We believe that poetry can be popular again.

If the best poems by our poets were consistently and selflessly collected, advertised, anthologized, and taught, so that work of true merit were allowed to circulate in the public and academic spheres, the art would regain its former status as one of the fine arts.

After years of Modernist propaganda, poetry is equated with basket-weaving and the trinket market. The public at large views poetry as self-indulgent, as does the remaining professional class of poets and teachers of poetry—who define their poetry as whatever is stripped of all self-indulgence.  But the “self” has nothing to do with it.  Self-indulgence will always accompany the genius and the flub alike: great athletes can be self-indulgent, as can any great artist.  But they are still great athletes and great artists.  To make a rule that poetry ought not to be self-indulgent, ought not to be an indulgence, a selfish act, or express aspects of the self, misses the whole point: it only matters if poetry aspires to win both the critical and popular judgment, and it matters not how this is done, as long as it is done.

The poet who scorns popular taste is a cold-blooded creature; a lizard happy to stay where the rock is warmed by the slanting rays of his or her coterie.

The poet who scorns the critical taste, who is happy to be unread and unlearned, and who seeks to please only with crude sensationalism, cheap politics, and coarse music, is the jelly-fish feeding in warm shallows, eventually blending in with its surrounding element, and, when all is said and done, finally making less of an impact than the cold-blooded lizard on his rock.

The poet, however, who does both: who loves the public and is able to please this child of the ages—for here is humanity waiting to be fed—and pleases the select, the elite, the learned at the same time, is the true poet.

All sorts of excuses and obstacles exist to prevent this happy occasion: the trouble really began when Modernism cashed in on the idea that artistic and offensive were the same thing.

This wasn’t just a matter of a few crackpot theorists in the 1920s converting the world to their view, because the public, as gullible and distracted as it sometimes is, is not that easily persuaded.  What happened in the early 20th century was that art fraud made such a killing, art has not been the same since.  Modern art—the kind the public found to be rubbish—was bought cheap by insiders with a lot of money, and then, after critics and museums were purchased to increase the value of what had been bought, the insiders with a lot of money made even more money, so much money, that fraud became beautiful, and reality, by money, was turned upside down.  The ugly was now beautiful because the dollar said it was so.  The poet or artist once had to be talented—now they merely had to know the right people and cash in on fraud.  People like William James and John Dewey and Getrude Stein (she and her brother Leo belonged to those insiders with money who bought art for little that would soon make a lot) made it happen.  It is no accident that William James was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s godson, and that Gertrude Stein, taught by William James at Harvard, not only impacted modern art, but modern poetry, and John Ashbery wrote about Gertrude Stein, and O’Hara and Ashbery were in the Modern Art scene.  This wasn’t an accident.  Scams need scam artists and the best scam artists appear respectable, and the greatest scam artists pass for artists—or poets, or philosophers, or art critics.

Fraud, unfortunately, makes a great deal of money, so much money, that fraud then becomes the philosophical, economic, and aesthetic coin of the realm.

But we shouldn’t be too depressed by all this.  Beauty and wisdom and life remain—and laughter—as the wise laugh at the frauds.

Poems are still written and songs are still sung which are not offensive, which please both the popular and the critical taste.

Carolyn Creedon’s “litany” is one of those poems (and they are being written today) which should be celebrated and put in the spotlight.   Bad poems will always be written, but if the good poems are collected and celebrated, the public may trust the process again, and return to poetry.  The public is wary, however.  Fraud made its play, and won.  It will be a long process to woo the public back.

Gillian Conoley’s poem, “Beckon,” is too obscure to satisfy the popular taste; she has befuddled the opposition as she has advanced, but against the exquisite clarity of “litany,” Conoley’s words seem but islands, isolated and alone.

Again, we present one of the best poems of the 20th century, by Carolyn Creedon:


Tom, will you let me love you in your restaurant?
i will let you make me a sandwich of your invention and i will eat it and call
it a carolyn sandwich. then you will kiss my lips and taste the mayonnaise and
that is how you shall love me in my restaurant

Tom, will you come to my empty beige apartment and help me set up my daybed?
yes, and i will put the screws in loosely so that when we move on it, later,
it will rock like a cradle and then you will know you are my baby

Tom, I am sitting on my dirt bike on the deck. Will you come out from the kitchen
and watch the people with me?
yes, and then we will race to your bedroom. i will win and we will tangle up
on your comforter while the sweat rains from our stomachs and foreheads

Tom, the stars are sitting in tonight like gumball gems in a little girl’s
jewelry box. Later can we walk to the duck pond?
yes, and we can even go the long way past the jungle gym. i will push you on
the swing, but promise me you’ll hold tight. if you fall i might disappear

Tom, can we make a baby together? I want to be a big pregnant woman with a loved face and give you a squalling red daughter.
no, but i will come inside you and you will be my daughter

Tom, will you stay the night with me and sleep so close that we are one person?
no, but i will lay down on your sheets and taste you. there will be feathers
of you on my tongue and then i will never forget you

Tom, when we are in line at the convenience store can I put my hands in your
back pockets and my lips and nose in your baseball shirt and feel the crook
of your shoulder blade?
no, but later you can lay against me and almost touch me and when i go i will
leave my shirt for you to sleep in so that always at night you will be pressed
up against the thought of me

Tom, if I weep and want to wait until you need me will you promise that someday
you will need me?
no, but i will sit in silence while you rage. you can knock the chairs down
any mountain. i will always be the same and you will always wait

Tom, will you climb on top of the dumpster and steal the sun for me? It’s just
hanging there and I want it.
no, it will burn my fingers. no one can have the sun: it’s on loan from god.
but i will draw a picture of it and send it to you from richmond and then you
can smooth out the paper and you will have a piece of me as well as the sun

Tom, it’s so hot here, and I think I’m being born. Will you come back from
Richmond and baptise me with sex and cool water?
i will come back from richmond. i will smooth the damp spiky hairs from the
back of your wet neck and then i will lick the salt off it. then i will leave

Tom, Richmond is so far away. How will I know how you love me?
i have left you. that is how you will know


Barbara Guest:  Sophisticated Lady.

We all would like to make that film—if we could—that is humanity’s shared dream. But the fine print in the distribution rights always trips us up.  Or our lead actor lands in a scandal just as our film is released, or some critic who just doesn’t get it at all rips our film to shreds, laughing all the way.  And we were going to make the whole world cry. We were going to move the world.

If we look at the the film industry v. the poem industry: which one of them has produced more shared dreams at less cost?  Movies v. poetry—which is the most efficient, and the most effective, at immersing the most people in dream?

Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” was produced at almost no cost: a paper and pencil, a few hours of writing and revision.  Is there a movie critic alive skilled enough to turn the public against that glorious little poem?  No.

Now think of how many excellent movies have been made that are utterly forgotten. And now how many millions of average films have been made, and been forgotten, or not forgotten, but which cost thousands of times more, in terms of money and machinations and time than Frost’s little poem. Think now of the average film, the horrible little film we watch when bored, and forget right afterwards. Or the great movies, the ones considered great—every great movie has had numerous detractors.  You can’t find one film that is universally loved like Frost’s little poem.  Any film can, and has, been ripped by a well-placed critic.

Not so “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.”

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

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

This one poem triumphs over all that is the entirety of the multi-trillion dollar history of world cinema.

Forget the black-tie dinners, the Oscar ceremonies on TV, the celebrity, the press, all of that which, like past Super Bowl winners, 99.9% of us utterly forget.

Forget—oh, and what haven’t we forgotten?

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas, anymore,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!,” “Play it again, Sam,” “I’ll be back!”  Snippets, like little poems, briefer than Frost’s poem itself, are what remain in the popular mind after the trillions spent down the years on film production.

Frost 1, Film Industry 0.

This is why every neglected poet gets up in the morning and thinks, “I’m a poet and I don’t care what they think.”

The beauty of it is, you really don’t have to care what anyone else thinks, because the dream you had last night—you didn’t just watch it, you were in it—the one you remembered just as you woke up, and as it fled down the mouse-hole of your mind, as you frantically tried to replay it in your inner private cinema room, and even as it faded forever, you went, “fucking hell that was fucking great?”

Yet, that one.  The best movie is our dream. Not Arnold.  Not Ingrid Bergman. Not Hitchcock.  Our dream.  A triumph over all cinema the way “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” triumphs over all cinema.

Now write your dream, poet.

Gillian Conoley has.  Her poem, “Beckon” has made it to the American Poetry Review Sweet Sixteen. Her next opponent, Barbara Guest, was interviewed by our Marla Muse recently—Guest is making the rounds, the Sweet Sixteen has a celebrity all its own these days—and Guest’s poem, “Motion Pictures: 4” was described as dream-like. Guest’s poem describes the making of a motion picture in such a manner that we’re not sure how real the film, or the description of the film, is.  To an audience watching a film, whatever is in “the film” is real and whatever is outside the film does not exist; but to filmmakers, whatever is outside the film and is thought about in such a way that it goes into the film is reality, and this is a significant shift in thinking, which Guest takes advantage of in her poem.

The danger here, though, is Guest’s poem becomes a thought-process, rather than a work of art, but since works of art as actual works of art is such an old-fashioned concept, Guest has little to lose.  “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” works like a little film.

Frost’s poem is not a poem about making a film—which all modern, self-conscious poems tend to be—it is a film.

Guest’s poem is definitely the ‘film about making a film,’ or ‘poem about making a poem’ variety.

Guest’s  poem is full of actualized events and remarks and observations, but it’s pretty obvious what she is doing: reveling in the thought-processes of creation and how bits of real life, a cough, faint sounds, contribute to that creation, whether that creation is movie, poem, collage, or dream, in the context of whatever post-modern term you wish to add.  Please feel free.

Near the end of Guest’s poem, which features a back and forth between two film directors, Nagao and Wilhelm, we get:

Nagao said there didn’t have to be explanations it slowed the movie and he agreed this one was too slow. It was old-fashioned to explain why gangsters upset the fish cart.
“Like Utamaro,” said Wilhelm who believed in a capsule of real life. He thought of a new title, Dream of Real Life.

But Conoley’s poem is not as self-consciously post-modern as Guest’s.  Conoley is, like Frost in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening,” showing us a film, not a ‘film on how a film is made.’

We could probably divide poems into movie and documentary categories.  Guest, and post-modern poets such as Ashbery, make documentaries; the old-fashioned ‘create an illusion, create a story’ is eschewed for “how awfully cute it is to create illusions! I might create one for you, but I’ll probably laugh while doing it!”  Documentaries can be far more serious than ‘regular movies,’ but what modern and post-modern poetry (and art) seem to have done is perfect the strangely funny, highly self-conscious, documentary.  Is it nervous laughter due to the horrors of the 20th century?  Or is it purely an aesthetic choice?  It’s hard to say.

Anyway, Conoley is old-fashioned and serious, like Frost, even as she partakes of modern and post-modern obscurity:


Dead cold spots in the air,
others bright and richly colored as opera,

my old dress is worn out,
torn up, dumped,

another thing the mad made.
Saddles laid out to dry,

vowels left up in the air as if something is better
left unsaid as if I could have.

And truth is music’s mute half,
a sentence broken into,

the half tone of a husband
waiting alone in a car,

so that only the sun warrants a red mane.
A figure passes quickly

in the ever-unquiet breath
of you, you, you and sometimes me.

The future made, an absolute night
troubled by how we will live up

to the day’s sequence of images in full sail,
as wind folds other things,

and ink branches and conceives.
Last night was floral,

a satin comforter fell
into violence, old

strangely beautiful voices
in the thin thread of my dreams

in the thin thread of my speech.
I was embarrassed because I wanted lines in the face

and the laughter that spills over
to bring me luck’s child.

I had a dream like seconal, sleepy rule of birth,
odor of seduction. I had only prayer, prayer

and science. On a street young girls gathered,
loud with nothing to say, as in an attempt to explain a local fire.

–Gillian Conoley

How can private dreams be expressed in words of universal meaning?  Even in unusual combinations, words keep their universal meanings—so where does the private get expressed?  Is it possible to express the particular in words?

After reading this poem several times, I think it’s about a cheating husband, or a break-up of a marriage, with the final image of “loud” girls with “nothing to say” about a “local fire” (private sexuality) contrasting with the “luck’s child” that didn’t happen because of the failed relationship; the “passing figure” might be the ‘other woman’ who is perhaps a redhead–or the husband is a redhead.  The “half tone of a husband/waiting alone in a car” hints at all sorts of issues.  By the way, the poem is full of lovely and subtle sound equations like ‘half tone’ and ‘husband.’

Of course, I could be completely wrong: it might not be about a failed relationship at all.

Frost’s poem is as clear as a bell, and yet more misty and dream-like than millions of forgettable poems which strive to be dream-like by being obscure.  Are poems like Frost more memorable because people are stupid, because memory is stupid?

Is reading poems about what we ‘get’ or ‘don’t get?’   How much should Keats’ ‘negative capability’ rescue the reading of obscure poems?   How much of ‘not getting’ a poem is the reader’s fault?

So it’s Conoley’s dream against Guest’s documentary.   The Guest is more sophisticated, more cinema-hip, more post-modern, and just as dream-like, if not more, than Conoley’s poem.  “Motion Pictures: 4” shares with Frost’s poem a certain clarity which Conoley’s blurred dream-vision lacks.  But I feel that Conoley’s work is finally more sincere—if that word has any aesthetic meaning at all, does it?

What makes a poem stick in the mind?

What makes a poem win?

What did I just watch?

Did I see Conoley win, 76-75?



Let’s get this winners and losers business out of the way…

Here are the winners:


LISA LEWIS (d. John Ashbery) Responsibility
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (d. James Wright) Good Company
GILLIAN CONOLEY (d. Robert Creeley) Beckon
CAROLYN CREEDON (d. James Tate)  litany
GREGORY CORSO (d. Stanley Kunitz)  30th Year Dream
DORIANNE LAUX (d. A.R. Ammons)  The Lovers
LESLIE SCALAPINO (d. Jack Spicer)  that they were at the beach
BARBARA GUEST (d. Larry Levis) Motion Pictures: 4


KAREN KIPP (d. Robert Lowell)  The Rat
JACK HIRSCHMANN (d. Robert Penn Warren*) The Painting
EILEEN MYLES (d. Frank O’Hara)  Eileen’s Vision
WILLIAM KULIK (d. Czeslaw Milosz)  Fictions
SHARON OLDS (d. Robin Becker)  The Request
TESS GALLAGHER (d. Richard Hugo)  The Hug
STEPHEN DOBYNS (d. Jim Harrison)  Allegorical Matters
AMY GERSTLER (d. Norman Dubie)  Sinking Feeling


JACK MYERS (d. Seamus Heaney)  The Experts
PHILIP LARKIN (d. Joseph Duemer)  Aubade
BILL KNOTT (d. Robert Bly)  Monodrome
EDWARD FIELD (d. Donald Justice)  Whatever Became of Freud
MAURA STANTON (d. Anne Carson)  The Veiled Lady
ALAN DUGAN (d. Hayden Carruth)  Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton
HOWARD NEMEROV (d. David Ignatow)  IFF
MICHAEL PALMER (d. Yusef Komunyakaa)  I Do Not


ALLEN GINSBERG (d. Howard Moss) The Charnel Ground
DONALD HALL (d. Douglas Crase)  To A Waterfowl
RICHARD CECIL (d. Robert Hass)  Apology
JOY HARJO (d. Sylvia Plath)  A Post-Colonial Tale
JAMES SCHUYLER (d. Stephanie Brown)  Red Brick and Brown Stone
REED WHITTEMORE (d. Heather McHugh)  Smiling Through
STEPHEN DUNN (d. Sam Hamill)  What They Wanted
CAROL MUSKE (d. Charles Bukowski)  A Former Lover, A Lover of Form

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

MARLA MUSE: Some of the losers I really don’t want to say goodbye to; the Milosz, the Justice, the Dubie, the McHugh…

The Bukowski…there’s something holy about his work, a wry honesty that few poets evince…I was thinking about the qualities that go into writing good poetry, both the New Critical qualities of the poem itself and those qualities the poet as a human being must have…

MARLA MUSE: The poet must say the right thing at the right time.

Or seem to.  Because in real situations in life, that’s a good quality to have: to be able to say the right thing at the right time, but for the poet, “time” can be years as they work on the poem, which distorts the meaning of that ability, the ability to say the right thing at the right time: if someone really has that ability in life, to really say the right thing at the right time, they wouldn’t need to fake it in a poem…

MARLA MUSE: Oh, you’re getting all Plato on me…life is real, poetry is fake

But isn’t it true, Marla, that ‘saying the right thing at the right time’ is not the same thing in life, as it is in poetry…poets can wait for the right time to pass, but in life, you can’t…the room is silent, and life calls for something to be said then, but to be a poet you can slink away and say something later…it doesn’t have to be at the right time

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

Yes, when you failed to say the right thing at the right time in life…

MARLA MUSE: But if we’re talking about qualities, the person who can say the right thing in a poem is probably the person who can say the right thing in life…

No, because if you can say the right thing at the right time in life, there’s no motivation to do so in a poem, for the poem is a shadow…life doesn’t let us wait years…

MARLA MUSE: But it does.  You are trying to connect life and poetry, you are trying to connect two things, and you can’t, and therefore you are saying nothing…

Am I?  So I shouldn’t have asked my original question: what qualities in life match those qualities in the poet…

MARLA MUSE: What about not fearing to go into an underground mine?  Does that help a poet?  To risk your life for somone else, does that have anything to do with being a poet?  I think we can only look at the poem.  I think the New Critics were right…

But Marla, you are beautiful!  How can you say something like that?

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

I’m thinking about that Bukowski poem, the car headlights, the remark by the mother, and the son’s joking, half-shameful, half-boastful response, and all the various parts in that Bukowski poem—isn’t the good poem when all those parts cohere?

MARLA MUSE: Bukowski lost! Why are you talking about him? Ah, you are recalling that debate you had…when you used the word “incoherent”…clever boy…you’re a New Critic, after all…

Yea, but the New Critics themselves were such narrow-minded, creepy—

MARLA MUSE: They hated the Romantics, that’s all, but that’s why you’re here, Tommy boy…

But right now this is not about me…congratulations, poets!


Gillian Conoley is scared.

In Scarriet’s Second Annual March Madness, with more viewers than ever, this young poet must take on an icon in the first round of play, a poet she greatly respects.  “Oh hell” was her response when she learned she had to play Creeley.

“No way.  Creeley? I love that guy.  I can’t play him!

Creeley’s poems are small, but he brings an army.

You bet she’s scared.

Here’s the Creeley APR poem that made it into the Scarriet March Madness Tourney:

Be Of Good Cheer

Go down obscurely,
seem to falter

as if walking into water
slowly. Be of good cheer

and go as if indifferent,
even if not.

There are those before you
they have told you.

knows that every one of her words will seem excessive next to that masterpiece.  There’s a world in the simple “There are those before you/they have told you.

Is this poor woman going to be skinned alive?

Is this competition business too dangerous?  Should Conoley simply forfeit?

No.  She’s gonna play. She’s going to say creeley over and over again until the word becomes absurd, to bulk up her courage.

These are only words.  Nothing can hurt me.

Her poem:


Dead cold spots in the air,
others bright and richly colored as opera,

my old dress is worn out,
torn up, dumped,

another thing the mad made.
Saddles laid out to dry,

vowels left up in the air as if something is better
left unsaid as if I could have.

And truth is music’s mute half,
a sentence broken into,

the half tone of a husband
waiting alone in a car,

so that only the sun warrants a red mane.
A figure passes quickly

in the ever-unquiet breath
of you, you, you and sometimes me.

The future made, an absolute night
troubled by how we will live up

to the day’s sequence of images in full sail,
as wind folds other things,

and ink branches and conceives.
Last night was floral,

a satin comforter fell
into violence, old

strangely beautiful voices
in the thin thread of my dreams

in the thin thread of my speech.
I was embarrassed because I wanted lines in the face

and the laughter that spills over
to bring me luck’s child.

I had a dream like seconal, sleepy rule of birth,
odor of seduction. I had only prayer, prayer

and science. On a street young girls gathered,
loud with nothing to say, as in an attempt to explain a local fire.

Gillian Conoley has done it!  The crowd is going crazy! Conoley has beaten Creeley!  Oh my God I don’t believe it!  Another upset! Scarriet March Madness, can you believe it?

Marla!  How did she do it?

MARLA MUSE:  She brought an uncanny sense of absence to her presence.  It’s almost as if she studied Creeley’s every move!  Every gesture, every image, every line was understated, suggestive in the extreme…down here at courtside…can you hear me up there, Tom?…what a scene down here…it’s bedlam…I’ve never felt such excitement…we’re trying to get in closer, so we can get a word from Conoley, but it’s just a madhouse…! I’m afraid I’m going to get swallowed up by the crowd…

Marla?  Marla, are you there?  Fans, I’ve never seen anything quite like this!  Young Conoley just gave us the thrill of a lifetime…she just beat Creeley…the final score 61-60…

The upsets just keep comin…!

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