WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW PART TWO: IMAGINE THERE’S NO IMAGE

Scarriet’s wildly successful essay, Why Poetry Sucks Now, [May 16, 2013] published almost 3 years ago and with more readers every day, is due for a sequel.

Not because of anything in the news. Poetry still sucks.

The Modernist revolution which destroyed poetry was about one thing: the image.

The modernist poetry movement, “imagism,” got the ball rolling.

The modern art scam overlapped clique-wise, with the poets.

Gertrude Stein (poet and art collector with her brother, Leo) studied with William James.

Poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s lawyer was John Quinn, a modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show (introduce the European modern painting to America) happen.

John Dewey was part of the early 20th century buy-low-sell-high modern art scam, explicitly elevating abstract art over representational art in his series of Harvard lectures, Art As Experience, dedicated and written for his friend A.C. Barnes, wealthy modern art collector.

Duchamp arrived in America to party with Walter Arensberg, wealthy modern art collector whose friends included poet W.C. Williams of Red Wheel Barrow fame.

Painting, keeper of the image, destroyed it.

Poetry, the temporal art, embraced it.

The con was two-sided and weirdly related.

Money (gold) versus Wisdom.  And who won?

Art critics and ‘buy low-sell high’ collectors teamed up and built modern art museums to validate the scam.

Modern Poets and modern poetry critics (known as the New Critics—the tweedy, respectable-seeming wing of the revolution) wrote one highly influential textbook, Understanding Poetry.

These poets and critics also began the Writing Program era, which took the study of literature away from literature as literature and put it into the hands of “new” writers teaching “new” writing.

When we despair today at how much poetry sucks, we should turn our eyes to the image, for that one small idea hoodwinked everyone.

Modern poetry began its journey into pretentious mediocrity with an idea:

Poetry which centers on the image is an advance over the old poetry which does not.

What is unbelievable about the influence of this modernist movement (similar to a bowel movement, in that many were pushing it) is the following:

First, the idea is bankrupt.  Old poets didn’t use images?  Really??

Second, it was introduced by a few cranks who put out a few issues of wretched little early 20th century modernist magazines no one read.

This, of course, was Pound, and a few of his friends, in London, leading up to World War One, borrowing from haiku (a recent rage due to the 1905 Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war) and giving their coterie a French moniker: Imagistes.

The whole thing would be laughable.  But it is not.  Because it caught on, far, far beyond what it actually was.  The hoodwinked hoodwinked others and the hoodwinking accelerated, and took on a life of its own.

None will deny the mundane truth of what we are blandly asserting.

The first step in destroying poetry was Pound’s Imagiste circle before WW I.  Then his school chum’s “Red Wheel Barrow,” then a poetry textbook (Understanding Poetry) that was taught in all the schools starting in the 30s, put together by their friends the New Critics, and then Paul Engle (Engle’s Yale Younger was awarded to him by a member of the New Critic circle) began the Writing Program at Iowa– Robert Lowell, the first star Program teacher at Iowa was sent to study with New Critics, Tate and Ransom, by Lowell’s psychiatrist, and—you guessed it—this psychiatrist of the family Lowell was part of the New Critics. It couldn’t be any more bizarre. And successful. The New Critics were good at exploiting academic and federal education ‘money and influence’ connections.

If you look at any educated discussion of poetry today, whatever issues might pertain to it, its history, its practice, its appeal—and we are talking about all poetry—the name Ezra Pound, the term Modernism, the idea of the “image” as something “new” which left behind the “old” poetry of Victorian temporality and rhyme, will either be directly referenced or be the unspoken, underlying trope in 99 cases out of a hundred.

Another mundane point of fact: the New Critic authored textbook Understanding Poetry singles out for high praise Pound’s Petals on a wet black bough imagist poem, his friend WC Williams’ Red Wheel Barrow imagist poem, and uses an Aldous Huxley essay to ridicule the popular poetic rhythm of Edgar Poe. 

Who, and what, Pound and his small circle of friends really were, and what their so-called “idea” actually was, is perhaps 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times less meaningful than what its subsequent influence has become, an influence that has created mass psychosis in poetry.  It is one of those things in human history that cannot be fully comprehended.

But there you have it.

The image, in poetry, has beaten meter (the temporal, rhythmic aspect of old poetry) into submission.

True, there’s been a revolt against the small, tame, “imagist” poem—one thinks of something like “Howl,” the sort of blah blah blah poem which is far more common today than any poem which makes imagery its god.

But the point here is that in the 20th century imagery was the cudgel that crushed all the beauties of sound which once belonged to poems.

And to make your language sound good, you have to be really good at that language.  It goes along with a truly good education.

The ubiquitous charge against the bad, “sing-songy” poem is legitimate.  Writing poems of exquisite rhythm is very difficult to do.  But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Or that we should pretend banal prose has rhythm.

Today one can still hear every learned, respected, inside academic poet and critic talking about how important the image is, how the image is figuratively and literally, the thing, the only thing that really matters. Because the image (and recall the Writing Program and Imagist advocates are the same) “shows instead of tells.”  That’s the Writing Program mantra: Show Don’t Tell. (Like abstract painting: don’t depict, like the old historical painters; just show us shape and color.)

The Modernist, Imagist, Poetry/Modern Art P. R. Machine, for practical, money, power-grab reasons, effectively destroyed, in a couple of years in the 20th century, the wisdom and practice of two millennia—centered on this once-upon-a-time, common-sense notion—one which must seem very strange to the currently brainwashed “poets” and “artists”—Painting belongs to picture and poetry belongs to music.

We’ll say it one more time: Painting belongs to picture and poetry belongs to music. This is the old truth that has been overturned.

Painting is now conceptualist propaganda, as drawing and perspective are dying out, just like great poetry.

Poetry has come to mean bad, chopped-up, prose, and has no real public.

Reality has been flipped: Painting is blah blah blah.  And poetry can’t write a memorable sentence.

Poetry’s latest foray (see Kenneth Goldsmith) is towards conceptualist propaganda (see painting).

Painting’s beauty and truth is spatial in nature, and depicts a moment of reality, using all the wonders and advantages which belong to the eye. Poetry’s beauty and truth is temporal in nature, and depicts moments which unfold, using all the wonders and advantages of the ear.

The tone-deaf, scheming Modernists took one look at the common sense of two millennia and said, “Nah.”

And you wonder why poetry sucks now?

 

 

 

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19 Comments

  1. butts311 said,

    March 2, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    The reasons why poetry, art, and music suck now are legion, but this hot take on what some stupid Americans did with avant-garde literature, and the first stirrings of the program era is one good place to start. Of course, the story is much more complicated…the OSS and all that. All very unseemly. I’m not sure how quietly dignified I find it. Next thing you know Ezra Pound’s in a cage, Allen Ginsberg is everywhere, and wants us to join NAMBLA, Joyce Carol Oates has published 800 books, Kathy Acker rises from the dead and violently murders McKenzie Wark, and David Foster Wallace commits suicide because he has to work as a professor.

    I disagree. I think both Stein and Eliot are musical poets. And that there was always a rich vein within avant-garde writing that was deeply engaged with poetry as a musical form, and in fact kept that tradition alive while the majority of the majority poets had two or three hack rhythms for their cut up little prose stories.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 2, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      butts,

      Thanks. The field is vast and yes, there are exceptions. I don’t agree on Stein (she got stream of consciousness technique from her professor, William James) but do agree Eliot is often quite melodically beautiful and musical in his work (he secretly admired and read Poe—even as he was a member of the Modernists who didn’t quite know what to do with Poe and often attacked him viciously, as Huxley did, and as Eliot himself dutifully did in From Poe to Valery, after he (Eliot) had won his Nobel).

      The one reference I don’t get above is “violently murders McKenzie Wark.”

      • butts311 said,

        March 3, 2016 at 12:27 am

        Oh, it’s just some random creeper professor who writes articles for the internet about trendy topics in academia. He wrote an exploitative book about his sexual affair with Kathy Acker.

      • noochinator said,

        March 3, 2016 at 1:09 pm

        Thanks @butts311, very interesting stuff! The below paragraphs are from the MIT Press website:

        After Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark on a trip to Australia in 1995, they had a brief fling and immediately began a heated two-week email correspondence. Their emails shimmer with insight, gossip, sex, and cultural commentary. They write in a frenzy, several times a day; their emails cross somewhere over the International Date Line, and themselves become a site of analysis. What results is an index of how two brilliant and idiosyncratic writers might go about a courtship across 7,500 miles of airspace—by pulling in Alfred Hitchcock, stuffed animals, Georges Bataille, Elvis Presley, phenomenology, Marxism, The X-files, psychoanalysis, and the I Ching.

        Their correspondence is a Plato’s Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks. I’m Very Into You is a text of incipience, a text of beginnings, and a set of notes on the short, shared passage of two iconic individuals of our time.

        https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/im-very-you

        • butts311 said,

          March 4, 2016 at 4:48 am

          Are you a PR Agent for MIT? Fuck right off. Anybody who is truly a fan of Kathy Acker, and understands her and her work at all will be as repulsed by this book as they know she would have been.

          • noochinator said,

            March 4, 2016 at 10:23 am

            You’re the one who mentioned McKenzie Wark’s name, I’d never heard of him before.

            • thomasbrady said,

              March 4, 2016 at 2:40 pm

              I’d never heard of this Wark dude, either.

              Thanks for the info, Nooch.

              Apparently true fans of Kathy Acker have strong feelings about the book.

              I’ve recently said “fuck off” to books, so I’m safe.

              We live in the age of the fragment now.

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 4, 2016 at 4:36 am

    I still have hope, Thomas Graves, that Poetry in its immortal sense, great poetry still exists and floats above the disparaging Word from age to age, intact and ceaselessly beautiful. Somehow, I think you feel this too. At least I feel, sense, hear glints of this in your poems and your songs.

    If I had a poem I wanted to be my last song without actually departing life at that moment since I wrote it today it would be the following poem which I leave here, I hope, for hope itself and the future of Poetry and poets present and to come…Best Wishes to you, as always, and to Scarriet. from Mary Angela Douglas

    I WILL LOVE PURE SONG FOREVER

    I will love pure song forever
    said I to the rising wind
    and whether the wind is

    rising or falling,
    the music heard or
    not heard

    whether I disappear with it
    without a word
    whether it leaves me bereft

    whether it is nothing

    I have left, the birds having departed before me,
    and everything that soared
    and I , alone on the pier

    a mere stick figure without it
    scarecrow of sound

    and if, when God is near
    and I bend down so far to hear
    what signs of welcome I can

    I know that without song

    oh dearest song
    I shall not enter in.

    mary angela douglas 3 march 2016

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 5, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS

      sometimes I imagine in Heaven
      a grand welcoming
      the Party to beat all parties

      festooned with pink,
      all the pastels swirling
      infinite amounts of cake and drink

      with ice cream
      and there at the Gate
      a glorious glittery confetti

      waterfalling down
      little silver trumpets
      and lemon placecards

      with curlicue writing
      accenting the raspberry just desserts
      the Christmas ponies led in

      with the sun blinding bridles

      and a crowning, a crown
      and it’s not the paste

      diamond tiara this time
      or the cereal variety
      cardboardy jeweled

      and cut-out on the dotted lines
      it’s the real thing
      and a mighty shout goes up

      all amethyst coloured
      and then there is a stream
      as far as eye can see or peridot mind

      comceive
      from all the birthstone dimensions,

      directions, indirections, peri-nations
      islands and isthmuses alike
      severally and all at once

      once upon

      of jolly friends
      coming from everywhere
      from beyond the potted plants

      in their pools of gold
      from distant hills the
      bluest of blues and bells

      pealing and pealing
      no longer holding back
      and no flack

      and heavenly hosts from every rill
      in a jeweled light spilling over
      budding out with the bouquets

      for someone you’ve never seen
      and don’t have even a vague memory of
      and the grey silver doves in

      graceful circles braiding ribbons
      of satin to underscore the Pearled point emphatically

      who is all this for
      some may ask idly
      if they’ve gotten

      this far in the story
      and I say from the dream of Glory

      this is what happens when anyone enters Heaven
      who no one had time for on earth…

      mary angela douglas 5 march 2016

  3. butts311 said,

    March 4, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Tomas, I am new to this blog. I studied the work and life of Poe in Chile, the country where I was born, and was googling about the mysteries of Poe’s death. This is how I found you.

    I want to ask you, as we both agree that poetry currently sucks – even in New York City, where I live, nothing fresh or inspiring is happening – if there are any living poets in the world who you think do not suck.

    Also, I am curious if you think this is a lull or something more permanent. In my studies of American poetry and talks with American poets, it is my understanding that there was also a lull in the late seventies and early eighties where the majority of poetry that was widely published was either a reflux of Beat poetry, a parody of a parody; confessional poetry, which was re-conceived within the writing programs as a place primarily for women to be emotional workers, wherein skill, strength, artfulness, originality, curiosity beyond the self, and intellectual exploration were considered as invalidating the authenticity of the work; and a grab-bag of suburban storytellers and kitschy ‘classicists’.

    This is but a brief and general analysis, but it is clear that certain kinds of poetry were chosen for literary institutions to champion so that writing programs could attract as many paying students as possible, most of whom were not poets and no amount of teaching would make into poets, though a chosen few who were passable, and exhibited best the qualities the writing programs wanted to reproduce, as they required the least effort intellectually for both teachers and students, and reinforced status quo attitudes about class, race, and sex, continued on to long careers.

    Something a bit different began to happen in many of the writing programs of the 90’s and early 2000’s, which, oddly, is when people began to crow and pontificate about the dangers of the writing programs. But that is another story.

    I was reading an interview with Franco Moretti, who is spearheading the Digital Humanities movement. https://lareviewofbooks.org/interview/the-digital-in-the-humanities-an-interview-with-franco-moretti He claims that while much great literature was produced in the 20th Century, that the disciplines who study literature failed so miserably in “conceptual imagination and in boldness” they squandered their writers. What do you think of such a judgment? And do you think it is at all connected with the eerie feeling in many of the arts that truly great artists seem to be on strike?

  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 4, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    butts,

    I agree with Moretti here:

    “In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort.”

    Absolutely. And then look at the 19th century and Poe’s “Eureka,” the first modern argument for the Big Bang theory, read by Einstein, still scientifically relevant today. The suppression of Poe is one of the major reasons why the humanities fell off in the 20th century. That may seem a bold assertion, but the genius of Poe and how he has been treated? It is true. Byron—what a great poet. Modern, completely modern. And yet John Crowe Ransom of all people, in the 1930s, said we can’t write like Byron anymore. Why the fuck not? Why. the.fuck.not? 20th century poetry is cowardly shit, for the most part.

    I was talking with Marjorie Perloff recently and she expressed contempt for the Digital Humanities movement. I had never really heard of it. Looking at it, I don’t really understand what it is.

    I just hope it’s not ‘picture poems’ and silly crap like that!

    And Moretti seems to feel the same: “digital humanities means nothing.”

    I guess I belong to the Digital Humanities movement.

    I’m in the middle of it.

    Here you are, a stranger in cyber space, and I can immediately present myself reading my poem to you:

    • butts311 said,

      March 5, 2016 at 4:06 am

      Tomas,

      I misread this initially myself. Immediately following what you quoted he continues, “Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness.”

      So he seems to be placing the blame more on The Study of literature and political history, than on the artists and political historians themselves.

      • butts311 said,

        March 5, 2016 at 4:14 am

        I misspoke slightly. He seems to be singling out political historians as producing interesting but “horrendous” things that have not been studied correctly.

        • butts311 said,

          March 5, 2016 at 4:33 am

          If he is in fact saying that nothing of intellectual or artistic value was produced in the entire 20th century, and just rhetorically dancing around it, then he is certainly a self-serving charlatan who should perhaps be placed in a mental institution.

          Of course, even when I was in university there were still vestiges of the bizarre ignorance which lead to the phrase ‘the dark ages’ and many historians claiming that nothing of intellectual or artistic merit occurred in the middle ages in my textbooks.

          • butts311 said,

            March 5, 2016 at 5:02 am

            As far as what the Digital Humanities *is* that’s a very good question, one which he is smugly elusive about in this interview. His saying things like “the digital humanities mean nothing” smacks of the most cliche 20th century avant-garde posturing which he seems to imagine he is breaking free from, with this ‘new system’.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    March 5, 2016 at 10:07 am

    It’s all about returning to the nature of things, isn’t it? The beauty and harsh wisdom of nature is never far away. She is there, hiding behind our cool artificiality, which, beginning in the 20th century, became a God of errant and pretentious pride. The only proper “study” is the study of the universe. Otherwise, let passionate happiness without study inform the humanities. Let our poems murmur in pure beauty. The scholars are not muses and should never be courted. Vocation and love are the same. Ugly hybrids have taken over. Novelists research before they write. Historical/autobiographical fiction mixtures are horrible things. The beautiful memorable poem is dead. Pope said “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” A humbling but keen observation for the poets. The pretentious attempt to remove themselves from simple humanity with the wild and wooly: Cubism! Collage! Digital Humanities! Zombie Jane Austen! “Historical” “Fiction!” Hell no. We need to get back to the beautiful human being of pleasure and dignity and clarity who can produce a beautiful poem. If you—without digressing—can’t produce a beautiful poem, go find another vocation, one far from the humanities. A banker. A chimney sweep.

    • butts311 said,

      March 5, 2016 at 11:33 am

      No poet of genius would take nearly everyone working in the Humanities of the day very seriously. Might as well send your poems to ISIS. Or to a Juggalo.

  6. butts311 said,

    March 5, 2016 at 10:50 am

    In conclusion, I agree that the Humanities have declined, and 16 years into the 21st century is producing students “lagging behind in both conceptual imagination and boldness,” (among other qualities).

    Most of the students of the Humanities remain in the Humanities as teachers and artists, and have, to use your word, become progressively more ‘cowardly’ and incapable of creating a strong infrastructure to support and defend not only their own livelihoods, their own creative work, but all art, all literature, all history, all philosophy.

    The Humanities are not the only field in academia in decline, all of academia is in decline. All of human civilization is in decline, the Earth itself is in decline. It should be no mystery to anybody the reason for this decline.

    So when this guy waxes poetic about the superiority of the Sciences to the Humanities, what he is really saying is that the state feels it has sufficiently infiltrated the Humanities and destroyed it from the inside. Thank you, useful idiots, you will soon be dismissed. Now it is ready to install this meaningless lab in its place to finish the job.

    Science, however, is still useful to the state. It’s exciting, because scientists in academia not only get to participate in the extinction of thought, but the extinction of human life itself.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 5, 2016 at 4:36 pm

      Butts, an extremely pessimistic view, but true. There are talented and good-intentioned people everywhere. But leadership, global reflectiveness, those in positions of power, those who control publishing and science and politics, who organize and give rewards, who control broadly the future of all people, are, despite their bird’s eye view and world experience, self-centered, vulgar, and crassly pragmatic. And I’m not talking about ‘conservative versus progressive’ and ‘save the planet versus capitalism,’ and the other clichés, which are merely symptoms of the boorish, cowardly, anti-science, sickness. The mass of humanity (including all presidential candidates) are like babies in a crib, kept alive by a handful of scientific breakthroughs by a handful of inventors over the past two thousand years. I suppose these days are better than when Hitler was running wild and Europe and Russia were in flames. Maybe this is the end of the West. But life—life—will go on.


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