SCARRIET’S NEW HOT 1OO!!

1. John Ashbery –Still the most respected living U.S. poet
2. Billy Collins    –Still the most entertaining living U.S. poet
3. Kenneth Goldsmith  –Does the avant-garde still exist?
4. Stephen Burt  –Is Criticism respected anymore?
5. Marjorie Perloff   –Has avant-garde criticism any controversies left?
6. Helen Vendler  –the 21st century Pater
7. Harold Bloom  –the 21st century Emerson
8. Frank Bidart  –cooked until raw
9. Sharon Olds  –the honesty of woman
10. Robert Pinsky  –the 21st century Untermeyer
11. Paul Muldoon  –New Yorker poetry editor
12. David Lehman –Best American Poetry editor
13. Don Share  –Poetry magazine editor
14. Al Filreis  –Video Education Guru
15. Garrison Keillor  –Folksy Poetry Lives!
16. William Logan  –Knife Wielding Critic
17. Anne Carson –Brainy School
18. Ron Silliman –avant-fustian, necessary
19. Natasha Trethewey –Second term U.S. Poet Laureate
20. Kay Ryan –Cute School
21. Jorie Graham –Sky-Is-Falling School
22. Mary Oliver –21st century Wordsworth
23. Derek Walcott –21st century Southey
24. W.S. Merwin –21st century W.S. Merwin
25. Tony Hoagland –plain-talking hipster poetry
26. Philip Nikolayev —Fulcrum editor, Russian translation
27. Franz Wright –21st century John Clare
28. D.A. Powell –the quite good gay poet
29. Marilyn Chin –de Stael of Asian chick poetry
30. Charles Bernstein –Langwhich
31. David Orr –NYTimes Poetry reviewer
32. Rita Dove –anthologist who freaked out Vendler and Perloff
33. Erin Belieu –VIDA
34. Michael Robbins –“Where competency ends,” Ange Mlinko “begins”
35. Kevin  Young –Studied with Heaney
36. Ben Mazer  –Studied with Heaney
37. Ron Padget  –LA Times Book Prize
38. Lucie Brock-Broido –rococo
39. Louise Gluck –quiet confessionalism
40. Rosanna Warren  –Robert Penn Warren’s little girl
41. Christopher Ricks –professor at B.U.
42. Anis Shivani  –MFA smasher
43. Amy King –twist and shout
44. John Koethe –a philosopher poet
45. Carl Phillips  –teaches at the college founded by TS Eliot’s grandad.
46. Charles Simic –compares elegant checkmates in chess to elegant endings of poems…
47. Robert Bly –at Harvard with Rich, Koch, O’Hara, Hall, Ashbery…
48. Vanessa Place –avant-garde book of dollar bills
49. Dana Gioia –the essay that shamed us all…
50. Robert Hass –has a book, “20th century pleasures”
51. Simon Armitage –leading Brit
52. Frederick Seidel –controversial, 1962, first book prize
53. Cole Swensen –post-Language school
54. Matthew Dickman –works as a baker
55. James Tate –teaches at Amherst
56. Lyn Hejinian –“it is not imperfect to have died”
57. Eileen Myles –diary poetry
58. Geoffrey Hill –gnarled syntax
59. Paul Hoover –institutional ‘new’
60. Alfred Corn –Harold Bloom called him ‘visionary’
61. Rae Armantrout  –avant-garde, in brief
62. Terrance Hayes –began as a visual artist
63. Henri Cole –a Thom Gunn award winner
64. Seth Abramson –pro-MFA lawyer poet
65. Peter Gizzi –tenuous lyric
66. Mark McGurl —Program Era author
67. Janet Holmes –we can never remember how to spell Ahsahta…
68. George Bilgere –Billy Collins in waiting…
69. Matthew Zapruder –editor of Wave books
70. Ange Mlinko –see #34
71. Cate Marvin –VIDA, too
72. Maya Angelou –remember her?
73. Brenda Hillman –“Allow form.”
74. Galway Kinnell –why don’t these legends write tell-alls?
75. Dorothea Lasky –teaches at Columbia
76. Nikki Finney –“us giving us away”
77. Noah Eli Gordon –#34 called his work “simply dead.”
78. K. Silem Mohammed –was a featured writer for Blog Harriet
79. Ariana Reines –“I know that really beautiful women are never alone.”
80. Richard Wilbur –Old Man Rhyme
81. Rowan Ricardo Phillips —When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness
82. Garrick Davis –editor, Critical Flame
83. Alan Cordle –the foetry revolution!
84. J.D. McClatchy —Yale Review editor
85. Philip Levine –‘Whitman of the industrial heartland’
86. Clive James –from down under
87. Robert Archambeau –his blog is Samizdat
88. Matthea Harvey –skittery queen?
89. Laura Kasischke –“not only the hysterical giggling of girls, but the trembling of the elderly”
90. Paul Legault –The Emily Dickinson “translations.”
91. Lynn Xu –Waste Land’s child
92. Laura Jensen –Donald Justice-era Iowa Workshop grad
93. CA Conrad –pop-inflected Bukowski
94. Jynne Martin –“Draw any beast by starting with a circle!”
95. Traci Brimhall –believes in The Next Big Thing
96. Adam Fitzgerald —amour de soi
97. Cyrus Cassells –Lambda Literary award winner
98. Richard Siken –“no one will ever want to sleep with you
99. Naomi Shihab Nye  –fights terrorism & prejudice
100. U.S. Dhuga —Battersea, baby!

NEW SCARRIET POEM: INSPIRED BY ANGE MLINKO, MICHAEL ROBBINS, AND EDMUND BURKE

On Wit and Judgment

Resemblance is the heart of wit.
Once in a while I am guilty of it—
I’ve made bad puns in my time,
Jokes, metaphors—instead of rhyme,
For no, it isn’t simile—
Metaphor isn’t poetry.
Judgment, which is more august,
Is the faculty I trust:
Judgment discerns differences:
And that’s what Good Taste is.
Resemblance, to some, is all.
My friend laughed at her downfall:
She can’t hear the word ‘stanza’
Without thinking of Tony Danza.

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.

JANUARY 2013 POETRY MAGAZINE REVIEWED, PART 2

Baudelaire: Scared the hell out of Poetry magazine contributor Daisy Fried

We now come to the prose part of Poetry’s January issue, which includes a series of “Reconsiderations” of well-known poets, called “Antagonisms” in the Poetry Table of Contents—which is a terrific idea, and we think it should be a regular feature.

Some of the Poetry hires go right after their famous counterparts, but others get cold feet, apologizing to the editors: I want to take apart Baudelaire b-b-but I just can’t!

Dylan Thomas is the first titan up, and Michael Robbins fearlessly takes him on .

“Reconsidering Dylan Thomas,” or “The Child That Sucketh Long” begins with an amusing Michael Robbins observation: phrases from Thomas’ poems sounds like the names of Heavy Metal bands:

They appear to be the names of  heavy metal bands: Plague of  Fables; Star-Flanked Seed; Serpent Caul; Murder of Eden; Altar of Plagues; Seed-at-Zero; The Grave and My Calm Body; Dark Asylum; Mares of  Thrace; Herods Wail; Christbread; Binding Moon; Red Swine. In fact they are phrases culled from Dylan Thomas’s poems — except that I threw two actual metal bands in there. Didn’t notice, did you?

When Robbins indulges in pure fun, as above, he’s enjoyable to read, but we’re afraid we’re going to have to take Robbins to task for some of his Thomas-bashing.

Robbins faults Thomas for “disregard[ing] what part of speech a word usually is,” but in Robbins’  example, “I fellowed sleep who kissed me in the brain, /  Let fall the tear of time,” the culprit is metaphoric vagueness, not the word, “fellowed.”

Robbins errs again when he calls the following “sentimental:”

No. Not for Christ’s dazzling bed
Or a nacreous sleep among soft particles and charms
My dear would I change my tears or your iron head.
Thrust, my daughter or son, to escape, there is none, none, none,
Nor when all ponderous heaven’s host of waters breaks.

Robbins follows the quote with: “Who does the guy think he is?”

Modern and post-modern critics, habitually rejecting what has come to be known as Victorian sentiment, are often blind to every modern lapse which plagues contemporary poetry: obscurity, ugliness, and pretentiousness.  Robbins is wrong: if there’s a problem with the Thomas passage it’s the failure to depict more accessibly its sentiment.  It is Robbins, the critic, who is being sentimental here.

Robbins correctly finds the Hopkins influence: “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…” and says,

Hopkins sincerely believed the state of his soul was at stake. All that’s at stake for Thomas is whether his self-pity has been gorgeously enough expressed. 

Sincerely believed?  Now who is being sentimental?

Expression is all—whether we judge Tennyson or Ashbery, and supplying biographical information to imply that one poet “sincerely believes” more than another is, well, sentimental.  We are not sure how the desire to “gorgeously express a sentiment” translates into “self-pity,” but worrying about the “state of one’s soul” does not. The confusion Robbins suffers from arises, not because moderns are no longer mawkish, but because they’ve erected an anti-mawkish standard on what they don’t seem to realize is mawkish ground.

“Who does the guy think he is?” Robbins cries, but he should look in the mirror and see how he resembles the old Moderns who looked back at Keats, Shelley and Byron, and cried, “Who did these guys think they were?”  The response is, “Who do you think the guy has to be?”

Robbins finishes his essay on Thomas by pointing out some other moderns who fell into what Robbins calls  “mannered mush.”  But here’s the problem: All poetry worth the name is, in some way, mannered and courts, to a some degree, sentiment.  When we are shocked to find, upon careful inspection, that modern poetry rises (or falls) to mannered sentiment, well, we shouldn’t be.  The critic needs to tell us how the manner and the sentiment fail—because of course they often do, in every modern poet there is—it is time we stop hiding, in our false modern haughtiness, behind the generalized and slap-dash accusation of “mannered mush.”

Like Hart Crane’s, Thomas’s faults protrude embarrassingly from the wazoo. Crane’s are easier to forgive, since he had vision, and Thomas was myopic. But at his best he has, like Crane, a towering presence of mind, a stranglehold on the language. Perhaps I’d love him more if   I hadn’t loved him so much, so early. I’ve made my peace with other early crushes who came to seem so much mannered mush: James Wright, Rilke, Neruda. Rereading Thomas now for this piece, I found myself thawing toward him, as I slowly did toward those others, whom now I love anew, love more clearly. So get you gone, Dylan Thomas, though with blessings on your head.

We give Robbins’ essay C+.

Jason Guriel goes off on E.E. Cummings—who was at Harvard with T.S. Eliot and belonged very much to the Eliot/Pound/Moore/Williams Dial clique—who is an easy target, and Guriel doesn’t miss.  The essay’s title, “Sub-Seuss,” bodes its take-no-prisoners approach.

The message Cummings communicates here — and which langpo
types and concrete poets continue to internalize — is remarkably 
unambiguous: words are toy blocks, and poems, child’s play. No one else has made making it new look so easy.

But Cummings’s poems themselves were only superficially “new.” Beneath the tattoo-thin signifiers of edginess — those lowercase i’s, those words run together —  flutters the heart of a romantic. (Is there a correlation between typographically arresting poetry and emotional arrestedness?) He fancies himself an individual among masses, finds the church ladies have “furnished souls,” opposes war. He’s far more self-righteous, this romantic, than any soldier or gossip — and far deadlier: he’s a teenager armed with a journal.

Guriel gets the job done.  A-

Thank God for Laura Kasischke.  She punctures Wallace Stevens with delicacy, modesty, and humor, and it’s a rip-roaring good time because she calls out this overrated, sometimes Sub-Seuss, poet.

I know only too well that it is my own failings as a reader, a thinker, 
a poet, and a human being that I don’t like the work of  Wallace Stevens. I know that there are scholars who have devoted their lives to his work, and done so out of  the purest motives. I know that there are poets who, without Stevens’s work to inspire them, would never have taken up the pen themselves. I know that there are students for whom “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” upon first being encountered, cracked open a world of thought and language and helped them to pull themselves out of the gutter of cable television and to worship forever after at the altar of Wallace Stevens. I know that hundreds — thousands! — of far better readers, thinkers, poets, and human beings love the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Spiritually. In all sincerity. And completely.

But, honestly, how can they? I placed a jar in Tennessee…?

“No! Don’t! Please!” someone (perhaps that poor secretary to whom he supposedly dictated the poems every morning) should have said. She should have said, “Wallace, no. Don’t use the word ‘placed.’ It makes you sound so… so …  so full of yourself ! As if you think that every time you toss a candy wrapper out the window the landscape rearranges itself around you. The whole idea that someone (you) has put (I mean placed) a jar on a hill and then written
a poem about it — that whole idea is so ludicrous and disturbing that it will be discussed for decades in cold rooms with bad lighting. And the music of it! omg! It did not give of bird or bush… 
You really are joking now, aren’t you? This is like that other line, the one with the concupiscent curds in it? Right? You’re just trying to make the kids in Poetry 101 with hangovers start up with the cold sweats, right?”

But perhaps she never dared to say that. He was a powerful man. He was never told by anyone that a poem with a line that required pronouncing the name “Tehuantepec” repeatedly, followed by a line about the “slopping” sea, was stomach-churning. And no one ever asked him to explain how, exactly, a man and a woman and a blackbird can be one. No one said, “Nuncle, you must reconsider this hoo-hoo-hoo and shoo-shoo-shoo and ric-a-nic. And, of course, ‘cachinnation’ is going to require yet another footnote, you know. Maybe just say ‘loud laughter’?”

Just now I took out the Norton, thinking I must be misremembering these lines. No poet as beloved as Wallace Stevens could have written them. But the first Stevens line my eyes fall upon is “Opusculum paedagogum.  / The pears are not viols.” At least I don’t have to worry about those lines getting stuck in my head all day.

Was that “poor secretary” Helen Vendler, by any chance?

Stevens is often viscerally annoying—and any metaphysical apology misses the point.  More than that: Stevens, as Kasischke reminds us, is pretentious (or just silly) in sound as well as sense—and it’s natural to get called out this way since we are talking about poetry.

Laura Kasischke, you get an A.

Peter Campion finds the novels and essays of D.H. Lawrence stronger than the poetry, but we think his best poems hold up better than his prose.  But I suppose if one slogs through Lawrence’s “Collected,” the preachy pessimisim would probably overwhelm.  We feel the best of his poetry will outlast everything else.

Campion finds the “fatalistic and tender” a important feature of Lawrence and British poetry (Larkin, Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald).  We suppose he has a point.

We’ll give Campion a solid B.

Daisy Fried is clearly intimidated by Baudelaire, and in a fit of American self-hatred, finally succumbs to his lurid seduction.

After all, he and Poe invented poetic goth. It’s not Baudelaire’s fault his modern-day followers are goofballs. And not their fault I’m a boring middle-aged American. 

Objections to sexism in this passage are anachronistic; Baudelaire’s always most revolted by himself.
We in America could use more romantic self-disgust. (Frederick Seidel thinks so. Ooga Booga is the Fleurs du Mal of our time.)

Fried earns a B.

Ange Mlinko was given the most difficult task: Elizabeth Bishop, who is virtually untouchable these days.  The dialogue format she chooses works pretty well, but the content isn’t terribly interesting.  Mlinko finds Bishop chummy, congenial, wishy-washy, and formally rote.  Which seems completely wrong.  Bishop is actually quite surly in her poems.

We give Mlinko a C.

We now come to the final two January 2013 Poetry essays—by Ilya Kaminsky and Peter Cole; instead of short and sweet “antagonisms, these are lengthy, dreary affairs, tedious, and self-important, the sorts of essays that blot the literary landscape with cool quotes, cool locales, cool names—and rhetoric which serves no other purpose than background to the cool quotes, cool locales, and cool names.

Take Ilya Kaminsky’s “Of Strangeness That Wakes Us” (on Paul Celan).

Cool quotes: W.H. Auden: “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”  Theodor Adorno: “It Is Barbaric To Write Poetry After The Holocaust.”  Anne Carson: “Celan is a poet who uses language as if he were always translating.”  Eavan Boland: “It is the poet’s process that needs to be translated.”Emily Dickinson: “I Felt A Funeral, in my Brain.” Robert Kelly: We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.” Check.

Cool locales: Czernowitz, Vienna, Paris.  Check.

Cool names: Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo, Walt Whitman, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ovid, Breton, John Berryman.  Check.

Kaminsky ponders at the start of his essay, “Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim?”

The answer is simple in ratio to the rhetorical labor Kaminsky expends to prove otherwise: Yes, it is too obscure.

If we are honest, and admit obscurity right away, we don’t have to waste our time quoting Emily Dickinson, Eavan Boland, and Robert Kelly.  As long as Kaminsky can dance and beat a drum, he drags in another well-known quote to prove the impossible, and it is painful to watch.

Kaminsky quotes Zbigniew Herbert (of course!):

INTERVIEWER: “What is the purpose of poetry?”
HERBERT: “To wake up!”

But how does it wake us up?  And it wakes us to what?

Kaminsky gives us the answer (rather gallantly) by quoting from Genesis (a Biblical quotation!) backwards and claims there’s “more poetry” when we read the passage in reverse. 

“And there was light let there be God and said waters.” 

I suppose it might please an atheist to read “let there be God,” but poetry isn’t meant to please one belief system over another, is it? 

Kaminsky can’t seriously be saying any text read backwards will be more poetic, and thus, wake us up

What Kaminsky does explicitly say is that lyric poetry “wrecks normal language,” but this observation, which is nearly a truism, cannot make obscure poetry less obscure.

In the Genesis example—the crowning jewel of the essay—Kaminsky takes sacred, elevated language (Genesis) and “wrecks” it.

The backwards reading of Genesis, altering the intended meaning, takes authority away from God and gives it back to language. Since humans are limited in their perceptions, the atheist position is how all humans (correctly or incorrectly) experience the universe. So the backward phrase, “let there be God,” which finds the human-writing (truth) of Genesis, “wakes” us up to the atheist reality within a sacred text.

This is an interesting religious argument, but it has nothing to do with Kaminsky’s defense of Celan’s poetry.

Likewise, distorting or punning on famous words, as Kaminsky does with Genesis, is done all the time in the popular press—would Kaminsky call this “poetry” that “wakes us up?”  If a pun gives a ‘haha’ moment, perhaps ‘wrecking’ language can give us an ‘aha’ moment. 

This is an interesting linguistic argument, but it has nothing to do with reading Paul Celan.

Kaminsky is not writing an essay, but tip-toeing through the tulips of argumentation, dazzling with quotations; in Kaminsky’s rarefied realm of Zbigniew Herbert quotes, he appears to miss the common sense implications of his own rhetoric.

This is how Kaminsky reads Celan in the opening of his essay:

The deciphering of the text proves the worthiness of the reader.

Some of Celania’s poems are modern psalms; here is one:

Of  too much was our talk, of
too little. Of  the You
and You-Again, of
how clarity troubles, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

Of
that.
On the day of an ascension, the
Minister stood over there, it sent
some gold across the water.

Of  your God was our talk, I spoke
against him, I
let the heart that I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
quarreling word —

Your eye looked on, looked away,
your mouth
spoke its way to the eye, and I heard:
We
don’t know, you know,
we
don’t know, do we?,
what
counts.
Zurich, the Stork Inn, tr. by Michael Hamburger

“Extreme clarity is a mystery,” says Mahmoud Darwish. “Clarity troubles.” Celan, often considered a difficult poet, is in this poem at his clearest.

Is Celan’s work too obscure, as some claim? Is it too hermetic? Too difficult? Real poems, Celan wrote, are “making toward something   …    perhaps toward an addressable Thou.” I would argue that, for any poet writing toward such a subject, regular words and syntax soon become inadequate (Hopkins, anyone?). Celan is an extreme case though, because he also had to contend with the inadequacy of the German language to express the experience of the Jewish poet, post-Holocaust. His is the lyricism of privacy (prayer is private, no matter with how many fellow congregants it is uttered or in how many prayer books it appears), not of hermeticism. In fact, Celan insisted to Michael Hamburger that he was “ganz und gar nicht hermetisch.” Absolutely not hermetic.

Does Kaminsky read Celan’s “modern psalm” backwards to understand it better? 

No.

Is Celan a punster? 

No.

Is Celan’s poem clear?

No.

Is Kaminsky able to make Celan’s poem less obscure for us?

No.

Is it at all clear what this “adressable Thou” is?

No.

The subject of Kaminsky’s essay simply doesn’t know itself.

Finally, Kaminsky’s main point is the “privacy” of the lyric poet—and he ends his essay:

A great poet is not someone who speaks in stadiums to thousands of  listeners. A great poet is a very private person. In his or her privacy this poet creates a language in which he or she is able to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.

But this doesn’t make any sense.  If one hears a poet’s words in a stadium among thousands of listeners, one is still responding as a private person to those words. “Creating a language to speak, privately, to many people at the same time” could signify a poet speaking in a stadium to thousands.  Why not?  And so where does this leave Kaminsky’s definition of lyric “privacy?”

We must give Kaminsky’s essay a C, because for all it brings, it is hollow at its center, arguing from scattered quotes rather than from common sense.

Peter Cole has something called, “The Invention of Influence: A Notebook/A Notebook: Seeking higher powers in the Middle East” in which he rambles, endlessly; like Kaminsky, Cole proffers quotation after quotation, never stopping long enough to  explore any one issue.  It’s the School of Harold Bloom: peeling the onion of reference after reference after reference to find at the center nothing but a tremendous ego who reads a lot.  Surely Peter Cole should be interesting—he reads so much! 

Cole’s essay is more personal than Kaminsky’s, which makes it ‘warmer,’ but also more helter-skelter; Cole made a much freer space for himself—though you end up wishing he hadn’t.  Cole tries to gives us: ‘here’s how I write/here’s how I think/here’s what’s going on,’ but ends up giving us, ‘would you look how much I travel/would  you look how much I observe/would you look how much I read.’  One cannot tell whether the failure of the essay is from the sort of person Cole is, or whether the failure is from the form the essay happened to take—and it speaks even worse for Cole that we cannot tell.  The essay is briefly everywhere and thus, nowhere.

When you read stuff like this from Cole’s essay, one can only think, will you please shut up?

Why did I have such a hard time coming up with an “antagonism” to write about for Poetry? Do the dead bite back? Or is it that I’m by temperament and training now so fastidiously turned against myself
that I lean into my antagonisms until they give way at a certain point like a secret door-in-the-wall to enthusiasm? James Merrill, for instance. Or Pope.

It’s a translator’s gift, and curse. A strategy of masking and, I suppose, also of evasion. Not only an ability to inhabit difference, but a desire and need to. As a source of pleasure, and nourishment — even wisdom. What others find in fiction?

Hence, too, the obsession of late with couplets, which I once despised. The desire to compose in rhymed couplets in such a way as to highlight the openness lurking in a certain closure. As organic as a pulse, or respiration.

It’s embarrassing to watch how ‘open and nice’ strive to hide ‘crazy and nasty.’  He’s too nice to give the Poetry editors an “antagonism.”  Well, not so much nice, as fastidiously turned against himself.  Too bad, Poetry editors. Mr. Cole fastidiously refuses.

Cole once “despised” couplets??  How can one “despise” couplets?  Oh, but dear friends, Peter Cole is now obsessed with couplets—in order to highlight openness lurking in a certain closure—and this (of course!) is organic. 

Good grief.

Cole gets a C-.

Finally, one lively Letter to the Editor is published, in which Philip Metres takes Clive James to task for “the idea that poems exist only for the page, [which] is lamentably myopic, and part of the predicament of  poetry’s marginalization in American culture.”

The lesson here, as we judge Poetry’s prose in their January issue,  seems to be: in Letters, antagonism is life and its opposite, death.

MARJORIE PERLOFF: HEY, DUMMIES, I’M A YEATS SCHOLAR!

Perloff: Her Poundian agenda faltering, Yeats comes to the rescue!

The Boston Review’s recent symposium (December 6, 2012) re-visiting Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink” (May/June 2012) is wonderful.  First one reads 18 invited poets (including Ange Mlinko,  Cathy Park Hong, and Desales Harrison) briefly responding to Perloff’s essay in the BR’s stated context of “what is the most significant…set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today…?” Then, in a great punchline to a long, tedious joke, we witness Perloff, the mother hen, in a rage, kicking all 18 of her chicks to the curb. 

Perloff’s avant-garde creds are vast—so you know she has to be cunning (a word that describes Pound and his friends and heirs: not genius, but cunning)—but still it comes as something of a shock to witness the spleen:

1. Perloff mauls Mlinko: I’m a published Yeats scholar, dummy. I also know my Auden and Frost.

Mlinko made the mistake of characterizing Perloff’s judgment thusly:

Who are the heirs of the Modernists? This high bar
seems to include Stein, Zukofsky but not Auden, Frost
or Yeats (it seems Irish, English, and Scots are lost
in the discussion

2. Perloff hauls off on Hong: “I directed Yu’s Stanford dissertaton” and know precisely of which you quote, dummy, so please don’t imply I’m racist.

Hong foolishly dared to proffer:

. . . like all institutions, the avant-garde canon has been as racially homogenous as mainstream poetry. One can rationalize these exclusions. The critic Timothy Yu, in his excellent essay “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” delineates two poles of thought that emerged during the ’70s and ’80s: multicultural poetry and Language poetry. Both groups worked to disrupt the dominant paradigm, but they had radically different aims: “the Language poet’s critique of the personal, lyric voice vs. the minority poet’s desire to lay claim to voice.”

3. Perloff crushes Harrison: You wanna defend Dove’s silly Introduction? “Easy,” huh?  “Verbivocovisual” is Joyce, “Cubo-futurist” comes from Maykovsky, Khlebnikor, and Kruschenyk.  “Ironic neo-avant-garde” is Peter Burger. Dummy.

Harrison fatally erred by writing that it was “easy” for Perloff to go negative (against Dove’s anthology) while dropping names and avant-terms.

4. Perloff demolishes all 18 writers: “Why did none of the eighteen symposiasts dig in and take issue with my specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi—readings that constitute approximately two thirds of the essay?” Dummies!

Perloff attempts to rout her enemies, finally, with, “Constatation of fact—Ezra Pound’s phrase—does, I’m afraid, matter, given that most of the poet-symposiasts are teaching college and university courses on poetry.”  And she ends curtly with a bit of Yeats, from his poem, “A Coat”:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

If we might speak for the Slaughtered Eighteen…

We would maintain it’s Perloff’s problem and not the eighteen that “none took issue with her specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi,” for there has to be, at the minimum, interest (in the sense used by Henry James) for discourse to occur.  While it was admirable for Perloff to present actual examples, they were woeful: avant cut-and-paste goes to snooze town. There was simply no interest—and the vote was, well…18-0.

That leaves Perloff, naturally, with nothing to do but bristle and trot out scholarly creds and anecdotal knowledge: I’ve published papers on Yeats!  “Verbivocovisual” is from Joyce!  an easy way to defend herself against “the eighteen” and Harrison’s “easy” charge—oops!

True, the eighteen responses were all over the place; it wasn’t Perloff’s fault the symposium lacked focus. 

Sandra Lim, using jargon, seemed to us to be faking it. Matthew Zapruder made trite observations on poetry v. song lyrics.  Anthony Madrid was anxious to tell us one can have irony and feeling together. Samuel Amadon pointed out that no group cares for its label. Maureen McLane riffed on James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” in a poem of her own. Annie Finch said she enjoyed meter. Dorothea Lasky praised the “shape-shifter” aspect of the “metaphysical I.” Evie Shockley plied the transcendence of the racial: expression (black) v. conceptual (white). Rebecca Wolff was all “visionary over functionary” and needs a better photo. Lytton Smith was determined to free poetry from the page. Noah Eli Gordon said binaries were teachable, but not profitable for his poetry. Katie Degentesh waded into counter-intuitive feminism. Robert Archambeau quoted David Kellog’s “The Self in the Poetic Field.” Dan Beachy-Quick went back to the Greek chorus to prove the intimacy of the lyric “I” is also social. Stephen Burt quoted Empson: “You must rely on the individual poem to tell you the way in which it is trying to be good.”

This is mostly Creative Writing Program Theory—used by Modernists (the academically astute New Critics  helping out Pound and friends) to crash the Canon party back when the English Professor who teaches Keats was replaced by the Creative Writing professor (and Poet) who teaches himself, and if you are nice to him, You. 

There’s nothing wrong with this impetus; we’d probably all do the same ourselves, but it seems to me, to keep everybody honest, as we cultivate the new writing, we need to keep our eyes on the Poetry Canon that’s being crashed.

This Canon is what makes us able to appreciate Yeats, after all, even if he belongs to it as much as it belongs to him. 

There are canons within canons after all, but there they are.  When we come upon Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” we hear a quality, a canon within a canon.  “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek” shapes the Poetry Canon from all those 16th century writers until…now, obviously, if Canon has any meaning at all.  We think it should have meaning.  Raleigh, Spencer, Munday, Lyly, Greville, Sidney, Lodge, Peele, Tichbourne, Greene, Southwell, Daniel, Drayton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Nashe, Campion, Aytoun, and Donne were born within 20 years of each other in the 16th century.  This group is a sun that still shines.  The Canon is a sun that doesn’t stop shining—unless we decide to put it out.

It isn’t just that the Canon is good; it helps the center to hold.

In this rather nasty exchange between 18 poets and Marjorie Perloff, it doesn’t seem like the center is holding.

%d bloggers like this: