Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues” (1965)

There is nothing wrong with crackpotism and literary experimentation in the salons; it is certainly welcome in private places; but what happens when it’s fed to the young?

Crackpotism is harmless unless it becomes institutionalized, and corrupts and confuses millions of young people.   The very clever may assimilate themselves to the crackpotism of the system and thrive in it, eventually becoming crackpot professors, but the vast majority of students, once exposed to modernist crackpotism, never read literature or philosophy again.

In our review of the Norton (2003) Vol. I of Modern poetry, we found that 16% of the pages were devoted to “poetics,” (the rest to poetry) and remarked on the prose’s poor quality.

Poetry has no need for Apology or Defense; no one bothers to attack poetry anymore—because poetry no longer has a public; thus the reason for “poetics” is drying up.

We would expect things only to get worse; and it has.  If we look at Norton’s Vol. II Contemporary Poetry volume, we find merely 8% of its pages devoted to “poetics” and gibberish is even more the norm:

Olson:  Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed to have the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions.

Dylan Thomas:  If you want a definition of poetry, say: ‘Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing’ and let it go at that.

Larkin:  But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on.

Frank O’Hara:  But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them.  Improves them for what?  Death?

Ginsberg:  Mind is shapely, art is shapely.  Meaning mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image and gets to last thoughts.  Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies…

Baraka:  The most successful fiction of most Negro writing is in its emotional content.

Levertov:  Rhyme, chime, echo, reiteration: they not only serve to knit the elements of an experience but often are the very means, the sole means, by which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception can be transmuted into language, apperceived.

Rich:  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

Heaney:  Looking back on it, I believe there was a connection, not obvious at the time but, on reflection, real enough, between the heavily accented consonantal noise of Hopkins’s poetic voice, and the peculiar regional characteristics of a Northern Ireland accent.

Louise Bennett:  Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican Dialec is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

Charles Bernstein:  Not “death” of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn (fills vats ago lodges spire), or, that much rarer case…

A.K Ramanujan:  One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers.  When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.”

Derek Walcott:  Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow…

And we are done.  We have represented all the writers on “poetics” from this 1,200 page anthology, and I believe we are correct when we say these excerpts speak for themselves, and require no commentary.


  1. Noochness said,

    October 6, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    If, as Frank O’Hara says,
    Death is the absolute end,
    Then why should poetry try
    Its readers’ souls to mend (or rend)?

  2. October 7, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    I have to admit, I actually like Adrienne Rich’s poetic and I’m not actually horrified by this excerpt.

    However, with a few exceptions, it is true that most great poets (and I will actually put Rich in that category – though I’m not inclined to get into an argument about that right now; arguing about the greatness of someone before we’ve had a chance to posthumously re-assess them is usually futile) did not make great literary critics/theorists.

    Mary Oliver has written very well on literature (though I am not the biggest fan of her poetry), Eliot also was a good critic. I have already noted that I like Rich’s stuff.

    I think we can agree that they might have been better served by having the poetics written by mediocre poets and academics with clear thoughts, than good poets with muddled thoughts.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 8, 2010 at 1:05 pm

      I agree, Coffee. The ‘Poetics’ in this Norton anthology of Contemporary Poetry features a great deal of poorly-written prose, completely banal writing that wouldn’t earn a decent grade in an English Comp course. I find this a bit frightening. Sure, there’s ‘poetic license,’ but come on…

  3. Excerpt support said,

    May 22, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    From Caitlin by Caitlin Thomas, widow of Dylan Thomas:

    Laugharne could be glorious in summer and an absolute bog in winter, when it never seemed to stop raining. It fitted Dylan like a glove. It was an eccentric little town with strange customs and even stranger people, an English-speaking town surrounded by Welsh-speaking Wales. It had somehow managed to preserve its traditions: a Corporation lead by a Portreeve, or Mayor, who wore a chain of golden cockleshells; a Chancellor; a Recorder; a Court of Aldermen, and four Constables, each equipped with a wooden truncheon.

    The Corporation owned much of the town’s land and met once a fortnight to decide leases and rents and which hedges should be cut, and once a year — in October — all the men sat down to the Portreeve’s Breakfast, which was an excuse for day-long drinking, a day when the town’s pubs never closed. Every three years nearly every able-bodied citizen went out on the Common Walk, patrolling the twenty-six-mile boundary of the Corporation’s lands, all of which were distringuished by strange names — and if you didn’t know the names you would be turned upside down and beaten on the bottom with a Constable’s truncheon.

    Dylan loved all that small-town pomp and the nonsense gossip that he lapped up every morning in Ivy Williams’ kitchen at Brown’s Hotel: it was where she did her cooking, but she ran it like a bar. People sat around the kitchen table drinking after hours, drinking on Sundays (when the pubs were supposed to be shut under the Welsh licensing laws in force then), and drinking from early morning before the main bar opened. Dylan found it very cosy, and it was there that he picked up all the character vignettes which he moulded into Under Milk Wood. The folk of Laugharne were engaged in an endless wrangle of feuds, affairs, fights, frauds and practical jokes, and Dylan would return home at lunch-time for a bowl of our thick fatty stew full of the stories he had heard from Ivy….

  4. thomasbrady said,

    May 22, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I wonder how much Thomas wrote when he was actually drunk?

    Ashbery claims he was a drunk—yet never wrote under the influence.

    T.S. Eliot drank, so did Auden, so did Larkin. Robert Lowell was a drunk, and of course John Berryman was a horrible drunk.

    But I wonder if writing during a hangover is considered the writing of a drunk? If one is a drunk, but only writes afterwards, when one is sober, is the drinking still having an effect?

  5. More excerpt support said,

    May 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    From Caitlin by Caitlin Thomas, widow of Dylan Thomas:

    Dylan may have been dissipated in his drinking and his sexual affairs, but there was nothing dissipated in his poetry; there he was very self-disciplined. Occasionally it failed him: he would go off to work in the shed, and then after a short while he would be back and he’d say, ‘No, I can’t do it today; it won’t work.’ Then he might have to wait for a day or two for it to come back again. It has been suggested that he had burnt himself out, but no one who saw him working alone in that shed could ever believe that. I used to go out along the cliff with the children, and we would tiptoe past the shed as we heard his voice, booming, muttering and mumbling as he wrestled with each word. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it. No matter what the pressures, or what other people said, Dylan always had this tremendous faith in himself, and he just kept at it, almost daily. Sometimes, I would stand outside the shed and listen as he boomed or intoned, but I never interrupted him, and I made sure that nothing else did, either. He needed his solitude, and I gave it him.

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