REFINE THE BRUTE

When I’m asked for an opinion on modern American poetry, I want to do more than list poems and poets I like, though this is probably the only adequate response. Anything else will be sure to confuse as much as it enlightens.

But I cannot resist the injunctions, so fraught with discipline is my soul, even though it inhabits a bestial body.

Before poems are offered up, however, I have a desire to show my thoughts on what poetry is, and what it does, and what it is supposed to do, if it is worthy to be called, poetry, of which “modern” and “American” are even more hopelessly vague.

Surely poetry has a certain pedagogical use.

Verses and rhyme help us significantly in two ways: verse helps us to learn a language and helps us to learn to love a language.

Poetry can most simply be defined as language at play.

How can one love a language which is complex and unmusical?

Unless one is hopelessly misanthropic and affected?

Language can confuse more easily than anything else—because a chaos of meaning is more chaotic than chaos itself.

Language should never confuse—if it is worthy to be called language.

How can the most complex thing on earth do us good as a cheerful and loving guide?

This is the whole question, and poetry, in its beautiful robes, is always near, emerging elegantly from the shadows, with the answer.

Poetry, to cast away all pretense and confusion, then, is for the learning-book, the school lesson; poetry is the teacher of language.

Poetry is language for the child.

The child, who lisps wants and thoughts in the world of his mother, all at once enters the next phase—and grows slowly into a speaking and feeling citizen—with the help of poetry. 

At the end of this phase, perhaps harsh and complex and unmusical language awaits; but this middle path should be guided by simple and playful and happy versification, which fills the senses and the muscles of learning—with confidence and joy.

The student of poetry is the student of poetry for students.

For teaching is what poetry does.

Student, to some, is an unfriendly word; it implies anything but joy. We would prefer the poet as someone who learns from nature, outside the school’s walls.  Student implies shallow breathing and pitiless annoyance.

Student may have unfortunate institutional associations, but the athlete trains, the baby animal learns, the lover knows the beloved, and poetry casts knowing lovingly over all creatures who speak.

Poetry is a stream for all the speaking tribes.

Poetry is wisdom that is more than wisdom.

A student of poetry is the best thing to be—for once the adolescent has imbibed poetry’s waters, something divine will stay in him forever.

Poetry does not exist for itself, or to convey “truths” among sophisticated grownups—who need “news that stays news;” poetry is only very indirectly connected to the fussy things necessary to move among the trials and griefs of mature life. Poetry’s influence is wide and strong enough to trick sophisticates into thinking that poetry is a sophisticated enterprise. But the true poets know better.

Poetry can belong to “truths;” it can belong to, and be, anything; it is, for many, the speech of strangeness, the speech of estrangement, the speech of enormity, the speech of iconoclasm, the speech of vain maturity shot through with terrifying irony, and yes, speech which can dare to say anything.

Yes. The stream is the sea.

However, before it is any of these things, poetry is food for the student eternal.

Poetry should turn language into a beautiful instrument, both for exterior expression, and for inner thoughts of the highest enterprise and pleasure.

To be great, poetry must know where it belongs.

Poetry serves language.

Language does not serve poetry.

Poetry exists as a lover of language—not to “know things” or to express “knowledge,” though what it expresses can, obviously, relate to knowledge and knowing.  Knowing isn’t what it is—just as a stove is not heat.

A child will have plenty of opportunity to grasp things about the sordid, factual world.

Language—which poetry serves—is how we navigate the world. Language—which poetry serves—is not merely a repository of facts.

For the doubting adolescent, language, beautiful language, is the way to swim through the intellectual sea. The intellectual sea shouldn’t be poured into the novice’s mouth.

Since poetry is language, poetry makes both the mind and its objects beautiful—language which belongs to poetry appeals to both the sense and the senses. Language which belongs to poetry revels in fluency, revels in delight and a practiced ease, with which to contemplate and think.

As an example, we offer a recent poem of our own composition, which demonstrates how poetry belongs in language—not just in the macro-sense (to which we typically think poetry belongs, making sublime, insightful, emotional, grandiose observations and pronouncements, etc)—but in the micro-sense: poetry is, more than anything else, speech which punctures pretense, speech which spreads harmony, grace and civilization.

YOU SAW MY COMMA, YOU SAW WHAT I SAID WAS NICE

You saw my comma, you saw what I said was nice;

The shouting world that you see has nothing to do with me,

But I, at least, can prove to you, with the way I write,

That I am kind, nice to kiss, and safe—even sweet to be with at night.

It really is true that we have nothing to do with the world,

Although we are in it. The unseeing world

Has been manipulated against its will,

Or not: maybe the whole world meant to do it this way,

And the world is exactly as it should be, every day;

Though we don’t believe this, and I don’t believe this,

And please just kiss me—and do me a favor: don’t believe a single thing I say.

****

But to really be convincing, we offer an example of one of the greatest poetic speeches:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…or to take arms…

Great old poetry from our mother tongue obviously throws its influence over contemporary American poets, though some, to be “more contemporary” push away the old—though every poet knows this is impossible. But if we look at this famous verse, immediately we see it appeals to the child: One or Zero. Either/Or. Binary language lies beneath computer language and a great deal more—difficulty, however, is not Shakespeare’s aim: child-like clarity and truth, rather. “The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office” is not the speech of long, tortured disquisition; it is the truth spoken quickly; now the mathematical simplicity of one or nothing is further complicated, but simply: the added issue is this: nothing is not really nothing—“but that dread of something after death…” But in the end, it still comes down to one or zero, because uncertainty is still zero.

And this is a truth which gives the lie to the “Difficult School,” and every kind of inadequacy and pretence which kills poetry in our day and makes it so unappealing to the public: “uncertainty is still zero.”

This is why William Blake’s lovely, child-like ballads to “Innocence and Experience,” mark the return of Shakespearian genius in the poets which came to be called “the Romantics” by critics who had no other word, just as “Modern” is no word at all to describe anything literary. Perhaps if we mean to say “stupid,” like that plum poem (Christ!) by Carlos Williams.

There is only good poetry.

There are no eras.

There is no liking poetry which is “about” something you like.

You’re not liking poetry, then.

There is no scholarship—especially the kind that exists to prove that Ezra Pound is more important than Edna Millay. Most people don’t care. A small percentage care, but most of that small percentage doesn’t get it. Poor poetry.

Intellectuals in the West chiefly care about “equality,” which translates into going backwards from their superior intellects into something worse—for the sake of that very “equality” they love.

The poor hate “equality,” which is why popular music, for instance, the entertainment of the poor, is so unequal: The “hit” songs get played over and over again. And for a simple reason, which no doubt goes over the intellectuals’ heads—on account of the intellectuals being so intellectual: Good songs are good because they sound good, and even better, with more listens.

So everything popular is not equal. Prose make all poems equal. That’s why prose-as-poetry appeals to intellctuals. This alone is the point. It isn’t that the intellectuals hate verse, or that the Pope hates naked women. Equality is solemnly the aim.

So to quickly review American poetry: ballads sung by the poor, evince a great deal of poetic genius, and this informs the great shadow poetry of America: popular music, which our Mother Country joyfully “invaded” in the 1960s, with phenomenal numbers like “House of the Rising Sun.”

Edna Millay is a great genius of American poetry (see her sonnets, etc).

Then there is the great counter-tradition, began in the 1930s at Iowa, in which American poetry lives entirely in the university—and two crucial things happen in the Creative Writing frenzy of the Writing Program Era: 1. Intellectuals take the “popular” element out of poetry in the name of what is largely pretentious “scholarship” and 2. Poetry is taken hostage by a business model which replaces disinterested learning of poetry with shameless ‘Be a Writer!’ institutional profit-share scheming.

The New Critics, the counter-tradition, institutional champions of mid-20th Century American poetry, awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his early 30s Yale Younger Prize. A New Critic (Fugitive) was Robert Lowell’s psychiatrist when Lowell left Harvard to study with New Critics Ransom and Alan Tate and room with Randall Jarrell.

What about the Beats? The street-wise response to Lowell? The problem with the Beats is that they produced one famous poem, “Howl,” which no one reads to the end, and Robert Lowell, who was a Writing Program teacher at Iowa, and a Frankenstein monster of the tweedy New Critics, actually has more loony, real-person, “confessionalist” interest than the Beats do. Ginsberg’s “Supermarket In California” is easily his best poem, and it is probably no accident that this poem is an homage to Whitman—the canonized creation of Emerson (the prose of the Sage of Concord was stolen by Whitman and turned into poetry) and Emerson was 1. the godfather of William James (inventor of stream of consciousness and Gertrude Stein’s professor) and 2. friends with T.S. Eliot’s grandfather—and here are the roots of every leaf of American modern experimental poetry.

When I went to Romania this last month, I met David Berman, student of the late James Tate. Berman, an underground indie rock star (Silver Jews) and estranged from his millionaire right wing lawyer father—is a truly delightful person, as funny and smart a man as you will ever meet. James Tate won his Yale Younger in the 40s and has a Creative Writing degree from Iowa.

America poetry is Iowa. Quirky, intelligent, funny. Very, very conveniently in prose. This is the kind of poem you read once, are vastly impressed, but with each successive reading, all interest dissolves—because the intelligence has striven with billions of stars and trillions of grains of sand—and lost.

This is poetry that is really stand-up comedy.

John Ashbery, and his friend Frank O’hara, are also funny.

Ashbery, who was awarded the Yale Younger by W.H. Auden (talented Brit anointed by T.S. Eliot) in the 1950s, makes no sense, and so he is considered slightly better of the two (Ashbery, O’Hara) by intellectuals, since before Ashbery’s poetry everyone is equal (equally befuddled).  To think there was a time, not that long ago, when Byron complained he couldn’t understand Wordsworth.

Billy Collins, the best-selling American poet today, belongs to the James Tate/humorous/Iowa School. But since he is clear, although he is clever, and writes in prose, like every critically acclaimed poet in America, Collins is not appreciated by the intellectuals. His clarity bugs the intellectuals—who invariably confuse obscurity of expression with obscurity of subject, favoring the former, against all good sense.

I traveled to Romania with Ben Mazer, who is struggling to break the mold, who is perhaps the only American poet today seriously attempting to write verse in which verse writes the poetry.

Slinging words around in a half-comical or half-fortune cookie wisdom fashion, and avoiding all the excellences which the Romantics evinced, is the norm today—and one never bucks the norm, if one knows what is good for one. Unfortunately, avoidance of the past is bad. It prevents one from traveling to the future.

Then there is political poetry, which invariably falls into the category of poetry which is “about” something which the reader is already prepared to identify with, the political poet carefully avoiding any thing which might be called poetry to get in the way of what the “poem” is preciously and importantly “about.” This kind of poetry will always be written since poetry left poetry roughy 100 years ago, a time when, unfortunately, in America, the literary word “modern” began to be taken seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2013: THE SOUL OF ROMANTICSM

To amuse our readers, each year, Scarriet puts together a bracket of 64 poets/poems for a “March Madness” Tournament of Criticism that figures up winners, losers, and finally one champion.

It’s crazy, we know.

One cannot reconcile the enjoyment and contemplation of a poem with a competition between that poem and another poem.

That’s nuts, right?

It’s not like we ever use the critical faculty of comparison to read poetry!

Okay, maybe we do, but comparison has nothing to do with competition, right?

Well…okay, maybe…and so March Madness for poetry was born.

There is a natural interest in Poetry March Madness for those who like poems, and it’s a good way to learn new poems, and re-think old poems, too.

There are still those purists who object…but more seem to be realizing that it’s harmless fun.

The challenge  is that each year for Scarriet March Madness we need to find new anthologies and new poems.

This year’s theme will be the Soul Of Romanticism, Old and New.

Tony Hoagland made the biggest splash at the AWP this year, striking another controversial blow against post-modern obscurity, asking for poetry of “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity.”  These virtues in poetry are associated mostly with the great Romantics, like Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hugo and Goethe. 

Poets of Hoagland’s generation studied Keats and Byron in their English classes, those modern-ish marvels of poet’s poetry, and poets such as Keats were fixtures of literary study—not electives, but the main course if you were reading poetry in school.

The Romantics were central; they looked back, self-consciously, to the Greeks, to Dante and the troubadour poets, (and Shakespeare, of course) and they also looked forward to poets like Millay, Frost, Eliot and Larkin, with the New Critics and the Beats steering an uneasy and experimental shift, in school and on the street, respectively, towards a yet unrealized future—and it still seems that way, for ‘the future’ has arrived not so much with new greatness, but with millions of specialist, experimental Writing  Program poets, the Frankenstein experiment of New Critical scientists like John Crowe Ransom—the American T.S. Eliot—who helped friends like Paul Engle, starting slowly,  back in the late 1930s, to get ‘New Writing’ professors/poets to replace Keats professors “watering their own gardens.”

So here we are, with Hoagland and his allies asking for “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity,” and those like Gallaher, Perloff, and Silliman horrified.

Scarriet has selected 64 poems, new and old, we call, loosely, The Soul of Romanticism.  Ben Mazer, who won Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness championship last year, is one of the new proponents of what might be called a new Romantic school, or perhaps in Mazer’s case, the Twighlight of Ashbery-ism.

Mazer also happens to be a scholar helping to revive interest in John Crowe Ransom, among a number of other projects. It just so happens that Ransom, and his Modernist circle of friends, felt the need to self-consciously move beyond Romanticism, which we feel was an error, since building on the past is a natural thing, and the worst thing (like cutting off the nose to spite the face) is abandoning it. Mazer, like the Romantics, is mostly a lyric poet, but with other genres and models hectically included as inspiration sees fit.

The world is where the Romantic poet does his experimentation; the Modernist confines his experiments mostly to the poem itself.   This seems a rather obvious distinction, but few seem to make it.

Perhaps the Romantic mode—experimenting in the world rather than on the poem—is a more exciting way to ‘make it new.’  And, further perhaps experiment isn’t everything when it comes to art.  Take that, Perloff.

There are four Number One Seeds in the four brackets—sixteen poems in each bracket.

The following poem will be in the 2013 Tournament.  Will it be a Number One Seed?

It has a handicap.  It requires translation.  It is by Goethe, “The Holy Longing.”

Tell old wisdom what you feel
Or else shut up, because it won’t seem real
To your friends. They’ll just make fun of you—
Quietly dreaming of burning to death will have to do.

In the calm sighings of the love-nights,
Where you were made, where you, too, kissed in the shade,
You now feel a powerful yearning
When you glimpse the silent candle burning.

Come on!  Older and wiser today,
Your childish obsession with the dark has faded away;
You love serene lights in the sky,
And aren’t afraid to look in an old man’s eye.

You don’t care how long you burn
Or the journey lasts, or how long you yearn;
You want the light madly, that’s blinking on—
You are the moth, and now you are gone.

Your thoughts are empty, you want to rest,
You don’t understand your own worth—
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

We have taken the liberty of using our own translation.

Goethe’s famous poem is the essence of Romanticism: a certain lyric modesty (merely a song) together with a human touch, and a penetrating presence of soul.

Who can bring it in this way, today?

Who did it best, then?

Find out in this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament 2013!

WHEN I WAS A CLOWN

David Meltzer in his day

T.S. Eliot painted his face green, had a nervous breakdown, and imprisoned his wife, but he took poetry seriously.

John Berryman was a stinking drunk, but he taught Shakespeare.

When did poets start disliking poetry?

When did poets start being ashamed of poetry, so that all of a sudden poets were not talking about poetry anymore, but themselves and the scene?

Just take this piece by Garrett Caples from Blog Harriet, “The Maestro: David Meltzer, Part I” 5/24/2011.  It is brief enough that we may quote it in full:

Michael McClure invited Andrew Joron and me to a reading in the Berkeley Hills, as we wanted to consult him in the course of editing the (forthcoming) Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia. Contact was made, a meeting was set up, and McClure would provide much valuable information regarding Lamantia’s activities in the late ’50s. His devotion to Philip is both inspiring and moving.

But something else would also happen that evening in the hills. Reading with McClure was David Meltzer, whom I’d previously met once when he read at City Lights with Andrew and Micah Ballard. Meltzer had done the cover collage for Ballard’s book Parish Krewes (Bootstrap Productions, 2009), so it seemed fitting to add him to the bill, and he read a new poem called “When I Was a Poet.” A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers
to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low-key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

Ferlinghetti was out of town when Meltzer read at City Lights. But when I arrived at the reading in the hills, there was Lawrence! I say “!” because I’ve never just bumped into him at a reading before, in Berkeley to boot. At the time, besides editing for City Lights, I was also working as his assistant, so naturally I never knew where he’d be. The reading was actually an opening for a sculpture show by Amy Evans McClure, in a small art gallery attached to a large
house whose owners are Lawrence’s friends, so he decided to make the scene. Clearly some stars aligned that night. Meltzer again ended his set with “When I Was a Poet,” wowing the packed audience. After the reading, I made my way over to Lawrence. He seemed excited.

“What’d you think?” I asked.

“That was an extraordinary poem!” Lawrence said with decision. “We should publish it!” He paused a moment, then almost sheepishly added: “Ask him if it’s available.” Though Meltzer was only a few yards away, Lawrence is actually a little shy—back in 1955, when he caught the first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery, he sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day asking to see the MS—so his reticence here was hardly surprising. As I slipped through the crowd
over to Meltzer, two thoughts occupied me: 1) This is so fucking cool—it’s like “Howl”; 2) A big shot like Meltzer must have books in the works, so someone’s probably already claimed the poem. As it turned out, however, Meltzer and his poem were both available, and pleased to be asked. As it also turned out, the most recent volume in the Pocket Poets series was #59. Wouldn’t Meltzer make a good #60?

“Yes,” said Lawrence.

Yes!

The scene is everything—we get people’s names, addresses, books, presses—and the poem, raved about, is not even worth quoting.  Not a line of the poem, but there’s time for a cool reference to a long Blonde On Blonde song and a jazz artist. (It’s Lennie, not Lenny, Tristano, by the way.)

“A short long poem—the best kind” it seems, but the “best,” how short, or long, is it?  A car alarm is always too “long,” so if we were to say a “short long car alarm—the best kind,” it would have no meaning.  Since we haven’t the faintest idea of how good the poem is, the reader has no appreciation of “short long,” unless we mean Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” but that work of Poe’s considered a famous poem, “The Raven.”  “When I Was A Poet” is unquoted and unknown.  Beat culture has that tendency to have no real poems,  short, long, or short long; the Beats’ most famous poem, “Howl” is boring half-the-way-through, (can anyone quote the last two-thirds of that poem?) but no matter, the scene around the poem is all we need.  The 1955 Gallery Six reading—which of course gets a nod by Caples—a handful of drunks nodding off in a little room—is now mythic, even though an obscenity trial and Look magazine put “Howl” on the map, not any actual utterance of its inanities in public.  But the subject of Caples’ piece is a poetry reading and the discovery of a “short long poem,” not Main Street v. Obscenity—so rose-colored Gallery Six it is.

Caples’ ecstatic “Yes!” at the end of his piece reminds me of John Lennon climbing the ladder of Yoko Ono’s art exhibit in London, before they were a couple, and finding the tiny word ‘Yes’ written on the ceiling.  A 1960s icon died at that moment.  Had only the ceiling said, “No.” Then the 1960s might not have turned back into an even more stupid 1950s, disguised as the 1970s.  From the moment John was inspired by that “Yes,” it was only a matter of months before the song-writing Beatle genius with wife and son and twenty-five number one hits, would transform into the self-pitying junky of the Plastic Ono band, with one number one hit left in him, a song performed with Elton John.

Yes. 

After landing John, Yoko, the artist, would surround herself with yes-men; sadly for all mankind, one of her yes-men turned out to be John himself—as it began with a yes, continued with heroin, and fizzled into May Pang and LA benders, finally dying in the mawkishness of “Starting Over.”  Starting over?  In a self-imposed prison with Yoko?

Caples positively revels in the positive, yes yes yes “so fucking cool” vibe of the hipster clique—the rule is: ‘yes, yes, and always yes, while sitting in the circle of the clique.’  Everything revolves around good vibes and friends, all poets, and every poem written and read is magic.

Here, again, is the description of the Beat poet, the Beat Maestro, the Beat WCW, the Beat Dylan, and the Beat poem with lines that “feel almost unwritten:”

A short long poem—the best kind—“When I Was a Poet” has that easy virtuosity born of a lifetime pursuing said occupation. Micah invariably refers to Meltzer as “the Maestro” and that’s just it: his touch is so light and low key the lines feel almost unwritten, clear as air, the evolution of that Williams strain running through so-called “Beat” poetry. But Meltzer has a rhythmic swagger wholly absent from WCW, and “When I Was a Poet” sustains its lyric flight by chorus-like returns to its title-phrase. It has the sweep of a vintage Dylan epic but with a nimble, angular swing—Lenny Tristano kicking “Sad-Eyed Lady”?—and was definitely the showstopper.

And now, without further ado, we quote the first portion of the poem itself:

When I Was A Poet

When I was a Poet
I had no doubt
knew the Ins & Outs of
All & Everything
lettered
in-worded
each syllable
seed stuck to
a letter
formed a word
a world

When I was a Poet
the World was
a cluster of Words
splattered upon white space

When I was a Poet
I knew even what I didn’t
I thought I knew the Game
whereas the Game knew me
played me like an ocarina

When I was a Poet
I was an Acrobat
a Tightrope Walker
keeping balance
in my slippers
on a wire above
Grand Canyon
Inferno
Vertigo

Oh I did prance
the death-defying dance
whereas now
death defines each second
of awaking

When I was a Poet
everyone I knew
were Poets too
& we’d gather at spots
Poets & Others
met at & yes
questions yes
w/out pause
w/ no Answer

Ultimates
certainly
Absolutes
absolutely
but otherwise
Nada
Zilch
great Empty
blank page
blank stare
into the core of it All

When I was a Poet
Willie Nelson
was back to back w/
Paul Celan
side by side
on the Trail of Tears

—from David Meltzer’s “When I Was A Poet,” published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

This poem, with its childish platitudes and hammy beats, was a showstopper?

I guess you had to be there.

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