‘WE ARE CHEMICAL THROUGH AND THROUGH” SOUTH BRACKET ACTION (PLUS NORTH RESULTS)

Intoxication in Romanticism is joyful or insightful, not depressing as in this Degas painting 

Moving to Romantic Poetry Madness South action, Keats and his Nightingale, no. 1 seed, match up against Philip Nikolayev, 16th seed, and his poem, “Litmus Test.”

Nikolayev’s poem ends with an homage to a potential mate: “You had changed my chemical composition forever,” after she rescues the poet with attention and hot soup after the poet has a scary LSD debauch before a Saturday morning lecture, which he barely makes: “I took faithful notes diagonally across my notebook (which was unliftable).”  The “Litmus Test” narrator desperately has to pee in his folly at the party through most of the poem, and has typically stoned thoughts: “I realized that we are chemical through and through, so determinate and so chemical…” before crashing in his student pad: “I stepped across some literature to my solitary bed…”

Nikolayev evokes a marvelous Pushkin universe of love, philosophy, young manhood, and intoxication—and Nikolayev’s poem grabs us with the classic college party invitation—-the one that always promises more than it delivers: “my buddy insisted sangria, perfect chance to chat up Jessica and Jake, so we went at midnight.”

John “To cease upon the midnight with no pain” Keats seems to be talking about a party, too: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…” and the desire to get wasted: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen… but Keats, like the “Litmus Test” narrator, rejects wine and LSD (“I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards”).  Keats isn’t after hot soup and a nice girlfriend; Keats desires to fly with poetry—which is the performance and which is the intoxication, and here is the genius of Keats’ famous poem.

“Litmus Test” is about something; “Ode to a Nightingale” is the something.

Plath, the no. 2 seed, puts her “Lady Lazarus” against the oldest poem in the tournament, Poseidippus’ “Dorchia,” from 300 B.C.

Here is the Poseidippus in this beautiful translation by Edward Arlington Robinson:

DORCHIA

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

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

The “dust” of “Dorchia” is replaced in the Plath with “ash,” as memorium in the ancient poem is transformed in its 20th century equivalent.  Plath’s horror throws down against the placid Greek!  What a contest!

Marla Muse: Tom, I am forever amazed at how every poem in these Scarriet tournaments has a similar theme to its opponent—how does Scarriet do it?  First, we have Keats’ and Nikolayev’s theme of intoxication; then Poseidippus and Plath with their “dust” and “ash,” and now look at this one: Petrarch v. Bishop.

It’s a miracle; that’s all I can say.  It’s because Scarriet is the greatest poetry site and the Muses look upon us kindly.

Yes, Marla, the Petrarch advises to leave off hunting the deer, “since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” while the Bishop says, “I caught a tremendous fish…and I let the fish go.”

WHOSE LIST TO HUNT–Petrarch (trans. Wyatt)

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

The Petrarch and the Bishop are saying the same thing, but there is something sweetly mysterious and deathly serious about the Petrarch poem which moves us to a greater degree.

And for the final South battle today, Baudelaire (with translation help from Richard Wilbur) wars with Wordsworth:

L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE—BAUDELAIRE (trans Wilbur)

My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Furniture that wears
The lustre of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber,
Flowers of rarest bloom
Proffering their perfume
Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber;
Gold ceilings would there be,
Mirrors deep as the sea,
The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung–
Nothing but should address
The soul’s loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Both Baudelaire and Wordsworth address a “child” in a cosmic, comforting landscape, the Frenchman painting more ambitiously fantastical scenery, the Englishman tempering his paean with slightly more realism—though both poems express exquisite transcendent power.

SONNET–WORDSWORTH

IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
   The holy time is quiet as a Nun
   Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
   Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
   And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder–everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
   If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
   Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
   And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
   God being with thee when we know it not.

The winners are:

Wordsworth 59  Baudelaire 51

Petrarch 68 Bishop 60

Plath 80 Poseidippus 78

Keats 90 Nikolayev 84

Philip Nikolayev made it a very close game against the no. 1 Seed, John Keats!

The North Bracket is now down to 8 poets:

Goethe (d. Justice)
Frost (d. Campion)
Catullus (d. Rimbaud)
Larkin (d. Traherne)
Suckling (d. Ashbery)
Burns (d. Auden)
Herrick (d. Roethke)
Blake (d. Stevens)

ANIS!! LEFT-WING HUFF POST CRITIC OF THE TWITTER AGE

Anis Shivani might be a bitter guy, but as a literary critic at the Huffington Post  he exemplifies the sort of high-brow hating which pleases like a good nerdy fuck.

Let’s say this much of criticism which pummels its subjects: it will always be closer to the truth. 

Think about your own life.  Really knowing your friends, your lovers, your spouses, your places of unemployment, are you not palpably aware of numerous flaws, faults, stupidities, culpabilities and insanities, and isn’t your intimate experience the reason for this—not because you happen to be mean?

Criticism is—criticism.  Why shouldn’t we expect criticism to provide the insights of the inevitable flaws?  Sure, there are perfect poems here and there, perhaps a flawless short story, but when reviewing the corpus of a fashionable writer, life being what it is, there’s got to be let-downs, just as we are disappointed by our friends, our lovers, our jobs.

Social decorum should keep us from attacking our personal relationships—but why shouldn’t we be honest regarding a book that wants out time and money? 

Anis Shivani is correct—both in his criticism and by what his criticism symbolizes: In Literary Criticism, the bland and cheery is always bad, always a lie.

Anis Shivani is correct—even as we disagree with him; disagreeing with him (he over-values High Modernism, for instance) is not the point, for Shivani’s whole impulse his correct, and his audience responds—people deeply want honest criticism, and despite what the status quo sometimes says, they shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting it.

We disagree with Shivani when he writes of Billy Collins’ work: “escapist denial of death is pervasive.”  Has Shivani read Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up comedy.”  We forgive Shivani, for this nice observation alone: “[Collins]poems have lately become mostly about writing poems–in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

We also like that Shivani is well-acquainted with all genres; there’s nothing we hate more than ghetto-izing and niche-ing.   In his recent The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, 7 are fiction writers, 6 are poets, and 2 are critics.

Shivani opens with a moral, common sense overview:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat–awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism–very desirable in this time of xenophobia–is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed “dangerous,” and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability–Marilynne Robinson, for example–to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

It’s hard to argue with his general points, and we like his pedagogical earnestness, too: “If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.”

Here are the summary observations on the 15, and Shivani is definitely a critic of the twitter age, as he packs each line with left-wing, moral outrage:

Ashbery: When reality = language (as his carping cousins the language poets, have it) politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can, and will step in.

Collins: Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian…

Cunningham: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages.

Diaz: Replaces plot in stories and novels with pumped-up “voice.”

Foer: Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of the moment.

Gluck: Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.

Graham: Started off modestly, but with increasing official recognition, her abstractions, pseudo-philosophizing, self-importance, and centerless long lines have spun out of control.

Kakutani: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.

Lahiri: Utterly unwilling to write about any thing other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares and making easy adjustments to top of American meritocratic pyramid.

Nelson: Workshop writing, dysfunctionality is thy name, and there is no better writer to learn family dysfunction from…

Oliver: A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany.

Olds: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession…

Tan: Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.

Vendler: Zero poetic feeling…has never uttered one original insight…

Vollmann: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism.

It does not matter, for instance, that we feel Sharon Olds has written some moving poems: Anis Shivani is entitled to his opinion of Olds’ poetry—and if that’s how he feels about it, he should be allowed to utter it, and everyone should be encouraged to be that opinionated—if only to combat the reverse condition: the true literary nightmare of know-nothing politeness.

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