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.



  1. David said,

    January 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm


    I wonder about the assertion that prose cannot be well-made. Will you elaborate on that point? If a poem and a movie and a car can be well-made, why not a novel?

    Poetry—not all at once, but gradually—has turned its back on the well-made …

    Isn’t it ironic how the decline of the well-made poem coincides with the ascent of the “workshop” as the way to learn poem-making?


    • thomasbrady said,

      January 21, 2012 at 10:44 pm


      Ha! Yes, that is an irony.

      I meant that for prose to do what it does best: be conversational and homely and expressive and informative it need not be well-made: that’s why we don’t write instruction manuals in verse. in fact, for prose to sound like ‘real’ voices of ‘real’ people it should not be well-made.

      Also, the sort of easy-going, meandering, best-selling prose of novels is not immediately felt as well-made, and if a novel finally manifests itself as well-made, it is necessary to read it in its entirety to see that it is. And with well-made formulaic, genre fiction, readers know what to expect and appreciate the well-made ‘formula’ of the genre—but it isn’t necessarily the prose that is well-made, or has to be. Pulp fiction is well-made as a book, perhaps, but it does not necessarily contain well-made prose.

      As for poetry that uses prose, the well-made here is even more difficult to detect, or appreciate.

      In certain instances, I agree that prose can be well-made; so yes, that part of the argument is not perfect.


  2. jhwriter said,

    January 21, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    The statement that prose “cannot be well-made” is fatuous. Of course it can. But then your using “well-made” in a very specific (and false) sense, equating it with “the beautiful”—an utterly subjective, critically useless term, especially as it relates to “ideas.” Also, the notion that poetry “threw in its lot with flat prose” over the past 50 years or so is surprisingly ignorant. Let’s see: Baudelaire published the prose poems of Spleen de Paris in 1869; four years later, Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer. Would you pretend that these works aren’t “well-made”? In 1925 Montale published Ossi di Seppia, the first of his collections, in each of which (as Rosanna Warren notes in her introduction to the Collected Poems translated by William Arrowsmith) “he invented new ways of putting poetic language under stress and of realigning it with prose.” Surely you don’t mean to suggest that Montale did not write “well-made poems” in the process of rescuing Italian poetry from the vitiating “beauty” of D’Annunzio. Or do you? If so, I imagine you would seriously wish that we’d dump Whitman for his contemporaries Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Bayard Taylor, both of whom were devoted to “the beautiful.” No, the fact is that the turn you describe began at least 150 years ago and has absolutely nothing to do with the proliferation of MFA programs. (That is another issue.) It has to do with the ugly brutality of European culture in its colonization and oppression of non-white peoples around the world and its self-brutality most starkly on view in the two world wars of the last century. It’s no surprise that “well-made poems” and “the beautiful” are no longer ascendant. They have little to do with reality. And if poetry cannot or will not find ways to express feelings and ideas about reality, it is completely pointless. At least it seems so to me.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 21, 2012 at 11:00 pm


      Just because a few French poets were writing in prose in the 19th century proves nothing. First, French is not stressed as English is, so all French poetry is prose next to English verse. Second, the popular poets in English in the 20th century were still rhyming: Millay, Dorothy Parker, Eliot, Frost, Hardy, Stevens, Ransom, Thomas, Larkin, Wilbur, Plath, Sexton, etc. Only in the Iowa workshop world of the 70s/80s was rhyme fully banished, and free verse finally victorious. Not entirely, of course. This is why I called it gradual.

      Beautiful as an aesthetic term has been scorned for decades now. Those who attack it are like religious zealots; they are satisfied with all sorts of vague terminology, but pretend not to know what beautiful is. The objection to the beautiful is inane.


      • waltdisneywhitman said,

        January 22, 2012 at 9:50 pm

        I think Thomas nailed it when he called Beauty “the last taboo”. Certainly one can see why this is true when witnessing the inane, rote bile spewed forth from supposed “free-thinkers”.

  3. David said,

    January 22, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Well made and beautiful poems “have little to do with reality”?

    Many a green isle needs must be
    In the deep wide sea of Misery,
    Or the mariner, worn and wan,
    Never thus could voyage on –
    Day and night, and night and day,
    Drifting on his dreary way,
    With the solid darkness black
    Closing round his vessel’s track:
    Whilst above the sunless sky,
    Big with clouds, hangs heavily,
    And behind the tempest fleet
    Hurries on with lightning feet,

    He is ever drifted on
    O’er the unreposing wave
    To the haven of the grave.
    What, if there no friends will greet;
    What, if there no heart will meet
    His with love’s impatient beat;
    Wander wheresoe’er he may,
    Can he dream before that day
    To find refuge from distress
    In friendship’s smile, in love’s caress?
    Then ’twill wreak him little woe
    Whether such there be or no:
    Senseless is the breast, and cold,
    Which relenting love would fold;
    Bloodless are the veins and chill
    Which the pulse of pain did fill;
    Every little living nerve
    That from bitter words did swerve
    Round the tortured lips and brow,
    Are like sapless leaflets now
    Frozen upon December’s bough.

    Yes, I suppose the writer of those stanzas was incapable of finding “ways to express feelings and ideas about reality”.

    By the way, just what does the “the colonization and oppression of non-white peoples around the world” have to do with the decision to reject Beauty as the province of Poetry?

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 22, 2012 at 3:13 pm

      Nice one, David.

      As to that original point: No one would say that Shelley is smarter than Ashbery, for instance, but all would agree that Shelley’s work is well-made in a way that Ashbery’s is not.


    • jhwriter said,

      January 23, 2012 at 12:13 am

      I believe it’s obvious from what I wrote that I was referring to “well-made poems” and “the beautiful” as critical terms. They are, as David implicitly affirms, simply shills for (respectively) “metrical rhyming poems” and “poems I happen to like”. And I dragged the French poets in simply to make the point that prose crossed over into poetry long before the 1960s or ’70s. I note that Thomas does not lay the poems of Whitman or Montale on his “well-made” scale or argue that their poetry is “not beautiful”; perhaps this means he likes them but can’t admit it. Also, I never said that Beauty (love that capital B!) is not “the province of Poetry”; it was Thomas that denied it as a province of prose: either position would be silly. As for my point about oppression—well, I didn’t express it very well, but what I had in mind is the notion that three or four centuries of highly organized, global brutality have changed poetic values—or maybe rearranged the hierarchy of poetic values is a better way to put it. To posit aesthetic beauty, however one defines it, as an adequate response to genocide is reactionary and absurd, if what we’re after is a larger audience for poetry—though for the life of me I don’t understand how popularity is a useful measure. The best selling book of poetry in the 20th century was Robert Service’s Songs of a Sourdough at over 3 million copies. If you want to accept that popularity as a measure of aesthetic value, then Service must be the best the past century had to offer. And who would be with him among the top 10 best-selling American poets? Edgar Guest, James Whitcomb Riley, Rod McKuen . . . well, somebody who cares about this—Thomas, I imagine—should do the compilation, and we’ll see how popularity relates to poetic value.

    • marcusbales said,

      January 24, 2012 at 12:12 pm

      Still Life
      Anthony Hecht

      Sleep-walking vapor, like a visitant ghost,
      Hovers above a lake
      Of Tennysonian calm just before dawn.
      Inverted trees and boulders waver and coast
      In polished darkness. Glints of silver break
      Among the liquid leafage, and then are gone.

      Everything’s doused and diamonded with wet.
      A cobweb, woven taut
      On bending stanchion frames of tentpole grass,
      Sags like a trampoline or firemen’s net
      With all the glitter and riches it has caught,
      Each drop a paperweight of Steuben glass.

      No birdsong yet, no cricket, nor does the trout
      Explode in water-scrolls
      For a skimming fly. All that is yet to come.
      Things are as still and motionless throughout
      The universe as ancient Chinese bowls,
      And nature is magnificently dumb.

      Why does this so much stir me, like a code
      Or muffled intimation
      Of purposes and preordained events?
      It knows me, and I recognize its mode
      Of cautionary, spring-tight hesitation,
      This silence so impacted and intense.

      As in a water-surface I behold
      The first, soft, peach decree
      Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
      I stand beneath a pine-tree in the cold,
      Just before dawn, somewhere in Germany,
      A cold, wet, Garand rifle in my hands.

      • David said,

        January 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm

        That is elevating. Hecht’s poetry is exquisite.

      • jhwriter said,

        January 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm

        Wonderful! Here’s something in a different register:

        The Diameter of the Bomb
        by Yehuda Amichai (tr. Ted Hughes and the author)

        The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimetres
and the diameter of its effective
        range—about seven metres.
        And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
        And around them in a greater circle
        of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.

        But the young woman who was
        buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometres away
        enlarges the circle greatly.
        And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in the circle.
        And I won’t speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God

        and from there onward, making
        the circle without end and without God.

        • carolynforche said,

          January 24, 2012 at 4:46 pm

          Thank you for drawing our attention to this important translation by Ted Hughes. I am humbled in the face of this atrocity.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    January 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Here’s a celebration of the ‘well-made poem’ by the longest-running poetry newspaper column in the U.S.

    Here they call it the ‘poetry of poise.’

    • james bagger said,

      January 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm

      yes, it’s a well-made poem. it moves well, but the subject matter, to me, seems trite, and the metaphor is basically a cliche–and a bad, untrue one at that. an actual fear of happiness has very little to with an actual fear of heights. furthermore, the poem lacks any sense of authenticity, being how ms stallings just got paid quite a hefty sum for her fearless advocacy, translations, good works, and overall sense of general poetic happiness. i’ve heard better, also very well-made poems, most recently on this program:

  5. David said,

    January 23, 2012 at 1:45 am

    jhwriter writes:

    I believe it’s obvious from what I wrote that I was referring to “well-made poems” and “the beautiful” as critical terms.

    So you must be criticizing poems that are weak, plastic-flower imitations of beautiful, well-made poems? For what reasonable person would cast scorn upon poems that are truly beautiful and well-made?

    As for the assertion that the experience of colonialism has displaced Beauty from its perennial position atop the hierarchy of poetic values, it is as silly as Adorno’s dictum that poetry is no longer possible after Auschwitz.

    • jhwriter said,

      January 23, 2012 at 7:05 am

      If you want to continue willfully misreading me, by all means have fun with it. But again, I’m not criticizing poems of any kind, only the terms Thomas has fielded as if they actually meant something. SInce you think they do, maybe you could stoop to offering definitions of “well-made” and “beautiful” that might show just how useful these terms are in talking about any particular poem.

      And thanks for yet another misquotation of Adorno. You might take a peek at “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society” to wrestle with what he actually wrote. Not that I’m a fan of Adorno, though we’re united in being persistently misrepresented.

  6. waltdisneywhitman said,

    January 23, 2012 at 5:09 am

    The same kind of reasonable person who casts scorn on the alien-like runway model.

  7. David said,

    January 23, 2012 at 4:20 pm


    I’m not willfully misrepresenting you. Either you’re not being entirely clear or I’m not understanding you. In any case, I get it now that you object to the critical terms “beautiful” and “well-made” as applied to any poem. As for what is meant by “Beauty”, I needn’t stoop, but will simply refer you to Poe’s definition in “The Philosophy of Composition”:

    My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration- the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart- upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes- that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment- no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

    Feel free to hack away.

    • jhwriter said,

      January 23, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul […] which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the ‘beautiful.'”

      This is a wonderful nutshelling of the Romantic spirit. I can understand why one would want to return to it, for there is precious little soul-elevation in poetry these days.

      But you do Poe a disservice by presenting this out of context. He is analyzing the composition of his poem “The Raven.” We might want to ask ourselves, then, if “The Raven” is the model you have in mind when advocating a return to Poe’s aesthetic. Certainly he considered it exemplary of his philosophy and method. If this is what you’re after, then you ought to include the paragraph that follows the one you’ve quoted:

      “Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.”

      So let’s see: based on Poe, you would have 21st century American poets (1) make truth and passion subservient to “beauty” and (2) limit the tone of their poetry to sadness or melancholy.

      I can’t believe this is what you mean to say. And I can’t believe you refuse to do the work of defining your terms. You want to pretend that “Intense and pure elevation of soul,” whatever that is, is some self-evident result of “well-made poems.” (This is what Poe meant by saying that his goal in writing “The Raven” was to “[render] the work universally appreciable.”) Does “The Raven,” which is clearly well-made, elevate your soul? Good for you if it does; but it does not elevate mine. In other words, its effects are not universal.

      All I’m asking is that you either stop making supposedly objective claims based on entirely subjective criteria, or that you define your terms in a way that your readers can test them on real poems. Is that too much to ask?

      But maybe I’m being too critical….

  8. David said,

    January 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm


    You are on record as saying that “the beautiful” has “little to do with reality”. By “reality” you apparently mean the experience of people of color under the heel of colonial oppression. That strikes me as a rather narrow view of “reality”. I would think that the province of Poetry is far wider in scope.

    • jhwriter said,

      January 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      That was sloppy on my part. I meant Thomas’s notion of “the Beautiful,” on behalf of which he just today offered up Poe’s essay on composition. Poe specifically states, and presumably Thomas agrees, that “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem.” I think Poe and Thomas are wrong. In other words, I stand with you: Poetry’s province is far wider in scope than the Romantic idea of Beauty and certain wider than what I suggested. My aim was to critique Poe’s/Thomas’s notion about poetry’s province, not to further limit it! To be more specific, I hold with Czeslaw Milosz’s view as put forward in The Witness of Poetry, in which he sees the poet as a person in history whose creative matrix is the interplay between external events and his or her own interior life. I think it’s shortsighted for readers to limit their openness to this interplay by saddling themselves with narrow expectations about what can and what cannot be poetry.

  9. David said,

    January 23, 2012 at 7:27 pm


    We can perhaps at least agree with Poe that making our poems universally appreciable is a worthy goal of writing poetry. That goal assumes, of course, the existence of “universals”, e.g., the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. While I doubt that Poe would necessarily reject the idea that the poet is “a person in history whose creative matrix is the interplay between external events and his or her own interior life” (although he might find a 21st century critic’s formulation of the idea somewhat obscure), I think that he would add that there still exists a Reality that transcends the poet’s historically rooted “creative matrix” and governs the output of its poetic interplay. That Reality is the universal idea of Beauty. If a given poem — crafted with an eye to Beauty — fails to elicit a universal elevation of soul in its diverse readers, this only proves the limitations of the poet, not the unworthiness of the goal. It is by seeking to achieve through his poem the most pure and intense elevation of soul (at least within himself) that the poet subjects his poem to the objectivity of Beauty. There is no “checklist” that the poet can provide to his reader. It is a leap of faith, but a leap nevertheless calculated with mathematical precision.

    • jhwriter said,

      January 23, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      We’re at the nub of it now, David. I doubt the existence of universals, if only because—if they existed—I would live in a perpetual state of anxiety over the fact that the vast majority of my fellow Americans do not find them where I find them. I think that the standards both you and I crave (or so it seems to me) have to rest on an historical and therefore fluid foundation. For me, it has to accommodate the exaltations of Stevens and demotics of Williams; Eliot of “The Waste Land” and Eliot of the Quartets; etc. I can’t claim that nothing poetic is alien to me, but I value openness over narrowness, and there are few ideas more narrowing than the idea of transcendental essences like “objective Beauty.” People who embrace such ideas are condemned, sooner or later, to the dangerous fantasy that they know how to recognize essences and legions of others simply don’t. Isn’t this mindset a kind of fundamentalism? (I have the Truth, you are an infidel!) Isn’t there a strong element of hubris in it?

      • David said,

        January 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm

        I had a feeling that we had found the nub of the argument.

        There is in my position a temptation to hubris, to be sure. Fortunately we “fundamentalists” (you are speaking to a Roman Catholic, a papist) are provided certain cautionary signposts:

        “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

        “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” (1 Cor 10:12)

        Or as Dirty Harry put it:

        “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

        All of that said, I believe that there is nothing more expansive, more enlarging, more … liberal, than to subject one’s puny particularity to a transcendent and governing universal.

        What G.K. Chesterton said of the Catholic Church might also be said of a belief in the objectivity of Beauty applied to Poetry:

        “[It] is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

  10. David said,

    January 23, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Ars Poetica?
    By Czeslaw Milosz

    Translated By Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

    I have always aspired to a more spacious form
    that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
    and would let us understand each other without exposing
    the author or reader to sublime agonies.

    In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
    a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
    so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
    and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

    That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
    though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
    It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
    when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

    What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
    who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
    and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
    work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

    It’s true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
    and so you may think that I am only joking
    or that I’ve devised just one more means
    of praising Art with the help of irony.

    There was a time when only wise books were read,
    helping us to bear our pain and misery.
    This, after all, is not quite the same
    as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

    And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
    and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
    People therefore preserve silent integrity,
    thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

    The purpose of poetry is to remind us
    how difficult it is to remain just one person,
    for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
    and invisible guests come in and out at will.

    What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
    as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
    under unbearable duress and only with the hope
    that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

    Berkeley, 1968

  11. thomasbrady said,

    January 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm


    “a person in history whose creative matrix is the interplay between external events and his or her own interior life.” –Milosz

    This is too general to have any meaning. This is the sort of safe formula scholars make every day: one to which no one could possibly object—because it doesn’t really say anything.

    Poe, the genius, goes out on a limb, and really says something—to which, of course, almost everyone objects.

    Poe divides rhetoric into three: Truth, Taste, and Passion and assigns poetry to the realm of Taste, expressed best by the Beautiful, which, of course, means more than just ‘pretty,’ and then says the Beautiful is best expressed by the tone melancholy. This does NOT mean that the poem should be sad, per se, but that the best tone to express the beautiful—the beautiful being more important—is a melancholy one. If we try to escape Poe’s formula, we mostly end up with light verse, or poetry that is very flat in expressiveness.

    Poe may seem like he’s being narrow, but he also happens to be correct.

    Forget theory for a moment and look at the evidence; look at the best known poems of the 20th century. They ALL have a sad or melancholy tone. Prufrock, Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, High Windows, One Art, The Waste Land, As I Walked Out One Evening, Howl, Daddy, The Snow Man, Idea of Order at Key West, For The Union Dead, Shine Perishing Republic, Cool Tombs, Dulce Et Decorum Est, When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone, etc


  12. jhwriter said,

    January 23, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Points taken. Enjoy your life behind that closed chamber door….

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 23, 2012 at 8:20 pm

      Don’t let it hit you on the way out…

      It’s heavier than it looks…

      • jhwriter said,

        January 24, 2012 at 7:38 pm

        But I was never inside. That was me knocking….

        (I know, I know. File this under “Examples of the Law of Diminishing Returns”)

        • thomasbrady said,

          January 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm

          Song of a Man Who Has Come Through
          By D.H. Lawrence

          Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
          A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
          If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
          If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
          If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
          By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world
          Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
          If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
          Driven by invisible blows,
          The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

          Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
          I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
          Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

          What is the knocking?
          What is the knocking at the door in the night?
          It is somebody wants to do us harm.

          No, no, it is the three strange angels.
          Admit them, admit them.

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