WHAT IS A BAD POEM?

 

Image result for model trains

A good poem needs 2 things.

Most have the first: an anecdote, theme, or story which supports the poem.

The second is why 99% of poems fail.

It is because the anecdote, the reason for the poem, is a thousand times better than the poem.

One attempt to fix this is to write a poem which is so brief, the anecdote is the poem.

The other is to make the poem so lengthy that it forgets, for many lines, its theme. Both of these attempts fail.

99% of poetry stinks.

One might counter this with a list of exemplary qualities which every poem requires to be successful. But the problem with this is that such lists can go on forever. We believe the simple “anecdote” warning above beats every list in the world.

And further, any lengthy list of what makes a poem good can actually do harm, as striving to satisfy many elements of expression may destroy the poem’s unity. Wit lessens options; it doesn’t expand them.

Pope’s phrase is exemplary: ” what oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A poem needs but 2 things ever: ‘what people are thinking’ and the ‘better expression of it.’ The ‘better’ is the rub. And ‘what people are actually thinking’ helps, too.

Pope, the Augustan Wit, belongs to an era lost to our day—flying beyond the Romantics and the Moderns, so that Pope is hardly considered a poet at all to those who long ago bought into aesthetic statements such as the “Red Wheel Barrow.”

The fetish of the romantically tinged image of the early Modernists struck a blow against philosophical wit—to no effect, really.

Wit looking at objects is all poetry is, and has ever been.

The Romantics—who the Moderns and Post-Moderns have never quite escaped—countered the Augustan Wits with heart.

But as we examine the Romantics from our modern future, we see the Romantics were Wits, too.  Read Byron.

Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true.  It often has heart, but no wit.  Or wit, but no heart.  The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed. But modern poetry has mostly left this combination behind, in the name of (what to call it?) a modernity which considers itself too modern for any broad sense of sweetness, virtue, or virtuosity.

Modernity has replaced the Muse. Today poets write as they are taught: to write against the past, instead of adding to its glories. One criterion exists in the Post-Modern, Creative Writing Program Era: Whatever you do, avoid the Iconic Past. Write in any manner you like, just as long as you don’t sound like Byron!

A good example of how this Modern Stupidity has replaced the Muse is the following poem which every modern loves.

In this poem, the ten year old who rhymes is secret code for Keats, Poe, Byron.

And the schoolteacher (cunningly dismissed, as well) in this poem is nothing more than tradition and poetry itself, replaced by the 20th-century, business model, vanity of the Creative Writing Program—which became a kind of solution during Bunting’s lifetime to the insulting woes described in the poem. Bunting’s clever poem seems to be a defense of poetry. It’s not. It’s a defense of modern poetry. And there’s a very important difference.

~

What the Chairman Told Tom by Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

~

We almost feel sorry for Tom, the sorry-ass modern poet who writes “rot,” but still wishes his “rot” to earn him a living. Is the speaker of the poem attractive? Not exactly, though his honest approach is the entire merit of the poem—take this away, and there’s no poem. Now, it is true: wrestling with how to make a poem better than “writing advertisements” or more significant than “a hobby” are valid questions, but Bunting’s poem isn’t interested in that; it only wants us to assume the poet is honorable—simply in the face of the “unkind” chairman’s remarks. Unfortunately, the “rot” the chairman mentions, as everyone who attempts to read most poetry knows, despite the poem’s self-pity, is depressingly real.

Bunting’s poem has heart—but no wit.

Bunting’s poem is good, raw anecdote—with a dubious agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

1. Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and field, And all the craggy mountains yield. (Marlowe)

2. Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.  (Blake)

3. Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. (Dowson)

4. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot)

5. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones and trees. (Wordsworth)

6. If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. (Emerson)

7. The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. (Arnold)

8. When I am dead and over me bright April Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, Though you should lean above me broken-hearted, I shall not care. (Teasdale)

9. The soul selects her own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority Obtrude no more. (Dickinson)

10. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar)

11. This is the waking landscape Dream after dream walking away through it Invisible invisible invisible (Merwin)

12. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw, And I said I do, I do. (Plath)

13. It is easy to be young. (Everybody is, at first.) It is not easy to be old. It takes time. Youth is given; age is achieved. (May Swenson)

14. There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking, all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown, and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun. (Mona Von Duyn)

15. Long life our two resemblances devise, And for a thousand years when we have gone Posterity will find my woe, your beauty Matched, and know my loving you was wise. (Michelangelo)

16. Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form. (Auden)

BRACKET TWO

1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

2. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. (Coleridge)

3. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. (Barrett)

4. Say to the Court, it glows And shines like rotten wood; Say to the Church, it shows What’s good, and doth no good: If Church and Court reply, Then give them both the lie. (Raleigh)

5. Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicaean barks of yore, That gently o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore. (Poe)

6. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! (Omar Khayyam)

7. Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade. (Marvell)

8. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (Gray)

9. O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O, sweet and far from cliff and scar The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying, Blow bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying. (Tennyson)

10. I have a rendezvous with Death, At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air. (Seeger)

11. I have put my days and dreams out of mind, Days that are over, dreams that are done. Though we seek life through, we shall surely find There is none of them clear to us now, not one. (Swinburne)

12. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. (Whitman)

13. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. (Keats)

14. Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. (Frost)

15. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (Stevens)

16. I was, being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset; I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get. (Wylie)

BRACKET THREE

1. The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton)

2. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a roving By the light of the moon. (Byron)

3. I arise from dreams of thee In the first sweet sleep of night, When the winds are breathing low, And the stars are shining bright. (Shelley)

4. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (Owen)

5. We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses. What more is there to do, except to stay? And that we cannot do. And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara. (Ashbery)

6. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives. (Sassoon)

7. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose. (Parker)

8. The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin. (Reznikoff)

9. It’s not my business to describe anything. The only report is the discharge of words called to account for their slurs. A seance of sorts—or transport into that nether that refuses measure. (Bernstein)

10. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. (Rich)

11. When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives (Larkin)

12. I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. (Millay)

13. Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks in a net, under water in Charlestown harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you? (Harper)

14. It’s good to be neuter. I want to have meaningless legs. There are things unbearable. One can evade them a long time. Then you die. (Carson).

15. On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself. (Graham)

16. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. (Lockwood)

BRACKET FOUR

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy. (Homer)

2. And following its path, we took no care To rest, but climbed, he first, then I—so far, through a round aperture I saw appear Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Dante)

3. With usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA (Pound)

4. I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g of “becoming.” Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea. (Chin)

5.  Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. (Sexton)

6. I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew, The jealousy, the shyness—though in vain—Made up a love so tender and so true As God may grant you to be loved again. (Pushkin)

7. We cannot know his legendary head And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze is turned down low, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (Rilke)

8. So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water besides the white chickens. (Williams)

9. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. (Ginsberg)

10. The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row. (Carroll)

11. What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things; Slight is the subject, but not so the praise, If she inspire, and he approve my lays. (Pope)

12. Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere. And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane. Or would you say that I have gone insane? What would you do, then, to even the score? (Mazer)

13. Come, read to me a poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. (Longfellow)

14. So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory: from this point on, the silence through which you move is my voice pursuing you. (Gluck)

15. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (Donne)

16. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (Bishop)

17. Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, It is so frail. (Ransom)

DANTE AND POPE BATTLE FOR CLASSICAL BRACKET FINAL

All poets are beautiful.  Is Alexander Pope not beautiful?

POPE:

It would be a wild notion to expect perfection in any work of man: and yet one would think the contrary was taken for granted, by the judgment commonly passed on poems. A critic supposes he has done his part, if he proves a writer to have failed in an expression, or erred in any particular point: and can it then be wondered at, if the poets in general seem resolved not to own themselves in any error?

This seems strange: Pope, author of “The Confederacy of Dunces,” himself a poet best known for using his poetry to criticize and excoriate lesser poets, who took sweet delight in crushing denser wits with his superior wit, in this piece of prose, defends poets against harsh criticism. What? Was Pope really soft? In any case, no Critics from the 18th century are even known today, even as one as mighty as Pope seems to fear them. The critics are all forgotten.

But Pope was prophetic: civilization means that poetry is not only read, it is discussed and criticized: but finally the poets prove too thin-skinned, and resolve “not to own themselves in any error,” which is precisely what happened with modern poetry: its desultory prose style simply cannot be measured as faulty; the loose address of an Ashbery is simply beyond criticism. So is every one happy? Would Pope, who rhymes, be?

Next, Pope puts his finger on another modern ailment: poetry is essentially trivial:

I am afraid this extreme zeal on both sides is ill-placed; poetry and criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.

Finally, Pope makes further modern remarks regarding the poet in society—the genius does not appear out of the blue; they must grow up to an audience; but how? Most likely even the genius—in the early stages of their career, especially—will be shot down, envied, and hated. Is Pope merely feeling sorry for himself? Critical reception is made of flawed and envious humans, and the best thing the genius can hope for is “self-amusement.” So we are back to “idle men in closets.” We are surprised to find Pope, in his prose, to be self-pitying, sensitive, and quaintly tragic. Pope was the first Romantic. He was Byron’s favorite poet, after all.

What we call a genius, is hard to be distinguished by a man himself—if his genius be ever so great, he cannot discover it any other way, than by giving way to that prevalent propensity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken. The only method he has is appealing to the judgments of others. The reputation of a writer generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world, and people will establish their opinion of us, from what we do at that season when we have least judgment to direct us.  A good poet no sooner communicates his works with the same desire of information, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature given up to the ambition of fame; when perhaps the poor man is all the while trembling with fear of being ridiculous. If praise be given to his face, it can scarce be distinguished from flattery. Were he sure to be commended by the best and most knowing, he is sure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority; for it is with a fine genius as with a fine fashion, all those are displeased at it who are not able to follow it: and it is to be feared that esteem will seldom do any man so good, as ill-will does him harm. The largest part of mankind, of ordinary or indifferent capacities, will hate, or suspect him. Whatever be his fate in poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it. There are some advantages accruing from a genius to poetry: the agreeable power of self-amusement when a man is idle or alone, the privilege of being admitted into the best company…

DANTE:

The author of the Comedia, here in a prose section of his earlier, Beatrice-besotted Vita Nuova, speaks of several apparently unrelated things at once: the poet describing love as if it were a person, the use of high and low speech as it relates to rhyme and love, and how these uses should be understood in a prose manner.

Dante quotes examples in classical poetry (mostly figures of speech) to defend his own practice in his “little book” (the Vita Nuova) of personifying love.

The dramatizing license is all well and good, but Dante also makes the fascinating point that poets began to write in the common tongue (as opposed to literary Latin) in wooing (less educated) females, and that rhyme is best used for love. How does one get one’s head around this radical, grounded, democratic, proto-Romantic notion?

For Dante, poetry and love overlap in a corporeal manner in three ways: personification, rhyme, and wooing, the first belonging to rhetoric, the second, to music, and the third, practical romance. The whole thing is delightfully religious in a mysterious, trinitarian sort of way: Personified love, Christ, the son; Rhyme, the Holy Spirit; and Wooing, the Creative Love of God. Or, on a more pagan religious level, personified love can be any messenger; rhyme, the trappings of religion’s austere/populist articulation; and wooing, the conversion of the poor.

It might be that a person might object, one worthy of raising an objection, and their objection might be this, that I speak of Love as though it were a thing in itself, and not only an intelligent subject, but a bodily substance: which, demonstrably, is false: since Love is not in itself a substance, but an accident of substance.

And that I speak of him as if he were corporeal, moreover as though he were a man, is apparent from these three things I say of him. I say that I saw him approaching: and since to approach implies local movement, and local movement per se, following the Philosopher, exists only in a body, it is apparent that I make Love corporeal.

I also say of him that he smiles, and that he speaks: things which properly belong to man, and especially laughter: and therefore it is apparent that I make him human. To make this clear, in a way that is good for the present matter, it should first be understood that in ancient times there was no poetry of Love in the common tongue, but there was Love poetry by certain poets in the Latin tongue: amongst us, I say, and perhaps it happened amongst other peoples, and still happens, as in Greece, only literary, not vernacular poets treated of these things.

Not many years have passed since the first of these vernacular poets appeared: since to speak in rhyme in the common tongue is much the same as to speak in Latin verse, paying due regard to metre. And a sign that it is only a short time is that, if we choose to search in the language of oc [vulgar Latin S. France] and that of si, [vulgar Latin Italy] we will not find anything earlier than a hundred and fifty years ago.

And the reason why several crude rhymesters were famous for knowing how to write is that they were almost the first to write in the language of si. And the first who began to write as a poet of the common tongue was moved to do so because he wished to make his words understandable by a lady to whom verse in Latin was hard to understand. And this argues against those who rhyme on other matters than love, because it is a fact that this mode of speaking was first invented in order to speak of love.

From this it follows that since greater license is given to poets than prose writers, and since those who speak in rhyme are no other than the vernacular poets, it is apt and reasonable that greater license should be granted to them to speak than to other speakers in the common tongue: so that if any figure of speech or rhetorical flourish is conceded to the poets, it is conceded to the rhymesters. So if we see that the poets have spoken of inanimate things as if they had sense and reason, and made them talk to each other, and not just with real but with imaginary things, having things which do not exist speak, and many accidental things speak, as if they were substantial and human, it is fitting for writers of rhymes to do the same, but not without reason, and with a reason that can later be shown in prose.

That the poets have spoken like this is can be evidenced by Virgil, who says that Juno, who was an enemy of the Trojans, spoke to Aeolus, god of the winds, in the first book of the Aeneid: ‘Aeole, namque tibi: Aeolus, it was you’, and that the god replied to her with: Tuus, o regina, quid optes, explorare labor: mihi jussa capessere fas est: It is for you, o queen, to decide what our labours are to achieve: it is my duty to carry out your orders’. In the same poet he makes an inanimate thing (Apollo’s oracle) talk with animate things, in the third book of the Aeneid, with: ‘Dardanidae duri: You rough Trojans’.

In Lucan an animate thing talks with an inanimate thing, with: ‘Multum. Roma, tamen debes civilibus armis: Rome, you have greatly benefited from the civil wars.’

In Horace a man speaks to his own learning as if to another person: and not only are they Horace’s words, but he gives them as if quoting the style of goodly Homer, in his Poetics saying: ‘Dic mihi, Musa, virum: Tell me, Muse, about the man.’

In Ovid, Love speaks as if it were a person, at the start of his book titled De Remediis Amoris: Of the Remedies for Love, where he says: ‘Bella mihi, video, bella parantur, ait: Some fine things I see, some fine things are being prepared, he said.’

These examples should serve to as explanation to anyone who has objections concerning any part of my little book. And in case any ignorant person should assume too much, I will add that the poets did not write in this mode without good reason, nor should those who compose in rhyme, if they cannot justify what they are saying, since it would be shameful if someone composing in rhyme put in a figure of speech or a rhetorical flourish, and then, being asked, could not rid his words of such ornamentation so as to show the true meaning. My best friend and I know many who compose rhymes in this foolish manner.

 

Pope, the great poet, already, in the 18th century, as a philosopher, has that Modernist smell of trivializing apology about him. Not so Dante, who is an ardent, mysterious flame burning on the candle of the Muse.

WINNER: DANTE

Dante will face Plato in the Classical Final for a spot in the Final Four!

THE CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHERS DESIRE THE SWEET 16!

Plato of The Republic matches up in Round Two with Philip Sidney, poet and author of “A Defense of Poetry,” who died fighting for Queen Elizabeth against Catholic Spain.

Plato was the greatest pro-poetry philosopher, despite those who think the opposite is true.

Sidney, in his Defense, praises Plato, and well, of course. The poet never affirms, and therefore he does not lie, says the clever Sidney, and this is true of The Republic, too, an invented place. In the ideality of its invention, a poem is going to kick the poets out, for only one poet belongs to the true poem. The poet is not in the Republic. The poet authors it. And only then do we begin to understand.

As poets, we each carry around our own Republic, in which no other poet is admitted.  And this is how Plato shows the way to the true—Republic.  There are many heavens inside of heaven.

Plato defeats Sidney in Round Two. PLATO IS IN THE SWEET 16!

***

Aristotle must get past Dante to advance in the tournament: another philosopher battles his student—Dante lived in the dark ages before Plato was widely translated, when Aristotle was “the Philosopher” among scholars and poets.

Dante’s mission, like that of Thomas Aquinas, was to reconcile Aristotle’s scholarship with Christianity, and, clever Dante puts Aristotle’s moral divisions (from Aristotle’s Ethics) in hell, and Christianity reigns in heaven. Reconciliation, indeed!  It is similar to how poets like Sidney reconciled “defenses” of poetry with Plato: the Poem, the Republic, Heaven, the Ideal, is true, self-justifying, and knowledge-seeking.

Dante upsets the mighty Aristotle and advances to the Sweet 16.

***

Is it some accident of fate that places Aquinas against…Pope?  The latter is a poet of such remarkable dexterity and reasoning on all things human, poetic and divine, that what chance does a mere 13th century theologian, dividing up reality to serve Aristotle—the body—the soul—and virtue, in the name of eternal salvation, have?

Presumptuous Man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind!
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why JOVE’S Satellites are less than JOVE?
Of Systems possible, if ’tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?
Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
Nay, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho’ labour’d on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
When the dull Ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God:
Then shall Man’s pride and dullness comprehend
His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;
Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought;
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Alexander Pope

It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways. First, because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion, as is evident from induction. Now it has been already proved (Q. 2, A. 3), that God is the First Mover, and is Himself unmoved. Therefore it is clear that God is not a body. Secondly, because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality. But every body is in potentiality because the continuous, as such, is divisible to infinity; it is therefore impossible that God should be a body. Thirdly, because God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.

Thomas Aquinas

This is what invisible reason looks like: in verse, colored by a hectoring poet; in theology, manifested by a theologian logical to a fault.

Pope and Aquinas both belong to that long line of thinkers (dead white males) who justify the ways of God to Man and believe the world made by God is “the best of all possible worlds.”

This sort of thinking cannot be justified by the modern mind or the modern temper, which fixes on known imperfections and slides along with its morality based on that.  The perfection does not translate into what the moderns understand, and Pope: “Of course it’s not going to look like perfection to you, you worm!” doesn’t make the modern feel much better.

The issue is really one of: what is the universe? And how much of the universe can we trace downward to particulars and upward to abstraction at the same time?  Those who contemplate this are philosophers and worthy of the name.  Poets, and all who involve themselves in Letters, ought to pursue this question, as well.

Pope’s poetry propels him to victory.   Alexander Pope is in the Sweet 16!

***

In the last Classical Bracket contest, Addison duels Maimonides.

We shall look, very much at random, at a sample of writing, and therein determine the winner on the basis of this. Addison wrote an exemplary play and both men wrote so much; we can only look at moments.

 

I mentioned several characters which want explanation to the generality of readers: among others, I spoke of a Pretty Fellow; but I have received a kind admonition in a letter, to take care that I do not omit to show also what is meant by a Very Pretty Fellow, which is to be allowed as a character by itself, and a person exalted above the other by a peculiar sprightliness, as one who, by a distinguishing vigour, outstrips his companions, and has thereby deserved and obtained a particular appellation, or nickname of familiarity. Some have this distinction from the fair sex, who are so generous as to take into their protection those who are laughed at by the men, and place them for that reason in degrees of favour. The chief of this sort is Colonel Brunett, who is a man of fashion, because he will be so; and practices a very jaunty way of behaviour, because he is too careless to know when he offends, and too sanguine to be mortified if he did know it. Thus the colonel has met with a town ready to receive him, and cannot possibly see why he should not make use of their favour, and set himself in the first degree of conversation. Therefore he is very successfully loud among the wits, familiar among the ladies, and dissolute among the rakes. Thus he is admitted in one place, because he is so in another; and every man treats Brunett well, not out of his particular esteem for him, but in respect to the opinion of others. It is to me a solid pleasure to see the world thus mistaken on the good-natured side; for it is ten to one but the colonel mounts into a general officer, marries a fine lady, and is master of a good estate, before they come to explain upon him. What gives most delight to me in this observation, is, that all this arises from pure nature, and the colonel can account for his success no more than those by whom he succeeds. For these causes and considerations, I pronounce him a true woman’s man, and in the first degree, “a very pretty fellow.” The next to a man of this universal genius, is one who is peculiarly formed for the service of the ladies, and his merit chiefly is to be of no consequence. I am indeed a little in doubt, whether he ought not rather to be called a “very happy,” than a “very pretty” fellow? For he is admitted at all hours: all he says or does, which would offend in another, are passed over in him; and all actions and speeches which please, doubly please if they come from him: no one wonders or takes notice when he is wrong; but all admire him when he is in the right. By the way it is fit to remark, that there are people of better sense than these, who endeavour at this character; but they are out of nature; and though, with some industry, they get the characters of fools, they cannot arrive to be “very,” seldom to be merely “pretty fellows.” But where nature has formed a person for this station amongst men, he is gifted with a peculiar genius for success, and his very errors and absurdities contribute to it; this felicity attending him to his life’s end. For it being in a manner necessary that he should be of no consequence, he is as well in old age as youth; and I know a man, whose son has been some years a pretty fellow, who is himself at this hour a “very” pretty fellow.

Joseph Addison

 

Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.”

Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration. “It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfectionwhich is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. This is equivalent to saying that a certain man was rebellious and extremely wicked, wherefore his nature was changed for the better, and he was made to shine as a star in the heavens.” Such was the purport and subject of the question, though not in the exact words of the inquirer.

Now mark our reply, which was as follows:–“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition. Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation; namely, the intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that “man was created in the form and likeness of God.” On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandments, as it is said: “And the Lord God commanded Adam” (Gen. ii. 16)–for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding. Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g., it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical,” it is “good” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tob and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Ps. viii. 6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper. Then he fully understood the magnitude of the loss he had sustained, what he had forfeited, and in what situation he was thereby placed. Hence we read, “And ye shall be likeelohim, knowing good and evil,” and not “knowing” or “discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words “true and false,” not “good and evil.” Further observe the passage, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. iii. 7): it is not said, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw”; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong. Besides, you must know that the Hebrew word pakaḥ used in this passage is exclusively employed in the figurative sense of receiving new sources of knowledge, not in that of regaining the sense of sight. Comp., “God opened her eyes” (Gen. xxi. 19). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah xxxviii. 8). “Open ears, he heareth not” (ibid. Xlii. 20), similar in sense to the verse, “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. xii. 2). When, however, Scripture says of Adam, “He changed his face (panav) and thou sentest him forth” Job xiv. 20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away. For panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires. In accordance with this interpretation, our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labour, as it is said, “Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee” (Gen. iii. 18), “By the sweat of thy brow,” etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, “And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken.” He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: comp., “Thou shalt eat the grass of the field” (Gen. iii. 18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, “Adam unable to dwell in dignity, was brought to the level of the dumb beast. May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed.”

-Moses Maimonides

Maimonides reasons like a champion when he discourses on the punishment of Adam, pointing out that truth and falsehood are not the same as (moral) good and bad—the “apparent” truths.  But we are thoroughly charmed by Addison’s “Very Pretty Fellow,” a wonderful observation of human nature—who reminds us of the Adam of Maimonides.  It is true: humans are obsessed with good and bad—with morality, to the degree they do not discern pure truth from falsehood, and this is our “curse.” It is not that morality is not important, but it is a step down from the reasoning power of the intellect.  The contestants compliment one another, even as they fight to eliminate the other, and in this case, the more modern moment of example-citing triumphs, though we hate to say goodbye to the Jewish scholar.

Joseph Addison wins, and advances to the Sweet 16!

THE 2014 MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND WINNERS!

CLASSICAL

Painter, Carpenter, God (3 beds) PLATO def. HUME

Tragedy is a complete action ARISTOTLE def. SAMUEL JOHNSON

In every work regard the writer’s end POPE def. HORACE

Novelty bestows charms on a monster ADDISON def. AUGUSTINE

The flaming sword which turned every way MAIMONIDES def. VICO

All our knowledge originates from sense  AQUINAS def. BEHN

The four senses of writing DANTE def. DRYDEN

Poet never affirms and so never lies  SIDNEY def. BOCCACCIO

 

ROMANTIC

Religion & Commodities = Fetishism MARX def. KANT

Taste can be measured EDMUND BURKE def. GAUTIER

A long poem does not exist POE def. LESSING

Pure and simple soul in a chaste body EMERSON def. SCHILLER

Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind SHELLEY def. WOLLSTONECRAFT

Four ages of poetry PEACOCK def. DE STAEL

Nothing pleases permanently not containing the reason COLERIDGE def. SCHLEIERMACHER

Language really used by men WORDSWORTH def. HEGEL

 

MODERN

Genius is childhood recovered BAUDELAIRE def. ADORNO

Art is not unique but caught in time BENJAMIN def. ARNOLD

Hard, gem-like flame PATER def. HEIDEGGER

Criticism, Inc RANSOM def. MALLARME

No poet has his complete meaning alone ELIOT def. NIETZSCHE

Not the moment makes the man, man creates the age WILDE def. WOOLF

The first stirrings of sexuality FREUD def. TROTSKY

In language there are only differences SAUSSURE def. JUNG

 

POST-MODERN

Leaves & Huck Finn show U.S. to be like Russia EDMUND WILSON def. JUDITH BUTLER

Beauty will no longer be forbidden CIXOUS def. KENNETH BURKE

What they can know is what they have made SAID def. LACAN

We are directors of our being, not producers SARTRE def. DERRIDA

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority HAROLD BLOOM def. CLEANTH BROOKS

The secret essence of femininity does not exist DE BEAUVOIR def. RICH

All speech is performance AUSTIN def. FANON

Criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught FRYE def. BARTHES

 

It was a genuine pleasure these past three months (March to June) to explore 64 of the world’s greatest philosophical literary critics; look back over the past 3 months at 32 Scarriet articles (called “March Madness”) which re-evaluates these iconic points of view—and feel the excitement!

The rest of the play will quickly follow, as we move into the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the greatest Aesthetic Philosopher of them all.

If we might be allowed to summarize the four Brackets:

The Classical determines WHAT POETRY IS.

The Romantic determines WHAT POETRY IS TO PEOPLE.

The Modern determines WHAT PEOPLE ARE  TO PEOPLE IN TERMS OF  POETRY

The Post-Modern determines WHAT POETRY IS TO LANGUAGE

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

HORACE VS. POPE, AS THE MADNESS CONTINUES

HORACE:

Study Greek models night and day.

Whatever advice you give, be brief, so that the teachable mind can take in your words quickly and retain them faithfully.

Whatever you invent for pleasure, let it be near to truth. We don’t want a play to ask credence for anything. The elder citizens chase things off the stage if there’s no substance in them, and the high-spirited youngsters won’t vote for dry poetry.  Combine pleasure with usefulness.

There are some mistakes we forgive. The string doesn’t always give the note that the hand and the mind intended: it often returns a high note when you ask for a low. The bow won’t always hit what it threatens to hit. But when most features of a poem are brilliant, I shan’t be offended by a few blemishes thrown around by carelessness or human negligence. But what then?  If a copyist goes on making the same mistake however much he is warned, he is not forgiven; if a lyre-player always gets the same note wrong, people laugh at him. I’m even angry when Homer nods, though a doze is OK in a long work.

Poetry is like painting. Some attracts you more if you stand near, some if you’re further off.

POPE:

Horace still charms with graceful Negligence,
And without Method talks us into Sense,
Will like a Friend familiarly convey
The truest Notions in the easiest way.

Tis not enough your Counsel still be true,
Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And Things unknown propos’d as Things forgot:
Without Good Breeding, Truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes Superior Sense belov’d.

Some positive persisting Fops we know,
Who if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,
And make each Day a Critic on the last.

Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.
In every Work regard the Writer’s End,
Since none can compass more than they Intend.

Music resembles Poetry; in each
Are nameless Graces which no Methods teach,
And which a Master-Hand alone can reach.

Pope (b. 1688) was keenly aware of Psychology before it became a ubiquitous and pedantic school subject in the early 20th century: “Blunt Truths more Mischief than nice Falsehoods do; Men must be Taught as if you Taught them Not” is Psychology in a nutshell. Nothing more needs to be understood, for coming at Psychology directly always fails; if great authors teach anything, it is that all Wisdom is profoundly indirect. And yet intention is all—as flexible as Pope is, you will be held to that.

Alexander Pope also earns points by praising Horace, his opponent.

Team Pope really wants to win this thing.

We moderns like to flatter ourselves that we are more easy-going and flexible than our predecessors, but it depends on who one reads; Pope and Horace are not rigid pedants: stand back from this poem/painting, you’ll like it better; don’t hanker after perfection; there are some beauties no method can reach—Pope learned from Horace’s nonchalant wit. And yet the easy-going can have high standards, too, and intimidating terms Genius, Master, and God in Pope’s context serve, with gentleness and suavity, beauties which continue to please.

WINNER: POPE

PART TWO — UNDERSTANDING POETRY, IF YOU DARE

Francisco_de_Goya_-_Still_Life_with_Golden_Bream

In Part I,  we did a close reading of the influential poetry textbook Understanding Poetry’s introductory chapter.

We asserted that Understanding Poetry’s editors, New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, claim poetry for everything it isn’t and fail to say what poetry is.

The truism that poetry is ‘how a thing is said,’ rather than ‘the thing said,’ should close the deal for many—except for the confusion attending ‘how the how precisely determines ‘what is said.’

The Modernist editors of Understanding Poetry make certain learned concessions to Old Tradition as they pedantically include gems of Pope and Keats, crowded out by the lesser works of Pound and Williams and other Modernist poems, but their corrupting mission can be best seen in the way they make the thing said obliterate the how. When the ‘what’ rolls over the ‘how,’ we no longer have poetry.

Examples abound, and we will look at four of them:

1) The editors provide a chapter called “The Breakup of Civilization” in which, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ugly and pedantic verse is held up as a model, a correct model simply because  “the breakup of civilization” is its own self-justifying rationale; Pound, however, is a part of the breakup of civilization, and furthers it.

2) The editors make “drama” (aided by Shakespearean poetry gleaned from his plays, old ballads of murder and love’s betrayal, a Frost poem of the death of a child by accident) the centerpiece of poetry, so that a kind of Jerry Springer reality becomes the default interest in poetic fiction, this curiosity-driven trope finally defining the thrust of poetry’s  existence.

3) The authors are anxious to convey their opinion that poetry, as they put it, “inheres” in the “stuff of reality.”

Understanding Poetry systematically denies poetry its ideal quality.

The real merit of the poetic is that it can exist above and beyond reality as no other quality or thing can: morality, knowledge of right and wrong, is often posited as the supreme guide to human behavior—but there is no one who wouldn’t do something if it were guaranteed  that whatever they wanted to do would go unnoticed and unknown—‘not getting caught’ will always be a consideration in the moral universe, even as we ideally view morality in everyone as a virtue: morality, for good or ill, inheres within reality—morality, even as a good, is still a practical matter. Good should have good consequences, but all that is behaviorally good is trapped in reality’s accidents and practical concerns. So even as we think of morality as an ideal virtue, we know, sadly, it is trapped—we as moral beings are trapped—in reality. Morality cannot exist outside of reality—we can only be moral (or not) within reality.

Poetry, however, can exist above and beyond reality, since poetry, unlike our behavior, is not real.  Poetry, unlike morality, can have a truly ideal and universally-based existence outside of reality.  Why, then, even in the name of reality, would we want to reject or mitigate poetry’s ideal faculty?

Poetry can potentially do much in its position outside and above reality—it can be a guiding star; it can participate in ethereal beauty that sweetly lifts us up as moral beings—who are trapped in earthly concerns. Poetry, which escapes reality’s practicality, is the only thing, that, morally, can be besides the point and the point, doing good precisely because it lives only in the ideal.

4) The editors destroy a sensible approach to metrics by making a distinction which does not exist—between what they call “accentual-syllabic verse” and “accentual meter.” They write in their “Metrics” chapter:

In accentual verse, the matter of consequence is the number of stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables may vary greatly and their number plays no part in a definition of meter.

There is no such thing as meter in which the “unstressed syllables…play no part in a definition of the meter.”

If we enunciate every syllable, then every syllable will participate in the total effect, whether those syllables are long or short, stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented.

There is simply no need to distinguish between “accentual-syllabic” verse and “accentual” verse, as the authors do, and the fact that the authors—and many subsequent critics—do so, reveals a complete ignorance of the most important metrical principle: the universal law of duration of sound, the axiom of time, which applies to all music and all verse, whether one happens to be leaning one’s ear towards a metronome, or not.

In a section of their “Metrics” chapter called “The Music of Verse,” they write:

Musicality of verse does, in itself, give a pleasure, but it is a fundamental error to hold that this particular kind of pleasure (which in itself, is minimal) is the end of poetry. Poetry is not music. It involves a special use of language, and insofar as musicality is one of the potentials of language it may be involved in poetry. The basic fact is, however, that language has a primary function quite distinct from musicality, and musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as, directly, or indirectly, it is related to, or, better still, fused with, the primary function of language. By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions, and in poetry by means of a special refinement of language, we may fuse the musicality with the other dimensions of meaning.  As Alexander Pope puts it in “An Essay on Criticism:”

Tis not enough no harshness gives offense
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.

It is not enough, in fact, to say that musicality is not the end of poetry. Some very powerful poetry, we know, is quite unmusical and may even seem quite difficult or, to some readers, ugly.

The authors protest too much. When they say “musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as…it is fused with the primary function of language…” they simply utter a tautology: poetry “becomes important” when it fuses with the important.  Alexander Pope is not saying the “musical” has nothing to do with this importance—only the authors are.

Poetry, according, to Pope, should be musical (no harshness gives offense) as it conjoins with sense.  It is only Brooks/Warren who try to cut music out entirely (“it may be involved”) and claim that “powerful poetry” can be “unmusical” and “ugly.”  The authors’ error can be seen when they claim: “By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions…”   Music is the “embodying” function of poetry, without which it would not be poetry (sound echoing sense).  “Events, ideas, and emotions” exist abstractly, signifyingly in the poetry, not as something embodied.  This may seem a quibble, but it is crucial—if we don’t know the body of something, how can we say we  know it?  Symbols are abstract.  They do not embody anything.

If I were to go on stage and begin shouting, the only thing I would be “embodying” would be the sounds coming from my mouth; if my shouts were converted to something musical, only then would I be “embodying” poetry. My meaning is not without importance, but neither should the meaning of my words be expected to ” embody” anything, or cancel out, in any way, the musical, which is still the primary embodiment ; nor should my emotional expression be considered any part of the poetic, since when I was merely shouting I may have been displaying plenty of emotion. And if I’m shouting, “The theater’s on fire! Get out of here!” my meaning is indeed significant, but it is not poetic, and not embodied—because a non-English speaker would have no idea what I was talking about.

The authors cherry pick attributes pertaining to the “dramatic:” the “emotional,” the “real,” etc. and apply them to poetry through the back door—even quoting Pope, contra his meaning, in the process.  This is the sly agenda of the Modernist work, Understanding Poetry.

IMAGE AND WORD: SHOWING VS. TELLING IN POETRY

“Show Don’t Tell” —Writers Workshop mantra

We nearly always assume showing, or impressionism, is bound to produce finer poetry than telling.

However—and in spite of Poe’s admonition against the didactic—we would be wrong.

Telling has 3 distinct advantages over impressionism.

1) Speech more clearly and forcefully conveys ideas.

2) Speech is more dramatic, since the dramatic arts rely heavily on speech.

3) Speech better represents within poetry’s medium, as impressionistic description more properly belongs to the visual arts while speech more properly belongs to the temporal arts.

Ambiguity, as the 20th century critics of high-brow persuasion emphasized, is a great aid to poetry.

Ambiguity can also be its death.

The vast majority of intelligent poems, passionate poems, poems written by skilled poets that perish, perish due to ambiguity.

A series of words in the impressionistic mode can have literally millions of possible meanings, multiplying with each added line; an added word can hint at whole worlds—such is the nature of language. The poet who sees this ambiguity as the power of a conquering army surely overestimates—-even completely mischaracterizes—the process.

The significance of poetry which is not impressionistic, but uses direct speech, instead, such as this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is significant precisely because it contains no ambiguity—there can be no mistaking the poem’s intent: Shall [I compare thee to] a [summer’s day]?

Impressionistically, we can say, “but who is the I?” and “who is the thee?”

But the import of the speech’s meaning, as delivered by Shakespeare, is equivalent to the I/thou relationship unfolding in the poem.

The poem’s characters (in their “being”) are literally the poem itself and explain the act and the intent of the poem:  as we all remember, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18, the tool of comparison (metaphor, which Aristotle mistakenly calls the key to poetry) fails, as the lover attempts to describe or copy the beloved, and instead “this” (the poem, the speech) gives “life to thee.”

This is made easier by the fact that the poet-genius and the poem’s speaker are one and the same (another advantage to “speech poetry”) whereas with impressionistic poetry, the descriptions are produced by an artist who is removed.

Thus, impressionistic poetry is more estranged from itself.

Think of impressionist and imagist Chinese poetry composed by mid-millenia Chinese bureaucrats—wouldn’t government officials who pass poetry exams as part of the hiring process, be more likely to be poets of estrangement and ambiguity?

Precisely.

The enlightened poets—such as Shakespeare and Pope, Renaissance-inspired poets who freed themselves with nature-observed science from Aristotle’s rules—are not imagists (like the craven Ezra Pound), but speakers.

The “show, don’t tell” mantra of the 20th century Writers Workshop got it wrong.

Better to tell.

WAR AND CRITICISM

Here’s an (ugly?) truth that many of us do not want to face:

Every thought, every action, every conversation, and every human interaction in human life is a dreary, exhausting exercise in fighting, strategizing, gaining power, gaining advantage, and gaining knowledge towards gaining power, for the endlessly strategizing subject.

The world consists only of objects in relation to the strategizing subject. Life is war. When friends and family don’t call you, it’s not because they don’t love you, necessarily, it’s because human interaction, even when we don’t want it to be, is a battle.  Even when affection is involved—and perhaps even more when affection is involved—human interaction simply wears us out.

Yes, war is hell.  But war is all there is. Peace is merely a pause in the action, in order that more fighting can occur, and real, lasting peace (if that is possible!) requires war to give it a chance.

We can’t sleep well unless we’ve fought a good fight. We can’t relax unless we’ve gone to battle.

This is equally true in art as it is in life.  We must struggle to paint the peaceful picture, strain to produce the peaceful poem.

We can leave sports aside, which is quite evidently a battle within agreed-upon parameters, the “agreed-upon” part making this “battle” palatable to many of us on a certain level.

But to the non-athletes or “game nuts” among us, to those of us who refrain from, and disdain, gaming, gambling and the competition of sports, the truth is, the war of everyday life—on every level, whether you are a monk, a bishop, a gardener, or a yoga instructor—is far more fraught, simply because you are a human being, with infinitely complex, non-agreed-upon, make-or-break-whatever-rule-you-want, war maneuvers.  And this is not just an aspect of life—it is the whole of it.  One is either fighting, or resting up from fighting.

Pleasure itself is nothing more than a rejuvenation in order to fight more.

This is not some “realpolitik” rant from a four star general, or a war-gaming adolescent.  Remember, you are reading Scarriet.

It doesn’t matter how “laid-back” one’s personality is, or how “politically peaceful” one is, or whether one is a vegan, or not.  The complex psychological struggle of every human being is vast and endless.  The “game” is on, and it’s always on, whether you are trying to convince your fellow human beings to become a vegan, or whether you are tearing into a cow.

Every single thing you do is judged, whether you’ve written a poem, done (or not done) the dishes, or are just staring into space.  It doesn’t matter whether you are “on stage,” or not.  It doesn’t matter whether an audience is before you, or there is no audience present.  You will judge yourself.  Even if you hate all judgement, all quantifying, all opinion, all truth, or all half-truth, complex judging is going on within you and without you all the time.

Most would acknowledge this reality of what we are outlining here, but many would insist: they are not part of that; that is not them, or (in an unfortunate choice of words) I myself fight against that whole competitive, strategizing, cynical vibe.

Others will go on the offensive without apology: This whole thesis is just an excuse to fight, an excuse to be a jerk!

Yes, but “being a jerk” is not a good strategy.  The point here is not that we must strategize viciously or unfairly or randomly—just that we must always strategize.

So let’s go back to sports and its “agreed-upon” parameters for a moment.  How crucial is the “agreed-upon” aspect of this war—that we call life?    If the two choices are war with no rules and war with rules, obviously the “agreed-upon” aspect is very crucial.

But life is not a game, is it?  How much do “the rules” in life apply?

If strategizing involves knowing which rules to follow, which rules to bend, which rules to ignore, which rules are useful, which rules are not useful, which rules are coming, which rules are going, which rules apply to whom and when, then it is clear that strategizing itself is more important than the rules—which are nothing more, in sum, than a less complex aspect of random reality, and which still reflect the brute forces of reality which we all must continually navigate.

So are we rejecting the rule of law?  That which essentially civilizes us?  Are we naked, then, as we fight this war?

Yes.  Each of us is merely a soldier.  And alone.

But what unites us?  Surely it can’t be all of us against all of us all of the time?

It is.  Because we judge ourselves, we cannot escape judgment, and therefore no one can escape the state we have been busily describing above.

We may seek alliances, and many of us do this in order to mitigate the general lonely horror that is the fact of our war-like state, and this explains why the culture of partnerships and political parties can be acutely acrimonious and emotional.  But the truth is known only by ourselves and determined by ourselves, as much as we may be comforted by the warm, piss-temperature propaganda of the group.  As Da Vinci and Blake have told us, let your own eyes prove the case, not the wind of authority or hearsay.  The group is a lie.  We are alone to the degree that we are human.  The genius is not alone because he is alone; he is alone because he is a genius.

Epicurus suggested the only real escape from this horror: pleasure.  The body seeks pleasure as a means to replenish itself before the next round of war; this is really the epicurean philosophy in a nutshell, the whole philosophy of pleasure, really, as now stated here; it is taking whatever is naturally restful and replenishing to the body, mind, and soul, and isolating it as an end in itself.

Poetry has been described by the Romantics (Coleridge/Poe), Pater, and Helen Vendler, as that which has pleasure as its immediate object.  Poetry is how our brains temporarily relax.

Poetry naturally has two main parts: the vessel and what is contained within it; the vessel (the action of poetry) partakes of pleasure, but the further question is: what is in the vessel, for all language by its very nature is a double entity—signifier and signified.  If seeking pleasure is both the vessel and what is contained within it, we have pleasure for pleasure’s sake, art for art’s sake, the enjoyment of rest for the Epicurean, who desires simplicity and beauty for their own sake.

Criticism belongs to war, and is the opposite of poetry as defined above.

But as we can see, the greater poet will always be a critic first, and a poet second.

We can test our thesis by looking at actual poetry, and Alexander Pope proves our case; one of the greatest poets, Pope’s Poetry and Criticism are often the same thing.  Need a greater poet?  The same is true of Shakespeare, whose plays are Platonic dialogues and whose Sonnets are really Critical essays: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” questions the worth of simile and metaphor.

The best poets put Criticism in the vessel of Poetry, this being naturally more efficient, since in this way, the poet may fight and be at peace, may have their cake and eat it—which is even more than what Epicurus, nibbling on a cake in the meadow, promises.

CONCEPT OR THING?

Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

The Kill List poetry phenomenon consists of a book (of conceptualist poetry) and the various responses to it by poets on, or not on, the list.

The Kill List is an actual list (four per page) of living poets with either “rich” or “comfortable” after their names.

The fake outrage by Jim Behrle—one of the poets (“comfortable”) on the list and obviously thrilled at the publicity for himself, and the chance to exploit it for more (ads for T-shirts, “comfortable” or “rich”)—is currently at the center of the hyper-self-conscious, intra-reactive, analytical, blog-storm.

Conceptualism’s first rule is: In the presentation of the work, thing comes first, whether it is Duchamp’s urinal or Josef Kaplan’s The Kill List.  The presentation of the object must be pure; there can be no visible authorial intent in the presentation of the object qua object.

Since pure objectivity can never be presented as such, however, the thing presented, the instant it is presented, moves in the public perception from thing to concept.

The moment the public shifts its view from thing to concept, a second round of narrowed public consciousness finds it once again to be a thing; this movement between thing and concept is the very engine of the known and knowing universe.

The Kill List itself will always be safe in its thing-ness.  Its validation as a thing grows more secure with each new round of conceptualist speculation.

If it were only a conceptualist work, in fact: a comment on drone killing, a Marxist commentary on middle-class po-biz, an examination of the nature of personal threat, an analysis of social awareness and identity based on simple inclusion and exclusion, it would merely fizzle out, intellectually and ineffectually, and quickly become yesterday’s news.

But because the book, The Kill List, exists as itself, as a “real list,” and was presented merely as that, it survives, forever swinging back and forth, in the public mind, between concept and thing.  Long after Obama’s drone “kill list” or Frederick Forsyth’s espionage novel, Kill List (the google champ) is forgotten, the poetry “joke” will be remembered.

Because this phenomenon exists only among poets, the Kill List, as a public event, is small.  Duchamp’s conceptualist joke rippled the pond of the general press.

Behrle’s “Penis List,” a short poem which jokes about po-biz penis sizes (Billy Collins, 4 inches) and calls poetry itself a large vagina, recently published on the website HTML Giant as a joking response to The Kill List, is hopelessly banal, because it is conceptualist (abstract) only and forgets the rule: life and art require first a thing, and then, only then, will the proper conceptual transmorgrification occur in the public consciousness.

In a bygone era, it was the technical, metrical wizardry of a work by Alexander Pope that was its immediately presented thing-ness—no idea was present except as it was launched in the minds of readers by physical arrangements of sound-harmonics, and these exist as solidly as the porcelain shape of Duchamp’s toilet.

We say Pope’s rhymes and Duchamp’s toilet, but in presentation, no owner (authorial intent) is visible—the public gets wind of a toilet in a museum, just as it gets wind of a specific set of verses which offend the public taste.

Offense is key here. The offending words either melt into air, or the villain who uttered the offending words is made to feel the cudgel of punishment upon frail flesh and blood.

But if the offense is an everlasting object, real fame is possible.

THE UNIVERSAL, THE PERSONAL, AND THE CREEPILY PRIVATE

dimitrov

Poet Alex Dimitrov: “I don’t believe in the universal.”

Are poems and stories that are universal better than poems and stories that are not?

“Yes, of course!” comes the answer 100 years ago; but today, the universal is considered an old-fashioned virtue, a mere outdated concept, in hip circles.

But should we trust the hip?  If universal means more people can appreciate your poem or story, why isn’t the universal always a good thing?

Is misanthropy the source of not believing in the universal—the hip author does not want certain types of persons to appreciate their poem or story?  Or, perhaps, the hip author fears their work is not broad or deep enough to appeal to a wide audience?

Or, to put it in a slightly different way, which perhaps vindicates the scribbler of hip:

To be appreciated by that audience, I would have to write a certain way—which I cannot do.  Thus, I am against the universal—even as an ideal.

We also might object to the universal on a purely metaphysical basis: life is too complex to admit the absolutes of universals, etc.

But isn’t this metaphysical view finally too abstract and hair-splitting?

Why can’t we agree that the universal—or universal appeal—is a good thing?  Certainly the reformist wants to reach as many lost souls as possible.  And, if one is not a reformist,  how can one object to any slob liking one’s work?  One may not like a particular reader’s lifestyle or views, for instance—but what harm can it do if one’s poem burrows itself into some part of that reader’s soul?

The following is a contemporary example which triggered the preceding remarks.  Bored (very bored), we turned to the Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet and found the following poet’s entry in a Los Angeles Review of Books forum, ‘Person and Persona in Poetry:’

THE REAL WHORE
Alex Dimitrov

A few months ago, after a reading I gave in San Francisco, someone came up to me and recounted a very personal sexual experience which he said came to mind instantly after hearing one of my poems. Then he said, “Your poems are so personal and universal.” This confession was both an entering into a shared space (where presumably we’ve had similar sexual experiences) and a reminder to me that even when it appears we have the same stories, there is no universal — everything that happens to us happens in very specifically different ways. I don’t believe in the universal. But I do believe in the personal. […]

It’s just what poets like to do these days: deny the universal.

Is this nothing more than a completely unthinking ‘I’m too cool/existential/modern to be universal’ reflex?

We think it is.

The poet admits that he and the fan have a shared personal experience in the poem, but the poet claims this “shared space” does not qualify as a universal experience.

The question becomes: how many people have to screw in a light bulb before the experience becomes universal?

If the experience shared by poet and fan is unique to them, then Dimitrov is correct, and the experience cannot be called universal—for the universal doesn’t ask what the experience was, only that a lot of people had it.

Dimitrov discretely keeps the experience to himself-–so we have no way to judge.  Sexual experiences may be private, but that doesn’t stop them from being universal.

It eclipses our identity as persons to think that many people have the same experiences we do—what a horror to think that not one thing we think or do is unique.  No wonder the person who has any ego at all pushes away the whole concept.

Memo to Dimitrov: The scary truth is that we aren’t as unique as we think we are: the universal not only exists, but is inescapable.

And one more memo to Dimitrov: We have to assume that we do experience the same things—the burden of proof lies with whomever claims their experiences are unique.

The original poem must be earned.

The universal is atmospheric, then; it is not something that is either good or bad; it is not something that either exists or does not exist.

How silly of Dimitrov, then, to say he doesn’t believe in it.  In the extended version of his piece (linked above) he does concede that the idea of the universal exists, but only as an illusion to make us feel less lonely.  Speaking in hip-speak as opposed to universal-speak, Dimitrov makes change the all-important thing—a poem changes a person; a poem has nothing to do with timeless truth.

Dimitrov, in his brave loneliness, doesn’t believe in the universal, and doesn’t want it to exist.

We think this universal gem—“What oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” is to the point.

It is impossible for thoughts and their words to escape the universal.

And yet—and yet—every soul, as Poe wrote in his great work, Eureka, believes nothing is greater than itself.  There must be nuances we experience every moment which are unique to ourselves…  But even this does not cancel out the idea of the universal, which only indicates a widely shared experience—whatever that happens to be.

Pope wrote “What oft’ was thought,” not “What oft’ was done.”

Is poetry waiting for its great poet-murderer?

Are there deeds waiting for poetic expression—or does poetry truly belong to thought?

Yes, poetry belongs to thought alone.

Murderous thoughts are probably pretty near universal; poetry already has enough material for—murder, if it wants to go there.

We believe—and we think we believe correctly—that poetry is the product of a unique person, not of unique deeds.

A poem is the product of words (universals).

The following poem (a bit of Wallace Stevens impressionism) by Dimitrov (which we like) relies on universals, such as “things that are anonymous and belong to no one.”

Blue Curtains

That day we were in a room with blue curtains.
Every time I wanted to speak
some hand would lift that pale, translucent fabric
and I’d see him standing on the circular balcony
which held something old and shapeless.
It was late morning.
We were already late for everything.
So I stood at one end of the room
and watched him. And between us
was a bed and a table and things
in a hotel—you know,
things that are anonymous
and belong to no one.
Like a sea or a life.
And all I remember is how expensive it was.
Not the room, but the feeling.

If Dimitrov does not believe in the universal, why does he write “Like a sea or a life.”  Why doesn’t he write, “Like the sea or the life?”  Had he written, “Like my life,” would this have been more, or less universal?  The punchline of the poem: the feeling—needs the setup of “a sea or a life.”

Is this philosophical inquiry on the concept of the universal finally only a matter of direct and indirect articles?

Well, yes.

In order to pinpoint not that feeling but this feeling, this one, Dimitrov needs to create a universal atmosphere populated by those “things that are anonymous and belong to no one. Like a sea or a life.”

The person, Dimitrov, does not believe in the universal.

But the poet, Dimitrov, does.

But then what does a person know?

JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

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.

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY DANCES WITH ALEXANDER POPE

The woman is quicker to be annoyed by the slightest thing and this is a great advantage when it comes to composing poetry. The man will sweep problems under the rug or soothe all worry by announcing he will take care of it (no he won’t) or he will invent God to fix everything. Edna Millay laments death with eyes wide open like no one else.

To read Millay is like opening a door onto Great Poetry of the Past. One almost suspects it is a trick, she is so good. She is that good, for she is not writing in the Past but in her present, which to us is a default past only and no more the past than this moment is. If we read it as the past, we are confusing the great and the past, which have nothing to do with each other and are, in fact, opposites, since what is great is eternal and has no past.

AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE–Edna Millay

And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.

The whole thrust of Millay’s poem is Do you see how unfair this is?  Others may shrug in the face of death but these others are not poets—since a shrug won’t write many poems.

Millay isn’t trying to cleverly rationalize the problem of death away: she chooses to focus on two things: death and praise of the beloved who must die and the praise is so beautifully done that it makes Millay’s annoyance with death beautiful–if that is possible.

It doesn’t take Millay long to say what she needs to say, precisely because there is no solution to the problem and so the short lyric form is ideal for her in this case (as it is for her generally), since neither complaint nor beauty can work rhetorically for very long, and Millay is more than up to the template’s task, as she makes every line beautiful.

This is why Millay is such an exceptional poet. Poets can do many things, but few can make every line beautiful–and we use the word, “beautiful,” in the profoundest sense possible–we don’t mean pretty or comely or abstract, since Millay’s topic–death–is the most serious topic there is.

Beauty is not found on the highway.  There are very specific reasons for beauty, but this explanation of Millay’s poem need not diminish her, since poetry is not found on the highway, either.  ‘Highway poets’ may object.  Let them. (Millay was abused in print by Pound’s influential clique.) Millay needs no apology.

Alexander Pope belongs to that poetic tradition in which a certain amount of critical abuse reigns in the public arena—healthy and dangerous for the individuals involved (like mountain trekking)—but healthy, we think, for Letters in general. Scarriet believes in Criticism, and if Criticism is good, then Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness Tournament is good. Let the whole chorus sing out-loud in harmony.

We are sad there has to be a loser here.  Millay is 4th seeded in the West, and Pope, not thought of as a ‘Romantic,’ is only seeded 13th.  Born in the 17th century, Pope’s lyric, “Ode On Solitude” out-Wordsworths Wordsworth.  The pyramidal stanza, which reminds us of Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” is especially forceful:

ODE ON SOLITUDE–Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

These poems are delicious compliments to each other; not surprisingly, the game has gone into overtime, as both teams refuse to lose, clawing at each other, embracing each other like lovers, exhausted, the battle refusing to end.

Finally, it’s over: Millay 106, Pope 105

RENAISSIANCE AND EARLY ROMANTICISM READY TO RUMBLE

The world has always had room for Romanticism and meditative gloom!

And don’t worry!  Soon we’ll have the actual brackets!

THEY FLEE FROM ME THAT SOMETIME DID ME SEEK
Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
 
 
 
SINCE THERE’S NO HELP, COME LET US KISS AND PART
Michael Drayton (1563-1631)
 
SINCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
    And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
    That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
    Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
    And when we meet at any time again,
    Be it not seen in either of our brows
    That we one jot of former love retain.
    Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
    When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
    When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
    And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
        Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
        From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.

SONNET
Shakespeare (1564-1616)

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

WAS THIS THE FACE
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

FOLLOW THY FAIR SUN
Thomas Campion (1567-1619)

Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow!
Though thou be black as night,
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow!

Follow her, whose light thy light depriveth!
Though here thou liv’st disgraced,
And she in heaven is placed,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth!

Follow those pure beams, whose beauty burneth!
That so have scorched thee
As thou still black must be
Till her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.

Follow her, while yet her glory shineth!
There comes a luckless night
That will dim all her light;
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.

Follow still, since so thy fates ordained!
The sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The sun still proud, the shadow still disdained.

THE GOOD MORROW
John Donne (1573-1631)

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

DELIGHT IN DISORDER
Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

LOVE
George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
        Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
        From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
        If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
        Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
        I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
        “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
        Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
        “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
        So I did sit and eat.

SONG FOR ST. CECILIA’S DAY
John Dryden (1631-1700)

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard, and straight appeared –
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

THE GARDEN
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose!

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence thy sister dear?
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men:
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow:
Society is all but rude
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name:
Little, alas! they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passions’ heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat:
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race;
Apollo hunted Daphne so
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that ‘s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

L’ALLEGRO
John Milton (1608-1674)

Hence loathed Melancholy,
Of Cerberus, and blackest Midnight born,
In Stygian cave forlorn,
      ‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy;
Find out some uncouth cell,
      Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-raven sings;
      There under ebon shades, and low-brow’d rocks,
As ragged as thy locks,
      In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
But come thou goddess fair and free,
In heav’n yclep’d Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as some sager sing)
The frolic wind that breathes the spring,
Zephyr, with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a-Maying,
There on beds of violets blue,
And fresh-blown roses wash’d in dew,
Fill’d her with thee, a daughter fair,
So buxom, blithe, and debonair.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathed smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastic toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
Then to come in spite of sorrow,
And at my window bid good-morrow,
Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
Or the twisted eglantine;
While the cock with lively din,
Scatters the rear of darkness thin,
And to the stack, or the barn door,
Stoutly struts his dames before;
Oft list’ning how the hounds and horn
Cheerly rouse the slumb’ring morn,
From the side of some hoar hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.
Sometime walking, not unseen,
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green,
Right against the eastern gate,
Where the great Sun begins his state,
Rob’d in flames, and amber light,
The clouds in thousand liveries dight.
While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o’er the furrow’d land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
Straight mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the landskip round it measures,
Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray;
Mountains on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest;
Meadows trim with daisies pied,
Shallow brooks, and rivers wide.
Towers, and battlements it sees
Bosom’d high in tufted trees,
Where perhaps some beauty lies,
The cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by, a cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt two aged oaks,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met,
Are at their savoury dinner set
Of herbs, and other country messes,
Which the neat-handed Phyllis dresses;
And then in haste her bow’r she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the sheaves;
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tann’d haycock in the mead.
Sometimes with secure delight
The upland hamlets will invite,
When the merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the chequer’d shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday,
Till the live-long daylight fail;
Then to the spicy nut-brown ale,
With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab the junkets eat,
She was pinch’d and pull’d she said,
And he by friar’s lanthorn led,
Tells how the drudging goblin sweat,
To earn his cream-bowl duly set,
When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
His shadowy flail hath thresh’d the corn
That ten day-labourers could not end;
Then lies him down, the lubber fiend,
And stretch’d out all the chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And crop-full out of doors he flings,
Ere the first cock his matin rings.
Thus done the tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering winds soon lull’d asleep.
Tower’d cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men,
Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace high triumphs hold,
With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit, or arms, while both contend
To win her grace, whom all commend.
There let Hymen oft appear
In saffron robe, with taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique pageantry;
Such sights as youthful poets dream
On summer eves by haunted stream.
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson’s learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild.
And ever against eating cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian airs,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony;
That Orpheus’ self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heap’d Elysian flow’rs, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regain’d Eurydice.
These delights if thou canst give,
Mirth, with thee I mean to live.

WHY SO PALE AND WAN FOND LOVER?
Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when looking well can’t win her
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

EDEN
Thomas Traherne (1633-1674)

A learned and a happy ignorance
          Divided me
      From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
      The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
   I knew not that there was a serpent’s sting,
          Whose poison shed
      On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
      As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.
   Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
          Sleep, day, life, light,
      Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
      All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
   Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
          Vain costly toys,
      Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
      So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
   Only what Adam in his first estate,
          Did I behold;
      Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
      Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.
   Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
          My infancy
      Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
      Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;
   And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
          So fair and sweet,
      So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
      And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity.

ODE ON SOLITUDE
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD
Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Yet e’en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E’en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate, —

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;

‘There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

‘Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

‘One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

‘The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,-
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.’

The Epitaph

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melacholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.

WHO ARE YOU?

who are you

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

POE WINS!!

Philly fans celebrate The Poe’s World Series win over the Rapallo Pound

Alexander Pope allowed 3 hits over seven innings to lead the Philadelphia Poe to a 5-1 victory over the Marquis de Sade and the Rapallo Pound. 

Osip Mandelstam hurled a pefect eighth for the Poe, and General Winfield Scott pitched the ninth, yielding a solo homerun to James Joyce, as the Poe won the first Scarriet World Series title by winning three straight at Rapallo, the Pound’s home park.

Arthur C. Clarke, starting in left field for Fanny Osgood, was the batting hero for the Poe, with 3 hits and 4 RBIs.

Lord Byron had the other RBI for the Poe, as he delivered a two-out single to knock in Charles Brockden Brown to start the scoring in the third, after looking foolish on the previous pitch by Sade, Byron falling down as he chased a slow pitch out of the strike zone.   “Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away,” Byron said later in a jubilant clubhouse.

POETRY COMES DOWN TO ONE SENSIBILITY: ESCAPE

 

‘Ah far be it,’ said he, ‘dear dame, for me
to hinder soul from her desired rest,
Or hold sad life in long captivity

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Modern poetry began when poetry became imprisoning, when its function as charming story-telling fell into the cul de sac of self-conscious pedantry.

Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” was meant, in Pope’s words, “to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but their own.”   Pope’s poem “was communicated with the air of a secret” but “soon found its way into the world,” as an “imperfect copy” was “offered to a bookseller.”

Once upon a time, a poem was a secret that had to get out, and booksellers were only too happy to comply. 

Pedantry, however, banned the delicious secrets sprung entirely from the machinations of the sexes, and turned poetry from rare and extravagant gossip desired by booksellers, into the universal and moral platitudes of the learned—no wonder the public for poetry became disenchanted and gave up.   Byron said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”   Alas, the Romantic age is over. In our modern age it takes a poet fifty years to become  famous and this is because the poet no longer has secrets the impetuous crowd clamors for—unless a Joyce, a Ginsberg or a Rushdie arrive with a book banned by self-appointed moral guardians.  Banned books, of course, are not necessarily good.  Pope and Byron gave the ladies great art.

But pedantry, telling us poetry ought to be this and ought to be that, that it was that and now must be this,  that it was this and can never be this again, that it is some mysterious project that has to do with wisdom;—pedantry, by doing this, has perverted poetry from its true purpose and made it an artificial product of academia.

It began with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which, in the spirit of its time, contains enchanting story and rhyme, but which the pedants insisted was excellent due to Wordsworth’s dull moralizing.  The old wisdom, which said, ‘never forget delight’ was forgotten, and a new wisdom put in its place, in which scholars became guardians of trends, movements, and schools, and poetry became a school-subject with a history of change and discovery of itself, for itself and in itself, as if poetry were a science and the world at once, an ever-evolving world scientifically elaborated—instead of a source of charm, teaching in a manner apart from learning, per se.

Now pedantry covers all.  First, it was decided that poetry is really an intimate lyric of personal reflection.  Dull, sentimental and tedious examples of this, such as “Tintern Abbey”— and “The Prelude” offered by old Wordsworth, England’s poet laureate, were put in the very foreground of the canon, eclipsing even Pope and Byron (too charming and playful compared to the professor-worthy and serious Wordsworth) and thus every wag who dallies with the muse turns Wordsworth at last—believing every personal reflection made is memorable.  Even so-called modern poets, priding themselves on the fierce pedantry of trends and schools and the ‘new,’ were going up and down and up and down old Wordsworth Hill, as we see in the following by Modernist Robert Penn Warren:

At night, in the dark room, not able to sleep, you
May think of the red eyes of fire that
Are winking from blackness.  You may,
As I once did, rise up and go from the house.  But,
When I got out, the moon had emerged from cloud, and I
entered the lake.  Swam miles out,
Toward moonset.  Montionless,
Awash, metaphysically undone in that silvered and
Unbreathing medium, and beyond
Prayer or desire, saw
The moon, slow, swag down, like an old woman’s belly.

Getting back to the house, I gave the now-dark lawn a wide berth.

At night the rattlers come out from rock-fall.
They lie on the damp grass for coolness.  

***

What I remember, but do not
Know what it means

***

All I can do is offer my testimony.

–Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989)  from Rattlesnake Country

This is over 100 years after Wordsworth, and written by a poet-critic explicitly embracing the modernist  intoxication of new! new! new! but this is…pure…Wordsworth.  The pedants managed to cover up an obvious truth: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope were the seeds of Romanticism, and Wordsworth, Arnold, and TS Eliot  the sticks and stones of  Modernism.  Wordsworth took Romanticism and turned it into Victorianism; in other words, Mr. W. took joy and turned it into a moral.  Byron and Shelley and Keats were closer to Pope was than what Wordsworth became.  Byron, Shelley and Keats were not textbook-nature poets, nor did they hammer down with pedantry what poetry could be into dull lessons of Dutch-realism.

Byron was already ‘post-modern,’ and not all anxious and morbid about it:

To turn,—and to return;—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can’t well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I’ll take another when I’m next at leisure.

—Byron (1788-1824)   from Beppo

Byron can be annoying, but at least he’s never pedantic.

We think of Ashbery as a post-modern wit, but in fact Ashbery’s academic audience (he doesn’t really have a public one) admires him for anxious pedantry like this: 

You can’t say it that way any more
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing
And rest.

***

Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths

***

—John Ashbery (1927-)  from And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

The idea of escaping from old forms, old sentiments, old ways of communicating is as old as poetry itself.  Even the Father of Moral Modernism, Wordsworth, could playfully ponder the prison:

I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures:
Oh gentle muses!  Let me tell
But half of what to him befel
For sure he met with strange adventures.

***

The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travelers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.

***

And thus to Betty’s questions, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.’
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.

Wordsworth (1770-1850)  from The Idiot Boy

Moderns are besotted with the dull sticks-and-stones-ism of Wordsworth.  But even Wordsworth couldn’t have foreseen the yoke of pedantry poor poetry now bends under; we saw Ashbery pedantically alluding to Rousseau; here Elizabeth Bishop feels obligated to mention Baudelaire in a manner that might be charming to modern academics, but would probably leave Pope’s “ladies with a sense of humor” cold.

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Asorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

—Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)  from The Bight

The Wordsworth-style aside, Bishop almost had me going until she pedantically name-dropped.  She can be playfully attentive.  Her sly Baudelaire/marimba musicreference is sure to win three out of four readers, today, (just those relatively few who bother to read Bishop) but that’s only because we live in a pedantic prison—and, sadly, we know it.

WHAT’S ALL THIS FUSS ABOUT TRANSLATION?

Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.”  — Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

We caught the Adam and Ilya show over on the Poetry Foundation site: the critic and former-Seamus-Heaney-student-at-Harvard critic and the Russian-transfer-student-professor poet were debating the finer points of translation—points, thankfully, which are easily translatable.

Ilya Kaminsky was for it, Adam Kirsch was wary of it.  Ilya was climbing the tower as fast as he could while Adam was standing on the ground, looking up, saying…I don’t know…

Ilya Kaminsky was selling his book (The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry) and Adam Kirsch was selling valid notions of translation.

Then Sam Hamill commented on the discussion:  

“I’ve grown very weary of these arguments, especially when they are relentlessly Eurocentric. Not a single mention of a Chinese poet, or Japanese or Vietnamese, no poem from Tamil, from Sanskrit, from Thai; no thought of Native American languages and traditions.” 

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, reprinting a remark which followed the debate by two young titans, but grouchy Hamill helps us to see how problematic the whole issue is: Fail! no poem from Tamil.  The tower is big, baby.

The tower is big, so big, it’s probably best to stay on the ground and hang out with Philip Larkin, who, when asked about Jorge Luis Borges, retorted, “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”   Just congratulate yourself that you speak English, which practically the whole educated world speaks, and note that English is a language both Romance and Germanic, as close to an Ur-language as ancient Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit.

Fluency in English is enough.  Who needs to learn other languages when you’ve got Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Keats?   If studying Latin and Greek made those old English poets better, it was because English is fed by Latin and Greek, on a purely practical, mechanical, nuts-and-bolts level; it makes as much sense, then, to study Latin today, as it did then.  (Are MFA poetry students studying Latin, today?  Nope.)   Or, to study Pope, because he knew French, Italian, Latin and Greek.   A reader not fluent in English, unable to appreciate Pope, what can they defend?  

We think it richly, funny, then, this whole silly debate, for one either knows a language fluently, or one learns another one, but if neither the poet, nor the reader, nor the translator, is an Alexander Pope, it is a hypocritical farce, all this blather about ‘translation’ and ‘international poetry.’

Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end? 

That is the question. 

Poetry must ask this question all the time, whether it involves translation, or not.  Translation is the last of our worries, really.   Study French or Italian or German or Latin or Greek or Chinese or Shakespeare or Pope to make your English better and shut up.  Don’t tell me I need to read some comtemporary Russian poet or some contemporary Greek poet or some contemporary Vietnamese poet translated into contemporary English. 

Now, I could read the mumblings of WC Williams or the rantings of Ezra Pound, or the kickapoo of Jorie Graham.   Would that make me more internationalist, or just hopelessly pretentious?  I suppose it depends on which American academic dialect one speaks.  It doesn’t take a linguist to warp and bend my native tongue into something new and strange.  It doesn’t take a Russian to mangle English; a speaker who only knows English can do that just fine.  Neither does it take a Russian to teach me facts about Russia; the human is universal enough that I can ‘get’ Russia through English reporting.  Personalities vary enough within one language, differences are profound in one country, even within one family, that it’s not necessary to seek difference in another tongue.   What seek I in another tongue, then?   Only an advantage to myself, only an advantage to my language, or, if I were going to resettle in another land with another tongue, but now we are in a practical realm far from poetry, or, close to poetry, depending on who my new neighbors are. 

If I could snap my fingers and know all languages, of course I would.  Duh.  But poetry is any language that is good; Pope in English is better than WC Williams in 600 languages.   Let us come right out and say it: poetry is the cream of language, by its very definition, and those who peddle ‘international poetry’ because the product happens to be ‘international,’ when it turns out the poetry itself is pedestrian, are doing good work as a matter of course, but let’s be really honest: in terms of poetry and pedagogy, in terms of real interest in language, contemporary translations of contemporary international poetry is important only in terms of polite diplomacy and in nothing else; in terms of real learning and real poetry it probably does more harm than good, ultimately.   Let these MFA poets who feather their nest with ‘translation’ creds take note: before you vacation in Italy, why not spend some time learning Vietnamese?

Professor Kaminsky struck what seemed to be a mortal blow against his opponent when he said politely, responding to Adam (“wouldn’t you agree there is no such thing as an international poem?”) Kirsch’s wary approach to translation:

“I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay.”

I thought, at that point, Kirsch will never get up from that mat.  But he did.  Kirsch said that well-known examples of successful translations are really not so much translations as “reinventions.”  Kirsch delivered a knock-out blow of his own with: “the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa.”

The question then comes back to what I said earlier:  Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end?

Translation is heated lovemaking, and both lovers, in every successful case of translation, transcend ‘the heated babble’ of the ‘translation debate’ itself.  The rest is a mere lover’s spat by mediocre translators.

POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

IN THE SUNLIGHT

One of the most curious episodes in Letters is T.S. Eliot’s declaration in 1920, in the wake of J.M.Robertson’s similarly-themed book in 1919, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an “artistic failure.”

In that infamous essay, Eliot attacks the Bard’s greatest work as “puzzling and disquieting…” Eliot berates Hamlet chiefly because, according to the young banker, Hamlet’s “madness” and the “delay” in killing the king are dubiously presented, and the fault is that Shakespeare sloppily complicates Thomas Kyd’s straight-forward “revenge” tragedy by relying on “the guilt of a mother” which lacks emotional correlation in Hamlet’s updating of Kyd.

Eliot’s hackneyed notion that Gertrude’s guilt and Hamlet’s torn feelings are not sufficiently developed is ludicrous, but what’s even funnier is the way the author of The Waste Land, makes his point:

“The subject [Hamlet’s delay and Gertrude’s guilt] might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these [Othello, Antony, Coriolanus], intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

The sickly hodge-podge of The Waste Land—which saw publication thanks to the efforts of Eliot’s wealthy friend, Scofield ThayerEzra Pound, and the slick, modern-art-collector-and-lawyer, John Quinn—and all the rat’s nest poetry from Pound and Pound’s insane asylum visitors which followed in its wake, are the last things anyone could, or would want to, “drag to light.”

Eliot’s “objective correlative” dagger, used to cut Milton, Pope, the Romantic poets, and whole swathes of literary eras, flashes forth for the first time in this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet.

Is the young employee of Lloyd’s Bank writing of Shakespeare when he cites poetry “full of some stuff the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art?”

Or himself?

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

~
~

Paul Valery (top), Polonius & T.S. Eliot

The last 100 years have seen more pedantry in poetry than in any other age.

Remember when poetry as a topic brought out the best in thinkers?

Socrates may be a villain to many poets, but Platonic arguments are grand, necessary, and…poetic.

Horace and Aristotle laid groundwork so vital we can overlook their pedantic natures.

Dante’s Vita Nuova is without the pretence of pedantry.

Shakespeare, another enemy of pedantry, made it a popular trope: Rozencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius in one play alone.

Pope and Swift fought pedantry as a natural impulse.

Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Poe were against it in their souls.

Yeats, at his best, displayed a hatred of pedantry: “Old, learned respectable bald heads edit and annotate lines…”

These artists are practically defined by their opposition to pedantry.

Something went wrong in the 20th century, however, as Manifesto-ism became a way to get attention in a field of diminishing returns

Here’s Scarriet’s Top Ten Pedant List:

1. Yvor Winters

Claimed the formal is moral, while convincing himself that Allen Tate’s poetry was better than Shelley’s.

2.  Harold Bloom

A pedant’s pedant’s pedant.   Shakespeare’s great—OK, we get it.

3. Jacques Derrida

One part Nietszche, one part William James, one part Analytic Philosophy, one part New Criticism, one part absinthe.

4. Ezra Pound

“Make it new” is a very old pedantry.

5. Cleanth Brooks

Ransom and Warren kept him around to feel like geniuses by comparison.

6. T.S. Eliot

Hated Hamlet.   Afflicted with Dissociation of Verse Libre.

7. Allen Tate

Modernism’s Red-neck traveling salesman.

8. Helen Vendler

A drab sitting room with a Wallace Stevens poster.

9. Charles Bernstein

“Official Verse Culture” was in his own mind.

10. Paul Valery

Always too correct.  Proves the rule that Poe sounds better in French than modern French poetry sounds in English.

BONUS—11. Charles Olson

Take a deep breath.  And blow.

–T. Brady

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