A recent comment by one of our readers on our “The Two Academies” essay gave us an idea for another essay: how, exactly, is the art of writing, teachable?

The Scarriet article, inspired by Seth Abramson’s work, called into question the creative writing business within the academy—the Writing MFA.

The comment, by a sensible person who has long read Scarriet, defends the Writing MFA in the typical manner: “experimental” writing in the MFA programs is not the norm; MFA students study “formalist” poetry and read “lots and lots” of books, including many written “before 1900.”

In other words, the new Writing MFA is similar to the old English MA.

It shouldn’t surprise us, really, that the old model, in many respects, lives on.   Writers, as much as plain students of literature, should read, and read widely.

But won’t the MFA student who reads in order to write, read better and learn more?

Whatever else we might say of the MFA, then, we should be able to say the MFA is as pedagogically sound as the old Masters in English, and perhaps more so.

Or is it?

Here’s a fact we must agree on: The instinct to write, the desire to write, exists prior to enrolling in either an MFA or an MA program.

The would-be-writer is reading in order to write with, or without, the MFA program.

And the commenter herself, because she is sensible, pointed out all the great writers who existed before there were any MFA programs.

The question becomes: what kind of special instruction or special reading is offered by the MFA, above and beyond the MA?

Writers cannot, any more than “ordinary” professors, teach others to write.  There is universal agreement on this.  One can teach grammar, but this is not the job of the advanced writing teacher or the graduate English professor, though tips are always welcome.  All a writer can do is teach others what they are reading—and this begs the question: what are the students reading?

We really cannot say.  There’s the canon an MA student would be expected to read, and we have to assume the MFA candidate’s canon is the same.

If the student wants “connections” to the publishing industry, who is to say that the MA professor cannot be in the same position to help the student as the MFA writing teacher?

And if the MFA writing teacher, who also happens to be a writer, is using his students to gain an audience for his own writing, is this even ethical, much less pedagogically superior to the MA professor who simply teaches “good literature?”

Numbers across the country show conclusively that creative writing students are replacing the old English major, but shouldn’t it be cause for concern that we cannot define the Writing program—which is replacing the time-honored English program?  Shouldn’t it be a cause of concern that we cannot say, why, exactly, the MFA is replacing the MA, since they are the same thing?  Unless of course, there’s something unethical going on?

How is the MFA different from the MA?  Except for the potential fact that the MFA allows writing instructors who are writers a chance to exploit the system in a way that exploits students?

We need to be honest here.   Why is the MFA replacing the MA?

Is it the lure of “being a writer” trouncing the lure of actually studying literature?

Is it only for cynical reasons?  Is it merely vanity occupying the academy in the form of “so you want to be a writer?”

If a certain vagueness attends the writing program investigation, it may lie with the mundane fact of what writing—apart from the other arts—actually is.

Is the MFA system a true guild system?

Here we might ask: How is writing different from art and music?

Painting, photography, and music speak a language which needs translating based on technique.

One can hear music without knowing what the notes are.  One can be pleased by music—without understanding why.

One can see a painting without knowing what techniques were used to create that painting.  One can be pleased by a painting—without understanding how it was done.

Reading a text, however, one immediately understands that text as a text: there is no further art or technique involved—as far as the act of reading is concerned.

If we can read, we can understand.

Writing is different, then.

Writing is a far different art than painting or music, then, and writing’s craft is not a matter of advanced education.

We wonder if anyone has contemplated this fact?

A text may require extra information to understand, but this extra information belongs to that extra information’s specific body of knowledge—the art of writing reveals itself as itself, unlike art and music—to whomever can read.

If one were to go and study with a painting master, as used to happen in Renaissance studios, for instance, the apprentice is happy to immerse themselves in the master’s technique and literally paint part of the master’s painting.  This immersion does not rob the apprentices’ identity; the technique mastered is necessary to further accomplishment.

Writing, however, has a completely different learning curve.

If one were to approach William Shakespeare and say, “Teach me to write,” he would laugh.   There is no technique in writing—unlike painting and music—which cannot be picked up in the text itself.

Even music, which only has “a few notes,” and features remarkable prodigies, is governed by a language and a craft that is not self-evident to any literate person.

As complex as language is, once a person becomes literate, there’s nothing left to teach as far as the act of writing goes, no matter how many MFA programs there are.

We are not saying writing is easy—that is not it at all.   We are only looking at the teaching of it—which is quite a different thing.

As for immersion, a seminar in which a group studies Keats will lack nothing in comparison to a group that studies their own writing.

And one wonders how educational it is to study the work of one’s fellow writing student, as opposed to say, Keats.

To study the work of one’s classmates and to have a writing instructor study one’s own writing (since we agreed no one can be taught to write) cannot possibly be as enlightening as simply studying the great writers.  Isn’t this an actual fact?

An MFA program might actually make a writer worse, as systemic mediocrity, worried about education bills, drags others down to its own level.

To find out one is a bad writer (based on critiques from one’s instructor and one’s classmates) is not what the MFA program will ever admit to doing.  And how a bad writer finds out they are bad should not be the concern of any positive educational enterprise.

To find out one is a good writer is not something a truly good writer needs “to find out.”   Education should not be necessary for the good writer.

So what does the MFA do?

What is it?


You say my poetry unfairly seduces
And trades in methods that are mad,
But just as education has its uses,
I, too, teach sadness not to be so sad.
You never loved learning and its books,
And fled the lure of handsome teachers.
If love’s embarrassing long looks
Are cured by wisdom’s lonely preachers,
You already know what poetry does
And what I, the critic-poet, can do;
I’m the poet your school-girl always was
And what your vulnerable beauty always knew.
Love is a madness—so love isn’t true.
But my madness includes love and my love includes you.



Bridget Bardot: Bob Dylan’s first muse.

Most of us can go about our lives for long stretches—months, even years—before we spot a celebrity: a movie star, a model, a famous musician, a professional athlete.  They exist, however; they are out there; and spotting a celebrity, no matter how we pretend otherwise, gives us a little thrill.

There are some people, however, who are not celebrities, but who nonetheless have a powerful effect on us: we think of them—probably not consciously—as celebrities who somehow missed being a celebrity; they could be celebrities, we think; but they occupy ordinary places in life—like we do.

One thinks of the two ballplayers who were twins: one swung the bat a thousandth of second faster than his twin: he was the major league baseball star, and his brother, physically similar, unknown.  This is not to say the world is populated with potential stars, for humanity, as we interact with it, seems imperfect indeed, and even the celebrity can turn human in an instant.

The celebrity is rare, and also rare is the celebrity-who-is-not-a-celebrity, the ones we might be fortunate to call our friends, or even marry.

In this new theory of love, we are making the case that celebrity-thrill is love.

We are thrilled to discover a celebrity, living without fame, right under our noses, and we fall in love with them, and this, in fact, is what defines love.

In the reverse situation, our lover makes us feel like a celebrity—but, of course, if they are skillful enough to make us feel that good, they must possess celebrity charm themselves.

We are smitten with someone’s beauty—we feel they are so beautiful that they could be a model, but we don’t care that they are not, for it is the beauty we love—but it is the idea that they could be a star which is how we measure them, which is what makes us love them—it is the same excitement we get from fame—the fame, even though it is not “there,” is what gives us that thrill which drives our feelings of love.

Love is not, then, as traditionally thought, a desire, a weakness, a hunger, an urge, an addiction, a need to fill an absence.

Love is a celebration, an excitement brought on by celebrity and fame.

We can certainly convince ourselves, in moments of weakness, that the traditional model of love (addictive urge) is the truth, for hunger afflicts us daily.

But the recluse, who is truly a recluse, does not feel love, even as the need continues for food and sleep.

Love belongs to the social, and what is more social than fame?

The latest love statistics from Japan support Scarriet’s thesis: large percentages of young people opting out of sexual relationships; the government worried about declining population; high percentages of Japanese men and women no longer interested in love or sex; the urge for love and sex literally drying up—in a society bombarded with virtual-reality celebrations of cute/sexual perfection, a futuristic society overwhelmed by cartoon celebrities.

The latest poetry buzz—stirred up by the poet Jim Behrle—concerns a book, The Kill List, which is driven by one thing: who is on the “list?”

Is it any accident that poetry lost its public just as Modernism decided poetry and love (always linked) didn’t really need each other?

We might reject this view as superficial, but we do so at our peril, for here’s the truth:

Love is love of fame and love of fame is love.


Image result for alex dimitrov

Poet Alex Dimitrov: “I don’t believe in the universal.”

Are poems and stories that are universal better than poems and stories that are not?

“Yes, of course!” comes the answer 100 years ago; but today, the universal is considered an old-fashioned virtue, a mere outdated concept, in hip circles.

But should we trust the hip?  If universal means more people can appreciate your poem or story, why isn’t the universal always a good thing?

Is misanthropy the source of not believing in the universal—the hip author does not want certain types of persons to appreciate their poem or story?  Or, perhaps, the hip author fears their work is not broad or deep enough to appeal to a wide audience?

Or, to put it in a slightly different way, which perhaps vindicates the scribbler of hip:

To be appreciated by that audience, I would have to write a certain way—which I cannot do.  Thus, I am against the universal—even as an ideal.

We also might object to the universal on a purely metaphysical basis: life is too complex to admit the absolutes of universals, etc.

But isn’t this metaphysical view finally too abstract and hair-splitting?

Why can’t we agree that the universal—or universal appeal—is a good thing?  Certainly the reformist wants to reach as many lost souls as possible.  And, if one is not a reformist,  how can one object to any slob liking one’s work?  One may not like a particular reader’s lifestyle or views, for instance—but what harm can it do if one’s poem burrows itself into some part of that reader’s soul?

The following is a contemporary example which triggered the preceding remarks.  Bored (very bored), we turned to the Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet and found the following poet’s entry in a Los Angeles Review of Books forum, ‘Person and Persona in Poetry:’

Alex Dimitrov

A few months ago, after a reading I gave in San Francisco, someone came up to me and recounted a very personal sexual experience which he said came to mind instantly after hearing one of my poems. Then he said, “Your poems are so personal and universal.” This confession was both an entering into a shared space (where presumably we’ve had similar sexual experiences) and a reminder to me that even when it appears we have the same stories, there is no universal — everything that happens to us happens in very specifically different ways. I don’t believe in the universal. But I do believe in the personal. […]

It’s just what poets like to do these days: deny the universal.

Is this nothing more than a completely unthinking ‘I’m too cool/existential/modern to be universal’ reflex?

We think it is.

The poet admits that he and the fan have a shared personal experience in the poem, but the poet claims this “shared space” does not qualify as a universal experience.

The question becomes: how many people have to screw in a light bulb before the experience becomes universal?

If the experience shared by poet and fan is unique to them, then Dimitrov is correct, and the experience cannot be called universal—for the universal doesn’t ask what the experience was, only that a lot of people had it.

Dimitrov discretely keeps the experience to himself-–so we have no way to judge.  Sexual experiences may be private, but that doesn’t stop them from being universal.

It eclipses our identity as persons to think that many people have the same experiences we do—what a horror to think that not one thing we think or do is unique.  No wonder the person who has any ego at all pushes away the whole concept.

Memo to Dimitrov: The scary truth is that we aren’t as unique as we think we are: the universal not only exists, but is inescapable.

And one more memo to Dimitrov: We have to assume that we do experience the same things—the burden of proof lies with whomever claims their experiences are unique.

The original poem must be earned.

The universal is atmospheric, then; it is not something that is either good or bad; it is not something that either exists or does not exist.

How silly of Dimitrov, then, to say he doesn’t believe in it.  In the extended version of his piece (linked above) he does concede that the idea of the universal exists, but only as an illusion to make us feel less lonely.  Speaking in hip-speak as opposed to universal-speak, Dimitrov makes change the all-important thing—a poem changes a person; a poem has nothing to do with timeless truth.

Dimitrov, in his brave loneliness, doesn’t believe in the universal, and doesn’t want it to exist.

We think this universal gem—“What oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” is to the point.

It is impossible for thoughts and their words to escape the universal.

And yet—and yet—every soul, as Poe wrote in his great work, Eureka, believes nothing is greater than itself.  There must be nuances we experience every moment which are unique to ourselves…  But even this does not cancel out the idea of the universal, which only indicates a widely shared experience—whatever that happens to be.

Pope wrote “What oft’ was thought,” not “What oft’ was done.”

Is poetry waiting for its great poet-murderer?

Are there deeds waiting for poetic expression—or does poetry truly belong to thought?

Yes, poetry belongs to thought alone.

Murderous thoughts are probably pretty near universal; poetry already has enough material for—murder, if it wants to go there.

We believe—and we think we believe correctly—that poetry is the product of a unique person, not of unique deeds.

A poem is the product of words (universals).

The following poem (a bit of Wallace Stevens impressionism) by Dimitrov (which we like) relies on universals, such as “things that are anonymous and belong to no one.”

Blue Curtains

That day we were in a room with blue curtains.
Every time I wanted to speak
some hand would lift that pale, translucent fabric
and I’d see him standing on the circular balcony
which held something old and shapeless.
It was late morning.
We were already late for everything.
So I stood at one end of the room
and watched him. And between us
was a bed and a table and things
in a hotel—you know,
things that are anonymous
and belong to no one.
Like a sea or a life.
And all I remember is how expensive it was.
Not the room, but the feeling.

If Dimitrov does not believe in the universal, why does he write “Like a sea or a life.”  Why doesn’t he write, “Like the sea or the life?”  Had he written, “Like my life,” would this have been more, or less universal?  The punchline of the poem: the feeling—needs the setup of “a sea or a life.”

Is this philosophical inquiry on the concept of the universal finally only a matter of direct and indirect articles?

Well, yes.

In order to pinpoint not that feeling but this feeling, this one, Dimitrov needs to create a universal atmosphere populated by those “things that are anonymous and belong to no one. Like a sea or a life.”

The person, Dimitrov, does not believe in the universal.

But the poet, Dimitrov, does.

But then what does a person know?


What if death
Were not the death of you—
But the death of the world?
Your soul, unspeakably alone,
Living on, alone, alone?

In the old times, those times

Known only by ancient rhymes,
Poets—known faintly by their traces,
Feeble markings in the sand,
Ravaged by sea or jealous wind,
Howling intimately across the forsaken land—
Intimated in poetry lovely faces
Of goddesses who could not write,
Their glowing bodies poems in the intimate night,

True poets, they!
But old times have flown away.
Poets with these secrets do not exist today,

Except this one who is in my bed:
Her feet, her breasts, her enormous head.



What happened to poetry’s pithy wisdom and memorable phrases? Modernism killed it, with its banal “petals on a black bough” and its pretentious “wheel barrow” and its “difficulty.”

In the humanities, the best experiment is always on oneself, and Thomas Brady, editor of Scarriet, the great poetry experimenter of our day, presents his own pithy wisdom to vindicate his own criticism of Modernism.

In morals, there’s no good; there’s only bad not getting it right.

Sculpting poetry is an art, requiring meter, rhyme—and grammar.

You shall know Venus by his actions and Mars by her disguise.

If we find no fault with the brick, can we still criticize the house?

Life is hardness, responding to sharpness.

The poet is one who longs for the sea, but cannot swim.

The scientist is a poet who guesses.  The poet is a scientist who doesn’t need to guess.

Never assume the worst example of a thing is what it is.

Modern poetry implies the following: “You are not smart enough to not understand my poem.”

Art is not what it is, but all that was removed to make it what it is.

I belong to the lesser, but the lesser is the greater.

The chief difference between painting and film: one needs a soundtrack.

Mercy is not logical.

Realism in painting ponders what abstract painting forgets.

For some, the cartoonish is true.

The opposite of comity is comedy.

Art is the means by which morality escapes its oppressive character.

It’s better to be unreasonable than timid, for the timid possess no reason at all.

Every time we want something, the answer is no, because every yes has a no right behind it.

Perspective is geometry in painting and grammar in poetry.

Naked should dictate dress; dress should never dictate naked.

The topic has replaced the poet.

Obscurity is cured by love.

A race of plain women and handsome men is a conquering race, handsome women and plain men, a conquered one.

Conversation is not poetry.

Why does art let history tell it what to do?

Comedy is the sentimentalist’s last resort.

The true formalist is not known by their line, but by their stanza.

The best thing your poem can do for you is make someone fall in love with you who otherwise wouldn’t.

When the success of something condemns it, you know something is afoot.

There is more on my lonely island than on your social network.

If it looks like wisdom, it’s probably not wisdom.

The knight, love, slays the dragon, lust.  The light that guides the knight?  Good taste.

I hate filth. I love free speech.  The great human dilemma.

We can love anything—even hate.

Your stupidity enjoys something.  Your criticism understands it.

Quality in poetry is easy; the quantity in poetry is the difficult thing.

The more well-constructed a poem is, the less it says.

Poetry is never a ‘criticism of life,’ life is a criticism of poetry, the poet’s pride notwithstanding.

All poets want to be read, but the spoken poem is the one they remember.

Nothing changes, except the individual’s experience; group change is illusory.

The universe is vast, but I have lived where you have lived.

Sports-watching is theater for people who don’t like theater.

“She loves you” is more poetic than “I love you.”

The more in love, the more silent.

The tree reflected in the lake is more poetic than the tree.

Poetry is love which cannot speak, speaking.

The mouth cracks jokes; but the eye is always serious.

I do not know what you are or who you are, until I know one thing: are you moral?

I looked for genius and never saw it, until one came to me, knowing what I was looking for.

Love goes from being secretive to being public and then longs for secrecy again.

Knowing when you have seen something before is not knowing, but remembering.  Knowing involves not having seen it before.

The poet’s job is not to know—only to be understood.


Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.


Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—“realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist–ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.'”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?


If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.


She was young, but womanly, too,
He was quick, passionate—but true,
The ever-loving.

She was virginal, but brighter than sin.
He saw her window and looked within,
The ever-loving.

Theirs was immediate attraction.
Her breasts swelled; he took action,
The ever-loving.

Speech stopped is best for love.
Do not justify further adventures of
The ever-loving.


Before I go to India,
Before I go to France,
I wonder, can I ask you, if you and I can dance?
If maybe I can ask you to peer into my face—
In truth, I haven’t been to any foreign place.

Before I go to Russia,
Before I go to die,
I wonder for a moment if you and I can try
To simply be together, and touch hands, and dance,
Before I go to India,
Before I go to France.

Before I go to London
With its mists and its rain,
I wonder before I go, if I can pick your brain:
How simple is poetry?
Is diplomacy insane?

Before I go to London
To learn the language of Peru—
Is there anything at home that I need to do,
Before princes and ambassadors show me false from true?

Before I go to Mexico,
Before Congo’s rivers call,
Is there something you and I can do that’s meaningless and small,
A kiss on the lips, without worldliness at all?

Before I go to school
By holy rivers’ banks,
Shall I bend my knee here and give my country thanks?
Shall I gaze at the sky that’s always the same,
Before I board the ship and play the waiting game?

Before you learn your trade
Which tells lies about lies,
Will you scorn innocence and sever all your ties?
Or will you take my hand, and show me how to dance,
Before I go to India,
Before I go to France?


For the million who hurry,
There’s a million who are still,
Resting, without worries,
Under valley or hill.

For the million who hurry,
There’s a million sleeping by,
Beneath clouds slowly moving
In a slow and cloudy sky.

For the million who hurry,
There’s a million who are free,
Under grass where rain is falling,
By shadow, earth, and tree.


Is poetry sane or insane?

O DNA! O lights and washes!

O John Ashbery! mountain air to miasma of swamp,

different! and the same! Unless I say otherwise.

We could write drivel like this all day, but for whom?  Cui bono? 

Is the poem above a parody of poetry?  A parody of insane poetry?  Or, are we insane?

No, we are not insane, though our words might be perceived as pointing that way. We are sane in our spirit of parody—you can trust the Scarriet editors.

Insanity can be either sincere or insincere. We do not mean: faking insanity or not.  We mean: is one sincere within their insanity?

But perhaps for poetry a more important question is:

Is sincerity a measure of poetic worth?  Surely we value sincerity in a friend; what about a poem?

The New Critics (and their heirs like Michael Robbins) would say no, sincerity is not a measure of poetic worth, since sincerity belongs to intention, and intention has no poetic value; in poetry, only the final result counts.

The New Critics were wrong, and for this simple reason:

The final result reveals everything, every cause of the poem, whether it is found in the final result, or not.

So intention and sincerity do matter, and therefore the philosophy of the New Critics has done much damage.

But back to insanity: If insanity—sincere or not—is “sanity at odds with circumstance,” we cannot say the same for insane poetry—for poetry has no outside circumstance with which to be at odds.  The poem is its own circumstance.

If poetry is insane, then, as critics we must reject it.

Insanity in life may be noble. In poetry, it merely makes the poetry hard to read, like a sentence unintentionally unclear thanks to bad grammar.  Remove the life circumstance, and insanity has no justification: it is not justified in the poem—even if we granted insanity is somehow revelatory; it can be no more revelatory than sanity (or mere accident) all else being equal. Genius is always better than insanity; it would be absurd to state otherwise.  Insanity—belonging to poetry—has neither hidden nor overt advantages.

It is philosophy’s job to tell us what is insane or not; Plato may tell us love is insane, but poems on the insanity of love can still be written by sane poets, and if strong feelings belong to both poetry and insanity, we need poets and critics to be all that much saner as they navigate their art.

We understand the whole subject of insanity and poetry is beneath the law of the dyer’s hand: what we work in will infect us.  We might even say that poetry itself can be defined as that which dives into insanity while trying to remain sane.

Even as we recognize the inevitable pitfalls of sorting out sane from insane, we think a poetically legitimate “Insane” School of Poetry can be classified in the following manner:

1. The Didactic

2. The Lyric

3. The Realized

The Didactic poem confronts insanity as a kind of recognized problem from the outside; a good example is this sonnet by nobleman and soldier, Philip Sidney:

Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,

Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought ;

Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care ;

Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought ;

Desire, desire !  I have too dearly bought,

With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware ;

Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,

Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.

But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought ;

In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire ;

In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire ;

For virtue hath this better lesson taught,—

Within myself to seek my only hire,

Desiring nought but how to kill desire.

“Desire” is Sidney’s villain, but “fancy’s scum,” “dregs of scattered thought” and “causeless care” is a great description of insanity.

“Killing desire” might be more insane than “desire” itself, OK; but one can clearly see the poet’s intention—-to cure what he sees as insanity with sanity.

Other examples of this kind of poem are: perhaps any serious religious poem, “Under Ben Bulben” by Yeats, and “The Channel Firing” by Hardy, the sort of poem where you look at war or some other human folly and pronounce that the world’s gone mad, etc.

The Lyric poem of Insanity can be seen in this rather famous number by Poe:

LO! ’tis a gala night

Within the lonesome latter years!

An angel throng, bewinged, bedight

In veils, and drowned in tears,

Sit in a theatre, to see

A play of hopes and fears,

While the orchestra breathes fitfully

The music of the spheres.

  Mimes, in the form of God on high,

Mutter and mumble low,

And hither and thither fly —

Mere puppets they, who come and go

At bidding of vast formless things

That shift the scenery to and fro,

Flapping from out their Condor wings

Invisible Wo!

  That motley drama — oh, be sure

It shall not be forgot!

With its Phantom chased for evermore,

By a crowd that seize it not,

Through a circle that ever returneth in

To the self-same spot,

And much of Madness, and more of Sin,

And Horror the soul of the plot. 

  But see, amid the mimic rout

A crawling shape intrude!

A blood-red thing that writhes from out

The scenic solitude!

It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs

The mimes become its food,

And the angels sob at vermin fangs

In human gore imbued.

  Out — out are the lights — out all!

And, over each quivering form,

The curtain, a funeral pall,

Comes down with the rush of a storm,

And the angels, all pallid and wan,

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

The Lyric type confronts insanity from ‘inside’ and makes art out of the distorted.  “Mariana” by Tennyson is another good example.  Examples can be found scattered throughout Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Romantics.

The third type, what we here name the “Realized” type of Poetic Insanity, is a modern invention, with Ginsberg, the rough and autobiographical and Ashbery, the smooth and demure versions.

Our example is by Ben Mazer: part 13 of his long poem, “The King.”

Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere.

And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane.

Or would you say that I have gone insane?

What would you do, then, to even the score?

And what is more, should the boy King stand clear

and leave the sword undrawn, and face the door?

I could tell you, so many times before!

How every store front is its own museum

and where we two meet in the eyes of heaven.

Traffic stop! And listen to me now!

The King has spoken, and he takes his bow.

O How! How could his little woman

be admitted to the judgement of heaven.

The judgement day is here, the day is now!

The Realized poem of Insanity is fully “inside” the insanity, such that the poem is either tongue-in-cheek, intentionally obscure, or phantasmagoric for its own sake.  In this sort of poem the poet’s intention is what is most obscure, and this style arose, naturally, during, and as a result of, the reign of the New Critics, who suppressed intention in poetry, claiming it had no importance at all.  (See “The Intentional Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley (1946))

If we attempt a division between “sane” poets and “insane” poets, the sane ones would be, naturally, Shakespeare, Yeats, Pope, Tennyson, Larkin, Milton, Keats, Krylov, Dante, Millay, Goethe, Heine, Sidney, Homer, Daniel, Swift, Dryden, Barrett, Wordsworth, and Byron.

The “insane” poets would include Catullus, Clare, Beddoes, Smart, Coleridge, Hood, Poe, Shelley, Thomas, Bishop, Plath, Auden, Spicer, Lowell, Sexton, Cummings, Reznikoff, Blake, Williams, Ginsberg, Pound, Heaney, Melville, Hopkins, Herbert, Crane, Bunting, Winters, Dickinson, Spencer, Eliot, Stevens, and Stein.

A neat division like this, while relatively easy to do, can never be perfect.

A sane critic may, for one reason or another, write insane poems.  Yvor Winters strove to be a very sane critic, but in poems like “The Slow Pacific Swell” and “By The Road To the Air Base” one can see total insanity.  And this is an insight into perhaps why Winters resented Poe so much: it was the “Realized Insane” poet having no patience for the “Lyrically Insane” poet.  The issue is also more complex because of our three types of Insane Poetry, and, in addition, the “Realized” type has as an almost infinite amount of motives, layers and colorings.

One might ask why Byron is placed in the Sane group of poets, while a low-key person like Seamus Heaney is placed in the Insane category: the classification is based on the poetry more than the poet; Sane Poetry exhibits Reason, even if it’s masked by Wit; when strong passion is resisted by reason, sanity is often the result; when weak passion tramples the reason, insanity quietly follows.  Heaney fell victim to over-use of simile and milk-and-water fastidiousness; Byron talked witty sense in the end.

The Didactic type of Insane Poem often fails from just that: the didactic, or the preachy.   The Lyrically Insane, at its most rigorous, manifests the highest sense of art.  The Realized Insane soars, or suffers, from flying close to, or into, Insanity’s bright sun.


Weeping Willow Tree nature scene surreal Ohio landscape sunrise photography silhouetted trees blush pink dawn fog 10 x 8 print

The cypress, that funereal tree,
Inspires the saddest poetry.
Even the willow does not belong
To its sad song.

I once saw a willow tree
Hiding a book of poetry,
Stooping down as if to know
How verses go.

The proud cypress is a tree
Which has no need for poetry—
Unless read in a low room
Which is our tomb.

Imagery of willow tree
Populates our poetry,
But the cypress finds us alone at night
Afraid to write.


The pretend genius: lived off his parents, peddled literary truisms

Ezra Pound (d. 1972) is often quoted making clever remarks on how prose and poetry should not be distinguished from each other if good writing is the aim.

“Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose,” is one of Pound’s well-known dicta, and this truism has nothing to recommend it, except it’s odd that this Modernist “revolutionary” would sound like a schoolmarm.

The irony, of course, is that modern poetry, in Pound’s wake, suffers precisely from the fact that modern poetry is less well-written than prose, that modern poetry’s line-breaks and spaces hinder actual good writing—and, perhaps worse, modern poetry is prose.

We don’t blame this on Pound’s ignorance—his admonition that “poetry should be…well-written,” (O Schoolmarm Genius!) was a common ploy among the reactionary Modernists: to seem buttoned-up and serious as they smashed things.  Pound’s partner T.S. Eliot was an expert at this: Eliot had no intention of killing Milton, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Poe, or Shelley; he was just oh so expertly fond of Donne.

Poe, unlike Pound and the Moderns, made actual revolutionary insights when speaking on the topic of poetry:

I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

Of course “poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.”  Pound did not say anything new.

And Pound and his friends writing poems sans unity was certainly not new, either.

Poe, the critic, rebuked a long, clever farrago of a poem—by Longfellow once, never mind Thomas Carlyle (Poe called Mr. C. an “ass”), another Medusa-headed 19th century author.

But think of the implication of what Poe said: “that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all…flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.”

This was new.  This was revolutionary.

Marjorie Perloff, in the April 2013 issue of Poetry, can be found swooning over this by Pound:

Don’t imagine that a thing will go in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.

How correct of Pound to say this!

This is just what Pound did: rather than write dull verse, he stuck to dull prose.

Poe followed his own advice, too:

Ask yourself ‘might not this matter be as well or better handled in prose?’  If if may than it is no subject for the Muse.

Why would anyone think something “too dull to go in prose” would “go in verse?”

To which audience of dunderheads was Pound speaking?

Pound focuses on “the dull,” which neither prose nor poetry can rescue, and this reveals Pound as the rank pessimist that he was.

Poe focuses on the “matter” that prose or poetry can “handle,” which reveals the properly attentive critic that Poe was.

If you would be a poet, today, and are looking for models from the past, choose wisely.


All readers are gullible,
All conversationalists are bullies,
All athletes boring,
Movie buffs are all pretentious,
The responsible all preoccupied,
All artists distracted,
All writers sentimental,
The good, all dull,
Socialites, trivial.
Only the bad, who do nothing all day,
Are worthy to read this poem,
Are worthy to be my friend,
Are interesting to me.
They listen for awhile,
Then they burst out with something,
Something that makes me think.
That’s why I’m the lazy one’s friend,
Though it’s you I secretly admire,
You, I will love in the end.


Do we care if a lapwing is killed in a poem?

We made the assertion in a previous Scarriet post that poetry, unlike prose, has, or should have, an immediate pay-off for the reader.

Poetry should show itself as poetry right away.

The moderns, who have turned poetry into prose for those many advantages prose possesses, have, most noticeably in the last 50 years, lost poetry’s public—not because the public is stupid, or has a short attention span—for otherwise the public would not ‘stick it out’ and read so many lengthy and miserable novels even as they have stopped reading poems—but for obvious reasons not apparent to the moderns.

We will agree the moderns are not stupid people who are bad poets if others will agree the public is not stupid for not being able to read modern poetry.

The public instinctively understands that prose does have advantages, but the glories of prose can take time (or many pages) to please us.

Poetry, the public instinctively understands, is different; we do not expect to be patient with poetry, for poetry is, by its very nature, both linguistically denser than prose, and less given to lengthy explanations of itself.

When a poet acts like a fiction writer, the reader naturally asks, “Why are you trying my patience as a poet when you know I have none to give you?”

The vast majority of readers, by some trick of intuition, understand that enjoying prose requires a certain amount of patience, and then there is this other more lyrical thing—we’ll call it poetry—that, by its very nature, should require no patience at all.

We think we have hit it.  This is why the public no longer reads poetry.  This is why every poetry reading in America is a poet reading to poets, or a teacher reading to students, and not a poet reading to a public.

But is it possible, you may ask, for poetry to be recognized in just one line?

Are there single lines of poetry which announce themselves as such?

Yes, but not in contemporary poetry, where the prose-poets are after something different.

To prove our point, let’s look at 14 first lines from 14 random poems by 14 poets in the latest issue of Poetry:

Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings

There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship

Two spiky-haired Russian cats hit kick flips

Shouldn’t it ache, this slit

It is not that you want

Mama said

praise the Hennessy, the brown

A lapwing somersaults spring

Most people would rather not

In the morning that comes up behind the roof, in the shelter of the bridge, in the corner

Where is your father whose eye you were the apple of?

hearing all bells at

My throat is full of sparklers

A husband puts an afghan over the dead goat’s

There is nothing wrong with these lines.

But are they poetic?

A pedant will quickly point out that “Your first thought when the light snaps on and the black wings” has poetic rhythm, and they would be correct, but this still sounds like a good opening for a hard boiled detective novel, not a poem.

“A lapwing somersaults spring” has an internal rhyme, but we are looking for what strikes us immediately as poetic, not merely from a technical standpoint, but in its entirety.  

This line perhaps comes the closest, but only superficially; the problem we have with it is that 1) we don’t know what it means and 2) we cannot picture it: spring is being somersaulted by a lapwing.  Bad poets—assuming fogginess is automatically a hard-won, well-earned honor—fatally assume that to confuse the reader is a plus.  It is not.

On the ‘poetry immediately’ scale, Poetry is 0 for 14.

Again, these are not bad lines or fragments, per se, but nearly all would agree: it is not surprising that contemporary poems fail the ‘poetry-in-a-single-line’ test, just as most novels would.

But are we looking for the impossible?

We are looking for the truly poetic—in a single line!

But such a thing is possible.

Let us demonstrate with some actual examples.

They are old, but not famous.

There are 14 of them, and compare them, as you read, to the 14 you just saw:

Green dells that into silence stretch away

Owning no care between his wings

When all the air in moonlight swims

Follow far on the directing of her floating dove-like hand

In its bright stillness present though afar

Where the tides moan for sleep that never comes.

On valleys of lilies and mountains of roses

Made rich by harmonies of hidden strings

Pondering on incommunicable themes

As jewel sparkling up through dark sea

Now by the crags—then by each pendant bough

A voice fell like a falling star

Ruins and wrecks and nameless sepulchers

Over sleepless seas of grass whose waves are flowers

There.  We believe we have proven our case, and we have done so without using Milton or Shakespeare or Dickinson or Keats.  Our point has been made, and we did not have to drag out, “Music, when soft voices die…”

Nor did we rely on couplets, such as,

The violets lifting up their azure eyes
Like timid virgins when Love’s steps surprise

And all is hushed—so still—so silent there
That one might hear an angel wing the air

Here to her chosen all her works she shows
Prose swelled to verse, verse loitering into prose

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams

Or such examples as this from the neglected Elizabeth Barrett:

Like a fountain falling round me
Which with silver waters thin,
Holds a little marble Naiad sitting smilingly within.

We have demonstrated, with single lines, a simple, palpable, ignored truth:

Poetry should be poetic in all its parts.


On Wit and Judgment

Resemblance is the heart of wit.
Once in a while I am guilty of it—
I’ve made bad puns in my time,
Jokes, metaphors—instead of rhyme,
For no, it isn’t simile—
Metaphor isn’t poetry.
Judgment, which is more august,
Is the faculty I trust:
Judgment discerns differences:
And that’s what Good Taste is.
Resemblance, to some, is all.
My friend laughed at her downfall:
She can’t hear the word ‘stanza’
Without thinking of Tony Danza.

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