THE PROBLEM, OF COURSE, IS SEX

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The problem, of course, is sex.

Here’s what the Trojan war

Did: is Helen, the beautiful Greek,

Kidnap victim or whore?

This is not what peace knows or expects.

When you are too humiliated to speak,

Out come the weapons. The weapons talk, instead—

Weapons invented by the tongue-tied geek

For the brutal male, who loudly counts the dead.

Today’s War of Islam is a simple one:

Lands where the women are more beautiful than the men

Are going to get invaded again and again.

Have you seen women from the Middle East?

Heavens! Even the eyes are a feast.

The Middle East wants to hide its Helen,

Because love is a problem when the woman is a “ten.”

The West is different; its women are not pretty.

Have you seen Sarah Jessica Parker from “Sex in the City?”

The West, short on beauty, promotes sex and freedom.

Modesty? Veils? Allah? The West doesn’t need them.

If the West, which insults Islam, had its women hide all,

The West would never have sex at all.

So pity the West, and its desire;

And the world: aflame with God, and make-up, and pride, and fire.

 

We hesitated to publish “The Problem, Of Course, Is Sex,” because we felt it would offend—precisely because of the sex problem identified in the poem: the author of the poem is a white male, and, in a look-ist frenzy, perpetuates cruel and fraudulent stereotypes in the poem. Yes, as the author of the poem, we admit on a superficial level, the poem does this, but this is only by way of illustrating what is perhaps the chief problem in the current Muslim crisis—the aggressive Puritanism of Radical Islam—for who doubts the rapacious, misguided morality of the Taliban, in its wounded-pride, religious, purity, is not at the center of the whole, crazed, passionate terrorist grievance? It is the Greeks losing their Helen, a society’s sex-pride massing for war and revenge, and willing to sacrifice their children for it.  Is this not it?  Meanwhile, the war-like, invading, divide-and-conquer, bullying West, casually tossing off shows like “Sex In the City,” celebrates license and freedom—which insults the invaded people’s soul every day. The Islam crisis may ultimately be about oil and geo-political strategy. But we feel it is also about sex. At the very least, sex is what drives the signing up, and blowing up, for the manic, righteous, revenge-of-rape/rape-revenge cause. To reduce geo-political complexity to rape is a poetic trope; poets sometimes understand the crude and simple truth of a very complex issue is, indeed, the truth, despite the complexity of the issue, with its minefield of offenses to polite society, a polite society, in this case, which has smoothly and professionally committed massive wrongs. The insult to Western women in the poem represents more bitter fruit, a furtherance of the revenge-wound. As with the vengeful Hamlet’s madness—once a wrong begins, who knows where it will end?

 

 

 

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV AND THE POETRY OF PERSONAL RELIGION

Radical individualism is the only dignity there is.

There are only two types of people: the conformist and the non-conformist—the drudge and the peacock—the square and the hip—the cowardly prig and the brave sensualist—the dullard and the dandy—the meddler and the artist—the ones who don’t get it, or don’t quite get it, and the ones who do.

The true artist, the truly different, the truly sublime, the smartly beautiful, the enlightened ones—these are all radical individualists, or those who deeply accept and understand and support the radical individualist; all the rest are merely drudges who fret about ‘the good of society’ in a prying, jealous, overbearing sort of way, as they overcompensate for the fact that as individuals, they lack that spark which the first group has.

This is the Ur-division in Life and Society, the template and atmosphere, the body and thought of all social and political activity, as various obstacles present themselves to the journeying soul longing ‘to get it,’ ‘to be accepted,’ and ‘to be loved.’

Not love or be happy, for this straightforward activity betrays right from the start, an ignorance of the division—which is more important than anything else. This is the great instinctual ‘leap of faith’ that the potentially ‘cool’ person, the radical individualist, must choose as their life’s philosophy or their life’s religion.

It is why people socially do things. It is everything. It makes people vote in a certain way, pick certain friends and activities, and think the thoughts they think. The loss of pure love and pure happiness is merely the cost for obedience to this powerful division which is at the heart of social ‘understanding.’

The cool is defined against the not-cool; here is where individualism itself begins, because to choose otherwise (from the very start of the soul’s journey) is to sink hopelessly into the morass of dullness and jealousy and side with the shallow, meddling, superficial drags, who worry passively, or actively into existence, all sorts of jealous rules to make a dully, oppressively and lemming-like society acceptable and functioning as a society—which by definition has a duty to curb the charismatic and pleasure-seeking individual.

It does not matter if this division is factually true or not; psychologically and linguistically it is true; factually it has no real existence except as it is manifested socially—and this, as they say in the old country, suffices. We dress and shout and dance the way we do—for this division.

At one time the charismatic individual was an ideal ruler to lead society; but with the complex, advanced evolution of society, the charismatic individual instead rules in quite the other way now: against an orderly society, against society itself—as the radical individualist.

Philip Nikolayev is largely self-made and extremely talented: has advanced degrees, is multilingual, an influential editor (Fulcrum), read in other countries, has a family which includes a wife-poet! is a published poet himself— there is no way he cannot feel himself to belong to the elitism of the radical individual—he truly is one.

Why shouldn’t he advocate, then, for the poetry of personal religion?

A successful artist talks to us as his own priest, not in the language of priests—this is no surprise.

The individual qua individual is threatened by nothing—those who do not speak the language of the individual, but who participate in the language of the tribe, of society, and those rules which govern society and make society possible, cannot possibly harm the individualist, protected by that personal religion of his own making. The individual can enter an orthodox church and enjoy its sights and sounds, visit cities and countries and observe customs and manners, and he can write freely on anything which he finds to be significant; as long as rules do not censor him, he is free.

But who is interested in reading the individualist?

Other individualists, with a view for affirmation?

Or the anti-individualist, with a motive to find fault and censor?

The audience is one of two kinds, then: the friend or the bureaucratic foe, more indifferent, in most cases, especially in the United States, than foe.

The trouble here is that it is not enough to write and publish—criticism, audience reaction, being read, and truly responded to, are crucial for the writer.

Am I really being read, the poet wonders, or just flattered?

The other individualists don’t care what you write in the following very real sense: you are simply incapable of offending them— which may be good for friendship, but is fatal to literature, since it guarantees the absence of Criticism, which is necessary to literature.

Meanwhile, the other audience (society) is indifferent critically for a separate reason—they don’t speak the language of the individualist.

There is no friction or spark in either response—the poem slides easily down the throat of the individualist and falls indifferently at the feet of  the drudge. This is not to say other individualists may not enjoy what you produce; they may acquiesce and fully comprehend and joy in recognizing what is communicated—but there is no criticism, no interesting response. As much as the individualist enjoys the uniqueness of what you produce, the drudge will be unable—as drudge—to recognize the value of the unique communication, trained as they are only to recognize good and bad recipes for society, so no helpful response comes from that quarter, either.

This is the pitfall of the poetry of personal religion—not because of what it is, but because of its failure to actually live outside its unique origins.

The non-conformist offends the conformist—but only on the conformist’s terms, only where the conformist lives. If non-conformity does not offend, it fails in its task; it is eaten alive by this failure—for this is what non-conformity implicitly lives to do: offend those drudges who are asleep, non-artistic, or cruel.

There is still hope, however, for the radical individualist: there is a third audience between the sympathetic friend and the indifferent other: the rival poet, who is neither friend nor foe, but a combination of both.

What directs all poets to profitable activity is the rival—here the poet knows what to do, how to excel, and is guided in very specific ways to be successful.

Every famous poet succeeded against a rival and only understood how to be interesting in the context of what the blessed rival was doing. Popularity, as literary historians concede, is mostly earned by writers who enjoy success for a brief time and then are forgotten. The literary canon is full of poets who were neither popular with wide audiences, nor lifted up by friends, but made their mark in ‘rival poet’ contexts.

With the rival, the (helpful, motivating) question can truly be asked as it cannot be asked elsewhere: am I cool? Am I one of the chosen?

One must ask this question to oneself as a poet: am I good?  To oneself, as a matter of course, but it also needs to be asked by others.  Friends in your clique won’t give you an answer; they will only flatter you. And the others, those uncool, non-artists, the conformists, who don’t care for poetry and would rather focus on society and its ills?  They will most likely tell you, poetry isn’t good, or it’s silly; they are incapable, even if they cared, to tell you if you are a good poet, or not.

This is where the rival comes in. The rival knows poetry like you do, but won’t flatter you, will fight you, in fact, and this is where greatness and fame is made, in this nexus of rivals.

The greatest poet of them all—Shakespeare—wrote specifically about this in his Sonnets.

The greatest Romantic poets Shelley, Keats, and Byron all attacked the Alpha Romantic of the Day, Wordsworth: mocked him, called him disappointing, ridiculed him, said he was obscure, pulled his beard.

Poe, America’s Shakespeare, attacked Wordsworth a little later in the same spirit, and turned every well-know writer of his day into a rival: chiefly Longfellow and Emerson.

Our Canon today has been shaped by these battles: and we the living unconsciously and naively pick sides in what we think is a reasonable, peaceful spirit.

Had Pound not got his Imagism ass kicked by Amy Lowell, he would have remained mired in triviality.

T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather knew  Emerson—attacked both the Romantics and Poe (for this latter, vicious attack, see “From Poe to  Valery” 1949).

The most famous rivalry of all: Homer and Plato.

We don’t have the time to elucidate these rivalries here, but most readers will be familiar with them—though many readers, even those who consider themselves avant-garde, admittedly don’t read poetry or literature this way (they are blissfully naive and do not figure into this discussion—let them remain naive).

Who is Philip Nikolayev’s rival?

Has he any?

Poetically, no.   Because Nikolayev is too good in a pure, self-deprecating, completely witty and skilled sort of way.

Also, Nikolayev has no avant-garde rivals because he writes “for the ages,” a quaint idea these days, no doubt.

There is a certain pure excellence in Nikolayev’s work which cannot be rivaled.  Philip Nikolayev is that good.

This is not to say that any small example of a writer’s work will not show the division discussed above.

Take this wonderful poem of Nikolayev’s, which can be found on The Poetry Foundation site:

Hotel

Time to recount the sparrows of the air
Seated alone on an elected stair,
I stare as they appear and disappear.

Tonight the deck supports tremendous quiet,
Although the twilight is itself a riot.
I’m glad I’m staying here, not at the Hyatt.

My pen, eye, notes, watch, whiskey glass and hell
All hang together comfortably well.
Pain is my favorite resort hotel.

 

The poet is an individualist, a non-conformist: therefore, he is not staying at “the Hyatt.”  But Hyatt is a rhyme; the individualist, self-deprecating stance is seasoned by wit.

Nikolayev uses lyric wit to rise above the division.  He is aware of it and playfully and wittily fights against it, which makes him a better poet for that reason alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France

DE STAEL:

Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.

PEACOCK:

Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.

WINNER: PEACOCK

THE TWO ACADEMIES

The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

IS THE AGE OF THE -ISM FINALLY OVER?

This cartoon appeared in 1912.  How did the silly old Bee Gees put it?  “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.”

Modernism, Post-Modernism—is it time we just get rid of these pompous terms, once and for all?

Recorded history is limited, like a football field, or a room; the literary icon Homer is far enough back in time that we don’t know if that Greek epic poet is one author or many, or whether the Iliad and Odyssey were even written down—but the uncertainty of this border of origin doesn’t change the fact that students of literature are dealing with a length of string that is a mere 2800 years in length.

Recorded history, however, gets longer each year, and every year will be more modern than the last; soon Modernism, as an era, will be in the distant past, centuries old—as a literary designation it will seem more quaint and ridiculous each day.  Of course, historians will find a reason why the Moderns called themselves “modern” so long ago—they (these moderns) were caught up in great changes in technology and thought—yes, just as every era was!  You should have been there when the bronze age dawned.  And what of Post-Modernism?  As the years pass, this term is sounding even more quaint and ridiculous—a compounding of the original error.  In retrospect, post-modern as a descriptive term has a ‘fools rush in’ quality: we’re even newer!

The window is closing on publishing “modern” or “post-modern poetry” anthologies that would interest anyone at all.  Would anyone buy an anthology of bronze age poetry, in which the poets take themselves seriously and self-consciously as “modern” poets?  No reader would get the joke—even if there were a joke to get.

An anthology of Romantic poets, for instance, could sell as “love poetry,” and so Shelley will never grow old, but Ashbery, Pound and the Moderns/Post-Moderns will die as soon as the joke ripens and falls off the tree; fans of Ashbery and/or Pound will protest that Ashbery isn’t just “a joke;” Ashbery contains linguistic density and a highly self-conscious intelligence and sense of fun, and this will keep Ashbery-ism and Post-modern-ism alive forever.  But “linguistic density” is not enough—in fact, the very weight of that linguistic density will contribute to its demise, as soon as it becomes separated from its reason—a “reaction” to what is accessible and efficient and coherent.

Time saves only what is beautiful or efficient, and buries everything else.  Love, for instance, helps further the race through procreation, and relates to beauty—it has those characteristics Time likes.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets grapple precisely with this problem, and Shakespeare, acting like a grownup, accepted he was going to die, and threw his lot in with future readers, whereas the Moderns and Post-Moderns are obsessed with the present and the new in what can only be called cultural self-indulgence.   There’s a darker, Nietzschean, end-of-history aspect to all this Modern/Post Modern rhetoric, as well.  Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who was involved in 20th century British policy in the Middle East, a cynical Realpolitik thinker, coined “Post-modern” as it applied to history, and claimed Post-modern began with the First World War.  “Late Capitalism” is a related term, of course.  Utopians—and tyrants talk this talk.  The aesthetic issue, which we see in various genres (architecture most prominently) is all part of it, of course.

The modern or post-modern cultural self-consciousness that ridicules and obliterates art is really this: the unspoken revenge of Plato—art is erased, not by decree, but by ‘blank canvas,’  post-modern curators and experts. Once culture advances towards self-consciousness, it naturally comes to a Platonic awareness that what is important to society is not the sentimental or snobby delusions of a Sir Joshua Reynolds.  But because this so-called revenge is unspoken, it’s a revenge gone terribly wrong—an unselfconsious self-consiousness, which is the worst kind.

Shall we indulge in these categories before we bid them adieu at last?

Romanticism:  Culture Defined by the Best
Modernism:  Culture Defined by the Mass
Post-modernism:  Culture Defined by Itself

Romanticism: The Slave
Modernism: The Wage Slave
Post-modernism: Snoop Dog

Romanticism: Statesman
Modernism: President
Post-Modernism: Politician

Romanticism: Byron a best-seller
Modernism: H.G. Wells a best-seller
Post-Modernism: Alfred Kinsey a best-seller

Romanticism: Incomprehensible works of Coleridge
Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Joyce
Post-Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Pynchon

Romanticism: A lover gets killed in a war
Modernism: A friend gets killed in a war
Post-modernism: A stranger gets killed in a war

Romanticism: Sin and Beauty
Modernism: Sex and Ugly
Post-Modernism: Gender and Race

Hey, these are funny.  Maybe it’s too soon to get rid of these categories?

THE DEATH OF THE TEXT

The_Frozen_Dead_1966_poster

Authorship almost died in 1967.

Roland Barthes tried to kill the author with his The Death of the Author (1967)

The text certainly went through a change in 1967, too—one could easily mark this as the year when songs, media bites, and video really began to replace the text as communication in wider western consciousness.

In 1967 the Beatles as a band disappeared into their album, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, their last hurrah before John Lennon’s heroin-and-Yoko Ono addiction and the Beatles’ final breakup a year and a half later.

The Beatles started a trend of bands “disappearing”—Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the early 70s did not appear on their album covers; photos of band members standing in meadows were replaced by mystical art. The “concept album” replaced individuals playing mere lists of songs. Individual song writing credits were no longer prominent, compositions simply came into being as part of a process from group efforts. I remember sitting on the floor as a kid, listening to the blasting, electronic, sound-effect enhanced, swirlings of a Led Zeppelin album and thinking four guys were not making this music—something else was. My naivety was short-lived—but it was a wonderful experience.

The ego of the singer/songwriter did not go away, nor did individual identity in pop music—not by a long shot. And if one listened to a Pink Floyd album, one could still hear a definite group of individuals playing their individual instruments—the band did not go away any more than the author—or the author’s intention—did.

Media bites, songs and video did not reduce the importance of the charismatic individual—they enhanced it.

In the universities, they may have been saying Homer or Shakespeare were really many people.

But this was more a history issue (given we knew so little about Homer and Shakespeare) than fundamentally asserting authorship was plural—or didn’t exist at all.  The average poet today knows more about Eileen Myles than he knows about Homer.

Automatic writing was first given prominence by William James under the influence of nitrous oxide—James, Emerson’s godson, would later teach and influence the young Modernists at Harvard, such as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.

But Man’s ego was such that the author could not really be killed.

But there was something exciting about saying the author was dead, of being the author of that idea.

To say the author is dead appeals to all sorts of mass political movements who hate and fear the individual or the lone genius for all sorts of reasons—the foremost, jealousy: hating the genius author because one is not a genius author oneself; secondly, conservatism: hating the genius because the genius successfully breaks rules; thirdly, radical politics: the authorial genius is a “patriarch” to be overthrown; fourthly, New Criticism: famous for “the Intentional Fallacy;” fifthly, Linguistics: Mallarme’s “it is language which speaks;” sixthly, the Yale School of de Mann—the criminal hides where no authorial accountability exists; and seventhly, dionysians: no author in the blur of pure, nitrous oxide, sensation.

In a corrupt society, blame gets passed around and hidden: no accountability, a death of the author, and that death is the death of society.

The death of the author supposedly “liberates” the text, as if “the author” were a tyrant, and the text, an oppressed people.

It’s too late to resurrect the author in the minds of those who would kill him. What I would like to do is add a radical thought of my own: let’s kill the text, too.

The target of many ‘kill-the-author’ advocates, such as Derrida and Rorty and…well, there’s too many to count—was Plato. That’s because the divine Plato, with wonderful common sense, pointed out that a speaker is alive, but a piece of writing is dead. A speaker must convince with his whole being, and, by being alive,  has a context which dwarfs the self-created context of the text. If the text lives, it is because the author is alive in it—if we must doubt the existence of one of them, we should doubt the text.

This is not to say a living person cannot speak ill, or lie, or that a text cannot express beautiful things, but all things being equal, which is more real?  And why should we kill what is more real?

A text is created by an author not just in the time that it takes to inscribe the text, but in the time (years) it takes the author to become the author who is then able to write that text.

We all understand this truism: If the author is feeble-minded, the text will not be strong, if the author is a genius, the text will be strong.  (But introduce nitrous oxide or LSD into the equation, let both the feeble-minded and the genius take LSD, and things become a little different, a little more equal, perhaps.)

The text is the impression left not just by the author, but by the maturity and genius of the author in the context of that author’s existence.  Nor is the text merely inscribed; it is authored during the inscription process itself, as revisions, backtracks, erasures, additions, and revisions occur during the time it is inscribed. Nor does this does take into account the blueprint created by the author before the text comes into being, and again, this blueprint is the result of who the author is and what he has thought: it is not merely a moment’s impulse, even if the flash of conception occured in a moment.

Finally, when the text is read, the inscription takes place again in the reader’s mind, an impression not of the text, but of the author, for we do not say a footprint is the impression of a footprint.

A footprint is not produced by a footprint; the author produces the effect on the reader.

Nothing comes between the author’s intention and the text, for a text (never finished until it is finished) is a slave to the author’s intention.

But all sorts of things come between the text and its reception by the public, so many things, in fact, that it can be easily seen that the text is part of the author to the author, the genius and his text are practically one, whereas to the public, the text hardly exists at all.

We all know the phenomenon of people saying they have read a book when they haven’t, but what of reading a book and then forgetting most of it, even as we confidently announce, “I’ve read that book.”

We all know that most books become bestsellers because readers are reading what other people are reading—this is how empty texts sometimes have windows of popularity. The text in question is not of real concern—only that others are reading it, and no one knows really what it is they are reading and most realize part-way through they are not enjoying it at all. There was merely some aspect, unrelated to the quality of the text itself, which invoked enough curiosity to push it over that threshold of ‘people reading a book because others were reading it.’

What sort of existence does the text have in this case?

Texts that have real effects on people are often divisive books that have a positive effect on a one part of a population in exact ratio to the negative effect they have on the other.

If two contrary opinions are generated—wild praise on one hand, and sheer disgust on the other: where is the text, in that case?

Where is the text in the various reactions and differing opinions and misreadings of it?

Where is the text when eras pass away and tastes change?

Where is a text when different political factions fight to destroy it on one hand, and canonize it, on the other?

If a genius authored the book, and time passes and tastes change, what remains, then, of the book’s greatness, save the intention of the author, still able to impress the reader—despite all the changes. What essentially remains, if not the author’s blueprint and the genius of the author?

Where is the text, if it has no unity?

Where is the text, if it contains empty spaces, and weak, topical impressions, and unconnected details?  These sorts of texts tend to have random parts which take on importance depending how they are perceived by myriads of readers; where is the text, then?

Where does a text exist if it is a pile of fragments, or perceived as a pile of fragments, or if the text is too long to read at one sitting?

We may point to peeling wallpaper as a thing,  just as we can point to any writing as a thing—but the various shapes of the peeling wallpaper in any given area of the wall exist not as the wallpaper, or the wall, or the thing.

Only in the intention of the author is it possible to sort out the mysteries of the contingent universe, the universe of endlessly slippery texts and endlessly slippery perceptions.

The author never died, nor is intention ever a fallacy.

The universe of texts and perceptions is confusing, and therefore not holy.

Authorship is holy.

Textuality has interest only by the merit of an author’s intention.

This comes down to pure, physical science: no text can be discussed, because no text of any length can exist as a whole in the mind; at best we can discuss what we feel is the gist of a text, but finally it is only our faulty memory of what we believe is the gist of the text—filtered through all the imperfect influences and political opinions that others have of the text.

This is why poetry exists—to make it somehow possible, through the quantum of sequencing, aided by the mathematics of music—to hold an entire text in one’s mind.

What is the quantum of poetry?  Has anyone dared to ask?

In reality, only the author’s pure intention, which is the author’s being, which is being, itself, communicating itself one-on-one with the reader’s being— exists.

In reality, the text does not exist.

The author exists.

The book does not.

HOW DO WE TEACH POETRY?

Is it just me, or does modernist poetics seem puerile in the extreme?

In my (2003) Norton -Third Edition- of Modern Poetry (including Contemporary vol. 2 which Scarriet will review later) there are 864 pages of poetry and 135 pages of poetics, the latter of which contain nothing that could be called iconic or indispensible, except perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Walt Whitman is the first entry.  But he had no poetics.  Whitman: “here are the roughs and beards and space…”  Etc.  With Walt we get the rhetoric of Emersonian expanse, which in its good will and windiness, finally cancels itself out.  Poetics?  Pastry.

Next we get a few of Emily Dickinson’s letters to T.W. Higginson—which not only contain no poetics, but do not even show Emily  in a very good light; her wheedling tone is not attractive.

Next, some letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” 

No doubt. 

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone…I do not say the idea is altogether new…”

Doh! not new at all.

Then we have W.B. Yeats, and who reads his prose?    Yeats and his friend, Arthur Symons, influenced Ezra Pound and Eliot; Yeats writes, “The Symbolist Movement in Literature [is] a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me,” and Yeats is right: the book is so subtle that today none care what Symons had to say about “symbolism,” a word used in so many subtle ways since Symons’ day that the word has now returned to its orginal meaning: ‘this stands for that,’ and everyone is happier.

Yeats:  “A poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table,  there is always phantasmagoria.”  And Yeats, again: “Style is always unconscious.  I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.”

Well, he’s honest.

Next up, T.E. Hulme, expelled from Cambridge U. in 1904, part of Ford Madox Ford & Pound’s Imagism crew, “a critic of pacifism,” WW I casualty : “I object even to the best of the romantics.  I object to the sloppiness…”

Oh, is that what the best poets in English were?  Sloppy?

Now we get a real treat: excerpts from the magazine Blast.  Like most little modernist magazines, it lasted only a few issues, even as some now-forgotten female, an heiress or lady of title, was emptying her bank account for it, just so the world could be honored by the wisdom of Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis and E. Pound:

“BLESS ENGLAND!”

“The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—”

“In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.”

“Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.”

“Fairies have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.  But mysticsm on the one hand, gladiatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of Creation for these two peoples.”

“England is just now the most famous favourable country for the appearance of great art.”

“…our race, the most fundamentally English.”

“We assert that the art for these climates, then, must be a Northern flower.”

“It cannot be said tht the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropical growth, the vastness of American trees, is not for us.”

“Once the consciousness towards the new possibilities of expression in present life has come, however—it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe…”

I wish I could say BLAST was merely English patriotism, but knowing something about the authors, I have a feeling it is something far worse…

There follows a “Feminist Manifesto” from Mina Loy, which tells women:

“To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue” the fictitious value of woman as identified with her physical purity…”

No wonder Loy was one of the few women intellectuals invited into the Modernist men’s club…

After a two very brief prologues (Amy Lowell and Wilfred Owen) E. Pound returns with gems such as:

“Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.
   The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s ‘Drover’: his ‘O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die’: Joyce’s ‘I hear an army’; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, ‘The fire that stirs about her when she stirs’; the later lines of ‘The Scholars,’ the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’ ‘Postlude,’ Aldington’s version of ‘Athis,’ and ‘H.D.’s” waves like pine tops, and her verse in ‘Des Imagistes’ the first anthology; Hueffer’s [Ford M. Ford] ‘How red your lips are’ in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his ‘Three Ten,’ the general effect of his ‘On Heaven’; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that will sing to music…”

E. Pound names “the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head” and they are all his publishing partners and friends!  What a startling coincidence!  Joyce, Yeats, Williams, Aldington, H.D, and Ford Madox Ford!  How uncanny!  What exquisite taste!  What rare and discerning judgment! 

We are now two-thirds done with “Poetics” of the Moderns, which commenced with Whitman.

T.S. Eliot gets 10 pages. 

Next, William Carlos Williams, from the prologue to Kora In Hell:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.  To me this is the gist of the whole matter.”

Can anyone tell me what this means.  Or this: 

“The instability of these improvisations would seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention and become particles of a wind that falters.  It would appear to the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly.  It would be these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools.”

Enough of Mr. Williams.  He is too busy fighting off  “fools…”

D.H. Lawrence (a preface to New Poems, U.S. edition) follows:

“Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds.  Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.”

Yes, by all means!

Langston Hughes makes an appearance:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’  And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Enough of that logic…

Next, Hart Crane defends his ‘At Melville’s Tomb’ in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe.  She found the poem obscure.  It is obscure.  Hopelessly so—Monroe was right.

Wallace Stevens’ turn:

“Poetry is not personal.”

“All poetry is experimental poetry.”

“It is the belief and not the god that counts.”

“Poetry must be irrational.”

“We live in the mind.

“Every man dies his own death.”

“Realism is a corruption of reality.”

And other gems. 

The final 25 pages of “Poetics” finds 3 pages of Robert Frost (The Figure A Poem Makes), 7 pages from a Transatlantic Interview with the crackpot Gertrude Stein, 6 pages of  Marianne Moore (6 too many) and finally, 10 pages of W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

What is wonderful about Mr. Auden is that he is only educated modern poet who does not speak down to his audience.

It is probably  no surprise that modernist poetics is so paltry.  Modern poetry is enjoyed by the few, and with the general public out of the way, the old need to apologize for, or defend, poetry is no longer there.   Small ideas appeal to small audiences, and since the modern poets have turned their backs on the larger public, small has been the rule.

Unfortunately, however, I have the uncomfortable feeling that modern poetics is less than small.  Something about it feels downright silly and childish, or even worse, manifesto-ish.  And still worse: obscure, grumpy, condescending.

I don’t see how one would want to teach Homer without teaching Plato at the same time;  nor would I ever dream of teaching modern poetry without first teaching Homer and Plato, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, Shelley and Poe.   I don’t see how what is typically taught as modern poetics can even be called poetics at all, when compared to what came before.

But that’s just me.

THE MANLY POETS

HOMER (War Correspondent)

JUVENAL (Satirist)

LI PO (Mountain recluse)

HAFIZ (Party Animal)

DANTE ALIGHIERI (Exile)

FRANK PETRARCA (Lover)

PHIL SIDNEY (Soldier, Spy)

BILL SHAKESPEARE (Screen Writer)

CHRIS MARLOWE (Killed in Bar)

JOHN MILTON (Government Official)

ALEX POPE (Gardener)

LORD BYRON (M.P.,seducer, funded Greek independence)

P.B. SHELLEY (Rogue, drowned sailing)

JOHN KEATS (Medical Student, dead at 26)

SAM COLERIDGE (Trading Co. Official, Opium Addict)

BILL WORDSWORTH (Hiker)

ED POE (Secret Code Writer, Horror Writer)

LORD TENNYSON (Tobacco & Whiskey Stinking)

ARTHUR RIMBAUD (Rock quarry foreman, weapons dealer)

FORD MADOX FORD (Womanizer, War Propaganda Office Director)

RICHARD ALDINGTON (Soldier)

PAUL ENGLE (Fundraiser)

EZRA POUND (Traitor)

JAMES DICKEY (World War Two Pilot)

BILLY COLLINS (Best-Selling Author)

GARY B. FITZGERALD (Self-published, talks shit on blogs)

POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

WHAT IS “MODERN?”

When I was 18 and began to study poetry for the first time, it was obvious to me the Romantic poets were far and away the best models for me in English, as I was not a student of languages then, and contemporary poets were prosaic enough to make a study of them no study of poetry at all.

Had I traveled back 2,000 years to study Homer or Sappho, I should no doubt have become a Greek scholar, but I wished to travel back a hundred years or so and be a poet like Shelley or Byron.

I was informed by my literature professors that poets who wrote in the 19th century were “old-fashioned” and no models for me at all.   Poets who were born in the 19th century, however, were modern—to follow them was the only way to succeed.

This seemed absurd to me.  I wanted Keats for a model.   Keats was…you know…goodKeats was a poet.

The models my professors enforced on me seemed ridiculous.   T.S. Eliot was a banker—with 1920s slicked-back hair and big ears.  Allen Ginsberg was some guy with a beard and a bald spot.   Ezra Pound looked like a Satanist with his pointy beard.

But Keats as a model was out.

I had to pick “moderns.”

Banker.

Guy with bald spot.

Satanist.

The beautiful was out-of-bounds.    It was “old-fashioned.”

I had to marry the hag,  not the lady.

This was my fate if I decided to pursue poetry.

Beauty had nothing to do with it, my professors told me.

Poetry was now the property of science and pragmatic religion.  Protestant revolt and scientific specialization had supplanted the old poetry of beauty—poetry had to specialize, too—everything was breaking into specialized tasks—poetry was no longer about pleasing in a universal manner.   Poetry was now a tiny part of the branching into particulars which modernity was speedily carrying out.

My literature professors were not scientists themselves, but they somberly informed me science had grown up, and it no longer cared for poetry.

The art of poetry, in order not to fall into “amateurism,” had to leave science to the scientists and pursue its own path.

“Poetry now cannot attend science into its technical labyrinth,” as poet and English professor John Crowe Ransom put it in 1938.

Poetry had to grow up, too.

Business and religion and science were grappling with pragmatic matters of new complexity that required a coolness and flinty disposition—the poetic was no longer a help in these areas, but actually a hindrance.

We did not discuss business, religion, or science; literature professors, with a vague sociological authority, assured me these subjects had turned into technical, unfriendly pursuits for the poet; poetry as it had existed was no longer required by the scientist or the businessman or the priest—poetry must survive by turning into a labyrinth of its own.

Poetry had to be “difficult,” as T.S. Eliot (b. 1888)  put it.

Instead of being inspired by the Romantic poets directly, I had to study “moderns” like Allen Ginsberg.

William Blake had inspired Ginsberg, but I couldn’t be inspired by someone as “old-fashioned” as Blake.

I had to go to Allen Ginsberg.

I had to write like the “moderns.”

I had to listen to Ransom (b. 1888) to tell me what was “modern” and what was not—and how poetry existed as “modern.”

Only years later did I realize that “modern” wasn’t modern.  Only later did I realize that poetry and learning are not beholden to any idea of “modern” in the first place.

“Modern” wasn’t modern.    “Modern” was merely a code word for a clique of power brokers who had discovered a sophistry—“modernism”—to validate themselves.

It was a trick.

A trick of coteries and word-play.

A trick as old as the hills.

–Thomas Brady

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