AWP AND THE CRIME OF CAPITALIST POETRY

Ariana Reines: in Seth Oelbaum’s anarchist vision, she’s in the top one percent!! Yea!!

What was Seth Oelbaum, of HTMLGIANT literature blog, thinking?

This attack on the capitalist AWP goes a little far in its Marxist critique.

An oft-quoted portion is specific—and sort of funny and cogent:

Denise Duhamel’s (Florida International University) irritation with her husband’s habit of falling asleep after a meal doesn’t constitute poetry; Mathew Rohrer’s (NYU) 30th birthday has nothing to do with poetry; Ben Lerner’s (Brooklyn) Spain woes, Aaron Kunin’s (Pomona College) sore throat, Kenneth Goldsmith’s (Buffalo) weather transcripts – none of these (and one could compose a list at least six million times as long as Schindler’s) are poetry or literature.

And most would agree, if grudgingly, perhaps, with the author’s observation in the following quote, just in terms of raw economics and mechanics:

What’s of consequence is the mere corporeal book (not what’s inside) and the name attached to it — the name that places the corporeal book on a CV to try to acquire employment…The AWP is American economics, not literary.

But here the argument begins to slip into a familiar rant:

The AWP corresponds to the tasteless USA motto that any one can be anything. Any one who has a bit of money or is down for some debt can enter one of the hundreds of MFA programs and be considered a “poet.” But I refuse to abide by this capitalistic credo.

And here it explodes in a stink-bomb of insult in the face of even the most Marxist of poets:

Poetry has nothing to do with equality, fairness, or public opinion. “The Soul selects her own Society,” says Emily D. “Then – shuts the door — / To her divine Majority.” Poetry is exclusive and elite — a one-percent medium. Nearly all the MFA students and teachers aren’t poets.

Here we see that the politics of poetry is more interesting than the politics of politics.  The author argues from a Marxist perpsective—and an elitist one.

The communist tyrant is bred in the field of aesthetics.

The contradiction is blatant: capitalism glories in buying and selling—which brings (AWP) people together—while Oelbaum’s communist position, shunning the market for a deeper human bond, cries out that poetry is a “one-percent medium.”

Everyone knows that a “one-percent medium” is an advertised capitalist creation, not a socialist one.

One-percent??  Inequality is capitalist.

Emily Dickinson’s “Soul”—of the Communist State.   Hmmm.

Can Emily D. “select her own society” in Oelbaum’s anti-capitalist, socialist utopia?

How can a communist elitist exist?   Well, they do exist, and there’s lots of them, but still we wonder, how do they reconcile the great contradiction?

Oelbaum’s wants “drama” and “commotion,” which is left-wing, revolutionary and only mildly offensive.  But he adds to it literary judgment:

There are only three Ariana Reines books, three Chelsey Minnis books, and just two Lara Glenum books. These are actual poets, poets shrill enough to warrant Joyelle’s atrocity-esque praise. But 99 percent of the books are by bourgeois like Jorie Graham, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder, &c. These are the antithesis of monstrous. Actually, there is no actual poetry “glut.” Actually, there’s a poetry famine. Poetry isn’t messy: it’s mitigated. It isn’t even poetry: it’s market exchange. The AWP isn’t a space for literature. It’s an extension of capitalism, another space where products accumulate.

Is Oelbaum saying that Reines, Minnis, Glenum equal a Grand Guignol?  Reading their work, it seems like pretty typical ‘chicks-happily-letting-you-observe-their-neuroses’ poetry. We don’t see Oelbaum’s “one-percent” at all.   We do see a kind of Let’s not talk about books. Let’s fuck animus in these poets.  OK.

The message of Oelbaum’s three “one-percent” poets: There’s a great deal of life that we just can’t understand and let’s not pretend to do so. 

But how is this anti-capitalist?  Oelbaum, again:

I want drama too. But there isn’t any drama at the AWP. The AWP isn’t the place to cause a commotion; it’s a space for commerce, for what everyone else does in America. The AWP is not related to actual literature or poetry. It is another way in which the common components of the insufferable middle class are reinforced. 99 percent of the attendees don’t have any gift for poetry: they only have (had) money (or a depth of debt).

So let’s cause a commotion at the AWP?

Let’s interfere with the capitalist event?

Let’s hate on the “insufferable middle class?”

It does finally seem rather naive.

Of course Oelbaum will say, “I’m not communist!  I don’t believe in any State! I’m for freedom and anarchy!  Just because I’m against capitalism, doesn’t mean I’m a socialist!”

The problem here is that Oelbaum is clearly talking politics—but without really talking politics at all.

And talking literary judgment—without really talking about that, either.

Anarchy.  A heavy load to bear.

Maybe these poets, Reines, Minnis, and Glenum, are Oelbaum’s friends?

Is this simply a Foetry story?

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RHYTHM AND POETRY

Criticism of Life?  Bah.  Rhythm! Ode to Joy! One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-and-Two!

The essence of rhythm is completely misunderstood by the modern poets.

They falsely posit two things of which there is only one.

It is similar to the error in which a simple quantity, height, for instance, is described as a duality: short and tall.  Short is not a quantity in itself, and neither is tall. Short and tall are two ways of saying the same thing: height.  Short and tall only have meaning in relation to some other height. Height itself is neither short nor tall—it is simply one measurable quantity between two points.

In the same way: the quantity, rhythm, is notrecurring pattern’ on one hand, and ‘variation of that pattern,’ on the other.

Rhythm, for that word to have any meaning, is not two things.  It is one thing.

Since variation cannot exist unless there is an established pattern from which to vary, it is ridiculous to speak of variety or variation as a separate quantity—like tall, it begs the question, taller than what? or in this case, varying from what?  This second quantity—variation—does not exist, but is contained in the first quantity, which we define as: the established pattern or rhythm which must first exist before any variation can occur, and without which no variation can occur.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist most respected for first principles, errs, precisely in this manner, when he claims all prose scans and all prose has rhythm.

The Modernist error is defended by the tall and short trick—two quantities conjured out of the one principle: rhythm.

We see the Modernist compare iambic pentameter—which is described as a recurring pattern—to prose, which is described as a variation on a pattern, the Modernist adding that good iambic pentameter breaks the iambic expectation with variation—and prose is a variation on this sort of (good) variation—and thus, naturally, a good.

Good iambic moves away from expectation; good prose moves towards it.

The trick that is being played here is a simple one: the Modernist inserts a quality in a manner that distorts a quantity. The rhythm is the rhythm, not the variation from it—but this “not” magically becomes “the good;” the “variation” (the variation, any variation, variation that cannot exist without the original rhythm) now becomes wholly associated with “the good,” because if iambic does not vary itself, it is bad—and therefore prose, seen as wholly and organically various, and thus always varying itself, becomes in the blindness of the Modernist argument, the good.

The false Modernist argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: If iambic can vary itself as prose does, iambic will be good, and prose, which is already various, is by the same token, also good.

But obviously there can be no variation without the original rhythm—which is the actual good—and to describe variety as good is nothing but a lie, because not only is variety not a separate good, variety does not and cannot exist at all as anything materially separate.

The iambic—even as it varies itself, remains always and forever iambic in the upper part of the reader’s mind—and the more it skillfully varies itself as an iambic rhythm, the more strongly does it assert itself, in its variety, as an iambic rhythm, and this process alone—by which the iambic varies itself and by doing so, remains more strongly iambic—is the good.

Iambic is iambic because it is not prose. The iambic rhythm (ta DA) possesses an identifiable rhythm, and thus an identity in terms of rhythm which prose does not—since prose is not-prosebecause-it-isnot-iambic. Prose is also not prose because it is not trochaic—thus not being iambic alone does not define prose. But iambic is defined by not being prose—were iambic, after all, really trochaic, for instance, it would still be very much itself, since the rhythm of trochaic and iambic are almost the same (a short beside a long).

With logical precision, Criticism can prove that prose has no identifiable rhythm.

This, in fact, is what defines prose as prose.  It does not differ from iambic, it differs from all rhythm—for it has none.

The Modernist Theory of free verse is not scientific.  It is a hopeful dream—though the Modernist would insist the glory of free verse is based on “experience.”

To reject Criticism for experience, thinking the former leads us away frorm the latter, is wrong, for Criticism makes us aware of experience and is therefore vital to it. Criticism is nothing more and nothing less than an experience of experience, and therefore to reject Criticism as effete or unnecessary is foolish: a rejection of experience itself.

To insist that prose scans is to succumb to the worst sin, according to Pope’s Essay on Criticism: pride. It is also to reject what, according to Plato, is the essence of art, humility, and intelligence: measurement.

The Modernist is uncomfortable with measurement, and feels superior to it.  The Modernist is a priest without religion, a scientist without science, an artist without art, a lover without love, and indulges in experience without criticism—which is experience without experience.

Life is all the Modernist has.

Life belongs to all of us—and yes, life needs no criticism, no science, no love, no measurement.  Life is that place we, as individuals, can safely be ignorant or hyper-aware, as we sit on a train, drowse on our beds, drift sweetly in our minds, dismiss all in a bad mood, or embrace all in moments of intoxication; then, criticism of experience—which is truly what experience is—can go hang.  There is no “criticism of life,” the Arnoldian phrase loved by T.S. Eliot; it is truly an empty phrase, if we understand how vast, casual and random life really is.

Life is beyond Criticism.  Experience depends on Criticism.   Yet the Modernist confuses the two.

Life is subjective, sprawling.

Experience is limited, objective.

The Modernist comprehends neither experience (rejecting criticism of it) nor life (welcoming criticism of it).  Of course it is no wonder that Matthew Arnold’s “criticsm of life” was used by Eliot in praising Pound’s poetry [intro to Pound’s Selected Poems, Faber]. When you wish to reject experience and criticism of it, you insist, like the Modernists and their heirs, the Post-Modernists do, that your poetry reflects “life,” which of course is impossible.

Life is what finally makes poetry empty and effete.  In one of life’s bad moods, all poetry is terrible, and life laughs at our criticism and makes everything true—or not—on a whim.

A poet would be a fool, then, to think his poetry is a ‘criticism of life.’

No, life is always a criticism of poetry, and didactic pride prevents us from admitting this is always the case, and it never goes the other way; poetry is never a ‘criticism of life.’ Only a fool who believes prose scans would make such an assertion.

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

POETRY IS LOVE, NOT MODERNIST BLAH, BLAH BLAH

It is amazing that people will do a thing without any understanding of what that thing is.

Listen to the Romantic poet, S.T. Coleridge: “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!”

The secular might let out a groan and protest: “There is no God!”

But this is to entirely miss the point.

Coleridge is saying: Learn the reasons why things, including you, were created, designed, made.

To know what a poem is, we must first understand what in fact, it is: why did it come about, in the first place?  The emphasis here is on ‘first.’  Not what it was embellished to be later on, but why did it first come into existence?

The smart-aleck will say, “I can put anything I want into my poem.  I can make it whatever I want, and that’s the point.”

The smart-aleck is in dire need of Coleridge’s admonition.

The smart-aleck’s philosophy lacks art.

The poem is an emotional plea to an absent person.

The above definition is merely a series of words; to better define what a poem is, we should say what it-–as a thing—is: A love letter.

If a love letter is what a poem first was—we cannot, without getting lost in a dark wood, repeal or nullify this as its essential being.

The poet Walt Whitman will come to our aid here:

Sometimes With One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for
fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay
is certain one way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was
not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs

We are striving to know the God of the poem.

The absent quality of the reader (“my love was not return’d”) was vital for Whitman, who gained by knowing essentially what a poem was.

Once we understand what a poem is, then—only then—can we expand into a striving to know thy God of thy poem, thus making it unique; we, however, must first know the God of the poem.

There is a first, there is a sequence of understanding a thing.

The absent quality feeds the desire of the poet, and thus defines the poet as a lover.

We don’t say love is the strongest desire, but we say that desire for the absent defines the whole process and its continued definition by the poet is what defines poetry, and is what poetry is, in fact.

CHRISTIAN WIMAN OPENS THE DOOR TO CRAZY

Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, 2003-2012 and the recent Poetry anthology, The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine

How do you respond to someone who goes on using old terms to describe what they keep insisting is new?

This is the dilemma of those who must listen to the endless drone of the curators and defenders and benefactors of modern poetry, or contemporary poetry, as it’s sometimes called; it’s no surprise this drone would manifest itself most painfully in a celebration of 100 years of Poetry magazine, specifically in Christian Wiman’s introduction to The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine.

Wiman’s The Open Door introduction is ostentatiously entitled, “Mastery and Mystery.”

The mastery is a mystery—this is what we think Mr. Wiman means.

Wiman is one of these—fans—of poetry (in the abstract, of course) who love everything about it, so things like critical faculty, discernment, and judgment, are mere annoyances that get in the way of the joyfully universal hippie consciousness kissing every divine modern word, kissing every divine modern line-break.

Wiman is habituated, like so many of his ilk, to prate on and on about “craft” in a wholesomely earnest manner, in which craft designates not skillful arrangement, but any arrangement, which he, Wiman, for no reason which can be discerned, finds deeply meritorious.  What do you say to the person, who, reclining in some well-made chair, points to a heap of sticks, declaring the pile to be an excellent example of “craft?”

“Craft matters because life matters,” Wiman intones—and of course it does, because a loose pile of sticks matters—as all things matter, and who would deny this?  Certainly not Wiman.

The lovely assertion—“Craft matters because life matters”—is all the critical mountebank needs, but Wiman will not let the windmill get away quite so easily, for he adds,

Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers) and sometimes, as Pound implies, even unethical.

“Craftless poetry…is unethical,” (!!) and who better to “imply” this than the highly ethical, ‘pile-of-sticks-author’ himself, Ezra Pound?

But what, according to Wiman,  is “craftless poetry,” anyway?

Did you really expect Wiman to tell us?  He mentions Pound, and that’s all he needs to do.  The in-the-know-modernist sagely nods, and Wiman immediately changes the subject, diving into another modernist topic.

The difficulty of modern poetry—that is, poetry written since Modernism—is taken by most people as a given.

Ah, having quickly covered the “craft” issue, we now get the old canard about the “difficulty of modern poetry,” as if Shakespeare, for instance, is not “difficult,” and as if “difficult” (which can easily be translated into ‘poorly written’) means anything substantial at all.

Following his brief and sage observation that Edna Millay is not “difficult,”  Wiman falls down in utter worship of a poet who is, Basil “Crushed Grit” Bunting, in a manner that would make even Shakespeare blush:

Briggflatts is a palimpsest of history, nature, learning, loss. It is the testament and artifact of a man who has lived so thoroughly through the language, that is has become a purely expressive medium. Because of cadence and pacing, and the way sounds echo and intensify sense, the word is restored to a kind of primal relation with the world; language itself takes on the textures and heft of things:

Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mansion whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
crushed grit.

Let’s be placid and factual for a moment: Crossword puzzles are random words that fit into a whole—a rather superficial use of craft—what Bunting does (hyped by the excitable Wiman) is select random words of similar sound and meaning (“horse” and “harness”) and put them into a heap.

We might admire Bunting’s list of words, (requiring a dictionary and a bit of free time,) but we must point out that the craft of making a crossword puzzle involves fitting words into a whole—but the Bunting excerpt is, in fact, “craftless,” since beyond the similarity of the words themselves (in Bunting’s list) no definitive whole is acheived; all we get, if we speak as an honest critic, is a vague depiction of a blurry,  impressionistic scene, which is naturally what we would expect if any such list were presented loosely to us.

The Bunting excerpt is (try it) as good read backwards—just as we can do a crossword puzzle in any order we choose.

The Bunting passage has less craft than what is acheived by the author of the crossword puzzle.

Yet Wiman explicitly states that Bunting of “crushed grit” is a great advance (!!) (“the word is restored,” “language itself takes on…the heft of things”) of a wondrous kind—an interesting thesis.

Next, Wiman completely misses the meaning of a Denise Levertov passage as he purports to give us “a little master class in free verse,” in which

Our bodies, still young under
the engraved anxiety of our
faces

is for Wiman all about the line-break after “under” because

it is one thing to say that a body is “still young,” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.

First, despite the feverish belief in the importance of the line-break, we must point out that Levertov never says, “still young”—she says, “still young under.”  In the split-second it takes to read “still young under,” it is impossible not to read Levertov’s line as “still young under,” line-break or not.

Second, Wiman misreads Levertov’s simple meaning.  Wiman informs us that:

The mind naturally wants to read these lines like this:

Our bodies, still young
under the engraved anxiety
of our faces…

But this completely changes the meaning and effect of the lines. It is one thing to say that a body is “still young” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.

We are not sure what all this “history” and “density of feeling and experience” is that Wiman gratuitously mentions; Levertov is stating an anatomical fact: faces show outward signs of age (wrinkles, and so forth, the “engraved anxiety of our faces”) before bodies do; it’s common knowledge for the body in middle age to remain smooth and young-looking while the face begins to look “engraved.”  The “under” Wiman wants to load with all sorts of significance, merely refers to to one’s body “under” the engraved face. Wiman’s ‘insight’ is nothing but error.

This is where line-break-ism leads: rant.  Wiman, winds up his “triumphant” reading of Levertov’s lines with this:

The point here is not to go through every poem nitpicking technique, trying to find some obvious “reason” for every formal decision. Rather, the point is simply to be aware that what may seem like awkwardness or even randomness (James Schuyler!) can be as formally severe and singular as any Bach fugue.

The folly here is laughable in the extreme: we move, with Wiman, from a silly misreading into the majesty of a Bach fugue.

Wiman, now half-way through his introduction, swells with pride at his own poetry-reading skill, which causes him to embrace the essence of life itself:

One of the qualities to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life…

Wiman continues in this vein: Poetry! Life! 

Poetry…”gives us access to a new world and new experience” and also “enlivens the lives we thought we knew.”

Hyperbole joins hyperbole, as only the advocate of modern poetry can bring it.

“Why write poetry?” asks Wiman, why “keep a journal?”  Because “language is a living thing” and deserves “our fullest and most costly consciousness, only our whole selves honed by emotional extremity.”

Wiman then warns against “vanity” in poetry as we might find it in the “bloviating laueate” or the “open-mike” poet in the “local bar,” saying poetry, even when it’s anti-religious, is the force that invented religion in the first place, and we must feel poetry in our “blood,” in the “marriage of word and world.”

We also need to understand that “the lyric” is not only “inward,” as Wiman points out  for us that Thom Gunn, with “his heroic height” and “his motorcycle boots” had “little patience for Romantic effluvia” as he “wanted to obliterate personality in his poetry.”

Wiman blows us away with another flashing insight: a “writer who grows up in a bookless culture” will “always be torn by conflicting impulses.”

More wisdom: “Every poem in this book is situated somewhere on this spectrum between life and learning, between linguistic powers honed to surgical precisions and the messy living reality out of which all language…”

For all the canons and anthologies, for every rock-solid reputation and critical consensus, poetry is personal or it is nothing.

As far we can tell, Wiman has convinced everyone—but himself—that “it is nothing.”

Precisely because he has declared it to be everything.

Poetry, according to Wiman, brings that “face-off between spiritual integrity and social insecurity.”

If only Wiman were a bit more “insecure” regarding “spiritual integrity”—and everything else.

Finally, Wiman tells us that he and his co-editor, Don Share, feel “humility” and “pride” in the job they’ve done.

At least he’s feeling humble.

Do we expect too much from a perfunctory introduction to a book containing 100 poems in 100 years of Poetry?

Of course we do.

But at that same time, the thought on display in any poetry anthology introduction should not be taken lightly.  Mountain-top pronouncements no longer exist in poetry.  We should be harsh with every whisper, every small notion, every part.  If we find no fault with the brick, we cannot criticize the house.

Criticism today must be micro, as well as honest, and Wiman, who made Poetry better as an editor by adding controversial prose, will no doubt understand Scarriet’s purpose.

It is not our fault that the Modernist is the dullest creature on the face of the earth, both emotionally flat and inane.

Whatever poetry does to us with its awkward spell, it finally does to us in a manner of which we have little or no cognizance; how important, then, is the Maid, Reason, who protects us from ravenous incomprehensibility; Modernism, however, with its notoriously unfriendly prose style (Whitman, Pound, Jarrell) is no nurse speaking with sweetness and clarity at our feverish bedside. Wiman, like all the other Modernists, is excitable, and lacks simple common sense.

JUSTIN BIEBER’S BLACK VALENTINE

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)  might have the best poem in Rita Dove’s 20th Century Poetry Anthology

Did anyone notice that Justin Bieber mentioned Phillis Wheatley on Saturady Night Live last night?

The producers of SNL decided to have a little fun with Justin Bieber, who like many pop stars before him (most famously Elvis Presley and British Invasion blues rock bands) is a white person cashing in on a ‘black vibe’ for an exciting (raunchy?) public appeal.

There’s nothing complicated about this.

It’s the combination all of us want: Safe, yet dangerous: I’m actually very nice—but that doesn’t mean you can  fuck with me. 

Or: I’m blessed with x or y talent—but that doesn’t mean I had it completely easy. 

Or, I’m glorious—but love and sympathize with those not as glorious as I am.

This is the combining that is at the heart of all social activity and all poetry.

Which is why it never gets old.

SNL wryly pointed out that Valentine’s Day occurs during Black History Month, as they had Bieber, in his SNL introduction, wooing girls in the audience with roses and Black History Month facts: “Did you know Maya Angelou invented the peanut?”

One of Black History’s fixtures, Phillis Wheatley lived and died in the 18th century, was a pre-American slave shipped from West Africa by the British to their American colony, was highly educated and became a famous poet while living in Boston in the care of her affectionate master and family.  She wrote poetry like this:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

She supported the American Revolution and her work was praised by George Washington.  She was emancipated, married a free black, but died, with two infant children, due to poverty and illness, in 1784.

Phillis Wheatley’s story is complex.

There are lives, and even artistic sensibilities, which shame the easy attempt to profit from combinations put together in too contrived and glib a manner.

Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Centruy American Poetry has been attacked by Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff as being too black.

Vendler complained too many poets—and not enough poems by Wallace Stevens—were included.  This is not even worthy of a response, and Dove was correct not to work up any sort of substantial one.

The Perloff camp wanted more experimental poets in the anthology.

But the experimental crowd couldn’t care less for wonderful poems like the one below, included by Dove in her anthology, written by the African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Vendler doesn’t deserve a response; this will do as a response to Perloff:

Life’s Tragedy

It may be misery not to sing at all
And to go silent through the brimming day.
It may be sorrow never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

To have come near to sing the perfect song
And only by a half–tone lost the key,
There is the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of life’s tragedy.

To have just missed the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lays aside its vanity
And gives thee, for thy trusting worship, truth—

This, this it is to be accursed indeed;
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by the things we have,
But by what kept us from the perfect thing.

POETRY CANNOT BE ABOUT LOVE

Poetry cannot be about love
Unless words bring us together,
And those are always in prose:
Meet me. When? In an hour.
And if the trysts are blocked—
No more her lips with my lips locked,
Impatient, and sad, she grows—
As my poetry dwindles into prose.
Unbearable becomes love’s mere name:
The shadow but the memory of the flame.
Irresolute lovers become foes.
Words, in sadness, grow few,
Flesh grown silent, accuses;
Loss feeds loss, the past which won now loses;
Prophecy triumphs over poetry,
Poetry that tells of love
Is not telling of love
But only of love’s demise:
I would not be writing this now
If I’m looking into those eyes.

MORE ORIGINAL POETRY FROM SCARRIET

I Found Out The Uses of Love
I found out the uses of love
But they helped me to find
Only a buried hope in a buried mind.
Love reveals, thus it will not protect,
Love reveals, thus it wins no respect,
Love reveals, reveals, reveals,
And feels nothing after it feels.
Every arrow we send in the air
Hits hope, if hope is still there.
Love gives us the world, but when?
Given, it must be given, again.
Hurry, oh hurry!  But be slow!
Stay! Stay!  But then, will you go?
Love, what are you?  If not trust?
We do not choose to love. We must.

 

THERE’S SOMETHING I’D LIKE TO GIVE TO YOU

There’s something I’d like to give you
And I hope you don’t mind if I do,
Something you can put in your pocket,
Or slip right into your shoe,
Something that’s very small, betokening me.
Cost: none. Yet, costly.
And there’s nothing I’d like to give you
More than this here.
It is warm, but could disappear.
It is thoughtful, yet has no thought.
It wasn’t sold, and will never be bought.
In my heart’s chemistry it was wrought.
You can wear it around your neck,
The loveliness of your neck.
It will be happy beside your heart,
Any part of you, I expect.
It weighs nothing, it is nothing,
It is everything, for it has no part.
You gave it to me when we met.
It is the look I won’t forget.
It is the giving that is most giving
Because it is you, quietly living.
It is my heart on yours,
Murmuring, as when distantly, the sea roars.
It is the grain of sand I took in my hand
When sea confessed its love for the land.
You will give it back to me;
I know you will—eternally.
It is the stark radiance of the moon.
It is the whisper of a melancholy, yet tuneful, tune.
It is the light that gleamed in my head
When every landscape was dark and dead.
It is the waiting we did
When hope left us, and the gift hid.

ANXIETY IN POETRY LAND

Mary Ruefle: She bravely asked the right question.

Poetry (in its pure sense) might be defined as when you squeeze in a story until it doesn’t look like a story anymore; it unfolds in beauty rather than narration.

Since prose and poetry went their separate ways, poetry is the heart-broken one, trying, trying, since the 20th century, every way to become prose itself.

In a recent John Gallaher blog post (what a vulture we are these days!) we have Mary Ruefle worrying that she is

wasting my life making idle comparisons between things that could not and need not be compared

a quotation we find really sweet.  How honest, in a day when poets, living with an art in the sunset of its death, choose to pontificate abstractly and optimistically, as if this will make it all better.  Ruelfe instead embraces tragedy and gloom in what feels like a breath of fresh air—because only doubt makes us really think.

Gallaher then quotes contemporary poet Tim Donnelly in response to Ruefle’s quote:

Now I worry that when I sit down I’m thinking whether what I’m writing is going to tap into the zeitgeist. I’m fearful that I’ll start censoring myself if something doesn’t participate in that kind of a conversation. I don’t want to sit down and write poems that have a secular piety to them, trying to solve the next big crisis — it seems very artificial to me. So I’m trying to disable that. I want the next poems I write to be ridiculous, over the top, appalling — poems that don’t overannounce their moral sensitivity. When you see poetry contenting itself with small things, that can be frustrating too. A lot of poetry today seems to me to be just dicking around with voice — being charming or superficially Ashberyesque.

Now, unfortunately, we are back to pontification: Donnelly sounds like another contemporary po-biz brick-in-the-wall, lacking the soul-searching rigor that poetry used to get from dudes like Keats and Coleridge, and now, perhaps Mary Ruefle; Donnelly, it seems to us, in the quote above, gives us a bunch of clever lingo without real understanding. We dread having to read poems by a poet who “wants the next poems he writes” to be “ridiculous, over the top, appalling.”  For, what does this mean?  Donnelly is promising something extreme, in a totally vague manner, which is charmingly adolescent at best, but we fear is just inane.  We get some criticism—“overannounce moral sensitivity,” “contenting itself with small things,” “dicking around with voice,” “superficially Ashberyesque,” but we should understand something here: this earns no critical points if you don’t give examples.  “Small things” might be marvelous, or crappy, but how do we know?   But Gallaher is content to quote this Donnelly passage as something insightful.  It’s not.  It’s just “dicking around.”

What does it mean to “compare things?”  Ruefle’s quote needs to be pondered.  Donnelly’s quote just gets us away from it.  Aristotle said metaphor was the heart of poetry.  The Renaissance through Romanticism (Shakespeare, Pope, Poe, etc) disagreed.  Here is food for thought, but we need to be patient and dine on it, slowly.

John Gallaher himself then adds to Ruefle and Donnelly with this duality:

The pitfalls of reductive earnestness on the one hand and futile superficiality on the other.

“Futile superficiality,” we presume, is code for all that “dicking around” Ashbery crap (one Ashbery is great, a thousand is a nightmare) and Ruefle’s doubt regarding trivial comparisons, while “reductive earnestness” is the other extreme: poems that express obvious, Hallmark, love-sentiments, etc.

Gallaher, as is his nature, reminds us that this is not the only duality and other options remain, etc, but as interesting as Gallaher is, he is never rigorous, because he always wants to escape through some other door, a typical contemporary-poet- escape-artist.

Here’s the danger as we see it: Robert Burns is “reductive” and John Ashbery is “superficial,” and thus good poetry for everyone is impossible, and all we can do is sit around waiting for Donnelly’s promised “over the top,” which will surely be the most superficial slop, yet.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Americans hunker down for their Sunday Super Bowl, Scarriet will pursue, recklessly, “reductive earnestness,” because this should be the initial goal, not superficiality, we think.

If no absolutes exist, we should at least do this.  Choose an accessible subject: love, for instance, and then let all the poets apply their philosophies and styles to it—rather than the poets following individual paths to obscurity and infinity, while promising “over the top” (over what top?) along the way.

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