A WORD ABOUT LITERARY ACTIVISM

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The white guys of High Modernism

“Literary activism” has taken center stage recently among the chattering classes, those academics and journalists whose job it is to tell the working class how to live.

Is music a supplement to speech, or is it anti-speech?

Well, it depends on whether you hum or sing.

Mere humming is music which is anti-speech.

Singing music, however, (and that would include wordless Mozart) is clearly a supplement to speech.

Poetry, in the 20th century, went from anthologized, lyrical quietism by the fireside, to avant formalism in the classroom.

Poetry went from singing to humming.

It went from the musical wit of Byron to: red wheel barrow in the wastes of white space.

Lyrical quietism, so named today, was universal, personal, political, as well as…lyrical.

Avant formalism was apolitical, abstract, elitist, and just happened to be…white and male.

To put it simply: the crazyites (as Edgar Poe named them) won, even as Pound was put in a cage.

The recent surge of “literary activism” marked by ethnicity, with all its accompanying buzzwords (“struggle” and “voices” and “change”) is nothing more than a passionate reaction (or correction) to the white elitist character of the Modernism (the Men’s Club of Pound, Eliot, Williams) which destroyed the Universal Poetry of the People (dubbed ‘lyrical quietism’ by the avants).

The new “subversive” academics, the highly ethical and ethnic voices of “literary activism,” currently making headlines in the textbooks and Blog Harriet (The Poetry Foundation blog of Poetry magazine—famous because of the right wing Pound and Eliot) are semi-literate and reactionary, like their masters, the white “subversives” of 20th century Modernism, who shook off the highly literate and song-worthy revolutionary spirit of accessible 19th century poetry heroes such as Keats, Byron, and Poe.

Literary Activism does not sing, it hums.  It doesn’t speak, it produces a tune to which everyone must dance, an easily understood music—yawn in the face of the Odes of Keats because their author is white and male.

Keatsian Aesthetics is the enemy of the Ideological State—because the State is in a continual mode of “correction,” the on-going communist/fascist revolution which never ends; the war against whatever is old—running continually.

The reactionary nature of an Emerson or a Pound is hidden as long as these men are identified (and they are) with change.

Emerson’s imperialist, neo-liberal, racist “English Traits” is ignored in favor of his “The Poet,” which (subversively) attacks the aesthetics of Poe—the essence of whom, beauty, is not hidden: the subversion of Emerson leads straight to Pound and his white, male avant inheritors.

The soul-crushing politics of literary activism produces poorly written odes against “capitalism.”

God forbid we buy and sell. The ideological State does not approve of exchange. It does not approve of singing, of words, of speech, which create mutual influences: this is why dialogue is such a powerful tool and why the first clue to a bankrupt human being (crippled by ideology) is how difficult it is to have a conversation of discovery with them; they immediately quarrel and disagree the moment they are confronted with having to think as they talk. They can only talk about what they already think—they will not tolerate true dialogue, and the anger displayed always surprises the innocent lover of wisdom.

Exchange has one drawback. It is morally blind. Slavery is an instance of this, and the State which made the moral choice to end slavery is a good, not an evil.

But slavery has its origins in economic inequality—the slave trade persisted as long as it was profitable; the slave trade did not operate because it was a moral or an amoral practice; in the same way, thievery will always exist if there is economic inequality—morals mean nothing to the starving man.  If there is no honest exchange, it is due to one reason and one reason only: too much dishonest exchange: but the fault is not with exchange (capitalism) but with morals, and here we see by the very term, “honest exchange” that the two elements are really the same. The whole Marxist separation is false, and the intrusion of morals, per se, a mere Victorian illusion. The intrusion of morals becomes, in fact, capitalist competition by other means.

The good State wants good exchange. Exchange (song, thought, trade, capitalism) is a good, as long as it fosters further exchange. Slavery is an evil precisely because it prevents (by reducing a person to a commodity) further exchange. By faulting exchange itself, however, we actually perpetuate an evil, even as this anti-exchange folly is morally sugar-coated by the Marxist.

The State mind doesn’t like the music of singing; it prefers humming that pre-made tune.

The ethnic character of literacy activism innocently demolishes the ‘whole’ human being—who is forced into the prison of perceiving itself chiefly as black or gay or female. Instead of offering highly literate females, it offers illiterate females praising females—which is hurtful to females and does not advance their cause at all. Yet this reactionary practice is considered progressive.

In this instance it is easy to see why.

It is precisely because “literary activism” today is an unspoken correction against the embarrassingly white, male, elitist (and fascist/communist) character of avant Modernism: which destroyed the glory of lyrical quietism—the glory of Enlightenment Byron and Romantic Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The new literary activism is amending ‘old fogey John Crowe Ransom white male Modernism’—but is unfortunately at the same time an unwitting extension of the avant trampling of true poetry.

Caveat Emptor!

WHAT SHOULD BE PRAISED?

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We don’t love what flatters us.

I could not lie to either,

Though I tried, telling her,

Who was not smart,

“I love your mind!”

And telling her, ugly as a fart,

“I love your body! Can I kiss your behind?”

So none love me now.

Lying is best. But I don’t know how.

So, what can I do now

But take revenge in poems

Which say, fuck it, here’s the truth?

I can tell it because I am its truth.

Only we are the truth, and the lies

Everything not us; even our eyes

Show copies, so nothing original

Exists; only we, ephemerally beautiful,

Coy and partial, stuck in time and place

Are real. Nothing else. Not a trace.

So this is the truth, because it’s me;

The sole attraction of my poetry.

I can only love the physical;

The physical moves me to love, not you;

And that’s why I’m helpless talking to these two:

She, who is smart, I do not love,

Though our talk is delightfully witty,

But then I am stupid with this one,

For I am smitten by the pretty.

And never have the two lived in one.

I’m blinded by the physical.

So who the hell am I, to praise the sun?

I fail to love all things. Even my poetry

Fails. It divides me.

YOU WILL ONLY BE ALIVE TOMORROW

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As you examine the ruin of your life,

Which, in your mind, you call yesterday,

A once-happy past that brings you sorrow,

In a present that disappears,

You understand—as you count your tears—

You will only be alive tomorrow.

In your yesterday, you always are,

So in its death is all your life.

In this moment, vanishing,

You glimpse tomorrow’s star:

Strange place! where you shall die,

And forget this moment—which made you cry.

TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR MARRIAGE

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There is a kind of all-knowing, beautiful person

Who is certain—their beauty proves it—that we are all alone.

To them, a conversation always has a different tone.

When they see pictures of couples, a certain smile

Plays across their lips; they think: She’s going to leave him for a while.

 

Are you beautiful? And harassed? Don’t you feel alone?

And when you talk with someone, do you hear a different tone?

The sacred is not safe when you come into view.

It’s painful to think, isn’t it? that everyone’s untrue—

And the proof is in their eyes when they’re alone with you.

 

To complete the picture, you have no children.

Religion sighs. Tension swells. God inquires of his angels,

Angels in hell, angels in heaven: Is there anything we can do?

The heavens remain serene and beautiful. There is no help from heaven.

Then one leaves the one they love alone with you

And you prove what everyone knew.

Ever since you were a little girl, you heard it in their tone.

This is what beauty proves.

Everyone’s alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, TOO, FIND THIS WORLD MEAN AND UGLY

I, too, find this world mean and ugly.

When I am sad, it is sadly beautiful,

But this is a passing mood, and not the truth.

 

Accidental verdure trailing across the top of an industrial fence outside the train

Can bring a momentary feeling of reprieve: heroic verdure!  Then the entire stained world seems okay.

This feeling lasts as long as I am sad. Beautiful moods attach themselves to sad ones.

 

But I find no beauty at all when

I dwell on wronged and fallen humanity, and how asphalt and trash

Are the essence of every city, and cleaning and flushing is an operation

That never ceases, and human loneliness and its bewildering pain

Afflicts even the sweetly innocent who try

To be good and tender before the very door of truth.

 

Inside that door, which is iron and spotted and gray,

I sense eternity, whose darkness is our darkness,

A rich, beautiful darkness, which never quite goes away.

 

TYPES

The writer types types.
And typos!  The darling little typos!  Bambinos!

I had a crisis this morning and thought (as I typed my typos)
There are no people!  Only types.

The interesting woman has only three choices in men:

The dullard. Boring, boring, boring.  No way.
The braggart. No way.
The weirdo.  Interesting, but cannot be bragged about: eccentric, not publicly accomplished.

If the weirdo is cute enough in his weirdness and not too weird in a threatening or excessively weird manner,
She may go that way, and give this weirdo her love.

But this doesn’t seem particularly fair to women.
What kind of choice do they have?
The world is not a nice place for women.

But obviously, the lesson is:

Types are the only thing shown.

And the only type which has any validity is you.

Writers type types.
Writers attempt to make types interesting and beautiful.

Writers are trapped in types as they type
Even as they try to escape them.

This is what I am desperately trying to do
As I type these types (without typos) for you.

 

 

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SOUL IS

If you want to know what the soul is—

You tribes who love poetry—

I will tell you by the time you turn around;

I will illustrate with a simple example I found.

Listen. If you try and define the act of sex,

As it is commonly known by everyone

It is defined by only two things.

Stop me if I go astray, if I am wrong:

It is sexual exertion and orgasm.

This is sex, whether the person is beautiful or not.

They say sex is desired by nearly all

And night and day we hear its call.

But I do not desire sex

If there is not some beauty in the mix

Which we agreed has nothing to do with sex;

But I will not have sex without it.

But how can I have sex if sex is not what I am after?

How can I refuse a glass of milk

When there is only a glass and milk?

Sex without beauty does not exist for me:

It has never happened and will not happen.

Then exertion and orgasm do not exist for me

Unless something else is present which has nothing

To do with the act itself: beauty.

The soul, then, is like this beauty,

Which is everything, and yet nothing

In terms of how we behave in the physical world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE END OF FORMALISM

“I would counsel Lysias not to delay, but to write another discourse, which shall prove the lover rather than the non-lover ought to be accepted.” –Socrates (The Phaedrus)

Wouldn’t you say, a thing can only be so strong when it is based on weakness?

For instance, intoxication can make us brave, but it does so because we are not brave, and so intoxication’s “bravery” exists because of weakness and so intoxication as a “good” will always be seen as a weakness and be understood as such.

Likewise, verse (poetry) adds to language a music above and beyond language’s meaning.  Since all would agree that conveying meaning is the highest purpose of language, and poetry is a good in that it makes it more entertaining to get meaning from language—the weakness announces itself to everyone: poetry feeds meaning the way intoxication feeds bravery.

The brave don’t need intoxication.

Good readers don’t need poetry—to entertain them and keep them focused in order to get meaning from a text.

We may or may not want to leave aside Socrates’ argument in the Phaedrus that the lover (mad) is a better life-partner than the friend (practical, sane). As Socrates points out, everyone (lover and non-lover) wants beauty and the lover/poet is finally better able to provide this than the practical type.

But just as Psychology has largely left behind Freud and Jung and literary invention that gave birth to Psychology itself—for psychotropic drugs and their practical effects, Plato is hardly studied any longer in school, and therefore it is safe to say that intoxication and verse are no longer seen as strengths at all.

Madness is the way we denigrate a thing, especially in our race to absolute reason in the realm of the humanities: women and earth have been dominated too long by “crazy” white males. So this is why verse has been abandoned. Its “intoxicated” aid to reading is rejected as unnecessary and insane: a weakness, a wrong, to be dispensed with.

For, yes, we should admit it—verse is a silly, entertaining thing that makes reading a greater amusement for a kind of mind easily bored by reading for meaning.

Verse exists because of a reading weakness—just as intoxication is sometimes necessary for bravery.

We dare not suggest here—but because we are crazy, we will—that bravery is nothing more than intoxication itself, or that verse enhances and elevates meaning and is closer to meaning than naked meaning itself is, at least in some select and really important instances.  But we’ll throw it out there nonetheless.

Verse is, obviously, formalism.

Today there are three ways critics and poets attempt to downgrade verse (formalism.)

One: They make sure we know that Socrates wore a toga. They make the whole question of formalism historical: form exists in forms and these forms: sonnets, heroic couplets, etc belong to certain historical periods with specific historical conditions.

And therefore we either cannot use these forms today or we must self-consciously subvert them.

An ABAB rhyme scheme is the equivalent of using “thou” and “thee.”

The stream of history in which all forms must exist carries them away.

So forms—all forms—formalism itself, in one simple (historical) step, is swept away.

Of course, despite the scholars’ opinion re: forms and history, we find formalism persists.

But where it does persist, the scholars simply point out that its persistence is not scholarly:

Rhyme belongs to hip-hop and other kinds of pop music. It doesn’t “feel right” in poems today that wish to be taken seriously, as scholarly works.

According to this anti-formalist approach, a poem cannot “work on its own terms;” it is always felt and understood in terms of historical conditions.

The “rules” for writing a sonnet are certainly legitimate, and verse does have a valid existence, but, according to the historical anti-formalist reading, only in a museum sort of way.

The “historical” downgrading of formalism is a very powerful way to downgrade formalism because it is both conservative and radical, since it simultaneously plays the “respect for history” card and the “now” card. Form is respected, but forms are obsolete, says the historical scholar.

The conservative New Critic John Crowe Ransom told his 1930s readers that writing like Byron was no longer possible. The “historical” view justifies every kind of experimentalism—even as it trumpets its tweedy respect for history.

Two: The scholars make form—not forms—the only thing that matters.  A highly abstract macro (form) kills the micro (forms).

This, too, is a very effective way to downgrade formalism:

This whole anti-formalism method can be summed up with T.S. Eliot, who wrote that even prose scans.

Even the loosest free verse has “form;” white space on the page has “form.”

This argument is far more insidious than number one above; so much so, that it resembles a CIA brainwashing tactic, and is probably the top reason for poets giving up on verse altogether—in a turn-about that courts insanity; destroying formalism in this manner argues that because white exists, snow cannot exist.

Form is what matters.  And form is such a naturally large category that the formless resides there. Formalism (the quality dismissed) merely concerns itself with various antiquated forms.

And here one notices how much this resembles the historical argument: The poet is expected to explore form itself as it applies to the present. Sonnets and Elizabethan England both belong to a formalism of the past.

So here’s a second reason not to write a sonnet.  First, the sonnet is relegated to the past. Second, form should be the focus; sonnets are merely forms.

And if that were not enough, there’s a third way.

Three: Avoid the subject altogether and make poetry all about content: form is expressed by what we say.

Just as the second reason strongly resembles the first reason—both emphasize form over forms—the third way that downgrades formalism resembles the second reason, for saying “form is nothing” is logically the same thing as saying “form is everything.”

Helen Vendler, obsessed with the “heterogeneity” and “stylistic originality” of poets like  Graham and Ashbery, is, in her essentially New Critical style, a mixture of Two and Three. She has written:  “Poetry not intelligible with respect to contemporary values of society could not be read.”

Surely, however, all critics like Vendler understand that a pure prose content purely isolated from all musical considerations cannot possibly denote anything poetical.

The poetical is prose meaning dipped in the coloring of musicality and moods. Content is always the ground from which we start, but it is not the poem itself.

Bravery (truth) is not intoxication (poetry).

To asset that ‘form is content and content is form’ is to lose both—is really to assert nothing.

Formalism is downgraded in three distinct ways, but it’s all the same pedantic strategy, a convincing but hollow set of deconstructions.

Listen in on any discussion of formalism and you get one or some combination of these three anti-formalist positions we have just presented: there is little else, except perhaps a kind of vague, well-meaning gesture towards “poems that work” in whatever manner happens to suit the historically grounded and socially acute poet. Virtues are slyly assumed to exist outside of formal properties, with the added assumption that “stylistic originality” and forms cannot co-exist.

But the truth is, there can be more “originality” in a sonnet than in all the works of Ashbery.

This is a truth which overturns all the abstract claims of heterogeneity in terms of form versus forms.

For we are always assuming that heterogeneity is going to be more original, but there is no basis for this belief at all.

New York City is a large complex place, but so long as we point to New York City in our minds as “heterogeneity,” able to stand as the ideal which transcends the petty, self-important enclosures of mere formalism, we miss the much larger point that New York City really consists of tiny neighborhoods, and all poetry, if not all reality, exists, and is accessible and knowable, in the city block, or the building, or the room: the reality is not a scholar pointing to abstract “form;” the reality is understood in what hides in a building in New York City—a sonnet, perhaps.

Yes, it actually makes more sense to look at all literature as a great string of sonnets than to wallow in pretentious abstractions (and billions of details merely elucidated for their own sake—or to fit into heterogeneity theories.)

Sonnet by sonnet is not the way to read, obviously, but the point is that this makes more sense than any of the methods advertised by the anti-formalist school.

Think of a literacy of the sonnet, rather than of the line, or the sentence, or the word, or the phrase.  What a literacy that would be!

Couldn’t the sonnet be the building block?  And wouldn’t it be a healthy mind who thinks in those terms?

Shelley’s great Ode (West Wind) is a short series of sonnets.

And one can read the Gettysburg Address—as four sonnets.

 

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Now let us ask, after exposing the ravings of the anti-formalists, this more pertinent question: what is poetry’s purpose?

Flowers are not condemned to exist under glass, as the sonnet is—and why not?

The answer is obvious: because flowers serve a purpose.

Flowers attract bees—this attractive quality helps define for us what a flower is, and, although we are not bees, so powerful and overflowing is the flowers’ attractiveness, that we, bee-like, admire the flower for its flower-like qualities.

What if poetry is a language of dissemination which, like the flower, is attractive in order to disseminate?

And what if this attractive quality is timeless and demands cultivation and protection?

The gardener is not asked to admire the flower but protect, grow, and breed the flower, for all eternity.

If the gardener merely admired the flower and did not protect, grow, and breed the flower, in terms of what we understand a flower to be, we would call her a very poor gardener.

Further, if the gardener greatly admired flowers, but assured us that flowers had long since served their purpose as flowers, and now should exist in museums only, we should not only find this great admirer of flowers a poor gardener, but, despite their learned admiration, an enemy of flowers.

Those who downgrade formalism in the three ways outlined above—condemning traditional forms of poetry to sterility and “learned” curatorial irrelevance—are like the gardener who may admire flowers, but is their enemy and destroyer.

Poetry today is being destroyed, especially by those who currently study and practice it. A museum-admiration of poetry is an evil and insidious thing.

To seek for the elusive rationale or reason or purpose or use, of poetry can be compared to the search for a loved one in a crowd.

The similarities defeat us, not the differences.

“Is this the one you seek?” ask the ignorant but well-meaning searchers, and they bring us person after person, with face and arms and legs and every particular human quality—but no, this is not our beloved!

We are not looking for a type—we are searching for a unique quality.

Just as we look for a championship baseball team, celebrated through the ages, and are deterred most in our search, not because it hides beside an object like a fire engine, but rather next to a losing team—which also has pitchers who throw at 90 mph and hitters who can hit a ball 500 feet.

The poem’s reason that we seek, to the ordinary eye, looks very similar, in the great scheme of things, to a great deal of other writing.

Poetry’s purpose, ignored by theoretical moderns—blends in.  And—because we are blind to it, it can eventually kill us.

We scan the crowd for the one we love and die if we do not find her.

We search for: not forms, not form, not content, but attractiveness.

The pedants ignore the raison ultima because they fear it will be “a type,” thinking “type” itself is defined by form, but never content. But here they wildly err.

To specify poetry with formalism alone is to take poetry over to mathematics and music—and this is not 1) a general thing nor is it 2) anything to do with content—precisely because content is never specified (the purpose of poetry is never mentioned)—since we assume whatever is said can and will be said, heightened by the formal qualities, of course, but not determined by them. Yet how can the content of speech not be determined by its formal qualities in a systematic manner? Music does determine how speech speaks and once this is conceded, the poetry’s ultimate rationale must at last be acknowledged, for how speech speaks cannot but determine what speech speaks.

Yet we never hear in discussions of formalism what poetry must say.

We can discuss stocks and bonds in verse and never mention poetry’s purpose. We can allude to Eliot’s objective correlative and never mention poetry’s hidden purpose, since Eliot’s astute formula never escaped the blackboard to actually walk about. Eliot was using this formula to attack whole historic periods of poetry when, he felt, content and form were estranged; the tweedy Modernist condemned the Romantic poets this way—Eliot was finally downgrading formalism historically, not philosophically—and so an opportunity was missed: Eliot was essentially saying what the conservative Ransom was saying when Ransom said we can’t write like Byron anymore: Modernism ignoring poetry’s true purpose by saying “form, not forms.”

We are free to say anything in poetry now, said the 20th century Anglo-American Modernists, making the reason disappear in a general loosening of form to fit more and more varieties of content. But why the Modernists hated Byron, was that Byron said more interesting things while rhyming than the Modernists did in free verse.  This is why the chief Modernists like Eliot and Ransom tried to bury Byron (and Romantics generally).  Byron didn’t fit the Modernist formula.

Sure, many ruefully viewed the Modernist agenda as a simple mistake: poetry-turning-into-prose; well, everybody did, but no one had the pedagogical reasoning to stop it. Verse was the “metronome” and poetry-as-prose, the “musical phrase” was how crazy Pound cleverly put it. (“Prose scans,” in other words.)

No one stopped to think that a metronome was a perfectly useful tool for Beethoven, as he created profound “musical phrases.” Beethoven was hidden, like poetry’s reason, in the “room” of Modernist “verse.”

Robert Penn Warren, the New Critic co-author of the influential, mid-20th century Understanding Poetry textbook, wrote an essay defending “impure poetry” against “pure poetry,” another Modernist act in the drama of hiding poetry’s purpose. Poetic content was now, according to Warren: “all and any content not determined in the least by form.” The purpose of poetry was gone. Modernism had blithely killed it.

It wasn’t that form gradually loosened due to formal considerations; form wasn’t freeing up form—content was, in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ anything can now be said: the lyrics were eliminating the music, so to speak; this, and only this, is what was meant by “impure poetry” and its triumph. (Understanding Poetry included a savage attack on the attractively musical verses of Poe, even as it championed Pound and Williams; Warren’s essay savaged Shelley; Eliot impolitely attacked Shelley, as well: Poe and Shelley were wretched examples for Modernist delectation of scorned, “narrow purity.” Remember, the New Critics were considered “conservative” in their views. But chucking formalism was universally done in the Modernist era.  This is what the Pound clique did: they also attacked Edna St. Vincent Millay. (See Hugh Kenner’s nasty remarks on her).

But if formalism, as all must concede, has what must be described as legitimate formal qualities (to define it as formalism as such) what does it mean to say, as the anti-formalists said, that content can be whatever it wants in an “impure” triumph? Here is a “room” which has certain formal qualities, identifying itself as a “room” of poetry (as opposed, to say, a dinner menu) and yet, when content enters this room, the room itself only exists to leave the content untouched and free to express itself however it chooses, and any restriction upon the content is condemned as a backwards step towards an unwanted, old, and “pure” poetic practice.

Of course defenders of the “impure” never admit the absolute disconnection of form and content outright— in each specific poem, they say, form and content do their dance: both form and content are equally valuable; the “impurity” we defend is only to say (they point out) that formalism is no longer a straitjacket; formalism no longer is severe in its restrictions, no longer blindly formal in its dictates.

Poetry’s purpose remains hidden, however. What is said in the poem is said, and afterwards, the “everything is form” explanation is bent to the content’s will—this is the anti-formalist ‘explanation number two:’ making formalism a blindly obedient (and essentially nonexistent) shadow of content. Whatever facilitates the saying (or meaning) that is not the saying (or meaning) has an existence, in the same way that “prose scans;” but nothing that can be called art need exist at all—the poem speaks; the content speaks and asserts itself, and simply by way of formalistic properties manifesting themselves in a perfectly ordinary “grammatical or anti-grammatical” manner, this then becomes the “formal triumph” which mirrors the “ordinary” content speaking in its artless cunning, free of all artificiality, fulfilling the prophecy of Modernism’s expansive and articulate poetic quest.

There is no need to make any decisions about content; all that needs to be proclaimed, proclaim the anti-formalists, is that historically we are expanding our ability to provide content as formalism drops away: jettisoning all formalistic strategy, as content becomes all (and thus, nothing!) This is what Eliot meant by formalism hiding behind the drapery of loose poetry: historical poetry’s actual existence as such, is old Polonius—and the prying pedant is soon to be stabbed and killed in T.S. Eliot’s Critical Modernism’s play.

But how can the form of poetry—if it is really form-–not predetermine content? It must. Otherwise it is not really what we mean when we speak of poetic form. How can poetry as a formal practice not have a real existence as an actual piece of form and as an actual piece of content?

If we are true poets, we do not wish to blindly kill the beloved (poetry’s reason); we wish to find them in the crowd.

How will I my true love know from another one? —Ophelia, Hamlet

We listen to Beethoven and hear an actual musical content; the music inspires specific feelings—based on its formal qualities. To say that poetry does not do the same thing is to deny poetry’s existence altogether. Which is what we said earlier is happening in fact: poetry, in academia—where it now mostly resides—has become a museum exhibit in its formalism, an inconsequential exercise in its contemporary use. It does not matter that superior poetry is being written today in obscure quarters—the public simply does not exist for it, and so it does not exist.

We said that in recent history, formalist considerations never usher in the least interest in specific categories of content, with Eliot’s objective correlative formula the one major (ineffective) exception. But before Modernism, poetry’s purpose is acknowledged; poetry is given an identity based on what it does—and what it expresses in terms of content.  The greatest example in literature, perhaps, can be found in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus.

The modern lyric was called a “love letter” by Dante. Shakespeare made the sonnet a courting device for love and breeding—and thus was not far off from the “love letter” idea; the two greatest poets of all time (Eliot himself was explicit: “Dante and Shakespeare; there is no third”) have no trouble acknowledging the purpose of poetry which is now hidden: poetry, as much as it does exist formally, does yet have a use within, and obedient to, its purely formal existence.

The novel can be said to have originated as a series of letters (sonnets?) and the greatest fiction can be defined as an unfolding of love (or its opposite, hate: see the war-like Homer).

The sonnet—formalism—shall return.

Poetry, grown by philosophy and love, will be a living flower, once again.

 

WHAT I THOUGHT WAS VARIETY

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What I thought was variety was not variety at all:

Variety of grass. Variety of film short. Variety of tall.

What I thought was variety was not variety at all:

Variety of virtual, variety of very tall envying the tall.

What I thought was variety was not variety at all:

Everything was similar. Equality led to my fall.

What can I do next? A surprise, to love you well?

Apparently not. You left me—to every variety of hell.

 

 

WHEN I WAS A LADY

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When I was a lady, and all

My suitors were ignored who loudly came to call,

I dreamed of a humble one who wrote

Music. I loved each quiet note.

There is a loudness that is not heard

As loudness—now everyone may hear the bird

Who once sang on my window-ledge

Only to me—my secret privilege.

The bird only sang to me!

My secrecy and my vanity and my poetry

Became intertwined.

Talk to me of the rock arena, but that’s no interest of mine.

BEFORE LOVE SPOKE, THERE WAS NO LOVE

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Before love spoke, there was no love.

In the old days desire had no voice, only a sharp spear

For hunting—breeding sensation and fear.

 

In our day, desire is made of speech.

But since this change,

The poet grieves and thinks,

How strange! that love is yet beyond his reach.

 

There’s nothing in words love cannot express:

Words create desire and tell us how to dress;

Love is now a document, a deed.

Love is simply everything we read.

All we say is love, every word a bird-call

In the ever-writing mating tree.

Love has no will or force; only nights

That drunkenly happen. The spear writes.

 

Love has no art; all love is speech; all speech is poetry;

The poet is not heard over chattering society,

When love is mistaken for criminality,

Great lawyers are writing the poetry.

 

Thousands of beauties I saw!  And they all looked the same.

Does beauty have a thought?

Does desire have a name?

No. The lover has fought

For kindness, not fame.

 

 

UNTIL I’M CAPTURED AGAIN

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Until I’m captured again

I will love the chain, and pretend

You are on the other end.

 

You captured me—almost—completely.

But since no one is ever free—

Again and again you torture me,

For that is what you and your beauty

Did, if not intentionally—

Well, that’s how my slavery

Seemed, as if you knew all you are to be

The one thing capable of enslaving me,

And your beauty still does, because dreaming of it

Is now my routine and habit,

Your mind the one mind I cannot escape,

Since the philosophy of love became the world I made.

 

They say one’s own mind should not invade

One’s own mind, but that’s what we do,

As we try to decipher the false from the true

Hopelessly. In the meantime, my hope?

To feel your love tugging on my rope.

 

 

 

ART APPRECIATION

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Incapable of love,

All you do is seduce.

You are not the real fruit—

But the perfume, the juice.

Incapable of thought,

You fashion the noose.

You revel in surfaces.

Your philosophy: the excuse.

Incapable of love,

Here’s what they deduce:

Okay, she’s beautiful,

But she’s crazy, so what’s the use?

Incapable of love,

You flatter at first.

You pretend kindness.

Then you bring the worst:

You hide your empty nature

In mysterious unavailability,

And wear your victim like a glove.

That’s why I love you! You are a god,

And gods cannot love.

 

 

WHEN YOU SEE THE WEATHER COMING OVER THE TREES

When you see the weather coming over the trees

You wonder what the world is hiding:

In the next town, perhaps, she is on her knees,

The rain clearing, the brightening sky

Changing the whole look of her room.

She is begging God to tell her why

She is unlucky in love, even though she is beautiful,

But what’s amazing, is my poem will.

 

At this very instant I am getting answers for her,

The clouds unfurling more clouds from its cloud army

In one power packed display over more clouds in the distance,

Separating one neighborhood from another,

A cunning trick by the weather,

In what you find charming as branches hover over

The summer it always seemed to rain.

I’LL WOO HER BACK WITH POETRY

I’ll woo her back with poetry

Because that’s how I won her first.

Maybe she doesn’t love me—

Maybe my poems will fail—

But miss a chance to love? To love her! That’s worse.

 

I already love her, the Muse knows that’s true,

So my poems should be easy to write

For love makes everything easy,

Almost too easy, I found,

Because ease produces spite.

 

It’s so easy to smile, and kiss a smile, too,

Oh I used to laugh and weep

With joy just to be near her,

Acting strange, I was so in love,

But love that easy is not easy to keep.

 

True feelings annoy those whose feelings are not true,

Who need to think before they speak;

I know because I was like that once, too,

Calculating the impact I made,

And terrified of seeming silly, or weak.

 

All that changes when you really fall in love;

But love’s a funny thing.

Before you are certain they really love you

Or how it will play out in life

You feel like a singer who cannot sing.

 

Nothing at all is easy,

Except those feelings which make you mad,

And happy and ready to love,

To give yourself to that great worship

Of love, which is religious, it is so sad!

 

So alarms are raised in the lovers,

Because they are flirting with madness

And regular life doesn’t like that.

Ordinary life is jealous of love;

It laughs at religious sadness.

 

We all have that moment when we are young,

When, truly ready to love and adore,

A priestly voice takes us aside and whispers,

“Don’t you get it? It’s all a show.”

When we hear this we don’t quite love anymore.

 

Oh we may fall in love, later,

But we love doubtfully; normal life

Makes us feel self-conscious and afraid,

For we have joined ordinary life:

Someone else’s job, weighty children, unhappy wife.

 

The need to love, really love, though, never goes away,

Never goes away, or fades,

Even as we stumble through life, fake-smiling,

Failing at everything—because we don’t love,

Even if we manage to win a prize, or get good grades,

 

Because we know there is easy love,

Like playing sad music on guitar,

Even though we don’t play guitar;

We know love is spectacular and easy

And we want this ease to define what we are;

 

No more obstacles or hesitations,

No more calculations, no more freaking out.

We take up God’s guitar

Made by God and play what God already knows,

And love lives, and there isn’t any doubt.

 

This is what I do with poetry,

Which makes me a spectacular lover, and true

And mad and happy—and her?

I love her. She lives in my heart

In perfect ease! Muse, there is no need to woo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN SHE SAID NEVER

Love is that tragedy
Which is always affecting me
In funny ways.
A composer died of a broken heart,
But listen how beautifully his music plays
And still it lives, and will live forever.
The composer said yes
When she said never.

Love is that poetry
Which is always affecting me
In funny ways.
A poet died of a broken heart,
Yet listen how his poetry says
A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
The poet said yes
When she said never.

Love is the whole of me
Which is always affecting me
In funny ways.
I am excited when I walk in the fields;
Every flower I see reminds me of her
And they will remind me of her forever.
I, too, am blessed. I said yes
When she said never.

 

FOR LIZ

I cannot love.

I can drive a car.

I can be kind.

I can work.

I cannot love.

I can play the piano.

I can write poetry.

I can feel excitement.

I cannot love.

I can cook and tend a garden.

I can avoid sleep.

I can sleep.

I cannot love.

I can be enthusiastic.

I can converse with strangers.

I can be calm.

I cannot love.

I can stand up for myself.

I can let others have their way.

I can think of several things at once.

I cannot love.

Don’t tell me I don’t know what love is.

You know what I know—don’t you, Liz?

AT LOVE’S

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When do you love the doctor?

When I am sick.

And when do you hate the doctor?

When I am well.

When do you love the lover?

When I am sick.

And when do you hate the lover?

Stay. And I’ll tell.

I NEED TO WRITE THIS POEM FAST

I need to write this poem fast.

This inspiration will not last.

Yes, look how love between two people disappears

In a cloud of tears.

My inspiration’s source will always exist, though.

Remember when you were young and bored in school and everything seemed slow?

The attempt to write fast

Does not help inspiration last—

And even the inspiration’s source

Immense as it is, will not stay its course.

It falls, knocking me down like a giant tear,

Aching inspiration heralding her cry in a future day: “I’m here!”

I had to write this poem fast.

Her kiss missed my lips.

If life is good, be happy!

And if not, be happy!

Because none of this shit, baby, is going to last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE EARTH TAUGHT HER CHILDREN TO BEFOUL HER

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The earth taught her children to befoul her.

You are my Central Park.

You are the landscape for loving a shadow’s deepening.

You are the landscape for which I apply.

You are the landscape not of talk or thought

But the glittering that goes on in the sparrow’s eye.

In the middle of the gleaming, teeming city I return to nature.

In your body I slowly know nature as I never did.

Where is the snake—feeding on the minnow in the stream—I hid?

Your trees, your fertility, your face of faceless architecture

Emitting sighs, would make Frederick Olmsted drop

And Wordsworth his cunning Prelude stop.

Of course I had long plans, and still do,

But when I became your friend

I realized that you were long in the planning, too.

You did not simply go along or get along

And that is how I found you in my song.

I had to amend my every idea of nature.

The Central Park of my youth where I found polliwogs was you.

You, the vista and the view.

You, the tangled branches shading the stream;

The snake-filled stream which haunted me in many a silent but riotous dream,

You, my prophecy—had you been seen,

Walking the margins of the dream-park with your plans,

Would I have fallen deeper? It is a joy to analyze—

Even though I cannot, when I peer into your eyes.

I paced the porch and considered the morality

Of the bridge between home and nature.

The talk of the “Father of Landscape Architecture”

Posited against you smiling in the swamp—

This is where I thrilled to journey, not knowing then

That loving the earth was incest,

And reading downward a sin.

I can only vow to love you under sky and sky

More, even more, when I love you again,

And this time at no time be afraid to die.

 

 

 

 

TO YOU, THE ONLY ONE WHO KNOWS THIS

To you, the only one who knows this,
I dedicate this,
Simply. Without a sound. Without a kiss.

I learned from you what is best for me.
You improved me. That was part of our destiny.
There was… love, but it is not polite to talk of that.
And I won’t. Losing weight from worry isn’t good. Everyone should get fat.

My adoration for you is unceasing.
Strange, strange, strange! how we died, and now are dead to each other—
But we still live, in the songs of afternoons, as before, feeling love
For a million things.

We died to each other
And perhaps that’s why
My love can live and die for you every day;

Because love died, and dies again and again,
I love you now more than I loved you then,
More than when I touched you, and held you close

And the uncomprehending would glimpse us: crying
By the sea, or kissing as we walked: two ghosts.

Do not doubt that for us love still lives.
Where there has been love, even the broken gives.

I LOVED HATE

She was like my mother, self-loathing and sad,
Comparing herself to others, and always feeling  bad,
Taking out her aggression on yard waste, alone.
I saw my lover as my mother, unconsciously. Groan.

She was sweet and friendly at first—
I fell in love; it was too late.
For the soul that loves this is the worst:
To fall in love with hate.

Everyone’s heart is a house.
She took me to her house
But left me at the gate.

She was sweet and friendly at first.
I fell in love with hate.
By the time I got to know her
Oh God! It was too late.

I was madly in love,
Madly in love with hate.

She had secrets, secrets galore.
Hateful secrets. Which made me love her more.

Hate can be loved, and once love begins,
It will love hate forever.
Love simply loves. And the world thinks it sins.

For one who loves love, this was an unkind fate.
To love only love—then fall in love with hate.

It is sad to be hateful; I don’t sympathize with hate.
I don’t wish to describe her this way. Ah, but now it is too late.

Love is normally patient, but not when love loves hate.
She had nothing else to do. And so she made me wait.

She was like my mother, worrisome and sad,
Comparing herself to others, and always feeling  bad,
Taking out her aggression on yard waste, alone.
And then she wrote me angry messages on the phone.

She took me to the house and left me at the gate.
She was sweet and friendly at first.
Then we kissed. I discovered my fate:
To love her. To love her. To love hate.

I SUFFER BECAUSE I LOVE

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I suffer because I love.

I hear sighs in the corridors of the day.

I long for suffering love, because this is what will stay.

If I must suffer, love, let me suffer because of you.

Suffering without love is unimaginable.

And not something I’m prepared to do.

They say sufferers are losers, and those who do not, win.

They are right! I would love to inhabit a sly, seductive grin,

But I think all eventually suffer, and I am glad

You seem to be sad.

Suffering is proof of love.

Too much laughter and joy

Will annoy.

There are holes everywhere, leading into the earth.

We are going to fall into one,

So what is joy worth?

As I am going down,

I’ll think of you—your kiss, your sorrow, your frown.

 

UNFORTUNATELY THERE IS ONE

Unfortunately there is one

Who cannot love; who is a photograph, but not the sun.

A photograph is produced with a sudden, narrow light

On a flat surface: sometimes we mistake it for real sight

And evidence of the thing, as if the thing were a thing’s flight.

She does not want to be seen; she looked unhappy

When, by accident, a poet ran into her today.

All he needed was a moment’s glance to see

A face lined with anger and misery.

All love begins with accident; the accident of place,

The accident of a kind voice murmuring through a kind face.

The accidents of love are kind even to the one

Who cannot love; who is a photograph, but not the sun.

Poets are those who fanatically want things to be just right.

Poets choose a photograph over living, a picture over sight;

They prefer an image to living, if the image, not living, looks exactly right.

We were that rare combination, since beautiful poets are rare;

Most of us, when we see beautiful life, only stop and stare,

But there are those, and it is sweet, trembling and rare,

Who are the beautiful life, who can create it with their voice,

With the deliberate way they look and move; beauty is a choice

They succeed in making with their very being—

They are the beauty you and I are only seeing.

And now in the picture of this poem I give you a picture of one

Who hides, because she is a photograph; she is not the sun;

Who hides, because she could not finally love, and the shame

Of this is too much, and she is reduced to taking snapshots of blame;

She is miserable—in her life the accident of love has returned to accident,

In which most of us wait and suffer and hope.

We were those two poets: beautiful, loving in cinemascope,

An affair like a long porn film, lived; not watched; it was paradise;

This is what joy truly is: a beautiful porn film; porn that is beautiful and nice,

Made by, and for poetry; in the country, and in beautiful escapes;

But she is not the sun; she cannot love. So roll those tapes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WAS THERE EVER A YOU?

I made that poetry proudly,

A little bit of emotion, an idea or two.

In love, I write for the one I love.

But was there ever a you?

 

I, in love, loved loudly,

Too much emotion, which emotion knew.

In poetry, I write to one I love.

But was there ever a you?

 

How can I tell you, my only love!

Of these feelings that writing knew?

It is you I write to, my darling.

But was there ever a you?

 

Why do I ponder this?

To question this is absurd.

Of course you exist! You do!

I only question the word.

SHE COULDN’T FEEL

“Blue moon, I saw you standing alone.” —old song

They grew apart
For they were as together as they could be.
She couldn’t feel.
He couldn’t see.

They grew apart
As only lovers can,
As only a woman and a man
Who love deeply, can.

They grew apart,
Making themselves beautiful—beauty, their revenge.
Beautiful face, hard heart,
Hard heart until the end.

When they loved, they were brave.
Now they do not love.  And they save what they can save.

 

 

 

I WANTED TO PAINT A POEM FROM WHAT SEEMED TO ME ETERNAL IN MY MIND

 

A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet cannot say it, for the mind in creation is like a fading coal… —Shelley, Defense of Poetry

Oh poetry revels in picturesqueness;
Bushes, flowers and vines
Coiling around broken friezes,
Odors bursting from slaved-over lines
As you walk in the garden—
Holding your palms out to the rain
Sailing, dropping mistily down,
While workers die in the mines—
Through nodding narrow greenery.
Tourists in Italy stood a long time.
If you can, picture Hawthorne or the Brownings,
The life of literary sculpture
Passing away into a more beautiful music
Which in turn passes away.

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