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.


  1. February 6, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Hey: That quote was from a long informal conversation I had over beer and empanadas. It isn’t an essay and it doesn’t work like one. It was transcribed, edited, and posted without my editorial input. Well, actually, I tinkered with one passage towards the end of the interview after it went up, but other than that I left it as is b/c I figured people were smart enough to take it for what it is. I guess if I have added some “examples” I would have “earned critical points” with you, which I can just tell must be a real life-changing experience, like when a monkey smiles at you from inside its cage or something. The point of that “ridiculous, over the top, appalling” passage was that, after having written a book that quite a few of its readers (if I’m to believe what I’m told) found meaningful and even moving, and in a timely way, I want to feel free not to have to do that again IF it means forcing it just to play it safe or phoning it in just to play to the room. Ask any poet who has patience for you what that might mean, or why someone might want to avoid it, and chances are he or she will be able to explain it to you — and maybe even provide you with examples.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm


      I would never expect you to “phone in” the “moving” and the “meaningful!” God forbid! Let’s have the “ridiculous,” instead, by all means.

      Look, I’m sure “beer” was involved in the quote; in fact, that doesn’t surprise me at all. Maybe it was such a lot of beer, that to have it called “pontification” actually does you proud, who knows?

      I’m glad you responded—but again, examples?? What exactly do you mean by “ridiculous?” Ezra Pound ridiculous? Wallace Stevens ridiculous? John Ashbery ridiculous? Edward Lear ridiculous? Rimbaud ridiculous? The ridiculous sublime? The merely ridiculous?

      Surely the answer is at the bottom of a beer glass, somewhere, but here’s the real point I need to make, after getting in those cheap shots. Shots with beer! Now there’s an idea…

      The target wasn’t really you, but Gallaher, who used your quote. He gets all the blame. More blame, too, because he hasn’t replied, as you have.

      Donnelly, I’ll buy you a drink.

      Gallaher? We’ll have to wait and see….


  2. Purplering said,

    February 7, 2013 at 3:28 am

    Reblogged this on chiaro0990.

  3. Jaime Vers said,

    February 9, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Well-meaning as such statements are, they don’t quite carry conviction. For by definition, an “avant-garde mandate” is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it. Indeed, the implication of rapprochement is that poetic choice is arbitrary, that it has nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context, much less one’s own philosophical perspective. The “commitment to the emotional spectra of lived experience,” for example— the commitment, that is, of poets like Whitman, Williams, or Ginsberg—goes hand in hand with the refusal of the sonnet’s or villanelle’s restrictions on open form, even as, conversely, Yeats declared that the collage mode of the Cantos, made it impossible for Pound to get “all the wine into the bowl.” Indeed, from the perspective of Yeats and most Modernist readers, these seemingly unstructured poems were no more than beautiful “fragments.”

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 9, 2013 at 6:02 pm


    I agree with you. The “historical moment” and the “cultural context” must be taken into account, in all its uniqueness—and this is precisely why a generalized “avant-garde” rejecting a generalized “status quo” requires more investigation.

    The common gee whiz, National Geographic, sort of approach to Modernism is not only shallow, but leads to all sorts of error. When I was at graduate school at Iowa, they didn’t teach Poe. They taught Whitman. Poe is not avant-garde, exactly, but neither is he status quo. The terms are bankrupt, in fact. I use them only because people like you use them; you assume that Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg are avant-garde freedom fighters fighting a kind of good fight against the oppressive and restrictive “status quo.” This is wrong on every level.

    What about a poet who begins as “avant-garde,” but evolves into “status quo?” What about “avant-garde” secretly funded by the “status quo?” I ask this, even as I am suspicious of the terms, just to show further how the whole debate is slanted, and, in fact, ridiculous.

    The “historical moment” is vital: how uneasily the friends, Pound and Williams, occupy what is called the “avant-garde.” The actual history is far more interesting than anything we might mean by the silly term, “avant-garde.”

    One doesn’t just get to say “emotional spectra of lived experience” and validate one’s art by that; it’s simply a tautology: this poetry is better because it’s better (it has more ‘lived experience’ in it). There’s an X and Y axis; one isn’t allowed to say my ‘x’ has more ‘experience’ than yours. Art is in the equation. I don’t care about Ginsberg’s life—unless I’m his psychiatrist, or his friend. One has to care about the life when there is ‘life’ in ‘art.’

    Scarriet has shown that Modernism is essentially a “right-wing” phenomenon, not a “left-wing” one, and this is true when we study “cultural context” and “historical moment” (the actual lives of individuals like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, their lawyer John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, Ransom, Tate, and yes the actual art that was produced by these men, their aesthetic philosophy, etc. I say this even as I realize that “right” and “left” are terms that can be as slippery as “avant-garde” and “staus quo,” but once again, to demonstrate the complexity that goes far beyond your implication that this is all about the so-called integrity of a so-called “avant-garde” (politely explicated in National Geographic golly-gee speak)which somehow automatically defies other investigations.


  5. Verlainelefou said,

    February 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    There you have it , see? It wasn’t me who wrote all of that but Marjorie Perloff whom you could learn a thing or two from … it’s excerpted from a much longer essay. Do read it as you being a smart fellow might catch on, that is, if you don’t have a resentment towards what you don’t understand. Should that be the case, you’d fall into the School of Resentment (Bloom), which’d be funny cause you think more along his heavy unhappy line of thought than the other camp. Oopps! did I err? I said camp? O Lordy, one knows there are dozens of camps.
    And closer to your own sensibilites is this chap

    Brady grow up for fuck’s sake. Quit blowing smoke and farts. We like you but you’re grandstanding and sentimental. Jeepers! hahahahh

  6. thomasbrady said,

    February 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Scarriet has already produced more than one article on Marjorie Perloff and her “Poetry on the Brink.”

    Everyone in her School talks like that. It’s not very distinguished rhetoric. Pardon, but it does begin to blur after a while.

    We told Harold Bloom privately what we thought of his opinions on Poe and he agreed with us; he said, “Yes, I was intolerant.”

    You don’t read us very closely if you think our sensibilities are anything close to that chap from Canada. Our politics are tolerant, sane, and not alarmist.

    Now if you can’t do anything better than that, I love you, but go away.

  7. noochinator said,

    July 17, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Life is an appalling business: it requires the most sensitive tenderness and the most brutal heartlessness. The same goes for po-biz….

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 17, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      How about tender brutality and heartless sensitivity! Don’t forget those!

  8. rimbaudboyo said,

    December 12, 2014 at 2:15 am

    Interesting debates here!

  9. L'Amerloque Poetique said,

    December 12, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Funny names too ☻

  10. noochinator said,

    December 17, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Speaking of anxiety, here’s pianist Steven Mayer playing “Masque” from Bernstein’s ‘Age of Anxiety’ (plus a few other pieces as well):

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