WHY DOES THE LEFT LOVE POUND?

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Because Pound was a leftist.

Pound was anti-U.S., anti-capitalist, and belonged to the Wordsworth/Thoreau/Emerson/Ruskin/William Morris tradition of small is beautiful: local materials, anti-usury, community-based economics, combined with a practical, factual, hard-headed, anti-Romantic aesthetics.  Pound’s disciple, Charles Olson, based his poetic career on a sprawling, grounded poem defending the small and local (Gloucester) against the big (development).

The whole issue is really quite simple, but has a certain historical complexity:  Just as the anti-Stalinist Left veered rightward, going from hard-headed liberals to sophisticated conservatives (neo-cons,) the anti-overpopulation Right veered leftward, going from conservation-minded Republicans to small-is-beautiful Democrats.

Small-is-beautiful became such a crucial component of Left thinking in the latter part of the 20th century, that Pound’s anti-capitalist, anti-U.S., small-is-beautiful fascism translates into a perfectly valid Left position.

The underlying philosophical issues support both the politics and the aesthetics; Pound’s modernism is essentially Nietzschean and dionysian: Platonism, Christianity, and Apollonian Romanticism are the enemies of Modernism, and the reason can essentially be found in one phrase: small is beautiful.

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CRAFT AND MADNESS

Does Madness or Sanity write Poetry?

We might asssume sanity is responsible for poetic craft, while madness provides the urgency and the vision.

Plato would disagree.  Plato makes no such distinction in his “Ion” for instance, or in his “Republic,” between craft and whatever else poetry might be.    Let us assume the craft of poetry is the poetry—Plato still condemns it.

Robert Lowell rhymed when he was not medicated; if rhyme is craft—and most agree it is—Lowell, the madman, was more attentive to craft.

Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is a tour de force of craft.  It was written by a madwoman.

Paul Engle once pointed out that as Keats matured, he rhymed less.

Aldous Huxley, like Paul Engle, was a practical man—and a terrible poet.  (Paul Engle:  Who needs the words of writers when you can have the  money of would-be writers?  Aldous Huxley:  Who needs hallucinatory verses when you have LSD?)

Mr. Huxley once viciously ridiculed the rhymes and rhythms of Poe’s versification.

Is rhyme, is verse, juvenile?  Childish?  Mad?

Most moderns believe so, even when they don’t come out and say it.

Are the Moderns correct?

Or, is rhyme and verse the height of poetic skill, sanity and craft?

Surely a poem’s content is the chief indicator of whether the poet is mad, or not, and likewise, content determines the sanity of the poet.

What we term craft merely trails after the content, a content which, if mad, cannot be cured by craft—the craft would merely heighten its effect.

Content may be pure, even invisible (i.e., merely wordy) but poetic craft implies poetic skill and poetic skill, if it really is poetic skill, can never be pure, or invisible.

Craft is what follows the invisible cause.  Craft is the only true thing the mad person has and this is often why madness and craft go together.

Madness lacks a true cause.  It has no reason.

Poetic craft cannot exist apart, cannot be perfected by itself, alone, and thus will always willingly attach itself to madness, causing Plato to censor in a way we, today, consider too wide.   Most moderns explicitly or tacitly believe poetry is a madness that is good.

But the moderns are unconsciously Platonic—in their rejection of rhyme.   Moderns are very unconscious when it comes to philosophy, so this is no surprise.  The earnest attempt to be avant garde at all costs has made many a modern intellectual an outright buffoon—and a frightful bore.

Florence King has a fascinating theory that Sylvia Plath suffered from ‘teacher’s pet’ syndrome and could not deal with the real world.

We see the seeds planted in the very fact that Plath’s mother was a university student of her father’s.

Plath’s final doom, according to King, was when she then became a teacher’s pet to her psychiatrist.

Sanity is able to see through bullshit (art).

Madness cannot.

PULP ARTIST RON SILLIMAN

Since Silliman’s blog disallowed reader commentary, the site has increasingly turned to popular art for its thrills.

Yea!

Well, sort of.

The eclectic Neo-Modernism which Silliman loves has been given a populist push, with movies leading the way.

But, alas, Silliman’s fave, neo-Modernism, is inherently so unpopular, that allowing it full scope, on stage, under the bright lights, only points up why the stuff is so unpopular in the first place.

September 8:  A lecture video (TED ideas worth spreading) on how machines are taking over the planet.  Yikes! 

Sept 9:  Bob Bowen, jazz bass player, has died.

September 10: Two short videos of Charles Olson reading from his work.  In case anyone doubted it: this guy is cra-zeee.

Sept 11: Dullest Interview Of All Time department: Video of Jennifer Dick talking to Cole Swensen: “In the 70s and 80s the Language poets, who had no content, purified the language of the tribe…”  “and how do you like living in Paris?”  “I spend as much time here as possible…(laughter)…”  “I think communication is really important…”

Sept 12: Video of Cara Benson’s poetry reading…guess you had to be there…

Sept 13:  Audio presentation: Theorist Bruce Boone describing the plot of 1955 Robert Aldrich directed, Mike Hammer film, Kiss Me Deadly. 

Sept 14:  Scalapino tribute headlines the links…

Sept 15:  John Lovitz, yea, the comedian, and Charles Bernstein: Lovitz is poorly cast in this video, and not funny at all; a joke that deserves 30 seconds goes on for 11 minutes.

Sept 16:  A positive review of the film Howl which I don’t trust, since Silliman wants to love it too badly.  Does anyone really think Howl is a good poem?

Sept 17:  An audio of Dawn Lundy Martin reading.

Sept 18:  A link to the novelist John Franzen’s publisher site.

Sept 19:  A TED talk by a Turkish fiction writer on how story-telling unites us all.

Sept 20:  Laurie Anderson: an audio link to 3 of her latest disco-inflected songs.

Sept 21: Philip Whalen headlines more links.

Sept 22:  Jill Johnston has died.  She wrote about her father Cyril, a bellfounder.

Sept 23:  An old (1999) NPR broadcast on puns in Country Music, with praise for the 1972 film, Payday, with Rip Torn.  Yee-haw!

Sept 24: Silliman writes on the the obscure, 50s French surrealist poet Hugh-Alain Dal.

Sept 25:  A radio interview with Neal Cassady’s son to promote the new film, Howl.

Sept 26:  Video of art opening for 50 years at the Pace Gallery: one sees rich people gathering for that late-capitalist caprice, modern art.

But we still love you, Ron!!

DIE NOW TO LIVE

In his “A Moveable Feast,” the memoir many now consider Hemingway’s best work, about Paris ’20s modernists,  Hemingway remarks there was a WW I poet/survivor in the cafes and some resented him for showing off his missing arm too much. I thought that was telling. The WW I Wounded Poets are not famous at all, the WW I Dead Poets, very famous.  This sort of indicates that there is a time and a way to die that is expected of poets.

Everyone loves a good story—the arc of a poet’s life, from birth to death, either grabs the imagination, or not.  A poet who dies in a war is a good story; one who survives with a missing arm is just depressing. “Can’t he cover that thing up?” People don’t want to be reminded of the unpleasantnesses of life.

When you are young, you have to be a killer to get fame and fortune.  Then when you get it, you can become the beloved elder statesman.  Is that what happened with Pound?

POETIC FAME AND TIME OF DEATH

A RANDOM SAMPLING:

  1. POE                39   MURDER?
  2. BYRON            36  GREEK INDEPENDENCE
  3. KEATS             26  T.B.
  4. SHELLEY          29   DROWNING
  5. PLATH             31   SUICIDE
  6. BROOKE          27   WW I
  7. OWEN             25    WW I
  8. RIMBAUD         37    CANCER
  9. FROST              88   OLD AGE
  10. T.S. ELIOT        76   OLD AGE

The point isn’t really when you die or how you die, but a combination of factors: 

Had Frost or Pound died young, they would probably be unknown. 

Had Sylvia Plath lived a long life, she would most likely be unknown.

The poets’ life arc makes great stories. The more the arc mirrors the poet’s work, the better.

Think before you die, poets.

Dying in WW I did poets’ fame a world of good.  Surviving WW I (does anyone remember that poet with one arm…what’s his name?) did you no good at all.

There are no 1960s poets of  note…that’s hard to believe.  The ’60s poets who get respect are musicians…Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, John Lennon etc  Ginsberg is the closest thing, yet he was more a 50s poet…he was already bald in the 60s, which is so non-60s…  America does not have one iconic ’60s poet.   The ’60s were a bad time to be a poet, period.

Was this because peoples’ lives became their poetry?  Who needs poetry when one is living a hedonistic lifestyle?

Supposedly the New Critics were conservative because they said, ‘the text is all’ and thus moved all consideration away from the poet himself, hedonistic, or not.   But how can there be poetry without the poet?  How can we consider, in a Platonist, philosophical manner, in a true pedagogical manner, the poetry—without the poets?

LATE CAPITALISM AND THE AVANT GARDE

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Modernist and post-modernist avant movements of every stripe present themselves, in one way or another, as authentic, revolutionary attempts to smite late capitalism.

Ron Silliman, the good Leftist, revels in Modernism and Neo-Modernism, with his Leftism seemingly rising out of the very Modernism he celebrates.  Ron’s example, one of thousands, is perfectly normal and unquestioned.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that Modernism and neo-Modernism are the very essence and expression of Late Capitalism.

Capitalism and Modernism share self-indulgent caprice, the wide gap between elites and the many who don’t ‘get it,’ chic vulgarity, market excess and manipulation, control of wealth and taste by the few, and the final proof is that the artists themselves, from Ford Madox Ford to Pound to Eliot, to the Southern Agrarian new critics, were “revolutionaries” of the Right, not the Left—even when some, like William Carlos Williams, paid lip service to the latter.

Perhaps, standing where we are, in the early 21st century, with the true nature of the actual modernists themselves fading away in the mists of delusionary nostalgia, we are too far away from the truth to be aware of the truth.

Randall Jarrell, however, saw it in 1942, and wrote in his essay “The End of the Line:”

“For a long time society and poetry have been developing in the same direction, have been carrying certain tendencies to their limits: how could anyone fail to realize that the excesses of modernist poetry are the necessary concomitants of the excesses of late-capitalist society?  (An example too pure and too absurd even for allegory is Robinson Jeffers, who must prefer a hawk to a man, a stone to a hawk, because of an individualism so exaggerated that it contemptuously rejects affections, obligations, relations of any kind whatsoever, and sets up as a nostalgically awaited goal the war of all against all.  Old Rocky Face, perched on his sea crag, is the last of laissez faire; Free Economic Man at the end of his rope.)  How much the modernist poets disliked their society, and how much they resembled it!”

How well Jarrell puts it; and what he describes is much more than mere left/right politics; I certainly don’t intend this essay to be some cheap political grudge match—where I try and score points for some ideal Leftism; that I point out that the Modernists are far Right and so many of their fans, like Silliman, are far Left, is for mere amusement only; the real issue is much larger than gasbag, contemporary, cafe politics: right now it’s a simple issue of mostly pure ignorance—how ignorance reigns in Letters and what we ought to do about it.

Few know that a key Old Rocky Face supporter was T.S Eliot—which doesn’t make any sense in the way we typically read 20th century letters.   The horrors of the 20th century were, of course, inhuman, and Modernism, as Jarrell saw, was often inhuman.  The mystery of Modernism is difficult to solve, like Poe’s mystery in the Rue Morgue—because of the murderer’s nature.

Centuries hence, Modernist art and poetry will be seen as sick, not great.

Of course, most believe, without realizing it, what Thomas Mann told us: that art is sick, and therefore, yes, poetry like “The Waste Land” is a triumph.

For now.

IS THERE A MODERN SUBLIME?

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When’s the last time a sublime poem was published?

Can modernity be sublime?  Or is the modern, by definition, anti-sublime?

Here’s 13 top Sublime Poems in English in the modern era:

1. Paradise Lost  –Milton
2. Macbeth –Shakespeare
3. Mount Blanc –Shelley
4. Manfred  –Byron
5. Beachy Head  –Charlotte Smith
6. Orion  –Richard Horne
7. Al Aaraaf  –Poe
8. Aurora Leigh  –Barrett Browning
9. Kubla Khan  –Coleridge
10. Elegaic Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle  –Wordsworth
11. The Tyger  –Blake
12. God’s Grandeur  –Hopkins
13. Invictus  –William Henley

THE PHILOSOPHY OF PUNCTUATION

 

The beginning of punctuation is the beginning of speech.

BEER ON TAP

requires no punctuation; nor does this:

BAR

And what of a sign from God?

THOU SHALT NOT KILL

Signs have authority, but no human speech.  Speech begins with:

BAR!

Or:

THOU SHALT NOT KILL?

As soon we add a little punctuation, we have speech.

When I asked my freshmen English Composition students to define a comma, they said, “a pause…a stop,” but I said, “no, no, no!  Commas are not traffic cops; commas flow; punctuation is not about stopping any more than dancing is about stopping!”

We might think of a comma as an aside. 

We could think of punctuation in terms of Shakespearean drama.  Commas set aside what is ostensibly less important:  “Here comes Mrs. Fiddlefaddle, and she’s wearing that silly flowered hat!”  The part of the sentence after the comma—and she’s wearing that silly flowered hat—is whispered directly to the audience. 

Edgar Poe said a “treatise” was desperately needed on the topic of punctuation, and he wrote: “If not anticipated, I shall, hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on ‘The Philosophy of Point.'”  

“That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance!  The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood—this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance.  It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force—its spirit—its point—by improper punctuation.  For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs than an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.”  —E. Poe,  from “Marginalia”

A book I must get my hands on is A Dash of Style: The Art and Mystery of Punctuation by Noah Luckeman, W.W. Norton, 2007.  I saw it advertised on-line today, as I was searching for Poe’s mini-treatise on the dash.

The gloss on the book says, “Why did Poe and Melville rely on the semicolon?  Why did Hemingway embrace the period?” 

I can’t wait to read what Mr. Lukeman says, but I already have a theory on Hemingway: Papa was a combination of God and bar sign.  Hemingway’s writing is often characterized as plain, and his writing’s lack of commas and semicolons is probably what makes it seem plain, more than anything else. 

As for the semicolon, it’s a wonderful tool, especially in the hands of someone who knows how to use it;  adept use of the semicolon can take my breath away!

ANIS SHIVANI ASKS: “HAVE AMERICAN POETS BETRAYED THE GREAT LEGACY OF MODERNISM?”

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WHAT GREAT LEGACY?

Or, Why This Legacy?

Anis, how can you have a debate about the current state of American poetry by making this assumption—an assumption of “greatness”—right from the start?

The “moderns” had no hit records.  They are not read.

True, outside of school, very little poetry—and very little literature of merit—is read, but if we can’t blame the moderns for this, we certainly can’t ascribe to the moderns a “legacy,” for the public turned away from poetry during their reign!

Let’s look at what happened, shall we?

The little magazines of the modernists had tiny audiences.

The “moderns” enjoyed a small window of notoriety after World War II, when the New Critical modernists insinuated themselves into ‘English major’ textbook anthologies.

The ‘English major,’ however, is fast becoming extinct in the university, replaced by Business majors, mostly.

The “moderns” had a brief, artificial existence—which is now dying.

There is no “legacy.”

Every age has some good poets; granted.  But this is quite different from “betraying” a previous era’s “legacy.”

First:  As everyone knows, the “legacy” of the “moderns” is a vigorous and explicit betrayal of their prior eras.   So obviously one has to “betray” the “modernists.”   One can’t have one’s cake and eat it.

Second:  Very few (their friends) read the “moderns” until they were put into school textbooks.   Now, the new poetry today is only being read in school.   The idea, then, of a “betrayal” could only be understood by a New Critical, ‘close-reading’ comparison of “modernist” poetry with today’s poetry.  Obviously, one wouldn’t expect poets writing today to write just like William Carlos Williams; if one felt ‘William Carlos Williams influence’ were necessary to avoid “betrayal,” it would be highly quixotic to even ask for such a thing, much less make any attempt to prove some sort of “betrayal” of that “legacy” because WC Williams was not being followed closely enough.  Why not ask whether the “legacy” of Chinese poetry, or that of the Provencals or the Romantics, or the Greeks, has been “betrayed?”

Yet, the “moderns,” of whom no one reads, and who are no longer modern and whom “betraying” might just be profitable; the moderns, that small group of gentlemen, are held over our heads, with great ceremony and solemnity.

If we keep asserting this “legacy,” based on what is now fusty, fussy writing that failed to catch on with the public, how are we going to see clearly or make any reliable judgment on this matter at all?

POEM WITH THE LONG LAST LINE

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The natural pond is never a perfect mirror.
Madame stares into her still mirror,
Holding her face still to examine it.
She wonders, which angle do they most admire?
Once, there was one who fell in love with her profile.
She turned. And lost him.
Another would have loved her head were it a blur,
So taken was he by her complexion, her eye’s fire, her hair.
She turned and turned.
She finally turned elsewhere.
Dancing on her inmost eye,
They are all two dimensional now,
Like spots of light on a pond.
But he who loved her profile once,
That gaze on her
And the arc which disappointed him–
The palpable turning which ruined the trust
Between her ear face and his facing eye–
Has the depth of eye, face
And face which turned– alas! to eye
And saw the amazing change–
The man who quickly looked away.
That perfection he knew is all the depth she knows.
She almost saw what he saw in the corner of her eye,
The look askance like peeping dawn,
The beginning of a look
Which will see too much by noon.
She could not see how he saw her.
But he told her the whole madness later, outside their spot on the Champes d’ Elysses.

I TRY AND DESCRIBE MYSELF

All these poets seem indifferent and cold,
Boring!  Black and white!
They put their love in monuments
Of stone, frozen, it seems, long ago
By outer space without limit; they strive
To put words together, like spark and dark.
If perfection is darkness, they go that way.
For them, nothing has to be alive.
They spurn the hot-blooded day;
Day will melt their monuments.
They take whatever their readers know
And present it as if it were their wisdom,
Whispering and dropping slowly
Into deception and valley,
A perception of soft, sweet glow,
Passion intellectualized!

I brought flowers once to Karla Karrar,
A girl I barely knew, invaded her
Backyard after wandering the hills
For flowers that were almost weeds;
Among weeds, I found strange flowers.
Those were thoughtless thrills;
I was young and could discount them;
I was no poet, then.
Ah, that is one anxious memory.
Now I hope you’ll be able to tolerate me;
I am the book jackets you see, the blurbs and the vanity,

I am the poet now.
I am going to give you love and I am going to give you flowers.
Will you watch as they are depicted as that
For you, right here, in verse, for the next two and three quarter hours?

I FLEW OVER

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I flew over the round world, round-eyed,
Spying what the raven who first rode westward spied:
Three ravens, who sat, like the ballad, in a tree.
The ballad did not mean a thing to me.
I sang that ballad because my voice was smooth,
Samita! of all things done with the mouth I loved,
I loved to sing, and make vowels and consonants move,
That I might please, simple as daylight sighted
When black in the forest is first removed
As day inside the wood is first lighted
By an ancient, or maybe, modern, sun,
The same one, Mediterranean-whited,
Who blues the wave, now in this mossy wood,
Spilling sun-change on shadow, day-improved,
As each shadow plays upon the day,
Turning around to look at itself, day’s shadow,
Wanting to inhabit music, luxury, and play
In spots between trees, dying into harmony
As song finds that a small misunderstanding pleases.

I find the raven inside every shadow—
The world does not allow absence.
The philosophy was “Everything exists.”
Do you hear my song as it invades the day?
As I watch the stretched earth all day changing,
Hated, not for blindness, but for being near-sighted,
As officials ask for fur, for my impressionism;
Hollow inside, my answer is low and murmuring:
“There is only you, there is no impressionism.”
The light takes time, as time, always away, takes.
The prose is the photograph the sly poem takes,
The prose who lived years ago somewhere else;
The prose is someone else’s. It surrounds my house.
The sun inhabits the fire that inhabits the sun.
The many beautiful prevent us from loving one.

WHEN THE GREATEST WAS THE GREATEST

Remember when an icon was really an icon, and not something manufactured by the media or mumbled in academia?

Remember when athletes were poets?

Remember when Cassius Clay sowed the seeds of hip hop?

Remember when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali?

Thomas Brady grew up with this kid, and he remembers.

IT DEPENDS ON WHO IT IS

poetry smitten teen 2.jpg

What words will you say to me
When you love me?

When you love me
What words will you say to me?

Will they be pretty,
Lingering in brevity like poetry?

Did you learn them in your privacy
Where they are languishing already?

Will they sound like heresy
Or will they be comfortable and familiar to me?

Must I always be ready?
Will they be spontaneous in the extreme—like a dream?

Will they be hesitant and lengthy—
Or nearly silent, for our safety?

Will they have a ringing finality
Ushering in my satiety?

Or will they murmur endlessly,
Sadly, redolantly?

Will I know them already?
Will your love be like words to a poetry-smitten teen,
Do you mean?

MFA

mfa.jpg

I have schooled myself in all manner of things:
How the bridge was won at Charlottesville,
How the oracle at Delphi sings,
How at Yorktown an Empire fell,
How a voice is thrown across a room,
Why the star waits behind the gloom
And the sun is sometimes strangled by clouds.
I took a single length of string and made all music
And posited that if light allows us to look at light
Objects heavier than light are really light, too,
So what allows us to see and what we see are the same,
The act and the object are one,
Desire and the object are one,
The glory and the dark earth are one,
Time and space and things less known are one,
Nothing is not known, and I am remarkable.
I will cut off the heads of kings!

LITERATURE IS A RESPECTABLE INSANITY

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Readers of Scarriet know the truth by now of the insidious New Critics.

But there is another, equally pervasive tradition of American modernity, which could be called the Nietzsche School, or the Dionysian School, which spawned the Beats and other sub-categories.

First it must be understood that all literary activity is conservative.   Literature, like all writing, keeps a record, and thus is documentary, legal, historic, and civilizing.

Modern literature may have subversive claims aplenty, but as Lionel Trilling laments in his essay, “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” students in the academy (modernism’s church) resist subversive influences with either incomprehension or A papers:

One response I have already described—readiness of the students to engage in the process that we might call the socialization of the anti-social, or the aculturation of the anti-cultural, or the legitimization of the subversive.  When the term-essays come in, it is plain to me that almost none of the students have been taken aback by what they have read: they have wholly contained the attack.

I say “lament,” because Trilling is disappointed that “the socializaton of the anti-social” has been “contained” by his literature students.   Trilling is like the ranger who can’t fool the clever Yogi Bear.  And worst of all, for ProfessorTrilling, are those students which he calls the “Old People:”

The chief exceptions are the few who simply do not comprehend, although they may be awed by, the categories of our discourse.  In their papers, like poor hunted creatures in a Kafka story, they take refuge first in misunderstood large phrases, then in bad grammar, then in general incoherence.  After my pedagogical exasperation has run its course, I find that I am sometimes moved to give them a queer respect, as if they had stood up and said what in fact they don’t have the wit to stand up and say: “Why do you harry us?  Leave us alone.  We are not Modern Man.  We are the Old People.  Ours is the Old Faith.  We serve the little Old Gods, the gods of the copybook maxims, the small, dark somewhat powerful deities of lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants.  With them is neither sensibility nor angst.  With them is no disgust—it is they, indeed, who make ready the ways for ‘the good and the beautiful’ about which low-minded doubts have been raised in this course, that ‘good and beautiful’ which we do not possess and don’t want to possess but which we know justifies our lives.  Leave us alone and let us worship our gods in the way they approve, in peace and unawareness.”  Crass, but—to use that interesting modern word which we have learned from the curators of museums—authentic.  The rest, the minds that give me the A papers and the B papers and the C+ papers, move through the terrors and mysteries of modern literature like so many Parsifals, asking no questions at the behest of wonder and fear.  Or like so many seminarists who have been systematically instructed in the constitution of Hell and the ways to damnation.  Or like so many readers, entertained by moral horror stories.  I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not?  And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom.  Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.

If this sounds like babbling, if all this talk of the “Abyss” sounds hyperbolic, one should remember that Trilling was writing this in the 60s, and to be fair, here is the theme as the Columbia professor states it at the outset of his essay:

I  propose to consider here a particular theme of modern literature which appears so frequently and with so much authority that it may be said to constitute one of the shaping and controlling ideas of our epoch.  I can identify it by calling it the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself—it seems to to me that the characteristic element of modern literature, or at least of the most highly developed modern literature, is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.

Trilling wants to shake his students to the very core with the dionysian fury of Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Trilling was an Arnoldian, and took very seriously Matthew Arnold’s idea that “literature is a criticism of life.”

Trilling was the opposite of the text-centered New Critics, who felt literature was properly a criticism of literature.

Trilling referenced the New Critics’ influence:

Nowadays the teaching of literature inclines to a considerable technicality, but when the teacher of literature has said all that can be said about formal matters, about verse-patterns, metrics, prose conventions, irony, tension,, etc., he must confront the necessity of bearing personal testimony.

Trilling is explicit in this essay on the content of this “personal testimony:”

How does one say that [D.H.] Lawrence is right in his great rage against the modern emotions, against the modern sense of life and ways of being, unless one speaks from the intimacies of one’s own feelings, and one’s own sense of life, and one’s own wished-for way of being?  How, except with the implication of personal judgment, does one say to students that Gide is perfectly accurate in his representation of the awful boredom and slow corruption of respectable life?  Then probably one rushes in to say that this doesn’t of itself justify homosexuality and the desertion of one’s dying wife, certainly not.  But then again, having paid one’s devoirs to morality, how does one rescue from morality Gide’s essential point about the supreme rights of the individual person, and without making it merely historical, academic?

It is no surprise that Allen Ginsberg was Trilling’s student at Columbia.  Ginsberg’s whole animus already existed in the platitudes of Trilling.

Here, then, is the ferocious, Nietzschean, anti-New Critical vein in modern literature.   Is it suprising that we see an affirmation of the anti-tradition, of the anti-social, of the anti-hero, of the anti-Christ, expressed by a critic considered to be a conservative, like Lionel Trilling?

No, it is not.  For literature is where all radical notions go to die.

All literature is finally quietist.  

Especially literature which is self-consciously avant-garde.

THE MARCUS BALES CHALLENGE: MONEY FOR A GREAT POET

Can Great Poetry Escape Our Detection?

This is an interesting question: can excellence fly under the radar due to sheer numbers?

Example 1: Could the greatest athlete exist somewhere without anyone knowing it, or soon knowing it? I doubt it. Even though the number of athletes dwarfs the number of poets, the objective detectability and worth of a great athlete would make it impossible for greatness in this category to go unnoticed.

If a 7 foot tall monster basketball player, for instance, existed anywhere on the planet, hiding among 7 billion humans, he would be found. If a woman who could run a mile in 3 minutes existed somewhere–anywhere–she would come to light.

Example 2: Then there’s stuff like physical beauty: rather easy to detect, but there is too much of it for all the beautiful specimens to be ‘counted.’ Super models or actors or any beauties that get national or international attention represent a millionth of a percent of all the really attractive people in the world, so here, in this case, it is due to sheer numbers that human beauty cannot possibly be accounted for, on any sort of global scale.

Is poetry closer to example 1 or example 2?

Three things must be considered: 1) the amount of objective worth displayed in the subject, 2) the number of subjects and 3) the ability to detect the objective worth in the subject.

If there is no objective worth, we can put an end to the issue at once.

If there is objective worth which can be detected, we must ask ourselves how much excellence in terms of numbers probably exist? For instance, if we take a random group of 1,000 poets or a random group of 1,000 poems, how many are likely to be excellent enough that we shouldn’t want to miss it?

And thirdly, how likely is it that a really excellent poet or poem will fly under the radar?

There are many, many people who couldn’t name one poet. These people obviously don’t count. This is another issue altogether which has nothing to do with the ‘new math’ problem, and, in fact, mitigates it.

So, of the people who care for poetry, how many of them are missing, because of numbers alone, great poetry? Numbers are one thing, but the super-sensitive system of detection and communication among like-minded people in modern, civilized society may more than make up for the large numbers. If a great poem is more like a 7 foot monster of a basketball player and less like a pretty boy or girl, then we can say with pretty good certainty that great poets and poems are not escaping our notice. There are no more Billy Collins’s hiding somewhere. Billy Collins, because he is good, was discovered. I believe that good poetry is discovered and that if it is not, it is because it is ubiquitous like human beauty, not because of the numbers which makes it invisible. My hunch is that excellent poetry is more like the 7 foot basketball player than the merely attractive person.

—Thomas Brady

The problem with saying that a great poem is more like a 7-foot monster of a basketball player is that it’s got to be written by someone who is a pretty good poet, and those people, for the most part, just stop writing poems after their encounter with the PoBiz — and if they do keep writing, they don’t bother the PoBiz with it.

More importantly, though, if there are no objective standards such as “7-foot” is in basketball (and even that is no guarantee) by which to measure any poem or poet. The subjective standards aren’t standard. I imagine that 100 judges of a 1000 poems would have only slight, if any, overlap as to which were the best poems, and the overlaps would not be dispositive — they’d be scattered all over the 1000-poem landscape. No poem would appear on the list of every judge, and no poem would appear on more than 20% of the lists, or so I suppose.

It’d be an interesting experiment. Where can we get some grant money to try it? We’ll publish all the poems that appear on 5 or more judges’ lists in — a chapbook, probably. I don’t think we could get enough for a book. I volunteer http://www.vanzenopress.com to publish the book if we can get the money together to pay the judges.

—Marcus Bales

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCARRIET

From Infant to All-Too-Human: Scarriet’s First Year

Could any living creature survive the dynamic changes wrought by and upon Scarriet in its first year of existence?  We doubt it. And yet Scarriet IS a living creature, its blood and viscera made up of its manifold contributors and admirers, a roster that runs the gamut from the illustrious to the notorious, from Billy Collins down (or is it up? Let the Muse judgeth!) to horatiox. Its spark of life, however, its animating spirit, is its poetry, ranging from ABBA to Zukofsky. There is room for all, for as the children of the ‘50s were all Mouseketeers, so all those who are childlike in spirit in the noughties and tennies are all Scarrieteers. The blog is named Scarriet for a reason — no prim Harriet reciting in a stuffy drawing room, but rather a rushing birth of blood, placental fluid, and, within the mass of sodden tissue, life itself. The wail issues out of said mass: Scarriet liveth. Liveth in the offices, supermarkets, alleys, and few remaining factories, in blue jeans or ties, democratic without being demotic, and aristocratic only in matters of the spirit. Heroines most welcome, even nigh deified; heroin disdained as a soul-killing crutch. A manifesto? Let it be so, and let it be burnt.

Cut to the present: the same infant now grown to full immaturity, eager to sift and build upon the ruins of worlds past. And how much built after one short year!  A year of tumult, that witnessed the phenomenal success of March Madness, an expansive merriment that served as nothing less than a lightning rod for the poetry world. Sparks flew, sweat poured, backboards were shattered, and, in keeping with Scarriet’s primal origins, blood flowed — and out of the agony and ecstasy came a greater realization of the role poetry continues to “play” in our contemporary world(s). Scarriet’s world(s). Not all were happy, as not all can ever be, save in that Paradise in which the mass of men once put great hope. A founder of Scarriet, Christopher Woodman, departed from the masthead. The pain was felt keenly amongst those who treasure the art of poetry and discriminating criticism of same, especially with regard to the lyric bards. His voice is still heard on occasion, and his posts still extant — but as the balladeer Carly Simon has sang, “I know nothing stays the same/but if you’re willing to play the game/it’s coming around again.” And so it is. And so it always shall. Selah.

More on March Madness, for this was a threshold for Scarriet, a crossing of the Rubicon, and like all momentous undertakings, was not without peril or controversy. Was the event, which ran coeval with the NCAA basketball finals, closer in spirit to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or FDR’s invasion of Europe?  The debate continues to rage in precincts where strong drink and stronger poetry are freely indulged. Did Scarriet lose its soul during March Madness, or did it gain it, and the world as well? Was it a “Faustian bargain” or just “fargin’ boasting”? Numbers don’t tell a whole story, certainly, but they can instruct when viewed in a spirit of equanimity and in the proper light. And Scarriet’s numbers soared during the March festivities. But was quality sacrificed to attain popular success? We doubt it, for March Madness was met with approval ranging from guarded to raucous from world-class poets such as Alan Shapiro, Lewis Buzbee, Stephen Dunn, Janet Bowdan, Reb Livingston, William Kulik, Billy Collins, Bernard Welt, Robert Pinsky and Brad Leithauser. No visit from Sharon Olds, but then she didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen.

So the numbers were there, along with approval by world class, nay, heaven class poets — where was to be found the always present snake in the garden?  Why, where it always lurks, in our hearts, in the hearts of all who draw breath. And yet the snake was tamped down for those precious moments in which great poetry was shared and exalted and glorified — not placed into a glass case for bored schoolchildren to parade past, but ricocheted off a glass backboard and hurled recklessly down a parquet floor as poets strutted their most glorious moves in all their testostrogen-fueled glory. A celebration of fertility over futility. Of passion over pedantry.

Of poetry over prose.

Happy Birthday, Scarriet.

It’s been one hell of a year.

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