1970


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It’s 1970.

Really.

At my parents for Thanksgiving, this year, I looked around in the early morning and the only thing telling me it was 2015, not 1970, was the family cell phones and iPads charging, laying about the living room and kitchen.

That’s it.

There were trees. Cars sitting in the driveway of my parents’ Yankee Barn house, made quaint and beautiful by my dad’s woodworking, my mom’s Julia Child cooking, their Depression-era, no-nonsense good taste, their Puritan work ethic.

The newspaper delivered to the top of my parents’ driveway sat on the table: the headline? A Russian fighter plane had been shot down in Turkey. So…Russia versus NATO. Also: Race tensions. Remember the cold war? The race riots in 1970?

2015 isn’t any different.

In 1969 man walked on the moon. And what have we done since then?

Are there any new major metropolitan centers in the United States?

No. Some are better. Some are worse.

Nice neighborhoods, bad neighborhoods in ratio and location pretty much the same.

In 1970, there was a little music from 1925, but not much. There was a lot of music from 1870 (Brahms was pretty big) and 1670 (Bach was everywhere).

But in 2015, nearly all popular music, from Bruno Mars to Adelle, derives from 1970.

My point is: why has time stopped? What’s going on? We hear about the tumultuous, technological rush of “the new” every day.

But if 2015 is essentially 1970, where is this rush of “the new?”

It doesn’t exist.

Is the United States population smarter or more interesting now?

Nah.

In 1970,  poetry and art were modern and ugly and moneyed and hip and we longed for the beautiful and the old.

In 2015, poetry and art is smart and modern and ugly and moneyed and…

Yup. It’s the same thing.

And does the whole world still look to America and strive to keep up?

Internationally, the truth of this is the same.

Significant change came to a halt in 1970.

1925 music in 1970 felt absolutely dated.

“Let It Be” or “American Woman,” released today, however, in 2015, would be welcomed as exciting and trendy.

In 1970, we had “Earth Day,” and environmental destruction/mass starvation was a huge issue. American imperialism was massively discussed and documented by elites and the poor, alike. The “I Have A Dream” speech was famous. Every political issue on the table today was on the radar in 1970.

Discussed. And discussed.

But what has changed?

Nothing.

The New World Order still calls the shots, no matter how many stories we see in the papers, or on TV, or the internet.

That’s right. Liberals, conservatives, radicals, activists, progressives, evangelicals, libertarians, conspiracy nuts: as it was in 1970, so it is in 2015.

The same straightjacket templates, created from above, still exist.

In 1970, there were spiritual preachers of various stripes calling for change on the inside. Political activists of various stripes calling for pragmatic change on the outside. In the very same ratio, with all the same ideas. Exactly the same as 2015.

What is on our computers and cell phones? The exact same stuff one would find in 1970. Unless we are talking about jokes—about how everyone is on their cell phones.

1970 would have a good laugh at that.

Since it was Thanksgiving, I was able to test my ideas on my young, whip-smart and connected nephews; I asked them if there were a car today better than the greatest car made in 1970. The progress cited, even by the one who had owned, and taken Porsches apart and put them back together, was: the electric car.

But are electric cars on the road today?

Not much, they admitted. But it’s coming!

Then, I happened to be watching a little TV that afternoon, after swimming at a fitness center—which I hear people did, every now and then, in 1970—and the televised program calmly informed me that in 1909, electric cars were on the road, and as popular as gas cars.

When does progress go backwards?

Here it was again: the pride of the now—crushed by the reality of the past.

To be educated in today is not even to be educated.

What have we earned with today’s massive debt?

Ignorance.

We flex our “new” muscles.

Above the yawning grave.

And still more information flowed out of the TV screen: During our great-grand parents’ day, when electric cars were being manufactured and sold, the following was true:

Guys liked gas cars, for the noise, the smell, and the speed.

Women preferred the clean and quiet electric cars.

I fell down a hole today, as 2015 cried, It’s 1970!

Then I fell into another hole.

We are always falling.

Some things never change.

MORE ADDICTIVE

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Is there a bass line more addictive than heroin?

Or a melody that beats all intoxication?

Is there a set of eyes

So lovely, they are food to the wise?

And I, in love, could look at them forever,

And float in ecstasy

Upon their dark and rain pelted river?

There is a melody just like your eyes

Which I heard once under the starry river

Superseding our less distinguished skies.

I heard it once, and it ended my thirst

For melody, which was not the first

Thing I loved, nor the worst.

It was only after you came by

That I knew how beautifully harmony could die,

And dying with it, objects, lights, and hope—

All that once made me stop—

And now breathes quietly in deep depths of the skies that have no sky.

OTHER LIVES

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Other lives matter, completely different from your own,

Who never send you music on your cell phone,

Who never develop secret crushes on you,

Who don’t do disgusting things you do,

Who never make a peep and quietly pay the fee,

Who navigate icy rivers for glory,

Who feed thousands from a golden throne.

 

Other lives matter who are long dead,

Who never come near you or enter your head,

Who you never discover on the internet,

Who you know for a moment and then forget,

Who die minutes from you with strange cries,

Who had the most fascinating eyes,

Who are gone forever on some strange highway fled.

 

Other lives matter who rose in the spring

To be loved liked summer on a summer’s day,

Where summer breezes, around tree and tree and tree, vanished, dying away.

 

Other lives matter that you never heard moan,

Because they sang another song, and lived on their own.

But the other life that matters most, a life never spoken, broken, or known,

Is your life, you, strangest of all lives, you, standing by your shadow, inviolate, alone.

 

 

 

 

 

CHEATING

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I have never—nor would I ever—cheat on you.

You let a small suspicion take root in your mind, where it grew and grew and grew.

Christ said we cheat, if we cheat in our mind.

Outwardly pure, we can still be unkind.

There is no escape. If we were deaf, dumb, and blind,

Jealousy would still haunt our souls; and jealousy is so unkind.

I told you I would never sleep with her because she had fat arms.

And that was the end: I was unkind—in your mind, you had fat arms.

Since we broke up, a year has gone by

And I only now realized why.

How does love between the sensitive work at all?

Give me blue skies over an island. A parking lot. A wall.

 

WHEN LOVE WAS VOLUNTARY

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When love was voluntary,
And lakes dimmed their mirrors for the moon-lit sky,
And twisted trees were planned by twisted vines,
I could see, by your whisper, by a few poem’s lines,
Whether you were actually mine,
And my heart, by my heart, could soften,
Or be heartless—like a cruel heart with too much wine—
Whenever I wanted, and, if I wanted,
I could dissolve my whole love in one warm bath,
And it would fade, and disappear,
And slip, like a snake, away, without sorrow or wrath.

Ah! When love was voluntary,
And lakes took their time to reflect the sky,
And rivers decided when to be rivers or grass,
I could decide to decline; I could decide to pass
On your grateful face breathing on me, alas,
And clay would voluntarily soften,
Or harden in a hard din of brass;
I could remember what I wanted to remember
And never, never bring you to mind,
Whether you had broken my heart harshly,
Or kissed me and been kind.

 

 

 

THE PROBLEM, OF COURSE, IS SEX

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The problem, of course, is sex.

Here’s what the Trojan war

Did: is Helen, the beautiful Greek,

Kidnap victim or whore?

This is not what peace knows or expects.

When you are too humiliated to speak,

Out come the weapons. The weapons talk, instead—

Weapons invented by the tongue-tied geek

For the brutal male, who loudly counts the dead.

Today’s War of Islam is a simple one:

Lands where the women are more beautiful than the men

Are going to get invaded again and again.

Have you seen women from the Middle East?

Heavens! Even the eyes are a feast.

The Middle East wants to hide its Helen,

Because love is a problem when the woman is a “ten.”

The West is different; its women are not pretty.

Have you seen Sarah Jessica Parker from “Sex in the City?”

The West, short on beauty, promotes sex and freedom.

Modesty? Veils? Allah? The West doesn’t need them.

If the West, which insults Islam, had its women hide all,

The West would never have sex at all.

So pity the West, and its desire;

And the world: aflame with God, and make-up, and pride, and fire.

 

We hesitated to publish “The Problem, Of Course, Is Sex,” because we felt it would offend—precisely because of the sex problem identified in the poem: the author of the poem is a white male, and, in a look-ist frenzy, perpetuates cruel and fraudulent stereotypes in the poem. Yes, as the author of the poem, we admit on a superficial level, the poem does this, but this is only by way of illustrating what is perhaps the chief problem in the current Muslim crisis—the aggressive Puritanism of Radical Islam—for who doubts the rapacious, misguided morality of the Taliban, in its wounded-pride, religious, purity, is not at the center of the whole, crazed, passionate terrorist grievance? It is the Greeks losing their Helen, a society’s sex-pride massing for war and revenge, and willing to sacrifice their children for it.  Is this not it?  Meanwhile, the war-like, invading, divide-and-conquer, bullying West, casually tossing off shows like “Sex In the City,” celebrates license and freedom—which insults the invaded people’s soul every day. The Islam crisis may ultimately be about oil and geo-political strategy. But we feel it is also about sex. At the very least, sex is what drives the signing up, and blowing up, for the manic, righteous, revenge-of-rape/rape-revenge cause. To reduce geo-political complexity to rape is a poetic trope; poets sometimes understand the crude and simple truth of a very complex issue is, indeed, the truth, despite the complexity of the issue, with its minefield of offenses to polite society, a polite society, in this case, which has smoothly and professionally committed massive wrongs. The insult to Western women in the poem represents more bitter fruit, a furtherance of the revenge-wound. As with the vengeful Hamlet’s madness—once a wrong begins, who knows where it will end?

 

 

 

IN FEAR OF DOGGEREL

We recently attended a poetry reading in Harvard Square and we had the great pleasure to hear the world’s greatest living poet, Ben Mazer, read his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep,” a poem of about 350 lines which closes his new book, The Glass Piano.  It was a cinematic experience, the sort of poem in which you get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen in a state half-way between sleep and waking.

If cinematic poetry doesn’t start a renaissance in poetry, nothing will.

Here’s the thing: and we might as well begin with Keats’ phrase: “fine excess.”  We all know that poetry is known for concision, and this is all well and good, but we must say, we fear this idea, once having got its nose in the tent, now occupies the whole of it, crowding out everything else.

For, as the wretched Pound pointed out—and many, many writers before him—prose, as much as poetry, should not waste words; poetry has no special hold on concision.

We do not mean, “If you have nothing to say, shut up.” No, if you have nothing to say, you are probably the poet we want to hear from.  But this is neither here nor there. We are speaking from a purely technical standpoint.

To say poetry is concise is like saying painting is concise—well, of course it is; it belongs to its frame, not the world. But if this truism took root, the pinnacle of art would be the fifteen-second sketch. Notwithstanding the infinite charm of the master creating a world with a few strokes, we think it time for poetry to throw off the burden of having to say little. Once and for all, let us declare that to be concise is not necessarily to be poetic.  Poe, who said, “a long poem doesn’t exist,” also said a small one doesn’t exist either: there must be sufficient pressure on the wax to create the impression.

Without having to specify length, what this means is, the poet, and the artist in general—for art has suffered from Modernist theories as much as poetry—should use all the tools in the tool box—and why not?  The thing we don’t like about abstract painting is not abstract painting; it is the fact that we once had the pleasure of pictorial representation and all the interest of color which abstract painters revel in.  The thing we don’t like about cartooning, or the vague sketch, or the Red Wheel Barrow, is not the principle which these uphold, that suggestion is perhaps the most important thing in art there is—it is.  But too much reliance on suggestion is suggestive no more.  The paltry is finally not poetic.

This essay comes to damn the poet who goes in fear of doggerel, the poet who plays it safe, who hides behind the “experimental,” a code word for “this is not what I really can do, as an artist, I’m just thinking out loud here, don’t mind me, but if you find something that’s clever here, well, I’ll take a compliment or two, why not?”

Fear of the tight rope turns into the earth-bound, fake bravery of the “avant-garde.” Clowning around on the piano and never getting down to playing a real piece has profited many a hack since 1900.

To be cinematic in poetry is difficult, for one is firmly in that temporal mode perfected by Homer and Tennyson with the added pictorial heft.  The purely discursive, or the obscure, will not do.  Cinematic poetry requires the whole art, which does not eschew the discursive or the suggestive, or any of the other tricks of the poet, by any means—no, but it requires them all.

Poetry, like the film, has motion as its medium; it pitches forward, and does so, like film, with all sorts of markers, pauses, ends, flashbacks, jump cuts, call them what you will—but you get the idea.

Every one of these temporal tricks is enhanced by meter and rhyme.

This is not some moral or bitter argument against the “avant-garde;” again, we are speaking purely from a technical point of view.

To make the poetry that does the most, that is whole and cinematic: meter and rhyme simply help drive that engine. To go in fear of the doggerel is a fear we must abandon.

The poems which win both the popular and the critical taste are cinematic poems; we love them like films, and the truly literate know they are better than films: Prufrock, Kubla Khan, The Raven, The Cloud. But we live in times of horror, in which an appreciation of classical music and great painting and beautiful poetry is fading; there are millions, even fairly intelligent and somewhat nice people—or those who can pass as such—too thick and dense to appreciate beauty in the arts. This is the greatest tragedy of our age, a violence against beautiful feelings which points to more material suffering in the future.

(Scarriet, in the last 5 years of its existence, has produced thousands of lines of original poetry, and so what if half, if 60% is doggerel? We don’t care. For what has been achieved, it is more than worth it.)

We do not recommend Mazer lightly, nor is our argument here to be taken lightly.

It may save poetry.

And everyone’s life.

 

TRUE LOVE IS COMPETITION AND HATE

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True love is competition and hate.

I got tired of loving what was great

And now I love a dull and helpless fool

Who understands my rule.

I prefer a wooden post

To what others love the most.

He was so attractive, I wanted to die.

I can’t actually love that. Let others try.

There is sadness, which causes tears;

Fear this not. This is common. Beware the weeping produced by fears.

You can make it. You can retire in a few more years.

You can get out, forget love, and avoid those fearful, fearful tears.

Admire love from afar—belong to that greater world

To whom love belongs—there is no girl

Who can possibly love that man.

Want is a shadow. You want. That doesn’t mean you can.

Do you know what great poetry is? It is music for ears

Just like your own, but drowned in fearful tears.

 

 

 

WOUNDS OF LOVE ARE ALWAYS WARM

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Wounds of love are always warm,

Wounds of love will never close.

Love is not a battle or a storm—

Oh love is worse than those.

 

The woman is affectionate.

This is why she runs away

From true love that lives at night

And smiles during the lonely day.

 

Wounds from love are deeper than

Those made from the knife.

Love creates hate; wounds from love are deeper than

Wounds from life.

UNCLE’S POEM IS HERE SOMEWHERE

Uncle, you are more like my father than I am,

And they say you seem more like me than him.

They say we are just holograms of projected embarrassment.

None of this is real. I was going to write a poem

But then started to read and got distracted.

Who knows where this poem is now, uncle.

No one likes you, uncle, but I do.

You manage to embarrass everyone and I see

How we all have our pitiful illusions

And yet we can’t help what we are. Like you, uncle.

You are an uncle, and you can’t help that.

We are what the world creates of us.  You write poems

In all different styles that wreak havoc among poets

Who stick to their chosen styles and low key rhetoric

Because they don’t want to embarrass anyone!

Humiliation is suicide! Puncturing others’ illusions,

With your immense talent, uncle, you see through

What others see and do, and you do, you do, naked shoe.

But you can’t do that, you mustn’t do that, uncle.

You have children. You say things. Your poems

Make fun of poems others write, which others take seriously,

And the horror is, your poems are much, much better than theirs.

You are going to destroy the world, uncle, with your wit,

And your everything! But I’ve seen you weep, I’ve seen you suffer,

Uncle, I know how on so many levels you think further than the rest.

Now where was that poem I was going to write?

It was going to be great, like you. It was going to be the best.

 

 

ISLAM HAS MADE THE WEST VEXED

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A small part of Islam has made the West vexed

With bouts of terror and hatred. When Muslim pride is rubbed raw,

When Islamic pride, embarrassed by the Westerner, over-sexed,

Terrified embarrassment having nowhere to hide,

As Western invaders break Allah’s moral law,

Stealing not only oil, but soiling the essence of women and young—

(A far cry from a quaint National Geographic photograph of camel dung—)

A secret internet sharing of shame travels far and wide

Among shamed, humiliated Muslim hordes,

As British Empire surrogates, U.S. and Israel, throw fuel on the fire

For further control which an Empire affords;

And add to this, the manipulated Sunni/Shiite mire—

You have what we have, and the desire to stop it

Cannot stop what drives it—too many parties do not want to drop it.

Blame Churchill and the British Empire.

Let China and Russia put out the fire.

The U.S., with its befuddled liberalism, and sex,

And freedom, and right-wingers, will only perplex.

Westerners should just stand back.

The West made the Sunnis mad in Iraq.

Oh man. Godless Japan. Can you make Hello Kitty toys attack?

LET THIS POEM STAND IN

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Let this poem stand in, let this ill-tempered poem be

My reaction to the tragedy.

Why ill-tempered? Because no sorrow

Lives, except that which I borrow.

A poet doesn’t put on displays,

And is true never to one occasion, but to all our yesterdays.

My nerves are bad. I will feel sad tomorrow.

I know I will. I will feel sorrow for myself whenever I die,

And that will be real sorrow.

I don’t feel sorrow now, so why should I try?

Yes, that’s right. This is honesty. Do you feel the true, lyric I?

Blame it on my muse, who hides in the real shadows,

Who, as I make my way to this poetry reading,

Might be around the corner—I might see her with someone else;

Nothing I see on the news can compete with her,

Even those I see on the news who are dead. Or crying, or bleeding.

All distant from me: the experimental poem, a flag’s color,

All that’s public: blah, blah, blah, buying and signing and selling books.

Blame ill-temper on love. I feel ill, I feel strange things where no one looks.

 

 

 

 

IT IS RIDICULOUS THAT I AM SO HAPPY

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It is ridiculous that I am so happy.

The one who loved me, now hates me

And her vast change of heart

Has ripped my tiny world apart.

Mine is a tiny world, since it centers on me—

Is this why I am ridiculously happy?

No, the world punishes the self-obsessed.

The world has its demands, and sends us many a guest.

There are guests in my home—arrogantly

I wish them away. More demands come from me.

All it took to cure my sorrow was an understanding from you—

A stranger who lives in my vast world, and now in my tiny one, too.

 

HUMANS ARE SIMPLER DOGS

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Since I left the human race,

To its vanities and rude mistakes,

To its sad search for sweet good taste, and grace—

I learned what love is, and what it takes

To love—how love wants to look at a face

That has meaning and a truth to tell.

Humans are simpler dogs—a sentence has less nuance than a smell.

We are not barred from truth because of its truth

But because of the courage it takes to tell

The truth, without shame; shame knows us—and we know it well.

I loved you like a dog, and I miss your smell—

Wrong and shame are what I miss; everything I cannot—tell.

BLACK SUN PRESS AND THE SUPPRESSED, DIONYSIAN SIDE OF MODERNISM

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Millay: Official Modernism hated her: a leftist woman who rhymed and loved.

The revolt of Modernism in poetry against Victorian decorum was complex and extensive, and featured a great deal of sex.

So why is one tale told? The one dominated by the limp, morbid barrenness of sexless, Shelley-hating, T.S. Eliot—and that dry-as-dust, boring, petals-on-a-black-bough-red-wheel-barrow poetry?

Is this why poetry today finds itself in a cul de sac, without a public, in the ruins of a Creative Writing pyramid scheme which has collapsed into piecemeal, self-promoting, illiteracy?

Modernism in the early 20th century was dominated by powerful femme fatale poets—and yet the one female poet included in the accepted Story of Modern Poetry is: the brittle, spinsterish, Marianne Moore!

The revolt against the Victorian—as the Modern Poetry history has been written, codified, and solidified is so…Victorian.

Not that we care about sex, per se; we just find it interesting how things played out.

The Victorians—which the wild, crazy and free Moderns rebelled against (one can include Emily Dickinson as a Victorian, since she wrote and lived in that era, if one wants) —were actually bolder in their poetry than the Modernist rakes and waifs (Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams) who successfully overcame the now largely forgotten Victorian/Romantic influence, and succeeded them. The Victorians are far more enjoyable to read (and they sold much better in their day, too).

Maybe that’s the rub: enjoyable. Sexual excess, or enjoyment of any kind, wasn’t the ticket to become canonized in the schools: the Modernist revolution had to seem safely aesthetic—a topic for professors, in order to gain a footing in academia, since despite their “rebellious nature,” legitimate inclusion was what the successful ones were after. That meant the Moderns had to be writing a “new” kind of poetry. Even though it was boring, and the public didn’t care for it.

The fussy, heavily brocaded, Victorian, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—who wrote some really exceptional poetry which has been ignored and shut away for a century—became a wife in a secret elopement to Italy.

The leader of the Modernist rebellion, T.S. Eliot, a lifelong virgin, shut away his wife forever.

Here we have two stories presented side by side:

Modern poetry is not the story of a door opening; but of a door shutting—on so much of what was pleasing about the 19th century—but also on the alternative, Dionysian, Romantic side of 20th century modernism, too.

Eliot appealed to poets who couldn’t get laid.

True, Edna St. Vincent Millay got old.

And died.

But everyone gets old and dies.

There was a whole Modernist movement which exploded right after World War One, before, during, and after the publication of the morbid “Waste Land,” a different modernist movement which frightened guys like Eliot—led by brash young women and featuring Persian love and Poe and Hindu sex. (One of these types of women even married Tom Eliot, and—are we surprised?—it was a complete disaster.)

Here is the critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Van Doren, writing in Harper’s in the 1930s about America’s great moral transformation during the Age of High Modernism as WW I came to a close; he does not talk about Pound or Eliot. He talks about Edna St. Vincent Millay:

At home the old-fashioned family had broken up. The young could get into automobiles and almost at once be miles away. They could go to the movies and at once be worlds away. Dress and speech had become informal in the emergency of the War. The chaperon had disappeared. Boys leaving to be killed, it might be, had claimed the right to see their girls alone, and the sexes had drawn together in a common need and daring. After the War they were still not divided. The sexes would be comrades, they thought.

The early poems of Edna Millay are the essence of the Younger Generation.

How this genii—real Modernist poetry—was put away in its bottle is certainly a staggering historical fact, but something there is in us now that makes us want to let it out again.

To get a strong whiff from that bottle is just a google click away.

Search “Black Sun publisher Harry Crosby.”

You want real modern poetry?

Not Williams. Not Eliot. Not Stevens. Not those guys the clammy hand professors teach you in school.

You want the true modern poetry of that era? Take a swig of the drink, Harry Crosby.

The story of Modern poetry which has been sold to us: that Pound and Williams and Moore are the vital pieces, is without aesthetic merit, and its virtue is really that of a particular school program, and it exists as just that—a story—told by the critics and poets and historians who invested (and are still invested) in the Writing Program as the only viable institution of post-war pedagogy.

Government oversight of education, the publishing of textbooks, the editorship of periodical literature, the purse strings of grants and prizes and forums and money and awards, fell into the hands of the New Critics and their allies: John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot both belonging to the same generation of early Modernism—and not just poetry, but art, music, fashion, government, war, the architecture/building trades, espionage, banking, international in outlook—and all the more effective because it was run by pals, a tight-knit group. Of course it is much too extensive to detail here. But very briefly then:

John Quinn, attorney, art collector, British intelligence, worked with Eliot and Pound to negotiate publication of “The Waste Land” (with pre-purchases) so Eliot would win the Dial Prize even before Pound had finished his edits—Quinn, the same individual most responsible (even getting an export bill passed in the U.S. Congress) for the Armory show, which brought Modern Art to America—Eliot wins, and meanwhile, purchase of the new art by insiders is highly, highly lucrative.  Who wouldn’t want to be in on all that phenomenal networking? Eliot and Pound certainly were. Without Quinn’s work behind the scenes, who knows if Americans would even know of Eliot, or Duchamp, or Picasso? Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom’s right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critic associate, reviews “The Waste Land” favorably, helps start the Creative Writing program at Princeton. Paul Engle, the father of the Program Era at Iowa, is given his Yale Younger Prize for his MFA poetry book—by a judge who is a member of Ransom’s New Critic group from the early Fugitive magazine days at Vanderbilt. Robert Lowell, as Creative Writing teacher at Iowa, is the first “poet-teacher star” of the Program Era; Lowell’s psychiatrist happens to be another member of Ransom and Tate’s circle, who recommends Lowell leave Harvard to befriend Tate and Ransom, which he does. We see that all the annual Dial Magazine Prize winners in the 1920s become the canonized Modern poets: Eliot, Williams, Pound, Moore (and Cummings, who ends up running off with the Dial editor’s wife). Ford Maddox Ford, War Propaganda Minister during World War I in England, the first to meet Pound off the boat when the latter leaves America for England, will later cross the Atlantic to help start the Writing Program Era with Ramsom and Tate.

We do not present this information as some nefarious plot; the world was smaller then; we present it languidly, merely as a picture of the clever ambitions of the cleverly ambitious, who were in the right place at the right time, and who happened to possess a certain amount of talent: Eliot, in poetry, the most brilliant. John Crowe Ransom, just from his two essays which Ransom published in the 1930s, “Criticism, Inc.” and “Poets Without Laurels,”— a blueprint for universities taking up the official role of teaching the new writing, and the best explanation of amoral Modernism—was a close second.

But as we said, these were the brilliant architects who made themselves and their “new” Modern identity—an austere looseness, a dryness, a deathly cynicism—the accepted mode for the university, and it required tweedy, learned, respectability to make it happen, even as it was Shelley and Byron hating—which guys like Eliot and Tate and Ransom, with their brilliance, learning and inside track, provided.

But what of the vast majority of the Modernists, who impulsively did what true rebels do?

These “lesser” moderns crossed paths with the more successful ones, such as Pound—but they lived for the poetry, for the revolt, for the sex. These were the Moderns who wrote beautiful love poems and threw themselves off ships, as Pound and Eliot grew old and famous. What of these “lesser” moderns? Many of these “lesser” moderns, some more respectable and less feverish than others, kept writing poetry that rhymed, made sense, and repeated the great, old themes that never die. What of them? Should we continue to bury them?

And speaking of revolt, we are not simply advocating here for the resurrection of an alternative clique of poets who worked between the wars in the hectic days of the early 20th century. This is about more than that. It is about shedding narrow, modernist aesthetic bias and embracing great poems of all eras, and having the guts to call a bad poem a bad poem, even if it was written by William Carlos Williams. Look at this poem by the currently suppressed 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett; the way she uses “revolt” is timeless, and will break your heart:

Little Mattie

Dead! Thirteen a month ago!
Short and narrow her life’s walk.
Lover’s love she could not know
Even by a dream or talk:
Too young to be glad of youth;
Missing honor, labor, rest,
And the warmth of a babe’s mouth
At the blossom of her breast.
Must you pity her for this,
And for all the loss it is—
You, her mother with wet face,
Having had all in your case?

Just so young but yesternight,
Now she is as old as death.
Meek, obedient in your sight,
Gentle to a beck or breath
Only on last Monday! yours,
Answering you like silver bells
Lightly touched! an hour matures:
You can teach her nothing else.
She has seen the mystery hid
Under Egypt’s pyramid.
By those eyelids pale and close
Now she knows what Rhamses knows.

Cross her quiet hands, and smooth
Down her patient locks of silk,
Cold and passive as in truth
You your fingers in spilt milk
Drew along a marble floor;
But her lips you can not wring
Into saying a word more,
“Yes” or “no,” or such a thing.
Though you call and beg and wreak
Half your soul out in a shriek,
She will lie there in default
And most innocent revolt.

None of Eliot’s “escape from emotion” here.

Poe said poetry was mostly mathematical—and he was correct, since rhythm is essential to expressive speech, whether metrical, or not—and mathematics is essential to quantity associated with rhythm. Eliot carried this formula further and mistranslated it to mean lack of feeling—quantity, after all, is not associated with feverish human emotion; but it is not emotion, but its expression which matters to the poet—so Eliot is only partly correct, and when his half-truth was received as a truth, it created a race of poets who turned their back on so-called “sentimental” poetry, such as this example of Elizabeth Barrett’s, a tender and beautiful poem banned by 20th century professors because of its excess “emotion” and “sentiment.” The schools are wrong. The amateurs are correct. The expression of feeling should not to be avoided in the art of poetry. More feeling isn’t better, necessarily, but it is never necessary that feeling (we mean its expression) be critically censored.

We think the best tradition for poetry is, first and foremost, the tradition of good poems—more than successful members of super-successful, networking cliques’ poorer ones.

For the truth is: Millay is a far better poet than not only Moore, but the guys, like Pound.

Certainly, “new” aesthetics can and should be studied (even if they haven’t done anyone a lick of good) but good poems written by the flesh and blood poets who lived in the same era as the better known, tweedy, experimental poets, deserve our attention, too.

Completely by chance today, as we perused old issues of Harper’s magazine, we came upon this poem by Archibald MacLeish. It is a love poem (horrors!). It was published in 1929, when Pound and Eliot were still nearly unknown, before they became famous as Axis defenders and post-WW II Modernist school subjects.

MacLeish, like the poets Frost and Millay, wrote poems people liked to read—and he was read. He was a wealthy friend of wealthy heir Harry Crosby, who—if you googled him by now—you know Crosby published MacLeish, Hart Crane, Poe, love poems, in exquisitely crafted books, a few copies at a time, and died at 29 with a young women in a suicide pact in a painter friend’s studio.

Here is a Modernist poem, the kind of poem which is now suppressed, just like Millay and Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Elinor Wylie and countless other women poets are suppressed, locked away by the Moore/Williams /Pound Official Modernism professors. We close with the MacLeish poem:

To Praisers of Women

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered.
These were lies.

The words sound, but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks, but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore, I will not praise your knees and your fine walking,
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young and your arms straight and your mouth scarlet.
I shall say you will die, and none  will remember you;
Your arms change and none remember the swish of your garments
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hands’ strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste,

Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.
What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost,
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most?

Therefore, I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I shall say you were young and straight and your skin fair—
And you stood in the door, and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders,
And a leaf on your hair.

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women.
I shall say the shape of a blown leaf lay on your hair,
Till the world ends and the sun is out and the sky broken
Look! It is there!

THE LEAF HAS FALLEN FROM THE VINE

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The leaf has fallen from the vine;

Cold winds blow. You are no longer mine.

But, in truth, all that exists is the fact of ourselves;

The other one is just an idea,

Who we are—our desires—is the only thing that’s real;

The other is just an idea.

True, we can only love ourselves in someone else;

An idea is how we love, how we lift above our corrupt desire

And find the light, and see things, beyond our fire.

But loving ourselves—through another—is not to know the other;

We love ourselves through them, but don’t know them;

We clasp ourselves; and though the other is what we hold,

We hold ourselves, no matter how bold

We peer into the other’s eye.

This is why love is lonely, and lovers, when most in love, cry.

To love you made me understand: there is only I

Loving, and knowing, some idea of you—

Which I still love! I know myself! I’ve come through!

I know the truth! Though you are gone, fair idea! I’m still loving you.

The leaf has fallen from the vine.

But fill my glass, again, with wine.

AGAINST CAPITALISM (CHOICE IS BAD)

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Whole milk is best,

And then there’s choice, which screams for skim,

Which demands water instead of cream;

Just to have a voice, just to have a choice.

Skim is not even healthy. And choice is only a dream.

We waste our life because we have to have this and that,

But you look great in simple clothes, and you don’t need a fancy hat.

You can choose God, or you can choose him—

And since I found you, the only face who makes me glad,

I live the best and only the best, and now I know that choice is bad.

EVERY HUSBAND IS KHOMEINI

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If my Supreme Religious Leader were Howard Stern,
I could have understanding and pity;
My husband! There’s something that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down. I cannot abide forbidden love.
I am good—but sometimes I burn
For the sighing pleasures of Hades.
Every husband, who is a husband, is Khomeini
So it is better for the president to be Khomeini, too
So my heart can never be false to you.

I cannot ride the train, magically in love,
And depart from him at our separate stops—
Night after night, day after day, my heart rises and drops!
I want safety and love inside one family.
None, none, none can ever be free.
I want a smiling god of mercy and pity.
I don’t want interference. I don’t want to flee.
I want the simplest kind of privacy.
I don’t want walls between family, and friends, and everyone I know.
That was death: to hide inside the realms that sigh and cry to him don’t go.

SHE’S MY NEW ORANGE

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If I had not loved before,
Today I would not know how.
I had to write the poems that failed
To write the good ones now.

To know how much I love you,
She had to make me cry;
She had to kiss my lips,
And look into my eye

With a passion nearly your own.
Then-— she had to leave me
So I would be alone—
Not caring for the rest.
Then I’d be ready for you—
You, who are the best.

You love philosophy.
You are a poet and a beauty,
And you believe in beauty.
Now when I write poems—every poem is for you
You are not only touched—you understand them, too.

She didn’t know poems! She couldn’t experience
Love. Knowing you, I haven’t thought of her since.
All thoughts of her have been deleted,
Her brown eyes, by your brown eyes, defeated.

IT IS A SAD FACT THAT BEAUTY IS SAD

It is a sad fact that beauty is sad—

That she, whom I love, whom everyone loves, can never be glad.

Sadness makes her beautiful;

Her beauty makes her sadness more beautiful still.

In her beautiful eyes, I see weariness, that it might rest, climbing to the darkening top of a beautiful, darkening hill.

 

Her sadness—some see only beauty—is the reason why

Light loves her beauty: her shoulders restful and still. Her inward looking eye.

Sadness is beautiful,

Hoping to be saved by millions of eyes,

Hoping to be drowned in light;

Hoping that if beauty loves her, the shadow of her sadness flies—

But there is no saving kiss. Her sadness never dies.

 

You, and he, can look at her, and she can, and so can I,

And she can say that she loves you, but that will be a lie.

Melancholy knows the love; the love that melancholy knows

Sleeps. Who will dare to wake her, and ask her to put on clothes?

 

EVERYTHING, BEN MAZER, SUBTRACTION, AND POETRY’S SECRET

 

In our review of Mazer’s latest book, The Glass Piano, published on the first of November, we tried not only for a review, but a Criticism, and reflecting on our words, feel a certain remorse.

In the most recent number of the Battersea Review, the critic William Logan wrote, “the critic is a Diogenes in a world where everyone is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

How true! And no one feels this as acutely as ourselves (save perhaps Logan himself)—because we have taken to heart in our criticism the simplicity spoken simply by the honest Edgar Poe: “a criticism is simply that—a criticism.”

And one cannot, if one is a critic, escape the necessity of wounding others even if one is writing a positive review.

We loved Mazer’s book—but in our review we had to kill a great deal that was not Mazer.

Was it necessary to praise Mazer by killing what is not Mazer?

Yes.

This is precisely where the heart of critical intelligence resides—to say anything worthwhile, it is necessary to contemplate everything: no value, no good, no judgment, no insight, no understanding, stands alone.

Insight does not live in a vacuum, and no poet does, either: a bad poet is bad next to a good one, a good poet is good next to a bad one—no matter how politeness, or the discursively half-baked, might say otherwise. Mazer’s worth is meaningless without asserting what Mazer destroys. The Hindu religion has a Destroyer god; all major religions feature a God who is wrathful; even in the kinder ones, such as Buddhism, there is a philosophy that counsels denial, rejection and casting out. Religion does not make us obey—the world makes all religion (and all philosophy) obey the trope of destruction, in order that the world be understood and known. There is much around the heart that must be removed, before the heart can be seen. There is much of the one world that must be lost before the one world can be embraced, loved, or known.

Addition (Actual Creation) has, in the beginning, already been done by the Deity-Past; subtraction is how mortals proceed. Man, if divine, if creative, if artistic, resembles God the Creator—in reverse. Since you are mortal, if you don’t hate and destroy, you cannot build and love.

Nonetheless, we feel bad that we had to smite the non-Mazer in order to lift Mazer up.

Any time a critical judgment of any kind is made, it offends many poets who love poetry and participate in poetry on various levels—in the spirit of Everything.

Everything, or Everything-ness, is, precisely, for all these poets and their friends, the essence of poetry.

All we have said in this essay, and all we said in our Mazer review, to winnow away the non-Mazer, is, to these poets, the poets of Everything-ness, an offense and a horror.

For them, poetry is that which embraces Everything. The critical faculty that winnows, destroys, rejects, qualifies, judges, and defines is counter to everything the Everything-ists hold dear.

The Everything-ists believe poetry is poetry so far as it is able to be everything and imply everything and insinuate everything by using everything—and rejecting nothing.

The two views—ours and the Everything-ists—are oil and water. The two views are like matter and anti-matter.

They both belong to the category “poetry,” and yet they could not be more different.

Until this duality is really understood, poetry as an understood practice will be a great confusion, with no center, and a hard exterior, bashing in skulls, wounding egos, damaging philosophy, and creating an army of polite but sore-headed hypocrites.

For the Everything-ists are wrong. Poetry may seem to be for, and about, Everything—but the claim to this is specious and inane. It doesn’t matter how many famous or semi-famous poets you name-drop.

The bad poets must die.

If Ben Mazer is to live.

This is literally a matter of life and death.

We sympathize with the Everything-ists.  We understand what a temptation it is to embrace their good will, their pluralism, their kindness, their laisse faire, their cow-munching-in-the-meadow complaisance.

Why does Scarriet defend the wolf?

Just as Everything as a poetry trope is an illusion (the Everything-ists do not actually embrace Everything: only its idea, which is quite different), so the accusation that we defend the wolf for the mere sake of destruction is also an illusion.

We want to save the Everything-ists from destruction; their position springs from good will; but in terms of poetry, it makes no sense—and therefore, in the long run, it actually hinders good will and good poetry.

To say more regarding our sorrow at offending others would be superfluous.

We have apologized too much already.

So we will hurry on to the main point.

Mazer’s poetry can safely exist in the category, Everything.

Our criticism of Mazer cannot.

Nor can any poet—even the species, everything-ist—write a poem using Everything.

So in actual practice, the Everything philosophy or aspiration is bankrupt.

All poets and all poetry already exist in the universe which defies Everything.

A poet who rhymes, for instance, reduces the pool of words available to him or her.

Any topic or theme chosen, automatically reduces the material available to write the poem, and the better the topic, the more the available material will be reduced, until the greatest topic will simply be the poem itself.

The well-read poet, to be original, has less available to say, precisely because of the voluminousness of his or her reading.

Remember what we said about “subtraction?” That it is the only avenue open to us? In every case, all poets, before they begin writing, severely and inevitably reduce and winnow, making war at every point against the only “enemy”—Everything.

And so the Everything-ists are seen for what they are, at last: nothing. They do not exist. To be non-critical, and to embrace Everything, is to embrace sand in the wind.

The Critical Faculty is not different and apart from the poetic impulse which writes the poem: they are the same.

To write a poem is to decide what you cannot say.

If you are saying whatever you want to say, you are not writing poetry.

You are not writing poetry unless you have first prepared a vessel which restricts what you can say.

The mind of the poet is not what writes the poetry, but what makes these ‘restriction’ vessels. What fills them are the random impulses of the unconscious everything-ness transformed by one of these vessels—which is the actual “poem”—a “vessel” that is not “read,” but which is, in fact, the poem, and which did, in fact, make the poem.

What makes these vessels excellent, in every case, is what they restrict, and on how many levels they limit how, as well as what, may be said. 

The Everything-ist who writes a poem of three words may exult in how much is intimated by those three words. The process we are describing—building by subtraction—may seem to them, triumphantly, exactly what they are doing. And it is proved by the fact that their poem is only three words! How subtractive is that?

But the folly of the Everything-ist can be easily seen. One does not simply subtract. This subtraction is a pitiful shortcut to glory. One must first build a unique and complex vessel of subtraction.

Every excellent poem is excellent in this way: the interest of the subtraction-vessel which generates the poem. The Everything-ist abhors the subtraction-vessel, for this involves a great deal of reading, a rhyme scheme, an effect decided upon which is original, all leading in the mind to a massive amount of reduction, discrimination and subtraction, so that several aspects of the world must be fought with and conquered—and this runs counter to the temperament of the Everything-ist, who loves agreement for its own sake, and a fairy-tale, naive belief in “the new,” which arises benevolently out of a naive love of “everything,” when, in reality, originality is possible only through destruction and subtraction, which is the only avenue open to the wise who would truly imitate God—in reverse.

The truth is, the real poem will far more likely “say” one thing with a hundred lines, rather than a hundred things with one line, or even one word! The former is always preferred, for reasons that should be apparent to the true poet at once.

Great poetry is a fanatical pursuit: it really doesn’t help to know a hundred things half-well; it is far better to know one thing well—and not know anything else.

 

BEN MAZER’S THE GLASS PIANO AND THE POETRY OF INTELLECTUAL IMMEDIACY

Who walks here? Poe? Eliot? Mazer?

Just a glance at the titles of the poems in Ben Mazer’s new book, The Glass Pianoreleased Nov. 1 (Madhat Press) thrills this reviewer:

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar
Autumn Magazines
My Last Dutchman
One dresses in the darkened gloom
Spread over the vast sinking town
Tonight my lover lies
Why is it some old magazine; like a wheelbarrow
The poet does his finest work in sin
Graves and waves are signified by rows

Pop culture is one thing; poetic, in the true sense of the term, is something else: the current swarm of poets in our Writing Program era often mix these two up.  Poetry can use pop culture; but amateurs aflame with various aspects of pop culture (or hipster culture) have it so that pop culture uses poetry, which is…ugh…so wrong.

In Mazer’s brief lyric, “Autumn Magazines,” poetry is using pop culture, not the other way around. It is difficult to pinpoint why, but Mazer, in his poetry, absolutely gets this distinction. In this poem, poetry asserts itself.

Autumn Magazines

The falling leaves of autumn magazines
are framed by nature. Frost said you come too.
Your gowns and sandals crown your nakedness,
Each season justifies all that you do.
The sidewalks spread out their appearances,
the towers and the gilding celebrate
the dates and calendars, commemorate
and underneath it all there’s only you.

The ending “you” is endearingly romantic and Romantic. Nearly all “serious” poets today avoid the gesture, fearing critical rebuke for its “pop song” component; such fear, however, dogs only the lesser poets, not poets like Mazer (we will be bold enough to point out Scarriet is the leading example of this style) who are in such command and control of their poetic gift that “pop” elements do not turn their poetry into “pop,” even when pop sentiments are used without irony.

The all-mighty “you” is a standard in sentimental song, sure, but this doesn’t mean the suave poet cannot borrow its mysteries and charms—charms, by the way, which belong to Dante and Petrarch (among others) and also belong to the trope no poet should do without: pronoun mystery—is the “you” the beloved, God, or the reader, etc etc?

Further, Mazer’s genius can be seen in the way he incorporates one of the greatest jazz standards, “Autumn Leaves,” into the idea of autumn magazines, (poets will be sentimental about magazine numbers, and why not Autumn?) beginning his poem as the famous song begins: “the falling leaves…” Then he introduces the idea of “framing nature,” a trope on a trope on a trope, and when he quotes Frost, another brief lyric is referenced, which references autumn leaves (“rake away…to clear a spring”) and Frost, in his lyric, also makes romantic use of “you.” Mazer’s poetic sensibility fills every bumper to the brim.

Now, the Difficult School, which we revile, rejects the immediacy of pop sensibility—but immediacy is actually what these two, pop culture and poetry, share.

This is why, in the titles of poems listed above, we can see immediately that Ben Mazer is a poet.

If one cannot see this, one should probably not try and read Ben Mazer; one will find oneself feeling like a yokel at the opera, or Ron Silliman before the throne of Poe.

If Lupe Velez with a Baedeker does not resonate with you; if you don’t feel the thousand feelings Autumn Magazines inspires; if My Last Dutchman does not bring a curious, appreciative smile to your lips, you have no business reading poetry. 

And to those who object that a a few words cannot prove mastery, we would ask, how many notes of Brahms’ first symphony does one have to hear before sublimity invades one’s soul?  Poetry is made of one thing: words—words which impress immediately if we are in the presence of the true poetic gift.  The Renaissance painters felt they were superior to the poets—they were, in as much they could depict immediately the face that the poor poet had to supply in pieces—but the poetic art has caught up with painting since the Renaissance, the poets coming to understand how a drop may intimate the sea. Of course, a fool may drown in a drop, but Mazer, who appreciates every drop, intimates oceans.

“Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar,” the first poem in the book, directly quotes T. S. Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar” in its first two lines, and then we meet the name, Lupe Velez.

We shall not weigh down this review with references—Mazer’s poems are not weighed down with them; they float over our heads (or drift beneath our feet)—there is no need to “know” or “learn” as one reads a Mazer poem; one burns with it as one reads. Poems that weary us with their facts and their information—Mazer’s poems never do this, and not because Mazer doesn’t “know stuff;” he knows that poetry is not about that, thank God. He doesn’t let pedantry spoil his poetry—which so many otherwise brilliant poets do. He doesn’t allow the hiding of pedantry to spoil his poetry, either, which a smaller, more elite class of poets do; Mazer offers no pedantry, and this puts him almost in a class by himself. He uses what we know, or, more accurately, what we want to know, to entrance. Mazer lays the streets and paths and alleyways as if he were making a poem and then writing a poem in the one he has made—he creates the mind which reads the poem.  But he uses your mind. Many readers will find Mazer’s poetry uncanny in a familiar/strange sort of way, and this is the reason.

Why is Mazer such an important poet? Because he is a return to this impulse, the one voiced by Alexander Pope’s “what oft what thought, but ne’ver so well expressed” and the Romantic sublime, in which what we are able to feel, experiencing a world we all share, is the template, and we find our experiences to be breathtaking—thanks to the poet, who has not only done the work putting together his expression, but the work of joining his feeling to ours.

This remains true, even in the first poem in the book, if we have never heard, for instance, of Lupe Velez; the poem has much to do with her; the poem would not exist without her; no Mazer poem would exist without its unique underpinnings, and so, in that sense, the poet walks among us and is one of us; but the poem makes no effort to inform us of Lupe Velez—the poem is not made small, or trapped by this; reading The Glass Piano is not an exercise in learning, in the weary, worldly sense, but if one should gather the important facts of Lupe Velez—a Mexican actress who broke into U.S. Silent screen movies in the 1920s and successfully moved into sound—one will have learned something of Mazer’s poetic universe, not an isolated fact.  Mazer’s poetry is a symbol for a unique mind that is, itself, a symbol—one reads, literally, Mazer’s vision, of which the poems can only say so much—which is why, perhaps, he is prolific, and also why—too busy to “plan” in the ordinary sense—Mazer’s momentum builds in his longer poems, which seem to be planning themselves as they pitch forward, like life, so that suddenly turning off the main thoroughfare of patient exegesis (you are in an outdoor theater; movies are ghosts etc) you find yourself in a picturesque side path of discursive majesty, the words gaining weight as they fly, the vision really there and real. Mazer is almost like a scientist discovering his poems—and, as they are read, because one gets the idea that Mazer conceives them in the gentle heat of his brain (Mazer is gentle; he has a touch) with the same speed with which they are read, inspiration is able to feel the animal. The long poem (roughly 300 lines) which concludes the book, “An After Dinner Sleep” is immortal, and joins Mazer’s “Divine Rights” at the top of his winding stair.

Mazer chooses Lupe Velez (and Eliot) to begin his book, and says nothing about her, except in hints. (It is not necessary to read Velez’s heart-breaking suicide note.)  We quote in full the first poem of the book. Thalberg is another early figure in film, a producer of Grand Hotel (1932) and early monster/horror films. Mazer’s genius is perfectly content to feed on kitsch, populism, history, camp.

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker; Irving Thalberg with a Cigar

The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
With Lupe Velez. Prepared the crime.
But Irving’s valet was no dunce.

Had seen Tirolean dances there
before. And though she was no whore.
Perhaps was hired by the state.
Yet would not scare. And knew no fate.

Time’s thick castles ascend in piles,
The witnesses to countless mobs.
Each with intention, torches, throbs.
Bequeath the coming dawn their wiles.

Yet Irving was not meant for this.
He books the first flight to the States.
He suffers to receive Lupe’s kiss.
While all around the chorus prates.

There’s something does not love a mime.
Tirolean castles built to scale.
There was a mob. There is no crime.
These modernisms sometimes fail.

Mazer trusts the reader to “fill in” what is necessary; all great artists do this; some phrase from a favorite poet, for instance, reverberates in the mind; we recall the scene, the feeling, and yet, not all the words, and running to the book, we open it and find the passage: what? was it only these few words? Which depicted so much?  Indeed it was. Mazer has this gift: a few strokes of the brush: a world.

It is astounding how much this brief lyric conveys: we read each line like a chapter in a novel.  When was the last time we said a poem had “atmosphere?”  Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott?”  Poe’s “The Raven?”  Mazer’s poems have atmosphere (some more than others). Many poets have attempted to lay on atmosphere, but they fail, since atmosphere in poetry cannot be described or explained or accomplished with adjective—-poets are not painters; they cannot paint. The poet must find another way. Mazer finds another way. In “Lupe:” First, by using terse, yet dramatic speech. Second, referencing atmospheric templates (“Tirolean castles”). Third, finding the precise word, even as the other part of his brain is bringing the poem off in terms of beginning, middle, and end.

The narration is coolly involved in the action of the poem: the poet speaks with speech, not with emotion or personality, and this discipline is perhaps the most important “less-is-more” formula there is, and very hard to do. “These modernisms sometimes fail” comes to us from an uncanny place—there is no human, emotional, “straining after,” even though the poem as a whole is frightfully emotional.  It is as if the poem were so emotional that it could only speak without emotion.

The importance of the words is paramount; this is all the poet has, and Mazer is clever enough to know that none of the traditional tools of storytelling will make the words of the poem important: things like ‘a moral’ or ‘the story’ or ’emotion’ remove us from the importance of the words themselves; Mazer’s words seem like they are being spoken (or quoted) from some removed place—and what better way to make this impression than by a subtle, downplayed, insinuation of moral and story and emotion, so the action of the words themselves remain paramount?  And, secondly: hauling in familiar quotes and references from film and literature—the authority of feelings and experiences which belong to us, but lie beyond?  “Would not scare” echoes the ‘steely yet mournful night’ ending of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” “There’s something does not love a mime” intimates a “something” that wrecks walls, quoting Frost, with “mime’s” jokey alteration implying everything from silent film to the stoic reticence of Mazer himself.

To paraphrase Yeats, poems should be boldly designed, and yet appear design-less, and Mazer, who claims to compose unconsciously, his poems dictating themselves to him nearly complete, is able to revel in that inevitable surprise one (does not?) look for; one could almost say that the poetic is, by its very nature, unconscious design.

Who can argue with the unconscious, or Mazer’s stated idea in the book’s afterword interview with critic Robert Archambeau, that all composition is revision and all revision is composition?

There should be no conscious intent in poetry, according to this smooth-lake view—a view propounded by the New Critics, the ultimate Quietism of T.S.-Eliot-Learning-and-Conservatism, which defies 1. conscious Conceptualism and 2. conscious Ethnic/Ethical Poetry, these two Schools currently at war, as the School of Mazer (Romanticism, Frost, Eliot) makes its move.

Mazer eschews both the rattle of the gizmo avant-garde and the sloganeering of the ethnic/ethical.

Yet he has more to “say” than either.

Edgar Poe, the fountain of modern literature, quietly inspired T.S. Eliot, who, in the spirit of Anglo-American Modernism, publicly excoriated Poe, after he, Eliot, won the Nobel in 1948. Shelley was attacked earlier by Eliot, in the 1930s.

“These modernisms sometimes fail.”

Why not, as Mazer does in “Lupe,” rhyme like Percy Shelley, hint at Mary Shelley’s creature, and wrap it in an atmosphere of T.S. Eliot? Or Poe?

Why not force a wedding between Modernism and Romanticism?

This reconciliation is due, and Mazer, more than any living poet today, is showing the way. This may be, at the moment, his raison d’etre.

Ben Mazer, perhaps the most remarkable poet alive today, has in his bones that Poe, that poet of shadowy art, flowing into that Eliot of hedonist umber; Mazer struggling to emerge, newly, as that perfection which knows itself as such—latching onto the perfect atmosphere blindly, but perfectly blind—Mazer writing from the unconscious (the bones), not as an ‘automatic writing’ Ashbery, in the tradition of Harvard’s William James and his student Gertrude Stein, but in a tradition much less ‘laboratory,’ and more ‘organic.’ Ben Mazer—the Coleridge of Cambridge, shall we call him? Mazer inhabits the Harvard Square of Prufrock’s Eliot—not Longfellow (who lived there), or 100 years later, Ashbery (who studied there).

It’s a subtle thing, perhaps, but Mazer, who is sometimes compared to Ashbery, is far more Eliot: Eliot rejected the Romantic poets’ music reluctantly, with a frown; Ashbery did so completely, with a laugh.

The excitable, yet mathematical, purple of Poe (“organic” if nature is Platonically made of math) did flow into the tortured, beige suavity of Eliot—a fact difficult to detect not so much by the casual reader, but by the scholar—and in Mazer’s auditory onslaughts, his chaste intelligences, and his world-as-art acrobatics, Eliot’s prophetic Tradition-which-reveals-the-past-by-the-present has come true.

To demonstrate, we quote in full another poem from the new book. It is 13 lines. Most of the poems in this book, are in fact sonnets, 14 lines in length.

The title, “Spread over the vast sinking town,” (the poem’s first line) immediately puts us in mind of:

As if the towers had thrust aside
In slightly sinking, the dull tide…
Down, down that town shall settle hence…” (“The City in the Sea,” Poe)

The second line of Mazer’s poem, “Which winter makes seem half asleep” recalls Eliot’s “The winter evening settles down” from “The Preludes.” A significant word, “curled,” is found in both the Mazer and the Eliot poem.

Mazer has yanked together Eliot’s “Preludes” and Poe’s “The City in the Sea.”  Mazer’s poem begins:

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep

And notice, in the poem that follows, with what skill Mazer blends Poe’s melancholy spondaic/dactylic music with Eliot’s modern imagery couched in the merrier, yet ironic, iambic; initially the poem trips along in a nimble, 19th-and-20th-century mix, pausing for a moment at the precipice of what might become delicate sarcasm, before it settles into a work perhaps owing more to Poe—or is it Eliot?—but nonetheless achieving, in the end, a work poignant, uncanny, and original, even as it remains steeped in a strange, familiar, hybrid ambience.

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep
A bus begins its movement down
Across a bridge into the steep
Wide view of the familiar sights
The site of many rowdy nights
But now inhabitants have thinned
Discouraged by the winter wind
And one less one is in the world
Because our faith and will have curled
And folded on the mantel bare
To leave unborn without a care
One whom God’s glory wanted there.

“God’s glory…” Who, today, could invoke this, and be solemn and serious and reputable and true? Mazer may be the only one. The ticket, of course, is the music.

Mazer doesn’t always rhyme this methodically. Today it is almost considered critical suicide to rhyme, unless your name is A.E. Stallings.  As for truth: there is never a reason not to use punctuation, but there it is—occasionally poets feel the need to carve words alone in iron.

But as for rhyme: Poets do not rhyme for two simple reasons: 1. Contemporary fashion and 2. it is very difficult to do.

Mazer is steeped and skilled in the art—from both a practical and an historical perspective, both one and two do not trouble him; he is good enough not to care for contemporary fashion.

When Mazer does not rhyme, he does tend to sound like Ashbery, or a kind of Waste Land Ashbery—Old Possum is usually lurking behind the drapery.

In Glass Piano Mazer has bet heavily on rhyme.  And we are glad that he has.

Mazer’s poems are dreamy and contemplative; if there are two types of lyric, one, the conscious, busybody, Go Do Something, Mazer’s poetry fits I Am The Something; Mazer doesn’t plunder memory for the sake of finding things out, so much as drawing near to what one is wary of finding out. In the first kind of poem, morality often beats you with a stick. In Mazer’s poetry, morality is kind, and wears a cloak.

In the poem just quoted in full, whatever it is in the poem that is “folded on the mantel bare” hints at a memory of an abortion, perhaps? and oddly, other poems in the book which use the word “mantel” seem to hint at the same thing, but in a very delicate way. Mazer’s work is far too aesthetically layered to take any overt moral positions; here Mazer is like Shelley, who asked poetry to explore moral causes—not accessible, worldly, moral effects; below the surface in Mazer’s poetry there does seem to be a deep, ancient conservatism, one that is expansive in its nostalgia, an icy Weltschmerz, but one capable of skating on slippery levity; Mazer’s poetry is happy with the pluralism of existence, with its nostalgia—Mazer feels it, yes, but is not depressed or overwhelmed by it. Occasionally there is a wave of ticket-stub sentimentality, a feeling of poor old dad in his twilight study with the old-literary-magazine compendium, but Mazer never indulges in the merely rueful; there is a quickness to his melancholy.

The I Am Something poem, the one that says ‘Everything you need is here,’ does feature a passive poet—looking out windows, trapped in darkness—and, as a corollary, a passive reader, too–but we get an active poem; the Listen To Me! I Am It! Quietly! poem that, in itself, has everything we need. The passageways may be dark, but they are Mazer’s, and we travel them with trembling delight. We aren’t just reading words. We are moving in what they project.

Because of Mazer’s discursive and melancholy hyper-awareness of the fleeting struggling to cohere, those poems he knits with meter and rhyme (stitched to mingle and collide) tend to bring a happier result than his free-verse Ashbery ones.

Mazer makes quiet use of humor; we actually wish there were more of it in this book. Mazer’s subtle humor enriches the melancholy, instead of merely intruding on it.

A good example of Mazer’s sense of humor can be seen in the following poem, which we quote in full, and which exemplifies all we have been saying so far. Note the brilliant, philosophical ‘Phoenix’ joke. Jokes have designs on us.  Mazer’s genius is the receptive, unconscious kind.  His humor is quiet, and for that, all the more powerful, and brings out in him a related, yet different kind of genius, one we would like to see him pursue more often.

Meanwhile you come to me with vipers’ eyes
to ask, Is there one among us who never dies?
I look into the bottom of my pack of lies
and answer, The Phoenix, though Lord knows she sometimes tries.
You take my answer in your sort of stride,
and once again the stars align and ride
into our lives, upon the carpeted floor,
and the high mantle where you look no more
for evidence of what has gone before;
all stammers slightly,
and the evening closes up its door,
wrong or rightly; colorfully and brightly
some vestiges or trace of memory
falls on the wall; you close your eyes to see.

Mazer is obscure, but not hopelessly so, and because of the sad music, we never mind. We never feel, as we often feel with Ashbery, that there is some kind of parody going on, and Mazer is stronger for this.

All poetry, even—especially?—great poetry, has a shadow-self vulnerable to parody; “The Raven” was parodied upon its publication, immediately and often. One could say Modernism itself, in many ways, is a parody of the 19th century sublime—the spirit of Ashbery’s parody lives, partially hidden, in Eliot’s suffering heart. After all, Eliot anointed Auden and Auden, Ashbery. Is Mazer their successor?

Mazer is revolutionary, in our view, because, for the first time since Tennyson, poetry is once again allowed to be itself, to produce symphonies—with no need to parody, or feel self-consciously modern.

Mazer’s poems seem to say to us: Among all your sufferings, look! this lighted window really is for you. The couch of art, with its faint, sad music, belongs to everyone. You may all rest here.

Mazer is doing something wonderful and important. No one should resent this. Mazer is it. This review would have been better had we just copied his poetry.

We close with a passage from his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep:”

Now the two sisters have returned to London.
If one is done, the other must be undone.
You strain your eyes through columns, chance to see
the early return of the Viscount-Marquis.
Your monthly pension takes you on a spree
to Biarritz, Bretagne, Brittany,
and you will not be back till early fall,
and then again might not return at all,
the garish drainpipes climbing up the facades
all violently symbolic, and at odds
with simple pleasures countrysides bequeath
to girls with dandelions between their teeth.
There is no fiction that can firmly hold
the world afloat above the weight of gold,
but all your progress drains out to the lee
of million-fold eternal unity.

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