When I have your love,
I want your love,
And when I want your love,
I have it, too.
How do I solve this riddle
Except by loving you?

When you leave me, love,
You stay here, love,
And when you remain,
My heart keeps leaving, too.
How can I solve this mystery
Except by loving you?

When you kiss me, love,
I want more kisses,
Forgetting the first and hating the last,
So love’s kisses seem too few.
How can I solve this conundrum
Except by loving you?

When you are in my eyes,
I must hold your hand,
And when my hand is in your hand,
My lips then want you, too.
How will the parts all understand,
Except by loving you?


Stephen Burt: Doesn’t look great in a jacket.  Prefers wearing a blouse.

We were amused to read the recent piece on Stephen Burt in the New York Times with the large color photo of Burt, the cross-dresser, sitting at an outdoor table in Harvard Square.  A cross-dresser?  Really?  I had no idea.

I was also a little puzzled by the Times’ claim that Burt is a “king-maker;” how do these rumors get started?

Helen Vendler, who Burt is slated to replace, is not really a “king-maker.”  Vendler gave some help to Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, and  Burt, himself, but she’s mostly invested herself in Wallace Stevens.  The shadow of High Modernism is a very big shadow.

In the Times article, only one poet was mentioned who Burt had “made,” and she was an obscure one.

I had to laugh at the explanation of how she was “made,” when the Times writer intoned re: an award committee: “Burt was one of the jurors”—as if this had never happened before!

I also chuckled when it was pointed out that Burt was “a science fiction fan” and a member of “Facebook”—as if these were meaningful and unusual things.

Chief, perhaps, to Burt’s claim to fame, and dutifully cited by the Times, are a couple of definitional coinages of Burt’s: “Elliptical Poetry” and “The New Thing.”

There’s a problem with these, however.

Burt’s definitions of “Elliptical Poetry” and the poetry of “The New Thing” are rambling, narrowly topical, and lack epigrammatic focus.  Both definitions do little more than throw around names.  Take a half a cup of Gertrude Stein and add one tablespoon of John Ashbery… 

Even worse for Burt: “Elliptical Poetry,” with a more coherent definition, was actually a term invented by Frederick Pottle and discussed by Robert Penn Warren’s “Pure and Impure Poetry,” a lecture at Princeton and later published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review. (Wikipedia on Elliptical Poetry needs to be fixed.)

Here is Burt’s (twisted) definition of Elliptical Poetry:

Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-‘postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.

This is all very vague: “try to manifest,” “verbal gizmos,” “post-avant-gardist,” “low and high diction,” “almost-stories,” and “television.” 

Perhaps the point is to be vague—after all , we’ve come a long way since critics of poetry fretted over “learning versus pleasure” and “prose versus poetry” and “ideas versus music.” 

But is it a “long way” if you’ve run off the dock into the utterly obscure?  Should critics be vague?  For instance, what does Burt mean by “coherent speaking selves?”  Is he talking about a dramatic speaker, like the narrator in Poe’s “Raven?”  Or the speaker in “The Red Wheel Barrow?”  Or the speakers in “The Waste Land?”  Or the narrator of “Howl?”

Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” is post-modern, but it also has clarity and historic reach.  It’s possible to be topical without being attenuated, to allow Sidney’s Defense to discover things in Eliot’s Sacred Wood.  “Post-avant-gardist verbal gizmos” are not everything.

Burt gets published everywhere, but we haven’t figured out yet whether this is a good thing.   His Boston Globe piece on the Foetry website  steered me in that direction many years ago, so I guess that was good.

Unlike Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, Burt is a poet, and his poetry is similar to his criticism: meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse:


Inland, the antique milemarkers spread
themselves out into twentieth-century lanes,

jammed up this afternoon, though built for speed—
sun-harmed, old news, old toys, they bury the lead

of Prudence Crandall’s schoolroom heritage,
her kettle of cider, her wishes traced by hand.

We miss her now. We parcel out her land.
Town halls fade into greenery like spies.

New London’s keeping Groton in its sights;
its drawbridge swings, a military career.

New Haven is old scores and old concrete,
old freeways where the Great Migration stalled;

the Sound turns agate, band by frozen band.
By Haddam, there are only Linens-n-Things

and other things, great mounds, whole civilizations
still glowing in faint spits along Route Nine…

I miss the Great Society with its sense
that we could redraw maps that ailed us, gone

in a mist of real estate and demonstrations,
three or four angry years before I was born.

One is obliged to be impressed by poetry like this, but in one’s heart one is only slightly moved.

Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Times article, writes:

Burt has few critics — or few critics who, given his influence, will be quoted. An exception is Steve Evans, who teaches at the University of Maine and says that Burt is often late to the party, putting his seal of approval on poets, like Armantrout, who have been important for years. But the more common critique is that Burt is too positive. And while Burt does write negative reviews, he writes so much, and so many of his reviews are songs of praise, that he can seem like a relentless, passionate booster — a fanboy.

The fanboy is, by his nature, an imperfect evangelist. I find Burt’s lucid, insightful explications of poems energizing: they make you want to discover more of that poet’s work. But there is something unnerving about his voracious enthusiasm. It’s the feeling you got hanging out with the kid who had every bootleg by his 100 favorite bands, or with the sci-fi junkie, or the film buff. They are obsessives, completists, and they overwhelm.

Burt is finally curatorial, not imaginative or original; he’s not an inventor.  He makes lists, but not insights.  When the Times revealed his predilection for dressing as a woman, I couldn’t help but recall these combative words by Leonardo Da Vinci as they might pertain to Stephen Burt, the cross-dressing, fan-boy of Letters:

They will say that since I do not have literary learning I cannot possibly express the things I wish to treat, but they do not grasp that my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness. Though I may not know, like them, how to cite from the authors, I will cite something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters. These very people go about inflated and pompous, clothed and adorned not with their own labours but with those of others. If they disparage me as an inventor, how much more they, who never invented anything but are trumpeters and reciters of the works of others, are open to criticism. Moreover those men who are inventors are interpreters of nature, and when those men are compared to the reciters and turmpeters of the works of others, they should be judged and appraised in relation to each other in no other way than the object in front of a mirror may be judged to surpass its reflection, for the former is actually something and the other nothing.  People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.


Should the poet ‘take positions?’ We say, invariably not, for partisanship always implies progress or improvement and such a position can never be timeless—since improvements always involve present problems. You don’t fix a leak in the roof with philosophy, symbolism, or beauty, and to write a poem out of some political position is just like assuming this.

The other problem with partisan behavior is that it forces us to adhere to a laundry list of associations with whatever we happen to support. For instance, if you support this good, it inevitably means you support, through a network of connections, that evil–and eventually this pins you down into a position fraught with embarrassment, and to be intellectually embarrassed is the worse thing that can happen to a thinker or an artist; it mars the artist’s contemplative solitude, it stalks with social frenzy the serenity the poet needs.  The poet is naturally irritable, because he is more sensitive than others; but to be defensive in the face of social embarrassment undermines the irritable poet’s inspiration and takes the naturally private poet wholly out of himself.

Do not, then, stoop to politics if you wish to make art.  Do not be political. Politics will not fix the leak or write the poem—it will hinder fixing the roof and writing the poem, because whatever aims to triumph in the realm of advice (the default rhetorical purpose of political discourse) hinders the artist (who is, if art is properly understood, not an advice-giver).

You must never attempt to triumph; the muse will have nothing to do with the artist who makes an attempt to win her.  The muse must already be yours.

The artist must be victorious before the game even begins; the great artist sees the game entirely before it starts; the poetic work is simply copying out the pre-seen result.  There must be no struggle, no harangue, no attempt to convince, no argument—for then the artist will be no artist at all, but a mere Emerson, a mere sermonizer.  The art must flash upon the consciousness like a piece of music, the argument hidden in the folds of the exquisite notes.

If the argument is key, leave it for a sermon—as I am doing now.

Oh, and even better than the sermon is the dialogue.  Allow comments on your blog.

Do not be like Poetry’s Blog Harriet or the blogger Ron Silliman.


How did she love when the love she found
Demanded silence, and not one small sound
Was allowed in her heavens or on her ground?
She did not love, for silence engenders fear;
Silence kills love if the love is near,
For sounds are sacred when they enter the ear.
But when love is outside, making no sound,
Like a spider on the wall, a statue, or a mound,
It may have authority and may be profound
But it withers and dies like death underground.

She told me all this as I looked in her eye,
And then she looked down and began to cry,
But I touched her hand, and sang; never silent, I,
Never one to care for confusion or fear,
For sounds are sacred when they enter the ear
And love is made of sound: like this poem here.


Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was a big hit.

The avant-garde is generally thought to be radical, not conservative, especially when we think of the explosion of avant-garde culture in the early 20th century, that “revolution” which rebelled against the Victorian, the traditional, the stodgy, and introduced new ways of seeing and thinking, and broke with a narrower and more middle class manner of experiencing the world.

Everyone accepts this definition of the avant-garde without blinking an eye.  The ruling belief is that the avant-garde, and especially the avant-garde of 20th century modernism, which still reverberates through intellectual consciousness today, belonged to the people; it was open, so goes the story, renewing, new, working class, and left-wing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 20th century avant-garde did not break out from a narrow mold—the 20th century avant-garde was narrow and its influence narrowing.

The 20th century avant-garde was not a left-wing people’s movement; it was a right-wing movement of business elites.

The 19th century (Goya, Beethoven, Poe) was a vast bounty of magnificent art.  The early 20th century avant-garde “revolution” in art was, in reality, a great shrinking.

A great, flowering forest was razed by a small band of Modernists, and yet almost every artist and intellectual today actually celebrates this destruction.

As much as we are convinced of the truth of what we say, we also understand the startling success of the modernist fascist con has become, in a way, reality itself.

All that is left to do is chuckle at the pretentiousness of it all (as the public did at the start, and continues to do—you know, the public, those bourgeois folks who don’t “get it”—) and point out a few amusing examples of how close-knit and narrow-minded and righ-wing the modernist avant-garde clique really was.  One observation is especially telling: the modern art players and the modern poetry players were one and the same to an extent no one seems to realize.  For instance, who talks about John Quinn, these days, the lawyer and art collector?  Yet Quinn successfully lobbied in Washington to change the tax laws to allow European art collections to come to America, gave the opening address at the landmark Armory show in 1913, and put together the publishing deal for “The Wasteland” as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Small world, huh?

Who did the Chicago Tribune send to review the 1913 Armory art show?   Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry.

Who did A.C. Barnes, pharma millionaire, and one of the first great modern art collectors, force his factory workers to read on the job?  William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, who invented stream of consciousness and taught art collector and poet, Gertrude Stein at Harvard.

We always hear about the Black Mountain poets.  The Black Mountain School was most importantly, a school of Abstract Art (Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg there) and John Cage experimentation.  Black Mountain’s two founders were John Andrew Rice, a Rhodes Scholar and”open classroom” educator, and Theodor Dreier, the father of modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who, along with Man Ray and Duchamp, formed the modern art Societe’ Anonyme.

O’Hara and Ashbery were fortunate to know Auden (though Auden had his doubts about them) but their real ticket to notoriety was their art connection; knowing Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, the rich girl who was advised by Duchamp on her modern art collecting.

Duchamp is the most important figure, a Frenchman born in the 19th century, a part of the most important avant-garde generation, which includes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  There is nothing new after Duchamp: every Modernist, avant-garde, 20th century -ism comes directly out of Duchamp: his infamous urinal, “Fountain,”  his “found object” Mona Lisa with Moustache, and his cubist, abstract painting “Nude Descending Staircase” (the hit of the Armory Show, which made Duchamp an American celebrity) all done before 1920, contains everything, everything that came afterwards: Abstract, Cubism, Futurism, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Collage, Minimalism, Surrealism, Pop art, everything, Duchamp contains it all—the entire joke—is contained in this one man, born in 1887.

All that is “new” and avant-garde, decades after Duchamp, is old and one-note.

The story of the avant-garde is how one joke told so many times eventually made what was materially authentic about different genres of art irrelevant: the narrow, wealthy social agenda mattered, not the art, and this is why the clique’s members had a tacit understanding and were able to move in lock-step.

The 20th century avant-garde had its roots in the 19th century, mostly notably in France; modern art officially began in the Salon des Refuses—sponsored by the globally ambitious Napolean III and the French state.  The imperialist despot, Napolean III, who joined the British Empire in the mid-19th century to trample the world, gave official life to French avant-garde painting.

The poet Baudelaire was also an art critic, and he pushed hard for the new and disparaged the old, art.  Baudelaire also set the standard for Modernism’s view of Poe as an outsider freak; the limited and narrow avant-garde had to bring Poe down to their level by turning him into a disheveled victim, playing down the towering, multi-faceted artist Poe really was.  Poe showed the world how to be innovative and still aesthetically pleasing, and without being trendy and clique-y and sophistical and narrow.   Thus, Poe, even today, is the number one target of the Modernist avant-garde, either damned with faint praise or condemned and mocked outright.

Two things, then, drove the 20th century avant-garde: 1) 19th century colonialist era imperialism (and its 20th century twin, fascism)  and 2) insanity.

Most, even those who celebrate it, can accept that a certain amount of insanity defines the 20th century avant-garde.  It was pretty crazy, and that was part of the point. Insanity helps serendipitously: barriers to be removed are knocked down as artists become audacious and thrill certain elements of the idle rich while simultaneously offending the working class. If the avant-garde has a working class element, the avant-garde itself is not ever a working class movement; the avant-garde art appeals to the idle rich precisely because it offends the working class and the working class is only a tool in the avant-garde’s actions.  It obviously didn’t hurt the modern artists that the world itself was partly insane when Modern art burst onto the American consciousness.  The Armory Show was the Fort Sumter of Modernism, the first large modern art show that hit America’s shores in 1913.  One year later, the insanity of the first world war began, eventually dragging the U.S. into its trench-grinding maw, allied as America was to Britain and France—two nations who refused to side with America during the Civil War, intentionally turning that war into the bloodbath by holding out promise of recognition to the Confederacy if it could win enough meat-grinder battles. The Salon des Refuses happened to occur in middle of America’s Civil War.  The avant-garde was a crazy party thrown by the rich and it was crazy in exactly that sense; the avant-garde rules were set by the rich and for the rich.

One casualty of the Modern art movement, with its seeds in mid-19th century France?  History Painting.  Why look at history when it was becoming so ugly under Napolean III?  History painting thrived when France and the American Colonies heroically took on the British Empire.   Modern art nixed all that.  The blurred vision of pure insanity was more Modernism’s elitist style, the style of the jaded rich, eschewing grace and beauty.

The insanity reflected in modern art was real and this surely gave it legitimacy, as much as reflecting insanity is legitimate; to be sure, who reflects insanity better than artists who are insane themselves?  The “derangement of the senses” was a prophecy coming true, springing as it did from modern art’s roots: mid-19th century France.

The story that is told is that this aesthetic insanity was really a sane response to an insane world.  But should the response to insanity be more insanity?  Modernism thought so.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here: when the public views a Shakespeare play, filled in with insane characters, the audience has no doubt that Shakespeare, the playwright is sane. Insanity, such as we get in Shakespeare or Goya or Beethoven or Poe, can be expressed by a genius who has not been crippled by insanity himself—even if we allow that some insanity itself might reign in the genius.  Modern art, however, made the very medium itself insanity.

Insanity was a great medium for another reason, already mentioned:  Since the avant-garde sprung from colonialist and fascist impulses, what better art for those impulses than art which disintegrates and distorts and howls with derisive laughter?


Shulamith Firestone: why the radical feminist who wanted to abolish  pregnancy remains relevant

Shulamith Firestone. How far has feminism come?  Is it any closer to understanding sex?

We at Scarriet have a lot on our mind: feminism, sex, conception, and how it all connects to poetry.

Shulamith Firestone, author of “The Dialectic of Sex,” (1970)—the book proposed to separate sex from conception and to erase gender distinction—is dead at 67, after initial fame, flight from fame, and mid-life hospitalization for schizophrenia.

First a bit about sex.

George Santayana said, “Life is neither a feast nor a spectacle; it is a predicament.”

Sex, more than anything, is a predicament.  It is supposed to be the most pleasurable thing there is, and yet it is probably the greatest cause of moral and mental derangement, long-lasting misery and emotional pain there is.

Sex is bi-part: on one hand, necessary for conception, child-bearing and the furthering of human life, the foundation of gender differences and intimacy in traditional marriage; and, on the other, mad, illicit, jealous-invoking, fun.

Ms. Firestone—who theorized conception should happen in test tubes and believed that the “the end goal of feminist revolution must be … not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself”—took on the predicament of sex’s bi-part nature—and ended up suffering from schizophrenia.

This is a single, unproven example—but just too mythic to ignore.

Feminism is correct in one important sense: sex oppresses women.

Forget the usual feminist argument: who ‘has it worse,’ men or women.

Sex oppresses women more than men because women are more involved and conscious of the dilemma of sex’s bi-part nature.

The woman is confused by sex and its role in society as vulgarity, half-truths, and do’s and don’t’s come thronging to her consciousness from a young age.  When she is actually confronted with potential mates as a young woman, she finds either clueless dweebs or frat-type jerks.  Physically attractive men are gay, or unreliable. Attentive heterosexuals are physically repulsive, or just plain weird.  One wonders sometimes how marriage and reproduction even happens.  And, on top of this, almost overnight the attractive men become aged and pot-bellied.  For men, sex almost seems to exist on a superficial fantasy level only—and yet it seems very important to men; and the poor woman is supposed to play some kind of role in all this?  How can she, without becoming repulsive to herself?  The dignified alternative for the woman is to focus on sex not as sex, but as a means to conception and birth, a partnership that produces children—but feminists and intellectuals frown on this alternative more than any other, for it bespeaks of the terribly old-fashioned, and it would seem to run straight into the arms of self-denying, patriarchal oppression.

So, when it comes to sex, how can a woman win?  Men themselves surely don’t help; nature doesn’t help; nor do any of the expectations advertised by the various religious and anti-religious philosophies, help.  The modern woman lives her whole life on the horns of a dilemma.

Shulamith Firestone went for the radical solution: let’s have babies in test tubes and separate the female gender from the burden of child-bearing, in order to make the genders truly equal.  Fix nature, which is unfair.  It’s what humans do.

Plato suggested child-rearing be done by the state and not families.

These practical considerations are just that—practical.  But how can sex ever be practical?  Is that even the point?

And further, what of love?  We haven’t mentioned that yet. (did you notice?)

Will taking sex away from conception make sex all about love?  Is this what Ms. Firestone, the theorist, wanted?  Is this what Ms. Firestone, the person, wanted?  Is this what we want?

But are sex and love even the same thing?  And, if so, is this the same thing as equating beauty and love?  Surely sexy and beautiful are close?  Or perhaps they are very different, depending on the person?  But if sex no longer leads to children (and how will that other technology actually work?) and is merely recreational, and sex is no longer a means to an end, it will certainly lose a certain power and come to signify a means by which a sexy person is enjoyed—but now, notice that now sex and love have become more selfish and objectified than ever before.  Is this what feminists like Firestone, in theorizing to make the world better, really want?

In a coldly materialistic world, how is sexiness and beauty and, most importantly, love, best realized and expressed?

This is where poetry comes in.

Poetry expresses love, and it is safe to say, can do so, no matter what the sexual or feminist or political landscape happens to be.  Love needs to be expressed, and poetry expresses love best.  Sex’s bi-part nature can mentally and morally afflict the best of us.  Poetry has the scope, expressiveness and the ability to create love and romance between two people, and since it belongs to words, it is accessible to many.  Poetry can lift love above material vulgarity; it can intelligently navigate the landmines of politics and change; it can bond two human beings over time and distance; it can heal the moral and mental rifts which afflict all those curious about sex and love; and poetry itself borrows from other important arts: music, painting, and rhetoric.

What if Ms. Firestone had been a love poet?


When I saw what I had loved,
I understood the wide sea—
As rolling and wide as mathematics, or poetry—
Knows less of love than I, and could not love poetry like me.

When I saw what I had loved,
And understood she was sweet
And, in a moment, could with a smile, repeat
So carefully and sweetly what she had done before,
It was time to make all that could be mine, sweetly, sweetly, more.

When I saw what I had loved,
I understood that by comparison, I was dead,
And should have chose my living by what I loved,
And was not wise considering caution as a need,
And so for love, and only love, I gave up my creed,
And plucked my flower, which—strange!—was hidden, like a mountain weed.

When I saw what I had loved,
Lying smashed upon the ground,
I thought of pitiful Lear in shock, holding his girl,
I thought of pain and earth and sound,
And my flower young and curled
And the mountains broken,
And dead love which cannot be spoken,
No matter how the heart is moved,

When I saw what I had loved.


Was Allen Ginsberg’s father, published poet, Louis Ginsberg, as good as his famous son?

Scarriet presents father and son: Louis Ginsberg (1885-1976) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).

From Louis Ginsberg’s Collected Poems Northern Lights, 1992:

Defense Against the Dark

Only two small sons and one I love
One night were growing merry there;
I know not what we prattled of,
But suddenly I was aware.

It was as if a magic spell;
It was as if a lurking might,
That hovered there invisible,
Stooped and plucked me to a height.

Below, as ‘mid an ambush spread,
One moment with our lighted room,
The four of us were islanded
In an unfathonmable gloom.

Till now at last, I could behold
What on our solitude we press:
It is our dear ones smile we fold
About our spirits’ loneliness,—

That desolate the soul must mourn;
And seeing this, I wondered why
So lonely is each being born;
And lonely does each being die.

Now light that leaped from every glance
Was gathered, as by lens are rays:
Until I saw, as in a trance,
The room had burst into a blaze.

I saw it all! I saw the room!
I saw the sudden blaze now made
Against the Dark (with lust for Doom)
A flimsy, match-box barricade.

O lips and eyes that kindle glory!
O lovely respite that I’ve won!
O protest that is transitory!
Brief refuge from oblivion!

O little room with little might!
O tiny evanescent spark!
I see you, see you, as my bright,
Final defense against the Dark!

Louis Ginsberg’s vision is both sincere and impassioned; it is equal parts brightness and horror, as the poet and his loved family strangely blaze up against the dark.  The poem’s iambic tetrameter is forceful enough to present the lyric as a dense, burning moment in time.  There is intimacy and genuine feeling, and when the poet says, “I saw it all! I saw the room!” we see it, too, if we read the poem (and hear the lyric) with sympathy.

By contrast—and this is the famous son’s best known short poem—“A Supermarket in California” rejects the vision of the small and intimate family space for a much wider vision that revels in celebrity:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Allen Ginsberg’s vision is quite close to his father’s: we have dark and light, family, loneliness and despair.

Louis Ginsberg is alone with his vision, even though he is in the presence of his real family.

Allen Ginsberg has no family, but he is not lonely, for his “father” and companion is the dead, celebrated poet, Walt Whitman.  Ginsberg, the son, has no family and stands apart from the world of “whole families” shopping in the bounty of the California supermarket–and the son’s poem stretches out in the nonchalant pacing of homeless wandering with a much more subtle music; lacking rhyme, it relies on the similarity of multi-syllabic words: “enumerations,” “penumbras,” “families,” “bananas,” “corridors.”  But the supermarket must close, and Whitman’s death is depicted mythologically as the bookish poet (“I touch your book”) finds comfort in bookish phrases: “we will stroll dreaming of the lost America of love…”  Iconography is key to Ginsberg’s poem: Whitman, Lorca, America, Charon.  The “childless, lonely old grubber” has nothing but imagined icons and vague history attached to those icons (“lost America of love”) to comfort him.

Both poems are bursts of pathos and morose feeling, with stark contrasts of light and dark; the father’s poem is a pure lyric, a song from the heart, a vision stark and simple, while the son’s prose meditation, surpassing the father’s in subtle humor and painting, bathes in self-conscious celebrity and bookishness as a stay against the dark.

Let’s look at two more poems.  First, by Allen, the son:

An Asphodel

O dear sweet rosy
unattainable desire
…how sad, no way
to change the mad
cultivated asphodel, the
visible reality…

and skin’s appalling
petals–how inspired
to be so lying in the living
room drunk naked
and dreaming, in the absence
of electricity…
over and over eating the low root
of the asphodel,
gray fate…

rolling in generation
on the flowery couch
as on a bank in Arden–
my only rose tonite’s the treat
of my own nudity.

The poet’s “desire” is contrasted with “the cultivated,” and though “unattained,” the “desire” still finds some consolation in the poet’s “own nudity,” as he lies in the dark, plant-rooted, yet petal-soft.

Louis Ginsberg’s poem is also about flowers, and the protagonist of the poem is also lying down:

The Artist Wins Success

Thus he, whose body Beauty broke,
Possesses now a surer stroke.
His body underneath the dew
Holds brighter palettes than he knew;
For he, who lies beneath this hill,
Faultlessly tints a daffodil;
With bluest sky he painted yet,
He brushes in a violet.
And now, a perfect artist, he
Can flood with green a little tree;
And surely now at last he knows
The perfect shading of a rose.

The conceit is not entirely original, and it might have been executed with more subtlety, perhaps, but this poem has plenty of charm and grace, as the artist “wins success” in death, joining nature in shading the flowers above him.

Father and son often err in ‘telling too much’ in their poems; both poets are morosely brilliant, almost to a hurtful degree, highly passionate and sensual, and they each show the ability to find optimism in suffering.

If we are not too besotted with “the modern” and Allen Ginsberg’s fame, we really ought to appreciate these two poets together—the father, though a little awkward, has stengths that wonderfully compliment the son’s.

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