BEAUTIFUL AND USELESS

 

“But to the critic to whom art is important, sacred, and, ultimately, coextensive with life itself, to produce bad art and to condone it—and thereby give rise to further bad art and finally drive out the good—are the two most heinously dangerous sins imaginable.”
—John Simon

A number of top critics were invited to Iowa City back in the early 80s, including John Simon and Hilton Kramer, when Iowa, already atop the academic world with its poetry and fiction workshops, was looking at the idea of a critic’s workshop.  It never took.

Creative writing has wide appeal: the ego of the writer and the writer’s life as subject are easy to come by.  Training scholars to write critical essays is more difficult.

John Crowe Ransom’s 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc,” the blueprint for what would become the future of Letters: poetry critics trained in the university,  the professor as poetry critic, was quickly expanded, post-1940, into poets trained in the university, the professor as poet.  

A detailed history of how this all happened has yet to be written, but we generally know what occured: traditionally, the subject of literature in college used language and history to teach rhetorical skill; literary criticism was a default part of this process.

Then, the pyramid was flipped: literary criticism became the mode which drove everything else; the study of languages and history faded away in the light of creative writing—new writing produced now for a new age by students and professors.

Colleges studied the past less and the present more, and studying the present meant writing it: writing the present replaced studying the past.  It also meant instant riches, instant acclaim, even instant canonization, for those living.

No wonder the whole creative writing enterprise took off, every professor from Boston to Berkeley crying, “Make it new!”

In the humanities, disinterested science was replaced by interested art.

Writing makes people happy, the way taking and preserving family photos makes people happy.  With the invention of the snapshot camera, trillions of snapshots came into existence, and with the invention of the Iowa writers workshop, millions of poems on snapshots came into existence.  The snapshot camera made taking photos easy.  The writers workshop made writing poems and stories easy.  The flood of mediocrity began.  The bad chased out the good.

The theorists in the universities also embraced the new, but instead of embracing mediocre stories and poems, they kept the tradition of difficult study alive in the humanities and literature; but unfortunately, these theorists attacked Plato’s science with Nietzsche’s art, and so generally the philosophical wing of the humanities essentially abetted the assault on science over in the history wing: all was fodder for the contemporary super man, the revolutionary writer of revolutionary new works on revolutionary new topics.

The theorists said science was oppressive and art was freeing.

The mediocre writers produced by colleges agreed.

The politicians agreed, too, all those who were actors and entertainers—not statesmen.

If only the revolution had stopped with critics trained in the university.  But it didn’t.  The creative writing rabble of expressive egos was necessary to create the blind soldiers of the new order.

Science, the beautiful and useful, became enslaved by art, the beautiful and useless.

Science is the foundation of all great art, not the other way around.   But now everything conspires to flatter art—and condemn science.

Art, we feel, is free, and harmless.  Science, by comparison, is perceived as expensive and dangerous.

How have we let ourselves be led down this superstitious path?  How have we let ourselves be dragged into this present nightmare?

Simple.  Our artsy-fartsy, slobby selves have been flattered by money-grubbing con-artists.

Smile for the camera…

Snap!

15 Comments

  1. Marcus Bales said,

    December 14, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    On Some Contemporary American Poets

    Their writing employs all the virtues of prose
    With no meter, no music, no clef;
    Though they pose in black clothes with a rose, all that shows
    Is they’re mutes mouthing off to the deaf.

    But the deaf cannot hear what the mute cannot call,
    Though attempts are so earnestly made:
    They sprawl in their scrawl, and yet all they enthrall
    Is each other, without being paid.

    The deaf cannot hear what the mute cannot speak
    Though their voices be wild as the Sidhe —
    Though they freak out and shriek for a weekend in Greek
    Asserting they’re free, free, free, free,

    The mute cannot speak what the deaf cannot hear
    Though they’ve cried out since free verse began:
    They’re sincere, they revere each career, and it’s clear
    That they’re doing the best that they can.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

      http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/retrospect.htm

      There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.

      In the spring or early summer of 1912, ‘H.D.’, Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:

      1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
      2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
      3.As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

      ***

      It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

      ***

      Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.

      –A Retrospect, Ezra Pound

  2. Updike support said,

    May 21, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Twinkletape

    Woods, as we know,
    can scarcely be seen:
    a gray fog of twigs.
    The same with cities and stars.
    What glints and twinkles,
    though, all the more visible
    along the highways now
    that it is obsolete,
    replaced by CDs, is
    recording tape, spilled
    by the bale, by the mile
    from trash trucks and
    shattered tape decks,
    snagged in the median strip,
    festooned in roadside weeds.

    How it catches the sun,
    released from making music!
    Magnetic tapeworms
    metallic black in color
    have become scintillant
    dragons, invisible
    save where sunbeams
    crack their old code.
    Dazzled and teased,
    we drive along wondering
    when this species of waste
    will sink into earth
    like the bullets of a battle,
    like the fireflies
    of boyhood summers.

    John Updike

  3. noochinator said,

    November 25, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Just got this news, from an e-mail sent by Pat Simon, wife of critic John Simon:

    John Simon died yesterday evening at Westchester Medical Center.

    We had been having lunch before the matinee at Westchester Broadway Dinner Theatre when he became disoriented then unresponsive. An ambulance was called and he received excellent care. He did not regain consciousness and died six hours after being admitted. He had a burst blood vessel in his brain—a hemorrhage which caused swelling of the brain.

    Per his wishes I am arranging a cremation. There will be no funeral. Please see a play or read a great book or poem—or watch some tennis today in his memory. He had a fantastic life. I’m glad he did not suffer at the end. He just seemed to be sleeping soundly and then he was gone.

    94 years. May 12, 1925–November 24, 2019
    A long run!

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 27, 2019 at 4:27 pm

      Goodbye, John Simon!

  4. November 26, 2019 at 12:32 am

    RIP, John Simon. Many smiles you brought me!

  5. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 10, 2019 at 4:42 pm

    THE POEM TO THINGAMABOBS

    for Ray Bradbury in the Golden Age again

    this is my poem to thingamabobs, to the newfangled, spangled

    lest we forget to love and dust the bric a brac

    to sneeze and then discard with these

    do not, whose kingdoms you would banish

    all the windmilled toys, the click and the clack

    the happiness of a hundred million inventions on the track

    and train whistled too

    world’s fair mentions, crystal palaces at end of days

    all we sought in little ways and the dollhouse too, the dolls

    the amazing maze of all of it all

    recall, red rubber balls, jacks handled deftly on a summer porch

    the siren calls of toys forever calling you

    the hopeful tools that could change everything in the workshop

    in one Saturday afternoon littered with

    toyshop elfish clues and jiminey cricket this is quite a setpup

    even with one tweak one twist one game of whist

    or mah jong too

    one charming turn of the dial

    and it’s all lit up like Christmas for a while

    that may be longer too

    if you should choose

    you so and so marvelous

    was is and will be too

    the charming invention and the kite flown

    wings and wings of man and icarus breathes again

    in all the solar winds

    making the angels laugh and spin the children ever merry

    oh nation of optimists, come out from the hiding place

    and catch as catch can.

    mary angela douglas 10 december 2019

  6. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 22, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    UNEXPECTED RADIANCES

    the tragic creeps through a different keyhole than this

    said alice carefully in my half dream

    that comes and goes with the roses

    what if ive read the wrong directions

    or if I put the key in wrong so that it halfway turns

    on a dungeon song

    let me think it through, she implored the clouds

    floating over

    the ruined battlements where the violets peeked through

    how does time elapse in dreams, in you

    do we collapse in colours painting the living stream

    ourselves or

    it flits from scene to scene

    dissolves with no conclusions

    find the slipstream through

    to the garden where the birds sing

    an interrupting music you are glad for.

    yet the tragic creeps through

    the least crevice, cornice seeping

    down to the willows river strewn

    and this is my half finished tune

    through the same crack could come

    all glorious the morning sun

    in rose and amber

    could roses clamber over the stone

    and we cup the iris moment in our hands,

    momentously

    no way said the schoolmaster to elude the gloom

    in the play

    when the heroes are struck down this way

    but I, said alice in my alice blue gown

    learned better.

    it’s all deceiving weather

    on the darkest day

    pooled in your vast dear tears

    the key in the lock could

    click into unexpected radiances.

    mary angela douglas 22 december 2019

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 24, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    FOR HELEN KELLER, SEEING ALL

    spelling the blue clouds indistinguishable from skies

    I may come to the sense of things seen never with my eyes

    but understood

    the leafblown missionary green of woods

    the cinnamon of earth, the blowing tide

    the secret tolling of an inner bell

    inside all spelling done

    I had come to love so well

    before they ever ever sang

    to me the names of God the sweet mild sun

    and then the floods came down

    like liquid doves fluttering

    in the touch of water and vividness arose

    to link my heart to the name of the rose

    the utterance divine, all things now

    beneath their shapes reveal

    the cut of orange and the orange peel

    the waves of light illimitable

    the message of small birds

    the weight and heft of language

    on the things unheard.

    mary angela douglas 24 december 2019

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 27, 2019 at 8:16 pm

      Lovely poetry, Mary. I do love it when you rhyme. A belated Merry Christmas. I hope the glow of the holiday lingers on for you…

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        December 28, 2019 at 2:39 am

        Thank you so much, Thomas Graves. I like to rhyme especially unexpectedly. Thank you for the belated Merry Christmas I do wish you the same and that is continuous because speaking only for myself I am personally bringing back ye olde custom of the 12 days of Christmas which START on Christmas Day; we have all been robbed, haha. So it is really true the glow of the holiday is lingering because this is only the third day. When my sister and I were little we decided that if our birthday was only one day Jesus should get the whole year which I think is pretty logical for little kids and we were so happy thinking we wouldnt have to go back to school when all of a sudden we realized the teachers were never going to go for that. But it was a glorious moment while it lasted. Noel anyway. And always. And I do wish and pray for 2020 to be your happiest year in life and every year after even happier. I do like the way your poetry is flourishing and I also wish Rosalinda happy holidays. anTd your children too, all your family.Though for me even the thought of being alive in the year 2020 makes me feel a little like I am in a sci fi movie. or about to be. If so, I pick a Ray Bradbury story, one with good stuff in it.

  8. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 28, 2019 at 5:03 pm

    MAYBE I’LL TURN MYSELF INTO A CLOUD

    maybe I’ll turn myself into a cloud

    a cloud that never rains that cannot weep

    and drift and fling my rosy shadows

    on the ground through the pink skies

    where the roses have their heaven

    I used to think when I was six or seven

    and I shall sweep above the little children now

    looking up from play in their backyards

    who perhaps even a little start to dream

    that way

    as though when trouble comes

    we all may be allowed to run away,

    to live in the sky.

    and watch the earth

    keep spinning by

    spinning its sad gold

    forlorn in its blues and greens

    its tides of mist

    and on its own

    while we get off scot free

    in realms of mystery.

    until on silken ladders of the wind

    on some kite’s kinder winding it all down day

    we shall descend

    to happiness again.

    as reigning monarchs

    in a summer’s shade.

    mary angela douglas 28 december 2019

  9. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 29, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    THE STRAWBERRY CONE IN THE PICTURE BOOK, TOPPED BY THE PISTACHIO, TOPPED BY THE GOLDEN VANILLA

    we began early with the ideal

    as opposed to real life at school

    where sometimes despite the

    grownups best efforts

    to pin us down in our desks

    we would float upwards

    children of the space age

    with the fairy tale tinge still about us

    in our Golden Age.

    how to explain these tendencies

    without, haha, reverting to psychology.

    oh let’s not refer to psychology

    in this poem or any other.

    let’s be free

    to not return to the subject at hand

    observing the members of the band

    on the bus after school

    with their flutaphones.

    I will play upon said flutaphones

    remembering the images of ice cream

    in various picture books

    circa the 1950s

    oh, take another look, also at the balloons…

    was their ever in real life

    ice cream this fluffy, colours this extravagant.

    oh welcome child to the inner pageants.

    it’s eternal ice cream

    no matter how it seems otherwise.

    no matter how much

    you wore out that page

    no matter whether the backdrop

    is at the zoo near the lion’s cage

    at the school fair or the county one

    where everyone comes for the blue ribbons

    or the cake walks or musical chairs

    your eyes are fixed only there even in the comics

    with Lulu, on the perfect cone.

    there it is again.

    in strawberry almost frothing wonder

    topped by the pistachio, and then the golden cream

    of vanilla or nearby fragrance of the sarsaparilla

    I know it tastes better than anything else at the circus,

    birthdays notwithstanding

    and I bless the illustrator from my heart

    and I want to declare in a Whitman like way

    in a song of myself

    not the elf on the shelf

    with Plato stating the ideal forms

    this is the form of the ideal

    triple decker ice cream cone

    imprinted in my soul

    let it be emblematic forever

    painted always like the Paradiso

    in the same creaminess never dripping

    never slipping from the cherishing hand

    and filled in

    in the everlasting colouring books virgorously,

    in the neverlands

    using our best crayons the best we can

    to the heart’s delight

    in the heaven of heavens.

    mary angela douglas 29 december 2019

  10. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 29, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    I WILL PRAISE IN YOU THE IDIOSYNCRACY OF SNOW

    I will praise in You

    the idiosyncracy of snow on april blooms

    the rose of sunrise

    and the grey skies down.

    and then at once

    the other way around.

    no tombs are Thine.

    the everlastingly Divine.

    the breath of life in spearmint winds

    the resurrected

    all adrift at sea still praising Thee

    the blue green of icebergs

    and more than these

    and everything otherwise

    the steadfast zaniness of saints.

    the picture palace and Mussorgsky

    the gold of the heart recalled in the tolling bells

    the black sea swells

    the desolate autumn..

    bitter the scent of zinnias still

    the fading of the whippoorwills

    I will praise on

    in covert music till the last dawn.

    mary angela douglas 29 december 2019

  11. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 30, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    REPAIRED

    on a reef of ivory and of gold

    a ship has foundered

    and in its hold

    transparent apples.

    so I will scold the grey white feathered waves

    o.

    bring my ghost ship home.

    on a day of silver and of brass

    I cry without knowing

    oh, alas

    a ship has foundered

    that I once knew

    and what I thought were lies

    are true

    no mending basket

    no household task

    can mend what I

    believed was past

    according to the signs I knew

    dear Lord can you

    reverse it all

    All Time I mean

    I am too small

    but through my spyglass I can see

    my ghost ship still

    by your decree

    I hope to see it in the bay

    on some forgiven spring bright day

    and you and I will count the host

    of all that I have loved the most

    and all the treasure there.

    bring to a crystalline repair.

    mary angela douglas 30 december 2019


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