A contemporary poet would naturally reply to the title of our essay:

“The melancholic is not necessarily poetic. A poem can be any mood it wants, and could just as well avoid all moods.”

True, and the Victorian parlor is frozen since the door was opened to Modernism’s blast.

“Poetry is an escape from emotion,” said T.S. Eliot with ice-cold breath, and yet, adding with human emotion, “but of course only those who have emotions…know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

T.S. Eliot was no Language Poet.  T.S. Eliot was no black hole of sarcasm.  T.S. Eliot may even have had a pulse once; historically speaking, the lofty ceiling of Romanticism trembled not far behind him.

Can’t we hear the melancholy in this?  “to want to escape from these things.”

“To identify all serious occupation of the mind with sadness.”  So wrote the 20th century scholar of culture, Johan Huizinga, of the Middle Ages, and one either instinctively grasps this idea, or, like the grinning imbecile, does not.

If poetry is an escape from a “serious occupation of the mind,” is the poet a mere court jester, and should T.S. Eliot be best remembered for his light verse?

Surely the poet is the one who ponders the rose before he laughs at it, and if pondering leads to poetry, a certain melancholy turn of mind cannot help but be present, if only indirectly, if only in composition’s atmosphere, if not in the merry poem itself.

If mortality’s highest efforts in the realm of mind always partake of mortality’s nature, which includes an awareness of death, how can melancholy not participate, and if it does, is it a sting, or a cushion?

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” said the Romantic, Percy Shelley, and this counter-intuitive truth is not far from Eliot’s irony: poetry is an escape from emotion—yet only those who feel will know what it is like to want to escape from emotion.

There is definitely a difference between crushed by sorrow and coming to grips with something that is sad and doing so with an excess of emotion—that is yet kept under control.

The latter is what we are trying to articulate: a true poet’s melancholy temperament.

Romanticism’s melancholy was transformed into Victorianism’s tears; Modernism’s stare was transformed into Post-Modernism’s burst of laughter.

Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro of melancholy genius passes through rococo and impressionism and eventually lands on Rothko’s imbecility of bright colors—and yet, Rembrandt used bright colors as contrast to his shadow, and any fan of Rothko will protest that in those bright colors is infused a sly, primitive darkness.

Before the reader dismisses our Melancholy Argument as weak or random, let them think on their favorite poems and fictional passages and wonder at how melancholy inevitably tinges them.

The poetic is melancholy, but it begs the question: how do poets express the melancholy?  We refer to a way of living, a way of thinking and being, not simply a description of sad events.

To sensitive souls who seek peace, sometimes the melancholy imagination provides a canopy.

To be more practical: we can be melancholy by using trochaic verse:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary

Here is the puzzle of Poe solved: accused of being both too icily mathematical and too emotionally morbid, we see how Poe’s genius fuses two opposite traits—in the joyful/sad verse of rhythmic mathematics.

I don’t think many contemporary poets even realize how one-dimensional and emotionally blank their elaborate prose is—despite the complexity of its content.

The French medieval poet Eustache Deschamps has a ballade that begins “The stag was very proud of his swiftness” and the stanza ends, “The snail will get to Easter just as soon.”

Is “The snail will get to Easter just as soon” a melancholy trope?   Perhaps not, but it’s certainly not a chest-beating one, and the devotional, wise tone is much closer to melancholy than any other mood we can think of.

Melancholy attends the devotional, the thoughtful, the august, the contemplative—even as contemporary poets want to escape from these things.


When poetry, lovely, speaks,
No one dares to sigh—
Prose, whether it whispers or shrieks,
Does not talk, does not even try.

When poetry does the speaking
In a poem old and Romantic,
No mortal takes a breath
Over the cold Atlantic.

From wooded hill or sky
No one hears a sound,
Respect for poetry is silence,
As when the swan comes down.


Vanessa Place: the Mona Lisa of Flarf?

We never met a Flarfist, but we’re beginning to wonder if Flarf simply belongs to the 20th century avant-garde art & poetry tradition of Asshole-ism.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012), author of The Great War and Modern Memory;  Purple Heart in WW II; PhD, Harvard ’52; essayist who taught at U. Penn, Germany, and London, wrote

Would it be going too far to consider what Modernism derived from the European political atmosphere of its time (I am thinking both of Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933) as a way of suggesting that Modernism in its way is an artistic refraction of totalitarianism?

In our humble opinion, no, it would not be going too far.  We’re talking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, here, and it goes deeper than just Germany and Russia; British poets (Hulme, Thomas, Brooke) were swept up in male war-mongering before the Great War—Pound associate Ford Madox Ford (who would later rub shoulders with the right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critics in the US) worked for the War Propaganda Bureau during WW I.

Scarriet has already exposed Modernism as a reactionary Men’s Club that bought low and sold high in the art market.  There was nothing freeing or broadening or insightful or revolutionary happening with the 20th century avant-garde.  It was never about freeing the world of capitalism and Edgar Guest.  It was just mean-spirited snaffling. The shabby treatment of Edna Millay by Hugh Kenner and the Pound circle is just one example.  So let’s look at this interesting quote from Amy King’s recent piece in The Rumpus where she talks about one of the critic Edgar Poe’s favorite topics: cliques.  King calls them ” intentional groups:”

First, let me back up to my graduate school days at SUNY Buffalo. I was naïve. I used to wonder why Susan Howe would declare that she “is not a Language Poet.” I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the “avant-garde,” presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.

Not until the Flarf Collective came on the scene did I begin to think a bit more consciously about intentional groups. That is, my gut registered aversion to their private, invite-only email listserv, where some poets I knew abandoned ship with sideways notes of exclusivity and pretension, and others I know and like very much remained. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and numerous poets exploring its use value through various means of engagement, I thought about the similarities of Gary Sullivan heading up a group that was collecting poetic techniques and André Breton gathering his all-male cast of Dada members to compose his manifestos. I realized that, akin to Breton’s aims, the Flarf Collective was formulating a list of techniques and engagements that would ‘liberate’ us from the lyric, as they defined it. They were going to show us the error of our lyrical ways.

When I engaged them on my blog regarding some cursory problematics of exclusive membership, specifically in the case of Jennifer Knox who was not a Flarf Collective member but was before-their-manifestation employing techniques now claimed by Flarf, as were others, I was distractedly schooled on my own susceptibility to falling victim to emotional conditioning via a poem penned for me by Sullivan about my grandma’s labia. I am easily distracted. But I still wondered, since many poets were and continue to respond to the Internet and its impact, why did one group, a Flarf Collective, try to own that?

The similarities, and limitations, of Breton’s Dada-cum-Surrealism are worth a side note here for they speak to the risks of supporting and advancing intentional groups of this ilk. In a move towards recruiting additional worthwhile artists for his coterie, Breton laid claim to painters like Frida Kahlo (“’I didn’t know I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”), Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini (“Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become ‘a sheep in his gang’… I refused the label Surrealist.”). None became official members, and only by association are their paintings now read through the framework of Surrealism, often rendering limited, simplistic interpretations & even preventing the deeper engagement they deserve.

Beautiful.  Amy King is going to get in trouble, because she gets it.  We wish we could give her a hug.

The Flarf Collective think they’re special because they use overhead projectors and do stuff in museums and they can claim to care and not care about poetry as they turn it into conceptual art.

King is right to see Flarf as nothing more than a market ploy to advance a few careers, and this cynical view of hers unfortunately plays right into the hands of the cynical Flarfists.

The madder Amy King gets, the more fun the Flarfists have.

Forget it, Amy King.  They’re assholes.  Let them be.  Shit, they can’t be worse than Ezra Pound.  Let them have their fun.

And Amy will essentially agree with us.  As she puts it towards the end of her 2 part essay, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz:”

I’m not out to deny anyone institutional participation or access to resources; rather, I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure.

We personally think it self-defeating to set oneself up as so anti-capitalist that it backs you into a dour corner seething with both resentments and contradictions; but putting that aside, it’s clear that Amy King, in her critique of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Marjorie Perloff and their Flarfist/Conceptualist mentality? behavior? stupidity? has got these clowns pegged.

We like the remark by Amy King’s friend.  When he heard that Goldsmith read poetry at the White House (with Billy Collins and others) and bragged that his (Goldsmith’s) exaggerated paisley suit was “subversive” because the suit maker was the same worn by the president, who opined he wouldn’t dare wear such a suit, Amy’s friend said, “Whether you’re an American president or an avant-garde poet, Brooks Brothers has a suit for you.”

John Quinn, the modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show a reality (Quinn gave the opening address at the show) was Eliot and Pound’s attorney, and negotiated the book deal for Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Walter Arensberg, another modern art collector, funded not only Duchamp but Williams and Stevens.   20th century avant-garde painting and poetry were boiled in the same stew.  The poets are late to the game, as far as conceptualism goes, but that’s only if poetry turns into its cousin, art.  Which really has poetry heading backwards, not forwards.

Perloff, et al, is just a continuation of the Romanticism-hating of Pound and Eliot.

Found Poetry has been around a long, long time, hasn’t it?   And was it really that interesting the first time around?

Originality has always been something to be aimed for in poetry, and it is never entirely achieved.   By definition, the less original a poem is, the less poetic it is.   How original is it?  The question can be maddening, obviously.  And to be entirely mad, one simply gives in to the madness and becomes Kenneth Goldsmith.  He is the monkey in the cage of the problem.

Goldsmith is stupid enough to think that “plagiarism and theft” will “erase the ego.”  But last time I checked, the ego of the criminal is the biggest ego of all.

Flarf is nothing more than Duchamp all over again, except now instead of calling Duchamp-ism “art,” the Flarfists call Duchamp-ism “poetry.”

And that, my conceptualist friends, is the only difference.


A New Sonnet From Scarriet

There is a kind of kindness in my greed,
Since hungry love breeds virtuous hunger.
Joy joys not less to be in need.
Resistance will not make us any younger.

Love mounts to a moment and quick
Can spoil the restful, languid scene,
And sanity has said that love is sick
And fire burns sweet fertility’s green,

Yes, I’ve heard critique of love’s desire
Where many gather at work, church, school.
The hive, busy, harmonious, the wire
Warning of love’s enthusiastic fool.

If love has made me greedy and unkind,
It’s because kindness hid you, and you I need to find.


Andy Mister, who I read with at St. Mark's

Metamodernism personified: Andy Mister

Excuse us while we laugh at Seth Abramson’s latest piffle: “On Literary Metamodernism.”

Should we be writing that in all caps? METAMODERNISM!

Edgar Allan Poe, the greatest literary innovator in the history of Letters, never struck a “modern” note. Poe’s idea was to be original, not modern, for “modernism,” the buzz word, has always been a stylistic vacuity blaring from the presses. Poe was anxious to discover truths just as true for the ancients as for us. In verse, the vibrations and durations underlying the scientific truths of measured poetry affect all humans with a pulse the same. None of this “now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently!” pretentiousness for the short story master who gave us detective fiction and sci-fi.

“Now we drive automobiles and now we write verse differently” is a phrase that nicely sums up the con of the modernism pretense. We are always rushing into a vague future with a tenuous connection between poetry and something else: skyscrapers, automobiles, language, young people, and now for Seth—wait for it—young people in MFA programs.

This is the cause of Seth’s stated  innovation, sort of the way an apple is the cause of gravity—because people are in MFA programs, there is an innovation, a new thing, a new modernism, a METAMODERNISM, which, if we press Abramson to define it, will be defined as modern, very, very modern, more modern than Modernism or Post-modernism, oh rest assured!

Abramson does two things in his essay. First, he describes, in great sweep, the condition of poetry culture and then he offers a few lines—sentences?—by a poet named Mister, (MFA, Montana, 2003), to prove the actual identity of a new “rebel” poetry which “risks sincerity” and manifests meta- reality in the face of other highly ironic and cynical modern and post modern poets (New Critical, Language and Loner) thrown together by the Program Era: the MFA culture has come to small towns and can’t be escaped.

The M-gen poets (MFA  generation poets) are here to save the day by pushing previously safe distinct poetries towards possible  social humiliation. This general idea, though somewhat crazy, we like, for here Seth shows a proclivity for party organizing. We can see Seth throwing a poetry blast which everyone would want to attend, even Thomas Brady.

Metamodernism’s brave new avant-garde world belongs to social nuance, as Seth’s “new sincerity,” or should we call it the “new sincere sincerity?” challenges the old hollow snarkiness of Internet Age insincerity, irony, and artificiality with the “hyper-real” vision of an inspired and socially connected MFA student, eschewing language games, formalist, ironical New Critical strategies, and loner, street, maudlin strategies, plunging into an eclectic soup of past modernism transcended, a Henry James-sensitive soup to be sipped politely, and yet with great risk, as the new meal is nothing less than the avant-garde at last breaking into clear clarity, sincere sincerity, and real reality. Now if this sounds crazy…well, here’s Seth Abramson in his own words (with the help of David Foster Wallace):

The challenge today’s younger artists face is to find wholeness of being and clarity of emotion in the midst of a cacophony of Internet-Age stimuli. These stimuli are forever wrenching them back into our noisy American culture, one that impels them to a multifaceted, Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential. The situation has all the markings of a catch-22: To be sincere, one must, presumably, deny the contemporary poet’s multiple “artificial” selves, and therefore be insincere to the real state of affairs; yet to indulge the contemporary poet’s multiple artificial selves is to sincerely detail the insincerity our culture sometimes forces upon us, and therefore be, however inadvertently, insincere in content if not design.

[David Foster] Wallace implicitly acknowledges this catch-22 in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” assessing the development of a genuine avant-garde in relation to the critical concept of risk. As Wallace writes, “The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal…[t]oday’s risks are different. The new rebels might be willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs…to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”

Prior to the Program Era’s promulgation of hundreds of literary micro-communities across the country, the particular brand of rebellion spoken of by Wallace was next to impossible.

Metamodernist poetry’s task, then, is to take “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential” and make it so, and with all these MFA “micro-communities” uniting poets across the land as never before, there is a great opportunity for the truth and essential in poetry—and thus in life!—to happen.

What this sounds like to us is that Seth Abramson, as part of his vocation as MFA-defender, has been thinking very hard about ways to make MFA programs seem important, and since MFA programs are explicitly about nothing—nothing is taught, MFA officials admit, but what does happen is students and instructors of poetry come together and create intelligent space for poetic things to happen—Abramson, desperate to defend the institution of the Poetry MFA, has decided he will play up the fact that MFA communities are growing in number and herding poets together must have some benefit; and here it is: Metamodernism.  Just put a lot of studious poets in the same room for awhile, Abramson thinks, and new and interesting things will happen.

Poetry, in other words, is not an art, but a response to each decade’s news flashes: Pound was troubled by a world war, Eliot by Michelangelo, Charles Bernstein by language, and now Seth Abramson, by the Internet—or rather, the “Internet-savvy selfhood that never feels entirely true or essential.”

Each day in his bunker, the news-deprived, would-be poet asks, “What, during this decade, troubles me?”  All he needs to do is read Time magazine, or get an MFA in poetry, and problem solved!

The coolest poets are, at this very minute, writing poetry to fix the problem of the day, which you, Internet-savvy person, should appreciate, and if you can’t appreciate it, you need to borrow money for an MFA poetry program, and get in on this metamodernist turn in poetry, before it’s too late!

Modernist, post-modernist, and meta-modernist movements appear and die as quickly as swarms of gnats on a summer evening, and these responses—the new poetries which have replaced the old poetry—cannot be learned in a day, so get off your ass and hie you to your nearest low-residency MFA community in due haste!  Hurry!  Metamodernism is happening!

Let us give Abramson his due: he may be mad, but see how he describes the whole scenario down to its last nuance and fact:

The bohemians of New York City could argue (if not credibly) that they were forever butting up against the disapproval of the New Critics of the academy, and the long-hegemonic New Critics could falsely opine about suffering the stranglehold of conventional academia. Meanwhile, the isolatos could bemoan their interminable cultural irrelevance and personal despair. But to contend that any of these groups truly “risked” the disapproval (let alone hostile influence) of the others would be farcical. Each of these quadrants of American literature operated largely independently of the others. The Language poets never felt the cold jackboot of academia on their necks until they so desperately and emphatically sought its approval that a short-lived and entirely-manufactured confrontation (followed by a much longer détente) was inevitable; the New Critics were ascendant in the academy for decades (roughly, from 1930 to 1970), meaning that any claims of persecution could never have been more than rank self-mythologizing. And perhaps the sole benefit of being a solitary genius in America is never having the clammy hand of convention clapped down upon one’s shoulder.

What was required to produce the condition of “risk” Wallace wrote of in the 1990s was some mechanism that would, on a national scale, blindly throw poets together with one another in close quarters, that would so violently juxtapose creative and performative spaces that a young artist desiring rebellion would have no choice but to perform her resistance in full view–literally in the very same room as–those whose disapprobation she sought to invite or risked inviting. The dramatic expansion of the nation’s network of graduate creative writing programs across the whole of the United States in the 1990s and aughts provided just this opportunity, especially as it produced collisions not only among student poets but also among formerly isolated non-students who suddenly discovered vibrant, university-affiliated literary communities in their backyards. It is one thing to be an isolated author living in Wichita, it is quite another to be an author in Wichita as that city’s literary scene expands rapidly via a horde of creative writing graduate students at Wichita State.

Fear not, you isolated non-students!  Even Wichita has a literary scene now, thanks to the MFA Program Era!

But what exactly is this Metamodernism?  What does it look like?

Again, Seth delivers the goods here, too.  He has a poet, Andy Mister, and Mister’s actual writings demonstrate for us what Metamodernism is:

Evidence of this seismic shift in poetry’s ambitions is present throughout Mister’s collection, as in this passage: “The weather doesn’t start to take shape until spring, then you’ll see it all around you. Scattering out from a point. That point is not you. Or me.” We are suffused, in short, in a reality that is both not our own yet encompasses entirely our environment.

It’s comforting to know that with “metamodernism” we are still, with all the other Modernisms, escaping the ego of Romanticism: “…not you. Or me.”  Okay, fine, but Seth brings even more to the table:

The previous generation of avant-gardes so little understands metamodernism that one can imagine, in advance, their howls of protest as metamodernism begins its steady ascent in American literature. These are mere topical preoccupations, they might say; they are not, first and foremost, linguistic. What these former scions of American literary innovation fail to see is that the time for merely edifying America as to the realities of language is over; the time for speaking primarily in the language of realities is beginning.

Yes, this is a big nut to crack.  Where are the “linguistic” concerns?  But Seth is undeterred. He’s after the biggest catch of all: “the language of realities.”  And it’s just “beginning!”  And all you have to do is get an MFA in poetry to know it intimately yourself!  Aren’t you thrilled?

Seth continues to quote the poet Andy Mister, his great example:

Liner Notes is a book energetically engaged in exploring hyperphysicality from all sides and in all forms, and few sentences in the book fail to perform this monumental task with an almost shocking clarity. For instance: “Ian Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. He left a note that read: ‘At this very moment, I wish I were dead.'” Curtis thus (with Mister as his witness and amanuensis) instantiates the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality; the writer (Curtis and Mister alike) testifies to the portal through which the self passes when it seeks union between the physical narrative of Life and the hyperphysical narrative of (actual or subjective) Death. Or consider: “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.” Mister acknowledges, here, that encoded within the artifice of the Image is the Image-in-motion, the same cinematic self so often glorified in American culture. What is prescient, though, is how Mister so thoroughly intertwines Art (the Image) and Life (as cinema) that the notion of man-as-moviegoer may be treated as implicit in all real-time action. So it is that Mister must clarify that his poet-speaker is not attending the cinema, but merely performing a workaday task.

In postmodernism, cinema is not acknowledged as a universal preexisting condition, but merely one of many ephemeral guises a man or woman might adopt: that is, a performance. By foreclosing on the premise that the cultural self is elective, Mister forecloses, too, on the possibility of irony and the limitations of postmodernism. Instead, we see sincerity opening its eyes and accepting what it sees–including the presumptive insincerity of multiple selves and multiple realities–as ineluctable, true, and essential. Mister is not a man going to the bank rather than a movie, he is a movie being a man instead of a matinee. Liner Notes so consistently seeks and achieves this superlative level of engagement with metanarrative, metaxy, hypotaxis, hyperreality, hyperphysicality, superconsciousness, and hyperconsciousness that to call it anything less than genius is an insult to both its complexity and ambition.

How can one possibly top “the movement from physicality to hyperphysicality,” in a rock star’s suicide note, no less?

And we especially like, “In the distance the heat made a mirage floating above the street. But I wasn’t going to see a movie, I was going to cash a check.”

A refund check from the financial aid office at his MFA university, no doubt.

Our final quote from Abramson’s essay is a look at what Abramson does best: New Critical close reading (at least he does it ambitiously).  Seth’s analysis of Mister’s “paragraph” is showy, but it does sound learned.  Of course there’s nothing new about conflating the metaphorical with the literal—the “drowning” example—why in the world does Abramson think this is metamodern, much less new? 

Reading metamodernistic verse is bewildering if done correctly, and Mister’s Liner Notes is no exception. Consider this paragraph: “Once when I was riding home in the school bus, I drowned. I had to convince myself that I was breathing. Just for a moment. People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” In conventional lyric-narrative verse, the word “drowned” would here function as a metaphor; presumably, our hypothetical lyric-narrative poet would intend a comparison between panic attacks and drowning, which is to say that drowning and panic share traits in common, per the poet. At the first level of such a comparison, simile, one might say, “I felt like I was drowning”; at the second level of such a comparison, metaphor, we could expect the two terms (“panic” and “drowning”) to be even more closely aligned, as in the implied comparison of the metaphoric construction “I was drowning”; at the third level of comparison we have actually moved beyond mere relation to actual equity, or what Mikhail Epstein calls metabole: Panic is not like drowning, in this new equation, it literally is drowning, as the contemporary subject-cum-poet-speaker loses the ability to distinguish between alternate realities with shared traits (the one in which literal “panic” is operative, and the other in which literal “death” is) and thus finds wholeness, form, and sincerity in the singularity, literality, and accuracy of these concepts’ metabolic combination (“drowning”).

In the metabolic function, as opposed to the metonymic or metaphoric functions, the two presumptive originary terms–“panic” and “death,” in the example above–are both elided in favor of a common denominator, “drowning.” “Drowning” is consequently elevated by the poet to the level of discourse; it becomes, in short, the poet-speaker’s metareality. Mister achieves this effect by doubling down on his investment in the word “drowning” not once but twice: “I had to convince myself that I was breathing”; “Just for a moment.” The poet here confirms that he means not to compare two realities but to unify and resolve them through metamodernistic linguistic operations. His rhetoric is not merely gestural–that is, he is not merely evoking the concept of drowning–it is essential to his always-already ambition of self- and world-creation. Thus lines which may at first appear ironic (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “panic”) or sincere (because they conspicuously deny readers the word “death,” thus implying a common and sincere fear of same) must be read as existing outside, or above, either irony or sincerity. In this way the poet-speaker creates a new metareality, one in which all elements of constituent realities are true but by themselves terminologically insufficient. In the Internet Age, the young do not feel “like” their essential selves are dying, for to say so would be to stand apart from those selves and ironically comment upon them; nor do they deny the breadth and depth of their desperation by wielding the weak sincerity of the word “panic.” Instead, they accept myriad planes of reality as and for what they are: The immersion in dialogues from which there is no escape because, in fact, there is no outside to escape to.

We might perform a similar analysis on the two-sentence sequence, “People on the street will tell you things if you stop and listen. I don’t stop because I don’t have any money.” The poet-speaker is here isolated from his culture (“I don’t stop”) and simultaneously impoverished by it (“I don’t have any money”), yet at the level of metabole–the level at which these two sentences operate combinatively–we see neither the words “isolation” nor “poverty.” Nor, indeed, could we even report conclusively that this poet-speaker is either isolated or impoverished, for consistent with the metabolic function, both of these originary terms have been elided from the discourse. Instead, we’re greeted by a new reality, a metareality, in which the poet-speaker is caught in a sociocultural cycle of participation and non-participation, profit and non-profit. The poet-speaker knows how to access information in the Internet Age, but lacks the resources to engage any information-seeking processes. This is not “like” being isolated or impoverished, it is literally an always-already (that is to say, eternally preexisting) inability to process culture that is a permanent constituent of the self-as-subject. Mister expresses this idea in metabolic language, and thus over-leaps both the sincerity-irony spectrum and also the sort of theory-as-poetry or immanent language that might respectively define or perform it. Mister is, in short, describing without description, thereby avoiding and resolving the late Ed Dorn’s longstanding complaint about description–that it destroys the actual self. Indeed, metamodernistic poets habitually find mechanisms to describe the self that are deadly accurate but avoid representation altogether, and thereby speak of the self in terms so suitable and exacting we may term their resultant self-identities “hyper-real” or “superconscious.” This solution to the problem of the lyric “I” is far more elegant and ambitious and relevant to contemporary culture than any the previous generation of avant-gardes devised.

Andy Mister avoids panhandlers, those who “tell you things,” because he (Mister) doesn’t “have any money.”

College loan debt has recently surpassed all credit card debt—surely this is what Mr. Mister, and his Program Era Metamodernism, by way of Seth Abramson, “at the level of metabole,” is trying to tell us?


I guess I could make poetry that sings,
Poetry that brings
Joy upon the linnet’s wings,
But I am full of sighs and sadness,
And cannot bring my readers gladness.

I would rather write,
As I like awake in the middle of the night:
There is no outside world,
There is only a room, a hall;
Easy to navigate this;
In your imagination, the kiss
You desire, find all
Behind a door,
The one idea.  Don’t look for more.

What can we do about the clouds,
The wrecks at sea—that brought Europe all her poverty?
What, do the clouds really cover
The moon, and further, the sun?
Is my burning, passionate lover
Gone? Are they just anyone?
The dream was there, with her eyes on me.
Now I’m left with nothing but this poetry.
How can we stop the train wrecks
That kill innocent commuters,
The poems lost forever
By the errant computers?
What can we do about cloudiness?
There was a thought in my brain
And now it’s gone, like a melted cloud;
My thought was dazzling and loud;
Bright as it was, I cannot bring it back again.
When I find my thoughts, it is me running after me.
Behind that cloud was you.
What can we do about the clouds?  Nothing.
This nothing the nothing of the sky, empty and blue.

Her? I would be a lover to her
If I were furry, I were—
But lacking fur I am not—
I only stir fur in the plot,
I put whir in the fur of my plot,
I hunt fur, I eat fur in a hurry;
I am naked, bare, not loved, not furry.

Her? She loves the cat,
Its keen eyes and its soft fur.
When I ask if she will love me,
Oh! She will often defer.
I think she loves the cat
Most for its soft soft fur.
I do not know why, exactly,
But I do know I love her.
I wish I were soft like the cat
and had that amount of fur
That when I asked her, “love?”
She would look at me lovingly and purr.

I guess I could make poetry,
Poetry that makes poetry
Joy upon the linnet’s wings.


The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.


When we die,
I shall no longer have the pleasure of looking in your eye
As your eye looks back at me.
Could God take this away, this so admirable, so lovely?

When this goes,
I shall no longer have the pleasure of looking at the rose
As the rose looks back at me.
Could God take this away, this so admirable, so lovely?

When this flies,
I shall no longer have the pleasure of seeing the size
Of this compared to that in all I see.
Could God take this away, this so admirable, so lovely?

When this fades,
I shall no longer have the pleasure of writing this down
Before life seizes me and I drown
In sunlit, shadowy glades
With music, where sensation wears the crown.


Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring


I have a view
Which I would love to share with you.
It is a view of the sky,
Clouds scattering and bursting above the sun’s eye,
The sun new risen,

Dispelling night’s prison,
As a painter would…
I’m afraid these words are not doing any good.
One more poet condemns his poetry…

And the camera would only do
What every camera does for you.
No—I do not have a view.
The view has me.



The most significant change in poetry in the last 200 years has been in both form and subject matter, but formal concerns are really  insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry  has become prose and yet is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all others—no matter how much the formalist poet may protest. You want rhyme? Go to popular music.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we merely seek to look at the whole issue of old and new poetry as cunningly as possible.

The relationship between life and letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it, while the pure formalist would reduce the relationship to one of pretty smoke.

But now let us really put our philosophy to work: Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is that poetry is no longer concerned with love.

Why were poetry and love nearly the same thing for hundreds of years?

Formal excellences are many, each fit a case, and they work when they work. So much for the rhetoric on that.

Love is the third of the Great Triad which includes Letters and Life—for several reasons.

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

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, judgment,pride, children, spirituality, generosity, beauty, loyalty, attachment, manners, rhetoric, passion, urgency, delicacy, and the civilized. It is from a practical standpoint, not a romantic one, that love is significant. To reject love the subject matter as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for reasons even less substantial.

3. Since so much of old poetry is a love story, to revive the topic again will reconnect old poetry and living poets.

We told the formalists to go to popular music if they wanted rhyme; we could go to popular music for love, too.

But love is like the sea no amount of tears or poems will fill. Popular music will inevitably be about love, and what about poetry?

For the reasons we have just given, Love ought to be Poetry’s template once again.

If poetry’s loud little brother, popular music, makes love its theme, this should not affect what the poets write about.  Sure, if a plaintive singer can sing more profoundly on love than a poet can, the poet should be rightly uneasy and embarrassed to be outdone by the songbird.   But the poets should persist: the topic of love is vast and without end, with nuances abounding, and as we said, it is the only proper subject for lyric poetry.  Exceptions will arise, but even when poets write of walls, what are they really writing of but love?  Let us err in the direction of swoon.

Love is a subject which includes a great deal which seems to have nothing to do with love.  Love is a great way to talk about other things.   At least, in poetry.

If poets think Love is not political enough, well what do we think is at the bottom of the most pressing issues of our day?  Islam and the West disagree most profoundly on sexual freedom.  Love is the most important topic, wherever we look.

Why Love was chased from poetry by the Modernists is surely an interesting topic in itself.

But it is time Poetry saved itself with the one thing that can save it.


The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.


Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia

We don’t know which is more ridiculous: this fellow Edmundson in HARPER’S honoring Robert Lowell as where poetry—currently lacking public spirit and understanding—ought to be now, or gnats like Stephen Burt whining that contemporary poetry, as obscure as it is, is trying, damnit, and doesn’t Edmundson know that poems are being written today about Gettysburg? And by women about their children?

Who is more useless? Burt, the walking, talking politically correct cliche? Or Edmundson, the Robert Lowell cliche?

The problem is a simple one: everyone in the poetry wars (and yes it is a war) is defending a position in the furious blind manner of trench warfare; none of the arguments are even a little bit above the ground: they are petty and ahistorical.

Burt, for instance, writes

Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better.

But to what “past” is Burt referring? It’s not an actual past–merely one that is jealous of the present.

But yes, alas, the poetry of Philip Larkin looks better than the poetry of Stephen Burt; the former is dead and the latter is at Harvard.


That is a problem, isn’t it?

And further, Larkin couldn’t care less, and Burt is sweating behind flimsy p.c—disguised as scholarship.

Burt has no argument.  But let us turn to Edmundson.

Here’s what Edmundson says.  He asserts an expression of public spirit as an ideal which poetry must follow.

Professor Edmundson could not be more wrong.

Poetry is its own idealized expression which creates its own public following.

Poetry shouldn’t have to trail after public ideals.

Edmundson has it backwards.

Ironically, it is on this very point, where Edmundson is most mistaken, that his critics pay him the most respect. Burt bends over backwards to make the case that contemporary poetry is “about” this or that important national topic,  and Burt quotes fragments from Rich and Bidart sans any particular merit amidst a pointless rant of See? We contemporary poets do watch the news! So there!

A blogger name Elisa praises Edmundson’s public service ideals:

He sets out to do something noble…a manifesto-like call for poetry that’s more engaged…I’m sort of sympathetic to the general idea here and I’ve certainly approached student poetry with this rubric…I’ve encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.

EdMundson shames the avant-garde snots into at least agreeing with his general premise: Robert Lowell wrote on the Vietnam War, you little brats!

And now for the time being Elisa and Edmundson agree. But the alliance is fleeting. We quote Elisa, at some length, again:

But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn’t. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who’s still pulling “That’s not poetry” on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can’t believe it got past the editors at Harper’s:

I cannot do much with the lines that begin “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” (or many of her other lines, either):

It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.

The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.

Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page (“Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone,” etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons”) is self-evident compared to those he doesn’t – that list again random and improbable.

Elisa is ready to join Edmundson’s noble crusade, but she realizes that all crusades “inevitably get used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like,” but this is an embarrassing adolescent objection on Elisa’s part; she doesn’t seem to understand that it is everyone’s right to “not happen to like” this or that poem—it is her right, in fact, and she would defend that right to anyone who would listen—and the right not to like a poem is just as important as the right to like one.  Elisa is assuming that if someone doesn’t like a poem, they have an agenda, and therefore they are not allowed to not like the poem.  But whether one has an agenda or not, people are not going to like certain poems, and there’s nothing the blogger Elisa can do about it, and her attempt to connect an “agenda” to “not liking a poem” is perhaps more dubious than someone actually having an “agenda” that makes them “happen to not like a poem,” if any such nonsense can be proven.  Do “agendas” influence “personal judgment” or do “personal judgements” influence “agendas?”  And which is more dishonest?  The whole issue seems fraught with unexamined assumptions, as one individual (Elisa) denies another (Edmundson) the right “to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like.”

Edmundson claims the lines from Anne Carson, which begin, “It’s good to be neuter,” are “obscure.”  Elisa objects, “Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure?”

Both critics are right.  The lines are obscure.  And they’re not. 

This is a mighty problem, and one of the reasons why poetry is in such a sad state of affairs these days; the whole controversy is enveloped in a trench-warfare fog.

We need to step back, here, perhaps before the blogger Elisa busts a gut, and look at our assumptions regarding poetry in general.

Stuck In The Middle With You

Rhetoric which passes as poetry today exists on two extremes: on one end of the spectrum, we have the matter-of-fact, and on the other end, philosophical ambiguity.  Intellectuals like to live on the extremes.  That’s where the party always is.  What we have in the middle is that which is neither matter-of-fact, nor philosophically ambiguous; it is merely what might be characterized as the Platonic “good” in words, what the public memory still identifies as poetry: Longfellow, or Emily Dickinson, poetry from “the Past,” but poetry which has an actual historical and rhetorical identity. Robert Lowell, the Frankenstein Monster of the Southern Agrarian New Critics, has an historical identity.  This middle ground occupies not only a rhetorical middle, but an historical one.  It is roughly equivalent to the “golden mean;”  a rhetoric with an existence between two poles.  One of the many reasons it satisfies its readers is because it is neither too matter-of-fact, nor too ambiguous.

The Carson example, as Elisa points out, is not “obscure,” but it is philosophically ambiguous—and, in keeping with self-conscious Modernism, matter-0f-fact at the same time.  The Carson excerpt has its interest, but Edmundson, as blundering as he is, is correct: the interest is not a poetic one.

The test is very simple: Carson posits the “neuter” person with “meaningless legs” as she speculates philosophically  on sexual difference, or the lack thereof.  The “poem,” at least in the excerpt, however, never comes into focus; instead we are offered vague choices—a shelf full of sexual philosophy presents itself to us—is it really good to be “neuter?”  How so?  From whose perspective? Etc, etc?— and words do have the power to do this; but this is speculative philosophy, not poetry.

The ambiguity of speculative philosophy will always trump the softer meanings of poetry—they are not the same, and those who assume (and there are many) that the ambiguity of philosophical speculation is poetry are really lost.

When the frustrated Elisa writes, “this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary,” one can see how absolutely at sea she is, bemoaning “agendas” on one hand, and the “arbitrary” on the other.

Edmundson has blindly stirred up the blind.

%d bloggers like this: