HAPPY NEW YEAR! 2017 SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100

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1 Bob Dylan. Nobel Prize in Literature.

2 Ron Padgett. Hired to write three poems for the current film Paterson starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani.

3 Peter Balakian. Ozone Journal, about the Armenian genocide, won 2016 Pulitzer in Poetry.

4 Sherman Alexie. BAP 2015 ‘yellow-face controversy’ editor’s memoir drops this June.

5 Eileen Myles. Both her Selected Poems & Inferno: A Poet’s Novel making MSM lists.

6 Claudia Rankine. Citizen: important, iconic, don’t ask if it’s good poetry.

7 Anne Carson. The Canadian’s two latest books: Decreation & Autobiography of Red.

8 Paige Lewis. Her poem “The River Reflects Nothing” best poem published in 2016.

9 William Logan. In an age of poet-minnows he’s the shark-critic.

10 Ben Mazer. “In the alps I read the shipping notice/pertaining to the almond and the lotus”

11 Billy Collins. The poet who best elicits a tiny, sheepish grin.

12 John Ashbery. There is music beneath the best of what this New York School survivor does.

13 Joie Bose. Leads the Bolly-Verse Movement out of Kolkata, India.

14 Mary Oliver. Her latest book, Felicity, is remarkably strong.

15 Daipayan Nair.  “I am a poet./I kill eyes.”

16 Nikky Finny. Her book making MSM notices is Head Off & Split.

17 Sushmita Gupta. [Hers the featured painting] “Oh lovely beam/of moon, will you, too/deny me/soft light and imagined romance?”

18 A.E. Stallings. Formalism’s current star.

19 W.S. Merwin. Once the house boy of Robert Graves.

20 Mary Angela Douglas. “but God turns down the flaring wick/color by color almost/regretfully.”

21 Sharon Olds. Her Pulitzer winning Stag’s Leap is about her busted marriage.

22 Valerie Macon. Briefly N.Carolina Laureate. Pushed out by the Credentialing Complex.

23 George Bilgere. Imperial is his 2014 book.

24 Stephen Dunn. Norton published his Selected in 2009.

25 Marilyn Chin. Prize winning poet named after Marilyn Monroe, according to her famous poem.

26 Kushal Poddar. “The water/circles the land/and the land/my heaven.”

27 Stephen Burt. Harvard critic’s latest essay “Reading Yeats in the Age of Trump.” What will hold?

28 Joe Green. “Leave us alone. Oh, what can we do?/The wild, wild winds go willie woo woo.”

29 Tony Hoagland. Tangled with Rankine over tennis and lost.

30 Cristina Sánchez López. “I listen to you while the birds erase the earth.”

31 Laura Kasischke. Awkward social situations portrayed by this novelist/poet.

32 CAConrad. His latest work is The Book of Frank.

33 Terrance Hayes. National Book Award in 2010, a MacArthur in 2014

34 Robin Coste Lewis. Political cut-and-paste poetry.

35 Stephen Cole. “And blocked out the accidental grace/That comes with complete surprise.”

36 Martín Espada. Writes about union workers.

37 Merryn Juliette “And my thoughts unmoored/now tumbling/Like sand fleas on the ocean floor”

38 Daniel Borzutzky. The Performance of Being Human won the National Book Award in 2016.

39 Donald Hall. His Selected Poems is out.

40 Diane Seuss. Four-Legged Girl a 2016 Pulitzer finalist.

41 Vijay Seshadri. Graywolf published his 2014 Pulitzer winner.

42 Sawako Nakayasu. Translator of Complete Poems of Chika Sagawa.

43 Ann Kestner. Her blog since 2011 is Poetry Breakfast.

44 Rita Dove. Brushed off Vendler and Perloff attacks against her 20th century anthology.

45 Marjorie Perloff. A fan of Charles Bernstein and Frank O’hara.

46 Paul Muldoon. Moy Sand and Gravel won Pulitzer in 2003.

47 Frank Bidart. Winner of the Bollingen. Three time Pulitzer finalist.

48 Frederick Seidel. Compared “Donald darling” Trump to “cow-eyed Hera” in London Review.

49 Alice Notley. The Gertrude Stein of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.

50 Jorie Graham. She writes of the earth.

51 Maggie Smith. “Good Bones.” Is the false—“for every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird”— poetry?

52 Adrian Matejka. His book The Big Smoke is about the boxer Jack Johnson.

53 Elizabeh Alexander. African American Studies professor at Yale. Read at Obama’s first inauguration.

54 Derek Walcott. Convinced Elizabeth Alexander she was a poet as her mentor at Boston University.

55 Richard Blanco. Read his poem, “One Today,” at Obama’s second inauguration.

56 Louise Glück. A leading serious poet.

57 Kim Addonizio. Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life came out in 2016.

58 Kay Ryan. An Emily Dickinson who gets out, and laughs a little.

59 Lyn Hejinian. An elliptical poet’s elliptical poet.

60 Vanessa Place. Does she still tweet about Gone With The Wind?

61 Susan Howe. Born in Boston. Called Postmodern.

62 Marie Howe. The Kingdom of Ordinary Time is her latest book.

63 Glynn Maxwell. British poetry influencing Americans? Not since the Program Era took over.

64 Robert Pinsky. Uses slant rhyme in his translation of Dante’s terza rima in the Inferno.

65 David Lehman. His Best American Poetry (BAP) since 1988, chugs on.

66 Dan Sociu. Romanian poet of the Miserabilism school.

67 Chumki Sharma. The great Instagram poet.

68 Matthew Zapruder. Has landed at the N.Y. Times with a poetry column.

69 Christopher Ricks. British critic at Boston University. Keeping T.S. Eliot alive.

70 Richard Howard. Pinnacle of eclectic, Francophile, non-controversial, refinement.

71 Dana Gioia. Poet, essayist.  Was Chairman of NEA 2003—2009.

72 Alfred Corn. The poet published a novel in 2014 called Miranda’s Book.

73 Jim Haba. Noticed by Bill Moyers. Founding director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

74 Hessamedin Sheikhi. Young Iranian poet translated by Shohreh (Sherry) Laici

75 Pablo Larrain. Directed 2016 film Neruda.

76 Helen Vendler. Wallace Stevens champion. Helped Jorie Graham.

77 Kenneth Goldsmith. Fame for poetry is impossible.

78 Cate Marvin. Oracle was published by Norton in 2015.

79 Alan Cordle. Still the most important non-poet in poetry.

80 Ron Silliman. Runs a well-known poetry blog. A Bernie man.

81 Natalie Diaz.  Her first poetry collection is When My Brother Was An Aztec.

82 D.A. Powell. Lives in San Francisco. His latest book is Repast.

83 Edward Hirsch. Guest-edited BAP 2016.

84 Dorianne Laux. Will always be remembered for “The Shipfitter’s Wife.”

85 Juan Felipe Herrera. Current Poet Laureate of the United States.

86 Patricia Lockwood. Her poem “Rape Joke” went viral in 2013 thanks to Twitter followers.

87 Kanye West. Because we all know crazy is best.

88 Charles Bernstein. Hates “official verse culture” and PWCs. (Publications with wide circulation.)

89 Don Share. Editor of Poetry.

90 Gail Mazur. Forbidden City is her seventh and latest book.

91 Harold Bloom. Since Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot are dead, he keeps the flame of Edgar Allan Poe hatred alive.

92 Alan Shapiro.  Life Pig is his latest collection.

93 Dan Chiasson. Reviews poetry for The New Yorker.

94 Robert Hass. “You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.”

95 Maurice Manning.  One Man’s Dark is a “gorgeous collection” according to the Washington Post.

96 Brian Brodeur. Runs a terrific blog: How A Poem Happens, of contemporary poets.

97 Donald Trump. Tweets-in-a-shit-storm keeping the self-publishing tradition alive.

98 Ben Lerner. Wrote the essay “The Hatred of Poetry.”

99 Vidyan Ravinthiran. Editor at Prac Crit.

100 Derrick Michael Hudson. There’s no fame in poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFINE THE BRUTE

When I’m asked for an opinion on modern American poetry, I want to do more than list poems and poets I like, though this is probably the only adequate response. Anything else will be sure to confuse as much as it enlightens.

But I cannot resist the injunctions, so fraught with discipline is my soul, even though it inhabits a bestial body.

Before poems are offered up, however, I have a desire to show my thoughts on what poetry is, and what it does, and what it is supposed to do, if it is worthy to be called, poetry, of which “modern” and “American” are even more hopelessly vague.

Surely poetry has a certain pedagogical use.

Verses and rhyme help us significantly in two ways: verse helps us to learn a language and helps us to learn to love a language.

Poetry can most simply be defined as language at play.

How can one love a language which is complex and unmusical?

Unless one is hopelessly misanthropic and affected?

Language can confuse more easily than anything else—because a chaos of meaning is more chaotic than chaos itself.

Language should never confuse—if it is worthy to be called language.

How can the most complex thing on earth do us good as a cheerful and loving guide?

This is the whole question, and poetry, in its beautiful robes, is always near, emerging elegantly from the shadows, with the answer.

Poetry, to cast away all pretense and confusion, then, is for the learning-book, the school lesson; poetry is the teacher of language.

Poetry is language for the child.

The child, who lisps wants and thoughts in the world of his mother, all at once enters the next phase—and grows slowly into a speaking and feeling citizen—with the help of poetry. 

At the end of this phase, perhaps harsh and complex and unmusical language awaits; but this middle path should be guided by simple and playful and happy versification, which fills the senses and the muscles of learning—with confidence and joy.

The student of poetry is the student of poetry for students.

For teaching is what poetry does.

Student, to some, is an unfriendly word; it implies anything but joy. We would prefer the poet as someone who learns from nature, outside the school’s walls.  Student implies shallow breathing and pitiless annoyance.

Student may have unfortunate institutional associations, but the athlete trains, the baby animal learns, the lover knows the beloved, and poetry casts knowing lovingly over all creatures who speak.

Poetry is a stream for all the speaking tribes.

Poetry is wisdom that is more than wisdom.

A student of poetry is the best thing to be—for once the adolescent has imbibed poetry’s waters, something divine will stay in him forever.

Poetry does not exist for itself, or to convey “truths” among sophisticated grownups—who need “news that stays news;” poetry is only very indirectly connected to the fussy things necessary to move among the trials and griefs of mature life. Poetry’s influence is wide and strong enough to trick sophisticates into thinking that poetry is a sophisticated enterprise. But the true poets know better.

Poetry can belong to “truths;” it can belong to, and be, anything; it is, for many, the speech of strangeness, the speech of estrangement, the speech of enormity, the speech of iconoclasm, the speech of vain maturity shot through with terrifying irony, and yes, speech which can dare to say anything.

Yes. The stream is the sea.

However, before it is any of these things, poetry is food for the student eternal.

Poetry should turn language into a beautiful instrument, both for exterior expression, and for inner thoughts of the highest enterprise and pleasure.

To be great, poetry must know where it belongs.

Poetry serves language.

Language does not serve poetry.

Poetry exists as a lover of language—not to “know things” or to express “knowledge,” though what it expresses can, obviously, relate to knowledge and knowing.  Knowing isn’t what it is—just as a stove is not heat.

A child will have plenty of opportunity to grasp things about the sordid, factual world.

Language—which poetry serves—is how we navigate the world. Language—which poetry serves—is not merely a repository of facts.

For the doubting adolescent, language, beautiful language, is the way to swim through the intellectual sea. The intellectual sea shouldn’t be poured into the novice’s mouth.

Since poetry is language, poetry makes both the mind and its objects beautiful—language which belongs to poetry appeals to both the sense and the senses. Language which belongs to poetry revels in fluency, revels in delight and a practiced ease, with which to contemplate and think.

As an example, we offer a recent poem of our own composition, which demonstrates how poetry belongs in language—not just in the macro-sense (to which we typically think poetry belongs, making sublime, insightful, emotional, grandiose observations and pronouncements, etc)—but in the micro-sense: poetry is, more than anything else, speech which punctures pretense, speech which spreads harmony, grace and civilization.

YOU SAW MY COMMA, YOU SAW WHAT I SAID WAS NICE

You saw my comma, you saw what I said was nice;

The shouting world that you see has nothing to do with me,

But I, at least, can prove to you, with the way I write,

That I am kind, nice to kiss, and safe—even sweet to be with at night.

It really is true that we have nothing to do with the world,

Although we are in it. The unseeing world

Has been manipulated against its will,

Or not: maybe the whole world meant to do it this way,

And the world is exactly as it should be, every day;

Though we don’t believe this, and I don’t believe this,

And please just kiss me—and do me a favor: don’t believe a single thing I say.

****

But to really be convincing, we offer an example of one of the greatest poetic speeches:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…or to take arms…

Great old poetry from our mother tongue obviously throws its influence over contemporary American poets, though some, to be “more contemporary” push away the old—though every poet knows this is impossible. But if we look at this famous verse, immediately we see it appeals to the child: One or Zero. Either/Or. Binary language lies beneath computer language and a great deal more—difficulty, however, is not Shakespeare’s aim: child-like clarity and truth, rather. “The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office” is not the speech of long, tortured disquisition; it is the truth spoken quickly; now the mathematical simplicity of one or nothing is further complicated, but simply: the added issue is this: nothing is not really nothing—“but that dread of something after death…” But in the end, it still comes down to one or zero, because uncertainty is still zero.

And this is a truth which gives the lie to the “Difficult School,” and every kind of inadequacy and pretence which kills poetry in our day and makes it so unappealing to the public: “uncertainty is still zero.”

This is why William Blake’s lovely, child-like ballads to “Innocence and Experience,” mark the return of Shakespearian genius in the poets which came to be called “the Romantics” by critics who had no other word, just as “Modern” is no word at all to describe anything literary. Perhaps if we mean to say “stupid,” like that plum poem (Christ!) by Carlos Williams.

There is only good poetry.

There are no eras.

There is no liking poetry which is “about” something you like.

You’re not liking poetry, then.

There is no scholarship—especially the kind that exists to prove that Ezra Pound is more important than Edna Millay. Most people don’t care. A small percentage care, but most of that small percentage doesn’t get it. Poor poetry.

Intellectuals in the West chiefly care about “equality,” which translates into going backwards from their superior intellects into something worse—for the sake of that very “equality” they love.

The poor hate “equality,” which is why popular music, for instance, the entertainment of the poor, is so unequal: The “hit” songs get played over and over again. And for a simple reason, which no doubt goes over the intellectuals’ heads—on account of the intellectuals being so intellectual: Good songs are good because they sound good, and even better, with more listens.

So everything popular is not equal. Prose make all poems equal. That’s why prose-as-poetry appeals to intellctuals. This alone is the point. It isn’t that the intellectuals hate verse, or that the Pope hates naked women. Equality is solemnly the aim.

So to quickly review American poetry: ballads sung by the poor, evince a great deal of poetic genius, and this informs the great shadow poetry of America: popular music, which our Mother Country joyfully “invaded” in the 1960s, with phenomenal numbers like “House of the Rising Sun.”

Edna Millay is a great genius of American poetry (see her sonnets, etc).

Then there is the great counter-tradition, began in the 1930s at Iowa, in which American poetry lives entirely in the university—and two crucial things happen in the Creative Writing frenzy of the Writing Program Era: 1. Intellectuals take the “popular” element out of poetry in the name of what is largely pretentious “scholarship” and 2. Poetry is taken hostage by a business model which replaces disinterested learning of poetry with shameless ‘Be a Writer!’ institutional profit-share scheming.

The New Critics, the counter-tradition, institutional champions of mid-20th Century American poetry, awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his early 30s Yale Younger Prize. A New Critic (Fugitive) was Robert Lowell’s psychiatrist when Lowell left Harvard to study with New Critics Ransom and Alan Tate and room with Randall Jarrell.

What about the Beats? The street-wise response to Lowell? The problem with the Beats is that they produced one famous poem, “Howl,” which no one reads to the end, and Robert Lowell, who was a Writing Program teacher at Iowa, and a Frankenstein monster of the tweedy New Critics, actually has more loony, real-person, “confessionalist” interest than the Beats do. Ginsberg’s “Supermarket In California” is easily his best poem, and it is probably no accident that this poem is an homage to Whitman—the canonized creation of Emerson (the prose of the Sage of Concord was stolen by Whitman and turned into poetry) and Emerson was 1. the godfather of William James (inventor of stream of consciousness and Gertrude Stein’s professor) and 2. friends with T.S. Eliot’s grandfather—and here are the roots of every leaf of American modern experimental poetry.

When I went to Romania this last month, I met David Berman, student of the late James Tate. Berman, an underground indie rock star (Silver Jews) and estranged from his millionaire right wing lawyer father—is a truly delightful person, as funny and smart a man as you will ever meet. James Tate won his Yale Younger in the 40s and has a Creative Writing degree from Iowa.

America poetry is Iowa. Quirky, intelligent, funny. Very, very conveniently in prose. This is the kind of poem you read once, are vastly impressed, but with each successive reading, all interest dissolves—because the intelligence has striven with billions of stars and trillions of grains of sand—and lost.

This is poetry that is really stand-up comedy.

John Ashbery, and his friend Frank O’hara, are also funny.

Ashbery, who was awarded the Yale Younger by W.H. Auden (talented Brit anointed by T.S. Eliot) in the 1950s, makes no sense, and so he is considered slightly better of the two (Ashbery, O’Hara) by intellectuals, since before Ashbery’s poetry everyone is equal (equally befuddled).  To think there was a time, not that long ago, when Byron complained he couldn’t understand Wordsworth.

Billy Collins, the best-selling American poet today, belongs to the James Tate/humorous/Iowa School. But since he is clear, although he is clever, and writes in prose, like every critically acclaimed poet in America, Collins is not appreciated by the intellectuals. His clarity bugs the intellectuals—who invariably confuse obscurity of expression with obscurity of subject, favoring the former, against all good sense.

I traveled to Romania with Ben Mazer, who is struggling to break the mold, who is perhaps the only American poet today seriously attempting to write verse in which verse writes the poetry.

Slinging words around in a half-comical or half-fortune cookie wisdom fashion, and avoiding all the excellences which the Romantics evinced, is the norm today—and one never bucks the norm, if one knows what is good for one. Unfortunately, avoidance of the past is bad. It prevents one from traveling to the future.

Then there is political poetry, which invariably falls into the category of poetry which is “about” something which the reader is already prepared to identify with, the political poet carefully avoiding any thing which might be called poetry to get in the way of what the “poem” is preciously and importantly “about.” This kind of poetry will always be written since poetry left poetry roughy 100 years ago, a time when, unfortunately, in America, the literary word “modern” began to be taken seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEPHEN STURGEON AND SUSAN TERRIS IN THE EAST

There is the sort of poetry which is shy and odd.  Here is no titanic novel, no Lord Byron of a thousand rhymes, no comedy, no tragedy, no autobiography, no song.

It is the sort of poetry that looks at you and says…yes?  Did you want something?  Were you looking for someone?

It is the poet who is so not cool, they are cool.  Or, so cool, they are not cool.  And so on.  And they secretly hate you—or love you.  You can’t tell.  They sit across from you for an evening and say nothing—with words, or otherwise.

Theirs is the sort of poetry that is a little bit funny without any effort at all, and for a moment they might have you thinking that to be a little bit funny with no effort at all is really the greatest thing it is possible to do.

In the 2016 March Madness East bracket, we have 12th seed Stephen Sturgeon, who is currently literature librarian at the University of Iowa, with this line:

City buses are crashing and I can’t hear Murray Perahia.

A line like this is unassailable.  One could never pronounce it bad or good.  Sturgeon’s line wears the magic coat of John Ashbery, protected forever from criticism.  It could mean something, or not, and because it baffles, it pleases sweetly and ephemerally, like a cigarette, or any trivial pleasure which pleases because of a certain sly, unhealthy, indefiniteness.  It is unhealthy to be indefinite all the time. And in our minds, small doses of the unhealthy will tend to feel like pleasure. One can be addicted to non-meaning, and actually find it to equal actual pleasure.  If they haven’t done a study of this, they should.

Boredom is separated from death by one thing: variety.  If differences ceased, boredom really would be death—to be bored with one thing endlessly is perhaps the one thing that is hell for the mind—the hell of pure boredom, without pain.

“City buses are crashing” is very high on the modern spectacle-of-interest scale and not being able to hear Murray Perahia makes perfect sense, and yet is so odd, especially if you are one of those people who say to yourself, Murray Perahia? I’ve heard that name, but who is he?  It is that tantalizing uncertainty: Buses crashing? Why? Are people dying?  Is the poet on the bus, or just witnessing the crash?  And so on.  It is all those questions, all those uncertainties, all those elements—which save us from the horror of boredom.   “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.”  Said Berryman.  Yes and yes.

Susan Terris, who was published in the latest Best American Poetry, is the 5th seed in the East, and her line is:

Cut corners  fit in  marry someone

It is what we do.  It sums up life.  After the buses crash. After Murray Perahia finishes. It is funny how a few words can capture a life in such a way that, even though we know there is so much more to life, there is a part of us that relents, and says, Oh God. This is it. This is life.

It almost as if we like the way language can put us in a little box and there we remain.

Someone has to come out of this box and be the winner.  Will it be Stephen?  Or Susan?

From the box come indefinable sounds.

 

 

BEN MAZER’S THE GLASS PIANO AND THE POETRY OF INTELLECTUAL IMMEDIACY

Who walks here? Poe? Eliot? Mazer?

Just a glance at the titles of the poems in Ben Mazer’s new book, The Glass Pianoreleased Nov. 1 (Madhat Press) thrills this reviewer:

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar
Autumn Magazines
My Last Dutchman
One dresses in the darkened gloom
Spread over the vast sinking town
Tonight my lover lies
Why is it some old magazine; like a wheelbarrow
The poet does his finest work in sin
Graves and waves are signified by rows

Pop culture is one thing; poetic, in the true sense of the term, is something else: the current swarm of poets in our Writing Program era often mix these two up.  Poetry can use pop culture; but amateurs aflame with various aspects of pop culture (or hipster culture) have it so that pop culture uses poetry, which is…ugh…so wrong.

In Mazer’s brief lyric, “Autumn Magazines,” poetry is using pop culture, not the other way around. It is difficult to pinpoint why, but Mazer, in his poetry, absolutely gets this distinction. In this poem, poetry asserts itself.

Autumn Magazines

The falling leaves of autumn magazines
are framed by nature. Frost said you come too.
Your gowns and sandals crown your nakedness,
Each season justifies all that you do.
The sidewalks spread out their appearances,
the towers and the gilding celebrate
the dates and calendars, commemorate
and underneath it all there’s only you.

The ending “you” is endearingly romantic and Romantic. Nearly all “serious” poets today avoid the gesture, fearing critical rebuke for its “pop song” component; such fear, however, dogs only the lesser poets, not poets like Mazer (we will be bold enough to point out Scarriet is the leading example of this style) who are in such command and control of their poetic gift that “pop” elements do not turn their poetry into “pop,” even when pop sentiments are used without irony.

The all-mighty “you” is a standard in sentimental song, sure, but this doesn’t mean the suave poet cannot borrow its mysteries and charms—charms, by the way, which belong to Dante and Petrarch (among others) and also belong to the trope no poet should do without: pronoun mystery—is the “you” the beloved, God, or the reader, etc etc?

Further, Mazer’s genius can be seen in the way he incorporates one of the greatest jazz standards, “Autumn Leaves,” into the idea of autumn magazines, (poets will be sentimental about magazine numbers, and why not Autumn?) beginning his poem as the famous song begins: “the falling leaves…” Then he introduces the idea of “framing nature,” a trope on a trope on a trope, and when he quotes Frost, another brief lyric is referenced, which references autumn leaves (“rake away…to clear a spring”) and Frost, in his lyric, also makes romantic use of “you.” Mazer’s poetic sensibility fills every bumper to the brim.

Now, the Difficult School, which we revile, rejects the immediacy of pop sensibility—but immediacy is actually what these two, pop culture and poetry, share.

This is why, in the titles of poems listed above, we can see immediately that Ben Mazer is a poet.

If one cannot see this, one should probably not try and read Ben Mazer; one will find oneself feeling like a yokel at the opera, or Ron Silliman before the throne of Poe.

If Lupe Velez with a Baedeker does not resonate with you; if you don’t feel the thousand feelings Autumn Magazines inspires; if My Last Dutchman does not bring a curious, appreciative smile to your lips, you have no business reading poetry. 

And to those who object that a a few words cannot prove mastery, we would ask, how many notes of Brahms’ first symphony does one have to hear before sublimity invades one’s soul?  Poetry is made of one thing: words—words which impress immediately if we are in the presence of the true poetic gift.  The Renaissance painters felt they were superior to the poets—they were, in as much they could depict immediately the face that the poor poet had to supply in pieces—but the poetic art has caught up with painting since the Renaissance, the poets coming to understand how a drop may intimate the sea. Of course, a fool may drown in a drop, but Mazer, who appreciates every drop, intimates oceans.

“Lupe Velez with a Baedeker: Irving Thalberg with a Cigar,” the first poem in the book, directly quotes T. S. Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar” in its first two lines, and then we meet the name, Lupe Velez.

We shall not weigh down this review with references—Mazer’s poems are not weighed down with them; they float over our heads (or drift beneath our feet)—there is no need to “know” or “learn” as one reads a Mazer poem; one burns with it as one reads. Poems that weary us with their facts and their information—Mazer’s poems never do this, and not because Mazer doesn’t “know stuff;” he knows that poetry is not about that, thank God. He doesn’t let pedantry spoil his poetry—which so many otherwise brilliant poets do. He doesn’t allow the hiding of pedantry to spoil his poetry, either, which a smaller, more elite class of poets do; Mazer offers no pedantry, and this puts him almost in a class by himself. He uses what we know, or, more accurately, what we want to know, to entrance. Mazer lays the streets and paths and alleyways as if he were making a poem and then writing a poem in the one he has made—he creates the mind which reads the poem.  But he uses your mind. Many readers will find Mazer’s poetry uncanny in a familiar/strange sort of way, and this is the reason.

Why is Mazer such an important poet? Because he is a return to this impulse, the one voiced by Alexander Pope’s “what oft what thought, but ne’ver so well expressed” and the Romantic sublime, in which what we are able to feel, experiencing a world we all share, is the template, and we find our experiences to be breathtaking—thanks to the poet, who has not only done the work putting together his expression, but the work of joining his feeling to ours.

This remains true, even in the first poem in the book, if we have never heard, for instance, of Lupe Velez; the poem has much to do with her; the poem would not exist without her; no Mazer poem would exist without its unique underpinnings, and so, in that sense, the poet walks among us and is one of us; but the poem makes no effort to inform us of Lupe Velez—the poem is not made small, or trapped by this; reading The Glass Piano is not an exercise in learning, in the weary, worldly sense, but if one should gather the important facts of Lupe Velez—a Mexican actress who broke into U.S. Silent screen movies in the 1920s and successfully moved into sound—one will have learned something of Mazer’s poetic universe, not an isolated fact.  Mazer’s poetry is a symbol for a unique mind that is, itself, a symbol—one reads, literally, Mazer’s vision, of which the poems can only say so much—which is why, perhaps, he is prolific, and also why—too busy to “plan” in the ordinary sense—Mazer’s momentum builds in his longer poems, which seem to be planning themselves as they pitch forward, like life, so that suddenly turning off the main thoroughfare of patient exegesis (you are in an outdoor theater; movies are ghosts etc) you find yourself in a picturesque side path of discursive majesty, the words gaining weight as they fly, the vision really there and real. Mazer is almost like a scientist discovering his poems—and, as they are read, because one gets the idea that Mazer conceives them in the gentle heat of his brain (Mazer is gentle; he has a touch) with the same speed with which they are read, inspiration is able to feel the animal. The long poem (roughly 300 lines) which concludes the book, “An After Dinner Sleep” is immortal, and joins Mazer’s “Divine Rights” at the top of his winding stair.

Mazer chooses Lupe Velez (and Eliot) to begin his book, and says nothing about her, except in hints. (It is not necessary to read Velez’s heart-breaking suicide note.)  We quote in full the first poem of the book. Thalberg is another early figure in film, a producer of Grand Hotel (1932) and early monster/horror films. Mazer’s genius is perfectly content to feed on kitsch, populism, history, camp.

Lupe Velez with a Baedeker; Irving Thalberg with a Cigar

The smoky candle end of time
Declines. On the Rialto once.
With Lupe Velez. Prepared the crime.
But Irving’s valet was no dunce.

Had seen Tirolean dances there
before. And though she was no whore.
Perhaps was hired by the state.
Yet would not scare. And knew no fate.

Time’s thick castles ascend in piles,
The witnesses to countless mobs.
Each with intention, torches, throbs.
Bequeath the coming dawn their wiles.

Yet Irving was not meant for this.
He books the first flight to the States.
He suffers to receive Lupe’s kiss.
While all around the chorus prates.

There’s something does not love a mime.
Tirolean castles built to scale.
There was a mob. There is no crime.
These modernisms sometimes fail.

Mazer trusts the reader to “fill in” what is necessary; all great artists do this; some phrase from a favorite poet, for instance, reverberates in the mind; we recall the scene, the feeling, and yet, not all the words, and running to the book, we open it and find the passage: what? was it only these few words? Which depicted so much?  Indeed it was. Mazer has this gift: a few strokes of the brush: a world.

It is astounding how much this brief lyric conveys: we read each line like a chapter in a novel.  When was the last time we said a poem had “atmosphere?”  Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott?”  Poe’s “The Raven?”  Mazer’s poems have atmosphere (some more than others). Many poets have attempted to lay on atmosphere, but they fail, since atmosphere in poetry cannot be described or explained or accomplished with adjective—-poets are not painters; they cannot paint. The poet must find another way. Mazer finds another way. In “Lupe:” First, by using terse, yet dramatic speech. Second, referencing atmospheric templates (“Tirolean castles”). Third, finding the precise word, even as the other part of his brain is bringing the poem off in terms of beginning, middle, and end.

The narration is coolly involved in the action of the poem: the poet speaks with speech, not with emotion or personality, and this discipline is perhaps the most important “less-is-more” formula there is, and very hard to do. “These modernisms sometimes fail” comes to us from an uncanny place—there is no human, emotional, “straining after,” even though the poem as a whole is frightfully emotional.  It is as if the poem were so emotional that it could only speak without emotion.

The importance of the words is paramount; this is all the poet has, and Mazer is clever enough to know that none of the traditional tools of storytelling will make the words of the poem important: things like ‘a moral’ or ‘the story’ or ’emotion’ remove us from the importance of the words themselves; Mazer’s words seem like they are being spoken (or quoted) from some removed place—and what better way to make this impression than by a subtle, downplayed, insinuation of moral and story and emotion, so the action of the words themselves remain paramount?  And, secondly: hauling in familiar quotes and references from film and literature—the authority of feelings and experiences which belong to us, but lie beyond?  “Would not scare” echoes the ‘steely yet mournful night’ ending of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” “There’s something does not love a mime” intimates a “something” that wrecks walls, quoting Frost, with “mime’s” jokey alteration implying everything from silent film to the stoic reticence of Mazer himself.

To paraphrase Yeats, poems should be boldly designed, and yet appear design-less, and Mazer, who claims to compose unconsciously, his poems dictating themselves to him nearly complete, is able to revel in that inevitable surprise one (does not?) look for; one could almost say that the poetic is, by its very nature, unconscious design.

Who can argue with the unconscious, or Mazer’s stated idea in the book’s afterword interview with critic Robert Archambeau, that all composition is revision and all revision is composition?

There should be no conscious intent in poetry, according to this smooth-lake view—a view propounded by the New Critics, the ultimate Quietism of T.S.-Eliot-Learning-and-Conservatism, which defies 1. conscious Conceptualism and 2. conscious Ethnic/Ethical Poetry, these two Schools currently at war, as the School of Mazer (Romanticism, Frost, Eliot) makes its move.

Mazer eschews both the rattle of the gizmo avant-garde and the sloganeering of the ethnic/ethical.

Yet he has more to “say” than either.

Edgar Poe, the fountain of modern literature, quietly inspired T.S. Eliot, who, in the spirit of Anglo-American Modernism, publicly excoriated Poe, after he, Eliot, won the Nobel in 1948. Shelley was attacked earlier by Eliot, in the 1930s.

“These modernisms sometimes fail.”

Why not, as Mazer does in “Lupe,” rhyme like Percy Shelley, hint at Mary Shelley’s creature, and wrap it in an atmosphere of T.S. Eliot? Or Poe?

Why not force a wedding between Modernism and Romanticism?

This reconciliation is due, and Mazer, more than any living poet today, is showing the way. This may be, at the moment, his raison d’etre.

Ben Mazer, perhaps the most remarkable poet alive today, has in his bones that Poe, that poet of shadowy art, flowing into that Eliot of hedonist umber; Mazer struggling to emerge, newly, as that perfection which knows itself as such—latching onto the perfect atmosphere blindly, but perfectly blind—Mazer writing from the unconscious (the bones), not as an ‘automatic writing’ Ashbery, in the tradition of Harvard’s William James and his student Gertrude Stein, but in a tradition much less ‘laboratory,’ and more ‘organic.’ Ben Mazer—the Coleridge of Cambridge, shall we call him? Mazer inhabits the Harvard Square of Prufrock’s Eliot—not Longfellow (who lived there), or 100 years later, Ashbery (who studied there).

It’s a subtle thing, perhaps, but Mazer, who is sometimes compared to Ashbery, is far more Eliot: Eliot rejected the Romantic poets’ music reluctantly, with a frown; Ashbery did so completely, with a laugh.

The excitable, yet mathematical, purple of Poe (“organic” if nature is Platonically made of math) did flow into the tortured, beige suavity of Eliot—a fact difficult to detect not so much by the casual reader, but by the scholar—and in Mazer’s auditory onslaughts, his chaste intelligences, and his world-as-art acrobatics, Eliot’s prophetic Tradition-which-reveals-the-past-by-the-present has come true.

To demonstrate, we quote in full another poem from the new book. It is 13 lines. Most of the poems in this book, are in fact sonnets, 14 lines in length.

The title, “Spread over the vast sinking town,” (the poem’s first line) immediately puts us in mind of:

As if the towers had thrust aside
In slightly sinking, the dull tide…
Down, down that town shall settle hence…” (“The City in the Sea,” Poe)

The second line of Mazer’s poem, “Which winter makes seem half asleep” recalls Eliot’s “The winter evening settles down” from “The Preludes.” A significant word, “curled,” is found in both the Mazer and the Eliot poem.

Mazer has yanked together Eliot’s “Preludes” and Poe’s “The City in the Sea.”  Mazer’s poem begins:

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep

And notice, in the poem that follows, with what skill Mazer blends Poe’s melancholy spondaic/dactylic music with Eliot’s modern imagery couched in the merrier, yet ironic, iambic; initially the poem trips along in a nimble, 19th-and-20th-century mix, pausing for a moment at the precipice of what might become delicate sarcasm, before it settles into a work perhaps owing more to Poe—or is it Eliot?—but nonetheless achieving, in the end, a work poignant, uncanny, and original, even as it remains steeped in a strange, familiar, hybrid ambience.

Spread over the vast sinking town
Which winter makes seem half asleep
A bus begins its movement down
Across a bridge into the steep
Wide view of the familiar sights
The site of many rowdy nights
But now inhabitants have thinned
Discouraged by the winter wind
And one less one is in the world
Because our faith and will have curled
And folded on the mantel bare
To leave unborn without a care
One whom God’s glory wanted there.

“God’s glory…” Who, today, could invoke this, and be solemn and serious and reputable and true? Mazer may be the only one. The ticket, of course, is the music.

Mazer doesn’t always rhyme this methodically. Today it is almost considered critical suicide to rhyme, unless your name is A.E. Stallings.  As for truth: there is never a reason not to use punctuation, but there it is—occasionally poets feel the need to carve words alone in iron.

But as for rhyme: Poets do not rhyme for two simple reasons: 1. Contemporary fashion and 2. it is very difficult to do.

Mazer is steeped and skilled in the art—from both a practical and an historical perspective, both one and two do not trouble him; he is good enough not to care for contemporary fashion.

When Mazer does not rhyme, he does tend to sound like Ashbery, or a kind of Waste Land Ashbery—Old Possum is usually lurking behind the drapery.

In Glass Piano Mazer has bet heavily on rhyme.  And we are glad that he has.

Mazer’s poems are dreamy and contemplative; if there are two types of lyric, one, the conscious, busybody, Go Do Something, Mazer’s poetry fits I Am The Something; Mazer doesn’t plunder memory for the sake of finding things out, so much as drawing near to what one is wary of finding out. In the first kind of poem, morality often beats you with a stick. In Mazer’s poetry, morality is kind, and wears a cloak.

In the poem just quoted in full, whatever it is in the poem that is “folded on the mantel bare” hints at a memory of an abortion, perhaps? and oddly, other poems in the book which use the word “mantel” seem to hint at the same thing, but in a very delicate way. Mazer’s work is far too aesthetically layered to take any overt moral positions; here Mazer is like Shelley, who asked poetry to explore moral causes—not accessible, worldly, moral effects; below the surface in Mazer’s poetry there does seem to be a deep, ancient conservatism, one that is expansive in its nostalgia, an icy Weltschmerz, but one capable of skating on slippery levity; Mazer’s poetry is happy with the pluralism of existence, with its nostalgia—Mazer feels it, yes, but is not depressed or overwhelmed by it. Occasionally there is a wave of ticket-stub sentimentality, a feeling of poor old dad in his twilight study with the old-literary-magazine compendium, but Mazer never indulges in the merely rueful; there is a quickness to his melancholy.

The I Am Something poem, the one that says ‘Everything you need is here,’ does feature a passive poet—looking out windows, trapped in darkness—and, as a corollary, a passive reader, too–but we get an active poem; the Listen To Me! I Am It! Quietly! poem that, in itself, has everything we need. The passageways may be dark, but they are Mazer’s, and we travel them with trembling delight. We aren’t just reading words. We are moving in what they project.

Because of Mazer’s discursive and melancholy hyper-awareness of the fleeting struggling to cohere, those poems he knits with meter and rhyme (stitched to mingle and collide) tend to bring a happier result than his free-verse Ashbery ones.

Mazer makes quiet use of humor; we actually wish there were more of it in this book. Mazer’s subtle humor enriches the melancholy, instead of merely intruding on it.

A good example of Mazer’s sense of humor can be seen in the following poem, which we quote in full, and which exemplifies all we have been saying so far. Note the brilliant, philosophical ‘Phoenix’ joke. Jokes have designs on us.  Mazer’s genius is the receptive, unconscious kind.  His humor is quiet, and for that, all the more powerful, and brings out in him a related, yet different kind of genius, one we would like to see him pursue more often.

Meanwhile you come to me with vipers’ eyes
to ask, Is there one among us who never dies?
I look into the bottom of my pack of lies
and answer, The Phoenix, though Lord knows she sometimes tries.
You take my answer in your sort of stride,
and once again the stars align and ride
into our lives, upon the carpeted floor,
and the high mantle where you look no more
for evidence of what has gone before;
all stammers slightly,
and the evening closes up its door,
wrong or rightly; colorfully and brightly
some vestiges or trace of memory
falls on the wall; you close your eyes to see.

Mazer is obscure, but not hopelessly so, and because of the sad music, we never mind. We never feel, as we often feel with Ashbery, that there is some kind of parody going on, and Mazer is stronger for this.

All poetry, even—especially?—great poetry, has a shadow-self vulnerable to parody; “The Raven” was parodied upon its publication, immediately and often. One could say Modernism itself, in many ways, is a parody of the 19th century sublime—the spirit of Ashbery’s parody lives, partially hidden, in Eliot’s suffering heart. After all, Eliot anointed Auden and Auden, Ashbery. Is Mazer their successor?

Mazer is revolutionary, in our view, because, for the first time since Tennyson, poetry is once again allowed to be itself, to produce symphonies—with no need to parody, or feel self-consciously modern.

Mazer’s poems seem to say to us: Among all your sufferings, look! this lighted window really is for you. The couch of art, with its faint, sad music, belongs to everyone. You may all rest here.

Mazer is doing something wonderful and important. No one should resent this. Mazer is it. This review would have been better had we just copied his poetry.

We close with a passage from his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep:”

Now the two sisters have returned to London.
If one is done, the other must be undone.
You strain your eyes through columns, chance to see
the early return of the Viscount-Marquis.
Your monthly pension takes you on a spree
to Biarritz, Bretagne, Brittany,
and you will not be back till early fall,
and then again might not return at all,
the garish drainpipes climbing up the facades
all violently symbolic, and at odds
with simple pleasures countrysides bequeath
to girls with dandelions between their teeth.
There is no fiction that can firmly hold
the world afloat above the weight of gold,
but all your progress drains out to the lee
of million-fold eternal unity.

YES! ANOTHER SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!!!

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1. Vanessa Place —The High Creator does not create.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith —Death to the “creative” once and for all.

3. Simon Armitage —Best known for 9/11 poem, wins Oxford Poetry Professorship

4. A.E. Stallings —Lost the Oxford. World is still waiting for a good New Formalist poet.

5. John Ashbery —Doesn’t need to be good. Unlike New Formalists, his content and form agree.

6. Marjorie Perloff —Must confront this question: is the “non-creative” nearly racist by default?

7. Ron Silliman —Keeps tabs on the dying. Burned by the Avant Racism scandal.

8. Stephen Burt —Stephanie goes to Harvard.

9. Rita Dove —We asked her about Perloff; she laughed. No intellectual pretense.

10. Claudia Rankine —Social confrontation as life and death.

11. Juan Felipe Herrera —New U.S. Poet Laureate. MFA from Iowa. Farm workers’ son.

12. William Logan —“Shakespeare, Pope, Milton by fifth grade.” In the Times. He’s trying.

13. Patricia Lockwood —“Rape Joke” went Awl viral.

14. Lawrence Ferlinghetti —At 96, last living Beat.

15. Richard Wilbur —At 94, last living Old Formalist.

16. Don Share —Fuddy-duddy or cutting edge? It’s impossible to tell with Poetry.

17. Valerie Macon —Good poet. Hounded from NC Laureate job for lacking creds.

18. Helen Vendler —New book of essays a New Critical tour de force. Besotted with Ashbery and Graham.

19. Cathy Park Hong —Fighting the racist Avant Garde.

20. David Lehman —As the splintering continues, his BAP seems less and less important.

21. Billy Collins —His gentle historical satire is rhetoric nicely fitted to free verse.

22. David Orr —Common sense critic at the Times.

23. Frank Bidart —Student of Lowell and Bishop, worked with James Franco. Drama. Confessionalism.

24. Kevin Coval —Co-editor of Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.

25. Philip Nikolayev —Globe-trotting translator, editor, poet.

26. Ben Mazer —Neo-Romantic. Has advanced past Hart Crane.

27. Amy KingHates mansplaining. 

28. Sharon Olds —Best living female poet?

29. Louise Gluck —Her stock is quietly rising.

30. Jorie Graham —Her Collected has landed.

31. George Bilgere —If you like Billy Collins…and what’s wrong with that?

32. Garrison Keillor —Is he retiring?

33. Kent Johnson —Is his Prize List so quickly forgotten?

34. David Biespiel —One of the villagers trying to chase Conceptualism out of town.

35. Carol Ann Duffy —The “real” Poet Laureate—she’s Brih-ish.

36. Cate Marvin —Poet who leads the VIDA hordes.

37. Lyn Hejinian —The best Language Poet?

38. Dan ChiassonNew Yorker house critic.

39. Michael Robbins —As with Logan, we vastly prefer the criticism to the poetry.

40. Joe Green —His Selected, The Loneliest Ranger, has been recently published.

41. Harold Bloom —The canonizer.

42. Dana Gioia —The best of New Formalism.

43. Seth Abramson —Meta-Modernism. That dog won’t hunt.

44. Henry Gould —Better at responding than asserting; reflecting the present state of Criticism today.

45. W.S. Merwin —Knew Robert Graves—who recommended mushroom eating (yea, that kind of mushroom) as Oxford Poetry Professor in the 60s.

46. Marilyn Chin —Passionate lyricist of “How I Got That Name.”

47. Anne Carson —“The Glass Essay” is a confessional heartbreak.

48. Terrence Hayes —Already a BAP editor.

49. Timothy Steele —Another New Formalist excellent in theorizing—but too fastidious as a poet.

50. Natasha Trethewey —Was recently U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms.

51. Tony Hoagland —Hasn’t been heard from too much since his tennis poem controversy.

52. Camille Paglia —Aesthetically, she’s too close to Harold Bloom and the New Critics.

53. William Kulik —Kind of the Baudelaire plus Hemingway of American poetry. Interesting, huh?

54. Mary Oliver —Always makes this list, and we always mumble something about “Nature.”

55. Robert Pinsky —He mentored VIDA’s Erin Belieu.

56. Alan Cordle —We will never forget how Foetry.com changed the game.

57. Cole Swensen –A difficult poet’s difficult poet.

58. Charles Bernstein —One day Language Poetry will be seen for what it is: just another clique joking around.

59. Charles Wright —Pulitzer in ’98, Poet Laureate in ’14.

60. Paul Muldoon New Yorker Nights

61. Geoffrey Hill —The very, very difficult school.

62. Derek Walcott —Our time’s Homer?

63. Janet Holmes —Program Era exemplar.

64. Matthew Dickman —The youth get old. Turning 40.

65. Kay Ryan —Are her titles—“A Ball Rolls On A Point”—better than her poems?

66. Laura Kasischke —The aesthetic equivalent of Robert Penn Warren?

67. Nikki Finney —NAACP Image Award

68. Louis Jenkins —His book of poems, Nice Fish, is a play at the American Repertory Theater this winter.

69. Kevin Young —A Stenger Fellow who studied with Brock-Broido and Heaney at Harvard

70. Timothy Donnelly —His Cloud Corporation made a big splash.

71. Heather McHugh —Her 2007 BAP guest editor volume is one of the best.

72. D.A. Powell —Stephen Burt claims he is original and accessible to an extraordinary degree.

73. Eileen Myles —We met her on the now-defunct Blog Harriet Public Form.

74. Richard Howard —Pulitzer-winning essayist, critic, translator and poet

75. Robert Hass —U.S. Poet Laureate in the 90s, a translator of haiku and Milosz.

76. Rae Armantrout —Emily Dickinson of the Avant Garde?

77. Peter Gizzi —His Selected, In Defense of Nothing, came out last year.

78. Fanny Howe —Is it wrong to think everything is sacred? An avant-garde Catholic.

79. Robert Archambeau —His blog is Samizdat. Rhymes with Scarriet.

80. X.J. Kennedy —Keeping the spirit of Frost alive.

81. Robert PolitoPoetry man.

82. David Ferry —Classical poetry translator.

83. Mark Doty —A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

84. Al Filreis  —Co-founder of PennSound

85. Frederick Seidel —Has been known to rhyme malevolence with benevolence.

86. Sherman Alexie —Is taught in high school. We wonder how many on this list are?

87. Marie Howe —Margaret Atwood selected her first book for a prize.

88. Carol Muske-Dukes —In recent Paris Review interview decried cutting and pasting of “Unoriginal Genius.”

89. Martha Ronk —In the American Hybrid anthology from Norton.

90. Juliana Spahr —Has a PhD from SUNY Buffalo. Hates “capitalism.”

91. Patricia Smith —Four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam.

92. Dean Young —His New & Selected, Bender, was published in 2012.

93. Jennifer Knox —Colloquial and brash.

94. Alicia Ostriker —“When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark.”

95. Yusef Komunyakaa —Known for his Vietnam poems.

96. Stephen Dunn —His latest work is Lines of Defense: Poems.

97. Thomas Sayer Ellis —Poet and photographer.

98. Carolyn Forche —Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University.

99. Margaret Atwood —Poet, novelist, and environmental activist.

100. Forrest Gander —The Trace is his latest.

 

 

 

 

 

THE END OF FORMALISM

“I would counsel Lysias not to delay, but to write another discourse, which shall prove the lover rather than the non-lover ought to be accepted.” –Socrates (The Phaedrus)

Wouldn’t you say, a thing can only be so strong when it is based on weakness?

For instance, intoxication can make us brave, but it does so because we are not brave, and so intoxication’s “bravery” exists because of weakness and so intoxication as a “good” will always be seen as a weakness and be understood as such.

Likewise, verse (poetry) adds to language a music above and beyond language’s meaning.  Since all would agree that conveying meaning is the highest purpose of language, and poetry is a good in that it makes it more entertaining to get meaning from language—the weakness announces itself to everyone: poetry feeds meaning the way intoxication feeds bravery.

The brave don’t need intoxication.

Good readers don’t need poetry—to entertain them and keep them focused in order to get meaning from a text.

We may or may not want to leave aside Socrates’ argument in the Phaedrus that the lover (mad) is a better life-partner than the friend (practical, sane). As Socrates points out, everyone (lover and non-lover) wants beauty and the lover/poet is finally better able to provide this than the practical type.

But just as Psychology has largely left behind Freud and Jung and literary invention that gave birth to Psychology itself—for psychotropic drugs and their practical effects, Plato is hardly studied any longer in school, and therefore it is safe to say that intoxication and verse are no longer seen as strengths at all.

Madness is the way we denigrate a thing, especially in our race to absolute reason in the realm of the humanities: women and earth have been dominated too long by “crazy” white males. So this is why verse has been abandoned. Its “intoxicated” aid to reading is rejected as unnecessary and insane: a weakness, a wrong, to be dispensed with.

For, yes, we should admit it—verse is a silly, entertaining thing that makes reading a greater amusement for a kind of mind easily bored by reading for meaning.

Verse exists because of a reading weakness—just as intoxication is sometimes necessary for bravery.

We dare not suggest here—but because we are crazy, we will—that bravery is nothing more than intoxication itself, or that verse enhances and elevates meaning and is closer to meaning than naked meaning itself is, at least in some select and really important instances.  But we’ll throw it out there nonetheless.

Verse is, obviously, formalism.

Today there are three ways critics and poets attempt to downgrade verse (formalism.)

One: They make sure we know that Socrates wore a toga. They make the whole question of formalism historical: form exists in forms and these forms: sonnets, heroic couplets, etc belong to certain historical periods with specific historical conditions.

And therefore we either cannot use these forms today or we must self-consciously subvert them.

An ABAB rhyme scheme is the equivalent of using “thou” and “thee.”

The stream of history in which all forms must exist carries them away.

So forms—all forms—formalism itself, in one simple (historical) step, is swept away.

Of course, despite the scholars’ opinion re: forms and history, we find formalism persists.

But where it does persist, the scholars simply point out that its persistence is not scholarly:

Rhyme belongs to hip-hop and other kinds of pop music. It doesn’t “feel right” in poems today that wish to be taken seriously, as scholarly works.

According to this anti-formalist approach, a poem cannot “work on its own terms;” it is always felt and understood in terms of historical conditions.

The “rules” for writing a sonnet are certainly legitimate, and verse does have a valid existence, but, according to the historical anti-formalist reading, only in a museum sort of way.

The “historical” downgrading of formalism is a very powerful way to downgrade formalism because it is both conservative and radical, since it simultaneously plays the “respect for history” card and the “now” card. Form is respected, but forms are obsolete, says the historical scholar.

The conservative New Critic John Crowe Ransom told his 1930s readers that writing like Byron was no longer possible. The “historical” view justifies every kind of experimentalism—even as it trumpets its tweedy respect for history.

Two: The scholars make form—not forms—the only thing that matters.  A highly abstract macro (form) kills the micro (forms).

This, too, is a very effective way to downgrade formalism:

This whole anti-formalism method can be summed up with T.S. Eliot, who wrote that even prose scans.

Even the loosest free verse has “form;” white space on the page has “form.”

This argument is far more insidious than number one above; so much so, that it resembles a CIA brainwashing tactic, and is probably the top reason for poets giving up on verse altogether—in a turn-about that courts insanity; destroying formalism in this manner argues that because white exists, snow cannot exist.

Form is what matters.  And form is such a naturally large category that the formless resides there. Formalism (the quality dismissed) merely concerns itself with various antiquated forms.

And here one notices how much this resembles the historical argument: The poet is expected to explore form itself as it applies to the present. Sonnets and Elizabethan England both belong to a formalism of the past.

So here’s a second reason not to write a sonnet.  First, the sonnet is relegated to the past. Second, form should be the focus; sonnets are merely forms.

And if that were not enough, there’s a third way.

Three: Avoid the subject altogether and make poetry all about content: form is expressed by what we say.

Just as the second reason strongly resembles the first reason—both emphasize form over forms—the third way that downgrades formalism resembles the second reason, for saying “form is nothing” is logically the same thing as saying “form is everything.”

Helen Vendler, obsessed with the “heterogeneity” and “stylistic originality” of poets like  Graham and Ashbery, is, in her essentially New Critical style, a mixture of Two and Three. She has written:  “Poetry not intelligible with respect to contemporary values of society could not be read.”

Surely, however, all critics like Vendler understand that a pure prose content purely isolated from all musical considerations cannot possibly denote anything poetical.

The poetical is prose meaning dipped in the coloring of musicality and moods. Content is always the ground from which we start, but it is not the poem itself.

Bravery (truth) is not intoxication (poetry).

To asset that ‘form is content and content is form’ is to lose both—is really to assert nothing.

Formalism is downgraded in three distinct ways, but it’s all the same pedantic strategy, a convincing but hollow set of deconstructions.

Listen in on any discussion of formalism and you get one or some combination of these three anti-formalist positions we have just presented: there is little else, except perhaps a kind of vague, well-meaning gesture towards “poems that work” in whatever manner happens to suit the historically grounded and socially acute poet. Virtues are slyly assumed to exist outside of formal properties, with the added assumption that “stylistic originality” and forms cannot co-exist.

But the truth is, there can be more “originality” in a sonnet than in all the works of Ashbery.

This is a truth which overturns all the abstract claims of heterogeneity in terms of form versus forms.

For we are always assuming that heterogeneity is going to be more original, but there is no basis for this belief at all.

New York City is a large complex place, but so long as we point to New York City in our minds as “heterogeneity,” able to stand as the ideal which transcends the petty, self-important enclosures of mere formalism, we miss the much larger point that New York City really consists of tiny neighborhoods, and all poetry, if not all reality, exists, and is accessible and knowable, in the city block, or the building, or the room: the reality is not a scholar pointing to abstract “form;” the reality is understood in what hides in a building in New York City—a sonnet, perhaps.

Yes, it actually makes more sense to look at all literature as a great string of sonnets than to wallow in pretentious abstractions (and billions of details merely elucidated for their own sake—or to fit into heterogeneity theories.)

Sonnet by sonnet is not the way to read, obviously, but the point is that this makes more sense than any of the methods advertised by the anti-formalist school.

Think of a literacy of the sonnet, rather than of the line, or the sentence, or the word, or the phrase.  What a literacy that would be!

Couldn’t the sonnet be the building block?  And wouldn’t it be a healthy mind who thinks in those terms?

Shelley’s great Ode (West Wind) is a short series of sonnets.

And one can read the Gettysburg Address—as four sonnets.

 

….

Now let us ask, after exposing the ravings of the anti-formalists, this more pertinent question: what is poetry’s purpose?

Flowers are not condemned to exist under glass, as the sonnet is—and why not?

The answer is obvious: because flowers serve a purpose.

Flowers attract bees—this attractive quality helps define for us what a flower is, and, although we are not bees, so powerful and overflowing is the flowers’ attractiveness, that we, bee-like, admire the flower for its flower-like qualities.

What if poetry is a language of dissemination which, like the flower, is attractive in order to disseminate?

And what if this attractive quality is timeless and demands cultivation and protection?

The gardener is not asked to admire the flower but protect, grow, and breed the flower, for all eternity.

If the gardener merely admired the flower and did not protect, grow, and breed the flower, in terms of what we understand a flower to be, we would call her a very poor gardener.

Further, if the gardener greatly admired flowers, but assured us that flowers had long since served their purpose as flowers, and now should exist in museums only, we should not only find this great admirer of flowers a poor gardener, but, despite their learned admiration, an enemy of flowers.

Those who downgrade formalism in the three ways outlined above—condemning traditional forms of poetry to sterility and “learned” curatorial irrelevance—are like the gardener who may admire flowers, but is their enemy and destroyer.

Poetry today is being destroyed, especially by those who currently study and practice it. A museum-admiration of poetry is an evil and insidious thing.

To seek for the elusive rationale or reason or purpose or use, of poetry can be compared to the search for a loved one in a crowd.

The similarities defeat us, not the differences.

“Is this the one you seek?” ask the ignorant but well-meaning searchers, and they bring us person after person, with face and arms and legs and every particular human quality—but no, this is not our beloved!

We are not looking for a type—we are searching for a unique quality.

Just as we look for a championship baseball team, celebrated through the ages, and are deterred most in our search, not because it hides beside an object like a fire engine, but rather next to a losing team—which also has pitchers who throw at 90 mph and hitters who can hit a ball 500 feet.

The poem’s reason that we seek, to the ordinary eye, looks very similar, in the great scheme of things, to a great deal of other writing.

Poetry’s purpose, ignored by theoretical moderns—blends in.  And—because we are blind to it, it can eventually kill us.

We scan the crowd for the one we love and die if we do not find her.

We search for: not forms, not form, not content, but attractiveness.

The pedants ignore the raison ultima because they fear it will be “a type,” thinking “type” itself is defined by form, but never content. But here they wildly err.

To specify poetry with formalism alone is to take poetry over to mathematics and music—and this is not 1) a general thing nor is it 2) anything to do with content—precisely because content is never specified (the purpose of poetry is never mentioned)—since we assume whatever is said can and will be said, heightened by the formal qualities, of course, but not determined by them. Yet how can the content of speech not be determined by its formal qualities in a systematic manner? Music does determine how speech speaks and once this is conceded, the poetry’s ultimate rationale must at last be acknowledged, for how speech speaks cannot but determine what speech speaks.

Yet we never hear in discussions of formalism what poetry must say.

We can discuss stocks and bonds in verse and never mention poetry’s purpose. We can allude to Eliot’s objective correlative and never mention poetry’s hidden purpose, since Eliot’s astute formula never escaped the blackboard to actually walk about. Eliot was using this formula to attack whole historic periods of poetry when, he felt, content and form were estranged; the tweedy Modernist condemned the Romantic poets this way—Eliot was finally downgrading formalism historically, not philosophically—and so an opportunity was missed: Eliot was essentially saying what the conservative Ransom was saying when Ransom said we can’t write like Byron anymore: Modernism ignoring poetry’s true purpose by saying “form, not forms.”

We are free to say anything in poetry now, said the 20th century Anglo-American Modernists, making the reason disappear in a general loosening of form to fit more and more varieties of content. But why the Modernists hated Byron, was that Byron said more interesting things while rhyming than the Modernists did in free verse.  This is why the chief Modernists like Eliot and Ransom tried to bury Byron (and Romantics generally).  Byron didn’t fit the Modernist formula.

Sure, many ruefully viewed the Modernist agenda as a simple mistake: poetry-turning-into-prose; well, everybody did, but no one had the pedagogical reasoning to stop it. Verse was the “metronome” and poetry-as-prose, the “musical phrase” was how crazy Pound cleverly put it. (“Prose scans,” in other words.)

No one stopped to think that a metronome was a perfectly useful tool for Beethoven, as he created profound “musical phrases.” Beethoven was hidden, like poetry’s reason, in the “room” of Modernist “verse.”

Robert Penn Warren, the New Critic co-author of the influential, mid-20th century Understanding Poetry textbook, wrote an essay defending “impure poetry” against “pure poetry,” another Modernist act in the drama of hiding poetry’s purpose. Poetic content was now, according to Warren: “all and any content not determined in the least by form.” The purpose of poetry was gone. Modernism had blithely killed it.

It wasn’t that form gradually loosened due to formal considerations; form wasn’t freeing up form—content was, in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ anything can now be said: the lyrics were eliminating the music, so to speak; this, and only this, is what was meant by “impure poetry” and its triumph. (Understanding Poetry included a savage attack on the attractively musical verses of Poe, even as it championed Pound and Williams; Warren’s essay savaged Shelley; Eliot impolitely attacked Shelley, as well: Poe and Shelley were wretched examples for Modernist delectation of scorned, “narrow purity.” Remember, the New Critics were considered “conservative” in their views. But chucking formalism was universally done in the Modernist era.  This is what the Pound clique did: they also attacked Edna St. Vincent Millay. (See Hugh Kenner’s nasty remarks on her).

But if formalism, as all must concede, has what must be described as legitimate formal qualities (to define it as formalism as such) what does it mean to say, as the anti-formalists said, that content can be whatever it wants in an “impure” triumph? Here is a “room” which has certain formal qualities, identifying itself as a “room” of poetry (as opposed, to say, a dinner menu) and yet, when content enters this room, the room itself only exists to leave the content untouched and free to express itself however it chooses, and any restriction upon the content is condemned as a backwards step towards an unwanted, old, and “pure” poetic practice.

Of course defenders of the “impure” never admit the absolute disconnection of form and content outright— in each specific poem, they say, form and content do their dance: both form and content are equally valuable; the “impurity” we defend is only to say (they point out) that formalism is no longer a straitjacket; formalism no longer is severe in its restrictions, no longer blindly formal in its dictates.

Poetry’s purpose remains hidden, however. What is said in the poem is said, and afterwards, the “everything is form” explanation is bent to the content’s will—this is the anti-formalist ‘explanation number two:’ making formalism a blindly obedient (and essentially nonexistent) shadow of content. Whatever facilitates the saying (or meaning) that is not the saying (or meaning) has an existence, in the same way that “prose scans;” but nothing that can be called art need exist at all—the poem speaks; the content speaks and asserts itself, and simply by way of formalistic properties manifesting themselves in a perfectly ordinary “grammatical or anti-grammatical” manner, this then becomes the “formal triumph” which mirrors the “ordinary” content speaking in its artless cunning, free of all artificiality, fulfilling the prophecy of Modernism’s expansive and articulate poetic quest.

There is no need to make any decisions about content; all that needs to be proclaimed, proclaim the anti-formalists, is that historically we are expanding our ability to provide content as formalism drops away: jettisoning all formalistic strategy, as content becomes all (and thus, nothing!) This is what Eliot meant by formalism hiding behind the drapery of loose poetry: historical poetry’s actual existence as such, is old Polonius—and the prying pedant is soon to be stabbed and killed in T.S. Eliot’s Critical Modernism’s play.

But how can the form of poetry—if it is really form-–not predetermine content? It must. Otherwise it is not really what we mean when we speak of poetic form. How can poetry as a formal practice not have a real existence as an actual piece of form and as an actual piece of content?

If we are true poets, we do not wish to blindly kill the beloved (poetry’s reason); we wish to find them in the crowd.

How will I my true love know from another one? —Ophelia, Hamlet

We listen to Beethoven and hear an actual musical content; the music inspires specific feelings—based on its formal qualities. To say that poetry does not do the same thing is to deny poetry’s existence altogether. Which is what we said earlier is happening in fact: poetry, in academia—where it now mostly resides—has become a museum exhibit in its formalism, an inconsequential exercise in its contemporary use. It does not matter that superior poetry is being written today in obscure quarters—the public simply does not exist for it, and so it does not exist.

We said that in recent history, formalist considerations never usher in the least interest in specific categories of content, with Eliot’s objective correlative formula the one major (ineffective) exception. But before Modernism, poetry’s purpose is acknowledged; poetry is given an identity based on what it does—and what it expresses in terms of content.  The greatest example in literature, perhaps, can be found in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus.

The modern lyric was called a “love letter” by Dante. Shakespeare made the sonnet a courting device for love and breeding—and thus was not far off from the “love letter” idea; the two greatest poets of all time (Eliot himself was explicit: “Dante and Shakespeare; there is no third”) have no trouble acknowledging the purpose of poetry which is now hidden: poetry, as much as it does exist formally, does yet have a use within, and obedient to, its purely formal existence.

The novel can be said to have originated as a series of letters (sonnets?) and the greatest fiction can be defined as an unfolding of love (or its opposite, hate: see the war-like Homer).

The sonnet—formalism—shall return.

Poetry, grown by philosophy and love, will be a living flower, once again.

 

THE LIST: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100

Conceptualism Can Hardly Be Imagined!

1. KG  is talked about.
2. Vanessa Place  Conceptualism’s moment in the sun
3. Ron Silliman  Has Conceptualism fever
4. Marjorie Perloff  Wrestles with: Avant-garde = Art, not poetry
5. Amy King  “Real issue” poet leads the war against Conceptualism
6. Cate Marvin  VIDA masses breaking down the walls of Conceptualism
7. Carol Ann Duffy writes poem for reburial of Richard III
8. Benedict Cumberbatch, distant cousin, delivers it.
9. Ben Mazer publishes Complete Ransom
10. Jorie Graham  Big Environmentalism comeback?
11. Claudia Rankine  Seizing the moment?
12. James Franco  Film/gallery/poetry renaissance man or Hollywood punk?
13. David Biespiel  April Fool’s Conceptualism piece in Rumpus
14. George Bilgere  Just “good poems?”
15. Kent Johnson  “Prize List:” Brilliant or KG lite?
16. Susan Howe   Who, where, what, why?
17. Ann Lauterbach Can’t hear the baroque music
18. Corina Copp  Reproduce
19. David Lau  A permisson
20. Forrest Gander  Take a look
21. Harryette Mullen Thinking it over
22. Keston Sutherland  S’marvelous! S’alternative!
23. Evie Shockley  Electrical grass
24. Joe Luna  Pale orb that rules the night
25. Geoffrey O’Brien Library of America editor
26. Lisa Cattrone “Your mother could pull a fresh squid from a lumberjack”
27. Jennifer Tamayo  Colombian-born New  Yorker
28. Juliana Sparr Won the Hardison Poetry Prize in 2009
29. Monica de la Torre Born and raised in Mexico City
30. Caroline Knox Educated at Radcliffe, lives in Massachusetts
31. J. Michael Martinez Hispanic American poet, winner of Walt Whitman award
32. Jasper Bernes  Theorist who received his PhD in 2012
33. Mairead Byrne Discovered the internet in 1994 on a plane from Ireland
34. Ben Lerner Eyebrows haunt glasses beneath intellectual hair
35. Ron Padget  Young member of the New York School
36. Alli Warren  Born in L.A., her book is Here Come the Warm Jets
37. Sandra Simonds “And once you give up drinking, drugs and having random sex, what is left?”
38. John Wilkinson  Studied English at Jesus College, Cambridge, United Kingdom
39. Hoa Nguyen Born near Saigon in 1967
40. Will Alexander Also made Johnson’s “Prize List”
41. Sophia Le Fraga “it took me fifteen minutes and eight tries which is too many and too slow I think”
42. Joyelle McSweeney She edits Action Books!
43. Cole Swensen “for instance, the golden section mitigates between abandon and an orchestra just behind those trees”
44. Cathy Wagner Her book Nervous Device came out in 2012
45. Christian Hawkey Is a poet, activist, translator, editor, and educator. Also wears shoes.
46. Dana Ward Was a featured writer for Harriet
47. Stacy Szymaszek “then something happened and a FUCK YOU FENCE went up”
48. Rebecca Wolff “The dominant paradigm of the day: the mediocre narrative lyric.”
49. Lugwa Mutah Kidnapped in Nigeria. Made Johnson’s “Prize List”
50. Maureen Thorson “At first heartbreak made me beautiful.”
51. Sean Bonney Brought up in the North of England
52. Tan Lin Poet, novelist, filmmaker, and new media artist
53. Rob Halpern “I herded me and me and me into a room in groups of ten to twenty and stripped me and me and me naked.”
54. Charles Bernstein  Playing in Scarriet March Madness Tourney, too busy to talk right now.
55. Rob Fitterman  Postconceptual pizza
56. Matthew Dickman “All night it felt like I was in your room, the French doors opened out onto the porch”
57. Anne Carson Born in Toronto in 1950
58. Christian Bok Born in Toronto in 1966
59. Caroline Bergvall Born in Germany in 1962
60. Peter Gizzi “Beauty walks this world. It ages everything.”
61. Linh Dinh His poem “Quiz” is on the Poetry Foundation site
62. Michael Robbins “A Poem for President Drone”
63. Bill Freind “We found this on the map so it is real.”
64. Danielle Parfunda  She is the author of Manhater.
65. Daniel Tiffany “Bin Ramke has come to be known for the procedures and allusions that quicken his ongoing poetic experiment”
66. Cathy Park Hong “To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.”
67. Dodie Bellamy Sex poetry grows apace with her Cunt Norton.
68. Lucas de Lima  Wet Land is for Ana Maria
69. Rosa Alcala “English is dirty. Polyamorous. English wants me.”
70. Yedda Morrison Whites out Heart of Darkness for her book, Darkness
71. Craig Santos Perez From Guam, co-founder of Ala Press
72. Divya Victor A featured writer for Harriet last year
73. Nathaniel Mackey Teaches at Duke
74. Brenda Hillman Married to “Meditation at Lagunitas”
75. Elizabeth Willis “You don’t blame the lamp for what you cannot read”
76. Ocean Vuong Won a Lilly fellowship from the Poetry Foundation in 2014
77. Bhanu Kapil  British-Indian who teaches at Naropa and Goddard
78. Joshua Wilkinson A “Poetry Plus” advocate
79. Elizabeth Robinson “red blush on air makes fatality sublime”
80. Brandon Brown Charles Baudelaire the Vampire Slayer
81. Lee Ann Brown “The Question Undoes Itself/ On an organic twittering machine”
82. John Yau Educated at Brooklyn, Bard and BU
83. Lyn Hejinian The Queen of the Language Poets?
84. Erica Hunt  “She likes to organize with her bare teeth”
85. Michael Hansen Poetry editor of Chicago Review
86. John Ashbery  And he goes, and he goes
87. David Lehman What is the best?
88. Jim Behrle The clown downtown
89. Alan Cordle He ripped the veil
90. Helen Vendler  Sees Yeats in the twilight
91. Billy Collins  Free verse genius
92. Seth Abramson Have no idea what he’s talking about
93. Philip Nikolayev  Gold mine of Russian translation
94. Valerie Macon  We won’t forget
95. Joe Green  A Fulcrum poet
96. Garrison Keillor  Poetry’s Walter Cronkite?
97. Camille Paglia  Feminist-hating blah blah blah?
98. Sharon Olds  The sweet crash-and-burn of Iowa Confessionalism
99. Amber Tamblyn The actress. Her new book of poems, Dark Sparkler, is about dead actresses
100. Dan Chiasson  Au courant, staus quo reviewer

THE SWEET SIXTEEN!

For T.S Eliot, the incense stained Moderinst, the road to the Elite Eight goes through Rome and Michelangelo.

Michelangelo has laid aside hammer and brush and pulled two upsets in a row in an elite English-speaking poetry tournament, the only one of its kind in the world. Rumors are the Pope will attend this contest.

Sarah Teasdale must conquer the iconic Wordsworth; so far she has aimed at the simple heart and won. How many more hearts can she break? Will Wordsworth counter with sentiment of his own? Or be cold and dignified?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Alfred Tennyson. Enough said!

Poe battles Keats!  Half these battles for the Elite Eight feature a Brit versus an American, and this is one of them.  Poe admired Keats, but he was happy to knock down perceived English superiority which existed then.

Milton, who was not known for his sense of humor, plays Ashbery, who, one could argue, is never serious.

The two friends, Byron and Shelley, tangle by a crystal lake at midnight.

Mazer and Chin have met in a previous Scarriet March Madness, with Mazer winning a big one. Chin out for revenge. She is one of two women left in the tournament.

And, in an interesting twist, Ransom, the “The T.S. Eliot of the American South,” whose collected poetry Mazer just published, continues his underdog run against Alexander Pope.

Eliot v. Michelangelo

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. —Eliot

I love to sleep, still more to sleep In stone while pain and shame exist: not see, or feel, or be kissed; so do not wake me, or weep. —Michelangelo

Wordsworth v. Teasdale

The rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the rose, The moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare, waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair. —Wordsworth

I have loved hours at sea, gray cities, The fragile secret of a flower, Music, the making of a poem That gave me heaven for an hour. —Teasdale

Coleridge v. Tennyson

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. —Coleridge

Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark. —Tennyson

Poe v. Keats

Our talk had been serious and sober, But our thoughts they were palsied and sear—Our memories were treacherous and sere—For we knew not the month was October, And we marked not the night of the year.  —Poe

A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keep A bower quiet for us, and a sleep Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.  —Keats

Milton v. Ashbery

But now my task is smoothly done, I can fly, or I can run Quickly to the green earth’s end, Where the bowed welkin slow doth bend, And from thence can soar as soon To the corners of the moon.  —Milton

Some departure from the norm Will occur as time grows more open about it. The consensus gradually changed; nobody Lies about it any more.  —Ashbery

Byron v. Shelley

‘Tis pleasing to be schooled in a strange tongue By female lips and eyes—that is, I mean, When both the teacher and the taught are young, As was the case, at least, where I have been; They smile so when one’s right, and when one’s wrong They smile still more, and then there intervene Pressure of hands, perhaps even a chaste kiss—I learned the little that I know by this.  —Byron

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse, Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawakened earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? —Shelley

Chin v. Mazer

My cousin calls him Allah my sister calls him Jesus my brother calls him Krishna my mother calls him Gautama I call him on his cell phone But he does not answer. —Chin

The basement casements, dusty with disuse, convey with their impregnably abstruse recalcitrance an inner life, to all who are among the living of no use. The wide walkways of the stars divide chapters of our lives like music in reverse.  —Mazer

Pope v. Ransom

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown, Thus unlamented, let me die, Steal from the world, and not a stone Tell where I lie.  —Pope

There was such speed in her little body, And such lightness in her footfall, It is no wonder her brown study Astonishes us all.  —Ransom

MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND—PLENTY OF UPSETS!

image

The biggest upset?

Bracket Two: Elinor Wylie (b 1885) 16th seed, knocks off number one seed Shakespeare! “Let Me Not Admit Impediments…” fell to “I was being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset. I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get.” Good for you, Elinor. Women everywhere are now wearing Wylie T-shirts.

Another shocker in Bracket Four thrilled poetry fans: No. 1 Seed Homer (“Sing in me Muse”) was edged out by John Crowe Ransom’s “Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail. And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, it is so frail.”

Lines of a highly developed music are the successful ones so far.

Translations are at a disadvantage, generally. Michelangelo, however, advanced past Blake in another upset in Bracket One. Michelangelo is ignored as a poet, perhaps, simply because he was such a great artist.

Michael S. Harper pulled off the only upset in Bracket Three, where every higher seed advanced except Wilfred Owen, who lost to Harper’s

“Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks, in a net, under water in Charleston harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you?”

A traditional sort of lyric beauty doesn’t always win.

But icons of yore did tend to prevail.

Milton, with his solemn music, for instance:

“The world was all before them, where to choose their Place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Did have trouble beating this by Patricia Lockwood:

“The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke.”

The Lockwood had a certain tragedy, strangeness, focus, and interest.

This by Byron, however:

“Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a roving By the light of the moon.”

Had no trouble dispatching the following by Graham, which feels flat by comparison:

“On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself.”

We will not reveal the precise score of the game, as we do not wish to embarrass Ms. Graham.

Joining Wylie in another upset victory for women, Gluck, 14th seeded in the Fourth Bracket, outlasted Pound.

Plath and Sexton did not advance, however, as Wordsworth’s “No motion has she now” proved too much for Plath’s “a man in black with a Meinkampf look” and Sexton’s “her kind” lost in what must be considered an upset to Ben Mazer’s “Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere…”

The pure audaciousness and oddness of Mazer’s humor proved unique, and too much for Sexton to handle.

There is a certain lyric majesty and poignancy which sometimes can appear to take itself a little too seriously in a reader’s mind when it comes up against a certain clever type of opponent.

The momentary matchup means a great deal in terms of critical judgement.

And thus the thrill of Poetry March Madness.

Here are the 32 survivors after the first round of play:

Bracket One:

Marlowe (def. Auden), Michelangelo (def. Blake), Dowson (def. Von Duyn), Eliot (def. Swenson), Wordsworth (def. Plath), Merwin (def. Emerson), Arnold (def. Dunbar), Teasdale (def. Dickinson)

Bracket Two:

Wylie (def. Shakespeare), Coleridge (def. Stevens), Frost (def. Barrett), Keats (def. Raleigh), Poe (def. Whitman), Khayyam (def. Swinburne), Marvell (def. Seeger), Tennyson (def. Gray)

Bracket Three:

Milton (def. Lockwood), Byron (def. Graham), Shelley (def. Carson), Harper (def. Owen), Ashbery (def. Millay), Sassoon (def. Larkin), Parker (def. Rich), Bernstein (def. Reznikoff)

Bracket Four:

Ransom (def. Homer), Dante (def. Donne), Gluck (def. Pound), Chin (def. Longfellow), Mazer (def. Sexton), Pope (def. Pushkin), Rilke (def. Carroll), Williams (def. Ginsberg)

Congratulations to the winners!

 

 

 

SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

1. Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and field, And all the craggy mountains yield. (Marlowe)

2. Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.  (Blake)

3. Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. (Dowson)

4. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot)

5. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones and trees. (Wordsworth)

6. If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. (Emerson)

7. The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. (Arnold)

8. When I am dead and over me bright April Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, Though you should lean above me broken-hearted, I shall not care. (Teasdale)

9. The soul selects her own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority Obtrude no more. (Dickinson)

10. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar)

11. This is the waking landscape Dream after dream walking away through it Invisible invisible invisible (Merwin)

12. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw, And I said I do, I do. (Plath)

13. It is easy to be young. (Everybody is, at first.) It is not easy to be old. It takes time. Youth is given; age is achieved. (May Swenson)

14. There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking, all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown, and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun. (Mona Von Duyn)

15. Long life our two resemblances devise, And for a thousand years when we have gone Posterity will find my woe, your beauty Matched, and know my loving you was wise. (Michelangelo)

16. Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form. (Auden)

BRACKET TWO

1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

2. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. (Coleridge)

3. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. (Barrett)

4. Say to the Court, it glows And shines like rotten wood; Say to the Church, it shows What’s good, and doth no good: If Church and Court reply, Then give them both the lie. (Raleigh)

5. Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicaean barks of yore, That gently o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore. (Poe)

6. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! (Omar Khayyam)

7. Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade. (Marvell)

8. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (Gray)

9. O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O, sweet and far from cliff and scar The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying, Blow bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying. (Tennyson)

10. I have a rendezvous with Death, At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air. (Seeger)

11. I have put my days and dreams out of mind, Days that are over, dreams that are done. Though we seek life through, we shall surely find There is none of them clear to us now, not one. (Swinburne)

12. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. (Whitman)

13. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. (Keats)

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

15. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (Stevens)

16. I was, being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset; I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get. (Wylie)

BRACKET THREE

1. The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton)

2. Though the night was made for loving, And the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a roving By the light of the moon. (Byron)

3. I arise from dreams of thee In the first sweet sleep of night, When the winds are breathing low, And the stars are shining bright. (Shelley)

4. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (Owen)

5. We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses. What more is there to do, except to stay? And that we cannot do. And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara. (Ashbery)

6. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives. (Sassoon)

7. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose. (Parker)

8. The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin. (Reznikoff)

9. It’s not my business to describe anything. The only report is the discharge of words called to account for their slurs. A seance of sorts—or transport into that nether that refuses measure. (Bernstein)

10. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. (Rich)

11. When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives (Larkin)

12. I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. (Millay)

13. Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks in a net, under water in Charlestown harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you? (Harper)

14. It’s good to be neuter. I want to have meaningless legs. There are things unbearable. One can evade them a long time. Then you die. (Carson).

15. On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself. (Graham)

16. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. (Lockwood)

BRACKET FOUR

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy. (Homer)

2. And following its path, we took no care To rest, but climbed, he first, then I—so far, through a round aperture I saw appear Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Dante)

3. With usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA (Pound)

4. I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g of “becoming.” Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea. (Chin)

5.  Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. (Sexton)

6. I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew, The jealousy, the shyness—though in vain—Made up a love so tender and so true As God may grant you to be loved again. (Pushkin)

7. We cannot know his legendary head And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze is turned down low, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (Rilke)

8. So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water besides the white chickens. (Williams)

9. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. (Ginsberg)

10. The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row. (Carroll)

11. What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things; Slight is the subject, but not so the praise, If she inspire, and he approve my lays. (Pope)

12. Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere. And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane. Or would you say that I have gone insane? What would you do, then, to even the score? (Mazer)

13. Come, read to me a poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. (Longfellow)

14. So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory: from this point on, the silence through which you move is my voice pursuing you. (Gluck)

15. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (Donne)

16. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (Bishop)

17. Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, It is so frail. (Ransom)

IT’S TIME AGAIN FOR…POETRY’S HOT 100!!!!!

hot 100.jpg

1. Valerie Macon—Credentialing 1, Poetry 0

2. Patricia Lockwood—“Rape Joke” first viral-era poem to go viral?

3. Paul Lewis—Poe scholar brings Poe statue to Boston: The Jingle Man Returneth

4. Marjorie Perloff—Every era needs its Uber-Critic

5. Charles Wright—New Poet Laureate

6. Camille Paglia—Zeitgeist, Firebrand, Sexual Ethics, Gadfly.

7. James Franco—Can Hollywood make poetry cool again?

8. David LehmanBest American Poetry best anthology gathering-place.

9. Richard Blanco—interviewed in Vogue

10. Garrison Keillor—King of Quietism

11. Kenny Goldsmith—We understand some people take him seriously

12. Marilyn Chin—New book, Hard Love Province (Norton)

13. Amy King—Lesbians trying to take over the world!

14. Charles Bernstein—Papers going to Yale

15. Tao Lin—Alt-Lit unravels

16. William Logan—Every era needs the Kick ass Review

17. George Bilgere—Imperial is new; only poet who can out-Collins Collins.

18. Stephen Burt—Harvard’s frenzy of sweet political correctness.

19. Josh Baines—rips apart Alt-Lit on Vice.com

20. Don Share—Steering Poetry Foundation Mother Ship

21. Ron Silliman—Guiding Avant-garde ships through Quietism’s shallows

22. Ben Mazer—Neo-Romantic publishes Collected Ransom, the South’s T.S. Eliot

23. Frank Bidart—Punk Rock Robert Lowell

24. Paul Muldoon—Drives the New Yorker

25. Philip Nikolayev—Bringing back Fulcrum

26. Vanessa Place—Museum performer

27. Casey Rocheteau —Wins a home in Detroit for being a poet!

28. Natasha Trethewey—Bids farewell to the Laureateship

29. Billy Collins—Ashbery with meaning

30. Terrence Hayes—Wins MacArthur

31. Harold Bloom—Anxiety of Flatulence?

32. Mary Oliver—Nature poetry sells?

33. David OrrNew York Times Book Review column

34. Adam Kirsch-New Republic critic

35. Susan Wheeler—“narrative glamour” -John Ashbery

36. Andrew Motion—President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

37. Khaled Matawa—2014 MacArthur Winner

38. Richard Howard—James Merrill lives!

39. John Ashbery—Old Man Obscurity.

40. Eileen Myles—“always hungry”

41. Mark Doty—Brother of Sharon Olds

42. Rae Armantrout—Silliman is a fan

43. Al Filreis—MOOCS!

44. Anne Carson—“inscrutable brilliance” –NY Times

45. Michael Robbins—The Second Sex (Penguin)

46. C.D. Wright—from the Ozarks

47. Lisa RobertsonChicago Review gave her a special issue

48. Claudia Rankine—Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

49. CAConradPhilip Seymour Hoffman (were you high when you said this?) is his new book

50. Ariana Reines—“To be a memory to men”

51. Kim Adonizzio—“I want that red dress bad”

52. Frederick Seidel—Nominated for Pulitzer in Poetry

53. Kay Ryan—U.S. Poet Laureate 2008 to 2010

54. Edward HirschThe Living Fire, new and selected

55. Christian Wiman–ex-Poetry editor

56. Cornelius Eady—Nominated for a Pulitzer in Drama

57. Bin Ramke—Georgia Foetry Scandal

58. Jorie Graham—Collected Poems coming this winter

59. Erin Belieu—VIDA vision

60. Forrest Gander—anthropological

61. Amjad Nasser—run in w/Homeland Security

62. Ann Lauterbach—her poetry “goes straight to the elastic, infinite core of time” -John Ashbery

63. Rita Dove—editor, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry

64. Sharon Olds—Mark Doty’s sister

65.  Carol Ann Duffy—High powered, story-telling, Brit

66. Robert Archambeau—Rhyme is returning

67. Monica Handme and Nina, Alice James Books

68. Margo Berdeshersky—“understands how eros is a form of intelligence” -Sven Birkerts

69. Shelagh Patterson—“succeeds in forcing students to become critical thinkers” from Rate My Professors

70. Jennifer Bartlett—“this will all be over soon”

71. Lynne Thompson—“Vivaldi versus Jay-Z”

72. Allison Hedge Coke—Editor of Sing: Indigenous Poetry of the Americas

73. Dan Chiasson—Poet and critic who teaches at Wellesley

74. Martin Espada—Teaches poetry at Amherst

75. Gina Myers—“Love Poem To Someone I Do Not Love”

76. Jen Bervin—Poet and visual artist

77. Mary RuefleTrances of the Blast, latest book

78. Mary Hickman—“This is for Ida who doesn’t like poetry but likes this poem”

79. Catherine Wagner—professor of English at Miami University in Ohio

80. Victoria Chang—PEN winner

81. Matthew KlaneYes! Poetry & Performance Series

82. Adam Golaski-Film Forum Press

83. Mathea Harvey—Contributing editor at jubilat and BOMB

84. Amanda Ackerman—UNFO

85. James Tate—Yale Series of Younger Poets winner, 1967

86. Jenny BoullyThe Book of Beginnings and Endings

87. Joyelle McSweeney—professor at Notre Dame

88. William Kulik—the lively prose poem

89. Tamiko Beyer—Raised in Tokyo, lives in Cambridge, MA

90. Julia Bloch-–teaches creative writing at Penn

91. Brent Cunningham—co-founded Hooke Press

92. Richard Wilbur—Won Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1957 & 1989

93. Patrick James DunaganRumpus reviewer

94. Matthew Zapruder—Wave Editor

95. David Kirby—“The Kirb” teaches in Florida, uses humor in poetry

96. Alan Cordle—Foetry.com founder

97. Lyn HejinianThe Book of a Thousand Eyes

98. Cole Swensen—Translates from the French

99. Aaron Kunin—Teaches Milton at Pomona

100. Dana WardThis Can’t Be Life

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

 

 

 

IS GAY SMARTER THAN STRAIGHT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Hennessy approvingly quotes a Koestenbaum poem

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

he chortles, “Such loony lines!”

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

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

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

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

Exactly the same.

JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

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

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

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

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

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

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

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

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

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

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

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

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

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

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

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

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

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

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

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

THE SANE FACE OF INSANITY: THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY, PART II

Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—“realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist–ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.'”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

Yes.

If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.

IS POETRY BECOMING STUPID AND RACIST?

What to make of this recent article in The Atlantic, which finds that any critique of contemporary Letters is, by definition, an attack by an angry white male?

Joel Breuklander in The Atlantic takes eleven writers—Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Verlyn Klinkenborg, J. Robert Lennon, Lee Siegel, Philip Roth, Ted Genoways, George Steiner, Frank Kermode, Alvin Kernan, and Mark  Edmundson—and with a few quotes and great deal of innuendo, finds them all guilty of 1) literary criticism and 2) being straight, male and white.

Merely using random quotes out of context, the author of this brief Atlantic piece, titled “Literature Is Dead (According to Straight White Guys, At Least),” beats the old theme of eroding white male privilege, yet in none of his examples do any of the accused white male authors say literature is dead or dying because there’s not enough straight white males writing it.

In fact, not one shred of actual racist or sexist content is unearthed by The Atlantic.  The charge of racism and sexism against white males is made simply because examples found of “Literature is dead or dying” critiques are written by white males.  So The Atlantic is either racist or stupid.  We’re going to be nice, and say stupid.  Here’s what a stupid person “wracking their brain” sounds like:

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren’t doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair.

The Atlantic’s ire is focused on the author of the recent controversial Harper’s essay, Mark Edmundson, the villain who is guilty of wanting the poet to speak for everyone.  Joel Breuklander is so irate at this notion that he loses all perspective and claims that Edmundson’s wish is somehow “factually untrue:”

Edmundson’s point is factually untrue. Poets of all kinds still use ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us.’ But if they do so from the perspective of a gay man, a woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, their attempts to look at big themes are often overlooked or dismissed rather than championed.

The Atlantic says the desire for the poet to speak to all races is racist.  The poet, according to The Atlantic, can only use “we” when speaking to their group.

We have now arrived at the Great anti-Racist Racist Ideal: Universality is racist.

Feeling confused?  Feeling like no matter what you say, you are racist?  Welcome to the club.

Joel Breuklander trots out the example of Richard Blanco’s Inauguration Poem and then points an accusing finger at Edmundson:

Does Blanco, who is gay and Latino, even count for Edmundson?

Yes, Mr. Breuklander, obviously, Richard Blanco, the poet, doesn’t count for Mr. Edmundson, because he is gay and Latino.  There is no escape for Mr. Edmundson.  He is obviously guilty!

And horrors!  Edmundson “ignores the entirety” of a poet’s work—and that poet is a woman!  Whenever someone makes a negative comment about a poet we like, we can always satisfy ourselves by saying the malicious critic is “ignoring” the “entirety of the work” which looms over whatever the point happens to be.  In this case the point is “sex as a major subject of poetry,” and Breuklander “proves” his point by selecting from the “entirety” of Carson’s work one quote–-which dismisses sex as a subject!   “Sex is a substitute…”

Edmundson dismisses Anne Carson, too, as “opaque” and “inscrutable”—the same Anne Carson who became a hit when her compulsively readable, gay coming-of-age “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red was name-dropped on Sex and the City. When Edmundson asserts that “no well-known poet” writes about big subjects like sex, he ignores the entirety of Carson’s work. Take just one example from her collection Plainwater: “Men know almost nothing about desire / they think it has to do with sexual activity / or can be discharged that way. / But sex is a substitute, like money or language.”

As a woman, though, does Carson count? Do her broad statements on gender and sex not matter for Edmundson’s thesis?

Maybe it’s just that Edmunson doesn’t like the hyped-up Carson’s poetry.   Should this be a source of outrage?

For Breuklander, accusing someone of racism without evidence is fine, but not being wowed by someone’s poetry is a crime against humanity.

Breuklander hasn’t considered that literature’s “decline” hurts everyone, not just white people.

Literature would hardly seem in decline to the women or ethnic or sexual minorities just now getting access to its hallowed halls. That’s why Edmundson’s silliest assertion is that nobody finds themselves represented by poetry anymore. “No one,” he writes, “will say what Emerson hoped to say when he encountered a poet who mattered: ‘This is my music, this is myself.'”

But if Edmundson only recognizes himself in older, white, male poets, it may just be because he’s older, white, and male.

We quote The Atlantic a final time—note the illogical leap here: somehow it is racist to accuse contemporary literature of “technical narrowness,” being “boring,” or being “professionalized.”

I’ve suspected for a while that these essays, as a category, might somehow be rooted in declining privilege: Literature has never been a majority interest in America, so I’ve wondered if these writers might be projecting some kind of status insecurity onto literature. Still, until recently I’d never thought to look at the identities of the authors before. And I certainly never thought I’d discover that every last author whose work I had read on the subject would be a white male—or that all but one was straight.

Take The New York Times’ Verlyn Klinkenborg, who recently wrote that a “technical narrowness” is responsible for the “decline and fall of the English major.” A few months prior, J. Robert Lennon derided contemporary literary fiction as “fucking boring” in Salon. Before that, Lee Siegel informed us that today’s fiction is “irrelevant” because it is too professionalized, and because nonfiction got quite good.

We don’t know if Seth Abramson is safe, or not.   In a very recent piece in the Huff Post, he dismisses Edmundson’s “jeremiad” as “poorly researched.”

“Poorly researched” in this case means that Edmundson did not read the “entirety” of every poet’s work now writing in the United States.

But then Abramson—a white person!!—risks a “Literature is Dead or Dying” critique of contemporary literature:

American literary study and discourse has, regrettably, devolved since Epstein’s and Goia’s direct assaults on the state of poetry a quarter of a century ago.  According to a recent article in The New York Times, in 1991 Yale University graduated 165 English majors; it graduated 62 in 2013…

What?  No mention that Joseph Epstein (Who Killed Poetry?) and Dana Gioia (Can Poetry Matter?) are white?

But wait, perhaps Abramson is safe, because he claims that literature is not really dying at all:

Yet the recent history of literary study in the U.S. isn’t nearly as grim if we consider the evolution of creative writing, an English department specialization that from 1971 to 2003 grew by 908 percent—that’s not a typo—if we measure the discipline by how many terminal-degree graduate programs are devoted to its study.  The effect of this unprecedented growth is that in 2013 there are aproximately 250 terminal-degree graduate creative writing programs in the United States. In 1991, when Gioia wrote of his concern about the future of American poetry, there were but fifty such programs (and half of these had, at that point, graduated five or fewer classes of poets).

Welcome to the Program Era, where literature is dead, but everybody is writing it.

And now Abramson rises to the occasion, quoting the aged poet John Ashbery:

As the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet, John Ashbery, once detailed in an interview with The Paris Review, what first awakened him to the joys of poetry was seeing that “poetry wasn’t just something lifeless in an ancient museum, but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”  Ashbery, still a working poet today, is exactly right: If we want the nation’s youngest readers to take up an interest in poetry, we must introduce them to more working poets and fewer academics, and indeed make exposure to working poets in real-time mandatory precursor to the reading of contemporary American poetry.

So here is Abramson, who evidently thinks there is something magical about the phrase “working poet,” selecting for a rare specimen of wisdom an utterance from “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” and what is this wisdom?

If something that someone has written is in a museum, an “ancient” museum, (!) it is “lifeless” and has not “grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.”

This is absolute rubbish.  Can it be “the nation’s most critically acclaimed poet” in the U.S. actually believes this piece of stupidity?

Surely poetry is not afflicted with the racism The Atlantic has “discovered”—and stupidity like this from John Ashbery as well?

THE 2013 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS BRACKETS!!

Here they are!!

Competition will start immediately!

The four number one seeds: Goethe, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, no surprise there…

Let the Road to the Final Four begin!!

ROMANTICISM: OLD AND NEW

THE NORTH

1. HOLY LONGING-GOETHE
2. STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING-FROST
3. LESBIA LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE-CATULLUS
4. THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS-LARKIN
5. WHY SO PALE AND WAN FOND LOVER?-SUCKLING
6. MISS GEE-AUDEN
7. DELIGHT IN DISORDER-HERRICK
8. PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER-STEVENS
9. SONG: HOW SWEET I ROAMED-BLAKE
10. I KNEW A WOMAN-ROETHKE
11. A RED, RED ROSE-BURNS
12. SYRINGA-ASHBERY
13. EDEN-TRAHERNE
14. LINES-RIMBAUD
15. FOLLOW THY FAIR SUN-CAMPION
16. IN BERTRAM’S GARDEN-JUSTICE

THE SOUTH

1. ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE-KEATS
2. LADY LAZARUS-PLATH
3. WHOSO LIST TO HUNT-PETRARCH
4. L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE-BAUDELAIRE
5. AMORES I,V-OVID
6. A SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG-BJETEMAN
7. THE GARDEN-MARVELL
8. PRIMITIVE-OLDS
9. TANTO GENTILE-DANTE
10. THE GROUNDHOG-EBERHART
11. A MUSICAL INSTRUMENT-BARRETT
12. A COLOR OF THE SKY-HOAGLAND
13. ON THE BEACH AT CALAIS-WORDSWORTH
14. THE FISH-BISHOP
15. DORCHIA-POSEIDIPPUS
16. LITMUS TEST-NIKOLAYEV

THE WEST

1. THE CLOUD-SHELLEY
2. AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION-THOMAS
3. MARIANA-TENNYSON
4. AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE, BELOVED DUST-MILLAY
5. O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN-PROPERTIUS
6. I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO ARE TRULY GREAT-SPENDER
7. DON JUAN (FROM CANTO III)-BYRON
8. MEETING AT NIGHT-BROWNING
9. UNDER THE LINDENTREE-VOGELWEIDE
10. PASSENGERS-COLLINS
11. LA! MORT QUI T’A FAIT SI HARDIE-D’ ORLEANS
12. RIVER ROSES-LAWRENCE
13. ODE ON SOLITUDE-POPE
14. LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE-YEATS
15. SONG FOR ST. CECILIA’S DAY-DRYDEN
16. DOVER BEACH-ARNOLD

THE EAST

1. KUBLA KHAN-COLERIDGE
2. THE RAVEN-POE
3. WAS THIS THE FACE-MARLOWE
4. HYSTERIA-ELIOT
5. WHEN IN THE CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME-SHAKESPEARE
6. THE BLUE GIRLS-RANSOM
7. THE GOOD MORROW-DONNE
8. WORKING LATE-SIMPSON
9. LOVE-HERBERT
10. HERE AND NOW-DUNN
11. SINCE THERE’S NO HELP COME LET US KISS AND PART-DRAYTON
12. CYNARA-DOWSON
13. GOLDEN SAYINGS-NERVAL
14. WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY-HOUSMAN
15. BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN-ANONYMOUS
16. AT THE TABUKI KABUKI-MAZER

ANIS!! LEFT-WING HUFF POST CRITIC OF THE TWITTER AGE

Anis Shivani might be a bitter guy, but as a literary critic at the Huffington Post  he exemplifies the sort of high-brow hating which pleases like a good nerdy fuck.

Let’s say this much of criticism which pummels its subjects: it will always be closer to the truth. 

Think about your own life.  Really knowing your friends, your lovers, your spouses, your places of unemployment, are you not palpably aware of numerous flaws, faults, stupidities, culpabilities and insanities, and isn’t your intimate experience the reason for this—not because you happen to be mean?

Criticism is—criticism.  Why shouldn’t we expect criticism to provide the insights of the inevitable flaws?  Sure, there are perfect poems here and there, perhaps a flawless short story, but when reviewing the corpus of a fashionable writer, life being what it is, there’s got to be let-downs, just as we are disappointed by our friends, our lovers, our jobs.

Social decorum should keep us from attacking our personal relationships—but why shouldn’t we be honest regarding a book that wants out time and money? 

Anis Shivani is correct—both in his criticism and by what his criticism symbolizes: In Literary Criticism, the bland and cheery is always bad, always a lie.

Anis Shivani is correct—even as we disagree with him; disagreeing with him (he over-values High Modernism, for instance) is not the point, for Shivani’s whole impulse his correct, and his audience responds—people deeply want honest criticism, and despite what the status quo sometimes says, they shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting it.

We disagree with Shivani when he writes of Billy Collins’ work: “escapist denial of death is pervasive.”  Has Shivani read Collins’ poem, “Passengers?” And we are only mildly miffed that Shivani stole our idea—debuted on Scarriet several years ago—that Collins’ poetry is “stand-up comedy.”  We forgive Shivani, for this nice observation alone: “[Collins]poems have lately become mostly about writing poems–in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand.”

We also like that Shivani is well-acquainted with all genres; there’s nothing we hate more than ghetto-izing and niche-ing.   In his recent The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers, 7 are fiction writers, 6 are poets, and 2 are critics.

Shivani opens with a moral, common sense overview:

Are the writers receiving the major awards and official recognition really the best writers today? Or are they overrated mediocrities with little claim to recognition by posterity? The question is harder than ever to answer today, yet it is a worthwhile exercise to attempt (along with identifying underrated writers not favored by bureaucracy).

It’s difficult to know today because we no longer have major critics with wide reach who take vocal stands. There are no Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand. Since the onset of poststructuralist theory, humanist critics have been put to pasture. The academy is ruled by “theorists” who consider their work superior to the literature they deconstruct, and moreover they have no interest in contemporary literature. As for the reviewing establishment, it is no more than the blurbing arm for conglomerate publishing, offering unanalytical “reviews” announcing that the emperor is wearing clothes (hence my inclusion of Michiko Kakutani).

The ascent of creative writing programs means that few with critical ability have any incentive to rock the boat–awards and jobs may be held back in retaliation. The writing programs embody a philosophy of neutered multiculturalism/political correctness; as long as writers play by the rules (no threatening history or politics), there’s no incentive to call them out. (A politically fecund multiculturalism–very desirable in this time of xenophobia–is the farthest thing from the minds of the official arbiters: such writing would be deemed “dangerous,” and never have a chance against the mediocrities.)

The MFA writing system, with its mechanisms of circulating popularity and fashionableness, leans heavily on the easily imitable. Cloying writers like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Aimee Bender, and Charles D’Ambrosio are held up as models of good writing, because they’re easy enough to copy. And copied they are, in tens of thousands of stories manufactured in workshops. Others hide behind a smokescreen of unreadable inimitability–Marilynne Robinson, for example–to maintain a necessary barrier between the masses and the overlords. Since grants, awards, and residencies are controlled by the same inbreeding group, it’s difficult to see how the designated heavies can be displaced.

As for conglomerate publishing, the decision-makers wouldn’t know great literature if it hit them in the face. Their new alliance with the MFA writing system is bringing at least a minimum of readership for mediocre books, and they’re happy with that. And the mainstream reviewing establishment (which is crumbling by the minute) validates their choices with fatuous accolades, recruiting mediocre writers to blurb (review) them.

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

It’s hard to argue with his general points, and we like his pedagogical earnestness, too: “If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.”

Here are the summary observations on the 15, and Shivani is definitely a critic of the twitter age, as he packs each line with left-wing, moral outrage:

Ashbery: When reality = language (as his carping cousins the language poets, have it) politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can, and will step in.

Collins: Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian…

Cunningham: Proves the point that to be successful as a fiction writer today, all you have to do is create facile pastiche assemblages.

Diaz: Replaces plot in stories and novels with pumped-up “voice.”

Foer: Always quick to jump on the bandwagon of the moment.

Gluck: Her flatness of tone (mistaken as equanimity by infatuated critics) suggests paralysis after emotional death.

Graham: Started off modestly, but with increasing official recognition, her abstractions, pseudo-philosophizing, self-importance, and centerless long lines have spun out of control.

Kakutani: Simply the worst book critic on the planet.

Lahiri: Utterly unwilling to write about any thing other than privileged Bengali immigrants with PhDs living in Cambridge’s Central and Inman Squares and making easy adjustments to top of American meritocratic pyramid.

Nelson: Workshop writing, dysfunctionality is thy name, and there is no better writer to learn family dysfunction from…

Oliver: A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany.

Olds: Infantilization packaged in pseudo-confession…

Tan: Empowered other immigrant writers to make mountains out of molehills of their minor adjustment struggles.

Vendler: Zero poetic feeling…has never uttered one original insight…

Vollmann: Encapsulates ethical vacuity of American fiction after the collapse of 1970s postmodernism.

It does not matter, for instance, that we feel Sharon Olds has written some moving poems: Anis Shivani is entitled to his opinion of Olds’ poetry—and if that’s how he feels about it, he should be allowed to utter it, and everyone should be encouraged to be that opinionated—if only to combat the reverse condition: the true literary nightmare of know-nothing politeness.

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

ANXIETY IN POETRY LAND

Mary Ruefle: She bravely asked the right question.

Poetry (in its pure sense) might be defined as when you squeeze in a story until it doesn’t look like a story anymore; it unfolds in beauty rather than narration.

Since prose and poetry went their separate ways, poetry is the heart-broken one, trying, trying, since the 20th century, every way to become prose itself.

In a recent John Gallaher blog post (what a vulture we are these days!) we have Mary Ruefle worrying that she is

wasting my life making idle comparisons between things that could not and need not be compared

a quotation we find really sweet.  How honest, in a day when poets, living with an art in the sunset of its death, choose to pontificate abstractly and optimistically, as if this will make it all better.  Ruelfe instead embraces tragedy and gloom in what feels like a breath of fresh air—because only doubt makes us really think.

Gallaher then quotes contemporary poet Tim Donnelly in response to Ruefle’s quote:

Now I worry that when I sit down I’m thinking whether what I’m writing is going to tap into the zeitgeist. I’m fearful that I’ll start censoring myself if something doesn’t participate in that kind of a conversation. I don’t want to sit down and write poems that have a secular piety to them, trying to solve the next big crisis — it seems very artificial to me. So I’m trying to disable that. I want the next poems I write to be ridiculous, over the top, appalling — poems that don’t overannounce their moral sensitivity. When you see poetry contenting itself with small things, that can be frustrating too. A lot of poetry today seems to me to be just dicking around with voice — being charming or superficially Ashberyesque.

Now, unfortunately, we are back to pontification: Donnelly sounds like another contemporary po-biz brick-in-the-wall, lacking the soul-searching rigor that poetry used to get from dudes like Keats and Coleridge, and now, perhaps Mary Ruefle; Donnelly, it seems to us, in the quote above, gives us a bunch of clever lingo without real understanding. We dread having to read poems by a poet who “wants the next poems he writes” to be “ridiculous, over the top, appalling.”  For, what does this mean?  Donnelly is promising something extreme, in a totally vague manner, which is charmingly adolescent at best, but we fear is just inane.  We get some criticism—“overannounce moral sensitivity,” “contenting itself with small things,” “dicking around with voice,” “superficially Ashberyesque,” but we should understand something here: this earns no critical points if you don’t give examples.  “Small things” might be marvelous, or crappy, but how do we know?   But Gallaher is content to quote this Donnelly passage as something insightful.  It’s not.  It’s just “dicking around.”

What does it mean to “compare things?”  Ruefle’s quote needs to be pondered.  Donnelly’s quote just gets us away from it.  Aristotle said metaphor was the heart of poetry.  The Renaissance through Romanticism (Shakespeare, Pope, Poe, etc) disagreed.  Here is food for thought, but we need to be patient and dine on it, slowly.

John Gallaher himself then adds to Ruefle and Donnelly with this duality:

The pitfalls of reductive earnestness on the one hand and futile superficiality on the other.

“Futile superficiality,” we presume, is code for all that “dicking around” Ashbery crap (one Ashbery is great, a thousand is a nightmare) and Ruefle’s doubt regarding trivial comparisons, while “reductive earnestness” is the other extreme: poems that express obvious, Hallmark, love-sentiments, etc.

Gallaher, as is his nature, reminds us that this is not the only duality and other options remain, etc, but as interesting as Gallaher is, he is never rigorous, because he always wants to escape through some other door, a typical contemporary-poet- escape-artist.

Here’s the danger as we see it: Robert Burns is “reductive” and John Ashbery is “superficial,” and thus good poetry for everyone is impossible, and all we can do is sit around waiting for Donnelly’s promised “over the top,” which will surely be the most superficial slop, yet.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Americans hunker down for their Sunday Super Bowl, Scarriet will pursue, recklessly, “reductive earnestness,” because this should be the initial goal, not superficiality, we think.

If no absolutes exist, we should at least do this.  Choose an accessible subject: love, for instance, and then let all the poets apply their philosophies and styles to it—rather than the poets following individual paths to obscurity and infinity, while promising “over the top” (over what top?) along the way.

AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 3

Was Frost a flarfist?  We’re guessing Silliman has no idea…
Ron Silliman is at it again.  When he takes a rare break from posting talking head videos on his blog and speaks directly to his audience, he’s a wonderful conduit for the know-nothing avant-garde—which has been quietly infesting our institutions of higher learning for the last 50 years.
It’s a deliberate championing of obscurity for obscurity’s sake, propelled by the gnawing envy of the unread on one hand and that intellectual faculty on the other that strives to make being unread a merit in itself.
It’s no accident that this “merit” grows in colleges—where students are the helpless audience (in need of a grade on a transcript) that bows to the playfully sweet will of the artsy-fartsy instructor who reduces learning to a kind of kindergarten “creativity.” This, more often than not, receives praise from the prisoner-student, the student happy to believe they are being “creative,” and needing that easy A.  Standards don’t matter because the “A” and the tuition paid get the job done.
The mistake Silliman and his tribe make is they assume the poetry of John Ashbery, for instance, is metadata: defined as data that provides information about other data.  This is a grave error, and it persists, in spite of, or because of, the error involved.
Memo to the Silliman-ites: The philosophy of Plato is metadata.  The poetry of Ashbery is not.
This distinction escapes them even while they beat the ground and raise a pretentious amount of dust—the merit of obscurity becoming its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
In his review of Richard Blanco’s inauguration poem, Silliman is forced out of his avant-garde cave for a moment and betrays that gnawing envy which grips his type when they are forced to grapple with anything that betokens democracy’s wide, daylight appeal.
Silliman’s entire commentary is a sneering revilement of the whole inaugural poetry event.  Blanco’s poem itself is not given the courtesy of a look.  Blanco is the “gluten-free, lo-cal version” of a genuine avant-garde representative.  All inaugural poems, in Silliman’s eyes, are “flarf.”  Every selection of an inaugural poet, according to Silliman, involves crass geographical politics. JFK wasn’t a real intellectual. JFK’s term was “idyllic” because there was no Fox News.  Everyone carps about the choices, but none should be heeded.  It would be a mistake to think these remarks of Silliman’s are “political.” They are merely dyspeptic.  We present his remarks below and you can judge for yourself.
The only attempt at offering something we can actually chew is Silliman’s passing mention of John Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” from that poet’s 1962 book, The Tennis Court Oath. 
Silliman imagines Rush & O’Reilly close-reading Ashbery’s “Europe” had Ashbery been selected.  Really?  Who in the mainstream would bother close-reading Ashbery?  Silliman knows CNN as well as Fox News wouldn’t bother.  The gushing praise of “Europe” below insinuates—as all praise of Ashbery does—that metadata is at hand; it’s not.
Europe is perhaps the most extreme example of Ashbery’s earlier, experimental work. He used extracts from “Beryl of the Biplane”, a 1917 children’s novel by Bernard LeQueux, for some of the text and mixed in a collage of images of phrases. Some would argue that this remarkable poem is an early example of the postmodern sensibility with its rejection of ‘meaning’ and a deliberate playfulness. Others would argue that it borrows heavily from a distinctly French tradition of juxtosposition and a strong interest in cinematic montage. Either way, reading it is a dizzying experience and Ashbery’s delight in the possibilities of language shines through.
The data is all Ashbery’s, even as he imports “extracts” from other works and brings us “collage” and “postmodern sensibility” and “French tradition,” all these terms brave attempts to manifest an air of metadata—which doesn’t really exist as such.  Plato’s philosophy, which influenced so profoundly the gigantic eras of Renaissance and Romantic explosions in art and science, can be defined as metadata: light streaming outward, “data providing information about other data;” Ashbery’s snippets of collage collect; they do not create.  The “information” in an Ashbery poem remains information in terms of the poem’s random nature.  There is no philosophy throwing light on other things; things connected to things in Asbhery are trivial connections; interesting, as of course sometimes trivia is, but never rising to the definition of metadata.
And we close with Silliman’s commentary:
The next time a poet is selected to perform a poem at a presidential inauguration on strictly literary grounds will be the first. The carping after Richard Blanco’s selection tells me more about those who complain than it does about Blanco. The same was true for those who bemoaned and belittled Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, James Dickey &, I dare say, Robert Frost. One might make the case that Frost was selected for his pre-eminence as an American icon of poetry, but one should keep in mind that JFK was a president who understood the value – in his idyllic pre-Fox News single term – of positioning himself as an intellectual, garnering a Pulitzer for a ghost-written volume of pop history & preferring in his own time to read James Bond novels. Ian Fleming may qualify as a heavyweight alongside whatever the Bushies read, but when Kennedy got together with Marilyn Monroe, it wasn’t the president who was the serious reader in the room. And there never has been a white male inaugural poet who wasn’t selected at least partly as a play on the regional card to boot: New England, Georgia, Arkansas.
 
I don’t know what anyone expects from an inaugural poem – the entire premise seems utterly cringe-worthy to me – but signaling a broader inclusiveness in the American project is hardly a bad idea unless you’re one of the old white guys for whose vote Mitt Romney was campaigning.  Since the resulting poems tend toward flarf, perhaps the ideal might be some carved-up-blend of K Silem Mohammad, Judy Grahn & Simon Ortiz. In a sense, Blanco may just be the gluten-free lo-cal version of that. It might be more fun to imagine the field day Rush & O’Reilly would have had close-reading “Europe” had John Ashbery been selected, but really is it any different? With the exception of LBJ, every Democratic president for the past half century has used the occasion to signal that poetry is inside the tent, just as every Republican has spoken far louder through its absence.

FROM AROUND THE POETRY WEB, PART ONE

Gary Fitzgerald

Gary B. Fitzgerald: The life of  John Gallaher’s blog?

Is John Gallaher’s blog losing steam?  We thought so, until recently, but then a week ago John asked a general academic question of his readers and Gary B. Fitzgerald responded with one of his published and copyrighted poems.

The fun began right away.

Gary, would you mind not posting your own poems in these comment fields? It’s an incredibly annoying form of graffiti.

When censorship bubbles up from below, will it not be long before a censorial diktat arrives from above?

Gary wondered how poets could reject poetry.  He speculated that if John Ashbery posted one of his own poems on the comments thread to Gallaher’s blog, the hypocrites, instead of objecting, would bow and scrape.

But Gary got pummeled:

You may have noticed, Gary, that a lot of poets do post here, and they all show the common courtesy to refrain from using someone else’s blog discussion to post their own work.

You insist that your work is relevant to the discussion. People have been telling you for years they disagree. That’s all you need to know. It doesn’t matter that you’re deaf to the explanations, of which there have been dozens.

Perhaps the objector is right.  “Common courtesy” is goodness, morality, and common sense all wrapped up in one.  How can Gary not see that if everyone used Gallaher’s blog to post their work, discussions would suffer? 

Further, Gallaher expects visitors to participate in discussions of his articles on his blog; to use Gallaher’s blog to publish one’s work is at cross-purposes with the blog’s owner; thus Gary Fitzgerald posting his poetry on John Gallaher’s blog insults Gallaher. Why can’t Gary see this?  He can, evidently, but Gary’s need to see his poetry in print—and read by others—overcomes him.

But there’s another reason—which none may have considered but some perhaps implicitly understand—why Gary’s actions are offensive.  If, let’s say, Gary’s poems are pertinent to the discussion, this will offend most contemporary poets, who do not write poems of moral sagacity—which can be plugged into discussions willy-nilly; it would be like a rock station suddenly playing a piece of baroque classical music; it just wouldn’t fly, in purely social terms.

Gary is not aware of how not cool the poem of didactic usefulness is today.  This, we feel, is the great unspoken reason for the abuse heaped on Gary—for all the talk of the other reasons.

The poem of didactic use is a pariah in sophisticated circles, for deeply fundamental philosophical reasons that are counter-intuitive, and thus not understood by even the gaudy sophisticates themselves, never mind the mass of men.

Gary, of course, will respond indignantly that his poems are beautiful as well as instructive—in fact, that’s the whole point, that’s what makes them poetry, and thus his poems, he feels, have a God-like reason for existing, and their existence on a poetry blog are self-justifying. How can they not be? and especially when their instructive side is pertinent to any given discussion.  How does it insult anyone, Gallaher or his blog visitors, when beauty is added to relevance in any discussion? Gary is surely in the right and is being pilloried for reasons of mere jealousy and stupidity, for a “common courtesy” which is neither “common” nor “courteous.”

But—and this point is made strongly by John Crowe Ransom in his sterling but neglected essay, “Poets Without Laurels”—the modern temper is precisely that which rejects the joining of instruction and beauty, in the same way puritans reject the pomp of Catholicism. 

It is because Fitzgerald drapes his message in beautiful poetry that he offends.

Scarriet noted a couple of years ago that John Gallaher asked Fitzgerald to leave his blog—because Fitzgerald was unkind to the poetry of John Ashbery—which Fitzgerald has characterized as  “literary Rorschach Tests that some call poetry.”

Welcome to modernity, Gary B.

It is the poetry that offends the poets.

IS RON SILLIMAN SANE?

The history of poetry is never the history of the best poems, but rather the history of change in poetry.  —Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman took a break from his cutting and pasting video links on his no-comments-allowed blog, recently, to explain his love for Lyn Hejinian’s new book of poems.  The paean reached heights like this:

When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.

Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So– the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:

Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story
As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’
If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say
They would resemble unwanted sympathy

They would not be like holes in a hallway

This poem, pulled at random from page 196, demonstrates how large portions of this volume proceed – lines here function as sentence equivalents, there is a story & an expository voice that is cheerful & just a little supercilious, a tone that may invoke certain characters in novels, indeed that may invoke the novel itself. But the focus here lies not on sentences so much as on the character of the adjectival as a role of language & perception, and of the underlying problem of comparison. The term that announces this is not about the pickpocket’s nor even the policeman – “robust” as he may be – but the characterization of the listeners (plural) as “my dear family” (singular).

Every line/sentence here invokes at least one problematic comparison – the wavering focus between fictive listener and factual reader in the first line is just the opening ploy (unless of course one counts that disparity between singular noun family and multiple listeners). The characterization “dear” is in this sense the very opposite of what it appears to be: ceremonial rhetoric with little real content. The second line has at least 4 such moments of characterization, five if we begin to delve into the problem of naming characters pickpockets. First there is number, then the policeman identified as robust (meaning what? comically rotund? vigorously muscular?), then a denial that these pickpockets are encumbered (one of three key terms repeated in the four lines of the story), finally a representation of this encumbrance as suspiciously. Two terms in the sentence represent representation itself –denying, suggestions – both of which imply a gap between language & the thing itself.

At this moment, the entire tenor of the poem shifts as tho it were on an axis: the three final lines invoke (without quite being) anaphor, a sequence of not-quite-parallels that give the poem a strong formal flourish as it concludes. At one level there is the humor of the clash between the denial that they would resemble kids with a lot to say just as they begin to say a lot. At a second, there is a third characterization of representation – insist – followed by the trio of they would statements.

Each statement is about resemblance is some very odd way. Kids with a lot to say unwanted sympathy holes in a hallway. Except that, grammatically, formally, they do. It’s worth considering further what each of these complex representations invokes, holes in a hallway for example – are we talking doors and windows, pocking in acoustic tile, or something stranger even?

This description barely scratches all that is going on in this little poem. What if I were to base my analysis on the meaning of that very first verb, profit? An entire discourse concerning acquisition, ownership & value looms suddenly into view. And who precisely is that speaker? It hardly sounds like the Lyn Hejinian whom I’ve known for nearly 40 years.

Here the advantage of verse formatting starts to become evident: the use of lines here as sentence equivalents is hardly incidental to the argument of the poem. They foreground the disjunct angles of the three pseudo-parallels at the end, for example, and highlight the excessiveness of that second line.

And there are over 300 other pages at least as complex & condensed as this. Often, as in the term dear in the first line, Hejinian employs a single word to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming. Reading Eyes is a lot like my imagination of standing before the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Alps, which are simply large & majestic, Eyes is also deep. Vertigo is a distinct readerly risk and I recommend going through the book slowly. If you finish it in less than six months, you’re not giving it the attention it deserves. So many of these poems don’t start to yield their secrets until the second, third or fourth readings. I found myself going over facing pages over & over – it really seems to be the best way to proceed.

Language is eyes, as somebody once claimed (invoking not only Shakespeare, but a particular character, and not just any, but one in theatrical guise, one who dreams). Might I note that if one searches Google for “bottom Shakespeare Hejinian” (sans quotation marks), one will find 19,000 responses, just 400 less than a parallel search that switches out Hejinian’s name for he-who-whose-literary-executor-shall-not-be-named? In this sense, Hejinian’s project is part of that particular American tradition that begins with Moby-Dick.

For Silliman, the Hejinian poem “yields remarkable insights” into “language, perception & the underlying problem of comparison.” The “Hejinian employs a single word [dear] to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming.”

We simply don’t believe this, and are certain no one else does either, not even Silliman. There is nothing insightful or linguistically problematic about  a policeman (robust, or not) viewing “pickpockets” as “suspiciously encumbered.” The “gap between language and the thing itself” found in the words “denying” and “suggestions” is of no interest. Silliman’s straining after significance resembles a small time party host embarrassing himself with a big speech on small beer.  “The scale here is vast” could only embarrass the host. The whispering among the invited guests need not be repeated. We can only assume Silliman likes Hejinian—in a kind of grade school crush, maybe?

Avant-garde poetry, like modern art, can be summed up in one word: Abstract.

In this one word lies the pseudo-science of the whole enterprise—for whatever attempts to be aesthetically abstract ends up being  particular, not abstract, the word merely adding an air of mystery to what is otherwise mundane. Abstract art, which ostensibly explores color, presents, in reality, the colored.  It is art that is anything but abstract. Color which vanishes in non-abstract depiction reaches what might be called abstraction.  So-called “Abstract Art” is not abstract.  Modern art cannot escape the same law which applies to everything else: the abstract cannot exist in an aesthetic vacuum, cannot exist purely.

Silliman searches for qualitative traces of poetry in Hejinian’s poem—allowing the (universal) banality of the latter to confirm the (abstract) discovery of the former.

The object takes on a doubled interest seen through the pseudo-abstract lens.  Aesthetics, which, by its very nature, grounds the flight of the false, is vulnerable to this craven, pedagogical exploitation.

Listen how lapsed poet Rob Holland, after taking a U. Penn on-line ModPo course, thrills to the “abstract” of the new poetry:

I took the course on a whim after seeing it promoted somewhere online, having been out of academia for nearly 40 years, since I finished graduate school (in English) at Emory in 1975. The only previous online “education” I had had was work-related training videos and PowerPoint sequences, so my expectations were really low. What were they going to teach, and more importantly, how were they going to teach it? I got my first clue when I started following the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, on Twitter. He was talking about Gertrude Stein. Did Gertrude Stein write poetry? Apparently, yes. And what poetry it turned out to be!

This was the beginning of what became one of the greatest intellectual and emotional adventures of my life. That sounds a little overblown, I know. I have a great marriage, children, grandchildren in increasing numbers. I have a satisfying photography hobby, and run several websites on the side. But ModPo broke something open in me that had been locked tight in a chrysalis for decades. I wrote and published poetry in small magazines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and studied with Charles Wright and Donald Justice. Eventually, though, I fell silent, both from the pressures of family life and from my inability to imagine my way out of the traps of self-expression. I grew up in the era of Lowell and Plath; confession was a synonym for poetry. The Beats, whom I admired, were also at their core romantic, self-absorbed, and often sentimental. I tired of the artistic ego, and the felt conviction that in order to write poetry I had to manifest one. Besides, what I was writing was old-fashioned, traditional, out of step. So I stopped. For twenty-five years.

Then ModPo ambushed me. It was not, as I expected it might be, a rehash of the old chestnuts of modernism (Eliot, Stevens) or a revisit to the poets of my coming of age. Instead it pointed at the heart of radical experimentation and rebellion against the poet as sage, myth-maker, prophet, tortured soul. Its selection of poets was designed to show a way, multiple ways, of using language for art largely in the absence of direct self-expression. Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers? This probably sounds dry to someone who has not experienced ModPo, but the introduction of this simple idea broke down all the barriers that had built up in me, and gave me permission to not worry about poetic fashion, or even whether what I was writing was “good,” “bad,” or even poetry. Let somebody else decide that, it said. Just write.

Holland knows he sounds “overblown.”  It is just as “overblown” as Silliman’s praise of Hejinian.  What’s going on here?  Holland naively asks: “Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers?”  These leaps into the “overblown” we suspect are due to an exaggeration of abstraction’s powers.  The avant-garde artist abstracts himself from reality (good and bad, beautiful and ugly). The “overblown” of Silliman and Holland is the natural result.

With MOMA’s new exhibit, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” it’s time we take a hard look at the concept which blocks our escape from curious Modernism each way we turn: the Abstract.

Of course no one “invented” abstraction in 1910, but since abstraction implies the scientific and the pedagogical, the avant-garde p.r. department will naturally run with the (misunderstood) term, ‘the abstract,’ in order to puff themselves up.

To abstract from any reality, there must be coherence and continuity present.  But not just in the universal sense; coherence and continuity must also exist in the found  example—abstraction must occur on both levels—specifically as well as universally, for how can consistency be perceived abstractly?  Things are necessary with which to be consistent.

With abstraction, then, the artist can steal reality’s coat but not reality’s soul. The specific will always betray itself as such, no matter how abstract we attempt to be. We wish to buy abstraction with specificity, but the deal always collapses; there is not sufficient material to purchase priceless abstraction: the abstraction can only be perceived in the exchange which fails and has to be called off, that is, in the specificity brought to the table in the failed attempt.  The abstract painter abstracts the essence of primary color with shapes of such, but the failure matches Faust’s dream of Helen.

Specificity cannot help but be beautiful or ugly, no matter what abstract property happens to be manifested through the shape of the specificity.

And the beautiful or ugly manifestation always occurs not through the specificity, but through the shape (limit) of the specificity—and here we see abstraction eclipsed not only by specificity, but by itself (the shape of the specificity).

We understand the philosophical catnip in the attempt to find consistency in what is not consistent—Silliman nobly seeking coherence and consistency in a poem by Hejinian or Ashbery; these kinds of poems are sufficiently abstract for some (“Just write,” don ‘t worry if it’s “good” or “bad”).

But our failure to be truly abstract (coherently and consistently) is not an abstract failure—it is real and final and complete; no partial victory is possible; the Ashbery poem succeeds only in our minds, minds that must give up, replicating the deal (specificity buying abstraction) which collapses—thus enjoying an Ashbery poem is only to unconsciously scratch an itch, to rub up against the sad truth that abstraction is fated to fail and is an utterly useless path, a dead-end, a suicidal errand, and thus to “enjoy an Ashbery poem,” the reader happily gives up, surrendering to specificity’s power; the Ashbery effect and the Ashbery process is a surrendering to the complete absence of abstraction.

The Negative Capability of Keats should not be confused with Ashbery’s freedom; the former limits the scope of poetry precisely because of the problem outlined above; Keats, and the Romantics generally, seek examples in nature which already possess ideal qualities.

The freedom of the Modernist, however, understood by its obsession with “the Abstract,” errs  in terminology, understanding, and  judgement, and the ultimate result is ugliness and unhappiness—which the avant-garde unfortunately accepts.  The beloved is lost to them.

BURSTING ANOTHER MODERNIST MYTH: THE MUSIC OF POETRY

https://scarriet.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/545fc-orpheus_and_eurydice-1868.jpg?w=458&h=574

We hear it all the time these days: if speech is musical, it’s not serious.

Since the Modernist revolution and its Creative Writing Progam put Keats in a museum, the absolute worst thing a poem can be, the new masters of poetry say, is “sing-songy.”

One can be called a genius these days just by not being sing-songy.

Formalist verse, no matter how skillfully done, screams Amateur!  The more skillfully done, the more amateurish it seems.

When the success of something condemns it, you know something is afoot.

If poems were washing machines, you could put old ones in a museum—because all the new ones work better.

But John Ashbery and William Carlos Williams don’t wash clothes better than Keats.  They just don’t.

So what the hell is going on here?

We think what’s happening are two things:

First, the cult of “Make It New” has convinced enough influential persons that poems do resemble washing machines.

And secondly, as we said in the beginning of this essay: musical poetry, fashionable in previous centuries, is not considered serious.

Even though it’s unfortunate, the first can’t be helped; the new will always be fashionable for that reason.  But the second is worth looking into.

Is speech that’s musical less serious?

What of this example:

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.

This is the most admired and remembered part of a newly elected U.S. president’s speech to the country and the world.  There is no doubt this speech was meant to be taken seriously.  This phrase, with its repetition and symmetry, is catchy as hell Kennedy’s famous phrase is swellingly, swooningly, melodiously and metrinomically musical. And deadly serious.

This example alone is enough to bust the modernist myth that any trace of song betrays a lack of seriousness on the part of the speaker—a myth that was swallowed, and ushered in our present era of flat poems which not a soul remembers.

Now obviously John F. Kennedy would have been a fool to stand before the world on that cold day back in 1961 and speak out limericks.

But only a fool assumes the worst example of a thing is what it is.

The modernist might sputter, “But—but—but…your JFK example isn’t really sing-songy. For, instance it doesn’t rhyme…”

Let’s heed the modernist complaint and see if rhyme can be serious…

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 44

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Oh crap!  Rhyme, rhyme, everywhere, and deadly serious.

Even ballad-coughing, melodramatic, hyperbolic, sentimental, self-hating, Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge shows the way to serious art through the music of poetry:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

The art is serious; therefore, the sentiment is.

One clearly sees here two things: the whole issue of musical poetry is not bi-part—one is not either “prosey and serious” or “rhyming and not serious.”  The issue is far more complicated than the haters of “sing-songy” would have it.  And, secondly, one can see traces in the Coleridge of how the art of formal verse can be abused, can veer into the sickly and the over-emotional, violating the dictates of good taste and Plato’s Republic.  But let’s not blame the poetry, as the Modernists (in their bathos) did.  It’s not formal verse’s fault.  The Shakespeare is as different from the Coleridge as Coleridge is from Dryden, or Dryden is from Ashbery, or Ashbery is from T.S Eliot, or T.S Eliot is from himself, when the latter used rhyme seriously, or mock-heroically—depending on the occasion.  The laws of verse are not sentimental.  We are—even in our dullest, modern prose.

And now in our final example: who, in 2012, would wish that Emily Dickinson had not rhymed in order to be this serious:

 Heart, We Will Forget Him

Heart, we will forget him!
You and I, tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!

JOHN ASHBERY IS BURNING ALL HIS POEMS

ashbery-7

John Ashbery: Was Plato right?  Are the best poets crazy?

You know it will happen: the inevitable revulsion: the coy poem that doesn’t mean anything, but washes over us with a million possible meanings, will, very soon, one day, make us sick, and post-modernism will become our vomitorium.

Let’s cast our eye on just part of an Ashbery poem (he won’t mind):

Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
At each new parting of the ways. Pastel
Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
“It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?”
Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: “If his
Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
I have to stay here while they sit in there,
Laugh, drink, have fine time.

(from “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” J. Ashbery)

It is a truism that art and life are mathematical: “She Loves You” is more interesting than “I Love You” because the former contains three souls and the latter contains two.  Yet, as regards love lyrics, two might be a more popular number than three.

Love, mostly, is a number.  When poetry once had a certain amount of respect among the learned, back in the 19th century, it was sometimes referred to as numbers.  Art and measurement were practically the same thing for two thousand years. Science has stuck to measurement, but art, over the last 150 years or so, has—and there can be no doubt—consciously rebelled.

If we read this line—from the Ashbery excerpt above—in a hurry, it might sound to us like an interesting piece of mathematical love-song-manship:

“Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”

Philosophically, one needn’t argue with “everything:” in love’s world, everything rings the lover’s bells.  But in any case,”whether somebody reminds you of me” is a nice, measurable bite.  We have “you,” “me,” and “somebody else, ” the triad of love.  In the Beatles’ revolutionary parlance: I observe that she loves you.  No need to be greedy in basic love mathematics: going from two (I love you) to three is a profound enough leap.   And this is what love does to us, and one imagines Ashbery’s Romantic side knowing this, too: everything reminds us of the beloved, and if “somebody reminds you of me,” for the sake of love, that’s good for the “me.”  If love’s peril creeps in here, too: the blurring of one person for the other (“somebody” is like “me”) disturbing the lover’s unique identity—that’s OK, we all know how complicated it gets when we begin counting from “one.”

But look at what happens in Ashbery’s poem; minor complication quickly becomes major. Ashbery abandons the mathematical phrase with all its possibilities of love, for pure nonsense:

That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.

Now we are in la-la land.  One could admire this (certainly it is more complex than “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me”) but for us it is a let-down; it points to Ashbery’s laziness; the matter of “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” is allowed to spill.  The poem is not building; it is dribbling what it had away.

It is not that Ashbery makes the phrase, “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me,” go away.  It is still there in the poem.  If the reader wants, they can pause and contemplate this delicious phrase.  As we move into the next lines, the possible meanings of Ashbery’s poem explode into the nearly infinite—and surely Ashbery is proceeding along such an arc intentionally; he is stirring up the stream on purpose; he’d rather not mine “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” for its meaning; it is allowed to do what it can on its own, which is a lot, depending on how much the reader wants to contemplate it.  But Ashbery has no intention of teasing out the meaning of this phrase for the reader. He is going to multiply his meanings with subsequent lines until there are literally billions of possibilities of meanings, just as one might simply string together random digits to produce a large enough pool of different social security numbers to fit a very large population.  Adding does not produce meaning.  Subtraction does.  Ashbery is not interested in meaning, because his poems continually add item after item in a way that is essentially random.

One could imagine a real person actually having this thought: “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”  It could mean a number of things, but it strongly evinces an emotional attachment between a “you” and a “me,” with “somebody” playing an interesting but subservient part.  Perhaps the abstract meaning that leaps to the front of the line is: that in order for me to be memorable to you, I (paradoxically) must participate in the identity of others (“somebody.”)Ashbery’s next lines do not grow out of this phrase in any sort of logical or dramatic way; they are merely additions, which expand (loosen) the field, rather than narrowing (defining) it.   Addition is a valid way to proceed, but it is a very particular way to proceed, and one which thwarts drama and meaning.

The New Critics make much of the whole poem’s meaning as the crucial thing: whether or not a particular line has meaning is not as important as what all the layers and parts of the poem add up to.  Ashbery, then, can use “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” as one part of his addition.

Adding creates the potential for meaning, but never creates meaning itself.

Ashbery does not mean.  He adds.

Is it the reader’s job to fit every part of the poem together?  Or the poet’s?

This question is not even fair to ask, because it is not a matter of reader versus poet.  This gets us into a false argument, along the lines of the “Affective Fallacy,” another in the long line of New Critical red herrings.

The real issue is “fit every part of the poem together.”  If all we have in the poem is addition, it becomes mathematically impossible to “fit the parts of the poem together,” and this is precisely what Ashbery does: he adds without fitting.

Ashbery, belonging to his Art for Art’s Sake school, is trying to escape the poem that means—the sort of poem that lacks art because all it essentially does is convey information which one could otherwise find in an encyclopedia.  Ashbery’s escape is a noble pursuit of art, but we wonder if the escape needs to be pursued quite so desperately.  Is Ashbery perhaps tunneling into bedlam?

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

“GET OUT OF MY CASTLE” MAZER UPSETS ASHBERY!!!!!

“Divine Rights,” a little-known poem by Ben Mazer, has shocked the poetry world with 102-101, triple overtime victory over “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery.  The literary lion, gracious in defeat, took questions after the contest.

“Convex Mirror, how did a poem like that lose?”

Ashbery: It didn’t win.

Did you expect Mazer to shoot like he did in the second half?

Ashbery:  We knew he could shoot.

Before the final shot, did you think about a double-team?

Ashbery:  No.

Can Mazer go all the way?

Ashbery: What do you think?

*****

Let’s look at some of the replays.  Here’s when Mazer really caught fire.  Look at the quickness!

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
That’s what my
poetry is about
warmest verse

Look at the insouciant, devil-may-care turns in the rhetoric!  Is there a more clever brag from a poet than this: “when I was a child…I didn’t listen”… “That’s what my poetry is about warmest verse”?   This surpasses analysis.  It’s pure charm  It’s happy.  It’s one of those things that comes out of a poet’s mouth and you don’t know how.   I didn’t listen.  warmest verse.

Next to this quicksilver, this feels like lead (the opening lines of the Ashbery):

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.

What tedium!  How can this (the Ashbery) keep up with that (the Mazer)?

But as you know, Ashbery has perhaps the strongest bench in the game, and he played a monster second half.  Mazer stayed in the game only from miraculous outside shooting.  Here’s a highlight of Ashbery early in the second half.  Look at the sustained meditative will at work:

Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite–is this
Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

But Mazer’s play made the listless confidence of Ashbery seem like existential pap.

As we see from the following footage, Ashbery’s full-court-press defense towards the end of the second half almost takes Mazer right out of the game.  This is vintage Ashbery: it’s impossible to get a handle on life; it’s impossible for any point of view to be valid; others can’t help me, so I’m going to politely ignore them; and look! after the reference to “sex,” we get Ashbery at his most Ashbery, a naturalistic gesture, replete with oblivion, vagueness…Is Ashbery the most puritanical poet ever?

But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.

Now, for the last time, let’s look again at Mazer’s winning shot:

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

Marla Muse:  It’s bedlam down here at courtside!   Mazer fans don’t want to leave the building!  I’ve never seen anything like it!  Congratuations, Ben Mazer!

THE BATTLE IS ON! DUELING LONG POEMS: MAZER V. ASHBERY

Ashbery. Has he met his match in Mazer?

This is going to be a chess match.

John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is one of Ashbery’s important poems and has been reproduced widely—most recently in Rita Dove’s anthology.  Ashbery abandons all frivolity in these 552 lines, composed in New York City in the early ’70s, and in a rare burst of meditative passion, almost religious in its fervor, ponders the significance of a tiny late Renaissance self-portrait by Parmigianino, “the little one from Parma.”  The ghosts aiding Ashbery’s muse are Wallace Stevens and Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 1936).  Line 51: “They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.” is all Stevens.  Benjamin’s influence is deeper—yet even more on the surface, for Ashbery’s poem is a “mechanical reproduction” of both Parmigianino’s “surfaces” and Ashbery’s “soul,” imprisoned by the perfection of the Parmigianino oil on wood.  There’s a 20th century melancholia in Ashbery’s poem, a secular view daring at moments to be religious, and despairing at the attempt; it’s an Ashbery beneath-the-surface in most of his more sassy and carefree poems that in “Convex Mirror” comes to the fore.  Ashbery even hints that he’s deeply in love and going a little batty from it, like a few of the other humans.

But “hint” is a key word here: Ashbery loves to hint and not tell, unless he’s being pedantic:

The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):

It may be said that too much hinting weakens this poem, (there’s not one clear biographical, “Tintern Abbey” moment—Ashbery hides more than any poet) and that pedantry finally kills it.  It’s a fabulous poem, even while it is dying, however.

All of this hinting and hiding and escaping (and the pedantry) flows straight from T.S. Eliot, of course, the anti-Romantic, ‘escape-from-emotion” New Critical shadow that threw itself over 20th century poetry.

When a poetic theory becomes popular, it does not mean that poets ‘just start playing by its rules.’  What happens is that poets attempt to put theory into practice, with wildly varying results.  Every poem will contain emotional furniture—that is, emotional words, for this is the nature of poetry and language.  Put the word “hyacinth” in a poem and you’ve got emotion.  How do we ‘escape the emotion?’ is the question, at least for this particular theory—which may not be a good one.   Perhaps it suited Eliot, the person; but the theory, as we all know, took on a life of its own.

But Eliot, the person, also had a sense of humor, and knew the importance of levity in helping a poem achieve every bit of its emotional coloring.  “Comic relief” does not do this sensibility justice.  The comedy is layered in with the tragedy.  If comedy is nothing more than incongruity, and tragedy results in deformity and disfigurement, one can easily see how they might mingle.  Comedy is a great way to escape feeling, for laughter is cruel and unfeeling, generally.  The pun destablizes meaning. Emotion tends to rely on a single meaning, which humor obliterates: “I love you” creates emotion; “I love you—just kidding!” takes it away.  Humor is how we ‘escape from emotion.’  Humor incompletes the thought: “when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table” is an interruption. A thump.  A prat-fall.  The completed image of the evening, which would have produced emotion, (ah, the evening!) is short-circuited.

And what produces emotion and escapes from emotion?  People.  And how do people express themselves in poems?  Voices.  I know this is obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked.

We will not say Wallace Stevens is humorless, but the humor expressed in Stevens’ poetry is of the extremely silly variety; he is not a skilled and subtle humorist like the author of the (almost titled) “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”  Benjamin and Stevens are the ghosts who haunt “Convex MIrror,” but Ben Mazer is clearly hanging out with the ghost of T.S  Eliot himself in “Divine Rights,” a work we think warrants more attention.

Immediately we might say that Ashbery’s poem triumphs over Mazer’s because of Ashbery’s philosophical will: Ashbery’s poem is a meditation; one can see a philosophical mind at work in “Convex Mirror.”

Ashbery is serious.  But is Mazer serious?   Here’s what the canon committee would ask, in Ashbery’s favor.

But what exactly does Ashbery’s prose unlock, describing Parmigianino’s minature in a rat-tat-tat of “it:”

But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part,

This is earnest, didactic, and a bit tedious.  This is not a voice.  It is prose trying to describe what might be more interesting simply looked at.  A few lines later, Ashbery tries to liven things up by addressing the painter directly:

Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.

But does this help?  Would Franceso be impressed by “The surface is what’s there/And nothing can exist except what’s there?”

Mazer is without an anchor by comparison; he has no minature self-portrait to describe, but we have to be almost thankful for this.

The idea of kings is Mazer’s idealized, papier-mache’, subject, and he takes possession of it (a poetic divine right?) with his voice and his imagination such that the antiquated and far-flung subject becomes poignantly intimate, and when the poem ends

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

the reader cannot help but feel chills.

We wrote in the upper margins of our copy of Fulcrum, above Mazer’s poem, when this remarkable poem first surfaced about five years ago, “jokily archaic – formula for success” and it might be said a lot of “Divine Rights” is silly, and this is the greatest danger to its integrity—that most of the time it is just spinning out names and references that ‘sound right.’  “Divine Rights” contains jingles, scenes and remarks which have that haphazard, semi-comical feel T.S. Eliot perfected, and the ‘sounding right’ becomes a high-wire act: if this poem can keep ‘sounding right,’ we’ll keep reading.

What drags against Mazer’s poem is the great sin of writing considered in Plato’s Phaedrus: writing that reads the same, whether forwards or backwards, a pastiche that has no integral forward movement; most of the work could be re-shuffled and it wouldn’t make a difference.  But if there’s both a wealth of material and an underlying unity, sometimes we are willing to let a poem wash over us haphazardly and stumble forward just as it is.  But we should never give anything up, just in the name of modernity.

Still, Mazer is out on the plain, traversing a snowy, forested landscape, and his adventure, shamelessly first-person, leads one on; by comparison, Ashbery, more serious, seems a Polonius.

Every long poem risks sounding like a long-winded pedant who doesn’t know when to quit.

Can Mazer win this thing?

Marla Muse:  My heart is in my throat!

EAST ROUND ONE: BEN MAZER’S “DIVINE RIGHTS” V. JOHN ASHBERY’S “SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR”

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR —John Ashbery (Penguin 20th Poetry Anthology, Dove 2011)

DIVINE RIGHTS —Ben Mazer (Fulcrum 2006)

The marriage of druids and Romans
write it
I don’t know how to spell it
It is my real birth today Cadwaladr

Why would they marry?
Where is everything
I am the descendent
      of the king
They were protecting
       the son of
                the king

not father
mother

Landis
Mary
The Poet King
I knew all this
I know all this
We must have been
at alliance with the Scottish.
We must have
been at war
with the Irish
              king.
I know these things.
Freud got it right.
But it is a
throwing off
of kings.
The English King.
The English Queen.
And what am I to think of the English queen,
Elizabeth?

Or the Russian? Familiar as the lion.
Landis, descended from Charlemagne
and twin Dutch admirals?
Or the Scottish princess in the west?

The prophecy told
   me too
   it is true
after I was thirty-five
   I would be king
would regain my
   forgotten kingdom
what this means
   would be revealed
   would be recovered
every time I had my
     hand read
   or my cards told
Now it has come
   on my real day
           of birth

Florence
after Troy
in the confining hour of our winter
How would you be able to know
you were able to be the mother
of the father
of the king?

often assisted by the Scottish

Herb Hillman
Karen Penn
The Holy Experiment
The Sword in the Stone.
Arthur.
Murphy the Irish King?

This is the subject of my poetry.
The Prodigal
The Return
Eliot is sympathetic
What is he to me?
An English prince
and friend to the Welsh king?
Prince Charles
is not the true prince
Was there a son?
Was he the son of Baumgarten?
So then who is Sylvia?
Get out of my castle.
I must go to Wales.
The Faerie Queene is probably
a political commentary on
the lineage of the kings.

When I was five years old
my father
the ward of the king
took me to see
the sword of the lake
splitting the mountain
in an old storm.
la la

They told me
   when I was a child
but I didn’t listen
   That’s what my
poetry is about
   warmest verse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
All I want to know about are kings

These source materials which have lasted longest,
elements of narrative which have stayed the same
longest.  Those which have proved most popular.

The Beginning
The Return
The Kitchen
Winter

The insult given Branwen by the Irish
At Guinnion Fort
Arthur bore the image of Mary as his sign
Arcturus or the keeper of the Pole
and thus it was I watched the turn of winter

‘I have made a heap of all that i could find’ Nennius (Historia Brittonum).
an ‘inward wound’
caused by the fear that certain things dear to him should be like smoke
dissipated’ (Jones/Nennius, 1951)
i’m guessing in the old cosmology it wd be the first 24 hrs of your actual
presence
and i’ll attribute that to bertrand russell. these are just notes. —don marquis
(1922)

romeo & juliet in berkeley
i was surprised he looked so much like me
disguise him not to look like myself
i remember
he the leviathan in all ages
my father one eyed introduced me to him

(the currence of the past holds own
our against the recogsentiment
or winds like the runner on the shore
away from the sun in a steady
exhalation, at a vast limit of the net
where one exists in a continuum
spreading in a few words
a striding reach up morning—

he’s there in all his incarnations)

a date engraved in bronze swings in its chains
under moon under midnight in its bondless bonds
citizenless entropy of stars, what is heard
never viewed as it is, which is as it is not.
Is never as it can be understood,
must by definition answer nothing.
There is no fixing of these loci.

Iwerddon
And they began the banquet and caroused and discoursed.
And when it was more pleasing to them to sleep than to carouse,
they went to rest, and that night Branwen came
Matholwch’s bride.
101 Dalmatians

Look in the mirror and you will recall
the white snow of an earlier snow-fall,
how dragon behind rock had threatened rook,
and rains had formed the letters of a book
in which our love is written. Dragon, look.
How queer. The snows of yesteryear are here.

His mother was the daughter of the king
his son her brother and his uncle
who from earliest winter in the kitchen
stood stirring, sifting, towering
in the first curl of the bird’s branch
close to him then she made his song
too-wit too-wit tu-lily hi-li-ly tu-wit tu-lo
and interbranched and interladen among the
hyacinth, jack o’whirl o’ shadow—
cleaving densities of variant dispersals,
gravities which undercut propensity:
proofs of an undisclosed philately.
Mad’s progress relays Delft into land smile
under the textile’s firm approval—
Barkowitz’, Horovitz’ room. Seal approval.

A real anger at dates. Back in dense sandal word
I see trees, people dancing in the trees,
a formal approval of glass on paper.
Mixing spices like nutmeg and cinnamon.
Looking up the stovepipe for listening last years.
Another one, only as she could have been.

All around us, the snow in the forest.
Snow walking up hill in the forest,
through snow walking up hill.
I was born in the forest.
I was born under the snow.
I would rather be snowed under
than to have to go in to dinner.
I would rather be lost, out of all ear.
Where the ice thunder with its own snow choir.
Where repetitive naming is lost on hard vortex.
Edge

Their darkness is the sleep in her eyes,
before parting.

Tu-wit. And cherry.
Twice cherry. Cherry street, and cheery
cheery cherry in the song, all along.
A name for marble torsos and a night port,
everything you wrote in the guest book.
A quick way to do the invitations in summer.
The inn I am staying in, and what a bother.
Why you never answered embroidered on the hem of your sweater.
We were in the mountains. This genius
was in trust to the genius of the forest.
She didn’t nothing that she didn’t do.
The forest was a game, where I was first
the others were blind, even she my mother
which meant that I was king.
I have seen these things before they happen.
I have seen her bake day into evening,
have seen her bake the forest into evening,
have seen her bake the hour of homecoming.

The birds are details in her narrative,
ingredients recipes get around to having.
Talk is sure word made out of it,
I wouldn’t in wind or rain doubt it,
to gather or collect to retell or rerecollect
every word which the father
brought home for him to inspect.

Why then a king
through kinship of a lady?
A virgin birth. Her mother was a king,
I do not doubt it,
upon the plains that have no need of naming.
Why then a king took consecrated ground
which was to plainer eye unconsecrated.
Poetry appears to be living.
I heard it strike the sky like keel and thunder
worn into evening like a headline’s banter.
I saw it grab my hand like dad in winter.
I walked it home, the sky ripped at the center,
dark merchant hulk. Perpetual, aimless
Leviathan which strikes the heart of time.
My first knowledge of a light in winter.

And when I first returned to town,
nothing shook my memory,
I never saw
the fiery medal
in my own hand,
dull like my days.
Often quoted
early in spring.

Or noticed how my aunt cast
familiar stories against a local past.

The mystery of the virgin mother
it self would appear to have to reappear.
No wonder I didn’t get any idea
nor wonder if you too don’t get an idea
why none of this was going to simply appear.

I saw this in the absolute symmetry of the outlines
of the bathtub in the apartment in the city in the world
in our time and in all time

The still being there of the resurrection

Time which comes
only to those it visits.

Why then a birth of kings among the females?

And wasn’t a female the king of the king?

    *      *       *

I’ve reached territory.

And so I have been protected from marriage.
So too the quelling of the Jewish King.
For Christ must be his Jew
and virgin birth.

I scarcely thought I could return to her.
But remember how I saw myself
under her influence, her double image
binding the speech of then
with speech to come.

The gods are merchants at these dinners.
Maecenas never dilutes his pleasure.

I didn’t think they were
serious. But the king was her
and industry among the settlers
lingers without artifact.

You could say she was worth waiting for.
To have seen her
with nothing to spoil the mood
properly in winter.

What made her special
was what she would become.
This was the meaning of the pristine forest
in which you could see the verb repeating,
always showing in numeric mimicry
the voice in the breath
the eye in the imagery

a deep syntax
of auditory visuality:
for that heard of voices
implies the wind had been
where you yourself have.

The newness of those days,
when these were first.

Mixing the silk and sand of salt and sugar
into the flour. Vanilla in the spoon
darkly reflecting her double down the hallway
and upside down up under her apron.
The fortress of butter malleable to time,
beating the retreating oil slick
in the flood of mud.
A sea of milk.

They brought me many designs of Venice silk.
I paid them to stand around, because I was cold.
I wanted to know what they aspired to.
I am his wreck, and him his father’s before me.
I like the charge of shadow without name.

And as we watched enacted in the play
he say to her what I to you would say
and she to he what you would say to me,
so we both watch to see how things will end.
You but remember to be a friend.
You greet me unannounced. I come in rain.

And only this remains to be said,
I have come to rid the land of Saxons.
  

  *      *      *

Rehearsals of the shadows where you stood
before you have returned into the halls.

And why no mother of a Jewish King
if not a Jewish King within the line?

One Bad King

Then in my grief
I ran into the wood
along the lake’s edge,
out of ear shot.
And as I sped
into a gallop
covering much ground,
passing many trees,
not many thoughts
separated from my friends,
who found the tree
of inner light
in which the Welsh King
put his head
before he knew
he was the King,
I saw I was transformed
into a flying horse
and coiled myself
within the forest’s nest
to dully sleep
to hear the distant
fall of words
turn into footsteps
of my friends,
covering the woods.
So I would have the apples speak to me.
So I would have this orchard speak to me.

If my blood
could get back in touch with you.
Shannon
Welsh girl with an Irish name.
I am missing from these documents.

Fifty years
after the war
I saw the dead
returning home
on ____ Way.

Then
I was at his house
which was the house
I came from
when I was his
father who I greet.
Under
a rain
the blue city
has the same look
that her eyes had
in her round head
the Scottish Queen.

In that hour
when memory settles
on the evening
darkness its liquid
history of masks,
I quote you
and see the world
as written on the dark sky.
They rearrange
as flame
and fly to conspire
with my father
who is leading us
under the mountain
to the sea beast.
Always outside the room
                                 in which we walk

above us
                where what must be the roof
is how I see it
if we don’t lie and confer,
a mixing of night and day
in which the heart’s first urge
speaks, but in words of fire.
They know the night
who came here first
and them I see
in my words’ end.

Even then
I knew these things could be without me.
But that I was the King
I saw unknowing.
The first song of spring
in my upbringing.
A curator of lies.
A curator of sleep.
Shut up with your eyes.
I am the King
and I have broken darkness.

Look in the storm.
Look in the barrel.
Look under the mountain.
I am the dragon.

Look where her room
retains the look
of the room of a stranger,
now in the east. Where we began.
I named you then
the Hyacinth girl.
Words that were meant for no other,
as has long been known in the land.

Separating at night.
Ten years in arms.
Talked of as if it happened yesterday.
Cried the ladies,
the vegetables that name themselves.

Mother then
I am your son
the King.

BLAH BLAH BLAH: INTRODUCTIONS, BLURBS

Don’t we hate them?  Those introductions praising a poet before they go on?  Why do they have them?  They are stupid, and they seem more stupid the more clever they are.  They are not necessary.  Shut up.  I don’t care how many prizes this poet has won.  Let the poet get up on the podium and read their goddamn poems. Enough with this tradition already.  The oily professors and graduate students with their prefaced remarks for the visiting poet: look how clever I am!  Bet you didn’t know how many layers of meaning gleam in the title of our poet’s latest book!  Maybe I’ll get laid!  The poet doesn’t need an introduction.  Imagine how annoying it would be if you went to the theater, and before the play: “Before we begin, I’d like to make a few remarks about our playwright tonight.  William Shakespeare, as you all know…”  Save it.

And then blurbs.  Has there ever been a blurb which does not negate everything we mean when we utter the sacred word, poetry?  The blurb is like the Introduction, but a frozen version of it, a cold stain.  Shall we do away with blurbs forever?  Yes.  Just give me a plain book that says “Poems” on it, and, in smaller letters, the author’s name.   The blurb is a sugary humiliation, a confectionery wreck, a cotton candy tomb, a blah blah blah that chokes and humiliates.  Have we no shame?

Therefore, without introduction, we present the 2012 Scarriet March Madness EAST BRACKET!

EAST

1. John Ashbery
2. Seamus Heaney
3. Geoffrey Hill
4. Billy Collins
5. Jorie Graham
6. Robert Pinsky
7. Mary Oliver
8. James Tate
9. Paul Muldoon
10. Charles Simic
11. Charles Bernstein
12. Marie Howe
13. Carol Ann Duffy
14. Franz Wright
15. Carolyn Forche
16. Ben Mazer

Blurbless, sans introduction, these names stand before you.

These poets want to do one thing: Win.

They want to win, because the winner will spend an entire night with Marla Muse.

Marla Muse:  I beg your pardon?

Marla! You’re supposed to say, “And they will never forget it.”

Marla Muse:  I never agreed to do that!  And I don’t think it’s funny!

I was just kidding…in the name of poetry…these poets…don’t you think the winner…?  I wasn’t implying…

Marla Muse:  It’s not funny.

Sorry.  Well, they still want to win…

Marla Muse:  Of course they do.

And soon we’ll announce what poems the poets will be going with in the first round!

Marla Muse:  Stay tuned!

It’s so cute the way you say “Stay tuned…”

Marla Muse:  Thank you.

MARCH MADNESS SELECTION: A GLIMPSE INSIDE

Rita Dove: to be young and famous!

The Scarriet editors, with the help of Marla Muse—

Marla Muse: Hi.

Hi, Marla. —are in the process of choosing the 64 poets who will rumble for the championship this year.  How do we choose?

MM: May I speak?

In matters of poetry, the Muse should always speak.

MM: Thank you. Public contests exist for the audience, not the participants.  So we pick big names.

Wait a minute—that doesn’t make any sense!

MM: 63 poets have to lose.  Unknown poets—most of our audience—envy big name poets; our audience is guaranteed to enjoy themselves—and that’s the whole point.

But what’s a “big name” in poetry these days?

MM: Someone born in 1927, like John Ashbery, for instance.

The year Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns for the New York Yankees.

MM: Don’t try and be poetic.  Don’t distract.  Don’t show off.  Let me make my point.

Sorry, Marla.

MM: Go back a little further. Wallace Stevens was 20, and it was still the 19th century.  But 1927 is probably far back enough.  There are not too many famous poets in Rita Dove’s recent 20th Century Poetry anthology born after 1900.  Before 1900, you’ve got Frost, T.S. Eliot, Edna Millay, E.E. Cummings, and then if you want to throw in Stevens, Williams, Pound, and Stein, you may.  But after 1900—

There’s lots, right?

MM: The bulk were born between 1925 and 1940—old enough to still be living and old enough to have won plenty of awards.  But none are household words, like Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings; none are really famous. Then there’s Billy Collins born in 1941; after that, no one is even close to being famous, not even a little bit.

What a cynical analysis!

MM: You are being sentimental.  Time and fame are not cynical; they just are.  The topic is not poetry, but poets.

And poets are made of flesh.

MM: Exactly.  And Helen Vendler and Rita Dove are flesh and their fight, I feel, was based on age.  Let’s look at the best known poets by decade of birth in Dove’s book:

1860s: Edgar Lee Masters
1870s: Robert Frost
1880s: T.S. Eliot
1890s: E.E. Cummings
1900s: W.H. Auden  (or Theodore Roethke)
1910s: Elizabeth Bishop  (or John Berryman)
1920s: Anne Sexton  (Allen Ginsberg not in Dove’s anthology)
1930s: Amiri Baraka  (Sylvia Plath not in Dove’s anthology)
1940s: Billy Collins
1950s: Rita Dove  (or Jorie Graham)
1960s: Sherman Alexie  (or Joanna Klink)
1970s: Kevin Young

No poet born in the 20th century is famous.  Except maybe Anne Sexton—because she committed suicide.

Marla, that’s depressing.  So the anthologist, Rita Dove, is the most famous American poet born in the 1950s?

MM: Who would you choose instead? Cathy Song?

What about Paul Muldoon?

MM: We speak of fame, here, that is so minute, that a reader holding this anthology in their hands will feel, at that moment, that Rita Dove is the most famous poet born in the 1950s.

OK, I see your point.

MM: The most famous poet in Dove’s anthology born in the ’50s might possibly be Jorie Graham, and born in the 60s?  Jorie Graham’s baby-sitter, Joanna Klink.  Dove, born in 1952, has 40 poets represented in her anthology born between 1880 and 1919—and 26 born between 1950 and 1954; the biggest single group of poets in the anthology were born around the same time as Dove herself, including Iowa classmates, Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros.

Interesting.

MM: Finally, Vendler was born in the 1930s, and Amiri Baraka is the best known American poet (from political controversy) born in the 1930s from Dove’s anthology.  Given Vendler’s expressed views on Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry in the New York Review of Books that Dove’s anthology was a little too affirmative action, these dates have to make Ms. Vendler wonder.  Poets included, like Walcott, Clifton, and Lourde were also born in the ’30s; Vendler has to travel back to almost the middle of the 19th century to find the birth date of her beloved poet, Wallace Stevens.  This can’t help but make Vendler feel like the game is being lost.

Dove has picked good poems, but that doesn’t change the fact that her anthology feels very much driven by agenda rather than poetry.

MM: We shouldn’t get into that controversy.  Dove couldn’t help what she did, for anthologies are always about poets, not poetry.

LIfe too, is about poets, not poetry.  This is why we need to forgive Dove.

MM: Big names.

Let the games begin!  Stay tuned for the East Brackets.

HENRY GOULD TRIES TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN POETRY—AND THE MAZE THAT IS MAZER

Ben Mazer.  Don’t let his demeanor fool you.  He’s funnier than Ashbery.

In a review of Ben Mazer’s Poems (Pen and Anvil Press, 2010) and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Press, 2010), Henry Gould begins:

If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.

Gould is correct: Eliot and Ashbery are the templates of all modern poetry; one hardly has to talk about anyone else.  Sure, one could discuss 19th century French poetry, or Elizabethan verse, or yammer on about Whitman, or go off on some insane Poundian tangent, or scream, What about women poets?   Or, talk about the modern or post-modern age.  Cars!  World War One!  Movies!  Airplanes!  TV!  The bomb!  The pill!  Parody! The internet!  But what would be the point?  E. and A. already contain these things.  Eliot has already been where you are going—in the past, and in the future.  Your one advantage over Eliot, reader, is the present—but if only we could find it.  I’m afraid we must make do with the “arctic blue eyes” and the “disappointed mouth” and the “eagle beak” of E. and A. for another century, or two.

Let’s be real simple for a moment: Shakespeare wrote about life; Keats wrote about feelings for life; since the grammaphone replaced Keats and the movies replaced Shakespeare, poets have nowhere to go but into parody, beginning with Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” and “I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and, finishing with Ashbery’s parody of parody.  Gould:

John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability.

Beer and Mazer are offshoots; one is “bitter” and the other “unaccountable.”  Parody is not always so—Shakespeare was a parodist of Dante—but in minor poets, “bitter” or “unaccountable” are the two forms the imitation inevitably takes.  Mr. Beer and Mr. Mazer are not gardens, or even plants, but tendrils growing from a larger plant—in the garden of American Poetry where Gould, the reviewer, is an even-tempered and faithful gardener.

Gould seems more interested in Mazer.  If this passage from Beer (indeed, ‘small beer’) which Gould quotes is any indication of Beer’s ability, we can see why:

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell…

This is pure trash—far below Eliot.  Eliot never wrote milk-and-water phrases full of throw-away words, like: “With the smell of…”, “I can smell the different…”, “The smell whereof shall breed a plague…”  Beer is not even in Mazer’s league, much less Eliot’s, and we need not discuss Beer further.

Gould on Mazer is good:

In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Gould doesn’t know Mazer as I know him—Gould writes that Mazermimes discouragement and near-despair,” but Mazer’s “near-despair” is genuine; there is no miming; Mazer is certainly capable of mimicry, but Mazer really does mourn Hart Crane as a tragic, long-lost brother, and there’s nothing fake about it.  Otherwise in the passage just quoted above, Gould gets Mazer down cold.  I agree with Gould—those lines he quotes from Mazer have Ashbery written all over them, and I will add that 1) Mazer is perhaps the only living poet who can do Ashbery as well as, or even better than, Ashbery, 2) the “moderate admirer” lines are screamingly, achingly funny, 3) Mazer was not being intentionally funny when he wrote those lines—in fact, he probably wrote the lines out of indignation and hurt, since Mazer genuinely loves most contemporary poets (he is not hyper-critical, in  the least—in fact, his spirit is quite the opposite) which 4) goes to show that Mazer’s genius does have a puzzling aspect that catches Gould somewhat off-guard.

Gould is one of the best critics writing today: sharp, witty, worldly.  He is a tad too much in love with own cleverness, though; he struggles admirably against his own tendency towards self-conscious hipsterism.  He is not quite as good as Logan, even though he’s much more likeable.  Logan, however, would never be tempted to write of Ashbery this way:

Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.

Ashbery, according to Gould, is a poet who “emerged in the 1950s,” along with the might of the post-war United States, and the “Some Trees” poet is finally likened (by way of the New Critics and Eliot) to the “American know-how [that] built the superhighway system.”  The superhighway system is the efficient working thing of the New Critics, who “saw in the figure of Eliot a model;” — “intelligence” was Eliot’s ultimate guide to complex, functioning modernity, with Ashbery the road, and Eliot, the pylon.

Gould’s view is superficial and too contemporary, a sign of po-biz’s continual shrinking understanding of history.  The New Critics did not find Eliot—they were an extension of him; Eliot’s early essays were the blueprint of New Criticism, and Eliot, in turn, was influenced by the James family: Henry James advocated intelligence as the ultimate aesthetic measure (a formula, finally, of empty-headed snobbery and entitlement) long before Eliot, and William James (who taught Gertrude Stein) had transformed Harvard into a modernist citadel with his nitrous oxide pragmatism before Eliot arrived there.  W.H. Auden was writing Ashbery poems of wry obscurity in the late 1920s. Paul Engle, with his Yale Younger, his Masters Degree of his own poetry, and his Rhodes scholarship, launched the Creative Writing Program era with the help of the Rhodes Scholar New Critics, Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Brooks; Pound’s euro-frenzy and Williams‘ wheel barrow would land safely in American universities, and Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford and Auden would cross the Atlantic to teach writing in America, the latter famously delivering the Yale Younger to Ashbery.  Our MFA students today have only a Wiki-knowledge of New Criticism (if that)—they know the head, but not the feet, of the business.

Ignorant of the motives and actions of these men—first Fugitives, then racist Southern Agrarians, then New Critics, and then Creative Writing mavens, we end up saying impossibly quaint and silly things like “Ashbery emerged in the 1950s” and he resembles a “superhighway system.”   The New Critics (with Paul Engle) were far more important for what they did on a practical basis than for what they thought.  We don’t need the metaphor of a superhighway system when we have the reality of a super writing program system.

With history’s oxygen dwindling in the MFA classroom, the trapped poets with their Wiki-knowledge produce increasingly light-headed nonsense, “miming” as Gould puts it, the  “discouragement or near-despair” of an existence which fosters the inevitable human tragedies of drunken, Creative Writing profs who litter the 20th century, like Berryman, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Roethke, and Ted Hughes, or, rather,”comically-botched” lines:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Mazer is an intuitive and emotional poet, not an intellectual one—which is why these lines are funny; funny in a good way.

Post-modern poetry doesn’t think.  It reacts.

(One day we will begin to see that Ashbery’s work does not spring from mirth, so much as guilt, sadness, paranoia, myopia, and depression.)

Sincere passion, made by a Byron or a Shelley or a Tennyson, is out.  And so is their music.  Mazer, in his fleeting Ashbery moods, is the best we’ve got now.

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now

ASHBERY WAS NEVER MODERN

Ashbery was clever to see Poe was right: poetry succeeds at what prose fiction can’t do.

We fall into the error of modern thinking by assuming all thinking in the modern era is modern thinking. 

The truth is: Modern isn’t new, but rather what follows, and is attached at the hip to, the old.

So modern isn’t even modern, and by the same reasoning, post-modern is even less modern.

The more ancient, the more new

But enough of this.

The point we want to make is that modern has nothing to do with a contemporary who happens to be clever enough to discover a small (or a large) truth.

Ashbery discovered an old truth, and if we persist in thinking that every success in poetry after 1900 is somehow a  “modern” one, we blind ourselves to how Frost or Eliot or Ashbery succeeded.

The so-called ‘avants’ flatter themselves that being modern means breaking taboos, that poets like Byron and Pope walked in fear of taboos; but this is to treat truth as a taboo, so no wonder the ‘avants’ fall short of Byron and Pope in wit, and everything else.

Ashbery’s reputation is based on a principle that never varies.  It’s a simple one, but it’s how we know Ashbery is Ashbery, and its simplicity in principle doesn’t mean it didn’t take a certain genius to discover it and persist in it—in order to rise to prominence in the crowded field of post-war American poetry.

Stop for a minute and think to yourself: what makes Ashbery Ashbery?  What is it that he provides that no one else does?

Most cannot see that it’s what poetry does that other literary genres cannot do, which makes poetry work as poetry.  The formula is too hyper-practical, too obvioius, too simple for them to see.   They think contemporary poetic interest has something to do with “new” modernism “breaking taboos,” or some other foggy notion.

Let’s set the glorious record straight.

James Joyce was already well-known before he unleashed his Finnegan’s Wake on the world; had this been his opening gambit, it surely would have doomed him to obscurity.  No fame rests on lengthy (or even moderately lengthy) works of fiction which defy sense and meaning.  The reason is simple: few have the patience to read nonsense for a very long time.  But who would deny we don’t get a certain pleasure from sweetly elegant, ambitious, and lofty nonsense, having absolutely no design upon us? 

Enter the Ashbery poem (seen in glimpses here and there, in Gertrude Stein, influenced by her professor, William James b. 1842, early Auden, or Wallace Stevens, but never persisted in so as to define a career ) which, simply because of its lyrical brevity, enabled it to succeed at its literary mission: tickling the reader’s fancy with doses of pure nonsense in small enough bites to enjoy. (Byron’s epics, or any writing that self-consciously digresses, could also be seen as an influence.)

Surely the ‘Ashbery Poem’ appeared when it did because of other so-called “modern” developments, some sub-literary, some extra-literary, some literary, etc. but even so, it is crucial we don’t confuse the conditions for something with the thing itself. 

We don’t see how even Mr. Ashbery, himself, could disagree.

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 DAY THE POETRY DIED: TOP TEN DOCUMENTS OF 20th CENTURY MODERNISM

John Ashbery, looking like a funny old Englishman—the last living heir of the Mad Hatter madness known as Modernism

1. Reflections on Verse Libre, 1916

This is where the camel got his nose in the tent.  Eliot’s questionable logic about what poetry is slips past the Gates.

2. Understanding Poetry, eds. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, 1938 (first edition)

The Great Consolidation: the textbook which greeted the GI Bill/Baby Boomer post-war university influx.   Modernist footsoldiers, the New Critics, praise Williams and Pound, bash Poe.

3. The Waste Land, 1922

Publishing scheme launched by Pound & Eliot’s crafty lawyer and Golden Dawn/Aleister Crowley associate & British Intelligence agent, John Quinn.

4. Criticism, Inc., 1938

Essay by John Crowe Ransom launched the idea that Critics in journalism are worthless and must be trained to understand the ‘new writing’ in the universities. It is the New Critcs—the ‘Rhodes Scholar’ American wing of European Modernism—who begin the Creative Writing Program Era in American universites where contemporary poets essentially teach (canonize) themselves.

5. From Poe to Valery by T.S. Eliot, 1949

T.S. Eliot, honoring the memory of his New England, Unitarian, and Transcendentalist grandfather, William Greenleaf, caps off the Long March of Crazy-ism through American Letters, as Eliot, fresh off Nobel Prize Win, delivers a withering attack on Poe, the old enemy of William Greenleaf Eliot’s associate, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

6. How To Read by Ezra Pound,  1929

Leading Crazy-ite Modernist suggests syllabus of Homer, Confucius, Dante, and 19th century French authors for the English-speaking undergraduate student.

7. Poets Without Laurels by John  Crowe Ransom, 1938

 In this brilliant essay, influential New Critic (mentor to Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell) introduces Wallace Stevens to the world, champions Allen Tate, and declares Byron hopelessly old-fashioned in Modernist mop-up operation.

8. North of Boston by Robert Frost, 1915

When Amy Lowell confronted Ezra Pound and cohort Ford Madox Ford (who later meets Allen Tate and teaches in America) in their famous Imagiste contretemps in London in 1914, Frost, also in town, stood aloof, his future success as the New England Wordsworth already in the bag. 

9. The (Pisan) Cantos by Ezra Pound,  1948

A mish-mash by a madman is lauded by New Critics on the award committees after the U.S. arrests the head Modernist honcho for treason.

10. Some Trees by John Ashbery, 1956

T.S. Eliot’s friend, W.H. Auden, part of the Isherwood/Huxley ‘British invasion,’ passes the American academic torch as Yale Younger Poet Prize judge to ‘poetry about nothing,’ in a culmination of a Modernist Take-over of American poetry by a select group of academically-connected friends.

NARRATIVE, OR GOING TO THE GYM IN THE RAIN.

Kim Addonizio, interviewed by a former Workshop student Susan Browne, said the following:

I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that “something” remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader’s part, I end up as frustrated as you.

This got John Gallaher, the Ashbery fan, upset, and he reacted with a piece that begins like this:

As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).

The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.

Gallaher will never forgive Dan Chiasson for his New Yorker piece on Rae Armantrout in 2010, in which Chiasson attempted to make Armantrout palatable to the masses by presenting her narrative/autobiographical side.  Chiasson is who Gallaher has in mind when Gallaher fulminates above, “lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of category B, so that people can feel OK…” 

This was no doubt triggered by my August 12 piece on Chiasson and The New Yorker—Gallaher’s rant against narrative by way of Kim Addonizio appeared on August 13.

Why do I call  Gallaher’s article on narrative a “rant?”  Gallaher, like most avants, is really a pretty simple fellow.  His thinking, no doubt, went like this: he read Scarriet’s skewering of Chiasson, not without a certain pleasure, but couldn’t help being reminded of Chiasson’s greater sin—one Gallaher himself had tirelessly pointed out—Chiasson’s attempt in the New Yorker to make avant star Armantrout into one of them—the poets who are narrative and accessible.  Nothing freaks out a fan of the avant-garde like the idea of one of their idols being eaten and digested by the insensate mainstream.  In a panic, Gallaher decided he had to turn the tables, and quickly whipped up an article of a narrative poet moving away from narrative—Kim Addonizio, a ‘column A’ poet, seeking to free herself from her chains.  When Gary B. Fitzgerald, who also visits Scarriet, showed up on Gallaher’s blog, to bash Ashbery, Gallaher snapped.  Gary B. was banned.  A piece on narrative begun in high anxiety had ended with a punishment.

Here is part of the interview excerpted by Gallaher, with his comments right afterwards.  You’ll see what I mean:

Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It’s from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren’t very many good parts. My poem was originally titled “By Way of Apology.” I had a few phrases, one of which was “a pair of big, invisible hands.” Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it’s more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a “this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.

Browne: I want to hear more about that.

Addonizio: Take a poem like “November 11,” from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, “The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous.” That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor’s niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it’s not about the gym. That’s the framework.

Browne: It’s interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn’t have the narrative, I don’t think I’d be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I’m thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it’s me. And I don’t care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can’t wait for her next book to come out because I think I’m going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.

+

Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.

And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?

Gallaher celebrates a “moment” in catching out a narrative poet confessing that the personal narrative element in her poem is only a “framework,” and not the important element in her poem—what is important, evidently, are the journalistic “piles of dead”.  Gallaher is perfectly in his rights to ask: why do we need the narrative frame, if the “piles of dead” are the crucial item? 

But Gallaher is confusing means and end: as Addonizio explains to Browne in the interview, her poem is not just about ‘the deaths,’ but about the poet’s personal view of them as overwhelming—and therefore ‘going to the gym’ places the mundane activity of the overwhelmed narrator in the poem—and secondly, the rain is a metaphoric expression of the high death count (beyond the narrator’s grasp) and it’s an easy matter to have it rain while going to the gym.  

Here’s an excerpt from the Addonizio poem, “November 11”:

to say what killed him, his wife is fighting/with the Palestinians over his millions, the parking lot/ of the gym is filled with muddy puddles!/ I run 4.3 m.p.h. on the treadmill, and they’re dead/ in Baghdad and Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra and Latifiya –/ Nadia and Surayah, Nahla and Hoda and Noor,/their husbands and cousins and brothers –/ dead in their own neighborhoods! Imagine!/ Marine Staff Sgt. David G. Ries, 29, Clark, WA.: killed!/ Army Spc. Quoc Binh Tran, 26, Mission Viejo, CA: killed,/ Army Spc. Bryan L. Freeman, 31, Lumberton, NJ — same deal!

Gallaher’s hero, the Pulitzer-prize winning, Rae Armantrout, might write this poem sans narrative, and leave out the trip to the gym, and try to express the feeling of being overwhelmed by the deaths in a more concise manner, using exclamation points, a reference to puddles and rain, a shorter list of deaths; but if we agree the end of each poem is precisely the same, and the means is less narrative by Armantrout, more narrative by Addonizio, it really just becomes an issue of clarity in acheiving the end: the narrator is having these feelings, and damnit, she wants the reader to see the narrator on her way to the gym in the rain.  Addonizio said the poem was not about “the gym,” but she did not say the poem was not about her feelings or the rain present (to express the metaphor) as she went to the gym, or her thoughts interrupted by her mundane activity at the gym, and Armantrout, attempting to write the same poem, would fail or succeed on precisely this same issue: is it clear to the reader what I am saying? 

Gallaher, the clever avant, is missing the whole point, confusing “the gym” with the necessity of being clear, and he compounds his error by going off the deep end philosophically, by seeking a duality: narrative v. non-narrative, which simply does not exist.  The issue is merely one of clarity, and clarity should never be an issue, unless, like the avant, you are under the burden of some tremendous neurosis, and you neurotically strive to be unclear.

This issue is never whether or not there should be narrative, for narrative should always exist; the question is whether it is done well, or not, and in this particular case it is not done well; the self-serving, third-rate Addonizio poem is naturally vulnerable to attack by an avant critic like Gallaher, who has no trouble prying the hapless poem from its “frame,” in order to make a non-point.

Once you begin referring to your narrative or your plot, as merely a “frame,” the game is over, and transparently cretinous, avant-garde tricks, like “so much depends upon all those deaths in the news,” are probably the next step in your writing career.

The near-insanity of the avant sensibility is on full display in this comment on Gallaher’s article:

In poetry the only law is that of gravity, but here are a few things I’ve always thought about poetry, in no particular order:
The extraordinarily fertile and preternaturally lit-up imagination of a poet like Tate may need to be counterbalanced by a limiting force, either narrative or structure. (I may be echoing an essay by Gregory Orr.) Narrative seems to be the limiting force in the Tate poems most people like best. (I may prefer some of his old stuff that doesn’t work that way—poems circa Hints to Pilgrims. But I’m all over anything he writes.)
BUT. “Narrative does not dictate image; image dictates narrative.”—Charles Wright.
Eli is quite right about poetry as “the new metatropism.” Writing poetry is passivity not activity. You watch your thought grow like mould on cheese in the fridge. I is an other. You don’t write the poem; it writes you.
You should work FROM, not TOWARDS, words. Dylan Thomas said that a long time ago, but recently Elisa Gabbert said the same thing in connection with Bill Knott. Begin with words not ideas. Make poetry out of words not ideas; seek ideas for your words, not words for your ideas.—Valery? Mallarme?
“So many lousy poets/So few good ones/ What’s the problem?/No innate love of/Words, no sense of/How the thing said/Is in the words, how/The words are themselves/The thing said:…A word, that’s the poem”—James Schuyler. Mallarme said every word of “L’Azur” cost him several hours of searching. What Ted Berrigan cared about most was the startling pieces of language he overheard or read.
The language must be fresh. There must be delightfully strange combinations of words in almost every line. But the lines without startling contrasts have to be good, too. All the lines should sound cool by themselves. IT’S PERFECTLY FINE TO CHOP OUT A LOGICAL CONNECTION IF THAT’LL MAKE THE LINES SOUND COOLER. Fuck logic.
IF YOUTRY TO IMPOSE UNITY ON THE POEM, IT’LL FALL APART. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE CONNECTIONS; THEY’LL TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES. ORDER IS LIKE YOUR SHADOW: IF YOU PURSUE IT, IT’LL FLEE FROM YOU.
“A poem SHOULD remain mostly inscrutable.”—Ashbery
“What it’s about” is only one aspect of it. There are—or should be—equally important things going on. (I tend to worry about those other things and let “what it’s about” take care of itself.) “The pleasure one gets from reading poetry comes from something else than the idea or story in a poem, which is just a kind of armature for the poet to drape with many-colored rags.”–Ashbery
You don’t have to understand your poem in a way that enables you to explicate it.
There’s nothing wrong with confessional poetry but the name. Poets who expose their intimate thoughts in a painfully honest, uncensored way—e.g., Ginsberg—are doing a great thing.
Don’t sit on any arse poetica—raw or cooked, autobiographical or “energetic word play.” Keep your mind open and try the other side, like Addonizio. “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” –Emerson

The commenter, David Grove, just wants to be wild and free, and believes Charles Wright’s “image dictates narrative” and his own “a poem just grows like mould on cheese” How French!  That must be Mallarme talking…  And Ashbery’s “words, not ideas…” For Grove, “narrative” is a “restriction.”

It takes but a moment’s reflection to realize that narrative in the literary arts is not simply a “frame,” but a cause-and-effect network of vast importance and nuance.

Narrative is first and foremost, temporality. Avant poetry is feeble, by comparison, as it declines to use what might be called time’s flesh, and all subsequent imagery, harmony, melody, and thought-like music ranged upon that flesh’s movement reflects the movement of life itself; the speech of the statue, the glittering of the stream, the warming of the sigh, the deepening of the night, the steps of the traveler, the lifting of the bird, the singing of the dactyl, or the sigh-inducing advancement of the dance towards you; the lack of all this makes avant poetry a bland, or self-importantly clever, re-telling. 

Which makes avants like Gallaher feel empty.  And angry.

OUTRAGE!

John Gallaher: Another brick in the wall?

Gary B. Fitzgerald is a fine poet and a well-known figure in the on-line poetry world, opinionated, but never nasty.

Mr. Fitzgerald is self-published, which is what poets outside of academia tend to be, and if self-pity floats about him—he’s a “Quietist” who doesn’t sell—it is because he has something to say and wants people to listen: nothing pleases Gary B. more than “to be read,” and few, apparently, read him—and those tend to be readers of others’ blogs.  He’s a Romantic; a man of nature, of moral feeling, and books (he’s got a bunch out there).  He wants to start his own blog—which we think is a good idea.

We know it’s a small thing, a very small thing, and hardly worth the effort to report, except that it symbolizes something larger, which is why sometimes we concern ourselves with small things (oh, if we could ever get ourselves free of the ‘small things!’) but it seems that Gary, dear old Gary B. was banned recently from John Gallaher’s blog, for daring to have an opinion about John Ashbery.

Think on this, if you will: A poet is banned from a poetry blog for having an opinion about a poet.

One could argue that the chief problem in the world now is that people won’t let other people have opinions.

Poets behaving like spoiled children—why is this so prevalent?

A WORDY BORDER

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus looms over the Modernist School

A poem is a philosophical song.

The poem’s hub may be mad hilarity or too grim, or secretive, for words, but a poem’s circumferance will always be a wordy border, patrolled by pedants indifferent to its passionate origins, scratching their graying heads, asking, “Is this poem great?  Is it culturally relevant?”

In the year 2000, David Lehman, poet and editor of  the annual Best American Poetry series (1988—present) graciously asked all of his previous guest editors up until that point (13 and all prestigious American poets) to name their top 15 poems of the 20th century—a pretty simple request, and, we think all would agree, an interesting assignment.  The results were published in the back of The Best American Poetry 2000 volume.

Two of the Best American Poetry Guest editors—Louise Gluck and Adrienne Rich—refused to play.

One—Richard Howard—didn’t follow the rule, and listed books instead of poems.

Three—Howard, Mark Strand and Donald Hall—limited themselves to dead poets.

David Lehman added his list as well—so a total of 12 important American poets participated.

We are not here to impugn the results—only to analyze them.  We might as well get this out of the way first: the VIDA score of “The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (as Lehman titled the section) was abysmal: 16% of the choices were by women, although 30% of the editors originally asked by Lehman were female.  It didn’t help the women that two women editors refused to participate.  And, if you remove Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore from the choices of the best poems of the 20th century by this distinguished panel, the VIDA score drops to 5%  Not one poem by Edna Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds was chosen.

The Best American Poetry editors all seemed to run in fear of the popular poem.  The quality of the choices can be disputed, but there was a glaring sameness about the choices, a definite lock-step approach by the group.  Not only did the individuals within the group select the same authors and the same poems with great frequency, but poems with the same themes. 

According to the nearly 200 poems selected by the group in the category: Best Poem of the 20th Century, the easy winner was: Elizabeth Bishop writing about an animal.  Only Frost got more votes than Bishop.

Compiling all the votes, here’s how the Top 15 Greatest Poems of the 20th Century, according to John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck (Didn’t play), A.R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich (Didn’t play), James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and David Lehman:

1.    The Waste Land -TS Eliot 1922
2.   The Bridge -Hart Crane 1930
3.    In Praise of Limestone -W.H. Auden 1948
4.    Little Gidding  -TS Eliot 1941
5.    Book of Ephraim  -James Merrill 1976
6.    Voyages  -Hart Crane 1926
7.    Asphodel, That Greeny Flower  -WC Williams 1962
8.    77 Dream Songs  -John Berryman  1964
9.    After Apple Picking  -Robert Frost  1914
10.    Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost  1923
11.     At The Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop  1955
12.    The Comedian As The Letter C  -Wallace Stevens  1923
13.    Spring and All  -WC Williams  1923
14.    The Auroras of Autumn  -Wallace Stevens  1950
15.    Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror  -John Ashbery  1974

The selections are all permeated by a similar theme and approach: turgid language; a restlessness of philosophical meditation; a singular, yet ever-shifting landscape; rhetoric far more descriptive than emotive; given to lyrical flights of prose, broadly metaphorical, using more frequently the ideas of Heraclitus, famous for his, “no man ever steps in the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.”

Number eleven on the list, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, is pure Heraclitus.  Her poem ends:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Auden’s poem, at number three, “In Praise of Limestone,” as you can see from the opening lines, is remarkably similar:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish

“The Comedian As The Letter C” by Wallace Stevens, at no. 12, is self-consciously Heraclitean in its prose-poetry:

gaudy, gusty panoply…

That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last…

Shebang. Exeunt omnes. Here was prose
More exquisite than any tumbling verse…

The bombast of Hart Crane was extremely popular with the voters:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

They say the wind is sucked, not blown.  Most poets and critics, even as they wear the gowns of culture and history, are pulled along by group-think, sucked into judgement without will, trapped by the tuggings of trends and fashions.

All of these choices seem to be driven by the same post-World War I, European Modernist sensibility.  Gloomy meditations on the two world wars belong to T.S. Eliot’s English point of view in “The Waste Land” and “Little Gidding.”   Since Auden was included as an American, it seems poets like Louis Simpson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Stephen Spender should have been included, especially since the Modernism these Best American Poets so admire is very European.

The last quarter of the 20th century was almost completely neglected.  Poets such as Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Robert Pinsky, and Jack Spicer got no votes at all.  Ginsberg got only one vote—for “Howl” by Rita Dove.

Were the voters seeking to silence their contemporary rivals by focusing on the first half of the twentieth century?

Other poets getting more than one vote for their poems were Pound, Roethke, Robinson, O’Hara, Lowell, Creeley, Schuyler, Wilbur, Warren, Jarrell, and Ammons.

CLAP YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR EARS! IT’S THE CRITIC WILLIAM LOGAN!

William Logan: School of Smirking Badass

The best reviewers make us laugh.

Laughter is just reward for the pain of pretentious, tedius, over-inflated writing.

The bad writer turns gold (nature) into lead (his work), and when, in turn, honorifics are bestowed upon that bad writing, the lead becomes millstones about our necks.

The good critic turns this lead and these millstones into gold (laughter).

There is no single individual (they are always alone) so vital in Letters than a good reviewer.

Without the good reviewer, our literary gardens would be weeds—and worse, the weeds would all be thought of as fruits and flowers.

Ron Silliman includes William Logan in his School Of Quietude, but this is a vile misnomer: Logan, like Poe (responsible for the term) provokes loud noises (both indignant on one hand, and merry on the other) with an eye that sees through quackery.

Join us for a little merriment, then, with our greatest living critic, William Logan:

Rae Armantrout’s poems are micro-dreams of sly vanity, their brute coyness typical of much late-generation avant-garde poetry. Money Shot lives in stark juxtapositions—sometimes there’s a snippet of science (“each// stinging jelly/ is a colony”), sometimes a scrap of old-fashioned suburban imagism (“Stillness of gauzy curtains// and the sound/ of distant vacuums”), sometimes a touch of cut-rate surrealism (“Give a meme/ a hair-do”).

The “money shot” is a porn-factory term for filmed ejaculation, the eruptus of coitus interruptus. The dust jacket demurely shows the Duchess of Alba’s hand from Goya’s famous portrait—the connection is scarcely less mystifying than a few of the poems, though it could allude to her alleged affair with the painter, her supposed appearance as “The Naked Maja,” the price of Goya’s commissions, or any number of things. It’s a tease, as much of Armantrout’s work is a tease.

Most of her poems offer little resistance to the conscientious reader (the book could be read on a lunch break), but now and then they revel in the iffiness to which experimental poetry is dedicated:

IndyMac:

Able to exploit pre-
existing.

Tain.

Per.

In.

Con.

Cyst.

IndyMac was one of the big failed banks, the Independent National Mortgage Corporation.

Armantrout commented on this passage in an interview with Chicago Weekly Online: “‘Mac’
. . . suggests McDonald’s, but also now ‘Mac’ing down’ on something, or ‘pac-man’—suggests a greedy franchise. And it’s paired with the word Indy, which suggests independent boutiques.
. . . Then ‘Able to exploit pre-/ existing’—that’s a phrase that I got from a newspaper article about banking. . . . You know, the banking system was able to exploit the pre-existing blah-blah-blah. And then the poem breaks into single syllables: ‘Tain.// Per. In. Con./ Cyst.’ All those syllables . . . occur in words like maintain, retain, persist, insist, consist, and then there’s just the word—cyst. I guess the words that are just syllables are a kind of cyst, free floating references to acquisition and attainment.”

This is not nearly as helpful as it is hilarious—I don’t know which is better, the loopy free-association or the blah-blah-blah. Yet how private these associations are, and how hopeless the road map to them. (There are free-floating cysts in the iris; but how you get from IndyMac to Pac-Man is a mystery—as criticism this is the Higher Ditziness of the Humpty Dumpty School.) If the Mac in IndyMac can mean McDonald’s, then Indy can mean Indiana Jones, independent film, Indianapolis, or any number of irrelevant things. As for that jumbled wordplay, sure—persist, insist, consist, as well as pertain and contain (though not intain). As for maintain and retain, it’s as if she hasn’t read her own poem.

Armantrout relies on a cloud of knowing to organize this unknowing, but you have to be Armantrout to live in the cloud. The temptation to make meaning by juxtaposition can be overwhelming, but it’s a temptation that should sometimes be resisted:

The pressure
in my lower back
rising to be recognized
as pain.

The blue triangles
on the rug
repeating.

Coming up,
a discussion
on the uses
of torture.

This is funny, then not funny at all. The self-absorption of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet should not come at the expense of those who have suffered real torture.

The defense of a poetry of splinter and shard, of tessera and ostrakon, has long been that our fragmentary, disconnected modern lives are best reflected in fragmentary, disconnected forms (no wonder that after a little post-post-modernism a reader would kill for a little story). But why should art always imitate life—and why should its form somehow be imitative, too? (I doubt that life seems more fragmentary and disconnected now than during the Wars of the Roses.)

But they’re lying,
which degrades them.

An immigrant
sells scorpions
of twisted electrical wire
in front of the Rite Aid.

I look away before.

You can say various things about this poem, which seems perfectly easy to interpret. Ah, but I confess I just opened the book at random and picked out a stanza here or a line there—we have long needed a postmodern sors Vergiliana, and Armantrout is just the woman to provide it.

Armantrout is a museum exhibit of how unexperimental experimental poems have become. She relies on a very small bag of tricks, many of them old when free verse was young: the short, breathless lines; the smirking ars poetica (“‘Why don’t you just say/ what you mean?’// Why don’t I?”), the bodice-heaving antithesis (“The fear/ that all this/ will end.// The fear/ that it won’t”), with enjambments like stop signs—or, worse, bottomless abysses. Does she end a poem on “the”? Of course she ends a poem on “the”! Wallace Stevens once ended a poem on “the,” but he used it as a noun—and the poem was a much better poem. It wasn’t trying to imitate some fall into the emptiness of unmeaning.

I love Armantrout’s idea for a film genre called “diversity noir” (“a shape-shifter/ and a vampire// run rival/ drinking establishments”). She has a gift for the sneaky phrase (“Money is talking / to itself again”), but like a lot of experimental poets she can’t resist bossing the reader about. Poems that tease are appealing, but not ones that are teasing and bullying at once, that have a come-hither look and a go-thither command. The best poems here don’t try so hard to force the reader to go where the poet wants. Far too much experimental verse comes out of two phrases William Carlos Williams wrote in haste and perhaps regretted at leisure, phrases for which anthologists have been grateful ever since: “So much depends upon” and “This is just to say.” You could staple one or the other to the beginning of most avant-garde poems, and the poems would be no worse. They might even be better.

Those who think Logan is “being mean” miss the point.  Armantrout is not funny; she may be clever, but she is not funny.  Logan makes her funny, and this is a good that transcends right, or wrong, or mean. It allows the polite smile of approval to explode into merriment and glee, and gladness makes us see. Polite smiles are blind. Poetry may make nothing happen, but criticism—which makes us laugh—-does.  For laughter changes the way we think.  If we think like Armantrout wants us to think, if her poetry is “successful,” then, indeed, nothing happens.  But if Logan changes the way we ought to think about Armantrout, something does happen: a dialectic, felt in the body as laughter, and this moves society’s stream.

It is also important to note that in his brief review, Logan presents Armantrout’s own words—the mere arrangement, the voice which tells us it’s OK not to like this, these two do most of the work: what we feel about her work is already there and Logan merely brings it out.  Logan also points out what he likes; the dislike gets the attention—but this is not Logan’s fault.

What about Ashbery?  He is funny.  What does Logan do with him?  As you might expect, he makes him even funnier.

John Ashbery’s nonsense is a lot more amusing than most poets’sense. What he does well is nearly inimitable, as the mutilated bodies of his imitators show (what he does badly nearly anyone can do, though most poets wouldn’t even try). In the past decade, as old age has stolen upon him, he has published over nine-hundred pages of poetry—if there were a poetry Olympics, Ashbery would take gold, silver, and bronze, as well as brass, antimony, tin, and lead. He turned seventy-three this year—when did poetry have a more boyish septuagenarian? Will Ashbery ever grow up?

In Your Name Here (a witty title that reminds us of all the sneaky things he can do with language), Ashbery has started making sense. This will come as a shock to most readers, because his poetry has lived a long time on the subsidizing strategies of sense without making much sense at all—Ashbery writes poems that promise everything and deliver nothing. He’s the original bait-and-switch merchant, the prince of Ponzi schemes. Over and over, you’re lured into a poem, following along dutifully in your poetry reader’s way; then the trap door swings open and you’re dumped into a pit of malarkey—or a pile of meringue. And that has been the pleasure.

This was from a review in The New Criterion (where you can always find Logan) from 10 years ago, and you can see how Logan won’t let himself take seriously the poets who don’t want to be taken seriously.  No, Logan isn’t mean; quite the contrary—it’s the poets and the blurbists who waste our time who are mean—Logan merely presents the soul of wit in a 500 word review.  Logan gets Ashbery better than anyone; Logan merely seems mean because he doesn’t pile on the reverence—the coin of ‘blurb my book and I’ll blurb yours’ po-biz.

Logan is very much at ease trashing poets who hide beneath trash; the flip, the caustic, and the hip go down just like the rest of them:

The title of Tony Hoagland’s new book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, is the funniest thing about it. Along with Billy Collins, Dean Young, and a giggle of others, Hoagland has thrived among the gentle practitioners of gentle humor, sometimes with a gentle dash of the gently surreal, who have given American verse a New Age school of stand-up comedians.  (Their motto: Humor, or else.)  His new poems celebrate that great American religion, shopping, and that great American temple, the shopping mall.  The art of American consumption was part of our literature long before Babbitt and The Theory of the Leisure Class—Henry James knew all about the golden bowls of the Gilded Age, Trollope’s mother went broke starting a Cincinnati bazaar (right idea, wrong location), Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses almost bankrupted her husband, and even Whitman was astonished by the ready commerce and “gay-dress’d crowds” along Chestnut Street.  You might say that the subject of Americans and what they buy, from Thomas Jefferson’s rare books (or, when he went on a spree, the whole Louisiana Purchase) to O. J. Simpson’s Bruno Maglis and Carrie Bradshaw’s Manolo Blahniks, is an embarrassment of riches, or just a bunch of crap: “the little ivory forks at picnics and green toy dinosaurs in playrooms everywhere;// the rooks and pawns of cheap $4.95 chess sets made in the People’s Republic of China.”

There’s not a lot to say about American consumerism that wasn’t said by Veblen, even if shopping is a Darwinian metaphor for the manners and mores of American life. Hoagland wisely turns his eye to all those lives impoverished—or, who knows, made infinitely richer—by that endless buying, buying, buying.  Still, when he thunders on about the “late-twentieth-century glitterati party/ of striptease American celebrity” he sounds as if he’s channeling Billy Graham channeling Billy Sunday.  Denouncing Britney Spears is like invading Rhode Island.

Hoagland has a superficial ease and charm—he’s likable, and his poems are likable, but they’re often less than they promise.  He’s a wonderful collector of the junk with which Americans furnish their lives, but it’s hard to turn junk into poems.  Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.  All too soon, Spears will seem dated as a Stutz Bearcat or a man shouting “Twenty-three skidoo!” There’s a quieter and more unsettled poet inside all this bric-à-brac:
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knifepried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in time of war.

“The ones who will survive,” he told us,
looking at us hard,
“are the ones who are willing do [sic] anything.”
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

Hoagland doesn’t quite know what to do with the complicated feelings this evokes—it’s smug for him to say, “That was Lesson Number 4/ in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.” (Things could have been worse—he might have turned the scene into Deliverance2.)  In the silent desperation here, the real subject might have been the father’s misplaced expression of love.

Hoagland is skittish about love, though he knows that romance is often absurd and comedy the catharsis of fear. His hymn to American courtship scares me:

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a bench,
holding hands, not looking at each other,and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved.

This goes on to peacocks and walking-stick insects (“she might/ insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck”), but you get the idea: Man is the animal who spends a lot of time thinking he’s not an animal.  Like so much of Hoagland’s work, the poem softens into sentimental mush; yet for a moment the poet has seen the darkness in love, the animal passions released and endured.

These whimsical, mildly satirical poems about modern anomie, composed with far too much corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, want to rouse primal fears, then comfort the reader with a warm glass of milk.  Sometimes this arch joker forgets the point of humor—a poem on the D.C. sniper, which starts with the mystery of God (that riddle ever invoked when life is cruel or unfair), comes all too close to ridiculing the dead.  Next he’ll be making fun of Holocaust victims.

Poets who often take themselves too seriously—Mary Oliver, Franz Wright, Don Paterson, or Carl Phillips, for instance, are easy targets for Logan; but again, he’s not mean when he reviews these poets, for a critic’s job is always to see—not to support.  And if seeing poetry is easier for a critic than for the poet investing his or her life in their own work, this is not the critic’s fault.  Critics who are “mean” are merely mean the way Nature is mean, and this is true in every case of mean.  Even a critic with a grudge is better than a critic with a blurb. Grudges are more interesting and more complex—in their origins and their results—than blurbs.  It doesn’t matter how we look at a poet, as long as that look is an interesting one.  Every poem should be able to handle, and gain from, a different look—even if it’s mean.

And when Logan’s bullets bounce off a poet, as here in this review of Billy Collins’ latest, the result is still funny, entertaining, and enlightening:

Billy Collins is funny, everyone agrees.  The birds agree, the bees agree, even the fish in the sea agree: Billy Collins is funny.  Yet why do I feel, half an hour after closing a Billy Collins book, a sharp grinding in my stomach, as if I’ve eaten some fruit cake past its sell-by date?  His wry, self-mocking poems wouldn’t hurt a fly—but they couldn’t kill a fly, either, even if they tried.  Readers who have whetted their appetites for drollery on previous books may open Ballistics and be puzzled.  Our Norman Rockwell of sly winks, and elbowing good humor, and straw-hatted, flannel-shirted American whimsy is no longer funny. Worse, some of his new poems take place in Paris.

Billy Collins’s method has been to borrow a dry nugget of fact or some mildly absurd observation and see how far he can go.  Say you read that the people of Barcelona once owned an albino gorilla, or remember that Robert Frost said, “I have envied the four-moon planet,” or find yourself talking to a dog about the future of America.  Why, the poem would almost write itself! Collins’s gift was to make the poem a little odder than you expected.  The problem with his new book is that the ideas are still there, but the poems have lost their sense of humor. Here’s what happens to that gorilla:

These locals called him Snowflake,
and here he has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping his pallid flame alive
and helping him, despite his name, to endure
in this poem where he has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

There must be a lot of comic things to say about albino gorillas, things that don’t require sentimental guff with a twitch of self-pity.

Say you recall the day Lassie died, when, after you finished your farm chores and ate your oatmeal, you drove to town and scanned the books in Olsen’s Emporium—and what books they were!  An anthology of the Cavalier poets, The Pictorial History of Eton College, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po.  Why, who knew?  This is a send-up of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”—the book titles mock his purchase of New World Writing (as he said, “to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing”).  But then what?


I’m leaning on the barn door back home
while my own collie, who looks a lot like her,
lies curled outside in a sunny patch
and all you can hear as the morning warms up
is the sound of the cows’ heavy breathing.

And that’s it.  This labored parody of O’Hara’s famous ending (“I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/ leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT/ while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”) isn’t side-splitting at all.  The premise has become just another excuse for softheaded mush—Collins doesn’t even get round to mentioning (SPOILER ALERT!) that Lassie was played by any number of dogs, that she was male (because males have glossier coats), and that, besides, Lassie is immortal and can’t ever die.

Collins has managed to be what he rarely was in the past—dull. The ending in many of these new poems falls flat, the speaker gazing at the moon or listening to a bird in hopes of revelation. If Billy Collins can’t joke about death, for example, well, who can?  When he pokes fun at writers’ guides (“Never use the word suddenly just to create tension”), or of teachers who ask, “What is the poet trying to say?” he’s still our best poet at piercing the pretensions of the whole literary shebang.  Get him off the subject, however, and the poems are suffused with mild gloom and misanthropy.  He writes of having tea “with a woman without children,/ a gate through which no one had entered the world.” You think that he’s blundered, that he can’t possibly be talking about her vagina.  Oh, yes, he can!  “Men had entered the gate, but no boy or girl/ had ever come out”—I’m not sure whether this is wickedly inventive prudery or plain bad taste.

When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way, reason enough for a man to take off his rose-colored glasses and book a flight to Paris.  Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet.  Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.

Logan is simply wrong here: Collins’ “Oh, Snowflake” and “the cows’ heavy breathing” is funny.  But no matter: Logan’s sense of humor still prevails, and so the review, attempting to neutralize Billy Collins (O what do we do with Billy Collins?) is a great read.  Poets are the first to tell you poetry transcends objective standards of wrong and right.  And so does humor, when it reaches a certain charming pitch.  When William Logan crashes into Billy Collins, pure joy ensues.

THE SCARRIET 2011 FINAL FOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if not, what the hell is it?

What pushes someone like Ashbery to the top?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASHBERY TRANSLATES RIMBAUD. YAWN.

 

image

Lydia Davis.  A failure to illuminate.

So a cushy, middle-class American academic, John Ashbery, with a sense of humor so dry it crumbles, has translated a 19th century French teenager, Rimbaud, whose poetic sensibility was largely shaped by a missing father—a situation exploited by a nasty relationship with an older French Symbolist poet, Verlaine. 

Well, isn’t that swell?

Ashbery might be summed up like this:

Moe:  Say…that’s no poem!

Curly:  Sure it is!  It rhymes, don’t it?

Larry:  But poems don’t have to rhyme no more!

Curly(with Moe): Yea!

Moe (with Curly): Yea!

Curly (exchanging a look with Moe):  Huh?

Moe (exchanging a look with Curly):  Huh?

Larry:  Huh?

Moe:  Wait a minute…what did you just say?

Curly:  He said poems don’t have to rhyme no more, and you agreed!

Moe:  I did, did I?

Larry: Fellas, here comes John Ashbery!  Scram!

Lydia Davis has given us a slavishly perfunctory ‘two-thumbs-up’ “review” of Ashbery’s review of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and Blog Harriet’s reaction is “Wow.”

True Criticism continues to die, killing literature for good, and all Blog Harriet can do is approve with girlish glee.

A true critic can see what’s going on: Lydia Davis, once married to Paul Auster,  is trying to be the Gertrude Stein of the 21st century, with that fictional style two parts laudanum and one part tedium, which wows  undergraduates who have a lot of creative urges, but don’t know how to write a proper sentence.

Lydia Davis’ fiction sells about as well as Ashbery’s poetry: not well at all, and there’s a real danger that as the years pass, they will simply be forgotten.

But riches and fame are possible if one translates a timeless work—even if knowledge of the author, time and language is spotty. There’s always plenty of English translations to consult, after all.  Tweak an existing text and voila! a “translation.”

Lydia Davis—esteemed translator of some Proust and Bovary— in her Times review, has not even one suggestion regarding Ashbery’s translation: it’s perfect, according to Davis.   The nuanced French of RimbaudAll that nuance bodily moved from one entire, vastly different language to another!  And Davis agrees with Ashbery down to the last sentence, the last article, the last punctuation mark!

Memo to Ashbery: you owe her one.

One suck-up review for man, two reputations made for mankind.

The editors of Blog Harriet, in triplicate swoon (Rimbaud, Ashbery, and Davis) practically speechless themselves, eagerly quoted the following to prove the genius of all three.  Note the sheer audacity of Davis’ suck-up:

In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions — or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.

Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.

It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.

This is what Davis selects to prove Ashbery’s translating genius?  “Of no interest” for sans intérêt? 

Is she kidding?

And let’s just randomly insert “echos of the King James” into—Rimbaud!  Shall we?

And I’m so anxious to read Rimbaud for “hued” and “clad.”  That “mildy archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” is just what Rimbaud needs!

Did Ashbery manage to slip in any references to Popeye?

Lydia Davis, in her Times review gives the standard “lice-infested” gloss on Rimbaud, the standard: ‘a ruffian, good golly, but boy, what a genius!’

Rimbaud is, well, cool.  But the hipsters, in their worship of his gin-soaked, hyperbolic poetry, tend to leave out the uncomfortable facts: Rimbaud, the Catholic, Latin-learned, strictly-brought-up boy with a soldier father who left him for good when he was 6 years-old, pitifully looking for a father-figure, was essentially kidnapped and raped at 17 by the woman-and-child-abusing, murderous, grotesque scumbag, Paul Verlaine.  We hear a lot about Verlaine “the Symbolist” (that over-used term) but little about the actual sickening human being, Rimbaud. As for Rimbaud’s France, it was shaped, among other things, by another scumbag, the aggressive, Opium War, Empire-building, Napoleon III.

Baudelaire, Poe’s translator, a generation earlier, had already done Rimbaud; Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” pretty much sums up the whole thrust of Rimbaud, except with Rimbaud we add in a lot of joyous, colorful, bad taste.

But John Ashbery has translated Rimbaud’s garish French into “mildly archaic” English, and Lydia Davis and the New York Times approves!  Hurray!

THOMAS BRADY: THE INTERVIEW, PART I

Who was a bigger drinker, Ashbery or Poe?

Ashbery, easy.

Is Ashbery deep?

No. Dense, maybe, not deep.

By dense, do you mean difficult?

No. ‘Difficult’ implies a problem to be solved. Language allows you to load up a twenty pound vehicle with two tons of stuff. Language allows one to be problem-free. It’s magical, really. Ashbery takes a traditional poem and loads it up with excess prose. It’s playing with the magic of language, without having anything to say, or being too smart, or worldly, or sly, to have anything to say. It’s analogous to a businessman who plays with money and has no morals. That’s why Ashbery is dense, but not difficult. The wealthy businessman has no problems, no difficulties—he isn’t looking to solve a problem, just push money around. Perhaps he gambles with his investments, but that’s not ‘problem-solving,’ per se. That’s just playing with money. Maybe he could lose his shirt. But what he does is not solving a problem. But the world is full of gambling businessmen, and the world needs capital. Does poetry needs an Ashbery? Readers don’t need an Ashbery, but if poetry, as a metaphorical device, didn’t have an Ashbery, it would invent one.

You’ve said early Auden sometimes sounds exactly like Ashbery.

Yes, there’s a few poems Auden wrote as a young man which sound like ‘the Ashbery poem,’ the poem we read over and over with Ashbery’s name under it in the New Yorker, next to those wealthy ads, year after year.  It’s the poem that fakes curiosity and interest and then disappears into the smooth lake, a glass surface left in its wake, and if you as the reader complain, if you get the least bit ruffled, you lose, and the poem wins. We  see what a working-class cad you really are. The poem, by its mere being, has found you out. Similarly, if you ask what an abstract painting means, you are found out as a clod. It works the same way. Yea, so early Auden is like Ashbery, but then Auden had ideas, and was far more forthcoming with all sorts of opinions than Ashbery, and pretty quickly then, in the 30s, Auden’s poems, and of course his ballads, had lots of content. If Auden had remained with nothing to say, he would have become the first Ashbery.  But Auden ended up choosing the first Ashbery.

Auden anointed Ashbery with his Yale Younger ‘bring me that fellow’s manuscript who didn’t enter the contest, will you?’ choice.

Yea, and O’Hara was runner-up. Auden knew Ashbery and O’Hara were cartoons of himself; both poets were larks, clever, but they weren’t serious poets, he knew that. But Auden had started out just like them, and Auden had famously said a poet who likes to play with words will be better than someone who merely has ‘things to say,’ and this trope: ‘poetry is how you say it, not what you say,’ is the most important linguistic, artistic,  philosophical, political, rhetorical trope of the modern era. If matter is nothing but negative and positive charges, if communication is nothing but code, if political leaders triumph with style alone, if the secret agent is the true hero of his country and the double agent the true hero of the world, if William James and Wittgenstein were right, if the Language Poets are right, if secret handshakes mean much more than open ones on the count of secrecy alone, if foetry, not poetry is the rule, than certainly how something is said is more important than what is said.

But doesn’t this mean that aesthetics is more important than power?

Power is a given.  Power cannot be beautiful, for the two are distinct.  Beautiful art inspires, it empowers the audience, makes society more beautiful by making its art more beautiful, and there’s always room for more beauty, that problem of putting more beauty in the world, and making citizens more beautiful persons will never go away; the poem of power works quite differently; it takes away the free will of true response and makes the reader non-critical and acquiescent, which is not the same thing as being inspired by beauty, even in a passive way, because the critical response is always inspired when beauty is involved, since we judge beauty and power judges us. Before the abstract painting, or the Ashbery poem, one must rejoice in its lack of beauty and perspective and harmony or be ‘found out’ as a cad.  Modern art works like the secret police.  It finds you out as a worshiper of beauty or not, and knows you, thusly. This is power, because the art does not know anything itself, but it finds out what you know, how you feel, how you think, and thus who you are, in a purely binary way: are you one of us, or not?  In terms of power, in terms of political intelligence, in terms of political organizing, modern art is very, very important in how the world is run, in how the world is classified. Modern art is code.  Aesthetics has nothing to do with it.

But isn’t ‘how you say it” aesthetics, by its definition?  Poets who write with meter and rhyme, for instance, surely are more concerned with how they say it than with what they say.  But the formalist poet is the very opposite of Ashbery.

The formalist poet who only cares about sounds—of which early Auden was an excellent example—is like the Abstract painter who only cares about color. Aesthetics boiled down is abstraction.  The key to poetry isn’t code or abstraction or only ‘how it is said,’ or only ‘what is said,’ but a harmonious combination of all elements.  Power breaks down those elements.  Art and all the virtues are reduced to code where people can say, ‘we have to keep the riff-raff out,’ which is a residue of virtue, since keeping out what is bad is the residue of good, but now it’s coded and we all know what it really means, and the code can be thinned out until only the important people know what it means.

You see poetry as something that ought to match a good society.  But what if poetry isn’t supposed to do that?  What if poetry’s function is to go its own way and if it’s good for society, fine, and if not, well, it’s more important for art to be free to pursue its own path than having to fit into, or contribute to, a virtuous society?

I guess it does sound like I’m making a heavy-handed assertion, one that goes back to Socrates and follows a moral tradition, because it certainly appears that I’m saying that we can only read Ashbery through the lens of a harmonious, or potentially harmonious, society.  But isn’t that what we’re all saying?  Except that some defer the issue to a greater extent than others?  Those who say ‘art must be free’ do not say this because they think it’s a bad idea;  they think it’s a good idea—and ‘good idea’ means here what’s ‘good’ for society.  Even the person who says there should be no society is making an assertion based on the worth of a society.  So all opinions on the value of anything, really, are backed up by the implicit understanding we’re talking about ‘the good’ in the Socratic, ‘Plato’s Republic,’ sense.  Those who would make a fetish of art would deny this bit of common sense: society or ‘the good’ have nothing to do with it, and will never have anything to do with it, they say. The New Critics will claim it only matters if the poem ‘works’ as a poem, and the Ashbery school will essentially say it only matters if it ‘doesn’t work’ as a poem, which is the logical next step, but the phrase “as a poem” can’t possibly have any meaning separate from society, since “as a poem” is a term that implies distinction between ‘poem’ and other things, and, in addition, the “as a” part of the phrase implies the person who intellectualizes that distinction, and once you posit an intellectual person, society quickly follows.

Do you think poetry can be a window into scientific experiments, so in that way it is free of what you are talking about?

I can’t think of any poetry that can be classified that way.  Is there an obscure poem somewhere, beloved of scientists, and no one else?  I can’t think of such a poem, unless perhaps the essay “Eureka,” which Poe called “a poem.”  But this was not the bogus science of a Charles Olson.  Poe can be forgiven for his misnomer, only because his science was real; it concerned the stars, the planets, the nebulae, gravity, light, and the miraculous physics of the heavens.

BATE AND SWITCH: THE INFLUENCE OF ANXIETY

W. Jackson Bate: published a more cogent and comprehensive thesis with the term ‘anxiety of influence’ several years before Harold Bloom did.

Who remembers the specifics of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” argument?

Anyone remember the six types of influence which comprise the central chapters of Bloom’s original book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” published in 1973?

No?

Clinamen (swerving), Tessera (completing), Kenosis (breaking), Daemonization (transcending), Askesis (purging), Apophrades (reversing) don’t ring any bells?

Didn’t think so.

The idea of literary “influence” was certainly not original in 1973.

The actual writing of Bloom’s famous work, “The Anxiety of Influence,” no longer resonates, if it ever did.

Looking back at the last 100 years of American Letters:

Pound set off a series of anarchist bombs, working the little magazine circuit, and things were unsettled for about 20 years.

T.S. Eliot ruled over the ruins for aproximately 40 years.

The critical torch was passed to Harold Bloom about 40 years ago.

The transition to Bloom occured when the New Criticism, famous exactly when Eliot was famous, faded before the twin triumph of the Beats, who survive today in Slam poetry readings, and the ‘new’ poetry—whose post-modernism lives in various academic niches and on Silliman’s blog.

Bloom, difficult and dull, even more so than Eliot—who was at least a poet as well as a critic—is the survivor of the moment, and Bloom is an uncanny best-seller (perhaps because Bloom’s assigned in school a lot).

In a nutshell, then, the critical domain has been divided between Eliot (then) and Bloom (now).

What do Eliot and Bloom have in common, besides the fact they both published virulent attacks on Poe?

The late John Hollander, Bloom’s former colleague at Yale, in his favorable review of The Anxiety of Influence in the New York Times, March 4, 1973, places importance on Bloom, the Romantic, breaking with Eliot, the Modernist:

T.S. Eliot’s conjuror’s patter about the literary tradition that lay behind his–and all of truly modern–poetry invoked the Middle Ages, Dante, 17th-century English literature exclusive of Milton and French symbolism. It diverted his readers’ eyes from the confederate power of Tennyson’s ghost, unacknowledged, assisting him behind a screen. (Eliot’s contemporary, Ezra Pound, was more open about his own stage assistant, Browning’s spirit, as was Yeats about Shelley’s and Blake’s.) In his essay of 1919, Eliot declared that a poet must “develop or procure” a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if we moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they–the dead writers–who constitute what we know.

Harold Bloom of Yale, an interpretive scholar of English and American romanticism, has for years been propounding a view of literary history and its relation to creative originality quite antithetical to the allied formulations of Eliot and Pound. Along with his own teachers, Northrop Frye and Meyer H. Abrams, but in very different ways, Bloom has helped to make the study of Romantic poetry as intellectually and spiritually challenging a branch of literary studies as one may find. The recent study of the romantic tradition has corrected the modernist dogmas about romanticism–the very word evoked the imprecise, the vague, the rhetorical–and argued for the centrality of the major English poetic line which modernism rejected. Eliot hankered after the Christian orthodoxy, classicism and royalty; the tradition he turned away from, the line running from Spenser, to Milton through the romantic poets to Browning, Tennyson and Yeats, was protestant, visionary and, save at its terminus, revolutionary.

–John Hollander, NY Times, 1973

Harold Bloom, then, was a part of a revolt against Modernism and its “dogmas about romanticism,” according to Hollander.

Bloom has said he deeply resented the dominance in Letters of T.S. Eliot, so it makes sense that Bloom’s first major study was on Eliot’s nemesis, Shelley (it is often debated who Eliot reviled more: Poe or Shelley).

Bloom’s chief analogy in The Anxiety of Influence draws on the work of another writer Eliot swerved away from: Milton.

But how does it help a writer to think of himself as Milton’s Satan, and a precursor who may happen to haunt him, Milton’s God?

The entire “Anxiety” agon, as articulated by Bloom in his book, and elsewhere, is merely Bloom’s private vision, peopled with Bloom’s own abstract and scholarly connections.  Hollander hints as much, when he calls Bloom’s book, “maddening,” “dense,” “strange,” and “outrageous.”

Bloom’s idea of “misreading” as a major aspect of “influence” is a truism, for “influence” is never a straight line—if it were, it would be copying.  Bate also covered the exact same ground– in clearer prose.

So if Bloom’s most famous agon has no originality, what, we may ask, was ‘the torch’ that was passed from Eliot to Bloom, in the most general terms?

We already stated both Eliot and Bloom abused Poe, even though Eliot abused Shelley, and Bloom helped save Shelley and the Romantics from abuse by the Modernists.

Since Poe was a major figure abused by the Modernists, it is odd that Bloom would have such hatred for Poe (and we do mean hatred, writing-him-out-of-the-canon hatred) for never mind hating such a giant as Poe in the first place, but how could one have the sensibility to reach out a hand to Shelley, after the Romantic poet’s long abuse at the hands of the Moderns/New Critics, while at the same, joining the Moderns/New Critics in kicking Poe off the cliff?  It doesn’t make sense.

But then we remember Emerson.  Bloom glories in Emerson, a writer who perfectly fits Bloom’s aphorism: “all criticism is prose poetry.”  It is precisely because there is a writer like Emerson that Bloom can secretly believe that he (Bloom) can wear the poet’s crown. Like Bloom, Emerson didn’t like to write reviews, wrote no fiction, didn’t care for science, and is most remembered for lofty, secular, religiously-tinged sermons.

Emerson, in a nasty moment, called Poe’s mastery in all those areas which Emerson came up miserably short, a “jingle,” which, ironically, in the little “influence” game we are playing now, is the same word T.S. Eliot used to deride Shelley.

Another irony, no doubt lost on Bloom, is that Emerson’s New England roots are intertwined with Eliot’s, through Eliot’s highly influential Unitarian grandfather—who married the sister of a Transcendentalist, the group who Poe mocked in his war on the New England of Emerson.

None of this should matter to Bloom, who never brings biography or history into his Criticism, and is essentially like his mentor, Northrup Frye, another Emersonian of over-arching rhetoric.

How can you talk of “influence” without reviewing books and poems, and without talking about history and actual human beings and their actual lives and works?

You can’t.

So Bloom, with his cold-blooded, detached, academic, self-involved, dense, digressive, mythologizing and his Emerson-worship, is not a triumphant return of the Humanist Romantics, but simply the priestly return of T.S. Eliot and the New Critics in a clumsy disguise.  Bloom’s book on Shelley, (published in the 50s) was diversionary, a puff of anti-Eliot smoke.

As Hollander mentioned, Bloom’s other mentor, beside Frye, was M.H. Abrams, the Norton Anthology of Literature founder—that would be someone to know!  Abrams was a deep admirer of Pound and Eliot and a good friend of A.R. Ammons, of whom Bloom just happened to be a great champion, even in his work, The Anxiety of InfluenceIf I’m going to fancy a contemporary, it might as well be Archie Ammons, a good friend of my profoundly influential teacher, Mike Abrams.  Influence, indeed!

Hollander’s scene of Bloom with flag of Romanticism waving is mere hyperbole.  Influence is wet-lipped and real, not merely abstract and mythopoeic.

Thirty years after The Anxiety of Influence, Foetry.com discovered that “influence” is much more local and current than many realize.

Scarriet has gone on to discover that if you study poetry going back a half-a-dozen generations, or further, you keep running into the same dozen or so names: Emerson, William James, I.A. Richards, etc.

The following was taken from an obituary of Pulitzer Prize winning Keats biographer, W. Jackson Bate:

Late in life he worried about increasing academic specialisations. “The humanities,” he remarked to John Paul Russo in a 1986 interview,

are always digressing and they can be used . . . for any purpose. But what is misused in the sciences is the result, whereas the approach in the humanities can be infinitely diverse, and wayward, perverse as well as diverse, foolish, trivial, as the result of airy opinion, impulse, caprice, and can be twisted by . . . envy, rivalry, prejudices of all kinds. [Samuel] Johnson says the first step in greatness is to be honest. If there can be simply a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can almost in a moment shake themselves into sanity.”

–James Engell, Bate obituary, 1999

It might be interesting to take a glance at Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet  (1970) which Hollander cannot help but mention early in his review of Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973).  Hollander must have known, with Bloom, the author, and everyone else involved in the writing and publishing of The Anxiety of Influence, that Bloom was merely following fast behind Bate, who, in turn, was repeating a very old thesis. To read both works (Bate and Bloom) is to be struck by how the work which came first (Bate’s) is far more readable, insightful, and much better researched.  The “influence of anxiety” is here: Bloom robbing from Bate. (Bate’s book even gives cursory thanks to Bloom.) Here is Bate from the first page of his prize-winning book—actually a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Toronto in 1969:

I have often wondered whether we could find any more comprehensive way of taking up the whole of English poetry during the last three centuries—or for that matter the modern history of the arts in general—than by exploring the effects of this accumulating anxiety and the question it so directly presents to the poet or artist: What is there left to do? To say this has always been a problem, and that the arts have still managed to survive, does not undercut the fact that it has become far more pressing in the modern world. Of course the situation is an old one. We need not even start with Rome or Alexandria, those examplars of what it can mean to the artist to stand in competition with an admired past. We could go back to an almost forgotten Egyptian scribe of 2000 B.C. (Khakheperresenb), who inherited in his literary legacy no Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, or Dickens—no formidable variety of literary genres available in thousands of libraries—yet who still left the poignant epigram: “Would I had phrases that were not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” But a problem can more acute under some conditions than others. And, whatever other generalizations can be made about the arts since the Renaissance, a fact with which we can hardly quarrel—though we instinctively resist some of the implicaitons—is that the means of preserving and distributing the literature (and more recently the other arts) of the past have immeasurably increased, and to such a point that we now have confronting the artist—or have in potentia—a vast array of varied achievement, existing and constantly multiplying in an “eternal present.”

We could, in fact, argue that the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness, before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past, has become the greatest single problem that modern art (art, that is to say, since the later seventeenth century) has had to face, and that it will become increasingly so in the future.

–W. Jackson Bate

Compared to Bloom, Bate, the more comprehensive scholar, made the case for “anxiety of influence” before Bloom did, and in a far more clear, urgent, historical, and practical manner, without Bloom’s torturous, mytho-poeic rhetoric—but this is not the place to wonder why Bloom got all the attention.  The influence of Bloom’s mentor, M.H. Abrams, founder of the Norton Anthology, who in turn had been mentored by I.A. Richards, may have had something to do with it, or the fact that Bloom jumped on the Ashbery (and Ammons) bandwagon, which at that moment was where contemporary poetry was heading, but these considerations require more research, even if they are, in a sly way, relevant to the theme of “influence.”

The question is, should there be “anxiety” because of “influence,” and what sort of “influence” are we talking about, anyway?  All poets know that who you know helps you to become famous, and that not knowing the right people will much sooner deny you fame than having easy access to the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Harold Bloom.

As much as we respect W. Jackson Bate, and whether or not you laugh at the pomposity of Bloom, we believe the thesis (as articulated by the old Egyptian scribe, or Bate or Bloom) is bunk.

Literary influence should not cause anxiety, unless by influence you mean: plagiarism, theft, foetry, and other kinds of fakery.

The general question of “anxiety of influence” must have arisen as scholars in the middle of the last century grew uneasy as they noticed how easily and quickly the past had been cut off by the Modernist anarchists.

The crude, anxious, guppie-tank view was expressed by T.S. Eliot (quoted by Bate is his book):

Not only every great poet, but every genuine, though lesser poet, fulfills once for all some possibility of the language, and so leaves one possibility less for his successors.

–T.S. Eliot

When Bloom anxiously took the Critical Crown from an anxious Eliot, it was not a break.

It was a continuation.

KAREN KIPP SHOCKS WORLD AS SHE BEATS NO.1 SEED ROBERT LOWELL

Karen Kipp fans erupt as her upset of Robert Lowell becomes official.

Karen Kipp joined Lisa Lewis in making upset history as she brought down the illustrious Robert Lowell in the first round of the 2011 Scarriet March Madness Tournament, 67-66, in overtime.

Kipp and Lewis still have a long way to go, but all agree they have struck a blow for women—and underdogs—by beating the best, Robert Lowell and John Ashbery.

These poems, “Responsibility” by Lewis and “The Rat” by Kipp, can go all the way: they are both wonderful poems, 16th seed, or no.

“Responsibility” and “The Rat” are both ‘APR poems,’ the kind of poem which favors the paragraph, the striking image, the social vision, a certain unity of narrative and atmospheric effect, over effete formalism and self-conscious experimentation.  In other words, the ‘APR Poem’ represents the common-sense revolution in poetry: poems accessible and expressive in a prose medium, and the best of these poems are like good cinema, an added expressiveness growing around the dead Romantic poem sunk in the ground.

An APR poem, or a ‘paragraph poem,’ succeeds most often when a singular vision is at work, when the poet is imaginatively sincere, and rather than indulging in the freedom of the form, makes it work by fusing various aspects together and acheiving harmony, not chaos.

In this case, the two women showed the men how it’s done: Ashbery and Lowell, though strong in individual parts, could not withstand the women’s grounded harmony.

One Scarriet March Madness official confided, “The guys were great, but they were show-offs.  The women were real.”

Congratulations, Lisa Lewis and Karen Kipp!

Oh, look, Marla Muse is getting all choked up!

MARLA MUSE: Am not!

LISA LEWIS UPSETS ASHBERY! LOWELL STRUGGLES IN OVERTIME AGAINST KIPP!

OK folks, let’s get right to it…In the East… 16th seed Lisa Lewis comes out strong against 1st seed Ashbery, using his own desultory style against him, but with an intensity and focus that hems in his easy-going style and throws him off his rhythm…

RESPONSIBILITY (Lisa Lewis)

It did no good to think, or to stop thinking. It did no good
To think in a straight line, a starburst, or a circle.
It did no good to think driving down the highway,
Or walking alone in a park with live alligators.
It was no use thinking what had happened, or what
Was going to happen. If there’d been one image
She could’ve dreamed to make the thoughts move over,
She would’ve bowed to its significance: a fallen barn
Against empty sky. Sidewalks strewn with clippings
In a suburban neighborhood where the residents walk
After the sun goes down. The silhouette of a man
Straightening his tie. But it did no good to speak,
Or to stop speaking. It did no good to look, or to stop looking.

continued>>>>

LIMITED LIABILITY (John Ashbery)

And one wants to know everything about everything.
Such is my decision, though I will abide by others,
that goes without saying. Still, I fell off the sandbar
walking back towards shore, and that was a time of sorrow,
even of great sorrow, for myself and many others.
No, make that a few others. Whatever I was
trying to do automatically broke the hearts
of those in the seats on either side of mine.
It was wild like weather, yet you couldn’t just live in it,
you had to drool, your facial muscles had to twitch

continued>>>>

Ashbery is really struggling…!  He seems confused…helpless!  Lewis is more in control out there right now…the alligators…the barn…the man straightening his tie…her images are simple and effective, they don’t feel forced, while Ashbery is not passing well at all…oh! there’s another stumble and a turover by Ashbery!  Lewis is using a pressing defense to dominate the usually cool and collected John Ashbery!!

RESPONSIBILITY continued>

Her eyes closed when she felt sleepy, and when she woke
Nothing was different. Her eyes opened when light
Shone through the window; the light was different
From the light that stayed on in the hall at night,
But nothing else was different. If the air was cool
That was the extent of it. If the air was close and warm,
That was the extent of it. She looked at her feet that paced
The wood floor for hours, getting nowhere. She looked
At the shape of her calves, thinner, harder from walking.
She looked at her knees, disappointing knees under
A layer of skin that just got thicker. She saw she had
The legs of an animal; she saw she had the hands
Of an animal. She looked in the mirror and saw she had
The snout of an animal, two holes to breathe through.
That was something to think about; but the trouble
With thinking was it didn’t go anywhere, there was
A shape inside her head like a loaf of bread,
Pressing so things went blurry. Then she thought
It must be time she was looking at, that’s why
She couldn’t see at a distance; she took out her pencil
And made a list of questions. Her animal hand
Scratched marks on paper her animal eyes couldn’t read.
Her animal eyes closed in the darkness, she had worked
Hard without thinking about it, and nothing
Was different. There was nothing to do but wait
For time to catch up. It was going to be a long wait,
What with the moon passing through its phases,
People dying without saying goodbye, decisions made
Without asking permission, and the body still
Just the shell that keeps something alive inside.
If she hadn’t waited so long already, she might’ve learned
To stop thinking about it, but she was in a hurry,
No one else holding, as she did, the hands of time.
It was as if she’d offered to sit by the sickbed of a loved one,
But the illness was long and debilitating, and the mind
Went first; and when the patient died, she wasn’t free
To go, but had to remain by the decomposing body.
It was just an idea she had, to sit by the body; but no one
Was there to release her from her duty, and no one
Could’ve convinced her that wasn’t her proper place.

–Lisa Lewis

LIMITED LIABILITY continued>

at least some of them. About the time the thought
of living in England occurs, and one succeeds in eating a
little asparagus and custard, the old guard revives its dug-in
positions. You knew about these. They were like lace and spring,
they went away but they never really did. They require a content
of mourning, and public relations. If a cock is being sucked
at a certain moment, it will not jiggle the seismograph, provoke regret
from one who is esteemed and dry, but rather break out disjunctedly
in another hemisphere, and people will start reasoning
from there on. The kid was only a gas-station attendant;
he couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen, yet the evening
wind begins promptly to blow, the morbid goddesses sing
that a brooch came undone and pricked one’s finger, all silently:
so much for revanchisme. “But of course.” And like it says here,
cooperation is part of the school of things, only don’t get too close
to overboard, and be burned by the musing that sets in then.
Is that why cows live in clusters, why the foxglove
covers for the hay, and all gets done in a day like it was
supposed to, only there are no more feet to bathe?
I confess I was leery
the first time she told her story
but having heard it enough I can never get enough of what it was determined
should never be shielded from the rain or its attendant wetness;
by the same token they are always with us. Once I started
to count the ways I was indebted to the elk and its house
of night, some old saw had me battling again, kicking up moss
and letting it settle, along with other debris. No
one saw me when I came here; I swear it. You can have a handle
on me now, only don’t abuse it
too much or yet. The sky popped out of the oven
like a tin of blueberry muffins, and there’s so much to say.
Only I don’t feel I’m dry enough. Yet. Take ten,
there’s a good caddy. Go do someone’s bidding,
then meet me under the larch when the storm explodes. I’ll tell you then.

–John Ashbery

And that’s it!  Lewis wins, 56-47, with a swarming D.  Ashbery did come back to tie the contest with 4 minutes left, pulling out everything he had, even sex, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.  Wtith “But of course” it looked like Ashbery was going to get into a relaxed groove and make a run, but he faltered at the end. Lewis stuck to her gameplan throughout, while Ashbery never seemed to have a gameplan—yet everyone thought Ashbery’s talent would be enough.  The third-person “she” really worked well for Lewis, while Ashbery’s second-person was flat and forced: the “you” was never really present for Ashbery.  All of John’s subtle sexual references didn’t do the trick; Lewis showed a vulnerability that felt totally sincere; she was Joe Frazier to Ashbery’s Ali and kept pummeling away, and in the end, it paid off.

Lisa Lewis advances to Round Two.

Now let’s go to Marla Muse at the Robert Lowell v. Karen Kipp contest!

SHIFTING COLORS —Robert Lowell

I fish until the clouds turn blue.
weary of self-torture, ready to paint
lilacs or confuse a thousand leaves,
as landscapes must.

My eye returns to my double,
an ageless big white horse,
slightly discolored by dirt,
cropping the high green shelf diagonal
to the artificial troutpond—
unmoving, it shifts as I move,
and works the whole ridge in the course of a day.

Poor, measured, neurotic man,
animals are more instinctive virtuosi.

Ducks splash deceptively like fish;
fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape.

A hissing goose sways in statuary anger;
purple bluebells rise in ledges on the lake.
A single cuckoo gifted with a pregnant word
shifts like the sun from wood to wood.

All day my miscast troutfly buzzes about my ears
to empy my mind…

But nature is sundrunk with sex—
how could a man fail to notice, man
the only pornographer among the animals?
I seek coolness unimpassioned by my body,
I am too weak to strain to remember, or give
recollection the eye of a microscope. I see
horse, meadow, duck and pond,
universal, consolatory
description without significance,
transcribed verbatim by my eye.

This is not a directness that catches
everything on the run and then expires—
I would write only in response to the gods,
like Mallarme who had the good fortune
to find a style that made writing impossible.

THE RAT  —Karen Kipp

It used to be that the rat was a cynic. It used to be that the rat had trouble believing things. The other rats were ugly, especially his own young, who were pied and pink and whom he wanted to eat, if only his bitch-rat wife would have let him…Then a day came when it was different. A pudgy hand reached into his tank and stuffed the rat into its overcoat. The rat had been shoplifted. Soon he was riding the streets on the shoulder of a two-hundred and fifty pound punk with a sad-looking mohawk. Sometimes, in a dark bar, surrounded by other humans, the punk would stick the rat’s head into the beery cave of his craw. The rat thought he was supposed to be hearing something, but he never did. Eventually the rat had another idea—perhaps it was supposed to be the other way around…The rat put his pointy snout to the punk’s pierced ear. “Turn right, turn right,” whispered the rat, and the punk did. Then, “we’re out of cheese, we need to go to the Quickstop.” Sometimes the rat wanted to be with the humans. The more humans the better. “The Deadwood,” the rat would say, “let’s duck in for a beer.” In the smoky darkness, overlooking the warm mugs and the crowded ashtrays, the rat would say, “see that girl over there, you need to fuck her.” The rat was not a cynic. The rat could believe things. He had discovered his affinity for the other animals, and God, was the world glorious.

A very close contest!  Kipp recalls the art of Durer and Breugel somehow.  Her poem has a coherent narrative, atmosphere, vision.

Lowell’s poem lacks Kipp’s story, her poem’s cave-like unity, but Lowell features better individual lines, and finer observations, such as the exquisite:

“I fish until the clouds turn blue”

or

“…confuse a thousand leaves,/as landscapists must.”

or

“Ducks splash deceptively like fish;
fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape.”

or

“A single cuckoo gifted with a pregnant word
shifts like the sun from wood to wood.”

or

“But nature is sundrunk with sex—
how could a man fail to notice, man
the only pornographer among the animals?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lowell so painterly and astute and sensual and confident in his poetry as this.

“The Rat,” though, is a dark masterpiece, and Lowell, no. 1 seed in the South, and Kipp, the 16th seed, battle to the wire…!!

Lowell has all that experience!  The training with John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, the teaching at Iowa with Paul Engle, the friendship with Bishop, the wives, the Pulitzers…

Lowell is fighting like a madman out there!

But Kipp won’t give up…

I can’t bear to watch!

Oh!  That wasn’t a foul!!!

%^^$$#@!!!((**&&^!!!

Lowell, covered in rat-bites, staggers to the line to shoot two free throws with no time remaining…

Lowell’s not sure which god to pray to…is he praying to William James?

Every fan, every poet, every ex-Catholic, every editor for the New York Review, every celebrity, every one of Allen Tate’s lovers, every goddamn lunatic is on their feet…!

It’s a madhouse inside John Crowe Ransom Arena!!!!

Lowell takes the first shot…

ROBERT LOWELL CELEBRATES BIRTHDAY AS THE NO. 1 SEEDS BEGIN PLAY FOR MARCH MADNESS

tenn

Robert Lowell, the No. 1 Seed in the South, will celebrate his birthday as he rumbles with 16th Seed Karen Kipp.

Kipp’s poem, “The Rat,” is a menacing cartoon.

Lowell’s entry, “Shifting Colors,” is gentler, the water-color version of “The Rat’s” chiaroscuro, but will have no trouble bullying “The Rat.”  You don’t push Lowell around in the paint; maybe he misses from the outside sometimes, but he more than makes up with it with his rebounding.

Both poems use animals and gods to invoke the human.  It’s stunning, really, how similar in approach these poems are.

Will the master, Robert Lowell prevail?

MARLA:  Robert Lowell is a monster.

A monster?

MARLA: That’s all I’m going to say.

Marla, do you think Lisa Lewis has a chance against Ashbery in the East?

MARLA:  Well, she is nervous.  She’s a woman, after all.

Oh, boy…

MARLA: Ashbery’s not worried.  He’s a man…

Let’s talk about the Lewis poem, “Responsibility.”

MARLA: Well, OK.

It’s a raw, painful, vulnerable meditation on existence, pretty bleak….

MARLA:  Meanwhile Ashbery’s poem is breezy, amusing…

I think an upset’s possible…and now let’s look at the other two No. 1 Seed contests!  Seamus Heaney’s “An Iron Spike” v. Jack Myers’ “The Experts” in the North.

MARLA: Iron Spike v. The Experts.  I love it!

And, finally, in the West, Allen Ginsberg’s “The Charnel Ground” v. Howard Moss’ “Miami Beach.”

MARLA: Charming matchup…two little bald men… Charnel Ground v. Miami Beach…nice!

We’ll have more analysis, and of course, show you the poems.  A lot more coming up!

Meanwhile, Marla’s trying not to root for the women.  She’s trying to remain objective…

MARLA: I am.

POETS GATHER TO CELEBRATE MARCH MADNESS

Though eliminated from the 2011 Scarriet Second Annual March Madness Tourney based on the Best Poems from APR, John Berryman spoke, and spoke for a long time.  He insisted quite a few times that he “wasn’t boring and he wasn’t drunk—like some of you out there…” (!!)

John Ashbery seems to actually be paying attention to John Berryman.  He, along with Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, are still waiting to see if they make the final 64 poets playing in this years March Madness Tournament.  They all have poems in The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review, edited by Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.

Harold Bloom’s introduction to The Body Electric is typical Whitmaniacal trash from the esteemed blowhard, and need not be discussed here, for it is wholly uninteresting.  It begins, “This anthology takes its title from Walt Whitman, who shares with Emily Dickinson an aesthetic eminence not quite achieved by even the strongest American poets of the century just ending: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and, as many would add, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and others.”  Oh, please shut up, Harold D. Bloom.  That’s enough from you.  We do not know a single person interested in what Harold Bloom has to say, or ever did.  His cacophony has been tolerated long enough.  Someone throw him out of the building.  He won’t be invited back.  (Though he did perform a serviceable job as commisioner of Scarriet’s 2010 Poetry Baseball League this past summer.  We thank him for that.)  Marla Muse is said to fancy Mr. Bloom, but we believe it is only because  Mr. Bloom once had Camille Paglia in his classroom, and Marla Muse hearts Ms. Paglia.

We’ll have the usual round of interviews with Marla Muse in the weeks to come!

The excitement is growing every day as Scarriet’s 2011 Second Annual March Madness approaches, and fans wonder who will make the tournament!

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