“Two centuries ago, in the early years of the Romantic movement, there was a hope expressed in some quarters that religion, having died as a dogma, might be reborn as art. In a notebook of about 1804 William Blake has left a vivid—if unpolished—example of this idea. He writes as one for whom the poetic imagination is a numinous world-building power that can never be supplanted or dethroned, either by the mockery of rationalist critics or by scientific theories:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!
Mock on, mock on— ‘Tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again

And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Don Cupitt, from After God (1997)

Jack Hirschman earned a controversial Round One win over Robert Penn Warren when rumors circulated that refs and judges tampered with results in a way that favored the Southern Agrarian/New Critic/Twice Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner in  both Fiction and Poetry (the only one to do so). In the firestorm which followed, Warren dropped out, and Hirschman advanced to Round Two with “The Painting.”  Here are the opening lines:

So there it is:
a painting of the late black heroic
mayor of Chicago
in woman’s underwear
in the name of artistic iconclasm
and free expression

In his poem, Hirschman argues the painting should be taken down:

We are partisan, Mr. Make-It Curator,
and you, Mr. Make-It-New-Artist,
we’re at war
with art as privilege,
with the kitsching up of soul,
with the gooning of the truth
about those who help working people see
how beautiful the reality
of their imagination as a class
in motion actually is.

Do we acclaim the removal of the painting?
Emphatically, provacatively

Stephen Dobyns has clearly got the stuff to handle Hirschman’s in-your-face play.  Here’s a passage from “Allegorical Matters:”

Gently she presses her breasts against your eyes
and forehead, moving them across your face.
You can’t get over your good fortune. Eagerly,
You embrace her but then you learn the horror
because while her front is young and vital,
her back is rotting flesh which breaks away
in your fingers with a smell of decay. Here
we pause and invite in a trio of experts.
The first says, This is clearly a projection
of the author’s sexual anxieties.

Before we relate how Hirschman, like a man possessed, put in 3 point shot after 3 point shot, and took a 51-32 half-time lead, we might ask: do these two poems reflect a vital speech-making, a 20th century leap into honesty and truth-seeking, or rather a road to hell, in which mere rant becomes the norm, due to Emerson’s emphasis on “argument” as the crucial movement of the poem? If Hirschman believes the highest morality is the dignity and justice for the working class, should the poet—always paying attention to words—ask all sorts of questions of HirschmanHow do you define the ‘working class?’  Isn’t free speech a friend of the working class? etc, thus exposing the shallow message and the bankrupt reasoning of the poem, in terms of the logic of its words and phrases (never doubting Hirschman’s sincerity) or, should Hirschman’s poem be allowed to stand as it is, an opinion welcomed for just that: its opinion?  But if Hirschman’s poem does not persuade us with its message, doesn’t it fail?  How can a poem like this be allowed ‘to stand as it is?’  Either we are won over by its argument, or not, and it stands or falls based on the logic, or success, of its argument.

On the other hand, why can’t Hirschman’s argument simply exist as drama—without its success as an argument having anything to do with its success as a poem?

And yet, Hirschman’s poem explicitly denies another work of art, “The Painting” of the title, this consideration: “The Painting” of Harold Washington, the mayor of Chicago, is a bad argument, Hirschman claims, an attack on something which is more important than itself, and thus it needs to be censored.

Thus we defend the poem on a principle which the poem itself denies.

But on the other hand, if we do not defend Hirschfield’s poem; if we reject the poem, we do so violating the very principle (freedom of speech) we are supposed to defend.

If the argument were in an essay, we’d be asked to accept the argument, or not.  But because the argument is in a poem, we cannot accept or reject its argument as an argument alone: but does the poem itself argue that there is more to it than its argument?  No, the poem seems to only be about its argument.  But the argument of the poem rejects free speech in the name of art, so the argument of the poem as a poem is an argument of the poem against itself as a poem; it argues for itself as an argument, not as a poem. But if we reject its argument, does that mean we have to accept it as a poem?

Or can we accept it as a poem, but still reject it aesthetically?  Accept its right to exist, but still reject it in terms of taste?

But what does it mean to ‘accept-but-reject’ something?  Can we remove a painting if our taste rejects it?  Or can we only remove a painting if we reject its argument?  But why?  Why can we remove a painting if its message offends—if it offends argumentatively, but not if it offends aesthetically?

What if “The Painting” (of Harold Washington, mayor) which the poem rejects pleases us, only because we get a secret thrill from “The Painting’s” pure iconclasm, a rush purely because  some line is being crossed, so that it is neither aesthetics, nor argument, which is at the heart of the matter, but merely an emotional thrill? In this case, we care not whether the poem aesthetically pleases us, or whether we agree with the argument of the poem (we may get a further thrill from disagreeing with the poem)—we enjoy it beyond all that, for reasons the poet (who believes in his message) never consciously suspected.

Can we conclude, then, that argument as the external key to any poem is extremely problematic?  The very nature of an argument is that it never stands still; the artist is never really in control of an argument; it always slips out of his hands and runs away to the opposite wall; artistic control requires materials that do not slip away and run, and return and come back, and then run to the other side again.

In his poem, Stephen Dobyns seems to intuit this very theme of an argument slipping away:

But never mind, he says. Perhaps I’m mistaken;
let’s forget I spoke. The author lowers his head.
He scratches under his arm and suppresses a belch.
He considers the difficulties of communication
and the ruthless necessities of art. Once again
he looks for the ant but it’s gone. Lucky ant.
Next time he wouldn’t let it escape so easily.

Will the counter-revolutionary Dobyns get the best of the revolutionary Hirschman?

If you had this feeling, your feeling was correct, dear reader.

Hirschman barely misses two three point shots at the start of the second half and doubt creeps in.

Dobyns gains confidence as Hirschman’s first-half fury turns to second half fear.  Momentum swings. Hirschman’s big lead slowly dwindles, and finally, Dobyns prevails, 99-94.

You knew this would happen, didn’t you?

You were certain that mystery– and doubt—would triumph at last.



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

Here are the winners:


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


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


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


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

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

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

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

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

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

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


Rosanna Warren, poet and daughter of Robert Penn Warren, made a brief  statement to the press this morning

“Good morning.  After long reflecton, and with a heavy heart… my father is sick of the politics (wipes tear) and he told me to tell you, he’s finished…Hirschman can have his March Madness win…my dad just wants…the poetry…the poetry…to shine…like the moonlight in his poem….”

This was just moments ago, in Boston, Rosanna Warren announcing that Robert Penn Warren and his poem, “Night Walking” are withdrawing from the Scarriet APR March Madness Tournament after a conflict of interest came to light on Monday of this week.

Scarriet March Madness officials quickly declared “The Painting” by Jack Hirschman will move on to the next round of play.

The irony was not lost on March Madness fans:  Robert Penn Warren is a Quietist, and yet “quiet” led to “riot” as the protest by defenders of Jack Hirschman changed the course of March Madness history.


Hirschman’s poem “The Painting:” Progressive politics is sacred.

As APR March Madness poetry fans know, Hirschman’s poem “The Painting” fell to Robert Penn Warren’s “Night Walking” in first round play this year, but Warren’s victory is now coming under scrutiny by March Madness officials after it was pointed out that one of the contest referees was a New Critic with ties to Warren.

Hirschman bristled when asked if he intentionally courts controversy. “I court the truth!”

Robert Penn Warren may be the most honored American poet after Robert Frost, and so far there has been no comment from the poet or his camp.

Hirschman fans, however, are in take-no-prisoners mode, pointing out Warren’s membership in the far-right Southern Agrarians, the 1930s group of Southerners who eventually became the conservative New Critics who dominated the 1940s and 50s.

Animosity to the New Critics runs deep: their high-brow purity is seen as anti-democratic.  The New Critics wanted to focus on the text, and this may be a noble aim, critics concede, but New Critical purity unfortunately tends to deny the world outside the text.  Another New Critical crime: they chased music out of poetry.  In Robert Penn Warren’s influential poetry textbook, published in several editions from the 1930s to the 70s, Understanding Poetry, “The Red Wheel Barrow” is praised and “Ulalume” is condemned.

About 50 people milled around the entrance of the John Crowe Ransom Arena this morning, carrying signs that read, “The Painting” Was Robbed!”

Upsets at Scarriet’s APR March Madness—and now controversy.


Ma, I lost.

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

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

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

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

Can you have art without iconoclasm?

Can you have art without icons?

Eileen’s Vision

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

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

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

To John Ashbery on Szymanowski’s Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


East-  James Wright v. William Matthews
North- Philip Larkin v. Joseph Duemer
South- Robert Penn Warren v. Jack Hirschman
West- Donald Hall v. Douglas Crase

Poems by Wright and Matthews both rueful and poignant; Wright’s has more concentrated power, but Matthews is less self-pitying and finally has more interest.

Sleep, the most cunning weapon?  Both opponents seem to think so.

Wright’s “And Yet I Know” ends thusly:

Beside the tomb in the shade of a head of a man, a living man is lying down under a pine shrub dead drunk. It
is exactly two minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon.
Then I found later that monument is the
Funeral Kiosk of the Antinore, and beside
it the tomb of the poet Lovato de’ Lorati.
I have never read Lorati’s poems.  His name is so lovely.
I have been drunk and asleep beneath a pine shrub myself.
I wonder who the sleeper is.

And Matthews‘ “Good Company” ends like this:

The conversation luffs.  The last
bottle of wine was probably too much
but God we’re happy here.
“My husband stopped the papers
and flea-bathed the dog
before he left.” One of us has a friend
whose analyst died in mid-session,
non-directive to the end.
Now we’re drifting off to our nine lives,
and more. Melodramatic wind,
bright moon, dishes to do, a last
little puddle of brandy or not,
and the cars amble home:
the door, the stairs, the sheets
aglow with reticence and moonlight,
and the bed full to its blank brim
with the violent poise of dreams.

Matthews 68, Wright 64

In North play, Larkin and Duemer both doubt the soul lives after death: Larkin, with rhyme, his own, Duemer, with prose, another time’s.

from the beginning of Larkin’s “Aubade”:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

The end of Duemer’s: “Theory of Tragedy”

Tonight, odor of skunk hanging like a philosopher’s soul
in the air, I sit beneath a xerox copy of a photograph—one of those
Greek vases called a lekythos, this one showing a daughter of Memory,

loosely draped, feet bare, sexy, her right hand indicating
a songbird on a branch sketched near her knees.
Without a definition of tragedy, we cannot understand
the dance our words and grammar pattern intersecting
the facts of the palpable world–a maple tree’s black
branches against the amber/blue stripes of sunset,

perfume of skunk and wood smoke hanging in the air.
The old man always said his wisdom was nothing but ignorance,
and at the end of his life he couldn’t prove the soul
survives the body. Perhaps it was nothing but a feeling,
like tragedy, which is only the awkward singing
of a small bird on a flimsy branch pointing toward memory.

Larkin scores at will and it’s lights out for Duemer.

Larkin  98, Duemer 84

Over in the South, Robert Penn Warren looms under the moon, as the poet observes his son walking in the moonlight.  Warren’s opponent, Jack Hirschman, asserts that in the name of working people it’s OK to censor art—especially the art of corporate museum curators.   Warren’s “Night Walking” takes on Hirshman’s “The Painting.”

Hirshman is impressive in his bold thesis but Warren’s art finally prevails.

Warren 78, Hirschman 71

In the West, Donald Hall’s hysterical “To A Waterfowl” has no trouble with Douglas Crase’s more sober rumination, “There Is No Real Peace In the World.”

Hall 66, Crase 49

Three No. 2 Seeds advance, with one upset, as James Wright falls to 15th seed William Matthews.

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