The Veiled Lady

In the 19th Century, clever mediums
Would rap a table, making the dead speak.
Ghostly hands would hover in the air,
Heads would appear, Caesar, Napoleon.
Sometimes the whole immaterial body
Of someone’s beloved, dead daughter or sister
Glided through a room allowing swords
To pass though it. Once a husband rose
And tried to caress what was never there,
A veiled lady he thought was his wife,
While others in the room almost fainted
To see him step right through her crinoline.
D.D. Home could levitate out windows
And float above a busy London street.
Imagine sitting on the horsehair sofa
Almost hysterical, watching that miracle…
But it was done with thick plate glass and lights,
A conjurer’s trick, just like the accordion
Played by a ghost in front of Robert Browning
Who shuddered when a spirit hand reached out
And put a wreath of flowers on Elizabeth
Though afterwards he called it sham, imposture.
But that’s what I am, that’s what we all are
To one another, a trick of light and glass
Projected before an audience of dupes.
Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology, twitchings and snores,
Wetness, jerking muscles. Wild images
Flicker across my convoluted brain
As it constructs a person out of dreams.
That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

Maura Stanton

Now let’s go down to the floor where Marla Muse is with Maura Stanton, who is one of Scarriet’s Elite Eight, Marla?

Marla Muse (MM): Thanks, Tom. Maura, congratulations on your entry into the Elite Eight, how’s it feel?

Maura Stanton (MS): It feels great, Marla.

MM: Thanks for taking time out to talk with me, I know you’re here today at Walt Whitman Stadium to practice free-verse throws for your upcoming match to gain entry into the Scarriet Final Four.

MS: It’s no problem, I needed a break anyway.

MM: Maura, you’ve earned the nickname “The Veiled Lady” for your elusiveness and stealth out on the floor. And you have managed to conjure up almost out of thin air one of the most illustrious squads this game has ever seen. How did you attract such stellar talent?

MS: Well Marla, management has been very supportive, and we were very blessed in the draft last year.

MM: Blessed, I love it! Luck had nothing to do with it?

MS: That one’s above my pay grade, Marla.

MM: Maura, speaking of luck, you have a player who once extolled the value of luck in his generals, I’m speaking of course of Napoleon himself.

MS: Nappy is one of our starters, we get him out there at the beginning to spook the opposition.

MM: Alongside Caesar.

MS: Yes, Cheezer and Nap work wonders together, which is amazing when you consider the egos at play there.

MM: Absolutely, but I notice you don’t keep them in long.

MS: That’s correct, we put them in for the first few minutes of play, let them run up the score, then cut them loose for the night.

MM: To conquer new worlds! And yet even after they’ve left, their presence somehow lingers on throughout the game.

MS: Oh yes.

MM: Maura, your offense of course has reminded many of legendary coach William Lindsay Gresham’s famous squad from the 1940s, I’m speaking of course of the famous “Nightmare Alley.”

MS: It’s an honor to be compared with them.

MM: And of course for one season Gresham’s team featured the great Tyrone Power, and many said his best work was done during his time with the “Nightmare Alley” squad.

MS: Power never phoned it in, and he dug deep during his time in the “Alley.”

MM: Maura, this spiritualism stuff, we all know it’s fake, know we’re being manipulated, but yet we’re also susceptible. Why is that?

MS: Well Marla—

MM: Could it be because humans already believe so many things that are so patently absurd?

MS: Well Marla, I—

MM: And I don’t just mean the theists and polytheists among us, I mean the deists and atheists as well. Perhaps the irrational part of the mind can only be tempered by beliefs that are irrational?

MS: Well Marla—

MM: Or is it that humans have such a powerful need to communicate with the departed, to apologize for past sins, to correct the uncorrectable?

MS: (silent)

MM: Maura, I’m very interested in how you relate our susceptibility to spiritualist claims to our need for illusion in the realms of sex and romance. Because the need for illusion in those realms is so necessary, isn’t it?

MS: I believe it is.

MM: Especially for men, I think, since I have long noted that a man’s imaginative powers are crucial to his attaining potency, especially after a certain age.

MS: And what age would that be?

MM: Oh you kid! Twelve! But seriously, Maura, I think one of the reasons Viagra is so necessary in our time is because modern man’s imagination has become so, if you pardon the term, shriveled up.

MS: Hmm.

MM: I read The Atlantic, I read the stories of couples who make over 150K a year, yet the husband hasn’t gotten an erection with his wife in over a decade.

MS : Trouble in paradise?

MM: Well put!

MS: Although I suspect husbands have always had trouble with sexual performance with only one woman over decades.

MM:The Coolidge Effect!

MS: Quite so. Even the most ancient stories tell of men who needed concubines and multiple wives to retain potency, so I don’t think it’s just a modern phenomenon.

MM: Maura, if the object of desire is just “biology, twitchings and snores,/wetness, jerking muscles”, i.e., a bare, forked creature, then how can she arouse desire in the lover?

MS: She acts upon and stimulates the imagination of the lover. It’s all in the lover’s imagination.

MM: Yes, as you say, “That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.” And yet she does—

MS: She does exist, but not as the lover perceives.

MM: I remember a woman once explaining why she loved a man, and she said, “He saw the me I didn’t.”

MS: That’s wonderful.

MM: Isn’t it?  The lover can see the beloved as she never saw herself… Maura, I am so impressed with how your star center D.D. “Double D” Home and your power forward Bobby “BB Gun” Browning have managed to bury the hatchet to get to the Elite Eight, and possibly the Final Four.

MS: Well, the will to win makes strange bedfellows, and don’t forget that both of the Brownings appear in my poem. Without them, the team wouldn’t be where it is today. You see, Marla, poets must rely on other poets; it’s not like owners of hotdog stands, who can just go it alone. When she was Elizabeth Barrett, in her rookie year, she and Edgar Poe wrote to each other, a trans-Atlantic flirtation; Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to her—but that was the year Robert came into her life.

MM: I like when you say Robert and Elizabeth “appear” in your poem.  Whatever “appears” must also “vanish”…

MS: I hadn’t thought of that…  Nice, Marla.

MM: Had you thought of including Yeats in your poem?  He was really into the occult.

MS: I had thought of Yeats, and he was a free agent available for the season, but the Brownings were more of what I was looking for. Seances were so big in the Victorian era. Yeats is either thought of as a Modern or a late Romantic.

MM: But Yeats was a Victorian in so many ways. It’s just that the Modernists were horrified at being called Victorians…OK, let’s go now to a commercial, for the Antiques Roadshow!


The city keeps herself green
In obvious spots no one sees.
That weed, that tree, that grass, that vine didn’t mean
To crawl beneath the parking lot
Along the old rock wall by the commuter rail track. The bees
Had to ask permission before they murmured,
Oblivous to the grinding roar of the 7:07 from Fitchburg.
Impatience brings closer each day,
Beside beetle and worm—hardly a form!—
The debt each impatient passenger will have to pay.

No weed intended to create this bucolic nook,
For eyes of commuter (focused now on a kindle book)
Only wanted a world, and wouldn’t ask for more,
The mighty sea and land have our drippings, which they store,
But here by commuter-rail wall, wrens and sparrows sing and wait
For the silence between trains—
Mine, as usual (isn’t that typical?), late.


MM: Carolyn Creedon!  One more win and you’re going to the Final Four!

CC: Wow.

MM: Think about that for a moment. You’re more or less an unknown poet, but you’ve shot, passed, and rebounded yourself into a position to win the Scarriet APR 2011 Title.

CC: I’m honored.

MM: Look at the poets in this tournament: Larkin, Olds, Ashbery, Hall, O’Hara, Lowell, Justice, Bly, Ginsberg, Plath, Sexton, Heaney…

CC: It blows my mind.

MM: No one knows who you are. Would you like to talk a little about your poetry career?

CC: I guess so.

MM: We can talk about Oprah memories we’ll never forget, if you like.

CC:  The cars. When she gave away the cars.

MM: I was kidding.

CC: I know.

MM: Are you nervous?

CC: You seem nervous.

MM: Scarriet is a nervous place.  But a good Muse is always a little edgy.

CC: I like to be calm when I write.

MM: Inspiration requires a certain shudder, even if it’s small, a nervous energy. I inspire. I’m a muse.  Marla Muse.

CC: The tiny hairs might move.

MM: Yes!

CC: Great!

MM: Let’s talk about ‘Litany,’ a poem I love, by the way.  Was his name really Tom?

CC:  No.  But I always liked the name.

MM:  If all poems were as good as ‘Litany,’ poetry would be popular again.

CC:  You flatter me!

MM: No, I’m serious.  But too many others want to publish inferior poetry.

CC: But I love other poets and other poems.

MM: Of course you do!  Carolyn Creedon, I have a feeling you’re going all the way!  Good luck!

CC: Thank you.


Surely the greatest obstacle facing the poet is the sad duality of sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates creeping beneath the loud behemoths of brain-dead entertainment.

This duality exists only because we all feel it to be true, and by “we,” I refer to the sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates who would be the only ones reading this now—but even you who read this, guiltily spend much of your time with ‘brain-dead entertainment;’ so the duality to which I refer is knowable in its entirety at once, not only by you, but by everyone who wakes in the dark with hopes and fears, after the loud behemoth of brain-dead entertainment has faded—and mouse, owl or the muttering of some human wretch left on the street, is all that is left to impress the quiet ear.

We feel this duality to be true, but it is really not.  The entertainment industry is not “brain-dead” and the sub-cultures of poetry are not “sophisticated.”  This is how we have been taught to perceive it.

But let’s take a hard look and examine the differences.

If morals are lacking in the entertainment industry, we can say the same of the sub-culture of sophisticates: Rimbaud and Ezra Pound are not known for their morals.  One does not become an avant-garde artist because one has a pure heart.

But wait—if we leave morals out as a factor, doesn’t the whole truism of  this duality: ‘stupid popular’ v. ‘smart sub-culture’ fall apart?   For only in the realm of morals can one human activity be placed above another with any sort of sophisticated judgment.

The popular modes of entertainment are effective, not “stupid.”

The sub-culture of the avant-garde is isolated, not “smart.”

Art that has a wide appeal can be censored by sophisticates only if there is a moral issue; otherwise we are thrown back onto questions of individual taste.  If wide appeal is said to lack intelligence, the mavens of the popular can always reply that it is not intelligent to be intelligent when one does not have to be intelligent, that is, if mere taste will do.  And once we get into questions of taste, the avant-garde has nothing to say, for it is taste, more than anything which they have always abhorred.

And this doesn’t even take into account that it may take more sophistication or ‘smarts,’ to triumph in the popular arena.  Even if the product itself may consist of smirks, naughty jokes, glitter, and oafish beats, the competition is greater, the public is fickle and demanding, and ancillary issues of lifestyle, production issues, and so forth require a certain amount of sophistication to succeed. How is a found poem or a stream-of-consciousness poem by an avant-garde  poet more sophisticated than a popular song, anyway?—especially when the popular song is making an impact in the real world, and not merely in the mind of a avant theorist?

Another term of excuse the avant-garde sub-cultures use for not being popular is their lack “sentimentality,” but this, too, is a red herring, for popular modes of entertainment and literature—especially in our day—are far more likely to be crudely unsentimental (violent, sexually blatant, etc) than otherwise.

We are not now making the old argument that high and low culture are really the same, for this non-distinction is as blind as the present duality is wrong.

Another trope worth mentioning in which the avant-garde sub-culture attempts to distinguish itself from popular modes: liberalism.  But again, the avant-garde is not necessarily more liberal than popular culture.  The most obvious point is that popularity is naturally more democratic.  And secondly, elitist sub-cultures of avant-garde artists have never, in practice, been more liberal than popular culture. The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman’s stubborn use of the label Quietism to bash all modes of popular poetry has never made any sense, until now.  The code, here unlocked, is simple: Silliman’s ‘quietism” really refers to the “silent majority,” a political media term from the late 60s which referred to the conservative electorate in the U.S.  Silliman, and most who occupy sub-cultural positions of the artistic avant-garde, wish to think of themselves as a progressive, underground, people’s army.  But isolated elitism isn’t democratic, and the 20th avant-garde is not even close to being democratic, and, in fact, is mostly right-wing.

The reality is the very reverse of the perception, then.  Popular modes of art are more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than the avant-garde.

Billy Collins is more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than Ezra Pound.

But where does Dame History come in?

Dame History steps in because the question of popular v. sophisticated is really true in only one sense: priority.  The sophisticated—who are really sophisticated—know history, and thus know originality, which is the heart of true creativity and imagination.

But two things have conspired to murder Dame History: Modernism, which taught several generations of students that the modern era began in 1910 (it did not—it began with Shakespeare, or, at the very latest, in the 18th century) and the Creative Writing Era, the practical brain-child of Modernism, which replaced emphasis on historical study with “creative” writing.

We have found the Muse—and she is Dame History.


Who was a bigger drinker, Ashbery or Poe?

Ashbery, easy.

Is Ashbery deep?

No. Dense, maybe, not deep.

By dense, do you mean difficult?

No. ‘Difficult’ implies a problem to be solved. Language allows you to load up a twenty pound vehicle with two tons of stuff. Language allows one to be problem-free. It’s magical, really. Ashbery takes a traditional poem and loads it up with excess prose. It’s playing with the magic of language, without having anything to say, or being too smart, or worldly, or sly, to have anything to say. It’s analogous to a businessman who plays with money and has no morals. That’s why Ashbery is dense, but not difficult. The wealthy businessman has no problems, no difficulties—he isn’t looking to solve a problem, just push money around. Perhaps he gambles with his investments, but that’s not ‘problem-solving,’ per se. That’s just playing with money. Maybe he could lose his shirt. But what he does is not solving a problem. But the world is full of gambling businessmen, and the world needs capital. Does poetry needs an Ashbery? Readers don’t need an Ashbery, but if poetry, as a metaphorical device, didn’t have an Ashbery, it would invent one.

You’ve said early Auden sometimes sounds exactly like Ashbery.

Yes, there’s a few poems Auden wrote as a young man which sound like ‘the Ashbery poem,’ the poem we read over and over with Ashbery’s name under it in the New Yorker, next to those wealthy ads, year after year.  It’s the poem that fakes curiosity and interest and then disappears into the smooth lake, a glass surface left in its wake, and if you as the reader complain, if you get the least bit ruffled, you lose, and the poem wins. We  see what a working-class cad you really are. The poem, by its mere being, has found you out. Similarly, if you ask what an abstract painting means, you are found out as a clod. It works the same way. Yea, so early Auden is like Ashbery, but then Auden had ideas, and was far more forthcoming with all sorts of opinions than Ashbery, and pretty quickly then, in the 30s, Auden’s poems, and of course his ballads, had lots of content. If Auden had remained with nothing to say, he would have become the first Ashbery.  But Auden ended up choosing the first Ashbery.

Auden anointed Ashbery with his Yale Younger ‘bring me that fellow’s manuscript who didn’t enter the contest, will you?’ choice.

Yea, and O’Hara was runner-up. Auden knew Ashbery and O’Hara were cartoons of himself; both poets were larks, clever, but they weren’t serious poets, he knew that. But Auden had started out just like them, and Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic,  philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era. If matter is nothing but negative and positive charges, if communication is nothing but code, if political leaders triumph with style alone, if the secret agent is the true hero of his country and the double agent the true hero of the world, if William James and Wittgenstein were right, if the Language Poets are right, if secret handshakes mean much more than open ones on the count of secrecy alone, if foetry, not poetry is the rule, than certainly how something is said is more important than what is said.

But doesn’t this mean that aesthetics is more important than power?

Power is a given.  Power cannot be beautiful, for the two are distinct.  Beautiful art inspires, it empowers the audience, makes society more beautiful by making its art more beautiful, and there’s always room for more beauty, that problem of putting more beauty in the world, and making citizens more beautiful persons will never go away; the poem of power works quite differently; it takes away the free will of true response and makes the reader non-critical and acquiescent, which is not the same thing as being inspired by beauty, even in a passive way, because the critical response is always inspired when beauty is involved, since we judge beauty and power judges us. Before the abstract painting, or the Ashbery poem, one must rejoice in its lack of beauty and perspective and harmony or be ‘found out’ as a cad.  Modern art works like the secret police.  It finds you out as a worshiper of beauty or not, and knows you, thusly. This is power, because the art does not know anything itself, but it finds out what you know, how you feel, how you think, and thus who you are, in a purely binary way: are you one of us, or not?  In terms of power, in terms of political intelligence, in terms of political organizing, modern art is very, very important in how the world is run, in how the world is classified. Modern art is code.  Aesthetics has nothing to do with it.

But isn’t ‘how you say it” aesthetics, by its definition?  Poets who write with meter and rhyme, for instance, surely are more concerned with how they say it than with what they say.  But the formalist poet is the very opposite of Ashbery.

The formalist poet who only cares about sounds—of which early Auden was an excellent example—is like the Abstract painter who only cares about color. Aesthetics boiled down is abstraction.  The key to poetry isn’t code or abstraction or only ‘how it is said,’ or only ‘what is said,’ but a harmonious combination of all elements.  Power breaks down those elements.  Art and all the virtues are reduced to code where people can say, ‘we have to keep the riff-raff out,’ which is a residue of virtue, since keeping out what is bad is the residue of good, but now it’s coded and we all know what it really means, and the code can be thinned out until only the important people know what it means.

You see poetry as something that ought to match a good society.  But what if poetry isn’t supposed to do that?  What if poetry’s function is to go its own way and if it’s good for society, fine, and if not, well, it’s more important for art to be free to pursue its own path than having to fit into, or contribute to, a virtuous society?

I guess it does sound like I’m making a heavy-handed assertion, one that goes back to Socrates and follows a moral tradition, because it certainly appears that I’m saying that we can only read Ashbery through the lens of a harmonious, or potentially harmonious, society.  But isn’t that what we’re all saying?  Except that some defer the issue to a greater extent than others?  Those who say ‘art must be free’ do not say this because they think it’s a bad idea;  they think it’s a good idea—and ‘good idea’ means here what’s ‘good’ for society.  Even the person who says there should be no society is making an assertion based on the worth of a society.  So all opinions on the value of anything, really, are backed up by the implicit understanding we’re talking about ‘the good’ in the Socratic, ‘Plato’s Republic,’ sense.  Those who would make a fetish of art would deny this bit of common sense: society or ‘the good’ have nothing to do with it, and will never have anything to do with it, they say. The New Critics will claim it only matters if the poem ‘works’ as a poem, and the Ashbery school will essentially say it only matters if it ‘doesn’t work’ as a poem, which is the logical next step, but the phrase “as a poem” can’t possibly have any meaning separate from society, since “as a poem” is a term that implies distinction between ‘poem’ and other things, and, in addition, the “as a” part of the phrase implies the person who intellectualizes that distinction, and once you posit an intellectual person, society quickly follows.

Do you think poetry can be a window into scientific experiments, so in that way it is free of what you are talking about?

I can’t think of any poetry that can be classified that way.  Is there an obscure poem somewhere, beloved of scientists, and no one else?  I can’t think of such a poem, unless perhaps the essay “Eureka,” which Poe called “a poem.”  But this was not the bogus science of a Charles Olson.  Poe can be forgiven for his misnomer, only because his science was real; it concerned the stars, the planets, the nebulae, gravity, light, and the miraculous physics of the heavens.



Joy Harjo won a big victory over Donald Hall as her “A Postcolonial Tale” edged his “To A Waterfowl,” progressive politics writ large finally proving too much for biting, clever, personal cynicism.

Harjo’s poem, by all rights, should have been vanquished for its reach, its political vulnerability.  It succeeds, however, and we still are not sure why.

A Postcolonial Tale

Everyday is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.

* * *

This is the first world, and the last.

* * *

Once we abandoned ourselves for television, the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming. It was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a whiteman who pretends to own the earth and the sky. In the sack were all the people of the world. We fought until there was a hole in the bag.

* * *

When we fell we were not aware of falling. We were driving to work, or to the mall. The children were in school learning subtraction with guns, although they appeared to be in classes.

* * *

We found ourselves somewhere near the diminishing point of civilization, not far from the trickster’s bag of tricks.

* * *

Everything was as we imagined it. The earth and stars, every creature and leaf imagined with us.

* * *

The imagining needs praise as does any living thing. Stories and songs are evidence of this praise.

* * *

The imagination conversely illumines us, speaks with us, sings with us.

* * *

Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible.

* * *

No story or song will translate the full impact of falling, or the inverse power of rising up.

* * *

Of rising up.

MARLA MUSE: It’s pretty simple. No “T.S. Eliot difficulty,” and yet this, for instance, is a strangely wonderful passage: “We fought until there was a hole in the bag. When we fell we were not aware of falling. We were driving to work, or to the mall.”

Yea, there’s something very primitive, yet worldly, ancient, yet modern, humble yet cosmic, plain yet epic about Harjo’s poem.  You like ths poem a lot, don’t you, Marla?

MARLA: Are you kidding.  It makes we want to stand up and cheer!

Harjo’s poem is a March Madness monster, definitely.

But what of the Stephen Dunn poem?

MARLA MUSE: I like it, too.  Here it is, arriving on the court:

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

MARLA MUSE: The key word in the poem is ‘they.’  It’s ‘I’ versus ‘they.’

It almost makes the Harjo poem seem shallow by comparison. The Harjo poem is about many people.  Dunn’s poem is about all people.

MARLA MUSE: I have to agree.  This Stephen Dunn poem is amazing.

“What They Wanted” is going to the Elite Eight as it knocks off “A Postcolonial Tale” by a score of 71-50.

So here’s the Elite Eight matchups for the Final Four:

East: Conoley’s “Beckon” v. Creedon’s “Litany”

North: Larkin “Aubade” v. Stanton’s “The Veiled Lady”

South: Dobyns’ “Allegorical Matters” v. Myles’ “Eileen’s Vision”

West: Dunn’s “What They Wanted” v. Muske’s “A Former Love, a Lover of Form”


There’s no crying in poetry criticism.

So why is everyone afraid to actually judge the recent White House poetry reading?

The post-modern school of U.S. poetry is always pushing forward, like commuters on a platform when a train pulls in late, or frantic competitors buying tickets for a plane in the award-winning Amazing Race reality show.

Eager to find the newest way in which the mundane can be declared poetic, the avant-garde scrambles up the next peak of platitude to plant a flag marked ‘poetry.’

The whole modernist/post-modernist history of the avant-garde, from Rimbaud to Apollinaire to Kenneth Goldsmith, is wrapped up in a single concept: the ‘Found Poem Syndrome,’ in which the avant-garde artist, like King Midas, turns everything to poetry-gold with a mere touch.

There is a different tradition.

In this tradition, poetry seeks to connect in a far different manner.  Milton hints at this tradition cunningly, if bombastically, in Book I of his Paradise Lost:

my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

This tradition is typically characterized by the Greek ideal of arete, or excellence, the Romantic sublime, or Shelley’s “scorner of the ground,” but it can be explained in a more humble light: it is simply the reverse of the Found Poem Syndrome.

Instead of trying to make everything poetic, the sublime tradition defers poetic appropriation, and takes the wary, Platonist approach, exploiting the tension between the poetic and the not poetic.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 is a good example of the poet eager to explore the poetic as desire in the Platonist tradition—rather than a ‘found poem,’ we get the tantalizingly lost:

Those lips that Love’s own hand did make,
Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’,
To me that languished for her sake:
But when she saw my woeful state,
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet,
Was used in giving gentle doom:
And taught it thus anew to greet:
‘I hate’ she altered with an end,
That followed it as gentle day,
Doth follow night who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away.
‘I hate’, from hate away she threw,
And saved my life saying ‘not you’

We have, then, the ‘Rare’ tradition on one hand, and, on the other, the modernist Found Poem tradition—which asserts the poetic in as many ways as possible.

Both traditons showed up at the May 11 White House poetry reading, but only one poet gave us the arete or sublime, tradition: Billy Collins.

Jack Powers ran a poetry group in Boston called “Stone Soup Poetry,” consisting of misfits on welfare who met in a restaurant until they were banned—for anti-social behavior: being rude to the servers or hogging a table for hours to drink one cup of coffee—only to move on to the next restaurant.   The poetry was awful, but anyone calling themselves a poet had an audience and a scene, and since helping misfits, even while harming restaurants, carries with it a moral lift, Jack, of tall stature, bass voice and plain manner, was a bit of a local hero for decades.  Blowing into town, I noticed the misfits, and being a  young, unpublished poet myself, I swore to myself I would never bring myself to mingle with that crowd, which had the whiff of the mental hospital about it: I said to myself: “These people are not misfits because they are poets.  They are poets because they are misfits.”

Of course I was being a snob, and my fear of this crowd may have had much to do with the fact that I was something of a misfit myself.  I certainly did not believe that ‘smooth’ persons were better poets than eccentric ones, nor did I avoid eccentric persons as a matter of course—I did not, and still do not. The oddball can be a fascinating conversationalist and an interesting person, but there’s no guarantee that poetry is in the cards for such a person.  When I did inevitably succumb, and found myself drinking a beer at a Stone Soup reading, the poetry that was read was exactly what I expected: a little bit of it good, some it funny, most of it coarse, self-absorbed, and stupid.

The White House poetry reading felt very Stone Soup.  The poets, except for Billy Collins, were anxious to drape the world in poetry: Rita Dove’s homage to her childhood public library loved every unconnected detail it presented, so the result was smarmy, loose and rambling. Alison Knowles was an artsy-fartsy nightmare, taking off her shoes and dully talking about them. The young Moira Bass read a short poem that had a lot of “aints” in it.  The other HS student, Youssef Biaz, looking somewhat like a young president Obama, recited a Sharon Olds poem that encompassed genocide, vocabulary, pedagogy, sex and so many other subjects, it all blurred together—and it was recited in a smooth, and yet also odd, affected way. Kennth Goldsmith read a found poem. I found him not quite as embarrassing as Alison Knowles, but close. Jill Scott went for perky feminist uplift, the rapper Common, for earnest Martin Luther King, Jr. uplift.  They both had a certain amount of charisma, but in both cases, the poetry itself bordered on annoying.

The assumption is that general interest increases when poetry finds new ways to thump us over the head, and when poetry tackles all sorts of subjects and when poetry keeps ‘finding’ new poetic objects.  President Obama, in his brief introductory remarks, said poetry is “different” for everyone.

But why does poetry as a general interest keep declining?  Because general interest requires us to feel the same about something. General interest is not enhanced by shouting, or by the greatest possible number of small fires burning in idiosyncratic, private, differences.

Obama’s “difference” is a political ideal, not a poetic one.  All our personal differences should be respected.  But poetry doesn’t build general interest by breeding difference.  Obama’s first example, the War of 1812 poem which united people as America’s national anthem, betrays his notion that poetry is about everybody feeling differently.

Billy Collins was funny and entertaining.  He was the only poet I genuinely enjoyed, and you could tell by the laughter that he was the genuine hit of the evening.

Both poems Collins read were the opposite of the artsy-fartsy found poem.

Say what you will about it, “The Lanyard,” read pefectly by Collins, is  quintissentially anti-Kenneth Goldsmith, a direct hit against the found poem, against the avant-garde impulse that would ground everything in poetry.  A hand-crafted lanyard becomes Collins’ humorous sacrifice:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

The other poem Collins read, after some jokes about how “jealous” other poets would be that he was at the White House—good jokes because you weren’t sure if he was kidding or not—was the marvelous “Forgetfulness.”

The first line of “Forgetfulness” is “The name of the author is the first to go.”

Collins’ poem is in the same spirit as Shakespeare’s Sonnet #145.

Billy Collins is an antidote to the artsy-fartsy Found Poem artist who is in a hurry to make all casual objects poetic.

The sublime poets, like Collins and Shakespeare, have a whole different strategy in mind.


Doolittle: An American, a woman, but pre-Raphaelite look helped.

Billy Mills, in the U.K. Guardian Books Blog, on May 5th, tries to stir up a little excitement for H.D. with “H.D. in London: When Imagism Arrived.”

Billy—who must be a young man—wants us to know that H.D. arriving in London (London!) and Pound (Pound!) crowning her “Imagiste” (Imagiste!) was a very significant event for Imagism, for Modernism and for Letters:

I have always felt that the appearance of the first Imagist poems in the years just before the first world war was an event as significant in its way as the publication, in 1798, of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.

Note the implied significance of “the first world war,” which had not occured yet.  In these commentaries on Imagism, there is never any mention of the stunning Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, a large-scale contest, which ushered in a haiku rage in the West—which had already gone bonkers over Japanese art for years, at that point.

Billy, however, repeats the same drab, Pound-centered facts. The whole magnificent story is quickly told:

One hundred years ago this May, a young Pennsylvanian woman called Hilda Doolittle arrived in London. …She had come to meet her one-time fiancé, Ezra Pound, who had made the same journey a couple of years earlier. Before long, she was to encounter her soon-to-be husband Richard Aldington, another poet. Whatever the personal entanglements involved – and there were many – it was a voyage that helped instigate one of the most influential poetic movements of the 20th century.

Since his arrival in London, Pound had been one of a group of young poets who met regularly in the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho to discuss, among other things, their impatience with their poetic elders, vers libre, Japanese verse forms and the role of the Image in poetry. In his role as London correspondent for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. Pound was looking for poems he could recommend for publication that exemplified these discussions, but nothing, as yet, had seemed quite right.

He had also taken to meeting regularly with Aldington and Doolittle to discuss their poems. At one such meeting he surprised his two friends by announcing that they were Imagistes (the French form of the name was later dropped for Imagist) and selecting six of their poems to send to Monroe.  As a final flourish, Pound insisted that they bear the signature HD, Imagiste. All six poems eventually appeared in Monroe’s magazine, and Imagism was launched on an unsuspecting world.

“Japanese verse forms.”  Yea, about those.  That was imagism.

Mrs. Monroe publishing Mrs. Doolittle in her little magazine did not “launch Imagism on an unsuspecting world.”

Billy is gratuitously repeating p.r. first churned out by the Pound Clique, and now dutifully repeated by every Billy in London, and every Billy at Harvard University.

Billy needs to read about Yone Noguchi in one of Scarriet’s old posts.

It’s also charming the way Richard Aldington is mentioned as “another poet.” Aldington was an WW I officer and part of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist group—which Pound quickly joined on his arrival in London—that was fanatically pro-war.  If there was anything Poundian that was “launched on an unsuspecting world,” it had much more to do with fascist war-mongering.

Richard Aldington also published a major poetry anthology with Viking Press in the early 40s, which featured a great deal of his then ex-wife’s poetry, as well as a couple of poems by Pound and one rhyming poem by WC Williams.  The anthology’s introduction doesn’t mention Pound, or Imagism, and the large anthology shows no influence from it, either. If the writer who was right in the thick of the Imagiste movement is not influenced by it, one wonders how signifcant Pound’s Imagism really was.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Billy’s personal anecdote then:

I first began to suspect that things weren’t quite right in the world of bookselling one day about a decade ago. I strolled into one of Dublin’s finest long-established independent bookshops and asked the assistant who was positioned closest to the poetry section whether they had in stock, or could order, any books by the American poet HD. The response was instant and, for me at least, decisive: “How do you spell that?” I left.

Billy: things “are not quite right” in ways you only dimly understand.

It’s not enough that Americans continually exaggerate the importance of Pound—the ant with a megaphone—for the Brits are obviously doing their part, all pumped up with pride because Pound and H.D. launched their Imagism from London.

Poe kicked the Brits’ asses when they were openly smug and abusive towards American Letters, but the condescending attitude still remains (and with some justification, given how the Americans have treated Poe and grovel before the opinions of Oxford and Cambridge).

Much of American Modernism has its roots in London: Pound, T.S. Eliot, the New Critics, including Paul Engle, who all studied in Britain with their Rhodes Scholarships.  Britain helps keep the ignorance afloat, with narrow tales such as this, by young Billy, in the Guardian.



Carol Muske’s short poem, “A Former Love, A Lover of Form” will look to topple Ginsberg’s towering “The Charnel Ground.”

Ginsberg’s poem reeks with details of numerous troubled lives in the lower east side of Manhattan, with its climax a litany of Ginsberg’s ills in his old age, followed by a coda of the young Ginsberg and a sustained final chord: a brief scene reminiscent of his glorious Beat-art days:

feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head, anus-
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye—
High school youth the inside of my thighs was silken smooth tho nobody touched me there back then—
Across town the velvet poet Darvon N, valium nightly, sleeps all day kicking methadone
between brick walls sixth floor in a room cluttered with collages & gold dot paper scraps covered
with words: “The whole point seems to be the idea of giving away the giver.”

Here is the ‘honest truth’ of modern poetry told in the starkest terms, Allen Ginsberg as the eternal Beat self, old, young, anxious, fearful, truthful, artsy-fartsy, philosophical, farting.

I asked a friend of mine today, a young unmarried male, who is not much interested in poetry what was ‘the poetry’ in his life and he blurt out, jokingly, the ‘sound of farts.’

I chuckled, and poet that I am, I said, ‘No, actually that’s a good answer.  That might be what poetry is.’  Wouldn’t Ginsberg chuckle, and half-agree?  Every fart-sound is a little different, right?  It’s a human sound, it’s a mixture of air (pretention?) and what’s inside of us.

With beautiful faces, wine, gardens,  athletic prowess, the cinema, music recordings, museums, travel, sex, material comfort, Shakespeare plays, children, philosophy, why do we need poetry, anyway?  Why do we need ivory tower belly-aching about how poetry’s no good anymore, or it doesn’t get enough attention anymore?

As Shakespeare said, ever-reminding us, in Platonic fashion, that art is the trap we should avoid, not embrace:

And more, much more, than in my verse can sit—
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.
—sonnet 103

Carol Muske’s poem gets better every time I read it.  This a profound meditation on about a dozen contrary things at once:

A Former Love, a Lover of Form

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

she enters her own memory
carrying a wicker basket
of laundry. As the wind lifts,

the clothes wrap themselves
around her: damp sleeves
around her neck, stockings

in her hair. Gone her schoolgirl’s
uniform, the pale braids and body
that weren’t anywhere anonymously.

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

If she puts on lipstick, she’ll lie
forever. But she’s too nearsighted,
you see, she doesn’t spot the wind

approaching in a peach leisure suit—
or the sheer black nightie swaying
from a branch. Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

MARLA MUSE: I adore this poem.  It says a lot more than the Ginsberg in far fewer words.

I agree, Marla; it’s anti-romantic, like the Ginsberg, but not quite as blatantly, and yet there’s a despair at the heart of it.  The narrator of Muske’s problem seems troubled by the fact that she is desired, but cannot love.  It reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” empty human beings that have become clothes, and yet there’s a seductive, enchanting aspect to her poem, too, as if the woman’s rueful wit is not ready to surrender everything yet.

MARLA MUSE: It sounds like you’re all mixed up, Tom.  You love the poems most which you half-understand.  Now, don’t cry.

Tom:  Sorry, Marla. Modern poetry is a strange mistress…

MARLA MUSE: OK, ladies and gentlemen…uh…Carol Muske has won! She’s knocked off a no. 1 seed and is going to the Elite Eight!   Muske 90, Ginsberg 87!  Congratulations, Carol Muske!


Expansionist Poetry is the last gasp of the New Formalism, a late 20th movement that opposed other genres of modern poetry and gave voice to innumerable poets and readers who thought: Damn this pretentious, self-absorbed, free verse prose passed off as poetry! Enough, already!

The Expansionist Poetry produced a few anthologies, books, and conferences, got some attention, but it was largely a flop.  Why?

The desire to resurrect the craft of poetry was admirable, but something went terribly wrong: the New Formalists never heeded the examples of the greatest Formalists in the modern era: Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Poe, but instead went in a Modernist direction.

The New Formalists let life use poetry rather than the other way around.

One shouldn’t throw money out the window; one shouldn’t let the winds of relevance blow what has no relevance around.

Let me take a moment to play the devil’s advocate: why shouldn’t we expand poetry’s range of interest? How can this hurt? At the very least, it challenges the poet and pulls in more readers.  Scarriet, aren’t you being dogmatic on this issue? Poetry shouldn’t be just a hook to hang information on, true, but why limit subject matter?

Now that we’ve given voice to the inevitable objection by fans of Expansionist Poetry, let us continue:

John Keats wrote a playful sonnet (that doesn’t get much attention) in which he named things he didn’t like: an empty coffee pot at midnight with the Muse anxious to labor, is perhaps the most delightful biographical item on the list; “a greasy tear dropped on a novel,” is another interesting one, but this one is for the Modernist, Expansionist, New Formalists: Keats ends his  sonnet with perhaps his greatest dislike: Wordsworth’s sonnet on Dover.    “Dover? Who could write upon it?” Keats scoffs.

This, in a nutshell, points to the failure of the New Formalists.  They all wrote on Dover.

The genius of a Poe or a Shelley or a Keats instinctively knows that in the elevated language of metered poetry, there are subjects and themes it is best to leave alone, and there are some that are more preferable—even while the imagination cannot finally be told what all the preferable themes are. There is always room for invention, but unless we are going for parody, humor, satire, or punning (worthy modes, no doubt), some themes are better suited to the aspiration of the Muse.

The New Formalist Expansionist poets, however, fell into the Modernist trap, thinking it was a profound revolutionary advancement to have the freedom to write “scrambled eggs” instead of “Yesterday.”

The narrow, old, blind poets—so goes the, by now, old tale—were bound by pitiful convention: they could only bring themselves to write the word Yesterday, but we moderns are free to write ‘Screw today!’ or scrambled eggs or whatever we want.  And because of this modern freedom, readers of our poetry are much better enlightened and informed than a Keats or a Poe or a Shelley.

Poe, who made American Letters respectable almost from scratch (and was paid for his pains with a five minute funeral and four mourners) defended America against the charge from smug British critics that the U.S. was a practical nation and thus had no poetry.   “Just because we make locomotives,” Poe wrote,  “does not mean we do not have poetry.”  But this is not the same thing as insisting American poems should be about locomotives. Poe, a genius, was not so stupidly literal-minded.

To limit subject matter in poetry is not to limit subject matter in Letters generally. Poe, short-story writer, journalist, reviewer, inventor of detective fiction; author of scientific and critical treatises, a novel, a part of a play, a treatise on cryptography, various other works, including popular poetry, understood this.

Keats and Shelley did not publish a great deal of prose, but they did so with remarkable results: Keats’ Letters and Shelley’s Defense of Poetry give evidence that these boys ‘had something to say.’

‘Having something to say’ is a prerequisite to writing great poetry.  Poetry is the result, not the cause, of ‘having something to say.’  Expanding poetry’s range of interest is forcing 10 pounds of stuff into a 5 pound sack.  Expanding poetry’s range of interest is to confuse effect with cause.

The pedantry of the expansionist poetry is that same type which lies at the heart of so much mischief brought by Modernist manifestos.

You can write on a blackboard: Expand poetry’s field of investigation! Let’s include:  Science, gardening, industry, mechanics, janitorial supplies, etc

But the issue is not a blackboard issue.  It is one in which an actual person, through wide study, combined with a healthy, curious, temperament, acquires ‘something to say, and then looks about him for those genres in which that ‘something’ can best ‘be said’ in terms of audience, topicality, and purpose.

This is what the Modernists thought they were doing—they looked about them and invented new genres of poetry in response to the ‘changing times.’

This turned out to be a false road: they simply took stuff out of the poetry sack and put it into a prose sack, and that effort 1) turned out to be a distracting waste of time and 2) turned off the public.

The Expansionist/New Formalists make a different, but similar, error.


Tess Gallagher with Raymond Carver:  Gallagher faces Dobyns in Round Three.

The road to the Final Four in this South Bracket battle, in Scarriet March Madness 2011, once again has a clash of two poems showing remarkable similarities to one another.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Both poems take place outdoors in a public space.

Both involve a sudden and surprising act of human intimacy.

From “Allegorical Matters” by Dobyns:

you are sitting on a park bench…A beautiful woman approaches…removes her halter top…she presses her breasts against your eyes…

From “The Hug” by Gallagher:

A woman is reading a poem on the street…Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m giving it to you…A man walks up to us…”Can I have one of those?”…I walk over to him and put my arms around him and try to hug him like I mean it.

Following the hug, Gallahger’s 46 line poem ends with a stanza that reflects on the experience:

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
To go back to.

The Dobyns poem, which is 51 lines, also analyzes the experience, but in a lengthier and more self-conscious manner:

Here we pause and invite in a trio of experts…The author sits in front of the trio of experts…My idea he says, concerned the seductive nature of my country, how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies…He considers the the difficulties of communication and the ruthless necessities of art.

Gallagher takes us into “the hug,” and then informs us that afterwards she is lost, and doesn’t know how to live or what to do in the cold and fallen world that exists outside the connection of “the hug.”

Dobyns absorbs the reader in his fantasy of breasts-hugging-your-face.  Dobyns then tries to explain his fantasy to “cool stares” of “experts.”

Both Dobyns and Gallagher are examples for their time: both poems scream ‘we are living in the era of the self-conscious, guilt-ridden, anxious artist of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus!’ 

Both poems are Faustian bargains of self-conscious, psychological, artistic experiment: what will happen to me if I truly hug someone, or if I put my sexual fantasy on display in my art?

The difference is that Gallagher is asking the reader, ‘what will happen to me?’ while Dobyns seems to be asking ‘what will happen to my poem?’  

Thus, Dobyns is more post-modernist, simply because he is more conscious of his art.

Dobyns is less personal than Gallagher—who seems more stuck in the 1970s confessional school of poetry.

Dobyns also introduces that wonderful transgressing ant…

Allegorical Matters

Let’s say you are a man (some of you are)
and susceptible to the charms of women
(some of you must be) and you are sitting
on a park bench. (It is a sunny afternoon
in early May and the peonies are in flower.)
A beautiful woman approaches. (Clearly,
we each have his or her own idea of beauty
but let’s say she is beautiful to all.) She smiles,
then removes her halter top, baring her breasts
which you find yourself comparing to ripe fruit.
(Let’s say you are an admirer of bare breasts.)
Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
you embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties. The second says,
Such fantasies derive from the empowerment
of women and the author’s fear of emasculation.
The third says, The author is manipulating sexual
stereotypes to acheive imaginative dominance
over the reader—basically, he must be a bully.
The author sits in front of the trio of experts.
He leans forward with his elbows on his knees.
He scratches his neck and looks at the floor
where a fat ant is dragging a crumb. He begins
to step on the ant but then he thinks: Better not.
The cool stares of the experts make him uneasy
and he would like to be elsewhere, perhaps home
with a book or taking a walk. My idea, he says,
concerned the seductive qualities of my country,
how it encourages us to engage in all fantasies,
how it lets us imagine we are lucky to be here,
how it creates the illusion of an eternal present.
But don’t we become blind to the world around us?
Isn’t what we see as progress just a delusion?
Isn’t our country death and what it touches death?
The trio of experts begin to clear their throats.
They recross their legs and their chairs creak.
The author feels the weight of their disapproval.
But never mind, he says, Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

The Hug

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen.
We stop too, with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to
out here in the open. Behind us
no one is entering or leaving the houses.

Suddenly a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light off
to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep on holding you.
A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t come out of
nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how he needs.
“Can I have one of those?” he asks you, and I feel you
nod. I’m surprised, surprised you don’t tell him
how it is—that I’m yours, only
yours, etc., exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love—that’s what they call it, love
that nabs you with “for me
only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my arms
around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel him
past it. I’m starting the hug and thinking, “How big
a hug is this supposed to be? How long
shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle in.
I lean into him. I lean my blood
and my wishes into him. He stands for it. This
is his and he’s starting to give it back so well
I know he’s getting it. This hug. So truly,
so tenderly we stop having arms and I don’t know
if my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses—
what about them? the houses.

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection,
the way the button on his coat
will leave the imprint of a planet in my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

Dobyns wins, 88-75.

Dobyns advances to the South Bracket Finals.


W. Jackson Bate: published a more cogent and comprehensive thesis with the term ‘anxiety of influence’ several years before Harold Bloom did.

Who remembers the specifics of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” argument?

Anyone remember the six types of influence which comprise the central chapters of Bloom’s original book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” published in 1973?


Clinamen (swerving), Tessera (completing), Kenosis (breaking), Daemonization (transcending), Askesis (purging), Apophrades (reversing) don’t ring any bells?

Didn’t think so.

The idea of literary “influence” was certainly not original in 1973.

The actual writing of Bloom’s famous work, “The Anxiety of Influence,” no longer resonates, if it ever did.

Looking back at the last 100 years of American Letters:

Pound set off a series of anarchist bombs, working the little magazine circuit, and things were unsettled for about 20 years.

T.S. Eliot ruled over the ruins for aproximately 40 years.

The critical torch was passed to Harold Bloom about 40 years ago.

The transition to Bloom occured when the New Criticism, famous exactly when Eliot was famous, faded before the twin triumph of the Beats, who survive today in Slam poetry readings, and the ‘new’ poetry—whose post-modernism lives in various academic niches and on Silliman’s blog.

Bloom, difficult and dull, even more so than Eliot—who was at least a poet as well as a critic—is the survivor of the moment, and Bloom is an uncanny best-seller (perhaps because Bloom’s assigned in school a lot).

In a nutshell, then, the critical domain has been divided between Eliot (then) and Bloom (now).

What do Eliot and Bloom have in common, besides the fact they both published virulent attacks on Poe?

The late John Hollander, Bloom’s former colleague at Yale, in his favorable review of The Anxiety of Influence in the New York Times, March 4, 1973, places importance on Bloom, the Romantic, breaking with Eliot, the Modernist:

T.S. Eliot’s conjuror’s patter about the literary tradition that lay behind his–and all of truly modern–poetry invoked the Middle Ages, Dante, 17th-century English literature exclusive of Milton and French symbolism. It diverted his readers’ eyes from the confederate power of Tennyson’s ghost, unacknowledged, assisting him behind a screen. (Eliot’s contemporary, Ezra Pound, was more open about his own stage assistant, Browning’s spirit, as was Yeats about Shelley’s and Blake’s.) In his essay of 1919, Eliot declared that a poet must “develop or procure” a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if we moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they–the dead writers–who constitute what we know.

Harold Bloom of Yale, an interpretive scholar of English and American romanticism, has for years been propounding a view of literary history and its relation to creative originality quite antithetical to the allied formulations of Eliot and Pound. Along with his own teachers, Northrop Frye and Meyer H. Abrams, but in very different ways, Bloom has helped to make the study of Romantic poetry as intellectually and spiritually challenging a branch of literary studies as one may find. The recent study of the romantic tradition has corrected the modernist dogmas about romanticism–the very word evoked the imprecise, the vague, the rhetorical–and argued for the centrality of the major English poetic line which modernism rejected. Eliot hankered after the Christian orthodoxy, classicism and royalty; the tradition he turned away from, the line running from Spenser, to Milton through the romantic poets to Browning, Tennyson and Yeats, was protestant, visionary and, save at its terminus, revolutionary.

–John Hollander, NY Times, 1973

Harold Bloom, then, was a part of a revolt against Modernism and its “dogmas about romanticism,” according to Hollander.

Bloom has said he deeply resented the dominance in Letters of T.S. Eliot, so it makes sense that Bloom’s first major study was on Eliot’s nemesis, Shelley (it is often debated who Eliot reviled more: Poe or Shelley).

Bloom’s chief analogy in The Anxiety of Influence draws on the work of another writer Eliot swerved away from: Milton.

But how does it help a writer to think of himself as Milton’s Satan, and a precursor who may happen to haunt him, Milton’s God?

The entire “Anxiety” agon, as articulated by Bloom in his book, and elsewhere, is merely Bloom’s private vision, peopled with Bloom’s own abstract and scholarly connections.  Hollander hints as much, when he calls Bloom’s book, “maddening,” “dense,” “strange,” and “outrageous.”

Bloom’s idea of “misreading” as a major aspect of “influence” is a truism, for “influence” is never a straight line—if it were, it would be copying.  Bate also covered the exact same ground– in clearer prose.

So if Bloom’s most famous agon has no originality, what, we may ask, was ‘the torch’ that was passed from Eliot to Bloom, in the most general terms?

We already stated both Eliot and Bloom abused Poe, even though Eliot abused Shelley, and Bloom helped save Shelley and the Romantics from abuse by the Modernists.

Since Poe was a major figure abused by the Modernists, it is odd that Bloom would have such hatred for Poe (and we do mean hatred, writing-him-out-of-the-canon hatred) for never mind hating such a giant as Poe in the first place, but how could one have the sensibility to reach out a hand to Shelley, after the Romantic poet’s long abuse at the hands of the Moderns/New Critics, while at the same, joining the Moderns/New Critics in kicking Poe off the cliff?  It doesn’t make sense.

But then we remember Emerson.  Bloom glories in Emerson, a writer who perfectly fits Bloom’s aphorism: “all criticism is prose poetry.”  It is precisely because there is a writer like Emerson that Bloom can secretly believe that he (Bloom) can wear the poet’s crown. Like Bloom, Emerson didn’t like to write reviews, wrote no fiction, didn’t care for science, and is most remembered for lofty, secular, religiously-tinged sermons.

Emerson, in a nasty moment, called Poe’s mastery in all those areas which Emerson came up miserably short, a “jingle,” which, ironically, in the little “influence” game we are playing now, is the same word T.S. Eliot used to deride Shelley.

Another irony, no doubt lost on Bloom, is that Emerson’s New England roots are intertwined with Eliot’s, through Eliot’s highly influential Unitarian grandfather—who married the sister of a Transcendentalist, the group who Poe mocked in his war on the New England of Emerson.

None of this should matter to Bloom, who never brings biography or history into his Criticism, and is essentially like his mentor, Northrup Frye, another Emersonian of over-arching rhetoric.

How can you talk of “influence” without reviewing books and poems, and without talking about history and actual human beings and their actual lives and works?

You can’t.

So Bloom, with his cold-blooded, detached, academic, self-involved, dense, digressive, mythologizing and his Emerson-worship, is not a triumphant return of the Humanist Romantics, but simply the priestly return of T.S. Eliot and the New Critics in a clumsy disguise.  Bloom’s book on Shelley, (published in the 50s) was diversionary, a puff of anti-Eliot smoke.

As Hollander mentioned, Bloom’s other mentor, beside Frye, was M.H. Abrams, the Norton Anthology of Literature founder—that would be someone to know!  Abrams was a deep admirer of Pound and Eliot and a good friend of A.R. Ammons, of whom Bloom just happened to be a great champion, even in his work, The Anxiety of InfluenceIf I’m going to fancy a contemporary, it might as well be Archie Ammons, a good friend of my profoundly influential teacher, Mike Abrams.  Influence, indeed!

Hollander’s scene of Bloom with flag of Romanticism waving is mere hyperbole.  Influence is wet-lipped and real, not merely abstract and mythopoeic.

Thirty years after The Anxiety of Influence, discovered that “influence” is much more local and current than many realize.

Scarriet has gone on to discover that if you study poetry going back a half-a-dozen generations, or further, you keep running into the same dozen or so names: Emerson, William James, I.A. Richards, etc.

The following was taken from an obituary of Pulitzer Prize winning Keats biographer, W. Jackson Bate:

Late in life he worried about increasing academic specialisations. “The humanities,” he remarked to John Paul Russo in a 1986 interview,

are always digressing and they can be used . . . for any purpose. But what is misused in the sciences is the result, whereas the approach in the humanities can be infinitely diverse, and wayward, perverse as well as diverse, foolish, trivial, as the result of airy opinion, impulse, caprice, and can be twisted by . . . envy, rivalry, prejudices of all kinds. [Samuel] Johnson says the first step in greatness is to be honest. If there can be simply a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can almost in a moment shake themselves into sanity.”

–James Engell, Bate obituary, 1999

It might be interesting to take a glance at Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet  (1970) which Hollander cannot help but mention early in his review of Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973).  Hollander must have known, with Bloom, the author, and everyone else involved in the writing and publishing of The Anxiety of Influence, that Bloom was merely following fast behind Bate, who, in turn, was repeating a very old thesis. To read both works (Bate and Bloom) is to be struck by how the work which came first (Bate’s) is far more readable, insightful, and much better researched.  The “influence of anxiety” is here: Bloom robbing from Bate. (Bate’s book even gives cursory thanks to Bloom.) Here is Bate from the first page of his prize-winning book—actually a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Toronto in 1969:

I have often wondered whether we could find any more comprehensive way of taking up the whole of English poetry during the last three centuries—or for that matter the modern history of the arts in general—than by exploring the effects of this accumulating anxiety and the question it so directly presents to the poet or artist: What is there left to do? To say this has always been a problem, and that the arts have still managed to survive, does not undercut the fact that it has become far more pressing in the modern world. Of course the situation is an old one. We need not even start with Rome or Alexandria, those examplars of what it can mean to the artist to stand in competition with an admired past. We could go back to an almost forgotten Egyptian scribe of 2000 B.C. (Khakheperresenb), who inherited in his literary legacy no Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, or Dickens—no formidable variety of literary genres available in thousands of libraries—yet who still left the poignant epigram: “Would I had phrases that were not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” But a problem can more acute under some conditions than others. And, whatever other generalizations can be made about the arts since the Renaissance, a fact with which we can hardly quarrel—though we instinctively resist some of the implicaitons—is that the means of preserving and distributing the literature (and more recently the other arts) of the past have immeasurably increased, and to such a point that we now have confronting the artist—or have in potentia—a vast array of varied achievement, existing and constantly multiplying in an “eternal present.”

We could, in fact, argue that the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness, before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past, has become the greatest single problem that modern art (art, that is to say, since the later seventeenth century) has had to face, and that it will become increasingly so in the future.

–W. Jackson Bate

Compared to Bloom, Bate, the more comprehensive scholar, made the case for “anxiety of influence” before Bloom did, and in a far more clear, urgent, historical, and practical manner, without Bloom’s torturous, mytho-poeic rhetoric—but this is not the place to wonder why Bloom got all the attention.  The influence of Bloom’s mentor, M.H. Abrams, founder of the Norton Anthology, who in turn had been mentored by I.A. Richards, may have had something to do with it, or the fact that Bloom jumped on the Ashbery (and Ammons) bandwagon, which at that moment was where contemporary poetry was heading, but these considerations require more research, even if they are, in a sly way, relevant to the theme of “influence.”

The question is, should there be “anxiety” because of “influence,” and what sort of “influence” are we talking about, anyway?  All poets know that who you know helps you to become famous, and that not knowing the right people will much sooner deny you fame than having easy access to the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Harold Bloom.

As much as we respect W. Jackson Bate, and whether or not you laugh at the pomposity of Bloom, we believe the thesis (as articulated by the old Egyptian scribe, or Bate or Bloom) is bunk.

Literary influence should not cause anxiety, unless by influence you mean: plagiarism, theft, foetry, and other kinds of fakery.

The general question of “anxiety of influence” must have arisen as scholars in the middle of the last century grew uneasy as they noticed how easily and quickly the past had been cut off by the Modernist anarchists.

The crude, anxious, guppie-tank view was expressed by T.S. Eliot (quoted by Bate is his book):

Not only every great poet, but every genuine, though lesser poet, fulfills once for all some possibility of the language, and so leaves one possibility less for his successors.

–T.S. Eliot

When Bloom anxiously took the Critical Crown from an anxious Eliot, it was not a break.

It was a continuation.



Does Eileen Myles have a prayer against an icon like Sharon Olds?

Marla, this is one terrific match-up, Sharon Olds against Eileen Myles!

MARLA MUSE: I’ve been looking forward to this one!

Writing free verse has nothing to do with lines and stanzas, and it’s funny how, long after these parts of the poem have become useless limbs and organs, critics keep pretending that they matter.

MARLA MUSE: Shrill and controversial, as usual, Tom…

The line and stanza counts of Olds’ and Myles’ poems are insignificant compared to the number of words per sentence and the tense-changes.

“Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles is as skinny as a young girl: the poem has 73 lines, but just 220 words, and it also has 3 long sentences—one is 120 words.

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty &
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.
It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all. I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

& she didn’t
go, she
remains a stain
on the bathtub
cover, along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
four of
them and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

“The Request” by Sharon Olds has a more regular, fleshed-out figure; 195 words in 30 lines, and only four sentences—all long.

The Request

He lay like someone fallen from a high
place, only his eyes could swivel,
he cried out, we could hardly hear him,
we bent low, over him, his
wife and I, inches from his face,
trying to drink sip up breathe in
the sounds from his mouth. He lay with unseeing
open eyes, the fluid stood
in the back of his throat, and the voice was from there,
guttural, through unmoving lips, we could
not understand one word, he was down so
deep inside himself, we went closer, as if
leaning over the side of a well
and putting our heads down inside it.
Once—his wife was across the room, at the
sink—he started to garble some of those
physical unintelligible words,
Raas-ih-AA, rass-ih-AA, I
hovered even lower, over his open
mouth, Rassi baaa, I sank almost
into that body where my life half-began,
Frass-ih-BAA—”Frances back!”
I said, and he closed his eyes in his last
yes of exhausted acquiescence, I
said, She’s here. She came over to him,
touched him, spoke to him, and he closed his
eyes and he passed out and never
came up again, now he could move
steadily down.

It terms of pure dramatics, the long sentence produces urgent, attention-holding, excited, and frantic speech in both of these poems.

Both poems are told in first-person past tense, but finish in the present tense.

Myles’ poem begins:

“One night I was home alone”

Myles’ poem ends:

“she remains…& I don’t have to tell anyone.”

Olds’ poem begins:

“He lay like someone fallen from a high place”

Olds’ poem ends:

“now he could move steadily down.”

Could is past tense, but could is also conditional (for example: he says if he could, he would) and coupled with the word “now,” Olds implies the present tense.

The past-turning-into-present-tense adds dramatic significance: the poet is relating to the reader something that happened, but which still has meaning now.

Both poems deal with Threshold Phenomena, like “The Raven,” the model for all such poems: a visitor from beyond comes to the window of one’s familiarity with a coded message that involves amazement, assurance, fear, puzzlement, or, in more pedantic poetry, advice.

Both Olds and Myles use assurance at the center of their poem’s Threshold Phenomenon.

Olds: “Frances back!” I said…I said, She’s here. She came over to him, touched him, spoke to him

Myles: it’s so hard for me but the Lady came & she said, stay here Eileen stay here forever…& she didn’t go, she remains

Each poem, then, features hyper-simple, Biblical actions: “She came over to him” and “the Lady came,” both mystical, acts of profound comfort.

Another similarity is the counter to the sublime (the poems would not be ‘modern’ otherwise?) in both poems:

Myles’ Lady is a “stain” on a “wooden bathtub cover” that has “other stains” and “half-scraped lesbian invisibility stickers” on it, “standing on its side” and “incidentally separating kitchen and middle room in my home where I live and work.”

Olds: “fluid stood in the back of his throat, and the voice was from there, guttural, through unmoving lips, we could not understand one word”

Olds, however, is much closer to the pure sublime in her poem: a man is dying, she, the narrator figures out what his slurred words are saying: “Frances back!” and Frances, the wife, who just happened to be at the sink for a moment, goes to him, comforts him, and then he dies.  It’s a tear-jerker, almost Victorian, but I think the Victorians would have been embarrassed by a poem like this, because with so much death in those days (infant mortality rates at 50%) the Victorians would have would found this poem too starkly self-satisfied with itself.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have probably leaned over to inspect a poem like this and gagged. Elizabeth Oakes Smith would have frowned.  Helen Whitman would have merely winced. Walt, however, would have approved, but we can’t allow one sensibility to approve of a poem for all, if we wish to honor it with a place under the dappled shades of the Elysian Fields of anthology pieces.

Both poems feature, as is typical in the Threshold Phenomenon poem, limited speech or communication: in Olds’ poem, the dying man can hardly speak, and Myles closes her poem: “& I don’t have to tell anyone.”

Specific lack of speech is just one element that can work as a framing device.

The Imagist poets thought image would, by itself, provide that limit, that frame, that focus, which is at the heart of aesthetics—but unfortunately the Imagists confused the great art of painting with cartoon.

To make anthologies for the whole history of mankind, to truly categorize poems as Scarriet March Madness does, is the second-highest calling in poetry, beneath only the inspired writing of the masterpieces themselves.

Eileen Myles, in about as many words, provides more detail than Olds; we learn, for instance, that Eileen is struggling to write an art review, that she’s a catholic but also a lesbian, we get a feel for her tiny apartment, the appearance of that wooden bathtub cover, and we’re even introduced in the beginning to Myles’ dog, who is acting a little strange, to set the tone of the “entrance” of “the Lady.”

Myles, in attempting to frame her poem, and make sure we understand how simple and mundane the poem’s “event” actually is, mid-way through the poem writes, “That is all.” We understand the intention, and it’s minor, but this sentence is probably superfluous.  Two hundred seventeen words, and the poem goes to Heaven; two hundred and twenty, and it doesn’t.  Poetry is that exact a science.

We like knowing these extra details of the Myles poem; both poems are terrific, the Olds more expertly framed; the Myles with slightly more of an abiding, quirky interest.

Without being sentimental (as we pejoratively use that term today), the Myles poem is more Shakespearean, more loveable than the Olds—the Olds resembles a Rembrandt painting (I’m not thinking of a specific one) in its simplicity, its beauty, its passion, and the darkness of its theme. (One crazy critic speculating how the Victorians might feel upon reading it should not be held against it.)

Sharon Olds is one of the best poets writing today.

But these two poems, placed side by side, and scrutinized together, slightly favors the Myles.

Give it up for Eileen Myles, who is advancing past Sharon Olds!

MARLA MUSE: What a thrilling contest!  Scarriet has done it again!

Final score, 66-63.  Eileen Myles is going to the South Bracket finals.  She’s in the Elite Eight.




“Exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation” –New Critics Brooks & Warren on “The Red Wheel Barrow”

One of our readers, William Kammann wrote:

Leroy Searle, in an essay on NEW CRITICISM writes:

“Accordingly, the meaning of the poem is not conveyed by any prose paraphrase and is valued as the source of an experience (for the reader) available in no other way. For this among other reasons, opponents of the New Critics have frequently charged that they ignore history, ideology, politics, philosophy, or other factors that shape literary experience. While such charges are not entirely fair, they arise because New Criticism in practice came to focus almost exclusively on problems of interpreting individual texts.”

And yes, those text could be poetry or prose, but they do not equate the two except as an object of analysis. It’s the method of “close reading” that is common.

The real distinction for them is between literary/poetic language and scientific language and this is the very thing that has since broken down. Is literary language a fine brandy and scientific (or religious) language something else?

Is there a difference in the end between the internal experience and the great wide world??

No, poetry is not brandy. 

And yes, it is brandy. 

Any song or poem can be usefully paraphrased. 

The New Critics are correct as far as that truism goes: screaming Beatle fans would be disappointed if a professor came on stage and began to intone summaries of the Beatles songs. 

So, sure, songs (and poems) are experiences. 

But that doesn’t mean that ideal and practical summaries do not exist, or cannot exist, or should not exist, for all kinds of reasons. 

Think of the poem as a room.

Rooms have integrity as rooms, but the New Critics wanted to take the door away. 

The New Critics essentially warned, “If you use the door, you violate the ‘experience’ of the room qua room.” 

Thus no one could look in the room (poem) and say that the room (poem) sucks, for this would ‘violate’ the experience of the room (poem), and so: the sucky rooms (poems) of the friends of the New Critics were safe inside the ‘locked room of experience.’ 

Inside the locked room of “The Red Wheel Barrow” reside the mad, who have been brainwashed by Modernism and the New Criticism.

Christopher Woodman’s been in that room since 1968!

We’ve all heard the “The Red Wheel Barrow” paraphrased and analyzed favorably; “Did you know the poem is actually two lines of iambic pentameter?  It’s a fresh view of the world!  It’s a microcosm inside a macrocosm inside a microcosm!” 

 “The Red Wheel Barrow” triumphs, because it is too minor to be anything but an experience.  It is too small a room to have a door—so it fits the New Critical ideal of ‘no paraphrase allowed.’ 

 Thus the New Critical commentators have nothing but good things to say about “The Red Wheel Barrow.”

Even though “paraphrase,” either good (it’s always good) or bad, is impossible.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” is the experience that can’t be paraphrased, earning plaudits as an experience— because by definition of the New Critics’ logic, experience can’t be paraphrased. 

Are you getting it yet?

Or should we ask:

Are you experienced? 

Have you ever been experienced?

The magical Red Wheel Barrow is rolling your way…


I wonder if it’s significant that so many notable poems in the APR March Madness Tournament reference famous people: Dugan: Anne Sexton, Corso: Shelley, Ginsberg: Salman Rushdie, Edward Field: Freud, O’Hara: Ashbery, etc

In this contest to advance to the Elite Eight, Nemerov’s WW II bomber poem, “IFF,” mentions Hitler, and Stanton’s “The Veiled Lady” makes a passing reference to Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

Nemerov’s sister was a famous New York photographer.

Stanton’s husband is also in this APR competition.

So many APR poems are addressed to, or revolve around the famous, or near-famous; reading these poems is almost to be immersed in a gossipy, celebrity party. It is a late-night, decadent, educated, boozy, party where if Freud, Hitler, or Sexton are not being discussed, a good fuck or a good hug is.

It must have been exciting sometime in the 20th century when poetry became grown-ups discussing Freud and affairs and smut openly.  But the problem with boozy, adult-themed poetry is that it isn’t for children; it isn’t for students.  That’s why, I think, APR poetry, and so much of 20th century poetry, is doomed to fade away.  Smutty, wise-cracking Freud isn’t going to be taught to students, because, frankly, it’s smutty, and without that market, forget it;  this type of poetry is only going to be interesting to used-bookstore-grubbing malcontents and perhaps a few social historians.  Oh, and, the few non-university poets who are left.

There’s not much to teach in these poems, anyway; it’s delicious late-night conversation, but we all know what happens when the boozy party is over.  You go home, wake up the next morning and fret about your life, and what some guy said last night about Freud, or the blow-job described in detail, are forgotten.

This may be wrong, and even mean—but it’s just one of those things we like to say around here.

I had an undergraduate (state school) college professor who was very influential on me because I was unformed and she really loved to teach, who used to say, somewhat regretfully: “We (moderns) can’t escape Romanticism.”

Maura Stanton and her poet husband can’t escape Elizabeth and Robert Browning.  No poet couple can, or would try.

But the Moderns set out trying to escape Romanticism.

Only later, after I lost touch with my professor, and after much reading, did I realize how cowardly and excessive the Moderns’ attack on Romanticism was.

Romanticism was already modern was the problem. 

Byron, for instance, was as chatty and frank as any Beat—and metrical and rhyming, to boot.

And this celebrity name-dropping which the APR poets indulge in was already done by Byron (Southey) and Shelley (George III).

The only way around Romanticism was to pretend one was “Classical,’ which the High Modernists did, but Pound wasn’t classical—that was another one of his cons.  If we want to be perfectly honest about the whole thing, Modernism was two things: more prosey and more smutty. We didn’t need Pound to pompously assert that poetry needed to be written as well as good prose—to every good writer in history this is a given, and Pound himself didn’t follow it very well.  Pound, classical?  Bah.

Billy Collins won last year’s BAP March Madness with a parody of a William Wordsworth poem, but Billy wasn’t just name-dropping; he embraced Wordsworth—or what Wordsworth means, and didn’t let go for the entirety of his poem.

Wordsworth wasn’t smutty.  And neither is Billy Collins.  Take note, you who want poetic fame, and you who understand the secret that fame, love, and poetry are the same thing.

What is it about famous names, or almost the same thing: names of beloveds, who become famous in poems: Beatrice, Laura, Stella, Lenore, Cynara, Joan Hunter Dunn?

I have a theory: the name of one’s first obsessive, chaste, exquisitely beautiful love will determine if one becomes a lover of poetry, or not.

Had my first love been Meghan Smith, I doubt I would have gone on to desire the Muse.

Mine was alliterative and suggestive: Karen Cummins.

The interest of the name, combined with the loveliness of the person, combined with the unrequited nature of ‘the crush,’ was all-encompassing, accidental (the combination of the beauty and the name) and it hurt me into poetry, but not consciously—this was money saved, not spent.

I didn’t write the name, Karen Cummins, in any of my poems.

Fanny Brawn was not in any of Keats’ best poems.

Nemerov’s description of Hitler in his poem “IFF” is audacious:

Hitler a moustache and a little curl
In the middle of his forehead, whereas these
Bastards were bastards in your daily life

How much more powerful this than W.D. Snodgrass’s documentary-like poem’s attempt in the APR anthology to capture Hitler.

The ending of Stanton’s poem completely wins me over:

Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology…

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

MARLA MUSE: This reminds me of last year’s Scarriet BAP March Madness Final Four poem, “The Year,” by Janet Bowdan.  Remember?  It had the same haunting quality.

But Stanton’s poem has an entirely different p.o.v.

Plus she has Elizabeth and Robert Browning.

Stanton beats Nemerov, 90-80, advancing to the North Finals.


who are you

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.


Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot

The East Bracket Sweet Sixteen contests are over, with Gillian Conoley edging Barbara Guest and Carolyn Creedon getting by Leslie Scalapino into the East Finals.

Today’s North Bracket Sweet Sixteen matchup is Philip Larkin v. Bill Knott.

Knott knocked off Alan Dugan and his “Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton” in a miraculous upset; Dugan’s poem brought celebrity, clarity, drunkenness, wistfulness, and we still have no idea what Knott’s homely sonnet is talking about:


Don’t think, I said, that because I deny
Myself in your presence I do so in mine—
But whom was I talking to? The room, empty
Beyond any standpoint I could attain,

Seemed all sill to stare off before someone’s
Full length nude, at halfmast the pubic flag
Mourned every loss of disguise, allegiance
More to the word perhaps than its image—

But predators always bite the nape first
To taste the flower on the spine-stem, so
I spoke again, which shows how unrehearsed
I failed to be. I went to the window:

Sky from your vantage of death, try to see.
Flesh drawn back for the first act of wound, it’s me.

Rhymes and half-rhymes abound, but rhythmically, the poem is all-thumbs.  It has no music to recommend it, and if its harshness is intentional, or not, we can’t really see how it matters either way.

Knott’s poem is profoundly ugly, and this no doubt is intentional, due perhaps, to the homely subject matter.   Is it a conversation between the poet and his poem? The poem won’t let the poet be seen? That’s as much as we can get from it.

R.P. Blackmur, influential Modernist and New Critic, who got John Berryman—suicidal, in debt from his education, teaching HS—a job at Princeton, wrote:

The art of poetry
is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse
by the animating presence in the poetry
of a fresh idiom: language

so twisted & posed in a form
that it not only expresses the matter in hand
but adds to the stock of available reality.

“So twisted & posed” sums up Knott’s poem—and much of modern poetry’s hubris: a belief that “twisted poetry” is far superior, by its very nature, to “manufactured verse.”  Verse does not contain “language” and does not “add to the stock of available reality.”  Whole generations which Blackmur influenced became besotted with this idea.

Who will lose to Knott? Not Larkin,
Whose poem contains more memorable
Lines than Pope; the day will darken,
Night meet day and placid on the window sill
Knott sits there still, unable to hearken
To anything but Aubade’s spell, Knott’s will
Broken bric-a-brac facing the pane; outdoors
Larkin, the storm, Monodrama meekly implores
The English poet to stop, stop, but Aubade roars.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin 98, Knott 37



Helen Vendler titled one of her books, “The Music Of What Happens,” a quote from the poet Seamus Heaney, whom she greatly admires.

But music doesn’t happen—music which moves us has an inevitable quality, just as mathematical science reveals nature’s permanence to our rolling eyes, just as beautiful verses make their statement like stone.

Leslie Scalapino, vying for Sweet Sixteen against Carolyn Creedon, is the supreme poet of what happens.  APR excerpted Ms. Scalapino’s that they were at the beach—one of four long parts in their anthology The Body Electric, source of Scarriet’s 2011 March (May) Madness Tournament.  I laughed when I read this:

Beginning to honk, because a man in a car behind me looked as if he were going to take my parking space, it’s near shops, is crowded—I honked before seeing that he’s old.  And it appearing he hadn’t wanted the parking place.

Here is poetry that happens, and this is Scalapino’s genius—no poetry happens quite like hers.  It lives in the present—reading her poem you think along with her in the present.  If poetry is news that stays news, Scalapino is the most up-to-the-minute news of all, because no one immerses you in happening right now like her.

As we pointed out during her second-round victory,  Scalapino’s poetry is nerdy and helpless and sensitive—which makes her absolutely adorable; she is so much in the present, the poem always moving forward so engagingly and innocently and vigilantly and anxiously and hopelessly, that as ‘experimental’ as perhaps this is, I actually enjoy reading her.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of Scalapino’s poetry( “I’m not retroactive—corresponds to making jokes because it’s in the past”) as bizarre or mysterious, because it’s the opposite of that—it’s plain to an extreme degree.  It represents the anti-spiritual, the anti-intellectual, the plain person who just wants to belong to the world in a plain way.

If you want what happens, read Scalapino.

If you want inevitable, read Creedon.

We read “Litany” by Carolyn Creedon with wonder and horror.  Its end is contained in its beginning.  We knew her poem had to end this way.

The details of Creedon’s poem come to us, not as events that are happening, as in that they were at the beach, but as images from a dream, which we turn over in our minds long afterwards.

The Tom of Creedon’s poem will love the narrator nevermore.

The Scalapino washes over us.  It is essentially comic.

The Creedon haunts us.  It is essentially tragic.

This whole Osama Bin Laden business:  not only is it rooted in horror and tragedy, but it has a secret, conspiratorial aspect. There are temperaments that look for conspiracy—and here we might genius, or we might find paranoia.  Usually paranoia—but we never should dissuade genius.  A conspiracy of a conspiracy is a natural development, for facts matter less in puzzling politicial matters than the factions it inevitably creates, with one side content they do not believe in conspiracies, and the other side tortured that they do.

Creedon’s poem speaks to the torture, Scalapino’s to the blandness associated with existing beneath the status quo in a world of sense experience—a world without conspiracy that happens by chance.

Creedon’s poem thinks: it was inevitable that Tom would leave me.

In this torture is a certain kind of art’s highest pleasure.

Creedon defeats Scalapino 101-100.

It had to be.


I’m only Tom, cheering helplessly from the stands.


Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?
i will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and i will eat it and call
it a carolyn sandwich. then you will kiss my lips and taste the mayonnaise and
that is how you shall love me in my restaurant

Tom, will you come to my empty beige apartment and help me set up my daybed?
yes, and i will put the screws in loosely so that when we move on it, later,
it will rock like a cradle and then you will know you are my baby

Tom, I am sitting on my dirt bike on the deck. Will you come out from the kitchen
and watch the people with me?
yes, and then we will race to your bedroom. i will win and we will tangle up
on your comforter while the sweat rains from our stomachs and foreheads

Tom, the stars are sitting in tonight like gumball gems in a little girl’s
jewelry box. Later can we walk to the duck pond?
yes, and we can even go the long way past the jungle gym. i will push you on
the swing, but promise me you’ll hold tight. if you fall i might disappear

Tom, can we make a baby together? I want to be a big pregnant woman with a loved face and give you a squalling red daughter.
no, but i will come inside you and you will be my daughter

Tom, will you stay the night with me and sleep so close that we are one person?
no, but i will lay down on your sheets and taste you. there will be feathers
of you on my tongue and then i will never forget you

Tom, when we are in line at the convenience store can I put my hands in your
back pockets and my lips and nose in your baseball shirt and feel the crook
of your shoulder blade?
no, but later you can lay against me and almost touch me and when i go i will
leave my shirt for you to sleep in so that always at night you will be pressed
up against the thought of me

Tom, if I weep and want to wait until you need me will you promise that someday
you will need me?
no, but i will sit in silence while you rage. you can knock the chairs down
any mountain. i will always be the same and you will always wait

Tom, will you climb on top of the dumpster and steal the sun for me? It’s just
hanging there and I want it.
no, it will burn my fingers. no one can have the sun: it’s on loan from god.
but i will draw a picture of it and send it to you from richmond and then you
can smooth out the paper and you will have a piece of me as well as the sun

Tom, it’s so hot here, and I think I’m being born. Will you come back from
Richmond and baptise me with sex and cool water?
i will come back from richmond. i will smooth the damp spiky hairs from the
back of your wet neck and then i will lick the salt off it. then i will leave

Tom, Richmond is so far away. How will I know how you love me?
i have left you. that is how you will know

Carolyn Creedon


Barbara Guest:  Sophisticated Lady.

We all would like to make that film—if we could—that is humanity’s shared dream. But the fine print in the distribution rights always trips us up.  Or our lead actor lands in a scandal just as our film is released, or some critic who just doesn’t get it at all rips our film to shreds, laughing all the way.  And we were going to make the whole world cry. We were going to move the world.

If we look at the the film industry v. the poem industry: which one of them has produced more shared dreams at less cost?  Movies v. poetry—which is the most efficient, and the most effective, at immersing the most people in dream?

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” was produced at almost no cost: a paper and pencil, a few hours of writing and revision.  Is there a movie critic alive skilled enough to turn the public against that glorious little poem?  No.

Now think of how many excellent movies have been made that are utterly forgotten. And now how many millions of average films have been made, and been forgotten, or not forgotten, but which cost thousands of times more, in terms of money and machinations and time than Frost’s little poem. Think now of the average film, the horrible little film we watch when bored, and forget right afterwards. Or the great movies, the ones considered great—every great movie has had numerous detractors.  You can’t find one film that is universally loved like Frost’s little poem.  Any film can, and has, been ripped by a well-placed critic.

Not so “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This one poem triumphs over all that is the entirety of the multi-trillion dollar history of world cinema.

Forget the black-tie dinners, the Oscar ceremonies on TV, the celebrity, the press, all of that which, like past Super Bowl winners, 99.9% of us utterly forget.

Forget—oh, and what haven’t we forgotten?

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas, anymore,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!,” “Play it again, Sam,” “I’ll be back!”  Snippets, like little poems, briefer than Frost’s poem itself, are what remain in the popular mind after the trillions spent down the years on film production.

Frost 1, Film Industry 0.

This is why every neglected poet gets up in the morning and thinks, “I’m a poet and I don’t care what they think.”

The beauty of it is, you really don’t have to care what anyone else thinks, because the dream you had last night—you didn’t just watch it, you were in it—the one you remembered just as you woke up, and as it fled down the mouse-hole of your mind, as you frantically tried to replay it in your inner private cinema room, and even as it faded forever, you went, “fucking hell that was fucking great?”

Yet, that one.  The best movie is our dream. Not Arnold.  Not Ingrid Bergman. Not Hitchcock.  Our dream.  A triumph over all cinema the way “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” triumphs over all cinema.

Now write your dream, poet.

Gillian Conoley has.  Her poem, “Beckon” has made it to the American Poetry Review Sweet Sixteen. Her next opponent, Barbara Guest, was interviewed by our Marla Muse recently—Guest is making the rounds, the Sweet Sixteen has a celebrity all its own these days—and Guest’s poem, “Motion Pictures: 4” was described as dream-like. Guest’s poem describes the making of a motion picture in such a manner that we’re not sure how real the film, or the description of the film, is.  To an audience watching a film, whatever is in “the film” is real and whatever is outside the film does not exist; but to filmmakers, whatever is outside the film and is thought about in such a way that it goes into the film is reality, and this is a significant shift in thinking, which Guest takes advantage of in her poem.

The danger here, though, is Guest’s poem becomes a thought-process, rather than a work of art, but since works of art as actual works of art is such an old-fashioned concept, Guest has little to lose.  “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” works like a little film.

Frost’s poem is not a poem about making a film—which all modern, self-conscious poems tend to be—it is a film.

Guest’s poem is definitely the ‘film about making a film,’ or ‘poem about making a poem’ variety.

Guest’s  poem is full of actualized events and remarks and observations, but it’s pretty obvious what she is doing: reveling in the thought-processes of creation and how bits of real life, a cough, faint sounds, contribute to that creation, whether that creation is movie, poem, collage, or dream, in the context of whatever post-modern term you wish to add.  Please feel free.

Near the end of Guest’s poem, which features a back and forth between two film directors, Nagao and Wilhelm, we get:

Nagao said there didn’t have to be explanations it slowed the movie and he agreed this one was too slow. It was old-fashioned to explain why gangsters upset the fish cart.
“Like Utamaro,” said Wilhelm who believed in a capsule of real life. He thought of a new title, Dream of Real Life.

But Conoley’s poem is not as self-consciously post-modern as Guest’s.  Conoley is, like Frost in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” showing us a film, not a ‘film on how a film is made.’

We could probably divide poems into movie and documentary categories.  Guest, and post-modern poets such as Ashbery, make documentaries; the old-fashioned ‘create an illusion, create a story’ is eschewed for “how awfully cute it is to create illusions! I might create one for you, but I’ll probably laugh while doing it!”  Documentaries can be far more serious than ‘regular movies,’ but what modern and post-modern poetry (and art) seem to have done is perfect the strangely funny, highly self-conscious, documentary.  Is it nervous laughter due to the horrors of the 20th century?  Or is it purely an aesthetic choice?  It’s hard to say.

Anyway, Conoley is old-fashioned and serious, like Frost, even as she partakes of modern and post-modern obscurity:


Dead cold spots in the air,
others bright and richly colored as opera,

my old dress is worn out,
torn up, dumped,

another thing the mad made.
Saddles laid out to dry,

vowels left up in the air as if something is better
left unsaid as if I could have.

And truth is music’s mute half,
a sentence broken into,

the half tone of a husband
waiting alone in a car,

so that only the sun warrants a red mane.
A figure passes quickly

in the ever-unquiet breath
of you, you, you and sometimes me.

The future made, an absolute night
troubled by how we will live up

to the day’s sequence of images in full sail,
as wind folds other things,

and ink branches and conceives.
Last night was floral,

a satin comforter fell
into violence, old

strangely beautiful voices
in the thin thread of my dreams

in the thin thread of my speech.
I was embarrassed because I wanted lines in the face

and the laughter that spills over
to bring me luck’s child.

I had a dream like seconal, sleepy rule of birth,
odor of seduction. I had only prayer, prayer

and science. On a street young girls gathered,
loud with nothing to say, as in an attempt to explain a local fire.

–Gillian Conoley

How can private dreams be expressed in words of universal meaning?  Even in unusual combinations, words keep their universal meanings—so where does the private get expressed?  Is it possible to express the particular in words?

After reading this poem several times, I think it’s about a cheating husband, or a break-up of a marriage, with the final image of “loud” girls with “nothing to say” about a “local fire” (private sexuality) contrasting with the “luck’s child” that didn’t happen because of the failed relationship; the “passing figure” might be the ‘other woman’ who is perhaps a redhead–or the husband is a redhead.  The “half tone of a husband/waiting alone in a car” hints at all sorts of issues.  By the way, the poem is full of lovely and subtle sound equations like ‘half tone’ and ‘husband.’

Of course, I could be completely wrong: it might not be about a failed relationship at all.

Frost’s poem is as clear as a bell, and yet more misty and dream-like than millions of forgettable poems which strive to be dream-like by being obscure.  Are poems like Frost more memorable because people are stupid, because memory is stupid?

Is reading poems about what we ‘get’ or ‘don’t get?’   How much should Keats’ ‘negative capability’ rescue the reading of obscure poems?   How much of ‘not getting’ a poem is the reader’s fault?

So it’s Conoley’s dream against Guest’s documentary.   The Guest is more sophisticated, more cinema-hip, more post-modern, and just as dream-like, if not more, than Conoley’s poem.  “Motion Pictures: 4” shares with Frost’s poem a certain clarity which Conoley’s blurred dream-vision lacks.  But I feel that Conoley’s work is finally more sincere—if that word has any aesthetic meaning at all, does it?

What makes a poem stick in the mind?

What makes a poem win?

What did I just watch?

Did I see Conoley win, 76-75?


Shelley: He studied Greek.  We study to not be like him.

All poems have plain structures and superstructures. The plain structure is the repeating process of the poem’s sound.Repetition is the essence of all movement, whether it is a series of numbers, putting one foot in front of the other in the act of running or walking, the rotation of wheels, orbits, revolutions, or the reflection of the tree in the lake.

Poems do not move if they do not repeat; the plain structure makes the movement interesting or pleasurable, and on the plain level these two terms are interchangable.

Any series of words repeat and move; the meaning of the words create the superstructure. A series of zeros has a plain structure but no superstructure, and yet a series of zeros has meaning in mathematics. Repetition itself is meaningful. A series of zeros mistaken for ‘ohs’ has sound.

Nothing repeated is something.

Repetition is meaningful, since it is meaningful to repeat something three times rather than twice. Shelley and Emerson have both pointed out that a word can be poetry and this is because of repetition, since repeating letters create a word, a one-letter word such as “O” is automatically repeated as a sound, a single word repeats meanings etymologically, and so on.

Since language has its very essence from repetition, how does a poem emerge out of language, since language is already poetry?

The answer to this question is contained in the word emerge; since a poem cannot emerge out of language, the only way it can be a poem is if it is a poem before it is language. The poem must appeal to an advanced sensibility. The primitive essence, repetition, belongs to language first, so traveling in that direction (toward the primitive) will not help.

The only way to find the poem is to ask how we escape language.

How can the poem repeat in a non-linguistic manner?  How can it beat its divine drum? The answer is: rhythm.

The poem must have rhythm, since rhythm transcends mere repetition. Nature prefers simple repetition. The sun does not dance in the sky, a runner does not dance; if we saw the sun moving in a herky-jerky manner, we would know something was terribly wrong; a dancing runner wastes energy; dancing is not running.

The sun and planets do dance, but only when observed over great time and distance. The discovery that planetary orbits were not round but stretched out and Kepler’s guess at the reason is how the dance of the cosmos is observed, or when a certain chess-piece arrangement is played forward and backward in a patterned unfolding of a particular game in a player’s mind; in these examples we see how recurrance escapes itself, we see how a poem might escape its linguistic chains. The essence of language must give way to something higher even as it remains present as what it is.

How we distinguish poem from language determines what kind of poet and critic we are, and here we note the difference between poet and critic: the poet must find the difference between language and poem—the critic the difference between one poem and another. The poet works vertically, the critic, horizontally;  ideally, both work in both directions.

To speak even more broadly, Man’s comic/tragic life can be defined as a series of exceptions to nature.  We are not nature, but exceptions to it. Primitive nature, the more observed, surprises us, as it becomes more like the human, filled with exceptions to itself—and here is the essence of theology and science.

The first critics of poetry observed grammar. Students learned Greek or Latin grammar and poetry together, which seem tedious to creative writing students today, but there was a method to that madness; grammar, with its numerous exceptions, was how linguistics first escaped from its primitive repeating structure into reasoning speech. ‘Repeat here, but not here’ is how repetition itself is first transcended. Punctuation was the first wall poets built. Ancient critics and students slaved, while the glory was reserved for Homer, who covered their walls with dream.  The poet’s transcendental dreaming was directly proportional to grammatical labor on the critic/student’s part. 

The moderns have managed to reverse this process: critics don’t study grammar, but different tastes in different eras, and meanwhile the students study to be poets in the ‘new way,’ and this ‘way’ (conformist, even as it advertises itself as non-conformist) seeks to transcend not language, but grammar.

Quantum physics observes the universality of measures like mass, but also its exceptions—your weight on Mars is different from your weight on earth.

The moderns lost interest in universals; they chiefly observed differences of place and time, like weights on different planets:

Ezra Pound: “the 19th century is mannered and sentimentalistic…”

T.S. Eliot: “But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century and continued.”

John Crowe Ransom: “the modern poet could accomplish just as elegant a rumination [of Byron] but knows this would commit him to an anachronism…”

What is the quantum of poetry?

We are still discovering it.

Your move.






















In the East Bracket, four relatively unknown poets emerged victorious from competition with John Ashbery, James Wright, Robert Creeley, James Tate, Stanley Kunitz, A.R. Ammons, and Jack Spicer.

Poetry tournaments are richer and more exciting with upsets than other types of competitions, and this is because reputations of clique-poets tend to be artificially inflated.  But kiss-ass and in-crowd behavior don’t help when you’re under the net and playing for a win in front of crowds!

Poems matter when it comes to winning, not poets. 

We’ve all dreamed of writing that one great poem that will ensure our place in eternity.

Poets’ names travel faster than poems, and poems these days don’t travel very fast at all.  Editors, publishers and critics need to identify the best poems; but what usually happens is poets—who are more ambitious than poems, as it turns out—fight to the top and occupy mouths and ears and anthologies.  A poet’s name is sung and the poems follow, even in the wake of the famous poet, obediently and hardly read.

Poets’ names should come attached to poems; instead we get poems meekly following poets’ names.

It give us great pleasure then, to present sixteen poems which have tangled and tussled and proven themselves.

We are proud of the poets, too, but you can be sure their place in the sun is deserved.

The 2010 March Madness Tournament used the BAP volumes (David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series) from 1988 (its founding) to 2009.  Billy Collins’ “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” won that tournament.

These 2011 March Madness poems are from one anthology, the best of APR, (the American Poetry Review) from its founding in 1972 to 2000, and produced by the editors of APR, Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.  So these poems are seen through that lens—the editors did not include Billy Collins—but it’s an important lens, and shows basically what American poetry was doing in those years.

Two big names have survived so far: Larkin (one of a few Brits in the collection) and GinsbergSharon Olds is well-known, and Stephen Dobyns has some renown.

The poems will be examined, because they have to win more to get to the top: Elite Eight, Final Four, and the Championship.

Thanks for watching!


Insiders knew “cooked” meant electro-shock therapy and “raw,” the result.

Robert Lowell, in his acceptance speech for a major book award in 1960, welcomed the Beats to the party.  Poetry didn’t have to be written for the graduate seminar, Lowell said; it could be street-wise and accessible.  It didn’t have to rhyme—it could just talk.

Lowell was doing nothing, however, but furthering his own career.  He had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during WW II, and then won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for a book of bombastically formalized verse: a few good lines, but mostly trash.  Lowell was clearly a mediocrity, but he was a Lowell and he was a Beat before the Beats: iconoclastic, capricious, and mad.  Also, crazy.  And mad.

The ‘raw v. cooked’ formula was simply an acknowledgement on Lowell’s part that he was swinging from ‘cooked’ to ‘raw’ in his writing and he sensed that ‘raw’ had become sexier.

Nothing concerns a man in his 40s more than loss of sex appeal.  The womanizing southerner Allen Tate was very sexy to Robert LowellLowell walked away from WW II and walked away from his wife in a car wreck, but when Tate said Lowell couldn’t move in with him, Lowell pitched a tent in Tate’s yard and lived there for two months.  Tate was the American Pound: in the mid-20th century, Pulitzers, Bollingens, booze parties and new Writing Programs went through TateTate was the transatlantic star of the Euro and American wings of Pound’s modernist clique, praising the The Waste Land, starting up Princeton’s Writing Program where Merwin and Berryman established themselves, hosting Ford Madox Ford’s visit to the U.S, the Confederate to Lowell’s Union.  Lowell paid homage to Tate’s glinting poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” with his For the Union Dead. 

Lowell bumped into New Critics for most of his career: leaving Harvard to study with  Ransom at Kenyon, befriending Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana, besotted with Tate.  Lowell also taught at Iowa with Paul Engle. And then he’d teach Plath and Sexton.  The myth of Lowell sometimes makes us forget that he was basically a well-connected Workshop teacher created by the New Critics.

The “Confessional” label was given to Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal, which tremendously helped Lowell’s career.  This was part of Lowell’s ‘new sexy,’ the ‘raw’ establishing itself against the graduate seminar ‘cooked.’   It was simply another calculated move by the Pound clique to build a New Critical, rich-boy, mediocrity into a star.  In his NY Times obituary, Rosenthal is described the following way: “he had an affinity for the work of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.”  There they are: the four horsemen of Modernism.  The second phase of Modernism was insinuating itself (because ignored by the public) into the Academy and the Canon: these soldiers were Rosenthal, the New Critics, and Robert Lowell.

As for Lowell’s famous “Raw and Cooked” formula itself, it is without merit.  How, for instance, is Donald Hall or Louis Simpson in 1960 “cooked,” and not “raw?” Would the poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath be considered “cooked” or “raw?”   Plath was a student of the New Critics and dreamed of being accepted by the Kenyon Review. “Daddy” makes expert use of all sorts of formal devices, and yet it’s certainly a “raw” poem.  The Romantic poets were both “cooked” and “raw” in the ways Lowell was using those terms, primitive yet learned.  Lowell, however, was not astute enough to really know what he was saying; Lowell had no critical powers; his statement was merely self-promoting.

As we see in the following bit of history, whatever window there was quickly closed:

Seventeen years after his “raw” and “cooked” proclamation, Lowell did a joint reading with Allen Ginsberg at New York’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. The poets shared a podium—a hint that, in the interim, the battlelines had blurred. Gregory Corso rambunctiously heckled Lowell as he read his poem, “Ulysses and Circe.” “Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid,” Corso called out. Lowell responded with a quick “Point taken” and continued. “You treat us like a classroom,” Corso shouted. Lowell responded that he, in fact, was a teacher and tried to let it go at that. The event was shaping up like a lopsided showdown when Ginsberg finally stepped forward and proposed that the crowd collectively invite Corso to “shut up.” They did and Corso amicably exited, boots in hand, wife and baby at his side. To Lowell, the reading had turned into a veritable “happening.” In retrospect, it signaled a reprieve. The “raw” and the “cooked” were no longer warring, and the tribes needed new names.   –Tina Cane, Poets.Org

As this excerpt points out, the so-called “raw and cooked” in American poetry quickly blurred, and it is doubtful whether the actual division Lowell intended existed at all.

America had no critic of note in the 20th century. New Critic-connected Randall Jarrell, Lowell’s roommate at Kenyon, where Jarrell taught, was merely OK.  Eliot took his historical depth to Britain. Poe was insulted by the New Critics and stashed away in the cellar.  Brooks,  Penn Warren, Tate and Ransom had their day—but who reads them now?

It is no surprise, then, that one of America’s best-known 20th century critical pronouncements is weak, ambiguous, and ahistorical.

The change from 1960, when Lowell uttered the “raw and cooked”  formula, to 1977, when Ginsberg and Lowell read together, can best be summed up by looking at the difference between Lenny Bruce and George Carlin.  The former went to jail on obscenity charges in 1964, despite support at his trial from Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Allen Ginsberg, and died a broken man in 1966.  The latter became successful by using the same “dirty words” in a 1972 comedy album.

The “cooked” might refer to cooking up poetry prizes.

In the end, Lowell going for “raw” when he was “cooked” is just one more silly event in the chapter of Modernism.


Reed Whittemore 1919–

Stephen Dunn’s poem, “What They Wanted,” describes a conversation between an “I” and a “they” of which almost nothing is known—these two blank personal pronouns carry the emotional weight in this poem, a device commented on once by Shelley in his A Defense of Poetry:

A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his coneptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry.

As we might expect, Shelley’s prose is as wonderful as his poetry, and to immerse oneself in Shelley’s mind is to realize how paltry and small the modernist commentators are. Stephen Dunn’s extraordinary lyric, “What They Wanted,” is precisely described by Shelley’s prophecy.  In Stephen Dunn’s poem, as worthy as anything by Donne, grammar alone evinces “moods of time, differences of persons, and the distinction of place” and without any limiting, mawkish ‘look these are flower petals and they resemble and symbolize faces at a metro station!’ Stephen Dunn’s poem participates in the “eternal, the infinite and the one.”

MARLA MUSE: When one comes up with an arresting image like petals on a wet, black bough, well, what is one to do with it?

Compare it to faces at a metro station, of course!

MARLA MUSE: Of course!

And then your friends can put your little poem in a textbook, and students from all over can learn that you changed the western world with your song.

MARLA MUSE: And therefore you did!

And also be sure that your friends publish here and there in passing commentary what a churlish little creep Shelley was…

MARLA MUSE: That particular comparison, between Shelley and themselves, they would rather not contemplate…

Nor do they have to, since only “the new” is glorious, and Shelley is so old…

MARLA MUSE: Be sure you call Shelley a blackguard and keep him guarded…

In a dungeon.  And give the key to Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler.

MARLA MUSE: Bloom had an early affection for Shelley, probably because Bloom resented Eliot’s hold on American letters, and what better way to annoy Eliot than to champion Shelley, but Bloom’s hatred of Poe, who is the American Shelley, makes no sense at all.  American Letters is mad, I’m afraid.

Don’t be afraid, Marla.  Without Woodman, we’ll still carry on.

MARLA:  Of course!  The egotistical sublime has nothing to fear from the egotistical whine…

Stephen Dunn’s “What They Wanted” is magnificent, but Reed Whittemore’s “Smiling Through” is a masterpiece of sentimentality and one of the most moving poems ever written; the stoic nostalgia, the grim joy, the open eye staring through the mist, as memory aids the theme in reticent, perfect touches; we read this poem like watching a master paint or sculpt wrapped in the purest nonchalance of otherworldly skill; we trip down the staircase of Whittemore’s poem and stop at each landing in tears. The poem begins:

Who are these figures in the street?
They are my friends.
They are wearing armbands.
They are marching along with my coffin, and smiling

The clear yet misty point of view is established at once and never wavers.  The poem encloses us in its cobra grip.

Both Whittemore and Dunn do this; their poems invoke a unique setting, equal part real and unreal, and never waver from an aesthetic purpose in which setting, mood, and speech harmoniously contribute to the shining dimensionality of its end.

Either of these works are strong enough to play in the final, but one must be eliminated here.

With heavy sorrow we announce the Whittemore loses.  Dunn made one perfect pass at the end, and won 58-57.

Thus our last Sweet Sixteen place is filled.  Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!



Ginsberg: 3/5 Williams, 2/5 Kvetch.  He once had silken thighs.

Here we go: the penultimate match for Scarriet’s 2011 APR Tournament Sweet Sixteen!

Allen Ginsberg, 3/5 hairy, 2/5 bald, was not a happy old man, writing in his “The Charnel Ground,”

feeling lack in feet soles, inside ankles, small of back, phallus head, anus–
Old age sickness death again come round in the wink of an eye–
High school youth the inside skin of my thighs was silken smooth tho nobody touched me there back then—

Ginsberg has a remarkably expansive mind—it confesses everything, even as it has no ideas.

The ‘having no ideas’ part is precisely what makes Ginsberg the heir of Williams/Aldington H.D./Pound Imagism; just as Whitman was Emerson’s Frankenstein monster, Ginsberg was Williams‘ No-Ideas-But-In-Things monster: Ginsberg’s poetry is things taking over, the dead coming to life, things cluttering up the mind of all poems.

Emerson had ideas, but since in the end they all contradicted each other, all that remained was passionate rhetoric, transcendent rhetoric that wouldn’t be pinned down, and was poetic just for that: you can try it for yourself: take Emerson and put him into lines, and you’ve got Whitman, the run-away train of magnificent observations sans real thought.

One man’s prose really is another man’s poetry.

This phenomena of prose feeding poetry, the essayist as the model for the poet, the poet merely singing the dead philosopher, has always been the story, not a modern one; poetry solidifies into free verse when captured by the fluidity of prior prose.

What happens with modernist poetry, Whitman-Williams-Ginsberg, etc, is that poetry ceases to think; it thinks, but not as a poem would thinkGinsberg does think, he does have thoughts; but his poems don’t think; they are not realized as poems—they are scraps and jottings: American poetry as Emerson’s Diary.  This experiment will even work: Emerson in lines sometimes sounds like Pound and Ginsberg, too.   The hectoring grumble, the admonition to take off your clothes and wave your cock around!  The whole thing is, unfortunately, finally more homogenous than any sentimental Victorian-verse counterpart.

It is the hell of the avant-garde who finally is trapped in the prison of nothing-to-say.  All that rebellious energy, but no poetry; nowhere, finally, to go.

Why does the rebel Blake sound august, and the rebel Ginsberg like a mere downer?

Why do Williams, Pound and Ginsberg taste like watery wine?  Because their wine was their manifesto, the intoxication of their poetry was ‘make it new,’ which unfortunately translated, poetically, into ‘make it dull.’   Good wine, as everyone knows, is not new.  The intoxication that sold what they were doing to the critics, and professors, and sex addicts, and kids who hated their parents, was in the sell, not in the poetry itself.

MARLA MUSE: Devastating.  I can hear the yowls and yawps of protest already coming over the rooftops.  “Strawman” is already forming on someone’s lips.

We are the hollow men, Marla.  Heads filled with straw.  But with young, silken smooth thighs.

MARLA MUSE: Oh, they’re right, Tom!  You are the most entertaining commentator on poetry alive!

O what shall we do?  Bang or whimper?

MARLA MUSE: Is the game starting?

Yes.  But I have to ask one more question:

So how did the shining clarity of the Red Wheel Barrow evolve into the complaint of Howl?

It happened because “So much depends” was not a thing, and even if it were, it would be like a basketball player content with the look of his face or his uniform. You’ve got to play.

And  Ginsberg can play, Marla.  He runs.  He plays the full-court game.

The Red Wheel Barrow, despite the blind who think otherwise, was not a thing.

It was a manifesto.

A manifesto Ginsberg ran with.

The Red Wheel Barrow did come to the public’s attention, like the poem, “The Raven,” for instance, in a daily newspaper, or from a recitation; the Red Wheel Barrow came to the public’s attention in a text book, a text book honoring it and written by a couple of New Critics who approved of the Red Wheel Barrow just as Williams automatically approved of Ginsberg.  The New Critics loved both the “raw” and the “cooked,” which was division of no meaning, since the belief that a poem is “raw” is like the belief that the Red Wheel Barrow is a thing.

Dumb manifestos lead to dull poetry.

Now by the time Ginsberg ran with Williams‘ bad manifesto, Whitman and Pound had reconciled, which meant Emerson/Whitman were back in the game: the sprawling Ginsberg could sprawl without ideas as long as enough things (raw details) ran up and down the court with him.  The tiny false distinction between raw and cooked quickly closed; Emerson the august brick-thrower, the ‘Made-in-the-USA Nietzsche,’ held sway once more, as modernists could eschew cute imagism for something as mindless, but with more heft: say-anything-you-goddamn-please-in-lines-way-out-to-here.  This formula was magical and had much more staying power than Imagism, which died a quick death—no wonder Pound quickly announced, the very  moment Imagism flopped, that he was writing a long poem—it was a desperate effort to save his career; and it worked—because he had enough crazy friends who believed The Cantos was one poem, and not just a string of unrelated scribbles.  What was so magical about ‘Say-anything-you-goddamn-please’ was not that it produced anything that was terribly interesting (in fact most of it was terribly boring) but because it made good poetry that had been written before look like it wasn’t saying everything, that it had something to hide: Ginsberg was grotesque, but he was telling the truth, and therefore, by comparison, the more reticent—because more crafted—poetry of prior eras, was not.

At least this was the unspoken sell of modernist poetry: the whole freeing and breaking down the doors thing.  Jorie Graham claimed that in her latest book (Overlord) she was doing something wonderful—writing simultaneously like Whitman and Williams—long lines and short lines together.  Her experiment proved to be a muddle (and greeted by po-biz with an embarrassed silence) because Graham’s attempt was nothing more than an elaboration of a bankrupt modernist manifesto.  There aren’t short lines and long lines; there are only good lines.  If your writing is dull, your little lines will blur into long ones and your long ones will be read as a series of little ones.

MARLA MUSE: I see the game is starting!

Cecil tries to make it a half-court game against Ginsberg, but it’s hopeless.  Cecil’s knotty, prosy lyric, as interesting as it is, doesn’t stand a chance.

Ginsberg, 101-70.

Allen Ginsberg is in the Sweet Sixteen.

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