AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 3

Was Frost a flarfist?  We’re guessing Silliman has no idea…
Ron Silliman is at it again.  When he takes a rare break from posting talking head videos on his blog and speaks directly to his audience, he’s a wonderful conduit for the know-nothing avant-garde—which has been quietly infesting our institutions of higher learning for the last 50 years.
It’s a deliberate championing of obscurity for obscurity’s sake, propelled by the gnawing envy of the unread on one hand and that intellectual faculty on the other that strives to make being unread a merit in itself.
It’s no accident that this “merit” grows in colleges—where students are the helpless audience (in need of a grade on a transcript) that bows to the playfully sweet will of the artsy-fartsy instructor who reduces learning to a kind of kindergarten “creativity.” This, more often than not, receives praise from the prisoner-student, the student happy to believe they are being “creative,” and needing that easy A.  Standards don’t matter because the “A” and the tuition paid get the job done.
The mistake Silliman and his tribe make is they assume the poetry of John Ashbery, for instance, is metadata: defined as data that provides information about other data.  This is a grave error, and it persists, in spite of, or because of, the error involved.
Memo to the Silliman-ites: The philosophy of Plato is metadata.  The poetry of Ashbery is not.
This distinction escapes them even while they beat the ground and raise a pretentious amount of dust—the merit of obscurity becoming its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
In his review of Richard Blanco’s inauguration poem, Silliman is forced out of his avant-garde cave for a moment and betrays that gnawing envy which grips his type when they are forced to grapple with anything that betokens democracy’s wide, daylight appeal.
Silliman’s entire commentary is a sneering revilement of the whole inaugural poetry event.  Blanco’s poem itself is not given the courtesy of a look.  Blanco is the “gluten-free, lo-cal version” of a genuine avant-garde representative.  All inaugural poems, in Silliman’s eyes, are “flarf.”  Every selection of an inaugural poet, according to Silliman, involves crass geographical politics. JFK wasn’t a real intellectual. JFK’s term was “idyllic” because there was no Fox News.  Everyone carps about the choices, but none should be heeded.  It would be a mistake to think these remarks of Silliman’s are “political.” They are merely dyspeptic.  We present his remarks below and you can judge for yourself.
The only attempt at offering something we can actually chew is Silliman’s passing mention of John Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” from that poet’s 1962 book, The Tennis Court Oath. 
Silliman imagines Rush & O’Reilly close-reading Ashbery’s “Europe” had Ashbery been selected.  Really?  Who in the mainstream would bother close-reading Ashbery?  Silliman knows CNN as well as Fox News wouldn’t bother.  The gushing praise of “Europe” below insinuates—as all praise of Ashbery does—that metadata is at hand; it’s not.
Europe is perhaps the most extreme example of Ashbery’s earlier, experimental work. He used extracts from “Beryl of the Biplane”, a 1917 children’s novel by Bernard LeQueux, for some of the text and mixed in a collage of images of phrases. Some would argue that this remarkable poem is an early example of the postmodern sensibility with its rejection of ‘meaning’ and a deliberate playfulness. Others would argue that it borrows heavily from a distinctly French tradition of juxtosposition and a strong interest in cinematic montage. Either way, reading it is a dizzying experience and Ashbery’s delight in the possibilities of language shines through.
The data is all Ashbery’s, even as he imports “extracts” from other works and brings us “collage” and “postmodern sensibility” and “French tradition,” all these terms brave attempts to manifest an air of metadata—which doesn’t really exist as such.  Plato’s philosophy, which influenced so profoundly the gigantic eras of Renaissance and Romantic explosions in art and science, can be defined as metadata: light streaming outward, “data providing information about other data;” Ashbery’s snippets of collage collect; they do not create.  The “information” in an Ashbery poem remains information in terms of the poem’s random nature.  There is no philosophy throwing light on other things; things connected to things in Asbhery are trivial connections; interesting, as of course sometimes trivia is, but never rising to the definition of metadata.
And we close with Silliman’s commentary:
The next time a poet is selected to perform a poem at a presidential inauguration on strictly literary grounds will be the first. The carping after Richard Blanco’s selection tells me more about those who complain than it does about Blanco. The same was true for those who bemoaned and belittled Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, James Dickey &, I dare say, Robert Frost. One might make the case that Frost was selected for his pre-eminence as an American icon of poetry, but one should keep in mind that JFK was a president who understood the value – in his idyllic pre-Fox News single term – of positioning himself as an intellectual, garnering a Pulitzer for a ghost-written volume of pop history & preferring in his own time to read James Bond novels. Ian Fleming may qualify as a heavyweight alongside whatever the Bushies read, but when Kennedy got together with Marilyn Monroe, it wasn’t the president who was the serious reader in the room. And there never has been a white male inaugural poet who wasn’t selected at least partly as a play on the regional card to boot: New England, Georgia, Arkansas.
 
I don’t know what anyone expects from an inaugural poem – the entire premise seems utterly cringe-worthy to me – but signaling a broader inclusiveness in the American project is hardly a bad idea unless you’re one of the old white guys for whose vote Mitt Romney was campaigning.  Since the resulting poems tend toward flarf, perhaps the ideal might be some carved-up-blend of K Silem Mohammad, Judy Grahn & Simon Ortiz. In a sense, Blanco may just be the gluten-free lo-cal version of that. It might be more fun to imagine the field day Rush & O’Reilly would have had close-reading “Europe” had John Ashbery been selected, but really is it any different? With the exception of LBJ, every Democratic president for the past half century has used the occasion to signal that poetry is inside the tent, just as every Republican has spoken far louder through its absence.
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AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 2

poetry-banner

The World to the Poet: Who the hell are you?

Alexandra Petri, on her Washington Post blog, had the following to say about poetry, and it does pack a certain punch:

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco said that America’s story is his story.

If that’s the case, America should be slightly concerned. Mr. Blanco is a walking example of the American dream — as he eloquently puts it, “the American story is in many ways my story — a country still trying to negotiate its own identity, caught between the paradise of its founding ideals and the realities of its history, trying to figure it out, trying to ‘become’ even today — the word “hope” as fresh on our tongues as it ever was.”

He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.

I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward over, wheezing noisily, with our family gathered around looking concerned and asking about our stereos.

Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?

Can a poem still change anything?

I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer. There are about six people who buy new poetry, but they are not feeling very well. I bumped very lightly into one of them while walking down the sidewalk, and for a while I was terrified that I would have to write to eleven MFA programs explaining why everyone was going to have to apply for grants that year. The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit. One of the poems, if memory serves, consisted of a list of names of Supreme Court justices. I am not saying that it was a bad poem. It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.

Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.

Or is this too harsh?

We know, we think, from high school, the sort of thing a poem is. It is generally in free verse, although it could be a sonnet, if it wanted. It describes something very carefully, or it makes a sound we did not expect, and it has deep layers that we need to analyze. We analyze it. We analyze the heck out of it. How quaint, we think, that people express themselves in this way. Then we put it back in the drawer and go about our lives.

The kind of poetry they read to you at poetry readings and ladle in your direction at the Inaugural is — well, it’s all very nice, and sounds a lot like a Poem, but — it has changed nothing. No truly radical art form has such a well-established grant process.

I understand that this is the point when someone stands up on a chair and starts to explain that poetry is the strainer through which we glimpse ourselves and hear the true story of our era. But is it? You do not get the news from poems, as William Carlos Williams said. Full stop. You barely get the news from the news.

All the prestige of poetry dates back to when it was the way you got the most vital news there is — your people’s stories. “The Iliad.” “The Odyssey.” “Gilgamesh.” All literature used to be poetry. But then fiction splintered off. Then the sort of tale you sung could be recorded and the words did not have to spend any time outside the company of their music if they did not want to. We have movies now that are capable of presenting images to us with a precision that would have made Ezra Pound keel over. All the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better. But naturally we still have government-subsidized poets. Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.

“Poetry is dead,” playwright Gwydion Suilebhan tweeted Monday. “What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.” There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned. What is left? It is a parroting of something that used to be radical. It is about as useful as the clavichord. There is no “Howl” possible or “Song of Myself.” There is no “The Waste Land.”

As someone who loves print books, I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. It is something that you read in school and that you write in school. But it used to be that if you were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Words, you darted off and wrote poetry somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.

These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it. But if you want a lot of people to read it, or at least the Right Interested Persons, there are a few choked channels of Reputable Publications. Or you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks.

Or am I being too harsh?

Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.

And whenever people say this about journalism, they note that people have an insatiable hunger for news. Journalism in its present form may not continue, but journalism will. It will have to. Otherwise where will the news come from?

And this might be the silver lining for poets. The kind of news you get from poems, as William Carlos Williams has it, must come from somewhere. And there is a similar hunger for poetry that persists. We get it in diluted doses in song lyrics. Song lyrics are incomplete poems, as Sondheim notes in the book of his own. If it is complete on the page, it makes a shoddy lyric. But there is still wonderful music to be found in those words. We get it in rap. If we really want to read it, it is everywhere. Poetry, taken back to its roots, is just the process of making — and making you listen.

But after the inaugural, after Richard Blanco’s almost seventy lines of self-reflection and the use of phrases like “plum blush” — which sounded like exactly what the phrase “poem” denotes to us now — I wonder what will become of it.

I don’t know where the words that will define us next will come from. But from Poetry Qua Poetry With Grants And Titles? Hope may be as fresh on our tongues as it ever was.  But is poetry?

Here’s probably the most damning observation, because it’s specific, mundane, and true:

The last time I stumbled upon a poetry reading, the attendees were almost without exception students of the poet who were there in the hopes of extra credit.

About fifty years ago, the production of poetry entered college—and is still there.

This quote is troubling, too, but less so, since it is not really specific, mundane, and true, so much as speculation about the way poetry used to be.

Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.

Poetry will always exist in a misty past with names like Homer and Dante and Shakespeare hovering and glowing, and a more recent past with names like Whitman (yawping in that mist) and Dickinson (whispering).  As recently as the ’60s, we had the iconic Robert Frost reading at the Kennedy inauguration.  That’s in the misty mist, too. Fame hangs back in the past, accusing—with its haunting voice like the sound of many waters—poetry today.

Petri’s chief complaint, however is this: “Can a poem still change anything?” and here we get the revolutionary Marxist angle:

As someone who loves print books, I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong. I want to hear the case for poetry. It is something that you read in school and that you write in school. But it used to be that if you were young and you wanted to Change Things with your Words, you darted off and wrote poetry somewhere. You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution. Now that is the last thing you do.

Talking revolution in cafes?   Really?  This is what poetry is for Petri?

When she writes, “These days, poetry is institutionalized. Everyone can write it,” doesn’t she know about communism’s “long march through the institutions,” or that “everyone can write” “revolutionary” sentiments, too.   When she identifies poetry with “revolution” and “change,” her critique becomes even more quaint, if that’s possible, than poetry, her subject.

Sure, “change” may be what we want, but when it’s characterized by “You got together with friends at cafes and you wrote verses and talked revolution,” she’s pumping mist into mist.

Petri, in romanticing “barbaric yawp,” probably doesn’t realize what a bookworm Whitman was, and that as far as his fame goes, he was barely read for years in America, and his reputation was rescued by other bookworms (Emerson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, F.O. Matthiessen, numerous college professors) and there was no “revolutionary” meetings in “cafes” when it came to Whitman.

Scarriet readers are up-to-speed on all of this.  Here’s just one recent example (note the use of actual poems):

Edna Millay and Edgar Lee Masters: They Suck!

Petri wants “change,” but how does she know poetry doesn’t exist to prevent “change?”  Is change, willy-nilly, all the time, what we want?

Now let us look at a typical MFA graduate’s rebuttal to Petri:

Dear Alexandra Petri,

I am writing in response to your attack on American poetry  in your Washington Post blog today.  Throughout your piece, you forward assumptions based on your own lack of exposure and allow these to stand as truth. I know it is just an opinion blog, but people have been convinced by less, and despite your “blog voice,” I sense you might really believe what you are saying. I will also assume you are sincere in stating: “I hate to type this and I hope that I am wrong.” So I am glad to let you know that poetry is fine. In fact, it is thriving. Let’s look at your charges:

“You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?”

Your generalization does not specify what kind of “change” you mean. Literal political change? That’s what you go on to suggest. Along with “revolution.”

Be serious. Congress can barely do that. Look what hell the president has to go through to do anything. But you attack American poets. You name none of them except the one you happened to see on TV, and you suggest his whole career is irrelevant to everyone because it is irrelevant to you. And apparently it is irrelevant to you because he does not live up to some high school ideal.

A requirement of political change is too much to ask of any artist. Kurt Vonnegut said in 2003: “every respectable artist in this country was against the war [in Vietnam]. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

There’s also Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky: “Ever since art has existed, mankind has always strived to influence the world through it. But on the whole it has always failed to have much social or political effect. I think now, looking around me and also looking back, art cannot really affect social development. It can only influence the development of minds. It can work on our intelligence and on our spirit. But for changing things, there are greater social forces than art. After all, practically all human endeavor has as its aim the changing of the world.” (thanks Jason Bredle)

You claim poetry isn’t “vital.” I will try to explain. A sponge and dish soap are vital to me because they make change in the kitchen. To me, at least, poetry is vital because it has a similar effect on the life of my mind. Robert Frost, who read at JFK’s inauguration, once said that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost never enacted legislation. But he continues to provide clarity. Poetry is very helpful to people for whom superstition is not enough.

More than 2,000 books of poetry are published each year in the U.S. But how many of these did you account for before making your harsh judgments? Have you read Timothy Donnelly? Anne Carson? D.A. Powell? Rae Armantrout? Dana Levin? Nathaniel Mackey? That’s off the top of my head. Here are forty from last year alone. And thirty from the year before that. And the year before that. I could go on.

Poetry changes things every day for many thousands of people in this country. (You claim “six.” I guess that is a “joke.”) So many of these poets are devoted not only to their craft, but to publishing magazines, to starting presses, to finding their way in a thriving, diverse, multifaceted, multi-talented, international community. You say contemporary poetry “is a limp and fangless thing.” Have you read Skin Inc.? Our Andromeda? Black Box? Fragment of the Head of a Queen? The Glimmering Room? Angle of Yaw? Unless these are the kinds of fangs you have in mind, in which case, I’m sure I could drum somebody up for that too.

Your most offensive comment, though, is your condescending assertion about Mr. Blanco’s career and claim to be an example of the “American dream”:

 “He has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete.”

I hope we’ve established that poetry is far from obsolete, and regardless, I know that no reasonable thinker on these matters would conflate popularity and artistic viability. Rejecting a whole genre, too, is critically insolvent unless you’ve experienced it to the point where you distinguish its good parts from its bad. Your complaint isn’t much different from complaints like “I hate hip-hop” or “I hate country”—they are always generalizations, and are almost always made by people who haven’t spent enough time listening. Which makes them irrelevant. Obsolete, even.

Yet you’ve got Mr. Blanco’s picture up on the Post, making him look like a shamed politician for performing an incredible honor—and not one the poet ever would’ve dreamed up for himself.

Lastly, you comment that in poetry these days, “you can just spray it liberally onto the Internet and hope it sticks. Or am I being too harsh? Something similar could be said of journalism, after all.” Yes, something very similar could be said for journalism, and I don’t just mean in your piece—provocatively titled “Is poetry dead?”—which, I will reiterate, got a surprising green light despite its failure to include a single contemporary poet other than one who just spoke at a Presidential Inauguration.

But there are many, many more, and a very small percentage receive grants. We are here, and we plate your dinners. We teach your kids. We slave over works we know will receive no wide audience. We shoe your horses. We work in all kinds of offices. We write about all of this and none of it, and some of us do it really, really well. We find ways to make a living and still practice an art form that yields clarity and meaning. How is that not Blanco’s “American dream” in every sense?

Thank You,

John Deming

Editor in Chief Coldfront

MFA Poetry The New School

BA Journalism University of New Hampshire

John Deming hasn’t really made a rebuttal; naming poets and magazines and comparing poetry to a kitchen sponge is quaint and touching, but intellectually weak.  “We teach your kids.”  What does this mean?  It’s like saying, “Poets sometimes throw a football around the backyard. So there.”

Specifics.  We need specifics.

Now as to Blanco’s inaugural poem: it’s a list of observations (some of them very, very nice: the bird on the clothesline, the references to his parents) which seek a feeling of unity in the many, but there is no poetry; the desire for unity is stated, but not understood, the observations are just a list—which could be jumbled up in any order without affecting the whole.

We can’t say there’s a problem with poetry—if we don’t know what it is.

FROM AROUND THE POETRY WEB, PART ONE

Gary Fitzgerald

Gary B. Fitzgerald: The life of  John Gallaher’s blog?

Is John Gallaher’s blog losing steam?  We thought so, until recently, but then a week ago John asked a general academic question of his readers and Gary B. Fitzgerald responded with one of his published and copyrighted poems.

The fun began right away.

Gary, would you mind not posting your own poems in these comment fields? It’s an incredibly annoying form of graffiti.

When censorship bubbles up from below, will it not be long before a censorial diktat arrives from above?

Gary wondered how poets could reject poetry.  He speculated that if John Ashbery posted one of his own poems on the comments thread to Gallaher’s blog, the hypocrites, instead of objecting, would bow and scrape.

But Gary got pummeled:

You may have noticed, Gary, that a lot of poets do post here, and they all show the common courtesy to refrain from using someone else’s blog discussion to post their own work.

You insist that your work is relevant to the discussion. People have been telling you for years they disagree. That’s all you need to know. It doesn’t matter that you’re deaf to the explanations, of which there have been dozens.

Perhaps the objector is right.  “Common courtesy” is goodness, morality, and common sense all wrapped up in one.  How can Gary not see that if everyone used Gallaher’s blog to post their work, discussions would suffer? 

Further, Gallaher expects visitors to participate in discussions of his articles on his blog; to use Gallaher’s blog to publish one’s work is at cross-purposes with the blog’s owner; thus Gary Fitzgerald posting his poetry on John Gallaher’s blog insults Gallaher. Why can’t Gary see this?  He can, evidently, but Gary’s need to see his poetry in print—and read by others—overcomes him.

But there’s another reason—which none may have considered but some perhaps implicitly understand—why Gary’s actions are offensive.  If, let’s say, Gary’s poems are pertinent to the discussion, this will offend most contemporary poets, who do not write poems of moral sagacity—which can be plugged into discussions willy-nilly; it would be like a rock station suddenly playing a piece of baroque classical music; it just wouldn’t fly, in purely social terms.

Gary is not aware of how not cool the poem of didactic usefulness is today.  This, we feel, is the great unspoken reason for the abuse heaped on Gary—for all the talk of the other reasons.

The poem of didactic use is a pariah in sophisticated circles, for deeply fundamental philosophical reasons that are counter-intuitive, and thus not understood by even the gaudy sophisticates themselves, never mind the mass of men.

Gary, of course, will respond indignantly that his poems are beautiful as well as instructive—in fact, that’s the whole point, that’s what makes them poetry, and thus his poems, he feels, have a God-like reason for existing, and their existence on a poetry blog are self-justifying. How can they not be? and especially when their instructive side is pertinent to any given discussion.  How does it insult anyone, Gallaher or his blog visitors, when beauty is added to relevance in any discussion? Gary is surely in the right and is being pilloried for reasons of mere jealousy and stupidity, for a “common courtesy” which is neither “common” nor “courteous.”

But—and this point is made strongly by John Crowe Ransom in his sterling but neglected essay, “Poets Without Laurels”—the modern temper is precisely that which rejects the joining of instruction and beauty, in the same way puritans reject the pomp of Catholicism. 

It is because Fitzgerald drapes his message in beautiful poetry that he offends.

Scarriet noted a couple of years ago that John Gallaher asked Fitzgerald to leave his blog—because Fitzgerald was unkind to the poetry of John Ashbery—which Fitzgerald has characterized as  “literary Rorschach Tests that some call poetry.”

Welcome to modernity, Gary B.

It is the poetry that offends the poets.

THAT I MIGHT BE THE ONLY ONE

That I might be the only one, I did some math,
Counting those close and far—anyone who might be on my path—
The poets competing with my words,
Songwriters: the famous, even the birds
Dozing in the fragrant trees
Who might awake, and send a song across the frozen seas
Of the universe; men as tall as I
With laughter spilling from a proud blue eye,
The movie producers, the small,
The eccentric of high-pitched voice
Who looked at aphrodite and made a choice,
The ravenous others with long hair and short
Journeying afar of me, or coming into port,
Family members, acquaintances, warmly or luckily met,
The fond, fast, furry, blur identified as my pet,
I regarded them all warily, for they
Pull on my thoughts, invade my day,
For it is now the long night that is almost done
You occupy, that I might be the only one.

POETRY NOT LOVE

poetry not love

I knew one who decided
That her soul was guided
By custom and habit and work,
So when she fell madly in love,
She decided he was a jerk.

In youth she owned a romantic side,
Which, when older, she denied
In custom and habit and work,
So when she fell madly in love
She felt that she was a jerk.

Society must have it that she
To be good must never be free
Of custom and habit and work.
So when she fell madly in love
She thought, ‘this is only a quirk.’

She was good and she was lovely,
So the jerk wrote her poetry,
And the poetry did its work;
Eventually custom and habit
Became the life of a jerk.

Not love, not love, but poetry,
Poetry gave love to love, poetry,
Poetry killed custom and work,
Poetry,  poetry, poetry
Saved the life of the jerk.

JANUARY 2013 POETRY MAGAZINE REVIEWED, PART 2

Baudelaire: Scared the hell out of Poetry magazine contributor Daisy Fried

We now come to the prose part of Poetry’s January issue, which includes a series of “Reconsiderations” of well-known poets, called “Antagonisms” in the Poetry Table of Contents—which is a terrific idea, and we think it should be a regular feature.

Some of the Poetry hires go right after their famous counterparts, but others get cold feet, apologizing to the editors: I want to take apart Baudelaire b-b-but I just can’t!

Dylan Thomas is the first titan up, and Michael Robbins fearlessly takes him on .

“Reconsidering Dylan Thomas,” or “The Child That Sucketh Long” begins with an amusing Michael Robbins observation: phrases from Thomas’ poems sounds like the names of Heavy Metal bands:

They appear to be the names of  heavy metal bands: Plague of  Fables; Star-Flanked Seed; Serpent Caul; Murder of Eden; Altar of Plagues; Seed-at-Zero; The Grave and My Calm Body; Dark Asylum; Mares of  Thrace; Herods Wail; Christbread; Binding Moon; Red Swine. In fact they are phrases culled from Dylan Thomas’s poems — except that I threw two actual metal bands in there. Didn’t notice, did you?

When Robbins indulges in pure fun, as above, he’s enjoyable to read, but we’re afraid we’re going to have to take Robbins to task for some of his Thomas-bashing.

Robbins faults Thomas for “disregard[ing] what part of speech a word usually is,” but in Robbins’  example, “I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain, /  Let fall the tear of time,” the culprit is metaphoric vagueness, not the word, “fellowed.”

Robbins errs again when he calls the following “sentimental:”

No. Not for Christ’s dazzling bed
Or a nacreous sleep among soft particles and charms
My dear would I change my tears or your iron head.
Thrust, my daughter or son, to escape, there is none, none, none,
Nor when all ponderous heaven’s host of waters breaks.

Robbins follows the quote with: “Who does the guy think he is?”

Modern and post-modern critics, habitually rejecting what has come to be known as Victorian sentiment, are often blind to every modern lapse which plagues contemporary poetry: obscurity, ugliness, and pretentiousness.  Robbins is wrong: if there’s a problem with the Thomas passage it’s the failure to depict more accessibly its sentiment.  It is Robbins, the critic, who is being sentimental here.

Robbins correctly finds the Hopkins influence: “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…” and says,

Hopkins sincerely believed the state of his soul was at stake. All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed. 

Sincerely believed?  Now who is being sentimental?

Expression is all—whether we judge Tennyson or Ashbery, and supplying biographical information to imply that one poet “sincerely believes” more than another is, well, sentimental.  We are not sure how the desire to “gorgeously express a sentiment” translates into “self-pity,” but worrying about the “state of one’s soul” does not. The confusion Robbins suffers from arises, not because moderns are no longer mawkish, but because they’ve erected an anti-mawkish standard on what they don’t seem to realize is mawkish ground.

“Who does the guy think he is?” Robbins cries, but he should look in the mirror and see how he resembles the old Moderns who looked back at Keats, Shelley and Byron, and cried, “Who did these guys think they were?”  The response is, “Who do you think the guy has to be?”

Robbins finishes his essay on Thomas by pointing out some other moderns who fell into what Robbins calls  “mannered mush.”  But here’s the problem: All poetry worth the name is, in some way, mannered and courts, to a some degree, sentiment.  When we are shocked to find, upon careful inspection, that modern poetry rises (or falls) to mannered sentiment, well, we shouldn’t be.  The critic needs to tell us how the manner and the sentiment fail—because of course they often do, in every modern poet there is—it is time we stop hiding, in our false modern haughtiness, behind the generalized and slap-dash accusation of “mannered mush.”

Like Hart Crane’s, Thomas’s faults protrude embarrassingly from the wazoo. Crane’s are easier to forgive, since he had vision, and Thomas was myopic. But at his best he has, like Crane, a towering presence of mind, a stranglehold on the language. Perhaps I’d love him more if   I hadn’t loved him so much, so early. I’ve made my peace with other early crushes who came to seem so much mannered mush: James Wright, Rilke, Neruda. Rereading Thomas now for this piece, I found myself thawing toward him, as I slowly did toward those others, whom now I love anew, love more clearly. So get you gone, Dylan Thomas, though with blessings on your head.

We give Robbins’ essay C+.

Jason Guriel goes off on E.E. Cummings—who was at Harvard with T.S. Eliot and belonged very much to the Eliot/Pound/Moore/Williams Dial clique—who is an easy target, and Guriel doesn’t miss.  The essay’s title, “Sub-Seuss,” bodes its take-no-prisoners approach.

The message Cummings communicates here — and which langpo
types and concrete poets continue to internalize — is remarkably 
unambiguous: words are toy blocks, and poems, child’s play. No one else has made making it new look so easy.

But Cummings’s poems themselves were only superficially “new.” Beneath the tattoo-thin signifiers of edginess — those lowercase i’s, those words run together —  flutters the heart of a romantic. (Is there a correlation between typographically arresting poetry and emotional arrestedness?) He fancies himself an individual among masses, finds the church ladies have “furnished souls,” opposes war. He’s far more self-righteous, this romantic, than any soldier or gossip — and far deadlier: he’s a teenager armed with a journal.

Guriel gets the job done.  A-

Thank God for Laura Kasischke.  She punctures Wallace Stevens with delicacy, modesty, and humor, and it’s a rip-roaring good time because she calls out this overrated, sometimes Sub-Seuss, poet.

I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, 
a poet, and a human being that I don’t like the work of  Wallace Stevens. I know that there are scholars who have devoted their lives to his work, and done so out of  the purest motives. I know that there are poets who, without Stevens’s work to inspire them, would never have taken up the pen themselves. I know that there are students for whom “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” upon first being encountered, cracked open a world of thought and language and helped them to pull themselves out of the gutter of cable television and to worship forever after at the altar of Wallace Stevens. I know that hundreds — thousands! — of far better readers, thinkers, poets, and human beings love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Spiritually. In all sincerity. And completely.

But, honestly, how can they? I placed a jar in Tennessee…?

“No! Don’t! Please!” someone (perhaps that poor secretary to whom he supposedly dictated the poems every morning) should have said. She should have said, “Wallace, no. Don’t use the word ‘placed.’ It makes you sound so… so …  so full of yourself ! As if you think that every time you toss a candy wrapper out the window the landscape rearranges itself around you. The whole idea that someone (you) has put (I mean placed) a jar on a hill and then written
a poem about it — that whole idea is so ludicrous and disturbing that it will be discussed for decades in cold rooms with bad lighting. And the music of it! omg! It did not give of bird or bush… 
You really are joking now, aren’t you? This is like that other line, the one with the concupiscent curds in it? Right? You’re just trying to make the kids in Poetry 101 with hangovers start up with the cold sweats, right?”

But perhaps she never dared to say that. He was a powerful man. He was never told by anyone that a poem with a line that required pronouncing the name “Tehuantepec” repeatedly, followed by a line about the “slopping” sea, was stomach-churning. And no one ever asked him to explain how, exactly, a man and a woman and a blackbird can be one. No one said, “Nuncle, you must reconsider this hoo-hoo-hoo and shoo-shoo-shoo and ric-a-nic. And, of course, ‘cachinnation’ is going to require yet another footnote, you know. Maybe just say ‘loud laughter’?”

Just now I took out the Norton, thinking I must be misremembering these lines. No poet as beloved as Wallace Stevens could have written them. But the first Stevens line my eyes fall upon is “Opusculum paedagogum.  / The pears are not viols.” At least I don’t have to worry about those lines getting stuck in my head all day.

Was that “poor secretary” Helen Vendler, by any chance?

Stevens is often viscerally annoying—and any metaphysical apology misses the point.  More than that: Stevens, as Kasischke reminds us, is pretentious (or just silly) in sound as well as sense—and it’s natural to get called out this way since we are talking about poetry.

Laura Kasischke, you get an A.

Peter Campion finds the novels and essays of D.H. Lawrence stronger than the poetry, but we think his best poems hold up better than his prose.  But I suppose if one slogs through Lawrence’s “Collected,” the preachy pessimisim would probably overwhelm.  We feel the best of his poetry will outlast everything else.

Campion finds the “fatalistic and tender” a important feature of Lawrence and British poetry (Larkin, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald).  We suppose he has a point.

We’ll give Campion a solid B.

Daisy Fried is clearly intimidated by Baudelaire, and in a fit of American self-hatred, finally succumbs to his lurid seduction.

After all, he and Poe invented poetic goth. It’s not Baudelaire’s fault his modern-day followers are goofballs. And not their fault I’m a boring middle-aged American. 

Objections to sexism in this passage are anachronistic; Baudelaire’s always most revolted by himself.
We in America could use more romantic self-disgust. (Frederick Seidel thinks so. Ooga Booga is the Fleurs du Mal of our time.)

Fried earns a B.

Ange Mlinko was given the most difficult task: Elizabeth Bishop, who is virtually untouchable these days.  The dialogue format she chooses works pretty well, but the content isn’t terribly interesting.  Mlinko finds Bishop chummy, congenial, wishy-washy, and formally rote.  Which seems completely wrong.  Bishop is actually quite surly in her poems.

We give Mlinko a C.

We now come to the final two January 2013 Poetry essays—by Ilya Kaminsky and Peter Cole; instead of short and sweet “antagonisms, these are lengthy, dreary affairs, tedious, and self-important, the sorts of essays that blot the literary landscape with cool quotes, cool locales, cool names—and rhetoric which serves no other purpose than background to the cool quotes, cool locales, and cool names.

Take Ilya Kaminsky’s “Of Strangeness That Wakes Us” (on Paul Celan).

Cool quotes: W.H. Auden: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Theodor Adorno: “It Is Barbaric To Write Poetry After The Holocaust.”  Anne Carson: “Celan is a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.”  Eavan Boland: “It is the poet’s process that needs to be translated.”Emily Dickinson: “I Felt A Funeral, in my Brain.” Robert Kelly: We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.” Check.

Cool locales: Czernowitz, Vienna, Paris.  Check.

Cool names: Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo, Walt Whitman, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ovid, Breton, John Berryman.  Check.

Kaminsky ponders at the start of his essay, “Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim?”

The answer is simple in ratio to the rhetorical labor Kaminsky expends to prove otherwise: Yes, it is too obscure.

If we are honest, and admit obscurity right away, we don’t have to waste our time quoting Emily Dickinson, Eavan Boland, and Robert Kelly.  As long as Kaminsky can dance and beat a drum, he drags in another well-known quote to prove the impossible, and it is painful to watch.

Kaminsky quotes Zbigniew Herbert (of course!):

INTERVIEWER: “What is the purpose of poetry?”
HERBERT: “To wake up!”

But how does it wake us up?  And it wakes us to what?

Kaminsky gives us the answer (rather gallantly) by quoting from Genesis (a Biblical quotation!) backwards and claims there’s “more poetry” when we read the passage in reverse. 

“And there was light let there be God and said waters.” 

I suppose it might please an atheist to read “let there be God,” but poetry isn’t meant to please one belief system over another, is it? 

Kaminsky can’t seriously be saying any text read backwards will be more poetic, and thus, wake us up

What Kaminsky does explicitly say is that lyric poetry “wrecks normal language,” but this observation, which is nearly a truism, cannot make obscure poetry less obscure.

In the Genesis example—the crowning jewel of the essay—Kaminsky takes sacred, elevated language (Genesis) and “wrecks” it.

The backwards reading of Genesis, altering the intended meaning, takes authority away from God and gives it back to language. Since humans are limited in their perceptions, the atheist position is how all humans (correctly or incorrectly) experience the universe. So the backward phrase, “let there be God,” which finds the human-writing (truth) of Genesis, “wakes” us up to the atheist reality within a sacred text.

This is an interesting religious argument, but it has nothing to do with Kaminsky’s defense of Celan’s poetry.

Likewise, distorting or punning on famous words, as Kaminsky does with Genesis, is done all the time in the popular press—would Kaminsky call this “poetry” that “wakes us up?”  If a pun gives a ‘haha’ moment, perhaps ‘wrecking’ language can give us an ‘aha’ moment. 

This is an interesting linguistic argument, but it has nothing to do with reading Paul Celan.

Kaminsky is not writing an essay, but tip-toeing through the tulips of argumentation, dazzling with quotations; in Kaminsky’s rarefied realm of Zbigniew Herbert quotes, he appears to miss the common sense implications of his own rhetoric.

This is how Kaminsky reads Celan in the opening of his essay:

The deciphering of the text proves the worthiness of the reader.

Some of Celania’s poems are modern psalms; here is one:

Of  too much was our talk, of
too little. Of  the You
and You-Again, of
how clarity troubles, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

Of
that.
On the day of an ascension, the
Minister stood over there, it sent
some gold across the water.

Of  your God was our talk, I spoke
against him, I
let the heart that I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
quarreling word —

Your eye looked on, looked away,
your mouth
spoke its way to the eye, and I heard:
We
don’t know, you know,
we
don’t know, do we?,
what
counts.
Zurich, the Stork Inn, tr. by Michael Hamburger

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” says Mahmoud Darwish. “Clarity troubles.” Celan, often considered a difficult poet, is in this poem at his clearest.

Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim? Is it too hermetic? Too difficult? Real poems, Celan wrote, are “making toward something   …    perhaps toward an addressable Thou.” I would argue that, for any poet writing toward such a subject, regular words and syntax soon become inadequate (Hopkins, anyone?). Celan is an extreme case though, because he also had to contend with the inadequacy of the German language to express the experience of the Jewish poet, post-Holocaust. His is the lyricism of privacy (prayer is private, no matter with how many fellow congregants it is uttered or in how many prayer books it appears), not of hermeticism. In fact, Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that he was “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch.” Absolutely not hermetic.

Does Kaminsky read Celan’s “modern psalm” backwards to understand it better? 

No.

Is Celan a punster? 

No.

Is Celan’s poem clear?

No.

Is Kaminsky able to make Celan’s poem less obscure for us?

No.

Is it at all clear what this “adressable Thou” is?

No.

The subject of Kaminsky’s essay simply doesn’t know itself.

Finally, Kaminsky’s main point is the “privacy” of the lyric poet—and he ends his essay:

A great poet is not someone who speaks in stadiums to thousands of  listeners. A great poet is a very private person. In his or her privacy this poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.

But this doesn’t make any sense.  If one hears a poet’s words in a stadium among thousands of listeners, one is still responding as a private person to those words. “Creating a language to speak, privately, to many people at the same time” could signify a poet speaking in a stadium to thousands.  Why not?  And so where does this leave Kaminsky’s definition of lyric “privacy?”

We must give Kaminsky’s essay a C, because for all it brings, it is hollow at its center, arguing from scattered quotes rather than from common sense.

Peter Cole has something called, “The Invention of Influence: A Notebook/A Notebook: Seeking higher powers in the Middle East” in which he rambles, endlessly; like Kaminsky, Cole proffers quotation after quotation, never stopping long enough to  explore any one issue.  It’s the School of Harold Bloom: peeling the onion of reference after reference after reference to find at the center nothing but a tremendous ego who reads a lot.  Surely Peter Cole should be interesting—he reads so much! 

Cole’s essay is more personal than Kaminsky’s, which makes it ‘warmer,’ but also more helter-skelter; Cole made a much freer space for himself—though you end up wishing he hadn’t.  Cole tries to gives us: ‘here’s how I write/here’s how I think/here’s what’s going on,’ but ends up giving us, ‘would you look how much I travel/would  you look how much I observe/would you look how much I read.’  One cannot tell whether the failure of the essay is from the sort of person Cole is, or whether the failure is from the form the essay happened to take—and it speaks even worse for Cole that we cannot tell.  The essay is briefly everywhere and thus, nowhere.

When you read stuff like this from Cole’s essay, one can only think, will you please shut up?

Why did I have such a hard time coming up with an “antagonism” to write about for Poetry? Do the dead bite back? Or is it that I’m by temperament and training now so fastidiously turned against myself
that I lean into my antagonisms until they give way at a certain point like a secret door-in-the-wall to enthusiasm? James Merrill, for instance. Or Pope.

It’s a translator’s gift, and curse. A strategy of masking and, I suppose, also of evasion. Not only an ability to inhabit difference, but a desire and need to. As a source of pleasure, and nourishment — even wisdom. What others find in fiction?

Hence, too, the obsession of late with couplets, which I once despised. The desire to compose in rhymed couplets in such a way as to highlight the openness lurking in a certain closure. As organic as a pulse, or respiration.

It’s embarrassing to watch how ‘open and nice’ strive to hide ‘crazy and nasty.’  He’s too nice to give the Poetry editors an “antagonism.”  Well, not so much nice, as fastidiously turned against himself.  Too bad, Poetry editors. Mr. Cole fastidiously refuses.

Cole once “despised” couplets??  How can one “despise” couplets?  Oh, but dear friends, Peter Cole is now obsessed with couplets—in order to highlight openness lurking in a certain closure—and this (of course!) is organic. 

Good grief.

Cole gets a C-.

Finally, one lively Letter to the Editor is published, in which Philip Metres takes Clive James to task for “the idea that poems exist only for the page, [which] is lamentably myopic, and part of the predicament of  poetry’s marginalization in American culture.”

The lesson here, as we judge Poetry’s prose in their January issue,  seems to be: in Letters, antagonism is life and its opposite, death.

THE JANUARY 2013 ISSUE OF POETRY REVIEWED, PART I

Is Poetry magazine the place where American poetry happens, today?

We certainly think so.

How did Poetry gain this eminent place?

It has a history—so people want to publish there, an important first criterion.  Secondly, it has elevated criticism, honest, democratic criticism—rather than puffing—to an equal place with the poems.  Thirdly, it has no editorial bias for a certain kind of poetry.  Lastly, Poetry has a cheery, accessible, web-site, chocked with poems.  Blog Harriet is mere cut-and-paste and does not allow reader comments, but one can read the entire issue of Poetry on-line (and make comments).  Kudos to the editors.

Here’s our review of the most recent issue:

Sara Miller is first with five poems and she is one of those poets too clever for her own good, stating confidently in the abstract what actually makes very little sense; “Cairo” is plain-talk mysticism with metaphor inside of metaphor inside of metaphor:

CAIRO
The evidence was in and it went to the contrary.
The contrary wound around us rather like a river.
The river reacted, spider-like, tangling up its legs
with other wet parts we thought we knew,
such as creeks and fjords and deltas and such.
A beaver sits on the riverbank watching all of this unfold.
He doesn’t know what a fjord is, and he doesn’t care
for other waters, or even other beavers, or the merest
hint of other business, so he removes this evidence.
Then he builds a structure which for years he is rehabbing.
Inside it is hollow and there is his nest.
He is a dark little bastard, all the same.
The water had a fine way of   being, now it is tortured
by these nests and their vassal.
Yet the river doesn’t overthrow the beaver.
Quite the contrary. The river goes around polite as a snake.
It argues a tiny bit at the edges of the lodge,
where young beavers could be napping.
You and I would let loose a flood of tears. Not the river.
You and I would seep hotly into our darkest places.
Not the river. It is a long way from home
and has that on its mind, the day of rising,
when the temples will all be cleansed
and the whole unfathomable truth will out.
According to the waters. According to their book.

Yes, we get it, Ms. Miller.  The river and the beaver represent cooperative, unsentimental nature, and “you and I,” the humans, weepy and word-obsessed, will be cleansed.  The faster Miller’s waters clean us, the better.  Her poem rebukes us like a flood.  Oh, and hurray for the beaver. And we pray those young beavers are napping still.

The best of her five poems is perhaps the third one, “Gravitas:”

The overweight, overnight parts
that came to me in a dream.
Their clothes no longer fit,
it was this that brought them
to me crying, their faces twitching.
That had to end. No, they said,
it didn’t. So I rolled over to ghosts
that couldn’t dent a pillow.
The clock shed. Night pulled its
burdens into harbor and I woke,
glad for the day, its telltale light,
its flying minute, that genie work,
and the everlasting perturbations
of my people, their glories,
their heavy last words,
and for these, I rose.
Miller, like many modern poets, seems to have more faith in words themselves than how they ultimately fit together.  The poet should make the words obey the poem: the words themselves ought not to dictate what the poem is; Sara Miller is a little too enamoured of the words she manages to gather together in her poems. Her poem, “Gravitas,” unlike the others, manages to prevail, with a certain unified lyric grace, over the poet’s wordy education.
A poem should have an existence outside of its words, but since words naturally point to something outside themselves, a complacency too easily sets in:—mad moments of word-play become substitutes for poems.
I wish I could keep my thoughts in order
and my ducks in a row.
I wish I could keep my ducks in a thought
or my thoughts in a duck.
My point is that we all exist, wetly, in the hunt.
This is how “Countermeasures” opens, and one sees how much Miller is in love with words—which is all very nice, indeed.
Cairo C-
Spellbound D
Gravitas B
Countermeasures D
Moves In The Field C
Nocturne C-
Barbara Hamby has one poem, “Letter To A Lost Friend,” which reveals the modern poet’s faith in words—which can lead the poet astray.
Auden once said that ‘a love of words’ serves a poet better than ‘having something to say.’  We see the point—no one wants a poem to boss them around—but we believe the advice has done much mischief.  Poets have been erring in the other direction for quite some time: too modest to ‘have something to say,’ they aren’t shy about making ‘the words’ everything.
Hamby’s poem begins: “There must be a Russian word to describe what has happened between us…”
We see here, in Hamby’s opening, the modern poet’s obsession with words.  Poetry, however, is not Scrabble.
Hamby then rambles deliciously, impressionistically, nostalgically, with quotes from Pushkin anchoring a poem that feels like it belongs to its references more than to Hamby, the poet—but this, of course, is the modern sensibility, the 100 year old reaction against the Romantic ego: quote Pushkin (who ‘had something to say’) but don’t dare be a poet yourself who has ‘something to say.’  Pushkin’s dead.  Don’t be a Pushkin. Hide behind your references, your education, your words…  It’s all very humble and nice.  Poetry, however, has nothing to do with humility.
We give “Letter To A Lost Friend” a B.  We don’t love Hamby. But we feel this is the best poem she could possibly write.
Brad Leithauser gives us a rather long poem called “A Vase,” invoking a grandmother’s memory of a seventy years old purchase; the poem threatens to pierce our hearts, but never quite does, because Leithauser is finally so informative—lovingly informative, of course: Detroit and Japan figure prominently, but the ‘lovingly informative’ has ruined many a poem because even in subtle ways the information becomes a little too important; Poe’s ‘didactic’ warning is lost on so many. They say one avoids sentimentality in a poem by supplying it with concrete details; but everyone knows the realist is a secret sentimentalist.
“The Vase” earns a B
Fanny Howe has a lovely phrase early on in her poem, “Three Persons:”
the diamonds that pelt Neptune
But as a whole, the poem is mystically detached, drifting from vague observation to vague observation.  We like this:
Be like grass, she told me,
lie flat, spring up.
But why doesn’t Howe say,
Be like grass:
lie flat, spring up?
Why the “she told me?”
Is it that she doesn’t, as herself, want to be caught saying something so obviously quotable in a 19th century sort of way?
The poem provides no context for the “she;” the rest of the poem is “we,” “I” and “you.”
This is the problem: in Howe’s poem we get half-context. 
We want to advise the poet: Either give a full and necessary context, or give none.
Either tell us who the “she” is, or get rid of “she told me.”
We give “Three Persons” a C-
Julian Stannard’s poem, “The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest” is meant to be social commentary by way of the ridiculous, or the reverse; we chuckled a couple of times upon first reading it, but we were tired of it by the second reading.  Fate plays a cruel trick on the poet who can entertain but once.
…We were hurtling back
to the 1970s and sometimes the 1970s are almost
as good as the 1930s
We can’t argue with this.
I saw Leonard Cohen crooning with a couple
of octogenarian muffins and I’m telling you now
the lobby was pleasantly disturbing.
I have two words for Mr. Stannard:  Mad Libs.
We give his poem a D+ and we think a D+ in the 1930s and the 1970s is about the same.
Matthew Neinow has four poems which are all self-conscious, carpentry lyrics.  They fail when too pretentious; they succeed when “song” and “shaped wood” manage to casually cohere.
Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood B-
Ode to the Gain C+
Ode to the Steam Box B-
End Grain C-
The two poems by Barbara Perez have that bruised, confessional tone which forces you to sit up and listen, even though you don’t really want to.  We like “A mind, when playing tricks is at its most sincere,” but too often her poems do just boss you around.
Strange Little Prophets C
Not For You, Not For the World D
Shann Ray’s two poems feature one preachy little thing (“We need to know in America…”) called “My Dad, In America” and then a delightful poem, “Hesperus,” written by his daughter, really.  It’s about words, again, but it works in this case because it’s in the realm where it belongs.  We need to quote it in full:
My four-year-old daughter handed me a card.
To Daddy written on the front
and inside a rough field
of  five-pointed lights, and the words
You’re my favorite Daddy in the stars.
In this western night we all light the sky
like Vega, Deneb, Altair, Albireo,
the Summer Triangle,
Cygnus the Swan, our hair
tangled with wood and gravel,
our eyes like vacant docks
that beckon every boat.
Tell me about the word
stars, I said.
Oh, she said. Sorry.
I didn’t know
how to spell world.
We love this.  Who could not love this?My Dad, In America D+
Hesperus B+
“The Fisherman’s Farewell” by Robin Robertson is hewn from Old World craft:
and black in the undertow, blue
as the blue banners of the mackerel, whipping west.
Who can resist the elegance of the pirate, or the finesse of the fisherman?
to dream the blank horizon and dread the sight of land
*
Their houses, heeled over in the sand:
each ruin now a cairn for kites
Arrgh.  We give Robertson a B-
Wendy Videlock clearly belongs to the Kay Ryan/Heather McHugh School.  She has five poems and here’s two of them:
Bane
Full of strength and laced
with fragility:
the thoroughbred,
the hummingbird,
and all things
cursed
with agility.
I Don’t Buy It
I don’t buy it, says
the scientist.
Replies the frail
and faithful heart,
it’s not for sale.
The line “It is always darkest before the leopard’s kiss” from “Proverbial” reminds us of Kim Addonizio, and then Videlock makes it a couplet: “Where there’s smoke there is emphasis.”  Videlock doesn’t fear ‘having something to say.’  For instance (again from “Proverbial”): “He is not wise that parrots the wise.”  “Better late than suffer the long introduction.”  She at least deserves points for clarity.
I Don’t Buy It D
Bane B-
If You’re Crowish D
Proverbial B-
A Lizard In Spanish Valley C-
“Their Pleas” by Kelly Cherry dares the reader to feel something, to care, but we’ll go out on a limb and admit we don’t understand the poem—and therefore we don’t care.  We have to give the poem a D-.
Those are the poems of the January 2013 issue of Poetry.
Next we’ll turn to the prose.
(To be continued)

SCIENCE, MATH AND POETRY

When a philosopher’s science fails to be precise, we call it poetry.

The impulse towards science in ancient times—when few scientific facts were available—ancient cosmogonies, for example, becomes, in retrospect, a kind of poetry by default.

Plato, whose cosmology was the late dialogue, the Timaeus, is often called a poet. It’s not that Plato was a poet so much as he was a scientist who had to rely on a great deal of amazing guessing.

Is poetry really the guess-work of the scientist?

The world—which is born and dies, and which resides below Plato’s eternal Forms—is God’s unique and mutable poem.

Plato’s Forms are God’s truth—or what might be called the poet’s plan.

So Plato’s great theme: The eternal Forms are real and belong to science. The world doesn’t belong to poetry, because the world is already a default poem,  but for the world and the poet to exist, the poet must think like a scientist.  

The planning impulse of the cosmogonist writes the poem to make it more than a mere reflection of the accidents of the world.

We could say it was easier, or more natural for the scientist to be a poet in Plato’s day—precisely because science required so much guess-work.  The scientist needed to be a poet, needed to have imagination, and speculate, in order to make sense of a world belonging to our ancient ancestors’ dimly primitive understanding of it.

Do we believe the world is still a mystery? In that case, guessing and dreaming—not just in poetry, but in what could be called poetic science, is still necessary.

Here, in a masterpiece of classical scholarship—Plato’s Cosmology, by Francis Cornford (1935)—we find the following, and note how Cornford describes the cosmology of Lucretius, all the rage at the moment because of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning bestseller, The Swerve:

The Timaeus is a poem, no less than the De rerum natura of Lucretius, and indeed more so in certain respects. Both poets are concerned, in the first instance, with our practical attitude towards the world—what we should make of our life there and how face the prospect of death. Lucretius believed that atoms and void are the ultimately real things of which everything that exists is built. Plato denied reality to what is commonly called matter; his real things are the Forms, and the bodies we touch and see are not built of Forms, nor are the Forms in them. Accordingly, for Lucretius reality is in the world of sensible things and he can offer statements about its nature which claim to be literally true; for Plato that whole world is an image, not the substance. You cannot, by taking visible things to pieces, ever arrive at any parts more real than the whole you started with. The perfection of microscopic vision can bring you no nearer to the truth, for the truth is not at the further end of your microscope. To find reality you would do better to shut your eyes and think.

There are two senses in which the Timaeus is a ‘myth’ or ‘story.’ One we have already considered: no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. Earlier cosmogonies had been of the evolutionary type, suggesting a birth and growth of the world, due to some spontaneous force of life in Nature, or, as in Atomism, to the blind and undesigned collision of lifeless atoms. Such a story was, to Plato, very far from being like the truth. So he introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.

The Atomists’ belief in innumerable worlds, some always coming into existence, others passing away, was an inference from their assertion of a strictly infinite void partly occupied by an illimitable number of atoms in motion. It was probable, they argued, that world-forming vortices would arise at any number of different places. Granted that our world is finite, that there is unlimited space outside its boundary, and that there are materials left over, from which other worlds might be formed, why should there not be any number of copies of the same model?  The world, according to Plato, is finite.

Francis Cornford rocks.  Re-discover him, people.

The poet is like God, a “divine artificer.”  And the divine focuses on one perfect, finite universe, not an imperfect bunch, based on vague limitlessness.

If we think of Plato as the ancient artificer, Dante, the artificer of the middle ages, and Poe as the great modern artificer, this might be a good time to quote from Poe’s cosmology, Eureka:

Let us begin, then, at once with the merest of words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in nearly all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but an effort at one.

And what an “effort” it is to imagine the entire universe!  Surely it makes writing a poem easier!  Or not.

Infinity is one of the important ideas for Poe, because like his great predecessor, Plato, a finite universe is the scientifically perfect universe Poe imagines; the infinite universe simply cannot work as our one unique universe of tangible lawfulness—and to read Eureka is to understand this fully, as Poe tirelessly makes crystal clear in his great theme of simplicity and oneness throughout the work.

Like Plato, Poe sees invisible creator and visible creation as two very distinct parts of the universe.  And on it goes, the parts, the number, and how they fit together and impact each other in revolutions, orbits, luminosity, and gravitation, over time; all that challenges the cosmologist cannot help but inspire the poet in the most profound manner imaginable.  Here is Poe, toward the end of his prose poem, Eureka, echoing Plato as he warns the reader not to confuse all-important “symmetry” in the world with its more important place in idea

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous—for the analogical—in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical—which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: —thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, belonging to that certain tribe of thinkers who could not follow Poe’s genius in its journey beyond the country village, once said that “consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Emerson surely had a more fragile consistency in mind.

Poe was no village realist.  Poe was truly the idealist heir of Plato.  From Eureka:

The wonderfully complex laws of revolution here described, however, are not to be understood as obtaining in our system alone. They everywhere prevail where Attraction prevails. They control the Universe of Stars. Every shining speck in the firmament is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less, whose still lingering luminosity is not sufficient to render them visible to us at so vast a distance, but which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centers, in obedience to the principles just detailed—in obedience to the three omniprevalent laws of revolution—the three immortal laws guessed by the imaginative Kepler, and but subsequently demonstrated and accounted for by the patient and mathematical Newton. Among a tribe of philosophers who pride themselves excessively upon matter-of-fact, it is far too fashionable to sneer at all speculation under the comprehensive sobriquet, “guess-work.”  The point to be considered is, who guesses.  In guessing with Plato, we spend our time to better purpose, now and then, than in hearkening to a demonstration by Alcmaeon.

The poet, to broaden the definition of poetry, is, like Plato and Poe, one who speculates—in the consistent spirit of one who imagines the universe, or, like a good cook, tells you exactly how God made the pie.

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