Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

8 Comments

  1. civilizeme said,

    October 27, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Addenda to the List:

    Pater, Conclusion to The Renaissance
    Graves, The White Goddess
    Brodsky, On Tyranny
    Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry
    Kuzmin, Concerning Beautiful Clarity
    Winters, The Testament of a Stone

  2. thomasbrady said,

    October 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Pater, I’ll save for later. Graves I’ll toss into the waves. Brodsky I will set free. Housman cannot win. Winters I’ll smash to splinters. Kuzmin? If I knew Russian, I might choose ’em.

    All joking aside, your list is a dream
    Of good and bad, like everything, civilizeme…
    They are added to the team!

  3. October 29, 2012 at 8:17 am

    What, no Ars Poetica, or Briefe an einen jungen Dichter? Dante’s Convivio would be more to the point of poetics. Poe’s theories of versification are interesting only as inspiration for Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and emetic for T.S. Eliot. I lost all interest in Mazer’s philosophastrical balderdash at its 2.4: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” In other words, the oilier the panderer, the greater his art.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    October 29, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Michael, I considered the Ars Poetica, but it always seemed to me a hodge-podge, a heap of clever anecdotes, and if you’ve read Plato, Aristotle and Pope, you don’t need Horace; it’s a matter of taste, I know; perhaps I find the Romans too preachy; or one must appreciate Horace in his Latin. Horace just missed the list, but since I was going with popularity as one criterion, perhaps he should have been included…the Horace is, I admit, a beacon of charm and common sense…

    As for Rilke, I was never that impressed with his Letters to a Young Poet.

    Poe, per usual, is underestimated here: Poe (the whole of him) is the classical feeding the modern; the bitter Baudelaire and the phlegmatic Mallarme’ merely represent avant-garde diminishment. Eliot didn’t so much vomit up Poe as secretly use him—for instance, Eliot’s famous chemistry analogy (the filament of platinum) from “Tradition” was carefully lifted from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse.” In the very beginning of “Rationale” is “Tradition” in a nutshell: “In chemistry, [Poe writes] the best way of separating two bodies is to add a third; in speculation, fact often agrees with fact…until an additional fact or argument sets everything by the ears.”

    Lastly, Mazer refers to “effect” in speaking of emotion; one could still be placid during composition; but in terms of “effect,” how could we have aesthetics without emotion? Is that possible?

    In sum, you have raised valid points.

    Appreciate your response,

    Tom

  5. Chaty Lorens said,

    October 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    No Jarrell? Goodness.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 30, 2012 at 2:24 am

      “End of the Line?” Yea, I like that essay. But is Jarrell in the top 30—of all time? I don’t think so…John Crowe Ransom taught both Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell (who were roomies at Kenyon)…Ransom is the man…sorry, he dwarfs both Jarrell and Lowell…IMHO Ransom has been ignored for too long…

      • Chaty Lorens said,

        October 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm

        Can’t comment on Ransom with the necessary conviction, but knowing what Jarrell has said of him I’ve no debate with you on the issue. It would seem, however, that the pupil may be as misunderstood and as underappreciated as his mater—keeping in mind that Ransom did consider Jarrell his brightest / best by far. Some compliment. I think Jarrell was one of the most ‘enthusiastic’ poetry critics of the last century. I’m not so good at stacking people up. Will follow-up on some of the noted recommendations and freshen up. It’s been awhile.

        • thomasbrady said,

          November 1, 2012 at 1:41 pm

          Jarrell belonged to the anxiety and panic of his age. He was brilliant, but finally too pessimisstically brilliant for his own good. I’ve got a couple of Jarrell’s essays in my copy of “Praising It New,” the anthology of New Critic writings which everyone should own. In “End of the Line,” Jarrell posits that Modernism is just an extension of Romanticism, even as he acknowledges the hatred for the Romantics evinced by the Modernists and New Critics. This is a theme I keep coming back to because it’s so true and it’s so ignored. Jarrell argues brilliantly but does not convince me that Modernism was just an extension of Romanticism at all. He also gets very gloom and doom, too: it’s all over—nothing new is possible. His other essay is a close-reading of Housman which is frankly, rather boring. Probably not his fault, though; he was doing this ‘close reading’ stuff to please his New Critic masters. Most ‘close-reading’ is tedious, show-offy crap.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: