WHAT IS POETRY?

A poem is an imaginative fiction, and though it may aim at a kind of truth, it is not real; it is not the truth.

The poet never necessarily endorses what he imagines in his poems.

A poet is essentially a playwright or a story-teller. Shakespeare is not himself guilty of mayhem, because he put mayhem in his plays.

The mind that imagines is not the hand that does. The author is never the persons imagined.

Countless authors have used their own experience to recount crimes in the first person. Of course this does not mean they are guilty of anything. A society would not be free if it prevented authors from making imaginative fictions.

Think of all the songs that sing of things not necessarily condoned by the singer or the songwriter. Poems, like songs, like stories, like plays, are finally not real; that’s why they belong to creative writing.

There are some, who have almost no imagination themselves, who would judge a poet harshly by that poet’s fictions—fictions meant to shine light on life by dint of imaginative thought, seeking to understand and cure the world’s ills, the very ones which most afflict those who have no imaginations, those who, ironically, imagine that a fiction is entirely real.

Unfortunately, poetry is increasingly taught in our schools as something which is not imaginative, but either a collection of facts or the real voice of a real person speaking. The imaginative virtue, in this case, is replaced by a different virtue, a virtue that is virtuous precisely because it has no imagination at all.  Either the poem makes no sense (without sense, there is no imagination) exhibits some political opinion found in any newspaper, or is a kind of memoir in which the poem’s speaker is precisely relating a real incident from real life. The imagination is nowhere to be found.

The virtue which is virtuous because it has no imagination is a necessary virtue, and there should be no objection to it: ‘virtue without imagination’ accompanies duty and loyalty and obedience of every kind, and society as we know it would be impossible without this kind of simple virtue.

But this kind of simple virtue has nothing to do with imaginative writing.

This does not mean that the imaginative cannot be moral and virtuous, in the final analysis, and in fact, it should be, but it is moral in a different manner; it arrives at the good in a more round-about way; as in Dante’s famous poem, hell may have to be visited before heaven is gained. In the imaginative fiction, “hell” is both real and not real.

Great poets have been exiled. Mixing real with unreal, the real they include may still offend. Imaginative writing, which comes close to the real, includes this risk. The ‘scary’ real mingles with the ‘scary’ fiction.

But in the end, it is fiction, and, if it is good fiction, it overcomes the scary, it does not support the scary, for the imagination is guided by the ultimate truth or good, if it is good. The imaginative writer, using the bad occasionally, strives to be good. Not because the writer is ‘honest,’ as in writing a truthful memoir, or because the writer expresses a desire to ‘save the whales,’ but because the fiction is a fiction which participates in a truth expressed in a highly imaginative manner, so that the expression itself is as important as the thing expressed, the power of the expression giving a kind of license to say what people may think but are afraid, or too embarrassed to say, the embarrassment existing not because of who the poet is, but because of the world’s shortcomings. The poet is not expressing his thoughts, but in the imaginative act of the fiction, the thoughts of everyone. This is the purpose of imagination: to go out of ourselves in a moral act and identify with the world, to identify with the intrigues and secrets and welfare of the world, for the sake of the world.

I have been influenced by the work of Dorothy Parker, one of the best poets of the 20th century. The last stanza of her poem, “Love Song,” goes like this:

My love runs by like a day in June
And he makes no friend of sorrows.
He’ll tread his galloping rigadoon
in the pathways of the morrows.
He’ll live his days where the sunbeams start,
Nor could storm or wind uproot him.
My own dear love, he is all my heart,—
And I wish somebody’d shoot him.

Parker is madly in love with a man who will not sit still long enough to love her, and the torture is such that she wishes somebody would kill him. We don’t know how real, in this particular case, this sentiment is, but we do know that this precise sentiment could be real, and this very sentiment could be Parker’s precise state of mind.

But since, as readers, we know it is a poem, we identify abstractly with its sentiment; we call it real and yet unreal, and don’t equate it with any actual behavior of Parker’s. As we live in a free society, we do not censor; we allow both Dorothy Parker and her poem complete freedom, with the democratic conviction that a society which suppresses fictional expressions of this kind will be a society which has less creativity and more violence.

Scarriet holds to this principle of free expression: we carefully and deliberately produce work that could be true, but which is not true; no person, place, or thing is ever identified so that a stranger might identify the truth of its content in any way; only its truth as an inspired fiction exists; a Scarriet love poem could be about any love; the universal sentiment is always the subject, never a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The imaginative poem is the only poem we allow to be published here.

Shelley said the secret of morals was love, for love makes us passionately identify with another person.

Romantic attraction, or love, used to be the staple of lyric poetry, but imagination is required to make love interesting, and the non-imaginative poetry of today is not up to the task.

First, since love has been written about so often, the challenge to be original is greater.

Second, romance has become problematic in modern times, just as romance.

Third, since poetry now exists most influentially in the college classroom, it behooves professors to make poetry a subject that feels more modern, and expresses the sort of social change college campuses are simmering with; thus love poetry is tacitly rejected as too simplistic and old-fashioned, too associated with popular music, and so essentially not serious.

Fourth, social media has created a firestorm of private-turned-public, take-no-prisoners, gossip which pries into slightly uncomfortable private feelings with a judgmental animus never before seen in history, and since original romance effusions are bound to entertain slightly, or even deeply, uncomfortable private feelings, the love poet may just throw in the towel altogether, and instead write poems on very simple subjects, like history, politics, and philosophy.

Imagine if the Beatles were told they couldn’t write love songs; the Beatles simply would not exist.

The result, today, is that poetry finds itself in a state of confusion, exiled from all song, or lyric, elements, and struggling, as “poetry” to make a prose more meaningful than—prose. Which, obviously, cannot be done.

Look at these lyrics from one of the Beatles’ best-known albums, Rubber Soul, released in 1965, the height of Beatlemania, in which the Beatles were also striving to be more sophisticated:

“Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man, you better keep your head, little girl, or I won’t know where I am.” —Lennon & McCartney

This is from the songwriters that would go on to produce “Imagine” and “Let It Be” and “Here Comes The Sun.” Imagine if a would-be John Lennon wrote a poem like that today, and it ended up on Facebook. “Run For Your Life” was influenced by an Elvis Presley song, and has been covered numerous times. What is the difference between a song and a poem? Should poets be held to the same standards as songwriters, recording artists, and other ‘creative writers,’ and what should those standards be? Should all creative writing, whether a movie script, a short story, a song, or a poem, be held to the same moral standard, whether or not it appears in a cinema watched by millions, or on some poor wretch’s blog?

If I make something up, which nonetheless has some resemblance to reality, in a poem, is this not the same as a major-release film depicting precisely the same thing, with the only difference that the latter costs millions of dollars to make, and employs thousands of people? It may just be that the film will be considered an elaborate fiction, no matter how horrific the content, but with the way poetry is increasingly read and judged these days, the poet, it will be assumed, is somehow responsible in his own person, as the filmmakers are not, for any offensive content that is part of the fiction.

Can censors say, “You may write about love, but you may not depict hateful things like jealousy?” No poems or songs like “Run For Your Life?” No ambiguity of desire allowed? Where do we draw the line, when it comes to imaginative fictions, in keeping a society creative and free? And can we ever justly assume something about an author’s personal character—think of our Shakespeare example—based on their imaginative fiction?

Look at what Plato demanded for his Republic: poems that only praise. (Plato, contrary to popular opinion, did not ban all kinds of poetry from his ideal society.) A song like “Run For Your Life” would be banned, because threatening to kill your girlfriend is not praising her.

It didn’t matter to Plato that Lennon wrote a song about an unnamed girl. What mattered was purely the bad emotions involved. Yet Aristotle would say these “emotions” are a vital part of art’s expressive good.

Was Plato right?

How imaginative/expressive/creative are we allowed to be?

We believe we have made it clear where Scarriet stands.

If Scarriet has ever strayed, in any way, from our rigorous standard,—we are human, after all, and poetry is a passionate and extremely difficult art—we apologize, without reservation.

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SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

1. Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and field, And all the craggy mountains yield. (Marlowe)

2. Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.  (Blake)

3. Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. (Dowson)

4. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot)

5. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones and trees. (Wordsworth)

6. If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. (Emerson)

7. The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. (Arnold)

8. When I am dead and over me bright April Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, Though you should lean above me broken-hearted, I shall not care. (Teasdale)

9. The soul selects her own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority Obtrude no more. (Dickinson)

10. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar)

11. This is the waking landscape Dream after dream walking away through it Invisible invisible invisible (Merwin)

12. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw, And I said I do, I do. (Plath)

13. It is easy to be young. (Everybody is, at first.) It is not easy to be old. It takes time. Youth is given; age is achieved. (May Swenson)

14. There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking, all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown, and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun. (Mona Von Duyn)

15. Long life our two resemblances devise, And for a thousand years when we have gone Posterity will find my woe, your beauty Matched, and know my loving you was wise. (Michelangelo)

16. Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form. (Auden)

BRACKET TWO

1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

2. 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. (Coleridge)

3. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. (Barrett)

4. Say to the Court, it glows And shines like rotten wood; Say to the Church, it shows What’s good, and doth no good: If Church and Court reply, Then give them both the lie. (Raleigh)

5. Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicaean barks of yore, That gently o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore. (Poe)

6. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! (Omar Khayyam)

7. Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade. (Marvell)

8. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (Gray)

9. O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O, sweet and far from cliff and scar The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying, Blow bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying. (Tennyson)

10. I have a rendezvous with Death, At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air. (Seeger)

11. I have put my days and dreams out of mind, Days that are over, dreams that are done. Though we seek life through, we shall surely find There is none of them clear to us now, not one. (Swinburne)

12. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. (Whitman)

13. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. (Keats)

14. Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. (Frost)

15. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (Stevens)

16. I was, being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset; I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get. (Wylie)

BRACKET THREE

1. The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton)

2. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a roving By the light of the moon. (Byron)

3. I arise from dreams of thee In the first sweet sleep of night, When the winds are breathing low, And the stars are shining bright. (Shelley)

4. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (Owen)

5. We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses. What more is there to do, except to stay? And that we cannot do. And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara. (Ashbery)

6. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives. (Sassoon)

7. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose. (Parker)

8. The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin. (Reznikoff)

9. It’s not my business to describe anything. The only report is the discharge of words called to account for their slurs. A seance of sorts—or transport into that nether that refuses measure. (Bernstein)

10. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. (Rich)

11. When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives (Larkin)

12. I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. (Millay)

13. Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks in a net, under water in Charlestown harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you? (Harper)

14. It’s good to be neuter. I want to have meaningless legs. There are things unbearable. One can evade them a long time. Then you die. (Carson).

15. On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself. (Graham)

16. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. (Lockwood)

BRACKET FOUR

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy. (Homer)

2. And following its path, we took no care To rest, but climbed, he first, then I—so far, through a round aperture I saw appear Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Dante)

3. With usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA (Pound)

4. I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g of “becoming.” Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea. (Chin)

5.  Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. (Sexton)

6. I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew, The jealousy, the shyness—though in vain—Made up a love so tender and so true As God may grant you to be loved again. (Pushkin)

7. We cannot know his legendary head And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze is turned down low, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (Rilke)

8. So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water besides the white chickens. (Williams)

9. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. (Ginsberg)

10. The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row. (Carroll)

11. What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things; Slight is the subject, but not so the praise, If she inspire, and he approve my lays. (Pope)

12. 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? (Mazer)

13. Come, read to me a poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. (Longfellow)

14. So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory: from this point on, the silence through which you move is my voice pursuing you. (Gluck)

15. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (Donne)

16. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (Bishop)

17. Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, It is so frail. (Ransom)

FRIENDSHIP, BOOZE AND POETRY

We sometimes settle into a train ride and enjoy it for its own sake, forgetting where we are going; the train becomes its own world, even as it moves with purpose; if the train became stuck, we would get annoyed, so the purpose is never forgotten; the train is our servant, taking us from one place to another—and yet the train also allows us to forget the reason and enjoy the experience.

Where is the train going? To another train. The purpose is to have no purpose.

Expression is like this, too. We talk for a reason, and yet we also just enjoy the talking.

What are we to say?  We can’t enjoy talking if we have no reason to talk; why is it that some people can talk endlessly and others, those others, are so quiet?

Poetry is reticent expressiveness; it combines the enjoyable and the purposeful aspects of the train ride.

Reticence is a virtue; think how much rudeness and chaos would exist without it.

Yet reticence is also a tomb.

Reticence is the torture of not being able to say what you want to say—or worse, not having anything to say at all.

Reticence, then, has its use, as a stay against rudeness and confusion, but its flip side is burial and death.

That which overcomes reticence, expression, is the train moving, information conveyed; we understand what expression is for, also.

People drink to put themselves at ease, to loosen up their tongues; it can produce the same happy result as friendship, where after a certain time, we trust another to tell them things; we can be at ease with a friend and express ourselves.

Booze and friendship move us from austere reticence, where the train chugs along without comment, to a train of feeling and comfort and light.

Poetry rides the same train as booze and friendship; it is doing exactly the same thing.

If intoxication and affection don’t turn you into a poet, there is something wrong.

Poetry allows one to retain that reticence even as one expresses oneself.

Alcohol turns one into a clown, or a bitter gasbag. It causes many train delays, and even train accidents.

Friendship can turn one into a fool, as well, as gossip replaces poetry.

Friendly gossip feeds on the fools and the clowns, the bad poets, the drunks, and soon friendly chat becomes as sour as what it feeds on. Soon you find yourself talking about people (those who are not your friends) and expressiveness becomes pointed and unfriendly, and the spirit of friendship is killed in an atmosphere of judgment and rebuke. There is always a danger when reticence is escaped and expression reigns supreme: the train goes too fast and plunges off a cliff.

Friendship is based on something very divisive: this person is my friend and this person is not.

A poet, if they are good, appeals to all readers, not just friends.

Dante, in his Vita Nuova, was aware of the fact that, as he was writing poems for his secret crush, Beatrice, he was running headlong into the reality that other ladies were curious and interested in his poetry.  If love is a kind of ultimate friendship (what else is it really?).  The Vita Nuova (a short work of poems and prose which pre-dated the Commedia) is such a wonderful book because it shows the poet thinking about how he will write poems to express his life, and how the expression itself then impacts his thinking and his life. Dante muses at one point that he will write his poem only for those “ladies who are sweet and gentle,” so here is a caveat to what we said above: poets have a wide appeal, although they may not write for all readers.  Yet Dante still writes to ladies in the plural, and nothing upsets a “friend” quite as much as when they see that you have an appeal that travels far beyond their friendship.

Poetry has the potential to soberly soar above friendship.

And this is why, like everything else under the sun, poetry is both loved and hated.

FAG HAGS, COCK TEASES, AND RICHARD WAGNER

Richard Wagner. We need infinite patience for love—and Wagner’s exquisite music.

Civilization exists because people grow old—otherwise there would be no civilization at all.

A beautiful woman growing old and losing her looks is the source of all Tragedy.

Nietzsche had the insane idea that Dionysian music was the birth of Tragedy.

We think our Idea makes more sense.  We speak, of course, of “real,” Tragedy, not mere tragedy (misfortune).

In fact, high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow can be defined precisely this way: how each one of them ages.

High-brow, as we might expect, ages gracefully. The high-brows have the best defense against the curse, using elegance and learning and wit and art to fight the good fight.

Middle-brow women have a lesser (but strong) defense: feminism.

The only problem with feminism is that its anti-aging strategy is much too self-evident: impugn the (young) beautiful woman and the desire she elicits in order to make older women seem more reasonable and satisfied. This is why feminism is a middle-brow phenomenon: feminism’s strategy is embarrassingly obvious to the high-brow sensibility, but too subtle for the low-brows—who simply don’t understand why it should exist: a man is either chivalrous and attractive, or not—feminism to the low-brow is superfluous.

As for the low-brows, everyone knows the low-brows age horribly, usually in an orgy of boozing and tobacco.

Why is ‘a lovely woman growing old’ the subject of trashy B movies, and not fine art?

Because part of the strategy of growing old is not mentioning it—only middle-brow Hollywood fare starring Betty Davis and Joan Crawford would have the bad taste to revel in the horrible idea, which is better left hidden from sight. This is why Hollywood succumbed to middle-brow and even low-brow kitsch: it dared to treat the Great Tragic Subject directly.

High-brow artists like Wagner and Shakespeare understood that one never treats the Great Tragic Source directly; it is better to hide the True Tragedy (a woman growing old) behind things like the folly of young lovers and adultery.

Comedy (Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) which presents foolish old lovers is merely the flip side of Tragedy.

The death of beautiful young lovers is beautifully Tragic, and Tragic in a beautiful way because it avoids beauty growing old. The true subject is hidden, but is there, nonetheless, as the impatience of young lovers is simply the understanding that old age is not far off.

The pride of the aging woman is not to be toyed with, and this pride is the key ingredient in Tragedy. It is this understanding which informs high-brow taste and makes high-brow taste the exquisite set of tacit understandings that it is.

In Love in the Western World, Rougemont’s wonderfully subtle treatment of the Tristan and Iseult myth makes it clear that these famous lovers were not simply two attractive people who had the hots for each other—chastity, selfishness, and lack of desire were in the mix, too (as well as a love-potion, royal intrigue, and misunderstandings).  The true object of the two lovers, according to Love in the Western World, was Death.

Death is a valuable idea because it covers up the real truth: why is death welcome? The author of Love in the Western World, a high-brow and scholarly treatment of love, does not say, and does not ask—instinctively in the name of good taste. Death is the default alternative once aging becomes too advanced. Aging is the real Enemy, the real essence of Tragedy, not Death. Once age destroys beauty, death simply becomes preferable—death is never the goal.

Time is directly related to aging, as death is not, for death does not need time, but aging does. It is aging which is real, not death. Time and its sister, Space, are the two aspects of the universe which we experience most directly; the end of time or space (infinity) we do not experience: our death is never real to us. Our aging is.

Feminism, the middle-brow strategy of middle-aged dignity, has taken such a beating from high-brow and low-brow elements in the last 50 years that a new strategy has recently replaced it. Economic difficulty adds a twist—middle-brows either fear, or actually fall, from middle-class status, or aspire to a wealthier status, and so are forced to face other sensibilities. Feminism doesn’t ‘look happy’ among other sensibilities; but the gay lifestyle, because it implicitly involves sex (sexual orientation is how we describe it, after all) has more je ne sais quoi. So we witness the middle-aged woman, fighting against age, not necessarily renouncing her feminism, but announcing she is gay.

Feelings of scornful revenge against the aging beauty (especially if she is a cock-tease) primarily comes from unhappy men. A gay woman, then, escapes this indignity, by running into the arms of female sexuality (or at least female cuddling and affection which excludes short-sighted, greedy male desire).

There is roughly the same nuance to the gay strategy—women running to women to escape the indignity of aging in the eyes of men—as the feminist strategy, making it a mostly middle-brow lifestyle choice.

To make sure the world knows, we often hear the term “openly gay” used to describe the middle-brow individual today. “Openly gay” does not mean the individual has sex in public. Well, how would we know what they really are, otherwise? Of course “openly gay” sex in public would not be civilized. “Openly gay” has a certain implicitly built-in, hidden aspect in a ‘good taste’ sort of way (an aspiration towards the high-brow without quite reaching it is always implicit in every middle-brow strategy). The unseemly, low-brow ‘male gaze’ longs to witness the sex act; the gay, middle-brow, middle-aged woman does not have to answer questions about what happens in the bedroom, anymore than anyone else does, and so the dignity of the strategy is preserved. Low-brow breeding (children) is the only thing which really gives the game away. Children and youthful beauty are the two things which traditionally are not hidden away, the way, let’s say, being gay, can be hidden in its entirety.

To renounce sex is not a bad way to age with a little more dignity. There is nothing more undignified than old-looking people ostentatiously going after sex—even if they get it—for no one believes old-person sex defies the horror of old age. If it doesn’t work as pornography it doesn’t work as immortality.

Baudelaire’s complaint against Nature was Nature’s lack of sympathy for the old; civilization, according to the French poet, keeps the aged alive, while Nature lets them die. But here is more talk of death, when the real agony is getting old itself; we strategize tastefully by making death the issue, and it is no surprise that this is a chief strategy of poets, who belong to high-brow realms of Taste more than other vocations. Did Petrarch let Laura grow old? Did Dante let Beatrice get old? Of course not. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (printed privately) ushers in modernity more than any other work, for the “breeding” portion of this book fearlessly references wrinkling and old age, a poetic, high-brow, Good Taste taboo. The aging trope in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is such an offensive taboo, that it hides for many what the whole book is about, and up to the present day, critics still interpret the Sonnets as a courting manual, auto-biographical confession, or advice to a royal person, (it is not these things) and cannot admit what it really is: a self-consciously age and death-defying boast by a guy (immortal poet) who was starting to look old.

If you are starting to look old, only civilization can save you. An aging population is a kind one, (it has less street crime) but the trouble is, if breeding does not pick up again, the aging population is threatened with extinction. The dignity of homosexuality—all the various strategies of renouncing sex, from the fag hag to the monk to ‘love the planet/squelch the humans’ “liberal” politics—once fertility returns as a civilized necessity, reverts back to an indignity.

In the necessity to re-populate, young beauty is sacrificed to breeding (low-brow) and is renounced as a subject of art (high-brow). The poem turns to cooler subjects: urns with lovers who cannot kiss but remain forever fair. Loveliness that lasts forever is a lofty ideal advanced in the face of the young beautiful mother who quickly ages as she populates a depleted realm. In this case, the aging of a beautiful woman serves a purpose, at least.

The poet of the Sonnets would say to the woman: if you don’t produce children, you will get old and ugly, anyway.

Which gets an imperious slap in the face.

A slap exhibiting the pride which hides beneath all Tragedy and is at the heart of all Civilization.

A slap exhibiting the pride which is crushed daily—by Nature.

 

 

 

 

 

DANTE VERSUS PLATO!

This battle between Plato and Dante is not merely a war between Greece and Rome.  Because we are speaking of Plato and Dante, this contest takes place in heaven.  The laws, which govern there, are simple, but perhaps strange to the uninitiated, and so Scarriet will be a guide, for we have an understanding of these secrets, which nonetheless dwell in every eye.

That Dante was moved beyond all else by Beatrice is well known. To know how Dante’s philosophy is manifest we need only read the following poem simply, and in steps, and  not allow our amazement to dim, or contort, our knowing.

Love that makes men gentle and how that love is conveyed is Dante’s theme in the poem, or Canzone,  below.

Since Dante’s poem conveys love, and how love is conveyed is the subject, the subject of the poem is partly the poem, only for this reason.  As a mortal individual, Dante realizes he cannot express love as it should be expressed, so he elicits help not only from Beatrice, but from gentle ladies who keep her company.  The “courteous man” in the last stanza is not plural, like “ladies” for reason of modesty; Dante is not interested in a Broadway number, pairing up men with ladies; his subject is more simple serious and august than that, though Dante wishes to acknowledge that men can be gentle, like ladies.

The poem is Dante’s messenger, and we see in the Diotima section quoted from Plato’s Symposium father down, the same crucial theme:

“To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.”

The universe, Plato warns, will fall “into two separate halves,” mortal distinct from immortal, if spirits of an “intermediate nature” do not “bridge the gap.”

Everything in the universe is attached, but there are highs and lows, bright and dark, good and evil, because for the universe to exist, there must be divine will and space for that divine will.

If the space is real, and if the divine (the spark, the life, the spirit, etc) is real, the divinity will not fill equally that space; the glory of God is not everywhere, just as light shines more in some places than others. If that is the one thing we take away from Dante and Plato in this contest, that will be enough.

So with Dante and Plato, there is not a fiendish desire to invent, as much as a desire to describe the (moral) task that needs to be done; and this is the realm of poetry, a humble, yet important one, and that is what makes these aesthetic thinkers classical and conservative, as opposed to modern and progressive.

Plato’s insight is important: Love is not beautiful; Love is that which desires beauty. Beatrice is not love, but the rare thing which rarefies love or desire; the poem is the “bridge,” the transaction of love; and so the poem is not beautiful, but its object is beauty, and is beautiful only as much as its object is beauty (so intention and subject are as crucial as form or design).  Dante’s poem is the love between Beatrice and Dante; a love which is a bridge, a desire, a transaction, both message and messenger, so object, person, and action are one—the poem both belongs to, and is, this holy task.

According to Plato, what Love “wins he always loses,” and we see this is true of Dante, who “loses” Beatrice, because heaven lacks her, heaven’s “only defect,” as Dante says. Movement is crucial in Dante’s  universe, and makes all things happen: Where is Beatrice?  Will her greeting travel from her to me?  Will my poem travel from me to her? How are the stars arranged? How does sin and mortality move and fit in the world of souls?  Everything is about placement, the obsession of the ancients: poetry and astronomy and love are the same.

DANTE:

Ladies Who Have Knowledge Of Love,

I wish to speak with you about my lady,
not because I think to end her praises,
but speaking so that I can ease my mind.
I say that thinking of her worth,
Amor makes me feel such sweetness,
that if I did not then lose courage,
speaking, I would make all men in love.
And I would not speak so highly,
that I succumb to vile timidity:
but treat of the state of gentleness,
in respect of her, lightly, with you,
loving ladies and young ladies,
that is not to be spoken of to others.

An angel sings in the divine mind
and says: ‘Lord, in the world is seen
a miracle in action that proceeds
from a spirit that shines up here.’
The heavens that have no other defect
but lack of her, pray to their Lord,
and every saint cries out mercy.
Pity alone takes our part,
so that God speaks of her, and means my lady:
‘My Delights, now suffer it in peace
that at my pleasure she, your hope, remains
there, where one is who waits to lose her,
and will say in the Inferno: “Ill-born ones,
I have seen the hope of the blessed.”’

My lady is desired by highest Heaven:
now I would have you know of her virtue.
I say, you who would appear a gentle lady
go with her, since when she goes by
Love strikes a chill in evil hearts,
so that all their thoughts freeze and perish:
and any man who suffers to stay and see her
becomes a noble soul, or else he dies.
And when she finds any who might be worthy
to look at her, he proves her virtue,
which comes to him, given, in greeting
and if he is humble, erases all offense.
Still greater grace God has granted her
since he cannot end badly who speaks with her.

Amor says of her: ‘This mortal thing,
how can it be so pure and adorned?’
Then he looks at her and swears to himself
that God’s intent was to make something rare.
She has the color of pearl, in form such as
is fitting to a lady, not in excess:
she is the greatest good nature can create:
beauty is proven by her example.
From her eyes, as she moves them,
issue spirits ablaze with love,
which pierce the eyes of those who gaze on her then,
and pass within so each one finds the heart:
you will see Love pictured in her face,
there where no man may fixedly gaze.

Canzone, I know that you will go speaking
to many ladies, when I have sent you onwards.
Now I have made you, since I have raised you
to be Love’s daughter, young and simple,
to those I have sent you, say, praying:
‘Show me the way to go, since I am sent
to her of whom the praise is my adornment.’
And if you do not wish to go in vain,
do not rest where there are evil people:
try, if you can so do, to be revealed
only to ladies or some courteous man,
who will lead you there by the quickest way.
You will find Amor will be with her:
recommend me to him as you should.

PLATO:

Diotima Explains Love To Socrates

Is Love ugly and bad?

Don’t say such things; do you think that anything that is not beautiful is necessarily ugly?

Of course I do.

And that anything that is not wisdom is ignorance? Don’t you know there is a state of mind half-way between wisdom and ignorance?

What do you mean?

Having true convictions without being able to give reasons for them.  So do not maintain that what is not beautiful is ugly, and what is not good is bad.

What can Love be then? A mortal?

Far from it.

Well, what?

He is half-way between mortal and immortal.  He is a great spirit, Socrates; everything that is of the nature of a spirit is half-god and half-man.

And what is the function of such a being?

To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.  Spirits are many in number and of many kinds, and one of them is Love.

Who are his parents?

Poverty, thinking to alleviate her wretched condition by bearing a child to Invention, lay with him and conceived Love.  Love was begotten on Aphrodite’s birthday and became her follower and servant. He is always poor, and, far from being sensitive and beautiful, as most people imagine, he is hard and weather-beaten, shoeless and homeless, always sleeping out for want of a bed.  He schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good; he is bold and forward and strenuous, always devising tricks like a cunning huntsman. What he wins he always loses, and is neither rich nor poor, neither wise nor ignorant.

 WINNER: PLATO

Socrates is going to the Final Four.

DANTE AND POPE BATTLE FOR CLASSICAL BRACKET FINAL

All poets are beautiful.  Is Alexander Pope not beautiful?

POPE:

It would be a wild notion to expect perfection in any work of man: and yet one would think the contrary was taken for granted, by the judgment commonly passed on poems. A critic supposes he has done his part, if he proves a writer to have failed in an expression, or erred in any particular point: and can it then be wondered at, if the poets in general seem resolved not to own themselves in any error?

This seems strange: Pope, author of “The Confederacy of Dunces,” himself a poet best known for using his poetry to criticize and excoriate lesser poets, who took sweet delight in crushing denser wits with his superior wit, in this piece of prose, defends poets against harsh criticism. What? Was Pope really soft? In any case, no Critics from the 18th century are even known today, even as one as mighty as Pope seems to fear them. The critics are all forgotten.

But Pope was prophetic: civilization means that poetry is not only read, it is discussed and criticized: but finally the poets prove too thin-skinned, and resolve “not to own themselves in any error,” which is precisely what happened with modern poetry: its desultory prose style simply cannot be measured as faulty; the loose address of an Ashbery is simply beyond criticism. So is every one happy? Would Pope, who rhymes, be?

Next, Pope puts his finger on another modern ailment: poetry is essentially trivial:

I am afraid this extreme zeal on both sides is ill-placed; poetry and criticism being by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.

Finally, Pope makes further modern remarks regarding the poet in society—the genius does not appear out of the blue; they must grow up to an audience; but how? Most likely even the genius—in the early stages of their career, especially—will be shot down, envied, and hated. Is Pope merely feeling sorry for himself? Critical reception is made of flawed and envious humans, and the best thing the genius can hope for is “self-amusement.” So we are back to “idle men in closets.” We are surprised to find Pope, in his prose, to be self-pitying, sensitive, and quaintly tragic. Pope was the first Romantic. He was Byron’s favorite poet, after all.

What we call a genius, is hard to be distinguished by a man himself—if his genius be ever so great, he cannot discover it any other way, than by giving way to that prevalent propensity which renders him the more liable to be mistaken. The only method he has is appealing to the judgments of others. The reputation of a writer generally depends upon the first steps he makes in the world, and people will establish their opinion of us, from what we do at that season when we have least judgment to direct us.  A good poet no sooner communicates his works with the same desire of information, but it is imagined he is a vain young creature given up to the ambition of fame; when perhaps the poor man is all the while trembling with fear of being ridiculous. If praise be given to his face, it can scarce be distinguished from flattery. Were he sure to be commended by the best and most knowing, he is sure of being envied by the worst and most ignorant, which are the majority; for it is with a fine genius as with a fine fashion, all those are displeased at it who are not able to follow it: and it is to be feared that esteem will seldom do any man so good, as ill-will does him harm. The largest part of mankind, of ordinary or indifferent capacities, will hate, or suspect him. Whatever be his fate in poetry, it is ten to one but he must give up all the reasonable aims of life for it. There are some advantages accruing from a genius to poetry: the agreeable power of self-amusement when a man is idle or alone, the privilege of being admitted into the best company…

DANTE:

The author of the Comedia, here in a prose section of his earlier, Beatrice-besotted Vita Nuova, speaks of several apparently unrelated things at once: the poet describing love as if it were a person, the use of high and low speech as it relates to rhyme and love, and how these uses should be understood in a prose manner.

Dante quotes examples in classical poetry (mostly figures of speech) to defend his own practice in his “little book” (the Vita Nuova) of personifying love.

The dramatizing license is all well and good, but Dante also makes the fascinating point that poets began to write in the common tongue (as opposed to literary Latin) in wooing (less educated) females, and that rhyme is best used for love. How does one get one’s head around this radical, grounded, democratic, proto-Romantic notion?

For Dante, poetry and love overlap in a corporeal manner in three ways: personification, rhyme, and wooing, the first belonging to rhetoric, the second, to music, and the third, practical romance. The whole thing is delightfully religious in a mysterious, trinitarian sort of way: Personified love, Christ, the son; Rhyme, the Holy Spirit; and Wooing, the Creative Love of God. Or, on a more pagan religious level, personified love can be any messenger; rhyme, the trappings of religion’s austere/populist articulation; and wooing, the conversion of the poor.

It might be that a person might object, one worthy of raising an objection, and their objection might be this, that I speak of Love as though it were a thing in itself, and not only an intelligent subject, but a bodily substance: which, demonstrably, is false: since Love is not in itself a substance, but an accident of substance.

And that I speak of him as if he were corporeal, moreover as though he were a man, is apparent from these three things I say of him. I say that I saw him approaching: and since to approach implies local movement, and local movement per se, following the Philosopher, exists only in a body, it is apparent that I make Love corporeal.

I also say of him that he smiles, and that he speaks: things which properly belong to man, and especially laughter: and therefore it is apparent that I make him human. To make this clear, in a way that is good for the present matter, it should first be understood that in ancient times there was no poetry of Love in the common tongue, but there was Love poetry by certain poets in the Latin tongue: amongst us, I say, and perhaps it happened amongst other peoples, and still happens, as in Greece, only literary, not vernacular poets treated of these things.

Not many years have passed since the first of these vernacular poets appeared: since to speak in rhyme in the common tongue is much the same as to speak in Latin verse, paying due regard to metre. And a sign that it is only a short time is that, if we choose to search in the language of oc [vulgar Latin S. France] and that of si, [vulgar Latin Italy] we will not find anything earlier than a hundred and fifty years ago.

And the reason why several crude rhymesters were famous for knowing how to write is that they were almost the first to write in the language of si. And the first who began to write as a poet of the common tongue was moved to do so because he wished to make his words understandable by a lady to whom verse in Latin was hard to understand. And this argues against those who rhyme on other matters than love, because it is a fact that this mode of speaking was first invented in order to speak of love.

From this it follows that since greater license is given to poets than prose writers, and since those who speak in rhyme are no other than the vernacular poets, it is apt and reasonable that greater license should be granted to them to speak than to other speakers in the common tongue: so that if any figure of speech or rhetorical flourish is conceded to the poets, it is conceded to the rhymesters. So if we see that the poets have spoken of inanimate things as if they had sense and reason, and made them talk to each other, and not just with real but with imaginary things, having things which do not exist speak, and many accidental things speak, as if they were substantial and human, it is fitting for writers of rhymes to do the same, but not without reason, and with a reason that can later be shown in prose.

That the poets have spoken like this is can be evidenced by Virgil, who says that Juno, who was an enemy of the Trojans, spoke to Aeolus, god of the winds, in the first book of the Aeneid: ‘Aeole, namque tibi: Aeolus, it was you’, and that the god replied to her with: Tuus, o regina, quid optes, explorare labor: mihi jussa capessere fas est: It is for you, o queen, to decide what our labours are to achieve: it is my duty to carry out your orders’. In the same poet he makes an inanimate thing (Apollo’s oracle) talk with animate things, in the third book of the Aeneid, with: ‘Dardanidae duri: You rough Trojans’.

In Lucan an animate thing talks with an inanimate thing, with: ‘Multum. Roma, tamen debes civilibus armis: Rome, you have greatly benefited from the civil wars.’

In Horace a man speaks to his own learning as if to another person: and not only are they Horace’s words, but he gives them as if quoting the style of goodly Homer, in his Poetics saying: ‘Dic mihi, Musa, virum: Tell me, Muse, about the man.’

In Ovid, Love speaks as if it were a person, at the start of his book titled De Remediis Amoris: Of the Remedies for Love, where he says: ‘Bella mihi, video, bella parantur, ait: Some fine things I see, some fine things are being prepared, he said.’

These examples should serve to as explanation to anyone who has objections concerning any part of my little book. And in case any ignorant person should assume too much, I will add that the poets did not write in this mode without good reason, nor should those who compose in rhyme, if they cannot justify what they are saying, since it would be shameful if someone composing in rhyme put in a figure of speech or a rhetorical flourish, and then, being asked, could not rid his words of such ornamentation so as to show the true meaning. My best friend and I know many who compose rhymes in this foolish manner.

 

Pope, the great poet, already, in the 18th century, as a philosopher, has that Modernist smell of trivializing apology about him. Not so Dante, who is an ardent, mysterious flame burning on the candle of the Muse.

WINNER: DANTE

Dante will face Plato in the Classical Final for a spot in the Final Four!

RAGE IN AMERICA

Those school shooters.  What are we going to do about them?

According to Jim Sleeper in a July 4, 2014 Salon article excitedly titled “We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day: School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement,” the American spirit is dying in a hail of gunfire from enemies within—“young, white” school shooters.

At the head of his piece, right below his frightening title, Sleeper quotes the Emerson poem on the “embattled farmers” firing the “shot heard ’round the world” in America’s violent Revolutionary War birth for contrast to the recent spate of maniac Americans-on-Americans shootings.

Sleeper, author and lecturer at Yale, has produced one of these reflective yet alarmist pieces that appear every now and then in magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s or The New Republic, in which a moderate Left Think-Tank-type professor makes a sincere spiritual effort to bring moderate Right and Left elements together in a polite way to “fix” an America which has lost its Founding ideals.

Sleeper quickly reveals his hand as a “Small-is-Beautiful” liberal—first, by invoking Emerson’s “farmers” and second, by writing:

For centuries most Americans have believed that “the shot heard ‘round the world” in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts heralded the Enlightenment’s entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy, and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanity’s stride toward horizons radiant with promises…

America was opposed to “divine-right monarchy” and “aristocracy.” There are always exceptions, but sure, yes.

“Theocracy,” too, is something America wanted to avoid.  Religious, yes; a state-run religion? No.

But did America’s Revolutionary War oppose “mercantilism?” Sleeper is incorrect here. Every school child knows “no taxation without representation.” The colonists did not like having their mercantile ambitions strangled in the cradle by the Crown, a common practice of the British Empire, an empire whose strategy was to rule as “workshop” in a world of (preferably one crop) “farmers.”

Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale(!) is so wrong that it staggers the imagination: a desire for”mercantilism” was the chief reason for the Revolution—not something the new American republican citizens were opposing. Paul Revere, for instance, was not a “farmer,” but a silversmith and belonged to a secret and highly educated revolutionary society of artists, artisans, and mercantilists.

There is a prominent strain of rural prejudice which can be traced to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who modeled their beliefs on the more radical French Revolution; much of Jefferson’s actual behavior and Emerson’s “English Traits” reveal men who, in spite of their reputations, were actually less patriotic than is commonly thought. But of course every nation and every revolution is going to feature intricate mixtures of motivations, alliances, and beliefs. But to call the American Revolution anti-mercantilist is absurd.

The strategy of an essay like this is to carefully avoid all the hot button Right v. Left issues, and appear to argue from a middle position of anti-commercialism, gun control, and Global Warming “higher” consciousness, so the Moderate Left position rises to the sparkling heights of purity and wisdom.  It’s finally a platform-building political strategy. One hates guns, global warming and capitalism not as separately thought-out positions, sorting through the pros and cons of each; rather one thinks and feels in an all-or-nothing manner with the tribe known as Moderate Left.  Few have the time to think through all the moral, political, historical issues smartly alluded to in this essay, but no matter: tribe-building is the broad benevolent/cynical goal of the writer. He’s looking to cement agreement among a loose demographic who read the same books, take the same college courses, and shop at the same stores (anti-mercantilist places, of course).

Sleeper does the usual liberal floundering about for spiritual values—without resorting to religion, even as he concedes the Puritan opposition to tyranny was instrumental in America’s birth.  He’s looking for that intangible conviction which rests on civility, that republican virtue, that “public candor” as he call it, the elusive community-minded soul at the heart of a working democracy which can bridge the increasingly rancorous Republican/Democrat divide, and his whole rhetorical strategy is to lower the temperature on the feverish divisiveness which characterizes so much political speech today, and find common ground—admirable, of course, in itself. He takes issues which normally create impasses between Left and Right and calls them merely symptomatic:

Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.

They aren’t. They’re symptoms, not causes — reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.

Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly “deviant” and “transgressive” gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, we’ve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all that’s a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing “freedoms” for sale.

Even our war-makers’ and -mongers’ grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement that’s rising all around us.

But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.

I’m not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We’d somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.

Believing in God can make one fearless in opposing human oppression—and yet even if religious superstition has virtues, intellectuals will still walk in fear of it, so Sleeper quickly assures his Salon audience that he is certainly not advocating a return to Puritanism—even as he all but admits his complaint of America’s moral corruption and vanity is nothing if not a Puritan one.

Not only does Sleeper invoke the virtues of religion, from Founding Puritanism to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and black churchgoers” but old-fashioned patriotism is brought forward, as well, in the person of young Nathan Hale and his famous utterance before his hanging by the British in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  He adds the story of three Yale seniors defying the Vietnam War draft and the university chaplain who supported them.

But then he observes:

When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.

What is the answer, then? How can we rescue America from cynicism and “mayhem?”

Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?

In the beginning of his piece, Sleeper does a good job of painting a pretty bleak picture of ourselves:

That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. It’s in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or we’ve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We haven’t yet understood the shots fired and heard ’round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.

These shots haven’t been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They haven’t been fired by terrorists who’ve penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they haven’t been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. They’ve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.

They’ve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, we’ve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And we’ve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

Yes, we need help. So what are these “touchstones” which can save us?  We can’t go back to the old “touchstones:”

In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy “to the touchstones of nature” and decide whether they would abide the empire’s abuses. Today, those “touchstones of nature” — and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society — have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord.

Sleeper is wrestling with two Great Platitudes: 1) America is in the midst of Roman Empire-type collapse and 2) American civilization and democracy, that which makes America historically virtuous and great, and makes us better than all those crummy little countries which always find a way to “reject democracy,” is based on touchstones and wellsprings not quite religious, definitely not mercantile, and which once “encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms” but I’ll-be-damned-if-I-know-what-can-save-us-now.  According to Sleeper, the essence of the problem is this: “consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through nature’s rhythms and kinship traditions.”

Sleeper is quick to make this dubious historical point: in America, the Puritan virtue which stood up to oppression mutated into evil capitalism.  For Sleeper, the uncompromising Puritan toughness of Khomeini somehow leads to the techno-modernizing evil of the Shah. But this is the wrong script. Khomeini (who the liberal Carter administration supported) filled the vacuum of the Shah’s overthrow. Khomeini versus the Shah is a manifestation of the divide-and-conquer tactics of imperial oppressors like the British Empire: create a situation in the colony (Iran) of either/or. For here, incredibly, we have Sleeper identifying a “liberal capitalist republic” as lacking in all virtue, and yet somehow brought about by what he identifies as the Puritan “emphasis on individual conscience.”

But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isn’t supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone can’t achieve.

Of what can this “greater good” consist, if buying and selling things, which by nature always corrupts and destroys love of the greater good, is at the heart of the “liberal capitalist republic” which America is? For Sleeper, it ends up being a world without all the bad things he dutifully lists: violence, sex without love, capitalism, religion, dishonest sports, mindless entertainment. People need to be kinder and nicer and think less about their own greedy and material wants. Well, of course. But we’ve heard these impotent pleas a thousand times before: “Why can’t we all get along?” And here, typically, the plea consists of playing to a certain ready-made audience (the “concerned” moderate Left), with a selective misreading of history.

Sleeper, the “small-is-beautiful” liberal, denies “mercantilism” or capitalism any place at the American table.  And what this typical Moderate Left position does is perpetuate a certain kind of scolding, patronizing sermonizing which identifies one as a member of the Moderate Left: America is great because of all sorts of intangibles: resembling religion, but not really, a little like capitalism, but not really, a bit like patriotism but not really, individualism, but not really.  In Sleeper’s world, democracy is this misty ideal—somehow unique to Americans—and has nothing to do with middle class comforts.

But we all know the truth that professors like Sleeper deny: middle class comforts, and the desire for middle class comforts, and the mercantilism which produces middle class comforts, has everything to do with American supremacy: its democracy, its virtue and its happiness.

By ignoring religion’s role in civilizing citizens (we can’t go back to Puritanism, Sleeper says) and only identifying the school shooters (at the rhetorical center of his piece) as “young” and “white” (young blacks killing young blacks are taking a far greater toll, but that’s not really on Sleeper’s radar) Sleeper misses something crucial, beyond even his mercantile bungle.

The school shooters have been, as a rule, “young” and “white,” but they also “have been males,” and acutely “loveless males.”

If we are interested in “touchstones” and causes, we should probably mention the obvious—which goes unmentioned by Sleeper, except indirectly, when he alludes, for instance, to the entertainment industry’s peddling of sex and violence.  But these issues are “symptomatic,” according to him, and perhaps they are.

Sleeper never does find a cause in his long essay.  He has no answers.  All he can say is we need “new narratives.”

May we make a suggestion.

Love, romantic love—romance—is what secretly holds society together and civilizes the world.

Romantic love has been under attack for at least a hundred years, universally disparaged in humanities and art departments as mere Victorian sentimentality; and it’s not even on the radar screen for political analysts like Jim Sleeper.

No one would deny the extent of it, nor even its importance as a certain kind of social glue, but mostly it is looked upon as “archaic and quaint,” or as a “problem” among the breeding lower classes.

But romantic love is really at the heart of all civilization; Plato and Rousseau knew of its importance, and so did Dante and the Romantic poets, but academic Modernism and post-Modernism, which views anything from the past dyspeptically, has largely shut the door on this whole trope.

All other tropes stem from this one.

Religion, for instance, is Romantic love by other means, with Jesus Christ the “bride” for those unable to experience romantic love in the flesh.

It’s okay for religion to be a fiction.  What matters is how it makes people behave.

Dante’s blending of religion and love in the person of Beatrice is a perfect example of what we mean.

This is not an insignificant trope; romantic love, when it is idealized by great poets and spread among the people, is that wonderful hybrid of chastity, philosophy, kindness, worship, art, beauty, ardency, reflection, chivalry, loyalty and marriage.

It softens the male, which is crucial.

Here is the “touchstone” that we need.

And, oh yes, let’s not be afraid of mercantilism and middle class comforts, either.

We have these things already.  Things are not as bad as they seem.  But to make Sleeper feel better, that’s our suggestion.

THE CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHERS DESIRE THE SWEET 16!

Plato of The Republic matches up in Round Two with Philip Sidney, poet and author of “A Defense of Poetry,” who died fighting for Queen Elizabeth against Catholic Spain.

Plato was the greatest pro-poetry philosopher, despite those who think the opposite is true.

Sidney, in his Defense, praises Plato, and well, of course. The poet never affirms, and therefore he does not lie, says the clever Sidney, and this is true of The Republic, too, an invented place. In the ideality of its invention, a poem is going to kick the poets out, for only one poet belongs to the true poem. The poet is not in the Republic. The poet authors it. And only then do we begin to understand.

As poets, we each carry around our own Republic, in which no other poet is admitted.  And this is how Plato shows the way to the true—Republic.  There are many heavens inside of heaven.

Plato defeats Sidney in Round Two. PLATO IS IN THE SWEET 16!

***

Aristotle must get past Dante to advance in the tournament: another philosopher battles his student—Dante lived in the dark ages before Plato was widely translated, when Aristotle was “the Philosopher” among scholars and poets.

Dante’s mission, like that of Thomas Aquinas, was to reconcile Aristotle’s scholarship with Christianity, and, clever Dante puts Aristotle’s moral divisions (from Aristotle’s Ethics) in hell, and Christianity reigns in heaven. Reconciliation, indeed!  It is similar to how poets like Sidney reconciled “defenses” of poetry with Plato: the Poem, the Republic, Heaven, the Ideal, is true, self-justifying, and knowledge-seeking.

Dante upsets the mighty Aristotle and advances to the Sweet 16.

***

Is it some accident of fate that places Aquinas against…Pope?  The latter is a poet of such remarkable dexterity and reasoning on all things human, poetic and divine, that what chance does a mere 13th century theologian, dividing up reality to serve Aristotle—the body—the soul—and virtue, in the name of eternal salvation, have?

Presumptuous Man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind!
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why JOVE’S Satellites are less than JOVE?
Of Systems possible, if ’tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?
Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
Nay, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho’ labour’d on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
When the dull Ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God:
Then shall Man’s pride and dullness comprehend
His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;
Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought;
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Alexander Pope

It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways. First, because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion, as is evident from induction. Now it has been already proved (Q. 2, A. 3), that God is the First Mover, and is Himself unmoved. Therefore it is clear that God is not a body. Secondly, because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality. But every body is in potentiality because the continuous, as such, is divisible to infinity; it is therefore impossible that God should be a body. Thirdly, because God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.

Thomas Aquinas

This is what invisible reason looks like: in verse, colored by a hectoring poet; in theology, manifested by a theologian logical to a fault.

Pope and Aquinas both belong to that long line of thinkers (dead white males) who justify the ways of God to Man and believe the world made by God is “the best of all possible worlds.”

This sort of thinking cannot be justified by the modern mind or the modern temper, which fixes on known imperfections and slides along with its morality based on that.  The perfection does not translate into what the moderns understand, and Pope: “Of course it’s not going to look like perfection to you, you worm!” doesn’t make the modern feel much better.

The issue is really one of: what is the universe? And how much of the universe can we trace downward to particulars and upward to abstraction at the same time?  Those who contemplate this are philosophers and worthy of the name.  Poets, and all who involve themselves in Letters, ought to pursue this question, as well.

Pope’s poetry propels him to victory.   Alexander Pope is in the Sweet 16!

***

In the last Classical Bracket contest, Addison duels Maimonides.

We shall look, very much at random, at a sample of writing, and therein determine the winner on the basis of this. Addison wrote an exemplary play and both men wrote so much; we can only look at moments.

 

I mentioned several characters which want explanation to the generality of readers: among others, I spoke of a Pretty Fellow; but I have received a kind admonition in a letter, to take care that I do not omit to show also what is meant by a Very Pretty Fellow, which is to be allowed as a character by itself, and a person exalted above the other by a peculiar sprightliness, as one who, by a distinguishing vigour, outstrips his companions, and has thereby deserved and obtained a particular appellation, or nickname of familiarity. Some have this distinction from the fair sex, who are so generous as to take into their protection those who are laughed at by the men, and place them for that reason in degrees of favour. The chief of this sort is Colonel Brunett, who is a man of fashion, because he will be so; and practices a very jaunty way of behaviour, because he is too careless to know when he offends, and too sanguine to be mortified if he did know it. Thus the colonel has met with a town ready to receive him, and cannot possibly see why he should not make use of their favour, and set himself in the first degree of conversation. Therefore he is very successfully loud among the wits, familiar among the ladies, and dissolute among the rakes. Thus he is admitted in one place, because he is so in another; and every man treats Brunett well, not out of his particular esteem for him, but in respect to the opinion of others. It is to me a solid pleasure to see the world thus mistaken on the good-natured side; for it is ten to one but the colonel mounts into a general officer, marries a fine lady, and is master of a good estate, before they come to explain upon him. What gives most delight to me in this observation, is, that all this arises from pure nature, and the colonel can account for his success no more than those by whom he succeeds. For these causes and considerations, I pronounce him a true woman’s man, and in the first degree, “a very pretty fellow.” The next to a man of this universal genius, is one who is peculiarly formed for the service of the ladies, and his merit chiefly is to be of no consequence. I am indeed a little in doubt, whether he ought not rather to be called a “very happy,” than a “very pretty” fellow? For he is admitted at all hours: all he says or does, which would offend in another, are passed over in him; and all actions and speeches which please, doubly please if they come from him: no one wonders or takes notice when he is wrong; but all admire him when he is in the right. By the way it is fit to remark, that there are people of better sense than these, who endeavour at this character; but they are out of nature; and though, with some industry, they get the characters of fools, they cannot arrive to be “very,” seldom to be merely “pretty fellows.” But where nature has formed a person for this station amongst men, he is gifted with a peculiar genius for success, and his very errors and absurdities contribute to it; this felicity attending him to his life’s end. For it being in a manner necessary that he should be of no consequence, he is as well in old age as youth; and I know a man, whose son has been some years a pretty fellow, who is himself at this hour a “very” pretty fellow.

Joseph Addison

 

Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.”

Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration. “It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfectionwhich is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. This is equivalent to saying that a certain man was rebellious and extremely wicked, wherefore his nature was changed for the better, and he was made to shine as a star in the heavens.” Such was the purport and subject of the question, though not in the exact words of the inquirer.

Now mark our reply, which was as follows:–“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition. Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation; namely, the intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that “man was created in the form and likeness of God.” On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandments, as it is said: “And the Lord God commanded Adam” (Gen. ii. 16)–for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding. Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g., it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical,” it is “good” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tob and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Ps. viii. 6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper. Then he fully understood the magnitude of the loss he had sustained, what he had forfeited, and in what situation he was thereby placed. Hence we read, “And ye shall be likeelohim, knowing good and evil,” and not “knowing” or “discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words “true and false,” not “good and evil.” Further observe the passage, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. iii. 7): it is not said, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw”; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong. Besides, you must know that the Hebrew word pakaḥ used in this passage is exclusively employed in the figurative sense of receiving new sources of knowledge, not in that of regaining the sense of sight. Comp., “God opened her eyes” (Gen. xxi. 19). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah xxxviii. 8). “Open ears, he heareth not” (ibid. Xlii. 20), similar in sense to the verse, “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. xii. 2). When, however, Scripture says of Adam, “He changed his face (panav) and thou sentest him forth” Job xiv. 20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away. For panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires. In accordance with this interpretation, our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labour, as it is said, “Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee” (Gen. iii. 18), “By the sweat of thy brow,” etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, “And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken.” He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: comp., “Thou shalt eat the grass of the field” (Gen. iii. 18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, “Adam unable to dwell in dignity, was brought to the level of the dumb beast. May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed.”

-Moses Maimonides

Maimonides reasons like a champion when he discourses on the punishment of Adam, pointing out that truth and falsehood are not the same as (moral) good and bad—the “apparent” truths.  But we are thoroughly charmed by Addison’s “Very Pretty Fellow,” a wonderful observation of human nature—who reminds us of the Adam of Maimonides.  It is true: humans are obsessed with good and bad—with morality, to the degree they do not discern pure truth from falsehood, and this is our “curse.” It is not that morality is not important, but it is a step down from the reasoning power of the intellect.  The contestants compliment one another, even as they fight to eliminate the other, and in this case, the more modern moment of example-citing triumphs, though we hate to say goodbye to the Jewish scholar.

Joseph Addison wins, and advances to the Sweet 16!

THE 2014 MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND WINNERS!

CLASSICAL

Painter, Carpenter, God (3 beds) PLATO def. HUME

Tragedy is a complete action ARISTOTLE def. SAMUEL JOHNSON

In every work regard the writer’s end POPE def. HORACE

Novelty bestows charms on a monster ADDISON def. AUGUSTINE

The flaming sword which turned every way MAIMONIDES def. VICO

All our knowledge originates from sense  AQUINAS def. BEHN

The four senses of writing DANTE def. DRYDEN

Poet never affirms and so never lies  SIDNEY def. BOCCACCIO

 

ROMANTIC

Religion & Commodities = Fetishism MARX def. KANT

Taste can be measured EDMUND BURKE def. GAUTIER

A long poem does not exist POE def. LESSING

Pure and simple soul in a chaste body EMERSON def. SCHILLER

Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind SHELLEY def. WOLLSTONECRAFT

Four ages of poetry PEACOCK def. DE STAEL

Nothing pleases permanently not containing the reason COLERIDGE def. SCHLEIERMACHER

Language really used by men WORDSWORTH def. HEGEL

 

MODERN

Genius is childhood recovered BAUDELAIRE def. ADORNO

Art is not unique but caught in time BENJAMIN def. ARNOLD

Hard, gem-like flame PATER def. HEIDEGGER

Criticism, Inc RANSOM def. MALLARME

No poet has his complete meaning alone ELIOT def. NIETZSCHE

Not the moment makes the man, man creates the age WILDE def. WOOLF

The first stirrings of sexuality FREUD def. TROTSKY

In language there are only differences SAUSSURE def. JUNG

 

POST-MODERN

Leaves & Huck Finn show U.S. to be like Russia EDMUND WILSON def. JUDITH BUTLER

Beauty will no longer be forbidden CIXOUS def. KENNETH BURKE

What they can know is what they have made SAID def. LACAN

We are directors of our being, not producers SARTRE def. DERRIDA

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority HAROLD BLOOM def. CLEANTH BROOKS

The secret essence of femininity does not exist DE BEAUVOIR def. RICH

All speech is performance AUSTIN def. FANON

Criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught FRYE def. BARTHES

 

It was a genuine pleasure these past three months (March to June) to explore 64 of the world’s greatest philosophical literary critics; look back over the past 3 months at 32 Scarriet articles (called “March Madness”) which re-evaluates these iconic points of view—and feel the excitement!

The rest of the play will quickly follow, as we move into the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the greatest Aesthetic Philosopher of them all.

If we might be allowed to summarize the four Brackets:

The Classical determines WHAT POETRY IS.

The Romantic determines WHAT POETRY IS TO PEOPLE.

The Modern determines WHAT PEOPLE ARE  TO PEOPLE IN TERMS OF  POETRY

The Post-Modern determines WHAT POETRY IS TO LANGUAGE

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

TEN BEST REASONS TO RHYME

Would rhyme have saved them?

10. THE CHALLENGE FACTOR –Because it is very difficult to do well. Can YOUR ass do it?

9.  THE CAUSE AND EFFECT FACTOR–One cannot rhyme well without comprehending and skillfully organizing other aspects of speech, of which rhyme is the crowning emphasis: rhythm, syntax, stress, assonance, alliteration, movement, meaning.

8.  THE AGREEMENT FACTOR –We like things to agree.  We enjoy symmetry; it is why a crystal or a flower pleases us. Rhyme has this primitive quality.

7.  THE HARMONY FACTOR  –Since rhyme brings together different words in a purely musical way, it has the ability to harmonize.

6. THE MNEMONIC FACTOR –Rhyme is even utilitarian

5. THE LOVE FACTOR –The poem that rhymes beautifully and delicately is old-fashioned, but love today is old-fashioned. Poetry is traditionally associated with love—and rhyme is traditionally associated with poetry.  Leave no doubt in the beloved’s mind that poetry, the real article is your intent. Romeo and Juliet rhymes. Howl does not. Which one puts you in the mood for love?

4. THE PHYSICAL BEAUTY FACTOR –Rhymed speech has the potential to be more tangibly beautiful than speech which does not rhyme.  Speech, as speech, possesses neither color, melody, touch, nor scent.  Rhyme pleases, and does so physically; rhyme helps talk become a body.

3. THE DIVINE COMEDY FACTOR –Dante’s famous poem is the greatest poem ever written; this Italian work contains so many Italian rhymes that it cannot be translated into English.

2. THE OUT-OF-FASHION FACTOR –The critically acclaimed eschew rhyme–but what if fashion changes?  (Which slowly, it seems to be doing.) Knowing rhyme’s intrinsic worth, this is your chance.

1.  THE PRETENSE FACTOR –Imagine Dr. Seuss without rhyme.  How much of the appeal would be lost?  All.  How much gained?  Nothing.  It is not always better to rhyme. Yet the pretentious convince themselves that absence of rhyme, in itself, automatically confers superiority. But as we see from our Dr. Seuss example, the “sophisticated” rationale is baseless.  HERE, THEN IS THE NUMBER ONE REASON: faulting rhyme in principle is nothing but pretense.

DANTE VERSUS DRYDEN

John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England

DANTE:

Exposition must be both literal and allegorical. To convey what this means, it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses . The first is called the literal, and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called the allegorical, and this is the one that is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction. Thus Ovid says that with his lyre Orpheus tamed wild beasts and made trees and rocks move toward him, which is to say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts grow tender and humble and moves to his will those who do not devote their lives to knowledge and art; and those who have no rational life whatsoever are almost like stones.

The third sense is called moral, and this is the sense that teachers should intently seek to discover throughout the scriptures, for their own profit and that of their pupils; as, for example, in the Gospel we may discover that when Christ ascended the mountain to be transfigured, of the twelve Apostles he took with him but three, the moral meaning of which is that in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.

The fourth sense is anagogical, that is to say, beyond the senses; and this occurs when a scripture is expounded in a spiritual sense which, although it is true also in the literal sense, signifies by means of the things signified a part of the supernal things of eternal glory, as may be seen in the song of the Prophet which says that when the people of Israel went out of Egypt, Judea was made whole and free. For although it is manifestly true according to the letter, that which is spiritually intended is no less true, namely, that when the soul departs from sin it is made whole and free in its power. In this kind of explication, the literal should always come first, as being the sense in whose meaning the others are enclosed, and without which it would be impossible and illogical to attend to the other senses, and especially the allegorical. It would be impossible because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to arrive at the inside without first arriving at the outside; consequently, since in what is written down the literal meaning is always the outside, it is impossible to arrive at the other senses, especially the allegorical, without first arriving at the literal.

 

DRYDEN:

To instruct delightfully is the general end of all poetry. Philosophy instructs, but it performs its work by precept; which is not delightful, or not so delightful as example. To purge the passions by example is therefore the particular instruction which belongs to Tragedy. Rapin, a judicious critic, has observed from Aristotle, that pride and want of commiseration are the most predominant vices in mankind; therefore, to cure us of these two, the inventors of Tragedy have chosen to work upon two other passions, which are fear and pity. We are wrought to fear by there before our eyes some terrible example of misfortune, which happened to persons of the highest quality; for such an action demonstrates to us that no condition is privileged from the turns of fortune; this must of necessity cause terror in us, and consequently abate our pride. But when we see that the most virtuous, as well as the greatest, are not exempt from such misfortunes, that consideration moves pity in us, and insensibly works us to be helpful to, and tender over, the distressed; which the noble consider the most god-like of virtues. Here it is observable that it is absolutely necessary to make a man virtuous, if we desire he should be pitied: we lament not, but detest, a wicked man; we are glad when we behold his crimes are punished, and that poetical justice is done upon him.

Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked; Phaedra, for instance. Shall we therefore banish all characters of villainy? I confess I am not of that opinion; but it is necessary that the hero of a play be not a villain; that is, the characters, which should move our pity, ought to have virtuous inclinations, and degrees of moral goodness in them.

 

Dryden is the more modern philosopher for saying that “example” (the flesh of fiction) is more “delightful.”

Dante says the “example” is simply a matter of what we experience first so we may comprehend the secret of the moral.

Dante has it right, for he sees morals correctly as a secret; for why bother to expound (in fiction or otherwise) what is self-evident?   Secrecy is loved for itself by the genius. Dante: “truth is hidden beneath the cloak of beautiful fiction.”  “The third sense is the moral that teachers should intently seek to discover…”  And just so we get it, in Dante’s example: “in matters of great secrecy we should have few companions.”  Dante “encloses” three levels of knowledge within a first level, the literal, and we can see if we try, in what appears to be a bit of pedantic prose, the grand design of the Commedia itself.

Dryden worries that “chief characters” not be “too wicked,” but Dante worries not: his “characters” can be as “wicked” as he wants them to be, enclosed as they are in the moral levels of Dante’s fiction, while the “chief character” is Dante, the poet himself.

Genius extends its fiction to the very form of the work itself, to the walls and passageways, where the poet and the poem walk through the mists of the moral plan.

 

WINNER: DANTE

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

JUDITH BUTLER: COUPLETS

Who, then, is this Judith Butler?
Google her face.  Never heard of her.

Holy crap she looks like a man.
Theory does what theory can.

The couplet is an interesting device
For this poem—reproducing like mice.

It ridicules thick-necked jocks,
Brainless oafs in team-striped socks.

It notices girls with little bird faces,
Thinks of all the physical disgraces.

These are its children, the swarm
Of humanity, smelly and warm.

They say attention to looks is unkind—
And yet the body is the mind.

As a teen I had terrible skin
Which inside and outside almost did me in.

A few pimples? How can you complain?
But you do.  Ugly face means doubtful brain.

But then you find that beauty is lurking
Behind the ugliness—a poem starts working.

How did poems rescue disgrace?
Why’d you write poetry? I had pimples on my face.

But a life has phases: the beautiful child
With perfect skin, and mild

Becomes the haunted adolescent,
Ugly, hairy, angry, prescient.

Keats and Byron were my Superman.
I hated Beats, Modern, Ash Can.

So let’s unleash our ire upon
Eclectics who hate beautiful Byron.

And no, we don’t have a reason why
Beyond a truth that lives in the eye.

For truth that asserts itself in the mind
Is a light in the cave of the blind.

Everything under the sun is queer
To the liberals who hate Shakespeare

Kind of the way the subject of race
Matters to liberals of nervous grace.

Lost in Dante’s midlife-crisis wood,
Academic theory would be understood.

Academics need to express change
Far away from the shooting range.

After Sputnik made the sciences champ,
The Humanities became chilly and damp.

No one took out a loan for college
Until Sputnik caused the race for knowledge.

But now loans go for art and writing.
Billions in debt for questionable lighting.

If gender is performance, the audience is slow.
Ask Judith Butler, she ought to know!

We really wonder about Queer Theory:
Did a look in the mirror cause the query?

Butler’s a rat in the maze of her text:
“I look like a man!  Okay, what’s next?”

If one has a face that looks like a witch,
Perhaps it’s time for a gender switch.

When procreate beauty falls in disgrace
We call it the revenge of the ugly face.

God grants ladies reproduction.
Beauty is for reproduction’s end,

Since beauty inspires reproduction,
Love is our death as well as our friend.

But if ugly things reproduce,
What is beauty’s use?

Fleeting pleasure, food, attention,
A nice review, a poem’s mention?

In the higher realms, pleasure and hope
Push away the misanthrope,

The scholar, the rule, the task, obscure
Lose sight of beauty and make us poor.

Beauty, of course, can live within:
In Butler’s heart and in her kin.

HERE ARE THE SOUTH WINNERS!

Andrew Marvell, best known for “To His Coy Mistress,” is becoming increasingly known for his delightful 17th century poem, “The Garden,” a template for Shelley and Keats composed 200 years prior, with its  “Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”

Marvell’s poem is a simple celebration of nature, opposed to the cruelties and follies of humankind.  This is the English Romanticism that most people know and love.

Ironically, Marvell may yet “win the palm” in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Tourney!

THE GARDEN—Andrew Marvell

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays ;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid ;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green ;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe’er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat :
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The clash of “The Garden” (7th seeded) with “The Groundhog” (11th seeded) involves two views of nature, one in favor, one doubting, in which humanity comes through the back door, seen here in Richard Eberhart’s final stanza:

And thought of China and of Greece,         
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

THE GROUNDHOG—Richard Eberhart

In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot  our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.
Inspecting close maggots’ might
And seething cauldron of his being,   
Half with loathing, half with a strange love,
I poked him with an angry stick.
The fever arose, became a flame
And Vigour circumscribed the skies,
Immense energy in the sun,                   
And through my frame a sunless trembling.
My stick had done nor good nor harm.
Then stood I silent in the day
Watching the object, as before;
And kept my reverence for knowledge         
Trying for control, to be still,
To quell the passion of the blood;
Until I had bent down on my knees
Praying for joy in the sight of decay.
And so I left; and I returned                     
In Autumn strict of eye, to see
The sap gone out of the groundhog,
But the bony sodden hulk remained
But the year had lost its meaning,
And in intellectual chains                                                 
I lost both love and loathing,
Mured up in the wall of wisdom.
Another summer took the fields again
Massive and burning, full of life,
But when I chanced upon the spot             
There was only a little hair left,
And bones bleaching in the sunlight
Beautiful as architecture;
I watched them like a geometer,
And cut a walking stick from a birch.
It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece,         
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
There are two of the greatest poems in the English language, and it is hard to see one lose!  The Marvell is more didactic, however, so honestly, the American has to be favored, even given Marvell’s great reputation.
In the final game of Round 1 South action, the (living) American poet Sharon Olds takes on…Dante. 
Dante is difficult to translate, so Olds has a definite edge there.
PRIMITIVE—Sharon Olds
I have heard about the civilized,
the marriages run on talk, elegant and honest, rational. But you and I are
savages. You come in with a bag,
hold it out to me in silence.
I know Moo Shu Pork when I smell it
and understand the message: I have
pleased you greatly last night. We sit
quietly, side by side, to eat,
the long pancakes dangling and spilling,
fragrant sauce dripping out,
and glance at each other askance, wordless,
the corners of our eyes clear as spear points
laid along the sill to show
a friend sits with a friend here.
“I have pleased you greatly last night” says a poem that blocks out the world, leaving the two lovers within, on display, proud, martial, a strange tension indeed.
And now, by contrast, the Dante, where the walls are not fixed at all:
TANTO GENTILE—Dante (trans. Dante Gabriele Rossetti)

So gentle and so pure appears
my lady when she greets others,
that every tongue trembles and is mute,
and their eyes do not dare gaze at her.
She goes by, aware of their praise,
benignly dressed in humility:
and seems as if she were a thing come
from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle.
She shows herself so pleasing to those who gaze,
through the eyes she sends a sweetness to the heart,
that no one can understand who does not know it:
and from her lips there comes
a sweet spirit full of love,
that goes saying to the soul: ‘Sigh.’

Poems cannot be mute, though so many, it would seem, want to be.
Both the Olds and the Dante would prefer to show without talking—and this is difficult to do.
Marla Muse:  The suspense is killing me!   Who wins?
 Eberhart 66, Marvell 64
Olds 59, Dante 55
!!!!!!
Here then, are the South Round One winners:
Keats defeated Nikolayev
Plath d. Poseidippus
Petrarch d. Bishop
Wordsworth d. Baudelaire
Hoagland d. Ovid
Barrett d. Betjemen
Eberhart d. Marvell
Olds d. Dante

CLASSICAL SELECTIONS UP, WITH WORLD PREMIERE SCARRIET TRANSLATION OF CATULLUS!

Have you heard?  We’re going to be in Scarriet’s March Madness!!

Six very old poems have made the cut for this year’s Madness, featuring Romanticism, old and new.  Read them as you drink old wine.

World literature, prior to the modern, English-speaking era, is not rich in wonderful English lyrics that can measure up to the best of Keats and Shelley, perhaps the chief reason being that poetic translation is a very dubious art, or that the ancient peoples really were children, whose best poems, to a great extent, are equivalent to the blockbuster film genre.

Of course there is infinite charm and interest lurking in thousands of ancient songs and fragments, but we needed actual English poems that could compete.

To find very old poems which are sexually frank is always a bit of a wonder to modern ears, but the greatest poetry features a certain amount of taste among its many merits.  Otherwise any cute, colorful, topical, humorous, randy piece of writing will do—but why should we offend the angels? Why should we leave the path?

DORCHIA (Edward Arlington Robinson, trans)
Poseidippus (c. 310 BC)

So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

LESBIA, LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE (Scarriet, trans)
Catullus (87-54 BC)

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me one thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, one thousand, one hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN (James Laughlin, trans)
Sextus Propertius ( (50-15 BC)

How she let her long hair down over her shoulders, making a love cave around her face. Return and return again.
How when the lamplight was lowered she pressed against him, twining her fingers in his. Return and return again.
How their legs swam together like dolphins and their toes played like little tunnies. Return and return again.
How she sat beside him cross-legged, telling him stories of her childhood. Return and return again.
How she closed her eyes when his were wide open, how they breathed together, breathing each other. Return and return again.
How they fell into slumber, their bodies curled together like two spoons. Return and return again.
How they went together to Otherwhere, the fairest land they had ever seen. Return and return again.
O best of all nights, return and return again.

AMORES I, V (Derek Mahon, trans)
Ovid (43-17 BC)

The day being humid and my head
heavy, I stretched out on a bed.
The open window to the right
reflected woodland-watery light,
a keyed-up silence as of dawn
or dusk, the vibrant and uncertain
hour when a brave girl might undress
and caper naked on the grass.
You entered in a muslin gown,
bare-footed, your fine braids undone,
a fabled goddess with an air
as if in heat yet debonair.
Aroused, I grabbed and roughly tore
until your gown squirmed on the floor.
Oh, you resisted, but like one
who knows resistance is in vain;
and, when you stood revealed, my eyes
feasted on shoulders, breasts and thighs.
I held you hard and down you slid
beside me, as we knew you would.
Oh, come to me again as then you did!

TANTO GENTILE (trans, Dante Gabriele Rossetti)
Dante (1265-1321)

So gentle and so pure appears
my lady when she greets others,
that every tongue trembles and is mute,
and their eyes do not dare gaze at her.
She goes by, aware of their praise,
benignly dressed in humility:
and seems as if she were a thing come
from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle.
She shows herself so pleasing to those who gaze,
through the eyes she sends a sweetness to the heart,
that no one can understand who does not know it:
and from her lips there comes
a sweet spirit full of love,
that goes saying to the soul: ‘Sigh.’

WHOSO LIST TO HUNT (trans, Thomas Wyatt)
Francesco Petrarch  (1304-1374 BC)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind;
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the Deer: but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain:
And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

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.

THE SKITTERY POEM

circus-clown

The skittery poem is not new, so let’s stop pretending it is.

The attempt to create movements, schools, and trends is antithetical to art and poetry—this is what the narrow critic does, and when the poet lets himself be defined as such, he is doomed.

The art itself—what its actual material existence can do most aptly and profitably in whatever circumstance it happens to find itself—should determine the poet’s path, not some narrow, blockheaded trend.

It’s not that the art-trend is bad; it’s not real.

If you want a solid, level-headed, “scholarly” analysis of The Skittery Poem, Tony Hoagland’s piece in Poetry from a few years ago is probably the best: “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.”

The key here is “fear of narrative.”

Hoagland quotes Carolyn Forche:

Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.

This is nicely said.  Yet, here is a classic case of the poet forced to surrender her craft, which happens to include “narrative,” to a vague formula: “the history of our time.”

Let us assume that this broad, critical term, “history of our time,” has meaning, and somehow does inhibit “story” and “progress,” “completion,” and “closure”—more than other historic “times.”  Should a poet’s ability to compose a poem ever be diminished by historical theory?   If so, why?  Why should a moment of history—even if we can prove this moment’s legitimacy in imposing itself on art’s ability to do what it can do—take precedence over the potential achievement of the poem?  Should poets surrender to moments of history?  Is that what art, in itself, or, over time, is meant to do?

But can we assume that the “history of our time” somehow negates “progress” or “closure?”   First of all, how can any “historic time” be more sensitive to “closure” than other “historic times?”

Or imagine, for a moment, how “progress” was viewed by countless previous ages fraught with superstition, wars, and plagues?  How many poets, in retrospect, should have given up “progress” in their poems?  Would that have been proper?  Would such a fiat have been good for poetry, or good for mankind?  So why should we put that yoke on ourselves?  To put it simply: history isn’t finished, is it?

We also have the “information overload” argument: TV!  The internet!  Technology!  How can we have “narrative,” when we are bombarded with so much trivial and vastly changing information?  But didn’t 13th century libraries have a lot of information?

Are citizens today really that informed, or not informed, as the case may be, compared to other ages, so that we can definitely say, “OK, you should write this kind of poetry?”

Who has the authority to say “our time,” or “television” validates, in any way, a certain kind of poetry?   Why should this idea ever be taken seriously?  Isn’t it finally just social science babble, the droning of a half-informed pundit enjoying the sound of their own voice?

Do you think your world is that different, poet?  Are you sure you are not just whining?

Now, to be fair: the poets of The Skittery Poem no doubt believe they are expanding poetic expression, even if they don’t buy the “history of our time” stuff—so yes, the movement could be just about the poem and what it can do.

Aesthetically, narrative can be a problematic burden, its anchor just too weighty.

But this problem is not new—every writer since the beginning of writing itself has had to ponder how much, and what kind of narrative is necessary.  It has nothing to do with the time we live in.  I wonder how many Poetry MFA students have read Plato’s Symposium, which begins by staring narrative right in the face:

Concerning the things about which you ask to be informed I believe that I am not ill-prepared with an answer. For the day before yesterday I was coming from my own home at Phalerum to the city, and one of my acquaintance, who had caught a sight of me from behind, hind, out playfully in the distance, said: Apollodorus, O thou Phalerian man, halt! So I did as I was bid; and then he said, I was looking for you, Apollodorus, only just now, that I might ask you about the speeches in praise of love, which were delivered by Socrates, Alcibiades, and others, at Agathon’s supper. Phoenix, the son of Philip, told another person who told me of them; his narrative was very indistinct, but he said that you knew, and I wish that you would give me an account of them. Who, if not you, should be the reporter of the words of your friend? And first tell me, he said, were you present at this meeting?

Your informant, Glaucon, I said, must have been very indistinct indeed, if you imagine that the occasion was recent; or that I could have been of the party.

Why, yes, he replied, I thought so.

Impossible: I said. Are you ignorant that for many years Agathon has not resided at Athens; and not three have elapsed since I became acquainted with Socrates, and have made it my daily business to know all that he says and does. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher.

Well, he said, jesting apart, tell me when the meeting occurred.
In our boyhood, I replied, when Agathon won the prize with his first tragedy, on the day after that on which he and his chorus offered the sacrifice of victory.

Then it must have been a long while ago, he said; and who told you-did Socrates?

No indeed, I replied, but the same person who told Phoenix;-he was a little fellow, who never wore any shoes Aristodemus, of the deme of Cydathenaeum. He had been at Agathon’s feast; and I think that in those days there was no one who was a more devoted admirer of Socrates. Moreover, I have asked Socrates about the truth of some parts of his narrative, and he confirmed them. Then, said Glaucon, let us have the tale over again; is not the road to Athens just made for conversation? And so we walked, and talked of the discourses on love; and therefore, as I said at first, I am not ill-prepared to comply with your request, and will have another rehearsal of them if you like. For to speak or to hear others speak of philosophy always gives me the greatest pleasure, to say nothing of the profit. But when I hear another strain, especially that of you rich men and traders, such conversation displeases me; and I pity you who are my companions…  (Jowett, trans.)

Narrative is based on memory, but all poems, even those that would discard narrative entirely in order to live in a vivid present, have memory as a poem, since they are temporal. Narrative is always in issue, then.

As Dante puts it in the very beginning of his Vita Nuova:

In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’. Under that heading I find written the words that it is my intention to copy into this little book: and if not all, at least their essence.

MORE POETRY FOR VALENTINE’S WEEK

It is Valentine’s Week, and how deeply pleasant, and sweet, to contemplate love!  Our whole being becomes younger in the glow of love’s contemplative majesty.  The vice of promiscuity may not simply be ‘stamped out:’ an even greater backlash will result in secret and horrifying ways; those sensual and cruel energies we fear and abhor should be channeled—by the twin angels of poetry and love.

And so today we present Dante, who is more than a poet, but the beacon of poetry itself, as Shelley called this Italian of Florence—a city that resisted a tyranny enclosing the world, as it gave birth to the Italian Renaissance, which saved it.

Dante is more than a literary book upon a literary bookshelf—his poetry is love in its highest form.

In the following extract, from the Vita Nuova, a little book produced before his more famous Divina Comedia, note how the most intense passion is transformed into refinement.  I also hope you enjoy the lovely snow/rain metaphor (Dante understood that a little metaphor goes a long way; most poets don’t get this).

Yesterday we had this weather—a gentle mixture of snow and rain, and I smiled to myself, thinking of the poet.

The first part is in prose, followed by a poem.

As it was a fact that many people had guessed the secret of my heart from my face, certain ladies, gathered together in order to take delight in each other’s company, well knew my heart, since each of them was there often when I was discomforted: and I passing near them, as if led by fortune, was called to by one of these gentle ladies.

The lady who had called to me was a lady of very sweet speech: so that when I had reached them, and saw clearly that my most graceful lady was not with them, I was reassured enough to greet them, and ask their pleasure. The ladies were many, among whom certain were laughing amongst themselves: others were gazing at me waiting to hear what I should say: others again were talking among themselves.

Of these one, turning her eyes towards me and calling me by name, said these words: ‘What is the point of your love for your lady, since you cannot endure her presence? Tell us, since the point of such love must surely be a very strange one.’ And when she had spoken these words, not only she, but all the others, seemed by their faces to wait for my reply.

Then I spoke these words to her: ‘My lady, the point of my love was once that lady’s greeting, she whom perhaps you know, and in that rested the blessedness, which was the point of all my desires. But since she was pleased to deny it me, my lord Love, in his mercy, has set all my blessedness in that which I cannot lose.’

Then those ladies began to speak amongst themselves: and as we sometimes see rain falling mixed with beautiful snowflakes, so I seemed to hear their words emerge mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken a while among themselves, that lady who had spoken to me at first still said to me these words: ‘We beg you to tell us, where is your blessedness.’

And I, replying to them, said this: ‘In those words that praise my lady.’ Then she who had spoken to me replied: ‘If you were speaking truth to us, those words you have written to explain your condition would have been composed with a different intent.’

So I, thinking about those words, almost ashamed, parted from them, and went along saying to myself: ‘Since there is such blessedness in those words that praise my lady, why have I spoken in another manner?’ And so I decided to take as the theme of my words forever more those which sung the praises of that very graceful one: and thinking about it deeply, it seemed to me I had taken on a theme too high for me, so that I dared not begin: and I remained for several days with the desire to write and in fear of beginning.

After this while I was walking along a path by which a stream of clearest water ran, I felt so strong a will to write that I began to think of the form I should use: and I thought that in speaking of her it would not be right if I composed without speaking to ladies in the second person, and not to all ladies, but only to those who are gentle and not merely feminine.

Then I say that my tongue spoke as if it moved by itself, and said: ‘Ladies who have knowledge of love.’ These words I stored in my mind with great delight, thinking to use them for my opening: so then, returning to the city, thinking for several days, I began a canzone with that opening, ordered in a way that will be seen in its divisions. The canzone begins: ‘Donne ch’avete’.

Ladies Who Have Knowledge Of Love,

I wish to speak with you about my lady,
not because I think to end her praises,
but speaking so that I can ease my mind.
I say that thinking of her worth,
Amor makes me feel such sweetness,
that if I did not then lose courage,
speaking, I would make all men in love.
And I would not speak so highly,
that I succumb to vile timidity:
but treat of the state of gentleness,
in respect of her, lightly, with you,
loving ladies and young ladies,
that is not to be spoken of to others.

An angel sings in the divine mind
and says: ‘Lord, in the world is seen
a miracle in action that proceeds
from a spirit that shines up here.’
The heavens that have no other defect
but lack of her, pray to their Lord,
and every saint cries out mercy.
Pity alone takes our part,
so that God speaks of her, and means my lady:
‘My Delights, now suffer it in peace
that at my pleasure she, your hope, remains
there, where one is who waits to lose her,
and will say in the Inferno: “Ill-born ones,
I have seen the hope of the blessed.”’

My lady is desired by highest Heaven:
now I would have you know of her virtue.
I say, you who would appear a gentle lady
go with her, since when she goes by
Love strikes a chill in evil hearts,
so that all their thoughts freeze and perish:
and any man who suffers to stay and see her
becomes a noble soul, or else he dies.
And when she finds any who might be worthy
to look at her, he proves her virtue,
which comes to him, given, in greeting
and if he is humble, erases all offense.
Still greater grace God has granted her
since he cannot end badly who speaks with her.

Amor says of her: ‘This mortal thing,
how can it be so pure and adorned?’
Then he looks at her and swears to himself
that God’s intent was to make something rare.
She has the colour of pearl, in form such as
is fitting to a lady, not in excess:
she is the greatest good nature can create:
beauty is proven by her example.
From her eyes, as she moves them,
issue spirits ablaze with love,
which pierce the eyes of those who gaze on her then,
and pass within so each one finds the heart:
you will see Love pictured in her face,
there where no man may fixedly gaze.

Canzone, I know that you will go speaking
to many ladies, when I have sent you onwards.
Now I have made you, since I have raised you
to be Love’s daughter, young and simple,
to those I have sent you, say, praying:
‘Show me the way to go, since I am sent
to her of whom the praise is my adornment.’
And if you do not wish to go in vain,
do not rest where there are evil people:
try, if you can so do, to be revealed
only to ladies or some courteous man,
who will lead you there by the quickest way.
You will find Amor will be with her:
recommend me to him as you should.

READING WALLACE STEVENS IS LIKE…

Here’s how the game works.

Let’s start with Homer. 

Reading Homer is like... You are 22.  It is mid-summer.  You are playing the board game Risk with young and old family members, drinking ouzo, eating lamb on a large, open-air porch.

Reading Wallace Stevens is like…You are 60.  It is fall.  You are squeezed into a little uptown Manhattan jazz club, slightly buzzed, but hungry.  An elegant stranger looks you up and down and it seems they are going to speak to you, but they only end up giving you a snooty look, and turn away…

Reading John Ashbery is likeYou are 20.  You are talking to your favorite English teacher in a bar who you happened to run into by accident, for the first time outside of school.  You are drunk on 2 drinks; he seems sober on 12.  He’s really cool, and he sure can talk, but you keep waiting for him to get to the point…

Reading W.H. Auden is like…You are 36,  It is early spring.  You are listening to a trio play Vivaldi in a museum.  Your amusing friend has excused himself and they’ve been gone for quite some time, and you’re a little worried.

Reading Poe is likeYou are 9.  It’s late winter.  You are drawing a vase of lilacs early in the morning before anyone else is up, and you’re doing a crossword puzzle at the same time.

Reading T.S. Eliot is like…  You are 17.  It is autumn.  You are rowing across a lake in a rowboat, wearing a suit; a slightly older person in a stylish hat is with you.  You are afraid they don’t love you.

Reading Frank O’Hara is like…  You are 29.  It is spring.  You are playing poker at a drunken party for high stakes and you are winning.  You ask somebody please put another record on the phonograph.

Reading Philip Larkin is like…  You are 49.  It is spring.  You are purchasing a ticket at a railway station.  You have just had a nice meal, with drinks before and after.

Reading WC Williams is like…  It is mid-winter.  You are 99, and staring at yourself in the mirror.

Reading Wordsworth is like… You are 12.  It is late summer. You are playing hide and seek with your younger cousins in the woods.  You are tired of looking.  Everyone, it seems, is gone.  It is starting to rain.

Reading Dante is like….You’re 31.  It is the beginning of spring.  You are at a  rap concert, but you hate the music.  Your beautiful date, it is obvious, dislikes the music, too.  You finally discuss this in the lobby. You both stay.  You don’t know where else to go. 

Reading Charles Bernstein is likeYou’re 2.  It is winter.  You are indoors, where it is quite warm. You are hitting your sister, 1, with a scrabble board.

WHO KILLED JOHN KEATS? ‘TWAS ONE OF MY FEATS

Pardon us as we take a fanciful page from the book of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

……………………….WHO KILLED ROBERT CREELEY?

……………………….Who killed Robert Creeley?
……………………….Twas I, Foetry. Yes. Really.
……………………….Now exiled here by the site that bans
……………………….We’ve dealt a mortal blow to Franz.
……………………….You cannot know where your reputation’s laid,
……………………….Or who pays you, at last, and who finally is paid.
……………………….Beware, you swaggerer, with cred and name
……………………….Who comes to quell: first, you lose, then, you swell our fame.

Franz Wright’s recent visit to Scarriet reminded us of the time when Robert Creeley came calling on Foetry.com shortly before he passed away in March of 2005.

John Keats was treated so rudely by the press a rumor began that a harsh criticism had killed him.   The poet is the most vulnerable to criticism since the poet and the critic both use words.   Poetry, by its very nature, has a It is so because I say it is so existence.   Words are cheap, and the poetry world is small.  Poetic reputations are fragile and can disappear overnight.

Longfellow was a wealthy titan whose poems were widely read in expensive and beautiful volumes.  Poe was a poverty-stricken, contentious critic who insulted and berated poets like Longfellow;  Poe was reviled by many literary elites of his day.   Poe, however, now towers over Longfellow and poets who are utterly forgotten.   Those who ‘go about their business’ and who are ‘above’ the sort of battles Poe indulged in usually sink into oblivion.   The trouble-makers survive.

Alan Cordle’s revolutionary Foetry.com turned po-biz on its head almost overnight with his controversial claims.  Controversy is catnip to fame.  Perhaps  Creeley and Wright knew what they were doing when they jumped in the Foetry dirt.

Flowers (and fame) need dirt to grow.

Thomas Brady of Scarriet was obviously out of his mind, temporarily, let’s hope, when he wrote the following as Monday Love on Foetry.com:

And what’s this crap about how a “librarian” [Alan Cordle] can’t express an opinion on poetry or the poetry world?  Jeez, what a lot of snobby rot. Since when did degrees and publishing creds and ‘official poet’ stamped on the forehead decide who can or cannot speak on poetry?  Did Keats have an MFA?  Philip Sidney, one of the world’s most prominent poets, never published a poem.  And what of Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler?  I can’t find any of their poems, but the world bows to their opinion.  If some twit gets an MFA and publishes a few books of obscure poetry scribbles, that twit should then have some kind of authority because of his CV?

No, poetry is naturally fitted for something more democratic and honest. R. Perlman [since discovered to be  Joan Houlihan] disgraces himself [herself] when he [she]indulges in this ‘poetry-cred’ nonsense–99% of the time such a gambit is merely an attempt to paper over stink.  I have never asked what his [her] creds are, nor do I care.  Those who come here trailing the glory of their creds in their wake tend to get slaughtered.  We don’t care who they are.  Robert Creeley came here and was treated like anyone else–in other words, a bit roughly.  We don’t care for that phony ‘respect,’ which the pompous desire.  Only the argument you make here counts.

Poetry was invented so that the learned could speak to the unlearned. Poetry is for the unlearned ear, because it had its origins, as Dante points out in his Vita Nuova, in the following circumstance: the learned fop was mad for some illiterate serving girl and therefore had to remove all that was phony and elevated in his speech to reach her heart.  The opinion which the poet craves is always the simplest and heart-felt one.  The ‘learned’ opinion is not to be trusted, finally.  Every poet in secret knows this.  This does not mean the poet writes simplistic twaddle, for the poet still must impress in a powerful manner, but that manner is not learned fops stroking each other’s learned egos, which only ruins the art.

—Monday Love, Foetry.com  2007

It is not our intent to dance on anybody’s grave.

We salute Mr. Creeley for not going gentle into that good night.

And God bless Franz Wright, too.

PEDANTS OF POETRY: THE TOP TEN

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~

Paul Valery (top), Polonius & T.S. Eliot

The last 100 years have seen more pedantry in poetry than in any other age.

Remember when poetry as a topic brought out the best in thinkers?

Socrates may be a villain to many poets, but Platonic arguments are grand, necessary, and…poetic.

Horace and Aristotle laid groundwork so vital we can overlook their pedantic natures.

Dante’s Vita Nuova is without the pretence of pedantry.

Shakespeare, another enemy of pedantry, made it a popular trope: Rozencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius in one play alone.

Pope and Swift fought pedantry as a natural impulse.

Burns, Byron, Keats, Shelley and Poe were against it in their souls.

Yeats, at his best, displayed a hatred of pedantry: “Old, learned respectable bald heads edit and annotate lines…”

These artists are practically defined by their opposition to pedantry.

Something went wrong in the 20th century, however, as Manifesto-ism became a way to get attention in a field of diminishing returns

Here’s Scarriet’s Top Ten Pedant List:

1. Yvor Winters

Claimed the formal is moral, while convincing himself that Allen Tate’s poetry was better than Shelley’s.

2.  Harold Bloom

A pedant’s pedant’s pedant.   Shakespeare’s great—OK, we get it.

3. Jacques Derrida

One part Nietszche, one part William James, one part Analytic Philosophy, one part New Criticism, one part absinthe.

4. Ezra Pound

“Make it new” is a very old pedantry.

5. Cleanth Brooks

Ransom and Warren kept him around to feel like geniuses by comparison.

6. T.S. Eliot

Hated Hamlet.   Afflicted with Dissociation of Verse Libre.

7. Allen Tate

Modernism’s Red-neck traveling salesman.

8. Helen Vendler

A drab sitting room with a Wallace Stevens poster.

9. Charles Bernstein

“Official Verse Culture” was in his own mind.

10. Paul Valery

Always too correct.  Proves the rule that Poe sounds better in French than modern French poetry sounds in English.

BONUS—11. Charles Olson

Take a deep breath.  And blow.

–T. Brady

GALILEO’S SECRET: Where Do We Look When We Look At The Truth?

John Donne….….
..Look around?.………………..Look in?……………………………..Look out?

A lightly edited version of a real time discussion that took place right at the end of the original ‘watchdog’ website, Foetry.com. ‘Expatriate Poetis Christopher Woodman, the 70 year old poet who lives in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and is active on Scarriet. Although ‘Monday Love’ posing as Scarriet’s ‘Thomas Brady has given permission to reprint his contribution to this dialogue, he prefers to remain (sort of…) anonymous.

Scarriet takes full reponsibility for the obscenity in this article, and understands that there will be many readers who won’t know where to look. We apologize for any offense given.

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Dear Monday Love,
A few days ago you wrote, “If I want to convey to you right now some truth, I will do everything I can to put the argument before you as nakedly and clearly as I can possibly present it.”

There’s a poem I’ve been working on for some time—or rather, I should say the poem’s been working on me, so much so that when I read what you just wrote I immediately thought of the poem and wanted it to work on you too! Like this:

THE MEANING AND VALUE OF REPRESSION

………..Who’s this naked giant then
………………….peering in at your window

………..with the huge brown phallus
………………….pressed up against the pane,

………..the half-tumescent glans
………………….like some rude Cyclops’s tongue

………..or thick-set paleolithic fruit
………………….in puris naturabilis displayed

………..and mounted on the slippery
………………….slide the shocked members

………..gape at as their meals
………………….get laid upon the table?

………..He has no shame, this sly
………………….weighted thing towering

………..above the high tree tops—
………………….the great trunk of his gnarled

………..sex and trumpet foreskin
………………….making all the cultivated

………..thoughts that dine in private
………………….so much fast-food small-talk.

………..But oh, how the air out there
………………….shines attendant with delight,

………..hiking up those warm kirtled
………………….skirts to reveal Galileo’s secret

………..so profound only such obscene
………………….dimensions ever fathom it!

Posted by EXPATRIATE POET: Sat Feb 24, 2007 12:23 pm
_________________
(…yet still it moves!)

~

“Huge brown phallus pressed up against the pane”

Best image in poetry ever!

Posted by MONDAY LOVE: Sun Feb 25, 2007 9:16 am
_________________
Whisper and eye contact don’t work here.

~

But that’s not even the best image in the poem, so how could it be the best image in poetry ever?

I know I’m a fool, and I always rise to your bait, but now I’m thinking about what you said yesterday about Aimée Nezhukumatathil’s new book, Miracle Fruit.

Aimee N. definitely has it going on. Hot chick w/ erotic poems. Naughty, yet sensitive; sexy, yet learned; chatty, yet profound; worldly, yet academic; with her third-world traditionalist family hitting on her American singleness, freedom and sass. . . You go, girl!

But I predict she’ll get bored with the kind of chatty lyric she’s writing now. She’ll beat a hasty retreat towards more serious forms. The little dog will give way to twelve or thirteen kids, metaphorically speaking.

Dear Monday Love–you do such good work on this site, and we’re all so fortunate to have the chance to read so much of you–which goodness knows is certainly never dull! But much too often it’s your private Big Boy that gets dropped on our threads, and the ashes keep piling and piling up. Well, I’m an old man and I have no reputation at all, and partly for that reason you should listen to me. You can’t step on my toes because I don’t have any, it’s as simple as that, nor can you open my closet living as I do in a place that has none. But I’m serious about poetry all the same, and I can talk to you if you’ll listen.

And I say you not only have an issue with poetry but with girls!

That’s why I posted the poem for you, and not surprisingly you ignored the WOMAN in it altogether and chose rather to celebrate the PHALLUS–just like you poked fun at the girl!

I felt the woman in the poem was so overwhelmingly attractive and uncomplicated that she would have to illuminate you and quicken your being, that she would speak to who you were and where you were going. Now I begin to think you never let poets speak to you at all–even the dwindling handful you regard as o.k.

Because what I’ve never seen you do is listen to what a poem actually says that might be of value to you personally. You read with such disdain and critical detachment, almost as if you were judging a small town dog show that neglected to shovel up its poop. But even a common poem can talk to you, you know–it mustn’t be asked just to stand up on its hind legs and rhumba, or jump through a hoop to please you.

That’s what the little poem might have been trying to tell you, in fact–that like the average scientist you restrict yourself to the empirical evidence before you, as if the universe could tango without the human value that gives meaning to it.

Christopher

Posted by EXPATRIATE POET: Mon Feb 26, 2007 10:41 am
_________________
(…yet still it moves!)

~

Christopher,
I have no toes to step on either.

Do I have an “issue” with “girls?” Perhaps, I do. “Girls” is a big topic.

I loved Aimée’s poem. I summed up her schtick in a few words, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t dig it.

Also empirical evidence is all we have. The rest is speculation.

But I must say, I’m not good at riddles. What specific ‘evidence’ am I missing?

Monday
Posted by MONDAY LOVE: Mon Feb 26, 2007 8:48 pm
_________________
Whisper and eye contact don’t work here.

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