The way to see a star is to attend to its ray.

We may be loved for our ray–our poetry, for instance–and not our star–our physique and face.

The civilized cultivates the ray.

So what is poetry? What is poetry’s ray? A ray can say a lot of different things as we analyze its spectrum.

In this spirit, observe this comparison, which has nothing to do with poetry, per se (star) but illustrates a truth about poetry (ray).

The newest airplane will be better than an airplane made fifty years ago.

The newest poem will most likely not be better than a poem made two thousand years ago.

Do we need to go further, and ask why recent airplanes improve in ways that recent poems do not?  Is it because airplanes are practical objects and poems are not?  Or, that airplanes have a measurable practical use and poems do not? 

It is good to realize that we perhaps err in pursuing this line of reasoning, for it takes us away from the ray and back to the star: the poem as object.  To compare the physical poem to the physical airplane would make us blind, would wreck ourselves upon a star.  The critic moth would die in the poem’s flame.

Can we assume poems serve no practical use?  No, we cannot.

But can we still ask the question: are poems practical—but unable to improve, or: do they not improve—precisely because they are not practical?  Since airplanes do improve, are old airplanes worthless in a way that old poems are not?  To those interested in airplanes, old airplanes do have value, just as old poems interest those who are interested in poetry; but old poems can do the work of new poems, and perhaps even better, but we cannot say this of old airplanes.

Is the practicality of something its ray?

But if the poem is not practical, does that mean it has no ray for the poem-obsessed critic; if every star has a ray, what is the poem’s ray?  Can we say the poem’s impracticality is its ray?   That is, is its ray its essential difference from airplanes?

How do we know the airplane improves?  We need to place the airplane of yesterday beside the airplane of today. Without this comparison, we could never comprehend from outside the improvement itself, and without building on the old model, the newer model could not improve.

Since poetry does not improve, is it necessary to compare new and old poems? 

It is necessary to build on old models if we are building airplanes, since we build new airplanes for practical improvements, guided by that reality; comparing old and new poems only shows us the truth that poems do not improve. 

In order to be informed of this fact—that poems do not improve—we compare old and new poems—and this does seem to be an important truth about poetry that we would be foolish to ignore. Since gaining an understanding of improvement is only possible by comparing old and new models, poems still need to be compared, in hopes that one day we will notice improvement.  So the critic compares old and new—just as the airplane builder does—only the airplane builder builds towards a different, practical result; the airplane builder receives “good news,” while the critic keeps getting “bad news;” the result for poetry up to the present time revealing that new models are not improving.

A poem becomes a poem when “it works,” to steal a phrase from the New Critics, and the poet surely is aware when the poem has gone from beginning to completion, as an object—or is this vanity?  Is the truth really that we are never sure the poem flies in someone else’s judgment—even if they praise it?  Words are elusive; even when someone hears our words and obeys, the circumstances, not the words, finally contribute to the obedient result.  The airplane builder, however, can measure the speed of an airplane, and be certain the airplane has been improved upon. 

Even on the micro-level, then, of poet and his poem-object (his “star”) the “ray,” (truth) shines forth: the poem’s worth is mysterious.

But to return to the examination of poetry’s ray; we might go so far as to state it thusly: the poem does have a practical use, and poets over time are incompetent, or: poems simply have no practical use.

Might something have a practical use, be manufactured, and yet never improve? 

But how is this possible?  Even something as simple as a ladder can be improved upon.

Or, does poetry improve, but in such a manner that steady, visible improvements over time do not occur?

Or is it possible that poetry is large and complex enough, or belongs to something so large and complex, that over time it changes what it is, so that its practical character changes? 

Human communication is practical, but its practicality is ubiquitous and vast, such that improvement is not in its nature—in order to belong across so many fields to so many, the many interacting with the many cannot suffer itself to improve as a practical reality.

If poetry belongs to the great river of human communication in a manner that is not defined, we would expect its fate to be the same as language—improvement over time simply doesn’t happen, in the way we can observe the airplane improve during a relatively brief window of time.

Poetry does not improve, and would seem to belong to the other arts in this regard, painting and music, unless we think of a film as painting (or photography) improved.

Another “ray” observation:  Painting, music and poetry can vary widely in terms of excellence and accomplishment; it is a mystery how broad differences can exist between aesthetic objects—yet improvement over time never occurs.

Is poetry like human beauty, then?  Beautiful creatures have always existed, but the quality of beauty itself never increases.  Beautiful faces have certain measurements, but beauty itself cannot be measured; aesthetics contains the substance of measure, but deflects measured results.

If we give up on the star (unknown) but study the ray (known, but indirectly) we find ourselves in accord with the following: Plato, the ancient Athenian, and the modern Athenians, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Edgar Poe.


Meg Kearney: is she the victim?

Here is the Franz Wright letter generating all the controversy:

Meg Kearney, in response to your invitation, insinuating I would like the writing program at Pine Manor: you have to be shitting me—have I not made it clear that MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation and a joke—have weakened american poetry, have desecrated it into artifact instead of a result of a soul’s progress in solitary devotion. You have turned it into one more subject in a university or college or private scam operation like yours. Everyone from no talent unknowns to Chs Simic, C Wright, Levine, Strand, etc (those magnificently promising poets born in the late twenties and thirties who sold their souls to the deans for an upper middle class lifestyle —phony radicals, hypocrites all, like Carolyn Forche, live in a luxury unimaginable to the human beings they play act solidarity with can make it if you imitate whatever ephemeral bullshit is hip at the moment —a real writer has always sought solitude, not group therapy…Those writing programs have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree and consider themselves A MASTER AT THE ART OF POETRY at 24 (a feat previously achieved in English only by Keats, H. Crane…any MFA subdoormat poet, like Melanie Braverman, by being a nice mommie can succeed at a school like Brandeis because real talent means nothing now—a business sense plus niceness is all…and the actual talent there, Olga Broumas,  who sold herself for health insurance maybe fifteen years ago, has not published a book since her collected, RAVE, in 1999, a disaster. How many actual poets can one generation, even a standout one produce?  We now have more writers than readers of poetry, we have ACADEMIC POETS AS THE GREAT ASPIRATION OF 21 YEAR OLD KNOW-NOTHINGS, the very enslavement real writers have been fleeing forever: you have only to picture Rimbaud or Blake in a writing workshop, they’d be out of this absurd scene (lovely line breaks, Billie) ready to slip into harness, ready to desecrate the art they claim to love and their own soul their own minds & hearts, —and YOU all get the dough. Think of the state of the soul and just cut it out. You can still choose. Franz Wright

The general response to FW’s letter has been, predictably, ‘oh how mean!’ or this one from Diane Seuss:

it’s a Republican view, yours, isn’t it, exclusivist, backward-gazing­, nostalgic for a time when there were three great men sucking at poetry’s tit-sack and not a million…

Actually, we think Franz Wright’s response is extremely fine: he goes out of his way to explain why he is refusing Meg Kearney’s invitation, instead of just saying, no.  It’s really a positive: a Pulitzer-prize winner taking the time to express his deeply-felt opinion on an issue he considers vital to poetry.

We cannot help but notice that every Franz-basher ignores the simple truth of what he says.

MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation…one more subject in a university…a private scam operation like yours

Simic, C. Wright, Levine, Strand…sold their souls to the deans for an upper middle class lifestyle

phony radicals, hypocrites

a real writer has always sought solitude not group therapy

writing programs have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree and consider themselves Master at the Art of Poetry at 24 (a feat achieved in English previously only by Keats, H. Crane)

any MFA subdoormat poet, like Melanie Braverman, by being a nice mommie can succeed at a school like Brandeis because real talent means nothing now—a business sense plus niceness is all

Olga Broumas sold herself for health insurance maybe fifteen years ago

How many poets can one generation, even a standout one, produce?

We now have more writers than readers of poetry

We have Academic Poets as the great aspiration for 21 year old no-nothings

picture Rimbaud or Blake in a writing workshop

this absurd scene and YOU get all the dough

Think of the state of the soul and just cut it out

These are perfectly legitimate grievances, and there’s quite a lot of material, and some of it quite well said, and if these things are true, they are quite important, and really should be addressed.  Are they true?  Well, they are the opinion of Mr. Wright, and stand up as that, and anyone should be able to see their “free speech” aspect is more important than their “ill-mannered” aspect.

If poetry is being so badly taught  in MFA programs that poetic expression is being irreversibly harmed and students scammed, who better to address the issue than a Pulitzer-prize winning poet?  Who else is going to blow the whistle?  The teachers, the programs, the schools themselves?  We understand “scam” is a strong word—but if seen in the context of critical judgment (rather than a cruder accusation of outright scamming) the charge, we think, is maintainable.

Wright’s point is based on the fact that poetry is not something that anyone can learn in a few years.

A little poetry knowledge is a dangerous thing if bad poetry taught badly does delude and harm people.

The issue is pedagogical, and it certainly can be argued that teaching poetry is not value-neutral, but harmful if not done right, and therefore Wright’s warning should not be simply dismissed on the count of ‘bad manners.’  One can disagree with Wright about the worth of Keats v. Kearney, but if his opinion is correct, what he has to say is  important and useful.

Let’s take a look at a poem by Meg Kearney:


I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,
like the one I saw today with the ass end of a mouse
jutting from its mouth. I was in the park;
I’d followed the stare of a dog, marveled
as the dog seemed to marvel that the squirrel
didn’t gag on the head, gulped so far down
that squirrel’s throat nearly all that was visible
was the grey mouse rump, its tail a string
too short to be saved. The dog and I couldn’t
stop gawking. The squirrel looked stunned himself —
the way my ex, The Big Game Hunter, looked
when I told him I was now a vegetarian.
We’d run into each other at a street fair
in Poughkeepsie. The hotdog he was eating
froze in his hand, pointed like a stubby finger,
accused me of everything I’d thought
I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.

This poem opens with vagueness, “I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,” and it just gets worse.  Line 7’s “that squirrel’s throat” gives the mistaken impression the poet is calling the squirrel of the poem”Squirrel,” as if it were a cartoon (Rocky and Bullwinkle?).  All those “I’ds?”  Horrendous.  The poet reading a dog’s thoughts is ridiculous, and the preachy vegetarian angle involving the ex (who is stunned like the squirrel??) and the hotdog forces not only a moral down our throats, but an entire ugly poem, stretching to make its point.  Is the poet trying to make the reader gag?  I can see the anthology: Poems That Make Us Vomit.  Or: Poets Who Really Hate Their Ex.

So here’s the problem.  Meg Kearney’s poem is not accomplished.  It’s poor writing.  Should we be paying for this, or paying for this kind of thing to be taught?

So Franz Wright may certainly be ill-mannered in this instance, but in terms of aesthetics and pedagogy, he may just be right.


Ezra Pound: Did a fatal error cripple the Modernist revolution?

Poetry today is in the worst state imaginable: 1) not popular, 2) not respected, and 3) not understood. 

“Not popular” would not hurt so much if poetry were respected, and “not respected” would not hurt so much if poetry were understood—by even a few! But, alas…

If something is neither popular, respected, or understood, the game is up.  It’s time to walk away. 

But hold on.  Poetry does exist and everyone knows it when they experience it, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  But poetry now is like an act of nature: it’s a nice thing, a useful thing, it exists, but, amazingly, it eludes institutional or human knowledge. 

There are two issues:

1) isolating poetry from what resembles it (prose, fragments, ordinary speech) and

2) creating poetry from what it should resemble (beauty, intelligence, inspiration, song). 

Now, what happens when 1) and 2) are reversed? 

What happens when poetry is created from prose and isolated from beauty?

The Modernist revolution, of course.

As Pound complained of “beauties” of the “deceased” in his revolutionary 1929 New York Herald Tribune article:

Literary instruction in our “institutions of learning” was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is. Certain more or less mildly exceptional professors were affected by the “beauties” of various authors (usually deceased), but the system, as a whole, lacked sense and co-ordination. I dare say it still does.

One can see the Modernist advantage: poetry does resemble prose, and prose is readily available to us.  But Beauty?  That’s harder to define.  One can see superficially how the Modernist revolution would, without much effort, succeed.

But what does one notice about this revolution?   Two things.    The great reversal was 1) radical (thus it was called a revolution) and 2) practical:  poetry is now closer to prose

The advocates and beneficiaries (there are a few) of the Modernist revolution, and probably everyone else, would agree this is what essentially occured as the 20th century unfolded: the reversal of 1) and 2). 

Against all odds, Ezra Pound took on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—and won.

The Modernist revolution apparently did something good.  Or did it?

It did not.  And why?   Because the reversal of 1) and 2) was not beneficial.  The reason is simple—so obvious that we’ve all missed it.

Formal poetry has as much prose as free verse. 

Prose is not really the issue at all.

By assuming otherwise, we “see” a “revolution” where there is really none.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Here are two examples.  The first is from “The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Poe, the second is the entirety of “The Red Wheel Barrow” (1923) by William Carlos Williams. 

Poe was an astute grammarian—and the correct use of commas helps his passage surge forward as a creative piece of prose.

Is the Williams more interesting as prose?   Does it seem more like real speech?


When we compare Poe’s iconic 19th century poem—supposedly the fussy verse the Vers Libre Modernists were rebelling against—to an iconic piece of Modernism, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” we find something odd: the Williams poem is not moving towards ease of prose or speech; compared to the Poe, the Williams poem evinces neither interesting verse nor interesting prose

Williams presents his tiny poem (in the spread-out way we usually see it) as if it were a billboard looming over Times Square, or as if he didn’t understand how to use commas and therefore subsituted white space. 

The Poe is a far better example of good prose writing, and of good writing, period.  The singular feature of the revolutionary Modernist poem is a kind of lame ekphrasis or a lame version of Pound’s phanopoeia—jokey, superficial, childish.   Are Pound’s “institutions of learning” meant to teach good prose—or unorthodox word-arrangement? 

So where is this “reversal” between Romantic poems of verse/beauty and Modernist poems of speech/prose? 


It didn’t really happen at all. 

But what happens if we all go on thinking it did?

The current train wreck of contemporary poetry?

Wordsworth’s advocacy of plain speech always rang hollow; the Modernists have been guilty of the same thing.

The problem isn’t that there really wasn’t a Modernist revolution—the problem is that we believe and act as if there were a Modernist revolution.  We somehow believe that Shakespeare and Shelley and Milton and Poe wrote poetry burdened by the fact that it wasn’t prose and that the Modernist revolution freed us from this burden by putting prose into poetry.

But prose was always in poetry.

If we ask which era best turned prose into poetry, we would probably point to the “Shakespeare through Tennyson” era, but then we’d point out that the Modernists were better at turning poetry into prose.  But from our Poe/Williams example above, we see this isn’t true: the great formalists, it could be said, not only turned prose into poetry, they also turned poetry into prose—since their poems triumph as great works of prose.  In fact, there is no difference: the good poet will always do both.   The Modernists did not lead a revolution of making poetry more like prose—because the finest prose always inhabits successful formalist poetry.

And as far as “speech,” goes, Byron, the Romantic, wrote poetry closer to speech than Williams, the Modernist, and good actors can make the elevated language of Shakespeare sound like speech. A mixture of high and low will generally prevail in dramatic poetry, in any age, whether for the stage, or not.

This is surely why there was a sudden frenzy on the part of the Modernists, mid-way through their (failed) revolution to emphasize “difficulty.” The Modernists must have felt (if not known) the error of their vers libre ways, and looked about for something else to fuel the revolution that was dying a slow Imagiste death.  The institutionally-connected New Critics arose, rescuing the revolution of Pound and Williams with the New Critical smokescreen of “ironies” and “close-reading ” and “tension between prose and verse,” an attempt to win by surrendering, or hitting a target by missing it.  This distraction worked.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by two New Critics, got into all the high schools and GI Bill colleges. The revolution was saved.


The old Romantics whom the Moderns despise
Operate clandestinely in our skies,
Pray to Apollo, lie in long grass,
The happiest knights, beloved of a lass
Tender, smiling, and virtuous.
They care not if they use words
“Moony” and “bloomy.”
If Keats is not, why should you be gloomy?

Keats cannot be read all day.
His gemmy joy goes a long way,
But stay awhile in Keats’ thrall—
Next to Keats, Wallace Stevens is a goof-ball.
Hear Keats’ music and be content—
Otherwise an ass in your modern apartment.

True, not everyone can appreciate Keats,
They open their lips for lower treats;
They hunger and suffer to amuse
The devil who reads the news.
Not every lad can swoon, rarefied,
Or have I lied?


The Four Tops: Examined different meanings and the self-reflexive.

Oh, the heavy apparatus of learning poetry.

Lecturing for two hours on the difficult subject of poetry is easy—for the inspired professor.

“It’s the Same Old Song” was released (a hit song thrown together in a few minutes) by the Four Tops in 1965, when the avant-garde professor and Language poet Charles Bernstein was a pimply kid at Bronx High School of Science.  In 1965, New Critics Ransom, Tate and Brooks were still hotshots.  But the Four Tops were part of a popular rock music renaissance at its pure Romanticism height—it was as if Byron and Shelley were back, and the fusty New Critics were suddenly killed off.

Here’s a lyric sampling of The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song:”

It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone

A New Critic could lecture for hours and never summarize as nicely both the self-reflexive and the mutable aspect of meaning in poetry—especially since New Criticism pushed the idea that unchangeable meaning resided within the authoritative text.  But as the simple pop song attests, meaning does not reside in the mechanics of the text.  A “different meaning” can reside in a text, depending on outside circumstances.  Things outside the text are crucial, and may be so in a completely counter-intuitive manner.  The anti-Romantic New Critics got it wrong.

It’s embarrassing to admit that it’s possible for those who do not read poetry to understand it with as much nuance and precision as those who study the genre. It leads us to wonder how much teaching of poetry is a waste and a vanity, since snapping one’s fingers for two minutes can produce the same result.

But pride will interfere. Students of the muse, invested in the apparatus of education and learning, those historians and theorists, those deans and provosts, those professors and financial aid officers, even those janitors that vacuum the carpets of the long, hushed halls, will manage to see to it that the walls between the ignorant and the enlightened are secure.  The lectures and the classes and the workshops and the readings and the publications will go on. The real poet will keep vanity afloat.

It is with the gentlest remonstration that we dare to raise the topic of poetic vanity, for we realize the difficulty the professor of poetry faces: how to fill up that hour or two which the curriculum and the classroom and the credentialing policies demand?  The assembled students, who dragged themselves from their ill-heated dorm rooms at seven in the morning, facing mounting debt and an uncertain future, require teaching, and

It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone

is the essence of it all, which they already implicitly understand.  But you can’t just send them back to their dorms.  Expectations must be met, especially if everyone is to get paid.

So what shall the students of poetry be taught?

As soon as poetry ceases to be mere verse, it changes into something else, and whether we think of modern poetry as philosophy or prose, it will never be called that by the poets.  Going backwards—to verse—is impossible; it’s too late for that, and going forward, it cannot be called fiction or prose or philosophy; it needs to be called poetry, and this defensive posture is all that drives the poet into the uncertain future. 

Was it an accident that the 20th century revolution in English-speaking poetry was accompanied by the rise of New Criticism?  No, for the Modern Poets and the New Critics essentially belonged to the same clique: the New Critics were merely the American (and soon the American University) counterparts of Eliot and Pound.  As Romanticism faded and was replaced by Modernism, a couple of things happened: the Poet went from being a Romantic hero, an interesting human being in his own right, to something vaguely tweedy and clownish (“Prufrock”), a quoter of poetry, rather than a poet.  And then it was decided, for the sake of pride perhaps, that “close-reading” was the key to poetry, and that all outside elements, including the poet’s identity, were irrelevant.

The poets have struggled with this ever since—trapped inside the difficult text, they no longer can articulate who the poet is, who the reader of poetry is, or what virtues and advantages actually pertain to poetry.  It is no accident that during this period, the poem which existed solely for the sake of love and beauty vanished, and Eliot, Pound, and the New Critics attacked the heirs of Shakespeare: Poe and the Romantic poets.

As Shakespeare put it in a way that needs no “close-reading:”

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.



John Ashbery: Was Plato right?  Are the best poets crazy?

You know it will happen: the inevitable revulsion: the coy poem that doesn’t mean anything, but washes over us with a million possible meanings, will, very soon, one day, make us sick, and post-modernism will become our vomitorium.

Let’s cast our eye on just part of an Ashbery poem (he won’t mind):

Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
At each new parting of the ways. Pastel
Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
“It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?”
Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: “If his
Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
I have to stay here while they sit in there,
Laugh, drink, have fine time.

(from “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” J. Ashbery)

It is a truism that art and life are mathematical: “She Loves You” is more interesting than “I Love You” because the former contains three souls and the latter contains two.  Yet, as regards love lyrics, two might be a more popular number than three.

Love, mostly, is a number.  When poetry once had a certain amount of respect among the learned, back in the 19th century, it was sometimes referred to as numbers.  Art and measurement were practically the same thing for two thousand years. Science has stuck to measurement, but art, over the last 150 years or so, has—and there can be no doubt—consciously rebelled.

If we read this line—from the Ashbery excerpt above—in a hurry, it might sound to us like an interesting piece of mathematical love-song-manship:

“Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”

Philosophically, one needn’t argue with “everything:” in love’s world, everything rings the lover’s bells.  But in any case,”whether somebody reminds you of me” is a nice, measurable bite.  We have “you,” “me,” and “somebody else, ” the triad of love.  In the Beatles’ revolutionary parlance: I observe that she loves you.  No need to be greedy in basic love mathematics: going from two (I love you) to three is a profound enough leap.   And this is what love does to us, and one imagines Ashbery’s Romantic side knowing this, too: everything reminds us of the beloved, and if “somebody reminds you of me,” for the sake of love, that’s good for the “me.”  If love’s peril creeps in here, too: the blurring of one person for the other (“somebody” is like “me”) disturbing the lover’s unique identity—that’s OK, we all know how complicated it gets when we begin counting from “one.”

But look at what happens in Ashbery’s poem; minor complication quickly becomes major. Ashbery abandons the mathematical phrase with all its possibilities of love, for pure nonsense:

That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.

Now we are in la-la land.  One could admire this (certainly it is more complex than “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me”) but for us it is a let-down; it points to Ashbery’s laziness; the matter of “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” is allowed to spill.  The poem is not building; it is dribbling what it had away.

It is not that Ashbery makes the phrase, “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me,” go away.  It is still there in the poem.  If the reader wants, they can pause and contemplate this delicious phrase.  As we move into the next lines, the possible meanings of Ashbery’s poem explode into the nearly infinite—and surely Ashbery is proceeding along such an arc intentionally; he is stirring up the stream on purpose; he’d rather not mine “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” for its meaning; it is allowed to do what it can on its own, which is a lot, depending on how much the reader wants to contemplate it.  But Ashbery has no intention of teasing out the meaning of this phrase for the reader. He is going to multiply his meanings with subsequent lines until there are literally billions of possibilities of meanings, just as one might simply string together random digits to produce a large enough pool of different social security numbers to fit a very large population.  Adding does not produce meaning.  Subtraction does.  Ashbery is not interested in meaning, because his poems continually add item after item in a way that is essentially random.

One could imagine a real person actually having this thought: “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”  It could mean a number of things, but it strongly evinces an emotional attachment between a “you” and a “me,” with “somebody” playing an interesting but subservient part.  Perhaps the abstract meaning that leaps to the front of the line is: that in order for me to be memorable to you, I (paradoxically) must participate in the identity of others (“somebody.”)Ashbery’s next lines do not grow out of this phrase in any sort of logical or dramatic way; they are merely additions, which expand (loosen) the field, rather than narrowing (defining) it.   Addition is a valid way to proceed, but it is a very particular way to proceed, and one which thwarts drama and meaning.

The New Critics make much of the whole poem’s meaning as the crucial thing: whether or not a particular line has meaning is not as important as what all the layers and parts of the poem add up to.  Ashbery, then, can use “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” as one part of his addition.

Adding creates the potential for meaning, but never creates meaning itself.

Ashbery does not mean.  He adds.

Is it the reader’s job to fit every part of the poem together?  Or the poet’s?

This question is not even fair to ask, because it is not a matter of reader versus poet.  This gets us into a false argument, along the lines of the “Affective Fallacy,” another in the long line of New Critical red herrings.

The real issue is “fit every part of the poem together.”  If all we have in the poem is addition, it becomes mathematically impossible to “fit the parts of the poem together,” and this is precisely what Ashbery does: he adds without fitting.

Ashbery, belonging to his Art for Art’s Sake school, is trying to escape the poem that means—the sort of poem that lacks art because all it essentially does is convey information which one could otherwise find in an encyclopedia.  Ashbery’s escape is a noble pursuit of art, but we wonder if the escape needs to be pursued quite so desperately.  Is Ashbery perhaps tunneling into bedlam?


Don’t find your voice—find the voice;
Write about what you’ll never know;
Pay attention to grammar;
Find the killer of Edgar Poe.

In your rhythm, imitate a hammer,
Or like a piano, be soft and slow;
Music by pupils is always too passive;
Show by selling; make sound your show.

Be kind to ancient poets:
Sailboats sail and rowboats row,
Restless seas still make us drown,
And moderns have nowhere to go.

Be prosaic and exact;
Shelley should be your foe:
This is bad advice.
Why they give it, I don’t know.

Take up your puppet, it’s dead.
Emotion gives art life;
A tiny smile on the Mona Lisa,
And will she be your wife?

Plato said, don’t trust art,
Plato said, art is mad,
Plato, of course, was a poet;
Agree with him, is that so bad?

Refined and sweet is the best,
In thought, in art, in life,
Why mesmerize with chaos?
Why give in to strife?

Yours, the neutral point of view,
You’re proud of your neutral group,
You gently mock the partisans,
As you gently slurp your soup.

Some are poets in spirit,
Some are poets for real,
Some are poetry critics,
Fine.  As long as you feel.

Life, of course, is a riddle;
You die if you don’t know.
You live if you know the answer,
As they laugh at you below.


New Critic John Crowe Ransom: the American face of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

All poets and critics do one of two things: mystify or clarify. 

The New Critics were mystics.  The mystic’s strategy is simple: “You may consider this, but not that.”   The mystic wants you to consider some interesting effect, but not the cause, not what links the cause to the effect, and not what is finally good about the whole thing. 

The clarifier will always ask: “How does the process work, from beginning to end, and whom does it benefit?” 

The mystic will say: It doesn’t matter what is good about this thing, but we shall closely examine it for the mere sake of its existence.

The mystic will be applauded for his patient and thorough scholarship; the clarifier will be rejected for being impertinent.

A typical New Critical document, “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt & Beardsley) insists that we focus on whether the poem “works” or not—and that we dismiss the authorial intention.  Let’s ignore one of the links in the chain, say the New Critics; focusing on the author, they say, belongs to psychology or history, not criticism—but why should calling something “psychology” or “history” be an excuse to reduce the tools available to the critic?  Surely, when a literary critic makes psychological or historical observations of a literary work, these observations belong to the critical examination of the literary work—how could it be otherwise? 

Categories—poem, poet, reader, history, psychology, form, content—are meant to organize, not limit

A child learning soccer is instructed to kick “through” the ball; the dynamics of any activity calls for a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

The New Critics do not get this.

Plato does.

From Plato’s “Ion:”

You are not master of any art for the illustration of Homer but it is a divine influence which moves you, like that which resides in the stone called Magnet by Euripides, and Heraclea by the people. For not only does this stone possess the power of attracting iron rings but it can communicate to them the power of attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of rings and other iron substances attached and suspended one to the other by this influence. And as the power of the stone circulates through all the links of this series and attaches each to each, so the Muse communicating through those whom she has first inspired to all others capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession. For the authors of those great poems which we admire do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own.  (translated by Percy B. Shelley)

Socrates surveys the whole field: “a long chain of [magnetic] rings.”

The New Critics had a different approach: the “chain” was rejected for one ring: the work.

It really takes very little to refute the New Critics, who spent the better part of the 20th century back-tracking, qualifying and apologizing for their famous theories—and it’s no wonder.  Poets are often marked by an individual style—recognizable in all their works; but how does a literary critic explain this by only focusing on the work?  Or, what of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition?” A poet shows what he wanted to do and how he did it.  Is this a “fallacy?” How can the “intention” here, even if flawed, be ignored?  What is a poem, if not an “intention?”  We could call the bloody things intentions instead of poems and it would more accurately describe what they are.  Surely poems are not random? 

To understand a poem, we would do quite well to work backwards from the poem to the authorial intention.  The movement along the chain of cause and effect, forwards and backwards, is the best way to explain any process.  The New Critics, however, would search for the “meaning” (their favorite word) within the poem itself, which is to ignore the arc and fall into an abyss of close-reading—especially since The New Critics believed meaning in a poem should occur indirectly.  The New Critic tends to have a mind like a swamp, not a clear, running stream—which is no surprise, given their passive focus on the poem: only one of the links in the great chain.

The New Critics would perhaps like it if we examined their Criticism in a manner similar to how they would have us examine a poem, but we intend to do no such thing; we should like to rather stand back from the process and enlighten our readers of the New Critics’ intention.   The New Critics were not interested in morals or principles; their strength and influence came from their anti-Soviet position—which favors a “chain” of command coming from the state: Here is the moral poem we, your Soviet leaders, want you to write; please write this moral poem so we might have a moral influence upon our citizens.  Thank you. 

By heroically opposing the “Soviet plan,” the New Critics belonged to a critical temper that opposed all plans, whether it was a plan by Socrates, Karl Marx or Edgar Allan Poe.  A plan has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the New Critics were only for the midde: damn the poet and damn the audience; let us say as many ironic and wacky things about “the text” as we can possibly say—thus triumphed the “Difficult School” and poets who were obscure, indirect, eccentric, learned, quirky, and downright crazy, perhaps—for only then could “the text” be “interesting” enough to open itself to fascinating “close-readings.”

But when the New Critics got down to actually doing their close-readings, the result was tedious in the extreme.  How was it they had nothing new to say about the poems of Keats and Donne?  Because the New Critics themselves existed only to oppose something: Soviet planning.  It has recently come to light that 20th century Modern Art was a C.I.A. propaganda operation by the freedom-loving, Capitalist West (and a successful one, at that) against Soviet Art.  Whether you buy this, or not, the larger point is that the New Critics ‘had a plan’ and indulged in a Criticism that ‘opposed plans,’ for as you pick through the influential New Critics’ rhetoric, it’s shocking to see how well…banal, amoral and empty it is.  And this, no doubt, was intentional.

There is a second crucial aspect to the New Critics—in addition to their l’art pour l’art, anti-Soviet planning character.  If the New Critic arguments are so easy to refute, why were they so influential, anyway?  Scarriet is just crazy enough to specialize in this kind of arcane knowledge—and we shall give you the secret.  There is more to the New Critcs than meets the eye; through their connections, they were chosen to change liberal studies programs in American higher education; in other words, their importance springs from the fact that millions of students became their “audience” almost overnight.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by a couple of New Critics, became the poetry textbook in high schools and colleges for half-a-century.  The New Critics were not influential due to their raw talent (as brilliant as they were); they seized upon authority in Education.  

Bear with us here: The New Critics’ ‘intentional fallacy’ fallacy sprang from their anti-Soviet Sovietizing of U.S. Academia. 

The New Critic blandness was perfectly in keeping with their role as academic policy-makers.  This explains the mystery of why the New Critics were at once 1) wildly popular and 2) strangely boring. 

The Creative Writing Program Era also sprang from the New Critics: Paul Engle was indebted to the New Critics, chosen for his 1932 Yale Younger by one of their circle.  Ransom’s late 30s essay “Criticism, Inc.,” pushes strongly for two things: 1) the “new writing” and 2) academia as the proper place for literary criticism—not, for instance, independent newspaper or magazine journalism.  In Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” the enemy is the English Department professor who teaches Keats.

Despite their gin-swilling Southern charm, despite their opposition to drab Soviet political-correctness, despite their high modernism, and their sexy l’art pour l’art sensibility, the New Critics were nerds, and finally too brainy and Romantic-hating for their own good. 

It’s easy to see why the New Critics resented the sexy Romantics—who, influenced by Plato, focused on the whole chain of poetry’s existence, including the unique poet, the cause of unique poetry.  (The hatred of the Romantics and Poe by the New Critics was extreme.) The New Critics  found themselves in charge of U.S. Higher Education in Letters and decided poetry did not belong to any chain of influence, but rather it belonged to “a text,” one fit for the examination table—poetry became, for the New Critics, their godfather T.S. Eliot’s “etherized patient.”

The New Critics were conservative, not only because the New Critics opposed the Russian Revolution, along with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—Eliot and Pound hated the Russians almost as much as they hated the Romantics—not only because the New Critics were explicit defenders of Old South values in the 1930s during their “I’ll Take My Stand” phase, and not only because the New Critics were academics—the New Critics attached themselves to the Right-wing European Modernism of Pound and Eliot.  The whole thread of French 19th century avant-garde/20th century American avant-garde was, in many respects, a narrowing right-wing phenomenon, not a progressive left-wing one–and thus it makes sense that the modernist “New” Critics were reactionary.  But the paradoxical New Critics were also very American: their heirs are the professional writing programs that operate like businesses—in the name of  “open,” “progressive” art.

There is a lesson for all here: take the widest possible view. Move back and forth over the whole chain.

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