THERE IS ONLY ONE DRUG

There is only one drug. Evil.

There is the evil of describing itself,

Which first affrights innocent ears.

Evil has time to show good the goods. Years.

The whispers of what evil is

Is the evil, the curiosity of the eyes

Led to where evil is, and there it is,

And the mere assuming it is evil

Is the drug. Anticipation is evil; fear

Of change—oh God old age is here.

The fear of another turns into plain fear.

Suspicion of evil. Always here.

The mere whispering is evil.

Whispering when someone else is near

Is evil. I was afraid, and now I am evil,

And now I am more afraid, and consequently, more evil.

The drug I use to escape evil is evil.

Sarcastic laughter is evil.

Cowardice is evil. Cowardice is

A drug which needs a drug which is evil.

Evil is a drug which justifies evil.

I heard her talk behind someone’s back,

Both were women, both were black.

At that moment I knew she was a whore,

Even though she doesn’t have sex anymore.

Sex, stimulation, sedation, cruelty, it is all one drug.

She will suffer, I thought. Since I heard her say what she said.

She will never get my love.

And I found her very attractive.

But since I fell in love with you,

And you were never warm, love replaced by the true,

Now, heartbroken, if I sense cruelty of any kind,

I now sense immediately evil smoking evil in its evil mind.

There is one drug, a drug simple and primeval;

One drug, all the same. One thing. Evil.

 

 

 

 

OBLIVION

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When you wake up, and find

You slept through the night, needy sleeper,

Glad to find oblivion took your mind, it seems—

It didn’t. Oblivion has dreams.

Now they come back to you. Your life

Continued to be life, even as you died

To it. You still cried out. A new wife

Blamed you in a letter. She described

In the letter you falling in love with only

The appearance of her in the dream.

You loved her body only. It gets worse.

Life started going backwards in the way

You tried to describe this. Life in reverse

Was the plan of your poem. The day

Gave you words; you planned

In backwards fashion, words, so images

Might, by treating language as image,

Going forward, give you one slender chance to understand.

So now what do you do? Will you ponder

A new way to love her without disappointing her?

When you stand up and put on your clothes

Will you remember how this poem goes?

Will she be receptive when you say

Oblivion is my dream today?

 

 

THE BEST PLACE TO WRITE POETRY

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The best place to write poetry

Isn’t in your head; the poetry

Is written by your head in a place,

Full of distraction, full of the bored face,

Those faces that have nothing to do with you.

The dull life you cannot love. But do.

Poetry longs to be somewhere else.

Poetry is for them. Not you, or myself.

Quiet inspiration, the kind

Wordsworth thought necessary, the mind

Recalling, passively, wars in the past,

Bleeding sunsets, love that didn’t last,

Is here in these whispering voices,

As I, in my seat, in café or train,

Feel both at once—other people feel

And speak the hints any good poem needs.

Life is hungry. Right here. The Muse feeds.

 

I’M SO GLAD THAT WHINE

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“Poetry is escape from emotion” –TS Eliot

I’m so glad that whine

Is a truck in the distance

And not a mosquito in my ear.

That truck is my hero.

“You climb that hill. You whine all you want.

Love is the only thing I want near.”

But what is Love, sighed Plato, long ago,

And if you read the Symposium you see,

After they all speak, and finally Socrates,

Oh, man, it’s a hungry mosquito.

The others around the symposium table

Compare love to beauty, a mutual itch,

A destiny of sighs, beauty, beauty, beauty;

No, Socrates says love’s a son of a bitch,

Lonely, ugly, resourceful, full of desire:

“I must climb this hill, I want you,

Let me crawl into your bed.”

It loves you until it’s fed,

And you’re dead for so long you fulfill

Your destiny: A poem. A truck wailing up a hill.

I’m so glad my poem was about something out there.

The worst poems are intimate. The worst poems care.

 

 

THE CRIMINAL AND THE ARTIST

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The criminal and artist both break laws,

Distorting effects by hiding the cause;

In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby,

The mind of the audience is free

To meditate on things—but why

Is carefully hidden from the eye.

The origin is covered up

In the dark drink of the offered cup.

Rosemary is out like a light when

The conception occurs, and for the birth,

She is unconscious again.

The things we think we know,

Do we know, do we know?

We, the audience understand

That art and news come to us second hand.

We see the terrible result, and infer

The obvious cause.  We blame the tiger

And not the meek artist who smiles.

The world is full of wiles.

The propagandist not only breaks laws—

If the result is true, he invents the cause.

 

WHEN YOU SEE ME YOU SEE YOURSELF

“And you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born” -John Lennon

When you see me, you see yourself:

Love elongated, and nearly destroyed by years,

By absence, misunderstood and unacknowledged

Longing, disappointment, hatred, and grief,

Your most loved face floating down into the yellow leaf,

With a slow, long echoing, wind bent sigh,

More crinkly, but the same look in the eye,

That look by which the poet accuses

The lover of so many things involving himself,

Infinite vulnerability weaving infinitely fine ruses;

When I see you seeing me—

I know what you are thinking: Look, he

Survives. Is still himself. Thinks about things.

Still gets up in the morning.  Just like me.

 

WE IN THE VERSE WORLD

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We in the verse world sometimes

Feel inhibited by our rhymes

And wish that solid prose

Was our chosen pose.

Like verse monster John Keats,

I avoid booze and sweets,

But rhyme’s an addiction, the same

As any hard drug. Can we claim

Addiction to verse

Is harmful? No, even prose is worse.

Verse is mathematical and musical

And these two fulfill

The human spirit divine.

Rhyme isn’t bad. Here’s what I hate.

Especially when I’m late:

Pontificating. Drinking wine.

Blathering on

About nothing until dawn.

The sharp wit

Of a good couplet slays the twit—

But the Keatsian ode

Is the heavenly road.

I rhyme all the time,

And I’m fine.

I’m not a bitter, prosaic bore,

Or a diary whore.

I’ll set things straight

And bring happiness to the state.

I will admit, my mathematical rhymes

Do make me lonely at times.

Rhyming in your face

(Like rap!) is the worst disgrace.

A good rhyme is best

Read silently. All noisy seems the rest.

And the bad, no matter what, will tend

To ruin the good. Just because it’s good.

So quietly now. Quietly. Poem, end.

 

THE VACATIONING WOMEN

The vacationing women remind me of the working ones,

Only the vacationing ones have more important things to say,

Clothes freshly laundered, huddled together, communicating,

About summer and winter here at the very beginning of the work day.

Am I working? Should I be doing a chore?

Why don’t people watch documentaries on poets anymore?

These young women always on their feet know work is art, and they

Hope to take a vacation soon

When mother visits at the end of the month, mirthful still, under the waning moon.

Those out of work envy the employed,

Only they forget how all at once, even the annoyed

Are like those on vacation, who hope

You will keep your eyes to yourself. Who hope and hope and hope.

The youngest waitress did her best. And now she’s in tears.

Suddenly the men enter, comparing beers.

THE REMINDER

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There was a moment between what I wanted to do—

And when I forgot.

What was that? I forget when I forgot.

I actually saw my beautiful idea for a poem rot.

First we need to remember

And then we do not.

We found an umbrella, hiding,

When it was raining.

A kiss will remind me.

This is better than explaining.

I’m reminded I’m yours, wherever I go;

I’m covered by you from head to toe.

Do you remember the love we found?

When the moss and the flowers covered the ground?

 

 

 

I AM MORE CONFIDENT THAN EVER THAT YOU LOVE ME

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I am more confident than ever that you love me.

Look at all this silence you match with mine.

Who breathes, thinks, or talks, when inspiration gulps wine?

You and I are silent like eternity.

The dream needs a good silence to dream:

A mountain listens to the small, chuckling stream.

Sad is what love listens to.

Remember that, will you?

This is high quality silence here,

The one you and I own.

So what if mortals shout and groan?

Okay, okay. The heart wants its loan.

I had a thought last night about you.

Let others fret about love.

Let others worry about what they need to do.

 

 

 

SO THIS IS WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT THINGS

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So this is what you think about things.

Sigh. It would be easier, far easier,

If you sat in the darling dark with your beloved

Playing the piano—standards of jazz and classical,

Professional and dreamy. It brings

To mind the first time you spoke to me;

Very relaxed and very intense, I saw

Nothing except you holding up your paw.

I almost heard your smile.

I wondered. But I haven’t wondered in a while.

Life has a way of overwhelming what you think about it.

Now when she sings, that’s all she does. She sings.

You over-analyzed the lyrics. You’re speaking

Out loud to yourself. You’re not speaking to me.

You have this idea that if you think

About things in this way, it will make a difference.

But it won’t. Even if I agree.

 

SEX VERSUS NOSTALGIA

Nostalgia needs time,

People and a place—the proximity

Of her to the inlets and bays

And the trains that shoot past,

The cavernous central station

Where we bought coffee among crowds,

The inlets and bays where I live,

She, close by, a literary wife,

An inlet away, far enough to miss,

Sweetly taking over my life.

This went on for years,

Until she insulted me—I was weeping—

And I’m not a man for tears.

Sex belongs to something different,

Things hidden; the sex parts do not see

Visible things which breed nostalgia,

The scenery we know. In the dark

We clutch intimacy. Sex

Is not the same thing as sitting in the park.

Nostalgia is the bitter secret. Nostalgia. That’s why

Love happens. The memory of the mind’s eye

Knew it among the hills immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

POETRY ADVICE

Every one of my poems—if you want to know the secret

Of my poems—is a form of poetry advice—

Even if the poem seems to be about something else; seriously, this is it.

This might seem incredibly pedantic and narrow—

Poems are understood broadly in terms of worldly happiness or sorrow.

Poetry advice?  Am I crazy?

I’m not. Neither am I lazy.

Think for a minute. What else should poetry be?

What is all of cooking? A recipe.

What is a republic?  If society should be nice,

It might use Plato’s Republic as advice.

Are you beginning to see? Advice

Is not just rhetoric’s highest purpose.

It is the highest consciousness of what we can do.

That’s why my poetry speaks so forcefully to you,

Even as my poetry doesn’t know

Anything in a pedantic sense the world must normally know.

And so poetry as advice (all things need advice) should be directed

To the poetry, and from itself, the poetry.

Why do you think, despite the fact I’m a poet,

I’m happy, and respected, and free?

 

THE FEELING I GET WHEN I SIT NEXT TO YOU

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Whenever I’m in my favorite café

The lonely writer will often sit

Beside me, some older guy

With a laptop working on shit.

The lonely woman doesn’t exist.

No matter what, she has an air

Of ghosts, of questions, surrounding her right there.

The miserable guy doesn’t interest me.

The lonely woman is a beautiful mystery.

Friends? They laugh. Loud in their talk.

Tourists are awed, quiet. Ready to walk.

Families?  Adults controlling children.

Couples are the strangest thing to come in;

Always a slightly embarrassed intensity,

The quiet chaos of trying to write poetry.

I realized today exactly what it is

That makes couples intense. To have a kid

Takes seconds; years to sort out what you cannot do, or will not do, or did.

 

 

 

I AM LAZY AND I DON’T CARE

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I am lazy and I don’t care.

You work, but I’m beyond that place

And see the uselessness of getting there.

The best words are the long words,

The words that are better than sentences, and express

How I say “no,” and inspire your “yes,”

So you want to try it and you go

Into the wilderness, but I already know

The intelligence of the wilderness that betrays

The circular evenings with the shadowy days.

I have seen

Myself loving you in the green,

By the shadow of our national bird,

About to fly,

Which resembles my favorite word.

I am so smart, I know

That precision has such a scale

It dwarfs us all, who are trying.

My smart is my lazy. I’m not buying.

I already see

I love you way too much.

And this will not end well for me.

There are such differences,

And these differences themselves

Are the pieces with which the universe is made.

You long for shadow, because you have long been in the sun.

I have the sun. And the milk, and the shade.

 

 

 

THE OBLIGATION OF YOUR VACATION

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Don’t count the days until it ends.

Don’t, in your leisure, sink into news stories,

Especially the murderous, insane ones.

Don’t form new routines. Be new.

Let your vacation be about you.

Don’t take a vacation from your vacation,

Even for a minute or two.

Caption your photos cleverly

Even as you take them randomly.

Allow your family to rediscover you.

Everyone is on some form of vacation

All the time, remember that.

If you argue, be in favor of the nation.

Get sun. Never buy a new hat.

A vacation requires stamina,

Whether in Connecticut, New Rochelle, or Panama.

Walk for miles, so you sleep well at night.

Don’t reminisce by a willow

Unless it’s day, and very bright.

A vacation is about one thing: what’s around the bend—

A different face, a different pillow.

Write this poem at the beginning of your vacation,

Not at the end.

 

 

 

 

“DAMN TRUTH AND LOOK ON BEAUTY TILL IT BEGINS TO HURT”

Anand Thakore, poet and musician

Whenever poetry is discussed, the smartest person in the room (or on social media) inevitably defines poetry as a linguistic construction—meant merely to please.

The greatest enemy of poetry?  Prose meaning which can be paraphrased.

Auden said it: In poetry, the desire to “fiddle around with words” is more important than “having something to say.”

This was the message of I.A. Richards and the New Critics—who were more influential than anyone realizes, especially among the learned and the influential.

Drain your poems of “truth.” Any traces of learning? Put them in footnotes at the end. T.S. Eliot, a New Critic, finally, did this with his most famous poem.

Indian poet Anand Thakore on Facebook recently: “the only way to learn how to read poetry is to damn truth and look on beauty till it begins to hurt”

Some would say this puts too much burden on poetry to be beautiful; it narrows poetry, inhibits it, cutting off poetry from verbal expression, which is the core of what poetry is. Poe was accused of being too “narrow” by American critics, especially by those who preferred Whitman.

But as Thakore goes on to say: “…pure truth-talk has other forms of discourse better suited…much neo-classical 18th century verse  fails… because poetry gets reduced to desperately ‘neat’ encapsulation of truth and deprived of it’s essential function.”

Thakore’s point is that it takes an even greater confidence in poetry’s verbal expression to believe it can succeed without the “neat encapsulation” of “pure truth-talk”—better suited to prose—as poetry defines itself as a unique (and valuable) genre in itself.

Thakore nicely encapsulates the New Critical philosophy: Poetry isn’t truth, but (and here Thakore quotes I.A. Richards) “pseudo-statements of musical, linguistic and emotive power.”

But here’s the rub. To really make his point, Thakore was forced to walk back the Keatsian equation of Beauty and Truth—according to Thakore, what Keats said wasn’t really “true.”

Sujatha Mathai wasn’t buying Thakore’s distinction, jumping in to defend poetic or ecstatic truth: “I feel truth is in the sense of a state of BEING. If I am moved to ecstasy by a wonderful sunset, I can feel Beauty is Truth. And that is all I need to know.”

One can read this to mean that a sunset is like a philosophical truth—or a poem; neither imply practicality or self-interest.

Philosophical wisdom, ecstatic moments, sunsets, and poetry have no practical merit in and of themselves.

The “ecstatic” position Mathal expressed is a humbler one than the New Critics. Those who argue for ‘ecstasy as a state of being’ may not be conscious of it, but what they are really expressing is the following:

It isn’t that Keats is saying “beauty is as important as truth!” but rather, “Truth? Meh. It merely pleases us as beauty does.”

When we state Keats’ formula in this more modest way, it is not sublime-sounding; it’s almost flat out disrespectful. Comparing sunsets to philosophical truths can have no other conclusion but this modest one: truth is (only!) beauty.

Thakore (the smartest one in the room) started the ball rolling with the New Critic I. A. Richards. Here is Thakore in his own words on Keats’ famous formula:

“Keats’ famous concluding lines ‘truth’s beauty/beauty truth’…comprise an ecstatic pseudo-statement that is of value not because it is ‘true’ but because it is beautifully constructed and acheives a balance between two paradigms—the aesthetic and the epistemological—in a way hitherto unthought of in verse.”

This doesn’t sound disrespectful, even as it says the same thing: the truth expressed by Keats isn’t worth a feather, or, a pretty feather is all it is. Using the word “epistemological” feels the same as when Mathai uses “BEING.” It refers to a broad view, that’s all; the equivalent of “we have room to talk about this later.” But the diminishment of the Poetry as Truth formula in every sense remains.

Mandakini Pachauri (this is all from the same FB discussion) quoted Dickinson’s “I Died For Beauty,” one who died for truth and one who died for beauty in the tomb finally covered in moss, but Thakore wasn’t impressed:

“It’s just a mundane reworking of the Keatsian paradigm.”

Dickinson, in Thakore’s view, violated the poetic rule: making truth (an established “paradigm”) the center of a poem. Truth and Beauty walked into a bar…

Here is Scarriet’s response to the conundrum of truth and beauty in poetry:

Truth directs our actions in the most ironic fashion possible. Truth questions our senses by directing our senses. Facts are mundane. Truth, which uses facts, is profound. Poetry follows truth’s path from the mundane to the profound. Remember this was Wordsworth’s formula expressed in the Preface to Literary Ballads: poetry takes the plain and makes it remarkable. Recall also this was Wordsworth’s poetical mission—his colleague, the more supernatural Coleridge, was ascribed the reverse: going from the remarkable to the plain. The path is what is important, not the direction; and the poetic path is the same as the truth’s. But this doesn’t mean what poetry says, or the things on the path, are true. 

Neither the Romantics nor Scarriet disagree with Thakore so far.

But back to truth. To put it more simply: Truth is when you realize your prison is a palace or your palace is a prison. A poem is a prison striving to be a palace.

Ode On a Grecian Urn: “Bold lover, never never canst thou kiss (Prison)…”ever will thou love and she be fair!” (Palace)

Truth is always a flash of insight, more connected to ecstasy than we realize. Beauty is slower and slowly fades.

Truth is so quick, it belongs to eternity.

How a poem is constructed—to which Thakore gives priority—is this truthful, or beautiful? The construction may be beautiful, but the “how” definitely belongs to truth.

Let us make the following supposition:

If you believe Truth and Beauty are different, you will be all the more moved by the speaking out of the phrase at the end of Keats’ poem. The anguish is what moves us, not the truth.

And if, instead, we believed Truth and Beauty were the same before we read Keats’ poem, we would also be moved by the ending of Keats’ poem.

Why?

How can a truthful disagreement have zero effect on how much we are moved by Keats’ utterance at the end of his poem?

In the second instance our ego would be moved—‘the stupid world thinks they are different, but Keats the poet agrees with me!’

This proves what Anand Thakore is saying. The construction of the poem is the “truth;” there is no truth, per se. Had the ‘truth/beauty’ phrase been at the beginning of the poem, phrase and poem would have failed.

And yet, if the critical approach we take to Keats’ poem is true, does it not indicate that truth matters in poetry?

Poetry is an antidote to crude, ephemeral, or mistaken feeling, not an indulgence in it.

How do we escape feeling, but through truth?

Thakore also implicitly favored truth over beauty with his “hitherto” remark. Originality is a factor in poetry’s value, and the fact of originality belongs to truth, not beauty. Poe famously argued that originality was crucial in judging poetry.

Truth, not beauty, is what the highest poetry attains. Beauty is a secret joke in the formula, for beauty is secondary to truth; beauty is what fools us. Truth, however, is not such a fool as to not see the value of the foolish. Truth reveals the palace as a prison, or the prison as a palace—and what this means is that the beautiful is not definite; beauty is the variable in the equation. The poem’s construction is definite. The law of how a poem is ideally ordered or constructed is a tangible truth in itself. Beauty is a disease to truth’s health. We love a disease, however, to cure ourselves of it. Poetry fools us into understanding beauty as its truth. And this is beautiful.

 

THE EYES MAKE DECISIONS

The eyes make decisions.

The sleepy brain feels

The eyes are too quick to judge—

Doubting the eyes can know about love.

The eyes wait on arms and lips to bless

What they love. How cruelly the eyes said yes,

Thinks the brain. The eyes said yes,

But the brain is not ready for that certainty—

Half-asleep, the brain writes poetry.

Enter the ears.

They agree with the eyes! This is what the brain fears.

The ears today received soft sounds

Penetrating the soft air.

The ears live where thought pounds

Violently on a typewriter,

The sound of predators in water,

The poetry seeing what is not there.

The eyes reinforce the thought that seeing

In poetry, is brain and ears agreeing,

Until the brain: “O God! Is that you?”

But I cry: “I don’t feel I love her.”

The eyes: “But of course you do.”

The sleepy brain remains suspicious,

Even as I cover my love in kisses.

Eyes and ears struck a deal.

She and I thought the poem was real.

My brain drifts in sleep, doubting

Life is cruel, that behind a door, our voices, shouting.

 

 

DELMORE SCHWARTZ AND THE MODERN COMPLAINT

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The peculiar error of the modern poets—an error so obvious as to escape attention—was the continual investigation of what it meant to be modern, a term by which these 20th century poets (our grandparents and great grandparents) felt they were somehow novel and special. If thinking about poetry has anything to do with writing it, the modern poets were the first poets forced to be something else (modern) first, and poets second.

The previous movement—Romanticism—was so named by later critics; the Romantic poets, as critically-minded as any aesthetic clique, never thought of themselves as “Romantic” poets. They wrote poetry. Modern poetry, it must have been, when they were alive.  Wordsworth, one of the so-called Romantic poets, and as different in sensibility from another Romantic poet, Byron, as one poet next to another can possibly be, was no revolutionary. Wordsworth strove to write like Milton—just less religiously; there was no “break” at all, in terms of the poetry. A poem was a poem, just as a sword was a sword, or a feeling was a feeling. Wordsworth may have felt he was writing closer to how regular folk talk—but looking back we now know that was just something his criticism said.

One will, of course, find critics who insist Wordsworth was a “break,” (Byron would have said Wordsworth—whom the author of “Don Juan” took delight in ridiculing—was “broken”) but these critics will be found to be the same ones who believe the “modern” describes poetry, if only to conveniently map out eras as a means of filling up teaching hours in the classroom, and helping their charges remember what they are studying in rough historical terms. Victorian poets wrote when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Modern poets wrote during the reign of some other queen. And so on. But we “moderns” know (because we are “modern?”) that “modern” means much more than that. It is so ripe with meaning that modern poets are only secondarily poets—in the sense that all poets who came before them were.

I don’t think one can ever go wrong as a poet to think deeply about what it means to be a poet; the modern, however—what is it?

Here’s Randall Jarrell in The Nation in 1942:

What has impressed everybody about modernist poetry is its differentness. The familiar and rather touching “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” is only another way of noticing what almost all criticism has emphasized: that modernist poetry is a revolutionary departure from the romantic poetry of the preceding century.

In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” (1938) John Crowe Ransom writes, “Modern poetry is pure poetry.” Just as the isolated skill of “statecraft” has replaced state and religion blended into one, poetry is no longer epic, religious, sweeping, but small, aesthetic, specialized. Just as Puritanism isolates morality from the old pomp of the Catholic Church and seals it up in the devotee’s heart, modern poetry isolates, as a special value, pure aesthetics from morality and everything else.

Robert Penn Warren in his lecture at Princeton in 1942, “Pure and Impure Poetry” wrestled with Ransom’s idea of modern poetry as “pure.” Context, for Warren, keeps interfering with purity, in the same way excess of feeling naturally brings on mockery—Ransom’s “purity” has porous borders; Eliot’s “objective correlative” demands Shelley’s love admit a desire for sex (loosely speaking); in order for the sex to remain hidden, however, poetry must be obscure; and so Modernist obscurity ascends the throne; Shelley and Poe’s poetry excludes the unpleasant, the ugly, the immoral; modern poetry, in its attempt to break with Romanticism (including Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare) includes these things, includes the vulgar, includes whatever was once aesthetically left out. In order for the modern contradiction of inclusive, lyric “purity” to work, however, obscurity is required, unless one is prepared to advance past Shelley by introducing sex into one’s poems, which the Moderns were not willing to do.

Eliot, in “Hamlet and his Problems” calls Hamlet a failure because Hamlet’s “disgust” with his mother (she is having sex with his uncle) isn’t handled properly.

I began this essay by referring to the modern poets’ “error,” unnoticed due to its obvious nature; and here it is.

The attachment of “modern” to poetry obscures and distracts from the poetry—in the very same manner that obscurity itself is the chief problem of modernist poetry (Jarrell’s “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” self-consciously expresses this public distaste).

And why is modern poetry obscure?

Ransom’s modernist, art for art’s sake, division of labor, puritanical evolution in the direction of “purity” ran headlong into Poe’s narrow and practical definition—the inevitable, self-conscious, progressive, boiling down of the essential nature of the poem as Critical object in Lord Bacon’s laboratory.

Trapped by the exclusionary nature of the pure lyric poem, which had been freed from its old epic duties as historian and moral story teller, the Romantic lyric is the inescapable reality facing the “revolutionary” Modern.

In the early 20th century, a desperate gambit followed—make the uneasy purity of the modern lyric a product which includes, rather than excludes, all things which are not poetic, or beautiful, or traditionally aesthetic.

But to arrive at purity by including all sorts of things is impossible. Therefore exclusion had to be practiced (the soul of all art is exclusion) in such a way as to somehow pretend inclusion (sex accompanying love, disgust accompanying restraint, confusion accompanying focus, laughter accompanying sorrow) and you have the modern poets practicing something impossible to pull off, with obscurity the natural result.  This was, and is, modern poetry.

To be lyric, clear, Romantic, beautiful is to go back. Modern meant forward, out of the trenches of Poe, into the arms of everything—which, by its inclusive nature, ruins pure poetry, the old pure poetry which excludes.

Like the beautiful English poets, who almost to a man, ran headlong into the Great War of 1914, poetry, in the same historical instant, ran into the arms of insanity, busyness, mockery, excess, obscurity, unease, the mundane, pain, ugliness, and death.

We arrive now at Delmore Schwartz and his essay “The Isolation of Modern Poetry.”

In his essay, published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1941, Schwartz is certain that the poet is isolated from modern society. Not because, as T.S. Eliot says, modern society is complex and therefore modern poetry needs to be complex, and therefore difficult, and therefore the modern poet is likely to be misunderstood—Schwartz finds this relationship “superficial.”

Mr. Eliot is seldom superficial in any regard; here, however, I think he is identifying the surface of our civilization with the surface of our poetry. But the complexity of modern life, the disorder of the traffic on a business street or the variety of reference in the daily newspaper is far from being the same thing as the difficulties of syntax, tone, diction, metaphor, and allusion which face the reader in the modern poem.

If only Delmore had spent the entire essay confuting Mr. Eliot!  His essay might have unlocked many anti-Modernist insights.  Those who hate Eliot for vague reasons—too English, too Anglican, too stuffy—are wrong, but those who find Eliot invincible in his judgments are dangerously wrong. Good to see Delmore wasn’t afraid of taking on the master.

But Schwartz goes on to say a similar thing: modern society doesn’t care for poetry; the poet’s isolation, therefore, is extreme.  Schwartz doesn’t blame people, but society.  Bankers and insurance salesmen cannot like poetry—the way they make their living prohibits it.

The fundamental isolation of the modern poet began not with the poet and his way of life; but rather with the whole way of life of modern society. It was not so much the poet as it was poetry, culture, sensibility, imagination, that were isolated.

After rebuking Eliot, Schwartz goes on for the rest of the essay to entirely agree with him.  Poetry, as Schwartz points out, is not the same as a busy street. Eliot is too blase, is what Schwartz is saying. Complex life, complex poetry. But Schwartz sees a much deeper problem. The complexity of modern life does not provide new material for the poet (Eliot’s rather optimistic view) but rather obliterates all connections between ordinary people caught up in that complexity and the poet who wishes to communicate with those modern readers. According to Schwartz:

There have been unsuccessful efforts on the part of able poets to write about bankers and about railroad trains, and in such examples the poet has been confronted by what seems on the surface a technical problem, the extraordinary difficulty of employing poetic diction, meter, language, and metaphor in the contexts of modern life.

Delmore then gives us the example of Wallace Stevens:

At the conclusion of his reading of his own poetry, this poet and business man remarked to one of the instructors who had welcomed him: “I wonder what the boys at the office would think of this.”

But this seems as superficial as T.S Eliot’s point about modern life forcing the modern poet to be “difficult.”  Why do we assume “the boys in the office” cannot like poetry?

Modern life impacts all persons—and a poet is a person. No matter how different life or society has become, the poet experiences society in the same ocean of experience as everyone else, no matter what kind of “poet” he is; for the materials the poet uses is under discussion when we talk about banks and trains.  The poet of ancient Greece, or the poet of any society at any point in history, has a duty to speak to other members of society—otherwise what kind of poet is he?  If he chooses to write about banks and trains, or not, he still will be understood as a poet—for when Delmore rebuked TS Eliot, this was exactly his point—poetry is not the same as banks and trains.

Schwartz is saying modern life is far more than a busy street.  It is far worse.  Modern life is not merely more complex.  It kills the soul, is really what Schwartz is saying.  But unfortunately, this is nothing but hyperbole.  The soul is forever doing battle with life—modern or not.

If the whole of society has succumbed to the not-poetic, then society is isolated from itself, and everyone is afflicted, not just the poet.

Either the poet’s modern audience is similarly affected, or not.

If not, the poet needs to bridge the gap—with poetry—that’s what poets do and why we call it poetry. (And write anguished essays about how poetry has flown and the poet is isolated.) In ancient times, or now.

And if the poet’s audience is similarly afflicted, then wherefore the “isolation?”

Is it because most of society finds insurance firms attractive and the poet does not? Of course not; we must assume a thread of humanity connecting poet and audience re: the non-poetic aspect of insurance firms. No one finds insurance firms attractive.

Schwartz also brings up money. Insurance firms make money and poetry does not, and therefore the poet is ashamed, of no worth, pitied, and therefore isolated, by society. But imagine if Keats were born to a fortune. He would not be Keats. Poetry is so valuable—as to be like money in the fortune it bestows upon its worshipers, but it is not money—does not belong to exchange—otherwise it would not be wealthy in what it is: poetry, which is not, but which rivals, the good fortune of money. What Schwartz is doing is feeling sorry for himself, and using society (which isolates him, the poet) as the excuse—and the transferring of the self-pity (in a Marxist sort of way) into a philosophy, which, in the long run, only makes the individual feel worse, because the self-pity grows in an abstract (disguised) manner.

Therefore, the “difficulty,” or the “famous obscurity” of modern poetry, as Schwartz calls it, is because the modern poet writes not from a common place shared by modern society (banks, insurance firms) but from the poet’s own peculiar, eccentric, isolated self, pushed into a corner by the massively complex (agreeing with Eliot more than he realizes) and non-poetic aspects of modern life.

Again, however: if the society lacks poetry (hasn’t it always?) it follows that poetry must be dearly desired in every quarter.

Poetry, we must assume, is good, is happiness, (since isolating it is bad) and happiness is what modern society lacks (surely the poet doesn’t wish misery on anyone in the name of poetry). The insurance salesman, lacking poetry, needs it, and no amount of enforced, self-pitying, isolationism will possibly be able to provide poetry to the insurance salesman.

Either poetry is being stamped out, and therefore is more necessary than ever, or modern society is inventing different means of delivering poetry without poets themselves being necessary (at least not the self-defeating, bad poets).

In order to prove that the poet was once fully integrated into society, Schwartz provides a few dubious examples: the ancient drama “festivals” which were the talk of the ancient town. But surely this was the ancient equivalent of Hollywood, not poetry in the modern sense. And who thinks of “festivals” as steady poetry employment which earns a living, anyway?

He claims “the Bible” was once the common picture for society at large, until it was eclipsed in the 18th and the 19th centuries by science and Darwin. But shouldn’t this be good news for the poets, who get a chance to replace the priests?

He mentions Blake as one of the first modern rebels, ushering in the new “obscurity” of poetry no longer able to rely on the Bible. But what could be less obscure than the “Tyger” or “Songs of Innocence?”

Schwartz then comes to Baudelaire, the poet who espouses the poetry of clouds, art for art’s sake, the modern poet refusing to write of heroic or “respectable” things, an orphan, cut off from family and all things universal, since with the fall of the Bible, follows the fall of Man. But here Delmore is applying rope to the “helpless” poet—when we know it is precisely poetry which unties all ropes.

Delmore thinks poetry isn’t free, since he applies “modern” to both society and poetry.

But this is a knot easily broken by anyone not ready to embrace the self-pity which insists “modernity” is our dreadful fate.

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