MICHAEL ROBBINS HAS A CRUSH ON ANGE MLINKO, OR WHY THE CRITIC SHOULD NEVER HAVE A MUSE

Ange Mlinko: The Critic Should Never Have A Muse

Michael Robbins has disappointed us in his attempt to make a Scarriet-like, sweeping definition of poetry: “Where Competency Ends, Poetry Begins.”

Robbins has intelligence and wit, and we like his writing, but the jury is still out on whether he will fall into dyspeptic Pound-ism or soar like an Alexander Pope and laugh with silver laughter at the dunces.

We still have high hopes for the critic Michael Robbins—we have no hopes for any poet today—critics need to quiet the noisy poets before poetry can be heard again.

In his latest piece for the Chicago Tribune, Robbins drops the ball—he decries “competency” by selecting for laudation a quintessential piece of competency by Ange Mlinko, a “friend” of his, Robbins confesses to his readers, but a friendship, he insists, based on an “admiration for her work,” and not (as he attempts to drive the stake into the heart of Foetry) the “other way around.”

Since Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com ceased publication and Scarriet sprang up to take its place, we like to think we have kept the flag waving above the beleaguered fort of common sense.

Robbins cannot see how his friendship with Mlinko has blinded him.  So it follows he cannot see his tribute to Mlinko is the epitome of competency.

Robbins‘ article begins with that old trope: the view from the “slush pile” from the sneering, condescending poetry editor’s perspective, as if “slush” wasn’t finally published in the editor’s magazine, anyway.

Robbins is doing something clever, though, moving from “slush” to “competency” to the apex of the imagination which is…Mlinko.

This would be funny, but Robbins, blinded by both “slush-pile”-experience professionalism and his “friendship,” is serious.  Too bad.  Robbins is best when he’s a little silly.

As he is a good critic, Robbins does give us an extra: slush pile poetry is mocked with quotes by Wyndham Lewis.

Wyndham Lewis?  If you thought Ezra Pound was a creep who wrote mediocre, Modernistic poetry, wait to you read Wyndham Lewis!

Hemingway thought Lewis the most physically repulsive human being he ever met (with Ford Madox Ford a close second) and we are not surprised.

Robbins’ Mlinko-nod to foetry, his faint damning of MFA “competency,” plus his singling out as ludicrous the same passage of Adam Fitzgerald’s (from a David Kirby review) which we found risible three weeks ago (#81) would seem to indicate Robbins is keeping his finger on the pulse of Po-Biz via Blog Scarriet.  Good for him.  Lists are currently the rage in po-biz and Scarriet’s Hot 100 series got that started.  Anyway, we are flattered.

For Robbins’ argument, a couple passages from the “crushingly banal” “Apple Slices” by Todd Boss is presented, with concessions to its sonic effects, as ‘workshop competent’:

— eaten right

off the jackknife in

moons, half-moons,

quarter-moons and

crescents —

still

summon common

summer afternoons

I spent as my dad’s

jobsite grunt…

*

so many waned and

waxed moons later,

another well-paid,

well-fed, college-

bred paper-pusher, I

wonder that I’ve never

labored harder, nor

eaten better.

And here is the Fitzgerald, which Robbins and Scarriet agree, was over-praised by the excitable David Kirby:

I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds.

The sun’s pillors bored me though, so I

set foot on a small indigo place

below orange falls and hexagonal flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,

restlessly roaming the buttered air

inside tropical rock enclosures,

caves of foliage that canopied darkness.

Robbins calls these lines “unmusical and undistinguished,” but he is being kind.  These lines are clumsy, ponderous, free verse Dr. Seuss.

But now Robbins turns to his standard for greatness, Ange Mlinko:

You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel
but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.

For starters, Mlinko uses “axiom,” incorrectly, a philosophical term; we never say, “It’s an axiom that it rains.”  But it seems axiom’s similarity in sound to the mythical “Ixion” was too much for Mlinko to resist.

The rhetoric is wanting: the vagueness of “You never hear of…” How is this dramatically interesting?  It is not.  It’s a fact-driven idiom.  Poets need to be aware of this.  And just in terms of pure sound, “tied- to- a- revolving- wheel” is ugly, and even worse is “but- it’s- an- axiom- that,- sooner- or- later…”  The logic is not worth pursuing in prose; it’s safe to say it’s not going to do anything for poetry:  Because a hurricane will eventually arrive somewhere, it is worth noting that one never hears of Ixion. 

Robbins thinks he is praising Mlinko’s poetry.  He’s not.  He’s simply agreeing with a banal piece of logic: 1) “you never hear of Ixion” 2) Ixion symbolizes the “guests” of our “planet” who have met “their host’s hospitality” with “rapine.”  Robbins claims this is not “climate change didacticism” but this is, in fact, all he is admiring—and all one could admire in this passage.  Surely it’s not the sonic chiming of Ixion and axiom.

Since rhyme fell from grace among the modernist sophisticates, assonance and alliteration have rushed in to fill the vacuum in all sorts of horrible, excessive and stupid ways.

Here is Robbins explaining to us what hurricanes are:

Mlinko is often delightful: “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.” But there’s more here than a Rube Goldberg spillage of phonemes modifying one another, irresistible as such sonics are. Contrast the insubstantiality of Fitzgerald’s cloud islands with the sense Mlinko packs into this couplet: the story of Ixion, bound to a spinning wheel by Zeus for betraying a guest, reveals an axiom, a self-evident premise, which in this case is that the weather, in its cycles and revolutions, will always, eventually, manifest itself as a revolving wheel of air, which a hurricane is. And hurricanes arrive ever more frequently, deadly to human life and its built environment: in a reversal of the myth, the revolving planet binds its guests, who have met their host’s hospitality with rapine. A little parable of climate change, then, with none of the didacticism you’d expect.

So here is one of the better critics writing today (a published poet, as well), Michael Robbins, and after dismissing “slush” and “competency,” holds up for apotheosis, “sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.”

This is one more example of how bad the world of poetry has become.

And this is why Mark Edmundson was right to attack contemporary poetry.  It has become so bad that any attack is good, by default.  And we mean this seriously.  Something is wrong: that’s where we have to start.  The inarticulate nonsense proffered by professor Edmundson still trumps every weak defense, and they are all weak, by default.   They are weak, first of all, because they are making so much of Edmundson’s ludicrous piece in the first place.  Secondly, they are weak because they are anxious to show Edmundson is wrong, but in a manner that is even more deluded.  Edmundson wants poetry to be socially and politically relevant and the poets cry, “It is!”  But social and political relevance isn’t poetry.

We only raise this matter because Robbins, satisfied that Mlinko is the standard, finishes up his piece with a diatribe against Edmundson.  Robbins: “Edmundson cites not a single contemporary poet under the age of 59. Think about that for a second.”  But unfortunately that says more about the sorry state of American poetry than it does about Edmundson.  You see what we mean?   The Edmundson of omissions and lapses is truer than Robbins on Mlinko.

Edmundson triumphs without trying.  That’s how bad it is.

SILLIMAN’S LINKS (WHEW!) PART 3

And the critical look at the Silliman Links of 8/12/13 continues…

61. Galleycat reports that “USA ranked 23rd in World for Time Spent Reading” which we have a feeling is one of those stats that means absolutely nothing.

62. The TYEE, British Columbia’s “Home for News, Culture and Solutions” asks “What’s Happened to Canadian Literature?”  This might sound cruel, but, who cares?

63. Janet Maslin reviews David Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which to us sounds like the worst title for a novel, ever. But the well-written review makes this book sound pretty darn good.  The rollicking “Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the house” meter of Anaspestic Tetrameter is used to tell a largely tragic American tale of Dickensian dimensions and we say bravo to the late David Rakoff for writing it and the NY Times for noticing it.

64. Lisa Darms reviews her own book, Grrrl, Collected, ‘zines of feminist punk, the 90s Riot Grrrl era, in the Paris Review.  Women will always be women, no matter how many different styles of attractive walls they put around themselves.  Go, Riot Grrrls!

65. “America, Meet Your Poets,” says Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post.  America’s Poets, according to Abramson, are the exploding population of Writing Program graduates—and this is a good thing. The English Major is dying, Abramson points out, but no need to worry: Creative Writing is here to stay, and Abramson quotes John Ashbery saying “what first awakened him to the joys of poetry” was realizing that poetry was not something “lifeless” in a “museum,” but “must have grown out of the lives of those who wrote it.” This is not only wrong on many levels, but also a big flag with John Crowe Ransom’s name on it: the document that Abramson needs to read and the truth he needs to get can be found in Ransom’s 1930s essay, “Criticism, Inc.” The English Major who studies Shakespeare does not study something “lifeless.”  And if a living poet is a bad poet, as far as he is a poet, that he is “living” is a bad thing.  Ransom’s complaint that professors of Keats were just “watering their own gardens” and his solution: professional critics trained by the academy to understand “the new writing” is the template of the Program era.  Poets breeding in universities is not precisely what Ransom set down, but he was smart enough that we can easily blame him.  Today it is simply out of control, and so everyone is to blame.  Poets like Abramson, who are simply perpetuating the problem, are not nearly as clever as Ransom—who started the problem.

66. Scottish Review of Books presents Iain Bamforth and Rob Mackenzie.  “Crackling tower” and “roots of mountains” poetry.

67. NPR reviews Robert Pinsky’s Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. Note the prominence of “write” over “read”—a result of the Program Era.  Also note “Masters”in the title: again, a reaction to the Program Era—Pinsky is going over the heads of contemporary poet professors in the university and conjuring up a pre-Program Era golden age when poets learned their craft, not from some obscure poet who managed to get a cooked-up writing prize and land a teaching position, but from the masters. We have only a couple of things to say re: verse and song in poetry: 1. Edgar Poe’s long essay “The Rationale of Verse” is all one needs to read on the subject.  2. The current fashion of talking about verse in terms of what your lips, teeth and saliva ought to be doing is absolutely disgusting, not to mention the inanity of “breaths” and “white spaces” and “line-breaks” and “sentences” and “cadences.”  Just shut up, all of you.  We’ll tell you what you can do with your “Singing School.”

68. “On being too old for Saul Bellow” brings us to “Slate’s Best and Worst Summer Romances.”  Wrong link.   But let’s push on…

69. Poetry Daily looks back 10 years: Bush was president, Dana Gioia was the NEA Chairman, and Laura Bush had cancelled the Poetry at the White House.  Daisy Fried’s “Snapshots at a Conference,” takes a journalistic peek at a state poet laureate pow wow in New Hampshire in April, 2003.  Fried observes, ruminates, and tries hard not to be condescending.  A good piece of writing.

70. Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks, a story in the NY Daily News.

71. Black Mountain College archive snapshots reveal the rather mundane “farm life” aspect of this storied avant-garde institution.

72. continent.  More hackneyed philosophical musings from this amusingly pretentious website. “What is a Compendium? Parataxis, Hypotaxis, and the Question of the Book” earnestly defines terms like hypotaxis until you wish you were just curled up with a good dictionary. They quote Sartre at one point, and this sums up the whole tenor of their approach: “For when one has nothing to say, one can say everything.” Right.

73. Here’s an exciting story from the NY Times: U. Texas, Austin, acquires archives of McSweeney’s.

74. Stephen King and his wife got their kids to record books-on-tape for them.  The NY Times magazine looks at the King family.

75. Public Radio East reports that Barbara Mertz, mystery novelist, dies.

76. Rob Wilson attempts to prove in his paper “Towards the Nuclear Sublime: Representations of Technological Vastness in Postmodern American Poetry” that the “nuclear sublime” dwarfs all other literary sublimes and fails—the premise is bankrupt.  It doesn’t matter how big a nuclear explosion is, or how many people are afraid of it; the literary sublime exists in words. We don’t like to state the obvious, but in the face of Wilson’s pedantry, what can we do?  Not that the paper is not without its minor interest (as Wilson quotes Robert Lowell, we catch a whiff of Mark Edmundson!) but the Post-Modernist audacity of favorably comparing the atom bomb to Niagara Falls in terms of aesthetic sublimity, is merely cute—and block-headed.

77. Here, in his infinite wisdom, Ron Silliman links Scarriet: “Poetry Will Be Dead In 15 Minutes, Or Modernists, Flarfists and Po-Mos Just A Bunch Of Assholes?”  Now that’s sublime.  Ron’s link says,
Scarriet declares itself both anti-modern and pre-modern.” Yes.  A time-traveling aesthetic is a noble thing.

78. Australian director Brian Fairbairn has made a short film on “What English Sounds Like To People Who Don’t Speak It.”

79. The LA Times calls for Op-Ed-Poems in old-fashioned forms (no foul language) for its August 25 issue.

80. The Missouri Review offers “10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn.” The 11th is: ignore this list.

81. The poet David Kirby heaps praise on emerging poet Adam Fitzgerald in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. To make his review more believable, Kirby goes out of his way to acknowledge how much “bad poetry” there is today as he insists that Adam Fitzgerald is a “new and welcome sound in the aviary of contemporary poetry.”  But then we get a sample of Fitzgerald’s poetry:

These stanzas from “The Map” suggest the silky luxury of the entire book:

I was shipwrecked on an island of
clouds.
The sun’s pillars bored me though, so I
set foot on a small indigo place
below orange falls and hexagonal
flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,
restlessly roaming the buttered air
inside tropical rock enclosures,
caves of foliage that canopied dankness.

Humming water and fetid air felt nice.
But the gentle leisure of itching, staring,
distracted me. I frequented streets
in dreams, or in the paintings of dreams.

This is perhaps the worst poetry we have ever read.  “I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds” is not something even A.A. Milne would have Winnie-the-Pooh say.  Winnie-the-Pooh rose into the sky by a balloon with the purpose of getting honey from a nest of bees in a tree.  But the poet Adam Fitzgerald finds himself “shipwrecked on an island of clouds.” He gets “bored, though” and so “set[s] foot on a small indigo place” and is “able to stay there a fortnight,” and there “restlessly roam[s] the buttered air.”  How to imagine this: buttered air.   Restlessly roaming the buttered air.  Then it gets all the more wonderful, as the poet finds that “humming water” and “fetid air” feels “nice.” But oh no!  “The gentle leisure of itching, staring,/ distracted me, I frequented streets/in dreams…”

82. continent, in a brief July 9 post, opines that “to love literature is to be in love with the dead. Necrophilia.”  Well, I’ll be damned!

TO BE CONTINUED

TIMOTHY DONNELLY: HART CRANE’S BACK AND HE’S LOOKING FOR YVOR WINTERS

 

Donnelly and his pal, Hart

I hart Timothy Donnelly

But why, with all the Timothy Donnelly buzz, (The New Yorker’s best poetry book of the year, etc) don’t others hart Tim Donnelly?

Donnelly’s first lauded book, Twenty Seven Props for a Production of Das Lebenszeit (Grove Press, 2003), not only blurbed by Jorie Graham and Lucie Brock-Broido, but forwarded by Richard Howard, was compared to Ashbery (by Howard), and sure, one hears Ashbery in the jokey elaboration of the title.  The combinations are endless.  Claire de Lune As Interpreted By Daffy Duck and so on. 

It is easy to sound like Ashbery or Stevens, or anyone, in a title

But to sound like the master in the poetry, without veering into parody, is impossible, and this is precisely why the master is a master. 

Donnelly is not Ashbery, or Stevens, except where these poets mock themselves, as they will do sometimes—but that’s an influence no one wants.   Any poet today would relish being compared to a master, but these sorts of comparisons only belong to the blurb.

The swooning praise for Donnelly’s just-released second book, The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010), surely arises from a feeling that Donnelly’s work has been disciplined into something darker and more politically aware.

The supposedly Ashberean poetry finds a common metaphorical cloud-ship with post-9/11 politics ; the guilt one gets from enjoying apolitical Ashbery has been eliminated; Donnelly offers a concoction two parts Ashbery and one part capitalist-debt-eco despair: not Claire de Lune Contemplated by Daffy Duck so much as Post9/11 Politics Contemplated by Sponge Bob Square Pants. 

The “Square” is very much at play in Donnelly’s appreciation of order and tradition, the “Bob” stands for an appreciation of the nameless working class who make everything the privileged use, and “Sponge” refers to the Blob—see Ray McDaniel’s ecstatic Constant Critic review in which the 50’s B-movie horror monster, a metaphor in the 50’s for communism, is for McDaniel an elaboration today of evil corporate assimilation as manifested in Donnelly’s enveloping verse of deferment and complexity. 

The poetry world is now ‘shark-blood-in-the-water’ excited because it senses a 21st century novelty: a poet filled with sorrow, but too smart and steely-eyed to be depressed, boldly articulating our current political ills with a self-assured Ashberean rhetoric—guilt, gone; yet luxurious rhetoric still bathing us pleasurably.  We have our cake and eat it: four layers of poetry filled with organic, not-too-sweet, poetically-flavored politics.  We’re both undulated and understood.

The critics all assure us that  Cloud Corporation never panders to popular taste; Donnelly is a credentialed academic poet, yet Donnelly’s book broods on themes that many regular readers of the New York Times  brood on, as Stephen “Helen Vendler” Burt explains:

He varies, as well, the arguments in his complaints, the reasons he gives for feeling stuck, baffled, oppressed: it’s no fun to feel alienated from everything and everyone, but it’s even more disheartening, and morally worse, to feel bound up in the sort of collective entity (the United States, the Western world) that stands to blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, for “what’s// done in my defense, or in/ its name, or in my/ interest or in the image// of the same.”

Short of resigning from Western civilization, short of devoting one’s life (as this poet could not, temperamentally, do) to a possibly fruitless radical activism, what on Earth should we do? Is there nothing to do? “I just feel soporose, so// soporose tonight… You think/ I should be concerned?” So ends his six-page poem about Abu Ghraib, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris. ”   —Stephen Burt

But most of the passages lovingly quoted are apolitical; the top influence on Donnelly, according to the reviewers, is Wallace Stevens; Ashbery is second; one reviewer insists it’s the stammering Eliot of Prufrock.   But none of these fit.

Since John Crowe Ransom and Paul Engle turned American Letters into one vast English Department, academic poets are the only poets who get respect.   It would be suicidal, therefore, for any poet today to be shrilly political—“fruitless radical activism” the name Stephen Burt gives it. 

Not one reviewer has been astute enough, however, to see that Timothy Donnelly is nothing more than the return of Hart Crane

Only one Cloud Corporation reviewer—Adam Fitzgerald in the Brooklyn Rail—mentions Crane—and only once, and only indirectly. 

No one harts Timothy Donnelly, yet Donnelly in his own words makes it stunningly obvious that Hart Crane, who argued with Harriet Monroe and Yvor Winters on the necessity of poetic obscurity, is Donnelly’s muse. 

But not just Crane. The debate between Winters and Crane is the engine that drives the rhetoric which unfurls in Donnelly’s new book, a rhetoric praised—in a critical fog.

Why?  Criticism (which these days exists in the academy mostly as eloborate blurbing) has been eclipsed by the academic Creative Writing industry; the pearls of poetry win the day, not the critical oyster.  Stevens and Ashbery are poets, and well, so is Donnelly, and there you have it, according to the gnat-reviewers.  And those who write criticism, like the Ashbery-and- Stevens-worshiping Vendler and Harold Bloom, don’t write poetry, so criticsm and poetry don’t really have anything to do with each other.  And there it is.

But of course they do.  They have everything to do with each other.  It is the critical argument that hides beneath the best poetry which gives it that urgency which readers mistake for something else, thinking it’s poetry; but it really isn’t that at all; it’s the critical mind, the argumentative mind organizing the poetry behind-the-scenes which wins the day.

And here it is (how did they all miss it?) in plain sight: “A Match Made In Poetry: Yvor Winters v. Hart Crane,” an essay by Timothy Donnelly right there on Poets.org.

Why do none mention this essay?  I think it’s the desire to think of Donnelly in a mystical way, to think of him as a frenzied, post-9/11 shaman, channeling Wallace Stevens, rather than what he, with all due respect, is: a Modernist academic, wrestling with the subject of his essay: Winters v. Crane (and John Crowe Ransom, who is quoted at length in a footnote).

But this is where we are today: in the middle of Modernism’s argument, in a vast English Department classroom, whether we want to admit it, or not.

Listen to Donnelly, and notice how Winters is quite literally the enemy, and how much Donnelly’s poetry sounds like the Crane he quotes:

Winters found Crane’s poems at times thematically unclear, haphazard and hard to follow; like the frenetic jazz club in “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” Crane’s poems were characteristically “striated with nuances, nervosities”:

O, I have known metallic paradises
Where cuckoos clucked to finches
Above the deft catastrophes of drums.
While titters hailed the groans of death
Beneath gyrating awnings I have seen
The incunablula of the divine grotesque.
This music has a reassuring way.

Timothy Donnelly

Listen how Donnelly closes his essay:

In one corner we have Crane, a devotee of the imagination and its “delirium of jewels,” a seeker of “new thresholds, new anatomies,” a Modern Romantic who strove to refresh the poet’s kinship to the shaman and the seer. In the other corner, Winters, a decrier of unreason, a skeptic of poetic ecstasy and rapture, a moralist who dismissed visionary individualism as potentially dangerous fakery. Poets today probably know who they would have rooted for.

Or do they? Certainly Crane is the more widely admired figure now, in part because the difficulty that his work posed to its first audience has been softened by decades of celebration and study. Yet many of those who would like to imagine themselves cheering valiantly for Cleveland’s Whitmanian rebel regularly accuse their contemporaries of the very deficiencies and extravagances Winters derided in Crane. Winters still has his advocates, of course, including many who don’t realize that that’s what they are.6

Ladies and gentlemen, those among you who demand that the poem be immediately or even ultimately graspable in its entirety by the faculties of reason please stand behind Winters. All those who reject Wittgenstein’s notion that the poem uses the language of information but is not itself used in the language-game of giving information please stand behind Winters. All those who use words like quackery, charlatanry, or folderol in lieu of more scrupulous and responsible explanations for their resistance to innovative and experimental poetries please stand behind Winters. Even those who insist that poetry must always heed an ethical imperative-you know where to go.

Ladies and gentlemen, where do you stand?

Timothy Donnelly

The sympathy he has lurking for Winters, even though Donnelly is clearly on Crane’s side, is what gives Donnelly’s poetry that depth they all love, and no one has been able to put their finger on it—until this review.

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