YOU ARE NOT WRONG

You are not wrong
Who have a faith which cannot be shaken.
If you skip one step, it appears
Any sequence is smarter than you,
And so the world makes us seem mistaken,
And so we fail in philosophy and song.

Parts are infinite, and so is our part
In them. But we are never wrong
Who have a faith which cannot be shaken.
Faith is founded on what cannot be measured or seen.
Faith lives in the heart.
There is no winter there, and the lawns stretching to infinity are always green.

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HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

YEAUHHHHHH!!!! SWEET 16 IN THE POST-MODERN BRACKET!!!

Edmund Wilson, who bullied his way into the Sweet 16: Yea, I’m an asshole, what of it? he seems to be saying. In Letters, arrogance goes a long way.

EDMUND WILSON VERSUS NORTHROP FRYE

Wilson (d. 1972) was a magnificent snob, believing himself above government, morality, tact, and popular literature. He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years after World War Two and got off with a slap on the wrist. He served on the Dewey Commission in the 1930s, an elaborate effort by a few American intellectuals to clear Trotsky against the Soviet findings of the Moscow Trials. Trotsky wrote the following re: the Commission:

The Moscow trials are perpetrated under the banner of socialism. We will not concede this banner to the masters of falsehood! If our generation happens to be too weak to establish Socialism over the earth, we will hand the spotless banner down to our children. The struggle which is in the offing transcends by far the importance of individuals, factions and parties. It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside. In time of reaction it is more convenient to lean on the bureaucracy than on the truth. But all those for whom the word ‘Socialism’ is not a hollow sound but the content of their moral life – forward! Neither threats nor persecutions nor violations can stop us! Be it even over our bleaching bones the truth will triumph! We will blaze the trail for it. It will conquer! Under all the severe blows of fate, I shall be happy as in the best days of my youth! Because, my friends, the highest human happiness is not the exploitation of the present but the preparation of the future.

“It is the struggle for the future of all mankind. It will be a severe, it will be lengthy. Whoever seeks physical comfort and spiritual calm let him step aside.”

These are indeed fighting words. “Give up physical comfort” to spread Socialism over the face of the earth. “It will conquer!” Etc. Here’s the world which Wilson, Princeton man, snobby blue blood and literary critic, swore by and lived in. One can say, “despite his pedigree, Wilson was fighting for the salt of the earth,” or, Wilson was a dangerous political lunatic, who thanks to his pedigree, was able to do as he pleased.” Take your pick.

Wilson dismissed J. R. Tolkien as “juvenile,” and asked Anais Nin to marry him, claiming he would teach her how to write. Wilson was interested in “Symbolist” literature, a genre which cannot be defined; those like Wilson, who were interested in it, claimed it was post-Romantic. Wilson, a typical Modernist, defined Romanticism as something silly which preceded Realism. Wilson’s opinion of Poe was that Americans were too “provincial” to appreciate him, unlike Wilson himself, who thought Poe “insane” and whose whole understanding of Poe was that Poe was a bridge between Romanticism and Symbolism—which is ignorant. We always hear that Wilson had “many wives and many affairs,” but why any woman would be interested in this pompous hack is hard to fathom. My guess is that he tried to have affairs and they came to eventually be reported as affairs. He could get literary women published, since he was a well-connected reviewer; perhaps he had personal charisma; perhaps his socialist opinions made him seem gallant with a certain set. His writing  is pedantic, dreary, worthless. A writer who believes in world socialism and makes Baudelaire his specialty has to be suspect. Wilson hung around Edna Millay a great deal; it calls to mind for us Yeats and Maude Gonne: great women harmed by politically motivated men who did more than admire them. Millay was a thousand times the genius Wilson—the more worldly—was.

Northrop Frye, unlike Edmund Wilson, was not worldly. He was merely a professor, and a very good one. He came under scrutiny from the Canadian government for his opposition to the Vietnam War, but Frye’s influence was chiefly literary.

Frye’s influence can be summed up this way: Harold Bloom. Criticism eclipses Reviewing. Useless and pretentious literature gets a free pass because it fits into the professor’s “scientific” view of literary “tradition.”  Frye, like Bloom, excuses all sorts of nuttiness in the name of Profound Scholarship. One doesn’t read a book. One takes a book and fits it into an ever-changing tradition that includes the Bible and various texts throughout recorded history, in a way that changes those texts: modernism, as invented by its godfather, T.S. Eliot. The one thing that is not allowed is common sense. The unstable and the ‘highly significant’ rule. Reality as understood in a populist context is forbidden.

Edmund Wilson falsely presented himself as an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in order to “upset” theological authority. Frye/Bloom has the same ambition, a bold one. Confuse, and then attempt to be influential within that confusion. Literature as Fabricated Contemporary Religious Scholarship. Literature, for the Ambitious Modernist Critic, is not something which comes into the life of someone who peruses a story or a poem for a half an hour from its beginning to its end, the story or poem succeeding or failing on its own terms. Literature is rather a vast joint corporate enterprise which demands abstract expert-ism as far removed from the ordinary reading experience as possible. Welcome to John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” Welcome to Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety.” Welcome to Edmund Wilson’s “Symbolism.” Welcome to Northrop Frye’s “Science.”

Words, words, words.

WINNER: EDMUND WILSON

*

HELENE CIXOUS VERSUS J.L. AUSTIN

Austin exists in the present, with his theory of performative language: language, in the most radical sense imaginable, does not mean; it does.

Cixous (pronounced seek-soo, or ‘looking for Sue’) exists in the past, since her work comes out of her academic success in the radical 60s and 70s in France, when French Writing (Ecriture) Theory exploded onto the scene, casting aside German Idealism and Anglo-American pragmatism as the sexiest thing around. Why sexy? Why the past? Because Western Tradition had repressed everything that was not Male and Ideal; and now Cixous was ‘writing’ the ‘female body’ in order to redeem the past—which clings to the effort.

Austin worked for British intelligence; in him, Anglo-American pragmatism, in its smug complacency, triumphs over the French Theory and the Freud and the Feminism and the Derrida and the Lacan of Cixous—who finally over-argues her case.

If the goal of the woman is to triumph over her mere flesh, while the man’s ambition is to reduce the woman to mere flesh for his pleasure, it is clear that feminist projects which rely on dualisms of past/present, A/not A, penis/no penis, male/female, light/darkness, many/one, speech/language, West/East, body/mind, beautiful/ugly, are doomed to fail, for even with conscious efforts to subvert these dualisms, the French Theorist either remains trapped in them, or drifts off into over-heated incoherence.

Austin, by showing that language is performance, brought flesh to language in a way the French Theorists, with their deferrals of meaning and their difference, could never quite pull off; non-gendered flesh, too, and thus deliciously feminist/not feminist.

WINNER: AUSTIN

*

EDWARD SAID VERSUS SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

The one overwhelming thing which Modernism did, and here we include everything, whether it is the feminism of a De Beauvoir or the postcolonial historicism of a Said, was the squashing of sincerity.

Is sincerity a good in itself?

If it is naive, and based in ignorance, if it lacks irony or a sense of humor, they will say sincerity verges on stupidity.

We speak of a useful sincerity, however, free of pain, which, even within its “stupidity,” has the potential to abide and achieve and discover hidden good.

There is a kind of false and bitter “sincerity” which depends on a surrounding insincerity for its existence, an energy possessed by the socialist who needs to convert the world to its vision of simple good, for example. But such ‘save-the-world’ proselytizing is rarely sincere. It assumes too much insincerity in the other.

The kind of sincerity which Modernity has destroyed is the pure and simple kind, guided by love and hope and innocence, neither afflicted nor distracted by deep anxieties or doubts.

This type of sincerity, we imagine, is at the heart of Mozart’s music, and any sustained action of genius: naive, focused, splendid, unique, human, alone, happy.

At first blush, this good type of sincerity is described (and attacked) as sentimentality. The cynic dare not call it stupidity, for the cynic is well aware of how everything is stupid or ‘not what it seems,’ this knowledge characterizing the unsentimental cynic in the first place.

Simone De Beauvoir had to attack sentimentality to ‘free’ women from the dire effects of Victorian romance. For Said, the citizens of the West had to be made aware of the blood on their hands—not just employees of the East India Company—everyone is somehow guilty.

Sentimentality as it existed in the 19th century in the great writings of the Romantics and even in writers like Wilde, who used his wit to keep the spirit of the Romantics alive, was banished in the 20th century, and with it, the more important, and more beneficial, sincerity; the sincerity which stimulates people in a reciprocating atmosphere of cheerfulness and good withers, as churlish cynicism triumphs among the self-aware, chattering classes.

Stupidity of the brain is sometimes necessary for wisdom in the heart.

As De Beauvoir writes:

To recognize in woman a human being is not to impoverish man’s experience: this would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it were to occur between two subjectivities. To discard the myths is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask, that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth.

She protests too much.

Said, who spent his childhood in the British colony of Palestine, wrote:

Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me (and I hope will convince my literary colleagues) that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together. In addition, and by an almost inescapable logic, I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be be perfectly understood.

The genie is out of the bottle. Not only is war impossible, peace and reason are, too. Where the phrase “anti-Semitism” exists, sincerity cannot exist. Luckily, one can get back a certain amount of sincerity by stepping off the stage, putting aside certain books, and ignoring certain individuals. But the problem with the landscape remains.

WINNER: SAID

*

SARTRE VERSUS HAROLD BLOOM

We expect critics to be critical. As Northrop Frye has said, we can’t teach literature, only the criticism of literature, and this is why so many poets hate critics—precisely because critics are critical in Frye’s sense. And, since Frye is correct, Criticism dominates learning, our learning, whether we want it to, or not. And more than this, Criticism writes our poetry, as well. Wilde and Poe both explicitly stated the obvious: the critical sense is what writes the poetry; the so-called creative or imaginative faculty is merely the critical faculty reversed. Criticism does not create, it judges; exactly, and the creative faculty does not create either (only God does)—the creative faculty combines; and every moment of the combining process is effected by the judgment, by the critical intelligence of the artist.

Harold Bloom is a successful critic for the same reason Poe was a successful critic: a host of minor poets strongly dislike them. Bloom pursues the logic laid out here by vilifying Poe and championing Emerson; Poe’s test was more severe: one was less a critic if one was not a poet (Bloom is not) while Emerson’s test simply said that any strong argument was poetry. Poe’s rivalry is something Bloom cannot face. Bloom is therefore not critical, precisely because his critical choices are driven by the fact that he is not a poet himself—which fulfills the prophecy.

Sartre is too anti-Literature to be a poet or a critic; Sartre is like Bloom, then, but one who knocks over Bloom’s chess pieces, even as Sartre agrees with Emerson that argument is finally all.  Listen to Sartre here:

There is no ‘gloomy literature,’ since, however dark may be the colors in which one paints the world, one paints it only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it. Thus, there are only good and bad novels. The bad novel aims to please by flattering, whereas the good one is an exigence and an act of faith. But above all, the unique point of view from which the author can present the world to those freedoms whose concurrence he wishes to bring about is that of a world to be impregnated always with more freedom.  One can imagine a good novel being written by an American negro even if hatred of the whites were spread all over it, because it is the freedom of his race that he demands through his hatred. But nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism. For, the moment I feel that my freedom is indissolubly linked with that of all other men, it cannot be demanded of me that I use it to approve the enslavement of a part of these men. Thus, whether he is an essayist, a pamphleteer, a satirist, or a novelist, whether he speaks of individual passions or whether he attacks the social order, the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject—freedom.

Sartre is still playing chess, with white and black pieces, even though some have run away in an attempt to be “free.” Bloom plays a more elaborate game of chess, one that keeps the pieces upright, even as we have no idea how the game is proceeding, though we do know Shakespeare is Bloom’s king and Emerson, the queen, perhaps. Literature can be ‘too gloomy’ for Bloom—he accused Poe of precisely this, even as he praised Emerson’s health and clarity. But those who accuse Poe of playing too much in a minor key tend to be those who play in no key at all and instead do a lot of thumping: Sartre thumps very loudly in order to flatter a certain sensibility. Bloom sings fragmented medleys, flattering in a far more rarefied fashion.

WINNER: BLOOM

The last of the women—de Beauvoir and Cixous—have fallen!

The Post-Modern bracket is now Wilson, Austin, Said, and Bloom!

 

 

REPORTER AT LARGE: MARILYN CHIN AND AFAA WEAVER AT THE GROLIER

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg.  The last American poem to be famous?

Poetry tells of larger things, and it is entirely in the telling that it succeeds or fails, to tell of those larger things. If Poetry tells of a small thing: the fashion or style of someone’s appearance, or of a large thing: war, history, law, it will all be big or small, or significant, or insignificant, because of how it is told. Poetry is the ‘telling’ game, and what is told does not finally matter in poetry.

The smallest matter gets our attention if it is told to us by a friend; if a stranger wants to tell us something vital and personal, we are less interested—this is the rule of friendship; we may even tell the stranger to shut up, or go away, even if the news is important to the stranger.

Telling has rules and nuances governed by the complexities of the life we are living.

How we tell something may impact what we tell, and if how we tell impacts what we tell significantly, we have moved into the realm of art: rhetoric, poetry, song.

If everyone were friends, we would not need government. Government protects strangers from each other.

A poem, if it is really good, demands, because it is good, that strangers experience it, too.

However, unlike government, poetry isn’t necessarily for strangers.

Poetry, like gossip, like heart-to-heart talks, can simply be for friends only.

The only time a poem can be ‘known to strangers’ (famous) is if it deals with the business of strangers, and the business of strangers pertains to one of two things: 1) some extravagant aesthetic pleasure or 2) the government’s role of protecting strangers from each other.

(We could add a third: Pedagogy concerns strangers. Poems in textbooks can make a poet famous, and when the New Critics’ Understanding Poetry was one of the few, this did make a huge difference—but that was over 50 years ago. Scarriet has discussed this angle elsewhere, so we’ll leave it aside for the time being.)

The first—aesthetics—has withered away in terms of poetic fame: how poems traditionally tell what they tell is no longer a standard for a large audience: we only understand aesthetic excellence in context; when that context no longer exists, widespread appreciation is no longer possible. The Bee Gees became big in 1967 because they sounded like the Beatles; the Bee Gees did not sound exactly like the Beatles, but the Bee Gees succeeded within the parameters of a recognized template. Popular music, as unique as any particular song might be, succeeds in terms of a template. The popular song, or the popular music concert, meets the popular criteria of ‘extravagant aesthetic pleasure,’ based on a template: whatever the lights, singing style, dancing, lyrical content, personal appearance, etc. happen to be. What used to make poems famous: rhyme, meter, and other rhetorical devices which mark telling as exceptional within poetry’s traditional template, no longer exists in criticism and practice. The experimental has unstrung the bow. There is no longer any way of telling whether a poem as a poem, is excellent or not.

The second—impact in the sphere of government—since the withering away of the first, is now the only route to poetic fame, and the facts prove the case. “Howl,” the last poem to achieve some degree of fame in the United States (if we do not count Plath’s suicide) was read by the government (judged as obscene or not) before it was read widely by the people. The same is true of Fleurs du Mal; the French poet Baudelaire’s template-shattering poetry was published—and examined by government censors—one hundred years before “Howl.” True, Baudelaire rhymed, but translated into English, the subversive, prosaic content became the manifest effect and major influence on poets like T.S. Eliot. The ‘poetry template’ was still in place for poets like Frost and Millay, appreciated in their time, but over the last 50 years or so, the template has been eclipsed by pure content—thus it is no longer possible for poetry to be famous as poetry, since content generates interest everywhere, and poetry has no ownership of content in any competitive sense at all.

Stephen Burt, in his just published New York Times review of Patricia Lockwood’s second book of poems declares that “Rape Joke, ” the poem that went viral on the web last year, is the least funny poem, and not the best poem, in her collection. “Rape Joke” tells of Lockwood being raped by her boyfriend, and the painful, ambiguous, non-legal aftermath.

It is true that Lockwood’s poem has not been ‘read by the government,’ but it is about sex, and sex as potentially regulated—or not—by the government has reached a threshold of interest, and is the essential content of “Rape Joke.”  I was raped. Doesn’t anybody care? This is the deftly turned plea of “Rape Joke.” It is a cry for government attention on a serious level. We must protect the vulnerable in a legally representative manner in this specific area: sexual freedom collides with sexual harm in a way which puzzles and perturbs the law, just as “Howl,” which had to be judged by legal officials, puzzled censors of public morality. Is this OK? Do we need to be protected from this?  This question—asked specifically of “Howl,” is a question for strangers—it is not a question for friends only—and is thus a ticket to fame.

There’s a line dividing the country now, a line so prominent and defined that it is spilling into discourse of every kind: secular progressives versus religious right-wingers increasingly steals into every conversation.

But the debates that boil over in a far-reaching manner are characterized by profound legal ambiguity: a lot of strangers are certain, but divided, even within the context of the Constitution.

If the U.S. Constitution explicitly protects the free exercise of religion, not sexual activity, and if religion promotes chastity, all sexual issues, including issues like gay rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, will bump up against the government, whether it is explicitly a legal issue, or not. “Rape Joke” fits into this category. In the past, with obscenity trials, the subversive in the work may have been a genuine factor, but when freedom, and government regulation of freedom, is the overriding concern, the role mentioned above: ‘government protecting strangers from themselves,’ becomes paramount. Patricia Lockwood may be subversive, but her rapist is more so.

To repeat: fame is possible only when strangers are impacted—either aesthetically or in terms of government. If “Howl” and “Rape Joke” succeed aesthetically, it is impossible to tell in any immediate or measurable way. The legal issue is what perches on the bust and remains.

The Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision recently caused a stir, precisely because of a legal controversy which refuses to be resolved.  Protected religion, promoting chastity, denies sexual rights and even condones bullying of gays, according to some: but is the bully at fault, or Christ? The city of Salem, in reaction to the Hobby decision, severed a contract with Gordon college, a Christian institution, and Salem’s mayor was applauded on Facebook when she advertised that she was donating five dollars to a North Shore Gay Youth Center for every call of complaint received in her offices, calls apparently fueled by a prominent right wing author and media personality. The argument here is that Christianity, protected by the Constitution, promotes bullying of gays; therefore the Constitution promotes bullying of gays. Amendment to the Constitution, anyone? Legal division feeds uproars of strangers more than anything else.

Last evening we had the pleasure to attend a poetry reading in Harvard Square by two poets, both in the activist mode: Marilyn Chin and Afaa Weaver: one starting out as a poor immigrant from Hong Kong, one as a frightened kid from America’s black ghetto. Weaver, the black man, brought to his audience at the Grolier Poetry bookstore, Chinese nature poetry, and Chin, the petite Asian woman, blues and rap inflected libidinous poems. They were lovely together, and questions rained down upon them from the rapt, standing-room-only audience following the reading.

In the question and answer session, Weaver, who just won the Kingsley Tufts Award of 100,000 dollars, and read from his 12th collection, The Government of Nature (U. Pittsburgh), spoke in restrained accents of the African slave trade, the diaspora which he called truly the worst holocaust, for its 18 million estimated deaths. Marilyn Chin, who teaches in California, in town to promote her latest book, Hard Love Province (W.W. Norton), a dynamic collection of elegies and yawping utterances in a fermenting hybrid of songs/forms, called herself an “activist”—as poet and teacher—and being in her presence, one really feels it springs from her whole being: she’s not just playing at this; she’s a mother in the flesh giving birth to this, forever and always. Which is not an easy thing to do. There are pauses after she makes a joke or says “okay, okay!” in which life, plain life, intervenes: and a little voice whispers: is this Chinese Poet Activist Mother thing—for real? It is.

Marilyn Chin is almost famous for her poem which begins:

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin

“How I Got That Name” tells us her dad named her for Marilyn Monroe, adding that no one questioned his impulse because we know “lust drove men to greatness, not goodness, not decency.”

Marilyn Chin, by putting her finger on “lust,” slyly takes on male poets like Whitman, Pound and Ginsberg, all famous for poems which “list.” We know why Marilyn Monroe was famous, and yet the name itself is famous, and millions of strangers are named Marilyn. The themes of “How I Got That Name” are many; some are: fame and lust and being named, and ‘that name’ rather than ‘my name’ is the key, perhaps, to this very teachable poem, and it would be deliciously ironic if “How I Got That Name” made Marilyn Chin truly famous at last.

Marilyn Chin likes to banter between poems; she enjoyed teasing Weaver, her ‘big brother.’ Laughing, she looked at him as she punned multiple times on the word sin (sincerity) making reference to Weaver’s Chinese scholarship: Sinologist. It was quite an evening.

Weaver, stoic and solid, is just as fascinating as a person, though he doesn’t ooze the energy of a famous person like Marilyn Chin does. Weaver appeared quietly happy, but one could tell that here was a physically large man who had been laid low a time or two in his life by forces beyond his control. The Tao Te Ching saved Weaver’s life when he was in his 20s, a college dropout learning to be a poet, working long years in a Baltimore factory.

Race—and every attendant cultural nuance—is at the heart of Weaver and Chin’s politics. Racial bigotry is still on America’s radar, but in terms of fame, in our era, it hasn’t got a chance against sex, and this is because fame has little to do with history and everything to do with contemporary legality. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution leave no room for debate—at least legally.

This has nothing to do with ‘sex sells,’ per se. Chin writes quite a bit about sex—even with haiku, in her latest collection! But this alone will never lead to poetic fame. Now if a book is banned for sex, that’s another manner. That will make you famous.

 

 

 

 

NEXT TO BE SAD

She traded Henry for James
And now James is glad,
But James doesn’t know he’s
The next to be sad.

The one she abuses
Learns a lesson, Jimmy, lad;
T
he one she chooses is
The next to be sad.

The man she refuses
Is rejected a tad,
But the man she chooses is
The next to be sad.

If you are the next,
For a while you’ll be glad—
But her next is, you ought to know,
The next to be sad.

MISS UNIVERSITY

Put down your device and listen to me.
Do you know Miss University?
We owe her a trillion dollars in debt.
Are you listening yet?
Professor Benjamin took a suicide pill.
Hunted by Nazis: no money, no will.
America hunted the Nazis down.
Miss University was burned to the ground.
They cancelled many a college course
As Miss University was handled with force.
The intellectualization
Of Miss University never saved a nation.
When groups like Nazis start to hold sway
Miss University just does what they say;
But every poet and scientist is dead
Unless Miss University lets them get read.
She is the girl every intellectual desires,
The lovely of brick and ivy covered spires;
But these days any building will do
To pull the ass-kissing degree-seekers through
For vanity and pride, a printed degree,
A victim of Miss University.
A program to please every trend and taste
As the competition must be laid to waste,
As ‘on-line’ and ‘psycho-babble’ mix and blend;
(With most of the courses cancelled in the end)
Miss University’s catalogue advertises
Plenty—in cynical disguises.
University accepts every crazy and flake—
She has enrollment goals to make,
And retention numbers to count,
As crushing debt continues to mount,
As graduates find out a degree
Doesn’t equal opportunity:
You’ve been pleasured by Miss University.
She knows how to avoid disasters:
A teacher to keep teaching must get a masters.
Just make it necessary
To bow and scrape for her degree
And make her’s the kind of place
Which teaches the same disgrace
Of paper pushing guile
Which first made her smile.
The deans and bureaucrats multiply
And become the very reason why
The whole business exists at all.
Raise money to buy a new hall
For Miss University to dance
On corpses, so you, hypocrite!—might have a chance.

WHAT COULD BE MORE WRONG THAN A POEM STOLEN FROM A SONG?

Dante may have rhymed like the Cat in the Hat,
But who will take you seriously if you rhyme like that?
A mournful picture which takes your breath away,
A rain covered river in a mist of gray,
The reedy banks and the green hanging over,
The river swollen, the foliage sinking lower,
Makes an impression on the eye—
But too much rhyme makes the reader want to cry…
If you want an orchestra to support your art
Poetry can play only a small, wordy part.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song

Poetry is somber and grammatical.
It sympathizes with the painter’s art
To find in objects a sympathetic heart,
To find in nature where nothing but cruelty is
A bird’s flute or a hesitant kiss.
But the poem lives in shadows
And cannot turn towards the light
For it lives with reason only,
Not with laughter—or any sensual delight;
It does not drum. It has no sight.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song.

Good night, poetry, in your safe lake of death.
You have no music, no eyesight, no breath.
Music marches and pictures tease.
A poem is only marks on a frieze.
A poem is a meditation on a grave;
It brings silence to the mind.
Sober poetry’s thoughts are of a different kind;
It knows not music’s immediate bliss;
It thinks of—but is not—the kiss:
Yet without this there is no genius.
There is nothing more wrong
Than a poem stolen from a song.

MODERN BRACKET HURTLES TOWARDS SWEET 16

Baudelaire versus Saussure

Baudelaire learned from Poe that melancholy is the most beautiful in art, but for everyone but the genius melancholy begins to hurt too much, and turns to pain, and the beautiful is lost and replaced with envy and despair. Poe was sober, chaste and truly loved the beautiful.  Not Baudelaire.  Baudelaire is the vermin song in the spot where Poe the angel was. In Baudelaire’s shadow we sink further from the master. In Baudelaire’s famous poem, “Au Lecteur,” Ennui, or Boredom, presides over the other devils. If Baudelaire had been honest, he would have written somewhere in Fleur du Mal of his own envy which gnawed at him (the real king of his demons) and ushered in Modernism—which envies the Classical.

Ferdinand Saussure was born in 1857, the year Fleur du Mal first appeared in Paris bookshops. Just as Romanticism was born in the 18th century—not the 19th, as traditionally taught, Modernism was born in the 19th century—but what we find interesting is that language-obsessed post-Modernism which owes so much to Saussure arrived later in the 20th century only because Saussure’s ideas were transmitted tardily.

Materially, the various eras follow each other in perfect order: cotton gin, camera, automobile, etc.

But in terms of art and ideas, eras exist in no order at all-–scholars simply assume that people ‘thought this way’ or ‘thought about these kinds of things’ during this or that era; the divisions are made based on convenience, or ideology; all is slippery and evasive—and because ideas are more important than things or technology, the truth, we can be sure, is lost.

Saussure made the incredible claim that all knowledge, all thought, all ideas, don’t exist until they are put into language.

He then posited that language is arbitrary and has no positive definition; it is a field of negatives: this is not this, etc.

Here is the dangerous Post-Modernism idea generated by Saussure: there is nothing real behind language.  Further, whatever we do, or speak, exists from a blind allegiance to social convention: we are hopelessly trapped in group-think from one end of our minds to the other. We may smile, we may shout, we can attempt to authenticate expression in any number of performances imbued with the highest feeling: no matter.  We are only robots exhibiting group behavior.

However: Can I not walk down the street and see someone walking towards me, observing how they grow increasingly larger as they approach?   I do not need language to note this principle.

Saussure is wrong. There is a world of thought which does not need a language to exist.  Saussure does not deny pre-linguistic thought; he only says it is a confused jumble.  But what is confused about perspective?

It is certainly more difficult to think without language; but is it thinking we are doing with language?—perhaps all the thought worthy of the name is precisely that which comes into existence before we try it out in mere words.

What does it mean for us if the Saussurean principle is rife with error?

WINNER: BAUDELAIRE

Benjamin versus Freud

Freud was an old man when the Nazis came to power, escaping to London at the end of a distinguished life; Benjamin was middle-aged and a failed professor when the Nazis took over, killed trying to escape. Freud read Shakespeare in English. Benjamin translated Baudelaire into German.  Freud, intellectually free, grounded by studies of insanity and the science of human pathology, influenced by great masters, such as Schiller, willing to seek all paths and byways, changed sex into religion. Freud’s involvement with hypnosis, free association, transference, will make him forever significant from a literary standpoint. It could almost be said that Freud took literature and turned it into science.  Not literature-as-scientific-study. Science formed by literature.  Freud changed the world. Benjamin was crushed by it.

WINNER: FREUD

Pater versus Wilde

Pater narrowed Letters in a vague manner. Wilde expanded Letters in gem-like, aphoristic glee.

WINNER: WILDE

Ransom versus Eliot

This is an interesting match, since Ransom represents the American, and  Eliot, the European strain of conservative High Modernism.  Both men were born in 1888, Ransom in the spring, Eliot in the fall.

T.S. Eliot, which Scarriet never tires of pointing out, since it is highly significant and no one else ever points it out, traces his literary heritage back to Emerson through his distinguished grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, and grand uncle, Christopher P. Cranch, Dial poet, both friendly with Emerson—who made important pilgrimages to England: setting the groundwork for Eliot’s Anglo-American snobbery and Eliot’s hatred of the patriotic Irish-American, and enemy of Emerson, Edgar Poe. (Ransom’s New Critics, though Southern, disliked Poe, too.)

Modernism was the sickly, over-intellectual, internationalist reaction to American idealism—embodied by a writer like a Poe, who worshiped all sorts of ideals: Beauty, Country, Woman, Romance, Love, Verse etc, simple ideals easily mocked, distorted, and mangled by the morbid, cutting, intellectualizing of characters such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Modernism wasn’t progress; it was rudeness elevated to art: a vast generalization, perhaps, but with a grain of truth, which we assert for that important grain. Rudeness is as old as the hills—there’s nothing ‘modern’ about it; but since Eliot and Pound are ‘of’ our time, we assume they are more ‘modern’ than Poe, or that Poe’s idealism must belong to the past.

John Crowe Ransom, Southern Agrarian and New Critic, was clever, wrong-headed, Modernist, and superficially conservative like Eliot, and worked with Paul Engle, Robert Lowell, and Robie Macauley (Iowa Writers Workshop, CIA, Playboy fiction editor) to get the Program Era rolling. Eliot went to Europe and moped over England’s loss of influence, etc. During the 30s, Eliot made his speech against the Jews, Ransom published the reactionary “I’ll Take My Stand.” But for the most part, these were highly intelligent men. Ransom enjoyed himself more, was more well-rounded, and actually got more done. Both Eliot and Ransom slammed the Romantics; Eliot, a kind of craven prude, attacked Shelley personally; Ransom dismissed Byron as old-fashioned. They were of their time and rode the time as Modernist scolds with a mandarin, reactionary fervor.  Loony Post-Modernism makes Eliot and Ransom seem sensible by comparison; however as brilliant as they were, they were not.

WINNER: RANSOM

RAGE IN AMERICA

Those school shooters.  What are we going to do about them?

According to Jim Sleeper in a July 4, 2014 Salon article excitedly titled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day: School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement,” the American spirit is dying in a hail of gunfire from enemies within—“young, white” school shooters.

At the head of his piece, right below his frightening title, Sleeper quotes the Emerson poem on the “embattled farmers” firing the “shot heard ’round the world” in America’s violent Revolutionary War birth for contrast to the recent spate of maniac Americans-on-Americans shootings.

Sleeper, author and lecturer at Yale, has produced one of these reflective yet alarmist pieces that appear every now and then in magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s or The New Republic, in which a moderate Left Think-Tank-type professor makes a sincere spiritual effort to bring moderate Right and Left elements together in a polite way to “fix” an America which has lost its Founding ideals.

Sleeper quickly reveals his hand as a “Small-is-Beautiful” liberal—first, by invoking Emerson’s “farmers” and second, by writing:

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises…

America was opposed to “divine-right monarchy” and “aristocracy.” There are always exceptions, but sure, yes.

“Theocracy,” too, is something America wanted to avoid.  Religious, yes; a state-run religion? No.

But did America’s Revolutionary War oppose “mercantilism?” Sleeper is incorrect here. Every school child knows “no taxation without representation.” The colonists did not like having their mercantile ambitions strangled in the cradle by the Crown, a common practice of the British Empire, an empire whose strategy was to rule as “workshop” in a world of (preferably one crop) “farmers.”

Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale(!) is so wrong that it staggers the imagination: a desire for”mercantilism” was the chief reason for the Revolution—not something the new American republican citizens were opposing. Paul Revere, for instance, was not a “farmer,” but a silversmith and belonged to a secret and highly educated revolutionary society of artists, artisans, and mercantilists.

There is a prominent strain of rural prejudice which can be traced to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who modeled their beliefs on the more radical French Revolution; much of Jefferson’s actual behavior and Emerson’s “English Traits” reveal men who, in spite of their reputations, were actually less patriotic than is commonly thought. But of course every nation and every revolution is going to feature intricate mixtures of motivations, alliances, and beliefs. But to call the American Revolution anti-mercantilist is absurd.

The strategy of an essay like this is to carefully avoid all the hot button Right v. Left issues, and appear to argue from a middle position of anti-commercialism, gun control, and Global Warming “higher” consciousness, so the Moderate Left position rises to the sparkling heights of purity and wisdom.  It’s finally a platform-building political strategy. One hates guns, global warming and capitalism not as separately thought-out positions, sorting through the pros and cons of each; rather one thinks and feels in an all-or-nothing manner with the tribe known as Moderate Left.  Few have the time to think through all the moral, political, historical issues smartly alluded to in this essay, but no matter: tribe-building is the broad benevolent/cynical goal of the writer. He’s looking to cement agreement among a loose demographic who read the same books, take the same college courses, and shop at the same stores (anti-mercantilist places, of course).

Sleeper does the usual liberal floundering about for spiritual values—without resorting to religion, even as he concedes the Puritan opposition to tyranny was instrumental in America’s birth.  He’s looking for that intangible conviction which rests on civility, that republican virtue, that “public candor” as he call it, the elusive community-minded soul at the heart of a working democracy which can bridge the increasingly rancorous Republican/Democrat divide, and his whole rhetorical strategy is to lower the temperature on the feverish divisiveness which characterizes so much political speech today, and find common ground—admirable, of course, in itself. He takes issues which normally create impasses between Left and Right and calls them merely symptomatic:

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Believing in God can make one fearless in opposing human oppression—and yet even if religious superstition has virtues, intellectuals will still walk in fear of it, so Sleeper quickly assures his Salon audience that he is certainly not advocating a return to Puritanism—even as he all but admits his complaint of America’s moral corruption and vanity is nothing if not a Puritan one.

Not only does Sleeper invoke the virtues of religion, from Founding Puritanism to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers” but old-fashioned patriotism is brought forward, as well, in the person of young Nathan Hale and his famous utterance before his hanging by the British in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He adds the story of three Yale seniors defying the Vietnam War draft and the university chaplain who supported them.

But then he observes:

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

What is the answer, then? How can we rescue America from cynicism and “mayhem?”

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

In the beginning of his piece, Sleeper does a good job of painting a pretty bleak picture of ourselves:

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Yes, we need help. So what are these “touchstones” which can save us?  We can’t go back to the old “touchstones:”

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord.

Sleeper is wrestling with two Great Platitudes: 1) America is in the midst of Roman Empire-type collapse and 2) American civilization and democracy, that which makes America historically virtuous and great, and makes us better than all those crummy little countries which always find a way to “reject democracy,” is based on touchstones and wellsprings not quite religious, definitely not mercantile, and which once “encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms” but I’ll-be-damned-if-I-know-what-can-save-us-now.  According to Sleeper, the essence of the problem is this: “consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions.”

Sleeper is quick to make this dubious historical point: in America, the Puritan virtue which stood up to oppression mutated into evil capitalism.  For Sleeper, the uncompromising Puritan toughness of Khomeini somehow leads to the techno-modernizing evil of the Shah. But this is the wrong script. Khomeini (who the liberal Carter administration supported) filled the vacuum of the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini versus the Shah is a manifestation of the divide-and-conquer tactics of imperial oppressors like the British Empire: create a situation in the colony (Iran) of either/or. For here, incredibly, we have Sleeper identifying a “liberal capitalist republic” as lacking in all virtue, and yet somehow brought about by what he identifies as the Puritan “emphasis on individual conscience.”

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

Of what can this “greater good” consist, if buying and selling things, which by nature always corrupts and destroys love of the greater good, is at the heart of the “liberal capitalist republic” which America is? For Sleeper, it ends up being a world without all the bad things he dutifully lists: violence, sex without love, capitalism, religion, dishonest sports, mindless entertainment. People need to be kinder and nicer and think less about their own greedy and material wants. Well, of course. But we’ve heard these impotent pleas a thousand times before: “Why can’t we all get along?” And here, typically, the plea consists of playing to a certain ready-made audience (the “concerned” moderate Left), with a selective misreading of history.

Sleeper, the “small-is-beautiful” liberal, denies “mercantilism” or capitalism any place at the American table.  And what this typical Moderate Left position does is perpetuate a certain kind of scolding, patronizing sermonizing which identifies one as a member of the Moderate Left: America is great because of all sorts of intangibles: resembling religion, but not really, a little like capitalism, but not really, a bit like patriotism but not really, individualism, but not really.  In Sleeper’s world, democracy is this misty ideal—somehow unique to Americans—and has nothing to do with middle class comforts.

But we all know the truth that professors like Sleeper deny: middle class comforts, and the desire for middle class comforts, and the mercantilism which produces middle class comforts, has everything to do with American supremacy: its democracy, its virtue and its happiness.

By ignoring religion’s role in civilizing citizens (we can’t go back to Puritanism, Sleeper says) and only identifying the school shooters (at the rhetorical center of his piece) as “young” and “white” (young blacks killing young blacks are taking a far greater toll, but that’s not really on Sleeper’s radar) Sleeper misses something crucial, beyond even his mercantile bungle.

The school shooters have been, as a rule, “young” and “white,” but they also “have been males,” and acutely “loveless males.”

If we are interested in “touchstones” and causes, we should probably mention the obvious—which goes unmentioned by Sleeper, except indirectly, when he alludes, for instance, to the entertainment industry’s peddling of sex and violence.  But these issues are “symptomatic,” according to him, and perhaps they are.

Sleeper never does find a cause in his long essay.  He has no answers.  All he can say is we need “new narratives.”

May we make a suggestion.

Love, romantic love—romance—is what secretly holds society together and civilizes the world.

Romantic love has been under attack for at least a hundred years, universally disparaged in humanities and art departments as mere Victorian sentimentality; and it’s not even on the radar screen for political analysts like Jim Sleeper.

No one would deny the extent of it, nor even its importance as a certain kind of social glue, but mostly it is looked upon as “archaic and quaint,” or as a “problem” among the breeding lower classes.

But romantic love is really at the heart of all civilization; Plato and Rousseau knew of its importance, and so did Dante and the Romantic poets, but academic Modernism and post-Modernism, which views anything from the past dyspeptically, has largely shut the door on this whole trope.

All other tropes stem from this one.

Religion, for instance, is Romantic love by other means, with Jesus Christ the “bride” for those unable to experience romantic love in the flesh.

It’s okay for religion to be a fiction.  What matters is how it makes people behave.

Dante’s blending of religion and love in the person of Beatrice is a perfect example of what we mean.

This is not an insignificant trope; romantic love, when it is idealized by great poets and spread among the people, is that wonderful hybrid of chastity, philosophy, kindness, worship, art, beauty, ardency, reflection, chivalry, loyalty and marriage.

It softens the male, which is crucial.

Here is the “touchstone” that we need.

And, oh yes, let’s not be afraid of mercantilism and middle class comforts, either.

We have these things already.  Things are not as bad as they seem.  But to make Sleeper feel better, that’s our suggestion.

I’M THE ONE WHO DOES ALL THE WORK

My novels are long, ten times longer than yours,
My intricate poems take years to write;
I assembled my wardrobe with more effort than you can imagine,
The colors that match and the expensive material should tell you something,
And you can’t possibly appreciate the mammoth undertaking
That went into my cleanliness or my clever jokes
Aimed at dismantling the system
Which oppresses, oppresses
Even from its bed, even while it is naked, held by
The lover that loves.

THE PRICELESS FUTURE–FOURTH OF JULY POEM

Call it the love that it is:
Body of flesh pointing to the future,
Venus of reproduction, a daughter
Not down here for poetry or dance
Or the lesbian alternative.
Sexy prophecy of now,
More lovely than a golden cow.
The only reason for her sexiness:
Bearing children in the priceless future.
Hips, breasts, the good flesh,
A conspiracy of reproducing nature.
Nature will let you touch the breast
After painting and poetry have spoken,
After the speech, perhaps the sacred portal will open.
Life—without reason—will begin.
Here is accident without nuance.
Here is the clumsiest dance.
Sacrifice to silence and pilgrimage.
You, ashamed to kiss
Pure quantity?
Call it the love that it is.

 

 

FAME: IS IT REALLY HOLLOW?

Fame is not anything like we expect.  Fame is an ‘outside’ experience which has no correlation with our ‘inside’ experience—with ourselves, with who we are.  This is why fame so often leads to madness.  It splits the person.  But what if the ‘inner self’ wishes for fame and does not get it, that could ‘split us’ and lead to madness, as well.  “Sweet fame” is how the Romantic poets referred to it—it was considered a worthy ambition for the poet. Perhaps fame is a comfort to some, a vindication, a desire to spread goodness and beauty.  We are not here to simply disparage it.

But we suspect fame is often misunderstood.

How is it…hollow?

Let’s see…the first myth of fame which needs destroying: fame is not adoration; it is, in fact, its opposite.

To be “talked about” is the last thing a good moral reputation needs.

And, as the famous Poe once quoted, “No Indian prince to his palace has more followers than a thief to the gallows.”

A hanging draws great crowds, and disgusting curiosity is enough, in itself, to crown fame upon almost anyone.

We hear that some writer is famous, and we often don’t know how they came by that fame.  We often have no idea.

We assume their fame is because they write well.

This is mostly naive.

There are millions of beautiful women.  Why do only some—for their “beauty”—become famous?

Think about it.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, James Joyce and his Ulysses, Charles Baudelaire and his Fleur du Mal, Allen Ginsberg, and his Howl, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, just to name six famous modern examples, all owe their fame to law courts and cases of public morality. (one might note: the authors here are all men)

These are not just six ‘juicy’ works—these are icons in the top ten of Modern Literature, period.

Fame by cheating?

Poe—mentioned above—was chaste in manner, but his fame exists for another dubious reason: parody.

The Raven, Poe’s famous poem, was immediately parodied when it was first published.  Poe was reviled, as a harsh critic, in certain circles: parody and dislike often leads to fame, as well.

Another example which quickly springs to mind is the ridicule which greeted works of modern art—Marcel Duchamp and his museum-placed urinal—or the indignation elicited by new works of music.

The Beatles, in a sense, were parodied by The Monkees, a “manufactured” Beatles-type band for TV, and this leads to the question: is fame always a formula?

Those who worship the Beatles as sophisticated musicians often forget that children made up most of their audience when they first attained fame, and later, too, with their film and album, Yellow Submarine.

But is this such a bad thing?

We can almost say that fame is produced in two ways:

1. Sexually, offending child-like innocence—Flaubert, Joyce, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, Nabokov, and Lawrence.

2. Naively, offering up child-like innocence for sophisticated adult disapproval—Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary”) The Beatles (“Yea, yea, yea”).

We could simplify the two types above by calling them the 1. Tragic and 2. Comic routes to fame.

The really famous will often feature a hybrid of the two:

For instance, when people found drug references (not innocent) in Beatle John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” song, inspired by a drawing done by his kid (innocent).

Poe was ridiculed for a “childish” poem, “The Raven,” but was attacked for depraved habits, as well.

This interpretation of fame which we are now outlining is more accurate than the commonly used: Offends bourgeois taste.

Flaubert and Baudelaire date from 1857, and “Howl” went to trial in 1957, so we are looking at a 100 year window of sex, fame, and modernity, the so-called Tragic path.

T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edna Millay, W.C. Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath have had some success, but since Plath’s “Daddy” was published in the wake of her suicide in 1962, not one poem has become famous, not like “The Raven,” anyway, or one of Frost’s little gems; that’s a drought of 50 years, and we now live in a ‘social media’ age where things “go viral” all the time.

Recently, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, a poem by Patricia Lockwood called “Rape Joke” made a stir.  The numbers were not phenomenal, but they were pretty good for the ‘poetry world.’

The raw content of “Rape Joke” could easily be filed under Tragic, and yet in a gesture to the “hybrid” characterization mentioned above, Lockwood’s poem “jokes,” also—if grimly.

We published a response to “Rape Joke” on Scarriet.  One reader reacted to it angrily, which we—writing about our experience as an innocent child—never saw coming.

Perhaps we have entered a Post-Famous-Poem Age.

Maya Angelou asks in her 1978 poem, “Still I Rise:” “Does my sexiness upset you?”

Patricia Lockwood makes this rueful comment in her poem, “Rape Joke:”

“The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”

ROMANTIC BRACKET MAKES FOR THE SWEET 16

Marx versus Wordsworth

Marx and Wordsworth both hungered for simplicity; a certain nostalgia characterizes the madly ambitious intellect of the modern world.

Life was anything but simple for Marx and Wordsworth, but a hunger for the ‘simple life’ launched efforts on their part to deconstruct all that was complex.

Both of these gentlemen wanted to get rid of religion—because of its tendency, they thought, to confuse a world with a world, to distort one world with the promises of another.

These men were radical, because religion had not yet been widely questioned in their day; religion represented morality and order—which kept nature, red in tooth and claw, at bay.

Is nature really so terrifying?  For Wordsworth, fresh air, exercise, the beauty and the peace of rambling through the countryside is health—surpassing all the jargon and complexity of religion.

Marx was more urbane; he was not a hiker, like Wordsworth, and condemned, in fact, “the idiocy of bucolic life,” but Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum, not hiking about like Wordsworth, also despised religion, and compared the “fetishism” of religion with the “fetishism” of commodities; capitalism, for Marx, like religion for both, was a trick of the mind, leading to inequality.

Wordsworth wanted simple poems, Marx, simple labor practices; this was dangerous heresy in a complex world, but simplicity proved to be wildly attractive, and very popular as modern (naive) systems of thought. Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, as did Emerson, devotee of Wordsworth, and landlord of Thoreau—the thinker who quietly united Wordsworth and Marx.

One might say Marx was a lot more dangerous than Wordsworth, but one can find politics in Wordsworth if one looks hard enough—but one cannot find poetry in Marx.

WINNER: WORDSWORTH  William Wordsworth has made it to the Sweet 16!

***

Edmund Burke versus Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Burke is best known for his “conservative” objection to the thrills and dangers of the French Revolution.  Coleridge is best known for a few iconic poems, plagiarizing the Germans, talking endlessly, and theorizing iconically as well. Also: unhappiness in love, poor Coleridge! and opium abuse. And his on again, off again, friendship with Wordsworth. I know this crap: Imagination and Fancy, etc because I was an English major, the field of study which truly rocked, but for some reason is dying out, even though grammatical/philosophical literacy remains vital and other fields of study have nothing as interesting as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

WINNER: COLERIDGE Congratulations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you join your friend Wordsworth in the Sweet 16!

***

Edgar Poe versus Thomas Love Peacock

Whence came Edgar Poe?  We can’t get our heads around his greatness. The modern literary genius should come from London or Paris or Boston, not from the slave-owning South! There’s something in that which offends the literary sensibility of cool.  But, too bad; the greatest American literary genius came from the slave-owning South. And also had no money.

To make it worse, Poe’s genius is inescapable and unquestioned; it cannot be trivialized or wished away, though many have tried it, with a shoddy, slanderous, mumbly ignorance.

Since Poe overwhelms opponents to such a degree that it is like watching a helpless person pinned to the ground longer than we think is reasonable, people hate him.  And when someone is always right, or truly looks into our mind and soul with a calm stare that is truthful and honest, we are thrown into moral and even physical agony. Poe is too good to be believed, so good, he annoys, because we have little to do after we accept his ascendency. We cannot dilly-dally with pleasure after we absorb his templates. His inventions force us to be brief and intelligent, or die.

Thomas Love Peacock is a brilliant author, and his “The Four Ages of Poetry” is a masterpiece of criticism, inspiring his friend, Shelley’s, “Defense.”  Peacock’s novels were mostly conversations, like Plato’s dialogues. Peacock was known as “The Laughing  Philosopher.” He and his friend Shelley shared a love of Ancient Greece. Peacock worked in the offices of the East India Company, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill.

But what chance does a Peacock have against Edgar Poe?

WINNER: POE  Poe ushers himself into the Sweet 16.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Percy Shelley

Ralph Emerson talks about the soul to such an extent that one is quite certain, after reading Emerson, that the soul does not exist. Emerson is the kind of person that when you are thinking about something, says, ‘excuse me, let me do that for you.’ You don’t read Emerson, you surrender to him. Emerson will spend several hours explaining how the soul relates to the natural fact when he could have simply told us the soul is the natural fact—but nothing is simple for Emerson, or for those who attempt to understand him. His prose is poetry—when rearranged a bit with the name ‘Walt Whitman’ attached. Poetry that hectors. Emerson called Poe ‘the jingle man, but Poe’s jingle is melodic and clear compared to the jangle jungle that is Ralph Harvard Divinity School Emerson. The ‘forward-thinking liberal’ who makes superstition seem reasonable? That would be Waldo, the axe-grinder. Emerson wants argument everywhere: even in meters, as he tells us in “The Poet.” But you can’t be good at meters if you are not good at argument, so why does Emerson fault good meters which lack argument? I know a poet good at meters, Emerson says, but the true poet, etc….and here the sermon assures us that sermonizing about poetry is the way to get at it—thus Emerson envied Poe and Emerson’s heir, T.S. Eliot (Unitarian grandfather knew Mr. E.), hated Shelley.

Ah, Shelley! Shelley needs no argument. Shelley argues against religion and God with a music that remakes them. One cannot write like Dante and be an atheist. There is more God in the paganism of Plato than even in the unconscious accents of the modern non-believer. The sun recommends nature and God at once, and Shelley is that type of artist who reconciles, even in despair.

WINNER: SHELLEY

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