WHAT IS POETRY?

A poem is an imaginative fiction, and though it may aim at a kind of truth, it is not real; it is not the truth.

The poet never necessarily endorses what he imagines in his poems.

A poet is essentially a playwright or a story-teller. Shakespeare is not himself guilty of mayhem, because he put mayhem in his plays.

The mind that imagines is not the hand that does. The author is never the persons imagined.

Countless authors have used their own experience to recount crimes in the first person. Of course this does not mean they are guilty of anything. A society would not be free if it prevented authors from making imaginative fictions.

Think of all the songs that sing of things not necessarily condoned by the singer or the songwriter. Poems, like songs, like stories, like plays, are finally not real; that’s why they belong to creative writing.

There are some, who have almost no imagination themselves, who would judge a poet harshly by that poet’s fictions—fictions meant to shine light on life by dint of imaginative thought, seeking to understand and cure the world’s ills, the very ones which most afflict those who have no imaginations, those who, ironically, imagine that a fiction is entirely real.

Unfortunately, poetry is increasingly taught in our schools as something which is not imaginative, but either a collection of facts or the real voice of a real person speaking. The imaginative virtue, in this case, is replaced by a different virtue, a virtue that is virtuous precisely because it has no imagination at all.  Either the poem makes no sense (without sense, there is no imagination) exhibits some political opinion found in any newspaper, or is a kind of memoir in which the poem’s speaker is precisely relating a real incident from real life. The imagination is nowhere to be found.

The virtue which is virtuous because it has no imagination is a necessary virtue, and there should be no objection to it: ‘virtue without imagination’ accompanies duty and loyalty and obedience of every kind, and society as we know it would be impossible without this kind of simple virtue.

But this kind of simple virtue has nothing to do with imaginative writing.

This does not mean that the imaginative cannot be moral and virtuous, in the final analysis, and in fact, it should be, but it is moral in a different manner; it arrives at the good in a more round-about way; as in Dante’s famous poem, hell may have to be visited before heaven is gained. In the imaginative fiction, “hell” is both real and not real.

Great poets have been exiled. Mixing real with unreal, the real they include may still offend. Imaginative writing, which comes close to the real, includes this risk. The ‘scary’ real mingles with the ‘scary’ fiction.

But in the end, it is fiction, and, if it is good fiction, it overcomes the scary, it does not support the scary, for the imagination is guided by the ultimate truth or good, if it is good. The imaginative writer, using the bad occasionally, strives to be good. Not because the writer is ‘honest,’ as in writing a truthful memoir, or because the writer expresses a desire to ‘save the whales,’ but because the fiction is a fiction which participates in a truth expressed in a highly imaginative manner, so that the expression itself is as important as the thing expressed, the power of the expression giving a kind of license to say what people may think but are afraid, or too embarrassed to say, the embarrassment existing not because of who the poet is, but because of the world’s shortcomings. The poet is not expressing his thoughts, but in the imaginative act of the fiction, the thoughts of everyone. This is the purpose of imagination: to go out of ourselves in a moral act and identify with the world, to identify with the intrigues and secrets and welfare of the world, for the sake of the world.

I have been influenced by the work of Dorothy Parker, one of the best poets of the 20th century. The last stanza of her poem, “Love Song,” goes like this:

My love runs by like a day in June
And he makes no friend of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
in the pathways of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.

Parker is madly in love with a man who will not sit still long enough to love her, and the torture is such that she wishes somebody would kill him. We don’t know how real, in this particular case, this sentiment is, but we do know that this precise sentiment could be real, and this very sentiment could be Parker’s precise state of mind.

But since, as readers, we know it is a poem, we identify abstractly with its sentiment; we call it real and yet unreal, and don’t equate it with any actual behavior of Parker’s. As we live in a free society, we do not censor; we allow both Dorothy Parker and her poem complete freedom, with the democratic conviction that a society which suppresses fictional expressions of this kind will be a society which has less creativity and more violence.

Scarriet holds to this principle of free expression: we carefully and deliberately produce work that could be true, but which is not true; no person, place, or thing is ever identified so that a stranger might identify the truth of its content in any way; only its truth as an inspired fiction exists; a Scarriet love poem could be about any love; the universal sentiment is always the subject, never a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The imaginative poem is the only poem we allow to be published here.

Shelley said the secret of morals was love, for love makes us passionately identify with another person.

Romantic attraction, or love, used to be the staple of lyric poetry, but imagination is required to make love interesting, and the non-imaginative poetry of today is not up to the task.

First, since love has been written about so often, the challenge to be original is greater.

Second, romance has become problematic in modern times, just as romance.

Third, since poetry now exists most influentially in the college classroom, it behooves professors to make poetry a subject that feels more modern, and expresses the sort of social change college campuses are simmering with; thus love poetry is tacitly rejected as too simplistic and old-fashioned, too associated with popular music, and so essentially not serious.

Fourth, social media has created a firestorm of private-turned-public, take-no-prisoners, gossip which pries into slightly uncomfortable private feelings with a judgmental animus never before seen in history, and since original romance effusions are bound to entertain slightly, or even deeply, uncomfortable private feelings, the love poet may just throw in the towel altogether, and instead write poems on very simple subjects, like history, politics, and philosophy.

Imagine if the Beatles were told they couldn’t write love songs; the Beatles simply would not exist.

The result, today, is that poetry finds itself in a state of confusion, exiled from all song, or lyric, elements, and struggling, as “poetry” to make a prose more meaningful than—prose. Which, obviously, cannot be done.

Look at these lyrics from one of the Beatles’ best-known albums, Rubber Soul, released in 1965, the height of Beatlemania, in which the Beatles were also striving to be more sophisticated:

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl, or I won’t know where I am.” —Lennon & McCartney

This is from the songwriters that would go on to produce “Imagine” and “Let It Be” and “Here Comes The Sun.” Imagine if a would-be John Lennon wrote a poem like that today, and it ended up on Facebook. “Run For Your Life” was influenced by an Elvis Presley song, and has been covered numerous times. What is the difference between a song and a poem? Should poets be held to the same standards as songwriters, recording artists, and other ‘creative writers,’ and what should those standards be? Should all creative writing, whether a movie script, a short story, a song, or a poem, be held to the same moral standard, whether or not it appears in a cinema watched by millions, or on some poor wretch’s blog?

If I make something up, which nonetheless has some resemblance to reality, in a poem, is this not the same as a major-release film depicting precisely the same thing, with the only difference that the latter costs millions of dollars to make, and employs thousands of people? It may just be that the film will be considered an elaborate fiction, no matter how horrific the content, but with the way poetry is increasingly read and judged these days, the poet, it will be assumed, is somehow responsible in his own person, as the filmmakers are not, for any offensive content that is part of the fiction.

Can censors say, “You may write about love, but you may not depict hateful things like jealousy?” No poems or songs like “Run For Your Life?” No ambiguity of desire allowed? Where do we draw the line, when it comes to imaginative fictions, in keeping a society creative and free? And can we ever justly assume something about an author’s personal character—think of our Shakespeare example—based on their imaginative fiction?

Look at what Plato demanded for his Republic: poems that only praise. (Plato, contrary to popular opinion, did not ban all kinds of poetry from his ideal society.) A song like “Run For Your Life” would be banned, because threatening to kill your girlfriend is not praising her.

It didn’t matter to Plato that Lennon wrote a song about an unnamed girl. What mattered was purely the bad emotions involved. Yet Aristotle would say these “emotions” are a vital part of art’s expressive good.

Was Plato right?

How imaginative/expressive/creative are we allowed to be?

We believe we have made it clear where Scarriet stands.

If Scarriet has ever strayed, in any way, from our rigorous standard,—we are human, after all, and poetry is a passionate and extremely difficult art—we apologize, without reservation.

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RELIGION IS MORE SCIENTIFIC THAN SCIENCE

There is no free will.

The past cannot be altered. The past is where we live; what we call “the present” slips (even at this moment) into the past too quickly for “the present” (where free will might be possible) to really exist; the future does not yet exist, so no free will is possible there, either.

Human consciousness sits in a cinema–watching history unfold as from a single spool— the single spool (the movie) the unique and singular ‘what is.’  As various as the world seems to be, it is but one thing happening one way, and we have no free will to change it. The “movie” represents nature, physical existence, all we cannot change, but can only watch; the planets, the stars, nature, the animals: the physical universe existing in time, all these things are “in” the movie, as well as our physical selves.

We cannot leap into an actual film we happen to be watching—for as real as it seems to us, it is only a record; it belongs to the past and we have no way to change what is happening in the film. Life works the same way; just as we cannot join the cast of a movie we are watching, in the same way we are helpless to change life: free will is an illusion, and this has been demonstrated conclusively by the simple fact that we live in the past.

If we accept there is no free will, the remarkable claim of this essay’s title will be easily understood.

The only difference between a Christian and a secularist at this point, is that the Christian believes that whoever made the film is good—that whatever or whoever is responsible for the spool of existence unfolding before our souls—who sit helplessly in the theater—cares.

Human knowledge is too limited to know anything of the filmmaker—and this is a scientific fact; all we can do is speculate that the spool-maker is indifferent to our fate—or not.

The former view—the universe is indifferent—is generally thought to be scientific, the latter, religious; but actually both comprise guessing about what is completely unknown; from our helpless position in the theater, watching the record of pure physical existence unfold as what-has-already-happened, we have no way of determining the nature of the spool-maker: for we ‘live’ in the absolute past of the spool; the spool-maker’s nature is beyond our reach—and science causes us to recognize this. So a benevolent film projector is as good a guess as any. This scientific guess is at the heart of Christianity. The Christ story and all the scriptures fall apart without this initial premise: The Creator is good.

The Christ story is most significant for belonging to the past; it cannot be altered, and here it lies in the same realm as life, which also belongs to the past. The Christ story is like a film within a film; like life, it is beyond free will; it exists in the past, like our childhood.

The Christ story does not have to be “real;” the Christ story is simply the figurative expression of a past which is also beyond our free will but which has one perceptual difference from the spool of physical existence—it is governed by the premise that the spool is made by something or someone who loves us. Since we have no way of knowing the nature of the spool-maker, the scientific guess can only be expressed in a figurative manner—by a story belonging to the absolute past: nothing about religious stories escape the absolute past. Christ is past tense, just as life is.

Understanding the radical nature of the pastness of the past—and how this aspect of our existence prevents any thing approaching free will to exist—allows us to see how scientific religion actually is, since without any free will, science is far less important than supposed.

Without free will, science as we commonly understand it cannot exist, since science implies changing our environment for the better. Science exists as science in the present, but religion exists in the present as superstition; but if the present does not exist, the past favors religion and causes science as a willed phenomenon to disappear, since the all-existing past cannot contain any human will, it being only a record, a film experienced by our souls sitting passively in a theater, falsely believing the unspooling of ‘reality ‘ to be something in our control.

Our position as a theater audience with no free will is a scientific hypothesis, and therefore a speculation that the spool maker is good and that we have no free will—the religious view—is actually highly scientific, if but a highly scientific guess, since a guess is all science is allowed (scientifically) to have, when it comes to the origins and absolute nature of the universe.

Now it may be argued that even if we accept fate as our fate, and that even if we admit that life ‘just happens’ and there is, in fact, no free will, this does not mean that science cannot positively effect change—look at the advances in medicine, just to take one example. Ignorance withers away under the lynx-eye of science, and since science has improved man’s lot in specific ways, we must assume science participates in free will.

But now, in the simplest manner possible, we must say what science is: the first “scientist” simply noticed something by accident, and this is all science really is, especially inductive, trial-and-error, Baconian science, which overthrew the Dark Ages model of Aristotle’s deductive, ‘lawful,’ fixed-star science.

A prehistoric caveman notices a rock precariously balanced on the top of a cliff and speculates it will fall on him; had he not accidentally seen this, he would have been crushed by the rock—is this free will? No, it is simply the physical universe fatefully unfolding.

Science is nothing more than an accidental seeing.

Later, one man happens to see a mosquito bite another man, and like the caveman and the precariously perched rock, a future event is predicted, medicine advances, science triumphs; yet science, as we can see, is just fate allowing us to notice certain things purely by accident—think of how all scientific discoveries in history are by rule, accidents, from the apple falling on Newton’s head to the various botched experiments in labs which lead to new understanding; these are not figurative tales; accident is really how science proceeds; and now the truth of science, of what science really is, flashes upon our souls; there is nothing scientific about science at all—it is happy accident, and nothing more.

Science has nothing to do with free will.

The Space Race wasn’t science; it was war—Russia and the U. S. racing to develop missiles and rockets; the moon merely higher ground, a tactical position in a rivalry.

Did the moon rocks brought back (many, many years ago, now) by the Apollo astronauts contain the key to understanding the universe? No. Science is no closer to understanding the universe. It is a truism that the more we learn, the less we know; the more science learns about the true nature of the universe, the less science knows about the true nature of the universe.

Science is an accidental seeing which, if the scientist is very lucky, leads to some practical, perhaps even temporary, result. This is not to say that science is not vital and beneficial: but philosophically, science is far more mundane than the lay person realizes; the best of science belongs to trial-and-error, and the greatest scientific advances are due to persistence, thinking, sweat—but mostly accident.

So here we are, without free will, sitting in the “cinema” and watching “life” (the film) go by.  We have no control of what is happening in the movie (the world, life , the universe) though occasionally we have the illusion that free will exists. Science, which owes its successes to accident, to mere after-the-fact observation, is no help for the soul which sits helplessly in the cinema and longs to control its fate.

We watch ourselves, helplessly. We do the wrong thing, even though we tell ourselves over and over again not to do it. Our life—how strange!—belongs to someone else.

Every crisis in life is a crisis of free will—we are shocked to discover that what we specifically told ourselves not to do we have gone and done, and we have done so, tragically, because deep in our hearts we long for free will, and this is the only way it can be experienced: we did what we shouldn’t have done— we did it, even though we were not supposed to do it; the act itself may or may not itself be of great importance, but what matters is that our act seems, in our soul, even if unconsciously, to partake of free will.

Love is of primary importance here, because when we are really in love, and not just gas-bagging about it, or just playing at it, we are utterly helpless and acutely aware of how we cannot do anything about the movie we are watching: we cannot make the person we are madly in love with, love us, and when they say it is over, for any number of reasons stated or unstated, we can only watch helplessly “the film” which breaks our hearts: the love now belongs to the past—and this fact makes us aware of life’s awful problem: ‘life happens’ and there’s nothing we can do about it, even as it causes us intense pain.  The pain is mostly due to the fact that we cannot do anything about it; we are brought to understand that we—who we really are, our souls—merely sit helplessly in a cinema watching all that is bodily and physical and material march forward, irregardless of what we might think or feel. Love gone wrong brings us face to face with our lack of free will, a fact we never want to face, because if we understand it too well, our motivation to live will disappear, and we will numbly ‘go through the motions,’ moving through life as a mere shell, hiding as best we can our nightmare emptiness from everyone.

The life of the scientist—results hinging on ‘accident,’ is no help to us, because this is the very thing that is breaking our heart, now that love has been lost: reducing our sacred love to an ‘accident’ is a concept which breaks our already broken heart.

And yet, this is one way to heal: the love we loved was an accident and maybe an accident will happen again. And further, our lover who left us has no free will, either; they did not really reject us, for they belong to mere accident, too. And so, from the idea that the best life can be is an accident; by this rather haphazard notion, we are comforted.

The accidental nature of science is its triumph, its happiness, its ebullience, its optimistic seeking-power, its joy.  Perceiving accident as the soul of science would seem to demean it; but in fact this is not the case. We do not intend to demean science. Not at all.

Religion, however, is more imaginative, less accidental, and closer to what we think of as true scientific thinking.

Religion scorns the accidental nature of scientific inquiry, and here we see the chief difference between science and religion. They are oil and water. They do not mix.

Yet free will belongs to neither.

The choice is between the accidental and the changeless.

The changeless is the sacred fact religion seeks; the accidental, the necessary realm of practical science.

Whatever belongs to the past is changeless, and this is why sacred religion always belongs to a changeless past: the Christ story would not be sacred if we changed it all the time; it is the fixed past of Christianity, or any religion, which is the key to its sacred nature.

Love will help illustrate the difference:

Truly and madly in love, we want that love forever.  We seek, religiously, the changeless.

Out of love and broken-hearted, we seek something else: hope in the accidental.

Desperately in and out of love, seeking to understand everything, we are religious.

Patient and calmly happy, ignorant of love’s slings, we are scientific.

THE INTEGRATION OF POETRY AND LIFE

The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.

Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?

Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?

Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?

And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?

And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.

Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.

This is what Byron meant when he said:

“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”

This is what Shelley meant when he said:

“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”

According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.

The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.

In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.

Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.

Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.

Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.

The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.

As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”

Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.

In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.

Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of  what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.

The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’

We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.

Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.

The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.

Life is coming for us.

Take my hand, poet.

Let us quietly flee.

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!

MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France

DE STAEL:

Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.

PEACOCK:

Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.

WINNER: PEACOCK

ARISTOTLE VERSUS SAMUEL JOHNSON

ARISTOTLE:

TRAGEDY is a REPRESENTATION of a COMPLETE ACTION, which has MAGNITUDE, by people ACTING, and not by narration, accomplishing by means of PITY and TERROR the CATHARSIS of such emotions.

Since TRAGEDY is a representation of an action and is enacted by people acting, these people are NECESSARILY OF A CERTAIN SORT according to their CHARACTER and their REASONING. For it is because of these that we say that actions are of a certain sort.

WITHOUT ACTION a TRAGEDY cannot exist, but WITHOUT CHARACTERS IT MAY.

SAMUEL JOHNSON:

Almost all the FICTIONS OF THE LAST AGE will VANISH, if you DEPRIVE them of a HERMIT and a WOOD, a BATTLE and a SHIPWRECK.

WHY this wild strain of imagination FOUND RECEPTION SO LONG in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while READERS could be procured, the AUTHORS were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice gained some fluency of LANGUAGE, he had no further care than to RETIRE TO HIS CLOSET, LET LOOSE his invention, and HEAT HIS MIND with incredibilities; a book was thus produced WITHOUT fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with LIFE.

The task of our PRESENT writers is very DIFFERENT; it requires, together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that EXPERIENCE which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and ACCURATE OBSERVATION of the LIVING world.

Team Johnson, fearing the disaster suffered by Hume against Plato, picks the strategy of brevity, but really, what chance does Johnson, even with the clever, “Hermit and a Wood, a Battle and a Shipwreck,” have against the banner Aristotle, massing with its “COMPLETE ACTION” and its “CATHARSIS?”

Johnson (b 1709) demonstrates how early the ‘self-consciously-modern’ virus dragged down Letters; this Lament has been around a long, long time: previous ages lacked “accuracy,”  “experience” and “real, observed life,” etc.  We don’t believe a word of it.

WINNER: ARISTOTLE

MARCH MADNESS! POETRY! THEORY! MADNESS! HOLY MADNESS! REAL, ACTUAL MADNESS!

“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady

THE BRACKETS

CLASSICAL

1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume

ROMANTIC

1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx

MODERN

1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno

POST-MODERN

1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler

FICTION: LIE OR ART?

Doesn’t it all finally come down to this?

Is your fiction a lie, or is it art?

If fiction is a mere lie,  you have no right to call it art, and if you do, you and your art are a sham.  Sorry.

If your fiction is not a lie, then it is not fiction, but truth, and even here, your art, your fiction, is a lie and a sham—because all you are doing is telling the truth, or, not lying, not producing fiction, producing fact, not art.  Sorry, again.

So art must be a lie, but when does that lie stop being a sham?

When does a lie become what we have come to praise as art?

First we must ask: why is a lie a bad thing?  Because it deceives.  So the fiction writer (or poet) does not lie, even though he lies, because the reader knows he is lying.  There is no deception.

Unless, unless…we cry when we read a poem: then our feelings have been deceived.  We talk of honest feeling, sincere feeling, as a good.

So here we see art deceiving our feelings.  But if feelings respond to a sentimental message, has deception really occurred?  Who, or what, has been deceived, when a poem or a movie makes us cry?  Our feelings have been deceived, but have we been deceived?  We still know the poem is a lie, even as it makes us cry.  So no real deception has occurred.

Let’s look at it this way: if the poet tells the truth, and the reader believes it is a lie, the truth is a lie, for the reader, not just the reader’s feelings, has been deceived.

So it isn’t an issue at all of truth or lies, but deception.

We, as readers of fiction, do not—cannot—know the lies of fiction as truth; what really happens is that all fiction is a mixture of lies and truth, and the truth is what we truly understand.

If we are not deceived, there is no lie.

No reader can be deceived by the truth, for truth, by its nature, cannot deceive; and therefore no reader ever believes, or can believe, that fiction worth reading is a lie.  Fiction always moves us with its truth; it moves us when it does not deceive us; and therefore when fiction is art, when fiction is valid and good and successful, it succeeds entirely as truth.

And yet…we all know that an explanation, leaving out one small detail, can serve an entirely different purpose, that one detail taken away can turn a truth into a lie.  How then, can the mixture of lies and truth, then, equal truth for the reader of fiction?

The answer to this dilemma lies in the difference between life and fiction.  Life contains lies and truth.  Fiction contains nothing that can be called either lies or truth.

Life is open-ended and interested.   Fiction is closed and disinterested.  A lie in life has real consequences.  A lie in fiction has none.  If a lie in fiction has no consequences, it does not deceive. If it does not deceive, it must be true, or, at least have no lies.  The mixture of lies and truth in fiction produces something which cannot deceive the reader, because the reader is assuming the fiction is not true.  But we care only about truth and are able to extract it from the fiction.  The truth-within-the-fiction is what the reader is actually reading, actually knowing.  Life presents truth and lies as either-or.  Fiction presents truth and lies as one-within-the-other.

In fiction, it is not that it doesn’t matter if it’s a lie, or a truth.  It’s just that lies or truth, as an either-or, cannot exist in fiction.  Fiction, as fiction, does not deceive. The feeling that life is constantly deceiving us makes us run to fiction—which cannot deceive us.  If fiction affects our feelings, we rejoice in feeling superior to our mere feelings, which are deceived, for the failure of the feelings to detect the truth only reaffirms that we are not deceived.

The extraction of truth from lies is where the “art” of fiction is truly located.

The “art” of a good detective is the same as the “art” of good fiction—as it’s read, or written.    The “art” of a “good” detective is necessary—when the criminal is “good.”  The writing and reading of good fiction, likewise, depend on one another.

Detection is the key.

Plato was correct.  We argue with Socrates in vain.

Fiction is bad, and is always bad.  Good fiction does not succeed because of its fiction, but because of its truth.  And the extraction or detection of that truth is the art of fiction.

The great writer of fiction disrupts the fictional reading of fiction by the reader who is helplessly running away from life and its deceptions to the drug of fiction, and makes the detection and the extraction of truth the attribute that matters.

We may extract the truth by our response to beauty.  We may extract the truth by looking beyond the work to ourselves, or to implications outside the work.  It is not for us to say how the truth is extracted, only that the chief importance lies in the faculty of detection itself.

The American author who elevated Criticism, discovered the Big Bang, was a short fiction master, a code-breaker, invented the unreliable narrator, detective fiction, science fiction, and invented modern humor, besides, made it a paramount concern of his to imply that his fiction was not fiction at all.  The “inventor of modern humor” may seem a stretch, since we are talking of Edgar Allan Poe, but let us quote from one of his more obscure tales, “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.”  We make an example of this tale for the way it presents the relationship between truth and fiction.

The premise is simple: Poe makes use of the narrative device which frames the Arabian Nights:

It will be remembered, that, in the usual version of the tales, a certain monarch, having good cause to be jealous of his queen, not only puts her to death, but makes a vow, by his beard and the prophet, to espouse each night the most beautiful maiden in his dominions, and the next morning to deliver her up to the executioner.

Having fulfilled this vow for many years to the letter, and with a religious punctuality and method that conferred great credit upon him as a man of devout feelings and excellent sense, he was interrupted one afternoon (no doubt at his prayers) by a visit from his grand vizier, to whose daughter, it appears, there had occurred an idea.

Her name was Scheherazade, and her idea was, that she would either redeem the land from the depopulating tax upon its beauty, or perish, after the approved fashion of all heroines, in the attempt.

The twist Poe adds is equally simple: after her life is saved, he has Scheherazade tell one more tale, based on amazing facts of real life; the king, finding the truth too absurd to believe, has her killed, then, after all.

Scheherazade merely refers to modern scientists and engineers as “magicians” and the king, listening to it as a story, simply cannot swallow it.

“ ‘Another of these magicians, by means of a fluid that nobody ever yet saw, could make the corpses of his friends brandish their arms, kick out their legs, fight, or even get up and dance at his will. Another had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the earth to the other. Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad — or indeed at any distance whatsoever. Another commanded the lightning to come down to him out of the heavens, and it came at his call; and served him for a plaything when it came. Another took two loud sounds and out of them made a silence. Another constructed a deep darkness out of two brilliant lights. Another made ice in a red-hot furnace. Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did. Another took this luminary with the moon and the planets, and having first weighed them with scrupulous accuracy, probed into their depths and found out the solidity of the substance of which they were made…

“Preposterous!” said the king.

We love this reference to photography: “Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did.”

Aristotle: “Not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.”

Poe affixes the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction” to the head of his Scheherezade tale.

Again, from Aristotle’s Poetics: “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”

When it comes to truth being “stranger,” in the Aristotelian formula, “strange” is “improbable possible.”   But “directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did” seems “probable impossible,” too.

Science would make it clear to the ancient caliph how photography works, how the “sun can paint a portrait.”

But in the fiction, the “magician” directs the sun to paint his portrait, which is a “probable impossible,” a “requirement of art” for Aristotle.   But it fails for Poe’s Scheherezade; the king finds it “improbable,” and thus rejects it.  The joke, of course, is that Poe knows—and the reader may know—or does know, when he consults the footnotes—that the science exists, and therefore it is not only probable and possible; it is. 

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

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.

KENNETH GOLDSMITH IS NOT A CONCEPTUALIST!

Kenneth-Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith: Not one concept in his head.

If you are really curious about beer, the expert will tell you there are only two kinds: ale and lager.

Likewise, there’s only two kinds of wine: red and white.

I can glance out my window right now and see the sunlight increasing as the clouds disperse, and then notice the artificial light over my desk steadily burning.

Neither the outside light nor the inside light are considered “art,” but what visual art does not take account of it?

We understand terms like the “art of beer” or the “art of wine,” even as we might say to ourselves, “Well, that’s not really art—maybe science…”

But the moment we tackle the “art of art,” we come up against that sort of learned confusion which may befuddle in a pleasant manner those seasoned and learned enough to enjoy such a thing, but which ultimately derails all true understanding.

The confusion is due largely to the great blurring between art and reality mentioned above: if the artificial light above my desk behaved more like the sun on a partly cloudy day, we might even call the constantly changing light emitted by the light bulb above my desk, “art,” just because of  the way the man-fashioned bulb above my desk cunningly copies nature’s changeable light.

This year’s Conceptualism hullabaloo, which happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show which brought modern art to America, is a debate forcing us to acknowledge what is nothing less than art’s most important idea since art began: imitation.

Both John Keats and Kenneth Goldsmith must confront this reality: Art is a pale representation of nature.

Goldsmith’s avant-garde solution is to focus entirely on “representation.”

Conceptualism, in Goldsmith’s case, or in the case of Warhol/Duchamp’s found objects, is a terrible misnomer.

Goldsmith and his Found Poetry takes Nature, or Reality and “finds” it as Poetry, and “find,” here, means purely represent.

We are free to ignore the actual work of Goldsmith’s, as many have pointed out, but this is not due to Conceptualism; it is because of its opposite: Representation.

Reality is art’s flesh, and until art lives, it is not art, but reality.  (How art lives is something we’ll get to in a moment.)

We err whenever we do not understand art as reality first, and art, second.

Plato offended (certain easily offended) artists with this practice: he saw art as reality first—what does art do within reality? was the most important question for Plato.

Found Poetry is an ineffective challenge to Plato, seeking to reverse Plato’s ‘look-at-art-as-reality’ admonition; superficially, Found Poetry is looking at reality as art, but the moment we look at reality as art, we look at art as reality-Plato’s strategy!

To look, as Plato does, at “art as reality,” is to see reality “showing through the art,” as it were; this “look” is the “harsh look of the cynical Critic,” who refuses to see the art on the artist’s terms.

This “look” is, in artistic terms, the methodical “look” which offends aesthetic passivity with its real-life action.

The “raw fact” of art, no matter how intricate, is not allowed to lie there passively; the active Platonist Critic places art in a context of reality—and does not allow it to remove itself into a pure, amoral, state where reality is walled off from the representation (the art).  Once “this wall” is allowed to go up, art is free to make rules for itself that have no connection to reality and to proclaim itself purely valid apart from reality, which, on a grand scale is similar to a person withdrawing from reality into a dream, or a wealthy person cutting themselves off from the everyday needs of others.

Art has moved in this direction, away from Plato, away from art as reality, and towards art as pure art, for over a hundred years, now.  This very movement is defined as Modernism by John Crowe Ransom, in his brilliant essay, “Poets Without Laurels.”   Impressionism in painting, Imagism in poetry, Abstract Painting, a poem like “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens, these are all attempts, along with Found Poetry, to escape Plato and his Conceptualism and to enter into a world of attenuated representation, the sensuality of partial imitation, that is sensual imitation without mind, reason, or morals.  Modernism, for Ransom, not only moves in the direction of “pure art,” or “art for art’s sake,” but it is also a movement of science dividing itself into finer and finer partitions.

The beginner learns about the science of beer or wine, starting with ‘ale or lager,’ ‘white or red,’ but this beginner’s lesson contains all that the expert knows—when it comes to science.  As science gets down to the details of its field, the broader truths must be constantly kept in view, and this should be true of art, as well.

Visual art is concerned with these two: Color or line.

Writing?  Prose or poetry.

These divisions involve the science of art, which is much easier to understand than the art of art.

Plato can be scientific about art, even while morally condemning it, and one could argue it is the scientist in him that morally condemns it, while at the same time, examining it on a purely material level—which Plato did, even though Aristotle took it a little further; Aristotle broke most famously with Plato with his “catharsis” theory, telling the lie that we can “purge” our emotions by bathing in what triggers them.

Even Tom Wolfe got it wrong, then, with his withering critique of Modern Art when he called avant-garde painting the “painted word.” This, again, errs, in the way we have just illustrated: Modern art is not conceptualist; it is merely crudely (purely) representational.   Like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is so obvious, everyone has missed it.   What we call “Conceptualist” is just crudely imitative.

How could so many have been so wrong regarding Conceptualism?

We can easily blame it on two things:

First, Modernism, a movement which is all about “moving ahead, about being self-consciously “modern” while forgetting the past.

And secondly, confusing art and science.

Science tells us there are but two kinds of beer: lager and ale.

Science, too, could also sound wiser by saying: beer as beer is more essential than the distinction between larger and ale.

Science, like criticism, can say anything, can be everywhere at once.

The poor artist, however, needs to imitate and make a certain kind of imitative sense to be effective, even if it is laying on pure color as an abstract artist.

Critics are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not poets.   Unless we call Plato a poet (which he was, according to Shelley).

One of the results of the movement known as Modernism has been the elevation of prose poetry over its cousin, verse.

Verse, in Modernism’s eyes, is crudely denotative, rather than suggestive—the key to poetic prose.

Just as every discriminating artist is concerned with both line and color, every writer should create art that both denotes and suggests.

If we look at the matter scientifically, we will find that metrics can aid both denotation and suggestion, and the same goes with prose meaning.

Modernism, with its crippling -isms, needs to be done away with at last.

Drink all kinds of beer.

Don’t call Kenneth Goldsmith a “Conceptualist” ever again.

THE HERESY OF THE ACCESSIBLE

Aristotle.  The Greeks: they keep the moderns and post-moderns honest.

C. Dale Young, in a recent article in the American Poetry Review, writes:

We live in a strange time, a time when the word accessible is a dirty word, used mostly to denigrate writers.  We hear it used for other media as well.  A movie is accessible but a film is Art.  That folk melody is accessible but the Mahler piece based on it is difficult, is Art.  I dare say that the word accessible is virtually never used in a positive manner.  But buried in the word accessibility is the root word access, and in our Post-modern life, it appears to me that Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered.  What many seem to admire in Art today, especially in the Literary Arts, is excess whether linguistic or emotional.  But is there good reason for Art to be an access and not just an object?  Is there not a moral imperative lurking behind almost every lasting work of Art?

In this APR essay, “The Veil of Accessibility,” Young close-reads Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book he found accessible in high school.  After many subsequent readings, however, Young found the book to be complex, largely because there are two narrators—“the reason Heart of Darkness seems accessible, simple enough to be read by a high school student is the fact that the majority of the novella is not written in the voice of this unnamed narrator but in the voice of Marlowe.”

When Young writes, “the reason Heart of Darkness seems accessible,” we start to wonder if Young’s essay is a true defense of “the accessible.” 

If you say, this door is not really a door, are you defending access?

If objects, or anything we attempt to grasp or objectify, are not really accessible, then perhaps the whole literary issue suffers from bad terminology; neither the espistomological debate nor the aesthetic debate is really about “accessibility” at all—because we’re finally talking about a door within a door within a door…

Young doesn’t treat this; he plows dutifully ahead, turning his attention now to poetry:

Both Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch have been praised and lauded, but they have both been equally savaged by critics over time.  Both are considered “accessible,” the term used almost exclusively as a way to say their work is slight.  But is their work slight? 

The obvious follows: O’Hara’s two poems, “Ave Maria” and “Poem” (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!), and Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another,” are found to be poems which only seem accessible, after Young lifts the veil for us.

But isn’t this ass-backwards? If one lifts the veil to reveal inaccessibility?  Isn’t Young guilty of arguing against his stated thesis? 

Young does a very close-reading of O’Hara’s two poems, but one mostly concerned with technical aspects of person and voice.  One might call this a discussion of “access”—or not.  It depends on whether we are talking about a door, or a door-within-a-door.

Despite the length and the ambition of the piece,  Young doesn’t really say anything about these poems that we don’t already know.  He offers a personal anecdote, (one he calls “embarrassing,”) on O’Hara’s Lunch poem, “Ave Maria,” and we have to wonder, finally, does C. Dale Young intend his homosexual anecdote of “Ave Maria,” and his close-readings of these New York School poems to make these poems more “accessible,” or less, especially since he likes these poems and seems to agree that “accessible” is bad?  It’s hard to tell.

Thank goodness Young mentions a classical author so we get a respite from modernist confusion and ambiguity:

 In his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the fact that speech can produce persuasion either through the character of the speaker, the emotional state of the listener, or the argument itself.  He goes on to argue that the most potent arguments, the most convincing, are ones in which the speaker presents material in a way that prompts the listener to come to the issue “as if on their own.”  That is, an argument proved indirectly is more effective than an argument proved directly.  If a speaker simply states the view he wants the listener to believe, that view can be too easily ignored by a listener (who does not share the speaker’s view).  This is exactly why Aristotle believed that Poetry (and I would argue to include all of Literature) can be among the most powerful means of making an argument.  

Now we are getting somewhere.  A similar argument is found in Poe: the heresy of the didactic. 

In both Poe and Aristotle we have a rather common sense, psycho-aesthetic argument, one that nicely side-steps the whole impossible issue of “accessible” v. “difficult,” in which Young flounders—even as he writes a very entertaining article.

We don’t want to surrender to a shallow sort of ‘content-only’ reading of “Ave Maria,” but it does makes us wonder how much the meaning of a poem needs to be put on the table when one discusses a topic like “accessibility.”

O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” which Young quotes in full, would seem to be a celebration of sexual predation, using adolescent boredom and family hatred as a cover, with a little TV and movie metaphor thrown in.  Young seems to imply that this content has a lot to do with the poem’s “accessibility” but has little to do with the poem’s accessibility as a work of art—the latter depending on O’Hara’s artistry and indirection.

To repeat what Young wrote at the beginning of his essay:

In our Post-modern life, it appears to me that Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered.  What many seem to admire in Art today, especially in the Literary Arts, is excess whether linguistic or emotional.  But is there good reason for Art to be an access and not just an object?  Is there not a moral imperative lurking behind almost every lasting work of Art?

Young is linking “a moral” with “access” in art, and perhaps he is correct to do so—though this raises an interesting question: When we speak of “accessibility,” we need to ask the question, “Access to what?”

Would it be merely a low-brow response to greet the moral meaning of “Ave Maria” with moral indignation? 

Is this what happens when accessibility in art gets linked to easy moral judgments?

Young doesn’t touch on this at all, part of the whole ambiguity of his essay’s approach: is Young defining accessibility?  Is he defending it?  Or is he mistreating it, as he claims everyone else does?

When Young writes that “Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered,” is he aware that a pebble is not accessible as part of its nature, while a beautiful palace, as part of its nature, is?

HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal?

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway?

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal.

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant.

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

CRASH!

Poetry MFA graduates

The recent hubbub over the respectable poetry press which demanded their authors pay for the cost of producing their own book struck a real nerve.

Why?  Because an uncomfortable truth was brought into the open: U.S. poetry market inflation is so severe, a book of new poems not only has no value–it has a negative value.

In today’s marketplace, a new book of poems represents not growth, but a grave—new poetry not only does not add wealth, it takes wealth away from the world.

The truth will be argued away by some, convinced their poetry is worth something.

But this rationale fails, since the economic fact of this uncomfortable truth is no less true for being a general truth.

At least when a publisher asks you to pay for your book’s publication costs, it’s better than the contest system—where you pay for the publication of someone else’s book, and unethically so, in the crooked contest system judged or run by once respected poets such as Jorie Graham and Bin Ramke, who were exposed by Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com.

The press which asked its own authors to pony up did so because it couldn’t stomach the contest system.  Ironies such as this will breed when a market collapses—and the market for new poems has collapsed big time.

Hence, it is no wonder that financial aid is the chief criterion in rating MFA programs.

What other criteria could there possibly be?  Earning an MFA degree in poetry is nothing more than an individual poet’s desperate gamble against inflation—even as MFA numbers add to that inflation.

The poets swim in the sea of their own doom, unable to be a poet unless they get wet.

A bunch of MFA profs and administrators have signed a letter of protest against the Poets & Writers rankings of MFA programs put together by Seth Abramson.

It’s unfair, say the protestors, who include relative titans such as Robert Pinsky and Tony Hougland, to weigh financial aid so heavily; there are other criteria, they protest, such as teaching methods.

Really?  What teaching methods?  Even the MFA programs themselves admit they don’t teach anyone to be a poet—the programs only give one time to make the attempt, with varying degrees of informal contact with peers.

Classical criteria, based on quantity and measurement, never did grace Poetry MFA curricula.  The aesthetics of Plato, Aristotle and Horace would seem horribly old-fashioned in today’s MFA.  Classical learning is not even included in a hybrid.  It is the enemy.  It is out. Byron is out, because he may have read a classical author once.  The exclusion of the old is total.  Intelligence is the only hallmark: intelligence left to swim on its own.  This is poetry education: We can’t teach you is what we will teach you.

Modernists outlawed quantity about 90 years ago, and these same gentlemen established the MFA programs 60 years ago.  The result?  Inflation as the world has never seen.

Scarriet’s MFA Poetry program criterion is simple.  Find one book of poems published by administration or faculty in the MFA program which has been purchased freely by a general reader. Then, check out the financial aid package.

THE TEN GREATEST POETRY CRITICISM TEXTS (OR, WHO NEEDS POETRY?)

We shall  proceed more or less chronologically, though it’s tempting to go the way of David Letterman and work up to: “and the Number One Poetry Criticism Text is…”

1.  The Poetics—Aristotle

The ultimate rule-book.  Learn these rules, then break them.  And learn this: Aristotle was the abstract philosopher, Plato the grounded and practical one.  If you ‘get this,’ you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion and heartache.  If you like rules, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

No critic today could write “this must” and “this is impossible” about such fundamental things, but it is good somebody did—for now we can blame Aristotle for “Quietism” and those neanderthals who sell, and everything else. 

2. The Republic—Plato 

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Plato and Aristotle is that they weren’t German.  Both are clear. The practical nature of Plato—who dared, without a shred of sentimentality, to put poetry in the context of society—is inescapable.  Randall Jarrell, John Dewey, and Helen Vendler are pumpkins next to Socrates.  If you haven’t digested The Republic, (or the Symposium, or the Ion) you can’t have a conversation about art or literature; you’re blowing bubbles.

3.  Vita Nuova—Dante

Yes, it has a lot of poetry—good literary criticism usually does.  It also has a story and mystery and passion and zero academic pretense. Beyond all that, it’s a guide to writing intelligible verse.  Dante is the passionate combination of the soul of Aristotle and the body of Plato.

4.  The Sonnets—Shakespeare

Irked by the didactic nature of these poems?  Let your eyes be opened.  We reveal here the long-lost secret.  This famous sonnet sequence (Auden is wrong; it does have an order) is Literary Criticism at its very highest— perhaps the greatest ever written.  Study this book.

5.  Essay on Criticism—Pope

Enlightenment jewel of Literary Criticism.  A fountain of wit. It will sharpen your musical ear, too. Poetry never sounded so coldly sublime.  Criticism never sounded so warmly effusive.

6.  A Defense of Poetry—Shelley

Forget all those other defenses. This one has defensive backs who weigh 300 pounds. Romanticsm deserves a soaring document like Shelley’s—the Wordsworth School (O treason!) would clip Shelley’s wings with socialist-tinged pedantry.  Don’t let it.

7.  Philosophy of Composition—Poe

Like all great great criticsm, this document is a shadow created by divine poetry too bright to read. Lurking behind Criticism is the Poem, lurking behind the philosophy of Plato is the poem of Plato, lurking behind the created is the creator, known only in the space between them. Those who indignantly sputter (and they are legion): “B-b-but P-p-poe can’t say that!” reveal themselves as sheep. Poe is damned for being too formalist, too abstract, too mathematical, just as Plato is, when both are, in fact, the most practical critics we have. America’s Classical Restraint is demonstrated for the world by Emerson’s quiet attack on Poe in his famous essay,”The Poet.”

8.  The Sacred Wood—T.S Eliot

Pre-Raphaelite Criticism comes to fruition in this document of High-Church, Harvard-educated, Anglo-American, Arnoldian, anti-Romantic, French Decadent Modernism.  Eliot is the most concentrated and toxic drink of the literature of decay. Rimbaud’s dying Romanticism sickens us after a while with sweet excess; Eliot, however, flatters our institutional pride; Eliot is the devil as the well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman; Rimbaud’s decadence we can finally keep at arm’s length, but Eliot worms his way into our intelligence; cunningly selective, he is a finishing school for academic slyness, a how-to guide for freezing-out the passionate past with New Criticial hypocrisy.  The undergound streams of Poe and Emerson combined to create a weird Third: a strange specimen of hostile suavity.  Eliot is the pendulum swinging from ‘the sugar of poetry hiding the medicine of learning’  to ‘the medicine of poetry hiding the sugar of learning.’  (The smart ones keep clear of this pendulum entirely.)

9.  Poets In A Landscape—Gilbert Highet

Archaeological criticism—the plain approach to Criticism is exemplified by this sweet evocation of poetry as stories of people in history, in this case, 7 ancient Roman poets. A classical scholar, professor Highet, who translates the poetic examples in this book, was born in Scotland, and was a beloved teacher at Columbia from 1937 to 1972. While his colleagues were exploiting the rise of the Creative Writing business model, or indulging in Nietzchean, Deconstructive, post-Modernist frenzy, professor Highet made an excursion to Italy and wrote this beautiful book, which treats poetry as the result of not only the structure of the Latin elegaic couplet, or the relation of Catullus to Caesar and the woman who broke his heart, but the very surrounding air.

10.  The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—W. Jackson Bate

The document of self-conscious Modernism—by an 18th century expert aware of how belated Romanticsm and Modernism really are. (Beating Harold Bloom’s far less readable Anxiety of Influence to the punch by several years, he made Bloom belated, as well.)  If the modern sensibility is a guilty evasion of the past, if Modernism is nothing but the paranoia of that evasion in the scream of a butterfly, The Burden of the Past is the reasonable antidote to this anxiety.  This little book (a collection of four lectures, in fact)  is so sane and broad in its approach, and unites so many authors and eras in its universal theme, that it will substantially increase anyone’s literary I.Q. in one or two readings.  It’s one of those books in which you’ll feel the need to pick up a highlighter, but it will be useless, because you’ll end up highlighting every line.

AS POE AND POUND PREPARE, 18 OTHERS MUST WAIT FOR NEXT YEAR

Lefty Ron Silliman won 14 to lead the New Jersey Williams

There were three twenty-game winners in the Scarriet American League, and T.S. Eliot’s team had two of them: Betrand Russell (22-10) and James Frazier, the author of The Golden Bough (20-10).  Eliot had a remarkable staff, which included Corbiere (15-10), Winston Churchill (17-8) and Matthew Arnold (14-11).

Virgil won 21 games for Emily Dickinson.

The New England Frost had three 19 game winners, Edward Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, and Bobby Burns.

George Santayana, the Harvard professor who retired to fascist Italy, logged 15 wins for the Hartford Stevens.

Team Cummings managed to sign Sigmund Freud, who wasn’t enough to bring home a title, but led the club with a 15-11 mark.

Walter Pater brought home 17 wins for Marianne Moore’s ballclub playing out of New York, Yvor Winters led the Iowa City Grahams with 15 victories, and Walt Whitman’s team saw good efforts from Swinburne (17-10) and Oscar Wilde (16-15), though Wilde faltered in the second half.

Ron Silliman led his team, the New Jersey Williams, with a 14-11 mark.

Whitman picked up Gaugin, Melville, and Aaron Copeland as starting pitchers, but all three were hard-luck hurlers.  There was an odd chemistry to the Whitman club that never clicked: Robinson Jeffers, D.H. Lawrence, William Rossetti, Edgar Lee Masters, Bronson Alcott, Lawrence Ferlinghetti were in a lineup together that never hit in the clutch, didn’t run the bases enough, failed to move runners over, and even fought in the clubhouse; it was a mess.  Whitman’s verve never carried over to his interesting mix of players.

William Carlos Williams shared last place with Whitman; the lineup of Duchamp, Creeley, Rexroth, Duncan, Snyder, Loy, Noguchi, and Spicer just didn’t provide enough punch.

Mallarme and Hollander hit for Stevens, Dos Passos and Picasso for Cummings, and Dickinson got hitting from Keats and TennysonFrost was in the race for a while, getting good offense from Hardy, Larkin, Oliver, and Wordsworth.

After his heralded signing at mid-season, Jesus Christ of the Frost proved to be human on the mound at 10-5.  Pound and Eliot could not be caught.

The Scarriet National League had no twenty-game winners; Philip Sidney won 18 for the Maine Millays, Abe Lincoln was 17-14 for the New York Bryants, Longfellow got 18 wins from Horace, Rufus Griswold led the Emersons with 16 wins, Wittgenstein and Marvell both won 17 for the Ashberys, and Robert Penn Warren was 16-13 for the Tennessee RansomsOliver Wendell Holmes was the ace for the Boston Lowells at 16-9. The 9th place Whittiers were led by William Lloyd Garrison (13-16), and the lowly Ginsbergs by Mark Van Doren’s 12-19 mark.

W.H. Auden carried the Ashbery offense with 42 homers, and Salvador Dali added 29;  Gertrude Stein and Albert Camus combined for 27 homeruns from the catcher’s spot, as John Ashbery’s club finished just 3 games back of the Poe.

The Boston Lowell had a ferocious attack with Browning, Chaucer, Henry James, Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  They missed the pennant by only 7 games.

Longfellow was blessed with a lineup of Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe, Alessandro Manzoni, Washington Irving, and Queen Victoria.  But Dante and Goethe were hurt and Michelangelo never looked comfortable at the plate.  The team was led by Manzoni’s 34 homers.  Richard Henry Dana added 24.

Bryant was in the race, too, with Homer and James Fenimore Cooper and Victor Hugo all having 25 homer/100 RBI seasons, but, like most of the other clubs, their pitching wasn’t deep enough.

The Concord Emersons expected more from Nietzsche (10-18) but the run support was not always there, with Emanuel Swedenborg, Jones Very, Margaret Fuller, and Karl Marx unable to stay healthy or hit consistently  in the middle of the lineup.

Millay signed Beethoven in the middle of the year and he went 14-6 after replacing Norma Millay (2-6).  Shakespeare provided 39 homers but Sappho and Euclid were disappointing.  The addition of Beethoven to the pitching staff was too little, too late.

Aristotle never really hit for the Ransoms (.249, 13 homers) and William Blake (.311, 32 homers) was the only player to hit for the Ginsbergs.

There will be lots of changes in the off-season.  Chemistry between writers is a delicate matter, indeed.

SECRET ADVICE TO POETS: DON’T USE METAPHOR

Coleridge.  Does anybody really know what Imagination is?

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, ruined poetry for the ages when he said, “Metaphor is the Soul of Poetry.”

Many in Aristotle’s wake have come to believe that poetry is metaphor.   The deluded are legion who say, for instance, ‘Science tells us what things are, but poetry tells us what things are like.  What things are like is closer to the truth than what things are, because we cannot know what they are.

Accordingly, they say, since Aristotle, the poets (who are metaphorical) have progressed on all levels, while the scientists (who are factual)  have gone backwards.

The fact that scientists get all the credit for the way we live our lives today, and poets get none, is due to bad p.r.   This misunderstanding is about to change, however.  Think-tanks are thinking of ways, even as we speak.

The English Romantic and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge made things even worse when he uttered his famous:

The fancy combines, but the imagination creates.

Coleridge never quite explained how imagination created, but the rise of science must have been fanciful, for chemists, botanists, astronomers, and physicists were combining for all they were worth, and changing the world as they were doing so.

Combining A and B is a lot more interesting than saying A is like B.  So much worse for the poets, then, that the scientists understood this–and the poets did not.

True, the fancy will combine in ways that produce inferior works: a unicorn, for instance, combines horse and horn to create something new; but we all know this combination is not really creation.  In fact, it’s silly.  It’s fancifulThe unicorn is nothing more than a horse with a horn.

What is the imagination, then?

No one—not even Coleridge—has been able to say.  You can take my word for it, or you can spend several years studying the Biographia Literaria.  OK, I see you’re willing to take my word for it.

Poets always do better when they copy the scientists, instead of striking out on their own.   The poet who is ashamed of poetry is usually the one who finds a way to make something scientific of it, and rescue poetry for the sake of knowledge.  We owe a great debt to these timid, shamed, sensitive souls, not for their science, nor their poetry, but for the way they make poetry slightly more respectable.

John Crowe Ransom, poet, New Critic, Modernist, father of the modern academic writing program era, (along with Paul Engle and Allen Tate,) published an essay in 1938 in which this Southern conservative gentleman came to terms with the new poetry.  He called it “pure poetry,” and in this essay (“Poets Without Laurels”) Ransom sounds like a chemist, a scientist making a discovery:

There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas.  But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land.  He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.

The traditional poets, according to Ransom, combined morals and charm; they made “virtue delicious.”  He quotes “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens to demonstrate the new order. The modern poets, like Stevens, (and the rest of Ransom’s friends,) do not give a hoot for virtue in poetry.  Now Ransom, the chemist, holds forth:

The union of beauty with goodness and truth has been common enough to be regarded as natural. It is the dissociation which is unnatural and painful. …But when we talk about simple and compound experiences, we are evidently employing a chemical mode of speech to represent something we cannot make out.  …I shall make a tentative argument from the analogy of chemistry.  Lemonade is only a mechanical mixture, not very interesting to chemists.  …Table salt, however is a true chemical compound; a molecule of it is NaCl.  Understanding this, you do not claim to know the taste either of sodium or of chlorine when you say you are acquainted with the taste of salt.
…NaCl is found in the state of nature, where it is much commoner than either of its constituents.  But suppose the chemists decided to have nothing to do with NaCl because of its compoundness, and undertook to extract from it the pure Na and Cl to serve on the table.  …Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism.  They pursue A, an aesthetic element…and will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade.   …Is the old-fashioned poetry a mechanical mixture like lemonade or a chemical compound like table salt?

Lemonade is the result of fancy; NaCl is nature’s imagination.

The best critics are chemists.

Here is Randall Jarrell from his 1942 essay, “The End of the Line,” in which he argues modernism is merely an extentsion of romanticism, and that the vector of violent experimentalism called modernism has been exhausted:

“Romanticism holds in solution contradictory tendencies which, isolated and exaggerated in modernism, look startlingly opposed both  to each other and to the earlier stages of romanticism.”

Jarrell names 13 complex qualities modernism and romanticism share, and metaphor isn’t one of them.  To the new, modern chemists of poetry, metaphor is a quaint anachronism.

Of course, critics like Ransom and Jarrell are only following in the footsteps of the master, the godfather of the New Critics, T.S. Eliot. We quote from “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920):

“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”

With this statement begins the New Criticism and its science.  To continue from “Tradition and the Individual Talent:”

“He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”

When Eliot asks the poet to comprehend the “obvious fact” of  the “material of art,” he is speaking of “material” as a scientist would.  Again, from “Tradition:”

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.  I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.  …When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid.  This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected..The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.

All that chemical “mixing” and “combining!”   And look at the famous poem which appeared shortly afterwards:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The shred of platinum is like the forgetful snow: if it caused a reaction, it doesn’t recall.  The platinum remains unaffected; Eliot’s mind prefers stasis; the breeding and mixing of April is painful to the mind of the poet.  But leaving such analysis aside, Ransom and Eliot both agree that imagination combines profoundly; the fancy, less so.  Metaphor is merely the default, background, mixing process.  Metaphor is often pursued by a lower order of poets: the rain is like my tears, the city snowfall is like a white cathedral, etc.  Combining can also be used by the fancy, as in our example above of the unicorn.  We could say the imagination is concerned with: A pluscombines to produce C, not: A is like B.   And it’s true that combination is more vital than metaphor.  But whether a poet is fanciful or imaginative depends on the poet’s skill and the effect intended; it depends on how and what is combined.

Just as Ransom had a master, so Eliot had one.  Eliot’s master was also an American with a European character, and one who wrote famous essays and famous poems.  Eliot emerged as a major talent during this post-WW I period in London when he wrote reviews, or essays that were reviews, penetratingly on: Shakespeare, Dante, Ben Johnson, and Swinburne.

We quote now from the writer who perfected the essay-review in the previous century; this is from his 1845 review of Thomas Hood’s Prose and Verse:

‘Fancy,’ says the author of Aids to Reflection (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his Genevieve—‘Fancy combines—Imagination creates.’ This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference—without even a difference of degree.  The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all.  Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations.  The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist:—if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially… It may be said—‘We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.’  Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts.  It is no more than a collation of known limbs—features—qualities.  Thus with all which claims to be new—which appears to be a creation of the intellect:—it is a re-soluble into the old.  …What we feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it.  No subject exalts it into the imagination.  When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he is.  He is fanciful in ‘Lalla Rookh,’ and had he written ‘Inferno,’ there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability to be any thing more, unless at rare intervals…
The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty.  The Imagination is the artist of the four.  From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious…The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined…

And here, from the Thomas Hood review, is the chemistry:

…as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them—or even nothing of the qualities of either.  The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited.  Its materials extend throughout the Universe.

So is Coleridge’s formula undone.  And, in another review, this one of Hawthorne, Aristotle’s wisdom is overthrown:

In defense of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said.  Its best appeals are made to the fancy—that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters improper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal; having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow.

Edgar Poe, from an 1847 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s  Twice Told Tales

 

ARE YOUR POLITICS STEEPED IN ANCIENT THOUGHT?

plato & aristotle.png

Commie Plato and Nazi Aristotle Hold Forth

If you are a learned person, your poltical ideas are like expensive wine: they have fermented a long time in the deep-delved earth; your arguments are subtle, winding, ever-fresh and powerful, as they trickle among the ancient stones where the blood of the first gods is still moist.  Your political ideas have nothing to do with sound-bites on television or what some political hack did last month or what the gullible learned in History 101.

In Plato’s day, poetry was politics in every sense.  Hyperbole?  Well, even if it only seems that way because Dame History reveals to its students what is not apparent to mere hedonists in the span of a mortal life,  is it less a fact?  No, it is a fact.  Today, poetry is merely pursued as office politics: how many pulitzer prizes do you have?

By the time we get to post-modernism, the artist gives up all claim to political importance; with Andy Warhol, the artists said, “We’re silly.”  This was the final chapter in a book that began in the late 19th century with “art for art’s sake” and the unfolding of the self-consiousness of the niche-artist in divison-of-labor capitalism in the 20th century.

The Modernist “revolution” was played out in Paris cafes between the two world wars.   What sort of “revolution” happens in cafes?  Who are we kidding?

Museum exhibits became the tool of artistic revolution beginning with the Salon Des Refuses, sponsored by the reactionary government of Napoleon III.

What sort of “revolution” is possible in a cafe?  In a museum?  In a gallery? In a concert hall?

Think of all the major art movements in the last 150 years which begin in galleries and exhibitions and magazine-spreads and interviews and almost immediately settle into museums and are published as official canon material.

The “new” does not belong in a museum, and putting it there is no “revolution” against the old, but rather a “revolution” agasint the new, because everything becomes immediately ripe for the museum; the difference between old and new is obscured in all sorts of shallow ways, destroying the ability to see and decipher old art.  Art dwindles into trend.  Art is headlined into obscurity.

The modern art and poetry movements have been reactionary, retrograde, elitist vulgarities, manufactured and artificial, puffed and hyped, bought and sold with stunning rapidity.  Before the people even see it, the modern poem is in the canon, the modern painting is in the museum, proclaiming itself as historical and legitimate.

This tendency for governments, revolutions, atrocities, genocides, ideologies, to emerge full-blown overnight, has been a blight upon our age; the tyrants want change and want it now.

Slow down, people!   Your “innovation” might not be so innovative, dudes.  “Non omnis moriar,” cries the past.

Moderns don’t like to study the past because it humbles them too much.  The moderns see the ancients thinking what they (the moderns) thought was new and in more articulate and far-reaching ways than they (the moderns) ever dreamed, and the moderns give up in despair: they take another hit of LSD or they watch a TV marathon while giggling uncontrollably.  It’s kind of sad.

In America the problem is even worse, because the stinky British (as opposed to more learned cultures) have this “Masterpiece Theatre” hold on the American intellectual consciousness—if it has a British accent and if it has read a few books, American intellectuals swoon in admiration.  Henry James and T.S. Eliot are America’s greatest writers—because they became British.  Poe is the most reviled American author among American intellectuals—because the French love Poe and the British (including—surprise! Henry James & TS Eliot) hate him.  Americans are not very good with languages, and therefore French gets them rather worried and English is oh-so-comfy, even when intellectually vicious and empty of thought.

The British have still not gotten over the fact that the French and the Americans beat them in the American Revolution and for decades afterwards, the Brits thought it only a matter of time before the empty-headed Americans with all that forest-land would came running back to Mommy.

Meanwhile, the British have played Americans in ways only possible for a bitter parent to play a child.

The British intellectual, bred on running an Empire for centuries, can be two things at once: a passionate iconoclast and tweedy conservative.  The British intellectual can be both, even though it may make little sense at first blush. Americans cannot.   The American intellectual is either completely Left or completely Right.   And one finds that the more radically Left or the more radically Right the American intellectual is, the more of an anglophile that American intellectual is.  If the American intellectual favors Aristotle, for instance, they have a tendency to be conservative.  This is not because the American intellectual reads Aristotle and is trained, thus, to be conservative.  No, the American intellectual learns his conservatism from the British intellectual’s reading of Aristotle.

In conclusion, I shall close with words from Martin Seymour-Smith, the influential British intellectual (and companion of the poet Robert Graves) who many Americans have probably never heard of, but they should, because Americans swim in his kind of thought:

Aristotle, whatever he may have thought about war or peace or the benefits of Greek culture or about the convenience of hundreds of thousands of people, was quite powerless, and could not possibly have done anything but supported what may be called a nationalist program.  Besides which, notoriously—and this is relevant—his work contains no objection to the practice of slavery, which meant that—rather like those who believe that Jesus Christ spoke English—he assumed the natural superiority of Greeks (he had the disadvantage of not having heard of the superiority of England, just as, although to become the chief inspiration to the most pious of Christian philosophers, he was denied the benefits of paradise on the grounds that he made the seriously rational error of being born before Christ—and not in England to boot.)  To point this out is not, however, to point any triumphalist and “politically correct” finger at Aristotle.  Political correctness is the sullen revenge of the spiteful, intolerant, and ill-willed dunce upon all the liveliness in the world.  It is no more than the humorlessly insincere resort of minds so mediocre that, for them, a revival of Stalinism is preferable to the pain of a glimpse of self—it is the last sigh of the beast that Nietzsche identified as ressentiment.  Such minds take their grim notion of pleasure—like the fantasised erections of centenarian eunuchs—in combing what little they wish to know of history for figures who seem not to conform to the artificial standards of twentieth-century government at its most inept.

We owe to him, too, the distinctions between the glutton and the mean man, the lover and the friend, the buffoon and the wit; our notion of moderation begins with what he said.  Could anyone have done better?  The syllogism—and many of the subtleties associated with it—is his: the argument that runs, so familiarly to us, in the form of, “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.”  It is from Aristotle, originally, that we get the realization that the assumption implicit in I saw a policeman calling at number six this morning, I wonder what the she has done wrong is false and malicious.  That all the known political parties of the world proceed by these methods, treating those they aim to rule as mindless scum—a source of cash with which they may take the world to the brink of disaster—is no tribute to their respect for Aristotle.

—Martin Seymour-Smith

PHILOSOPHY IS THE NEW POETRY

lant

Hey, Nick Lantz, can I have a little poetry with that philosophy?

It isn’t even poetry, yet it wants to be philosophy.

Or, should we say, since it isn’t poetry, philosophy is a very fine thing for it to be?

Poetry has been traditionally tangible:  language (a means of communicating) crystallized into art (a means made tangible).

Philosophy is an inquiry, not an art, and yet today it seems the esteemed poets want to be philosophers.

Exceptional critics have always been philosophers on poetry, but in our day it seems critics wait for their philosophical crumbs to fall from the tables of the poets.

Philosophy has shifted from critic to poet as art has fled, ashamed.   In the halls of learning, inquiry has always been respected, while art, the finished product, is viewed with suspicion.  Endless inquiry is the breath of philosophy; the art-piece chokes it.  Wearied by endless speculation, philosophical minds rest awhile in the finite couch of art.  Contemporary poetry, however, has been denuded of its finitude, its art; the poets cast about as philosophers, and the critics, the poets’ fawning philosophically-minded shadows, welcome them as brethren in a shifty enterprise of shadows, bereft of both disinterested inquiry and entertaining art.

As an example (there are so many from which to choose) here’s a very recent “poetry review” from Raintaxi.  It begins with the usual slavering worship of prizes:

Nick Lantz’s We Don’t Know We Don’t Know and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House are both phenomenal books—the former is the 2009 Bakeless Prize-winner for poetry, the latter the 2010 Felix Pollack Prize-winner. Let’s acknowledge that any writer who won just one of those contests would be worth attention; to win both prizes, and to have the books come out basically simultaneously, is the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run not just in his first at-bat, but off his first pitch.

In the next paragraph, the reviewer continues to skip the book under review—using his own eyes and ears to impress upon his readers what lies within—and, instead, anxiously consults the latest zeitgeist manifesto:

Lantz’s work could, like a good swath of American poetry presently published, be filed under the heading of Elliptical Poetry. In Stephen Burt’s defining ur-text, a review of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes in the Boston Review, he writes “Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.” It may be a testament to Burt’s acuity that this exact tension is something of a default setting in contemporary American poetry.

To “manifest a person” echoes Wordsworth’s “men speaking to men” and Aristotle telling us comedy manifests “low” and tragedy “high” persons.   Aristotle’s attempt at category was overturned by the poet Shakespeare and Wordsworth’s philosophy was betrayed by his own poetry.   Literature as action imitating actions of persons has been a philosophical truism for a very long time.  Burt’s “ur-text” is nothing more than a fad splashing in a shallow puddle.

The attempt by poetry critics to venture into the realm of metaphysics  often leaves them looking like William Wordsworth in yellow garters: rather ridiculous.  The “person” as used by Burt and our Raintaxi reviewer is a philosophical inquiry, a “person” in Burt’s words that we “try” to “manifest.”  There is no agreement on how the “person” might be manifested or who the “person” might be, or the reason for the “manifestation;” Burt is not asserting any artistic philosophy or critical dicta; he is merely following the lead of a trend in which “gizmo” is easing off in favor of “personhood” or some such nonsense, as if real poets stick their fingers in the wind to find out whether it is blowing more ‘gizmo’ or more ‘personhood.’  The poetry of Byron and the poetry of Wordsworth reflects the radically different nature of those men.  A critic who lumped Wordsworth and Byron as ‘Romantics’ is blind to their work as poets—and persons.

But neither Byron nor Wordsworth fancied themselves as philosophers first, and poets, second.  A certain philosophical outlook will always inform coherent poetry, but this is not the same thing as philosophy masking itself as incoherent poetry—with poetry critics abetting the cheat.

Here in the next two paragraphs of the review, we are quickly sucked into the quicksand of purely philosophical inquiry:

How this tension plays out in Lantz’s work is not necessarily as “verbal gizmos,” however, and certainly something’s being undermined, but it’s not necessarily “the coherence of speaking selves.” From “Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window” in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know: “Vermeer’s light fools you.” From “The Marian Apparitions” in The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House: “One Thing is not really / the other no matter how badly I wish / it were so.” From “Either Or,” in We Don’t Know: “Naming / everything is a way / of naming nothing.” What’s being undermined is the stability of things—the suitability of the light in a Vermeer to truly illuminate; whether or not the name given to a man will be enough for the man to live within; how things, fundamentally, cannot be what we wish they were.

It’s not for nothing that Lightning begins with a poem titled “The Ship of Theseus,” (which your memory or a Google-search will let you know has to do with the paradox of an object’s objectness if its constituent parts have been replaced); also not for nothing is the fact that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld’s famous speech delineating the four types of knowledge (known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown knowns). In both books, in their own ways (and in complementary ways when considered together), Lantz’s poetry examines conceptions of knowing, with Lightning focused on the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood and We Don’t Know focused on the inconsistencies and difficulties inherent in the person trying to do the understanding.

These are legitimate philosophical concerns, “naming everything,” “one thing is not really the other, “”the slipperiness of the objects trying to be understood,” “conceptions of knowing,” but one gets the idea that the philosophy is completely eclipsing the poetry.

The Raintaxi reviewer divides his review into three parts.  Part one is called ‘The Things Themselves,’ as if this were some kind of philosophical essay rather than a poetry review.  Then follows part two, “And Who Speaks” where we at last get a glance at the poetry itself:

That last bit, more than anything else, needs attention: the person trying to do the understanding. This is what makes putting Lantz’s work among other Elliptical writers dicey, because Lantz’s poetry is among the most self-less work in contemporary American poetry. To some degree, kudos is in order for that fact—it’s far too common and simple for contemporary poetry to be built upon the shivery, unstable rock of the “I,” and Lantz avoids that tricky trap. However, in its place is a startling lack of narrator, of poetic self. This lack wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that Lantz’s poetry seems, at times, to be trying to make aspects of narrative cohere; for instance, a dead brother haunts both collections; a single father plays a large role; whatever consistent speaker is present is married (a wife is mentioned in both books); and religion, specifically Christianity, plays heavily throughout all of this, as do paintings and myth.

Read just about any contemporary poet working the seam between lyric, narrative, and surrealism —C.D. Wright, Bob Hicok, or Tony Hoagland, for example—and you can’t help but have an understanding of that writer’s writerly self after a handful of poems (or, if the narrator is someone other than the writer, that’s made clear). Lantz, however, seems to be trying to work the magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid from an absence of self. This particular trick is made manifest through Lantz’s use of “you” in his poems, which somehow ends up being massively troubling. For instance, “Thinking Makes it So,” from We Don’t Know We Don’t Know:

Less matter with more art, I say. Don’t
retell the story of your brother and his
seven dogs minus one. How did it go?

The reader’s thrust weirdly into this poem, having to somehow tell a story s/he likely doesn’t know. Stranger still, halfway through the poem come the lines

You first told me this story while we were looking down
into a volcanic crater
filled with a lake so blue the sky was ashamed of itself.

The construction here—the fact that Lantz would make the poem contingent on a “you” to tell/complete the story instead of a “you” who is the listener, the spoken-to—is both a cool shift and a difficult one.

“The magic of the lyric/narrative hybrid” is such a painfully robotic phrase; such language betrays a critic who have given up his autonomy,  trading independence for a mouthing of the trendy cliches of the day.   The quotes from the poetry itself are not food for the poetry critic or the reader of poetry, but pearls to embellish the critic’s fragmented admiration of fragmented philosophizing.

The New Critic Cleanth Brooks published an essay in the Kenyon Review in 1951 and enthusiastically quoted Lionel Trilling’s praise for writers who are “intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.”   Now this is the sort of phrase than an exacting critic would sneer at and not let pass, but it makes moderns stand up and cheer:  ‘Yea.  No florid romanticism for us.  We’re modern.’  Once this phrase—quoted admiringly in 1951 by a poetry critic—is accepted, however, what’s left, really, to distinguish the poet from the philosopher?  True, in the next paragraph Cleanth Brooks raises the idea of poetic form: “tensions,” “symbolic development,” “ironies and their resolutions.”  But this is too little, too late, even in 1951.   Symbolic development? Ironies and their resolutions?  Whatever, pal. I’m intensely at work upon the recalcitrant stuff of life.

Part three is entitled “How” but this is perhaps a misprint and it was meant to be “And how!”   Since we wish to be fair and print the review in its entirety, here is the final part of the review, also quoted in full:

Lantz offers, despite this unstable and destabilizing “you,” startling imagery and fantastic conjunctions in both books. Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts in We Don’t Know We Don’t Know‘s very first poem, “Ancient Theories”:

Why not believe that the eye throws its own light,
that seeing illuminates
the world?
On the moon,
astronaut David Scott drops a hammer and a falcon feather,
and we learn nothing
we didn’t already know.

Beyond the wordplay and strange conjunctions, however, Lantz is working magic in terms of structure and form. In both books he utilizes an intriguing form, as in Lightning’s “Judith & Holoferenes”:

The brain goes on living, or so they say, for a few
seconds after the head is
severed. The tent stays
shut. The sword rusts down to a feather of iron.

I don’t know if there’s a name for this: the lines essentially form triplets, starting at the left margin, tabbing in one, and then tabbing in severely (the third tabbed-in line varies). The form—malleable, shifting, recognizable—is welcome and interesting, and allows Lantz both the flexibility to whirl through his poetry and dramatize breaks while simultaneously offering the reader the comforts of classicism and formality.

We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is sectioned according to the Rumsfeldian quartet (though the second section, Known Unknowns, is made entirely of the long poem “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?”), and a good chunk of the poems feature either a Rumsfeld quotation at their start or, more startling, a passage from Pliny the Elder. Side-by-side, Pliny’s observations about the natural world and how it’s apprehended form a pleasing dialogue with Rumsfeld’s lines about the tricky linguistic horrors of the war in Iraq (though Lantz’s politics don’t color the poetry; dogma is, in fact, absent, and, regardless of how one feels about the war, it’s impossible not to be a little mesmerized by Rumsfeld’s linguistics). Against these two questioning guides, eons apart, the poems probe at ideas of memory and knowledge, returning always to the slipperiness inherent in ever truly knowing anything. The opening lines of “List of Things We Know” acknowledge just how slippery is the slope:

40% of all
births are
accidental.
10% of all
accidents
are births.

The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House is divided into three parts, structured almost as a trip—it starts with the Joyce Carol Oats-ian “Where You Are, Where You’ve Been, Where You’re Going,” heads through “What Land of Milk and Honey,” and ends with “Back to Earth Unharmed.” Rumsfeld and Pliny are gone; in their place are Bible stories, myths, paintings, national parks, newspaper headlines, films of Bigfoot, and Jimi Hendrix. In place of We Don’t Know’s long “Questioner,” there’s “The History of Fire,” a seven-page whopper that establishes that the reader and the world of the poems are within history (and, therefore, inherently obscured):

for hours, the train

glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,

where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

Nick Lantz’s two debut books establish him as a major new poet, and his willingness to challenge form and narrative identity is laudable. Regardless of the occasional haunted feel of certain of his poems, both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.

The reviewer at times becomes besotted with his own glee, writing, “Seemingly unafraid of any subject, Lantz dances fast from Aristotle to astronauts.”

But mostly we find from the reviewer a deep respect for the philosophical inquiry of the poet’s work, even as the lines of the actual poems quoted are not very good.

Next to rhetoric like this

“both books are testament to someone deeply engaged with trying to come to some meaningful and stable system through which to understand, apprehend, and appreciate the world.”

it would be gauche to ask, “Well, are the poems any good?”

I wonder what a philosopher would say?

POETRY’S NEXT BIG THING: THE BRAIN!!!!

 According to the New York Times, science is coming to the humanities:

To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”

 (Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.

 As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

 This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

 Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too.   —Patricia Cohen, The New York Times

This is good news. 

It’s about time “figuring out what someone else is thinking” became a concern of Letters.    For too long “figuring out” and “thinking” have been absent.   

Perhaps the divine eros of Dante and the ratiocination of Poe will return and the silly acadademic fads will be banned forever.  

The New Critics fancied they were doing science, but they forgot to ask why paradox and ambiguity and symbol existed; blinded by their rejection of origins (“Intentional fallacy”) and aims (“Affective fallacy”) for the sake of the pure text, the New Critics were, in reality, hopelessly unscientific.   So much for structuralism.  Psychoanalysis concerns itself too much with  drives and not enough with thoughts.  Marxism burdens its advocates with the impossible job of inventing ideal governance, of forming an economic Plato’s Republic that always finds itself rejecting a great deal more than poetry.

Ironically, poetry was perhaps the only thing Plato got right.

Brain science, as anyone in the field will tell you, is still very primitive.   But if the new trend gets us to see the poetry (and art in general) as one planet among many, and to see poetry as natural and selfish and not merely benign, to study human nature in a truly global context of secret motive, where matching wits and competing is just as real as the material of  which the universe is supposedly made, then this is a good thing.

Science does not have to invalidate art or make it subordinate; quite the contrary.  

It is precisely because fiction carries knowledge, and is not knowledge itself, that humanity in general takes any interest in it. 

Fiction is not some indirect means to a greater reality or the truth, fiction is not a window to the truth.  Fiction exists as a socialized address; it speaks to us in the act of its speaking, and thus is reality which speaks.  Art does not depict reality, or point to reality—it is reality.  It is reality speaking.  The opinion another holds regarding us is as real for them as it is for us, and how that opinion is expressed resembles a fiction because this is fiction’s realm, but this resemblance is not a casual one, but actual.  If we water fake plants, we still water them.  Accident can determine how another feels about us, but a feeling expressed is never accidental.  Reality is accident, but art never is.  Since carrying knowledge is a real function, the idea that we never access the knowledge itself matters not; in fact, it peaks our interest because the inaccessibility of knowledge replicates our experience of reality.  What is our experience of reality?   Reality is an experience we are constantly experiencing but never finally knowing.   It is by experiencing fiction, by experiencing what merely carries knowledge  that we finally know anything at all, and this is why fiction is our only means of knowing—because reality is a fiction which carries itself (its reality, our reality) ever further, without ever resting in knowledge.

Here is the Times again:

They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Plato was the last great scientist of fiction.  It was fiction’s reality that Plato feared, in banning it from his Republic.  Plato’s attack on art remains the greatest homage to art in literature.  It is by supposing that reality is fiction and that fiction is reality that we better understand both.  Aristotle’s approach was to treat art as if it were a worthy component of reality; thus when Plato warned that art watered the passions, Aristotle claimed that art served the state by purging the passions, but Aristotle’s catharsis counter was nothing more than sleight of hand—for nothing is purged when it springs into existence; Aristotle made art a toy, a tool, of reality, but Plato knew it was more.

Before a poet reading this gets a swelled head—a poet friend in college enjoyed quoting Plato that poetry was something “divine”—we should remember that most poets are helplessly Aristotelian in their approach: their poetry is ‘about’ this or that; their conception of poetry is that of an illustration or an example of reality, but not reality itself.

Partial descriptions of reality are the soul of science; religion is impatient to disclose the secrets of the whole; devotion wants the answer, and only fictitously can such a thing be given.  Evolution is scientific by its very definition: scientifc knowledge evolves; it is acquired slowly; but knowledge cannot be partial, nor can the factual be partial; by a rude paradox, then, we find religion is more factual than science, since no fact can be true if facts keep evolving; religious truth, by attaching itself to what is unchanging, eclipses scientific knowledge in all but a few studious and lonely minds. 

I do not mean to say that religious truths are true in any objective sense, but to the individual mind—which is how knowledge, as far as we know, is known—religion is true as reflected in social reality (to most of us, the highest reality and truth),  guided and comprised of symbols of behavior, a fictional morality, if you will, which significantly influences all human thought and action.

Again, the Times:

 Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.

 At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.

 Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

 The brain may be it.

Again, it’s way too early to tell, and really quite doubtful, if “the brain may be it,” but the “evolutionary psychologists” mentioned in the article think broadly enough in terms of human motivation that thinking about literature might acquire wings after so many decades of trends which feature narrow, earthbound pursuits of the  pure text, lumbering politics, and self-centered psychology.

Art has been tamed by all these fads, over-shadowed by them, and perhaps the ‘next big thing’ will end up doing the same. 

So let’s take this opportunity to speak rationally and scientifically once more about art’s importance.

Art’s divine function is to mirror life sufficiently and then distort it so that a new reality is created in the cognitive and emotional life of the audience, and this distorting can be horrific or beautiful or comic, depending on the character and aim of the sculptor.  The cognitive or emotional life created in the audience does not merely reflect life; it is something new.  To be familiar, it must reflect life up to a point.  The necessity of this familiarity should serve the art, not the other way around.  When the art merely serves the reflective necessity, it will impress (in the way all similitude does) but not elevate the audience.  Art which makes no effort to reflect life fails on this very account.  This failure can manifest itself in a variety of ways: lack of personality, of action, of form, of duration, of emotion, of subtlety, but these demerits are qualities, not particular elements of life.  The artist uses clay, not life, to build up his art; the clay can be anything so long as it holds an impression, but the manner of artistry belongs to the will of the artist.  The merit of the work will be found in its unity—its faults will exist in parts, or in those spaces, pauses, and gaps where mere life (sans art, sans science) shows through.

As far as what Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”   This reminded me of how I always admired the Beatles’ first big American hit: She Loves You.

This is a perfect example of how art is, more than anything else, cunning expression.

The lyrics of this song somehow manage to celebrate love while excluding the lover from the song.  The typical love song is “I love you,” in which the man addresses the woman, or another common variation is “you don’t love me,” the Petrarchan trope, types of addresses which Shakespeare had so much fun twisting about  in his sonnets. 

With “she loves you,” we have something which is many, many levels more complex than “I love you.”  Yet, on the surface, it’s simple enough to work as a happy love song.  Yea, yea, yea.

However the ‘next big thing’ plays itself out, let’s hope we see more of the following quotes in english classes:

 The orange ray of the spectrum and the buzz of the gnat (which never rises above the second A), affect me with nearly similar sensations.  In hearing the gnat, I perceive the color.  In perceiving the color, I seem to hear the gnat.   –Edgar Poe

 Colors and grief, memories, the expected and the unexpected, this tree and the fluttering of its foliage, its annual variation, its shadow, as well as its substance, the accidents of its shape and position, the remote thoughts which it brings to the edge of my wandering attention—they are equivalents.  Any one can be substituted for any other.  Is not this perhaps the definition of things?  —Leonardo Da Vinci

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

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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

DEAR AMBER, BE NOT “LAZY” OR “DUMB”

We loved your latest Hawaii/Benazir Bhuto dream essay, but we noticed you haven’t been participating in the conversations of other posts on Harriet.

It’s not enough to just send missives.

You need to be present.

That blog needs your help.

And you can help yourself by sharpening your intellectual teeth there.

I know there’s not much to choose from.   Harriet doesn’t have much going on.

Perhaps you feel intimidated.

Allow us to break down for you a recent Harriet post and comments.

A post by Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Christian Bok (it’s the one with the guy who looks like he’s got indigestion, holding a book in front of the mike, blue background).

Christian Bok is a Canadian professor who wrote a best-selling novel consisting of chapters which use only one vowel.   He read the dictionary five times before he wrote it.    That’s all you need to know about him, really.  Not particularly original, he’s one of those contemporary exotics doing wild experiments in the corner of some ancient fingernail.

Let’s look at the key portion of the lengthy Bok quotation in Goldsmith’s Harriet post.

We”ll look at it in two parts.

First part:

“I’m probably technically oriented and it seems to me that among the poets that I know, many are very lazy and very dumb. I always joke with my students that poetry couldn’t possibly be as hard as they think it is, because if it were as hard as they thought it was, poets wouldn’t do it. Really, they’re the laziest, stupidest people I know. They became poets in part because they were demoted to that job, right? You should never tell your students to write what they know because, of course, they know nothing: they’re poets! If they knew something, they’d be in that discipline actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever it is where they could excel.”

Don’t be freaked out by this, Amber. It’s pretty simple.

This is lifted right from the Greek philosopher Plato “If they [the poets] knew something, they’d be in that discipline and actually doing it: they’d be in history or physics or math or business or whatever…”

Plato’s argument is quite sound and the only decent refutation of Plato’s point of view comes in the form of poems—by poets who happened to be very much tinged with Platonism themselves: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats–which is all that can be expected.

Your typical inferior poet, however, becomes upset when they hear Plato’s argument.  They’re not up to Plato’s challenge.

This is the first part of Bok’s quote you need to understand.

Here’s the second part (as quoted by Kenneth Goldsmith in his Harriet post) :

“I find this very distressing that the challenge of being a poet in effect to showcase something wondrous or uncanny, if not sublime, about the use of language itself, that we tend to think that because we’re conditioned to use language every day as part of a social contract, we should all be incipient poets, when in fact people have actually dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice in order to become adept at it and I think that craft and technique are part of that. If poetry weren’t informed by models of craft then nobody would need take a creative writing course. I joke with my students again that if it was simply a matter of saying, “You know you’ve written a good poem just because; you’ll know it was a good poem when it happens.” To me, that’s tantamount to telling your students that “You should just use the force, Luke” in order to write a poem. I don’t think it’s very helpful. But to be able to say “Here’s a series of rules of thumb that always work under all circumstances and if you adopt them slavishly, blindly, you can always be assured of writing something, producing something of merit.”

Again, this doesn’t require much thought.

Here Bok is making use of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.   Aristotle didn’t ban the poets from his ideal “Republic” as Plato did.   Aristotle accepted poetry as something humans do, and focused on whether it is done well, or badly.

Aristotle would not have accepted the notion we are all poets, and Bok, when he mentions “people have dedicated years or decades of their lives to this kind of practice…” is implicitly agreeing with the philosopher.

Bok didn’t mention this, but I want to mention it to you:  Aristotle did pay heed to Plato’s objection that poetry makes us “soft” with fake emotionalism; Aristotle got around Plato’s objection by saying that poetry’s indulgence in emotionalism purges these emotions from us.  Aristotle managed to turn a drawback into a virtue.

But here is why Platonic poets tend to be the best: They take to heart Plato’s objection, rather than using Aristotle’s glib betrayal of it.

As soon as you start believing in Aristotle’s purging theory (Catharsis) you make a fatal error; you buy into the idea that poetry’s emotion is a separate thing from it, and then you essentially become a pedantic, doctrinaire kind of poet.

Anyway, the important point that Bok is making in the second part of the quote here is the Aristotelian one: there’s a proper way and form and method to making poetry.

As he did with the purging theory, Aristotle resorts to a doctrinaire pedantry in order to ‘get one past’  his master (Plato was Aristotle’s teacher).

This is important to understand, Amber.   You’ve got to go Greek, and you’ve got two choices, Plato’s truly challenging road, or Aristotle’s pedantic road.  Most people don’t go Greek at all and groan under both Plato and Aristotle.  But you can’t escape them, really.

You can see this in the reactions to Bok in the comments to Goldsmith’s post:

Carolyn, the first one to comment seriously, writes this, “I honor people’s attempts to express themselves in whatever manner suits them.”

Here is the typical modern response.   As you can see from her statement, and from what I told you above, she rejects Plato and Aristotle.  She has no Greek.  She is ignorantYou can ignore these people.  Better to be a pedant than to be someone who says ‘express yourself in whatever manner suits you.’ This point of view loses in philosophy what it gains in being nice.  It is a tempting vice, this point of view.  Avoid it at all costs.

Silem’s post #7 basically sums up the Plato and Aristotle positions and then repeats Bok’s mention of “the uncanny,” which is largely the basis of Romanticism: the “Sublime,”  produced when Platonism contradicts itself and produces poetry–a sly but positive phenomenon which I alluded to above.  As Longinus said in his famous treatise “On the Sublime” 3rd century, AD, the sublime is both “moral” and “fearful.”  The sublime is a contradictory idea–which is the secret of its religious power and appeal.

Comment #8 is by Henry Gould. We can sum up all his comments this way: Mumble.

Comment #9 is by Kent Johnson, who is poison.  Here’s a sample.  It should make you shudder:

“I strongly suspect that from the bourgeoning technical-hip formation represented by Bok and Mohammad (and both of them very brilliant, to be sure) a more elevated measure of professional status for the poetic vocation will come, via ever more sharply defined knowledge-sets and rigorously applied instrumental techniques.”

Ugh.

Gary Fitzgerald made a witty remark, but was buried by negative votes.

Conrad and ZZZZ had a brief dispute on what position the “avant garde” should take in relation to the mainstream.  Pedestrian stuff, really.  Not worth your while.

The remaining comments fizzle away into inconsequence.

Maybe Terreson will add something interesting.

(But we’d rather not encourage him.)

And there you have it,  Amber.    Harriet 101.   I hope this helps!

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