upon his readers what lies within—and, instead, anxiously consults the latest zeitgeist manifesto:

Lantz’s work could, like a good swath of American poetry presently published, be filed under the heading of Elliptical Poetry. In Stephen Burt’s defining ur-text, a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes in the Boston Review, he writes “Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” It may be a testament to Burt’s acuity that this exact tension is something of a default setting in contemporary American poetry.

To “manifest a person” echoes Wordsworth’s “men speaking to men” and Aristotle telling us comedy manifests “low” and tragedy “high” persons.   Aristotle’s attempt at category was overturned by the poet Shakespeare and Wordsworth’s philosophy was betrayed by his own poetry.   Literature as action imitating actions of persons has been a philosophical truism for a very long time.  Burt’s “ur-text” is nothing more than a fad splashing in a shallow puddle.

The attempt by poetry critics to venture into the realm of metaphysics  often leaves them looking like William Wordsworth in yellow garters: rather ridiculous.  The “person” as used by Burt and our Raintaxi reviewer is a philosophical inquiry, a “person” in Burt’s words that we “try” to “manifest.”  There is no agreement on how the “person” might be manifested or who the “person” might be, or the reason for the “manifestation;” Burt is not asserting any artistic philosophy or critical dicta; he is merely following the lead of a trend in which “gizmo” is easing off in favor of “personhood” or some such nonsense, as if real poets stick their fingers in the wind to find out whether it is blowing more ‘gizmo’ or more ‘personhood.’  The poetry of Byron and the poetry of Wordsworth reflects the radically different nature of those men.  A critic who lumped Wordsworth and Byron as ‘Romantics’ is blind to their work as poets—and persons.

But neither Byron nor Wordsworth fancied themselves as philosophers first, and poets, second.  A certain philosophical outlook will always inform coherent poetry, but this is not the same thing as philosophy masking itself as incoherent poetry—with poetry critics abetting the cheat.

Here in the next two paragraphs of the review, we are quickly sucked into the quicksand of purely philosophical inquiry:

How this tension plays out in Lantz’s work is not necessarily as “verbal gizmos,” however, and certainly something’s being undermined, but it’s not necessarily “the coherence of speaking selves.” From “Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window” in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know: “Vermeer’s light fools you.” From “The Marian Apparitions” in The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House: “One Thing is not really / the other no matter how badly I wish / it were so.” From “Either Or,” in We Don’t Know: “Naming / everything is a way / of naming nothing.” What’s being undermined is the stability of things—the suitability of the light in a Vermeer to truly illuminate; whether or not the name given to a man will be enough for the man to live within; how things, fundamentally, cannot be what we wish they were.

It’s not for nothing that Lightning begins with a poem titled “The Ship of Theseus,” (which your memory or a Google-search will let you know has to do with the paradox of an object’s objectness if its constituent parts have been replaced); also not for nothing is the fact that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous speech delineating the four types of knowledge (known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown knowns). In both books, in their own ways (and in complementary ways when considered together), Lantz’s poetry examines conceptions of knowing, with Lightning focused on the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood and We Don’t Know focused on the inconsistencies and difficulties inherent in the person trying to do the understanding.

These are legitimate philosophical concerns, “naming everything,” “one thing is not really the other, “”the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood,” “conceptions of knowing,” but one gets the idea that the philosophy is completely eclipsing the poetry.

The Raintaxi reviewer divides his review into three parts.  Part one is called ‘The Things Themselves,’ as if this were some kind of philosophical essay rather than a poetry review.  Then follows part two, “And Who Speaks” where we at last get a glance at the poetry itself:

That last bit, more than anything else, needs attention: the person trying to do the understanding. This is what makes putting Lantz’s work among other Elliptical writers dicey, because Lantz’s poetry is among the most self-less work in contemporary American poetry. To some degree, kudos is in order for that fact—it’s far too common and simple for contemporary poetry to be built upon the shivery, unstable rock of the “I,” and Lantz avoids that tricky trap. However, in its place is a startling lack of narrator, of poetic self. This lack wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that Lantz’s poetry seems, at times, to be trying to make aspects of narrative cohere; for instance, a dead brother haunts both collections; a single father plays a large role; whatever consistent speaker is present is married (a wife is mentioned in both books); and religion, specifically Christianity, plays heavily throughout all of this, as do paintings and myth.

Read just about any contemporary poet working the seam between lyric, narrative, and surrealism —C.D. Wright, Bob Hicok, or Tony Hoagland, for example—and you can’t help but have an understanding of that writer’s writerly self after a handful of poems (or, if the narrator is someone other than the writer, that’s made clear). Lantz, however, seems to be trying to work the magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid from an absence of self. This particular trick is made manifest through Lantz’s use of “you” in his poems, which somehow ends up being massively troubling. For instance, “Thinking Makes it So,” from We Don’t Know We Don’t Know:

Less matter with more art, I say. Don’t
retell the story of your brother and his
seven dogs minus one. How did it go?

The reader’s thrust weirdly into this poem, having to somehow tell a story s/he likely doesn’t know. Stranger still, halfway through the poem come the lines

You first told me this story while we were looking down
into a volcanic crater
filled with a lake so blue the sky was ashamed of itself.

The construction here—the fact that Lantz would make the poem contingent on a “you” to tell/complete the story instead of a “you” who is the listener, the spoken-to—is both a cool shift and a difficult one.

“The magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid” is such a painfully robotic phrase; such language betrays a critic who have given up his autonomy,  trading independence for a mouthing of the trendy cliches of the day.   The quotes from the poetry itself are not food for the poetry critic or the reader of poetry, but pearls to embellish the critic’s fragmented admiration of fragmented philosophizing.

The New Critic Cleanth Brooks published an essay in the Kenyon Review in 1951 and enthusiastically quoted Lionel Trilling’s praise for writers who are “intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.”   Now this is the sort of phrase than an exacting critic would sneer at and not let pass, but it makes moderns stand up and cheer:  ‘Yea.  No florid romanticism for us.  We’re modern.’  Once this phrase—quoted admiringly in 1951 by a poetry critic—is accepted, however, what’s left, really, to distinguish the poet from the philosopher?  True, in the next paragraph Cleanth Brooks raises the idea of poetic form: “tensions,” “symbolic development,” “ironies and their resolutions.”  But this is too little, too late, even in 1951.   Symbolic development? Ironies and their resolutions?  Whatever, pal. I’m intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.

Part three is entitled “How” but this is perhaps a misprint and it was meant to be “And how!”   Since we wish to be fair and print the review in its entirety, here is the final part of the review, also quoted in full:

Lantz offers, despite this unstable and destabilizing “you,” startling imagery and fantastic conjunctions in both books. Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know‘s very first poem, “Ancient Theories”:

Why not believe that the eye throws its own light,
that seeing illuminates
the world?
On the moon,
astronaut David Scott drops a hammer and a falcon feather,
and we learn nothing
we didn’t already know.

Beyond the wordplay and strange conjunctions, however, Lantz is working magic in terms of structure and form. In both books he utilizes an intriguing form, as in Lightning’s “Judith & Holoferenes”:

The brain goes on living, or so they say, for a few
seconds after the head is
severed. The tent stays
shut. The sword rusts down to a feather of iron.

I don’t know if there’s a name for this: the lines essentially form triplets, starting at the left margin, tabbing in one, and then tabbing in severely (the third tabbed-in line varies). The form—malleable, shifting, recognizable—is welcome and interesting, and allows Lantz both the flexibility to whirl through his poetry and dramatize breaks while simultaneously offering the reader the comforts of classicism and formality.

We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is sectioned according to the Rumsfeldian quartet (though the second section, Known Unknowns, is made entirely of the long poem “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”), and a good chunk of the poems feature either a Rumsfeld quotation at their start or, more startling, a passage from Pliny the Elder. Side-by-side, Pliny’s observations about the natural world and how it’s apprehended form a pleasing dialogue with Rumsfeld’s lines about the tricky linguistic horrors of the war in Iraq (though Lantz’s politics don’t color the poetry; dogma is, in fact, absent, and, regardless of how one feels about the war, it’s impossible not to be a little mesmerized by Rumsfeld’s linguistics). Against these two questioning guides, eons apart, the poems probe at ideas of memory and knowledge, returning always to the slipperiness inherent in ever truly knowing anything. The opening lines of “List of Things We Know” acknowledge just how slippery is the slope:

40% of all
births are
10% of all
are births.

The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House is divided into three parts, structured almost as a trip—it starts with the Joyce Carol Oats-ian “Where You Are, Where You’ve Been, Where You’re Going,” heads through “What Land of Milk and Honey,” and ends with “Back to Earth Unharmed.” Rumsfeld and Pliny are gone; in their place are Bible stories, myths, paintings, national parks, newspaper headlines, films of Bigfoot, and Jimi Hendrix. In place of We Don’t Know’s long “Questioner,” there’s “The History of Fire,” a seven-page whopper that establishes that the reader and the world of the poems are within history (and, therefore, inherently obscured):

for hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Nick Lantz’s two debut books establish him as a major new poet, and his willingness to challenge form and narrative identity is laudable. Regardless of the occasional haunted feel of certain of his poems, both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.

The reviewer at times becomes besotted with his own glee, writing, “Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts.”

But mostly we find from the reviewer a deep respect for the philosophical inquiry of the poet’s work, even as the lines of the actual poems quoted are not very good.

Next to rhetoric like this

“both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.”

it would be gauche to ask, “Well, are the poems any good?”

I wonder what a philosopher would say?


“the world never wrote to me”  –Emily Dickinson

Had I been asked,
I would have done so much.
Had I been asked—
But I wasn’t, and yes, yes, I knew
I wasn’t going to be asked.
I was too much in love with you.

I knew when I saw you I wanted to go with you,
So I studied you for a sign
But I didn’t want you to see me staring,
Thinking, “Oh God! I wish he were mine!”
I kept my passion masked.
I waited to be asked.

I knew, early on, how much life requires
That we stifle our desires,
That, instead, we write poetry, or reach for a gun.
Despite the fact I fell in love with you
I kept my passion masked.
I waited to be asked.

I knew you would be perfect for me.
But I didn’t talk to you. I stared at TV.
I read books on every subject, looking for a sign
From the world that one day you would be mine.
I kept my passion masked.
I waited to be asked.

Oh! It was sublime! The hours I took, the time, the time,
I printed out footprints of purple and red sublime,
I constricted my breathing in the dark,
Watching love movie after love movie for a spark.
I kept my passion masked.
I waited to be asked.

Had I been asked, I would have taken off this mask.
I would have laughed, puffed, flicked an ash
And taken you to task
For making me wait a thousand years
To the tune of my own tears,
To the tune of so many tears.
I would have laughed and said, “Is that all it was?
A million years?” How absurd it would have seemed.
And then there would have been no tears.


A bird in the hand.jpg

It is a talking and a whispering,
That’s all poetry is, and a door
To where we talked as we walked along
Where we don’t walk along anymore.

It is feather warning feather of imminent death,
That’s all poetry is, for the door
Creaks and the cat
Will kill us before
We have taken a breath.

Speech, when its singing, is singing
Inside singing, not a precise command,
Not right or wrong,
Loving pretending a loving that is wending
Its way into syllables saying a seven-syllable-song.

Poetry is how beauty recognizes
Beauty truly, for foot and eye
Don’t speak, and what doesn’t speak
Doesn’t like to speak and when it finally speaks
Will likely lie.

Remember the trees where we walked along
Where we don’t walk along anymore?
No, you don’t, for I was writing a poem in my head.
I was a terrible bore.

We can’t see right from wrong
Unless another die.
Singing birds are hopping and flying
Darkly, cleverly avoiding dying.
Poetry has made a song,
But song made poetry, why?



Modern poetry triumphed in the schools due to the work of the Fugitive/New Critics like Warren, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, their textbooks (“Understanding Poetry”) their associates (Paul Engle, I.A. Richards, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell) and their associates in turn, but modern painting did modern poetry one better: abstract painting, as hateful to working class people as modern poetry, managed to triumph in the market. 


The answer lies not so much in aesthetics, but in the link between Modern Architecture and Modern Painting.   Modern painting’s manifesto-points merely aped those of Bauhaus architecture.  As Austrian architect Adolph Loos put it, “Ornament is a crime.”     The key was cement.   Building large modern buildings brought in corporate millions.  The commerical, practical element of modern architecture pulled modern painting along with it.   The modern architects befriended, and collected the work of, the modern painters.   The combination of pioneer-ism, coterie-ism, and huge ugly buildings drawing monumental amounts of corporate cash overwhelmed public taste and a new era of “art” was born.

The aesthetics of Modernism was created before the 20th century by artists like Turner, Whistler, Baudelaire and countless others in Africa, Asia; the Modernists themselves simply cashed in as opportunists in the wake of the new ‘cement-mixer’ architecture.

Even the most blunt, astute philistines who objected to modern painting couldn’t see the writing on the wall of the Seagrams Building (Philip Johnson, Mies Van der Rohe, designers).   No one could quite figure out modern painting’s success.

Al Capp missed, but came close, with these two quotes:

“Picasso was a sensible kid. He knew he couldn’t go any further—not along the  traditional path, where talent was measured by the classic standards of truth and beauty. So he beat out another path—a crazy, crooked one, leading nowhere; and despite the jeering of the art world, he kept at it, turning out more balmy and offensive stuff every year until the art world began wondering if it hadn’t made a mistake, if there wasn’t something secretly good in stuff that looked so bad. The answer, of course, is that they were right in the first place—and history will someday make that judgement. But I’m sure Picasso couldn’t care less. He’s loaded. And the world’s galleries are loaded with his fakery.”

“Some people dismiss abstract artists as frauds. I don’t. I think quite a few are perfectly sincere, as sincere as those mystics of another great society—those Romans, I mean, who read augurs and portents into a slit lamb’s intestines. The only difference is that our mystics splash splatter paint until they create something as distasteful as lamb’s intestines—and we read augurs and portents into their messes.”

The real answer lay in those skyscrapers designed by graduates of the Modernist Bauhaus school.

The principle was explained in Poe’s Purloined Letter; it was the size of those cement Bauhaus monstrosities, the sheer volume and obviousness of it all, which eluded the critics.


What Do You Mean, Then?

Our artist expects no elaborate thanks
For these canvases of obscure blanks;
Selected critics’ praise and money
Will make this colony’s honey.
If Rothko’s bank account does well,
Working folk who wish to understand can go to hell.
But I’m no working class swine,
I understand theosophy and wine,
And I can tell you what the painting means in the end:
Some artist was some critic’s was some banker’s friend.


In Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List (May 28, 2010) we put Merwin at no. 25 and said “the oil spill has moved Merwin way up the list.”

(For some strange reason, Franz Wright found Scarriet’s bit of insight infuriatingComment #13: “The words on Merwin actually take you to the level of obscenity and genuine evil.” –FW)  ???

Today, July 1, the New York Times wrote:

“Some will call his selection now safe, dull, uncontroversial, blah. And they’ll have a point. It is not the kind of choice that makes one leap up and blow hard into a vuvuzela.

But Mr. Merwin’s appointment is potentially inspired. He is an exacting nature poet, a fierce critic of the ecological damage humans have wrought. Helen Vendler, writing last year in The New York Review of Books, called him ‘the prophet of a denuded planet.’ With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico becoming more dread and apocalyptic by the hour, Mr. Merwin may be a poet we’ll need.”

OK, sure, a bit of a no-brainer, but just a little more proof that Scarriet’s got the zeitgeist covered, baby! 



There is a school in Iowa they call the Workshop, son,
It’s been the ruin of many a poet, and me, oh God, I’m one.
Please tell your baby sister, please tell your ma and pa,
You’ll lose your soul and your dignity in that school in Iowa.
You’ll walk into the Workshop, a lover of poetry,
When you come out the only thing you’ll know is vanity.
I stole other poets’ money, and no, it wasn’t a few,
I never read the other poets, and gave the prize to you.
I used to love the metrical, the rhyme and everything,
But now I write stuff that’s pretentious and cute.
Now I dream of fellowships, and prizes and degrees,
Before he died I heard him cry, “Just read my poems, please!”
He studied in the valley, he wept by mountains, wide,
But he didn’t schmooze in the hall with cunning by his side.
He was honest in his heart, he was honest in his soul,
But he forgot to write a blurb, so he fell into a hole.
I’ve got one foot in the contest, I’ve got one foot on the train,
I’m going back to Iowa, to sing this song again.
I’ve got one foot in the contest, I’ve got one foot on the train,
I’m going back to Iowa, where wolves live on the plain.

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