There’s some familiar names here from last year’s BAP March Madness: Ashbery, Ammons, Tate, and William Matthews—who advanced the farthest.  A strong grouping, but we’ll look for the usual upsets, because these top seeds: do they write poems consistently better than thousands of other poets?  No.  Big reps mean nothing when the bodies start bumping.  We like Leslie Scalapino, whose poem has a cinematic quality—it feels like a life is really happening as you read it, and few poems have that quality.  James Tate is another to put your money on.



The North Bracket seems to be all about the titles of the poems: solid, not too fancy, invoking the iconic and the important.  If you can get away with “Aubade,” do it.  We like Larkin in the no-nonsense North.  Iron spike, indeed.



The South has it all: an original New Critic, the poet for whom ‘confessional’ was coined, a New York School poet, a touring theoretical lesbian, and last year’s BAP editor.  We can’t wait for play to start in the South.



And there they are: the 64  poets in the March Madness, the best of the “best” of APR from its beginning in 1972 to about 2000, when the APR anthology, The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review, was published.

The APR tourney reaches back a little further than Scarriet’s 2010 BAP tournament—Lehman’s Best American Poetry series commenced in 1988.

Sharon Olds is back, and so is William Kulik, who made it to the Final Four last year.  Stephen Dunn, who crashed the Elite Eight, is back with a strong poem.  Komunyakaa, Laux, Justice, Hall, and Dobyns return to action.  Ashbery, of course, is back, as is Heaney, both no. 1 seeds, in the East and North, respectively.  Robert Lowell is the no. 1 seed in the South and Ginsberg in the West.  A few Brits, and one Polish Nobel are included; if APR put them in their book, they’re eligible.  Again, the women poets are well under 50% in representation (as they were in the book); with the recently released VIDA report, that simple count will be checked more closely from now on.



Thomas Moore, Central Park, New York City

There Silence, thoughtful God, who loves
The neighborhood of Death, in groves
Of asphodel lies hid, and weaves
His hushing spell among the leaves. 

—“Alciphron”  Thomas Moore

Edgar Allan Poe, in an 1840 review of “Alciphron” by Thomas Moore, writes the following:

At page 8, he [Moore] either himself has misunderstood the tenets of Epicurus, or willfully misrepresents them through the voice of Alciphron. We incline to the former idea, however; as the philosophy of that most noble of the sophists is habitually perverted by the moderns. Nothing could be more spiritual and less sensual than the doctrines we so torture into wrong.

Thomas Moore was Ireland’s most beloved poet and a friend and biographer of Byron—their letters read like a 19th century version of Lennon and McCartney trading song lyrics; Moore wrote famous songs, and Poe, ‘jingle man’ that he was, admired the Irish bard exceedingly, and Poe goes so far to wonder in this review whether Moore might not be the best poet of all time—that’s right: No. 1.

But Poe wrote real Criticism; his reviews were Criticism, not puffs, and therefore we see in the quote above a stern disagreement with a mind he very much admired.  Such things go on in the heaven of Letters, far above the little minds who think classical music is funeral music and Criticism is mean.

When he called Poe ‘the jingle man’ in a private conversation with a young William Dean Howells, Emerson wasn’t being mean; he was just being stupid, for Poe excelled in so many genres never attempted by Emerson that it would jingle the stoic New Englander just to think on it.  It is not that Emerson never rhymed himself; he did, but he somehow fancied that his rhymes harbored a rich philosophy while Poe’s rhymes were only rhymes—well, that is a point not yet resolved, but Poe was not bereft of thought—but why waste our time on a silly remark of Mr. Emerson’s?

The following passage may suffice to illustrate that Poe’s reviews were more than a little thoughtful, at least as thoughtful as Emerson’s colorful sermons which cogitated upon gigantic ideas, while Poe wrote philosophically on actual things:

[“Alciphron”] is distinguished throughout by a very happy facility which has never been mentioned in connection with its author, but which has much to do with the reputation he has obtained. We allude to the facility with which he recounts a poetical story in a prosaic way. By this is meant that he preserves the tone and method of arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantages over his more stilted compeers. His is no poetical style, (such, for example, as the French have—a distinct  style for a distinct purpose,) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, ornamented into poetry. By means of this he is enabled to enter, with ease, into details which would baffle any other versifier of the age, and at which La Martine would stand aghast. For any thing that we see to the contrary, Moore might solve a cubic equation in verse, or go through with the three several demonstrations of the binomial theorem, one after the other, or indeed all at the same time. His facility in this respect is truly admirable, and is, no doubt, the result of long practice after mature deliberation. We refer the reader to page 50, of the pamphlet now reviewed; where the minute and conflicting incidents of the descent into the pyramid are detailed with absolutely more precision than we have ever known a similar relation detailed with in prose.

A remarkable observation from a ‘jingle man,’ but not remarkable to those who have actually read Poe; and his remark on the French is pertinent: Poe wrote in many different ways to a purpose, and Emerson’s ‘jingle man’ gibe is but the jealous growl of a man who wrote in the same style—and not a precise one, either.

One style: this is true of the current followers of Emerson and his line—which includes Whitman, who wrote in the style of Emerson’s prose (except for “O Captain! My Captain!” which modernists hate) and William James, Emerson’s godson, whose nitrous oxide philosophy influenced Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, which brings us right to the present day of scribblers who fancy themselves very modern and very free. 

The moderns’ practice is so free, their writing has no shape at all, for it is but poetry trying to shake free of poetry, form that is trying to shake free of forms, and thus the whole structure of po-biz is one gigantic bee-hive of prose that buzzes sans music, sans philosophy, sans criticism, sans poetry—a prose without any style whatsoever, except that style which rejects all style, like that philosophy which rejects all philosophy; a good example might be the head-scratching ruminations of 1990s Jorie Graham, the strolls in the park at twilight by John Ashbery, the cacophony of thousands of William Carlos Williams-influenced modern poets who race to the end of their lines like school-children hurtling pell-mell out of school.

One style of No style.

How was such a horror allowed to occur?

My guess is that somewhere along the line, it was decided that, to have a style, and, worse, to be proficient in a number of styles, was insincere. 

How dare Poe write “Ulalume” —and Eurekaand his Criticism— and his humorous tales— and his detective fiction— and his “To Helen” and his “The Masque of the Red Death”—and his Marginalia—and his Sea-faring novel—and his Reviews—and his essays—and his Tone Poems—and his Romances—and his early Science Ficiton—and his tales of horror—how dare he!

Surely Poe was some Victorian prank, and modern poetry, with its frankness and its bare-bones honesty and its one trusty style has saved the best of us from the sin of that populist trash.

So goes the unspoken analysis of the solemn modern who ponders Emerson and Pound with the utmost somber common sense.

But where’s the music?


Why, if we allow music, the ‘jingle man’ and his jingling might creep back into the tent, and with him all those styles, the Criticism (O mean criticism!), the poetic stories, all those genres he invented or developed, and that is so much work (what do you think we are?  Geniuses?)—better by far to proceed down the noble path of making poetry as “free” as possible!  Quick! Get me my copy of Aldous Huxley’s send-up of “Ulalume!”

For isn’t this the 800 lb. gorilla in the room?  Poe recounting how Thomas Moore is more descriptively precise in his poetry than anyone else in their prose points a cold finger directly at it: Shakespeare, after all was a poet in his plays and Shakespeare’s works are remarkable for their story-telling popularity as well as for their music; Moore, Shakespeare-like according to Poe, was very popular in his day, that Irish sun hidden now by the prosaic little moon of american modernism.

What poet in our day—and we can include the whole previous century–has the popular, story-telling, philosophical appeal of a Shakespeare, or an Alexander Pope, or a Thomas Moore, or a Poe, or a Byron?

This is a large topic, but something tells me it begins with the moderns’ horror of poetry that has music.


They’re falling like flies.

Here are the poets eliminated so far:

Ai, Alvarez, Angel, Asekoff, Bell, Berrigan, Berryman, Boland, Booth, Braun, Broumas, Buckley, Burkard, Ceravolo, Clark, Clifton, Curbleo, Dickey, Dove, Early, Eberhart, Emanuel, Forche, Gibbons, J.Gilbert, Gluck, Goodman, Graham, Herrera, Hillman, Hirsch, Hirshfield, Hoagland, Hogan, Hollander, Howard, S.Howe, Jeffers, Keelan, Kinnell, E.Knight, Koch, Kumin, Lauterbach, Lederer, Lee, Levertov, P.Levine, Lieberman, Lima, J.Logan, Lux, Major, Marks, McGrath, Mead, Medina, Meredith, Merwin, Miller, H. Moss, S.Moss, Olson, Oppen, Orr, Osbey, Pecor, Pereira, Plumly, Rakosi, Rawson, Rector, Revell, Rexroth, Rich, Roberts, St. John, Sadoff, J.Sandburg, Schwerner, Seidel, Seidman, Sexton, D.Shapiro, K.Shapiro, Simic, Simpson, D.Smith, Snodgrass, G.Snyder, J.Snyder, Stafford, Stern, Stewart, Stone, Stroffolino, Stryk, Swenson, Valentine, Walcott, Waldman, Warsh, Weigl, R.Weiss, T.Weiss, Wenderoth, Wilbur, C.K.Williams, C.Wright, Yau, Zweig.

There are some poets…when you put them on the court…BAM!…they perform…they rise to the occasion…they impress the crowd…they leave the audience with something…they have that ‘poetic gift’ which is always at their disposal no matter what they happen to be doing… and it doesn’t matter how many people are watching and how close, or tense the game is…they never lose the touch on their soft shot…or lose accuracy…or lose concentration..it can’t be explained..some have it.

Other poets, the ones eliminated here, in isolated instances, with valiant effort and pre-meditation, accomplish something wonderful, but they have bad nights, bad days, they express things that resonate in themselves but not with others, not with the crowd.  (Listen to that crowd, poets!  They sound like the sea.  Smell them.  The salt of their sweat.  Hear them.  Their cries.  Their urgencies.  They move the air; they say: Make us feel.  Make us understand.  Write for us, the world, not your own idea, wrapped, warming beneath a lamp, in a dim alley of your brain. Not in there.  We are here.  Here we are!)

But the losers do not move the crowd.

The losers wrote (occasionally it might seem like there’s a typo which mars the text below—but that’s how it is with bad poetry—no typos in the following; what appears is the poets’ actual text):

We say a heart breaks—like
a stick, maybe, or a bottle
or a wave.  But it seems


Sat., Apr. 26, 1973
Jefferson City, Mo. 65101
(500 yards, as the crow flies,


Almost at the end of the century
this is the time of the pain of the bears
their agony goes on at this moment


Reading I spilled the wine.
Do you care? Are you wet? Do you care?
In a later epistle, hands dry, I will say


After seven years and as the wine
leaves and black trunks of maples wait
beyond the window, I think of you


To survive things have to be blunted,
Raw experience is too fierce to endure.
The mind blots out much of experience


The way things move sometimes,
light or air,
the distance between


where the raven suddenly wetly and rawly
roughens the low vacillations of various windsweeping
hushings—as if he’s clawed


When the immutable accidents of birth—
parentage, hometown, all the rest—
no longer anchor this fiction of the self


She saying, You don’t have to do anything,
you don’t even have to be, you Only who you are,
you nobody from nowhere,


The universe is sad.
I heard it when Artur Rubenstein played the piano.
He was a little man with small hands.


I look out the window: spring is coming.
I look out the window: spring is here.
The shuffle and click of the slide projector


won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.

The percentage of women in this APR collection, and reflecting in the March Madness Tournament is not sizable: it’s roughly 25%, which will not make a lot of people happy, right, Marla?


The gender issue will always partake of the particle/wave paradox:  All the individual can ever say is that he will not reject women who are good.  As an individual, he cannot say: I will accept women who are bad and I will reject men who are good.

Aesthetics and justice are unfortunately oil and water.

If the relations between the sexes are ruled by the wicked heart, it would not be wise to then let the judgment be swayed by the heart in other matters.

Contrarily, if the heart, which makes men and women behave as they do towards each other, is good and operates in a way that passeth understanding, in that case the judgment needs to defer to that heart.

In either case, the judgment should not presume to get involved legislating the heart in any controversy between the sexes—regarding poetry.

This, I believe, is as much as can be said philosophically on the subject.  Marla?

MARLA MUSEI don’t like what you say, but I think you have a good heart and (sob!) I am in love with you, Tom, …don’t worry folks, I’m fine!….so I will carry on the best I can in these circumstances, won’t I? 

Good!  I vow I will not take advantage of your feelings when I speak again on the subject.  And I’m sure you’ll have more to say as Scarriet Poetry March Madness continues!

MARLA MUSE: I’m sure I will!


I’m here at courtside with Marla Muse as we watch another poet shooting all wrong, trying to get into this March Madness tourney…

Marla—oh! two players tangled up…one fell on top of the other hard at midcourt…that had to hurt…Marla, what seems to be wrong with Michael Burkard…

MARLA MUSE:  Oh, I don’t know.  He graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1973.  I suspect drugs, booze…  Can you imagine getting a creative writing degree at Iowa in 1973?  Happy hour?  Dime beers?  The 60s were still happening in 1973!  Nixon is still in office.  Can you imagine…the Iowa Writer’s Workshop?  When “Nights In White Satin” was on the radio?  I don’t think Michael Burkard has anything left.  He’s terrible.  He’ll never make the tournament.  The APR gave him 9 poems in this anthology—more than almost any of the 180 poets represented, but he’s awful.  Look:

Wait, Marla, are you going to quote the whole poem?

MARLA MUSE:   I have to.  They have to see…how bad this poem is…they won’t believe it otherwise…I have to quote the whole thing…they’re all this bad, too…every poem he’s ever written…they’re all this bad…it’s hard to believe…but you know, when you’re smoking all that dope…

Yea, it must have been a strange life…teaching at Sarah Lawrence in the 80s…I wonder if anyone ever told him his poetry sucked…or maybe that wasn’t cool back, then…in the 80s…you just didn’t do that…or bad was good, or something…

MARLA MUSE:  Yes, that could have been it…bad was good…it was the 80s…poetry was adrift…Lehman’s  BAP came along at the end of the 80s…there was no direction in poetry…the first writing workshop generation was getting old and putting together their Complete and their Selected…the next generation of workshoppers were following, directionless, in a cloud of pot smoke…they were strange times…I remember the fall of the Roman Empire…no, but even this doesn’t compare…OK, let me read this poem…just imagine it emerging from a giant cloud of weed…what else can explain its badness?  OK, here goes:

[I Have A Silence In The Rain]

I have a silence in the rain
and I have my horses.
I have my shoes and I have my name,

the beginning of the street
and the street downtown, between the canyons,
and the trees which shine my shoes.

I have a silence and an end,
an end which is not critical,
not the weight. The houses bloom

and they’ve never been mine,
but there were beings in the rooms,
there were souls to each of the houses,

each of the rooms,
and this extended to the prison of the city
and the prison of the sea, the towns

there, by that sea, and that end
which was narrow
and by itself.  It was so much itself—

that end—
that I was uneasy there, a facade
it seemed, I had a reputation

for going nowhere.
I was always elsewhere
and that was why. I extended my weight

to my shoes and the few trees
and the horses—and the old closed motel
on the thing I called the bluff, the motel

closed for years, staring in the terribly pink sunset
with its pink vases
and pink doors. And the silence which stared.

The horses were below.
The horses were weight, in the evening
they shined too.

—Michael Burkard (1986)  from The Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review

Wow.  Marla, I’m stunned.  That’s…that’s…bad.

MARLA MUSE: It’s safe to say this poet will not be joining the 64 in the March Madness tournament…but you know what that kind of poetry says…?  It says: man, I was enjoying life…I was getting high, I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence…everything I touched was profound…I didn’t even have to try…I’d just put on a wrinkled button-down shirt….and black jeans…and comfortable old brown shoes…and I had my Iowa MFA…and that’s all I needed…and I’d look out the window and scratch my head and THAT was cool…my very being WAS COOL…maybe today we can’t see it…but this kind of poetry should invoke a world of cool, relaxed, pleasure…campus breezes…campus sunsets…campus parties…

But here we are in the 21st century…March Madness…and it’s all different…March Madness, baby!


Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most Victorian of authors, the very opposite of a modernist or imagist.  His poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for instance:

Darest Thou Now O Soul

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

That we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O  joy, O  fruit of all) them to fulfill O soul.

In Whitman’s poem rhetoric is far more important than image, and the manner and the subject are utterly Victorian, and not in the least modern.  Whitman travels solo, an American vagabond, cut loose from all, and yet his yearning to connect within his profound disconnectedness is what gives him his signature attitude and emotion.

Let us look at another classic Victorian poem, this one by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), born within weeks of Whitman, but in England, and so much more connected to life than Whitman:

When All the World… (from The Water Babies)

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Now both of these poems are highly expressive and highly emotional; but Whitman’s poem is free of the world and without image of the world; Whitman is completely taken with “O Soul,” but Kingsley is immersed in “the world” and images of “the world” and memories and lessons of “the world,” dragging in trees and swans and lasses; Kingsley is grasping the world with all his might, while Whitman has let go; Whitman is transparent, invisible except for a rhetorical gesture, a desire, a wish, an expression only, an urge. 

Whitman is a Victorian looking backwards at Shelley; Kingsley is a Victorian looking forward to Yeats and 20th century Symbolism and Imagism. 

Kingsley was an early supporter of Darwin’s ideas; no “O Soul” for Kingsley; that’s more for the more sentimental Victorian, Whitman.

Here again is Whitman, and again we see the Victorian morality, the sermon, the speech, the gesture, without any need to be in the world, as such; the world is insignificant, the world is gone, and for Whitman only a  moral and mystical intuition remains:

To A Common Prostitute

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.

One thinks, of course, of Christ’s forgiveness, the instant understanding that washes away sin, for we all are sinners, all “lusty as Nature,” as Whitman says he is, and therefore as the sun shines on all, so the sun shines on this “common prostitute” and then Whitman implies he is going to come to her after she makes ready and it is intentionally ambiguous what he is going to do: rape her as a Zeus-like figure disguised, or give her wise counsel; as usual with the Victorian Whitman what is clear is the emotional wallop; he is morally equal with her and placid, but at the same time he is morally superior and even morally inferior because he wishes her to remember him almost as if he were a common wooer of her; it is a miraculous attitude as Whitman manages to be Pagan god, Old Testament father, New Testament Christ, and humble lover towards his “girl” all at once—here is the truly protean Whitman able to be/say everything by dint of his complete loving detachment. 

A human being cannot do this, only poetry can.

For the modernists, poetry will become an irony as it reaches what is apparently its limit; the dream of Shelley has invaded all aspects of life, the past, the present, the future; a pagan statue bathed in the holy light of Christ now become the mind of the poet itself and the poem literally bursts with too much soul and what is left is the hard fragments of the imagists or the elusive ironies of the moderns.

The hard ground of common-sense, which Victorian poets like Charles Kingsley walked upon, was rejected by the new poets of the 20th century; but for some reason Whitman, who represented a Romantic/Victorian end, and we can clearly see the ‘traveled as far as one can go’ in Whitman’s prostitute poem—for some reason, Whitman, the culmination of the Romantic/Victorian line, was welcomed by the moderns as a beginning, and, after some initial reluctance, hailed as a true modern.

Why?  Because Whitman used dramatic speech, unencumbered by strict meters? 

Were the moderns simply unable to write good free verse themselves (free verse being one of the modern tenets) and so Whitman, though born in 1819, had to be borrowed, so to speak, for a 20th century job? 

This may be part of it; remember, the chief poet of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, achieved his best results sliding back into retro-meters, and Pound just couldn’t pull off free verse interest like Whitman could. 

OK, Walt, you’re hired. 

But this was a deal with the devil, because you can’t give a Victorian a job in the Modernist factory, and finally the work that had to be done did not get done; ghosts cannot run a modern firm.  Think, too, of another keen modernist theorist: John Crowe Ransom—another rhyming throw-back.  Or Cummings, a Victorian love-poet if there ever was one.  Auden?  A balladeer?  He wasn’t modern enough, either. 

20th century painting looked so different from 19th century painting.  But poetry, trying so hard to be modern, either jingled too much in a 19th century manner, or looked too much like haiku, a form that looked backwards, as well.

This is why Whitman was heavily recruited for awhile, and now we think of him, with Dickinson (b. 1830) as moderns, not Victorians—which is what they are.  This had a tumultuous affect on modernist literature.  No one was supposed to be rhyming, but poets did, so Eliot went for a collage effect, burying his meters in fragments—but this was a deal with the devil, too; you just don’t sacrifice artistic unity out of weakness, and this is what Pound and Eliot did. 

Pound was also unscrupulous in another way; he and his friend Williams wrote haiku—anything to avoid looking Victorian—and re-named their haiku-writing Imagism to pretend they were moderns, doing something new.  But no one was doing anything new: they were re-naming, smashing, and recruiting 19th century poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire) and at the same time pretending they were “new”—so desperate were the would-be ‘moderns’ that previous eras were rejected whole cloth, and this made the problem even worse; sources of inspiration continued to dry up as the new writers self-consciously struck their ‘new’ poses, selectively trashing, breaking, rejecting, and recruiting. 

Luckily for the Modernists, most intellectuals just wanted to join the ‘new’ party, whatever it was, whether it was justified or not; looser morals alone was enough to get people onboard the ‘modernist train,’ and painting was doing a pretty good job of looking ‘modern,’ so if Pound wore a beret and the poets hung out with a few painters, all was fine. 

They just had to be careful not to use terms like “O soul.”


Readers of Scarriet know Literary Modernism is essentially a reactionary movement, an “avant-garde” of male-dominated fascism, feudalism, futurism, and blood-primitivism.  This is the chief reason why great female poets like Elinor Wylie, Edna Millay, and Amy Lowell were, and still are, kicked to the curb by the ‘Pound Era’ Dial magazine clique. 

And the shame is that women  today ignorantly go along with Pound’s “revolutionary” agenda, believing the lies of a small, influential, men’s club clique. 

There’s only three female poets one is allowed to really respect: Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne MooreBishop’s mentor and Eliot/ Pound Dial magazine clique-member, and Emily Dickinson from the 19th century.  That’s it.  Gertrude Stein, perhaps, but she was more important as an art collector. All the other ‘great’ poets, like Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence, are men.  (And the only respected female critic in the world, Harvard University’s Men’s Club Modernist apologist, Helen Vendler, agrees.)

If we look at London in the summer of 1914—right before that insane war—and the dinner hosted by Amy Lowell, sister to the president of Harvard, we see a drunken Ezra Pound misbehaving with a bathtub, ridiculing the hostess-poet as, at that precise moment, the Imagistes, as they called themselves, were split in half:

Some of the Imagists stay with Pound, because he gets them published in the only game anywhere, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry.

Some go with Amy Lowell, because of the money and the Lowell name and because she sincerely believes in Imagism (and Japanese prints) and will put her devotees in her popular anthologies—H.DH.D.’s husband, Richard Aldington, John Gould Fletcher (Imagist and Fugitive), and even D.H. Lawrence, Amy Lowell becoming Lawrence’s only American friend.  S. Foster DamonLowell’s official biographer, is one of The Eight Harvard Poets, a collection edited by Stewart Mitchell, also an editor of The Dial and one of many male poets who made a career of absuing and ridiculing  Amy Lowell.

Pound’s trump card at Amy Lowell’s London dinner is Ford Madox Ford, sexist pig, War Propaganda Minister for His Majesty, gentleman, lover of war, and hater of the Hun, and by far the most influential person at that July, 1914 dinner, one of the original Imagistes; Ford, grandson of a pre-Raphaelite, is the first one to meet Pound off the boat when Pound goes abroad in 1907.  

Ford Madox Ford hated Amy Lowell at first sight, and his scorning her in 1914 as a “neutral,” is not insignificant. Pound serving Ford, and later, Mussolini, is no accident; Ford really believed in a world of hereditary aristocracy, dog-eat-dog, ‘who’s side are you on?’, rapacious bigotry, and Pound learned his fascism partly from his relationship with the imperialistic Ford Madox Ford, War Propaganda Minister of the British Empire.

Ernest Hemingway, who met Ford in 1920s Paris, and who was physically repulsed by the monstrous Ford, relates first-hand that Ford saw the world in terms of a strict heirarchy, with English gentlemen at the top of the heap: Henry James was not even good enough to be a gentleman, because he was American, and Pound suffered the same flaw in Ford’s eyes.  Nazis and fascists, such as Pound, were wanna-bes before the Crown of Empire Britain and its bejeweled Euro-cousins; fascists were mere thugs with a love/hate relationship with their blue-eyed masters in London.  Pound, defeated in an Imagist p.r. war by Amy Lowell (she was a far more popular and influential Modernist than Pound in the 20s) ran and hid in Italy, seeking a higher Modern pedigree in Roman fascist primitivism and ‘classical’ hyperbole, trading one type of bombast (his so-called Imagism) for another (his unwieldy Cantos).

Not only was Ford at the center of early Imagism, and an effete, philandering, warmonger English gentleman, but he later traveled to America to network with the cranky, philandering Allen Tate and the reactionary Fugitive/New CriticsTate, with friends John Crowe Ransom, Paul Engle (a Fugitive judge gave Engle his Yale Younger Prize) and Robert Penn Warren, will create the Writing  Program empire, so the Modernist Dial-clique, rejected outright by the public, can find their dreams fulfilled as they slip inside the ‘new writing’ university canon-apparatus.

The Language Poets are a mere continuation of reactionary Modernism—the Imagists sought to strip away and destroy Victorian discursiveness and morality, just as the Language Poets seek the same end in a slightly fancier and more “advanced” theoretical manner.  One can trace Charles Bernstein’s mentors, for instance, right back to WW I era Oxford and  Cambridge.

Imagism was a movement which was popularized not by Pound and his friends, but by the American aristocrat Amy Lowell.  Yet Lowell was still put in her place by the top-dog aristocrat Ford and his despot-on-a-leash Pound. 

Imagism was not original with Ford or Pound.  The stunning Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War made Japanese art suddenly prized among the wealthy and the fashionable; a haiku rage ensued (what a coincidence!) right before the birth of what was re-named Imagism.  Mere prejudice hides the profound Japanese influence, just to give all the glory to Pound’s “theories” (slapdash, mad-scientist manifestos) and his pal William Carlos Williams’ red wheel barrow. 

Reading the commentaries, one would think Pound invented the image and the art of China and Japan himself, such is the ignorance of that whole Amy Lowell-dominated period in American literary history.

The Amy Lowell story is a complicated one, but it’s interesting to note that Lowell was attacked by the same Pound-clique who viciously attacked Edna Millay: men like Ford Madox FordHorace Gregory, the now-forgotten Bollingen Prize winner, and Hugh Kenner, Pound’s adoring admirer and lackey, author of The Pound Era—in that work Kenner condemns Lowell as the “hippopoetess” and treats her shabbily throughout.

It is true that the Imagistes were ridiculed (and justifiably, to some extent) as a group—think of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke’s ‘Spectrist’ literary hoax in 1916, which aimed its satire at the Imagist school: Pound and Lowell were often bruised by the same poker.  Bynner, Harvard ‘o2, and Ficke, with an art dealer father who imported Japanese art in the late 19th century, were both older than Pound, and Pound’s Imagism to these fellows—and many others at Harvard, or in Greenwich Village, or traveling abroad—was narrow, historically short-sighted, and pretentious. 

To 99% of the scholars, poets and artists living during the first part of the 20th century, calling that time “the Pound era” would have seemed nothing but a joke.

It didn’t help Amy Lowell’s reputation to die in 1925 at the age of 51.  Like the premature death of Poe in the previous century, Lowell’s death provided an opening for a certain hyena-and-jackal element to move in and re-write history in their favor.

Amy Lowell championed Frost (who was there in London in 1914, too, keeping a distance from the Imagists; but Lowell helped Frost, anyway) and Lowell championed Keats; she was open to other cultures, dared to live openly with a woman, and smoked cigars, and had an extensive life-long correspondence with D.H. Lawrence, and also was the champion of Imagism, and still going strong in all this at the moment of her death—but upon her demise she was assailed by the Poundclique (who begged for money to her face, while making snide remarks about her obesity and her ‘not knowing her woman’s place’ behind her back) and her reputation is still falling as we speak.

A theory why Pound’s reputation got a tremendous bump in the 40s: Pound was chosen as a scapegoat/buffer/distraction by an anglo/Harvard/Fugitive-centered literary establishment with its own closet rightwing (even Nazi) sympathy.  Giving Pound, the bigot, a Bollingen Prize was a smokescreen, and was done less for Pound than (secretly) for them.

It was, in fact, the Bollingen prize-receiving members of the Poundclique who abused Edna Millay and Amy Lowell, and as Lowell is forgotten, so is Keats a little more forgotten (the Pound/Eliot Modernists are notorious Romanticism-haters) as, meanwhile, the Pound-Modernist clique men’s club grows apace in reputation.

The shake-up, when Pound is no longer useful, will happen, sooner or later; dedicated historicism, distanced enough from the era, at last, will investigate and clear up the matter; the reader may see this Scarriet defense of Amy Lowell as a preliminary writing on the wall.

And Imagism, what was it, finally? 

Oh, nothing, really.  The image was nothing new in poetry.  Nothing new at all. 

Just as there was nothing new about painters influencing the New York School. 

E.E. Cummings, one of the Eight Harvard Poets, and also part of the Dial clique, having married the publisher’s wife, was a respected abstract painter—many people forget that, and they said back  then that Cummings’ white spaces in his poetry were due to the fact that he was a painter. 

It might be a great selling point for a manifesto styled for an up-and-coming avant-garde academic. 

But meaningless, really.


Though eliminated from the 2011 Scarriet Second Annual March Madness Tourney based on the Best Poems from APR, John Berryman spoke, and spoke for a long time.  He insisted quite a few times that he “wasn’t boring and he wasn’t drunk—like some of you out there…” (!!)

John Ashbery seems to actually be paying attention to John Berryman.  He, along with Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, are still waiting to see if they make the final 64 poets playing in this years March Madness Tournament.  They all have poems in The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review, edited by Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.

Harold Bloom’s introduction to The Body Electric is typical Whitmaniacal trash from the esteemed blowhard, and need not be discussed here, for it is wholly uninteresting.  It begins, “This anthology takes its title from Walt Whitman, who shares with Emily Dickinson an aesthetic eminence not quite achieved by even the strongest American poets of the century just ending: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and, as many would add, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and others.”  Oh, please shut up, Harold D. Bloom.  That’s enough from you.  We do not know a single person interested in what Harold Bloom has to say, or ever did.  His cacophony has been tolerated long enough.  Someone throw him out of the building.  He won’t be invited back.  (Though he did perform a serviceable job as commisioner of Scarriet’s 2010 Poetry Baseball League this past summer.  We thank him for that.)  Marla Muse is said to fancy Mr. Bloom, but we believe it is only because  Mr. Bloom once had Camille Paglia in his classroom, and Marla Muse hearts Ms. Paglia.

We’ll have the usual round of interviews with Marla Muse in the weeks to come!

The excitement is growing every day as Scarriet’s 2011 Second Annual March Madness approaches, and fans wonder who will make the tournament!


Stephen King must be heartbroken.

I used to go to Borders.  I’d leaf through the coffee table books.  I’d listen to CDs at the listening stations.  I’d sit in a soft chair and read a book.  I’d have a cup of coffee.  I’d browse magazines.

See, I love to read.

I wouldn’t buy anything.  How could such a business afford to support customers like me, I wondered?

It turns out it couldn’t.

Especially not in a world of Google and Amazon.

But worry not.

We have libraries.

Borders has displays of best-sellers, horrible books with movie tie-ins.

Borders tells you what to buy.

Libraries encourage reading by subject, getting to know a particular subject, rather than getting a shallow view of a subject by the latest spin doctor which is put on display. 

Hawthorne once lamented the rise of best-selling twaddle for women: books as cheap soap-opera.  Books can even perpetuate cretinism: books, in themselves, are not a good, and this is something your average bookworm has trouble understanding.

Reading trash is still a trashy activity, and even worse is the half-educated person who actually thinks they know something.

The mind is just at good at deceiving its owner as bringing it information, and incomplete information is an excellent deceiver, for we don’t know when we have enough information; we don’t know when we are being deceived by information itself.

The only way to avoid being deceived by one’s mind is to use it as little as possible, and instead, embrace the cause and effect immediacy of the physical world: if one practices to cook by cooking, tasting and eating, a book will not fool that cook.  But if one learns to cook by consulting a book, how is the student to know if the book is wrong, or not?  One can see by this simple example that books are supplements to experience and not a substitute for them.  But the bookworm allows books to be a substitute for experience.

Theoretical science is not, as the mere bookworm might suppose, abstract, for to comprehend formulae, the understanding must literally travel through the sequences of the formulae, precisely as a piece of music, written out, in order to come alive, must be physically manipulated.  The partial information provided by a piece of music cannot deceive, as selected facts can, because the information of the musical piece is mathematical, and thus presents itself as an idea that already exists: the rigors of science, music and mathematics are based on re-discovery, and partake of immediate sensual understanding of physical qualites such as perspective, proportion, shape, duration, pitch and beauty.

The reader of mere fiction, who likes to participate in imagined gossip, is performing quite a different operation than the scientist, the mathematician, or the musician—active participants in the world, a world whose beauty is a concrete way into it.  No, the mere reader of fiction—and the gossip and half-lies of poorly written biography and history—is instead lost in that realm in which information is only partially given, and thus the fiction reader learns information in the manner that deceives, because the reader has no idea what information is missing. 

This misunderstanding of what true knowledge is creates your typical smug, ‘educated’ person, who has no real intellectual curiosity—their mind is built on reading fiction and slanted biography and history, in which missing information is the key element, and thus a true spirit of inquiry actually frightens them, since they are comfortable in their fiction-universe.

Certainly fiction-universes can make us comfortable, and those who condemn religion say it is merely a fiction of false comfort, but it is not for me to question fictions which make us happy; the point of this essay is Borders bookstore, and no one I personally know is a better person because of Borders bookstores; the books sold at Borders would not interest a scientific specialist or a connoisseur.  A true lover of knowledge would always prefer a good library, not a bookstore which piles books on display and serves a marketing/publishing empire which tells people what to read.

In their daily conversation, or in their jobs, none of us are helped by anything sold at Borders.   The half-knowledge of politics, economics, nutrition and science (which is useless and even harmfully deceptive) must be blamed, in part, on cynically marketed books, and the half-knowledge—unfortunately so often a point of pride—is actually worse than ignorance, and bookstores (like much of our so-called education) produces this insidious state of things.

It may be said that even trivial knowledge is good, because it can bring people together in a common atmosphere, and this is invaluable; let us grant this; but trivia can be found anywhere, not just in books; and a community can just as easily be brought together by trivial facts such as ‘our grocer has red hair’ as ‘the grocer in a book sold by Borders has red hair.’

Defenders of poetry and fiction will finally state that deception is the whole point in the fictive enterprise, and here is where  Aristotle and Plato (and the whole world) differ: the good in one philosophy is an evil in the other.  But this division aside, to reject Plato’s hard-nosed search for truth, and reduce everything to rhetoric, which either convinces, or does not, and so partakes of power, or does not; power being all, and truth nothing, is a falling off; indeed, but one that unfortunately supports all sorts of abstract, wasteful, superficiality which we usually dare not question, like books, poets, poetry, fiction, schools, and bookstores.

So you may have the person who fancies themselves ‘educated’ who puts down TV, because they get a little superior-feeling thrill by doing so.  Oh, those reality shows, they are such trashI read poetry, instead.  These are well-meaning folk, who have a vague idea what it is to affect a certain educated demeanor, but unfortunately their own ignorance is so massive, it over-shadows everything.

The work of the scientist, the musician, and the mathematician are physical necessities—they have no abstract properties.  The abstract belongs entirely to fiction—and the half-knowing bookworm.

Everyone likes a comfortable bookstore.  I lament the end of that.

But the dragons, vampires, half-baked science and history, the gossipy fiction?

I won’t miss that at all.


march madness

The death of the poets continues as the 180 of The Body Electric APR anthology is reduced to the 64 of Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness Brackets.

We told you John Berryman was eliminated.  To see why, here’s the first stanza of “4th Weekend” reprinted from The Body Electric:

Recovering Henry levelled & confronted;
helpt Mary Lou, was helpt by Mary Lou;
accepted incest, etc.
Major his insights into other burns,
grand his endeavors on their sick behalf,
on the trip into sick himself

Do you see why Berryman won’t be in the tournament, Marla? 

Marla: Grrrr.

You can see this is just self-pitying, self-indulgent trash, can’t you?

Marla: mmmmm.

Thank you, Marla.

Who else has been elim-i-na-ted?


Through the hole in the hut’s wall,
I watch the old woman who put me up,
leaning against a wooden tub, elbow deep in wash water.

Julia Alvarez

He said in his mother’s house, growing up
he remembered roses, and his friend said
his mother could not abide print on her walls

Ralph Angel

Now that we’ve finally arrived here
you won’t let me hold you.
And were you stopped along the way by a reason to believe

L.S. Asekoff

Perhaps there has never before been such an open sea,
the malady of death & the long affair
in the absence of history

Marvin Bell

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
It had no trouble accepting its limits,
yet defining and redefining a small area

Ted Berrigan

We remove a hand…
In a roomful of smoky man names burnished dull black
And labeled “blue” the din drifted in…

Eavan Boland

Life, the story goes,
Was the daughter of Cannan,
And came to the plan of Kildare.

Olga Broumas

I woke up in the dark
of a moon steamed against glass
black as if glazed with ebony

Can you see, Marla, how this writing isn’t going to win any prizes?

Poets are supposed to, at the least, write good lines.

Their lines are supposed to be more interesting than prose lines, than lines you would read in the beginning of a short story, or novel, because with a short story, or novel, you expect a story to unfold, so you don’t need every line to be wonderful; but with the poet, you do need every line to be wonderful, because otherwise, you might as well read a short story. 

Okay, so the first line is ordinary, but the poet can redeem himself with the second line that plays off the first line, to make an interesting pair, but with these excerpts above, this doesn’t happen; the lines themselves are not interesting, nor does the poet show any skill in using one line to sound interesting next to another, and by the third line, you can see that nothing at all interesting is happening.  (Not that we stopped reading after three lines with any of these poets and their poems in the APR’s The Body Electric.  We read them all.)

Die, poets!  In the sorrow and agony of your death, you become the dust in which the winners grow!  Climb winners, on the backs of the losers!  Some are born to sweet delight.  Some are born to endless night.

Marla: Aaaaaiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!


Elimination.  It has to happen.  All grass cannot grow.  All things cannot live.  All chimneys cannot puff.  The poet who plays his pipe may play his pipe in vain.

The APR anthology, The Body Electric, features 180 poets published in the APR in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Only 64 of those poets are chosen for the tournament, and each one of those 64 rumble to the top with their best poem, chosen by Scarriet, with help, of course, from the ancient, but still lovely, Marla Muse.

The cuts do not reflect the talent of the esteemed poet, but rather the worth of the particular poems selected by the APR editors.  The editors were guilty, occasionally, as we all are, of being dazzled by names.  Famous poets at the bitter end of their careers tossed scraps at the magazine, and this is just one obvious instance of the sorts of errors in judgment which the Scarriet March Madness process will judiciously correct.

Marla Muse will read one of her own compositions before we announce the first of the cuts.

Take it away, Marla:

“Thank you, Thomas.   Ahem…first I just want to say that elimination is not a bad thing.  Death is not always bad.  We get rid of things.  We push away the worst and make room for the better.  And don’t be sad, poets, if you get eliminated.  You can always come back, next time.   This is only death for this time.

Death Is Love

Death is love’s friend.
Death is the one thing we cannot pretend;
All fools go on, except this end.

Death helps love live,
For nothing can withstand the long hours that give
Beauty wrinkles, and youth something even more primitive.

I once felt beautiful pain
Thinking of my own love’s dear name
On a stone, swept by leaves—but in vain…

My love, instead, fell gradually old with stumbling grace;
Death did not leave the memory of a beautiful face,
But took love slowly down to a different place.”

Beautiful, Marla!   Speaking of death, here are the first cuts:

John Berryman: Little pitiful-drunk rants
Jorie Graham: Early lyric promise crashes and burns
Louis Simpson: Surprisingly banal
Louise Gluck: Dully abstract
Anne Sexton:  Booze Muse
C.K. Williams: Can’t finish a poem.
Richard Wilbur: Rhyme buries sense.
Michael Ryan: Bitter confessing: adolescent.
Gerald Stern: Come on! Love me! Please!
Charles Simic: Two-cent Symbolism.
Kenneth Rexroth: Robot Zen.
Stanley Plumly: Chance of poetry, turning to prose.
John Hollander: Grade A Bombast
Kenneth Koch: Encyclopedic insincerity
Fred Seidel: I’m more connected and dangerous than you.
James Dickey: White spaces? You?
Richard Eberhart: Eh?
Charles Bernstein: He started a joke and started the whole world crying.

There are many more poets who have to go.  And we’ll let you know who the other losers are, and publish the 2011 March Madness brackets soon!

(cue drum, flute, lyre)


Danse Macabre is our theme for Scarriet’s Second Annual March Madness Poetry Tournament.

Death and poetry used to be closer; then with Modernism, Things in poetry became the rage, but Death as a symbol (and reality) cannot be denied.

So, here’s our thinking: The Second Annual March Madness Tournament, is, first of all, an elimination tournament.

Secondly, every poet lives with the anxiety that their poems will be neglected; even those with fame today may be forgotten tomorrow; all their sweat, worth and reputation may be utterly buried by Time.

Thirdly, many of the poems in the tournament have Death as their subject.

Fourthly, the poets themsevles are old, or dying, or dead.

But dancing implies vigor and joy, and there is that, too.  What if we never really die?  And why shouldn’t we dance, anyway?

Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness Tournament source this year is the APR anthology, The Body Electric, with an introduction by Harold Bloom.

Last year Scarriet drew from David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series for its Poetry March Madness contest.

Scarriet came into its own with its Poetry March Madness, attracting widespread attention from published poets thrilled to finally throw an elbow at their rivals, or freeze them with a soft jumper, or drive right over them to the hoop to win with seconds remaining.  Booya.

Who knows?  One day we may refer not to the work of a poet, but the play of a poet.

This year, taking center stage is the best of the American Poetry Review, poems from Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review, compiled by editors Stephen Berg, Arthur Vogelsang and David Bonanno.

APR began in 1972, and the poems in Scarriet March Madness Two have that hippie/post-hippie, ‘free-spirited intellectuals having nervous breakdowns’ energy, the glorious free-verse confessionalism where poets finally ‘get to say what they want to say’ in a fireworks of expressionism.  The embarrassment, however, is sometimes palpable in these poems, as death winds its way even into the most comfortable of poet-professors’ dens, and the happy, rounded, sexually-tinged, rhetoric, seeking escape from death-sonnets and other old, quaint devices, wrestles with the horror of old death, anyway.  Post-modernism, Modernism and the Ancients leveled, one might say.

And great poets are here, 180 of them, but only 64 get to enter the tournament itself.

Who will be in, and who will be out, during this first stage?

Can poets like Bill Knott, Eileen Myles, and William Kulik beat out poets like Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath?

Let the elbowing commence.



A poem by Tony Hoagland published nearly 10 years ago is making news.  Claudia Rankine decided to make an issue of the poem’s racism recently, both directly to him, and, more recently, in public, and Tony Hoagland responded to her by saying she is naive for being offended.  Here’s the poem:

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
          and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
               so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
                you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
                    and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
               had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

—Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, 2003

Let’s be clear about this: No one can discuss racism without being racist while doing so.  This is the very nature of the topic.  The best one can do, when it comes to racism, is to be either as absent from it as possible, or as present in it as possible.  

Never, however, get caught in the middle

When you are caught in the middle you are half-human, half-animal, for racism is exactly where the human and the natural meet, where society and skin, intersect. 

Racism is the Devil at the Crossroads.

Tony Hoagland took a few moments out of his life to write a racist poem, and, duh—he is now being called a racist.  

Tony Hoagland took a little walk, and, tempted by a misty shape, took a wrong turn.

As Jim Behrle astutely put it, Hoagland has “spinach in his teeth” and the spinach in his teeth has been pointed out to Tony by his now former-colleague, Claudia Rankine.  According to Behrle, Tony should be grateful.

Apologize, and take the spinach out of your teeth, Tony.

Claudia Rankine is less involved, finally, than Tony Hoagland, for she  represents only the inevitable discovery of Tony Hoagland’s sin.

Claudia’s hurt, whether she knows it or not, is not for herself, but for Tony; her pang of hurt and recognition was her realization that she had been called by the fates to bear witness to Tony’s wrong.

The fates are never racist.

Only the devil is.  

Claudia Rankine is not the subject here; she is merely the other shoe falling.

Claudia Rankine is the other half of the middle which Tony Hoagland unfortunately strayed into.

Never get caught in the middle; never be both in and out of the racist topic.  And secondly, the racist topic makes the speaker on it racist.  These are the two iron laws.

When you go to the Crossroads, you will always meet somebody.

Now there have been voices on the web during this little firestorm, wise voices, pointing out that Hoagland is not the person speaking in the poem—and, by the way, Hoagland clearly is not the speaker of the poem—, and that the poem bravely and thoughtfully explores the issue of race and the changing perception of race in the media, in Europe and the United States, in sports, and among shallow, fashionable people, and the poem is universal enough to include every thoughtful person in its sweep.

What these voices say are true.

But these voices merely murmur like the sly shape which tempted Tony to his fate in the first place.  These voices cannot save Tony Hoagland, for they are merely saying, “Tony ate spinach an hour ago;” they cannot take away the reality and the embarrassment of the spinach sticking out of Tony’s teeth.

Wishing to scrap the New Critical dictum that the poem is not directed to anything outside itself, but succeeds or fails on the strength and flexibility of its own inner mechanisms, the Tony Hoagland School, wishing to find avenues of escape from the death-pale chill of the New Critical, audaciously pokes and prods the edifices of the outside world until brown chunks and organic pieces crumble into and grow in the very center of the poem itself, and when something like this happens to Tony Hoagland, such as the Claudia Rankine Incident, the New Critical Death’s Head, like a grinning English Queen, says under its breath: See?  I told you!  The world will ruin the transparent poem every time!  But here’s a lesson for you—at the Crossroads!  Mr. Naive!

The more racist you are, the more New Critical you must be.

Even the bravest and the most innocent of hearts who leave the New Critical castle will die, like those millions and millions of confessional poems from 1960 onward, whose poets spoke their souls in prose about every intimate subject under the sun.  What variety!  And now, what dull death!

In his recent piece on the Rankine Incident, Jim Behrle writes, “I am racist,” but, “it’s something I work on every day.”  Behrle needed to say this.  Otherwise Behrle couldn’t, with impunity, write of the Rankine Incident:  “Tony Hoagland is among the most undertalented and overrated poets in America.  Seems like he’s an asshole, too.”

Behrle instinctively knows one cannot walk into a racist discussion like a toddler walking into traffic. 

You are either aloof, or guilty.

“I am racist…”

It’s the iron law.


Just as sitting in a train traveling 20 MPH can make us think a plane traveling 200 mph is flying backwards because of nearer objects we are passing, so a minor figure fawned over in our day can seem major.

Elizabeth Bishop is a spectacular example of near and dear fawning distorting actual merit.  She’s not even a good writer, much less a great one, but she has mattered to a clique which seems to be growing by the hour: the friendship with Miss Moore and Mr. Lowell has snowballed into a situation where all the Critics have fallen asleep.

What a ghastly creature Elizabeth Bishop was!

She understood the universe by the age of six (“In the Waiting Room”).

She had “three loved houses”—one, apparently, wasn’t enough (“One Art”).

She ridiculed what she perceived as the greaseball working class (“Filling Station”).

She overheard the conversations of regular folk riding buses with a thinly disguised, haughty scorn (“The Moose”).

Bishop feeds our inner spinster aunt who not-so-secretly hates and lords it over all (“those awful hanging breasts!”) with delicious ease.

To Elizabeth Bishop, actual human beings going about their business always elicited the faint whiff of gasoline.

Elizabeth feeds our aesthetically-hidden inner snob.

This would be fine, if her aesthetic project wasn’t also shallow and condescending.  After all, the quaint aesthetics of magical symbolism which she indulged in can lend a certain amount of pleasure; but rather than beauty, she merely proferred the current fashion of WC Williams modernism then extant, so we get ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ writ large: ordinary objects are everywhere “glazed” with something or other (oil or gasoline, mostly) and we get that patronizing tone of the Children’s Book author, constantly telling us the wheel barrow was red and the chickens, white and everything is seen not through our eyes, but hers, the over-descriptive one.   We get description, description, description and no thought, or, substituting for thought, a symbol, like a moose, or a fish, that we are supposed to ooh and aah over, never suspecting the poet has really nothing to convey but a bunch of cranky prejudices and snotty preferences. She likes beaches .  She doesn’t like filling stations.

What should one expect, after all, from someone who had the world figured out by age six, was miserable all her life, and had profitable friendships with the brittle Marianne Moore and the psychotic Robert Lowell?

Last night at an auditorium at Boston University, twenty members of po-biz sat on folding-chairs on a small stage, before a scattered audience of about 200, and mostly without fanfare, read poems and excerpts of letters and prose with varying degrees of intensity.

Two readers called what they read “perfect.”

All the readers felt rather pressed for time, since there were twenty of them, but that didn’t stop some from going on much too long.

Anything more than a page felt winding and obscure.

The delicate lyrics worked the best, but even there it was apparent we were not in the presence of a major poet; even “One Art,” her most famous rhymed work, is spoiled by that odd interjection—write it!—which doesn’t work when read aloud.

The evening was bland, except for two moments:

One female poet attempted to refute Dana Gioia’s recent remarks that Bishop was not much of an abstract thinker and she made the mistake of reading a passage of Bishop’s on the concept of time which was so befuddling and weak, it only proved Gioia’s point.

Christopher Ricks—no one introduced themselves, as one was supposed to match up the arrangement of the readers’ stage-seating with the order of the readers listed in the program—but we all know Christopher Ricks—Professor Ricks felt impelled to announce that Bishop appreciated prose as much as poetry and proceeded to point out that poetry has not, and will never, solve the problem of the prose paragraph.  Prose, Ricks, said, can quote poetry, but poetry cannot quote prose.  A pity this didn’t get discussed, and then Ricks read an exquisite one page prose excerpt from a Bishop story which quoted Keats.  At times, Bishop the aesthete emerges, which all aesthetes can love.  She just needs to be presented correctly, by thoughtful fellows like Christopher Ricks, who showed in a matter of seconds, the pure charm that is Christopher Ricks.

If all this seems demeaning and even sexist, it should be remembered how really sexist the Modernists were: not only did men, in terms of pure numbers, dominate po-biz in the 20th century, but the sexism is even deeper and more insidious than supposed: the male poets would decide what women poets would be allowed to have respectful poetic reputations.

The Bishop who loves Keats, we love.  But the Bishop we were meant to love, like the Marianne Moore we were meant to love, is the one not quite as good as Robert Lowell.


Well of course it is.

Here’s why.  

The Modernist revolution was mostly male, and in terms of criticism, overwhelmingly so.    We are still in the shadow of that revolution, which featured William James, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, I.F Richards, Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Edmund Wilson, William Empson, Allen Tate, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Richard Blackmur, Robert Graves, W.S. Merwin, Yvor Winters, George Santayana, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Crowe Ransom, E.E. Cummings, Paul Engle,Robert Penn Warren, W.K Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner, M.L. Rosenthal, Robert Lowell, and Harold Bloom. 

This list is not just poets who happened to be men.   These men were not just poets; they shaped the critical outlook of our age. 

This outlook replaced the passions of the Romantic and Victorian heart with the mutterings of a priesthood, a male priesthood, thumping its chest about whatever the male talks about when he retires with his pals to smoke after dinner.  The male poets certainly didn’t agree about anything; this was no male conspiracy; they ranted and raved and chuckled and guffawed about the usual self-important male stuff, and the pomposity was almost sickening and terribly self-important: the Pounds and the Olsons hyperbolic and puffed up, the Ashberys and the O’Haras joking and sly, Thomas Eliot classical and aloof, D.H. Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg sexually vigorous, the New Critics, learned and doctrinaire, puffing on their pipes, it was all very male, 90%, even 95% male, with a few token females, H.D. and Marianne Moore enthusiastically following, just thrilled to belong to the club. 

And why should the women complain?  The general spirit of Modernism was more open and democratic than the Victorian mode had been; Edna Millay was a terrific poet, but she was a little too good in a Victorian, Romantic sort of way, so she wasn’t really allowed into the club, but in the long run, this was good for women, because Modernism, though it was run by males, really wasn’t about men lording it over women; the “parish of rich women” who bankrolled Yeats, Pound and Eliot were happy to give, and the women were right: even though women poets were far more plentiful and respected in the Victorian era than in the Modern one, eventually the general spirit of the Modern Age would prove beneficial to women.

Lady poets thrived in the 19th century, and when the lady poet was no more, a nadir was reached for women poets during the time Modernism vanquished Victorian manners: Modernist male poets and critics outnumbered Modernist female poets and critics in 1925 by 100 to 1, but today the ratio is now much closer to 50/50.

True, we find it shocking that poetry magazines feature men over women by 3-2, or 2-1 sometimes, but isn’t this better than 100-1?  If we judge by trends, historically the pendulum is swinging rapidly towards the female since the Golden Age of Modernism. 

Thanks to Modernism, men liberated women.

There were a few socio-cultural bumps along the way.  When WW II ended, the GI Bill saw millions of men newly studying liberal arts in the universities.   During the booming post-war economy women tended to be homemakers and nurses, not liberal arts college students, and as poetry became a place of grad school success, it took women a few generations to catch up in that regard.

But here’s the quesiton. 

Does the Muse care about gender? 

If all those males during the Modernist era were opening doors for women, setting the table for future women poets, even while Pound was at war with Amy Lowell and Hugh Kenner was dismissing Edna Millay, even though on the surface, male poets during the Modern era were not particularly nice to women, the sensibility of the Modern criticism and poetry, in its democratic and open impulses, was splendidly good for women.

So then: It’s not the gender of the poets that finally matters, it’s the poetry and the politics of the poetry itself.

When I hear males in po-biz now promising to include more women, I wonder: really?  Do the poems know about this?   Must the poems know the gender of their authors?   Should poems be gender-aware?  And why?  Isn’t that all very Victorian?

Should poets be bean-counters?

If twice as many men submit poems to a magazine, for instance, should editors really pick and choose just to make the numbers match up?

The Romantics, like the Moderns, were mostly male, but there was a difference.  The Romantics featured effeminate men, like Shelley, a blending of the male and the female.  One could argue that a sensitive man is better than either gender stereotypically itself. 

A sensitive man is the essence of poetry. 

A sensitive man solves everything. 

Equality of the sexes is something that is fought for outside of the poem.

The dyer’s hand is not gendered.  The poem is not male or female.  The poem is where male and female mingle in order to disappear.

Or, we could argue, instead, that women shouldn’t disappear in poetry, but assert themselves.  But how?  As women?  But again, isn’t that putting roles into the mix, and isn’t that old-fashioned and Victorian?  Isn’t that what Modernism got us away from?

It’s rather a lose-lose proposition: push for the female, and you regress, push for the genderless, and you banish the very gender you are supposed to defend.

I’m a man, and I’m baffled by the whole issue.

What else is new?


John Berryman

You are 54.  It’s the dead of winter.  You’re at a dinner, drunk, you are trembling with desire, you self-consciously intone Shakespeare to yourself in the restroom, hoping no one enters, then glance at yourself, glasses, beard, and stop.  Wash your hands, under the fingernails.

Robert Creeley

You are 21.  It’s early spring, ice still on the walks.  You are scratching the tiny beard of your perfect heart-shaped face, precise nose, you are proud of your chiseled face, you are making a decision to caress it everywhere.

Robert Hass

You are 38.  It’s late spring, and blooming.  You just had sex with a woman and you’re thinking of geese flying over the San Fernando Valley and how rain comes to us from a million miles and then you reach for a newspaper and say to the poem working itself out in your head, ‘hold on.’

Louise Gluck

You are 46.  It’s winter, roughly.    You just took a shower.  You are sitting on a white couch in a beautiful apartment with a tall plant, and muted reds on the walls; with a nice pen you strike the personal, allowing philosophy to inform a dare you wish you had made.

A.R. Ammons

You’re 40.  It’s hot, glorious summer.  You are tramping through underbrush, the burrs are sticking to your trousers, your torn Mr. Rogers sweater, your glorious brown shoes…

Donald Justice

You’re 30.   It’s September.  You’re sitting around on a long afternoon, drinking Buds and playing poker with friends: three musicians and a rocket scientist.  You’re very relaxed, having a good time, when suddenly, a melancholy fit descends.


I studied poems all day
On Super Bowl Sunday.
My revenge on American crass,
My hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers,
Is found in a poem.

And now it’s getting dark.
I almost made it through another season
Without getting my head taken off
By a poem.  I could hit
You at a hundred miles an hour
And it wouldn’t harm you,
Read as you are in things
That make no difference (oh but they do).

But life keeps getting lived
Outside the poem.
The sun’s going down—depressing!
The murmuring TV sets are on.
Remember when games were played during the day?
Perhaps I’ll watch the second half
Before I go to bed
Just to re-connect with humanity
And to see who wins.

My those poems seem so
Indifferent in my mind now.
Perhaps you might talk to me
About whatever happens to come to mind?


Not kisses, me.  —N. Cissus

The sentence is no longer necessary.
We’ll need God, the universe, the earth, the sea,
And my poems, of course, in a book marked me.

The van is outside humming!
They’ve come to take my punctuation.
Take my commas!  I pause no longer.
My reflection…my heart is thrumming!
Plato asked: can music dionysian
Ruin a nation?
The answer, by the way, must come from me.

I stare.  I no longer hear.
I look at the violin.

My art is flat.
I have nothing to put my soul in.
I’m only myself when I’m just this near.
I look in my eye—where you spat.
I’ll need to borrow your semi-colon;

My sentence will no longer be.
My point of view has won.
What was that wooing noun doing looking at me?


I saw this lush, well-filmed film with a theater full of seniors who watched it in quiet respect—tittering at the witty rejoinders by the earthy speech-therapist (unlikely friend to the king), gasping in delight as the king stoops to visit the middle-class family of the speech-therapist (with his two lovely boys who can recite Shakespeare) and thrilling to the king’s climactic speech to the citizens of the British Empire on the eve of war.

The King’s Speech has received the most Oscar nominations and it continues a trend of intense anglophilia in the American entertainment industry which is somewhat remarkable.

Americans are a good, worthy, and compliant people when they bend their heads humbly before noble English rule, and watching The King’s Speech genuinely produces this kind of contented joy.  I felt the palpable good-will breathing in the audience at the cinema where I viewed the film.

The England of this film is clean and beautiful in a misty, sumptuous regal manner.  There is no drama to the story itself whatsoever, almost as if a good story were plebian and unnecessary in the realm of true royalty.

The film’s dramatics (Hitler on the march, Edward VIII abdicating) is exterior, and a mere glimpsed backdrop, to the plot: royal stammerer is cured by psychologically astute amateur who breaks through royal snobbery and repressed anger to effect a cure.  In the very begining of the film, the Duke of York, and future George VI, played by the dour, but cute, Colin Firth, badly flubs a speech due to his impediment and the result is a lot of handsome English folk sadly shaking their heads.  So there it is: right off the bat; the worst that can happen, happens: royal is tongue-tied in public.  The result?  Some people shaking their heads.  Where’s the drama?  What important thing was the Duke going to say, anyway?  And why should we care that this handsome, wealthy man, with his beautiful, caring, understanding wife (played sweetly and dully by a still-sort-of-hot Helena Bonham Carter) has a speech impediment?

This is why we should care: the Duke’s brother, King Edward VIII, a dashing but sensitive man, and loving the finer things in life, falls for a twice-divorced American floozy, Wallis Simpson (the one figure in the  film who is less than gloriously perfect is an American) and gives up the crown (for “love”), and so the next-in-line Duke becomes king—and must rally his people for war, with speeches telling them they must die for their country.

Some may find the sub-textual German-worship funny.   Two examples: Beethoven’s 7th is used as the film’s swelling soundtrack when Colin Firth, as king, majestically stammers out his big ‘we’re-going-to-war’ speech with dapper Geoffrey Rush ‘conducting’ him and beautiful Helena Bonham Carter rooting for him in the audience, and every British subject, looking healthy and sweet, listening gravely and attentively.  Take away the Beethoven, and the whole thing would fall flat, and secondly, as the king watches a newsreel of Hitler on the podium giving ’em hell, he murmurs, with genuine admiration and envy, his desire to be that good.

The entangled fates of the English and the Germans (Churchill as much of a monster as Hitler, the Nazi intrigues of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the British royals actually being German etc etc) is certainly not something this comfortable, Oscar-smelling, anglophilic film could contemplate without biting its stiff upper lip in two, revealing a snarl beneath the velvet: “speech” the arena, here; not substance.

This film features admirable British characters who quote Shakespeare, but The King’s Speech itself, is as far away from the truth and drama of Shakespeare as it is possible to get.

This is not to say the psychological subject of stammering is not a fascinating one, and herein lies the film’s strength, carried admirably forward by the performances of Coin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

I had a good friend in college who was an acute stammerer.  When he was on stage, however, acting in college productions of Shakespeare, his handicap was nowhere to be seen.

There is no cure.  There is only the speech.  And that’s the lesson.

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