Poetry was going down the tubes fast in 1936.
Mad Edna Millay (“what lips my lips have kissed and where and why…”) was about to be replaced by a grey suit…
Paul Engle, with his Iowa Masters Degree (for a book of mediocre poems) and his Yale Younger Poetry Prize (for the same book of mediocre poems) was launching the Iowa Writer’s workshop, which would change the poetry landscape forever—millions of students and professors rushing in where Shelley (a drop-out) feared to tread.
In the 19th century Byron performed physical acts of daring.
In the 20th century, there was no Byron. There was Wallace Stevens—who got beat up, by Hemingway, a prose writer.
The poets were not swimming the Hellespont. They were becoming professors.
Blame it on the Russians, if you want.
College loans (for bad poets) in the United States began with Sputnik.
Paul Engle raised money—for his Iowa Workshop, and later, for his International Writing Program at Iowa—from the Rockefeller Foundation, to fight communism.
Engle writing to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1960, in the wake of the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957:
I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country…thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination.
Poetry training in the United States became “indoctrination,” too.
But it was different.
The CIA funded Modern Art to counter Soviet Realist Art—this is crazy, but it happened.
Engle’s “indoctrination” was of a perfectly harmless kind: an anti-indoctrination indoctrination in the unique American way:
Earn a degree and become a poet! Teach others, so they can earn a degree and become a poet! Poetry! Freedom! Freedom! Money! Poetry Workshops! Freedom! Poetry! Money! Poetry! Freedom!
It was exciting. I knew the extrovert Paul Engle—in person. Poetry! Freedom! Money! is precisely the kind of energy he gave off.
Here in the 21st century, the faucet cannot be turned off. Trained university poets, training, granting, publishing, are now a flood. The game is on. Fame and poetry are hidden away. If money is like water, poetry is being written on it.
Hemingway (informally tutored by the crazed and clever poet, and modern art collector, Gertrude Stein) was the muscled prose writer who enjoyed vast fame—as poetry was dancing its strange, crooked dance into the university.
This is what the public thought they wanted. Hemingway:
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
Real simple prose is almost like poetry sometimes.
Something was going on here.
Prose, simple as a fist, is poetry?
Poetry can easily rush into complexity, and the temptation is great for poets to fling themselves upwards in a funeral pyre of words—but the funeral is theirs.
Poetry is anti-complex.
Hemingway was a poet—(when he wasn’t writing badly, which he often did)–if simplicity is poetry.
And when pretense and experiment is the only other game in town–-it is.
Up against Hemingway, in the 2017 March Madness contest, is Mrs. L. Miles. Yes, that was her moniker when she published her book on phrenology in 1836.
This is not poetry. This is real prose, extraordinary for what it says:
The loss of one eye does not destroy the vision. The deafness of one ear does not wholly deprive us of hearing. In the same manner Tiedman reports the case of a madman, whose disease was confined to one side of his head, the patient having the power to perceive his own malady, with the unimpaired faculties of the other side.
Certainly this applies to the twin vision of poetry and prose, and we think it explains why millions, without poetry in their souls, can fool us into thinking they love us, and are sane.