WHITMAN VS. MAZER—THE SENTIMENTAL POETRY MARCH MADNESS CONTINUES

 

Image result for walt whitman

The sentimental, as this 2018 March Madness Poetry tournament is finding out—as poems smash into each other in the particle accelerators of Scarriet’s aesthetic criticism—refers to any emotion at all, even anger.

Emotion, which the Modernists sought to distance themselves from—because the Victorians and the Romantics were too emotional in their poetry—is the beating heart of any poem; the poem cannot survive without emotion.

Are poems truth, as in scientific truth?  Even those who hate emotion, would not make such a claim (it would be an emotional one).

So if poems are not scientific documents, what are they?  They are sentimental documents—as much as feeling can be registered in a scientific (aesthetic, philosophical, psychological) manner.

The Modernists were fashionably reactive, but rather bankrupt philosophically and critically—the New Critics’ objected shrilly to the relevance of  the reader’s emotional response to a poem (yes, poems may make us feel something, they conceded, but this was not as important as the objective description of the poem as a thing).

T.S. Eliot, the father of New Criticism, famously  called poetry an “escape from emotion,” but he was confusing Poe’s formula that verse was 90% mathematical and 10% moral.

Poems can certainly be written, as Wordsworth said, in “tranquility,” even as powerful feelings flow between poet and reader.

The poem itself is not emotional.

The whole question of “escaping” emotion, or counting emotions bad in a poem, the way emotions are bad if one loses one’s temper in real life, is besides the point.

The mathematical is not emotional, and verse is largely mathematical—even prose poetry relies on rhythm, which is music, which is math.

But should the poet invent, and impart, emotion as part of the poem’s effect?

Yes, and this is a truism.

Aristotle says emotions can be “purged” by poetry. Aristotle was arguing with Plato, and looking for a way to praise emotions, but the “purging” idea is incomplete.  Let’s say a poem elicits disgust—how does this “purge” anything?  Does this mean we will never feel disgusted, again?  Of course not.  The poem has given us a feeling of disgust where there was none before, and whenever we remember the poem, we are disgusted.

The emotional content of a poem can include some “bad” emotions—fear or sorrow, for instance—disgust should probably be avoided altogether, but even disgust may be used, sparingly, perhaps—but the poem itself should do more than just produce an emotion, or a combination of emotions; the emotions of the poem must be accompanied with—what?  And here’s the mystery; here’s what the poet must decide with each poem.  All we know is that every poem should be highly sentimental, in the old, less pejorative, meaning of the term.

In the Fourth Bracket, the Sushmita Bracket, we feature some living poets, who don’t give a damn what contemporary critics think, and find joy and weeping in the poetic euphoria of grand, old, high sentiment.

Ben Mazer—one of the greatest living poets (tell us how he is not)—gives us a poem burning on emotional jet fuel.

As we have said, the “emotion” of a person and the “emotion” of a poem are two different things.

Personal emotion could indeed be something we would want to “escape” from, to tamp down, to control, etc.

A poem, however, understands no such social limits or niceties.

The more the poet understands this crucial distinction, the better the poet will be; those who do not understand this distinction produce poetry which is either purely dull, or purely offensive.

Number 5 (December Poems) –Ben Mazer

I was at the Nuremberg Rallies pleading with my wife,
I love you, I love you, more than anything in the world!
As she looked off to see the dramatic spectators,
she turned to me and said, you hate my guts.
I wept, I pleaded, no, it wasn’t true!
I only married you because I love you!
There is no force to plead with that can change her course,
now everything is quite its opposite,
and yet she said, “I wish that it were true,”
and would not answer “Do you love me?”
or contest “You do! You love me!”
What are we then? Man and wife
hopelessly lost and separated in strife
and worser grief than was known to despair
at using words like markers, no means yes,
when Jesus Mary Magdalene won’t you bless
the two true lovers, their heads to your thighs,
and let this nonsense out in bursts of tears and sighs.

The famous poem by Walt Whitman is Mazer’s opponent.  We copy the first stanza.

O Captain! My captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red.
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Many know and admire this poem, and Walt Whitman was embraced by the moderns—Pound put out a hand to Whitman (while ignoring Poe, and other important figures of the 19th century.)

Those who admire Whitman’s poem, when pressed, would probably not remember “But O heart! heart! heart!/O the bleeding drops of red.”

What respectable poet writes anything like this today?

And yet, “O Captain! My Captain!” is a great poem, a powerful poem, a memorable poem, with a wonderful rhythm—if Whitman had checked himself and said, “I can’t write nonsense like O heart! heart! heart!” who doubts but that the poem would never have seen completion, would never have been written at all?

The only drawback to Whitman’s poem is that it exhausts its theme in the first stanza, and the next two stanzas merely recapitulate the first.  It is a bold and lovely poem, however.

Ben Mazer, similarly, pours on the sentimentality in his poem—the poet is vulnerable in the extreme.  The hysterical and desperate nature of the poem is announced at once, with, “I was at the Nuremberg Rallies pleading with my wife.”  This alone, marks the poem as genius, and then Mazer presents the searing, simple words of an actual, intimate conversation, which adds to the drama, and then Mazer ends the poem with a direct, emotional plea at the highest possible pitch.

Mazer’s poem has four parts, with the poet’s position never wavering—the first part announces the setting and situation, the second part features a dialogue, the third part presents a key, yet hopeless turn in the dialogue, “I wish that it were true,” and in the last part, the poet seeks divine assistance, after beginning the poem with a reference to earthly power.

There’s no crying in poetry?

Yes there is.

Mazer wins.

17 Comments

  1. March 23, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    There is no universe where Ben Mazer (whoever that is) beats Walt in anything, much less a poetry contest. The fix is in.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 23, 2018 at 3:58 pm

      I can see how you might feel this way. Whitman is terrific.

      When a poet becomes “known,” they acquire an excellence in our minds. It’s the same thing when people start gossiping how attractive a person is—and you had never noticed this, and suddenly you think to yourself, “Oh, I guess they are attractive.” Though you never really thought they were.

      All poets write good or bad lines, good or bad poems, some better than others, obviously. Is a poet “attractive” the way a face is? Or does the poet have to prove themselves to us with each new line we read?

    • Desdi said,

      March 23, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      Walt was an over-rated ranter.

      Ginsberg liked him a lot . . .

  2. Anonymous said,

    March 23, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Hilarious! Can you spell sycophant?

  3. thomasbrady said,

    March 23, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    It’s not who wins. It’s the CRITICAL ARGUMENT per the actual poem.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 23, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    It’s not Hall of Fame. It’s the game.

  5. Mr. Woo said,

    March 24, 2018 at 1:52 am

    I prefer Mazer, and I love Whitman.

    Whitman created a powerful persona and ensuing legend that is difficult to compete with.

    • March 24, 2018 at 2:12 am

      Please explain why you think Mazer is a better poet than Walt Whitman. The Mazer poem cited above is awful and Whitman is a friggin giant. I’m starting to believe no one on this site knows what the heck they’re talking about. I became angry here. I shall cease and desist, my Captain. Fear not. Oh, Lord yeah (War Pigs).

      • Mr. Woo said,

        March 24, 2018 at 3:01 am

        First, I never said I thought Mazer was the better poet. I said I preferred Mazer.

        And honestly I don’t give a damn who’s better. Like I said, I love Whitman. I’m sorry to hear about you getting angry after reading about my preference, though.

      • noochinator said,

        March 24, 2018 at 12:31 pm

        There’s a possibility Whitman threw the match because he was saving up his energy for a hot date afterwards. Who knows? In sports there are so many variables.

      • Desdi said,

        March 24, 2018 at 9:30 pm

        Hey Pop L —
        I am elated that you quoted War Pigs on Scarriet !

        I do agree with you that that the Mazer poem above is a bit murky. The logical conclusion, without knowing too much about Mazer is that his wife is
        A) Jewish, or
        B) German

        I don’t know enough about him to say whether he is a better poet than Whitman. I only know about Mazer from Tom presenting his work on this blog. What I have read, I like. He seems more relevant than Whitman’s Democratic overflowings, which are from a more optimistic and out-dated era; but that is just my semi-informed opinion. I learned to consider Whitman indirectly, by way of Ginsberg’s poetry. I am currently reading ‘HOWL Fifty Years Later: The Poem That Changed America’ edited by J. Shinder (2006).

        Tom — have you read it?

        • March 25, 2018 at 1:32 am

          Hi Desdi, it’s an honor to get your reply. I like your posts on here. I don’t know much about poetry if the truth were told. I’m less than semi-informed. I like to make grandiose statements on the internet, though. I pretend like I know what I’m talking about. I “sound good”.

          I’ve always enjoyed visual poetry. I don’t like poems that use a lot of abstract ideas. Usually, these poems are marked by the sound of some guy (or gal) just talking about stuff. Pontificating on some subject, or a lost love, blah, blah, blah. If you’ve lost your love in some foreign country like Nuremberg, show me, don’t tell me about it. It’s boring. The best part of that poem is when he used the word “worser”. Seriously, that one little part made me do a double take, and when you do a double take it means you’re not getting bored. On the other hand, in the short section of the Whitman, we can see all kinds of nifty poetics. “vessel grim” “bleeding drops of red”. Mazer could only dream of writing a line like:

          “The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won. . .”

          Like I said before, the fix is in.

  6. March 24, 2018 at 4:32 am

    Dare I say …
    Universal truth breathing
    life into poetic emotions.
    The human spirit hears
    the bell of truth , and
    responds according to
    the individual state of
    the heart. An ear to hear?

  7. noochinator said,

    April 4, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Quote is from Harold Bloom’s introduction to The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997 — “who will speak for Onan”?

    “Walt Whitman was not only the strongest of our poets (together with the highly antithetical Emily Dickinson), but he is also now the most betrayed of all our poets, with so much of the ongoing balderdash being preached in his name. Whitman’s poetry generally does the opposite of what he proclaims its work to be: it is reclusive, evasive, hermeutic, nuanced, and more onanistic even then homoerotic, which critics cannot accept, particularly these days when attempts are made to assimilate the Self-Reliant Whitman into what calls itself the Homosexual Poetic. If we are to have gay and lesbian studies, who will speak for Onan, whose bards include Whitman and the Goethe of ‘Faust, Part Two’?”


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