Happy individuals know 1. how to get mad.

And then 2. turn the anger off, calm down, and move on.

Unhappy people either 1. never get mad: never muster enough energy to overcome a difficulty, make known a really necessary complaint, assert themselves, break through to the next level

Or, 2. they are constantly mad, and are never really calm, and can never move on.

This can be confusing for the rest of us.

We might temporarily confuse the anger of the constantly angry person with the short-lived, purposeful, anger of the happy individual.

We might not understand the calm of the happy person, confusing it with the indifference and passivity of the unhappy person.

We might completely misread the sudden rare, directed anger of the happy individual, thinking it reflects unreliability, inconsistency, and lack of control. “Weren’t you happy a minute ago?”

We might even admire the constant anger of the unhappy person for its consistency.

We might confuse the blank of the unhappy person for the calm of the happy person.

“Snowflake” is a ubiquitous term today, one I do not use, because I think it is a misnomer, and it is the subject of this essay only because I wish to attempt an analysis along these lines.

A “snowflake” refers pejoratively to the hyper-sensitive person, often on a college campus, who cannot handle information, historical or political, which tramples on delicate feelings and beliefs—concerning those who are strongly and innocently disadvantaged in fundamental ways.

But to care about others, even in a hyper-sensitive manner, is a good thing. Good or bad in social relations turn on delicate feelings and this is to be human and social. Period.

I don’t care a fig about this notion of the “snowflake” who can’t handle this or that. Sensitive and considerate is always good.

I do care, however, about the happy and the unhappy person—the constantly dull, or the constantly angry person is not happy—and is rarely a good thinker. This has nothing to do with being a snowflake, and more with being ignorant, and unhappy.

The cross-dressing, Harvard literary critic, the heir to Helen Vendler, Stephen Burt, begins his recent essay, “Writing About Yeats in the Age of Trump” sounding exactly what everyone might think a “snowflake” sounds like:

“Like many of you, I have spent the days since the election in a combination of frantic distraction; intermittent, flailing activism; attempts to focus on my private and professional life; and fear. The more I read from experts in relevant fields, the more I envision the next four, or eight, or ten years not so much as a Republican administration—enacting policies that will hurt immigrants, people of color, and the poor—but rather as a kleptocratic, potentially authoritarian, generation-long takeover, one that could extend outward and downward from Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue into the federal judiciary, the civil service, and the national security state.

“I have not lost my interest, nor my belief, in the powers of poetry. But my goals for my own poetry, and for the ways I write about poetry, are not what they were before November 8. I used to believe, if not in Walt Whitman’s late-1850s optimism, then in the chastened patriotism, the qualified trust in elections and popular culture, that he found even in the Gilded Age.  I have opposed critics who use, as unconsidered, generic praise, the word ‘revolution,’ on the grounds that few good things are harder to break than to fix. I have argued—and I still believe—that our ways of reading and our ways of hearing poetry, like our ways of eating and our ways of understanding kindness and violence, have roots older than we are, older than the twentieth century, even though they have changed, and will change. And I have aligned my own poetry, most of the time, with incrementalism, with a way of reading that (like W.H. Auden’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s) pays some homage to the deep past.

“I also wanted my poetry to champion the femme, the elaborate, the playful, the serifed, the feathered, the self-consciously involute, the magenta and the chartreuse, even the ornamental: ruffles, dessert. I wanted that poetry, and other contemporary poetry too, to take pleasure in small things, and to push back against a patriarchal, instrumental, coarse, results-first, adult-driven, queer- and transphobic capitalism. I called those goals for poetry ‘nearly Baroque,’ or rococo, and I found its closest modern precedent in Marianne Moore.

“Our president-elect appears to enjoy the rococo, too, but it is the wrong kind of rococo: not delicate craftsmanship as a blow to misogyny, but the gilding of every conceivable surface, the flaunting of a wealth he has used to hurt others, as a boastful public spectacle. Trump represents the end of liberalism, the end of self-restraint and public kindness delivered through flawed, long-lived institutions, at least on a national scale. The social contract of Paul Wellstone and Richard Rorty, of A. Phillip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt, and for that matter of Barack Obama, seems all torn up.”

If this isn’t “snowflake,” what is? One of the two traditional parties wins the presidential election in the traditional manner, and Burt feels “fear.”  Burt makes a great, breathless, elaborate, post-election, point about “poetry” as it applies to him—Burt. Totally in earnest, he describe his poetry’s “ruffles” as a blow against “patriarchal capitalism.”

But this only points up what we are trying to say about the “snowflake” label. It’s meaningless. This quotation from Burt is excessive rhetoric bursting forth from a highly successful critic. This is not “snowflake” trepidation. Burt is using ruthless, cunning, rhetoric in highly educated, full attack, mode. Snowflake? This totally kicks ass—in a completely “take-no-prisoners” manner.

Burt feels “fear?” Reading Burt’s reaction to the election, I’m genuinely afraid of Burt.

He’s pushing “snowflake” buttons, but he himself is clearly no “snowflake; “it doesn’t matter how much he claims to prefer “magenta” and “chartreuse.”

Burt’s argument is utterly disconnected and unhinged, in a manner frighteningly black-and-white and uncompromising. “Snowflake” has nothing to do with it.

In speaking of Trump, Burt tosses reason and perspective to the wind. Last time I checked, every law and institution of the United States remains fully intact, going back to the founding of this country in the 18th century, and yet Burt speaks as if Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Rorty, and Barack Obama just a short time ago made this country.

The lack of historical understanding is downright scary: “Whitman’s late 1850s optimism?” I’m not sure why Whitman is mentioned—the American Civil War began in 1861, so “optimism” seems a strange thing to celebrate here—as if “optimism” were the way to describe the world of November 7, 2016—as brought to us by president Obama and secretary state Clinton.

Burt is not being a “snowflake” at all.

He strikes me as someone who is in pain. And angry.

And blind.

And playing with matches.

I would describe him as angry, and unable to let that anger go.

If Burt is a “snowflake,” then I’m a “snowflake.”

I would tell him, accept this hug from another snowflake. Please, go back and read your history, and try to let go of your anger. You are making me afraid.










1. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is published in the New York Evening Mirror, January 29, 1845

2.  Robert Frost reads “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, January 20, 1961

3.  Martin Luther King delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech, August 28, 1963

4. Dead Poets  Society, starring Robin Williams, released, June 9, 1989

5. Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech, July 20, 1969

6. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” first played at flag-raising ceremony on Fort Warren, May 12, 1861

7. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg address,” November 19, 1863

8. Cassius Clay, boxer and poet, defeats Sonny Liston,  heavyweight champion, February 25, 1964

9. “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus recited at the Statue of Liberty’s Dedication, October 28, 1886

10. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released, May 27, 1963

11. “The Star-Spangled Banner” first published, in Baltimore, September 20, 1814

12. Sylvia Plath’s suicide in England, February 11, 1963

13. Japan wins Russo-Japanese War, starting Haiku rage in the West, September 5, 1905

14. “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes published in Boston Daily Advertiser, September 16, 1830

15. Jack Kerouac reads his poetry on Steven Allen show (with Allen on piano), November 16, 1959

16. James Russell Lowell delivers “Ode” at Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865

17. Mick Jagger reads Shelley’s “Adonais” at Brian Jones’ memorial in England, July 5, 1969

18. Ella Wheeler Wilcox publishes her most famous poem in New York Sun, the year she publishes controversial Poems of Passion, February 25, 1883

19. Dana Gioia publishes his essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic, May, 1991

20. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” by Sarah Josepha Hale published, May 24, 1830

21. Actor Jimmy Stewart reads poem “I’ll Never Forget A Dog Named Beau” on the Tonight Show, making Johnny Carson cry, July 28, 1981

22. Ronald Regan’s Challenger Disaster Speech, January 28, 1986

23. Maya Angelou reads “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton inaugural, January 20, 1993

24. Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” published, November 10, 1855

25. Ezra Pound wins Bollingen Prize with NY Times headline: “Pound In Mental Clinic Wins Prize for Poetry Penned In Treason Cell,” February 20, 1949

26. “Rapture” by Blondie released, January 12, 1981

27. “The Music Man” by Meredith Wilson opens, December 19, 1957

28. Elizabeth Alexander reads “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s inaugural, January 20, 2009

29. Publisher Horace Liveright makes offers for works by Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, January 3, 1922.

30. Favorite Poem Project launched by poet laureate Robert Pinsky, April 1, 1997



The one thing that unites us all these days is political controversy: gays, race, gender, abortion, climate, congress, the courts, the president, the media, and it seems to be getting more divisive every day, family members and potential friends divided in all walks of life, almost as if there were a great negative force operating in direct ratio to the new unifying force of computers and communications technology.

Now maybe there isn’t a problem at all: there’s just more to argue about, more buzz words attached to arguments, and more advanced communication vehicles to carry on those arguments.

Argument, and even controversy, is healthy in a democracy: imagine if there were no debates, and instead, police state silence.

So maybe this is all a good thing, and the uniting quality of controversy is the great non-controversial thing we should expect in a vast, technologically advanced democracy.

But there’s also a nagging sense that all this controversy is a symptom of ignorance and oppression, that all the political controversy is from heat and not light, and the elevated temperature is not due to healthy argument, but rather resistance by reactionary forces to progress.

If you believe this,  you may still be a part of the healthy debate outlined above, or you may have correctly anticipated why the debates are generally not healthy, or the debates may not be healthy and you are the problem, by assuming you belong to progress, and, because of this assuming you are always right.

The counter-position is, of course, the conservative one, arguing political controversies are damaging storms by progressives pushing divisive, self-interested, agendas, masked as moral crusades.

But the existence of these two positions (that political controversy is unhealthy because of the other side) merely reinforces the idea of a healthy democracy.

Unless one of these two positions is correct.

Controversy always leaves itself open to speculation that it is not healthy, and yet, if debate is healthy in a democracy, even unhealthy debate is healthy.

If this sounds contradictory, it should, for it makes sense that the whole nature of political controversy should be contradictory, and, as we move in closer to examine the controversial issues themselves, we may see that the political controversy of the day is not due to the nature of the questions involving the issue itself.  The issue is controversial only because it is first contradictory. The paradox creates the two sides of the argument; the motives and reasonings of each side are not authentic in themselves, for they exist only because the paradox exists.

It will help us to see how the particular controversy plays out along a particle/wave nexus: neither side is right or wrong; they merely exist within the context of the irresolvable conflict itself, a conflict better understood if we view its argumentative sides expressing themselves in terms of: particle or wave?

The “particle” argument is scientific, verbal, and common sense, while the “wave” argument is religious, moral and non-verbal.

Take this example.

Why shouldn’t Republicans oppose mass immigration on the grounds that immigrants will vote Democratic? The only reason the Democrats want mass immigration is because they know immigrants will vote Democratic.

If this country were the same demographically today as it was in 1980, Romney would have won a bigger victory in 2012 than Reagan did against Carter.

This is Ann Coulter in a recent column, and it is stupido.

Ann Coulter’s position is the height of common sense, argued from the practical, strategic standpoint of the Republican party.

This is a classic “particle” argument, logical and easily articulated: Immigrants vote Democratic, so Republicans should oppose mass immigration. One can see Coulter counting each Democratic immigrant particle as bad, completely oblivious to the moral, “wave” repercussions of her argument.

Just as Newton’s laws of particle physics are applicable, and make sense up to a certain point—but fail to apply everywhere, so the “particle” argument falls short in a wider context: how can the Republicans be seen as a viable party choice in a democracy if they openly court exclusion?  If immigrants are not voting for you, you ought to wonder why this is so—instead of barring them.

The “practical” argument is too “practical;” it is not really practical at all; the attempt to define reality only in terms of particles destroys the coherence of even that definition of reality.

Another classic “particle” argument (to choose one on the Left, now) is the one which jokingly equates sperm to “life” which is “sacred,” to imply (oh so cleverly) that prenatal life is not viable.

Morally, conception is life; in the “wave” view of reality, which is moral, rather than practical, there is a certain non-verbal understanding that life is that which has a future, and will become life; detecting the “particle” as that which is life, or not, makes the concrete, scientific decision for the time being, and rejects the moral plea of the Pro-Lifer. On the flip side, defining life as a tiny thing with a heartbeat could be seen as a “particle” argument, and the moral counter-argument, the “wave” argument ( life coming into the world needs a context), is the pro-abortion one.

Advocates of either side will attempt to make it seem their argument applies to reality as both “particle” and “wave;” but this crashes and burns against the whole concept of wave/particle and it is why these controversies will not, and cannot, be resolved.

It is important to understand here that by advocating the particle/wave principle, we seek to explain the contradictory nature of the controversy itself, not the arguments themselves, or the paths of argumentation which applies to each case; to any advocate of any particular case, the arguments are added up, pro and con, or a principle is found (you shall not judge a man by the color of his skin) which is so irrefutable, that it resolves the case as an argument to their satisfaction.

Many controversies are not, in fact, verbal arguments alone; the arguments spring from behavior, behavior based on power, let’s say, or custom—moral persuasion or logical argument had no part of the controversy before it became a verbal argument.   And here, too: original behavior versus subsequent verbal refutation, particle and wave, apply, in the same irresolvable manner.

The universe, at its very core, is divided, and argument participates in this division, ironically, as an attempt to resolve division; but argument is divided right down to the bone against its own argumentative, problem-solving will, and what it attempts to loosen, by the law of division itself, becomes tangled even tighter. Argument, by its very nature, argues against itself.

We should be scientists and make ourselves examine this scientifically, if we can.

Is every controversy dual? If all political debates persist in existing as two-sided, no matter how much a third point of view attempts to enter the picture, we will be in a better position to conclude that the contradictory nature of the political controversy problem is binary in a profound sense. I think if we examine actual controversies, we do find duality putting everything else in chains.

Let’s look at two common and popular controversies:

A classic argument is: if you dislike president Obama, you are racist. This automatically sets up the duality: I like Obama because he’s black versus I dislike Obama because he’s black. Everyone would agree that this is the core debate and it’s a stupid, shameful debate and the person who genuinely judges Obama simply on his performance as president is not allowed anywhere near this argument. And further, if the third, neutral point enters the picture, it will become tainted by the ugliness of the debate and forced into its irresolvable duality merely on account of whether it is perceived to be pro or anti Obama. It does not matter if 99% of the American population belongs to the third position—it doesn’t fit the duality and therefore it doesn’t exist as an alternative, third position. The 99% cannot, no matter how kind and reasonable, quell the controversy, which casts its lunacy over all.

The gay debate is just as absurd. We have the three basic views of homosexuality: 1. Ewww 2. Gay rights! Gay rights! 3. I couldn’t care less whether someone is gay or not, and the less I hear about it, the better.

Inevitably, the third view collapses into the first two. It doesn’t matter how hard it resists the pull of the universe’s dual nature. Number 3 is either a homophobic bigot or a Sadean pervert; the neutral, non-controversial, “third” position becomes the truly monstrous position, on a vast, all-encompassing scale of horror and evil, which dwarfs the first two in its dishonesty and the intensity of its passion, so much so, that it falls off the radar and ceases to exist, the binary the only argumentative reality which can possibly be official. It’s like an evil thought experiment: if you don’t think about the problem, you are safe, but the moment the issue confronts your mind, you must choose. The enlightened are forced to cover their ears.

What is ironic is that gender itself is a duality and gender is defined by its duality and this is the awful truth which nature—always dual, like passionate controversy itself—presses upon even the most modest and austere and chaste of souls, no matter how much they tenderly resist the lewdness of the thrusting universe.

Lewd, but necessary, despite the protests of holy and virginal hearts. For the duality of gender is responsible for the whole world. Heterosexuality is why we exist. Homosexuality is why the drapes match the couch—though even this is dubious.

To throw oneself into the duality of the debate in earnest, and champion heterosexuality and to cry out, “No gender is an island!” is to succumb to the “wave,” and miss the “particle,” the actual homosexual who feels the sting of the heterosexual’s remarks.


Jim Behrle: He’s no Duchamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tony Hoagland: A Quietist.  But always starting trouble!

A Tony Hoagland “mic-grabbing” tantrum (?) at AWP Boston in the  name of accessible poetry against obscure, academic, show-off poetry has proven to be a lightning rod on John Gallaher’s blog, which has been moving slowly for months. Peter Campion, an LA Times poetry critic, locked horns with Hoagland on that AWP panel, and made an appearance on Gallaher’s thread.

Matthew Cooperman, a Poetry MFA professor, joined the conversation and recommended an essay on accessibility by Josh Wilkinson (The Volta).  We visited, mentioning the C.Dale Young APR essay on accessibility Scarriet just reviewed.  The following is our take on the piece by Wilkinson, who cleary belongs to the Inaccessible School—which Hoagland railed against at AWP.

Wilkinson begins by taking exception to Times editor Bill Keller’s, “I prefer craft to spontaneity;” for Wilkinson, this is equivalent to “declawing” poetry and putting it in a “‘zoo.”

The trouble with this sort of rhetoric?  It’s trapped in abstract dualities.  The wag can always retort: “Can’t we have craft and spontaneity?”  The wag  beats vague every time, and the colorful “zoo” metaphor is no help. 

But now Wilkinson moves onto a 3-dimensional reality.  The following by Wilkinson is something we can sink our teeth into:

We are told, again and again, that for poetry to be digestible in a broadly appealing way, apparently it must be poetry paired up with something else. For Natasha Tretheway to be invited to Fresh Air, there must be a pitch; poetry beside a familiar topic. “Poetry plus” is what Marjorie Perloff calls this.

For Tretheway, that means poetry plus her biracialness. Which allows Terry Gross to ask, “What does [Obama’s election] mean to you?” For former poets laureate it is poetry plus the homelessness of a brother (Robert Hass) or poetry plus the death of a parent (W.S. Merwin); and really why should this surprise us? It just exploits the fact that poetry can speak to literally anything. And so long as the host sticks to the topics we are safe with (politics, death, family) then we will avoid having to talk about what animates poetry (the language itself, of course).

Nicely said, but when Wilkinson finishes up with “the language itself, of course,” it should give us pause, since language, as we all know, has both a specific and a uniting purpose, whether or not we speak of “biracialness” on one hand, or whatever non-subject Wilkinson has in mind, on the other.  We would love to see an example at this point in Wilkinson’s essay of a non-subject poem, or hear why “language” is barred from any discussion of a poem when it’s “paired up with something else.”  This is not to say a poem’s subject qua subject is not vitally important, but this is not really what Wilkinson is after; he is hunting “the language itself (of course.)”

We’ve heard this a million times: a poem is not what is said, but how it is said—but this does not mean nothing is said. 

Wilkinson, the poem’s language is—language.  Duh. 

The wag wins, again.

Now Wilkinson mentions the popularity of Billy Collins’ “accessibility,” and asks why we have to “diminish” poetry with “access?”

But isn’t this another abstract duality?  Why does Wilkinson assume that access has to equal diminishment?

We know what Wilkinson is saying, of course: Poetry shouldn’t stoop to the less educated reader, etc. 

But again, isn’t this just another truism which hinges on two vaguely opposing things: the educated enough reader versus the not-educated-enough reader?  If we can’t define these terms better, (how do we know when someone is educated enough?) the rhetoric which uses theses terms is empty.

Our readers probably can see now that we are not disagreeing with Wilkinson here; we cannot disagree with Wilkinson—we are merely indicating in a Socratic manner that his rhetoric is inconsequential.

Wilkinson then mentions how much poetry is available on-line through sites like and asks,

Do we really believe that there is some drought of poems that we might call “accessible”?

But we fail to understand what this has to do with anything: Wilkinson doesn’t mention a single one of these poems available on-line, or to what extent these poems are “accessible,” or not.  The root question of accessibility still remains.

We then get a phrase, “immediately familiar,” which Wilkinson uses to defend critics Harold Bloom and Charles Bernstein from the “elitist” charge.  Our differences with these critics have nothing to do with whether they are “elitist” or not, but rather with errors in their judgment, but here’s the issue and we are glad Wilkinson used the phrase “immediately familiar” as a way of defending the inaccessible:

All literary works contain parts (words, chapters, stanzas, lines, etc) and no temporal work of art can be “immediately accessible,” and therefore works can be highly complex, even as each individual part is “immediately familiar.”  It might even be asked: if we do have a highly complex work with many parts, why shouldn’t we ask that each part be “immediately familiar,” to facilitate the ease of understanding the complex work, and wouldn’t the more complex work of the demanding genius be understood better if that same genius created each part fitting spectacularly together  “immediately familiar” in its identity as a part as all of those parts fit subtly into the whole?  What could possibly be gained by making the parts, in this instance, not “immediately familiar?”  And if each individual part is not “immediately familiar,” do they really exist as parts—since the poet, by creating something which is complex, is responsible for every part. (And complexity, of course, cannot exist without parts.)

This is kind of what Billy Collins is quoted as saying later in Wilkinson’s essay—and Wilkinson does concede this one (very crucial) point in favor of accessibility to Collins: “accessibility,” says Collins, is a kind of “Trojan Horse,” a “ruse,” in which he, the poet, Collins, leads the reader towards what might be called the complex and the unfamiliar. 

Speaking of parts, Wilkinson now says in his essay that a poem could be defined by “our inability to reduce it,” which makes us think of classical “unity” and New Criticism (a poem cannot be paraphrased) and all sorts of time-honored things, but as true as the whole experience of anything naturally pre-supposes “our inability to reduce it,” (it meaning our experience of it) we should never forget what we have just outlined above—the parts which must exist in anything which partakes of temporality.  And in addition, “inability to reduce” would also pre-suppose something else: clarity, accessibility: since how else could we perceive that threshold of irreducibility?

More in this vein:

Wilkinson quotes Susan Howe asking “why should things please a large audience,” but this is like asking, why should language be understood?  Obviously things don’t have to please a large audience, but what reason can we give for language not being understood, or for a large audience not understanding a thing?

Wilkinson quotes Wittgenstein: a poem is “not used in the language-game of giving information,” but “giving information” has little, or nothing to do with the accessibility of the poem’s temporal existence itself—even as it naturally flies under the radar of “giving information.”

Towards the end of his essay, Wilkinson refers to the well-known Onion piece, “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace, as if the Onion were not making fun of contemporary, inaccessible poetry, but was instead making fun of those who want poetry to be accessible; we think the former is closer to the Onion’s intent, and, similarly, Wilkinson wonders what we “lose” in a defensive response “against” inaccessible poetry, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the question could just as easily be asked the other way: what  do we lose in a defensive response for inaccessible poetry?

And so Wilkinson’s essay entertains—like a dog chasing its own tail.


With the re-election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, America really seems poised for an end of racism.

Yea, that ugly thing: racism.  Just about over, folks.  Not: Racism is over if you, driving your hybrid, want it.   No: Really and actually over.

Because it’s not something you can argue about.   It’s bigger (or smaller, really) than you—who want it to end.

Let’s not quibble about how much the whole issue is one of perception (it largely is) or how much bad stuff will continue to happen in its name (all kinds of shit will continue to happen in the name of everything).

Support for Obama (if we might make this generalization) does not translate into love for someone who happens to be black, but for success, humanity, family, and common sense as manifested by someone who happens to be black.

Millions and millions of supporters of Obama fault blacks who feel sorry for themselves and feel they are entitled.

Obama Fever is, most importantly, a celebration of black success.  And since even those who did not vote for Obama are on the same page as those who did vote for Obama, that is, in terms of being in favor of success, humanity, family and common sense (to put aside age-old, complex, political disagreements for a moment) we have to say things have never looked rosier for putting this crass, divisive issue (racism) behind us.

In this context, the biggest issue in American contemporary poetry over the past year is Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff’s honest take on Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, published at the end of 2011.  These two distinguished women critics, without much ado, came out and said quite simply: too many blacks included by a black editor.

The world didn’t end, riots didn’t occur; there were no fistfights.  Not even a shouting match.  There were some disagreement in respectable journals.  That was it.

This has to be good news.

Right now there are two strands in American poetry: Perloff’s, who believes, with Ezra ‘Make It New’ Pound, that progress is the most important aspect of poetry, not good poems per se, and Vendler’s, who is more willing to embrace a standard (based more or less on pleasure) against the uncertainties of poetry’s vicissitudes.

Dove was beaten by both these cudgels, accused not only of bean-counting, but sloppy scholarship, and even outright incompetence (in her Anthology  introduction). Vendler and Perloff were severe (nasty, really) in their criticism.

But we find Dove being pretty astute here:

Anthologies are usually arranged chronologically, with the occasional half-hearted attempt to suggest literary movements…Harlem Renaissance, Black Mountain school, the Beats. It’s the proverbial catch-22: Present the poets in sequential order, and each poem touts its wares standing alone, at the expense of knowing the conditions that spawned and nurtured it; one result of this method is that a love poem from 1908 will invariably sound stilted when compared to this month’s similarly inclined but less accomplished lyric. On the other hand, any attempt at a delineation of trends and events coincident with a generation of poets inevitably founders, for there are so many exceptions to whatever grid one tries to superimpose on such living, breathing material: Sara Teasdale was ten years younger than Robert Frost but died thirty years before him, so we’ll never know how she might have evolved as a poet…

Dove clearly knows the issues—Vendler and Perloff could both learn from what is written above, even as we might ask: should the anthologist be that concerned with “movements” and “conditions” and how a poet might have “evolved?”  Shouldn’t the poems speak for themselves, as poems?

Dove is correct; should a “grid” prevail, it’s no longer an anthology.  Dove’s anthology seems to be fretting unnecessarily, though, and yet it is precisely Perloff’s conceptualevolutionary view, which Dove obviously shares, that gives rise to Dove’s concern.  Vendler’s complaint (which Perloff quietly seconded) that Dove included “too many poets” was merely unfair.

We think the assault on Dove finally did not have a big impact because Dove’s selections—especially from the second half of the 20th century—are manifestly weak: here is the elephant in the room, the unspoken issue of which everyone is aware, yet helpless in the face of: how did American poetry become separated from public taste?

Poetry is not primarily theory on a blackboard; it lives or dies in the public arena. When poetry becomes a quibble in the classroom, or a mere affront on taste, it won’t survive in the national consciousness—and in America since about 1930, it (meaning the poems) has not.

The poetry anthology, as an index of poetry at large, appeals to a wide audience, like a national election.

The people have spoken.

The issue is not blackness.

It is success.


jimmy george w. obama

War, debt, and unemployment.  Which is worse?

Democrats, fearing the loss of the White House, are focused on jobs.  A president can weather war and debt, but job-loss is going to lose votes.

The creation of jobs is as mysterious as creating poems, except we know the selling of shirts depends on two things: manufacturing shirts and bare backs.

Why can’t the United States manufacture shirts, even if there are none to sell, simply stocking them up for later use?

But the makers of shirts demand payment for their labor.  Who shall pay them?

The government shall pay the shirt manufacturers, for the last I saw, government employees, who work in the post office or the military, wear shirts.

This will create jobs.  It seems such an easy solution, that one wonders why unemployment is ever a problem.  There’s always something that can be made, whether it sells or not.  And we don’t speak of poems, but what is real: shirts.

Anyway, and surely a poet will understand this, if there are ‘no jobs,’ isn’t this a good thing?  Isn’t this proof that, for many, there’s no further work to do?  And what could be better than that?

But what of those who have no work, and thus no paycheck?

Let them make shirts!

The needy unemployed only need to let the government know who they are, and the government will get them a job making shirts: building a shirt factory, working at home from a computer, or sewing in the factory, whatever fits.  Federal spending will increase the supply of shirts—which the nation can always use, eventually.  Job-creation always creates more job-creation: guards, for instance, will be hired, to guard the swelling shirt-inventory.

All benefit: the new shirt-makers pay taxes, increase state revenue, thus paying down the national debt, and making the country stronger.

One could point out that this plan boils down to the government printing money to artificially spur the economy, with a risk of inflation.  But don’t shirts (unlike poems) have tangible worth?  What is wrong with borrowing money to produce something of value—actually, two things of value: employment and shirts?

The worst case scenario: inflation, falling shirt prices, less poetry, but this can only translate into more bare backs, and thus more need for shirts, more motive for work, and a greater desire for poetry—an automatic correction.

Worried that if every unemployed person is guaranteed a job making shirts, there will be less incentive for persons to find real jobs?  But more shirt-makers couldn’t slow the eternal desire for more interesting and more profitable pursuits.  This objection is groundless, as well.

There, I’ve saved the economy.

Now excuse me, while I go write a poem.


“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.”

Who said this?

A. George Bush in 2002?

B.  Barack Obama in 2009?

The answer is B.

Spoken while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.

The dubiousness of prize-giving drives human behavior. We all want to win the prize, grab the ring, possess that tangible token of our worth in the eyes of the world; this tangibility is what our invisible souls desire.  We cannot keep being fire or air or water forever; we want the earth, we want to hold the heavy trophy aloft and say, ‘This is mine, and you are all witnesses to the fact that I have won.’

This desire to make our dreams visible is not a bad thing, per se.

But we must watch that prostitution does not get tangled up in our love.

The dignity of our triumph depends on a system that gives, on another pair of hands which presents the prize, and the power to give a prize is a power that eclipses the prize itself, for prizes are useful to promote all sorts of wrong, and superstition would as quickly produce a symbol as science would question a symbol.

The poet, who lives by the symbol, is especially tempted to glory in a prize; but true poets are not beholden to symbolism; on the contrary, the poet learns symbolism to be free of it.

Behavior which bends towards a prize is not to be trusted.  The prize which stirs behavior a certain way should make us wary.   The behavior is finally all, and the prize merely a glimpse of it, and truth and modesty should attend, at every step, the receiving and the giving.

Foetics does not damn the prize.  It merely prizes the courage to look deeply into that crucial instant when giving becomes taking.

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