SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS, THE ROMANTICISM VERSION, CONTINUES: HOAGLAND V. PLATH

“A man in black with a Meinkampf look”

The biography of the poet—how important is it?

For Romantic Poetry, it is of paramount importance, for Humanist and Renaissance and Platonist reasons—the poem is a reflection and extension of the human.

Our interest in John Keats, for instance, cannot be separated from an interest in the poetry of John Keats.

Biographical interest was considered heretical by the New Critics, who, as self-appointed “moderns,” were anxious to leave the Romantic era behind and root out those Keats professors merely interested in—“watering their own gardens,” as John Crowe Ransom impatiently put it—to replace them in the universities with what Ransom called “the new writing” professors.  Ransom’s 1930s essay was called “Criticism, Inc.” and is one of the crucial founding documents of the Program Era, though it is forgotten/ignored by the avant-garde today.

The now-famous Program Era was ushered in by the New Critics and their allies like Professor Crane at U. of Chicago and Paul Engle at U. Iowa—who was awarded his Yale Younger Poets prize back in the 30s by one of the Fugitive set.  Ford Maddox Ford, who met Pound off the boat in Great Britain, was an associate of the New Critics and helped to launch the Program Era in the U.S.  If you are still following this, the Fugitives, the Southern Agrarians and the New Critics (all Rhodes Scholars) were a single evolving animal, and very influential in terms of text book and canon in the last century.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist master, went out of his way to attack Shelley’s character; Eliot was fiercely anti-Romantic in his writings.  People write poetry; one cannot eliminate biography entirely, but Modernism sought to dismantle its importance—Shelley, the Heroic Natural Man was replaced by Prufrock, the Grotesque Fictional one.  Writing became detached from reality.

The current debate re: Conceptualism is problematic for the very reason that its really a natural outcome of the Modernist Avant-garde: Writers like Amy King and Seth Abramson, Program Era products, attack anti-humanist Conceptualism without understanding its roots—or, understanding its roots but without any understanding of how they themselves are tangled up in them, having themselves completely swallowed the doctrines of the Modernist avant-garde.

One has to embrace the Romantics, as Scarriet does, and see the Modernists for what they are, to escape the “conceptualist” dilemma.

Suppressing biography to enhance the poem was an interesting experiment, especially in light of the fact that all the New Critics are now unknown, overshadowed by a single Romantic Ballad-like poem : “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, dripping with blood and biography.

In the Tournament contest today, Plath faces off against living poet Tony Hoagland and his poem, “Why the Young Men Are So Ugly.”

Hoagland’s poem is about young men in general.

Plath’s is about her father and her husband.    (The poem is explicitly about Hughes, but this fact is often overlooked.)

Guess which one wins?

WHY THE YOUNG MEN ARE SO UGLY

They have little tractors in their blood
and all day the tractors climb up and down
inside their arms and legs, their
collarbones and heads.

That is why they yell and scream and slam the barbells
down into their clanking slots,
making the metal ring like sledgehammers on iron,
like dungeon prisoners rattling their chains.

That is why they shriek their tires at the stopsign,
why they turn the base up on the stereo
until it shakes the traffic light, until it
dryhumps the eardrum of the crossing guard.

Testosterone is a drug,
and they say No, No, No until
they are overwhelmed and punch
their buddy in the face for joy,

or make a joke about gravy and bottomless holes
to a middle-aged waitress who is gently
setting down the plate in front of them.

If they are grotesque, if
what they say and do is often nothing more
than a kind of psychopathic fart,

it is only because of the tractors,
the tractors in their blood,
revving their engines, chewing up the turf
inside their arteries and veins
It is the testosterone tractor

constantly climbing the mudhill of the world
and dragging the young man behind it
by a chain around his leg.
In the stink and the noise, in the clouds
of filthy exhaust

is where they live. It is the tractors
that make them
what they are. While they make being a man
look like a disease.

DADDY

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

 An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
and drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat, black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

Plath wins, 69-43 and advances to the Sweet Sixteen!

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous said,

    August 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Daddy is the best poem of the 20th century. Go, Plath!

  2. drew said,

    September 19, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Sylvia P. wrote sucky (and boring) poetry.
    Her godless existential blathering makes me want to see what’s on TV.

    http://wadebradford.com/blog3/2008/07/18/sylvia-plath-is-plathetic/

    I like Hoagland’s verses much more…

    Yours in lyrical solidarity against the tyranny of the mediocre majority.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 19, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Drew,

      I agree most of Plath’s poetry is fairly sucky. She was under the sway of the New Critics—getting her poetry published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review was the dearest thing for her and what she sweated for as an aspiring poet in the 50s. The New Critics got a deal with Big Education and insinuated themselves into the academy, both as Creative Writing founders and the textbook biz. Robert Lowell left Harvard to study with Ransom and Tate and Randall Jarrell was Lowell’s roomate at Kenyon. Lowell’s shrink who suggested the move was a Fugitive poet, the Rhodes Scholar poets from Vanderbilt who became the New Critics. Lowell taught at Iowa, and so was part of the early Program Era success. And then of course Lowell taught Sexton and Plath (and probably made them worse). That whole type of poetry sucked, basically, even though Ransom’s “The Blue Girls” is lovely. It sucked because it was self-consciously learned and ironic and difficult and obscure. Good poems in that mode came about by accident. Ransom said ‘we can’t write like Byron anymore, etc’ and by putting the brakes on Romanticism the New Critics stultified poetry, repressing accessibility and feeling for the sake of ‘difficulty’ and ‘learning.’ “Understanding Poetry” was the textbook that everyone read in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, co-written by two New Critics, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. They did make some gestures to the ‘dramatic,’ but all in all it was a wash, pedagogically. In that textbook, “Red Wheel Barrow” by Williams and “At a Station at the Metro” by Pound are praised and Poe’s “Ulalume” is mocked. With “Daddy,” Plath broke away from the New Critics and wrote what I think is a great poem against the shit Ted Hughes. She’s no longer writing for the Kenyon Review with this poem; she’s taking a ballad form and making it more interesting; note the interesting use of stanza in her poem: that’s a trait of the great Romantics like Shelley and Poe—their musical power owes more to the stanza than the line. With “Daddy,” Plath is speaking directly to the lay reader in a style without restraint. She suffered and made mistakes, yes, but “Daddy” is a wild, impassioned triumph.

      • drew said,

        September 19, 2013 at 4:54 pm

        Ok – so of all her desperately dull output, perhaps I should get to know this one (Daddy) better;
        just as a token “Suicidal Verbose Literary 50’s English Class” type poem. Thanks for the interesting and informative response.


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