WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE POETRY POPULAR AGAIN?

For T.S. Eliot,”art and life are absolutely severed from each other” —Yvor Winters

All poets want to be read, and the experience of the poet is like the experience of others—so why don’t poets use poetry to attract readers?

There are poets—like the Dickman twins—who actively strive to be popular; but these poets do so by sharing poignant experiences of their own lives in their poems, which is not the same thing as making poems which are popular as poems This is the challenge.

Does poetry have a distinct advantage over prose?  It does, as Yvor Winters (1900-1968) lays out somewhat scientifically:

Before attempting to elucidate or to criticize a poetry so difficult and evasive as that of the best moderns, it would appear wise to summarize…those qualities for which one looks in a poem. We may say that a poem in the first place should offer us new perceptions…it should add to what we have already seen. This is the elementary function for the reader.  The corresponding function for the poet is a sharpening and training of his sensibilities; the very exigencies of the medium as he employs it in the act of perception should force him to the discovery of values which he never would have found without the convening of all the conditions of that particular act, conditions one or more of which will be the necessity of solving some particular difficulty such as the location of a rhyme or the perfection of a cadence without disturbance to the remainder of the poem.  The poet who suffers from such difficulties instead of profiting by them is only in a rather rough sense a poet at all.

If, however, the difficulties of versification are a stimulant merely to the poet, the reader may argue that he finds them a hindrance to himself and that he prefers some writer of prose who appears to offer him as much with less trouble to all concerned.  The answer to such a reader is that the appearance of equal richness in the writer of prose is necessarily deceptive.

For language is a kind of abstraction, even at its most concrete; such a word as “cat,” for instance, is generic and not particular. Such a word becomes particular only in so far as it gets into some kind of experiential complex, which qualifies it and limits it, which gives it, in short, a local habitation as well as a name. Such a complex is the poetic line or other unit, which, in turn, should be functioning part of the larger complex, or poem.  This is, I imagine, what Mallarme’ should have had in mind when he demanded that the poetic line be a new word, not found in any dictionary, and partaking of the nature of incantation (that is, having the power to materialize, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, being, a new experience).

The poem, to be perfect, should likewise be a new word in the same sense, a word of which the line, as we have defined it, is merely a syllable. Such a word is, of course, composed of much more than the sum of its words (as one normally uses the term) and its syntax.  It is composed of an almost fluid complex, if the adjective and the noun are not too nearly contradictory, of relationships between words (in the normal sense of the term), a relationship involving rational content, cadences, rhymes, juxtapositions, literary and other connotations, inversions, and so on, almost indefinitely.  These relationships, it should be obvious, extend the poet’s vocabulary incalculably. The partake of the fluidity and unpredictability of experience and so provide a means of treating experience with precision and freedom. If the poet does not wish, as actually, he seldom does, to reproduce a given experience with approximate exactitude, he can employ the experience as a basis for a new experience that will be just as real, in the sense of being particular, and perhaps more valuable.

Now verse is more valuable than prose in this process for the simple reasons that its rhythms are faster and more highly organized than are those of prose, and so lend themselves to a greater complexity and compression of relationship, and that the intensity of this convention renders possible a greater intensity of other desirable conventions, such as poetic language and devices of rhetoric. The writer of prose must substitute bulk for this kind of intensity; he must define his experience ordinarily by giving all of its past history, the narrative logic leading up to it, whereas the experiential relations given in a good lyric poem, though particular in themselves, are applicable without alteration to a good many past histories. In this sense, the lyric is general as well as particular; in fact, this quality of transferable or generalized experience might be regarded as the defining quality of lyrical poetry.

Winters makes the case as most professors of poetry would, in the manner of Aristotle: a lyric poem is “faster,” has a more concentrated “intensity,” and requires less “bulk” than prose narrative.  Most readers think prose is “less trouble” than poetry, but according to Winters, these readers are mistaken—lyric poems serve up more excitement per ounce.  This logic does seem to be inescapable, even as the poet sadly witnesses the greater selling power of fiction over poetry.

But let’s examine Winters’ “logic” a little more closely.

If readers, as Winters points out, appreciate experiences rendered concisely, this might be why prose narrative is more popular than lyric poetry; in a typical novel, there is far more opportunity for the writer to do this; in fact, much of a novel is nothing more than a series of experiences rendered concisely, with more details tossed in when needed—but with the lyric poem, since the experience of a lyric poem is the lyric poem itself (which Winters, by way of Mallarme, is so eager to point out) concision as an observable virtue is mostly absent from a reader’s experience of a lyric poem.  Paradoxically, the novel allows greater room for the reader to experience all the virtues which exist—but only theoretically—in the concise and complex nature of the lyric poem!

In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe takes an even more direct and practical approach to the poem as a potentially popular article.

Before showing, step by step, how he wrote “The Raven,” he  remarks that, “every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen,” and continues, famously:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events…I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect.

Winters has met his match, for the keen elaboration of an Aristotle and his that, has been trumped by the promethean, counter-intuitive Poe with his Platonic thus.

Poe quickly dismisses the world at large:

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity–which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.  We commence, then, with this intention.

Poe, in a radical move, considers “a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” as a purely abstract idea.   I maintain that it is this very consideration which will enable poets to become popular.  Appealing only to the critical taste, or only to the popular taste will not do.

Poe’s essay turns not on this idea: “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem,” (which for some, proves Poe too narrow in his approach) but on this one: “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect.”

Winters offers the normal take on Poe’s position, in his brilliant foreward to Primitivism and Decadence, in which Winters classifies literature under three headings: the didactic, the hedonistic, and the romantic:

The second form of hedonistic theory tends to dissociate the artistic experience sharply from all other experience. T.S. Eliot, for example, tells us that the human experience about which the poem appears to be written has been transmuted in the aesthetic process into something new which is different in kind from all other experience. The poem is not then, as it superficially appears, a statement about a human experience, but is a thing in itself. The beginnings of this notion are to be found in Poe and are developed further by the French Symbolists, notably by Mallarme. The aim of the poem so conceived is again pleasure, pleasure conceived as intensity of emotion; but the emotion is of an absolutely special sort. Some such notion of the artistic experience is the essential concept of Santayana’s aesthetics; in fact, it is essential to almost any treatment of “aesthetics” as a branch of philosophy, and one will find it everywhere in the work of the academic aestheticism of the past half-century. The natrue of the “aesthetic” experience as conceived in these terms has never been clearly defined; we commonly meet here a kind of pseudo-mysticism. The chief advantage of this kind of hedonism over the Paterian variety is that one can adhere to it without adhering to a doctrine of ethical hedonism, for art and life are absolutely severed from each other. Eliot, for example, considers himself a Christian. The chief disadvantage is that it renders intelligible discussion of art impossible, and it relegates art to the position of an esoteric indulgence, possibly though not certainly harmless, but hardly of sufficient importance to merit a high position among other human activities. Art, however, has always been accorded a high position, and a true theory of art should be able to account for this fact.

It’s a pity Winters is no longer read, for who has ever put it so well, or is able to lay things out so clearly?  The duller critics have long since buried the fact that not only the French, but Eliot himself, in all his aesthetic glory, comes directly from Poe—even Eliot himself attempted to distance himself from his predecssor by abusing Poe in From Poe to Valery. (1949)  Eliot’s attack was mean-spirited and superficial, and it came right after Eliot won the Nobel and he surely felt for a moment he was lord of all he surveyed, and needed to separate himself from a man who was neither sufficiently English, nor sufficeintly Christian, nor sufficently modern.

Winters, in this same little essay, adds three general notions of human nature, detirminism, relativism, and absolutism, and, with a certain amount of heady nuance, matches them with the aesthetic categories:

The Romantic is almost inescapably a relativist, for if all men follow their impulses there will be a wide disparity of judgments and of actions and the fact enforces a recognition. The Emersonian formula is the perfect one: that is right for me which is after my constitution; that is right for you which is after yours; the common divinity will guide each of us in the way which is best for him. The hedonist is usually a relativist and should logically be one, but there is often an illicit and veiled recognition of absolutism in his attempts to classify the various pleasures as more or less valuable, not for himself alone but in general. The defender of the didactic view of literature has been traditionally an absolutist, but he is not invariably so: didacticism is a method, and when one sees literature only as didacticism one sees it as a method, and the method may be used, as Emerson used it, to disseminate relativistic doctrine.

Winters has happily shown, better than Harold Bloom, why Emerson and Poe really are the two opposites of American literature: if Emerson used a didactic method to disseminate relativistic doctrine, Poe used a hedonistic method to disseminate an absolutist one.

What tends to happen, of course, with all these classifications, is that they bleed into each other: the idea, for instance, that Poe, or Eliot severed art from reality isn’t really true—Poe’s aesthetic narrowness is fashioned by his view of reality, whereas the modernist’s love affair with “the thing” is fashioned by their view of language; it finally comes down to Poe’s hidden effect of reality versus the modernist’s overt and uninhibited use of language.

But classification is a good place to begin.  I recently argued with Curtis Faville on the question of rhyme, and I could easily point out to him that rhyme falls under the category of  juxtaposition, which includes metaphor. 

But in spite of this simple act of classifying that shows itself to be so powerful, such that it immediately wins the day for me over Faville, it is important that we should always use this type of reasoning with caution.  Beauty, has Poe points out, is not a quality, but an effect.   To be satisfied with merely placing qualities into categories can lead to all kinds of error.  Winters’ actual powers of composition and his actual taste in poetry was abominable, despite the fact that Winters could classify better than anyone.

Let this be a lesson to us.

CURTIS FAVILLE AND THE MODERNIST FALLACY

Curtis Faville was a regular anti-Quietist commentator on Silliman’s Blog before Silliman’s squeamishness cancelled conversation.  Since Emerson’s surly “jingle man” remark, the puritans of modernism have frowned on rhyme.  Now Mr. Faville, on his own blog, The Compass Rose, in “The Meaning and the Structure of Rhyme, parts I and II,” this month, keeps alive Emerson’s animosity with a didactic assault on beauty and expression.  Thomas Brady’s comment (to Part II) and Faville’s response is now an addendum to Part I.

Here is Thomas Brady’s comment:

Faville objects to the glorification of rhyme, which he thinks is nothing but a parlor trick. I have news for Curt. A poem is nothing but a parlor trick and, as far as we know, life, which is made of dust but exists as we see it, is a parlor trick too. Life, the Big Parlor Trick, can deliver more joy or suffering, but with the Little Parlor Trick, what matters is: is the Parlor Trick amusing, or boring? And whatever is not a trick, has no theological or aesthetic interest whatsoever.

Faville is certainly justified in wanting his ‘meaning’ straight, without jingle-jangle. But he is confusing the parlor trick with the parlor. Aspects of the parlor are important, sure: Isn’t that paint starting to peel? Does the parlor need dusting? When is the pizza man coming? Should we use more lights in the parlor? Is there enough diet coke in the mini-fridge? There’s all sorts of things to consider.

Rhyme is merely emphasis, but of course emphasis is a whole world when it comes to music, and expression. There is no ‘meaning’ in a certain word rhyming with another, but neither is there ‘meaning’ in a Beethoven symphony, which again, is a mere accident of sound. But why does a Beethoven symphony have more interest—as well as more ‘meaning’—for us than any prose passage of Curtis Faville’s? Well, it’s nothing but a trick, of course.

Faville admirably defends his position:

I am always amused at how nonplussed people can get when you presume to criticize traditional poetic structures.

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?
Life, despite what Tom says, isn’t a parlor trick. Matter and animate protein aren’t parlor tricks. Not bad jokes. Not simplistic games of chance. Reducing poetry to a branch of clairvoyance, or sleight-of-hand, is a belittlement of literature. I don’t see serious literature as needing to furnish meaning “straight” either. Au contraire.
The parlor used to be a room in the house where private and public met, a kind of limbo space in which visitors could be admitted, without relinquishing the privacy of the family living spaces. The parlor was where manners and propriety were observed, and things were kept trite and harmless. Parlor games were diversions–cards, checkers, etc.–which had no ulterior consequence(s). To be amused or mildly diverted.
Rhyme may be used to create “emphasis” but that isn’t its only purpose. (Unfortunately, that’s often how it’s often employed.) As I tried to make clear, words are not notes, and trying to think of poetry as a kind of musical expression is an error, because the two media are different in their effects and underlying bases. Which is partly why the meaning of rhyme is purely gratuitous. Beethoven’s symphonies aren’t “meaningless” as Tom asserts. There is nothing accidental about musical composition. But it is a mistake to think that meaning in music can be constructed in the same way that it is in verbal composition. The two are analogous, but not parallel.
Comparisons may be invidious, especially when used in an obviously sarcastic way. It is very flattering to have my “prose” compared to a Beethoven symphony, but I’m afraid this is merely a silly misapplication. In no way is a blog essay intended to stand as an aesthetic performance–either as poetry, music, or casual journalism. Tom knows this.

Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

Let’s cut right to the chase: Faville singles out rhyme as an object of contempt without taking rhythm into account—even after I pointed out in my first response to his essay that to rhyme nicely one must use rhythm nicely. Faville applied Robert Frost’s “playing tennis without a net” to rhyme, when Frost’s subject was “free verse,” not rhyme.  If Faville is merely objecting to doggerrel, that would be one thing, but like the modernists and New Critics who heaped scorn on their illustrious predecessors such as Shelley, Poe and Byron, Faville chose to pick on Andrew Marvell, describing as “trite” and “gratuitous” the rhyme and metre of “To His Coy Mistress.”  The 900 pound gorilla in the room, as usual, is Edgar Poe—who anticipated Faville’s vague objections with scientific rigor and ingenuity.  Let us grant that poets mindlessly jingling and jangling century after century is a legitimate concern.  Here’s Poe:

Rhyme is supposed to be of modern origin, and were this proved, my positions remain untouched. I may say, however, in passing, that several instances of rhyme occur in the Clouds of Aristophanes, and that the Roman poets occasionally employ it. There is an effective species of ancient rhyming which has never descended to the moderns; that in which the ultimate and penultimate syllables rhyme with each other. For example:

Parturiunt montes et nascitur ridiculusmus.

and again—

Litoreis ingens inventa sub ilicibus sus.
The terminations of Hebrew verse, (as far as understood,) show no signs of rhyme; but what thinking person can doubt that it did actually exist? That men have so obstinately and blindly insisted, in general, even up to the present day, in confining rhyme to the ends of lines, when its effect is even better applicable elsewhere, intimates, in my opinion, the sense of some necessity in the connection of the end with the rhyme—hints that the origin of rhyme lay in a necessity which connected it with the end—shows that neither mere accident nor mere fancy gave rise to the connection—points, in a word, at the very necessity which I have suggested, (that of some mode of defining lines to the ear,) as the true origin of rhyme.

I quote the above not to refute Faville, for Poe agrees with Faville that rhyme can be “obstinately and blindly” persisted in, but Poe, in this brief passage from his Rationale of Verse, gives us history, rationale, and material solutions.  In his Philosophy of Composition, which reconstructs “The Raven,” Poe does not mention rhyme once.  In one interesting passage, he writes:

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite—and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.  The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

Now Poe is perhaps the most original author who ever lived; Faville holds a vague opinion that rhyme is rather silly and has gone on for too long; Faville has not written a “Raven” or a Rationale of Verse or a Philosophy of Composition, but it is nice to know that Faville, as he says:

First, I don’t object to rhyme. Historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive. The astonishing thing is, how monotonous posterity was in adopting it as almost the only crucial element in poetic composition. Is the fact that brilliant minds chose to slave away at rhyme for centuries a proof of its worth? Or is it merely evidence of a sad futility, a signal lack of inventiveness and imagination? Rhyme, in its place, is a sort of game. Do we play it forever, or regard it, as I suggest, as a mildly diverting pattern which ran its course long ago?

Faville doesn’t “object” to rhyme, and admits that “historically, it enabled a lot of interesting poetry, much of it brilliant and impressive.”  But after saying this, where is the force of his complaint?   It’s sort of like saying, ‘words were once rather wonderful things, but posterity now slaves itself to a monotonous use of them—perhaps it’s time we did away with them.’  Just like that?

As we can see from Poe, the ‘jingle-man’ himself, verse depends on rhythm, line, meter, stanza, an undercurrent of meaning, and even more fundamental things like unity, limit, duration, and variety.  Rhyme is the icing on the cake, or the percussion in a symphony orchestra, or the glint in a beautiful eye.  To weigh against rhyme is the mark of a dour theorist, indeed.  Shall we censor what can make language charming?  Really?

Faville, with single-minded, modernist glee, having no understanding of the rationale or the history of what he dismisses—“traditional forms”—pursues the general, well-worn path of loosening our collective mental grip on “the poem,” towards any number of holy grails: freedom, realism, social justice, prose-variety, prose-insight, prose-seriousness, prose-acrobatics, prose-morality, and prose-dignity.  But what the modernists have done, starting with the exceedingly clever R.W. Emerson, was not to chuck “the poem,” but to transfer its properties (and more) in a mysterious manner to whatever prose-pursuit happened to be going on at the time, whether it was Yvor Winters yapping about “moral form,” or the Imagistes’ slightly Westernized haiku, or Eliot’s morose pastiches with footnotes, or the Iowa Workshop’s “the poem is my diary!” or Ashbery’s Dr. Seuss-for-grownups-minus-the-rhyme.

The modernist agenda would be necessary if the two centuries previous to the 20th had produced bad poetry and stupid criticism—but it didn’t; Pope to Tennyson was quite remarkable, and Gertrude Stein huffing on her professor William James’ nitrous oxide didn’t exactly improve it.  But fellows like Faville, swept up in the nitrous oxide fun, feel it is their duty to tell everyone not to rhyme. You’ll sound like Shelley which means you’ll sound old-fashioned, so stop is the philosophy in a nutshell.

Like any agenda or manifesto put forward by clever people, it has a grain of truth, a ‘little learning’ about it which is on target.  We Quietists, we defenders of “ye olde traditional forms,” we dinosaurs, wearing big hats and stiff collars, would, with a single hit of nitrous oxide, get it, and groove with Lyn Hejinian at academic conferences all-around-the-world-yea, except for one small detail: Pope thru Tennyson did not produce limericks.

Faville would have a case, if, beginning around the middle of the 17th century, there had been an onslaught of limerick-appreciation, and it quickly infected every poet and critic: Shelley’s A Defense of Limericks, Poe’s A Rationale of Limericks, building on Pope’s An Essay On Limericks, to Tennyson’s Maud: A Limerick, which drove reasonable men to build the Iowa Writer’s Worskhop and write New Critical texts to save us from the limerick-menace (though T.S. Eliot would still allow us to admire the ur-work: The Divine Limerick).

But now, thank God!, there are poets like Rae Armantrout, who decided deep down in their souls they were not going to write limericks—and we are saved.

Poe ‘splained “the Poem” as belonging to the province of Beauty, not Truth or Passion, and Faville may think Beauty means pretty, but it does not; what modernists like Faville need to understand is that “the Poem” requires a length, and that mere fact brings us to the question of how we divide that length, which inevitably encompasses issues like the line, rhythm, meter, stanza, and finally, rhyme—mundane material considerations which good poets bother with and bad poets do not.  Faville would pluck the rhyme without comprehending the whole flower, including root and stem—the whole plant to him is nothing but prose meaning, and everything else that the genius Poe is concerned with, he, Faville, can just throw away.

The limerick belongs to the parlor, obviously, but it also belongs to poetry and, as such, can be made the center, perhaps (is there a modernist who would even dare?) of compromise between my position and Faville’s.

Faville probably thinks “The Raven” is a limerick, or might as well be; he has already demonstrated he thinks “To His Coy Mistress” is a limerick, with Marvell’s “jews” and “refuse” rhyme-combination a bit of silliness no serious, contemporary, educated man should tolerate.  Faville, as a schooled modernist, fears limit.  Faville feels the tiny, artificial pool of “jews, refuse, lose, and ooze” rhymes, which Marvell swims in, is a big slap in the face to one as intelligent as himself.  Faville roams the Towering Forest of Prose Ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson And John Ashbery with his gun—to kill any limerick-rhyme he might happen to see. Faville, unlike Marvell, wanders an autumnal landscape that stretches for eternity—there is Henry James on the right and Walter Benjamin on the left—and contains no parlor games or parlor tricks or anything that could be put neatly inside a game-board or a stanza.  Faville is a colossus—and strides a colossal world.

NORMA COLE’S GLORIOUS INVENTION

“When Ron complains about formalism, he disses the thought and technical tricks as boring and weak. That’s fine—most ambitious stabs at rationality fail.
 
But when he tries to compliment a poem filled with non sequiturs and irrational metaphors and puerile little turns, he waxes about its glorious invention.
 
–Curtis Faville, on Silliman’s blog, Norma Cole post, July 16
 
 
: WELL!
 
Je ne suis pas censé aimer ceci

The children will explain this
(we adults have given up)
you try if you like
praise for your friends
never ends, never ends
fellow: traveler
starfish foot, my summer house
what the children imagined it would be
it was

what is sheer magic for one
is precious & pretentious to another
you blubbered before
the drunk driver killer
you are not
onto something new

Oh Paris, London
Oh well

Your work is being eclipsed by my life

—Thomas Brady

: Well

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

A starfish sits on your foot, an effect of fog in London
or Paris

There is a thin film of dust on the leaves. We
eat this dust

Life is eclipsed by work, an island of fire in the
burning sea, consolation of desire

The invisibilities would live inside the well
dropping their arms

“with such grace” untimely in our summer house

“As for sleep”

the space refuses rationalization

—Norma Cole

This is a poem that will, I think, resist attempts at explication. Action is minimal: telling stories, eating dust, listening (an action so slight, at least from outward appearance, we might miss it entirely). There are the great foreign cities of Westciv, but there is an island also, a very isolate thing, related here to work & to desire. And there are moments of sheer magic: the starfish that sits on your foot, the creatures that cannot be seen but which we know (as only children can) live inside the well. There is an entire infrastructure invoked by that noun, as by island in the previous couplet, and neither have anything to do with London / or Paris. Tho they might with summer house. When I read that final line, I hear it both in a mathematical & a psychological sense.

This poem took my breath away when I first read it. Its tone reflects total confidence with the language. Cole knows how ungainly, how proselike, that truncated or Paris looks. In fact, that is precisely what she is after, something to offset the starfish magic, to lend the poem its dreamlike quality (hence, many lines later, sleep). That distance, could we but capture it, would indeed be the difference between the real & the remembered, between shitting pearls & islands of desire. Do I hear Olson here?

Offshore, by islands hidden the blood
jewels & miracles

The very first words of The Maximus Poems come very close to “: Well,” perhaps more so in spirit than as actual reference. It is only at the end of Cole’s poem that I realize both why the colon in the title as well as the absent article. This is not The Well, which it might have become in any lesser hands. Rather, the world of memory & desire, of stories, even of work, lead inevitably to it, an object or trope from childhood endowed with the powers of youthful imagination. That is why (& how) life, work & stories are entangled here, and why sleep is posed as “untimely” – this is about dream, not rest.

This is one of those poems that lets you know its writer could do / can do anything. I stand in front of it much the way I did the first time I saw the great Jackson Pollock No. 1 at the National Art Gallery in DC, tears streaming down my face just to realize that somebody could do this, that I live in a world where such grace is possible. Against all odds. Against tent cities in Haiti, fighting in Darfur or the valleys of Afghanistan, the poisoning of the entire Gulf of Mexico & the utter prevarication that inundates us the instant we turn on “the news.”

I read poetry, have read poetry my entire adult life, since I was 16 years old, precisely because from time to time I will come across something like this, which throws everything I know into relief. And I wonder if I am alone in “getting” just what a great poem this is. I hope not.

Going backward from “: Well” toward the beginning of this book, it seems apparent that Cole had been building up to such utter clarity for several years, more than I had recognized back when I lived in San Francisco & would see Norma regularly at readings & other literary occasions. And reading the remainder of Where Shadows Will, it’s evident that she has gone forward in her mastery. She has had health problems in recent years, but if there has been any diminution in her powers as an artist, it sure is not evident in this book. It makes me hungry to know what comes next.

—Ron Silliman

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!

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