“YOUR AVANT-GARDE IS NOT AVANT-GARDE” MAZER, ARCHAMBEAU, AND BURT AT THE GROLIER

“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.

THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY

Is poetry sane or insane?

O DNA! O lights and washes!
O John Ashbery! mountain air to miasma of swamp,
different! and the same! Unless I say otherwise.

We could write drivel like this all day, but for whom?  Cui bono? 

Is the poem above a parody of poetry?  A parody of insane poetry?  Or, are we insane?

No, we are not insane, though our words might be perceived as pointing that way. We are sane in our spirit of parody—you can trust the Scarriet editors.

Insanity can be either sincere or insincere. We do not mean: faking insanity or not.  We mean: is one sincere within their insanity?

But perhaps for poetry a more important question is:

Is sincerity a measure of poetic worth?  Surely we value sincerity in a friend; what about a poem?

The New Critics (and their heirs like Michael Robbins) would say no, sincerity is not a measure of poetic worth, since sincerity belongs to intention, and intention has no poetic value; in poetry, only the final result counts.

The New Critics were wrong, and for this simple reason:

The final result reveals everything, every cause of the poem, whether it is found in the final result, or not.

So intention and sincerity do matter, and therefore the philosophy of the New Critics has done much damage.

But back to insanity: If insanity—sincere or not—is “sanity at odds with circumstance,” we cannot say the same for insane poetry—for poetry has no outside circumstance with which to be at odds.  The poem is its own circumstance.

If poetry is insane, then, as critics we must reject it.

Insanity in life may be noble. In poetry, it merely makes the poetry hard to read, like a sentence unintentionally unclear thanks to bad grammar.  Remove the life circumstance, and insanity has no justification: it is not justified in the poem—even if we granted insanity is somehow revelatory; it can be no more revelatory than sanity (or mere accident) all else being equal. Genius is always better than insanity; it would be absurd to state otherwise.  Insanity—belonging to poetry—has neither hidden nor overt advantages.

It is philosophy’s job to tell us what is insane or not; Plato may tell us love is insane, but poems on the insanity of love can still be written by sane poets, and if strong feelings belong to both poetry and insanity, we need poets and critics to be all that much saner as they navigate their art.

We understand the whole subject of insanity and poetry is beneath the law of the dyer’s hand: what we work in will infect us.  We might even say that poetry itself can be defined as that which dives into insanity while trying to remain sane.

Even as we recognize the inevitable pitfalls of sorting out sane from insane, we think a poetically legitimate “Insane” School of Poetry can be classified in the following manner:

1. The Didactic

2. The Lyric

3. The Realized

The Didactic poem confronts insanity as a kind of recognized problem from the outside; a good example is this sonnet by nobleman and solider, Philip Sidney:

Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum, and dregs of scattered thought ;
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care ;
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought ;
Desire, desire !  I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware ;
Too long, too long, asleep thou hast me brought,
Who shouldst my mind to higher things prepare.
But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought ;
In vain thou madest me to vain things aspire ;
In vain thou kindlest all thy smoky fire ;
For virtue hath this better lesson taught,—
Within myself to seek my only hire,
Desiring nought but how to kill desire.

“Desire” is Sidney’s villain, but “fancy’s scum,” “dregs of scattered thought” and “causeless care” is a great description of insanity.

“Killing desire” might be more insane than “desire” itself, OK; but one can clearly see the poet’s intention—-to cure what he sees as insanity with sanity.

Other examples of this kind of poem are: perhaps any serious religious poem, “Under Ben Bulben” by Yeats, and “The Channel Firing” by Hardy, the sort of poem where you look at war or some other human folly and pronounce that the world’s gone mad, etc.

The Lyric poem of Insanity can be seen in this rather famous number by Poe:

LO! ’tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

  Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly —
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Wo!

  That motley drama — oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot. 

  But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the angels sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

  Out — out are the lights — out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

The Lyric type confronts insanity from ‘inside’ and makes art out of the distorted.  “Mariana” by Tennyson is another good example.  Examples can be found scattered throughout Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and, of course, the Romantics.

The third type, what we here name the “Realized” type of Poetic Insanity, is a modern invention, with Ginsberg, the rough and autobiographical and Ashbery, the smooth and demure versions.

Our example is by Ben Mazer: part 13 of his long poem, “The King.”

Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere.
And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane.
Or would you say that I have gone insane?
What would you do, then, to even the score?
And what is more, should the boy King stand clear
and leave the sword undrawn, and face the door?
I could tell you, so many times before!
How every store front is its own museum
and where we two meet in the eyes of heaven.
Traffic stop! And listen to me now!
The King has spoken, and he takes his bow.
O How! How could his little woman
be admitted to the judgement of heaven.
The judgement day is here, the day is now!

The Realized poem of Insanity is fully “inside” the insanity, such that the poem is either tongue-in-cheek, intentionally obscure, or phantasmagoric for its own sake.  In this sort of poem the poet’s intention is what is most obscure, and this style arose, naturally, during, and as a result of, the reign of the New Critics, who suppressed intention in poetry, claiming it had no importance at all.  (See “The Intentional Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley (1946))

If we attempt a division between “sane” poets and “insane” poets, the sane ones would be, naturally, Shakespeare, Yeats, Pope, Tennyson, Larkin, Milton, Keats, Krylov, Dante, Millay, Goethe, Heine, Sidney, Homer, Daniel, Swift, Dryden, Barrett, Wordsworth, and Byron.

The “insane” poets would include Catullus, Clare, Beddoes, Smart, Coleridge, Hood, Poe, Shelley, Thomas, Bishop, Plath, Auden, Spicer, Lowell, Sexton, Cummings, Reznikoff, Blake, Williams, Ginsberg, Pound, Heaney, Melville, Hopkins, Herbert, Crane, Bunting, Winters, Dickinson, Spencer, Eliot, Stevens, and Stein.

A neat division like this, while relatively easy to do, can never be perfect.

A sane critic may, for one reason or another, write insane poems.  Yvor Winters strove to be a very sane critic, but in poems like “The Slow Pacific Swell” and “By The Road To the Air Base” one can see total insanity.  And this is an insight into perhaps why Winters resented Poe so much: it was the “Realized Insane” poet having no patience for the “Lyrically Insane” poet.  The issue is also more complex because of our three types of Insane Poetry, and, in addition, the “Realized” type has as an almost infinite amount of motives, layers and colorings.

One might ask why Byron is placed in the Sane group of poets, while a low-key person like Seamus Heaney is placed in the Insane category: the classification is based on the poetry more than the poet; Sane Poetry exhibits Reason, even if it’s masked by Wit; when strong passion is resisted by reason, sanity is often the result; when weak passion tramples the reason, insanity quietly follows.  Heaney fell victim to over-use of simile and milk-and-water fastidiousness; Byron talked witty sense in the end.

The Didactic type of Insane Poem often fails from just that: the didactic, or the preachy.   The Lyrically Insane, at its most rigorous, manifests the highest sense of art.  The Realized Insane soars, or suffers, from flying close to, or into, Insanity’s bright sun.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

THE VERSE DRAMA: BEN MAZER

At the Grolier (L-R) Amanda Maciel Antunes; Michael Healy; Robert Chalfen; Julia Kleyman; Zachary Bos; Ben Mazer; Allison Vanouse; Jenna Dee; Philip Nikolayev

The verse drama ought to wear the crown, but as it happens so often in life with worthy things, is neglected; the verse drama’s combination of entertainment (drama) and fine art (poetry) should carry the day for all conceivable reasons except for the inconceivable reason that it does not.

To give an audience to a poet and poetry to audiences!  And for this noble purpose, to spring poetry from books so it might escape into, and live in, sound! To give entertainment the soul of art and art, the charm of entertainment! To put intricate music into story! To insert character and plot into intricate music!

These are worthy goals, and they must have excited Shakespeare, the playwright and poet, to give us the best literature in the world, etc.

The audience may boo, as it booed Henry James, so the poetry better entertain and the drama better fit the shades and hues of the words. Plays are not for the faint of heart.

T.S. Eliot, the modern who bemoaned verse drama’s fall as a popular art form,  says on the practical matters of verse drama:

Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants “poetry.” (“Novices,” says Aristotle, “in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.”) The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.  —The Possibility of Poetic Drama, T.S. Eliot

We are happy to report that Ben Mazer, the poet, treats the task of creating verse drama, in his “A City of Angels,” neither too solemnly, nor as a joke; perhaps superficially, the scene at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop recently resembled a “small public” assembled for “poetry,” and perhaps due to the “temper of the age,” this is the only social milieu possible for verse drama, but Mazer, we feel, succeeds wildly with his 3 act play.

Mazer fulfills what Eliot, in “Rhetoric and Poetic Drama,” wanted:

A speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as it might conceivably move other characters in the play, for it is essential that we should preserve our position of spectators, and observe always from the outside though with complete understanding.

There is nothing worse than art that has a “palpable design” on us, and Mazer, by avoiding this common error, has a chance to give us true art.  And he does.

In more general terms, Oscar Wilde is a spokesman witty and elegant enough to convince us of the importance of poetry performed.

Wilde’s The Critic As Artist is illustrative of that great debate—is poetic language sign (writing) or sound (music)?

The 19th century was still imbued with the spirit of the Greeks and sound was the high-brow choice; but in the 20th century, Imagism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry and Language Poetry have made poetry on the page more important to scholars and academic poets.

There is no question where Wilde stands in his marvelous document, The Critic As Artist:

Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear, which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always. Even the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words  and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life produces. We, in fact, have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design. The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.  I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us, not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.  Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to his blindness, as an occasion if not as a cause, that England’s great  poet owed much of the majestic movement and sonorous splendor of his later verse.  When Milton could no longer write, he began to sing.  …Yes: writing has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice. That must be our test, and perhaps then we shall be able to appreciate some of the subtleties of Greek art criticism.

Wilde is writing in the late 19th century, before Modernism killed the Greek spirit which Wilde breathed as the very air.  Perhaps the death of Oscar Wilde (1900) should mark the beginning of Modernism/Post-Modernism—with its emphasis on poetry as writing, and even design, as opposed to poetry of speaking, singing, and winged thought.

The Verse Play, A City of Angels, by Ben Mazer, twice performed recently in Harvard Square, leaps over the heavy mosaic of writing into a heaven of sound.   Why ideality is better ushered into our minds by the ear is a mystery all unsolvable; the inspired poet himself is but a vessel and cannot explain it.

We might, at this point, make some self-evident observations.

The poetry of sound works in a medium more suited to poetry itself.

Enlightenment and pleasure, however misty, enter us by definite steps; this is how the material world experiences itself. Spoken language requires steps to imaginative reality, and those steps are at once accessible and elevating in the hands of the gifted poet; most poets strive for elevation but their steps are hidden, or their steps are accessible but they do not lead anywhere.

Ben Mazer’s poem is accessible and mystical at once.  We could use the word genius to describe how simply Mazer swims in the deep.

Music, or self-consciously musical language, allows us to travel to a place; both the traveling to the place and the place itself are provided by the music.

With all due respect to visual artists, we can see at once how musical poetry is superior to what the design or picture does, for the visual artist merely give us the place but not the traveling to the place—only the movement of temporal art can do that.

The poem that imitates painting and provides imagery is doing only a small part of what it can do, and even when providing imagery, the poet must ‘stretch it’ in the temporal rendering. Every tool has a self-imposed limit as well as a certain thing it can do.  Mazer understands this on many levels, and especially in this: his imagery always serves his music.

The painter will use distance for an effect, the poet, time, but the poet’s time is so much more immense and important.  So many things will mark the poet’s temporal journey: exactly what he is saying, exactly what he is painting, the rhythm of what is said, the suggestive vistas large or small, bright, dappled, or dark; the journey can be accumulative or sudden, the steps, a whole paragraph of thought, or a single arch rhyme. The skillful poet builds thought itself with mood on mood, and the Verse Drama is a form which lends itself to this and which seems to find Mazer in his element.

When it comes to temporality, Mazer does not languish in A City, but stresses movement for the sake of movement:

where much is predicated to unfold
when in the morning I unleash the thoughts
that brought me to return as if to break
the patterns of the time that came before
and sever all connections to the past
when time moves forward into a new day,
and motion stirs in the awaking town
to find that all is new, is a blank slate
where history shall properly begin
groping to find its new identity
innocently as it looks around
to find that all is moving forward now

We quote but a part of this tour-de-force, John Crick’s monologue which opens the play; is it over the top?  A lesser poet would trim the speech, fearing excess, but temporal excess is precisely how Mazer’s genius asserts itself in the medium he has chosen.

If Crick merely asserted in a briefer format, “here I am, waiting for a new day,” the whole thing would be a failure; Mazer instinctively makes onward movement the rhetorical form of Crick’s speech on mutability and novelty.

Crick’s passion for the new is soon put to the test by the friendly, small-town, skeptical Mary; she is the human lens of the play, modifying Crick’s light; she is “we the audience” who puzzle over Crick’s mystical, forward-looking, optimism.

Mary: “I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.”

Meanwhile, John questions her; John and Mary’s dialogue (Act I, Scene 2) skillfully enhances the content of Crick’s monologue in the play’s first scene.

Crick: But why were you not sleeping at this hour?

Mary: I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.

Crick: I promise that I’ll tell, but answer me.

Mary: Why am I up? I was asleep awhile
but then I had a dream I can’t recall
which stirred and shook me and I was awake.

Mary, unlike the town that is sleeping, is awake, and discovers Crick outside her window in the street (he has come to work for her father, the president of the college.)  Mary is made unique and has her dramatic presence heightened by this simple device, and the dream which she relates hints at Crick’s mysterious visit.  So as Mary questions Crick, he then questions her—and she reveals him more than he does himself.

But she continues to press him:

Mary: But more concretely, what have you in mind?
With what do you propose to fill each day?

Crick: With wonderment and with discovery.
Briefly that is the outline of my plan.
To find virginity in each new day,
a spirit of adventure not restrained.
An openness to what’s not been before.

Mary: Concretely speaking, John, what would that be?

The audience notices the self-aware nature of the play; the playwright knows Crick is not being “concrete” (even though he has put Crick in dramatically real situation: visiting a snowy city at night for a job, etc).  But the critique of Crick’s vagueness is not a simple one; he parries Mary in such an idiot savant sort of way that one cannot help but emotionally identify with the profound visitor:

Crick: Nothing concrete at all, but something that
remains to be discovered.

Mary:  Well, we’ll see.

Crick’s logic is masterful.  The “something that remains to be discovered” is just that exciting secret which cannot be revealed, for then it would lose its allure.  This is nothing less than a dramatic evocation of the Socratic desire for not only truth—but desire itself.

And with Socrates, we return to the Greek spirit which Wilde, the wit, saw as so important (Eliot, too, lauds Plato in “The Possibility of Poetic Drama”).  And as Wilde made clear in The Critic As Artist, the Greek spirit is the critical spirit:

Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation…

Each new school…cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.

There has never been a creative age that has not been critical also.  For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat itself. It is to the critical instinct that we owe each new school that springs up, each new mould that art finds ready to its hand.

Wilde was a wit, so why wouldn’t he take the side of criticism:  wit is closer to criticism than to creativity.  Some reject Plato, Socrates, the Critical impulse, in favor of a not-so-carefully-considered-creativity.

Mazer’s self-critical mastery of the medium of verse drama is nicely expressed in the Act 3, Scene 1 meeting between the thuggish Tom and Sam Cross—who belong to the the rival clan of the Cricks.  When they caustically speak of “this play,” it probably refers to a play in the play, but there’s just enough of an absurdist hint that the “play” referred to is, in fact, Mazer’s play.

They’ve got one newspaper, one magazine of any value, a literary magazine, and this is where this play will receive a favorable review, and it will be trusted and admired by intellectuals, and we’ve got one shit Crick up our ass.  (Tom Cross)

The rhetorical style of the Cross brothers scene stretches meaning even as it condenses it; the rather brief scene is entirely effective, with just the right black comic menace.  The scene is a perfect vehicle for character actors to have a delightful time, removed, and yet threatening, the romantic world of John Crick and Mary.  Mazer knows how to build, define and separate a play’s elements—we don’t need a lot of interaction to see what is essential move forward.

What “moves forward” in Mazer’s play is fairly simple—but lest we think this a fault, we should remember what T.S. Eliot says (very wisely) in his essay “The Possibility of Poetic Drama:”

The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world—a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a complete process of simplification.

And again, keeping with the whole critical tenor of creation, Mazer in “A City of Angels” is cognizant of Eliot’s profound statement (in the same essay) on the economy of great literature, which, according to Eliot, puts “into the statement enough to make reflection unnecessary.”

“To make reflection unnecessary” returns us to that accessibility we need in temporal art—as we pitch forward with that “precise statement of life” “essential to get upon the stage.”

Another issue dogging the verse drama is the “conversational” v. “oratorical” debate; doesn’t poetry automatically sound too artificial for the “direct speech” we expect from actors on the stage?  Mazer succeeds here, too.  His blank verse play, which occasionally rhymes, mostly sounds like speech.  Either the obstacle is not as great as supposed, or Mazer has found a secret key.

Verse drama has not been popular for a long time.  When is the last time someone quoted Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party?”

Ben Mazer’s A City of Angels, which we feel is better than Yeats or Eliot’s efforts in the genre, gives us hope for the form, and for poetry.

Mazer, with the help of some talented friends, has done at the Grolier what Oscar Wilde asked: returned fine literature to the voice.

FIRST ROUND ACTION MOVES TO THE EAST AS WE REVIEW THE WINNERS

Last year’s Scarriet March Madness Tournament Champion, Ben Mazer: Should S.T. Coleridge be afraid?

First Round play in Scarriet’s Romanticism, Old and New, Madness Tournament East Bracket awaits: with icons Coleridge, Poe, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, plus living poets Stephen Dunn and Ben Mazer!

First round play is finished in the North, South, and West.

So far, three living poets have managed to advance to the second round, mixing with the best Romantic poets of all time: Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, and Billy Collins.

Philip Nikolayev (“Litmus Test”) almost upset First Seed John Keats in the South.

One change to report: Algernon Swinburne has made the cut as a 15th seed in the East, replacing “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.”  The Scarriet Madness committee has an obscure rule that no Anonymous authors may compete, thus barring the folk ballad (often replete with Romantic genius).

Here’s a recap of the poets advancing:

Goethe “Holy Longing” d. Donald Justice “In Bertram’s Garden”

Frost “Stopping By Woods” d. Thomas Campion “Follow Thy Fair Sun”

Catullus “Lesbia Let’s Live Only For Love” d. Rimbaud “Lines”

Larkin “Whitsun Weddngs” d. Thomas Traherne “Eden”

Suckling “Why So Pale and Wan Fond Lover” d. Ashbery “Syringa”

Burns “Red, Red Rose” d. W.H Auden “Miss Gee”

Herrick “Delight in Disorder” d. Theodore Roethke “I Knew A Woman”

Blake “How Sweet I Roamed” d. Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince At The Clavier”

Keats “Ode To A Nightingale” d. Philip Nikolayev “Litmus Test”

Plath “Lady Lazarus” d. Poseidippus “Dorchia”

Petrarch “Whoso List To Hunt” d. Bishop “The Fish”

Wordsworth “On The Beach At Calais” d. Baudelaire “L’invitation Au Voyage”

Hoagland “A Color Of The Sky” d. Ovid “Amores I,V”

Barrett “A Musical Instrument” d. Betjemen “A Subaltern’s Love Song”

Eberhart “The Groundhog” d. Marvell “The Garden”

Olds “Primitive” d. Dante “Tanto Gentile”

Shelley “The Cloud” d. Arnold “Dover Beach”

Dryden “Song For St. Cecilia’s Day” d. Dylan Thomas “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”

Yeats “Lake Isle Of Innisfree” d. Tennyson “Mariana”

Millay “And You As Well Must Die” d. Pope “Ode On Solitude”

D.H. Lawrence “River Roses” d. Propertius “O Best Of All Nights, Return and Return Again”

Charles D’Orleans “La! Mort Qui T’A Fait Si Hardie” d. Spender “I Think Continually Of Those Who Are Truly Great”

Billy Collins “Passengers” d. Byron “Don Juan” excerpt

Walther Vogelweide “Under The LindenTree” d. Browning “Meeting At Night”

And those are the (North, South, West) winners so far!

We need 8 more from the East Bracket.

Ben Mazer, last year’s Scarriet March Madness Champion, who defeated Marilyn Chin for the title, advancing past the likes of Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery, draws a tough challenge this year: “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Coleridge, perhaps the most famous Romantic poem of all time.  Last year’s amazing run by Mazer was against living poets.

Here’s the Mazer entry:

AT THE TABUKI KABUKI

She was a hothouse flower, but she grew
to such proportions that she never knew

her brand of people, less her brand of steeple,
and saw things as they happened, from the view.

Her husband took her on his trips to Asia,
to count the factories, and meet the heads
of government and business. In her beds
were flowers, chocolates, cinctures of aphasia.

In time the path sloped upward, and the driver
relaxed a bit, began to tell his story.
It grew less clear just who was driving who,
she, the loquacious one, or he, the taciturn McGiver,

or if it was a modern sort of dory.
As she listened, she began to rue
the little fables, and the many tables,
and the entire vast illusion, too.

As we read this brief poem by Mazer, up against Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, we might think it is a lamb going to the slaughter, but not so.  We observe, for instance, Mazer’s delicate ear in the first few lines: “grew, knew, people, steeple, from the view.”  We also note the compactness of imagery and story; an undertone of despair sweetly mixed with an undertone of humor; informative density “heads of government and business” effortlessly combines with lyric surface: “flowers, chocolates, cintures of aphasia.”

If we might take a moment to define the genius of the Romantic era and poetic genius in general, as evinced by Mr. Mazer, it is this: the poet of genius, moved by that love in which desire seeks its goal by any means necessary, fires all its guns in a burst of fervor and ardor in which no poetic strategy is rejected, no rule is obeyed other than: the more rules broken, the better; no poetic school or fashion is followed; the poet shoots all the arrows available in his quiver at the sun.

Mazer is not rhyming so much as rejecting the modern rule that you shall not rhyme—there is a difference between the two; the Romantic rebel, we feel, and we know not how, is doing the latter.

Shelley, in a poem, writes of a “cloud,” and that’s all he does, and the wise elders think, “You can’t just have a poem about a cloud!”

This is what Romanticism is: it is not “about romance,” per se; it is love following its own vibrations, passionately rejecting rules and embracing whatever-it-takes to enkindle a certain profundity of delight.

You cannot mention McGiver—much less use it as a rhyme!—in a brief, melancholy lyric and make it work!   But Mazer does.  This is what impossible-to-define-genius does.

It is not what genius does that makes poetic genius genius, but how it manages to make whatever what happens to be come to life in unexpected ways.

KUBLA KHAN, a dream fragment—S.T. Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
 
 
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
   
 
A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me, 
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
 
This poem is a mess.  Yet it works, better than almost any poem ever written.   What sort of claptrap is this?  “A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw” and yet who does not delight in it?  The Romantic era reached this pinnacle: poets created Taste by violating it, a phenomenon which has largely been missing from poetry ever since.  Since the 19th century, poets, in their compositional techniques, have been prosier, more correct—and colder.
 
Coleridge 88 Mazer 79
 
Mazer fights hard, but the iconic poem carries the day.

THE 2013 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS BRACKETS!!

Here they are!!

Competition will start immediately!

The four number one seeds: Goethe, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, no surprise there…

Let the Road to the Final Four begin!!

ROMANTICISM: OLD AND NEW

THE NORTH

1. HOLY LONGING-GOETHE
2. STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING-FROST
3. LESBIA LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE-CATULLUS
4. THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS-LARKIN
5. WHY SO PALE AND WAN FOND LOVER?-SUCKLING
6. MISS GEE-AUDEN
7. DELIGHT IN DISORDER-HERRICK
8. PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER-STEVENS
9. SONG: HOW SWEET I ROAMED-BLAKE
10. I KNEW A WOMAN-ROETHKE
11. A RED, RED ROSE-BURNS
12. SYRINGA-ASHBERY
13. EDEN-TRAHERNE
14. LINES-RIMBAUD
15. FOLLOW THY FAIR SUN-CAMPION
16. IN BERTRAM’S GARDEN-JUSTICE

THE SOUTH

1. ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE-KEATS
2. LADY LAZARUS-PLATH
3. WHOSO LIST TO HUNT-PETRARCH
4. L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE-BAUDELAIRE
5. AMORES I,V-OVID
6. A SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG-BJETEMAN
7. THE GARDEN-MARVELL
8. PRIMITIVE-OLDS
9. TANTO GENTILE-DANTE
10. THE GROUNDHOG-EBERHART
11. A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT-BARRETT
12. A COLOR OF THE SKY-HOAGLAND
13. ON THE BEACH AT CALAIS-WORDSWORTH
14. THE FISH-BISHOP
15. DORCHIA-POSEIDIPPUS
16. LITMUS TEST-NIKOLAYEV

THE WEST

1. THE CLOUD-SHELLEY
2. AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION-THOMAS
3. MARIANA-TENNYSON
4. AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE, BELOVED DUST-MILLAY
5. O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN-PROPERTIUS
6. I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO ARE TRULY GREAT-SPENDER
7. DON JUAN (FROM CANTO III)-BYRON
8. MEETING AT NIGHT-BROWNING
9. UNDER THE LINDENTREE-VOGELWEIDE
10. PASSENGERS-COLLINS
11. LA! MORT QUI T’A FAIT SI HARDIE-D’ ORLEANS
12. RIVER ROSES-LAWRENCE
13. ODE ON SOLITUDE-POPE
14. LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE-YEATS
15. SONG FOR ST. CECILIA’S DAY-DRYDEN
16. DOVER BEACH-ARNOLD

THE EAST

1. KUBLA KHAN-COLERIDGE
2. THE RAVEN-POE
3. WAS THIS THE FACE-MARLOWE
4. HYSTERIA-ELIOT
5. WHEN IN THE CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME-SHAKESPEARE
6. THE BLUE GIRLS-RANSOM
7. THE GOOD MORROW-DONNE
8. WORKING LATE-SIMPSON
9. LOVE-HERBERT
10. HERE AND NOW-DUNN
11. SINCE THERE’S NO HELP COME LET US KISS AND PART-DRAYTON
12. CYNARA-DOWSON
13. GOLDEN SAYINGS-NERVAL
14. WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY-HOUSMAN
15. BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN-ANONYMOUS
16. AT THE TABUKI KABUKI-MAZER

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!

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…

THE GRANDE SCHOOL OF POETRY

Ben Mazer—the new Byronism of the Grande school?

The disgrace of seeming pre-Modern is a stigma created by the Modernists themselves, the small clique which dominated poetry for most of the 20th century.

That was done then, therefore we can’t do that now is the formula, and, despite the allure of originality, it’s a dangerous formula—for the self-evident reason that society should never stigmatize so generally.

If we can reject something as immense as the past, then anything or anyone can, and will, be rejected, for just about any reason at all.

We cannot assume that a fanatical formula (yes, “Make it new,” I’m talking to you) will be tempered by caveats: ‘we really mean a blend of the old and the new!’  As human history has witnessed, human loss of reason on a mass scale can occur quickly and dangerously.

Obviously, we cannot dispense with the new in the name of the old, either.  The evils of political fundamentalism crushing the new is a danger, as well; but the point is that we are intolerant if we don’t realize intolerance uses any excuse—the new kills as easily as the old kills.  The old and new are both useful.

In poetry and art, however, the normal process has become: We don’t need this.  Let’s jettison that.  It might be rhyme, narrative, the painterly, the accessible, the moral, whatever it is; what the bourgeois want, the radical theorist inevitably decides we don’t need.  For 200 years we have witnessed the radical impulse march forward through time in an orgy of self-justification, as one limited style continually replaces another.  Re-reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe reminds one how silly this art-march can be.

Since poetry and art are so important in shaping the sensibilities of people in all walks of life: school teachers, professors, higher ed administrators, journalists, etc, this impulse does have universal importance.

It is refreshing then, to witness recently in poetry a new grande style emerging, one that wisely embraces rather than superficially jettisons.

The grande school kicks up dirt here at Scarriet.  The literary ambition embodied here is not merely lusty and wide, mocking the twaddle of pin-headed theorists who inhabit self-serving cliques of  fussy and narrow tracks of inquiry, but also holds forth in rigorous terms of good, basic common sense that rejects snap political judgments, pretense, and superfluity.

No school can escape a drawback or two; it could be said the grande school perhaps suffers from egomania.  Say what you will about Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, they are not egomaniacs.  Graham no doubt had real affection for the poets she cheated for when she was a poetry contest judge; Silliman no doubt has real affection for his woolly avant ideals and what he feels are their political virtues.

The grande school celebrates Byronic individualism. The grande school is not afraid of the word, genius.  The grande school is not afraid of embracing other arts, interests and views which may be innocently anti-poetry.  The grande school is not afraid of rebuking poetry in its own name. The grande school knows there can be a sweet Socratic method in a madness.  The grande school is not afraid of genius when it takes the form of madness.  The grande school is not afraid of Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, nor do they fear Ron Silliman or Jorie Graham’s several hundred admirers.

Perhaps the most successful poet writing today in the manner of the grande school is Ben Mazer, recent winner of Scarriet’s March Madness contest.  The following is from part 32 of his long poem, “The King.”  The yearning, self-conscious wish for poetry to be more like the pictorial arts is a mad wish, perhaps, but it is a sign of genius to wish to escape a genre within that genre itself in a wholly child-like and uncomplicated way.  The failure is a rousing success; only melancholy genius dares embrace failure so vehemently and earnestly; this melancholy desperation shines a helpful light.

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

In this passage by Mazer we find the sensibility, the attitude and the mind of the grande school wonderfully documented.  It is wishful and hopeful and expansive, and appears to transcend the old Modern order, so often doomed by its own intricacy. Mazer questions his own art—runs (and this part is part of a longer poem) towards the limits of his craft—while aspiring to the infinite.  The poem manages to achieve a “photographic instant” as it dispenses with discursiveness and makes manifest one idea, reinforced by the fact that Mazer’s poem is nothing like a painting. A painting is not limited by a poem’s unwinding, but can flash upon us in an instant.  There is a secret knowing humor, then, in Mazer’s plea to “words”; a Byronic, satiric jollity inevitably combines with a Byronic melancholy in Mazer’s work.

Is this the new poetry?  Is Mazer the first real poet of the 21st century?

In Mazer’s poetry we see the fissure of modernism/post-modernism’s facade—the self-conscious glibness finally about to burst before a force of uncanny weight of sublime and timeless aspiration. Mazer is not a poet who longs; Mazer is a poet who makes poetry long.

The question must always be: what material thing can we do?

Two implicit questions emerge after reading the poetry of Mazer quoted above:

1. Is poetry the explaining of a painting that doesn’t exist?

2. Is painting the picture of a poem that hasn’t been written?

Poetry and painting no longer love each other.  In the 19th century, they were in love with each other.

‘The medium is the message’ signals a philosophy which signals the present gulf between them.  Is the imagination really confined to its ‘medium?’

Abstract painting, with its indulgence of flatness and color, turns its back on poetry—since no poem is depicted by colored abstraction.

Missing her illustrative twin, poetry desperately assumes various roles to make up for the loss, going abstract herself with surface linguistic effects that depict nothing a painter would be inspired by; or, going in the opposite direction, poetry attempts imagery, story and jokes in such a manner that she over-reaches, forgets who she is, slides into inferior prose, into bad taste, into over-description, into obscurity.

The painter, in turn, flounders in the machinery and mechanics of the overtly conceptual.

Poets and painters, knowing they are different types of artists, are hardly aware of the timeless importance each share with each; poetry and painting do not even understand that they are out of balance with each other, while sensual film and moral novels breed, producing all the children—the great majority brats without beauty or taste.

Mazer’s poem confronts the gulf between poetry and painting, confronts the pre-Modern stigma found in the modern formula: ‘the medium is the message,’ a formula which traps us inside of itself today.  If  ‘the truth’ of this formula traps us, this is still no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to escape from it, and Mazer seems to understand this, as only a genius can.

Nietzsche, just before he went mad, wrote that he found in Horace—an author neglected by the Moderns—what Mazer ponders in his passage from “The King”:

To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word — as sound, as place, as concept — pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs — all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular — mere sentimental blather.

We will be the first to admit that these are unsettled questions—Whither poetry? Whither painting? Whither Horace? Whither Modernism? Whither Mazer? Will poetry and painting inspire each other again?

But we like what’s shaking with the grande school.

THE CHAMPIONSHIP: MARILYN CHIN V. BEN MAZER

 
A mid-summer evening as Scarriet’s March Madness finally draws to a close.
 
West coast poet Marilyn Chin and east coast poet Ben Mazer clash in the championship game of Scarriet March Madness 2012. 
 
64 poets, and we are now down to two.
 
In 2010 and 2011 (this is our third annual tournament) a poet and his or her one chosen poem battled to the top, but this year a poet used a new poem in every contest, so it becomes a question of: well, poet, how many great poems have you got? 
 
In our first year, using Lehman’s BAP, a Billy Collins poem won it all, a playful take on a Wordsworth trope, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey”—the title itself sums up David Lehman, Billy Collins, and cheerfully post-modern, late 20th century poetry.  In year two, using an APR anthology, Larkin’s “Aubade” swept to the title: a dead English poet’s rueful, fearful, honest, atheistic, speculation on death. 
 
This year we used Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry, the book with a lot of black poets and ‘traditional,’ Iowa workshop, free verse lyrics.  Marilyn Chin is in Dove’s anthology; Ben Mazer is one of a handful of poets not in the anthology—the Scarriet selection process is too complicated to explain.
 
Mazer has emerged as a new Ashbery, an Ashbery not ashamed of running, hat flying off, down Romanticism Lane—which is refreshing, since every last bit of Modernist poetry for at least 100 years has been a rejection of anything resembling Romantic poetry, or Tennyson, or anything Byronic.  We sometimes wonder: what do they mean when they say Writer’s Workshop poems are all the same?  They are not the same—they are clearly free, and different.  But they are the same in this: they eschew Shelley and Byron and Keats. Workshop poems might be a little like Wordsworth—because Wordsworth, well, he genuinely liked trees.  But the sublime of Keats, Byron, Shelley?  Not allowed.  The New Critics, supposedly ‘conservative,’ wrote in tremendous opposition to the Romantics, as did T.S. Eliot and Pound and Williams, and this is really what Modernism felt obligated to do—even more important than the poetry that it did write, was the poetry it didn’t.  Modernism didn’t write on modern subjects, necessarily; its ‘experiments’ were finally wan or cute, when they were not lengthy & unread; it didn’t distinguish itself in any manner at all with the public—except to retire from its notice with a shrug and a smirking apology.  The modern poems of Frost, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Auden, Jarrell, and Larkin that did make a dent on the public all sounded like Tennyson, or maybe Tennyson’s anti-war, younger brother.
 
If poetry is a language, that some people speak and some do not, the only difference between English and French or Italian or Japanese or Arabic and poetry is that poetry is 1) easier to learn and 2) is characterized by sounding good. Since Tennyson sounds good, this is how we know the language known as poetry.  We speak poetry because our speech is good, not because we know the meanings of French words.  Speech is good as speech, not as individual words or isolated debating points—sustained good speech is the simplest and most accurate definition of good poetry. 
 
This is what Keats meant when he said you dive into a lake for the sensual experience, not to ‘work out the lake.’  Poetry isn’t a banner waving; it is swimming in a lake.  It is intellectualization sensualized.  Theory walks along the edges of the lake; the water or the swimming is not for theory.  Theory needs to know its place.  ‘Conceptual’ art is art infected with the dried-up-lake of theory.
 
Women poets are more susceptible to theory and banner-waving these days out of an inferiority complex thrust upon them by the men, which is too bad.  Women are being led astray by modern experiments.
 
Marilyn Chin is somewhat immune to theory, for she has history and wit. 
 
We offer this as her poem, and following that, Mazer’s.
 
Who immerses themselves in the lake?  Who gives us the lake?
 
The poet who gets us soaking wet will win. 
 
 

THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING

 War chariots thunder, horses neigh, the barbarians are coming. 
 
What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall,
    the barbarians are coming. 
 
They have heard about a weakened link in the wall.
    So, the barbarians have ears among us. 
 
 So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman,
    holding one broken brick in the wall. 
 
So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter,
    that brick and that wall.

The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless
with a top knot.

The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers,
    teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other.

The barbarians are coming:
    If you call me a horse, I must be a horse.
    If you call me a bison, I am equally as guilty.

When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles
    the blame by not admitting it: so, Chuangtzu, himself,
    was a barbarian king!

Horse, horse, bison, bison, the barbarians are coming

and how they love to come.
The smells of the great frontier exalt in them!

 

  

Crisping the Comedian C

 
And with my sword cane I rapped the dog on its head.
To its master I said:
“The soul’s expanding to make room for you
among the piles of rusted bric a brac
that make men grimace, revile themselves in church. . .
I felt the ground beneath begin to lurch,
increased my laughter with its rolling waves
laughter increase. . .
as he lunged forward trying to save himself. . .
I was an honest man. What could I do?
I pushed him forward where the great vacuum grew
and marvelled as he fell. . .
into the silence of the pits of hell.
“That’s one less editorial to write,”
I thought, and blinkered to recall the light,
and blinkered to recall the blight. . .
the scourge of man. . .
I like to help them any way I can.
In my emotions not a thought of man. . .
but that his docile sudden-widowed wife
might serve the lord. . .
replace, with some improvements in accord
with justice and increase, a missing life. . .
I dyed my hair.
A most enticing shade of emerald green,
and knowing the precise dimensions of her lair,
(and its location)
I took me there. . .
in search of satisfaction, and a queen.
She was the best damned thing I’d ever seen.
I smiled to mechanize my spotless luck.
As we proceeded. . .
no human call we heeded. . .
I do not think that men will speak to me.
But wider, wider, like a churning sea
of foaming lavender and sapphire green
I met my match. . .
How can the blameless blame me for my snatch?
I laughed to see
that God had spread his vistas out for me,
his servant lord,
no matter how much I murdered or I whored. . .
I was quite sane.
And turned to mark my profile in a pane
of ice that served my child-bride for a heart. . .
She promised a new start. . .
and I was wondrous, seeing how I’d changed;
the souls of men were cobbled there and ranged
across the germ of my experiment. . .
But at the crack of dawn these visions went,
and I was back among the human race;
answering servants in my modern palace. . .
though one thought, ordinary, flamed and flitted
of how my research proofed that I had fitted. . .
and I was not incognizant of place. . .
answering letters in unbridled solace. . .
an evening like a fortnight had them piled
and crumpled on my desk. . .
Although I cannot, I afford a smile. . .
and set out half a mile. . .
My soul was stirred, and hungered to be reviled,
revived and furnished. . .
where the creature’s dignity was burnished
on all she touched. . .
I bowed my head. My emerald locks she brushed. . .
grew wiry and strange…
yes, in that glass I recognized a change
of heart. She wept and promised a new start. . .
But how can I begin. . .
A child sees vistas in the hammering rain,
and does not ask if everything’s the same. . .
one night I fell. . .
and nothing shall restore me to His Grace.
Yet in its infancy the new-born face
is pocked and filed. . .
and strangely familiar. Something in me smiled.
It’s hard to find a perfect spot of shade. . .
Life is the best thing that I ever made. . .
 
The Mazer poem is uncanny. 
 
The Chin poem is attempting to be uncanny.  Marilyn Chin’s poem keeps waking from its dream—what did I mean by horse?  By Bison?
 
Mazer’s poem does not allow us to wake from its dream.
 
*
 
*
 
*
 
Mazer 90 Chin 81
 

BEN MAZER IS THE 2012 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS CHAMPION!!

SEMI-FINAL CHAMPIONSHIP: BEN MAZER V. DEREK WALCOTT

 

Mazer and Walcott are East and South champions—the winner goes on to the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship Game.  It began with 64 of the greatest English-speaking, living poets.  Soon it will be down to two.  The winner here plays the winner of Stephen Dunn/Marilyn Chin.

The ‘March Madness Tournament’ process is, as one would expect, very ‘reader response.’  All the elements of any poem must combine to produce a singular result in one reader.  One can harumph and object and theorize and pontificate all one wants, but this is a legitimate way of experiencing poetry.  How does the poem affect your heart rate?  End of story.

Here are the two poems.  Which one comforts you, which one wets your eye, which one makes you sigh—the most?

Looking back at our March Madness articles, we are proud to say that a poetry lesson was embedded in almost every one.

Enjoy these poems, will you?

Then we’ll tell you who won.

First Walcott, the Nobel Prize winner, with his “Schooner Flight,” and then Mazer’s “Cirque D’Etoiles”:

Schooner Flight

11. After the Storm

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake
I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.
I wanted nothing after that day.
Across my own face, like the face of the sun,
a light rain was falling, with the sea calm.

Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face
like a girl showering; make these islands fresh
as Shabine once knew them! Let every trace,
every hot road, smell like clothes she just press
and sprinkle with drizzle. I finish dream;
whatever the rain wash and the sun iron:
the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam,
is clothes enough for my nakedness.
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide
of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs
of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied
if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.
Open the map. More islands there, man,
than peas on a tin plate, all different size,
one thousand in the Bahamas alone,
from mountains to low scrub with coral keys,
and from this bowsprit, I bless every town,
the blue smell of smoke in hills behind them,
and the one small road winding down them like twine
to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,
vain search for one island that heals with its harbour
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

CIRQUE D’ETOILES

And after all is made a frozen waste
of snow and ice, of boards and rags. . .
if I should see one spark of permanent,
… one chink of blue among the wind-blown slags
approaching thus, and mirroring my surmise,
one liquid frozen permanence, your eyes. . .
should meet you at the end of time
and never end. . .
for always, even past death, you are my friend. . . .
and when at last it comes, inevitable,
that you shall sit in furs at high table
(for what other fate can one expect?)
dispensing honours, correlating plans
for every cause, for education, science. . .
what will I miss? how can I not be there?
who see you sputtering wordless in despair. . .
as I do now “miss nothing, nothing”
and to know you are some other man’s
(the stupid jerk), who once had your compliance. . .
and do these things ever end? (and if so, where?)
I ask myself, and should I feel despair?
to know, to love, to know, and still not care?
in winter, spring, and summer, and in fall,
on land or sea, at any time at all,
to know that half the stars on each night shine,
the other half are in your eyes, and mine. . .
and what is there? And what, I ask, is there?
Only these hurt and wounded orbs I see
nestled against a frozen stark brick wall. . .
and there are you, and there is me,
and that is all, that is all. . .
How from this torment can I wrestle free?
I can’t. . . . for thus is my soliloquy.
And you shall sit there serving backers tea.
And running ladies circles. Think of me. . .
Think of me, when like a mountainous waste
the night’s long dreaming stretches to a farther coast
where nothing is familiar. . . two paths that may have crossed
discover what had long been past recall. . .
that nothing’s really changed at all,
that we are here!
Here among flowering lanterns of the sea,
finite, marking each vestige of the city
with trailing steps, with wonder, and with pity!
And laugh, and never say that you feel shitty,
are one whose heart is broken, like this ditty.
And think that there is nothing there to miss.
Think “I must not miss a thing. I must not miss
the wraps, the furs, the teaspoon, or the kiss.”
And end in wishes. And leave not this abyss.
For all is one, beginning as it’s done.
Never forgetting this, till I am no one.
There is no formula that can forget. . .
these eyes pierce though ten thousand suns have set,
and will keep setting. . . now tuck in your head,
the blankets folded, and lay down in your bed.
And stir the stars, long after we are dead.

*

*

*

Mazer 89 Walcott 86

MAZER WINS!

FOR THE FINAL FOUR: BEN MAZER V. FRANZ WRIGHT

Is 2012 March Madness still going on? Yes.

Ben Mazer and Franz Wright shit out their poems. (That’s just an expression.)  They have no egos.  They are like: here. a poem.

You don’t fuck with Ben Mazer or Franz Wright.  You just read their poems.

You don’t ask them what their poems mean.   You feel the poem travel up the hairs on your arm. 

Hell hath no explanation like the explanation of one of their poems.  You see their poems out of the corner of your brain.

Enough hyperbole: let’s watch this titanic struggle.   For the Final Four!!

Franz Wright:

DEDICATION

It’s true I never write, but I would gladly die with you.
Gladly lower myself down alone with you into the enormous mouth
that waits, beyond youth, beyond every instant of ecstasy, remember:
before battle we would do each other’s makeup, comb each other’s
                   hair out
saying we are unconquerable, we are terrible and splendid—
the mouth waiting, patiently waiting. And I will meet you there
                   again
beyond bleeding thorns, the endless dilation, the fire that alters
                   nothing;
I am there already past snowy clouds, balding moss, dim
swarm of stars even we can step over, it is easier this time, I promise—
I am already waiting in your personal heaven, here is my hand,
I will help you across. I would gladly die with you still,
although I never write  
from this gray institution. See
they are so busy trying to cure me,
I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no more than eight hours
                   a day.
And it’s really just about a thousand miles of cafeteria;
a large one in any event. With its miniature plastic knives,
its tuna salad and Saran-Wrapped genitalia will somebody
                   please
get me out of here, sorry. I am happy to say that
every method, massive pharmaceuticals, art therapy
and edifying films as well as others I would prefer
not to mention—I mean, every single technique
known to the mouth—sorry!—to our most kindly
compassionate science is being employed
to restore me to normal well-being
and cheerful stability. I go on vacuuming
toward a small diamond light burning
off in the distance. Remember
me. Do you
remember me?   
In the night’s windowless darkness
when I am lying cold and numb
and no one’s fiddling with the lock, or
shining flashlights in my eyes,
although I never write, secretly
I long to die with you,
does that count?
 
 
Ben Mazer:
 
THE KING  (parts 29-35)
 
XXIX
 
Why should the aged eagle spread his wing?
I’ll tell you why. Because to watch Santa bring
a billion presents from the frozen pole
all by himself is less than heartening.
He brings them door to door
with Hyperborean speed. You who are converted
are harnessed to his creed though you have skirted
the issue. Who is that dark stranger?
That sickly twisted dying frozen ranger
who captivates the grove where you, too, rove.
I think he is myself! The least sure elf
mixes these patterns and brings them to the slatterns
who place them in dust till Easter on the shelf.
They call him Stetson, I have four sure bets on.

XXX

The chair she sits in like a burnished throne
happens to be the King’s, and is my own.
Maybe I too descend into parody
but not without esoteric clarity.
The least sure elf
is pining to be made into his self,
but I have already explained myself.
Pure tragedy must needs be humourless
and poetry will not be cured unless
its certain tragedy is made refined.
I too among that Harbour Dawn have pined
for quintessential pure lucidity,
perceived the cortex of the trinity,
and each emotion to its word assigned.

XXXI

Manhattan in the rain. I couldn’t speak
when Uncle Sid drove me in from Rockaway.
What did I want? To visit the punk rock shops.
The statue of liberty seemed oxidized and locked,
too fleeting, like shops I only saw when they were closed,
left for another lifetime. What would we have said if we talked?
Head of the Vice Squad. My mind was exploding with vice.
When I came back from England I was lost,
and sat in my Aunt’s house in Far Rockaway
watching Abbott and Costello night and day,
as vacuum cleaner salesmen, rival clans,
detectives, photographers, victims of circumstance.
I pilfered the attic for Pogo and Mark Twain,
ate seven kinds of cereal (she had three sons),
and saw Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch again.

XXXII

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

XXXIII

Anne Britton. Why do my thoughts always come back to this?
How on the edge and outskirts of the city
high on a hill worthy of Disney, or Seuss, or Mr. Burns,
high on a hill overlooking
what seemed like all the world—
crags and crevices, shadows, and blinkering lights,
some corner where a cobweb spun, where
nobody entered, where in another world
of brick on brick, orphaned, without witnesses
perhaps an old lady—kindly and unobserved—
may have fed animals she talked to,
called names, her heirs—a mildewed carpet
byzantian and worn amid the high mantles
and rafters seen by the impossibly small.

XXXIV

Branches grow in all directions at once.
Their black silhouettes enclose
the opposite of the city that surrounds them—
even then the white air of orphanic pilgrimages.
They dine on spaghetti! The instruments measure gold!
And when in the longing that descends in darkness
they take their cue to motion
(all things are there!) what never happened slows
into familiar memory, and the winds whip
their thousand frames and borders (enticing as lace),
in cross purposes, symphonies of erasure,
expansions of dimension and perspective
extending outwards down every road and lane,
groaning and growing inward, cross hatched by the rain
(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).

XXXV

Spring nights in high school—some legend revealed
as far as all the laundry lines could take you
through a universe of backyards, to a distant and returning star.
Like a cock’s crow plunging beneath the planets
to the mythic origins of what we are.
Revealed! So in celebration we circled
the little town, for all lines are a circle,
coming and going the same, till you grow tall
and strong, worthy of bearing a name:
like shrouds of darkness the points we pierced
with our individual lights, passing and hailing like stars,
until all was uncovered, each one knew each one,
the circle completed, a simultaneity
of all points from A to D to Z

Franz Wright cares that he’s crazy.  And it breaks your heart.  This is why his poetry is successful.

Ben Mazer doesn’t care that he’s crazy.  Actually, he’s not crazy—you are, as you read his poetry.  But that’s the whole point—he’s taking you on a trip, so that when you walk away from his poem, you will be less crazy.  We don’t know how this will play out, yet, in terms of success.

It’s a close contest, but the winner is…

Mazer 70 Wright 67

MAZER IS OUR FIRST POET IN THE FINAL FOUR!

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

ROUND 3 BEGINS: BILLY COLLINS V. BEN MAZER

Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012

Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.

This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.

The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?”  The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore.  It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness.  What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem.  The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry.  The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.

Part of the problem is that editors  no longer know what The Famous Poem is.

The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.

And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously?  The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?

So the irony.   Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels.  Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.

Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe.  Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney.  But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact.  To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn.  Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way.   One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there?  Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground.  You can’t make someone risk their life for their art.  You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.

The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned.  Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.

What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all.  Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is.  What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?

“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw?  How can “universally admired” be anything but good?  Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.

In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book).   These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.

But back to Collins versus Mazer.  Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore.  It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.

We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!  

Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney!   Can he do it again?

HERE’S THE SWEET 16!

Before we formally congratulate the Scarriet Sweet 16 poets of 2012, who, pound for pound, are probably the most entertaining poets alive today, the poets least likely to bore you, the poets who simply have a high batting average of poems sure to interest, amuse, or move the common reader—before we congratulate them, we should address the burning issue which always seems to loom over this enterprise: we refer to the poets and readers of poetry who balk at the idea of poetry used as fodder for competition.

First, we would say the competition is the fodder, not the poetry.  The ancient Greeks, who had drama competitions in front of crowds, understood this. 

The poetry contest, of which distinguished U.S. poets have so long been a part, is competitive—but since the process of picking winners is shrouded in secrecy, the process does not offend. 

But there is absolutely no difference between what Scarriet does with March Madness and what the more distinguished elements of po-biz do with their contests and prizes.

The reason competition offends probably has to do with sex. Sex is all about ‘who is hotter,’ whereas love entails ‘being loved forever for who I am.’   The former creates anxiety, the latter comfort. Love rules morals. All literature has a moral basis.  These unspoken laws are surely the underpinning to the disquiet and protest which greets Scarriet’s attempt to toss poems onto a horse track.

Judgment, or the Critical Faculty, ride the horses, however.  “Judge not” is a moral injunction, not a literary one.  To write is to get on a horse.

Love cannot be escaped when we make moral judgments—but poems are not moral in the same way people are.  We hope the morals of the people are in the poems.  Morals, however, do not make us love poems as poems—which exist apart from human moral issues, simply because they are poems, not people.  This does not mean that poems are not moral, or that poems camot create a moral universe; what it means is that poems themselves are immune to moral concerns.  The decree against poems competing arises from the mistaken idea that poems are morally attached to their authors—they are not; and if they are good poems, this is especially true.  The moral person makes the moral poem, but something happens when the moral travels from the person to the poem—it transforms into something which is no longer moral, even though morals was the impetus.  The objection to poems competing assumes poems are continually creating the moral worlds of their authors in such a manner that they cannot be interrupted from that task, ever.  Which is pure folly.  Those who are really moral persons do not rely heavily on moral attachments between poem and person.  This is my poem, do not touch it! is the sentiment of the moralist who will never write a good poem in the first place. 

There are many people who cannot reconcile the fact that morals are both oppressive and good.  But here’s the happy thing about poems.  The good should be present in the person writing the poem, even to an oppressive degree, but once the poem comes into existence, this moral creation, because it is a poem, escapes the oppressive  aspect of morals entirely while still being moral—that is, written by a moral person.  Art is the means by which the moral escapes its oppressive character. 

Judging art is not a moral act, but an entirely free act;  judging cannot escape competition; judging cannot escape the horse race, for comparison is always at the heart of the knowing that is judging.  Comparison cannot escape competition. The horses cannot stand still while we judge.

Here they are, most from the Dove anthology, and all living:

EAST: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, Mary Oliver,

MIDWEST/SOUTH: Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Patricia Smith 

NORTH: Phil Levine, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dunn, Louise Gluck

WEST: Sharon Olds, Matthew Dickman, Heather McHugh, Marilyn Chin 

Congratulations to the winners!

MAZER UPSETS HEANEY! MAZER UPSETS HEANEY!

Ladies and gentlemen, for the second time this spring, Ben Mazer has stunned the world of sports by defeating a heavily favored opponent in the 2012 Scarriet March Madness poetry contest!   First, John Ashbery, and now Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney goes down. 

How did he do it, ladies and gentlemen?

This was no obscure poem by Heaney—but his most anthologized piece!  “Digging!”  Universally praised and reprinted!

Oh, we can’t believe it!

How was Heaney’s poem vulnerable?  This is a Nobel Prize winner’s most famous poem!  How did it lose?

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
 
[Has there ever been an opening two lines as powerful as this?  Don't shoot! The pen resting!  It rests---between my finger and my thumb.  Oh poet! with your finger and thumb!  Oh writer with your instrument! O snug, squat pen!  Please, please, don't shoot!]
 
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
 
[O savage digging in the flowers!  gravelly and rasping, the sound!]
 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
 
[O coarse boot!  O hard potato! ]
 
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
 
[God is invoked!  Shades of Milton!  A spade!  Think of it!  A spade!]
 
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
 
[Sloppily corked milk!  And digging!  The salt of the earth invoked!  Manly!  Wild!  Savage!  Sweaty!  Good turf!  Sods heaved! ]
 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
 
[O tragedy!  "I've no spade"! ]
 
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
 
[O God!  "I'll dig with it."  Just like that!  With my squat pen, I'll dig! ]
 
How was Mazer able to stop this onslaught???
 
With this sad sea-dream: 
 
 
That hulking rooftop like a leviathan
still unexpectedly sails into view,
its byzantine tilework faded red and grey
like boxes within boxes visible from the sea,
at summer’s start eluding the goswogii.
Woodberry’s copy of his life of Poe
emerges from the flood, a constancy
that nobody will buy year after year.
Poe was born in Boston. In aught nine
Bruce Rogers did the job and Eliot
did shameful things that never will be known
on out of town trips. Something in the fog
grins like a skeleton beneath the cracked
continuity of what seemed like time.
Fall is spring-like. The fresh violins
of new arrangements lift the tortured heart
to hope, reflected light, the heart laid bare.
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
The museum closes in a timeless wave
of unutterable rhythms, lashed by rain.
The sea’s maw beckons to the life it spawned.
The white sheen of a sun pierced spray of fog
as we drop down the hill to the cliff’s edge
pierces the crowd out of time’s slow parade
that hits us like old music or a dream,
billowing out between their stupored legs,
the hot dog zeppelins and powder flags,
as if unseeable, but the grey ghost
of that hellion rowing with an iron crowbar
peers out through banjo chinks in the ragtime
that’s near but sounds as if it’s far away,
the certainty of death past the breakers.
 
 
There is a continuity here, in terms of sea and approaching land and glimpsing earth’s large buildings and contemplating with a self-conscious pathos the accomplishment of the human soul:  Poe’s “heart laid bare,” the sly reference to Eliot, and the reference to Christ: death at thirty-three, though it’s Hart Crane, too…this passage is especially rich:
 
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

The musical use of “t’ and “r” sounds is beautiful and uncanny: “poetry,” “mysterious,” “search,” “thirty-three,” “winter,’ “Archduke Trio,” “conservatory,” “moderate,” “contemporary,” and “admirer,” “admire,” those two words emphasizing the “r” music in a wonderful little coda.

Mazer 88, Heaney 86

HERE COMES SWEET 16: ROUND TWO BEGINS IN THE EAST!

 
The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney: highly favored to kick Ben Mazer’s ass
 
The  first Second Round Scarriet March Madness contest has Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, the old Irish lion, facing off against the young—and hungry—Ben Mazer.
 
Second seed Heaney beat Carolyn Forche 65-61 in the first round, while Mazer won a thriller against no. 1 seeded Ashbery in triple overtime, 102-101.
 
In other East play, Billy Collins advanced against Carol Ann Duffy, 90-77 and will play Marie Howe, who won a close contest with Jorie Graham, 63-60. 
 
Franz Wright, who dominated Geoffrey Hill, 58-42 will dance with James Tate in round 2; Tate won handily against Paul Muldoon, 71-51. 
 
Rounding out the East, Round Two: Robert Pinsky, who destroyed Charles Bernstein, 80-47, matches up against Mary Oliver, who had little trouble knocking off Charles Simic, 67-53.
 
Heaney brings his most anthologized piece, “Digging,” against Mazer in Round Two, a poem built around pen and spade.
 
DIGGING
 
Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
 
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
 
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
 
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
 
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
 
The poet’s boast, “I’ll dig with it,” sounds confident, perhaps because the very act of writing about one’s ancestors (who dig!) simply accomplishes the boast.  Or perhaps it’s because the poet compares his pen to a “gun” in line 2?  The whole thing is almost too perfect—except for the “squat pen.”  Are pens “squat?”  Well, they must be in this poem.  We wonder if the son was ever given a shovel by his dad and told, “Dig with this!” 
 
Mazer counters with the following:

DEATH AND MINSTRELSY

“Our references have all aged a little
as we were looking at them, not noticing.”  —John Ashbery

That hulking rooftop like a leviathan
still unexpectedly sails into view,
its byzantine tilework faded red and grey
like boxes within boxes visible from the sea,
at summer’s start eluding the goswogii.
Woodberry’s copy of his life of Poe
emerges from the flood, a constancy
that nobody will buy year after year.
Poe was born in Boston. In aught nine
Bruce Rogers did the job and Eliot
did shameful things that never will be known
on out of town trips. Something in the fog
grins like a skeleton beneath the cracked
continuity of what seemed like time.
Fall is spring-like. The fresh violins
of new arrangements lift the tortured heart
to hope, reflected light, the heart laid bare.
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
The museum closes in a timeless wave
of unutterable rhythms, lashed by rain.
The sea’s maw beckons to the life it spawned.
The white sheen of a sun pierced spray of fog
as we drop down the hill to the cliff’s edge
pierces the crowd out of time’s slow parade
that hits us like old music or a dream,
billowing out between their stupored legs,
the hot dog zeppelins and powder flags,
as if unseeable, but the grey ghost
of that hellion rowing with an iron crowbar
peers out through banjo chinks in the ragtime
that’s near but sounds as if it’s far away,
the certainty of death past the breakers.

Mazer’s poem is about a lot of things; there are lines in this poem which are about a lot of things. 

Heaney’s poem is not about a lot of things.  Heaney’s poem can be reduced to, “My dad was a peat moss farmer, but I’m going to be a writer: I’m going to dig with my pen.”  

Mazer’s poem cannot be reduced.  I think this style of poetry really began with early Auden, who awarded the Yale Younger to John Ashbery, and Mazer captures the idea with this line: “Poems are but evidence of poetry.”  The poetry is what we’re really after and poems, in their discreteness, can never be more than “evidence” that poetry has been there.  The style might be summed up thusly: I’m too intelligent to write mere poems, but my intelligence is very much attracted to poetry, and I find, with my intelligence, I’m able to produce poetry without it sinking into a poem.

Heaney wins with the primitive war cry, “I’ll dig with it” but loses—because after the poem registers its cave man meaning, with its men digging in the ground, the reason laughs: ‘who cares that these men dig in the ground?’  A poem has been crafted, but without poetry, for the soul cares not for the primitive manual labor of the poem.

The soul cares for, “death past the breakers” and “near but sounds as if it’s far away.”  One can hold up to examine, over and over, “Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all” to the light.  And it will look new from every angle…

And so poetry—which represents the soul’s pleasurable respite from discrete reality—is worshiped by the poets who are no longer interested in poems.

The game between Heaney and Mazer is close.  We have no idea who will win.

The game’s on the TV, which is high up on the blue wall and there’s a lot going on below… the beer’s flowing…

Marla Muse:  It’s making me nervous.  I can’t look!

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE 32 POETS MOVING ON!

Enrique Simonet’s “Judgement of Paris”

They fought, they battled, they elbowed, they rebounded, they shot, they sweated, they passed, they jumped, they fell into seats trying to save a ball going out-of-bounds.  You know what they did.   Here’s the winners and their margins of victory:

East:

Ben Mazer (d. Ashbery 102-101, 3 OT)
Seamus Heaney (d. Carolyn Forche 65-61)
Franz Wright (d. Geoffrey Hill 58-42)
Billy Collins (d. Carol Ann Duffy 90-77)
Marie Howe (d. Jorie Graham 63-60)
Robert Pinsky (d. Charles Bernstein 80-47)
Mary Oliver (d. Charles Simic 67-53)
James Tate (d. Paul Muldoon 71-51)

Summary:  The beasts are in the East: Collins, Heaney, Pinsky, Oliver, Tate, Franz Wright, plus the upstart Ben Mazer, who has an aura of invincibility after knocking off Ashbery in triple overtime—but only one can survive to enter the Final Four!

South/Midwest:

Yusef Komunyakaa (d. A.E. Stallings 81-75)
Derek Walcott (d. C.D. Wright 91-47)
Patricia Smith (d. Mark Doty 80-69)
Rita Dove (d. Sandra Cisneros 64-60)
W.S. Merwin (d. Kevin Young 78-72)
Elizabeth Alexander (d. Carl Phillips 79-76)
Natasha Trethewey (d. Andrew Hudgins 69-68)
Terrance Hayes (d. Charles Wright 67-54)

Summary: the veteran Merwin is the only white poet to move on in this brackett.  Walcott is the Nobel Prize Winner, Patricia Smith, the Slam wild card, and Rita Dove, the Anthology editor.

North:

Philip Levine (d. Joanna Klink 88-67)
Richard Wilbur (d. Anne Waldman 101-70)
Dana Gioia (d. Brenda Shaughnessy 78-66)
Margaret Atwood (d. Bin Ramke 70-68)
Stephen Dunn (d. Glyn Maxwell 89-83)
Louise Gluck (d. Peter Gizzi 67-62)
Alice Oswald (d. Frank Bidart 55-54)
Cornelius Eady (d. Mark Strand 65-59)

Summary: Old school Richard Wilbur has to be the one to watch, after his dismantling of Waldman; also favored, the highly accessible Atwood, plus the imposing Dunn and Levine.

West:

Robert Hass (d. Cathy Song 67-63)
Sharon Olds (d. Li-Young Lee 79-77)
Gary Snyder (d. Sherman Alexie 80-72)
Heather McHugh (d. Rae Armantrout 66-54)
Kay Ryan (d. Cole Swensen 90-59)
Gary Soto (d. Ron Silliman 81-60)
Marilyn Chin (d. Michael Dickman 90-78)
Matthew Dickman (d. Joy Harjo 88-67)

Summary: Kay Ryan and Sharon Olds are strong women in this brackett; Gary Snyder has the savvy and experience to go all the way, and don’t count out young Dickman.

The raw numbers: 44% of the 32 poets still in the hunt are white males, and  41% are women.

The third annual Scarriet March Madness Tournament is using a different rule this year: winning poets bring a new poem with them into the next round.

Previously, Lehman’s  Best American Poetry, and Stephen Berg’s American Poetry Review were Scarriet sources; this year it is Dove’s 20th Century Poetry anthology (Penguin), with some exceptions (mostly British), and all living poets.

“GET OUT OF MY CASTLE” MAZER UPSETS ASHBERY!!!!!

“Divine Rights,” a little-known poem by Ben Mazer, has shocked the poetry world with 102-101, triple overtime victory over “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery.  The literary lion, gracious in defeat, took questions after the contest.

“Convex Mirror, how did a poem like that lose?”

Ashbery: It didn’t win.

Did you expect Mazer to shoot like he did in the second half?

Ashbery:  We knew he could shoot.

Before the final shot, did you think about a double-team?

Ashbery:  No.

Can Mazer go all the way?

Ashbery: What do you think?

*****

Let’s look at some of the replays.  Here’s when Mazer really caught fire.  Look at the quickness!

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
   when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
   That’s what my
poetry is about
   warmest verse

Look at the insouciant, devil-may-care turns in the rhetoric!  Is there a more clever brag from a poet than this: “when I was a child…I didn’t listen”… “That’s what my poetry is about warmest verse”?   This surpasses analysis.  It’s pure charm  It’s happy.  It’s one of those things that comes out of a poet’s mouth and you don’t know how.   I didn’t listen.  warmest verse.

Next to this quicksilver, this feels like lead (the opening lines of the Ashbery):

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.

What tedium!  How can this (the Ashbery) keep up with that (the Mazer)?

But as you know, Ashbery has perhaps the strongest bench in the game, and he played a monster second half.  Mazer stayed in the game only from miraculous outside shooting.  Here’s a highlight of Ashbery early in the second half.  Look at the sustained meditative will at work:

Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite–is this
Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

But Mazer’s play made the listless confidence of Ashbery seem like existential pap. 

As we see from the following footage, Ashbery’s full-court-press defense towards the end of the second half almost takes Mazer right out of the game.  This is vintage Ashbery: it’s impossible to get a handle on life; it’s impossible for any point of view to be valid; others can’t help me, so I’m going to politely ignore them; and look! after the reference to “sex,” we get Ashbery at his most Ashbery, a naturalistic gesture, replete with oblivion, vagueness…Is Ashbery the most puritanical poet ever? 

But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.

Now, for the last time, let’s look again at Mazer’s winning shot:

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

Marla Muse:  It’s bedlam down here at courtside!   Mazer fans don’t want to leave the building!  I’ve never seen anything like it!  Congratuations, Ben Mazer!

THE BATTLE IS ON! DUELING LONG POEMS: MAZER V. ASHBERY

Ashbery. Has he met his match in Mazer?

This is going to be a chess match. 

John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is one of Ashbery’s important poems and has been reproduced widely—most recently in Rita Dove’s anthology.  Ashbery abandons all frivolity in these 552 lines, composed in New York City in the early ’70s, and in a rare burst of meditative passion, almost religious in its fervor, ponders the significance of a tiny late Renaissance self-portrait by Parmigianino, “the little one from Parma.”  The ghosts aiding Ashbery’s muse are Wallace Stevens and Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 1936).  Line 51: “They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.” is all Stevens.  Benjamin’s influence is deeper—yet even more on the surface, for Ashbery’s poem is a “mechanical reproduction” of both Parmigianino’s “surfaces” and Ashbery’s “soul,” imprisoned by the perfection of the Parmigianino oil on wood.  There’s a 20th century melancholia in Ashbery’s poem, a secular view daring at moments to be religious, and despairing at the attempt; it’s an Ashbery beneath-the-surface in most of his more sassy and carefree poems that in “Convex Mirror” comes to the fore.  Ashbery even hints that he’s deeply in love and going a little batty from it, like a few of the other humans. 

But “hint” is a key word here: Ashbery loves to hint and not tell, unless he’s being pedantic:

The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror): 

It may be said that too much hinting weakens this poem, (there’s not one clear biographical, “Tintern Abbey” moment—Ashbery hides more than any poet) and that pedantry finally kills it.  It’s a fabulous poem, even while it is dying, however. 

All of this hinting and hiding and escaping (and the pedantry) flows straight from T.S. Eliot, of course, the anti-Romantic, ‘escape-from-emotion” New Critical shadow that threw itself over 20th century poetry.

When a poetic theory becomes popular, it does not mean that poets ‘just start playing by its rules.’  What happens is that poets attempt to put theory into practice, with wildly varying results.  Every poem will contain emotional furniture—that is, emotional words, for this is the nature of poetry and language.  Put the word “hyacinth” in a poem and you’ve got emotion.  How do we ‘escape the emotion?’ is the question, at least for this particular theory—which may not be a good one.   Perhaps it suited Eliot, the person; but the theory, as we all know, took on a life of its own.

But Eliot, the person, also had a sense of humor, and knew the importance of levity in helping a poem achieve every bit of its emotional coloring.  “Comic relief” does not do this sensibility justice.  The comedy is layered in with the tragedy.  If comedy is nothing more than incongruity, and tragedy results in deformity and disfigurement, one can easily see how they might mingle.  Comedy is a great way to escape feeling, for laughter is cruel and unfeeling, generally.  The pun destablizes meaning. Emotion tends to rely on a single meaning, which humor obliterates: “I love you” creates emotion; “I love you—just kidding!” takes it away.  Humor is how we ‘escape from emotion.’  Humor incompletes the thought: “when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” is an interruption. A thump.  A prat-fall.  The completed image of the evening, which would have produced emotion, (ah, the evening!) is short-circuited. 

And what produces emotion and escapes from emotion?  People.  And how do people express themselves in poems?  Voices.  I know this is obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked.

We will not say Wallace Stevens is humorless, but the humor expressed in Stevens’ poetry is of the extremely silly variety; he is not a skilled and subtle humorist like the author of the (almost titled) “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”  Benjamin and Stevens are the ghosts who haunt “Convex MIrror,” but Ben Mazer is clearly hanging out with the ghost of T.S  Eliot himself in “Divine Rights,” a work we think warrants more attention.

Immediately we might say that Ashbery’s poem triumphs over Mazer’s because of Ashbery’s philosophical will: Ashbery’s poem is a meditation; one can see a philosophical mind at work in “Convex Mirror.” 

Ashbery is serious.  But is Mazer serious?   Here’s what the canon committee would ask, in Ashbery’s favor.

But what exactly does Ashbery’s prose unlock, describing Parmigianino’s minature in a rat-tat-tat of “it:”

But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part,

This is earnest, didactic, and a bit tedious.  This is not a voice.  It is prose trying to describe what might be more interesting simply looked at.  A few lines later, Ashbery tries to liven things up by addressing the painter directly:

Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

But does this help?  Would Franceso be impressed by “The surface is what’s there/And nothing can exist except what’s there?”

Mazer is without an anchor by comparison; he has no minature self-portrait to describe, but we have to be almost thankful for this.

The idea of kings is Mazer’s idealized, papier-mache’, subject, and he takes possession of it (a poetic divine right?) with his voice and his imagination such that the antiquated and far-flung subject becomes poignantly intimate, and when the poem ends

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

the reader cannot help but feel chills.

We wrote in the upper margins of our copy of Fulcrum, above Mazer’s poem, when this remarkable poem first surfaced about five years ago, “jokily archaic – formula for success” and it might be said a lot of “Divine Rights” is silly, and this is the greatest danger to its integrity—that most of the time it is just spinning out names and references that ‘sound right.’  “Divine Rights” contains jingles, scenes and remarks which have that haphazard, semi-comical feel T.S. Eliot perfected, and the ‘sounding right’ becomes a high-wire act: if this poem can keep ‘sounding right,’ we’ll keep reading.

What drags against Mazer’s poem is the great sin of writing considered in Plato’s Phaedrus: writing that reads the same, whether forwards or backwards, a pastiche that has no integral forward movement; most of the work could be re-shuffled and it wouldn’t make a difference.  But if there’s both a wealth of material and an underlying unity, sometimes we are willing to let a poem wash over us haphazardly and stumble forward just as it is.  But we should never give anything up, just in the name of modernity. 

Still, Mazer is out on the plain, traversing a snowy, forested landscape, and his adventure, shamelessly first-person, leads one on; by comparison, Ashbery, more serious, seems a Polonius.

Every long poem risks sounding like a long-winded pedant who doesn’t know when to quit. 

Can Mazer win this thing?

Marla Muse:  My heart is in my throat!

EAST ROUND ONE: BEN MAZER’S “DIVINE RIGHTS” V. JOHN ASHBERY’S “SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR”

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR —John Ashbery (Penguin 20th Poetry Anthology, Dove 2011)

DIVINE RIGHTS —Ben Mazer (Fulcrum 2006)

The marriage of druids and Romans
write it
I don’t know how to spell it
It is my real birth today Cadwaladr

Why would they marry?
Where is everything
I am the descendent
      of the king
They were protecting
       the son of
                the king

not father
mother

Landis
Mary
The Poet King
I knew all this
I know all this
We must have been
at alliance with the Scottish.
We must have
been at war
with the Irish
              king.
I know these things.
Freud got it right.
But it is a
throwing off
of kings.
The English King.
The English Queen.
And what am I to think of the English queen,
Elizabeth?

Or the Russian? Familiar as the lion.
Landis, descended from Charlemagne
and twin Dutch admirals?
Or the Scottish princess in the west?

The prophecy told
   me too
   it is true
after I was thirty-five
   I would be king
would regain my
   forgotten kingdom
what this means
   would be revealed
   would be recovered
every time I had my
     hand read
   or my cards told
Now it has come
   on my real day
           of birth

Florence
after Troy
in the confining hour of our winter
How would you be able to know
you were able to be the mother
of the father
of the king?

often assisted by the Scottish

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
   when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
   That’s what my
poetry is about
   warmest verse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
All I want to know about are kings

These source materials which have lasted longest,
elements of narrative which have stayed the same
longest.  Those which have proved most popular.

The Beginning
The Return
The Kitchen
Winter

The insult given Branwen by the Irish
At Guinnion Fort
Arthur bore the image of Mary as his sign
Arcturus or the keeper of the Pole
and thus it was I watched the turn of winter

‘I have made a heap of all that i could find’ Nennius (Historia Brittonum).
an ‘inward wound’
caused by the fear that certain things dear to him should be like smoke
dissipated’ (Jones/Nennius, 1951)
i’m guessing in the old cosmology it wd be the first 24 hrs of your actual
presence
and i’ll attribute that to bertrand russell. these are just notes. —don marquis
(1922)

romeo & juliet in berkeley
i was surprised he looked so much like me
disguise him not to look like myself
i remember
he the leviathan in all ages
my father one eyed introduced me to him

(the currence of the past holds own
our against the recogsentiment
or winds like the runner on the shore
away from the sun in a steady
exhalation, at a vast limit of the net
where one exists in a continuum
spreading in a few words
a striding reach up morning—

he’s there in all his incarnations)

a date engraved in bronze swings in its chains
under moon under midnight in its bondless bonds
citizenless entropy of stars, what is heard
never viewed as it is, which is as it is not.
Is never as it can be understood,
must by definition answer nothing.
There is no fixing of these loci.

Iwerddon
And they began the banquet and caroused and discoursed.
And when it was more pleasing to them to sleep than to carouse,
they went to rest, and that night Branwen came
Matholwch’s bride.
101 Dalmatians

Look in the mirror and you will recall
the white snow of an earlier snow-fall,
how dragon behind rock had threatened rook,
and rains had formed the letters of a book
in which our love is written. Dragon, look.
How queer. The snows of yesteryear are here.

His mother was the daughter of the king
his son her brother and his uncle
who from earliest winter in the kitchen
stood stirring, sifting, towering
in the first curl of the bird’s branch
close to him then she made his song
too-wit too-wit tu-lily hi-li-ly tu-wit tu-lo
and interbranched and interladen among the
hyacinth, jack o’whirl o’ shadow—
cleaving densities of variant dispersals,
gravities which undercut propensity:
proofs of an undisclosed philately.
Mad’s progress relays Delft into land smile
under the textile’s firm approval—
Barkowitz’, Horovitz’ room. Seal approval.

A real anger at dates. Back in dense sandal word
I see trees, people dancing in the trees,
a formal approval of glass on paper.
Mixing spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
Looking up the stovepipe for listening last years.
Another one, only as she could have been.

All around us, the snow in the forest.
Snow walking up hill in the forest,
through snow walking up hill.
I was born in the forest.
I was born under the snow.
I would rather be snowed under
than to have to go in to dinner.
I would rather be lost, out of all ear.
Where the ice thunder with its own snow choir.
Where repetitive naming is lost on hard vortex.
Edge

Their darkness is the sleep in her eyes,
before parting.

Tu-wit. And cherry.
Twice cherry. Cherry street, and cheery
cheery cherry in the song, all along.
A name for marble torsos and a night port,
everything you wrote in the guest book.
A quick way to do the invitations in summer.
The inn I am staying in, and what a bother.
Why you never answered embroidered on the hem of your sweater.
We were in the mountains. This genius
was in trust to the genius of the forest.
She didn’t nothing that she didn’t do.
The forest was a game, where I was first
the others were blind, even she my mother
which meant that I was king.
I have seen these things before they happen.
I have seen her bake day into evening,
have seen her bake the forest into evening,
have seen her bake the hour of homecoming.

The birds are details in her narrative,
ingredients recipes get around to having.
Talk is sure word made out of it,
I wouldn’t in wind or rain doubt it,
to gather or collect to retell or rerecollect
every word which the father
brought home for him to inspect.

Why then a king
through kinship of a lady?
A virgin birth. Her mother was a king,
I do not doubt it,
upon the plains that have no need of naming.
Why then a king took consecrated ground
which was to plainer eye unconsecrated.
Poetry appears to be living.
I heard it strike the sky like keel and thunder
worn into evening like a headline’s banter.
I saw it grab my hand like dad in winter.
I walked it home, the sky ripped at the center,
dark merchant hulk. Perpetual, aimless
Leviathan which strikes the heart of time.
My first knowledge of a light in winter.

And when I first returned to town,
nothing shook my memory,
I never saw
the fiery medal
in my own hand,
dull like my days.
Often quoted
early in spring.

Or noticed how my aunt cast
familiar stories against a local past.

The mystery of the virgin mother
it self would appear to have to reappear.
No wonder I didn’t get any idea
nor wonder if you too don’t get an idea
why none of this was going to simply appear.

I saw this in the absolute symmetry of the outlines
of the bathtub in the apartment in the city in the world
in our time and in all time

The still being there of the resurrection

Time which comes
only to those it visits.

Why then a birth of kings among the females?

And wasn’t a female the king of the king?

    *      *       *

I’ve reached territory.

And so I have been protected from marriage.
So too the quelling of the Jewish King.
For Christ must be his Jew
and virgin birth.

I scarcely thought I could return to her.
But remember how I saw myself
under her influence, her double image
binding the speech of then
with speech to come.

The gods are merchants at these dinners.
Maecenas never dilutes his pleasure.

I didn’t think they were
serious. But the king was her
and industry among the settlers
lingers without artifact.

You could say she was worth waiting for.
To have seen her
with nothing to spoil the mood
properly in winter.

What made her special
was what she would become.
This was the meaning of the pristine forest
in which you could see the verb repeating,
always showing in numeric mimicry
the voice in the breath
the eye in the imagery

a deep syntax
of auditory visuality:
for that heard of voices
implies the wind had been
where you yourself have.

The newness of those days,
when these were first.

Mixing the silk and sand of salt and sugar
into the flour. Vanilla in the spoon
darkly reflecting her double down the hallway
and upside down up under her apron.
The fortress of butter malleable to time,
beating the retreating oil slick
in the flood of mud.
A sea of milk.

They brought me many designs of Venice silk.
I paid them to stand around, because I was cold.
I wanted to know what they aspired to.
I am his wreck, and him his father’s before me.
I like the charge of shadow without name.

And as we watched enacted in the play
he say to her what I to you would say
and she to he what you would say to me,
so we both watch to see how things will end.
You but remember to be a friend.
You greet me unannounced. I come in rain.

And only this remains to be said,
I have come to rid the land of Saxons.
  

  *      *      *

Rehearsals of the shadows where you stood
before you have returned into the halls.

And why no mother of a Jewish King
if not a Jewish King within the line?

One Bad King

Then in my grief
I ran into the wood
along the lake’s edge,
out of ear shot.
And as I sped
into a gallop
covering much ground,
passing many trees,
not many thoughts
separated from my friends,
who found the tree
of inner light
in which the Welsh King
put his head
before he knew
he was the King,
I saw I was transformed
into a flying horse
and coiled myself
within the forest’s nest
to dully sleep
to hear the distant
fall of words
turn into footsteps
of my friends,
covering the woods.
So I would have the apples speak to me.
So I would have this orchard speak to me.

If my blood
could get back in touch with you.
Shannon
Welsh girl with an Irish name.
I am missing from these documents.

Fifty years
after the war
I saw the dead
returning home
on ____ Way.

Then
I was at his house
which was the house
I came from
when I was his
father who I greet.
Under
a rain
the blue city
has the same look
that her eyes had
in her round head
the Scottish Queen.

In that hour
when memory settles
on the evening
darkness its liquid
history of masks,
I quote you
and see the world
as written on the dark sky.
They rearrange
as flame
and fly to conspire
with my father
who is leading us
under the mountain
to the sea beast.
Always outside the room
                                 in which we walk

above us
                where what must be the roof
is how I see it
if we don’t lie and confer,
a mixing of night and day
in which the heart’s first urge
speaks, but in words of fire.
They know the night
who came here first
and them I see
in my words’ end.

Even then
I knew these things could be without me.
But that I was the King
I saw unknowing.
The first song of spring
in my upbringing.
A curator of lies.
A curator of sleep.
Shut up with your eyes.
I am the King
and I have broken darkness.

Look in the storm.
Look in the barrel.
Look under the mountain.
I am the dragon.

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

BLAH BLAH BLAH: INTRODUCTIONS, BLURBS

Don’t we hate them?  Those introductions praising a poet before they go on?  Why do they have them?  They are stupid, and they seem more stupid the more clever they are.  They are not necessary.  Shut up.  I don’t care how many prizes this poet has won.  Let the poet get up on the podium and read their goddamn poems. Enough with this tradition already.  The oily professors and graduate students with their prefaced remarks for the visiting poet: look how clever I am!  Bet you didn’t know how many layers of meaning gleam in the title of our poet’s latest book!  Maybe I’ll get laid!  The poet doesn’t need an introduction.  Imagine how annoying it would be if you went to the theater, and before the play: “Before we begin, I’d like to make a few remarks about our playwright tonight.  William Shakespeare, as you all know…”  Save it.

And then blurbs.  Has there ever been a blurb which does not negate everything we mean when we utter the sacred word, poetry?  The blurb is like the Introduction, but a frozen version of it, a cold stain.  Shall we do away with blurbs forever?  Yes.  Just give me a plain book that says “Poems” on it, and, in smaller letters, the author’s name.   The blurb is a sugary humiliation, a confectionery wreck, a cotton candy tomb, a blah blah blah that chokes and humiliates.  Have we no shame?

Therefore, without introduction, we present the 2012 Scarriet March Madness EAST BRACKET!

EAST

1. John Ashbery
2. Seamus Heaney
3. Geoffrey Hill
4. Billy Collins
5. Jorie Graham
6. Robert Pinsky
7. Mary Oliver
8. James Tate
9. Paul Muldoon
10. Charles Simic
11. Charles Bernstein
12. Marie Howe
13. Carol Ann Duffy
14. Franz Wright
15. Carolyn Forche
16. Ben Mazer

Blurbless, sans introduction, these names stand before you.

These poets want to do one thing: Win.

They want to win, because the winner will spend an entire night with Marla Muse.

Marla Muse:  I beg your pardon?

Marla! You’re supposed to say, “And they will never forget it.”

Marla Muse:  I never agreed to do that!  And I don’t think it’s funny!

I was just kidding…in the name of poetry…these poets…don’t you think the winner…?  I wasn’t implying…

Marla Muse:  It’s not funny.

Sorry.  Well, they still want to win…

Marla Muse:  Of course they do.

And soon we’ll announce what poems the poets will be going with in the first round!

Marla Muse:  Stay tuned!

It’s so cute the way you say “Stay tuned…”

Marla Muse:  Thank you.

HENRY GOULD TRIES TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN POETRY—AND THE MAZE THAT IS MAZER

Ben Mazer.  Don’t let his demeanor fool you.  He’s funnier than Ashbery.

In a review of Ben Mazer’s Poems (Pen and Anvil Press, 2010) and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Press, 2010), Henry Gould begins:

If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.

Gould is correct: Eliot and Ashbery are the templates of all modern poetry; one hardly has to talk about anyone else.  Sure, one could discuss 19th century French poetry, or Elizabethan verse, or yammer on about Whitman, or go off on some insane Poundian tangent, or scream, What about women poets?   Or, talk about the modern or post-modern age.  Cars!  World War One!  Movies!  Airplanes!  TV!  The bomb!  The pill!  Parody! The internet!  But what would be the point?  E. and A. already contain these things.  Eliot has already been where you are going—in the past, and in the future.  Your one advantage over Eliot, reader, is the present—but if only we could find it.  I’m afraid we must make do with the “arctic blue eyes” and the “disappointed mouth” and the “eagle beak” of E. and A. for another century, or two.

Let’s be real simple for a moment: Shakespeare wrote about life; Keats wrote about feelings for life; since the grammaphone replaced Keats and the movies replaced Shakespeare, poets have nowhere to go but into parody, beginning with Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” and “I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and, finishing with Ashbery’s parody of parody.  Gould:

John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability.

Beer and Mazer are offshoots; one is “bitter” and the other “unaccountable.”  Parody is not always so—Shakespeare was a parodist of Dante—but in minor poets, “bitter” or “unaccountable” are the two forms the imitation inevitably takes.  Mr. Beer and Mr. Mazer are not gardens, or even plants, but tendrils growing from a larger plant—in the garden of American Poetry where Gould, the reviewer, is an even-tempered and faithful gardener.

Gould seems more interested in Mazer.  If this passage from Beer (indeed, ‘small beer’) which Gould quotes is any indication of Beer’s ability, we can see why:

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell…

This is pure trash—far below Eliot.  Eliot never wrote milk-and-water phrases full of throw-away words, like: “With the smell of…”, “I can smell the different…”, “The smell whereof shall breed a plague…”  Beer is not even in Mazer’s league, much less Eliot’s, and we need not discuss Beer further.

Gould on Mazer is good:

In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Gould doesn’t know Mazer as I know him—Gould writes that Mazermimes discouragement and near-despair,” but Mazer’s “near-despair” is genuine; there is no miming; Mazer is certainly capable of mimicry, but Mazer really does mourn Hart Crane as a tragic, long-lost brother, and there’s nothing fake about it.  Otherwise in the passage just quoted above, Gould gets Mazer down cold.  I agree with Gould—those lines he quotes from Mazer have Ashbery written all over them, and I will add that 1) Mazer is perhaps the only living poet who can do Ashbery as well as, or even better than, Ashbery, 2) the “moderate admirer” lines are screamingly, achingly funny, 3) Mazer was not being intentionally funny when he wrote those lines—in fact, he probably wrote the lines out of indignation and hurt, since Mazer genuinely loves most contemporary poets (he is not hyper-critical, in  the least—in fact, his spirit is quite the opposite) which 4) goes to show that Mazer’s genius does have a puzzling aspect that catches Gould somewhat off-guard.

Gould is one of the best critics writing today: sharp, witty, worldly.  He is a tad too much in love with own cleverness, though; he struggles admirably against his own tendency towards self-conscious hipsterism.  He is not quite as good as Logan, even though he’s much more likeable.  Logan, however, would never be tempted to write of Ashbery this way:

Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.

Ashbery, according to Gould, is a poet who “emerged in the 1950s,” along with the might of the post-war United States, and the “Some Trees” poet is finally likened (by way of the New Critics and Eliot) to the “American know-how [that] built the superhighway system.”  The superhighway system is the efficient working thing of the New Critics, who “saw in the figure of Eliot a model;” — “intelligence” was Eliot’s ultimate guide to complex, functioning modernity, with Ashbery the road, and Eliot, the pylon.

Gould’s view is superficial and too contemporary, a sign of po-biz’s continual shrinking understanding of history.  The New Critics did not find Eliot—they were an extension of him; Eliot’s early essays were the blueprint of New Criticism, and Eliot, in turn, was influenced by the James family: Henry James advocated intelligence as the ultimate aesthetic measure (a formula, finally, of empty-headed snobbery and entitlement) long before Eliot, and William James (who taught Gertrude Stein) had transformed Harvard into a modernist citadel with his nitrous oxide pragmatism before Eliot arrived there.  W.H. Auden was writing Ashbery poems of wry obscurity in the late 1920s. Paul Engle, with his Yale Younger, his Masters Degree of his own poetry, and his Rhodes scholarship, launched the Creative Writing Program era with the help of the Rhodes Scholar New Critics, Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Brooks; Pound’s euro-frenzy and Williams‘ wheel barrow would land safely in American universities, and Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford and Auden would cross the Atlantic to teach writing in America, the latter famously delivering the Yale Younger to Ashbery.  Our MFA students today have only a Wiki-knowledge of New Criticism (if that)—they know the head, but not the feet, of the business.

Ignorant of the motives and actions of these men—first Fugitives, then racist Southern Agrarians, then New Critics, and then Creative Writing mavens, we end up saying impossibly quaint and silly things like “Ashbery emerged in the 1950s” and he resembles a “superhighway system.”   The New Critics (with Paul Engle) were far more important for what they did on a practical basis than for what they thought.  We don’t need the metaphor of a superhighway system when we have the reality of a super writing program system.

With history’s oxygen dwindling in the MFA classroom, the trapped poets with their Wiki-knowledge produce increasingly light-headed nonsense, “miming” as Gould puts it, the  “discouragement or near-despair” of an existence which fosters the inevitable human tragedies of drunken, Creative Writing profs who litter the 20th century, like Berryman, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Roethke, and Ted Hughes, or, rather,”comically-botched” lines:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Mazer is an intuitive and emotional poet, not an intellectual one—which is why these lines are funny; funny in a good way.

Post-modern poetry doesn’t think.  It reacts. 

(One day we will begin to see that Ashbery’s work does not spring from mirth, so much as guilt, sadness, paranoia, myopia, and depression.)

Sincere passion, made by a Byron or a Shelley or a Tennyson, is out.  And so is their music.  Mazer, in his fleeting Ashbery moods, is the best we’ve got now.

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011′s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28′s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember? 
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now

LOOK OUT! IT’S ANOTHER SCARRIET HOT 100!

1. Billy Collins  -a poet of wit and popularity
2. Dana Gioia  -his famous essay still resonates
3. David Lehman  -BAP takes the pulse better than prizes/contests do.
4. Louise Gluck  -the new Jorie; has stepped down as Yale judge.
5. John Ashbery  -the most famous unknown person ever
6. W.S. Merwin  -emerging as the e.e. cummings of our time
7. David Orr  -elegant critical manner, writes poetry, too
8. Helen Vendler  -when the dust settles, what has she done, exactly?
9. Paul Muldoon  -as long as he’s at the new yorker, he’ll be on this list.
10. Harold Bloom  -will he ever live down his nutty hatred of Poe?
11. Glyn Maxwell  -a one-man british invasion
12. G.C. Waldrep  -he’s all the rage, and deserves it
13. Anne Carson  -managed to secure that all-important ‘classical’ rep…
14. Robert Hass  -he sort of reminds us of Paul Engle…
15. Mary Oliver  -popular ’cause she feels, rather than thinks, nature poetry.
16. James Tate  -founder of the funny/absurd/surreal/realism school
17. Dean Young  -James Tate lite?
18. Sharon Olds  -nobody does frank sexuality so morally and deftly
19. Charles Simic  -perfected the small, vivid, cinematic poem
20. Marvin Bell  -long time U. Iowan
21. Donald Hall  -our Thomas Hardy?
22. Karen Solie  -2010 Griffin Poetry prize and good poet
23. Terrance Hayes  -beautiful, black, and a National Book Award…
24. Robyn Schiff  -Jorie love-blurbed her madly, UG Iowa Wrkshp dir…
25. Adrienne Rich  -for the sisters
26. Barbara Hamby  -rides the new ‘excessive’ style
27. Lucia Perillo  -2010 BAP; rocks the newly minted ‘A.D.D. School’
28. Matt Donovan  -2010 Whiting Writers award
29. Ron Silliman  -this is his time
30. Amy Gerstler  -2010 Best American Poetry editor
31. Henry Hart  -found a poem I liked by someone on the web, damn!
32. Sandra Beasley  -this gal is worth checking out!
33. Shane McCrae  -warning: this poetry may actually be good…
34. Philip Gross  -2010 T.S. Eliot Prize
35. Simon Armitage  -the closest brit who possesseth any wit
36. L.S. Klatt  -2010 Iowa poetry prize winner
37. Margaret Atwood  -she’s never boring
38. Carolyn Forche  -that ‘bag full of ears’ poem, seems like only yesterday…
39. Matthew Yeager  -2010 BAP, “Go now, my little red balloon of misery!”
40. Stephen Burt  -one day vendler’s empire will be his
41. Barrett Watten  -selling Language Theory to British academia
42. Cole Swensen  -Iowa City/Paris gal
43. Christopher Reid  -first poetry book to win Costa since ’99 (Heaney)
44. D.A. Powell  -seems to be making all the right moves
45. Frank Bidart  -actor James Franco digs his poetry
46. Carl Phillips  -one of our most understated, thoughtful poets…
47. Rachel Hadas  -writing, judging…
48. Alan Cordle  -the david who slew goliath
49. Bin Ramke  -has that ‘Bladerunner’ fallen angel look…
50. Donald Revel  -the blue twilight school
51. Jorie Graham  -has her move to p.c. extremism doomed her?
52. Natasha Saje’  -we like her poetry
53. Paul Hoover  -tortured, philosophical poetry, but good…
54. Conor O’Callaghan  -Bess Hokin winner
55. Terri Erickson  -exploded onto Scarriet, and won Nooch’s heart…
56. George Szirtes  -Hungarian Brit
57. Abigail Deutsch  -Poetry magazine’s 2010 reviewing prize…
58. Jason Guriel  -poet/reviewer making his mark with Poetry…
59. D.H. Tracy  -fastidious, not fawning, as Poetry critic…
60. A.E. Stallings  -studied classics in Athens!
61. Dan Chiasson  -belongs to new crowd of poet/critics
62. Mark Levine  -the David Foster Wallace of workshop poetry…
63. Katherine Larson  -2010 Yale Younger, Gluck’s last pick…
64. Dara Wier  -workshop queen at Amherst & has a Selected…
65. Joseph Donahue  -”the angel’s jibe would harry the glitter from the dew”
66. Robert Casper  -poetry society of america, jubilat
67. Ben Mazer  -Man of Letters: poet, editor, critic?  He has first two…
68. Eileen Myles  -will not self-edit, thank you…
69. Derek Walcott  -his Pure Style, like buttah…
70. Bob Hicok  -the school of manly sentimentalism…
71. Janet Holmes  -’ass hat uh’ press is how you pronounce it, I think…
72. August Kleinzahler  -he chased Garrison Keillor away…
73. John Barr  -runs the Evil Empire?  Blog Harriet: zzzzzz
74. Philip Schultz  -his 8 year-old son told him he won the Pulitzer…
75. Seamus Heaney  -his iconic Bog-status is nearly blinding…
76. Kevin Young  -curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library…
77. Charles Bernstein  -his school producing a new generation of folly?
78. Tony Hoagland  -he dares to write like Billy Collins…
79. Ilya Kaminsky  -the spirit of translation…
80. Matthea Harvey  -carries a flag for a style which others do better…
81. Mary Jo Salter  -the most respectable force in poetry ever!
82. William Logan  -if his critic ever reads his poetry, he’s done…
83. Alice Quinn  -20 years picking poems for New Yorker
84. Julianna Spahr  “MFA is under-realized, under-theorized…”
85. Rae Armantrout  -one of the greatest little poem poets…
86. Rita Dove  -Clinton was prez, she was poet laureate, Oasis was cool…
87. Seth Abramson  -ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client’s poetry…
88. Adam Kirsch  -the Harvard kid who made good…
89. Daniel Nester  -We Who Are About To Die is a funny website…
90. Meghan O’ Rourke  -poetry’s audrey hepburn
91. Jim Behrle  -funny, creative, but can’t get laid!
92. Martin Espada  -”Latino poet of his generation” says his website
93. William Kulik   -scarriet march madness final four
94. Patricia Smith   -slam queen, rattle prize winner
95. C.D Wright  -tickled by the Elliptical…
96. Philip Nikolayev  -where’s Fulcrum?
97. Carl Adamshick  -latest Walt Whitman winner
98. Dora Malech  -everything going for her but poetic talent
99. Eleanor Ross Taylor  -best 90 year old poet around
100. Valzhyna Mort  -beautiful russian-american…uh…poetry.

101. Marcus Bales  -anybody like skilled verse?

THE UNKNOWN SAN FRANCISCO RENAISSANCE POET

 

A few years ago, San Francisco Renaissance poet Landis Everson was yanked out of obscurity in California by an ambitious young poet and editor from Cambridge, MA: Ben Mazer.  Ben’s not an intellectual, but he’s ambitious and he’s got a nose for the scene and writes poems as good as anyone alive today and he’s also a musician and eccentric and personally intense;  he’ll write the most famous poets in the world and get them to blurb his work.  Thanks to Ben Mazer, who writes for the defunct-while-it-waits-for-more-funding Fulcrum, Landis Everson of Jack Spicer’s circle came back to us for awhile.

I knew a gay Boston poet, Antonio Giarraputo, who went to Harvard with Frank O’ Hara, knew Robin Blaser, when Blaser worked at Harvard’s Widener library and Jack Spicer, when Spicer worked at the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and John Wieners from around town, because Tony moved in his circles.  Tony had lots of stories about them.

I rented a room in his Coolidge Corner, rare-book-african-art stuffed apartment during the last decade of his life and made some tapes of his reminicences, which I have somewhere.  Tony spoke his mind.  To John Ciardi, when John said he was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know Italian!”  Tony did, and several other languages fluently besides; he also sang opera, and once John Wieners told Tony he wasn’t wanted by his circle by writing Giarraputo a note: “Renaissance Man, go home!”  Tony was too blunt, too classical, too ‘old school,’ for the ‘revolutionaries’ of the San Francisco Renaissance.   Tony was put off by O’ Hara cruising the men’s room at Widener.  Tony was a proud Harvard graduate, a Fulbright scholar, and he fought in World War II, at D-day.  

When I knew Tony, in the last years of his life, he was an overweight diabetic who lolled about watching his favorite TV show, “All in the Family,” passionately hating on Archie Bunker (Tony was a die-hard Democrat) the tough Irishman who represented the bullies who picked on Tony when he was a sensitive kid of Sicilian immigrants from the slums with a bricklayer father who hated the fact his son wrote poetry.  Tony used to boast that he was a bigot: “I hate everybody.”  He was a erudite bigot: he could tell you what was wrong with the Florentines, and what was wrong with the Venetians.  But Tony walked the walk.  He wasn’t a professor, or a poet who won prizes; his career was teaching black kids in the Boston public schools, and he started local poetry clubs to which every street urchin was welcome: and they all came, and eventually the mayor of Boston proclaimed an Antonio Giarraputo Day

I wasn’t wild about Tony’s poetry in English; most of it was too ‘modern-zen’ for my taste: he returned the favor by ridiculing my love of Poe.  I once came upon some exquisite lyrics in Italian (metrical, rhymed) he wrote.  “Tony, these are beautiful!”  Tony just waved his hand, “Oh, those…”  

It was rare that Tony went to a party, but when he did, he was the life of it.  He was sad most of all in his last days because he mourned how the gay lifestyle was unkind to the old and the ugly.  He did not remember O’Hara, Blaser, Spicer, and Wieners kindly; personally he couldn’t stand them.  I can still hear the way he spat out their names.  Did Tony give into bitterness and self-pity to a certain extent?  He was traumatized by his war experience; I didn’t know him when he was young, so it’s hard to say where he was coming from.  Maybe he was jealous.  I don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why Tony is forgotten and no poem of his can be found on the web, except the one below, which I happen to have, and am keeping alive.

Tony always meant to write a book on Cambridge and Boston’s poetry bohemia of the 40s and 50s.  Tony, however, was a gregarious lyric poet, not a meticulous scholar, and he burned-out teaching public school in Roxbury, where they “pelt you with rocks and bury you,” as Tony would say. The book was never written (though there must be notes somewhere) and a lot of history was lost forever.   Tony predicted that when he died, the “vultures will descend.”   They did, scooping up his rare books and art collection and his personal papers.  I had moved out, by then, and sadly remember how his writing life just disappeared. 

Epitaph for an Unknown Soldier
(St. Lo, Normandy, 7/17/1944)

First of the fallen angels I have known,
I came upon you in obscurity
and found your arms embracing all the sky
as life escaped you.  In the midst of dull,
engulfing battle, thunder and black flame,
this peace is terrible.  Your eyes are glacial lakes;
your lips are dry: you are still beautiful.

I twist my helmeted neck to meet your gaze,
but stand dark, unreflected in those lakes
now frozen by an age which has no end.
I bow and hover, too afraid to touch,
unable to breathe life on wrinkling lips,
to see them tremble–and return to pain.
I bend to drink your death, and numbly wish
to halve my useless living and to share
what I have too much of, if you have none.

Antonio Alfredo Giarraputo
1925-1989

A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S. POETRY: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

1650 Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America: By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts published in London.

1773 Phillis Wheatley, a slave, publishes Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

1791 The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is published in Paris, in French.  Ben Franklin’s Autobiography appears in London, for the first time in English, two years later.   Had it been published in America, the Europeans would have laughed.  The American experiment isn’t going to last, anyway.

Franklin, the practical man, the scientist, and America’s true founding father, weighs in on poetry: it’s frivolous.

1794  Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey make plans to go to Pennsylvania in a communal living experiment, but their personalities clash and the plan is aborted.  Southey becomes British Poet Laureate twenty years later.

1803  William Blake, author of “America: A Prophecy” is accused of crying out “Damn the King!” in Sussex, England, narrowly escaping imprisonment for treason.

1815  George Ticknor, before becoming literature Chair at Harvard, travels to Europe for 4 years, spending 17 months in Germany.

1817  “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant appears in the North American Review.

1824  Byron dies in Greece.

1824  Lafayette, during tour of U.S, calls on Edgar Poe’s grandmother, revolutionary war veteran widow.

1832  Washington Irving edits London edition of William Cullen Bryant’s Poems to avoid politically offending British readers.

1835 Massachusetts senator and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier mobbed and stoned in Concord, New Hampshire.

1835  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appointed Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard.

1836  Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes 500 copies of Divinity School Address anonymously.  He will not publish another book for 6 years.

1838  Poe’s translated work begins appearing in Russia.

1843  Transcendentalist, Unitarian minister, Harvard Divinity School student Christopher Pearse Cranch marries the sister of T.S. Eliot’s Unitarian grandfather; dedicates Poems to Emerson, published in The Dial, a magazine edited by Margaret Fuller and Emerson; frequent visitor to Brook Farm.  Cranch is more musical and sensuous than Emerson; even Poe can tolerate him; Cranch’s poem “Enosis” pre-figures Baudelaire’s “Correspondences.”

T.S. Eliot’s family is deeply rooted in New England Unitarianism and Transcendentalism through Cranch and Emerson’s connection to his grandfather, Harvard Divinity graduate, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington U., St. Louis.

1845  Elizabeth Barrett writes Poe with news of “The Raven’s” popularity in England.  The poem appeared in a daily American newspaper and produced instant fame, though Poe’s reputation as a critic and leader of the Magazine Era was well-established.  During this period Poe coins “Heresy of the Didactic” and “A Long Poem Does Not Exist.”  In a review of Barrett’s 1840 volume of poems which led to Barrett’s fame before she met Robert Browning, Poe introduced his piece by saying he would not, as was typically done, review her work superficially because she was a woman.

1847  Ralph Waldo Emerson is in England, earning his living as an orator.

1848  Charles Baudelaire’s first translations of Poe appear in France.

1848  James Russell Lowell publishes “A Fable For Critics” anonymously.

1848 Female Poets of America, an anthology of poems by American women, is published by the powerful and influential anthologist, Rufus Griswold—who believes women naturally write a different kind of poetry.  Griswold’s earlier success, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842) contains 3 poems by Poe and 45 by Griswold’s friend, Charles Fenno Hoffman. In a review, Poe remarks that readers of anthologies buy them to see if they are in them.

1848  Poe publishes Eureka and the Rationale of Verse, exceptional works on the universe and verse.

1849 Edgar Poe is murdered in Baltimore; leading periodicals ignore strange circumstances of Poe’s death and one, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, hires Griswold (who signs his piece ‘Ludwig’) to take the occasion to attack the character of the poet.

1855 Griswold reviews Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and calls it a “mass of stupid filth.”  The hated Griswold, whose second “wife” was a man, also lets the world know in his review that Whitman is a homosexual.  Whitman later includes the Griswold review in one of his editions of Leaves.

1856  English Traits, extolling the English race and the English people, saying it was English “character” that vanquished India, is published in the U.S. and England, by poet and new age priest Ralph Waldo Emerson, as England waits for the inevitable Civil War to tear her rival, America, apart.

1859.  In a conversation with William Dean Howells, Emerson calls Hawthorne’s latest book “mush” and furiously calls Poe “the jingle man.”

1860  William Cullen Bryant introduces Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union; the poet advises the new president on his cabinet selection.

1867  First collection of African American “Slave Songs” published.

1883  “The New Colossus” is composed by Emma Lazarus; engraved on the Statue of Liberty, 1903

1883  Poems of Passion by Ella Wheeler Wilcox rejected by publisher on grounds of immorality.

1888 “Casey at the Bat” published anonymously. The author, Ernest Thayer, does not become known as the author of the poem until 1909.

1890  Emily Dickinson’s posthumous book published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson.  William Dean Howells gives it a good review, and it sells well.

1893  William James, Emerson’s godson, becomes Gertrude Stein’s influential professor at Harvard.

1897  Wallace Stevens enters Harvard, falling under the spell of William James, as well as George Santayana.

1904  Yone Noguchi publishes “Proposal to American Poets” as the Haiku and Imagism rage begins in the United States and Britain.

1910  John Crowe Ransom, Fugitive, Southern Agrarian, New Critic, takes a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

1910  John Lomax publishes “Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads.”

1912  Harriet Monroe founds Poetry magazine; in 1880s attended literary gatherings in New York with William Dean Howells and Richard Henry Stoddard (Poe biographer) and in 1890s met Whistler, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Aubrey BeardsleyEzra Pound is Poetry’s London editor.

1913  American Imagist poet H.D. marries British Imagist poet Richard Aldington.

1914  Ezra Pound works as Yeats‘ secretary in Sussex, England.

1915  Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology published.  Masters was law partner of Clarence Darrow.

1917  Robert Frost begins teaching at Amherst College.

1920  “The Sacred Wood” by T.S. Eliot, banker, London.

1921  Margaret Anderson’s Little Review loses court case and is declared obscene for publishing a portion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is banned in the United States.  Random House immediately tries to get the ban lifted in order to publish the work.

1922  T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land” awarded The Dial Prize.

1922  D.H Lawrence and Frieda stay with Mabel Dodge in Taos, New Mexico.

1923  Edna St. Vincent Millay wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1923  William Butler Yeats wins Nobel Prize for Literature

1924  Robert Frost wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1924  Ford Madox Ford founds the Transatlantic Review.   Stays with Allen Tate and Robert Lowell in his lengthy sojourn to America.

1924  Marianne Moore wins The Dial Prize; becomes editor of The Dial the next year.

1924  James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children opens.

1925  E.E. Cummings wins The Dial Prize.

1926  Yaddo Artist Colony opens

1927  Walt Whitman biography wins Pulitzer Prize

1930  “I’ll Take My Stand” published by Fugitive/Southern Agrarians and future New Critics, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allan Tate defend ways of the Old South.

1932  Paul Engle wins Yale Younger Poet Prize, judged by member of John Crowe Ransom’s Fugitive circle.  Engle, a prolific fundraiser, builds the Iowa Workshop into a Program Writing Empire.

1933  T.S. Eliot delivers his speech on “free-thinking jews” at the University of Virginia.

1934  “Is Verse A Dying Technique?” published by Edmund Wilson.

1936  New Directions founded by Harvard sophomore James Laughlin.

1937  Robert Lowell camps out in Allen Tate’s yard.  Lowell has left Harvard to study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College.

1938  First Edition of textbook Understanding Poetry by Fugitives Brooks and Warren, helps to canonize unread poets like Williams and Pound.

1938  Aldous Huxley moves to Hollywood.

1939  Allen Tate starts Writing Program at Princeton.

1939  W.H. Auden moves to the United States and earns living as college professor.

1940  Mark Van Doren is awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1943  Ezra Pound indicted for treason by the United States government.

1946  Wallace Stegner founds Stanford Writing Program.  Yvor Winters will teach Pinsky, Haas, Hall and Gunn.

1948  Pete Seeger, nephew of WW I poet Alan Seeger (“I Have A Rendevous With Death”) forms The Weavers, the first singer-songwriter ‘band’ in the rock era.

1948  T.S. Eliot wins Nobel Prize

1949  T.S. Eliot attacks Poe in From Poe To Valery

1949  Ezra Pound is awarded the Bollingen Prize.  The poet Robert Hillyer protests and Congress resolves its Library will no longer fund the award.  Hillyer accuses Paul Melon, T.S. Eliot and New Critics of a fascist conspiracy.

1950  William Carlos Williams wins first National Book Award for Poetry

1950  Gwendolyn Brooks wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1951  John Crowe Ransom is awarded the Bollingen.

1953  Dylan Thomas dies in New York City.

1954  Theodore Roethke wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1957  Allen Tate is awarded the Bollingen.

1957  “Howl” by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg triumphs in obscenity trial as the judge finds book “socially redeeming;” wins publicity in Time & Life.

1957  New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simspon, eds.

1959  Carl Sandburg wins Grammy for Best Performance – Documentary Or Spoken Word (Other Than Comedy) for his recording of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the New York Philharmonic.

1959  M.L Rosenthal coins the term “Confessional Poetry” in The Nation as he pays homage to Robert Lowell.

1960  New American Poetry 1945-1960, Donald Allen, editor.

1961  Yvor Winters is awarded the Bollingen.

1961  Denise Levertov becomes poetry editor of The Nation.

1961  Louis Untermeyer appointed Poet Laureate Consultant In Poetry To the Library of Congress (1961-63)

1962  Sylvia Plath takes her own life in London.

1964  John Crowe Ransom wins The National Book Award for Selected Poems.

1964  Keats biography by Jackson Bate wins Pulitzer.

1965  Horace Gregory is awarded the Bollingen.  Gregory had attacked the poetic reputation of Edna Millay.

1967  Anne Sexton wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1968  Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, directed by Zeffirelli, nominated for Best Picture by Hollywood.

1971  The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner published.  Kenner, a friend of William F. Buckley, Jr., saved Pound’s reputation with this work; Kenner also savaged the reputation of Edna Millay.

1971  W.S Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1972  John Berryman jumps to his death off bridge near University of Minnesota.

Berryman, the most “Romantic” of the New Critics (he was educated by them) is considered by far the best Workshop teacher by many prize-winning poets he taught, such as Phil Levine, Snodgrass, and Don Justice.  Berryman’s classes in the 50′s were filled with future prize-winners, not because he and his students were great, but because his students were on the ground-floor of the Writing Program era, the early, heady days of pyramid scheme mania—characterized by Berryman’s imbalanced, poetry-is-everything personality.

1972  Frank O’Hara wins National Book Award for Collected Poems

1975  Gary Snyder wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1976  Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s novel on Delmore Schwartz, wins Pulitzer.

1978  Language magazine, Bernstein & Andrews, begins 4 year run.  Bernstein studied J.L Austin’s brand of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ at Harvard.

1980  Helen Vendler wins National Book Critics Circle Award

1981 Seamus Heaney becomes Harvard visiting professor.

1981  Derek Walcott founds Boston Playwrights’ Theater at Boston University.

1981  Oscar Wilde biography by Ellman wins Pulitzer.

1982  Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems wins Pulitzer.

1984  Harold Bloom savagely attacks Poe in review of Poe’s Library of America works (2 vol) in New York Review of Books, repeating similar attacks by Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot.

1984  Marc Smith founds Slam Poetry in Chicago.

1984  Mary Oliver is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1986  Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a novel in verse, is published.

1987  The movie “Barfly” depicts life of Charles Bukowski.

1988  David Lehman’s Best American Poetry Series debuts with John Ashbery as first guest editor.  The first words of the first poem (by A.R. Ammons) in the Series are: William James.

1991  “Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is published in The Atlantic. According to the author, poetry has become an incestuous viper’s pit of academic hucksters.

1996  Jorie Graham wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1999  Peter Sacks wins Georgia Prize.

1999  Billy Collins signs 3-book, 6-figure deal with Random House.

2002  Ron Silliman’s Blog founded.

2002  Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club wins Pulitzer Prize.

2002  Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems published.

2004  Foetry.com founded by Alan Cordle. Shortly before his death, Robert Creeley defends his poetry colleagues on Foetry.com.

2004  Franz Wright wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005 Ted Kooser wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005  William Logan wins National Book Critics Circle Award

2006  Fulcrum No. 5 appears, featuring works of Landis Everson and his editor, Ben Mazer, also Eliot Weinberger, Glyn Maxwell, Joe Green, and Marjorie Perloff.

2007 Joan Houlihan dismisses Foetry.com as “losers” in a Poets & Writers letter. Defends the integrity of both Georgia and Tupelo, failing to mention Levine is her publisher and business partner.

2007  Paul Muldoon succeeds Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker.

2008 Poets & Writers bans Thomas Brady and Christopher Woodman from its Forum. The Academy of American Poetry On-Line Editor, Robin Beth Schaer, is shortlisted for the Snowbound Series prize by Tupelo at the same time as Poets.org bans Christopher Woodman for mentioning the P&W letter as well.

2009  The Program Era by Mark McGurl, published by Harvard University Press

2009  Following the mass banning of Alan Cordle, Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman from Harriet, the blog of The Poetry Foundation, a rival poetry site is formed: Scarriet.

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