JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

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MORE OF THE POETRY GAME! READING X’S POETRY IS LIKE…

kids-reading-poetry

WALT WHITMAN

You’re 50.  It’s spring.  You’ve excused yourself from a wedding where you’ve rubbed shoulders and danced with everyone, all strangers, and as you stumble, intoxicated, into a lilac bush, you glimpse a couple kissing just before you black out.

LONGFELLOW

You’re 10.  It’s late summer.  You’re staring at a clean, straight, brick church and you feel a pleasant breeze as you start for the pond with your toy boat.

DICKINSON

You’re 30.  It’s winter.  You’re in a small bed-sitting room with door ajar, nibbling on crumb cake, reading an old romance.  It’s snowing outside and someone your age, who you don’t like, is approaching by a hidden staircase.

HART CRANE

You’re 40.  It’s early summer.  You know you left it somewhere, but where.  It has a long chain that dangles down and a wire that leads up.  You were in the basement cleaning the jars and you spilled a box of shells behind 3 chests piled up, and this reminds you that you have to return a phone call and get to your car, fast.

EDNA MILLAY

You’re 13.  It’s late spring.  You find a statue in a forest.  You circle round it, shading your eyes from the noon sun that slants through the trees.

ROBERT LOWELL

You’re 15.  It’s a warm fall evening.  You are lying on the floor in the family library, among pillows, nearly recovered from a fever, daydreaming over family portraits.

TIMOTHY DONNELLY: HART CRANE’S BACK AND HE’S LOOKING FOR YVOR WINTERS

 

Donnelly and his pal, Hart

I hart Timothy Donnelly

But why, with all the Timothy Donnelly buzz, (The New Yorker’s best poetry book of the year, etc) don’t others hart Tim Donnelly?

Donnelly’s first lauded book, Twenty Seven Props for a Production of Das Lebenszeit (Grove Press, 2003), not only blurbed by Jorie Graham and Lucie Brock-Broido, but forwarded by Richard Howard, was compared to Ashbery (by Howard), and sure, one hears Ashbery in the jokey elaboration of the title.  The combinations are endless.  Claire de Lune As Interpreted By Daffy Duck and so on. 

It is easy to sound like Ashbery or Stevens, or anyone, in a title

But to sound like the master in the poetry, without veering into parody, is impossible, and this is precisely why the master is a master. 

Donnelly is not Ashbery, or Stevens, except where these poets mock themselves, as they will do sometimes—but that’s an influence no one wants.   Any poet today would relish being compared to a master, but these sorts of comparisons only belong to the blurb.

The swooning praise for Donnelly’s just-released second book, The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010), surely arises from a feeling that Donnelly’s work has been disciplined into something darker and more politically aware.

The supposedly Ashberean poetry finds a common metaphorical cloud-ship with post-9/11 politics ; the guilt one gets from enjoying apolitical Ashbery has been eliminated; Donnelly offers a concoction two parts Ashbery and one part capitalist-debt-eco despair: not Claire de Lune Contemplated by Daffy Duck so much as Post9/11 Politics Contemplated by Sponge Bob Square Pants. 

The “Square” is very much at play in Donnelly’s appreciation of order and tradition, the “Bob” stands for an appreciation of the nameless working class who make everything the privileged use, and “Sponge” refers to the Blob—see Ray McDaniel’s ecstatic Constant Critic review in which the 50’s B-movie horror monster, a metaphor in the 50’s for communism, is for McDaniel an elaboration today of evil corporate assimilation as manifested in Donnelly’s enveloping verse of deferment and complexity. 

The poetry world is now ‘shark-blood-in-the-water’ excited because it senses a 21st century novelty: a poet filled with sorrow, but too smart and steely-eyed to be depressed, boldly articulating our current political ills with a self-assured Ashberean rhetoric—guilt, gone; yet luxurious rhetoric still bathing us pleasurably.  We have our cake and eat it: four layers of poetry filled with organic, not-too-sweet, poetically-flavored politics.  We’re both undulated and understood.

The critics all assure us that  Cloud Corporation never panders to popular taste; Donnelly is a credentialed academic poet, yet Donnelly’s book broods on themes that many regular readers of the New York Times  brood on, as Stephen “Helen Vendler” Burt explains:

He varies, as well, the arguments in his complaints, the reasons he gives for feeling stuck, baffled, oppressed: it’s no fun to feel alienated from everything and everyone, but it’s even more disheartening, and morally worse, to feel bound up in the sort of collective entity (the United States, the Western world) that stands to blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, for “what’s// done in my defense, or in/ its name, or in my/ interest or in the image// of the same.”

Short of resigning from Western civilization, short of devoting one’s life (as this poet could not, temperamentally, do) to a possibly fruitless radical activism, what on Earth should we do? Is there nothing to do? “I just feel soporose, so// soporose tonight… You think/ I should be concerned?” So ends his six-page poem about Abu Ghraib, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris. ”   —Stephen Burt

But most of the passages lovingly quoted are apolitical; the top influence on Donnelly, according to the reviewers, is Wallace Stevens; Ashbery is second; one reviewer insists it’s the stammering Eliot of Prufrock.   But none of these fit.

Since John Crowe Ransom and Paul Engle turned American Letters into one vast English Department, academic poets are the only poets who get respect.   It would be suicidal, therefore, for any poet today to be shrilly political—“fruitless radical activism” the name Stephen Burt gives it. 

Not one reviewer has been astute enough, however, to see that Timothy Donnelly is nothing more than the return of Hart Crane

Only one Cloud Corporation reviewer—Adam Fitzgerald in the Brooklyn Rail—mentions Crane—and only once, and only indirectly. 

No one harts Timothy Donnelly, yet Donnelly in his own words makes it stunningly obvious that Hart Crane, who argued with Harriet Monroe and Yvor Winters on the necessity of poetic obscurity, is Donnelly’s muse. 

But not just Crane. The debate between Winters and Crane is the engine that drives the rhetoric which unfurls in Donnelly’s new book, a rhetoric praised—in a critical fog.

Why?  Criticism (which these days exists in the academy mostly as eloborate blurbing) has been eclipsed by the academic Creative Writing industry; the pearls of poetry win the day, not the critical oyster.  Stevens and Ashbery are poets, and well, so is Donnelly, and there you have it, according to the gnat-reviewers.  And those who write criticism, like the Ashbery-and- Stevens-worshiping Vendler and Harold Bloom, don’t write poetry, so criticsm and poetry don’t really have anything to do with each other.  And there it is.

But of course they do.  They have everything to do with each other.  It is the critical argument that hides beneath the best poetry which gives it that urgency which readers mistake for something else, thinking it’s poetry; but it really isn’t that at all; it’s the critical mind, the argumentative mind organizing the poetry behind-the-scenes which wins the day.

And here it is (how did they all miss it?) in plain sight: “A Match Made In Poetry: Yvor Winters v. Hart Crane,” an essay by Timothy Donnelly right there on Poets.org.

Why do none mention this essay?  I think it’s the desire to think of Donnelly in a mystical way, to think of him as a frenzied, post-9/11 shaman, channeling Wallace Stevens, rather than what he, with all due respect, is: a Modernist academic, wrestling with the subject of his essay: Winters v. Crane (and John Crowe Ransom, who is quoted at length in a footnote).

But this is where we are today: in the middle of Modernism’s argument, in a vast English Department classroom, whether we want to admit it, or not.

Listen to Donnelly, and notice how Winters is quite literally the enemy, and how much Donnelly’s poetry sounds like the Crane he quotes:

Winters found Crane’s poems at times thematically unclear, haphazard and hard to follow; like the frenetic jazz club in “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” Crane’s poems were characteristically “striated with nuances, nervosities”:

O, I have known metallic paradises
Where cuckoos clucked to finches
Above the deft catastrophes of drums.
While titters hailed the groans of death
Beneath gyrating awnings I have seen
The incunablula of the divine grotesque.
This music has a reassuring way.

Timothy Donnelly

Listen how Donnelly closes his essay:

In one corner we have Crane, a devotee of the imagination and its “delirium of jewels,” a seeker of “new thresholds, new anatomies,” a Modern Romantic who strove to refresh the poet’s kinship to the shaman and the seer. In the other corner, Winters, a decrier of unreason, a skeptic of poetic ecstasy and rapture, a moralist who dismissed visionary individualism as potentially dangerous fakery. Poets today probably know who they would have rooted for.

Or do they? Certainly Crane is the more widely admired figure now, in part because the difficulty that his work posed to its first audience has been softened by decades of celebration and study. Yet many of those who would like to imagine themselves cheering valiantly for Cleveland’s Whitmanian rebel regularly accuse their contemporaries of the very deficiencies and extravagances Winters derided in Crane. Winters still has his advocates, of course, including many who don’t realize that that’s what they are.6

Ladies and gentlemen, those among you who demand that the poem be immediately or even ultimately graspable in its entirety by the faculties of reason please stand behind Winters. All those who reject Wittgenstein’s notion that the poem uses the language of information but is not itself used in the language-game of giving information please stand behind Winters. All those who use words like quackery, charlatanry, or folderol in lieu of more scrupulous and responsible explanations for their resistance to innovative and experimental poetries please stand behind Winters. Even those who insist that poetry must always heed an ethical imperative-you know where to go.

Ladies and gentlemen, where do you stand?

Timothy Donnelly

The sympathy he has lurking for Winters, even though Donnelly is clearly on Crane’s side, is what gives Donnelly’s poetry that depth they all love, and no one has been able to put their finger on it—until this review.

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