“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.

PLACES, EVERYONE!

Gertrude Stein posed for this statue (1992) in Paris (1920), but it sits in (William Cullen) Bryant Park in New York City.

Nothing exists but that it also exists elsewhere.  Anyone can pass through a place and be in other places that way, but few can make multiple places seem permanent and their own.  Only two things can do this: empire on a large scale, and the profound soul on the other.

America mostly knows its writers by place—for all of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendent philosophy, we know him by his ‘old manse’ in Concord and Emerson’s plot of New England land is where Thoreau built his cabin by Walden Pond.

Nathaniel Hawthorne rented from Emerson, too, but Hawthorne’s reputation is linked with nearby Salem.

The Longfellow house, where Longfellow raised his children still sits proudly on Brattle street, next to Harvard University where Longfellow was a professor.

Emily Dickinson, the recluse of Amherst, haunts a few rooms that are still standing; when we think of Henry James, we immediately think of a pleasant drawing room in his beloved London, and William Carlos Williams: a home doctor’s office in rural Rutherford, New Jersey, an old wheel barrow glimpsed outside the window.

Wallace Stevens conjures up an insurance office in Hartford, Connecticut; Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Paris; Pound, Italy.

T.S. Eliot?  There he is at Lloyds in London, speaking in hushed tones. Hart Crane?  He’s jumping off a ship into the north Atlantic. The Fugitive poets have Tennessee. Millay is identified with Maine, and Frost occupies a spot close to the Vermont/New Hampshire border. 

As we think of the minor poets in the 20th century, place becomes even more important: Charles Olson roams Gloucester, poetry schools are named after places: the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance; Jack Kerouac may have written On The Road, but his place will always be Lowell, Massachusetts. 

Even the imaginative soul needs a place to haunt, needs a place that is home, a place that says I am here.

There is no American poet known, to any degree, by the public, who isn’t identified by a place.  Three-quarters of American poets attended Harvard, but where you went to college, or where you got your M.F.A is probably not going to make you beloved of the American public.

Walt Whitman is known as our national Bard because in his writing he ranges, vociferously, far and wide—his reputation is not tied to one place—if Whitman were strongly identified with Brooklyn, for instance, he’d be Walter Whitman, a very minor figure.

It is precisely because, in Whitman’s case, that he is not identified with Brooklyn that he enjoys the reputation he does, for, after all, Whitman’s output is minor—a dozen memorable lines, perhaps; three or four anthology pieces: “O Captain! My Captain!’ and excerpts from “Leaves of Grass,” a few other excerpts from longer poems—poems almost no one reads in their entirety, maybe one or two other short poems.  Whitman, the poet, has made it to the top of the heap precisely because he belongs to no one and belongs nowhere—thus he is the token American who resonates with orphic, orphan, lonesome qualities that define a frontier America in transition, a land almost too big for its people, but growing smaller in the human bustle, and Whitman is the representative of that past and that future.  A Whitman statue could be anywhere—one was just unveiled in Moscow by secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Once established, a writer’s place doesn’t change, but a famous writer, like a Walt Whitman, who has no place, can claim new territory.

There is one American writer who, more than any other, seems to have no real place of his own: Edgar Poe.

Poe rejects place, and has no place.  He said the writer ought to belong to the universe, not to any place on earth; he coined the phrase, “out of place, out of time;” he set his most ambitious tales in France; he rarely took the time to describe an American place; he did so only in little-read pieces of journalism, not in the works that made him famous; Poe remains classical and European in most people’s minds, not American. 

Poe has a abstract quality so powerful that it will drag almost any adolescent mind into its vortex—modern American poetry can almost be defined as one great, long escape from it.  Rejecting Poe has been a rite of passage for every American poet who has wanted to be taken seriously by his or her peers.  The anti-Poe club is not just a large one—it is modern poetry: “A poem should be melancholy? Ha ha ha ha!”

But who will have the last laugh? 

Poe’s tentacles are many.  He can reach you in so many ways. You bury his Philosophy of Composition deep in the ground.  That’s right, MFA student, bury it deep, deep…  Now run from his poetry as fast as you can. Be modern! Run, run, run… run faster, faster!  Have you traveled fast enough?  Can’t you run just a little bit faster?

Is this crazy, or what?  Poe is returning to Boston.

The celebrants of Poe’s recent 200th birthday celebration decided it would be fun to have a debate—which place is most Poe’s place: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, or Boston?  Poe wrote The Raven in New York, his first detective story in Philadelphia, his childhood and early criticism in Richmond, the Poes are from Baltimore (as well as The Ravens football team), and Poe was born in Boston.

In an odd twist, thanks to the research and debating skills of professor Paul Lewis of Boston college, Boston, of all places, won the debate, and now through the efforts of the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston and the Boston Art Commission, Edgar Allan Poe will grace downtown Boston—near the frog pond, Poe’s mocking symbol for New England writers—in a large work of public art.  You can learn about the three finalists here.  Statues can be pompous and boring, but Boston Poe gets an added boost, because these look really interesting.

The statues of the Frog Pond authors must be shaking in their boots.

Professor Paul Lewis is a slender, dapper man with a twinkle in his eye.  Last week at the Boston Public Library unveiling of the three Poe finalist works, he pointed out that Poe’s mother—an actress at the Federal Theater near the Boston Common (now gone)—loved Boston and was loved here; Poe’s mother represents that side of Poe who pleases rather than instructs, soaring happily in a puritan place.  Professor Lewis brings to Poe studies a happy spirit of reconciliaton—he is no Harold Bloom saying, “You must love either Emerson or Poe.”

The proposed Poe public art works—two of the three works feature a life-sized Poe, one with a raven emerging from his trunk, the other with a shrouded female figure at his back—are so wonderful that we couldn’t help but ponder, out of pure fun, some other possibilities.

A statue of Poe on the ground, surrounded by bottles.

A statue of Poe on Emerson’s knee, being spanked.

A statue of Pound, giving a Nazi salute.

A statue of Whitman, naked, with a hard-on.

But enough.

A large-as-life Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of Boston is frightening enough.

Thank you, Boston Poe Foundation!

“BEFORE THERE WAS BILLY COLLINS & TED KOOSER, THERE WAS EDGAR GUEST” –RON SILLIMAN

 

Billy Collins: hated by the Olson-ites.

Ron Silliman knows that Billy Collins does not write like this:

And I can live my life on earth
Contented to the end,
If but a few shall know my worth
And proudly call me friend.

–Edgar Guest (1881–1959)

Every poet knows Billy Collins is nothing like Edgar Guest.

Silliman’s remark is nothing but a rankle: he and his friends are not popular, and he fears they never will be popular.   How sad, then, that Ron feels it necessary to equate a witty, free-verse writer like Billy Collins with a hack doggerelist who happened to be popular for a time.

Dorothy Parker (another popular poet like Collins) wrote of Edgar Guest:

I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test
Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest

We ought to pause here and ask a simple question: what is the popular?

The answer is simple: the popular is neither good nor bad in itself, though all want it; the popular may be vain—but it is also human.

A popular poet, as instanced by Edgar Guest, may not be original or intricate or profound and it’s true that popularity and sentimentality go hand in hand.

But if Silliman and his friends are to ever have the popularity Billy Collins enjoys, and that they so obviously want, they will need to reach out to the public.  The public is sentimental—sentimentality is the stuff of which the  public’s interest in poetry is made.  There are levels of sentimentality, of course, but the trick for the poet is to be sentimental artistically, or artful sentimentally.  The sentimental is human and the human is popular and none of this can be avoided, not even in the hearts of the Language Poets. 

Did Charles Bernstein have Edgar Guest in mind when he coined the term ‘official verse culture?’ Does Bernstein feel personally oppressed by the aesthetic failure of doggerel? Is there an official culture of doggerel? 

When Gerald Stern asked Bernstein to “name names” at a 1984 poetry conference in Alabama, Bernstein was rather tongue-tied; when pressed to name names of poets who belonged to this official verse culture of Bernstein’s, he could only name one poet: T.S. Eliot. The reasons we might entertain for such a choice are obviously complex, but Bernstein has wanted critics to be included as poets; include the theoretical, not just the pretty, is the real issue, quite obviously, for Bernstein.

But sentiment, the key to the public, to popularity, can certainly co-exist with intellectuality and theory. That’s what the genius is able to do. That defines the artistic genius.  If you asked the Language Poets to point to specific elements in their poetry that cannot be popular, would they be able to point to such elements? And if they couldn’t, the question then must be asked, ‘Why aren’t they popular?’

If the public expects certain attributes in their poetry, should the Language Poets refuse them? I shouldn’t be speaking of the Language Poets as a group, since they don’t compose as a group, except to include them in that large group of poets who have no popular poems.

It will not do to pretend that sentiment can be avoided (in poetry it can’t), or to pretend sentiment cannot be avoided except when one is making jokes at its expense—one will never be popular if one persists in either of these two approaches. Sentiment is the clay, and how it is shaped makes all the difference; but when one attempts to deny the clay itself, one will inevitably be obscure. Without sentiment, you lie under sediment.

It is not that Guest or Collins are more sentimental than the poetry of the Language poets, than the poetry of Silliman and Bernstein and Armantrout; Billy Collins shapes sentiment into more interesting shapes than the Language Poets do, and thus Collins enjoys and deserves more popularity. If repeated successes in publishing and award-giving finally push the Language poets, all pushing 70 now, onto a threshold of potential popularity, the only thing that will push them over the threshold into real popularity will be a sincere appeal to the public and its sentimental nature.  There is no other way. If the other elements in the Language poetry agenda are crucial to mankind’s well-being, all the more reason for that poetry to be popular and reach as many people as possible.

No excuses, such as I am not Edgar Guest, are allowed.  

Silliman and his Language Poet friends are a self-enclosed tribe whose secret handshake is: ‘do not write like Edgar Guest.’  They learned this from their forerunners, the Modernists. Successful, these poets all, in killing the ant, Edgar Guest, but meanwhile the real dragon, Obscurity, wounds them. The Olson-ites are pleased to have killed all the villagers of Guest-town and they are looking for thanks and applause, but the villagers of Guest-town are all who might have loved them, and now they are dead.

Silliman and his friends oppose themselves to the “Quietists.”

But they are so quiet themselves.

A POEM IS A DELICIOUS SHUDDER OF DELIGHT

Oriental Waitress Serving Drink 3.jpg

A poem is not an organism.

A poem is not a field.

A poem is not language.

A poem is not breath.

A poem is not a letter to the world.

A poem is not a rhyme.

A poem is not an image.

A poem is not speech.

A poem is not song.

A poem is a delicious shudder of delight.

As Poe said,—and who better to explain brevity and poetry than someone named Poe?—a poem is brief and it elevates the soul.

 I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

With these simple words, Poe dispels centuries of pedantic darkness.

It is always a painful process to root out ignorance in the popular mind, especially when it is habituated to certain comforting falsehoods; Poe goes right for the pain, testing his thesis in the jaws of Paradise Lost:

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

Poe’s logic is air-tight.   The reader who reads a poem is performing a physical act, and this truth is all, really, that Poe is asserting, plus the notion that physicality has natural limits, which none can dispute.   Note that Poe is not making dubious claims re: the actual physical properties of the poem, and here Poe correctly limits the very thesis itself and does not err in the sense that Charles Olson (d. 1970) did, for instance: giving the quality of “a field” to the poem is to assert absolutely nothing, for a field can be measured, just as any physical object can be measured, but the physical measurement of a field and the physical measurement of a poem allign how?  They do not, and thus one can see at once that it is mere theoretical nonsense.  Poe again:

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

History has proven Poe correct: “no very long poem” has attained popularity in the century and a half since Poe wrote these words, and now we see that Pound and his followers, with their long poems*, were less modern (in the actual sense of that word) than Poe; it was Pound, not Poe, who fell into “inconsiderate and blindfold imitation.”   One looks about for an epic by popular poets Robert Frost, Edna Millay, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, or Billy Collins and finds none.  One of the many reasons is: the poetry anthology is the mode of poetic popularity and no epic will fit in it.  Another historical test of Poe’s theory is this: the novel is one of the great modern pastimes of the human heart and yet, despite trillions of novel-reading hours, no long poem during this time has emerged as a popular work in the vast reaches of this fiction-reading pursuit.  The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth may be the one slight exception, but it is more a wonderful oddity than a truly popular work.  Why no modern, best-loved long poems?

The core of Poe’s idea (duration) makes it an absolute rock of common sense, impossible to refute.    He follows out the implication of the central idea with genius-like simplicity:

It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of Art, rather by the impression it makes — by the effect it produces — than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing and genius quite another — nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them.

On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.

The little poem by W.C. Williams called the “The Red Wheel Barrow” is a brief poem that has made a certain lasting impression on the public taste, but this proves nothing except that such a strong pull had been created by undue length and heavy-handed pedantry—persisted in by the pedants against Poe’s wisdom for such a long time—that “The Red Wheel Barrow” was, and is, a mere physical counter to this pull, lacking poetic qualities in itself; and we should also remember that this little poem was first heralded by the triumphant textbook Understanding Poetry, and has been pushed on students (anxious to do as little work as possible) in the schools and thus took root in a pedantic atmosphere at first, not in the popular mind.

The rush of excitement exists in the reader, not anywhere in the poem, and academic attempts to resolve the poem based on New Critical principles is a blind endeavor compounding error with error; the shift from New Critical thinking to various experiments have only made the problem worse, since these experiments keep following the poem as it disappears down the hole of its own physicality.

The poetic problem must be constantly approached from two directions: transitory excitement engendered in the reader and physical adjustment in response to that excitement in the act of composition, with the act of composition and the act of excitement feeding one another in a process that never rests in any sort of field or vehicle or receptacle that can be quantified except in the mind of the poet—a mind which balances a vast quantity of impressions and expressions in a combining process too rapid and complex for an outside observer to follow.

The brute fact of duration is the only quantitative measure possible in poetry according to Poe’s instinctive genius, and so far, in terms of poetry as a popular art, this remains as true today—despite a great deal of modernist avant-garde hoopla—as it was when Poe published the first modern poetry essay in 1849, the final year of his life.

 * I refer to Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, Williams’ Paterson, Zukovsky’s “A” among others.  Of course, it could be argued that these works were not intended by their authors to be long poems, but rather “a series of lyrics” (in Poe’s words) which is probably true, but if so, this hardly refutes Poe’s thesis.

 

 

POETRY: THE MORE THEY ‘MAKE IT NEW,’ THE MORE IT SUCKS

Why is this?

In light of Ron Silliman and friends’ conference in Philly on Dec. 6 “Poetry in 1960: A Symposium,” which will no doubt celebrate Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology, Scarriet would like to ponder this question.

What hath Donald Allen (1912-2004), a nice man, an editor for awhile at the cool, pretentious, smutty Evergreen Review, wrought?

Our loyal readers should have noticed two passages in Scarriet printed recently, authored by two greats, Plato and Leopardi, taking on this issue directly and honestly.  They both said that poetry, by its very nature, is an old-and-courting-the-old, art.  Of course, a great hue and cry goes up when this simple truth (in terms of two small items: all history and any measure of popularity) is broached: “Fascist!” is the shrill charge from the Pound-lovers.

It’s a truism, though, isn’t it?  How can anyone but an oaf be seriously against the new?  Have you lost it, Brady?

I’ll put Plato and Leopardi up against Pound (who confessed he never read the “Rooshins,” and worked for their extinction (and others) in the war, and then had the audacity to call the United States an “insane asylum”) any day, but I still owe my readers an argument here.

First:  The merely new is not the same thing as meritoriously novel.  They, in fact, are quite different.   But apparently, often confused, whether by ignorance or hoodwink.  The mere fact of novelty in any area is no prescription for progress, or interest, of any kind, at all.

Second: We must consider what is being changed.  Poetry exists, like the air, most intensely in our lungs, not abstractly on a blackboard.  There is nothing wrong with things written on a blackboard, with abstract fervor, with speculation and dreams.  But the air is heavy.   As light and dreamy and windy as it may seem, the atmosphere itself cannot be changed radically—its very existence has a certain amount of pressure, in pounds per square inch, throughout the sublunary realm, where all of us are universally and singularly subject to it. 

Poetry, like the air, pushes back when we try to move or change it.  Poetry, like the air, may seem insubstantial and easily moved in its local existence, but there is more substance and bulk to it than is dreamed of in the pedants’ philosophies.

Poetry, like air, acts on us, perhaps routinely and mundanely, but still so, far more than we, as individuals, in front of a blackboard (even with lots of chalk), can hope to act on it.

If we altered only slightly the chemistry of the atmosphere, life that breathes that atmosphere would radically change; even die.  Poetry is that ubiquitious, and that correspondent with us.  It matters not whether life that breathes air or air itself first emerged in the planetary process; life and air, life and poetry are one, and cannot be separated theoretically, on a blackboard, or anywhere else.

Third: We can alter paint and stone and words, and this is what painters and sculptors and poets by definition do; but this is not the same as altering painting and sculpture and poetry, which none, by definition do, and to make the claim that human volition does do this, insults every individual painter, sculptor and poet, worthy of the name.  The alteration belongs to the poet, which the theory-mad pedant would claim for his own; the pedant’s claim collpases, however, under what he (the pedant) claims (gesticulating near his blackboard) to stand on.

Fourth:  Demolishing the cult of ‘the new’ in general terms, as we have just done, is relatively easy, but the pedants can still crawl beneath the radar of such reasoning in the dirt and mud of their pluralism; they will connect ‘the new’ poetry of 1960 to “modern jazz” and “abstract painting.”  These American art forms of the 20th century, jazz and abstract painting, do not exist “on a blackboard;” nor does Charles Olson’s typewriter, which allowed him to print his poems “on a field,” exist “only a blackboard.”   The breaking of line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, unity and elitism, is also not a theory “on a blackboard,” the ‘make it new’ pedants will cry.

“Love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.”   The alteration of poetry, the removing of “line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, and unity” (none of these items are “elitist” any more than their removal is) does alter when it alteration finds, and thus love (poetry) is not love (poetry).

If you take away the components of love, if you take away the components of poetry, you are left with one thing: the blackboard.

Jazz is music and abstract painting, painting, only so far as they exist in those recognizable modes; this is a truism.  The removal of traits and traces in, and of, the mode is merely narrowing in a purely aesthetic way, an aesthetic strategy within the workings of those modes, themselves.   The new-fangled destruction of an art is cogent only when the mode, or the art, survives; after the line is crossed, it is simply that: removal by the remover: destruction.

Fifth:  Charles Olson can spatter words upon his two-dimensional “field,” but this urges the poem towards the pictorial, and one cannot gesture in that direction without conjuring the painters, who present spatial effects on a two-dimensional space, and most of them in a far more riveting fashion than  Olson, impotently imprisoned by his paltry, unexamined, and limited theoretics, on his “page.”   There is no escape for Olson.  He can’t have his cake and eat it.  He cannot invoke “field” without settling the account of all that “field” means in a wider sense, both physically, theoretically and historically, making him a new failure in an old medium.  Olson childishly demonstrated why poetry could not, and cannot, exist in the way he wanted it to, much less thrive in the way he wanted it to.   The impotence, of course, does not belong to Olson; he didn’t invent spurious spacing; anyway, how can there be an inventor of a nullity?   There is nothing but superfluity to be won here, of course; any engagement of the particulars (if they could be called that) of Olson’s delusional pontifications would aid only the aspirations of the followers and pedants themselves.

Sixth:  The pedants will always be able to find correlations; jazz and abstract painting were mentioned—but even Marjorie Perloff, an avant-garde poetry advocate if there ever was one, in her 1997 essay, “Whose New American Poetry?” scorned the idea (put forth by Allen in his  feeble introduction) that Mr. Allen’s new poetry was like “jazz or abstract painting.”  How so?  Even Perloff knows that dog won’t hunt.

The attempt at finding correlation to other ‘new’ modes fails; what works, apparently, according to Perloff, is the correlation to older “new” poetry, the original Modernists, who had done it already, so OK, Allen’s new poets can attach themselves to Pound and Williams (born in the 19th century).  Perloff also points out that many key players in the so-called “third wave” of Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology were the same age (older, in the case of Olson) as the “second wave” of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.  Perloff also rains on the Allen parade by pointing out two more issues: the lack of women in the “new” poets and also how quickly the old distinctions faded; by the 80s, even by the 1970s, “raw v. cooked,” and “marginal v. mainstream” were gone.

What’s left, now, but nostalgia for 1960 itself?   1960 was a great year, though not for poetry

But, hey, Philly’s got great cheese steaks…

WHAT TO DO ABOUT MODERNIST CRACKPOTISM?

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Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues” (1965)

There is nothing wrong with crackpotism and literary experimentation in the salons; it is certainly welcome in private places; but what happens when it’s fed to the young?

Crackpotism is harmless unless it becomes institutionalized, and corrupts and confuses millions of young people.   The very clever may assimilate themselves to the crackpotism of the system and thrive in it, eventually becoming crackpot professors, but the vast majority of students, once exposed to modernist crackpotism, never read literature or philosophy again.

In our review of the Norton (2003) Vol. I of Modern poetry, we found that 16% of the pages were devoted to “poetics,” (the rest to poetry) and remarked on the prose’s poor quality.

Poetry has no need for Apology or Defense; no one bothers to attack poetry anymore—because poetry no longer has a public; thus the reason for “poetics” is drying up.

We would expect things only to get worse; and it has.  If we look at Norton’s Vol. II Contemporary Poetry volume, we find merely 8% of its pages devoted to “poetics” and gibberish is even more the norm:

Olson:  Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed to have the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions.

Dylan Thomas:  If you want a definition of poetry, say: ‘Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing’ and let it go at that.

Larkin:  But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on.

Frank O’Hara:  But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them.  Improves them for what?  Death?

Ginsberg:  Mind is shapely, art is shapely.  Meaning mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image and gets to last thoughts.  Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies…

Baraka:  The most successful fiction of most Negro writing is in its emotional content.

Levertov:  Rhyme, chime, echo, reiteration: they not only serve to knit the elements of an experience but often are the very means, the sole means, by which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception can be transmuted into language, apperceived.

Rich:  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

Heaney:  Looking back on it, I believe there was a connection, not obvious at the time but, on reflection, real enough, between the heavily accented consonantal noise of Hopkins’s poetic voice, and the peculiar regional characteristics of a Northern Ireland accent.

Louise Bennett:  Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican Dialec is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

Charles Bernstein:  Not “death” of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn (fills vats ago lodges spire), or, that much rarer case…

A.K Ramanujan:  One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers.  When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.”

Derek Walcott:  Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow…

And we are done.  We have represented all the writers on “poetics” from this 1,200 page anthology, and I believe we are correct when we say these excerpts speak for themselves, and require no commentary.

WHY DOES THE LEFT LOVE POUND?

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Because Pound was a leftist.

Pound was anti-U.S., anti-capitalist, and belonged to the Wordsworth/Thoreau/Emerson/Ruskin/William Morris tradition of small is beautiful: local materials, anti-usury, community-based economics, combined with a practical, factual, hard-headed, anti-Romantic aesthetics.  Pound’s disciple, Charles Olson, based his poetic career on a sprawling, grounded poem defending the small and local (Gloucester) against the big (development).

The whole issue is really quite simple, but has a certain historical complexity:  Just as the anti-Stalinist Left veered rightward, going from hard-headed liberals to sophisticated conservatives (neo-cons,) the anti-overpopulation Right veered leftward, going from conservation-minded Republicans to small-is-beautiful Democrats.

Small-is-beautiful became such a crucial component of Left thinking in the latter part of the 20th century, that Pound’s anti-capitalist, anti-U.S., small-is-beautiful fascism translates into a perfectly valid Left position.

The underlying philosophical issues support both the politics and the aesthetics; Pound’s modernism is essentially Nietzschean and dionysian: Platonism, Christianity, and Apollonian Romanticism are the enemies of Modernism, and the reason can essentially be found in one phrase: small is beautiful.

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