Manet’s 1863 painting was highly controversial—and state-sponsored.

Seeing the many, there is always implicitly the monism of the vision; the most chaotic movie, for instance, of the most unifinished and disorderly nature, is still that movie, that one.

Thus the most avant-garde artist, wishing to escape monism and all the traditional trappings that goes with it, finds his most radical experiments neatly confined to a box with a pretty ribbon, and will forever be backed into a corner by absolute monism. 

To every gay and wayward lifestyle, rebelling against tradition at every turn, there must be an end, and in that end, a lesson intoned over the silence of the dandy’s grave by the unitarian priest, proudly puritan and pure.

The most radical thing the poet can do is deny poetry, produce a “poem” that is not a poem, yet call it a poem.  This “wrong”  attempts to escape monism with an avant-garde defiance of avant-garde difference.  But immediately the mind populates the avant-garde non-poem with primal poetic qualities that happen to be at hand; the “absence” is “filled,” and monism triumphs again.

The most radical avant-garde attempts fail: avant products are always absorbed by the enemy.  The avant-garde product always perishes in abstraction, for the abstract is a monistic concept.  The One is an idea that always wins in the end.

To assert yourself as outside the One is to become absorbed into it by that very assertion.

The avant-garde artist must try a different strategy, then, to be truly avant-garde.  How to triumph over monism?

The best way to triumph over monism is to invade it, to move roughly through it.  To mock it by imitation fails, for all imitation is finally flattery.

The monists themselves must be forced to define monism; the burden of proof must be thrown back upon the satisfied and content, and this done not by mere mockery, but by actual invasion.  Moral war is necessary if the avant-garde is to have any success.  The avant-garde cannot be nice.

The avant-garde did not begin until the state permitted it to exist. 

An ugly, fearsome tyrant lives in a handsome statue, a secret priesthood builds a temple, a poem mocks a king: these are examples of avant-garde beginnings, but they are not avant-garde, since in none of these examples is the state encouraging rebellion against itself.

Here is the great secret of the avant-garde: it is state-ordained.

Decadence is poverty and humiliation voluntarily promoted by the ruling class.  Decadence and the avant-garde emerge at the same time, for both are wanton by the emperor’s decree: naughtiness officialized.

Monism is finally befuddled and defeated by this: a paradox that is actual and worldly, not merely abstract.

Where in history does the avant-garde first emerge? 

In 19th century France.  Le Salon des Refuses was not a rogue gallery.  It was the act of an emperor, Napolean III.

Invasion: a naked lady on a picnic blanket with clothed men, all as merry as you please.

Invasion: A urinal in a museum.

Invasion: Soup cans in a museum.

You see the pattern? 

Not, X. 

X in a museum.

There is nothing theoretical about the avant-garde.  As soon as it becomes theoretical, it is no longer avant-garde. 

The victory of the avant-garde is a worldly, moral conquest from inside, a conquest that is state-approved.

The avant-garde art product never comes first.  The museum curator willing to receive it comes first.

The flag of Decadence supposedly flies over the wit of Oscar Wilde; but Wilde’s wit was sharpened by English Victorian reaction to the French avant-garde.  Wilde’s belief:—no morality is necessary because beauty is all—is conservative—and highly monistic.


My burning is my burning, but it is also the world’s flame.
My breathing is the world’s breathing, the world breathing the same.
The body is a body, but this world is a name.

In my fit is the world’s anger and spasm;
Sitting in it is a secret knowledge: a thrum.
Tell me to speak, I am deaf; tell me to listen, I am dumb.
The science fiction always springs from scientific fact.
The story is the memory, torn, as it walks back.
When the storm comes to my window, in frozen rivulets of snow,
Buried in that multitude of flakes is one separate thing I used to know.
The burying is my knowledge, burying my knowledge,
White roads, sky, pregnant with snow; the announcement closed the college;
Everything is blocked, and for the sake of getting a look,
I am reassembling my sorrow, sorrowfully, in a book.
Here is my poem; you can go to it right now.
We can stay up all night; this much love will allow.



I hate other poets, probably because I’m expected to like them.

Writing is something that comes from somewhere and travels somewhere else; the writing itself is just a way, but not the way.

If there is a secret way to write better, do you think I’m going to share it with another writer?  No way!  So why should I hang out with writers?

Heroic couplets were once the bomb, but now they’re not: this alone proves the art of writing is merely fashionable and not nearly as important as where it’s coming from and what it’s saying.

Where the writing is coming from is more important than the writing.  If someone is a jerk, I’m never going to like their writing, even if it’s good, because what’s ‘good’ about writing belongs to fashion, not truth; it’s the jerkiness of the writer which is ultimately going to matter and make the lasting impression.

That someone is a writer doesn’t mean anything at all to me, except that there’s a much greater chance that I’ll hate them.

If you put a random bunch of people in a room and they all revealed their souls to each other, they would end up killing each other.   That’s why people say “please,” and “thank you,” and go to great lengths to protect their privacy: it’s to prevent mass murder.

This is what writers do: they reveal their souls, and thus a writer is someone I’m probably going to hate very quickly.

First, a writer needs to have a good soul, but most writers don’t, because creative writing attracts crippled souls who use writing as a crutch, a morbid fantasy, a subsitution for being good, and so writers and writing is mostly a landscape of fakes and jerks.

And to be successful, a writer is expected to befriend and network fakes and jerks, who, if they came into contact with an actual good soul, would probably kill it.

So the good soul goes off by itself and writes, not for other writers, but for those who say, “Please!” and “Thank you!” and not much else.

The best writing is the lonely good soul diverting other good souls for a few minutes with an artificial tickle, or glimmer, or mild terror of delight.


Voltaire, admiring England, once remarked that religiously, the Unitarians were mathematically the best. It was the beauty and simplicity of the one.

Eileen Myles is one of those Sexual Unitarians; she does the one-sex thing.  She looks sort of like a man.  Her religion: Gay.

(We’re not really talking about sex here, but philosophy.)

The feelings can be glimpsed in her novel, Inferno:

Dan somebody from Emily’s couch was now purring into a mike almost entirely constructed out of duct tape.  Infinity Space was his and he moved the night along with his voice that was so soft and full of feeling. He was extremely nice to women in a way that made me suspect he was an asshole. He wasn’t feminist. He was just needy. Sometimes I’d wait for two hours to get up and read my poem and they just never called on me. Some woman all wrapped up in scarves was hunched over the list. She’d look up, scan the room and look down shaking her head. So much pressure.

As with all religious wars, it is not enough for the believer to believe; they must resent other beliefs.

“Dan somebody” is guilty of being “needy.”

But worse, “Dan somebody” is not “femin-ist.”

“Dan somebody” isn’t Unitarian; he believes in a second divinity:  “He was extremely nice to women.”

The passage also features a great amount of self-pity on the part of the narrator: waiting to read her poem.  They never called on her.  All that pressure.

The self-pity is a pent-up, passive self-pity.  She doesn’t stand up for herself, or engage with anyone, and we don’t really know what these others are like; they are referred to as “some” or “somebody.”  The most important thing is that she “suspects” the man who is “extremely nice to women” of being an “asshole,” and the second most important thing is that she is “never called on” to read her poem.

Eileen’s morbidity reflects the unitarian religious fanatic who tends to be morose and passive and lonely.

The gods, in their randy pluralism, are needy.  The gods, whatever they are, are always “suspected” of being up to something by the monist.

Most of us worship gods. The gods of Plato were exchanged for the gods of the Trinity.  But along came the Unitarians, rejecting  the divinity of the Son.  Judaism believes in One God, too, but Judaism was prior to the Son, and Judaism’s monism implied, and was pregnant with, other gods.  Unitarianism is the one religion which takes the many back into itself and makes monism the true All.  Eileen Myles is infused with the same sort of reversal.

Gods interact with each other.  Gods are in a constant quarrel between slavery and liberty.

God issues laws.  God demands we all be mon-ists.  ” He wasn’t feminist.  He was just needy.”

Just because someone is religiously a monist, however, doesn’t mean they cannot also be a gasbag and jibber-jabber all day long, and run here and there, and be vulgar and slangy.   Of course they can.  In fact, this is what unitarians tend to do.  The one tends to inflate, get large and all gas-baggy.

The monk is trying to get away from something, but the true monist, the true unitarian doesn’t have to do that, because there’s nothing to escape from; there is no this or that, or division, there’s no god chasing god, it’s all one,  and thus the only thing left to do is be pluralistic in one’s monism, as plural in every moment as one can possibly be, since the one always implies a reverse reaction, a big bang, a splattering of everything, which, rhetorically, is what Eileen aims at.  The monk seeks the cell, the monk hides, the monk contemplates division, the monk is in love; but the unitarian, the monist, is a traveler.

Eileen Myles is confident moving from one random place to another.  (This could be an aesthetic judgement, as well, which, it should be pointed out, is all we are interested in.)


Browning’s 3 favorite poets were Homer, Elizabeth Barrett, and Shelley.

“My Last Duchess” is a miracle; despite its rhyming couplets, this famous poem sounds more naturally spoken than any of the Moderns: Eliot, Pound, Williams, or Frost.

Browning has always been well-represented in anthologies, but his reputation seems to have been slipping profoundly of late.  We know him from a handful of poems: “My Last Duchess,” “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” “Meeting at Night,” “Home Thoughts, From Abroad,” “A Woman’s Last Word,” “Women and Roses,” “The Lost Leader,” “Youth and Art,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” and “Fra Lippo Lippi.”

He was a liberal, but also a Christian, and thus the modern taste for him is definitely on the wane; but he was an acute dramatist and a source of literary Modernism, so he’ll be populating anthologies for a long time to come; but the problem with Browning is that few bother with him anymore.

His influence on the leading pack of 20th century Modernists is profound.  “A Light Woman” for instance, is all Yeats:

So far as our story approaches the end,
Which do you pity the most of us three? —
My friend, the mistress of my friend
With her wanton eyes, or me?

Browning was a dramatist most of all, very unlike Byron or Shakespeare, however, without their levity; in his poems Browning is always pursuing an argument, and this spoils a great deal of his lyric work; the immediate pleasure (which Byron and Shakespeare, for instance, always considered) is deferred in Browning, as he rebuts himself and muses over this claim and that suggestion at great length.  The result is often tedium.  “My Last Duchess” is a triumph precisely because Browning’s tendency to unravel a long debate with himself is held in check: the narrator (the cruel Duke) has the last word throughout the poem, and both the singular event and the curtained portrait lend the whole a dramatic focus.

Very little attention has been paid to Browning’s prose, his philosophy, his criticism, and here’s a sample of it all at once, on a figure it has been our modern habit to overlook in connection with Browning—Shelley:

An ordinary youth…discovers falsities, incongruities, and various points for amendment, and, in natural advance of the purely critical spirit unchecked by considerations of remedy, keeps up before his young eyes so many instances of the same error and wrong, that he finds himself unawares arrived at the startling conclusion that all must be changed—or nothing: in the face of which plainly impossible achievement, he is apt to feel, either carelessly or considerately, that his own attempting a single piece of service would be worse than useless even, and to refer the whole task to another age or person—safe in proportion to his incapacity.  Wanting words to speak, he has never made a fool of himself by speaking.  But, in Shelley’s case, the early fervour and power to see, was accompanied by as precocious a fertility to contrive: he endeavoured to realize as he went on idealizing; every wrong had simultaneously its remedy, and, out of the strength of his hatred for the former, he took the strength of his confidence in the latter—till suddenly he stood pledged to the defense of a set of miserable little expedients, just as if they represented great principles, and to an attack upon various great principles, really so, without leaving himself time to examine whether, because they were antagonistical to the remedy he had suggested, they must therefore be identical or even essentially connected with the wrong he sought to cure,—playing with blind passion into the hands of his enemies, and dashing at whatever red cloak was held forth to him, as the cause of the fireball he had last been stung with—mistaking Churchdom for Christianity, and, for marriage, ‘the sale of love’ and the law of sexual oppression.

Gradually, however, he was leaving behind him this low practical dexterity, unable to keep up with his widening intellectual perception; and, in exact proportion as he did so, his true power strengthened and proved itself.  Gradually he was raised above the contemplation of spots and the attempt at defacing them, to the great Abstract Light, and through the discrepancy of the creation, to the sufficieny of the First Cause.  Gradually he was learning that the best way of removing abuses is to stand fast by truth.  Truth is one, as they are manifold; and innumerable negative effects are produced by the upholding of one positive principle.  I shall say what I think,—had Shelley lived, he would have finally ranged himself with the Christians…

Browning’s highly articulate, well-argued sympathy for Shelley contrasts with T.S. Eliot’s less than Christian position; Eliot had no patience for Shelley’s youthful errors or his poetry, dismissing him as a “blackguard” and leaving it pretty much at that; Eliot’s general distaste for the Romantics colored the Moderns’ attitude generally, who rejected a great deal in revolutionary haste.

Browning, the Shelleyan poet, does exist, though few know it; the mature poem, “Reverie,” a 220 line lyric is a wonderful example; here are the concluding two stanzas:

I have faith such end shall be:
From the first, Power was—I knew,
Life has made clear to me
That, strive but for closer view,
Love were as plain to see.

When see?  When there dawns a day,
If not on the homely earth,
Then yonder, worlds away,
Where the strange and new have birth,
And Power comes full in play.

There it is, that Platonic rapture that dares to call the earth “homely.”  I not only hear Shelley in these lines, but Emily Dickinson, as well, though she’s better at metaphor than Browning, and more in love with the “homely earth.” Still, I hear her voice here.  It’s easy to forget Browning’s influence, but it is immense.  In an age when every philosopher and poet is lost in the trees, and dares not even think of the woods, can a renewed interest in Browning and his Platonism be that bad?

If “Reverie” needs to become a new Browning classic, “Development,” another mature poem, should, too.  Here’s the charming opening:

My father was a scholar and knew Greek.
When I was five years old, I asked him once
‘What do you read about?’
‘The siege of Troy.’
‘What is the siege of Troy?’  Whereat
He piled up chairs and tables for a town,
Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat
—Helen, enticed away from home (he said)
By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close
Under the footstool, being cowardly,
But whom—since she was worth the pains, poor puss—
Towzer and Tray,—our dogs, the Atreidai,—sought
By taking Troy to get possession of
—Always when great Achilles ceased to sulk,
(My pony in the stable)—forth would prance
And put to flight Hector—our page-boy’s self.

Browning was a couple years younger than Poe—“The Raven” entered the world (January, 1845) just when Robert wrote his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett, who right around that time, was corresponding with the American poet.  Poe dedicated his Poems (1845) to her; Barrett’s fame preceded her husband’s, who was an obscure figure when he began his famous courtship.  Elizabeth and Robert’s son, ‘Pen,’ was born in 1849, the year Poe met his end.  Elizabeth survived only another 10 years, and 20 years after that, the Browning Society was born.



More nuanced than Rae Armantrout?

Who is the most important figure on a football field?

They are right there on the field during an NFL game, and yet they are invisible; they are equivalent to the “reader” who interprets the temporal unraveling of the “text;” how that text is read determines how the story ends, and how the game is won.

Who is this “reader?”

The typical football fan follows only the players and the coaches.

The astute football fan follows the refs as well.  They know the names of the refs.  They know, for instance, the official who reversed the Tom Brady fumble against Oakland in the snow, and changed the fate of the game forever: Walt Coleman.  They know other infamous refs, such as Bill Leavy and Jeff Triplett.

Most football fans would enjoy “the game” and let the refs be invisible.  These fans are like children who read a story only for the plot.  Football is a kind of bedtime story for them, with “winners and losers” defining their landscape.

Even the simpleton football fan, however, navigates a world that is actually more complex than fiction studied at college.  For the football fan, the “story” is never quite the same, and the “winner” might be “right,” or might be “wrong” on any given occasion, depending on the fan’s allegiance and the unique result of each contest.

Men (and increasingly women) are uncomfortable admitting how much the outcome of a contest involving their favorite team means to them.  They know that it’s “only a game,” and yet for millions of obsessed fans, it’s a lot more.

There are two basic opinions on refs, and how ref calls on the field (was that a penalty, or not?) affect the game’s outcome.

First, there is the stoic fan (in this sense) who feels adamantly that refs do not decide a game’s outcome.   Bad calls are “part of the game.”  Bad calls in the long run “even out.”   Good teams always overcome bad calls.  Those who complain about bad calls are “crybabies” and “losers.”

Then there is the fan who isn’t afraid to beef.   I found the following on

Refs aide Steelers…again…

It wasn’t Bill Leavy this time, and it wasn’t the Super Bowl. But once again, the Steelers benefited from some over zealous officiating in a playoff win.

I believe ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook says it best:

“A ticky-tacky holding penalty wiped out a 55-yard punt return touchdown for Baltimore in the fourth quarter; the Ravens settled for a field goal. A ticky-tacky, and quite rare, holding penalty against a Baltimore defensive lineman converted a Steelers’ third-and-goal at the 3 into a first-and-goal at the 1 in the final moments. Both calls were the sort that could be made against any team on any snap of any game, and both went against the visitor in the fourth quarter of a postseason contest. On the defensive holding at the goal line, to me it seemed the Steelers, not the Ravens, were the ones holding. The punt call cost the Ravens four points and the goal-line call all but awarded the Steelers four points — had it gone against Pittsburgh, a field goal was the likely result of the possession. That’s eight fourth-quarter points for the home team in a game it won by seven points.”

I’ve said it countless times, let the players decide the outcome. Officials shouldn’t be throwing flags on marginal calls that could go either way, that could be called on most plays, and that directly impact the outcome of a game.

And they sure as hell shouldn’t be making such calls in the 4th quarter of a close playoff game.

Every story and every football game has a beginning, a middle and an end.
In both stories and football games the end is always more significant.
The beginning affects the middle and the middle affects the end, and this is true 1) in a story, even when the author writes without this flow, for the reader expects it and 2) in a football game, but in varying and sometimes inconclusive ways.

The refs do make a difference; by reversing plays (sometimes very significant plays) with a toss of a flag, refs do influence the outcome of a contest, for as much as a story, every play in a football game is interlocking with the whole, and thus, with the final result, and the “stoic” fan, to the degree they ignore the input of the refs, is like a reader who is unable to fully understand a text, even though they “see” that text.

Understanding the “text” of a football game is complex not only because “seeing” the whole text (game) is so difficult, and not only because we may suspect the motives of officials surrounding any particular contest, but also because the rules that must be understood and legislated in the context of the action of the game are also complex.  This is just a partial description of offensive holding:
  1. No player on offense may assist a runner except by blocking for him. There shall be no interlocking interference.
  2. A runner may ward off opponents with his hands and arms but no other player on offense may use hands or arms to obstruct an opponent by grasping with hands, pushing, or encircling any part of his body during a block. Hands (open or closed) can be thrust forward to initially contact an opponent on or outside the opponent’s frame, but the blocker immediately must work to bring his hands on or inside the frame.Note: Pass blocking: Hand(s) thrust forward that slip outside the body of the defender will be legal if blocker immediately worked to bring them back inside. Hand(s) or arm(s) that encircle a defender—i.e., hook an opponent—are to be considered illegal and officials are to call a foul for holding.Blocker cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an opponent in a manner that restricts his movement as the play develops.
  3. Hands cannot be thrust forward above the frame to contact an opponent on the neck, face or head.

Note the ambiguity.  Did you know a blocker is not allowed to ever “push” his opponent with his arms or hands?   But blockers always do this.

Or that a blocker is allowed to do something “illegal” as long as he “works to bring” it into a move that is “legal” eventually—like in the 3-4 seconds it takes to run a play?

Or that blocking the shoulders is fine, but not the neck—as if one could tell the difference in a typical football player?

Subversive readings determine the outcome of every story in football, and these readings are invisible precisely because they are readings.  Yet these readings ultimately affect every single thing the football fan “sees.”  Ambiguity of interpretation eclipses the merely physical.



Poe is a great artist, reviled by so many, and by so many fellow scribes.  The critic Harold Bloom apologized to my face for his cowardly attack on Poe; “I was intolerant,” Bloom said, shamefully.

Helen Vendler simply laughed in my face.   I don’t think there’s any hope for her.

John Lennon, in 1967’s “I Am The Walrus,” wrote, Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.  And there is Poe, looking over everyone, in that Sgt. Pepper’s album cover.

Lennon wasn’t celebrating Poe; John was too smart for that, for the more important fact was “you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.”

This is the fact that remains.

Not the Vincent Price fame.

Not the “macabre” Poe who appeals to all the imbeciles.

The most important fact is that Poe was kicked by so many who should have known better.

Is it because Poe triumphs in so many areas that he frightens away the specialists?

Was he too mainstream for the avant-garde?

Was he too brilliant for the mainstream—who merely carry all the errors of who he was forward?

Was it the manner of his death?

The status quo greeted Poe’s murder with deafening silence; the atrocious libel by “Ludwig” was permitted to take root, and the view of his slanderous enemies grew.

Was there a seeming unspoken lesson here: the true genius will die horribly, and die alone?

Happy Birthday, Poe.

We know who you are.

And we won’t forget you.



The neo-cons’ love affair with Winston Churchill is pretty disgusting, but The New Criterion has just taken it to new lows in their January 2011 number, with The Anglosphere & the future of liberty, a symposium of five essays with an introduction by editor Roger Kimball.

According to Kimball and the five essayists, the city of London invented the following things: civilization, fair government, law, individualilty, and freedom, and Winston Churchill, with the help of the British Empire, made sure these things took root and spread to as many people as possible.

Think I’m kidding?

Think The New Criterion is kidding?

No, and no.

Pretty creepy, huh?

This is bound to happen with a publication that considers all “modernism” absolutely good and all “post-modernism” absolutely evil.

Modernism, for The New Criterion—named after T.S. Eliot’s Criterion—is sufficiently plain to support their prudish conservative views, sufficiently urbane to support their intellectuality, and sufficiently linked to T.S. Eliot to support their anglophilia.

Post-modernism for The New Criterion, however, marks the Fall: out-of-control sexuality replaces regal order.  Loud, mad Viv is released from captivity to harrass quietly dignified Tom.  For The New Criterion, the 60s, and its cult of victimhood, drowns Emersonian self-reliance.

Keith Windschuttle begins his essay:

In Winston Churchill’s famous 1943 speech at Harvard University on the common ties of the English-speaking peoples, he defined the bond in terms of three main things: law, language, and literature.

There is no mention, finally, anywhere in this symposium of five essays, of what this “literature” consists.  You’d think the Anglospherists would want to give us some idea, but no.

The New Criterion prides itself in placing art above mere “politics,” and they are always quick to point out when overt political messages (usually the ubiquitous leftist ones) spoil pure art.  (This is why The New Criterion adores modernist abstract painting—no annoying political messages!)  But here, in defining the Anglosphere, aesthetics is not defined, but government is, and that government values the individual over the state; in other words, the conservative canard of ‘small government’ is the mantra, which is no surprise, coming from the conservative New Criterion.  

According to The New Criterion, the political is not supposed to interfere with art, unless that art is political.  Then it can.  So runs the logic of the neo-cons:  Offensive art may be removed from museums, but not in the name of politics, only in the name of art.    That makes sense, right?

Winston Churchill giving a “famous speech” on the “common-ties of the English-speaking people” at “Harvard University:” It doesn’t get any better for The New Criterion!

Here’s Roger Kimball in his introduction:

“English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth.  It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty.”

This is the way all the essays read.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Madhav Das Nalapat, writing one of the five essays for “The Anglosphere & the future of liberty” symposium, reminds us that Winston Churchill was not exactly pro-India (Nalapat leaves out Churchill’s overt racism and Stalin-like starvation policy towards his Indian nation, however) but he makes up for this lapse in Churchill-worship by roundly abusing those evil, non-English speaking, French and Germans.  Way to go, Nalapat!

Even if one were to agree with The New Criterion’s politics and cultural conservativism, one ought to be horrified by this bumbling, ahistorical, symposium.

Everyone ought to be ashamed of this simplistic boot-licking.


lady, slave

The lady, slave, would share
Those secrets in her shrouded breast
That we would learn the same as we yearn
For information, and all the rest,

But, oh! To see her naked with unclasped hair,
And to burn as we look upon her everywhere,
Those secrets, that we would, like poems, memorize well,
If we could but hear them; but no more of that, for she will never tell.

She owns a double pride: pride at being a lady
And a second, greater pride, because, plainly, she is a slave,
Slave to everything, love, moment, whim, and pride
Because she is a lady and bright! shining through the shady
Realms of haughty secrecy where all is hidden,
Like the midnights when this lovely slave must do as she is bidden,
For in that folly all live as lady or as slave,
Dressed, shining above, or plucking gems deep in the cave
Where none can see us, and how we writhe
In the hell of labor for others, feeding them who are alive.
We must die for their liberty, their liberty is the law
That shames us, a lady, mistaken for a slave,
And so one pride hides within the other
And we have bosses only, and never a true lover.

Speak not of heaven’s hopes! or fears that live in Hades;
We are all ladies and slaves.
Vanities and vices cover a world that no one saves;
Slaves, all! and all, once, beautiful ladies.


I don’t know about the rest of you, but my friends and I talk rhyme and meter the way others discuss fine wine.

The bouquet of a fine sequence of dactyls once caused me to faint from pure delight.   A friend once opined he could die content in a bed of trochaic tetrameter.

We scoff at those who can’t hear the difference between Swinburne’s 21 dollar Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou 2003 Sancerre, white Loire  and Poe’s 850 dollar Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, St. Julien Medoc Bordeaux red.

The best prosodists alive today, such as Marcus Bales and Annie Finch, make this common, tone-deaf mistake, re: Swinburne and Poe, but if the experts are wrong, what about the rest? Metrical taste today is at the lowest state since poetry was first written, so it is probably best we keep Bales and Finch as friends in the barren metrical landscape of our Letters.

Metrical expertise has been hijacked by two things:

First, poor training in the nuts and bolts of the science itself, so often tainted by needless pedantry.

Second, the New Critics’ injunction (Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” 1943) that “tension” between “metrical rhythm” and “speech rhythm” is the true measure of taste in judging metrical poetry.

This second obstacle is perhaps the most insidious, seducing even a poet as brilliant as Marcus Bales into error.   The most beautiful species of rhythm, combined with the most thrilling aspects of expression, are sold short by a theory that clips the wings of rhythmical flight in the name of “speech.”

Certainly, qualities such as cogency and consistency support metrical expression.  These qualities partake of all the good we mean when we refer to “speech.”  But “speech rhythm” is something else quite again.  And here is where the error resides: rhythm’s emphasis and rhythm’s surprise and rhythm’s art are all the poem needs in order to be wonderful, strange, new, and expressive, and “speech rhythm” is but an illusionary, accidental result.

For how can we really know what speech rhythm is?

This is one of those assumptions which exist only as that, an assumption, but not in reality— and all because the “real” aspect (everyday speech is real, isn’t it?) is accepted without reflection.  The metrical poem will not admit an idea merely because it is an abstract nod to something “real.”  The practice of a poem admits no hypotheticals.

We put the cart before the horse to make “speech rhythm” a notable aim or  complement to the “metrical rhythm,” because speech always implies something we’ve seen before in daily conversation, and by its very nature will drag us away from metrical excitement and novelty; the aping of “speech” will always exert inhibitory pressure on the metrical muse.  Obviously we don’t want to veer off into pure nonsense, but the speech should emerge almost accidentally from the metrical rhythm, which must be the primary focus.  Warren’s “tension” between the two implies a balancing act, but this balancing finally dilutes and weakens rhythmical  invention, which requires freedom to express, newly, terror and delight.

Let us look at some examples and see if we can detect this “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

In these lovely, poignant lines it is pointless to credit “speech” for those powerful anapests; they belong to metrical perfection.   Any “tension” added (I doubt any would be so bold to even try) would, even if organized to Warren’s exact specifications, weaken the poem in every respect.

What of this:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

What is interesting to notice here is that the ‘modern’ example is less like speech than the Romantic song.  We might observe to an intimate acquaintace, “So we’ll go no more a-roving,” but we would never say to anyone: “The winter evening settles down with smell of steaks in passageways.”  We already observed that the first example, the Byron, is a metrical tour de force, and yet, by comparison, the Byron is also more like real speech.   The “speech” of Eliot’s first stanza from his Preludes pervades like one’s own consciousness whispering despairingly into one’s own ear about the sad state of actual things.  The Byron, poem, too, addresses the sad state of reality, too.  Both poems are melancholy, but Byron’s melancholy is heroic and elegant: “Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/by the light of the moon.”  The beauty remains in the sadness.  In the Eliot example, there never was any beauty; the melancholy is depressing and inevitable: “And then the lighting of the lamps.”

Iambic pentameter is heroic for physical reasons; the tetrameter has one less beat and thus it has less weight, less gravity.   In a different context, “then the lighting of the lamps” could be a happy line, but the mechanics of the line in the context of Eliot’s unhappy realism highlights the mechanics itself as a dull, mechanical action.

It is easy to see that the Eliot, like the Byron, combines metrical rhythm with certain descriptive actions, for its effect.  There is no “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, per se.  “Then the lighting of the lamps” certainly has speech rhythm, but the point is that “Then the lighting of the lamps” exists in the poem as metrical rhythm—there is no speech rhythm and metrical rhythm existing simultaneously; the metrical rhythm is the speech rhythm in the poem.  There is no separation, and thus no comparison, and thus no “tension.”  We should not confuse the banal subject matter in the Eliot with speech itself; the speaking voice is not the same as the things described by that voice.  The “tension” is supposed to arise from the opposing rhythms, speech v. metrical.  But the metrical and speech rhythms are one.

If you think it is impossible for qualities to blend into one in poems, listen to what Eliot observes of Swinburne: “Now, in Swinburne, the meaning and the sound are one thing.”  This is quite an assertion: the meaning and the sound are one thing.   And does Eliot not describe precisely the claustrophobia of the romantics dwindling into the victorians which the moderns were hell-bent on escaping?  Eliot also: “When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.”

Poetry is always intensifying itself in what it is doing; the best poems never strike a balance, but pitch excessively forward, “annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”

As Warren says, free verse has none of this “tension.”

But the instant we journey away from free verse towards this “tension,” we come into possession of metrical rhythm which buys up all the prose in sight; there is never a chance for reconciliation and balance, for these two, speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, are like matter and anti-matter; they demolish each other.


John Gallaher’s look at D.H. Tracy’s “Six Types of Clarity,” a thoughtful tribute to William  Empson’s “Seven  Types of  Ambiguity,” gnaws at the paradox which says since no perfect clarity is possible, clarity, as a quality, is more ambiguous than ambiguity—since ambiguity, by its very nature, happily concedes imperfection.   This is all well and good, but we wonder how profitable it is to search for clarity on these terms.

Poetry doesn’t need to be difficult, and to be intentionally difficult is to, well, be an ass.  Perhaps this is so obvious that it gets overlooked.  If we do strive for ambiguity in Letters, we do so…why?

The pleasurable indefiniteness of a haunting melody and the poorly written essay by the college freshman: both ambiguous—one is genius, the other its opposite.  But again, with all the hazy and difficult challenges faced by us every day, why is it necessary in poetry, why would it ever be necessary, or desirable, in poetry, or in philosophy or in Letters, to seek out the ambiguous?

This is not to say that expression does not naturally and constantly fall into ambiguity on its own all the time—just ask that college freshman (whose parents are in debt for the first year’s tutition alone) attempting and failing to write a coherent sentence.  But why should poets seek ambiguity?

Poets don’t write for themselves; if they are good, if they are clear, they write for their nation, for their people, for all people (if they are truly exceptional) and that means they support that general communicative process which helps everyone be more creative, more imaginative, more refined, more competent, and more skilled at communicating with that language that binds us all.

The poet is not a scientist working in an isolated laboratory; the poet is the one who makes language attractive to everybody and so increases both the quantity and the quality of literacy in society.  Willed obscurity and ambiguity relinquishes this responsibility for a selfish idea of an ‘individual vision,’ which is nothing more than a failure to connect with others.  The crass bestseller is not bested with wooly ambiguity.  The junky bestseller should be answered with a bestseller not junky or crass.

T.S. Eliot said poetry was a “mug’s game.”  But these sorts of remarks, like “poetry makes nothing happen,” are finally not true.  They are self-pitying and defeatist; they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Leaving aside philosophical analysis for a moment, let’s put a face (or mug) on the whole “Ambiguity” question.

Speaking of Eliot, he and his High Modernism friends were infamous for disliking the Romantics.

As Pre-Raphaelite Art critic John Ruskin leapt over the marvelous Renaissance to find a new appreciation of the Middle Ages and its Gothic art, so T.S. Eliot traveled back in time to champion poetry considered dated and quaint; the Metaphysical Poets were named such by Samuel Johnson and the term stuck; we see Poe, as unmoved by these poets as Johnson was, referring to them as the Metaphysicals almost 100 years later; Poe, then America’s leading critic, pointed out how Coleridge was actually more “metaphysical” than the Metaphysical poets.

But T.S. Eliot, with Ezra Pound and the gang known as the New Critics— mostly out of Vanderbilt and trained at Oxford, managed to make the Romantics largely irrelevant as the poetry of ambiguity rushed in to take its place.

Now here is the author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” William Empson, in his own words, from the preface to the second edition of that book:

“The method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of the book, but there were two cross-currents  in my mind leading away from it.  At that time Mr. T.S. Eliot’s criticism in particular, and the Zeitgeist in general were calling for a reconsideration of the claims of the 19th century poets so as to get them into perspective with the newly discovered merits of Donne, Marvell and Dryden.”

Of course this is just silly.  Empson limps after Eliot’s hatred of imaginative writers like Shelley and Poe and Byron with the absurd claim that  it is necessary to understand Byron by reading him through the lens of Donne.  Not to mention that this lumps all 19th century poets together.  And why does “discovering” Donne mean we have to, like all the Modernists and New Critics, dislike Byron?  What is 20th century about Donne, and why must Donne be reconciled with Byron somehow, as we kill Byron, anyway?

We mentioned Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite.  Ford Madox Ford was an important cog in Pound and Eliot’s  Ambiguity-machine which reproduced itself in every English Department by the 1970s.  Ford’s grandfather was a Pre-Raphaelite painter.  The British have never cared for American Letters, and Pound and Eliot are still the biggest names in American poetry in over 100 years now, because they left America and became European.  The reputations of Emerson, Whitman, Melville and Frost got a boost in England only because these authors were narrowly American enough for John Bull’s idea of what a one-note American author should be. The New Critics all studied in England on Rhodes Scholarships.  Our best known female poet of the last half-century married an Englishman and died in London.  Auden and Huxley slummed it in America, but more for titilation than out of respect.  Eliot bred the inward-looking, hot-house plant New Criticism as he paid respectful homage to selected parts of the English past; Huxley and Auden in America were sermonizing oddballs who oozed along exotically in the pleasure-driven present.

Everyone knows what ambiguity and clarity are, until we start writing philosophical literary criticism in the mode of William Empson, who followed in Eliot’s footsteps in cleverly but un-heroically fashioning the Tradition to look like a version of himself—ambiguous, eclectic, sickly, and obscure.

Yet Eliot’s Tradition is better, at least, than any American author’s, for the American author is a bumpkin.

That, at least, is clear.


When I saw her, she looked lovely,
So I looked, so I looked, once again.
I went down the garden stairs toward her.
Nothing like her in all the world of men!
I greeted her with a common phrase.
She replied in whispered tones so fair!
She had sandals on her feet, there was a wedding,
But all she seemed to be concerned with was her hair.


What to do with the life of the party when there’s no more life and no more party?  What to do with worldly, sexy verse when poetry is not that anymore?  What to do with the splashy, smooth and exoteric when the poets are tortured, dry and esoteric?

What the fuck do we do with Lord Fucking Byron?

When did poetry become a hot-house plant inside a manifesto inside a university inside a book?

Who let the Muse get raped by illiterate Slam assholes?

Who smeared poop all over the nice rug?

Who let the twits be in charge?

Who let the bores take over?

What the fuck happened?

Who keeps saying the Modernists expanded poetry, made poetry free, and gave it permission to be about anything?   Hey, asshole!  Have you read Byron?

I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
And sounds as if it should be writ on satin,
With syllables which breathe of the sweet South,
And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in,
That not a single accent seems uncouth,
Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting, gutteral,
Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and splutter all.


“England! with all thy faults I love thee still,’
I said at Calais, and have not forgot it;
I like to speak and lucubrate my fill;
I like the government (but that is not it);
I like the freedom of the press and quill;
I like the Habeas Corpus (when we’ve got it)
I like a parliamentary debate,
Particularly when ’tis not too late;

I like the taxes, when they’re not too many,
I like a seacoal fire, when not too dear;
I like a beef-steak, too, as well as any;
Have no objection to a pot of beer;
I like the weather when it is not rainy,
That is, I like two months of every year.
And so God save the Regent, Church, and King!
Which means that I like all and every thing.

Our standing army, and disbanded seamen,
Poor’s rate, Reform, my own, the nation’s debt,
Our little riots, just to show we’re free men,
Our trifling bankruptcies in the Gazette,
Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women,
All these I can forgive, and those forget,
And greatly venerate our recent glories,
And wish they were not owing to the Tories.

But to my tale of Laura,—for I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
And, therefore, may the reader too displease—
The gentle reader, who may wax unkind,
And caring little  for the author’s ease,
Insist on knowing what he means, a hard
And hapless situation for a bard.

Oh that I had the art of easy writing
What should be easy reading! could I scale
Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
Those pretty poems never known to fail,
How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mixed with western sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism.

But I am but a nameless sort of person,
(A broken Dandy lately on my travels)
And take for rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,
The first that Walker’s Lexicon unravels,
And when I can’t find that, I put a worse on,
Not caring as I ought for critics’ cavils;
I’ve half a mind to tumble down to prose,
But verse is more in fashion—so here goes.


He was a Turk, the colour of mahogany;
And Laura saw him, and at first was glad,
Because the Turks so much admire philogyny,
Although their usage of their wives is sad;
‘Tis said they use no better than a dog any
Poor woman, whom they purchase like a pad:
They have a number, though they ne’er exhibit ’em,
Four wives by law, and concubines ‘ad libitum.’

They lock them up, and veil, and guard them daily,
They scarcely can behold their male relations,
So that their moments do not pass so gaily
As is supposed the case with northern nations;
Confinement, too, must make them look quite palely;
And as the Turks abhor long conversations,
Their days are either passed in doing nothing,
Or bathing, nursing, making love, and clothing.

They cannot read, and so don’t lisp criticism;
Nor write, and so they don’t affect the muse;
Were never caught in epigram or witticism,
Have no romances, sermons, plays, reviews,—
In harems learning soon would make a pretty schism,
But luckily these beauties are not ‘Blues;’
No bustling Botherbys have they to show ’em
‘That charming passage in the last new poem:’

No solemn, antique gentlemen of rhyme,
Who having angled all his life for fame,
And getting but a nibble at a time,
Still fussily keeps fishing on, the same
Small ‘Triton of the minnows,’ the sublime
Of mediocrity, the furious tame,
The echo’s echo, usher of the school
Of female wits, boy bards—in short, a fool!


Whate’er his youth had suffered, his old age
With wealth and talking made him some amends;
Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage,
I’ve heard the Count and he were always friends.
My pen is at the bottom of a page,
Which being finished, here the story ends;
‘Tis to be wished it had been sooner done,
But stories somehow lengthen when begun.

—all stanzas from Beppo (1818)

As Douglas Dunn wrote in an introduction to Byron’s verse (Faber) in 1974:

“From the purely literary point of view, Byron has fared badly.  Few outstanding critics have had much time for him.”

All the modernists, especially Eliot and the New Critics, reviled him.  Auden, alone in the 20th century, felt he (Auden) was a substantial and worldly enough of a poet that he could afford to actually like Byron.  The other schools, such as the Beats and the New York school, didn’t have what it took to embrace him.  I suspect Byron would have made such poets appear less modern and rebellious than they wanted to appear.

Douglas Dunn also points out:

“Byron’s infuence on the development of what is modern in poetry is considerable.  I find it difficult to believe that Browning could have written in the way he did without having first been impressed by the spoken plainness of Byron’s language in Don Juan, although, as is well known, the Romantic poet most loved by Browning was Shelley, whose example he thought himself to have betrayed.  Modern poetry in English owes much to Browning.  Pound, who saw Browning as a crucial prop in his undertaking to cut away ‘the crepuscular spirit in modern poetry,’ was never a supporter of Byron.  …it is worth pointing out that much of nineteenth-century French poetry which influenced Eliot and Pound—and Eliot in particular—is a writing of pose, and of poetic gesture, that same stance characteristic of an Age which is found in Byron.”

It should be obvious to all: the twits have won.




You’re 50.  It’s spring.  You’ve excused yourself from a wedding where you’ve rubbed shoulders and danced with everyone, all strangers, and as you stumble, intoxicated, into a lilac bush, you glimpse a couple kissing just before you black out.


You’re 10.  It’s late summer.  You’re staring at a clean, straight, brick church and you feel a pleasant breeze as you start for the pond with your toy boat.


You’re 30.  It’s winter.  You’re in a small bed-sitting room with door ajar, nibbling on crumb cake, reading an old romance.  It’s snowing outside and someone your age, who you don’t like, is approaching by a hidden staircase.


You’re 40.  It’s early summer.  You know you left it somewhere, but where.  It has a long chain that dangles down and a wire that leads up.  You were in the basement cleaning the jars and you spilled a box of shells behind 3 chests piled up, and this reminds you that you have to return a phone call and get to your car, fast.


You’re 13.  It’s late spring.  You find a statue in a forest.  You circle round it, shading your eyes from the noon sun that slants through the trees.


You’re 15.  It’s a warm fall evening.  You are lying on the floor in the family library, among pillows, nearly recovered from a fever, daydreaming over family portraits.


Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud, it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?


Don’t they mean the Bedbugs Project? Or the Wino Project?

When I told the famous poet Jim Behrle the Poetry Project was a stupid name he invoked tradition to defend it: “It’s been around for 45 years.”  It might be a stretch to equate 45 years with tradition, but hell, why not?  Jim Behrle’s no T.S. Eliot, but no one is, and Eliot’s been dead since the Beatles’ first LP and the Poetry Project is as old as 1965’s Yesterday, which, by the way, blatantly rhymes as much as any rap song, but you might say Yesterday is elegant rhyme, but in the 3 Stooges 1934 Columbia Pictures episode that rhymes, there’s slapping and rapping. (It’s the episode where Larry gets married, despite his lifetime membership in the Woman Haters Club.  Jackie, Tom and Jim are the boys’ names in this early Stooges show.)

The Poetry Project’s website wraps itself in the “tradition” (nyuk nyuk nyuk) of John Ashbery:

Since its founding [in] the late ’60s, the Poetry Project  has been a major force in contemporary American literature. It’s not just an  institution but an entire social sphere, where poets and their readers can  mingle freely, listen to each other, and come away with new ideas. The current  worldwide interest in American and especially New York poetry is a direct  result of the presence of The Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. – John Ashbery

Do we believe John Ashbery when he uses phrases like “major force” and “come away with ideas” and “current worldwide interest?”   Of course we do. If Ashbery isn’t purifying meaning, who is?

We must take Ashbery at his word, because we discern no winks, no smirks, no eye-pokes, no fun.  “Major force!”

The next blurb on the website is courteous enough to explain the importance of the Poetry Project:

The Poetry Project has, over the decades, provided poets with a safe haven, laboratory, and stage. These, combined, have activated and preserved our various ways of thinking and linking language to ourselves and to the world. Remarkably, the Project has never stopped reinventing itself as an institution: that is, it has allowed the currents of poetic innovation to inform its choices and decisions. In this, it is as unique as it is irreplaceable.  – Ann Lauterbach

Now we’re getting somewhere.   They give a “safe haven” to “poets.”  So they are a charity house. If you are a “poet,” and are running from the police, you go to them, or, if you need a meal and a clean bed and you are a “poet,” they are there for you.  Shall I remember this, the next time my wife throws me out of the house, or the bartender throws me out of my bar?

What can this mean, though:

“Remarkably, the Project has never stopped reinventing itself as an institution: that is, it has allowed the currents of poetic innovation to inform its choices and decisions.

Does this mean my rock of charity could turn to sand? What in the world does “poetic innovation” have to do with a meal and a warm bed?  Here I find my faith in the institution, in Ashbery and Lauterbach’s sincerity, slipping.

“Innovation,” as we all know, is the fine print in every contract: that may have been true yesterday, but poetic innovation makes it impossible to say who will be our friends tomorrow!

Faith forever topples into the ditch of “innovation.”

We already have our doubts about the venerable Poetry Project, and suspect it is a private club posing as an open one, playing hide-and-seek behind “poetic innovation” and terms like “safe haven, laboratory and stage.”

What if Melville made the Poetry Project his “safe haven” or his “stage,” rather than the wide, wide ocean?

What “poet” would seek the “innovative” illusion of an institutional promise of a “safe haven?”

The Poetry Project?

That was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone.

If my critique seems unfair, sullen, or rash,  it is in the spirit of Voltaire.  I seek to eliminate, rather than cultivate,  middlemen in poetry.  Recall the inscription on Voltaire’s church at Ferney:

Deo erexit Voltaire.

Voltaire erected this to God.



            Hope in Winter


Naked limbs now thin and empty
vein December’s gray,
skeletal branches reaching desperately
to the sky,
but one tree still thick with leaves
stands full against these ponderous clouds
as if defying winter and calling
even death a cruel joke.

Then the blackbirds all flew off
and an empty bone-bare tree
to dark victorious clouds was traded
for a puff of feathered smoke.



                Untitled For March


Even the most stubborn trees now budding,
all the holdouts that procrastinate,
like that arrogant little Red Oak
who never cares if he’s always late,
or that weepy, unwilling willow.
But now the turn of axis and the rains insist
that all cooperate and all lift leaf
and seed from winter’s pillow.


Despite their sullen reluctance
and the threat of spring-borne storm,
they gladly choose the fate of the reborn
and in so doing are rewarded, the chosen
of cardinal and crow.


So spring returns and all revives
but men still fight and lose their lives.
Even birds and trees can understand
what living means, have the sense to know
the difference between what suffers and dies,
and what will grow.




I see God’s hand in amber clouds
with golden rays above blue seas,
in black stripes on orange fur.
I see His plan in flowering trees,
in mockingbirds and honey bees,
in every desperate cur.


Call me crazy…well, they do,
but I see His thoughts in cobras, too.
I see His will in crocodiles.
They see God in human beings
and Satan in the wild,
but I see the Devil in you and me
and in every human child.
The roots of Poison Ivy
always grow new vines.

I see that mockingbird on the fence over there
just winked his eye at me.





Rudely awakened! A noisy commotion.
Jolted from sleep by a feud of some sort!
I wake to an angry screaming of crows,
sounds like a thousand, all over the place.
I rise, close the window, make coffee,
turn on the news to drown them out
and in a droning, barely noticed routine
of report I learn of a different murder.
Not another poor man robbed of his life
for a car or a debt still unpaid,
not another poor child, neglected and scarred,
not this kind of killing relayed,
but a number instead of a face.
Not a Joe or Jose or Yusef, but a place,
a number in multiple thousands
of those who have recently left.

I see a dark tide of crows in the pasture
as though the trees were hung with black crepe.
I see hundreds of raucous and shouting
black birds, but their bivouac is brief.
Some go and some stay. Their visit is short
but if they all disappeared in an instant,
their clamor submerged by cold silence,
would I awaken to the weight of this day,
understand the scale of departure,
the suffering and grief and the death conveyed
in this, at first, barely noticed routine of report? 






       This weedbrown, hidden twist of trunk
  writhing like a frozenwood snake from a rough
lichen-coated root in several directions branching
                  first into little clusters of
      buds and tiny silken wax leaves green like
     yellow roses and then extending to full nests
and even thick bushy stacks of leaves and blossoms
              white with a faded red line inside
          each petal glowing in groups of three
          and four from ancient branches hung
                       with spanish moss.


     A small brown bird with yellow edges on
His feathers and an orange beak lands and takes
       a black berry from inside a white flower.




                             The wind.







Flashing blur, a sudden whip;
spontaneous burst between trees
      so quickly, seem like lines
      of flecked many yellow brown
streak              not there…!
      A flock of finches leaves
for somewhere else.




A rare bird in my pasture this April,
coal black, banded white and huge,
dwarfing the hawks and the egrets.
The Mexican Eagle. We watch in delight
as he gracefully descends, then laugh
as he hops along through the grass seeking
the prey that it yields.


Up from the south this spring, rarely seen;
not a place he often goes. Not a habit,
hunting in my fields.


But the pastures and prey become harder
to find as the fields themselves become prey,
fall to the streets and the roads and new houses,
the population and sprawl that devours
what used to be his for the taking.


He stayed for two weeks, frightening
plovers and crows. Been gone
for a week, now, or more. 

Oh look! There he is!
On the side of the road.
A thistle of black and white feathers
and some blood.



           Changes in Texas


A river of birds as dark and wide
as the Mississippi once separated
these blue skies, a flowing endless
stream of solid black and feather.
But these days the skies are threadbare,
pale and sparse, thin like old carpets.
Now birds pass over in a nearly dry creek,
blow by like a trickle of ashes.

Once flocks of Egrets, thick and swift,
returned each sunset to the nest,
surged like whitewater rapids through red hills,
washing over in waves of white wings.
Lately they’ve grown thinner, like a slurry
of pale water in a bare sandstone canyon.
A larger flood has dammed the river.



Look! There! Listen!
Look at the geese!
And so loud! What a racket!
There must be a million of them,
wave upon wave of wide V’s.
Look how low they are.
I think they’re going to land over there
in the cornfield.

Later, in the quiet before sunset,
I thought I saw the shadow of a hawk,
but then I heard the searching peal,
saw a single lost and lonely goose pass over
in a race against the dark,
looking for a cornfield.



         Happy New Year


Conflicting view, this serene
yet busy egret, tall and white
against the green, seeking
sustenance along the wooded
thick-set border of the pond.
So small against the further shore
and the noisy background
of the bulldozer in the trees now
tearing down his home.

Conflicting time, one to consider
the new year’s hope and promise,
the losses of the last one,
and the worlds that soon will fall
as the noise approaches.
We’ll mark them down with
the losses of the new one.



                  (Galveston, 2008)


The ire of Huracan,
god of the wind, screaming through the night,
a Kamikaze tantrum of blind anger, I,
cowering in the dark, have heard.

The devastation after,
debris and loss in the flooded street,
fractured trees and plans, splinters and shards,
wandering with wide eyes I’ve seen.

A destruction cruel,
complete. More than rows of broken homes,
but the shatter and scatter of weal and lives and dreams
by inhuman rage incurred.

Gentle breeze this morning, after.
Soft light.
I saw a hummingbird.




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