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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35 Comments

  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    November 2, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    I can’t make an erudite comment here because I’m not erudite and I can’t even mimic or mime erudition. I read your impassioned essay in support of Ben Mazer many times and liked the essay for itself. I believed in the quality of his poetry initially, partially because of the essay somewhat and then I went to youtube to find a reading of The Glass Piano and it was a real reading from a real poet, the words spilling out from a (to me) definitely recognizeable tradition of poetry particularly in the mastery of form and in the intonations, inflections of the poet’s voice reading I understood: this is a truly great, unaffected poet and I am so) glad to find out about him( though not for the first time here on Scarriet and to realize through his work and existence that those who tried to murder at the root this tradition (newly incarnated) of poetry – have utterly failed.

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    November 3, 2015 at 3:51 am

    POETRY WITH NO PRIZES

    [for Landis Everson]

    poetry with no prizes wouldn’t really be
    like the birds singing but minus their trees
    like the wind through no harps

    like the porch with no chimes.
    no it wouldn’t.
    poetry without prizes

    would just be
    singing for itself and God
    when he happened by or

    for the bystanders waiting out vast Storms.
    careless, filled with clouds

    and wings
    no need of microphones, megaphones.
    well kept stages, brittle cafes.

    but telegrams, at Sea.

    only the faces of angels; all greenery
    left in the woods to its own or
    Christmas with the snows stopped

    suddenly,

    the holy hush.
    just itself, and free.
    asking nothing

    the inordinate Star above.

    mary angela douglas 2 november 2015

    • don Vanouse said,

      November 4, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      wonderful phrasing

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        November 4, 2015 at 10:51 pm

        Thank you.

  3. powersjq said,

    January 1, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    As always, I appreciate your passion, erudition, and frankness. Thank you for this review.

    I never know what to do with claims of poetic greatness: “Ben Mazer, perhaps the most remarkable poet alive today…” We contemporaries can appreciate those qualities of Mazer’s work (with which–full disclosure–I am not familiar) that are meant to resonate with the time of their composition. The most meaningful judge of artistic greatness, however, is posterity, and we are by definition not posterior to ourselves. The poet and critic C. E. Chaffin once observed that no one in Shakespeare’s day could have predicted his reputation today. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, IMHO, are unwieldy and lame. The overall quality of Marlowe’s body of work seems more or less on par with Shakespeare’s. The Bard’s reputation is built on the tiny foundation of his small handful of luminous works, and it comprises his _utility_ to generations of writers, editors, and above all, English teachers.

    Some of Mazer’s poems, quoted above, seem lovely. None strike me as luminous, though I have not read all of them. Frost once remarked that “[t]he utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.” What about Mazer’s poems–at least, a few of them–will make them hard to get rid of?

    I very much enjoy Mazer’s unaffected rhymes. One observation: one of the ways that poetry can be successful is with memorable lines. A great line, or couplet, can affect a reader as much, if not more, than a whole poem. As nursery rhymes (and pop music) show, rhythm and rhyme are an extremely powerful help to the memory. Metered, rhymed lines stick better in the memory than do prosy ones.

    Again, thank you!

  4. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    “The poet and critic C. E. Chaffin once observed that no one in Shakespeare’s day could have predicted his reputation today. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets, IMHO, are unwieldy and lame. The overall quality of Marlowe’s body of work seems more or less on par with Shakespeare’s. The Bard’s reputation is built on the tiny foundation of his small handful of luminous works, and it comprises his _utility_ to generations of writers, editors, and above all, English teachers.”

    This comment is lame and unwieldy and worse, it is stupid.

    • powersjq said,

      January 2, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      As I reread the last sentence in that comment I made, I agree that it is unwieldy. I don’t agree with lame. Its basic sense still seems interesting and arguable to me. To call it stupid is unhelpful.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    January 1, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Powers! We’ve missed you! Happy New Year. Hope you’re well.

    I know what you mean by the great line or two, the poem or two we cannot shake.

    Mazer is like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, with numerous lovely pieces…one dreamily working on the puzzle will eventually appreciate the beauty of Mazer’s pieces and pictorial effects.

    I would love to hear your opinion after sitting quietly with one of Mazer’s books, or even one of his lengthier poems, for an hour, or so.

    You were one of our favorite Scarriet readers. I hope we’ll see you once in a while.

    • powersjq said,

      January 2, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      It’s good to be back! Happy New Year to you, as well!

      I’m going to buy _The Glass Piano_ on the strength of your recommendation. I’ll respond when I’ve had a chance to read it.

  6. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Goodbye Thomas Graves. Any poet who lets Shakespeare be spoken about like this is no friend of mine. No enemy either. I don’t have enemies. But I’m leaving Scarriet for this and you don’t have to publish anything on my poems. Thank you for all kind words. Shakespeare is no joking matter.

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 1, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      Mary Angela Douglas,

      No one has defended Shakespeare’s sonnets as I have. None.

      I excoriated a well-known poet, Don Patterson, here on Scarriet, for being unkind to the Sonnets. I have taken Helen Vendler to task for her well-reputed efforts on the Sonnets.

      I have revealed secrets of the Sonnets no else has.

      But, you see, Powers used to comment on Scarriet quite a bit, and he’s an interesting and well-read gentleman.

      Since the topic was Mazer, I chose to pass over, in silence, his Sonnets remark.

      I love Shakespeare, but if modern ears wish to claim that some, or most of the Sonnets, are “unwieldy,” I can’t fix this simply by saying, “no they’re not, you imbecile!”

      Mary, I appreciate your passion and standards. Once again, I pray you don’t abandon us.

      Tom

      • powersjq said,

        January 2, 2016 at 8:44 pm

        “Since the topic was Mazer, I chose to pass over, in silence, his Sonnets remark.”

        I was truly trying to say something about Tom’s comments on Mazer. I wasn’t trying to insult Shakespeare. I suppose I took it for granted that most people agree that S’s reputation is over-inflated to some degree. My bad. I don’t dispute that S is a great writer.

        Not that I mind someone taking issue with my views. Tom’s comment about my taste–“if modern ears wish to claim that some, or most of the Sonnets, are ‘unwieldy’…–is pertinent and interesting. I agree that my personal taste is a part of the equation. But I don’t want this to degenerate into an agreement to disagree. I tried to correct for my personal taste, and part of that included an awareness that our tastes are determined by how we’re taught English–and S belongs to the high school English curriculum, while Marlowe (among others) does not. To what extent is our opinion of S’s “greatness,” of the “natural” accord between his language and our taste, an artifact of our education?

        • maryangeladouglas said,

          January 2, 2016 at 9:12 pm

          I know there are other people who like Marlowe better. I am a fool for Shakespeare. Every word makes me weep even the comedic ones. I am a hopeless case. I’m also very interested in the poetry of Ben Mazer; it seems like a kind of miracle that anyone in the present age is writing the way he writes like out of the blue nowhere someone landed and began taking up the silver thread of poetry and poetic forms that had been rudely snipped off by poetic opportunists. I am very shocked that you apologized to me for the remarks on Shakespeare. No one ever apologizes to me for anything. Haha. The shock of this will goldenly reverberate in my head forever right alongside whatever golden fragments of Shakespeare I am able to remember- clean into Eternity.

          • maryangeladouglas said,

            January 3, 2016 at 2:11 am

            No offense but to characterize Shakespeare as “belonging to the high school curriculum” is really eccentric. He belongs as one of his contemporaries noted To The Ages. Unless the ages drink stupid water.

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    The man was not just denigrating Shakespeare’s sonnets; he was denigrating Shakespeare as the fountainhead, source waters of much we know of beauty in the English language. Therefore this makes your silence in this case even more appalling in the 400th anniversary year of his death. My stand on this as well as my walking away sadly from Scarriet on this point is least of all things, abandonment.

    I deeply appreciate all you have done for the Romantics, for Poe, for the poet Valerie Macon and myself and I bear you no ill will at all Thomas Graves; but here, we part company. Forgive me for saying this but I believe John Keats, too, your beloved unseen friend would have walked out of the room too at this point.

    • powersjq said,

      January 2, 2016 at 8:01 pm

      “The man was not just denigrating Shakespeare’s sonnets; he was denigrating Shakespeare as the fountainhead, source waters of much we know of beauty in the English language.”

      If I grasp your point, this is basically accurate, though to say that I was “denigrating” Shakespeare may be a bit hyperbolic. Like you, I am highly partial to literary and philosophical Romanticism. One issue I take with with the movement is its conception of artistic genius, which is highly distorting. We tend to credit authors with “genius” and “accomplishment” simply because they’re famous. S is nowadays taught in almost all high school English departments, and he’s held up as to all students of English as a literary paragon, as “the Bard.” But how many of us have read enough Sidney, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, and Spencer to assess such claims fairly? Even this list reveals my ignorance. A Google search for “Shakespeare’s contemporaries” yields another several names that I’ve never even heard of: Middleton, Webster, Dekker, et al. English flows from many “source waters,” most of which remain obscure.

      I’m not “against” S in any rigid sense. I don’t like how his massive reputation crowds out other writers deserving of notice. Crediting S with being “the fountainhead” of “much we know of beauty in the English language” seems to me to tacitly slight the work of the many, many other authors whose accomplishments go uncredited simply because they are less famous.

      When I try to look at S’s works as if they were written by an important–but not deified–author, this is what I see: of S’s 37 plays (of which I’ve read around 6 in their entirety, and excerpts of around 6 more), perhaps 5 or 6 are universally acknowledged works of genius. Most of the rest seem to be highly competent with flashes of brilliance. There are some that only experts have read, which suggests that they are mediocre. Of S’s 154 sonnets (of which I’ve read all), I think perhaps 7 or 8 are luminous. Most of the rest are, again, highly competent with flashes of brilliance. And some are overworked and forced. As a group, the sonnets are morbid, literate, and impressively passionate given the first two qualities.

      In sum, while S produced his shares of competent filler and mediocre dreck, he also produced an incredible share of brilliant works. He is a great writer whose current outsize reputation reflects less his actual talent or output than the pedagogic utility of an oversimplified version of the history of English letters.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        January 2, 2016 at 8:51 pm

        You are free as the crystal air to think of Shakespeare anyway you wish; I am sorry I called your comment stupid. My anger was not directed at you, it was directed at the current environement where people are determined to make Shakespeare so “accessible” and so updated fashion forwardly speaking that he is about to disappear. I regard any comment, no matter how well couched as dangerous not in and of itself, but in the current revisionist and olbiterating environment. I’m deeply sorry if I offended you in anyway.

        • maryangeladouglas said,

          January 2, 2016 at 8:52 pm

          sorry for typos. Live long and prosper literarily speaking.

        • powersjq said,

          January 2, 2016 at 9:26 pm

          I wasn’t offended. I say foolish things all the time. I think you called me on making an unjustified assumption. Personally, I find many of Tom’s (or, at least, the persona he uses on this blog) ideas and opinions foolish–but they are almost always _interestingly_ foolish. I do my best to follow his lead. It seems obvious to me that we’re all fools in the end, so we might as well enjoy ourselves with our foolishness.

  8. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    CLOSING THE BOOKS ON THOSE WHO INSULT THE GOLDEN

    to William Shakespeare

    closing the books on those who insult the golden,
    I wept into an unseen rain, the fall of dew
    on abandoned plains

    the brief opening of the night flowers.
    how have they stoned the bright remains
    of those who went before

    and slept a just sleep? rising to
    their elaborate, modern morning coffees.
    who will deliver us my soul from

    the ever encroaching tribe of scoffers
    tearing the gilded page in half,
    making us beg for crumbs.

    somewhere the knights shine on
    their valor kept by a discerning God
    whose hand could sweep the Board

    at any instant

    mary angela douglas 1 january 2016

  9. thomasbrady said,

    January 1, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Mary, I support your wish.

    However, you are not leaving Powers. You are leaving me, a bastion of Shakespeare-love.

    If you change your mind, you are always welcome here.

    Your poems and presence have made Scarriet a rich garden. You will cause the snows to fall.

    • powersjq said,

      January 2, 2016 at 8:09 pm

      I second this. Thomas cultivates as rich a garden of ideas, opinions, and words as he can. I appreciate and believe in his project. Please stay and contribute yours.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        January 2, 2016 at 9:05 pm

        Thank you for your graciousness; of course I will. You are kind to say this having been a friend of his for much longer than I, I’m sure of it. He is really unique in his viewpoint and gifts and I am really grateful for all I’ve learned on Scarriet, always wanting to know the real history behind things related to poetry and believing in the passionate defense of poetry not the milk toast banal way it is being presented now as if so many poets were afraid of Poetry (with a capital p.). I love Poetry with a capital “p” the same way I did when I was a little kid; exactly the same way and I am not ashamed of it. NOTHING that I learned in college or in any poetry magazine or journal was richer to me than the little kid awestruck, meteor flash splendor and sparkle and fairytale portal that poetry was to me then and that’s the peculiar way I relate to Scarriet especially in its present incarnation under T. Graves. I recognize it’s not the only way to relate to it. I’m ignorant of a lot and I’m happy to learn anything from anyone. And ANYONE is more erudite than me and true unapologetic erudition does indeed have its place.

  10. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Oh, for Heaven’s sake, what a beautiful thing to say. You just made me think of that beautiful incomparable movie and soundtrack Edward Scissorhands and simultaneously, of the horrid Snow Queen so now I have to stay. I can see in a way you are like Edward Scissorhands. I’m not really mad at any of you, including Powers its just that many people , many many people are impressionable regarding literary things and many things and ways of looking at things, irreplaceable things are being lost every day. AND WE HAVE TO BE VIGILANT AND STAND UP FOR THE LOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS ALL THE TIME, EVERY TIME NO MATTER WHAT THE PERSONAL COST. This is a serious thing Thomas Graves, please try to understand, especially as your readership grows this is serious. Mr. Powers has the right to his own opinion. But we could wind up in a real total literary wasteland so easily here in the U.S. and the English speaking world with all the political and PC infighting and cynicism. And a remark tossed off could poison the well forever. These things are not just myths. They really happen (and have happened).

    I know you were glad to see an old friend return, of course you were. But if he were my friend I would say the same thing, if he were Lazurus back from the dead I would say the same. So many people ALREADY want to trash Shakespeare, not just revise him, WIPE HIM OFF THE PAGE AS THOUGH HE NEVER EXISTED. We are in a different kind of war now, linguistically, emotionally speaking.

    I don’t want to make it snow. I want it to be Spring forever. But mythically mysteriously speaking, I can’t help but wonder who said what to whom last year when it wouldn’t stop snowing in Boston.

    • powersjq said,

      January 2, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      Maybe I’m just flattering myself, but I would like to count myself among those who “stand up for the lost beautiful things.” The basic arc of Tom’s view of the history of poetry in the 20th century is part of my mental furniture. I believe in poetry that is earnest, sensuous, and passionate. I believe beauty is real and objective. I believe that artistic taste is a real human excellence–a virtue–a quality that improves with practice and leads to observable differences in character.

      “And a remark tossed off could poison the well forever. These things are not just myths. They really happen (and have happened).”

      I can’t think of an historical example off the top of my head. Even granting that such things actually happen, though, I don’t think it very likely that _my_ remarks will make much difference. I’m not famous. I don’t write a well-read column for a news organization. I’m nobody. Perhaps you’re subjecting my views to an inappropriate standard?

      In any case, I can say unequivocally that I am in favor of keeping Shakespeare in the canon and in my own head. I do not oppose him. I simply like my literary pantheons as crowded and complicated as possible.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        January 2, 2016 at 9:31 pm

        If you feel yourself to be a friend of the lost and beautiful things you certainly are. You have a right to your own literary canon and the concept of that as you expressed it is very lovely in itself and honorable. I just really am worried about what is happening in the U.S. regarding the dumbing down of Shakespeare (not saying you were doing that by any means; I realize now you were simply stating a preference). I’ve studied a lot what happened to the poets Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Pasternak during the terror of Stalin and how they were ridiculed, mocked, berated, kicked out of the Writer’s Union (and, in Mandelstam’s case, murdered…as were many Russian poets who remained lyrical). They were punished for not writing in the Party Line; for not converting to Socialist Realism, FOR NOT ABANDONING LYRICAL POETRY. I see what is happening with ESPECIALLY SHAKESPEARE IN THIS REGARD IN THE U.S. AND ELSEWHERE AS A PRECURSOR TO THE LOSS OF LYRICISM EVEN AS A CONCEPT IN AMERICAN POETRY. That is exactly, irrevocably how I see it. Some woman scholar has even written a kind of treatise on THE POLITICAL NATURE OF THE POEMS OF ANNA AKHMATOVA. This is a baldfaced lie and distortion. Anna Akhmatova wrote classical, lyrical, love lyrics and at the same time, lyrics that preserved the soul of what was quintissentially Russian on a spiritual level before the Revolution and thus preserved the psyche of a nation. I belive the same type of lyricism, the soul preseving kind to be encoded in Shakespeare more than in any other English speaking writer. IN THIS CONTEXT it is important not to give ANY fuel to the fire. That’s just how I see it. I know what you intended had nothing to do with this as this is not your particular frame of reference.

        WE ARE NOW AT THE POINT WHEN TO REGARD POETRY THROUGH ANYTHING OTHER THAN A POLITICAL LENS IS NOT ONLY A LITERARY BUT A HUMAN CRIME AND FAILURE.

        This must be fought against with everything that is in us. I praise Scarriet most for its impassioned defense of the lyric and the lyrical.
        Poor Anna Akhmatova wrote one political State glorifying poem about tractors in an attempt to save her son’s life. Osip Mandelstam driven to his knees by years of NKVD harassment wrote one State referential poem about the State as a Soviet greatcoat. But he was killed anyway. It is the poetry of the individual heart and soul that is the greatest threat to totalitarianism and in the arts in the U.S. I believe we are on the verge of totalitarianism.

        • maryangeladouglas said,

          January 2, 2016 at 9:33 pm

          P.S. Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem to make up for that Soviet Greatcoat one though. The one where he compared Stalin to a cockroach (or his mustache to one). He merely recited this poem to a friend and this sealed his doom. Pasternak tried to save him but could not.

  11. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 1, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    THE GARDEN OF STATUES

    here in the garden of statues
    one keeps watch not speaking
    until spoken to.

    the roses heavy with dew
    could weep if they knew;
    whatever it is in roses knows

    here nothing moves but the wind
    and the roses; all else is suspended
    under the moon

    and we keep still my soul or I
    and gather witnesses
    from antique imagination

    of the way things should have been
    when life meant being alive.
    but here the poses never end;

    the statuary blindness.
    let blind snows begin to
    cover it all!

    by the roses this I heard
    the vivid angels; Word; archangels
    Speak and breaking it all apart

    at slight command
    and would the human heart
    if there were one here left to break.

    others will come much later to the scene
    bringing back souvenirs
    from the ruins.

    mary angela douglas 1 january 2016

  12. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Mary, thank you.

    I feel what you feel.

  13. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 2, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    What more can any poet hope for than the musical transmission of the feeling of the poem as it is being written to any reader. This poem was born of a happier memory of my sister and I playing the game swing-a-statue on the lawn, of E. Nesbit’s Enchanted Castle originally happy memories,music but for some reason, altered, set in a minor key.

    But I’ve written other poems from the same images, impressions in the major key. It’s not on purpose. It just comes up that way, I believe, like your spontaneous video melodies do. I forgot to mention the other day the thing I found most interesting in your recorded music is the repetition of one phrase over and over. It wasn’t annoying, it was like the soul’s reality stuck on one note the way it sometimes happens.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    January 3, 2016 at 2:58 am

    Poe wrote something interesting on Shakespeare’s reputation in his short essay, Letter to B____

    http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/bletterb.htm

    • powersjq said,

      January 3, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      Poe about sums it up, though his image of a “master spirit” smacks more of Platonic contemplation than simple erudition. A fair judgement of Shakespeare would, in my view, repose not upon some mystical communion with the “master spirit” of English, but upon having read–with an open mind and an open heart–enough (good) English generally and enough historically congruent English specifically. It’s true that we all of us borrow most of our opinions from those who know better. Despite all my efforts, I can’t seem to find a problem with this. There simply isn’t time to learn everything, so how should we proceed except to trust the good plumber to know plumbing, the good parent to know parenting his own children, and the good reader to know literature?

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        January 3, 2016 at 8:06 pm

        THE MISSING DETAIL IN THE PICTURES, THE WHITE ROSES

        [to the poets of World War I]

        the missing detail in the picture, the white roses.
        why do the white roses
        cast no shadows

        on the green grass there are other shadows
        the house has shadows, the child in the grass
        with the azure ball that cannot bounce there

        the vines on the white walls of the house
        but the roses.
        white roses cast no shadows in the painting

        on the green garden and where are the endings of
        the words that would have passed inspection. anywhere;
        the answers cast no shadows on

        the pavements in the rains, the scented gardens.
        how blinding are the roses and the
        seraphim near the old refrains the

        summer children singing of the azure

        then the speeding shells the
        toppled oranges in the orangeries
        frame by frame the

        azure ball blown skyward and the

        white roses under all this moonlight
        still cannot find
        their shadows except in my poem. it is this nearness

        I am writing about-
        so close you are standing the next one summoned, next to

        the white roses the apparition of the sunset

        the last bar in the music (but it isn’t finished!).
        the white the red the peach rose blurred and foundered.

        the open cannonades the canons withold your names
        the letters forever summoned snow on snow
        departing, unanswered unstoppered like the white rose perfumes

        book without pages
        poem without lines
        and drifting now unrecognized.

        banished from earth they will bloom elsewhere

        mary angela douglas 19 january 2015;21 january 2015

  15. maryangeladouglas said,

    January 3, 2016 at 4:40 am

    ON SHAKESPEARE AS INACCESSIBLE

    why is he so hard to find
    even to read, a little.
    each time I climb I fall

    back a child before
    such steep language.
    sometimes the flowery vales

    I find and try to rest there
    but it beckons onward
    so that my heart knows

    with Rilke, staying my dear
    is nowhere.
    no one interpretation satisfies.

    and those who simplify him
    I think, commit crimes though
    they do not mean to

    casting him as accessible.
    the least of all words I would
    ascribe to him. impossible!

    and so I start again
    the starry slopes to climb
    as if to God

    and wait on Time and miracle
    to read these lines
    at last, from the jeweled inside

    and weep to read
    whatever I can find.

    mary angela douglas 8 december 2015

  16. thomasbrady said,

    January 3, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    The pedagogues are slowly but surely expelling Shakespeare from college. In my opinion he should be required reading. He is that good. He is a moral gift to the world, enlarging the mind and making people better who experience his work. But politically correct modernists often frown on that kind of beauty and glory. We’re in a cultural dark ages. The Writing Program pyramid scheme is dumbing down literature. But this is sour talk. Shakespeare himself would smile and say, relax. It’s going to be okay.


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