Hate? A strong word. Do Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout and the rest of their friends hate Billy Collins? In civilized, professional behavior, we keep hate hidden, but it only takes a word for it to slip out. We know it, we recognize it, we feel it; we know it’s there. Maybe it’s not hate, exactly… we might refer to it as jealousy, disgust, dislike…but let’s just call it hate, and not beat around the bush. We prefer, most of the time, that it remain hidden, and most of us don’t like to feel hatred or be hateful or see hatred in another—that’s true…but we’d be naive if we pretended it didn’t exist in any of our hearts at all.
Scarriet had its best week ever last week (in terms of views). Ron Silliman comparing Billy Collins to Edgar Guest (and us pointing it out) began the firestorm.
On Friday of last week, Billy Collins made the front page of my local paper:
“A Poet Achieves Rock-Star Status. Meet the ‘phenomenon’ that is Billy Collins—a man who has made poetry popular (again). More than a million copies of his books are in print. ‘A good poem is like a pair of flannel pajamas. Comforting’–Billy Collins” —Dorothy Robinson firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Silliman’s Quietist Nightmare!
As usual, Scarriet reflects wisely on the significance of it all, and pardon us as we do so, before giving you the Top Ten Hatreds In Poetry:
The matter here may be as simple as what should be kept and what junked.
Poetry isn’t a matter of life and death; no lives depend on poetic reputation, but if poetry, as a companion to thought and civilized pleasure, is important at all, then we should, at the very least, dump trash and keep the valuable (which if not done in the real world would quickly drown us in garbage and be the end of us all). Such a task is no small matter—it is not for the Garrison Keillors and their Good Poems only; it is the most important task of all poets at all times; if we think on it, this is the only task of poetry: sorting good from bad, whether composing, publishing, or reviewing; in truth, all are critics all the time, and except for inspiration, divine and invisible—which belongs to a separate realm—this is the only business of poetry: sorting good from bad. All we mortals do is sort—honestly and truthfully—or not.
It used to be like this, at least more than it is today: universities taught and collected the best, and the collecting and the teaching were essentially the same enterprise: sorting out the heavens, sorting with our backpacks in the wilderness, sorting the lines and poets who went before.
This all changed right after WW II. Colleges multiplied, and they changed. Professors in the Humanities no longer sorted. Professors no longer pulled weeds. Homer and Shakespeare and Keats were no longer used as sorting tools. Keats was no longer a living flower, but a dead one, and to be a flower was to be dead. Writers sprung up like weeds in the Creative Writing programs. The weeds were all different and marvelous in their variety—from the perspective of the weeds. But from a distance, from the public’s perspective, all the weeds looked the same—and they looked like weeds. But the public is wrong, thought the weeds, and the Creative Writing programs assured the weeds that indeed the public was wrong and provided loans and money for their MFAs.
Modernism was the first era or school to trash preceding eras—no matter the quality of the individual poets from those preceding eras. It would be far better if we talked of poets and not these damned eras and schools, but this was modern scholarship’s gift to the world. You can’t talk about Modernism without talking about the Modernists. With the Romantics, you can talk about individual poets, because the “Romantic” poets were not aware of themselves as Romantics—the Modernists called them this.
Byron loved Pope, Keats adored Shakespeare, Shelley loved Plato, Poe scolded his contemporaries, but ours is the first era where all “Modernists” join in dismissing the best that went before.
True, the Romantics did play the ‘Melancholy Resignation’ card once too often; ‘We Shall Go No More A Roving’ threw its sonorous, sentimental shadow over poetry for a hundred years, and more—Archibald MacLeish, Amy Lowell, and thousands of others were doing ‘Romanticism’ well into the 20th century. (We forget that Byron was also the first Beat poet, as well, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Japanese art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cooled many a feverish brow with placid images; the proud West took haiku into its heart and Romantic sentimental virtuosity finally beat there no more. The icy, ‘classical’ poems of H.D. lasted hardly a day, but painting became abstract, with the Bauhaus movement, architecture turned efficient and brutal; fascism and political cruelty and genocide countered the old Sentimentality of the previous century with a ferocity few could have imagined; leaflets and bombs fell from the sky, two world wars produced sentimental poetry (WW I) and a GI Bill that produced high enrollments of sentimental poets (WW II). Western sentimentality returned in the writing programs in the universities, but not of the Byron type: it was not a sentimentality of universals, but one of dizzying variety—poetry felt it could serve the classroom and the quirks of every individual and it could, and it did—and by doing so brought on its eventual destruction—but only because it forgot to sort good from bad. Good poetry was still being written but no one knew where to look for it. Colleges produced, but did not discriminate—or they discriminated artificially and incestuously, away from the public’s eye. The factory produced and produced and refused to throw away.
In youth soccer, some parents yell instructions from the sidelines at their children, while other parents watching from the sidelines murmur, ‘poor kids, they already have a coach, they don’t need more coaches.’ The ‘One Coach’ theory finds it sufficient to let poets find their way without criticism or instruction from anyone else. ‘The Coach’ here represents all poetry learning that is handed down to all of us. ‘The Sillimans and the Armantrouts are playing the best they can, so leave them alone.’ This is the One Coach Theory.
The ‘Multi-Coach’ theory believes that everyone is a coach, or ought to be one; that Sillimans and Armantrouts need extra encouragement. ‘As a parent, I care.’ The Coach can’t do everything. Scarriet believes in the Multi-Coach Theory.
Poetry needs local passions. The invention of the atom bomb made the world ‘one village,’ but poetry doesn’t thrive in a village; poetry needs a city, a town, a wilderness to thrive—poets hate situations where everybody knows everybody and news is the same for all. One village of contemporaries loving their ways together is a nice idea, but unhealthy in practice, especially when it comes to poetry.
Silliman hates because he cares. Hate on, you poets, and don’t be ashamed of your hate.
Here then, without further ado, are the Top Ten Hatreds in Poetry:
10. Byron for Robert “Bob” Southey
9. Pound for the Russians. (He called them “Roosh-uns” and bragged that he never read them.)
8. Samuel Johnson for the ‘Metaphysical Poets.’ Johnson coined the term, and thought they were stiffs.
7. Alexander Pope for his contemporary “dunces.”
6. Ron Silliman for the “phenomenon” that is Billy Collins.
5. Harold Bloom for Edgar Poe. Bloom’s dismissal of Poe is either stupidity or hate; we have to assume it’s hate.
4. Rufus Griswold for Walt Whitman. In a review, Griswold called “Leaves” a ” mass of stupid filth.”
3. Charles Bernstein for T.S. Eliot—the only “name named” of the “Official Verse Culture.”
2. John Crowe Ransom for Byron. In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” Ransom made it clear, once and for all, that Byron must be put on the shelf.
1. T.S. Eliot for Edgar Poe. The bullet was “From Poe to Valery.”