IS GAY SMARTER THAN STRAIGHT?

Poet Edward Field, 89 years old, and the most entertaining guest in Our Deep Gossip.

Really stupid people, we say, cannot grasp any sort of complexity.

But then there’s another kind of smart, good, or educated person who errs by making things too complex.

Then we have the truly smart person who knows complexity, but also knows when not to be complex.

The three (crude) types mentioned above might be categorized as the one cared for by the system, the one of the system, and the rebel who breaks the system’s rules.

The system, in this case, is American poetry and the general puritan American culture surrounding it. We have just finished reading, on a beautiful afternoon, Our Deep Gossip, Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire by Christopher Hennessy, foreward by Christopher Bram, and instead of finding the “deep,” we found the simplicity of the intelligent rebel.

The rebel is not beholden to a lot of systemic obligations. The rebel speaks what might be called a queer truth, true not because it is queer, but true because its desire is of that immediate kind not trapped by any system. The rebellion can be expressed in a number of very simple ways: I don’t want to get married, I don’t want to rhyme, I don’t want to be polite, I don’t want to conform, I don’t want to have children, I don’t want to do what others expect me to do, I don’t want to make sense, I don’t want to be complex if I can be simple, I don’t want to put off pleasure. And all of these things might be called queer. But what they really are is actually anything but queer; they are manifestations of simple common sense. And this expediency makes the queer what every queer secretly knows itself to be: smart.

Our Deep Gossip is uncannily smart—right from the beginning of Bram’s foreward:

I’ve never understood why more people don’t love poetry. The best poetry is short, succinct, highly quotable, and very portable. It can take five minutes to read a poem that you will ponder for the rest of your life. Poetry should be as popular as song lyrics or stand-up comedy. Nevertheless, I often hear otherwise well-read people say, without embarrassment, “I don’t read poetry. It’s too difficult—” or strange or obscure or elusive. They will slog through hundreds of pages of so-so prose about a computer geek in Sweden or a made-up medieval land populated with princes and dwarves but freeze like frightened deer when confronted by a simple sonnet.

I cannot think of a better defense of poetry. This needs to be said over and over again. This is the sort of simple truth that is so simple that it rarely gets said. And why? Because inevitably poets feel the need to defend difficulty. Or the Creative Writing Director needs to not offend his fiction students. The system will not allow the simple truth to be spoken in quite the way Bram has expressed it. But when has a system ever cared for simple truth?

Edward Field is the first poet interviewed by Hennessy, and “deep,” again, is not what we get— we get something more to the point, more truthful:

…the cant idea is that [poetry] is about language. That’s one of two pernicious ideas about poetry. The second is the stricture against sentimentality. That is so evil! Every feeling you have is, of course, sentimental.

Field, and the other seven interviewees, don’t give us any “deep gossip” about lovers and friends; they make simple observations that make you realize that being gay is not some great mystery with all kinds of deep secrets any more than being straight is. Since heterosexuality is more invested (just generally) with the system of breeding, one might assume the gay sensibility is closer to pursuing pleasure without this massive system’s strictures and obligations; but no, not really; this assumption (by straights) is just one more reason the gay sensibility tends to have more common sense: it knows it is not as secretive and complex as it is thought to be, and this contributes to clearer thinking. Look at Field’s brilliant but simple take on Ashbery:

I think John Ashbery is beyond criticism. His work is nothing I’m interested in, but he says things in the exact words, and it’s beyond criticism. It’s like a cat meowing. A cat meows, that’s what it does. John Ashbery writes that way; there’s no way to criticize it.

Ashbery is famous for writing poetry that makes no sense, and all sorts of complex reasons (including the fact he’s gay) have been offered up, but as Ashbery himself airily observes in the second interview of the book, he had crushes on women when he first wrote poetry in his signature style; he did not think of himself as gay when first writing as Ashbery. And if there was any doubt whether his obscurity is intentional or not, Ashbery himself makes no effort to be mysterious about it: “I don’t think I ever know where my poetry is going when I’m writing.”  And one finds Ashbery simple to the point of naivety responding to Frost’s famous epigram.  Ashbery: “it [is] harder to play tennis without the net.”

The prolific Ashbery merely practices the extreme simplicity of the rebel Beats. As Field (is this “deep?”) puts it:

When I started writing, the more revisions you made on a poem, the better it was. Poets bragged that they’d made 125 versions of a poem. John Crowe Ransom wrote about one poem a year. Philip Larkin too. But Allen Ginsberg said, “First thought, best thought.” And it’s really a very good idea. And Frank O’Hara had the same idea.

Surely Richard Howard will give us some “deep gossip.” But no, the third to be interviewed only says things like: “My students: They don’t read.” Writing poetry, teaching, and translating for him is “one activity.” He has “many selves.” And, “I’ve never really had a father.”

Edward Field—we keep coming back to him because this elder poet sets the tone—discusses one of his poems in which his penis is a girl. Ah, so that’s the secret of how gays are gay! How sweetly simple!

Field revels in being a simple outsider bohemian— he strips the fancy from everything. The gay Andy Warhol, for instance, is not an elaborate example of camp or Conceptualism; in Field’s eyes Warhol’s just a “prole:”

if you see poetry as ‘high class,’ you’re not going to write about Campbell’s soup. …prole Andy Warhol never put on any airs…

Aaron Shurin is next, and he calls himself “unromantic” because coming out as gay he was “another person.” Which makes perfect sense. One can’t be a Romantic if one is two people. Byron thought of himself as Byron—not a as a million different people; sure, Byron had different roles and moods, but that’s not quite the same as being “another person.” Nor does Shurin, we are sure, think of himself as really being “another person,” and yet Byron he is not, and so we understand why he calls himself “unromantic.” But heterosexuals distance themselves from Byron as well: John Crowe Ransom did.

Wayne Koestenbaum is the seventh poet to be interviewed in Our Deep Gossip and he, too, keeps it simple. To wit:

Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Gertrude Stein—three of my idols and stylistic models—were profoundly matter-of-fact in their relation to weirdness…

Making God the subject of a sentence whose predicate is simply a ski bunny fills me with a sense of a deed well done, a day well spent. I get a Benjamin Franklin pleasure (the counting house of the affections) from writing a sentence like “God is a ski bunny.”

…poets who come up through the MFA route have a falsely idealized intellectuality, because they think intellectuality is the magic serum that they’re going to inject into poetry to lift it…

I’ll admit it: I have a baby fetish. I turn to jello when I see a baby. When I “finish” a poem…I get a “baby” sensation surrounding it.

The last “baby” quote from Koestenbaum is not queer at all. Or is it? Or does it matter?

Field’s ‘penis as a girl’ poem, “Post Masturbatum,” states simply, “Afterwards, the penis/is like a girl who has been ‘had’/and is ashamed…foolish one who gave in…” And this is echoed by Koestenbaum’s moral “With engorgement comes delusion. When you’re in that state, you’re not making good decisions.”

We flash back to Bram’s foreward, where he wrote, “people say, without embarrassment, ‘I don’t read poetry…”

Is “embarrassment” the key word here? If only people were ashamed to say they don’t read poetry! But they’re not. The non-poetry readers are not embarrassed. But Christopher Hennesy and the eight poets he interviews are not embarrassed, either, as Bram makes clear:

Neither Christopher Hennessy nor any of his eight genial, highly articulate guests express the slightest embarrassment over their love of poetry.

Perhaps there needs to be more tension between the two camps— some embarrassment, perhaps, on both sides.

When Hennessy approvingly quotes a Koestenbaum poem

My butt, at its best, resembles Faust’s dog.
It has an affectionate relationship to condiments.

he chortles, “Such loony lines!”

And this reminds us of Ashbery’s joke earlier: the simple use of a line Ashbery heard from the Antiques Road Show in one of his poems: “There’s a tremendous interest in dog-related items.” Both Ashbery and Hennessy laugh.

Is this what Bram means when he says “neither Christopher Hennessy nor any of his eight genial, highly articulate guests express the slightest embarrassment over their love of poetry?”

But doesn’t laughter depend on embarrassment? Field says funny poetry is a good thing, and that Auden changed everything for the better by elevating Light Verse to a higher place in the canon. Surely the humorous is a big part of modern and post-modern poetry.

But this is just one more piece of the whole common sense approach to Our Deep Gossip. Gay is embarrassing. And we laugh. But just as we would laugh at any number of things, sexual or otherwise, that are not gay.

Exactly the same.

THE HERESY OF THE ACCESSIBLE

Aristotle.  The Greeks: they keep the moderns and post-moderns honest.

C. Dale Young, in a recent article in the American Poetry Review, writes:

We live in a strange time, a time when the word accessible is a dirty word, used mostly to denigrate writers.  We hear it used for other media as well.  A movie is accessible but a film is Art.  That folk melody is accessible but the Mahler piece based on it is difficult, is Art.  I dare say that the word accessible is virtually never used in a positive manner.  But buried in the word accessibility is the root word access, and in our Post-modern life, it appears to me that Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered.  What many seem to admire in Art today, especially in the Literary Arts, is excess whether linguistic or emotional.  But is there good reason for Art to be an access and not just an object?  Is there not a moral imperative lurking behind almost every lasting work of Art?

In this APR essay, “The Veil of Accessibility,” Young close-reads Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book he found accessible in high school.  After many subsequent readings, however, Young found the book to be complex, largely because there are two narrators—”the reason Heart of Darkness seems accessible, simple enough to be read by a high school student is the fact that the majority of the novella is not written in the voice of this unnamed narrator but in the voice of Marlowe.”

When Young writes, “the reason Heart of Darkness seems accessible,” we start to wonder if Young’s essay is a true defense of “the accessible.” 

If you say, this door is not really a door, are you defending access?

If objects, or anything we attempt to grasp or objectify, are not really accessible, then perhaps the whole literary issue suffers from bad terminology; neither the espistomological debate nor the aesthetic debate is really about “accessibility” at all—because we’re finally talking about a door within a door within a door…

Young doesn’t treat this; he plows dutifully ahead, turning his attention now to poetry:

Both Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch have been praised and lauded, but they have both been equally savaged by critics over time.  Both are considered “accessible,” the term used almost exclusively as a way to say their work is slight.  But is their work slight? 

The obvious follows: O’Hara’s two poems, “Ave Maria” and “Poem” (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!), and Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another,” are found to be poems which only seem accessible, after Young lifts the veil for us.

But isn’t this ass-backwards? If one lifts the veil to reveal inaccessibility?  Isn’t Young guilty of arguing against his stated thesis? 

Young does a very close-reading of O’Hara’s two poems, but one mostly concerned with technical aspects of person and voice.  One might call this a discussion of “access”—or not.  It depends on whether we are talking about a door, or a door-within-a-door.

Despite the length and the ambition of the piece,  Young doesn’t really say anything about these poems that we don’t already know.  He offers a personal anecdote, (one he calls “embarrassing,”) on O’Hara’s Lunch poem, “Ave Maria,” and we have to wonder, finally, does C. Dale Young intend his homosexual anecdote of “Ave Maria,” and his close-readings of these New York School poems to make these poems more “accessible,” or less, especially since he likes these poems and seems to agree that “accessible” is bad?  It’s hard to tell.

Thank goodness Young mentions a classical author so we get a respite from modernist confusion and ambiguity:

 In his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the fact that speech can produce persuasion either through the character of the speaker, the emotional state of the listener, or the argument itself.  He goes on to argue that the most potent arguments, the most convincing, are ones in which the speaker presents material in a way that prompts the listener to come to the issue “as if on their own.”  That is, an argument proved indirectly is more effective than an argument proved directly.  If a speaker simply states the view he wants the listener to believe, that view can be too easily ignored by a listener (who does not share the speaker’s view).  This is exactly why Aristotle believed that Poetry (and I would argue to include all of Literature) can be among the most powerful means of making an argument.  

Now we are getting somewhere.  A similar argument is found in Poe: the heresy of the didactic. 

In both Poe and Aristotle we have a rather common sense, psycho-aesthetic argument, one that nicely side-steps the whole impossible issue of “accessible” v. “difficult,” in which Young flounders—even as he writes a very entertaining article.

We don’t want to surrender to a shallow sort of ‘content-only’ reading of “Ave Maria,” but it does makes us wonder how much the meaning of a poem needs to be put on the table when one discusses a topic like “accessibility.”

O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” which Young quotes in full, would seem to be a celebration of sexual predation, using adolescent boredom and family hatred as a cover, with a little TV and movie metaphor thrown in.  Young seems to imply that this content has a lot to do with the poem’s “accessibility” but has little to do with the poem’s accessibility as a work of art—the latter depending on O’Hara’s artistry and indirection.

To repeat what Young wrote at the beginning of his essay:

In our Post-modern life, it appears to me that Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered.  What many seem to admire in Art today, especially in the Literary Arts, is excess whether linguistic or emotional.  But is there good reason for Art to be an access and not just an object?  Is there not a moral imperative lurking behind almost every lasting work of Art?

Young is linking “a moral” with “access” in art, and perhaps he is correct to do so—though this raises an interesting question: When we speak of “accessibility,” we need to ask the question, “Access to what?”

Would it be merely a low-brow response to greet the moral meaning of “Ave Maria” with moral indignation? 

Is this what happens when accessibility in art gets linked to easy moral judgments?

Young doesn’t touch on this at all, part of the whole ambiguity of his essay’s approach: is Young defining accessibility?  Is he defending it?  Or is he mistreating it, as he claims everyone else does?

When Young writes that “Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered,” is he aware that a pebble is not accessible as part of its nature, while a beautiful palace, as part of its nature, is?

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?

IS MARJORIE PERLOFF SOMEONE’S CRAZY AUNT?

Perloff: Keep your status quo away from my avant-garde!

The distinguished professor and critic, Marjorie Perloff, recently published an essay, “Poetry on the Brink,” which has made quite an impression in the poetry world. 

In a nutshell: what Perloff essentially did is join Helen Vendler, another academic, non-poet, lady-critic, in attacking the poet (and professor) Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th CenturyAmerican Poetry.

Avant-garde empathizer Perloff has merely broadened Vendler’s attack to smite “a certain kind of prize-winning, New Yorker, well-crafted poem,” featuring “irregular lines of free verse,” “prose syntax,” and a “lyric speaker” which uses the following tri-formula: “present time stimulus—memory—epiphany.” 

The poetry world used to be so happy: the free verse Iowa Workshop poem united everyone: the Perloffs, the Doves, the Vendlers, the English Departments, the little magazines, the big magazines, the Workshops, the Jorie Grahams, the John Ashberrys, the Harold Blooms…they all felt good together! 

The Norton Anthology began with Beowulf and strode through Shakespeare and Keats and then…High Modernism—which turned its back on the Victorians—and the canon now consisted of young, clever, prosaic unknowns… the literary canon was just a Iowa Workshop course away…for you—with your immigrant grandmother—and you, homosexual wise ass…and even… you!  Excitement  was in the air!  Anything was possible!  Poetry was difficult…oh yes…but not that difficult.  Doors were opening…there was a party going on…

But that’s all turned sour, because the Poetry Workshop business has turned out too many poets and as the years party on, the canon has simply eluded too many deserving hopefuls—the party atmosphere of the insular poetry world has been replaced by Malthusian gloom

So Perloff opens her essay by taking poetry’s universal unease by the horns, asking, “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?” 

We don’t know if the queen has ever wondered, “what happens when everyone lives in a castle?”  Or, “What happens when everyone has a diamond ring as big as mine?”  Perhaps these are real concerns.  We don’t know.

Perloff, however is thinking a little more in the realm of “If everyone is happily married, what will happen to the thrill and danger of amour?”  If everyone is happy, won’t life become boring?  For Perloff quotes Jed Rasula opining on the number of creative writing faculty in poetry (20,000) and then remarks, “What makes Rasula’s cautionary tale so sobering is that the sheer number of poets now plying their craft inevitably ensures moderation and safety.”

We suppose one can accept her logic that more human interaction tends to be a force of “moderation” and that popularity naturally creates that swelling middle zone of creatures who adhere to a popular center which is “safe.”  Let’s grant her this “safety” observation, for isn’t that how civilization works?  Sheer numbers of citizens diligently “plying their craft” does create “safety.”  The life of the explorer inevitably features fewer people experiencing more danger.

Perloff is also kind enough to tell us exactly what this “craft” of “safety” looks like today: “free verse” with “prose syntax,” “prepositional and parenthetical phrases,” “graphic imagery,” “extravagant metaphor,” a “lyric speaker,” “epiphany,” a “particular memory,” a “profound thought or insight”, and “large or personal tragedy”.

Perloff also lays out precisely the material history for us.

The current “safe” poem, she says, is found in most prize-winning poetry collections today, in The New Yorker, and in post-1970 poems found in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology—and she gives a couple examples from Dove’s anthology.

The early 20th century canon of Frost, Stein, Pound, Crane, Eliot, Stevens, L. Hughes, Williams, Moore which is found in the Dove, Perloff is basically happy with. No argument there. 

Perloff finds “cheerful pluralism” and “noisy critical debate” existing up through the early 1960′s when “raw v. cooked” was in the air—and she finds this “raw” mostly ignored in Dove’s book—Perloff gives us a list of those left out: “black experimental poets;” “the Objectivists, Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Niedecker;” and “Rexroth and Spicer.”

For Perloff, something went terribly wrong in American poetry after the “raw v. cooked poetry wars” subsided—the marker might be the death of O’Hara in 1966, we’re not sure, but Perloff frankly writes:

Today’s poetry establishment—Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass, Louise Glück and Mark Strand, all of them former poets laureate—command a polite respect but hardly the enthusiasm and excitement that greeted and continue to greet such counterparts of the previous generation as O’Hara.

Again, let’s give Perloff the benefit of the doubt and assume O’Hara is “exciting” and Hass is not.  O’Hara would probably make a more lively guest on Leno or Letterman; O’Hara was a ‘scenester’ and his poetry conveys that—we suppose this is what Perloff is getting at, but we’re not sure.

Perloff laces into Dove’s introduction to Dove’s Penguin anthology with great vitriol, essentially calling it brain-dead. Perloff calls Dove’s prose in the introduction to that which might be found in a “Victorian children’s book,” the worst thing a member of the avant-garde could possibly say about anything.  But in this part of the essay, about a third of the way through, in her white hot attack on Dove (which seems to us was the trigger for Perloff’s essay in the first place, perhaps after a late night conversation with Helen Vendler) hubris catches up with Perloff, and like Icarus flying to close to the sun, Perloff all at once drops like a rock into the sea, her well-meaning and well-supported argument collapsing with a great whoooosh!

Like some conceptualist poems she admires, Perloff keeps talking in the rest of the essay—but to no effect.  It’s rather how conceptualist poems turn out: nice idea, but execution therefrom, crap.  Such poems, and their poets, are incapable of sustaining real interest.  Their wanna-be affectation is merely annoying.

Let’s summarize Perloff’s collapse:

She condemns the late 20th century, New Yorker, Dove Penguin anthology, poetry contest winning, contemporary free verse lyric—but this lyric of memory, epiphany, etc  has always existed, in “Since There’s No Help, Come, Let Us Kiss And Part” or “Dover Beach”—but now without rhyme and meter.  And here’s a perfect example, from her adored O’Hara:

At Joan’s

It is almost three
I sit at the marble top
sorting poems, miserable
the little lamp glows feebly
I don’t glow at all

I have another cognac
and stare at two little paintings
of Jean-Paul’s, so great
I must do so much
or did they just happen

the breeze is cool
barely a sound filters up
through my confused eyes
I am lonely for myself
I can’t find a real poem

if it won’t happen to me
what shall I do

How simple to hoist Perloff with her own petard, quoting from her own admired specimens!  It seems O’Hara was sinning, too.  There’s that first person, lyric “I,” recollecting/reflecting towards an epiphany.  Or Niedecker, whose exclusion from the Dove Perloff mourned:

What horror to awake at night
and in the dimness see the light.
          Time is white
          mosquitoes bite
I’ve spent my life on nothing.

The thought that stings. How are you, Nothing,
sitting around with Something’s wife.
          Buzz and burn
          is all I learn
I’ve spent my life on nothing.

I’ve pillowed and padded, pale and puffing
lifting household stuffing—
          carpets, dishes
          benches, fishes
I’ve spent my life in nothing.

This one even rhymes.  And it could have been written in 1822 by John Clare! 

The ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument bedevils critcs like Perloff—she is always looking for genuine examples of “time and place” in poetry; this is the cudgel high-brows always bring down on the heads of those who have mere “likes and dislikes,” as Dove, quoted by Perloff, admits she has in her Penguin anthology introduction.  But the silly modernist avant-garde critic is forever hemmed in by the absurdity of their claims, claims which must be intimately tied to the purity of “time and place.”  When it is pointed out, over and over, how their sacred cows are all over the map in terms of “time and place,” they can only meekly reply that O’Hara’s use of a centuries-old, “I” centered, lyric is yet modern on account of it being so trivial.  Categories of “time and place” are so important to the Modernist that soon they become everything, even as those categories were dubious to start with.  Instead of asking, what are the elements necessary for the realized poem? they seek to create categories out of the poems written in Brooklyn by a Jewish immigrant in 1930.  This makes our avant-garde critic a poetry scholar, and makes them naturally and vehemently opposed to the question: what is a good poem?  The more scholarly they become, the more naturally opposed they become to even considering what could possibly distinguish a good poem from a bad one.  They are too busy delineating the facts of “time and place.”  There happen, in this instance, to be two poets—one wrote beautiful poems, the other wrote awful poems—but because the critic was alive to the latter as composed by a Jewish immigrant living in Brooklyn in 1930, the latter Jewish Brooklynite is selected as relevant, and the former Jewish Brooklynite is ignored.  Let this error become established scholarly behavior and you see what kind of damage it does to poetry

Perloff condemns Dove’s selection of Trethewey’s “Hot Combs” because to Perloff it sounds like a poem from the “60s or 70s,” and yet, to Perloff’s horror, it was published in 2000.”  What to make of Perloff’s hero, O’Hara, then, who writes poems on the  model of “Dover Beach” (just in free verse)?  O’Hara is at least a century out of date!  In O’Hara’s case, what superficialities of “time and place” (and other considerations) is Perloff surrending to?  The lyric, as essentially described by Perloff, is very, very old.  Is Perloff questioning it today because it was written by someone in the 1960s?  It was written by Sappho!

Perloff does do us the honor of showing us, in some detail, what she feels is worthy poetry: conceptual poetry, or cut-and-paste poetry.  Perloff fails to mention—unbelievably—that T.S. Eliot did this in 1922 with his “Waste Land.”  The “appropriation” of 1960s visual arts and music is her focus, but why she ignores Eliot is very odd, indeed.

As for cut-and-paste, one wag (Eugene #25) put it this way on the comments thread to Perloff’s article: “Poetry is too uniform, therefore poets should copy existing material.”

The comments thread (that tool of democracy banned by Blog Harriet and Ron Silliman’s blog) is a feast of witty and sobering reaction. 

We took the title of this Scarriet piece from comment #64 by jrand, who goes on to write: “…anybody can cut and paste—why would that have any validity, whether characterizing Waldheim, or making fun of Perloff?” 

The “characterizing Waldheim” refers to a work praised by Perloff, in which someone (a poet?) took the memoirs of a nation’s leader and removed words to make that leader look stupid and evil.  Maybe Kurt Waldheim was a really bad guy, but is this trickery a virtuous method of “composition?”  Perloff is so obsessed with “time and place”—1930s! Austria! Everyone’s a Nazi! that it’s all she sees.  Perloff’s hatred of Dove’s anthology resembles her apparent hatred of the Austrians: Perloff explicitly mourns the fact that after 1945, Austria became a “prosperous nation—as if Perloff believes all Austrians ought to be punished forever.  Perloff’s admiration of a meddled-with memoir passed off as poetry is apparently based on irrational, political hatred rather than on any aesthetic (or moral) principles. Why would Perloff see fit to mention that Austria, after 1945, became a “propserous nation?”  When the Vietnam war ended, why would anyone wish that either the U.S. or Vietnam not become “prosperous?” Why should we ever wish for a country—more importantly, its people, its women and its children, not to become “prosperous?”  How could we ever be against an entire nation’s prosperity?  Because of Hitler, the whole nation of Austria, after 1945, should not be allowed to prosper? Hitler came to power precisely because of a lack of prosperity. What sort of mind would wish for a whole nation during peacetime not to prosper?

But no doubt Perloff felt compelled to drag forth the Waldheim poem because she really had so little to recommend her prized Language Poetry agains the Dove lyric. 

Perloff manages to come up with only three bullet points in favor of her kind of poetry: “ellipsis,” “indirection” and “political engagement.” 

This is weak, since “ellipsis” and “indirection” characterize High Modernism, if not works farther back in time—so how can these be claimed as defining categories by the Language Poets?  Neither can “political engagement” ever be seen to belong only to Language Poetry, or the sorts of avant-garde works Perloff admires.

“Political engagement” certainly does not characterize Perloff’s other examples of contemporary, cut-and-paste excellence in her essay: Susan Howe’s collage on her husband’s death; Peter Gizzi’s little poem (“In broad dazed light”) to which Perloff felt compelled to pad her commentary with Victorian-era biographical information on Gizzi; the “Buddhist abnegation” of John Cage’s cutting of “Howl,” a miserable little thing (which she absurdly claims is “musical!”) which nevertheless cannot be transposed into prose, thus passing, in its “abnegation,” the crucial Perloff litmus test for great poetry(??); or, finally, Charles Bernstein’s boring send-up of the ballad form, “All the Whiskey in Heaven.”  So Perloff had to come up with one example, at least, of “political engagment,’ and she picked a doozy—one that bespoke Perloff’s hatred of all Austrians (!!).

Perloff is to be congratulated for laying out her avant-garde politics and her avant-garde aesthetics in such detail.  She really pulled out all the stops, and this may be her last avant-garde hurrah, and the last hurrah for sickly Language Poetry, who knows?  In this essay she throws around terms like “Joycean” and “verbivocovisual.” She cheerfully quotes Kenneth Goldsmith’s urge for “uncreative writing”—all to Seth Abramson’s dismay, no doubt.

Perloff has done a great service to the world of poetry—for the backlash to her article will certainly dwarf its intended effect: to establish, once and for all, the worthiness of that experimental/political avant-garde poem for which no one presently gives a damn—except a few tweedy professors—and to push it out into the glorious mainsteam, where the good, the bad, the mean, the friendly, the evil and the weak, all prosper.

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.

THE SCARRIET 2011 FINAL FOUR

Poetic reputation: do we want to know how the sausage gets made?

Last year, the Scarriet Final Four, using David Lehman’s Best American Poetry volumes 1988 through 2009, was “That’s Not Butter” by Reb Livingston, “Composed Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” by Billy Collins, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, and “The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite” by William Kulik.

This year, using Berg and Vogelsang’s American Poetry Review’s anthology, The Body Electric, we got “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, “Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles, and “What They Wanted” by Stephen Dunn.  How the Brit Larkin slipped in, we’re not sure, but he was included in the APR, and won his games fair and square to advance to the Final Four.  Creedon, Dunn, and Myles are not exactly household words.

Last week Jeopardy! had an American Poetry category: Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Ginsberg were the five answers: Stevens‘ most famous poem, “The Emperor of Icecream,” drew a blank, as did Ginsberg and Hughes; only Frost and Nash were recognized by one of the three Jeopardy! contestants.

As we have watched a field of 64 get reduced to four, and then one, for two years now, we wonder if Scarriet’s March Madness Tourney is the only such competition in the world.

There are many who sneer at poetry and competition.  But look, when a poet wins a major prize today, when a poet wins recognition, should we really be so naive or hypocritical in convincing ourselves that the renown of someone like John Ashbery is not the result of poems and poets competing against each other?

And if not, what the hell is it?

What pushes someone like Ashbery to the top?

I ask this, because to win a March Madness Tournament, you have to have a poem entered that’s good enough to beat other poems, in match-up after match-up, and I don’t know that Ashbery has one poem that has that ‘breakthrough’ quality to win against “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, for instance.  Ashbery’s poems all read like clever jokes, and such poems don’t tend to win against the really accomplished poem of poignancy and beauty. I doubt an Ashbery poem could go very far in a March Madness Tournament, under the scrutiny of refs and rabid fans.

Ashbery defeated O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poetry Prize—one judge, Auden, played his own “March Madness Tournament,” after smoking a few hundred cigarettes, and Ashbery won that Tournament.   From a just issued review:

Wasley’s book [The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene, Princeton U. Press] vividly catalogues Auden’s social connections, friendships and influence among East Coast, Ivy League-educated, formal, emerging poets. Ginsberg and Ashbery wrote college essays on Auden; the pre-Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath adored Auden’s “burlap-textured voice”. We’re taken to parties and table talk, and to theatres where Auden explains a play’s reference to the entire mezzanine: “Shelley, my dears!” Still, must we learn who drilled the peephole to the toilet? Who looked?

This lineage study is redolent of smoking-jacket, anecdote and club. Auden dislikes the Yale Younger Poets submissions; he asks Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for manuscripts (or Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover, does); Ashbery’s poems are selected. Nowadays, if a public university manages its competitions this way, it will be exposed and condemned (as in the case of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series). Nearly everyone – poets, critics, even Wasley’s back-cover blurbers – is from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton.

Did you catch that?  Both Ashbery (Harvard) and Ginsberg (Columbia) wrote Ivy League college essays on Auden.

Iowa wasn’t the only place where the U.S. Poetry Workshop formula was being pushed in the 1940s; Allen Tate, one of the leading figures in the Anglo-American Modernist Clique—which got its ultimate marching orders from Pound and Eliot—started the ball rolling at Princeton, and Auden was Eliot’s chosen trans-Atlantic successor.

Maybe Chester Kallman ran into Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery, or Allen Ginsberg in a men’s room, and the rest is history?

Anyway, the point is, there’s always going to be competition—winners and losers—and to pretend this is not the situation, is silly.  To pretend ignorance only make the “winning” that much more dubious, and perhaps, unfair.

Note, also, how the work of Foetry.com (which exposed the U.GA Poetry Series when Alan Cordle caught Bin Ramke cheating) is now part of the normal poetry dialogue these days.  We hope you caught that, too.

Everyone in their hearts knows there are winners and losers in poetry; the question is, do we have the courage to make the process as transparent as possible?

CAROL MUSKE MESSES WITH JAMES SCHUYLER IN ROUND TWO, WEST BRACKET

Is it good when a woman kicks a man’s ass?

Some say poetry comes down to one thing: novel juxtaposition. What is metaphor if not this? Aristotle put Metaphor at the center, and the rest of ancient theories are concerned with proper and coherent imitation of life when humans jump up on stage. Modernity has not added anything new—only a few quirks and quibbles. The important modern critics like Poe (rigorously, classically) and Eliot (bizarrely, haphazardly) recall ancient standards. The rest is vanity.  Auden puts his finger on things in a letter to Frank O’Hara in 1955: “I think you (and John [Ashbery], too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.”

But to return to novel juxtaposition and proper and coherent imitation: Carol Muske’s poem, “A Former Love, A Lover of Form,” has it all: vivid elements which combine in surprising ways, actual life exemplified, concision, a leisurely observation of things which finally blossoms into a forceful, epigrammatic close.

James Schuyler, in “Red Brick and Brown Stone,” is anxious to present life vividly and concisely, even if it’s a lonely, boring one of stifling routine.

There is more distress in Muske’s poem, a greater novelty of juxtaposition, and hers finally has more intellectual interest.

Muske wins easily, 82-64.

Before we say goodbye to Schuyler, we should say a word about him, because his story is a typical one in modern American poetry: just as Pound was a secretary to an iconic Brit, Yeats,  Schuyler was a secretary to Auden. Later Schuyler became associated with O’Hara, Ashbery and the Modern Art culture in New York City (The New York School)—Schuyler’s roommate from 1961 to 1973 was the painter Fairfield Porter, trained at Harvard and the Art Student’s League, a post-WW II haven for Abstract and Pop artists. Schuyler rejected Auden’s formalism.

Welcome to the Sweet Sixteen, Carol Muske!

THE MEANING OF MARCH MADNESS

Ma, I lost.

There’s been a lot of buzz since Jack Hirschman’s “The Painting” went down in defeat to New Critic icon Robert Penn Warren’s “Night Walking” in the first round of play.

Hirschman’s poem, “The Painting” considered a controversial work of art, the banned “painting of the late black heroic/mayor of Chicago/in woman’s underwear,” a work of art as controversial as anything shown in the Salon des Refuses, if not more so, and surely still as controversial today, as then.

So what is an icon, and how is it made?  What is sacred, and how is the sacred constructed, and who is the sacred for?  Does meaning itself require that there be something sacred?  Is the sacred something found in life, or does it pre-date the things of this world?

Some find Scarriet’s March Madness itself an iconoclasm—one that does not respect its subjects, or the art.  (We find this objection nonsensical.)

Can you have art without iconoclasm?

Can you have art without icons?

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty &
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.
It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all. I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

& she didn’t
go, she
remains, a stain
on the bathtub
cover, along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
holes  four of
thens and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

Eileen Myles!  Has she got a chance against Frank O’Hara?

To John Ashbery on Szymanowski’s Birthday

Whitelight, keenair, someone
with a Polish accent: j’ai septembre,
et les milles-fois-retours d’Ashes,
like so many violins, from Paris.

The memory of seven sickening seconds
at the top of Carnegie Hall, where
the bow was pulled off its horse-hairs
and the insect suddenly started

humming, unwinding the silver cord
that binds the heart. That was
a concerto! simply-moving glacier
of northern sympathies, sliced banyans

wrapped in glistening green leaves,
lying in an enormous white freezing unit.
Did you practice the piano, John,
while you were gone? summoning thunder

as the delicate echoes of Slavic
nostalgia pretend to have defeated
Napoleon? and have, heaving into a
future of crystaline listening.

I am conducting you in his Symphonie
Concertante. Remember our successes
with the Weber Konzertstuck? It is no
repetition, when the marvelous

is like taking off your earmuffs
at the North Pole. I am writing to invite
you to the Polish Embassy for cocktails,
on this superb fall day, musicien americain.

Eileen Myles wins, 67-45 as her honest mysticism crushes O’Hara’s show-offy cuteness.

Marla, did you think Myles would have such an easy time with O’Hara?

MARLA MUSE: O’Hara shot clunkers all night, so I don’t know if the ‘real’ O’Hara showed up at all.  He had the moves, but the ball wasn’t going through the hoop.  O’Hara was like a comic who was on fire, but just not getting laughs.  Then he began to press…

Yes, Marla, and Myles just stayed within herself, played good defense, nothing fancy, but the result was an easy victory!

SEXISM RAMPANT IN PO-BIZ

Well of course it is.

Here’s why.  

The Modernist revolution was mostly male, and in terms of criticism, overwhelmingly so.    We are still in the shadow of that revolution, which featured William James, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, I.F Richards, Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Edmund Wilson, William Empson, Allen Tate, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Richard Blackmur, Robert Graves, W.S. Merwin, Yvor Winters, George Santayana, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Crowe Ransom, E.E. Cummings, Paul Engle,Robert Penn Warren, W.K Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner, M.L. Rosenthal, Robert Lowell, and Harold Bloom. 

This list is not just poets who happened to be men.   These men were not just poets; they shaped the critical outlook of our age. 

This outlook replaced the passions of the Romantic and Victorian heart with the mutterings of a priesthood, a male priesthood, thumping its chest about whatever the male talks about when he retires with his pals to smoke after dinner.  The male poets certainly didn’t agree about anything; this was no male conspiracy; they ranted and raved and chuckled and guffawed about the usual self-important male stuff, and the pomposity was almost sickening and terribly self-important: the Pounds and the Olsons hyperbolic and puffed up, the Ashberys and the O’Haras joking and sly, Thomas Eliot classical and aloof, D.H. Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg sexually vigorous, the New Critics, learned and doctrinaire, puffing on their pipes, it was all very male, 90%, even 95% male, with a few token females, H.D. and Marianne Moore enthusiastically following, just thrilled to belong to the club. 

And why should the women complain?  The general spirit of Modernism was more open and democratic than the Victorian mode had been; Edna Millay was a terrific poet, but she was a little too good in a Victorian, Romantic sort of way, so she wasn’t really allowed into the club, but in the long run, this was good for women, because Modernism, though it was run by males, really wasn’t about men lording it over women; the “parish of rich women” who bankrolled Yeats, Pound and Eliot were happy to give, and the women were right: even though women poets were far more plentiful and respected in the Victorian era than in the Modern one, eventually the general spirit of the Modern Age would prove beneficial to women.

Lady poets thrived in the 19th century, and when the lady poet was no more, a nadir was reached for women poets during the time Modernism vanquished Victorian manners: Modernist male poets and critics outnumbered Modernist female poets and critics in 1925 by 100 to 1, but today the ratio is now much closer to 50/50.

True, we find it shocking that poetry magazines feature men over women by 3-2, or 2-1 sometimes, but isn’t this better than 100-1?  If we judge by trends, historically the pendulum is swinging rapidly towards the female since the Golden Age of Modernism. 

Thanks to Modernism, men liberated women.

There were a few socio-cultural bumps along the way.  When WW II ended, the GI Bill saw millions of men newly studying liberal arts in the universities.   During the booming post-war economy women tended to be homemakers and nurses, not liberal arts college students, and as poetry became a place of grad school success, it took women a few generations to catch up in that regard.

But here’s the quesiton. 

Does the Muse care about gender? 

If all those males during the Modernist era were opening doors for women, setting the table for future women poets, even while Pound was at war with Amy Lowell and Hugh Kenner was dismissing Edna Millay, even though on the surface, male poets during the Modern era were not particularly nice to women, the sensibility of the Modern criticism and poetry, in its democratic and open impulses, was splendidly good for women.

So then: It’s not the gender of the poets that finally matters, it’s the poetry and the politics of the poetry itself.

When I hear males in po-biz now promising to include more women, I wonder: really?  Do the poems know about this?   Must the poems know the gender of their authors?   Should poems be gender-aware?  And why?  Isn’t that all very Victorian?

Should poets be bean-counters?

If twice as many men submit poems to a magazine, for instance, should editors really pick and choose just to make the numbers match up?

The Romantics, like the Moderns, were mostly male, but there was a difference.  The Romantics featured effeminate men, like Shelley, a blending of the male and the female.  One could argue that a sensitive man is better than either gender stereotypically itself. 

A sensitive man is the essence of poetry. 

A sensitive man solves everything. 

Equality of the sexes is something that is fought for outside of the poem.

The dyer’s hand is not gendered.  The poem is not male or female.  The poem is where male and female mingle in order to disappear.

Or, we could argue, instead, that women shouldn’t disappear in poetry, but assert themselves.  But how?  As women?  But again, isn’t that putting roles into the mix, and isn’t that old-fashioned and Victorian?  Isn’t that what Modernism got us away from?

It’s rather a lose-lose proposition: push for the female, and you regress, push for the genderless, and you banish the very gender you are supposed to defend.

I’m a man, and I’m baffled by the whole issue.

What else is new?

READING WALLACE STEVENS IS LIKE…

Here’s how the game works.  

Let’s start with Homer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT TO DO ABOUT MODERNIST CRACKPOTISM?

Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedroll
Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole
And the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul
To the old folks home and the college

Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge

Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues” (1965)

There is nothing wrong with crackpotism and literary experimentation in the salons; it is certainly welcome in private places; but what happens when it’s fed to the young?    

Crackpotism is harmless unless it becomes institutionalized, and corrupts and confuses millions of young people.   The very clever may assimilate themselves to the crackpotism of the system and thrive in it, eventually becoming crackpot professors, but the vast majority of students, once exposed to modernist crackpotism, never read literature or philosophy again.  

In our review of the Norton (2003) Vol. I of Modern poetry, we found that 16% of the pages were devoted to “poetics,” and remarked on its poor quality.   Poetry has no need for Apology or Defense; no one bothers to attack it anymore—because poetry no longer has a public; thus the reason for “poetics” is drying up.

We would expect things only to get worse; and it has.  If we look at Norton’s Vol. II Contemporary Poetry volume, we find merely 8% of its pages devoted to “poetics” and gibberish is even more the norm:

Olson:  Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed to have the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions.

Dylan Thomas:  If you want a definition of poetry, say: ‘Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing’ and let it go at that.

Larkin:  But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on.

Frank O’Hara:  But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them.  Improves them for what?  Death?

Ginsberg:  Mind is shapely, art is shapely.  Meaning mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image and gets to last thoughts.  Loose ghosts wailing for body try to invade the bodies…

Baraka:  The most successful fiction of most Negro writing is in its emotional content.

Levertov:  Rhyme, chime, echo, reiteration: they not only serve to knit the elements of an experience but often are the very means, the sole means, by which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception can be transmuted into language, apperceived.

Rich:  Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

Heaney:  Looking back on it, I believe there was a connection, not obvious at the time but, on reflection, real enough, between the heavily accented consonantal noise of Hopkins’s poetic voice, and the peculiar regional characteristics of a Northern Ireland accent.

Louise Bennett:  Aunty Roachy seh dat if Jamaican Dialec is corruption of de English Language, den it is also a corruption of de African Twi Language to, a oh!

Charles Bernstein:  Not “death” of the referent—rather a recharged use of the multivalent referential vectors that any word has, how words in combination tone and modify the associations made for each of them, how ‘reference’ then is not a one-on-one relation to an ‘object’ but a perceptual dimension that closes in to pinpoint, nail down (this word), sputters omnitropically (the in in the which of who where what wells), refuses the build up of image track/projection while, pointillistically, fixing a reference at each turn (fills vats ago lodges spire), or, that much rarer case…

A.K Ramanujan:  One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers.  When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.”

Derek Walcott:  Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow…

And we are done.  We have represented all the writers on “poetics” from this 1,200 page anthology, and I believe we are correct when we say these excerpts speak for themselves, and require no commentary.

THE WUSSY POETS

CATULLUS (Foul-mouthed gossip)

TRISTAN CORBIERE (Sickly & sarcastic)

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (Sage, married into money)

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (Professor, married into money)

ROBERT FROST (Teacher, Grump)

WALLACE STEVENS (Got his ass kicked in Key West)

JOHN CROWE RANSOM (Academic, his ashes reside on Kenyon campus)

ALDOUS HUXLEY (Pampered aristocrat, extremely near-sighted)

T.S ELIOT (Bank Clerk)

PAUL VALERY (Wretched Pedant)

W.H. AUDEN (Disowned a poem when someone didn’t like a line)

ALLEN GINSBERG (Slept until noon-ish)

PHILIP LARKIN (Smut addict, librarian)

FRANK O’HARA (Wrote poem about Lana Turner)

JOHN ASHBERY (Wrote poem about Daffy Duck)

TONY HOAGLAND, STAND-UP COMIC?

When he gets on a roll, Tony Hoagland is very entertaining, almost like a warm-up act for a big name comic; but then he’ll veer suddenly towards the more serious—like films with famous comics that display the comic’s sad, sentimental side: behind the laughter there’s a wound needing love, honesty and affection.

The themes of Hoagland’s poems, such as ‘men are such clods, will women ever really love them?’ are perfect stand-up comedy material.  Hoagland is not fully ‘stand-up,’ though, because he can’t get the non-poetry guys who have been dragged to his readings by their pretty poet girlfriends to laugh along; Hoagland cannot reach that audience; I imagine if he could, he would be making millions with his comedy, and not merely a thousand here or there with his poems.  But comedy has that problem, too; if you really connect with the males in the audience, there might be some females in the audience who hate you, and vice versa.  Comedy is about hate as much as it is about laughter. 

If there’s no one being ridiculed in some way, there’s no comedy.  We all know that all men are not clods, but the comic goes with this idea and we laugh because…well maybe all men are…we don’t finally know and our implicit ignorance is what unconsciously makes us laughwe are being ridiculed—for our intellectual nature which is trapped in categories.   We laugh at ourselves by participating in categories; we are those failures being ridiculed the moment we accept the comic’s categories: men, women, whites, blacks, Democrats, Republicans, etc.  To laugh is to intellectually surrender to an abstraction—this is the basis of all humor.  It is the lowest form of communication: low, but powerful.  Humor is the intellectuality of the unlearned, and humor’s intellectual force is all the more powerful for not being understood as such. 

I saw the poet Hoagland read in Salem, Massachusetts the night before last at the Salem Athenaeum.  

Salem State College, which sponsored the reading, also was in the middle of a student invitational poetry seminar; college students read their poems before Hoagland took the stage. 

The difference between the students and Hoagland, the U.  Houston professor, was startling.  The students’ poems were heartfelt, some were even metaphorically interesting, if somewhat artless and sentimental.   The chief difference between the students and Hoagland was that Hoagland exploited categories: the student poets (they were all female) read poems about some particular man; Hoagland poems were about men, or some category, and thus his poems rose to the level of humor, and when they weren’t humorous, they were metaphoric in a very grandiose way; in one Hoagland poem which recalled an ex-lover’s sexy body, a graveyard was the analagous relic: bodies, graveyards…Hoagland’s abstractions are…palpably abstract.  Thus, funny.

Hoagland confessed that he was a bad poet for many years, didn’t learn anything from Iowa in the 1970s…”my teachers told me my poems didn’t work…I knew they didn’t work!”  Another insight about Iowa in the 1970s: “I couldn’t believe how depressed and serious everyone was…this was before anti-depressents!   How many poems could people write about Italian statuary?  I knew I didn’t want to be a funereal poet.”

Bad poetry in the 1970s was serious poetry unintentionally funny; and why?  Because it couldn’t avoid the landmine of the grandiose; the details kept sliding away into categories and abstractions.  Like visiting an ex-lover’s body in one’s mind and comparing this mental visit to visiting a graveyard?  We’ve all seen it, known it, done it, and poets who were writing in the 1970s espcially know this, and Hoagland, by his own admission, was writing this bad stuff in the 1970s, and he also realized he didn’t want to be too serious.

Enter the Iowa poem of the 1980s: Billy Collins and Mark Levine and Dean Young and Tony Hoagland.  The serious poets who lived through the Great Depression and World War Two and the Bomb and the Vietnam War gave way to a Ironic, Smart-Aleck, “What, Me Worry?” Generation who grew into poetic awareness during the goofy, corporate 1970s, and learned from O’Hara and Ashbery and Koch, the funny guys from the 1950s, when TV comedy was on the rise and things were relatively prosperous and stable.

The invention of the funny Worskshop poem of the 1980s was the bad 1970s Workshop poem diligently pursued until it worked as comedy.

Hoagland is overtly 1960s as well; this is where Hoagland parts ways with a sophisticated, apolitical, and essentially 1950s poet, like Ashbery.  Ashbery kids in a blank sort of way; Hoagland wants to talk about what’s real, man.  Hoagland is exciting in a curious, engaged, politically and socially sincere, albeit somewhat naive, 1960s kind of way.

I reflected on why Hoagland and many other poets have taken on a 1960s sensibility even as society at large has passed it by, and then it struck me: the demographics of the 60s was such that half the population was under 30, and what is the MFA teacher’s audience?  Twenty-somethings.  Voila!  The MFA is a demographic microcosm of the 60s.

Peace.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ASHBERY

Scarriet:  Hi, John.  I’ve always wanted to interview you.  What do your poems mean, anyway?

Ashbery:  I don’t know.

S:  OK, let’s move on…let’s talk about your ballclub, the Brooklyn Ashberys.

A:  Sure.

S:  Three weeks ago, your team was 8-20, in last place in the Scarriet  American League, 11 games out.   Since then, you’ve moved to within 2 games of .500, winning 15 of 20, and now you trail the first-place Longfellows by just 6 games, with a little over two-thirds of the season to go.  What happened?

A:  We’ve been doing better…

S:  Why?  Was it the addition of Al [Albert Camus] and Sal [Salvador Dali]? Look at their numbers since they’ve been in your lineup: Dali, 12 homers in May, Camus, 26 RBIs.  And what about [Andy] Warhol’s turn-around?  He made that crucial throwing error to go 0-6, but since then he’s 4-0.

A:  Andy has turned it around…

S:  You swept the first place Lowells.  How did that feel?

A:  It felt pretty good…

S:  You knocked them right out of first, capping a 16-4 run last week…Andrew Marvell threw a shutout in that series, and 2 games later, recent acquisition Rae Armantrout picked up a win in relief while getting the winning hit in extra innings in a 7-6 thriller!

A:  It was thrilling, yes.

S:  And this weekend you came into Philadelphia and split a 4 game series with the Poe—Wittgenstein blanking the Poe in game one.  That must have made you feel great!

A:  It did.

S:  This has to be so amazing for you, watching Lord Bacon pitch…seeing Marvell out-duel Shelley as your team wins 2-1…What do you think of all this?

A:  Frank needs to get on base more…

S:  O’Hara!  I was going to ask you about him.  He’s not doing much at the top of your lineup so far this season…James Tate has picked it up, though…

A:  Yes.

S:  O’Hara seems a little impatient at the plate…

A:  We need him to score…(starting to cry)

S:  Are you OK, John?

A:  I’m fine, I’m fine.

S:  Well, congratulations on a fine season so far…it’s a lot of pressure…poetry and…I know you want to win…OK…thanks, John!

A:  Thank you.

Now here’s the Standings with Top Performers so far…

NL

1. Camb Longfellows  29-19  GB -    Top hitters: A. Manzoni, Dante, W. Irving,  Pitching Leaders:  Horace 7-3, G.W. Greene 6-2, Ticknor 5-3

2. Bos Lowells        28-20  GB 1  Hitters: R. Browning, Chaucer, J. Pierpont,  Pitchers: Henry Adams 6-1, O.W. Holmes 4-2

3. Phil Poe              27-21  GB 2   Dostoevsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Fanny Osgood, Pitchers: Pope 6-4, Lord Bacon 6-1

4. NY Bryants        26-22 GB 3   Thomas Cole, James Fenimore Cooper, Pitchers: Abe Lincoln 5-4, Alexander Hamilton 5-4

5. Concord Emersons    25-23  GB 4   Swedenborg, Carlyle, Thoreau, Pitchers: William James 5-4, W.E. Channing 5-2

6. Maine Millays         24-24  GB  5   George Dillon, Shakespeare, Euclid, Pitchers: Philip Sidney 6-2, Sophocles 4-3

7. Brklyn Ashberys     23-25  GB 6   W.H.Auden, Dali, Camus, Sartre, Pitchers: Wittgenstein 5-3, Andrew Marvell 5-4

8. Hartford  Whittiers      21-27  GB 8   Dickens, Alice Walker, Pitchers: William Lloyd Garrison 6-5, Richard Wright 2-1

9. Tenn Ransom       20-28  GB 9   Andrew Nelson Lytle, L. Trilling, Pitchers: Randall Jarrell 6-2, I.A. Richards 4-3

10. NJ Ginsbergs    17-31 GB 12  Bob Dylan, Pitcher: Mark Van Doren 6-4

AL

1. London Eliots           30-18  GB -   Top Hitters: Donne, Aldous Huxley, Top Pitchers: B. Russell 8-2, Churchill 5-1, Corbiere 6-2

2. Amherst Emily          29-19  GB 1    Plath, Keats, Austin Dickinson, Pitchers: Higginson 5-4, Virgil 6-3, Sam Bowles 5-1

3. Hartford Stevens      26-22 GB 4   Mallarme, Hollander, Pitchers: Santayana 5-3, Vendler 6-2, Debussy 3-1

4. NE Frost           26-22 GB 4   Larkin, Wordsworth, Donald Hall, Pitchers: Carl Sandburg 6-4, Bobby Burns 6-2

5. Rapallo Pound         25-23 GB 5   Ford M. Ford, W. Lewis, Villon, Pitchers: R. Wagner 4-0, Olga Rudge 4-1, Sade 2-0

6. Iowa City Grahams     24-24 GB 6   Robert Pinsky, Donald Justice, Pitchers: Ramke 6-4, Winters 5-4, Sontag 3-1

7. NJ Williams      22-26  GB 8   Gary Snyder, R. Duncan, Pitchers: P. Whalen 6-3, R. Silliman 4-2, Stravinksy 3-0

8. Brklyn Whitmans    21-27  GB: 9   William Rossetti, Ferlinghetti, Pitchers: Oscar Wilde 7-4, Swinburne 6-3

9. Camb Cummings   20-28 GB 10   A. MacLeish, J. Dos Passos, Pitcher: Sigmund Freud 4-0

10. NY Moores        17-31 GB 13   Lincoln Kirstein, Pitcher: Stevie Smith 2-0

The Brooklyn Ashberys have been on fire since adding Dali, Camus Sartre, and Ionesco.

The Cambridge Cummings have been lifted by the addition of Freud.  

The Rapallo Pound adding Sade, H.G. Wells, and Blavatsky to their pitching staff has paid off handsomely so far.

The Concord Emersons continue to win despite poor performances from Marx and Nietzsche.

The Tennessee Ransom has struggled recently despite Aristotle in the middle of the lineup.

The London Eliots are a monster since the addition of Churchill and Huxley.

The Cambridge Longfellows have quietly moved into first, getting good contributions from foreign writers and splitting 8 tough games with the Philadelphia Poe.

The Boston Lowells remain hot, despite getting swept by the surging Ashberys.

 Poe has taken 7 of 8 from Emerson.   Jingle that.

KOCH ME IF YOU CAN: REB LIVINGSTON TRIES FOR ELITE EIGHT

“A Time Zone” by Kenneth Koch begins with a quote from Apollinaire, which we won’t look at, because first, it’s in French, and secondly, the French have never understood poetry as competition; they understand it as wine or as a pancake.

LivingstonReb Livingston.  Sigh.  Does she have a chance?  Marla?

She does.

It’s the semi-final in the South Bracket. OK, let’s get right to it.  The Koch poem is a little self-indulgent and at times boring and David Lehman’s interested in the New York School so you know why this poem got in there but here it is in Sweet 16 do I really like this poem I don’t know I do love the ending, though:

De Kooning’s landscapy woman is full of double-exposure perfections
Bob Goodnough is making some small flat red corrections
Jane is concentrating she’s frowning she has a look of happy distress
She’s painting her own portrait in a long-sleeved dark pink dress
I’m excited I’m writing at my typewriter it doesn’t make too much sense

What about this, Marla?  Too patchy, name-droppy and cut-out, too satisfied with its snapshot surfaces?

Tom, Kenneth Koch is unfortunate for one thing.   His name is… Kenneth.  Imagine if he had a name like John…or Frank.  He’d be huge.  He’d be unstoppable.  You can’t top that “long-sleeved dark pink dress.”  I know.  I’ve been a Muse for a long time…  Koch’s poem is witty, smart, fun…

Fun?  Did you just call a poem fun?

I’VE BEEN A MUSE TO THE STARS FOR TWO MILLENNIA.

Sorry, Marla.

Here’s another clip of Koch and his “A Time Zone:”

At a John Cage concert there’s hardly a sound
It’s the paradise of music lost and music found
I find it pure and great as if a great big flash of light were going off underground
Satie and Webern are hitting me in the head and so finally with The Cantos is Ezra Pound
Frank and I are writing very long poems

Reb Livingston looks very nervous.  “That’s Not Butter,” according to Reb, is “loosely based on Little Black Sambo, a once-popular children’s story no longer taught due to its offensive racial characterizations. Few people my age are familiar with the story or its history, although my kindergarten teacher read it to our class. As young children oblivious to British imperialism, we loved the tale because to us it was about pancakes and a little boy who outsmarted tigers.”

“Long poems” v. a story in kindergarten.  Marla, does Livingston really have a chance?

The Muse has a tender heart, Tom.  Livingston has a certain look in her eye.  Uhhh…Kenneth’s clothes are slightly unkempt.  Uhhh…anything can happen.

The opening 6 lines of “That’s Not Butter:”

Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.
No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.
The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,
mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.

Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,
like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese, and church bazaars.

Here is world of “divorce” and Chuck E. Cheese.  We all know this world: crass, yet plastic and efficient.  Unpoetic.

“That’s Not Butter” is a twist on Lewis Carroll: Alice (and her young companions) are as nasty as the Red Queen, while animal citizens of this Wonderland are normal, sane, and helpful.  Livingston shows modern children as menacing rather than innocent, but “That’s Not Butter” is more than just an anti-Rousseauian treatise.  The poet is not saying childhood is lost, so much as it is here, with a vengeance.  Capitalism’s efficiency produces a host of superficial choices and turns adults into egotistical children.  By using “Little Black Sambo” as sub-text, Livingston does two interesting things.  First, she contrasts the Victorian tale’s “beautiful little red coats” and “beautiful little blue trousers” with clothes “purchased at Sears, mass produced.”  Secondly, she sidesteps the famous racial controversy of that tale, focusing instead on “gangsta” kids in a Benneton universe of diversity and scheming opportunity.  Livingston’s social commentary is funny, spot on, and brutally honest.  Koch’s “A Time Zone” seems almost quaint by comparison.

Reb Livingston’s poem closes as follows:

“Can we smoke that?” inquired Little Speckled Sarah.
“I don’t think so, but I bet we could cook with it,” said Little Freckled Furman.
So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers
and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.

When the mothers saw the melted butter, they were pleased!
“Now we’ll all have pancakes for supper!” and the whole family
sat around a huge big plate of most lovely
pancakes, yellow and brown as little tigers.  The mothers each ate
twenty-seven pancakes, the fathers came over and each ate fifty-five,
and the children each ate a hundred and sixty-nine
because they were so hungry.

So Reb Livingston steps into a lot of themes.  Koch passes to Jane who throws it inside to Rivers back outside to Ashbery who broods with it near mid-court, then chuckles and passes to O’Hara who drives hard, puts it up, off the rim, rebound Koch…Koch to Ballanchine to Freilicher, too many players on the court, whistle.  Reb has the ball, to a tiger, another tiger, back to Reb, a pass to Little Taupe Tabitha, who smirks, then laughs, and puts it up…GOOD!  What’s this?  It’s over?  I don’t belive it!  Livingston wins!  Livingston wins!   It’s official!  Reb Livingston is in the Elite Eight!

Marla?…when you get a chance…Marla, are you there…?…show the people at  home the whole poem…the fans are going crazy!….we’re getting mobbed here…!  Help…! 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S. POETRY: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

1650 Anne Bradstreet’s The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America: By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts published in London.

1773 Phillis Wheatley, a slave, publishes Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

1791 The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is published in Paris, in French.  Ben Franklin’s Autobiography appears in London, for the first time in English, two years later.   Had it been published in America, the Europeans would have laughed.  The American experiment isn’t going to last, anyway.

Franklin, the practical man, the scientist, and America’s true founding father, weighs in on poetry: it’s frivolous.

1794  Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey make plans to go to Pennsylvania in a communal living experiment, but their personalities clash and the plan is aborted.  Southey becomes British Poet Laureate twenty years later.

1803  William Blake, author of “America: A Prophecy” is accused of crying out “Damn the King!” in Sussex, England, narrowly escaping imprisonment for treason.

1815  George Ticknor, before becoming literature Chair at Harvard, travels to Europe for 4 years, spending 17 months in Germany.

1817  “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant appears in the North American Review.

1824  Byron dies in Greece.

1824  Lafayette, during tour of U.S, calls on Edgar Poe’s grandmother, revolutionary war veteran widow.

1832  Washington Irving edits London edition of William Cullen Bryant’s Poems to avoid politically offending British readers.

1835 Massachusetts senator and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier mobbed and stoned in Concord, New Hampshire.

1835  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow appointed Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard.

1836  Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes 500 copies of Divinity School Address anonymously.  He will not publish another book for 6 years.

1838  Poe’s translated work begins appearing in Russia.

1843  Transcendentalist, Unitarian minister, Harvard Divinity School student Christopher Pearse Cranch marries the sister of T.S. Eliot’s Unitarian grandfather; dedicates Poems to Emerson, published in The Dial, a magazine edited by Margaret Fuller and Emerson; frequent visitor to Brook Farm.  Cranch is more musical and sensuous than Emerson; even Poe can tolerate him; Cranch’s poem “Enosis” pre-figures Baudelaire’s “Correspondences.”

T.S. Eliot’s family is deeply rooted in New England Unitarianism and Transcendentalism through Cranch and Emerson’s connection to his grandfather, Harvard Divinity graduate, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington U., St. Louis.

1845  Elizabeth Barrett writes Poe with news of “The Raven’s” popularity in England.  The poem appeared in a daily American newspaper and produced instant fame, though Poe’s reputation as a critic and leader of the Magazine Era was well-established.  During this period Poe coins “Heresy of the Didactic” and “A Long Poem Does Not Exist.”  In a review of Barrett’s 1840 volume of poems which led to Barrett’s fame before she met Robert Browning, Poe introduced his piece by saying he would not, as was typically done, review her work superficially because she was a woman.

1847  Ralph Waldo Emerson is in England, earning his living as an orator.

1848  Charles Baudelaire’s first translations of Poe appear in France.

1848  James Russell Lowell publishes “A Fable For Critics” anonymously.

1848 Female Poets of America, an anthology of poems by American women, is published by the powerful and influential anthologist, Rufus Griswold—who believes women naturally write a different kind of poetry.  Griswold’s earlier success, The Poets and Poetry of America (1842) contains 3 poems by Poe and 45 by Griswold’s friend, Charles Fenno Hoffman. In a review, Poe remarks that readers of anthologies buy them to see if they are in them.

1848  Poe publishes Eureka and the Rationale of Verse, exceptional works on the universe and verse.

1849 Edgar Poe is murdered in Baltimore; leading periodicals ignore strange circumstances of Poe’s death and one, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, hires Griswold (who signs his piece ‘Ludwig’) to take the occasion to attack the character of the poet.

1855 Griswold reviews Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and calls it a “mass of stupid filth.”  The hated Griswold, whose second “wife” was a man, also lets the world know in his review that Whitman is a homosexual.  Whitman later includes the Griswold review in one of his editions of Leaves.

1856  English Traits, extolling the English race and the English people, saying it was English “character” that vanquished India, is published in the U.S. and England, by poet and new age priest Ralph Waldo Emerson, as England waits for the inevitable Civil War to tear her rival, America, apart.

1859.  In a conversation with William Dean Howells, Emerson calls Hawthorne’s latest book “mush” and furiously calls Poe “the jingle man.”

1860  William Cullen Bryant introduces Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union; the poet advises the new president on his cabinet selection.

1867  First collection of African American “Slave Songs” published.

1883  “The New Colossus” is composed by Emma Lazarus; engraved on the Statue of Liberty, 1903

1883  Poems of Passion by Ella Wheeler Wilcox rejected by publisher on grounds of immorality.

1888 “Casey at the Bat” published anonymously. The author, Ernest Thayer, does not become known as the author of the poem until 1909.

1890  Emily Dickinson’s posthumous book published by Mabel Todd and Thomas Higginson.  William Dean Howells gives it a good review, and it sells well.

1893  William James, Emerson’s godson, becomes Gertrude Stein’s influential professor at Harvard.

1897  Wallace Stevens enters Harvard, falling under the spell of William James, as well as George Santayana.

1904  Yone Noguchi publishes “Proposal to American Poets” as the Haiku and Imagism rage begins in the United States and Britain.

1910  John Crowe Ransom, Fugitive, Southern Agrarian, New Critic, takes a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

1910  John Lomax publishes “Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads.”

1912  Harriet Monroe founds Poetry magazine; in 1880s attended literary gatherings in New York with William Dean Howells and Richard Henry Stoddard (Poe biographer) and in 1890s met Whistler, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Aubrey BeardsleyEzra Pound is Poetry’s London editor.

1913  American Imagist poet H.D. marries British Imagist poet Richard Aldington.

1914  Ezra Pound works as Yeats‘ secretary in Sussex, England.

1915  Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology published.  Masters was law partner of Clarence Darrow.

1917  Robert Frost begins teaching at Amherst College.

1920  “The Sacred Wood” by T.S. Eliot, banker, London.

1921  Margaret Anderson’s Little Review loses court case and is declared obscene for publishing a portion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is banned in the United States.  Random House immediately tries to get the ban lifted in order to publish the work.

1922  T.S.Eliot’s “The Waste Land” awarded The Dial Prize.

1922  D.H Lawrence and Frieda stay with Mabel Dodge in Taos, New Mexico.

1923  Edna St. Vincent Millay wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1923  William Butler Yeats wins Nobel Prize for Literature

1924  Robert Frost wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1924  Ford Madox Ford founds the Transatlantic Review.   Stays with Allen Tate and Robert Lowell in his lengthy sojourn to America.

1924  Marianne Moore wins The Dial Prize; becomes editor of The Dial the next year.

1924  James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children opens.

1925  E.E. Cummings wins The Dial Prize.

1926  Yaddo Artist Colony opens

1927  Walt Whitman biography wins Pulitzer Prize

1930  “I’ll Take My Stand” published by Fugitive/Southern Agrarians and future New Critics, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Allan Tate defend ways of the Old South.

1932  Paul Engle wins Yale Younger Poet Prize, judged by member of John Crowe Ransom’s Fugitive circle.  Engle, a prolific fundraiser, builds the Iowa Workshop into a Program Writing Empire.

1933  T.S. Eliot delivers his speech on “free-thinking jews” at the University of Virginia.

1934  “Is Verse A Dying Technique?” published by Edmund Wilson.

1936  New Directions founded by Harvard sophomore James Laughlin.

1937  Robert Lowell camps out in Allen Tate’s yard.  Lowell has left Harvard to study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College.

1938  First Edition of textbook Understanding Poetry by Fugitives Brooks and Warren, helps to canonize unread poets like Williams and Pound.

1938  Aldous Huxley moves to Hollywood.

1939  Allen Tate starts Writing Program at Princeton.

1939  W.H. Auden moves to the United States and earns living as college professor.

1940  Mark Van Doren is awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

1943  Ezra Pound indicted for treason by the United States government.

1946  Wallace Stegner founds Stanford Writing Program.  Yvor Winters will teach Pinsky, Haas, Hall and Gunn.

1948  Pete Seeger, nephew of WW I poet Alan Seeger (“I Have A Rendevous With Death”) forms The Weavers, the first singer-songwriter ‘band’ in the rock era.

1948  T.S. Eliot wins Nobel Prize

1949  T.S. Eliot attacks Poe in From Poe To Valery

1949  Ezra Pound is awarded the Bollingen Prize.  The poet Robert Hillyer protests and Congress resolves its Library will no longer fund the award.  Hillyer accuses Paul Melon, T.S. Eliot and New Critics of a fascist conspiracy.

1950  William Carlos Williams wins first National Book Award for Poetry

1950  Gwendolyn Brooks wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1951  John Crowe Ransom is awarded the Bollingen.

1953  Dylan Thomas dies in New York City.

1954  Theodore Roethke wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1957  Allen Tate is awarded the Bollingen.

1957  “Howl” by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg triumphs in obscenity trial as the judge finds book “socially redeeming;” wins publicity in Time & Life.

1957  New Poets of England and America, Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simspon, eds.

1959  Carl Sandburg wins Grammy for Best Performance – Documentary Or Spoken Word (Other Than Comedy) for his recording of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the New York Philharmonic.

1959  M.L Rosenthal coins the term “Confessional Poetry” in The Nation as he pays homage to Robert Lowell.

1960  New American Poetry 1945-1960, Donald Allen, editor.

1961  Yvor Winters is awarded the Bollingen.

1961  Denise Levertov becomes poetry editor of The Nation.

1961  Louis Untermeyer appointed Poet Laureate Consultant In Poetry To the Library of Congress (1961-63)

1962  Sylvia Plath takes her own life in London.

1964  John Crowe Ransom wins The National Book Award for Selected Poems.

1964  Keats biography by Jackson Bate wins Pulitzer.

1965  Horace Gregory is awarded the Bollingen.  Gregory had attacked the poetic reputation of Edna Millay.

1967  Anne Sexton wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1968  Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, directed by Zeffirelli, nominated for Best Picture by Hollywood.

1971  The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner published.  Kenner, a friend of William F. Buckley, Jr., saved Pound’s reputation with this work; Kenner also savaged the reputation of Edna Millay.

1971  W.S Merwin wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1972  John Berryman jumps to his death off bridge near University of Minnesota.

Berryman, the most “Romantic” of the New Critics (he was educated by them) is considered by far the best Workshop teacher by many prize-winning poets he taught, such as Phil Levine, Snodgrass, and Don Justice.  Berryman’s classes in the 50′s were filled with future prize-winners, not because he and his students were great, but because his students were on the ground-floor of the Writing Program era, the early, heady days of pyramid scheme mania—characterized by Berryman’s imbalanced, poetry-is-everything personality.

1972  Frank O’Hara wins National Book Award for Collected Poems

1975  Gary Snyder wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1976  Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s novel on Delmore Schwartz, wins Pulitzer.

1978  Language magazine, Bernstein & Andrews, begins 4 year run.  Bernstein studied J.L Austin’s brand of ‘ordinary language philosophy’ at Harvard.

1980  Helen Vendler wins National Book Critics Circle Award

1981 Seamus Heaney becomes Harvard visiting professor.

1981  Derek Walcott founds Boston Playwrights’ Theater at Boston University.

1981  Oscar Wilde biography by Ellman wins Pulitzer.

1982  Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems wins Pulitzer.

1984  Harold Bloom savagely attacks Poe in review of Poe’s Library of America works (2 vol) in New York Review of Books, repeating similar attacks by Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot.

1984  Marc Smith founds Slam Poetry in Chicago.

1984  Mary Oliver is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1986  Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a novel in verse, is published.

1987  The movie “Barfly” depicts life of Charles Bukowski.

1988  David Lehman’s Best American Poetry Series debuts with John Ashbery as first guest editor.  The first words of the first poem (by A.R. Ammons) in the Series are: William James.

1991  “Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is published in The Atlantic. According to the author, poetry has become an incestuous viper’s pit of academic hucksters.

1996  Jorie Graham wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

1999  Peter Sacks wins Georgia Prize.

1999  Billy Collins signs 3-book, 6-figure deal with Random House.

2002  Ron Silliman’s Blog founded.

2002  Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club wins Pulitzer Prize.

2002  Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems published.

2004  Foetry.com founded by Alan Cordle. Shortly before his death, Robert Creeley defends his poetry colleagues on Foetry.com.

2004  Franz Wright wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005 Ted Kooser wins Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

2005  William Logan wins National Book Critics Circle Award

2006  Fulcrum No. 5 appears, featuring works of Landis Everson and his editor, Ben Mazer, also Eliot Weinberger, Glyn Maxwell, Joe Green, and Marjorie Perloff.

2007 Joan Houlihan dismisses Foetry.com as “losers” in a Poets & Writers letter. Defends the integrity of both Georgia and Tupelo, failing to mention Levine is her publisher and business partner.

2007  Paul Muldoon succeeds Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker.

2008 Poets & Writers bans Thomas Brady and Christopher Woodman from its Forum. The Academy of American Poetry On-Line Editor, Robin Beth Schaer, is shortlisted for the Snowbound Series prize by Tupelo at the same time as Poets.org bans Christopher Woodman for mentioning the P&W letter as well.

2009  The Program Era by Mark McGurl, published by Harvard University Press

2009  Following the mass banning of Alan Cordle, Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman from Harriet, the blog of The Poetry Foundation, a rival poetry site is formed: Scarriet.

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

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