All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year =’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now



We live in the Age of Insult, though we might not think so.

Talking heads—of which Christopher Hitchens was largely one—trade insults, but at the end of the day, it all seems rather tame: Fox News might increase its ad revenue; there’s a vague sense some politician’s approval rating could go slightly up or down (and yet there might be a ‘backlash’ later that will cause a reverse).  At the end of the day, we snicker, perhaps celebrate a little if we sense a politician we hate took some ‘damage,’ and then shrug.

Past ages had duels and yellow journalism.  Wars once began with insults, not an empire nation’s calculated geo-political strategy.  In our day, we don’t do ‘pistols at dawn’ very much. The ‘politically correct,’ the default etiquette among the chattering classes, keeps civilized conversation and blogs more or less clean.  The on-line term, ‘troll’ refers not only to the peripatetic cretin, but any user who, in speaking their mind, veers too close to what might be construed even as a possible insult.  The civilized person walks in fear of insult—both another’s and their own.

This is not to say that people are not insulted anymore; road rage, violence erupting and hatred festering because of insult, real and perceived—of course this will always happen on a quotidian level.

Insult is a timeless social phenomenon, and worthy, perhaps, of more analysis than has previously been the case.

There will always be a perception that any use of insult is weak and not manly, especially when the insult burns with hate, for if you happen to hate a person or a thing that much, you ought to do something about it that gets results, instead of merely saying, “I hate you,” or “you suck!”

Yet insult can be a very effective way of fighting by other means, and sometimes it does get results.

There’s also other sides to the art of insult.

Knowing how to take insult is part of the art.

Giving insult without seeming to do so is another effective rhetorical weapon.

Few know how to win the insult game, but those who do gain a distinct advantage, staying clean while their opponent is muddied.

Hitchens was terrific at giving insults, and he probably made up his mind one evening, after a potent combination of cigarettes and whiskey, that insult was finally petty, and war, not insult, was the best way of bringing justice to the world. Hitchens’ take-no-prisoners ferocity is glimpsed in the following:  Busily insulting a priest’s religion during an on-air debate,  the Christian cleric chivalrously opined, that in spite of Hitchens’ strong objections to everything he (the priest) stood for, Hitchens would never be his “enemy.”  Hitchens proceeded to tell the priest that he (Hitchens) was indeed his “enemy,” that he (Hitchens) wanted the priest’s kind wiped off the face of the earth, and, finally, Hitchens said, the priest was obviously too stupid to know an enemy when he saw one.

But Hitchens was never any good at being insulted; you couldn’t insult him, because he was so expert at insulting you first, and once that brand of rhetoric is joined, as soon as the war ship sails, there’s no turning back.

Groups and organizations can grow more powerful when they are insulted: early Christians, jihad Muslims, post-Holocaust Jews, post-Civil Rights movement blacks.

If you don’t wish to belong to a group, and as an individual, you criticize groups, there’s little hope for you.  Calling Hitchens a belligerent drunk isn’t going to get you in trouble.  Insulting certain large groups, will.

Now that Hitchens is gone, and he can’t fend for himself in a live debate, his reputation is bound to diminish, unless a living champion steps forward, a Plato for his friend, Socrates.

True, we have those videos of Hitchens, but videos are like books or paintings—they cannot come to life and defend their subject.

Only a soul can do that.

The game of insult is a mass war, not one which favors the individual.  Hitchens probably always knew this, making him desperate and increasingly ferocious.  Hitchens must have known that after the tour was over, after the live debates ceased, his party would never have a life of its own.  Oh, sure, we’ll see his books prominently displayed in college towns for a few months, but without a group, Hitchens will be forgotten.

One thinks of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 8 and its admonition: “Thou single wilt prove none.”  Hitchens belonged to no secret society, no group, no club with a secret handshake.  Single, he will perish.

Perhaps the most famous short story in the world begins thusly: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”   We can produce injuries in our good fortune, but once we “venture upon insult,” we are doomed. This seems to be the moral (if it have one) of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”  As Fortunato is being led downward, away from friends and family, he asks the narrator if he belongs to the Brotherhood of Masons, one of those groups which protects the individual and to which Fortunato belongs—and the narrator replies by opening his cloak and showing Fortunato a trowel.  “You jest,” says Fortunato, for he had made a secret sign which was incomprehensible to the narrator.  Like the priest debating Hitchens, Fortunato failed to recognize his enemy—because his enemy was playing by entirely different rules.

Poe, like Shakespeare, belongs to that rare class of writers who aspire and succeed as lasting prophets entirely on their own; belonging to no apparent group, they published work of such a high order that the work itself is enough to defend them.

What if the desire to tell the truth is stronger than the fear it may hurt someone?  Or what if that fear is stronger?  Insult comes about from a number of hidden factors.

Hitchens’ war against Christianity reminds us of something Poe once wrote.  Poe wasn’t overtly religious, though he often spoke abstractly of “the deity.”  I think Hitchens would have agreed with the following.  According to Poe, one should not love one’s enemies—for this was the same as hating one’s friends.

Is insult a necessary fact of life, a kind of polite war by other means, or is it something deadly and to be avoided?

The clouds insult the sun.  The sun insults the clouds.  Is every human accomplishment, or victory, an insult to someone, somewhere?

Which is more damaging, the public insult, or the secret one?

When it comes to insult, perception is everything.

A poetry review may be brilliant, or ugly—depending on the point of view.

Is it possible to write poetry which cannot be insulted?  Yes, the John Ashbery poem is insult-proof, and that’s the secret of its appeal.  The Ashbery poem, by having no overt meaning, keeps things close to its vest; the poem of no-meaning is critic-proof.

But is criticism the same as insult?

The sacred, by definition, is that which can be, and ought not to be, insulted.

If the sacred is a powerful human need, it is going to conflict with a fear of insult.  One wonders why anyone would ever put themselves in a position to be insulted, and yet the sacred gives meaning to life; being free of insult, as much as that might be desired, does not.

If history is an endless battle between a pursuit of happiness and a pursuit of license, it seems, as a society, we passed from the former to the latter sometime in the 1960s.

The more conservative elements of the Catholic Church are insulted by homosexual rights; conversely, homosexuals feel insulted by the rules of the Catholic Church.  Is one side of this debate “sacred,” and the other, not?  Is homosexuality “sacred” to some?   Why would a kid in high school ever choose to be homosexual—who would voluntarily suffer that social exile, and all it entails?  But who knows why homosexuality is desired—save those who do, in fact, choose it?  Maybe there is something glorious, something sacred even, to a person who makes that kind of choice.  Why did the early Christians choose their path, when torture and death was often the result?

If I had feelings of guilt because I was having an adulterous affair, or having sex before marriage, would it be fair of me to blame the Catholic Church?   A homosexual, by its simple definition, is 1) a sexual being and 2) cannot have sex within Catholic marriage.  The Catholic Church’s rule against homosexuality has nothing to do with homosexuals, per se, then.

Insult is a kind of magic force; it works non-materially.  Everything else being equal, a racial slur, a word, will entirely upset the apple cart.

An insult can even be wordless, can even be unknown.

For instance, I once heard someone say the reason there is objection to homosexuality in some quarters is purely mathematical—because homosexuality selectively avoids one of the two genders, it always insults one of the genders, by excluding the man or the woman from the most sacred and intimate joining together of two human beings.

But can an insult be as abstract as all that?

As a rationalist, Christopher Hitchens would say that an insult has nothing to do with the truth; that an insult given and taken involves pure emotion; and that none of the feelings surrounding an insult should ever be trusted.

Perhaps Hitchens was gloriously right.

Or perhaps Hitchens was stupidly wrong.


don't trust art

Don’t trust art.
It is a manipulation of the heart.
Beware, beware, the intimate stare
Of this beautiful creature,
For no one is there—
Not God divine, not truth, not nature.
Yes! you have been taught
More emotion is good, and when more emotion is brought
You forget your task and let a story
Wash over you (you do) in its repeating glory.
A fake beginning will have its fake end,
Whether approved by Aristotle or Aunt Myrtle,
If the path is straight, or it bend—
(You are already in the middle, captured, needy—)
A lover will find his lover, or they part
On the sea, or in a dungeon; your heart,
Is all that’s written upon, you are tainted
Not by me, but my heart on your heart painted.
Cast off this fit of colors from a soul
That deserves a light, not this sad dream of this sad mole.




Most softies can’t get their heads around the idea that criticism is more important than poetry—but it’s a no-brainer: critical fervor can stimulate the writing of great poetry itself, whereas the wishy-washy mind that fears, or hates, or is afraid of, criticism will never produce great poetry. image

The trouble with most attempts at criticism is that it’s half-hearted; it doesn’t rise to that fervor of interest and curiosity that grows wings, it remains at the level of blurbing, or that sort of reviewing which recites general facts.

Good judgement requires observation, not fairness; it requires those leaps that changes the look of all the facts.  And  finally, judgement doesn’t have to be persuasive; persuasiveness is for love and the law courts; the good critic should be blunt, above all.

The greatest poets have always excelled at criticism; the reader realizes this truth when reading side-by-side the prose and poetry of an Eliot or a Shelley; if Shakespeare is anything, he is a ferocious critic—look at those judgements in his plays and sonnets: harsh, pointed, weighty, insistent, hectoring, insane, pushy, ridiculing, weeping, bellowing, pleading, all arrayed in armies marching in the armor of intense education, and winding up vocalized in the most delicate poetry.  Which drives that Shakespeare-engine, do you think?  The windy delicacy or the  swelling judgement?   And what of Dante?  Is this a harsh, critical mind, or what?

The ambitious poet runs from criticism—in vain.

But don’t get big heads, Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom.  No poetry from you only proves your critical lack.  Yours is the example in reverse; unable to provide poetry yourself, it is no wonder your judgements are so erratic and untrustworthy—overrating Crane, Stevens and Ashbery, turning Shakespeare into a dull feast, belittling titans like Poe; ignoring past greatness to pump minor moderns.  Vendler, your overrating of Stevens will be your doom; in the long run it will destroy your reputation, and you will be forgotten.  You studied so intensely Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and yet found nothing new, only tossing more wood on the old flames of the “dark lady” and “young man” tale.

There are two choices: make a judgement or defer judgement—for a little while.  The Silliman side, the dark side of the bright, public, Vendler moon, flees from the critic’s responsibility by finding “communities” to appreciate.  But in darkness judgement is made the same as in the light; Silliman is as tyrannical as any speaking critic, as any William Logan, for all must make judgements, and do, even in silence, and silence can be the loudest judgement of all.

Judgements are made all the time, in placing a comma or choosing a word; judgements are made in the minutest actions, in all our helpless passivity and neutrality we still judge; all of us are judgemental all the time, whether we want to be, or not.   The critical wound touches us all.

Two major types attempt to flee  judgement: the ‘executive’ and the ‘nice chap.’  The executive (the Harold Bloom) makes grand judgements, ranking and rating, without thinking things all the way through, and the nice chap (the Silliman), attempts to defer judgement indefinitely.  The executive omits the details, while the nice chap tends to see details only.  Edgar Poe was a critic who always paid attention to small issues (the “carping grammarian,” as he was called)—which inevitably makes the executive types nervous.  But Poe was an American critic who knew when to make the large, historical judgement, too—the sorts of judgement which disconcerts the nice chap. (Big answers! Across time! Gulp!)  But the critic always needs to do both: care about the little things and make the sweeping judgments.  To quote the Phaedrus, we ask from the critic two things, first, “the comprehension of scattered particulars in one idea” and second, “division into species…”

But why does there have to be all this judgement in poetry?  Why does it matter, if poetry is not 1) life and death and 2) it’s finally a matter of private creativity?

Here’s why. Human beings are the only animals that care for things that don’t matter; caring even when it doesn’t matter is why there is poetry, (and also why there is criticism), and also why there are many other things that make life worth living, even as it sometimes confuses us.

Animals only care when it matters—or when they think it matters.   A cat cleans itself so its prey can’t smell it, yet an indoor cat who never catches prey still grooms itself and keeps itself odorless and clean. The indoor cat in this case thinks what it does matters—even though it doesn’t.  But we, as the cat’s owner, appreciate its cleanliness, anyway.

There are advantages to caring—even when it does not matter, or does not seem to matter.  Caring does matter, in ways we don’t always understand.  And as Kant reminded us, judging and understanding are not the same thing; understanding is a blessed state; judging is something we simply all do, all the time.  Does that look/sound right?  Why not?

The poet judges just as much as the critic does, and the good poet is more judgemental than the bad critic.


If thou survive my Black Arts Movement day,
When white critics my choices with smears shall cover,
And thou shalt by fortune once more resurvey
The Penguin Anthology of thy dear editor,
Compare it with the bettering of the time,
And though it be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve it for its hate, not for its rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my Dove’s Muse grown with this groaning age,
A dearer birth than this her hate had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage;
But since she died, and poets better rate,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, hers for her hate.’

Amiri Baraka

Shakespeare Sonnet 32

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
   But since he died and poets better prove,
   Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’


I’m dreaming of a white anthology
Just like the ones I used to know,
With William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens
And Shakespeare next to Robert Lowell.

I’m dreaming of a white anthology
With every essay that I write.
May your New York School-Beats-Objectivists-and-Language-Poets be bright!
And all your anthologies be white.



Beds are coffins,
Hallways are coffins,
Rooms are coffins.
In the subway tunnel,
going to work,
I am happy or sad,
happy or sad,
talking to a friend in the lighted train,
happy or sad.
I am not allowed to complain
Of the coffin that is my mind.
All we may do is write our name in the book
And be kind.


A billion poems!  A million communities!  Help!

Ron Silliman actually spoke on his blog.

We were beginning to think linking videos was all he cared to do now.

But, in his December 21, 2011 end-of-the-year-reflection post, what the hell is Ron Silliman talking about?

The facts Silliman gives us are simple:

He’s in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (but his friend Rae Armantrout is not) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked him to pick the best poetry books of 2011.


He’s blown away by the number of works in English (from around the world) that are published each year, and how much that number has grown in the last half-century, and he points how much stress this puts on gate-keepers and critcs.


But then Silliman enters the crackpot zone:

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

The whole premise of whittling down a “best of” list into ten or 50 or even the 175 names posed by Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is that there is some transcendent single point-of-view from which the dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that engage with poetry can be represented by some single shared set of values. That is simply not true. It is insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest, for example, that Robert Lowell represents some pinnacle of literary value while Langston Hughes does not. But it is equally insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest that Hughes represents such a pinnacle & that Lowell does not. Any professor or critic who might argue either of those positions would be manifestly guilty of malpractice and intellectual fraud. At best.

The truth is that each represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community. One might argue about the nature of these communities, their size, their relative histories and power – Lowell doesn’t represent the 1% any more than Hughes does the 99 – but it is only when viewed through the eyes of their community that we can actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface. And it is only when they are put into the far larger complex of conflicting communities that is the United States – let alone the English language – that we can begin to discover what is truly revelatory about all kinds of verse: the ways they lead us right back to real communities.

It’s ironic that Silliman calls both the Vendler and the Dove camps “insane”—because compared to them, Silliman is more so.

According to Silliman, “the rise of the world wide web” erases “national boundaries” yet expands “community boundaries.”

Silliman wants us to believe that because there is an ever-growing number of people speaking English to each other, we are separated from each other more than ever.

We all speak English in a global conversation, and this global conversation, which has dissolved national borders, this mighty homogeneity thanks to the world wide web, has produced an English conversation in which, poetically, no one can talk to each other, because this poet sitting in a Cincinnatti Starbucks with his Mac is gay and that poet sitting in a New York subway with his PC is not.

Silliman’s wants there be no heterogeneity within his various “communities,” and, at the same time complete heterogeneity within the English-speaking world at-large.

Silliman has not figured out how to apply homogeneity and heterogeneity to the world, and on what scale, and to what purpose, and yet he does so, willy-nilly, and, as he fails to see the miserable arrogance of his agenda, he is certain that any attempt to unite poetry by using any sort of judgment whatsoever is completely tainted by “racism” and “insanity.”  This from a guy who says of Robert Lowell and Langston Hughes:  “only when viewed through the eyes of their community [can we] actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface.”  Are you kidding me?  

No wonder Silliman asserts the powerlessness and uselessness of critics before the all-mighty mass of “communities.” 

He has no critical insight himself.  

This is why poetry has become a vain and trivial exercise.   Silliman’s cowardice before the rock-hard existence of Robert Lowell can be summed up thusly: Robert Lowell can only be appreciated by Robert Lowell’s “community,” hence we as critics must defer to Robert Lowell’s “community”—no matter if universality suffer as a result.  The critic is helpless before the “community” of Robert Lowell.  Robert Lowell’s “community” is what counts, not his poems.

Plato’s “Republic,” in which each part is based on its use to the greater whole, is replaced by Silliman’s tribe-war, in which any concept of the “greater good” is suspect, and Silliman believes in his model because 1) There’s just too much to read and 2) The positions of Vendler and Dove are racist, and any attempt to reconcile the positions of Vendler and Dove with any type of Criticism is automatically even more racist.

To make it even clearer: when reading poetry, the unique requires the universal, and Silliman doesn’t seem to understand that one cannot find the universal in a tribe or a country or a community.  The universal is just that: universal.

Think about this: two major poetry camps in the U.S. in the form of two distinguished authors, Rita Dove and Helen Vendler, are calling each other racist, and Ron Silliman, the ‘outsider’ third pole in the contemporary American poetry equation (yet included in Dove’s 20th century anthology) comes upon their poetry anthology quarrel and says categorically that both their positions are racist.   

Is this what happens in a highbrow art world ruled by “communities?”

We understand the local scenester wants to carve out a poetic identity and when they do, it’s laudable, for it gives poetry a local habitation and a name: the San Francisco scene, or the Detroit scene.  But these “scenes” are finally illusionary.  They have nothing to do with the place, for the “scenesters” themselves are often from other places, and the actual influences on the poetry have nothing to do with the locals—in place or time.  Critics can sniff out the local coffee shops or the local flora, but the anthropology of poetry only takes one so far.  And what happens when the writing doesn’t match “the community?”  Does that make the writing invalid?  

The New Critics focus on the poem, the Romantics, on the poet, and these both have advantages, for reasons too numerous to name; but what is this obsession with “community” all about?  It’s petty, trivial, and stupid, finally; it presupposes a whole host of things in relation to the poetry which simply don’t exist.  

Silliman’s approach to poetry is birdwatching with no birds.


Alice Cary: a world of American Letters that’s forgotten.

When T.S. Eliot wrote that poetry is “an escape from emotion” and an “escape from personality” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he was defining art under advice from Socrates—who banned from his Republic “poetry that feeds and waters the passions.”  Escape is the key word.  The Socratic hero has emotions, but keeps them under control.  The human-centered world of Shakespeare’s Renaissance—another inheritance of the urban Socrates—lives anew in Eliot’s formula: poetry, more than anything else, seeks original expression—in the context of all that has come before, and as Eliot points out, his human formula is not just “historical,” but “aesthetic.”  Eliot was the product of cousins marrying cousins on his father’s side—perhaps this aided “Tradition’s” insight: the ‘short-wired’ prophecy gathering vital threads into one. 

Poetry is not revolutionary, then, but an heroic demonstration of how human emotion is conquered, and so it earns its place in Plato’s Republic.  Plato and the poets are reconciled, as art is defined by T.S. Eliot—an American with roots in New England transendentalism: poetry as the natural impulse of raw and honest emotion, but converted momentarily to Poe’s cold science.

Just as the Republic’s “guardians” escape emotion, just as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter escapes the homely passions of prose, just as Poe’s narrator calmly escapes “the pit and the “pendulum” in his famous story, so the following poem from a forgotten American woman poet of the 19th century, picked out for high praise by Edgar Poe, demonstrates that high art which Eliot in his most glorious essay was at pains to show—for just beneath the surface of this poem cries sorrow which is escaped.

Here emotion is not indulged; beauty is, even though the journey that is made is to the hades of emotion.

Pictures of Memory

Among the beautiful pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
Is one of a dim old forest,
That seems the best of all:
Not for its gnarled oaks olden,
Dark with the mistletoe;
Nor for the violets golden
That sprinkle the vale below;
Nor for the great white lilies,
That lead from the fragrant hedge,
Whispering all day with the sunbeams,
And stealing their golden edge;
Not for the vines on the upland
Where the bright red berries rest,
Nor the pinks, nor the pale, sweet cowslip,
It seems to me the best.
I once had a little brother,
With eyes that were dark and deep—
In the lap of the old dim forest
He lies in peace asleep;
Light as the down of the thistle,
Free as the winds that blow,
We roved there the beautiful summers,
The summers of long ago;
But his feet on the hills grew weary,
And, one of the autumn eves,
I made for my little brother
A bed of the yellow leaves.
Sweetly his pale arms folded
My neck in a meek embrace,
As the light of immortal beauty
Silently covered his face:
And when the arrows of sunset
Lodged in the tree-tops bright,
He fell, in his saint-like beauty,
Asleep by the gates of light.
Therefore, of all the pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
The one of the dim old forest
Seems the best of all.

Alice Cary (1820-1871)

The following poems, one by Guiterman, two by Teasdale, and one by Parker escape emotion as well, but they all succeed more superficially and self-consciously than Cary’s somber and beautiful masterpiece.

On the Vanity of Earthly Creatures

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s dead on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself!

Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943)

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead an over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.

The Look

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

—Sarah Teasdale  (1884-1933)


Little things that no one needs—
Little things to joke about—
Little landscapes, done in beads,
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore—little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

—Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

T.S. Eliot, before he became famous with his “Waste Land,” hit a homerun with perhaps his most important piece of writing: “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  In poetry one must escape emotion, but one must have real emotion to escape from, first.  This has been the test of art since Plato made the rules over two milennia ago. T.S. Eliot, no matter what other ‘modernist’ credentials he may have, reminded us of this ancient truth once again.

Edna Millay sought this formula, too; read those harrowing sonnets of hers that strive for beauty and cold emotion.  Her poetry is practically “Tradition and the Individual Talent” personified.  As Plato writes in The Republic, Book X, “when we listen to a passage from Homer…he represents some pitiful hero who is drawing out his sorrows…but when any sorrow happens to us, you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality…”

IF I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.


Modern Poetry Lends A Hand

The modern gods are dead.
Abstract art and Wallace Stevens used to be enough,
to walk in sentences as colorful
as we pleased,
to leave money
to the various communist causes.
The museums were as simple as air.
Modern art deserved a stare.

The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

In Shelley’s palace pleased me.

You walk by and roll your eyes,
as the Christian crazy roars, “the sinner dies!”
But having lain awake at night,

you know he’s half right.
The half wrong is not known,
so we are slow,
we look around,  perhaps we avoid
foreign journalists, Harvard tours,

H.D., whose appointment with Freud
will find out her news, but ours?

The fierce bombing of the R.A.F.
Capped the campaign, took away our breath,
As will the many things in the universe we think we understand
But don’t, but think we do, because we lend a hand.
Our world was founded by Peggy Guggenheim.
Read. Take pills. Don’t rhyme.




John Ruskin, a type like Emerson, Carlyle, and Pound when the Moderns steered art from science to blah blah blah

The poet Percy Shelley was a scientist, too.  Here is Shelley solving climate change:

The north polar star, to which the axis of the earth, in its present state of obliquity, points. It is exceedingly probable from many cosiderations, that this obliuity will gradually diminish, until the equator coincides with ecliptic: the nights and days will then become equal on the earth throughout the year, and probably the seasons also.  There is no great extravagance in presuming that the progress of the perpendicularity of the poles may be as rapid as the progress of intellect; or that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species. It is certain that wisdom is not compatible with disease, and that, in the present states of the climate of the earth, health, in the true and comprehensive  sense of the word, is out of the reach of civilised man. Astronomy teaches us that the earth is now in its progress, and that the poles are every year more and more perpendicular to the ecliptic. The strong evidence afforded by the history of mythology, and geological researches, that some event of this nature has taken place already, affords a strong presumption  that this progress is not merely an oscillation, as has been surmised by astronomers.   Bones of animals peculiar to the torrid zone have been found have been found in the north of Siberia, and on the banks of the river Ohio. Plants have been found in the fossil state in the interior of Germany, which demand the present climate of Hindustan  for their production. The researches of M. Bailly establish the existence of a people who inhabited a tract in Tartary 490 North latitude, of greater antiquity than either the Indians, the Chinese, or the Chaldeans, from whom these nations derived their sciences and theology. We find, from the testimony of ancient writers, that Britain, Germany, and France were much colder than at present, and that their great rivers were annually frozen over. Astronomy teaches us also that since this period the obliquity of the earth’s position has been considerably diminished.

Poe’s 1848 cosmogony,”Eureka,” solved the puzzle baffling scientists into the 20th century: Why is the night sky dark? Why don’t the innumerable stars eventually brighten the entire sky with their accumulated rays? “Eureka” is perhaps the most beautiful work of science ever written—and it’s all scientific, guessing at Einstein’s discoveries well before the fact.

Henry James, the failed playwright and author of teacup fiction, sneered at Poe’s scientific temperament. How silly James now looks, but how much like the modernism he helped inspire in which blah blah blah replaces thought.

Henry James derided Poe as boyish. Yes, and Ben Franklin played with kites.

Here is the Italian Renaissance talking, equating, fully, art with science:

He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature. If you scorn painting, which is the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature, you will certainly be scorning a subtle invention, which with philosophical and subtle speculation considers all manner of forms: sea, land, trees, animals, grasses, flowers, all of which are enveloped in light and shade. Truly this is science, the legitimate daughter of nature, because painting is born of that nature, because all visible things have been brought forth by nature and it is among these that painting is born. Therefore we may justly speak of it as the granddaughter of nature and as the kin of god.

Because writers had no access to definitions of the science of painting, they were not able to describe its rank and constituent elements. Since painting does not achieve its ends through words, it is placed below the…sciences through ignorance, but it does not on this account lose its divinity.  And in truth it is not difficult to understand why it has not been accorded nobility, because it possesses nobility in itself without the help of the tongues of others—no less than do the excellent works of nature. If the painters have not described and codified their art as science, it is not the fault of painting, and it is none the less noble for that. Few painters make a profession of writing since their life is too short for its cultivation. Would we similarly deny the existence of the particular qualities of herbs, stones or plants because men were not acquainted with them? Certainly not. We should say that these herbs retained their intrinsic nobility, without the help of human language or writings.

The mental discourse that originates in first principles is termed science. Nothing can be found in nature that is not part of science, like continuous quantity, that is to say, geometry, which, commencing with the surfaces of bodies, is found to have its origins in lines, the boundary of these surfaces. Yet we do not remain satisfied with this, in that we know that line has its conclusion in a point, and nothing can be smaller than that which is a point. Therefore the point is the first principle in geometry, and no other thing can be found either in nature or in the human mind that can give rise to a point.


No human investigation may claim to be a true science if it has not passed through mathematical demonstrations, and if you say that the sciences that begin and end in the mind exhibit truth, this cannot be allowed, but must be denied for many reasons, above all because such mental discourses do not involve experience, without which nothing can be acheived with certainty.

Who wrote the above?  The renaissance painter, Leonardo—obviously loving what Poe loved—science.

Ironically, the scientists who wrote poems of three-dimensional, musical import (Plato, Shelley, Poe), as the 20th century proceeded, were deemed too Romantic, while the modernist poets, and novelists like Henry James, casting off rigorous science, bounced about aimlessly, thinking themselves gods.


The obnoxious brat, Michael Dickman, a “demon kid whose poems are scrawled in fingerpaints or fiddled on an Etch-A-Sketch.”

The critic William Logan exists to give spankings to poets like Michael Dickman—who contemplates Emily Dickinson, for instance, like so:  “Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every morning/or ever fucked anybody/or ever fucked/herself.”

Logan’s spanking is administered with a yawn:

This seems a touch more impolite than Swift’s Strephon, emerging from a lady’s dressing room (“Disgusted Strephon stole away/ Repeating in his amorous Fits,/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”). Swift took romantic longing down a peg. Dickman is just some guy with creepy fantasies.


But there’s no “creepy fantasies” in Dickman’s “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” just your typical haunted scenario featuring Victorian/goth/white dress/child Emily flying above her bed, and then Dickman actually introduces a comforting image, “Her ankles and wrists held tightly between the fingers of some brightly lit parent home from a party” before ending the poem ambitiously, hopefully:

Heaven is everywhere
but there’s still
the world

The world is made out of cancer, house fires, and Brain Death, here in America

But I love the world

Emily Dickinson
to the rescue

I used to think we were made of bread
gentle work and

We’re not
but we’re still beautiful
killing each other as much as we can
beneath the pines

The pines that are somebody’s

It’s not a bad poem.  Dickman’s a sentimentalist.  He’s a secret Victorian, spitting out modernism on his way back to the fuzzy mid-19th century.  “The pines that are somebody’s masterpiece…” that’s God.

This is not Fred Seidel creepy at all.  It’s not even Sharon Olds creepy.  This is much closer to the  Barbie Doll school of poetry; it could have been written by Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, or Marie Howe.  “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins might be considered far creepier.   Creepy poems about Emily Dickinson could probably fill a book by now, and Dickman’s would be one of the milder ones, even though its opening lines would probably get all the attention.

So can we blame Professor Logan for focusing on them, even though Mr. Dickman was probably just setting a frank tone for the more sentimental parts? That’s the ‘art’ now of poets like Dickman: balancing attitudes, moods, and tones which avoid insincerity because-what-they’ve-got-to-say-may-seem-overly-heavy-or-silly-but-they-finally-need-it-to-succeed-poetically.  “The pines that are somebody’s /masterpiece” is a brilliant ending stroke because it just comes out of nowhere, but it works.

Logan obviously has no patience for all this.

I confess I cannot see the “incipient violence” or “manic overflow of powerful feeling” (how far Wordsworth has fallen) previous readers have noticed in such poems. What has been called a calculated clumsiness seems just, well, clumsy. Dickman’s childishness provides, not access to the world of innocence by a man of experience, just a reason to prolong post-adolescence a few more years.

William Logan is a product of his age—he is a modernist, not a Victorian.  When William Logan knocks poets over, he does so on the run, and not with a great deal of patience.  Logan wears no God-like frown, no vest coat, no whiskers, and sports no cane, but administers justice in a T-shirt, and with a grin.  Logan’s always in a hurry, and this is partly modern poetry’s fault: so many awful poets to ridicule, so little time.

Logan is guilty of not ‘getting’ Michael Dickman because Logan fails to heed the words of Matthew Arnold to “see the object as in itself it really is” and forgets Oscar Wilde’s advice to take both virtue and vice with a grain of salt when judging art, and does not recall Pater’s suggestion to realize the data of art distinctly and subjectively.

Logan expresses disgust with the opening lines of “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” but he fails to look at the whole poem.

Criticism was boiling over in the late 19th century, and only one critic really took the late 19th century to heart—T.S. Eliot, who turned out to be the most successful 20th century critic.  Logan can quote others—the Swift quotation was brilliant—but will Logan himself ever be quoted?  Not, we feel, until he mends his manner a little.

And yet—and yet…Logan begins his review of Dickman with a little essay on American surrealism which rescues the slipshod reading of Dickman’s actual poetry—quoting entire poems isn’t in the critic’s bag of tricks these days, anyway.  We don’t read poems with critics, at least not since Edgar Poe wrote criticism; critics instead pick a topic very much at random—surrealism, let’s say—and whether the poet under review is really a “surrealist” is anybody’s guess.

Logan’s point that the early Surrealists were anti-Christian is probably true, and this may be an idea worth chewing on, but I’m not sure what it has to do with Michael Dickman.

We should think of it as a Christmas gift from Logan to Dickman—whose search for fame gets a boost, as Michael Dickman is now…a fourth-generation American Surrealist!

Whooo!  Congratulations, Michael Dickman!

God bless us, every one!


Members of the One Percent catch a snuggle at the theatre. The first wife’s gone and it’s time to rock.

What does the Occupy Movement want? 

It protests the actions of the One Percent.  But what is the One Percent?   Is life really that simple?

Of course it isn’t.

That’s why all of this is so stupid.

It’s serious.  It’s not something to be made fun of.  But it’s stupid all the same.

The 99% has a 1% contained within it—those malcontents and protestors who let the world know they don’t like the real 1%. 

The 98% will always shuffle along as best they can, never quite understanding what the other two—the wealthy one percent and the malcontent one percent are talking about.

Every now and then something earth-shaking occurs, and a really charismatic member of the malcontent one percent is accepted into the ranks of the wealthy one percent.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” is a hoary saying, but it contains an actual person’s name.  Can anything come of “let’s camp out at a park?’  Or next to “a bank?”

Generalized complaint finally leads to what?

Much has been written lately of the little tempest in a teapot in jolly ol’ England; two poets—who talent-wise clearly belong to the 99%— have withdrawn their short-listed 2011 poetry collections from the T.S. Eliot Prize competition.  The sponsoring organization of the most prestigious poetry prize in Britain, something calling itself the Poetry Book Society, is now funded by a private investment firm, for it turns out the Arts Council England has recently dumped the Poetry Book Society from their National portfolio.  It seems the prestigious prize is not so important to the Arts Council. 

Why not?

Valerie Eliot is still living.   She donates the 15,000 pound annual prize money for the T.S. Eliot prize.

The slobby 98% may be buzzing about the two poets of the 99%, John and Alice, I believe they’re called, complaining about “capitalism” [let’s go to a “park” and protest “capitalism!”]

But here’s what the real One Percent is saying:   “How dare they insult Val, Tom’s wife!  The nerve!  She gives the money for the award, now doesn’t she?”

Cats pushed the Eliots into the One Percent; that’s why the Eliot Prize exists.

Speaking of Capitalism and its ‘Hidden Hand:’

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw,
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the law!

Speaking of the law and protests and malcontents, here’s an excerpt of a recent piece we found on the blog Montevidayo that well, kind of scares us:

The fundamental components of poetry are power, risk, and resistance. A poetic situation is one in which there exists a process of resistance within a field of power. This situation necessarily creates risk, and risk is what turns death into life and life into death: it sets power free or releases it from bondage, so to speak, by raising the stakes to their limit. What results is always a catastrophe, and yet the catastrophe itself is neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil. What we’re talking about here is the mechanism of revolt, or what Žižek (via Benjamin) identifies as “divine violence”. Divine violence does not judge; it annihilates. This is pure power. It’s egalitarian only in the sense that it serves no one and no thing. It wipes clean.

Within the context of a conventional poem, the field of power is the psychic energy channeled by the poet. This energy is contorted and amplified through a process of resistance to what the poet wants to say. The stronger the resistance, the greater the risk. What the poet risks is 1) failure and 2) the consequences of not failing. Either way, risk is a destabilizing and dislocating force. The reader will experience it as ecstasy, or anxiety, or laughter, or boredom, emptiness, etc., but the poem itself does not move its audience to act. What it does is reorient them so that action is once again possible. In other words, the poem is a product of intentional, uncalculated risk, and risk is a prerequite to, though not a gaurantee of, revolt.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

This is a quote from famed occultist Aleister Crowley, whom I consider both a total clown and a real poet. For our purposes, what is relevant here is the whole of the law, which knows no risk; risk is what exists outside the law. There can be no turning of death into life (no resurrection) within the law. The law is made of rights, not risk. The moment you start talking about rights is the moment you have none. In other words, resistance is not resistance unless you risk everything by resisting the very concept of rights. Likewise, a poem that says what you want to say (that does “what thou wilt”) is not a poem. It’s a law. And an entire book of these non-poems is a system of death.

This is what the biggest assholes in Heaven have done. Globally speaking we are living within the worst book of non-poems possible. The book is getting worse. How much worse, and for how long, will depend on our collective efforts toward escalating a sustainable risk. If risk is what exists outside the law, the law is whatever serves the biggest assholes in Heaven. It’s their execution plan. It’s what keeps the Heavens from crashing to the Earth.

They say the world will end if we don’t follow their plan. This is not just a scare tactic (though it is that too); they are telling the truth. And our role, as human beings, is to seize this truth and do what we can to make it materialize. Our task, as poets, is to not fear failure or the consequences of not failing.

The world is the end of the world.

Obey the will of the Ninety Nine Percent! 

And Aleister Crowley.

And don’t forget the Hidden Paw!

But you’ll look in on dear Mrs. Eliot in case her tea gets cold, won’t you?

Meet the new T.S. Eliot Prize sponsor! Kevin Grundle, hedge fund manager and CEO of Aurum.  (Also goes by the name of Griddlebone.)



Too freedom-loving and sophisticated
To hear my plea to read Plato’s magnificent Republic,
A work they didn’t want to read, or hated,
Yes, Plato, had definite notions of healthy and sick,
Believing good and bad are the same for art and life
As health should be the aim, whether blood or verse,
All one, loved wife, love poem, picture loved of loved wife,
To be better—But, they said, you’re only making it worse
With your claims of the moral, the rational, the good—
But what do you mean? I asked, do you want bad, instead?
—One leaf on one tree is the whole of Plato’s wood,
He wants to make all difference all one, all dead,
So he can shape dead things to his ideal—
But I said: you do that; he separates false from real;
You mingle bad and good, which only the bad do,
I say good’s a word; forever the word “good” and good are two,
But all seek the good, and that’s good, isn’t that true?


Helen Vendler suffered a mortal blow to her reputation recently.  The Harvard professor and renowned critic viciously attacked the poet Rita Dove for her Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (2011): Too many poets, too many black poets, and not enough Wallace Stevens.  It is almost as if Vendler had been set up, had stepped into an ambush; Vendler’s humiliation hurts because it hurts today’s poetry, so well-known in poetry circles is Ms. Vendler.

Vendler seemed secure in her position as Queen Aesthete—no axe to grind; motivated merely by a disinterested love of poetry and its pleasurable complexities; if she seemed the Critic of the Concert Hall and not the Street,  this made her seem  all the more untouchable, like a great concert musician with skills pure and admirable.  Her instrument has always been made of praise; her close-reading insights always elevated the poetic labors of whomever she chose to read; even mechanical skill became a philosophy for every poet she touched, whether it was Seamus Heaney or Jorie Graham, Shakespeare, Keats or Stevens or Yeats.

Every minor poet needs at least one critic like Vendler in order to stay alive; she can make a lyric seem an epic of complexity, a mere quatrain burst with as many stories as a novel.  She is one of those critics who can almost turn a minor poet into a major one. 

There’s only one problem with Vendler, who learned from her New Critic masters to stoke small kindling so it blazes into major conflagrations with the close-reading ironies of the magnifying glass. 

The first rule of Criticism is: Find Fault.  The freshman composition student usually has nothing of interest to say when confronted with a major poem because they are too nice to say anything bad about a major poem.  And if the young student is encouraged not to be intimidated, and to say what’s really on their mind, they will usually blurt out something like: “I would tell Shakespeare (in the Sonnets) not to waste his time with this obsession for the young man!”  And we smile, even if this practical advice might have some merit, on a certain level.

Vendler has no such inhibitions.  Vendler’s jungle of praise can grow anywhere.  Its flowers soar, its vines sing.

Vendler is one of those critics who can easily find in a poem more than even the poet knew; for example, here she is unpacking the third quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet #116:

The third quatrain departs from its function as reinscription of the second in considering the merit of the young man’s view. It begins by keeping up the vehemence of refutation, remaining within the debater’s genre; but suddenly, a new concessive appears as one had earlier—in line 8’s although his heighth be taken. The young man is granted another point. Something in fact, it is true, is removed; something, it is granted, comes into the bending compass of the sickle. The thing that the young man values, that he has in mind with his occluded talk of “alteration” and “removes,” turns out to be physical beauty, rosy lips and cheeks, which, it is conceded, fall to Time’s sickle. The speaker cannot deny the actual truth of those removals, but the concession is a painful one. The young man, even though concealing his motives behind his euphemizing vagueness, has been exposed (by this unpacking-by-reiteration of his very words alters and bends) as a man in thrall to the sensual bloom of youth; when he sees the sickle bend, he must, he has said, bend with it, remove himself when he sees beauty removed, and find another as-yet-unreaped beauty. (The speaker’s tenderness toward the young man forbids his showing narratively, or in prophecy, the destruction of sensual beauty in the young man; he admits here only the general law, that within the compass of the sickle all sensual beauty falls.)

This kind of criticism can run the gamut from brilliant to is this even necessary? 

Note how thoroughly Vendler gets inside “the young man’s” head; the young man is not even hinted at in sonnet #116.  He doesn’t exist.

Shakespeare’s sonnet #116, “Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds” is a major sonnet by a major poet, and major poets, by definition, make an impact directly on the public; they require no Vendler, and if any poet did require a Vendler, that poet surely would not be understood until a Vendler “discovered” them.  Imagine you are a poet, and one of your quatrains, in order to be understood, necessitated a gloss like the one above.  Vendler over-explains Shakespeare, and thus falls short of Shakespeare’s intention, and here is a paradox of Criticism; Vendler covers #116 in superfluity; her appreciative fecundity mars the major impulse even as it caresses its subject with suffocating adoration.  Such “reach” is only necessary to prop up lesser poems. It is a truism that if a poem suceeds, criticism crumbles before it, leading one to cry, “I like it!”  “Beautiful!” “Did you see what that poem did? Yes.”

Even if we grant Vendler’s criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets is useful; how useful?  How much do Shakespeare’s sonnets need Vendler’s criticism?  If we reply that Vendler’s criticism needs Shakespeare more than Shakespeare needs Vendler’s criticism (and I would guess even Vendler couldn’t but agree) it begs the question: is there wretched poetry somewhere Vendler could rescue, so that Vendler would be more valuable to it, than it is to her?

But when should Criticism ever save the poet, except to overturn prior abusive Criticism?   Why should Shakespeare, or Wallace Stevens, or anyone, save Helen Vendler?  What is the relationship between Vendler and her poets?  If the poets don’t need Vendler, why do we need Vendler?  If Vendler—as with Sonnet #116—makes much ado about nothing, perhaps we need to be saved from her?

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.

If Wallace Stevens is untrustworthy as a poet—if he sounds wise, but is not, should we even allow a critic like Vendler to expound on Stevens—that is, if we wish to keep our sanity?


Ashbery was clever to see Poe was right: poetry succeeds at what prose fiction can’t do.

We fall into the error of modern thinking by assuming all thinking in the modern era is modern thinking. 

The truth is: Modern isn’t new, but rather what follows, and is attached at the hip to, the old.

So modern isn’t even modern, and by the same reasoning, post-modern is even less modern.

The more ancient, the more new

But enough of this.

The point we want to make is that modern has nothing to do with a contemporary who happens to be clever enough to discover a small (or a large) truth.

Ashbery discovered an old truth, and if we persist in thinking that every success in poetry after 1900 is somehow a  “modern” one, we blind ourselves to how Frost or Eliot or Ashbery succeeded.

The so-called ‘avants’ flatter themselves that being modern means breaking taboos, that poets like Byron and Pope walked in fear of taboos; but this is to treat truth as a taboo, so no wonder the ‘avants’ fall short of Byron and Pope in wit, and everything else.

Ashbery’s reputation is based on a principle that never varies.  It’s a simple one, but it’s how we know Ashbery is Ashbery, and its simplicity in principle doesn’t mean it didn’t take a certain genius to discover it and persist in it—in order to rise to prominence in the crowded field of post-war American poetry.

Stop for a minute and think to yourself: what makes Ashbery Ashbery?  What is it that he provides that no one else does?

Most cannot see that it’s what poetry does that other literary genres cannot do, which makes poetry work as poetry.  The formula is too hyper-practical, too obvioius, too simple for them to see.   They think contemporary poetic interest has something to do with “new” modernism “breaking taboos,” or some other foggy notion.

Let’s set the glorious record straight.

James Joyce was already well-known before he unleashed his Finnegan’s Wake on the world; had this been his opening gambit, it surely would have doomed him to obscurity.  No fame rests on lengthy (or even moderately lengthy) works of fiction which defy sense and meaning.  The reason is simple: few have the patience to read nonsense for a very long time.  But who would deny we don’t get a certain pleasure from sweetly elegant, ambitious, and lofty nonsense, having absolutely no design upon us? 

Enter the Ashbery poem (seen in glimpses here and there, in Gertrude Stein, influenced by her professor, William James b. 1842, early Auden, or Wallace Stevens, but never persisted in so as to define a career ) which, simply because of its lyrical brevity, enabled it to succeed at its literary mission: tickling the reader’s fancy with doses of pure nonsense in small enough bites to enjoy. (Byron’s epics, or any writing that self-consciously digresses, could also be seen as an influence.)

Surely the ‘Ashbery Poem’ appeared when it did because of other so-called “modern” developments, some sub-literary, some extra-literary, some literary, etc. but even so, it is crucial we don’t confuse the conditions for something with the thing itself. 

We don’t see how even Mr. Ashbery, himself, could disagree.


By the time Alan Cordle and friends closed down in 2007, Cordle’s now famous website had managed to enrage a good number of distinguished poets, editors, professors, and critics.  But the tide is turning; the truth is finally counting more than personal bitterness.

The following quote by Eliot Weinberger comes by way of a Spanish newspaper on “a crisis in worldwide literary criticism:”

The United States does not have the kinds of literary supplements that are common in Spain and many other countries. It has only one important frequent periodical of criticism–The New York Review of Books. There are no longer powerful American critics, as there were until the 1960s, writing in a prose that was intelligible to anyone, and inserting literature into the political, social, and moral issues of the day. So-called “serious” criticism has largely become the domain of academics, who write in a specialized jargon, under the bizarre belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to “recommendations,” which come via reviews, blogs, and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit–especially among those who are unaware how prizes are chosen. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one now turns for ideas… could not have put it better, or more bluntly: “Prizes have become the standard of validation of literary merit—especially among those who are unaware of how prizes are chosen.”  This speaks volumes.  Every sorry part contributes to the whole: “Criticism…has been reduced to ‘recommendations’ because “prizes have become the standard” and because there is a “belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences,” it follows “there are no longer powerful American critics,” and hence, “criticism has…become the domain of academics” and the historical record will show that the whole shameful Prize Apparatus came into existence in the 1940s, when the professor and the poet became the same animal, thanks to Paul Engle’s work at Iowa.

Engle was surely well-meaning when he said, ‘Why can’t a master’s thesis be a book of poetry?’  Unfortunately, this idea, which on the face of it, appeared to help poetry, essentially killed it.


Because unfortunately poetry reputations are made by humans, not the Muses.  The system—now in place for about 75 years—in which living poets are able to make their own reputations, has resulted in nothing but folly.  John Crowe Ransom became the most powerful editor, poet, and critic in the mid-20th century precisely because he was the leader, with a few of his Fugitive cronies, of the invasion of contemporary poetry into the academy.

Weinberger makes it clear: the public is out of the picture; poetry prizes are a fait accompli, and “recommendations” (puffing) has replaced Criticism.

Poe warned us about this, and look what happened to him.

What can you do?

Read Scarriet.

We’ll fix this.

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