IF YOU WAIT (ANOTHER NEW SCARRIET POEM)

Can too much loving make us weep?
When we get more loving than we can keep?
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

Great love means great worry.
Great fear means great hurry.
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

Who will look at the moon alone
From the prison of their frozen throne?
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

Love, that makes us love the same things,
Has lost a rose in Saturn’s rings.
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

Sorrow, who wrote the poems of old,
Scorned the warrior, bedecked and bold.
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

God, who sees all things slain,
Painted us from shadows small and vain.
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

There is a path we are on,
But the path we are is gone.
I will be there, soon, love, I will be there, soon.

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21 REASONS FOR 21 REASONS

21. Because this reason goes along with the other reasons.

20. You know very well why.

19.  Okay, maybe this one doesn’t fit.

18. After #19, this had to be good.

17. This one makes you think a little, doesn’t it?

16. Yes, yes, your hunch was correct, this is how others see it!

15. Yup. We’re not kidding.

14. Google if you don’t believe.

13. Doesn’t apply to you, but it certainly applies to them.

12. This is so lame, instead of “21 reasons for 21 reasons,” it should be “20 reasons for 20 reasons.” I mean, really.

11. We are—exactly—half way through the reasons.

10. Don’t look away! The really good reasons are coming.

9. Told you. And you thought it was France!

8. Did we make your day?

7. Nailed it.

6. A great reason because it subtly undermines all the others.

5. Are you excited for the top 4?

4. Maybe this should have been number one.

3. Ha. Bet you didn’t see this coming.

2. Boo ya.

1. The most important reason:  you read them.

BECAUSE I CRY TOO MUCH, I CRY

Because I am strangely attracted to love,
Not as attempts by whim or fancy,
But purely tender as the eternal dove:
The light of the other the light by which I see,

You may note me smiling as if in pain,
Or hear my laughter sounding like tears;
For when does love ever rest upon the plain,
Or gaze straight into a face for years?

There is much to consider when the beautiful
Sink to their knees and wish to die.
Weeping and ashamed, I told the philosophical:
Because I cry too much, I cry.

THE TWO TRADITIONS

Thomas Eliot: He won!

There will always be two traditions. With the greatest philosophical rigor we claim this to be true, and  by the simplest possible mathematical reasoning, it is.

The Tradition will always be: those works that stick to each other as notable over time, comprising what cannot help but exist— due to both formal and imitative significance—as that which is definable as the—Tradition.

In poetry, these works are palpable and visible and real. This is not some abstract, theorizing gambit at work. Plato’s philosophy, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s plays, Pope’s essays, Shelley’s odes, Poe’s fiction, Dickinson’s poems, Eliot’s criticism are the Tradition— and this is a certainty, and not for argument.

This defining Tradition can only be opposed by one other tradition—the opposing tradition, which, because by definition only one tradition can exist, is not a tradition, but will be called one and will be believed (by some) to be one, as such, and exists, therefore, as a shadow exists next to a body.

There is one Tradition, one Body (made of actual works that comprise a recognized canon) and not two. We can see this logically: there is one universe and we can divide the universe up in any number of ways without violating the idea of one universe, and so, without quibbling about the fluctuating content of the Tradition, we acknowledge with simple logic the Tradition as definitionally one.

Waiting impatiently in the wings, of course, is the “other” tradition, waiting for its moment on stage, the anti-tradition, the new tradition, the different tradition, etc, etc, the inevitable shadow to the body.

Because the Tradition is, by definition, one, it cannot, without destroying its identity, admit another tradition. But just as a body may have a shadow, and just as there may exist both a thing and a desire for a thing, a Shadow or Desire Tradition has a shadowy existence which blooms in rhetoric and thought: and here is where tradition number two “exists.”

No further traditions can exist, even though “multiple counter-traditions” may dance on the tongues of a thousand professors.

Either a new work, or a new group of works, connects to the Tradition, or a new work or a new group of works desires to connect to the Tradition; in terms of what a tradition is, then, “multiple counter-traditions” is a mere shadow of a shadow, without any existence at all.

We hope the reader is following the logic of our theme and noting its iron-clad character.

We now turn to our specific case.

The canonical work has two things going for it: a formalist excellence as well as a content that enlightens or instructs in the way it reflects the world outside of it. The Tradition is not a series of works which comment and talk only to each other; art is not some place where artists speak a similar “art language” to one another; the Tradition is not a club or clique of self-imitators.

Poetry is precisely that which counteracts the ‘in-the-know’ coterie-mind and speaks to the newcomer. The word is like money: it does its job on everyone equally. One can narrow one’s appeal to a specific audience and it may elicit giggles and applause from a certain type, but playing to a type will inevitably keep one out of the canon, because the Tradition reflects the world at large and appeals to it as something immediately pleasurable— not as something one has ‘to get’ by having specialized knowledge. There is nothing wrong with specialized knowledge and universally popular art may contain specialized knowledge as one of its side features—which may be exploited by those who are endeared to that sort of thing— but it is never the source of its ultimate appeal.

The counter-tradition, as we pointed out above, is a desire to be a tradition, but a desire for a thing is not the thing, no matter how strong the desire and its rhetoric; this is why there is really only one Tradition. But the shadow Tradition can be a very convincing thing.

The most convincing and cunning shadow Tradition of all is the one constructed by T.S. Eliot in the beginning of the 20th century, the one outlined in his now iconic essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he flattered the Tradition by saying it was self- aware, a living chain of succession that lives anew with each work that is added to it.

T.S. Eliot, however, was a flatterer and a liar. The Tradition is not self-aware. The Tradition is not a clique of self-imitators, a club in which only art-speak is spoken. If we buy Eliot’s premise, it follows that art is only about other art (the key to post-modernism) which is the great lie of the coterie-mind. Coteries and specialized knowledge do have their place, but the Tradition, if it is one, has no place for the temptations of coteries and specialized knowledge.

The Tradition is not a series of works aware of each other; every canonical work stands on its own, reflecting the world beyond art, even as it revels in formalist mastery.

Is there occasionally a self-conscious echo among works? Of course. But this is not the ruling animus of the works which make up the Tradition, as Mr. Eliot would have us believe.

The works themselves don’t know they are in a Tradition.

We are aware of the Tradition.

The Tradition, however, is not self-aware.

Unbelievable as this may sound, the Tradition was not waiting to be blessed by the addition of Modernism.

Modernism did not change the Tradition. Modernism is interesting only in that it existed, and exists, as a cunning attempt to join the Tradition.

We mentioned T.S. Eliot, whose brilliant attempt to enter the Tradition on behalf of himself and his Modernist friends is the defining moment of Modernism itself.

“The Waste Land,” with its numerous self-conscious echoes of canonical works in the Tradition, was the embodiment of Eliot’s earlier theory expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” works talk to each other. But of course they don’t.  Don’t tell T.S. Eliot that—that’s his ticket to the Big Dance.

Of course then there is the added bonus that Eliot is writing of a world ruined by post-world-war modernist calamity ostensibly never seen before, which the Tradition, hyper-aware of itself, in Eliot’s new view, will obviously welcome in order to move forward as a self-consciously historical entity.

History examines the Tradition from outside; the Tradition, however, is not itself self-consciously historical—this is the crucial difference which “Modernists” do not get.

Eliot’s theory pitches us forward into that state where art has no independent existence, but is only art talking to art, or, professors talking to each other, endlessly, in ivory towers.

This state of things—Eliot’s coup, we might call it—fortunately (for the Modernists) occurred with two other events: the take-over of literature by the university and the rise of modern art in partnership with modern poetry.

Pound and Eliot’s lawyer, John Quinn, who negotiated the book deal for “The Waste Land,” and secured Eliot the Dial magazine prize while Pound was still editing the soon-to-be-famous work, was the instrumental figure in making the Armory Show happen, the 1913 tour that made Duchamp famous and brought cubism and modern art to America. Quinn not only made the welcoming remarks at the show, he went to the U.S. Congress and successfully changed import/export laws to facilitate bringing European paintings to the U.S.

Painting witnessed content disappearing into technique as art became more abstract, a precise mirroring of what was happening to poetry in the reverse, poetry chucking its technique (metrical language) for the sake of content (imagery). The experiment simultaneously murdered the healthy fullness of both arts, but because the experiment was new, it appealed to the idea Eliot had advertised: the Tradition was not exemplifying the Best, but self-consciously unfolding the New.

Art, it was discovered, could be validated simply by hiring enough critics and building enough museums, with the added stimulus of huge profits gained in buying unknown Picassos which in a self-prophecizing frenzy, appreciated in value as the century progressed.

The Modernist scheme—academic, intellectual, aesthetic, monetary, institutional, ribald, exciting, fashionable—with the ordinary philistine masses sputtering and howling in ineffective protest—climbed heights after WW I which no one could have predicted.

Modern art successfully infiltrated modern life. Tall buildings and million dollar abstract art did some kind of Bauhaus dance which only the rich can understand.

Meanwhile, modern poetry toiled in university classrooms, gaining converts to Pound and Williams one student and one professor at a time, with help of the New Critic textbook “Understanding Poetry,” which extolled in its pages “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “A Station at the Metro.”

The New York School sealed the deal, as Harvard poets O’Hara and Ashbery, friends of modern art money, Peggy Guggenheim, mingled with abstract artists, writing poems secretly supplying what painting no longer had to offer.

Painting and poetry collapsed into each other. The Tradition wobbled. All fall down.

We read that Williams was an important counter-tradition to Eliot. Who could be more unlike than Williams and Eliot? But then we realize that Williams and Pound and Eliot all belonged to the same experimental, ‘make it new,’ Modern Art/Modern Poetry crash-the-canon clique.

If Eliot had not successfully crashed the Tradition, his friend Pound, and his friend Williams, would have lacked legitimacy—for all counter-traditions need a body in order to be its shadow.  All that we find in Eliot that we do not find in Williams, then, is precisely that which got Eliot into the Tradition.

Eliot made it into the mother ship; Williams throws rocks from below.

The excellent works of the Tradition have originality as one of their features; the new is worthy, but only if it is good.

In the new order established by Eliot, however, the Tradition, we are told, values the new over the good.

Poets cease using meter; this fact, becomes, by dint of time passing, a piece of the Tradition; but this is to confuse history with the Tradition; the latter demands excellence, the former does not.

The early 20th century Imagistes borrowed from haiku, which became the rage in 1905 in the wake of the stunning Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War.  This key aspect of Modernism was not new; nor was prose poetry new, either.   In this case history helps us to select the truly original as a criterion for the Tradition: which is nothing more than a collection of excellent models of literature—one of those excellent features being originality.

One of Eliot’s gambits was to write poems, like “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” with references to “Agamemnon” and “The Convent of the Sacred Heart.”  This alone will not get you into the Tradition.

We now copy the work of four Modernist poets:

Two, by Hulme (a founder of Imagism who was killed in WW I) and Williams, are in the imagist tradition; Pound references, as Eliot did, old literature (the myth of Daphne and Apollo) and finally, we copy Eliot’s excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Note the dismal flatness of the first three poems; the Eliot is the only one that moves, the only one that has real interest.

“Autumn” by T.E. Hulme

A touch of cold in the Autumn night —

I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

“Approach of Winter” by W.C. Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine–
like no leaf that ever was–
edge the bare garden.

“A Girl” by Ezra Pound

The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast –
Downward,
The branches grow out of me, like arms.

Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

From “Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines- Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches- They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf
By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines- Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches- They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf

Eliot was clever enough, with his fake Criticism, to knock down a few entrance-doors to the Tradition; but a few of his poems will keep him there.

The Tradition will finally welcome Eliot, but, as Eliot probably knew all along, it will not admit his friends.

Fragmenting counter-traditions finally become a crowd of shadows, with the dogs fighting it out in the dark, below those beacons of the influential and the blessed.

SALLY

“Sally forth, my friends” –old saying

Sally only smokes in boats.
Sally gives up on wet afternoons.
Sally tries hard all winter.
Sally wants what bears want.
Sally goes slowly through stores.
Sally makes it her business to sit.
Sally has several foods for each sauce.
Sally rounds up pages of poems.
Sally takes a bus only if it’s snowing.
Sally only eats with company present.
Sally makes it seem she’s not in charge.
Sally is, after all, like other people, despite her opinions.
Sally watches TV to forget you.
Sally has a secret lovely singing voice.
Sally has a language she never uses.
Sally hates what the girls hate.
Sally secretly likes the same things she always liked.
Sally has nice ears, so what?

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

WE’RE ALL GOING BLIND

We’re all going blind.
If only we could see better,
We wouldn’t be ashamed of our mind.
What is going on in the workshop?
We’re all going blind.
We think with the sun’s thoughts
After the sun has gone down,
And left, in its wake, the crimson-tinged cloud.
We go down vistas
With eyes that travel those vistas down
Of leaves that speak, with gains and losses, all over town.
It would be better to be a criminal in a flat landscape.
Our sight is robbed by conveniences.
There is a certain statue that resides across the river…
We’re all going blind.
So let’s guide each other!
We don’t see. But we’re kind.

THE GENIUS

The genius is the only one
Who can love herself and hate people.
The genius understands every motive
And the origin of every motive.
The genius can be smilingly alone
In a room full of laughing people.
The genius has none of those friends
Who are not really friends.
The genius has only private wants,
Not public needs.
The genius is a genius at being left alone.
The genius is mundane on the outside,
Exciting on the inside.
The genius could be from the cold north
Or the warm south—geography has nothing to do with genius.
You don’t travel to experience genius.
Genius is right beside you when you first fall in love.
Genius is what you don’t notice until it’s too late.
Genius is nice—but not nice.
Genius always gives a little to accident.
Genius was up late at night
But will never tell you.
Genius is comfortable—but never comfortable.
Genius lives with fear and lust
As others live with sunny boredom.
Genius is strange, but in a beautiful way.
Genius goes out all the time, and always finds something.
Genius sleeps in a bed of thinking.
Genius transcends Time and timing.
Genius takes what makes you afraid,
Goes one step further, and laughs.
Genius is sensitive before you are
To what you are most sensitive about.
Genius is right in front of you
And terribly far away.

EVERY STEP IS PLANNED

When the wings falter,
And landscape is no longer scanned,
When we forget to fly,
Every step is planned.

When the flight fails,
And we are forced to land,
We dance with our heavy bodies.
Every step is planned.

Take it up with the sun,
Complain, at once, to the moon.
Say goodbye to the sky.
You’ll be dancing soon.

Famous for the moment,
Perfumed and grinning and tanned,
You found art in your foot.
Every step is planned.

THE AMATEUR, THE PHILOSOPHER, AND THE CRITIC

Laocoon: his screams are terrifying in Virgil’s poem; the sculptor’s single moment only sighs.

All are welcome here at Scarriet:

The amateur, full of common sense, and curiosity, and feelings…

The philosopher, with ideas and rigor and rules…

The critic, with precise means to make better art and to judge honestly…

And lastly, the genius of invective—for what recourse, other than invective, has the genius, surrounded by proud sheep?

An all-consuming love for the divine poetry is the reason Scarriet exists—but we do more than love; we search for principles; we love to attack the enemies of art and poetry and taste, and to rummage through ancient literature to find wisdom that is lost.

This leads us to make two crucial points—each with a caveat.

1. Moderns (that’s us) tend to think that everything we are doing and everything worth doing, is new.  This, unfortunately, is more than just ignorant: it is an active impediment to the enjoyment of art.

This is not to say that the ancients are smart and the moderns are stupid.   We only caution against 1) the new which is not really new and simply because many believe it is new, becomes an excuse for a certain kind of jackass-ism.

2. As moderns, we are victimized by another monstrous idea: that all constraint (which translates as Taste) is bad, with Plato, the first villain.  We can just do anything is our motto—the worst idea for art.

It needs to be understood here that by “constraint,” we do not mean that less is more.  Sometimes less is not enough.  A half-hearted effort will fit the motto “We can just do anything,” but the effort that is meager needs to be expanded, or withdrawn from public view. Constraint here can also mean: “show constraint when making art public. If it’s not good enough, don’t waste the public’s time.”

One sometimes hears the phrase, “constraint-based literature,” but all art is guided by constraint: from the frame on a picture to the length of a sonnet to details left out when telling a story. Even Keats’ description of good poetry, “fine excess,” is but an illusion of excess—there is no excess in good art.

Talk of “constraint” makes most moderns uneasy, however, especially when it comes to making their art public.  First, we are now in the grip of “therapy” mania: all artistic expression, whether the art is bad or good, is deemed therapeutic, so let it all hang out. And secondly, since so much of the public is indifferent to fine art, and consumes only trash, telling the artist or the poet to show constraint in making their art public seems almost philistine, and unnecessarily censorious.

Constraint, however, is central to beauty, taste, and art, and if the public isn’t given it, they will turn away from art, and trash will win, and art will die, and therapy will be all that’s left. Poets will advise poets, and meanwhile there will be no audience for the poet anymore. Is this what we want?

We wish at this time to introduce our readers to Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry. The first rather lengthy passage quoted shows Lessing ‘gets it’ when it comes to constraint. Let us listen to this 18th neo-classical philosopher on the visual arts:

…among the ancients beauty was the supreme law of the imitative arts.

…There are passions and degrees of passion whose expression produces the most hideous contortions of the face…as to destroy all the beautiful lines that mark it when in a state of greater repose. These passions the old artists either refined altogether from representing, or softened into emotions which were capable of being expressed with some degree of beauty.

Rage and despair disfigured none of their works. I venture to maintain that they never represented a fury. Wrath they tempered into severity. In poetry we have the wrathful Jupiter, who hurls the thunderbolt; in art he is simply the austere.

Anguish was softened into sadness. Where that was impossible, and where the representation of  intense grief would belittle as well as disfigure, how did Timanthes manage? There is a well-known picture by him of  the sacrifice of  Iphigenia, wherein he gives to the countenance of every spectator a fitting degree of sadness, but veils the face of the father, on which should have been depicted the most intense suffering. This has been the subject of many criticisms. “The artist,” says one, ” had so exhausted himself in representations of sadness that he despaired of depicting the fathers’s face worthily.” “He hereby confessed,” says another, “that the bitterness of extreme grief cannot be expressed by art.” I, for my part, see in this no proof of incapacity in the artist or his art. In proportion to the intensity of feeling, the expression of features is intensified, and nothing is easier than to express extremes. But Timanthes knew the limits which the graces have imposed upon his art. He knew that the grief befitting Agamemnon, as father, produces contortions which are essentially ugly. He carried expression as far as was consistent with beauty and dignity. Ugliness he would gladly have passed over, or have softened, but since his subject admitted of neither, there was nothing to do but veil it. What he might not paint he left to be imagined. That concealment was in short a sacrifice to beauty; an example to show, not how expression can be carried beyond the limits of art, but how it should be subjected to the first law of art, the law of beauty.

Lessing says the artist Timanthes was wise to cover not Agamemnon’s grief, but the ugly expression of it. Lessing then admits that moderns have “enlarged the realm of art,” and “beauty” is no longer the only consideration, but Lessing still looks for laws to apply to the visual arts: the painting or sculpture lives forever in a single instant, which due to “ever-changing nature,” must represent the action prior to its culmination. Constraint is never practiced for its own sake, but for a strong effect. Abstract painting, then, is not only bereft of  pictorial representation, but time, as well. da Vinci was correct, perhaps, to make perspective, not color, the key to art, and to call color-lovers simpletons. When ancient painting relied on famous stories for its subject matter, poetry and painting were natural allies—both arts were obsessed with story arc, perspective, and movement. Genius in both poetry and painting once belonged to seeing. To see is not merely to ‘ look at,’ but to become one with nature. By comparison, art and poetry today do a great deal of clever thinking in darkness.  But let’s cut short our rant to hear Lessing once more:

…But, as already observed, the realm of art has in modern times been greatly enlarged. Its imitations are allowed to extend over all visible nature, of which beauty constitutes but a small part. Truth and expression are taken as its first law.

…Allowing this idea to pass unchallenged at present for whatever it is worth, are there not other independent considerations which should set bounds to expression, and prevent the artist from choosing for his imitation the culminating point of any action?

The single moment of time to which art must confine itself will lead us, I think, to such considerations. since the artist can use but a single moment of ever-changing nature, and the painter must further confine his study of this one moment to a single point of view, while their works are made not simply to be looked at, but to be contemplated long and often, evidently the most fruitful moment and the most fruitful aspect of that moment must be chosen. Now that only is fruitful which allows free play to the imagination. …no movement in the whole course of an action is so disadvantageous in this respect as that of its culmination. …When, for instance, Laocoon sighs, imagination can hear him scream; but if he scream, imagination can neither mount a step higher, nor fall a step lower, without seeing him in a more endurable, and therefore less interesting, condition. We hear him merely groaning, or we see him already dead.

Again, since this single moment receives from art an unchanging duration, it should express nothing essentially transitory. All phenomena, whose nature it is suddenly to break out and as suddenly disappear, which can remain as they are but for a moment; all such phenomena, whether agreeable or otherwise, acquire through perpetuity conferred upon them by art such an unnatural appearance, that the impression they produce becomes weaker with every fresh observation, till the whole subject at last wearies or disgusts us. La Mettrie, who had himself painted and engraved as a second Democritus, laughs only the first time we look at him. Looked at again, the philosopher becomes a buffoon, and his laugh a grimace. So it is with a scream…this, at least, the sculptor of Laocoon had to guard against, even had a cry not been an offense against beauty, and were suffering without beauty a legitimate subject of art.

In politics, we are only enlightened as much as we demand one thing: happiness for every single citizen. This is the genius of  modern politics, as far as we are able to make it happen.

Yet why are we so backwards when it comes to happiness itself?

Why all this progress in one area, and not in another?

In politics we demand universal happiness, and yet the equivalent in art, beauty, we moderns push away, as if beauty were limiting and old-fashioned. Picture for a moment politics which pushes away happiness. Art (no matter how hip it may appear) that pushes away beauty is just as backwards and fascistic.

The scale is a simple one: as one travels away from beauty one travels by law in one direction: towards the ugly.

Here is Lessing, from Laocoon again:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, thus much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful.

“Who would want to paint you when no one wants to look at you?” says an old epigrammatist to a misshapen man. Many a modern artist would say, “No matter how misshapen you are, I will paint you. Though people may not like to look at you, they will be glad to look at my picture; not as a portrait of you, but as proof of my skill in making so close a copy of such a monster.”

The fondness for making a display with mere manual dexterity, ennobled by no worth in the subject, is too natural not to have produced among the Greeks a Pauson and a Pyreicus. They had such painters, but meted out to them strict justice. Pauson, who confined himself to the beauties of ordinary nature, and whose depraved taste liked best to represent the imperfections and deformities of humanity, lived in the most abandoned poverty; and Pyreicus, who painted barbers’ rooms, dirty workshops, donkeys, and kitchen herbs, with all the diligence of a Dutch painter, as if such things were rare or attractive, acquired the surname of Rhyparographer, the dirt-painter.

…Even the magistrates considered this subject a matter worthy their attention, and confined the artist by force within his proper sphere. This law of the Thebans commanding him to make his copies more beautiful than the originals, and never, under pain of punishment, less so, is well known. This was no law against bunglers, as has been supposed by critics generally, and even by Junius himself, but was aimed against the Greek Ghezzi, and condemned the unworthy artifice of obtaining a likeness by exaggerating the deformities of the model. It was, in fact, a law against caricature.

From this same conception of the beautiful came the law of the Olympic judges.

…We laugh when we read that the very arts among the ancients were subject to the control of civil law; but we have no right to laugh. Laws should unquestionably usurp no sway over science, for the object of science is truth. Truth is a necessity of the soul, and to put any restraint upon the gratification of this essential want is tyranny. The object of art, on the contrary, is pleasure, and pleasure is not indispensable. What kind and what degree of pleasure shall be permitted may justly depend on the law-giver.

We disagree with Lessing that “pleasure is not indispensable,” but note he is correct when he says that truth and science should be free—and here we should be free to urge that beauty in art correspond to happiness in politics.

Lessing goes on to emphasize the difference between painting and poetry:

A review of the reasons here alleged for the moderation observed by the sculptor of the Laocoon in the expression of bodily pain, shows them to lie wholly in the peculiar object of his art and its necessary limitations. Scarce one of them would be applicable to poetry.

Lessing was not given to easy generalizations, for he was immersed in seeing nature. After all, he writes: “For although a portrait admits of being idealized, yet the likeness should predominate. It is the ideal of a particular person, not the ideal of humanity.” We will visit Lessing on poetry next, but we shall leave the reader with a final quotation from Laocoon, in which Lessing names the essence of amateur, philosopher, and critic.

The first who compared painting with poetry was a man of fine feeling, who was conscious of a similar effect produced on himself by both arts.  Both, he perceived, represent absent things as present, give us the appearance as the reality. Both produce illusion, and the illusion of both is pleasing.

A second sought to analyze the nature of this pleasure, and found its source to be in both cases the same. Beauty, our first idea of which is derived from corporeal objects, has universal laws which admit of wide application. They may be extended to actions and thoughts as well as forms.

A third, pondering upon the value and distribution of these laws, found that some obtained more in painting, others in poetry: that in regard to the latter, therefore, poetry can come to the aid of painting; in regard to the former, painting to the aid of poetry, by illustrations and example.

The first was the amateur; the second, the philosopher; the third, the critic.

The first two could not well make a false use of their feeling or their conclusions, whereas with the critic all depends on the right application of his principles in particular cases. And, since there are fifty ingenious critics to one of penetration, it would be a wonder if the application were, in every case, made with the caution indispensable to an exact adjustment of the scales between the two arts.

RUN FROM LOVE

Run from love.
You will lose your sleep.
You will lose your sanity
Among everything you keep:
Letters of theirs with marks one can hardly see.
Run from love.

How many times
Will great triumphs
Sink under their sighs?
How many times
Will you forget your whole life,
Looking in their eyes?

Run from love,
Before it is too late.
Soon, all that is not love
Will be hate.

Run from love.
Run from design and rhyme
Formulated all for them
Who will be so touched.
Reason needs to condemn.

Run from love
And all its doubt.
The moon is sliding beneath the earth.
And the mind is coming out.

Run from love.
Wanting love, you will lose your sleep.
Run from love.
You’ll make the others who love you weep.

POETRY, META-MODERNISM, AND LEONARDO DA VINCI

It might help us to speak not only of what poetry can do, but of what it cannot do.

Seth Abramson is excited about what he calls meta-modernism:

I believe that poetry is on the cusp of something big—a sea change in which we begin to arc generatively toward other creative genres (most notably, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, music, and stand up comedy) rather than retreating farther still into the more obscure recesses of literary theory and those 1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.” 1/3/14 Facebook

Abramson’s list of “other creative genres” leaves out the visual arts, which turns out to be part of the problem (1950s conceptualist techniques).

Two things must be said at this point.

First, pre-modern, pre-Painted Word, pre-Conceptual painting can be a great help to us here in terms of how the known, physical universe is depicted scientifically.

Second, Abramson’s “sea change” of meta-modernism (growing out of Modernism and post-Modernism’s eclectic freedoms) in its multi-genre mingling, calls to mind a passage from Da Vinci’s 500 year old argument, in which painting (not respected then as much as vocalized, self-praising poetry) is found vastly superior to poetry for ostentatiously simple reasons: painting can reveal harmony instantaneously, permanently, and uniquely, even to animals, whereas poetry must laboriously and slowly show a face, for instance, part by part, so that any united proportion is hopelessly dismembered.

Poetry does not imitate nature. It imitates spoken words.

Now listen to how modern and how like Abramson! Da Vinci sounds when discussing what poetry can do:

…the poet remains far behind the painter with respect to the representation of corporeal things, and, with respect to invisible things, he remains behind the musician.

But if the poet borrows assistance from the other sciences, he may be compared to those merchants at fairs who stock varied items made by different manufacturers. The poet does this when he borrows from other sciences, such as those of the orator, philosopher, cosmographer and suchlike, whose sciences are completely separate from that of the poet. Thus the poet becomes a broker, who gathers various persons together to conclude a deal. If you wish to discover the true office of the poet, you will find that he is nothing other than an accumulator of things stolen from various sciences, with which he fabricates a deceitful composition—or we may more fairly say a fictional composition. And in that he is free to make such fictions the poet parallels the painter, although this is the weakest part of painting.

Da Vinci’s poet as broker speech, if never met before, has to give the modern reader pause–Da Vinci’s poet as “accumulator of things stolen from various sciences” recalls every modern trope from the Cantos to collage, such that claims for “the new” by moderns are perhaps more mundane than people think; Abramson’s “poetry is on the cusp of something big” with “other creative genres,” depends, too, on Da Vinci’s formula, though of course we hate to rain on a poet’s parade.

More importantly, however: when Da Vinci says things like

Poet, your pen will be worn out before you have fully described something that the painter may present to you instantaneously using his science.

he is not hiding behind what Abramson calls the “recesses of literary theory” or “1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.”

The physical universe and the manner in which poetry and painting are able to imitate it does not belong to speculative theory; it belongs to science, and poets would do well to understand it.

Poets cannot escape the eye and its expectations. The comparison with painting is not something the poet can brush aside; poets, painters, and their different mediums live in the same world and imitate the same things—but how differently!

As Da Vinci advises:

The only true office of the poet is to invent words for people who talk to each other. Only these words can he represent naturally to the sense of hearing because they are in themselves the natural things that are created by the human voice. But in all other respects he is bettered by the painter.

For a poet to close his ears to this will not help the poet at all. Even if Da Vinci the painter were merely bragging, it will profit the poet to wrestle with the whole notion of strengths and weaknesses of methods of imitation.

Most poets assume that words can do anything, and poetry is immune to material laws.

But is it?

THE SMOKE OF SPEECH

 

image

When I’m away from you I’m lost in grief,
A grief stretching on to greater sorrow;
Whether mean or kind, the world’s a thief,
The prize, you, a prize more prized tomorrow.
With each degree of intimacy barred,
All thoughts are pain, all feelings, sorrow.
Everything that I once loved is marred,
A bright past accusing a dark tomorrow.
Where are you? You are there, reading this,
Which is, for reasons given, closed to you;
Pointless, then, this poem, for pointless all my bliss.
Nothing in poems can tell us what is true.
Loving thoughts burn into the smoke of speech
Which hides a love no song of love can reach.

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