POETRY BRACKET ROUND ONE: FANNY OSGOOD VERSUS JOHN DONNE!

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Fanny Osgood

There were many exquisite women poets in the 19th century, but since “modern” means more than “women” in poetry, very few of them are read anymore.  Dickinson, really. And that’s it.

In this contest the great John Donne takes on an American poetess from the 19th century, rumored (rumor only!) to have had an affair with Edgar Poe.  He supported her in reviews.

She spoke not—but, so richly fraught
With language are her glance and smile,
That, when the curtain fell, I thought
She had been talking all the while.

–Fanny Osgood

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

–John Donne

Why do we think these 19th century women poets were not modern?  They were.  And one can certainly see why they thought they were being “modern.”

Just compare the two—John Donne:

For those whom thou [a personified Death] think’st thou dost overthrow

to Fanny Osgood:

She [an actual person] had been talking all the while.

Fanny Osgood is a modern writer.  Why is she forgotten, then?

T.S. Eliot—part of the male Poetry & Criticism clique, with Pound, of High Modernism, (only Marianne Moore was allowed to join the club as a token)—championed the “Metaphysical Poets” (the term was actually coined by Samuel Johnson, who found fault with the same group) and Donne was one of these heralded ‘Metaphysicals’ for Eliot, who busily damned Shelley, Milton, and Shakespeare, and unlike Poe, seemed to find no female poets to his liking.

Donne, sounding like a school boy, tells someone named “Death” you’re not so “mighty” and you cannot “kill me.”

The whole thing is laughable, and really belongs more to Theosophical Wit than Poetry.

Donne is done in by his own logic; he says that if a nap is good, death must be better—and yet we wake up from a nap.

The chief secretary of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (Donne’s position for a while) also says that “our best men” end up with Death, but this, apparently makes Death bad, the same as when “desperate men” go with him.

And Death is apparently not “mighty” because he hangs out with “war.”

The real wit is achieved at the end, which basically says if we do wake up after we die, as with a nap, then, and only then: “Death, thou shalt die.”  Which is only to be expected.

Contrast this with Fanny Osgood’s passage in March Madness 2017.

According to Poe, this is the best kind of poetry, “breathing Nature,” with “nothing forced or artificial.”

Osgood describes beautifully a woman who speaks without speaking.

Here are the two quatrains which precede the one quoted:

Now gliding slow with dreamy grace,
Her eyes beneath their lashes lost,
Now motionless, with lifted face,
And small hands on her bosom crossed.

And now with flashing eyes she springs—
Her whole bright figure raised in air,
As if her soul had spread its wings
And poised her one wild instant there!

She spoke not—but, so richly fraught
With language are her glance and smile,
That, when the curtain fell, I thought
She had been talking all the while.

Fanny Osgood has defeated the immortal John Donne!  A mighty upset!  Death, art thou shocked?

FEBRUARY POEMS BY BEN MAZER, REVIEWED

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As the shadows lengthen on American poetry in the 21st century, one is naturally prepared to think there was a noisy, sunny noon of poetry with noisy, popular poets.

But there never was such a thing.

We had, in our early days, the British imitators: William Cullen Bryant, (friend to Lincoln) with his “Thanatopsis”; the splendid, dark Poe; dashing in his prose but solemn and brief in his poetry; Emerson and Thoreau asserting nature, not poetry, in due obeisance to the arrogant British idea that her late colony was still a wilderness; Whitman secretly reviewing his own poems, waving a private Emerson letter in the public’s face as way of validation, but Whitman was almost as obscure as Dickinson—no, America has had no sunny noon of poetry; Ben Franklin, the diplomat-scientist-founding father, representing our mighty nation of pragmatists, had little use for the muse.

To put things in historical perspective:

Emily Dickinson caught on with modern critics as a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s.

Billy Collins was born in 1941.

A few years after Billy Collins was born, Ezra Pound—friend to both anglophilic “Waste Land” and haiku-like “Wheel Barrow”—caused a brief stir as a traitor in an Allied cage. The New Critics liked Eliot, Pound, and Williams and gave them critical support, some notice. Otherwise they had probably died. And the canon would be ruled instead by the wild sonneteer, Edna Millay, the Imagist, Amy Lowell, perhaps the cute scribbler E.E. Cummings.

The New Critics, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the Creative Writing Program Era, all began to flower in the late 1930s/early 1940s, around the time Collins was born—and, a few years earlier, you had Frost (discovered in England, not New England, right before the First World War, as Harriet Monroe was starting Poetry with money from Chicago businessmen—and help from foreign editor Ezra Pound) and then another generation back, you have the end of Whitman’s obscure career. And then a couple generations further back, the often disliked, and controversial, Poe, who mocked the somewhat obscure Transcendentalists—including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Unitarian friend, William Greenleaf Eliot,  founder of Washington University in St. Louis, T.S. Eliot’s grandfather.

So not only is there no noisy noon of American poetry, no period when gigantic dinosaurs of American Verse ruled the earth, one could almost argue that we are still in the early morning of our country’s poetic history, way before noon—the noon has not even happened yet, as much as we often posit that American poetry is an abandoned field at sundown, where the 21st century MFA mice are playing.

Even if good poetry abounds in America today, it has no center, no fame, no visible love; Billy Collins, who sells a few books, was a teen when Allen Ginsberg, son of poet Louis Ginsberg, who knew WC Williams, achieved a bit of rock star fame through an obscenity trial. Allen Ginsberg has been dead for 20 years.

What of poets born after 1950?

Who knows them?

Where are the biographies and critical studies?

How can the greatest country on earth have no poets anyone really knows, for two whole generations?

Who is a young poet that we know?

Is the thread broken?  Is the bowl shattered? Will the sun never shine on this doorway again? What has happened to American poetry?

This sobering preface of mine (some might call it too sweeping and hysterical) is written by one who is proud to announce his critical study of the poet Ben Mazer is soon to be published by the noteworthy Pen and Anvil Press.

Who is Ben Mazer?

Born in 1964, he is the best pure poet writing in English today.

We use the word “pure” knowing the term is sometimes abused—Robert Penn Warren ripped Poe and Shelley to pieces in a modern frenzy of “purity” hating: sublime and beautiful may also, complexly, mean “pure.”  The heart has its reasons for loving purity—which all the Robert Penn Warren essays in the world can never understand (the essay we have in mind by Warren is “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Kenyon Review, ed. John Crowe Ransom, 1943—when Billy Collins was two years old).  If “beautiful and sublime” seem too old-fashioned, too “pure” for one’s taste, I assert “purity” as it pertains to Mazer means 1. accessible 2. smooth 3. not tortured.

Mazer has published numerous books of poems.

Mazer is also the editor of a number of important books, including the Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (a neglected, but extremely influential figure)—Mazer’s large book reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYR last year.

February Poems is Mazer’s latest book of poems, following hard upon December Poems. The two are a pair—marking the sudden unraveling of an ideal marriage.

The first poem in “February Poems” goes like this:

The sun burns beauty; spins the world away,
though now you sleep in bed, another day
brisk on the sidewalk, in your camel coat,
in another city, wave goodbye from the boat,
or study in an archival library,
like Beethoven, and thought is prodigy.
Do not consume, like the flowers, time and air
or worm-soil, plantings buried in the spring,
presume over morning coffee I don’t care,
neglect the ethereal life to life you bring.
O I would have you now, in all your glory,
the million-citied, Atlantic liner story
of what we were, would time come to forget
being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.

This poem falls from the first word to the last with a temporal perfection not seen since Milton. One may recognize Robert Lowell, too, who was somewhat besotted with Milton—Mazer’s better than Robert Lowell—who, as a poet and a man, was seldom sane or honest, and was, frankly, a creep. Mazer, I know, will gladly accept the Lowell comparison; but as his critic, I assert Mazer is a more genuine person, and is quite a bit better as a poet.

Look at how in “The Sun Burns Beauty,” every line is packed with sublimity discretely spoken, none the less sublime for the discretion:

“The sun burns beauty.”  Lovely double meaning. Consumes beauty, but also is beautiful. “Burns” quickly gives way to “spins,” as the poem, like a heavenly orb, picks up weighty speed: “another day, brisk on the sidewalk…wave goodbye…” the stunning plea: “Do not consume…presume I don’t care…neglect the ethereal life to life you bring…” and the conclusion, worthy of a sun which is burning beauty: “O I would have you now…of what we were, would time come to forget being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.”  Magnificent.  How long have we waited for poetry like this?   It’s truly timeless in the tradition—a word we can use without any qualification or irony.

We mentioned purity above; another way of getting across what I mean is Mazer’s use of Eliot’s Objective Correlative.

Eliot’s Objective Correlative is not a blackboard term for Mazer; it lives in his poetry. Eliot asked that the poem’s emotion match the object. Eliot’s request is a simple one: the reader doubts the poem’s veracity if the poet is unduly excited by a mundane object.

The poet’s emotions tell him what to say; and it is with our emotions we read the poem.

Much is made in poetry (naturally) of the skill in using words—Mazer clearly has a wonderful vocabulary and all that; yet also, in Mazer’s poetry, fact does match feeling; it’s not a word-game—Mazer’s trajectory isn’t words.  Mazer understands the Objective Correlative.

T.S. Eliot represents the Modernist counter to the perceived hyperbolic imbalance of the Romantics: Wordsworth getting terribly excited by a flower, Byron yawning at the end of the world—it cuts both ways.

Eliot’s objective critical dictum was a correction—and Mazer, who, in many ways, is Romanticism redux, instinctively, now, well into the 21st century, obeys Eliot’s dictum—but flexibly.

We’ve got Wordsworth and his famous dictum from “Lyrical Ballads:” poetry helps us to see the mundane as extraordinary, using plain speech, which goes against Eliot’s rule—and Mazer is not only a Robert Lowell, an Eliot, but a Wordsworth.

Mazer sounds Modern.

As he revives Romanticism.

And, I dare to say, the Enlightenment—when the Metaphysicals provided poetry heft and light.

Revival is always open to the charge of retrograde.

But how many layers of post-modern experimentation are there?

Before the public gets bored?

Oh, yes, that happened about 75 years ago.  When Billy Collins was born. And critics were rising to an appreciation of Emily Dickinson.

John Ashbery, born in 1927, had a head start on Mazer—Ashbery added Romantic verbosity to Modern dryness, irony, archness, in a painterly, foggy mix of not quite making sense. Mazer, if it must be said plainly, is a little better than Ashbery. Mazer does make sense.

The poems in Mazer’s February Poems do not, for the most part, have titles—to the worshiper who would carry around this book of love, like a holy book of some sorts, the page numbers will suffice to identify the great passages within.

These lines which begin the poem on page 7 speak out plainly and passionately but with the greatest mystery:

All grand emotions, balls, and breakfasts,
make little sense, if nothing lasts,
if you should leave the one you love,
inexplicable as Mozart’s star above

This passage at the top of page 8, a new poem, may be a statement for the ages:

The living are angels, if we are the dead in life
and immaculate beauty requires discerning eyes
and to ask incessantly who you are
is both our strength and doubt in faith, to know
what we must appear within ourselves to know:
that we do love each other, that we know who each other is
by putting ourselves in the hands and the eyes of the other,
never questioning the danger that rides on words
if they should misstep and alter a logical truth,
or if they should signify more than they appear to,
whether dull, indifferent, passionate, deeply committed
or merely the embodiment of a passing mood,
some lack of faith in ourselves we attempt to realize
through the other who remains steadfast in all the flexibility of love.

This is stuff which could be read at weddings on top of mountains around the world.

The poem which resides at page 15 goes like this, (and observe how “love” in the first line both is invaded, and invades, the “fiercest passion”—as Mazer has crafted the syntax):

The fiercest passion, uncommon in love,
yearns to be understood, do incalculable good;
must penetrate the beloved’s eyes, give rise
to beauty unmatched anywhere above.

Note the lovely internal rhyming: “understood and good” in line 2, “eyes” and “rise” in line 3, are but two examples.

We’ll continue with the whole poem, “The fiercest passion, uncommon in love:”

Infinite stasis exploring tenderness,
substantially is the basis of all bliss,

“Infinite stasis exploring tenderness” !!

although ethereal, indelible,
not subject to the chronologic fall.
And yet vicissitudes will upset this,
and forces will keep true lovers apart
too many years, breaking the sensitive heart,
that pours its passion in undying letters,
while hope’s alive to break the social fetters,
incalculable agonies poured into great art.
Bribes the organist, locks the door,
unwilling to suffer any more,
must make his grand statement to the world,
all his grief, anger, and love hurled
back at the gods which all his genius spited;
his biography says love was unrequited.
We live in the shadow of his despair,
grief so great, where there is nothing there.

And here it ends. This is not egotistical…”We live in the shadow of his despair” refers to the “shadow” of the poem itself (its inky visage) living to the readers as they read, and the “grief” of the poet is “so great,” the poem disappears (“nothing there”)—the very opposite of egotistical; it is grief conveyed powerfully.

The entire book—February Poems—contains lines such as these—which belong to an expression of love poetry rarely seen.

The poems range from greatest bliss:

The moonlight is incomprehensible.
My lover’s lips are soft and rosy pink.
Who could understand love which transfigures night,
when night itself does the transfiguring?
She sleeps. Awake, I hold her in my arms,
so soft and warm, and night is beautiful.

…In sleep she moans and shifts, embracing me.
I can’t budge from where I lie, but am content.

(excerpt from poem on pg. 16)

To acute despair, not merely told, explained, but in the poetry itself, lived:

The vanishing country roads have vanished.
There, the steep descent into the new, different town.
We are together, and we look around.
What are these flags and trees that grasp and clutch
the infinite progress of our former selves,
of love so great that it must be put away,
not where we left it, but where we can’t reach;
why should eternity itself miss you so much?
The music of a thousand kinds of weather
seep into the trees, sweep into the leaves that brush
your shoulder lightly where I left my heart,
once, long ago, when we first made our start
to drive so many miles to here together.
But where is here? The place we are apart.

(poem, “Vanishing country roads,” pg 64)

To pure sublimity and beauty and joy:

The greatest joy known to mortal man,
shall live beyond us in eternity.
Catching you ice-skating in mid-motion,
cheeks flush, winter pristine in our hearts,
ineffable, permanent, nothing can abolish,
when the deep forest, buried in snow’s white
holds the soul’s eternal solitude,
when, melting coming in, each particular
that stirs the senses, is the flight of man
to unspoken urgencies, garrulous desire
continually fulfilled, the captured stances
that drift like music in the light-laced night,
shared words in murmurs soft as downy sky,
the stars observe with their immortal eye.
Furious, presto-forte homecoming
races into the eyes and fingertips,
confirming and commemorating bells
resounding with our vulnerable desire
in momentary triumph that’s eternal.
Life passes on to life the raging stars,
resonances of undying light.
All years are pressed together in their light.

(“The greatest joy known to mortal man” pg 17)

We wish for a whole generation of young readers to spring up, profoundly and happily in love—following in the footsteps of Mazer, in his growing fame, in his mourning—clinging fast to their torn and re-smoothed copies of February Poems.

 

 

POE VERSUS TRUMP: PROSE— ROUND ONE—MADNESS

This contest should evoke much amazement and laughter, as it pits the greatest writer to ever perform in English—Edgar Allan Poe—against Donald Trump, in Scarriet’s 8th annual March Madness Tournament, in which the playing is performed by Great Historic Words—which are what? The words themselves? Or the vast realities behind them?

This is not a play on words. We are playing with words. For high stakes. Like playing with fire, almost.

“Make America great again” does contain great meaning. America was once a David, a hero who conquered the British Empire—of which it was a part—and now America, run by an emotionally fed, corrupt, uni-party, “Deep State,” is in danger of becoming another British Empire itself, a mischief-making giant dragging after it misery, chaos, and pain.

Poe (1809-1849) belonged to the fiercely cunning and pragmatic America—mesmerizing poetry was only one part of Poe’s weaponry. Poe defied the British—the world’s superpower, then, and not always friendly to America—circles in Great Britain had secret designs to destroy her upstart colony.  Poe helped create both science fiction and detective fiction—thought, curiosity, cunning, for the masses. Poe, in all he wrote, was the Ben Franklin of American Letters.

Franklin wrote, “Write with the learned. Pronounce with the vulgar.”

Poe wrote: “I will not be sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, with more of method, and less of excrescence in the thought. Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking material; they have more facts, more to think about. For this reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity.”

Yes. Get to the point.

Now, more than ever.

Good advice.

“Watch how I get to the point” is reserved for Mozarts, for really good poets. Maybe for an Oscar Wilde giving an after-dinner speech. The rest of us should just get to the point. Quickly.

Poetry is occupied for its beautiful effects in its paying attention to the sweet immediacies of rhythm—the short story, on the other hand, has truth as its goal, by the very ratio in which artificial, formal, beautiful, and mathematical considerations are abandoned. This was Poe’s chief decree.

And yet. Just as Plato banned poetry from his Republic—in itself, a poem, to those who can read the great philosopher in the original Greek—so Poe’s prose nonetheless has a kind of beauty:

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Poe (1839)

In a way, this famous prose passage of Poe’s does “get to the point.” The narrator of “The House of Usher” arrives at that house in the first sentence. Lesser authors would spend a page, or two, describing the countryside, the horse, the rider, the rider’s thoughts, the previous day’s journey, and so on.

Poe, with the long sentence, gives us a sense of length, duration—since the tone is melancholy, length is proper; brevity would give us a completely different mood: “So there I was. Riding to Usher.”

But the genius of Poe gives us seeming length—in one sentence—for Poe has also, in getting right to the point, brought the reader, in a sad and drugged, melancholy state, to the House of Usher—by the end of the very first sentence of his tale.

We don’t know about women in pink hats, but we think Poe himself would admire “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, as a political slogan, as it says a lot in a few words—the brevity itself adding urgency to the plea.

“Make”

Making is better than talking. Manufacturing is better than blather.

“America”

Nice. You’re running for president of ___.

“Great”

Sound-wise, it chimes with “make” and “America.” Meaning-wise, it signals a go-for-broke, dominating, expansive, winning attitude. Great has just the right ultra-confident vibe; after all, America is often called the “greatest nation on earth.”

“Again.”

Recalls history, tradition, destiny, while implying “America is tarnished and requires a certain amount of urgent restoration.”

Should Poe win, who was being read in Russia before he was being read in France?

Should Poe win, who was a maverick, and thumbed his nose at MSM?

Should Poe win, who is an MFA Writing Program all to himself?

Should Poe win, the last real literary genius, who was a scientist, as well?

Poe wins.

Make America great again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T.S ELIOT AND ELIZABETH BARRETT—POETRY ROUND ONE IN THE MADNESS

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We know there’s something magical about Scarriet March Madness tournaments—the pairings so often feature uncanny resemblances without any conscious intent by those putting together the brackets.

Look at this one:

Two of the most famous lines in poetry.

Elizabeth Barrett’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

T.S. Eliot’s “I measure out my life with coffee spoons.”

There’s counting, or measurement, in each offering.

Poetry, of course, the poetry people love (we don’t know about that formless modern stuff) involves counting—the measurement of beats—what the professors call meter.

We might note here that Plato said “art” and “measurement” were exactly the same thing.  And even here in 2017, we kind of see what he means.

Anyway, is it any accident, then, that two of the most famous lines in poetry, one from 19th century England, and the other from 20th century America, involve counting?

T.S. Eliot’s family traces back to Massachusetts and a Unitarian grandfather who knew Emerson—Emerson and Poe were enemies, and Eliot excoriated Poe in “From Poe to Valery.”

Poe and Barrett were correspondents before Browning famously entered Barrett’s life, and Poe dedicated his Poems, 1845 to Barrett.

Do these facts “count,” when we study the poetry?

Barrett’s sentiment is an expansion of a singular love: how do I love thee? Let me count the ways is a glorious movement outward from the one.

True love is geometry.

Eliot’s moves in the opposite manner—Life (his life) is chopped up, subtracted, despairingly made smaller, even as there is an adding, a counting of the ways: coffee spoonful after coffee spoonful.

Fascinating, really, how two similar tropes work in completely opposite directions: the optimistic 19th century, the pessimistic 20th century.

We may as well throw in this quote from Eliot right here:

The essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

 We should allow Barrett to have her turn, too. She wrote the following:

If you desire faith, then you have faith enough.

Elizabeth Barrett is like a large, comfortable Victorian pillow.

T.S. Eliot is like a black-and-white horror film.

Eliot wins—only because the zeitgeist forces us to choose him.

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2017: GREATEST WORDS OF ALL TIME

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SONG

1 Even little cuckoos in their clocks, do it. Let’s fall in love. –Cole Porter

2 We kissed in a field of white and stars fell on Alabama, last night. –Mitchell Parish

3  Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.  –McCartney

4  I was dancin’ since I was eight. Is it wrong to dance so late? –T. Rex

5  Will you miss me, Miss Misery? –Elliott Smith

6  Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in  –Cohen

7  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.   –Newton

8  Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.  –anonymous

9  This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.   –anonymous

10  Hear that lonesome whipporwill? He sounds too sad to fly. The midnight train is whining low. I’m so lonesome I could cry.  –Hank Williams

11 Bound for a star by an ocean, you’re so very lonely, you’re two thousand light years from home.  –Rolling Stones

12 Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.  –Sinatra

13 Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.  –Bowie

14 Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.  –Paul Simon

15  Send my credentials to the house of detention.  –The Doors

16 O say does that star spangled banner yet wave—o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?  –F. Scott Key

POETRY

1  Soft went the music the soft air along –Keats

2  For I have known them all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons; I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.  –Eliot

3  Let the more loving one be me.  –Auden

4  Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.  –Dickinson

5  Death, be not proud  –Donne

6  I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow –Roethke

7  He who mocks the infant’s faith Shall be mocked in age & death –Blake

8  There’s nothing worse than too late  –Bukowski

9  Two roads diverged in a wood and I—took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.  –Frost

10  Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying; blow, bugle, answer echoes, dying, dying, dying.  –Tennyson

11 Green dells that into silence stretch away  –C. Matthews

12 She spoke not—but, so richly fraught with language are her glance and smile, that when the curtain fell, I thought She had been talking all the while. –Fanny Osgood

13 As if the star which made her forehead bright Had burst and filled the lake with light –Read

14 And birds and streams with liquid lull Have made the stillness beautiful –Amelia Welby

15 How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.  –Barrett

16 So we’ll go no more a roving, So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright.  –Byron

FILM

1  “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” –Gone with the Wind

2  “What seems to be the problem? Death.” –Blade Runner

3  “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Godfather

4  “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” –Chinatown

5  “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” –Sudden Impact

6  “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” –Wizard of Oz

7  “I coulda been a contender.”  –On The Waterfront

8  “Bond. James Bond.”  –Dr. No

9  “Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.”  –Casablanca

10 “I want to be alone.”  –Grand Hotel

11  “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” –Dracula

12  “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”   –Jaws

13  “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  –Streetcar Named Desire

14  “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” –Hamlet

15  “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”  –King Kong

16  “Elementary, my dear Watson!”  –Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

PROSE

1 During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing along on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. –Poe

2  Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  –Nabokov

3  It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. –Orwell

4  And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.  –F.Scott Fitzgerald

5  In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  –Hemingway

6  Justice?—You get justice in the next world; in this world you have the law.  –Gaddis

7  The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.  –S. Crane

8  She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.  –Hawthorne

9  A loving heart is the truest wisdom.  –Dickens

10  He kissed her, and she quivered as if she were being destroyed, shattered.  –D.H. Lawrence

11  When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that all the dunces are in confederacy against him.  –Swift

12 The loss of one eye does not destroy the vision. The deafness of one ear does not wholly deprive us of hearing. In the same manner Tiedman reports the case of a madman, whose disease was confined to one side of his head, the patient having the power to perceive his own malady, with the unimpaired faculties of the other side. –Mrs. L. Miles

13 Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much. –Oscar Wilde

14 A dinner party is the last triumph of civilization over barbarism. Conversation depends on how much you take for granted. Vulgar chess-players have to play their games out; nothing short of the brutality of an actual checkmate satisfies their dull apprehensions. But look at two masters of that noble game! White stands well enough, so far as you see; but Red says, Mate in six moves;—White looks, —nods;—the game is over. –Oliver Wendell Holmes

15 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  –M. L. King

16 Make America great again. –Donald Trump

Scarriet is proud to unveil another annual (is it our eighth one already?) March Madness Poetry Tournament—in the past, we have used Best American Poetry poems, contemporary poets’ lines, aesthetic philosophy, and now we have seized the populist moment by presenting what we call a “Greatest Words” contest.  Popular speech has its own reason for existing, and the poetry (and wit) is in the brevity, obviously, but also we note that words are so adept at pointing to other things; for instance, “Make America Great Again,” (too controversial?) has worlds of meaning within it—we can ask, “What is America?” and “what does it mean to make America great, and “great again?” etc etc  One does not have to see this as a ‘pro-Trump’ entry—though an entry, nonetheless.

Let the games begin!

WHAT IS A BAD POEM?

 

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A good poem needs 2 things.

Most have the first: an anecdote, theme, or story which supports the poem.

The second is why 99% of poems fail.

It is because the anecdote, the reason for the poem, is a thousand times better than the poem.

One attempt to fix this is to write a poem which is so brief, the anecdote is the poem.

The other is to make the poem so lengthy that it forgets, for many lines, its theme. Both of these attempts fail.

99% of poetry stinks.

One might counter this with a list of exemplary qualities which every poem requires to be successful. But the problem with this is that such lists can go on forever. We believe the simple “anecdote” warning above beats every list in the world.

And further, any lengthy list of what makes a poem good can actually do harm, as striving to satisfy many elements of expression may destroy the poem’s unity. Wit lessens options; it doesn’t expand them.

Pope’s phrase is exemplary: ” what oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A poem needs but 2 things ever: ‘what people are thinking’ and the ‘better expression of it.’ The ‘better’ is the rub. And ‘what people are actually thinking’ helps, too.

Pope, the Augustan Wit, belongs to an era lost to our day—flying beyond the Romantics and the Moderns, so that Pope is hardly considered a poet at all to those who long ago bought into aesthetic statements such as the “Red Wheel Barrow.”

The fetish of the romantically tinged image of the early Modernists struck a blow against philosophical wit—to no effect, really.

Wit looking at objects is all poetry is, and has ever been.

The Romantics—who the Moderns and Post-Moderns have never quite escaped—countered the Augustan Wits with heart.

But as we examine the Romantics from our modern future, we see the Romantics were Wits, too.  Read Byron.

Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true.  It often has heart, but no wit.  Or wit, but no heart.  The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed. But modern poetry has mostly left this combination behind, in the name of (what to call it?) a modernity which considers itself too modern for any broad sense of sweetness, virtue, or virtuosity.

Modernity has replaced the Muse. Today poets write as they are taught: to write against the past, instead of adding to its glories. One criterion exists in the Post-Modern, Creative Writing Program Era: Whatever you do, avoid the Iconic Past. Write in any manner you like, just as long as you don’t sound like Byron!

A good example of how this Modern Stupidity has replaced the Muse is the following poem which every modern loves.

In this poem, the ten year old who rhymes is secret code for Keats, Poe, Byron.

And the schoolteacher (cunningly dismissed, as well) in this poem is nothing more than tradition and poetry itself, replaced by the 20th-century, business model, vanity of the Creative Writing Program—which became a kind of solution during Bunting’s lifetime to the insulting woes described in the poem. Bunting’s clever poem seems to be a defense of poetry. It’s not. It’s a defense of modern poetry. And there’s a very important difference.

~

What the Chairman Told Tom by Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

~

We almost feel sorry for Tom, the sorry-ass modern poet who writes “rot,” but still wishes his “rot” to earn him a living. Is the speaker of the poem attractive? Not exactly, though his honest approach is the entire merit of the poem—take this away, and there’s no poem. Now, it is true: wrestling with how to make a poem better than “writing advertisements” or more significant than “a hobby” are valid questions, but Bunting’s poem isn’t interested in that; it only wants us to assume the poet is honorable—simply in the face of the “unkind” chairman’s remarks. Unfortunately, the “rot” the chairman mentions, as everyone who attempts to read most poetry knows, despite the poem’s self-pity, is depressingly real.

Bunting’s poem has heart—but no wit.

Bunting’s poem is good, raw anecdote—with a dubious agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2017 SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100

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1 Bob Dylan. Nobel Prize in Literature.

2 Ron Padgett. Hired to write three poems for the current film Paterson starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani.

3 Peter Balakian. Ozone Journal, about the Armenian genocide, won 2016 Pulitzer in Poetry.

4 Sherman Alexie. BAP 2015 ‘yellow-face controversy’ editor’s memoir drops this June.

5 Eileen Myles. Both her Selected Poems & Inferno: A Poet’s Novel making MSM lists.

6 Claudia Rankine. Citizen: important, iconic, don’t ask if it’s good poetry.

7 Anne Carson. The Canadian’s two latest books: Decreation & Autobiography of Red.

8 Paige Lewis. Her poem “The River Reflects Nothing” best poem published in 2016.

9 William Logan. In an age of poet-minnows he’s the shark-critic.

10 Ben Mazer. “In the alps I read the shipping notice/pertaining to the almond and the lotus”

11 Billy Collins. The poet who best elicits a tiny, sheepish grin.

12 John Ashbery. There is music beneath the best of what this New York School survivor does.

13 Joie Bose. Leads the Bolly-Verse Movement out of Kolkata, India.

14 Mary Oliver. Her latest book, Felicity, is remarkably strong.

15 Daipayan Nair.  “I am a poet./I kill eyes.”

16 Nikky Finny. Her book making MSM notices is Head Off & Split.

17 Sushmita Gupta. [Hers the featured painting] “Oh lovely beam/of moon, will you, too/deny me/soft light and imagined romance?”

18 A.E. Stallings. Formalism’s current star.

19 W.S. Merwin. Once the house boy of Robert Graves.

20 Mary Angela Douglas. “but God turns down the flaring wick/color by color almost/regretfully.”

21 Sharon Olds. Her Pulitzer winning Stag’s Leap is about her busted marriage.

22 Valerie Macon. Briefly N.Carolina Laureate. Pushed out by the Credentialing Complex.

23 George Bilgere. Imperial is his 2014 book.

24 Stephen Dunn. Norton published his Selected in 2009.

25 Marilyn Chin. Prize winning poet named after Marilyn Monroe, according to her famous poem.

26 Kushal Poddar. “The water/circles the land/and the land/my heaven.”

27 Stephen Burt. Harvard critic’s latest essay “Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump.” What will hold?

28 Joe Green. “Leave us alone. Oh, what can we do?/The wild, wild winds go willie woo woo.”

29 Tony Hoagland. Tangled with Rankine over tennis and lost.

30 Cristina Sánchez López. “I listen to you while the birds erase the earth.”

31 Laura Kasischke. Awkward social situations portrayed by this novelist/poet.

32 CAConrad. His latest work is The Book of Frank.

33 Terrance Hayes. National Book Award in 2010, a MacArthur in 2014

34 Robin Coste Lewis. Political cut-and-paste poetry.

35 Stephen Cole. “And blocked out the accidental grace/That comes with complete surprise.”

36 Martín Espada. Writes about union workers.

37 Merryn Juliette “And my thoughts unmoored/now tumbling/Like sand fleas on the ocean floor”

38 Daniel Borzutzky. The Performance of Being Human won the National Book Award in 2016.

39 Donald Hall. His Selected Poems is out.

40 Diane Seuss. Four-Legged Girl a 2016 Pulitzer finalist.

41 Vijay Seshadri. Graywolf published his 2014 Pulitzer winner.

42 Sawako Nakayasu. Translator of Complete Poems of Chika Sagawa.

43 Ann Kestner. Her blog since 2011 is Poetry Breakfast.

44 Rita Dove. Brushed off Vendler and Perloff attacks against her 20th century anthology.

45 Marjorie Perloff. A fan of Charles Bernstein and Frank O’hara.

46 Paul Muldoon. Moy Sand and Gravel won Pulitzer in 2003.

47 Frank Bidart. Winner of the Bollingen. Three time Pulitzer finalist.

48 Frederick Seidel. Compared “Donald darling” Trump to “cow-eyed Hera” in London Review.

49 Alice Notley. The Gertrude Stein of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

50 Jorie Graham. She writes of the earth.

51 Maggie Smith. “Good Bones.” Is the false—“for every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird”— poetry?

52 Adrian Matejka. His book The Big Smoke is about the boxer Jack Johnson.

53 Elizabeh Alexander. African American Studies professor at Yale. Read at Obama’s first inauguration.

54 Derek Walcott. Convinced Elizabeth Alexander she was a poet as her mentor at Boston University.

55 Richard Blanco. Read his poem, “One Today,” at Obama’s second inauguration.

56 Louise Glück. A leading serious poet.

57 Kim Addonizio. Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life came out in 2016.

58 Kay Ryan. An Emily Dickinson who gets out, and laughs a little.

59 Lyn Hejinian. An elliptical poet’s elliptical poet.

60 Vanessa Place. Does she still tweet about Gone With The Wind?

61 Susan Howe. Born in Boston. Called Postmodern.

62 Marie Howe. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time is her latest book.

63 Glynn Maxwell. British poetry influencing Americans? Not since the Program Era took over.

64 Robert Pinsky. Uses slant rhyme in his translation of Dante’s terza rima in the Inferno.

65 David Lehman. His Best American Poetry (BAP) since 1988, chugs on.

66 Dan Sociu. Romanian poet of the Miserabilism school.

67 Chumki Sharma. The great Instagram poet.

68 Matthew Zapruder. Has landed at the N.Y. Times with a poetry column.

69 Christopher Ricks. British critic at Boston University. Keeping T.S. Eliot alive.

70 Richard Howard. Pinnacle of eclectic, Francophile, non-controversial, refinement.

71 Dana Gioia. Poet, essayist.  Was Chairman of NEA 2003—2009.

72 Alfred Corn. The poet published a novel in 2014 called Miranda’s Book.

73 Jim Haba. Noticed by Bill Moyers. Founding director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

74 Hessamedin Sheikhi. Young Iranian poet translated by Shohreh (Sherry) Laici

75 Pablo Larrain. Directed 2016 film Neruda.

76 Helen Vendler. Wallace Stevens champion. Helped Jorie Graham.

77 Kenneth Goldsmith. Fame for poetry is impossible.

78 Cate Marvin. Oracle was published by Norton in 2015.

79 Alan Cordle. Still the most important non-poet in poetry.

80 Ron Silliman. Runs a well-known poetry blog. A Bernie man.

81 Natalie Diaz.  Her first poetry collection is When My Brother Was An Aztec.

82 D.A. Powell. Lives in San Francisco. His latest book is Repast.

83 Edward Hirsch. Guest-edited BAP 2016.

84 Dorianne Laux. Will always be remembered for “The Shipfitter’s Wife.”

85 Juan Felipe Herrera. Current Poet Laureate of the United States.

86 Patricia Lockwood. Her poem “Rape Joke” went viral in 2013 thanks to Twitter followers.

87 Kanye West. Because we all know crazy is best.

88 Charles Bernstein. Hates “official verse culture” and PWCs. (Publications with wide circulation.)

89 Don Share. Editor of Poetry.

90 Gail Mazur. Forbidden City is her seventh and latest book.

91 Harold Bloom. Since Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot are dead, he keeps the flame of Edgar Allan Poe hatred alive.

92 Alan Shapiro.  Life Pig is his latest collection.

93 Dan Chiasson. Reviews poetry for The New Yorker.

94 Robert Hass. “You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.”

95 Maurice Manning.  One Man’s Dark is a “gorgeous collection” according to the Washington Post.

96 Brian Brodeur. Runs a terrific blog: How A Poem Happens, of contemporary poets.

97 Donald Trump. Tweets-in-a-shit-storm keeping the self-publishing tradition alive.

98 Ben Lerner. Wrote the essay “The Hatred of Poetry.”

99 Vidyan Ravinthiran. Editor at Prac Crit.

100 Derrick Michael Hudson. There’s no fame in poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE VOTE FOR NOTHING

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“In Fum-Fudge great is a Lion with a proboscis, but greater by far is a Lion with no proboscis at all.” Lionizing, Edgar Poe

There is a vote for nothing.

We can desire nothing. We can think of nothing. We can move towards nothing.

We can choose nothing.

It is a very pleasant thing.  I think I will do nothing today.

We love and need and want nothing, like nothing else.

When love speaks to us—and what is more desired than love?—it whispers “sweet nothings.”

When we are in pain, we always feel something: whatever is hurting us, we feel.

The opposite of pain is simply to feel—nothing.

To feel nothing is bliss.

When we are truly comfortable with a friend, we can be at ease with them—doing nothing. That’s the test of friendship.

In friendship, in love, we find it meaningful and reassuring and pleasant to be next to someone we care about, doing absolutely nothing.

Nothing is the elixir of those voting for Hillary.

Voters for Trump want lower taxes and less regulations to stimulate business and grow the economy and create jobs and wealth.  They want borders against illegal immigrants for the safety and success of all Americans. Things like that. Agree with it, or not, to vote for Trump is to vote for something.

Likewise, with Jill Stein.  One votes for her to help protect the environment.

The libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson.  We know what that means. You are voting for the philosophy of less government and more individual freedom regarding issues that don’t harm others.

Ah, but none of these votes reach the profound bliss of nothing.

These voting choices preach good, but good with conditions: goods which are good, but which must be worked for.

But a vote for Hillary.

What is a vote for Hillary?

It is a vote for nothing.

Many people are voting for Hillary just… because… she is… a woman.

Just as strong friendships exist when two friends can hang out together doing nothing, so it is with the unconditional love of one woman for another.

You are a woman.  She is a woman. That’s it. That’s enough. It is nice just knowing there is another one similar to you in your presence. And of course this can work with any group with which you identify.

Just wanna be with my peeps. Nothing more.

It is the utterly simple companionship based on nothing—just two people occupying the same space together, in the simplest kind of empathy.  Nothing else is required.  Nothing.

What did Hillary do when she was a senator?  Everyone agrees.  Nothing.

In any manner that can be measured, in terms of speech, or policy, or legislation—what has she contributed?  Nothing.

What is her legacy?  Nothing.

Hillary is most famous for the nothing of erased emails, the nothing of vanished documents, the nothing of unnamed villains conspiring to make it seem she has done something wrong.

In Hillary’s case, we look in vain for something.  Does she have a personality?  Is there anything, when we look at her?

No. There is nothing.

A vote for Hillary says: let the future be the same as the present.  No change, please.  Nothing.

It is her secret appeal, if she has one.  No, there isn’t any appeal.

But of course, it is a greater appeal than any other.

The appeal of, and for, nothing.

And to argue with the Hillary Clinton status quo of blissful, unthinking nothing?  Is there anything we can say?

No. There is nothing.

We argue for—something—in vain.

 

 

 

 

SOME CRITICAL OBSERVATIONS

We have nothing against line breaks. But line breaks do not substitute for punctuation. And lack of punctuation is not poetic.

Criticism is not about brainwashing or bullying. That’s brainwashing and bullying, not criticism. A poet who is highly defensive about their own work can be a brainwashing bully. Brainwashing and bullying can be done by anyone and has nothing to do with Criticism, per se.

Criticism is a guide, that’s all. It’s the brain of the eyes. Good criticism lays out examples, shares work from many ages and writers, and presents it. End of story. Nothing wrong with that. If you are a nature poet, and there’s a million examples of nature poetry out there, you should count criticism which knows something about nature poetry as your friend—that is, if you yourself, as the poet, are not a brainwashing bully.

Writing workshops = a modern money-making scheme. We can objectively read our own work. It is brainwashing to say otherwise. If you can’t edit your work, solo, you are no writer. Criticism belongs to the newspaper, the public square, the lecture hall, not the private, writing workshop, classroom—and so the latter should not exist. The writing workshop can only exist as “invite-only” mischief, as behind-the-scenes reputation making, as institutional thievery of what should remain private in the writer’s house. Good professional criticism has been killed by the Writing Program era.

Any piece of writing can be ridiculed. The question in every particular case is always: should it be? This ‘should’ applies on many subtle levels so that a literary critic is truly the most important member of any modern society. But Criticism has been taken from society and imprisoned in a textbook. Socrates was the first really good one. Critics don’t belong in the classroom—it is a perverse waste of talent for troublesome, cynical ends.

Reading. That’s really all literary education is. Throw in purely material considerations of metrics, a few mechanical prose issues. Anything else is dubious, and perhaps damaging.

As Alexander Pope said, the spirit is more important than the letter. Don’t nitpick. On the other hand, grammar is 50% of writing. Poets who can’t punctuate kill themselves. Poe was a fierce critic, but only to rebuff really bad writing. A Poe critic belongs in a newspaper, not workshops. The old English major is better for writing because reading is better for writing. Workshops are pathological and unnecessary. If teaching writing is your gig, we are sorry. Of course it’s not your fault—it’s the landscape today.  Just pretend you are a literature teacher. And for God’s sake, make them read Plato. Be confident they will get enough empty modern certainty on their own.

E. E. Cummings used punctuation a lot. Semicolons abound in many of his poems. He went to Harvard. He used stanza, rhyme, repetition, parenthetical marks, and least of all, the line break, for poetical emphasis. He was a meticulously formalist Romantic poet who belonged to the modernist, 1920s, Dial clique of Moore, Williams, Pound, and Eliot, eloped with money-bags Scofield Thayer’s wife, won an annual Dial award just like the rest of them (with a substantial cash award) and went on to outsell them all.

Cummings fooled everyone into thinking he was modern. Clever guy.

A good writer fools others.

But not you.

NEW SCARRIET ESSAY: EVERYTHING IS HARD TO SEE

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“…that we as one might separate the curtain.” –Ben Mazer, December Poems

Calling someone something never makes it true.

Truth itself is deaf to the facts of what we say.

What you put in your poetry is not your poetry.

It is best not to be certain of anything.

You might feel you are certain of race, but the massive mixing of the races is its most singular feature, so your eyes could not be racist even if they wanted to be. The more stupid a person is, the more abstractly and intellectually certain they are about things. To triumph in politically motivated libel and slander is the insidious achievement of a certain kind of neocon, anglophilic, intellectualism which dominates not only thinking in highbrow circles, but a great amount of the power brokerage of the world itself.

The pitch of rhetoric (as obvious as that moment when a clanging train roars past you) changed around 1900—this change is typically labeled “Modernism”—but the change really occurred when imperial Britain and imperial America joined hands in the Gilded Age of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War.

The heroic America which burst upon the world in the 18th century was defined more than anything as a Quarrel With Empire Britain. When the American/British quarrel ended—its last gasp the Confederacy (secretly and tacitly) supported by Britain/France and opposed by Russia—America effectively became an English speaking extension of London.

America that had been the glory of the world disappeared; the new Anglo-American world leader—even as unprecedented technological innovation continued unabated in the booming, democratic, American colony—made sure food became “fast,” made sure the arts declined, the Middle East was crushed, and saw to it that insane war, secretive strong-arming, and shrill, controlling, divisive rhetoric became the norm.

Today, due to the hard work of Modernism since the mid-19th century, almost all highbrow, power brokering, rhetoric is aimed at this intellectual certainty: you are a hater, you are destroying the planet, what you put in your poetry is your poetry, and you must go broke educating yourself to know this.

This is the messed-up but beautiful world of the 21st century.

Philosophy once sought doubt, and ran from intellectual certainty.

Genius—da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Poe, Mozart—once received a certain amount of devotion.

Now this devotion is frowned upon, because in some abstract sort of way, insinuated by the intellectual management of the new world order, this devotion participates in “hating.”

Children are geniuses in the way they learn, because they do not learn one way. Crippling pedagogy harms them but little; unfortunately, when the student is older, and socialized fitting into society becomes pedagogically imperative, pedagogy does cripple and harm.

The genius resists mainstream intellectualization. The genius knows that what you put in your poetry is not the poetry. The genius doubts all the “hating” rhetoric. The genius—the genius in everyone—naturally feels alone.

When you experience confusion: is that a man or a woman? Casually, walking along the street, for a moment, innocently, we may not know. Or, is that my friend? Or someone else? Our eyes may play tricks on us. We are overjoyed when we know, for doubt is the opposite of happiness.

Imagine the horror of losing memory and peering with confusion at everything. Would beauty and love still be apparent if memory were gone, if pleasurable things were not attached to friends, or the familiar? Is this the thrill of the opium dream, when beautiful sensations exist purely on their own?

Is beautiful oblivion a bad thing?

It is a bad thing, for one reason only—the dreamer realizes that he or she is alone.

Loneliness is the aching burden of the genius, who tends to get from others only two things: malicious envy or vacuous praise.

Criticism is the flip side of, and just important as, poetry.

Nature, of course, is the Genius. All we think of as ‘human ingenuity’ is nothing more than observing and then pragmatically using nature’s gifts.

We see the reflection in the lake. Reflecting upon that reflection, the mirror is born, the camera is born, the cinema is born, and every technology pertaining to receiving, storing and using pictures.

Nerd-ball mathematics belongs to every insight, whether conscious, unconscious, draped in intellectuality, or not.

The refinement of science into the social sciences—business, advertising, arts, pedagogy, entertainment and administrative success–this refinement is the chief feature of Modernism (Anglo/Americanism) and probably has more to do with lying than truth. It is simply how Empire controls things: rule the seas, then lines of journalism, story and communication—in which divisive and libelous rhetoric is effected to divide and conquer, stir up, or pacify, depending on the situation.

The genius seeks to get out from under the cloud of social sciences and see reality as it really is.

The genius revels not in measurement chopped-up, but measurement.

The genius seeks the whole, not the partial.

Mathematics is how nature is largely understood, and old genius and new genius copy her mathematically—whether in architecture or sending a man to the moon.

Empire is what we read about in the paper. It is not life, which triumphs every day; poetry reflects the vibrations of this triumph.

They talk about “mindfulness” these days, but of course there is nothing new here; it is more of what the genius who copies nature has always known: be attentive; observe how nature does things.

Mathematics can be used frivolously as well: pie charts of marketing surveys, the observation that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly proficient at something. This is social refinement, the sort of semi-interesting thing people like Malcolm Gladwell traffic in, but this is a far cry from genius itself.

Geeky math is always a good place to start: why are ugly people smart? Because they desire the proportion denied to their looks and pursue it with a vengeance in their brains. Even beauty can be willed.

Mathematics is on the side of the good poets; good poetry has interesting (mathematical) rhythm—it supports what they say, so what they say sounds better, and this excites the brain in a way that inspires original thinking: how something is said impacts what is said—the counter-intuitive reality of this increases the efficiency of what-thinking, as how-thinking is concretely and intuitively felt.

Mathematics is the complete mind of nature: the genius is always listening to it.

When a woman sits at her dressing table before her mirror, she is not striving to be beautiful, but young. Youth is what the clock of nature gave her. Nature gave to her what her parents gave to her—once she passes the parenting age, nature’s beauty is gone—and there is no human substitute possible. Men decay quickly, too. This is never as tragic, since men are horrors no matter how they look. Most of the time men deserve to crumble.

Everything is manifest in mathematical nature. Nature is a clock.

As I write this, my home town of Salem is hosting, for the eighth year in a row, the Massachusetts Poetry festival, and throughout downtown every imaginable workshop on poetry is offered—it’s the Age of the Workshop—with the naivé but successful marketing belief that whatever hodgepodge thing you put into poetry becomes poetry.

But what you put into poetry is not poetry.

How you say what you are is poetry.

Poetry is hard to see.

The poetic genius travels into the valley of the clock alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAVID BITTNER AND THE THÉÂTRE DES VARIÉTÉS: NOSTALGIC JOURNALIST’S QUEST FOR ARCANE FACTS LEADS TO UNLOCKING OF IOWA SYNAGOGUE’S OLD SECRET

Percival Goodman, architect

One of our readers, David Bittner, who sometimes posts, in Comments, long, reflective pieces of self-induced musings not necessarily connected to the Scarriet article or poem above, has placed us in a dilemma; he has placed with us, unsolicited, both by mail and electronically, an article he has written entitled “Nostalgic Journalist’s Quest for Arcane Facts Leads to Unlocking of Iowa Synagogue’s Old Secret.”

We are utterly charmed by David Bittner; he represents something which we consider important, though we can’t quite identify it—a spirit from a bygone era: a rambling, observant innocence—which, I think most of our readers will discern, is a spirit that differs from our cranky and beloved Scarriet.

We at Scarriet—our strangely named Blog—aspire to expound a high-sounding, credible, youthful yet scholarly, Zeitgeist of Poetry and Culture in a manner serious, Germanic, Romantic, racy, tragic, traditional, classical, critical.

Bittner offers a blast of nostalgia, humility, playfulness.

We pound. He dances. We dart. He skips. We flog. He chuckles. We romanticize. He defers.

We wish to publish him, but how can we do so, without betraying ourselves editorially? Our readers will see Bittner’s writing on Scarriet and think, ‘What the hell is going on?’

But we do pride ourselves on being inclusive. If we sometimes court controversy, we never intend to hurt; we seek to enlighten, to join hands.

We cannot turn Bittner away.

We found a solution.

We will marry his essay to remarks made by America’s greatest genius, in the fictional narration of his famous “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The solemn will be paired with the playful.

Bittner’s stated theme is “quest for arcane facts leads to unlocking…old secret…”

In Bittner’s essay, the way to the “secret” is filled with detours, and Poe perhaps can tell us why:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting is such exercises as call his muscles into play, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play.

And so Poe introduces his tale, and before he gets to the actual mystery and its horror, he recounts how the narrator of the tale and his seclusive, humble companion, the amateur detective Dupin (a model for the later Sherlock Holmes) are walking along the streets of Paris together, for about fifteen minutes, without speaking:

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street, in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Théatre des Variétés.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, and not at first observing (so much had I been absorbed in reflection) the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant afterward I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.

“Dupin,” I said gravely, “this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know what I was thinking of—?” Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought.

“—of Chantilly,” said he, “why do you pause? You were remarking to yourself that his diminutive figure unfitted him for tragedy.”

This was precisely what had formed the subject of my reflections. Chantilly was a quondam cobbler of the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad, had attempted the rôle of Xerxes, in Crébillon’s tragedy so called, and been notoriously Pasquinaded for his pains.

“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.” In fact I was even more startled than I would have been willing to express.

“It was the fruiterer,” replied my friend, ” who brought you to the conclusion that the mender of soles was not of sufficient height for Xerxes et id genus omne.

“The fruiterer!—you astonish me—I know no fruiterer whosoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street—it may have been fifteen minutes ago.”

And with that, we present David Bittner:

***

AS I enter my dotage, I have found myself eager to get answers to some questions that have had me wondering since I was young.  For instance, I would like to do DNA-testing that might tell me more about my ethnicity. Raised in an observant Jewish home, am I in a straight line of descent from the ancient Israelites, or am I also partly Slavic, as I suspect? The Slavic may not show very much in my phenotype, but I think it must be there in my genotype! And what is my exact height in feet and inches? As one nurse put it to me recently, “It looks like you are 5′ 5” smack dab !”

Three years ago I took a short trip to Rockford, Illinois, which I consider my second home town. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, I spent most of my formative junior high and high school years in Rockford. Imagine the jolt I got when I went to have lunch at the Sweden House, a very nice, new restaurant in the mid-60s (and the place where my high school graduation party was held), and found a sign on the door that said, “This property is condemned.”

The next day I took a bus into Chicago to see the famous Brookfield Zoo. My mother had told me this was no doubt the origin of my dreams since childhood about a fabulous park with rectangular pools and flower beds, lots of fountains, and an old blue-uniformed ticket-taker with a white walrus mustache. Now, as I made my first visit to the Brookfield Zoo since 1957, I saw no mustachioed, old ticket-taker, but there unmistakably were the rectangular pools and flower beds and fountains that I remembered. I think that St. Helena could not have felt any surer about the holy places she identified in fourth-century Palestine, than I felt about these familiar, old features of Brookfield Zoo.

Another story that goes back to early childhood concerns the two summer vacation trips we took to Lake Okoboji, a popular resort in Iowa. On one of these two trips I accidentally dropped parts of a children’s tea-set, made by the well-known Ohio Art Company, right into Lake Okoboji. Of all the miniature metal utensils that I had just lost, I particularly liked the blue teapot and the way its blue lid fit so exactly into the top. So in the late 1980s, when I saw the very same tea set, in mint condition, on sale for $50 at a West Palm Beach, Florida flea market, I had to have it. If affects me in the same way today as it did originally. It is cunning!

And I wanted to find my all-time favorite “Peanuts” comic strip again. It was about Peppermint Patty getting drowned out by her classmates’ laughter when she got up to present her science project on “toast, before and after.” Patty began, “Now, on this board is a slice of untoasted bread, and…” The whole next panel was filled with Patty’s classmates chortling, “HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA.” It reminded me of my own ridiculous seventh grade science project. I turned my saucer sled upside down, painted it red with two big green spots for eyes, and attached two pipe-cleaners to the top for antennae. I called my creation a “Martian.” I wrote a few pages supposedly describing its locomotive, alimentary and sensory systems. I never found out exactly what grade Mr. Hill, our popular P.E. Dept. head, who also taught science, gave my project, but I can definitely tell you that it was not among those selected for display in that year’s school science fair. But it’s much more important to me now to have this cartoon drawn by Charles Schulz in 1970. I found it in The Complete Peanuts, volume 10. These volumes were produced surely, but slowly.

Now, related to all these Proustian tea-cakes stories and the “George Webber” story of quest for identity, told by Thomas Wolfe in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is another story from my youth that lurked as a question mark in my mind until recently. Really intent this time on getting an answer, I found it by surfing the internet and digging through library books and journal articles.

I will explain. And now I come to the main subject of this whole article. When I was a teenager, in temple youth group in Rockford, several of us participated in a “conclavette” held at Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa. We were struck to see how the second half of the Shema prayer had been carved in English on the stone façade of Temple Emanuel. Of course we all knew what it was supposed to say, which was, “The Lord Our God is One.” But the two final letters of the phrase—N and E—made the whole six-word phrase, carved in the streamlined, sans serif, International style of Bauhaus, beg to be read as, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK.” We all noticed it and laughed. But was it real or just our imagination?

Now, I have often thought that somebody could write a good thesis on the decline of the typewriter as an instrument for creating ambiguous messages, with the rise of the computer. There used to be many traveling salesmen who took typewriters with them on the road. These typewriters were used primarily to write business reports. But once in a while you would hear the story of some distraught, lonely salesman typing a letter to his wife from the road. He would manipulate the typewriter keys to create words and messages with double meanings. For instance, he might type, sloppily, “May is beautiful. I wish you were her.”  The same possibility does not exist in computer-land. (And if the computer had not largely replaced the typewriter, imagine what a field day “birthers” and other detractors of President Barack Obama could have had with the names “Omaha” and “Obama.” Participating in the Nebraska Democratic presidential caucus in 2008, I had to do a double-take when I saw certain posters and placards that were being hoisted.)

Or there is the following story that my cousin Harry’s sister Ruth used to relish. (Both Harry and Ruth are deceased now.) In the 1930s, Ruth served as administrative assistant to Dr. Philip Sher, president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. While Ruth was still new to her job, she signed some of Dr. Sher’s routine correspondence with a simple abbreviation of his name: “Dr. P. Sher.” Of course Ruth had no idea that she had created an embarrassing double entendre. But it so happens that a prominent Yiddish term of endearment for a little boy is a “pisher.” My great-aunt Dora Arbitman, for instance, used to call me, “a little pisher” when I was that age. At any rate, Dr. Sher noticed the great similarity of his initial and last name to the slang Yiddish word, “pisher,” and he was not amused.

And then there was my typewritten gaffe, written accidentally on purpose, just to shake up the gals in the composition room of The Fond du Lac (WI) Commonwealth Reporter, where I was a summer intern in 1969 and 1970. In one of my accident reports, about a Mr. Puckaway’s auto mishap, I typed F instead of P. (And there really was this Mr. Puckaway, who was involved in a car-crash. I did not make him up.) Sure enough, soon three young women came running upstairs to the newsroom, ostensibly to wag their fingers at me, but it was obvious to me, from their friendly laughter, that I had actually made their morning.

Once again, opportunities and excuses for ambiguity, such as seen in most of the preceding scenarios, do not exist in Computerland. But that still leaves stonemasonry and other traditional media to offer possibilities for mischief-making and honest accidents. Touring Morocco in 1994, I was shown the tomb of a Sultan where, it was speculated, some little stars of David in the paved floor may have been the work of an unknown Jewish architect’s assistant who was just using the Star of David to scrawl the equivalent of, “Kilroy Was Here.”

Or how about the famous epitaph, “O Rare Ben Jonson,” on the grave of the great English dramatist Ben Jonson (1573—1637)? The “O” and the word-fragment, “rare,” were intended to spell the Latin word, “Orare,” which means, “Pray for.” But the “wrong” phrase has actually been considered so much more suitable than the “right” one, that no one has disturbed it for almost 400 years. And let’s not forget Richard Nixon’s solemn criticism of black leftist youth’s “Du Bois” Clubs in California for supposedly using phonics to create unfair competition for the Boys Clubs of America. (As a private citizen in the mid-60s, Nixon served for several years as president of the Boys Clubs of America.)

Then let us consider the little blue-and-white six-pointed stars and other Jewish symbols that Berta Hummel (Sister Maria Innocentia) used freely in her artwork, upon which the later Hummel figurines were based. Some of the angles of Berta’s stars may look a bit askew compared to those of other “Mogen Dovids,” old and new, but they were still recognizable enough as “Jewish stars” to make Hitler angry at the young nun. He forbade the sale of any Hummel work in Germany. Hitler also didn’t like Sister Berta’s depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Maybe Berta’s pictures just made it plain that most of the ones doing good things were Jews, and most of the ones doing bad things were Romans! (The author’s aunt by marriage, the late Shirley Bittner, was Sister Berta’s niece or great-niece. The family is not sure which. I think it is simply not that important to them. But, a convert to Judaism herself, my aunt certainly exhibited no anti-Semitic leanings, and she now rests in Omaha’s Mount Zion Cemetery, a very well-kept little Jewish cemetery of her own choosing.)

And now, as my favorite example of ambiguity in arts and crafts, I turn to my friendship of 40+ years with Gerard and Sonia Teller, formerly of Strasbourg, France, now of Jerusalem, Israel. I have many fond memories of them and their four children. One Friday night in the summer of 1973, we had just sat down to the ritual Sabbath Eve meal. I picked up the silver Kiddush cup (the goblet used for blessing the wine) by my place-setting and casually examined it. What should I discover, but that stamped onto the bottom of the cup, all by itself, was the figure, 800. I think it was probably a foundry mark. But I showed the cup to Gerard and Sonia and said, “Regardez! Cela date de Charlemagne!” It gave us all a good laugh. (As any educated person ought to know, in the year 800, Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor.)

As we have seen in this example from France, ambiguity may be imposed on certain letter groups. Some people do this to make trouble, others for more humane reasons, like humor. Or, an artist like Sister Berta Hummel may use graphics to make a political statement—gambling on this statement’s whole possibility of meanings to keep her out of prison. The reasons for these bloopers just vary widely. They may include everything from damage control, to theatricality, to playfulness, to carelessness, to opportunism, to simple mistakenness, and to malice.

I think that Percival Goodman, widely acknowledged as the king of American synagogue architecture, and the man who designed Temple Emanuel of Davenport, would come under the “playful” category. Wikipedia tells us that Goodman believed in using “dramatic” and “attention-getting” “accents” to make motorists notice the new synagogues of outlying suburbia. Goodman designed more than 50 synagogues, himself, coast to coast. These “dramatic accents” and Goodman’s coy description of himself as “an agnostic converted by Hitler” make it very believable that this was a man who would think nothing of writing, “THE LORD OUR GOD IS OK” on the wall of a synagogue. Goodman said, “I don’t have any notion of what God is all about; I’m very suspicious of the whole notion of God. Therefore I can only deal with men. Well, that’s not as high an aspiration as God, and therefore the work I do will always be secular.”

And so I have satisfied myself, after 40 years of uncertainty (including the frustration of unanswered phone calls, letters, and e-mails to Temple Emanuel), that the quality of being “OK” must have been an addition that Percival Goodman made to the 13 traditional attributes of God. He was a real intellectual and a well-meaning man. So was his brother, Paul Goodman, with whom Percival co-authored numerous books on philosophy and religion. And so was Somerset Maugham, the famous English author, who was hard to pin down on what he believed. At times he flaunted atheism—mostly to shock people. But during his final illness at the age of 91, he felt the return of faith and said he would accept people’s prayers. So maybe we could say something like that about Percival Goodman—that if he used sans serif to stir things up, maybe it didn’t mean that he was altogether sans seraph.

The author wishes to thank the Omaha Public Library’s reference staff for their great help in the preparation of this article. He will be happy, when possible, to furnish book and page references, for factual material cited herein.

***

So there is David Bittner’s article, carved in all its glory on Scarriet, to remain forever, side by side with Scarriet’s glorious poems. Amen. Paul Goodman, mentioned above in the article, is the illustrious author of Growing Up Absurd, and he and his brother advocated for an intimate, car-less Manhattan. Percival Goodman was not a God-man, but it seems he was an OK-man. Thank you, David Bittner, for a warm, funny, informative and delightful essay!

 

IN FEAR OF DOGGEREL

We recently attended a poetry reading in Harvard Square and we had the great pleasure to hear the world’s greatest living poet, Ben Mazer, read his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep,” a poem of about 350 lines which closes his new book, The Glass Piano.  It was a cinematic experience, the sort of poem in which you get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen in a state half-way between sleep and waking.

If cinematic poetry doesn’t start a renaissance in poetry, nothing will.

Here’s the thing: and we might as well begin with Keats’ phrase: “fine excess.”  We all know that poetry is known for concision, and this is all well and good, but we must say, we fear this idea, once having got its nose in the tent, now occupies the whole of it, crowding out everything else.

For, as the wretched Pound pointed out—and many, many writers before him—prose, as much as poetry, should not waste words; poetry has no special hold on concision.

We do not mean, “If you have nothing to say, shut up.” No, if you have nothing to say, you are probably the poet we want to hear from.  But this is neither here nor there. We are speaking from a purely technical standpoint.

To say poetry is concise is like saying painting is concise—well, of course it is; it belongs to its frame, not the world. But if this truism took root, the pinnacle of art would be the fifteen-second sketch. Notwithstanding the infinite charm of the master creating a world with a few strokes, we think it time for poetry to throw off the burden of having to say little. Once and for all, let us declare that to be concise is not necessarily to be poetic.  Poe, who said, “a long poem doesn’t exist,” also said a small one doesn’t exist either: there must be sufficient pressure on the wax to create the impression.

Without having to specify length, what this means is, the poet, and the artist in general—for art has suffered from Modernist theories as much as poetry—should use all the tools in the tool box—and why not?  The thing we don’t like about abstract painting is not abstract painting; it is the fact that we once had the pleasure of pictorial representation and all the interest of color which abstract painters revel in.  The thing we don’t like about cartooning, or the vague sketch, or the Red Wheel Barrow, is not the principle which these uphold, that suggestion is perhaps the most important thing in art there is—it is.  But too much reliance on suggestion is suggestive no more.  The paltry is finally not poetic.

This essay comes to damn the poet who goes in fear of doggerel, the poet who plays it safe, who hides behind the “experimental,” a code word for “this is not what I really can do, as an artist, I’m just thinking out loud here, don’t mind me, but if you find something that’s clever here, well, I’ll take a compliment or two, why not?”

Fear of the tight rope turns into the earth-bound, fake bravery of the “avant-garde.” Clowning around on the piano and never getting down to playing a real piece has profited many a hack since 1900.

To be cinematic in poetry is difficult, for one is firmly in that temporal mode perfected by Homer and Tennyson with the added pictorial heft.  The purely discursive, or the obscure, will not do.  Cinematic poetry requires the whole art, which does not eschew the discursive or the suggestive, or any of the other tricks of the poet, by any means—no, but it requires them all.

Poetry, like the film, has motion as its medium; it pitches forward, and does so, like film, with all sorts of markers, pauses, ends, flashbacks, jump cuts, call them what you will—but you get the idea.

Every one of these temporal tricks is enhanced by meter and rhyme.

This is not some moral or bitter argument against the “avant-garde;” again, we are speaking purely from a technical point of view.

To make the poetry that does the most, that is whole and cinematic: meter and rhyme simply help drive that engine. To go in fear of the doggerel is a fear we must abandon.

The poems which win both the popular and the critical taste are cinematic poems; we love them like films, and the truly literate know they are better than films: Prufrock, Kubla Khan, The Raven, The Cloud. But we live in times of horror, in which an appreciation of classical music and great painting and beautiful poetry is fading; there are millions, even fairly intelligent and somewhat nice people—or those who can pass as such—too thick and dense to appreciate beauty in the arts. This is the greatest tragedy of our age, a violence against beautiful feelings which points to more material suffering in the future.

(Scarriet, in the last 5 years of its existence, has produced thousands of lines of original poetry, and so what if half, if 60% is doggerel? We don’t care. For what has been achieved, it is more than worth it.)

We do not recommend Mazer lightly, nor is our argument here to be taken lightly.

It may save poetry.

And everyone’s life.

 

BLACK SUN PRESS AND THE SUPPRESSED, DIONYSIAN SIDE OF MODERNISM

image

Millay: Official Modernism hated her: a leftist woman who rhymed and loved.

The revolt of Modernism in poetry against Victorian decorum was complex and extensive, and featured a great deal of sex.

So why is one tale told? The one dominated by the limp, morbid barrenness of sexless, Shelley-hating, T.S. Eliot—and that dry-as-dust, boring, petals-on-a-black-bough-red-wheel-barrow poetry?

Is this why poetry today finds itself in a cul de sac, without a public, in the ruins of a Creative Writing pyramid scheme which has collapsed into piecemeal, self-promoting, illiteracy?

Modernism in the early 20th century was dominated by powerful femme fatale poets—and yet the one female poet included in the accepted Story of Modern Poetry is: the brittle, spinsterish, Marianne Moore!

The revolt against the Victorian—as the Modern Poetry history has been written, codified, and solidified is so…Victorian.

Not that we care about sex, per se; we just find it interesting how things played out.

The Victorians—which the wild, crazy and free Moderns rebelled against (one can include Emily Dickinson as a Victorian, since she wrote and lived in that era, if one wants) —were actually bolder in their poetry than the Modernist rakes and waifs (Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams) who successfully overcame the now largely forgotten Victorian/Romantic influence, and succeeded them. The Victorians are far more enjoyable to read (and they sold much better in their day, too).

Maybe that’s the rub: enjoyable. Sexual excess, or enjoyment of any kind, wasn’t the ticket to become canonized in the schools: the Modernist revolution had to seem safely aesthetic—a topic for professors, in order to gain a footing in academia, since despite their “rebellious nature,” legitimate inclusion was what the successful ones were after. That meant the Moderns had to be writing a “new” kind of poetry. Even though it was boring, and the public didn’t care for it.

The fussy, heavily brocaded, Victorian, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—who wrote some really exceptional poetry which has been ignored and shut away for a century—became a wife in a secret elopement to Italy.

The leader of the Modernist rebellion, T.S. Eliot, a lifelong virgin, shut away his wife forever.

Here we have two stories presented side by side:

Modern poetry is not the story of a door opening; but of a door shutting—on so much of what was pleasing about the 19th century—but also on the alternative, Dionysian, Romantic side of 20th century modernism, too.

Eliot appealed to poets who couldn’t get laid.

True, Edna St. Vincent Millay got old.

And died.

But everyone gets old and dies.

There was a whole Modernist movement which exploded right after World War One, before, during, and after the publication of the morbid “Waste Land,” a different modernist movement which frightened guys like Eliot—led by brash young women and featuring Persian love and Poe and Hindu sex. (One of these types of women even married Tom Eliot, and—are we surprised?—it was a complete disaster.)

Here is the critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Van Doren, writing in Harper’s in the 1930s about America’s great moral transformation during the Age of High Modernism as WW I came to a close; he does not talk about Pound or Eliot. He talks about Edna St. Vincent Millay:

At home the old-fashioned family had broken up. The young could get into automobiles and almost at once be miles away. They could go to the movies and at once be worlds away. Dress and speech had become informal in the emergency of the War. The chaperon had disappeared. Boys leaving to be killed, it might be, had claimed the right to see their girls alone, and the sexes had drawn together in a common need and daring. After the War they were still not divided. The sexes would be comrades, they thought.

The early poems of Edna Millay are the essence of the Younger Generation.

How this genii—real Modernist poetry—was put away in its bottle is certainly a staggering historical fact, but something there is in us now that makes us want to let it out again.

To get a strong whiff from that bottle is just a google click away.

Search “Black Sun publisher Harry Crosby.”

You want real modern poetry?

Not Williams. Not Eliot. Not Stevens. Not those guys the clammy hand professors teach you in school.

You want the true modern poetry of that era? Take a swig of the drink, Harry Crosby.

The story of Modern poetry which has been sold to us: that Pound and Williams and Moore are the vital pieces, is without aesthetic merit, and its virtue is really that of a particular school program, and it exists as just that—a story—told by the critics and poets and historians who invested (and are still invested) in the Writing Program as the only viable institution of post-war pedagogy.

Government oversight of education, the publishing of textbooks, the editorship of periodical literature, the purse strings of grants and prizes and forums and money and awards, fell into the hands of the New Critics and their allies: John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot both belonging to the same generation of early Modernism—and not just poetry, but art, music, fashion, government, war, the architecture/building trades, espionage, banking, international in outlook—and all the more effective because it was run by pals, a tight-knit group. Of course it is much too extensive to detail here. But very briefly then:

John Quinn, attorney, art collector, British intelligence, worked with Eliot and Pound to negotiate publication of “The Waste Land” (with pre-purchases) so Eliot would win the Dial Prize even before Pound had finished his edits—Quinn, the same individual most responsible (even getting an export bill passed in the U.S. Congress) for the Armory show, which brought Modern Art to America—Eliot wins, and meanwhile, purchase of the new art by insiders is highly, highly lucrative.  Who wouldn’t want to be in on all that phenomenal networking? Eliot and Pound certainly were. Without Quinn’s work behind the scenes, who knows if Americans would even know of Eliot, or Duchamp, or Picasso? Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom’s right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critic associate, reviews “The Waste Land” favorably, helps start the Creative Writing program at Princeton. Paul Engle, the father of the Program Era at Iowa, is given his Yale Younger Prize for his MFA poetry book—by a judge who is a member of Ransom’s New Critic group from the early Fugitive magazine days at Vanderbilt. Robert Lowell, as Creative Writing teacher at Iowa, is the first “poet-teacher star” of the Program Era; Lowell’s psychiatrist happens to be another member of Ransom and Tate’s circle, who recommends Lowell leave Harvard to befriend Tate and Ransom, which he does. We see that all the annual Dial Magazine Prize winners in the 1920s become the canonized Modern poets: Eliot, Williams, Pound, Moore (and Cummings, who ends up running off with the Dial editor’s wife). Ford Maddox Ford, War Propaganda Minister during World War I in England, the first to meet Pound off the boat when the latter leaves America for England, will later cross the Atlantic to help start the Writing Program Era with Ramsom and Tate.

We do not present this information as some nefarious plot; the world was smaller then; we present it languidly, merely as a picture of the clever ambitions of the cleverly ambitious, who were in the right place at the right time, and who happened to possess a certain amount of talent: Eliot, in poetry, the most brilliant. John Crowe Ransom, just from his two essays which Ransom published in the 1930s, “Criticism, Inc.” and “Poets Without Laurels,”— a blueprint for universities taking up the official role of teaching the new writing, and the best explanation of amoral Modernism—was a close second.

But as we said, these were the brilliant architects who made themselves and their “new” Modern identity—an austere looseness, a dryness, a deathly cynicism—the accepted mode for the university, and it required tweedy, learned, respectability to make it happen, even as it was Shelley and Byron hating—which guys like Eliot and Tate and Ransom, with their brilliance, learning and inside track, provided.

But what of the vast majority of the Modernists, who impulsively did what true rebels do?

These “lesser” moderns crossed paths with the more successful ones, such as Pound—but they lived for the poetry, for the revolt, for the sex. These were the Moderns who wrote beautiful love poems and threw themselves off ships, as Pound and Eliot grew old and famous. What of these “lesser” moderns? Many of these “lesser” moderns, some more respectable and less feverish than others, kept writing poetry that rhymed, made sense, and repeated the great, old themes that never die. What of them? Should we continue to bury them?

And speaking of revolt, we are not simply advocating here for the resurrection of an alternative clique of poets who worked between the wars in the hectic days of the early 20th century. This is about more than that. It is about shedding narrow, modernist aesthetic bias and embracing great poems of all eras, and having the guts to call a bad poem a bad poem, even if it was written by William Carlos Williams. Look at this poem by the currently suppressed 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett; the way she uses “revolt” is timeless, and will break your heart:

Little Mattie

Dead! Thirteen a month ago!
Short and narrow her life’s walk.
Lover’s love she could not know
Even by a dream or talk:
Too young to be glad of youth;
Missing honor, labor, rest,
And the warmth of a babe’s mouth
At the blossom of her breast.
Must you pity her for this,
And for all the loss it is—
You, her mother with wet face,
Having had all in your case?

Just so young but yesternight,
Now she is as old as death.
Meek, obedient in your sight,
Gentle to a beck or breath
Only on last Monday! yours,
Answering you like silver bells
Lightly touched! an hour matures:
You can teach her nothing else.
She has seen the mystery hid
Under Egypt’s pyramid.
By those eyelids pale and close
Now she knows what Rhamses knows.

Cross her quiet hands, and smooth
Down her patient locks of silk,
Cold and passive as in truth
You your fingers in spilt milk
Drew along a marble floor;
But her lips you can not wring
Into saying a word more,
“Yes” or “no,” or such a thing.
Though you call and beg and wreak
Half your soul out in a shriek,
She will lie there in default
And most innocent revolt.

None of Eliot’s “escape from emotion” here.

Poe said poetry was mostly mathematical—and he was correct, since rhythm is essential to expressive speech, whether metrical, or not—and mathematics is essential to quantity associated with rhythm. Eliot carried this formula further and mistranslated it to mean lack of feeling—quantity, after all, is not associated with feverish human emotion; but it is not emotion, but its expression which matters to the poet—so Eliot is only partly correct, and when his half-truth was received as a truth, it created a race of poets who turned their back on so-called “sentimental” poetry, such as this example of Elizabeth Barrett’s, a tender and beautiful poem banned by 20th century professors because of its excess “emotion” and “sentiment.” The schools are wrong. The amateurs are correct. The expression of feeling should not to be avoided in the art of poetry. More feeling isn’t better, necessarily, but it is never necessary that feeling (we mean its expression) be critically censored.

We think the best tradition for poetry is, first and foremost, the tradition of good poems—more than successful members of super-successful, networking cliques’ poorer ones.

For the truth is: Millay is a far better poet than not only Moore, but the guys, like Pound.

Certainly, “new” aesthetics can and should be studied (even if they haven’t done anyone a lick of good) but good poems written by the flesh and blood poets who lived in the same era as the better known, tweedy, experimental poets, deserve our attention, too.

Completely by chance today, as we perused old issues of Harper’s magazine, we came upon this poem by Archibald MacLeish. It is a love poem (horrors!). It was published in 1929, when Pound and Eliot were still nearly unknown, before they became famous as Axis defenders and post-WW II Modernist school subjects.

MacLeish, like the poets Frost and Millay, wrote poems people liked to read—and he was read. He was a wealthy friend of wealthy heir Harry Crosby, who—if you googled him by now—you know Crosby published MacLeish, Hart Crane, Poe, love poems, in exquisitely crafted books, a few copies at a time, and died at 29 with a young women in a suicide pact in a painter friend’s studio.

Here is a Modernist poem, the kind of poem which is now suppressed, just like Millay and Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Elinor Wylie and countless other women poets are suppressed, locked away by the Moore/Williams /Pound Official Modernism professors. We close with the MacLeish poem:

To Praisers of Women

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered.
These were lies.

The words sound, but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks, but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore, I will not praise your knees and your fine walking,
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young and your arms straight and your mouth scarlet.
I shall say you will die, and none  will remember you;
Your arms change and none remember the swish of your garments
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hands’ strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste,

Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.
What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost,
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most?

Therefore, I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I shall say you were young and straight and your skin fair—
And you stood in the door, and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders,
And a leaf on your hair.

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women.
I shall say the shape of a blown leaf lay on your hair,
Till the world ends and the sun is out and the sky broken
Look! It is there!

BEN MAZER’S THE GLASS PIANO AND THE POETRY OF INTELLECTUAL IMMEDIACY

Who walks here? Poe? Eliot? Mazer?

Just a glance at the titles of the poems in Ben Mazer’s new book, The Glass Pianoreleased Nov. 1 (Madhat Press) thrills this reviewer:

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar
Autumn Magazines
My Last Dutchman
One dresses in the darkened gloom
Spread over the vast sinking town
Tonight my lover lies
Why is it some old magazine; like a wheelbarrow
The poet does his finest work in sin
Graves and waves are signified by rows

Pop culture is one thing; poetic, in the true sense of the term, is something else: the current swarm of poets in our Writing Program era often mix these two up.  Poetry can use pop culture; but amateurs aflame with various aspects of pop culture (or hipster culture) have it so that pop culture uses poetry, which is…ugh…so wrong.

In Mazer’s brief lyric, “Autumn Magazines,” poetry is using pop culture, not the other way around. It is difficult to pinpoint why, but Mazer, in his poetry, absolutely gets this distinction. In this poem, poetry asserts itself.

Autumn Magazines

The falling leaves of autumn magazines
are framed by nature. Frost said you come too.
Your gowns and sandals crown your nakedness,
Each season justifies all that you do.
The sidewalks spread out their appearances,
the towers and the gilding celebrate
the dates and calendars, commemorate
and underneath it all there’s only you.

The ending “you” is endearingly romantic and Romantic. Nearly all “serious” poets today avoid the gesture, fearing critical rebuke for its “pop song” component; such fear, however, dogs only the lesser poets, not poets like Mazer (we will be bold enough to point out Scarriet is the leading example of this style) who are in such command and control of their poetic gift that “pop” elements do not turn their poetry into “pop,” even when pop sentiments are used without irony.

The all-mighty “you” is a standard in sentimental song, sure, but this doesn’t mean the suave poet cannot borrow its mysteries and charms—charms, by the way, which belong to Dante and Petrarch (among others) and also belong to the trope no poet should do without: pronoun mystery—is the “you” the beloved, God, or the reader, etc etc?

Further, Mazer’s genius can be seen in the way he incorporates one of the greatest jazz standards, “Autumn Leaves,” into the idea of autumn magazines, (poets will be sentimental about magazine numbers, and why not Autumn?) beginning his poem as the famous song begins: “the falling leaves…” Then he introduces the idea of “framing nature,” a trope on a trope on a trope, and when he quotes Frost, another brief lyric is referenced, which references autumn leaves (“rake away…to clear a spring”) and Frost, in his lyric, also makes romantic use of “you.” Mazer’s poetic sensibility fills every bumper to the brim.

Now, the Difficult School, which we revile, rejects the immediacy of pop sensibility—but immediacy is actually what these two, pop culture and poetry, share.

This is why, in the titles of poems listed above, we can see immediately that Ben Mazer is a poet.

If one cannot see this, one should probably not try and read Ben Mazer; one will find oneself feeling like a yokel at the opera, or Ron Silliman before the throne of Poe.

If Lupe Velez with a Baedeker does not resonate with you; if you don’t feel the thousand feelings Autumn Magazines inspires; if My Last Dutchman does not bring a curious, appreciative smile to your lips, you have no business reading poetry. 

And to those who object that a a few words cannot prove mastery, we would ask, how many notes of Brahms’ first symphony does one have to hear before sublimity invades one’s soul?  Poetry is made of one thing: words—words which impress immediately if we are in the presence of the true poetic gift.  The Renaissance painters felt they were superior to the poets—they were, in as much they could depict immediately the face that the poor poet had to supply in pieces—but the poetic art has caught up with painting since the Renaissance, the poets coming to understand how a drop may intimate the sea. Of course, a fool may drown in a drop, but Mazer, who appreciates every drop, intimates oceans.

“Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar,” the first poem in the book, directly quotes T. S. Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar” in its first two lines, and then we meet the name, Lupe Velez.

We shall not weigh down this review with references—Mazer’s poems are not weighed down with them; they float over our heads (or drift beneath our feet)—there is no need to “know” or “learn” as one reads a Mazer poem; one burns with it as one reads. Poems that weary us with their facts and their information—Mazer’s poems never do this, and not because Mazer doesn’t “know stuff;” he knows that poetry is not about that, thank God. He doesn’t let pedantry spoil his poetry—which so many otherwise brilliant poets do. He doesn’t allow the hiding of pedantry to spoil his poetry, either, which a smaller, more elite class of poets do; Mazer offers no pedantry, and this puts him almost in a class by himself. He uses what we know, or, more accurately, what we want to know, to entrance. Mazer lays the streets and paths and alleyways as if he were making a poem and then writing a poem in the one he has made—he creates the mind which reads the poem.  But he uses your mind. Many readers will find Mazer’s poetry uncanny in a familiar/strange sort of way, and this is the reason.

Why is Mazer such an important poet? Because he is a return to this impulse, the one voiced by Alexander Pope’s “what oft what thought, but ne’ver so well expressed” and the Romantic sublime, in which what we are able to feel, experiencing a world we all share, is the template, and we find our experiences to be breathtaking—thanks to the poet, who has not only done the work putting together his expression, but the work of joining his feeling to ours.

This remains true, even in the first poem in the book, if we have never heard, for instance, of Lupe Velez; the poem has much to do with her; the poem would not exist without her; no Mazer poem would exist without its unique underpinnings, and so, in that sense, the poet walks among us and is one of us; but the poem makes no effort to inform us of Lupe Velez—the poem is not made small, or trapped by this; reading The Glass Piano is not an exercise in learning, in the weary, worldly sense, but if one should gather the important facts of Lupe Velez—a Mexican actress who broke into U.S. Silent screen movies in the 1920s and successfully moved into sound—one will have learned something of Mazer’s poetic universe, not an isolated fact.  Mazer’s poetry is a symbol for a unique mind that is, itself, a symbol—one reads, literally, Mazer’s vision, of which the poems can only say so much—which is why, perhaps, he is prolific, and also why—too busy to “plan” in the ordinary sense—Mazer’s momentum builds in his longer poems, which seem to be planning themselves as they pitch forward, like life, so that suddenly turning off the main thoroughfare of patient exegesis (you are in an outdoor theater; movies are ghosts etc) you find yourself in a picturesque side path of discursive majesty, the words gaining weight as they fly, the vision really there and real. Mazer is almost like a scientist discovering his poems—and, as they are read, because one gets the idea that Mazer conceives them in the gentle heat of his brain (Mazer is gentle; he has a touch) with the same speed with which they are read, inspiration is able to feel the animal. The long poem (roughly 300 lines) which concludes the book, “An After Dinner Sleep” is immortal, and joins Mazer’s “Divine Rights” at the top of his winding stair.

Mazer chooses Lupe Velez (and Eliot) to begin his book, and says nothing about her, except in hints. (It is not necessary to read Velez’s heart-breaking suicide note.)  We quote in full the first poem of the book. Thalberg is another early figure in film, a producer of Grand Hotel (1932) and early monster/horror films. Mazer’s genius is perfectly content to feed on kitsch, populism, history, camp.

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker; Irving Thalberg with a Cigar

The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
With Lupe Velez. Prepared the crime.
But Irving’s valet was no dunce.

Had seen Tirolean dances there
before. And though she was no whore.
Perhaps was hired by the state.
Yet would not scare. And knew no fate.

Time’s thick castles ascend in piles,
The witnesses to countless mobs.
Each with intention, torches, throbs.
Bequeath the coming dawn their wiles.

Yet Irving was not meant for this.
He books the first flight to the States.
He suffers to receive Lupe’s kiss.
While all around the chorus prates.

There’s something does not love a mime.
Tirolean castles built to scale.
There was a mob. There is no crime.
These modernisms sometimes fail.

Mazer trusts the reader to “fill in” what is necessary; all great artists do this; some phrase from a favorite poet, for instance, reverberates in the mind; we recall the scene, the feeling, and yet, not all the words, and running to the book, we open it and find the passage: what? was it only these few words? Which depicted so much?  Indeed it was. Mazer has this gift: a few strokes of the brush: a world.

It is astounding how much this brief lyric conveys: we read each line like a chapter in a novel.  When was the last time we said a poem had “atmosphere?”  Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott?”  Poe’s “The Raven?”  Mazer’s poems have atmosphere (some more than others). Many poets have attempted to lay on atmosphere, but they fail, since atmosphere in poetry cannot be described or explained or accomplished with adjective—-poets are not painters; they cannot paint. The poet must find another way. Mazer finds another way. In “Lupe:” First, by using terse, yet dramatic speech. Second, referencing atmospheric templates (“Tirolean castles”). Third, finding the precise word, even as the other part of his brain is bringing the poem off in terms of beginning, middle, and end.

The narration is coolly involved in the action of the poem: the poet speaks with speech, not with emotion or personality, and this discipline is perhaps the most important “less-is-more” formula there is, and very hard to do. “These modernisms sometimes fail” comes to us from an uncanny place—there is no human, emotional, “straining after,” even though the poem as a whole is frightfully emotional.  It is as if the poem were so emotional that it could only speak without emotion.

The importance of the words is paramount; this is all the poet has, and Mazer is clever enough to know that none of the traditional tools of storytelling will make the words of the poem important: things like ‘a moral’ or ‘the story’ or ’emotion’ remove us from the importance of the words themselves; Mazer’s words seem like they are being spoken (or quoted) from some removed place—and what better way to make this impression than by a subtle, downplayed, insinuation of moral and story and emotion, so the action of the words themselves remain paramount?  And, secondly: hauling in familiar quotes and references from film and literature—the authority of feelings and experiences which belong to us, but lie beyond?  “Would not scare” echoes the ‘steely yet mournful night’ ending of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” “There’s something does not love a mime” intimates a “something” that wrecks walls, quoting Frost, with “mime’s” jokey alteration implying everything from silent film to the stoic reticence of Mazer himself.

To paraphrase Yeats, poems should be boldly designed, and yet appear design-less, and Mazer, who claims to compose unconsciously, his poems dictating themselves to him nearly complete, is able to revel in that inevitable surprise one (does not?) look for; one could almost say that the poetic is, by its very nature, unconscious design.

Who can argue with the unconscious, or Mazer’s stated idea in the book’s afterword interview with critic Robert Archambeau, that all composition is revision and all revision is composition?

There should be no conscious intent in poetry, according to this smooth-lake view—a view propounded by the New Critics, the ultimate Quietism of T.S.-Eliot-Learning-and-Conservatism, which defies 1. conscious Conceptualism and 2. conscious Ethnic/Ethical Poetry, these two Schools currently at war, as the School of Mazer (Romanticism, Frost, Eliot) makes its move.

Mazer eschews both the rattle of the gizmo avant-garde and the sloganeering of the ethnic/ethical.

Yet he has more to “say” than either.

Edgar Poe, the fountain of modern literature, quietly inspired T.S. Eliot, who, in the spirit of Anglo-American Modernism, publicly excoriated Poe, after he, Eliot, won the Nobel in 1948. Shelley was attacked earlier by Eliot, in the 1930s.

“These modernisms sometimes fail.”

Why not, as Mazer does in “Lupe,” rhyme like Percy Shelley, hint at Mary Shelley’s creature, and wrap it in an atmosphere of T.S. Eliot? Or Poe?

Why not force a wedding between Modernism and Romanticism?

This reconciliation is due, and Mazer, more than any living poet today, is showing the way. This may be, at the moment, his raison d’etre.

Ben Mazer, perhaps the most remarkable poet alive today, has in his bones that Poe, that poet of shadowy art, flowing into that Eliot of hedonist umber; Mazer struggling to emerge, newly, as that perfection which knows itself as such—latching onto the perfect atmosphere blindly, but perfectly blind—Mazer writing from the unconscious (the bones), not as an ‘automatic writing’ Ashbery, in the tradition of Harvard’s William James and his student Gertrude Stein, but in a tradition much less ‘laboratory,’ and more ‘organic.’ Ben Mazer—the Coleridge of Cambridge, shall we call him? Mazer inhabits the Harvard Square of Prufrock’s Eliot—not Longfellow (who lived there), or 100 years later, Ashbery (who studied there).

It’s a subtle thing, perhaps, but Mazer, who is sometimes compared to Ashbery, is far more Eliot: Eliot rejected the Romantic poets’ music reluctantly, with a frown; Ashbery did so completely, with a laugh.

The excitable, yet mathematical, purple of Poe (“organic” if nature is Platonically made of math) did flow into the tortured, beige suavity of Eliot—a fact difficult to detect not so much by the casual reader, but by the scholar—and in Mazer’s auditory onslaughts, his chaste intelligences, and his world-as-art acrobatics, Eliot’s prophetic Tradition-which-reveals-the-past-by-the-present has come true.

To demonstrate, we quote in full another poem from the new book. It is 13 lines. Most of the poems in this book, are in fact sonnets, 14 lines in length.

The title, “Spread over the vast sinking town,” (the poem’s first line) immediately puts us in mind of:

As if the towers had thrust aside
In slightly sinking, the dull tide…
Down, down that town shall settle hence…” (“The City in the Sea,” Poe)

The second line of Mazer’s poem, “Which winter makes seem half asleep” recalls Eliot’s “The winter evening settles down” from “The Preludes.” A significant word, “curled,” is found in both the Mazer and the Eliot poem.

Mazer has yanked together Eliot’s “Preludes” and Poe’s “The City in the Sea.”  Mazer’s poem begins:

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep

And notice, in the poem that follows, with what skill Mazer blends Poe’s melancholy spondaic/dactylic music with Eliot’s modern imagery couched in the merrier, yet ironic, iambic; initially the poem trips along in a nimble, 19th-and-20th-century mix, pausing for a moment at the precipice of what might become delicate sarcasm, before it settles into a work perhaps owing more to Poe—or is it Eliot?—but nonetheless achieving, in the end, a work poignant, uncanny, and original, even as it remains steeped in a strange, familiar, hybrid ambience.

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep
A bus begins its movement down
Across a bridge into the steep
Wide view of the familiar sights
The site of many rowdy nights
But now inhabitants have thinned
Discouraged by the winter wind
And one less one is in the world
Because our faith and will have curled
And folded on the mantel bare
To leave unborn without a care
One whom God’s glory wanted there.

“God’s glory…” Who, today, could invoke this, and be solemn and serious and reputable and true? Mazer may be the only one. The ticket, of course, is the music.

Mazer doesn’t always rhyme this methodically. Today it is almost considered critical suicide to rhyme, unless your name is A.E. Stallings.  As for truth: there is never a reason not to use punctuation, but there it is—occasionally poets feel the need to carve words alone in iron.

But as for rhyme: Poets do not rhyme for two simple reasons: 1. Contemporary fashion and 2. it is very difficult to do.

Mazer is steeped and skilled in the art—from both a practical and an historical perspective, both one and two do not trouble him; he is good enough not to care for contemporary fashion.

When Mazer does not rhyme, he does tend to sound like Ashbery, or a kind of Waste Land Ashbery—Old Possum is usually lurking behind the drapery.

In Glass Piano Mazer has bet heavily on rhyme.  And we are glad that he has.

Mazer’s poems are dreamy and contemplative; if there are two types of lyric, one, the conscious, busybody, Go Do Something, Mazer’s poetry fits I Am The Something; Mazer doesn’t plunder memory for the sake of finding things out, so much as drawing near to what one is wary of finding out. In the first kind of poem, morality often beats you with a stick. In Mazer’s poetry, morality is kind, and wears a cloak.

In the poem just quoted in full, whatever it is in the poem that is “folded on the mantel bare” hints at a memory of an abortion, perhaps? and oddly, other poems in the book which use the word “mantel” seem to hint at the same thing, but in a very delicate way. Mazer’s work is far too aesthetically layered to take any overt moral positions; here Mazer is like Shelley, who asked poetry to explore moral causes—not accessible, worldly, moral effects; below the surface in Mazer’s poetry there does seem to be a deep, ancient conservatism, one that is expansive in its nostalgia, an icy Weltschmerz, but one capable of skating on slippery levity; Mazer’s poetry is happy with the pluralism of existence, with its nostalgia—Mazer feels it, yes, but is not depressed or overwhelmed by it. Occasionally there is a wave of ticket-stub sentimentality, a feeling of poor old dad in his twilight study with the old-literary-magazine compendium, but Mazer never indulges in the merely rueful; there is a quickness to his melancholy.

The I Am Something poem, the one that says ‘Everything you need is here,’ does feature a passive poet—looking out windows, trapped in darkness—and, as a corollary, a passive reader, too–but we get an active poem; the Listen To Me! I Am It! Quietly! poem that, in itself, has everything we need. The passageways may be dark, but they are Mazer’s, and we travel them with trembling delight. We aren’t just reading words. We are moving in what they project.

Because of Mazer’s discursive and melancholy hyper-awareness of the fleeting struggling to cohere, those poems he knits with meter and rhyme (stitched to mingle and collide) tend to bring a happier result than his free-verse Ashbery ones.

Mazer makes quiet use of humor; we actually wish there were more of it in this book. Mazer’s subtle humor enriches the melancholy, instead of merely intruding on it.

A good example of Mazer’s sense of humor can be seen in the following poem, which we quote in full, and which exemplifies all we have been saying so far. Note the brilliant, philosophical ‘Phoenix’ joke. Jokes have designs on us.  Mazer’s genius is the receptive, unconscious kind.  His humor is quiet, and for that, all the more powerful, and brings out in him a related, yet different kind of genius, one we would like to see him pursue more often.

Meanwhile you come to me with vipers’ eyes
to ask, Is there one among us who never dies?
I look into the bottom of my pack of lies
and answer, The Phoenix, though Lord knows she sometimes tries.
You take my answer in your sort of stride,
and once again the stars align and ride
into our lives, upon the carpeted floor,
and the high mantle where you look no more
for evidence of what has gone before;
all stammers slightly,
and the evening closes up its door,
wrong or rightly; colorfully and brightly
some vestiges or trace of memory
falls on the wall; you close your eyes to see.

Mazer is obscure, but not hopelessly so, and because of the sad music, we never mind. We never feel, as we often feel with Ashbery, that there is some kind of parody going on, and Mazer is stronger for this.

All poetry, even—especially?—great poetry, has a shadow-self vulnerable to parody; “The Raven” was parodied upon its publication, immediately and often. One could say Modernism itself, in many ways, is a parody of the 19th century sublime—the spirit of Ashbery’s parody lives, partially hidden, in Eliot’s suffering heart. After all, Eliot anointed Auden and Auden, Ashbery. Is Mazer their successor?

Mazer is revolutionary, in our view, because, for the first time since Tennyson, poetry is once again allowed to be itself, to produce symphonies—with no need to parody, or feel self-consciously modern.

Mazer’s poems seem to say to us: Among all your sufferings, look! this lighted window really is for you. The couch of art, with its faint, sad music, belongs to everyone. You may all rest here.

Mazer is doing something wonderful and important. No one should resent this. Mazer is it. This review would have been better had we just copied his poetry.

We close with a passage from his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep:”

Now the two sisters have returned to London.
If one is done, the other must be undone.
You strain your eyes through columns, chance to see
the early return of the Viscount-Marquis.
Your monthly pension takes you on a spree
to Biarritz, Bretagne, Brittany,
and you will not be back till early fall,
and then again might not return at all,
the garish drainpipes climbing up the facades
all violently symbolic, and at odds
with simple pleasures countrysides bequeath
to girls with dandelions between their teeth.
There is no fiction that can firmly hold
the world afloat above the weight of gold,
but all your progress drains out to the lee
of million-fold eternal unity.

THE TRUTH ABOUT METRICAL POETRY

image

The truth about beautiful and accomplished metrical poetry is lost and hidden because the most important truth of it has nothing to do with its form: the secret lies with its content.

Of course we should talk of iambs and rhyme and all that is formal, but the entire discussion always trails off into impotent, hollow rhetoric that leaves even the most enthusiastic and diehard formalist deeply unsatisfied—like one of those New Formalist poems one thinks one ought to perhaps like as one dully admires it.

And why?

Because the formalist element of a poem—and it is accurate to say element, not elements—should always be that poem’s effect, not its cause. And if the cause is ignored, what kind of effect do we have? A meaningless one.

It takes a certain amount of genius to foreground a cause which seems wholly unrelated to its effect, but this is what has to happen if we are to have any meaningful understanding of formalist poetry.

The whole problem with free verse (the choice now in sophisticated and influential circles) is that we have a cause without an effect; we have the sun sans heat and light; we have a picture of the sun, but not the sun; we have a picture of poetry, but not poetry. We read a picture, but we do not hear a picture, and poetry should be heard.

Reading a picture is a highly complex act, just as writing and reading free verse is a highly complex act.

This highly complex act, however, this highly complex set of circumstances—interpreting a complex set of visual signs—is not poetry, because absent from the act of interpreting a complex set of visual signs is the crucial “cause and effect” reality mentioned above—a mysterious one, in which “what the poem says” is the poem’s cause and “the formalist element” of the poem, its effect.

For too long this simple truth has fallen on deaf ears.

All “saying” has formalist qualities, and free verse, as well as poetry, exploits this fact. Agreed.

But real poetry exploits the formalist aspect of “saying” in a more radical manner—by turning these complex elements into one element—the singular and unified effect which exists only because of the poem’s cause—what the poem “says.”

The strait-jacket aspect of a limerick unsettles the scholarly and serious poet; it does so because of the strictly burlesque and humorous illustration of—not the limerick itself—but the all-too-obvious truth we are attempting—right now–to convey. The limerick’s formalist achievement is singularly successful, and its success is based on the very principle turned on its head: the formalist template of the limerick is the cause—and what it “says” (bawdy humor), the effect.

For there is a relationship, and the more inevitable that relationship, and the more the effect is the formalist aspect, rather than the content of the poem, the closer we are to true poetry.

Poetry that is obviously bad, we say, is when formalist properties force the poet to say something in a certain way. The lady is from Spain because Spain is going to rhyme with something, we think, as we experience the limerick (the non-serious poem).

But something else is going on: what really matters to the limerick reader is not whether the lady is from Spain, or where she is from; what matters is that we are going to find out very quickly something highly embarrassing about this lady, and that is the true delight, the true reason for the popularity of, the limerick. What the limerick “says” about the Spanish lady is the primary fact: the “saying” is the effect, not the cause.

But in the poetry that we truly admire, poetry without outrageous humor, the “saying” is properly the cause, and the singular, unified, accomplished aspect of the poem’s formal existence, its effect.

And the truly accomplished poem will never be about Spain—only a limerick would be that bold; the truly accomplished poem will convey an idea expressed (and experienced) as nearly as possible by a unified formal effect (like the limerick, singular and formally self-contained, but far more original and unique).

The key here is idea—and now we hit at the crucial point; the “saying” should be a passionate idea, and not facts about Spain, or the king of France, or crossing a busy street on a snowy Sunday with one’s sweetheart, or any of those subjects the New Formalists express with misguided confidence regarding formalist elements, in which what they “say” gets draped in the fabric of various formalities.

If one is not careful with what one “says” in a poem, formalist or not—the poem will fail.

The New Formalist poet understands the error of making the form the cause—which is the degrading aspect of the humorous limerick—but does not understand how to transform what is properly the cause—the “saying”—into the formalist effect.

And here is where Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” was correct (and sorely misunderstood). The content of the poem should not be factual, should not be what we might “say” about something: Spain, or the lady from Spain—the content should be an idea, or what Poe called “an effect,” in other words, a design on the reader, which, for our present purposes, we can call an idea. The idea of the death of a beautiful woman is just that, an idea, and how this idea is conveyed by the poem’s formalist element (not elements, but a unified element) is all we expect of the poet, once the idea (the cause) is chosen.

Importantly, the idea should already contain, in itself, the feelings which the dry, clinical workings of the formalist element shall embody.

And to return to the limerick once more, for here is the crucial thing we are trying to say: it is commonly thought that the limerick is all about its form—its rhyme scheme—but, in truth, the chief character of the limerick is “what it says,” because the form causes “what it says” to jump out at us.

This is what all burlesque, or poorly realized, or prosaic attempts at poetry do: “what is said” jumps out at us—its content is its effect. But in real poetry, the content should only be its (hidden!) cause.

The poem which meets the criterion of fine art does the opposite of the limerick, and other types of failed poetry: what it “says” does not “jump out at us,” as the poem’s effect; what the truly beautiful poem “says” is hidden—the cause behind the poem’s formalist effect. The great poem “says” something, but in an entirely different manner from the limerick—and the free verse poem.

The public, which knows very well what a limerick is, also instinctively knows what this other kind of formalist poem is, hungers for it, unconsciously, but does not get it—since free verse has become the sophisticated choice of “real poets.”

A poem, with the highest possible achievement of its poetic formalist effect, demands for this effect a proper cause—which is an idea fitting this “highest possible achievement” in terms which the greatest poets implicitly and imaginatively understand. The idea is nearly everything. And the idea’s transformation into a singular formalist effect demands not just formalist skill, but a radical idea—which is sufficiently august for a poet’s all-important skill at things like meter, rhyme, stanza, and refrain.

 

A WORD ABOUT LITERARY ACTIVISM

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The white guys of High Modernism

“Literary activism” has taken center stage recently among the chattering classes, those academics and journalists whose job it is to tell the working class how to live.

Is music a supplement to speech, or is it anti-speech?

Well, it depends on whether you hum or sing.

Mere humming is music which is anti-speech.

Singing music, however, (and that would include wordless Mozart) is clearly a supplement to speech.

Poetry, in the 20th century, went from anthologized, lyrical quietism by the fireside, to avant formalism in the classroom.

Poetry went from singing to humming.

It went from the musical wit of Byron to: red wheel barrow in the wastes of white space.

Lyrical quietism, so named today, was universal, personal, political, as well as…lyrical.

Avant formalism was apolitical, abstract, elitist, and just happened to be…white and male.

To put it simply: the crazyites (as Edgar Poe named them) won, even as Pound was put in a cage.

The recent surge of “literary activism” marked by ethnicity, with all its accompanying buzzwords (“struggle” and “voices” and “change”) is nothing more than a passionate reaction (or correction) to the white elitist character of the Modernism (the Men’s Club of Pound, Eliot, Williams) which destroyed the Universal Poetry of the People (dubbed ‘lyrical quietism’ by the avants).

The new “subversive” academics, the highly ethical and ethnic voices of “literary activism,” currently making headlines in the textbooks and Blog Harriet (The Poetry Foundation blog of Poetry magazine—famous because of the right wing Pound and Eliot) are semi-literate and reactionary, like their masters, the white “subversives” of 20th century Modernism, who shook off the highly literate and song-worthy revolutionary spirit of accessible 19th century poetry heroes such as Keats, Byron, and Poe.

Literary Activism does not sing, it hums.  It doesn’t speak, it produces a tune to which everyone must dance, an easily understood music—yawn in the face of the Odes of Keats because their author is white and male.

Keatsian Aesthetics is the enemy of the Ideological State—because the State is in a continual mode of “correction,” the on-going communist/fascist revolution which never ends; the war against whatever is old—running continually.

The reactionary nature of an Emerson or a Pound is hidden as long as these men are identified (and they are) with change.

Emerson’s imperialist, neo-liberal, racist “English Traits” is ignored in favor of his “The Poet,” which (subversively) attacks the aesthetics of Poe—the essence of whom, beauty, is not hidden: the subversion of Emerson leads straight to Pound and his white, male avant inheritors.

The soul-crushing politics of literary activism produces poorly written odes against “capitalism.”

God forbid we buy and sell. The ideological State does not approve of exchange. It does not approve of singing, of words, of speech, which create mutual influences: this is why dialogue is such a powerful tool and why the first clue to a bankrupt human being (crippled by ideology) is how difficult it is to have a conversation of discovery with them; they immediately quarrel and disagree the moment they are confronted with having to think as they talk. They can only talk about what they already think—they will not tolerate true dialogue, and the anger displayed always surprises the innocent lover of wisdom.

Exchange has one drawback. It is morally blind. Slavery is an instance of this, and the State which made the moral choice to end slavery is a good, not an evil.

But slavery has its origins in economic inequality—the slave trade persisted as long as it was profitable; the slave trade did not operate because it was a moral or an amoral practice; in the same way, thievery will always exist if there is economic inequality—morals mean nothing to the starving man.  If there is no honest exchange, it is due to one reason and one reason only: too much dishonest exchange: but the fault is not with exchange (capitalism) but with morals, and here we see by the very term, “honest exchange” that the two elements are really the same. The whole Marxist separation is false, and the intrusion of morals, per se, a mere Victorian illusion. The intrusion of morals becomes, in fact, capitalist competition by other means.

The good State wants good exchange. Exchange (song, thought, trade, capitalism) is a good, as long as it fosters further exchange. Slavery is an evil precisely because it prevents (by reducing a person to a commodity) further exchange. By faulting exchange itself, however, we actually perpetuate an evil, even as this anti-exchange folly is morally sugar-coated by the Marxist.

The State mind doesn’t like the music of singing; it prefers humming that pre-made tune.

The ethnic character of literacy activism innocently demolishes the ‘whole’ human being—who is forced into the prison of perceiving itself chiefly as black or gay or female. Instead of offering highly literate females, it offers illiterate females praising females—which is hurtful to females and does not advance their cause at all. Yet this reactionary practice is considered progressive.

In this instance it is easy to see why.

It is precisely because “literary activism” today is an unspoken correction against the embarrassingly white, male, elitist (and fascist/communist) character of avant Modernism: which destroyed the glory of lyrical quietism—the glory of Enlightenment Byron and Romantic Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The new literary activism is amending ‘old fogey John Crowe Ransom white male Modernism’—but is unfortunately at the same time an unwitting extension of the avant trampling of true poetry.

Caveat Emptor!

THE END OF FORMALISM

“I would counsel Lysias not to delay, but to write another discourse, which shall prove the lover rather than the non-lover ought to be accepted.” –Socrates (The Phaedrus)

Wouldn’t you say, a thing can only be so strong when it is based on weakness?

For instance, intoxication can make us brave, but it does so because we are not brave, and so intoxication’s “bravery” exists because of weakness and so intoxication as a “good” will always be seen as a weakness and be understood as such.

Likewise, verse (poetry) adds to language a music above and beyond language’s meaning.  Since all would agree that conveying meaning is the highest purpose of language, and poetry is a good in that it makes it more entertaining to get meaning from language—the weakness announces itself to everyone: poetry feeds meaning the way intoxication feeds bravery.

The brave don’t need intoxication.

Good readers don’t need poetry—to entertain them and keep them focused in order to get meaning from a text.

We may or may not want to leave aside Socrates’ argument in the Phaedrus that the lover (mad) is a better life-partner than the friend (practical, sane). As Socrates points out, everyone (lover and non-lover) wants beauty and the lover/poet is finally better able to provide this than the practical type.

But just as Psychology has largely left behind Freud and Jung and literary invention that gave birth to Psychology itself—for psychotropic drugs and their practical effects, Plato is hardly studied any longer in school, and therefore it is safe to say that intoxication and verse are no longer seen as strengths at all.

Madness is the way we denigrate a thing, especially in our race to absolute reason in the realm of the humanities: women and earth have been dominated too long by “crazy” white males. So this is why verse has been abandoned. Its “intoxicated” aid to reading is rejected as unnecessary and insane: a weakness, a wrong, to be dispensed with.

For, yes, we should admit it—verse is a silly, entertaining thing that makes reading a greater amusement for a kind of mind easily bored by reading for meaning.

Verse exists because of a reading weakness—just as intoxication is sometimes necessary for bravery.

We dare not suggest here—but because we are crazy, we will—that bravery is nothing more than intoxication itself, or that verse enhances and elevates meaning and is closer to meaning than naked meaning itself is, at least in some select and really important instances.  But we’ll throw it out there nonetheless.

Verse is, obviously, formalism.

Today there are three ways critics and poets attempt to downgrade verse (formalism.)

One: They make sure we know that Socrates wore a toga. They make the whole question of formalism historical: form exists in forms and these forms: sonnets, heroic couplets, etc belong to certain historical periods with specific historical conditions.

And therefore we either cannot use these forms today or we must self-consciously subvert them.

An ABAB rhyme scheme is the equivalent of using “thou” and “thee.”

The stream of history in which all forms must exist carries them away.

So forms—all forms—formalism itself, in one simple (historical) step, is swept away.

Of course, despite the scholars’ opinion re: forms and history, we find formalism persists.

But where it does persist, the scholars simply point out that its persistence is not scholarly:

Rhyme belongs to hip-hop and other kinds of pop music. It doesn’t “feel right” in poems today that wish to be taken seriously, as scholarly works.

According to this anti-formalist approach, a poem cannot “work on its own terms;” it is always felt and understood in terms of historical conditions.

The “rules” for writing a sonnet are certainly legitimate, and verse does have a valid existence, but, according to the historical anti-formalist reading, only in a museum sort of way.

The “historical” downgrading of formalism is a very powerful way to downgrade formalism because it is both conservative and radical, since it simultaneously plays the “respect for history” card and the “now” card. Form is respected, but forms are obsolete, says the historical scholar.

The conservative New Critic John Crowe Ransom told his 1930s readers that writing like Byron was no longer possible. The “historical” view justifies every kind of experimentalism—even as it trumpets its tweedy respect for history.

Two: The scholars make form—not forms—the only thing that matters.  A highly abstract macro (form) kills the micro (forms).

This, too, is a very effective way to downgrade formalism:

This whole anti-formalism method can be summed up with T.S. Eliot, who wrote that even prose scans.

Even the loosest free verse has “form;” white space on the page has “form.”

This argument is far more insidious than number one above; so much so, that it resembles a CIA brainwashing tactic, and is probably the top reason for poets giving up on verse altogether—in a turn-about that courts insanity; destroying formalism in this manner argues that because white exists, snow cannot exist.

Form is what matters.  And form is such a naturally large category that the formless resides there. Formalism (the quality dismissed) merely concerns itself with various antiquated forms.

And here one notices how much this resembles the historical argument: The poet is expected to explore form itself as it applies to the present. Sonnets and Elizabethan England both belong to a formalism of the past.

So here’s a second reason not to write a sonnet.  First, the sonnet is relegated to the past. Second, form should be the focus; sonnets are merely forms.

And if that were not enough, there’s a third way.

Three: Avoid the subject altogether and make poetry all about content: form is expressed by what we say.

Just as the second reason strongly resembles the first reason—both emphasize form over forms—the third way that downgrades formalism resembles the second reason, for saying “form is nothing” is logically the same thing as saying “form is everything.”

Helen Vendler, obsessed with the “heterogeneity” and “stylistic originality” of poets like  Graham and Ashbery, is, in her essentially New Critical style, a mixture of Two and Three. She has written:  “Poetry not intelligible with respect to contemporary values of society could not be read.”

Surely, however, all critics like Vendler understand that a pure prose content purely isolated from all musical considerations cannot possibly denote anything poetical.

The poetical is prose meaning dipped in the coloring of musicality and moods. Content is always the ground from which we start, but it is not the poem itself.

Bravery (truth) is not intoxication (poetry).

To asset that ‘form is content and content is form’ is to lose both—is really to assert nothing.

Formalism is downgraded in three distinct ways, but it’s all the same pedantic strategy, a convincing but hollow set of deconstructions.

Listen in on any discussion of formalism and you get one or some combination of these three anti-formalist positions we have just presented: there is little else, except perhaps a kind of vague, well-meaning gesture towards “poems that work” in whatever manner happens to suit the historically grounded and socially acute poet. Virtues are slyly assumed to exist outside of formal properties, with the added assumption that “stylistic originality” and forms cannot co-exist.

But the truth is, there can be more “originality” in a sonnet than in all the works of Ashbery.

This is a truth which overturns all the abstract claims of heterogeneity in terms of form versus forms.

For we are always assuming that heterogeneity is going to be more original, but there is no basis for this belief at all.

New York City is a large complex place, but so long as we point to New York City in our minds as “heterogeneity,” able to stand as the ideal which transcends the petty, self-important enclosures of mere formalism, we miss the much larger point that New York City really consists of tiny neighborhoods, and all poetry, if not all reality, exists, and is accessible and knowable, in the city block, or the building, or the room: the reality is not a scholar pointing to abstract “form;” the reality is understood in what hides in a building in New York City—a sonnet, perhaps.

Yes, it actually makes more sense to look at all literature as a great string of sonnets than to wallow in pretentious abstractions (and billions of details merely elucidated for their own sake—or to fit into heterogeneity theories.)

Sonnet by sonnet is not the way to read, obviously, but the point is that this makes more sense than any of the methods advertised by the anti-formalist school.

Think of a literacy of the sonnet, rather than of the line, or the sentence, or the word, or the phrase.  What a literacy that would be!

Couldn’t the sonnet be the building block?  And wouldn’t it be a healthy mind who thinks in those terms?

Shelley’s great Ode (West Wind) is a short series of sonnets.

And one can read the Gettysburg Address—as four sonnets.

 

….

Now let us ask, after exposing the ravings of the anti-formalists, this more pertinent question: what is poetry’s purpose?

Flowers are not condemned to exist under glass, as the sonnet is—and why not?

The answer is obvious: because flowers serve a purpose.

Flowers attract bees—this attractive quality helps define for us what a flower is, and, although we are not bees, so powerful and overflowing is the flowers’ attractiveness, that we, bee-like, admire the flower for its flower-like qualities.

What if poetry is a language of dissemination which, like the flower, is attractive in order to disseminate?

And what if this attractive quality is timeless and demands cultivation and protection?

The gardener is not asked to admire the flower but protect, grow, and breed the flower, for all eternity.

If the gardener merely admired the flower and did not protect, grow, and breed the flower, in terms of what we understand a flower to be, we would call her a very poor gardener.

Further, if the gardener greatly admired flowers, but assured us that flowers had long since served their purpose as flowers, and now should exist in museums only, we should not only find this great admirer of flowers a poor gardener, but, despite their learned admiration, an enemy of flowers.

Those who downgrade formalism in the three ways outlined above—condemning traditional forms of poetry to sterility and “learned” curatorial irrelevance—are like the gardener who may admire flowers, but is their enemy and destroyer.

Poetry today is being destroyed, especially by those who currently study and practice it. A museum-admiration of poetry is an evil and insidious thing.

To seek for the elusive rationale or reason or purpose or use, of poetry can be compared to the search for a loved one in a crowd.

The similarities defeat us, not the differences.

“Is this the one you seek?” ask the ignorant but well-meaning searchers, and they bring us person after person, with face and arms and legs and every particular human quality—but no, this is not our beloved!

We are not looking for a type—we are searching for a unique quality.

Just as we look for a championship baseball team, celebrated through the ages, and are deterred most in our search, not because it hides beside an object like a fire engine, but rather next to a losing team—which also has pitchers who throw at 90 mph and hitters who can hit a ball 500 feet.

The poem’s reason that we seek, to the ordinary eye, looks very similar, in the great scheme of things, to a great deal of other writing.

Poetry’s purpose, ignored by theoretical moderns—blends in.  And—because we are blind to it, it can eventually kill us.

We scan the crowd for the one we love and die if we do not find her.

We search for: not forms, not form, not content, but attractiveness.

The pedants ignore the raison ultima because they fear it will be “a type,” thinking “type” itself is defined by form, but never content. But here they wildly err.

To specify poetry with formalism alone is to take poetry over to mathematics and music—and this is not 1) a general thing nor is it 2) anything to do with content—precisely because content is never specified (the purpose of poetry is never mentioned)—since we assume whatever is said can and will be said, heightened by the formal qualities, of course, but not determined by them. Yet how can the content of speech not be determined by its formal qualities in a systematic manner? Music does determine how speech speaks and once this is conceded, the poetry’s ultimate rationale must at last be acknowledged, for how speech speaks cannot but determine what speech speaks.

Yet we never hear in discussions of formalism what poetry must say.

We can discuss stocks and bonds in verse and never mention poetry’s purpose. We can allude to Eliot’s objective correlative and never mention poetry’s hidden purpose, since Eliot’s astute formula never escaped the blackboard to actually walk about. Eliot was using this formula to attack whole historic periods of poetry when, he felt, content and form were estranged; the tweedy Modernist condemned the Romantic poets this way—Eliot was finally downgrading formalism historically, not philosophically—and so an opportunity was missed: Eliot was essentially saying what the conservative Ransom was saying when Ransom said we can’t write like Byron anymore: Modernism ignoring poetry’s true purpose by saying “form, not forms.”

We are free to say anything in poetry now, said the 20th century Anglo-American Modernists, making the reason disappear in a general loosening of form to fit more and more varieties of content. But why the Modernists hated Byron, was that Byron said more interesting things while rhyming than the Modernists did in free verse.  This is why the chief Modernists like Eliot and Ransom tried to bury Byron (and Romantics generally).  Byron didn’t fit the Modernist formula.

Sure, many ruefully viewed the Modernist agenda as a simple mistake: poetry-turning-into-prose; well, everybody did, but no one had the pedagogical reasoning to stop it. Verse was the “metronome” and poetry-as-prose, the “musical phrase” was how crazy Pound cleverly put it. (“Prose scans,” in other words.)

No one stopped to think that a metronome was a perfectly useful tool for Beethoven, as he created profound “musical phrases.” Beethoven was hidden, like poetry’s reason, in the “room” of Modernist “verse.”

Robert Penn Warren, the New Critic co-author of the influential, mid-20th century Understanding Poetry textbook, wrote an essay defending “impure poetry” against “pure poetry,” another Modernist act in the drama of hiding poetry’s purpose. Poetic content was now, according to Warren: “all and any content not determined in the least by form.” The purpose of poetry was gone. Modernism had blithely killed it.

It wasn’t that form gradually loosened due to formal considerations; form wasn’t freeing up form—content was, in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ anything can now be said: the lyrics were eliminating the music, so to speak; this, and only this, is what was meant by “impure poetry” and its triumph. (Understanding Poetry included a savage attack on the attractively musical verses of Poe, even as it championed Pound and Williams; Warren’s essay savaged Shelley; Eliot impolitely attacked Shelley, as well: Poe and Shelley were wretched examples for Modernist delectation of scorned, “narrow purity.” Remember, the New Critics were considered “conservative” in their views. But chucking formalism was universally done in the Modernist era.  This is what the Pound clique did: they also attacked Edna St. Vincent Millay. (See Hugh Kenner’s nasty remarks on her).

But if formalism, as all must concede, has what must be described as legitimate formal qualities (to define it as formalism as such) what does it mean to say, as the anti-formalists said, that content can be whatever it wants in an “impure” triumph? Here is a “room” which has certain formal qualities, identifying itself as a “room” of poetry (as opposed, to say, a dinner menu) and yet, when content enters this room, the room itself only exists to leave the content untouched and free to express itself however it chooses, and any restriction upon the content is condemned as a backwards step towards an unwanted, old, and “pure” poetic practice.

Of course defenders of the “impure” never admit the absolute disconnection of form and content outright— in each specific poem, they say, form and content do their dance: both form and content are equally valuable; the “impurity” we defend is only to say (they point out) that formalism is no longer a straitjacket; formalism no longer is severe in its restrictions, no longer blindly formal in its dictates.

Poetry’s purpose remains hidden, however. What is said in the poem is said, and afterwards, the “everything is form” explanation is bent to the content’s will—this is the anti-formalist ‘explanation number two:’ making formalism a blindly obedient (and essentially nonexistent) shadow of content. Whatever facilitates the saying (or meaning) that is not the saying (or meaning) has an existence, in the same way that “prose scans;” but nothing that can be called art need exist at all—the poem speaks; the content speaks and asserts itself, and simply by way of formalistic properties manifesting themselves in a perfectly ordinary “grammatical or anti-grammatical” manner, this then becomes the “formal triumph” which mirrors the “ordinary” content speaking in its artless cunning, free of all artificiality, fulfilling the prophecy of Modernism’s expansive and articulate poetic quest.

There is no need to make any decisions about content; all that needs to be proclaimed, proclaim the anti-formalists, is that historically we are expanding our ability to provide content as formalism drops away: jettisoning all formalistic strategy, as content becomes all (and thus, nothing!) This is what Eliot meant by formalism hiding behind the drapery of loose poetry: historical poetry’s actual existence as such, is old Polonius—and the prying pedant is soon to be stabbed and killed in T.S. Eliot’s Critical Modernism’s play.

But how can the form of poetry—if it is really form-–not predetermine content? It must. Otherwise it is not really what we mean when we speak of poetic form. How can poetry as a formal practice not have a real existence as an actual piece of form and as an actual piece of content?

If we are true poets, we do not wish to blindly kill the beloved (poetry’s reason); we wish to find them in the crowd.

How will I my true love know from another one? —Ophelia, Hamlet

We listen to Beethoven and hear an actual musical content; the music inspires specific feelings—based on its formal qualities. To say that poetry does not do the same thing is to deny poetry’s existence altogether. Which is what we said earlier is happening in fact: poetry, in academia—where it now mostly resides—has become a museum exhibit in its formalism, an inconsequential exercise in its contemporary use. It does not matter that superior poetry is being written today in obscure quarters—the public simply does not exist for it, and so it does not exist.

We said that in recent history, formalist considerations never usher in the least interest in specific categories of content, with Eliot’s objective correlative formula the one major (ineffective) exception. But before Modernism, poetry’s purpose is acknowledged; poetry is given an identity based on what it does—and what it expresses in terms of content.  The greatest example in literature, perhaps, can be found in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus.

The modern lyric was called a “love letter” by Dante. Shakespeare made the sonnet a courting device for love and breeding—and thus was not far off from the “love letter” idea; the two greatest poets of all time (Eliot himself was explicit: “Dante and Shakespeare; there is no third”) have no trouble acknowledging the purpose of poetry which is now hidden: poetry, as much as it does exist formally, does yet have a use within, and obedient to, its purely formal existence.

The novel can be said to have originated as a series of letters (sonnets?) and the greatest fiction can be defined as an unfolding of love (or its opposite, hate: see the war-like Homer).

The sonnet—formalism—shall return.

Poetry, grown by philosophy and love, will be a living flower, once again.

 

IMPORTANT AND TRUE

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This is hard to refute: Nothing is important and true if it is merely important and true to you.

At the college where I work, I heard a humanities professor remark recently: the abstract is the basis of education.

By abstract, the professor means: All that is wise, good, and important is true for everyone, not just you.

The children who “get this,” grow up to be productive members of society; those who don’t, become those half-formed dreamers who merely survive, or worse, criminals.

Most of us are comfortable thinking that there is a ‘selfish curve;’ the more selfish you are, the more you ultimately suffer; the religious find contentment knowing God’s justice ultimately takes care of everything, but that doesn’t mean everyone isn’t irked when they witness selfishness in others; the religious are still motivated to “spread the word of God,” even though their all-powerful God will “take care of everything at last, anyway.”

This contradiction is not a minor thing. If God is all-powerful, why do you behave as if He were not?

You (the religious) are busy “spreading God’s word,” even as God, beyond all words and beyond all understanding, inhabits, in a vast, just, material, eternal manner, everything. Why so busy, then?

I could believe every single thing you (the religious) say as you “spread God’s word” and still find you excessively ignorant and redundant and tiresome—and tell you in all sincerity to please go away and never show your face around here again.

There. As you may have guessed, Scarriet is not a religious place.

And this sentiment is precisely where we are in the world today, with the secular world becoming increasingly exasperated and emboldened in their objection to religion, especially as it manifests itself around social media-driven flashpoint issues and events.

Anti-religious extremism threatens more and more each day to become mainstream, at least in the West, thanks to academia and social media, where the religious find their antiquated mists lifting before the winds of progressive and intellectual arguments; secular common sense is nearly impossible to resist as the “love of Jesus” is turned against every religious prohibition under the sun.

The immutable Abstract God needs human representatives—with human stories and human logic. When servants of the Abstract God debate with the professor/artist/social worker class, who represent The Abstract Benefits of All People, the servants of The Lord lose, and they lose because they are humorless and antiquated, and because Equality is the abstraction which trumps everything.

This does not mean the religious ultimately lose—they will surely never go away—and they do not ultimately lose for the following reason: Equality, or even the need for it, is, alas, an abstract theory, not an abstract reality.

Abstraction, itself, at its most powerful, exists as a reality, not a theory.

Those quiet ones, who skip the debate, knowing the One True Real Abstraction, God’s Justice, takes care of everything, and not in some theoretical equality-type manner, but with every unequal thing and person fitting into the great scheme at last, miraculously and imaginatively, the quiet ones who skip the debates, are the ones you should listen to, when you have a moment—not the self-assured ones on the left or the right.

To return to “you” and how your feelings are never the most important thing:

According to our wise secular professor, what you happen to feel is never as important as the abstracted feelings of the many.

But not only is Religion on the run in the West, but a counter-force, Romanticism seems to be making a quiet comeback.

The Romantic does value “your” singular feelings.

This is because “the you” is finally an abstract idea, as well, and those who defend “the abstract” find themselves trapped by the whole theoretical notion of “the abstract”: once we begin to sociologically impose abstract models onto everything, in the name of a benevolent but coarse system of benefits for all, the theoretical destroys everything in its path. Theoretically, the “you” joins the “many,” and science becomes farcically anecdotal, all in the name of abstraction, and of words abstractly used, with “them” and “you” swapped and traded in the blink of an eye.

The Romantic persists in being “wrong” in the face of all the wise theorists; the Romantic denies the abstract with passionate feeling: Ovid’s “I hate and love.”

The Romantic is worth listening to, because there are two kinds of Abstraction.

Our professor friend, who we quoted in the beginning of the essay, refers to the Abstract Abstract.

The Abstract Abstract is the abstraction we find in psychology, sociology and literature textbooks, the essential content of the non-religious liberal arts education: generalized information applied anecdotally and then traced back to the generalized information in a rough ‘what’s best for all’ sort of way.

In these liberal arts scenarios, passion is always reserved for “blind evil,” which does the things we professionals are appalled by, and cannot understand, as we, rationally, in the course of our liberal arts education, pursue our sane pedagogical goals: marriage for everybody, love for everybody, riches for everybody, etc etc.

But the Romantic and the religious refer to something else: the Real Abstract.

The Real Abstract is The Whole Universe, literally, that dynamic, grand design of the whole which God (whether or not He really exists) is short-hand for.

It is why Edgar Poe ventured to call his essay on the Universe a poem—the unity of the subject called for it.

The abstract is truly one thing and one thing only: the material, finite universe as it really in fact exists.

The rigor of this abstraction puts to shame the mere ‘good for all’ theory practiced by the liberal arts colleges.

Example: there is no such thing as a kind review. We never argue for something in a generalized manner: the one (poem, book, world, etc) contains many things, which, by necessity, if the whole of which the parts are a part is worth anything at all, succeed and fail as things to varying degrees. So instead of saying, ‘this is a great ___,’ we instead say which parts of ____ in any given ____ are good and which are bad.

How many reviews of friends’ poetry books and chapbooks are thorough, and truly objective?  They are almost never objective. They always feel, due to friendship and kindness, like advertisements: you must read this great book!

Passion is required for truth, and passion, by definition, is Ovidian, containing love and hate. The truly unique whole of the universe is both loving and hateful. The Real Abstract contains both beauty and necessity.

The merely Abstract Abstract, however, the one we get from the liberal arts professor, is necessary, but not beautiful: proper goodness must prevail, so that the poet, who is both student and customer in the new professional university environment, receives the proper flattery and is pleased—each part in the Abstract Abstract must exist abstractly, pleased to be an unreal part of what is essentially a pleasing, artificial (abstract) agenda.

The uneasy way the universe actually fits together produces the passion that is at once the cause and the effect of  its meaning—for those who attempt to comprehend it. (Poe perhaps having come the closest?)

Abstractly speaking, the universe, today, in our progressive age, is a “rainbow” of benevolent mixing.

What does this “rainbow” symbol mean, anyway? What does it actually mean?

Be nice to everyone. Accept differences. But isn’t this too general to mean anything?

A friend once asked us if Joan Rivers was mean or funny. The answer, of course, is both. The funny and the mean are inextricably mixed.

“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” will always sound in fair Verona’s streets.

Let us look at an actual example.

A black conservative judge, who opposes gay marriage, and his white wife comprise two races and two genders. The vast majority of gay couplings comprise one race and one gender.

Which couple most resembles a “rainbow?”

If there is no rational reason to oppose gay marriage—we cannot think of one; Scarriet certainly does not oppose gay marriage—perhaps it is only a “rainbow” impulse that does oppose it: is that an irony, or what?

Our benevolent “rainbow” idea belongs to the Abstract Abstract, one of those ideals, which, upon inspection, is found to be one of those liberal arts ideals whose “truth” is a highly convincing symbolism for the sake of an abstract good: robbing from the rich is “good” in similar abstract ways.

The Real Abstract consists of social minutia, flawed expression, breeding, borders, hierarchy and competing interests over time—messy and vastly complex mixtures, not given to easy Abstract Abstract ideals.

Hate and love, as a mixture, is never easily understood; love by itself and hate by itself, are far more easily understood, and they are understood more easily—because they belong to the Abstract Abstract, not the Real Abstract; the Abstract Abstract is what tends to be taught—in the schools.

We can gently refute our wise professor after all: very often what is true and important is true and important—to you.

WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

THE POETRY COMMUNITY LOSES ITS MIND

Over the weekend, thanks to Reb Livingston, we became aware of a brewing scandal in the poetry community.

Scarriet feels compelled to respond to the ‘anonymous sexual abuse outing document found in AWP restroom controversy,’ not because we have any special interest in it, per se, but because we believe the scandal currently poisoning po-biz manifests aesthetic attitudes of significant pedagogical importance.

Scarriet is a boutique—a high-end, up-scale, boutique, of what might be called expensive, high-fashion poetry and poetry criticism; we produce clothing and accessories for the soul, and we make no apologies for the beauty, love, truth, good taste and wit that we produce; and nor do we apologize for appealing to an elite class of soul (which has nothing to do with advanced college degrees or any of the credentialing nonsense that characterizes the pyramid scheme of so-called “professional” poetry, with its animal grunting and network stroking). We take poetry seriously, and don’t come around here with that ‘pyramid’ nonsense please. Our readers generally know, and do not.

This controversy has nothing to do with us, of course, because we are free of the odor of po-biz, and merely roll around in poetry. But this scandal affects us because it impacts how the world sees and practices poetry.

Scarriet is a high-end boutique precisely because we live the poetry, and can respond to a controversy like this without passion or self-interest.

Our position is this: poetry, some time around the beginning of the 20th century, was, in a series of adroit political and pedagogical maneuvers by Modernist poets, wealthy individuals, and government officials, coaxed away from its public role and public use to become a playground of pretense and experiment (all in the name of public and pedagogical improvement more accurately reflecting real life, etc).  Seducing poetry away from what it had been turned out to be wildly successful, since the seduction had a democratic appeal: obscure, fragmentary prose became the ‘poet’ standard anyone could reach, and, at the same time, one could ‘learnedly be modern’ and reject the ‘fussily moral’ past. (‘Could’ is not quite accurate; one did—the two necessarily went hand in hand.)

It is important to note here that “what poetry had been” is more accurately what poetry is-–as shown with poetry—by the best poets of the past. Shakespeare set a high standard, Poe set a high standard, Keats and Shelley and Tennyson set a high standard, Whitman and Wordsworth and Barrett set a high standard, not in the sense that professors are required to make us understand their poetry—the standard is a real one, in which accessible music joins accessible rhetoric in a highly skilled manner, clearly conveying things which the public is interested in: chiefly, relations between the sexes; moral philosophy; good taste; refinement; interest in nature and science; philosophical wit; wisdom, fears, loves and hopes common to all.

This high standard—which gave pleasure to a reading public, also took its inevitable place in the schools with the rise of universal public education.

Modernism piggy-backed into the schools as it managed to standardize itself there, and, gradually replacing the ‘old’ poetry with the “Red Wheel Barrow” and “The Waste Land,” used the force of its school-validation in combination with the rise of the Creative Writing Industry (Iowa, Paul Engle and his friends, the highly government-and-think tank connected New Critics, including Robert Lowell) as poet-teachers increasingly joined the piggy-back phenomenon in an orgy of self-interest that cut out the old standards and left no room for Byron. Poetry was no longer a public enjoyment—it was something only professors could teach, and as poetry became more experimental, inaccessible and obscure, the self-interested professor became more prominent in what became essentially a pyramid scheme of teachers/wacko explainers on the inside, and everybody else (including the public) on the outside.

Which brings us back to the scandal: an ugly manifestation of the ugly things which naturally occur whenever favors replace standards.

We don’t need to take sides here; we only need to point out—as we have just done—in the simplest manner possible, a truth, which, despite the brevity, we are certain everyone immediately understands (remember when poetry was like this?).

The accusers, in the current scandal, are accused of slandering the innocent (slander: 1. an important trope in Shakespeare, 2. used to destroy the reputation of America’s great standard-bearer, Edgar Poe).

The truth has yet to come to light. Accusations themselves can murk up the light on their own. We do not know the truth and do not speak of it, obviously. The rage of the accusers does not equal the truth; but their rage could be based on a truth; we are not taking sides. As we pointed out earlier, we have the luxury of not taking sides, since we stay clear of all po-biz insanity, and care for poetry alone.

The accusers open their letter (following a list of the accused names of the men) with a profundity which needs saying and which we agree with:

It has finally come to the attention of the literary “community” that women are abused and experience gendered violence just like women in all other social spheres of the world. The humanities do not save us, the assumed “humaneness” of the poet or writer does not exist. We say “community” in scare quotes because we have no shared actual commonality or trust that forms the bedrock of self-identified communities.

Yes. Poets and poetry need no special protection or defense, and it’s the Modernist (and contemporary) poets and their fans who play this ‘poet immunity’ card the most, even as they trash the reputations of a Poe or a Shelley. The accusers are right to expose this douchebaggery. And no more hiding behind “community,” either, which is code for the Creative Writing Era favoritism douchebaggery which has cynically steamrolled the standards of old.

But the accusers don’t get it entirely right, and come close to spoiling everything, for they go on to summarize:

This is a statement against the straight male cisgender patriarchy that enables this behavior: not only bringing direct harm to women, but those who have knowingly stayed silent while your fellow writers abuse people in positions of lesser power.

So we are to believe that gay men and women cannot, and do not, abuse women? How can one be interested in justice—and be so utterly naive?

The accusers, in their wrath, are strangely divided—they expose douchebaggery and yet they are victims of it, in almost equal amounts.

The reason for this is simple, as well. Since poetry has lost its public, there has been an increasing attempt in some circles to make poetry relevant to a public again by making poetry (poetry!) simply about hot button, political issues. But there are things like the essay which already exist for this. Here, again, we see the whole thing unfolding simply and naturally, due to the original Modernist error.

And now we bring our notice to a close, secure that Scarriet is the only sane, up-scale island left in poetry today. We are happy. We are  proud.

 

 

POE AND COLERIDGE PURSUE FINAL FOUR DREAM!

Poe:

In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once fair and stately palace —
Radiant palace –reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion —
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This –all this –was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odour went away.

Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
(Porphyrogene!)
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.

And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh –but smile no more.

 

Coleridge:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
  
 The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
  
A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND—PLENTY OF UPSETS!

image

The biggest upset?

Bracket Two: Elinor Wylie (b 1885) 16th seed, knocks off number one seed Shakespeare! “Let Me Not Admit Impediments…” fell to “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.” Good for you, Elinor. Women everywhere are now wearing Wylie T-shirts.

Another shocker in Bracket Four thrilled poetry fans: No. 1 Seed Homer (“Sing in me Muse”) was edged out by John Crowe Ransom’s “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.”

Lines of a highly developed music are the successful ones so far.

Translations are at a disadvantage, generally. Michelangelo, however, advanced past Blake in another upset in Bracket One. Michelangelo is ignored as a poet, perhaps, simply because he was such a great artist.

Michael S. Harper pulled off the only upset in Bracket Three, where every higher seed advanced except Wilfred Owen, who lost to Harper’s

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

A traditional sort of lyric beauty doesn’t always win.

But icons of yore did tend to prevail.

Milton, with his solemn music, for instance:

“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.”

Did have trouble beating this by Patricia Lockwood:

“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.”

The Lockwood had a certain tragedy, strangeness, focus, and interest.

This by Byron, however:

“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.”

Had no trouble dispatching the following by Graham, which feels flat by comparison:

“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.”

We will not reveal the precise score of the game, as we do not wish to embarrass Ms. Graham.

Joining Wylie in another upset victory for women, Gluck, 14th seeded in the Fourth Bracket, outlasted Pound.

Plath and Sexton did not advance, however, as Wordsworth’s “No motion has she now” proved too much for Plath’s “a man in black with a Meinkampf look” and Sexton’s “her kind” lost in what must be considered an upset to Ben Mazer’s “Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere…”

The pure audaciousness and oddness of Mazer’s humor proved unique, and too much for Sexton to handle.

There is a certain lyric majesty and poignancy which sometimes can appear to take itself a little too seriously in a reader’s mind when it comes up against a certain clever type of opponent.

The momentary matchup means a great deal in terms of critical judgement.

And thus the thrill of Poetry March Madness.

Here are the 32 survivors after the first round of play:

Bracket One:

Marlowe (def. Auden), Michelangelo (def. Blake), Dowson (def. Von Duyn), Eliot (def. Swenson), Wordsworth (def. Plath), Merwin (def. Emerson), Arnold (def. Dunbar), Teasdale (def. Dickinson)

Bracket Two:

Wylie (def. Shakespeare), Coleridge (def. Stevens), Frost (def. Barrett), Keats (def. Raleigh), Poe (def. Whitman), Khayyam (def. Swinburne), Marvell (def. Seeger), Tennyson (def. Gray)

Bracket Three:

Milton (def. Lockwood), Byron (def. Graham), Shelley (def. Carson), Harper (def. Owen), Ashbery (def. Millay), Sassoon (def. Larkin), Parker (def. Rich), Bernstein (def. Reznikoff)

Bracket Four:

Ransom (def. Homer), Dante (def. Donne), Gluck (def. Pound), Chin (def. Longfellow), Mazer (def. Sexton), Pope (def. Pushkin), Rilke (def. Carroll), Williams (def. Ginsberg)

Congratulations to the winners!

 

 

 

CONCEPTUALISM AND THE ART OF OUTRAGE

Michael Brown: immortalized by Kenny Goldsmith?

Edgar Poe’s “effect”-as-the-basis-of-fiction is the seed of Conceptualism and the avant-garde as we know it.

That poetry should be beautiful was a necessary caveat in Poe’s mind: effect-science needs genres and reasons and exactitude as it moves literature towards self-consciousness and away from “This happened in my town yesterday. Let me tell you about it.”

The poetry world is currently befuddled and outraged because the Conceptual poet Kenny Goldsmith—who read (in a paisley suit) plain traffic reports as “poetry” at the White House (yea, where Barry lives) a couple of years ago—recently gave a “poetry reading” in academia in which the actual, detailed autopsy report of Ferguson’s Michael Brown was the sole text.

Poe would say, first: Goldsmith’s effort is the very opposite of the poem; the poet does not surrender to the news of the day (Ferguson, etc) but finds, first, a precise effect, and then works on bringing about that precise effect in the reader. Poe’s notion has nothing to do with suppressing discussion of “the news;” it merely says: give the news of the day to the news of the day and reserve poetry for poetry—both in practice and in theory.

To know what poetry is, we think, is very useful to the poet, who is doing something a bit more complex than going to the store and picking up an item:

“What did you want me to buy, again?” “I dunno.”

If we don’t know what to get at the store—and this destroys every reason for the visit, we imagine it might be slightly important to know what the poem is—as one sets about writing one.

Just an idea.

So we find an effect.

The artist thinks: First, what effect shall I pick? Second, how shall I bring about this effect in the audience?

Immediately we are aware of conflation, the type which occurs when avant-garde Conceptualism brings together as one, painting and poetry—the two disappear in the outrageous effect produced by the Duchamp jest. The art, all of it, dies into idea. Michael Brown’s autopsy becomes a pure thing subordinated to pure effect.

The conflation in Poe’s effect-method is artist/audience: to test the effect, the artist stands in for his audience: simple, even simpler than going to the store for an item; the item (effect) is had immediately, because the artist immediately becomes his own audience as the effect is tested.

Kenny Goldsmith does not have to visit the store to purchase a particular effect—any item at the Outrage Store will do.

We know of no one who has really thought through to the end what Poe meant when, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe spoke of choosing some “effect” to use—Poe has been accused, in every quarter, of starting with the “The Raven” already written, and working backwards in a synthetic fashion; in other words, he cheated. And no one really writes that way, ever, say the sneering Poe-critics. Life and art are open and random; talk of “grand design” in this day is highly suspect (“what are you, a religious nut?”) even when talking of poetry.

But we know what Poe means, and we can easily demonstrate what he means.

Let’s say the effect chosen is: happiness—you choose to make the audience happy.

A good effect, but too general, so we narrow the definition to make it more effective. “Making the audience happy by removing the fear of death.” This is sufficiently unique, and this is precisely what John Donne did when he penned his famous “Death Be Not Proud.”

It matters not if death be not proud came into Donne’s thoughts “randomly,” (many poets will tell you a poem begins with a single phrase that just pops into their head) and it matters not that Donne wrote the sonnet without any fussing over “which effect shall I choose?” The fact remains that “I am Soothed by Learning Death is not as Fearful as Supposed” is the design “Death Be Not Proud” has on us: it has this effect on any lay person who reads it; it has an argument, one that can be paraphrased (yes, the New Critics were wrong) and all of Donne’s sonnet’s parts line up behind its effect.

Donne went to the store (even if subconsciously) looking for a specific, singular, item (effect and execution) and, to our pleasure, found it.

Goldsmith’s success (notoriety, attention) arose from the same process:

What shall I do to my audience?

Outrage them.

How shall I do so?

I shall pick a contemporary news item which already bespeaks outrage, and I shall choose some manifestation of this outrage and present it as my “poem.”

Now do we see who “cheats?”

It is not the author of “The Philosophy of Composition.”

It is the avant-garde “poet,” Kenny Goldsmith.

***

In other news:

John Crowe Ransom advanced past Elizabeth Bishop 61-60 in the Wild Card Round. Ransom’s “it is so frail” was finally too much for Bishop’s “the art of losing is hard to master” in the final minutes of the extremely close contest: both teams were brilliant, but the edge went to Ransom’s tender and emotional plea, which seemed finally less conscious, if that nuance can be at all understood.  It is very hard to say goodbye to the Bishop, as Ransom moves on.

Bishop’s loss put the VIDA count for Scarriet’s 2015 March Madness at 25%—which we think is pretty high, considering the tournament reflects the canon throughout history.

 

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)

MAKIN’ COPIES: ART VERSUS LITERATURE

Hybrid, collage portrait. Which has less charm? Modern poetry or modern art?

SCARRIET HAS ELEVATED THE FOLLOWING SCARRIET COMMENT (ON “WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW”) FROM ONE OF OUR READERS (‘MIKE’) TO THIS ARTICLE (WITH OUR REPLY BELOW):

Hey y’all.

As an art school trained painter and a self inflicted poet, I find it interesting to observe the differences between visual art and literature; or more specifically, the difference between drawing and writing.

In visual art (drawing), one is challenged to “represent” what they “see” by way of marks on paper. Initial attempts are typically awful. Continued failure leads to frustration and abandonment, or else the determination to “learn” how do draw. Such learning requires one to engage in the reciprocal activity of practicing drawing “methods” while simultaneously understanding the nature of the visual forms those methods are meant to capture. It is only through this interplay of method and understanding that one can begin to draw what they see.

At which point one realizes the meta-lesson of drawing, which is that nobody draws what they see. You can only draw what you KNOW about what you see. That knowledge… visual knowledge… is not the same as vision. After all, most everyone has two eyes by which to see… but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive. And the reason is that their knowledge of visual forms and methods is (well)… primitive.

A further implication is that the drawing (as art object) is not equivalent to the visual perception of the subject matter of the drawing. In other words, a drawing of an apple is not an apple. The drawing is a representation only… a mental construct… a methodological translation of visual perception via the artistic form of a drawing.

All of this might seem terribly boring and inapplicable to the subject at hand. But if you indulge me for another minute… and lay your egos aside… then maybe I can make my point. Which is this. I have never gotten the impression that writers consider writing to be a “methodological translation” of (let’s say) interior thoughts and feelings, into the artistic form of the written word.

I think the reason for this is that we are all able to speak and write with some proficiency from an early age. I could also include the activity of contemplating ideas in our minds, and of subconscious processes… which we (kind-a) assume to be language based. These very powerful tools (thinking, reading, writing, speaking) allow us to think and imagine VERY GREAT things. Yet when we attempt to write it down… it’s not so easy. And this is no different from the artist… who might peer out into some beautiful landscape and be filled with desire to represent what he perceives and feels, yet be unable to do so. But whereas the artist is forced to reconcile his failures with the need to learn a method and to grasp the nature of visual form (as a translation between vision and representation)… I wonder if writers see their failure in these same terms.

Or does the writer simply “work harder”… or “write what they know”… or “keep plugging away”… or “writer’s write”… or “never give up”…. or a thousand other ways to say the same thing… admonishments to pound away at reality… that somehow representations will condense NOT out of understanding, but of somehow aligning the monkeys in our brains to coincidentally type out the works of Shakespeare. But just as a drawing is not the hand’s record of the light striking your retina… the written word is not a passive record of the mind’s ability to cogitate and speak out loud. But I wonder if writers know this? Or does the immediate accessibility of language mask the distinction?

Another aspect of this distinction is that in the visual arts, the impact of artistic theories are well understood, and are considered to be highly relevant. In fact, any good art school program is going to require a thorough grounding in the history of art from ancient times to the present day. This is an enormous investigation into cultural history. Artists are meant to take such things very very seriously, and are meant to understand that the nature of artistic method and form and meaning derive from such cultural moments as have occurred over time.

But I have to wonder if writers think of writing in the same way. For instance… do writers ever wonder about the writing skills of ancient Egyptians? Because artists are very aware of the art of ancient Egypt.

Visual artists are taught to understand that ancient architectural forms are rooted in archetypical associations that the human species has evolved from out of their prehistory. Are there any analogous ideas that writers possess about their own artistic heritage? Are writers schooled in the social and artistic shifts underlying the sea-change of the Late Gothic transition to the early Renaissance? Visual artists sure are. In fact, they make Pilgrimages to Rome and Florence and Venice just to lay their eyes on the art… to sit under the sun and absorb the aura of history, and thereby to connect with the meanings of these things. Do writers do such things? Or are words just words and everyone has them and all you need to do is pound away at a typewriter until it just pops out of you? Is writing like a piano… a music making machine that you only need whack at until a tune emerges? And when it does, you claim it as your own, and marvel at the mystery of your own origin… and try not to consider that it might all be happy accidents and the accommodating of the random.

I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I think that writers have no sense of these things, or of writing as an activity distinct from the basic language skills of talking and thinking and jotting stuff down. In truth, most visual artists don’t give a damn about the things I’ve waxed on about. The difference is this… that they are supposed to… whereas writers have no such presumption built into their activity.

And so it should come as no surprise that when poetry falls victim to the ravages of modernist or post- modernist theories of everything… that writers should twist in the wind and wonder what the hell is gone wrong. But such things are no surprise to visual artists, who only need look around and see all the crap contemporary art floating about the world. We see it everyday too. But at least we know what it is, and why it is. Because we are trained to know these things. Because art comes out of theories and methods… not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts. Bad theories and absent methods lead to the destruction of art. The alternative isn’t to abandon ideas, but to understand that good ideas must be asserted. In the visual arts, such advocacy is mistakenly assumed to be a return to the art of the past… to neo-classical style paintings of nudes and heroic figures in togas. Which is ridiculous. But this is no different a mistake than when some poets try to defeat bad post-modern poetry by adopting the writing styles of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The history of any art does not exist to be mindlessly rejected or mindlessly copied. What good can come out of mindlessness? It exists as a repository of ideas from which some meaningful “next thing” might emerge. Who knows what it is. I try to make this point to visual artists… but nobody seems to give a damn. So now I’m making it here in this poetry blog. And this is an uphill battle I suppose, because writers are not trained like visual artists, and they may not be aware of what they are really trying to do. So maybe writers should stop screaming about bad poems, and begin instead the difficult task of understanding the nature of the writer word at all.

SCARRIET RESPONDS

One of the Scarriet editors works at a large, urban, liberal arts university (once a teacher’s college), which recently acquired an art school; Scarriet covers not only the decline of poetry, but how art, poetry and philosophy mingle, so you can imagine our excitement at finding this learned and lengthy comment on our “Why Poetry Sucks Now” post, a delightful comment which Scarriet has elevated to a post of its own.

“Art comes out of theories and methods…not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts.”

So says the “art school trained painter,” who reminds us that “nobody draws what they see…they only draw what they KNOW about what they see…visual knowledge is not the same as vision…” and “do the writers know this?” Further: artists know art is a “methodological translation” of reality, where writers, by comparison, seem to be mere “passive” (and random!) recording devices of what is universally accessible to all: language.

We agree entirely with the gist of this, and though we are a writer, not a painter, we feel no insult at all, and we are illuminated by the truth of what this painter has—written.

The truth of painting’s superiority to writing was put most forcefully by da Vinci, who said the experience of the eye is the beginning and proof of all science: discontinuous quantity (arithmetic), continuous quantity (geometry) and perspective the holy trinity of astronomy and all human knowledge—painting as the body, poetry merely its shadow. Body (substance and its measurement) trumps Blah Blah Blah. Absolutely.

However, there is a “writing method” tradition—embodied in full by Edgar Poe (unfortunately not taught in writing programs) who we never tire of quoting; the following, from the Master, reflects the thinking of our art school trained painter:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or authorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

Poe rigorously asserts the secret of all composition—and all morals: in the beginning (the intention) we discover our end (the effect)—and the myriad details, of drawing or writing, fall into place, or should fall into place, in the execution. By this method, these are eliminated: The random, the details which overwhelm, and self-indulgence.

The point our painter makes in his comment—that we draw what we know about what we see, not what we see—is, we feel, a reiteration of Poe’s method, and here an important point about ‘knowing’ should be made.

The separation between knowing and seeing does not exist because seeing needs correcting or is insufficient—the natural seeing humans do reflects nature’s efficiency: perspective which makes distant objects small, for instance, is the perfect solution to the over-crowding of the visual field: and understanding perspective is an understanding which is not distinct from seeing, but is the same as seeing: the “knowing” the artist is engaged in is nothing more than a selecting, a framing, a focusing—and not something superior to seeing; it is the very same thing Poe refers to when he says, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions…which one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”

Here is the vital point: the distinction which our art school trained painter makes between vision and visual knowledge is different than we suppose: “visual knowledge” is not something which stands above and apart from “vision;” quite the opposite: vision is the whole, visual knowledge is the part, of the whole thing. Vision is natural and perfect, visual knowledge is imperfect and contingent. Visual knowledge is the narrow “effect,” of which vision is the cause, and the connection between visual knowledge and vision is seamless. All training, all knowledge, is nothing more than focus: both the artist and the writer do not see more; they see less than the layperson; all knowledge is knowledge of what to ignore: what not to see, what not to write, what not to draw.

Modern poetry errs in making poetry subordinate to prose-ideas; modern art errs in making painting subordinate to collage-ideas.

The answer is not simply, “less is more,” but how (to what end) does the artist make less more?

Plato (and who cares if he wore a toga?) is another thinker who tells us that vision (reality) trumps visual knowledge (art), since vision is the true knowledge of which visual knowledge (art) attempts to unfairly usurp—not because knowledge should not be trusted, but because knowledge is not what we think it is: the vision IS the knowledge, the vision (reality) contains far more perfectly and ultimately the knowledge, of which art-knowledge (and writing-knowledge) slyly hides—especially if the untrustworthy student falls in love with representation, illusion, and dream passionately spun by the sophist for all sorts of partially realized reasons dripping with bad taste.

The “methodological” in our art school painter’s “methodological translation” of reality contains two simple things: first, the focus, or selection, we just discussed above (the selective nature of reality informing the selective nature of human vision) and second, the good.  We finally want to do good, to produce good, to have a good effect, and here, of course, we refer to Plato’s ‘the good,’ which has other names: justice, happiness, beauty.

Things go haywire when the hubris of human knowledge thinking itself superior to natural seeing, sensing, and feeling takes precedence. “I’m not drawing what I see!” cries the sophisticated painter, “I’m working within  specialized knowledge!” Ah, so this is why your painting is bland, trivial, confusing, with lines and colors leading nowhere, a hybrid collage of no real purpose. And the poet who writes poetry which rambles incoherently, having no coherence or lasting interest, is mistakenly certain in that human knowledge which is entirely separate from the effect the poem is actually having. This error arises from the belief that “visual knowledge” is superior to “vision.”

But the objection might come: No! The ‘good’ resides in human knowledge, in human attempts at it, not in simple vision, not in haphazard, unadorned reality, not in nature, red in tooth and claw.  You wrongly assume that “this is the best of all possible worlds” and that to merely copy the beautiful and perfect world is enough, and no ideas are necessary; you say the real method is to simply frame part of (what is called by you) “reality.” No, sorry.

But this objection misses several important points: Vision, as it operates everywhere, is efficient and remarkable, and is not the same as “nature, red in tooth and claw.” This is to confuse reality with our special feelings about it. Reality is not “unadorned” or “simple,” and copying it is never simple. “Copying” reality is a highly complex endeavor—our art school trained artist puts it succinctly: “most everyone has two eyes to see, but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive.” Exactly. Human pride believes the complexity resides in the imposition of method, when true method copies nature with da Vinci’s open eyes.

The artist and the poet are finally united by the philosophy which begins with an effect—a design guided by the morality of justice/beauty in terms of what scientifically the senses, as senses, understand, measure, and know.

LOVE MEANS KILLING YOUR RIVALS: THE DILEMMA OF EITHER/OR

image

Either/Or. The Shah or this guy. 

Scarriet is the best poetry site in the world for many reasons, and one of those reasons is that we are not enslaved by any political ideology, as most American poets and intellectuals are.

Be either/or, they say. Choose, choose! Be a Democrat, not a Republican! Be ‘one of us!’ Be loyal to our side!

But to pick a side is to fall into the either/or trap, which breeds fanaticism on either end.

To not choose is the true choice, the wise, Socratic choice which supports true science and democracy.

To say we avoid political ideology, and we do not choose sides, does not mean we ignore the ugly cultural, ideological, impact that the political has on poetry and love; we know love means killing all our rivals, we are more fanatical than any political fanatic in our understanding of love—this informs our deep understanding of poetry; we embrace aesthetics, but we don’t hide inside an aesthetic bubble. We approach politics—and everything—from a position of common sense. Sometimes we fight. Sometimes we escape into our bubble. But don’t ask us to choose between Khomeini and the Shah, or between Democrats and Republicans, please. It ain’t going to happen.

We come from a liberal background; we were not raised with guns in a redneck environment; we know the New York Times and the Washington Post; we are quite familiar with “All Things Considered,” we sound like Woody Allen at times, and we have taken lately to launching into a British accent, for a whole host of reasons, the least of which is to show a kind of hopeless allegiance to the great tradition of deft, daffy, self-effacing, humorous, and confident Anglo-Americanism. We don’t ‘go’ to church. We like Sarah Palin because she wants cheaper and more accessible oil—-not because she’s a Republican. We think it idiotic to worry about whether someone is “smart” in politics; engineers who build spaceships and buildings and oil rigs should be smart; politicians should be big-hearted and childlike and funny, and not afraid to say dumb things. Bring it on. Bring on dumb. Politicians should always be dumb in a curious, evolving sort of way, and the press, full of really dumb people, and the voters—talk about dumb—need to embrace dumb and not pretend to be too smart for it. There? See? If one must discuss politics, there is no reason to get all political about it. If Hillary Clinton (criminal and ogreish—does she come from Iran?) is smarter than Sarah Palin, can anyone name one smart thing Hillary Clinton has done or said? I’m waiting. Some of Clinton’s opinions correspond with yours?  Good. But that is no indication of smart, and you are really dumb if you think that. No, really, you are. “I can see Russia outside my window,” is delightful, and if it doesn’t pass muster in a game of Jeopardy, that doesn’t matter. Believing Jeopardy-smart is truly smart is really, really dumb. And Jeopardy is one of our favorite shows.

Science is never done asking questions, and the idea that the Global Warming Debate “is over” has to be one of the dumbest things ever—and yet all of those who insist the debate “is over” (we laugh every time we see this) don’t even know what CO2 is, and think that “carbon emissions” is the same thing as pollution. And then we have the indignant “debate is over” (ha ha ha) crowd changing their terminology from “global warming” to “climate change,” and we are expected to believe this crowd is “smart” and those who oppose them are greedy oil barons, not ordinary people challenging Big Environmentalism, asking for more affordable oil prices for the poor. A “smart” person does not count the number of “scientists” who “agree” with them, when that “agreement” is only boilerplate. A “smart” person never believes polls—which, by their very nature, even if the respondents are scientists, will never be scientific, because who is asking and to what exactly does the response pertain—cannot articulate the problem, never mind be the “answer” to the problem. What was the question, again? Oh, that’s right: Why don’t some people believe the “debate is over?” And what was “the debate,” again?  Oh never mind. The “smart” ones will figure it out. Those politicians and those journalists who are “smart.” Right.

The point here, of course, is not who is finally “really” right and who is finally “really” smart.

Democracy is not a “smart” contest or a “who’s right?” contest. The whole point of democracy is that it is not either of these things.  If you are not the kind of person who is good at crossword puzzles or Jeopardy, you still should vote. We encourage you to vote. And we also encourage you not to think Jeopardy-smart is smart.

The Big Dumb is Those Who Think They Are Smart—so “smart” that the “debate is over,” as they insist you need to choose their side. These are the truly dumb.

There are millions of people who think they are “smart” because they believe in “evolution,” or, at least they think they are smarter than “creationists.”

This is colossally stupid.

First of all, believing in “evolution,” in terms of practical science, in practical matters of every kind, is nearly meaningless. Second of all, believing in “evolution” means what, exactly? That you have read the “Origin of Species?” That you’ve read a little Darwin, a lot, or just know generally who he is? And, again, this “knowledge of evolution” is truly useful in what way? And do you seriously believe this makes you on any scale whatsoever, “smarter” than anybody else?

What also makes “evolutionists” remarkably stupid is they loudly congratulate themselves as they compare themselves favorably to “creationists.” First of all, the issues involved have nothing to do with each other, since Darwin says nothing about creation, that is, the origin of the universe. Nor does religious thought need to be scientifically verified on matters that science in general is at a loss to explain. Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka is the best scientific essay on the creation of the universe; few have read it, and therefore it is safe to say virtually everyone is ignorant of creation; so no one—not university professors, not scientists in laboratories, can say they are “smart” in this area at all, evolutionists or not. So the situation is, we have blockheads, politically motivated, referring to others as blockheads. Is that stupid? Yea, it is. So don’t brag about Darwin, okay, stupid?

How then, should we proceed? Democratically, of course. That is, always begin sympathetically with the person, not the opinions. Because if we start with the opinions, making all sorts of assumptions about what is right and what is wrong about those opinions, or who is smart or not, based on those opinions, we prejudice the person, who has a whole complex network of opinions based on how they decipher complex reality as a person—and a person, in a democratic society, no matter how much their views differ from yours, is inviolable.

By respecting the person and what they bring to the table—not any one opinion—will not only help create a freer and more democratic society, it will provide a better environment to examine opinions in a scientific and respectful atmosphere, and utilize those opinions that are best for society in the long run, in a flexible, adaptive and truly evolving manner.

By cutting off debate prematurely, democracy suffers.

Never give in to Either/or.  That’s the mark of a Third World Country.

American intellectuals, it is sad to see, are leading advocates of Either/or. Which only shows how corrupt American intellectual life has become since the American Revolution.

The common, contemporary, American, liberal or conservative intellectual belief is this: No opinion or value system should be treated with equal deference and respect in an intellectual setting. We cannot expect this, and we should not expect this.

But we should expect this. This common intellectual belief is wrong. This idea that not all value systems should be treated equally is wrong, even for an intellectual setting, as opposed to, let’s say, the voting booth.

On the contrary: Every opinion and value system should be treated with equal deference and respect, since these things only exist as they connect in a complex manner to a human being—who should always be treated with deference and respect. A creationist could be brilliant in all sorts of practical and scientific ways—for reasons not readily apparent. Not only because the creation of the universe is still a mystery, but because there are countless examples in history of great scientists (both practical and theoretical) who were deeply religious.

Science is too complex to bar anyone’s entrance into it, even if a particular opinion held by that person goes against our taste, or sense of right and wrong. If we do feel deeply that an opinion is wrong, we should examine it in the context of the person who holds that belief.

In a truly scientific atmosphere, those opinions that really are harmful and wrong will more quickly, under objective examination, fade away, than if we try to repress them.

Let us say we find abhorrent any objection to homosexuality, so that in the intellectual setting of psychology, we take every step to ban anyone who argues for homosexual rehabilitation.

But in the human sciences, human opinion of all kinds should be sacred; all humans should be treated equally, and let the opinions clash without prejudice, and see what comes of it. It is important to understand here that in this essay we are not defending any value system or opinion, but only asking for a true spirit of inquiry that in the long run will advance learning and practical good. If human beings, as human beings, object to homosexuality, this is valid—in the human sciences. If any opinion is not true or right or good, it is still a scientific opinion. This is the crucial point of this whole essay. Science means inquiry, not truth. If we allow the objections to homosexuality to get a full hearing, a full study, only then will change truly occur. Just to take a very narrow look at one aspect of behavioral context: Heterosexual males are often pathologically jealous of their female partners. Heterosexual males can feel threatened by the homosexual male who is able to befriend potential heterosexual female partners—precisely because that profound jealousy is absent. If real phenomena like this is part of the mix, and includes a truth heterosexual males may not normally admit when asserting a prejudice, this is surely part of the science of the whole topic, and should not be suppressed.

Why a person holds a belief is always more important than the belief itself.

If the issue is really heterosexual jealousy—or whatever perceptual threat homosexuality poses to the heterosexual—this does not mitigate in any way the importance of the issue in the form of scientific inquiry, whether it is prejudicial, or not.

The problem of rehabilitation is acute, since human science examines, but does not coerce. Prejudice is so entrenched in humans in so many ways, that human science finally fails as a science, as religion takes over.

Either/or is just as important to avoid in the realm of human science as it is in politics.

Defer, defer. Be wise, like Socrates.

A great deal of inquiry, especially in the humanities, does not depend on facts; indisputable facts, such as: ‘the American Civil War ended in 1865,’ are not the issue here. Humanist inquiry hinges on many divergent opinions held by many different kinds of people— and all opinions must be welcome.

Religion is the most seductive Either/or there is. This is why we don’t go to church.

But then we come at last to Holy Love, and here, finally we succumb, we must succumb, and only here, in love, do we surrender to Either/or. Only in love. Oh, God! We choose!

And when the bitter circumstances of love, infected by politics and science and religion, destroy us and break our heart in two, we have one more thing to turn to: divine poetry.

As poets, especially, we must be alive to people first, opinions second, and we really must favor what is, in fact, true inquiry over prickly political biases based on what is glibly considered intellectually “smart.”

And all of this is crucial not because politics is not important, but because, even to the poet, it is.

 

 

 

THE LAMB THAT’S LOST

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Is all we see or seem but a dream within a dream? --Edgar Poe

We love the lamb that's lost,
Not the lamb that's here---
That's why nothing---nothing---is clear---
We love the lamb's that's lost,
Not the lamb that's here.

That's why when you speak
I always disagree---
Because the thing you love
I cannot hear or see.

Lost! Lost! Lost!
What we love is lost,
The valley in our mind
That we have never crossed.

I can't explain the lost to you---
The explanation is lost, too...

That's why you're a mystery,
Smiling and near---
We love the lamb that's lost,
Not the lamb that's here.



SCARRIET ROCKED 2014!

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Thomas Brady: the simpleton who writes it all

In the 365 days of 2014, Scarriet brought you half that many original items: poems of lyric poignancy, articles on the popular culture, essays of Literary Criticism, the occasional humor piece, and the Literary Philosophy March Madness Tournament—in which Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Freud, Baudelaire, Woolf, De Beauvoir, Marx, Maimonides, Wilde, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth, Pope, Wollstonecraft, Butler, Rich, Frye, Mallarme, Adorno, and 44 others sought immortality against one another in an orgy of wit and game.

Without further ado, here (with publication dates) are the most notable of the past year:

1. The One Hundred Greatest Hippie Songs 2/13.  This wins based on numbers. Over 15,000 views for this post alone in 2014, and it is averaging 120 views per day for the last 3 months, with views increasing, nearly a year after its publication. It’s always nice when an article has legs like this. We’re not sure what ‘search engine magic’ has made 100 Greatest Hippie Songs so popular. Prophetically, in the piece, we wrote, “All American music is hippie music.”

2. This Novel Has More Information Than You Need 9/18.  An essay provocative and charming at once.

3. No Boobs! 11/27. Hilarious (part two) satiric commentary on the December issue of Vanity Fair

4. The Problem With Rhetoric 5/1. Pushing the intellectual envelope is perhaps what we do best. In this essay we argue that reason does not exist.

5. Integration of Poetry and Life 11/3.  Another nice essay of essential Scarrietesque provocation smoothly rendered.

6. Marjorie Perloff, Adam Kirsch & Philip Nikolayev at the Grolier 9/15. Wearing a journalist’s hat, we meet Perloff, debate her, win her over, and demolish Concrete Poetry for our readers, as well.

7. Poe and the Big Bang: “The Body and the Soul Walk Hand in Hand” 3/10. Poe does most of the lifting here; a crucial addition to Scarriet’s campaign to lift the slander-fog hiding the world’s greatest mind.

8. Badass, Funny, But Alas Not Critic-Proof 6/27.  Tough love for the poet/professor David Kirby. And for those who fret Scarriet is too rancorous, relax; ‘The Kirb’ is still a FB friend. We don’t flatter—that’s the secret.

9. Is Gay Smarter Than Straight? 2/3. Only Scarriet would dare to ask—and really answer this question.

10. Rape Joke II 6/14.  We delivered a true poem; it offended one of our loyal readers for not being feminist enough; even though our poem was true, it was somehow supposed as an insult against Lockwood. We stand by our poem which is true, if imitative. We value originality, but since when was art that imitates a bad thing? We also admit we wrote the poem to become well-known. We played it up on twitter. So what? Scarriet believes everyone deserves to be famous.

11. Poe v. Wordsworth 8/18. March Madness contests are always excuses for brilliant essays. We made use of a wonderful book: Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective in Renaissance Art.

12. “I Still Do” 10/13 Nice poem.

13. Chin & Weaver at the Grolier 7/21. Meeting up with California-based Marilyn Chin at a reading becomes an excuse to write an essay on the laws of poetic fame.

14. Painters & Artists Need to Shut Up 6/23.  Usually we pick on the poets.

15. Rage In America 7/7.  A political corrective to Jim Sleeper’s Fourth of July essay.

16. Poetry Hot 100 10/8.  Scarriet releases these now-famous lists several times a year. Valerie Macon topped this one.

17. What Does The History of Poetry Look Like 12/2. We often bash T.S. Eliot and the Modernists; here we lay down a genuinely insightful appreciation of Eliot’s Tradition.

18. Valerie Macon! 10/6. The credentialing complex destroyed Macon. We did a radical thing. We looked at her poetry, after she graciously sent samples.  Memo to the arrogant: her poetry is good.

19. 100 Greatest Folk Songs 11/17.  Not just a list: an assessment aimed at revival. Don’t just reflect the world. Change it.

20. The Avant-Garde Is Looking For A New (Black) Boyfriend 11/8.  A popular zeitgeist post inspired by Cathy Hong, which got po-biz stirred up for a few days.

21. Religion Is More Scientific Than Science 12/15.  An interesting discussion of free-will. Yes, we take comments.

22. Poetry, Meta-Modernism, & Leonardo Da Vinci 1/6.  Da Vinci compares poetry and painting in fascinating ways.

23. De Beauvoir v. Rich 4/22.  Scarriet’s March Madness contest yields essay on Behaviorism and Feminism.

24. Sex, Sex, Sex! 10/19. An interesting essay (obviously) in typical Scarriet (Are you serious?? We are.) mode.

25. Philip Nikolayev 11/15.  An excuse to try out ideas while praising a poet and friend.

26. “Poetry Without Beauty Is Vanity” 10/17.  A lyric poem which ‘gets’ rap.

27. Harold Bloom v. Edmund Wilson 8/13. Wilson was a real force in March Madness and so is this essay.

28. Fame: Is It Really Hollow? 7/2.  An exciting essay using Scarriet standbys The Beatles and Poe.

29. 100 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time 5/9. The definitive list. Another constantly visited post.

30. 100 Essential Books of Poetry 5/21. People love lists. We get it now.

31. “Not Everyone Is Beautiful” 6/5.  A lovely little poem.

32. All Fiction Is Non-Fiction 5/19.  Scarriet makes the counter-intuitive simple.

33. The Good Economy 12/30.  We nail a simple but brain-teasing truth which rules us all.

34. Fag Hags, Cock Teases, and Richard Wagner 11/11. A bitter essay on a complex topic.

35. 100 Greatest Jazz Vocal Standards 10/14. And the Scarriet hits just keep on coming.

36. Hey Lao Tzu 10/27.  Scarriet takes down the wisest of the wise.

37. Ben Mazer At The Grolier 10/20.  The Neo-Romantic genius gets the Scarriet treatment.

38. “A Holiday Poem” 12/14.  An offensive poem written from a persona; it’s not our opinion.

39. Misanthrope’s Delight 6/11. An amusing list which makes light of misanthropy.

40. “What Could Be More Wrong Than A Poem Stolen From A Song?” A lyric gem.

And that’s our Scarriet top 40 for 2014!!

Be sure to read these if you missed them!

Scarriet thanks all our readers!

And especially the great comments! You know who you are! Always welcome and encouraged!

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

THE AVANT-GARDE IS LOOKING FOR A NEW (BLACK) BOYFRIEND

Cathy Park Hong: “Fuck the avant-garde.”  But does she really mean it?

For its whole existence, Scarriet has hammered away at Modernism—and its Avant-garde identity—as nothing but a meaningless, one-dimensional joke (the found poem, basically) tossed at the public by reactionary, rich, white guys in order to make it ‘cool’ to stifle truly creative efforts accessible to the public at large.

The controversy surrounding Scarriet’s claim lies in this one simple fact: the Avant-garde (Ron Silliman, et al) identifies itself as politically Left.

In Leftist circles of the Avant-garde, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are championed for their poetry, not their politics.

We might call this Pound/Eliot phenomenon the Art-Split: Bad Poet/Good Poetry.

By accepting this “Split,” the reactionary, white, male, Avant-garde is given license to dress in Left-wing clothing.

You have to believe, of course, that Pound’s poetry is important and good, and that Hugh ” The Pound Era” Kenner’s trashing of Edna Millay, for instance, was a good and noble effort to debunk old-fashioned “quietist” poetry, and not chauvinist, jealous bullying.

Leftist Ron Silliman has no taste for Edna Millay, and the “Split” allows this to appear perfectly normal.

The embarrassing and obvious truth: 1. accessibility to the public at large is democratic, 2. befuddling the masses is reactionary, gets a yawn, too—because of the “Split.”

The reason the “Split” works as an excuse is that it appeals to both Left and Right intellectuals: the greatest ‘am I an intellectual?’ test is if one is able to grasp (and embrace) the idea that a person can be bad but still write good poetry.

We do not believe this is true; we believe the opposite: one cannot be a bad person and write good poetry. If the poet is a truly bad person, the “good” poetry was most likely stolen, or written before the soul of the poet became  rotten.

And this is why Modernists hate the Romantics—because the Romantics were poetic individuals, while the Modernists (because of skyscrapers and aeroplanes and women getting the vote and other lame excuses) were not.

The “Split,” the source of so much modernist mischief, is a red herring.  The almighty “Split” even makes one think Ezra Pound must be a good poet: one must believe this is so to have intellectual, avant-garde creds—simply for the reason that for so long now, the “Split” has ruled over Letters.  The wretched, sophistical, school-boy “And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/ we set up mast and sail on that swart ship/” is somehow good because Pound is badAnd because it is wretched, it is avant-garde, and because it is avant-garde, it is wretched, and therefore better than, “What lips my lips have kissed and where and why.”  This is how those who think themselves very good judges of poetry convince themselves that Ezra Pound is a great poet.  Yes, it is truly frightening.

Despite the “Split,” rumblings about the reactionary nature of the Avant-garde were bound to start, as Scarriet does influence the culture it observes.

Witness the explosion of Left indignation in the latest Lana Turner Journal as the “Split”-fooled Left vaguely catches on.

We have Kent Johnson, an imaginative and brilliant man, in “No Avant-Garde: Notes Toward A Left  Front of the Arts,” reduced to the most pitiful, quixotic Old Leftism it is possible to imagine. In his essay, he imagines splendidly well, and he knows a great deal, but he’s very bitter, obviously, as the ugly truth—the Avant-garde is, and has always been, reactionary—sinks in.

We have Joshua Clover, in “The Genealogical Avant-Garde,” complaining in the same vein.

The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes.

The genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose.

The “Split” is always rationalized.

The “Split” in this case, however, is not Bad Poet/Good Poetry, and in some ways it is far less problematic.

The “Split” now imploding due to common sense is: Bad Mainstream/Good Avant-garde.

The Avant-garde, as the progressive intellectuals finally understand it, is the Mainstream—and thus, bad.  Had they been able to see, 100 years ago, the nature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen, and their New Critic allies, they would not have taken so long to understand the clever reactionary agenda.

But now they are finally getting it.

Cathy Park Hong (writing in Lana Turner no. 7) definitely wants a new boyfriend.  And it ‘aint Ron Silliman.

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.

Poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document.  Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form!

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.

Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.”

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters.

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions.

The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.

Yes, “fuck the avant-garde.”  But we might just add that it is the avant-garde that has always been the problem; in this case, the tail wags the dog.

The New Critics (ex-I’ll Take My Stand Old South reactionary agrarianists) got an “in” when they launched their textbook, Understanding Poetry in the late 30s—it praised Pound and attacked Poe.

Popular poets like Edgar Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the Mainstream “good” ambushed by the clique of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics.

How blithely and unthinkingly Cathy Park Hong takes up the “quietist” definition of the avant-garde (and ostentatiously Left) Silliman.

Unfortunately, they will get fooled again.

THE INTEGRATION OF POETRY AND LIFE

The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.

Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?

Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?

Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?

And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?

And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.

Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.

This is what Byron meant when he said:

“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”

This is what Shelley meant when he said:

“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”

According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.

The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.

In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.

Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.

Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.

Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.

The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.

As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”

Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.

In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.

Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of  what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.

The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’

We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.

Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.

The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.

Life is coming for us.

Take my hand, poet.

Let us quietly flee.

IT’S TIME AGAIN FOR…POETRY’S HOT 100!!!!!

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1. Valerie Macon—Credentialing 1, Poetry 0

2. Patricia Lockwood—“Rape Joke” first viral-era poem to go viral?

3. Paul Lewis—Poe scholar brings Poe statue to Boston: The Jingle Man Returneth

4. Marjorie Perloff—Every era needs its Uber-Critic

5. Charles Wright—New Poet Laureate

6. Camille Paglia—Zeitgeist, Firebrand, Sexual Ethics, Gadfly.

7. James Franco—Can Hollywood make poetry cool again?

8. David LehmanBest American Poetry best anthology gathering-place.

9. Richard Blanco—interviewed in Vogue

10. Garrison Keillor—King of Quietism

11. Kenny Goldsmith—We understand some people take him seriously

12. Marilyn Chin—New book, Hard Love Province (Norton)

13. Amy King—Lesbians trying to take over the world!

14. Charles Bernstein—Papers going to Yale

15. Tao Lin—Alt-Lit unravels

16. William Logan—Every era needs the Kick ass Review

17. George Bilgere—Imperial is new; only poet who can out-Collins Collins.

18. Stephen Burt—Harvard’s frenzy of sweet political correctness.

19. Josh Baines—rips apart Alt-Lit on Vice.com

20. Don Share—Steering Poetry Foundation Mother Ship

21. Ron Silliman—Guiding Avant-garde ships through Quietism’s shallows

22. Ben Mazer—Neo-Romantic publishes Collected Ransom, the South’s T.S. Eliot

23. Frank Bidart—Punk Rock Robert Lowell

24. Paul Muldoon—Drives the New Yorker

25. Philip Nikolayev—Bringing back Fulcrum

26. Vanessa Place—Museum performer

27. Casey Rocheteau —Wins a home in Detroit for being a poet!

28. Natasha Trethewey—Bids farewell to the Laureateship

29. Billy Collins—Ashbery with meaning

30. Terrence Hayes—Wins MacArthur

31. Harold Bloom—Anxiety of Flatulence?

32. Mary Oliver—Nature poetry sells?

33. David OrrNew York Times Book Review column

34. Adam Kirsch-New Republic critic

35. Susan Wheeler—“narrative glamour” -John Ashbery

36. Andrew Motion—President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

37. Khaled Matawa—2014 MacArthur Winner

38. Richard Howard—James Merrill lives!

39. John Ashbery—Old Man Obscurity.

40. Eileen Myles—“always hungry”

41. Mark Doty—Brother of Sharon Olds

42. Rae Armantrout—Silliman is a fan

43. Al Filreis—MOOCS!

44. Anne Carson—“inscrutable brilliance” –NY Times

45. Michael Robbins—The Second Sex (Penguin)

46. C.D. Wright—from the Ozarks

47. Lisa RobertsonChicago Review gave her a special issue

48. Claudia Rankine—Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

49. CAConradPhilip Seymour Hoffman (were you high when you said this?) is his new book

50. Ariana Reines—“To be a memory to men”

51. Kim Adonizzio—“I want that red dress bad”

52. Frederick Seidel—Nominated for Pulitzer in Poetry

53. Kay Ryan—U.S. Poet Laureate 2008 to 2010

54. Edward HirschThe Living Fire, new and selected

55. Christian Wiman–ex-Poetry editor

56. Cornelius Eady—Nominated for a Pulitzer in Drama

57. Bin Ramke—Georgia Foetry Scandal

58. Jorie Graham—Collected Poems coming this winter

59. Erin Belieu—VIDA vision

60. Forrest Gander—anthropological

61. Amjad Nasser—run in w/Homeland Security

62. Ann Lauterbach—her poetry “goes straight to the elastic, infinite core of time” -John Ashbery

63. Rita Dove—editor, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry

64. Sharon Olds—Mark Doty’s sister

65.  Carol Ann Duffy—High powered, story-telling, Brit

66. Robert Archambeau—Rhyme is returning

67. Monica Handme and Nina, Alice James Books

68. Margo Berdeshersky—“understands how eros is a form of intelligence” -Sven Birkerts

69. Shelagh Patterson—“succeeds in forcing students to become critical thinkers” from Rate My Professors

70. Jennifer Bartlett—“this will all be over soon”

71. Lynne Thompson—“Vivaldi versus Jay-Z”

72. Allison Hedge Coke—Editor of Sing: Indigenous Poetry of the Americas

73. Dan Chiasson—Poet and critic who teaches at Wellesley

74. Martin Espada—Teaches poetry at Amherst

75. Gina Myers—“Love Poem To Someone I Do Not Love”

76. Jen Bervin—Poet and visual artist

77. Mary RuefleTrances of the Blast, latest book

78. Mary Hickman—“This is for Ida who doesn’t like poetry but likes this poem”

79. Catherine Wagner—professor of English at Miami University in Ohio

80. Victoria Chang—PEN winner

81. Matthew KlaneYes! Poetry & Performance Series

82. Adam Golaski-Film Forum Press

83. Mathea Harvey—Contributing editor at jubilat and BOMB

84. Amanda Ackerman—UNFO

85. James Tate—Yale Series of Younger Poets winner, 1967

86. Jenny BoullyThe Book of Beginnings and Endings

87. Joyelle McSweeney—professor at Notre Dame

88. William Kulik—the lively prose poem

89. Tamiko Beyer—Raised in Tokyo, lives in Cambridge, MA

90. Julia Bloch-–teaches creative writing at Penn

91. Brent Cunningham—co-founded Hooke Press

92. Richard Wilbur—Won Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1957 & 1989

93. Patrick James DunaganRumpus reviewer

94. Matthew Zapruder—Wave Editor

95. David Kirby—“The Kirb” teaches in Florida, uses humor in poetry

96. Alan Cordle—Foetry.com founder

97. Lyn HejinianThe Book of a Thousand Eyes

98. Cole Swensen—Translates from the French

99. Aaron Kunin—Teaches Milton at Pomona

100. Dana WardThis Can’t Be Life

COLERIDGE AND POE: TO THE FINAL FOUR ONLY ONE CAN GO

COLERIDGE:

What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts, and emotions of the poet’s own mind.

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, control reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgment ever awake, and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.

“Doubtless,” as Sir John Davies observes of the soul (and his words may with slight alteration be applied, and even more appropriately, to the poetic imagination):

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms,
To bear them light on her celestial wings.

Thus doth she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Finally, Good Sense is the Body of poetic genius, Fancy its Drapery, Motion its Life, and Imagination the Soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.

“The man that hath not music in his soul” can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery; affecting incidents; just thoughts; interesting personal or domestic feelings; and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem; may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talents and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the particular means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”

 

POE:

Against the subtleties which would make poetry a study—not a passion—it becomes the metaphysician to reason—but the poet to protest. Yet Wordsworth and Coleridge are men in years; the one imbued in contemplation from his childhood, the other a giant in intellect and learning. The diffidence, then, with which I venture to dispute their authority, would be overwhelming, did I not feel, from the bottom of my heart, that learning has little to do with the imagination—intellect with the passions—or age with poetry.  “Trifles, like straws, upon the surface flow/He who would search for pearls must dive below,” are lines which have done much mischief. As regards the greater truths, men oftener err by seeking them at the bottom than at the top; the depth lies in the huge abysses where wisdom is sought—not in the palpable places where she is found. The ancients were not always right in hiding the goddess in a well: witness the light which Bacon has thrown upon philosophy; witness the principle of our divine faith—that moral mechanism by which the simplicity of a child may overbalance the wisdom of a man.

We see an instance of Coleridge’s liability to err, in his Biographia Literaria—professedly his literary life and opinions, but, in fact, a treatise de omni scibili et quibusdam aliis. He goes wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray—while he who surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below—its brilliancy and its beauty.

Of Coleridge I cannot speak but with reverence. His towering intellect! his gigantic power! He is one more evidence of the fact “que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu’elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu’elles nient.” He has imprisoned his own conceptions by the barrier he has erected against those of others. It is lamentable to think that such a mind should be buried in metaphysics, and, like the Nyctanthes, waste its perfume upon the night alone. In reading his poetry, I tremble—like one who stands upon a volcano, conscious, from the very darkness bursting from the crater, of the fire and the light that are weltering below.

Because, in poetry, there is no end of lines of apparently incomprehensible music, Coleridge thought proper to invent his nonsensical system of what he calls “scanning by accents,”—as if “scanning by accents” were anything more than a phrase. Whenever “Christabel” is really not rough, it can be as readily scanned by the true laws (not the suppositious rules) of verse, as can the simplest pentameter of Pope; and where it is rough these same laws will enable anyone of common sense to show why it is rough and to point out, instantaneously, the remedy for the roughness.

A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false in rhythm—unmusical. B, however, reads it to A, and A is at once struck with the perfection of the rhythm, and wonders at his dullness in not “catching” it before. Henceforward he admits the line to be musical. B, triumphant, asserts that, to be sure, the line is musical—for it is the work of Coleridge—and that it is A who is not; the fault being in A’s false reading. Now here A is right and B wrong. That rhythm is erroneous , (at some point or other more or less obvious,) which any ordinary reader can, without design, read improperly. It is the business of the poet so to construct his line that the intention must be caught at once.

Is it not clear that, by tripping here and mouthing there, any sequence of words may be twisted into any species of rhythm? But are we thence to deduce that all sequences of words are rhythmical in a rational understanding of the term?—for this is the deduction, precisely to which the reductio ad absurdum will, in the end, bring all the propositions of Coleridge. Out of one hundred readers of “Christabel,” fifty will be able to make nothing of its rhythm, while forty-nine of the remaining fifty will, with some ado, fancy they comprehend it, after the fourth or fifth perusal. The one out of the whole hundred who shall both comprehend and admire it at first sight—must be an unaccountably clever person—and I am by far too modest to assume, for a moment, that that very clever person is myself.

And here the two titans, Poe and Coleridge, battle to win the Romantic Bracket and go to the Final Four—in the 2014 Scarriet March Madness Tournament of Literary Philosophy.  Plato, defeating Dante, has already made it to the Final Four; Wilde and Baudelaire, Austin and Wilson compete for the other two spots.

Coleridge is profound.

Poe laughs at Coleridge’s profundity.

Coleridge is clever by what he says: “The poet diffuses and fuses…” etc.

Poe is clever, not by what he says, but by what he points out—see his lesson: “A reads and re-reads a certain line, and pronounces it false…”

With Coleridge, we have: Before you use language, be sure you are very good at it.

With Poe, we have: Before you use language, don’t trust it.

With Coleridge, we have: the Poem is the Poet and the Poet is the whole world!

With Poe, we have: the Poem is rhythmic law.

Coleridge uses metaphor.

Poe uses sarcasm.

Coleridge hears.

Poe sees.

WINNER: POE

 

 

POE AND WORDSWORTH IN ELITE EIGHT ROMANTIC BRACKET BATTLE!

Wordsworth, who recently defeated Marx, contemplates advancing past Poe to reach the Elite Eight

If one reads Scarriet one is not under the usual illusions about Edgar Poe; one understands he was a thousand times more than the “macabre” writer as perceived by those who have been sadly deluded, and we include here the editors of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and the various busybodies of the ‘book world’ who are clueless in the typical snobbish manner of the helpless bookworm.

It is important that art does not get reduced to content; art’s medium is not simply a blind receptacle for politically-approved, fashionable rhetoric—the sort of ‘meaning’ which the dense and unphilosophical type is always searching for in order to have their uninspired world view confirmed.

The ‘medium is the message’ is not the point either; it is precisely the duality of medium and message, the way they interact, which is crucial.

Poe, by inventing genres, by being a master and inventor of so many mediums, is the most important literary figure America has produced. The rest is mostly content or ‘stream-of-consciousness’ fiction: the South as presented by Faulkner, the Cubist reality of Joyce, the junkyard collage of Pound, with the whole Modernist project the same: foster illusion by dismantling the medium. The illusion, or the fiction, in the common parlance, is the autobiographical content in which the writer’s guts unspool, as it were, and the Fiction Writing instructor urges the color of ephemeral detail fill up every line in the “realist” project.

The paradox of Fiction striving, at all costs, to be realistic, to break the rules of form in such a way that content (data, info, ‘what is said’) is all, so that the medium disappears in the sprawl of what is communicated—this paradox of The Attempt To Be Real dressing itself up and calling itself Fiction (or Poetry) seems to be lost on many, who don’t see it as a paradox at all. But it certainly is.

Defenders of paradoxical ‘Real Fiction’ may reply: the Real is paradoxical, the Real is always an attempt, and not realized, and Fiction just happens to be one flexible and very important way to reproduce or experience the Real.

This response will satisfy some, but we object to it for the following reason: the Real is always an attempt, true, but this defines Fiction as failure—either it reflects our failure to know Reality or it reflects Reality the Unknowable. In either case, such a project is bound to be haphazard. The Socratic admonition to know what we don’t know is not the same thing as celebrating ignorance, or not knowing. The medium is something we can know, and for this reason alone, it deserves our attention; if proportion and pleasure belong anywhere, they belong to the way the medium captures reality, for this is what art, by definition, is; this is all we mean when we refer to form—form, or, more accurately, the form in space and time—the form of form—which is what we as artists know; otherwise we have no way of distinguishing reality from art, and reality trumps all understanding and becomes experience—the kind of experience which is experienced, and for that reason has no public or social existence, no art. Without the medium, there is no science. The painter begins with a rectangle laid against reality, and through this “window” discovers what can be scientifically known—the artist becoming an artist only insofar as he is a scientist.

Back to Poe, America’s Daedalus. Poe was scientific, not fictional. Detective fiction is a template, and not in the least concerned with persons and cultures. The writing of the populist poem, “The Raven,” with every formal aspect contributing to a unified effect as of a framed painting, with the accompanying essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” was like the work of a Renaissance Master in the studio. The science of perspective was behind the advances of Renaissance painting; these profound advances occurred precisely because the artist made this question paramount: how is reality to be portrayed in my painting? For when the artist wrestles with perspective, with how every part of the painting is viewed in space and time by the human eye in time and space (when the viewer ‘walks by’ a portrait, do the painting’s “eyes” follow, etc) measurement comes to the rescue of mere seeing.

Art which abandons perspective destroys art’s scientific medium and gives it over to that realm of imitation in which the viewer is charmed by mere colors. Do the colors charm the viewer “in reality?” Yes—and no. Do we “see” the moon as larger than it normally appears—when the moon is near the horizon, with objects that are closer—“in reality?” Yes. But here we see what Plato and the Renaissance painter were onto, in becoming self-conscious of imitation and human weakness and measurement: the issue, if looked at in the right way, is not  about being anti-art, at all, but rather it is about creating, or exploring, standards (based on science) for great art.

The rediscovery of Plato fueled the Renaissance. Here is Plato (Book X, The Republic):

Has not imitation been shown by us to be concerned with that which is thrice removed from the truth?

Certainly.

And what is the faculty in man to which imitation is addressed?

What do you mean?

I will explain: The body which is large when seen near, appears small when seen at a distance?

True.

And if the same object appears straight when looked at out of the water, and crooked when in the water, and the concave becomes convex, owing to the illusion about colors to which the sight is liable. Thus every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the act of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.

True.

And the arts of measuring and numbering and weighing come to the rescue of the human understanding—there is the beauty of them—and the apparent greater or less, or more or heavier, no longer have the mastery over us, but give way before calculation and measure and weight?

Most true.

And this, surely, must be the work of the calculating and rationale principle in the soul?

Plato is not saying to ignore or eliminate human weakness with its merely imitative propensities; Plato only asks that we become aware of error as we make art; it is the triumph of Platonism to bring about this self-consciousness in the artist; Plato’s condemnation of imitative projects, in which the medium is played down or ignored, is only one superficial aspect of Plato the Republic-builder’s intent. And why is the medium, as medium, so important? Because the medium is precisely that measuring vessel which brings us closer to reality as we make art with the medium as our guide (not as an end). This is true for perspective in “illusionistic” painting as it is true for formalism in “idealistic” poetry, aspects which Modernism and its obsession with trashy/fragmented reality has intentionally destroyed, as it seeks to define ‘the medium’ as something artificial, which interferes with reality and needs eventually to be sloughed off, like a Futurist snake shedding its ancient skin. But how deluded! And here we see the error of modern art in a nutshell.

“Artistic illusion” is when the medium is dismantled and disappears; the illusion becomes, in fact, delusion, as when we think a painting is “real.”

Perspective in painting is not simply an imitation of perspective in life—it is an investigation of the visual system itself, which includes both the perceptive mechanism of the individual viewer and geometric or mathematical truth, which, together, navigates and attempts to know higher reality within various contexts.

Let us quote from Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art:

I do not think there ever is “false belief or conception” when we look at a work of art. Arthur C. Danto’s discussion of illusion (in the sense of false belief or conception) shows clearly why we should hold this view:

“If illusion is to occur, the viewer cannot be conscious of any properties that really belong to the medium, for to the degree that we perceive that it is a medium, illusion is effectively aborted. So the medium must, as it were, be invisible, and this requirement is perfectly symbolized by the plate of glass which is presumed transparent, something we cannot see but only see through (as consciousness is transparent in the sense that we are not conscious of it but only of its objects)…So conceived, it is the aim of imitation to conceal from the viewer the fact that it is an imitation, which is conspicuously at odds with Aristotle’s thought that the knowledge of imitation accounts for its pleasure. In Plato’s it evidently did, and it is this form of the theory I am working with now. Taken as a theory of art, what imitation theory amounts to is a reduction of the artwork to its content, everything else being supposedly invisible—or if visible, then an excrescence, to be overcome by further illusionistic technology.”

Art can be pro-Medium or anti-Medium; the Medium can be seen as a glory, or at least as a necessity, as it was for the Renaissance painter exploring perspective, as it was for Plato, in which the Medium equalled “measurement” which comes to the “rescue” of blind imitation, as it was for Shelley, who said the poet would be a fool not to use rhyme, and as it was for Poe, a Medium-based writer if there ever was one, frustrating the typical reader of autobiographical content. An important point here: the glory of the Medium is not something “artificial,” even as it escapes the “ephemeral fact” in the “scientific-how-to” of its Medium-ness. The rectangular window of the Renaissance painter pictures reality not artificially, so much as naturally and scientifically. Rhyme and meter belong to science; they are not artificialities getting  in the way of reality, so much as a concession to how vast and unknowable reality qua reality is, making measurement and limit necessary, not only for art, but for knowing reality at all. And further, the Medium works with Content; the Medium does not simply exist statically by itself.

And then we have the anti-Medium school, which really does believe in a Reality better known without the nuisance of the bullying, “old-fashioned” limitations of the Medium. This includes, really, the entire Modernist project of the last 200 years, which attempts to either fight free of the Medium’s limitations, or hold it up as a joke or a gimmick.

So here we are: Wordsworth is an early Modernist who is best known—even as he worked brilliantly in poetic forms—for praising poems which imitated the “real speech of real men:” the implication of this revolutionary project is that reality—the real speech of real men— can be conveyed “without poetry, or that cumbersome Medium known as “Verse,” which, the Reality-loving Modernist is quick to point out, is “artificial,” just as Renaissance perspective is “artificial.” To the Modernist, all art is “artificial,” and the quicker we get rid of this diversion, the better. We have already pointed out how wrong-headed this is; but we should point out here that indeed, if the Medium is too removed from Reality, if it is badly or ineptly wrought, then, yes, it will be artificial and inept, in the very sense of the Modernist critique. But the Modernist threw out the baby with the bath water. For the Modernist, the Medium itself, no matter how excellent, became a nuisance and an enemy.

Perhaps we are being unfair to Wordsworth; since he did work in the medium of poetic formalism, what he meant perhaps, with his explicit talk of the “the speech of real men” was only his way of saying that his medium was a vehicle for the real, and not a medium, only. Just as Plato called measure beautiful, Wordsworth, in the same vein, was insightful enough to intuit plain speech as poetry. But not so. Art either stoops or elevates. It either pretends to give us reality-without-medium or acknowledges that art is reality-through-medium. The gods of Keats are more artistically profound than the beggars of Wordsworth, or, more importantly, Keats’s gods are not further from reality than Wordsworth’s beggars, and are closer to reality, if Keats uses the Medium of Verse better. No one can claim an over-arching reality which is superior to medium and form. Ever.

Poe laughed at Wordsworth’s apology for his own poetry’s “awkwardness” in W.’s “Introduction to Lyrical Ballads;” the medium of music was necessary for poetry’s enjoyment, Poe felt, and in his little essay, “Letter to B.,” Poe quotes some awkward lines of pure doggerel from Wordsworth for the purpose of ridicule, and refers to the “doctrine” of the “Lake School” as overly “metaphysical.” By contrast, Poe had nothing but good things to say of Keats’ poetry. Pleasure. Idealism. Medium. Music. These are mandatory for the poet. If one wishes to be “wise” or “political” or “realistic” or “informative,” let the author use prose. This advice could not be more simple. Which is why, perhaps, the educated today ignore it.

WINNER:POE

 

 

 

FAME: IS IT REALLY HOLLOW?

Fame is not anything like we expect.  Fame is an ‘outside’ experience which has no correlation with our ‘inside’ experience—with ourselves, with who we are.  This is why fame so often leads to madness.  It splits the person.  But what if the ‘inner self’ wishes for fame and does not get it, that could ‘split us’ and lead to madness, as well.  “Sweet fame” is how the Romantic poets referred to it—it was considered a worthy ambition for the poet. Perhaps fame is a comfort to some, a vindication, a desire to spread goodness and beauty.  We are not here to simply disparage it.

But we suspect fame is often misunderstood.

How is it…hollow?

Let’s see…the first myth of fame which needs destroying: fame is not adoration; it is, in fact, its opposite.

To be “talked about” is the last thing a good moral reputation needs.

And, as the famous Poe once quoted, “No Indian prince to his palace has more followers than a thief to the gallows.”

A hanging draws great crowds, and disgusting curiosity is enough, in itself, to crown fame upon almost anyone.

We hear that some writer is famous, and we often don’t know how they came by that fame.  We often have no idea.

We assume their fame is because they write well.

This is mostly naive.

There are millions of beautiful women.  Why do only some—for their “beauty”—become famous?

Think about it.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, James Joyce and his Ulysses, Charles Baudelaire and his Fleur du Mal, Allen Ginsberg, and his Howl, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, just to name six famous modern examples, all owe their fame to law courts and cases of public morality. (one might note: the authors here are all men)

These are not just six ‘juicy’ works—these are icons in the top ten of Modern Literature, period.

Fame by cheating?

Poe—mentioned above—was chaste in manner, but his fame exists for another dubious reason: parody.

The Raven, Poe’s famous poem, was immediately parodied when it was first published.  Poe was reviled, as a harsh critic, in certain circles: parody and dislike often leads to fame, as well.

Another example which quickly springs to mind is the ridicule which greeted works of modern art—Marcel Duchamp and his museum-placed urinal—or the indignation elicited by new works of music.

The Beatles, in a sense, were parodied by The Monkees, a “manufactured” Beatles-type band for TV, and this leads to the question: is fame always a formula?

Those who worship the Beatles as sophisticated musicians often forget that children made up most of their audience when they first attained fame, and later, too, with their film and album, Yellow Submarine.

But is this such a bad thing?

We can almost say that fame is produced in two ways:

1. Sexually, offending child-like innocence—Flaubert, Joyce, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, Nabokov, and Lawrence.

2. Naively, offering up child-like innocence for sophisticated adult disapproval—Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary”) The Beatles (“Yea, yea, yea”).

We could simplify the two types above by calling them the 1. Tragic and 2. Comic routes to fame.

The really famous will often feature a hybrid of the two:

For instance, when people found drug references (not innocent) in Beatle John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” song, inspired by a drawing done by his kid (innocent).

Poe was ridiculed for a “childish” poem, “The Raven,” but was attacked for depraved habits, as well.

This interpretation of fame which we are now outlining is more accurate than the commonly used: Offends bourgeois taste.

Flaubert and Baudelaire date from 1857, and “Howl” went to trial in 1957, so we are looking at a 100 year window of sex, fame, and modernity, the so-called Tragic path.

T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, Edna Millay, W.C. Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath have had some success, but since Plath’s “Daddy” was published in the wake of her suicide in 1962, not one poem has become famous, not like “The Raven,” anyway, or one of Frost’s little gems; that’s a drought of 50 years, and we now live in a ‘social media’ age where things “go viral” all the time.

Recently, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, a poem by Patricia Lockwood called “Rape Joke” made a stir.  The numbers were not phenomenal, but they were pretty good for the ‘poetry world.’

The raw content of “Rape Joke” could easily be filed under Tragic, and yet in a gesture to the “hybrid” characterization mentioned above, Lockwood’s poem “jokes,” also—if grimly.

We published a response to “Rape Joke” on Scarriet.  One reader reacted to it angrily, which we—writing about our experience as an innocent child—never saw coming.

Perhaps we have entered a Post-Famous-Poem Age.

Maya Angelou asks in her 1978 poem, “Still I Rise:” “Does my sexiness upset you?”

Patricia Lockwood makes this rueful comment in her poem, “Rape Joke:”

“The rape joke is if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you.”

ROMANTIC BRACKET MAKES FOR THE SWEET 16

Marx versus Wordsworth

Marx and Wordsworth both hungered for simplicity; a certain nostalgia characterizes the madly ambitious intellect of the modern world.

Life was anything but simple for Marx and Wordsworth, but a hunger for the ‘simple life’ launched efforts on their part to deconstruct all that was complex.

Both of these gentlemen wanted to get rid of religion—because of its tendency, they thought, to confuse a world with a world, to distort one world with the promises of another.

These men were radical, because religion had not yet been widely questioned in their day; religion represented morality and order—which kept nature, red in tooth and claw, at bay.

Is nature really so terrifying?  For Wordsworth, fresh air, exercise, the beauty and the peace of rambling through the countryside is health—surpassing all the jargon and complexity of religion.

Marx was more urbane; he was not a hiker, like Wordsworth, and condemned, in fact, “the idiocy of bucolic life,” but Karl Marx, scribbling away in the British Museum, not hiking about like Wordsworth, also despised religion, and compared the “fetishism” of religion with the “fetishism” of commodities; capitalism, for Marx, like religion for both, was a trick of the mind, leading to inequality.

Wordsworth wanted simple poems, Marx, simple labor practices; this was dangerous heresy in a complex world, but simplicity proved to be wildly attractive, and very popular as modern (naive) systems of thought. Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, as did Emerson, devotee of Wordsworth, and landlord of Thoreau—the thinker who quietly united Wordsworth and Marx.

One might say Marx was a lot more dangerous than Wordsworth, but one can find politics in Wordsworth if one looks hard enough—but one cannot find poetry in Marx.

WINNER: WORDSWORTH  William Wordsworth has made it to the Sweet 16!

***

Edmund Burke versus Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Burke is best known for his “conservative” objection to the thrills and dangers of the French Revolution.  Coleridge is best known for a few iconic poems, plagiarizing the Germans, talking endlessly, and theorizing iconically as well. Also: unhappiness in love, poor Coleridge! and opium abuse. And his on again, off again, friendship with Wordsworth. I know this crap: Imagination and Fancy, etc because I was an English major, the field of study which truly rocked, but for some reason is dying out, even though grammatical/philosophical literacy remains vital and other fields of study have nothing as interesting as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

WINNER: COLERIDGE Congratulations, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you join your friend Wordsworth in the Sweet 16!

***

Edgar Poe versus Thomas Love Peacock

Whence came Edgar Poe?  We can’t get our heads around his greatness. The modern literary genius should come from London or Paris or Boston, not from the slave-owning South! There’s something in that which offends the literary sensibility of cool.  But, too bad; the greatest American literary genius came from the slave-owning South. And also had no money.

To make it worse, Poe’s genius is inescapable and unquestioned; it cannot be trivialized or wished away, though many have tried it, with a shoddy, slanderous, mumbly ignorance.

Since Poe overwhelms opponents to such a degree that it is like watching a helpless person pinned to the ground longer than we think is reasonable, people hate him.  And when someone is always right, or truly looks into our mind and soul with a calm stare that is truthful and honest, we are thrown into moral and even physical agony. Poe is too good to be believed, so good, he annoys, because we have little to do after we accept his ascendency. We cannot dilly-dally with pleasure after we absorb his templates. His inventions force us to be brief and intelligent, or die.

Thomas Love Peacock is a brilliant author, and his “The Four Ages of Poetry” is a masterpiece of criticism, inspiring his friend, Shelley’s, “Defense.”  Peacock’s novels were mostly conversations, like Plato’s dialogues. Peacock was known as “The Laughing  Philosopher.” He and his friend Shelley shared a love of Ancient Greece. Peacock worked in the offices of the East India Company, and was succeeded by John Stuart Mill.

But what chance does a Peacock have against Edgar Poe?

WINNER: POE  Poe ushers himself into the Sweet 16.

***

Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Percy Shelley

Ralph Emerson talks about the soul to such an extent that one is quite certain, after reading Emerson, that the soul does not exist. Emerson is the kind of person that when you are thinking about something, says, ‘excuse me, let me do that for you.’ You don’t read Emerson, you surrender to him. Emerson will spend several hours explaining how the soul relates to the natural fact when he could have simply told us the soul is the natural fact—but nothing is simple for Emerson, or for those who attempt to understand him. His prose is poetry—when rearranged a bit with the name ‘Walt Whitman’ attached. Poetry that hectors. Emerson called Poe ‘the jingle man, but Poe’s jingle is melodic and clear compared to the jangle jungle that is Ralph Harvard Divinity School Emerson. The ‘forward-thinking liberal’ who makes superstition seem reasonable? That would be Waldo, the axe-grinder. Emerson wants argument everywhere: even in meters, as he tells us in “The Poet.” But you can’t be good at meters if you are not good at argument, so why does Emerson fault good meters which lack argument? I know a poet good at meters, Emerson says, but the true poet, etc….and here the sermon assures us that sermonizing about poetry is the way to get at it—thus Emerson envied Poe and Emerson’s heir, T.S. Eliot (Unitarian grandfather knew Mr. E.), hated Shelley.

Ah, Shelley! Shelley needs no argument. Shelley argues against religion and God with a music that remakes them. One cannot write like Dante and be an atheist. There is more God in the paganism of Plato than even in the unconscious accents of the modern non-believer. The sun recommends nature and God at once, and Shelley is that type of artist who reconciles, even in despair.

WINNER: SHELLEY

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!

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

 

 

 

THIRTY TOP MASS APPEAL POETRY MOMENTS IN U.S. HISTORY

 

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1. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe is published in the New York Evening Mirror, January 29, 1845

2.  Robert Frost reads “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural, January 20, 1961

3.  Martin Luther King delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech, August 28, 1963

4. Dead Poets  Society, starring Robin Williams, released, June 9, 1989

5. Neil Armstrong’s moon landing speech, July 20, 1969

6. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” first played at flag-raising ceremony on Fort Warren, May 12, 1861

7. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg address,” November 19, 1863

8. Cassius Clay, boxer and poet, defeats Sonny Liston,  heavyweight champion, February 25, 1964

9. “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus recited at the Statue of Liberty’s Dedication, October 28, 1886

10. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released, May 27, 1963

11. “The Star-Spangled Banner” first published, in Baltimore, September 20, 1814

12. Sylvia Plath’s suicide in England, February 11, 1963

13. Japan wins Russo-Japanese War, starting Haiku rage in the West, September 5, 1905

14. “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes published in Boston Daily Advertiser, September 16, 1830

15. Jack Kerouac reads his poetry on Steven Allen show (with Allen on piano), November 16, 1959

16. James Russell Lowell delivers “Ode” at Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865

17. Mick Jagger reads Shelley’s “Adonais” at Brian Jones’ memorial in England, July 5, 1969

18. Ella Wheeler Wilcox publishes her most famous poem in New York Sun, the year she publishes controversial Poems of Passion, February 25, 1883

19. Dana Gioia publishes his essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic, May, 1991

20. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” by Sarah Josepha Hale published, May 24, 1830

21. Actor Jimmy Stewart reads poem “I’ll Never Forget A Dog Named Beau” on the Tonight Show, making Johnny Carson cry, July 28, 1981

22. Ronald Regan’s Challenger Disaster Speech, January 28, 1986

23. Maya Angelou reads “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton inaugural, January 20, 1993

24. Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” published, November 10, 1855

25. Ezra Pound wins Bollingen Prize with NY Times headline: “Pound In Mental Clinic Wins Prize for Poetry Penned In Treason Cell,” February 20, 1949

26. “Rapture” by Blondie released, January 12, 1981

27. “The Music Man” by Meredith Wilson opens, December 19, 1957

28. Elizabeth Alexander reads “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s inaugural, January 20, 2009

29. Publisher Horace Liveright makes offers for works by Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, January 3, 1922.

30. Favorite Poem Project launched by poet laureate Robert Pinsky, April 1, 1997

 

POE VERSUS LESSING!

Gotthold Lessing (b. 1729) elucidated the great differences between painting and poetry.

 

LESSING:

The first person who compared Poetry and Painting with each other was a man of fine feeling, who perceived that both these arts produced upon him a similar effect. Both, he felt, placed before us things absent as present, appearance as reality. Both deceived and the deceit of both was pleasing.

A second person sought to penetrate into the inner nature of this pleasure and discovered that in both it flowed from one and the same source. The beautiful, the notion of which we first derive from corporeal objects, has general rules applicable to various things; to actions, to thoughts, as well as to forms.

A third person, who reflected upon the value and upon the distribution of these general rules, remarked that some of them had prevailed more in Painting and others more in Poetry, and that with respect to the latter rules, Poetry could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Painting; with respect to the former rules, Painting could be aided by the illustrations and examples supplied by Poetry.

The first was an amateur; the second was a philosopher; the third was a critic.

It was not easy for the two first to make a wrong use either of their feeling or of their reasoning. On the other hand, the principle force of the remarks of the critic depends upon the correctness of their application to the particular case, and it would be astonishing, inasmuch as for one really acute, you will find fifty merely witty critics, if this application had always been made with all the caution requisite to hold the scales equal between the two Arts. Apelles and Protogenes, in their lost writings upon Painting confirmed and illustrated the rules relating to it by the rules of Poetry, which had been already established; so that we may be assured that in them the same moderation and accuracy prevailed, which at the present day we see in the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Horace and Quintilian, when they apply the principles and experience of Painting to Eloquence and to Poetry.

It is the privilege of the Ancients in no one thing to do too much or too little.

But we moderns have often believed that in many of our works we have surpassed them, because we have changed their little byways of pleasure into highways, even at the risk of being led by these safer and shorter highways into paths which end in a wilderness.

 

 

POE:

 

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections— at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

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

 

Edgar Poe is, of course, the greatest literary theorist next to Plato; Poe’s inventiveness is always a grounded and timeless effort—one never finds Poe qualifying his rhetoric by appealing to old or new ways; Poe never abased himself before the past or the future.

Lessing’s Laocoon belongs to the past, certainly, but his observations in that work on the relationship, and essential differences between Painting and Poetry are invaluable. Modernism and Post-Modernism have blurred the two Arts and nearly destroyed both in the process. When the two Arts blend, the waxing of the conceptual destroys everything human and actual in its path until we reach the Modern Art pathology of Tom Wolfe’s the “Painted Word.”

Poetry has not been immune to the toxic blur, either, though it is less easy to quantify the damage: Abstract Art cripples and shrinks what Painting can depict; that is easy to see, but hasn’t free verse simply expanded what verse can do?

Lessing and Poe (it is a shame one has to lose) would both remind us that material particulars trump freedom when it comes to art and poetry.

Lessing and Poe would both agree on this: the crippling logic of free verse works in the following way: we create poetry by taking prose and turning it into a visual product.  Read aloud, free verse is prose—only by seeing line breaks on the page are we alerted to the ostensible nature of the product. Can we take prose, make it a visual product, and thereby create poetry? Of course we cannot. But this is what happens when Moderns run amok. Poe would quickly point out that it does not help to blame “Moderns.” The term is meaningless. Error is error, no matter in what Age it occurs, and error belongs as much to the past as it does to the present.

Just listen to Poe. Using specific examples, he will fix it now.

 

WINNER: POE

POE AND THE BIG BANG: “THE BODY AND THE SOUL WALK HAND IN HAND”

We quote at some length, in this Scarriet piece, the last major work of America’s major author, Edgar Poe; like the Commedia of Dante or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Poe’s Eureka presents genius on a scale that cannot be glimpsed at once, but reveals itself to patient wonder. But the wonder is that even in glimpses the genius is apparent.

Poe, the inventor of science fiction, detective fiction and code-breaking that helped the allies win World War Two, gives us, in Eureka, a work of science: the universe of stars explained. The author of Eureka reasons in a manner admirable for its unprecedented resourcefulness: the lock will come undone, no matter what, is the chief dynamic on display.

We present this portion of Poe’s Eureka not as a piece for passive admiration (even though our admiration is extreme) but as an exercise for the mind, and as a question: regarding the universe, does Poe get away with too much, or has he solved the secret?

Poe bumps up against three absolutes, which few would dare to touch, and destroys them all—and only because, as his poetic sense recognizes, he is talking about the origin and behavior of the universe.

1. Infinity

2. Newton’s First Law of Motion

3. Axiomatic principle

To most, simply reading the excerpt of Poe’s Eureka below will be sufficient to comprehend the profundity of Poe’s extraordinary gambit in dealing with 1, 2, and 3 above.

We shall briefly explain for  others the inevitable path Poe takes in his remarkably simple, yet profound thesis, so that the powerful force of his genius, applied to the problem of understanding the universe, may be truly felt.

For Poe, the universe is finite, and begins as one particle, and because it is one, it has no relation.

When this one universe splits as the ‘big bang,’ it creates matter (relation) and all the subsequent “principles,” the chief and overriding principle the law of gravity, the force of all matter attempting to return to its original perfection (with light, the resistant friction of this return).

The universe, in its original perfect state, features no relation, therefore all principles and axioms at this point are in abeyance.

As Poe points out, an axiom is nothing more than “obviousness of relation” and so here Poe’s original unparticled particle trumps, in its true unity of existence, all principles and axioms—which are subsequent realities growing out of the one axiomatic principle, superior to all others—the ultimate beginning, the one particle with no relation.  Does this allow Poe ‘to get away with shit,’ or, as Poe himself argues, does this guide him, inductively and deductively, to the secret of the universe?

Poe was not the first to posit the universe as “one,” but in Eureka, Poe scrutinized the idea of one universe intensely and radically, so that one, in a material, and not merely an abstract sense, really is one, that is, blind to all axiomatic thought (and incapable of being infinite) so that the scientist, if not the poet, is absolutely startled as Poe’s actual, finite universe emerges into the light of day as a product of an inevitable ‘big bang,’ Poe having, in fact, discovered the ‘big bang.” Since Einstein admitted to having read and admired Eureka, we may possibly infer that Edgar Allan Poe, the poet, (a few copies of Eureka having quietly fallen into the right hands) invented modern physics itself.

Now we present Poe in his own words, from the middle portion of Eureka.  The force and clarity of his rhetoric will be felt at once by all:

Now, Rëaction, as far as we know anything of it, is Action conversed. The general principle of Gravity being, in the first place, understood as the rëaction of an act — as the expression of a desire on the part of Matter, while existing in a state of diffusion, to return into the Unity whence it was diffused; and, in the second place, the mind being called on to determine the character of the desire — the manner in which it would, naturally, be manifested; in other words, being called on to conceive a probable law, or modus operandi, for the return; could not well help arriving at the conclusion that this law of return would be precisely the converse of the law of departure. That such would be the case, any one, at least, would be abundantly justified in taking for granted, until such time as some person should suggest something like a plausible reason why it should not be the case — until such period as a law of return shall be imagined which the intellect can consider as preferable.

Matter, then, radiated into space with a force varying as the squares of the distances, might, à priori, be supposed to return towards its centre of radiation with a force varying inversely as the squares of the distances: and I have already shown* that any principle which will explain why the atoms should tend, according to any law, to the general centre, must be admitted as satisfactorily explaining, at the same time, why, according to the same law, they should tend each to each. For, in fact, the tendency to the general centre is not to a centre as such, but because of its being a point in tending towards which each atom tends ­ most directly to its real and essential centre, Unity — the absolute and final Union of all.

The consideration here involved presents to my own mind no embarrassment whatever — but this fact does not blind me to the possibility of its being obscure to those who may have been less in the habit of dealing with abstractions: — and, on the whole, it may be as well to look at the matter from one or two other points of view.

The absolute, irrelative particle primarily created by the Volition of God, must have been in a condition of positive normality, or rightfulness — for wrongfulness implies relation. Right is positive; wrong is negative — is merely the negation of right; as cold is the negation of heat — darkness of light. That a thing may be wrong, it is necessary that there be some other thing in relation to which it is wrong — some condition which it fails to satisfy; some law which it violates; some being whom it aggrieves. If there be no such being, law, or condition, in respect to which the thing is wrong — and, still more especially, if no beings, laws, or conditions exist at all — then the thing cannot be wrong and consequently must be right.

Any deviation from normality involves a tendency to return into it. A difference from the normal — from the right — from the just — can be understood as effected only by the overcoming a difficulty; and if the force which overcomes the difficulty be not infinitely continued, the ineradicable tendency to return will at length be permitted to act for its own satisfaction. On withdrawal of the force, the tendency acts. This is the principle of rëaction as the inevitable consequence of finite action. Employing a phraseology of which the seeming ­ affectation will be pardoned for its expressiveness, we may say that Rëaction is the return from the condition of as it is and ought not to be into the condition of as it was, originally, and therefore ought to be; — and let me add here that the absolute force of Rëaction would no doubt be always found in direct proportion with the reality — the truth — the absoluteness — of the originality — if ever it were possible to measure this latter: — and, consequently, the greatest of all conceivable rëactions must be that manifested in the tendency which we now discuss — the tendency to return into the absolutely original — into the supremely primitive. Gravity, then, must be the strongest of forces — an idea reached à priori and abundantly confirmed by induction. What use I make of the idea, will be seen in the sequel.

The atoms, now, having been diffused from their normal condition of Unity, seek to return to — what? Not to any particular point, certainly; for it is clear that if, on the diffusion, the whole Universe of matter had been projected, collectively, to a distance from the point of radiation, the atomic tendency to the general centre of the sphere would not have been disturbed in the least; the atoms would not have sought the point in absolute space from which they were originally impelled. It is merely the condition, and not the point or locality at which this condition took its rise, that these atoms seek to re-establish; — it is merely that condition which is their normality, that they desire. “But they seek a centre,” it will be said, “and a centre is a point.” True; but they seek this point not in its character of point — (for, were the whole sphere moved from its position, they would seek, equally, the centre; ­ and the centre then would be a new point) — but because it so happens, on account of the form in which they collectively exist — (that of the sphere) — that only through the point in question — the sphere’s centre — they can attain their true object, Unity. In the direction of the centre each atom perceives more atoms than in any other direction. Each atom is impelled towards the centre because along the straight line joining it and the centre and passing on to the surface beyond, there lie a greater number of atoms than along any other straight line joining it, the atom, with any point of the sphere — a greater number of objects that seek it, the individual atom — a greater number of tendencies to Unity — a greater number of satisfactions for its own tendency to Unity — in a word, because in the direction of the centre lies the utmost possibility of satisfaction, generally, for its own individual appetite. To be brief, the condition, Unity, is all that is really sought; and if the atoms seem to seek the centre of the sphere, it is only impliedly — through implication — because such centre happens to imply, to include, or to involve, the only essential centre, Unity. But on account of this implication or involution, there is no possibility of practically separating the tendency to Unity in the abstract, from the tendency to the concrete centre. Thus the tendency of the atoms to the general centre is, to all practical intents and for all logical purposes, the tendency each to each; and the tendency each to each is the tendency to the centre; and the one tendency may be assumed as the other; whatever will apply to the one must be thoroughly applicable to the other; and, in conclusion, whatever principle will satisfactorily explain the one, cannot be questioned as an explanation of the other. ­

In looking carefully around me for rational objection to what I have advanced, I am able to discover nothing; — but of that class of objections usually urged by the doubters for Doubt’s sake, I very readily perceive three; and proceed to dispose of them in order.

It may be said, first: “That the proof that the force of radiation (in the case described) is directly proportional with the squares of the distances, depends on an unwarranted assumption — that of the number of atoms in each stratum being the measure of the force with which they are emitted.”

I reply, not only that I am warranted in such assumption, but that I should be utterly unwarranted in any other. What I assume is, simply, that an effect is the measure of its cause — that every exercise of the Divine Will will be proportional with that which demands the exertion — that the means of Omnipotence, or of Omniscience, will be exactly adapted to its purposes. Neither can a deficiency nor an excess of cause bring to pass any effect. Had the force which radiated any stratum to its position, been either more or less than was needed for the purpose — that is to say, not directly proportional with the purpose — then to its position that stratum could not have been radiated. Had the force which, with a view to general equability of distribution, emitted the proper number of atoms for each stratum, been not directly proportional with the number, then the number would not have been the number demanded for the equable distribution.

The second supposable objection is somewhat better entitled to an answer. ­

It is an admitted principle in Dynamics that every body, on receiving an impulse, or disposition to move, will move onward in a straight line, in the direction imparted by the impelling force, until deflected, or stopped, by some other force. How then, it may be asked, is my first or external stratum of atoms to be understood as discontinuing their movement at the surface of the imaginary glass sphere, when no second force, of more than an imaginary character, appears, to account for the discontinuance?

I reply that the objection, in this case, actually does arise out of “an unwarranted assumption” — on the part of the objector — the assumption of a principle, in Dynamics, at an epoch when no “principles,” in anything, exist: — I use the word “principle,” of course, in the objector’s understanding of the word.

“In the beginning” we can admit — indeed we can comprehend — but one First Cause — the truly ultimate Principle — the Volition of God. The primary act — that of Radiation from Unity — must have been independent of all that which the world now calls “principle” — because all that we so designate is but a consequence of the rëaction of that primary act: — I say “primary” act; for the creation of the absolute material Particle is more properly to be regarded as a conception than as an “act” in the ordinary meaning of the term. Thus, we must regard the primary act as an act for the establishment of what we now call “principles.” But this primary act itself is to be considered as continuous Volition. The Thought of God is to be understood as originating the Diffusion — as proceeding with it — as regulating it — and, finally, as being ­ withdrawn from it on its completion. Then commences Rëaction, and through Rëaction, “Principle,” as we employ the word. It will be advisable, however, to limit the application of this word to the two immediate results of the discontinuance of the Divine Volition — that is, to the two agents, Attraction and Repulsion. Every other Natural agent depends, either more or less immediately, on these two, and therefore would be more conveniently designated as sub-principle.

It may be objected, thirdly, that, in general, the peculiar mode of distribution which I have suggested for the atoms, is “an hypothesis and nothing more.”

Now, I am aware that the word “hypothesis” is a ponderous sledge-hammer, grasped immediately, if not lifted, by all very diminutive thinkers, on the first appearance of any proposition wearing, in any particular, the garb of a theory. But “hypothesis” cannot be wielded here to any good purpose, even by those who succeed in lifting it — little men or great.

I maintain, first, that only in the mode described is it conceivable that Matter could have been diffused so as to fulfil at once the conditions of radiation and of generally equable distribution. I maintain, secondly, that these conditions themselves have been imposed upon me, as necessities, in a train of ratiocination as rigorously logical as that which establishes any demonstration in Euclid; and I maintain, thirdly, that even if the charge of “hypothesis” were as fully sustained as it is, in fact, unsustained and untenable, still the validity and indisputability of my result would not, even in the slightest particular, be disturbed.

To explain: — The Newtonian Gravity — a law of Nature — a law whose existence as such no one out of Bedlam questions — a law whose admission as such enables us to account for nine-tenths of the Universal phænomena — a law which, merely because it does so enable us to account for these phænomena, we are perfectly willing, without reference to any other considerations, to admit, and cannot help admitting, as a law — a law, nevertheless, of which neither the principle nor the modus operandi of the principle, has ever yet been traced by the human analysis — a law, in short, which, neither in its detail nor in its generality, has been found susceptible of explanation at all — is at length seen to be at every point thoroughly explicable, provided we only yield our assent to —— what? To an hypothesis? Why, if an hypothesis — if the merest hypothesis — if an hypothesis for whose assumption — as in the case of that pure hypothesis the Newtonian law itself — no shadow of à priori reason could be assigned — if an hypothesis, even so absolute as all this implies, would enable us to perceive a principle for the Newtonian law — would enable us to understand as satisfied, conditions so miraculously — so ineffably complex and seemingly irreconcileable as those involved in the relations of which Gravity tells us, — what rational being could so expose his fatuity as to call even this absolute hypothesis an hypothesis any longer — unless, indeed, he were to persist in so calling it, with the understanding that he did so, simply for the sake of consistency in words?

But what is the true state of our present case? What is the fact? Not only that it is not an hypothesis which ­ we are required to adopt, in order to admit the principle at issue explained, but that it is a logical conclusion which we are requested not to adopt if we can avoid it — which we are simply invited to deny if we can: — a conclusion of so accurate a logicality that to dispute it would be the effort — to doubt its validity beyond our power: — a conclusion from which we see no mode of escape, turn as we will; a result which confronts us either at the end of an inductive journey from the phænomena of the very Law discussed, or at the close of a deductive career from the most rigorously simple of all conceivable assumptions — the assumption, in a word, of Simplicity itself.

And if here, it be urged, that although my starting-point is, as I assert, the assumption of absolute Simplicity, yet Simplicity, considered merely in itself, is no axiom; and that only deductions from axioms are indisputable — it is thus that I reply:

Every other science than Logic is the science of certain concrete relations. Arithmetic, for example, is the science of the relations of number — Geometry, of the relations of form — Mathematics in general, of the relations of quantity in general — of whatever can be increased or diminished. Logic, however, is the science of Relation in the abstract — of absolute Relation — of Relation considered solely in itself. An axiom in any particular science other than Logic is, thus, merely a proposition announcing certain concrete relations which seem to be too obvious for dispute — as when we say, for instance, that the whole is greater than its part: — and, thus again, the principle of the Logical axiom — in other words, of an axiom in the abstract — is, ­ simply, obviousness of relation. Now, it is clear, not only that what is obvious to one mind may not be obvious to another, but that what is obvious to one mind at one epoch, may be anything but obvious, at another epoch, to the same mind. It is clear, moreover, that what, to-day, is obvious even to the majority of mankind, or to the majority of the best intellects of mankind, may to-morrow be, to either majority, more or less obvious, or in no respect obvious at all. It is seen, then, that the axiomatic principle itself is susceptible of variation, and of course that axioms are susceptible of similar change. Being mutable, the “truths” which grow out of them are necessarily mutable too; or, in other words, are never to be positively depended on as truths at all — since Truth and Immutability are one.

It will now be readily understood that no axiomatic idea — no idea founded in the fluctuating principle, obviousness of relation — can possibly be so secure — so reliable a basis for any structure erected by the Reason, as that idea — (whatever it is, wherever we can find it, or if it be practicable to find it anywhere) — which is irrelative altogether — which not only presents to the understanding no obviousness of relation, either greater or less, to be considered, but subjects the intellect, not in the slightest degree, to the necessity of even looking at any relation at all. If such an idea be not what we too heedlessly term “an axiom,” it is at least preferable, as a logical basis, to any axiom ever propounded, or to all imaginable axioms combined: — and such, precisely, is the idea with which my deductive process, so thoroughly corroborated by induction, commences. My Particle Proper is but Absolute Irrelation.

To sum up ­ what has been here advanced: — As a starting point I have taken it for granted, simply, that the Beginning had nothing behind it or before it — that it was a Beginning in fact — that it was a Beginning and nothing different from a Beginning — in short that this Beginning was —— that which it was. If this be a “mere assumption,” then a “mere assumption” let it be.

To conclude this branch of the subject: — I am fully warranted in announcing that the Law which call Gravity exists on account of Matter’s having been irradiated, at its origin, atomically, into a limited* sphere of Space, from one, individual, unconditional, irrelative, and absolute Particle Proper, by the sole process in which it was possible to satisfy, at the same time, the two conditions, radiation and equable distribution throughout the sphere — that is to say, by a force varying in direct proportion with the squares of the distances between the Radiated atoms, respectively, and the Particular centre of Radiation.

I have already given my reasons for presuming Matter to have been diffused by a determinate rather than by a continuous or infinitely continued force. Supposing a continuous force, we should be unable, in the first place, to comprehend a rëaction at all; and we should be required, in the second place, to entertain the impossible conception of an infinite extension of Matter. Not to dwell upon the impossibility of the conception, the infinite extension of Matter is an idea which, if not positively disproved, ­ is at least not in any respect warranted by telescopic observation of the stars — a point to be explained more fully hereafter; and this empirical reason for believing in the original finity of Matter is unempirically confirmed. For example: — Admitting, for the moment, the possibility of understanding Space as filled with the radiated atoms — that is to say, admitting, as well as we can, for argument’s sake, that the succession of the atoms had absolutely no end — then it is clear, that, even when the Volition of God had been withdrawn from them, and thus the tendency to return into Unity permitted (abstractly) to be satisfied, this permission would have been nugatory and invalid — practically valueless and of no effect whatever. No Rëaction could have taken place; no movement toward Unity could have been made; no Law of Gravity could have obtained.

To explain: — Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity: — or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction — it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counter-balancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus ­ the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter — no stars — no worlds — nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.

With the understanding of a sphere of atoms, however, we perceive, at once, a satisfiable tendency to union. The general result of the tendency each to each, being a tendency of all to the centre, the general process of condensation, or approximation, commences immediately, by a common and simultaneous movement, on withdrawal of the Divine Volition; the individual approximations, or cöalescences — of atom with atom, being subject to almost infinite variations of time, degree, and condition, on account of the excessive multiplicity of relation, arising from the differences of form assumed as characterizing the atoms at the moment of their quitting the Particle Proper; as well as from the subsequent particular inequidistance, each from each.

What I wish to impress upon the reader is the certainty of there arising, at once, (on withdrawal of the diffusive force, or Divine Volition,) out of the condition of the atoms as described, at innumerable points throughout the Universal sphere, innumerable agglomerations, characterized by innumerable specific differences of form, size, essential nature, and distance each from each. The development of Repulsion (Electricity) must have commenced, of course, ­ with the very earliest particular efforts at Unity, and must have proceeded constantly in the ratio of Cöalescence — that is to say, in that of Condensation, or, again, of Heterogeneity.

Thus the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion — the Material and the Spiritual — accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus The Body and The Soul walk hand in hand.

FICTION: LIE OR ART?

Doesn’t it all finally come down to this?

Is your fiction a lie, or is it art?

If fiction is a mere lie,  you have no right to call it art, and if you do, you and your art are a sham.  Sorry.

If your fiction is not a lie, then it is not fiction, but truth, and even here, your art, your fiction, is a lie and a sham—because all you are doing is telling the truth, or, not lying, not producing fiction, producing fact, not art.  Sorry, again.

So art must be a lie, but when does that lie stop being a sham?

When does a lie become what we have come to praise as art?

First we must ask: why is a lie a bad thing?  Because it deceives.  So the fiction writer (or poet) does not lie, even though he lies, because the reader knows he is lying.  There is no deception.

Unless, unless…we cry when we read a poem: then our feelings have been deceived.  We talk of honest feeling, sincere feeling, as a good.

So here we see art deceiving our feelings.  But if feelings respond to a sentimental message, has deception really occurred?  Who, or what, has been deceived, when a poem or a movie makes us cry?  Our feelings have been deceived, but have we been deceived?  We still know the poem is a lie, even as it makes us cry.  So no real deception has occurred.

Let’s look at it this way: if the poet tells the truth, and the reader believes it is a lie, the truth is a lie, for the reader, not just the reader’s feelings, has been deceived.

So it isn’t an issue at all of truth or lies, but deception.

We, as readers of fiction, do not—cannot—know the lies of fiction as truth; what really happens is that all fiction is a mixture of lies and truth, and the truth is what we truly understand.

If we are not deceived, there is no lie.

No reader can be deceived by the truth, for truth, by its nature, cannot deceive; and therefore no reader ever believes, or can believe, that fiction worth reading is a lie.  Fiction always moves us with its truth; it moves us when it does not deceive us; and therefore when fiction is art, when fiction is valid and good and successful, it succeeds entirely as truth.

And yet…we all know that an explanation, leaving out one small detail, can serve an entirely different purpose, that one detail taken away can turn a truth into a lie.  How then, can the mixture of lies and truth, then, equal truth for the reader of fiction?

The answer to this dilemma lies in the difference between life and fiction.  Life contains lies and truth.  Fiction contains nothing that can be called either lies or truth.

Life is open-ended and interested.   Fiction is closed and disinterested.  A lie in life has real consequences.  A lie in fiction has none.  If a lie in fiction has no consequences, it does not deceive. If it does not deceive, it must be true, or, at least have no lies.  The mixture of lies and truth in fiction produces something which cannot deceive the reader, because the reader is assuming the fiction is not true.  But we care only about truth and are able to extract it from the fiction.  The truth-within-the-fiction is what the reader is actually reading, actually knowing.  Life presents truth and lies as either-or.  Fiction presents truth and lies as one-within-the-other.

In fiction, it is not that it doesn’t matter if it’s a lie, or a truth.  It’s just that lies or truth, as an either-or, cannot exist in fiction.  Fiction, as fiction, does not deceive. The feeling that life is constantly deceiving us makes us run to fiction—which cannot deceive us.  If fiction affects our feelings, we rejoice in feeling superior to our mere feelings, which are deceived, for the failure of the feelings to detect the truth only reaffirms that we are not deceived.

The extraction of truth from lies is where the “art” of fiction is truly located.

The “art” of a good detective is the same as the “art” of good fiction—as it’s read, or written.    The “art” of a “good” detective is necessary—when the criminal is “good.”  The writing and reading of good fiction, likewise, depend on one another.

Detection is the key.

Plato was correct.  We argue with Socrates in vain.

Fiction is bad, and is always bad.  Good fiction does not succeed because of its fiction, but because of its truth.  And the extraction or detection of that truth is the art of fiction.

The great writer of fiction disrupts the fictional reading of fiction by the reader who is helplessly running away from life and its deceptions to the drug of fiction, and makes the detection and the extraction of truth the attribute that matters.

We may extract the truth by our response to beauty.  We may extract the truth by looking beyond the work to ourselves, or to implications outside the work.  It is not for us to say how the truth is extracted, only that the chief importance lies in the faculty of detection itself.

The American author who elevated Criticism, discovered the Big Bang, was a short fiction master, a code-breaker, invented the unreliable narrator, detective fiction, science fiction, and invented modern humor, besides, made it a paramount concern of his to imply that his fiction was not fiction at all.  The “inventor of modern humor” may seem a stretch, since we are talking of Edgar Allan Poe, but let us quote from one of his more obscure tales, “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.”  We make an example of this tale for the way it presents the relationship between truth and fiction.

The premise is simple: Poe makes use of the narrative device which frames the Arabian Nights:

It will be remembered, that, in the usual version of the tales, a certain monarch, having good cause to be jealous of his queen, not only puts her to death, but makes a vow, by his beard and the prophet, to espouse each night the most beautiful maiden in his dominions, and the next morning to deliver her up to the executioner.

Having fulfilled this vow for many years to the letter, and with a religious punctuality and method that conferred great credit upon him as a man of devout feelings and excellent sense, he was interrupted one afternoon (no doubt at his prayers) by a visit from his grand vizier, to whose daughter, it appears, there had occurred an idea.

Her name was Scheherazade, and her idea was, that she would either redeem the land from the depopulating tax upon its beauty, or perish, after the approved fashion of all heroines, in the attempt.

The twist Poe adds is equally simple: after her life is saved, he has Scheherazade tell one more tale, based on amazing facts of real life; the king, finding the truth too absurd to believe, has her killed, then, after all.

Scheherazade merely refers to modern scientists and engineers as “magicians” and the king, listening to it as a story, simply cannot swallow it.

“ ‘Another of these magicians, by means of a fluid that nobody ever yet saw, could make the corpses of his friends brandish their arms, kick out their legs, fight, or even get up and dance at his will. Another had cultivated his voice to so great an extent that he could have made himself heard from one end of the earth to the other. Another had so long an arm that he could sit down in Damascus and indite a letter at Bagdad — or indeed at any distance whatsoever. Another commanded the lightning to come down to him out of the heavens, and it came at his call; and served him for a plaything when it came. Another took two loud sounds and out of them made a silence. Another constructed a deep darkness out of two brilliant lights. Another made ice in a red-hot furnace. Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did. Another took this luminary with the moon and the planets, and having first weighed them with scrupulous accuracy, probed into their depths and found out the solidity of the substance of which they were made…

“Preposterous!” said the king.

We love this reference to photography: “Another directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did.”

Aristotle: “Not to know that a hind has no horns is a less serious matter than to paint it inartistically.”

Poe affixes the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction” to the head of his Scheherezade tale.

Again, from Aristotle’s Poetics: “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”

When it comes to truth being “stranger,” in the Aristotelian formula, “strange” is “improbable possible.”   But “directed the sun to paint his portrait, and the sun did” seems “probable impossible,” too.

Science would make it clear to the ancient caliph how photography works, how the “sun can paint a portrait.”

But in the fiction, the “magician” directs the sun to paint his portrait, which is a “probable impossible,” a “requirement of art” for Aristotle.   But it fails for Poe’s Scheherezade; the king finds it “improbable,” and thus rejects it.  The joke, of course, is that Poe knows—and the reader may know—or does know, when he consults the footnotes—that the science exists, and therefore it is not only probable and possible; it is. 

THERE IS A RADICAL ERROR

There are two ways to respond to any impressive performance: “Bravo!” or “How did you do that?”  The second response will sometimes unnerve the performer, and of course it’s also the basis of education and pedagogy.

Edgar Poe, before Modernism, before the Writing Era, before Post-Modern Theory, asked in his “Philosophy of Composition,” why poets never recorded how they wrote a poem, and thought “authorial vanity” the chief reason. Poe goes on to illustrate, step-by-step, how he wrote, “The Raven.”  Poe, here, was destroying the Romantic notion that a poem was “organic,” that a poem had to be written because of some fountain of passionate expression in the poet’s soul, that a poem was a mystical, religious experience glimpsed through a burning window. Poe merely said we can put together a poem like a piece of machinery.  The New Critics and T.S. Eliot, with their anti-Romantic, perfunctory, ironic, modern, intelligence, learned it all from this one essay.  Much was made of (and the moderns mocked) Poe’s “Death of a beautiful woman” formula; but this was just Poe (as usual) having it both ways: machinery/tenderly human.  The point Poe was making was that the poem-machinery still needs a human theme to work like a machine: machines work for people, after all.   “The death of a beautiful woman” really wasn’t the point at all.  It was just an example.  His machine, as he tells his readers, was a “popular” poem machine; you need a popular theme for a popular poem to work.

The poet must be a critic of himself even more than the critic needs to be a critic of the poets, for the former produces great poetry; the latter only points out bad poetry.  We can crudely puff ourselves, too, investing in “Bravo!” over “How did you do that?”  This third option is by far the worst.

Poets should be critics, but should they be fiction writers, too?  Or historians, as well?  How much should the genres mingle?  Critically, how much can be surveyed at once?   Is there enough time to become expert in more than one field?

And is it philosophy that should bind all these up—criticism, poetry, fiction, and history?

Any poet will give short, competent answers to these questions in interviews, and every intellectual revels in a certain number of disciplines, but philosophically we’re winging it.  No one really knows very much, beyond a suave, surface nominalism capable of fooling people for an afternoon in front of a classroom.  In our hearts we know we are frauds.  Inspiration may visit.  But not for very long.

The following is merely a good place for this discussion to start because it manages to cover it all: poetry, fiction, history, and criticism.  It is from Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.”

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

The analysis and criticism of literary fiction invariably involves talk of three things: “character,” “point-of-view,” and some “essay topic theme” by which the work is generally characterized and marketed: Man v. Nature, Boomer Romance Comedy, or topical news interest such as immigration, gun control, health control, cyber-bullying.

These things, however: character, p.o.v., and theme, though commonly discussed, are crude markers.  A new vocabulary for discussing fiction is necessary.

The one thing we all want is to know and reflect the truth—if such a thing exists, and let’s assume, for the moment that it does.  So poems, stories, criticism of those poems and stories, history, philosophy should express—in their various ways—truth.  Truth, for the reader of fiction, might be truth of character, a small insight into life, a slice of political truth—it doesn’t have to be truth with a capital “T,” just so we know what we are generally aiming for, here.

Edgar Poe makes the radical assertion that he prefers writing a story without a “thesis” from “history,” or “one suggested by an incident of the day.”  Then he goes on to say that he will select an original and vivid “impression” to affect the “susceptible” reader, using “incident” and “tone” and looking “within” to find the right “combination” of such.

We can hear the howls of protest from those looking for “truth.”  Mr. Poe, by walling himself off from history and life, and starting with the impressionable reader, seems determined to get as far away from the truth as possible, to say nothing of “looking within” for “combinations.”

Poe, are you mad?   Yes, mad like a fox.

Here’s how we imagine Poe would respond: Why insult history, and worse, Truth herself, by saying fiction is true? Why make fiction into a kind of half-history/history lite, incident-of-the-day-illustration, or an essay chock full of half-truths that yet satisfies a blowhard’s opinionated animus in a certain literature-approved direction? A reader’s susceptibility is simply the coin of fiction; why pretend otherwise? If the bad routinely preys on this susceptibility, why not genius, too? As for the ‘walling off’ and ‘looking within,’ charge: removing fiction from history’s realm—where history is merely turned into half-truth by the untrustworthy—we free up fiction to be more itself: combinations of tone and incident fashioned within by the only one worthy to fashion, in a novel manner, these combinations: the author.

“Incident” is just the right word, too, as bland as it might sound to modern ears.  “Incident” refers to both character and plot, neither of which can exist without the other.  We hear lovers of literary fiction go on about “character,” as if mere “plot” belonged to the cruder arcs of genre fiction, “character” distinguishing high-brow productions from their populist kin.  We recall Poe scolding a critic, who, in speaking of Hamlet, the character, wrote of Hamlet as if he were a real person who walked among us, and not simply the coinage of Shakespeare’s brain.  As the religiously superstitious over-anthropomorphize, so the critic of literary fiction inevitably mistakes fictional characters for real persons—they are not.  “Character” is merely a piece of machinery belonging to the fiction, belonging to the “incidents,” and is no more genuine than a plot device—for each part of the machine cannot exist without the other; the “combination” of the “incidents” is all—and the “character” merely a piece existing for those “incidents” and their “tone,” a tone which belongs solely to the author, and if we think the tone has anything to do with “character,” we err in the manner just alluded to in the Hamlet example.

When Poe, the author, constructs a story, obviously “the real” seeps in, but to acknowledge this is only to recognize what the more history-based author makes paramount, anyway.  The issue here is “Who is in charge?”  The author, or the historical incident Both have integrity, and this is precisely why we don’t want to mix them up.

Much is made of “point of view,” also.  But “incident” can cover this, as well.  The author needs to best determine whether first or third person will work better for the nature of the story being told.  Again, this has nothing to with “character,” for instance, or the sorts of topical or historical truths the reader of literary fiction is often on the hunt for: it still boils down to Poe’s simple formula: “combinations” of “incidents” and “tone.”

Poetry is beholden even more rigorously to the same laws.  If one writes a poem about one’s grandmother dying of cancer, the poem will be obliterated by the grandmother, and the cancer.

There are “incidents of the day,” there are historical themes, of which no poem could be the register—and still be a poem.  John Updike, the distinguished fiction writer who dabbled in poetry, published a poem about the poignant death of a family puppy—with tears running down our cheeks we deny not the pup, but the poem.  If gossip-as-art lives, true art dies—this would be the more hysterical type of warning we might give.

The fiction writer might think himself free of the principles set down by the master, Poe, who was determined that the short story be like the poem in its artistic and imaginative rigor.  But these are questions for the critic and the philosopher, if not for the magazine or newspaper reviewer.

The protest will surely sound something like this:  I wrote this story because my puppy died.  How dare you ask me how it was done!

IMAGE AND WORD: SHOWING VS. TELLING IN POETRY

“Show Don’t Tell” —Writers Workshop mantra

We nearly always assume showing, or impressionism, is bound to produce finer poetry than telling.

However—and in spite of Poe’s admonition against the didactic—we would be wrong.

Telling has 3 distinct advantages over impressionism.

1) Speech more clearly and forcefully conveys ideas.

2) Speech is more dramatic, since the dramatic arts rely heavily on speech.

3) Speech better represents within poetry’s medium, as impressionistic description more properly belongs to the visual arts while speech more properly belongs to the temporal arts.

Ambiguity, as the 20th century critics of high-brow persuasion emphasized, is a great aid to poetry.

Ambiguity can also be its death.

The vast majority of intelligent poems, passionate poems, poems written by skilled poets that perish, perish due to ambiguity.

A series of words in the impressionistic mode can have literally millions of possible meanings, multiplying with each added line; an added word can hint at whole worlds—such is the nature of language. The poet who sees this ambiguity as the power of a conquering army surely overestimates—-even completely mischaracterizes—the process.

The significance of poetry which is not impressionistic, but uses direct speech, instead, such as this: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is significant precisely because it contains no ambiguity—there can be no mistaking the poem’s intent: Shall [I compare thee to] a [summer’s day]?

Impressionistically, we can say, “but who is the I?” and “who is the thee?”

But the import of the speech’s meaning, as delivered by Shakespeare, is equivalent to the I/thou relationship unfolding in the poem.

The poem’s characters (in their “being”) are literally the poem itself and explain the act and the intent of the poem:  as we all remember, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #18, the tool of comparison (metaphor, which Aristotle mistakenly calls the key to poetry) fails, as the lover attempts to describe or copy the beloved, and instead “this” (the poem, the speech) gives “life to thee.”

This is made easier by the fact that the poet-genius and the poem’s speaker are one and the same (another advantage to “speech poetry”) whereas with impressionistic poetry, the descriptions are produced by an artist who is removed.

Thus, impressionistic poetry is more estranged from itself.

Think of impressionist and imagist Chinese poetry composed by mid-millenia Chinese bureaucrats—wouldn’t government officials who pass poetry exams as part of the hiring process, be more likely to be poets of estrangement and ambiguity?

Precisely.

The enlightened poets—such as Shakespeare and Pope, Renaissance-inspired poets who freed themselves with nature-observed science from Aristotle’s rules—are not imagists (like the craven Ezra Pound), but speakers.

The “show, don’t tell” mantra of the 20th century Writers Workshop got it wrong.

Better to tell.

MARY SZYBIST HAS WON THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.

“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.”  —Thomas Brady

Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.

Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world.   Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position.  We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.

Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?

The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song.  We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem.  Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream.  Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.

There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.

The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.

Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth.  After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.

A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.”  It “happens” anew every time we read it.

Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way.  We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.

We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole.  It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.

Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it.  Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like.  There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else.  Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?

Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life.  Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art.  Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness.  It doesn’t get any better than harmony.  It doesn’t get any worse than discord.  Those are the Two.   All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord.  All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.

We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:

Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.

We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem.  How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”

Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence.  Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.

But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane:  “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”

We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.”  The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.

Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief,  sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem.  The judge asks: asleep among fruits? 

The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how?  And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name?  These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked.   But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects.  The coy poem will be found out.  Casual readers may not find them out.  Critics will.  Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases?  Let no critic be drawn in by this.  Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.

Moral admonitions aside,  the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable.  As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?”  How among fruits?  What kinds of fruits?  How much did Mary “matter?”  Is the narrator upset to the point of tears?  How is the narrator uttering these lines?  Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left?  What difference does it make to the narrator?  What exactly was Mary to the poet?  Who is Mary?  The Mother of God?  Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery?  And is this enough?  In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.

in ash, in dust, I did not

leave you

The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for?  The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows.  Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?”  The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.”  Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line?  The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not.  The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.

Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes.  The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on.  The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself.  The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.”  In “Hail,”  we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about.  The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.

“I did not leave you,” the poet announces.  Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left?  Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her?  Is the poet bitter and betrayed?  Or not?  How can we tell?  What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”

Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.

Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose.  Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.

We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder?  Where is the emotional guide?

The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”

And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”

We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes.  And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.

We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.

There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits?  Why this odious comparison? 

We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves.  We compare involuntarily.  We cannot help it.  It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us.  We have nothing to do with it.  As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism.  We know Mary Szybist will forgive us.  But it’s a fait accompli.  She must forgive us.

The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.

A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.

A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.

We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be.   Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment.  Don’t be so coy.

Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.

The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.

Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.

But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it.  Think on your favorite poem (s).  Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying?  Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common.  Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too.  We know what the good poems do.  They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious.  They have action.  Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day.  There’s no other way of putting it.

We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem.  You have to close the deal.

We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines.  We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.

And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving.   As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.

The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.

We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.

Read “Hail” one more time.

La verite’ peut vous plaire.

CAN THE MFA SAVE LITERATURE?

Can it, really?

There are so many positions one can take on education and literature—in fact, one could have a lengthy debate on which is more important, literature, or the education of literature, and that’s before we even get started.

Let’s see if we can sum up quickly the various positions regarding Creative Writing and the Academy under the umbrella: what is literature and how should we teach it?

First, the one relevant fact:  The Creative Writing degree is replacing the old English degree, not only on the graduate, but on the undergraduate level.

Now, the positions:

1. First, “The Old Man” position. We quote him in full—from a recent Scarriet comment, because we don’t think anyone could say it better:

Creative Writing, along with Today’s MFA is part of the campaign to replace canonical literature as the “jewel in the crown” of English Studies. There is a tacit alliance among the supporters of Postmodern Poetics, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Womens’ Studies and Creative Writing (in all its forms and levels of instruction) to topple the traditional curriculum. Contemporary fiction and poetry overshadow the great writing of the past. Creative writng students do not have to read Milton, Pope, Keats and Yeats. Either they read their peers in the class or the “so called” free verse of the hour. As creative writing gradually eclipses literature, instructors follow suit. Soon the majority of teachers in the typical American English Department will no longer feel comfortable about grading a comprehensive literature exam in an Honors Program – – or even the typical MA English Comprehensive Exam.

This position is the Outsider, Conservative one:  Creative Writing is part of a wider modern problem which sees canonical excellence swallowed up by all sorts of things which are beside the point.

2. Second, “The Seth Abramson” position, which all who are bothering to read this, are surely familiar with by  now: the MFA is a beacon of democratic insurrection and radical experimentation, a thousand flowers blooming in the desert of academic dullness.

This position is the Insider, Radical one: Creative Writing, through its democratic open-ended, open-exchanged fertility, will lead us to the Promised Land of Democratized Freedom.

3. Third, “The Laura Runyan” position, and we take the liberty of excerpting her Scarriet comments:

Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.

I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.

Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.

I couldn’t stand the prospect of majoring in English because I couldn’t stomach “critical theory,” by which art is reduced to cultural studies and very bad postmodernist “philosophizing.” So much of the reasoning behind critical theory is dreck, it’s bloated with jargon, much of the writing in the “scholarship” associated with that group of sub-disciplines is dreadful, and had it been embraced by my MFA professors, I wouldn’t have survived more than a semester there. (As an undergraduate, I majored in “analytic”–Western–philosophy.by the way.) My first semester as an MFA student, I asked one of the fiction faculty members which lit professors to avoid (we were one of those so-called “academic” MFA programs). As soon as I said that I didn’t want to take a lit-crit-style literature class, this professor knew immediately what I was talking about and advised me on which classes I would probably want to avoid. In fact, not one faculty member in my MFA program was “into” the critical theory stuff. If anything, they were contemptuous of it.

Laura Runyan’s is the Insider, Conservative position: Creative Writing, at least as practiced in the best MFA programs, is an escape from the postmodern-corrupted English MA programs. Runyan is pro-MFA, but for a very different reason than Abramson.

4. Finally, that leaves the Outsider, Radical position on Creative Writing, rejecting it altogether, either from an anti-institutional stance or an anti-canonical stance even more radical than Abramson’s, a radical political position suspicious of canon and institution, anything smelling at all like the status quo.  This final ‘catch-all’ category contains poor people, eccentric rich people, slam poets, the Ernest Hemingway/Jack Kerouac anti-intellectual, manly type of independent writer, or someone like Eileen Myles.

So the four main pedagogical threads are

1. Old Man: MFA is part of a radical, post-modern conspiracy

2. Laura Runyan: MFA is the new throw-back canonical MA

3. Seth Abramson: MFA is the crown of forward-looking, post-modern legitimacy

4. Eileen Myles: MFA is one more brick in the wall

As we can see, roughly speaking:

1 (Old Man) and 3 (Seth Abramson) are philosophical opposites, as are 2 (Laura Runyan) and 4 (Eileen Myles).

1 (Old Man) and 2 (Laura Runyan) are philosophically similar, as are 3 (Seth Abramson) and 4 (Eileen Myles), but these two pairs disagree on how the MFA works—or doesn’t.

Where do they all agree?

If one could afford to hang out in Left Bank cafes with interesting writers of all kinds, the Old Man, Laura, Seth, and Eileen might all be able to agree on this scenario.

We have ventured the opinion that ‘hanging out’ and writing really don’t go together at all, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.

Most of those in mainstream, institutional life, the Old Man and the Laura Runyan schools of thought, would probably see eye to eye on this:

Literature provides a necessary social glue: despite various political differences in any population, it is crucial that, intellectually and artistically, there is a place for all of us to be more or less on the same page, even as we work through various political differences based on class, race, sexual orientation, and philosophical opposition.

This point alone makes both the Old Man and the Laura Runyan positions attractive.  Chucking the canonical in favor of the new is counter-productive and common sense cries out against it.  Is life so radically different now that as a society we can say for certain that the best of the past should be demolished?

We can talk about political differences all day, but there is one aesthetic matter which seems to participate in these divisions more than any other: Good Storytelling. Laura Runyan captured this idea when she wrote:

A friend of mine who finished the MFA program at Iowa in the 80s, after he’d established a career as a pharmacist, told me the following about Frank Conroy, then the well-known director of the Workshop, and whom my friend had as a teacher. He said that often, Conroy–who was hardly gentle on students–would often say in workshop in response to a meandering piece of prose by a student, “Beautiful prose in the service of WHAT?” (That comment was repeated by another person I know who’s a grad of Iowa’s MFA program.)

What did he mean by that comment. Simply this–which isn’t so simple to many aspiring fiction writers: that the story, with all its musing and imagery, HAD NO STORY! No Aristotelian rise and fall, no obvious conflict, nothing that made you wonder what would happen next!

Story-telling can bring together many politics and philosophies under one roof, so much so, that this might even seal the deal for universal agreement.  Let’s rally round, with all our differences, the articulate story-teller, and let every radical impulse fit in—or not—with this mandate.

All in favor, say aye.

Just as we thought: a lot of ayes.

But not so fast.  “Wondering what happens next” is a primitive impulse and not necessarily one we should promote.  Narrative is a slippery pedagogical subject, if we are honest about it, and take the time to look at it more closely.  Scarriet recently examined this in a post titled, “Does Narrative Make Us Stupid?” (May 2013).

To truly unite literature and education, we grant narrative a high place, but not the highest place.

Our criteria, in order of importance are:

1. Philosophical Truth

It seems to us that Plato’s dialogues should be central to any advanced literary and writing education, with the Phaedrus, the Symposium, the Ion, and the Republic as must-reads.  Add to that Edgar Allan Poe, who is, if truth be told, a canon all to himself.  Both Plato and Poe are rigorous, accessible and free of both dogma and triviality.

2. Beauty

In the broadest possible terms, the beautiful encompasses good taste (which is not trivial) and all we associate with the ‘well-put-together,’ and pertains to whatever is uplifting, sublime, and brings people together in passionately fused thought and feeling.

3. Undercurrent of Meaning

This hardly needs explanation.  Without this, stories will be either trivial or flimsy pieces of moralizing.

These three are far more important than storytelling, per se, though Frank Conroy’s advice certainly has merit.

THE UNIVERSAL, THE PERSONAL, AND THE CREEPILY PRIVATE

Image result for alex dimitrov

Poet Alex Dimitrov: “I don’t believe in the universal.”

Are poems and stories that are universal better than poems and stories that are not?

“Yes, of course!” comes the answer 100 years ago; but today, the universal is considered an old-fashioned virtue, a mere outdated concept, in hip circles.

But should we trust the hip?  If universal means more people can appreciate your poem or story, why isn’t the universal always a good thing?

Is misanthropy the source of not believing in the universal—the hip author does not want certain types of persons to appreciate their poem or story?  Or, perhaps, the hip author fears their work is not broad or deep enough to appeal to a wide audience?

Or, to put it in a slightly different way, which perhaps vindicates the scribbler of hip:

To be appreciated by that audience, I would have to write a certain way—which I cannot do.  Thus, I am against the universal—even as an ideal.

We also might object to the universal on a purely metaphysical basis: life is too complex to admit the absolutes of universals, etc.

But isn’t this metaphysical view finally too abstract and hair-splitting?

Why can’t we agree that the universal—or universal appeal—is a good thing?  Certainly the reformist wants to reach as many lost souls as possible.  And, if one is not a reformist,  how can one object to any slob liking one’s work?  One may not like a particular reader’s lifestyle or views, for instance—but what harm can it do if one’s poem burrows itself into some part of that reader’s soul?

The following is a contemporary example which triggered the preceding remarks.  Bored (very bored), we turned to the Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet and found the following poet’s entry in a Los Angeles Review of Books forum, ‘Person and Persona in Poetry:’

THE REAL WHORE
Alex Dimitrov

A few months ago, after a reading I gave in San Francisco, someone came up to me and recounted a very personal sexual experience which he said came to mind instantly after hearing one of my poems. Then he said, “Your poems are so personal and universal.” This confession was both an entering into a shared space (where presumably we’ve had similar sexual experiences) and a reminder to me that even when it appears we have the same stories, there is no universal — everything that happens to us happens in very specifically different ways. I don’t believe in the universal. But I do believe in the personal. […]

It’s just what poets like to do these days: deny the universal.

Is this nothing more than a completely unthinking ‘I’m too cool/existential/modern to be universal’ reflex?

We think it is.

The poet admits that he and the fan have a shared personal experience in the poem, but the poet claims this “shared space” does not qualify as a universal experience.

The question becomes: how many people have to screw in a light bulb before the experience becomes universal?

If the experience shared by poet and fan is unique to them, then Dimitrov is correct, and the experience cannot be called universal—for the universal doesn’t ask what the experience was, only that a lot of people had it.

Dimitrov discretely keeps the experience to himself-–so we have no way to judge.  Sexual experiences may be private, but that doesn’t stop them from being universal.

It eclipses our identity as persons to think that many people have the same experiences we do—what a horror to think that not one thing we think or do is unique.  No wonder the person who has any ego at all pushes away the whole concept.

Memo to Dimitrov: The scary truth is that we aren’t as unique as we think we are: the universal not only exists, but is inescapable.

And one more memo to Dimitrov: We have to assume that we do experience the same things—the burden of proof lies with whomever claims their experiences are unique.

The original poem must be earned.

The universal is atmospheric, then; it is not something that is either good or bad; it is not something that either exists or does not exist.

How silly of Dimitrov, then, to say he doesn’t believe in it.  In the extended version of his piece (linked above) he does concede that the idea of the universal exists, but only as an illusion to make us feel less lonely.  Speaking in hip-speak as opposed to universal-speak, Dimitrov makes change the all-important thing—a poem changes a person; a poem has nothing to do with timeless truth.

Dimitrov, in his brave loneliness, doesn’t believe in the universal, and doesn’t want it to exist.

We think this universal gem—“What oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” is to the point.

It is impossible for thoughts and their words to escape the universal.

And yet—and yet—every soul, as Poe wrote in his great work, Eureka, believes nothing is greater than itself.  There must be nuances we experience every moment which are unique to ourselves…  But even this does not cancel out the idea of the universal, which only indicates a widely shared experience—whatever that happens to be.

Pope wrote “What oft’ was thought,” not “What oft’ was done.”

Is poetry waiting for its great poet-murderer?

Are there deeds waiting for poetic expression—or does poetry truly belong to thought?

Yes, poetry belongs to thought alone.

Murderous thoughts are probably pretty near universal; poetry already has enough material for—murder, if it wants to go there.

We believe—and we think we believe correctly—that poetry is the product of a unique person, not of unique deeds.

A poem is the product of words (universals).

The following poem (a bit of Wallace Stevens impressionism) by Dimitrov (which we like) relies on universals, such as “things that are anonymous and belong to no one.”

Blue Curtains

That day we were in a room with blue curtains.
Every time I wanted to speak
some hand would lift that pale, translucent fabric
and I’d see him standing on the circular balcony
which held something old and shapeless.
It was late morning.
We were already late for everything.
So I stood at one end of the room
and watched him. And between us
was a bed and a table and things
in a hotel—you know,
things that are anonymous
and belong to no one.
Like a sea or a life.
And all I remember is how expensive it was.
Not the room, but the feeling.

If Dimitrov does not believe in the universal, why does he write “Like a sea or a life.”  Why doesn’t he write, “Like the sea or the life?”  Had he written, “Like my life,” would this have been more, or less universal?  The punchline of the poem: the feeling—needs the setup of “a sea or a life.”

Is this philosophical inquiry on the concept of the universal finally only a matter of direct and indirect articles?

Well, yes.

In order to pinpoint not that feeling but this feeling, this one, Dimitrov needs to create a universal atmosphere populated by those “things that are anonymous and belong to no one. Like a sea or a life.”

The person, Dimitrov, does not believe in the universal.

But the poet, Dimitrov, does.

But then what does a person know?

“AND THIS IS PRECISELY THE FACT”

The pretend genius: lived off his parents, peddled literary truisms

Ezra Pound (d. 1972) is often quoted making clever remarks on how prose and poetry should not be distinguished from each other if good writing is the aim.

“Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose,” is one of Pound’s well-known dicta, and this truism has nothing to recommend it, except it’s odd that this Modernist “revolutionary” would sound like a schoolmarm.

The irony, of course, is that modern poetry, in Pound’s wake, suffers precisely from the fact that modern poetry is less well-written than prose, that modern poetry’s line-breaks and spaces hinder actual good writing—and, perhaps worse, modern poetry is prose.

We don’t blame this on Pound’s ignorance—his admonition that “poetry should be…well-written,” (O Schoolmarm Genius!) was a common ploy among the reactionary Modernists: to seem buttoned-up and serious as they smashed things.  Pound’s partner T.S. Eliot was an expert at this: Eliot had no intention of killing Milton, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Poe, or Shelley; he was just oh so expertly fond of Donne.

Poe, unlike Pound and the Moderns, made actual revolutionary insights when speaking on the topic of poetry:

I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

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

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

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

Of course “poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.”  Pound did not say anything new.

And Pound and his friends writing poems sans unity was certainly not new, either.

Poe, the critic, rebuked a long, clever farrago of a poem—by Longfellow once, never mind Thomas Carlyle (Poe called Mr. C. an “ass”), another Medusa-headed 19th century author.

But think of the implication of what Poe said: “that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all…flags—fails—a revulsion ensues—and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.”

This was new.  This was revolutionary.

Marjorie Perloff, in the April 2013 issue of Poetry, can be found swooning over this by Pound:

Don’t imagine that a thing will go in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.

How correct of Pound to say this!

This is just what Pound did: rather than write dull verse, he stuck to dull prose.

Poe followed his own advice, too:

Ask yourself ‘might not this matter be as well or better handled in prose?’  If if may than it is no subject for the Muse.

Why would anyone think something “too dull to go in prose” would “go in verse?”

To which audience of dunderheads was Pound speaking?

Pound focuses on “the dull,” which neither prose nor poetry can rescue, and this reveals Pound as the rank pessimist that he was.

Poe focuses on the “matter” that prose or poetry can “handle,” which reveals the properly attentive critic that Poe was.

If you would be a poet, today, and are looking for models from the past, choose wisely.

WHY HAS THE PUBLIC TURNED ITS BACK ON POETRY?

Why has the public turned its back on poetry?   That’s easy to answer.

We no longer know whether poetry is fiction or non-fiction.

Bird-watching involves watching birds.  Novels are elaborate stories.  Songs are emotional outbursts from the heart.  Biographies are real.  Science books are factual.  Poetry is…?

Poetry is unable to identify itself for a mass audience—that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The public’s lack of interest was made apparent to us again this week, as many bright, educated friends of ours told us they had never heard of Seamus Heaney.

The Modernists and experimentalists, by “opening up” the genre to anything and everything, have essentially made it disappear.

The wise understand that it’s impossible to be everything.

Everyone seems to understand this.

Except poets today.

Of course there’s a perverse handful (there always is) who love “poetry” precisely because of its ill-defined nature.

A certain ugly, noxious, personality thrives on the ill-defined—for obvious reasons.

There is a half-formed intellectual nature which associates all that is profound with a detailed vagueness; unable to perfect mental or material completion, they persist in championing the unformed as a  poorly disguised way to validate their own shortcomings.

The final irony, of course, is how were the Modernist gnats, whom the public ignores, able to kill all poetry for the public?  How was traditional, mainstream poetry killed by the ill-defined, if the ill-defined is nothing?

The answer, to put it simply, is that the Modernist gnats did not kill mainstream poetry, for Edna St. Vincent Millay was selling while Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were not, well into the 20th century.  In mid-20th century America, Frost was popular, Shakespeare everywhere, liberal arts colleges taught Keats and Shelley, high schools, Poe, Dickinson, and Milton, and songwriting was witty and intelligent.

But everyone knows that fine arts need to be cultivated; good taste doesn’t fall out of the sky.  Secondly, anyone who lives in America knows what a powerful tool advertising is, and thirdly, poetry has no material value; its value lives in the minds and souls and sensibilities of those who read it and teach it and share it.

Simple neglect, then, has killed the public’s love of poetry; we err by giving Pound, Williams, and the Modernist gnats too much credit; logically, that which the public ignores cannot influence the public.

If we, as observers and critics of poetry, notice a decline in poetic interest, and attribute it to “Modern” poetry, we persist in a vast error, granting a power and an influence to that which has no power, and no influence, even as we rightly condemn “Modern” poetry as poor, faulty, and even pernicious.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” had nothing to do with the loss of interest in “Paradise Lost.”  The latter died from simple neglect; from simple lack of cultivation.

The fact of someone’s fiction is a fact.  The museum is a fact, a reality, which holds art that is neither fact, nor reality.  Art does not exist unless it is cultivated, presented, taught, and framed in fact.  A university is a fact that curates and teaches poems.  The publisher is the fact that dreams the fiction; the fiction will not dream otherwise.  The fact of “The Red Wheel Barrow” has everything and nothing to do with the fact of “Paradise Lost.”  “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “Paradise Lost” are both poems that may be converted into fact, and if so, one “poem” invariably belongs to “the present,” the other to “the past,” and this fact will ensure that poetry “in the present” no longer exists.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” cannot kill poetry.  A textbook can.  Abstract painting cannot kill painting.  A museum can.

A wheel barrow and a splatter of paint are facts, not fiction.  Modern art streams away from fiction into fact—the fact of text book and museum its only home.

Facts depend on other facts; artistic unity is unheard of in the world of facts and science.  Poe called his “Eureka” a poem only because he strove to make, by way of the universe, unity factual; unity of expression was the ultimate poetic fact for Poe.

The minute a Keats introduces fact into a poem, he is lost.  To work up a fiction into a unity is the role of the poet, for Keats.  The reader who selects Keats is selecting fiction—fiction doing what it does best, assuming that unity is not only possible, but vital.  In his “long poems, Byron played (comically) with digression; inevitably violating unity, he laughed at himself, the convention of poetic unity a standard none could safely ignore.

Poetry was once fiction.  And because it was fiction, artistic unity was paramount.

These two—poetry as strictly fictional and poetry as an expression of artistic unity—is chiefly what has fallen into neglect as Modernism invaded the vacuum, a big nothing filling a black hole: the  great public yawn in poetry’s busy face.

The temptation of the fact has triumphed; witness America’s recent obsession with “trivia.”

Facts are important when it comes to roofs and sewer pipes, and obviously in non-fiction, but who thought it was a good thing for poetry?

Listening to the poet John Yau recently, we were struck by the purely autobiographical nature of the poetry; Yau told us about his mother and his father, etc  It was charming—as factual conversations sometimes are.  Facts are seductive.

The poet Marilyn Chin’s best known poem, “How I Got That Name,” informs us that she was named for Marilyn Monroe.  This is factually interesting.  Of course it is.  We embrace with our literary bones the seductive fact.

Loose facts are seductive.  But they never cohere into a poetic unity.

The Writing Workshop mantra, “Write what you know,” does not refer to what a writer “knows” philosophically or imaginatively, but simply what a writer knows factually about their own life.  But the whole point of poetry and imaginative literature is not to express what is already subjectively known (and enhanced, perhaps, by clever research) but to learn what we can know in the imaginative writing act itself.

Interesting information, dressed up as literature, is not the same thing as what Keats, who never told us about his ma and pa in a poem, built with his imagination.

WHY IS THE MELANCHOLY POETIC?

A contemporary poet would naturally reply to the title of our essay:

“The melancholic is not necessarily poetic. A poem can be any mood it wants, and could just as well avoid all moods.”

True, and the Victorian parlor is frozen since the door was opened to Modernism’s blast.

“Poetry is an escape from emotion,” said T.S. Eliot with ice-cold breath, and yet, adding with human emotion, “but of course only those who have emotions…know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

T.S. Eliot was no Language Poet.  T.S. Eliot was no black hole of sarcasm.  T.S. Eliot may even have had a pulse once; historically speaking, the lofty ceiling of Romanticism trembled not far behind him.

Can’t we hear the melancholy in this?  “to want to escape from these things.”

“To identify all serious occupation of the mind with sadness.”  So wrote the 20th century scholar of culture, Johan Huizinga, of the Middle Ages, and one either instinctively grasps this idea, or, like the grinning imbecile, does not.

If poetry is an escape from a “serious occupation of the mind,” is the poet a mere court jester, and should T.S. Eliot be best remembered for his light verse?

Surely the poet is the one who ponders the rose before he laughs at it, and if pondering leads to poetry, a certain melancholy turn of mind cannot help but be present, if only indirectly, if only in composition’s atmosphere, if not in the merry poem itself.

If mortality’s highest efforts in the realm of mind always partake of mortality’s nature, which includes an awareness of death, how can melancholy not participate, and if it does, is it a sting, or a cushion?

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” said the Romantic, Percy Shelley, and this counter-intuitive truth is not far from Eliot’s irony: poetry is an escape from emotion—yet only those who feel will know what it is like to want to escape from emotion.

There is definitely a difference between crushed by sorrow and coming to grips with something that is sad and doing so with an excess of emotion—that is yet kept under control.

The latter is what we are trying to articulate: a true poet’s melancholy temperament.

Romanticism’s melancholy was transformed into Victorianism’s tears; Modernism’s stare was transformed into Post-Modernism’s burst of laughter.

Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro of melancholy genius passes through rococo and impressionism and eventually lands on Rothko’s imbecility of bright colors—and yet, Rembrandt used bright colors as contrast to his shadow, and any fan of Rothko will protest that in those bright colors is infused a sly, primitive darkness.

Before the reader dismisses our Melancholy Argument as weak or random, let them think on their favorite poems and fictional passages and wonder at how melancholy inevitably tinges them.

The poetic is melancholy, but it begs the question: how do poets express the melancholy?  We refer to a way of living, a way of thinking and being, not simply a description of sad events.

To sensitive souls who seek peace, sometimes the melancholy imagination provides a canopy.

To be more practical: we can be melancholy by using trochaic verse:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary

Here is the puzzle of Poe solved: accused of being both too icily mathematical and too emotionally morbid, we see how Poe’s genius fuses two opposite traits—in the joyful/sad verse of rhythmic mathematics.

I don’t think many contemporary poets even realize how one-dimensional and emotionally blank their elaborate prose is—despite the complexity of its content.

The French medieval poet Eustache Deschamps has a ballade that begins “The stag was very proud of his swiftness” and the stanza ends, “The snail will get to Easter just as soon.”

Is “The snail will get to Easter just as soon” a melancholy trope?   Perhaps not, but it’s certainly not a chest-beating one, and the devotional, wise tone is much closer to melancholy than any other mood we can think of.

Melancholy attends the devotional, the thoughtful, the august, the contemplative—even as contemporary poets want to escape from these things.

POETRY WILL BE DEAD IN 15 MINUTES: OR, ARE MODERNISTS, PO-MOS, AND FLARFISTS JUST A BUNCH OF ASSHOLES?

Vanessa Place: the Mona Lisa of Flarf?

We never met a Flarfist, but we’re beginning to wonder if Flarf simply belongs to the 20th century avant-garde art & poetry tradition of Asshole-ism.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012), author of The Great War and Modern Memory;  Purple Heart in WW II; PhD, Harvard ’52; essayist who taught at U. Penn, Germany, and London, wrote

Would it be going too far to consider what Modernism derived from the European political atmosphere of its time (I am thinking both of Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933) as a way of suggesting that Modernism in its way is an artistic refraction of totalitarianism?

In our humble opinion, no, it would not be going too far.  We’re talking T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, here, and it goes deeper than just Germany and Russia; British poets (Hulme, Thomas, Brooke) were swept up in male war-mongering before the Great War—Pound associate Ford Madox Ford (who would later rub shoulders with the right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critics in the US) worked for the War Propaganda Bureau during WW I.

Scarriet has already exposed Modernism as a reactionary Men’s Club that bought low and sold high in the art market.  There was nothing freeing or broadening or insightful or revolutionary happening with the 20th century avant-garde.  It was never about freeing the world of capitalism and Edgar Guest.  It was just mean-spirited snaffling. The shabby treatment of Edna Millay by Hugh Kenner and the Pound circle is just one example.  So let’s look at this interesting quote from Amy King’s recent piece in The Rumpus where she talks about one of the critic Edgar Poe’s favorite topics: cliques.  King calls them ” intentional groups:”

First, let me back up to my graduate school days at SUNY Buffalo. I was naïve. I used to wonder why Susan Howe would declare that she “is not a Language Poet.” I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the “avant-garde,” presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.

Not until the Flarf Collective came on the scene did I begin to think a bit more consciously about intentional groups. That is, my gut registered aversion to their private, invite-only email listserv, where some poets I knew abandoned ship with sideways notes of exclusivity and pretension, and others I know and like very much remained. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and numerous poets exploring its use value through various means of engagement, I thought about the similarities of Gary Sullivan heading up a group that was collecting poetic techniques and André Breton gathering his all-male cast of Dada members to compose his manifestos. I realized that, akin to Breton’s aims, the Flarf Collective was formulating a list of techniques and engagements that would ‘liberate’ us from the lyric, as they defined it. They were going to show us the error of our lyrical ways.

When I engaged them on my blog regarding some cursory problematics of exclusive membership, specifically in the case of Jennifer Knox who was not a Flarf Collective member but was before-their-manifestation employing techniques now claimed by Flarf, as were others, I was distractedly schooled on my own susceptibility to falling victim to emotional conditioning via a poem penned for me by Sullivan about my grandma’s labia. I am easily distracted. But I still wondered, since many poets were and continue to respond to the Internet and its impact, why did one group, a Flarf Collective, try to own that?

The similarities, and limitations, of Breton’s Dada-cum-Surrealism are worth a side note here for they speak to the risks of supporting and advancing intentional groups of this ilk. In a move towards recruiting additional worthwhile artists for his coterie, Breton laid claim to painters like Frida Kahlo (“’I didn’t know I was a Surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”), Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini (“Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me to become ‘a sheep in his gang’… I refused the label Surrealist.”). None became official members, and only by association are their paintings now read through the framework of Surrealism, often rendering limited, simplistic interpretations & even preventing the deeper engagement they deserve.

Beautiful.  Amy King is going to get in trouble, because she gets it.  We wish we could give her a hug.

The Flarf Collective think they’re special because they use overhead projectors and do stuff in museums and they can claim to care and not care about poetry as they turn it into conceptual art.

King is right to see Flarf as nothing more than a market ploy to advance a few careers, and this cynical view of hers unfortunately plays right into the hands of the cynical Flarfists.

The madder Amy King gets, the more fun the Flarfists have.

Forget it, Amy King.  They’re assholes.  Let them be.  Shit, they can’t be worse than Ezra Pound.  Let them have their fun.

And Amy will essentially agree with us.  As she puts it towards the end of her 2 part essay, “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz:”

I’m not out to deny anyone institutional participation or access to resources; rather, I want to call attention to the claim these groups purport to block capitalism while intentionally employing capitalist techniques (i.e. media-style sensationalism to garner notice, sound-bite saturation, prolific self-referencing, reducing all other modes of subjective expression to exchangeable equivalences, etc.) to achieve and secure status within the capitalist structure.

We personally think it self-defeating to set oneself up as so anti-capitalist that it backs you into a dour corner seething with both resentments and contradictions; but putting that aside, it’s clear that Amy King, in her critique of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Marjorie Perloff and their Flarfist/Conceptualist mentality? behavior? stupidity? has got these clowns pegged.

We like the remark by Amy King’s friend.  When he heard that Goldsmith read poetry at the White House (with Billy Collins and others) and bragged that his (Goldsmith’s) exaggerated paisley suit was “subversive” because the suit maker was the same worn by the president, who opined he wouldn’t dare wear such a suit, Amy’s friend said, “Whether you’re an American president or an avant-garde poet, Brooks Brothers has a suit for you.”

John Quinn, the modern art collector who made the 1913 Armory Show a reality (Quinn gave the opening address at the show) was Eliot and Pound’s attorney, and negotiated the book deal for Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Walter Arensberg, another modern art collector, funded not only Duchamp but Williams and Stevens.   20th century avant-garde painting and poetry were boiled in the same stew.  The poets are late to the game, as far as conceptualism goes, but that’s only if poetry turns into its cousin, art.  Which really has poetry heading backwards, not forwards.

Perloff, et al, is just a continuation of the Romanticism-hating of Pound and Eliot.

Found Poetry has been around a long, long time, hasn’t it?   And was it really that interesting the first time around?

Originality has always been something to be aimed for in poetry, and it is never entirely achieved.   By definition, the less original a poem is, the less poetic it is.   How original is it?  The question can be maddening, obviously.  And to be entirely mad, one simply gives in to the madness and becomes Kenneth Goldsmith.  He is the monkey in the cage of the problem.

Goldsmith is stupid enough to think that “plagiarism and theft” will “erase the ego.”  But last time I checked, the ego of the criminal is the biggest ego of all.

Flarf is nothing more than Duchamp all over again, except now instead of calling Duchamp-ism “art,” the Flarfists call Duchamp-ism “poetry.”

And that, my conceptualist friends, is the only difference.

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