Stephen Spender between Auden and Isherwood: the Truly Great?

The two poems in today’s contest are what certain petulant members of today’s avant-garde might call Quietist—in the extreme. 

The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman took the term “Quietist” from Edgar Poe (eventually they all take everything from Edgar Poe).

Poe used “Quietist” to condemn a self-satisfied, New England puritan-astuteness, a Ralph Waldo Emerson type of wisdom, which Poe felt was mostly superior-sounding rubbish.

In Silliman’s avant alteration, “Quietist” has come to mean simply, not avant-garde, so we are to think that all avant-garde poetry (wretchedly obscure, cut-and-paste, 150-year-old Duchamp’s moustache-on-a-Mona-Lisa done over and over and over again…) is somehow exciting—when nothing could be further from the truth…

If you believe with Scarriet that it is not the poet’s job to know—but to be understood, you will be less likely to fall for Silliman’s avant-garde’s flattery.

These 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament poems are “populist” poems.

Charles D’Orleans and Stephen Spender, about to clash before roaring crowds, have produced the kind of works which make avant-garde insects scatter, running for the obscurity they require, to avoid the light poems such as this produce.

Poems like this do not arise from randomly tossing poetry kit magnets onto a fridge.

The trick that makes this whole issue somewhat difficult to grasp is this: the random, fridge-magnet poem (the avant-garde poem) has a certain textual integrity that the poems which follow—Silliman’s so-called “Quietist” poems—do not.

By “textual integrity,” we refer to the fact that before the fridge-magnet poem randomly ‘comes together,’ it exists no where else; its textual integrity is all the integrity it has.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a New Critic’s dream.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a conceptual poet’s dream, as well, since the conceptual poet gets to have effortless ‘textual integrity’ paired with the ‘concept:’ I made the executive decision as a conceptual poet to throw magnets at a fridge and to employ randomness as a blow against mere Quietism.

The following “populist” poems are not necessarily difficult to write, and we all know they are not difficult to read, or understand;—the randomly generated fridge-magnet poem is difficult to read, and in some people’s minds, is better for that reason alone.

But the issue, contrary to the Modernist mantra, is not “difficulty,” for random poems and bad poems can be “difficult” as hell; to promote “difficulty” as a standard is nothing more than a Modernist, avant-garde ruse.

The poems by D’Orleans and Spender exist not just in their textuality but mostly in the truth of what was felt and thought prior to their existence as texts—a concept difficult for the New Critic and the avant-garde Modernist to wrap their minds around, but which is a concept celebrated by those who actually love poetry.

Las! Mort Qui T’a Fait Si Hardie (trans. Fred Chappell)
Charles D’ Orleans (1394-1465)

Death, you have made it your pleasure
To take the noble princess
Who was my comfort, my treasure,
And everything to bless
My life. Since my mistress
You take, take once again:
Take me, her servitor.
Better to die than bear
Such torment, sorrow, and pain.

She was beautiful past measure,
In the flower of youth she was.
May God work His displeasure
Upon your faithlessness!
My anguish would be less
If you had taken her when
Old age had burdened her;
But you hastened to show your power
With torment, sorrow, and pain.

I live imprisoned, my leisure
Lonely, companionless…
My Lady, goodbye. Now has our
Love departed. This promise
I make to you: largess
Of prayers and, until slain,
My heart, yours evermore,
Forgetting nothing in its sore
Torment, sorrow and pain.

God, Who art sovereign
Of all, in mercy ordain
That the bright spirit of her
Will only briefly endure
Torment, sorrow, and pain.

We love this poem, and it would seem to survive its translation, as well.

It goes against this chestnut from Sir Stephen Spender, who ran Horizon magazine (1940-49) with, it turns out, CIA money.  He was part of Auden’s circle, and a fine poet.


I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fŠted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

We don’t know if we believe the poet when he says, “I think continually of those who were truly great,” but it is a forceful and memorable phrase.

D’Orleans wins, 88-84.

The 15th century poet advances!



  1. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 18, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    I think that some people are confused as to what difficulty in poetry means, or perhaps, should mean. I am thinking here of Eliot. His poetry is difficult for obvious reasons. He read everything he could get his hands on, and studied Sanskrit. He was a true polymath, and his poetry reflects that. I do not think that he was aiming for obscurum per obscurius.

    At the same time, some poets add personal experiences or insights, that the rest of us are not privileged to, into their poems, and expect the rest of us to understand what they are trying to get across. And, even if those references are not personal, the poem has to be interesting enough for us to want to explore it further.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    April 19, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    What you study outside the poem has nothing to do with how well you write poetry. Eliot’s success as a poet was due to the particular quality and passion of his mind, not the quantity of what he may have read. Of course you should be reasonably educated, but that’s all we can say with certainty. D. Schwartz took Eliot to task for Eliot’s “difficulty” remark. Schwartz is correct. Difficulty is not a standard, nor is it a virtue. Modernism latched onto it in ignorance.

  3. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 19, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Yes, I would agree with you concerning Eliot, in that his, “success as a poet was due to the particular quality and passion of his mind.” However I due think that , in his particular case, his catholic reading did indeed help the quality of his work. But, more often than not, this is not the case. In other words, it came naturally to Eliot. It is not something that one should necessarily strive for.

  4. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 19, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    I meant “do” not due. I’m sleepy.

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm

      I had never seen “due” used in that way before. I’ll admit I was intrigued for a moment. In due time I might come around to appreciating “I due think that” as due. Do not think I am sleepy. I am due for even more coffee God help me.

  5. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    April 20, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    You have given this due thought.

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