HENRY GOULD TRIES TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN POETRY—AND THE MAZE THAT IS MAZER

Ben Mazer.  Don’t let his demeanor fool you.  He’s funnier than Ashbery.

In a review of Ben Mazer’s Poems (Pen and Anvil Press, 2010) and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Press, 2010), Henry Gould begins:

If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.

Gould is correct: Eliot and Ashbery are the templates of all modern poetry; one hardly has to talk about anyone else.  Sure, one could discuss 19th century French poetry, or Elizabethan verse, or yammer on about Whitman, or go off on some insane Poundian tangent, or scream, What about women poets?   Or, talk about the modern or post-modern age.  Cars!  World War One!  Movies!  Airplanes!  TV!  The bomb!  The pill!  Parody! The internet!  But what would be the point?  E. and A. already contain these things.  Eliot has already been where you are going—in the past, and in the future.  Your one advantage over Eliot, reader, is the present—but if only we could find it.  I’m afraid we must make do with the “arctic blue eyes” and the “disappointed mouth” and the “eagle beak” of E. and A. for another century, or two.

Let’s be real simple for a moment: Shakespeare wrote about life; Keats wrote about feelings for life; since the grammaphone replaced Keats and the movies replaced Shakespeare, poets have nowhere to go but into parody, beginning with Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” and “I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and, finishing with Ashbery’s parody of parody.  Gould:

John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability.

Beer and Mazer are offshoots; one is “bitter” and the other “unaccountable.”  Parody is not always so—Shakespeare was a parodist of Dante—but in minor poets, “bitter” or “unaccountable” are the two forms the imitation inevitably takes.  Mr. Beer and Mr. Mazer are not gardens, or even plants, but tendrils growing from a larger plant—in the garden of American Poetry where Gould, the reviewer, is an even-tempered and faithful gardener.

Gould seems more interested in Mazer.  If this passage from Beer (indeed, ‘small beer’) which Gould quotes is any indication of Beer’s ability, we can see why:

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell…

This is pure trash—far below Eliot.  Eliot never wrote milk-and-water phrases full of throw-away words, like: “With the smell of…”, “I can smell the different…”, “The smell whereof shall breed a plague…”  Beer is not even in Mazer’s league, much less Eliot’s, and we need not discuss Beer further.

Gould on Mazer is good:

In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Gould doesn’t know Mazer as I know him—Gould writes that Mazermimes discouragement and near-despair,” but Mazer’s “near-despair” is genuine; there is no miming; Mazer is certainly capable of mimicry, but Mazer really does mourn Hart Crane as a tragic, long-lost brother, and there’s nothing fake about it.  Otherwise in the passage just quoted above, Gould gets Mazer down cold.  I agree with Gould—those lines he quotes from Mazer have Ashbery written all over them, and I will add that 1) Mazer is perhaps the only living poet who can do Ashbery as well as, or even better than, Ashbery, 2) the “moderate admirer” lines are screamingly, achingly funny, 3) Mazer was not being intentionally funny when he wrote those lines—in fact, he probably wrote the lines out of indignation and hurt, since Mazer genuinely loves most contemporary poets (he is not hyper-critical, in  the least—in fact, his spirit is quite the opposite) which 4) goes to show that Mazer’s genius does have a puzzling aspect that catches Gould somewhat off-guard.

Gould is one of the best critics writing today: sharp, witty, worldly.  He is a tad too much in love with own cleverness, though; he struggles admirably against his own tendency towards self-conscious hipsterism.  He is not quite as good as Logan, even though he’s much more likeable.  Logan, however, would never be tempted to write of Ashbery this way:

Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.

Ashbery, according to Gould, is a poet who “emerged in the 1950s,” along with the might of the post-war United States, and the “Some Trees” poet is finally likened (by way of the New Critics and Eliot) to the “American know-how [that] built the superhighway system.”  The superhighway system is the efficient working thing of the New Critics, who “saw in the figure of Eliot a model;” — “intelligence” was Eliot’s ultimate guide to complex, functioning modernity, with Ashbery the road, and Eliot, the pylon.

Gould’s view is superficial and too contemporary, a sign of po-biz’s continual shrinking understanding of history.  The New Critics did not find Eliot—they were an extension of him; Eliot’s early essays were the blueprint of New Criticism, and Eliot, in turn, was influenced by the James family: Henry James advocated intelligence as the ultimate aesthetic measure (a formula, finally, of empty-headed snobbery and entitlement) long before Eliot, and William James (who taught Gertrude Stein) had transformed Harvard into a modernist citadel with his nitrous oxide pragmatism before Eliot arrived there.  W.H. Auden was writing Ashbery poems of wry obscurity in the late 1920s. Paul Engle, with his Yale Younger, his Masters Degree of his own poetry, and his Rhodes scholarship, launched the Creative Writing Program era with the help of the Rhodes Scholar New Critics, Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Brooks; Pound’s euro-frenzy and Williams‘ wheel barrow would land safely in American universities, and Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford and Auden would cross the Atlantic to teach writing in America, the latter famously delivering the Yale Younger to Ashbery.  Our MFA students today have only a Wiki-knowledge of New Criticism (if that)—they know the head, but not the feet, of the business.

Ignorant of the motives and actions of these men—first Fugitives, then racist Southern Agrarians, then New Critics, and then Creative Writing mavens, we end up saying impossibly quaint and silly things like “Ashbery emerged in the 1950s” and he resembles a “superhighway system.”   The New Critics (with Paul Engle) were far more important for what they did on a practical basis than for what they thought.  We don’t need the metaphor of a superhighway system when we have the reality of a super writing program system.

With history’s oxygen dwindling in the MFA classroom, the trapped poets with their Wiki-knowledge produce increasingly light-headed nonsense, “miming” as Gould puts it, the  “discouragement or near-despair” of an existence which fosters the inevitable human tragedies of drunken, Creative Writing profs who litter the 20th century, like Berryman, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Roethke, and Ted Hughes, or, rather,”comically-botched” lines:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Mazer is an intuitive and emotional poet, not an intellectual one—which is why these lines are funny; funny in a good way.

Post-modern poetry doesn’t think.  It reacts.

(One day we will begin to see that Ashbery’s work does not spring from mirth, so much as guilt, sadness, paranoia, myopia, and depression.)

Sincere passion, made by a Byron or a Shelley or a Tennyson, is out.  And so is their music.  Mazer, in his fleeting Ashbery moods, is the best we’ve got now.

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RHYME FOR MY MFA BITCHES

new poem by scarriet editors

Great deeds are done by the blind.
The great accomplishments of Mankind,
In toil and sweat before falling dead
Are done by dreamers deluded.
But without those false dreams,
Without ‘what is’ covered up by ‘what seems,’
No soul would hold the wheel,
No effort made to serve the real.

Your safety’s comfort, which you can touch,
Is yours because one, without nearly as much,
Leaped without looking, and made
In dreams light against emptiness and shade.
Darkness, planetary, appears at every turn
Unless newly in dreams bright souls burn,
Before despair—with its plain sound—
Catches us, and we are convinced, and we lie down.

Light is not just light; light is how we feel;
The really blind are those who think real is simply real.
Mixed up with dreams that appear to be folly
Bends the real action; in longest melancholy
Science’s dreams are pursued;
In heavy meditation, flame’s bright results renewed.

The problem is solved by the genius, alone—
Not the howling crowd, or the idol on a throne,
Not by the journalist repeating what he hears,
His truth a truth because it vibrates many ears.
One mind that follows the thread of the thread
Brings life to the living—life loved by the dead
Before you lived; your life is here
Because of one, dead, who cried a tear
For reasons we cannot follow—but sorrow
Yesterday loves you now and tomorrow.

None of our truths, which approach us from afar
Dimly, are the same; every glimpsed star
Different within our difference;
Royalty exists because we are the prince
To ourselves; we are the measure
Of all; haste hastens to us—at our leisure.

The poem swam until it was memorized
By millions, and that was how the poem was prized;
Poetry still lives in the ‘Ordinary Joe’
Who will quote you, softly, a Shakespeare or Poe,
No poet’s vocation—but poems swim in their breast,
Joys, built and loved, as love loves what’s best,
Or sonnets jotted, without pretence or plan,
Fondly lying, yet steel’d in the heart of Man,
The simple song that uplifts and makes its story
Far above what is honored by trendy glory.
Since Higher Education feathered itself for song
One can see why professionalism is wrong.
Absent love, and absent hate,
In perfection lies the bureaucratic State
Which issues credentials based on the hell
Of the bureaucrat’s ideal of what is done well.
Bored, or running to a Ph.D. meeting,
Where Ph.D.s fawn on themselves their greeting; 
There the committee gradually decides
Others are wrong.  Politely, the truth hides.

Religion and poetry and science are everywhere wise
Until we figure out why each particular disguise
Enclosing this effect or that cause
Holds harm for us—circumscribed by laws
Made for someone else could very well be good
For us, even if the reason’s not understood
Since why that person behaves like this
Or why she hates, or why you may not kiss,
Is crucial only to our end and our desire—
Possibly sad in light, possibly happy in fire.

I would be a Christian, if it meant this or that sin
Would melt away, but any difficulty I’m in
Can always be fixed by my own mind;
I am the only thing that to myself is kind;
The abstract truth that flies above,
Or rests from its effort in a book, cannot be love
To a soul that knows itself as itself
Loving, and nothing ever put on a shelf.

But conformity to ceremony isn’t always bad;
Not every gesture needs to be new, or mad;
But vice can infest the public mind
And a whole society become unkind
Since cowardice and ignorance in the mass
Can bend the best minds like a breeze in the grass,
And one idea accepted, too late in its wake,
We fall, and it colors the entire lake.

Gamble not on what moves, or glitters, or dies;
Keen advantage, based on gulling surprise,
Grows dull; love is restful, life is not a war
On life; life loves life that life might be more.
Great deeds are done by the blind;
Judge not!  See how dark your own dear mind?

AFRAID THAT LOVE WAS ONLY LUST

OnTheCommons-550x342

Afraid that love was only lust,
Especially mine; how could I trust
That beauty would not tarry
By the brook, but would know—and marry?

The days were dark; there was little sin,
The sun peeped languorously within.
The sculpture of the blankets she tossed away
Was the only art in our horizontal day.

You ask what we did?  How did we do?
Oh, we talked of family, and we talked of you.
We guessed what songs lingered in a heart
Afraid of the future.  It was a start.

PLACES, EVERYONE!

Gertrude Stein posed for this statue (1992) in Paris (1920), but it sits in (William Cullen) Bryant Park in New York City.

Nothing exists but that it also exists elsewhere.  Anyone can pass through a place and be in other places that way, but few can make multiple places seem permanent and their own.  Only two things can do this: empire on a large scale, and the profound soul on the other.

America mostly knows its writers by place—for all of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendent philosophy, we know him by his ‘old manse’ in Concord and Emerson’s plot of New England land is where Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond.

Nathaniel Hawthorne rented from Emerson, too, but Hawthorne’s reputation is linked with nearby Salem.

The Longfellow house, where Longfellow raised his children still sits proudly on Brattle street, next to Harvard University where Longfellow was a professor.

Emily Dickinson, the recluse of Amherst, haunts a few rooms that are still standing; when we think of Henry James, we immediately think of a pleasant drawing room in his beloved London, and William Carlos Williams: a home doctor’s office in rural Rutherford, New Jersey, an old wheel barrow glimpsed outside the window.

Wallace Stevens conjures up an insurance office in Hartford, Connecticut; Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Paris; Pound, Italy.

T.S. Eliot?  There he is at Lloyds in London, speaking in hushed tones. Hart Crane?  He’s jumping off a ship into the north Atlantic. The Fugitive poets have Tennessee. Millay is identified with Maine, and Frost occupies a spot close to the Vermont/New Hampshire border. 

As we think of the minor poets in the 20th century, place becomes even more important: Charles Olson roams Gloucester, poetry schools are named after places: the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance; Jack Kerouac may have written On The Road, but his place will always be Lowell, Massachusetts. 

Even the imaginative soul needs a place to haunt, needs a place that is home, a place that says I am here.

There is no American poet known, to any degree, by the public, who isn’t identified by a place.  Three-quarters of American poets attended Harvard, but where you went to college, or where you got your M.F.A is probably not going to make you beloved of the American public.

Walt Whitman is known as our national Bard because in his writing he ranges, vociferously, far and wide—his reputation is not tied to one place—if Whitman were strongly identified with Brooklyn, for instance, he’d be Walter Whitman, a very minor figure.

It is precisely because, in Whitman’s case, that he is not identified with Brooklyn that he enjoys the reputation he does, for, after all, Whitman’s output is minor—a dozen memorable lines, perhaps; three or four anthology pieces: “O Captain! My Captain!’ and excerpts from “Leaves of Grass,” a few other excerpts from longer poems—poems almost no one reads in their entirety, maybe one or two other short poems.  Whitman, the poet, has made it to the top of the heap precisely because he belongs to no one and belongs nowhere—thus he is the token American who resonates with orphic, orphan, lonesome qualities that define a frontier America in transition, a land almost too big for its people, but growing smaller in the human bustle, and Whitman is the representative of that past and that future.  A Whitman statue could be anywhere—one was just unveiled in Moscow by secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Once established, a writer’s place doesn’t change, but a famous writer, like a Walt Whitman, who has no place, can claim new territory.

There is one American writer who, more than any other, seems to have no real place of his own: Edgar Poe.

Poe rejects place, and has no place.  He said the writer ought to belong to the universe, not to any place on earth; he coined the phrase, “out of place, out of time;” he set his most ambitious tales in France; he rarely took the time to describe an American place; he did so only in little-read pieces of journalism, not in the works that made him famous; Poe remains classical and European in most people’s minds, not American. 

Poe has a abstract quality so powerful that it will drag almost any adolescent mind into its vortex—modern American poetry can almost be defined as one great, long escape from it.  Rejecting Poe has been a rite of passage for every American poet who has wanted to be taken seriously by his or her peers.  The anti-Poe club is not just a large one—it is modern poetry: “A poem should be melancholy? Ha ha ha ha!”

But who will have the last laugh? 

Poe’s tentacles are many.  He can reach you in so many ways. You bury his Philosophy of Composition deep in the ground.  That’s right, MFA student, bury it deep, deep…  Now run from his poetry as fast as you can. Be modern! Run, run, run… run faster, faster!  Have you traveled fast enough?  Can’t you run just a little bit faster?

Is this crazy, or what?  Poe is returning to Boston.

The celebrants of Poe’s recent 200th birthday celebration decided it would be fun to have a debate—which place is most Poe’s place: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Boston?  Poe wrote The Raven in New York, his first detective story in Philadelphia, his childhood and early criticism in Richmond, the Poes are from Baltimore (as well as The Ravens football team), and Poe was born in Boston.

In an odd twist, thanks to the research and debating skills of professor Paul Lewis of Boston college, Boston, of all places, won the debate, and now through the efforts of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston and the Boston Art Commission, Edgar Allan Poe will grace downtown Boston—near the frog pond, Poe’s mocking symbol for New England writers—in a large work of public art.  You can learn about the three finalists here.  Statues can be pompous and boring, but Boston Poe gets an added boost, because these look really interesting.

The statues of the Frog Pond authors must be shaking in their boots.

Professor Paul Lewis is a slender, dapper man with a twinkle in his eye.  Last week at the Boston Public Library unveiling of the three Poe finalist works, he pointed out that Poe’s mother—an actress at the Federal Theater near the Boston Common (now gone)—loved Boston and was loved here; Poe’s mother represents that side of Poe who pleases rather than instructs, soaring happily in a puritan place.  Professor Lewis brings to Poe studies a happy spirit of reconciliaton—he is no Harold Bloom saying, “You must love either Emerson or Poe.”

The proposed Poe public art works—two of the three works feature a life-sized Poe, one with a raven emerging from his trunk, the other with a shrouded female figure at his back—are so wonderful that we couldn’t help but ponder, out of pure fun, some other possibilities.

A statue of Poe on the ground, surrounded by bottles.

A statue of Poe on Emerson’s knee, being spanked.

A statue of Pound, giving a Nazi salute.

A statue of Whitman, naked, with a hard-on.

But enough.

A large-as-life Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of Boston is frightening enough.

Thank you, Boston Poe Foundation!

STOP BEING CRITICAL!

Poe, God of Entertainment:  “he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs…”

Please inspect my plane before I fly on it.  Please inspect my food before I eat it.  Please inspect my building before I work or live in it.  Be critical!  Thanks!

But films and books and poetry and art?  Why do we have to be critical about that?  Let the audience be the critic.  When it comes to what is essentially entertainment, “the critics” can go to hell.  Hey, critic!  Write your own book!  Make your own movie!

The default critical response is sales. 

Time Warner is one of the gigantic corporations that wants to restrict internet activity.

No one reads Time Warner’s magazine, Entertainment Weekly, for its reviews, although it does have them, and the magazine does occasionally attempt wit and intelligence, in the ‘what-all-the-politically-correct-i-love-sex-but-i-hate-religion-cool-people-are-saying’ department.

Here’s how Entertainment Weekly (Jan 27, 2012)  introduces their big, splashy article on the new TV show, Revenge [caps are theirs]:

Summer in the Hamptons may be over, but things are about to get a lot HOTTER on ABC’s addictive hit drama. From a KILLER engagement party to twisted SCHEMES—and maybe even some STEAMY love-triangle action—the DRAMA at the beach is just getting started. Read on for all the SECRETS to what’s ahead.

Steven Tyler writes in the same Entertainment Weekly issue in a piece entitled, “Steven Tyler’s Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Idol:

There are really sad, sad tears, but the tears of joy are most outrageous. A lot of people were fainting because of nerves. So I got to hug every girl. I like female energy! Was I kissing contestants? Well, yes, I’m very passionate.  …one of the best things is that you get to see them coming off the truck, all down and dirty before they’re superstars…You know what? There’s sex in songs. If you don’t put it in there, you ain’t gonna get listened to. You know [that Dean Martin line] ‘The object of my affection can change my complexion from white to rosy red?’ All songs need that. And I bring that sexuality to the table. …Oh, and two more things…You know what sticks out most this season compared to last season?  J. Lo’s breasts.

So you get the idea.  The entertainment industry spends big bucks to promote their product.

Promote: the opposite of be critical.  This plane has not been inspected!  But you’ll have a great time crashing into the ocean!

How much do reviews (criticism) influence movies people go and see?  The big-budget films don’t care about reviews—they have already aimed at, and advertised to, a certain audience.  If the movie is good, more people will go see it; if a movie is bad, word-of-mouth kills it.  This is a perfectly rationale system, if you think about it, and why should even intelligent critics begrudge it?

Another key point is this: by ‘good,’ when it comes to movies, it very often means, ‘well-made;’ movie-goers will appreciate a ‘well-made’ movie, even if it isn’t ‘good.’

This, too, is a reasonable part of the entertainment industry—why should we begrudge those who appreciate the ‘well-made’ movie, even if it doesn’t happen to be ‘good?’

After all, it’s enough that our planes, buildings, and food are ‘well-made,’ right?  We want these things to be ‘put together in an expert fashion;’ we want them to be ‘well-made;’ we don’t need nuance and depth and moral shadings.  The well-made will suffice, and, in fact, all those other factors which go into what we mean when we say ‘good,’ as in: that film was not only well-made, it was good, are not really necessary and might even get in the way.

Because well-made really, really matters.  We can argue all day about how much seasoning to put in our dish, but when it comes to feeding billions of people every day, we need to be critical about safety, and let the niceties of aesthetic cuisine and the mad experiments of a great chef take a distant second-place.

The well-made is not just invisible, like a well-tuned engine hidden under the hood, it’s highly popular—it’s what we see and celebrate.

Entertainment Weekly is great for charts and ratings: Just looking at “The Top 50 Movies of 2011” can tell us more about ourselves than thousands of reviews and moral, finger-wagging, articles by expert critics.  As one scans the top-grossing box office numbers (which is how EW’s ‘top 50’ are calculated—and why not?) one is struck by an odd fact: the vast majority of the movies are for kids and teens—even though we are an aging population.  Harry Potter, Transformers, super heroes, cowboys & aliens, cartoons, and comedies-with-adults-acting-like-adolescents.

Daniel Radcliffe, in his recent opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, joked:

To the children who loved Harry Potter, I want to say your enthusiasm was the real magic. I so enjoyed being on the journey with you. And to the adults who bought the Harry Potter books and devoured them, I just want to say those books were for children.

Only one ‘drama’ made it in the top 50 films of 2011: The Help, a movie about black maids—with white, college educated writers and New York book-publishers as heroes and a one-dimensional, racist, white southern woman as the villain.

You can bet that the one drama and the 49 ‘pure entertainment’ films that were the most successful at the box office last year all have this in common: they are well-made.

Audiences cannot make well-made films, but they immediately know one when they see one, and they don’t need a critic to explain any of these movies to them.

Is this what Edgar Poe was talking about when he said poetry was 99% mathematical and that a book that pleases is more important than a book that instructs?

Yup, pretty much.

What do most poets today think about all this?  They hate it, of course.

Poetry has been stuck in an unpopular rut for over 50 years, and for one very simple reason:

Poetry—not all at once, but gradually—has turned its back on the well-made: the beautiful stanza, the beautiful line and the beautiful phrase cross-harmonizing in musical language to express beautiful ideas—recognized as such immediately.

Poetry, in a strategic move, threw in its lot with flat prose, and has ridden that particular angel for all its worth—right into the ground; prose has many advantages; it can be multi-faceted, it can be clever, it can be wild, it can be naughty, it can be crazy, it can be expansive, it can be good, it can be smart, it can be instructive—but it cannot be well-made.

Ah, but now we are being too critical, and so we will shut up at once.

WHAT IS RAP MUSIC?

Second from left: Marc Edmonds, aka, Walter J. Negro  We called him Ebbets.

Is it just bad poetry?

Is it just foul-mouthed ravings over samplings of 70’s funk?

We’ll never know what something is unless we know why it exists—its rationale.

Rap exists to sublimate aggression.

Rap is a means for males to fight with rhymes instead of fists.

Rap is Alexander Pope, making rhymes to amuse, to sermonize, and to insult.

By the 1960s, a tremendous amount of urban ‘free energy’ was let loose in the American inner city, especially in ethnic urban settings, as young people experienced both new opportunities on one hand, and the shame of still being mired in unemployment/under-employment on the other; the post-war era jumped and swirled as traditions and families loosened and love, sex, violence, and creativity blossomed.

To grow up with blacks and whites in 1960s New York City where rap was born.  Playful insult to relieve tense situations was common among us.  One of our friends, Marc, part black, part Cherokee, would grow up to be one of the first rappers, a.k.a., Walter J. Negro and invent the words you now see on t-shirts: Zoo York.  Marc was extremely shy as a 9 year old; he was small for his age; he wouldn’t participate in gym.  He was watching, though, and gradually he came out of his shell, and by the time he was 13, he was flamboyant in manner, growing an afro and developing ‘a mouth.’  He laughed at Bob Dylan: he “sounded like some guy singing in the shower.”  Maybe his opinion changed, later; he was only 12, at the time, but he was always very opinionated.  His favorite word was “cackle.”  He’d tease Tommy, a black kid in our group, who had a silent laugh, by saying “I’m going to make you cackle!”  Mark had many voices and expressions: whispery, shouting, rhyming, singing, apologetic, thoughtful, lispy, tongue-tipped, tongue-tied, head-scratching,  hesitant, chuckling. Marc was stumbling out of his long shyness. Our group’s bully was a white guy; the pecking order was whites on top, blacks on bottom, even though we were a friendly, racially mixed group. We were not a “gang,” just a group of school chums.  P.S.145.  105th street and Amsterdam Ave, near Broadway, on the West Side.  Some of us lived on Riverside Drive, the nice neighborhood, near Riverside park, and the river.  Actually, there was a fat white kid at the bottom of the pecking order.  Marc was in the middle.  He called Tommy, a black kid, Larry’s younger brother, ‘egghead,’ and did somthing strange to the clean-shaven black kids who he wasn’t afraid of: he’d grab their heads and took an exaggerated pleasure in doing so.  He called it ‘grab-a-head.’  Marc had an afro and he loved to grab the heads of little conservative black kids with fuzz on their heads.  If there was a haircut and a brand new bald head presented itself, Marc would pretend to be in heaven.  Of course, we all knew Marc was just kidding, but what did it all mean?  Tommy and his brothers couldn’t stop laughing, though, when some bigger black kids called Marc “cunt” over and over again, beating on his shoulder pads with a stick, in the park, on the way home from a football game.  He must have been 14.  A year later, I moved away.  When I knew him, Marc liked Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, and most all, Muhammad Ali.  Marc used to rhyme like Ali; Marc would sing aloud in the street, and he’d also rap, extended rhyming jams, half-way between talking and singing.  He had a lot of energy, he loved music, he was extroverted, he was insecure, he was shy, he wanted to be liked, he wanted to dominate, he wanted stardom.  I remember the day of Marc’s transformation from the shy kid who was afraid of gym—Riverside park.  He still hated sports at that point but I remember he had shoulder pads on for some reason and he ran across the field and made a tackle and our band of sandlot athletes all went wow, and that was it, a new Marc Edmonds, a new Ebbets, and he was so proud and happy.  A stupid tackle in the park.  He was always shy.  When we played Strat-O-Matic baseball as kids, he took the St. Louis Cardinals.  Why the St. Louis Cardinals?  Because all the home teams were taken, and I had the Giants, and Willie Mays.  He was jealous, but he grew into Curt Flood and Bob Gibson. He was a follower in our little gang, not the leader.  He was inventive; he could make anything he had seem wonderful.  We all doodled and made comics with our own super heroes.  Larry had Steel Storm (a copy of Iron Man). Later, I heard about the grafitti accident when he and Lenny (Futura 2000) were undeground uptown and paint cans exploded on a rail they thought was dead and Marc got nasty burns.

Nothing could compare with being a youth in NYC in the 60s. Everything felt new, but everything also felt rough n’ tumble. “Psych your mind!” was a childhood taunt, or just “psyyych!!” for short, when you made someone look foolish, verbally, or physically, but usually verbally.

Rap grew out of those verbal turf wars, the male comraderie of insult, the ubiquitous rhyming of 60s pop music (and the boxer Ali’s rhymes before battle); the energy and culture then was the same as it is now—now it’s more dispersed in the media.  Today feels no different than the 60s—no progress has really been made at all.

Rap, like any other art form, is a human response, one could almost say a fearful, childish response, to aggression.  We don’t think of rap music as geeky, but I was there at the beginning, when it was.

THE RED WHEEL BARROW SOLVED!

The new William Carlos Williams biography, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” by Herbert Leibowitz, editor of Parnassus, is an unwieldy, poorly organized, ill-written mess, but the 496 page tome does present plenty of unflattering gossip about its subject.  It’s not that Leibowitz doesn’t adore Williams—he certainly does—but as one reads the book, something interesting happens: the Williams mystique, constructed around the coy and tacit verse, is lovingly lured from its hiding place—Williams is bathed in light, written large across the sky in a fit of close-reading (poems and poet) by this generous and hefty biography, and we see the flawed, unhappy, egotistical man step from behind the poems at last. 

Goodbye, Mystique.  Hello, Embarrassment.

Prediction: This detailed, major-publisher effort (FSG) will mark the beginning of the decline of Williams’ reputation after its slow and steady increase for almost 100 years.  

The reasons are two-fold: 

First, Leibowitz indulges modernist platitudes in such a heavy-handed, amateurish manner that there is sure to be a backlash for that reason alone.  Here’s an example:

Progress would come slowly but steadily, and so it did.  Al Que Quiere!, his 1917 book of poems, showed promise that he would eventually find his own voice. He was not too proud to seek tutors who might hasten his acquisition of a flexible technique. Luckily, across the Hudson River, the New York art scene was fermenting, and the headquarters for the avant-garde was Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, whose influential magazine Camera Works was the photographer’s sounding board for publicizing the new art before the Armory Show. Stieglitz’s expert eye reconnoitered the  European skies like a powerful telescope to discover the newest stars, such as Juan Gris, or a movement, such as prankish, subversive Dadaism, but also swept the horizon for emerging American artists such as Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley. On the walls of his gallery hung paintings and photographs that deliberately set out to shake up the complacent traditions and premises of what art could and should do. Nothing was sacred or impervious to the breakthroughs the new art trumpeted.

“Find his voice…not too proud…across the Hudson river…the art scene was fermenting…nothing was sacred…the new art trumpeted.”   The writing is dull and the bibilographical interest is derived only from Williams’ letters; there’s no literary interest aside from some ambitious close-readings of the poetry; important figures such as John Quinn, Walter Arensburg, Alfred Kreymborg, Alfred Stieglitz are merely mentioned in passing.  Pound, who we know enough of already, is ever-present.  Chapter one begins with, “The high priests of the New Criticism schooled their acolytes in an art of reading poems that elevated technique—modulations of meter, subtle shifts in tone, adroit maneuvers with syntax, ironies planted in dramatic monologues to detonate later—to unaccustomed sovereignty.”  This is nice, but in the entire chapter, Leibowitz does not quote one New Critic!  We get prose like this: “The job of the critic was to ferret out linguistic clues scattered on and below the poem’s surface and, through patient analysis, put the circuitry back together.”  After a look at recent essays by Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, there follows an inspection of Pound’s Cantos and when Williams finally makes an appearance: “Asphodel,” the stroke, the infidelities, and the attempt to explain them to his wife, Floss.  Was Williams opposed to the New Critics?  Did he know any New Critics?  What did the New Critics say about Williams’ poetry?  Leibowitz doesn’t answer any of these questions; an organizing principle is nowhere to be seen. The first chapter is a train wreck.  The book is not a literary biography; it desperately needs editing.  One gleans gossip from it.  Occasionally one finds a solid close-reading of one of Williams’ short poems: “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” serves no other purpose.

Secondly, Liebowitz, not a New Critic, apparently, shows the reader enough of Williams himself to penetrate the mystical and reticent veil of his modernism: we clearly see the flawed person behind it.   As Richard Howard writes on the book’s back cover: “Leibowitz’s study of the good doctor Williams leaves us in no doubt of his troubled and troubling character.”

When the life is put next to the poetry and its apologies, the apologies lose their force.  When we learn, for instance, that Williams courted and married a woman he did not love because her sister (Charlotte) rejected his marriage proposal and because this same woman—who rejected him—married his brother, Edgar; when we see the weakness, the vanity, the egotism, and the deep insecurity of the man, (there’s even a hint of pedophilia) the narrow literary beliefs subtly change from the revolutionary and heroic to the spiteful and foolish; what is this hatred of Eliot all about, anyway?  “I distrust that bastard” and “It’s like walking into a church to me”  writes Williams to his fascist friend Pound in 1939—but if Williams’ poetry is like magnetized words thrown against a fridge, who is Williams to complain about a “church,” and why is Williams not able to see that Eliot’s poetry speaks like actual persons—with more variety—than Williams’ does? 

Leibowitz is alive to the sexual interest of Williams’ work, and the biography’s frankness helps us to see that modernism wasn’t just about fascism, the leisured rich, and pretence, it was also about sex.  In 1914, Williams, now married to Floss, writes to a young woman whom he unsuccessfully tried to have an affair with:

You are wrong to overlook the worth of the “Egoist” in a fit of temper against the filthiness you may find there. You might as well detest your own hands because your nails do on occasion get muck under them. I know of no one who has yet advocated  pulling out the nails to prevent this annoying accident.

Pulling out the nails… The poet’s prose is almost as banal as his biographer’s.

Williams fails often in love; in fact, he fails all the time, but Leibowitz seems blind to this; his theme seems to be that Williams had a jealous, puritanical streak that got in the way of pleasure, and yet Williams enjoyed numerous affairs–but none of these are documented, and one suspects Williams’ conquests are hearsay.  Or was there the occasional visit to a prostitute? 

Still, sex and imagist poetry converge in the mind, thanks to this Williams biography.   OK, one thinks to oneself; I guess I can see it.

Sex!
Purple flowers!
Sex!

Yellow flowers!
Beside the purple ones!

Though Leibowitz doesn’t mention this, the New Critics did aid Williams’ career; Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks’ influential textbook, Understanding Poetry, greatly admires “The Red Wheel Barrow.”

After reading Leibowitz’s biography, Scarriet has discovered the secret of this famous poem, and we will share it with you now.

This simple poem,

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

features the obsession of Williams’ life: his brother and only sibling, Edgar, marrying the woman, Charlotte, he, Bill, courted and loved .  There are two things next to each other in this poem: Red recalls the name of his brother, Edgar, and as we look for Charlotte’s name, there it is, in chickens.  

A man-made thing, “the wheel barrow,” represents Edgar, a ruddy, healthy, individual, and an architect—and the second thing in the picture is “white,” as in a bride.

“HERE TODAY,” THE BEATLES ARE BACK TOGETHER

It will always be the great Boomer dream that never came true.

The Beatles getting back together.

The 1940s: Ringo, John, Paul, and George born during the Blitz.

The 1950s: Rock n’ roll

The 1960s: the Beatles.

The 1970s: hoping the Beatles will get back together.

The 1980s: grieving that the Beatles will never get back together.

The 1990s: angry that the Beatles will never get back together.

The 2000s: relieved that the Beatles will never get back together.

The 2010’s: Paul and Ringo still producing solo albums

What would it be like to experience a Beatles reunion?

By now everyone must realize how anti-climactic it would have been, as the Beatles themselves surely understood back in the 1970s, when the world was waiting for it to happen—while listening to Elton John, the Bee Gees, John Denver, Queen, David Bowie, Led Zepplin, Stevie Wonder, and the Rolling Stones.

The Beatles were so BIG to so many people in a splendid window of time of unprecedented material and social change that the idea of the group took on extra dimensions, supplemented by the magic of widespread musical recordings, as well as the varied interests and personalities of the four men themselves.

One could blather on like this forever, as so many journalists and rock critics have done, but words can’t do justice to the Beatles phenomenon, nor can the banality of it finally be grasped, either.  The Beatles now occupy a little space on the shelf of history, and that’s about it.  All that’s left is for the Yoko and Paul estates to gain what they can in publicity squabbles as the sun sets on all the living participants.  A few songs, like “Imagine” and “Yesterday,” remain iconic, but it’s hard to judge what a hundred years from now will look like.

The Beatles made records from 1962 to 1970, and the original albums and greatest hits still sell moderately well.

The solo Beatles released their first original recordings starting in 1968, Paul wrote for other bands even earlier, and Paul and Ringo are still putting out records as of this day in 2012.  (Ringo’s latest will be released this month. http://kool.radio.com/2012/01/03/ringo-starr-earns-his-wings/)

The Beatles, 1962-1970

The ‘solo’ Beatles, 1968-present.

8 years v. 44 years.

Three of the four Beatles probably produced work outside of the Beatles as interesting, if not more interesting, than what they produced as Beatles; only Paul is more interesting for the work he did as a Beatle than for the work he did afterwards—though Paul might disagree, and insist it’s true for all four.

In terms of musical output and interest, then, it’s safe to say post-Beatles music is at least as important as Beatles music, and yet the former remains scattered, suffers from the indignity of not being Beatles music, and has never been anthologized into anything resembling a Beatles (Solo) 1968–present album or albums.

The Beatles have produced records for 50 years, but production-wise, only 8 of those 50 years really exist.

Ringo has been releasing songs on his albums, recently, which musically quote solo Paul songs.  The Beatles used to do this (‘She Loves You” is quoted at the end of “All You Need Is Love”).  Why can’t Ringo?   Paul and Ringo have released songs for John and George, and both Paul and Ringo, even as old guys, have produced songs on their solo albums that sound more Beatle-esque than the Beatles did.  The two remaining Beatles are still behaving like Beatles.

Recently I experienced a Beatles reunion, where one should really experience it—in my own ears.

I put together a CD mix many months ago, and forgetting what songs were on it, I gave it a listen.

The CD player was on random shuffle, so the experience of the ‘concert’ felt entirely ‘new.’

It began with Paul saying to an appreciative crowd, “Fancy a bit of rock n’ roll?” and then “Hi Hi Hi” from a live Paul album, and, in no certain order (I’ve already forgotten exactly what order the songs were in) I heard a live, up-tempo recording of “Give Peace A Chance,” a wailing Indian music instrumental composed by George from the soundtrack album he made without the Beatles in 1968, called “Crying,” a live version of John’s agonized “Mother,” Paul’s 1980 “Dress Me Up As A Robber,” a live version of Paul doing his tribute to John, “Here Today,” with the words, “you were in my song,” and Paul’s live version of “Something” with only a banjo, the spicy “When We Was Fab” by George, the up-tempo numbers “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” and “Oh Yoko!” by John, “See Yourself” (musically sweet, lyrically preachy, just like we love him) from mid-70s George, classics “Imagine” by John and”My Sweet Lord” by George (that glorious, ground-breaking song ripped from a 50s melody) and, of course, one Ringo song, recorded not that many years ago, called “Elizabeth Reigns,” a song that almost sounds like it could have been written by late 60s Paul or John, sweet, over-produced, and campy.  If the Beatles were finally an homage-driven, semi-meaningful lark, “Elizabeth Reigns,” fits the bill nicely, with its loving, yet cheeky, lyrics:

Elizabeth reigns
Over and under
Elizabeth reigns
Lightning and thunder
Elizabeth reigns
Since I Was younger
She’s head of the family
Elizabeth reigns over me

When the album finished playing, and I took my ear phones off and stretched, alone in my house, half-shrugging, I thought to myself: that may not have been the best 50 minutes of my life, but you know what?  That’s probably the closest anyone will ever get to the Beatles getting back together.

Welcome back, boys.

IS MUSIC DECLINING?

To most of us, music is one of the most important, if not the most important, spiritual items in our lives.

The inevitable discussion these days of the decline of the music industry always boils down to the same two arguments:

Argument One: Music has declined since [fill in your decade].  No it hasn’t—you’re old and nostalgic.

Argument Two: Free downloading helps musicians and empowers music.  No it doesn’t—it’s stealing, and it kills music.

We’ll address ourselves to the first argument (truism) first:

If something is true for a lot of people, it’s true.  So if a lot of people (baby boomers) think music has sucked since the 60s or 70s, it’s true, and this fact does impact any consideration of music’s decline, because the answer to the question, ‘when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?’ in a music-discussion-context is, ‘no.’

Music exists in the mind, literally.  And not only that: music exists in our collective minds, literally.  You can’t put your mind away from everyone else’s and listen to music—music is listened to by the collective mind, not your own, no matter how much your greedy little sensory organs tell you otherwise.

If you listen to a piece of rock music, for instance, and say to yourself as you listen to it, ‘man, this rocks!’ you are experiencing ‘this rocks!’ precisely because you are conscious that others will find this music rocking, and you are thrilling to this idea—that others will find this music rocking, even if you are only concious of your own ‘rocking’ pleasure.

Music is nothing less than the single most important constructed, cultural context in which humanity hears the many (their ‘many’) in the one (their ‘one’).  Music is how humanity experiences itself as God, without having to surrender to God’s harsher and more knowing nature.

Because humanity’s existence involves a past and a consciousness of that past, previous music and previous experiences of music are vital to all present experiences of music.  Also, since the mind judges, and the mind is what experiences music, the experience of music cannot be separated out from the judgement of it.  Snobbery is impossible in music: we are all stupid, flawed, sappy american idol judges when it comes to music, whether we want to admit it, or not; subconscious layers of nostalgia and subconsious layers of hatred of nostalgia color all musical judgments.  None of us are special when it comes to music—as it should be.  One who appreciates nursery rhymes and nothing else could have a better understanding of music than a professional music producer, earning millions and using equipment worth millions.

Some may argue that music affects the body, not so much the mind, and that the arguments just made are too grandiose.

But then how do we explain how the same piece of music can “rock” for some, and sound utterly banal and uninteresting to others?  If the body were the only thing that were reacting to the music, how could this difference of opinion, which is very common, even exist?

This common listening event only proves what is being maintained: music is experienced in the mind.

As for the second argument, regarding free downloading: this is a more legal, technical, market-driven issue, obviously, but it’s more related to the first argument than we might think.

Why? Because 1) it’s a large, human issue and 2) any consideration of the music industry has to include thoughts on the essence of music—the kind found in argument one.

Does free downloading hurt the music industry?  The answer will always be yes and no, since acquisition will always be as multi-faceted as the market—hell, as life, itself, since acquisition is at the heart of all existence.

I can’t imagine an author objecting to libraries.  The person who takes a book out of a library (for ‘free’) will more likely be truly interested in that book and read that book, or, at least sincerely attempt to read that book, than if that book were purchased as a gift.  Sales do not signify any interest or value beyond the sale itself—which granted, is a pretty big thing, because the mysterious thing known as the economy must be fed.   If something sells, but adds no real value to society, who cares whether it sells, or not?  (It is exactly from here we get the argument: Who cares about the music industry?  Let it die!) Value sold is not value made.  Value can’t just be sold; it has to be made; and the fact that junk sells does not mean selling isn’t important, but more importantly, it does not mean that value (what is valuable to society) isn’t important.

But here, as with the music, we must expand our idea of what the industry is.

‘Decline of the music industry’ talk is mostly driven by the empty hopes and dreams of the anti-corporate crowd.  Every day we see statistics gleefully cited, showing sagging numbers for ‘Big Music,’ CD sales tanking, concert sales down, and decreasing profits across the board.

Anti-corporate feeling is natural and wide-spread, especially among intelligent folk who resent large, cynical, fast-buck, corporations making mass profits while dumbing down the already dumbed down masses.  It’s infuriating to those of us with a shred of decency and sense.

But hoping something will be doesn’t make it so.

The aging boomers and the crappy economy certainly matter; however, despite what the corporation-haters say, the industry is still doing fine.   The numbers showing the decline of the music industry are wrong—because they are too narrow.   Music industry profits are not declining; they are increasing.   At the height of the golden age of the vinyl album about 40 years ago and the subsequent renaissance of the CD album about 15 years ago, look at a typical family’s entertainment budget: A stereo. Record and/or CD purchases.  A TV and a radio.   The occasional concert.  Now, think of all our music-based gadgets, the constantly upgraded purchases, and all the monthly fees for those gadgets; plus we still buy music and go to concerts and watch TV.  Old acts are thriving, new acts are thriving, there’s more bands than ever. In addition, every video game features music—a crucial means of making them attractive.

Think the industry is suffering?  Think again.

The good news, however, is that the industry doesn’t matter.  Music is your judgment, your call, and will always exist uniquely in your mind.

SOME RANDOM NEW YEAR’S THOUGHTS BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

Morrall & Shula: the 1968—1977  Brady & Belichick?

Some things never change: NFL Playoffs begin this weekend with 12 teams’ fans certain this is their super bowl year.  Football is surely the strangest team sport of them all—tons of athletic talent bubbles up from high school and college levels, watched, fanatically boosted, and bred, in a nation-wide industry of bone-jarring frenzy, continually fired up into the highest reaches of life-threatening and extremely well-paid, passionate competition, to arrive at the professional level where dozens of teams collide in a relatively short season (baseball plays 162 games, football, 16) of high-speed Xs and Os, only to have the game dominated for its entire (super bowl era) 45 year history by a handful of quarterbacks and franchises.

Since turnovers (fumble recoveries and interceptions) are more important in football than any other factor by a wide margin, you would think there would be an ‘anything-can-happen’ element in football, not to mention injuries, blitzes, coverage mistakes, tipped balls, missteps, penalties, clock-erros, ball placement-errors, catches that are not really catches, penalites that are not really penalties, to add to the randomness and the confusion.  But, no.  The same small number of franchises succeed.  Whole eras are dominated by one or two quarterbacks, and one or two teams.  How can this be?

One breakout actress in 2011, Rooney Mara, (who looks like a female Elijah Wood on the cover of the January 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly—the shamelessly jackass, fan-dumb, magazine which pretends objectivity in its coverage even though it’s published by Time Warner) has a name that encompasses nearly a quarter of all super bowl victories.

Rooney and Mara have something in common: they founded their iconic teams (Steelers, Giants) with gambling winnings.  Art Rooney is U.S. ambassador to Ireland, and I’m sure it won’t be long before the NFL puts someone in the White House, in exchange for one half-time show and two fixed Super Bowls as payment.

Football mirrors politics: Americans know 2 things for sure: 1) Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, despite what Walter Cronkite and CBS told us, and 2) Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III victory over the 3-touchdown favorite Colts was fixed—so the laughing-stock AFL could gain respect, opening the door for billions in revenue with the NFL/AFL merger.  The newly formed AFC in 1970 saw success for the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers (old NFL franchises happy to mingle with the lowly AFL clubs in a new AFC division) and let’s not forget the Miami Dolphins, whose suddenly successful head coach, Don Shula, and his quarterback Earl Morrall, were losers in Super Bowl III’ s fix.  Earl Morrall, who played for both the Giants and Steelers before being traded to the Colts in August of 1968 as a back-up quarterback for Johnny Unitas, proceeded to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1968, leading the Colts to a 13-1 record and two crushing wins in the playoffs before playing a strangely terrible game in Super Bowl III (January, 1969) and losing.  Earl Morrall’s work in Super Bowl III was rewarded, however; after the NFL merger, playing for the now-AFC Colts in Super Bowl V, Morrall earned a Super Bowl ring!  Not only that, Morrall was reunited with his Super Bowl III Colts’ coach, Don Shula, and proceeded to win another Super Bowl ring (along with 1972 NFL Comeback Player of the Year) with the ‘perfect record’ AFC Miami Dolphins in January of 1973.

The NFL is a business first, theater, second, and a sport, a distant third.  Sexy quarterbacks, dynasties, and Joe Six Pack defenses are so important to the first two that the NFL rarely lets the third get in the way.   (There’s only one thing better than a sexy quarterback: a quarterback willing to ‘throw’ a game—see Earl Morrall.)

Athletes are naturally competitive, and intentionally losing goes against their nature, so cases like Earl Morrall are very rare; but fortunately for NFL owners, there are easier ways to fix games: referees, those gentlemen protected from public scrutiny who can change the momentum of a game not only with a call, but with a non-call—calls that cannot be challenged by anyone—are happy to oblige.  Throw as many things at the TV set as you want, the ref can do whatever his bosses tell him to do.

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ cheating scandal is a significant and  interesting piece of corruption inside an already-corrupt game.  A back-up quarterback at Michigan and a head coach (whose father’s job was to spy on other football teams) are the most succcessful NFL quarterback/coach pair of all time.  Their quest for a perfect season, just as it happens, was derailed only after a U.S. senator threatened to investigate New England’s cheating, just before Mara’s team defeated Kraft’s team in the Super Bowl, the same Kraft who, despite all his public charitable giving and untold wealth, is personally pushing for a gambling casino in the sleepy town that contains his football stadium.

We hope “your” team goes all the way this year!

*

Did Carole King get the melody for her “You’ve Got A Friend” (1971) from Burt Bacharach’s “Trains, Boats, and Planes (1966)?”

*

Shakespeare’s book, known as the Sonnets, is not the story of a ‘young man’ and a ‘dark lady;’ these poems are nothing less than the world writing to itself—these poems are “we” writing to “us;” and to believe this work was Shakespeare writing to some particular youth is the height of folly.  We find that dividing the 154 poems into 11 chapters of 14 poems works well for the ‘first chapter,’ since the first 14 have procreation as their theme, and then sonnet 15 introduces the new theme of immortality through poems, plus the so-called ‘dark lady’ sequence which ends the book (if we include that last 2 ‘cupid’ poems) is exactly 28 poems; but we also like the division of 14 chapters of 11 poems each, which fits much better later on—the turn in sonnet # 100, for example (“Where art thou Muse?”).  The universal insistence of calling the first 17 sonnets the ‘procreation’ sequence, reveals how mistaken scholarship is, and has been, regarding this masterpiece.

*

J.S. Bach happily followed the advice of the Sonnets, procreating often; Bach’s children, as their daddy’s music fell out of favor in the 18th century, influenced Mozart and the Romantics.  There are moments when I listen to J.S. Bach and think: Bach is music.

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Changing how we think of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is one of Scarriet’s on-going projects; another one is solving the mystery of Edgar Poe’s murder, whose birthday is only 12 days away.  We have the 12 days of Christmas, followed by the 12 days leading up to Edgar Poe’s birth, and 12 days later we are out of January, and days are not so dark.

The facts that we have to keep in mind is that not only was Poe found in a state of distress, in someone else’s clothes, but he was found in a place many miles off from his itinerary—which, by chance (?) happened to be two blocks from the home of a Mr. Snodgrass, a Baltimore Sun editor.  The Sun was part of the major newspaper network that covered up Poe’s whereabouts as he lay dying.  Furthermore, years earlier, in correspondance between the two that abruptly ended, Poe confessed to Snodgrass his intense dislike for his cousin, Neilson Poe.  Who, by chance (?) happened to come by in the very small window of time in which Snodgrass was alerted by another Sun employee, Joseph Walker, that Poe was suffering in the place where he (Poe) was found?  Neilson Poe!  Who then saw to it that Poe was carted off to a slummy hospital, away from all public notice, where days later he (Poe) mysteriously perished—to then be buried quickly without an autopsy, while the Sun and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (leading the way) made trivial remarks of the author’s passing?  Which two saw this operation through from start to finish?  Joseph Snodgrass and Neilson Poe.

Scarriet is pleased that Poe scholars visit and discuss matters with us, from time to time.

We are looking for more excitement in 2012!

Happy New Year!

PUREST POETRY AND TRUE

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If someone is dangerously insane 1% of the time, are they sane?

By the same token, if a poem is not a poem once, is it a poem?

Boundless sympathy ought to attend the human creature, but if there’s a chance our roommate will murder us as we sleep, would we still wish them to be our roommate?

If a poem is not really a poem, do we want that poem to be our poem?

Who in the world can know how to make a perfect person, or ever demand it, especially when, in our very lives, we, the most gracious of all, may surrender to madness from time to time, such that we might even mourn how a life is long—and in a minute a soul may go astray?

But let us leave these morbid thoughts, for a comparison was all we were after: a poem, unlike a life, is in our control, and yet poets now accept poetry that is poetry in glimpses, in slivers, in brief manifestations within the greater husk of prose.  Poems now introduce themselves plainly, fall down, vomit, tear their clothes, scream, walk out the door with a whistle and claim they have danced for us.  But they haven’t.  It was a dance just before they hit the floor, but then they hit the floor.  There was a line, just one, that sounded like a poem’s.  Does that make it a poem?

A poem is a poem in its every word, line, and stanza.  It is not a poem because its prose rises occasionally to the poetic, or if the prose of its prose loped after a poetic line or word or two, or circled, panting, around a poetic idea.

A poem is—a poem, through and through.  A poem is not a woman carried by men; a  poem is not a poem aided by prose; she walks herself.

If poets fancy they are writing a poem because they write one of those things with numbered parts in which one of the parts bursts out in song, or if a part of one of the parts sings, someone should tell them they have not written a poem, but only a part of a poem.

If a poem doesn’t end like a poem, it is not a poem.

If a poem doesn’t sound like a poem in the begining, or in the middle, or in the end, it is not a poem.

If we set out to build a house, we don’t make part of a house and call it a house.

Language may be such a large arch that many creatures may play beneath it, but an arch is a construct, not a blur, and we ought to know when a poem is entirely poetic—it is a poem because it looks like a poem from this angle, and this one, and that one, too.  A poem is not ‘give me a minute, and I’ll show you poetry;’ a poem is poetry.  A poem is not ‘see that man leaning against that wall? when he comes over here, you will get some poetry;’ a poem is poetry.  A poem is not ‘your waiter will be right with you, to take your order for poetry;’ a poem is poetry.  Poetry is not ‘poetry! modern blah old blah modern blah.’  Poetry is the poem.  Right now and to the end.

Here’s one of those poems, which is a poem, from start to finish, with idea, imagery, and music fused in a remarkable display.  It arrests us immediately, and doesn’t let go:

To Night

Swiftly walk over the western wave,
Spirit of Night!
Out of the misty eastern cave
Where, all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear, –
Swift be thy flight!

Wrap thy form in a mantle grey,
Star-inwrought!
Blind with thine hair the eyes of Day,
Kiss her until she be wearied out,
Then wander o’er city, and sea, and land,
Touching all with thine opiate wand –
Come, long-sought!

When I arose and saw the dawn,
I sighed for thee;
When light rode high, and the dew was gone,
And noon lay heavy on flower and tree,
And the weary Day turned to his rest,
Lingering like an unloved guest,
I sighed for thee.

Thy brother Death came, and cried
`Wouldst thou me?’
Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,
Murmured like a noontide bee
`Shall I nestle near thy side?
Wouldst thou me?’ -And I replied
`No, not thee!’

Death will come when thou art dead,
Soon, too soon –
Sleep will come when thou art fled;
Of neither would I ask the boon
I ask of thee, beloved Night –
Swift be thine approaching flight,
Come soon, soon!

The comparison of sleep, death, and night is lovely;, the soft passion of Shelley’s poem is unmatched.  One almost feels that the shorter lyrics of Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysicals, and the whole age leading up to the Romantics was a prelude to Shelley’s genius, and by the same reckoning, our day’s practice is flying away from Shelley’s star so rapidly that she is almost invisible.  Can anyone write a Shelley poem today?

To provide an example of that modern poem which is part poem and part something else, and thus not a poem at all—one we might feel compelled to admire even as a little voice tells us it is no poem at all—would be easy to find: the choices are nearly infinite, and our readers surely know the kind of work of which we speak.  They are everywhere.

ESCAPE FROM EMO

As T.S. Eliot wisely put it, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emo, but an escape from emo.”

The Volta, a new blog, didn’t get the memo.

The blog began in 2011, and issue 13 in 2012 has added a regular poems and interview feature. 

Not that we’re thrilled. 

We first checked out the four “poetics” essays.  The first one, by a guy named Shane, begins,

I tried to kill myself when I was seventeen. Honestly, I can’t remember whether or not I was sad, but I think I was. What I do remember is the method I used—I washed a bottle of Tylenol PM down with a glass of chocolate drink (not chocolate milk—the label on the milk jug-shaped jug specifically said “chocolate drink”), and put My Bloody Valentine’s “Swallow” on a loop. Here, have a listen [with a link to a forgettable music video by the hipster act].

And the piece ends like this,

Most of my favorite poems, however, construct at least part of the self—my self—with which they’re intimate. They succeed as poems because I don’t see the construction happening—while I’m reading the poem, a new part of my self is just suddenly there. And that new addition might be mostly temporary, but, while I’m reading the poem, it’s as surely a part of me as my arm is. Each poem makes a ghost limb.

That intimacy was what I was looking for when I chose “Swallow.” I chose it because I didn’t want to die alone.

The editors encourage emo submissions, since on their site, we read: 

Please note that while poetics is a broad term, we are not looking to publish reviews or poems of any length.

We seek instead: essays, treatises, experiments, manifestos, letters, roundtables, inquiries—even meditations, polemics, and diaries. Related, however obliquely, to poetry, or “whatever else falls within the same inquiry.”

Don’t send us “reviews of poems;” send us your “diaries!”

Just what poetry needs. 

The next writer, a woman named Rusty, tells us she is more aware of “silence” after the death of her parents. 

The next essay, by Boyer Rickel, begins, “Our present is mostly a past,” and dives into old summer memories.

The final essay by Elizabeth Robinson comes closest to something which might be called Ralph Waldo Emerson lite, but is dragged down by cliche:

If mystical experience is dialogic and if poetry presumes and is based in some form of dialog then poetry is mystical experience.

(Yes, and Ray Charles is God.)

All of this might hinge, for those brought up in the western Christian tradition (either explicitly or via cultural suffusion) on what we mean by the word, “word.”

(a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds and their written representation

—speech or talk

—lyrics of a song, as opposed to the music

—talk or conversation

—a verbal signal

—authoritative utterance)

The dictionary I have is not helpful with etymology—

word, Wort, orth, waured, wirds, verbum, vardas
It hints that in some derivations “word” might be related to “name.” Hence the oral, spoken sense of “word” that predominates in the definitions may shift to an understanding of “word” as label or sign.

But in the first verses of the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, we also have this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

How many essays on poetic language and “presence” quote “In the beginning was the Word,” and ruminate quasi-mystically in this manner?  Thousands?  Millions?

The Volta interview begins this way:

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: 2011 was a big year for you, with the release of both Howell and Adventures of Pi. Would you mind reflecting a bit on how these books came to be, what’s changed from work to work, and whether or not you continue to conceive of the book-length work as is its own particular endeavor?

Tyrone Williams: The vicissitudes of publishing are particularly vexed in the world of small presses. I certainly hadn’t planned on publishing Adventures of Pi, an old manuscript dating from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, and Howell, a book I’d conceived of and worked on, with various interruptions (e.g., On Spec), from 1998 to 2008. I sent the finished manuscript of the latter in 2009 because On Spec had just come out and I didn’t know the publishing target date for Howell. Meanwhile, the Hero Project of the Century, which was supposed to have come in 2007, appeared in 2009—I was worried that it might appear with Howell, but I heard from Travis Ortiz in 2009 that he’d just started working on the production of Howell, so I figured I was safe. I didn’t hear anything again until fall of 2010. Meanwhile a local Cincinnati publisher, Dos Madres, was interested in publishing those older poems, but I held off. When I didn’t hear anything more from Travis at the beginning of 2011 I gave the go-ahead to Dos Madres for Adventures of Pi. Then I heard from Travis later that spring, and he informed me Howell was due for a fall release. In both cases, for both publishers, Robert Murphy at Dos Madres and Travis Ortiz at Atelos, delays were complicated by family issues. I understand; I’m just happy to have people interested enough in my work to want to publish it at all.

As for how I conceive of the work, Adventures of Pi is obviously a collection of poems, conceived as a whole, but certainly less so than Howell, which is a kind of symphony. Since completing Howell, I’ve been writing more normative, lyric-based poems, for a couple of new manuscripts, which are definitely in the germinating stages.

Wow.  Who cares about this stuff?  Who can possibly think there’s a public for this? 

Finally, here’s a sampling of one of the poems:

Take the most abstract
Forms you can imagine.
Now break them down
Into tiny people,

Wrestling at arm’s length
For some soup. The
Heaviness of the day
Was taken with us,

Lost as we are in
Imagination’s tirade.
The partial wind blows
Over the fields. I mark

My freedom to its end,
Dance with the long-
Legged lemurs, the consonance
Astounds me! No more

Crying in this landscape,
Kiss goodbye to the flowers.

e. e. cummings would be outraged; it’s just like his poetry—without the strange layout.   Have people no respect?

It might be endearing if this blog were published by high school students, but there’s more than a dozen professors on Volta’s masthead, many of them creative writing teachers. 

Why does this supposedly sophisticated on-line journal confuse poetry with emo?   “Creative writing” should be a clue. This is not to say that suicide attempts and deaths of parents and old memories are not worthy of our respect, but poetry is not it, poetry is it transformed.   The Creative Writing industry has much in common with emo, because the client, or student, of the Creative Writing industry is both consumer and product. 

The product of the Creative Writing industry is the apprentice writer’s own memories and emotions—valuable only to the student/poet whose memories and emotions they are.  “Write what you know” and “find your voice” are two key Writing Workshop mantras, and for good reason. The student does not study the best examples of philosophy and history and criticism, so much as how to turn his or her emo diary entries into fairly passable poetry.  Emo memories and Ralph Waldo Emerson lite is in endless supply, so the recent academia-as-creative-writing-business-model will be good for years.

Maybe we should blame all of this on Shelley and his, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!”   This is one of those iconic lines, like “Nevermore” and “Miles to go before I sleep” and “Let us go then, you and I” and “I saw the best minds of my generation…”  But “Ode to the West Wind” is a great poem, not a diary entry.

And Shelley could also write essays like this (the beginning is quoted below):

He who asserts the doctrine of Necessity means that, contemplating the events which compose the moral and material universe, he beholds only an immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, no one of which could occupy any other place than it does occupy, or act in any other place than it does act. The idea of Necessity is obtained by our experience of the connection between objects, the uniformity of the operations of nature, the constant conjunction of similar events, and the consequent inference of one from the other. Mankind are therefore agreed in the admission of Necessity, if they admit that these two circumstances take place in voluntary action. Motive is to voluntary action in the human mind what cause is to effect in the material universe. The word liberty as applied to mind is analogous to the word chance as applied to matter:  they spring from the ignorance of the certainty of the conjunction of antecedents and consequents.

Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated which, operating under the name of motives, make it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than it is. Were the doctrine of Necessity false, the human mind would no longer be a legitimate object of science; from like causes it would be in vain that we should expect like effects; the strongest motive would no longer be paramount over the conduct; all knowledge would be vague and undeterminate; we could not predict with any certainty that we might not meet as an enemy to‑morrow him from whom we have parted in friendship to‑night; the most probable inducements and the clearest reasonings would lose the invariable influence they possess.  The contrary of this is demonstrably the fact. Similar circumstances produce the same unvariable effects. The precise character and motives of any man on any occasion being given, the moral philosopher could predict his actions with as much certainty as the natural philosopher could predict the effects of the mixture of any particular chemical substances.  Why is the aged husbandman more experienced than the young beginner? Because there is an uniform, undeniable necessity in the operations of the material universe. Why is the old statesman more skilful than the raw politician? Because, relying on the necessary conjunction of motive and action, he proceeds to produce moral effects by the application of those moral causes which experience has shown to be effectual. Some actions may be found to which we can attach no motives, but these are the effects of causes with which we are unacquainted. Hence the relation which motive bears to voluntary action is that of cause to effect; nor, placed in this point of view, is it, or ever has it been, the subject of popular or philosophical  dispute.  None but the few fanatics who are engaged in the Herculean task of reconciling the justice of their God with the misery of man will longer outrage common sense by the supposition of an event without a cause, voluntary action without a motive. History, politics, morals, criticism, all grounds of reasoning, all principles of science, alike assume the truth of the doctrine of Necessity.  No farmer carrying his corn to market doubts the sale of it at the market price. The master of a manufactory no more doubts that he can purchase the human labor necesary for his purposes than that his machines will act as they have been accustomed to act.

 We have a hunch that writing as strong as this will never appear in The Volta.

Shelley wrote the above when he was a teenager, having been tossed out of Oxford after a couple of semesters for his atheism.

If you’re going to do emo, you might as well do it right.

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