THE VERSE DRAMA: BEN MAZER

At the Grolier (L-R) Amanda Maciel Antunes; Michael Healy; Robert Chalfen; Julia Kleyman; Zachary Bos; Ben Mazer; Allison Vanouse; Jenna Dee; Philip Nikolayev

The verse drama ought to wear the crown, but as it happens so often in life with worthy things, is neglected; the verse drama’s combination of entertainment (drama) and fine art (poetry) should carry the day for all conceivable reasons except for the inconceivable reason that it does not.

To give an audience to a poet and poetry to audiences!  And for this noble purpose, to spring poetry from books so it might escape into, and live in, sound! To give entertainment the soul of art and art, the charm of entertainment! To put intricate music into story! To insert character and plot into intricate music!

These are worthy goals, and they must have excited Shakespeare, the playwright and poet, to give us the best literature in the world, etc.

The audience may boo, as it booed Henry James, so the poetry better entertain and the drama better fit the shades and hues of the words. Plays are not for the faint of heart.

T.S. Eliot, the modern who bemoaned verse drama’s fall as a popular art form,  says on the practical matters of verse drama:

Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants “poetry.” (“Novices,” says Aristotle, “in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.”) The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.  —The Possibility of Poetic Drama, T.S. Eliot

We are happy to report that Ben Mazer, the poet, treats the task of creating verse drama, in his “A City of Angels,” neither too solemnly, nor as a joke; perhaps superficially, the scene at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop recently resembled a “small public” assembled for “poetry,” and perhaps due to the “temper of the age,” this is the only social milieu possible for verse drama, but Mazer, we feel, succeeds wildly with his 3 act play.

Mazer fulfills what Eliot, in “Rhetoric and Poetic Drama,” wanted:

A speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as it might conceivably move other characters in the play, for it is essential that we should preserve our position of spectators, and observe always from the outside though with complete understanding.

There is nothing worse than art that has a “palpable design” on us, and Mazer, by avoiding this common error, has a chance to give us true art.  And he does.

In more general terms, Oscar Wilde is a spokesman witty and elegant enough to convince us of the importance of poetry performed.

Wilde’s The Critic As Artist is illustrative of that great debate—is poetic language sign (writing) or sound (music)?

The 19th century was still imbued with the spirit of the Greeks and sound was the high-brow choice; but in the 20th century, Imagism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry and Language Poetry have made poetry on the page more important to scholars and academic poets.

There is no question where Wilde stands in his marvelous document, The Critic As Artist:

Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear, which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always. Even the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words  and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life produces. We, in fact, have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design. The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.  I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us, not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.  Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to his blindness, as an occasion if not as a cause, that England’s great  poet owed much of the majestic movement and sonorous splendor of his later verse.  When Milton could no longer write, he began to sing.  …Yes: writing has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice. That must be our test, and perhaps then we shall be able to appreciate some of the subtleties of Greek art criticism.

Wilde is writing in the late 19th century, before Modernism killed the Greek spirit which Wilde breathed as the very air.  Perhaps the death of Oscar Wilde (1900) should mark the beginning of Modernism/Post-Modernism—with its emphasis on poetry as writing, and even design, as opposed to poetry of speaking, singing, and winged thought.

The Verse Play, A City of Angels, by Ben Mazer, twice performed recently in Harvard Square, leaps over the heavy mosaic of writing into a heaven of sound.   Why ideality is better ushered into our minds by the ear is a mystery all unsolvable; the inspired poet himself is but a vessel and cannot explain it.

We might, at this point, make some self-evident observations.

The poetry of sound works in a medium more suited to poetry itself.

Enlightenment and pleasure, however misty, enter us by definite steps; this is how the material world experiences itself. Spoken language requires steps to imaginative reality, and those steps are at once accessible and elevating in the hands of the gifted poet; most poets strive for elevation but their steps are hidden, or their steps are accessible but they do not lead anywhere.

Ben Mazer’s poem is accessible and mystical at once.  We could use the word genius to describe how simply Mazer swims in the deep.

Music, or self-consciously musical language, allows us to travel to a place; both the traveling to the place and the place itself are provided by the music.

With all due respect to visual artists, we can see at once how musical poetry is superior to what the design or picture does, for the visual artist merely give us the place but not the traveling to the place—only the movement of temporal art can do that.

The poem that imitates painting and provides imagery is doing only a small part of what it can do, and even when providing imagery, the poet must ‘stretch it’ in the temporal rendering. Every tool has a self-imposed limit as well as a certain thing it can do.  Mazer understands this on many levels, and especially in this: his imagery always serves his music.

The painter will use distance for an effect, the poet, time, but the poet’s time is so much more immense and important.  So many things will mark the poet’s temporal journey: exactly what he is saying, exactly what he is painting, the rhythm of what is said, the suggestive vistas large or small, bright, dappled, or dark; the journey can be accumulative or sudden, the steps, a whole paragraph of thought, or a single arch rhyme. The skillful poet builds thought itself with mood on mood, and the Verse Drama is a form which lends itself to this and which seems to find Mazer in his element.

When it comes to temporality, Mazer does not languish in A City, but stresses movement for the sake of movement:

where much is predicated to unfold
when in the morning I unleash the thoughts
that brought me to return as if to break
the patterns of the time that came before
and sever all connections to the past
when time moves forward into a new day,
and motion stirs in the awaking town
to find that all is new, is a blank slate
where history shall properly begin
groping to find its new identity
innocently as it looks around
to find that all is moving forward now

We quote but a part of this tour-de-force, John Crick’s monologue which opens the play; is it over the top?  A lesser poet would trim the speech, fearing excess, but temporal excess is precisely how Mazer’s genius asserts itself in the medium he has chosen.

If Crick merely asserted in a briefer format, “here I am, waiting for a new day,” the whole thing would be a failure; Mazer instinctively makes onward movement the rhetorical form of Crick’s speech on mutability and novelty.

Crick’s passion for the new is soon put to the test by the friendly, small-town, skeptical Mary; she is the human lens of the play, modifying Crick’s light; she is “we the audience” who puzzle over Crick’s mystical, forward-looking, optimism.

Mary: “I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.”

Meanwhile, John questions her; John and Mary’s dialogue (Act I, Scene 2) skillfully enhances the content of Crick’s monologue in the play’s first scene.

Crick: But why were you not sleeping at this hour?

Mary: I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.

Crick: I promise that I’ll tell, but answer me.

Mary: Why am I up? I was asleep awhile
but then I had a dream I can’t recall
which stirred and shook me and I was awake.

Mary, unlike the town that is sleeping, is awake, and discovers Crick outside her window in the street (he has come to work for her father, the president of the college.)  Mary is made unique and has her dramatic presence heightened by this simple device, and the dream which she relates hints at Crick’s mysterious visit.  So as Mary questions Crick, he then questions her—and she reveals him more than he does himself.

But she continues to press him:

Mary: But more concretely, what have you in mind?
With what do you propose to fill each day?

Crick: With wonderment and with discovery.
Briefly that is the outline of my plan.
To find virginity in each new day,
a spirit of adventure not restrained.
An openness to what’s not been before.

Mary: Concretely speaking, John, what would that be?

The audience notices the self-aware nature of the play; the playwright knows Crick is not being “concrete” (even though he has put Crick in a dramatically real situation: visiting a snowy city at night for a job, etc).  But the critique of Crick’s vagueness is not a simple one; he parries Mary in such an idiot savant sort of way that one cannot help but emotionally identify with the profound visitor:

Crick: Nothing concrete at all, but something that
remains to be discovered.

Mary:  Well, we’ll see.

Crick’s logic is masterful.  The “something that remains to be discovered” is just that exciting secret which cannot be revealed, for then it would lose its allure.  This is nothing less than a dramatic evocation of the Socratic desire for not only truth—but desire itself.

And with Socrates, we return to the Greek spirit which Wilde, the wit, saw as so important (Eliot, too, lauds Plato in “The Possibility of Poetic Drama”).  And as Wilde made clear in The Critic As Artist, the Greek spirit is the critical spirit:

Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation…

Each new school…cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.

There has never been a creative age that has not been critical also.  For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat itself. It is to the critical instinct that we owe each new school that springs up, each new mould that art finds ready to its hand.

Wilde was a wit, so why wouldn’t he take the side of criticism:  wit is closer to criticism than to creativity.  Some reject Plato, Socrates, the Critical impulse, in favor of a not-so-carefully-considered-creativity.

Mazer’s self-critical mastery of the medium of verse drama is nicely expressed in the Act 3, Scene 1 meeting between the thuggish Tom and Sam Cross—who belong to the the rival clan of the Cricks.  When they caustically speak of “this play,” it probably refers to a play in the play, but there’s just enough of an absurdist hint that the “play” referred to is, in fact, Mazer’s play.

They’ve got one newspaper, one magazine of any value, a literary magazine, and this is where this play will receive a favorable review, and it will be trusted and admired by intellectuals, and we’ve got one shit Crick up our ass.  (Tom Cross)

The rhetorical style of the Cross brothers scene stretches meaning even as it condenses it; the rather brief scene is entirely effective, with just the right black comic menace.  The scene is a perfect vehicle for character actors to have a delightful time, removed, and yet threatening, the romantic world of John Crick and Mary.  Mazer knows how to build, define and separate a play’s elements—we don’t need a lot of interaction to see what is essential move forward.

What “moves forward” in Mazer’s play is fairly simple—but lest we think this a fault, we should remember what T.S. Eliot says (very wisely) in his essay “The Possibility of Poetic Drama:”

The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world—a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a complete process of simplification.

And again, keeping with the whole critical tenor of creation, Mazer in “A City of Angels” is cognizant of Eliot’s profound statement (in the same essay) on the economy of great literature, which, according to Eliot, puts “into the statement enough to make reflection unnecessary.”

“To make reflection unnecessary” returns us to that accessibility we need in temporal art—as we pitch forward with that “precise statement of life” “essential to get upon the stage.”

Another issue dogging the verse drama is the “conversational” v. “oratorical” debate; doesn’t poetry automatically sound too artificial for the “direct speech” we expect from actors on the stage?  Mazer succeeds here, too.  His blank verse play, which occasionally rhymes, mostly sounds like speech.  Either the obstacle is not as great as supposed, or Mazer has found a secret key.

Verse drama has not been popular for a long time.  When is the last time someone quoted Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party?”

Ben Mazer’s A City of Angels, which we feel is better than Yeats or Eliot’s efforts in the genre, gives us hope for the form, and for poetry.

Mazer, with the help of some talented friends, has done at the Grolier what Oscar Wilde asked: returned fine literature to the voice.

HOLY ROMANTICISM! KEATS TAKES ON WORDSWORTH!

USA!  USA!  John Keats has a major task before him: slay Wordsworth!

William Wordsworth has to be a favorite to win any Romanticism tourney—the serenity of nature betokening our highest spiritual aspirations is nowhere better expressed than in the work of Wordsworth.  In the little-known poem of his that follows,  we see a perfect example.

Wordsworth’s only drawback as Romantic top dog is that in the Poetry (Romanticism) of the Child, Wordsworth always sings as a grownup, always presents himself as a rather didactic, wise old priest, and so the very identity of the poet with the type of poetry itself is lacking.  Otherwise Wordsworth is supreme, even in his plain demeanor.

In battling for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2013 Poetry Tournament, John Keats is also represented by one of his minor poems, inspired by his brother (with family) settling in America.  While Wordsworth sang of England’s trees (all the more sacred because the British Empire sought to cut down trees from other lands to feed its manufacturing might) Keats sings in a Promethean vein in the style of William Blake.

What a battle it is!

A PROPHECY: TO GEORGE KEATS IN AMERICA

‘Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen —
For what listen they?
For a song and for a charm,
See they glisten in alarm,
And the moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.
Moon! keep wide thy golden ears —
Hearken, stars! and hearken, spheres! —
Hearken, thou eternal sky!
I sing an infant’s lullaby,
A pretty lullaby.
Listen, listen, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Though the rushes that will make
Its cradle still are in the lake —
Though the linen that will be
Its swathe, is on the cotton tree —
Though the woollen that will keep
It warm, is on the silly sheep —
Listen, starlight, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Child, I see thee! Child, I’ve found thee
Midst of the quiet all around thee!
And thy mother sweet is nigh thee!
But a Poet evermore!
See, see, the lyre, the lyre,
In a flame of fire,
Upon the little cradle’s top
Flaring, flaring, flaring,
Past the eyesight’s bearing,
Awake it from its sleep,
And see if it can keep
Its eyes upon the blaze —
Amaze, amaze!
It stares, it stares, it stares,
It dares what no one dares!
It lifts its little hand into the flame
Unharm’d, and on the strings
Paddles a little tune, and sings,
With dumb endeavour sweetly —
Bard art thou completely!
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
Bard art thou completely!
Sweetly with dumb endeavour,
A Poet now or never,
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
A Poet now or never!

A PARSONAGE IN OXFORDSHIRE

Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends,
Is marked by no distinguishable line;
The turf unites, the pathways intertwine;
And, wheresoe’er the stealing footstep tends,
Garden, and that domain where kindred, friends,
And neighbours rest together, here confound
Their several features, mingled like the sound
Of many waters, or as evening blends
With shady night. Soft airs, from shrub and flower,
Waft fragrant greetings to each silent grave;
And while those lofty poplars gently wave
Their tops, between them comes and goes a sky
Bright as the glimpses of eternity,
To saints accorded in their mortal hour.

Hard to pick this one.

Which iconic Romantic poet will advance?

The boy or the man?

It’s Keats, 91-89!!

LOVE WITHOUT DESIRE, DESIRE WITHOUT LOVE: 17TH CEN (SUCKLING) VERSUS 20TH (LARKIN)

In this contest between Sir John Suckling’s 400 year old poem, “If You Refuse Me Once,” and Philip Larkin’s 60 year old poem, “Talking In Bed,” the interest lies not only in looking back at two eras of poetry (English Renaissance, English Modern) but two eras of love.

It is yet fashionable to think of old poetry and modern poetry as very different; the bomb of revolutionary modernism that went off in 1910 is still showering its debris.

We like to think that very soon this is going to change, and Letters and life will truly reflect and enhance each other once again.

Modern poetry has thought to reflect life by showing everything in the mirror (poem) but with the fading of poetry’s popularity, we are finding that mere reflection does not enhance.  The moderns freed up poetry to reflect everything and anything, and nothing could be more simplistic and straightforward: the more things you can put in poetry, the better, right?

Careful.  How you answer that question could destroy you as a poet.   Because poetry is about to change.

Letters is enhanced by life, and life, by Letters, in a more unique and complex manner than previously thought.

Using Letters as a dumping ground does not make Letters reflect life better, and we should always be making Letters able to reflect life better, and not simply seeking to have it reflect as much of life as possible.

Modern poetry congratulated itself on this simple ability: poetry shall reflect as much of life as possible.  But it’s not that simple.

This is the sole reason why rhyme and meter were chucked by modern poetry.  This is modern poetry’s sole raison d’etre: reflect as much of life as possible.  “More is better,” as the dry-humored man in the A.T.T. commercials, sitting at a little table with the grade school children, currently says on TV.

The most significant change in poetry in the last 500 years has been both in form and content, but formal concerns are insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry has become prose and is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all other objections, no matter how much the formalist poet may protest.

You want rhyme?  Go to popular song.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we seek merely to look at the whole issue of old and new as truthfully as possible.  We hope our larger net will feature a catch that will in the long run please the formalist, as well as everyone else.  We argue for, not against.

The relationship between life and Letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it.

Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is how love is no longer a leading feature of poetry.

Why did poetry and love coexist for hundreds of years?

Love helps Letters and life to enhance each other for several reasons that are so obvious, we may have lost sight of them for that very reason:

1. Love is a popular topic.   Life and letters cannot enhance each other if Letters is the domain of the few, or merely a rote, academic pursuit.

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every significant aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, children, judgment, pride, spirituality, beauty, manners, and rhetoric.  It is from a practical standpoint not a ‘romantic’ one, that love is significant as a literary topic.  To reject love as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for ‘romantic sentimental’ reasons.  No other topic comes close.

3. Since so much of past poetry involves love, to make it the prime topic of poetry again will reconnect old poetry and living poets, which will add to Letters and life mutually enhancing each other.

4. Finally, popular music was once all about love, and that’s no longer true; more & more popular music is about sex.  Love needs an art form again.  Who will step in?

When it comes to love and young people, the most sophisticated thing said is, “they’re going to have sex.”   This may be true, but certainly there’s a world of nuance and interest that ought to go far beyond this.

From a purely social historical perspective, one can see differences in the two poems below, but this does not mean that Sir John’s poem is not valid either as a treatise on love or as a poem.

Nor does Larkin’s more cynical approach to love cancel out the fact that Larkin’s poem is a love poem.

Nor should the social historical approach to poetry, or any approach to poetry, which finds moral or other differences between love old and new, invalidate the love poem as poetry.

Why should modern, gizmo poetry be considered more significant?

IF YOU REFUSE ME ONCE–Sir John Suckling

If you refuse me once, and think again,
I will complain.
You are deceiv’d, love is no work of art,
It must be got and born,
Not made and worn,
By every one that hath a heart.

Or do you think they more than once can die,
Whom you deny?
Who tell you of a thousand deaths a day,
Like the old poets feign
And tell the pain
They met, but in the common way?

Or do you think it too soon to yield,
And quit the field?
Nor is that right, they yield that first entreat;
Once one may crave for love,
But more would prove
This heart too little, that too great.

Oh that I were all soul, that I might prove
For you as fit a love
As you are for an angel; for I know,
None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.

You are all ethereal; there’s in you no dross,
Nor any part that’s gross.
Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
The vestal relics for a covering drawn.

Your other parts, part of the purest fire
That ever Heaven did inspire,
Makes every thought that is refined by it
A quintessence of goodness and of wit.

Thus have your raptures reached to that degree
In love’s philosophy,
That you can figure to yourself a fire
Void of all heat, a love without desire.

Nor in divinity do you go less;
You think, and you profess,
That souls may have a plenitude of joy,
Although their bodies meet not to employ.

But I must needs confess, I do not find
The motions of my mind
So purified as yet, but at the best
My body claims in them an interest.

I hold that perfect joy makes all our parts
As joyful as our hearts.
Our senses tell us, if we please not them,
Our love is but a dotage or a dream.

How shall we then agree? you may descend,
But will not, to my end.
I fain would tune my fancy to your key,
But cannot reach to that obstructed way.

There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,
Our bodies may draw near;
And, when no more their joys they can extend,
Then let our souls begin where they did end.

TALKING IN BED—Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

This contest is too close to call…!

But someone has to win.

Suckling 99 Larkin 98

Sir John Suckling is going to the Sweet 16!

CATULLUS AND HERRICK VIE FOR SWEET SIXTEEN

Lyric poetry once had simple things to say and said them as memorably as possible.

Was that such a bad idea?

Here is Catullus, from two thousand years ago, taking on Herrick, from 500 years ago.  Catullus, the ancient Roman, requires translation (a new one from Scarriet) while Herrick’s Renaissance English is his:

HOW MANY KISSES: TO LESBIA–Catullus

Lesbia, you ask how many kisses of yours
Are enough to satisfy my desires?
As many grains of Libyan sand on Libyan shores
That lie between the oracle of Jupiter’s fires
And Battiades’ tomb among Cyrenean cedars
Where Egypt’s Jupiter is worshiped;

As many stars, when the night moves not,
That gaze on desires no one else sees;
As many of your mad kisses kissed
For mad Catullus that ever were,
Impossible to count from any spot
That might be hiding spies with evil tongues.

TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME–Robert Herrick

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
    To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
    You may forever tarry.

Catullus was naughty, and therefore his poem is dramatic.  Herrick was a life-long bachelor who spent his life writing occasional poems to please others; therefore his poem is didactic.

How to pick a winner?

Herrick had a marvelous ear; Catullus, in Latin, is lost to us in English.

Catullus survives because of a single volume of his that was discovered in an old house in Italy hundreds of years after his death.

He is not considered a major poet, and yet Catullus talks to us.

Catullus wins 87 to 83!

THE NEW PROFESSIONAL POETRY

image

We are not professional.
We never get things right.
We take long walks after dark,
Whispering rhymes for most of the night.

We never took a degree
In therapy or law.

The past has vanished in silence
Never telling us what it saw.

We had a happy thought:
God’s happier than man. God doesn’t do
A thing. We think Oscar Wilde
Said it, so it must be true.

We understand we are God
Or, that is what we think.
Nothing really goes right with us.
We dream in bed, walks, at the sink.

She has her job, and I, mine,
We have friends, or so we say.
I suddenly kissed her this morning.
Breakfast took all day.

CAN POETRY APP SUCCESSFULLY CALCULATE MODERN POEMS AS PROFESSIONAL OR AMATEUR?

The Poetry Assessor claims to “determine whether a poem has the characteristics of a professional poem or, alternatively, an amateur poem.”

We at Scarriet decided to have some fun with it.

This poem, which Tom Graves, one of the Scarriet editors, wrote in 5 seconds for The Poetry Assessor scored a positive (professional) score of 2.814.

The Stuff Used

The stuff used to make amends
Cannot be relied upon so easily
When a fire in the pit flames up
With weed-like flames that penetrate
The blue and smoky air.
The semblances die along horizon’s pitch
Which gathers up the birds in its cloudy arms.

Tom Graves

“A Poison Tree” by William Blake scored a negative (amateur) score of -2.67.

Shelley’s famous “Lament” (O world! O life! O time!) received a negative (amateur) score of -3.27.

The whole idea of trying to determine whether Shelley was a “professional” or an “amateur” is simply ludicrous on the face of it.  Yes, Shelley was an “amateur,” and yet many “professionals” have determined Shelley’s poetry to be highly meritorious.  So how can we even begin to say whether Shelley’s poetry is “amateur” or “professional?”

And, what if the “professional,” Shelley, wishes to “let his hair down” and express himself in a more “amateur” manner?  Isn’t this still the work of a “professional?”

The answer, of course, is: yes, yes, it is.

We understand the idea that the Poetry Assessor considers “amateur” those who write poetry of a bygone time, so the excellence of the poetry is not being calcuated so much as contemporaneity, or, to be fair to the Poetry Assessor, excellence within that contemporaneity.  But can past excellence be jettisoned so easily?  If the acknowledged excellence of past poems does not register with the Poetry Assessor, where is the proof that the Poetry Assessor is not simply registering contemporaneity alone?

The answer is: there is no proof.

The interest of any exercise such as this must lie with how parts are integrated by the machinery of calculation; parts are paramount in any calculating process, parts which can never be quite integrated into the whole of a human judgment, and this is understood instinctively.  Further, the miscalculation of a single part’s worth or lack thereof can impact the whole more than it should, and such is how the whole often betrays partial thinking.

We can work backwards in any process which relies on the mechanical integration of parts for success.  In other words, we can make partial changes in poems and see how the Poetry Assessor reacts.

We took the Keats sonnet, “When I Have Fears” and improved its score merely by replacing the word “love” with random substitutions which hurt the overall meaning of the poem.

The Keats poem receives the following score from The Poetry Assessor:  -2.34    A thoroughly amateur poem (of course!)

Now, when we remove the word “love” in line 12 and line 14 in Keats’ poem, and replace it with a random word, “sofa,” the poem’s score improves to -1.55.

A similar thing happens with “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell.  It receives a very low score: .056, but simply changing the first line from “I love to go out in late September” to “I go out in late September” the poem gets better: .493.

Professionals don’t love.

And if they do, we all know what they are!

This, however, should make us wonder: if the Poetry Assessor, with its contemporary ideas of poetry professionalism, thinks that the more love in poetry, the less professional it is, is the Poetry Assessor leaping to the conclusion that love in a poem is the same as sex in a poem?

Is the Poetry Assessor censoring love for moral reasons, or for professional reasons?

But we shouldn’t be wondering this. Our sort of reasoning is not allowed within professional circles, obviously.  The Poetry Assessor is merely censoring crude, vague feelings even as it rewards the virtue of concrete and specific imagery.  Right?

Galway Kinnell saying, “I love to go out…” is a perfect example of this.  If the poet describes his “going out” in terms that  makes the reader understand its enjoyment for the poet, saying “I love” is superfluous; it’s empty advertisement.

But what if Kinnell wants the assonance of “love” matching “go out…among…fat, over-ripe black…blackberries…”?

Or what if Kinnell wants his “love” to contrast with the darker material the poem gets into later on and the final hint of melancholy in “late September…” (which is how the poem ends)?

Since there is a near-infinite number of ways a poem can apply “love” to a near-infinite number of shades of meaning and sound-meaning, though it might be generally true that “love” as a word is very high on the ‘cliched/empty feeling’ scale, no mechanical assessor can judge a poem based on the generalized integration of generalized partialities.

THE ENGLISH FROST AND THE AMERICAN BLAKE

This illustration of William Blake was published 200 years ago

This year marks the 200th anniversary of America’s 1813 defeat of Great Britain and their American Indian allies for the control of the Great Lakes region in the War of 1812.

In this “Second War of  American Independence,” the British Empire failed to take back her American colony, even as she tried to do so, cynically using its native peoples.  Vast designs always trump the politically correct.

William Blake, like many English Romantic poets, such as Coleridge, Southey, and Keats, took a great interest in what was happening in America.  Blake’s first illuminated book of poems was called “America, A Prophecy.”

Blake was a radical freak, hated by the British establishment, but the Americans struggling against the oppressive British Empire were never able to figure out what Willie Blake was saying when he wrote about America.

Who the hell knows what the following means?

‘I know thee, I have found thee, and I will not let thee go:
Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa,
And thou art fall’n to give me life in regions of dark death.
On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions
Endur’d by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep.
I see a Serpent in Canada who courts me to his love,
In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru;
I see a Whale in the south-sea, drinking my soul away.
O what limb-rending pains I feel! thy fire and my frost
Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent.
This is eternal death, and this the torment long foretold.’

“A Serpent in Canada” recalls the network that produced the actions of John Wilkes-Booth in the “Third War of American Independence,” the U.S. Civil War, fifty-two years later, or it might have something to do with the War of 1812, as well.  But with William “howling pains” Blake, no one really knows.  This is not to knock Blake’s genius, but he was a loon, and the American experiment to him probably meant “free love” more than anything else.  The complexities of U.S./British geopolitics was far beyond the Blake of “Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa” and yet Blake was no doubt writing in code to avoid being tossed into a British prison.

If Blake was a typically English radical: too crazy/clever to be a danger to anyone, Robert Frost was the son of a San Francisco politician—(Democrat all the way) who tried to enlist to fight for the South in the Civil War (but was too young).

In other words, Robert Frost was the heir to the States’ rights politics which almost doomed the United States in the “Third War of American Independence.” Frost turned New England crankiness into American Poetry gold.

It is the 50th anniversary of Frost’s death and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frost’s first book, his trip to England as an unknown poet, and the discovery of Frost by another crank, Ezra Pound, who happened to be another States’ rights loon.

The Dymock Poets—their 100th anniversary, as well, a group decimated by the First World War (England was now finally our friend and hating on Germany) helped Frost, too. But Pound got Frost into Poetry, and a star was born.  If you haven’t heard of the Dymock Poets, it’s probably because Pound didn’t like them.  If you wanted to be a famous poet in the 20th century, you had to meet one person: Pound. Frost took a trip to England in 1913 and got lucky.

Which brings us to our March Madness 2013 clash between Frost and Blake.  Both poets are seeking the Sweet Sixteen with poems of alterity, and both poems might have something to do with the 400 year love/hate relationship between England and the United States.

MENDING WALL–Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

A POISON TREE—William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is fascinating stuff.

Frost, it is pretty certain from the poem, never “told his wrath” to his neighbor, even as he (Frost) harbors feelings that his neighbor is a “old-stone savage armed.”

Blake’s seems the more psychologically astute, the cleverer in terms of hostile action, just as one would expect the British to be.

Frost, the American, in his depiction of war, by comparison, seems lumbering and obvious: “He moves in darkness it seems to me–Not of woods only and the shades of trees.”  Also, note how the Frost poem reflects economic America’s plenty (apples…cows…) and a lack of any reason to fight at all: “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines…”

Frost seems matter-of-fact and reasonable compared to Blake, and “Mending Wall” is a triumph of that sort of rambling, calm, lower-your-blood-pressure, free verse that neither Pound nor Williams nor Eliot could quite pull off.

Frost made it big in the wake of the insanity of World War One, and the comforting, New England humor of “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines” was probably Frost’s highest moment—-exactly the tone, the imagery, the everything, that American  poetry was looking for at that moment in history.

Blake’s poem is darker, more cunning, but Frost’s insouciant masterpiece strikes a blow for Modernism against Romanticism’s emotionalism.

Still, this year’s Scarriet March Madness is a Romanticsm-themed tournament.

Blake 66 Frost 60

ODE TO A CERTAIN EVENING

No matter what we say or do not say,
No matter what we do or do not do,
Night will remain this way.
Night will send forth rumors of the day
Even as beauty covers them, and me, and you.

If Night is producer of the dreams it makes,
Happier than day with all day’s arguments and books,
If the wind sighs or it gently shakes
The moon-lit grasses when the moon light looks

Upon its slaves soothed and kissed by sleep
And blesses them, the saddest are glad
And jealous thoughts drown in thoughts too deep,
For we are passionate.  Then do not call us mad.

For it is of dreams our feelings are made,
And in these dreams nothing is sad,
Our anger melts, and turns into a shade.
Oh, Night today we were very sad

But now you blaze with a thousand fires,
Small, secret and distant—like all our desires.

THE MOON SUFFICES: SCARRIET PREMIERE

Exquisite poets in France
Wrote of beautiful Italian faces
Who made their sentences dance.
Did poets require books to cover up their vices?
The moon suffices.

I knew a woman with nieces
Who had such beautiful faces
She did not have to take a chance.
Did lovers need children to hide their vices?
The moon suffices.

In a garden visited by Jesus
I recounted sciences for you
Which led to a satisfying thesis.
Did poets win lovers with poetic devices?
The moon suffices.

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