THIRTY TOP MASS APPEAL POETRY MOMENTS IN U.S. HISTORY

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

 

STEPHANE MALLARME AND JOHN CROWE RANSOM CLASH IN THE MODERN BRACKET!

A 19th century Frenchman of pure Modernism tries to win against a 20th century American university reformer.

MALLARME:


French readers, their habits disrupted by the death of Victor Hugo, cannot fail to be disconcerted. Hugo, in his mysterious task, turned all prose, philosophy, eloquence, history, to verse, and as he was verse personified, he confiscated from any thinking person, anyone who talked or told stories, all but the right to speak. Poetry, I believe, waited respectfully until the giant who identified it with his tenacious hand, a hand stronger than that of a blacksmith, ceased to exist; waited until then before breaking up.

Does the need to write poetry, in response to a variety of circumstances now mean, after one of those periodical orgiastic excesses of almost a century comparable only to the Renaissance, that the time has come for shadows and cooler temperatures? Not at all! It means the gleam continues, though changed.

That prosody, with its very brief rules, is nevertheless untouchable: it is what points to acts of prudence, such as the hemistich, and what regulates the slightest effort at stimulating versification, like codes according to which abstention from stealing through the air is for instance a necessary condition for standing upright. Exactly what one does not need to learn; because if you haven’t guessed it yourself beforehand, then you’ve proved the uselessness of constraining yourself to it.

The faithful supporters of the alexandrine, our hexameter, are loosening from within the rigid and puerile mechanism of its beat; the ear, set free from an artificial counting, discovers delight in discerning on its own all the possible combinations that twelve timbres can make among themselves.

It’s taste we should consider very modern.

The poet who possesses acute tact and who always considers this alexandrine as the difinitive jewel, but one you bring out as you would a sword or a flower only rarely and only when there is some premeditated motive for doing so, touches it modestly and plays around it, lending it neighboring chords, before bringing it out superb and unadorned; on many occasions he lets his fingering falter on the eleventh syllable or continues it to the thirteenth. M. Henri de Regnier excels in these accompaniments of his own invention as discrete and proud as the genius he instills into it, and revelatory of the fleeting disquiet felt by the performers faced with the instrument they have inherited. Something else, which could simply be the opposite, reveals itself as a deliberate rebellion in the absence of the old mold, grown weary, when Jules Laforgue, from the outset, initiated us into the unquestionable charm of the incorrect line.

Speech has no connection with the reality of things except in matters commercial; where literature is concerned, speech is content merely to make allusions or distill the quality contained in some idea.

Contrary to the facile numerical and representative functions as the crowd at first treats it, speech which is above all dream and song, finds again in the Poet, by a necessity that is part of an art consecrated to fictions, its virtuality.

 

 

 

RANSOM:

 

There are three sorts of trained performers who would appear to have some of the competence that the critic needs. The artist himself. The philosopher. The university teacher of literature.

Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. The professional morale of this part of the university staff is evidently low. Nevertheless it is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

Criticism will never be a very exact science, or even a nearly exact one. But neither will psychology.

Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism Ltd.

The principal resistance to such an idea will come from the present incumbents of the professorial chairs. But its adoption must come from them too. The idea of course is not a private one of my own. If it should be adopted before long, the credit would probably belong to Professor Ronald S. Crane, of the University of Chicago, more than to any other man.

Crane argues that historical scholarship has been overplayed heavily in English studies.

The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.

At the University of Chicago, I believe that Professor Crane, with some others is putting the revolution into effect in his own teaching, though for the time being perhaps with a limited program, mainly the application of Aristotle’s critical views.

This is not the first time that English professors have tilted against the historians, or “scholars,” in the dull sense which that word has acquired.

The most important recent diversion from the orthodox course of literary studies was undertaken by the New Humanists.  The New Humanists were, and are, moralists.  Mr. Babbitt could make war on romanticism for purely moral reasons.  But this is certainly not the charge that Mr. T.S. Eliot, a literary critic, brings against romanticism. His, if I am not mistaken, is aesthetic, though he may not ever care to define it very sharply.

Following the excitement produced by the Humanist diversion, there is now one due to the Leftists, or Proletarians, who are also diversionists. Their diversion is likewise moral. Debate could never occur between a Humanist and a Leftist on aesthetic grounds, for they are equally intent on ethical values. But the debate on ethical grounds would be very spirited, and it might create such a stir in a department conducting English studies that the conventional scholars there would find themselves slipping, and their pupils deriving from literature new and seductive excitements which would entice them away from their scheduled English exercises.

On the whole, however, the moralists, distinguished as they may be, are like those who have quarreled with the ordinary historical studies on purer or more aesthetic grounds: they have not occupied in English studies the positions of professional importance. In a department of English, as in any ongoing business, the proprietary interest becomes vested, and in old and reputable departments the vestees have uniformly been gentlemen who have gone through the historical mill. Their laborious Ph.D.’s and historical publications are their patents. Naturally, quite spontaneously, they would tend to perpetuate a system in which the power and the glory belonged to them. But English scholars in this country can rarely have better credentials than those which Professor Crane has earned.

It is really atrocious policy for a department to abdicate its own self-respecting identity. The department of  English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product.

 

Mallarme (b. 1842) and Ransom (b. 1888) each represent the two primary modes of attack with which Modernism effected its gains against Philosophical and Literary Tradition in the last century and a half.

Mallarme is insouciant candlelight, the tremulous ecstasy of the “incorrect line,” fitting the informal student, or guest, with the intoxicating mask of “poet,” imbued historically with all that term signifies, so he or she, so fitted, might be invited to the masque.

That most of Mallarme is nothing but glittering surface, moustache-pedantry, and name-dropping does little to diminish the charm of its eleven-fingered poetic style, but how much more really intoxicating when elevated to a position of money and respect by the pedagogical behemoth of the American university system. This is what the Program era did, starting with a muddy patch called the University of Iowa, aided by ‘power point’ efforts of New Critics like John Crowe Ransom.

One can hear Ezra Pound’s faux aesthetics in the accents of Mallarme and recognize the excitable Ezra’s ‘outsider’ sneering at the old English professors in Ransom’s calmer approach.  The motives and goals were the same: Gates. Barbarians. Storm.  Pound, Eliot, Williams and the New Critics were the barbarians, and all were on the same page—not the silly aesthetic one, but the one that counted. They won. Mallarme’s masque now walks the quiet carpets of the university. English students, as Ransom wanted, no longer know anything “about literature.”  They do literature. And according to the Creative Writing Program poets who teach them, they do it well.

 

WINNER: RANSOM

 

 

HOW THE LEFT HURTS POETRY

Uhhh…excuse me…ahem….can I ask just one more question?

As enlightened as we know ourselves to be, we may as well admit it: the Left hurts poetry.  (Doesn’t perfectionism always let us down?)

But does the Left really hurt poetry?

Let’s begin with ideology.

Ideology turns poetry into rhetoric, but this is really not the issue, for if ideology presents bias, so does love, and the lyric and love can walk hand in hand.

We might say Modernism has been unkind to romantic love and Romantic poetry, (when is the last time you heard a contemporary poet praise Byron?) that hard-headed Modernism has sought to escape the feverish, the romantic, the emotionality of bias, and this might be true, but rhetoric and ideology of all kinds has not only persisted, but expanded, in poetic expression in the modern era.

The great drawback, one might say, is that ideology requires explanation, and poetry has less time than prose for explanations.

But this, too, is a thin objection, for poetry, and art in general, is perfectly capable of explaining things; we just expect it to do so with greater art or greater concision.

If Marxism, or Leftism, is a legitimate subject, or a legitimate philosophy, for mankind, and for the poet, why shouldn’t it work as material for poetry?

Before the whole matter is settled, however, we turn back, almost nonchalantly, like Columbo, for one more small clarification.

Poetry is no longer a popular art form; it merely breathes on life support in college, and even then, in its fragile state, in forms most people no longer recognize as poetry.

And this couldn’t make the Marxist poet, or critic, any happier.

The reason for this is quite simple: The Leftist equates the good of popularity with the evil of “market forces,” and so any chance for poetry’s mass appeal is killed in the cradle by those who believe bohemian martyrdom is preferable to bourgeois triumph: obscurity is preferable even to democracy, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Marxism therefore, condemns poetry to appeal to the few.

Leftism hurts poetry, but it has nothing to do with ideology.  It has nothing to do with Leftism as a set of ideas or beliefs.

The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to apply the term “market” (a bad) to what is basically poetry’s audience (a necessity).

Poetry has been a Leftist activity ever since “make it new” (ironically popularized by a fascist).  Modernism, or as it was once called, Futurism, makes change paramount, and since the progressive (in terms of politics) also makes change paramount—for different reasons, perhaps—change, whether driven by right-wing Futurism or left-wing Progressive-ism has become the ruling animus of poetry.

Poetry has defaulted heavily to Leftism ever since WW II found the “make it new” poet disgraced, and on the losing side.  But almost as proof that change is the real issue, (not Left or Right) Pound is still worshiped as a Modernist poet—since change for its own sake is the true high god.

The market won, Pound lost, and poetry, progressive not only in politics, but in everything, forces change as the constant issue.

Desire for change inevitably finds opposition in whatever resists change, even if what resists change is democratic, or is grounded in common sense.

Poetry itself has no opinion, one way or the other, on change, nor do poetry’s origins have anything to do with change, per se.

The war for change being fought by progressives takes place outside of poetry’s walls—and this is not an anti-progressive statement, but merely a matter-of-fact one.

When the market becomes the enemy, all that is democratic and popular also, in quiet and hidden ways, then becomes the enemy, too.

Poetry can be anything it wants, and it can be a shouting match if it wants to be, and it can be a hectoring force ushering in change for all the standard and visible causes: race, women, gays, the poor, and the environment.  As we pointed out above, the issues themselves are not the issue.

But just as Marxism hinders poetry by making popular appeal a bad thing, so do all sorts of ideological issues—which feature ‘struggle for change,’ for these have the tendency to make poetry renounce pleasure, immediacy, and accessibility for things so complex that rhetoric itself breaks apart in attempting to comprehend it.

Again, it is not the issues, nor the ideology, nor the complexities themselves which are a bad thing; the damage to poetry is done indirectly by forces or circumstances which inherently foster obscurity—that makes a democratic art (whatever kind of art that might be) impossible.

There is no going back.  We don’t think poetry can simply drop these issues, or should.  Poets will just have to figure out ways to be true to their ideals while working harder to be popular.

But just to give one example of how complex the problem has become:

Eileen Myles, the lesbian poet, on twitter, attacked the film about two young lesbian lovers, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” calling it a “hate crime” against lesbians, and the resulting conversation by lesbian poets, mostly supporting Myles’ remarks, featured a great deal of graphic sexuality, along with how a lesbian relationship does or does not resemble, favorably or unfavorably, a heterosexual relationship.  Eileen Myles is politically astute, if nothing else, and one could easily call a discussion like this political, and most poets writing on this subject, no matter how sexually frank, would still think of themselves as making “progressive” contributions of a political nature to society at large.  But it was really difficult to tell, for example, what Myles’ political objections to the movie were, besides a feeling she had that it did not depict the lesbian lifestyle as a universally happy one.  But what “lifestyle” is universally happy?

The question here is not that ‘lesbian sex’ will never be a popular, or a popular topic for poetry; the only case we are making here is that we should not, on Marxist principles, or any other principles, condemn popularity for its own sake; for a democracy, after all, resides in the popular will.

But homosexuality, as a “progressive” topic, does have its pitfalls; it will lead us into obscurity and away from the popular taste, and will have a great deal of trouble in making itself accessible and meaningful, in either a political or an aesthetic manner.  Homosexuality, looked at aesthetically, inevitably becomes Rabelaisian, as any sexuality would, whether or not the topic is “progressive,” or not.

And now Columbo needs to make one more little point of clarification, if possible…

What sort of political influence does poetry have?  It has none. 

Pound’s broadcasts from Italy in support of the Axis powers during the war were of little consequence, according to Pound apologists.

The right-wing character of Eliot/Pound Modernism and Southern Agrarian/New Critic Modernism dominated poetry in the first half of the century; some like to point to Robert Lowell, who was influenced by Ransom and Tate, as an important Leftist: Lowell opposed the Vietnam War—and Lowell also, in a personal way, reconciled highbrow, “cooked” poetry with the “raw” poetry of the Beats, but this was not seriously on the nation’s radar screen, and truly, the confessional-ism of poets like Lowell and Ginsberg was more Modernism swerving back toward the excitement of Romanticism than anything political.

So there you have it.  Poetry, as a study and a practice, right now in the United States, may be Leftist, but Leftism in poetry is actually of very little consequence, except in the manner outlined above, and from that very important standpoint, Leftism has hurt poetry.

Perhaps the whole question lies closer to the issue of the sacred versus the secular, and poetry finally residing closer to the former as an art form—but that discussion is for a future time.

We point out this issue with Leftism, not as any form of censorship—but only as a warning, and a challenge.

THE TWO TRADITIONS

Thomas Eliot: He won!

There will always be two traditions. With the greatest philosophical rigor we claim this to be true, and  by the simplest possible mathematical reasoning, it is.

The Tradition will always be: those works that stick to each other as notable over time, comprising what cannot help but exist— due to both formal and imitative significance—as that which is definable as the—Tradition.

In poetry, these works are palpable and visible and real. This is not some abstract, theorizing gambit at work. Plato’s philosophy, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare’s plays, Pope’s essays, Shelley’s odes, Poe’s fiction, Dickinson’s poems, Eliot’s criticism are the Tradition— and this is a certainty, and not for argument.

This defining Tradition can only be opposed by one other tradition—the opposing tradition, which, because by definition only one tradition can exist, is not a tradition, but will be called one and will be believed (by some) to be one, as such, and exists, therefore, as a shadow exists next to a body.

There is one Tradition, one Body (made of actual works that comprise a recognized canon) and not two. We can see this logically: there is one universe and we can divide the universe up in any number of ways without violating the idea of one universe, and so, without quibbling about the fluctuating content of the Tradition, we acknowledge with simple logic the Tradition as definitionally one.

Waiting impatiently in the wings, of course, is the “other” tradition, waiting for its moment on stage, the anti-tradition, the new tradition, the different tradition, etc, etc, the inevitable shadow to the body.

Because the Tradition is, by definition, one, it cannot, without destroying its identity, admit another tradition. But just as a body may have a shadow, and just as there may exist both a thing and a desire for a thing, a Shadow or Desire Tradition has a shadowy existence which blooms in rhetoric and thought: and here is where tradition number two “exists.”

No further traditions can exist, even though “multiple counter-traditions” may dance on the tongues of a thousand professors.

Either a new work, or a new group of works, connects to the Tradition, or a new work or a new group of works desires to connect to the Tradition; in terms of what a tradition is, then, “multiple counter-traditions” is a mere shadow of a shadow, without any existence at all.

We hope the reader is following the logic of our theme and noting its iron-clad character.

We now turn to our specific case.

The canonical work has two things going for it: a formalist excellence as well as a content that enlightens or instructs in the way it reflects the world outside of it. The Tradition is not a series of works which comment and talk only to each other; art is not some place where artists speak a similar “art language” to one another; the Tradition is not a club or clique of self-imitators.

Poetry is precisely that which counteracts the ‘in-the-know’ coterie-mind and speaks to the newcomer. The word is like money: it does its job on everyone equally. One can narrow one’s appeal to a specific audience and it may elicit giggles and applause from a certain type, but playing to a type will inevitably keep one out of the canon, because the Tradition reflects the world at large and appeals to it as something immediately pleasurable— not as something one has ‘to get’ by having specialized knowledge. There is nothing wrong with specialized knowledge and universally popular art may contain specialized knowledge as one of its side features—which may be exploited by those who are endeared to that sort of thing— but it is never the source of its ultimate appeal.

The counter-tradition, as we pointed out above, is a desire to be a tradition, but a desire for a thing is not the thing, no matter how strong the desire and its rhetoric; this is why there is really only one Tradition. But the shadow Tradition can be a very convincing thing.

The most convincing and cunning shadow Tradition of all is the one constructed by T.S. Eliot in the beginning of the 20th century, the one outlined in his now iconic essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he flattered the Tradition by saying it was self- aware, a living chain of succession that lives anew with each work that is added to it.

T.S. Eliot, however, was a flatterer and a liar. The Tradition is not self-aware. The Tradition is not a clique of self-imitators, a club in which only art-speak is spoken. If we buy Eliot’s premise, it follows that art is only about other art (the key to post-modernism) which is the great lie of the coterie-mind. Coteries and specialized knowledge do have their place, but the Tradition, if it is one, has no place for the temptations of coteries and specialized knowledge.

The Tradition is not a series of works aware of each other; every canonical work stands on its own, reflecting the world beyond art, even as it revels in formalist mastery.

Is there occasionally a self-conscious echo among works? Of course. But this is not the ruling animus of the works which make up the Tradition, as Mr. Eliot would have us believe.

The works themselves don’t know they are in a Tradition.

We are aware of the Tradition.

The Tradition, however, is not self-aware.

Unbelievable as this may sound, the Tradition was not waiting to be blessed by the addition of Modernism.

Modernism did not change the Tradition. Modernism is interesting only in that it existed, and exists, as a cunning attempt to join the Tradition.

We mentioned T.S. Eliot, whose brilliant attempt to enter the Tradition on behalf of himself and his Modernist friends is the defining moment of Modernism itself.

“The Waste Land,” with its numerous self-conscious echoes of canonical works in the Tradition, was the embodiment of Eliot’s earlier theory expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” works talk to each other. But of course they don’t.  Don’t tell T.S. Eliot that—that’s his ticket to the Big Dance.

Of course then there is the added bonus that Eliot is writing of a world ruined by post-world-war modernist calamity ostensibly never seen before, which the Tradition, hyper-aware of itself, in Eliot’s new view, will obviously welcome in order to move forward as a self-consciously historical entity.

History examines the Tradition from outside; the Tradition, however, is not itself self-consciously historical—this is the crucial difference which “Modernists” do not get.

Eliot’s theory pitches us forward into that state where art has no independent existence, but is only art talking to art, or, professors talking to each other, endlessly, in ivory towers.

This state of things—Eliot’s coup, we might call it—fortunately (for the Modernists) occurred with two other events: the take-over of literature by the university and the rise of modern art in partnership with modern poetry.

Pound and Eliot’s lawyer, John Quinn, who negotiated the book deal for “The Waste Land,” and secured Eliot the Dial magazine prize while Pound was still editing the soon-to-be-famous work, was the instrumental figure in making the Armory Show happen, the 1913 tour that made Duchamp famous and brought cubism and modern art to America. Quinn not only made the welcoming remarks at the show, he went to the U.S. Congress and successfully changed import/export laws to facilitate bringing European paintings to the U.S.

Painting witnessed content disappearing into technique as art became more abstract, a precise mirroring of what was happening to poetry in the reverse, poetry chucking its technique (metrical language) for the sake of content (imagery). The experiment simultaneously murdered the healthy fullness of both arts, but because the experiment was new, it appealed to the idea Eliot had advertised: the Tradition was not exemplifying the Best, but self-consciously unfolding the New.

Art, it was discovered, could be validated simply by hiring enough critics and building enough museums, with the added stimulus of huge profits gained in buying unknown Picassos which in a self-prophecizing frenzy, appreciated in value as the century progressed.

The Modernist scheme—academic, intellectual, aesthetic, monetary, institutional, ribald, exciting, fashionable—with the ordinary philistine masses sputtering and howling in ineffective protest—climbed heights after WW I which no one could have predicted.

Modern art successfully infiltrated modern life. Tall buildings and million dollar abstract art did some kind of Bauhaus dance which only the rich can understand.

Meanwhile, modern poetry toiled in university classrooms, gaining converts to Pound and Williams one student and one professor at a time, with help of the New Critic textbook “Understanding Poetry,” which extolled in its pages “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “A Station at the Metro.”

The New York School sealed the deal, as Harvard poets O’Hara and Ashbery, friends of modern art money, Peggy Guggenheim, mingled with abstract artists, writing poems secretly supplying what painting no longer had to offer.

Painting and poetry collapsed into each other. The Tradition wobbled. All fall down.

We read that Williams was an important counter-tradition to Eliot. Who could be more unlike than Williams and Eliot? But then we realize that Williams and Pound and Eliot all belonged to the same experimental, ‘make it new,’ Modern Art/Modern Poetry crash-the-canon clique.

If Eliot had not successfully crashed the Tradition, his friend Pound, and his friend Williams, would have lacked legitimacy—for all counter-traditions need a body in order to be its shadow.  All that we find in Eliot that we do not find in Williams, then, is precisely that which got Eliot into the Tradition.

Eliot made it into the mother ship; Williams throws rocks from below.

The excellent works of the Tradition have originality as one of their features; the new is worthy, but only if it is good.

In the new order established by Eliot, however, the Tradition, we are told, values the new over the good.

Poets cease using meter; this fact, becomes, by dint of time passing, a piece of the Tradition; but this is to confuse history with the Tradition; the latter demands excellence, the former does not.

The early 20th century Imagistes borrowed from haiku, which became the rage in 1905 in the wake of the stunning Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War.  This key aspect of Modernism was not new; nor was prose poetry new, either.   In this case history helps us to select the truly original as a criterion for the Tradition: which is nothing more than a collection of excellent models of literature—one of those excellent features being originality.

One of Eliot’s gambits was to write poems, like “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” with references to “Agamemnon” and “The Convent of the Sacred Heart.”  This alone will not get you into the Tradition.

We now copy the work of four Modernist poets:

Two, by Hulme (a founder of Imagism who was killed in WW I) and Williams, are in the imagist tradition; Pound references, as Eliot did, old literature (the myth of Daphne and Apollo) and finally, we copy Eliot’s excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Note the dismal flatness of the first three poems; the Eliot is the only one that moves, the only one that has real interest.

“Autumn” by T.E. Hulme

A touch of cold in the Autumn night –

I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

“Approach of Winter” by W.C. Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine–
like no leaf that ever was–
edge the bare garden.

“A Girl” by Ezra Pound

The tree has entered my hands,
The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast -
Downward,
The branches grow out of me, like arms.

Tree you are,
Moss you are,
You are violets with wind above them.
A child – so high – you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

From “Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

The yellow fog that rubs it back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines- Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches- They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf
By the road to the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue mottled clouds driven from the northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen patches of standing water the scattering of tall trees All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines- Lifeless in appearance, sluggish dazed spring approaches- They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter. All about them the cold, familiar wind- Now the grass, tomorrow the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf One by one objects are defined- It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf But now the stark dignity of entrance-Still, the profound change has come upon them: rooted, they grip down and begin to awaken – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15536#sthash.lLrMAEX9.dpuf

Eliot was clever enough, with his fake Criticism, to knock down a few entrance-doors to the Tradition; but a few of his poems will keep him there.

The Tradition will finally welcome Eliot, but, as Eliot probably knew all along, it will not admit his friends.

Fragmenting counter-traditions finally become a crowd of shadows, with the dogs fighting it out in the dark, below those beacons of the influential and the blessed.

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

WHY ART IS CONSERVATIVE

We should never confuse artistic place with artistic spirit, nor either one of these with artistic truth.

Just as the Jews and the early Christians measured everything against Rome, capital of Empire, so in our time, London, Paris or New York has served to validate the artist.

Either the village artist came to learn in Paris, or Paris came to exploit the village artist. Replace ‘village’ with ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘conservative,’ today, and still the final arbitrator is the faceless and inscrutable committee of the avant-garde, sitting with its tentacles in the middle of a great city.

Great artist validated by great city is one of those truths supremely obvious to the extent that the even more obvious meaning is missed.  In Ellen Williams’ Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance, look at how one great city draws the “bohemian artist” away from another great city: it is ever and always, with a certain scholarly mind, all about place:

Floyd Dell, the leader and as it were founder of the new artistic bohemia, brushed aside Harriet Monroe’s requests for poetry and prose, and had to defend himself against the charge of being “standoffish” not long before his departure for New York to join the staff of the Masses.

Dell’s departure reminds one that the turnover within the local bohemia was high. Perhaps 1912 was a significant moment in a progressive centralization of American society. Edgar Lee Masters, who had come up to Chicago in the generation before from a small Illinois town, had joined the local bar, married a local girl, and settled down to family life. But the young people with artistic aspirations who came to Chicago in 1912 from other, smaller middle-western towns departed in a few years for New York, or after the war, for Europe. Thus Dell left for New York late in 1913; Margaret Anderson moved the Little Review to New York late in 1916, after some two years’ publication in Chicago; and Sherwood Anderson was spending more time in New York than in Chicago by 1918. This “upward” mobility of the leadership would tend to diminish the influence and weaken the identity of the local bohemia.

Several factors, then, kept Poetry from being the voice of the new generation in Chicago, whatever general stimulation it got from them or gave them. Ezra Pound, operating by letter all the way from London, remained the principal avant-garde stimulus in its editorial counsels.

Just an aside: Margaret Anderson’s Little Review was the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses—the obscenity charge which put Joyce on the map was brought by the U.S. Post Office after Pound inserted excerpts of Ulysses into Margaret Anderson’s magazine.  Pound’s editorial digs were in London, and from there, Pound, the creepy, egotistical, gadfly, mediocrity, with the help of two women, Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe, shaped not only 20th century poetry, but 20th century fiction, as well.  If Harriet Monroe had not happened to visit a shop owned by publisher Elkin Matthews in London and found a couple of Pound’s books just published by Matthews, in her trip around the world in 1910, the world might be a different place.  Bohemian creds (which Pound had) have long been vital, even though the poetry produced might be unreadable today, because revolutionary ideals go a long way to inspire a certain type of ambitious fraud—when ‘conservative’ and ‘bourgeois’ are enemies to blanket, blank-check, bohemian thrills.

A funny truth about Harriet Monroe, poet, founder and editor of Poetry, is not that she covered, as a journalist, in 1913, the Armory Show of Modern Art in New York, or that she came up with a great business plan for her little magazine, or that she adored Shelley, or that she had many reservations about the avant-garde poetry she published, or, that she allowed herself to be deluded into thinking the great con-man Ezra Pound was a poetic genius; no, it was this: Harriet Monroe’s brother-in-law invented the skyscraper.  She even published a memoir on him—John Wellborn Root.

This is just the sort of fact that eludes the fact-finder: the fact of place, the fact of the important city, the fact of Monroe’s commercial connections are layers such that less obvious facts cover the more obvious ones. Bohemians are always the last ones to get the most obvious facts—that Pound was a con-artist, for instance.  The importance of place is one of those facts that keep most avant-garde critics busy in their obscurantist mission: do everything to distract the audience from the show-off, tasteless, inferiority of the art itself.  Every time we read of the adventures of some self-important, “rule-breaking” avant-garde cabal, we always notice how the geographical locale, whether we are in the actual city, or outside the actual city, or on the west coast, or on the east coast, or the Left Bank, is the most crucial thing.

The way a thing is advertised is not the thing, but the advertisement, with enough repetition, often becomes the thing, while the latter (the thing itself) practically disappears.  This is pretty much how avant-garde art works.

How ridiculous to think that it matters whether a poet is working in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere.  Or riding a motorcycle.  Or walking. Travel literature is a legitimate genre, we suppose, but why do so many confuse it with aesthetics?  Wearily, we are forced to learn of Harriet Monroe and Chicago, due to factual curiosity about Poetry magazine—and when was factual curiosity a criterion for art?  Only when art is made for sinking.

This is not to say that what an author does in body as well as spirit is not important—of course, occasionally, it is—we object to superficial and semi-obvious facts covering up the truth.

We always laugh, for instance, when critics list poets from a certain era—let’s say the 1890s—and since we haven’t heard of them, or read them, we’re all happy to assume that every last one of their works is awful, (as we continue to not read them) in comparison to Ezra Pound, the “revolutionary,” writing in 1910, and which we assume that many, if not most of his poems are exciting and new, not to mention “revolutionary.”  Or Pound’s friend, William Carlos Williams, “revolutionary,” too!

As long as we buy into the great “radical” art steam-rolling “conservative” art scheme, the great scholarly avant-garde ship keeps sailing along with Harriet Monroe, captain and Ezra Pound, first mate.

As soon as Rome became Christian, Christianity became conservative; when Paris recognized impressionism, impressionism became bourgeois; when New York bought abstract art, it sold for millions.

The skyscraper, the fact of the modern city, stands for many things, and it drives both commercial and democratic concerns.  The fact of the skyscraper is both radical and conservative, and in its balance, represents our age, which is both conservative and radical—which distinguishes all complex, civilized ages.

The skyscraper is democratic and commercial in its practical side of things; thus with the skyscraper the radical and the conservative are forever fused.

The trump card of the 20th century avant-garde was in getting itself called “modern” or “modernist.”  The name, “modern” became its chief selling point. This is another one of those obvious truths so obvious we hardly notice its real impact.  Victorian buildings are frilly; but the modern skyscraper (and modern art) is not.

As simplistic as this is, it is the stuff of artistic rivalry and ambition—the battle for the soul and the money of everything; this kind of artistic argument is nearly everything.

One could write a 17 volume treatise on verse, and all in vain, if it were shown, or more importantly, believed, that verse, was frilly.  Game over.  William Carlos Williams wins.

Take these four terms: conservative, radical, banker, poet.  They might very well define art for all time, believing, as we do, that the poet is always radical, the banker always conservative.  Belief in this formula has defined our age—but even as we recognize the force of the formula, we should recognize its falsity on a deeper level.

The poet becomes radical only when the banker fronting the poet is radical; in truth, art, in its primary existence, is conservative.

Socrates, the (lone) radical philosopher, pitted himself against Homer, the (popular) conservative poet; it was (O irony!) the triumph of Plato as an artist which made art into a radical vocation.  Shelley, the radical poet, faded away into Victorianism, or conservative poetry; Modernism rejected Victorianism so as to get back to Shelley—but something went terribly wrong along the way: the radical was kept, but everything else was rejected, including popular taste.  There is the lonely genius who, for the good of mankind, ought to get a hearing, and then there is the mediocrity—lonely because obscure.  These two should never be confused, but sometimes they are, especially if the latter is a clever s.o.b. who does a neat little dance in front of a skyscraper.

Art is conservative because of the phrase just used in the above paragraph: “Popular Taste.”  Homer was popular, but was censored by Plato on the matter of “taste.”  Since then, artistic success (favored by critic and mass audience alike) demands popular include popular taste.  The idea is actually democratic—taste refers to conditions which favor great masses of people respecting one another and treating each other well.  Mass appeal is required, but with something more: an unspoken sense of fitness and beauty, which, if we remember, Socrates accused Homer of violating, since Homer’s gods, superior beings, often acted from whim and cruelty.

One might think that radical art—and for many, these two words, radical and art, go hand in hand—is that which precisely offends popular taste.  But this is to put too much faith in shock, and not enough in art.  The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts  is currently running an exhibit called “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly, as we found ourselves more convinced that fashion is art, and we received, in addition, a happy insight: the avant-garde dress fashion was able to please us for the very reason that we are familiar with 1) the human body and 2) a dress.  It is precisely from these foundations of universal knowledge so vital to all fashion that the “new” (truly bizarre and truly avant-garde) was able—not always, but sometimes—to please us.

If we accept that fashion is art, and for this art to work, note how the human body and the dress comprise a conventionality and a tradition that is eternal, we get a glimpse into the absolute conservative nature of artwork that calls itself avant-garde.

The truth, that even in bouts of experimentation, art is a highly conservative medium, may be unsettling to some, but we realize those it might unsettle are immune to that sort of thing, anyway.  For all artists, in all mediums, it is important that the standard—whatever it happens to be—is established in the popular mind.  The eternal nature of this standard is not something we can take lightly; if a poet, for instance, writes poetry in which some in medias res, avant-garde experiment is the starting-point, the chance of it having mass appeal is nil; the poet must always return to the true starting-point of what the poem, as defined by the popular taste, happens to be.

THE SANE FACE OF INSANITY: THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY, PART II

Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—”realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist--ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.’”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

Yes.

If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.

“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.

MICHAEL ROBBINS HAS A CRUSH ON ANGE MLINKO, OR WHY THE CRITIC SHOULD NEVER HAVE A MUSE

Ange Mlinko: The Critic Should Never Have A Muse

Michael Robbins has disappointed us in his attempt to make a Scarriet-like, sweeping definition of poetry: “Where Competency Ends, Poetry Begins.”

Robbins has intelligence and wit, and we like his writing, but the jury is still out on whether he will fall into dyspeptic Pound-ism or soar like an Alexander Pope and laugh with silver laughter at the dunces.

We still have high hopes for the critic Michael Robbins—we have no hopes for any poet today—critics need to quiet the noisy poets before poetry can be heard again.

In his latest piece for the Chicago Tribune, Robbins drops the ball—he decries “competency” by selecting for laudation a quintessential piece of competency by Ange Mlinko, a “friend” of his, Robbins confesses to his readers, but a friendship, he insists, based on an “admiration for her work,” and not (as he attempts to drive the stake into the heart of Foetry) the “other way around.”

Since Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com ceased publication and Scarriet sprang up to take its place, we like to think we have kept the flag waving above the beleaguered fort of common sense.

Robbins cannot see how his friendship with Mlinko has blinded him.  So it follows he cannot see his tribute to Mlinko is the epitome of competency.

Robbins‘ article begins with that old trope: the view from the “slush pile” from the sneering, condescending poetry editor’s perspective, as if “slush” wasn’t finally published in the editor’s magazine, anyway.

Robbins is doing something clever, though, moving from “slush” to “competency” to the apex of the imagination which is…Mlinko.

This would be funny, but Robbins, blinded by both “slush-pile”-experience professionalism and his “friendship,” is serious.  Too bad.  Robbins is best when he’s a little silly.

As he is a good critic, Robbins does give us an extra: slush pile poetry is mocked with quotes by Wyndham Lewis.

Wyndham Lewis?  If you thought Ezra Pound was a creep who wrote mediocre, Modernistic poetry, wait to you read Wyndham Lewis!

Hemingway thought Lewis the most physically repulsive human being he ever met (with Ford Madox Ford a close second) and we are not surprised.

Robbins’ Mlinko-nod to foetry, his faint damning of MFA “competency,” plus his singling out as ludicrous the same passage of Adam Fitzgerald’s (from a David Kirby review) which we found risible three weeks ago (#81) would seem to indicate Robbins is keeping his finger on the pulse of Po-Biz via Blog Scarriet.  Good for him.  Lists are currently the rage in po-biz and Scarriet’s Hot 100 series got that started.  Anyway, we are flattered.

For Robbins’ argument, a couple passages from the “crushingly banal” “Apple Slices” by Todd Boss is presented, with concessions to its sonic effects, as ‘workshop competent’:

— eaten right

off the jackknife in

moons, half-moons,

quarter-moons and

crescents —

still

summon common

summer afternoons

I spent as my dad’s

jobsite grunt…

*

so many waned and

waxed moons later,

another well-paid,

well-fed, college-

bred paper-pusher, I

wonder that I’ve never

labored harder, nor

eaten better.

And here is the Fitzgerald, which Robbins and Scarriet agree, was over-praised by the excitable David Kirby:

I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds.

The sun’s pillors bored me though, so I

set foot on a small indigo place

below orange falls and hexagonal flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,

restlessly roaming the buttered air

inside tropical rock enclosures,

caves of foliage that canopied darkness.

Robbins calls these lines “unmusical and undistinguished,” but he is being kind.  These lines are clumsy, ponderous, free verse Dr. Seuss.

But now Robbins turns to his standard for greatness, Ange Mlinko:

You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel
but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.

For starters, Mlinko uses “axiom,” incorrectly, a philosophical term; we never say, “It’s an axiom that it rains.”  But it seems axiom’s similarity in sound to the mythical “Ixion” was too much for Mlinko to resist.

The rhetoric is wanting: the vagueness of “You never hear of…” How is this dramatically interesting?  It is not.  It’s a fact-driven idiom.  Poets need to be aware of this.  And just in terms of pure sound, “tied- to- a- revolving- wheel” is ugly, and even worse is “but- it’s- an- axiom- that,- sooner- or- later…”  The logic is not worth pursuing in prose; it’s safe to say it’s not going to do anything for poetry:  Because a hurricane will eventually arrive somewhere, it is worth noting that one never hears of Ixion. 

Robbins thinks he is praising Mlinko’s poetry.  He’s not.  He’s simply agreeing with a banal piece of logic: 1) “you never hear of Ixion” 2) Ixion symbolizes the “guests” of our “planet” who have met “their host’s hospitality” with “rapine.”  Robbins claims this is not “climate change didacticism” but this is, in fact, all he is admiring—and all one could admire in this passage.  Surely it’s not the sonic chiming of Ixion and axiom.

Since rhyme fell from grace among the modernist sophisticates, assonance and alliteration have rushed in to fill the vacuum in all sorts of horrible, excessive and stupid ways.

Here is Robbins explaining to us what hurricanes are:

Mlinko is often delightful: “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.” But there’s more here than a Rube Goldberg spillage of phonemes modifying one another, irresistible as such sonics are. Contrast the insubstantiality of Fitzgerald’s cloud islands with the sense Mlinko packs into this couplet: the story of Ixion, bound to a spinning wheel by Zeus for betraying a guest, reveals an axiom, a self-evident premise, which in this case is that the weather, in its cycles and revolutions, will always, eventually, manifest itself as a revolving wheel of air, which a hurricane is. And hurricanes arrive ever more frequently, deadly to human life and its built environment: in a reversal of the myth, the revolving planet binds its guests, who have met their host’s hospitality with rapine. A little parable of climate change, then, with none of the didacticism you’d expect.

So here is one of the better critics writing today (a published poet, as well), Michael Robbins, and after dismissing “slush” and “competency,” holds up for apotheosis, “sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here.”

This is one more example of how bad the world of poetry has become.

And this is why Mark Edmundson was right to attack contemporary poetry.  It has become so bad that any attack is good, by default.  And we mean this seriously.  Something is wrong: that’s where we have to start.  The inarticulate nonsense proffered by professor Edmundson still trumps every weak defense, and they are all weak, by default.   They are weak, first of all, because they are making so much of Edmundson’s ludicrous piece in the first place.  Secondly, they are weak because they are anxious to show Edmundson is wrong, but in a manner that is even more deluded.  Edmundson wants poetry to be socially and politically relevant and the poets cry, “It is!”  But social and political relevance isn’t poetry.

We only raise this matter because Robbins, satisfied that Mlinko is the standard, finishes up his piece with a diatribe against Edmundson.  Robbins: “Edmundson cites not a single contemporary poet under the age of 59. Think about that for a second.”  But unfortunately that says more about the sorry state of American poetry than it does about Edmundson.  You see what we mean?   The Edmundson of omissions and lapses is truer than Robbins on Mlinko.

Edmundson triumphs without trying.  That’s how bad it is.

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.

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.

WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

THE ENGLISH FROST AND THE AMERICAN BLAKE

This illustration of William Blake was published 200 years ago

This year marks the 200th anniversary of America’s 1813 defeat of Great Britain and their American Indian allies for the control of the Great Lakes region in the War of 1812.

In this “Second War of  American Independence,” the British Empire failed to take back her American colony, even as she tried to do so, cynically using its native peoples.  Vast designs always trump the politically correct.

William Blake, like many English Romantic poets, such as Coleridge, Southey, and Keats, took a great interest in what was happening in America.  Blake’s first illuminated book of poems was called “America, A Prophecy.”

Blake was a radical freak, hated by the British establishment, but the Americans struggling against the oppressive British Empire were never able to figure out what Willie Blake was saying when he wrote about America.

Who the hell knows what the following means?

‘I know thee, I have found thee, and I will not let thee go:
Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa,
And thou art fall’n to give me life in regions of dark death.
On my American plains I feel the struggling afflictions
Endur’d by roots that writhe their arms into the nether deep.
I see a Serpent in Canada who courts me to his love,
In Mexico an Eagle, and a Lion in Peru;
I see a Whale in the south-sea, drinking my soul away.
O what limb-rending pains I feel! thy fire and my frost
Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent.
This is eternal death, and this the torment long foretold.’

“A Serpent in Canada” recalls the network that produced the actions of John Wilkes-Booth in the “Third War of American Independence,” the U.S. Civil War, fifty-two years later, or it might have something to do with the War of 1812, as well.  But with William “howling pains” Blake, no one really knows.  This is not to knock Blake’s genius, but he was a loon, and the American experiment to him probably meant “free love” more than anything else.  The complexities of U.S./British geopolitics was far beyond the Blake of “Thou art the image of God who dwells in darkness of Africa” and yet Blake was no doubt writing in code to avoid being tossed into a British prison.

If Blake was a typically English radical: too crazy/clever to be a danger to anyone, Robert Frost was the son of a San Francisco politician—(Democrat all the way) who tried to enlist to fight for the South in the Civil War (but was too young).

In other words, Robert Frost was the heir to the States’ rights politics which almost doomed the United States in the “Third War of American Independence.” Frost turned New England crankiness into American Poetry gold.

It is the 50th anniversary of Frost’s death and the 100th anniversary of the publication of Frost’s first book, his trip to England as an unknown poet, and the discovery of Frost by another crank, Ezra Pound, who happened to be another States’ rights loon.

The Dymock Poets—their 100th anniversary, as well, a group decimated by the First World War (England was now finally our friend and hating on Germany) helped Frost, too. but Pound got Frost into Poetry, and a star was born.  If you haven’t heard of the Dymock Poets, it’s probably because Pound didn’t like them.  If you wanted to be a famous poet in the 20th century, you had to meet one person: Pound. Frost took a trip to England in 1913 and got lucky.

Which brings us to our March Madness 2013 clash between Frost and Blake.  Both poets are seeking the Sweet Sixteen with poems of alterity, and both poems might have something to do with the 400 year love/hate relationship between England and the United States.

MENDING WALL–Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

A POISON TREE—William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

This is fascinating stuff.

Frost, it is pretty certain from the poem, never “told his wrath” to his neighbor, even as he (Frost) harbors feelings that his neighbor is a “old-stone savage armed.”

Blake’s seems the more psychologically astute, the cleverer in terms of hostile action, just as one would expect the British to be.

Frost, the American, in his depiction of war, by comparison, seems lumbering and obvious: “He moves in darkness it seems to me–Not of woods only and the shades of trees.”  Also, note how the Frost poem reflects economic America’s plenty (apples…cows…) and a lack of any reason to fight at all: “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines…”

Frost seems matter-of-fact and reasonable compared to Blake, and “Mending Wall” is a triumph of that sort of rambling, calm, lower-your-blood-pressure, free verse that neither Pound nor Williams nor Eliot could quite pull off.

Frost made it big in the wake of the insanity of World War One, and the comforting, New England humor of “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines” was probably Frost’s highest moment—-exactly the tone, the imagery, the everything, that American  poetry was looking for at that moment in history.

Blake’s poem is darker, more cunning, but Frost’s insouciant masterpiece strikes a blow for Modernism against Romanticism’s emotionalism.

Still, this year’s Scarriet March Madness is a Romanticsm-themed tournament.

Blake 66 Frost 60

THE TWO FREEDOMS

Eileen Myles: Nature offers so few choices.  Man. Woman. What a drag.  But the real dilemma: avant-garde outside the institution has no cred.

The most memorable moment at the sunny but chilly 2013 Massachusetts poetry festival in Salem, May 3-5, was when poet Terrance Hayes said at the podium: “I didn’t realize Salem was on the coast; I wish I had brought a jacket.”

I didn’t realize Salem was on the coast.  I wish I had brought a jacket.

This was the most memorable moment in the festival.  Why?

Because here was a headlining poet talking to an assembled crowd and

1) admitting he didn’t know something.

2) without feeling he had to be clever, related a simple, physical fact.

It was beautiful.

Unfortunately family trauma had to be turned into poems, so we got those.

It was pretty much the usual: 

1. Familial framework filled with ruminative imagery much too difficult to understand, or

2. Indignant ethnical framework filled with belabored association. 

It seems the geometric shape of a circle can be contemplated with a great deal of profit when one’s cousin stabs a policeman in the eye.

Ghosts are almost never black people, even though blacks have very good reason to haunt their killers; but the poet, in this instance, does not believe in ghosts anyway; what is more arresting to the poet is the fact of a body floating from a tree twelve feet off the ground.

Hayes got in some powerful moments; he is both a good poet and sincere in what he is doing.

If you are a black person in that room, you present black stuff, etc.  But you don’t want to overdo it, so you  present your black stuff as poetry—which, by default, in the modern/post-modern climate, becomes “difficult” stuff that only in flashes makes its indignation felt, which actually can be quite effective, just in terms of pure performance and timing.  Which is perhaps one of the reasons ethnic poetry is overtaking language poetry right now: performance and timing has always been a crowd pleaser (relatively speaking, at least).

Hayes delivered, and delivered well, what all have come to expect in that small, closed, stuffy room known as po-biz.  No one in that stuffy room had a clue what he was talking about most of the time, but that’s what fans of respectable poetry have come to expect.

Speaking of  the room in po-biz, Eileen Myles referred to it recently in a polite (this is po-biz, after all) attack on Marjorie Perloff:

I feel like the back story of Marjorie’s avant garde mandate is mourning. I think Perloff has sustained an enormous amount of loss in her life and along with her championing of avant garde practice in her criticism she’s also deeply engaged in controlling the emotional climate of the room she’s in. Who gets to feel what when, and how! And that’s a problem because poetry is a community not an institution and we’re always at multiple purposes here in this room. When she opens her piece with Jed Rasula’s assertion of the problem of there being too many poets I wonder why neither of them notice that in the mainstream there aren’t any poets. We’re mainly hearing that no poets are being read. That there’s no understanding of poetry today.

Myles reminds Perloff and Rasula that “poetry is a community not an institution” and that “in the mainstream there aren’t any poets.” 

But Myles, because she is stung by the avant-garde bug herself, does not go far enough. Poetry is poetry inasmuch as it reflects that primitive poetic sensibility which exists in everyone. The modern extenuation can be novel and exciting, but only so if it is understood by everyone, for the original and universal sensibility naturally feels it as such.  If poetry is not seen as something that expresses what all people already feel it will continue to exist 1) outside the mainstream and 2) as an institution, not a community.

As Myles surely knows, “mourning” and “loss” affect everyone, and all poetry, and in fact all art, all writing, and all human endeavor involves either “loss” or preventing “loss.”  The act of writing pre-supposes absence.  And that’s just for starters.

Myles, representing the bodily, grounded, political aspect of the avant-garde, extends a desperate hand to Perloff, theoretical elitist, in the name of “mourning” and “loss,” believing Perloff to have “sustained an enormous amount of loss in her life,” but this is to concede far too much to Perloff and lose the whole argument before Myles has even begun, not because Perloff hasn’t suffered “loss,” but because everyone has.

Myles belongs to the expansive, pluralistic, democratic, street version of the avant-garde—which is why she opposes Perloff, who is narrower and more theoretical—and therefore Myles is almost in a position to define poetry as Scarriet does; but Myles cannot, because Myles ultimately needs to defend her avant-garde creds.  Myles is a part of the problem as much as Perloff is.  This is the institutional game in which the institutional members flatter each other, and Myles proclaiming Perloff’s unique loss is doing this, and Myles is not even aware of what she’s doing.  Myles is not tough.  She’s extremely nice.

Myles cannot be a radical democrat defining poetry from a true human, universal, pre-existing, standpoint, precisely because of her (and this is very common in the avant-garde) theoretical pluralism:

I arrived on the scene in New York in my 20s landing very deliberately in the avant garde where it seemed everyone I met took it upon himself to pass on to me ze avant garde canon as he saw it. There were so many approaches and rightnesses and because I already came from a doctrinaire catholic background I wasn’t so open to learning from some man of my age or older “the truth.” My avant garde then & now was composed of a shaky imagined grid holding a multiple of approaches. ***  I think of the reader as somebody who deserves something other than a recitation from the long phallic night of my heart whether that recitation takes the form of personal expression or a wily conceptual sound poem.

Myles does not want to hear “the truth” from “some man.” Myles is unable to see that her “multiple approaches” approach is not democratic, but elitist—poetry common to all is vigorously and academically defeated by sly, doctrinaire pluralism; the “truth from some man” is a straw man invented by Myles to relieve her own institutional/avant-garde guilt.

Marjorie Perloff, on the other hand, has no trouble believing she has a unique poetic sensibility which only a couple of thousand people possess and that it is her duty to bring this unique wisdom to as many people as possible.

But there is no such thing as a unique poetic sensibility—poetry is precisely poetry in its social universality.

The phenomenon is what might be called the big tent/small tent syndrome: poetry, the big tent, can have a lot of small tents under it, but fanatical small-tentism is what finally kills the universal appeal of poetry. 

Myles, like Perloff, is unable to champion poetry as a pre-existing sensibility common to all humanity, for this is precisely where the avant-garde cannot compromise, for this marks the break, the avant-garde break, of those like Pound and Eliot with High Romanticism, not to mention the break with countless others:  Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and already we see the list has too many dead white males for Myles.  Myles, when push comes to shove, finally joins Perloff in the avant-garde boat.  Ironically, right-wing goons like Pound and Eliot mandated the break with poets like Shelley, a break which avant-garde left-wingers Myles must stylistically and institutionally obey.

The institution is precisely what fills up poetry’s universal vessel with what makes it avant-garde—and inscrutable to the mainstream.  Academic study of poetry is not some guild which teaches the craft of poetry; it is instead a default scholarly pursuit which happens to co-exist with poetry, but really has nothing to do with it.  Freedom to ‘write any poetry you want’ destroys the freedom to ‘write poetry that, as poetry, precisely prevents writing anything you want.’  In academia, the first (excessive) freedom has replaced the second (universal poetic) freedom, and this is what has taken poetry out of the mainstream.

Since poetry which is ‘respected’ and ‘awarded’ now belongs to ‘the scholarly,’ all commentary on poetry is caught in the scholarly web; poetry is doomed to fade further from public consciousness. 

The more poetry attempts to be ‘relevant’ as a force for ethnicity, capitalist-critique, the newest fashionable phase of its own existence, etc, the more irrelevant it becomes.  Poetry as ‘stand up comedy’ was the default public success for poets at the mic at Salem, but this is only comic relief a short distance from the classroom.  Professional comics are funnier. When poetry is everything it is nothing.  Poetry is the helpless fly kicking in the unfriendly spider web of academic ‘scholarship.’

Poetry is not historical; it is not chronological, finally.  

Poetry is a passion, not a study, Poe once said; a histrionic-sounding protest, perhaps, but now we see what he meant—for study (scholarship) is not poetry’s friend; high-sounding scholarship has seduced poetry.

The relationship is not necessarily nefarious; it is an innocent error, perhaps; but the damage has been done.

Poetry as a scholarly pursuit no longer exists as poetry. 

The simple truth is that poetry which the world understands as poetry is the poetry of Shelley, no matter how vociferously avant-garde scholars protest.

We understand the radical nature of our thesis: Not ‘commentary on Shelley.’  The actual poetry of Shelley is—poetry.

Will the truth flash upon the scholar’s soul?

Salem is on the coast.

Marjorie Perloff has suffered a great amount of loss.

IS T.S. ELIOT ROMANTIC ENOUGH TO WIN THIS TOURNAMENT?

 
 T.S. Eliot: Who the hell was this guy, really?  What the hell was Modernism, really?
 
The way in certain parts of the country summer arrives in a single moment after the vagueries of spring’s warm and chilly tease, Modernism made its entrance quite suddenly into English-speaking Letters in the person of T.S. Eliot around the year 1915.  
 
A rumor got started when Modernism began (early 20th century) that Poe’s poetry was admired by the French more than it should have been because of what was lost/gained in translation.  Poe-hater Harold Bloom called it the “French Poe” phenomenon.  It was troubling to certain moderns that the French, those subtle, ingenious, Parisian inventors of modern poetry, were besotted with Edgar Poe.  As an English-speaker, you couldn’t admire Poe if you were truly modern; Poe was too Byronic, too classical, too fussy, too correct, too chaste. (Poe also disliked Emerson—whom Bloom champions) Poe was timeless, not modern.
 
If Modernism was anything, it was irreverant; it was naughty and naughty now.  Not Poe at all.
 
Despite all the talk, it all comes down to this. 
 
Nice. v. Naughty.  (Even as the “naughty” might be covered up in “learned” blather to keep things “honest.”)
 
Poe was icy, and the French, hot and cold, found Poe’s temperature bracing, and to their liking, but their modernism could survive the addition of a stranger speaking a foreign tongue, one like Poe who made it quite known that he preferred the French to the British.
 
So in the beginnings of English-speaking Modernism, Poethe American, who conceived a new genre of literature whose detective was French, and who was both classically chaste and a loud critic hearkening back to the correctness of an Alexander PopePoe was all wrong.  Poe wasn’t decadently subtle and seedy enough, and for men like Pound and Eliot, Poe was a horror—Poe had to be kept hence.
 
Aldous Huxley, who was born 6 years after Eliot, a wealthy, connected Englishman who died in California while on LSD, burned Poe at the stake, calling him “vulgar” and stating that Poe’s French admirers had made a grave error because of the language difference.  Henry James, the teacup author, a blood-thick anglophile like Eliot, also dripped with scorn in putting Poe in his place: boyish-loser.
 
You can’t be a tweedy, pessimistic, world-weary, experimental British modern if you are brightly USA-ish and boyish.
 
Eliot supplied Modernism with its tone of mature pessimism.  Poe was a hopeful “Tom Swift” adventurist, by comparison.
 
But if Poe, the whiz-bang American, was distorted favorably by the sophisticated, avant-garde French, perhaps Modern Anglo-american poetry was nothing more than a favorable distortion of the French going the other wayEliot admired certain ‘bad boys’ of decadent, 19th century French poetry, and modern English poetry, reaching for that irreverence which distinguished it, found in a poet like Jules Laforgue the French lens which could justify and validate its practice in English. 
 
The Longfellow War (street-wise journalist Poe v. Harvard academic Longfellow) continued in the 20th century in a Paris salon.
 
Was Jules Laforgue a great poet?  Or, more importantly, did Laforgue’s poetry hit like a bomb because of the particular way it innoculated a certain tribe of Americans as a French vaccination?  If one of Pound and Eliot’s pals had written Laforgue’s poetry, they would have probably envied it as the product of a unique, eccentric personality by a fellow-traveler; but as it came from a recently dead Frenchman, it sprang upon them as a kind of cultural-aesthetic truthLaforgue’s petty sentimentalism and vulgarity, through the distance of its translation, became towering irony and sophistication.
 
Innovative success in the arts invariably involves foreign influence; it provides that necessary stamp of worldliness and learning, that automatic ‘otherness’ which frightens some and encourages others in the home country—the ensuing tension, camp-arguments,and general excitement feeding the revolutionary (moral-loosening) change.  
 
The importance of Paris to Modernism cannot be underestimated: avant-garde, after all, is a French word.
 
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Modern Art Show in New York, as the American public caught wind of European modern/Cubist art; art and poetry swirled about, hand-in-hand, like two dancers, as Modernism began to become popular just prior to World War One.
 
Laforgue influenced both Eliot and Duchamp.  The early modern art collector who gave the opening speech at the Armory show, John Quinn, negotiated the publishing deal for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  Quinn, a secret associate of Aleister Crowley, was also Eliot and Pound’s lawyer. It was the same joke: the ugly having a laugh at the beautiful.  As the wife of a Cubist painter who befriended the young Duchamp, before his “Nude Descending A Staircase” made a big splash at the Armory Show, put it:
 
[Duchamp and Picabia] emulated one another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all foundations of life in general.   —-from Picasso and the Chess Player
 
It really had nothing to do with theory or aesthetics.  Modernism sought to tear down, on a whim, the virtues of the past. (Or to put it more simply, virtue.)  Which, naturally, becomes a theoretical-aesthetic issue (of which any reasonably intelligent person can blather on about)—but Modernism was an act of irreverence first, an issue of aesthetics, later.
 
No art movement is going to announce to the world that it seeks to be immoral.  This is neither sensible, nor even cool.  But this is the unspoken truth of Modernism, and the unspoken truth of it is precisely why it quickly became covered in terms like “symbolism” and “cubism,” terms that were never accurate or agreed upon (even by the so-called “symbolists’ or “cubists” or “imagists” themselves) by anyone, merely betraying to the wise what was really going on: the “symbol” is merely to distract you from the fact that poet X, some years ago, completely lost his mind, and requires your pity, not your admiration.
 
We love the modern arts the way we pity wounded animals: it is not love or admiration, but it is a strong feeling.
 
But isn’t this what the artists always do?  They trick us into strong feelings.
 
The “science” of Modern art has always been suspect—the “fourth dimension” of Cubism, for instance, was something Picasso and others merely laughed at; Modernism has always been Romanticism by other means, the “other means” in this example the fourth-dimension of Cubism, which helps the ‘validity’ of the modern art industry if at least some rubes swallow its “learned” nonsense.
 
Conceptual art, which “Modernists” like Duchamp created when they were still “Modernists,” evolved out of Modernism only because Modernism’s trappings—existing to cover up the fact that it was an emotional continuation of Romanticism—naturally went in that direction; faux braininess covering up mere hysteria, passion and tears.
 
The Scarriet March Madness poem-entry by Eliot is miles from Pope, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Tennyson, but not from any technical innovation or revolutionary approach; it is merely a poem of feeling sans morality and beauty.  Eliot is far more emotional than Shelley, for instance; Eliot veers into hysteria, and thus more realism and less art is required to keep the hysteria in check. 
 
Jules Laforgue, who died at 27, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born,  has long existed as a profound, partially-hidden influence to the whole modern art/poetry world.  Stephen Spender pointed out that young Eliot—from a respectable Boston American family with Emerson connections and re-settled in St. Louis—was not only profoundly influenced by Laforgue’s cynical, jokey, naughty, pessimistic poetry, but also by the way Laforgue dressed: formally, like a gentleman banker.
 
The Romantic trope: a Shelley with shirt open, panting beneath the full moon at midnight was cleverly reversed by the T.S. Eliot persona via the Jules Laforgue persona—for several reasons, not immediately obvious to unsuspecting readers of poetry.
 
Even regular readers of Scarriet may not know the answer.  Here it is:
 
1. With the impending rise of the Program Era (Robert Lowell teaching at Paul Engle’s Iowa after leaving Harvard to study with Alan Tate (Princeton Writing Program teacher) and John Crowe Ransom, Eliot and Pound’s American Modernist Fugitive/New Critic university foot-soldiers), poets would soon be the ‘teacher wearing suit’ model, not the Shelley model.
 
2. The art collector/banker/lawyer was the new persona of the elite art/poetry world in the 20th century.
 
3. Eliot’s buttoned-up image masked the fact that Modernism was far more emotional/hysterical than Romanticism, and, in fact, hysteria was the whole of Modernism, all its so-called “theory” a distracting ruse.
 
Modernism is the very opposite of what is advertised; it does not present less pure, floating emotion, but more—and this is the sole reason why formally it is what it is—and the trick is that there really is no “formal” reality whatsoever to Modernism—it is whatever bit of catchiness can be made up by word-smiths on the fly, (the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, the Pounds) who are beholden to the art dealers and wealthy patrons who fund the parties, and buy-low-sell-high at the art auctions.
 
Let’s call the “ism” what it really is: Money-ism.
 
Duchamp journeyed to New York in 1915. He was met at the pier by the art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter PachPach worked for John Quinn, T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s attorney.  Enter another Walter: Walter Arensberg, wealthy art patron and poet, who put up Duchamp in a Broadway apartment and hosted plenty of orgies and parties in another lavish apartment nearby.  Walter Arensberg, who translated Jules Laforgue, was the co-conspirator in Duchamp’s “Fountain by R. Mutt” (urinal) museum “ready-made” publicity stunt in 1917. 
 
The poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (Pound’s friend) also belonged to the modern art investor Walter Arensberg’s circle.
 
Below is a quote from a just-published book on Picasso and Duchamp, Picasso and the Chess Player by Larry Witham, University Press of New England, 2013.  We see in it the familar rhetoric of modernism/post-modernism history: we always get some “theory” by way of a catchy phrase which the author dutifully quotes from one of the (con) artists—in this case, Ezra Pound.  Rhetoric is all it is, since, in this particular instance, “objects” have always been, and always will be, a part of art and poetry: the theory is of no importance; it is only a smokescreen to cover the ‘buy low/sell high’ enterprise—and the elite, hysterical, socially-connected parties.  Modernism wasn’t about “word-objects;” it was about “sentiments:” celebrities and their hedonism.  Modernism was “Realism,” because it was Romanticsm outside of the art—at the parties.  The “theory” was mere bait for the newspapers—and “scholars,” whose talk puffed up the cash value of the “art.”
 
All around [Duchamp] the new aesthetic was about photographs of objects and the new poetry, which a’ la Gertrude Stein and others, was about word-objects. A mere object—and any would do—could be photographed and called fine art, as Stieglitz had shown. [by photographing Duchamp's urinal.] A poem, by the same token, could be simply a string of words about objects. This was the modernist poetry advanced by Stein in Paris, Ezra Pound in London, and William Carlos Williams in the Arensberg circle: the focus was on objects, particulars, not the big ideas, symbols, sentiments, or themes of past verse. As Pound said, “Direct treatment of the ‘thing.’” Besides chess, the modernist view of language was the intellectual content of the otherwise hedonist Arsenberg salon: the group was interested in linguistic games, puns, and little magazines.   —Larry Witham
 
After all that introduction, here is Eliot’s poem in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Romanticism Tourney:
 
 
HYSTERIA—T.S. Eliot
 
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles.   An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden …”   I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.
 
Eliot’s opponent is the French Romantic poet, Gerard de Nerval.

GOLDEN SAYINGS (trans Richard Sieburth)
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855)

So you alone are blessed with thought, free-thinking man,
In a world where life bursts forth from everything?
You are free to dispose of forces at your command
But the universe is absent from your well-laid plans.

Honor each creature for the mind in which it takes part:
Each flower is a soul turned towards Nature’s face;
Each metal hides some ancient mystery of the heart;
“All things feel!” And all you are is within their art.

Beware, even blind walls may spy on you:
Even dumb matter is imbued with voice…
Put not its precious stuff to impious use.

The most obscure of beings may house a hidden god;
And like the new-born eye pouched within its lids,
Pure mind drives its bud through the husk of stones.

Nerval’s poem warns, “honor each creature” and of objects (“dumb matter”) “put not its precious stuff to impious use.”  He’s seems to be talking to the reckless, hysterical “impious” moderns.

Of course, Nerval’s poem, as wise as it is, does suffer from didactisim; Eliot’s poem is realism, squeezed out of actual social horror.

Guiltily, we prefer Eliot’s car-wreck.

The crowd pushes forward, rooting for Eliot; it is impossible for Nerval to concentrate.

Madness in the arena!

The referees are making strange calls!

Eliot wins, 99-77!

THE WEST, THE WEST…JOHNNY DRYDEN V. DYLAN THOMAS, AND YEATS BATTLES TENNYSON

A funny thing happens when poems gather for battle: the superficial aspects of song take on a new prominence; the mind cannot take in all the “nuances” of “poetry,” and so, as poems eager for a crown press upon us in the public tumult, where emotional cries punctuate the slopes of ideas, the surface-joys of music become our pleasure, almost as if we were at home with a phonograph, or at a rowdy concert, letting our minds go…

Oh if you can just get past JohnJohnny” Dryden’s “Nature underneath a heap/Of jarring atoms lay,/And could not heave her head,” knowing Nature cannot heave her head because the world has not yet arisen, and all the pre-world atoms are still in chaos…if you can not worry this idea too much, musically you’ll be better off…

To hell with Ezra Pound, already, and his grumbly precepts against the full-on joys of music. 

Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” tickles our senses like a brass band:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard, and straight appeared -
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Ta Da!!

Of course there is a philosophy here, but it’s such a deep one, it’s shallow: music is the cause and effect of both the world, and the world beyond.  Who cannot groove to this?  “More than dead” is how Dryden describes the cold universe before the world was made, and up the world arises—sweeter and more miraculous than any zombie movie.  Can you dig it, baby?

Dylan Thomas, the favored seed in this Western Bracket contest with Dryden, presents what has to be experienced by the crowd in the Scarriet Madness arena as music, and it creeps upon us with the same magic in the same manner that Mr. Dryden’s did:

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Dylan Thomas was a glorious, and yet a lazy, sloppy poet—he found gold with

Though lovers be lost love shall not
And Death shall have no dominion.

But we wish he had worked on “Dominion” more—even made more stanzas, because the template is so admirable; look how the third and final stanza droops with vague talk of “gulls” and “daisies”—to finish a magnificent poem so poorly!  What was Dylan thinking?  Speak the first two stanzas aloud to yourself and it will bring tears, and then stumble over the third, ruining the climax…”No more gulls cry at their ears”??? 

Let’s move quickly to the second contest, Marla Muse, recovered from your fainting spell…

Marla Muse (a little wearily): Thank you, Tom.

You’re welcome, Marla.  I like your green dress.

William Butler Yeats is a poet the Official modernists do not know what to do with, because Yeats—does not rhyme with Keats—sang like the Old Romantics, or at least, superficially, he did…if you really listen, Yeats is close to a doggerelist when compared to Shelley and Keats…but then analysis of any kind is barred when it comes to authors like Yeats, covered as they are with the whole Irish thing, exploited by every hypocrite that leaves his native land to make it big in London.  One simply can’t be reasonable, honest, or discerning inside that green, blathering cloud.

But this poem of Yeats’ is uncannily beautiful—everything seems right.  It probably is Yeats’ best poem, even though it lacks a lot of the fussy symbolism and foreboding pomposity of his ‘major’ poems, and it merely copies Wordsworth.  But who cares?  To read this poem is to fall under a sweet and delicate spell, each and every time. 

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is something about the confidence of that first line: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” which lures one in…

And Yeats’ opponent today—Tennyson!!   Once that name—Tennyson—was equated with poetry itselfBut like Longfellow, hairy, tobacco-stained, Tennyson doesn’t thrive in post-modernity’s placid, plastic glare. Lord Tennyson, reputed as that stuffy, imperialist, Victorian, Englishman, falters, fades in the gloaming by the moat…  The memory of Lord Alfred Tennyson in poetic circles seems to moulder even as the memory of William Butler Yeats, the Irish mystic, flies on, steadily…

But now the music begins, the music arrives in the dark of our subjectivity…  Listen!  Here is the song that surely made young Emily Dickinson fear for her soul…but it freed her, for what self-pity was allowed her, the poor recluse, after this!

MARIANA—Tennyson

WITH blackest moss the flower-pots
    Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
    That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
    Unlifted was the clinking latch;
    Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
    Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
    Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
    When thickest dark did trance the sky,
    She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
    Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
    From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
    In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
    Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
    A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
    The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
    All silver-green with gnarled bark:
    For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
    And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
    She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
    And wild winds bound within their cell,
    The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
    Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call’d her from without.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
            I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
    When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
        Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
            He will not come,’ she said;
        She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            O God, that I were dead!’

This poem, with its never-ending, melancholy gloom, reaches a peak of that kind of sad expression which seems fantastical, in the way Tennyson expresses it, but which actually is ordinary and wraps itself around us all. 

“Mariana” had to be written, so that Victorianism could end, and Modernism could begin. Tennyson brought us to the top of the old heights, so the new low ground could be made ready.

But will such music ever end?

Who prevails, in the end, in the very end, the Yeats, or the Tennyson?

In our action today, we see Dryden triumph over Thomas, 72-69.

And here, in the corner of the stadium, Tennyson weeps, for by a score of 80-79, Yeats has won.

RHYTHM AND POETRY

Criticism of Life?  Bah.  Rhythm! Ode to Joy! One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-and-Two!

The essence of rhythm is completely misunderstood by the modern poets.

They falsely posit two things of which there is only one.

It is similar to the error in which a simple quantity, height, for instance, is described as a duality: short and tall.  Short is not a quantity in itself, and neither is tall. Short and tall are two ways of saying the same thing: height.  Short and tall only have meaning in relation to some other height. Height itself is neither short nor tall—it is simply one measurable quantity between two points.

In the same way: the quantity, rhythm, is notrecurring pattern’ on one hand, and ‘variation of that pattern,’ on the other.

Rhythm, for that word to have any meaning, is not two things.  It is one thing.

Since variation cannot exist unless there is an established pattern from which to vary, it is ridiculous to speak of variety or variation as a separate quantity—like tall, it begs the question, taller than what? or in this case, varying from what?  This second quantity—variation—does not exist, but is contained in the first quantity, which we define as: the established pattern or rhythm which must first exist before any variation can occur, and without which no variation can occur.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist most respected for first principles, errs, precisely in this manner, when he claims all prose scans and all prose has rhythm.

The Modernist error is defended by the tall and short trick—two quantities conjured out of the one principle: rhythm.

We see the Modernist compare iambic pentameter—which is described as a recurring pattern—to prose, which is described as a variation on a pattern, the Modernist adding that good iambic pentameter breaks the iambic expectation with variation—and prose is a variation on this sort of (good) variation—and thus, naturally, a good.

Good iambic moves away from expectation; good prose moves towards it.

The trick that is being played here is a simple one: the Modernist inserts a quality in a manner that distorts a quantity. The rhythm is the rhythm, not the variation from it—but this “not” magically becomes “the good;” the “variation” (the variation, any variation, variation that cannot exist without the original rhythm) now becomes wholly associated with “the good,” because if iambic does not vary itself, it is bad—and therefore prose, seen as wholly and organically various, and thus always varying itself, becomes in the blindness of the Modernist argument, the good.

The false Modernist argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: If iambic can vary itself as prose does, iambic will be good, and prose, which is already various, is by the same token, also good.

But obviously there can be no variation without the original rhythm—which is the actual good—and to describe variety as good is nothing but a lie, because not only is variety not a separate good, variety does not and cannot exist at all as anything materially separate.

The iambic—even as it varies itself, remains always and forever iambic in the upper part of the reader’s mind—and the more it skillfully varies itself as an iambic rhythm, the more strongly does it assert itself, in its variety, as an iambic rhythm, and this process alone—by which the iambic varies itself and by doing so, remains more strongly iambic—is the good.

Iambic is iambic because it is not prose. The iambic rhythm (ta DA) possesses an identifiable rhythm, and thus an identity in terms of rhythm which prose does not—since prose is not-prose-because-it-is-not-iambic. Prose is also not prose because it is not trochaic—thus not being iambic alone does not define prose. But iambic is defined by not being prose—were iambic, after all, really trochaic, for instance, it would still be very much itself, since the rhythm of trochaic and iambic are almost the same (a short beside a long).

With logical precision, Criticism can prove that prose has no identifiable rhythm.

This, in fact, is what defines prose as prose.  It does not differ from iambic, it differs from all rhythm—for it has none.

The Modernist Theory of free verse is not scientific.  It is a hopeful dream—though the Modernist would insist the glory of free verse is based on “experience.”

To reject Criticism for experience, thinking the former leads us away frorm the latter, is wrong, for Criticism makes us aware of experience and is therefore vital to it. Criticism is nothing more and nothing less than an experience of experience, and therefore to reject Criticism as effete or unnecessary is foolish: a rejection of experience itself.

To insist that prose scans is to succumb to the worst sin, according to Pope’s Essay on Criticism: pride. It is also to reject what, according to Plato, is the essence of art, humility, and intelligence: measurement.

The Modernist is uncomfortable with measurement, and feels superior to it.  The Modernist is a priest without religion, a scientist without science, an artist without art, a lover without love, and indulges in experience without criticism—which is experience without experience.

Life is all the Modernist has. 

Life belongs to all of us—and yes, life needs no criticism, no science, no love, no measurement.  Life is that place we, as individuals, can safely be ignorant or hyper-aware, as we sit on a train, drowse on our beds, drift sweetly in our minds, dismiss all in a bad mood, or embrace all in moments of intoxication; then, criticism of experience—which is truly what experience is—can go hang.  There is no “criticism of life,” the Arnoldian phrase loved by T.S. Eliot; it is truly an empty phrase, if we understand how vast, casual and random life really is.

Life is beyond Criticism.  Experience depends on Criticism.   Yet the Modernist confuses the two.

Life is subjective, sprawling.

Experience is limited, objective.

The Modernist comprehends neither experience (rejecting criticism of it) nor life (welcoming criticism of it).  Of course it is no wonder that Matthew Arnold’s “criticsm of life” was used by Eliot in praising Pound’s poetry [intro to Pound's Selected Poems, Faber]. When you wish to reject experience and criticism of it, you insist, like the Modernists and their heirs, the Post-Modernists do, that your poetry reflects “life,” which of course is impossible.

Life is what finally makes poetry empty and effete.  In one of life’s bad moods, all poetry is terrible, and life laughs at our criticism and makes everything true—or not—on a whim.

A poet would be a fool, then, to think his poetry is a ‘criticism of life.’ 

No, life is always a criticism of poetry, and didactic pride prevents us from admitting this is always the case, and it never goes the other way; poetry is never a ‘criticism of life.’ Only a fool who believes prose scans would make such an assertion.

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

MARJORIE PERLOFF: HEY, DUMMIES, I’M A YEATS SCHOLAR!

Perloff: Her Poundian agenda faltering, Yeats comes to the rescue!

The Boston Review’s recent symposium (December 6, 2012) re-visiting Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink” (May/June 2012) is wonderful.  First one reads 18 invited poets (including Ange Mlinko,  Cathy Park Hong, and Desales Harrison) briefly responding to Perloff’s essay in the BR’s stated context of “what is the most significant…set of opposing terms in discussions about poetics today…?” Then, in a great punchline to a long, tedious joke, we witness Perloff, the mother hen, in a rage, kicking all 18 of her chicks to the curb. 

Perloff’s avant-garde creds are vast—so you know she has to be cunning (a word that describes Pound and his friends and heirs: not genius, but cunning)—but still it comes as something of a shock to witness the spleen:

1. Perloff mauls Mlinko: I’m a published Yeats scholar, dummy. I also know my Auden and Frost.

Mlinko made the mistake of characterizing Perloff’s judgment thusly:

Who are the heirs of the Modernists? This high bar
seems to include Stein, Zukofsky but not Auden, Frost
or Yeats (it seems Irish, English, and Scots are lost
in the discussion

2. Perloff hauls off on Hong: “I directed Yu’s Stanford dissertaton” and know precisely of which you quote, dummy, so please don’t imply I’m racist.

Hong foolishly dared to proffer:

. . . like all institutions, the avant-garde canon has been as racially homogenous as mainstream poetry. One can rationalize these exclusions. The critic Timothy Yu, in his excellent essay “Form and Identity in Language Poetry and Asian American Poetry,” delineates two poles of thought that emerged during the ’70s and ’80s: multicultural poetry and Language poetry. Both groups worked to disrupt the dominant paradigm, but they had radically different aims: “the Language poet’s critique of the personal, lyric voice vs. the minority poet’s desire to lay claim to voice.”

3. Perloff crushes Harrison: You wanna defend Dove’s silly Introduction? “Easy,” huh?  “Verbivocovisual” is Joyce, “Cubo-futurist” comes from Maykovsky, Khlebnikor, and Kruschenyk.  “Ironic neo-avant-garde” is Peter Burger. Dummy.

Harrison fatally erred by writing that it was “easy” for Perloff to go negative (against Dove’s anthology) while dropping names and avant-terms.

4. Perloff demolishes all 18 writers: “Why did none of the eighteen symposiasts dig in and take issue with my specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi—readings that constitute approximately two thirds of the essay?” Dummies!

Perloff attempts to rout her enemies, finally, with, “Constatation of fact—Ezra Pound’s phrase—does, I’m afraid, matter, given that most of the poet-symposiasts are teaching college and university courses on poetry.”  And she ends curtly with a bit of Yeats, from his poem, “A Coat”:

Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

If we might speak for the Slaughtered Eighteen…

We would maintain it’s Perloff’s problem and not the eighteen that “none took issue with her specific readings of Cage, Howe, Bernstein, Reddy, or Gizzi,” for there has to be, at the minimum, interest (in the sense used by Henry James) for discourse to occur.  While it was admirable for Perloff to present actual examples, they were woeful: avant cut-and-paste goes to snooze town. There was simply no interest—and the vote was, well…18-0.

That leaves Perloff, naturally, with nothing to do but bristle and trot out scholarly creds and anecdotal knowledge: I’ve published papers on Yeats!  “Verbivocovisual” is from Joyce!  an easy way to defend herself against “the eighteen” and Harrison’s “easy” charge—oops!

True, the eighteen responses were all over the place; it wasn’t Perloff’s fault the symposium lacked focus. 

Sandra Lim, using jargon, seemed to us to be faking it. Matthew Zapruder made trite observations on poetry v. song lyrics.  Anthony Madrid was anxious to tell us one can have irony and feeling together. Samuel Amadon pointed out that no group cares for its label. Maureen McLane riffed on James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” in a poem of her own. Annie Finch said she enjoyed meter. Dorothea Lasky praised the “shape-shifter” aspect of the “metaphysical I.” Evie Shockley plied the transcendence of the racial: expression (black) v. conceptual (white). Rebecca Wolff was all “visionary over functionary” and needs a better photo. Lytton Smith was determined to free poetry from the page. Noah Eli Gordon said binaries were teachable, but not profitable for his poetry. Katie Degentesh waded into counter-intuitive feminism. Robert Archambeau quoted David Kellog’s “The Self in the Poetic Field.” Dan Beachy-Quick went back to the Greek chorus to prove the intimacy of the lyric “I” is also social. Stephen Burt quoted Empson: “You must rely on the individual poem to tell you the way in which it is trying to be good.”

This is mostly Creative Writing Program Theory—used by Modernists (the academically astute New Critics  helping out Pound and friends) to crash the Canon party back when the English Professor who teaches Keats was replaced by the Creative Writing professor (and Poet) who teaches himself, and if you are nice to him, You. 

There’s nothing wrong with this impetus; we’d probably all do the same ourselves, but it seems to me, to keep everybody honest, as we cultivate the new writing, we need to keep our eyes on the Poetry Canon that’s being crashed.

This Canon is what makes us able to appreciate Yeats, after all, even if he belongs to it as much as it belongs to him. 

There are canons within canons after all, but there they are.  When we come upon Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” we hear a quality, a canon within a canon.  “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek” shapes the Poetry Canon from all those 16th century writers until…now, obviously, if Canon has any meaning at all.  We think it should have meaning.  Raleigh, Spencer, Munday, Lyly, Greville, Sidney, Lodge, Peele, Tichbourne, Greene, Southwell, Daniel, Drayton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Nashe, Campion, Aytoun, and Donne were born within 20 years of each other in the 16th century.  This group is a sun that still shines.  The Canon is a sun that doesn’t stop shining—unless we decide to put it out.

It isn’t just that the Canon is good; it helps the center to hold.

In this rather nasty exchange between 18 poets and Marjorie Perloff, it doesn’t seem like the center is holding.

YOU’RE STUPID AND EZRA POUND IS NOT

Ezra Pound: Did a fatal error cripple the Modernist revolution?

Poetry today is in the worst state imaginable: 1) not popular, 2) not respected, and 3) not understood. 

“Not popular” would not hurt so much if poetry were respected, and “not respected” would not hurt so much if poetry were understood—by even a few! But, alas…

If something is neither popular, respected, or understood, the game is up.  It’s time to walk away. 

But hold on.  Poetry does exist and everyone knows it when they experience it, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  But poetry now is like an act of nature: it’s a nice thing, a useful thing, it exists, but, amazingly, it eludes institutional or human knowledge. 

There are two issues:

1) isolating poetry from what resembles it (prose, fragments, ordinary speech) and

2) creating poetry from what it should resemble (beauty, intelligence, inspiration, song). 

Now, what happens when 1) and 2) are reversed? 

What happens when poetry is created from prose and isolated from beauty?

The Modernist revolution, of course.

As Pound complained of “beauties” of the “deceased” in his revolutionary 1929 New York Herald Tribune article:

Literary instruction in our “institutions of learning” was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is. Certain more or less mildly exceptional professors were affected by the “beauties” of various authors (usually deceased), but the system, as a whole, lacked sense and co-ordination. I dare say it still does.

One can see the Modernist advantage: poetry does resemble prose, and prose is readily available to us.  But Beauty?  That’s harder to define.  One can see superficially how the Modernist revolution would, without much effort, succeed.

But what does one notice about this revolution?   Two things.    The great reversal was 1) radical (thus it was called a revolution) and 2) practical:  poetry is now closer to prose

The advocates and beneficiaries (there are a few) of the Modernist revolution, and probably everyone else, would agree this is what essentially occured as the 20th century unfolded: the reversal of 1) and 2). 

Against all odds, Ezra Pound took on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—and won.

The Modernist revolution apparently did something good.  Or did it?

It did not.  And why?   Because the reversal of 1) and 2) was not beneficial.  The reason is simple—so obvious that we’ve all missed it.

Formal poetry has as much prose as free verse. 

Prose is not really the issue at all.

By assuming otherwise, we “see” a “revolution” where there is really none.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Here are two examples.  The first is from “The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Poe, the second is the entirety of “The Red Wheel Barrow” (1923) by William Carlos Williams. 

Poe was an astute grammarian—and the correct use of commas helps his passage surge forward as a creative piece of prose.

Is the Williams more interesting as prose?   Does it seem more like real speech?

Neither.

When we compare Poe’s iconic 19th century poem—supposedly the fussy verse the Vers Libre Modernists were rebelling against—to an iconic piece of Modernism, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” we find something odd: the Williams poem is not moving towards ease of prose or speech; compared to the Poe, the Williams poem evinces neither interesting verse nor interesting prose

Williams presents his tiny poem (in the spread-out way we usually see it) as if it were a billboard looming over Times Square, or as if he didn’t understand how to use commas and therefore subsituted white space. 

The Poe is a far better example of good prose writing, and of good writing, period.  The singular feature of the revolutionary Modernist poem is a kind of lame ekphrasis or a lame version of Pound’s phanopoeia—jokey, superficial, childish.   Are Pound’s “institutions of learning” meant to teach good prose—or unorthodox word-arrangement? 

So where is this “reversal” between Romantic poems of verse/beauty and Modernist poems of speech/prose? 

ooops! 

It didn’t really happen at all. 

But what happens if we all go on thinking it did?

The current train wreck of contemporary poetry?

Wordsworth’s advocacy of plain speech always rang hollow; the Modernists have been guilty of the same thing.

The problem isn’t that there really wasn’t a Modernist revolution—the problem is that we believe and act as if there were a Modernist revolution.  We somehow believe that Shakespeare and Shelley and Milton and Poe wrote poetry burdened by the fact that it wasn’t prose and that the Modernist revolution freed us from this burden by putting prose into poetry.

But prose was always in poetry.

If we ask which era best turned prose into poetry, we would probably point to the “Shakespeare through Tennyson” era, but then we’d point out that the Modernists were better at turning poetry into prose.  But from our Poe/Williams example above, we see this isn’t true: the great formalists, it could be said, not only turned prose into poetry, they also turned poetry into prose—since their poems triumph as great works of prose.  In fact, there is no difference: the good poet will always do both.   The Modernists did not lead a revolution of making poetry more like prose—because the finest prose always inhabits successful formalist poetry.

And as far as “speech,” goes, Byron, the Romantic, wrote poetry closer to speech than Williams, the Modernist, and good actors can make the elevated language of Shakespeare sound like speech. A mixture of high and low will generally prevail in dramatic poetry, in any age, whether for the stage, or not.

This is surely why there was a sudden frenzy on the part of the Modernists, mid-way through their (failed) revolution to emphasize “difficulty.” The Modernists must have felt (if not known) the error of their vers libre ways, and looked about for something else to fuel the revolution that was dying a slow Imagiste death.  The institutionally-connected New Critics arose, rescuing the revolution of Pound and Williams with the New Critical smokescreen of “ironies” and “close-reading ” and “tension between prose and verse,” an attempt to win by surrendering, or hitting a target by missing it.  This distraction worked.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by two New Critics, got into all the high schools and GI Bill colleges. The revolution was saved.

THE RIGHT-WING AVANT-GARDE

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show: Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was a big hit.

The avant-garde is generally thought to be radical, not conservative, especially when we think of the explosion of avant-garde culture in the early 20th century, that “revolution” which rebelled against the Victorian, the traditional, the stodgy, and introduced new ways of seeing and thinking, and broke with a narrower and more middle class manner of experiencing the world.

Everyone accepts this definition of the avant-garde without blinking an eye.  The ruling belief is that the avant-garde, and especially the avant-garde of 20th century modernism, which still reverberates through intellectual consciousness today, belonged to the people; it was open, so goes the story, renewing, new, working class, and left-wing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 20th century avant-garde did not break out from a narrow mold—the 20th century avant-garde was narrow and its influence narrowing.

The 20th century avant-garde was not a left-wing people’s movement; it was a right-wing movement of business elites.

The 19th century (Goya, Beethoven, Poe) was a vast bounty of magnificent art.  The early 20th century avant-garde “revolution” in art was, in reality, a great shrinking.

A great, flowering forest was razed by a small band of Modernists, and yet almost every artist and intellectual today actually celebrates this destruction.

As much as we are convinced of the truth of what we say, we also understand the startling success of the modernist fascist con has become, in a way, reality itself.

All that is left to do is chuckle at the pretentiousness of it all (as the public did at the start, and continues to do—you know, the public, those bourgeois folks who don’t “get it”—) and point out a few amusing examples of how close-knit and narrow-minded and righ-wing the modernist avant-garde clique really was.  One observation is especially telling: the modern art players and the modern poetry players were one and the same to an extent no one seems to realize.  For instance, who talks about John Quinn, these days, the lawyer and art collector?  Yet Quinn successfully lobbied in Washington to change the tax laws to allow European art collections to come to America, gave the opening address at the landmark Armory show in 1913, and put together the publishing deal for “The Wasteland” as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney. Small world, huh?

Who did the Chicago Tribune send to review the 1913 Armory art show?   Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry.

Who did A.C. Barnes, pharma millionaire, and one of the first great modern art collectors, force his factory workers to read on the job?  William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, who invented stream of consciousness and taught art collector and poet, Gertrude Stein at Harvard.

We always hear about the Black Mountain poets.  The Black Mountain School was most importantly, a school of Abstract Art (Josef Albers taught Rauschenberg there) and John Cage experimentation.  Black Mountain’s two founders were John Andrew Rice, a Rhodes Scholar and”open classroom” educator, and Theodor Dreier, the father of modern art patron Katherine Dreier, who, along with Man Ray and Duchamp, formed the modern art Societe’ Anonyme.

O’Hara and Ashbery were fortunate to know Auden (though Auden had his doubts about them) but their real ticket to notoriety was their art connection; knowing Peggy Guggenheim, for instance, the rich girl who was advised by Duchamp on her modern art collecting.

Duchamp is the most important figure, a Frenchman born in the 19th century, a part of the most important avant-garde generation, which includes T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.  There is nothing new after Duchamp: every Modernist, avant-garde, 20th century -ism comes directly out of Duchamp: his infamous urinal, “Fountain,”  his “found object” Mona Lisa with Moustache, and his cubist, abstract painting “Nude Descending Staircase” (the hit of the Armory Show, which made Duchamp an American celebrity) all done before 1920, contains everything, everything that came afterwards: Abstract, Cubism, Futurism, Fluxus, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Collage, Minimalism, Surrealism, Pop art, everything, Duchamp contains it all—the entire joke—is contained in this one man, born in 1887.

All that is “new” and avant-garde, decades after Duchamp, is old and one-note.

The story of the avant-garde is how one joke told so many times eventually made what was materially authentic about different genres of art irrelevant: the narrow, wealthy social agenda mattered, not the art, and this is why the clique’s members had a tacit understanding and were able to move in lock-step.

The 20th century avant-garde had its roots in the 19th century, mostly notably in France; modern art officially began in the Salon des Refuses—sponsored by the globally ambitious Napolean III and the French state.  The imperialist despot, Napolean III, who joined the British Empire in the mid-19th century to trample the world, gave official life to French avant-garde painting.

The poet Baudelaire was also an art critic, and he pushed hard for the new and disparaged the old, art.  Baudelaire also set the standard for Modernism’s view of Poe as an outsider freak; the limited and narrow avant-garde had to bring Poe down to their level by turning him into a disheveled victim, playing down the towering, multi-faceted artist Poe really was.  Poe showed the world how to be innovative and still aesthetically pleasing, and without being trendy and clique-y and sophistical and narrow.   Thus, Poe, even today, is the number one target of the Modernist avant-garde, either damned with faint praise or condemned and mocked outright.

Two things, then, drove the 20th century avant-garde: 1) 19th century colonialist era imperialism (and its 20th century twin, fascism)  and 2) insanity.

Most, even those who celebrate it, can accept that a certain amount of insanity defines the 20th century avant-garde.  It was pretty crazy, and that was part of the point. Insanity helps serendipitously: barriers to be removed are knocked down as artists become audacious and thrill certain elements of the idle rich while simultaneously offending the working class. If the avant-garde has a working class element, the avant-garde itself is not ever a working class movement; the avant-garde art appeals to the idle rich precisely because it offends the working class and the working class is only a tool in the avant-garde’s actions.  It obviously didn’t hurt the modern artists that the world itself was partly insane when Modern art burst onto the American consciousness.  The Armory Show was the Fort Sumter of Modernism, the first large modern art show that hit America’s shores in 1913.  One year later, the insanity of the first world war began, eventually dragging the U.S. into its trench-grinding maw, allied as America was to Britain and France—two nations who refused to side with America during the Civil War, intentionally turning that war into the bloodbath by holding out promise of recognition to the Confederacy if it could win enough meat-grinder battles. The Salon des Refuses happened to occur in middle of America’s Civil War.  The avant-garde was a crazy party thrown by the rich and it was crazy in exactly that sense; the avant-garde rules were set by the rich and for the rich.

One casualty of the Modern art movement, with its seeds in mid-19th century France?  History Painting.  Why look at history when it was becoming so ugly under Napolean III?  History painting thrived when France and the American Colonies heroically took on the British Empire.   Modern art nixed all that.  The blurred vision of pure insanity was more Modernism’s elitist style, the style of the jaded rich, eschewing grace and beauty.

The insanity reflected in modern art was real and this surely gave it legitimacy, as much as reflecting insanity is legitimate; to be sure, who reflects insanity better than artists who are insane themselves?  The “derangement of the senses” was a prophecy coming true, springing as it did from modern art’s roots: mid-19th century France.

The story that is told is that this aesthetic insanity was really a sane response to an insane world.  But should the response to insanity be more insanity?  Modernism thought so.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here: when the public views a Shakespeare play, filled in with insane characters, the audience has no doubt that Shakespeare, the playwright is sane. Insanity, such as we get in Shakespeare or Goya or Beethoven or Poe, can be expressed by a genius who has not been crippled by insanity himself—even if we allow that some insanity itself might reign in the genius.  Modern art, however, made the very medium itself insanity.

Insanity was a great medium for another reason, already mentioned:  Since the avant-garde sprung from colonialist and fascist impulses, what better art for those impulses than art which disintegrates and distorts and howls with derisive laughter?

WHY AESTHETICS IS BETTER THAN POLITICS

 

Politics deals with facts.

Because of politics’ nature and scope, politics deals with every immediate fact in the world; immediate facts change quickly into new facts—one future fact can upset all that went before—the political side of the debate you were on can completely give way.  All sides are therefore wary of facts—because one fact might disrupt a carefully built-up partisanship, and it is the nature of politics to cause you to invest in a side.

Further, since all political facts are interconnected, any argument against the bad is useless, since the bad contaminates all; any attempt to point fingers, to distance yourself from the bad, is hopeless, for the bad stains you as well as everyone else, whether your free will has anything to do with it or not; in your attempt to separate the bad out and be apart from it, your argument itself only increases the bad’s social effect.  Likewise, any political argument dealilng with the good is self-defeating as well, since the good manifests itself most authentically in private and loses its virtue once public recognition for it is sought.

This is why political arguments invariably go round in circles, and why they often cause so much hurt and pain.  Politics is both too large and too one-sided to be reasonable.

Aesthetics is poisoned by politics more than we know; the latter is seductive (taking a side is a strong temptation) and insinuates itself into the former.  One must be passive to appreciate beauty; one must be gentle to appreciate sweet and delicate music; aesthetic appreciation requires a certain amount of receptivity; unfortunately this passive state is the condition to best be infected with political messages. Aesthetic pursuit, therefore, must always be wary of political interference.

The political can even be mistaken for the aesthetical outright, since the hero is at the bottom of both in our hopes and dreams.  The leader who will save us is similar to the advice in a poem that will save us—at the center of politics and poetry stands the wise leader or the wise poet—we give ourselves to these others, whether in political side-taking or in the falsely passionate worship of art:  the poem is not talking to you, the heroic poet is; the policy is not the real attraction, the political leader is.  We should be wary of this, for it is a powerful example of how the political mimics the aesthetic, and how the aesthetic can be betrayed, and used, and destroyed.

Aesthetics does not care for icons.  The audience is elevated, the poet depressed; the leader fades away in the enlightenment of the audience.  Aesthetics is truly democratic.

Aesthetics does not depend on immediate facts; it is only the way facts combine which interests the artist; individual facts have no place in aesthetics; no legal proof can be brought to bear against aesthetic revery; facts combining—in order to disappear—is the true artistical creed; the very opposite of political cunning which discerns every clear and isolated fact for an advantage.

Political cunning would shun the bad and embrace the good hypocritically—the artist finds the underlying truth of bad and good as qualities used for a higher purpose. The values which politics would willfully assert are demolished by the artist, even as the artist might steal tricks for a higher purpose from the political legerdemain.

Unlike the political creature who fears the suddenly disclosed fact, the artist burns to have every new fact, every old fact, and every surprising fact, at their disposal, because no fact can do the artist harm by upsetting or flipping an argument; the facts are used by the artist as facts in the very act of demolishing them—the use of facts to the artist is closer to what facts really are; the political debater is all about lining up the facts in the right way, a display which is finally a hollow gesture.

Politics leads to arrogance, lying, hypocrisy, shallowness and stupidity.

Aesthetics leads to love, humility, pleasure, sweetness, and truth.

Scegliere!

FREE LOVE, PERCY SHELLEY AND T.S. ELIOT

Rejecting Shelley, did the Moderns suppress not only beautiful poetry, but love itself?

The poet W.H. Auden (1906-1973) once summed up best the divide brought about by “modern” thought:

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

The topic—of sexual love or sexual morality or the morality of love—is a large one, and contains much that is shadowy and unseen, even as it appeals to the (yuk, yuk, wink, wink) obvious in our imaginations.

Competing religious and secular authorities throughout history have made us wonder: how forbidden should sex be?  Should it be forbidden by an outside agency or forbidden in one’s heart?  How dangerous is love?  Who decides what it is and how it should be fostered, or controlled?  How widespread should love’s influence be?  What forms should it take?   Let’s state right away a simple rule of thumb: too much “freedom” or promiscuity is bad, and too much suppression and shame is bad, and let’s pretend, for the purposes of our present discussion, that this covers the purely social aspect of our subject.

But the topic as it relates to poetry, and creativity, and ultimate happiness, surely benefits from a more rapturous and thorough examination.

Plato’s Phaedrus presents two kinds of love—one is brute and selfish; the other is a divine madness which inspires and creates.  Phaedrus shares with Socrates an essay: the non-lover is more trustworthy than the lover, it argues, because the lover, irrational, jealous, and possessive, ultimately harms the beloved. Socrates agrees, condenses and purifies the rhetoric of the essay into its simply expressed “wisdom,” but then Socrates suddenly regrets he has offended the Love deity, and expands his discourse into a paean on the second kind of mad love which is divine and creative.

The divine aspect of love is what Shelley is talking about in his Defense of Poetry:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore 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. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause.

The strange assault on Shelley by the Modernists is perhaps best exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s 1932 Norton Lecture at Harvard; Eliot happily escaped England and his wife to tour and visit the United States in a triumphant homecoming.  The ire and visceral hatred for both Shelley’s “ideas” and his “poetry” expressed by Eliot at Harvard was profound: Old Possum admitted that he literally could not stomach the “adolescent,” Shelley.  Eliot’s attack took the same form as another sexless-American-author-turned-Brit’s attack: on Poe—by Henry James.

But was Eliot right?   We might say Eliot had maturity and Christianity on his side, and this passage by Shelley, (from “Epipsychidion”) which Eliot cites, is problematic. Here is Shelley:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.  (Epipsychidion, lines 149-159)

It is important to remember two things: Shelley did not want this view widely desseminated.  He asked his publisher in London to withdraw “Epipsychidion.”   Shelley’s imagination was uncompromising, and the “code of morals” isn’t always the best for everyone, all the time—in terms of change, or acceptance.  Shelley, though a popular author, did believe a ‘class readership’ existed, and who wouldn’t?  Poe, another highly popular author, believed the same thing.  There are things the uneducated will not, and should not understand.  (Of course wanting the uneducated to become educated is a worthy goal; but that’s a different topic.)

But the second thing is more important. Look at the next lines of the poem, and how Shelley expands his argument:

True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning. Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth.

Shelley is advocating love as expansive and freeing, rather than narrowing and imprisoning.  It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin expresses the same idea in a letter:

“Madame Brillon,

What a difference, my dear friend, between you and me! You find innumerable faults with me, whereas I see only one fault in you (but perhaps that is the fault of my glasses). I mean this kind of avarice which leads you to seek monopoly on all my affection, and not allow me any for the agreeable ladies of your country.

Do you imagine that it is impossible for my affection (or my tenderness) to be divided without being diminished? You deceive yourself, and you forget the playful manner with which you stopped me. You renounce and totally exclude all that might be of the flesh in our affection, allowing me only some kisses, civil and honest, such as you might grant your little cousins. What am I receiving that is so special as to prevent me from giving the same to others, without taking from what belongs to you?

The sweet sounds brought forth from the pianoforte by your clever hand can be enjoyed by twenty people simultaneously without diminishing at all the pleasure you so obligingly mean for me, and I could, with as little reason, demand from your affection that no other ears but mine be allowed to be charmed by those sweet sounds.

Yours,

Benjamin [Franklin] 1779

When we theorize on love, it makes sense to begin with relationships between actual people—between lovers, as difficult as the evidence sometimes is to collect.  We hardly know our own hearts—how can we know the hearts of others?  And then we also realize:—how can actual people, such as Benjamin Franklin or Shelley be compared to the average, crippled, superstitious, mortal?   We can leave this aside as inconsequential, if we wish; we could worship the accomplishments of a Franklin, or not; but we should still examine the scientific evidence on the question at hand: it is true that love can divide itself and still increase?  Is this, in fact, how love operates?  And is love—that obsesses and pines over one object, or one person—love?  Which love should we, as a society, prefer?   The “genius” (Shelley, Franklin) examines love mathematically, stripped bare of all morality, and discovers a scientific truth based on the evidence of their own feelings.

Shelley finds the truth of love, a pre-moral, mathematical, truth, and brings it to the world, only to find love’s mathematical truth is morally repellent on a certain level—at least to someone like T.S. Eliot.  Shelley’s truth is vulnerable, since it is not actualized by jealous and superstitious humankind yet; Eliot’s charge of “adolescence” rings true for those who agree with Eliot: Shelley is guilty of immature over-idealizing.  But is Shelley guilty of this?  Here we are at a great philosophical and spiritual crossroads.

The modern temper is mostly on Eliot’s side.  But we take our stand with Shelley. Here is Shelley, again, and Eliot had access to this; as we see Shelley fill out his ideas on the subject of fee love, we have to ask, are these ideas “repellent” and “adolescent?”  Perhaps there is some excessive and hyperbolic Rousseau-ism at work here, but Shelley is thinking the problem through:

Prostitution is the legitimate offspring of marriage and its accompanying errors. Women, for no other crime than having followed the dictates of a natural appetite, are driven with fury from the comforts and sympathies of society. It is less venial than murder; and the punishment which is inflicted on her who destroys her child to escape reproach is lighter than the life of agony and disease to which the prostitute is irrecoverably doomed. Has a woman obeyed the impulse of unerring nature—society declares war on her, pitiless and eternal war: she must be the tame slave, she make no reprisals; theirs is the right of persecution, her the duty of endurance. She lives a life of infamy: the loud and bitter laugh of scorn scares her from all return. She dies of long and lingering disease: yet she is in fault, she is the criminal, she the froward and untameable child—and society, forsooth, the pure and virtuous matron, who casts her as an abortion from her undefiled bosom! Society avenges herself on criminals of her own creation; she is employed in anathematising the vice of today which yesterday she was the most zealous to teach. Thus is formed one tenth of the population of London: meanwhile the evil is twofold. Young men, excluded by the fanatical idea of chastity from the society of modest and accomplished women, associate with these vicious and miserable beings, destroying thereby all those exquisite and delicate sensibilities whose existence cold-hearted worldlings have denied; anniilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling which is the excess of generosity and devotedness. Their body and mind alike crumble into a hideous wreck of humanity; idiocy and disease become perpetuated in their miserable offspring, and distant generations suffer for the bigoted morality of their forefathers. Chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition, a greater foe to natural temperance than unintellectual sensuality; it strikes at the root of all domestic happiness, and consigns more than half of the human race to misery, that some few may monopolise according to law. A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.

I conceive that, from the abolition of marriage, the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result. I by no means assert that the intercourse would be promiscuous: on the contrary; it appears, from the relation of parent to child, that this union is generally of long duration, and marked above all others with generosity and self-devotion. But this is a subject premature to discuss. That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.

One can disagree with this (from Shelley’s Queen Mab).  Thomas Eliot’s puritanical hanging of Shelley, however, and the modernist hatred of Shelley in general which it engendered, seems to belong to that ubiquitous tribe of thinkers who narrowly blame; they seek diminishment, purity, sterility, punishment, retrograde, and return; if someone is beautiful, they assume them shallow; if someone is hopeful, they assume them ignorant; if someone is joyful, they assume them stupid; if somone is enterprising, they assume them selfish; two can never gain in their eyes; two can never be happy—one has to suffer if another is happy, if one is happy, the other has to suffer; all gain implies a loss somewhere else and they are satisfied with all systems that reflect this; they would rather be wicked in their realism than beautiful ideally; their world-view makes envy and jealousy normal; they seek to counter all pleasure with pain, since it is a doctrine that begins in their mind and talks its way into their heart—or, some worldly affliction breeds it in their heart and it then melts their mind; they are certain the amount of joy must always equal the amount of sorrow. Life is not an adventure, but a rule to be obeyed; fear, avoidance, and accusation drive them, not love, hope, and endurance.

This is not to say all are not afflicted by the real, or that sorrow and pain do not have a real existence; Shelley’s poetry contains all sorts of reference to sorrow and pain—the loving and hopeful do not have to be naive—but love and hope are making active war against sorrow and sameness in Shelley; Shelley is the optimist, Eliot, the pessimist; Shelley’s poetry, thought, taste, and philosophy as a whole is triumphant, and to call it “adolescent” is adolescent.

Now we have to come to terms with our own era: Eliot reviled Shelley at Harvard in 1932; in 1933, Eliot made his anti-Jewish speech at the University of Virginia; as the decade went on, Eliot’s bosom-buddy Pound began broadcasting from fascist Italy; their New Critic associates continued to hit Shelley (and another genius, Poe, was a target, too)—it was a poetry establishment pile-on, as the Creative Writing business and “the new” became cynical allies in the hands of Pound’s and Eliot’s lackeys.

As WW II raged, Eliot must have thought, “my criticism has come true: the 19th century really is naive, and poets like Shelley are adolescent—compared to the grown-up horrors of the 20th century! Take that, you wimpy romantic poet bitches!”  And yes, perhaps “adolescent” Shelley could not have imagined Pound and Eliot’s 20th century.  And we have to leave off Shelley, and we can’t go back.

But when we look simply at Shelley’s skill as a poet, and the beautiful ideas behind the poetry, I’ll go back.

Edgar Poe is a chaste author, and rarely touches on sex, but Poe was more like the generous Shelley in his views on the morality of love than has previously been understood.  Look at Poe’s tale, Eleanora, which offers a beautiful alternative to Stephen King and the nerd-revenge sensibility—which has grown in the last 50 years into a giant, gory, many-layered industry of horribly bad taste.

In the three excerpts from the story below, Poe first sets up the sexual union; then Eleanora dies and the narrator makes a promise, and, finally, the narrator finds someone new.

The puritantical, Stephen King, revenge-theme never appears.

In Poe’s tale, Shelleyan love triumphs.

Hand in hand about this valley, for fifteen years, roamed I with Eleonora before Love entered within our hearts. It was one evening at the close of the third lustrum of her life, and of the fourth of my own, that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees, and looked down within the waters of the River of Silence at our images therein. We spoke no words during the rest of that sweet day; and our words even upon the morrow were tremulous and few.

***

She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die; but the terrors of the grave to her, lay solely in a consideration which she revealed to me, one evening at twilight, by the banks of the River of Silence. She grieved to think that, having entombed her in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, I would quit forever its happy recesses, transferring the love which now was so passionately her own to some maiden of the outer and every-day world. And, then and there, I threw myself hurriedly at the feet of Eleonora, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven, that I would never bind myself in marriage to any daughter of Earth — that I would in no manner prove recreant to her dear memory, or to the memory of the devout affection with which she had blessed me. And I called the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow. And the curse which I invoked of Him and of her, a saint in Helusion, should I prove traitorous to that promise, involved a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here. And the bright eyes of Eleonora grew brighter at my words; and she sighed as if a deadly burthen had been taken from her breast; and she trembled and very bitterly wept; but she made acceptance of the vow, (for what was she but a child?) and it made easy to her the bed of her death. And she said to me, not many days afterwards, tranquilly dying, that, because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed, and, if so it were permitted her return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but, if this thing were, indeed, beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would, at least, give me frequent indications of her presence; sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels. And, with these words upon her lips, she yielded up her innocent life, putting an end to the first epoch of my own.

***

Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten; for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs; and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air; and once — oh, but once only! I was awakened from a slumber, like the slumber of death, by the pressing of spiritual lips upon my own.

But the void within my heart refused, even thus, to be filled. I longed for the love which had before filled it to overflowing. At length the valley pained me through its memories of Eleonora, and I left it forever for the vanities and the turbulent triumphs of the world.

I found myself within a strange city, where all things might have served to blot from recollection the sweet dreams I had dreamed so long in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. The pomps and pageantries of a stately court, and the mad clangor of arms, and the radiant loveliness of woman, bewildered and intoxicated my brain. But as yet my soul had proved true to its vows, and the indications of the presence of Eleonora were still given me in the silent hours of the night. Suddenly, these manifestations they ceased; and the world grew dark before mine eyes; and I stood aghast at the burning thoughts which possessed — at the terrible temptations which beset me; for there came from some far, far distant and unknown land, into the gay court of the king I served, a maiden to whose beauty my whole recreant heart yielded at once — at whose footstool I bowed down without a struggle, in the most ardent, in the most abject worship of love. What indeed was my passion for the young girl of the valley in comparison with the fervor, and the delirium, and the spirit-lifting ecstasy of adoration with which I poured out my whole soul in tears at the feet of the ethereal Ermengarde? — Oh, bright was the seraph Ermengarde! and in that knowledge I had room for none other. — Oh, divine was the angel Ermengarde! and as I looked down into the depths of her memorial eyes, I thought only of them — and of her.

I wedded; — nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once — but once again in the silence of the night, there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me; and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice, saying:

“Sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”

WHAT IF MODERN POETRY IS JUST DR. SEUSS WITHOUT THE RHYME?

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
Because I really like myself! 
And what I assume you shall assume,
Out-of-doors, or in this room! 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
You are good as I am good—and true as I am true!

I loafe and invite my soul,
Would youl like to share a bowl? 
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A little tiny spear, alas! 

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same, what do you think of that?
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin—thirty-seven? oh, drat!
Hoping to cease not till death.
When I’m forty, will I have sweet breath?

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Fruits and vegetables, get thee hence!
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
Oh, this paraticular fruit is rotten!
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Whether it be lark or buzzard,
Nature without check with original energy.
(And I’m not just talkng about having to pee!)

*

So much depends,
I told my friends,
On a wheel barrow that’s red
Or white chickens, instead!

*

Petals on a wet black bough
Seem to be faces in the Metro, now.

*

As I sd
to my friend, Fred,
because I am
always talking—Sam,

I sd, which was not
his name (he gets that a lot)—
the darkness sur-
rounds us, what for?

shall we buy
a goddamn big car
hey, or shall I—
or can we drive far?

drive, he sd, for
Christ’s sake look at yr
speedometer!
what u drivin that way for?

*

By the road to
the contagious hospital under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the northeast
—a cold wind.  Beyond, the waste
Of broad, muddy fields brown
with dried weeds, standing and fallen down

patches of standing water
the scatter—

ing of tall trees
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves

I’m really bored,
Oh here’s a brown puddle we can ford—

under them leafless vines—Lifeless
in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world
naked,cold,
uncertain of all
save that they enter. 
All about them the cold, familiar

wind—Now the grass, tomor—
row the stiff curl
of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined—It quickens:  clar-
ity, outline of leaf

But now the stark
dignity of entrance–oh, now it’s dark!
Still, the profound change
has come upon them:  rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken—hurray!

*

I saw the best minds—OK, maybe not the best,
a pretty smart guy from Jersey, stoned, who moved out west,
was naked and hysterical, he had failed his driver’s test,
walking down a negro street at dawn
looking for a fix!  he was crazy, man, he was gone!
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry
dynamo
in a coffee shop in Soho
in the machinery of night
Poverty! And jazz! but their skin was mostly white!
I was crazy when I wrote that obscene ode,
but I dig William Blake and I know the guy who wrote On The Road!

HOW DO YOU TEACH CREATIVE WRITING? YOU DON’T.

They are defending creative writing at the Huffpost.  But look:

1. The real work of writing is two-fold: reading and writing in solitude.

2. Good literature classes teach literature.

3. Students do creative writing beginning in grade school.

This is all you need. Note what’s missing from the above. The creative writing class. The point is not that the creative writing class for older students might not help, but the real issue is: what does the creative writing program as a ubiquitous, nation-wide phenomenon provide?

Why aren’t literature classes and the writing all students do in school starting in the early grades, and the reading and writing they do in solitude enough?

Lousy schools? Lazy writers?

So is a ‘creative writing class’ going to help a student who hasn’t read enough literature, either because he’s too lazy, or the schools have failed him or her? No way. Even creative writing teachers admit they are no substitute for reading literature.

So what exactly is going on in those ‘creative writing classes?’ No wonder the huffpost writers gave no specifics, beyond, well it’s good to put would-be writers in a room together and have a writer ‘teach’ them.

Can you imagine Shelley and Byron and Keats sitting in a classroom together as writing students? It’s laughable.

The writer has to find himself in solitude, not trying to please another writer sitting next to him in a classroom. This is just common sense.

Finally, and no one talks about this except Scarriet, the whole Creative Writing Industry was started by a handful of men—the movement has a history, and it happens that the men who started the Creative Writing Industry had a certain bias for ‘new’ poetry, and this, of course, is the trump card of the creative writing industry: You don’t write very well, but we’re going to teach you how to write like a contemporary, approved by your peers. The default ‘sameness’ of the creative writing industry is that you are not allowed to write like Shelley or Keats or Byron. Write any way you like! But if we sniff the faintest smell of ‘old’ on you, you’re gone.

But the so-called ‘old’ is where really great writing resides, and the contemporary ought to be simply who you are—you shouldn’t have to go through a brainwasing session in a creative writing class so that you can sound ‘contemporary.’

How we get from the sublimity of Shelley to the inanity of Silliman is not something the ahistorical dweebs of the MFA will ever figure out.

For this is where it all leads.  Recently on his blog Ron Silliman pretended serious analysis of the following.

I saw the corpse of the plum tree
of the camel his splattered guts
the soiled tears of the child
the sniffle of orphan light

I abandoned the pursuit of art
to sleep for eternity
under the fevered feet of my children

“It calls to mind Pound’s old dictum that poetry needs to be at least as well written as prose,” Silliman writes.  But Pound wrote bad prose which was passed off as good poetry.  Well, but Silliman can’t help it.  Nutty Pound-worship is just what these guys do.  It’s the track the train must run on.  Silliman sees into the life of this excerpt, but none of the rest of us do.  And this, too, is part of the game.

The “new” MFA thing now is the so-called “The New Sincerity” which features “sincere,” “naive,” or “childlike” poetry by poets such as Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky and Nate Pritts.  But this is a mere throw-back to Frank O’Hara.   There is not the least formal interest here.  There is more formal interest in one stanza of Shelley than in all this poetry.

Until modern poetry really comes to terms with the major Romantic poets, nothing is going to improve, or help poetry to become popular again.

Modern poetry and Creative Writing are now synomymous.  The idea is not to grow poets, but to grow paying poetry students—who are beholden to canonizing their instructors, with the possibility of being canonized, in turn.  This is precisely what the modern poets, beginning with Pound and Eliot and their lawyer, John Quinn, and continuing with their academic friends, the New Critics, did, and therefore the very idea of the “modern” in poetry is linked with the business model of Creative Writing. 

This is such a self-evident fact, that Creative Writing officials are blind to it.  The difficulty here is that you can’t teach the new.  Nor can one teach the light of which poetry is the mere shadow; the cause of poetry cannot be taught, either.  Life teaches this, not Creative Writing, which is its pale substitute—poets mingling with poets, in a frenzied attempt to be “modern” or “contemporary.”   But the “contemporary” is a shadow of a shadow, and chasing it, we find poetry to be in the sorry state it is today.

The Creative Writing industry may be a successful, and nearly flawless institutional model.  But no great poet has ever written for an institution, or to flatter and be flattered by their peers.  The Creative Writing industry cannot teach itself out of this dilemma; its default setting is fashionable appearance which appeals to the contemporary spirit.

Socrates long ago identified those who charge a fee for a vague kind of ‘learning.’

Sophists.

MODERNISM BEGAN ON AUGUST 15, 1911 AT 3:42 IN THE AFTERNOON…

They don’t know no William Carlos Williams

At 3:41 in the afternoon of August 15, 2011, T.S. Eliot, 23, is falling asleep over his Sanskrit lesson at Harvard. “Prufrock” won’t be published for another 4 years, and will be panned by the London Times.  The Waste Land is over 10 years and a nervous breakdown away.  He sighs.  Some day he will meet a girl who will realize “like a patient etherized upon a table” is genius… He lays his glasses on the desk and rubs his eyes…

At the same moment, Ezra Pound, 26, unknown, but getting to know the famous, in London, is writing a letter to his dad, telling him he won’t need to send any money right now; an American, Margaret Lanier Cravens, has promised him an income, but please don’t tell mother about this. Pound is thankful Hilda—a  prof’s daughter who he met in school, and who refused his marriage proposal a few years ago—and her new English boyfriend Dick, soon to be his roommates, are buying into his Imagism scheme, in which Japanese haiku is the basis for a “new” Western approach to poetry—brilliant!  He rises from his desk and shadow boxes for a moment…

William Carlos Williams, 28, is checking his inventory of tongue depressors in his new home doctor’s office in Rutherford, New Jersey.  He’s thinking seriously of courting the younger sister of the woman who refuses to marry him.  He will marry her next year. His first book of poems is 10 years away.  He looks at the clock on the wall…

Modern life was stirring. 

Poems on electricity were being written. 

“Ode To A  Light Bulb” was circulating among friends, brightening their lives.

William Carlos Williams walked into a jazz club and pointed to his poems: “Look, fellas!  Jazz!”  They threw him out.

William Carlos Williams ran into the street, stopped the first person he met, and pointed to his poems: “Hey, pal, look at my poems! Aint this just the way people talk?” The guy looked at the scribblings on the page, with lots of white spaces.  Then he looked at Williams.  Then back at the page.  Then he looked at Williams, again.  Then he said in his best American idiom: “You is crazy.”

Despondent, Williams phoned up his friend, Ezra Pound. “Don’t worry, Bill,” Pound said.  “We are going to make enough noise and eventually we’ll be taught in college.  I know people. Lewis, Yeats, Ford will help. I’m meeting people every day. Great poetry is  hard to write.  Mad poetry will be fashionable, soon.  Don’t you worry.”

And the clocks began to chime and it was the modern time and all the rain in the street began to rain.

And the women came and went.

THE DAY THE POETRY DIED: TOP TEN DOCUMENTS OF 20th CENTURY MODERNISM

John Ashbery, looking like a funy old Englishman—the last living heir of the Mad Hatter madness known as Modernism

1. Reflections on Verse Libre, 1916

This is where the camel got his nose in the tent.  Eliot’s questionable logic about what poetry is slips past the Gates.

2. Understanding Poetry, eds. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, 1938 (first edition)

The Great Consolidation: the textbook which greeted the GI Bill/Baby Boomer post-war university influx.   Modernist footsoldiers, the New Critics, praise Williams and Pound, bash Poe.

3. The Waste Land, 1922

Publishing scheme launched by Pound & Eliot’s crafty lawyer and Golden Dawn/Aleister Crowley associate & British Intelligence agent, John Quinn.

4. Criticism, Inc., 1938

Essay by John Crowe Ransom launched the idea that Critics in journalism are worthless and must be trained to understand the ‘new writing’ in the universities. It is the New Critcs—the ‘Rhodes Scholar’ American wing of European Modernism—who begin the Creative Writing Program Era in American universites where contemporary poets essentially teach (canonize) themselves.

5. From Poe to Valery by T.S. Eliot, 1949

T.S. Eliot, honoring the memory of his New England, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist grandfather, William Greenleaf, caps off the Long March of Crazy-ism through American Letters, as Eliot, fresh off Nobel Prize Win, delivers a withering attack on Poe, the old enemy of William Greenleaf Eliot’s associate, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

6. How To Read by Ezra Pound,  1929

Leading Crazy-ite Modernist suggests syllabus of Homer, Confucius, Dante, and 19th century French authors for the English-speaking undergraduate student.

7. Poets Without Laurels by John  Crowe Ransom, 1938

 In this brilliant essay, influential New Critic (mentor to Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell) introduces Wallace Stevens to the world, champions Allen Tate, and declares Byron hopelessly old-fashioned in Modernist mop-up operation.

8. North of Boston by Robert Frost, 1915

When Amy Lowell confronted Ezra Pound and cohort Ford Madox Ford (who later meets Allen Tate and teaches in America) in their famous Imagiste contretemps in London in 1914, Frost, also in town, stood aloof, his future success as the New England Wordsworth already in the bag. 

9. The (Pisan) Cantos by Ezra Pound,  1948

A mish-mash by a madman is lauded by New Critics on the award committees after the U.S. arrests the head Modernist honcho for treason.

10. Some Trees by John Ashbery, 1956

T.S. Eliot’s friend, W.H. Auden, part of the Isherwood/Huxley ‘British invasion,’ passes the American academic torch as Yale Younger Poet Prize judge to ‘poetry about nothing,’ in a culmination of a Modernist Take-over of American poetry by a select group of academically-connected friends.

IN FINESSE OF FIDDLES FOUND I ECSTACY! ‘REFLECTIONS ON VERS LIBRE’

Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”  

What was good verse? 

That was easy. 

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing. 

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple. 

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?  

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.” 

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?  

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.” 

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker. 

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway? 

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.

A POEM IN HONOR OF WILLIAM LOGAN’S UPCOMING APPEARANCE AT THE SEWANEE WRITER’S CONFERENCE

The haunting image of Allen Tate—who is buried at Sewanee

SEWANEE

Though his poems today don’t rate,
You may see the ghost of Allen Tate,
Staring at you, with a muddy smile!
Speak Ransom’s ‘Amphibious Crocodile,’
To scare him—and if you’re still shaking,
Recite at the top of your voice, ‘Janet Waking.’
But if Pound should come around,
Begin your leave-taking.

The Southern Agrarians
Were exquisite contrarians
But Ezra Pound
Laughs underground,
Drifting through Sewanee, drifting through Sewanee.

And Edgar Allan Poe?
You don’t want to know
How Matthiessen tied him up
So long ago,
And Eliot killed him
With spear and bow.

—Scarriet Editors

JANET WAKING

Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother.
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, old Chucky!” she cried,
Running across the world upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

—John Crowe Ransom

DON SHARE OF POETRY CLAIMS NOVELIST THREATENED HIM

Don Share: How important is the middle man?

There it is, that terrifying anecdote, right at the beginning of the recent, much-reprinted Chicago Tribune spread piece on the recently Ruth Lilly-enriched Poetry magazine:

Poetry makes nothing happen.
So said W.H. Auden. Who never lived in Chicago. Or knew Don Share. Share is the senior editor of Poetry magazine, the venerable Chicago-based literary institution. It turns 100 next year, and has seen far more than nothing happen, particularly in the past decade. Share arrived at the magazine four years ago, hired away from Harvard University, where he was poetry editor of Harvard Review. Soon after arriving, he received what he calls a “threatening  phone call.”
It came from a famous novelist whose name he won’t say, but the message to Share was this: You really don’t want to find yourself alone in the same room with me. “He couldn’t believe we rejected his poems,” Share said of the man. “When you work in poetry all day, it’s internal. People get shaken. I was shaken.”

This is a remarkable story—if true: a “famous novelist” feeling the need to threaten Don Share for not publishing his (the “famous novelist’s”) poems in a wee magazine?   Every prestigious magazine publishes “famous” authors—that’s why they’re prestigious magazines.  It’s hard to believe the “famous novelist” felt so terribly left out.  The refusal to publish someone in Poetry magazine simply does not hold enough weight to generate anything but trivial ill-temper; it strains credulity to think Don Share was genuinely “shaken.”  Was Share afraid of getting beaten up by John Updike?  Or whomever it might have been?

But far beyond these vicissitudes lies the chief oddity: Poetry magazine has a well-funded on-line presence, Harriet: The Blog, which allowed the public to talk on-line—until the editors at Poetry stopped that practice dead-in-the-water over a year ago.

Don Share used to joyfully take part in the Harriet public conversations—though once he sulked at a literary comment I made.

But here’s the point: that “famous  novelist” four years ago could have posted his poem right on Harriet, and readers could have made up their own minds on the spot.  Readers could have read the “famous novelist’s” poem and made public their praise, or displeasure.

Poems and debates about poems once could make a public appearance on Harriet, though Harriet moderators (and some of the readers, as well) were always testy about “staying on topic;” for some reason intelligent people adlibbing, digressing, and simply expressing themselves on the spur of the moment, was “threatening” to some—and certainly to the Harriet editors.

Why?  Because editors want that wall between them and their readers.  They want Poetry to be a magazine of their choices.

The process is: poet writes poem, reader reads poem.

Poetry magazine wants to decide which poems the reader gets to read.

But today, who needs this filter?

The editor, obviously, who wants the prestige—the middle man’s feather-in-the-cap.

I can decide whether you get published in Poetry magazine, or not.

Well! Good for you!

This is why, when Harriet: The Blog was a public blog,  there was always an uneasy feeling about it, why the moderator/editors were always full of anxiety: because editors don’t like it when the wall dissolves and  prestige (that intangible thing) crumbles.

Poetry magazine, then, is nothing more than the poems which some particular person (Don Share, or Christian Wiman) happens to have picked out.  This is its prestige.  This is where its prestige begins and ends, with the tastes and prejudices and minds of certain gentlemen who are good poets themselves—or not.  We have nothing against Share or Wiman’s taste, necessarily.  We’re just putting things in perspective.

The credulous fall into vapid worship of empty prestige.  The Tribune article, for instance, goes on to say:

Poetry magazine started in Chicago in 1912, and during the ensuing century, the magazine’s history and the history of American poetry were joined at the hip. It published an unknown T.S. Eliot, gave early support to Langston Hughes, discovered Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks.

This is nothing but banal untruth: Ezra Pound discovered Eliot, not Poetry. Pound published, as Poetry’s London editor, Eliot’s undergraduate poem, “Prufrock.”  “The Waste Land,” however, was published in The Dial.  Eliot’s prep school friend, Scofield Thayer ran that magazine; Pound worked out a “Waste Land” deal with the lawyer, John Quinn, promising Eliot the 1922 Dial Prize—worth a thousand dollars, equal to Eliot’s yearly salary at Lloyd’s—before Pound had even finished the edits on the poem.  Poetry, a little magazine with a small readership, could not possibly compete with Pound’s well-connected PR machine, which put Eliot on the map.  Langston Hughes, first published by the NAACP, and made famous by anti-U.S. trips to the Soviet Union, and his politics, did not require any “support” from Poetry to further his career, and similarly, Wallace Stevens, who studied with Santayana and William James at Harvard, and was part of Yvor Winters and Hart Crane’s 1920s Pound/Eliot/Tate circle, did not require any “discovering” by Poetry, which happened to publish a few of his poems—on behalf of Stevens’ own connections.  The Egoist, The Dial, Ford’s Transatlantic Review,  The Little Review, The Nation, and finally, Ransom’s Kenyon Review, which appeared in 1939—there were many alternatives to the modest Poetry, in the 20th century.  With the dawn of the Writing Program era in the 1940s, there were thousands of small journals publishing poetry. Poetry was simply one of many.  Careers were not made by Poetry magazine. Not to mention that  poets like Edna Millay and Frost sold books—they hardly needed magazines.

Poetry has longevity, true.

But now that Poetry has money, must we feel obligated to inflate its importance in history?

Isn’t that the last thing the art of poetry needs right now?  Vacuous, historically ignorant, puffing?

IS THE REAL MUSE DAME HISTORY?

Surely the greatest obstacle facing the poet is the sad duality of sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates creeping beneath the loud behemoths of brain-dead entertainment.

This duality exists only because we all feel it to be true, and by “we,” I refer to the sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates who would be the only ones reading this now—but even you who read this, guiltily spend much of your time with ‘brain-dead entertainment;’ so the duality to which I refer is knowable in its entirety at once, not only by you, but by everyone who wakes in the dark with hopes and fears, after the loud behemoth of brain-dead entertainment has faded—and mouse, owl or the muttering of some human wretch left on the street, is all that is left to impress the quiet ear.

We feel this duality to be true, but it is really not.  The entertainment industry is not “brain-dead” and the sub-cultures of poetry are not “sophisticated.”  This is how we have been taught to perceive it.

But let’s take a hard look and examine the differences.

If morals are lacking in the entertainment industry, we can say the same of the sub-culture of sophisticates: Rimbaud and Ezra Pound are not known for their morals.  One does not become an avant-garde artist because one has a pure heart.

But wait—if we leave morals out as a factor, doesn’t the whole truism of  this duality: ‘stupid popular’ v. ‘smart sub-culture’ fall apart?   For only in the realm of morals can one human activity be placed above another with any sort of sophisticated judgment.

The popular modes of entertainment are effective, not “stupid.”

The sub-culture of the avant-garde is isolated, not “smart.”

Art that has a wide appeal can be censored by sophisticates only if there is a moral issue; otherwise we are thrown back onto questions of individual taste.  If wide appeal is said to lack intelligence, the mavens of the popular can always reply that it is not intelligent to be intelligent when one does not have to be intelligent, that is, if mere taste will do.  And once we get into questions of taste, the avant-garde has nothing to say, for it is taste, more than anything which they have always abhorred.

And this doesn’t even take into account that it may take more sophistication or ‘smarts,’ to triumph in the popular arena.  Even if the product itself may consist of smirks, naughty jokes, glitter, and oafish beats, the competition is greater, the public is fickle and demanding, and ancillary issues of lifestyle, production issues, and so forth require a certain amount of sophistication to succeed. How is a found poem or a stream-of-consciousness poem by an avant-garde  poet more sophisticated than a popular song, anyway?—especially when the popular song is making an impact in the real world, and not merely in the mind of a avant theorist?

Another term of excuse the avant-garde sub-cultures use for not being popular is their lack “sentimentality,” but this, too, is a red herring, for popular modes of entertainment and literature—especially in our day—are far more likely to be crudely unsentimental (violent, sexually blatant, etc) than otherwise. 

We are not now making the old argument that high and low culture are really the same, for this non-distinction is as blind as the present duality is wrong.

Another trope worth mentioning in which the avant-garde sub-culture attempts to distinguish itself from popular modes: liberalism.  But again, the avant-garde is not necessarily more liberal than popular culture.  The most obvious point is that popularity is naturally more democratic.  And secondly, elitist sub-cultures of avant-garde artists have never, in practice, been more liberal than popular culture. The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman’s stubborn use of the label Quietism to bash all modes of popular poetry has never made any sense, until now.  The code, here unlocked, is simple: Silliman’s ‘quietism” really refers to the “silent majority,” a political media term from the late 60s which referred to the conservative electorate in the U.S.  Silliman, and most who occupy sub-cultural positions of the artistic avant-garde, wish to think of themselves as a progressive, underground, people’s army.  But isolated elitism isn’t democratic, and the 20th avant-garde is not even close to being democratic, and, in fact, is mostly right-wing.

The reality is the very reverse of the perception, then.  Popular modes of art are more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than the avant-garde.

Billy Collins is more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than Ezra Pound.

But where does Dame History come in?

Dame History steps in because the question of popular v. sophisticated is really true in only one sense: priority.  The sophisticated—who are really sophisticated—know history, and thus know originality, which is the heart of true creativity and imagination.

But two things have conspired to murder Dame History: Modernism, which taught several generations of students that the modern era began in 1910 (it did not—it began with Shakespeare, or, at the very latest, in the 18th century) and the Creative Writing Era, the practical brain-child of Modernism, which replaced emphasis on historical study with “creative” writing.

We have found the Muse—and she is Dame History.

EZRA POUND: ANT WITH A MEGAPHONE

Doolittle: An American, a woman, but pre-Raphaelite look helped.

Billy Mills, in the U.K. Guardian Books Blog, on May 5th, tries to stir up a little excitement for H.D. with “H.D. in London: When Imagism Arrived.”

Billy—who must be a young man—wants us to know that H.D. arriving in London (London!) and Pound (Pound!) crowning her “Imagiste” (Imagiste!) was a very significant event for Imagism, for Modernism and for Letters:

I have always felt that the appearance of the first Imagist poems in the years just before the first world war was an event as significant in its way as the publication, in 1798, of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.

Note the implied significance of “the first world war,” which had not occured yet.  In these commentaries on Imagism, there is never any mention of the stunning Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, a large-scale contest, which ushered in a haiku rage in the West—which had already gone bonkers over Japanese art for years, at that point.

Billy, however, repeats the same drab, Pound-centered facts. The whole magnificent story is quickly told:

One hundred years ago this May, a young Pennsylvanian woman called Hilda Doolittle arrived in London. …She had come to meet her one-time fiancé, Ezra Pound, who had made the same journey a couple of years earlier. Before long, she was to encounter her soon-to-be husband Richard Aldington, another poet. Whatever the personal entanglements involved – and there were many – it was a voyage that helped instigate one of the most influential poetic movements of the 20th century.

Since his arrival in London, Pound had been one of a group of young poets who met regularly in the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho to discuss, among other things, their impatience with their poetic elders, vers libre, Japanese verse forms and the role of the Image in poetry. In his role as London correspondent for Harriet Monroe’s Poetry. Pound was looking for poems he could recommend for publication that exemplified these discussions, but nothing, as yet, had seemed quite right.

He had also taken to meeting regularly with Aldington and Doolittle to discuss their poems. At one such meeting he surprised his two friends by announcing that they were Imagistes (the French form of the name was later dropped for Imagist) and selecting six of their poems to send to Monroe.  As a final flourish, Pound insisted that they bear the signature HD, Imagiste. All six poems eventually appeared in Monroe’s magazine, and Imagism was launched on an unsuspecting world.

“Japanese verse forms.”  Yea, about those.  That was imagism.

Mrs. Monroe publishing Mrs. Doolittle in her little magazine did not “launch Imagism on an unsuspecting world.”

Billy is gratuitously repeating p.r. first churned out by the Pound Clique, and now dutifully repeated by every Billy in London, and every Billy at Harvard University.

Billy needs to read about Yone Noguchi in one of Scarriet’s old posts.

It’s also charming the way Richard Aldington is mentioned as “another poet.” Aldington was an WW I officer and part of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist group—which Pound quickly joined on his arrival in London—that was fanatically pro-war.  If there was anything Poundian that was “launched on an unsuspecting world,” it had much more to do with fascist war-mongering.

Richard Aldington also published a major poetry anthology with Viking Press in the early 40s, which featured a great deal of his then ex-wife’s poetry, as well as a couple of poems by Pound and one rhyming poem by WC Williams.  The anthology’s introduction doesn’t mention Pound, or Imagism, and the large anthology shows no influence from it, either. If the writer who was right in the thick of the Imagiste movement is not influenced by it, one wonders how signifcant Pound’s Imagism really was.

We shouldn’t be surprised by Billy’s personal anecdote then:

I first began to suspect that things weren’t quite right in the world of bookselling one day about a decade ago. I strolled into one of Dublin’s finest long-established independent bookshops and asked the assistant who was positioned closest to the poetry section whether they had in stock, or could order, any books by the American poet HD. The response was instant and, for me at least, decisive: “How do you spell that?” I left.

Billy: things “are not quite right” in ways you only dimly understand.

It’s not enough that Americans continually exaggerate the importance of Pound—the ant with a megaphone—for the Brits are obviously doing their part, all pumped up with pride because Pound and H.D. launched their Imagism from London.

Poe kicked the Brits’ asses when they were openly smug and abusive towards American Letters, but the condescending attitude still remains (and with some justification, given how the Americans have treated Poe and grovel before the opinions of Oxford and Cambridge).

Much of American Modernism has its roots in London: Pound, T.S. Eliot, the New Critics, including Paul Engle, who all studied in Britain with their Rhodes Scholarships.  Britain helps keep the ignorance afloat, with narrow tales such as this, by young Billy, in the Guardian.

WHO ARE YOU?

 

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”  

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.  

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

QUANTUM POETRY

Shelley: He studied Greek.  We study to not be like him.

All poems have plain structures and superstructures. The plain structure is the repeating process of the poem’s sound.Repetition is the essence of all movement, whether it is a series of numbers, putting one foot in front of the other in the act of running or walking, the rotation of wheels, orbits, revolutions, or the reflection of the tree in the lake.

Poems do not move if they do not repeat; the plain structure makes the movement interesting or pleasurable, and on the plain level these two terms are interchangable.

Any series of words repeat and move; the meaning of the words create the superstructure. A series of zeros has a plain structure but no superstructure, and yet a series of zeros has meaning in mathematics. Repetition itself is meaningful. A series of zeros mistaken for ‘ohs’ has sound.

Nothing repeated is something.

Repetition is meaningful, since it is meaningful to repeat something three times rather than twice. Shelley and Emerson have both pointed out that a word can be poetry and this is because of repetition, since repeating letters create a word, a one-letter word such as “O” is automatically repeated as a sound, a single word repeats meanings etymologically, and so on.

Since language has its very essence from repetition, how does a poem emerge out of language, since language is already poetry?

The answer to this question is contained in the word emerge; since a poem cannot emerge out of language, the only way it can be a poem is if it is a poem before it is language. The poem must appeal to an advanced sensibility. The primitive essence, repetition, belongs to language first, so traveling in that direction (toward the primitive) will not help.

The only way to find the poem is to ask how we escape language.

How can the poem repeat in a non-linguistic manner?  How can it beat its divine drum? The answer is: rhythm.

The poem must have rhythm, since rhythm transcends mere repetition. Nature prefers simple repetition. The sun does not dance in the sky, a runner does not dance; if we saw the sun moving in a herky-jerky manner, we would know something was terribly wrong; a dancing runner wastes energy; dancing is not running.

The sun and planets do dance, but only when observed over great time and distance. The discovery that planetary orbits were not round but stretched out and Kepler’s guess at the reason is how the dance of the cosmos is observed, or when a certain chess-piece arrangement is played forward and backward in a patterned unfolding of a particular game in a player’s mind; in these examples we see how recurrance escapes itself, we see how a poem might escape its linguistic chains. The essence of language must give way to something higher even as it remains present as what it is.

How we distinguish poem from language determines what kind of poet and critic we are, and here we note the difference between poet and critic: the poet must find the difference between language and poem—the critic the difference between one poem and another. The poet works vertically, the critic, horizontally;  ideally, both work in both directions.

To speak even more broadly, Man’s comic/tragic life can be defined as a series of exceptions to nature.  We are not nature, but exceptions to it. Primitive nature, the more observed, surprises us, as it becomes more like the human, filled with exceptions to itself—and here is the essence of theology and science.

The first critics of poetry observed grammar. Students learned Greek or Latin grammar and poetry together, which seem tedious to creative writing students today, but there was a method to that madness; grammar, with its numerous exceptions, was how linguistics first escaped from its primitive repeating structure into reasoning speech. ‘Repeat here, but not here’ is how repetition itself is first transcended. Punctuation was the first wall poets built. Ancient critics and students slaved, while the glory was reserved for Homer, who covered their walls with dream.  The poet’s transcendental dreaming was directly proportional to grammatical labor on the critic/student’s part. 

The moderns have managed to reverse this process: critics don’t study grammar, but different tastes in different eras, and meanwhile the students study to be poets in the ‘new way,’ and this ‘way’ (conformist, even as it advertises itself as non-conformist) seeks to transcend not language, but grammar.

Quantum physics observes the universality of measures like mass, but also its exceptions—your weight on Mars is different from your weight on earth.

The moderns lost interest in universals; they chiefly observed differences of place and time, like weights on different planets:

Ezra Pound: “the 19th century is mannered and sentimentalistic…”

T.S. Eliot: “But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century and continued.”

John Crowe Ransom: “the modern poet could accomplish just as elegant a rumination [of Byron] but knows this would commit him to an anachronism…”

What is the quantum of poetry?

We are still discovering it.

Your move.

SENTIMENTALISTIC: HOW MODERNS MADE SENTIMENTAL A BAD THING

The fascist, anti-Semite Pound: Born in the 19th century, he made sure the 20th was not sentimental.

Did the whole edifice of popular poetry come crashing down in the 20th century because of one word?

Sentimental is everything the Moderns and neo-Moderns despise.  It refers to the mawkish, the muddled, the old-fashioned, the old.  It is “Official Verse Culture.”  It is “Quietism.”  It is Edgar Guest.  It is Billy Collins. It is everything every self-respecting academic poet wishes to avoid.  Better to be hopelessly obscure—like John Ashbery—than be sentimental.

Sentimental is the kiss of death.

But sentimental is also a word that implies so much that is good, so much that has been trampled on in the Modernist stampede: beauty, refinement, deep feeling, sensitivity, openness, curiosity, reflectiveness, even genius evinced by Romantic and Victorian poets—and countless poets of previous eras.

A peek into the OED tells a fascinating story.

Not long ago, sentimental did mean all those things.  It was not a pejorative, but the highest praise one could give to another.

No wonder we were always confused by the terms of Schiller’s great study, Uber Naive und Sentimentalsche Dichtung, On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795), an important work more Wordsworth than Wordsworth, more Coleridge than Coleridge—and appearing before Lyrical Ballads.  Today sentimentality is equated with naivety, but in Schiller’s work, and in the Romantic era, and well into the 19th century, these terms were opposites.

The  meaning of sentimental changed gradually throughout the 19th century and really only came into its current usage during the Pound era.

“As for the nineteenth century,‥I think we shall look back upon it as‥a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of a period.”  –Ezra Pound, 1912

Sentimentalistic? 

Yes, it’s in the OED.  Pound did not make it up. 

There can only be one reason why Pound, the modernist, in attacking the 19th century, used ‘sentimentalisitic:’ sentimental still had some good  meaning left in it, and Pound did not want to be misunderstood.  Pound, like his partner in Crime, Eliot, hated the sentiment and beauty of the 19th century—the Romantics.

It seems the change began with Rousseau, the first Liberal, who began attacking the “sentimental classes,” those with refined feelings—in other words, the rich.

The tragic fall of sentimental was a gradual Leftist assault on a word rich with positive and complex meaning, and the Pound clique, though mainly fascist and right-wing, was all too happy to continue the assault on a word that had very recently denoted refinement, feeling, and beauty. As we all know, in the 20th century, the far left and the far right eventually meet: Futurists, Fascists, Communists, and Modernists were all happy to destroy the 19th century meaning of sentimental.

Killers of sentiment and beauty, whether it be the anti-poet WC Williams or his colleague, Pound, don’t finally care what side of the political spectrum they are on.

Sentimentalistic, indeed.

WHERE IS DRACULA’S CASTLE?

William Butler Yeats: a distinguished member of the Ascendancy

Oscar Wilde, who did two years’ hard labor for sodomy—in a land where it was common—married a beautiful woman whom he loved, and had two beautiful children.  Before marrying Constance, Wilde courted Florence, (unsuccessfully) an even more beautiful woman—who had one child with her husband, Bram Stoker, an Irish theater manager for the prominent Shakespearean actor, Henry IrvingStoker was mild in his politics, a ‘home rule’ Irishman, a loyal servant to his ‘master,’ Irving, and, of course, most famously, the author of Dracula. Irving, the eccentric, melodramatic, charismatic actor, brought new respectability to the profession when he was knighted by the Queen of the Empire, Victoria, in 1895, the same day, as it happened, that Oscar Wilde with two successful plays running in London, was sentenced for the crime of buggery, to never see his children, forever persona non grata to the Empire, fleeing to France to become a beggar, following his prison term in sack-cloth breaking rocks, dying in 1900 at the age of 46.  Oscar Wilde’s mother was a poet and a proud, outspoken Irish Nationalist—Lady Jane Wilde was a leader of the Irish Literary Revival well before Yeats/Gregory created the British stereotypical myth of the Irish as an unchanging, eternal peasantry of savages and fairies, but Wildes‘ mother, Lady Jane was destroyed and thrown into poverty by scandal, like her son, and her work buried and forgotten. 

The producer of Dracula as a play on Broadway was also the publisher of soon-to-be-Empire-citizen T.S. Eliot’s morbid The Waste Land in 1922, the year the German film Nosferatu was made, and subsequently sued successfully (and all copies ordered destroyed) by Florence, Bram Stoker’s widow.

A little over 100 years ago, when the anti-Semite writers T.S. Eliot and John Gould Fletcher were undergraduates at Harvard, (Fletcher’s future: Imagist in Pound’s circle, then Southern Agrarian in Ransom’s, Eliot’s: British citizenship, Modernist Godfather) the anti-semite Ezra Pound, a few years older than Eliot, and too naughty and ambitious for serious academic study, but somehow able to appear more well-read than anybody, went looking for Dracula’s castle.

Pound went to Europe to find eternal fame—the respectable route of moral literature (either Poe’s brand: scientific—a spoofer of magic, or Whitman’s: sentimental comradeship) didn’t interest Pound, who wanted real witchcraft, real magic. The fix Pound wanted was in Britian, the heart of the world’s greatest Empire, moral in deeply contradictory ways, murderer of Oscar Wilde, royally smug, ruler of Ireland and India, hater of cousin Hun, wary of America, proud, smart, prejudiced, and strong, this Island empire, and since they ruled ancient and exotic lands, why study these places? Pound went to the England that owned these places; those-in-the-know knew what England was: royal above, monstrous below.

Pound was bit by the occultist William Butler YeatsPound was Yeats’ secretary and married one of Yeats’ ex-lovers. Pound was introduced to John Quinn, the modern art collector and lawyer, who would become Pound and Eliot’s attorney, and help negotiate the special publishing deal for the The Waste Land. Quinn, an Irishman, was also, like Yeats, a double agent for the Empire, working against Irish independence; Yeats‘  target was Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. Quinn’s associate in British intelligence was Alesiter Crowley. Pound met all of Yeats’ associates in the Order of the Golden Dawn. Pound quickly became a chief vampire himself, bankrolled, as Eliot would be, by titled ladies, and so they all flocked to Pound: Joyce, (a Parnel-ite, like Yeats), the Futurists, the Cubists, the drug-addicted poets whom Pound (always the helpful Pound) helped with drugs, the underground avant-garde, the royal, the decadent, the idle, bored, landed rich, the sort that exported wheat during the Irish Famine.

Ford Madox Ford, seven years younger than Yeats and 12 years older than Pound, Imagist poet and War Propaganda Minister for the sacrificial slaughter of young men which would begin in 1914, met young Pound off the boat and showed him the way to Dracula’s castle.

Where, today, could a highly ambitious poet find Dracula’s castle? Where, today, can one sell one’s soul so convincingly? Where are figures like Yeats and Symons and Kipling, all born in 1865 and admired so much by T.SEliot, a proud member of the Kipling Society?  Pound was Yeats’ servant, and Eliot called Yeats “the greatest poet of the 20th century.” Yeats?  Who wrote lines such as:

We who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told:

After all the talk of “new” has died down, one should simply sit down and read the poetry of (in order of birth) Santayana, Yeats, Symons, Kipling, Dowson, Masters, Robinson, Binyon, Davies, Belloc, Douglas, Mew, Crane, Hodgson, Ford, De La Mare, Chesterton, Lowell, Frost, Masefield, Thomas, Sandburg, Monro, Stevens, Joyce, Wickham, Hulme, Lawrence, Pound, Sassoon, Doolittle, Jeffers, Wylie, E. Sitwell, Moore, Brooke, Seeger, Ransom, Eliot, Aiken, MacLeish, Millay, Owen, Huxley, Van Doren, Cummings, Graves, Blunden, Davison, Benet, Crane, Tate, S. Sitwell, Campbell, Lewis, Auden, MacNeice, Spender, Thomas, and Schwartz, and see how silly the whole Modernist claim to the “new” really is. Wallace Stevens sounds like the Sitwells. T.S. Eliot sounds like a petulant and subdued Byron. Pound sounds like an unmarried Victorian.

No, it wasn’t the “new” that Pound was looking for when he stopped off the boat in England.

He was looking for the very, very, very old. 

“Thousands of years, if all were told.”

WALT WHITMAN, VICTORIAN

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most Victorian of authors, the very opposite of a modernist or imagist.  His poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for instance:

Darest Thou Now O Soul

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

That we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O  joy, O  fruit of all) them to fulfill O soul.

In Whitman’s poem rhetoric is far more important than image, and the manner and the subject are utterly Victorian, and not in the least modern.  Whitman travels solo, an American vagabond, cut loose from all, and yet his yearning to connect within his profound disconnectedness is what gives him his signature attitude and emotion.

Let us look at another classic Victorian poem, this one by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), born within weeks of Whitman, but in England, and so much more connected to life than Whitman:

When All the World… (from The Water Babies)

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Now both of these poems are highly expressive and highly emotional; but Whitman’s poem is free of the world and without image of the world; Whitman is completely taken with “O Soul,” but Kingsley is immersed in “the world” and images of “the world” and memories and lessons of “the world,” dragging in trees and swans and lasses; Kingsley is grasping the world with all his might, while Whitman has let go; Whitman is transparent, invisible except for a rhetorical gesture, a desire, a wish, an expression only, an urge. 

Whitman is a Victorian looking backwards at Shelley; Kingsley is a Victorian looking forward to Yeats and 20th century Symbolism and Imagism. 

Kingsley was an early supporter of Darwin’s ideas; no “O Soul” for Kingsley; that’s more for the more sentimental Victorian, Whitman.

Here again is Whitman, and again we see the Victorian morality, the sermon, the speech, the gesture, without any need to be in the world, as such; the world is insignificant, the world is gone, and for Whitman only a  moral and mystical intuition remains:

To A Common Prostitute

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.

One thinks, of course, of Christ’s forgiveness, the instant understanding that washes away sin, for we all are sinners, all “lusty as Nature,” as Whitman says he is, and therefore as the sun shines on all, so the sun shines on this “common prostitute” and then Whitman implies he is going to come to her after she makes ready and it is intentionally ambiguous what he is going to do: rape her as a Zeus-like figure disguised, or give her wise counsel; as usual with the Victorian Whitman what is clear is the emotional wallop; he is morally equal with her and placid, but at the same time he is morally superior and even morally inferior because he wishes her to remember him almost as if he were a common wooer of her; it is a miraculous attitude as Whitman manages to be Pagan god, Old Testament father, New Testament Christ, and humble lover towards his “girl” all at once—here is the truly protean Whitman able to be/say everything by dint of his complete loving detachment. 

A human being cannot do this, only poetry can.

For the modernists, poetry will become an irony as it reaches what is apparently its limit; the dream of Shelley has invaded all aspects of life, the past, the present, the future; a pagan statue bathed in the holy light of Christ now become the mind of the poet itself and the poem literally bursts with too much soul and what is left is the hard fragments of the imagists or the elusive ironies of the moderns.

The hard ground of common-sense, which Victorian poets like Charles Kingsley walked upon, was rejected by the new poets of the 20th century; but for some reason Whitman, who represented a Romantic/Victorian end, and we can clearly see the ‘traveled as far as one can go’ in Whitman’s prostitute poem—for some reason, Whitman, the culmination of the Romantic/Victorian line, was welcomed by the moderns as a beginning, and, after some initial reluctance, hailed as a true modern.

Why?  Because Whitman used dramatic speech, unencumbered by strict meters? 

Were the moderns simply unable to write good free verse themselves (free verse being one of the modern tenets) and so Whitman, though born in 1819, had to be borrowed, so to speak, for a 20th century job? 

This may be part of it; remember, the chief poet of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, achieved his best results sliding back into retro-meters, and Pound just couldn’t pull off free verse interest like Whitman could. 

OK, Walt, you’re hired. 

But this was a deal with the devil, because you can’t give a Victorian a job in the Modernist factory, and finally the work that had to be done did not get done; ghosts cannot run a modern firm.  Think, too, of another keen modernist theorist: John Crowe Ransom—another rhyming throw-back.  Or Cummings, a Victorian love-poet if there ever was one.  Auden?  A balladeer?  He wasn’t modern enough, either. 

20th century painting looked so different from 19th century painting.  But poetry, trying so hard to be modern, either jingled too much in a 19th century manner, or looked too much like haiku, a form that looked backwards, as well.

This is why Whitman was heavily recruited for awhile, and now we think of him, with Dickinson (b. 1830) as moderns, not Victorians—which is what they are.  This had a tumultuous affect on modernist literature.  No one was supposed to be rhyming, but poets did, so Eliot went for a collage effect, burying his meters in fragments—but this was a deal with the devil, too; you just don’t sacrifice artistic unity out of weakness, and this is what Pound and Eliot did. 

Pound was also unscrupulous in another way; he and his friend Williams wrote haiku—anything to avoid looking Victorian—and re-named their haiku-writing Imagism to pretend they were moderns, doing something new.  But no one was doing anything new: they were re-naming, smashing, and recruiting 19th century poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire) and at the same time pretending they were “new”—so desperate were the would-be ‘moderns’ that previous eras were rejected whole cloth, and this made the problem even worse; sources of inspiration continued to dry up as the new writers self-consciously struck their ‘new’ poses, selectively trashing, breaking, rejecting, and recruiting. 

Luckily for the Modernists, most intellectuals just wanted to join the ‘new’ party, whatever it was, whether it was justified or not; looser morals alone was enough to get people onboard the ‘modernist train,’ and painting was doing a pretty good job of looking ‘modern,’ so if Pound wore a beret and the poets hung out with a few painters, all was fine. 

They just had to be careful not to use terms like “O soul.”

LONDON CALLING: AMY LOWELL AND THE MODERNISTS

Readers of Scarriet know Literary Modernism is essentially a reactionary movement, an “avant-garde” of male-dominated fascism, feudalism, futurism, and blood-primitivism.  This is the chief reason why great female poets like Elinor Wylie, Edna Millay, and Amy Lowell were, and still are, kicked to the curb by the ‘Pound Era’ Dial magazine clique. 

And the shame is that women  today ignorantly go along with Pound’s “revolutionary” agenda, believing the lies of a small, influential, men’s club clique. 

There’s only three female poets one is allowed to really respect: Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne MooreBishop’s mentor and Eliot/ Pound Dial magazine clique-member, and Emily Dickinson from the 19th century.  That’s it.  Gertrude Stein, perhaps, but she was more important as an art collector. All the other ‘great’ poets, like Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence, are men.  (And the only respected female critic in the world, Harvard University’s Men’s Club Modernist apologist, Helen Vendler, agrees.)

If we look at London in the summer of 1914—right before that insane war—and the dinner hosted by Amy Lowell, sister to the president of Harvard, we see a drunken Ezra Pound misbehaving with a bathtub, ridiculing the hostess-poet as, at that precise moment, the Imagistes, as they called themselves, were split in half:

Some of the Imagists stay with Pound, because he gets them published in the only game anywhere, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry.

Some go with Amy Lowell, because of the money and the Lowell name and because she sincerely believes in Imagism (and Japanese prints) and will put her devotees in her popular anthologies—H.DH.D.’s husband, Richard Aldington, John Gould Fletcher (Imagist and Fugitive), and even D.H. Lawrence, Amy Lowell becoming Lawrence’s only American friend.  S. Foster DamonLowell’s official biographer, is one of The Eight Harvard Poets, a collection edited by Stewart Mitchell, also an editor of The Dial and one of many male poets who made a career of absuing and ridiculing  Amy Lowell.

Pound’s trump card at Amy Lowell’s London dinner is Ford Madox Ford, sexist pig, War Propaganda Minister for His Majesty, gentleman, lover of war, and hater of the Hun, and by far the most influential person at that July, 1914 dinner, one of the original Imagistes; Ford, grandson of a pre-Raphaelite, is the first one to meet Pound off the boat when Pound goes abroad in 1907.  

Ford Madox Ford hated Amy Lowell at first sight, and his scorning her in 1914 as a “neutral,” is not insignificant. Pound serving Ford, and later, Mussolini, is no accident; Ford really believed in a world of hereditary aristocracy, dog-eat-dog, ‘who’s side are you on?’, rapacious bigotry, and Pound learned his fascism partly from his relationship with the imperialistic Ford Madox Ford, War Propaganda Minister of the British Empire.

Ernest Hemingway, who met Ford in 1920s Paris, and who was physically repulsed by the monstrous Ford, relates first-hand that Ford saw the world in terms of a strict heirarchy, with English gentlemen at the top of the heap: Henry James was not even good enough to be a gentleman, because he was American, and Pound suffered the same flaw in Ford’s eyes.  Nazis and fascists, such as Pound, were wanna-bes before the Crown of Empire Britain and its bejeweled Euro-cousins; fascists were mere thugs with a love/hate relationship with their blue-eyed masters in London.  Pound, defeated in an Imagist p.r. war by Amy Lowell (she was a far more popular and influential Modernist than Pound in the 20s) ran and hid in Italy, seeking a higher Modern pedigree in Roman fascist primitivism and ‘classical’ hyperbole, trading one type of bombast (his so-called Imagism) for another (his unwieldy Cantos).

Not only was Ford at the center of early Imagism, and an effete, philandering, warmonger English gentleman, but he later traveled to America to network with the cranky, philandering Allen Tate and the reactionary Fugitive/New CriticsTate, with friends John Crowe Ransom, Paul Engle (a Fugitive judge gave Engle his Yale Younger Prize) and Robert Penn Warren, will create the Writing  Program empire, so the Modernist Dial-clique, rejected outright by the public, can find their dreams fulfilled as they slip inside the ‘new writing’ university canon-apparatus.

The Language Poets are a mere continuation of reactionary Modernism—the Imagists sought to strip away and destroy Victorian discursiveness and morality, just as the Language Poets seek the same end in a slightly fancier and more “advanced” theoretical manner.  One can trace Charles Bernstein’s mentors, for instance, right back to WW I era Oxford and  Cambridge.

Imagism was a movement which was popularized not by Pound and his friends, but by the American aristocrat Amy Lowell.  Yet Lowell was still put in her place by the top-dog aristocrat Ford and his despot-on-a-leash Pound. 

Imagism was not original with Ford or Pound.  The stunning Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War made Japanese art suddenly prized among the wealthy and the fashionable; a haiku rage ensued (what a coincidence!) right before the birth of what was re-named Imagism.  Mere prejudice hides the profound Japanese influence, just to give all the glory to Pound’s “theories” (slapdash, mad-scientist manifestos) and his pal William Carlos Williams’ red wheel barrow. 

Reading the commentaries, one would think Pound invented the image and the art of China and Japan himself, such is the ignorance of that whole Amy Lowell-dominated period in American literary history.

The Amy Lowell story is a complicated one, but it’s interesting to note that Lowell was attacked by the same Pound-clique who viciously attacked Edna Millay: men like Ford Madox FordHorace Gregory, the now-forgotten Bollingen Prize winner, and Hugh Kenner, Pound’s adoring admirer and lackey, author of The Pound Era—in that work Kenner condemns Lowell as the “hippopoetess” and treats her shabbily throughout.

It is true that the Imagistes were ridiculed (and justifiably, to some extent) as a group—think of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke’s ‘Spectrist’ literary hoax in 1916, which aimed its satire at the Imagist school: Pound and Lowell were often bruised by the same poker.  Bynner, Harvard ‘o2, and Ficke, with an art dealer father who imported Japanese art in the late 19th century, were both older than Pound, and Pound’s Imagism to these fellows—and many others at Harvard, or in Greenwich Village, or traveling abroad—was narrow, historically short-sighted, and pretentious. 

To 99% of the scholars, poets and artists living during the first part of the 20th century, calling that time “the Pound era” would have seemed nothing but a joke.

It didn’t help Amy Lowell’s reputation to die in 1925 at the age of 51.  Like the premature death of Poe in the previous century, Lowell’s death provided an opening for a certain hyena-and-jackal element to move in and re-write history in their favor.

Amy Lowell championed Frost (who was there in London in 1914, too, keeping a distance from the Imagists; but Lowell helped Frost, anyway) and Lowell championed Keats; she was open to other cultures, dared to live openly with a woman, and smoked cigars, and had an extensive life-long correspondence with D.H. Lawrence, and also was the champion of Imagism, and still going strong in all this at the moment of her death—but upon her demise she was assailed by the Pound-clique (who begged for money to her face, while making snide remarks about her obesity and her ‘not knowing her woman’s place’ behind her back) and her reputation is still falling as we speak.

A theory why Pound’s reputation got a tremendous bump in the 40s: Pound was chosen as a scapegoat/buffer/distraction by an anglo/Harvard/Fugitive-centered literary establishment with its own closet rightwing (even Nazi) sympathy.  Giving Pound, the bigot, a Bollingen Prize was a smokescreen, and was done less for Pound than (secretly) for them.

It was, in fact, the Bollingen prize-receiving members of the Pound-clique who abused Edna Millay and Amy Lowell, and as Lowell is forgotten, so is Keats a little more forgotten (the Pound/Eliot Modernists are notorious Romanticism-haters) as, meanwhile, the Pound-Modernist clique men’s club grows apace in reputation.

The shake-up, when Pound is no longer useful, will happen, sooner or later; dedicated historicism, distanced enough from the era, at last, will investigate and clear up the matter; the reader may see this Scarriet defense of Amy Lowell as a preliminary writing on the wall.

And Imagism, what was it, finally? 

Oh, nothing, really.  The image was nothing new in poetry.  Nothing new at all. 

Just as there was nothing new about painters influencing the New York School. 

E.E. Cummings, one of the Eight Harvard Poets, and also part of the Dial clique, having married the publisher’s wife, was a respected abstract painter—many people forget that, and they said back  then that Cummings’ white spaces in his poetry were due to the fact that he was a painter. 

It might be a great selling point for a manifesto styled for an up-and-coming avant-garde academic. 

But meaningless, really.

SEVEN TYPES OF AM-BEARD-GUITY

John Gallaher’s look at D.H. Tracy’s “Six Types of Clarity,” a thoughtful tribute to William  Empson’s “Seven  Types of  Ambiguity,” gnaws at the paradox which says since no perfect clarity is possible, clarity, as a quality, is more ambiguous than ambiguity—since ambiguity, by its very nature, happily concedes imperfection.   This is all well and good, but we wonder how profitable it is to search for clarity on these terms. 

Poetry doesn’t need to be difficult, and to be intentionally difficult is to, well, be an ass.  Perhaps this is so obvious that it gets overlooked.  If we do strive for ambiguity in Letters, we do so…why?  

The pleasurable indefiniteness of a haunting melody and the poorly written essay by the college freshman: both ambiguous—one is genius, the other its opposite.  But again, with all the hazy and difficult challenges faced by us every day, why is it necessary in poetry, why would it ever be necessary, or desirable, in poetry, or in philosophy or in Letters, to seek out the ambiguous?  

This is not to say that expression does not naturally and constantly fall into ambiguity on its own all the time—just ask that college freshman (whose parents are in debt for the first year’s tutition alone) attempting and failing to write a coherent sentence.  But why should poets seek ambiguity? 

Poets don’t write for themselves; if they are good, if they are clear, they write for their nation, for their people, for all people (if they are truly exceptional) and that means they support that general communicative process which helps everyone be more creative, more imaginative, more refined, more competent, and more skilled at communicating with that language that binds us all. 

The poet is not a scientist working in an isolated laboratory; the poet is the one who makes language attractive to everybody and so increases both the quantity and the quality of literacy in society.  Willed obscurity and ambiguity relinquishes this responsibility for a selfish idea of an ‘individual vision,’ which is nothing more than a failure to connect with others.  The crass bestseller is not bested with wooly ambiguity.  The junky bestseller should be answered with a bestseller not junky or crass.

T.S. Eliot said poetry was a “mug’s game.”  But these sorts of remarks, like “poetry makes nothing happen,” are finally not true.  They are self-pitying and defeatist; they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Leaving aside philosophical analysis for a moment, let’s put a face (or mug) on the whole “Ambiguity” question. 

Speaking of Eliot, he and his High Modernism friends were infamous for disliking the Romantics. 

As Pre-Raphaelite Art critic John Ruskin leapt over the marvelous Renaissance to find a new appreciation of the Middle Ages and its Gothic art, so T.S. Eliot traveled back in time to champion poetry considered dated and quaint; the Metaphysical Poets were named such by Samuel Johnson and the term stuck; we see Poe, as unmoved by these poets as Johnson was, referring to them as the Metaphysicals almost 100 years later; Poe, then America’s leading critic, pointed out how Coleridge was actually more “metaphysical” than the Metaphysical poets.

But T.S. Eliot, with Ezra Pound and the gang known as the New Critics— mostly out of Vanderbilt and trained at Oxford, managed to make the Romantics largely irrelevant as the poetry of ambiguity rushed in to take its place.

Now here is the author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” William Empson, in his own words, from the preface to the second edition of that book:

“The method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of the book, but there were two cross-currents  in my mind leading away from it.  At that time Mr. T.S. Eliot’s criticism in particular, and the Zeitgeist in general were calling for a reconsideration of the claims of the 19th century poets so as to get them into perspective with the newly discovered merits of Donne, Marvell and Dryden.”

Of course this is just silly.  Empson limps after Eliot’s hatred of imaginative writers like Shelley and Poe and Byron with the absurd claim that  it is necessary to understand Byron by reading him through the lens of Donne.  Not to mention that this lumps all 19th century poets together.  And why does “discovering” Donne mean we have to, like all the Modernists and New Critics, dislike Byron?  What is 20th century about Donne, and why must Donne be reconciled with Byron somehow, as we kill Byron, anyway? 

We mentioned Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite.  Ford Madox Ford was important cog in Pound and Eliot’s  Ambiguity-machine which reproduced itself in every English Department by the 1970s.  Ford’s grandfather was a Pre-Raphaelite painter.  The British have never cared for American Letters, and Pound and Eliot are still the biggest names in American poetry in over 100 years now, because they left America and became European.  The reputations of Emerson, Whitman, Melville and Frost got a boost in England only because these authors were narrowly American enough for John Bull’s idea of what a one-note American author should be. The New Critics all studied in England on Rhodes Scholarships.  Our best known female poet of the last half-century married an Englishman and died in London.  Auden and Huxley slummed it in America, but more for titilation than out of respect.  Eliot bred the inward-looking, hot-house plant New Criticism as he paid respectful homage to selected parts of the English past; Huxley and Auden in America were sermonizing oddballs who oozed along exotically in the pleasure-driven present. 

Everyone knows what ambiguity and clarity are, until we start writing philosophical literary criticism in the mode of William Empson, who followed in Eliot’s footsteps in cleverly but un-heroically fashioning the Tradition to look like a version of himself—ambiguous, eclectic, sickly, and obscure.  

Yet Eliot’s Tradition is better, at least, than any American author’s, for the American author is a bumpkin. 

That, at least, is clear.

BYRON!

 

What to do with the life of the party when there’s no more life and no more party?  What to do with worldly, sexy verse when poetry is not that anymore?  What to do with the splashy, smooth and exoteric when the poets are tortured, dry and esoteric?

What the fuck do we do with Lord Fucking Byron?

When did poetry become a hot-house plant inside a manifesto inside a university inside a book?  

Who let the Muse get raped by illiterate Slam assholes?

Who smeared poop all over the nice rug?

Who let the twits be in charge?

Who let the bores take over?

What the fuck happened?

Who keeps saying the Modernists expanded poetry, made poetry free, and gave it permission to be about anything?   Hey, asshole!  Have you read Byron?

I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
And sounds as if it should be writ on satin,
With syllables which breathe of the sweet South,
And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in,
That not a single accent seems uncouth,
Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting, gutteral,
Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and splutter all.

*****

“England! with all thy faults I love thee still,’
I said at Calais, and have not forgot it;
I like to speak and lucubrate my fill;
I like the government (but that is not it);
I like the freedom of the press and quill;
I like the Habeas Corpus (when we’ve got it)
I like a parliamentary debate,
Particularly when ’tis not too late;

I like the taxes, when they’re not too many,
I like a seacoal fire, when not too dear;
I like a beef-steak, too, as well as any;
Have no objection to a pot of beer;
I like the weather when it is not rainy,
That is, I like two months of every year.
And so God save the Regent, Church, and King!
Which means that I like all and every thing.

Our standing army, and disbanded seamen,
Poor’s rate, Reform, my own, the nation’s debt,
Our little riots, just to show we’re free men,
Our trifling bankruptcies in the Gazette,
Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women,
All these I can forgive, and those forget,
And greatly venerate our recent glories,
And wish they were not owing to the Tories.

But to my tale of Laura,—for I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
And, therefore, may the reader too displease—
The gentle reader, who may wax unkind,
And caring little  for the author’s ease,
Insist on knowing what he means, a hard
And hapless situation for a bard.

Oh that I had the art of easy writing
What should be easy reading! could I scale
Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
Those pretty poems never known to fail,
How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
A Grecian, Syrian, or Assyrian tale;
And sell you, mixed with western sentimentalism,
Some samples of the finest Orientalism.

But I am but a nameless sort of person,
(A broken Dandy lately on my travels)
And take for rhyme, to hook my rambling verse on,
The first that Walker’s Lexicon unravels,
And when I can’t find that, I put a worse on,
Not caring as I ought for critics’ cavils;
I’ve half a mind to tumble down to prose,
But verse is more in fashion—so here goes.

***

He was a Turk, the colour of mahogany;
And Laura saw him, and at first was glad,
Because the Turks so much admire philogyny,
Although their usage of their wives is sad;
‘Tis said they use no better than a dog any
Poor woman, whom they purchase like a pad:
They have a number, though they ne’er exhibit ‘em,
Four wives by law, and concubines ‘ad libitum.’

They lock them up, and veil, and guard them daily,
They scarcely can behold their male relations,
So that their moments do not pass so gaily
As is supposed the case with northern nations;
Confinement, too, must make them look quite palely;
And as the Turks abhor long conversations,
Their days are either passed in doing nothing,
Or bathing, nursing, making love, and clothing.

They cannot read, and so don’t lisp criticism;
Nor write, and so they don’t affect the muse;
Were never caught in epigram or witticism,
Have no romances, sermons, plays, reviews,—
In harems learning soon would make a pretty schism,
But luckily these beauties are not ‘Blues;’
No bustling Botherbys have they to show ‘em
‘That charming passage in the last new poem:’

No solemn, antique gentlemen of rhyme,
Who having angled all his life for fame,
And getting but a nibble at a time,
Still fussily keeps fishing on, the same
Small ‘Triton of the minnows,’ the sublime
Of mediocrity, the furious tame,
The echo’s echo, usher of the school
Of female wits, boy bards—in short, a fool!

***

Whate’er his youth had suffered, his old age
With wealth and talking made him some amends;
Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage,
I’ve heard the Count and he were always friends.
My pen is at the bottom of a page,
Which being finished, here the story ends;
‘Tis to be wished it had been sooner done,
But stories somehow lengthen when begun.

—all stanzas from Beppo (1818)

As Douglas Dunn wrote in an introduction to Byron’s verse (Faber) in 1974:

“From the purely literary point of view, Byron has fared badly.  Few outstanding critics have had much time for him.”

All the modernists, especially Eliot and the New Critics, reviled him.  Auden, alone in the 20th century, felt he (Auden) was a substantial and worldly enough of a poet that he could afford to actually like Byron.  The other schools, such as the Beats and the New York school, didn’t have it what it took to embrace him.  I suspect Byron would have made such poets appear less modern and rebellious than they wanted to appear.

Douglas Dunn also points out:

“Byron’s infuence on the development of what is modern in poetry is considerable.  I find it difficult to believe that Browning could have written in the way he did without having first been impressed by the spoken plainness of Byron’s language in Don Juan, although, as is well known, the Romantic poet most loved by Browning was Shelley, whose example he thought himself to have betrayed.  Modern poetry in English owes much to Browning.  Pound, who saw Browning as a crucial prop in his undertaking to cut away ‘the crepuscular spirit in modern poetry,’ was never a supporter of Byron.  …it is worth pointing out that much of nineteenth-century French poetry which influenced Eliot and Pound—and Eliot in particular—is a writing of pose, and of poetic gesture, that same stance characteristic of an Age which is found in Byron.”

It should be obvious to all: the twits have won.

EYE V. EAR: THE OLDEST POETRY DEBATE

Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose at random a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?

A POEM IS A DELICIOUS SHUDDER OF DELIGHT

A poem is not an organism.

A poem is not a field.

A poem is not language.

A poem is not breath.

A poem is not a letter to the world.

A poem is not a rhyme.

A poem is not an image.

A poem is not speech.

A poem is not song.

A poem is a delicious shudder of delight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

POE WINS!!

Philly fans celebrate The Poe’s World Series win over the Rapallo Pound

Alexander Pope allowed 3 hits over seven innings to lead the Philadelphia Poe to a 5-1 victory over the Marquis de Sade and the Rapallo Pound. 

Osip Mandelstam hurled a pefect eighth for the Poe, and General Winfield Scott pitched the ninth, yielding a solo homerun to James Joyce, as the Poe won the first Scarriet World Series title by winning three straight at Rapallo, the Pound’s home park.

Arthur C. Clarke, starting in left field for Fanny Osgood, was the batting hero for the Poe, with 3 hits and 4 RBIs.

Lord Byron had the other RBI for the Poe, as he delivered a two-out single to knock in Charles Brockden Brown to start the scoring in the third, after looking foolish on the previous pitch by Sade, Byron falling down as he chased a slow pitch out of the strike zone.   “Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away,” Byron said later in a jubilant clubhouse.

HOW DO WE TEACH POETRY?

Is it just me, or does modernist poetics seem puerile in the extreme?

In my (2003) Norton -Third Edition- of Modern Poetry (including Contemporary vol. 2 which Scarriet will review later) there are 864 pages of poetry and 135 pages of poetics, the latter of which contain nothing that could be called iconic or indispensible, except perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Walt Whitman is the first entry.  But he had no poetics.  Whitman: “here are the roughs and beards and space…”  Etc.  With Walt we get the rhetoric of Emersonian expanse, which in its good will and windiness, finally cancels itself out.  Poetics?  Pastry.

Next we get a few of Emily Dickinson’s letters to T.W. Higginson—which not only contain no poetics, but do not even show Emily  in a very good light; her wheedling tone is not attractive.

Next, some letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” 

No doubt. 

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone…I do not say the idea is altogether new…”

Doh! not new at all.

Then we have W.B. Yeats, and who reads his prose?    Yeats and his friend, Arthur Symons, influenced Ezra Pound and Eliot; Yeats writes, “The Symbolist Movement in Literature [is] a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me,” and Yeats is right: the book is so subtle that today none care what Symons had to say about “symbolism,” a word used in so many subtle ways since Symons’ day that the word has now returned to its orginal meaning: ‘this stands for that,’ and everyone is happier.

Yeats:  “A poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table,  there is always phantasmagoria.”  And Yeats, again: “Style is always unconscious.  I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.”

Well, he’s honest.

Next up, T.E. Hulme, expelled from Cambridge U. in 1904, part of Ford Madox Ford & Pound’s Imagism crew, “a critic of pacifism,” WW I casualty : “I object even to the best of the romantics.  I object to the sloppiness…”

Oh, is that what the best poets in English were?  Sloppy?

Now we get a real treat: excerpts from the magazine Blast.  Like most little modernist magazines, it lasted only a few issues, even as some now-forgotten female, an heiress or lady of title, was emptying her bank account for it, just so the world could be honored by the wisdom of Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis and E. Pound:

“BLESS ENGLAND!”

“The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—”

“In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.”

“Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.”

“Fairies have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.  But mysticsm on the one hand, gladiatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of Creation for these two peoples.”

“England is just now the most famous favourable country for the appearance of great art.”

“…our race, the most fundamentally English.”

“We assert that the art for these climates, then, must be a Northern flower.”

“It cannot be said tht the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropical growth, the vastness of American trees, is not for us.”

“Once the consciousness towards the new possibilities of expression in present life has come, however—it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe…”

I wish I could say BLAST was merely English patriotism, but knowing something about the authors, I have a feeling it is something far worse…

There follows a “Feminist Manifesto” from Mina Loy, which tells women:

“To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue” the fictitious value of woman as identified with her physical purity…”

No wonder Loy was one of the few women intellectuals invited into the Modernist men’s club…

After a two very brief prologues (Amy Lowell and Wilfred Owen) E. Pound returns with gems such as:

“Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.
   The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s ‘Drover’: his ‘O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die’: Joyce’s ‘I hear an army’; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, ‘The fire that stirs about her when she stirs’; the later lines of ‘The Scholars,’ the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’ ‘Postlude,’ Aldington’s version of ‘Athis,’ and ‘H.D.’s” waves like pine tops, and her verse in ‘Des Imagistes’ the first anthology; Hueffer’s [Ford M. Ford] ‘How red your lips are’ in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his ‘Three Ten,’ the general effect of his ‘On Heaven’; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that will sing to music…”

E. Pound names “the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head” and they are all his publishing partners and friends!  What a startling coincidence!  Joyce, Yeats, Williams, Aldington, H.D, and Ford Madox Ford!  How uncanny!  What exquisite taste!  What rare and discerning judgment! 

We are now two-thirds done with “Poetics” of the Moderns, which commenced with Whitman.

T.S. Eliot gets 10 pages. 

Next, William Carlos Williams, from the prologue to Kora In Hell:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.  To me this is the gist of the whole matter.”

Can anyone tell me what this means.  Or this: 

“The instability of these improvisations would seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention and become particles of a wind that falters.  It would appear to the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly.  It would be these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools.”

Enough of Mr. Williams.  He is too busy fighting off  “fools…”

D.H. Lawrence (a preface to New Poems, U.S. edition) follows:

“Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds.  Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.”

Yes, by all means!

Langston Hughes makes an appearance:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’  And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Enough of that logic…

Next, Hart Crane defends his ‘At Melville’s Tomb’ in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe.  She found the poem obscure.  It is obscure.  Hopelessly so—Monroe was right.

Wallace Stevens’ turn:

“Poetry is not personal.”

“All poetry is experimental poetry.”

“It is the belief and not the god that counts.”

“Poetry must be irrational.”

“We live in the mind.

“Every man dies his own death.”

“Realism is a corruption of reality.”

And other gems. 

The final 25 pages of “Poetics” finds 3 pages of Robert Frost (The Figure A Poem Makes), 7 pages from a Transatlantic Interview with the crackpot Gertrude Stein, 6 pages of  Marianne Moore (6 too many) and finally, 10 pages of W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

What is wonderful about Mr. Auden is that he is only educated modern poet who does not speak down to his audience.

It is probably  no surprise that modernist poetics is so paltry.  Modern poetry is enjoyed by the few, and with the general public out of the way, the old need to apologize for, or defend, poetry is no longer there.   Small ideas appeal to small audiences, and since the modern poets have turned their backs on the larger public, small has been the rule.

Unfortunately, however, I have the uncomfortable feeling that modern poetics is less than small.  Something about it feels downright silly and childish, or even worse, manifesto-ish.  And still worse: obscure, grumpy, condescending.

I don’t see how one would want to teach Homer without teaching Plato at the same time;  nor would I ever dream of teaching modern poetry without first teaching Homer and Plato, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, Shelley and Poe.   I don’t see how what is typically taught as modern poetics can even be called poetics at all, when compared to what came before.

But that’s just me.

WHY DOES THE LEFT LOVE POUND?

Because Pound was a leftist. 

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

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

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

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

MODERNISM’S HITS AND MISSES

The HITS

1. Skyscrapers Useful.  Spectacular.  Yet, like almost every aspect of Modernism, a certain irony in the success: Modernism’s brutal, in-your-face archicture is the very face of what Modernism was supposed to be protesting: big, industrial take-over.

2. T.S. Eliot  Effete, gloomy, prejudiced, but most talented writer of the lot.

3. New Criticism  A certain intellecutal elan, but at great pedantic cost.

4. Jean Cocteau   Just really cool.  It is said the news that Edith Piaf died killed him.

5. The MFA Creative Writing Workshop.  Yes, a Modernist creation of Paul Engle, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.  Great idea, commercially successful, but often reflects the crass, cheap clique-ish aspects of Modernism.

6. Gertrude Stein “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  A clown, but a savvy one.

7. William Butler Yeats Actually wrote some good poems

8. Bertolt Brecht Lucky to have Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya as partners, and not a bad poet.

9. Garcia Lorca Beautiful poetry

10. Abstract Art One complaint, though: all that lovely color should be on ugly industrial buildings and such; it’s a waste to be only in museums and private homes—where it often looks pretentious.

The MISSES

1. Manifesto-ism Pedantry, over-argument, splintering.  Makes you want to memorize a poem or two; or learn Latin or Greek or Hebrew…

2. Bauhaus The ugly factory.   Bauhaus building trade bucks enriched the modern painting con.  The puzzle of  millions chasing ugly art: solved.

3. Cubism Wins the Pretense Award in many categories.

4. James Joyce The most famous unread author.  Reinforces crass Irish stereotypes—no wonder the bluebloods love him.

5. Imagism Uh…memo to Pound and Williams: the Japanese already did it…it’s called haiku.

6. 12 Tone Music Get me out of this place.

7. John Crowe Ransom Very questionable taste, cunning essayist.

8. Apollinaire Wanted the Louvre burned down, but this iconoclast fights in WW I?  Died as a result—served him right.

9.  Charles Olson Ugh.

10. Picasso A blue period.

HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity(in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Tate and Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

THE SILLIMAN CLAQUE DEFINED

Instead of defining “The School of Quietude,” which would seem to include every legitimate work of literature in the universe, it might be simpler to define its opposite:  The Silliman Claque.

1. Sprang from the School of Pound, that ill-defined sack of half-baked platitudes which happily expands the definition of poetry to include kitchen sinks (as long as the kitchen sinks are modern—or disguised as Greek artifacts).  The Pound method is something like this:  Burn all the metronomes which happen to be at hand.  (Sing and dance around the flames.  Fornicate, even, while the metronomes burn.)  Write whatever comes into your head for about an hour.   Call what you’ve written a “canto.”  Write more of these.  Call the work “The Cantos.”   You will be called either a presumptuous ass—or a genius.  Add a manifesto or two for those who believe you are a genius.  Get yourself accused of treason.  In the hospital for the criminally insane, entertain a few young poets, the ones who lack admission into writing workshops now popping up around the country.  Be yourself, but flatter these brave, ambitious visitors enough to win a few disciples.  Your legacy is assured.

2.  Push regionalism.  This has the advantage of defining your Claque in the absence of any actual common sense pertaining to it. Pretend a mimeograph closet, or a tree, or a bridge, in California is radically different from one in Massachusetts.

3.  Close-reading.   See deeper than Wordsworth, go beyond the Transcendentalists, bring more powerful microscopes than even the New Critics feigned using, as you penetrate, with your powerful acumen, in a magic spell of gravitas, every speck in (or even around and above) the poem.  Never be pedantic enough. Always strive for more pedantry and close-reading wizardry.  Show how a comma in Creeley will out-live Hamlet, or a colon in Olsen is more important than the “Paradise Lost,”or that a hypen in Duncan is more significant than all the odes of Keats (though hint at such wonders—do not assert them; make poetry an adventure, not a competition—none of Arnold’s Touchstones, only touch the wonders of the subtle and the small, in new and strange and remarkable ways…)  For example, from Creeley.  If you would escape the dread “School of Quietude,” contemplate the following until a bowel movement comes.  Think of it as more than mere poetry-analysis; think of it as a way to know the zen of your mind and your body, as everything waits for you:

It the moon did not . . .
no, if you did not
I wouldn’t either, but
what would I not

do, what prevention, what
thing so quickly stopped.
That is love yesterday
or tomorrow, not

now. . . .

SOCRATES WALKS AWAY FROM RAPALLO, REJECTS POUND’S OFFER

The Rapallo Pound don’t have a great team.  They are 12-14 in the AL with 103 runs scored and 118 allowed.  

What can you say about a pitching staff with Hugh Kenner as the ace?   On Sunday the Pound beat the Stevens 2-1 and Kenner (3-3) not only won the game on the mound, he got the winning hit. 

Olga Rudge is 3-1, James Laughlin is playing surprisingly well at third, Richard Wagner (1-0) has just joined the club, and talks are underway with Basil Bunting. 

James Joyce (lf) and William Butler Yeats (ss) lead a potent attack, but defensively Joyce often seems asleep out in left and Yeats isn’t exactly patient with grounders.

Harriet Monroe (1-4) isn’t happy with Pound, and though Zukovsky (2-2) logs a lot of innings, he doesn’t seem capable of winning consistently.

But the biggest blow to the Rapallo Pound this season has to be the inability to sign Socrates.   After weeks of secret discussons at Brunnenburg Castle in Merano, Italy, Socrates has left the table.  The philosopher would have joined the Pound as their ace.

Socrates’ agent, Plato, announced that talks were finished.  “My client feels Mr. Pound is no philosopher.  He’s a wheeler-dealer.”

WHEN DID SCARRIET CHANGE POETRY FOREVER?

That’s right, class!  It was March 2010.

Poetry and criticism were moribund in the modern era.  

The New Critics, springing from T.S. Eliot’s Sacred Wood and the ravings of Eliot’s “master,” Ezra Pound, were nothing but a erudite smokescreen for a modernist clique who invaded the academy in the 1930s and 40s, led by Professors Tate, Crane, Ransom, and Engle.

The internet, however, made Virginia Woolf’s printing press, Ransom’s Kenyon Review, and little magazines like Poetry seem tame by comparison.

Now the whole world could experience new art and ideas overnight.

All it took was one website, Scarriet, to change everything.

Even into the 21st century, American culture was hopelessly stuck in the past of 1830s Paris.  The glamor and “danger” of Bohemia had been recycled one too many times.  21st century America was like first century Rome, remember?  When sculpture realistically depicted old, bald men?  

The ideal had been replaced by the fetish.  The genius had been replaced by the crank.

Starting in the middle of the 20th century, the films of Walt Disney featured hip jazz cats overturning middle class values.  The ‘avant garde’ has long been a harmless cartoon.  Now the “Disney Channel” shapes the lives of ADD drugged adolescents.

Long before the end of the 20th century, once-threatening  rock music (by some accounts an LSD experiment by U.S. military intelligence) entertained the elderly as they shopped in brightly lit supermarkets.

The so-called avant garde has not advanced since New York in the 1890s.   All that was outrageous and avant has been assimilated, marketed, and been in repeat for decades.

Culture has been backed into a corner.

Retro late-capitalist kitsch posters screaming “Freedom” are yellowing inside the prison cells of High Culture.

The same “avant” ideas are recycled over and over.

The latest hurrah in po-biz (Flarf, Conceptualism, Language Poetry) in 2010 is the “Found Poem” from 50 years ago and Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ from even earlier.   Yet the avant garde keeps pretending it is “new” and “dangerous.”   They naively believe they are an alternative to the “Quietists” and they will save society from “Official Verse Culture,” which, by Charles Bernstein’s own admission is T.S. Eliot—which is what Charles Bernstein in fact is: T.S. Eliot.

The spectacular Woodstock Concert and the moon landing happend in 1969.

The only new thing in 2010:  now you can read about these remarkable events on a computer.

It was as if the larger life of mankind had ended in the mid-20th century, and the only major advance in all that time was the P.C.

In the humanities departments of universites, academia has long abandonded its enlightenment role and become a for-profit babysitter, selling  psycho-babble degrees for an increasingly psycho-babble society.

Outmoded heroes of modernism adorn the minds of the intellectual curators of the age like celebrity photos of TV stars in teen bedrooms.  Modernism has gone completely unexamined and uncritiqued.   But it’s everywhere in academe, as history is increasingly forgotten.

Mid 20th century until now: Modernism is vaguely ‘avant garde’ and ‘radical,’ appealing to a certain conflicted type: the Modernist clique consists of European dead white males, like Mallarme, who can perplex the middle class—thus the Modernists are considered radical and conservative at the same time, a kind of magical formula for academics like Tate and Engle who were then taking over the English Departments and turning them into corporate supermarkets.

The radical, for decades, has been merely artsy-farsty.

A sweeping critique, a new examination of recent history, is needed.  But when?

Poetry is practically invisible outside the po-biz ghetto.

Enter Scarriet.

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