UGLY BIRDS: THE FAILURE OF MODERN POETRY AND THE SUCCESS OF THE NOVEL

Modernism is no longer “modern.”  Duchamp was born in the 19th century and the Mona Lisa moustache artist is several generations closer in time to Byron than he is to us.

But the legacy of modernism, with its self-conscious -isms, grows apace: ungainly poetry the public ignores continues to flourish, aided by institutional subsidy.

The New English Review published an article last year, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” by Mark Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros, and was rebuked in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey: “Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering.”

It is nice to know these sorts of discussions are going on, for Modernism’s profound influence is taken too much for granted.  Here is Signorelli’s reply to Mullarkey.

Compare the two paintings in Mullarkey’s article:  the one by Max Beckmann (1917) and the one by Geerhaert David (1500).

The models speak for themselves.

Rhetoric of a certain religious or political bent need not distract us.   Artistic Modernism is too important an issue to be sidetracked by religious or political wrangling, and it is precisely this wrangling, which, by its very nature, is nearly always beside the point, that helps to keep the legacy of Modernism afloat.

The cry against Modernism could be any of the following:  “God has gone out of art!” or “It is as if God, if there were a God, had gone out of art!”  Or,  “Beauty has gone out of art!”   Or, “Art now sucks!”   The rhetoric may be different, but the truth is the same.

Now, we will not deny that Modernism has a certain powerful secular, scientific, open-minded, progressive perception among many intellectuals, and that complaints against Modernism tend to be construed as nothing more than a sort of superstitious “yahoo” reaction.

But Modernism lacks genuine scientific credentials: Cubism is not a “fourth dimension” or a “new reality.”  Poems cannot be measured by “breaths” or “fields of energy” or “things.”  Also, many of Modernism’s founders were fascists.  Modernism’s heady, positive, scientific “perception” is largely a p.r. gimmick.

Modernism’s p.r. perception, however, is fading, as minds secular and religious are getting fed up with what has been to a large extent, a narrow, anti-human, anti-art, con.

Why a “con?”   Real simple:  Because 20th century art was a profitable style based on cheap materials (Bauhaus cement) and hyped painting (buy Cezanne/Matisse/Picasso low, sell high) with an accompanying apparatus of critics, lawyers, speculators, art leagues, schools, and galleries, each part validating the other.

Poetry was the intellectual con that abutted the profit con (architecture, painting).  The arts tend to pull along together: think Keats and Mozart; then Pound and Picasso.  There’s an intellectual/artistic sea that catches up all swimmers.

On a more practical level, however: the modern art collector and lawyer, John Quinn, changed import law (in US Congress!) to make the modern art Armory Show (1913) happen—Quinn also negotiated Eliot and Pound’s “Waste Land” deal.  The wildly influential modern art critic John Dewey allowed wealthy modern art collector A.C. Barnes to co-write his famous Art and Experience. The poetry clique of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, and Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s father) was headed up by another wealthy modern art collector, Walter Arensberg, who hosted Duchamp’s first visit to America.  Duchamp advised Peggy Guggenheim, who hung out with Ashbery and O’Hara.  William James, the nitrous oxide professor, taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard; Stein’s poetry was less important than the modern art collecting she and her brother Leo did.

Knowing the history and persons does open up our eyes, but we don’t have to waste time with shallow, abstract, ideology, or do a lot of historical second-guessing.  To repeat: the art, the models, speak for themselves.

The public is no longer interested in poetry, at least since the death of Frost 50 years ago.  Today, free verse poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell a little bit, but they are not critically esteemed.  Poetry is a fractured, mostly ignored enterprise.

Novels still sell, but poems do not.

In our previous post, we pointed out the crucial difference between fiction and poetry:  the public has a certain amount of patience for novels—readers will “stick with” a novel for a “pay-off;” poems are not given the same chance—and this is due to an old (and correct) expectation that poems should please us immediately.

A novel may be hard to “get into,” and even appear to be an ugly mess, at first, but readers will stay with it because they assume that the total effect will eventually please them.

Modern poets stubbornly believe readers will “give poems the same chance” they do novels.

They won’t.  Public perception of modern poems as compared to modern novels will always operate in the following way:

The consumer’s choice is simple:

Poems are no longer beautiful things which please immediately, but instead imitate the prosy nature of novels,

So what does that mean?  It means the buyer has two choices: the novel—an ugly bird who can fly a long way or, the poem—an ugly bird who can only fly a short distance.  In terms of bang for their buck, the consumer is always going to choose the bird that can fly a greater distance.

No wonder the novel out-sells the poem.

We’ve all seen the poets who try some new trick, who try to make the poem into something it isn’t: an offensive joke, a dense nugget packed with topical information, a pictogram, a revolutionary tract, a diary, but this just makes the poet look desperate: it never works.  The clever poet thinks, Look, I am not only giving them a poem, I am giving them a joke, too!  The public is not interested.  The public just thinks: if you don’t like poetry, why are you pretending to write it?  Write a novel or a joke, instead.

Poetry may be dead, but the idea of it still lives.

Modernism couldn’t kill that.

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HOW TO TELL THE FAKE POEMS FROM THE REAL ONES

Silliman

Let the goddamn workshop begin!  (We love ya, Ron, but you’re a faker.)

How does one tell the fake poems from the real ones?

It’s really quite simple.

Poetry is that which contains its own stamp of legitimacy and does NOT require further reading in order to make it legitimate.

One would never excerpt part of a joke, and then protest, “you have to read the whole thing or it won’t be funny!”

Ideally, the entirety of any literary effort is perused, but this should not distract us from a distinct fact of poetry: its impact as poetry is immediate.

Poetry creates its own context.

We don’t need to ‘keep reading’ to determine whether the poem has done its job; a couple of lines will do.

The poem is that very thing which does not need additional things.

Judge a poem by its first line, or two.

Otherwise, you’re not reading poetry; you’re reading something else.

This is not to say that a poem cannot have a “pay off,” or cannot increase the reader’s pleasure as the reader continues to read, or that a poem cannot fail at the end—a poem is a temporal art form, after all.

But a poem is a temporal art form that, by its very nature, excels in its parts—even as those parts, as we might expect, combine to form a whole.

We always hear people say how it took them a long time to “get into” a novel—readers are patient with novels because there’s an expectation of a “pay off” if they “stick with it,”  Why so many people spend so much of their valuable time struggling with a text they so obviously do not enjoy is a mystery, but it’s a telling anecdote: this is what the public  generally perceives the novel to be: it doesn’t have to give pleasure immediately, or even in the beginning, and perhaps there’s an analogy to be made regarding a first date, which might be agony at first, and yet could lead to something very significant.

We doubt people give a poem the same chance.

Given that it’s a poem, they are correct to do so.

For a poem—and here it is different from the novel—must be a pleasure to read right away, for the poet is expected to please with effects that register immediately: if the novel is the hard-to-know person, the poem is that person’s pretty face, or that person’s pleasant voice, or any thing at all which favors the subject immediately.

Only a superficial person, of course, would then conclude that poetry is the more superficial art form.  The fact of a pretty face is anything but superficial.

There are many pretenders in poetry who, with great scholarly elaboration, attempt to stamp a poem with legitimacy using that which has nothing to do with poetry’s legitimacy at all.

Everyone, even if they are not conscious of it, knows who these pretenders are.

Their rhetoric typically sounds like this (from a Ron Silliman course syllabus):

Post-Everything Poetics: A Workshop

This is not a “writing workshop” per se, but rather a look at some recent developments in writing & how they relate to (are driven by) the world we share, with an eye to looking at how we can use our own poetry to encourage, reflect, & engage change that is more than mere fashion. Topics of discussion will include Modernism and the poetics of capitalism, world-system analysis, gender capital, writing beyond capitalism, and poetry as a post-capital (or even post-everything) venture. Participants will come to the workshop having read a variety of material and will be prepared to participate in a discussion of this material and share their own work in relation to the readings.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with whatever fun little thing this course happens to think it is.

We are only interested in the definition of poetry.

The phrase that gives the game away is “the poetics of capitalism” and “poetry as a post-capital (or even post-everything) venture.”  Note the nebulous attempt to expand the definition of “poetry” and “poetics” into a realm of exceeding topical significance and self-importance.   This puffed-up shell-game trick works the following way: attach “poetry” to “the world we share” and “change” in a dramatic fashion, so it becomes impossible to define what “poetry” is, except that expansiveness in every sense is encouraged, so that “poetry,” as traditionally defined, a composition by Shelley, for instance, will seem small and petty.  The trick is to veer away from political philosophy that looks too much like political philosophy, or poetry that looks too much like poetry—the idea is to be both vague and topical, so that whatever hip idea makes its way to the surface can be accepted as legitimate; “poetics” is the polishing rag for whatever piece of junk comes into view, and the immediate presence of students reading the latest texts provides the necessary topicality of the “poetics.”

Poetry hasn’t a chance in the face of this onslaught: the moonlit night surrenders to the thousand spotlights of “the world we share.”

We like how Silliman’s course is called a “workshop” and yet at the same time Silliman runs from the marker: “This is not a workshop, per se.”

The Creative Writing Workshop model has been in place for 50 years and in the last 20 years has become a successful academic business model: as a “Post-Everything Poetics” (whatever that is) course, we can’t expect Silliman to embrace the term, “Workshop,”which implies, at least to some degree, “a confined space in which work is done on a poem,” or “craft,” or “actual poem.”

“Poetics” does not.

Silliman must have hunted about for a term to define the course, and yet could not find anything satisfactory, and therefore he had to call his course a “workshop,” adding the caveat.  The rhetorical flourish of “world we share” is key: the poem is blown up from the inside: the poem loses all identity as it expands to include “the world.”  The poem is no longer an object to be looked at and experienced as something with its own independent existence; the gaze is no longer directed at the poem, but to what is too big to see: “the world we share,” and the notion that it is “the world” we share is a hopeless gesture towards some kind of focus.

Again, whatever haunted, post-everything, political poetics Silliman is after might turn up something interesting, but our concern is with how we are defining, or not defining, poetry.

We don’t see any purpose of watering down, to the point of non-existence, poetry, in the name of “poetics.”

Shelley, in his expansive tract, defended “poetry,” not “poetics.”  Shelley, as wildly expansive as any poetic commentator there was, in that famous essay kept his sights on tangible, historical, poetry.  It is one thing to say, “Plato was a poet.”  It is quite another to introduce a “post-everything poetics.”

One thing must be understood.  The confidence of a Shelley in defending poetry is based on what we said at the top of our brief essay here:  Poetry is its own Verifying Agent.

Poetry very much is something, and is so immediately,  more so than the novel, and much more so than the political, post-modern essay.

1) And after many a summer dies the swan.

2) So much depends.

The first above is poetry—and we know it right away.

The second is…well, you’ll have to spend good money on a “Poetics” workshop to find out whether it’s poetry—or not.

DO NOT READ THIS TO THE END—NEW SCARRIET POEM

Do not read this to the end,
Glance fondly at what I send,
As if it were a picture in a book,
Or a polite, goodbye look.

You hate descriptions to go on;

With a frown  you say, “It doesn’t matter, it’s gone.”

You are not one for talk.
You like to sit, or go for a walk.
You are proud, in a moment offended
And when you’re hurt, it’s not easily mended.
I said something a week ago,
Innocent—but yes, I know, I know,
I shouldn’t have said it—
It might fix itself, but you won’t let it.

You are a poem that lasts a year,
But blurs up when I hold it near.
The whole of you is mysterious and vast;
I’m nostalgic for even a week that’s past,
A day, an hour, I look back
With ardor!  Take me! I’ll quickly pack.

But when I am packed, ready to go,
I notice I have moved too slow.
You are gone, unsentimental, fast,
In a future of your own, mocking what I loved in our past.

Lovers always under one roof
See each other and never need proof,
But lovers who are often away
Tell each other what they did that day.

But not you.  You would rather walk
Among roses than talk.

When you love, it is like a flower opening,
It is like when the shy and talented finally sing,
It is like sunrise, or night descending on her beautiful wing—
But the conditions have to be just right.
You are private and modest, like a church at night.

I stand beside you now, my heart beating fast,
Waiting for you, mysterious!  Oh mysterious!  and vast!

THE ART ACADEMY GAME

art

Academies once cultivated talent discovered in the few for the good of society—apprentices, born in poverty or not—started with talent.

Today, academies serve the opposite purpose—anyone willing to go into debt defines the art school: cultivating talent into genius (or genius into talent) is not the purpose at all; today’s academy instead is a sandbox that collects money; the child who hates science, math, people, and literature, a mere slob, but who fancies “art,” goes to “art” school.

This venture is loved by the Left, because it is democratic and gives every slob a chance, and loved by the Right because it makes money.

Thus today’s academy is fully supported politically despite being the most loathsome venture on earth.

Common sense no longer applies, for institutions and systems are administered on “agreement” between Leftist benevolence on one hand, and Rightist monetary gain, on the other.

What is good for society at large has no say: all that counts is that the exaggerated principles of the two parties see eye to eye: 1) Does it give every slob a chance? 2) Does it rob them, as well?

Liberal arts, writing, and art education is vanity—we “go to college” to impress family and friends with the phrase, “I am studying,” and great amounts of debt purchase this vanity.

Once there was one Hogarth in a million.  Now everyone is an Andy Warhol.

DOLPHY—NEW SCARRIET POEM

That you want to spend the day in Dolphy
With your head covered up so that no one can see,
And Dolphy, too, doesn’t mind.
Dolphy, too, wants everyone blind.
Dolphy’s hills are warm and blue and kind.
You and Dolphy the only ones seeing,
No one else knowing whether you’re sleeping or peeing,
Hidden from all, just you two.
You are the one kissing but Dolphy is also you,
This is how your love for Dolphy goes
When she’s kissing you not wearing clothes,
Better the day, or the only day, this day,
Everything else background to Dolphy,
No guidebooks, no story, no film of Dolphy,
No painting of Dolphy, invisible Dolphy,
Dolphy only beautiful loving Dolphy, Dolphy’s love
The little stream, the life, the dream soaring above,
Just real enough you know the hand is yours and Dolphy’s
Where the seeds and the ice are served
In Dolphy’s kitchen by the sea.

INSIDIOUS MODERNISM

The Armory Show: 100 years ago, Modern Art came to America

The government of Letters has its lobbyists and wealthy influence, too.  They say politics is show business for ugly people—we don’t know if poets and artists as a rule are ugly, or not, or whether it matters; however, as thinkers who are keen enough to dismiss much that doesn’t matter, we would most likely err if we dismissed the (often hidden) idea that art movements have non-artist and bad-artist people behind them as much as they do theory, people who buy art seeking a deal and may even build a museum or buy off a critic for that deal, people who have political or material interests.  The particular, motivated human, in other words, runs the show, the show of fame and influence and money we grace with the euphemism “art,” “architecture,” or “poetry” in our more idealistic moments.

Modernism is barely a hundred years old and has two chief characteristics: 1) a profound, enduring, and institutional influence on society at large, 2) not understood in the least by the public. Impressionism, as a technique, is understood; as an idea only theorists understand it.  Every technique has an end or result which does—or does not—satisfy the public.  To pretend that art is more than a technique rendered for public satisfaction is for theorists to twist and mangle.

Theorists, lobbyists, institutions, foundations, critics, lawyers, and politicians all have an interest in art-buying, whether it is sculpture, architecture (a trillion dollar industry), painting, photography, or poetry (a zero dollar industry, measured in something other than dollars). Before Modernism, nations used to own and fight over art (pillage in wars being only the most obvious): Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Arnold (and their contemporary sentiment) worked for Great Britain. Whistler v. Ruskin—the famous 19th century painting court case (1878)—was U.S. ‘modern art,’ before Modernism became an international brand, doing battle with entrenched Gothic/Victorian pride. The French painters of the Salon des Refuses (1863) were owned by the despot, Napolean III, for the French government (some forget) sanctioned this avant-garde event.

By the time the spirit of Salon des Refuses came to America as the Armory Modern Art Show (1913), everything had changed.  The Eliot/Pound lawyer who negotiated the Dial Prize (worth an annual salary at Lloyd’s) for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” before it was even finished (Pound was still editing) was also a buyer of modern art, and made the Armory show happen, delivering the welcoming greeting to the assembled on the first day.

Modernism was not an art movement so much as it was a business venture with “art” (Stein, Picasso, and Dewey, Inc.) and “architecture” (Cement, Glass and Bauhaus, Inc.) as its front.  One could not swing Ezra Pound without hitting a wealthy art buyer in the stuffy, ambitious offices of Modernism, Inc. (John Crowe Ransom called the enterprise Criticism,  Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.)

The wealthy art buyer Walter Arensberg hosted Duchamp (“Nude Descending Staircase” the hit of the Armory Show) when he came to America, and Williams and Stevens belonged to Arsenberg’s cabal.  Stevens and Ransom were a mutual admiration society at Kenyon, and Ransom’s fellow Fugitive, Tate, who helped start creative writing at Princeton, was quick to praise “The Waste Land” when it was published in 1922.

If we look at contributors to the first issue of The Fugitive that year, we see: Robert Graves, Oxford professor of Poetry in the 60s who beat out Lowell for the sough-after post and advocated mushroom use from that honored position; Witter Bynner, with a poetry prize to his name; Hart Crane, important poet; Louis Untermeyer, important anthologist; John Gould Fletcher, poet caught in the middle between Amy Lowell and Pound/Maddox Ford during the brief U.S./British split before WW I; Laura Riding, then married to a Kentucky professor; and William Alexander Percy, godfather of the Fugitives, Harvard Law School and later Yale Younger Judge, who would award Paul Engle (Iowa Workshop) his Yale Younger prize.

William James, the first word in the first poem in the first book of BAP (1988, “Garbage,” Ammons), founder of stream of consciousness writing and Psychology as a subject at Harvard, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Waldo Emerson’s godson, brother of Henry, who became British, was Gertrude Stein’s professor; Stein, wealthy deb from Baltimore, was a poet, but more importantly, one of those lobbyists, with her brother Leo, who collected the new art, buying very, very low and selling very, very high.  Low (vulgar) to high (stoned) was the Modernistic lifestyle as well as the simple business practice.   How perfect to be smart and rich!  You will buy Picasso and he will make you famous and they will teach you in college.

The public could not understand Modernism, not even when John Dewey came to Harvard in 1931 and, in a series of lectures to honor William James, patiently and painstakingly attempted a defense.  The lectures became the book Art As Experience, and as we set eyes on the first sentence of the first chapter, we see at once both the insidious genius of Dewey and the impossibility of a lay reader understanding him:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.

And we’re off to the races.  Place your bets. This Matisse doesn’t look like much, but I’ll give it to you cheap. Dewey’s modernist apologia was mentored by art collector A.C. Barnes (1872-1951) of the Barnes Foundation.  Barnes made a fortune selling an antiseptic drug.  He accumulated vast amounts of paintings by Cezanne and Matisse (well over a 100 in total).  Dewey writes in the preface to Art and Experience:

My greatest indebtedness is to Dr. A. C. Barnes.  The chapters have been gone over one by one with him, and yet what I owe to his comments and suggestions on this account is but a small measure of my debt. ** Whatever is sound in this volume is due more than I can say to the great educational work carried on in the Barnes Foundation.

Dewey shows himself adept at saying all kinds of common sense things about art, and Art and Experience reflects wide reading in Classical and Romantic aesthetIcs. Most of the time he sounds perfectly reasonable, and we would expect nothing less from someone lecturing on art at Harvard:

Mutual adaptation of parts to one another in constituting a whole is the relation which, formally speaking, characterizes a work of art.

This sounds like Aristotle or Coleridge or Poe, and it would seem Dewey is sympathetic to centuries of tradition.  But, as a modernist, he’s not.  He’s only playing us.  His loyalty is not to art or tradition, but to A.C. Barnes and his Matisse collection.  But Dewey needs to lull us into a false sense of his erudition.  It is almost like someone who secretly spikes your drink.  The sensible and nonsense are skillfully woven together, and this weaving is where the real erudition is displayed.  Dewey continues in a sensible vein:

Every machine, every utensil, has, within limits a similar reciprocal adaptation. In each case, an end is fulfilled. That which is merely utilitarian satisfies, however, a particular and limited end.

But now he gets hazy:

The work of esthetic art satisfies many ends, none of which is laid down in advance. It serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living.

“It serves life” sounds wonderful, but we wonder exactly what it means, beyond a gesture towards art for art’s sake, unless we can define “serves life,” and yet the ill-defined seems to be Dewey’s  whole point.  But we wonder about definitions which are non-definitive.

We also wonder about “none of which is laid down in advance.”  All artists appreciate serendipity, but to censor all planning seems a bit fanatical.

“Experience” is big for Dewey.  He uses the word in almost every other sentence in the book.  Its frequent use can turn into a running joke, if one is not careful.  If it were a drink when you see “experience” game, intoxication would result almost immediately from all of Dewey’s “experiences,” the experience of not being able to rise, the greatest experience of all.

“Experience” for Dewey is like “experience” for Emerson; it allows them to talk and talk and talk without coming to a point; it allows them to expand discussion of two plus two into a cosmos of psychological inferences: how do we feel about two plus two? Who is responsible for two plus two?  What coward dares to oppress us with two plus two?  What sort of experiences are we having when we add two and two?  Is two plus two an insult to our souls?  How shall we free ourselves of two plus two?

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little expansiveness, as long as it’s not blah blah blah; to examine ‘process’ and the ‘process of process’ and all the pushes and pulls of the integrative efforts towards aesthetic unity and wholeness is all very good, but too much of this “experience” business can turn us into someone obsessed with spots swimming before our eyes.  Too much “experience” and not enough focused thought will be reason’s undoing.  The following (from the same chapter, Chapter 7, The History of Form) is important because it describes a painter’s method:

Matisse has described the actual process of painting in the following way: “If, on a clean canvas, I put at intervals patches of blue, green, and red, with every touch that I put on, each of those previously laid on loses in importance. Say I have to paint an interior; I see before me a wardrobe. It gives me a vivid sensation of red; I put on the canvas the particular red that satisfies me. A relation now exists  between this red and the paleness of the canvas.  When I put on besides a green, and also a yellow to represent the floor, between this green and the yellow and the color of the canvas  there will be still further relations. But these different tones diminish one another. It is necessary that the different tones I use be balanced  in such a way that they do not destroy one another. To secure that, I have to put my ideas in order; the relationship between tones must be instituted in such a way that they are built up instead of being knocked down. A new combination of colors will succeed to the first one and will give the wholeness of my conceptions.”

Now there is nothing different in principle here from what is done in the furnishing of a room, when the householder sees to it that tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, color of walls, and spacing of the pictures on them are so selected and arranged that that do not clash but form an ensemble. **  Even at first glance there is the sense of qualitative unity. There is form.

We are reminded by Dewey’s remarks of Poe’s “A Philosophy of Furniture.”  The principles expounded here by Matisse and Dewey are perfectly sound, nearly to the point of truism.  Matisse is clearly a bridge to abstract expressionism; we can see it in the way he privileges blobs of color.  We doubt Da Vinci painted this way.  In any case, this is Dewey behaving himself, generally drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before:

In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art. Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified perception. Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, sense and situation to its own integral fulfillment. The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without. It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation.  If the matter is of a jolly sort, the form that would be fitting to pathetic matter is impossible. If expressed in a poem, then meter, rate of movement, words chosen, the whole structure, will be different, and in a picture so will the whole scheme of color and volume relationships. In comedy, a man at work laying bricks while dressed in evening clothes is appropriate; the form fits the matter. The same subject-matter would bring the movement of another experience to disaster.

The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to fulfillment.  When we know these means, we know what form is.

Dewey is eloquent even as he propounds the truism that matter and form are mutually self-supporting.  We like this: “a man at work laying bricks…in evening clothes” and “When we know these means, we know what form is.”  We admire Dewey’s attempt to see art as an active process.  These are bracing, healthy statements.

The reader might think: Dewey sounds old-fashioned.  This is radical Modernism?  Yet one must remember: Modernism was a Business.  Conservative-sounding critics like Eliot, Ransom and Dewey were key to radical Modernism’s acceptance and success.

But at our backs we shall hear Modernism’s clunky chariot drawing near.  Dewey is a good man for the task of selling Modernism’s lunacy, precisely because he can sound like a learned Aristotle for days on end.  But he does not forget his agenda: to sell modern art.  First, however, he builds and builds on tradition:

Admiration always includes an element of wonder. As a Renaissance writer said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The quote is from Lord Bacon, and Poe loved this quotation, too, making it famous in both his criticism and fiction.

Poe also said, “The senses sometimes see too little, but they always see too much.”

This statement is almost a summary of the whole bare-boned aesthetic of Modernism, beginning with “Ornament is a crime” by Anthony Loos (1908).

But we doubt Poe would have liked the works of Modernism; he would have found Modernism repellent and dull.  Dewey can sound aesthetically agreeable to almost any time and place for long stretches, to Modernism’s advantage: making abstract remarks on matter and form, for instance, can lend an air of authority to any artistic enterprise; the more abstract the criticism, however, the more likely it is to be fraudulent.  Bad poems, as well as good, have form and content doing the same thing, have rhythm, have ordering systems, etc etc.  But the real test is when we observe the art itself.  One can make a critical laundry list of aesthetic characteristics shared by a masterpiece and a pile of garbage: the dishonest critic can make anything sound good.

We now reach the middle of the chapter where Dewey begins to show his true modernist colors:

Some of the traits mentioned are more often referred to technique than to form. The attribution is correct whenever the qualities in question are referred to the artist rather than to his work. There is a technique that obtrudes, like the flourishes of a writing master. If skill and economy suggest their author, they take us away from the work itself.

Here Dewey frowns upon the individuality of an artist—what else but the input of a unique human could make a work interesting?  His objection is icy and stern.

And here is where his obsession with “experience” begins to betray him; Dewey assumes radical changes in “experience” throughout the ages; should an artist assume we “experience” all sorts of things our ancestors never could?

Significant advances in technique occur, therefore, in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience.

Which leads him to this, which really jumped out at us:

If we take the developments in the major techniques of painting during and since the Renaissance we find that they were connected with efforts to solve problems that grew out of the experience expressed in painting and not out of the craftsmanship of the painting itself.

This is nuts.  We should ignore “the craftsmanship of the painting itself” (think of the craftsmanship of the old masters!) and focus on “experience expressed?”  The vague term, “experience,” has now carried Dewey away.  The great painters of the Renaissance did not pay attention to “the painting itself,” but rather to “experience” that had to be “expressed.”  This begs the question: do we “experience” the craftsmanship of painting itself?  Most certainly we do.  So what, exactly, does Dewey mean, then?  “Experiences” of love and war drove great painting?  “Experiences” of religious devotion?  Dewey never defines these “experiences;” he merely uses the term “experience” to diminish the importance of “craftsmanship” by Renaissance artists, a highly suspicious ploy by a modernist critic.  It is nice to think of Michelangelo, by the use of pure will, transforming his “experiences” into great art.  But we don’t think this is what happened.

There was first the problem of transition from depiction of contours in flat-like mosaics to “three-dimensional” presentations. Until experience expanded to demand expression of something more than decorative renderings of religious themes determined by ecclesiastic fiat there was nothing to motivate this change: In its own place, the convention of “flat” painting is just as good as any other convention, as Chinese rendering of perspective is as perfect in one way as that of Western painting in another. The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art. Something of the same sort applies to the next great change, mastery of means for rendering aerial perspective and light. The third great technical change was the use by the Venetians of color to effect what other schools, especially the Florentine, had accomplished by means of the sculpturesque line—a change indicative of a vast secularization of values with its demand for the glorification of the sumptuous and suave in experience.

Look how often he uses the word “experience.”

This claim is foolish and cannot be proven: “The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art.” What can “growth of naturalism in experience” possibly mean?  As Shakespeare wrote, “Perspective is great painter’s art.”   Surely “perspective” is not put into painting because of a “growth of naturalism,” unless we assume that technique in painting is just an expression of “naturalism,” and in that case, we are not saying anything at all, except to add significance to certain words: experience, naturalism, etc.  And then it becomes the critic’s business to define more rigorously terms such as “experience” and “naturalism,” which finally bankrupts what the “naturalist” critic was trying to say in the first place.

Worse, for Dewey, is that he claims the second great technical change after “three-dimensional presentation” was “rendering aerial perspective and light,” but if he had studied Da Vinci, he would know that light is crucial for “three-dimensionality.”  Art history has this flaw, that it needs to show “advances” in definite historical “stages,” when this only distorts the truth produced by the Renaissance masters.

“The convention of ‘flat’ painting is just as good as any other.”  But then Dewey writes, in a harsh manner, “Thus in the later seventeenth century, the treatment of dramatic movement characteristic of Titian and still more of Tintoretto, by means chiefly of light and shade, is exaggerated to the point of the theatrical. In Guercino, Caravaggio, Feti, Carracci, Ribera, the attempt to depict movement dramatically results in posed tableaux and defeats itself.”

A Modernist can manage abstract theorizing, but whenever they talk history, whenever they start talking about real works from the past, their judgements fly apart.

Given the Modernist agenda, this is not surprising.

WHERE? –A NEW SCARRIET POEM

comfort dignity truth.jpg

No one is going to lie to me.
Everyone lies to you.
All of my poems are perfect.
None of your poems are perfect.
I will not grow old and die.
You will grow old and die.
Nature will not be indifferent to me.
Nature is totally indifferent to you.
Art, philosophy, and learning will set me free.
Art, philosophy and learning will enslave you.
I will accept imperfection and be happy.
Imperfection accepted is the measure of misery.
I will work for the best and satisfy myself by that.
The worst always finds the best and makes it its host.
All who really know me will love me.
No, they will hate you or pity you.
I don’t want anyone’s pity.
You are going to get it.
But you are different; you will tell me a good thing.
I am not different; I am like all the rest.
Where is my comfort, my dignity, my truth?
Where is our comfort, our dignity, our truth?

KISS ME ON MY FOOT–NEW SCARRIET POEM

File:Batoni Diana and Cupid.jpg

Kiss me on my foot,
I’ve walked so many miles.
Kiss me on my lips.
I’ve forced so many smiles.
Kiss me on my belly.
I have no baby there.
I want to be yours like in a poem by Shelley.
I want to care.
Kiss me on my face,
Between my mouth and nose,
A soft, whispering kiss;
I want one of those.
Kiss me on my hands.
They will not care if you do.
They work all the time,
And vacations are few.
Kiss me on my thoughts.
I have a million thoughts,
More thoughts than you have kisses.
I thought when the love god shoots his shaft
Sometimes he misses.

MICHAEL ROBBINS HAS A CRUSH ON ANGE MLINKO, OR WHY THE CRITIC SHOULD NEVER HAVE A MUSE

Ange Mlinko: The Critic Should Never Have A Muse

Michael Robbins has disappointed us in his attempt to make a Scarriet-like, sweeping definition of poetry: “Where Competency Ends, Poetry Begins.”

Robbins has intelligence and wit, and we like his writing, but the jury is still out on whether he will fall into dyspeptic Pound-ism or soar like an Alexander Pope and laugh with silver laughter at the dunces.

We still have high hopes for the critic Michael Robbins—we have no hopes for any poet today—critics need to quiet the noisy poets before poetry can be heard again.

In his latest piece for the Chicago Tribune, Robbins drops the ball—he decries “competency” by selecting for laudation a quintessential piece of competency by Ange Mlinko, a “friend” of his, Robbins confesses to his readers, but a friendship, he insists, based on an “admiration for her work,” and not (as he attempts to drive the stake into the heart of Foetry) the “other way around.”

Since Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com ceased publication and Scarriet sprang up to take its place, we like to think we have kept the flag waving above the beleaguered fort of common sense.

Robbins cannot see how his friendship with Mlinko has blinded him.  So it follows he cannot see his tribute to Mlinko is the epitome of competency.

Robbins‘ article begins with that old trope: the view from the “slush pile” from the sneering, condescending poetry editor’s perspective, as if “slush” wasn’t finally published in the editor’s magazine, anyway.

Robbins is doing something clever, though, moving from “slush” to “competency” to the apex of the imagination which is…Mlinko.

This would be funny, but Robbins, blinded by both “slush-pile”-experience professionalism and his “friendship,” is serious.  Too bad.  Robbins is best when he’s a little silly.

As he is a good critic, Robbins does give us an extra: slush pile poetry is mocked with quotes by Wyndham Lewis.

Wyndham Lewis?  If you thought Ezra Pound was a creep who wrote mediocre, Modernistic poetry, wait to you read Wyndham Lewis!

Hemingway thought Lewis the most physically repulsive human being he ever met (with Ford Madox Ford a close second) and we are not surprised.

Robbins’ Mlinko-nod to foetry, his faint damning of MFA “competency,” plus his singling out as ludicrous the same passage of Adam Fitzgerald’s (from a David Kirby review) which we found risible three weeks ago (#81) would seem to indicate Robbins is keeping his finger on the pulse of Po-Biz via Blog Scarriet.  Good for him.  Lists are currently the rage in po-biz and Scarriet’s Hot 100 series got that started.  Anyway, we are flattered.

For Robbins’ argument, a couple passages from the “crushingly banal” “Apple Slices” by Todd Boss is presented, with concessions to its sonic effects, as ‘workshop competent’:

— eaten right

off the jackknife in

moons, half-moons,

quarter-moons and

crescents —

still

summon common

summer afternoons

I spent as my dad’s

jobsite grunt…

*

so many waned and

waxed moons later,

another well-paid,

well-fed, college-

bred paper-pusher, I

wonder that I’ve never

labored harder, nor

eaten better.

And here is the Fitzgerald, which Robbins and Scarriet agree, was over-praised by the excitable David Kirby:

I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds.

The sun’s pillors bored me though, so I

set foot on a small indigo place

below orange falls and hexagonal flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,

restlessly roaming the buttered air

inside tropical rock enclosures,

caves of foliage that canopied darkness.

Robbins calls these lines “unmusical and undistinguished,” but he is being kind.  These lines are clumsy, ponderous, free verse Dr. Seuss.

But now Robbins turns to his standard for greatness, Ange Mlinko:

You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel
but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.

For starters, Mlinko uses “axiom,” incorrectly, a philosophical term; we never say, “It’s an axiom that it rains.”  But it seems axiom’s similarity in sound to the mythical “Ixion” was too much for Mlinko to resist.

The rhetoric is wanting: the vagueness of “You never hear of…” How is this dramatically interesting?  It is not.  It’s a fact-driven idiom.  Poets need to be aware of this.  And just in terms of pure sound, “tied- to- a- revolving- wheel” is ugly, and even worse is “but- it’s- an- axiom- that,- sooner- or- later…”  The logic is not worth pursuing in prose; it’s safe to say it’s not going to do anything for poetry:  Because a hurricane will eventually arrive somewhere, it is worth noting that one never hears of Ixion. 

Robbins thinks he is praising Mlinko’s poetry.  He’s not.  He’s simply agreeing with a banal piece of logic: 1) “you never hear of Ixion” 2) Ixion symbolizes the “guests” of our “planet” who have met “their host’s hospitality” with “rapine.”  Robbins claims this is not “climate change didacticism” but this is, in fact, all he is admiring—and all one could admire in this passage.  Surely it’s not the sonic chiming of Ixion and axiom.

Since rhyme fell from grace among the modernist sophisticates, assonance and alliteration have rushed in to fill the vacuum in all sorts of horrible, excessive and stupid ways.

Here is Robbins explaining to us what hurricanes are:

Mlinko is often delightful: “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.” But there’s more here than a Rube Goldberg spillage of phonemes modifying one another, irresistible as such sonics are. Contrast the insubstantiality of Fitzgerald’s cloud islands with the sense Mlinko packs into this couplet: the story of Ixion, bound to a spinning wheel by Zeus for betraying a guest, reveals an axiom, a self-evident premise, which in this case is that the weather, in its cycles and revolutions, will always, eventually, manifest itself as a revolving wheel of air, which a hurricane is. And hurricanes arrive ever more frequently, deadly to human life and its built environment: in a reversal of the myth, the revolving planet binds its guests, who have met their host’s hospitality with rapine. A little parable of climate change, then, with none of the didacticism you’d expect.

So here is one of the better critics writing today (a published poet, as well), Michael Robbins, and after dismissing “slush” and “competency,” holds up for apotheosis, “sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.”

This is one more example of how bad the world of poetry has become.

And this is why Mark Edmundson was right to attack contemporary poetry.  It has become so bad that any attack is good, by default.  And we mean this seriously.  Something is wrong: that’s where we have to start.  The inarticulate nonsense proffered by professor Edmundson still trumps every weak defense, and they are all weak, by default.   They are weak, first of all, because they are making so much of Edmundson’s ludicrous piece in the first place.  Secondly, they are weak because they are anxious to show Edmundson is wrong, but in a manner that is even more deluded.  Edmundson wants poetry to be socially and politically relevant and the poets cry, “It is!”  But social and political relevance isn’t poetry.

We only raise this matter because Robbins, satisfied that Mlinko is the standard, finishes up his piece with a diatribe against Edmundson.  Robbins: “Edmundson cites not a single contemporary poet under the age of 59. Think about that for a second.”  But unfortunately that says more about the sorry state of American poetry than it does about Edmundson.  You see what we mean?   The Edmundson of omissions and lapses is truer than Robbins on Mlinko.

Edmundson triumphs without trying.  That’s how bad it is.

IS AND ISN’T (NEW SCARRIET POEM)

This poem is and isn’t
Like one who isn’t present.

Like a love that is and isn’t,
But is passionate and pleasant,

Like a sky that holds the light,
But darkens slowly into night
For the sake of a farther light.

She never knows it isn’t,
He never knows it is,
As shadows drown the shy
So the shy might shyly kiss.

WHY HAS THE PUBLIC TURNED ITS BACK ON POETRY?

Why has the public turned its back on poetry?   That’s easy to answer.

We no longer know whether poetry is fiction or non-fiction.

Bird-watching involves watching birds.  Novels are elaborate stories.  Songs are emotional outbursts from the heart.  Biographies are real.  Science books are factual.  Poetry is…?

Poetry is unable to identify itself for a mass audience—that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The public’s lack of interest was made apparent to us again this week, as many bright, educated friends of ours told us they had never heard of Seamus Heaney.

The Modernists and experimentalists, by “opening up” the genre to anything and everything, have essentially made it disappear.

The wise understand that it’s impossible to be everything.

Everyone seems to understand this.

Except poets today.

Of course there’s a perverse handful (there always is) who love “poetry” precisely because of its ill-defined nature.

A certain ugly, noxious, personality thrives on the ill-defined—for obvious reasons.

There is a half-formed intellectual nature which associates all that is profound with a detailed vagueness; unable to perfect mental or material completion, they persist in championing the unformed as a  poorly disguised way to validate their own shortcomings.

The final irony, of course, is how were the Modernist gnats, whom the public ignores, able to kill all poetry for the public?  How was traditional, mainstream poetry killed by the ill-defined, if the ill-defined is nothing?

The answer, to put it simply, is that the Modernist gnats did not kill mainstream poetry, for Edna St. Vincent Millay was selling while Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were not, well into the 20th century.  In mid-20th century America, Frost was popular, Shakespeare everywhere, liberal arts colleges taught Keats and Shelley, high schools, Poe, Dickinson, and Milton, and songwriting was witty and intelligent.

But everyone knows that fine arts need to be cultivated; good taste doesn’t fall out of the sky.  Secondly, anyone who lives in America knows what a powerful tool advertising is, and thirdly, poetry has no material value; its value lives in the minds and souls and sensibilities of those who read it and teach it and share it.

Simple neglect, then, has killed the public’s love of poetry; we err by giving Pound, Williams, and the Modernist gnats too much credit; logically, that which the public ignores cannot influence the public.

If we, as observers and critics of poetry, notice a decline in poetic interest, and attribute it to “Modern” poetry, we persist in a vast error, granting a power and an influence to that which has no power, and no influence, even as we rightly condemn “Modern” poetry as poor, faulty, and even pernicious.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” had nothing to do with the loss of interest in “Paradise Lost.”  The latter died from simple neglect; from simple lack of cultivation.

The fact of someone’s fiction is a fact.  The museum is a fact, a reality, which holds art that is neither fact, nor reality.  Art does not exist unless it is cultivated, presented, taught, and framed in fact.  A university is a fact that curates and teaches poems.  The publisher is the fact that dreams the fiction; the fiction will not dream otherwise.  The fact of “The Red Wheel Barrow” has everything and nothing to do with the fact of “Paradise Lost.”  “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “Paradise Lost” are both poems that may be converted into fact, and if so, one “poem” invariably belongs to “the present,” the other to “the past,” and this fact will ensure that poetry “in the present” no longer exists.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” cannot kill poetry.  A textbook can.  Abstract painting cannot kill painting.  A museum can.

A wheel barrow and a splatter of paint are facts, not fiction.  Modern art streams away from fiction into fact—the fact of text book and museum its only home.

Facts depend on other facts; artistic unity is unheard of in the world of facts and science.  Poe called his “Eureka” a poem only because he strove to make, by way of the universe, unity factual; unity of expression was the ultimate poetic fact for Poe.

The minute a Keats introduces fact into a poem, he is lost.  To work up a fiction into a unity is the role of the poet, for Keats.  The reader who selects Keats is selecting fiction—fiction doing what it does best, assuming that unity is not only possible, but vital.  In his “long poems, Byron played (comically) with digression; inevitably violating unity, he laughed at himself, the convention of poetic unity a standard none could safely ignore.

Poetry was once fiction.  And because it was fiction, artistic unity was paramount.

These two—poetry as strictly fictional and poetry as an expression of artistic unity—is chiefly what has fallen into neglect as Modernism invaded the vacuum, a big nothing filling a black hole: the  great public yawn in poetry’s busy face.

The temptation of the fact has triumphed; witness America’s recent obsession with “trivia.”

Facts are important when it comes to roofs and sewer pipes, and obviously in non-fiction, but who thought it was a good thing for poetry?

Listening to the poet John Yau recently, we were struck by the purely autobiographical nature of the poetry; Yau told us about his mother and his father, etc  It was charming—as factual conversations sometimes are.  Facts are seductive.

The poet Marilyn Chin’s best known poem, “How I Got That Name,” informs us that she was named for Marilyn Monroe.  This is factually interesting.  Of course it is.  We embrace with our literary bones the seductive fact.

Loose facts are seductive.  But they never cohere into a poetic unity.

The Writing Workshop mantra, “Write what you know,” does not refer to what a writer “knows” philosophically or imaginatively, but simply what a writer knows factually about their own life.  But the whole point of poetry and imaginative literature is not to express what is already subjectively known (and enhanced, perhaps, by clever research) but to learn what we can know in the imaginative writing act itself.

Interesting information, dressed up as literature, is not the same thing as what Keats, who never told us about his ma and pa in a poem, built with his imagination.

A DELICATE MATTER OF POETRY AND SEX

I declare this land safe for sonnets and odes!

The lamentation of poetry’s death is depressing and never-ending, but we should qualify: Poetry isn’t really dead.  People sill read poetry. Contemporary poetry doesn’t sell.  That’s the real lament.

School is a fine place to read literature, and public television attempts to be literary with its English-accent soaps.

But as Sean Thomas in the Telegraph recently pointed out,

Poetry was the dominant and most prestigious literary form until the mid/late 19th century; it was seen as the ultimate form of writing (novels and plays were for ladies and plebs, like TV now).1

A novel was a greasy missive to a sentimentalist.  A poem was supernatural.

If you were a Byron, you wrote poetry, not a silly novel.

A 19th century soldier might have verse tucked away in his uniform, but he wouldn’t be caught dead with a book of sentimental prose.

Poetry was accomplishment; a novel was stooping.

In a flat-out comparison with prose, poetry wins: it does more with language and it takes greater skill to write good metrical poetry than to write good prose.

In the 19th century, men wrote poetry instead of prose (unless they were explaining something to someone a little slow) the way guys today choose to play football instead of badminton.

How did poetry become today’s badminton?

If this sounds a little sexist, it’s only to illustrate a fact about the 19th century, and this fact of sexism, this crucial residue of old behavior and competition, may be the secret cause of poetry’s downfall today.

Could poetry’s old position as the “ultimate form of writing” in the sexist 19th century be working against it, in the current social climate where competition and ranking and “the best” is frowned upon?

As Scarriet has written elsewhere, numerous talented and successful 19th century women poets are ignored by contemporary po-biz.  Their style is no longer au courant in academia.

But as we have just pointed out, this “style” of poetry was the method to express feelings and ideas in the highest manner possible; that 19th century women, as second class citizens, were able to accomplish this poetic feat apparently means nothing.  What is more important to the Modernist orthodoxy is a man (Ibsen, for instance) making a name for himself in a lesser art form (the modern play, or, more accurately, the soap opera) and raising the reputation of that art form with a man’s notion of what makes a woman “free.”

Women writers sold well in every literary genre in the 19th century; Hawthorne (d. 1864) complained of the “damned mob of scribbling women” besetting America’s higher literary aspirations—but men eventually caught on, writing best-selling cheap fiction too, and the men who made gestures to women’s freedom (often a disguised kind of sexism) were often canonized.

So women have been screwed in every way, even by modernity: Their fine poetry ignored, their popular fiction co-opted, their sexuality used by male “champions,” not to mention the more common instances of material and intellectual oppression.

As Modernism became the literary movement of the 20th century, and pulp fiction (replete with modern, loose women and speech plainer than Wordsworth’s) replaced poetry as literature’s true manly pursuit, poetry (one would think) may still have saved itself as a graceful alternative—but that was not to be, as the angel-speech of Keats/Shelley went the way of Williams/Pound.

Was poetry killed by its 19th century superiority, leaving it vulnerable to all sorts of skepticism, the weight of that superiority becoming the very weight that crushed it, as cynical “victim” politics caused an inherent mistrust of all that is “superior?”

No talented person today thinks: Let’s see, what genre shall I choose?  Poetry is the best.  I choose that.

But they once did.

***

1 The quote by Sean Thomas can actually be found in one of Thomas’ comments to the piece, “Seamus Heaney, the Nelson Mandella of Poetry, Just Wasn’t That Good. Sorry.”  Perhaps Thomas, and even  Heaney, saw this December 2009 piece in Scarriet.

THE NEWEST SCARRIET POEM!

i get no rest

I GET NO REST

Floods have taken my grave,
I get no rest.
A poem is parked
In my heart which beats in my breast.
I get no rest.

East wind and chilly rain.
I get no rest.
A poem promised
Sun, said to bloom golden in the west.
I get no rest.

Sadness keeps me awake,
I get no rest.
A poem played
A sweet tune, but the poet was an engineer, the poem only a test.
I get no rest.

She keeps me awake.
I get no rest.
Her poem sang
Love in the beginning, but she hasn’t written the rest.
I get no rest.

THERE REALLY IS A FIRE

There really is a fire
More important than the sun
Cooking us without incident,
Causing night rains to come.

There really is a fire
In our muscles, in our worldly brains,
Causing age and debilitating anger,
Bringing midnight rains.

We thought medicine was safe
And sleep the answer at day’s end
To the fire.  Oh there’s a fire—
Though we apply lotions.  And pretend.

There really is a fire
And only the fire will last.
It is why this bright, bright moment
Flickers sadly in the past.

There really is a fire
Making faces wrinkle and die,
Burning time with time
So that everything in time is a lie.

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