“Show Don’t Tell” —Writers Workshop mantra

We nearly always assume showing, or impressionism, is bound to produce finer poetry than telling.

However—and in spite of Poe’s admonition against the didactic—we would be wrong.

Telling has 3 distinct advantages over impressionism.

1) Speech more clearly and forcefully conveys ideas.

2) Speech is more dramatic, since the dramatic arts rely heavily on speech.

3) Speech better represents within poetry’s medium, as impressionistic description more properly belongs to the visual arts while speech more properly belongs to the temporal arts.

Ambiguity, as the 20th century critics of high-brow persuasion emphasized, is a great aid to poetry.

Ambiguity can also be its death.

The vast majority of intelligent poems, passionate poems, poems written by skilled poets that perish, perish due to ambiguity.

A series of words in the impressionistic mode can have literally millions of possible meanings, multiplying with each added line; an added word can hint at whole worlds—such is the nature of language. The poet who sees this ambiguity as the power of a conquering army surely overestimates—-even completely mischaracterizes—the process.

The significance of poetry which is not impressionistic, but uses direct speech, instead, such as this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is significant precisely because it contains no ambiguity—there can be no mistaking the poem’s intent: Shall [I compare thee to] a [summer’s day]?

Impressionistically, we can say, “but who is the I?” and “who is the thee?”

But the import of the speech’s meaning, as delivered by Shakespeare, is equivalent to the I/thou relationship unfolding in the poem.

The poem’s characters (in their “being”) are literally the poem itself and explain the act and the intent of the poem:  as we all remember, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18, the tool of comparison (metaphor, which Aristotle mistakenly calls the key to poetry) fails, as the lover attempts to describe or copy the beloved, and instead “this” (the poem, the speech) gives “life to thee.”

This is made easier by the fact that the poet-genius and the poem’s speaker are one and the same (another advantage to “speech poetry”) whereas with impressionistic poetry, the descriptions are produced by an artist who is removed.

Thus, impressionistic poetry is more estranged from itself.

Think of impressionist and imagist Chinese poetry composed by mid-millenia Chinese bureaucrats—wouldn’t government officials who pass poetry exams as part of the hiring process, be more likely to be poets of estrangement and ambiguity?


The enlightened poets—such as Shakespeare and Pope, Renaissance-inspired poets who freed themselves with nature-observed science from Aristotle’s rules—are not imagists (like the craven Ezra Pound), but speakers.

The “show, don’t tell” mantra of the 20th century Writers Workshop got it wrong.

Better to tell.


The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.

“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.”  —Thomas Brady

Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.

Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world.   Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position.  We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.

Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?

The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song.  We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem.  Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream.  Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.

There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.

The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.

Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth.  After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.

A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.”  It “happens” anew every time we read it.

Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way.  We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.

We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole.  It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.

Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it.  Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like.  There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else.  Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?

Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life.  Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art.  Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness.  It doesn’t get any better than harmony.  It doesn’t get any worse than discord.  Those are the Two.   All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord.  All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.

We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:

Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.

We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem.  How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”

Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence.  Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.

But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane:  “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”

We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.”  The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.

Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief,  sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem.  The judge asks: asleep among fruits? 

The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how?  And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name?  These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked.   But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects.  The coy poem will be found out.  Casual readers may not find them out.  Critics will.  Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases?  Let no critic be drawn in by this.  Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.

Moral admonitions aside,  the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable.  As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?”  How among fruits?  What kinds of fruits?  How much did Mary “matter?”  Is the narrator upset to the point of tears?  How is the narrator uttering these lines?  Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left?  What difference does it make to the narrator?  What exactly was Mary to the poet?  Who is Mary?  The Mother of God?  Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery?  And is this enough?  In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.

in ash, in dust, I did not

leave you

The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for?  The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows.  Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?”  The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.”  Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line?  The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not.  The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.

Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes.  The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on.  The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself.  The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.”  In “Hail,”  we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about.  The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.

“I did not leave you,” the poet announces.  Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left?  Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her?  Is the poet bitter and betrayed?  Or not?  How can we tell?  What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”

Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.

Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose.  Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.

We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder?  Where is the emotional guide?

The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”

And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”

We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes.  And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.

We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.

There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits?  Why this odious comparison? 

We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves.  We compare involuntarily.  We cannot help it.  It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us.  We have nothing to do with it.  As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism.  We know Mary Szybist will forgive us.  But it’s a fait accompli.  She must forgive us.

The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.

A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.

A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.

We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be.   Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment.  Don’t be so coy.

Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.

The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.

Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.

But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it.  Think on your favorite poem (s).  Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying?  Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common.  Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too.  We know what the good poems do.  They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious.  They have action.  Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day.  There’s no other way of putting it.

We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem.  You have to close the deal.

We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines.  We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.

And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving.   As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.

The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.

We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.

Read “Hail” one more time.

La verite’ peut vous plaire.


Drowning, one inch sun,
You shone, once,
On everyone,
Sublime in a sublime sky,
Spectacular in my eye,
Able to walk among
Towering subjects of poems,
You dissolve, now, in a glass,
Small, and on your own.
Hazy, unique poison,
You will be my end
And once you gave life to worlds.

Poetry is saying
What you’re not really saying,
Evoking a sun
Less than a dream of a cloud,
Not sexy, not real, not exciting.
You hide in writing
When others lie out loud.

In love you play at war.
You defeat each other.
You are your prisoners,
Hoping you treat each other well.
You cannot tell
How much of yourselves you capture,
How many of your enemy fell.

Love sells to the seller,
The selling can never stop.
You will never find a body
Until the bodies drop.
You will never find a voice
Until the voice lies,
Or the soul vanishes
In the sunrise.

Poetry, that had a tear in its eye,
Is now a cold-hearted spy.
War, all war, is music,
Making the throngs throng.
Do you know we need the bad
To make the good song?
Do you know if you give to what gives away,
Love and giving are wrong?


Stephen “Stephanie” Burt, Harvard professor and distinguished poetry critic

There is always an assumption that anthologies and categories of ‘poems about X’ are good for poetry and X.


Even if our anthology of ‘poems about X’ has nothing but bad poetry, the sentiment supporting X, supporting poetry, and supporting poetry on X, inevitably wins the day.


We’ve all seen the high-minded, fawning reviews and notices.  The implication is: Some of you out there selfishly write poems which are just…poems.  But here we have something worth cheering about, worth feeling good about…Poems about X!

For instance, Blog Harriet recently wrote:

Hurray! Stephen Burt reviews the TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson edited breakthrough anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics for the Los Angeles Review of Books!


And here’s an excerpt from Stephen “Stephanie” Burt’s review:

I was bored, occasionally, by all too straightforward verse about identities lost and found, verse I would have ignored were its subject almost anything else. But the reading also let me delight in seeing at least one femme author I’d never encountered before, both because she looked great, and because Troubling the Line turns out to be her first national appearance in print. That author is Lilith Latini, of Asheville, North Carolina, a ravishing, raven-haired studio-era femme fatale. (This is the first time I have ever written a sentence for publication about how a poet looked when she read her poems.) Those poems, raw as they could be, spoke to my twinned and antithetical desire for glamor and for solidarity, my wish to stand with others and my wish to stand out. It’s not a wish unique to LGBT people, but it sounds great when Latini finds it in the thoughts of Stonewall queens: “Don’t send me / out of the closet and into the streets alone. / Someone has to help me out of my strappy shoes before I run.”

Poetry can interact with anything, and we have nothing against that.  There’s nothing wrong with “added interest.”

But this ‘Category-first-Poetry-second’ attitude needs a hard look.

Perhaps even Stephanie might want to give a listen.

Once poetry—verse or prose—serves any category outside itself, it is diminished by the ratio of how much it gives itself over to whatever category it exists for.

This may not be apparent to those who view poetry as bi-part:

1. A non-poetic subject

2. Poetic form

At first blush, this makes perfect sense: poetry exists in (poetic) language, and no modern believes there are ‘fit’ poetic subjects, or subjects more fit for poetry than others—love, death, friendship (remember those old poetry anthologies?) are categories that claim many poems only because they are broad categories, not because poems ought to be defined by them.

Today, in high-brow circles, we have poems about queers, blacks, and women.

(It wasn’t all that long ago that the categories were death, love and friendship.)

The categories, in all cases, diminish poetry because they are subjects apart from, subjects not necessary to, poetry.

For the poetry, and the poetry, alone, should, ideally, create the subject.

Ideally, poetic language alone manifests whatever subject comes into existence (at the same moment the poem comes into existence).

If the author is inspired by the subject—or the category—the poetry is merely the means to read about the pre-existing subject, a subject which exists outside of the poem, and thus, by definition, is the “non-poetic” part of the bi-part poem mentioned above.

The poetic genius, however, finds a subject through the poetic exertion, so that the two—the subject and the poetry—arrive as, and exist as, one.   Superficially, one could work backwards and extract a kind of “subject” from the poem.  The “subject,” however, remains (and here is what the New Critics attempted to articulate) unparaphrasable, without apparent authorial intention, without apparent design on the reader, and fully immersed and integrated in the poem qua poem.

The genius begins writing a poem on no subject.  The poetry elevates/determines not only the language, but the thought, of the poet, who composes a subject suitable only to poetry.

The subject proper is not pre-existing (nor is there any pre-existing category) or identified in any way as category or subject—the poetry itself creates a new subject.

The poet may use a germ of a story, like a bit of sand to grow a pearl, or some half-formed motif, or half-conceived method, but the point is for the poetry-making faculty of the poet to discover the subject entirely on its own.

The subject suitable only for the poetry itself is the only true subject for poetry.

There are poets who attempt this and fail: they will write a poem ostensibly about “their father,” for instance, but aware that modern poetry is not bound by old-fashioned anthology categories, their poem is not really about dear old dad.  All well and good.  But here’s what happens: the poet succeeds writing a poem without their dad as the actual subject—and yet, what is the subject?  The poet has not found the “only suitable subject for the poetry,” but merely avoided a subject altogether.

The true subject for the poetry will be one with the poetry—and it will still be a subject, just one newly emerging.  It will just not be a category or subject pre-approved by the editor of a specialist magazine.

This kind of poetry, in which the subject is created by the poetry itself, is rare, because it does take a genius to write it.

So you ask: what is the subject?

One can’t really say.  One has to read the poem and therein, within the poem as a whole, is the subject.

And that subject might be: death, love, friendship, woman, queer, black.  But it could be anything.

The subject is whatever the poem says it is.

It will be a subject not only of the poem, but of the poetry of the poem.

Prime examples of this kind of poetry are “Endymion” by Keats or “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley.

These are long works, major works.

Can a minor work illustrate our point?

We think not.

As an experiment, and just to stir up debate, we’ll see what our readers think of this poem composed by Marcus Bales.

Before we close: In this poem, is it true, and in this poem’s favor, that the poetry and the subject could not possibly exist without the other?

The Free-Verse Anti-Poetry Cartel

What kind of putz would diss the villanelle
And doesn’t like refrain lines interlaced?
The free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They want to kill all other forms as well;
Whatever’s not in prose is toxic waste
To putzes who would diss the villanelle.

They wish they had the power to compel
The rest of us to write in their debased
Old free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They think it makes them sexy to rebel
Against what great-great-great grand-dad embraced,
The putzes who would diss the villanelle.

But some of us prefer that we excel
At poems lineated prose replaced
With a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

A poet writes in meter, raises hell,
And spices up a language long disgraced
By putzes who would diss the villanelle
In a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

—Marcus Bales


Who, then, is this Judith Butler?
Google her face.  Never heard of her.

Holy crap she looks like a man.
Theory does what theory can.

The couplet is an interesting device
For this poem—reproducing like mice.

It ridicules thick-necked jocks,
Brainless oafs in team-striped socks.

It notices girls with little bird faces,
Thinks of all the physical disgraces.

These are its children, the swarm
Of humanity, smelly and warm.

They say attention to looks is unkind—
And yet the body is the mind.

As a teen I had terrible skin
Which inside and outside almost did me in.

A few pimples? How can you complain?
But you do.  Ugly face means doubtful brain.

But then you find that beauty is lurking
Behind the ugliness—a poem starts working.

How did poems rescue disgrace?
Why’d you write poetry? I had pimples on my face.

But a life has phases: the beautiful child
With perfect skin, and mild

Becomes the haunted adolescent,
Ugly, hairy, angry, prescient.

Keats and Byron were my Superman.
I hated Beats, Modern, Ash Can.

So let’s unleash our ire upon
Eclectics who hate beautiful Byron.

And no, we don’t have a reason why
Beyond a truth that lives in the eye.

For truth that asserts itself in the mind
Is a light in the cave of the blind.

Everything under the sun is queer
To the liberals who hate Shakespeare

Kind of the way the subject of race
Matters to liberals of nervous grace.

Lost in Dante’s midlife-crisis wood,
Academic theory would be understood.

Academics need to express change
Far away from the shooting range.

After Sputnik made the sciences champ,
The Humanities became chilly and damp.

No one took out a loan for college
Until Sputnik caused the race for knowledge.

But now loans go for art and writing.
Billions in debt for questionable lighting.

If gender is performance, the audience is slow.
Ask Judith Butler, she ought to know!

We really wonder about Queer Theory:
Did a look in the mirror cause the query?

Butler’s a rat in the maze of her text:
“I look like a man!  Okay, what’s next?”

If one has a face that looks like a witch,
Perhaps it’s time for a gender switch.

When procreate beauty falls in disgrace
We call it the revenge of the ugly face.

God grants ladies reproduction.
Beauty is for reproduction’s end,

Since beauty inspires reproduction,
Love is our death as well as our friend.

But if ugly things reproduce,
What is beauty’s use?

Fleeting pleasure, food, attention,
A nice review, a poem’s mention?

In the higher realms, pleasure and hope
Push away the misanthrope,

The scholar, the rule, the task, obscure
Lose sight of beauty and make us poor.

Beauty, of course, can live within:
In Butler’s heart and in her kin.

BUT IS ONE —a new scarriet poem

She is more precious than gold
Handled daily by creeps.
Her inward burning sun
Is dismissed in flaming deeps.
Your restless urges advance
And she sleeps.

Her heart is severely unloving
And then she surprises you.
No valley of silent stars
Is safe from what she can do.
You find you have a name when
She calls you.

She aspires to no art, no writing,
She keeps busy with nothing at all.
Without speaking a single word
She made this poet fall.
My library that weeps
Is now small.

She moves erect with purpose and knowledge,
But every step makes me sigh,
And when she nibbles an orange
She drinks my oceans dry.
Her firm denial she’s pretty
Is a lie.

Her signature utterance is a bitter laugh—
With teeth as white as the sun.
She wastes the day and is lazy,
But her work always gets done.
She doesn’t seem human—
But is one.


Here’s an (ugly?) truth that many of us do not want to face:

Every thought, every action, every conversation, and every human interaction in human life is a dreary, exhausting exercise in fighting, strategizing, gaining power, gaining advantage, and gaining knowledge towards gaining power, for the endlessly strategizing subject.

The world consists only of objects in relation to the strategizing subject. Life is war. When friends and family don’t call you, it’s not because they don’t love you, necessarily, it’s because human interaction, even when we don’t want it to be, is a battle.  Even when affection is involved—and perhaps even more when affection is involved—human interaction simply wears us out.

Yes, war is hell.  But war is all there is. Peace is merely a pause in the action, in order that more fighting can occur, and real, lasting peace (if that is possible!) requires war to give it a chance.

We can’t sleep well unless we’ve fought a good fight. We can’t relax unless we’ve gone to battle.

This is equally true in art as it is in life.  We must struggle to paint the peaceful picture, strain to produce the peaceful poem.

We can leave sports aside, which is quite evidently a battle within agreed-upon parameters, the “agreed-upon” part making this “battle” palatable to many of us on a certain level.

But to the non-athletes or “game nuts” among us, to those of us who refrain from, and disdain, gaming, gambling and the competition of sports, the truth is, the war of everyday life—on every level, whether you are a monk, a bishop, a gardener, or a yoga instructor—is far more fraught, simply because you are a human being, with infinitely complex, non-agreed-upon, make-or-break-whatever-rule-you-want, war maneuvers.  And this is not just an aspect of life—it is the whole of it.  One is either fighting, or resting up from fighting.

Pleasure itself is nothing more than a rejuvenation in order to fight more.

This is not some “realpolitik” rant from a four star general, or a war-gaming adolescent.  Remember, you are reading Scarriet.

It doesn’t matter how “laid-back” one’s personality is, or how “politically peaceful” one is, or whether one is a vegan, or not.  The complex psychological struggle of every human being is vast and endless.  The “game” is on, and it’s always on, whether you are trying to convince your fellow human beings to become a vegan, or whether you are tearing into a cow.

Every single thing you do is judged, whether you’ve written a poem, done (or not done) the dishes, or are just staring into space.  It doesn’t matter whether you are “on stage,” or not.  It doesn’t matter whether an audience is before you, or there is no audience present.  You will judge yourself.  Even if you hate all judgement, all quantifying, all opinion, all truth, or all half-truth, complex judging is going on within you and without you all the time.

Most would acknowledge this reality of what we are outlining here, but many would insist: they are not part of that; that is not them, or (in an unfortunate choice of words) I myself fight against that whole competitive, strategizing, cynical vibe.

Others will go on the offensive without apology: This whole thesis is just an excuse to fight, an excuse to be a jerk!

Yes, but “being a jerk” is not a good strategy.  The point here is not that we must strategize viciously or unfairly or randomly—just that we must always strategize.

So let’s go back to sports and its “agreed-upon” parameters for a moment.  How crucial is the “agreed-upon” aspect of this war—that we call life?    If the two choices are war with no rules and war with rules, obviously the “agreed-upon” aspect is very crucial.

But life is not a game, is it?  How much do “the rules” in life apply?

If strategizing involves knowing which rules to follow, which rules to bend, which rules to ignore, which rules are useful, which rules are not useful, which rules are coming, which rules are going, which rules apply to whom and when, then it is clear that strategizing itself is more important than the rules—which are nothing more, in sum, than a less complex aspect of random reality, and which still reflect the brute forces of reality which we all must continually navigate.

So are we rejecting the rule of law?  That which essentially civilizes us?  Are we naked, then, as we fight this war?

Yes.  Each of us is merely a soldier.  And alone.

But what unites us?  Surely it can’t be all of us against all of us all of the time?

It is.  Because we judge ourselves, we cannot escape judgment, and therefore no one can escape the state we have been busily describing above.

We may seek alliances, and many of us do this in order to mitigate the general lonely horror that is the fact of our war-like state, and this explains why the culture of partnerships and political parties can be acutely acrimonious and emotional.  But the truth is known only by ourselves and determined by ourselves, as much as we may be comforted by the warm, piss-temperature propaganda of the group.  As Da Vinci and Blake have told us, let your own eyes prove the case, not the wind of authority or hearsay.  The group is a lie.  We are alone to the degree that we are human.  The genius is not alone because he is alone; he is alone because he is a genius.

Epicurus suggested the only real escape from this horror: pleasure.  The body seeks pleasure as a means to replenish itself before the next round of war; this is really the epicurean philosophy in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of pleasure, really, as now stated here; it is taking whatever is naturally restful and replenishing to the body, mind, and soul, and isolating it as an end in itself.

Poetry has been described by the Romantics (Coleridge/Poe), Pater, and Helen Vendler, as that which has pleasure as its immediate object.  Poetry is how our brains temporarily relax.

Poetry naturally has two main parts: the vessel and what is contained within it; the vessel (the action of poetry) partakes of pleasure, but the further question is: what is in the vessel, for all language by its very nature is a double entity—signifier and signified.  If seeking pleasure is both the vessel and what is contained within it, we have pleasure for pleasure’s sake, art for art’s sake, the enjoyment of rest for the Epicurean, who desires simplicity and beauty for their own sake.

Criticism belongs to war, and is the opposite of poetry as defined above.

But as we can see, the greater poet will always be a critic first, and a poet second.

We can test our thesis by looking at actual poetry, and Alexander Pope proves our case; one of the greatest poets, Pope’s Poetry and Criticism are often the same thing.  Need a greater poet?  The same is true of Shakespeare, whose plays are Platonic dialogues and whose Sonnets are really Critical essays: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” questions the worth of simile and metaphor.

The best poets put Criticism in the vessel of Poetry, this being naturally more efficient, since in this way, the poet may fight and be at peace, may have their cake and eat it—which is even more than what Epicurus, nibbling on a cake in the meadow, promises.


“there is no way to sing this” -Donna Hilbert “Where It Happened”

My poetry fails,
The world is too rude.
Idea of naked
Kills reality of nude.
My passion’s big
And cannot be contained
By a poem that grew,
By a moon that waned.
What now the now
That desires to last?
Only me fooling you
With passion from the past.
My excitement fails,
The world is too calm.
I want it to look.
But it’s sailing on.


Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.



A lyric is just a lyric,
A song is just a song.
The world keeps repeating itself.
Is that so wrong?

You have a love,
But you had a love before.
You got older.
You couldn’t have that one anymore.

There are types, types of people,
All exactly the same,
Now and when you were growing up.
But who are you to blame?

The world is wonderful,
But not as wonderful as we think—
Just molecules spinning around
Like water going down in the sink.

The bright love you had
Is routinely fading away.
The night you write in your mind
Is a kiss in another day.

You want it to be real
But maybe, you think, no,
You have to do something, you think,
But the fast is too slow.

But you don’t have time to wait,
But you think, I have time,
To read another’s thoughts:
Involuntary, happy rhyme.

Are others wiser than you,
You think no, that can’t be,
But a yes comes around
With a mirror and it’s me.

You gave at the window
Like everybody else
When the evening came
And the dream, but you were not yourself.

A lyric is just a lyric,
A song is just a song,
The world’s a riddle.
Is that so wrong?

You took a walk in the woods,
You parked yourself on a rock,
You let the trees remind you
That you have a writing block.

But you like trees
And not having anything to say.
To hell with you, I’m going there today.
I’m going to have wisdom,
I’m going to have class,
I’m going to have grace,
And you are just an ass.
But maybe when I’m lonely
I won’t think that way.
I’ll think of a lost queen
On a lonely, foggy day,
And I’ll keep repeating “lonely,”
Or any other word,
And then I won’t feel proud,
I’ll feel absurd.

Others are funnier,
You aren’t so good, you know,
You said the wrong thing to him,
Yes, I know, I know.
But here are the seasons,
The seasons come and go,
You can have something new,
Or at least…I don’t know.

Do you love him?
Is there magic in this drink?
Is there a way out?
Oh tell me there is!
They have lost their clout.
This has lost its fizz.
Now let me help you;
That feels good.
I guess we can have a party
Here in our neighborhood.

A lyric is just a lyric,
A song is just a song.
The world keeps repeating itself.
Is that so wrong?


Image result for music in renaissance painting

The phatic is common to both song lyrics and poetry; music aids the lyric, condemning it to be not quite poetry forever, while poetry is its own music, condemning it to be naked without music forever.

The two are never reconciled—the standard of poetry is never–-never—reached by song lyrics, which breaks the poet’s heart, a heart which travels into music’s realm, shunning its help.  Madness and torture!  Why do the two exist–-never to meet!  Poetry and music!  Divided heart!  Divided mind!  Poor, divided mankind!

As a healing device, we list the top 100 Song Lyrics As Poetry of All Time, with the single criterion: when we hear the song, do the lyrics intoxicate us as much as the music?

Note we do not ask the song to be judged as poetry—as words on the page.   And yet—and yet—words are being judged.

The list below is not based on reading the lyrics alone on the page as if it were a poem, for this is to take the creature out of the water: we judge the lyrics with its music as poetry.

If an especially beautiful music accompanies the words of a particular song, making the words even more beautiful, we have to assume the words are responsible; the songwriter will sometimes experience this phenomenon: words inspire the music, as if the words and music were born together.  It is as if the music were an aura around the words—words which nonetheless are not strong enough to be poetry, since they need the music.  We celebrate this paradox—in our list—of poems which are not poems.

If one were to boil down the two essential criteria they would be: 1. originality and interest and 2. strongly realized feeling or idea, but we’ll briefly comment on why for each song.

1 Perfect Day  (Lou Reed)  performed by Lou Reed   —Why: The haunting ambiguity: drug fix or romance? “I thought I was someone else, someone good”
2. Day In the Life  (Lennon/McCartney)  performed by The Beatles   –“Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”
3. The Good Life  (Distel/Broussolle/Reardon)  performed by Nancy Wilson  –A love song with a tantalizingly puzzling message
4. Coming Back To Me  (Marty Balin)  performed by Jefferson Airplane  –“Through a window where no curtain hung I saw you…coming back to me…”
5. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)  performed by Bob Dylan –“You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you”
6. America (Paul Simon) performed by Simon & Garfunkle –“Toss me a cigarette I think there’s one in my raincoat…”
7. Over the Rainbow  (Arlen/Harburg) performed by Judy Garland  –“That’s where you’ll find me”
8. Is That All There Is?  (Lieber/Stoller) performed by Peggy Lee  –A life-flashing-before-your-eyes song
9. Ruby Tuesday (Jagger/Richards) performed by Rolling Stones  –“She comes and goes, no one knows…”
10. Both Sides Now  (Joni Mitchell) performed by Judy Collins  –“I don’t know clouds at all…”
11. I Want You (Bob Dylan) performed by Bob Dylan  –“The cracked bells and washed out horns blow into my face with scorn…”
12. Forbidden Fruit (Oscar Brown Jr) performed by Nina Simone –“Eve and Adam had a garden, everything was great…”
13. American Pie (Don McLean) performed by Don McLean  –A perhaps overly sentimental tribute to Buddy Holly…”the day the music died…”
14. Lather (Grace Slick) performed by Jefferson Airplane  –A haunting lyric about growing up…”Lather was thirty years old today…”
15. She Loves You (Lennon/McCartney) performed by The Beatles  –“She” instead of “I” makes it a song about three people instead of two…
16. Me and Bobby McGee (Kris Kristofferson) performed by Janis Joplin  Best going-down-the-road song ever.
17. If You Go Away (Jacque Brel)  performed by Shirley Bassey  –One of those crushingly crushed-up love songs
18. Horse With No Name (Dewey Bunnell)   performed by America  –“The heat was hot…”  You can walk into this song…
19. Yellow Submarine (Lennon/McCartney) performed by The Beatles  –Intimates the ‘we’re-all-together’ spirit so nicely…
20. Jennifer Juniper (Donovan Leitch)  performed by Donovan  –“I am thinking of what it would be like if she loved me…”
21. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (Lennon/McCartney) performed by The Beatles –Phantasmagoria at its best.  “And of course, Henry the horse…”
22. Maggie Mae (Stewart/Quittinton) performed by Rod Stewart  –“I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school”
23. Play With Fire (Phelge) performed by The Rolling Stones  –“Well you’ve got your diamonds and you’ve got your pretty clothes…”
24. Mrs. Brown You Have A Lovely Daughter (T. Peacock) –The boy complains to the mother…different.
25. You’re Lost Little Girl (The Doors) performed by The Doors –The “little girl” is really the one in control; one can hear William Blake in it…
26. Sunny Afternoon (Ray Davies) performed by The Kinks  –“telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty…”
27. Yesterday (Lennon/McCartney) performed by The Beatles  –A simple, but perfect lyric: “yesterday came suddenly…”
28. Fakin’ It  (Paul Simon) performed by Simon and Garfunkle  –a  masterpiece of introspective nostalgia
29. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (Lennon/McCartney) performed by The Beatles  –“Rose and Valerie screaming from the gallery…”
30. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Bob Dylan) performed by Bob Dylan  “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too, and your gravity fails…”
31. Fire and Rain (James Taylor) performed by James Taylor  — a wreck of a song, in the best possible way…  “I always thought I’d see you one more time again…”
32. Irreplaceable (Beyonce, Ne-Yo, Eriksen, Hermansen, Lind, Bjorklund) performed by Beyonce  “You must not know ’bout me…”
33. Mona Lisa (Evans/Livingston) Nat King Cole –“They just lie there and they die there…Are you real, Mona Lisa?”
34. Cry Baby Cry (Lennon/McCartney) The Beatles  –“The duchess of Kircaldy always smiling and arriving late for tea…”  one of John’s best…
35. Night And Day (Cole Porter) Fred Astaire  –“in the roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room I think of you, night and day…”
36. As Time Goes By (Hupfeld)  Dooley Wilson  –“hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate…”
37. Ferry Cross The Mersey (Marsden) Gerry and the Pacemakers  –“we’ll never turn you away…”
38. Georgia On My Mind (Carmichael, Gorrell) Ray Charles  –“Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through…”
39. Ring Of Fire (Gilgore/Carter) Johnny Cash  –“the flames gettin’ higher…”
40. The End (Jim Morrison) The Doors  –“this is the end, beautiful friend, no safety or surprise, the end…”
41. The Times They Are A Changin’ (Bob Dylan)  Bob Dylan  –the ultimate protest/wake-up-to-reality song…
42. Everyday (White, Crisler)   Buddy Holly  –“Everyday, it’s a gettin’ closer, goin’ faster than a roller coaster…”
43. All You Need Is Love (Lennon/McCartney) The Beatles  –“There’s nothin’ you can’t do that can’t be done…”
44. This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie) Woody Guthrie  –“This land was made for you and me…”
45. My Generation (Pete Townsend) The Who  –the slinging, self-righteous, celebratory anger of the 60s in 3 minutes…
46. Let It Be (Lennon/McCartney) The Beatles  –“Mother Mary comes to me…”
47. What’d I Say (Byrne/Robinson) Ray Charles  –“Tell me… What did I say?”
48. Sympathy For the Devil (Jagger/Richard) Rolling Stones  –Jagger wrote a Bob Dylan-type ballad and the Stones added mayhem..
49. Crazy (Willie Nelson) Patsy Cline  –“Crazy for cryin’ and crazy for tryin’…”
50. A Whiter Shade Of Pale (Brooker, Reid, Fisher) Procol Harum  –“and the waiter brought a tray…”
51. I Say A Little Prayer For You (Bacharach/David) Dionne Warwick –“The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup…”
52. Dream A Little Dream Of Me (Gus Kahn) Mamas and Papas  –“Stars shining bright above you, night breezes seem to whisper I love you…”
53. California Dreamin’ (Phillips) Mamas and Papas  –“Well I got down on my knees and I began to pray…”
54. Hotel California (Felder, Henley, Frey) The Eagles  –“But they can never leave…”
55. Walk On By (Bacharach/David) Dionne Warwick  –“make believe that you don’t see the tears…”
56. Guess Who I Saw Today? (Grand/Boyd) Eartha Kitt  –what a beautifully constructed little urban story…
57. Lovely Rita (Lennon/McCartney) The Beatles  –“sitting on a sofa with a sister or two…”
58. White Rabbit (Grace Slick) Jefferson Airplane  –“and the white knight is talking backwards and the red queen is ‘off with her head!'”
59. My Favorite Things (Rodgers/Hammerstein) Julie Andrews  –“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”  Keatsian.
60. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (Kern/Harbach) The Platters  –“Now laughing friends deride…”
61. Stranger In Paradise (Borodin, Wright, Forrest) Tony Bennett  –“If I stand starry-eyed, that’s a danger in paradise…”
62. Misty (Garner/Burke) Johnny Mathis –“When I wander through the wonderland alone…”
63. (They Long To Be) Close To You (Bacharach/David) The Carpenters –“Just like me, they long to be close to you…”
64. Ain’t Misbehavin’  (Waller,Brooks, Razaff) Fats Waller –“I’m home about eight, just me and my radio…”
65. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Ellington/Russell) The Ink Spots –“They’d have asked me about you…”
66. I’ll Be Seeing You (Fain/Kahal) Billie Holiday –“In all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces…”
67. Mack The Knife (Brecht/Weil, Blitzstein) Bobby Darin  –“Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear…”
68. Pirate Jenny (Brecht/Weil) Lotte Lenya  –“Asking me, kill them now, or later?”
69. Tiptoe Through The Tulips (Burke/Dubin) Tiny Tim –“tiptoe from the garden, by the garden of the willow tree…”
70. What Is And What Should Never Be (Led Zeppelin)  Led Zeppelin –“and if you say to me tomorrow oh what fun it all would be…”
71. Golden Vanity (anonymous) Pete Seeger –a tearful adventure novel packed into song…”and down sunk he…farewell, farewell to the Golden Vanity…”
72. Star Spangled Banner (Key) Various Artists  –“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light?”
73. Tiny Dancer (John/Taupin) Elton John  –“Jesus freaks out on the street, handing out free tickets for God…”
74. White Christmas (Irving Berlin) Bing Crosy     Best-selling single of all-time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records
75. Barbara Allen (anonymous) Pete Seeger  –the most popular of the old ballads…”oh mother, mother go make my bed…”
76. Tenderly (Lawrence/Lawrence) Sarah Vaughan –“the evening breeze caressed the trees tenderly…”  this is not corny; this is poetry
77. Lady of Carlyle (anonymous) Pete Seeger  –another beautiful old ballad…”and for a space of half an hour, this young lady lay speechless on the ground.”
78. Take Me Home, Country Roads (Denver, Nivert, Danoff) John Denver  –a big, outdoors song, one the best…”Almost heaven, West Virginia…”
79. Winter Wonderland (Bernard/Smith) Various Artists –so many great Christmas songs, but this one is especially charming…
80. If I Had A Hammer (Seeger/Hayes) The Weavers –Pete Seeger, who cut Dylan’s cords at Newport, was Dylan before Dylan…
81. Wayfaring Stranger (anonymous) Burl Ives  –“I’m going there to see my father, I’m going there no more to roam…”
82. Silent Night (Gruber/Mohr) Various  –the Ur-Christmas carol…
83. Paint It Black (Jagger/Richard) Rolling Stones  –“I see a red door and I want to paint it black…”
84. Every Breath You Take (Sting) The Police –“I’ll be watching you…”
85. It’s All In The Game (Dawes/Sigman) Tommy Edwards  –“And your hearts will fly away…”
86. You’re So Vain (Carly Simon) Carly Simon –“And your horse naturally won…”
87. Killing Me Softly With His Song (Fox/Gimbel) Roberta Flack –“I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud…”
88. It’s My Party (Gluck, Gold, Weiner) Lesley Gore –“I’ll cry if I want to…”
89. The End Of The World (Shave, Smith, Pebworth, Astasio) Skeeter Davis  –“Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?”
90. Under the Boardwalk (Young/Resnick) The Drifters  –“People walking above…”
91. It’s Now Or Never (Schroeder, Gold) Elvis Presley –“Tomorrow will be too late…”
92. I Will Survive (Perren/Fekaris) Gloria Gaynor –“At first I was afraid, I was petrified…”
93. Moon River (Mancini/Mercer) Andy Williams –“we’re all after the same rainbow’s end…”
94. Paper Moon (Arlen,Harburg, Rose) Nat King Cole –“it’s only a paper moon over a cardboard sea, but I’ll believe in make-believe if…”
95. Bennie And The Jets (John/Taupin) Elton John  –“she’s got electric boots, a mohair suit, you know I read it in a magazine…”
96. Freed From The Gallows/Gallows Pole (anonymous) Ledbelly  “I think I see my mother coming, riding many a mile…”
97. She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain (anonymous) Pete Seeger  –“she’ll be riding six white horses when she comes…”
98. Jam On Jerry’s Rocks (anonymous) Pete Seeger –“crushed and bleeding on the beach lay the form of young Monroe”
99. Come All Ye Fair And Tender Maidens (anonymous) Pete Seeger  –I wish I were a little sparrow and I had wings and I could fly…”
100. Groundhog (anonymous) Pete Seeger –“We’re all going out to hunt groundhog…”
101. September In The Rain (Warren/Dubin) James Melton –“The leaves of red and brown came tumbling down, remember?”
102. Pretty Polly (anonymous) Pete Seeger   –“Leaving nothing but the wild birds to moan.”   We had to include one murder song…
103. Danville Girl (anonymous)  Pete Seeger  –“She took me to her kitchen, she treated me nice and kind…”   And one hobo song…


Reading Jason Koo’s work is like watching someone who can’t make up their mind: Do I want to be a poet? Or a standup comic? Poet? Comic? Poet? Comic?

Jason Koo is obviously a very clever guy.

But what is this?  It’s from something—and we think it’s supposed to be a poem—called “Standby at Chicago O’Hare.”

It is time to wonder if one could kiss Katie Couric
without thinking of The Joker.
Does that smile ever stop?
If I said, Katie, be sad, would she unhook that smile
from the nails in her cheeks?
The purgatorial ghosts at C-10 would like
to bludgeon her.
I can see this by the way they grip their Chiquita bananas.
It is time to try the McDonald’s Double Filet o’ Fish.
You knew that time was coming.
How much tartar sauce can be creamed on a thing?
How much tartar sauce can be creamed on Katie Couric?
I would like to stuff her face between these buns.
Double McKatie Couric.

If this gets yuks, it succeeds.  If it doesn’t, it’s not even poetry.  Even if you don’t like Katie Couric, it’s just creepy.

Professor Koo is the founder of Brooklyn Poets and has launched The Bridge, “the world’s first networking site connecting student and mentor poets.”

We wonder what kind of mentoring Koo does.

We wonder if Professor Koo tells his students, “It’s OK to use the hackneyed expression, ‘I mean,’ in your poems.”

at the “jazz” restaurant. Piles of pineapple. Sliced grapefruit.
Is there anything better than sliced grapefruit? I mean,
you don’t have to insert your spoon properly or anything.
The bags of coffee beans for sale in the coffee shop

from “How Would You Rate Your Lodging Experience?” –Jason Koo

“How Would You Rate Your Lodging Experience?” is a work of 52 lines in which Koo, after staying at a motel, answers this question humorously, just as if he were writing a jokey letter to a friend. Koo puts his jokey letter into quatrains to make it look like a traditional poem.

There. We’ve been “mentored” by Jason Koo.  In five minutes.  For free.

It is one thing to advocate for education to meet the needs of the universal citizen.   But to sell education for personal gain is a totally different animal.  Not that both can’t be corrupt, or cannot overlap, but there is a difference.

Here’s some of Daniel Nester’s interview with Koo at the Best American Poetry website:

So I guess you’re of the mind that writing can be taught? I mean, I am as well, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

I am, yes. I mean, of course it can–like anything else. I’m amused by this idea that writing poems can’t be taught, but things like yoga and tango can. Imagine signing up for a yoga or tango class with no previous experience, paying for it, then showing up the first day and hearing the teacher say, Okay, show me what you can do. And pointing at the floor. You’d be mortified–and pissed, because that’s not what you’re paying for. You’re paying the teacher to show you the basics, to introduce you to the discipline. You’re not expecting to become a master overnight or possibly ever. You’re interested in discovering what the discipline is about and seeing how you like it, how it might change you. And you pay experts for instruction because without them you would literally–yes, I’m going to use that adverb–not know how to make the first move.

Poetry’s a lot different than that.

For some reason, in the discipline of writing poetry, people assume they do know. Or maybe they’re not so arrogant to assume this, but they think maybe their poetic efforts are best served without the nuisance of instruction, the self-conscious shock of it. This is the legacy of bad Romanticism–people taking all the Wordsworth and Keats out of Wordsworth and Keats and leaving–themselves. Poetry as self-expression rather than art, a “practice”–that is what I love about yoga, how teachers and students refer to what they do as a “practice.”

The assumption being that they’re never going to perfect it. Hell, even lawyers seem to understand this about what they do! But not poets. Teachers still go into creative writing classrooms today and tell students just to bring in a poem and then they’ll workshop it–for the entire semester. I mean, really? Why does a teacher have to be paid to do that? That’s like the tango teacher going into a dance studio and saying, Show me what you can do. And the sad thing is that there are so many poet-teachers I know out there without full-time jobs who could teach the hell out of those classes where those students are being failed by their teachers.

I love that notion. “I could teach the hell out of that poet!”

Anyone who thinks poetry can’t be taught should simply look at a pile of undergraduate submissions for a poetry contest. I saw this at Quinnipiac, where I teach and helped judge a contest last year. It was immediately obvious which poems were written by someone who’d taken a poetry class and which were not–you could toss the latter after glancing at the title and the splay of the poem all over the page, usually i i i staggering everywhere with no end in sight. The former were not necessarily good poems, and some were too obviously written on assignment (i.e. write a Shakespeare sonnet, boys and girls), but they at least showed consciousness of poem as craft.

One thing that people don’t seem to consider when they bemoan the culture of MFA programs and poem-sameness blah blah blah is how much worse poems might be without those programs. I mean, yeah, I don’t want to read 800 sestinas a day–I just threw that in for you, Daniel–but I’d rather read those than the kind of stuff I see in those undergraduate submission piles. Or that I’ve seen in slush piles for various magazines I’ve worked for. Yikes.

We agree that teachers should teach, but yoga and the tango are not the same as poetry, for a number of different reasons.

One has to get on the floor and ‘do’ yoga or the tango, to learn and benefit from these arts, and very specific physical steps are involved, which, if followed, will precisely reflect what yoga and the tango are.

If one were to read the poems of W.H. Auden, one would learn poetry, in the act of reading Auden, as much as one learns yoga by actually doing it.  Dead Auden (his poems) is a better mentor than living Auden.  Excellent poems mentor the best.

Judging by Jason Koo’s poetry, reading magazines and watching TV would probably be a better mentor than Jason Koo.

Auden, as “mentor,” would not help you to become a poet nearly as much as the poems of Auden would.  Ratio of mentor power: Auden, 1, his poems, 1,000.

Now, if you slept with Auden, you might become a famous poet, but we don’t think Jason Koo’s website, The Bridge, is quite about that.

If you studied the poems of Koo instead of the poems of Auden, you wouldn’t be doing “yoga” anymore, for Koo and Auden are not the same thing.  Here again, Koo’s analogy to yoga fails.  Yoga contains variety, but yoga is basically a single discipline.  By comparison, poetry is variety itself.

We love the reference to “bad Romanticism.”  To those schooled by Modernism and the New Criticism, all Romanticism is “bad.”  This is because “self-expression” is not allowed in the mentoring universe.

It wasn’t Jason Koo, who stayed in that motel, who expressed himself in that poem about staying in that motel.  It was a mentored “practice” that wrote that poem.

When it comes to poetry these days, the only “self-expression” they want is your money.


Psychology and the social sciences are too in love with their own sophisticated terminology within their own scientific-tinged aspects to recognize what most people rather crudely refer to as a “broken heart.”

The heart is the most important thing in existence, but science sees it either as an organ that pumps blood or a valentine shape of mere sentimentality.  But broken hearts do exist, and the heart that is broken is real, and the sciences “of the heart,” psychology, the social sciences, the whole of the humanities, in fact, is but a square shape of no consequence compared to—and there is no other way of saying it—the human heart.

What is the heart?

The heart can only be described as that which escapes breaking—or does not escape this fate.

There is no greater tragedy than a broken heart, and yet it often happens—because it happens to the heart—without the world noticing.

It happens to many in high school, or in college, or right after college; someone—who may not even intend to do it—breaks your heart, and the heart that never stops giving suddenly stops giving—the innocence of the child—who wonders and loves—is no more.

The heart, once broken, never really heals, and the broken-hearted soul tries, but never quite loves again.  They have an organ which pumps blood, but they no longer have a heart.  They cannot love.  They are wary of true love. They call true love impossible or naive. Lack of trust or paranoia is the symptom of the heart—which belongs to a soul—that is broken.

For the broken-hearted, belief in love fades like the stars in the face of routine day.

Can the broken-hearted write poetry?

No, they cannot.

The broken-hearted do everything to relieve their pain; they stupidly meditate, they thrill to cheap entertainment, habits become a narcotic, they drink, they laugh, they retreat from the world, they take poetry classes, they get Ph.D.s, they explain, they make money, they have affairs.  But the broken heart, even amid the laughter, hangs on like an odor. It never goes away.

And those rare few, those happy few, those poets whom the world praises?

They are the fortunate souls who miraculously managed to miss, by pure luck or innocence, the most terrible of fates—the broken heart.

There is only one thing you must resist, if you feel there is hope for your heart, for your capacity to love: when you look in the face of the rare poet who smiles serenely—who smiles from the heart, for the sole reason that it feels good to smile—do not envy them.  Smile back with your heart.  Have no thoughts but good ones. Stay in that place for minutes, for hours, for days, for years.


1280x720 Wallpaper landscape, tree, lake, reflection, grass, horizon, clouds, evening, autumn, naked

Nature plays shadowy music
As when the wind ripples the moody lake—
And the changing colors of the sky
Drowns the day for Belinda’s sake.
A wind that rattled the dying leaf
On the twisted tree
Now whispers warnings in the dark
Until Belinda kisses me.
Only then do I forget myself,
Forget the music and the leaf,
Forget I am in the world
And watch without belief.


Can it, really?

There are so many positions one can take on education and literature—in fact, one could have a lengthy debate on which is more important, literature, or the education of literature, and that’s before we even get started.

Let’s see if we can sum up quickly the various positions regarding Creative Writing and the Academy under the umbrella: what is literature and how should we teach it?

First, the one relevant fact:  The Creative Writing degree is replacing the old English degree, not only on the graduate, but on the undergraduate level.

Now, the positions:

1. First, “The Old Man” position. We quote him in full—from a recent Scarriet comment, because we don’t think anyone could say it better:

Creative Writing, along with Today’s MFA is part of the campaign to replace canonical literature as the “jewel in the crown” of English Studies. There is a tacit alliance among the supporters of Postmodern Poetics, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Womens’ Studies and Creative Writing (in all its forms and levels of instruction) to topple the traditional curriculum. Contemporary fiction and poetry overshadow the great writing of the past. Creative writng students do not have to read Milton, Pope, Keats and Yeats. Either they read their peers in the class or the “so called” free verse of the hour. As creative writing gradually eclipses literature, instructors follow suit. Soon the majority of teachers in the typical American English Department will no longer feel comfortable about grading a comprehensive literature exam in an Honors Program – – or even the typical MA English Comprehensive Exam.

This position is the Outsider, Conservative one:  Creative Writing is part of a wider modern problem which sees canonical excellence swallowed up by all sorts of things which are beside the point.

2. Second, “The Seth Abramson” position, which all who are bothering to read this, are surely familiar with by  now: the MFA is a beacon of democratic insurrection and radical experimentation, a thousand flowers blooming in the desert of academic dullness.

This position is the Insider, Radical one: Creative Writing, through its democratic open-ended, open-exchanged fertility, will lead us to the Promised Land of Democratized Freedom.

3. Third, “The Laura Runyan” position, and we take the liberty of excerpting her Scarriet comments:

Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency is to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.

I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.

Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.

I couldn’t stand the prospect of majoring in English because I couldn’t stomach “critical theory,” by which art is reduced to cultural studies and very bad postmodernist “philosophizing.” So much of the reasoning behind critical theory is dreck, it’s bloated with jargon, much of the writing in the “scholarship” associated with that group of sub-disciplines is dreadful, and had it been embraced by my MFA professors, I wouldn’t have survived more than a semester there. (As an undergraduate, I majored in “analytic”–Western– the way.) My first semester as an MFA student, I asked one of the fiction faculty members which lit professors to avoid (we were one of those so-called “academic” MFA programs). As soon as I said that I didn’t want to take a lit-crit-style literature class, this professor knew immediately what I was talking about and advised me on which classes I would probably want to avoid. In fact, not one faculty member in my MFA program was “into” the critical theory stuff. If anything, they were contemptuous of it.

Laura Runyan’s is the Insider, Conservative position: Creative Writing, at least as practiced in the best MFA programs, is an escape from the postmodern-corrupted English MA programs. Runyan is pro-MFA, but for a very different reason than Abramson.

4. Finally, that leaves the Outsider, Radical position on Creative Writing, rejecting it altogether, either from an anti-institutional stance or an anti-canonical stance even more radical than Abramson’s, a radical political position suspicious of canon and institution, anything smelling at all like the status quo.  This final ‘catch-all’ category contains poor people, eccentric rich people, slam poets, the Ernest Hemingway/Jack Kerouac anti-intellectual, manly type of independent writer, or someone like Eileen Myles.

So the four main pedagogical threads are

1. Old Man: MFA is part of a radical, post-modern conspiracy

2. Laura Runyan: MFA is the new throw-back canonical MA

3. Seth Abramson: MFA is the crown of forward-looking, post-modern legitimacy

4. Eileen Myles: MFA is one more brick in the wall

As we can see, roughly speaking:

1 (Old Man) and 3 (Seth Abramson) are philosophical opposites, as are 2 (Laura Runyan) and 4 (Eileen Myles).

1 (Old Man) and 2 (Laura Runyan) are philosophically similar, as are 3 (Seth Abramson) and 4 (Eileen Myles), but these two pairs disagree on how the MFA works—or doesn’t.

Where do they all agree?

If one could afford to hang out in Left Bank cafes with interesting writers of all kinds, the Old Man, Laura, Seth, and Eileen might all be able to agree on this scenario.

We have ventured the opinion that ‘hanging out’ and writing really don’t go together at all, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.

Most of those in mainstream, institutional life, the Old Man and the Laura Runyan schools of thought, would probably see eye to eye on this:

Literature provides a necessary social glue: despite various political differences in any population, it is crucial that, intellectually and artistically, there is a place for all of us to be more or less on the same page, even as we work through various political differences based on class, race, sexual orientation, and philosophical opposition.

This point alone makes both the Old Man and the Laura Runyan positions attractive.  Chucking the canonical in favor of the new is counter-productive and common sense cries out against it.  Is life so radically different now that as a society we can say for certain that the best of the past should be demolished?

We can talk about political differences all day, but there is one aesthetic matter which seems to participate in these divisions more than any other: Good Storytelling. Laura Runyan captured this idea when she wrote:

A friend of mine who finished the MFA program at Iowa in the 80s, after he’d established a career as a pharmacist, told me the following about Frank Conroy, then the well-known director of the Workshop, and whom my friend had as a teacher. He said that often, Conroy–who was hardly gentle on students–would often say in workshop in response to a meandering piece of prose by a student, “Beautiful prose in the service of WHAT?” (That comment was repeated by another person I know who’s a grad of Iowa’s MFA program.)

What did he mean by that comment. Simply this–which isn’t so simple to many aspiring fiction writers: that the story, with all its musing and imagery, HAD NO STORY! No Aristotelian rise and fall, no obvious conflict, nothing that made you wonder what would happen next!

Story-telling can bring together many politics and philosophies under one roof, so much so, that this might even seal the deal for universal agreement.  Let’s rally round, with all our differences, the articulate story-teller, and let every radical impulse fit in—or not—with this mandate.

All in favor, say aye.

Just as we thought: a lot of ayes.

But not so fast.  “Wondering what happens next” is a primitive impulse and not necessarily one we should promote.  Narrative is a slippery pedagogical subject, if we are honest about it, and take the time to look at it more closely.  Scarriet recently examined this in a post titled, “Does Narrative Make Us Stupid?” (May 2013).

To truly unite literature and education, we grant narrative a high place, but not the highest place.

Our criteria, in order of importance are:

1. Philosophical Truth

It seems to us that Plato’s dialogues should be central to any advanced literary and writing education, with the Phaedrus, the Symposium, the Ion, and the Republic as must-reads.  Add to that Edgar Allan Poe, who is, if truth be told, a canon all to himself.  Both Plato and Poe are rigorous, accessible and free of both dogma and triviality.

2. Beauty

In the broadest possible terms, the beautiful encompasses good taste (which is not trivial) and all we associate with the ‘well-put-together,’ and pertains to whatever is uplifting, sublime, and brings people together in passionately fused thought and feeling.

3. Undercurrent of Meaning

This hardly needs explanation.  Without this, stories will be either trivial or flimsy pieces of moralizing.

These three are far more important than storytelling, per se, though Frank Conroy’s advice certainly has merit.

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