IS POLITICAL INTRACTABILITY GOOD FOR LITERATURE?

Santayana: Born in Madrid in 1863, died in Rome in 1952; at Harvard with Eliot and Stevens.

We don’t see how those who are morally and politically simple, no matter how well-intentioned they are in matters of politics and morals, could be very interesting writers.  To write well is to enjoy solving problems, and to think about politics in a mature way is to constantly wrestle with problems; yet, increasingly in this country, politics means agreeing with one group of people while ridiculing another group of people on issues that are only explored in the most superficial manner.

We have seen the old abortion debate blow up into an unfortunate “legitimate rape” smackdown; homosexuality, taxes, regulations, the enviroment, health care and race continue to cloud our political discussions in simplistic, divisive, ugly ways.

In order to win a democratic election, one must appeal to the masses in sound-bites, and thus elections turn even smart people stupid, because intelligence is nothing more than thinking through problems at length, patiently, far away from the arena of personal insult.  More and more, it seems democracy prevails by insult. Who escapes insult the best?  Who can insult most cleverly?

Democracy of the school yard bullies.

Politics is so fraught with ugliness that in other areas of our lives, we can choose to do one of two things: escape it all together, or continue the fight by other means.

Literature and politics are much alike: both are comprised of rhetoric, neither one are very scientific, but we might say literature is slow and politics is fast.  If we indulge in politics, we do so quickly, with certainty, and then get on with our lives.  If we indulge in literature, we do so slowly, and dreamily, and perhaps we puzzle things out, and have trouble getting on with our lives, or, maybe, we get into our lives.

The poets have long since gotten out of the political debate. Poets dream; they don’t orate.  Once they did both: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Tennyson…but that was then, and politics and poetry have gone their separate ways—no room for dreaminess in our politics.  Ginsberg’s political poetry hasn’t any poetry: it’s merely politics.  Ginsberg wasn’t a poet when he was being political.  We know Ginsberg as ‘a poet,’ and if we blur our vision, we might be able to kid ourselves that he is both political and poetic—but in actuality, he is never the same together.  One can be brutally honest in a personal manner and come to a certain political point of view that way—think of Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Larkin or Seidel, perhaps, but the personal never manages to be very political in poetry.

Modernism, with its attention to forms, forgot content, and thus politics.  Politics was cast aside and replaced with intimacy, subjectivity and obscurity.

George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher who taught Wallace Stevens at Harvard, wrote the kind of poetry in the early 20th century that was then falling off a cliff, and disappearing forever.

Modernism made poets like Santayana and Clark Ashton Smith vanish.  It’s a pity.  Look at these two poems by Santayana: both brutal and dreamy:

“As in the Midst of Battle There is Room”

As in the midst of battle there is room
For thoughts of love, and in foul sin for mirth,
As gossips whisper of a trinket’s worth
Spied by the death-bed’s flickering candle-gloom;
As in the crevices of Caesar’s tomb
The sweet herbs flourish on a little earth:
So in this great disaster of our birth
We can be happy, and forget our doom.

For morning, with a ray of tenderest joy
Gilding the iron heaven, hides the truth,
And evening gently woos us to employ
Our grief in idle catches. Such is youth;
Till from that summer’s trance we wake, to find
Despair before us, vanity behind.

Solipsism

I could believe that I am here alone,
And all the world my dream;
The passion of the scene is all my own,
And things that seem but seem.

Perchance an exhalation of my sorrow
Hath raised this vaporous show,
For whence but from the soul should all things borrow
So deep a tinge of woe?

I keep the secret doubt within my breast
To be the gods’ defense,
To ease the heart by too much ruth oppressed
And drive the horror hence.

O sorrow that the patient brute should cower
And die, not having sinned!
O pity that the wild and fragile flower
Should shiver in the wind!

Then were I dreaming dreams I know not of,
For that is part of me
That feels the piercing pang of grief and love
And doubts eternally.

But whether all to me the vision come
Or break in many beams,
The pageant ever shifts, and being’s sum
Is but the sum of dreams.

—G. Santayana

These poems embrace the sort of thinking one needs to plow into politics and fight in that arena.

And look at these marvelous quotations from Santayana:

Life is not a spectacle or feast; it is a predicament.

Sanity is a madness put to good use.

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

The truth is cruel, but it can be loved and it makes free those who love it.

The wisest mind has something yet to learn.

To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood.

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.

Should poets allow great material like this just to drift away?

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HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal?

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway?

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal.

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant.

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

THE THREE TYPES OF POETRY

I like discovering new poems.  I almost said new poets, but that is too personal: poetry is marvelous because it allows us to experience human delight without all the messy and inconvenient aspects of humanity—poetry sweetly bars the heavy and smelly poet—bragging, disappointing, spotted, ruined, dying—from our sight.  The minute I start following a poet I will cease to love poetry.  My lover certainly ought to be poetic, but they don’t have to write poetry, and I don’t need more lovers; I don’t need poets—keep them away!  A poet will invariably disappoint with a new poem.  A poem is what we should be looking for when we pursue poetry, and no poet has a monopoly on poems.

Scarriet has defended Billy Collins, but this doesn’t mean we believe every Billy Collins poem is good.  Defending Billy Collins only indicates that there is something that we recognize as a “Billy Collins poem” that is worthy of notice.

Critics have nothing to do with the ‘likes and dislikes’ of readers.  Worthy of notice is just that—worthy of notice.  To hear these Collins detractors, you would think they were forced to kiss Billy Collins.  The whole matter of whether Billy Collins is worthy of notice, or not, is one of pure intellectuality, and it involves a sensible acknowledgement of poetic classification.

There are three distinct kinds of poetry, and the Collins poem happens to be one of them.

These three types of poetry are important not just as frozen types—they have a history—we can trace their development over time.  The Billy Collins poem, for instance, goes back as far as “Dover Beach.”  Along the way, the rhyming aspect of “Dover Beach” is jettisoned, and the poet learns to navigate without it, keeping the spirit the same.

Another feature which makes the three types essential, and not merely arbitrary, is this: these three types strongly repel each other; the three kinds of personalities which enjoy these three kinds of poetry would fight if they were left in the same room.

I recently discovered a new poem—a major discovery, because it is a perfectly realized Collins poem—but not written by Billy Collins.  It therefore flashed upon me that I was in the presence of a powerful type of poem, and this poem both attracted and repelled my critic’s nature so forcefully, that almost immediately the three types of poetry sprang up before me.

Here is the poem, by George Bilgere:

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
Not doing much of anything: the boxed set
Of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:
The French-cut silk shirts
Which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
And make me look exactly
Like the kind of middle-aged man
Who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:
The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
The mysteries of the heavens
But which I only used once or twice
To try to find something heavenly
In the window of the high-rise down the road,
And which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
When it could be examining the Crab Nebula:
The 30-day course in Spanish
Whose text I never opened,
Whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,
Save for Tape One, where I never learned
Whether the suave American
Conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
At a Madrid hotel about the possibility
Of obtaining a room,
Actually managed to check in.
I like to think
That one thing led to another between them
And that by Tape Six or so
They’re happily married
And raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.
But I’ll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
For a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
Who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,
And I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
There lives a woman with, say,
A fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
Near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
Drying in their tubes
On the table where the violin
She bought on a whim
Lies entombed in the permanent darkness
Of its locked case
Next to the abandoned chess set,
A woman who has always dreamed of becoming
The kind of woman the man I’ve always dreamed of becoming
Has always dreamed of meeting,
And while the two of them discuss star clusters
And Cézanne, while they fence delicately
In Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,
She and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
Fixing up a little risotto,
Enjoying a modest cabernet,
While talking over a day so ordinary
As to seem miraculous.

This poem is wonderful in a way that would repel the likes of Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout and the avant-garde, simply for its clarity.  Those who believe that poetry is verse and not prose would also dislike this poem.  But here it stands.

Briefly, then, the George Bilgere poem is wonderful because of the way it begins with “They sit around the house,” referring to unused objects of human imagination and improvement that bespeak, universally: limits, despair, and finally longing, gently mocking human limitation with the very longing that hovers about the unused objects themselves, unused because there is too much longing? not enough? and finally it is words themselves, objects that “sit around” in the poem itself which is the poem’s grand, secret symbol in its playful and longing imagination that fights against the despair of not having enough will to improve, or imagine, or be useful.

The poem has a Newtonian logic—moving forward (in humor and optimisim) with a force equal to its moving backwards (in realism and pessimism).  The language learning tapes are transformed from an object into something human, and even passionate, in a manner that is logical, humorous, and delightful.

But how different is Bilgere’s poem compared to something like this:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott”.

This is Part I of the famous Tennyson poem; notice how the poem not only gives us luxurious sound, but it paints a scene, as well.

Ekphrasis is overrated, for it is a hundred times better to paint—with a poem—a painting that doesn’t exist yet, than to merely describe one that already does exist.  And this is what the—currently underrated—Tennyson does.

By comparison, the work by Mr. Bilgere exists in the realm of idea only—it’s a funny story about neglected hobbies; it is not a painting; the Tennyson, however, begins, “On either side…”  Tennyson paints a world; the Bilgere is jokey and anecdotal: “They sit around the house…”  These two poems are different kinds of art.

The third type of poem is currently the most common and it owes more to simple human nature than to anything else. We all know “The Lady of Shalott”—and we all know human nature.  Human nature produces envy on a whim—if someone else has something nice, we decide we don’t like it, on account of the fact that it is nice.  We disparage the nice; secretly at first, and then more boldly, as we find peers who feel the same envy we do, and then even more boldly as we equate nice with evil itself, in political terms…the rich have nice houses and the rich are unkind and therefore the nice itself is—not really nice!

And so the third type of poem is all-encompassing and attracts many people: amateurs, puritans, students, and scholars, alike, and identifies itself as avant-garde, experimental, politicalThe whole point of this third type of poetry, avant-garde poetry, is to be unpleasant and ugly.

One example will suffice.  From William Carlos Williams, published in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002:

LEAR

When the world takes over for us
and the storm in the trees
replaces our brittle consciences
(like ships, female to all seas)
when the few last yellow leaves
stand out like flags on tossed ships
at anchor—our minds are rested

Yesterday we sweated and dreamed
or sweated in our dreams walking
at a loss through the bulk of figures
that appeared solid, men or women,
but as we approached down the paved
corridor melted—Was it I?—like
smoke from bonfires blowing away

Today the storm, inescapable, has
taken the scene and we return
our hearts to it, however made, made
wives by it and though we secure
ourselves for a dry skin from the drench
of its passionate approaches we
yield and are made quiet by its fury

Pitiful Lear, not even you could
out-shout the storm—to make a fool
cry! Wife to its power might you not
better have yielded earlier? as on ships
facing the seas were carried once
the figures of women at repose to
signify the strength of the waves’ lash.

There is no way to reconcile whatever this poem is doing—or thinks it is doing—with the first two types of poetry.  But a certain perversity in human nature will defend this third kind against the other two, and none will be reconciled.

MEET ME

Meet me where my eyes meet yours
And jealousy is far away,
Writhing on distant shores.

Meet me in the lands of earth,
Where comedians cannot make fun
Of mountain silence and slanting sun.

Meet me where soil meets day.

Meet me not in crossroads or in crowd,
Not where people stare and are loud,
Meet me in the early morning by a shady bay
Where only squirrels stand in our way
With a bag of peanuts on your knee.
And we’ll steal a squirrel and sail away,
A feat done languidly.  Meet me.

Meet me in the middle of the earth
And we’ll test the sun’s worth
In molten caves and shadows below.
Meet me. I’m a good fellow
And will not do you any harm.
Meet me.  I will take your arm
Discretely.  Meet me.

Meet me.  I have waited since noon
And now the night and its moon lie about…then can it be?
You won’t meet me?

NEW END OF SUMMER SCARRIET POEM!!

world

Most Of The World Is Already Made

Most of the world is already made,
Christ! Moments of summer by the sea
Cannot be topped by you or me.
Light belongs to the sun and invades the shade.
Most of the world is already made.

Most of the movies I like are done.
Maybe I could make one more of you
As we bring our tired bodies to the sun,
But how beautiful would it be, or true?
Most of the movies I like are done.

Most inspiration is already found
Burning, burning, exploding in the night.
The signs of death we note all around
Even as we seek to relax in the light.
Most inspiration is already found.

Most of the lovely faces I have seen
Play at smiling in the same ways,
Seen in the dark, or wearing sun screen.
Some of the smiling has gone on for days.
Most of the lovely faces I have seen.

Most of the love you have felt has been spoken,
On the trip there and then going back.
After we improve, it still seems it is broken,
Summer’s excess is a sea—that we lack.
Most of the love you have felt has been spoken.

Most of the world was already here
And I’ve understood it, and I suppose you, too?
The sun seems especially glorious this year.
Its brightness keeps battering the new.
Most of the world was already here.

IS MARJORIE PERLOFF SOMEONE’S CRAZY AUNT?

Perloff: Keep your status quo away from my avant-garde!

The distinguished professor and critic, Marjorie Perloff, recently published an essay, “Poetry on the Brink,” which has made quite an impression in the poetry world.

In a nutshell: what Perloff essentially did is join Helen Vendler, another academic, non-poet, lady-critic, in attacking the poet (and professor) Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.

Avant-garde empathizer Perloff has merely broadened Vendler’s attack to smite “a certain kind of prize-winning, New Yorker, well-crafted poem,” featuring “irregular lines of free verse,” “prose syntax,” and a “lyric speaker” which uses the following tri-formula: “present time stimulus—memory—epiphany.”

The poetry world used to be so happy: the free verse Iowa Workshop poem united everyone: the Perloffs, the Doves, the Vendlers, the English Departments, the little magazines, the big magazines, the Workshops, the Jorie Grahams, the John Ashberys, the Harold Blooms…they all felt good together!

The Norton Anthology began with Beowulf and strode through Shakespeare and Keats and then…High Modernism—which turned its back on the Victorians—and the canon now consisted of young, clever, prosaic unknowns… the literary canon was just a Iowa Workshop course away…for you—with your immigrant grandmother—and you, homosexual wise ass…and even… you!  Excitement  was in the air!  Anything was possible!  Poetry was difficult…oh yes…but not that difficult.  Doors were opening…there was a party going on…

But that’s all turned sour, because the Poetry Workshop business has turned out too many poets and as the years party on, the canon has simply eluded too many deserving hopefuls—the party atmosphere of the insular poetry world has been replaced by Malthusian gloom.

So Perloff opens her essay by taking poetry’s universal unease by the horns, asking, “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”

We don’t know if the queen has ever wondered, “what happens when everyone lives in a castle?”  Or, “What happens when everyone has a diamond ring as big as mine?”  Perhaps these are real concerns.  We don’t know.

Perloff, however is thinking a little more in the realm of “If everyone is happily married, what will happen to the thrill and danger of amour?”  If everyone is happy, won’t life become boring? For Perloff quotes Jed Rasula opining on the number of creative writing faculty in poetry (20,000) and then remarks, “What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety.”

We suppose one can accept her logic that more human interaction tends to be a force of “moderation” and that popularity naturally creates that swelling middle zone of creatures who adhere to a popular center which is “safe.”  Let’s grant her this “safety” observation, for isn’t that how civilization works?  Sheer numbers of citizens diligently “plying their craft” does create “safety.”  The life of the explorer inevitably features fewer people experiencing more danger.

Perloff is also kind enough to tell us exactly what this “craft” of “safety” looks like today: “free verse” with “prose syntax,” “prepositional and parenthetical phrases,” “graphic imagery,” “extravagant metaphor,” a “lyric speaker,” “epiphany,” a “particular memory,” a “profound thought or insight”, and “large or personal tragedy”.

Perloff also lays out precisely the material history for us.

The current “safe” poem, she says, is found in most prize-winning poetry collections today, in The New Yorker, and in post-1970 poems found in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology—and she gives a couple of examples from Dove’s anthology.

The early 20th century canon of Frost, Stein, Pound, Crane, Eliot, Stevens, L. Hughes, Williams, Moore which is found in the Dove, Perloff is basically happy with. No argument there.

Perloff finds “cheerful pluralism” and “noisy critical debate” existing up through the early 1960’s when “raw v. cooked” was in the air—and she finds this “raw” mostly ignored in Dove’s book—Perloff gives us a list of those left out: “black experimental poets;” “the Objectivists, Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Niedecker;” and “Rexroth and Spicer.”

For Perloff, something went terribly wrong in American poetry after the “raw v. cooked poetry wars” subsided—the marker might be the death of O’Hara in 1966, we’re not sure, but Perloff frankly writes:

Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as O’Hara.

Again, let’s give Perloff the benefit of the doubt and assume O’Hara is “exciting” and Hass is not.  O’Hara would probably make a more lively guest on Leno or Letterman; O’Hara was a ‘scenester’ and his poetry conveys that—we suppose this is what Perloff is getting at, but we’re not sure.

Perloff laces into Dove’s introduction to Dove’s Penguin anthology with great vitriol, essentially calling it brain-dead. Perloff calls Dove’s prose in the introduction to that which might be found in a “Victorian children’s book,” the worst thing a member of the avant-garde could possibly say about anything.  But in this part of the essay, about a third of the way through, in her white hot attack on Dove (which seems to us was the trigger for Perloff’s essay in the first place, perhaps after a late night conversation with Helen Vendler) hubris catches up with Perloff, and like Icarus flying to close to the sun, Perloff all at once drops like a rock into the sea, her well-meaning and well-supported argument collapsing with a great whoooosh!

Like some conceptualist poems she admires, Perloff keeps talking in the rest of the essay—but to no effect.  It’s rather how conceptualist poems turn out: nice idea, but execution therefrom, crap.  Such poems, and their poets, are incapable of sustaining real interest.  Their wanna-be affectation is merely annoying.

Let’s summarize Perloff’s collapse:

She condemns the late 20th century, New Yorker, Dove Penguin anthology, poetry contest winning, contemporary free verse lyric—but this lyric of memory, epiphany, etc  has always existed, in “Since There’s No Help, Come, Let Us Kiss And Part” or “Dover Beach”—but now without rhyme and meter.  And here’s a perfect example, from her adored O’Hara:

At Joan’s

It is almost three
I sit at the marble top
sorting poems, miserable
the little lamp glows feebly
I don’t glow at all

I have another cognac
and stare at two little paintings
of Jean-Paul’s, so great
I must do so much
or did they just happen

the breeze is cool
barely a sound filters up
through my confused eyes
I am lonely for myself
I can’t find a real poem

if it won’t happen to me
what shall I do

How simple to hoist Perloff with her own petard, quoting from her own admired specimens!  It seems O’Hara was sinning, too.  There’s that first person, lyric “I,” recollecting/reflecting towards an epiphany.  Or Niedecker, whose exclusion from the Dove Perloff mourned:

What horror to awake at night
and in the dimness see the light.
Time is white
mosquitoes bite
I’ve spent my life on nothing.

The thought that stings. How are you, Nothing,
sitting around with Something’s wife.
Buzz and burn
is all I learn
I’ve spent my life on nothing.

I’ve pillowed and padded, pale and puffing
lifting household stuffing—
carpets, dishes
benches, fishes
I’ve spent my life in nothing.

This one even rhymes.  And it could have been written in 1822 by John Clare!

The ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument bedevils critics like Perloff—she is always looking for genuine examples of “time and place” in poetry; this is the cudgel highbrows always bring down on the heads of those who have mere “likes and dislikes,” as Dove, quoted by Perloff, admits she has in her Penguin anthology introduction.  But the silly modernist avant-garde critics are forever hemmed in by the absurdity of their claims, claims which must be intimately tied to the purity of “time and place.”  When it is pointed out, over and over, how their sacred cows are all over the map in terms of “time and place,” they can only meekly reply that O’Hara’s use of a centuries-old, “I” centered, lyric is yet modern on account of it being so trivial.  Categories of “time and place” are so important to the Modernist that soon they become everything, even as those categories were dubious to start with.  Instead of asking, what are the elements necessary for the realized poem? they seek to create categories out of the poems written in Brooklyn by a Jewish immigrant in 1930.  This makes our avant-garde critic a poetry scholar, and makes them naturally and vehemently opposed to the question: what is a good poem?  The more scholarly they become, the more naturally opposed they become to even considering what could possibly distinguish a good poem from a bad one.  They are too busy delineating the facts of “time and place.”  There happen, in this instance, to be two poets—one wrote beautiful poems, the other wrote awful poems—but because the critic was alive to the latter as composed by a Jewish immigrant living in Brooklyn in 1930, the latter Jewish Brooklynite is selected as relevant, and the former Jewish Brooklynite is ignored.  Let this error become established scholarly behavior and you see what kind of damage it does to poetry.

Perloff condemns Dove’s selection of Trethewey’s “Hot Combs” because to Perloff it sounds like a poem from the “60s or 70s,” and yet, to Perloff’s horror, it was published in 2000.”  What to make of Perloff’s hero, O’Hara, then, who writes poems on the  model of “Dover Beach” (just in free verse)?  O’Hara is at least a century out of date!  In O’Hara’s case, what superficialities of “time and place” (and other considerations) is Perloff surrendering to?  The lyric, as essentially described by Perloff, is very, very old.  Is Perloff questioning it today because it was written by someone in the 1960s?  It was written by Sappho!

Perloff does do us the honor of showing us, in some detail, what she feels is worthy poetry: conceptual poetry, or cut-and-paste poetry.  Perloff fails to mention—unbelievably—that T.S. Eliot did this in 1922 with his “Waste Land.”  The “appropriation” of 1960s visual arts and music is her focus, but why she ignores Eliot is very odd, indeed.

As for cut-and-paste, one wag (Eugene #25) put it this way on the comments thread to Perloff’s article: “Poetry is too uniform, therefore poets should copy existing material.”

The comments thread (that tool of democracy banned by Blog Harriet and Ron Silliman’s blog) is a feast of witty and sobering reaction.

We took the title of this Scarriet piece from comment #64 by jrand, who goes on to write: “…anybody can cut and paste—why would that have any validity, whether characterizing Waldheim, or making fun of Perloff?”

The “characterizing Waldheim” refers to a work praised by Perloff, in which someone (a poet?) took the memoirs of a nation’s leader and removed words to make that leader look stupid and evil.  Maybe Kurt Waldheim was a really bad guy, but is this trickery a virtuous method of “composition?”  Perloff is so obsessed with “time and place”—1930s! Austria! Everyone’s a Nazi! that it’s all she sees.  Perloff’s hatred of Dove’s anthology resembles her apparent hatred of the Austrians: Perloff explicitly mourns the fact that after 1945, Austria became a “prosperous nation”—as if Perloff believes all Austrians ought to be punished forever.  Perloff’s admiration of a meddled-with memoir passed off as poetry is apparently based on irrational, political hatred rather than on any aesthetic (or moral) principles. Why would Perloff see fit to mention that Austria, after 1945, became a “prosperous nation”?  When the Vietnam war ended, why would anyone wish that either the U.S. or Vietnam not become “prosperous”? Why should we ever wish for a country—more importantly, its people, its women and its children, not to become “prosperous”?  How could we ever be against an entire nation’s prosperity?  Because of Hitler, the whole nation of Austria, after 1945, should not be allowed to prosper? Hitler came to power precisely because of a lack of prosperity. What sort of mind would wish for a whole nation during peacetime not to prosper?

But no doubt Perloff felt compelled to drag forth the Waldheim poem because she really had so little to recommend her prized Language Poetry against the Dove lyric.

Perloff manages to come up with only three bullet points in favor of her kind of poetry: “ellipsis,” “indirection” and “political engagement.”

This is weak, since “ellipsis” and “indirection” characterize High Modernism, if not works farther back in time—so how can these be claimed as defining categories by the Language Poets?  Neither can “political engagement” ever be seen to belong only to Language Poetry, or the sorts of avant-garde works Perloff admires.

“Political engagement” certainly does not characterize Perloff’s other examples of contemporary, cut-and-paste excellence in her essay: Susan Howe’s collage on her husband’s death; Peter Gizzi’s little poem (“In broad dazed light”) to which Perloff felt compelled to pad her commentary with Victorian-era biographical information on Gizzi; the “Buddhist abnegation” of John Cage’s cutting of “Howl,” a miserable little thing (which she absurdly claims is “musical!”) which nevertheless cannot be transposed into prose, thus passing, in its “abnegation,” the crucial Perloff litmus test for great poetry(??); or, finally, Charles Bernstein’s boring send-up of the ballad form, “All the Whiskey in Heaven.”  So Perloff had to come up with one example, at least, of “political engagment,’ and she picked a doozy—one that bespoke Perloff’s hatred of all Austrians (!!).

Perloff is to be congratulated for laying out her avant-garde politics and her avant-garde aesthetics in such detail.  She really pulled out all the stops, and this may be her last avant-garde hurrah, and the last hurrah for sickly Language Poetry, who knows?  In this essay she throws around terms like “Joycean” and “verbivocovisual.” She cheerfully quotes Kenneth Goldsmith’s urge for “uncreative writing”—all to Seth Abramson’s dismay, no doubt.

Perloff has done a great service to the world of poetry—for the backlash to her article will certainly dwarf its intended effect: to establish, once and for all, the worthiness of that experimental/political avant-garde poem for which no one presently gives a damn—except a few tweedy professors—and to push it out into the glorious mainsteam, where the good, the bad, the mean, the friendly, the evil and the weak, all prosper.

IMAGINATION: A NO FRILLS DEFENSE

Imagination is not just one thing we have—it is the only thing we have.

Imagination is how we experience the world. No other person or thing experiences it for us. Only we experience the world—which is the same thing as saying only we experience ourselves.

When someone is rude or short with us, or fails to meet our expectations, we feel pain beyond the rebuke itself because this is a glimpse into the truth that every soul is trapped in its own imagination: communication exists, but it is not communication with you. Even when someone loves you, they are not loving you—they are simply in an imaginatively loving state. None of us are capable of loving another, but some of us are able to love—by using our imaginations.

Individuality exists only so much as it feeds into a type. The imagination is able to combine types, but it cannot appreciate individuality, since imagination depends on universals, and universals depend on types.

These observations are only true of myself, and only so much as I am a universal, will they make any sense to you. The detail I invoke requires participation in a type for you to understand it.

Details are only experienced as they participate in a type. If a recognizable type is not acheived by the imagination, the detail will not be seen as useful, but will be felt as a waste or an annoyance.

This is easily demonstrated by song—a note is welcome as it contributes to the tune. One wrong note can destroy the loved and familiar musical phrase.

The imagination can re-work wrong notes into an improvisational framework or coloring—the variation on a theme relaxes this precision, yet improvisation takes skill, and notes will sound wrong if the governing spirit of the improvising musician is not doing its imaginative work. The imagination makes details disappear into a higher unity.

We can break it down morally.  Good aspires to a higher unity. Evil descends from higher unity into chaos. Stupidity has no idea of unity, or type, at all.

The imagination: there is no outside to it, and it is all we have.

An objection will arise: but the world outside is real and the world outside defines the imagination, etc

To this objection we respond: We are not defining the world, we are defining the imagination—and this is the only way to do it.

We can make a list of all the things in the world, but what can the actions of human beings possibly have to do with this list? Reality’s list is too large to have any impact. If reality is more than a word, we must acknowledge its bulk—a tiny part of it is enough to overwhelm. Reality filters into our imagination from a limited perspective in time and space—the imaginative reality is our only reality.

This is not to say that artistic consciousness is some kind of goal or ideal—it is not.  Given what has already been said, all of us are artists already. The worldly vanity of the artiste shall be safely ignored.  Poets need not prove they are poets—but that their reader is.

The poet should be involved in demonstrating imaginative skill, not attempting to convey what is real. Perspective in painting, for instance, as art history has demonstrated, is imaginative—the merely flat canvas is real.  Where should the poet’s desire lie?

Happiness belongs to our imagination.  Reality gives us food out of necessity—eating is pleasurable when it is social and imaginative, not when it is natural. Yes, sugar is a delight and is found in nature—but too much sugar makes us miserable.  The imagination, in its harmony and beauty, curbs all excess. The imagination requires no checks, as nature does, for imagination’s measure is beauty and happiness itself.

Material necessity has no claim on the imaginative.  As Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks, geometry is the basis of perspective in painting, and the point (which forms the line, etc) is the basis of geometry, and geometry’s point has no material existence.

If imagination suffers from being a mere isle in reality’s sea, it is the isle where we find all love, all harmony, all beauty, all happiness.

That, my love, is where I’ll meet you.

THE GRANDE SCHOOL OF POETRY

Ben Mazer—the new Byronism of the Grande school?

The disgrace of seeming pre-Modern is a stigma created by the Modernists themselves, the small clique which dominated poetry for most of the 20th century.

That was done then, therefore we can’t do that now is the formula, and, despite the allure of originality, it’s a dangerous formula—for the self-evident reason that society should never stigmatize so generally.

If we can reject something as immense as the past, then anything or anyone can, and will, be rejected, for just about any reason at all.

We cannot assume that a fanatical formula (yes, “Make it new,” I’m talking to you) will be tempered by caveats: ‘we really mean a blend of the old and the new!’  As human history has witnessed, human loss of reason on a mass scale can occur quickly and dangerously.

Obviously, we cannot dispense with the new in the name of the old, either.  The evils of political fundamentalism crushing the new is a danger, as well; but the point is that we are intolerant if we don’t realize intolerance uses any excuse—the new kills as easily as the old kills.  The old and new are both useful.

In poetry and art, however, the normal process has become: We don’t need this.  Let’s jettison that.  It might be rhyme, narrative, the painterly, the accessible, the moral, whatever it is; what the bourgeois want, the radical theorist inevitably decides we don’t need.  For 200 years we have witnessed the radical impulse march forward through time in an orgy of self-justification, as one limited style continually replaces another.  Re-reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe reminds one how silly this art-march can be.

Since poetry and art are so important in shaping the sensibilities of people in all walks of life: school teachers, professors, higher ed administrators, journalists, etc, this impulse does have universal importance.

It is refreshing then, to witness recently in poetry a new grande style emerging, one that wisely embraces rather than superficially jettisons.

The grande school kicks up dirt here at Scarriet.  The literary ambition embodied here is not merely lusty and wide, mocking the twaddle of pin-headed theorists who inhabit self-serving cliques of  fussy and narrow tracks of inquiry, but also holds forth in rigorous terms of good, basic common sense that rejects snap political judgments, pretense, and superfluity.

No school can escape a drawback or two; it could be said the grande school perhaps suffers from egomania.  Say what you will about Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, they are not egomaniacs.  Graham no doubt had real affection for the poets she cheated for when she was a poetry contest judge; Silliman no doubt has real affection for his woolly avant ideals and what he feels are their political virtues.

The grande school celebrates Byronic individualism. The grande school is not afraid of the word, genius.  The grande school is not afraid of embracing other arts, interests and views which may be innocently anti-poetry.  The grande school is not afraid of rebuking poetry in its own name. The grande school knows there can be a sweet Socratic method in a madness.  The grande school is not afraid of genius when it takes the form of madness.  The grande school is not afraid of Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, nor do they fear Ron Silliman or Jorie Graham’s several hundred admirers.

Perhaps the most successful poet writing today in the manner of the grande school is Ben Mazer, recent winner of Scarriet’s March Madness contest.  The following is from part 32 of his long poem, “The King.”  The yearning, self-conscious wish for poetry to be more like the pictorial arts is a mad wish, perhaps, but it is a sign of genius to wish to escape a genre within that genre itself in a wholly child-like and uncomplicated way.  The failure is a rousing success; only melancholy genius dares embrace failure so vehemently and earnestly; this melancholy desperation shines a helpful light.

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

In this passage by Mazer we find the sensibility, the attitude and the mind of the grande school wonderfully documented.  It is wishful and hopeful and expansive, and appears to transcend the old Modern order, so often doomed by its own intricacy. Mazer questions his own art—runs (and this part is part of a longer poem) towards the limits of his craft—while aspiring to the infinite.  The poem manages to achieve a “photographic instant” as it dispenses with discursiveness and makes manifest one idea, reinforced by the fact that Mazer’s poem is nothing like a painting. A painting is not limited by a poem’s unwinding, but can flash upon us in an instant.  There is a secret knowing humor, then, in Mazer’s plea to “words”; a Byronic, satiric jollity inevitably combines with a Byronic melancholy in Mazer’s work.

Is this the new poetry?  Is Mazer the first real poet of the 21st century?

In Mazer’s poetry we see the fissure of modernism/post-modernism’s facade—the self-conscious glibness finally about to burst before a force of uncanny weight of sublime and timeless aspiration. Mazer is not a poet who longs; Mazer is a poet who makes poetry long.

The question must always be: what material thing can we do?

Two implicit questions emerge after reading the poetry of Mazer quoted above:

1. Is poetry the explaining of a painting that doesn’t exist?

2. Is painting the picture of a poem that hasn’t been written?

Poetry and painting no longer love each other.  In the 19th century, they were in love with each other.

‘The medium is the message’ signals a philosophy which signals the present gulf between them.  Is the imagination really confined to its ‘medium?’

Abstract painting, with its indulgence of flatness and color, turns its back on poetry—since no poem is depicted by colored abstraction.

Missing her illustrative twin, poetry desperately assumes various roles to make up for the loss, going abstract herself with surface linguistic effects that depict nothing a painter would be inspired by; or, going in the opposite direction, poetry attempts imagery, story and jokes in such a manner that she over-reaches, forgets who she is, slides into inferior prose, into bad taste, into over-description, into obscurity.

The painter, in turn, flounders in the machinery and mechanics of the overtly conceptual.

Poets and painters, knowing they are different types of artists, are hardly aware of the timeless importance each share with each; poetry and painting do not even understand that they are out of balance with each other, while sensual film and moral novels breed, producing all the children—the great majority brats without beauty or taste.

Mazer’s poem confronts the gulf between poetry and painting, confronts the pre-Modern stigma found in the modern formula: ‘the medium is the message,’ a formula which traps us inside of itself today.  If  ‘the truth’ of this formula traps us, this is still no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to escape from it, and Mazer seems to understand this, as only a genius can.

Nietzsche, just before he went mad, wrote that he found in Horace—an author neglected by the Moderns—what Mazer ponders in his passage from “The King”:

To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word — as sound, as place, as concept — pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs — all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular — mere sentimental blather.

We will be the first to admit that these are unsettled questions—Whither poetry? Whither painting? Whither Horace? Whither Modernism? Whither Mazer? Will poetry and painting inspire each other again?

But we like what’s shaking with the grande school.

EDGAR LEE MASTERS AND EDNA MILLAY: THEY SUCK!

Edgar Lee Masters: Not sexy, but wrote prose poetry before WC Williams

Fads are born of flux, yet to their followers they’re as real as steel, or iron.  Tell a member of the hardcore poetry community that Edgar Lee Masters and Edna Vincent Millay are more significant than William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens and watch them gag.  Ron Silliman would gag.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff would gag. Harold Bloom would die.  There is a hiearchy. Flux may seem to  be the modernist mode; it’s not.  It’s iron.

The bookish Helen Vendler has made us love Wallace Stevens, the insurance agent, in his off-white suit; Stevens, like Alexander Pope, put his philosophy in verse (and somehow ended up being called modern for it), but the hardcore poetry community’s adoration of Bill Williams is based on nothing we can ascertain as very interesting.  While he lived, no one liked Williams much—WCW mourned the fact that Auden blew him away at a public reading, but celebrity has made its way through unseen byways in Bill’s favor; it perhaps had something to do with his friendship with the notorious Pound, which led to his being tagged as some kind of “American” (New Jersey?) alternative to Pound and Eliot, or that he “helped” Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg’s poet father Louis ran in the same art circles as Williams), but whatever the reason, WCW has been a bookish fad ever since the New Critics put “Red Wheel Barrow” in their poetry textbook Understanding Poetry and informed their readers his little poem was “lucid” and “fresh.”

The hardcore academic poetry community still somehow believes that sincerity and plain prose go together; perhaps they do, perhaps they are right, and perhaps I should end my essay right here on that note.  Sincerity does go a long way in many people’s eyes, and the more I think on the word sincerity, the more I do feel worthy of punishment and feel I deserve to be accused of bad faith for questioning the worth of William Carlos Williams.  If one squashes an ant, half the world will be indifferent and the other half will feel sorry for the ant; so why would any critic ever want to treat “Red Wheel Barrow” harshly?  Better not go near it; but one keeps seeing it, and that’s the secret of Williams’ fame: one cannot squash the ant.  It keeps going and going…

It is a little quixotic for Williams to complain, as he did, of T.S. Eliot’s foreign allusions: we wonder if Mr. Williams is aware that American implies foreign in its very soul?  How can one poet ever claim that he, more than others, writes for Americans, in subject matter, style, or language?  Isn’t such a claim suspect?  We wonder why Mr. Williams and his supporters get a free pass in making it.

In William Carlos Williams’ first book (Poems, 1909),  his poems are like this:

The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

“Fruits all anguish mend??”  This is dreck—yet it was published when Williams was 26.   It was not until he was in his late 30s and joined the Kreymborg, Arensburg, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Louis Ginsberg, Marcel Duchamp “Dial” clique that the Williams of “The Red Wheel Barrow” emerged.

What most don’t realize, is that well before Williams found both himself and his coterie, Edgar Lee Masters, in his wildly popular “Spoon River Anthology,” already sounded more modern and impure than Williams:

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win — and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill” —
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

—Edgar Lee Masters

Humble Spoon River, with its poetry in plain prose, was published in 1916, when William Carlos Williams was still trying and failing at rhyme.

In his book, Innovators & Outsiders, American Poetry Since 1950, Eliot Weinberger, who writes in his introduction of the great divide in American poetry: “the ruling party” and the “innovator outsiders,” begins his anthology with WC Williams.  It’s typical Williams: mundane description plus a bit of avant-garde, modern art philosophy.  “The Desert Music” describes a trip with his wife and some friends to a poor Mexican border town while tossing in bon mots such as, “Only the poem. /Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:/to imitate, not to copy nature, not/to copy nature,” daring you to make a connection between this snatch of earnest literary criticism and a trip to a Mexican border town,  just as “The Red Wheel Barrow” dares you to connect “So much depends” with that barrow glazed with rain water.

It’s a rather bland compositional technique: the matter-of-fact imagery makes it ‘modern’ and the pasted-on lecture: only the poem—makes it seem different, mystical.  How innovative and original is this poetaster technique?  We don’t know.

As a reader you must decide between two points of view: ‘what the hell does he mean by only the poem?‘ or: ‘only the poem—of course! only the poem,‘ nodding sagely.  There’s really no in-between: you must choose for yourself: are you smart or are you dumb? It’s a sly trick the sly poets play: because you don’t want to seem dumb.  You do want to be in the crowd that knows the deep mystical zen significance of “so much depends,” don’t you?

Of course we know Williams was part of the modern art scene, and understood the direction things were going: painting was becoming flat: only paint upon the canvas! 

“Only the poem” is a slogan obviously in this spirit—and barking a slogan in a poem about what a poem should be is to “flatten” the poem. “Don’t copy nature.”  We don’t really associate Williams with the New York School, but there it is.  The modernist Paris-moving-to-New York- art clique was small—but still fit the modern poetry clique within it pretty comfortably.

The formula first emerges most forcefully with “The Red Wheel Barrow.”  Poetry, unlike painting, is difficult to flatten,  because how do you get away with “anybody can do that” in language?   The art world makes objects and once a museum owns an object, a certain legitimacy sets in, but with poetry, the stamp of radical approval is harder to get. 

Williams struck on a method, which is pretty simple: First: copy nature in the poem up to a point, presenting an imagery from real life. Second: Add to the imagery some piece of philosophical jargon which does not fit the imagery or enhance it or extend it in any way at all.   Voila!  You have  flattened the poem.   Williams is intentionally boring.  It’s a style, born of modern art.  Present a red wheel barrow.  Then flatten it with “so much depends.”  So much depends on this object which I am objectifying on the flat-surface-object of my poem.  This is the intention.

Here’s a lesser known poem by Williams, but typical; one can clearly see the flattening formula at work:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
the snow
is covered with broken
seed husks
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.

The imagery is precise and cute: “small,” “cheeping,” “skimming,” and nothing much, but it gets flattened by the wordy additions, “Old age is,” and “But what?”  It’s the same strategy of “Wheel Barrow.”  1) Paint a little scene, 2) attach a declaration of some sort.  Neither one enhances the other, and thus the whole thing is intentionally de-enhanced.  We yawn, and feel mystified at the same time, as when we look at one of those modern art blank canvases at MOMA.  The absurdity is brought mystically to the fore—and we can hear it in the phlegmatic “Old age is…”  Shall I compare “cheeping birds buffeted by a dark wind” to “old age?”   Of course I shall!  It’s perfect!

Now look at this poem by silly old Edna St. Vincent Millay, which no member of the hardcore academic poetry community wants to touch:

Recuerdo

 We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
    But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
    We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
    And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

    We were very tired, we were very merry,
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
    And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
    And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
    And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna Millay’s strategy is much different.  Hers is a far more natural evocation of old age than the Williams.  Old age has life in “Recuerdo;” it merely gets a metaphorical snapshot in “To Waken An Old Lady.” The realist mode fell out of favor in the hip artistic circles Williams travelled in during his middle age, but one can see how Millay’s poem succeeds on several levels—by contrast, the Williams, with its “Old age is…,” feels flat, formulaic, and artificial.

I’M THE FIRST

I’m the first to lie awake
And the last to fall asleep.
At first love makes you happy
And then it makes you weep.
Why is love unhappy?  It’s easy to say,
The first time is when you cry when your lover slips away.
When they are gone, you want them back:
There is comfort, here is a panic attack.
Distance, which is normal, becomes pain and grows
Until your pain becomes pain your lover knows,
And when excess of love seems the only cure,
You find a love that’s rare but feel the pain more,
Until love becomes an urge and your mind goes back
To sweeter times—but now love’s a cul-de-sac
That blunts all desire; madness creeps in,
Bad taste follows your secret insight into sin;
Once a Botticelli smile, now love’s a smeary grin.
Please let me sleep, my poem is done.
Sleepless and loveless, here’s the sun…

POETRY SHOUTS THE OBVIOUS

Thomas "Hitman" Hearns is carried from the ring in Las Vegas Monday night, April 15, 1985 as Marvelous Marvin Hagler celebrates his undisputed world middleweight championship.   Hagler knocked out Hearns in the third round of the fight. (AP Photo)

Poetry shouts the obvious to deaf ears—
It’s not a professor studying an obscure poem for years—
No, a poem shouts the obvious to every one of your peers—
It’s not a cabal of self-righteous queers,
A poem is a melody crying melodious tears
After a brawling fist fight among a thousand beers
That brought out love and its elemental fears—
Poetry’s no study elaborately switching gears—
Poetry shouts the obvious to deaf ears.

NEW SCARRIET POEM: BUT MOST OF ALL I LOVE

But Most Of All, I Love

You will see me absent-mindedly failing to be
Aware of creatures talking directly to me,
And you think: have I the right to be this free?
Should I be allowed to flounder in revery
Even as pious company surrounds me?
Oh, but you know, I focus enough.
But most of all, I love.

You might see that I am ill-equipped
To fight my battles; I am too tight-lipped
And sometimes my clothes are ripped;
My leaves have fallen, my towers tipped,
My useful items have been counted and shipped,
But I know hat and shirt and dress and glove.
But most of all, I love.

You wanted me to stay awake
And adore you at night for the sake
Of a coward’s morning when we take
The train to the same place and fake
A fondness for every drink we slake.
Instead I sleep and wake to song drifting down from above.
But most of all, I love.

WHY AESTHETICS IS BETTER THAN POLITICS

 

Politics deals with facts.

Because of politics’ nature and scope, politics deals with every immediate fact in the world; immediate facts change quickly into new facts—one future fact can upset all that went before—the political side of the debate you were on can completely give way.  All sides are therefore wary of facts—because one fact might disrupt a carefully built-up partisanship, and it is the nature of politics to cause you to invest in a side.

Further, since all political facts are interconnected, any argument against the bad is useless, since the bad contaminates all; any attempt to point fingers, to distance yourself from the bad, is hopeless, for the bad stains you as well as everyone else, whether your free will has anything to do with it or not; in your attempt to separate the bad out and be apart from it, your argument itself only increases the bad’s social effect.  Likewise, any political argument dealilng with the good is self-defeating as well, since the good manifests itself most authentically in private and loses its virtue once public recognition for it is sought.

This is why political arguments invariably go round in circles, and why they often cause so much hurt and pain.  Politics is both too large and too one-sided to be reasonable.

Aesthetics is poisoned by politics more than we know; the latter is seductive (taking a side is a strong temptation) and insinuates itself into the former.  One must be passive to appreciate beauty; one must be gentle to appreciate sweet and delicate music; aesthetic appreciation requires a certain amount of receptivity; unfortunately this passive state is the condition to best be infected with political messages. Aesthetic pursuit, therefore, must always be wary of political interference.

The political can even be mistaken for the aesthetical outright, since the hero is at the bottom of both in our hopes and dreams.  The leader who will save us is similar to the advice in a poem that will save us—at the center of politics and poetry stands the wise leader or the wise poet—we give ourselves to these others, whether in political side-taking or in the falsely passionate worship of art:  the poem is not talking to you, the heroic poet is; the policy is not the real attraction, the political leader is.  We should be wary of this, for it is a powerful example of how the political mimics the aesthetic, and how the aesthetic can be betrayed, and used, and destroyed.

Aesthetics does not care for icons.  The audience is elevated, the poet depressed; the leader fades away in the enlightenment of the audience.  Aesthetics is truly democratic.

Aesthetics does not depend on immediate facts; it is only the way facts combine which interests the artist; individual facts have no place in aesthetics; no legal proof can be brought to bear against aesthetic revery; facts combining—in order to disappear—is the true artistical creed; the very opposite of political cunning which discerns every clear and isolated fact for an advantage.

Political cunning would shun the bad and embrace the good hypocritically—the artist finds the underlying truth of bad and good as qualities used for a higher purpose. The values which politics would willfully assert are demolished by the artist, even as the artist might steal tricks for a higher purpose from the political legerdemain.

Unlike the political creature who fears the suddenly disclosed fact, the artist burns to have every new fact, every old fact, and every surprising fact, at their disposal, because no fact can do the artist harm by upsetting or flipping an argument; the facts are used by the artist as facts in the very act of demolishing them—the use of facts to the artist is closer to what facts really are; the political debater is all about lining up the facts in the right way, a display which is finally a hollow gesture.

Politics leads to arrogance, lying, hypocrisy, shallowness and stupidity.

Aesthetics leads to love, humility, pleasure, sweetness, and truth.

Scegliere!

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS POEM

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The world is too big to be a liberal.
Too many people are happy.
Your complaints fall on deaf ears.
A loser’s racism is just as bad as a winner’s.
We’re all racists, and do you know what the liberal hero wants the most?
When he comes downstairs in the morning, he wants his perfectly done goddamned toast.
The world is too big to be a liberal, I’m sorry to say.
The climate needs help.  But they threw your circular away.
They spilled some oil. You going to cry for a duck?
We need oil. Accidents happen.  And no one gives a fuck.
Oh that’s right.  The lawyers do.
Does it matter if they’re liberal—as they sue?
The climate needs to help the planet which needs to help the sun
Which is giving off a stink.  But things stink to everyone.
Do you think it finally matters if you’re gay or not?
There’s a kleenex for tears—and the same one for snot.
If you have boogies on your face, take them off.
Take swimming lessons. Do something about that cough.
The world’s too big to be a liberal. Do it yourself,
Or call up somebody and supplement your wealth,
Or imagine the estate that looks like a dream—
Those are liberals being liberal in that limousine.
In that liberal castle lives a liberal queen—
Pay attention!  No, the lesson’s lost—
It all has a reason.  It all has a cost.
You think you are going to make people nice?
Look pal, I’ve got some advice:
Print some money. Give it to the poor.  So they’ll vote for you.
Go door-to-door in good cheer. The poor suckers invite you in for a beer!
Sell them some anarchy, some libertarian voice of ass,
Then go back to school, go to the top of the class
In debt! and then bet on humans, Pol Pot and wife and kid.
The world is too big to be a liberal.  Because look what you did.

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