What Did Harold Rosenberg Do? An Introduction to the Champion of "Action  Painting" | Art for Sale | Artspace

The trouble with Criticism is that its whole business is to insert itself between a poem and its reader—a superfluous act; if the poem is good it doesn’t need the extra words of Criticism. The smell of a bad poem arises with the smell of Criticism. No wonder a thousand poets exist for every critic—and even then a critic is 9 times out of 10 a poet whose criticism is morale boosting notes to himself—a pure sideline activity.

When anyone discusses poetry, the same few critics are mentioned over and over—an indication of how unpopular critics are; in the whole history of Letters, five or six critics receive all the press:

Plato—because he had the audacity to ban the poets (too crazy, too emotional) from his Republic.

Aristotle—The Greek alternative to Plato. “Tragedy is good because it purges emotions.”

Samuel Johnson—Did us all a favor by faulting the “metaphysical poets,” saying of them “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

Wordsworth—Also did us peasants a favor by defining poetry as plain talk.

Poe—More fodder for the simple folk: “A long poem does not exist” and “the best subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman.”

T.S. Eliot—Returned poetry to the professors. Told us “poetry must be difficult” in an essay praising the metaphysical poets.

Despite the fact I have said Criticism is rare, that critics are usually poets first, and that people generally dislike or fear criticism, I will defend Criticism in this essay—only because I believe critically I have something to say.

This is all that matters.

Having something to say. Critically, that is.

Auden mocked poets who earnestly felt they “had something to say.”

Well. Of course.

Poets do need ideas, though. In poetry, it is not the idea, but how the idea gets put into the poem.

Somewhere along the way, based on wise remarks by those like Auden, and due to the hard, gem-like resistance of Modernism generally, ideas—as things to be stated, worked-up, and enjoyed—got tossed aside.

Never mind poems—Criticism is nothing but ideas.

Most young writers today who try their hand at “criticism” have no overriding ideas; they choose topics to write on—a poet’s lifestyle or some neat time period.

As I think Plato and Aristotle demonstrated, literary criticism belongs properly to philosophy—even if it’s “amateur” philosophy.

Criticism should remain above poetry and not play second fiddle to it—even if it plays its fiddle in a “professional” manner, like Helen Vendler or Marjorie Perloff, or God forbid, Harold Bloom (who carried on as if he were a pure Critic, but was not; his colleague at Yale, W. Jackson Bate, was far closer to true Criticism).

Critics need to debate other critics. Criticism needs to be a field on its own. It should not be a press agent for poetry. Just like an honest reviewer, critics should never befriend poets.

Enjoying a poem has nothing to do with Criticism. Enjoying a poem is an unconscious activity. Criticism is a conscious activity. And this is okay. We need to become accustomed to the fact that Criticism is its own art. This is difficult in our present day because we haven’t had Criticism practiced like an art form since Plato. So you see the task before us.

There have always been two sides to Criticism and we must decide, before we go any further, which side we are on.

The good side seeks to narrow and the bad side seeks to expand, poetry.

The realist, who wishes to expand poetry’s role, is naive.

We don’t usually associate realism with naivete, but let’s jump into today’s debate by yoking some heterogeneous ideas violently together.

John Crowe Ransom was a realist from Tennessee and Harold Rosenberg an idealist from New York.

Rosenberg is best known as an art critic, but he published a volume of his own poetry and Rosenberg’s philosophical approach (as opposed to a literary criticism approach) happens to put him in a place I can use to great advantage.

Let’s quote Ransom first, from the Preface to his distinguished, prize-winning, collection of essays, The World’s Body:

“First we should see what poetry properly is not, though it is what poetry has often declared to be.”


“The poetry I am disparaging is a heart’s-desire poetry. If another identification is needed, it is the poetry written by romantics, in a common sense of that term. It denies the real world by idealizing it: the act of a sick mind.”

This is quite an ideal kind of realism which I have found—Ransom was highly respected in his day, and New Criticism was very influential; it was the school of T.S. Eliot: “difficult,” savvy, worldly, smart.

As opposed to poetry which “denies the real world,” Ransom states in his preface he is for the poetry that “only wants to realize the world, to see it better.”

“The kind of poetry which interests us is not the act of a child, or of that eternal youth which is in some women, but the act of an adult mind; and I will add, the act of a fallen mind, since ours too are fallen.”

Ransom’s language is really loose here—the rather modest expression: “only wants to realize the world, to see it better” could be construed as “idealization.” After all, to merely “see” the world carries with it an immense task (think of how much there is to “see”) but to “realize it,” to merely “see it better” implies narrowing (ideal) not expansion (real). Idealism (which selectively narrows its focus) can be a very realistic approach.

Any “realist” who opposes “idealism” (as Ransom is doing here) finally doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Later in this essay I am going to argue for an idealism free of all worldly elements involved in one’s response to art—sufficient to say that Ransom’s possible wavering between idealism and realism in terms of the world will finally make no difference in my equation. Anyway, “to realize the world, to see it better” is what the scientist barely succeeds at; surely Ransom cannot seriously believe this is a goal of art?

Well I warned you that you would need to pick a side.

A modest narrowing is our only choice when it comes to poetry.

The issue is simple—too simple for “fallen” Ransom to grasp, apparently.

Ransom argues (badly, vaguely, but nonetheless strenuously) for the opposite, for expansion, not narrowing—as he explicitly equates “idealizing” with “sickness.”

Ransom needs to believe the idealist is a sentimentalist. He doesn’t come out and say the sentimentalist is naturally an idealist—this would be to give sentimentalism a chance against being brutalized—which is not at all where Ransom, if one knows him, is coming from. We must therefore question Ransom this way: If one (realistically, practically) chooses what to focus on, why shouldn’t the selection be governed by happiness (the “heart”)? Should we select what we don’t want? (We understand Ransom does not necessarily mean “happiness” when he refers to what he calls “heart’s-desire” sentimentalism, but this is a quibble—to be sentimental is to either be happy or suffer because one wants to be happy.)

Ransom concedes elsewhere in no uncertain terms that for him, art is not science—art, for Ransom, fulfills a complimentary but completely different function. Strange, then, that he should juxtapose the hard, unforgiving laws of science with art which in his view has no child-like happiness or charm, but caters rather to an “adult” and “fallen” mind.

Harold Rosenberg will now set himself down on our side—in this instance, in the moment of my essay, a Wolfgang Mozart to Ransom’s Antonio Salieri.

Ransom is being a child when he rejects the child.

But let’s be clear.

In other places in his writing, generally, Ransom says absolutely brilliant things.

But we get to wisdom truly only thru someone’s ignorance. I saw a cooking show yesterday in which the chef praised the shaved broccoli stalk as the best part of the plant. Critics cannot be timid; they must prepare and ravish other critics. Just as a poet seizes on whatever inspiration happens to come along, critics should not let the hidden, tender parts of other critics go to waste—go for it!

To critics: when you find error in the reasoning of another, don’t be shy—this is how the meal is made.

There is profit, no doubt, in critics trailing after, and cleaning up after, poets; Ransom came into his own by love-hating Milton—his smashing first essay in The World’s Body—but if there is to be a revival of Criticism—which poetry needs almost more than a revival of Romanticism and the Child—critics ought to stir each other up—especially the few who exist, and especially those just coming onto the scene (we hope there are some rowdy ones)—if only to make the public aware that Criticism is not dead, that it’s able to hurt, and draw blood, and have real feelings.

Ben Mazer and the New Romanticism is perhaps a good start. The author of this essay is the author of this just-released book.

Of course my point is not all of Harold Rosenberg is superior to all of John Ransom—those incapable of Criticism might fret over what they imagine in horror is my unforgivable sin—as I impugn an idea or two of Mr. Ransom’s.

The following quotes are from Rosenberg’s essay, “Literary Form and Social Hallucination.” Rosenberg put in this essay his whole critical being, leaving nothing essential out. Writers do have highs and lows. Judge for yourself, but you ought to see immediately how Rosenberg brilliantly advances my argument—it is his argument, really; Rosenberg is in service to me, as much as I am deeply and forever in service to him:

“If, to the Greek, art subordinates the facts to the emotions, to the modern writer it subordinates both facts and emotions to art’s own ends.”

I don’t know any statement which sums up Ancient v. Modern quite so well—and John Crowe Ransom would concur. I don’t know of anyone who would not.

Rosenberg continues:

“…T.S. Eliot gives reasons why literature does not, and ought not, go to the limit in ‘tracing a certain fact.'”

Rosenberg had just quoted Dostoevsky: “The apparent impotence of art made me wonder about its usefulness. Indeed, trace a certain fact in actual life—one which at first glance is not even very vivid—and if only you are able and endowed with vision, you will perceive in it a depth such as you will not find in Shakespeare.” (italics mine)

With that Dostoevsky quotation in mind per Eliot, let’s return to Rosenberg:

“In a good poem, he [Eliot] says, there must be a ‘precise fitness of form and matter…which also means a balance between them.’ Like Dostoevsky, Eliot refers to Shakespeare, but he points out that in a Shakespearean song, ‘the form, the pattern movement, has a solemnity of its own, however light and gay the human emotion concerned, and a gaiety of its own, however serious or tragic the emotion.’ The form, in short, carries its own independent feelings, which play against the feeling aroused by the subject; and the artist, according to Eliot, is most interested in the ‘fitness’ of these contrasting feelings to each other, so that a ‘balance’ may be reached.”

Eliot (and again, Ransom would fully agree, having himself emerged fully formed from the head of Eliot) is stating the great “reactionary” truth of art, which is that the art-form must be taken into account when it comes to art, no matter what the art is “talking about.” Accounting for “form” is necessary, Eliot says, in a “good poem.” And Rosenberg, like an excited child, runs with this idea as an idea, to wherever it might lead:

“If this is the case,” Rosenberg continues, “the form of a literary work acts directly contrary to Dostoevsky’s desire to get to the bottom of a particular state of affairs.”

Doesn’t “desire to get to the bottom of a particular state of affairs” sound similar to what Ransom professed poetry singularly ought to do? In Ransom’s own non-idealizing words: “to realize the world, to see it better.” Rosenberg begins with Eliot (and Ransom attached to him at the hip) but where Rosenberg ends up may not be fit for Ransom’s eyes:

“Indeed,” Rosenberg goes on, “the very function of form would be to cut across the reaction aroused by the subject and suspend the mind in a riptide of feelings belonging to art itself.”

But wait, it gets better. In the next paragraph Rosenberg hits a home run:

“In emphasizing balance Eliot is consistent with the attitude of literature toward truth throughout most of its history. For it is clear that writers have not, traditionally, regarded themselves as crusaders against mystification. Their way has been rather to appropriate illusions inherited in the patterns of story-telling and in the usages of words and to contribute to deepening these illusions. It is not by chance that the meaning of ‘form’ and the meaning of ‘hallucination’ overlap in their connotations of an appearance or ‘show’ without substance. There is a natural alliance between art and deception; and one needs no prompting from modern radicalism to see this alliance as the ideal extension of the relation of the arts to their historic patrons: courts, priesthoods, and in more recent times, capitalists and bureaucrats.”

The reference to “form” as an “appearance” in a “hallucination” is one of the greatest moments, for me, in the history of Letters. Eliot’s delicate “balance” between “form” and “matter” in art is in danger of being swept entirely away into pure suspension of disbelief and illusion. But Rosenberg, the lynx-eyed social critic, grounds it in society: “the ideal extension of the relation of the arts to their historic patrons: courts, priesthoods, and in more recent times, capitalist and bureaucrats.” Again, this is not foreign to Ransom, who brings acute social observances into his literary ideas, but what is being smashed here is Ransom’s naive aesthetic desire to “realize the world, to see it better.”

Rosenberg attaches a footnote after “bureaucrats,” which demands quoting: “Writing about the traditional attitude toward the nude, Paul Valery observed: ‘Everyone had a muddled conviction that neither the State, nor the Law, nor Education, nor Religion, nor anything else that was serious, could function if the truth were entirely visible.’ [Valery’s italics]”

But Rosenberg still isn’t done, bringing in Keats, a modern critic known to Ransom, and then Plato:

“The celebrated phrase about poetry inducing a ‘suspension of disbelief’ need only be given its socio-political dimension and it becomes a formula for the service rendered by art to holders of social power. If it weren’t for art, men’s disbelief would not be suspended. Would not curiosity press them then to chase after the hidden truth? Form, beauty, calls off the hunt by justifying, through the multiple feelings it arouses, the not-quite-real as humanly sufficient.

Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity

Wasn’t it in I.A. Richards’ discussion of Keats’ drugged lines about beauty being truth, truth beauty, in which the poet so perfectly draws the curtain of ecstasy over his vision of painful fact, that ‘suspension of disbelief’ first entered the contemporary vocabulary of literary criticism?”

“Plato’s Republic, which was organized ‘transparently,’ and hence had no disbeliefs to suspend, banished the poet.”


“In the past, governments took for granted the cultural Chinese walls which the arts built around them; today, the cost of reinforcing these walls against the siege of rival concepts is included in every defense budget.”

And then another brilliant footnote follows:

“Note to ideology-enders: In the war of ideologies, history grows more and more talkative, i.e., rhetorical, which means that image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness and none inspires a defense to the death. Thus ideological conflict, which promotes rather than suspends disbelief, is the only kind of conflict among great powers in which hope can exist for a nonviolent resolution.”

“Considering the function of the arts in transferring into familiar experiences the hallucinations bred in the centers of authority, one might decide that the arts are by nature reactionary. Such a conclusion would be neither far-fetched nor particularly novel—I suspect that most liberals feel this, though they shrink from admitting it to themselves.”

Liberals realizing that art is reactionary in 1960? Is this like liberals facing their white privilege in 2021? Not only is Rosenberg’s essay brilliant on several levels (I wish I had time to quote more of it)—it’s prophetic, as well.

But let’s not get side-tracked, although this is perhaps what Rosenberg wants, and this is the danger I face in quoting this marvelous essay at length.

Now at last I can quote Rosenberg a couple of pages later in the essay speaking directly to Ransom’s all-too-common Modernist complaint against poetry of the “heart,” the “child,”—of and for “romantics:”

“The sigh of Keats and the logic of Eliot represent art’s willing acceptance of the merger of substance into form—and the fabled lightheartedness of the artist, his childlike spirit, his ‘innocence,’ have to do with this professional yielding to the falsification, play-acting, and charmed distortion inherent in his medium. The abnormal thing is not the pressure upon art to falsify, but that art should have come to resist that pressure.”

John Crowe Ransom represents the thrust in our time to “resist that pressure” to romantically “falsify,” though he is fully aware of it and even somewhat sympathetic to it. From The World’s Body:

“The whole poem is properly an illusion, but a deliberate and honest one, to which we consent, and through which we follow the poet because it enables him to do things not possible if he were presenting actuality. At some moments we may grow excited and tempted to forget that it is illusion, as the untrained spectator may forget and hiss the villain at the theatre. But we are quickly reminded of our proper attitude. If the author tends to forget, all the more if he pretends to forget, we would recall him to the situation too. Such license we do not accord to poets and dramatists, but only to novelists, whose art is young. And even these, or the best of these, seem now determined, for the sake of artistic integrity, to surrender it.”

We can see from this passage that Ransom understands the importance of art’s deception—but by God he will not be deceived for very long! Ransom goes so far as to be pleased that the “novelists” will “surrender” their art “for the sake of artistic integrity.” Surrender your art for art, Ransom says—but can he really be saying this? Yes, he is saying this. And now comes the following two questions: Why is he saying this? And what is wrong with him?

Rosenberg will help us out; let’s re-quote him: ” In the war of ideologies, history grows more more and more talkative, i.e., rhetorical, which means that image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness…”

Ransom, who took great delight, with many of his contemporaries, to label Romanticism as the act of a “sick mind,” to hiss at villains from the past, to beat the drum as mustaches were put on the Mona Lisa—was a high-ranking general in the Modernist ideological war in which “image assaults image, until all have lost their sacredness…” Ransom was at the front of the mob which threw splinters of the red wheel barrow at The Raven.

The stripping-away-the-veil-from-art so that all sacredness is lost is just what certain intellectuals love to do. They may justify their acts with “theory” and impressive intellectualism, but they are finally like Ransom’s “untrained spectator” hissing at “the villain at the theatre.”

Their “theatre” is whatever they want it to be. In art theories (think of Wilde) which have the art hide the artist, we are reminded of the New Critical impulse to look “only at the work.” The New Critics never really believed this, and first asserted it in order to seem “pure;” they spent the second half of their careers back-peddling, as they raised the “impure” flag—what I said to gain attention I now renounce as a full human being: thus end all art movements.

In the essay by Ransom just quoted from, “A Poem Nearly Anonymous,” Ransom is most interested in Milton, the “man,” lurking behind the acknowledged masterpiece of “Lycidas.” As Ransom remarks in the penultimate sentence of his essay: “We are disturbingly conscious of a man behind the artist.”

As I said earlier, Ransom falls on the side of expanding poetry, which is wrong (oh we must think of this and think of this and think of this) and despite New Criticism earning its reputation of narrowing (focus on the work only) this is more its exception than its rule—as Eliot questioned what the Metaphysical Poets really were, we must do the same with The New Critics.

What this critic believes is this: there is no “man” behind the poem.

There is no John Milton who John Ransom needs to be “disturbingly conscious of.”

Save your energy, John.

There is a wonderful South Park episode called Sarcastaball, in which the sarcasm a father uses to defend the rough-and-tumble aspects of football is taken literally, leading to a whole new professional sport. The father becomes addicted to sarcasm—he is sarcastic in the doctor’s office—the audience of this South Park episode are not sure whether or not the doctor is being sarcastic as he shows the father brain scans of severe brain damage—but is it from a concussion, or the father’s disease of sarcasm?

Criticism which demands to be taken seriously, but is so absorbed in balancing form and matter (but willing also to choose one for the sake of an art movement so that finally either one will do,) drags us into the mind-fuck world of “Sarcastaball.”

The truth is: form in art is all that matters.

Art is “suspension of disbelief.”

And art is “reactionary,” and we will all just have to deal with it.

Politically, Ransom and his colleagues were reactionary. And this is why in their Criticism, they tried to go the other way. The New Critics’ “balancing” act within literature sprawled over into politics—politics/social commentary (Plato, Marx, the State) has traditionally been the escape-hatch, the fourth wall, for any critic who is not certain of his or her aesthetic designs. If they were more certain of purely motivated art, the critic might become an apolitical creative genius, instead.

Criticism—which wrestles with things other than pure form—is finally seen in the public square as rather a mess. Its politics hides behind its criticism (New Criticism) or its criticism hides behind its politics (Marxism). Our best living Critic happens to be a reviewer—William Logan—and in the eyes of Letters, he is considered a conservative, by default, since he dares to actually criticize what he reviews. No one knows if he is actually reactionary—they assume he is, since he is a Critic, and has no choice but to be less than polite. As an honest Reviewer he has no where to hide. Actually, William Logan is not reactionary. (Like many people, he likes old stuff.) There’s no other reviewer like him, because no one wants to be thought of as reactionary in the world of Letters—and utterly transparent reviewing pegs one as so. Why this phenomenon exists would make for a very interesting essay, indeed. Harold Rosenberg might be able to help, but he’s been dead for over 40 years.

Logan does puncture “Romanticism” in a manner similar to Ransom—and until recently, “conservatives” tended to clobber Romanticism—we will quote Harold Rosenberg in a few minutes on this very point. Romanticism, however, no longer represents progress—perhaps T.S. Eliot and Harold Rosenberg assumed it did; surely William Logan does not object to Romanticism for this reason!

I champion Romanticism—but for aesthetic reasons only. (I do sometimes think in political terms—and do not believe High Modernism is progressive in the least, but as a true Critic, I should suppress these feelings.)

The ideal art form, of course, is music. And in music, form is all. There is no “man” behind Mozart’s music. There is no way one would be construed as “reactionary” in discussing Mozart’s instrumental music honestly, in a detailed and critical manner.

There isn’t even “feelings” as we commonly think of that word, in Mozart’s music. To hear “feelings” in Mozart’s music is to falsify, in a non-artistic sense, the art.

Sarcasm cannot exist in Mozart’s music—it can only exist in speaking of Mozart’s music. Mozart’s music is a very heaven because everything is completely understood immediately there.

If we hear a passage in a Mozart concerto which sounds “sad” to us, there is no way to prove that any of this “sadness” (which is merely due to a certain arrangement of notes) can be traced back to Mozart the “man” (or the “composer,” what difference does it make?)—so we really would be completely deluded to believe it is “sad.”

When you hear a critic going on about the “mature” Mozart wrestling with “tragedy” in his “life” through his “music,” this is only the critical impulse puffed by its own importance. For truly, even if Mozart (who can do it) expresses melancholy in a concerto, the point of the concerto is for the whole to be resolved by the whole—so that a bit of “sadness” qua “sadness” is meaningless—in terms of any understanding we have of the “sad.” Even if a violinist who understands the music better than we do weeps as she plays the music, we cannot, from this, assume the music Mozart has written is intrinsically “sad.”

The overwhelming genius of Mozart might make us sad or frustrated, but this, again, is of no consequence. That we “feel emotional” listening to Mozart’s music is eminently possible—but we can’t trace this back specifically to the music, nor (and this is more far-fetched) to the “man” behind the music.

Rosenberg at one point said that pure formalism is the art which really annoyed the Soviet Union. Why should the Soviets have cared about painting of drips and shapes? They did, Rosenberg insisted.

If you don’t like Mozart, you might want to re-think.

I will end this essay by leaving art and returning to the real world. Art is indeed wonderful because it has nothing to do with the real world.

Harold Rosenberg’s introduction to his book of essays, Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture & Politics, published in 1973, contains some remarks worth noting, as well.

“The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today’s authentic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state arts councils, by museums, by industrial and banking associations.”


“Exhibitions of art and publications of literature are quite pleased to be absorbed into the teaching and entertainment industries. Professional art lovers are less interested in their responses to works of art than in knowing what to tell people about them—to take an early example, Leo Stein lecturing on Matisse the moment he began to acquire works by him.”


“An assistant professor of English, writing in the Times Book Review on a work by the Marquis de Sade, finds the Marquis’ tortures of servant girls to be tame, and is prepared to fit him into middle-class reading lists. Is this professor radical or conservative?”


“That there is no radical presence in society seems to give the conservative an edge in the argument. He can revile the mistakes and foolishness (Romanticism) of those who still hope for more humane social arrangements and for forms more responsive to actualities, high and low. But though the radical consciousness is stymied, the events of the epoch are radical. The values to which the conservative appeals are inevitably caricatured by the individuals designated to put them into practice. The cultural conservative wins the argument, but, like the political conservative, he repeatedly finds himself betrayed. Hence he is in a constant state of paranoia. The most he can hope for is that nothing will happen—that Nixon will not go to China—and that fewer knives will flash in the dark.”

Again, Rosenberg is prophetic about our day: the “conservative” hopes “Nixon will not go to China” (!)

Or: “prophecy” merely means nothing has changed very much?

Ben Mazer sent me Rosenberg’s essays recently—utterly by accident—and isn’t that how life usually changes one?

In Ben Mazer I, too, find that mysterious phenomenon—as a voter, Mazer, shuffling along with the mass of humanity, is a liberal, a Democrat, a leftist all the way, but in the completely unspoken presence of his uncanny work, I find him to be something else.

Thomas Graves, Salem MA 5/31/21


In the classroom there were rows of faces,

And one of them was hers; I never tire

Of looking at her face—

The heart of my love, and my love’s disgrace

Is the desire to see her face—

To me she is a god; iconography

Haunts me and teases me;

Is this why my poetry is crazy?

I hope you like my poem,

But this one’s really odd.

My excuse? I fell in love with a living god.

Is my attraction to her really so odd?

Especially if it gleams inside the shadows

We associate with dreams and the higher God?

She is a somber example of how the human race

Can be teasingly god-like.

When I go about, lost, in a dream, hoping to meet her face,

I wonder why, she, who works,

Was also in school? How does a dream work?

I was in the classroom, but the rows

Blocked her; no dream really knows;

I don’t think history knows

The reason I couldn’t see her face.

This simple fact is my utter disgrace.

I was always quiet around her.

She had passages she knew.

Now in the dream

I am confused and shy, trying to catch her eye.

Do I need to explain?

Do we need this poem?

Isn’t this enough? My dream? My pain?


The Mill

I wish the sad rain,
And the clouds trooping and covering up the sun, remain—
For the sake of my poetry, which I coil up and write—
In a mood best fit for the middle of the night.
Coolness and cloudiness have made
This day a writing day. Poetry is best felt in the shade.
Were the sun to come out, I would leave for the hills
And poetry would be forgotten in those different thrills.


Image result for white miles photography show

Addicted to pleasure is the worst thing.

You can’t smile—or talk—or sing.

All you can do is moan.

If elegy—or goodbye—or greeting is required

For the one you love, you groan.

The springing world secretly notes you have retired

Into green mortality and mist, and the red clay

Breaks apart and drops into the bay

And the secret, with a dry, indifferent tone,

Nevertheless spreads

Into nature’s greens and reds

And you, who were once so fond and made of smiles,

Fade with a million small noises into the white miles.


Image result for modern painting of people waiting

So what if it’s true?

The weak is true.

The inevitable is true.

When you align yourself with the truth

It means you don’t have anything to do.

It means you aren’t going to love me.

The truth is inevitable—

So what’s the point of trying to be true,

If it happens, no matter what we do?

Once, I overheard you

Using voices with someone else

That you never used with me.

You aren’t you. You’re just a strategy.

This sickens me.

You split yourself apart

For the sake of a cunning art

Which is, in its way, true,

Since truth lies in its various parts,

Among the broken hearts

Which couldn’t be false

Anymore than they could be true.

There wasn’t anything to do

As you came into view.


Light is light, whether sun—or dim fire.
Love is love, whether God—or smoldering desire.

I cannot compare your eyes to the day:
Tomorrow is forgetfulness and clay.
Your eyes have the light
Of the sun hiding in the light of the night.
I die by my own comparison.
You are outside my library-garrison.
You smile at my slip-shod poetry and sin.
You are the air. I’m trapped by books within.

What are these prophecies the blind poet believes?
History said: she was here. My dream says: she leaves.


Image result for lovely clouds

When you see me, you insult me
By moving away.
You insult me every day.
I never say a word,
Too stunned to speak, this life being so absurd.

The sky is beautiful—this sky that I will never touch;
I will never touch the distant clouds within higher, softer clouds:
I love the sky’s beauty so much!
The sky, too, moves away.
It moves away throughout the day.

Look at me! Listening to Mozart on my phone
With my coiling, green earbuds!
You might think I’m terribly alone
Just like the dead—who are silent—silent!—underground,
Even though right here they can be found—
And look, the trains are running! I’m hearing Mozart’s sound
Which also moves away
Like everything moves, moving away from me, every day.

It is the language of everything which lives,
A cloud, a face, a crescendo, which dies away
Peacefully, not unkindly, and so what can I say
To you, who never could say
Why you loved me, and who always seemed to be on your way,
As now you veer away from me in what seems like sorrowful hate.
Insult me, then. Something beautiful will insult you, too, on some beautiful day; just wait.


Image result for street lamp through trees and the moon in painting

Beware of things.

Beware of everything.

The advice you took will backfire soon.

It was too superficial:

A street lamp confused with the moon.

The flags wave: the white, for doubt,

The blue symbolizes what hides

Pleasantly. But evening arrives soon.

I had no idea you would do that:

A street lamp confused with the moon.

Don’t complain just because we complain,

Or because it is no longer June.

You’ll be a spot of radiance yet:

A street lamp confused with the moon.

The sun will explode. You cannot forget

An instant of what happened.

You’re everything, but you won’t be everything soon.

Be harmonious with others:

A street lamp confused with the moon.


Image result for hudson river painting

Love makes you want. That’s all it does.

Did you think you loved her? That’s what it was.

Love needs an object, so you can care.

And during this time, wasn’t she there?

Wanting, in general, what you actually need

Is within you, but wanting what you don’t need

Is love, says philosophy.

Wanting what you don’t need is crazy.

If you have all you want, you get lazy,

So you try something new, you feed

Want itself; you want what you don’t need,

And this makes the wanted happy;

Wanted by pure want, not hunger or greed,

Is like being outside of the world, beyond all need.

So love has an otherworldly purity.

The first thought happened because

Someone said, ‘let’s want want, and see what it does.’

And when you loved? That’s what that was.


Bellini: St. Jerome in the Desert (1455) | Giovanni bellini, Bellini,  Historical art memes

“the dry stone no sound of water” —T.S. Eliot

It’s not going to rain on me.

I’ve got money in the bank.

It’s not going to rain on me.

I’ve got time and fortune to thank.

It’s not going to rain on me.

I have land to be grateful for.

I have trees and bees to adore.

It’s not going to rain on me.

I have a new poem in my head.

Sunshine will fall, instead.

It’s not going to rain on me.

I’m working diligently.

It’s not going to rain on me.

There are dark shapes in the sky,

But they are passing by.

It’s not going to rain on me.

I’ve gathered inspiration

From the tears and pain.

It may be cloudy.

But she loves me!

It’s never going to rain.


Le Prince Lointain: Silvio Allason (1843-1912), Il Bacio ...

Mine was the thrill,

Hers, the woman’s will

Allowing me to love.

I would rather see beauty

Than be beauty.

To see her in the moonlight.

To kiss her. It seemed easy to get right.

All we had to do was visit.

Or was it right?  Did the moon begin the night

Or did the night begin the moon?

I said, “let’s do this again soon!”

Was her reluctance, feigned, or no?

She was the woman, and I,

Denied in life, as men will be,

Connected her with getting what I wanted.

Kindly she loved me—the undaunted.

Her reluctance convinced me that I

Convinced her; made me strong, devilishly,

And understanding this

She withheld her kiss

To increase my thrill—

Done lovingly but surely by her will.

I was the infant, pleased

Because she teased—

And once this was understood

Nothing love did was any good.

Love devolved into a power play

And gradually she took all I loved away.

Her reluctance became more and more real.

She had to think. I had to feel.

Because her thought grew bold

Her love became cold.

“Let’s go to that spot again,” I said,

Dreaming of her moonlit

Face—but love was already dead.


Related image

In a survey, poets expressed the belief
Surveys are not good subjects for poems.
The lyric poem does not ask what’s trending in grief,
But let me tell you what is making women sad.
Without fat, a woman has no curves:
Good figures are what the god, Love, who makes us happy, deserves.
Women lack confidence, and the number one reason for that
According to this survey, is they constantly worry about fat.
This poem is a disaster
Because it cites a survey.
In indignation, she just walked away.
Love, however, is the lyric poem’s master,
Love, who shoots the arrows, and misses,
Love, who falls upon us in a cloud of kisses,
Who whispers, through roses, at the museum,
The true turning of a Roman poem,
Lisped lyrically above the bosom.
Love will do anything to ruin
Love: Bring in poetry,
Cite surveys, embarrass me.


Image result for a woman's face in renaissance painting"

I am sad like you,

But I just saw something funny.

A woman, tall,

Regal, beautiful, who I fell

In love with immediately, as anyone would—

Who believes the beautiful is good,

Sat next to a balding, middle-aged man

Across from me today, and, because I can,

I gaze sometimes in wonder at this young woman,

Among the sleepy commuters, who stare

At their phones, at least as much as I dare—

And what did I see?

Something strange for you, my poetry, and me.

If I never tell it right

That’s perfectly alright—

For I delighted in the funny;

If life can give

Me moments like this, it’s much easier to live.

This man had lips,

And his chin, too, resembled

The young woman’s. I laughed when I saw this.

It happened like a sudden, unexpected kiss.

There’s nothing in life that will not occur.

Not even her beauty could save her.


Image result for delmore schwartz

“I have to stop hitting people” —Delmore Schwartz, letter to a friend

If you are a poet, have sex with her.

If your friend has had sex with her, do not have sex with her.

If your enemy has had sex with her, definitely have sex with her.

If a useful literary connection laughs at you, frown.

The connections made in the suburbs are better than those made in town.

Find out what your connections think of each other.

Never confuse a mentor with a bargain or a brother.

Take copious notes of every scene you inhabit.

Read more than what other people are reading.

Measure your mentor so you might surpass

The philosophical measure of your own ass.

Determine the ruling animus of the group

In which you indifferently place your hope.

Mix your beliefs. Politics, religion and art:

A giant shit. Or a little fart.

Remember, nothing is true, but in how it’s juxtaposed.

Don’t flap your arms. Or pick your nose.


Abstract Sailboat Paintings | Fine Art America

Walking about the marina on a rainy day,

I think about my dying father and what he tried to say.

I see the details of which I don’t need to be aware:

The bricks below my feet, the spaces between the bricks, the moss between the bricks—the million details resting there.

What is a poem compared to reality?

A poem is a voice, which you overhear—

Not specifically for you, but to you it’s meaningful and clear.

Light rain falling from a swimming, occluded sky.

And there’s that sail, that sail—which will sail, by and by.


Image result for blue stream abstract painting

Duality always fails, and that is why

Love between two will die.

One is the most fascinating number.

It is simple and true.

Waiting for relation and the Big Bang, One can do

Whatever it wants: fake love and fake you

And fake the scenery and psychology of two,

The back and forth banter

Which breaks your heart and doesn’t matter.

The myth of virgin/whore

Is not necessary anymore—

It grew wings in lurid D.H. Lawrence novels—

But vampires proved impossible.

The vanity of love wanted to have fun.

And in the end, nobody won.

The lover, in error, crept into the wrong room.

It was dark. And fertile. It was the womb.

The lovers, holding each other, drowned in a tiny stream;

Only the child, already gigantic, was not a dream.


Image result for river naiad in painting

Love can be obsessive—and kind,
Love can be mad—and sweet.
Love can kiss you in secret,
Stealing through reeds on secret feet.

Love can be guilty of wanting love.
Or did you make mention of love
Because you hardly wanted love?

Sighing by the river, I saw her,
Feet nearly wet; her sighs
Were not supposed to be heard, or
Did I hear them? I couldn’t see her eyes,

Covered by her lovely lashes
As she bent her neck and looked down.
Who made those mysterious splashes?
Will she look up and frown?

Yes, I wanted you madly,
And yes, today I still do.
Have you heard of this? It’s called love.
I’m kind. And obsessed with you.


Image result for women with flowers in renaissance painting

Who can love the flowers,

Or the trees—if there’s you?

Who can enjoy portraits in their frames

Or stories, with their names,

The pictures and promises in the colorful brochures of Kathmandu—

Likely just as false as true—if there’s you?

And if they happen to be true, the things they say,

In the song, the meme, or the Broadway play,

In the books, in the philosophical arguments made for hours,

Who can fail to appreciate one movement you make towards them?

Who can love the flowers?


Robert Lowell - Wikiwand

While the fan glides into the memory? Or propped
Just for an hour, before falling down, we’ll go.
Where are you going, Robert Lowell?
Did you write “trestles” or “testicles?” Robert Lowell
Answers, “I don’t know.” Down to see John Crowe Ransom now.
Tennessee. Tennessee. Escape from Harvard and dad.
Learning from fugitives and new criticisms the holy
Path to the Pulitzer prize.
O fancy in the long wind. Decision in the epigone’s eyes.
You forgot swinging Boston and Milton
In the back of that cab.
Bishop, Engle, and all your wives—
Allen Tate’s mistresses! winked at you, like a crab.


See a Man About a Dog. Dogs in Paintings | DailyArt Magazine

Isn’t it amazing that when you give,
They want more, and are not happy,
And when you deprive them,
They learn how to live and love?
It’s the same in love—love them,
And they are not sure they love you;
But when they are not sure you love them—they do!
Even the smallest gesture to a dog
Obeys this rule; it’s true throughout the universe:
The star does not want to come near.
No. Don’t you see? Its light is here.
My thoughts were with you all night long.
But you won’t see it in those poems—or in this song.


Allen Tate Poems > My poetic side

Nature is excellence everywhere all the time. Art is excellence—extremely rare.

Not only is nature’s excellence more abundant, nature is excellence itself; nature defines excellence—as does that extremely rare excellence art produces, which is why Pope, and the Enlightenment generally, called the Greeks “Nature.”

Not only is the poet’s excellence rare—it is very often a channeling of nature’s.

Truly original art (existing completely apart from nature) which is excellent is rarer still.

The wailing of an honored blues singer imitates the wailing of a babe (nature). Poetry that resents nature—a poem (I’m thinking of no poem in particular, only one that would) which complains, for instance, of loud and unruly children will fail. This failure will be signified by reasonable Criticism—which is Nature. Can you imagine a poem seriously complaining about misbehaving children? I can’t.

All good Criticism, like anything else people produce, comes from Nature.

Art cannot compete with Nature. It may (and often does) run away from it. This is fine. However, Art cannot challenge Nature. It will fail miserably (whether some critic knows it or not).

Nature is ordered, but often appears chaotic—artists who attempt chaos as a way to imitate nature have succeeded wildly (we call it Modernism) but only due to a lapse of judgment (sometimes referred to as the New Criticism).

Everyone agrees poetry died around the middle of the twentieth century.

According to some, like the fearsome critic William Logan, this happened in the wake of a Modernist Renaissance which took on, and quickly exhausted, everything new to be done in poetry.

Robert Lowell was the first casualty of that Early Twentieth Century Modernist moment, failing to rescue the iambic pentameter as he went slowly mad.

Robert Lowell, the mad poet, left Harvard to study with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, a couple of mad (New) Critics.

Most—who don’t care about New Criticism, and who are more radical than Logan—agree poetry died, but are glad it died; in retrospect, that wasn’t poetry, they say, that was Victorian. What is now (still) called “poetry” is better—more “honest” and “raw.” The word, “raw,” was the very term Lowell himself used, as he promised he would try to be more “raw” as the New England Lowell, former pupil of the New Critics, and former Iowa Workshop instructor, made peace with the Beats. Even as the Beats, and every generation following, became poetry workshop instructors.

Others, more pedestrian, looking for reasons why poetry collapsed, blame poems which stopped rhyming. Poetry no longer had form. Poems simply became the receptacles of Everything—and therefore became Nothing.

Two things did happen in the middle of the twentieth century, which had nothing to do with how people wrote poems: the rise in mass popularity of Writing Programs and Blues Music.

Writing poetry simply couldn’t compete with these two things.

The same poet/critic/professors who stopped rhyming due to the success of early twentieth century Modernism ran the Writing Programs. They told poetry to stop rhyming.

Meanwhile, blues music, which everyone loved, was rhyming like crazy.

The post-modern poets were caught in the middle. Poetry, as both an art and a social practice, didn’t know what to do.

But finally the poets had no choice. Not being blues singers, they listened to the Writing Programs. They stopped rhyming.

The death of poetry in the middle of the twentieth century was not the poets’ fault.

Blame the Critics.

The Critics were guilty of embracing chaos—because Nature sometimes seems chaotic. (But it’s not. It’s ordered.)

Criticism, or rather lack of Criticism, killed poetry.

The New Critics are much to blame—they were not New Critics; they were “No” Critics; as one reads what they wrote, one realizes this. As one reads the New Criticism, one finds there is a lot to chew on. But beware. Don’t take it too seriously. You will choke. New Criticism is not nutritious. Most of it is confusion—though it is intelligent.

The New Critics didn’t like Modernism, but Modernism liked the New Critics.

To establish itself successfully in the academy, Modernism needed to look smart, respectable, academic. The New Critics were successfully recruited. Both sides shook hands.

Nerds became thugs; the tweedy New Critics agreed to murder poetry—as they murdered judgment.

They decided modernist poems—the “new” poems—needed to speak. Under the sway of modernism, they decided they didn’t trust Criticism at all.

The New Critics were avatars of the Writing Programs. In the Writing Programs, poetic reputation no longer grew in the wild; it could now be manufactured in academia. This was “the deal.” The affected learning of the New Critics (dressed in tweed) was enough to make the Writing Programs respectable—finally “respectable” in the way crazy Robert Lowell was respectable.

If you think this is hyperbole, let’s quote Allen Tate, a New Critic, from his essay, “Is Literary Criticism Possible?”

When I first taught a college class, about eighteen years ago, I thought that anything was possible; but with every year since it has seemed a little more absurd to try to teach students to “evaluate” works of literature, and perhaps not less absurd to try to evaluate them oneself. The assumption that we are capable of just evaluation (a word that seems to have got into criticism by way of Adam Smith) is one of the subtler, if crude, abuses of democratic doctrine, as follows: all men ought to exercise independent judgment, and all men being equal, all are equally capable of it, even in literature and the arts. I have observed that when my own opinions seem most original and independent they turn out to be almost wholly conventional. An absolutely independent judgment (if such a thing were possible) would be an absolutely ignorant judgment.

Shall the instructor, then, set before the class his own “evaluations?” He will do so at the risk of disseminating a hierarchy that he may not have intended to create, and thus may be aborted, or at least stultified, the student’s own reading. It is inevitable that the instructor shall say to the class that one poem is “better” than another. The student, in the degree of his intelligence, will form clear preferences or rejections that will do little harm if he understands what they are. But the teaching of literature through the assertion of preference will end up either as mere impressionism, or as the more sinister variety of impressionism that Irving Babbitt detected in the absorption of the literary work into its historical setting.

In the beginning of this essay, Allen Tate agonizes over the “humanities” as something which merely has an odor of the past (one teaches time periods) but no truth, and therefore, except for grammar, cannot be taught, unlike “natural science.”

Modernism blew everything up and Robert Lowell, the first “great” poet who came along after this explosion, went mad because he couldn’t go forward—and wasn’t allowed to go back.

And it was the teachers who wouldn’t allow him to go back.

The teachers, like Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, went mad, so the poets went mad, too.

Teachers are supposed to steer the ship; they are supposed to rescue the troubled students. The New Critics did the opposite.

Allen Tate is obviously a brilliant, well-educated man. Listen to that subtle pedagogy! But what is it aimed at? What is its end? He is teaching despair. He is teaching mental breakdown.

Here’s what the New Republic had to say (pretty accurately) about Tate 10 years ago:

In the galaxy of American modernism, Allen Tate is now a black hole. The authority that made him, in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most formidable figures in American poetry, mentor and superego to a generation, has collapsed. Neither his strenuously ambiguous poems nor his orotund essays in literary interpretation (he was one of the deities of the New Criticism) are still commonly read. In both realms, Tate seems to represent a version of modernism scarcely more acceptable than the politics–Agrarian, neo-Confederate, quasi-fascist–that put the seal on his obsolescence.

Of course it is wise to say, when Tate says, ‘when I had what I thought was an independent thought, it turned out to be a conventional thought.’ Yes. This is good. This is why you are a professor. You are the true gatekeeper of literature, because you can tell the truly independent thought from the conventional one.

Yet Tate goes on to wring his hands that if he “evaluates” and “asserts preference” he will create debilitating hierarchies based on personal weakness, or worse, “sinister” elimination of the art of literature itself.

Mind you, these are not political hierarchies Tate is warning against—no judgment at all, for Tate, is the best thing of all. This is the blank, the leveling, which every sincere and successful revolution seeks. Pull down the old walls—then, later, build anew.

John Crowe Ransom was, like Tate, suffering a crisis in teaching literature.

And like Tate, Ransom counted himself as a poet more than a teacher, anxious to have his poetry taught by professors who unfortunately were oblivious—too interested in “evaluation” and “history” (not Ransom or Tate)

Of course, who can blame them? They were ambitious poets—and there is nothing wrong with that. We can forgive them for this.

But to continue:

Now Ransom, from his essay, “Criticism, Inc.”

“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature? They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods.”

There it is, in black and white. The lady, Contemporary Literature, has no suitors. What is to be done?

And now let’s return to the highbrow-yet-know-nothing agenda of the “No” Criticism revolution. Here is what Ransom says Criticism is not and cannot be:

“I should wish to exclude: 1. Personal registrations…2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content out of the work.”

Ransom was just as brilliant as Tate, and this narrowing of Criticism by Ransom is brilliant even as it is completely insane.

Don’t get me wrong. If a poet wish to throw off all Criticism in their pursuit of glory, all power to them.

But these gentlemen, Tate and Ransom, are speaking as school teachers. As higher education administrators. As critics.

Ransom, like Tate, is the teacher giving up his role as teacher—it is the madness of professors leading to the madness of the world.

Nor does Ransom in this essay want Criticism which is more social or practical, either:

“I do not suppose the reviewing of books can be reformed in the sense of being turned into pure criticism.”

Finally, he says,

“I know of no authority. For the present each critic must be his own authority.”

This manages to simultaneously contradict every rule, habit, and principle “conservative” Ransom and Tate stand for—while asserting perfectly their perfect madness.

And even so Ransom persists in asserting:

“Studies in the technique of the art belong to criticism certainly. They cannot belong anywhere else, because the technique is not peculiar to any prose materials discoverable in the work of art, nor to anything else but the unique form of that art.”

And then Ransom serves up, after closing off all lanes of Criticism, his own interesting idea:

“I intrude here with an idea of my own, which may serve as a starting point of discussion. Poetry distinguishes itself from prose on the technical side by the devices which are, precisely, its means of escaping from prose. Something is continually being killed by prose which the poet wants to preserve.”

If poetry can be made a subject of study delicately separated out from prose, Ransom thinks he can, by this maneuver, inform true Criticism—of prose!

Again, this is brilliant—but absolutely nuts.

On at least two levels.

One: Poetry is opposed more to painting than prose; poetry and prose are both temporal art forms.

Two: How can one (outside of one’s own mind) assert a “unique form” of an art which is free of all the “abstractions” of all that is traditionally associated with Criticism—without entering an Alice-In-Wonderland-World inside a nutshell?

The New Critics and their empty brilliance (which served Modernism—and Pound’s coterie) existed for a practical purpose. To bury professors who taught Homer, Plato and Keats and usher in the catch-all-as-catch-can Writing Program era—which took poetry away from reviewers, critics, the public—and placed it safely in universities.

Since then, Criticism and Poetry have continued—but oddly.

It isn’t really that poetry is dead.

It is that Independent Poetry Criticism—of Evaluation and Hierarchy—is dead.

The professor has become the poet and the poet has become the professor.

And that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Tate and Ransom knew this all along. It wasn’t too many mint juleps or madness (maybe they were mad, who knows?). It was brilliance and ambition. And certainly everyone forgives them.

I’ve heard people defend the Poetry Workshop by saying, “We don’t just write our poems—we are students of poetry in the traditional sense, too!”

No doubt! This fits right into the idea of the poet and the professor becoming the same.

I’m sure this is true. As Poet-Critic Ransom put it, even as he was narrowing Criticism down to a barely visible point: ” A very large volume of studies is indicated by this classification.” The “classification” he is here referring to, is his “exclusion” of everything traditionally associated with Criticism—both outside and inside the classroom.

We can argue all day about what Criticism was before Tate and Ransom took their axes to it, but this would take us far afield; right now let’s just say one very important task a critic had was to make sure no lies were told about the poets.

The last thing a critic should be is self-interested, but this unfortunately occurred when the poet-professors of New Criticism and Pound’s clique shook hands.

Criticism stops evaluating—but that doesn’t mean all sorts of fussy, faux-learning cannot explode in the meantime.

This is exactly what happened. The Keats professors were buried. But “knowledge” grew.

What replaced the old poetry (which in retrospect, seems narrow) is what can only be called:

The Poetry of Information.

Workshop poems tend to be extremely informative.

They are written after long study.

The vast learning of Poetry rolling over weak Criticism is what Ransom and Tate within the academy wanted.

It’s a childish wish among poets too brilliant and ambitious to understand what Oscar Wilde (d. 1900) laid out so beautifully in his master-work, “The Critic As Artist.”

Tate, the professor, was ashamed of his job as a professor in the humanities department. Here is Tate from his essay again:

Of the humanities, the division with which as poet and critic I am presumably most concerned, one must speak with melancholy as well as in ignorance. For into the humanistic bag we throw everything that cannot qualify as a science, natural or social. This discrete mixture of hot and cold, moist and dry, creates in the bag a vortex, which emits a powerful wind of ineffective heroics, somewhat as follows: We humanists bring within the scope of the humanities all the great records—sometimes we call them the remains: poetry, drama, pre-scientific history (Herodotus, Joinville, Bede)—of the experience of man as man; we are not concerned with him as vertebrate, biped, mathematician, or priest. Precisely, reply the social scientists; that is just what is wrong with you; you don’t see that man is not man, that he is merely a function; and your records (or remains) are so full of error that we are glad to relegate them to professors of English, poets, and other dilettanti, those “former people” who live in the Past. The Past, which we can neither smell, see, taste, nor touch, was well labeled by our apostle, Mr. Carl Sandburg, as a bucket of ashes…No first-rate scientific mind is guilty of this vulgarity. Yet as academic statesmen, the humanists must also be practical politicians who know that they cannot stay in office unless they have an invigorating awareness of the power, and of the superior footwork, of the third-rate mind.

Again, the combination here is of sheer brilliance and deep, hopeless, madness and depression. The New Critics did not like what they were doing. They were professors lured by the new poetry. Note how deeply ashamed of the “Past” Professor Tate is. That was their problem. “I want to be a famous poet like Keats (d. 1821)!” Tate must have thought. “But how can I be a famous poet if fame in poetry belongs to the past—and Keats?”

Thanks to Writing Workshops, poetry, as it seeks fame, is as academic as ever.

The world of poetry in John Crowe Ransom’s day was similar to ours—fame for the poets was elusive (Pound and Eliot were not yet famous) and the professors didn’t understand how elusive it was for contemporary poets—because they kept on teaching—before the Writing Program Era took off—Homer and Keats.

Slowly this would change.

Academia would make respectable—in the middle of the twentieth century—those revolutionary Modernists from the century’s beginning.

The essays by Tate and Ransom glimpsed here belong to the period in-between the Modernist explosion (when nothing was certain and things were exciting, doubtful, somewhat pessimistic, and ambitious) and the material rewards which eventually followed.

We now live in an era where Criticism is dead, the English major is dead, the Writing Program still pays the bills, and poets are not famous.

And Blues Music is still much bigger than poetry.

The poetry in favor right now, more so even than overt political poetry, is the Poetry of Information.

The following is a contemporary poem which is an example of this.

Steven Cramer teaches writing, and is one of the best poets writing today. Cramer is as brilliant as Tate and Ransom—and these two were, indeed, brilliant.

“Elegy for Little Richard” is beyond evaluation or rank—it is simply a fantastic poem, teeming with information. The most respected poetry has existed in this mode pretty much since Robert Lowell.

Since Robert Lowell, poetry is now a perfect blend of the “raw” and the “cooked.”

But before we quote this poem in full, let us, for comparison, look at one stanza from a poem in favor prior to the Modernist revolution. It evinces beauty, not information.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense
As though of hemlock I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not thru envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

One might call this a selfish poem—the “news” is about the poet, and how he is feeling. There is no “information” provided, in the conventional sense. Keats is no professor.

And now our contemporary poem:

Elegy for Little Richard

Satori can surge upon you on the subway,
lectured Dr. Tufail in Intro Zen.

The mire gives us the very substance of art,
goes Lorca’s Play and Theory of the Duende.

reflected Little Richard in a Macon

Greyhound terminal’s greasy spoon,
up to his biceps in Georgia suds, boss-

man piling on pot atop pot atop pot—
and that’s exactly what I meant at the time.

Of the two strains of modesty, false
and true, he knew neither.  I put that little

thing in it, he said of Little Richard’s Boogie—
gospelized flop, in no way Tutti Frutti,

green as air before a downpour. Always
had that thing, but didn’t know what to do

with that thing I had.   For consistency,
he’d win the Whitman Contradiction Prize—

Gay?  I founded Gay. I wore makeup
and eyelashes when no men were. But once

a chartered flight caught fire in a dream,
Jesus Christ made men, men; women, women,

sermoned Minister Richard Penniman.
Satori, Duende: daemon versus demon—

one draws from light; the other swills
in Bier-stink at the Star Club, Hamburg,

1961. He didn’t open for The Beatles;
The Beatles opened for him. Backstage,

he’d preach from RevelationsWe’d all
sit around and listen, just to hear him talk,

remembered Lennon, whose dying mono-
syllable, yeah, I’ll never not recall, down

to the loaf-sized radio the news dirged
through (I call that time my decade-long

lost weekend).  His own One and Only,
for years an ancient star I didn’t know

wasn’t dead—in fact it was the Fab’s
blandish cover of his Long Tall Sally

that schooled the Beatle-daemonic
white mass of us: don’t sit so still; sex

sings best in tongues, if not yet drag;
Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.

When this hits us early in the poem, we laugh—it’s a shock. A brilliant, humorous effect. Cramer’s a genius.


Cramer’s poem is a riveting lesson. It gives us literary criticism in places we wouldn’t expect, and so much more.

“Elegy for Little Richard” is a delight: autobiographical, deeply thematic, linguistically glorious, as well as informative.

The two-line stanzas do not appear to be organized to impart sound—they exist more to hurriedly and efficiently impart information.

The epic fallacy, said Poe, was a lot of short poems strung together to make an epic.

There is no reason why Poe’s formula cannot exist in a shorter poem, where a shorter poem exists only as a sequence of small poetic glimpses: “green as air before a downpour,” “the other swills in Bier-stink at the Star Club” and “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

We might say that “green as air before a downpour” is Keats—this is John Keats kept alive in poetry today.

To say nothing of “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

It is a wonderful and beautiful phrase: “green as air before a downpour.” To say “this is like Keats” does make sense.

But no—we need to be more rigorous.

The poetry Keats wrote is defined chiefly by its rhythmic quality—Keats wrote poems rhythmically cohesive. Poems of Information are nothing like this at all.

Information belongs to Man, not Nature.

Pieces of poems are not poems.

The minor poets have written beautiful lines and phrases, but they are minor poets because they have written no major poems. Poe, the critic, often collected beautiful lines from minor poets in his reviews.

Like music laid asleep in dried up fountains

Plain as a white statue on a tall, dark steep

Green dells that into silence stretch away

And the list could go on of lovely phrases by poets no longer read.

But if we quote the following line, we see immediately it belongs to something greater, something immensely popular:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

This belongs to a wider, rhythmic sea—a famous poem, full of rhythm, which has nothing to do with the Poetry of Information.

The differences are more vital than the similarities—we are talking about two different forms of art.

The Poem of Information began with Robert Lowell (or perhaps that poem by T.S. Eliot with all the footnotes?)—student of Ransom and Tate (but did they “teach” Lowell anything? Doubtful)—think of that poem, which the critic William Logan calls Lowell’s last major poem—“For The Union Dead.” There is a lot of information in that poem—the cars in Boston have “fins” and the Boston Aquarium—have you heard?—is closed, and there is this statue in the Boston Common… It is a very fine poem, but it is scattered, and has no cohesive rhythm.

Here is the second stanza:

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

Beautiful, in itself, but does it need—aesthetically—to belong, in any sense, really, to this, a few stanzas later?

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

There is no “art” which unites the two stanzas. Information belonging to itself is paramount.

Poetry’s rhythmic strategy is absent.

This is what makes Keats Keats.


I might as well quote the poem evoked by Cramer’s “Truth’s not only Beauty but Raw Joy.”

To get the stark difference, in terms of rhythm and cohesiveness, quotation (because otherwise we might not believe it) is probably necessary; the first and last stanzas should suffice; notice, unlike the Lowell, how much the two stanzas resemble each other:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
    Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
    Of deities or mortals, or of both,
        In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
    What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
        What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?


O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats sustains the theme—and the rhythm. There is no overriding desire to provide information—in the sense that we understand that term. Information is not barred from the poem—the poem is merely doing other things; information is not necessary; it would merely distract. Information in itself, by its very nature, is distracting. Whatever distracts from the theme—even if it is interesting itself, or relates in some indirect way to the theme—is not artful.

Poetry once implied concentration—not a lot of parts lying about on the ground. Parts were not bad in themselves; the point was to gather them into the poem—to welcome them, and not forget about them.

Can we finally evaluate anything here?

No, we are not ready for that. The world created by Tate and Ransom, and practiced by Lowell a half-century ago is still the air in which we swim. We cannot rank or judge. The Poetry of Information will not be out of fashion at all soon.

What if a poet tells us that if he did not turn on the news, or consult an encyclopedia, or do research on something he sees on a walk, he would have nothing to write about? Should we take him at his word?

Poets—and even the critics—have long since given up being concerned about these sorts of things.

I’ll close by quoting two contemporary, neo-Romantic poems.

I Never Give Out My True Love’s Name

I never give out my true love’s name.

Is love my god? My god is shame.

In the dreaming garden I walked along,

Too ashamed to sing a song.

Love may be the moon, smooth and bright.

But shame rules the details of the night.

All I whisper when no one’s there

From my true heart? Shame doesn’t care.

The sad images which lie in my heart

Belong to love. But shame rules my art.

Shame rules all I see and hear.

Love hides. Never spoken. Though here.

Shame lives with millions. Do I blame

Love? Shame is not afraid of love. Shame

Is an army of poetry. Shame is not afraid.

Do not love your love, he said. And I obeyed.

This poem—one of my own—is aggressively anti-informative.

And this one, by Ben Mazer, from “The King,” also springs more from pure imagination:


for Isabel Biderman

Finally to see with eyes of onyx and jade –
what’s always there. Cleopatra with her crown
gives O’s for X’s, gives X’s for O’s
perpetually working towards the city’s center
by katty-corner, wishes too grand to grant
– for who can both live in the rarest palace
and be its guest? Passing again and again
brings nothing closer – a few feet in the end
and all is different. Different and the same!
A better life, taller and rising to heaven
(the dog escapes, returns according to plan).
Fabulous laughter lives in the hereafter.
The cat withdraws into its impregnable dream.
The actor leaving the palace is just a man.


Brighton Riviere. Una and the lion | Art, Moonlight painting, Classic art

This critic’s fire burns himself
Even as it entertains me.
Let me admit I love
(And maybe it offends you)
What I am too cowardly to do:
Undoing with wit someone’s wit
Having the audacity to sit in a poem,
A dry poem, offered up to one, in flames,
Trained to match all the poems to all the names
Without faces. Wit has a chance to be unkind
In criticism felt only by the mind.

But this is how I want my poetry
To be eaten—with less respect than lamb.
Let poems be torn limb from limb,
A lady of crowe ransom propped and prim
Or the poem which doesn’t respect itself at all.
He’ll show it respect, a critic who owns no circle,
The critic the eagle where below we crawl.
His judgment like atoms—invisible, not small.

But what does he love?
There’s the rub. Old Robert Lowell? We don’t know.
Judgment is the shadow
And love is the sun.
He strikes fear in everyone.
But he should not.
We didn’t wait for Christmas
So we might have the sun—
That’s never what we got.
The shadow, like his ink, is neutral.
Criticism isn’t his, or yours.
Let’s face it: A poem is a dry rock.
Sans lightning, sans thunder, sans display,
Criticism pours.


27 Acteon ideas | art, painting, ovid

You are not supposed to see
The one you love naked
If you love her
Only because she is naked.
The philosopher who protests:
“It is the fault of her mind
That I love her this way”
Protests in vain. But let’s be kind,
Even from our highest moral perch,
Elevated further by this poem—
You know I have always been honest with you
In my verses and my mind—
By admitting neither woman nor man
Can be moral but separately,
In the windy night-time of a desert plain
Or when we see too much
In the mind’s garden, alone but happy,
In the bounty of ourselves, sweetly in pain.



Poetry is not supposed to be explained in poetry.
You are expected to see a man in the shadows
And learn later something more about the man.
But poetry and poetry are very close. Poetry
Will now be explained by poetry as talk walking.
As I walked by the sea
I found myself talking poetry.
But since I never wrote it down
No one judged it. No one called me a clown.
Verse remained a modest pleasure as I talked
Rhythmically and truthfully as I walked.
Did you walk with me? Did you let
Me say whatever I wished, or not yet?


The Milky Way, abstract painting Painting by Liza Peninon | Artmajeur

Superficial objections to the superficial
Promote the superficial—
Despite all your objections, you are
Yourself, the hidden star.
The glow, the gas, the dust,
The universe you don’t quite trust—
And yet you have your opinions
Which become certain as you speak
Until you glimpse the immense
Drama, and feel ashamed and weak.
When you kissed her in private you felt like a man
Until you saw, like a scientist, others also can.
Knowledge runs headlong into the wall
Of love—deciding things without knowing anything at all.


Max's Blog: Quick Blue Sky and Clouds painting

Science is proclaimed with pride
With a feeling of religion and poetry inside.
Scientific papers are read by few.
“Go ahead, doctor, do what you need to do.”
Scientific certainty is known to be small—
Wisdom whispers, “you really don’t know anything at all.”
Why cancer? What’s immune? Where’s the gay gene?
How did life start? Is the universe clean?
How big is the universe? How old? We don’t know.
Heat is a mystery. A star-anomaly a glow.
Every single tomorrow is a guess.
Science is an eye, suffering every kind of stress.
The Jews emerged from superstition;
The Christians climbed into position
As Islam sought to overtake
And science, a religion, is about to break
Since, to be science, science must admit
Ignorance is the very essence of it.
We know ignorance inside our cars
Dying, crashing. We live in ignorance beneath the stars.

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