for Robert Penn Warren

Our hero escapes to the dance club downstairs
Where iambic dactylics gather in pairs.

Songs are stupid and sad,
Stories are perceptive and gay,
The maid who died in one
Works in the other for pay.

Imperfect, holy music
Lets the hero escape
Into a lyric prison
Of romantic wishes and scrape.
Fending off death
As best he can,
The old, obnoxious ritual
Climbs into the van,
Then driving for miles
As only lyric will,
Hasting towards the old styles
And then, fare ye well.


“Sell it for a song” —old saying

The Scarriet editors happened to be reading an old Scarriet post (we’re proud to say they hold up over time) and came upon what we think is the best underlying definition of ‘foetry’ we have ever seen—from Briggs Seekins:

If you are designing ball-bearings and you want people to believe in you, you have to actually do the physics, the testing–all those hours of rigorous intellectual slogging. You’ve obviously got to sell it to investors, but if it is a good product, the potential financial benefits will be strong enough so you can hire a completely different person who is an expert at selling.

We went on (in our old Scarriet post) to more-or-less say:

No poet has such a luxury. The poet, unlike the a maker of ball-bearings, has to be her own salesman, and work at recruiting a network of people who will also sell her–which in turn will mean selling for them. In the absence of verifiable, objective standards for what works, this is the only way anybody can be “successful” as a poet.

The irony Mr. Seekins has highlighted is that poetry is even more of a selling game than the selling game (business) itself, since there’s no ‘ball-bearings-that-work-better’ to sell.   Poetry, unlike a ball-bearing, isn’t supposed to work.  Art that works?  How gauche!

Poetry is selling and nothing more.  This is so strange that most simply cannot believe it: why would, how could there be any selling of what doesn’t exist, of what no one wants or needs?


All the more reason for the selling of poetry to be so intense—because it is nothing else.

We don’t mean poetry is a rhetoric which argues for itself—it has always been that, to some degree; after all, a perfectly round ball-bearing argues for itself; the ugly truth here is much worse: as Seekins says, a ball-bearing is important enough to require an expert salesman; a poem is not important enough to require an expert salesman, and therefore the poet must be a salesman by default, since a poem sells itself even less than a nicely made ball-bearing.

And Seekins is right about a crucial difference between poetry and painting, which we see here: http://www.technology.am/the-30-most-expensive-paintings-of-all-time-141346.html

The 30 most expensive paintings of all time link reveals that in 2006 a Jackson Pollock “spatter painting” sold for 140 million dollars.

By comparison, poetry is not expensive.

A first edition, signed copy of T.S. Eliot’s Poems, 1909—1925 can be had for a mere 9 thousand dollars.

A First Folio Shakespeare (1623) is 5.5 million: worth that much, no doubt because of historical twists and turns, and because Shakespeare plays are still performed on stage, and many have been turned into films.  The poetry part of Shakespeare’s Folio is probably worth in market terms about a nickel.

The most valuable auction piece so far of French literature is a signed edition of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer: $644,000.

We need not belabor the point.  The most expensive rare books are drawings: Da Vinci’s notebooks (30 million) or Audubon’s Birds of America (9 million).  If you don’t count signed editions, poetry is worth nothing compared to paintings.

There are art dealers, but there is no such thing as a poem dealer.

Only poets sell poetry—and this is why poetry is nothing more, nothing less, than selling itself.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”  One might dismiss the cliche’, but one should not dismiss the importance of “the thought;” this “thought” is the chief catalyst of love—something we should never take lightly.

Writing a poem for someone is very charming, indeed, and just because awwwww turns our heads and hearts to mush, we owe ourselves a scientific explanation of this phenomenon.

Modernists, trying to strike a new note and rebelling against the love lyrics of the Romantics and the Brownings, fighting what they thought was the noble fight against the awwwww, wrote self-conscious poems, calling poetry “all this fiddle,”  for instance. If one is touched by a Marianne Moore poem, it will give rise to awwwww, because any poem, even a modern poem  (yea, even yours, Ezra Pound, grizzled, but secretly perfumed) fits into the eternal poetic formula: “it’s the thought that counts.”  But fighting the awwwww has its pitfalls. Does anyone really think “Poetry” by Marianne Moore is a good poem? Let us admit at once it’s a terrible poem and it owes its fame to the vain attempt by a little band of Modernists to remove the awwwww factor from poetry.  Poetry may be a great deal more than awwwww, but to try and take awwwww away from poetry is like removing a person’s heart: you kill the person.  You write terrible poems like Miss Moore’s “Poetry.”  If anyone forgets how bad this poem is, we reprint it here. See how it devolves to lecture.  See how thoroughly unpleasant and arrogant it is:

Poetry —M. Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Ugh.  Miss Moore’s poem is like a toad spitting out a toad.

This is one of the most celebrated poems of Modernism.  For this we got rid of Shelley and Keats?  We killed the nightingale so we could be lectured at by Marianne Moore?

For this we tried to do away with awwwww.

“All this fiddle,” huh?  “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it…”  How did she know?

You can tell the poem was written for the classroom.  Moore was a teacher before she published poetry.

The classroom laboratory kills awwwww quite effectively.

But poetry, whether on the street or in the classroom, sells itself, and this selling is the content, form and criticism of the poem simultaneously.

Underneath it all lies ugly ambition, whose selling point is something like As My Bitches Indicate, Triumph is Obvious Now.

Splitting the poem into poet v. reader, content v. form, narrative v. concept, or into any of the various -isms-split of modernity and the avant-garde, we lose the unified significance of the one true formula which describes poetry: an advertisement which advertises itself as itself to itself and for itself. (Theories that protest they split only to re-unite have actually made a split they can’t take back.)  A poem is its sale, its selling, and all possible elements are in the sale, are being sold, and comprise the seller—the selling of poetry is poetry, such as would make a businessman blush.

Throw in awwwww, and just think what you’ve got.

You have a touching bit of worthlessness—which drives all worth.

And is selling a bad thing?

Only when a sale is tied to a bad product, or demeans a product.

Since poetry is the selling and contains no product, per se, poetry as selling cannot be a bad thing.

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare, in his most esoteric and hermeneutic poem (Sonnnet 21) says, “I will not praise that purpose not to sell.”

Ambition attempts to “find a product” for poetry—a prize, an award, a signed book—but in all contexts we can discover, save for a narrow personal career interest, this turns out to be largely worthless.

Shakespeare links “praise” with “purpose to sell.”

The secret ingredients of poetry are praise, love, and selling.

We shall end by quoting Shakespeare’s sonnet 21:

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.


Yes, poetry is music.  And therefore the less we say about poetry the better.  It is precisely because poetry is made of words that we should use words only as a last resort to talk about it.

Poe was correct to speak of poetry as mathematics.  This does two things: it gets us away from fetishizing poetry as an object, and fetishizing it with too many words.

Is music poetry?  Definitely not.  This gets us into the kind of trouble we wish to avoid.  Much, much better to say ‘poetry is music’ than to say ‘music is poetry.’

We can be on either side of the divide on this.  We can find it thrilling that words can be like music.  Or, we can love that music rises up to words.   Yet the former is true, but the latter is false.  Words can be like music.  But music cannot—as much as we believe it—become words.    Words becoming music is beautiful.  Music becoming words is ugly.

The following is a brief piano piece composed and played by Thomas Brady.

This could never be called a poem—yet the poet always seeks to produce in poetry that which defines a piece of music as music.



The good is here for a moment and then it is gone.
The music you play for yourself is the kind you like
And its sweet sounds are for you and your lover alone.
What if those harsher sounds you hear outdoors where the crowd,
The stupid crowd, is relieving its stupid boredom, with loud sounds
Far into the night?  You know sleep, beauty, music is yours
And the stupid crowd works and makes this world possible.
You can always say to yourself that life is good and that good
Is how we aspire, or mention to your friends this in a friendly way,
But in truth the good is here for a moment and then it is gone.

I have tickets from old shows and things from the past,
As if the past were anything then, and not things that remind
You of it now.  I remember your being, connected to your shirt
And angles of your face, and maybe a word, or two, though
I cannot remember other things. You told me what you were
Going to do, your obligations, and I thought you knew best
And decided to let it go, even though the good is here for a moment
And then it is gone.

Try the suit on. Try the studio. Look fast inside and connect,
For what you do is all you do, in that shade that comes on with evening
And the pink clouds. Be far, I don’t care; just remember I am safe, at
Least for the time being, and I hope you are, too. What is far? Be lucky,
Will you? Remember me at last when I am right here. Put together the
events of last evening and you will laugh. The good is here for a moment
And then it is gone


A mid-summer evening as Scarriet’s March Madness finally draws to a close.
West coast poet Marilyn Chin and east coast poet Ben Mazer clash in the championship game of Scarriet March Madness 2012.
64 poets, and we are now down to two.
In 2010 and 2011 (this is our third annual tournament) a poet and his or her one chosen poem battled to the top, but this year a poet used a new poem in every contest, so it becomes a question of: well, poet, how many great poems have you got?
In our first year, using Lehman’s BAP, a Billy Collins poem won it all, a playful take on a Wordsworth trope, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey”—the title itself sums up David Lehman, Billy Collins, and cheerfully post-modern, late 20th century poetry.  In year two, using an APR anthology, Larkin’s “Aubade” swept to the title: a dead English poet’s rueful, fearful, honest, atheistic, speculation on death.
This year we used Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry, the book with a lot of black poets and ‘traditional,’ Iowa workshop, free verse lyrics.  Marilyn Chin is in Dove’s anthology; Ben Mazer is one of a handful of poets not in the anthology—the Scarriet selection process is too complicated to explain.
Mazer has emerged as a new Ashbery, an Ashbery not ashamed of running, hat flying off, down Romanticism Lane—which is refreshing, since every last bit of Modernist poetry for at least 100 years has been a rejection of anything resembling Romantic poetry, or Tennyson, or anything Byronic.  We sometimes wonder: what do they mean when they say Writer’s Workshop poems are all the same?  They are not the same—they are clearly free, and different.  But they are the same in this: they eschew Shelley and Byron and Keats. Workshop poems might be a little like Wordsworth—because Wordsworth, well, he genuinely liked trees.  But the sublime of Keats, Byron, Shelley?  Not allowed.  The New Critics, supposedly ‘conservative,’ wrote in tremendous opposition to the Romantics, as did T.S. Eliot and Pound and Williams, and this is really what Modernism felt obligated to do—even more important than the poetry that it did write, was the poetry it didn’t.  Modernism didn’t write on modern subjects, necessarily; its ‘experiments’ were finally wan or cute, when they were not lengthy & unread; it didn’t distinguish itself in any manner at all with the public—except to retire from its notice with a shrug and a smirking apology.  The modern poems of Frost, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Auden, Jarrell, and Larkin that did make a dent on the public all sounded like Tennyson, or maybe Tennyson’s anti-war, younger brother.
If poetry is a language, that some people speak and some do not, the only difference between English and French or Italian or Japanese or Arabic and poetry is that poetry is 1) easier to learn and 2) is characterized by sounding good. Since Tennyson sounds good, this is how we know the language known as poetry.  We speak poetry because our speech is good, not because we know the meanings of French words.  Speech is good as speech, not as individual words or isolated debating points—sustained good speech is the simplest and most accurate definition of good poetry.
This is what Keats meant when he said you dive into a lake for the sensual experience, not to ‘work out the lake.’  Poetry isn’t a banner waving; it is swimming in a lake.  It is intellectualization sensualized.  Theory walks along the edges of the lake; the water or the swimming is not for theory.  Theory needs to know its place.  ‘Conceptual’ art is art infected with the dried-up-lake of theory.
Women poets are more susceptible to theory and banner-waving these days out of an inferiority complex thrust upon them by the men, which is too bad.  Women are being led astray by modern experiments.
Marilyn Chin is somewhat immune to theory, for she has history and wit.
We offer this as her poem, and following that, Mazer’s.
Who immerses themselves in the lake?  Who gives us the lake?
The poet who gets us soaking wet will win.


 War chariots thunder, horses neigh, the barbarians are coming.
What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall,
    the barbarians are coming.
They have heard about a weakened link in the wall.
    So, the barbarians have ears among us.
 So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman,
    holding one broken brick in the wall.
So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter,
    that brick and that wall.

The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless
with a top knot.

The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers,
    teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other.

The barbarians are coming:
    If you call me a horse, I must be a horse.
    If you call me a bison, I am equally as guilty.

When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles
    the blame by not admitting it: so, Chuangtzu, himself,
    was a barbarian king!

Horse, horse, bison, bison, the barbarians are coming

and how they love to come.
The smells of the great frontier exalt in them!



Crisping the Comedian C

And with my sword cane I rapped the dog on its head.
To its master I said:
“The soul’s expanding to make room for you
among the piles of rusted bric a brac
that make men grimace, revile themselves in church. . .
I felt the ground beneath begin to lurch,
increased my laughter with its rolling waves
laughter increase. . .
as he lunged forward trying to save himself. . .
I was an honest man. What could I do?
I pushed him forward where the great vacuum grew
and marvelled as he fell. . .
into the silence of the pits of hell.
“That’s one less editorial to write,”
I thought, and blinkered to recall the light,
and blinkered to recall the blight. . .
the scourge of man. . .
I like to help them any way I can.
In my emotions not a thought of man. . .
but that his docile sudden-widowed wife
might serve the lord. . .
replace, with some improvements in accord
with justice and increase, a missing life. . .
I dyed my hair.
A most enticing shade of emerald green,
and knowing the precise dimensions of her lair,
(and its location)
I took me there. . .
in search of satisfaction, and a queen.
She was the best damned thing I’d ever seen.
I smiled to mechanize my spotless luck.
As we proceeded. . .
no human call we heeded. . .
I do not think that men will speak to me.
But wider, wider, like a churning sea
of foaming lavender and sapphire green
I met my match. . .
How can the blameless blame me for my snatch?
I laughed to see
that God had spread his vistas out for me,
his servant lord,
no matter how much I murdered or I whored. . .
I was quite sane.
And turned to mark my profile in a pane
of ice that served my child-bride for a heart. . .
She promised a new start. . .
and I was wondrous, seeing how I’d changed;
the souls of men were cobbled there and ranged
across the germ of my experiment. . .
But at the crack of dawn these visions went,
and I was back among the human race;
answering servants in my modern palace. . .
though one thought, ordinary, flamed and flitted
of how my research proofed that I had fitted. . .
and I was not incognizant of place. . .
answering letters in unbridled solace. . .
an evening like a fortnight had them piled
and crumpled on my desk. . .
Although I cannot, I afford a smile. . .
and set out half a mile. . .
My soul was stirred, and hungered to be reviled,
revived and furnished. . .
where the creature’s dignity was burnished
on all she touched. . .
I bowed my head. My emerald locks she brushed. . .
grew wiry and strange…
yes, in that glass I recognized a change
of heart. She wept and promised a new start. . .
But how can I begin. . .
A child sees vistas in the hammering rain,
and does not ask if everything’s the same. . .
one night I fell. . .
and nothing shall restore me to His Grace.
Yet in its infancy the new-born face
is pocked and filed. . .
and strangely familiar. Something in me smiled.
It’s hard to find a perfect spot of shade. . .
Life is the best thing that I ever made. . .
The Mazer poem is uncanny.
The Chin poem is attempting to be uncanny.  Marilyn Chin’s poem keeps waking from its dream—what did I mean by horse?  By Bison?
Mazer’s poem does not allow us to wake from its dream.
Mazer 90 Chin 81




Only for a moment I saw the sun,
Though its influence has no end.
How can immensity hide?
How can my star fail to be known?
Though all mankind wail and wend,
And they my fiercest rays deride,
I am comfortable I am the one.
Subjective rabble! Clouds victimize
More than the sun oppresses;
The sun gives life, and if your cloud denies,
Your blindness yet confesses you are blind.
In the sun I see your mind.


True to me?  You are true to the grass
And the thousand roots that grow beneath your stone.
You belong to the disappearing past
And I, to your memory—I walk through it, alone.
You cannot remember anything, so I remember you.
I am true to one who cannot be true.

You married someone else, so when you say
You love me, I think, when you leave him, that will be the day.
I married someone else, so when we are through,
We know we are false, though we are being true.

True to you?  I am true to the sky
And thoughts that cannot breathe up there.
I am true to every image in my eye
And all the things for you I’d dare.
I remember everything, including you.
You are true to one who cannot be true.


Allen Tate: radical, avant-garde, anti-critic, and poet: one of the make-it-New-critics. 

Seth Abramson is following in Thomas Brady’s footsteps—Seth is trying to comprehend what I figured out a few years ago: the crucial Fugitive/Southern Agrarian/New Critic role in modern American poetry, especially in the Creative Writing Program Industry, or, as it’s come to be known, the Program Era.

Seth commented on our blog last week and we are quoted on his blog in “There’s A War On in American Poetry (Part II): Were the New Critics the Original MFA-Killers?” July 8, 2012:

I saw a textbook example of the confusion over the role of the New Criticism in the advent of “creative writing” just yesterday, in a mini-essay on a poetry discussion blog. Someone wrote, on that blog, that “[t]he New Critics–who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee–hatched the Creative Writing Industry.” The first part is, of course, true: the New Critics were the “next phase” of the Southern Agrarian group. The second part is entirely a fiction. Not only does the historical evidence reveal no association between the New Critics and the Program Era, it also strongly suggests that the New Critics were aspiring MFA-killers many, many years before their ideological cousins, the avant-garde, attempted the same feat. 

Seth doesn’t want to believe the New Critics were associated with the Program Era.

The reason is simple, and Seth’s agenda, despite the great research he’s doing, is very transparent.

Seth wants to be one of the cool kids.

He wants his beloved MFA programs to be considered cool by the Avant-Garde.

As Seth sees it, the academy is not cool.  Nor are Southern Agrarian/New Critics. The New Critics are way not cool.

Seth would sleep with Marjorie Perloff before he would read one of John Crowe Ransom’s rhymes, or admit that Shelley was a genius and ought to be taught in the academy (shudder).

No, Seth wants nothing to do with classical learning or the Romantics or the New Critics.  Seth embraces the “free studio” Writers Workshop model in highly subsidized MFA programs where teachers humbly “get out of the way”and let fortunate and funded students “find themselves” among their comrades in hip,”radically democratic, non-academic”creative writing environments.

Seth’s dilemma in a nutshell: he’s for democracy and believes in the democracy of teaching poetry in the “free studio” atmosphere of funded MFA programs, but the avant-garde, which he loves, is not democratic, and never will be.  Both the avant-garde and the New Critics are elitist and Seth’s real agenda is to make the avant-garde more democratic.

Seth’s quixotic vision is admirable on the surface. He imagines poet millions trampling on professors, professionalization, elitism, priviledge, hierachy, and genius. As Seth sees it, the New Critics wanted to turn poets into professors.  (If one reads the New Critics, one sees this is not the case, at all.) The New Critics themselves didn’t start MFA programs; on the contrary, they wanted them killed. (This is not really true, either.  They may not have started MFA programs, but their surrogates did.  Iowa belonged to the Fugitive/Agrarian/New Critics—Paul Engle was one of them).

In Seth’s rush to be cool and to make Creative Writing and MFA programs seem cool to people like Marjorie Perloff, he’s been blinded by labels and categories.  (“Cool” is invariably fooled by over-reliance on false categories and labels.)

Seth’s two key distinctions are: One is either academic or not; one is either creative writing, or not.

Seth would have us believe that Paul Engle and Jorie Graham are not academics, or that someone with an MA or BA in English cannot be a “creative writer.”

In terms of history, Seth thinks that because none of the New Critics founded MFA programs, or because the New Critics served as Think Tank professors and textbook authors in the academy, this is proof they were hostile to MFA programs and Creative Writing, in general.

Now, Seth is correct that Creative Writing, per se, was never the ultimate goal of the New Critics.

The New Critics were highly influential businessmen—and their mission was simple: their own writing’s acceptance in the academy.  But their execution, one might say, was complex.  The New Critics were not really Critics, so much as Critic-bashers.  They crudely assaulted other methodologies—in order that they might impose their own, which was merely a grab-bag of outrageous rhetoric intended to bomb the enemy—the academy as it existed—into submission.  Read Allen Tate’s “Is Literary Criticism Possible?” and you’ll see exactly what we mean.  How did Tate answer his titular question? No, it’s not. Only poems are possible.  So much for the idea that the New Critics were more interested in Criticism and Hiearchy than in the flowering of new poems.

New Criticism’s rhetoric is the whole basis for the Creative Writing Workshop.

Here is the poet and prominent New Critic, one of the original Fugitive and Southern Agrarian members, Allen Tate, in that essay just mentioned:

There is no competition among poems. A good poem suggests the possibility of other poems equally good. But criticism is perpetually obsolescent and replaceable.

Is this not, in a nutshell, the philosophy of English and poetry in Higher Ed which has led us away from the rigorous teaching of classical learning right up to the Romantics and Poe, to the Brave New World, 20th century, freedom of the Creative Writing workshop?  It is, indeed.  Until Seth does a close reading of what the New Critics actually wrote, he should not be so certain that the New Critics had nothing to do with Creative Writing.

The New Critics need to be seen in both their narrower, self-interested context, as well as in their wider, historical context—as the American arm of Pound’s Euro-Modernists.  The men who came to be known as Fugitives, and then Southern Agrarians, and then New Critics, did not wake up each morning concerned with the categories which Seth Abramson has assigned overriding importance—but a hard look at what really occured in these individual’s lives will impact, or should impact, Seth’s research, nonetheless. Seth must certainly understand that we should let the material provide us with ideas, rather than imposing our ideas on the material.

Seth sees division of labor within a company and confuses it with that company’s supposed ideology.  He doesn’t understand the New Critics. But nobody really does.  We will clear that up.

The ground has to be softened up.  College administrators are simply not going to allow books of poetry to serve as the sole determination for undergraduate or advanced degree requirements overnight, or ever—no matter how attractive Seth, or students who hate to learn, find the idea. 

Teaching kids “creative writing” might be OK for some poets, but founding and administering and making it successful is the sort of dirty work the New Critics were not not interested in doing.  To effect a revolution in the academy requires “academicially conservative” creds.  Yahoos don’t effect changes in school curricula.  You need professors and theorists with an air of respectability—such as the New Critics, throwing off their quasi-racist Southern Agrarian robes, earned gradually over the years—to do that. 

This is a common error the avant-garde, or radical democrats, such as Seth, make: they believe stuffy or high-brow always means conservative. The New Critics’ conservative exterior was nothing more than a necessary front that allowed them to deconstruct the academy.

The New Critics, with their Confederate flags and gin, made very clear in learned essays written in the 30s, 40s and 50s, that they hated the academy as it then existed.  It was similar to the hatred Ezra Pound, for instance, had for it. 

To put it in really simple terms: the Modernist poets in the early 20th century were outsiders who wanted in.  In, if it couldn’t be popularity, was the Academy.  The simplicity of this—a certain group of ambitious poets and poet/critics who associated with one another in various ways, and who were outside, and wanted in—should not put us off.  In fact, ambition is the bouncing ball we should keep our eye on.  What else is more real?  Methodology?  School loans?  Academic professionalism? 

One doesn’t need to get into a lot of ideological claptrap or aesthetic theory to tell this story.  One doesn’t have to stop at a certain number of “Modernist poets” or worry about that label, or take it too seriously; it’s merely an historical handle.

We know the players: Ezra Pound, his colleague T.S. Eliot (father of New Criticsm), and so on and so on, with the various circles, connections, motives, and general aesthetic ideas.  We know the places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Harvard, Iowa.

The connections are not always easy to trace.

Just to take one example: Paul Engle, perhaps the most important player in Creative Writing, had Fugitive links.  He was awarded his Yale Younger in 1932 (which gave him an important credential or calling card at the time) by a member of Ransom’s Fugitive Circle for his Iowa Master’s thesis.  At this time the “New Critics” were still the “Southern Agrarians.”  As one can readily see, this gets complicated very quickly and such research, as Seth already knows, is not for the faint of heart.  Engle was also a  Rhodes Scholar and studied in England—like almost all of the Fugitive/Southern Agrarians.

Robert Lowell was the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster: Lowell’s psychiatrist was—another Fugitive!—and he sent Lowell from Harvard to the New Critics’ castle in Tennessee, where Lowell famously camped out on Allen Tate’s lawn.  Lowell studied with Ransom (and roomed with Jarrell) at Kenyon; Lowell and his famous name then became the first celebrity Workshop teacher at Iowa for Paul Engle. 

Seth is a sincere radical democrat and so the actions of a small band of ambitious poets is not going to impress him, I know.  But surely he needs to acknowledge that here the seeds of Creative Writing were being sown.  Origins are everything: the rest tends to arrive with a little shrewd administration.

Let’s look at a passage from New Critic and poet John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc.”  Read this carefully, and it is easy to see that “criticism” is not really this New Critic’s concern.  What Ransom is really interested in is “Contemporary Literature” (that is, poems written by himself and his friends like Allen Tate—well, this is natural, isn’t it?).  The enemy to the New Critics in all their writings were the English Professors lovingly protecting their historical periods—while ignoring the new writing.  This was the nut that had to be cracked.  Creative Writing—getting contemporary poets into the academy as teachers—was simply one practical way of doing that.  The New Critics pushed for the new writing against all sorts of already established criticism and scholarship—the New Critics, wearing their ‘scholarly, critical,’ respectable garb, were, in fact, soldiers for Pound, Williams, and the avant-garde. (Pound & Williams are both praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry (first ed. 1937) whereas Poe, for instance, is attacked.)  Listen to Ransom, without any evidence, making his grand pronouncements, and note the attack-dog method:

It is not anybody who can do criticism. And for example, the more eminent  (as historical scholar) the professor of English, the less apt he is to be able to write decent criticism, unless it is about another professor’s work of historical scholarship, in which case it is not literary criticism. The professor may not be without aesthetic judgments respecting an old work, especially if it is “in his period,” since it must often have been judged by authorities whom he respects. Confronted with a new work, I am afraid it is very rare that he finds anything particular to say. Contemporary criticism is not at all in the hands of those who direct the English studies. Contemporary literature, which is almost obliged to receive critical study if it receives any at all, since it is hardly capable of the usual historical commentary, is barely officialized as a proper field for serious study.

Here is contmporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?  They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods. So are their favorite pupils.

Note the awareness of succession—“so are their favorite pupils.”  The New Critics were in this for the long haul. Like any avant-garde, Ransom and the New Critics knew what they were up against: the historically-minded English Departments.  Ironically, it wasn’t criticism that motivated the New Critics; it was “contemporary literature” that motivated them, and criticism of it, criticism that should have been given to it—i.e., their writing and the writing of their friends—the whole Modernist, little magazine, avant-garde, unpopular, crew.

In this same essay, Ransom seeks to severely limit criticism as it had been practiced up until that time.  And recall the remarks of Tate quoted above. The New Critics, as conservative as their reputation was and is, were and are, in fact, far more New than Critic.  The New Critics were the tweedy American wing of Pound’s Avant-Garde Modernism.  Listen to Ransom again, attempting to curtail criticism. Note the attack on book reviewers, as well as professors of literature.  This is the angry voice of the avant-garde, begging to be included:

What is criticism? Easier to ask, What is criticism not? It is an act now notoriously arbitrary and undefined. We feel certain that the critical act is not one of those which the professors of literature habitually perform, and cause their students to perform. And it is our melancholy impression that it is not often cleanly performed in those loose compositions, by writers of perfectly indeterminate qualifications, that appear in print as reviews of books.

Professor Crane [ally of Ransom’s at U. Chicago] excludes from criticism works of historical scholarship and of Neo-Humanism, but more exclusions are possible than that.  I should wish to exclude: 1.Personal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the art-work upon the critic as reader. …2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content taken out of the work.

Why exclude all these things? Ransom wants to destroy humanistic, critical scholarship.  This is transparently his goal, and for the aforementioned reason: the old gasbags in the English departments are failing to give contemporary (avant-garde) literature by people like Ezra Pound and Allen Tate, a chance.  To place so many restrictions on criticism, as Ransom does, is to leave it with nothing but a false objectivity (because all its tools have been taken away from it) and so it can do nothing but react blandly and favorably to the contemporary work, such as Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At a Station in the Metro,” which are highly praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry.

Isn’t this what Creative Writing does?  It throws out critical scholarship, historical scholarship, and virtually all teachable criticism in the name of indiscriminate “creativity” in a “free” environment.  The philosophical underpinnings, as well as the practical work being done by Rhodes Scholar Paul Engle at Iowa—the Mother Ship—come right from the Rhodes Scholar crew known as the New Critics. The English contribution (Richards, Leavis, Empson, Austin) will have to wait for another day.

Seth is correct that the New Critics were not interested in bringing an MFA program to every college in the country—that had nothing to do with their personal ambitions—but this doesn’t change the fact that the New Critics, for their own personal motives, created the philosophical model—which is a kooky one, since, let’s face it, teaching “creativity” by essentially not teaching it, by essentially not having any criticism, is just a kooky idea.

Much is made of creative writing teachers “getting out of the way” of their students.  Can you imagine Edgar Poe “getting out of the way,” if he were an instructor?  Of course he would not.  Poe was the original “genius” who believed anyone could be a “genius” with the proper method. He would have something to teach.  We can read Poe’s essays and know this.  The idea of a teacher “getting out of the way” is absurd, and feeds into the idea that students can magically “learn” by not being taught anything and grooving on Deweyesque “experience.”  This is not to say that there are times the teacher should know when to shut up, but teaching either occurs or it doesn’t, and if  it doesn’t, why do we need the pretence of any sort of “program” in the first place?  “Experience” can be had anywhere.  (Of course we know the answer: it becomes all about who gets credentialed, etc)

Historically, Seth has made much of the fact that Creative Writing really began at Harvard in the 1880s. But there’s no evidence that Harvard in the 1880s was a literary renaissance, as Seth implies. And why did it take so long for MFAs to arrive after the 1880s?  Seth trumpets the accomplishments of the Harvard Monthly during that period, but as Seth quotes the rival Harvard Advocate back then, it was just the “latest literary fad” which occupied the minds of the Monthly editors.  Seth insists that “creative writing” is, by nature, “radically democratic.”  But these are finally just labels. They don’t help us.  The New Critics are labeled “conservative.” This is not even close to the truth.

To say, as Seth does, that American poetry was in a woeful state in the late 19th century and needed Walt Whitman to rescue it, is mere opinion.  Little radical uprisings here and there do not a “Renaissance” make.  Whitman was a woeful prose writer who wrote a few inspired passages of poetry which the pre-Raphaelites admired—to make Walt Whitman a key pillar in the history of American Poetry and Creative Writing is quaint, at best.

Once again, Seth, is half-right.  Harvard in the late 19th century/early 20th century is crucial in following the development of Modernism in literature.  William James, who, with the help of nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, taught Gertrude Stein there.   T.S. Eliot went to school there.  George Santayana taught Wallace Stevens there. Wallace Stevens ran in the same circles as Allen Ginsberg’s poet father; Marianne Moore, who edited “The Dial” in the 20s; and William Carlos Williams. Stevens and Ransom traded essays praising each another.  The answer is not so much what as who.

This is the same old avant-garde story which crops up every decade or two: the pretentious and insistent carping at mainstream culture and literature due to jealousy and/or loose morals.  We see it at Harvard in the 1880s, we will see it with Pound, we will see it with Ransom/Tate. 

Seth tells us that the brightest at Harvard in the 1880s hated American literature as it then existed and turned their weary eyes to Europe.  Sound familar? 

Seth quotes Santayana (who will later reside comfortably in fascist Italy) from those golden days of Harvard in the 1880s, not only attacking “the polite and conventional American mind,” but uttering this bit of wisdom: “We poets at Harvard never read anything except our own compositions.” (!!)  Here, in the 1880s at Harvard, is the solopsism of the insular creative writing workshop mentality fully on display.

So perhaps Seth is onto something.

The problem with Seth’s radical ‘creative writing’ democracy is this.  He ends up winning the argument by saying: My response to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition is: a billion trillion poems!!  This comes out of Allen Tate’s radical formula: one good poem suggest another. and another. and another. and another.

You can’t teach a billion trillion poems.


Marilyn Chin surprised as West champion—but it shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

The best thing a poem can do for you is make someone fall in love with you who otherwise wouldn’t.

(And you are not there when they read your poem.  You are missing.)

The poem does not know what power it has, but as G. Lessing said, poetry and painting “represent absent things as present.” 

To miss someone is to be in love with them.  There is no greater subjective test.  Art portrays the “missing,” the “absent,” and so unrequited love, or love with an obstacle, may be the greatest poetical topic.

This is to state the obvious, but we avoid the obvious at our peril.   In this contest to see who plays Ben Mazer for the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship, Stephen Dunn brings his usual reflective capacity; his poem is rueful and there.  Marilyn Chin brings absence to her poem.  

First, Stephen Dunn’s poem, “The Slow Surge,” and then Marilyn Chin’s “Unrequited Love:”


How sweetly disappeared the silky distraction
of her clothes, and before that the delicacy
with which she stepped out of her shoes.

Can one ever unlearn what one knows?
In postcoital calm I was at home
in the great, minor world

of flesh, languor, and whispery talk.
Soon, I knew, the slow surge of dawn
would give way to rush hour and chores.

It would be hard to ignore the ugliness—
the already brutal century,
the cold, spireless malls—everything the mind

lets in after lovemaking has run its course,
when even a breast that excited you so
is merely companionable, a place to rest your hand.





Because you stared into the black lakes of her eyes,
you shall drown in them.

Because you tasted the persimmon on her lips,
you shall dig your moist grave.

Her rope of black hair does not signify a ladder of escape,
but of capture,

the warm flesh of her arms and thighs—not cradles of comfort,
but of despair.

She shall always be waiting for you in an empty room
overlooking the sea.

She shall always sit this way, her back towards you,
her shoulders bare,

her silk kimono in manifolds around her waist—
blue as the changeless sea.

You sit prostrate before her, bruise your forehead,
chant the Dharmas.

Five thousand years together in the same four-and-a-half-mat room,
and she has not learned to love you.

Dunn’s poem is a complaint, a common sense and almost a petty one, contrasting love-making with its aftermath.  We can argue with Dunn’s poem, unfortunately.  We can say: if we really had a good lovemaking session and we are really in love, even the mall will look beautiful to us!  The argument itself is not the point—the fact that we can argue with the poem is the point.  True, one cannot argue with a breast that no longer seems sexy.  But one can argue with the body of Dunn’s poem, with the premise of Dunn’s poem.  This is not a matter of picking at this or that flaw.  All poems have these little flaws, but we speak of being able to argue with the poem’s general thrust.

We cannot argue with Marilyn Chin’s poem. We cannot ‘bring it closer’ with argument.  We always miss what’s there.

Chin’s poem is—the winner.  To say anything more would be to anticipate objections which the poem itself has carefully suppressed. 

Chin 68 Dunn 66




Mazer and Walcott are East and South champions—the winner goes on to the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship Game.  It began with 64 of the greatest English-speaking, living poets.  Soon it will be down to two.  The winner here plays the winner of Stephen Dunn/Marilyn Chin.

The ‘March Madness Tournament’ process is, as one would expect, very ‘reader response.’  All the elements of any poem must combine to produce a singular result in one reader.  One can harumph and object and theorize and pontificate all one wants, but this is a legitimate way of experiencing poetry.  How does the poem affect your heart rate?  End of story.

Here are the two poems.  Which one comforts you, which one wets your eye, which one makes you sigh—the most?

Looking back at our March Madness articles, we are proud to say that a poetry lesson was embedded in almost every one.

Enjoy these poems, will you?

Then we’ll tell you who won.

First Walcott, the Nobel Prize winner, with his “Schooner Flight,” and then Mazer’s “Cirque D’Etoiles”:

Schooner Flight

11. After the Storm

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake
I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.
I wanted nothing after that day.
Across my own face, like the face of the sun,
a light rain was falling, with the sea calm.

Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face
like a girl showering; make these islands fresh
as Shabine once knew them! Let every trace,
every hot road, smell like clothes she just press
and sprinkle with drizzle. I finish dream;
whatever the rain wash and the sun iron:
the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam,
is clothes enough for my nakedness.
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide
of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs
of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied
if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.
Open the map. More islands there, man,
than peas on a tin plate, all different size,
one thousand in the Bahamas alone,
from mountains to low scrub with coral keys,
and from this bowsprit, I bless every town,
the blue smell of smoke in hills behind them,
and the one small road winding down them like twine
to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,
vain search for one island that heals with its harbour
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.


And after all is made a frozen waste
of snow and ice, of boards and rags. . .
if I should see one spark of permanent,
… one chink of blue among the wind-blown slags
approaching thus, and mirroring my surmise,
one liquid frozen permanence, your eyes. . .
should meet you at the end of time
and never end. . .
for always, even past death, you are my friend. . . .
and when at last it comes, inevitable,
that you shall sit in furs at high table
(for what other fate can one expect?)
dispensing honours, correlating plans
for every cause, for education, science. . .
what will I miss? how can I not be there?
who see you sputtering wordless in despair. . .
as I do now “miss nothing, nothing”
and to know you are some other man’s
(the stupid jerk), who once had your compliance. . .
and do these things ever end? (and if so, where?)
I ask myself, and should I feel despair?
to know, to love, to know, and still not care?
in winter, spring, and summer, and in fall,
on land or sea, at any time at all,
to know that half the stars on each night shine,
the other half are in your eyes, and mine. . .
and what is there? And what, I ask, is there?
Only these hurt and wounded orbs I see
nestled against a frozen stark brick wall. . .
and there are you, and there is me,
and that is all, that is all. . .
How from this torment can I wrestle free?
I can’t. . . . for thus is my soliloquy.
And you shall sit there serving backers tea.
And running ladies circles. Think of me. . .
Think of me, when like a mountainous waste
the night’s long dreaming stretches to a farther coast
where nothing is familiar. . . two paths that may have crossed
discover what had long been past recall. . .
that nothing’s really changed at all,
that we are here!
Here among flowering lanterns of the sea,
finite, marking each vestige of the city
with trailing steps, with wonder, and with pity!
And laugh, and never say that you feel shitty,
are one whose heart is broken, like this ditty.
And think that there is nothing there to miss.
Think “I must not miss a thing. I must not miss
the wraps, the furs, the teaspoon, or the kiss.”
And end in wishes. And leave not this abyss.
For all is one, beginning as it’s done.
Never forgetting this, till I am no one.
There is no formula that can forget. . .
these eyes pierce though ten thousand suns have set,
and will keep setting. . . now tuck in your head,
the blankets folded, and lay down in your bed.
And stir the stars, long after we are dead.




Mazer 89 Walcott 86



Does the imagination have a mouth?
Being from the north, I travel south
To cathedrals’ apses, towers, vast spaces,
With nooks hiding girls
With raven curls
Or blonder ones with Botticelli faces.

I go south because I can.
Why shouldn’t a  proportionate man
Seek beauty in physique and wit?
The imagination feeds
On what it needs.
But alas, could it be I’ve come to the end of it?

The imagination has an ear.
I listened to a beauty this year
Tell me each day every thing she loved in the world.
But can’t I love one
Thing? like the sun?
Or one bud not yet bloomed, its small leaves still curled?

The imagination will have many
Beginnings before it has any.
We look with our eyes at illusion happily.
But her eyes
And her sighs
Are exactly where I want to be.

The imagination has a mouth.
Imagination will out.
I will go finally to where a kiss
Takes a week.
Love is to seek
And never have, and it hits if it miss.


The ocean is always far away.
The ocean is as big as the day.
When you come to the shore to stay,
The ocean still is far away.

Sail to the ocean’s other side
Where different languages reside,
Where rivers share the ocean’s tide
And waters oriental shipwrecks hide.

Seek the sail that never went
Over the ocean to an isle bent
In the mist, with a shape that always meant
You cannot see.  Put up your tent.

Linger here with a vexed emotion,
Identity dropped into Circe’s potion,
And the trees are still and have no motion
In the center of the wide, inestimable ocean.

Your heart is now surrounded by ocean.
You live by externals; you wear their lotion;
They shield you from thought, and every emotion.
You sleep in the sounds of the slumbering ocean.

Your lover is always far away.
Your lover’s thoughts are as big as the day.
When you arrive at the shore to stay,
Your lover still is far away!



Finally, four months (!) after our Scarriet 2012 March Madness Tournament began, we have our Final Four: Ben Mazer, Derek Walcott, Stephen Dunn, and now, Marilyn Chin or Sharon Olds.  I don’t know about you, but we’re exhausted.   Without much ado, then, we present the wry, witty Miss Chin against the exquisitely passionate,  Ms. Olds:


for Ben Huang

You go home one evening tired from work,
and your mother boils you turtle soup.
Twelve hours hunched over the hearth
(who knows what else is in that cauldron).

You say, “Ma, you’ve poached the symbol of long life;
that turtle lived four thousand years, swam
the Wet, up the Yellow, over the Yangtze.
Witnessed the Bronze Age, the High Tang,
grazed on splendid sericulture.”
(So, she boils the life out of him.)

“All our ancestors have been fools.
Remember Uncle Wu who rode ten thousand miles
to kill a famous Manchu and ended up
with his head on a pole? Eat, child,
its liver will make you strong.”

“Sometimes you’re the life, sometimes the sacrifice.”
Her sobbing is inconsolable.
So, you spread that gentle napkin
over your lap in decorous Pasadena.

Baby, some high priestess has got it wrong.
The golden decal on the green underbelly
says “Made in Hong Kong.”

Is there nothing left but the shell
and humanity’s strange inscriptions,
the songs, the rites, the oracles?

—Marilyn Chin


Sometimes I can almost see, around our heads,
Like gnats around a streetlight in summer,
The children we could have,
The glimmer of them.

Sometimes I feel them waiting, dozing
In some antechamber – servants, half-
Listening for the bell.

Sometimes I see them lying like love letters
In the Dead Letter Office

And sometimes, like tonight, by some black
Second sight I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.

—Sharon Olds

It’s hard to declare a winner, here—both poems are marvelous.  The poignancy is below the surface in Chin’s poem and full-blown in the Olds.

Marilyn Chin 68, Sharon Olds 67



Stephen Dunn belongs to the Billy Collins school.  They should go on a poetry-reading tour together.

The public needs to know: this is modern poetry which is being written for you—and here are the poets who write this kind of poetry.

It’s not just Collins and Dunn.  One thinks of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, James Tate, Matthew Dickman, and maybe Louise Gluck, who—without a poem in the Rita Dove Penguin anthology—is one win away from the Final Four.   The public really does need to know who these poets are, the poets who, in every poem, more than anything, want to please the public. 

It’s a given that the public is 1) hard to please, and 2) they need to be led by the nose.  We shouldn’t mourn this fact.  We should just accept it.  But po-biz will not.

Once the public discovered Billy Collins wrote to them and loved them, and he was a safe bet in this regard, Billy Collins and his poetry did alright.

Collins fell short of being a national phenomenon, but can you imagine if he were young and good-looking?   Who knows?  Poetry might be big again.

I asked a young writer friend of mine recently why he thought people read novels instead of poetry and what he said was: when you’re on the train and you finish a poem (which invariably makes you realize that everyone else not sharing in the beauty and wisdom of the poem you are reading is an asshole) you look up and see all the assholes on the train, but with a novel, you get to keep reading and you never have to look up at all the assholes.

If only poems could last at least as long as a train commute.

First the Louise Gluck poem, and then Stephen Dunn’s:


I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.


Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

Dunn woos the reader, outrageously.  The last line is not true—but in poetryland it is.  But the line is true, perhaps, because Dunn began by saying, “Imagine.”  Dunn is out there on a limb, like a coach, telling the reader what to do.  He has set up the relationship between writer and reader—in full confidence.

Louise Gluck never woos the reader: she talks plainly and half-hopes the reader overhears.  Which is what most poets do.  Otherwise, you risk being a jerk. The last line of her poem, “The love of form is a love of endings,” is not meant to be outrageous—and only true in poetryland—but actually true.  Therefore, she takes a much greater risk than Dunn.  We accept Dunn’s line immediately, perhaps on account that we know right away that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.  We have to think about Gluck’s last line: Is the love of form really a love of endings?   One understands conceptually what Gluck is saying, and one may even appreciate that “endings” ends her poem—with the two silent, contemplative friends sitting together as night falls.  But in baseball terminology, Dunn hits his pitch perfectly on a line out of the park for a homerun, while Gluck hits a tremendous fly ball that’s a towering pop up, taking forever to come down, for an out.  The jerk wins.

Dunn 99 Gluck 93

Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!   You are in the Final Four!



W.S. Merwin, who just finished serving out his Poet Laureateship, was born in NYC.  But Scarriet put him in the South bracket because Merwin is associated with Robert Graves (early Fugitive) and with Princeton—where Southern Fugitive and Agrarian, Allen Tate, started one of the nation’s first Poetry workshop there in the early 40s.  The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry, and agrarianism, or environmentalism, for some odd reason, is tied up with the origins of the writing workshop industry: think of conservationist Wallace Stegner, the first Writing Workshop director in the west, and his student Wendell Berry, for instance.  Merwin has eco-creds and poet-creds galore, and Merwin has to be seen as part of this early agrarian movement.  When Merwin came of age as a poet in the 50s, the editor everyone worshiped was John Crowe Ransom, the leader of the agrarians/turned New Critics.  Berryman (at Princeton) and Lowell (a student of Ransom and Workshop teacher) were part of this clique, as well. Merwin’s friend Robert Graves preached psychodelic mushroom consumption when he was professor of Oxford in the 60s. American intellectual life and British hippie philosophy cohere in many ways, and Merwin is nothing if not a back-to-the-earth hippie.   The South/Midwest brackett was dominated by black poets this year, because Rita Dove put them in her Penguin anthology.  Now we have Merwin, the one white player in this division, trying to enter the Final Four and win the Midwest/South—against Derek Walcott, the Nobel poet of Caribbean lore.   If 19th century poetry featured introspection, beauty, and the sublime, 20th century poetry was mostly about nature, place and transience.

Walcott sings of the classical, but from the fringes, where his poetry bodies it as if it still exists.  The following is an excerpt from Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, and appears as it does in Dove’s anthology.  “Another River” is Merwin’s.

Good luck, gentleman.  One of you will advance to Scarriet’s 2012 Final Four.

from Omeros, Book VII

I sang of Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity—
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
Who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead, whose fist of iron

would do me a greater honour if it held on
to my casket’s oarlocks than mine lifting his own
when both anchors are lowered in the one island,

but now the idyll dies, the goblet is broken,
and rainwater trickles down the brown cheek of a jar
from the clay of Choiseul. So much left unspoken

by my chirping nib! And my earth-door lies ajar.
I lie wrapped in a flour-sack sail. The clods thud
on my rope-lowered canoe. Rasping shovels scrape

a dry rain of dirt on its hold, but turn your head
when the sea-almond rattles or the rust-leaved grape
from the shells of my unpharaonic pyramid

towards paper shredded by the wind and scattered
like white gulls that separate their names from the foam
and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog

that skitters from the wave-crash, then frown at his form
for swift second. In its earth-trough, my pirogue
with its brass-handled oarlocks is sailing. Not from

but with them, with Hector, with Maud in the rhythm
of her beds trowelled over, with a swirling log
lifting its mossed head from the swell; let the deep hymn

of the Caribbean continue my epilogue;
may waves remove their shawls as my mourners walk home
to their rusted villages, good shoes in one hand,

passing a boy who walked through the ignorant foam,
and saw a sail going out or else coming in,
and watched asterisks of rain puckering the sand.


The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Both of these poems are enveloped in nature and celebrate nature, more so than even in the works of Wordsworth— who seems a man standing apart from nature, compared to the effusions of these two poets, who are washed away by the waves.

Walcott is a little more skilled in depicting nature and putting charm in his verses.  Merwin is plainer and writes almost with a hushed address, as if his voice were intentionally small and far away.

Walcott 81 Merwin 77



Is 2012 March Madness still going on? Yes.

Ben Mazer and Franz Wright shit out their poems. (That’s just an expression.)  They have no egos.  They are like: here. a poem.

You don’t fuck with Ben Mazer or Franz Wright.  You just read their poems.

You don’t ask them what their poems mean.   You feel the poem travel up the hairs on your arm. 

Hell hath no explanation like the explanation of one of their poems.  You see their poems out of the corner of your brain.

Enough hyperbole: let’s watch this titanic struggle.   For the Final Four!!

Franz Wright:


It’s true I never write, but I would gladly die with you.
Gladly lower myself down alone with you into the enormous mouth
that waits, beyond youth, beyond every instant of ecstasy, remember:
before battle we would do each other’s makeup, comb each other’s
                   hair out
saying we are unconquerable, we are terrible and splendid—
the mouth waiting, patiently waiting. And I will meet you there
beyond bleeding thorns, the endless dilation, the fire that alters
I am there already past snowy clouds, balding moss, dim
swarm of stars even we can step over, it is easier this time, I promise—
I am already waiting in your personal heaven, here is my hand,
I will help you across. I would gladly die with you still,
although I never write  
from this gray institution. See
they are so busy trying to cure me,
I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no more than eight hours
                   a day.
And it’s really just about a thousand miles of cafeteria;
a large one in any event. With its miniature plastic knives,
its tuna salad and Saran-Wrapped genitalia will somebody
get me out of here, sorry. I am happy to say that
every method, massive pharmaceuticals, art therapy
and edifying films as well as others I would prefer
not to mention—I mean, every single technique
known to the mouth—sorry!—to our most kindly
compassionate science is being employed
to restore me to normal well-being
and cheerful stability. I go on vacuuming
toward a small diamond light burning
off in the distance. Remember
me. Do you
remember me?   
In the night’s windowless darkness
when I am lying cold and numb
and no one’s fiddling with the lock, or
shining flashlights in my eyes,
although I never write, secretly
I long to die with you,
does that count?
Ben Mazer:
THE KING  (parts 29-35)
Why should the aged eagle spread his wing?
I’ll tell you why. Because to watch Santa bring
a billion presents from the frozen pole
all by himself is less than heartening.
He brings them door to door
with Hyperborean speed. You who are converted
are harnessed to his creed though you have skirted
the issue. Who is that dark stranger?
That sickly twisted dying frozen ranger
who captivates the grove where you, too, rove.
I think he is myself! The least sure elf
mixes these patterns and brings them to the slatterns
who place them in dust till Easter on the shelf.
They call him Stetson, I have four sure bets on.


The chair she sits in like a burnished throne
happens to be the King’s, and is my own.
Maybe I too descend into parody
but not without esoteric clarity.
The least sure elf
is pining to be made into his self,
but I have already explained myself.
Pure tragedy must needs be humourless
and poetry will not be cured unless
its certain tragedy is made refined.
I too among that Harbour Dawn have pined
for quintessential pure lucidity,
perceived the cortex of the trinity,
and each emotion to its word assigned.


Manhattan in the rain. I couldn’t speak
when Uncle Sid drove me in from Rockaway.
What did I want? To visit the punk rock shops.
The statue of liberty seemed oxidized and locked,
too fleeting, like shops I only saw when they were closed,
left for another lifetime. What would we have said if we talked?
Head of the Vice Squad. My mind was exploding with vice.
When I came back from England I was lost,
and sat in my Aunt’s house in Far Rockaway
watching Abbott and Costello night and day,
as vacuum cleaner salesmen, rival clans,
detectives, photographers, victims of circumstance.
I pilfered the attic for Pogo and Mark Twain,
ate seven kinds of cereal (she had three sons),
and saw Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch again.


Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!


Anne Britton. Why do my thoughts always come back to this?
How on the edge and outskirts of the city
high on a hill worthy of Disney, or Seuss, or Mr. Burns,
high on a hill overlooking
what seemed like all the world—
crags and crevices, shadows, and blinkering lights,
some corner where a cobweb spun, where
nobody entered, where in another world
of brick on brick, orphaned, without witnesses
perhaps an old lady—kindly and unobserved—
may have fed animals she talked to,
called names, her heirs—a mildewed carpet
byzantian and worn amid the high mantles
and rafters seen by the impossibly small.


Branches grow in all directions at once.
Their black silhouettes enclose
the opposite of the city that surrounds them—
even then the white air of orphanic pilgrimages.
They dine on spaghetti! The instruments measure gold!
And when in the longing that descends in darkness
they take their cue to motion
(all things are there!) what never happened slows
into familiar memory, and the winds whip
their thousand frames and borders (enticing as lace),
in cross purposes, symphonies of erasure,
expansions of dimension and perspective
extending outwards down every road and lane,
groaning and growing inward, cross hatched by the rain
(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).


Spring nights in high school—some legend revealed
as far as all the laundry lines could take you
through a universe of backyards, to a distant and returning star.
Like a cock’s crow plunging beneath the planets
to the mythic origins of what we are.
Revealed! So in celebration we circled
the little town, for all lines are a circle,
coming and going the same, till you grow tall
and strong, worthy of bearing a name:
like shrouds of darkness the points we pierced
with our individual lights, passing and hailing like stars,
until all was uncovered, each one knew each one,
the circle completed, a simultaneity
of all points from A to D to Z

Franz Wright cares that he’s crazy.  And it breaks your heart.  This is why his poetry is successful.

Ben Mazer doesn’t care that he’s crazy.  Actually, he’s not crazy—you are, as you read his poetry.  But that’s the whole point—he’s taking you on a trip, so that when you walk away from his poem, you will be less crazy.  We don’t know how this will play out, yet, in terms of success.

It’s a close contest, but the winner is…

Mazer 70 Wright 67




Marilyn Chin, a shy kid who went to the University of Iowa, has three poems in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry.  She has a chance to advance to the Elite Eight in Scarriet’s third annual March Madness Poetry Tournament, which started with 64 of the best living English-speaking poets in the world.  Here’s that third Chin poem from the Dove anthology:


Don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl.
Don’t throw your teacup against the wall in anger.
Don’t suck on your long black braid and weep.
Don’t tarry around the big red sign that says “danger!”

All the tempests will render still; seas will calm,
horses will retreat, voices to surrender.


That you have bloomed this way and not that,
that your skin is yellow, not white, not black,
that you were born not a boychild but a girl,
that this world will be forever puce-pink are just as well.

Remember, the survivor is not the strongest or most clever;
merely, the survivor is almost always the youngest.
And you shall have to relinquish that title before long.

The wry humor here is sweet.  Chin has what most poets lack—profound yet unostentatious wit.

McHugh has two poems in the Dove.  Her “What He Thought” is one of the great little-known poems of the 20th century and it gave her a victory over Kay Ryan in Round Two.  McHugh, too, is witty:

After Su Tung P’o


When a child is born, the parents say
they hope it’s healthy and intelligent. But as for me—

well, vigor and intelligence have wrecked my life. I pray
this baby we are seeing walloped, wiped and winningly anointed,

turns out dumb as oakum—and more sinister. That way
he can crown a tranquil life by being

appointed a cabinet minister.

Heather McHugh belongs to that tribe of poets who want poetry to be socially interesting and make us laugh.  Witty poems make us cry and laugh at the same time, as do Chin and McHugh with their poems here.

Chin manages to be more sweeping.

Chin 69 McHugh 65

So here is the Elite Eight—and the matchups for the Final Four!

North: Franz Wright v. Ben Mazer

South/Midwest: Derek Walcott v. W.S. Merwin

North: Louise Gluck v. Stephen Dunn

West: Sharon Olds v. Marilyn Chin

Big names have fallen: John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, but you had to be there for those contests to see it happen.

Marla Muse:  They happened.

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