Rain sighing. I feed my fish.
The cats watch my every move—
No longer feline-interested,
I am the god they love.

I call them by the names I give,
But this affection is not theirs.
I wildly attempt to speak to them—
But they have other cares.

“Sarah” is my song I sing
To her, and her alone—
Sophie blinks. Sarah darts her paw
Over my ankle bone.



Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane.

What matters most in our literature, our judgments and our lives?  We might answer: interest, curiosity, wonder, complexity, challenges, but these would all be swept away by pleasure—because all of us wish, most of all, to be happy.  But this is merely a truism, and so we are back at the beginning; so let’s start over: what matters most in attaining this happiness?

Is it not this: knowing precisely the difference between method and luck?  Luck can make us happy, and when it does, who can argue with it?  Luck, like happiness, can make everything else irrelevant, so much so that we hardly think, but feel our good fortune, even as we understand in the back of our minds that other things are, or will be, or could be, relevant in the not too distant future.

The unfortunate, or the fortunate, in turn, can, in their despair, or contentment, lead us away from method and judgment, one by filling us with despair, the other, by making us feel blind joy bound by blind chance is all.  Good luck may come to us in small amounts, so personally, we are neither fortunate, nor unfortunate, but our response to the wildly fortunate or the wildly unfortuante shapes our fates, so it is as if luck, finally, is all.

Luck is happiness, but it has nothing to do with attaining happiness; a life or a literature which transcends blind chance must do so by a method—the very definition of that which requires no luck, per se.

Moneyball is a book I picked up recently purely by chance.

How do we most effectively judge something so we can predict its future?

Here is my attempt to boil down the essence of Moneyball, a look at the unorthodox baseball wisdom of Billy Beane, a former ballplayer and General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, whose job entails finding the best players for the least money through drafts and trades.

There are two basic ways of determining a player’s future worth as a big league player: 1. former players, or scouts, watch the young player in action, either in high school, or college.  2. The front office analyzes the young player’s statistics: his homeruns, stolen bases, and batting average, if he is a hitter; his strikeouts, walks, and hits allowed, if he is a pitcher.  Method one is supplemented by measuring the velocity of a pitcher’s pitches on a radar gun, and statistical analysis also includes things like a player’s age, and whether he pitches or hits left-handed, etc.

Billy Beane chose to use unorthodox statistical analysis, learned from geeky baseball fans analyzing baseball statistics in their mother’s basement, in order to pick the best players, to the horror of professional scouts using major league baseball experience to do the same.  Even the baseball scouts use statistics—the language of baseball—but the two added factors are: 1. In scouting, the challenge is to predict the future, and 2. How does one analyze the numbers?

This brings us to the issue of luck v. method.  One of the geeks, using the new baseball analysis called sabermetrics, came up with a hypothesis: The traditional baseball stat which measures runs allowed (ERA) and hits allowed (HPI) is flawed, since the percentage of hits allowed by a pitcher after the ball is put into play by the hitter, is ruled by chance alone.  Therefore, ERA, or earned run average, one of the most commonly used baseball statistics, is worthless.

The lower one’s ERA (runs allowed) the better the pitcher has performed: how many runs a pitcher allows is, in absolute terms, an important, objective measure of how well a pitcher has done.

But if this time-honored, universally utilized statistic is tainted by luck, the real worth of the pitcher, especially in terms of measuring  future performance, is hidden from the judgment.

The geek crunched millions of numbers, testing the hypothesis, and found his hypothesis was correct.

When the batter makes contact with the ball, it is a matter of luck, over the long run, whether the ball will be caught for an out, or go for a hit, and so ERA (earned run average) as the ultimate measure of a pitcher’s worth—because this is the most objective number when it comes to pitching:  number of runs allowed by the pitcher (an unearned run is when a fielder makes an error)—is useless as a predicting tool.

How can a statistic be vital as a measure, yet also be worthless?  How can objectivity be in two places at once?  Welcome to the world of luck and method, ‘reality’ and judgment.

The geek doesn’t throw statistics away entirely, just because he finds one that doesn’t work.  The geek realizes that the important stats for the pitcher are strikeouts (when the batter cannot hit the ball) walks (when the pitcher allows a batter who doesn’t put the ball into play to reach first base) and homeruns (the worst thing a pitcher can allow).  These variables: a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and homeruns allowed, helped to calculate the randomness of safe hits once a ball was put into play.

So stats are not abandoned—they are just made smarter.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the general manager who discovers the flaw in a traditional stat now gains a tremendou advantage over his peers in the predicting business.  The others go on judging pitchers by ERA, while the enlightened general manager—unbeknownst to his peers—ignores it.  Take two pitchers, whose walk, strikeout, and homerun numbers are the same.  One has a high ERA and one has a low ERA.  The traditionalist believes the pitcher with the lower ERA is a better pitcher, but our general manager, convinced by the unprofessional geek, knows the two pitchers are equal in ability, and hence, competing with other teams in the predicting business, has a decided edge.

For the innings in which the ERA was measured, the pitcher with the lower ERA was better—but because of luck.  The geek’s method did not discover a new way of pitching, or discover anything new at all.  The geek’s method did not change any facts.  The method simply discovered what part of the facts were luck.

The point we made in the beginning about luck is this: it has such an impact on our lives that we can hardly see beyond it.  Luck is so ubiquitous, in fact, that even when we use method to examine an issue, all method essentially does is discover in what amounts luck impacts whatever we happen to be looking at.

We know something only by separating it out from luck.  We never know the thing-in-itself; all we can discover is how much our judgment (up until the time of our discovery) was based on luck.  This is the scientific method.

Poetry has nothing to do with prophecy.

When we read a poem, we do not engage in predicting a future for that poem.  Do we ever read a poem with two minds?  Do we ever read a poem and say to ourselves: will I enjoy this poem tomorrow? as we are reading it?  Perhaps, if we really enjoy a poem, we might say to ourselves: I’m enjoying this poem so much, that I am filled with elation, knowing I will read this delightful poem tomorrow and be filled with this elation, again, but this is not the same thing as consciously predicting things for the poem—which is what the baseball scout does for a living. In the act of reading a poem, we experience the present of the poem, and whether it’s our good fortune to enjoy that poem, or not, that which decides that question does so in an absolute present—not in any meditation on how-the-poem-would-perform-in-the-future.

But wait a minute, what about composing a poem?  When we write our first line, don’t we automatically ask ourselves how well the line is going to do in the future—that is, when we start adding more lines?  Since we can’t write a poem all at once, this business of asking ourselves: how’s A going to look beside B, and then C, and then D, occupies our thoughts, constantly.  So when we write a poem, we are in the ‘predicting business,’ and when we read a poem, we are not.

This is like the duality of the ERA—when we simply ‘read’ that number, it is valuable and accurate, for it is the number of runs scored on the pitcher’s watch.  But when we look at its future value, it has no value or accuracy for us.  And the reason is the number is involved too much with luck, and this makes sense, because when we read a poem, the writer’s fortune and our fortune to enjoy that fortune is what is really occuring, (or the ill-fortune of experiencing a writer’s ill-fortune of being a bad writer) but when we write a poem, we are not simply harvesting good fortune, we are making it.

Some would equate reading a poem with a pure experience, not judgment, especially judgment of a baseball stat.

But if pure experience is the thing, those holding this view should perhaps wonder how pure experience can be equated with deciphering marks on a page.  If reading is not an experience of judgment or the the judgment of an experience, what is it? Writing surely involves judgment, and writing cannot be said to have less experience than reading.

A line from the geek in the movie to Billy Beane when they first meet: “You don’t want to buy players, you want to buy wins and to buy wins you need to buy runs.”

Mallarme might have put it this way, “You don’t want to write poems, you want to write lines, and to write lines you need to write words.”  Laugh if you will, but this is the Modernist Poetry formula in a nutshell.

The Moneyball baseball scouting formula is a brilliant shift away from ‘great players’ to a refined view of what a baseball player ‘can do’ to win games based on a more accurate view of how one wins baseball games.  The basic Moneyball formula is: find guys that walk a lot—that way you’ll get guys on base, and if you get guys on base, you’ll score runs.  Batting average—getting hits—is a stat that traditionally gets a lot of attention, but ‘hits’ mean ‘base-runners’ and the less sexy walks acheive the same end.

Mallarme’s advice could be seen as the same idea: a ‘word’ might not be as sexy as a grand theme, a resounding rhyme, or an idea, but it gets you to first base.

But Mallarme and Modernism may have pushed poetry too far, since poetry is not about words so much as what words do.  Tired of poems with obvious themes, we now have poems with interesting word-choices, but which don’t really work as poems.

The team that walks a lot has the extra advantage—not found in traditional statistics—of tiring out opposing pitchers.

Mallarme’s formula might have worked—except poetry isn’t supposed to tire out the reader.


The beloved Robert E. Lee—he ‘saved’ the South as thousands died in 1862 “victories” near Richmond.

Lee is everyone’s dream.

Every guy, starting at about age 10, or 12, falls in love with Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

It doesn’t matter if you live in ‘the North,’ hate slavery, or have never been on a horse: Lee is the one historical figure young Americans adore, with Confederate Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a close second.  Union generals Sherman and Grant are mere butchers, by comparison—though Grant’s drinking habit certainly has its attractions.

Admit it. Reading about that gallant, wrong-headed War as a boy, reading that story of the industrial North slowly crushing the sharp-shooting cavalries of the South, in battles named after churches and streams, broke your little heart—because secretly, even as you knew it was wrong, you couldn’t help rooting for the Rebels.

What is it about this War, which retains its romantic hold on the American soul?  Why does the American Civil War, the Blue versus the Gray, seem so gorgeously heroic, so mountain-misty beautiful?

Because Anglo-Confederate propaganda has made it that way.

A woman—Amanda Foreman, a Whitbread Prize winner, with a doctoral degree from Oxford—has produced a 958 page book, A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Penguin 2010, Random House 2011), which blows the mist away.

Of course, we know what a horror this war was, with the dying and wounded left on battlefields to wail all night before the next day’s fighting; the lopped limbs in makeshift hospitals, the staggering casualties, the tearing of an ideal nation in two.  

And, of course we know that much of the Romantic, heroic description of the War is just a way of mitigating the pain it caused.

But the fog remains.  The Civil War is understood—as might be expected—only in sections, mythically, and not in anything approaching a sober, global perspective.

It is the way most understand poetry—by certain poems, and attendant myths—as the Civil War is understood only by its struggles on the battlefield, and its attendant myths, but with no real comprehensive understanding.

The Civil War would be better stripped of its boyish mythology and understood more for what it was.

1. Neither Lincoln, Sherman, McClellan, or Grant were abolitionists.

2. Abolition was nothing but a war strategy—by the North—to prevent Britain and France from carrying out their joint threat made secretly through diplomatic circles to join the war on the side of the South.

3. The Confederacy was on the ropes in the spring of 1862, just one year into the war, beaten militarily, economically, tactically, diplomatically, materially, and morally, having earned one major victory—the relatively small one a year before at Bull Run, largely because of Confederate spies.  In that spring of 1862, Union troops, trained, supplied, rested, and ready, with vast numerical superiority to Confederate defenders, were five miles from Richmond, a mere hop, skip and a jump from ‘game over.’  The chief event of 1861 was the Trent affair, when England sent troops to Canada in a near-declaration of war with the United States.

4. Britain and France, two major Atlantic Powers who took a great interest in the War (cotton) and made a great show of being anti-Slavery, were in the position with their naval forces to give the Union victory in a few weeks.  But they remained neutral, holding out hope to both sides, North and South, for intervention, essentially creating conditions for each side, North and South, to slaughter one another, since victory on the battlefield was a condition for unconditional European support. 

5. Privately, most British, despite being publically anti-slavery, admired Jefferson Davis and the Rebels—because they were of British descent, while the Union army featured Irish and German immigrants. Meanwhile, anti-slavery France was invading Mexico, and Britain, while loudly advertising her anti-slavery position, was quietly taking over the world. From a global perspective, the American Civil was entangled with France and Britain’s uneasy alliance to weaken U.S. world influence, America’s alliance with Russia being especially disturbing to Britain and France.  Privately, the majority in Britain, and elsewhere, believed slavery would die out in the South on its own, just as Russia, without bloodshed, freed their serfs in 1861.

6. William Seward, Lincoln’s unpopular and isolated Secretary of State, threatened to annex Canada and take the war to London, if necessary, as Seward saw the writing on the wall.  If it weren’t for Seward, Britian might have fully and unconditionally supported the South from the beginning of the war.  

7.  The British Empire, still stung by the War of 1812, and furious that the U.S. supported Russia rather than Britain in the Crimean War four years previously, were not exactly friendly with the United States, but John Bull recalled that most of the naval battles in the War of 1812 were won by the United States. The U.S. was an up-and-coming giant that even the British Empire feared, and the British (in private) were glad to see the U.S. tear itself to pieces in its Civil War. 

8. General Robert E. Lee’s first maor action, a crucial week-long campaign near Richmond in the late spring of 1862 which prolonged the war, was nothing more than reckless ‘slaughter’ attacks (some called it “murder”) with much greater Confederate casualties—that earned a “victory” for Lee and the South, a “victory” for Lee only because Union General George McClellan chose to retreat in the wake of the death and suffering: 35,000 casualties.  Lee, it seemed, turned into an aggressive fighter only after Union forces destroyed his Virginia plantation. 

9. Lee’s finest hour for the South, then, was as a butcher—which pushed the war into a bloody realm of “no-return” that would eventually kill 3 in 10 white males between 20 and 45 in the South.  

10. The British press greatly exaggerated Lee’s victory over McClellan, saying McClellan’s army was “crushed” and McClellan was “on a steamer,” (McClellan’s army, still intact, had only retreated a few miles) —typical of the pro-Southern slant of English newspapers, which again, went a long way in prolonging the war.  Despite London’s official neutrality, Southern forces received clothing and weapons from the British, Confederate warships were built in Liverpool, and rich and poor from Britain fought on the side of the South.  Some English aristocrats fought in the American Civil War, not really caring which side they fought on. Trans-Atlantic communication was painfully slow during the Civil War, making false newspaper reports even more significant—it took weeks for key information to arrive.  Britain and the U.S. worked side-by-side to lay cable for the trans-Atlantic telegraph—and for a few months the two nations were connected, but it failed, months before the War began, and was not restored until the War was over.

Reading Foreman’s epic, these are just some of the points which come into focus. 

A World On Fire is the Gone With the Wind of non-fiction Civil War books, with its epic sweep, photographs, battle diagrams, contemporary Punch cartoons, battle illustrations by British journalist Frank Vizetelly, moral debates within the British Cabinet, London parties with American ambassador Charles Adams and his famous son, Henry, Confederate and Union spies lurking in Liverpool shipyards, Seward’s bluff and bluster, Lincoln’s quips, journalists meeting generals under tents, British aristocrats volunteering to fight for the South, and falling in love with it, the horrors on land and sea; it’s all here. 

But World On Fire is more than just an epic.  It’s a sobering up, a growing up.  It kills, once and for all, the narrow myths of the Civil War.  If you own one book on the Civil War, it should be this one.



Instead Of Loving All My Friends

Instead of loving all my friends,
I’m only loving you—
For this is what the God of Love
Told me what to do.

Claims come in from everywhere,
As beautiful as well,
That love with friends is just as good—
This logic breaks love’s spell.

Who has taken love away
And left me with a halting song,
So Cupid’s heavy, heavy bow
Truly aims so wrong?

Less beauty, less love, less friends!
Eros wasted me on you.
What God of Love gives such advice,
To falsely aim so true?


Kim Addonizio, interviewed by a former Workshop student Susan Browne, said the following:

I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that “something” remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader’s part, I end up as frustrated as you.

This got John Gallaher, the Ashbery fan, upset, and he reacted with a piece that begins like this:

As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).

The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.

Gallaher will never forgive Dan Chiasson for his New Yorker piece on Rae Armantrout in 2010, in which Chiasson attempted to make Armantrout palatable to the masses by presenting her narrative/autobiographical side.  Chiasson is who Gallaher has in mind when Gallaher fulminates above, “lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of category B, so that people can feel OK…” 

This was no doubt triggered by my August 12 piece on Chiasson and The New Yorker—Gallaher’s rant against narrative by way of Kim Addonizio appeared on August 13.

Why do I call  Gallaher’s article on narrative a “rant?”  Gallaher, like most avants, is really a pretty simple fellow.  His thinking, no doubt, went like this: he read Scarriet’s skewering of Chiasson, not without a certain pleasure, but couldn’t help being reminded of Chiasson’s greater sin—one Gallaher himself had tirelessly pointed out—Chiasson’s attempt in the New Yorker to make avant star Armantrout into one of them—the poets who are narrative and accessible.  Nothing freaks out a fan of the avant-garde like the idea of one of their idols being eaten and digested by the insensate mainstream.  In a panic, Gallaher decided he had to turn the tables, and quickly whipped up an article of a narrative poet moving away from narrative—Kim Addonizio, a ‘column A’ poet, seeking to free herself from her chains.  When Gary B. Fitzgerald, who also visits Scarriet, showed up on Gallaher’s blog, to bash Ashbery, Gallaher snapped.  Gary B. was banned.  A piece on narrative begun in high anxiety had ended with a punishment.

Here is part of the interview excerpted by Gallaher, with his comments right afterwards.  You’ll see what I mean:

Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It’s from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren’t very many good parts. My poem was originally titled “By Way of Apology.” I had a few phrases, one of which was “a pair of big, invisible hands.” Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it’s more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a “this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.

Browne: I want to hear more about that.

Addonizio: Take a poem like “November 11,” from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, “The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous.” That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor’s niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it’s not about the gym. That’s the framework.

Browne: It’s interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn’t have the narrative, I don’t think I’d be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I’m thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it’s me. And I don’t care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can’t wait for her next book to come out because I think I’m going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.


Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.

And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?

Gallaher celebrates a “moment” in catching out a narrative poet confessing that the personal narrative element in her poem is only a “framework,” and not the important element in her poem—what is important, evidently, are the journalistic “piles of dead”.  Gallaher is perfectly in his rights to ask: why do we need the narrative frame, if the “piles of dead” are the crucial item? 

But Gallaher is confusing means and end: as Addonizio explains to Browne in the interview, her poem is not just about ‘the deaths,’ but about the poet’s personal view of them as overwhelming—and therefore ‘going to the gym’ places the mundane activity of the overwhelmed narrator in the poem—and secondly, the rain is a metaphoric expression of the high death count (beyond the narrator’s grasp) and it’s an easy matter to have it rain while going to the gym.  

Here’s an excerpt from the Addonizio poem, “November 11”:

to say what killed him, his wife is fighting/with the Palestinians over his millions, the parking lot/ of the gym is filled with muddy puddles!/ I run 4.3 m.p.h. on the treadmill, and they’re dead/ in Baghdad and Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra and Latifiya –/ Nadia and Surayah, Nahla and Hoda and Noor,/their husbands and cousins and brothers –/ dead in their own neighborhoods! Imagine!/ Marine Staff Sgt. David G. Ries, 29, Clark, WA.: killed!/ Army Spc. Quoc Binh Tran, 26, Mission Viejo, CA: killed,/ Army Spc. Bryan L. Freeman, 31, Lumberton, NJ — same deal!

Gallaher’s hero, the Pulitzer-prize winning, Rae Armantrout, might write this poem sans narrative, and leave out the trip to the gym, and try to express the feeling of being overwhelmed by the deaths in a more concise manner, using exclamation points, a reference to puddles and rain, a shorter list of deaths; but if we agree the end of each poem is precisely the same, and the means is less narrative by Armantrout, more narrative by Addonizio, it really just becomes an issue of clarity in acheiving the end: the narrator is having these feelings, and damnit, she wants the reader to see the narrator on her way to the gym in the rain.  Addonizio said the poem was not about “the gym,” but she did not say the poem was not about her feelings or the rain present (to express the metaphor) as she went to the gym, or her thoughts interrupted by her mundane activity at the gym, and Armantrout, attempting to write the same poem, would fail or succeed on precisely this same issue: is it clear to the reader what I am saying? 

Gallaher, the clever avant, is missing the whole point, confusing “the gym” with the necessity of being clear, and he compounds his error by going off the deep end philosophically, by seeking a duality: narrative v. non-narrative, which simply does not exist.  The issue is merely one of clarity, and clarity should never be an issue, unless, like the avant, you are under the burden of some tremendous neurosis, and you neurotically strive to be unclear.

This issue is never whether or not there should be narrative, for narrative should always exist; the question is whether it is done well, or not, and in this particular case it is not done well; the self-serving, third-rate Addonizio poem is naturally vulnerable to attack by an avant critic like Gallaher, who has no trouble prying the hapless poem from its “frame,” in order to make a non-point.

Once you begin referring to your narrative or your plot, as merely a “frame,” the game is over, and transparently cretinous, avant-garde tricks, like “so much depends upon all those deaths in the news,” are probably the next step in your writing career.

The near-insanity of the avant sensibility is on full display in this comment on Gallaher’s article:

In poetry the only law is that of gravity, but here are a few things I’ve always thought about poetry, in no particular order:
The extraordinarily fertile and preternaturally lit-up imagination of a poet like Tate may need to be counterbalanced by a limiting force, either narrative or structure. (I may be echoing an essay by Gregory Orr.) Narrative seems to be the limiting force in the Tate poems most people like best. (I may prefer some of his old stuff that doesn’t work that way—poems circa Hints to Pilgrims. But I’m all over anything he writes.)
BUT. “Narrative does not dictate image; image dictates narrative.”—Charles Wright.
Eli is quite right about poetry as “the new metatropism.” Writing poetry is passivity not activity. You watch your thought grow like mould on cheese in the fridge. I is an other. You don’t write the poem; it writes you.
You should work FROM, not TOWARDS, words. Dylan Thomas said that a long time ago, but recently Elisa Gabbert said the same thing in connection with Bill Knott. Begin with words not ideas. Make poetry out of words not ideas; seek ideas for your words, not words for your ideas.—Valery? Mallarme?
“So many lousy poets/So few good ones/ What’s the problem?/No innate love of/Words, no sense of/How the thing said/Is in the words, how/The words are themselves/The thing said:…A word, that’s the poem”—James Schuyler. Mallarme said every word of “L’Azur” cost him several hours of searching. What Ted Berrigan cared about most was the startling pieces of language he overheard or read.
The language must be fresh. There must be delightfully strange combinations of words in almost every line. But the lines without startling contrasts have to be good, too. All the lines should sound cool by themselves. IT’S PERFECTLY FINE TO CHOP OUT A LOGICAL CONNECTION IF THAT’LL MAKE THE LINES SOUND COOLER. Fuck logic.
“A poem SHOULD remain mostly inscrutable.”—Ashbery
“What it’s about” is only one aspect of it. There are—or should be—equally important things going on. (I tend to worry about those other things and let “what it’s about” take care of itself.) “The pleasure one gets from reading poetry comes from something else than the idea or story in a poem, which is just a kind of armature for the poet to drape with many-colored rags.”–Ashbery
You don’t have to understand your poem in a way that enables you to explicate it.
There’s nothing wrong with confessional poetry but the name. Poets who expose their intimate thoughts in a painfully honest, uncensored way—e.g., Ginsberg—are doing a great thing.
Don’t sit on any arse poetica—raw or cooked, autobiographical or “energetic word play.” Keep your mind open and try the other side, like Addonizio. “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” –Emerson

The commenter, David Grove, just wants to be wild and free, and believes Charles Wright’s “image dictates narrative” and his own “a poem just grows like mould on cheese” How French!  That must be Mallarme talking…  And Ashbery’s “words, not ideas…” For Grove, “narrative” is a “restriction.”

It takes but a moment’s reflection to realize that narrative in the literary arts is not simply a “frame,” but a cause-and-effect network of vast importance and nuance.

Narrative is first and foremost, temporality. Avant poetry is feeble, by comparison, as it declines to use what might be called time’s flesh, and all subsequent imagery, harmony, melody, and thought-like music ranged upon that flesh’s movement reflects the movement of life itself; the speech of the statue, the glittering of the stream, the warming of the sigh, the deepening of the night, the steps of the traveler, the lifting of the bird, the singing of the dactyl, or the sigh-inducing advancement of the dance towards you; the lack of all this makes avant poetry a bland, or self-importantly clever, re-telling. 

Which makes avants like Gallaher feel empty.  And angry.


John Gallaher: Another brick in the wall?

Gary B. Fitzgerald is a fine poet and a well-known figure in the on-line poetry world, opinionated, but never nasty.

Mr. Fitzgerald is self-published, which is what poets outside of academia tend to be, and if self-pity floats about him—he’s a “Quietist” who doesn’t sell—it is because he has something to say and wants people to listen: nothing pleases Gary B. more than “to be read,” and few, apparently, read him—and those tend to be readers of others’ blogs.  He’s a Romantic; a man of nature, of moral feeling, and books (he’s got a bunch out there).  He wants to start his own blog—which we think is a good idea.

We know it’s a small thing, a very small thing, and hardly worth the effort to report, except that it symbolizes something larger, which is why sometimes we concern ourselves with small things (oh, if we could ever get ourselves free of the ‘small things!’) but it seems that Gary, dear old Gary B. was banned recently from John Gallaher’s blog, for daring to have an opinion about John Ashbery.

Think on this, if you will: A poet is banned from a poetry blog for having an opinion about a poet.

One could argue that the chief problem in the world now is that people won’t let other people have opinions.

Poets behaving like spoiled children—why is this so prevalent?


jimmy george w. obama

War, debt, and unemployment.  Which is worse?

Democrats, fearing the loss of the White House, are focused on jobs.  A president can weather war and debt, but job-loss is going to lose votes.

The creation of jobs is as mysterious as creating poems, except we know the selling of shirts depends on two things: manufacturing shirts and bare backs.

Why can’t the United States manufacture shirts, even if there are none to sell, simply stocking them up for later use?

But the makers of shirts demand payment for their labor.  Who shall pay them?

The government shall pay the shirt manufacturers, for the last I saw, government employees, who work in the post office or the military, wear shirts.

This will create jobs.  It seems such an easy solution, that one wonders why unemployment is ever a problem.  There’s always something that can be made, whether it sells or not.  And we don’t speak of poems, but what is real: shirts.

Anyway, and surely a poet will understand this, if there are ‘no jobs,’ isn’t this a good thing?  Isn’t this proof that, for many, there’s no further work to do?  And what could be better than that?

But what of those who have no work, and thus no paycheck?

Let them make shirts!

The needy unemployed only need to let the government know who they are, and the government will get them a job making shirts: building a shirt factory, working at home from a computer, or sewing in the factory, whatever fits.  Federal spending will increase the supply of shirts—which the nation can always use, eventually.  Job-creation always creates more job-creation: guards, for instance, will be hired, to guard the swelling shirt-inventory.

All benefit: the new shirt-makers pay taxes, increase state revenue, thus paying down the national debt, and making the country stronger.

One could point out that this plan boils down to the government printing money to artificially spur the economy, with a risk of inflation.  But don’t shirts (unlike poems) have tangible worth?  What is wrong with borrowing money to produce something of value—actually, two things of value: employment and shirts?

The worst case scenario: inflation, falling shirt prices, less poetry, but this can only translate into more bare backs, and thus more need for shirts, more motive for work, and a greater desire for poetry—an automatic correction.

Worried that if every unemployed person is guaranteed a job making shirts, there will be less incentive for persons to find real jobs?  But more shirt-makers couldn’t slow the eternal desire for more interesting and more profitable pursuits.  This objection is groundless, as well.

There, I’ve saved the economy.

Now excuse me, while I go write a poem.


Professional athletes do not have better reflexes than the rest of us.  The reason professional ballplayers can hit a 95 mile per hour fast ball is because they “see the future,” as the current issue of Sports Illustrated puts it.  By reading the signals of the pitcher’s motion before he throws the ball, the batter is able to do what is physically impossible, in terms of pure reaction time—hit a baseball that gets to the plate in a blink of an eye.

How is the professional reader of poetry like the professional baseball player?  How much can the former’s eye take in?  How far can the professional reader of poetry, as they are reading a particular poem, see into the future?  A ballplayer’s skill can be measured, but merely disagreeing whether a poem is wonderful or bores us to tears is no measure at all.  A ballplayer’s simple ability to hit a pitched baseball will be universally admired, especially among the young, but a professor’s learned opinion of some difficult poem will just as likely invoke scorn, even from a novice, as it will admiration.

Everyone watching instinctively knows that when a hitter makes contact with a ball that travels to him from the pitcher in under a second, the hitter is taking the shortest possible route in accomplishing his task.  The professor reading the poem, however, in order to impress upon his fans that the shortest possible route is being taken to accomplish his task, is in a bit of a muddle, for an expert explanation naturally takes time, and if no answer or result that is definitive (such as a doctor giving a prognosis) is forthcoming, “takes time” loses all meaning, and therefore efficiency loses all meaning, and therefore all vicarious pleasure is lost.  If watching someone else hit a baseball is more pleasurable than watching someone else read a poem—even if it then does not follow that hitting a baseball will be more pleasurable than reading a poem—one can see already how much poetry is at a disadvantage.

But can’t a professor, when first picking up a poem, detect when a poem is bad very quickly?  Certainly, but what does he see, and how quickly does he see it?  And, conversely, how long does it take the expert to tell when a poem is good?  Can any of this be measured?

And how can we test this theory with a good poem, since all poems which are commonly agreed upon as good are inevitably familiar to the poetry expert?  If good poems are not familiar to the poetry expert, then he is no expert, and if the good poem is familiar, we cannot test the expert’s ability at seeing a good poem for the first time.

Still, the test is probably worth a try.

Fortunately, I own Granger’s Index to Poetry with thousands of first lines of poetry.

Let’s see how difficult it is to predict a good poem from a first line.

Below are twenty first lines, linked to their poems.

Read all, before you click the link.

Which door do you choose?

You cannot, of course, choose a poem you happen to recognize.

1. Who drives the horses of the sun

2. A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not

3. When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs

4. When I play on my fiddle in Dooney

5. Strawberries that in gardens grow

6. The rain was like a little mouse

7. See what a clouded majesty, and eyes

8. See what delights in sylvan scenes appear!

9. Plague take all your pedants, I say!

10. Past ruined Ilion Helen lives

11. Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning

12. Now what is love? I pray thee, tell

13. Let your song be delicate

14. Is then no nook of English ground secure

15. A delicate young Negro stands

16. Bright as a fallen fragment of the sky

17. In the great snowfall before the bomb

18. The time will come

19. They all kissed the bride

20. The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm

How much can we tell from first lines?

I don’t want a poem to tell me too much.  I don’t want a poem to tell me too little.  I don’t want a poem which is too much like a lecture.  I don’t want a poem which is too grotesque.  I don’t want a poem which is put together badly.  I don’t want a poem which is too coy or obscure.

Now from the choices above, if I had to choose a good poem based on the first line only—with my failure the penalty of death, which door would I choose?

I have no choice but to eliminate the awkward: Nos. 5, 9, and 10.

To eliminate the plain: Nos. 18, 19, and 20.

The didactic: Nos. 2, 3, 8, 12, 13, and 14.

The bombastic: 7, 16, and 17.

That leaves me to consider: 1, 4, 6, 11, and 15.  “The rain was like a little mouse” is too metaphorically quaint, so I’ve got to leave out no. 6.  “When I play on my fiddle in Dooney” sounds a little goofy, so I must eliminate no. 4.

I’ve reduced my choices from twenty down to three: “Who drives the horses of the sun,” “Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning” and “A delicate young Negro stands.”

Do I want to take a chance with a poem which uses the term, “Negro?”  Probably not, although there’s something intelligent about the first line’s insouciant rhythm and pictorial bluntness.

“Who drives the horses of the sun” sounds a little sententious, but it has a compact movement which I like.

“Now the time of year has come for the leaves to be burning” shows off an ambitious, successful rhythm even as it sounds somewhat wordy and overblown.

I choose then: in a split-second (for the experiment to survive): “Who drives the horses of the sun”

Which did you choose?


Dan Chiasson: a critic you can bring home to mother.

The August 8 issue of The New Yorker happens to be good summer reading, almost.  The New Yorker is one of those publications which tells its sophisticated, liberal audience exactly what it wants to hear. Careful not to offend their hipster trust fund reader, the politics is predictably Godless and Left, and their cultural pieces follow suit—politically correct, with an undercurrent of naughtiness and snark.

The cartoons, with their shallow poignancy and black humor topicality, set the tone.  On page 62, a slightly nerdy father tells his bearded son, “You call it graduate school. I call it raising the debt ceiling!” The “Talk of the Town” editorial sides 100% with Obama on the debt issue, while the cartoon expresses the whole much better—the reader can side with the nerdy father, or the bearded son, depending on how they feel.  The print opinions of the magazine are always cartoonish; the cartoons sublime by comparison.

Stephen Greenblatt’s personal meditation in this New Yorker issue on “The Nature of Things” by the ancient philospher Lucretius, drives home two points: true science is driven by atheism and Lucretious has a lot to do with many of us having this idea today.  From a scholarly point of view, the piece is worthless, but the glimpes of Greenblatt’s hypochondriac mother are interesting.

The fiction piece, “What Have You Done?” by Ben Marcus is thoroughly enjoyable: The life of an obese, middle-aged, sarcastic, super-sensitive man with anger issues seeking dignity in a mistrustful, dysfunctional world, where women are flawed but guys are complete assholes, is described economically and with humor.  You care about the characters, but you also get to knowingly chuckle at Cleveland, family reunions, and masturbation.  The best fiction writers these days are secret stand-up comedians.  Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald plus Conan O’Brien. 

Brenda Shaughnessy has a poem on pgs 38-39 which is bouyantly lyrical.  Are poets starting to have fun, again?  Here’s the last five lines:

Heart, what art you?
War, star, part? Or less:

playing a part, staying apart
from the one who loves,

The poem on pg. 59 by Starkey Flythe (the name alone probably got him published) is called “Greeks” and makes fun of them: “They made man beautiful/and women, too, though/occasionally her arms fell off.”

Alex Ross, in “A Critic At Large,” compares two recent biographies of Oscar Wilde.  Both books he dislikes; one sees Wilde as literary, the other as sexual; Ross, who tells us he is gay himself, leans towards the latter take; Ross focuses on Dorian Gray, Wilde’s Poe-esque classic, and homophobic Britain’s reaction to it.  Everything written on Wilde ends up being one part genius and two parts gossip and Ross is done in by the gossip, like everyone else.  Wilde courted the most beautiful woman in London but lost out to another Irishman, Bram Stoker. Wilde’s parents are fascinating figures in themselves, the mother an Irish patriot poet, and the era was a fascinating one. Ross instead keeps the light on Wilde, the secret criminal homosexual; it’s a sympathetic light, but it feels a little like Wilde is being used.

Ross quotes some of Wilde’s famous witticisms, such as, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”  This brings us to the next article, Dan Chiasson’s review of two poets.

In Chiasson’s review there is no “concealing the artist;” the two poets are “revealed” as much as possible, not only as two women (there are drawings of them with pleasant smiles) but as autobiographical input to the themes of their books, and the reviewer joins in, not exactly revealing himself, but putting his gentle reviewer’s hands all over his subjects:

The title of Tracy K. Smith’s new book of poetry, “Life on Mars” (Graywolf $15), recalls the mid-century craze for all things Martian. Kids who grew up in the nineteen-forties and fifties, in the grip of Mars mania, had their own kids in the seventies; Smith, born in 1972 and a professor of creative writing at Princeton, was one of those kids, as was I. By then, Mars was a joke. The Viking images of the planet’s surface made it look as inhabitable as cat litter. David Bowie had a great, disillusioned single called “Life on Mars?” in 1973 (it inspired Smith’s title), about a girl forced to sit through the unendurable Hollywood fare of her parents’ childhoods—cavemen, cowboys, Martians, and the like. Wherever we were headed, in the vast, fathomless future, it wasn’t going to be outer space: the prospect of “life on Mars” was just another relic of our dreary life on earth.

Life on earth was particularly bad if you grew up black in the forties in Sunflower, Alabama, north of Mobile, as Smith’s father did. Not that he stuck around: he joined the Air Force, and eventually worked as an optical engineer on the Hubble space telescope.

Is Dan Chiasson dating Tracy K. Smith? You know…born in the 70s like her, and knowing so much about her and her dad. Did Tracy K. Smith tell him all this stuff?  Did her dad?  Did her book?  Did her poems?

Did Chiasson already know David Bowie’s “disillusioned single,” and, charmed by the allusion, made the decision to review Tracy K. Smith’s book?  Or, did he learn of Bowie’s song through Tracy K. Smith’s book?

Why does science in the 70s make Mars “a joke?” Does Chiasson think this is everyone’s opinion who was born in the “seventies” (as one must write it in The New Yorker)?  Does Tracy K. Smith say this? Or is this Chiasson’s truth?

The “cat litter” line is brilliant, sure, but why exactly is it in the review?

We certainly find Chiasson nice enough, but one is curious: what exactly is your job, anyway?

If it’s a mystery, one part is clear: Chiasson feels he has to present the book of poems the way editors want to present a book of poems: as a lively, cohesive, highly informative, novel. “Life on Mars” is a great name for a racehorse.  But am I going to read a book of poems so that I can revel in the cultural nuances of this theme? It would be an effort to read a single poem about what people born in the 70s felt about Mars, as seen through the eyes of a David Bowie single, by a kid with a dad who works on Hubble—much less an entire collection of poems. And if Chiasson’s response is: not all the poems are about Mars, why in Mars’ name does his review make it seem that way?

Chiasson is like the chatty parent embarrassed for their child, but forced to introduce them in a sympathetic light:

Smith cannot think about her father without thinking in galactic dimensions, which, paradoxically, minimize him: drawn to that scale, individual lives (even his) can seem puny, and private traumas (even hers) inconsequential.

Keep in mind we have traveled through two columns of a 6 column review (of two poets) and the poems have not spoken yet.

When Chiasson finally quotes Smith’s poetry, “a brief haunting lyric,” it goes like this: “We are here for what amounts to a few/hours,/a day at most./We feel around making sense of the terrain,/our own new limbs,/Bumping up against a herd of bodies/until one becomes home./Moments sweep past. The grass bends/then learns again to stand.”

Chiasson rushes in: “The grass bent under the weight of a human body is, in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”…

Oh, brother.

Grass?  What happened to Mars?

The other poet under review, Dana Levin, gets the same treatment. 

She drips with Chiasson’s good intentions.  Even when he quotes her poetry directly, it’s hard to tell where Levin ends and Chiasson begins:

Deriving “This from That” in her poem of that name, she follows the “Aurelian,” or butterfly collector, who studies “the emergence of butterflies/from chrysalides,” or dactyl from dactyl, the way a poet works: “of fighter jets/from number of charts,/of syllables/from kettledrums.”

With the nifty insertion of “dacyl from dactyl,” one gets the impression Chiasson is re-writing her poem.

But darn it all, he means well.


Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”

What was good verse?

That was easy.

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing.

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple.

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that its group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.”

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.”

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker.

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway?

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.


Duncan Gillies MacLaurin  —Open Mic at StAnza 2011/photo: Long Nguyen

The following is by Scarriet guest artist Duncan Gillies MacLaurin:

In the last fifty years song lyrics have become the major form of poetical expression, yet spoken-word poets tend to dismiss the notion that the writers of these lyrics are poets proper. Even song-writing icons such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sting, etc. are widely seen by spoken-word poets as merely distant relatives. There is envy at work here. A poet recently told me:

“I often envy singer/songwriters because they can take liberties with both rhyme and meter that poets often can’t. Almost any poem/song can be cured on vocal delivery. Extra beats can be compressed and slant (and even non) rhymes can be rhymed…or not.”

Thus songwriters are en masse perceived by spoken-word poets as having a much easier job. And that is especially irksome in view of the dazzling accolades and monetary rewards Dylan and Cohen et al. receive.  The spoken-word poets have only way of punishing song-writers: exclusion from the inner circle of poetry.

This is very unfortunate for everyone, I think. We should be building bridges and inspiring each other rather than insisting on isolating ourselves in supposedly unsullied domains. I was pretty keen on poetry at school, but my interest would have foundered without the inspiration of pop music, through which I was drawn back to poetry.

I often hear people say that a song lyric can only be poetry if it can stand alone, i.e. without the sung version. Absolute poppycock! If it can, fine, but where’s the problem if it can’t? Have we not ears? All it means is that the reader has to refer to the song in order to be able to appreciate the poem more fully. Likewise, many people say an ekphrastic poem should be able to stand alone, i.e. without the illustration that inspired it. Again, absolute poppycock! Have we not eyes? Again, the reader can merely refer to the illustration.

Here’s a sonnet that has the photo that inspired it attached as well as a sung version: http://www.e-gym.dk/index.php?studenter-2010

In this case neither the photo nor the sung version is necessary for the sonnet, but they certainly add to its effect. And they don’t dilute the poetry; on the contrary, they highlight it.

I write poems and I write song lyrics, and often it’s difficult to see which are which. It’s easier to think of them as both. I would certainly rather sing my sonnets than recite them. Is that improper? If someone would rather hear them spoken than sung, then that’s fine by me, but I’m not buying the notion that singing them is somehow less poetical than reciting them.

I have been lucky to find e-zine editors that have welcomed sung versions of my sonnets. Here are some examples: http://www.the-chimaera.com/May2008/Poems/MacLaurin.html http://www.barefootmuse.com/archives/issue10/maclaurin.htm

A few of the poets I know online have shown great enthusiasm for these versions. But they’ve become wary of expressing it publicly as the general reception has been chilly. Guitar and song is simply not comme il faut. Thus the editor of the sonnet e-zine 14 by 14 was dismayed when I sent him a sung version of a sonnet he’d agreed to publish. To his mind poetry ought not to be sung. I considered withdrawing my sonnet but decided to record a spoken version instead: http://www.14by14.com/Sonnets/March2010/Regret.html

Here’s the version he rejected: http://www.myspace.com/572041222

When one editor recently suggested I record both a spoken and a sung version of a sonnet, I very willingly obliged: http://www.the-flea.com/Issue14/NoBloodyWay.html But again, the spoken version was preferred by the majority of the poets who commented. However, it turns out that most non-poets prefer the sung version. “Ah well,” a poet might say, “that’s because they’re not poets.”

I can relate to the envy spoken-word poets have for songwriters. I myself am a better wordsmith than I am a musician, yet I would like to have been more gifted musically. Here’s a piece I wrote last week that plays with this theme. I’ve been quick to give it to a composer/guitarist to write a melody for and perform as the speaker boasts of having much greater skill on the guitar than I can muster. I’ve written a bridge section to come after the fifth stanza should he so desire.  Seeing as the song version is not yet available, and I don’t know if he’ll be using the bridge section, I’m using it as an epigraph. A concession to the poetry purist in me.

  A Slice of Lemon
  I can feel your surprise when you hear me importune.
  I stand by my right to get carried away.
  I’ve no need for disguise; I’m a soldier of fortune.
  I’m ready to fight for the music I play.
      There’s a thin slice of lemon
      that’s waltzing through heaven;
   our scholars have named it the moon.
      I can warmly pursue it
      and try to review it,
    but nothing can match this new tune.
     There’s a faraway island
     that glows like a diamond;
  a planet, they say, not a star.
      I can slowly explore it
      and try to restore it,
  but words aren’t a patch on guitar.
     There’s this lad at the harbour
     who’s shy of the barber;
   his hair tends to tickle his knees.
      He’s the kind of musician
      who borrows your kitchen
   with never a thank-you or please.
     Well, we met by the bunkers
     last summer, two drunkards
   pretending the night was yet young.
     I was strumming my glories.
     He said: “These here stories
   would sound even better if sung.”
     Well, at first I was wary;
     the prospect was scary.
   Would this mean I’d have to sing lead?
      But I’ve lost all my scruples
      as one of his pupils.
   I’m high on the will to succeed.
     There’s a thin slice of lemon
     that’s waltzing through heaven;
   our scholars have named it the moon.
      I can always construe it
      and try to see through it,
    but nothing can match this new tune.
     There’s a faraway island
     that glows like a diamond;
  a planet, they say, not a star.
      And although I adore it
      and kneel down before it,
  these words aren’t a patch on guitar.


For T.S. Eliot,”art and life are absolutely severed from each other” —Yvor Winters

All poets want to be read, and the experience of the poet is like the experience of others—so why don’t poets use poetry to attract readers?

There are poets—like the Dickman twins—who actively strive to be popular; but these poets do so by sharing poignant experiences of their own lives in their poems, which is not the same thing as making poems which are popular as poems This is the challenge.

Does poetry have a distinct advantage over prose?  It does, as Yvor Winters (1900-1968) lays out somewhat scientifically:

Before attempting to elucidate or to criticize a poetry so difficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise to summarize…those qualities for which one looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should offer us new perceptions…it should add to what we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the reader.  The corresponding function for the poet is a sharpening and training of his sensibilities; the very exigencies of the medium as he employs it in the act of perception should force him to the discovery of values which he never would have found without the convening of all the conditions of that particular act, conditions one or more of which will be the necessity of solving some particular difficulty such as the location of a rhyme or the perfection of a cadence without disturbance to the remainder of the poem.  The poet who suffers from such difficulties instead of profiting by them is only in a rather rough sense a poet at all.

If, however, the difficulties of versification are a stimulant merely to the poet, the reader may argue that he finds them a hindrance to himself and that he prefers some writer of prose who appears to offer him as much with less trouble to all concerned.  The answer to such a reader is that the appearance of equal richness in the writer of prose is necessarily deceptive.

For language is a kind of abstraction, even at its most concrete; such a word as “cat,” for instance, is generic and not particular. Such a word becomes particular only in so far as it gets into some kind of experiential complex, which qualifies it and limits it, which gives it, in short, a local habitation as well as a name. Such a complex is the poetic line or other unit, which, in turn, should be functioning part of the larger complex, or poem.  This is, I imagine, what Mallarme’ should have had in mind when he demanded that the poetic line be a new word, not found in any dictionary, and partaking of the nature of incantation (that is, having the power to materialize, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, being, a new experience).

The poem, to be perfect, should likewise be a new word in the same sense, a word of which the line, as we have defined it, is merely a syllable. Such a word is, of course, composed of much more than the sum of its words (as one normally uses the term) and its syntax.  It is composed of an almost fluid complex, if the adjective and the noun are not too nearly contradictory, of relationships between words (in the normal sense of the term), a relationship involving rational content, cadences, rhymes, juxtapositions, literary and other connotations, inversions, and so on, almost indefinitely.  These relationships, it should be obvious, extend the poet’s vocabulary incalculably. The partake of the fluidity and unpredictability of experience and so provide a means of treating experience with precision and freedom. If the poet does not wish, as actually, he seldom does, to reproduce a given experience with approximate exactitude, he can employ the experience as a basis for a new experience that will be just as real, in the sense of being particular, and perhaps more valuable.

Now verse is more valuable than prose in this process for the simple reasons that its rhythms are faster and more highly organized than are those of prose, and so lend themselves to a greater complexity and compression of relationship, and that the intensity of this convention renders possible a greater intensity of other desirable conventions, such as poetic language and devices of rhetoric. The writer of prose must substitute bulk for this kind of intensity; he must define his experience ordinarily by giving all of its past history, the narrative logic leading up to it, whereas the experiential relations given in a good lyric poem, though particular in themselves, are applicable without alteration to a good many past histories. In this sense, the lyric is general as well as particular; in fact, this quality of transferable or generalized experience might be regarded as the defining quality of lyrical poetry.

Winters makes the case as most professors of poetry would, in the manner of Aristotle: a lyric poem is “faster,” has a more concentrated “intensity,” and requires less “bulk” than prose narrative.  Most readers think prose is “less trouble” than poetry, but according to Winters, these readers are mistaken—lyric poems serve up more excitement per ounce.  This logic does seem to be inescapable, even as the poet sadly witnesses the greater selling power of fiction over poetry.

But let’s examine Winters’ “logic” a little more closely.

If readers, as Winters points out, appreciate experiences rendered concisely, this might be why prose narrative is more popular than lyric poetry; in a typical novel, there is far more opportunity for the writer to do this; in fact, much of a novel is nothing more than a series of experiences rendered concisely, with more details tossed in when needed—but with the lyric poem, since the experience of a lyric poem is the lyric poem itself (which Winters, by way of Mallarme, is so eager to point out) concision as an observable virtue is mostly absent from a reader’s experience of a lyric poem.  Paradoxically, the novel allows greater room for the reader to experience all the virtues which exist—but only theoretically—in the concise and complex nature of the lyric poem!

In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe takes an even more direct and practical approach to the poem as a potentially popular article.

Before showing, step by step, how he wrote “The Raven,” he  remarks that, “every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen,” and continues, famously:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events…I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.

Winters has met his match, for the keen elaboration of an Aristotle and his that, has been trumped by the promethean, counter-intuitive Poe with his Platonic thus.

Poe quickly dismisses the world at large:

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity–which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.  We commence, then, with this intention.

Poe, in a radical move, considers “a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” as a purely abstract idea.   I maintain that it is this very consideration which will enable poets to become popular.  Appealing only to the critical taste, or only to the popular taste will not do.

Poe’s essay turns not on this idea: “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem,” (which for some, proves Poe too narrow in his approach) but on this one: “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.”

Winters offers the normal take on Poe’s position, in his brilliant foreward to Primitivism and Decadence, in which Winters classifies literature under three headings: the didactic, the hedonistic, and the romantic:

The second form of hedonistic theory tends to dissociate the artistic experience sharply from all other experience. T.S. Eliot, for example, tells us that the human experience about which the poem appears to be written has been transmuted in the aesthetic process into something new which is different in kind from all other experience. The poem is not then, as it superficially appears, a statement about a human experience, but is a thing in itself. The beginnings of this notion are to be found in Poe and are developed further by the French Symbolists, notably by Mallarme. The aim of the poem so conceived is again pleasure, pleasure conceived as intensity of emotion; but the emotion is of an absolutely special sort. Some such notion of the artistic experience is the essential concept of Santayana’s aesthetics; in fact, it is essential to almost any treatment of “aesthetics” as a branch of philosophy, and one will find it everywhere in the work of the academic aestheticism of the past half-century. The natrue of the “aesthetic” experience as conceived in these terms has never been clearly defined; we commonly meet here a kind of pseudo-mysticism. The chief advantage of this kind of hedonism over the Paterian variety is that one can adhere to it without adhering to a doctrine of ethical hedonism, for art and life are absolutely severed from each other. Eliot, for example, considers himself a Christian. The chief disadvantage is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

It’s a pity Winters is no longer read, for who has ever put it so well, or is able to lay things out so clearly?  The duller critics have long since buried the fact that not only the French, but Eliot himself, in all his aesthetic glory, comes directly from Poe—even Eliot himself attempted to distance himself from his predecssor by abusing Poe in From Poe to Valery. (1949)  Eliot’s attack was mean-spirited and superficial, and it came right after Eliot won the Nobel and he surely felt for a moment he was lord of all he surveyed, and needed to separate himself from a man who was neither sufficiently English, nor sufficeintly Christian, nor sufficently modern.

Winters, in this same little essay, adds three general notions of human nature, detirminism, relativism, and absolutism, and, with a certain amount of heady nuance, matches them with the aesthetic categories:

The Romantic is almost inescapably a relativist, for if all men follow their impulses there will be a wide disparity of judgments and of actions and the fact enforces a recognition. The Emersonian formula is the perfect one: that is right for me which is after my constitution; that is right for you which is after yours; the common divinity will guide each of us in the way which is best for him. The hedonist is usually a relativist and should logically be one, but there is often an illicit and veiled recognition of absolutism in his attempts to classify the various pleasures as more or less valuable, not for himself alone but in general. The defender of the didactic view of literature has been traditionally an absolutist, but he is not invariably so: didacticism is a method, and when one sees literature only as didacticism one sees it as a method, and the method may be used, as Emerson used it, to disseminate relativistic doctrine.

Winters has happily shown, better than Harold Bloom, why Emerson and Poe really are the two opposites of American literature: if Emerson used a didactic method to disseminate relativistic doctrine, Poe used a hedonistic method to disseminate an absolutist one.

What tends to happen, of course, with all these classifications, is that they bleed into each other: the idea, for instance, that Poe, or Eliot severed art from reality isn’t really true—Poe’s aesthetic narrowness is fashioned by his view of reality, whereas the modernist’s love affair with “the thing” is fashioned by their view of language; it finally comes down to Poe’s hidden effect of reality versus the modernist’s overt and uninhibited use of language.

But classification is a good place to begin.  I recently argued with Curtis Faville on the question of rhyme, and I could easily point out to him that rhyme falls under the category of  juxtaposition, which includes metaphor. 

But in spite of this simple act of classifying that shows itself to be so powerful, such that it immediately wins the day for me over Faville, it is important that we should always use this type of reasoning with caution.  Beauty, as Poe points out, is not a quality, but an effect.   To be satisfied with merely placing qualities into categories can lead to all kinds of error.  Winters’ actual powers of composition and his actual taste in poetry was abominable, despite the fact that Winters could classify better than anyone.

Let this be a lesson to us.

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