IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

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TROUBLE AT THE POETRY FOUNDATION

Take a bunch of prickly, under-read poets who run a little magazine called Poetry and give them a hundred million dollars.

What do they do?

They change their name from Poetry to Poetry Foundation.

They hire accountants and lawyers.

They fashion a website, and after a trial, block comments, leaving a blog site of newsy poetry links, in the spirit of: Can you believe it? The New York Times mentioned a poem yesterday!

The blog site also features a twitter feed: random poet friends of the Foundation taking turns twittering to the world.

But no comments.  The public is not really allowed.

They build a twentyone million dollar building in the middle of Chicago, and for its opening party, they arrest a protestor.

After the arrest, there’s another protest in the building, including a large banner asking how Prozac would have influenced Emily Dickinson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsotfygDk-c&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

The millions given to Poetry was a private donation—but it came from Big Pharma, the Lilly drug company that’s responsible for Prozac.

A pity the millions were not made from poetry, so poetry could have donated to itself, with Poetry the beneficiary.  But alas, the Poetry Foundation suffers from a classic Alienated Split: the meaty millions are concentrated in pill-form, and not scattered on the invisible wings of poesy.

None of this is big news.  Today, a banker sneezes and millions are moved about.  If a poetry magazine got lucky, why should we begrudge it?

On the other hand, why shouldn’t we question how a private fortune is dispersed in the name of a  public good?  The Poetry Foundation would be the first to defend poetry as a public good, and this worthy claim makes it vulnerable to questions of worth; perhaps not in the form of “pranks,” but don’t the “pranksters” have legitimate concerns, and don’t they warrant a hearing?  Is calling the cops on a (mild) prank the proper response of an institution ostensibly in existence because of public good?

What annoys us most about the Poetry Foundation is its thin skin, demonstrated when our mum, Blog Harriet, shut conversation down, setting in motion Scarriet’s genesis.  Poets, even with their feigning, are supposed to deal in truth, and how can thin skin exist with truth?

Scarriet would, with Plato, question poetry’s automatic status as a public good, thus deepening the whole issue; but how thin the skin gets, whenever automatic becomes the norm.

The art of poetry, since falling into its present existence as a deconstructed, free-floating public good, is free to be anything it wants to be, and now borders on being nothing at all, blandly and pedagogically filling a kind of gabby, social prozac, niche—look in the pages of Poetry—and, until it is absolutely nothing, the art of poetry will seek that freedom (having tasted for so long freedom as a self-reflexive good) which naturally leads it to that state which is nothing; indeed, for almost 100 years, being a free-floating nothing has almost been its (rebel) creed.

The art suffers from this counter-intuitive spin: with the loosening of poetry’s formal attributes, we see the bodily tightening of poets’ nerves.  Rather than resort to a good-natured, witty rebuke, poets tend to run and hide.

A friend on the grapevine wrote me:

Another interesting element to this is what the poster called ‘Don Sharey’ commenting on the Chicago Reader article  http://www.chicagoreader.com/gyrobase/poetry-foundation-clamps-down-on-activists/Content?oid=4844017&sort=desc&show=comments – writes

You only have to read Don Share’s recent poetry on his blog to understand how irrelevant the ethos of this organisation is. Tedious in the extreme.

Earth totters,
lifts up its horn to the heavens
while its inhabitants grow yet
rich and poor together
and speak with insolent neck.

Share has on his blog a blurb praising his ‘earnest’ poetry. An irony-free zone.

Corporate poetry

~

On Share’s blog now, the two recent blogposts of his that consisted of poems he wrote ‘in response to recent (world) events’, have been taken down so there’s no trace of the writing Don Sharey refers to.

Also the blurb commending Share’s poetry for being ‘earnest’ has also disappeared from the sidebar. This proves Share is not only closely following comments on the Chicago Reader about this hoo ha, but also he has a very thin and fragile critical skin when it comes to anonymous people commenting on his poetry.

Since Share is scared, Sharey gets the last word.

A hundred million should at least get you that.

“YOU WHO HEAR THE SOUND, IN SCATTERED RHYMES”

Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.



IS THE AGE OF THE -ISM FINALLY OVER?

This cartoon appeared in 1912.  How did the silly old Bee Gees put it?  “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.”

Modernism, Post-Modernism—is it time we just get rid of these pompous terms, once and for all?

Recorded history is limited, like a football field, or a room; the literary icon Homer is far enough back in time that we don’t know if that Greek epic poet is one author or many, or whether the Iliad and Odyssey were even written down—but the uncertainty of this border of origin doesn’t change the fact that students of literature are dealing with a length of string that is a mere 2800 years in length.

Recorded history, however, gets longer each year, and every year will be more modern than the last; soon Modernism, as an era, will be in the distant past, centuries old—as a literary designation it will seem more quaint and ridiculous each day.  Of course, historians will find a reason why the Moderns called themselves “modern” so long ago—they (these moderns) were caught up in great changes in technology and thought—yes, just as every era was!  You should have been there when the bronze age dawned.  And what of Post-Modernism?  As the years pass, this term is sounding even more quaint and ridiculous—a compounding of the original error.  In retrospect, post-modern as a descriptive term has a ‘fools rush in’ quality: we’re even newer!

The window is closing on publishing “modern” or “post-modern poetry” anthologies that would interest anyone at all.  Would anyone buy an anthology of bronze age poetry, in which the poets take themselves seriously and self-consciously as “modern” poets?  No reader would get the joke—even if there were a joke to get.

An anthology of Romantic poets, for instance, could sell as “love poetry,” and so Shelley will never grow old, but Ashbery, Pound and the Moderns/Post-Moderns will die as soon as the joke ripens and falls off the tree; fans of Ashbery and/or Pound will protest that Ashbery isn’t just “a joke;” Ashbery contains linguistic density and a highly self-conscious intelligence and sense of fun, and this will keep Ashbery-ism and Post-modern-ism alive forever.  But “linguistic density” is not enough—in fact, the very weight of that linguistic density will contribute to its demise, as soon as it becomes separated from its reason—a “reaction” to what is accessible and efficient and coherent.

Time saves only what is beautiful or efficient, and buries everything else.  Love, for instance, helps further the race through procreation, and relates to beauty—it has those characteristics Time likes.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets grapple precisely with this problem, and Shakespeare, acting like a grownup, accepted he was going to die, and threw his lot in with future readers, whereas the Moderns and Post-Moderns are obsessed with the present and the new in what can only be called cultural self-indulgence.   There’s a darker, Nietzschean, end-of-history aspect to all this Modern/Post Modern rhetoric, as well.  Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who was involved in 20th century British policy in the Middle East, a cynical Realpolitik thinker, coined “Post-modern” as it applied to history, and claimed Post-modern began with the First World War.  “Late Capitalism” is a related term, of course.  Utopians—and tyrants talk this talk.  The aesthetic issue, which we see in various genres (architecture most prominently) is all part of it, of course.

The modern or post-modern cultural self-consciousness that ridicules and obliterates art is really this: the unspoken revenge of Plato—art is erased, not by decree, but by ‘blank canvas,’  post-modern curators and experts. Once culture advances towards self-consciousness, it naturally comes to a Platonic awareness that what is important to society is not the sentimental or snobby delusions of a Sir Joshua Reynolds.  But because this so-called revenge is unspoken, it’s a revenge gone terribly wrong—an unselfconsious self-consiousness, which is the worst kind.

Shall we indulge in these categories before we bid them adieu at last?

Romanticism:  Culture Defined by the Best
Modernism:  Culture Defined by the Mass
Post-modernism:  Culture Defined by Itself

Romanticism: The Slave
Modernism: The Wage Slave
Post-modernism: Snoop Dog

Romanticism: Statesman
Modernism: President
Post-Modernism: Politician

Romanticism: Byron a best-seller
Modernism: H.G. Wells a best-seller
Post-Modernism: Alfred Kinsey a best-seller

Romanticism: Incomprehensible works of Coleridge
Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Joyce
Post-Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Pynchon

Romanticism: A lover gets killed in a war
Modernism: A friend gets killed in a war
Post-modernism: A stranger gets killed in a war

Romanticism: Sin and Beauty
Modernism: Sex and Ugly
Post-Modernism: Gender and Race

Hey, these are funny.  Maybe it’s too soon to get rid of these categories?

MODERNISM BEGAN ON AUGUST 15, 1911 AT 3:42 IN THE AFTERNOON…

They don’t know no William Carlos Williams

At 3:41 in the afternoon of August 15, 2011, T.S. Eliot, 23, is falling asleep over his Sanskrit lesson at Harvard. “Prufrock” won’t be published for another 4 years, and will be panned by the London Times.  The Waste Land is over 10 years and a nervous breakdown away.  He sighs.  Some day he will meet a girl who will realize “like a patient etherized upon a table” is genius… He lays his glasses on the desk and rubs his eyes…

At the same moment, Ezra Pound, 26, unknown, but getting to know the famous, in London, is writing a letter to his dad, telling him he won’t need to send any money right now; an American, Margaret Lanier Cravens, has promised him an income, but please don’t tell mother about this. Pound is thankful Hilda—a  prof’s daughter who he met in school, and who refused his marriage proposal a few years ago—and her new English boyfriend Dick, soon to be his roommates, are buying into his Imagism scheme, in which Japanese haiku is the basis for a “new” Western approach to poetry—brilliant!  He rises from his desk and shadow boxes for a moment…

William Carlos Williams, 28, is checking his inventory of tongue depressors in his new home doctor’s office in Rutherford, New Jersey.  He’s thinking seriously of courting the younger sister of the woman who refuses to marry him.  He will marry the younger sister next year. His first book of poems is 10 years away.  He looks at the clock on the wall…

Modern life was stirring.

Poems on electricity were being written.

“Ode To A  Light Bulb” was circulating among friends, brightening their lives.

William Carlos Williams walked into a jazz club and pointed to his poems: “Look, fellas!  Jazz!”  They threw him out.

William Carlos Williams ran into the street, stopped the first person he met, and pointed to his poems: “Hey, pal, look at my poems! Aint this just the way people talk?” The guy looked at the scribblings on the page, with lots of white spaces.  Then he looked at Williams.  Then back at the page.  Then he looked at Williams, again.  Then he said in his best American idiom: “You is crazy.”

Despondent, Williams phoned up his friend, Ezra Pound. “Don’t worry, Bill,” Pound said.  “We are going to make enough noise and eventually we’ll be taught in college.  I know people. Lewis, Yeats, Ford will help. I’m meeting people every day. Great poetry is  hard to write.  Mad poetry will be fashionable, soon.  Don’t you worry.”

And the clocks began to chime and it was the modern time and all the rain in the street began to rain.

And the women came and went.

THE FORM WAR

JGwithGlobe

Newton’s discovery that the apple which fell at his feet obeyed the same law as all the spheres above only diminishes in that mind which judges post-1911 physics as so counter-intuitive and incoherent, it excuses sloppy and obscure poetry.  The universality of Newton’s laws and the universality of E=MC2 has worth beyond anything that may have fallen and broken in 1911.

Shakespeare’s “light’s flame” in Sonnet #1 is post-Newtonian—science is not the same as history, yet some shallow thoughts on poetry depend on a science which follows a perfect chronological path. The Modernist (as the name implies) replaces nuanced thinking with pure chronology.

The very latest 21st century physics approves of the Big Bang theory as laid out in 1848—by Edgar Poe.  America’s first critic also ought to get more credit for showing, in his Rationale of Verse, how the origins of quantitative poetry and language itself grew up together.

John Gallaher raves on.  We at Scarriet don’t mean to pick on Professor Gallaher (we think he is some kind of poetry professor)—it’s just that his brainwashing is, unfortunately the same as all the rest, and he makes a good example.

Free-versers (I’m quoting Marvin Bell from his Iowa days) cry indignantly, “Form, not forms!”

Gallaher repeats this hoary formula:

One can still profitably teach and study poetry as poetic forms. That’s a great way to talk about poetry up through E.A. Robinson. That’s how I learned poetry in High School and as an undergrad back in the 1980s. But what I feel like I didn’t get was a study in the most interesting things that have been going on since 1911.

The Modernist theorist has won (he thinks) by out-simplifying his formalist opponents: an open-ended interest in form trumps a pedantic interest in forms.

Out-simplifying is the usual way to win any philosophical, or scientific, or metaphysical argument. But the Modernist buffoon has only out-simplified quantitative poetry in his own mind.

An interest in quantitative poetry is not defined by an interest in poetic forms—the quaint designation used by free-versers to mask the real issue.  Every poet worth the name is interested in quantity (and its sub-genre of poetic forms) while the Modernist, free-verse crackpot, wielding the false scepter of alleged post-1911 science—which has supposedly transformed his art—is interested in nothing.

There is always a great deal of high-flown talk from the Modernist of history and science.  We quote liberally from Gallaher:

Furthering the point, I think that the hundred years since the start of Modernism (It started August 15th 1911, by the way), a century of new advances in science and the way we perceive the world around us, calls for a new approach to talking about and teaching poetry.
The intellectual practices of how we talk about and teach the poetry of the last century (and continuing into this one) have not kept up with the changes in the practice of the art. We must change. The free-verse legacy has created a literary question (or questions) that haven’t been answered.
It seems to me sometimes when I’m talking to someone who has had some experience with poetry (almost exclusively prior to the 20th Century), that it’s as difficult to talk about new poetry as if I were trying to explain some aspect of Quantum Theory to someone who has only known Newtonian Physics.
This is not to knock them. Newton is still very important to the history of physics. All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself, that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time. And time demands new approaches. Not just because of the new poetry being written, but because of the people who are studying poetry. They also change over time, as the times change.
Form is not the best opening salvo in a course on poetry, and it’s precisely the wrong one in a contemporary poetry course. It still has a place, a large place, but I don’t believe that place is primary. Contemporary poetry, or a fairly large percentage of it, is outside the conception of what poetry is that reigned before 1911, or even—or especially—the way it was conceptualized as an object of study by the New Criticism.
I think we should be using the more innovative pedagogical strategies we use in teaching theory or fiction when we teach contemporary poetry.
Most people learn poetry through a historical lens, starting with very, very old things. Wonderful things, don’t get me wrong, but old things. I think that’s backwards. Or actually, I think completely different approaches need to be taken after The Romantics, but that’s a different argument.

It is cringe-worthy to hear such thinking boast of its own pedagogy, for such thinking is not pedagogcial, but poison.  Shakespeare and Newton are all very good in their way, but now, according to Gallaher, we’ve got Quantum Physics—and Charles Olson.   Why Charles Olson or John Ashbery or Rae Armantrout are more ‘Quantum Physics’ than Shakespeare is something Gallaher hopes we’ll just take for granted, because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Rae Armantrout, Quantum Physics! They go hand-in-hand! No, they don’t.

“All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself,” Gallaher writes—and what does this mean?   A language act unique to itself. Is this the reason for poetry?  Is that what poetry strives for, or is that what poetry has been—a “unique act?”—since 1911?  Does poetry shed light on linguistics?  Or is linguistics shedding light on poetry?  And is this true only since 1911?  Because…why?  And it doesn’t help that Gallaher adds, “that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time.”  That’s all well and good, but what exactly happened that was so earth-shattering in 1911, again?  I must have missed that.  There’s a blindness, an hysteria, here.  I’d bet the farm that Gallaher really has no idea what he means by “a language act unique to itself.”

Now listen to Gallaher as he attempts to elucidate the profundity which sets Modernist poetry apart from “old things” which poets like Keats, Milton and Shakespeare used to write:

I would like to redirect the post I made last week a bit. Craft (form, etc) is important to poetry, and to my thinking about and reading poetry. What I was reacting to is the way—tonally maybe—people sometimes, often even, think of poetry as an erector set of formal machines. Poetry does have to get made, and everything made has a form, and a craft to create that form, but I’m more interested in the spirit behind it.

Part of this spirit, or my desire to talk about the spirit of the art object comes from the fact that there are a great many blanks in any art object. I prefer to hang out there. It’s one  of the major flaws of the way poetry is often taught in schools. Blanks can bring terror to teachers. Blanks aren’t testable the way non-blanks are. But the blanks are the very places we go to when we’re talking about the poems we love. The question of just what Wallace Stevens is getting at in “The Idea of Order at key West.” It’s the way things DON’T link up that are more interesting to me than the way they do.

That’s a form and craft issue too, but we tend to avoid those places, because they have the tendency to tie us up in knots, and that is a vulnerability we often don’t want to show to others, especially if we’re supposed to be experts.

Connotation and denotation, in poetry, for example, are part of a fuzzy interdependence. They are never in total control. Things happen there, that open what I’m calling blanks. This movement is an easy way to deconstruction, sure, but it also allows moments co-creation. All art is co-creation in this way, in its context, its situation.

How one handles those moments (as author or as co-creating reader) is more important, or, as important, as the form, the means of control in the poem, the art object. Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them, just as if one is bored or uncomfortable with the more usual formal issues, one still has to participate with them.

“Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them,” Gallaher urges.  But what are these “blanks,” exactly?   Is he speaking of ambiguity?  Ambiguity was not invented in 1911.  Further, Gallaher, by finding so much pleasure in those “fuzzy” and “vulnerable” and “not in control” aspects, and in the “blank,” as opposed to the “non-blank” places, is choosing not to be ambiguous at all.  What we see is a man certain that he prefers uncertainty.

And what happens when one becomes more interested in the ambiguity in poetry than the poetry itself?  We find ourselves exactly in the middle of where the art of poetry finds itself today: lost, confused, and forgotten, crying out, “1911! 1911!”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are loaded with ambiguity, a far more potent mixture of ambiguity than we find in Stevens.  But Gallaher with his post-1911 glasses on, will never see this.

Gallaher, in his modernism, is far more certain about things than any poet or philosopher was before 1911.  Gallaher prefers the “spirit behind the form.”   Gallaher is sure there is a “form” over here and a “spirit” over there.   Is this post-1911 uncertainty?  Really?

Gallaher can’t even fake the ‘ambiguity’ rhetoric well, much less make it convincing.

We begin with Plato, who invented Western Thought.  Plato defined art as measurement.   Not form, but form that can be measured.  You can simplify with, “Form, not forms!” all you want.  But form really misses the point. Poetry is form that can be measured.  Is that simple enough for you?

Gallaher cited Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” as an example of “blank” mastery.  Let’s compare this modern poem by Stevens to a 16th century chestnut,  Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”  Let’s see which poem is more unique, and has more of that mysterious “blank” quality Gallaher loves.  Let’s use actual examples to find out what 1911 hath wrought.

First, the Stevens:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Stevens begins by telling us a “she sang beyond the genius of the sea,” which sounds pretentious, and it seems we are already ‘at sea.’  Then he tell us, “the water” (that would be the sea, or perhaps part of the sea?) “never formed to mind or voice, /Like a body wholly body, fluttering /Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion /Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, /That was not ours although we understood, /Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.”  We “understood” the “cry” of “the water,” though it lacked “mind” and “voice” and “body, fluttering its empty sleeves.”  OK.

Second stanza: Neither she, nor the sea “was a mask.”  But Stevens invokes the sound of the sea in his poem.  Her song and the sea’s song are nicely tangled up.  Pretty good.

Third stanza: Repeats theme of second stanza: her singing and the “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” which just happens to be near, described.  A “we” is introduced, listening for a “spirit” that “we knew.”  The sky is described, as well.

Fourth stanza: The “she” becomes “artificer” and “maker” and the “sea” becomes her “world” and her “song.”  The “we” also “beheld her striding there alone.”

Fifth stanza: A “Ramon Fernandez” is asked “why, when the singing ended,” the sea was “arranged.”  A town and its lights are described.

Sixth stanza: The ejaculation might as well be quoted in full: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”   “To order words of the sea” might sum up the surface intent of the poem, and this phrase also might be said to represent its depth, which at times earnestly, and at times coyly, is intimated.  “There never was a world for her except the one she sang and, singing, made” sums up the “she,” a figure missing from the final two stanzas, where a “Ramon Fernandez” is addressed. (Ramon is probably a stand-in for Stevens’ influential Harvard professor, the poet and critc, George Santayana.)

The broad theme of Key West: ‘the poem is what the poem sings, the poet’s song is a world of distances and dimensions and enchantment, for an audience poised between Man’s meaning and nature’s murmurings,’ is a pleasant enough one, and Stevens does a nice job of painting his theme with sound.

The Stevens poem reminds me of this song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

When that I was a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The Twelfth Night song creates the same effect as Key West; the rain replaces Stevens’ sea; yet Stevens seems to have a palpable design upon us; Stevens tells us what his poem means: “the sea, whatever self it had, became the self that was her song,” etc  We’ve all experienced rain every day; “she sang beyond the genius of the sea” and “we beheld her striding there alone” is fantastical and strained, by comparison. The antique song, with its strange folk song simplicity, actually does what Stevens tries to do in Key West, with its “ever-hooded sea,” better.

But now, as we promised, Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, as naturally as can be, starts a simple romantic conversation by demolishing Aristotle’s idea that metaphor is the key to poetry, rejects the world, conquers death, expands the prophecy to include all mankind, and makes it all come true with a “this”—which is his poem.

Did someone say “language act unique to itself?”

Mr. Gallaher?  

You’re welcome.

Without its formal properties, the Sonnet, as magnificent as the thought that went into it is, would fall apart.  The sound-unity which makes it a “this” is both its limit and its law, and the thoughts and ideas, the cause of the sonnet, are limited by law as well.  The ‘form’ is not simply the poem’s skeleton; the form is the whole of it, its divisions and additions—all its parts—are what it is, from idea to final  product, on every level.

We have all the “blank attributes” and mystery we need in Shakespeare’s “this.”  We could ponder for hours on how Shakespeare arrives at that little word.

A NEW SONNET FROM SCARRIET

Jon+Hamm+Linda+Cardellini+Mad+Men+Season+6+5y8K_8s4UEEl

Stupidity, A Sonnet

She allowed you in, feigning disappointment,
Guarding the privacy she earned,
And although love was never the intent,
You knew what it was—after she was burned.
When you are dying, how can it matter,
The judgments and whispers of the wronged?
You felt wrong enough, stepping through the water,
But here, in deep, without fear, you belonged.
There was plenty of time to admire the lush décor,
Quiet couch and pillow, each surface clean.
Now you know what her privacy is for,
And why her kiss is both fat and lean.
Reduced to smoke by rich wives’ warm beds!
And their husbands’ hair still thick on the tops of their heads!

TEN MOST OUTRAGEOUS POE MYTHS

Poe, who died this month (Oct 7) .  Can you see the smile?

1. Poe’s Gambling Problem. Of these three writers, which one did not constantly beg for money from their parents well into middle-age?  Edgar Poe, T.S. Eliot, or Ezra Pound?

Answer: Poe.   Poe was a mere boy when he was short of money, sent at 17 to the University of Virginia without enough funds for room and board. (Poe’s guardian John Allan was unfaithful to his wife and the boy poet took her side—this was the source of the friction between Poe and Allan.) Poe supposedly gambled and drank away Allan’s money.  No. In the early days of Thomas Jefferson’s institution, every student gambled and drank (and routinely fired pistols).  Poe excelled academically, lucky to survive the school’s violence and his shortage of basic funds, thanks to a sulky, half-mad guardian. Poe headed north, without a degree, without a penny, and succeeded in the army—at 18.  By 20, he published poems that would make him famous, by 21 he had entered West Point, and had nothing more to do with Allan, or the estate in which he was raised.

2.  The Macabre Myth  Was Poe macabre?

Answer: Poe never wrote of vampires, zombies, werewolves and none of his works can be classified as scary.  Just as Shakespeare wrote comedies, histories, and tragedies, as well as songs and poems, Poe, America’s Shakespeare, wrote in every style under the sun—even as he invented whole genres of literature.  To narrowly ascribe “the macabre” as the essence of Poe is the height of ignorance.

3. The Narrow View of Poetry Myth  Did Poe think all poems should resemble his “Raven?”

No. Poe’s famous poem, “The Raven,” and his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” were scientific achievements, and because they were scientific achievements, we find in them specific results.  With Poe, the experiment, in which he proceeded to create a popular poem within material, laboratory conditions, reflected a series of concretized suppositions—he did not simply proclaim a generality, which is always safer to believe in, especially when the vagueness produces the illusion of freedom.  Modernist pronouncements, such as “make it new,” or “no ideas but in things,” or “poems must be difficult,” are essentially poetic behaviors  one ought to follow—the advice of a priesthood seeking to artificially create for itself a certain authority, unlike the more scientific outlook grounded in material conditions we get from Poe: “a long poem does not exist,” for instance.

4. The Humorless, Friendless, and Tragic Life Myth.  Was Poe hopelessly morbid and oppressed?

Poe was a happy man. He reveled in his literary abilities. “As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.” (The Murders in the Rue Morgue)  One has to remember that Poe did not revel in the gruesome, like a Stephen King, but in the mind that triumphs over the gruesome.  Poe presents murders to be solved, never as mere causes of mayhem.  Poe never indulged in the gruesome for its own sake. Poe’s stories sometimes travel a dark path, but always with fortitude and hope, and even a sunny disposition:

“They were fearfully—they were inconceivably hideous; but out of Evil proceeded Good; for the very excess wrought in my spirit an inevitable revulsion.  My soul acquired tone—acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of heaven. I thought upon other subjects than death. I discarded my medical books. “Buchan” I burned.  I read no “Night Thoughts”—no fustian about church yards—no bugaboo tales—such as this. (The Premature Burial)

His tale, Some Words With A Mummy, is a comedy. Poe escaped many of the agonies of his contemporaries, such as James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, and Abraham Lincoln, having never lost a child—because Poe had none. By that measure alone, Poe was happier than most of his fellow men. Longfellow lost his wife in circumstances at least as tragic as Poe’s. Poe was not a back-slapping, uproarious man, but it is wrong to assume he had a predisposition to misery. He was as happy as it is possible for any sensitive genius to be, no more, no less.  Poe’s handwriting reveals the steady, the neat, and the clear, with a certain exquisite delicacy in the flourishes; there is no sign of rashness, impulse, or pain.  Poe had plenty of friends, but they aren’t interesting to biographers, because they were not tongue-waggers, and only had nice things to say about Poe. And, lastly, I swear, when I study Poe’s famous photographic portraits, I can detect the faintest trace of a smile.

5. The Inevitable Death Myth   What are the real facts of Poe’s death?

We don’t know the real facts of Poe’s death itself, but we do know many facts surrounding Poe’s death, and these plainly indicate murder.  The fact that we don’t know the facts of Poe’s death is a fact in Poe’s death. The unkindness of Griswold’s obituary in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune is often cited, but what is never remarked upon is the Tribune’s failure, and the failure of any newspaper at the time, to report the facts of Poe’s death.  Who were the men that found Poe, and where did they take him, and why?  What was his condition when found?  Where is the autopsy? Horace Greeley’s Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and other papers had a duty and an obligation to ask these questions.  None did. The contemporary reportage, if it can be called that, amounted to ‘that poor miserable fellow—his name was Poe—is dead. It’s a pity.’  The reportage since has taken its cue from that initial injustice. The whole history of Poe’s death has been merely the repetition of hearsay, without any investigation whatsoever—when any investigation ought to begin with whatever surrounding evidence is at hand—such as, why was the death completely covered up in the first place?  The fact is, “friends” did not find Poe half-dead in Baltimore, and a “friend” did not circulate the silly rumor, known as the ‘cooping’ theory.  This is where any investigation must start—with the behavior of the press itself, and the behavior of Poe’s so-called “friends,” including his cousin, Neilson Poe, and Snodgrass, the Baltimore Sun employee, and a former intimate correspondent of Poe’s.  Oh, by the way, the rabies theory was long ago discredited.  There’s also no evidence that Poe was declining mentally or physically in the last year of his life, when he turned forty, and was still writing in a lively manner, having just published Eureka, his remarkable scientific essay.

6. The Drunkard/Druggy Myth  Was Poe A Drug Fiend?

Once and for all, no.  This myth helped Poe become famous, but the ‘evidence’ comes to us from a tiny portion of Poe’s letters, and first, we must remember that Poe’s slanderer, Rufus Griswold (who actually fits in his actual person the persona created for Poe) somehow became Poe’s sole literary executor—and was caught altering and forging Poe’s papers.  The biographical question can clearly be seen as Poe’s friends saying he was sober on one hand, and his enemies, including recent biographers like Kenneth Silverman, saying he was not.  Looking at the evidence of Poe’s handwriting, and the material fact of his constant literary output, and the chaste, heroic, ratiocinative, clever nature of his writings in general, the side one comes down on says more, probably, about the reader, than Poe himself.

7.  The Southern Poe Myth   Did Poe aspire to Southern gentry?

No.  John Allan raised Poe as Southern gentry, and to the swaggering, adulterous John Allan’s chagrin, the ungrateful Poe decided to become a poet instead. Poe spent most of his highly successful working life in the North.  Poe was not part of the rancor which grew between North and South and eventually almost destroyed the United States in the 1861-1865 war.  Poe sought a healthy balance between the two regions—New York and Boston cliques dominated the scene and Poe’s sense of fairness was acute.  In Poe’s voluminous writings, we find no defense of slavery, or the usual racial myths which dominated the discourse of his day.  Poe was universal, not regional, in his approach, and this, in fact, was at the heart of his writing, and his personal life.  He was probably the least fanatical, and least provincial person, who ever lived.

8. The Nasty Critic Myth  Was Poe a harsh critic?

Poe does rough up an author occasionally.  He did a number on Emerson’s friend, the poet William Ellery Channing—nephew to the famous Unitarian minister and friend to T.S. Eliot’s grandfather—a review that led directly to Emerson’s “jingle man” remark in conversation with a young William Dean Howells, years after Poe’s death.  Poe’s review of Channing’s is not only highly correct, but highly funny, and we forgive Poe as we read it today in direct ratio to how he was not forgiven by those affected by the harsh review in Poe’s day.  But Poe always said good things—even in the Channing review he quotes what he likes—when he could, and wrote many a favorable review of good writers, like Elizabeth Barrett and Nathaniel Hawthorne; it is true he always pointed out what he thought were flaws—that was his nature; he decried ‘the puff’ and never wrote one himself.  He was certainly no back-scratcher or blurbist, and this ought to be seen, especially, in our day, as highly meritorious.  Finally, Time has shown his judgments to be astute—in whatever work he may have happened to be reviewing.

9. The Whitman Myth  Is Whitman really more relevant than Poe?

This idea was established by Harvard professor F.O. Matthiessen in the 1940s.  It’s rubbish.

10. The Harold Bloom Myth  Why were 20th century critics so unkind to Poe?

The answer lies with the transatlantic Modernist movement, led by Ford Madox Ford, Eliot, Pound, and their New Critic allies like Ransom and Tate, who founded the Writing Program era in America.  The Modernists’ anti-Romantic animus targeted Poe, but Poe was an even greater enemy, since he was a Writing Program to himself, and the Writing Program era was all about selling the freedom to be a writer to anyone willing to enroll and participate in mutual puffing.  Poe was poison to those who reveled in the Pound era and the Writing Program era—and he still is.  As for Harold Bloom, I assume Bloom resents Poe for being too scientific for Bloom’s fustian taste.

GET IN LINE

I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.

HOW PSYCHOLOGY KILLED POETRY

Modern poetry, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  Dante’s Vita Nuova  is the vital influence on Shakespeare’s sequence—which ushers in lyric mastery in English;  Shakespeare’s Sonnets are clearly an affirming, but expansive, response to Dante and Petrarch’s love-sick letters to Plato.  Beatrice and Laura are guides to Truth through love and suffering, and the Young Man and the Dark Lady are similar guides.

The Sonnets are too austere for most, Shakespeare as Angelo, as one critic put it, a harsh, moralistic, Platonist pinnacle, and yet the highest around.  Shakespeare’s Book of Sonnets is the scariest cliff-face in Letters.   Prevent the human holocaust by having a child!  Those first fourteen sonnets contain more poetic beauty than probably any poet produced, save Milton and Keats, but what a message! That’s how one must begin the climb into Shakespeare’s lyric masterpiece.

Sonnet One heralds Platonism (beauty’s rose, not rose’s beauty) and advanced physics (light’s flame):

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Just a sampling from Sonnets three, four, five, seven, and eight reveals poetry of the very highest order in every possible criteria:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
    But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
    Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap cheque’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where

And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
    So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
    Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
    Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
    Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

The theme of the first fourteen sonnets—immortality through children—transforms into immortality through poetry. You can see it happen, right in Sonnet 15.  Beginning with Sonnet 16, advice to another quickly turns into self-advice, as Shakespeare does not take his responsibility as a poet lightly.

Lovers of poetry know that one could write a book about each of the Sonnets; the journey through the whole magnificent sequence is harrowing and ecstatic.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet sequence sets the standard for all poetry.  There is no peak in English poetry that is higher, and yet from its unforgiving heights fall springs that feed the lush and fertile slopes of the Romantic and Modern lyric, Shelley and Keats and Millay.

Like clouds surrounding a high mountain, the anonymous nature of Shakespeare bedevils every critic and historian explorer.  Of biographical detail there is none, and the lamenting of this fact is endless: why didn’t Shakespeare in these intimate poems tell us more?

Did the master intentionally strive to be anonymous?  It seems so, since there was every opportunity in these privately distributed poems to not be anonymous, or at least leave some biographical clues.

But in these intimate poems there is only poetry and philosophy.

The psychologists rage, because there is only poetry.

The psychological approach doesn’t care for the Young Man and Dark Lady as guides invented by the poet, but seeks to place them in the real world of real character and real motive.

Healthy curiosity (Auden, in defending the Bard’s anonymity, called it vulgar and rude) for who the Young Man and the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet were is no doubt blameless; but unfortunately, the “real” of the psychologist is useless—because Shakespeare did leave clues on this matter: the Sonnets belong to poetry, not to the sort of “reality” the psychologist is after.

The attempt to turn the Sonnets into a Romance is a woeful mangling of the beauty of the Sonnet Sequence, especially when the Sequence is clearly no Romance.  To persist in finding in the first 126 sonnets a ‘Young Man roman a cleff’ has its rewards, but only in the realm of half-truth and unsatisfactory readings.  The problem is that the facade of fiction in Shakespeare’s Sonnets do not cover up reality, so much as a philosophical treatise (boring, sure).  Philosophical Truth gets a very small percentage of the population excited, but did the Young Man (who doesn’t exist) sleep with the Poet’s girlfriend (who doesn’t exist)?  Now that gets people interested.

There’s nothing wrong with psychological insight, but the irony is, there’s a lot more of it in the Sonnets when the reader isn’t trying to follow the movements of the Young Man or the Dark Lady in a story of some sort—a story which doesn’t exist.   It matters how you look for your psychological truth, and, in the case of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll get more for your buck if you follow Shakespeare’s Platonic philososphy, not rumors about a romance with a Young Man.  How many miss, for instance, the obvious truth which has been stated above in this article, that the sonnets clearly shift in Sonnet 15?

The New Critics put up walls around the text—Auden, in this spirit, celebrated Shakespeare’s anonymity—and Eliot must have seen the danger, too, of prying literalists trampling on the grand tradition.  The Age of Freud was making it all about the poet and his lurking desires, and the dignity of the poetry was in danger of being compromised, or so many literary scholars thought.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets were suffering from a clamor of readers asking, Your poems are very nice, but tell us about these issues you were havin’ with your boyfriend!

This is not to say New Criticism did not suffer from its own excesses.  The New Critics tended to err in the other direction, reading endless “irony” into a given text—that had none.

Will we ever have the majesty of a Shakespeare’s Sonnets again?

Will the poet who writes a work as great have to be anonymous?

THE GOOSE

book

More delightful than any part of nature
Is the sight of these in the train,
More delightful than Denver’s sunshine,
More delightful than Rimbaud’s rain,
Staring out the window, contemplative and mute,
Beauty waiting dumbly inside a business suit.

You get the beautiful lip,
You get the beautiful hair,
It is moral, it is beautiful,
There’s nothing to do but stare,
And forget article and headline,
And creeps, or yours, or mine.

Geese are shitting on the soccer fields
As the train goes smoothly by.
You will always be a nuisance, Nature,
Esteemed as the geese that fly,
But Nature, in the end,
Is what Larkin’s mum and dad portend.

For a moment she and I look,
And I felt married to her
It was but a moment,
And now it’s a fleeting blur—
Just how Pater would want it:
Too momentary to flaunt it.

I hate the flaunting of poetry,
So don’t expect poetry from me.
Oh very good, Heaney, the flight of geese is a V.
But now that I’ve looked out the window,
Distracted by geese and forts,
I return inside—which is best—
To the sad lady commuter,
Trapped with all the rest.

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