Curtis Faville was a regular anti-Quietist commentator on Silliman’s Blog before Silliman’s squeamishness cancelled conversation.  Since Emerson’s surly “jingle man” remark, the puritans of modernism have frowned on rhyme.  Now Mr. Faville, on his own blog, The Compass Rose, in “The Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme, parts I and II,” this month, keeps alive Emerson’s animosity with a didactic assault on beauty and expression.  Thomas Brady’s comment (to Part II) and Faville’s response is now an addendum to Part I.

Here is Thomas Brady’s comment:

Faville objects to the glorification of rhyme, which he thinks is nothing but a parlor trick. I have news for Curt. A poem is nothing but a parlor trick and, as far as we know, life, which is made of dust but exists as we see it, is a parlor trick too. Life, the Big Parlor Trick, can deliver more joy or suffering, but with the Little Parlor Trick, what matters is: is the Parlor Trick amusing, or boring? And whatever is not a trick, has no theological or aesthetic interest whatsoever.

Faville is certainly justified in wanting his ‘meaning’ straight, without jingle-jangle. But he is confusing the parlor trick with the parlor. Aspects of the parlor are important, sure: Isn’t that paint starting to peel? Does the parlor need dusting? When is the pizza man coming? Should we use more lights in the parlor? Is there enough diet coke in the mini-fridge? There’s all sorts of things to consider.

Rhyme is merely emphasis, but of course emphasis is a whole world when it comes to music, and expression. There is no ‘meaning’ in a certain word rhyming with another, but neither is there ‘meaning’ in a Beethoven symphony, which again, is a mere accident of sound. But why does a Beethoven symphony have more interest—as well as more ‘meaning’—for us than any prose passage of Curtis Faville’s? Well, it’s nothing but a trick, of course.

Faville admirably defends his position:

I am always amused at how nonplussed people can get when you presume to criticize traditional poetic structures.

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?
Life, despite what Tom says, isn’t a parlor trick. Matter and animate protein aren’t parlor tricks. Not bad jokes. Not simplistic games of chance. Reducing poetry to a branch of clairvoyance, or sleight-of-hand, is a belittlement of literature. I don’t see serious literature as needing to furnish meaning “straight” either. Au contraire.
The parlor used to be a room in the house where private and public met, a kind of limbo space in which visitors could be admitted, without relinquishing the privacy of the family living spaces. The parlor was where manners and propriety were observed, and things were kept trite and harmless. Parlor games were diversions–cards, checkers, etc.–which had no ulterior consequence(s). To be amused or mildly diverted.
Rhyme may be used to create “emphasis” but that isn’t its only purpose. (Unfortunately, that’s often how it’s often employed.) As I tried to make clear, words are not notes, and trying to think of poetry as a kind of musical expression is an error, because the two media are different in their effects and underlying bases. Which is partly why the meaning of rhyme is purely gratuitous. Beethoven’s symphonies aren’t “meaningless” as Tom asserts. There is nothing accidental about musical composition. But it is a mistake to think that meaning in music can be constructed in the same way that it is in verbal composition. The two are analogous, but not parallel.
Comparisons may be invidious, especially when used in an obviously sarcastic way. It is very flattering to have my “prose” compared to a Beethoven symphony, but I’m afraid this is merely a silly misapplication. In no way is a blog essay intended to stand as an aesthetic performance–either as poetry, music, or casual journalism. Tom knows this.

Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Let’s cut right to the chase: Faville singles out rhyme as an object of contempt without taking rhythm into account—even after I pointed out in my first response to his essay that to rhyme nicely one must use rhythm nicely. Faville applied Robert Frost’s “playing tennis without a net” to rhyme, when Frost’s subject was “free verse,” not rhyme.  If Faville is merely objecting to doggerrel, that would be one thing, but like the modernists and New Critics who heaped scorn on their illustrious predecessors such as Shelley, Poe and Byron, Faville chose to pick on Andrew Marvell, describing as “trite” and “gratuitous” the rhyme and metre of “To His Coy Mistress.”  The 900 pound gorilla in the room, as usual, is Edgar Poe—who anticipated Faville’s vague objections with scientific rigor and ingenuity.  Let us grant that poets mindlessly jingling and jangling century after century is a legitimate concern.  Here’s Poe:

Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved, my positions remain untouched. I may say, however, in passing, that several instances of rhyme occur in the Clouds of Aristophanes, and that the Roman poets occasionally employ it. There is an effective species of ancient rhyming which has never descended to the moderns; that in which the ultimate and penultimate syllables rhyme with each other. For example:

Parturiunt montes et nascitur ridiculusmus.

and again—

Litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus.
The terminations of Hebrew verse, (as far as understood,) show no signs of rhyme; but what thinking person can doubt that it did actually exist? That men have so obstinately and blindly insisted, in general, even up to the present day, in confining rhyme to the ends of lines, when its effect is even better applicable elsewhere, intimates, in my opinion, the sense of some necessity in the connection of the end with the rhyme—hints that the origin of rhyme lay in a necessity which connected it with the end—shows that neither mere accident nor mere fancy gave rise to the connection—points, in a word, at the very necessity which I have suggested, (that of some mode of defining lines to the ear,) as the true origin of rhyme.

I quote the above not to refute Faville, for Poe agrees with Faville that rhyme can be “obstinately and blindly” persisted in, but Poe, in this brief passage from his Rationale of Verse, gives us history, rationale, and material solutions.  In his Philosophy of Composition, which reconstructs “The Raven,” Poe does not mention rhyme once.  In one interesting passage, he writes:

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.  The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Now Poe is perhaps the most original author who ever lived; Faville holds a vague opinion that rhyme is rather silly and has gone on for too long; Faville has not written a “Raven” or a Rationale of Verse or a Philosophy of Composition, but it is nice to know that Faville, as he says:

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?

Faville doesn’t “object” to rhyme, and admits that “historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive.”  But after saying this, where is the force of his complaint?   It’s sort of like saying, ‘words were once rather wonderful things, but posterity now slaves itself to a monotonous use of them—perhaps it’s time we did away with them.’  Just like that?

As we can see from Poe, the ‘jingle-man’ himself, verse depends on rhythm, line, meter, stanza, an undercurrent of meaning, and even more fundamental things like unity, limit, duration, and variety.  Rhyme is the icing on the cake, or the percussion in a symphony orchestra, or the glint in a beautiful eye.  To weigh against rhyme is the mark of a dour theorist, indeed.  Shall we censor what can make language charming?  Really?

Faville, with single-minded, modernist glee, having no understanding of the rationale or the history of what he dismisses—“traditional forms”—pursues the general, well-worn path of loosening our collective mental grip on “the poem,” towards any number of holy grails: freedom, realism, social justice, prose-variety, prose-insight, prose-seriousness, prose-acrobatics, prose-morality, and prose-dignity.  But what the modernists have done, starting with the exceedingly clever R.W. Emerson, was not to chuck “the poem,” but to transfer its properties (and more) in a mysterious manner to whatever prose-pursuit happened to be going on at the time, whether it was Yvor Winters yapping about “moral form,” or the Imagistes’ slightly Westernized haiku, or Eliot’s morose pastiches with footnotes, or the Iowa Workshop’s “the poem is my diary!” or Ashbery’s Dr. Seuss-for-grownups-minus-the-rhyme.

The modernist agenda would be necessary if the two centuries previous to the 20th had produced bad poetry and stupid criticism—but it didn’t; Pope to Tennyson was quite remarkable, and Gertrude Stein huffing on her professor William James’ nitrous oxide didn’t exactly improve it.  But fellows like Faville, swept up in the nitrous oxide fun, feel it is their duty to tell everyone not to rhyme. You’ll sound like Shelley which means you’ll sound old-fashioned, so stop is the philosophy in a nutshell.

Like any agenda or manifesto put forward by clever people, it has a grain of truth, a ‘little learning’ about it which is on target.  We Quietists, we defenders of “ye olde traditional forms,” we dinosaurs, wearing big hats and stiff collars, would, with a single hit of nitrous oxide, get it, and groove with Lyn Hejinian at academic conferences all-around-the-world-yea, except for one small detail: Pope thru Tennyson did not produce limericks.

Faville would have a case, if, beginning around the middle of the 17th century, there had been an onslaught of limerick-appreciation, and it quickly infected every poet and critic: Shelley’s A Defense of Limericks, Poe’s A Rationale of Limericks, building on Pope’s An Essay On Limericks, to Tennyson’s Maud: A Limerick, which drove reasonable men to build the Iowa Writer’s Worskhop and write New Critical texts to save us from the limerick-menace (though T.S. Eliot would still allow us to admire the ur-work: The Divine Limerick).

But now, thank God!, there are poets like Rae Armantrout, who decided deep down in their souls they were not going to write limericks—and we are saved.

Poe ‘splained “the Poem” as belonging to the province of Beauty, not Truth or Passion, and Faville may think Beauty means pretty, but it does not; what modernists like Faville need to understand is that “the Poem” requires a length, and that mere fact brings us to the question of how we divide that length, which inevitably encompasses issues like the line, rhythm, meter, stanza, and finally, rhyme—mundane material considerations which good poets bother with and bad poets do not.  Faville would pluck the rhyme without comprehending the whole flower, including root and stem—the whole plant to him is nothing but prose meaning, and everything else that the genius Poe is concerned with, he, Faville, can just throw away.

The limerick belongs to the parlor, obviously, but it also belongs to poetry and, as such, can be made the center, perhaps (is there a modernist who would even dare?) of compromise between my position and Faville’s.

Faville probably thinks “The Raven” is a limerick, or might as well be; he has already demonstrated he thinks “To His Coy Mistress” is a limerick, with Marvell’s “jews” and “refuse” rhyme-combination a bit of silliness no serious, contemporary, educated man should tolerate.  Faville, as a schooled modernist, fears limit.  Faville feels the tiny, artificial pool of “jews, refuse, lose, and ooze” rhymes, which Marvell swims in, is a big slap in the face to one as intelligent as himself.  Faville roams the Towering Forest of Prose Ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson And John Ashbery with his gun—to kill any limerick-rhyme he might happen to see. Faville, unlike Marvell, wanders an autumnal landscape that stretches for eternity—there is Henry James on the right and Walter Benjamin on the left—and contains no parlor games or parlor tricks or anything that could be put neatly inside a game-board or a stanza.  Faville is a colossus—and strides a colossal world.


The pro-breeding Shakespeare: He broke our hearts when Juliet couldn’t have little Romeos.

Reading the daily vitriol of hate (vitriol of hate, I like that) spewing from my educated friends on Facebook, the taunting and name-calling from otherwise civilized folk, I recall the old saying, ‘If you get angry, you lose the argument.’

Why do political opinions make people so angry?  And worse than angry: it turns them into bullies and bigots.  My friends!  My educated, open-minded, progressive friends!  What in the hell is going on?

The vast majority of bigots are only bigots when they are joking, when they have a smirk on their face, and the cowardice of the bigot may just be what the mind settles into as a defensive response to the far more debilitating state of anger.  Fury needs to be avoided at all cost, for fury will lose you your job, your wife, and land you in jail.  Prejudice is the civilized response, the ‘flight’ from the  more primitive and brutal ‘fight,’ which, in its brutality, can’t even be characterized as prejudice, since prejudice requires a little thinking (that dangerous thing) and the ‘fight’ response is instinctive and primal.

Often, however, it is anger which drives us to fight injustice.  Rather than cynicism, indifference, and mild forms of biotry as paths away from an anger which would get our coward into far more trouble, whipping oneself into a frenzy in order to do something about the wrongs in the world—and thus traveling towards anger can be a noble action.

I don’t want to fan the already raging partisan fires by exaggerating the importance of anger in our lives—how we’re all a moment away from fury at all times, how, like fire, it’s sometimes useful, but always dangerous.  Like most of us, I’m tired of this red state/blue state divide which is eating away at our social fabric—to use a really mundane cliche—so mundane that it shows I’m not angry, but troubled in a rather dull way.   But to continue: the estrangement of family, friends, and co-workers over mere differences of opinion is a sad thing to see.  Should your Democrat or Republican neighbor be your enemy?  Can’t we be bigger than that?

The folly of our current situation is this: we would rather humiliate our opponents than reason with them. Intellectually, that’s how bad it’s got. Debating in a sneaky, sneering manner has replaced, “Here’s how I see the facts.”  Debating has been replaced by masturbating.

There’s a large element of the population—who presumably don’t know very much—which both sides are pandering to, in an ever-increasing downward cycle of dumb.  This dumb portion of the population must be reached, at all costs, to swing the election.  But to reach this large part of the electorate, reasoning has no effect.  Bush, for instance, won in 2000, only because Bush was a familiar presidential name, and yet that Bush wasn’t dumb; that Bush was CIA, the very opposite of someone going into a voting booth, and knowing so little, that picking a familiar name is all they’ve got, or all they care about, in matters political.

But here’s why I think educated people are getting especially testy.  Underlying elements which contribute to making a certain political position Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, progressive, or reactionary, are shifting and treacherous—compared to the certainty of our own educated thinking.  Fearful ignorance isn’t just in them; it’s in you, too.  That’s right, smarty-pants. You.

This has always been the case, and it’s the reason why political affiliations continually evolve, over a single generation.  Soviet-Nazi Pact, anyone?

You might have someone who conservatively sticks to their radical position, ignoring radical changes happening all around them.

You might have someone who radically moves towards a conservative position, frantically reacting to superficial events.

You might have a religion-hater who holds onto their own beliefs with a monomaniacal, religious frenzy.

You might have a deeply religious person who holds deep beliefs in a highly superficial manner.

Hot-button issues are hot because they feature believers who are conflicted about what they actually believe, and they are highly defensive, as a result.  It isn’t the issues that are hot, but the deeply conflicted individuals who are hot.

Another source of tremendous enmity springs from the deep philosophical divide of two eternal practical strategies: tough love and tolerance.  The issue itself, whether it’s obesity or the debt, and the facts relating to that particular issue, are overwhelmed by a tough love v. tolerance debate which plays itself out in the minds of those eager to hold political positions which they think ought to define them.

The problem is not in our politics, but in ourselves.

Finally, we come to the fallacy which defines 99% of all political talk: No True Scotsman.  No true Republican would ever raise taxes, but president Reagan did. No true Democrat would ever lower taxes, but president Kennedy did.  And these are not arguments in favor, or against, your party.  This is merely the No True Scotsman fallacy. The Republicans, years ago, sent soldiers to the South to make sure black people voted.  Not long before that, Indians owned slaves.  Republicans, a few generations ago, stood for conservation, the Democrats for jobs and labor. Today, however, green defines the liberal.

Is Same-Sex Marriage, for example, a radical or conservative, belief?  The only reason Same-Sex Marriage is an issue at all is not because of the issue itself, but because there are enough confused, highly defensive, people—who consider themselves  liberal or conservative—to kick up a fuss.

There are two poles to the Same-Sex Marriage issue: On one side, we have the heterosexual, created by nature to breed, and further created by society to celebrate and encourage all that breeding entails, and the heterosexual through history, whether trapped in it, or reveling in it, identifies with it in all sorts of deeply primal and deeply conditioned, ways—psychologically, socially, religiously, and in every sort of way one could imagine, or not imagine.  This, we might say, is the ultimate conservative pole of ‘the issue.’  Whatever opposes this pole, especially in a public manner, is going to feel some push-back: how could it be otherwise?  We see in nature (and in those beautifully-filmed nature shows on TV) how much opposition drives socialization and sexuality in wildlife: fighting for turf is a law among all the animals.  As much as we ‘civilize’ ourselves, we will always be animals, and people who choose religion, or choose to become monks, do so to escape the laws, or the more violent laws, of the jungle, of the animal world, of nature.  Most of us do this to some degree, and we can all relate to it, and we can all see that nature is both radical (sex at all costs!) and conservative (preserve the tribe!), and that the impulse to be religious is also both radical—because it goes against nature—and conservative—because it adds laws in its attempt to go against nature.

So here is one pole: heterosexuality—species in the wild going to extreme lengths to safely breed, and humans in society setting up reverential units and making iconic fictions to safely breed, too.  The other pole: what is it?  Homosexuality merely inhibits the prime directive of breeding, so it’s not really a legitimate other pole; homosexuality would merely be a sub-category to the asexual nanny, or facilitator, of the breeding process. The pacified breeder who, temporarily, or permanently, stripped of his or her breeding nature, and who vigilantly and placidly tends to the upbringing of the offspring, could be homosexual, but more important is their placid, asexual nature.  The asexual—or the homosexual—can participate in the heterosexual quest of breeding by helping to raise children.

But we are looking for the legitimate other pole to this entire breeding process, which includes both natural and civilized aspects.  If homosexuals raise children, even indirectly, they are a part of this breeding process, and in no way opposed to it.

The other pole, it seems to me, is freedom from this entire breeding-and-raising-children-safely agenda.  The other pole is: I will love whomever and whatever I please; I am not in this world to reproduce myself, or share in reproducing the species; I don’t care about the safe upbringing of children, or religion, or icons, or marriage, or any of those ‘breeding’ trappings; I want to be free of nature and all laws, and I want to enjoy myself.

If Same-Sex Marriage belongs to the first pole—and my feeling is that it does, then it is a highly conservative impulse, and it is only a hot button issue because of a confusion regarding the nature of radicalism and conservatism in certain individuals’ minds.

And if Same-Sex Marriage belongs to the second pole, that marriage doesn’t have a chance.



Mother leans over you; want is what will surely last,
Whether it’s friendship, love, the picture, or the meal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

The game is won, with crushed hearts and bruises amassed,
Loudly in your ears, the victory bells peal—
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Long hours sought, the test is passed,
Safely in your hands, the document and seal,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Following the star that follows the mast,
You circle the earth, you run like an eel…
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Surrounded by family…goodbye, at last,
Without saying a thing you feel.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Surviving the others, burned, gassed,
Or drowned, as you cling to the shattered keel,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Facing, alone, the icy present, the feverish past—
Thought enters boldly each line you feel,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Politics in your veins, hypocrites sassed,
Your righteousness, raw, makes you squeak and squeal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Condemned! Your day no more than love to make it last—
You remember, with tears, the last flower and meal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Did you love him, or her?  No matter; the die is cast,
Love’s imperfect, so you made a deal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

If you want a child, get immortality, fast—
Even as lives through infinite shadows steal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

What is it, that you never reveal?
Sorrow: is it, indeed, more real?
Is life an accidental doom?
An accident of turpitude and gloom?
The dancers!  Give them room, give them room.


Poor Henry James.  He took so long to say something, and when he finally said it, there was nothing there.

With Henry James, there was always something that seemed to want to get out, but somewhow, it couldn’t.

Effort was always present in him: great, even herculean effort, but it was always merely towards a kind of grim self-existence: the loud breathing of one panting because of their own weight.

If Henry James is remembered as a poet, it is precisely because what he was trying to say could never be said.

Henry James was always writing prefaces to his novels, and his prefaces were wonderful—because they teased, even tortured, his readers into such refined impatience: oh do please get on with the novel, already, before I expire!

For instance:

“The Wings of the Dove,” published in 1902, represents to my memory a very old—if I shouldn’t perhaps rather say a very young—motive; I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me. The idea, reduced to its essence, is that of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to “put in” before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived. Long had I turned it over, standing off from it, yet coming back to it; convinced of what might be done with it, yet seeing the theme as formidable. The image so figured would be, at best, but half the matter; the rest would be all the picture of the struggle involved, the adventure brought about, the gain recorded or the loss incurred, the precious experience somehow compassed. These things, I had from the first felt, would require much working-out; that indeed was the case with most things worth working at all; yet there are subjects and subjects, and this one seemed particularly to bristle. It was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it—it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a “frank” subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill—a case sure to prove difficult and to require  much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign.

Before reading a Henry James novel, one needs to be carefully informed of how difficult it was for Mr. James to wrestle with how he was going to “work-out” his inescapable theme.  His prefaces are sort of like having one’s brains dashed out—in order to create that proper impressionistic effect which his impeccable, fictional realism requires, as it portrays dashing men—and the thoughtful ladies who love them—sucking their thumbs.

Henry James, the pampered, life-long bachelor who fled rough-and-tumble America for Men’s Club London, was the sort of person most happy when talking about his own novels (and explaining what he was going to do in them), which is why prefaces were so important to his art.

It is no wonder Henry James failed miserably at the theater.  Audience: We’ll give you an hour, or two. Connect with us.  James couldn’t do it.  He was booed and hissed off the stage by his beloved Londoners.

His father, Henry James, Sr., now forgotten, founded Syracuse, was the richest man in America, and most importantly for his son, Henry, knew Emerson—who told young William Dean Howells to publish Henry Jr in The Atlantic Monthly, which was great, because Henry James was not doing much of anything at the time, laying about, feeling guilty for not fighting in the Civil War, and he and Howells were to discover a ‘movement,’ Tea-Cup Realism, which they were very happy with, and Henry now could tell everyone—thanks to papa’s connection to ‘uncle’ Waldo—that he was a published writer.

Henry Sr.’s eldest son, William, experimented with writing things down while on nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, and founded the first psychology department, at Harvard, where he eventually had Gertrude Stein—who was good at automatic writing—as a student.

So the James family gave us the city of Syracuse, Tea Cup Realism, Academic Psychology, and Modernist, experimental literature.  Not bad.

But what shall we do with Henry James’ inflated reputation?  Why, lance it, of course.  If not punctured, the inevitable decay will set in—James has already lost millions of readers to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling, and has a dwindling readership—and that decay will leave a disturbing odor.  Or, perhaps, James’ empty-at-its-core writing will not rot at all, but drift imperceptibly away?  It will be labor lost, then, to make any effort to dismantle James’ rather bulky notoriety—which yet looms over our Letters.

Having said that, we’ll end with a sampling of another of James’ prefaces—not for one of his novels—we won’t torture you further with them—but for someone he loved, a boy he adored: Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I, only a year before Henry James, himself, passed away.  Rupert Brooke is famous for his lines from “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed

Both men, the old novelist and the young poet, adored England.  James met Rupert Brooke a few times in person, and evidently was quite smitten by the lad.  The old novelist wrote the Preface for Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, in honor of the poet’s death. The small book was published by Scribner’s in 1916, the year of Henry James’ death, a short time after Rupert Brooke’s death in the Great War—and Henry James wrote it while the atrocity known as the Great War was still going on.  Has anyone ever written such ugly, tedious, meaningless bombast?  Read for yourself:

Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of.  With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseparable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly “modern.” This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed—so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day.  I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron’s volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face.  He hugged pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of to-day, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine. Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. How can it therefore not be interesting to see a little what the wondrous modern in him consisted of?

What it first and foremost really comes to, I think, is the fact that at an hour when the civilised peoples are on exhibition, quite finally and sharply on show, to each other and to the world, as they absolutely never in all their long history have been before, the English tradition (both of amenity and of energy, I naturally mean), should have flowered at once into a specimen so beautifully producible.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


The haunting image of Allen Tate—who is buried at Sewanee


Though his poems today don’t rate,
You may see the ghost of Allen Tate,
Staring at you, with a muddy smile!
Speak Ransom’s ‘Amphibious Crocodile,’
To scare him—and if you’re still shaking,
Recite at the top of your voice, ‘Janet Waking.’
But if Pound should come around,
Begin your leave-taking.

The Southern Agrarians
Were exquisite contrarians
But Ezra Pound
Laughs underground,
Drifting through Sewanee, drifting through Sewanee.

And Edgar Allan Poe?
You don’t want to know
How Matthiessen tied him up
So long ago,
And Eliot killed him
With spear and bow.

—Scarriet Editors


Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother.
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, old Chucky!” she cried,
Running across the world upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

—John Crowe Ransom


Three wild and crazy Englishmen (Auden, Lewis, Spender) hang out in Venice

In an earlier post, “Fiction v. Poetry,” we used W.H. Auden’s Introduction to Shakespeare’s The Sonnets (Signet/Penguin 1964) and his argument against “vulgar, idle curiosity” in favor of “anonymous” William Whomever-peare and pure enjoyment of his Platonic “Vision of Eros,” to make our case for elegant poetry, and against gossipy fiction.

Critics complain that TV is killing literature, but so-called literary fiction has been killing literature long before the boob tube arrived.  I Love Lucy didn’t make us stupid.  Henry James did.

The poets of Modernism can be divided into the car-salesmen and those who really were brilliant.

E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and most of their followers, for instance, are merely car salesmen

T.S. Eliot, Chrisopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden were brilliant and talented men, and others in their circle, like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, were consciously involved in politics and cultural change.  The British Empire, which was at its height in 1914, groomed its poets for active work; the poet as soldier has a long tradition in Britain, from Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney to the Cambridge Apostles and Auden’s friend, Sir Stephen Spender, member of the Communist Party and an editor for thirteen years of a magazine secretly funded by the CIA. Nothing like the British poet-spy hybrid has ever existed in America, except, perhaps, for the mysterious Mr. Poe (was he in Paris, was he in St. Petersburg, was he murdered, or not?) and the hybrid practice is hardly on the more plain and practical Americans’ radar screen.

Auden’s insistence, then, that “artists” and “men of action” are two separate creatures—is this a ploy by this world-traveling, transatlantic citizen, once rumored to be part of Kim Philby’s Soviet spy ring?  Emerson, in “The Poet,” goes a long way in establishing this distinction when he calls the Poet a “Sayer” as opposed to the “Knower” and the Doer.”  “Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men,” Emerson says sourly, establishing his pedantic categories. But these fine distinctions Auden and Emerson make are finally a bunch of hogwash: Emerson and Auden would have us believe that Hitler’s speeches had nothing to do with Hitler’s guns, that the material state of our poetry has nothing to do with the material state of our state.

Auden’s poetry was first accepted and published by T.S Eliot, at Faber.  Auden is not considered a genuine modernist; Auden’s poetry rhymes, and he has a marked sympathy for great writers of the past, so on the surface, at least, Auden seems to run counter to the Futurism of Pound, the anti-Romantic animus of Eliot, and experimental modernism, in general.

But Auden could not have been part of this influential, Modernist clique without having some share of the characteristics of that clique, and never mind that Auden chose Ashbery for the Yale Younger, and also Merwin–who attended one of the earliest Poetry Workshops at Princeton—set up by Allen Tate, the leader of the American wing of Eliot and Pound’s European Modernist clique.  Yes, in case you didn’t get it, we’re talking about a clique. 

OK, so talented people get to know each other and help each other out.  What else is new?

Associations, purely in themselves, justify an historical interest, but there’s more involved.   It’s not rocket science.  We need to know two things; first: we need to read the clique members in question, and second, we need to ask: What is Modernism?

Scarriet has already done a lot of work investigating the writings and prejudices of leading Modernists like Pound and Eliot, who were notoriously anti-Romantic and anti-populist.  But for the second question, the art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire (because Anglo-American High Modernism originated in the middle of the 19th century, and mainly in France) will be a great help.

The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past two rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bousset and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.

In this brief excerpt from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), we see American Modernist poetry of the 20th century and all the steps which led to it, in total.

1) we see the spirit of the England’s pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—Baudelaire even refers to Raphael—with its narrow, cult-like, manifesto-ism, 2) the misanthropic spleen aimed at middle-class people who go to museums and are moved by great paintings of the past, 3) the appeal to the “minor poets” (for what is Modernism if not a great hierarchy of minor poets?) and their 4) “particular beauty” (as if major poets have no “particular beauty!”) and 5) “circumstance” (what is Modernism but fragments blown by the winds of circumstance?) and 6) “the sketch of manners.”  As if great artists and poets from the past do not give us “manners!”  Hogarth, anyone?  “The Rape of the Lock?”  But here is Baudelaire busily doing what Pound, Eliot, and their followers will do over the next 100, 150 years, up to our present day: 1) A blanket, or crudely selective, rejection of the glories of the past, especially the 18th century, and the early 19th century, while celebrating the ephemera of “particular beauty” among friends and minor contemporaries. 2) A manifesto-ist misanthropy, 3) A hatred of the lower classes, and their middle class tastes and aspirations.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer.  The Modernists always protested too much.

One more note: 4) A crucial geopolitical fact emerged with the origins of Modernism: the alliance of former enemies Great Britain and France; these two new friends fed each other’s decadence, and discovered together a certain imperial animus towards Germany, Russia, and the United States.  The problems the U.S. had with Britain and France during their mid-19th century, Civil War-era of is a much neglected subject.

But back to Auden and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We would expect, then, that T.S. Eliot-annointed Auden, would tend to be anti-Shakespeare, as this is the calling card for every Modernist: Celebrate obscure minor artists while knocking down the great Past Masters.   Eliot’s attacks on Hamlet, Milton, Poe, and Shelley are well-known; Pound pretty much sneered at every Past Master he possibly could.

So do we find Auden, in his famous 1964 Introduction, attacking Shakespeare, or, at least damning him with faint praise?

We do.

Auden’s first major point is: “it’s good that Shakespeare was anonymous,” a New Critical point (another Modernist calling card, as Eliot and his right-wing American henchman, Ransom, popularized New Criticism).  Here, on the second page of his Introduction, is Auden, the New Critic:

Even the biography of an artist is permissable, provided that the biographer and his readers realize that such an account throws no light whatsoever upon the artist’s work.

Auden, as chummy as he was, could certainly be an ogre when laying down the Party Line: Auden will make it “permissable” to write the biography of an artist, but only if you and I “realize that such an account throws no light whatsover upon the artist’s work.”  Thank you, Mr. Auden.

He defends his crazy idea brilliantly, of course:

The relation between his life and his works is at once and the same time too self-evident to require comment—every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure—and too complicated ever to unravel.  Thus, it is self-evident that Catullus’s love for Lesbia was the experience which inspired his love poems, and that, if either of them had had a different character, the poems would have been different, but no amount of research  into their lives can tell us why Catullus wrote the actual poems he did, instead of an infinite number of similar poems he might have written instead, why, indeed, he wrote any, or why those he did are good.

This is great stuff,  isn’t it?  I’d hire this guy as a subversive for my country in a minute.  This is uncannily good reasoning.  Auden first concedes the field to  the anti-New Critical argument: “every work of art is a self-disclosure,” Auden admits, but Auden’s concession is two-sided: the anti-New Critical position is “self-evident,” but also “too complicated ever to unravel:” if Lesbia had been a little different, then Catullus’s poems to her would have been different—but how?  We don’t know.  And therefore we can’t know anything about the relation between the maker and the made.

But is this true?

And is this true for Poe, who wrote his “Raven” not because he happened to have the hots for some particular person, but because he wanted to demonstrate how a popular poem could be written?  Or, for Shakespeare, whose sonnets contain Platonist philosophy, and not just personal gossip?  We grant that connections between life and art are often tenuous and difficult to trace—but should we close the door on attempts to make connections, on micro, or macro, levels?  To do so seems arbitrary and silly.

Auden then proceeds, “Let us forget all about Shakespeare the man, leave the speculations to the foolish and idle, and consider the sonnets themselves,” and begins his discussion of “the sonnets themselves” rather weakly:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets as we have them, is tha they are not in any kind of planned sequence.  The only semblance of order is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.  In both heaps, a triangle situation is referred to in which Shakespeare’s friend and his mistress betray him by having an affair together…

Sometimes batches of sonnets occur which clearly belong together—for example, the opening series 1-17, in which the friend is urged to marry, though, even here, 15 seems not to belong, for marriage is not mentioned in it.

In this brief summation, Auden is utterly wrong.  First, how can Auden say there is “no planned sequence” when the first 14 poems pertain to “increase?”  Auden is being obtuse when he replaces “increase” with “marriage.”  Sonnet 15 does fit, even though it doesn’t refer to “marriage,” for, as we see in its final couplet, “And, all in war with Time for love of you,/As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”  The first 14 poems celebrate “increase” of the flesh.  154 (the number of The Sonnets) is divisible by 14.  Sonnet 15 marks a shift in the theme. With Sonnet 15, immortality is bought not by having children, but by making poems.  Auden saying Sonnet 15 doesn’t fit because it doesn’t mention “marriage” is ludicrous.

Auden is also wrong to assert that every poem in the first 126 are “addressed to a young man (or men),” since the great majority of the first 126 poems are genderless.  Nor are the final 28 poems all addressed to “a dark-haired woman.”  Scolding others for being biographically “foolish,” Auden falls into the same error himself, making all sorts of biographical assumptions.  Auden does have the intelligence to say The Sonnets are not precisely carnal in nature, but that doesn’t prevent him from making all sorts of biographical, carnal speculation—flying in the very face of his own principle.

So according to Auden, the sonnets have no order.

Auden’s second point is that they are “extremely uneven in poetic value.”  Auden quotes some Wordsworth (who Auden admires) calling the Dark Lady sequence “abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless,” with Wordsworth detailing the “chief faults” of the sonnets as a whole, thus: “sameness, tediousness, quaintness, and elaborate obscurity.”  Imagine William Wordsworth accusing William Shakespeare of “sameness.”  The mind boggles.  Wordsworth is the token Romantic the Modernists tolerate, fearing to look like goons if they hate all the Romantics; Wordsworth has that certain dullness which makes him palatable to good, grey Modernism.  Then Auden lets us know what Walter Savage Landor thought: “not a single one is very admirable.”

Auden himself claims to admire only forty-nine of the sonnets, and quickly adds that Shakespeare did not want any of them published, since they are basically a sweaty-palmed, sexual “confession.”

Auden doesn’t give one shred of evidence why Shakespeare should have been embarrassed by these poems—Auden’s theory is founded on the very type of speculation he condemns as “foolish” and “idle” and “vulgar.”

Auden then makes a few scattered formal and rhetorical observations, praising Shakespeare’s skill, citing a few isolated passages, and concludes the essay by putting the Sonnets in a Platonist milieu—the beloved’s “beauty” can belong to the flesh (bad) or to character (good) and loving the beloved unconditionally is the sonnet’s most important trope.  Auden is sure the Sonnets grew out of visionary dream, in which Shakespeare fell into a kind of trance which made him somewhat mad.  Auden wants to turn Shakespeare into a puritanical, visionary, passionate, self-doubting, Catullus. None of it is very convincing, and mostly because Auden can’t stop himself from investing the Sonnets with unfounded and crude, biographical and fictional elaborations:

The story of the sonnets seems to me to be the story of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.

As outsiders, the impression we get of his friend is one of a young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially frivolous, cold-hearted, and self-centered, aware, probably, that he had some power over Shakespeare—if he thought about it at all, no doubt he gave it a cynical explanation—but with no conception of the intensity of the feelings he had, unwittingly, aroused.

In other words, according to Auden—who condemns any historical speculation regarding Pembroke or Southampton—Shakespeare was in love with Auden’s boyfriend, Chester Kallman, and had thoughts of marrying Chester, except, that is, when he was being distracted by a dark-haired woman—who also liked Chester.

Auden ends his Introduction with a long, irrelevant passage from The Two Noble Kinsmen—a passage scholars cannot even be sure was written by Shakespeare Evidently, the publishers were howling for Auden to finish his Introduction, and, drunk on Pinot Noir, he quickly did.

Reading the Sonnets with Auden’s “story” in mind, a reader will quickly be disappointed, for there’s no “story” at all in the Sonnets.  It’s a far more sophisticated document than that.



But we’re bored with nature, John Donne!

Much have we advanced, since you wrote those words in the 17th century, John Donne!  Miracles that are man-made now compete with nature’s miracles, and nature’s apologists are now so numerous and well-funded that, combined with unsettling urban noise and technological advance, unspoiled nature has come to be appreciated as a miracle by the chattering classes, except for Woody Allen, who still prefers New York. There is no need for us to feel the miraculous properties of nature’s God, we are so overwhelmed by it on so many levels.  Many, in  our modern, rat-race, hustle-bustle world, only experience the glories of nature “but once,” so caught up are they in myriad anxieties and responsibilities, John Donne!  Your point is well-taken, but I’m afraid it’s obsolete.  You can’t imagine how Romanticism has undermined your epigraph with its focus on the beauties of nature, children, social outcasts, and the strange.

And if you only knew, John Donne, how Modernism, rejecting the sublime, and fixating on the trivial, has made the obscurity of “but once” it’s religion!

But here’s another question, John Donne: what is the difference between what happens, and what happens to you?  If we knew the answer to this, love and God and the universe would all be explained.

Your “but once,” John Donne, might hold a clue; for we would know the difference between “what happens” and “what happens to you” if it “happened but once.” If it “happened but once,” it would happen to you—otherwise it happens—the hidden miraculous “constant course of nature”—to everybody.

But what is happening “but once?”  The universe, as we know it, our life, as we know it, has unfolded, and is unfolding “but once.”  What part needs to happen “but once” for us to be amazed?  What moment or place needs to be occupied with the “miracle?”  No, John Donne!  You have it all wrong!  It is precisely the never-ending “constant course of nature” which is the miracle!  No “miracle” could occur if it were so far from the context of the “constant course of nature”—that it would happen “but once!”

Originality, then: what is it?

Have we come closer to defining originality, that holy grail of every artist?  If it happens “but once,” is it then yours and it then “seems a miracle” and, hence, it is original, novel, unique?

Or is the very opposite true?  Originality participates in the ongoing “constant course of nature; originality finds its identity in the largest and most fluid possible context in order to exist?

For we must ask, Original what?  What is original?  And, in order to be original, we must ask: how?  How, in a dynamic and far-reaching manner, is it original?  And, most important, how specifically, is it original?

In the same manner, we need to ask what is miraculous?  The sun up in the sky, happening “but once?”  But what is the sun?  Is it in the sky, and what is the sky? What is that bright light?  How do I know it’s miraculous if there’s no context?

Only “in a constant course of nature,” to provide a context, can we have the miraculous, or the original.

The critic, poet, and inventor of detective fiction and science fiction, Edgar Poe, felt that novelty was essential to composition, and  appreciation of novelty was a crucial element of morality.  Insanity obsesses and repeats; originality, like freshness, defines mental health.  Let the body do the same things over and over, the heart beating as steadily as the sun rising every morning.  But let the brain be boiling over with the new!

Many claim originality lacks learning and range.  After all, to the naive, everything seems new.  How do we know if the original is illusory, based entirely on our ignorance? How do we know if something is really new? The original can only be felt by other minds; we’ll never know if a song is new if we only sing it to ourselves alone.  But this all agrees with our former point: originality, to exist, needs learning and range, needs a broad context, needs the “constant course of nature.”

And so originality cannot exist without a public.  The new must come out of the old, since the public—which the original author must appeal to—is both habitual and excitable, old in its very existence, but forever longing for the new.

If the new is healthy, it doesn’t matter if naive members of the public don’t appreciate new forms and ideas as new; the naive merely reap the benefits of that which they are unaware, like a child who eats his greens, not knowing why they are good for him.  The public, by definition, will always be naive to a certain extent, but this shouldn’t stop the artist from seeking to be original in their eyes.

The Modernist avant-garde artist who appeals only to his ‘knowing’ comrades, is, therefore, not original in the highest sense, for if novelty and public mental health (to put it very crudely) are linked, mere license practiced among a few fails to pass the test of true novelty.

As one might expect, the neo-classical age of 18th century England was obsessed with “the original.”

A glance at Edward Young’s “Conjectures on Original Compositions” (1759) quickly finds this comfort: originality can be a matter of degree; the literary accomplishments of the past may overwhelm us so that we moan, “there’s nothing new under the sun!” but being a little original is still meritorious.

Can it be, then, that originality is not the basis of the new work of art, but its adornment?   Then we have a rather wonderful paradox: the original, in art, though crucial, is merely an artificial addition to the fundamental cliche. Further, to strive to be wholly original creates nothing new, but merely chaos.

Kant, it is interesting to note, in his aesthetical focus on ‘the pleasing’ v. ‘the beautiful,’ does not acknowledge the question of originality at all.

Shakespeare’s teeming genius is often attributed to the fact that he didn’t fret over originality, stealing others’ plots for his dramas, for instance.  Following all that fretting about originality in the 18th century, the problem was “solved” in the 19th century—by democracy, as that political idea excited the popular mind.  Even in a delicately, modernist, aesthetic mind like Mallarme’s we see this demonstrated:

A high freedom has been acquired, the newest: I don’t see, and this remains my own intensely felt opinion, that anything that has been beautiful in the past has been eliminated, and I remain convinced that on important occasions we will always conform to the solemn tradition, that owes its prevalence to the fact that it stems from the classical genius; only, when what’s needed is a breath of sentiment or a story, there’s no call to disturb the venerable echoes, so we’ll look to do something else. Every soul is a melody, which needs only to be set in motion; and for that we each have our own flute or viola.

Only a misanthrope would scoff at the idea that every human face is new, and so we embrace Mallarme’s beautiful idea—but perhaps only up to a point, since nature produces a variety of offspring, but in the realm of artifice, some souls are more melodious—or more capable of making melodies—than others.

Originality is one of those profound subjects, like infinity, or the soul, which grows more elusive the more we examine it; yet if we devote ourselves to a certain unhurried speculation on the matter, the result is comfort, both poetic and strange.


Poetry has more motion than a picture,
Though I have seen a picture move,
Far waves in mist, the near waves clear,
The running ship radiant and thirsty,
As the swung drop of the spray is going to land right here.
Then why would you make poetry stand still?
The Imagistes were mentally ill
And all that manifesto machinery is dead.
That wasn’t gold, or silver, love; it was lead.

In the middle of seaweed blowing
And the wind, flaming, then cooly going,
Sometimes a larger boat
Will stop and stare—
The afternoon hollering in a seagull’s throat—
At some silver, scented sail
That happens to be sailing there.
We lean from the railing
Of the fort overlooking the bay.
We watch every wayfarer, and take note
Of every distant sloop and raft afloat
From early noon to late noon, down
The tide song that sings along in white songs and grey.

Focused on her paint,
She had the gravity of a saint.
I left her when her brush was warm.
I walked out in the storm.

The whale in the wave I spot,
When I have already spotted a lot.

You shall find the day
When the smallest boat in the bay
Is perfectly still.
You will love whatever loves,
Whatever cannot, but will.


The poet W.H. Auden once proclaimed, “Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind.  All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, especially the ugly ones.”

Those dullards who read novels and short stories, but “can’t understand poetry,” are no better than the stereotypical bon-bon eating housewives watching their soaps. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of poetry which cannot be understood, and many poets today intentionally write their poetry so it cannot be understood.  I refer to the dullards who will always choose fiction over poetry, no matter how good the poetry happens to be.  It’s time to point out an unspoken truth: many fiction readers are driven by what W.H. Auden calls “idle curiosity.”

With the greatest forethought and care do I speak this uncomfortable truth:  Fiction generally has little to do with “art,” and far more to do with “idle curiosity.”  Despite the stamp of legitimacy given to “fiction,” as opposed to, let’s say, “daytime drama,” the educated who lavish attention on “works of fiction” are simply satisfying an urge, a vulgar craving for gossip and “ugly secrets of our neighbors” in a safe, socially legitimate way.

Reading “fiction” is assumed to be healthy, virtuous, and intelligent, and, no doubt, these things do apply on a certain level, but what’s the overriding attraction that makes “fiction” more popular than poetry?

Despite the educated, bookish milieu, the denotation “literary,” the studious pose in the lamplight of quiet women with long hair reading  novels, the intricate artwork on the covers, the authoritative blurbs in distinguished address, the thoughtful reviews in the press, fiction is nothing but vulgar gossip by other means.

True, so-called “literary fiction” has a certain anthropological interest: as we learn the gossip of other lives not our own—the 200 page encapsulations of marriage, divorce, adultery, nervous breakdowns, crime, jealousy, betrayal, and lust—with the more observant authors tossing in second and third hand descriptions of other times and places, “learning,” in a random manner, is taking place.  And we all know that reading an educated author will tend to increase our vocabulary, to some extent.  True.

But is anthropology art?

No, the central feature of reading fiction is that “ineradicable vice” which Auden puts his finger on, when, in his introduction, he dismisses the vulgar who only want to read (and study) Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the “dirt.”

Auden glories in a lucky circumstance of purity: “Shakespeare,” Auden says, “is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.”

The other notable position Auden establishes in his famous introduction to The Sonnets is that he makes a distinction between the poet and the “man of action”:

The political interests of a king’s mistress, for example, may influence his decisions on national policy. Consequently, the historian, in his search for truth, is justified in investigating the private life of a man of action to the degree that such discoveries throw light upon the history of his times which he had a share in shaping, even if the victim would prefer such secrets not to be known.

So the historian’s interest in gossip is justified.  Even so, history is not considered art—so why, then, should mere fiction, where interest in gossip is not justified, be considered art?  The historian takes raw life and puts an order to it, but is still not considered an artist; so why should the fiction writer, who does what the historian does, but on a more trivial level, be considered one?

Auden scolds:

It so happens that we know almost nothing about the historical circumstances under which Shakespeare wrote these sonnets…This has not prevented many very learned gentlemen from displaying their scholarship and ingenuity in conjecture.  Though it seems to me rather silly to spend much time upon conjectures which cannot be proven true or false, that is not my real objection to their efforts. What I really object to is their illusion that, if they were successful, if the identity of the Friend, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet, etc, could be established beyond doubt, this would in any way illuminate our understanding of the sonnets themselves.

Their illusion seems to me to betray either a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the relation  between art and life or an attempt to rationalize and justify plain vulgar idle curiosity.

According to Auden, it’s a wonderful thing that we don’t know the biography of the poet.  (Likewise, if we knew nothing about a novelist, it would be less evident that the novelist is merely writing an embellished memoir.) In Shakespeare’s case, there is no chance the Bard will be a “victim” of “idle curiosity,” marring the pure enjoyment of the poetry.

But Auden has forgotten something, hasn’t he?  What if Shakespeare presented himself  in his poems? What if Shakespeare’s “biography” were clearly in the poems?

Fiction, of course, is autobiography, with the occasional, added historical research, or embroidered fantasy.  Fiction is voyeurism, thinly disguised.  The movement known as “Realism” has long been touted as a vital “literary” movement, but “Realism” is nothing more than the moment when the Trojan Horse of Letters broke open to an army of gossip-mongers; 19th century “Realism” saw Idle Curiosity conquer literature; True Art was stabbed by crass democracy in the chest (think soap operas) and snobby elitism in the back. (think Henry James).

According to Auden, knowing the gossip of kings, their mistresses, and other “men of action” is useful because of its political and historical context.

But Auden doesn’t finally resolve his own argument.

1. Shakespeare’s sonnets themselves make the biography of their author irrelevant—Auden implies it’s the other way around: By accident of history, we know almost nothing of Shakespeare; hence we can enjoy Shakespeare’s poems purely, without indulging in “idle curiosity.”

2. Auden’s implication is that without historical or scholarly context, which is produced by the “man of action” who “shapes history,” we getgossip for gossip’s sake; we get what is at heart, idle curiosity.  In other words, fiction.   The literary term “fiction” means two things: First, whatever is not true, but secondly, and just as important, whatever we take to be truthful on some other level, to varying degrees.  “Realism” is essentially saying of “fiction:” oh hell, you know what?  This may be fiction, but it’s true!  Auden, because he is a man of high learning, of classical learning, of exquisite sensibility and good sense, puts it very truthfully: if we spy on the intimate dealings of men of action, we are gathering useful knowledge, but if we spy on the intimate dealilngs of our neighbors, we are vulgar and near-criminal; we are indulging a “vice.”  Depending on the context, then, literary fiction’s apparent strength of being ‘otherwise true,’ is, in fact, nothing but the “vice of idle curiosity.”  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, howeverare not the news or gossip of a king, or a “man of action.”  And secondly, they are not a work of “Realism.”   Yet Shakespeare has “shaped the world” far more than Auden’s “men of action,” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets present a far more intimate story than any work of “Realism.”

Can it be possible that the great Auden is blind to the significance of The Sonnets? 

It really makes one wonder, for in taking great pains to dismiss the “idle curiosity” that would read biography into the poems, Auden allows himself this observation:

So far as the date of their composition is concerned, all we know for certain is that the relation between Shakespeare and the Friend lasted at least three years:

‘Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

Auden here is doing precisley what he chided everyone else for doing.  Auden is certain (!) there is “a Friend” with whom Shakespeare had a “three year relationship,” based on his reading of one line in one of the poems.  This is even more startling, given the fact that Auden writes:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred fifty- four sonnets as we have them, is that they are not in any kind of planned sequence.

Auden finds no internal order in the sequence of The Sonnets, even though there is quite a substantial one (we shall talk about this later)—but he does find in The Sonnets a Platonic “vision of eros”—which shows Auden is on the right track.  For Auden, Shakespeare’s unerring ear, his confessional writing (permissible, we assume, because of Shakespeare’s fortunate anonymity), and his “vision of eros” combine to make The Sonnets a far greater work of art than any mere story with a chronological plot.

Auden several times falls into the error he condemns, imagining Shakespeare’s relationship with a “young man” and a “dark-haired woman,” and their behavior with each other, over a “three year” period, even as he explains to us that The Sonnets expresses a Platonic vision of life, not a soap opera one.

Auden fails to pin down the essence of Shakespeare’s famous work, but at least gets things generally right.

But then Auden got it somewhat right—because he was a poet.

Like Hawthorne and Poe, the last great American fiction writers before Realism reared its ugly head, Auden, who died in 1973, burned with a certain integrity as American poetry was dwindling into irrelevance.

And so we end with Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 25, as it refers to Auden’s “man of action.”  Here is a drop of honey from Shakespeare, the golden honey bee, a poem worth ten-thousand Realist novels, at least:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
  Where I may not remove nor be removed.


The greatest home run in history for reasons we all understand.

Boy, is Boston a sports town.

“The Curse” of Babe Ruth which kept the Boston Red Sox baseball team from a title for 86 years will be part of sports lore forever, and all those heartbreaking years no doubt added character to a town and a region.  The 2004 World Series victory for the Red Sox, 4 games to none, over the St. Louis Cardinals, felt anti-climactic after Boston came from behind, down three games to none against their hated rivals, the New York Yankees—by far the richest and most successful franchise in baseball history—to win the pennant.  Watching those seven games was thrilling and exhausting.  Aristotle would probably say losing is more interesting than winning, and he would probably be right.  When the Red Sox finally won, beating St. Louis, it was eerily banal and quiet up there in baseball heaven, which is paved with pennants, not world series rings—except perhaps for the ring belonging to Bill Mazeroski.

But yes, Boston has been a sports town since Harvard rowers took to the Charles to take on Yale.  But boy, is Boston a sports town now.

Tory Boston, puritan Boston, revolutionary Boston, Democrat Boston, historical Boston, College town Boston, Biotech Boston, Smarty-pants Boston is now completely overwhelmed by Sports Boston.

It’s now common to see three sturdy adult males walking along with crisp, matching green and white jerseys that say “Rondo.” It’s cute when children deck themselves out in decorative and team-boosting sportswear, but now millions of New England men and women proclaim loyalties in a way once confined to children.

Self-esteem issues are now instantly cured by donning Boston sports regalia, with the same three or four surnames corresponding to a billionaire’s roster purchases.  Nor is history forgotten: occasionally one will see “Orr” or “Bird.”  But history pales in the blinding light of the flashing jerseys which brag of current success, saying: I don’t just belong; I belong to winners.

Boston, long calling itself “the Hub,” has always thought itself a little bit smarter than the rest of the country.  Mention Sarah Palin or George W. Bush in Boston, and before you can say Whitey Bulger, the snarling knives of ridicule come out.  Compared to Boston, the rest of the nation is a swampy backwater of neanderthal rednecks.  Boston’s famous Back Bay was built on harbor landfill; why doesn’t the rest of the country do the same?  Cover up your swamps and build successful sports franchises like Bostonians!  Losers!

Before Ralph Waldo Emerson preached, and Henry David Thoreau kept a journal, and professor Longfellow taught Languages at Harvard, and Henry Adams traveled to Tahiti, Boston has lectured and sermonized, scolded and harangued the less fortunate on how to live.

Think of the obese novelist, Henry James, who traveled with the idle rich, dismissing the workaholic journalist Edgar Allan Poe as “immature.”  That’s Boston.

In case you didn’t know it, Boston is, and always will be, smarter than you.

But things have gotten worse.

With the recent fortunes of their sports teams, Boston’s superior attitude, once muted behind an austere, blue-blood facade, is now in-your-face.

The Boston Globe, the New York Times-owned daily paper for the educated set in Boston, with about 5 pages of real news, has 15 pages of sports news, with big headlines and big pictures.  The Boston sportswriter, as you might expect, is a whole breed apart from other sportswriters.  They are literary. They pun incessantly.  When the Boston Bruins lose a playoff game, it is “Unbearable!”  Boston sportswriters—the best in the world, of course—believe in their hearts that life imitates sports, and sports imitates their writing (which is so inventive and hard-hitting and punning and full of cultural references.)

In perfect keeping with Boston tradition, Boston players are always lovable, heroic, and gallant (except those Boston players who don’t behave according to the strict standards of the locker-room jury of the Boston sportswriters).  Players on other teams, however, always have a flaw, when they are not downright boorish, violent, dishonest, or greedy.

Barry Bonds, drug-user and baseball’s all-time home run champ, is persona non grata in the good ol’ town of Boston, but when performance-enhancing drugs are found to be used by the Patriots or the Red Sox?  It was to “heal an injury.”  When a Boston coach or player is caught doing something dishonest, and they are called on it by another city’s press, the Bostonian shakes with indignation.  When a Boston player plays dirty, or a coach cheats, it is no longer a wrong, because everybody does it.

Boston fans never forgive a great player who leaves Boston to play for another team.

Today, however, when the Red Sox spend money at near-New York Yankee levels, Bostonians chuck their high principles, and instantly adore great players who arrive from other cities to don a Red Sox uniform.

We rooted for the Red Sox when they were underdogs, but now that they have a couple of recent championship rings and they spend like the Yankees, we just cannot do it.  Call us disloyal, but our loyalty lies with this principle: fair contest—which is what sports, or sporting, is all about.

Baseball, the game intellectuals tend to adore, has become a game of haves and have-nots.  The last straw was the Red Sox off-season stealing of Carl Crawford from their low-budget rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays.  The Sox now act like the Yanks—if a team beats you on the field, just go out and take their best players from them, by offering them more money than anybody else.  This is “sports” today.

The Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner bought himself a couple of championships in the 1970s when he raided the World Champion Oakland A’s of their best players: star pitcher Catfish Hunter and star hitter Reggie Jackson.

Easy.  And just because some teams spend a lot of money and fail does not make this practice fair.

As a Red Sox fan, it was once so easy to hate the Yankees.

But that has all changed.

Now they should have a few T-shirts that say:

Red Sox Suck.




Come with me to the old, brown river
And under those tall trees we’ll lie down.
The whole human race will be elsewhere
As we fool around.

Spend your time in a new situation,
Without the old pressures and guiles,
And we’ll lie in the muddy turf afterwards,
With sweet smiles.

To the heights of passion,
As armies keep their appointments in the mist.
Fog along the riverbank.
Enchanted tryst!

Boats and boxes are packed for travel.
Memory of a child lies low.
We left our things by the river.
Now where are we to go?

Fortunately, I know what you’re thinking.
You think this will tragically end.
But give me your hand; it’s alright.
Poetry is only pretend.


Image result for rupert brooke


Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.


has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche.  It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?

1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I

The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, (the Japanese victory in #4 produced a ‘haiku rage’ in the West in 1905, the real reason behind the Imagiste ‘revolution’ and Williams’ ‘Wheel Barrow’) but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention.  “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One.  Well, not really.

The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.

Poetry has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to theorizing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault.  I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.

American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.

Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.

In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.”  Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.”  Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.

The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:

In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.

And then, just as boldly:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.

And, just as boldly, this as well:

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.

And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:

Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.

In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.

Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:

Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.

The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong.  All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.

If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.

But to each his own.  Poe had to be “escaped.”  And he was.

Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.

Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”

The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana.  The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933.  Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups.  Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.

Where is criticism now?  It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”

In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.

John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry.  Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”

The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.

Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones.  Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art. 

Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness.  Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.

Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:

The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England.  This is not insignificant.

Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope.  Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork.  Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:

It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.

We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”  The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War.  In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person.  Here he writes on Niagra Falls:

The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.

Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.

According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”

Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.

He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”

He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.”  He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight.  Why shouldn’t he fight?  His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.

Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”

Modernism was not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.

No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—“did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty.  They seemed perplexed and angry.

This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”

Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.

T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.

Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was as likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped.  Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.



Don Share: How important is the middle man?

There it is, that terrifying anecdote, right at the beginning of the recent, much-reprinted Chicago Tribune spread piece on the recently Ruth Lilly-enriched Poetry magazine:

Poetry makes nothing happen.
So said W.H. Auden. Who never lived in Chicago. Or knew Don Share. Share is the senior editor of Poetry magazine, the venerable Chicago-based literary institution. It turns 100 next year, and has seen far more than nothing happen, particularly in the past decade. Share arrived at the magazine four years ago, hired away from Harvard University, where he was poetry editor of Harvard Review. Soon after arriving, he received what he calls a “threatening  phone call.”
It came from a famous novelist whose name he won’t say, but the message to Share was this: You really don’t want to find yourself alone in the same room with me. “He couldn’t believe we rejected his poems,” Share said of the man. “When you work in poetry all day, it’s internal. People get shaken. I was shaken.”

This is a remarkable story—if true: a “famous novelist” feeling the need to threaten Don Share for not publishing his (the “famous novelist’s”) poems in a wee magazine?   Every prestigious magazine publishes “famous” authors—that’s why they’re prestigious magazines.  It’s hard to believe the “famous novelist” felt so terribly left out.  The refusal to publish someone in Poetry magazine simply does not hold enough weight to generate anything but trivial ill-temper; it strains credulity to think Don Share was genuinely “shaken.”  Was Share afraid of getting beaten up by John Updike?  Or whomever it might have been?

But far beyond these vicissitudes lies the chief oddity: Poetry magazine has a well-funded on-line presence, Harriet: The Blog, which allowed the public to talk on-line—until the editors at Poetry stopped that practice dead-in-the-water over a year ago.

Don Share used to joyfully take part in the Harriet public conversations—though once he sulked at a literary comment I made.

But here’s the point: that “famous  novelist” four years ago could have posted his poem right on Harriet, and readers could have made up their own minds on the spot.  Readers could have read the “famous novelist’s” poem and made public their praise, or displeasure.

Poems and debates about poems once could make a public appearance on Harriet, though Harriet moderators (and some of the readers, as well) were always testy about “staying on topic;” for some reason intelligent people adlibbing, digressing, and simply expressing themselves on the spur of the moment, was “threatening” to some—and certainly to the Harriet editors.

Why?  Because editors want that wall between them and their readers.  They want Poetry to be a magazine of their choices.

The process is: poet writes poem, reader reads poem.

Poetry magazine wants to decide which poems the reader gets to read.

But today, who needs this filter?

The editor, obviously, who wants the prestige—the middle man’s feather-in-the-cap.

I can decide whether you get published in Poetry magazine, or not.

Well! Good for you!

This is why, when Harriet: The Blog was a public blog,  there was always an uneasy feeling about it, why the moderator/editors were always full of anxiety: because editors don’t like it when the wall dissolves and  prestige (that intangible thing) crumbles.

Poetry magazine, then, is nothing more than the poems which some particular person (Don Share, or Christian Wiman) happens to have picked out.  This is its prestige.  This is where its prestige begins and ends, with the tastes and prejudices and minds of certain gentlemen who are good poets themselves—or not.  We have nothing against Share or Wiman’s taste, necessarily.  We’re just putting things in perspective.

The credulous fall into vapid worship of empty prestige.  The Tribune article, for instance, goes on to say:

Poetry magazine started in Chicago in 1912, and during the ensuing century, the magazine’s history and the history of American poetry were joined at the hip. It published an unknown T.S. Eliot, gave early support to Langston Hughes, discovered Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks.

This is nothing but banal untruth: Ezra Pound discovered Eliot, not Poetry. Pound published, as Poetry’s London editor, Eliot’s undergraduate poem, “Prufrock.”  “The Waste Land,” however, was published in The Dial.  Eliot’s prep school friend, Scofield Thayer ran that magazine; Pound worked out a “Waste Land” deal with the lawyer, John Quinn, promising Eliot the 1922 Dial Prize—worth a thousand dollars, equal to Eliot’s yearly salary at Lloyd’s—before Pound had even finished the edits on the poem.  Poetry, a little magazine with a small readership, could not possibly compete with Pound’s well-connected PR machine, which put Eliot on the map.  Langston Hughes, first published by the NAACP, and made famous by anti-U.S. trips to the Soviet Union, and his politics, did not require any “support” from Poetry to further his career, and similarly, Wallace Stevens, who studied with Santayana and William James at Harvard, and was part of Yvor Winters and Hart Crane’s 1920s Pound/Eliot/Tate circle, did not require any “discovering” by Poetry, which happened to publish a few of his poems—on behalf of Stevens’ own connections.  The Egoist, The Dial, Ford’s Transatlantic Review,  The Little Review, The Nation, and finally, Ransom’s Kenyon Review, which appeared in 1939—there were many alternatives to the modest Poetry, in the 20th century.  With the dawn of the Writing Program era in the 1940s, there were thousands of small journals publishing poetry. Poetry was simply one of many.  Careers were not made by Poetry magazine. Not to mention that  poets like Edna Millay and Frost sold books—they hardly needed magazines.

Poetry has longevity, true.

But now that Poetry has money, must we feel obligated to inflate its importance in history?

Isn’t that the last thing the art of poetry needs right now?  Vacuous, historically ignorant, puffing?



When the mounting sky spreads against the night at dawn,
all she thinks about is money.

When the heat of day begins to warm the rocks, money.

When the smooth geese stir in the reeds, money.

When the green beaver gnaws in the shadow, money.

When the rapacious woodpecker awakens his meal, money.

When the yellow butterfly drowses on the green moss, money.

When the lake swoons into a deeper shade of blue at the beginning of the evening, money.

When night descends, bough by bough, through the pines, money.

When the moths mate in the dark,

I bring her some.


The reptilian Miss Moore: I had a letter from Elizabeth
a day or two ago which I am thinking of having tattooed
on me—in which she tells of Mrs. Almeyda’s identifiying
certain little specks in a white bowl, as “Them’s lizard.”


Eleven poets agreed to choose
Fifteen 20th century clippings sure to stay news—
And none picked Anne Sexton or Edna Millay.
But Moore and Bishop, they said, should stay.

Pay no attention to Edna Millay!
Richard Howard will explain: “She has to go away.”
Jorie Graham, with the Washington Post-connected name,
Thrilled by Howard’s acumen, feels exactly the same.

The fish gasp for air, but here comes Mark Strand,
Watery and handsome, takes Edna by the hand,
Leads her to a room where rock bands play,
Whispers, “No, we can’t have Edna St. Vincent Millay.”

Charles Simic concurs, balled-up in the dark:
“Miss Moore is my sparrow! Gertrude Stein is my lark!”
Donald Hall is a man, not afraid of the fray:
“I prefer Moore and Bishop to Edna Millay.”

We put up the curtains for Ashbery’s stay—
John doesn’t like St. Vincent Millay;
John prefers peas, sautéed, over rice,
After they are sprinkled with sugar, and diced.

“We have all the woman poets we need,”
Said John Hollander, indeed!
“We have Bishop, and that other one, Moore!
What the hell do we need Edna St. Vincent Millay for?”

Rita Dove’s lips! Lips of Dove!  They’ve been kissed.
And they speak: “I’m afraid Edna Millay will not be missed.”
You can ask James Tate, who chose James Wright
(“The Blessing”—worst poem ever) and Bishop! Good night.

Quick! Get the opinion of Robert Bly!
He chooses one woman: Moore. No lie.
Sure, Moore edited the clique-ish Dial,
Broke no hearts, wore a neat New Critical smile.

Moore was new, she knew…she made a friend,
And isn’t this what all this bother is, in the end?
David Lehman: “Remember, all these choices, finally, are mine!”
(He chose Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein.)

Fashion makes us all alike—another day
These sheep will die inside for Edna Millay;
But feeling and passion escaped this list,
As every hard heart wears the label modernist.

Obviously this is milk already spilt—
The 20th century goes to Vanderbilt.
I’d be rich if I had a dollar
For every choice who won a Rhodes Scholar,
Or crept on the ground in the house of Pound.

For Edna Millay, VIDA will cry no tears,
Or abstract ones; but then, they’re all bad poets,
And care only about their careers.

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