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.


  1. Seth said,

    July 14, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    OK, first, this is awesome. I’ve never been so comprehensively or badly psychoanalyzed, so I do honestly appreciate the effort because it made me smile. FWIW, I think “avant-garde” is and always has been a slippery term, and the poetry I admire most is probably _not_ what Ron Silliman means when he speaks of the “avant-garde” (or “post-avant”). Or what Charles Bernstein means, or Bob Grumman, or Kenneth Goldsmith. The poems I published in _Northerners_ arose from a poetics informed by classical rhetoric, the Sophists, the Monists (and the Eleatic School of philosophy generally), theories on the expansion of the universe and the supernatural, juridical speech, symmetry, Judaism, Puritanism, and much else — like anyone, my literary work is largely a nexus of my interests — but how in the world, with that list of influences, would I _ever_ be considered “cool” by the avant-garde, or could I be so stupid as to hope for it, if it interested me? It’s a non-starter. I _do_ wish the avant-garde would allow that those not influenced by (say) Language writing can and do develop complex poetics that are not mere collations of technical gestures, but hey, we all wish that — we want the most interesting conversations out there to be even broader and more interesting than they already are. But none of this changes the fact that Spicer met Blaser and Duncan in 1946 (Spicer once said he was “born” that day; certainly, the SFR was), and in 1946 there were zero creative writing MAs in the world, 1 MFA program in the world, and 2 undergraduate creative writing programs in the world. And academic-institutional entities were totally dominated by New Critics — who were then in their heyday, which not at all coincidentally was the nadir of “creative writing” (1936-1963). That’s why, when Spicer made a proclamation regarding all that was wrong, in his time, with American poetry, he wrote, “There is more of Orpheus in Sophie Tucker than R.P. Blackmur…” R.P. Blackmur? Seriously? Yes, R.P. Blackmur — because he was a central figure in the New Criticism, and that’s what the SFR was reacting to, just as creative writing would subsequently be a reaction to the SFR, and not merely because the major figures of the Beat and SFR phenomena (Ginsberg, Waldman, di Prima, others) ending up teaching in the Naropa MFA, one of the earliest MFA programs, but also because that’s what the earliest MFA students were reading, and they’d seen the workshop model suffuse 1950s and 1960s non-institutional bohemia (cf. “The Maidens,” the regularly-meeting San Francisco writing group Madeline Gleason started that included Duncan; Spicer’s SFSU-sponsored “Poetry As Magic” workshop, the Umbra Workshop, &c) and wanted a way to access it outside the only coastal enclaves which mattered at the time (NYC and SF). Meanwhile, Allen Tate was saying this: “[T]he academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers.” Why, practically the very _father_ of “creative writing,” Tate must have been! Anyway, I only read three paragraphs of the above before I gave up, but you guys are fun and passionate and blinded by your prejudices and while I don’t exactly admire that, I’m nevertheless drawn to it, so I wanted to chime in. –S.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

      You say I got you wrong, but then you go on to ‘protest too much,’ saying that you have ancient poetry creds and that you wish the avant-garde would recognize that you are complex, too, just because you are not a Language Poetry guy, etc: you recite all the avant names, etc. Don’t shoot the messenger. I have no problem at all with your personal creds. Seth, I am making a very partial but truthful observation about you—it’s no insult and you ought to simply see the truth of it.

      Your poetic identity is admirable, and you are what you are….lighten up! To hell with Silliman and the idiotic Language Poets! They’re bor-ing. Who wants to stuff dead Rimbaud into a suit?

      How can you say ’36 to ’63 was the nadir of Creative Writing?? Those were the ‘glory days!’ Donald Justice, Phil Levine, Snodgrass, Merwin, were in Robert Lowell’s workshop in the late 40s at Iowa, Blackmur was teaching Berryman at Princeton, and then look at Donald Justice’s Iowa workshop students: Mark Strand, Rita Dove, James Tate, Jorie Graham.Wake up and smell the coffee, Seth! Old Paul Engle was still at Iowa in the 80s and he resented Justice and what he (Engle) had created, because the Creative Writing experiment would inevitably fail its democratic purpose and create ‘stars’—but that’s what the not-so-secret goal was all along! Our ideals die in the light of day. Creative Writing blossomed in ’36 to ’63 and created…Jorie Graham! That’s the rise and fall. The story is over, Seth. The rest is more competing ‘stars’ amidst a business model to lure in students with the promise they will become ‘writers.’

      The fact that Ginsberg was teaching creative writing pretty early on just proves the theme in my post—which you really ought to read—it has less to do with you, Seth, and much more to do with your research, which I’m very glad you’re doing—it needs to be done. I’m your friend, Seth,not your enemy, here.

      Please have the decency and courtesy to read my post in full.

      And yes, ‘avant-garde’ is a very slippery term.



  2. LOL said,

    July 15, 2012 at 6:22 am


  3. marcusbales said,

    July 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    This appears to be a terminology issue. Frankly, it looks like the two of you are in violent agreement. Define your terms, gentlemen! I think you’ll find you don’t have that much to argue about.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      Thanks, Marcus, for that amusing term: “violent agreement.”

      I don’t think we agree: I gave my flip definition of ‘workshop’ culture: teach by not teaching. Seth couldn’t swallow that definition. What say you, Bales? How exactly should poetry be taught?

      In my view, Workshop is ‘know-nothing;’ its purpose is to allow the ‘new’ to prevail, which means ‘don’t ever sound like Shelley or Byron or Keats’ because that will get you tossed out of the cool kids’ club. Seth wants the workshop to be ‘free,’ and this is admirable, but nothing is ‘free’ because everything has a birth and an origin and a tradition (even if it’s fairly new) and to trace the history of Workshop we find what I found in reading the essays of Tate and Ransom, the officials who birthed Creative Writing as an alternative to the historically-minded English departments: Chuck history (Keats, Byron, Shelley) and write as if you are blind. Eliminate all critical tools (chuck history). Be a “New” Critic. The tabula rasa is yours, Workshop students! Just start farting, if you like.

      Interesting that Seth makes such a big deal about Spicer, who complained about Blackmur. Really? Blackmur drank like a fish, as did Spicer. They would have loved each other, had they met. But anyway, Seth says there were zero creative writing MAs in the world in 1946, but it takes me all of 5 seconds to google and find this:

      “Tate was a poet-in-residence at Princeton University until 1942. He founded the Creative Writing program at Princeton, and mentored Richard Blackmur, John Berryman, and others.”

      Poet-in-residence at Princeton. “I am a drunk and I am going to come to your school and create drunkeness, er…excuse me, a Creative Writing program. Allen Tate, a ‘New’ Critic and a drunk, teacher of Robert Lowell, a drunk, champion of T.S. Eliot, a drunk, teacher of Blackmur, a drunk, who taught Berryman, a drunk. Poor Spicer missed out on this Creative Writing orgy! Oh, but look, Spicer became a drunk just fine on his own.

      Allen Tate was one of the founding fathers of Creative Writing. Seth thinks it was Jack Spicer! Well, fine, Spicer and Ginsberg knew about Blackmur and the Creative Writing Program/Poet-in-Residence idea from Allen Tate, New Critic. Thank you.

      “Poet-in-Residence” is a great term, by the way, because this in a nutshell describes what the Allen Tates of the world were doing in the 30s and 40s: barging into the academy with their below average talent and cranky, anti-historical ideas. Tate, the New Critic, Seth, opened the floodgates. The Spicers of the world followed.

      Rimbaud—as avant-garde dionysius—is coming to your college as ‘poet-in-residence.’

      Creative Workshop, away!

      Seth is obviously pushing a much saner, and a more sober model today, I know; one more business-like and corporate, but it’s the same idea: lure in students with money who will pay for not being taught, will pay for time and a few seminar room meetings that you provide, along with a ‘poet-in-residence’ or two.


      • marcusbales said,

        July 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm

        The central problem of teaching and learning is that there are two necessary but not sufficient elements required simultaneously: first, the teacher must be willing and able to find out and understand where the student is along the knowledge-continuum of the subject at hand, and the student must embrace and engage with the notion that the teacher has something worth learning. Without both those things occurring simultaneously there is no teaching and no learning; there is only lecturing and resentment.

        So, since there is no poet living, and there never has been, and likely never will be, who thinks he or she has anything to learn about writing poetry from any other poet, you’re screwed right there with regard to teaching poetry; and since there is also no poet living, nor has been, nor likely will be, who thinks it’s worth his or her time and energy to find out where the sniveling incompetents who are misrepresenting themselves as ‘younger poets’ are with regard to writing poetry, you’re screwed there, too. So I conclude that writing poetry can’t be taught at all.

        You can teach the appreciation of poetry, though.

        That’s a matter of a very long and intricate and involved process of reading and talking in the standard student teacher relationship I’ve described above, where the teacher can point out what a poem is doing and why it’s doing it, and the student can follow the description, if each of them is properly, as above, motivated.

        As for workshops, there are two kinds: the warm fuzzy and the butcher bloc. In the first everyone is looking for something nice to say about everything; in the second the attitude is roughly ‘By bringing this poem to the group you’ve admitted there is something wrong with it and by god we’re going to find it.”

        In your ‘know-nothing’ workshop description you’re describing the first sort, though I’ve never known anyone to get tossed from the group for meter or rhyme – they are merely condescended to as sadly out of touch with real poetry.

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 16, 2012 at 1:03 am

          “Real poetry” is prose, because why would you want to artificially arrange what you ‘really have to say’ into the music of metric and rhyme? Go write a song on the piano, instead. Recorded pop music in the mid-20th century became so rich and popular that I believe it became something of an embarrassment to the poets writing at that time. Obviously meter and rhyme have a strong presence in poetic history, so it is still taught in a traditional setting. But the Workshop is in a very real sense detached from history (see the New Critics and their attack on historical English departments) because it’s about poets writing now. The impetus in writing poetry for the last several generations has been away from meter and rhyme. This mid-to-late 20th century development was grafted onto what the early 20th century Modernists were doing, even though the two are far less connected to each other than we think. Imagism, for instance, was a tiny, short-lived movement, interesting to almost no one except Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound and an editor or two at Poetry magazine, and it was really nothing more than haiku, anyway, and yet, because the Imagists tended not to rhyme, they look like prophets in retrospect—when it was a mere little accident in history. Ezra Pound looks like a genius because at the Iowa Workshop in the mid-century, all the poets stopped using rhyme and meter. But Ezra Pound and his friend Carlos Williams had no influence on the diminishment of rhyme in the Iowa Workshop—which was for the more contemporary reason given above: the exquisite development of pop music. It would have been bad enough if the ‘new’ poetry were severed from its roots and were practiced with no history, no models of rhyme and meter, etc. But what occured was even worse: the ascension of Pound and Williams as models by the merest accident. Better to have no models than lame ones.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    July 16, 2012 at 1:21 am


    As far as ‘warm & fuzzy’ and ‘butcher bloc,’ goes, I’m sure most Workshops are some combination of the two. Personality has great sway; the personality of the student/poet determines how much respect his or her poetry gets in live settings. The teacher, with his book or two, inevitably gets respect, even if his or her poetry isn’t very good. ‘Butcher bloc’ is used to punish the wayward personalities, and ‘fuzzy’ to reward, no doubt. Alexander Pope said one ought to appreciate the spirit of the poem and not be picky about small errors, and I think he’s right. LIfe is too short to niggle when it comes to poetry, though, obviously, all poets worth their salt, will inevitably niggle. But that should just be something the poet does privately to improve. If the spirit is faulty and the poet isn’t attempting anything worthy—like Carlos Williams, or some other hack—than even ‘butcher bloc’ is a waste of time. There are so many bad poets for every good one that no intimate Worskhop could be anything but pure hypocrisy, or a fight to the death. The only way poetry can work is if the poet publish their work for friends, or, for a public, and if they don’t buy the book, the case is decided. Art after all, is for people, not for scholars. Scholars come along to make things easier for the people; the idea of a scholar coming along and saying, ‘you must like this’ or ‘the people were wrong not to like this’ is a slavish idea by bad poets who hope the people are ‘wrong’ and one scholar will be ‘right’ about their awful poetry. The people are never wrong—because art is finally for them. Elevating taste is worthy, obviously, but the scholar really can’t do the elevating; only the poet can do that—and the scholar can only basically applaud it.

    • marcusbales said,

      July 16, 2012 at 4:45 am

      The difference between what’s art and what’s natural has to do with boundaries. What’s natural has no boundaries: it goes on and on. Art is boundaried. The artist, the poet, creates the boundary, and presents what’s inside as art. Merely framing the natural, though, is not enough. The framer must also be the intending arranger of the elements within the frame in order to claim to make art — and that intent has to come across to the audience within the work, not merely because of the possible claim to art that a frame can, but does not necessarily all by itself, make.

      Prose is the natural language of native speakers of that language. The boundaries are few, so what art does is create boundaries in order to frame, and arrange elements within the frame, in order to create art – poets use meter to make poetry different from prose by creating the artificial boundary of meter within which to arrange the elements of their work. People who don’t use meter are writing prose whether they’re trying to convey facts to the reader in a sub specie aeternitatis attempt to pretend to non-fiction by selection, or are writing ordinary fiction where much more may be invented, distorted, and changed for effect.

      Art is artificial. That word, “artificial”, though, is a word that can bring unhelpful connotations with it, like comparing artificial daffodils with real ones. It seems to imply inferiority. Well, art IS inferior to nature; it is inferior to experience. It is a good deal less than the natural, a good deal less than the experienced. Art is a presentation of an interpretation of a perception of reality, not reality; it is a map, not the terrain. No matter how eloquently we may speak of the container of art holding the soup of reality, the yap is not the tureen. Art is a human comment on reality, not reality itself, and that’s why art must be regarded, by definition, as

      In my experience workshops are not combinations of warm/fuzzy and butcher-bloc – but my experience is limited. My experience is that poets who are looking for warm/fuzzy reactions to their work seek out, by word of mouth evaluations, warm/fuzzy workshops, while more combative poets seek out by the same method the butcher-bloc groups. I’ve never been to the sort of workshop where the moderator is a famous poet that the students have either paid or arranged scholarship money to pay, and who, therefore, might be said to at least have approached the student-like attitude I spoke of before, one by which they have acknowledged the teacher has something worthwhile to teach. Perhaps such workshops, which more closely resemble classrooms with a lecturer than a collection of supposed peers voluntarily critiquing one anothers’ work, must in fact combine the two elements so that the teacher can maintain teacherly control in a situation where by the nature of the thing being studied the student may at any moment eclipse the teacher.

      I don’t hold that the public buying the book or not is dispositive; that way lies Maya Angelou and Rod McKuen. Of course there’s no reason art, or poetry in particular, must be unpopular, but popularity alone cannot be its vade mecum.

      Scholars and critics put themselves forward as people of erudition and taste, who are comparing the work under review implicitly with works that have established themselves as both the makers of taste and the monuments against which contemporary attempts to join in the culture’s taste-making and taste-testing are measured. Everything else is blurbage.

      • thomasbrady said,

        July 16, 2012 at 4:54 pm


        I like what you say about boundaries and frames and the superiority of nature to art. Its common sense is difficult to refute.

        Nature goes on and on. Art is boundaried.

        I think what happened with poetry in this regard is that poets influenced by linguistic philosophers in the 19th and 20th centuries stepped in and decided that poetry belonged to human speech, which was natural, and went on and on.

        The temptation to make poetry as important as nature was too great to resist.

        Ironically, though, in your view, this sort of ‘prose’ or ‘natural’ poetry is inferior to ‘artificial,’ ‘boundaried’ poetry.

        As far as popularity goes, yes, that way may lie Rod McKuen, but the greater error is to go the other way towards intentional obscurity so as not to be popular.


        • marcusbales said,

          July 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm

          It may be so that poets influenced by linguistic philosophers and other postmodernists decided that poetry belonged to regular speech, and that the artificial boundaries of meter could be discarded in order to attempt to develop a more natural art – but the wrongness of that idea is obvious in the oxymoron of ‘natural art’. There is no natural art; all art is artificial, and it must be artificial, with artificial limits and boundaries, in order to distinguish it from regular speech. The point of art, after all, is precisely to create a kind of speech that is explicitly different than regular speech.

          The poets you’re speaking of mistook, I think, the notions of ‘diction’ and ‘speech’. They were so put off by the late Victorian and Edwardian era poetic diction that they completely wrong-headedly threw out the baby of meter with the bathwater of their era’s diction. Every other poetic revolution against what came to seem more and more archaic poetic diction simply threw out the diction and went on writing in meter. The history stretches back as far as you care to look, until it disappears in the mists of antiquity. There has never been any question about using meter as the distinguishing mark of poetry, until FM Ford, Amy Lowell, WC Williams, and that crowd, so fundamentally misunderstood the difference between diction and meter that they, in their profound ignorance, tried to get rid of both in order to get rid of one.

          I think they were not attempting to make poetry as important as nature, but rather that they simply screwed up out of ignorance of the difference between diction and meter. They came to think, somehow, that it was iambic pentameter itself that produced the Victorian-Edwardian diction, when of course it was nothing of the kind. The exhortation to ‘break the pentameter’ was, and is, simply wrong. Meter doesn’t demand that one compose to the metronome any more than music demands that one compose to the metronome. Pound was utterly and ignorantly wrong. You can tell from reading his so-called poems that he had no ear himself, and he decided to toss out the entirety of the boundaries he couldn’t perform within in order to be able to claim that whatever he was writing was ‘poetry’. It was a cynical and smarmy ploy, and it’s been followed by every other free verse and post-free-verse poet since. Of course they say they despise what they have found they cannot do.

          It’s not a matter of prose being inferior to poetry, or vice versa, because the attempts to make art within either prose or poetry use different boundaries. That’s like arguing that baseball is inferior to basketball because they use different boundaries. It’s preposterous. Different boundaries necessarily produce different endeavors. Comparing poetry to prose is like comparing raising beef cattle to raising show dogs: sure, you’re raising animals in either case, but the intents and purposes are so different that there is no sense in comparing them at all. I reject, therefore, your assertion that “this sort of ‘prose’ or ‘natural poetry is inferior to ‘artificial,’ ‘boundaried’ poetry. It’s not inferior, it’s prose. It’s a different endeavor, one that has rejected everything that distinguishes poetry from prose, and then with the sort of chutzpah you don’t see very often, claims it is itself poetry. That’s not just nonsense; that’s nonsense on stilts.

          I think we agree on popularity: the goal is neither to reject it nor pursue it – popularity is the test of neither good or of bad poetry.

          • thomasbrady said,

            July 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm


            Good take on Pound. So true.

            Interesting theory on diction/meter. I like it. I think this error is one of the important components of Modernist change.

            I would only disagree with this: “The point of art, after all, is precisely to create a kind of speech that is explicitly different than regular speech.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of emphasis, but I don’t know if “the point” of art is this; poetry in meter that still sounds like natural speech is always preferable. There’s a philosophical debate waiting to happen in this statement of yours; a rather rich one, I think.


            • marcusbales said,

              July 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm

              All right, then, let’s distinguish the language arts one from another. We have the fiction language arts, such as poetry and prose fiction, the non-fiction language arts such as journalism, diaries, letters, and so forth – though whether any human being can really offer anything that is truly ‘non-fiction’ is open for debate – and then there are the rhetorical language arts such as speeches, advertising, and similar endeavors.

              It is in the rhetorical language arts that the point of the art is to create a kind of speech that, as you put it, ‘still sounds like natural speech’. To the extent that the non-fiction language arts are trying to reproduce events or conversations, they, too, are looking to create a kind of speech that ‘still sounds like natural speech’. But in the fiction language arts no such thing is happening. The goal is to create a kind of speech that is heightened and more meaningfully significant than natural speech without quite abandoning the contemporary idioms and rhythms of natural speech, but explicitly moving away from them, too, in order not to be confused with other kinds of language arts, because fiction that deliberately is created to sound like ‘natural speech’ is usually what we call ‘lying’.

              The goal of all fiction, prose or poetry, is to earn the socially-allowed justification for this particular kind of lying by producing language that does not in fact sound just like ‘natural speech’ but rather that sounds sort of like it, enough like it so that the contemporaneousness of it passes within the context of the work, but does not, in fact, reproduce ‘natural speech’. We fiction writers want to preserve our socially-acknowledged permission to tell lies, so we have to be pretty careful to walk the fine line between sounding just like and sounding sort of like ‘natural speech’.

              Of course, every poetic revolt against a tired diction claims to be intent upon creating poems that use contemporary ‘natural speech’ in order to not sound old and tired and worn any more. That’s fine for rhetorical purposes, but no one spoke in Wordsworth’s time as Wordsworth wrote; no one spoke in Dryden’s time as Dryden wrote; no one spoke in Shakespeare’s time, or in Chaucer’s, or in Dante’s or indeed in anyone’s time as regular people spoke in ‘natural speech’. But sorta. Sorta kinda – but still, quite differently, and purposefully differently, so that the artist was not mistaken for a liar.

              • thomasbrady said,

                July 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm


                This is brilliant.

                ..because fiction that deliberately is created to sound like ‘natural speech’ is usually what we call ‘lying.’

                And it ties into this:

                though whether any human being can really offer anything that is truly ‘non-fiction’ is open for debate

                which is also rich with possibilities.

                I have pondered these exact questions and I think they are crucial in any understanding of art, poetry, non-fiction and everything else.




  5. vangiggles said,

    July 17, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    seth abramson is utterly delusional and has no clue about what he is talking about. specifically, i find his notion that anybody should be doing any writing at all for free–even lowly book reviews–not conducive to the community health of poetry and poets. ur not much better, but at least you have a sense of humor, rather than some kind of irrational and completely unprofessional savior complex. and you allow anonymous comments. the reason seth does not allow anonymous comments is because he’s not actually interested in the truth from strangers. ben franklin was famous for being anonymous a lot of the time. there is an honorable tradition in anonymity, which seth refuses to grant his readership. it’s pathetic, along with his ongoing lack of professionalism. if you continue to devalue a service by constantly offering it for free, you are not a working professional, and you are doing very little to improve your profession.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 17, 2012 at 9:57 pm


      Seth is doing good research; he is sincere.

      Despite his protests, though, Seth is besotted with the avant-garde and feels he’s not respected in that quarter because he happens to be pro-Creative Writing industry.

      I just heard from a very good source that Spicer LOVED John Crowe Ransom. So there is Spicer making fun of Blackmur in Seth’s anecdote, but it turns out Spicer respects Ransom.

      The irony here is that the New Critics were avant-garde, but since they are seen to be conservative, Seth is always going to run away from them.

      The poetry world in the 20th century was very, very small. Allen Ginsberg? Oh, yea, that’s Louis’ son, who belonged to the same circle of poets which included Stevens, Williams, and Moore, the “Dial” set, which also included Eliot, Cummings, and Pound. The New Criticism came out of Richards and Leavis and Empson in Britain: Paul Engle and the New Critics studied in Britain as Rhodes Scholars. So did Richard Eberhart, (I.A. Richards) whose article in the Times on Ginsberg and “Howl” legitimized the Beats to a great extent.

      The New Critics sowed the seeds of Creative Writing. Seth cannot deny this.

      I don’t get paid for this blog and I love doing it. I need to be free to express myself. “Working professional” is not on my radar, I guess.


  6. Mark said,

    July 19, 2012 at 4:17 pm


    Scarriet has a long tradition of proudly mis/uninformed hatchet jobs made from a position of willful ignorance but this one is particularly bad. I honestly couldn’t stomach reading the whole thing. It wasn’t even fun in a gossip-y, guilty pleasure way (though to be fair, I know absolutely zilch about Seth Abramson and don’t really care to rectify that)

    The only reason I’m commenting here is to address this incredibly stupid point:

    “I just heard from a very good source that Spicer LOVED John Crowe Ransom. So there is Spicer making fun of Blackmur in Seth’s anecdote, but it turns out Spicer respects Ransom.”

    I’ll give that one a big, hearty LOL – we all know that a “very good source” means you made it up.

    First, it wasn’t an anecdote Seth was relaying. It was taken from Spicer’s actual writings (a piece easily found online). The piece begins: “Pure poetry bores everybody. It is even a bore to the poet. The only real contribution of the New Critics is that they have demonstrated this so well.”

    The line Abramson quotes from actually reads: “We must become singers, become entertainers. We must stop sitting on the pot of culture. There is more of Orpheus in Sophie Tucker than in R. P. Blackmur; we have more to learn from George M. Cohan than from John Crowe Ransom.”

    Sounds like a guy who “LOVED” (all-caps) John Crowe Ransom to me.

    Second, among the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, Ransom was particularly demonized (even among the much-reviled New Critics) for his homophobic reaction to Robert Duncan in the Kenyon Review. So even if you hadn’t read Spicer’s piece, anyone with an even passing interest in American poetry should be smart enough to not say something so stupid under the guise of a “very good source” (again, LOL (all-caps))

    I don’t expect you to know this, you would actually have to read work upon which you are commenting upon for that to be the case.

    You are a horrible liar and a coward, Tom, but one of the biggest problems is that you let it get in the way of being an entertainer.

    Hugs and Kisses,

  7. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Mark (?),
    I wouldn’t believe everything Jack said when he was drunk or filled with self hatred, or rush to interpret his volatile and moody conversation. I was best friends with Landis Everson, the poet who Jack Spicer was in love with and awed by. I got to know the human side of these historical events, from someone who lived through them as a core member of that group, and it gives one a different perspective. I have published writings and research on this in Fulcrum, and probably elsewhere. Spicer admired Ransom’s poetry very much, and when no one else went to hear Ransom read in San Francisco, Spicer was there, rebelling against them all, and worshipping at the foot of the master. We know that he desperately wanted to get into the Kenyon Review, and that he tried to get in there but couldn’t. He asked Landis to help him try to get into it. Landis was the poet Jack asked to show him how he could make his poetry more avant-garde, in the late 40s. There were creative writing classes at Berkeley in the 40s, and Josephine Miles taught them. Landis stated that he learned much about how to write from Miss Miles. I think Jack may have been in her class, because he presented Miss Miles with his actual first book, in an edition of one copy which was a gift for her. Jo Miles later called the group of four “The Museum School of Poetry” (Occident, 1954, “Four from Before: Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Landis Everson, Robin Blaser”. Landis was the poet who replaced Duncan in the group in 1960 when Jack was mad at Duncan, and thought he was writing crap. Jack was ecstatic about the work Landis was turning in to the group (of three then — Robin, and Jack — who led the group — and Landis), exclaiming to Landis that it was “dictated” (even though Landis didn’t agree — why should a man who turned down dinners with WH Auden, Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers out of shyness). You might want to read my history of the Berkeley Renaissance in Fulcrum 3, which Silliman has called the best work on the subject, and which includes first-hand interviews with Robin, Landis, Mary Fabilli, Ariel Parkinson, Catherine M. Mulholland (the woman who Spicer was in love with in the late 40s), Gerry Ackerman, and others. There is also some highly interesting stuff about Landis as the Poet-King in the group, in Robin’s notes at the end of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, and some letters from Jack to Duncan and Robin about Landis as a God (these were published in a later number of Fulcrum – four I think). Landis was also admired by Ashbery and Creeley. Landis was also a San Francisco Renaissance poet and a gay man who published in the Kenyon Review, for which Jack was envious. Possibly one of the reasons why there hasn’t been more good work on the Berkeley Renaissance (though there is some very good stuff, and up until recently I have read it all) is that the facts do not add up, and that people have a personal investment in wanting things to be the way they want them to be, rather than the way they were. We learned a lot about that from Landis Everson before his death. There is more there than meets the eye in literary history. Best, Ben Mazer

  8. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Jack was also very contradictory, and liable to turn on his own friends, as we know. The man was consumed by self-doubt, self-pity, and self-hatred. His close friends could tell you this. And he had very eclectic tastes and was widely read.

  9. Mark said,

    July 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm


    The quoted slams at Ransom and the New Critics aren’t something Spicer “said when he was drunk.” It’s from a published work (which is not to say he wasn’t drunk when he wrote it, but still…)

    Spicer was a tempermental drunk but he was not the caricature he is so often made out to be.

    As for: “worshipping at the foot of the master.”

    Dude, seriously? Going to a poetry reading is “worshipping at the foot of the master”? Fuck. This is the sort of hyperbole that belongs on Scarriet and nowhere else.

    You undercut your own point in the next sentence when you note that Spicer wanted to get in the Kenyon Review – I’d suspect that his attendance had more to do with making connections than worship.

    Spicer did admire poetry of many stripes but this does little to dilute his attacks on New Criticism in general and Ransom in particular.

    Stop feeding the troll, Benny. You’re better than this.

    • Ben Mazer said,

      July 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      Mark, Dude, I got it straight from the horse’s mouth, from someone who was very close to Jack. Jack maybe didn’t want to admit publicly to his admiration of Ransom (it is fairly clear that he didn’t), but there is no question he respected the man as a poet, whatever he may have said somewhere else.

      • Mark said,

        July 19, 2012 at 7:01 pm

        Well now. “Respected the man as a poet” is a world of difference from “worshipped at the foot of the master”.

        Would you mind if I shot you a quick e-mail, Ben?

        I didn’t mean to be so brash there but I want to clarify one point, quickly and I’d rather not do it on a public forum.

        If you don’t want your e-mail showing up on a public forum you could send one over to


  10. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    And by the way, Ransom did have a damned good aesthetic theory of his own regarding poetry, which he outlined and shaded in most subtly in “The New Criticism” (1941, out of print).

  11. Mark said,

    July 19, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    It’s 4am here so excuse my mistake… I dug out my Collected Lectures and that’s where the Spicer quote comes from not from a published work. I don’t think that detracts much from the general point, though.


    • Ben Mazer said,

      July 19, 2012 at 7:01 pm

      My point is well worth considering. There were a lot of things the Berkeley/SF Renaissance poets were not keen on admitting publicly. They were too consumed by in-fighting and poetry politics. Long before he was writing any serious poetry, Robin appointed himself the historian of the group. Very convenient that. The myths have stood up a lot better than the reality, which has only been a little bit scraped.

    • Ben Mazer said,

      July 19, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      By the way, those lectures — Spicer was notoriously drunk and bitter, it was the late 60s, he was about to die, and he was playing to the crowd. Self-interest. We know that people contradict themselves. That love can turn into hate. That was a huge side of Spicer, because of deep bitterness he felt within himself. There is some context for thought there.

  12. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    He had much nastier things to say about Duncan than he ever did about Ransom!

  13. thomasbrady said,

    July 19, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Shit-stirrer gets owned by real scholar.

    I could say this, but it’s not fair. Mark, I like you. You are always entitled to your opinion here and I’m always glad when you show up.

    I know we tend to get freaked out when other people give their opinions about our opinions, but I’ve never minded this. I welcome it.

    How fortunate you are, Mark, to have the opportunity to talk to a real scholar and learn that published accounts are not always the truest ones.

    But until the day we are all mind-readers, no one will ever know for sure what’s precisely true. Speculation makes me happy—it’s all we’ve got.

    Everyone back then wanted to publish in the Kenyon Review. And yes, John Crowe Ransom was ‘the MASTER.’ Robert Lowell left Harvard to study with Ransom/Tate. The New Critics made reputations back then. The English connection (Most of the New Critics and Paul Engle were Rhodes Scholars) was important, too. People forget how much the U.S. is an intellectual colony of GB. Is that too un-American to say that? Does it offend the WC Williams fans? Anyway, Mark, you should read Ransom’s “Poets Without Laurels” and “Criticism, Inc” and read Tate and Penn Warren, also. While Pound and Eliot did a lot to change poetry (not always for the better) the New Critics did more than anyone to usher in that change in terms of perception, teaching, reputation, etc which, it could be argued, took more skill. Ransom was brilliant and any aspiring poet would have had to respect, if not LOVE (excuse me, I did get carried away) John Crowe Ransom. Ransom was a fine poet, too. I’d go to his poetry reading in a second.

  14. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    We should go easy on Mark. He and I have exchanged some pleasant emails and found some common ground on which to meet and discuss these matters. Turns out we have a mutual friend! But I think Mark would like me not to say who.

  15. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    But yeah, more people should be reading Ransom. And they will be, when my critical edition of the Complete Poems comes out.

  16. Ben Mazer said,

    July 19, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Okay, so when’s that Final? I’m pumping pentameters and curling commas.

  17. Des Swords said,

    July 20, 2012 at 2:58 am

    What struck me more than anything in Abramson and Brady’s convoluted and complex theoretical projections about poets A, B & C of the X, Y & Z Schools, is that Seth, in his own post, referred to this blog anonymously.

    He deliberately chose to not name it. To withhold any and all identifying markers; opting instead for a casual, offhand tenor; writing that ‘just yesterday, in a mini-essay on a poetry discussion blog’, he stumbled across a theoretician engaged in the exact same area of highly specialized poetry knowledge as himself; informing his readers we need not trouble ourselves with such minor details as the author of ‘that blog’ claiming the exact opposite of his own acroamatic utterances, by arguing “[t]he New Critics–who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee–hatched the Creative Writing Industry.”

    As if, like, there are multiple poetry blog specialists researching the very same New Critic, Agrarian poets Seth himself is wrestling with.


    • thomasbrady said,

      July 20, 2012 at 3:24 am

      Seth doesn’t ‘get’ the New Critics. Few do. The story is waiting to be told. Like most stories, it’s not always pretty, but it’s worth the telling…

      • Des Swords said,

        July 20, 2012 at 3:57 am

        As someone with little interest in this specialized area, as a ‘general’ reader willing to be drawn in to it by someone like you with the storytelling gift to bring your version of the story of it to life – the way you are writing about it at the moment is too mushy. Obviously it’s still a work in progress, but I remember reading you on it four years ago and was excited by it because what you had to say was clear, concise, punchy and to the point. There was a clear through-line, in black and white, and you wore the immensity of reading that must have gone into it, very lightly. Like a Bill Logan of the Agrarian, New Critic demolition.

        The problems with it arose when others jumped on your bandwagon and began taking issue with your ‘argument’ (that really cannot be proved one way or the other) as a means to engage with and display their own intellectual nerdiness. They put you off your stride by getting a rise out of you, and bogged you down into arguing the minutiae of what, where, when, who and why; and then what, where, when, who and why again; doubling and tripling down on unimportant detail that caused a tipping over from cool and readable pseudo-scholarly Brady of the smooth literary froth that detains the interest of a general reader, to tortuous and bloated magnum opus Brady of the unread strand.

        Although Seth is imitating you, notice that when his work was overtly acknowledged by a few of the po-mo OAP’s, he clocked out cool as you like, validated in his own mind because one or two West Coast ga-ga heads had patted him on the back. Did a Silliman, closed his blog, removed all the content, for a while, until his natural propensity for long winded peroration returned after the initial high of having Pearl Omigod and Rae Buttersnots sniff his lamp-post and piss in his inbox a few kind words.

        Keep it short, snappy and don’t get distracted by the Fame game Brady mah sunne!

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm

          Thanks, Des.

          I don’t know why people like Seth feel they need to suck up to avant-garde Language poets, etc.

          A big change is comin’ and it will be led by poets like Mazer: a return to beautiful poetry, the poetry of the Romantics, etc.

          How long must we be ashamed of Beauty?


  18. thomasbrady said,

    July 20, 2012 at 3:01 am

    This Saturday is the final! ‘Pumping pentameters and curling commas’ —nice. LOL

    I’m glad you found common ground with Mark. It’s good to find common ground among our differences…

    Yea, a Ransom revival is just around the corner…and all will be different the second time…

  19. Mark said,

    July 20, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Ben is an eminently pleasant fellow and a fine poet. I’d definitely go see him read: I guess in doing so I would be “worshipping at the foot of the master”… oh wait, that isn’t the case at all.

    It’s telling how quickly the rhetoric of “LOVE” and “worship” goes out the window when challenged and is replaced with “respected the man as a poet.” That’s a much more reasonable statement and one I’m sure I would’ve agreed with. Duncan respected Ransom’s poetry, too, and had a lot more reason to slag the guy.

    So it goes on Scarriet. This is how tabloid journalism invariably operates.

    My point remains that I can’t buy Spicer as a serious student of the New Criticism. I think his attacks on Ransom are clearly aimed at his criticism rather than his poetry – the lecture begins by attacking the movement outright. There are plenty of poets who I respect as writers but whose poetic stances I find silly or poorly thought-out.

    I think there are many sticking points that wouldn’t have sit well with someone as well-read as Spicer. Spicer’s giant brain and deep well of knowledge is often lost in the ‘drunken basketcase’ caricature people like to whip up. He was a much deeper thinker than he is given credit for. This is a shame and a detriment to the legacy of one of the true greats of the 20th century.


    • Ben Mazer said,

      July 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      For what it’s worth, Landis thought Jack was the most intelligent person he ever knew. That said, it would be a shame to write off the New Critics, who were in reality marvelous poets and fascinating critics, and have been to a very large extent (more than anyone else, really) the dumping ground for a lot of misguided aggression and misunderstanding. They are a myth, unfashionable without anyone really knowing why, the targets of a great deal of blind and ignorant prejudice. Ransom’s poems have mostly been out of print since the 1920s; there are less and less around who have even read them. It is ridiculous considering the excellence of their work, and its complete lack of the qualities which most people ignorantly ascribe to them.

  20. thomasbrady said,

    July 20, 2012 at 4:15 pm


    You quoted Spicer saying:

    “Pure poetry bores everybody. It is even a bore to the poet. The only real contribution of the New Critics is that they have demonstrated this so well.”

    This is a gentle rebuke, even if it is one. “Pure poetry” was a huge target of the New Critics.

    See “Pure and Unpure Poetry” by Robert Penn Warren.

    By the way, Scarriet exposed the claim that Stephen Burt coined the literary term, “Elliptical Poetry,” as we found the term in Penn Warren’s essay (Warren actually quotes someone else) and used in the same manner as Burt was using it over 50 years later.

    “Pure poetry” for the New Critics was the kind of poetry that Shelley and Keats and Poe wrote: the New Critics made only a slight effort in disguising their dislike for the Romantics. The New Critics were on the same page as Pound and Eliot: cut out Poe and the Romantics from the canon, if at all possible; they reflect badly on we modern poets. The New Critics were, in fact, the American foot-soldiers of Eliot/Pound’s Euro-Modernism.

    It’s complicated, however, as Ransom tended to write lovely “pure” poetry; but as we know, any critic can make something look “pure or impure” depending on what they choose to find in a poem. The New Critics liked to constantly cite their own poetry, and point out how complex it was.

    But anyway, Ransom, over all the others, was a great poet and critic.

    And then you quoted Spicer saying this:

    “We must become singers, become entertainers. We must stop sitting on the pot of culture. There is more of Orpheus in Sophie Tucker than in R. P. Blackmur; we have more to learn from George M. Cohan than from John Crowe Ransom.”

    Blackmur was a dullard. Ransom? In certain moods, sure, one would rather hear popular music than poetry. It doesn’t seem to me that Spicer really hated the New Critics much. He was probably smart enough to realize they were avant-garde, and not really stuffy at all. And it depends on what New Critic you are talking about. Ransom was top-notch, Warren was pretty smart, too; Tate was brilliant, but fussy, and not nearly as smooth as Ransom…

    Poets and critics today underestimate the New Critics at their peril.


    • steprazor said,

      July 21, 2012 at 6:44 am

      “The New Critics liked to constantly cite their own poetry, and point out how complex it was.”

      Yes. It would seem to me that a grand perpetuation of this continues today in much of what is MFA/Program writing. Some of which is quite robust and beautiful. Some of which is safely within the boundary of “critical art” which in several presentations here has been misnamed as “natural art”. This critical art will exist as a template with a preset boundary, such as meter, style, form, which will be passed on. It is what makes “teaching” creative writing possible, I imagine.

      Learning to be a creative writer does not require these templates or the critical approval to achieve quality. It does not require academic validation or acclaim. It does beg to be pursued with a sense of true purpose and knowledge of prior pursuits to attain the balance that is all poetry. The personality The New Critics was not a concern, it was the basic principle, which was to push the envelope within a desirable paradigm of poetics. Being dismissive of other pursuits is just a natural process when delineating a satisfactory engineering of poetics.

      “Poets and critics today underestimate the New Critics at their peril.”

      Only where their grants and stipends might be concerned, possibly, but there is no real peril in underestimating any school of prior hegemony as nothing more than catalyst for the opportunity to write out the role of poetry today. People will split where they will, but the measure of the words is still in the eye of the artist that transforms them into art. The critics will split along the lines of informative attachment. There is no real peril there, as long as the craft is thorough and the process meaningful enough to be correspondent to discipline.

      And, I suppose, as long as there is a chance to really read all works without too much prior contempt, then there is a useful place for the critic that can critique from a foundation of principle. The only peril would be to work that was written for appeasement and recognition as priority. That would suck, quite plainly.

      • thomasbrady said,

        July 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm


        You sound very much like a New Critic! We have to constantly remind ourselves, with Poe, that poetry is superficial—otherwise we get lost in the murky depths of our own rhetoric. The high intelligence of a person not distracted by principle and formula was the ideal for men like TS Eliot and Henry James; exactly, but what sort of intelligence, and what sort of person?

        Robert Penn Warren, in his “Pure and Impure Poetry,”—originally a lecture at Princeton in 1942, where Blackmur and Tate were teaching one of the first Creative Writing programs, and later published in the Kenyon Review—takes pains to ridicule Shelley while discussing a number of famous, anthologized pieces, and then takes up a poem by his friend and fellow New Critic, John Crowe Ransom:

        “But such a savage irony is not the game here. It is too desperate, too naked, in a word, too pure. And ultimately, it is, in a sense, a meaningless irony if left in its pure state, because it depends on a mechanical, accidental contrast in nature, void of moral content. The poem is concerned with modifications and modulations of this brute, basic irony, modulations and modifications contingent upon an attitude taken toward it by a responsible human being, the speaker of the poem. The savagery is masked, or ameliorated.

        In this connection, we may observe, first, the phrase ‘brown study.” It is not the “frosted flower,” the “marmoreal immobility,” or in any one of a thousand such phrases which would aim for the pure effect. It is merely the brown study which astonishes—a phrase which denies, as it were, the finality of the situation,underplays the pathos, and merely reminds one of those moments of childish pensiveness into which the grown-up cannot penetrate. And the phrase itself is a cliche’—the common now echoed in the uncommon.”

        Penn Warren goes on at some length in praise of his friend’s poem, a naked and shameless attempt by one New Critic to canonize another, but this excerpt will serve.

        This illustrates two crucial things: first, how the New Critics admirably attempted to pin down what was good about modernism and bad about romanticism—the latter was “too pure”—and look! Ransom, working in the new modernist tradition, underplays what would be romantic bathos by using “brown study” instead of “frosted flower.” The key word Warren uses is “merely:” “it is merely the brown study which astonishes…” For the moderns are (merely and ironically) cool, unlike the hyperbolic Romantics.

        And this leads into the second thing: now that we are in the modern university which teaches creative writing: (and Warren in his essay is clearly demonstrating how Creative Writing ought to be taught— ‘close reading’ that ‘captures the modern temper’ and which does not merely worship the anthology pieces of the past) the implicit message is: we are in the modern democratic classroom now, and there is no more room for the ‘special’ nature of the poetic Shelley—such egotism must be stamped out; its ‘purity’ will simply not pass the test of modern, irony-laden classroom analysis.

        Seth’s research has not fathomed this yet. Hopefully, it will.

        But there’s a problem with all this ‘modern classroom analysis.’ Shelley is still a better poet than Ransom. Or, there is no reason demonstrated to push a poet like Shelley aside.

        The phrase “brown study” does not triumph over “frosted flower.”

        Ransom’s poem does not advance us into a new age of poetry-making.

        “Lying so primly propped” does not pass the test of classroom analysis, either. Depending on one’s mood or taste, “Lying so primly propped” is magnificent—or silly, crappy, in bad taste, cutely false, a failure. And nothing Warren could say as a professor could change that.

        Another thing Warren does is praise the modern attempt to assimilate cliche’—and this is the avant-garde temper at work, the Conceptualist game of recyclying trash and earning plaudits that way. “Brown study” is a cliche’, he admits, but it triumphs, unlike “frosted flower,” because the “common” is now “uncommon.” But this in itself is not new, or modern, or avant-garde, except if it were indulged in to such a degree that we (as the avant-garde) laugh. This is merely juxtaposition, and it’s always been done.

        Modernism laughs at Shelley, and yet all its avant-garde strategies are just as egotistical and self-indulgent and silly, if taken at face value. It is just that they are now defended by professor Penn Warren—in his attempt to make his friend’s poem look better (or more complex) than it is.


  21. Ben Mazer said,

    July 21, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    In our time almost no one has read the poetry of John Crowe Ransom. Most of it has been out of print since the 1920s, and there is no available edition of the seminal Selected Poems of 1945. In fact, there is no satisfactory edition of Ransom’s poetry that is available at all. All that will change next year when my critical edition of the Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom comes out from the Un-Gyve Press of Boston. It will be the first Collected edition of Ransom’s poetry, and it will restore the entire canon.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Look forward to this, Ben!

      “Blue Girls” is my favorite by Ransom, but he was an ambitious poet!

      Can’t wait!

      Ransom is unquestionably the American T.S. Eliot.

  22. Ben Mazer said,

    July 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm

  23. Ben Mazer said,

    July 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    An Interview with Landis Everson by Kevin Killian in Jacket Magazine.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      I cannot believe Landis ditched a chance to meet Auden! It sounds like he was too insecure and too nice to feel comfortable in the circles he ran in.

      I wonder what that horrible fight between Spicer and Duncan was all about!

      • steprazor said,

        July 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm

        As far as the Spicer-Duncan rift I have heard it was complex, in that it had to do with personal relationships, jealousy fueled by Jack’s progressive alcoholism, and Duncan’s closeness to several North Beach writer’s, one of which, Bob Kaufman, had reportedly had a tryst with a Spicer love interest.

  24. steprazor said,

    July 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I have been told by Al Young, that Duncan never discontinued support and appreciation for Spicer’s work and was very mournful when Jack died.

  25. thomasbrady said,

    July 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    i once heard someone say of jack’s work: that’s not poetry; that’s joking.

  26. Ben Mazer said,

    July 23, 2012 at 4:07 am

    “I have probably a higher opinion of your verse than you have of mine.”—T. S. Eliot to John Crowe Ransom
    “I know of no man in America more qualified than Ransom to be a professor of poetry.”—Ezra Pound to Ford Madox Ford
    “The sort of poetry, which, because it is too good, has to be brushed aside as a literary novelty.”—Robert Graves
    “He insists upon the wit of his reader; he makes an appeal which the reader cannot possibly overlook.”—Robert Graves
    “A poem as accomplished as Bogan’s Juan’s Song or Ransom’s Parting at Dawn—or Mew’s A Quoi Bon Dire—suggests a perfection that is ultimately a dare: they ask whether we are worthy of them, and the only proof of our worthiness rests in the zeal with which we espouse them.”—Penelope Fitzgerald
    “His verse is in the best sense ‘private’, the judgment upon the world of one man who could not, properly speaking, be imitated.”—Howard Nemerov
    “His poems have remained important in the one truly indubitable way that poetry can remain important: namely, they have been read again and again by other poets and—purest of all laurels—they have been read by those who are beginning to write poetry, those who want to write poetry, and those who are trying to learn how to write poetry.”—Delmore Schwartz
    “Now we may ignore, as we see fit, the destructive revisions which this great elegiac poet inflicted upon many of his finest poems.”—Allen Tate
    “John Ransom was not an innovator in the sense that both Eliot and Pound were. He was a sly, subtle innovator in ways that could not be imitated and could not found a school. He wrote in conventional stanzas and meters, but his sensibility owed nothing to any poet, past or present.”—Allen Tate
    “In the past ten years I have thought of John’s mania (I don’t know what else to call it) as the last infirmity of a truly noble mind. Yet one must see his compulsive revisions as a quite consistent activity, as an extension of his reliance on logic as the ultimate standard of judgment.”—Allen Tate
    “There is the example of his distinguished verse, which has not had the misfortune to be fashionable. He is one of the first poets, in any language.”—Allen Tate
    “What John Crowe Ransom does is to make a legend of reality.”—Wallace Stevens
    “He is a poet of the same order as Robert Graves . . . the one quality they share is a heraldic quality: an ability to translate experience into something that is half myth, half philosophical fable, and in doing so to chill and clarify it.”—Edwin Muir
    “He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting poets of our time.”—Edwin Muir
    “One of the very few American poets of whom we may be sure that he will not . . . let us down in banality.”—Edmund Wilson
    “He takes an inordinate delight in stating the simple in terms of the complex and in droll elaboration; he loves to build a hyperbole and then demolish it with a whim; but he has . . . the ability to make feelings and ideas march together, and—more important still—a really exquisite sense of word values.”—Conrad Aiken
    “Ransom’s triumphs, like those of the poets of the early seventeenth century, are triumphs in the handling of tone.”—Cleanth Brooks
    “His poems bear their own self-criticism. And this is why they are unsentimental, tough-minded, and penetrating.”—Cleanth Brooks
    “He is a finer craftsman than Crane, a more dexterous philosopher than Riding and the equal of Moore and Stevens in play of satiric wit.”—Elizabeth Drew and John L. Sweeney
    “[Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds are] two of the most delightful collections published since the War.”—Geoffrey Grigson
    “The most successful romantic, satirist in contemporary poetry is John Crowe Ransom.”—Laura Riding
    “Ransom does better than allow a poem nine years to mellow. He does not publish until the poem is good, and his later changes are meticulous improvements that offer an education in poetic taste. Sometimes he is almost three times as careful as Horace. After meditating for twenty-one years, he will delete a single comma.”—Donald A. Stauffer
    “Wallace Stevens, our other special master of perspective and of tone, is perhaps a comparable figure, but his general method is quite other than Ransom’s and perhaps much more special and limited than Ransom’s. In any case, our age has produced nowhere else a poetry so fine grained, so agate hard, so tough minded as that contained in Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds. It wears well. After some twenty-odd years, it has worn very well indeed, outlasting verse that once appeared a great deal more exciting or profound. It belongs to that small body of verse which, one predicts, will increasingly come to be regarded as the truly distinguished poetry of the Twentieth Century.”—Cleanth Brooks
    “He did not find his own voice until he was past thirty, and before he was forty he had almost discontinued the writing of verse. But in the interval he had reached such a consistently high level of skill that when he finally came to issue his Selected Poems in 1945, it was astonishing that he excluded more than half of both Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds. From the years after 1927 he added only five poems.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “What one feels for the most part is a regret for the exclusions. In fact, as the reader considers further, he becomes aware that several of the poems left out could take their stand with the best work in any representative modern anthology.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “What this last paragraph amounts to is a cumbersome way of noting that once Ransom established his style, he rarely fell below it. It is also a plea for a collected rather than a selected edition of his two mature books. For what catches the reader’s attention on nearly every page is an extraordinary gift of language, turns of phrase that correspond to perceptions distinct from anyone else’s.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “Thus by examining even such slight details we can perceive the central element in Ransom’s conception of poetry, how a poem must be an act of knowing. Each of his poems is designed to afford us a singularly whole experience.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “He has produced some of the best minor poems in our language.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “His eccentric, counterpointed rhythms and rough-hewn rhymes brought a version of the ballad into the twentieth century. […] If you listen long enough to Ransom’s mannered, nightmarish poems you begin to love them for their peculiarities, because no one else ever wanted to be peculiar in that way.”—William Logan
    “John throws a very wicked style, indeed.”—Allen Tate
    “To Allen Tate, working a later tack and writing in a different vein, Ransom was not so much possessed of a devil as gripped by a ‘mania’ which drove him in later years to the ruinous rewriting, the ‘compulsive revisions’ of poems written in early middle age. Those who know their Ransom will justly observe that not all his revisions were in effect ‘ruinous’, though the impulse may have been; and his admirers will be inclined to add that ‘devil’ and ‘mania’ are weirdly ill-fitting masks for a poet whose favoured stance was a compounding of stoic ceremony and stoic laughter.”—Geoffrey Hill
    “Among the attributes that establish him as an artist secure within his limits is the care with which he has made certain revisions.”—F. O. Matthiessen
    “The poet simply observes and records certain discrepancies in the nature and conduct of human affairs. This is essentially an anecdotal and external irony; the poet merely offers the situation, with its obvious contrasts, for what it is. It is the type of irony so persistent and systematized in the poetry of Hardy, whose success, perhaps, has influenced Ransom’s preference for the little objective fable, with a kernel of drama, rather than lyric rumination concerning an experience or situation.”—Robert Penn Warren
    “Ransom once pertinently remarked that ‘the seventeenth century had the courage of its metaphors’ and this stands as one of his most telling appraisals. At his best he is himself a metaphysical poet in this sense, deriving the proper power of his tropes from one of the most traditional of all metaphors, the Hebraic ruah, the rushing of a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit, the creative voice which, in one of his last essays, he affirms is also the voice of the poet.”—Geoffrey Hill
    “Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom were all born between 1875 and 1888. Never before or since have there been so many poets in America; nor in England—unless we go back more than two hundred and fifty years. Who out-ranks whom will be disputed; but one would hesitate to call the least of these seven minor, and it is, perhaps, no longer doubtful that the good poems of all will last as long as the language.”—Robert Lowell
    “Ransom’s production is small—his selected poems take up only seventy-five pages; to which one would like to add about twenty more that he has rejected. It is the work of a lifetime. When I reread it, I marveled at its weight—few English poets have written so many lyrics that one wants to read over and over.”—Robert Lowell
    “First there is the language; it’s a curious mixture of elaboration and bluntness; courtesy and rudeness. It has its analogies to the language of Henry James—particularly in two characteristics: extreme urbanity and (what you wouldn’t expect) a force that discovers itself in a certain puffing and sweating: the pushing of utterance to the limits of one’s abilities—and beyond.”—Robert Lowell
    “To appreciate the language of Ransom’s poems, you must realize that it is the language of one of the best talkers that has ever lived in the United States.”—Robert Lowell
    “After the war, he published his first Selected Poems, with minor and magical revisions. Long after, he spent years rewriting and trying to perfect his old, almost perfect poems in a disastrously new style.”—Robert Lowell
    “Not all of Ransom’s changes are disastrous, some improve, almost all show surprising ways in which passages can be varied. One has a thousand opportunities to misrevise. A little ground is gained for the more that is lost.”—Robert Lowell
    “His poems stick apart; and refuse to melt into their neighbors. They seem few until one tries to discover as many in some favorite, more voluminous author.”—Robert Lowell
    “He liked his language to be elegant and unpainted, a poetry not far removed, except in its close texture, from written or spoken prose. He wished poetry to show its seams, and show the uncouthness caused by rhyming, compressing, finding right syntax.”—Robert Lowell
    “The subject-matter of Ransom’s poems is beautifully varied: they are about everything from Armageddon to a dead hen. All their subjects are linked, on the surface, by Ransom’s persistent attitude, tone, and rhetoric; underneath they are joined, passively, by being parts of one world—joined, actively, by fighting on one side or the other in the war that is going on in the world.”—Randall Jarrell
    “Sometimes the poems are a queer mixture of pastoral and child-cult; though the shepherds are aging and the children dead, half of them, and the fox-hunters not making much headway against the overweening Platonism of the International Business Machine Company, it is all magical: disenchantment and enchantment are so prettily and inextricably mixed that we accept everything with sad pleasure, and smile at the poem’s foreknowing, foredefeated, mocking, half-acceptant pain. For in the country of the poems wisdom is a poor butterfly dreaming that it is Chuang-tze, and not an optimistic bird of prey; and the greatest single subject of the romantics, pure potentiality, is treated with a classical grace and composure.”—Randall Jarrell
    “In John Crowe Ransom’s best poems every part is subordinated to the whole, and the whole is accomplished with astonishing exactness and thoroughness. Their economy, precision, and restraint give the poems, sometimes, an original yet impersonal perfection; and Ransom’s feel for the exact convention of a particular poem, the exact demands of a particular situation, has resulted in poems different from each other and everything else, as unified, individualized, and unchangeable as nursery rhymes. In Ransom the contradictions of existence are clear, exactly contradictory, not fused in arbitrary over-all emotion; one admires the clear, sharp, Mozartian lightness of texture of the best poems. And sometimes their phrasing is magical—light as air, soft as dew, the real old-fashioned enchantment. The poems satisfy our nostalgia for the past, yet themselves have none. They are the reports (written by one of the most elegant and individual war correspondents who ever existed) of our world’s old war between power and love, between those who efficiently and practically know and those who are ‘content to feel / What others understand.’ And these reports of battles are, somehow, bewitching: disenchantment and enchantment are so beautifully and inextricably mingled in them that we accept everything with sad pleasure, and smile at the poems’ foreknowing, foredefeated, half-acceptant pain. For in the country of the poems wisdom is a poor butterfly dreaming that it is Chuang-tzu, and not an optimistic bird of prey; and the greatest single subject of the romantics, pure potentiality, is treated with a classical grace and composure.”—Randall Jarrell
    “Most writers become overrhetorical when they are insisting on more emotion than they actually feel; Ransom is perpetually insisting, by his detached, mock-pedantic, wittily complicated tone, that he is not feeling much at all, not half so much as he really should be feeling—and this rhetoric becomes over-mannered, too protective, only when there is not much emotion for him to pretend not to be feeling.”—Randall Jarrell
    “One can say, very crudely, that Ransom’s poems are produced by the classical, or at worst semi-classical, treatment of romantic subjects. Both the subjects and the treatment of the poems are Impractical, so far as Ransom’s war of the worlds (of Feeling and of Power) is concerned; but the Latinity, mixed generality and peculiarity, and mocking precision of the vocabulary, the sharp intelligence of the tone, are always acknowledging or insisting that we can live only by trading with the enemy.”—Randall Jarrell
    “His poems are full of an affection that cannot help itself, for an innocence that cannot help itself—for the stupid travelers lost in the maze of the world, the clever travelers lost in the maze of the world. The poems are not a public argument but personal knowledge, personal feeling; and their virtues are the ‘merely’ private virtues—their characters rarely vote, rarely even kill one another, but often fall in love. The poems have none of that traumatic passion for Authority, any Authority at all, that is one of the ugliest things in our particular time and our particular culture.”—Randall Jarrell
    “Ransom’s poems profess their limitations so candidly, almost as a principle of style, that it is hardly necessary to say they are not poems of the largest scope or the greatest intensity. But they are some of the most original poems ever written, just as Ransom is one of the best, most original, and most sympathetic poets alive; it is easy to see that his poetry will always be cared for, since he has written poems that are perfectly realized and occasionally almost perfect—poems that the hypothetical generations of the future will be reading page by page with Wyatt, Campion, Marvell, and Mother Goose.”—Randall Jarrell
    “Over here, when I give broadcast readings, I quite often read some Ransom. ”—Dylan Thomas.

  27. thomasbrady said,

    July 23, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks, Ben. A brilliant wall of quotations which looms over us in our ignorance: why is John Crowe Ransom ignored today? It’s a very interesting case.

    As Scarriet has argued for years, now, Ransom and his New Critics colleagues were central to the Modernism of Pound and Eliot, a part of it, the very same thing; the New Critics were the foot-soldiers who got Pound and Williams into the Academy. But these ‘foot-soldiers’ turned out as high-flying as their commanders in the end. They were all colleagues: the Pound quote is very, very telling to me: “I know of no man in America more qualified than Ransom to be a professor of poetry.”—Ezra Pound to Ford Madox Ford. It was the professors, finally, and the textbook writers, finally, which sealed the so-called “Modernist” revolution—which began when Pound first got off the boat in England and met Ford Madox Ford. The Imagist experiment was a failure—no one was reading Pound and he was very angry and depressed. It was “Understanding Poetry,” a textbook written for HS and college by a couple of New Critics in the late 30s which finally brought the Modernists a real public. Pound and his friends were bitter that Dorothy Parker and Edna St.Vincent Millay were selling, and not them. “Professors will teach us!” This was the answer, finally. This was the ticket to the canon and immortality. Seth Abramson does not yet understand the significance of this for Creative Writing, because the mechanics of ‘getting the poets into the schools’ does not make an impression on his naive view that Creative Writing ‘is all about the students.’ Let’s just say Seth is a very nice person—and doesn’t see the writing on the wall. If Seth would read Tate and Ransom’s important essays in which they curse the English professors of history who will not read ‘the new writing,’ he would understand better how this whole Modernist revolution played out and what it meant for the young Creative Writing industry, and how central the New Critics were (they were not ‘conservatives’ interested only in ‘criticism’—they were quite the opposite).

    As for Ransom and his poetic reputation—let’s see if Ben Mazer’s new edition of Ransom’s poems changes everything. That would be great.

    The ‘revising mania’ of Ransom’s (or its perception) probably hurt his reputation a great deal, because nothing de-mythifies like “Oh, that? I’ve already written a new version of it…” The patience for a poem is about as much as we have—the patience for the mind that stands above all poems looking down? Not so much…

    Also, what the Modernists rebelled against was Poe and his LIMITS. Poe was the whipping boy of Modernism, because Poe was the popular American writer who most fully represented classical/romantic literature, even as he was very, very modern. Poe was born just after the 18th century ended, and then when we think of how ‘modern’ he was…Poe has creds, he wasn’t just a rhymer, he invented detective fiction and science fiction, etc etc. But as a thinker and a poet, Poe had very definite ideas and they revolved around LIMITS and TASTE—a prison to the infinite rebellion of modernism.

    I have already shown how the greatest modernist poet, T.S. Eliot, secretly absorbed Poe’s theories. Ransom is quite obviously indebted to Poe, and Ransom the musical poet has been cut out of the Modernist canon completely. His poems are out-of-print! And yet all the Modernist poets admired Ransom and any poet will immediately recognize Ransom’s skill. Ransom, it could be argued, was the best of them all!

    But what hurt Ransom, I think, and where he rebelled, and suffered, was the one LIMIT he trespassed, a LIMIT Poe was careful to warn we shouldn’t cross, the LIMIT of TASTE.

    Ransom indulged in unpleasantness, especially in the death of children, and death in the context of children, the most horrific subject of all. Poe instinctively did not go there in his writing. A beautiful woman, OK, a young beautiful woman, OK, but the death of a child—Poe never goes there. Ransom did. That’s my personal observation on why perhaps readers couldn’t finally stomach Ransom—who may have been the greatest pure poet of all the Modernists.

    I have a theory that poets tend to suffer tragedy or shame which involves a sibling, in childhood. The parental tragedy is more religious; while the sibling tragedy is poetic, for reasons I do not have time to go into here.


  28. September 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    […] you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the […]

  29. noochinator said,

    July 3, 2017 at 1:42 pm

    Seth’s in the news, mentioned in an ‘Atlantic’ piece!


    ….[T]hroughout last year’s primaries, Seth Abramson, a creative writing professor at the University of New Hampshire, used his HuffPost perch to churn out a procession of increasingly delusional blog posts explaining why Bernie Sanders would inevitably win the Democratic nomination.

    Abramson’s arguments not only denied political realities and delegate math as the race wore on; they often denied basic human logic. But thanks to the hordes of Bernie fans desperately scouring the internet for some hope to cling to, Abramson’s posts consistently went uber-viral. (He eventually wrote a post defending this shameless play for clicks as a form of “experimental journalism” that embraced “the multi-dimensionality of metanarrative.” The Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien responded via Twitter: “Area Academic Writes Barely Comprehensible Defense of Lying.”) These days, Abramson’s main platform is Twitter, where he has over 150,000 followers, and specializes in imminent-indictment stories in the style of criminal complaints.


    • thomasbrady said,

      July 4, 2017 at 1:36 am

      But didn’t Bernie win, except Hillary cheated?

      “hordes of Bernie fans desperately scouring…”

      “shameless play for clicks…”

      Is this one more lame attempt to make Bubba’s wife legitimate?

      Anyway, good for you, Seth.

      • noochinator said,

        July 4, 2017 at 8:31 am

        Hard to scan “shameless play for clicks” and not read “shameless play for chicks”! The effect of conflation is no doubt intentional….

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