A NEW POEM FROM THE SCARRIET EDITORS

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Sports is when you miss a field goal and you’re a nobody,
Or you are sitting on the sidelines when that field goal is missed
And you’re a hero.

Art is when they take a look at those field goals kicked
By dead white males and decide
Those were misses after all.

Business is when they sell you field goals,
Kicked or missed.

Love is when you walk away from the football field and look up.

Science is when they raise the goal posts
And the lover is startled to see
A prolate spheroid hurtling end-over-end past the moon.

Life is the memory of being struck
On the head by an oddly shaped object
By moonlight.

ADIEU TO QUAINT MODERNISM

Name a Flower While You’re At It

show us your animal self in words
william carlos williams
show us the frustration and the sorrow and the anger
of the real man*
william carlos williams
the hunger the taking the eating
the enjoying the apology for
eating plums (cold)
william carlos williams
a novel in sixteen words
we can be done with it all
tomorrow at 6
i go to plum island
and leave this style
behind
forever

* William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883—March 4, 1963) b. Rutherford, New Jersey. Father, William George Williams, a cologne distributor, was English. Traveled with mother, living in Geneva and Paris. While at University of Pennsylvania began a lifelong friendship with Ezra Pound and met H.D. Became acquainted with circle of writers and artists including Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, Marcel Duchamp, and Alfred Kreymborg, editor of Others, to which Williams contributed regularly; frequented Walter Arensberg’s salon and Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery.  Met Louis Zukovsky in 1928; Zukovsky included poems by Williams in February 1931 issue of Poetry devoted to “Objectivist” poets; Objectivist Press published Williams’ Collected Poems 1921-1931 (1934). Through Pound, met James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, which published most of his subsequent books.  Suffered heart attack in 1948. Met and correpsonded with Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, SARAH J. HALE!

Dear Sarah,

As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day 2011 in this tumultuous Occupy Wall Street year, we at Scarriet pause to give thanks to you, who wrote “Mary Had A Little Lamb” in 1830, edited the first national woman’s magazine for 40 years, Godey’s Ladies Book, from 1837 to 1877, raising its circulation from 10,000 readers, when it was founded in 1830, to 150,000 in 1860, and wrote five presidents to get the Thanksgiving holiday established.

You go, girl!

As poetry in the U.S. continues to be dominated by mopey, self-marginalized, modernist, pretentious bores, here’s to 19th century women who popularized poetry and song.  The 20th century equivalent might be Pete Seeger singing, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” or Bob Dylan singing “Masters of War,” if you like, but it’s important to point out here that accessibility is not the issue. Academics, busily re-writing U.S. history so Moore, Bishop, and Dickinson are the only women poets, scorn the accessible, as if this, in itself, were a wrong.  But every poem is accessible, no matter how murky or modernist or experimental—and it only takes a moment for the public to detect pretense, no matter how large the edifice of subsidized academic apology might happen to be. 

You rock, Sarah!

Happy Thanksgiving!

BRAND NEW POEM FROM THE SCARRIET EDITORS

Sparrow

The sparrow is not kind;
The sparrow’s hunger is the same
That crawls through the narrows of a cat’s mind.

She (who was she?) was like the lamb; I couldn’t blame
A poem for my discomfort;
I thought poems were blameless, but I was blind.

She made it her business to torture me
For I, too, laid about, and played innocent,
And then I saw what her torture meant,

Just in time, I  was able to see,
After thinking: I was wrong to compare
Things to nature; I was wrong, but she—not the poem—went
Without a word; and what word in the world can now unburden my care?

SAY, A SONNET

michelangelo-pieta-detail

Nothing in you cares for what you are,
Your beauty especially has no choice
For what it is, a heart, but now, a star,
An eye more beautiful than a voice,
Making reveries around a sound
Turning there in one place, statue-sad.
Spring’s springs are chuckling underground,
The globe’s winds flying from what they had,
But time over time stretches out desire,
And time wants the next thing, hungry for all,
Desiring what first becomes next, leaping fire,
A flash of light, or an exploding ball.
But let all desire desire you, alone,
A monument loved perfectly by cold, smooth stone.

DOH!

The processes of invention or creation are strictly akin with the processes of resolution — the former being nearly, if not absolutely, the latter conversed. It cannot be doubted that the mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. 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, Edgar Poe

Obstacles stimulate creativity—because we need to think harder to overcome those obstacles.  Obvious, right?

A new university study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology states the obvious, but the folks at Wired and Blog Harriet are amazed at an apparent “paradox.”

Composing formalist poems fires the imagination more than composing free verse poems does.

A rat navigating a maze has to think about getting through a maze, but the free-verse rat, who is not in a maze, doesn’t.

This study—and the reaction to it—proves what we’ve always suspected.

Psycho-social “scientists” and free-verse “poets” are the dumbest people on the face of the earth.

Now beyond this obstacle-truism, one has to ask: does navigating a maze, for instance, improve your imaginative ability to write a sonnet?

Is the issue merely this: that challenges in general stimulate thinking, or is there a more sophisticated cause/effect relationship?

The study itself only used simple puzzles, nothing as sophisticated as actually writing a sonnet.

So the study is saying nothing more than: lifting weights produces stronger muscles.

We all know that.

But can we affirm that growing up in a tough environment will make you tough?

When a person faces the various challenges of overcoming all the obstacles to writing a sonnet, does this mean the person’s imaginative faculty itself improves, which in turn makes the person better at writing a sonnet, or is there a kind of formal sonnet-writing capacity which merely improves with practice?  If the latter is true, well, who cares? and if the former is true, it begs the question: what do we mean by an “imaginative faculty,” one that exists separately from all those formal operations inherent in writing a sonnet—or navigating a maze?

Better ask the rat.

Don’t bother asking the psycho-social “scientist” or the free verse “poet.”

But instinctively, even the merest fool—one who does not grasp “The Phaedrus” or Shelley or Keats—understands that writing sonnets is not like doing crossword puzzles—yet this is precisely the dead-end to which this new university study leads.

So let’s let the poet, with a true poetic philosophy, have the final word:

We have already said that “Gregory the Seventh” was, unhappily, infected with the customary cant of the day — the cant of the muddle-pates who dishonor a profound and ennobling philosophy by styling themselves transcendentalists. In fact, there are few highly sensitive or imaginative intellects for which the vortex of  mysticism, in any shape, has not an almost irresistible influence, on account of the shadowy confines which separate the Unknown from the Sublime. Mr. Horne, then, is, in some measure, infected. The success of his previous works had led him to attempt, zealously, the production of a poem which should be worthy his high powers. We have no doubt that he revolved carefully in mind a variety of august conceptions, and from these thoughtfully selected what his judgment, rather than what his impulses, designated as the noblest and the best. In a word, he has weakly yielded his own poetic sentiment of the poetic — yielded it, in some degree, to the pertinacious opinion, and  talk, of a certain junto by which he is surrounded — a junto of dreamers whose absolute intellect may, perhaps, compare with his own very much after the fashion of an ant-hill with the Andes. By this talk — by its continuity rather than by any other quality it possessed — he has been badgered into the attempt at commingling the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and of Truth. He has been so far blinded as to permit himself to imagine that a maudlin philosophy (granting it to be worth enforcing) could be enforced by poetic imagery, and illustrated by the jingling of rhythm; or, more unpardonably, he has been induced to believe that a poem, whose single object is the creation of Beauty — the novel collocation of old forms of the Beautiful and of the Sublime — could be advanced by the abstractions of a maudlin philosophy.

But the question is not even this. It is not whether it be not possible to introduce didacticism, with effect, into a poem, or possible to introduce poetical images and measures, with effect, into a didactic essay. To do either the one or the other, would be merely to surmount a difficulty — would be simply a feat of literary sleight of hand. But the true question is, whether the author who shall attempt either feat, will not be laboring at a disadvantage — will not be guilty of a fruitless and wasteful expenditure of energy. In minor poetical efforts, we may not so imperatively demand an adherence to the true poetical thesis. We permit  trifling to some extent, in a work which we consider a trifle at best. Although we agree, for example, with Coleridge, that poetry and  passion are discordant, yet we are willing to permit Tennyson to bring, to the intense  passion which prompted his “Locksley Hall,” the aid of that terseness and pungency which are derivable from rhythm and from rhyme. The effect he produces, however, is a purely passionate, and not, unless in detached passages of this magnificent philippic, a properly poetic effect. His “Œnone,” on the other hand, exalts the soul not into passion, but into a conception of pure  beauty, which in its elevation its calm and intense rapture — has in it a foreshadowing of the future and spiritual life, and as far transcends earthly passion as the holy radiance of the sun does the glimmering and feeble phosphorescence of the glow-worm. His “Morte D’Arthur” is in the same majestic vein. The “Sensitive Plant” of Shelley is in the same sublime spirit. Nor, if the passionate poems of Byron excite more intensely a greater number of readers than either the “Oenone” or the “Sensitive Plant,” does this indisputable fact prove any thing more than that the majority of mankind are more susceptible of the impulses of passion than of the impressions of beauty? Readers do exist, however, and always will exist, who, to hearts of maddening fervor, unite, in perfection, the sentiment of the beautiful, that divine sixth sense which is yet so faintly understood, that sense which phrenology has attempted to embody in its organ of  ideality — that sense which is the basis of all Fourier’s dreams — that sense which speaks of God through his purest, if not his  sole attribute — which proves, and which alone proves his existence.

To readers such as these — and only to such as these — must be left the decision of what the true Poesy is. And these with  no hesitation — will decide that the origin of Poetry lies in a thirst for a wilder Beauty than Earth supplies — that Poetry itself is the imperfect effort to quench this immortal thirst by novel combinations of beautiful forms (collocations of forms) physical or spiritual, and that this thirst when even partially allayed — this sentiment when even feebly meeting response — produces emotion to which all other human emotions are vapid and insignificant.

We shall now be fully understood. If, with Coleridge, who, however erring at times, was precisely the mind fitted to decide a question such as this — if, with him, we reject  passion from the true — from the pure poetry — if we reject even passion — if we discard as feeble, as unworthy the high spirituality of the theme, (which has its origin in a sense of the Godhead) if we dismiss even the nearly divine emotion of human  love — that emotion which, merely to name,  now causes the pen to tremble — with how much greater reason shall we dismiss all else? And yet there are men who would mingle with the august theme the merest questions of expediency — the cant topics of the day — the doggerel Æsthetics of the time — who would trammel the soul in its flight to an ideal Helusion, by the quirks and quibbles of chopped logic. There are men who do this lately, there are a set of men who make a practice of doing this — and who defend it on the score of the advancement of what they suppose to be  truth. Truth is, in its own essence, sub-lime — but her loftiest sublimity, as derived from man’s clouded and erratic reason, is valueless — is pulseless — is utterly ineffective when brought into comparison with the unerring  sense of which we speak; yet grant this  truth to be all which its seekers and worshipers pretend — they forget that it is not truth,  per se, which is made their thesis, but an  argumentation, often maudlin and pedantic, always shallow and unsatisfactory (as from the mere inadaptation of the vehicle it  must be) by which this  truth, in casual and indeterminate glimpses, is  or is not— rendered manifest.

—A review of Orion: an Epic, R.H. Horne by Edgar Allan Poe

THE WHITMANS: HELEN V. WALT

f evans

Before Leaves: Walt Whitman was the author of the racist Temperance novel, ‘Franklin Evans.’

“People do not want their daughters trained to become authoresses and poets. We want a race of women…”  —Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Daily Times, 1857

Helen Whitman, prolific essayist, poet, fluent in French, German, & Italian, feminist, abolitionist, nonconformist, ardent defender of Poe’s memory.

Helen Whitman (1803-1878) versus Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

Who was the better poet?

Without further ado:

Remembered Music

Oh, lonely heart! why do thy pulses beat
To the hushed music of a voice so dear,
That all sweet, mournful cadences repeat
Its low, bewildering accents to thine ear.
Why dost thou question the pale stars to know
If that rich music floats upon the air,
In those far realms where, else, their fires would glow
Forever beautiful to thy despair?
Trust thou in God; for, far within the veil,
Where glad hosannas through the empyrean roll,
And chorul anthems of the angel’s hail
With hallelujah’s sweet the enfranchised soul,—
The voice that sang earth’s sorrow through earth’s night,
Shall with glad seraphs sing, in God’s great light.

—Helen Whitman

A Noiseless, Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul.

—Walt Whitman

Both poems are abstracts of hope. Helen Whitman’s conceit seems grandiose next to Walter Whitman’s comparison of soul to spider.  Does hers have too much religious lumber?  At first glance it might seem so, but each poem expresses its truth indirectly; we don’t really believe the soul is a spider, but we must, to enjoy Walt’s poem—especially since the whole poem turns on spider as soul in the declarative urgency of the “O my soul” business.  “Remembered Music” requires even more suspension of disbelief, but like Walt’s, hers succeeds as a poem. 

All poems, because they are poems, whether they are modern or not, have to overcome the challenge of working in reality as an artificial device, of being ideally ideal in terms the real understands.

Between the first (spider) and second (soul) stanzas of “Noiseless Patient Spider” is the empty space where ‘suspension of disbelief’ resides, the space over which the two sides of the poem’s metaphor (literally) seek each other out in the reader’s mind: ‘noiseless spider’ and ‘O my soul.’  Form mimics content.  We throw filaments across the abyss to connect the two sides of the metaphor: spider: soul.

So with Helen Whitman’s: the “hushed music of a voice” is the palpable symbol of the poem, the ‘voice’ both in the poem, and of the poem, pulsing through it, hushed at the beginning, singing at the end.

Let’s call this one a draw; Walt’s lyric has the more singular image, and contains more subtle music; Helen’s sonnet is richer, grander and more melodious.

But given that Helen Whitman is almost unknown, the moral victory goes—to her.

POE AND THE WOMEN

04

Rufus Griswold: an investigation of 19th century women poets must go through him—and Poe.

The female poet was a major literary force in 19th century America, and this happy circumstance lingered in the early 20th century, with poets like Edna Millay and Dorothy Parker, but that dream faded as modern tastes took hold, and men dominated the profession once more.  The names of those 19th century women poets are forgotten and no renaissance of any note has been attempted in America in the name of the female poet.  Influential male writers—Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mark Twain, to name a few, were not impressed by female versifiers and made it known they thought women poets were silly.  The ‘Pound Era’ wiped out ‘The Poetess’ for good, as even Millay was abused by the Pound clique, and the whole lot of 19th century female poets fell into neglect—most readers today can only name Emily Dickinson.

Modernism wanted nothing to do with the Romantic or Victorian spirit in poetry—and as a direct result, woman’s poetry, one could say, became a casualty of the 20th century, too.

From the introduction to American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, (Rutgers 1992) the editor, Cheryl Walker, writes:

Given the almost total neglect accorded nineteenth-century popular women poets, it is a pleasure to be able to show through an anthology that these writers were neither all alike nor without merit.

The ability to earn significant amounts of money by publishing poetry in the popular media certainly provided an impetus for women to write verse. Until relatively recently, however, it was assumed that women were composing  their poems in isolated cottages or garrets, cut off from the mainstream of literary life. In Literary Women, for instance, Ellen Moers asserted: “Women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned in travel, painfully restricted in friendship. The give-and-take of literary life was closed to them.” The Bronte sisters and Emily Dickinson were taken to be typical of woman’s lot. Today, in contrast, we know that Emily Dickinson was very much the exception among  American women poets. By and large, literary women on this side of the Atlantic were not isolated from each other, secretly composing in the upstairs bedroom, but were actively involved with a world simultaneously social and intellectual. One feature of this world was the literary salon.

As early as 1830, Lydia Sigourney was earning an income by selling her productions to over twenty periodicals.

…literary life in America was an arena distinctly more favorable to women in the late nineteenth century than it had been in its earliest decades. In an 1887 memoir of Lydia Sigourney, John Greenleaf Whittier reflected: “She sang alone, ere womanhood had known/The gift of song that fills the air today.” By the 1870s the many minor poets who found their way into the popular magazines were about equally male and female.

Today it is fashionable to decry market forces, but women poets in the 19th century benefited from the rise of industry and capitalism.  Female poetry grew with America’s growth.  Enlightenment and Romantic ideals helped women, as well.  Henry James and Walt Whitman may not have taken 19th century women poets seriously, but Edgar Allan Poe did.  Poe was also a casualty of 20th modernist criticism, his rich legacy swept aside by the impatience of gum-chewing, jazz age critics.   Little brass poems and ‘let’s wow ’em’ experimental poems rejected the old sublime, which lingered, but by the 1930s was dead, hauled off by a little red wheel barrow.  American poetry became odd, and women poets who had written in the old ways were forgotten.  Radio was the sentimental masterpiece now, not books of poems.  With radio and film, women were pretty and sang, they were dolls to movie tough-guys, not poets anymore.

What’s really odd is how much 19th century women’s poetry and Edgar Poe go hand in hand.  You can’t read an account of 19th century woman poets without running into Poe at every turn; Poe, more than any other figure in the 19th century, reviewed and supported women poets, was worshiped by them at the literary salons.  Not only that, the greatest anthologist of woman poets in the 19th century, a Poe rival for the attention of literary women, but  a man known today only because of Poe—not for his literary efforts on behalf of women—is Rufus Griswold, who almost single-handedly mauled Poe’s reputation, putting into circulation the false rumors of the lonely drug fiend and alcoholic in his obituary in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, a prominent poet in Cheryl Walker’s anthology, quoted by Herman Melville and married to a famous humorist, wrote now-suppressed magazine articles of how Poe was beaten and murdered.  Fanny Osgood, another well-known American poet of this time, her husband a reputed portrait painter, supposedly had an affair with Poe.  Helen Whitman, still another poet of note in the 19th century, was going to marry Poe until Greeley and Griswold conspired to put an end to it.

Poe’s murder in 1849 coincided with Griswold’s anthology, Female Poets of America, (1849) and we can’t help but feel that this anthology was Griswold’s attempt to woo women away from Poe with the promise of publication and fame.  Important women poets were in a position to defend Poe, and, in the case of at least one (Oakes-Smith), to give evidence on how Poe really died.  Was Griswold’s anthology a way to keep the women silent?  Keep quiet about Poe and Uncle Rufus will make your poetry live forever.

When Poe gave Griswold power over his posthumous works, in the year of his death, 1849, Poe sealed his fate, and the circle closed in around him.

Was 19th century women’s poetry essentially killed by the same forces that killed Poe, and his reputation, and ushered in the rule of the Modernist Men’s club, Pound and Ford Madox Ford and radical, militaristic, fascist, gold-digging, Golden Dawn crazies who hated American democracy?  The virtuous woman, the respected woman of Letters, was a horror to men like Pound, Eliot, and Ford, who used women in various ways.   The proud, independent, 19th century poetess was an ideal that faded away in the gaudy light of modernism.

The trail is pretty clear: the chauvinist Emerson (who despised Poe) , the chauvinist Whitman (inspired by Emerson) Henry James (sneered both at literary women and Poe;  Emerson was a family friend of the James family) and T.S. Eliot (had issues with Poe, Romanticism, and women; Eliot’s grandfather was Unitarian preacher friend of Emerson’s).

The sordid tale is even more bizarre, if that’s possible.  Margaret Fuller, associate of both Emerson and Horace Greeley (Fuller and Greeley were roommates for years) alarmed the literary salon community by getting together a posse of belles to demand at Poe’s cottage door supposed love letters he had from a married woman, causing Poe to subsequently seek to arm himself against enraged men folk. Fuller’s gambit took place in 1847, two years before Poe’s death, and was just the sort of fearful incident that began to make Poe persona non grata in higher literary circles, and easier to push aside as potential allies were scared into silence.  Unfortunately, in any literary network, the rival phenomenon plays an ugly role, as one reputation may eclipse others—one is only a good a writer as rivals permit one to be.   This was especially true in Poe’s day, when Letters was judged by a more universal standard of ‘Western Tradition’ transparency and democratic popularity: there was one mode of excellence and a writer was original, or not, within that mode, even as comic or tragic, domestic or worldly subjects were chosen.  There was no hiding behind experimental differences—there was no way to do that and call oneself an artist in the community’s eyes.  This made literary rivalries especially cut-throat in Poe’s day, and Poe strove to make himself part of the mainstream of American Letters, which included women poets.  Poe was not one of the producers/publishers of literature; he was merely the best of the writers.  The action taken against him by Margaret Fuller must have really shaken Poe’s reputation.  Two years later, Greeley and Griswold finished the job Fuller had begun, as their Tribune obituary hit the streets hours after Poe’s mysterious murder.  1845 saw Poe gain worldwide fame with “The Raven,” and the salon circuit was good to him as late as 1847, but as Poe’s enemies poured on the drunk/sexually immoral slanders, his salon-fame flower faded by 1848.  Poe turned his attention to comosogony (“Eureka”) as his social star fell behind the hills.  Cheryl Walker again:

Women participated in literary salons from the eighteenth century onward, and in several notable cases they supervised these social occasions themselves, holding salons for the great and near great in their homes. One of the most famous was the New York salon run by Anne Lynch (later Botta) which entertained writers such as Poe, Emerson, Frances Osgood, Rufus Griswold, Margaret Fuller, the Cary sisters, and Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. Edith Thomas’s career was launched at one of Botta’s evening entertainments.  Such salons were often inbred and typically thrived on gossip, but they also played a significant role in establishing networks of literary inter-relationships.  In her autobiography, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith gives a fascinating account of one evening at Emma Embury’s during which Frances Osgood sat adoringly at the feet of Poe and guests engaged in witty repartee. She remarks: “I remember Fannie Osgood and Phoebe Cary rather excelled at this small game, but Margaret Fuller looked like an owl at the perpetration of a pun, and I honored her for it.”

We’ll just print one poem from the anthology of 19th century American women poets, a brief lyric by Anne Lynch Botta, the salon hostess mentioned above.  Do 19th century women poets who can write like this deserve to be forgotten?  This poem contains many merits: artistic unity, descriptive power, force of imagery, and a symbolism which is not static, but unfolds as we read the poem:

LINES on an incident observed from the deck of a steamboat on the Mississippi river

Where the dark primeval forests
Rise against the western sky,
And “the Father of the Waters”
In his strength goes rushing by:

There an eagle, flying earthward
From his eyrie far above,
With a serpent of the forest
In a fierce encounter strove.

Now he gains and now he loses,
Now he frees his ruffled wings;
And now on high in air he rises;
But the serpent round him clings.

In the death embrace entwining,
Now they sink and now they rise;
But the serpent wins the battle
With the monarch of the skies.

Yet his wings still struggle upward,
Though that crushing weight they bear;
But more feebly those broad pinions
Strike the waves of upper air.

Down to earth he sinks a captive
In that writhing, living chain;
Never o’er the blue horizon
Will his proud form sweep again.

Never more in lightning flashes
Will his eye of terror gleam
Round the high and rocky eyrie,
Where his lonely eaglets scream.

Oh majestic, royal eagle,
Soaring sunward from thy birth,
Thou hast lost the realm of heaven
For one moment on the earth!

Perhaps this is not a ‘great poem’ to a 21st century professor bent over it in a library, but imagine a 19th century salon, where poems live in a rich, down-to-earth, social atmosphere: one part gossip, one part entertainment, one part noble tradition.  Would this poem not be perfect?

CAT FIGHT! VENDLER GOES AFTER DOVE!

More Wallace Stevens!  Please!

Helen Vendler is obviously peeved Penguin Books chose Rita Dove over her to edit its big fat anthology of 20th century American  poetry (October 2011).

Vendler is so obviously upset in her NYRB review of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry that she faults Dove for including too many poets.

175 poets is too many, Vendler scolds.  But professor Vendler, the book is 600 pages! 

“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading,” Vendler sniffs.   

The two volume Library of America American Poetry-The Twentieth Century, just over 2,000 pages, features over 200 poets.  Is Vendler really prepared to name Library of America poets “not worth reading?”  The LOA anthology ends with May Swenson (b. 1913).  Just imagine, then, how many 20th century poets are “not worth reading!”

If we are really interested in the work of a major poet or two, there’s ample opportunity to attend that banquet; isn’t the point of an anthology the wide sweep?   Summarizing an age, including the famous poets and the famous poets of that age—surely this can be done by being inclusive, as well? 

Vendler begins her review of Dove in an odd way:

Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature. The most significant names and texts are known worldwide: T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop (and some would include Ezra Pound).

First, why does she say “has been one of the glories of modern literature?”  Why not say “is one of the glories of modern literature,” especially if she feels so strongly about it?  Secondly, why does she say “some would include Ezra Pound,” as if no other difference of opinion is permitted.  Some would include Edna St. Vincent Millay, wouldn’t they?  Or not Robert Lowell?  What was Lowell’s most famous poem, again?  Something about a skunk?  Or an aquarium?  But let’s not interrupt Vendler’s revery.

Next, Vendler speaks to the issue of the blacks:

Rita Dove, a recent poet laureate (1993–1995), has decided, in her new anthology of poetry of the past century, to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors. These writers are included in some cases for their representative themes rather than their style. Dove is at pains to include angry outbursts as well as artistically ambitious meditations.

But Vendler shouldn’t get so excited.  Increasing the number of poets is bound to increase the number of black poets.  And why do better-known authors need more space?  We don’t read anthologies to go deeply into a poet.  The better-known don’t always have a lot of material, anyway, and it would be a shame to leave out a wonderful poem in order to include a lesser effort by someone better-known. 

Richard Ellman, editor of the 1976 The New Oxford Book of American Verse, includes only 55 20th-century poets (in about the same amount of pages as Dove’s 175) which is more Vendler’s speed, with generous helpings of E.A. Robinson (“Luke Havergal?” Does anyone like “Luke Havergal?”), Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, A.R. Ammons, among others.  Ellman, the distinguished Oxford professor and prize-winning biographer of Yeats and Joyce, ends his 1076 page Oxford anthology with 9 poems by Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones).   So, you know, been there, done that.

Richard Ellman, the only man in the universe who seriously claimed to understand Finnegan’s Wake, includes no Edna Millay (or Elinor Wylie or Amy Lowell) in his anthology. 

No Edna Millay??

Scarriet has written of this previously: the Emerson/Pound/Eliot Modernist Men’s Club, and Ellman clearly belonged to it, as did Ellman’s friend and Oxford Book of American Verse predecessor, F.O. Matthiessen, professor at Harvard (when Ashbery, Bly and Creeley were there) who attempted to write Poe out of the American canon with his American RenaissanceVendler doesn’t care for Poe, either, and the Oxford anthology (with more Jones Very than Poe, and every poem Ralph Waldo Emerson ever wrote) is a great example of what an anthology of American poetry would look like from her—all we have to do is replace Baraka with Jorie Graham—and there you go.

This is the Vendler American Poetry Anthology plan: 31 poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 70 poems by Emily Dickinson, 33 poems by Frost, 26 poems by WC Williams, 18 poems by Robinson Jeffers, 23 poems by E.E. Cummings, 19 poems by Robert Lowell, and 265,000 poems by Wallace Stevens.

We’ll take Rita Dove and her 175 poets any day.

SCARRIET REVEALS MYSTERY OF YOUNG MAN AND DARK LADY IN SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS

W.H. Auden spoke for many when he wrote:

The only semblance of order [in the Sonnets] is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.

Note how Auden’s skepticism regarding the first “heap” (“assuming…there is only one young man…”) does not extend to the second (“are addressed to a dark-haired woman.”)

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare sums up the common view of the ‘Dark Lady’ section:

The next sonnets, 127-152, are known as the ‘Dark Lady’ group, addressed to or concerned with an unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-complexioned mistress. For the most part, these poems reproach her: she is a tyrant, black in deeds as well as in looks, (131) and an adultress (152); she has seduced the poet’s friend (133-4); the poet is foolish to love anyone so obviously unworthy (137, 147-152) and is clearly deceiving himself (138), asking her in one sonnet to confess her infidelity (139) and in the next to say she loves him even though this is not true (140). The poet, aware of the delusions of lust but unable to avoid its trap (129), woos his mistress regardless with a series of sexual puns on the name ‘Will’ (135-6, 143); he is torn between a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman colored ill’, suspecting they are lovers (144).  –Stanley Wells

We know all sorts of things about this ‘dark lady.’  She is “unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-complexioned,” she’s “a tyrant,” an “adultress,” she has “seduced the poet’s friend,” and so forth.

Such is the conventional wisdom, and there is even an historical figure, Emilia Bassano Lanier, who is a much-named candidate for this ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets.

Scarriet, however, has solved the puzzle, but in order to do so, we had to 1) actually read the Sonnets and 2) trash the conventional wisdom in the process.

It wasn’t hard.

It will be hard to swallow, though, since so many scholars’ reputations are based on pure trash.

Pity the scholars, because not only is the Dark Lady going to be blown to bits, but the so-called ‘Young Man,’ as well.

There is no Dark Lady.  There is no Young Man.

How could so many have been so wrong on so famous a work for so long?

So here’s what one finds when one actually reads The Sonnets, all 154 of them, in the sequence, as published, in 1609, and read by millions since then:

The Sonnets are gender-neutral. 

119 of the first 126 sonnets (the so-called Young Man sonnets) do not specify a gender.   Sonnet #7 puns on sun/son and #13’s “You had a father, let your son say so,” but this belongs to Shakespeare’s breeding/increase theme which dominates the first 14 sonnets, a theme which Shakespeare never abandons.

The sequence is gender-neutral until #20, however:

The knotty #20 and its “master mistress” is accompanied by #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse” and “let me truly write and my child is as fair…” and “let them say more that like of hearsay well/I will not praise that purpose not to sell” referring back to #20’s “love’s use:” the commerce of love—procreation and “increase” (#1).

“So it is not with me as with that Muse…” (#21) is just one indication that Shakespeare composed the Sonnets not as a ‘person of interest’ in the scholars’ imagined soap-opera, but from a loftier perspective, as a God participating in the human, not as a human participating with the God-like, or struggling with romance, or other short-lived concerns.  The aim of the Sonnets is much higher than that.  We must not only note the gender and the content of the Sonnets themselves but get the perspective straight: Shakespeare is the Muse in these sonnets, or even the Muse of the Muse of these Sonnets.  The Sonnets are not impressionistic poetry.  Shakespeare, the philosopher, has something to say.

Sonnet #21 refers to “any mother’s child” and #22 features “as tender nurse her babe from faring ill.” The business of progeny, lines of descent, lines of verse, “eternal lines,” (#18) dominates the early sonnets. So when does the famous Young Man enter?  We have to wait until #33: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine/With all triumphant splendor on my brow;/But out alack, he was but one hour mine” to find a specific reference to what is possibly a Young Man or male friend or male lover, yet “sun” has us wondering if “sun” is not “son,” since Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. The “he was but one hour mine” far more likely refers to Shakespeare’s son than it does to a male lover, if we note the words of #33 itself and also note that the child is an important theme in the whole sequence.  Reading #33 in its entirety, the scenario of grief for a lost son jumps out at us, with the couplet stating the poet, even in his grief, will not lose faith “in heaven’s sun” even though “suns of the world may stain.”

It isn’t till sonnets #40, 41, and 42, the ‘friend and mistress betray the poet’ poems, that we finally get some sort of  ‘story’ that involves a ‘male friend’ and the poet’s mistress.  But the mistress is at play here, too, in the first definintive glimpse of the Young Man. We forget that until this point, for the first third of the so-called Young Man sequence, there is no Young Man story whatsoever. Not only that: in #42 Shakespeare informs us that, “my friend and I are one.”  Have the scholars simply made up a story which does not exist?  If we simply read the sonnets as Shakespeare wrote them, we have to say,  yes. 

In the sonnets leading up to the ‘betrayal’ triptych (40-42) we have a lot of platonist mathematics (“we two must be twain although our undivided loves are one” #36) and the parent-child theme is still going strong (“as a decrepit father takes delight to see his active child do deeds of youth”#37) so why the sudden lurid romance of the supposed young man cheating with the poet’s mistress?  Not only does it not make sense in the sequence, it also doesn’t make sense that if a ‘story’ is so vital, it would be confined to just a few poems; discerned through Shakespeare’s teasing and philosophical words, we see that the ‘love triangle’ of #42 is not even that: there are four characters: thou, her, the poet, and a friend (who gets the mistress, not the ‘thou,’) and then the triptych ends: “she loves but me alone!”  So where is this ‘young man sleeping with his mistress’ story?  It doesn’t exist.  It merely lives in the feverish imaginings of a blind pedant (or two).

#54 repeats the theme of Chapter 2 (Chapter 1, the first 14 sonnets are about procreation) in which the poet’s verse (rather than children) makes the youth immortal.

#63 finds a male pronoun again, but in terms of a mistress: “his beauty in these black lines be seen” is the precise theme of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sequence, which opens, “In the old age black was not counted fair” (#127).  The “his” is not important; Shakespeare is keeping beauty alive with his poetry, repeating the theme of #53, which looks back to #16-18. To think that a genius like Shakespeare is thinking of a brunette is absurd; he’s a bit more clever than that.  The so-called ‘Young Man’ sequence contains more examples of the ‘beauty as black’ theme than references to a young man.

If we didn’t get it the first time, Shakespeare repeats the trope in #65, without the male pronoun—as in 95% of the ‘Young Man’ sequence: “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

Not that “my love” has to be a woman. Shakespeare intentionally eludes gender and biography and real names in the Sonnets because it’s obviously not his ultimate concern. Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “my love” is tricky; we can never assume he means ‘my  (male) lover.’  He might be referring to a son, or a child.  He might be referring to himself: “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great./It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,/Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,/To play the watchman ever for thy sake.”  (#61)  No male pronoun in this sonnet, either.

In fact, after #67 and 68, which speak of a “him,” but in highly grandiose religious terms, the male pronoun is absent for the rest of the ‘Young Man’ sequence.

The only exception is two rival poet sonnets (#80,86), and the rival poet may be Shakespeare himself, who drops self-reflexive hints everywhere.  He tells the Muse what to do (#100) and explains what his Muse does (#21), for instance.

Shakespeare makes April a male, and flowers, too (#98,99).  In #93 Shakespeare calls himself “husband” and refers to “Eve’s apple.”  In #53 he compares “you” to “Adonis” and “Helen” as one of the ” millions of strange shadows” that “on you tend,” not using the male pronoun in that poem either.  Typically, the “you” is described as a God, not a mortal.

In #108 we get “sweet boy,” but this poem, like #33, sounds like it could very well be an ode to the poet’s son: “like prayers divine,/I must each day say o’er the very same;/Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,/Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.”  “Hallowed thy fair name” certainly implies a baptism, and the sun is “no old thing old” in #76: “Far as the sun is daily new and old, /So is my love still telling what is told.”  And we know Shakespeare loves to pun on son/sun.

There is no male pronoun after #108, except for that last poem (#126) in the ‘Young Man’ sequence, which clearly refers to cupid.

This brings us to the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ group (#127-152), which indulges in the happy pun of black ink, seen already in #27 (“makes black night beauteous”), #63 and #65 as already mentioned, together with the numerous references to day and light v. night and darkness, and there’s also multiple punning on dark “deeds,” documents (with black ink) and actions.

Much is made by scholars of #144, because it seems to explicitly recap the ‘betray’ triptych (#40-42).  In #144, we have a “man right fair” and a “woman colored ill” and “I guess one angel in another’s hell.”

#41, 42, and #144 make up the scholars’ trump card.  Without these three poems, the ‘Poet’s Male Friend Sleeps With Poet’s Mistress!’ story collapses.  To extrapolate a feverish autobiographical tale from The Sonnets’ metaphorically philosophical coolness is a mug’s game.  Shakespeare’s “To win me soon to hell, my female evil/Tempteth my better angel from my side” (#144) is  plainly a calculated morality play, not a sweaty confession.

Scholars err in assuming the “woman colored ill” is the Dark Lady; this is both a misreading and a dumbing down of Shakespeare, the sly master.   First, there’s no “black” in #144.  Secondly, the “hell” in #144 is the same “hell” we see in #129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) .  The “woman colored ill” is the same as #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse,/ Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse” and not the Dark Lady, for look how Shakespeare’s mistress is described in the first of the Dark Lady sonnets (#127):

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
  Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
  That every tongue says beauty should look so.

There is no “hell” of sonnets #129 and #144.  Instead, there is the “mourning” of poetry which exists because of separation and grief, the “black ink” that pathetically strives to keep beauty green—because of death.

And we also get Plato (Shakespeare’s philosophical Muse) right here: “art’s false borrowed face.”

The boy is Shakespeare’s son.

The Rival poet is Shakespeare.

The Black Lady is a pun on black ink.

The Sonnets are witty Platonist philosophy, (see “The Phaedrus”) not the soap-opera scholars make of it.

A NEW POEM BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

Found on a Bookmark

Poor soul, that looks to the world for love,
Where paper-thin hearts curl in clouds of flame
Before they are no more; poor soul,
That drops itself like a napkin at meal’s end
Where love is the rude stare waiting patiently,
But paper defeats itself in flame
And desire is water disappearing into water
And no instant is grasped by another,
Where pictures plead soundlessly for music
And music beats its wing
On a picture’s smile in vain—
The sailboats seem to be moving, but are still,
No, they seem still, but are moving,
And there is one last gleam far away.

THE SCIENTIFIC NATURE OF POETRY

The ex-block of marble

The debate as to whether poetry is scientific, or not, divides along these lines: Should science tell us what poetry is?  Or, does poetry itself have scientific attributes?

The latter position has, for the time being, won out, for academics have long since been invested in the importance of poetry; the task of education has long been to assume that poetry is beneficial and scholars, tasked by their educational research, breed further categories in self-sustaining, self-reflexive projects which fertilize education’s artistic role.  Of course poetry has scientific attributes.  It has no end of them, and if it lacks them itself, it easily absorbs the language of other university departments and grows into them—if not in substance, then in name.

Poetry is the scientist, and not the object on the scientific table; otherwise poetry might fall victim to a Platonist definition—a disparagement which would ultimately consign it to a sport, to an entertainment, to a game, or, even worse: an illusion, a waste, a vanity, a deception, an evil.

One can sense at a glance the gulf between these two views.

No matter how one happens to feel about these two views, the famous Platonist formula that art (a painting of a bed) is thrice removed from the truth, is a tough nut to crack.   Art is either imitation, or the vestiges of imitation (see abstract art).  As for poetry, Socrates puts it simply in The Republic, Book X:

Do not rely, I said, on a probability derived from the analogy of painting; but let us examine further and see whether the faculty with which poetical imitation is concerned is good or bad.

By all means.

We may state the question thus: Imitation imitates the actions of men, whether voluntary or involuntary, on which, as they imagine, a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly. Is there anything more?

No, there is nothing else.

We like how Plato reduces poetry to “an imitation of the actions of men, voluntary or involuntary, on which, as they imagine, a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly.”  If it is too simple, it gains a great deal from being true and simple, and giving the whole issue a great deal of healthy perspective, and forcing the hand of those who talk in great abstractions, leaving the human aspect behind.

The painful thing is, however, that once we accept one premise, Socrates has us beat, and as night follows the day, we are led down the path of declaring art too dangerous for society. Again, from Book X:

And the other principle, which inclines us to recollection of our troubles and to lamentation, and can never have enough of them, we may call irrational, useless, and cowardly?

Indeed, we may.

And does not the latter—I mean the rebellious principle—furnish a great variety of materials for imitation? Whereas the wise and calm temperament, being always nearly equable, is not easy to imitate or to appreciate when imitated, especially at a public festival when a promiscuous crowd is assembled in a theatre.

…And does not the same hold also of the ridiculous?  …and having stimulated the risible faculty at the theatre, you are betrayed unconsciously to yourself into playing the comic poet at home.  …And the same may be said of lust and anger…poetry feeds and waters the passions…

Now here we have to separate our modern indignation at Plato’s recrimination from the acknowledgement that Plato’s observations are true.  We may retort, ‘What’s wrong with lust and anger in art?”  But this does not disqualify the facts of Plato’s philosophy regarding the imitative properties of poetry.

To return to the question, Should science tell us what poetry is?

One of the knotty issues has always been the attempt to untangle form from content, or, failing that, to make half-hearted stabs at saying they are different—yet the same.  The knottiness of the issue tends to reflect badly on the ‘poetry-as-subject-of-scientific-investigation’ school, favoring the school of poetry-as-science, since mystery favors poetry as the inscrutable science over poetry as the object of scientific scrutiny.   In the spirit of the Platonist school, then, let us turn our full attention on the form/content problem, with the help of Plato’s Muse.

Let’s begin with the block of marble that becomes a statue. 

The form is a block which becomes the form of a statue.  This might be denoted as Being > Being Subtracted.

We could also see this as form = no form (the block) becoming form = form (the statue).    An opposite (form = no form) > The same (form = form)

The content is a block (of marble) which becomes the content of a statue.  This also might be denoted as Being > Being Subtracted.

We could also see this as content = no content (the block) becoming content = content (the statue).   An opposite (content = no content) > The same (content = content)

Form and Content BOTH exist in before/after states.

Form and Content do NOT exist as qualities, but as a process of a quality.

Since Form and Content equally involve the question of HOW the Block (Form and Content) becomes the Statue (Form and Content), the What (content)/How (form) duality is a FALSE ONE.

If we cannot adequately define form v. content, no statement involving them can be true; no formula which equates them, divides them, or defines them as related in any way, can be true.

Thus Robert Creeley’s formula—form is an extension of content—is bankrupt.

The transformative process of how a block becomes a statue is equal for form and content; hence it is wrong to say form is a “how” and content is a “what.”

Why should the skill of the sculptor be less significant than a mere theoretical hair-splitting between form versus content?  Clearly the opposite is the case.  How the sculptor effects the transformation is far more significant than the hair-splitting scenario.

Finally, the skill of the sculptor rests on imitation, for unless the viewer recognizes what the block becomes, how can we say skill exists at all?

Is poetry the same?  How does the analogy of ‘block transformed to statue’ work with the poem?  Is it the words the poet chooses which become ‘the statue?’  Yes.  And is language the ‘block of marble?’ How could it be otherwise?  What other ‘block,’ if not language, does the poet have?  The marble has certain properties and behaves a certain way when shaped.  So our language has grammatical, syntactical, and sound qualities particular to it, and behaves a certain way when shaped, as well.  And is it not the skill in shaping which is the real how that matters, not the mere hair-split of ‘form is how, content is what?’  Indeed.  And what of imitation? Is not this the chief concern?  Will the skill in shaping a poem be manifest if the reader fails to recognize the result? No, it will not.

This is not to say that novel and ideal considerations are left out, and cannot be created by the imitative process, but it goes without saying that the ideal, like imitation, is found in reality. For instance: the whole is made up of parts, the whole is itself counted among the parts—these sorts of things which are universal will sustain and inform the particular imitation, and so invention and orginality of course come into play.

Now that we have swept aside the whole form/content controversy, perhaps poetry can begin to be seen for what it is, and the scholars can begin to awake from their nightmares.

COLE SWENSEN’S LIPS ARE MOVING (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND A THING SHE SAYS)

Cole Swensen Poetry Trading Card

Cole Swensen: learning sans philosophy

Our poetry blog rival John Gallaher has duly noted poet Cole Swensen’s new book of essays from U. Michigan Press, Noise That Stays Noise.

We follow in Gallaher’s footsteps.

Gallaher, on his blog, dutifully copies the following from Swensen’s title essay with tacit praise, but we—in the Scarriet spirit, running, as usual, against the po-biz grain—bring to the table some analysis of Ms. Swenson’s assumed wisdom.  Here is the Swensen Gallaher quoted:

Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.

The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.

This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.

Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.

Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.

[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.

Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.

[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .

[T]he reader is crucial here . . .

–from Noise That Stays Noise by Cole Swensen

Swensen’s initial division between novelty and redundancy has philosophical force, but Swensen’s thinking quickly slides into that predictable modernist ploy: speaking in code to the initiated.  Noise is a metaphor for the horrible sort of poetry which the public hates; rather than defend this horrible sort of poetry directly, Swensen chooses to defend noise as  horrible poetry’s stand-in.  If we can just say enough interesting things about noise, Swensen thinks, we can satisfy ourselves that horrible poetry has a purpose.  This is exactly what Swensen is doing, and Gallaher knows it.  Well, this is how intellectuals deceive one other.

You read a poem. You can’t understand it.  You wonder why such things are given a pass.  Then you read,

noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

And then you nod, and go, I seeAs a reader, I have a responsibility to allow this noise to show me possibilities.

Swensen does understand that she better define what she means by noise, and so we get this:

This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

So time-honored strategies such as “juxtaposition” and “unusual syntax” and “neologism,” things which one might associate with the 16th century author, Shakespeare, are what she really means by “noise.”  In that case, “noise” might as well be anything, and it quickly becomes apparent that the term, “noise,” is merely code for the approval of play-pen modernism/post-modernism.

Swensen is practicing shoddy, incoherent criticism and it’s aimed precisely at folks like Gallaher, who are pre-determined not to question it.

As for Swensen’s redundancy/novelty construction, it is interesting how she says “complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s ‘man without memory,’ for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening,” and then says of “nonunderstanding,” that the “novel feeling it occasions…is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.”  Redundancy, for Swenson, is the “heat death of complete homogeneity.”  But how do we go from “incomprehensible and frightening” to “pleasure?”  Is it because “reading poetry” is such a trivial act?  Or is she unwilling to follow through on her own declarations? Is Swenson unwilling to compare the nature of the mind, or the nature of reality, to poetry?

Is this just a sophistical tease?  I am going out on a limb here, and I’ll say yes, it is.  Swensen is practicing swine-like rhetoric.

Without really bothering to discuss the subject, “nonunderstanding” takes on magical powers for Swensen.

Swensen abandons the redundancy/novelty dichotomy at once.  Nothing further needs to be said about the “redundancy” side of the scale.  She’d rather discuss the “pleasures” and “surprises” of “noise.”

But isn’t redundancy largely how we experience reality, whether it’s the movement of the sun and planets in the universe, or all those repetitions that make the world comprehensible, and the sciences, the languages, and the arts, possible?   Is Swensen interested in how things work, or is she only looking to discourse on things she likes?

We might mention Shakespeare’s Sonnet #23 for an interesting treatise on noise, or Millay’s Sonnet, “If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way” (the noise of the subway); and clarity would have no small part in the analysis of these works.  Certainly Swensen’s sophistry is not necessary to make the subject of ‘noise’ lively.

No wonder the creative mind’s ability to make great works of art has been eclipsed by academic dullness.  Swensen’s faint-hearted plays at rhetoric are now the rule.

A tip to Swensen: Learn from your (superior) ancestors, Plato of The Phaedrus, Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Though it drive you mad, strive to find the truth.

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