THERE’S NO PROFIT IN IMPARTIALITY, SO THERE IS NONE

There’s no profit in impartiality, so there is none.  If Republicans cheat, only Democrats complain—since they are partisan, they are not believed.  If a football team cheats, only their opponents complain—they are partisan, and again, for that reason, not believed. Cheating does not have to hide.  Since every wrong has only partial opposition, every wrong triumphs. We all walk about, consciously, helplessly, hopelessly deceived.

When you love someone, and they love you, dare to tell them they cannot love another. You can’t. Your claims to ownership will chase them away.  But claims or not, you cannot make them stay. In the middle of the greatest intimacy possible, the subjective—another’s, not your own—has sway.

Objectivity—in which the simple truth of the matter is seen—belongs not to us.  We call intelligence and science that which comes closest to objective truth, even as its very agents are lost in mazes of subjectivity. Agreement of many is no proof of objectivity; it only increases belief that a certain degree of objectivity may have been achieved.

But just when we feel that subjectivity is all—and in the young and game-worthy it is all—it makes perfect sense to allow that what is objective is not only true in its objectivity (reality exists as all, for all, for all time) but true in every clue it leaves subjectively—impartiality does exist, then, and its feeble or partial manifestation is no proof against it. Indeed, the partial and the feeble belong to subjectivity, which, in our despair, or our ignorance, takes on an exaggerated importance.  When, instead of being wary of the partial, we celebrate it, we fall prey to that subjective state which thrives on intoxication, ignorance, hostility, and fear.  Protecting ourselves, we ignore a great deal—this is natural, but we mustn’t let our protection become an ignorant prison.

The partisan position, a kind of subjective shortcut to a certain kind of objectivity, is a social phenomenon, an alliance based mostly on feelings and arbitrary ties; it defies the impartial and the objective, and yet seeks to join with others, that it might gain an advantage either for itself or its group, a group symbolic of itself, and so finally, subjective.  If one identifies with the oppressed, as far as that identity goes, one is oppressed—for otherwise the identity were impossible—so all partisanship is selfish, no matter how unselfish the cause itself might be.

The subjective, then, is simply what we travel through to reach objective truth; the subjective is the navigating vessel—to revel in the subjective is to lose our way.  The subjective, in fact, is an illusion, it really just being partial truth, which we mistake for ourselves.  True, we are partial.  The subjective is our condition—but not ourselves.  The soul of each one of us is that which travels through the condition of partiality, but is not that partiality itself, but rather the whole to which we—in our present, subjective state—aspire.

But why should we “aspire” to the “whole?”  Isn’t this just a bunch of absolutist poppycock?  What’s wrong with reveling in the subjective?  Isn’t this finally more honest?  More pleasurable?

The “whole” refers to what is outside the prison, to the wider view, to whatever leads to greater impartiality and selflessness.  The subjective is merely the impediment to the wider vision; the subjective has no existence in terms of ourselves. To “revel” in subjectivity is merely akin to intoxication, that pleasure which comes from dehydrating brain cells, closing down the senses, a defensive and temporary posture against worldly pain.

Those who believe the subjective is real are those who believe in those nooks and crannies to which the confused soul may find respite and escape: hiding places, dreams, addictions, clandestine movements, pedantic obscurity, quirks and quibbles, cult obedience, excessive behavior, insanity, obsessions, the fiendish or the forbidden.

The direction of science and art since Descartes has been towards faith in subjectivity (the person of sense) and away from objectivity (universal law).

Reality, however, is the final arbitrator.  To examine the partial clues of the greater whole is useful, and the modern method is yet in service to the impartial, the objective, and the universal, just as to embrace the absolute, the universal, and the objective with both arms is to hold what falls apart, what dissolves, putting the lover in despair, who boldly searches for love—love which contains the secrets of love—forever.

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WHY ART IS CONSERVATIVE

We should never confuse artistic place with artistic spirit, nor either one of these with artistic truth.

Just as the Jews and the early Christians measured everything against Rome, capital of Empire, so in our time, London, Paris or New York has served to validate the artist.

Either the village artist came to learn in Paris, or Paris came to exploit the village artist. Replace ‘village’ with ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘conservative,’ today, and still the final arbitrator is the faceless and inscrutable committee of the avant-garde, sitting with its tentacles in the middle of a great city.

Great artist validated by great city is one of those truths supremely obvious to the extent that the even more obvious meaning is missed.  In Ellen Williams’ Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance, look at how one great city draws the “bohemian artist” away from another great city: it is ever and always, with a certain scholarly mind, all about place:

Floyd Dell, the leader and as it were founder of the new artistic bohemia, brushed aside Harriet Monroe’s requests for poetry and prose, and had to defend himself against the charge of being “standoffish” not long before his departure for New York to join the staff of the Masses.

Dell’s departure reminds one that the turnover within the local bohemia was high. Perhaps 1912 was a significant moment in a progressive centralization of American society. Edgar Lee Masters, who had come up to Chicago in the generation before from a small Illinois town, had joined the local bar, married a local girl, and settled down to family life. But the young people with artistic aspirations who came to Chicago in 1912 from other, smaller middle-western towns departed in a few years for New York, or after the war, for Europe. Thus Dell left for New York late in 1913; Margaret Anderson moved the Little Review to New York late in 1916, after some two years’ publication in Chicago; and Sherwood Anderson was spending more time in New York than in Chicago by 1918. This “upward” mobility of the leadership would tend to diminish the influence and weaken the identity of the local bohemia.

Several factors, then, kept Poetry from being the voice of the new generation in Chicago, whatever general stimulation it got from them or gave them. Ezra Pound, operating by letter all the way from London, remained the principal avant-garde stimulus in its editorial counsels.

Just an aside: Margaret Anderson’s Little Review was the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses—the obscenity charge which put Joyce on the map was brought by the U.S. Post Office after Pound inserted excerpts of Ulysses into Margaret Anderson’s magazine.  Pound’s editorial digs were in London, and from there, Pound, the creepy, egotistical, gadfly, mediocrity, with the help of two women, Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe, shaped not only 20th century poetry, but 20th century fiction, as well.  If Harriet Monroe had not happened to visit a shop owned by publisher Elkin Matthews in London and found a couple of Pound’s books just published by Matthews, in her trip around the world in 1910, the world might be a different place.  Bohemian creds (which Pound had) have long been vital, even though the poetry produced might be unreadable today, because revolutionary ideals go a long way to inspire a certain type of ambitious fraud—when ‘conservative’ and ‘bourgeois’ are enemies to blanket, blank-check, bohemian thrills.

A funny truth about Harriet Monroe, poet, founder and editor of Poetry, is not that she covered, as a journalist, in 1913, the Armory Show of Modern Art in New York, or that she came up with a great business plan for her little magazine, or that she adored Shelley, or that she had many reservations about the avant-garde poetry she published, or, that she allowed herself to be deluded into thinking the great con-man Ezra Pound was a poetic genius; no, it was this: Harriet Monroe’s brother-in-law invented the skyscraper.  She even published a memoir on him—John Wellborn Root.

This is just the sort of fact that eludes the fact-finder: the fact of place, the fact of the important city, the fact of Monroe’s commercial connections are layers such that less obvious facts cover the more obvious ones. Bohemians are always the last ones to get the most obvious facts—that Pound was a con-artist, for instance.  The importance of place is one of those facts that keep most avant-garde critics busy in their obscurantist mission: do everything to distract the audience from the show-off, tasteless, inferiority of the art itself.  Every time we read of the adventures of some self-important, “rule-breaking” avant-garde cabal, we always notice how the geographical locale, whether we are in the actual city, or outside the actual city, or on the west coast, or on the east coast, or the Left Bank, is the most crucial thing.

The way a thing is advertised is not the thing, but the advertisement, with enough repetition, often becomes the thing, while the latter (the thing itself) practically disappears.  This is pretty much how avant-garde art works.

How ridiculous to think that it matters whether a poet is working in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere.  Or riding a motorcycle.  Or walking. Travel literature is a legitimate genre, we suppose, but why do so many confuse it with aesthetics?  Wearily, we are forced to learn of Harriet Monroe and Chicago, due to factual curiosity about Poetry magazine—and when was factual curiosity a criterion for art?  Only when art is made for sinking.

This is not to say that what an author does in body as well as spirit is not important—of course, occasionally, it is—we object to superficial and semi-obvious facts covering up the truth.

We always laugh, for instance, when critics list poets from a certain era—let’s say the 1890s—and since we haven’t heard of them, or read them, we’re all happy to assume that every last one of their works is awful, (as we continue to not read them) in comparison to Ezra Pound, the “revolutionary,” writing in 1910, and which we assume that many, if not most of his poems are exciting and new, not to mention “revolutionary.”  Or Pound’s friend, William Carlos Williams, “revolutionary,” too!

As long as we buy into the great “radical” art steam-rolling “conservative” art scheme, the great scholarly avant-garde ship keeps sailing along with Harriet Monroe, captain and Ezra Pound, first mate.

As soon as Rome became Christian, Christianity became conservative; when Paris recognized impressionism, impressionism became bourgeois; when New York bought abstract art, it sold for millions.

The skyscraper, the fact of the modern city, stands for many things, and it drives both commercial and democratic concerns.  The fact of the skyscraper is both radical and conservative, and in its balance, represents our age, which is both conservative and radical—which distinguishes all complex, civilized ages.

The skyscraper is democratic and commercial in its practical side of things; thus with the skyscraper the radical and the conservative are forever fused.

The trump card of the 20th century avant-garde was in getting itself called “modern” or “modernist.”  The name, “modern” became its chief selling point. This is another one of those obvious truths so obvious we hardly notice its real impact.  Victorian buildings are frilly; but the modern skyscraper (and modern art) is not.

As simplistic as this is, it is the stuff of artistic rivalry and ambition—the battle for the soul and the money of everything; this kind of artistic argument is nearly everything.

One could write a 17 volume treatise on verse, and all in vain, if it were shown, or more importantly, believed, that verse, was frilly.  Game over.  William Carlos Williams wins.

Take these four terms: conservative, radical, banker, poet.  They might very well define art for all time, believing, as we do, that the poet is always radical, the banker always conservative.  Belief in this formula has defined our age—but even as we recognize the force of the formula, we should recognize its falsity on a deeper level.

The poet becomes radical only when the banker fronting the poet is radical; in truth, art, in its primary existence, is conservative.

Socrates, the (lone) radical philosopher, pitted himself against Homer, the (popular) conservative poet; it was (O irony!) the triumph of Plato as an artist which made art into a radical vocation.  Shelley, the radical poet, faded away into Victorianism, or conservative poetry; Modernism rejected Victorianism so as to get back to Shelley—but something went terribly wrong along the way: the radical was kept, but everything else was rejected, including popular taste.  There is the lonely genius who, for the good of mankind, ought to get a hearing, and then there is the mediocrity—lonely because obscure.  These two should never be confused, but sometimes they are, especially if the latter is a clever s.o.b. who does a neat little dance in front of a skyscraper.

Art is conservative because of the phrase just used in the above paragraph: “Popular Taste.”  Homer was popular, but was censored by Plato on the matter of “taste.”  Since then, artistic success (favored by critic and mass audience alike) demands popular include popular taste.  The idea is actually democratic—taste refers to conditions which favor great masses of people respecting one another and treating each other well.  Mass appeal is required, but with something more: an unspoken sense of fitness and beauty, which, if we remember, Socrates accused Homer of violating, since Homer’s gods, superior beings, often acted from whim and cruelty.

One might think that radical art—and for many, these two words, radical and art, go hand in hand—is that which precisely offends popular taste.  But this is to put too much faith in shock, and not enough in art.  The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts  is currently running an exhibit called “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly, as we found ourselves more convinced that fashion is art, and we received, in addition, a happy insight: the avant-garde dress fashion was able to please us for the very reason that we are familiar with 1) the human body and 2) a dress.  It is precisely from these foundations of universal knowledge so vital to all fashion that the “new” (truly bizarre and truly avant-garde) was able—not always, but sometimes—to please us.

If we accept that fashion is art, and for this art to work, note how the human body and the dress comprise a conventionality and a tradition that is eternal, we get a glimpse into the absolute conservative nature of artwork that calls itself avant-garde.

The truth, that even in bouts of experimentation, art is a highly conservative medium, may be unsettling to some, but we realize those it might unsettle are immune to that sort of thing, anyway.  For all artists, in all mediums, it is important that the standard—whatever it happens to be—is established in the popular mind.  The eternal nature of this standard is not something we can take lightly; if a poet, for instance, writes poetry in which some in medias res, avant-garde experiment is the starting-point, the chance of it having mass appeal is nil; the poet must always return to the true starting-point of what the poem, as defined by the popular taste, happens to be.

HER FACE HAS THE BEAUTY OF MUSIC

Unable to say what pleasure of this kind is,
I thought of love deprived of sound;
If love’s moan were not allowed, strange the bliss
To silent performance strangely bound,
Love’s fate, to have no sound at all:
All sighs, songs, gasps, pleadings, taken away—
Not that love would seem a dumb show of hate,
Or love itself die as night dies in day,
For eyes and smiles and stroking hands
Can always picture love love understands—
But still it would be strange to have no sound
When love lives in her face—and all around.
But if her face is musically unique,
It should be easy for my poetry to speak.

THE BEST OF THE BEST OF 2013

You know these Best Poetry Books of 2013 Lists?

Not one has induced us to buy or read the books.

A description like this, for instance, is not going to make us the least interested in a book of poems; it just isn’t:

Reading Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion is like entering a medieval painting, a miniature world populated by strange and gorgeous figures. Her labyrinthine syntax and archaic diction cast spells that recall the infinite possibility and wonder of the sentence.

This is all we get: no quotations, just blurb-y rhetoric advertising “labyrinthine syntax” and “infinite possibility.” This is the poetic equivalent of used car salesmanship—why can’t people see that?

A minority of the Best of 2013 notices do quote the poetry, briefly, and while we appreciate the gesture, the quotations don’t help, either.

Why? Because taken out of context, contemporary poetry, in brief excerpts, might present an arresting image or phrase, but cool phrases can be found in magnets on someone’s fridge—we need more than a cool phrase. If we don’t see the immediately apparent skill of the formalist, or the whole poem’s arc, a slice of nifty rhetoric is not going to cut it.

Bill Knott, as usual, gets it. On Facebook recently, the poet confessed he couldn’t afford to buy all these books in order to make a true list of his favorites, but he had a list of ten poems he read on-line in 2013 which struck his fancy.

We had to do the work and search the poems on-line, and a few we couldn’t find, but the hunt was worth it—we found some good poets we hadn’t known existed; Bill’s judgement is sound and he put us on the right paths—no sales pitches, no blurbs; we actually felt a warm glow.

There has to be a better way to sell poetry, and we think Bill has the right idea: focus on poems—not award winning poets and their award winning books.

When the popular music business was a little less corporate, you would hear a song on the radio and say to yourself, ‘What a great song! Who is that?’

Never in a million years would you buy an album because someone told you it was “labyrinthine.” You’d scrape together your last pennies for a song you heard on the radio.

Now we have the Internet and we can hear songs on the radio ( we can discover poems by unknowns).  You love a poem and then maybe you love the poet and buy their book. A buzz is generated by one successful poem.

Instead we drown in a sea of small press blurbs or tiny positive reviews from college interns. Too much cheery is very, very dreary. There’s no chance for real conversation, real discrimination, real excitement. It’s a sci-fi nightmare: The Blurb.

The anthology exists for just this purpose: find good poems for us because we don’t have time to find them ourselves—put them in front of a wider audience to allow poems—rather than puffed reputations—to scale Parnassus.

Scarriet, from now on, will do its part by starting a new feature inspired by Knott’s humble top ten poem list—we will feature poems that we come across in our travels and reprint them based on their excellence alone.  We already feature new poems from our editors, and feel these warrant more attention; but we must concede there is excellence all around us that needs our help.

Here are the ten poets mentioned by Knott:

Rope by Rose Kelleher

An hour is not a house by Jane Hirshfield

Installation by Helen Humphreys

Government Spending by Patricia Lockwood

Crane by David Yezzi

Elegy for a Small Town Psychic by Morris Creech

A Novel by Sampson Starkweather

The Butcher’s Apprentice 1911-14 Adam Kirsch

At the Sewanee Writers Conference I Go Looking for Allen Tate’s Grave by Christopher Bullard

Fancy by Jehanne Dubrow

Tell us what you find, and if you like what you find. And Merry Christmas.

I HAVE NOTHING BUT THE NEED FOR MONEY

The homeless need to give me money.
I have a mortgage and need it more.
The banks are depending on me to get rich.
Should we care about the flea that makes the vagabond itch?
Life goes upward and onward forever, sad to say.
Not that I’m going to get into a conversation with a bum
And make a pitch to them for cash as they give me a strange look.
We might become friends if we talked,
Though I hate that I-haven’t-bathed smell,
And I don’t have time for conversation.  I’m on a lunch break
And there’s not one good decent lunch place around here
Except for the Indian restaurant I had my heart set on,
And they’re closed for improvements.
Slyly borrowing money to get more. We get it. We have nothing
But the need for money.  Even love
Is a strategy to get more money—you want something
You can use to change something into something else.
When we walk into a restaurant money is everywhere.
Even when we just walk along, the meter is running.
We need money even to experience nonchalant nature. Do you think
There’s anything for free?  Do you?  Money is always on the brain.
Quickly pull some out and make someone happy.
Or save it.  You know money will eventually do it for you.
No one is going to just come up and buy you.  But if they
Wanted you, wouldn’t that be flattering?  I love you
And that means I would be willing to pay for you.  The
Exchange—of which money is the light when want rubs against want;
All this money and rubbing and money and rubbing,
Exchange, exchange.  Trade ancient for modern
In every university’s office and banker’s stall.
I want the light right now.  I want the money.
The money that makes money is the best money.
The one with more money always needs it more than you.

A NOEL COWARD POEM PUBLISHED FOR THE FIRST TIME

By way of introduction we would like to simply point out the loneliness of this poem, how it captures the whole ‘sophisticated, outsider’ culture of modern life from Pound to Eliot to Auden to Ashbery.  Noel Coward, welcome to the pantheon of Modern Poets.  In this holiday season, when people without family feel lonely, this poem by Noel Coward is dedicated to them.

Should They Wish To Lay Bare Their Lives In Their Language

Sitting outside this cafe in the afternoon sunshine
His mind felt pleasantly alert.
It had certainly been a good idea, this little continental jaunt;
Here he could sit, for hours if need be, just watching and listening.
Later, of course, in the bar of the hotel or in the lounge after dinner,
He would get into conversation with various people and draw them
Out subtly to talk about themselves, to tell him their stories.
His knowledge of French being only adequate, he hoped that
Should they wish to lay bare their lives in their language,
That they would not speak too rapidly.
Of German he knew not a word,
So whatever he gathered would have to be in English,
Slow French, or by signs.

At this moment in his reflections his attention was caught
By the seedy-looking man whom he had noticed before
Buying a ticket for a boat. Something in the way he was standing,
Or rather leaning against the railing, struck a familiar chord in his mind.
He reminded him of somebody, that’s what it was, but who?
He scrutinized him carefully,  the grey suit, the umbrella,
The straggling moustache, the air of depressed resignation.
Then he remembered—he was exactly like a commoner,
Foreign edition of Uncle Philip.
Aubrey sighed with relief at having identified him.

There is nothing so annoying as being tantalized by a resemblance.

Uncle Phillip! It might make quite an interesting little story
If Uncle Phillip, after all those years of marriage,
Suddenly left Aunt Freda and came here to live
In some awful little pension with a French prostitute.
Or perhaps not live with her, just meet her every afternoon here at the pier.
His eyes would light up when she stepped off the boat
(She worked in a cafe in a town on the other side of the lake and only had a few hours off),
And they would walk away together under the chestnut trees,
He timidly  holding her arm.  Then they would go to some sordid bedroom
In the town somewhere and he, lying with her arms round him,
Would suddenly think of his life, those years at Exeter with Aunt Freda,
And laugh madly.

Aubrey looked a the Swiss Uncle Philip again; he was reading
A newspaper now very intently.  Perhaps, after all, he was a secret agent
As he had at first thought and was waiting for the boat to take him
Down the lake to the town on the other side of the frontier,
Where he would sit in a bar with two men in bowler hats
And talk very ostentatiously about his son who was ill in Zurich,
Which would give them to understand that Karl
Had received the papers satisfactorily in Amsterdam.

At this moment a bell rang loudly and a steamer sidled up to the pier.
The man folded his paper.
He waved his hand and was immediately joined by a large woman in green
And three children who had been sitting on a seat.
They all went on to the boat together, the children making a good deal of noise.

Aubrey sighed. Just another family.

(from the short story, “The Wooden Madonna,” by Noel Coward, 1939)

A STONE’S THROW FROM TINTERN ABBEY

Professor Robert Archambeau.  Don’t be fooled by that knowing look.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” concerns neither childhood, loss, nor Tintern Abbey. The mistaken readings of this famous poem are so acute and widespread that it’s safe to say if you know nothing of the poem, the professor who has studied it knows a great deal less. In the case of “Tintern Abbey,” ignorance may not be bliss, but it is less ignorant.

Professor Robert Archambeau recently published an essay on “Tintern Abbey” on his respected literary blog, Samizdat, but he’s apparently writing on a different poem—one that exists in his own mind.

Tintern Abbey is nowhere in “Tintern Abbey,” whose full title is “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour: July 13, 1798.”

The abbey is a several miles away: out of sight and out of mind—it is not mentioned in the poem at all. Wordsworth is a Nature poet. It makes sense.  But here is Professor Archambeau in his “Tintern Abbey” essay:

For Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey was a haunted place— shrouded with past associations…

Here, the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child

When he sees the abbey now, he experiences it screened through thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience.

Wordsworth had his experiences at the dramatic ruins of an ancient abbey…

It would have seemed undignified and odd to locate significant experiences in a place as trivial as an old beat-up building…

The differences between the old abbey and the Tintin books…

Professor Archambeau has the building on his brain, and we can see it there in his mind’s eye as he writes. The trouble is, Wordsworth’s experience of the building doesn’t exist—it is mentioned in the title of the poem as a general marker (“a few miles above”) and that’s the end of it.

How is this possible? How can a man who is paid to teach literature get a short and very famous poem entirely wrong? Poe wrote a “thousand scholars are wrong—because they are a thousand.” Herd mentality promotes error—and keeps it going—like nothing else.

Archambeau not only gets the abbey wrong in his essay, putting Wordsworth in the middle of the abbey’s “dramatic ruins,” with its “past associations,” “thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience,” but professor Archambeau gets the whole thrust of the poem wrong.

He writes:  “the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child.”

Wordsworth never visited the abbey, or the scene of the poem, as a child.

Nor is Wordsworth’s poem about, as Archambeau tell us, “how Wordsworth came to understand what he’d lost in terms of childhood perception.”

This is not the poem’s message.

Archambeau is not alone.

Billy Collins perpetuates the misreading of the 1798 poem in his 1998 poem, “Lines Composed Over ThreeThousand Miles from Tintern Abbey,” in which Collins wittily glosses the commonly accepted theme of the poem:

I was here a long time ago/and now I am here again…But the feeling is always the same/It was better the first time…as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood/and mills around in a field of weeds

Collins, like Archambeau, thinks “Tintern Abbey” concerns loss of childhood’s sensory thrill—an adult awareness, by the adult speaker of the poem, of the loss. As Collins puts it, simply:

I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then…Something is always missing—/Swans, a glint on the surface of the lake

Archambeau says the same thing, slightly more elaborately, comparing Wordsworth’s “loss” to his own, as he, Archambeau, now reads “Tintin” as a grownup quickly for plot, though as a child he dreamed over intriguing details of the comic in a glowing, mystical, one-with-the-universe, ocean-of-feeling, sublime.

Collins’ poem is charming, Archambeau’s essay, due to its length, less so.

But the point is Collins, Archambeau, and experts galore continue to grossly misread the most famous poem in the canon.

Wordsworth was a Nature poet, and more, he was an environmentalist. And even more, Wordsworth was part of the great intellectual tide still washing over us—the secular, we-are-part-of-nature, not-Christian-subduers-of-it, tide.

In this poem, W. is out to convince us that Nature civilizes us and inspires us as adults. Nature makes us kinder and more human; Nature, W. wants us to see, is a meditative force for social good—not simply a haunt for restless adolescents, a tree-climbing adventure for thoughtless youth. “Tintern Abbey” is not about childhood loss. “Tintern Abbey” is about adult gain,  due to Nature’s gifts. “Tintern Abbey” attempts to make Nature sublimely healthy, social, and respectable in the eyes of grownup readers—at that time, a still unorthodox view.

“1798” is in the title—Wordsworth was 27 when he wrote the poem. “Five years have past” is how the poem begins—Wordsworth’s sole previous visit to the banks of the Wye was when he was 23 (ending a phase of his life with French girlfriend and child).  Wordsworth is a 27 year old reflecting on his experience as a 23 year old—there are no childhood memories or impressions involved at all. Wordsworth’s childhood is referenced once, parenthetically, and dismissed: “(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days and their glad animal movements all gone by.)”

Nor is there any loss. Quite the contrary. Five years ago he was alone ; now with his sister, in the present, in the sublime occasion of the poem’s conclusion, W. gushes, not about how things are not as good now, but:

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her; tis her privilege, through all the years of this our life, to lead from joy to joy; for she can so inform the mind that is within us, so impress us with quietness and beauty and so feed with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men…shall e’re prevail against us…I, so long a worshiper of Nature, hither came, unwearied in that service; rather say with warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal of holier love.

Wordsworth, in the present, is “unwearied,” and feels “warmer love” and “deeper zeal.”

In addition, during the last five years, when he was away from the banks of the Wye, leading up to the present, the scene’s “forms of beauty” do this to him:

passing even into my purer mind with tranquil restoration feelings too of unremembered pleasure; such perhaps as may have had no trivial influence on that best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love…another gift, of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood in which the burden of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lighten’d—that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, until, the breath of the corporeal frame, and even the motion of our human blood, almost suspended, we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

This, the most powerful and sublime rhetoric of the poem, is reserved for how Wordsworth interacts with Nature now—not in youth or childhood.

Archambeau quotes one portion of the poem, the famous, “when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains” passage, in which W. makes some reference to how he has “changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first I came among these hills” (at 23, not as a child) and how “nature then…was all in all.”

But it is laughably wrong to think Wordsworth had previously been in some joyous youthful state of oneness with nature—for even in the passage Archambeau cites, W. says (of his former experience) he “bounded o’er mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, wherever nature led; more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.”

Flying from something you dread does not fit with misty, lost ideals of something sadly lost.

Immediately after the passage quoted by Archambeau, Wordsworth (now in the present) states “other gifts have followed, for such loss, I would believe, abundant recompense. For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth…”

Wordsworth presents his silent sister, Dorothy, as containing his past naive feelings—yet she’s only a year younger than Wordsworth.  Archambeau could have made something of this, in light of the male-dominated Tintin of his youth—but professor Archambeau was distracted, no doubt, by his bungled reading of “Tintern Abbey.”

THERE IS A RADICAL ERROR

There are two ways to respond to any impressive performance: “Bravo!” or “How did you do that?”  The second response will sometimes unnerve the performer, and of course it’s also the basis of education and pedagogy.

Edgar Poe, before Modernism, before the Writing Era, before Post-Modern Theory, asked in his “Philosophy of Composition,” why poets never recorded how they wrote a poem, and thought “authorial vanity” the chief reason. Poe goes on to illustrate, step-by-step, how he wrote, “The Raven.”  Poe, here, was destroying the Romantic notion that a poem was “organic,” that a poem had to be written because of some fountain of passionate expression in the poet’s soul, that a poem was a mystical, religious experience glimpsed through a burning window. Poe merely said we can put together a poem like a piece of machinery.  The New Critics and T.S. Eliot, with their anti-Romantic, perfunctory, ironic, modern, intelligence, learned it all from this one essay.  Much was made of (and the moderns mocked) Poe’s “Death of a beautiful woman” formula; but this was just Poe (as usual) having it both ways: machinery/tenderly human.  The point Poe was making was that the poem-machinery still needs a human theme to work like a machine: machines work for people, after all.   “The death of a beautiful woman” really wasn’t the point at all.  It was just an example.  His machine, as he tells his readers, was a “popular” poem machine; you need a popular theme for a popular poem to work.

The poet must be a critic of himself even more than the critic needs to be a critic of the poets, for the former produces great poetry; the latter only points out bad poetry.  We can crudely puff ourselves, too, investing in “Bravo!” over “How did you do that?”  This third option is by far the worst.

Poets should be critics, but should they be fiction writers, too?  Or historians, as well?  How much should the genres mingle?  Critically, how much can be surveyed at once?   Is there enough time to become expert in more than one field?

And is it philosophy that should bind all these up—criticism, poetry, fiction, and history?

Any poet will give short, competent answers to these questions in interviews, and every intellectual revels in a certain number of disciplines, but philosophically we’re winging it.  No one really knows very much, beyond a suave, surface nominalism capable of fooling people for an afternoon in front of a classroom.  In our hearts we know we are frauds.  Inspiration may visit.  But not for very long.

The following is merely a good place for this discussion to start because it manages to cover it all: poetry, fiction, history, and criticism.  It is from Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.”

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

The analysis and criticism of literary fiction invariably involves talk of three things: “character,” “point-of-view,” and some “essay topic theme” by which the work is generally characterized and marketed: Man v. Nature, Boomer Romance Comedy, or topical news interest such as immigration, gun control, health control, cyber-bullying.

These things, however: character, p.o.v., and theme, though commonly discussed, are crude markers.  A new vocabulary for discussing fiction is necessary.

The one thing we all want is to know and reflect the truth—if such a thing exists, and let’s assume, for the moment that it does.  So poems, stories, criticism of those poems and stories, history, philosophy should express—in their various ways—truth.  Truth, for the reader of fiction, might be truth of character, a small insight into life, a slice of political truth—it doesn’t have to be truth with a capital “T,” just so we know what we are generally aiming for, here.

Edgar Poe makes the radical assertion that he prefers writing a story without a “thesis” from “history,” or “one suggested by an incident of the day.”  Then he goes on to say that he will select an original and vivid “impression” to affect the “susceptible” reader, using “incident” and “tone” and looking “within” to find the right “combination” of such.

We can hear the howls of protest from those looking for “truth.”  Mr. Poe, by walling himself off from history and life, and starting with the impressionable reader, seems determined to get as far away from the truth as possible, to say nothing of “looking within” for “combinations.”

Poe, are you mad?   Yes, mad like a fox.

Here’s how we imagine Poe would respond: Why insult history, and worse, Truth herself, by saying fiction is true? Why make fiction into a kind of half-history/history lite, incident-of-the-day-illustration, or an essay chock full of half-truths that yet satisfies a blowhard’s opinionated animus in a certain literature-approved direction? A reader’s susceptibility is simply the coin of fiction; why pretend otherwise? If the bad routinely preys on this susceptibility, why not genius, too? As for the ‘walling off’ and ‘looking within,’ charge: removing fiction from history’s realm—where history is merely turned into half-truth by the untrustworthy—we free up fiction to be more itself: combinations of tone and incident fashioned within by the only one worthy to fashion, in a novel manner, these combinations: the author.

“Incident” is just the right word, too, as bland as it might sound to modern ears.  “Incident” refers to both character and plot, neither of which can exist without the other.  We hear lovers of literary fiction go on about “character,” as if mere “plot” belonged to the cruder arcs of genre fiction, “character” distinguishing high-brow productions from their populist kin.  We recall Poe scolding a critic, who, in speaking of Hamlet, the character, wrote of Hamlet as if he were a real person who walked among us, and not simply the coinage of Shakespeare’s brain.  As the religiously superstitious over-anthropomorphize, so the critic of literary fiction inevitably mistakes fictional characters for real persons—they are not.  “Character” is merely a piece of machinery belonging to the fiction, belonging to the “incidents,” and is no more genuine than a plot device—for each part of the machine cannot exist without the other; the “combination” of the “incidents” is all—and the “character” merely a piece existing for those “incidents” and their “tone,” a tone which belongs solely to the author, and if we think the tone has anything to do with “character,” we err in the manner just alluded to in the Hamlet example.

When Poe, the author, constructs a story, obviously “the real” seeps in, but to acknowledge this is only to recognize what the more history-based author makes paramount, anyway.  The issue here is “Who is in charge?”  The author, or the historical incident Both have integrity, and this is precisely why we don’t want to mix them up.

Much is made of “point of view,” also.  But “incident” can cover this, as well.  The author needs to best determine whether first or third person will work better for the nature of the story being told.  Again, this has nothing to with “character,” for instance, or the sorts of topical or historical truths the reader of literary fiction is often on the hunt for: it still boils down to Poe’s simple formula: “combinations” of “incidents” and “tone.”

Poetry is beholden even more rigorously to the same laws.  If one writes a poem about one’s grandmother dying of cancer, the poem will be obliterated by the grandmother, and the cancer.

There are “incidents of the day,” there are historical themes, of which no poem could be the register—and still be a poem.  John Updike, the distinguished fiction writer who dabbled in poetry, published a poem about the poignant death of a family puppy—with tears running down our cheeks we deny not the pup, but the poem.  If gossip-as-art lives, true art dies—this would be the more hysterical type of warning we might give.

The fiction writer might think himself free of the principles set down by the master, Poe, who was determined that the short story be like the poem in its artistic and imaginative rigor.  But these are questions for the critic and the philosopher, if not for the magazine or newspaper reviewer.

The protest will surely sound something like this:  I wrote this story because my puppy died.  How dare you ask me how it was done!

THERE WAS A CHASTE KISS

The Annunciation - Robert Campin

There was a chaste kiss
That played on our lips
For a moment or two—
To have that kiss
What would a soul that loves those lips not do?

A familiar name
Stayed on our lips
For a moment or two—
To swim in that name
What would a name that loves that name not do?

What was long ago in the heart,
By this life, and this art,
Was a rhyme, a simple one,
That knew whom I had spoken to
When God—who hides from all—was you.

AND SO I WENT WITH HER

And so I went with her
Into the leaves that were shining,
Into the leaves,
I went with her gaily,
We held hands,
And kissed occasionally.

Better leave the breathing
To one who has the will
To smother you in sighs,
Will leave off breathing
To save the breath for sighs,
Sweet and slowly sighing
For love and breath and eyes.

Can you bring your memory
Into the smell of now?
Can you teach me how?
I want to be new
Here in this place with you—
Kissing more than once in a while.

ALL I GO THROUGH—new scarriet poem

Sun NASA 1 June 008

Perfection is the living presence
Living without sense or essence
Of symbol. Living in present tense,
Control of wavering coincidence
Is not done with metaphor’s lie;
God as lamb is a sham, but not you,
You don’t have to die.

Fate is not straight; love’s tune
Curls like smoke that blurs the moon;
Words are dead, are dead! But love will love you soon.
What is poetry’s body? You’ll find it in June,
In a breath of dust, particles of trust
Once a whole word; but now all around
The great June sun scatters into sound.

All I go through,
I go through for you.

The sly theorist,
Who slyly says we don’t exist,
The cold moon, by the cold sun coldly kissed,
Seminars unknowing, all the meetings I should have missed,
But went to, hoping by a hug to be hugged or kissed,
When all it was, was a blinding mist,
Leaked from symposiums where I learned the gist:
The point, the fact, does not exist.

PART TWO — UNDERSTANDING POETRY, IF YOU DARE

Francisco_de_Goya_-_Still_Life_with_Golden_Bream

In Part I,  we did a close reading of the influential poetry textbook Understanding Poetry’s introductory chapter.

We asserted that Understanding Poetry’s editors, New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, claim poetry for everything it isn’t and fail to say what poetry is.

The truism that poetry is ‘how a thing is said,’ rather than ‘the thing said,’ should close the deal for many—except for the confusion attending ‘how the how precisely determines ‘what is said.’

The Modernist editors of Understanding Poetry make certain learned concessions to Old Tradition as they pedantically include gems of Pope and Keats, crowded out by the lesser works of Pound and Williams and other Modernist poems, but their corrupting mission can be best seen in the way they make the thing said obliterate the how. When the ‘what’ rolls over the ‘how,’ we no longer have poetry.

Examples abound, and we will look at four of them:

1) The editors provide a chapter called “The Breakup of Civilization” in which, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ugly and pedantic verse is held up as a model, a correct model simply because  “the breakup of civilization” is its own self-justifying rationale; Pound, however, is a part of the breakup of civilization, and furthers it.

2) The editors make “drama” (aided by Shakespearean poetry gleaned from his plays, old ballads of murder and love’s betrayal, a Frost poem of the death of a child by accident) the centerpiece of poetry, so that a kind of Jerry Springer reality becomes the default interest in poetic fiction, this curiosity-driven trope finally defining the thrust of poetry’s  existence.

3) The authors are anxious to convey their opinion that poetry, as they put it, “inheres” in the “stuff of reality.”

Understanding Poetry systematically denies poetry its ideal quality.

The real merit of the poetic is that it can exist above and beyond reality as no other quality or thing can: morality, knowledge of right and wrong, is often posited as the supreme guide to human behavior—but there is no one who wouldn’t do something if it were guaranteed  that whatever they wanted to do would go unnoticed and unknown—‘not getting caught’ will always be a consideration in the moral universe, even as we ideally view morality in everyone as a virtue: morality, for good or ill, inheres within reality—morality, even as a good, is still a practical matter. Good should have good consequences, but all that is behaviorally good is trapped in reality’s accidents and practical concerns. So even as we think of morality as an ideal virtue, we know, sadly, it is trapped—we as moral beings are trapped—in reality. Morality cannot exist outside of reality—we can only be moral (or not) within reality.

Poetry, however, can exist above and beyond reality, since poetry, unlike our behavior, is not real.  Poetry, unlike morality, can have a truly ideal and universally-based existence outside of reality.  Why, then, even in the name of reality, would we want to reject or mitigate poetry’s ideal faculty?

Poetry can potentially do much in its position outside and above reality—it can be a guiding star; it can participate in ethereal beauty that sweetly lifts us up as moral beings—who are trapped in earthly concerns. Poetry, which escapes reality’s practicality, is the only thing, that, morally, can be besides the point and the point, doing good precisely because it lives only in the ideal.

4) The editors destroy a sensible approach to metrics by making a distinction which does not exist—between what they call “accentual-syllabic verse” and “accentual meter.” They write in their “Metrics” chapter:

In accentual verse, the matter of consequence is the number of stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables may vary greatly and their number plays no part in a definition of meter.

There is no such thing as meter in which the “unstressed syllables…play no part in a definition of the meter.”

If we enunciate every syllable, then every syllable will participate in the total effect, whether those syllables are long or short, stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented.

There is simply no need to distinguish between “accentual-syllabic” verse and “accentual” verse, as the authors do, and the fact that the authors—and many subsequent critics—do so, reveals a complete ignorance of the most important metrical principle: the universal law of duration of sound, the axiom of time, which applies to all music and all verse, whether one happens to be leaning one’s ear towards a metronome, or not.

In a section of their “Metrics” chapter called “The Music of Verse,” they write:

Musicality of verse does, in itself, give a pleasure, but it is a fundamental error to hold that this particular kind of pleasure (which in itself, is minimal) is the end of poetry. Poetry is not music. It involves a special use of language, and insofar as musicality is one of the potentials of language it may be involved in poetry. The basic fact is, however, that language has a primary function quite distinct from musicality, and musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as, directly, or indirectly, it is related to, or, better still, fused with, the primary function of language. By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions, and in poetry by means of a special refinement of language, we may fuse the musicality with the other dimensions of meaning.  As Alexander Pope puts it in “An Essay on Criticism:”

Tis not enough no harshness gives offense
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.

It is not enough, in fact, to say that musicality is not the end of poetry. Some very powerful poetry, we know, is quite unmusical and may even seem quite difficult or, to some readers, ugly.

The authors protest too much. When they say “musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as…it is fused with the primary function of language…” they simply utter a tautology: poetry “becomes important” when it fuses with the important.  Alexander Pope is not saying the “musical” has nothing to do with this importance—only the authors are.

Poetry, according, to Pope, should be musical (no harshness gives offense) as it conjoins with sense.  It is only Brooks/Warren who try to cut music out entirely (“it may be involved”) and claim that “powerful poetry” can be “unmusical” and “ugly.”  The authors’ error can be seen when they claim: “By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions…”   Music is the “embodying” function of poetry, without which it would not be poetry (sound echoing sense).  “Events, ideas, and emotions” exist abstractly, signifyingly in the poetry, not as something embodied.  This may seem a quibble, but it is crucial—if we don’t know the body of something, how can we say we  know it?  Symbols are abstract.  They do not embody anything.

If I were to go on stage and begin shouting, the only thing I would be “embodying” would be the sounds coming from my mouth; if my shouts were converted to something musical, only then would I be “embodying” poetry. My meaning is not without importance, but neither should the meaning of my words be expected to ” embody” anything, or cancel out, in any way, the musical, which is still the primary embodiment ; nor should my emotional expression be considered any part of the poetic, since when I was merely shouting I may have been displaying plenty of emotion. And if I’m shouting, “The theater’s on fire! Get out of here!” my meaning is indeed significant, but it is not poetic, and not embodied—because a non-English speaker would have no idea what I was talking about.

The authors cherry pick attributes pertaining to the “dramatic:” the “emotional,” the “real,” etc. and apply them to poetry through the back door—even quoting Pope, contra his meaning, in the process.  This is the sly agenda of the Modernist work, Understanding Poetry.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

In the United States in 1949, every other college student had his college education paid for by the GI Bill.  Government sponsored college loans didn’t happen until 1958 (Sputnik).  During the unprecedented growth of American college education in the middle of the 20th century, one poetry textbook was beamed into the brains of two generations of college professors, teachers and students—Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren; Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976.

To know this textbook is to know how you, dear reader—and every living respected poet and critic—thinks about poetry.

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

Understanding Poetry was written by two New Critics; what was known as the New Criticism was not just an ideology, but an influential clique of Southern men with an in; New Criticism was the donnish, government-connected, academic arm of Modernism—the 20th century’s one real school of poetry, which replaced Classical and Romantic Verse with something more free, with something entirely different.

The public’s rejection of Modernism can be summed up simply:  “A very large part of human conduct and human life is loathsome, disgusting, and grotesque.  Poetry has traditionally been an antidote to this.  Poetry discovers the beauty and dignity of human life, of human expression.  Poetry, in the name of modern all-inclusiveness, however, revels in the discordant, the ugly, and the disgusting, and this is…creepy.   We don’t like it.”

We are familiar with the world of objection this elicits from the Modernist: “all-inclusiveness” is truthful; you are backwards to censure the truth.

The “truth,” however, is that there are many avenues to the “truth,” and no profession or craft is defined by the whole truth, but rather by the particular way it approaches the truth; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to define that particular craft or profession.  And this is the truth.

Understanding Poetry, influential Modernist document that it is, comes down strongly on one side of the argument outlined above: for all-inclusiveness.

Here is how poetry is clumsily and pessimistically introduced to the student in the first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, “Poetry As a Way of Saying.” The strategy seems to be: let’s concede to all the insensitive lugs why poetry may indeed suck—this “strategy” turns out, in reality, to be the soul of the book itself.

Poetry is a kind of “saying.” It is, however, a kind that many people, until they become well acquainted with it, feel is rather peculiar and even useless. They feel this way for two reasons: the “way of the saying” and the “nature of the said.” As for the “way of the saying,” the strongly marked rhythms, the frequent appearance of rhyme, and the figurative language may seem odd and distracting; and as for the “nature of the said,” it generally contains neither a good, suspenseful story nor obviously useful information. Poetry, in short, may seem both unnatural and irrelevant.

Think of all the glorious ways the editors could have led off.  Instead, we get this utter sheepishness. Of all the definitions of poetry, this is perhaps the dullest we have ever heard: Poetry is a kind of “saying.” 

In their defense, we are sure, that as text book authors, they were attempting the plainest and least adorned definition possible so as not to scare away the plain-speaking person who has no natural inclination to poetry. The danger of this position, however, is that one ends up arguing, and rallying to, the devil’s case: poetry is “useless,” especially if one is not “well acquainted” with it.  Attempting to “be democratic,” the elitist is just more elitist in the end—and this, in a nutshell, is what happened with Modernist poetry and its mass readership, as the art of poetry got lost in the shuffle: elitism was sniffed out, wearing its democratic dress.  The masses left.

The editors attempt an optimistic recovery in the second paragraph, but it’s too little, too late: “Yet poetry…has survived, in one form or another…we may…consider…it does spring from deep human impulses and does fulfill human needs.”

And in the first actual description of poetry, the editors say poetry is primarily “strongly marked by rhythm.”  Those “strongly marked rhythms” which “may seem odd and distracting” from paragraph one?  Yes, those rhythms.

But if the editors of Understanding Poetry are content to play down poetry and weakly define it, the reason is clear: poetry resists definition because to the Modernist critic, poetry, in its modern guise, is an all-inclusive sort of everything, which simultaneously rejects and converts itself into whatever it is, from the old poetry it is leaving behind.

Those “marked rhythms” that identify poetry?  According to our text book’s introduction, these include “seasons…moon…tides…migration of birds…” and those of the “human body…” a “locus of rhythms,” including “hunger and satiety.”  Rhythm includes “all life…all activity” and is “deeply involved in…emotion…”

We are reminded that “rhythm is a natural and not an artificial aspect of emotion…”

The human is at the center of their definition: in the second paragraph we got “human impulses” and “human needs” and then the human body as a “locus of rhythms” and finally, “emotion,” with the caveat that poetry’s “rhythm,” to properly express emotion must be “natural” and not “artificial.”

The real, natural human appears to be what they are after, in their long reach towards poetry.

Having made much of “rhythm,” they make a weak nod to “rhyme” as a “verbal structure” and memory aid, but they quickly re-visit their thesis: “man is a form-making animal.”

Finally, they get language and its origin in their sights.  The editors agree with Emerson (and quote Owen Barfield) in support of the notion that language is “metaphoric” and they say that “slang” is “healthy” for this reason: “Slang is simply the bastard brother of poetry.”

Understanding Poetry invests a great deal in metaphor: “metaphor represents not only the “way of saying” but also the “said.”  Metaphor might be said to be a fancy way of saying something indirectly, of deferring meaning, of creating a kind of fake synthesis, whipping up a comparative “significance” where none exists.  If I say “X is a lot like Y,” it really doesn’t matter whether X and Y resemble each other, or not.  I will find some similarity, and this will make me cleverer, or even a better poet, than you, even though no one is closer to knowing anything about “X” or “Y.”  The labor used in comparing two objects might be better used elsewhere. Comparing two things is usually not the method for knowing a thing.  We have neither the time or the space to conduct a philosophical inquiry into this subject here, but it might be enough to say that great minds have rejected metaphor, even in poetry, as all-important.

They look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Shakespeare compares himself rather elaborately to autumn.  But why, the editors ask, doesn’t he just say “I am getting old?”

Because, the editors, say, how he feels about “getting old” is also important.   Poetry, they say, is “attitudes and feelings…as they come specifically into experience…action and ideas.”

And then, by page 6 of their 16 page introduction, the editors finally reveal their hand: “poetry is concerned with the massiveness, the multidimensional quality of experience.”

Poetry is just whatever you, in natural, human terms, feel about anything, and the “verbal structure” of poetry is pretty much there to “frame” this “feeling” you have about whatever piece of the “massiveness” of “experience” triggers your feeling.

I could have just said, “I am getting old,” but in order to make you understand how “I feel” about getting old, I throw in some “yellow leaves.”

As the editors put it, “the realm of practical action and that of attitudes and feelings are not separated.”

When poetry is defined this way: as whatever we feel about whatever, we see, finally how “massive” this definition becomes, and this Modernist definition is, in fact, a definition of Modernist poetry, in its suicidal all-inclusiveness.  It sure as hell isn’t a definition of poetry as composed by the genius Shakespeare.  It is poetry reduced to the level of the lug.

The editors’ introduction briefly compares poetry to science, but reject the latter as that which is merely “precise” and “mathematical.”  Science gives us mere H2O, while poetry gives us “water” and thus “associations of drinking, bathing, boating…adventure on the high seas…” etc  Water’s metaphors do massive work.  Mathematics, which scientifically interprets nature, is told to take a hike.

The stake is driven into the heart of science by a quote from Walker Percy:

The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals, included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.

This is a stunning rebuke—by an influential text book by way of Walker Percy—of science and universal truth. Words, by definition, are universals: poetry, too, then, must live in “dead silence” to the individual reader.  This is interesting, but especially in terms of what the editors are trying to say, nonsense, nonetheless.  The “individual” is a word, which we understand only as much as it “resembles others.”  Walker Percy, and the editors of Understanding Poetry, are stuck in a paradox from which there is no escape.  Their rejection of science and a “scientific-technological society” here is nothing but a deeply crackpot protest, if we are to be honest about it.

After dismissing science, the authors keep after the importance of  subjective”feeling:”

At first glance, the field of feeling and attitudes may seem trivial when thought of in contrast to the great bustling practical business of the world or in contrast to the vast body of organized knowledge which science is and which allows man to master, to a certain degree, nature and his own fate.  The field of feeling and attitude may seem to be “merely personal” and “merely subjective,” and therefore of no general interest. But at second thought, we may realize that all the action and knowledge in the world can be valuable only as these things bring meaning to life—to our particular lives, especially.

…Poetry is concerned with the world as responded to sensorially, emotionally, and intellectually. But—and this fact constitutes another significant characteristic of poetry that cannot be overemphasized—this response always involves all three of these elements: a massive, total response—what we have called earlier the multidimensional quality of experience.

…Poetry enables us to know what it “feels like” to be alive in the world. What does it “feel like,” for instance, to be in love, to hate somebody…

Here we have a classic case of the Emersonian Exaggeration: poetry is ill-defined as something anti-scientific, and subjectively and even trivially emotional, and this very definition leads those defining it as such, to subsequently make utterly irrational and exaggerated claims for it, such as “poetry enables us to know what it feels like to be alive…”

First, the editors establish poetry as trivial, emotional, subjective, and then they heap accolades on it which it cannot possibly support.

According to Understanding Poetry, poetry does not exist objectively as an art; it has no verse-like attributes; in the Modernist spirit, it resembles something like an octopus on your face.

The editors inform us that poetry, in all its aspects, is a response to life—in all its aspects.   Poetry, then, is the same as life.  There’s no difference. That, in fact, is their definition of poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.

To prove this, they point out that, “we may have a child chess champion or musical prodigy, but not a child literary critic or dramatist.”  Well, no wonder.  I wouldn’t let a child of mine near Understanding Poetry.  But we might point out that Poe wrote extraordinary poems as a teenager.  And a child (or an adult) is all the wiser for not comprehending the New Criticism.

To keep their (definition of) poetry from drowning in the sea of life, the editors, sensing a complete loss of identity, suddenly begin singing about “vital unity:”

What is crucial to poetry is that these elements—metaphor, rhythm, and statement—are absorbed into a vital unity. The poem, in its vital unity, is a “formed” thing, a thing existing in itself, and its vital unity, its form, embodies—is—its meaning. Yet paradoxically, by the fact of its being “formed” and having its special identity, it somehow makes us more aware of life outside itself. By its own significance it awakens us to the significance of our experience and of the world.

We see, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things that are “poetic” in themselves.

…Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The total relationship among all the elements in a poem is what is all-important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the makeup of some physical object, it ought to be not a wall but to something organic like a plant.

The editors are unable to define poetry in practical, common sense, scientific terms; therefore they make it very important whether we say poetry is “like” a wall, or “like” a plant.  Feeling that “metaphor” is vital to poetry, it is perhaps no accident that they reflect this in their hazy attempt at a definition.

Since quotations always help definitions, the authors, who used Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, now turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Quoting Shakespeare is a good idea.  Instead of this text book, why not Shakespeare’s Works?  Poetry becomes less and less the more the authors write about it.

They quote Macbeth to illustrate  “a lack of…melodious effects…the broken rhythms and the tendency to harshness of sound are essential to the dramatic effect that Shakespeare wished.” When “murder” is involved, poetry becomes broken—and this is a good thing.  We are essentially told that poetry—which the editors still haven’t defined—needs to be mangled for dramatic license.

Perhaps “mangled” isn’t fair.  We’ll quote the Shakespeare passage and a specific observation they make about it:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

…The piling up of the s sounds in the second, third, and fourth lines helps to give the impression of desperate haste and breathless excitement; the effect is of a conspiratorial whisper.  The rhythm and sound effects of the passage, then, are poetic in the only sense that we have seen to be legitimate: they are poetic because they contribute to the total significance of the passage.

This is interesting—even brilliant, and we note again the persistent theme: poetry is nothing in itself except as it mimics life.  We would call this admirable, but we cannot. Are we really to believe that the “s sound” belongs to all poetry evincing “conspiratorial whisper[ing]?”  Is this a rule?  What about the words in that passage which are not sibilant? Should the actor cease to whisper when uttering the word “catch”and “blow” and “time” and “come?”  As much as we like the observation, as much as we admire Shakespeare, we do not think a marvelous hissing sound made by an actor belongs to either the cause or the effect of poetry, except in a very marginal way.

A good actor can make any script sound dramatic in any number of ways.  The truth is, poetry is not, by definition, a script with all sorts of directorial notes hidden within it.  This is to confuse poetry with the dramatic arts; and even Shakespeare is no excuse for this confusion.  The student of poetry, if they listen to Brooks and Warren, will come away believing that bad poetry is really good—because various dramatic situations turn the good to bad which is deemed good.  Not only will the student poet be convinced by his Modernist elders, Brooks and Warren, that his bad poetry is good, he will be convinced his poetry is “dramatic,” as well.

We see the New Critical rationale at work: since ‘the poem’ is considered all, let us really make it all in our definition; let us have life flow in and out of the poem so that they are almost one.  “A situation underlies every poem, and the poem is what the situation provokes.”  The poem is “a little—or sometimes a big—drama.”

The origin and effect of poetry, according to the New Criticism, are largely irrelevant.  The why of a poem’s making and the why of a poem’s impact are thus, irrelevant.

On one hand, for Brooks and Warren, poetry belongs to the “stuff of life,” (making its specific existence vague in the extreme) and at the same time, life is not permitted to ask what poetry is for, exactly, and to what good is it aimed?  Plato asked these larger questions, and is mostly considered rude and inappropriate for doing so.  Aristotle, who focused more on the art itself, influences to a much greater extent, the Modernists. Yet even Aristotle is too precise for them. The Modernist shuns categories, divisions, parts, for the generalized rant:

In an important sense, all poems are fictional, even poems that profess to be autobiographical, for the voice of the poem is inevitably a creation and not a natural and spontaneous outburst.

This contradicts what was said earlier: the authors said a poem’s emotions should be “natural” and not “artificial.”  They said a poem was like “a plant” and not something “mechanical.”  Yet here they insist a poem is never “spontaneous.”  These gentlemen grew up on Romanticism, and are trying to replace it, with all its errors, with something even more replete with error, that they, nor anyone else, understands.

They recommend the “mask” as a dramatic truth-telling device (quoting Yeats, Wilde and Emerson), and point out that Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, was named after Robert E. Lee, began his career in England, and “Yankee-fy’d” his poetic voice “to develop the character that speaks in his poems.”  New Criticism masks the truth, so why shouldn’t it be enamored of the mask?  We can’t deny they make sense when they say, “when we are making an acquaintance with a poem, we must answer these questions: 1) Who is speaking? 2) Why?”  But according to the New Critics, these questions can only be asked of the fiction.  Their brief analysis of Frost, however, would seem to indicate they know how to unmask, when necessary.  One rule for them, one rule for you.

We speak of an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry as an end to be gained. But some people assume that no preparation, no effort, no study, no thought, is necessary for that experience, and that if a poem seems to make such demands it is so much the less poetry.  This assumption is sadly erroneous…

As they wind up their introduction, they are back to asserting the craven pedantry that “an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry” is more important than learning what poetry actually is, and even questioning its very existence.  True learning names what things are, discriminates, narrows, weeds out; an “enlarged capacity” and “demands” is code for: you’ll clean out my stables before I will call you a poet—and that’s only if I like you.

By way of conclusion we must emphasize two related matters of the greatest importance: First, criticism and analysis, as modestly practiced in this book and more grandly elsewhere and by other hands, is ultimately of value only insofar as it can return to the poem itself—return them, that is, better prepared to experience it more immediately, fully, and, shall we say, innocently. The poem is an experience, yes, but it is a deeply significant experience, and criticism aims only at making the reader more aware of the depth and range of the experience. Second, there is no point at which a reader can say, “I am now ready to experience poetry.”

Why should Criticism only “return to the poem itself?”  Why should Criticism only “better prepare [us] to experience [the poem] more immediately, fully…?”

Understanding Poetry makes the amorphous “experience” of poetry the end of the whole process—a process which should be asking:  Why poetry?  What is poetry?  This influential text instead urges on us a kind of endless “experiencing” of the “experience” of a poem that is the “experience” of life’s “experience.”  Plenty of room for nuance, here, sure.  But also plenty of room for crap, pedantic bullying, emotional grandstanding, and ‘office politics’ corruption.

The introduction is reinforced by chapter one,  “Dramatic Situation,” and its foreword:

We have said that the “stuff of poetry” is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business.  We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper…

The authors want to shove horrible “accidents” in our face and make this the standard of poetry. Poetry, for Brooks and Warren, becomes journalism, or worse:

[Poetic] interest, as we have indicated, is not scientific or practical, but is simply the general curiosity we feel about people as human beings. Even though the account of a painful accident or a sordid murder seems almost as far removed as possible from poetry, it arouses the kind of interest which poetry attempts to satisfy, and comprises the “stuff of poetry.

The editors then present “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost as the first poem in the book.

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