BLAKE AND TENNYSON ROUND ONE BATTLE IN POETRY BRACKET, MADNESS 2017

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William Blake, the Romantic Era painter and poet (1757–1827) is the author of many famous lines of poetry.

He seeks the crown of this season’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness with this one:

He who mocks the infant’s faith
Shall be mocked in age & death

But he’s up against a monster!

Alfred Tennyson’s

Blow bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Poetry participates in sound.

The Modernists make the absurd claim that poetry can be prose—which implies that prose cannot be poetic.  But. Yes. Prose can be poetic—-in every manner in which the Modernists define poetry—and so we see the complete absurdity of the Modernist definition of poetry—which is no definition at all.

If there are no rules for baseball, there is no baseball, there is chaos, and there is already plenty of chaos in the universe.  But if there are rules for baseball, we have baseball, which adds to the world’s enjoyments.  Rules add. Freedom subtracts. One should celebrate definitions and rules—for they produce bountyScarcity, anxiety, and boredom come about when definitions and rules are destroyed.

We love the sentiment of Blake’s couplet, and the strange and marvelous “infant’s faith.”

But the Tennyson is pure poetry of the highest kind.

Blake’s is the impulse for poetry.

Tennyson’s is poetry.

Tennyson wins.

 

 

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IN FEAR OF DOGGEREL

We recently attended a poetry reading in Harvard Square and we had the great pleasure to hear the world’s greatest living poet, Ben Mazer, read his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep,” a poem of about 350 lines which closes his new book, The Glass Piano.  It was a cinematic experience, the sort of poem in which you get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen in a state half-way between sleep and waking.

If cinematic poetry doesn’t start a renaissance in poetry, nothing will.

Here’s the thing: and we might as well begin with Keats’ phrase: “fine excess.”  We all know that poetry is known for concision, and this is all well and good, but we must say, we fear this idea, once having got its nose in the tent, now occupies the whole of it, crowding out everything else.

For, as the wretched Pound pointed out—and many, many writers before him—prose, as much as poetry, should not waste words; poetry has no special hold on concision.

We do not mean, “If you have nothing to say, shut up.” No, if you have nothing to say, you are probably the poet we want to hear from.  But this is neither here nor there. We are speaking from a purely technical standpoint.

To say poetry is concise is like saying painting is concise—well, of course it is; it belongs to its frame, not the world. But if this truism took root, the pinnacle of art would be the fifteen-second sketch. Notwithstanding the infinite charm of the master creating a world with a few strokes, we think it time for poetry to throw off the burden of having to say little. Once and for all, let us declare that to be concise is not necessarily to be poetic.  Poe, who said, “a long poem doesn’t exist,” also said a small one doesn’t exist either: there must be sufficient pressure on the wax to create the impression.

Without having to specify length, what this means is, the poet, and the artist in general—for art has suffered from Modernist theories as much as poetry—should use all the tools in the tool box—and why not?  The thing we don’t like about abstract painting is not abstract painting; it is the fact that we once had the pleasure of pictorial representation and all the interest of color which abstract painters revel in.  The thing we don’t like about cartooning, or the vague sketch, or the Red Wheel Barrow, is not the principle which these uphold, that suggestion is perhaps the most important thing in art there is—it is.  But too much reliance on suggestion is suggestive no more.  The paltry is finally not poetic.

This essay comes to damn the poet who goes in fear of doggerel, the poet who plays it safe, who hides behind the “experimental,” a code word for “this is not what I really can do, as an artist, I’m just thinking out loud here, don’t mind me, but if you find something that’s clever here, well, I’ll take a compliment or two, why not?”

Fear of the tight rope turns into the earth-bound, fake bravery of the “avant-garde.” Clowning around on the piano and never getting down to playing a real piece has profited many a hack since 1900.

To be cinematic in poetry is difficult, for one is firmly in that temporal mode perfected by Homer and Tennyson with the added pictorial heft.  The purely discursive, or the obscure, will not do.  Cinematic poetry requires the whole art, which does not eschew the discursive or the suggestive, or any of the other tricks of the poet, by any means—no, but it requires them all.

Poetry, like the film, has motion as its medium; it pitches forward, and does so, like film, with all sorts of markers, pauses, ends, flashbacks, jump cuts, call them what you will—but you get the idea.

Every one of these temporal tricks is enhanced by meter and rhyme.

This is not some moral or bitter argument against the “avant-garde;” again, we are speaking purely from a technical point of view.

To make the poetry that does the most, that is whole and cinematic: meter and rhyme simply help drive that engine. To go in fear of the doggerel is a fear we must abandon.

The poems which win both the popular and the critical taste are cinematic poems; we love them like films, and the truly literate know they are better than films: Prufrock, Kubla Khan, The Raven, The Cloud. But we live in times of horror, in which an appreciation of classical music and great painting and beautiful poetry is fading; there are millions, even fairly intelligent and somewhat nice people—or those who can pass as such—too thick and dense to appreciate beauty in the arts. This is the greatest tragedy of our age, a violence against beautiful feelings which points to more material suffering in the future.

(Scarriet, in the last 5 years of its existence, has produced thousands of lines of original poetry, and so what if half, if 60% is doggerel? We don’t care. For what has been achieved, it is more than worth it.)

We do not recommend Mazer lightly, nor is our argument here to be taken lightly.

It may save poetry.

And everyone’s life.

 

SECOND ROUND MARCH MADNESS ACTION!

BRACKET ONE

Marlowe: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again. Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips.

v.

Michelangelo: Thus thy sudden kindness shown to me Amid the gloom where only sad thoughts reign, With too much rapture bringing light again, Threatens my life more than that agony.

***

Dowson: I cried for madder music and for stronger wine, But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire, Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine; And I am desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.  

v.

Teasdale: Fate is a wind, and red leaves fly before it Far apart, far away in the gusty time of year—Seldom we meet now, but when I hear you speaking, I know your secret, my dear, my dear.

***

Eliot: With the other masquerades That time resumes, One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms.

v.

Arnold: The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world.

***

Wordsworth: She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the springs of Dove, Maid whom there were none to praise And very few to love.

v.

Merwin: Naturally it is night. Under the overturned lute with its One string I am going my way Which has a strange sound

 

BRACKET TWO

Coleridge: Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,’Twas sad as sad could be; And we did speak only to break The silence of the sea!

v.

Wylie: Avoid the reeking herd, Shun the polluted flock, Live like that stoic bird, the eagle of the rock.

***

Poe: I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that more than love—I and my Annabel Lee—

v.

Frost: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun

***

Khayyam: Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring Your winter garment of repentance fling: The Bird of Time has but a little way To flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.

v.

Keats: Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

***

Marvell: Had we but world enough and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime. We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day.

v.

Tennyson: My heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy bed; My dust would hear her and beat, Had I lain for a century dead; Would start and tremble under her feet, And blossom in purple and red.

 

 

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