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.



  1. dianajonesellis said,

    August 15, 2012 at 12:28 am

    Thomas, this is an amazing, riveting read.
    I want to explore the relationship of painting to poetry. You observe that painting and poetry haven’t loved each other since the 19th century. What do you make of the relationship between poets and painters during the 50’s? Poets collected at the San Remo and painters at Cedar and there was tremendous blood interest, if you will, between the two.
    Perhaps should define the concept of “love”? Will doing so help?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    August 15, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Thanks, Diana.

    The historical relationship between illustration and its written counterpart is a large and wonderful theme and lies waiting—I’ve hardly touched it, and I’m anxious to create the definitive on-line course on it. Armed with Da Vinci’s explicit observations, G.Lessing’s neglected essay, and all sorts of works I’m still mining; and unfortunately little technical expertise, I’m going to give it a go.

    As for the 19th century, I guess I’m thinking of the pre-Raphaelites and how painting, once obsessed with sacred topics, died out as a representative force just as the opportunity presented itself to depict the new poetry. Where are the famous paintings depicting 20th century poetry? Popularizing one another is what the genius of painting and poetry ought to be able to do.

    I know the New York School was at its core poets and painters mingling, but the painters were on that train to abstraction and ‘cool’ had a tendency to mitigate ‘amor.’

    But I still have much to learn.


  3. dianajonesellis said,

    August 16, 2012 at 12:25 am

    I’ll give it some thought. I don’t think twentieth-century poets and painters were quite as disconnected (conceptually or emotionally) as one might think. I’ll be working on related research sometime in the near future. Your online course sounds intriguing and I wish you the best with this work. I’ll send any resources I find that appear to be related your way.

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      I found this great website:

      It sums up the painter/poet relationship of the New York School pretty well. I don’t think the New York school poets and painters were disconnected at all. But I do think the nature of abstract expressionism did not help the marriage.

      It’s hard to conceive just how much the ancient painters used to rely on poets for their subjects. One gets this idea very strongly reading G. Lessing’s essay on poets and painters. This relationship is probably not possible again—and it’s one of the gulfs between ancient and modern.

      And let’s face it, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers may have been very cool and creative people, but they were amateurs compared to the old great painters, like the pre-Raphaelites, for instance.

      We are touched, yes, by the comraderie and amateurism of the New York School, but let’s face it, amateurs are amateurs, and this amateurism may have actually hurt the relationship between poetry and painting.

  4. December 11, 2012 at 7:24 am

    Reading this piece I kept thinking of Robert Duncan and how his poetry embraces all traditions, including both traditional and modernist. Duncan called his work ‘the grande collage’ and ‘wove’ his poetry from the myths, alchemy to science, astronomy and astrology and histories of religion and ideas. He is the most inclusive modern poet, and now, with the new Collected Early Poems and Plays readers and poets who don’t know the work will begin to see just how broad Duncan was technically and in terms of content. Everything was permitted and absorbed and transformed into song and poetry overflowing with images and ideas, concepts and imaginings. I think this piece signals the taking up of poets like Duncan by a broader readership.

    Robert Adamson

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 12, 2012 at 2:34 pm


      Duncan never did much for me; maybe you could point me towards what you consider his best work. For his primitivist brand of mysticism, I always preferred DH Lawrence’s poetry—which has a certain clarity and focus Duncan seems to lack: Duncan was groomed to be ‘great’ and I think he was somewhat overwhelmed. He was at the center of much of the 20th century’s ‘cool people’ and ‘cool art,’ which can be a mixed blessing.


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