ELIZABETH ALEXANDER BATTLES CARL PHILLIPS IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

elizabeth-alexander-poem
Elizabeth Alexander, who rocked Obama’s inauguration, hopes to advance in Scarriet Madness play
Rita Dove’s anthology has amply provided the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Department Chair of Black Studies at Yale, with 6 pages of 3 poems.  Alexander’s poem which meets Carl Phillips in Madness action is short one:
EQUINOX
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
They are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
Metaphor is the chief—perhaps the only—device which we might call poetic used by the poet in “Equinox.”   The metaphoric equation is complex and the whole poem is essentially the explanation of it—which is a problem.  When, after September bee behavior and its effects are described in the first half (8 lines) of the poem, and we are introduced to the other half of the equation, “After the stroke we thought would be her last,” we do experience a kind of dramatic shift, but we also experience an equal sign in a mathematical formula, and the final “she is silent, light as an empty hive” stings us with its associative logic.
There is no doubt that analogy, metaphor, and comparison are central to poetic rhetoric, but when the equivalence is strained, strange, or overly complex, (my love is like a steamship, for instance) there is a danger of the metaphor eclipsing all the movement of the poem.   like a steamship, you say?
Elizabeth is a smart poet and fights against metaphor-drift by giving us hard facts: “my grandmother…slapped a nurse across the face” and “walked outside, and lay down in the snow.”
But unfortunately, lines like “I have found their dried husks in my clothes” are too transparently laid on for the metaphoric effect in a manner that suggests it is only the metaphor that is driving the poem.  The best analogies seem either accidental or inevitable, not programed or manufactured.
This may seem harsh, as if we are attacking the poet’s sacred imagination.  But we must push ahead and ask: what does the grandmother have to do with the bees?   Bees sting while dying—and the dying grandmother slapped the nurse.  “One last sting,” as Alexander puts it, and this is all well and good, but in the poem we are being instructed about bees—they are not a part of the drama of the poem (the grandmother dying is) and thus the specter of the didactic rears its ugly head.  “I found their dried husks in my clothes” is an attempt to naturalize the lecture, but the attempt only calls more attention to the trick.
The poor grandmother: we only see her dying—and compared didactically to a “dried husk” and an “empty hive!”
Carl Phillips (he has 2 poems and 3 pages in the Dove anthology) is a few years older than Alexander.  His poem completely avoids the metaphor issue: he asks a series of questions of what to do with real things.  His poem is also about death:
AS FROM A QUIVER OF ARROWS
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and then gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, and a chewed cap
to a pen elsewhere —how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo—why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
or intended a safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn’t want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
from oblation and memory, if we forget,
and can’t sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Do we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
The poem asks questions from start to finish about an anonymous dead person, but at the end of the poem the questions asked on behalf of a “we” suddenly lurch into “What will I do now, with my hands?”  The loss has infected the speaker, but rather strangely and obscurely: why hands?  In the latter half of the poem, forgetfulness and rest take center stage as the memorial task hinted at in the beginning, (“hurry now and write [the memory] down”) is left behind.
One feels a little that the questions go on too long, and they are too abstract.  It feels a little bit: what’s the point, here?
Elizabeth Alexander 79 Carl Phillips 76

MADNESS INTERLUDE: ORIGINAL SCARRIET POEM: IF LOVE CANNOT SPEAK

If love cannot speak in poetry, then where?
In wandering eyes that silent, stare,
At eyes, arms, lips, hips, hair
In eager looks hated by society?
If love cannot speak in poetry, then when?
Must we wait for the Romantics all over again,
When Shelley and Keats perfumed the air
Of perfumed love with perfumed care
In forms betokening love’s satiety?
If love cannot speak in poetry, then why
Must it drift away in sigh after sigh,
Or in cards the unimaginative buy
Because they have no idea what to say
When love sometimes throws a rhyme their way?

KEVIN YOUNG VERSUS W.S. MERWIN!

Kevin Young, Dove anthology youngster, hopes to advance in Scarriet’s March Madness.

Marla, this is an exciting Midwest/South brackett match-up: Old v. New.   A white, establishment poet, born in 1927, W.S. Merwin, takes on Kevin Young, a black poet born in 1970!  I can’t wait!

Marla Muse: What-eva.

Why so glum?

Marla Muse: (sigh) Just bring on the poetry.   Black and white doesn’t interest me…

Ebony and Iv-o-reeeee…

Marla Muse: Quit it.

M.S. Merwin knew Robert Graves, studied at one of the first Writers Workshops at Princeton in the 1940s, was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger in 1952, knew Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and chucked punctuation in New York in the 1960s.  In 2010 he was chosen as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He lives in Hawaii and is very eco-friendly.

Dove has included one Merwin poem with punctuation and three without.

The question, how important is punctuation? is an interesting one.  Edgar Poe thought it very important—not just in terms of grammar use, but for poetic expression.  

We might ask: does exactitude help, or hinder, anything we are trying to do?  Surely exactitude must help, and therefore, punctuation must be good.

Even here in the poem with punctuation, Merwin’s use of it is dull: he only uses periods and a few commas—almost like he was already wishing it away.

AIR

Naturally it is night.
Under the overturned lute with its
One string I am going my way
Which has a strange sound.

This way the dust, that way the dust.
I listen to both sides
But I keep right on.
I remember the leaves sitting in judgment
And then winter.

I remember the rain with its bundle of roads.
The rain taking all its roads.
Nowhere.

Young as I am, old as I am,

I forget tomorrow, the blind man.
I forget the life among the buried windows.
The eyes in the curtains.
The wall
Growing through the immortelles.
I forget silence
The owner of the smile.

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

A lute with one string describes Merwin’s poetry very well.  He plucks his notes very deliberately.  Let me establish this visual.  Let me establish this fact.  Clearly.  However, making sense individually, they don’t quite make sense together.  And this is the poetry.  Unable to reject the clarity of the individual impressions, the reader is forced to accept the less than clear fact of the whole, which becomes, by nature of its liquid transformation, the poem.

Ordinarily, the poet would resist parts losing clarity in the whole—and punctuation is useful precisely in this resistance.   Merwin, however, has a different idea; he wants his poem to be unclear, as in a dream.

In this poem, by Kevin Young, we notice many things: like the Merwin, there’s a lot of verbs, a lot of action, to keep the interest; a place is established, with someone traveling through that place.  Secondly, in both poems, the indicative mood is played for all its worth.  Declarative sentences reign.  Thirdly, Young’s punctuation is more creative.  Fourthly, Young’s imperative mood gives his poem direction and momentum, as well.  Fifthly, Young’s landscape is real, unlike Merwin’s.

QUIVIRA CITY LIMITS

for Thomas Fox Averill

Pull over. Your car with its slow
breathing. Somewhere outside Topeka

it suddenly all matters again,
those tractors blooming rust

in the fields only need a good coat
of paint. Red. You had to see

for yourself, didn’t you; see that the world
never turned small, transportation

just got better; to learn
we can’t say a town or a baseball

team without breathing in a
dead Indian. To discover why Coronado

pushed up here, following the guide
who said he knew fields of gold,

north, who led them past these plains,
past buffaloes dark as he was. Look.

Nothing but the wheat, waving them
sick, a sea. While they strangle

him blue as the sky above you
The Moor must also wonder

when will all this ever be enough?
this wide open they call discovery,

disappointment, this place my
thousand bones carry, now call home.

Young’s poem is dream-like, but no dream.  Merwin’s is dream-like and definitely a dream.

Both poems show skill, but they finally feel light.   Young’s poem feels a little lecture-y. 

Merwin wins 78-72.

MARK DOTY SEEKS TO UPEND PATRICIA SMITH IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

Patricia-Smith

Slam poet Patricia Smith was not included in Dove’s anthology

Mark Doty is the no. 3 Seed in the Midwest/South and has to be favored to win this contest.  He is in Dove’s anthology and Patricia Smith is not.

Here is Doty’s poem (from the Dove anthology):

Brilliance

Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
said goodbye to his parents,

paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit?

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets

he’s already found a home for
— he can’t be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,

I can’t have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start

with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan

to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe

they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love

anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,

though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,

a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend?
Is he going out

Into the last loved object
Of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence

Of an opulent tail,
Undulant in some uncapturable curve
Is he bronze chrysanthemums,

Copper leaf, hurried darting,
Doubloons, icon-colored fins
Troubling the water?

What do you think, Marla?

Marla Muse:  It reminds me of his sister’s work: finding the beauty in real people’s suffering.

Sharon Olds could have written this poem, I suppose.

Marla Muse:  Where is Smith’s poem?

Glad you asked.  Let the battle be joined:

 Hip-Hop Ghazal
Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.
As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.
Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ‘tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.
Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.
Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.
Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.
 Why is “Maggie” in Doty’s poem?  Is the dying man going to name the goldfish “Maggie?”  Maggie’s role in the poem feels very odd and removed.  She almost eclipses the dying man.  It’s strange.
Marla Muse:  The dying man changes his mind about the goldfish and we learn this on her answering machine.  Maggie is the sounding board for the dying man…
But the reader and the poet—where are they?  The poet apotheosizes the beauty of the goldfish for the reader.  The poet is Maggie, the reader is the dying man.  Is that why reading this poem is so depressing?
Marla Muse:  With the Smith poem we get pure sensuality, and a celebration of the human, because what is the most sensual experience in the universe, but being human?
True.  Doty’s goldfish is finally cold and cerebral—it’s not redeeming or life-giving, though “troubling the water” is beautiful and almost rescues the poem.  But the brooding fact of the poem is the goldfish owner’s impending death, and this too-obvious fact troubles the poem into pain.  The Zen anecdote, for instance, doesn’t feel fully incorporated—it feels too sudden; and too little, too late. Doty isn’t able to rescue what he is trying to rescue.
Marla Muse:  I agree.  Smith’s “Ghazal” is joyful, playful, and unified.  By comparison, in terms of technique, Doty’s poem is a trail of dead ends.
If we think of Schiller’s On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, it is, as we might not expect, the Doty poem which is naive, and the Smith poem which is sentimental—for the former is actually more childish (and child-like) than the latter.
Patricia Smith 80, Doty 69

DEREK WALCOTT TAKES ON C.D. WRIGHT IN MORE MIDWEST/SOUTH PLAY

57 Cornwall St; Studio 1 Jamaica Plain, MA 02130 phone: 617.524.0003 e-mail: marnie@BostonPictureGroup.com

C.D. Wright has 3 poems in Dove’s anthology—Jorie Graham, Marie Howe, Carolyn Forche, James Tate have one.

No. 2 Seed Derek Walcott has a Nobel Prize, has 7 pages in the Dove anthology, and is favored to win his First Round battle with no. 15 C.D. Wright.

Taking the court is Walcott’s much-anthologized “Sea Grapes:”

Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name
in every gull’s outcry.

This brings nobody peace.  The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough.

Poe accused Longfellow of being didactic, but Walcott is even worse:

“the ancient war between obsession and responsibility will never finish”

“the classics can console, but not enough.”

None can deny the truth of these statements, but that’s the problem.

“the great hexameters come to the conclusions of exhausted surf” invokes the sound of the surf.  Nicely done.

But why is the surf “exhausted?”  The classics may not console, but they don’t allow “surf” to be “exhausted.”  These partial attempts to be classical always fail.  Why don’t we see this?  And the “irony” of being “modern” is really no longer an excuse.

As for C.D. Wright, this entry from Dove’s anthology sounds like the poet was stoned when she wrote the poem:

In recent months I have become intent on seizing happiness: to this end I applied various shades of blue: only the evening is outside us now propagating honeysuckle: I am trying to invent a new way of moving under my dress: the room squares off against this: watch the water glitter with excitement: when we cut below the silver skin of the surface the center retains its fluidity: do I still remind you of a locust clinging to a branch: I give you an idea of the damages: you would let edges be edges: believe me: when their eyes poured over your long body of poetry I also was there: when they lay their hands on your glass shade I also was there: when they put their whole trust in your grace I had to step outside to get away from my cravenness: we have done these things to one another without benefit of a mirror: unlike the honeysuckle goodness does not overtake us: yet the thigh keeps quiet under nylon: later beneath the blueness of trees the future falls out of place: something always happens: draw nearer my dear: never fear: the world spins nightly toward brightness and we are on it.

Walcott 91, Wright 47

MIDWEST/SOUTH ACTION UNDERWAY

Komunyakka wins the first round

Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1st Seed in the Midwest/South Bracket this year has defeated A.E. Stallings (16th Seed) in first round play.  Here’s Marla Muse with the analysis:

Marla Muse:  As a woman, I was rooting for a Stallings upset, but it wasn’t to be, Tom.  The chief problem with Stallings’ “The Tantrum” (her sole poem in the Dove anthology) was the “they” in the poem is not defined, and “they” are so crucial, because the poem ends “And they were wrong;” but we don’t know who they are!  “They” speak for the mother, who is weeping upstairs, but who are “they?”  And they “bribe” the child with “cake” and “playthings,” but how do you bribe someone with “curses?”  Finally, we are not sure why, in the last line, when it is “you know she never did,” it has to be “And they were wrong.”  The poet seems to be saying that not only does the child suffer because the mother “never did” grow her hair back, but also she suffers because “they were wrong.”  The fact, as well as the salve, broke the child’s heart.  “And they were wrong” seems a little forced.  The poem ends, not with a turn, or an insight, but merely the painful conclusion to a tragic event in which too much is finally withheld.

The neo-formalists, of whom Stallings is one, tend to err in this: almost ashamed of their formalism, they counter with nuance in content to such an extent that the two (form and content) are strangely at odds.  Music (rhyme and meter) provides emphasis and emphasis requires clarity to work.  But if the sophisticate fears clarity, their formalism will not succeed; every echo will ring hollow.

Struck with grief you were, though only four,
The day your mother cut her mermaid hair
And stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.

They frowned, tsk-tsked your willful, cruel despair,
When you slunk beneath the long piano strings
And sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air,

Unbribable with curses, cake, playthings.
You mourned a mother now herself no more,
But brave and fashionable. The golden rings

That fringed her naked neck, whom were they for?
Not you, but for the world, now in your place,
A full eclipse. You wept down on the floor;

She wept up in her room. They told you this:
That she could grow it back, and just as long,
They told you, lying always about loss,

For you know she never did. And they were wrong.

Well done, Marla; I’m sure your fans appreciate your insights.   Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” seems to have higher stakes than the Stallings—a man surviving war; but what is crucial is Komunyakaa’s scenes and images are more scattered, but they cohere better in the poem. Perhaps the only lapse is “as we played some deadly game for blind gods.”  some deadly game for blind gods pulled me right out of the poem.  The final “moved only when I moved” sums up the poem nicely.

Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.

Komunyakaa 81, Stallings 75

WE MOVE TO THE NEXT MARCH MADNESS BRACKET! THE MIDWEST/SOUTH!

Before we move on to the next Bracket, let’s summarize the results in the East, First Round:

Mazer (16th seed) d. Ashbery (1st seed)  —Divine Rights 102, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 101 (3 OT)

Heaney (2) d. Forche (15) —Death of a Naturalist 65, Taking Off My Clothes 61

Franz Wright (14) d. Geoffrey Hill (3) —-Alcohol 58, An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England 42

Billy Collins (4) d. Duffy (13) —Introduction to Poetry 90, Valentine 77

Marie Howe (12) d. Jorie Graham (5) —What the Living Do 63, San Sepolcro 60

Pinsky (6) d. Bernstein (11) —Samurai Song 80, All The Whiskey in Heaven 47

Oliver (7) d. Simic (10) —The Summer Day 67, The Fork 53

James Tate (8) d. Muldoon (9) —The Lost Pilot 71, Meeting the British 51

No crying for the illustrious losers.  Let’s move on, fans.

Here’s the second of the four brackets that will see action:

Midwest/South Bracket

1. Yusef Komunyakaa
2. Derek Walcott
3. Mark Doty
4. Rita Dove
5. M.S. Merwin
6. Carl  Phillips 
7. Andrew Hudgins
8. Terrance Hayes
9. Charles Wright
10. Natasha Trethewey
11. Elizabeth Alexander
12. Kevin Young
13. Sandra Cisneros
14. Patricia Smith
15. C.D. Wright
16. A.E. Stallings

Here’s the first two poets who will tangle and their poems, No. 1 seed Komunyakaa’s “Thanks” and 16th seed A.E. Stallings’ “Tantrum:”

THANKS
 
Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.
 
versus
 

THE TANTRUM

Struck with grief you were, though only four,
The day your mother cut her mermaid hair
And stood, a stranger, smiling at the door.

They frowned, tsk-tsked your willful, cruel despair,
When you slunk beneath the long piano strings
And sobbed until your lungs hiccupped for air,

Unbribable with curses, cake, playthings.
You mourned a mother now herself no more,
But brave and fashionable. The golden rings

That fringed her naked neck, whom were they for?
Not you, but for the world, now in your place,
A full eclipse. You wept down on the floor;

She wept up in her room. They told you this:
That she could grow it back, and just as long,
They told you, lying always about loss,

For you know she never did. And they were wrong.

Stay tune for the results of the Midwest/South First Round!

JAMES TATE AND PAUL MULDOON BRING THE FURY IN EAST FIRST ROUND PLAY

paul-muldoon
Paul Muldoon has the rock look going on.
James Tate was chosen for only one poem in Dove’s anthology, the elegy for his father from the 1967 volume that won the Yale Younger Poets Prize—when Tate was still a graduate student at the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Since Tate cracks jokes so much in his poetry since, it seems a bit unusual to include this single, early poem.
Perhaps the Canon Committee feels slightly embarrassed when it turns its lynx eye on Tate’s poems, whose humor is often bitter and nonsensical.  The stoned wit of the cartoon-watcher has a tendency to wear off in the bright light of posterity.
So perhaps “The Lost Pilot” is the representative Tate poem, since losing your father when you are a baby is bitter and nonsensical:
The Lost Pilot
for my father 1922-1944
Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others—it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested
scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You
could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what
it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
Muldoon, a Brit and poetry editor at The New Yorker, is known as a goofy wit, too, and Dove has included three modest poems of his.  The first is “Meeting the British,” and like most Muldoon poems, there seems to be no point to it.   Muldoon is like a flamboyant onion that peels away to nothing, and that’s how he likes it.
Meeting the British
We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender
and the snow, lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)
and, no less strange,
myself calling out in Frenchacross that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherstnor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.
As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-
kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.
They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.
The story of Jeffrey Amherst and Henry Boulet, high-ranking British officers during the French and Indian War who introduced infected blankets to Indian allies of the French is an instructive one, but why Muldoon wants to hide this British horror story in a little poem about lavender is anyone’s guess.
Tate 71 Muldoon 51

MARY OLIVER V. CHARLES SIMIC

What in the world is better than Nature poetry, for cryin’ outloud?

Mary Oliver is a nature poet.  A nature poet is the best way to go: who doesn’t adore and implicitly love nature?  You want animals?  You got ’em.  You want imagery and scenery?  Done.  You want the bitter, hard, but carefree, unsentimental life?  It’s yours.  You want quasi-religious platitudes?  Here they are.

THE SUMMER DAY

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Oliver is timeless.  This poem could have been written thousands of years ago.  It makes me want to cry, thinking about it.  We still live in the land of nature poets.  We really don’t need TV.  If you don’t like modern life, the nature poet will save you.

If nature poets make you bored and dull and restless with their perfections, there’s always Charles Simic, who writes poems from inside the diseased city:

THE FORK

This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.
As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.
Perhaps this is a nature poem, too, except it just has a little more ‘Man’ in it.
Marla Muse: Mankind puts its creepy footprints all over everything.
You don’t like the Simic poem?
Marla Muse:  I don’t.  I prefer the grasshopper and all those questions.  Simic is too proud of what he thinks of a fork.
When given the chance, women are better poets.  Men are too certain about their thoughts.
Marla Muse:  Now you’re catching on.  The eternal feminine.
Marla, you’re correct—in this instance.  Oliver cruises, 67-53.

PINSKY AND BERNSTEIN LOCK HORNS AS THE MADNESS CONTINUES

Charles Bernstein: Rita Dove said ‘no thanks.’

Who can argue with Robert Pinsky that poetic rhythms are not therapeutic?  That poetry can’t be a caring social glue?  Pinsky is a cheerleader for poetry and we have to love him for that.

Marla Muse: But he has a lisp.

Oh, Marla, how can you be so cruel?  Pinsky has three poems in the Dove anthology, which puts him in a pretty good crowd.  Lucille Clifton has four.  Michael S. Harper has four. Derek  Walcott has five.  Amiri Baraka has four.  Countee Cullen has four.  Langston Hughes has four.  W.H. Auden has two.  T.S. Eliot has three.

Marla Muse: Charles Bernstein has none.  Dove said she didn’t have time for his “nonsense.”

Did she say that?

Marla Muse:  What are you looking at me for?  …Maybe.

Here’s the Pinsky poem for Round One:

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

Marla Muse:  Why “Samurai?”  Is Pinsky a Samurai warrior?   If not, the title just implies he stole some of his poem from an ancient text.

Yea, I don’t understand the title, either.  The choices and connections are admirable, though the presentation, the form, the style, is stiff and pedantic.

Marla Muse:  Maybe that’s why he felt compelled to put “Samurai” in the title.

It’s troubling.  This poem is like a big guy who can rebound but can’t handle the ball.  He’s as tall as wisdom itself, but has no style.

Marla Muse:  What do we have for Bernstein?

Does it matter?

Marla Muse:  Well, let’s have some of his nonsense.  See how it does against Pinsky.

All The Whiskey In Heaven

Not for all the whiskey in heaven
Not for all the flies in Vermont
Not for all the tears in the basement
Not for a million trips to Mars

Not if you paid me in diamonds
Not if you paid me in pearls
Not if you gave me your pinky ring
Not if you gave me your curls

Not for all the fire in hell
Not for all the blue in the sky
Not for an empire of my own
Not even for peace of mind

No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

What is this?  What’s going on here?  If this is nonsense, I prefer Lewis Carroll.

Marla Muse:  Agreed.

Quietude wins.   Pinsky 80, Bernstein 47.

JORIE GRAHAM AND MARIE HOWE CLASH IN MORE FIRST ROUND ACTION!

howe

Marie Howe ponders her fate against Jorie Graham in the Scarriet March Madness East Regional.

Marla Muse.

Marla Muse: Yes?

I just realized something.

Marla Muse: What?

The East Bracket this year is all white people.   Yet this year Scarriet is using Dove’s Anthology as much as possible.  How did that happen?

Marla Muse:  Dove is from Ohio; the South and Midwest Brackets look very different from the East.  Maybe it’s not a race thing, at all, but a regional issue.  In poetry, the Northeast is no longer king.  By focusing on race, Vendler didn’t get it.  Poe’s dream is coming true.  Poetry New England has finally been dethroned by other parts of the country.

Iowa.

Marla Muse:  The Workshop phenomenon has really spread things around.

Mmm. You’re right.  Still, it’s funny how New England and New York are still white.   And least in this March Madness.

Marla Muse:  I’m looking forward to the rumble between these two white gals, Jorie and Marie.  There will be a lot of hair to pull.

Marla, how can you say that?  You know March Madness is clean!

Marla Muse: Nothing is as clean as it looks.

Jorie Graham was quietly picked for just one of her early poems by Dove, a further signal that Graham’s reputation may have peaked about 5 years ago.

SAN SEPOLCRO

In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,

my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor’s
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
A rooster

crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There’s milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,

holy grave. It is this girl
by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into

labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly
line–bodies

and wings–to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
from eternity

to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath
is a button

coming undone, something terribly
nimble-fingered
finding all of the stops.

What to say about this poem, which shows off the ‘high style’ of late 20th century Modernism?   The short line breaks attempt to open up vistas—make the reader pause and see the “open air” of the “open air market,” for instance.

and wings—to the open air
market.  This is

The syntax rushes on, pouring down the page, while the line-breaks slow things down.  It’s schizophrenic, really.  Two opposing modes at once.  Bet you never noticed the “open air” of “open air market” before, did you?  Oh, but let’s hurry on: “This is…”

Similarly, the line breaks imply simple, intimate speech, but the speech is not simple at all. No one talks like Jorie Graham’s poem.  Again, the schizophrenia.   The two warring impressions finally cancel each other out.  The attempt to sound classically lofty and cold on one hand, and conversationally intimate on the other, results in a herky-jerky sublime; the trick finally doesn’t work.  The justification for the line-breaking seems merely odd, like a once-interesting, but now outdated, fashion.  Jorie Graham took William Carlos Williams as far as possible into the wild blue sublime, but that experiment has run its course.  The line break is broken.  It now seems artificial, no substitute for sturdy music, daring architecture, or an actual voice.

We’ll never know how much Graham’s poem depends on Early Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca for its majesty; the references are key to the otherworldly atmosphere; the poem’s mystery hearkens after the pagan and the Yeatsian in the midst of the half-rural, half-airplane factory, Tuscan landscape, with its rooster, the church and the lemontrees.  The poem works,  and it works because of its last line.  “Stops” has multiple meanings, for not only do we think of buttons on a dress or holes in a flute, but the frequent “stops” of a poem with many line-breaks.  The poem is commenting on itself, and Graham’s reputation, while it grew, was powerful enough to make this an implied reading.

Marie Howe has one poem in the Dove anthology, and it comes right after Graham’s in the book because they are the same age.  Graham’s poem is a tangle of strange associations as the narrator leads the reader forward.  Howe, too, has the reader follow her along, but in this case the reader is her deceased brother and she is showing him her life: what the living do.

WHAT THE LIVING DO

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

Howe’s life is mundane, and that’s the point.  The “egotistical sublime” moment at the end, when she glimpses her reflection is strange and remarkable.  Howe’s poem has more clarity and more emotional punch than Graham’s.

Howe defeats Graham, 63-60.

BILLY COLLINS, NO. 4, SEED BATTLES CAROL ANN DUFFY, BRITISH POET LAUREATE

DUFFY

Duffy, the British poet laureate, takes on the best-selling Billy Collins.

Billy Collins is a popular American poet who teaches poetry; born in 1941, he is the same age as the Creative Writing Program era, and represents (in many people’s minds) the comfortable, jokey, white middle class.  This following poem was chosen by Rita Dove to  represent Collins in her anthology of 20th Century American poetry, and it features Collins as poetry teacher acting defensively towards the masses who want poems to ‘mean something:’

INTRODUCTION TO POETRY

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

What I find ironic about this is that Collins has succeeded precisely as a ‘poet of meaning;’ all his success turns on meaning; he takes extra pains in his poems to make himself understood by the common reader in poems that boil down, essentially, to jokes one could tell in a bar.  “Introduction to Poetry” has a meaning: poems don’t need to mean anything, and so, ironically, it’s a very typical Collins poem—because it has meaning.

But there’s an extra pleasure to Collins, and this is why he’s good, and the best selling poet alive today.  He manages—with humor’s exaggeration—to laugh at the whole enterprise: he wants his students to “waterski across the surface of a poem,” which, when you think about it, is absurd, and parodies the nutty creative writing teacher lording it over his students who just want to understand.  On one (obvious) level, the poem defends Creative Writing’s modern flip-off—meaning is so 19th century, man!—but on another, more secretive level, the joke is on the modern Creative Writing teacher—urging students to “waterski” (??) on the poem.

Meaning means 3 point shots, lots of them, and lots of points—which one can see on the scoreboard.  Collins piles up the points.  He scores.

Carol Ann Duffy (1955-) comes from middle class Great Britain and became British poet laureate in 2009, the first woman to ever hold that distinguished position.  Her poem, “Valentine,” has meaning in the form of an equation: onion = love.  The poem’s metaphorical formula is all the poem is.  You cut onions, luv.  The smell gets under your fingers.

VALENTINE

Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.
I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

The onion has many uses.  Why shouldn’t an onion be a metaphor for love?   One admires the novelty of the metaphor, which manages to invoke beauty (moon) and earnestness (its fierce kiss will stay on your lips) but the wide-ranging and flexible character of an onion works better for the onion than it does for Duffy’s poem, which finally seems nothing but a clever riff on that flexibility.  The poem never really transcends ‘love is like an onion’ in its conventional, formulaic sense.  The term “lethal” at the end seems forced.  The metaphoric exercise never really comes to life, remaining on the level of a string of nice and somewhat unusual comparisons.  The poem is nicely pasted together, but it never really gets up and walks.  Do onions make us cry like love does?  Of course not, but here, for “Valentine” to work, it would seem the answer, at least for a moment, needs to be yes, because, the poem is finally about…an onion…and not love.  We suppose one could say there aren’t many poems that do much more than this poem does: ride the horse of metaphor for all its worth: “Not a red rose or a satin heart.”  An onion.  But where does the poem finally go?  It doesn’t seem to go anywhere in that last stanza.  This poem is not “cute!” Duffy is careful to tell us.
In case we miss the meaning.
Collins romps 90-77.

FRANZ WRIGHT TAKES ON GEOFFREY HILL: MORE MARCH MADNESS EAST BRACKET ACTION!

No. 3 seed in the East, Geoffrey Hill (pictured in trees) will rumble with the American, 14th seed Franz Wright
This piece by Franz Wright, “Alcohol,” appears in Rita Dove’s anthology and any preface would mar its power.  Just read it to yourself a few times.  It’s the voice of melancholy hell.  I don’t care what people say, Franz is a throw-back (in the best way).  Life is sad, horrible, and depressing, and modern poets are busy telling us this all the time in accents meant to replicate the worst of what life has to offer,but art is melancholy—and Wright knows the restraint and the rhythm and the-moment-to-flash-the-knife.   He just knows how to do it.  He doesn’t slather on the detail, he doesn’t announce things in prose; he whispers just enough details—like a poet.
ALCOHOL
You do look a little ill.

But we can do something about that, now.

Can’t we.

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

Do you hear me.

You aren’t all alone.
And you could use some help today, packing in the
dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .
I was always waiting, always here.
Know anyone else who can say that.
My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.
What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
harm, is not abject.”
Please.
Can we be leaving now.
We like bus trips, remember. Together
we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,
think of it.
I don’t have to be anywhere.
Poems want you to feel their hell.  This poem makes you feel its hell.  But it does so without a trace of hell.  We don’t feel one thing that Franz felt.  “Winter fields” has taken up the pain.
Geoffrey Hill (no. 3 seed) is a poet of landscape, landscape, landscape.  Hill gives us a million “Winter fields.” If Wright is a drop in a pail, Hill is a waterfall.
This contest is cleary one of offense versus defense.
Hill would make love to the fens.   Wright will freeze them first.
Wright’s a wafer.
Hill’s a wedding cake.
AN APOLOGY FOR THE REVIVAL OF CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE IN ENGLAND

the spiritual, Platonic old England …
S. T. COLERIDGE, Anima Poetae

‘Your situation’, said Coningsby, looking up the green and silent valley, ‘is absolutely poetic.’
‘I try sometimes to fancy’, said Mr Millbank, with a rather fierce smile, ‘that I am in the New World.’
BENJAMIN DISRAELI, Coningsby

1 QUAINT MAZES
And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn,
those muddy-hued and midge-tormented ghosts.
On blustery lilac-bush and terrace-urn
bedaubed with bloom Linnaean pentecosts
put their pronged light; the chilly fountains burn.
Religion of the heart, with trysts and quests
and pangs of consolation, its hawk’s hood
twitched off for sweet carnality, again
rejoices in old hymns of servitude,
haunting the sacred well, the hidden shrine.
It is the ravage of the heron wood;
it is the rood blazing upon the green.
2 DAMON’S LAMENT FOR HIS CLORINDA, YORKSHIRE 1654
November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.
The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages
from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun
swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.
We live like gleaners of its vestiges
knowing we flourish, though each year a child
with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down
for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold
in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?
3 WHO ARE THESE COMING TO THE SACRIFICE?
High voices in domestic chapels; praise;
praise-worthy feuds; new-burgeoned spires that sprung
crisp-leaved as though from dropping-wells. The young
ferns root among our vitrified tears.
What an elopement that was: the hired chaise
tore through the fir-grove, scattered kinsmen flung
buckshot and bridles, and the tocsin swung
from the tarred bellcote dappled with dove-smears.
Wires tarnish in gilt corridors, in each room
stiff with the bric-a-brac of loss and gain.
Love fled, truly outwitted, through a swirl
of long-laid dust. Today you sip and smile
though still not quite yourself. Guarding its pane
the spider looms against another storm.
4 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (I)
Make miniatures of the once-monstrous theme:
the red-coat devotees, melees of wheels,
Jagannath’s lovers. With indifferent aim
unleash the rutting cannon at the walls
of forts and palaces; pollute the wells.
Impound the memoirs for their bankrupt shame,
fantasies of true destiny that kills
‘under the sanction of the English name’.
Be moved by faith, obedience without fault,
the flawless hubris of heroic guilt,
the grace of visitation; and be stirred
by all her god-quests, her idolatries,
in conclave of abiding injuries,
sated upon the stillness of the bride.
5 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (II)
Suppose they sweltered here three thousand years
patient for our destruction. There is a greeting
beyond the act. Destiny is the great thing,
true lord of annexation and arrears.
Our law-books overrule the emperors.
The mango is the bride-bed of light. Spring
jostles the flame-tree. But new mandates bring
new images of faith, good subahdars!
The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Radha lovingly untwines.
Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.
6 A SHORT HISTORY OF BRITISH INDIA (III)
Malcolm and Frere, Colebrooke and Elphinstone,
the life of empire like the life of the mind
‘simple, sensuous, passionate’, attuned
to the clear theme of justice and order, gone.
Gone the ascetic pastimes, the Persian
scholarship, the wild boar run to ground,
the watercolours of the sun and wind.
Names rise like outcrops on the rich terrain,
like carapaces of the Mughal tombs
lop-sided in the rice-fields, boarded-up
near railway-crossings and small aerodromes.
‘India’s a peacock-shrine next to a shop
selling mangola, sitars, lucky charms,
heavenly Buddhas smiling in their sleep.’
7 LOSS AND GAIN
Pitched high above the shallows of the sea
lone bells in gritty belfries do not ring
but coil a far and inward echoing
out of the air that thrums. Enduringly,
fuchsia-hedges fend between cliff and sky;
brown stumps of headstones tamp into the ling
the ruined and the ruinously strong.
Platonic England grasps its tenantry
where wild-eyed poppies raddle tawny farms
and wild swans root in lily-clouded lakes.
Vulnerable to each other the twin forms
of sleep and waking touch the man who wakes
to sudden light, who thinks that this becalms
even the phantoms of untold mistakes.
8 VOCATIONS
While friends defected, you stayed and were sure,
fervent in reason, watchful of each name:
a signet-seal’s unostentatious gem
gleams against walnut on the escritoire,
focus of reckoning and judicious prayer.
This is the durable covenant, a room
quietly furnished with stuff of martyrdom,
lit by the flowers and moths from your own shire,
by silvery vistas frothed with convolvulus;
radiance of dreams hardly to be denied.
The twittering pipistrelle, so strange and close,
plucks its curt flight through the moist eventide;
the children thread among old avenues
of snowberries, clear-calling as they fade.
9 THE LAUREL AXE
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.
It stands, as though at ease with its own world,
the mannerly extortions, languid praise,
all that devotion long since bought and sold,
the rooms of cedar and soft-thudding baize,
tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed
in cabinets of amethyst and frost.
10 FIDELITIES
Remember how, at seven years, the decrees
were brought home: child-soul must register
for Christ’s dole, be allotted its first Easter,
blanch-white and empty, chilled by the lilies,
betrothed among the well-wishers and spies.
Reverend Mother, breakfastless, could feast her
constraint on terracotta and alabaster
and brimstone and the sweets of paradise.
Theology makes good bedside reading. Some
who are lost covet scholastic proof,
subsistence of probation, modest balm.
The wooden wings of justice borne aloof,
we close our eyes to Anselm and lie calm.
All night the cisterns whisper in the roof.
11 IDYLLS OF THE KING
The pigeon purrs in the wood; the wood has gone;
dark leaves that flick to silver in the gust,
and the marsh-orchids and the heron’s nest,
goldgrimy shafts and pillars of the sun.
Weightless magnificence upholds the past.
Cement recesses smell of fur and bone
and berries wrinkle in the badger-run
and wiry heath-fern scatters its fresh rust.
‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight
above this long-sought and forsaken ground,
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.
12 THE EVE OF ST MARK
Stroke the small silk with your whispering hands,
godmother; nod and nod from the half-gloom;
broochlight intermittent between the fronds,
the owl immortal in its crystal dome.
Along the mantelpiece veined lustres trill,
the clock discounts us with a telling chime.
Familiar ministrants, clerks-of-appeal,
burnish upon the threshold of the dream:
churchwardens in wing-collars bearing scrolls
of copyhold well-tinctured and well-tied.
Your photo-albums loved by the boy-king
preserve in sepia waterglass the souls
of distant cousins, virgin till they died,
and the lost delicate suitors who could sing.
13 THE HEREFORDSHIRE CAROL
So to celebrate that kingdom: it grows
greener in winter, essence of the year;
the apple-branches musty with green fur.
In the viridian darkness of its yews
it is an enclave of perpetual vows
broken in time. Its truth shows disrepair,
disfigured shrines, their stones of gossamer,
Old Moore’s astrology, all hallows,
the squire’s effigy bewigged with frost,
and hobnails cracking puddles before dawn.
In grange and cottage girls rise from their beds
by candlelight and mend their ruined braids.
Touched by the cry of the iconoclast,
how the rose-window blossoms with the sun!
 Geoffrey Hill “has a way with words.”  I suspect he loves crossword puzzles.  One can read his poems in all directions—and it makes no difference.  His poems don’t do anything, because the words are so busy lavishing us with their odors.  There are groves and nooks, and air swimming in them, but it is as if a Wordsworth poem, which always feels absent of people to begin with, were deserted and no one was ever coming back.  Now the words tell us this and now the words tell us that.  But where is the beating heart of the poet?  Where is this all leading?  Not only is nothing happening in the poem, there is no speaking voice or personality, either.  All lanes lead to a wordy pile of leaves.  There are some beautiful words and sounds, but the whole resembles a sweet spot—and nothing else; the bee’s honey, but not the bee.  All is drowned in words.
Franz Wright 58 Geoffrey Hill 42
Wright advances.

SEAMUS HEANEY V. CAROLYN FORCHE

 
To upset No. 2  Seed Heaney, No. 15 seed Forche got naked.
 
Forche, the no. 15 East seed, comes right after Heaney, the somber Irish bear, with her fabulous “Taking Off My Clothes.”
 
I like this strategy, Marla.
 
Marla Muse:  Brilliant.  Forche is pushing the ball up the court hard.  She’s going to beat the great Irish poet with pure sweat, grit, and balls.
 
Balls? 
 
Marla Muse:  Basketballs covered in sweat.  What’s wrong with that?
 
OK, let’s look at Carolyn Forche’s  poem:
 
I take off my shirt, I show you.
I shaved the hair out under my arms.
I roll up my pants, I scraped off the hair   
on my legs with a knife, getting white.
 
My hair is the color of chopped maples.   
My eyes dark as beans cooked in the south.   
(Coal fields in the moon on torn-up hills)
 
Skin polished as a Ming bowl
showing its blood cracks, its age, I have hundreds   
of names for the snow, for this, all of them quiet.
 
In the night I come to you and it seems a shame   
to waste my deepest shudders on a wall of a man.
 
You recognize strangers,
think you lived through destruction.
You can’t explain this night, my face, your memory.
 
You want to know what I know?   
Your own hands are lying.
 
Marla Muse: Ab imo pectore!  What female fury!
 
Men are such jerks.
 
Marla Muse:  What do I care?  Poetry doesn’t care that men are jerks, or that women are angry at them.
 
How can you say that?
 
Marla Muse:  Would you leave me alone.  I’m cooking beans.
 
Do you like that you’re cooking beans? 
 
Marla Muse:  I do a lot of things .  Come on, let’s look at Heaney’s counter, “Death Of A Naturalist:”
 
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
 
“Then one hot day…”  Quietist poem!

Marla Muse:  Poetry used to sing.  Now it plops.
 
I don’t believe the kid would turn and run, either.  If you’re a kid and you love frogs, why would you run?  I love the title, though.
 
Marla Muse:  I like the imagery better in the Heaney, the voice better in the Forche.   This is a tough one.
 
If the strengths of both poems were combined in one, it would be a hell of a poem.
 
Marla Muse:  I love that line, though, “Your own hands are lying.”
 
Yes.
 
Marla Muse:  Who wins?
 
The crowd is on its feet—they love both poems! 
 
Marla Muse:  Someone has to win!
 
Heaney 65, Forche 61.   The no. 2 seed in the East advances.
 

“GET OUT OF MY CASTLE” MAZER UPSETS ASHBERY!!!!!

“Divine Rights,” a little-known poem by Ben Mazer, has shocked the poetry world with 102-101, triple overtime victory over “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery.  The literary lion, gracious in defeat, took questions after the contest.

“Convex Mirror, how did a poem like that lose?”

Ashbery: It didn’t win.

Did you expect Mazer to shoot like he did in the second half?

Ashbery:  We knew he could shoot.

Before the final shot, did you think about a double-team?

Ashbery:  No.

Can Mazer go all the way?

Ashbery: What do you think?

*****

Let’s look at some of the replays.  Here’s when Mazer really caught fire.  Look at the quickness!

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
That’s what my
poetry is about
warmest verse

Look at the insouciant, devil-may-care turns in the rhetoric!  Is there a more clever brag from a poet than this: “when I was a child…I didn’t listen”… “That’s what my poetry is about warmest verse”?   This surpasses analysis.  It’s pure charm  It’s happy.  It’s one of those things that comes out of a poet’s mouth and you don’t know how.   I didn’t listen.  warmest verse.

Next to this quicksilver, this feels like lead (the opening lines of the Ashbery):

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.

What tedium!  How can this (the Ashbery) keep up with that (the Mazer)?

But as you know, Ashbery has perhaps the strongest bench in the game, and he played a monster second half.  Mazer stayed in the game only from miraculous outside shooting.  Here’s a highlight of Ashbery early in the second half.  Look at the sustained meditative will at work:

Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite–is this
Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

But Mazer’s play made the listless confidence of Ashbery seem like existential pap.

As we see from the following footage, Ashbery’s full-court-press defense towards the end of the second half almost takes Mazer right out of the game.  This is vintage Ashbery: it’s impossible to get a handle on life; it’s impossible for any point of view to be valid; others can’t help me, so I’m going to politely ignore them; and look! after the reference to “sex,” we get Ashbery at his most Ashbery, a naturalistic gesture, replete with oblivion, vagueness…Is Ashbery the most puritanical poet ever?

But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.

Now, for the last time, let’s look again at Mazer’s winning shot:

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

Marla Muse:  It’s bedlam down here at courtside!   Mazer fans don’t want to leave the building!  I’ve never seen anything like it!  Congratuations, Ben Mazer!

THE BATTLE IS ON! DUELING LONG POEMS: MAZER V. ASHBERY

Ashbery. Has he met his match in Mazer?

This is going to be a chess match.

John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is one of Ashbery’s important poems and has been reproduced widely—most recently in Rita Dove’s anthology.  Ashbery abandons all frivolity in these 552 lines, composed in New York City in the early ’70s, and in a rare burst of meditative passion, almost religious in its fervor, ponders the significance of a tiny late Renaissance self-portrait by Parmigianino, “the little one from Parma.”  The ghosts aiding Ashbery’s muse are Wallace Stevens and Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 1936).  Line 51: “They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.” is all Stevens.  Benjamin’s influence is deeper—yet even more on the surface, for Ashbery’s poem is a “mechanical reproduction” of both Parmigianino’s “surfaces” and Ashbery’s “soul,” imprisoned by the perfection of the Parmigianino oil on wood.  There’s a 20th century melancholia in Ashbery’s poem, a secular view daring at moments to be religious, and despairing at the attempt; it’s an Ashbery beneath-the-surface in most of his more sassy and carefree poems that in “Convex Mirror” comes to the fore.  Ashbery even hints that he’s deeply in love and going a little batty from it, like a few of the other humans.

But “hint” is a key word here: Ashbery loves to hint and not tell, unless he’s being pedantic:

The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

It may be said that too much hinting weakens this poem, (there’s not one clear biographical, “Tintern Abbey” moment—Ashbery hides more than any poet) and that pedantry finally kills it.  It’s a fabulous poem, even while it is dying, however.

All of this hinting and hiding and escaping (and the pedantry) flows straight from T.S. Eliot, of course, the anti-Romantic, ‘escape-from-emotion” New Critical shadow that threw itself over 20th century poetry.

When a poetic theory becomes popular, it does not mean that poets ‘just start playing by its rules.’  What happens is that poets attempt to put theory into practice, with wildly varying results.  Every poem will contain emotional furniture—that is, emotional words, for this is the nature of poetry and language.  Put the word “hyacinth” in a poem and you’ve got emotion.  How do we ‘escape the emotion?’ is the question, at least for this particular theory—which may not be a good one.   Perhaps it suited Eliot, the person; but the theory, as we all know, took on a life of its own.

But Eliot, the person, also had a sense of humor, and knew the importance of levity in helping a poem achieve every bit of its emotional coloring.  “Comic relief” does not do this sensibility justice.  The comedy is layered in with the tragedy.  If comedy is nothing more than incongruity, and tragedy results in deformity and disfigurement, one can easily see how they might mingle.  Comedy is a great way to escape feeling, for laughter is cruel and unfeeling, generally.  The pun destablizes meaning. Emotion tends to rely on a single meaning, which humor obliterates: “I love you” creates emotion; “I love you—just kidding!” takes it away.  Humor is how we ‘escape from emotion.’  Humor incompletes the thought: “when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” is an interruption. A thump.  A prat-fall.  The completed image of the evening, which would have produced emotion, (ah, the evening!) is short-circuited.

And what produces emotion and escapes from emotion?  People.  And how do people express themselves in poems?  Voices.  I know this is obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked.

We will not say Wallace Stevens is humorless, but the humor expressed in Stevens’ poetry is of the extremely silly variety; he is not a skilled and subtle humorist like the author of the (almost titled) “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”  Benjamin and Stevens are the ghosts who haunt “Convex MIrror,” but Ben Mazer is clearly hanging out with the ghost of T.S  Eliot himself in “Divine Rights,” a work we think warrants more attention.

Immediately we might say that Ashbery’s poem triumphs over Mazer’s because of Ashbery’s philosophical will: Ashbery’s poem is a meditation; one can see a philosophical mind at work in “Convex Mirror.”

Ashbery is serious.  But is Mazer serious?   Here’s what the canon committee would ask, in Ashbery’s favor.

But what exactly does Ashbery’s prose unlock, describing Parmigianino’s minature in a rat-tat-tat of “it:”

But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part,

This is earnest, didactic, and a bit tedious.  This is not a voice.  It is prose trying to describe what might be more interesting simply looked at.  A few lines later, Ashbery tries to liven things up by addressing the painter directly:

Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

But does this help?  Would Franceso be impressed by “The surface is what’s there/And nothing can exist except what’s there?”

Mazer is without an anchor by comparison; he has no minature self-portrait to describe, but we have to be almost thankful for this.

The idea of kings is Mazer’s idealized, papier-mache’, subject, and he takes possession of it (a poetic divine right?) with his voice and his imagination such that the antiquated and far-flung subject becomes poignantly intimate, and when the poem ends

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

the reader cannot help but feel chills.

We wrote in the upper margins of our copy of Fulcrum, above Mazer’s poem, when this remarkable poem first surfaced about five years ago, “jokily archaic – formula for success” and it might be said a lot of “Divine Rights” is silly, and this is the greatest danger to its integrity—that most of the time it is just spinning out names and references that ‘sound right.’  “Divine Rights” contains jingles, scenes and remarks which have that haphazard, semi-comical feel T.S. Eliot perfected, and the ‘sounding right’ becomes a high-wire act: if this poem can keep ‘sounding right,’ we’ll keep reading.

What drags against Mazer’s poem is the great sin of writing considered in Plato’s Phaedrus: writing that reads the same, whether forwards or backwards, a pastiche that has no integral forward movement; most of the work could be re-shuffled and it wouldn’t make a difference.  But if there’s both a wealth of material and an underlying unity, sometimes we are willing to let a poem wash over us haphazardly and stumble forward just as it is.  But we should never give anything up, just in the name of modernity.

Still, Mazer is out on the plain, traversing a snowy, forested landscape, and his adventure, shamelessly first-person, leads one on; by comparison, Ashbery, more serious, seems a Polonius.

Every long poem risks sounding like a long-winded pedant who doesn’t know when to quit.

Can Mazer win this thing?

Marla Muse:  My heart is in my throat!

EAST ROUND ONE: BEN MAZER’S “DIVINE RIGHTS” V. JOHN ASHBERY’S “SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR”

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR —John Ashbery (Penguin 20th Poetry Anthology, Dove 2011)

DIVINE RIGHTS —Ben Mazer (Fulcrum 2006)

The marriage of druids and Romans
write it
I don’t know how to spell it
It is my real birth today Cadwaladr

Why would they marry?
Where is everything
I am the descendent
      of the king
They were protecting
       the son of
                the king

not father
mother

Landis
Mary
The Poet King
I knew all this
I know all this
We must have been
at alliance with the Scottish.
We must have
been at war
with the Irish
              king.
I know these things.
Freud got it right.
But it is a
throwing off
of kings.
The English King.
The English Queen.
And what am I to think of the English queen,
Elizabeth?

Or the Russian? Familiar as the lion.
Landis, descended from Charlemagne
and twin Dutch admirals?
Or the Scottish princess in the west?

The prophecy told
   me too
   it is true
after I was thirty-five
   I would be king
would regain my
   forgotten kingdom
what this means
   would be revealed
   would be recovered
every time I had my
     hand read
   or my cards told
Now it has come
   on my real day
           of birth

Florence
after Troy
in the confining hour of our winter
How would you be able to know
you were able to be the mother
of the father
of the king?

often assisted by the Scottish

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
   when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
   That’s what my
poetry is about
   warmest verse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
All I want to know about are kings

These source materials which have lasted longest,
elements of narrative which have stayed the same
longest.  Those which have proved most popular.

The Beginning
The Return
The Kitchen
Winter

The insult given Branwen by the Irish
At Guinnion Fort
Arthur bore the image of Mary as his sign
Arcturus or the keeper of the Pole
and thus it was I watched the turn of winter

‘I have made a heap of all that i could find’ Nennius (Historia Brittonum).
an ‘inward wound’
caused by the fear that certain things dear to him should be like smoke
dissipated’ (Jones/Nennius, 1951)
i’m guessing in the old cosmology it wd be the first 24 hrs of your actual
presence
and i’ll attribute that to bertrand russell. these are just notes. —don marquis
(1922)

romeo & juliet in berkeley
i was surprised he looked so much like me
disguise him not to look like myself
i remember
he the leviathan in all ages
my father one eyed introduced me to him

(the currence of the past holds own
our against the recogsentiment
or winds like the runner on the shore
away from the sun in a steady
exhalation, at a vast limit of the net
where one exists in a continuum
spreading in a few words
a striding reach up morning—

he’s there in all his incarnations)

a date engraved in bronze swings in its chains
under moon under midnight in its bondless bonds
citizenless entropy of stars, what is heard
never viewed as it is, which is as it is not.
Is never as it can be understood,
must by definition answer nothing.
There is no fixing of these loci.

Iwerddon
And they began the banquet and caroused and discoursed.
And when it was more pleasing to them to sleep than to carouse,
they went to rest, and that night Branwen came
Matholwch’s bride.
101 Dalmatians

Look in the mirror and you will recall
the white snow of an earlier snow-fall,
how dragon behind rock had threatened rook,
and rains had formed the letters of a book
in which our love is written. Dragon, look.
How queer. The snows of yesteryear are here.

His mother was the daughter of the king
his son her brother and his uncle
who from earliest winter in the kitchen
stood stirring, sifting, towering
in the first curl of the bird’s branch
close to him then she made his song
too-wit too-wit tu-lily hi-li-ly tu-wit tu-lo
and interbranched and interladen among the
hyacinth, jack o’whirl o’ shadow—
cleaving densities of variant dispersals,
gravities which undercut propensity:
proofs of an undisclosed philately.
Mad’s progress relays Delft into land smile
under the textile’s firm approval—
Barkowitz’, Horovitz’ room. Seal approval.

A real anger at dates. Back in dense sandal word
I see trees, people dancing in the trees,
a formal approval of glass on paper.
Mixing spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
Looking up the stovepipe for listening last years.
Another one, only as she could have been.

All around us, the snow in the forest.
Snow walking up hill in the forest,
through snow walking up hill.
I was born in the forest.
I was born under the snow.
I would rather be snowed under
than to have to go in to dinner.
I would rather be lost, out of all ear.
Where the ice thunder with its own snow choir.
Where repetitive naming is lost on hard vortex.
Edge

Their darkness is the sleep in her eyes,
before parting.

Tu-wit. And cherry.
Twice cherry. Cherry street, and cheery
cheery cherry in the song, all along.
A name for marble torsos and a night port,
everything you wrote in the guest book.
A quick way to do the invitations in summer.
The inn I am staying in, and what a bother.
Why you never answered embroidered on the hem of your sweater.
We were in the mountains. This genius
was in trust to the genius of the forest.
She didn’t nothing that she didn’t do.
The forest was a game, where I was first
the others were blind, even she my mother
which meant that I was king.
I have seen these things before they happen.
I have seen her bake day into evening,
have seen her bake the forest into evening,
have seen her bake the hour of homecoming.

The birds are details in her narrative,
ingredients recipes get around to having.
Talk is sure word made out of it,
I wouldn’t in wind or rain doubt it,
to gather or collect to retell or rerecollect
every word which the father
brought home for him to inspect.

Why then a king
through kinship of a lady?
A virgin birth. Her mother was a king,
I do not doubt it,
upon the plains that have no need of naming.
Why then a king took consecrated ground
which was to plainer eye unconsecrated.
Poetry appears to be living.
I heard it strike the sky like keel and thunder
worn into evening like a headline’s banter.
I saw it grab my hand like dad in winter.
I walked it home, the sky ripped at the center,
dark merchant hulk. Perpetual, aimless
Leviathan which strikes the heart of time.
My first knowledge of a light in winter.

And when I first returned to town,
nothing shook my memory,
I never saw
the fiery medal
in my own hand,
dull like my days.
Often quoted
early in spring.

Or noticed how my aunt cast
familiar stories against a local past.

The mystery of the virgin mother
it self would appear to have to reappear.
No wonder I didn’t get any idea
nor wonder if you too don’t get an idea
why none of this was going to simply appear.

I saw this in the absolute symmetry of the outlines
of the bathtub in the apartment in the city in the world
in our time and in all time

The still being there of the resurrection

Time which comes
only to those it visits.

Why then a birth of kings among the females?

And wasn’t a female the king of the king?

    *      *       *

I’ve reached territory.

And so I have been protected from marriage.
So too the quelling of the Jewish King.
For Christ must be his Jew
and virgin birth.

I scarcely thought I could return to her.
But remember how I saw myself
under her influence, her double image
binding the speech of then
with speech to come.

The gods are merchants at these dinners.
Maecenas never dilutes his pleasure.

I didn’t think they were
serious. But the king was her
and industry among the settlers
lingers without artifact.

You could say she was worth waiting for.
To have seen her
with nothing to spoil the mood
properly in winter.

What made her special
was what she would become.
This was the meaning of the pristine forest
in which you could see the verb repeating,
always showing in numeric mimicry
the voice in the breath
the eye in the imagery

a deep syntax
of auditory visuality:
for that heard of voices
implies the wind had been
where you yourself have.

The newness of those days,
when these were first.

Mixing the silk and sand of salt and sugar
into the flour. Vanilla in the spoon
darkly reflecting her double down the hallway
and upside down up under her apron.
The fortress of butter malleable to time,
beating the retreating oil slick
in the flood of mud.
A sea of milk.

They brought me many designs of Venice silk.
I paid them to stand around, because I was cold.
I wanted to know what they aspired to.
I am his wreck, and him his father’s before me.
I like the charge of shadow without name.

And as we watched enacted in the play
he say to her what I to you would say
and she to he what you would say to me,
so we both watch to see how things will end.
You but remember to be a friend.
You greet me unannounced. I come in rain.

And only this remains to be said,
I have come to rid the land of Saxons.
  

  *      *      *

Rehearsals of the shadows where you stood
before you have returned into the halls.

And why no mother of a Jewish King
if not a Jewish King within the line?

One Bad King

Then in my grief
I ran into the wood
along the lake’s edge,
out of ear shot.
And as I sped
into a gallop
covering much ground,
passing many trees,
not many thoughts
separated from my friends,
who found the tree
of inner light
in which the Welsh King
put his head
before he knew
he was the King,
I saw I was transformed
into a flying horse
and coiled myself
within the forest’s nest
to dully sleep
to hear the distant
fall of words
turn into footsteps
of my friends,
covering the woods.
So I would have the apples speak to me.
So I would have this orchard speak to me.

If my blood
could get back in touch with you.
Shannon
Welsh girl with an Irish name.
I am missing from these documents.

Fifty years
after the war
I saw the dead
returning home
on ____ Way.

Then
I was at his house
which was the house
I came from
when I was his
father who I greet.
Under
a rain
the blue city
has the same look
that her eyes had
in her round head
the Scottish Queen.

In that hour
when memory settles
on the evening
darkness its liquid
history of masks,
I quote you
and see the world
as written on the dark sky.
They rearrange
as flame
and fly to conspire
with my father
who is leading us
under the mountain
to the sea beast.
Always outside the room
                                 in which we walk

above us
                where what must be the roof
is how I see it
if we don’t lie and confer,
a mixing of night and day
in which the heart’s first urge
speaks, but in words of fire.
They know the night
who came here first
and them I see
in my words’ end.

Even then
I knew these things could be without me.
But that I was the King
I saw unknowing.
The first song of spring
in my upbringing.
A curator of lies.
A curator of sleep.
Shut up with your eyes.
I am the King
and I have broken darkness.

Look in the storm.
Look in the barrel.
Look under the mountain.
I am the dragon.

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

BLAH BLAH BLAH: INTRODUCTIONS, BLURBS

Don’t we hate them?  Those introductions praising a poet before they go on?  Why do they have them?  They are stupid, and they seem more stupid the more clever they are.  They are not necessary.  Shut up.  I don’t care how many prizes this poet has won.  Let the poet get up on the podium and read their goddamn poems. Enough with this tradition already.  The oily professors and graduate students with their prefaced remarks for the visiting poet: look how clever I am!  Bet you didn’t know how many layers of meaning gleam in the title of our poet’s latest book!  Maybe I’ll get laid!  The poet doesn’t need an introduction.  Imagine how annoying it would be if you went to the theater, and before the play: “Before we begin, I’d like to make a few remarks about our playwright tonight.  William Shakespeare, as you all know…”  Save it.

And then blurbs.  Has there ever been a blurb which does not negate everything we mean when we utter the sacred word, poetry?  The blurb is like the Introduction, but a frozen version of it, a cold stain.  Shall we do away with blurbs forever?  Yes.  Just give me a plain book that says “Poems” on it, and, in smaller letters, the author’s name.   The blurb is a sugary humiliation, a confectionery wreck, a cotton candy tomb, a blah blah blah that chokes and humiliates.  Have we no shame?

Therefore, without introduction, we present the 2012 Scarriet March Madness EAST BRACKET!

EAST

1. John Ashbery
2. Seamus Heaney
3. Geoffrey Hill
4. Billy Collins
5. Jorie Graham
6. Robert Pinsky
7. Mary Oliver
8. James Tate
9. Paul Muldoon
10. Charles Simic
11. Charles Bernstein
12. Marie Howe
13. Carol Ann Duffy
14. Franz Wright
15. Carolyn Forche
16. Ben Mazer

Blurbless, sans introduction, these names stand before you.

These poets want to do one thing: Win.

They want to win, because the winner will spend an entire night with Marla Muse.

Marla Muse:  I beg your pardon?

Marla! You’re supposed to say, “And they will never forget it.”

Marla Muse:  I never agreed to do that!  And I don’t think it’s funny!

I was just kidding…in the name of poetry…these poets…don’t you think the winner…?  I wasn’t implying…

Marla Muse:  It’s not funny.

Sorry.  Well, they still want to win…

Marla Muse:  Of course they do.

And soon we’ll announce what poems the poets will be going with in the first round!

Marla Muse:  Stay tuned!

It’s so cute the way you say “Stay tuned…”

Marla Muse:  Thank you.

MARCH MADNESS SELECTION: A GLIMPSE INSIDE

Rita Dove: to be young and famous!

The Scarriet editors, with the help of Marla Muse—

Marla Muse: Hi.

Hi, Marla. —are in the process of choosing the 64 poets who will rumble for the championship this year.  How do we choose?

MM: May I speak?

In matters of poetry, the Muse should always speak.

MM: Thank you. Public contests exist for the audience, not the participants.  So we pick big names.

Wait a minute—that doesn’t make any sense!

MM: 63 poets have to lose.  Unknown poets—most of our audience—envy big name poets; our audience is guaranteed to enjoy themselves—and that’s the whole point.

But what’s a “big name” in poetry these days?

MM: Someone born in 1927, like John Ashbery, for instance.

The year Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns for the New York Yankees.

MM: Don’t try and be poetic.  Don’t distract.  Don’t show off.  Let me make my point.

Sorry, Marla.

MM: Go back a little further. Wallace Stevens was 20, and it was still the 19th century.  But 1927 is probably far back enough.  There are not too many famous poets in Rita Dove’s recent 20th Century Poetry anthology born after 1900.  Before 1900, you’ve got Frost, T.S. Eliot, Edna Millay, E.E. Cummings, and then if you want to throw in Stevens, Williams, Pound, and Stein, you may.  But after 1900—

There’s lots, right?

MM: The bulk were born between 1925 and 1940—old enough to still be living and old enough to have won plenty of awards.  But none are household words, like Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings; none are really famous. Then there’s Billy Collins born in 1941; after that, no one is even close to being famous, not even a little bit.

What a cynical analysis!

MM: You are being sentimental.  Time and fame are not cynical; they just are.  The topic is not poetry, but poets.

And poets are made of flesh.

MM: Exactly.  And Helen Vendler and Rita Dove are flesh and their fight, I feel, was based on age.  Let’s look at the best known poets by decade of birth in Dove’s book:

1860s: Edgar Lee Masters
1870s: Robert Frost
1880s: T.S. Eliot
1890s: E.E. Cummings
1900s: W.H. Auden  (or Theodore Roethke)
1910s: Elizabeth Bishop  (or John Berryman)
1920s: Anne Sexton  (Allen Ginsberg not in Dove’s anthology)
1930s: Amiri Baraka  (Sylvia Plath not in Dove’s anthology)
1940s: Billy Collins
1950s: Rita Dove  (or Jorie Graham)
1960s: Sherman Alexie  (or Joanna Klink)
1970s: Kevin Young

No poet born in the 20th century is famous.  Except maybe Anne Sexton—because she committed suicide.

Marla, that’s depressing.  So the anthologist, Rita Dove, is the most famous American poet born in the 1950s?

MM: Who would you choose instead? Cathy Song?

What about Paul Muldoon?

MM: We speak of fame, here, that is so minute, that a reader holding this anthology in their hands will feel, at that moment, that Rita Dove is the most famous poet born in the 1950s.

OK, I see your point.

MM: The most famous poet in Dove’s anthology born in the ’50s might possibly be Jorie Graham, and born in the 60s?  Jorie Graham’s baby-sitter, Joanna Klink.  Dove, born in 1952, has 40 poets represented in her anthology born between 1880 and 1919—and 26 born between 1950 and 1954; the biggest single group of poets in the anthology were born around the same time as Dove herself, including Iowa classmates, Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros.

Interesting.

MM: Finally, Vendler was born in the 1930s, and Amiri Baraka is the best known American poet (from political controversy) born in the 1930s from Dove’s anthology.  Given Vendler’s expressed views on Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry in the New York Review of Books that Dove’s anthology was a little too affirmative action, these dates have to make Ms. Vendler wonder.  Poets included, like Walcott, Clifton, and Lourde were also born in the ’30s; Vendler has to travel back to almost the middle of the 19th century to find the birth date of her beloved poet, Wallace Stevens.  This can’t help but make Vendler feel like the game is being lost.

Dove has picked good poems, but that doesn’t change the fact that her anthology feels very much driven by agenda rather than poetry.

MM: We shouldn’t get into that controversy.  Dove couldn’t help what she did, for anthologies are always about poets, not poetry.

LIfe too, is about poets, not poetry.  This is why we need to forgive Dove.

MM: Big names.

Let the games begin!  Stay tuned for the East Brackets.

SCARRIET’S MARCH MADNESS 2012!

IT’S BAAAACKK!!!   SCARRIET’S MARCH MADNESS!!!

The Dove/Vendler clash last year shook all of poetry, and the blood lust to know which poems are best and what kind of poetry is best for society has grown to a fever pitch.  We’ve seen poets fighting poets, poets crowding before windows to glimpse the latest judgement on this issue. Like motorcycles, poets are everywhere!  And they’re noisier and more irrascible than ever!

Given the gravity of the accusations and counter-accusations that have ensued, we the Scarriet editors decided that the best way to settle the disputes was by honest, clean sport.

What the irascible editors and critics cannot resolve, basketball will untie.

If the professors cannot agree on the worthiness of these poems, we will help.  What we propose is nothing less than smashing each poem against a glass backboard and hurling it down the length of a parquet floor.  We can hear the objection: ‘But some poems are too delicate for such treatment.’  We beg to differ.  The poem’s EFFECT may be an evocation of delicacy, but no poem of worth is brought to fruition without bruises, sweat, surreptitious eye-gouging and dramatic faked falls in full view of a ref who is schooled in every genre and philosophical nuance of our time.

Shall the poems competing in March Madness come only from the Dove anthology?

Some will, but the tournament will feature contemporary poems from all over.

Our intrepid reporter, Marla Muse, will continue to bring you interviews and analysis all through March Madness.  She will put this whole Rita Dove/Helen Vendler controversy in perspective for you.  She will dig into the lives, and explore the playing ability, of the participating poets.

We will also use a slightly different format this year, based on feedback from our readers.   We will have 64 competing poets this year, rather than 64 competing poems, so different poems by the competing poets will be featured in each elimination round.

Stay tuned for the bracket listings!

IT’S NOT NECESSARY TO LOVE YOU: AN ORIGINAL SCARRIET POEM

 

It’s not necessary to love you, for they all do,
They can’t help it, your loveliness makes them true;
It is to be in love, merely to look at you;
There are so many who love you; what am I to do?
Be false, to go against the grain?
So you’ll try to conquer me again and again,
And thus all your attention will be on me,
And I’ll win your love with my falsity?
This has to be the way—I’ll be untrue,
And at any moment I will ridicule you
And make you think I could hate you, always,
And when you look, turn away from your gaze.
So is my plan, my soul, my thought, revealed:
All ingenuity is to make beauty yield.

A NEW SCARRIET POEM BY THE EDITORS

My Thoughts

If you want to read my thoughts
I will tell you my thoughts
Walk beside you, their queen.
We long for thoughts, yet thoughts
Are common, and they are never seen!
When in love, we want to read the thoughts
Of our beloved, hoping that nothing mean
Is there; so I must tell you, my thoughts
Are mild, and bend to you, my queen.
When I detected the sun
First coloring the windows this morning,
I thought, “It is you!”
This is one of my thoughts I wish that you had seen.

FREE LOVE, PERCY SHELLEY AND T.S. ELIOT

Rejecting Shelley, did the Moderns suppress not only beautiful poetry, but love itself?

The poet W.H. Auden (1906-1973) once summed up best the divide brought about by “modern” thought:

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

The topic—of sexual love or sexual morality or the morality of love—is a large one, and contains much that is shadowy and unseen, even as it appeals to the (yuk, yuk, wink, wink) obvious in our imaginations.

Competing religious and secular authorities throughout history have made us wonder: how forbidden should sex be?  Should it be forbidden by an outside agency or forbidden in one’s heart?  How dangerous is love?  Who decides what it is and how it should be fostered, or controlled?  How widespread should love’s influence be?  What forms should it take?   Let’s state right away a simple rule of thumb: too much “freedom” or promiscuity is bad, and too much suppression and shame is bad, and let’s pretend, for the purposes of our present discussion, that this covers the purely social aspect of our subject.

But the topic as it relates to poetry, and creativity, and ultimate happiness, surely benefits from a more rapturous and thorough examination.

Plato’s Phaedrus presents two kinds of love—one is brute and selfish; the other is a divine madness which inspires and creates.  Phaedrus shares with Socrates an essay: the non-lover is more trustworthy than the lover, it argues, because the lover, irrational, jealous, and possessive, ultimately harms the beloved. Socrates agrees, condenses and purifies the rhetoric of the essay into its simply expressed “wisdom,” but then Socrates suddenly regrets he has offended the Love deity, and expands his discourse into a paean on the second kind of mad love which is divine and creative.

The divine aspect of love is what Shelley is talking about in his Defense of Poetry:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause.

The strange assault on Shelley by the Modernists is perhaps best exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s 1932 Norton Lecture at Harvard; Eliot happily escaped England and his wife to tour and visit the United States in a triumphant homecoming.  The ire and visceral hatred for both Shelley’s “ideas” and his “poetry” expressed by Eliot at Harvard was profound: Old Possum admitted that he literally could not stomach the “adolescent,” Shelley.  Eliot’s attack took the same form as another sexless-American-author-turned-Brit’s attack: on Poe—by Henry James.

But was Eliot right?   We might say Eliot had maturity and Christianity on his side, and this passage by Shelley, (from “Epipsychidion”) which Eliot cites, is problematic. Here is Shelley:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.  (Epipsychidion, lines 149-159)

It is important to remember two things: Shelley did not want this view widely desseminated.  He asked his publisher in London to withdraw “Epipsychidion.”   Shelley’s imagination was uncompromising, and the “code of morals” isn’t always the best for everyone, all the time—in terms of change, or acceptance.  Shelley, though a popular author, did believe a ‘class readership’ existed, and who wouldn’t?  Poe, another highly popular author, believed the same thing.  There are things the uneducated will not, and should not understand.  (Of course wanting the uneducated to become educated is a worthy goal; but that’s a different topic.)

But the second thing is more important. Look at the next lines of the poem, and how Shelley expands his argument:

True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning. Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth.

Shelley is advocating love as expansive and freeing, rather than narrowing and imprisoning.  It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin expresses the same idea in a letter:

“Madame Brillon,

What a difference, my dear friend, between you and me! You find innumerable faults with me, whereas I see only one fault in you (but perhaps that is the fault of my glasses). I mean this kind of avarice which leads you to seek monopoly on all my affection, and not allow me any for the agreeable ladies of your country.

Do you imagine that it is impossible for my affection (or my tenderness) to be divided without being diminished? You deceive yourself, and you forget the playful manner with which you stopped me. You renounce and totally exclude all that might be of the flesh in our affection, allowing me only some kisses, civil and honest, such as you might grant your little cousins. What am I receiving that is so special as to prevent me from giving the same to others, without taking from what belongs to you?

The sweet sounds brought forth from the pianoforte by your clever hand can be enjoyed by twenty people simultaneously without diminishing at all the pleasure you so obligingly mean for me, and I could, with as little reason, demand from your affection that no other ears but mine be allowed to be charmed by those sweet sounds.

Yours,

Benjamin [Franklin] 1779

When we theorize on love, it makes sense to begin with relationships between actual people—between lovers, as difficult as the evidence sometimes is to collect.  We hardly know our own hearts—how can we know the hearts of others?  And then we also realize:—how can actual people, such as Benjamin Franklin or Shelley be compared to the average, crippled, superstitious, mortal?   We can leave this aside as inconsequential, if we wish; we could worship the accomplishments of a Franklin, or not; but we should still examine the scientific evidence on the question at hand: is it true that love can divide itself and still increase?  Is this, in fact, how love operates?  And is love—that obsesses and pines over one object, or one person—love?  Which love should we, as a society, prefer?   The “genius” (Shelley, Franklin) examines love mathematically, stripped bare of all morality, and discovers a scientific truth based on the evidence of their own feelings.

Shelley finds the truth of love, a pre-moral, mathematical, truth, and brings it to the world, only to find love’s mathematical truth is morally repellent on a certain level—at least to someone like T.S. Eliot.  Shelley’s truth is vulnerable, since it is not actualized by jealous and superstitious humankind yet; Eliot’s charge of “adolescence” rings true for those who agree with Eliot: Shelley is guilty of immature over-idealizing.  But is Shelley guilty of this?  Here we are at a great philosophical and spiritual crossroads.

The modern temper is mostly on Eliot’s side.  But we take our stand with Shelley. Here is Shelley, again, and Eliot had access to this; as we see Shelley fill out his ideas on the subject of fee love, we have to ask, are these ideas “repellent” and “adolescent?”  Perhaps there is some excessive and hyperbolic Rousseau-ism at work here, but Shelley is thinking the problem through:

Prostitution is the legitimate offspring of marriage and its accompanying errors. Women, for no other crime than having followed the dictates of a natural appetite, are driven with fury from the comforts and sympathies of society. It is less venial than murder; and the punishment which is inflicted on her who destroys her child to escape reproach is lighter than the life of agony and disease to which the prostitute is irrecoverably doomed. Has a woman obeyed the impulse of unerring nature—society declares war on her, pitiless and eternal war: she must be the tame slave, she make no reprisals; theirs is the right of persecution, hers the duty of endurance. She lives a life of infamy: the loud and bitter laugh of scorn scares her from all return. She dies of long and lingering disease: yet she is in fault, she is the criminal, she the froward and untameable child—and society, forsooth, the pure and virtuous matron, who casts her as an abortion from her undefiled bosom! Society avenges herself on criminals of her own creation; she is employed in anathematising the vice of today which yesterday she was the most zealous to teach. Thus is formed one tenth of the population of London: meanwhile the evil is twofold. Young men, excluded by the fanatical idea of chastity from the society of modest and accomplished women, associate with these vicious and miserable beings, destroying thereby all those exquisite and delicate sensibilities whose existence cold-hearted worldlings have denied; anniilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling which is the excess of generosity and devotedness. Their body and mind alike crumble into a hideous wreck of humanity; idiocy and disease become perpetuated in their miserable offspring, and distant generations suffer for the bigoted morality of their forefathers. Chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition, a greater foe to natural temperance than unintellectual sensuality; it strikes at the root of all domestic happiness, and consigns more than half of the human race to misery, that some few may monopolise according to law. A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.

I conceive that, from the abolition of marriage, the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result. I by no means assert that the intercourse would be promiscuous: on the contrary; it appears, from the relation of parent to child, that this union is generally of long duration, and marked above all others with generosity and self-devotion. But this is a subject premature to discuss. That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.

One can disagree with this (from Shelley’s Queen Mab).  Thomas Eliot’s puritanical hanging of Shelley, however, and the modernist hatred of Shelley in general which it engendered, seems to belong to that ubiquitous tribe of thinkers who narrowly blame; they seek diminishment, purity, sterility, punishment, retrograde, and return; if someone is beautiful, they assume them shallow; if someone is hopeful, they assume them ignorant; if someone is joyful, they assume them stupid; if somone is enterprising, they assume them selfish; two can never gain in their eyes; two can never be happy—one has to suffer if another is happy, if one is happy, the other has to suffer; all gain implies a loss somewhere else and they are satisfied with all systems that reflect this; they would rather be wicked in their realism than beautiful ideally; their world-view makes envy and jealousy normal; they seek to counter all pleasure with pain, since it is a doctrine that begins in their mind and talks its way into their heart—or, some worldly affliction breeds it in their heart and it then melts their mind; they are certain the amount of joy must always equal the amount of sorrow. Life is not an adventure, but a rule to be obeyed; fear, avoidance, and accusation drive them, not love, hope, and endurance.

This is not to say all are not afflicted by the real, or that sorrow and pain do not have a real existence; Shelley’s poetry contains all sorts of reference to sorrow and pain—the loving and hopeful do not have to be naive—but love and hope are making active war against sorrow and sameness in Shelley; Shelley is the optimist, Eliot, the pessimist; Shelley’s poetry, thought, taste, and philosophy as a whole is triumphant, and to call it “adolescent” is adolescent.

Now we have to come to terms with our own era: Eliot reviled Shelley at Harvard in 1932; in 1933, Eliot made his anti-Jewish speech at the University of Virginia; as the decade went on, Eliot’s bosom-buddy Pound began broadcasting from fascist Italy; their New Critic associates continued to hit Shelley (and another genius, Poe, was a target, too)—it was a poetry establishment pile-on, as the Creative Writing business and “the new” became cynical allies in the hands of Pound’s and Eliot’s lackeys.

As WW II raged, Eliot must have thought, “my criticism has come true: the 19th century really is naive, and poets like Shelley are adolescent—compared to the grown-up horrors of the 20th century! Take that, you wimpy romantic poet bitches!”  And yes, perhaps “adolescent” Shelley could not have imagined Pound and Eliot’s 20th century.  And we have to leave off Shelley, and we can’t go back.

But when we look simply at Shelley’s skill as a poet, and the beautiful ideas behind the poetry, I’ll go back.

Edgar Poe is a chaste author, and rarely touches on sex, but Poe was more like the generous Shelley in his views on the morality of love than has previously been understood.  Look at Poe’s tale, Eleanora, which offers a beautiful alternative to Stephen King and the nerd-revenge sensibility—which has grown in the last 50 years into a giant, gory, many-layered industry of horribly bad taste.

In the three excerpts from the story below, Poe first sets up the sexual union; then Eleanora dies and the narrator makes a promise, and, finally, the narrator finds someone new.

The puritantical, Stephen King, revenge-theme never appears.

In Poe’s tale, Shelleyan love triumphs.

Hand in hand about this valley, for fifteen years, roamed I with Eleonora before Love entered within our hearts. It was one evening at the close of the third lustrum of her life, and of the fourth of my own, that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees, and looked down within the waters of the River of Silence at our images therein. We spoke no words during the rest of that sweet day; and our words even upon the morrow were tremulous and few.

***

She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die; but the terrors of the grave to her, lay solely in a consideration which she revealed to me, one evening at twilight, by the banks of the River of Silence. She grieved to think that, having entombed her in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, I would quit forever its happy recesses, transferring the love which now was so passionately her own to some maiden of the outer and every-day world. And, then and there, I threw myself hurriedly at the feet of Eleonora, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven, that I would never bind myself in marriage to any daughter of Earth — that I would in no manner prove recreant to her dear memory, or to the memory of the devout affection with which she had blessed me. And I called the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow. And the curse which I invoked of Him and of her, a saint in Helusion, should I prove traitorous to that promise, involved a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here. And the bright eyes of Eleonora grew brighter at my words; and she sighed as if a deadly burthen had been taken from her breast; and she trembled and very bitterly wept; but she made acceptance of the vow, (for what was she but a child?) and it made easy to her the bed of her death. And she said to me, not many days afterwards, tranquilly dying, that, because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed, and, if so it were permitted her return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but, if this thing were, indeed, beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would, at least, give me frequent indications of her presence; sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels. And, with these words upon her lips, she yielded up her innocent life, putting an end to the first epoch of my own.

***

Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten; for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs; and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air; and once — oh, but once only! I was awakened from a slumber, like the slumber of death, by the pressing of spiritual lips upon my own.

But the void within my heart refused, even thus, to be filled. I longed for the love which had before filled it to overflowing. At length the valley pained me through its memories of Eleonora, and I left it forever for the vanities and the turbulent triumphs of the world.

I found myself within a strange city, where all things might have served to blot from recollection the sweet dreams I had dreamed so long in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. The pomps and pageantries of a stately court, and the mad clangor of arms, and the radiant loveliness of woman, bewildered and intoxicated my brain. But as yet my soul had proved true to its vows, and the indications of the presence of Eleonora were still given me in the silent hours of the night. Suddenly, these manifestations they ceased; and the world grew dark before mine eyes; and I stood aghast at the burning thoughts which possessed — at the terrible temptations which beset me; for there came from some far, far distant and unknown land, into the gay court of the king I served, a maiden to whose beauty my whole recreant heart yielded at once — at whose footstool I bowed down without a struggle, in the most ardent, in the most abject worship of love. What indeed was my passion for the young girl of the valley in comparison with the fervor, and the delirium, and the spirit-lifting ecstasy of adoration with which I poured out my whole soul in tears at the feet of the ethereal Ermengarde? — Oh, bright was the seraph Ermengarde! and in that knowledge I had room for none other. — Oh, divine was the angel Ermengarde! and as I looked down into the depths of her memorial eyes, I thought only of them — and of her.

I wedded; — nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once — but once again in the silence of the night, there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me; and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice, saying:

“Sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”

BUT BEAUTY ISN’T SO

When I told myself I would never know
Whether she loved me, or no,
Love dimmed, as if the sun fell below
The horizon, and the gaudy lights of night
Laughed in my sight.
Is it our lot to never know?
To never, never know?
I remember she put her head on my shoulder
And sighed, but the next day said, no.
Act sad, or laugh, be calm, or bolder,
We will never, never know
Whether she loves us, or no,
But in my despair, miserable, and low,
Knowing well the hell to never know,
I told myself: But beauty isn’t so.
I told myself, instead,
Rising from the bed:
But beauty isn’t so.

A LOVE-SICK POET SPEAKS

Someone I like played a mean trick on me, today.
She hinted she might possibly have to go away
And leave me unable to see her for a day;
I wanted to cry, but couldn’t behave that way;
I was determined not to appear upset,
I knew she knew I liked her but didn’t want to show it yet.

Everything conspires against love:
They broke the bell whose song could tell

The hour and the low tone
Of a lovers’ meeting in a sweet, secret place alone;
They hid the book which showed the look
Of her face in the afternoon
When a painter of grace captured her face;
They killed the drawing and the tune;
They ask for cash to call it the moon.

In the tower, where they work, hour after hour,
They care about power.
There is no love, no holy bower.

Couples fight, even at midnight,
Or in the day, when their children look painfully away.

It could be I am thinking of you 
When I think of these stories which are sadly true.

Why must there be these secrets and wars,
When it’s only my love wants to mingle with yours?

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