MAKE JOHN CROWE RANSOM GREAT AGAIN

20170530_065251

Helen Vendler’s review of Ben Mazer’s The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (Un-Gyve Press, 2015) in the New York Review of Books last year did not start a Ransom revival. Our nation’s humiliated pundit class has been preoccupied with other issues recently.

When clothes come off and barriers come down, it makes us feel uncomfortable. There are walls and then there are walls. Persons and nations. The law attempts to bar and unite at once. You cannot come in here but of course you can. You will show us what you have but yes you can be clandestine.

We all know a point has no density. It was da Vinci who asserted that a point in geometry is like a zero in mathematics—it is a marker which is crucial for taking up no physical space.

We can argue in abstract realms to much understanding and profit, but when it comes to physical spaces, disputation inevitably turns into a war. Physical means a fight. Abstraction is the only chance for peace. As soon as we talk of physical walls, physical barbarians will be there. Look at the unborn child and the fight over that. Things must be born. But things also must not be born.  Private property enrages the anarchist; the middle classes watched in uncomprehending horror—and still do—as anarchist rage exploded in 20th century modern art—a business run mostly by independently wealthy anarchists; vapid, sharp pieces flying in static-crackling, faux-humble, morally ambiguous terror, causing madness and poetry which goes on for too long, either in the air or in the mind, the paper-thin derangement of the 20th century avant-garde, called at one point “Futurism,” by its Italian fascist wing, but going by all kinds of names in its cult-like fervor, in its simultaneously scattered and focused Margaret Sanger rage, reflecting a world (small place!) which lost its wits (was it 1900? 1850? Who knows?)—in what might be called Britain’s Revenge Against America, the slick British Empire, with its singular, secular, modern reach. The Empire’s genocide against the Irish, India, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, the Opium Wars against the Chinese, the tacit support of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, barging gloriously into World War One to kill the Huns, appeasing the Nazis, and finally turning the United States of America into a CIA Deep State image of its self. That lawyer-clever, Ivy League, leafy-quiet Empire. That one. The one run by London. Divide to conquer. Plant bombs secretly and don’t say a word. White Boss Man Workshop subverting and subduing nations for their raw materials. “We shall write National Geographic. You shall be in it.” Write the history. Make the history. The British Empire on which the fake sun never sets.

The 20th century avant-garde began its rise during World War One, and grew along with German and Japanese militarism, haiku prose poetry, primitive painting, hideous Brutalist architecture, and atonal music in the 1920s and 30s.

As this horror successfully rose, these gradually fell: Platonist/Judeo-Christian philosophy, the glories of Greece and Rome, Renaissance art and poetry, Pope and Byron, and everything splendid which had gone before. Poe said poetry belonged to beauty, but the 20th century disagreed.

In a valuable new edition which collects all of John Crowe Ransom’s poems in one place for the first time, the editor Ben Mazer, in his restrained and sage introduction, focuses on self-conscious self-censorship and revision, of a poet’s own work, over time. The poet, in this case, Ransom, the boy from Tennessee who went off to fight in the Great War and study Greek and Latin at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, treats his poems very much as if they were written by somebody else. Ransom never included poems from his first volume, Poems About God, (Holt, 1919) in Selected editions of his poetry, even though Robert Graves asked to reproduce them, and they were full of fascinating lines and themes.

John Crowe Ransom—and we find this out from Mazer’s now definitive edition—also wrote exceptional poems never collected at all. There’s something strangely half-hidden about this placid Southerner, hyper-explaining essayist, enterprising editor, and slightly mad, gifted poet.

Ransom’s poems are not formalist in a boring way—erratic at times, but even when they are not great, they are beautiful and creepy:

The swimmer’s body is white and clean,
It is washed by a water of deepest green
The color of leaves in a starlight scene,
And it is as white as the stars between.

(from the first poem in Ransom’s first book, “The Swimmer”)

John Crowe Ransom, in his highbrow formalism, overall learning and philosophical acumen, the central place as essayist, theorist, editor and mentor of Modernism in the American mode, the leader of Middle America Modernism—not only as a New Critic, not only as one of the academic leaders of the Creative Writing Program movement, but as poet, editor, philosopher, essayist—is as vital as Pound, (and more accessible and philosophically rigorous); and it is high time, not just for the sake of American Letters, but all Letters, that we, as literary and practical Americans, end the neglect of John Crowe Ransom.

But before we resurrect Ransom, there’s something we need to get out of the way. It has to do with tribal politics—which the British Empire has always exploited and gloried in, on the way to its phenomenal divide-and-conquer success.

In “Under the Locusts,” the 14th poem of Ransom’s first book—published when the highly respected Ransom, a World War One veteran, a school teacher, professor, a Rhodes Scholar with a Masters degree from Oxford University, was 31 years old—we have this stanza

Grinny Bob is out again
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

Perhaps this passage is why John Crowe Ransom, despite being the most important and influential poet/critic in 20th century American Letters, a Bollingen poetry prize winner in 1951 (the same controversial prize Pound won when he escaped hanging for treason), founding editor of the Kenyon Review, mentor to Jarrell and Lowell, the intellectual leader of New Criticism, author of iconic poems and essays which define Modernism better than any other—has been neglected and nearly forgotten.

Controversy has certainly not covered up Pound—who has many admirers.

“Blue Girls” by Ransom may be the only truly perfect poem in existence. (Mazer’s edition gives the two distinct versions, the 1924 original, and the great revised one from Ransom’s 1945 Selected.) Pound never wrote anything as good.

But to return to Ransom’s embarrassing stanza:

Robert Graves—editing and reprinting Ransom’s Poems About God as Grace After Meat in 1923—did not reprint all the poems in Poems About God, in Grace After Meat. Ransom sent a revised and partial copy of his first book to Graves, including “Under the Locusts.” Graves chose to reprint “Under the Locusts.” Ransom, having made a number of subtle changes to the poem, kept the “nigger” stanza intact, except for one slight alteration of the punctuation.

Grinny Bob is out again,
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

According to Ransom’s New Criticism idea, one shouldn’t or (cannot?) read poetry when one is bothering with the intent or the milieu of the author.  This prohibition certainly becomes stretched when looking at this stanza. Perhaps the poem does not reflect the poet’s feelings, but that of the “old men” in the poem. Then, perhaps, the New Criticism (and true poetry) triumphs and Ransom is off the hook? Here’s the poem in full:

What do the old men say,
Sitting out of the sun?
Many strange and common things,
And so would any one.

Locusts are sweet in spring
For trees so old and tough;
Locust trees give sorry shade,
Hardly good enough.

Dick’s a sturdy little lad
Yonder throwing stones;
Agues and rheumatic pains
Will fiddle on his bones.

Grinny Bob is out again,
Begging for a dime;
Niggers haven’t any souls,
Grinning all the time.

Jenny and Will go arm in arm,
He’s a lucky fellow;
Jenny’s cheeks are pink as rose,
Her mother’s cheeks are yellow.

War is on, the paper says,
Wounds and enemies:
Now young gallivanting bucks
Will know what trouble is.

Parson’s coming up the hill,
Meaning mighty well;
Thinks he’s preached the doubters down,
And why should old men tell?

(Grace After Meat, 1923)

Auden said of Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” The same could be said of Ransom, whose poetry often matches Yeats for poignancy and beauty: the mad American South hurt Ransom into poetry. But this is a cynical view—though most love that Auden quote. Ireland isn’t mad. America isn’t mad. The British Empire is mad. Or, we’re all mad.

Ransom and the Tennessean New Critics, before they assumed the New Critic name and mantle, defended, in 1930, the pre-Civil War, agrarian, American South in their prose anthology I’ll Take My Stand.

Later, in 1937, the evolving Fugitives—the Fugitive was Ransom’s poetry club and small magazine when he was a student at Vanderbilt—as they were turning into the New Critics—championed Pound’s haiku prose modernism in their text book Understanding Poetry. 

Brooks and Warren were the New Critic editors of the influential text; the two writers were close associates of Ransom, and we’ll never know precisely how Ransom felt about their book—which, trying to look forward, perhaps, not only praised the crackpot Pound in its pages, but outright condemned the Southern formalist Poe (obviously an influence on the poet, Ransom), copying an attack by the English critic Aldous Huxley—who ridicules at some length the rhythmic magic of “Ulalume.”

This was the same decade—the 1930s—which saw Pound’s friend T.S. Eliot give his speech against Jews at the University of Virginia. After Eliot intervened to help his friend Pound in 1945, he would attack Poe in “From Poe to Valery” in 1949. Ransom’s reputation as a poet—no doubt given a boost by his Bollingen win in 1951, (and it was every poet’s desire to be published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review during the 1950s—it was practically Plath’s highest dream)—nevertheless continued to fall: either his poetry was too similar to Poe’s, or the newer, more progressive, post-1945, Modernists couldn’t face down “Under the Locusts.”

The New Critics generally revised their reactionary views, like many Modernists, after the Nazis were soundly defeated in 1945.

The Agrarians quixotically played into the hands of the old British Empire.

Ransom and the Agrarians, in their love of the bucolic, explicitly decried American industrial capitalism—the one thing which allowed the U.S  to be strong, independent, and free of the British Empire.

The reactionary politics, and the “Empire” context we are putting it in, is not meant to be definitive, and can be seen as insidious, but just as easily it can be seen as quaint; Ransom was complex, and smarter than his fellow New Critics; over the symbolic mural of both politics and modernism, social and theoretical, Ransom was subtle, sage, and adept, equally facile at discussing religion or the impressionistic poetry of Wallace Stevens.

It would be unfair to see Ransom as only a “Southern” writer, as Poe is often cheaply and unfairly characterized. Critics too quick to make geography in literature paramount betray themselves as the most shallow kind.

Ben Mazer wisely avoids all controversial speculation; like the good scholar he is, Mazer sticks to the facts before him, and provides a bountiful treasure of a book in his Collected Ransom, replete with wonderful appendixes.

Speaking of Wallace Stevens (d. 1955), whose fame rose as Ransom’s fizzled, (Helen Vendler held aloft the Stevens torch; nothing equivalent was done for Ransom), there is a poem in Ransom’s second collection (Chills and Fever, 1924) which bears comparison to Stevens’ well-known “Peter Quince,” published in Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, in 1923.

“Peter Quince” debuted in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others magazine in 1915; not a free-verse poem, as it should have been, in those early revolutionary days, but it passed muster with Pound and Williams’ Kreymborg’s clique, evidently, because of its risqué sexual nature. Stevens was never a popular poet—too abstract and professorial, the “lecture” often spoiling the music; Stevens never quite succeeded the way Frost did, in being “wise” in a relaxed, “contemporary” manner, and, exactly like Ransom, there was in Stevens’ poetry often that hint of the old-fashioned, which condemns the poet to artificially-clever-and-imitative purgatory—even if the beauty of the poems slaughters the meager prose rantings of everyone else. After the passage of much time, we realize: this isn’t old-fashioned, it’s good. The poetry becomes safe to like. This should happen to Ransom—at least, if not more, interesting than his contemporaries.

John Crowe Ransom’s “Judith of Bethulia” owns passages which remind one of “Peter Quince,” and in its precise stanzaic structure, lacks the trembling, insouciant, and exquisite music Stevens brings—and yet, Ransom’s poem has a more focused, coherent, and haunting narrative. Ransom, unlike Stevens, provides no lesson on “beauty;” instead Ransom’s “Bethulia” is immersed in a number of factual things, of which beautiful pathos is the unspoken and shimmering crown.

Judith of Bethulia

Beautiful as the flying legend of some leopard
She had not yet chosen her great captain or prince
Depositary to her flesh, and our defense;
And a wandering beauty is a blade out of its scabbard.
You know how dangerous, gentlemen of threescore?
May you know it yet ten more.

Nor by process of veiling she grew the less fabulous.
Grey or blue veils, we were desperate to study
The invisible emanations of her white body,
And the winds at her ordered raiment were ominous.
Might she walk in the market, sit in the council of soldiers?
Only of the extreme elders.

But a rare chance was the girl’s then, when the Invader
Trumpeted from the south, rumbled from the north,
Beleagured the city from four quarters of the earth,
Our soldiery too craven and sick to aid her—
Where were the arms could countervail this horde?
Her beauty was the sword.

She sat with the elders, and proved on their bleak visage
How bright was the weapon unrusted in her keeping,
While he lay surfeiting on their harvest heaping,
Wasting the husbandry of their rarest vintage—
And dreaming of the broad-breasted dames for concubine?
These floated on his wine.

He was lapped with bay-leaves, and grass and fumiter weed,
And from under the wine-film encountered his moral vision,
For even within his tent she accomplished his derision;
She loosed one veil and another, standing unafraid;
And he perished. Nor brushed her with even so much as a daisy?
She found his destruction easy.

The heathen are all perished. The victory was furnished,
We smote them hiding in our vineyards, barns, annexes,
And now their white bones clutter the holes of foxes,
And the chieftain’s head, with grinning sockets, and varnished—
Is it hung on the sky with a hideous epitaphy?
No, the woman keeps the trophy.

May God send unto our virtuous lady her prince.
It is stated she went reluctant to that orgy,
Yet a madness fevers our young men, and not the clergy
Nor the elders have turned them unto modesty since.
Inflamed by the thought of her naked beauty with desire?
Yes, and chilled with fear and despair.

For our money, this is better than Pound, and rivals Stevens.  What’s not to love here?

Buy Mazer’s book. Read Ransom’s poetry. And Ransom’s prose, too. Ransom doesn’t just write about New Criticism, or the South.  To begin, we suggest two of Ransom’s great Modernist essays in Garrick Davis’ Praising It New.

If Ransom is to be revived, Ben Mazer, with his wonderful, scholarly, edition of the collected poems, has done something very important.

Advertisements

FEBRUARY POEMS BY BEN MAZER, REVIEWED

Image result for feb poems mazer

As the shadows lengthen on American poetry in the 21st century, one is naturally prepared to think there was a noisy, sunny noon of poetry with noisy, popular poets.

But there never was such a thing.

We had, in our early days, the British imitators: William Cullen Bryant, (friend to Lincoln) with his “Thanatopsis”; the splendid, dark Poe; dashing in his prose but solemn and brief in his poetry; Emerson and Thoreau asserting nature, not poetry, in due obeisance to the arrogant British idea that her late colony was still a wilderness; Whitman secretly reviewing his own poems, waving a private Emerson letter in the public’s face as way of validation, but Whitman was almost as obscure as Dickinson—no, America has had no sunny noon of poetry; Ben Franklin, the diplomat-scientist-founding father, representing our mighty nation of pragmatists, had little use for the muse.

To put things in historical perspective:

Emily Dickinson caught on with modern critics as a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s.

Billy Collins was born in 1941.

A few years after Billy Collins was born, Ezra Pound—friend to both anglophilic “Waste Land” and haiku-like “Wheel Barrow”—caused a brief stir as a traitor in an Allied cage. The New Critics liked Eliot, Pound, and Williams and gave them critical support, some notice. Otherwise they had probably died. And the canon would be ruled instead by the wild sonneteer, Edna Millay, the Imagist, Amy Lowell, perhaps the cute scribbler E.E. Cummings.

The New Critics, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the Creative Writing Program Era, all began to flower in the late 1930s/early 1940s, around the time Collins was born—and, a few years earlier, you had Frost (discovered in England, not New England, right before the First World War, as Harriet Monroe was starting Poetry with money from Chicago businessmen—and help from foreign editor Ezra Pound) and then another generation back, you have the end of Whitman’s obscure career. And then a couple generations further back, the often disliked, and controversial, Poe, who mocked the somewhat obscure Transcendentalists—including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Unitarian friend, William Greenleaf Eliot,  founder of Washington University in St. Louis, T.S. Eliot’s grandfather.

So not only is there no noisy noon of American poetry, no period when gigantic dinosaurs of American Verse ruled the earth, one could almost argue that we are still in the early morning of our country’s poetic history, way before noon—the noon has not even happened yet, as much as we often posit that American poetry is an abandoned field at sundown, where the 21st century MFA mice are playing.

Even if good poetry abounds in America today, it has no center, no fame, no visible love; Billy Collins, who sells a few books, was a teen when Allen Ginsberg, son of poet Louis Ginsberg, who knew WC Williams, achieved a bit of rock star fame through an obscenity trial. Allen Ginsberg has been dead for 20 years.

What of poets born after 1950?

Who knows them?

Where are the biographies and critical studies?

How can the greatest country on earth have no poets anyone really knows, for two whole generations?

Who is a young poet that we know?

Is the thread broken?  Is the bowl shattered? Will the sun never shine on this doorway again? What has happened to American poetry?

This sobering preface of mine (some might call it too sweeping and hysterical) is written by one who is proud to announce his critical study of the poet Ben Mazer is soon to be published by the noteworthy Pen and Anvil Press.

Who is Ben Mazer?

Born in 1964, he is the best pure poet writing in English today.

We use the word “pure” knowing the term is sometimes abused—Robert Penn Warren ripped Poe and Shelley to pieces in a modern frenzy of “purity” hating: sublime and beautiful may also, complexly, mean “pure.”  The heart has its reasons for loving purity—which all the Robert Penn Warren essays in the world can never understand (the essay we have in mind by Warren is “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Kenyon Review, ed. John Crowe Ransom, 1943—when Billy Collins was two years old).  If “beautiful and sublime” seem too old-fashioned, too “pure” for one’s taste, I assert “purity” as it pertains to Mazer means 1. accessible 2. smooth 3. not tortured.

Mazer has published numerous books of poems.

Mazer is also the editor of a number of important books, including the Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom (a neglected, but extremely influential figure)—Mazer’s large book reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYR last year.

February Poems is Mazer’s latest book of poems, following hard upon December Poems. The two are a pair—marking the sudden unraveling of an ideal marriage.

The first poem in “February Poems” goes like this:

The sun burns beauty; spins the world away,
though now you sleep in bed, another day
brisk on the sidewalk, in your camel coat,
in another city, wave goodbye from the boat,
or study in an archival library,
like Beethoven, and thought is prodigy.
Do not consume, like the flowers, time and air
or worm-soil, plantings buried in the spring,
presume over morning coffee I don’t care,
neglect the ethereal life to life you bring.
O I would have you now, in all your glory,
the million-citied, Atlantic liner story
of what we were, would time come to forget
being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.

This poem falls from the first word to the last with a temporal perfection not seen since Milton. One may recognize Robert Lowell, too, who was somewhat besotted with Milton—Mazer’s better than Robert Lowell—who, as a poet and a man, was seldom sane or honest, and was, frankly, a creep. Mazer, I know, will gladly accept the Lowell comparison; but as his critic, I assert Mazer is a more genuine person, and is quite a bit better as a poet.

Look at how in “The Sun Burns Beauty,” every line is packed with sublimity discretely spoken, none the less sublime for the discretion:

“The sun burns beauty.”  Lovely double meaning. Consumes beauty, but also is beautiful. “Burns” quickly gives way to “spins,” as the poem, like a heavenly orb, picks up weighty speed: “another day, brisk on the sidewalk…wave goodbye…” the stunning plea: “Do not consume…presume I don’t care…neglect the ethereal life to life you bring…” and the conclusion, worthy of a sun which is burning beauty: “O I would have you now…of what we were, would time come to forget being so rich and passing, and yet not covet.”  Magnificent.  How long have we waited for poetry like this?   It’s truly timeless in the tradition—a word we can use without any qualification or irony.

We mentioned purity above; another way of getting across what I mean is Mazer’s use of Eliot’s Objective Correlative.

Eliot’s Objective Correlative is not a blackboard term for Mazer; it lives in his poetry. Eliot asked that the poem’s emotion match the object. Eliot’s request is a simple one: the reader doubts the poem’s veracity if the poet is unduly excited by a mundane object.

The poet’s emotions tell him what to say; and it is with our emotions we read the poem.

Much is made in poetry (naturally) of the skill in using words—Mazer clearly has a wonderful vocabulary and all that; yet also, in Mazer’s poetry, fact does match feeling; it’s not a word-game—Mazer’s trajectory isn’t words.  Mazer understands the Objective Correlative.

T.S. Eliot represents the Modernist counter to the perceived hyperbolic imbalance of the Romantics: Wordsworth getting terribly excited by a flower, Byron yawning at the end of the world—it cuts both ways.

Eliot’s objective critical dictum was a correction—and Mazer, who, in many ways, is Romanticism redux, instinctively, now, well into the 21st century, obeys Eliot’s dictum—but flexibly.

We’ve got Wordsworth and his famous dictum from “Lyrical Ballads:” poetry helps us to see the mundane as extraordinary, using plain speech, which goes against Eliot’s rule—and Mazer is not only a Robert Lowell, an Eliot, but a Wordsworth.

Mazer sounds Modern.

As he revives Romanticism.

And, I dare to say, the Enlightenment—when the Metaphysicals provided poetry heft and light.

Revival is always open to the charge of retrograde.

But how many layers of post-modern experimentation are there?

Before the public gets bored?

Oh, yes, that happened about 75 years ago.  When Billy Collins was born. And critics were rising to an appreciation of Emily Dickinson.

John Ashbery, born in 1927, had a head start on Mazer—Ashbery added Romantic verbosity to Modern dryness, irony, archness, in a painterly, foggy mix of not quite making sense. Mazer, if it must be said plainly, is a little better than Ashbery. Mazer does make sense.

The poems in Mazer’s February Poems do not, for the most part, have titles—to the worshiper who would carry around this book of love, like a holy book of some sorts, the page numbers will suffice to identify the great passages within.

These lines which begin the poem on page 7 speak out plainly and passionately but with the greatest mystery:

All grand emotions, balls, and breakfasts,
make little sense, if nothing lasts,
if you should leave the one you love,
inexplicable as Mozart’s star above

This passage at the top of page 8, a new poem, may be a statement for the ages:

The living are angels, if we are the dead in life
and immaculate beauty requires discerning eyes
and to ask incessantly who you are
is both our strength and doubt in faith, to know
what we must appear within ourselves to know:
that we do love each other, that we know who each other is
by putting ourselves in the hands and the eyes of the other,
never questioning the danger that rides on words
if they should misstep and alter a logical truth,
or if they should signify more than they appear to,
whether dull, indifferent, passionate, deeply committed
or merely the embodiment of a passing mood,
some lack of faith in ourselves we attempt to realize
through the other who remains steadfast in all the flexibility of love.

This is stuff which could be read at weddings on top of mountains around the world.

The poem which resides at page 15 goes like this, (and observe how “love” in the first line both is invaded, and invades, the “fiercest passion”—as Mazer has crafted the syntax):

The fiercest passion, uncommon in love,
yearns to be understood, do incalculable good;
must penetrate the beloved’s eyes, give rise
to beauty unmatched anywhere above.

Note the lovely internal rhyming: “understood and good” in line 2, “eyes” and “rise” in line 3, are but two examples.

We’ll continue with the whole poem, “The fiercest passion, uncommon in love:”

Infinite stasis exploring tenderness,
substantially is the basis of all bliss,

“Infinite stasis exploring tenderness” !!

although ethereal, indelible,
not subject to the chronologic fall.
And yet vicissitudes will upset this,
and forces will keep true lovers apart
too many years, breaking the sensitive heart,
that pours its passion in undying letters,
while hope’s alive to break the social fetters,
incalculable agonies poured into great art.
Bribes the organist, locks the door,
unwilling to suffer any more,
must make his grand statement to the world,
all his grief, anger, and love hurled
back at the gods which all his genius spited;
his biography says love was unrequited.
We live in the shadow of his despair,
grief so great, where there is nothing there.

And here it ends. This is not egotistical…”We live in the shadow of his despair” refers to the “shadow” of the poem itself (its inky visage) living to the readers as they read, and the “grief” of the poet is “so great,” the poem disappears (“nothing there”)—the very opposite of egotistical; it is grief conveyed powerfully.

The entire book—February Poems—contains lines such as these—which belong to an expression of love poetry rarely seen.

The poems range from greatest bliss:

The moonlight is incomprehensible.
My lover’s lips are soft and rosy pink.
Who could understand love which transfigures night,
when night itself does the transfiguring?
She sleeps. Awake, I hold her in my arms,
so soft and warm, and night is beautiful.

…In sleep she moans and shifts, embracing me.
I can’t budge from where I lie, but am content.

(excerpt from poem on pg. 16)

To acute despair, not merely told, explained, but in the poetry itself, lived:

The vanishing country roads have vanished.
There, the steep descent into the new, different town.
We are together, and we look around.
What are these flags and trees that grasp and clutch
the infinite progress of our former selves,
of love so great that it must be put away,
not where we left it, but where we can’t reach;
why should eternity itself miss you so much?
The music of a thousand kinds of weather
seep into the trees, sweep into the leaves that brush
your shoulder lightly where I left my heart,
once, long ago, when we first made our start
to drive so many miles to here together.
But where is here? The place we are apart.

(poem, “Vanishing country roads,” pg 64)

To pure sublimity and beauty and joy:

The greatest joy known to mortal man,
shall live beyond us in eternity.
Catching you ice-skating in mid-motion,
cheeks flush, winter pristine in our hearts,
ineffable, permanent, nothing can abolish,
when the deep forest, buried in snow’s white
holds the soul’s eternal solitude,
when, melting coming in, each particular
that stirs the senses, is the flight of man
to unspoken urgencies, garrulous desire
continually fulfilled, the captured stances
that drift like music in the light-laced night,
shared words in murmurs soft as downy sky,
the stars observe with their immortal eye.
Furious, presto-forte homecoming
races into the eyes and fingertips,
confirming and commemorating bells
resounding with our vulnerable desire
in momentary triumph that’s eternal.
Life passes on to life the raging stars,
resonances of undying light.
All years are pressed together in their light.

(“The greatest joy known to mortal man” pg 17)

We wish for a whole generation of young readers to spring up, profoundly and happily in love—following in the footsteps of Mazer, in his growing fame, in his mourning—clinging fast to their torn and re-smoothed copies of February Poems.

 

 

BLACK SUN PRESS AND THE SUPPRESSED, DIONYSIAN SIDE OF MODERNISM

image

Millay: Official Modernism hated her: a leftist woman who rhymed and loved.

The revolt of Modernism in poetry against Victorian decorum was complex and extensive, and featured a great deal of sex.

So why is one tale told? The one dominated by the limp, morbid barrenness of sexless, Shelley-hating, T.S. Eliot—and that dry-as-dust, boring, petals-on-a-black-bough-red-wheel-barrow poetry?

Is this why poetry today finds itself in a cul de sac, without a public, in the ruins of a Creative Writing pyramid scheme which has collapsed into piecemeal, self-promoting, illiteracy?

Modernism in the early 20th century was dominated by powerful femme fatale poets—and yet the one female poet included in the accepted Story of Modern Poetry is: the brittle, spinsterish, Marianne Moore!

The revolt against the Victorian—as the Modern Poetry history has been written, codified, and solidified is so…Victorian.

Not that we care about sex, per se; we just find it interesting how things played out.

The Victorians—which the wild, crazy and free Moderns rebelled against (one can include Emily Dickinson as a Victorian, since she wrote and lived in that era, if one wants) —were actually bolder in their poetry than the Modernist rakes and waifs (Eliot, Pound, Moore, Stevens, Williams) who successfully overcame the now largely forgotten Victorian/Romantic influence, and succeeded them. The Victorians are far more enjoyable to read (and they sold much better in their day, too).

Maybe that’s the rub: enjoyable. Sexual excess, or enjoyment of any kind, wasn’t the ticket to become canonized in the schools: the Modernist revolution had to seem safely aesthetic—a topic for professors, in order to gain a footing in academia, since despite their “rebellious nature,” legitimate inclusion was what the successful ones were after. That meant the Moderns had to be writing a “new” kind of poetry. Even though it was boring, and the public didn’t care for it.

The fussy, heavily brocaded, Victorian, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—who wrote some really exceptional poetry which has been ignored and shut away for a century—became a wife in a secret elopement to Italy.

The leader of the Modernist rebellion, T.S. Eliot, a lifelong virgin, shut away his wife forever.

Here we have two stories presented side by side:

Modern poetry is not the story of a door opening; but of a door shutting—on so much of what was pleasing about the 19th century—but also on the alternative, Dionysian, Romantic side of 20th century modernism, too.

Eliot appealed to poets who couldn’t get laid.

True, Edna St. Vincent Millay got old.

And died.

But everyone gets old and dies.

There was a whole Modernist movement which exploded right after World War One, before, during, and after the publication of the morbid “Waste Land,” a different modernist movement which frightened guys like Eliot—led by brash young women and featuring Persian love and Poe and Hindu sex. (One of these types of women even married Tom Eliot, and—are we surprised?—it was a complete disaster.)

Here is the critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Van Doren, writing in Harper’s in the 1930s about America’s great moral transformation during the Age of High Modernism as WW I came to a close; he does not talk about Pound or Eliot. He talks about Edna St. Vincent Millay:

At home the old-fashioned family had broken up. The young could get into automobiles and almost at once be miles away. They could go to the movies and at once be worlds away. Dress and speech had become informal in the emergency of the War. The chaperon had disappeared. Boys leaving to be killed, it might be, had claimed the right to see their girls alone, and the sexes had drawn together in a common need and daring. After the War they were still not divided. The sexes would be comrades, they thought.

The early poems of Edna Millay are the essence of the Younger Generation.

How this genii—real Modernist poetry—was put away in its bottle is certainly a staggering historical fact, but something there is in us now that makes us want to let it out again.

To get a strong whiff from that bottle is just a google click away.

Search “Black Sun publisher Harry Crosby.”

You want real modern poetry?

Not Williams. Not Eliot. Not Stevens. Not those guys the clammy hand professors teach you in school.

You want the true modern poetry of that era? Take a swig of the drink, Harry Crosby.

The story of Modern poetry which has been sold to us: that Pound and Williams and Moore are the vital pieces, is without aesthetic merit, and its virtue is really that of a particular school program, and it exists as just that—a story—told by the critics and poets and historians who invested (and are still invested) in the Writing Program as the only viable institution of post-war pedagogy.

Government oversight of education, the publishing of textbooks, the editorship of periodical literature, the purse strings of grants and prizes and forums and money and awards, fell into the hands of the New Critics and their allies: John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot both belonging to the same generation of early Modernism—and not just poetry, but art, music, fashion, government, war, the architecture/building trades, espionage, banking, international in outlook—and all the more effective because it was run by pals, a tight-knit group. Of course it is much too extensive to detail here. But very briefly then:

John Quinn, attorney, art collector, British intelligence, worked with Eliot and Pound to negotiate publication of “The Waste Land” (with pre-purchases) so Eliot would win the Dial Prize even before Pound had finished his edits—Quinn, the same individual most responsible (even getting an export bill passed in the U.S. Congress) for the Armory show, which brought Modern Art to America—Eliot wins, and meanwhile, purchase of the new art by insiders is highly, highly lucrative.  Who wouldn’t want to be in on all that phenomenal networking? Eliot and Pound certainly were. Without Quinn’s work behind the scenes, who knows if Americans would even know of Eliot, or Duchamp, or Picasso? Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom’s right-wing Southern Agrarian/New Critic associate, reviews “The Waste Land” favorably, helps start the Creative Writing program at Princeton. Paul Engle, the father of the Program Era at Iowa, is given his Yale Younger Prize for his MFA poetry book—by a judge who is a member of Ransom’s New Critic group from the early Fugitive magazine days at Vanderbilt. Robert Lowell, as Creative Writing teacher at Iowa, is the first “poet-teacher star” of the Program Era; Lowell’s psychiatrist happens to be another member of Ransom and Tate’s circle, who recommends Lowell leave Harvard to befriend Tate and Ransom, which he does. We see that all the annual Dial Magazine Prize winners in the 1920s become the canonized Modern poets: Eliot, Williams, Pound, Moore (and Cummings, who ends up running off with the Dial editor’s wife). Ford Maddox Ford, War Propaganda Minister during World War I in England, the first to meet Pound off the boat when the latter leaves America for England, will later cross the Atlantic to help start the Writing Program Era with Ramsom and Tate.

We do not present this information as some nefarious plot; the world was smaller then; we present it languidly, merely as a picture of the clever ambitions of the cleverly ambitious, who were in the right place at the right time, and who happened to possess a certain amount of talent: Eliot, in poetry, the most brilliant. John Crowe Ransom, just from his two essays which Ransom published in the 1930s, “Criticism, Inc.” and “Poets Without Laurels,”— a blueprint for universities taking up the official role of teaching the new writing, and the best explanation of amoral Modernism—was a close second.

But as we said, these were the brilliant architects who made themselves and their “new” Modern identity—an austere looseness, a dryness, a deathly cynicism—the accepted mode for the university, and it required tweedy, learned, respectability to make it happen, even as it was Shelley and Byron hating—which guys like Eliot and Tate and Ransom, with their brilliance, learning and inside track, provided.

But what of the vast majority of the Modernists, who impulsively did what true rebels do?

These “lesser” moderns crossed paths with the more successful ones, such as Pound—but they lived for the poetry, for the revolt, for the sex. These were the Moderns who wrote beautiful love poems and threw themselves off ships, as Pound and Eliot grew old and famous. What of these “lesser” moderns? Many of these “lesser” moderns, some more respectable and less feverish than others, kept writing poetry that rhymed, made sense, and repeated the great, old themes that never die. What of them? Should we continue to bury them?

And speaking of revolt, we are not simply advocating here for the resurrection of an alternative clique of poets who worked between the wars in the hectic days of the early 20th century. This is about more than that. It is about shedding narrow, modernist aesthetic bias and embracing great poems of all eras, and having the guts to call a bad poem a bad poem, even if it was written by William Carlos Williams. Look at this poem by the currently suppressed 19th century poet Elizabeth Barrett; the way she uses “revolt” is timeless, and will break your heart:

Little Mattie

Dead! Thirteen a month ago!
Short and narrow her life’s walk.
Lover’s love she could not know
Even by a dream or talk:
Too young to be glad of youth;
Missing honor, labor, rest,
And the warmth of a babe’s mouth
At the blossom of her breast.
Must you pity her for this,
And for all the loss it is—
You, her mother with wet face,
Having had all in your case?

Just so young but yesternight,
Now she is as old as death.
Meek, obedient in your sight,
Gentle to a beck or breath
Only on last Monday! yours,
Answering you like silver bells
Lightly touched! an hour matures:
You can teach her nothing else.
She has seen the mystery hid
Under Egypt’s pyramid.
By those eyelids pale and close
Now she knows what Rhamses knows.

Cross her quiet hands, and smooth
Down her patient locks of silk,
Cold and passive as in truth
You your fingers in spilt milk
Drew along a marble floor;
But her lips you can not wring
Into saying a word more,
“Yes” or “no,” or such a thing.
Though you call and beg and wreak
Half your soul out in a shriek,
She will lie there in default
And most innocent revolt.

None of Eliot’s “escape from emotion” here.

Poe said poetry was mostly mathematical—and he was correct, since rhythm is essential to expressive speech, whether metrical, or not—and mathematics is essential to quantity associated with rhythm. Eliot carried this formula further and mistranslated it to mean lack of feeling—quantity, after all, is not associated with feverish human emotion; but it is not emotion, but its expression which matters to the poet—so Eliot is only partly correct, and when his half-truth was received as a truth, it created a race of poets who turned their back on so-called “sentimental” poetry, such as this example of Elizabeth Barrett’s, a tender and beautiful poem banned by 20th century professors because of its excess “emotion” and “sentiment.” The schools are wrong. The amateurs are correct. The expression of feeling should not to be avoided in the art of poetry. More feeling isn’t better, necessarily, but it is never necessary that feeling (we mean its expression) be critically censored.

We think the best tradition for poetry is, first and foremost, the tradition of good poems—more than successful members of super-successful, networking cliques’ poorer ones.

For the truth is: Millay is a far better poet than not only Moore, but the guys, like Pound.

Certainly, “new” aesthetics can and should be studied (even if they haven’t done anyone a lick of good) but good poems written by the flesh and blood poets who lived in the same era as the better known, tweedy, experimental poets, deserve our attention, too.

Completely by chance today, as we perused old issues of Harper’s magazine, we came upon this poem by Archibald MacLeish. It is a love poem (horrors!). It was published in 1929, when Pound and Eliot were still nearly unknown, before they became famous as Axis defenders and post-WW II Modernist school subjects.

MacLeish, like the poets Frost and Millay, wrote poems people liked to read—and he was read. He was a wealthy friend of wealthy heir Harry Crosby, who—if you googled him by now—you know Crosby published MacLeish, Hart Crane, Poe, love poems, in exquisitely crafted books, a few copies at a time, and died at 29 with a young women in a suicide pact in a painter friend’s studio.

Here is a Modernist poem, the kind of poem which is now suppressed, just like Millay and Teasdale and Dorothy Parker and Ella Wheeler Wilcox and Elinor Wylie and countless other women poets are suppressed, locked away by the Moore/Williams /Pound Official Modernism professors. We close with the MacLeish poem:

To Praisers of Women

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered.
These were lies.

The words sound, but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks, but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore, I will not praise your knees and your fine walking,
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young and your arms straight and your mouth scarlet.
I shall say you will die, and none  will remember you;
Your arms change and none remember the swish of your garments
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hands’ strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste,

Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.
What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost,
Or a dead man’s voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most?

Therefore, I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I shall say you were young and straight and your skin fair—
And you stood in the door, and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders,
And a leaf on your hair.

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women.
I shall say the shape of a blown leaf lay on your hair,
Till the world ends and the sun is out and the sky broken
Look! It is there!

WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

MORE VERSES VERSUS VERSES: MAZER AND RANSOM

MAZER:

Sunlight rests like a package at the door.
Nothing sees. The rich interior is useless to persons and chronology.
Once when the spring came to our caravan I’d say the mountain streams ran in her hair.
Let these things rest without memory.

RANSOM:

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,   
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,   
Who cried in goose, Alas,
For the tireless heart within the little   
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

Now we get to see who is in the Final Four.

But how is this possible?

Look back on a few recent posts.

Michelangelo versus Teasdale: how can we declare a winner?  The very secret of Michelangelo’s soul in a newly translated sonnet. A heart-breaking lyric by the under appreciated Teasdale. How can there be a “winner?”

Oh God! Milton’s passionate paean to Virtue. Or Byron’s passionate paean to…passion. Oh God! Trembling are the knees of the judges!

Poe against Coleridge! Verses that drown the senses and tickle the smallest whiskers of the soul! How can a mortal decision be made?

Mazer, the contemporary representative! Contemporary poetry, generally, is flat, compared to great, old poetry. Ben Mazer, by a miracle, still in this tournament, among the greatest verse-makers of all time!  Against the Tennessean, Ransom, New Critic and T.S. Eliot of the American South, poet of old women and dead children.

The Final Four will appear in a cloud of tears

SCARRIET’S HOT 100— AS WE RING OUT A WILD 2014!

olena.jpg

Olé, Olena!  No. 4 on the Scarriet Hot 100

1. Claudia Rankine –Seems everyone wanted her to win the National Book Award

2. Louise Gluck –Won the National Book Award. Coming into focus as morbid lyricist

3. Dan Chiasson –Coveted reviewing perch in the glossy pages of the New Yorker

4. Olena K. Davis –Praised by #3 for “Do you know how many men would paykilldie/for me to suck their cock? fuck

5. Terrance Hayes –2014 Best American Poetry Editor for David Lehman’s annual series (since 1988)

6. Patricia Lockwood –Her book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals made NY Times most notable 2014 book list

7. Rita Dove What was all that fuss about her anthology, again?

8. Henri Cole —Poetry editor part of mass resignation at New Republic

9. Valerie Macon –appointed laureate of North Carolina, resigned due to firestorm because she lacked credentials

10. Helen Vendler –Contributing editor in TNR’s mass exodus

11. Glyn Maxwell –British poet and editor of The Poetry Of Derek Walcott 1948-2013

12. James Booth –author of Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love

13. Afaa Michael Weaver  –this spring won the Kingsley Tufts Award: $100,000 dollars

14. Frederick Seidel –Stirred outrage with a strange poem about Ferguson.

15. Clive James –Got into some controversy about racism and sex reviewing Booth’s book on Philip Larkin in the Times

16. William Logan –The honest reviewer is the best critic.

17. Ron Silliman –Elegy & Video-Cut-and-Paste Blog

18. John Ashbery –Perennial BAP poet

19. Cathy Park Hong –Wrote “Fuck the Avant-garde” before Brown/Garner protests: Hong says poetry avant-garde is racist.

20. Philip Nikolayev –Poet, translator, Fulcrum editor, currently touring India as beloved U.S. poetry guest

21. Marilyn Chin –Poet, translator, new book from Norton, currently touring Asia as beloved U.S. poetry guest

22. Daniel Borzutzky –Guest blogger on Poetry Foundation’s Blog Harriet: “We live in an occupied racist police state”

23. Ben Mazer –Brings out Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom—as po-biz churns with racial indignation

24. Nathaniel Mackey –Headlined poetry reading at Miami Book Fair International.

25. Marjorie Perloff  —Now we get it: the avant-garde is conservative

26. Amy Berkowitz –Wrote on VIDA Web page how everyone has been raped and how we can be safe.

27. Yelena Gluzman –Ugly Duckling editor publishes vol. 3 of annual document of performance practice, Emergency Index

28. Carol Ann Duffy –British poet laureate gave riveting reading in Mass Poetry festival (Salem, MA) this spring

29. P.J. Harvey –Rocker to publish book of poems in 2015—Good luck.  Rock is easier.

30. Christian Nagler –poet in Adjunct Action: “SF Art Institute: faculty are 80% adjunct and have no say in the functioning of the institution”

31. Major Jackson –Wins $25,000 NEA grant.

32. Divya Victor –Her book, Things To Do With Your Mouth, wins CA Conrad’s Sexiest Poetry Award.

33. Kenny Goldsmith  —wears a two-million-ton crown

34. Donald Hall –new book, Essays After Eighty

35. Mary Oliver –new book, Blue Horses: Poems

36. Charles Wright –2015’s U.S. Poet Laureate

37. Stephen Burt –Harvard critic looking for funny stuff other than Flarf and Conceptualism.

38. Vijay Seshadri –2014 Pulitzer in Poetry

39. Ron Smith –The new poet laureate of the great state of Virginia!  North Carolina still waits…

40. Sherman Alexie –the first poet in BAP 2014. It used to be Ammons.

41. Erin Belieu  –Hilarious poem spoofing Seamus Heaney in her new book, Slant Six

42. Robert Pinsky  –has influence, authority and a lisp

43. Billy Collins –Becoming critically irrelevant?

44. Adam Kirsch –Senior Editor and poetry critic, also saying goodbye to TNR

45. Cornelius Eady  –co-founded Cave Canem.

46. Anne Carson –One of those poets one is supposed to like because they’re a little deeper than you…

47. Lucie Brock-Broido  –Emily Dickinson refuses to be channeled

48. Tony Hoagland  –still smarting from that tennis poem

49. Bob Hicok –He’s the new Phil Levine, maybe?

50. Yusef Komunyakaa –Won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1993

51. Eileen Myles –Just published a novel about her younger days

52. Sharon Olds  –still glowing from her 2013 Pulitzer win, the book showcasing her exploded marriage

53. D.A. Powell –Studied with Vendler at Harvard

54. Cate Marvin –In BAP 2014 and on fire with p.c indignation.

55. Dean Young  –wants to be the best poet ever—in a late 70s Iowa Workshop sort of way

56. Chris HughesTNR owner: “Despite what has been suggested, the vast majority of our staff remain…excited to build a sustainable and strong New Republic that can endure.”

57. Alan Cordle –changed poetry forever with his Foetry.com

58. George Bilgere  –patiently enduring the Collins comparisons

59. William Kulik –the ‘let it all hang out’ prose poem

60. Amy King –Northern Lesbo Elitist

61. Leah Finnegan –Wrote in Gawker of TNR: “White Men Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine.”

62. Jorie Graham –Get ready!  Her Collected is coming!

63. David Kirby –“The Kirb” teaches in Florida; a less controversial Hoagland?

64. Don Share –edits the little magazine that prints lousy poetry and has a perfunctory, cut-and-paste blog

65. Paul Lewis –BC prof leading Poe Revisionism movement

66. Robert Montes –His I Don’t Know Do You made NPR’s 2014 book list

67. Cameron Conaway –“beautifully realized and scientifically sound lyrics” which “calls attention to a disease that kills over 627,000 people a year” is how NPR describes Malaria, Poems 

68. Charles Bernstein –He won. Official Verse Culture is dead. (Now only those as smart as Bernstein read poetry)

69. Richard Howard –Did you know his prose poems have been set to music?

70. Harold Bloom  –He has much to say.

71. Camille Paglia  –Still trying to fuse politics and art; almost did it with Sexual Personae

72. Vanessa Place –This conceptualist recently participated in a panel.

73. Michael Bazzett  —You Must Remember This: Poems “a promising first book” says the New Criterion

74. Matthea HarveyIf the Tabloids Are True What Are You? recommended by Poets.Org

75. Peter Gizzi –His Selected Poems published in 2014

76. Mark Bibbins –Poets.Org likes his latest book of poems

77. Les Murray –New Selected Poems is out from FSG

78. Michael Robbins –writes for the Chicago Tribune

79. Stephen Dunn –The Billy Collins school—Lines of Defense is his latest book

80. Robin BeckerTiger Heron—latest book from this poet of the Mary Oliver school

81. Cathy Linh CheSplit is her debut collection; trauma in Vietnam and America

82. John Gallaher –Saw a need to publish Michael Benedikt’s Selected Poems

83. Jennifer Moxley  –Panelist at the Miami Book Fair International

84. Bob Dylan –Is he really going to win the Nobel Prize?

85. Ann Lauterbach  –Discusses her favorite photographs in the winter Paris Review

86. Fanny Howe –Read with Rankine at Miami Book Fair

87. Hannah Gamble –In December Poetry

88. Marianne BoruchCadaver, Speak is called a Poets.Org Standout Book

89. Anthony Madrid  –His new book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say

90. Robyn SchiffRevolver is not only a Beatles album.

91. Ted GreenwaldA Mammal of Style with Kit Robinson

92. Rachel ZuckerThe Pedestrians is out

93. Dorothea LaskyRome is her fourth book

94. Allan PetersonPrecarious is the new book: “the weed field had been/readying its many damp handkerchiefs/all along.”

95. Adrienne Raphel –“lavender first and by far”

96. Gillian ConoleyPeace is chosen as a Poets.Org Standout Book

97. Barbara Hamby  –“The Kirb” needs to know. She’s not on the list because of him.

98. Katia Kopovich –She coedits Fulcrum with husband Nikolayev.

99. Doc Luben –“14 lines from love letters or suicide notes” a slam poem viewed a lot on YouTube

100. Tracy K. Smith  2012 Pulitzer in Poetry for Life On Mars

THE WORK OF HUNTERS IS ANOTHER THING

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

“To please the yelping dogs” ends a thought, begins an iambic pentameter line, but doesn’t finish that line, as the poet’s argument resumes in the middle: “the gaps, I mean.”

In Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall;” the poet describes the gaps in the wall which occur, strangely, because of freezing (“frozen ground-swell”) —what is ‘frozen’ moves.

The lines, as a whole, in Frost’s poem, move languidly, argumentatively, conversationally, (“The gaps, I mean”)—in case you didn’t get it, this is what I mean; the poem, flying in the face of the canon, dares to be informal, informality as slack as a poem may get: obscurity is too slack.

“I mean” is the opposite of obscurity, the poet not ashamed to add words to make himself understood better. But in pentameter!

Charm, even of the most insouciant kind, like everything else, requires context, and the canon nicely provides it. That’s what the Tradition is for: to make things more interesting as we play handball against it, not to glumly tower above us.

Pure difficulty, pure obscurity, is never charming.

I pray, before I go to bed each night, that contemporary poets understand this.

And so here is the great crossroads of Modern Poetry in this great Frost poem of the early 20th century; two types of slackness, two roads:

The informal, which bends a few rules.

And the obscure, which breaks them all.

One leads to pleasant informality, to modern charm; the other to stupid oblivion, to slack shit.

“To please the yelping dogs” is a phrase that stays in our memory and we think for a simple and mysterious reason: to us it represents that sensual, animal life which pleases those who don’t care for poetry. “Yelping dogs” perfectly describes a life without refinement, without soul, without philosophy, without poetry. Frost uses the phrase in his poem to indicate what he does not mean.

Most people are satisfied with the “yelping dog” life, and that is all they need. Everyone needs some “yelping dog” life, but those who enjoy nothing else should not stray anywhere near poetry; they will hate its simplicity, and they will spoil it. For “yelping dog” may apply to poetry, as it may apply to everything else: an eager, noisy, social, chaotic, spirited, life can, and will, invade everything, even the so-called fine arts; it can overrun them; few are able to resist the “yelping dog” life, which is why genius and truly great art is rare. How, for instance, did the wonderful poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay get trampled? Why is “yelping” poetry, rather than beautiful poetry, critically embraced today?

Dana Gioia, reviewing Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, wrote: “Keillor’s tone is obviously designed to rile anyone who holds the conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath (and the conventionally low one of Millay).”

Think on it! The “conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath and the conventionally low one of Millay.”

This critical ranking is true, and it happened in a few years—Millay tumbled from her perch in the 1930s.

Except for “Daddy,”—the rhyme-song of wife-anguish which emerged from Plath as she suicidally removed herself from the world of John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, the magazine of proper Modernism (be as dull and obscure as you possibly can)—the poems of Plath and Moore do not amount to very much, while Millay’s poems rock the house down (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where and Why; Dirge Without Music; And You As Well Must Die, Beloved Dust; I Being Born A Woman and Distressed; If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way); Moore and Plath present difficulty for its own sake.

Reading Marianne Moore’s poetry (“all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however…”) is like peering without understanding at the complexity of a car’s engine; reading Millay’s verse is like driving that car.

So how did this happen? How did Moore and Plath gain ascendance over Millay? It had to take a lot of “yelping dog” distraction. Moore belonged to the well-connected Dial clique of Pound, Williams, Cummings, and Eliot; Plath panted after their ascendency; Millay was rudely pushed aside by that same clique, Hugh “The Pound Era” Kenner, and a few others, providing the critical hammer blows to Millay’s reputation. The point is, it only took one well-connected clique to take Millay down, because the majority of her countrymen only cared for the “yelping dog” life. The poetry garden really has but a few gardeners (critics who set the tone).

Millay is like a supersonic jet plane—it has the potential to take a lot of people on wonderful rides, but not if it is grounded. The battle for poetry will always take place among the few, because the “yelping dogs” are so distracting, and make sure that it is only the few that care enough and focus enough on poetry to truly decide poetry’s fate. Most are simply not refined enough to fight this fight. But the fight must be fought, since poetry is a door to that which truly refines the soul.

How is the soul refined? By love, of course.

And what does poetry have to do with love?

Nothing.

Which is precisely why it takes a remarkable soul to effect the marriage; most do not see the marriage as necessary; they are like those who take for granted that light and heat permeate glass—never thinking what this common phenomenon means.

The holy marriage of poetry and love, with Beauty the priest who joins them, is a radiant truth that civilizes humanity, but tumbles into obscurity and critical censure with barely a sigh, for love is socially embarrassing, and poetry, embarrassing as well, especially in the world of the yelping dog.

Only a superhuman effort can make such a marriage accepted; the poet has to court the world, not merely describe it, and this effort makes or breaks the would-be poet. Millay wrote of love, Moore, bric-a-brac. In the fashion of the hour, bric-a-brac, while the dogs yelp, is enough for the professors’ seduction, and in the Program era, ushered in by Ransom and Moore’s Dial clique, the bric-a-brac poetry professor became all-important.

One can still see contemporary poetry critics making half-hearted, half-conscious, desultory gestures in love’s direction: for instance, see Dan Chiasson’s recent review in the New Yorker of the latest book of poems by Alaska poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, which thrills to the 51 year old poet’s “sexual power” and “romance,” going so far as to say, “authentic pining in poetry, though hard to come by, is probably necessary for any poet who wishes to become a classic.”

Here is Chiasson kind of getting it, but don’t hold your breath for a Millay revival happening any time soon.  (A few poets today following Millay confuse the vulgarity for the art.)

So many are seduced by the Marianne Moore bric-a-brac school, not because they love bric-a-brac, necessarily, but because they think ‘crunchy poetry’ will leave behind the embarrassments of heart-breaking love, and allow poetry to talk about more things, to cover more ground and more moods, pushing into areas usually confined to the political essay or the long novel. Frost, gabbing casually forever.

But the bric-a-brac wish is in vain.

Like the legendary Faust, the poet tempted by verbose worldly riches—by poetry that attempts what prose is better fitted to do—leaves behind Millay and dies beneath the heavy objects of a modern bric-a-brac poetry only the very few are canny enough to know was a terrible danger, a foolish gambit, from the start.

Even as they know of the terrible danger of love—and the pining poetry, fainting for all mankind, which dies in its arms.

JOHN CROWE RANSOM TAKES ON BAUDELAIRE IN THE MODERN BRACKET

Ransom was the Southern American T.S. Eliot. He battles ‘the Father,’ Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire and John Crowe Ransom are icons of Modernism.

Ransom, the New Critic, defined Modernism explicitly, brilliantly, in his little known essay, “Poets Without Laurels, which he published in 1938. Baudelaire, closer to the origins of it, but just as self-consciously, in his Art criticism, defined Modernism, too.

Temperamentally, Ransom and Baudelaire are quite different: Baudelaire is the dandified Modernsist-rebel, Ransom, the stuffy Modernist-matter-of-fact. The arc of Modernism from Baudelaire to Ransom is highly instructive, though: the Modernist “rebel” of the 19th century is erased by Modernity’s 20th century “victory;” Baudelaire’s cry of “Join the Artificial Revolution!” is a tad redundant when it rings out in the 20th century surrounded by skyscrapers, airplanes, and TVs.

Baudelaire rebelled against nature: “Woe to him who, like Louis XV [died 1774] carries his degeneracy to the point of no longer having a taste for anything but nature unadorned.” The 18th century—which featured Pope saying Art is nothing but the Greeks and Nature, and which prepared the way for Romanticism’s humble embrace of the same—found itself attacked by Baudelaire:

We know that when [Louis XV’s mistress] wished to avoid receiving the king, she made a point of putting on rouge. It was quite enough, it was her way of closing the door. It was in fact by beautifying herself that she used to frighten away her royal disciple of nature.

But when we reach the 20th century, it is no longer possible to be a rebel by hating nature—for nature had been overthrown. Rousseau and his Nature worship becomes the hero of protest; Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are sarcastic, ironic: a joke at the expense of Baudelaire’s sacred artificiality. Post-modernism freed us from Modernism’s Futuristic and Artificial Pride by laughing at it—but unfortunately, or not, Modernism has had the last laugh: artificiality, like it or not, has won. Louis XV and Al Gore are both seen to love nature artificially, and what seems more artificial to us now than Alexander Pope? Cosmetics are all the rage, and nature poets are wise more than they are natural, just as natural and organic diet gurus are wise; American poetry, whether it is rap, Slam, Ashbery, or Collins, could not be more artificial or more removed from nature poetry: even Mary Oliver is wise rather than natural; we kill trees to publish books on saving trees. Baudelaire is an anti-Nature prophet, then, more than he is a rebel: he looked around at the teeming cities, the material improvements, the women making themselves lovely and available with their cosmetics and their freedom, and thought: here is the Future. As Baudelaire put it in his essay, “In Praise of Cosmetics:”

Nature teaches us nothing. I admit that she compels man to sleep, to eat, to drink, and to arm himself as well as he may against the inclemencies of the weather; but it is she too who incites man to murder his brother, to eat him, to lock him up and torture him; for no sooner do we take leave of the domain of needs and necessities to enter that of pleasures and luxury than we see that Nature can counsel nothing but crime. It is this infallible Mother Nature who has created patricide and cannibalism, and a thousand other abominations that both shame and modesty prevent us from naming. On the other hand it is philosophy (I speak of good philosophy) and religion which command us to look after our parents when they are poor and infirm. Nature, being none other than the voice of our self-interest, would have us slaughter them.

A prophet, indeed; for Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were primitives who followed nature; they had no philosophy or religion. Philosophy and religion are means to fend off nature’s ultimate, all-encompassing self-interestedness—and find pleasure and sanity in a more subtle and piecemeal and laissez faire sort of way. Good philosophy listens to a host of small voices, and ignores the big ones. Communists and fascists are not philosophers and religious fanatics are not religious. Communists, fascists, and religious fanatics listen to the big voices. You would never find any of them speaking as Baudelaire does here:

Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obliged to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are known to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible. By reflecting in this way the philosopher-artist will find it easy to justify all the practices adopted by women at all times to consolidate and as it were to make divine their fragile beauty.

Whether this is sexist rot or women’s liberation brilliantly and empathetically imparted, we are sure this is not how the Ayatollahs or the Communists or the Nazis talk: it is a beautiful antidote to that. It is a small voice worth listening to.

Ransom, in his description of Modernsim, is equally trivial and modest; Modernism, as Ransom sees it, is simply a practical method in which expertise is fragmented to handle things compartmentally. This might not be ideal. But Ransom essentially agrees with Baudelaire; he is talking in the same way. Ransom sees Modernism as that which rejects nature and big schemes and listens to the individual and his or her small voice, even if this produces a certain amount of alienation and dullness. We’ll quote the beginning of Ransom’s essay, “Poets Without Laurels,”; note how Ransom uses fanaticism’s “red banner” jokingly and ironically. Ransom begins with poetry; he then moves into Modernism as it applies to all aspects of life:

The poets I refer to in the title are the “moderns:” those whom a small company of adept readers enjoys, perhaps enormously, but the general public detests; those in whose hands poetry as a living art has lost its public support.

Consequently I do not refer to such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Robert Frost, who are evidently influenced by modernism without caring to “go modern” in the sense of joining the revolution; which is very much as if they had stopped at a mild or parlor variety of socialism, when all about them the brave, or at least the doctrinaire, were marching under the red banner. Probably they are wise in their time; they have laurels deservedly and wear them gracefully. But they do not define the issue which I wish to discuss. And still less do I refer to poets like E.A Robin. son, Sturge Moore, and John Masefield, who are even less modern; though I have no intention of questioning their laurels either. I refer to poets with no laurels.

I do not wish to seem to hold the public responsible for their condition, as if it had suddenly become phlegmatic, cruel, and philistine. The poets have certainly for their part conducted themselves peculiarly. They could not have estranged the public more completely if they had tried; and smart fellows as they are, they know very well what they have been doing, and what they are still stubborn in doing, and what the consequences are.

For they have failed more and more flagrantly, more and more deliberately, to identify themselves with the public interests, as if expressly to renounce the kind affections which poets had courted for centuries.

Poets used to be bards and patriots, priests and prophets, keepers of the public conscience, and, naturally, men of public importance. Society crowned them with wreaths of laurel, according to the tradition which comes to us from the Greeks and is perpetuated by official custom in England—and in Oklahoma. Generally the favor must have been gratefully received. But modern poets are of another breed. It is as if all at once they had lost their prudence as well as their piety, and formed a compact to unclasp the chaplet from their brows, inflicting upon themselves the humility of delaureation, and retiring from public responsibility and honors. It is this phenomenon which has thrown critical theory into confusion.

Sir Philip Sidney made the orthodox defense of poetry on the ground of the poet’s service to patriotism and virtue.

“He doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, a will entice any man to enter into it”

And what was the technique of enticement?

“With a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner”

The poets, therefore, told entrancing tales, which had morals. But the fact was, also, that the poets were not always content to win to virtue by indirection, or enticement, but were prepared to preach with almost no disguise, and to become sententious and repetitious, and the literature which they created is crowded with precise maxims for the moralists. There it stands on the shelves now. Sometimes the so-called poet has been only a moralist with a poetic manner. And all the poets famous in our tradition, or very nearly all, have been poets of a powerful moral cast.

 

Ransom is trying to hide his bias in talking about the old poets; he is trying very hard not to show his hand—which is full of “moderns.” He succeeds, we think; I doubt even one in a hundred readers would be able to detect in Ransom’s carefully worded rhetoric his flagrant hatred of the old poet, together with his deep prejudice in favor of the “modern” poet.

First of all, who is Ransom talking about when he says, “the poets…were prepared to preach with almost no disguise?” The “poets famous in our tradition” are precisely those who transcend mere moralizing; further, Ransom writes of “precise maxims for the moralists” as if morality did not belong to him and you and me, but thrived in a shadowy group of inquisitorial persons to which the old poets like Sidney were slaves: “the moralists.” Who are these “moralists?” They are nobodies. They are the unnamed invention of Mr. Ransom, who intends to snatch autonomy away from the old poets and make them seem mere servants—as opposed to the “moderns,” who happen—who just happen—to be ambitious poets who are friends of the critic and poet Mr. Ransom. (Ransom examines “modern” poems by Mr. Stevens—“pure” and Mr. Tate —“obscure” in “Poets Without Laurels.”) Poe explicitly wrote on disguising one’s morals; did Poe, one of the “poets famous in our tradition” as referenced by Ransom, write only to invent “precise maxims for the moralists?” Or Baudelaire? Did Baudelaire busy himself in making “precise maxims for the moralists?” Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning? Did they all throw their souls into the task of making “precise maxims for the moralists?” Really, Mr. Ransom?

We felt it was only fair to expose, for our Scarriet readers, the grubby truth underlying Ransom’s effort, which we nevertheless consider brilliant (if crooked and corrupt) in its gloss on Modernism. Again, to pick up Ransom where he left us:

So I shall try a preliminary definition of the poet’s traditional function on behalf of society: he proposed to make virtue delicious. He compounded a moral effect with an aesthetic effect. The total effect was not a pure one, but it was rich, and relished highly. The name of the moral effect was goodness; the name of the aesthetic effect was beauty. Perhaps these did not have to coexist, but the planners of society saw to it that they should; they called upon the artists to reinforce morality with charm. The artists obliged.

Note how Ransom slyly implies the “planners of society” are telling Shakespeare and Poe what to do. But no one would call the New Critics, who worked with the U.S. Government as Education officials (poetry textbook writers) or Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, or any of the “moderns,” those laurel-less renegades, “planners of society.” Ransom, the non-planner, continues:

When they had done so , the public did not think of attempting to distinguish in its experience as reader the glow which was aesthetic from the glow which was moral. Most persons probably could not have done this; many persons cannot do it today. There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas. But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land. He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.

There are distinct styles of “modernity,” but I think their net results, psychologically, are about the same. I have in mind what might be called the “pure” style and what might be called the “obscure” style.

A good “pure” poem is Wallace Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds…”

Poetry of this sort, as it was practiced by some French poets of the nineteenth century, and as it is practiced by many British and American poets now, has been called pure poetry, and the name is accurate. It is nothing but poetry; it is poetry for poetry’s sake, and you cannot get a moral out of it. But it was expected it would never win the public at large. …

As an example of “obscure” poetry, I cite Allen Tate’s “Death of Little Boys.” …

Tate has an important subject, and his poem is a human document, with a contagious fury about it: Stevens, pursuing purity, does not care to risk such a subject. But Tate, as if conscious that he is close to moralizing and sententiousness, builds up deliberately, I imagine, an effect of obscurity; for example, he does not care to explain the private meaning of his windowpane and his Norwegian cliff; or else, by some feat, he permits these bright features to belong to his total image without permitting them to reveal any precise meaning, either for himself or for his reader. …

Pure or obscure, the modern poet manages not to slip into the old-fashioned moral-beautiful compound. …

Personally, I prefer the rich obscure poetry to the thin pure poetry. The deaths of little boys are more exciting than the sea surfaces. It may be that the public preference, however, is otherwise. The public is inclined simply to ignore the pure poetry, because it lacks practical usefulness; but, to hate the obscure poetry, because it looks important enough to attend to, and yet never yields up any specific fruit. Society, through its spokesmen the dozens of social-minded critics, who talk about the necessity of “communication,” is now raging with indignation, or it may be with scorn, against the obscure poetry which this particular generation of poets has deposited. Nevertheless, both types of poetry, obscure as well as pure, aim at poetic autonomy; that is, speaking roughly, at purity.

Modern poetry in this respect is like modern painting. European painting used to be nearly as social thing as poetry. It illustrated the sacred themes prescribed by the priests, whether popularly (Raphael) or esoterically and symbolically (Michelangelo)… But more or less suddenly it asserted its independence. So we find Cezanne, painting so many times and so lovingly his foolish little bowl of fruits. …

Apostate, illaureate, and doomed to outlawry the modern poet may be. I have the feeling that modernism is an unfortunate road for them to have taken. But it was an inevitable one. …

Poets have had to become modern because the age is modern. Its modernism envelops them like a sea, or an air. Nothing in their thought can escape it.

Modern poetry is pure poetry. The motive behind it cannot be substantially different from the motive behind the other modern activities, which is certainly the driving force of all our modernism. What is its name? “Purism” would be exact, except  that it does not have the zealous and contriving sound we want. “Puritanism” will describe this motive…

The development of modern civilization has been a grand progression in which Puritanism has invaded first one field and then another.

The first field was perhaps religion. The religious impulse used to join to itself and dominate and hold together nearly all the fields of human experience; politics, science, art, and even industry, and by all means moral conduct. But Puritanism came in the form of the Protestant Reformation and separated religion from all its partners. Perhaps the most important of these separations was that which lopped off from religion the aesthetic properties…the ceremonial became idolatry. …

Next, or perhaps at the same time, Puritanism applied itself to morality. Broad as the reach of morality may be, it is distinct enough as an experience to be capable of purification. We may say that its destiny was to become what we know as sociology, a body of positivistic science. …

Then Puritanism worked upon politics. … Progress in this direction meant constitutionalism, parliamentarianism, republicanism. The population, not being composed exclusively of politicians, is inclined to delegate statecraft to those who profess it. …

It was but one step that Puritanism had to go from there into the world of business, where the material sciences are systematically applied. The rise of the modern business world is a development attendant upon the freedom which it has enjoyed; upon business for business’s sake, or pure business, or “laissez faire,” with such unconditioned principles as efficiency, technological improvement, and maximum productivity. …

All these exclusions and specializations, and many more, have been making modern life what it is. …

Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism. They pursue A, an aesthetic element thought always to have the same taste and to be the one thing desirable for poets. They will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade. In lemonade the A gets weakened and neutralized by the M. …

Now some poetry, so-called, is not even lemonade, for the ingredients have not been mixed, much less compounded. Lumps of morality and image lie side by side, and are tasted in succession. T.S. Eliot thinks that this has been the character of a great deal of English poetry since the age of Dryden. … It is decidedly one of the causes of that revulsion of feeling on the part of the modern poet which drives him away from the poetic tradition.

And that is Ransom’s Modernist gambit, justifying Modern Poetry’s “independence” from “morality” on the historical “fact” that modern life is now more “pure” than ancient life. But does Ransom’s analogy work? Is a lobbyist-influenced politician in a modern democratic society more “pure” than a Feudal lord, or king? Is the poetry of Allen Tate more “pure” than Shelley’s? Is efficiency and improvement and productivity in a specific area something which only arose in France in the 19th Century? Was it Modern Poetry’s destiny to gain a certain ascendency in the 20th century for the very same reason that drove Martin Luther to question the sincerity of the Catholic Church?

We think not. We strongly suspect that “Modernism” is nothing but a fancy word, and that John Crowe Ransom and T.S. Eliot are nothing but Highbrow Car Salesmen. Purely so, of course.

WINNER: BAUDELAIRE

 

 

 

 

HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

MODERN BRACKET HURTLES TOWARDS SWEET 16

Baudelaire versus Saussure

Baudelaire learned from Poe that melancholy is the most beautiful in art, but for everyone but the genius melancholy begins to hurt too much, and turns to pain, and the beautiful is lost and replaced with envy and despair. Poe was sober, chaste and truly loved the beautiful.  Not Baudelaire.  Baudelaire is the vermin song in the spot where Poe the angel was. In Baudelaire’s shadow we sink further from the master. In Baudelaire’s famous poem, “Au Lecteur,” Ennui, or Boredom, presides over the other devils. If Baudelaire had been honest, he would have written somewhere in Fleur du Mal of his own envy which gnawed at him (the real king of his demons) and ushered in Modernism—which envies the Classical.

Ferdinand Saussure was born in 1857, the year Fleur du Mal first appeared in Paris bookshops. Just as Romanticism was born in the 18th century—not the 19th, as traditionally taught, Modernism was born in the 19th century—but what we find interesting is that language-obsessed post-Modernism which owes so much to Saussure arrived later in the 20th century only because Saussure’s ideas were transmitted tardily.

Materially, the various eras follow each other in perfect order: cotton gin, camera, automobile, etc.

But in terms of art and ideas, eras exist in no order at all-–scholars simply assume that people ‘thought this way’ or ‘thought about these kinds of things’ during this or that era; the divisions are made based on convenience, or ideology; all is slippery and evasive—and because ideas are more important than things or technology, the truth, we can be sure, is lost.

Saussure made the incredible claim that all knowledge, all thought, all ideas, don’t exist until they are put into language.

He then posited that language is arbitrary and has no positive definition; it is a field of negatives: this is not this, etc.

Here is the dangerous Post-Modernism idea generated by Saussure: there is nothing real behind language.  Further, whatever we do, or speak, exists from a blind allegiance to social convention: we are hopelessly trapped in group-think from one end of our minds to the other. We may smile, we may shout, we can attempt to authenticate expression in any number of performances imbued with the highest feeling: no matter.  We are only robots exhibiting group behavior.

However: Can I not walk down the street and see someone walking towards me, observing how they grow increasingly larger as they approach?   I do not need language to note this principle.

Saussure is wrong. There is a world of thought which does not need a language to exist.  Saussure does not deny pre-linguistic thought; he only says it is a confused jumble.  But what is confused about perspective?

It is certainly more difficult to think without language; but is it thinking we are doing with language?—perhaps all the thought worthy of the name is precisely that which comes into existence before we try it out in mere words.

What does it mean for us if the Saussurean principle is rife with error?

WINNER: BAUDELAIRE

Benjamin versus Freud

Freud was an old man when the Nazis came to power, escaping to London at the end of a distinguished life; Benjamin was middle-aged and a failed professor when the Nazis took over, killed trying to escape. Freud read Shakespeare in English. Benjamin translated Baudelaire into German.  Freud, intellectually free, grounded by studies of insanity and the science of human pathology, influenced by great masters, such as Schiller, willing to seek all paths and byways, changed sex into religion. Freud’s involvement with hypnosis, free association, transference, will make him forever significant from a literary standpoint. It could almost be said that Freud took literature and turned it into science.  Not literature-as-scientific-study. Science formed by literature.  Freud changed the world. Benjamin was crushed by it.

WINNER: FREUD

Pater versus Wilde

Pater narrowed Letters in a vague manner. Wilde expanded Letters in gem-like, aphoristic glee.

WINNER: WILDE

Ransom versus Eliot

This is an interesting match, since Ransom represents the American, and  Eliot, the European strain of conservative High Modernism.  Both men were born in 1888, Ransom in the spring, Eliot in the fall.

T.S. Eliot, which Scarriet never tires of pointing out, since it is highly significant and no one else ever points it out, traces his literary heritage back to Emerson through his distinguished grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, and grand uncle, Christopher P. Cranch, Dial poet, both friendly with Emerson—who made important pilgrimages to England: setting the groundwork for Eliot’s Anglo-American snobbery and Eliot’s hatred of the patriotic Irish-American, and enemy of Emerson, Edgar Poe. (Ransom’s New Critics, though Southern, disliked Poe, too.)

Modernism was the sickly, over-intellectual, internationalist reaction to American idealism—embodied by a writer like a Poe, who worshiped all sorts of ideals: Beauty, Country, Woman, Romance, Love, Verse etc, simple ideals easily mocked, distorted, and mangled by the morbid, cutting, intellectualizing of characters such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Modernism wasn’t progress; it was rudeness elevated to art: a vast generalization, perhaps, but with a grain of truth, which we assert for that important grain. Rudeness is as old as the hills—there’s nothing ‘modern’ about it; but since Eliot and Pound are ‘of’ our time, we assume they are more ‘modern’ than Poe, or that Poe’s idealism must belong to the past.

John Crowe Ransom, Southern Agrarian and New Critic, was clever, wrong-headed, Modernist, and superficially conservative like Eliot, and worked with Paul Engle, Robert Lowell, and Robie Macauley (Iowa Writers Workshop, CIA, Playboy fiction editor) to get the Program Era rolling. Eliot went to Europe and moped over England’s loss of influence, etc. During the 30s, Eliot made his speech against the Jews, Ransom published the reactionary “I’ll Take My Stand.” But for the most part, these were highly intelligent men. Ransom enjoyed himself more, was more well-rounded, and actually got more done. Both Eliot and Ransom slammed the Romantics; Eliot, a kind of craven prude, attacked Shelley personally; Ransom dismissed Byron as old-fashioned. They were of their time and rode the time as Modernist scolds with a mandarin, reactionary fervor.  Loony Post-Modernism makes Eliot and Ransom seem sensible by comparison; however as brilliant as they were, they were not.

WINNER: RANSOM

STEPHANE MALLARME AND JOHN CROWE RANSOM CLASH IN THE MODERN BRACKET!

A 19th century Frenchman of pure Modernism tries to win against a 20th century American university reformer.

MALLARME:


French readers, their habits disrupted by the death of Victor Hugo, cannot fail to be disconcerted. Hugo, in his mysterious task, turned all prose, philosophy, eloquence, history, to verse, and as he was verse personified, he confiscated from any thinking person, anyone who talked or told stories, all but the right to speak. Poetry, I believe, waited respectfully until the giant who identified it with his tenacious hand, a hand stronger than that of a blacksmith, ceased to exist; waited until then before breaking up.

Does the need to write poetry, in response to a variety of circumstances now mean, after one of those periodical orgiastic excesses of almost a century comparable only to the Renaissance, that the time has come for shadows and cooler temperatures? Not at all! It means the gleam continues, though changed.

That prosody, with its very brief rules, is nevertheless untouchable: it is what points to acts of prudence, such as the hemistich, and what regulates the slightest effort at stimulating versification, like codes according to which abstention from stealing through the air is for instance a necessary condition for standing upright. Exactly what one does not need to learn; because if you haven’t guessed it yourself beforehand, then you’ve proved the uselessness of constraining yourself to it.

The faithful supporters of the alexandrine, our hexameter, are loosening from within the rigid and puerile mechanism of its beat; the ear, set free from an artificial counting, discovers delight in discerning on its own all the possible combinations that twelve timbres can make among themselves.

It’s taste we should consider very modern.

The poet who possesses acute tact and who always considers this alexandrine as the difinitive jewel, but one you bring out as you would a sword or a flower only rarely and only when there is some premeditated motive for doing so, touches it modestly and plays around it, lending it neighboring chords, before bringing it out superb and unadorned; on many occasions he lets his fingering falter on the eleventh syllable or continues it to the thirteenth. M. Henri de Regnier excels in these accompaniments of his own invention as discrete and proud as the genius he instills into it, and revelatory of the fleeting disquiet felt by the performers faced with the instrument they have inherited. Something else, which could simply be the opposite, reveals itself as a deliberate rebellion in the absence of the old mold, grown weary, when Jules Laforgue, from the outset, initiated us into the unquestionable charm of the incorrect line.

Speech has no connection with the reality of things except in matters commercial; where literature is concerned, speech is content merely to make allusions or distill the quality contained in some idea.

Contrary to the facile numerical and representative functions as the crowd at first treats it, speech which is above all dream and song, finds again in the Poet, by a necessity that is part of an art consecrated to fictions, its virtuality.

 

 

 

RANSOM:

 

There are three sorts of trained performers who would appear to have some of the competence that the critic needs. The artist himself. The philosopher. The university teacher of literature.

Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. The professional morale of this part of the university staff is evidently low. Nevertheless it is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

Criticism will never be a very exact science, or even a nearly exact one. But neither will psychology.

Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals. Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc., or Criticism Ltd.

The principal resistance to such an idea will come from the present incumbents of the professorial chairs. But its adoption must come from them too. The idea of course is not a private one of my own. If it should be adopted before long, the credit would probably belong to Professor Ronald S. Crane, of the University of Chicago, more than to any other man.

Crane argues that historical scholarship has been overplayed heavily in English studies.

The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.

At the University of Chicago, I believe that Professor Crane, with some others is putting the revolution into effect in his own teaching, though for the time being perhaps with a limited program, mainly the application of Aristotle’s critical views.

This is not the first time that English professors have tilted against the historians, or “scholars,” in the dull sense which that word has acquired.

The most important recent diversion from the orthodox course of literary studies was undertaken by the New Humanists.  The New Humanists were, and are, moralists.  Mr. Babbitt could make war on romanticism for purely moral reasons.  But this is certainly not the charge that Mr. T.S. Eliot, a literary critic, brings against romanticism. His, if I am not mistaken, is aesthetic, though he may not ever care to define it very sharply.

Following the excitement produced by the Humanist diversion, there is now one due to the Leftists, or Proletarians, who are also diversionists. Their diversion is likewise moral. Debate could never occur between a Humanist and a Leftist on aesthetic grounds, for they are equally intent on ethical values. But the debate on ethical grounds would be very spirited, and it might create such a stir in a department conducting English studies that the conventional scholars there would find themselves slipping, and their pupils deriving from literature new and seductive excitements which would entice them away from their scheduled English exercises.

On the whole, however, the moralists, distinguished as they may be, are like those who have quarreled with the ordinary historical studies on purer or more aesthetic grounds: they have not occupied in English studies the positions of professional importance. In a department of English, as in any ongoing business, the proprietary interest becomes vested, and in old and reputable departments the vestees have uniformly been gentlemen who have gone through the historical mill. Their laborious Ph.D.’s and historical publications are their patents. Naturally, quite spontaneously, they would tend to perpetuate a system in which the power and the glory belonged to them. But English scholars in this country can rarely have better credentials than those which Professor Crane has earned.

It is really atrocious policy for a department to abdicate its own self-respecting identity. The department of  English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet it has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product.

 

Mallarme (b. 1842) and Ransom (b. 1888) each represent the two primary modes of attack with which Modernism effected its gains against Philosophical and Literary Tradition in the last century and a half.

Mallarme is insouciant candlelight, the tremulous ecstasy of the “incorrect line,” fitting the informal student, or guest, with the intoxicating mask of “poet,” imbued historically with all that term signifies, so he or she, so fitted, might be invited to the masque.

That most of Mallarme is nothing but glittering surface, moustache-pedantry, and name-dropping does little to diminish the charm of its eleven-fingered poetic style, but how much more really intoxicating when elevated to a position of money and respect by the pedagogical behemoth of the American university system. This is what the Program era did, starting with a muddy patch called the University of Iowa, aided by ‘power point’ efforts of New Critics like John Crowe Ransom.

One can hear Ezra Pound’s faux aesthetics in the accents of Mallarme and recognize the excitable Ezra’s ‘outsider’ sneering at the old English professors in Ransom’s calmer approach.  The motives and goals were the same: Gates. Barbarians. Storm.  Pound, Eliot, Williams and the New Critics were the barbarians, and all were on the same page—not the silly aesthetic one, but the one that counted. They won. Mallarme’s masque now walks the quiet carpets of the university. English students, as Ransom wanted, no longer know anything “about literature.”  They do literature. And according to the Creative Writing Program poets who teach them, they do it well.

 

WINNER: RANSOM

 

 

MARCH MADNESS! POETRY! THEORY! MADNESS! HOLY MADNESS! REAL, ACTUAL MADNESS!

“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady

THE BRACKETS

CLASSICAL

1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume

ROMANTIC

1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx

MODERN

1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno

POST-MODERN

1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler

IS GAY SMARTER THAN STRAIGHT?

maxresdefault.jpg

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.

INSIDIOUS MODERNISM

The Armory Show: 100 years ago, Modern Art came to America

The government of Letters has its lobbyists and wealthy influence, too.  They say politics is show business for ugly people—we don’t know if poets and artists as a rule are ugly, or not, or whether it matters; however, as thinkers who are keen enough to dismiss much that doesn’t matter, we would most likely err if we dismissed the (often hidden) idea that art movements have non-artist and bad-artist people behind them as much as they do theory, people who buy art seeking a deal and may even build a museum or buy off a critic for that deal, people who have political or material interests.  The particular, motivated human, in other words, runs the show, the show of fame and influence and money we grace with the euphemism “art,” “architecture,” or “poetry” in our more idealistic moments.

Modernism is barely a hundred years old and has two chief characteristics: 1) a profound, enduring, and institutional influence on society at large, 2) not understood in the least by the public. Impressionism, as a technique, is understood; as an idea only theorists understand it.  Every technique has an end or result which does—or does not—satisfy the public.  To pretend that art is more than a technique rendered for public satisfaction is for theorists to twist and mangle.

Theorists, lobbyists, institutions, foundations, critics, lawyers, and politicians all have an interest in art-buying, whether it is sculpture, architecture (a trillion dollar industry), painting, photography, or poetry (a zero dollar industry, measured in something other than dollars). Before Modernism, nations used to own and fight over art (pillage in wars being only the most obvious): Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Arnold (and their contemporary sentiment) worked for Great Britain. Whistler v. Ruskin—the famous 19th century painting court case (1878)—was U.S. ‘modern art,’ before Modernism became an international brand, doing battle with entrenched Gothic/Victorian pride. The French painters of the Salon des Refuses (1863) were owned by the despot, Napolean III, for the French government (some forget) sanctioned this avant-garde event.

By the time the spirit of Salon des Refuses came to America as the Armory Modern Art Show (1913), everything had changed.  The Eliot/Pound lawyer who negotiated the Dial Prize (worth an annual salary at Lloyd’s) for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” before it was even finished (Pound was still editing) was also a buyer of modern art, and made the Armory show happen, delivering the welcoming greeting to the assembled on the first day.

Modernism was not an art movement so much as it was a business venture with “art” (Stein, Picasso, and Dewey, Inc.) and “architecture” (Cement, Glass and Bauhaus, Inc.) as its front.  One could not swing Ezra Pound without hitting a wealthy art buyer in the stuffy, ambitious offices of Modernism, Inc. (John Crowe Ransom called the enterprise Criticism,  Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.)

The wealthy art buyer Walter Arensberg hosted Duchamp (“Nude Descending Staircase” the hit of the Armory Show) when he came to America, and Williams and Stevens belonged to Arsenberg’s cabal.  Stevens and Ransom were a mutual admiration society at Kenyon, and Ransom’s fellow Fugitive, Tate, who helped start creative writing at Princeton, was quick to praise “The Waste Land” when it was published in 1922.

If we look at contributors to the first issue of The Fugitive that year, we see: Robert Graves, Oxford professor of Poetry in the 60s who beat out Lowell for the sough-after post and advocated mushroom use from that honored position; Witter Bynner, with a poetry prize to his name; Hart Crane, important poet; Louis Untermeyer, important anthologist; John Gould Fletcher, poet caught in the middle between Amy Lowell and Pound/Maddox Ford during the brief U.S./British split before WW I; Laura Riding, then married to a Kentucky professor; and William Alexander Percy, godfather of the Fugitives, Harvard Law School and later Yale Younger Judge, who would award Paul Engle (Iowa Workshop) his Yale Younger prize.

William James, the first word in the first poem in the first book of BAP (1988, “Garbage,” Ammons), founder of stream of consciousness writing and Psychology as a subject at Harvard, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Waldo Emerson’s godson, brother of Henry, who became British, was Gertrude Stein’s professor; Stein, wealthy deb from Baltimore, was a poet, but more importantly, one of those lobbyists, with her brother Leo, who collected the new art, buying very, very low and selling very, very high.  Low (vulgar) to high (stoned) was the Modernistic lifestyle as well as the simple business practice.   How perfect to be smart and rich!  You will buy Picasso and he will make you famous and they will teach you in college.

The public could not understand Modernism, not even when John Dewey came to Harvard in 1931 and, in a series of lectures to honor William James, patiently and painstakingly attempted a defense.  The lectures became the book Art As Experience, and as we set eyes on the first sentence of the first chapter, we see at once both the insidious genius of Dewey and the impossibility of a lay reader understanding him:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.

And we’re off to the races.  Place your bets. This Matisse doesn’t look like much, but I’ll give it to you cheap. Dewey’s modernist apologia was mentored by art collector A.C. Barnes (1872-1951) of the Barnes Foundation.  Barnes made a fortune selling an antiseptic drug.  He accumulated vast amounts of paintings by Cezanne and Matisse (well over a 100 in total).  Dewey writes in the preface to Art and Experience:

My greatest indebtedness is to Dr. A. C. Barnes.  The chapters have been gone over one by one with him, and yet what I owe to his comments and suggestions on this account is but a small measure of my debt. ** Whatever is sound in this volume is due more than I can say to the great educational work carried on in the Barnes Foundation.

Dewey shows himself adept at saying all kinds of common sense things about art, and Art and Experience reflects wide reading in Classical and Romantic aesthetIcs. Most of the time he sounds perfectly reasonable, and we would expect nothing less from someone lecturing on art at Harvard:

Mutual adaptation of parts to one another in constituting a whole is the relation which, formally speaking, characterizes a work of art.

This sounds like Aristotle or Coleridge or Poe, and it would seem Dewey is sympathetic to centuries of tradition.  But, as a modernist, he’s not.  He’s only playing us.  His loyalty is not to art or tradition, but to A.C. Barnes and his Matisse collection.  But Dewey needs to lull us into a false sense of his erudition.  It is almost like someone who secretly spikes your drink.  The sensible and nonsense are skillfully woven together, and this weaving is where the real erudition is displayed.  Dewey continues in a sensible vein:

Every machine, every utensil, has, within limits a similar reciprocal adaptation. In each case, an end is fulfilled. That which is merely utilitarian satisfies, however, a particular and limited end.

But now he gets hazy:

The work of esthetic art satisfies many ends, none of which is laid down in advance. It serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living.

“It serves life” sounds wonderful, but we wonder exactly what it means, beyond a gesture towards art for art’s sake, unless we can define “serves life,” and yet the ill-defined seems to be Dewey’s  whole point.  But we wonder about definitions which are non-definitive.

We also wonder about “none of which is laid down in advance.”  All artists appreciate serendipity, but to censor all planning seems a bit fanatical.

“Experience” is big for Dewey.  He uses the word in almost every other sentence in the book.  Its frequent use can turn into a running joke, if one is not careful.  If it were a drink when you see “experience” game, intoxication would result almost immediately from all of Dewey’s “experiences,” the experience of not being able to rise, the greatest experience of all.

“Experience” for Dewey is like “experience” for Emerson; it allows them to talk and talk and talk without coming to a point; it allows them to expand discussion of two plus two into a cosmos of psychological inferences: how do we feel about two plus two? Who is responsible for two plus two?  What coward dares to oppress us with two plus two?  What sort of experiences are we having when we add two and two?  Is two plus two an insult to our souls?  How shall we free ourselves of two plus two?

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little expansiveness, as long as it’s not blah blah blah; to examine ‘process’ and the ‘process of process’ and all the pushes and pulls of the integrative efforts towards aesthetic unity and wholeness is all very good, but too much of this “experience” business can turn us into someone obsessed with spots swimming before our eyes.  Too much “experience” and not enough focused thought will be reason’s undoing.  The following (from the same chapter, Chapter 7, The History of Form) is important because it describes a painter’s method:

Matisse has described the actual process of painting in the following way: “If, on a clean canvas, I put at intervals patches of blue, green, and red, with every touch that I put on, each of those previously laid on loses in importance. Say I have to paint an interior; I see before me a wardrobe. It gives me a vivid sensation of red; I put on the canvas the particular red that satisfies me. A relation now exists  between this red and the paleness of the canvas.  When I put on besides a green, and also a yellow to represent the floor, between this green and the yellow and the color of the canvas  there will be still further relations. But these different tones diminish one another. It is necessary that the different tones I use be balanced  in such a way that they do not destroy one another. To secure that, I have to put my ideas in order; the relationship between tones must be instituted in such a way that they are built up instead of being knocked down. A new combination of colors will succeed to the first one and will give the wholeness of my conceptions.”

Now there is nothing different in principle here from what is done in the furnishing of a room, when the householder sees to it that tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, color of walls, and spacing of the pictures on them are so selected and arranged that that do not clash but form an ensemble. **  Even at first glance there is the sense of qualitative unity. There is form.

We are reminded by Dewey’s remarks of Poe’s “A Philosophy of Furniture.”  The principles expounded here by Matisse and Dewey are perfectly sound, nearly to the point of truism.  Matisse is clearly a bridge to abstract expressionism; we can see it in the way he privileges blobs of color.  We doubt Da Vinci painted this way.  In any case, this is Dewey behaving himself, generally drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before:

In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art. Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified perception. Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, sense and situation to its own integral fulfillment. The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without. It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation.  If the matter is of a jolly sort, the form that would be fitting to pathetic matter is impossible. If expressed in a poem, then meter, rate of movement, words chosen, the whole structure, will be different, and in a picture so will the whole scheme of color and volume relationships. In comedy, a man at work laying bricks while dressed in evening clothes is appropriate; the form fits the matter. The same subject-matter would bring the movement of another experience to disaster.

The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to fulfillment.  When we know these means, we know what form is.

Dewey is eloquent even as he propounds the truism that matter and form are mutually self-supporting.  We like this: “a man at work laying bricks…in evening clothes” and “When we know these means, we know what form is.”  We admire Dewey’s attempt to see art as an active process.  These are bracing, healthy statements.

The reader might think: Dewey sounds old-fashioned.  This is radical Modernism?  Yet one must remember: Modernism was a Business.  Conservative-sounding critics like Eliot, Ransom and Dewey were key to radical Modernism’s acceptance and success.

But at our backs we shall hear Modernism’s clunky chariot drawing near.  Dewey is a good man for the task of selling Modernism’s lunacy, precisely because he can sound like a learned Aristotle for days on end.  But he does not forget his agenda: to sell modern art.  First, however, he builds and builds on tradition:

Admiration always includes an element of wonder. As a Renaissance writer said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The quote is from Lord Bacon, and Poe loved this quotation, too, making it famous in both his criticism and fiction.

Poe also said, “The senses sometimes see too little, but they always see too much.”

This statement is almost a summary of the whole bare-boned aesthetic of Modernism, beginning with “Ornament is a crime” by Anthony Loos (1908).

But we doubt Poe would have liked the works of Modernism; he would have found Modernism repellent and dull.  Dewey can sound aesthetically agreeable to almost any time and place for long stretches, to Modernism’s advantage: making abstract remarks on matter and form, for instance, can lend an air of authority to any artistic enterprise; the more abstract the criticism, however, the more likely it is to be fraudulent.  Bad poems, as well as good, have form and content doing the same thing, have rhythm, have ordering systems, etc etc.  But the real test is when we observe the art itself.  One can make a critical laundry list of aesthetic characteristics shared by a masterpiece and a pile of garbage: the dishonest critic can make anything sound good.

We now reach the middle of the chapter where Dewey begins to show his true modernist colors:

Some of the traits mentioned are more often referred to technique than to form. The attribution is correct whenever the qualities in question are referred to the artist rather than to his work. There is a technique that obtrudes, like the flourishes of a writing master. If skill and economy suggest their author, they take us away from the work itself.

Here Dewey frowns upon the individuality of an artist—what else but the input of a unique human could make a work interesting?  His objection is icy and stern.

And here is where his obsession with “experience” begins to betray him; Dewey assumes radical changes in “experience” throughout the ages; should an artist assume we “experience” all sorts of things our ancestors never could?

Significant advances in technique occur, therefore, in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience.

Which leads him to this, which really jumped out at us:

If we take the developments in the major techniques of painting during and since the Renaissance we find that they were connected with efforts to solve problems that grew out of the experience expressed in painting and not out of the craftsmanship of the painting itself.

This is nuts.  We should ignore “the craftsmanship of the painting itself” (think of the craftsmanship of the old masters!) and focus on “experience expressed?”  The vague term, “experience,” has now carried Dewey away.  The great painters of the Renaissance did not pay attention to “the painting itself,” but rather to “experience” that had to be “expressed.”  This begs the question: do we “experience” the craftsmanship of painting itself?  Most certainly we do.  So what, exactly, does Dewey mean, then?  “Experiences” of love and war drove great painting?  “Experiences” of religious devotion?  Dewey never defines these “experiences;” he merely uses the term “experience” to diminish the importance of “craftsmanship” by Renaissance artists, a highly suspicious ploy by a modernist critic.  It is nice to think of Michelangelo, by the use of pure will, transforming his “experiences” into great art.  But we don’t think this is what happened.

There was first the problem of transition from depiction of contours in flat-like mosaics to “three-dimensional” presentations. Until experience expanded to demand expression of something more than decorative renderings of religious themes determined by ecclesiastic fiat there was nothing to motivate this change: In its own place, the convention of “flat” painting is just as good as any other convention, as Chinese rendering of perspective is as perfect in one way as that of Western painting in another. The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art. Something of the same sort applies to the next great change, mastery of means for rendering aerial perspective and light. The third great technical change was the use by the Venetians of color to effect what other schools, especially the Florentine, had accomplished by means of the sculpturesque line—a change indicative of a vast secularization of values with its demand for the glorification of the sumptuous and suave in experience.

Look how often he uses the word “experience.”

This claim is foolish and cannot be proven: “The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art.” What can “growth of naturalism in experience” possibly mean?  As Shakespeare wrote, “Perspective is great painter’s art.”   Surely “perspective” is not put into painting because of a “growth of naturalism,” unless we assume that technique in painting is just an expression of “naturalism,” and in that case, we are not saying anything at all, except to add significance to certain words: experience, naturalism, etc.  And then it becomes the critic’s business to define more rigorously terms such as “experience” and “naturalism,” which finally bankrupts what the “naturalist” critic was trying to say in the first place.

Worse, for Dewey, is that he claims the second great technical change after “three-dimensional presentation” was “rendering aerial perspective and light,” but if he had studied Da Vinci, he would know that light is crucial for “three-dimensionality.”  Art history has this flaw, that it needs to show “advances” in definite historical “stages,” when this only distorts the truth produced by the Renaissance masters.

“The convention of ‘flat’ painting is just as good as any other.”  But then Dewey writes, in a harsh manner, “Thus in the later seventeenth century, the treatment of dramatic movement characteristic of Titian and still more of Tintoretto, by means chiefly of light and shade, is exaggerated to the point of the theatrical. In Guercino, Caravaggio, Feti, Carracci, Ribera, the attempt to depict movement dramatically results in posed tableaux and defeats itself.”

A Modernist can manage abstract theorizing, but whenever they talk history, whenever they start talking about real works from the past, their judgements fly apart.

Given the Modernist agenda, this is not surprising.

KENNETH GOLDSMITH IS NOT A CONCEPTUALIST!

Kenneth-Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith: Not one concept in his head.

If you are really curious about beer, the expert will tell you there are only two kinds: ale and lager.

Likewise, there’s only two kinds of wine: red and white.

I can glance out my window right now and see the sunlight increasing as the clouds disperse, and then notice the artificial light over my desk steadily burning.

Neither the outside light nor the inside light are considered “art,” but what visual art does not take account of it?

We understand terms like the “art of beer” or the “art of wine,” even as we might say to ourselves, “Well, that’s not really art—maybe science…”

But the moment we tackle the “art of art,” we come up against that sort of learned confusion which may befuddle in a pleasant manner those seasoned and learned enough to enjoy such a thing, but which ultimately derails all true understanding.

The confusion is due largely to the great blurring between art and reality mentioned above: if the artificial light above my desk behaved more like the sun on a partly cloudy day, we might even call the constantly changing light emitted by the light bulb above my desk, “art,” just because of  the way the man-fashioned bulb above my desk cunningly copies nature’s changeable light.

This year’s Conceptualism hullabaloo, which happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show which brought modern art to America, is a debate forcing us to acknowledge what is nothing less than art’s most important idea since art began: imitation.

Both John Keats and Kenneth Goldsmith must confront this reality: Art is a pale representation of nature.

Goldsmith’s avant-garde solution is to focus entirely on “representation.”

Conceptualism, in Goldsmith’s case, or in the case of Warhol/Duchamp’s found objects, is a terrible misnomer.

Goldsmith and his Found Poetry takes Nature, or Reality and “finds” it as Poetry, and “find,” here, means purely represent.

We are free to ignore the actual work of Goldsmith’s, as many have pointed out, but this is not due to Conceptualism; it is because of its opposite: Representation.

Reality is art’s flesh, and until art lives, it is not art, but reality.  (How art lives is something we’ll get to in a moment.)

We err whenever we do not understand art as reality first, and art, second.

Plato offended (certain easily offended) artists with this practice: he saw art as reality first—what does art do within reality? was the most important question for Plato.

Found Poetry is an ineffective challenge to Plato, seeking to reverse Plato’s ‘look-at-art-as-reality’ admonition; superficially, Found Poetry is looking at reality as art, but the moment we look at reality as art, we look at art as reality-Plato’s strategy!

To look, as Plato does, at “art as reality,” is to see reality “showing through the art,” as it were; this “look” is the “harsh look of the cynical Critic,” who refuses to see the art on the artist’s terms.

This “look” is, in artistic terms, the methodical “look” which offends aesthetic passivity with its real-life action.

The “raw fact” of art, no matter how intricate, is not allowed to lie there passively; the active Platonist Critic places art in a context of reality—and does not allow it to remove itself into a pure, amoral, state where reality is walled off from the representation (the art).  Once “this wall” is allowed to go up, art is free to make rules for itself that have no connection to reality and to proclaim itself purely valid apart from reality, which, on a grand scale is similar to a person withdrawing from reality into a dream, or a wealthy person cutting themselves off from the everyday needs of others.

Art has moved in this direction, away from Plato, away from art as reality, and towards art as pure art, for over a hundred years, now.  This very movement is defined as Modernism by John Crowe Ransom, in his brilliant essay, “Poets Without Laurels.”   Impressionism in painting, Imagism in poetry, Abstract Painting, a poem like “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens, these are all attempts, along with Found Poetry, to escape Plato and his Conceptualism and to enter into a world of attenuated representation, the sensuality of partial imitation, that is sensual imitation without mind, reason, or morals.  Modernism, for Ransom, not only moves in the direction of “pure art,” or “art for art’s sake,” but it is also a movement of science dividing itself into finer and finer partitions.

The beginner learns about the science of beer or wine, starting with ‘ale or lager,’ ‘white or red,’ but this beginner’s lesson contains all that the expert knows—when it comes to science.  As science gets down to the details of its field, the broader truths must be constantly kept in view, and this should be true of art, as well.

Visual art is concerned with these two: Color or line.

Writing?  Prose or poetry.

These divisions involve the science of art, which is much easier to understand than the art of art.

Plato can be scientific about art, even while morally condemning it, and one could argue it is the scientist in him that morally condemns it, while at the same time, examining it on a purely material level—which Plato did, even though Aristotle took it a little further; Aristotle broke most famously with Plato with his “catharsis” theory, telling the lie that we can “purge” our emotions by bathing in what triggers them.

Even Tom Wolfe got it wrong, then, with his withering critique of Modern Art when he called avant-garde painting the “painted word.” This, again, errs, in the way we have just illustrated: Modern art is not conceptualist; it is merely crudely (purely) representational.   Like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is so obvious, everyone has missed it.   What we call “Conceptualist” is just crudely imitative.

How could so many have been so wrong regarding Conceptualism?

We can easily blame it on two things:

First, Modernism, a movement which is all about “moving ahead, about being self-consciously “modern” while forgetting the past.

And secondly, confusing art and science.

Science tells us there are but two kinds of beer: lager and ale.

Science, too, could also sound wiser by saying: beer as beer is more essential than the distinction between larger and ale.

Science, like criticism, can say anything, can be everywhere at once.

The poor artist, however, needs to imitate and make a certain kind of imitative sense to be effective, even if it is laying on pure color as an abstract artist.

Critics are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not poets.   Unless we call Plato a poet (which he was, according to Shelley).

One of the results of the movement known as Modernism has been the elevation of prose poetry over its cousin, verse.

Verse, in Modernism’s eyes, is crudely denotative, rather than suggestive—the key to poetic prose.

Just as every discriminating artist is concerned with both line and color, every writer should create art that both denotes and suggests.

If we look at the matter scientifically, we will find that metrics can aid both denotation and suggestion, and the same goes with prose meaning.

Modernism, with its crippling -isms, needs to be done away with at last.

Drink all kinds of beer.

Don’t call Kenneth Goldsmith a “Conceptualist” ever again.

RENAISSANCE VERSUS MODERNISM IN A ROMANTICISM SMACK-DOWN!

Michael Drayton—a metaphysical poet never included with the Metaphysicals—takes on John Crowe Ransom

The sweet flower that was Romanticism (late 18th cent—early 19th cent, Amer Rev, French Rev, Napolean, Beethoven) has its roots in the Renaissance (and its Ancient Greek re-discovery) and throws its shade on 20th century Modernism, cooling many a tortured, modern brow. 

Michael Drayton, a courtly poet and Shakespeare contemporary, who is easily as metaphysical as Donne, drew his love-metaphysics from Dante and Petrarch by way of Plato, and indulged in it so wonderfully, he may have put this type of poetry to rest forever. 

We are not sure why Drayton—born 10 years before Donne—never gets included with the so-called “Metaphysical Poets.”  We are just stupid not to cast a wider net.  T.S. Eliot, with his friend Ezra Pound, in the name of a narrow Modernist agenda, may be to blame.  The Modernists were often not so much critics as gerrymanderers. 

If you want metaphysical paradox, read Michael Drayton.  Then you may talk to us about John Donne.

This is Drayton’s most anthologized poem, and perhaps his least metaphysical one.

THE PARTING—Michael Drayton

SINCE there ‘s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
   –Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
   From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

We have always admired this popular poem: the firm, mono-syllabic “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part—Nay, I have done, you get no more of me; and I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,” dissovling, finally in the hopeful, wavering of “yet recover” is wonderful. 

Great poems, in how they sound and in how they talk, and in how they simultaneously picture things, are like dreams, and this one resembles a dream.

Its Modernist counter is John Crowe Ransom’s, the poem we think is his best; often anthologized, “The Blue Girls.”

THE BLUE GIRLS—John Crowe Ransom
 
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
 
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
 
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
 
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
 
No matter what one thinks of John Crowe Ransom, this poem is a masterpiece—an array of characters is presented: “bluebirds, blue girls, teachers old and contrary,” the poet with “loud lips” who will “publish Beauty, Beauty itself that is “so frail,” and then, when the stage has been filled in a mere 12 lines, the final stanza packs a wallop and unites all in one more character: “a woman with a terrible tongue, blear eyes fallen from blue.” 
 
It is with a beautiful poignance that the poet finally celebrates the “woman” over the “blue girls,” with the magnificent final line,  “Since she was lovelier than any of you.”
 
Ransom moves on, defeating Drayton, 72-69!
 
 
 
 

IS T.S. ELIOT ROMANTIC ENOUGH TO WIN THIS TOURNAMENT?

 T.S. Eliot: Who the hell was this guy, really?  What the hell was Modernism, really?
The way in certain parts of the country summer arrives in a single moment after the vagueries of spring’s warm and chilly tease, Modernism made its entrance quite suddenly into English-speaking Letters in the person of T.S. Eliot around the year 1915.
A rumor got started when Modernism began (early 20th century) that Poe’s poetry was admired by the French more than it should have been because of what was lost/gained in translation.  Poe-hater Harold Bloom called it the “French Poe” phenomenon.  It was troubling to certain moderns that the French, those subtle, ingenious, Parisian inventors of modern poetry, were besotted with Edgar Poe.  As an English-speaker, you couldn’t admire Poe if you were truly modern; Poe was too Byronic, too classical, too fussy, too correct, too chaste. (Poe also disliked Emerson—whom Bloom champions) Poe was timeless, not modern.
If Modernism was anything, it was irreverant; it was naughty and naughty now.  Not Poe at all.
Despite all the talk, it all comes down to this.
Nice. v. Naughty.  (Even as the “naughty” might be covered up in “learned” blather to keep things “honest.”)
Poe was icy, and the French, hot and cold, found Poe’s temperature bracing, and to their liking, but their modernism could survive the addition of a stranger speaking a foreign tongue, one like Poe who made it quite known that he preferred the French to the British.
So in the beginnings of English-speaking Modernism, Poethe American, who conceived a new genre of literature whose detective was French, and who was both classically chaste and a loud critic hearkening back to the correctness of an Alexander PopePoe was all wrong.  Poe wasn’t decadently subtle and seedy enough, and for men like Pound and Eliot, Poe was a horror—Poe had to be kept hence.
Aldous Huxley, who was born 6 years after Eliot, a wealthy, connected Englishman who died in California while on LSD, burned Poe at the stake, calling him “vulgar” and stating that Poe’s French admirers had made a grave error because of the language difference.  Henry James, the teacup author, a blood-thick anglophile like Eliot, also dripped with scorn in putting Poe in his place: boyish-loser.
You can’t be a tweedy, pessimistic, world-weary, experimental British modern if you are brightly USA-ish and boyish.
Eliot supplied Modernism with its tone of mature pessimism.  Poe was a hopeful “Tom Swift” adventurist, by comparison.
But if Poe, the whiz-bang American, was distorted favorably by the sophisticated, avant-garde French, perhaps Modern Anglo-american poetry was nothing more than a favorable distortion of the French going the other wayEliot admired certain ‘bad boys’ of decadent, 19th century French poetry, and modern English poetry, reaching for that irreverence which distinguished it, found in a poet like Jules Laforgue the French lens which could justify and validate its practice in English.
The Longfellow War (street-wise journalist Poe v. Harvard academic Longfellow) continued in the 20th century in a Paris salon.
Was Jules Laforgue a great poet?  Or, more importantly, did Laforgue’s poetry hit like a bomb because of the particular way it innoculated a certain tribe of Americans as a French vaccination?  If one of Pound and Eliot’s pals had written Laforgue’s poetry, they would have probably envied it as the product of a unique, eccentric personality by a fellow-traveler; but as it came from a recently dead Frenchman, it sprang upon them as a kind of cultural-aesthetic truthLaforgue’s petty sentimentalism and vulgarity, through the distance of its translation, became towering irony and sophistication.
Innovative success in the arts invariably involves foreign influence; it provides that necessary stamp of worldliness and learning, that automatic ‘otherness’ which frightens some and encourages others in the home country—the ensuing tension, camp-arguments,and general excitement feeding the revolutionary (moral-loosening) change.
The importance of Paris to Modernism cannot be underestimated: avant-garde, after all, is a French word.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Modern Art Show in New York, as the American public caught wind of European modern/Cubist art; art and poetry swirled about, hand-in-hand, like two dancers, as Modernism began to become popular just prior to World War One.
Laforgue influenced both Eliot and Duchamp.  The early modern art collector who gave the opening speech at the Armory show, John Quinn, negotiated the publishing deal for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.”  Quinn, a secret associate of Aleister Crowley, was also Eliot and Pound’s lawyer. It was the same joke: the ugly having a laugh at the beautiful.  As the wife of a Cubist painter who befriended the young Duchamp, before his “Nude Descending A Staircase” made a big splash at the Armory Show, put it:
[Duchamp and Picabia] emulated one another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all foundations of life in general.   —-from Picasso and the Chess Player
It really had nothing to do with theory or aesthetics.  Modernism sought to tear down, on a whim, the virtues of the past. (Or to put it more simply, virtue.)  Which, naturally, becomes a theoretical-aesthetic issue (of which any reasonably intelligent person can blather on about)—but Modernism was an act of irreverence first, an issue of aesthetics, later.
No art movement is going to announce to the world that it seeks to be immoral.  This is neither sensible, nor even cool.  But this is the unspoken truth of Modernism, and the unspoken truth of it is precisely why it quickly became covered in terms like “symbolism” and “cubism,” terms that were never accurate or agreed upon (even by the so-called “symbolists’ or “cubists” or “imagists” themselves) by anyone, merely betraying to the wise what was really going on: the “symbol” is merely to distract you from the fact that poet X, some years ago, completely lost his mind, and requires your pity, not your admiration.
We love the modern arts the way we pity wounded animals: it is not love or admiration, but it is a strong feeling.
But isn’t this what the artists always do?  They trick us into strong feelings.
The “science” of Modern art has always been suspect—the “fourth dimension” of Cubism, for instance, was something Picasso and others merely laughed at; Modernism has always been Romanticism by other means, the “other means” in this example the fourth-dimension of Cubism, which helps the ‘validity’ of the modern art industry if at least some rubes swallow its “learned” nonsense.
Conceptual art, which “Modernists” like Duchamp created when they were still “Modernists,” evolved out of Modernism only because Modernism’s trappings—existing to cover up the fact that it was an emotional continuation of Romanticism—naturally went in that direction; faux braininess covering up mere hysteria, passion and tears.
The Scarriet March Madness poem-entry by Eliot is miles from Pope, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Tennyson, but not from any technical innovation or revolutionary approach; it is merely a poem of feeling sans morality and beauty.  Eliot is far more emotional than Shelley, for instance; Eliot veers into hysteria, and thus more realism and less art is required to keep the hysteria in check.
Jules Laforgue, who died at 27, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born,  has long existed as a profound, partially-hidden influence to the whole modern art/poetry world.  Stephen Spender pointed out that young Eliot—from a respectable Boston American family with Emerson connections and re-settled in St. Louis—was not only profoundly influenced by Laforgue’s cynical, jokey, naughty, pessimistic poetry, but also by the way Laforgue dressed: formally, like a gentleman banker.
The Romantic trope: a Shelley with shirt open, panting beneath the full moon at midnight was cleverly reversed by the T.S. Eliot persona via the Jules Laforgue persona—for several reasons, not immediately obvious to unsuspecting readers of poetry.
Even regular readers of Scarriet may not know the answer.  Here it is:
1. With the impending rise of the Program Era (Robert Lowell teaching at Paul Engle’s Iowa after leaving Harvard to study with Alan Tate (Princeton Writing Program teacher) and John Crowe Ransom, Eliot and Pound’s American Modernist Fugitive/New Critic university foot-soldiers), poets would soon be the ‘teacher wearing suit’ model, not the Shelley model.
2. The art collector/banker/lawyer was the new persona of the elite art/poetry world in the 20th century.
3. Eliot’s buttoned-up image masked the fact that Modernism was far more emotional/hysterical than Romanticism, and, in fact, hysteria was the whole of Modernism, all its so-called “theory” a distracting ruse.
Modernism is the very opposite of what is advertised; it does not present less pure, floating emotion, but more—and this is the sole reason why formally it is what it is—and the trick is that there really is no “formal” reality whatsoever to Modernism—it is whatever bit of catchiness can be made up by word-smiths on the fly, (the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, the Pounds) who are beholden to the art dealers and wealthy patrons who fund the parties, and buy-low-sell-high at the art auctions.
Let’s call the “ism” what it really is: Money-ism.
Duchamp journeyed to New York in 1915. He was met at the pier by the art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter PachPach worked for John Quinn, T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s attorney.  Enter another Walter: Walter Arensberg, wealthy art patron and poet, who put up Duchamp in a Broadway apartment and hosted plenty of orgies and parties in another lavish apartment nearby.  Walter Arensberg, who translated Jules Laforgue, was the co-conspirator in Duchamp’s “Fountain by R. Mutt” (urinal) museum “ready-made” publicity stunt in 1917.
The poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (Pound’s friend) also belonged to the modern art investor Walter Arensberg’s circle.
Below is a quote from a just-published book on Picasso and Duchamp, Picasso and the Chess Player by Larry Witham, University Press of New England, 2013.  We see in it the familar rhetoric of modernism/post-modernism history: we always get some “theory” by way of a catchy phrase which the author dutifully quotes from one of the (con) artists—in this case, Ezra Pound.  Rhetoric is all it is, since, in this particular instance, “objects” have always been, and always will be, a part of art and poetry: the theory is of no importance; it is only a smokescreen to cover the ‘buy low/sell high’ enterprise—and the elite, hysterical, socially-connected parties.  Modernism wasn’t about “word-objects;” it was about “sentiments:” celebrities and their hedonism.  Modernism was “Realism,” because it was Romanticsm outside of the art—at the parties.  The “theory” was mere bait for the newspapers—and “scholars,” whose talk puffed up the cash value of the “art.”
All around [Duchamp] the new aesthetic was about photographs of objects and the new poetry, which a’ la Gertrude Stein and others, was about word-objects. A mere object—and any would do—could be photographed and called fine art, as Stieglitz had shown. [by photographing Duchamp’s urinal.] A poem, by the same token, could be simply a string of words about objects. This was the modernist poetry advanced by Stein in Paris, Ezra Pound in London, and William Carlos Williams in the Arensberg circle: the focus was on objects, particulars, not the big ideas, symbols, sentiments, or themes of past verse. As Pound said, “Direct treatment of the ‘thing.'” Besides chess, the modernist view of language was the intellectual content of the otherwise hedonist Arsenberg salon: the group was interested in linguistic games, puns, and little magazines.   —Larry Witham
After all that introduction, here is Eliot’s poem in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Romanticism Tourney:
HYSTERIA—T.S. Eliot
 
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles.   An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden …”   I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.
Eliot’s opponent is the French Romantic poet, Gerard de Nerval.

GOLDEN SAYINGS (trans Richard Sieburth)
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855)

So you alone are blessed with thought, free-thinking man,
In a world where life bursts forth from everything?
You are free to dispose of forces at your command
But the universe is absent from your well-laid plans.

Honor each creature for the mind in which it takes part:
Each flower is a soul turned towards Nature’s face;
Each metal hides some ancient mystery of the heart;
“All things feel!” And all you are is within their art.

Beware, even blind walls may spy on you:
Even dumb matter is imbued with voice…
Put not its precious stuff to impious use.

The most obscure of beings may house a hidden god;
And like the new-born eye pouched within its lids,
Pure mind drives its bud through the husk of stones.

Nerval’s poem warns, “honor each creature” and of objects (“dumb matter”) “put not its precious stuff to impious use.”  He’s seems to be talking to the reckless, hysterical “impious” moderns.

Of course, Nerval’s poem, as wise as it is, does suffer from didactisim; Eliot’s poem is realism, squeezed out of actual social horror.

Guiltily, we prefer Eliot’s car-wreck.

The crowd pushes forward, rooting for Eliot; it is impossible for Nerval to concentrate.

Madness in the arena!

The referees are making strange calls!

Eliot wins, 99-77!

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

HERE COMES THE MADNESS

Compared to the “Romantic” Byron, the last modern poet, the Modernists are just morose.

More Bracket news for Scarriet’s March Madness 2013

Byron’s entry is the first 6 stanzas of the third Canto of Don Juan. 

John Crowe Ransom, leading the petulant Modernist trampling of Romanticism, in one of his essays, specifically picked out Byron as not being modern enough to use as a model.  But Byron, to these ears, seem more modern than Ransom.  “Hail, Muse! et cetera,” says it all.

Perhaps it might be argued that Byron was really more 18th century, more Alexander Pope, than a classic 19th century Romantic. 

But does Bach speak a different language than Brahms

Is Auden’s language really that different from Byron’s?

Poetry, perhaps, need to relax about the “big change” that happened “around 1910.”

From Don Juan, Byron

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Any number of poems by Shelley could bring him a championship, but we think “The Cloud” is a good choice.

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noon-day dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the Sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over Earth and Ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit Sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine äery nest,
As still as a brooding dove.

That orbed maiden with white fire laden
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof, of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her, and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanos are dim and the stars reel and swim
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof —
The mountains its columns be!
The triumphal arch, through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the Air, are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured Bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores, of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die —
For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air —
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, live a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again.

Another heavy favorite to go all the way, this by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, needs no introduction:

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.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
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.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2013: THE SOUL OF ROMANTICSM

To amuse our readers, each year, Scarriet puts together a bracket of 64 poets/poems for a “March Madness” Tournament of Criticism that figures up winners, losers, and finally one champion.

It’s crazy, we know.

One cannot reconcile the enjoyment and contemplation of a poem with a competition between that poem and another poem.

That’s nuts, right?

It’s not like we ever use the critical faculty of comparison to read poetry!

Okay, maybe we do, but comparison has nothing to do with competition, right?

Well…okay, maybe…and so March Madness for poetry was born.

There is a natural interest in Poetry March Madness for those who like poems, and it’s a good way to learn new poems, and re-think old poems, too.

There are still those purists who object…but more seem to be realizing that it’s harmless fun.

The challenge  is that each year for Scarriet March Madness we need to find new anthologies and new poems.

This year’s theme will be the Soul Of Romanticism, Old and New.

Tony Hoagland made the biggest splash at the AWP this year, striking another controversial blow against post-modern obscurity, asking for poetry of “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity.”  These virtues in poetry are associated mostly with the great Romantics, like Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hugo and Goethe. 

Poets of Hoagland’s generation studied Keats and Byron in their English classes, those modern-ish marvels of poet’s poetry, and poets such as Keats were fixtures of literary study—not electives, but the main course if you were reading poetry in school.

The Romantics were central; they looked back, self-consciously, to the Greeks, to Dante and the troubadour poets, (and Shakespeare, of course) and they also looked forward to poets like Millay, Frost, Eliot and Larkin, with the New Critics and the Beats steering an uneasy and experimental shift, in school and on the street, respectively, towards a yet unrealized future—and it still seems that way, for ‘the future’ has arrived not so much with new greatness, but with millions of specialist, experimental Writing  Program poets, the Frankenstein experiment of New Critical scientists like John Crowe Ransom—the American T.S. Eliot—who helped friends like Paul Engle, starting slowly,  back in the late 1930s, to get ‘New Writing’ professors/poets to replace Keats professors “watering their own gardens.”

So here we are, with Hoagland and his allies asking for “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity,” and those like Gallaher, Perloff, and Silliman horrified.

Scarriet has selected 64 poems, new and old, we call, loosely, The Soul of Romanticism.  Ben Mazer, who won Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness championship last year, is one of the new proponents of what might be called a new Romantic school, or perhaps in Mazer’s case, the Twighlight of Ashbery-ism.

Mazer also happens to be a scholar helping to revive interest in John Crowe Ransom, among a number of other projects. It just so happens that Ransom, and his Modernist circle of friends, felt the need to self-consciously move beyond Romanticism, which we feel was an error, since building on the past is a natural thing, and the worst thing (like cutting off the nose to spite the face) is abandoning it. Mazer, like the Romantics, is mostly a lyric poet, but with other genres and models hectically included as inspiration sees fit.

The world is where the Romantic poet does his experimentation; the Modernist confines his experiments mostly to the poem itself.   This seems a rather obvious distinction, but few seem to make it.

Perhaps the Romantic mode—experimenting in the world rather than on the poem—is a more exciting way to ‘make it new.’  And, further perhaps experiment isn’t everything when it comes to art.  Take that, Perloff.

There are four Number One Seeds in the four brackets—sixteen poems in each bracket.

The following poem will be in the 2013 Tournament.  Will it be a Number One Seed?

It has a handicap.  It requires translation.  It is by Goethe, “The Holy Longing.”

Tell old wisdom what you feel
Or else shut up, because it won’t seem real
To your friends. They’ll just make fun of you—
Quietly dreaming of burning to death will have to do.

In the calm sighings of the love-nights,
Where you were made, where you, too, kissed in the shade,
You now feel a powerful yearning
When you glimpse the silent candle burning.

Come on!  Older and wiser today,
Your childish obsession with the dark has faded away;
You love serene lights in the sky,
And aren’t afraid to look in an old man’s eye.

You don’t care how long you burn
Or the journey lasts, or how long you yearn;
You want the light madly, that’s blinking on—
You are the moth, and now you are gone.

Your thoughts are empty, you want to rest,
You don’t understand your own worth—
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

We have taken the liberty of using our own translation.

Goethe’s famous poem is the essence of Romanticism: a certain lyric modesty (merely a song) together with a human touch, and a penetrating presence of soul.

Who can bring it in this way, today?

Who did it best, then?

Find out in this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament 2013!

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.

THOSE WACKY NEW CRITICS AND THEIR ‘INTENTIONAL FALLACY’ FALLACY

New Critic John Crowe Ransom: the American face of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

All poets and critics do one of two things: mystify or clarify. 

The New Critics were mystics.  The mystic’s strategy is simple: “You may consider this, but not that.”   The mystic wants you to consider some interesting effect, but not the cause, not what links the cause to the effect, and not what is finally good about the whole thing. 

The clarifier will always ask: “How does the process work, from beginning to end, and whom does it benefit?” 

The mystic will say: It doesn’t matter what is good about this thing, but we shall closely examine it for the mere sake of its existence.

The mystic will be applauded for his patient and thorough scholarship; the clarifier will be rejected for being impertinent.

A typical New Critical document, “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt & Beardsley) insists that we focus on whether the poem “works” or not—and that we dismiss the authorial intention.  Let’s ignore one of the links in the chain, say the New Critics; focusing on the author, they say, belongs to psychology or history, not criticism—but why should calling something “psychology” or “history” be an excuse to reduce the tools available to the critic?  Surely, when a literary critic makes psychological or historical observations of a literary work, these observations belong to the critical examination of the literary work—how could it be otherwise? 

Categories—poem, poet, reader, history, psychology, form, content—are meant to organize, not limit

A child learning soccer is instructed to kick “through” the ball; the dynamics of any activity calls for a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

The New Critics do not get this.

Plato does.

From Plato’s “Ion:”

You are not master of any art for the illustration of Homer but it is a divine influence which moves you, like that which resides in the stone called Magnet by Euripides, and Heraclea by the people. For not only does this stone possess the power of attracting iron rings but it can communicate to them the power of attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of rings and other iron substances attached and suspended one to the other by this influence. And as the power of the stone circulates through all the links of this series and attaches each to each, so the Muse communicating through those whom she has first inspired to all others capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession. For the authors of those great poems which we admire do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own.  (translated by Percy B. Shelley)

Socrates surveys the whole field: “a long chain of [magnetic] rings.”

The New Critics had a different approach: the “chain” was rejected for one ring: the work.

It really takes very little to refute the New Critics, who spent the better part of the 20th century back-tracking, qualifying and apologizing for their famous theories—and it’s no wonder.  Poets are often marked by an individual style—recognizable in all their works; but how does a literary critic explain this by only focusing on the work?  Or, what of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition?” A poet shows what he wanted to do and how he did it.  Is this a “fallacy?” How can the “intention” here, even if flawed, be ignored?  What is a poem, if not an “intention?”  We could call the bloody things intentions instead of poems and it would more accurately describe what they are.  Surely poems are not random? 

To understand a poem, we would do quite well to work backwards from the poem to the authorial intention.  The movement along the chain of cause and effect, forwards and backwards, is the best way to explain any process.  The New Critics, however, would search for the “meaning” (their favorite word) within the poem itself, which is to ignore the arc and fall into an abyss of close-reading—especially since The New Critics believed meaning in a poem should occur indirectly.  The New Critic tends to have a mind like a swamp, not a clear, running stream—which is no surprise, given their passive focus on the poem: only one of the links in the great chain.

The New Critics would perhaps like it if we examined their Criticism in a manner similar to how they would have us examine a poem, but we intend to do no such thing; we should like to rather stand back from the process and enlighten our readers of the New Critics’ intention.   The New Critics were not interested in morals or principles; their strength and influence came from their anti-Soviet position—which favors a “chain” of command coming from the state: Here is the moral poem we, your Soviet leaders, want you to write; please write this moral poem so we might have a moral influence upon our citizens.  Thank you. 

By heroically opposing the “Soviet plan,” the New Critics belonged to a critical temper that opposed all plans, whether it was a plan by Socrates, Karl Marx or Edgar Allan Poe.  A plan has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the New Critics were only for the midde: damn the poet and damn the audience; let us say as many ironic and wacky things about “the text” as we can possibly say—thus triumphed the “Difficult School” and poets who were obscure, indirect, eccentric, learned, quirky, and downright crazy, perhaps—for only then could “the text” be “interesting” enough to open itself to fascinating “close-readings.”

But when the New Critics got down to actually doing their close-readings, the result was tedious in the extreme.  How was it they had nothing new to say about the poems of Keats and Donne?  Because the New Critics themselves existed only to oppose something: Soviet planning.  It has recently come to light that 20th century Modern Art was a C.I.A. propaganda operation by the freedom-loving, Capitalist West (and a successful one, at that) against Soviet Art.  Whether you buy this, or not, the larger point is that the New Critics ‘had a plan’ and indulged in a Criticism that ‘opposed plans,’ for as you pick through the influential New Critics’ rhetoric, it’s shocking to see how well…banal, amoral and empty it is.  And this, no doubt, was intentional.

There is a second crucial aspect to the New Critics—in addition to their l’art pour l’art, anti-Soviet planning character.  If the New Critic arguments are so easy to refute, why were they so influential, anyway?  Scarriet is just crazy enough to specialize in this kind of arcane knowledge—and we shall give you the secret.  There is more to the New Critcs than meets the eye; through their connections, they were chosen to change liberal studies programs in American higher education; in other words, their importance springs from the fact that millions of students became their “audience” almost overnight.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by a couple of New Critics, became the poetry textbook in high schools and colleges for half-a-century.  The New Critics were not influential due to their raw talent (as brilliant as they were); they seized upon authority in Education.  

Bear with us here: The New Critics’ ‘intentional fallacy’ fallacy sprang from their anti-Soviet Sovietizing of U.S. Academia. 

The New Critic blandness was perfectly in keeping with their role as academic policy-makers.  This explains the mystery of why the New Critics were at once 1) wildly popular and 2) strangely boring. 

The Creative Writing Program Era also sprang from the New Critics: Paul Engle was indebted to the New Critics, chosen for his 1932 Yale Younger by one of their circle.  Ransom’s late 30s essay “Criticism, Inc.,” pushes strongly for two things: 1) the “new writing” and 2) academia as the proper place for literary criticism—not, for instance, independent newspaper or magazine journalism.  In Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” the enemy is the English Department professor who teaches Keats.

Despite their gin-swilling Southern charm, despite their opposition to drab Soviet political-correctness, despite their high modernism, and their sexy l’art pour l’art sensibility, the New Critics were nerds, and finally too brainy and Romantic-hating for their own good. 

It’s easy to see why the New Critics resented the sexy Romantics—who, influenced by Plato, focused on the whole chain of poetry’s existence, including the unique poet, the cause of unique poetry.  (The hatred of the Romantics and Poe by the New Critics was extreme.) The New Critics  found themselves in charge of U.S. Higher Education in Letters and decided poetry did not belong to any chain of influence, but rather it belonged to “a text,” one fit for the examination table—poetry became, for the New Critics, their godfather T.S. Eliot’s “etherized patient.”

The New Critics were conservative, not only because the New Critics opposed the Russian Revolution, along with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—Eliot and Pound hated the Russians almost as much as they hated the Romantics—not only because the New Critics were explicit defenders of Old South values in the 1930s during their “I’ll Take My Stand” phase, and not only because the New Critics were academics—the New Critics attached themselves to the Right-wing European Modernism of Pound and Eliot.  The whole thread of French 19th century avant-garde/20th century American avant-garde was, in many respects, a narrowing right-wing phenomenon, not a progressive left-wing one–and thus it makes sense that the modernist “New” Critics were reactionary.  But the paradoxical New Critics were also very American: their heirs are the professional writing programs that operate like businesses—in the name of  “open,” “progressive” art.

There is a lesson for all here: take the widest possible view. Move back and forth over the whole chain.

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

SETH ABRAMSON: HIS MFA RESEARCH & QUIXOTIC SUCKING-UP TO THE AVANT GARDE

Allen Tate: radical, avant-garde, anti-critic, and poet: one of the make-it-New-critics. 

Seth Abramson is following in Thomas Brady’s footsteps—Seth is trying to comprehend what I figured out a few years ago: the crucial Fugitive/Southern Agrarian/New Critic role in modern American poetry, especially in the Creative Writing Program Industry, or, as it’s come to be known, the Program Era.

Seth commented on our blog last week and we are quoted on his blog in “There’s A War On in American Poetry (Part II): Were the New Critics the Original MFA-Killers?” July 8, 2012:

I saw a textbook example of the confusion over the role of the New Criticism in the advent of “creative writing” just yesterday, in a mini-essay on a poetry discussion blog. Someone wrote, on that blog, that “[t]he New Critics–who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee–hatched the Creative Writing Industry.” The first part is, of course, true: the New Critics were the “next phase” of the Southern Agrarian group. The second part is entirely a fiction. Not only does the historical evidence reveal no association between the New Critics and the Program Era, it also strongly suggests that the New Critics were aspiring MFA-killers many, many years before their ideological cousins, the avant-garde, attempted the same feat. 

Seth doesn’t want to believe the New Critics were associated with the Program Era.

The reason is simple, and Seth’s agenda, despite the great research he’s doing, is very transparent.

Seth wants to be one of the cool kids.

He wants his beloved MFA programs to be considered cool by the Avant-Garde.

As Seth sees it, the academy is not cool.  Nor are Southern Agrarian/New Critics. The New Critics are way not cool.

Seth would sleep with Marjorie Perloff before he would read one of John Crowe Ransom’s rhymes, or admit that Shelley was a genius and ought to be taught in the academy (shudder).

No, Seth wants nothing to do with classical learning or the Romantics or the New Critics.  Seth embraces the “free studio” Writers Workshop model in highly subsidized MFA programs where teachers humbly “get out of the way”and let fortunate and funded students “find themselves” among their comrades in hip,”radically democratic, non-academic”creative writing environments.

Seth’s dilemma in a nutshell: he’s for democracy and believes in the democracy of teaching poetry in the “free studio” atmosphere of funded MFA programs, but the avant-garde, which he loves, is not democratic, and never will be.  Both the avant-garde and the New Critics are elitist and Seth’s real agenda is to make the avant-garde more democratic.

Seth’s quixotic vision is admirable on the surface. He imagines poet millions trampling on professors, professionalization, elitism, priviledge, hierachy, and genius. As Seth sees it, the New Critics wanted to turn poets into professors.  (If one reads the New Critics, one sees this is not the case, at all.) The New Critics themselves didn’t start MFA programs; on the contrary, they wanted them killed. (This is not really true, either.  They may not have started MFA programs, but their surrogates did.  Iowa belonged to the Fugitive/Agrarian/New Critics—Paul Engle was one of them).

In Seth’s rush to be cool and to make Creative Writing and MFA programs seem cool to people like Marjorie Perloff, he’s been blinded by labels and categories.  (“Cool” is invariably fooled by over-reliance on false categories and labels.)

Seth’s two key distinctions are: One is either academic or not; one is either creative writing, or not.

Seth would have us believe that Paul Engle and Jorie Graham are not academics, or that someone with an MA or BA in English cannot be a “creative writer.”

In terms of history, Seth thinks that because none of the New Critics founded MFA programs, or because the New Critics served as Think Tank professors and textbook authors in the academy, this is proof they were hostile to MFA programs and Creative Writing, in general.

Now, Seth is correct that Creative Writing, per se, was never the ultimate goal of the New Critics.

The New Critics were highly influential businessmen—and their mission was simple: their own writing’s acceptance in the academy.  But their execution, one might say, was complex.  The New Critics were not really Critics, so much as Critic-bashers.  They crudely assaulted other methodologies—in order that they might impose their own, which was merely a grab-bag of outrageous rhetoric intended to bomb the enemy—the academy as it existed—into submission.  Read Allen Tate’s “Is Literary Criticism Possible?” and you’ll see exactly what we mean.  How did Tate answer his titular question? No, it’s not. Only poems are possible.  So much for the idea that the New Critics were more interested in Criticism and Hiearchy than in the flowering of new poems.

New Criticism’s rhetoric is the whole basis for the Creative Writing Workshop.

Here is the poet and prominent New Critic, one of the original Fugitive and Southern Agrarian members, Allen Tate, in that essay just mentioned:

There is no competition among poems. A good poem suggests the possibility of other poems equally good. But criticism is perpetually obsolescent and replaceable.

Is this not, in a nutshell, the philosophy of English and poetry in Higher Ed which has led us away from the rigorous teaching of classical learning right up to the Romantics and Poe, to the Brave New World, 20th century, freedom of the Creative Writing workshop?  It is, indeed.  Until Seth does a close reading of what the New Critics actually wrote, he should not be so certain that the New Critics had nothing to do with Creative Writing.

The New Critics need to be seen in both their narrower, self-interested context, as well as in their wider, historical context—as the American arm of Pound’s Euro-Modernists.  The men who came to be known as Fugitives, and then Southern Agrarians, and then New Critics, did not wake up each morning concerned with the categories which Seth Abramson has assigned overriding importance—but a hard look at what really occured in these individual’s lives will impact, or should impact, Seth’s research, nonetheless. Seth must certainly understand that we should let the material provide us with ideas, rather than imposing our ideas on the material.

Seth sees division of labor within a company and confuses it with that company’s supposed ideology.  He doesn’t understand the New Critics. But nobody really does.  We will clear that up.

The ground has to be softened up.  College administrators are simply not going to allow books of poetry to serve as the sole determination for undergraduate or advanced degree requirements overnight, or ever—no matter how attractive Seth, or students who hate to learn, find the idea. 

Teaching kids “creative writing” might be OK for some poets, but founding and administering and making it successful is the sort of dirty work the New Critics were not not interested in doing.  To effect a revolution in the academy requires “academicially conservative” creds.  Yahoos don’t effect changes in school curricula.  You need professors and theorists with an air of respectability—such as the New Critics, throwing off their quasi-racist Southern Agrarian robes, earned gradually over the years—to do that. 

This is a common error the avant-garde, or radical democrats, such as Seth, make: they believe stuffy or high-brow always means conservative. The New Critics’ conservative exterior was nothing more than a necessary front that allowed them to deconstruct the academy.

The New Critics, with their Confederate flags and gin, made very clear in learned essays written in the 30s, 40s and 50s, that they hated the academy as it then existed.  It was similar to the hatred Ezra Pound, for instance, had for it. 

To put it in really simple terms: the Modernist poets in the early 20th century were outsiders who wanted in.  In, if it couldn’t be popularity, was the Academy.  The simplicity of this—a certain group of ambitious poets and poet/critics who associated with one another in various ways, and who were outside, and wanted in—should not put us off.  In fact, ambition is the bouncing ball we should keep our eye on.  What else is more real?  Methodology?  School loans?  Academic professionalism? 

One doesn’t need to get into a lot of ideological claptrap or aesthetic theory to tell this story.  One doesn’t have to stop at a certain number of “Modernist poets” or worry about that label, or take it too seriously; it’s merely an historical handle.

We know the players: Ezra Pound, his colleague T.S. Eliot (father of New Criticsm), and so on and so on, with the various circles, connections, motives, and general aesthetic ideas.  We know the places: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Harvard, Iowa.

The connections are not always easy to trace.

Just to take one example: Paul Engle, perhaps the most important player in Creative Writing, had Fugitive links.  He was awarded his Yale Younger in 1932 (which gave him an important credential or calling card at the time) by a member of Ransom’s Fugitive Circle for his Iowa Master’s thesis.  At this time the “New Critics” were still the “Southern Agrarians.”  As one can readily see, this gets complicated very quickly and such research, as Seth already knows, is not for the faint of heart.  Engle was also a  Rhodes Scholar and studied in England—like almost all of the Fugitive/Southern Agrarians.

Robert Lowell was the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster: Lowell’s psychiatrist was—another Fugitive!—and he sent Lowell from Harvard to the New Critics’ castle in Tennessee, where Lowell famously camped out on Allen Tate’s lawn.  Lowell studied with Ransom (and roomed with Jarrell) at Kenyon; Lowell and his famous name then became the first celebrity Workshop teacher at Iowa for Paul Engle. 

Seth is a sincere radical democrat and so the actions of a small band of ambitious poets is not going to impress him, I know.  But surely he needs to acknowledge that here the seeds of Creative Writing were being sown.  Origins are everything: the rest tends to arrive with a little shrewd administration.

Let’s look at a passage from New Critic and poet John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc.”  Read this carefully, and it is easy to see that “criticism” is not really this New Critic’s concern.  What Ransom is really interested in is “Contemporary Literature” (that is, poems written by himself and his friends like Allen Tate—well, this is natural, isn’t it?).  The enemy to the New Critics in all their writings were the English Professors lovingly protecting their historical periods—while ignoring the new writing.  This was the nut that had to be cracked.  Creative Writing—getting contemporary poets into the academy as teachers—was simply one practical way of doing that.  The New Critics pushed for the new writing against all sorts of already established criticism and scholarship—the New Critics, wearing their ‘scholarly, critical,’ respectable garb, were, in fact, soldiers for Pound, Williams, and the avant-garde. (Pound & Williams are both praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry (first ed. 1937) whereas Poe, for instance, is attacked.)  Listen to Ransom, without any evidence, making his grand pronouncements, and note the attack-dog method:

It is not anybody who can do criticism. And for example, the more eminent  (as historical scholar) the professor of English, the less apt he is to be able to write decent criticism, unless it is about another professor’s work of historical scholarship, in which case it is not literary criticism. The professor may not be without aesthetic judgments respecting an old work, especially if it is “in his period,” since it must often have been judged by authorities whom he respects. Confronted with a new work, I am afraid it is very rare that he finds anything particular to say. Contemporary criticism is not at all in the hands of those who direct the English studies. Contemporary literature, which is almost obliged to receive critical study if it receives any at all, since it is hardly capable of the usual historical commentary, is barely officialized as a proper field for serious study.

Here is contmporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?  They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods. So are their favorite pupils.

Note the awareness of succession—“so are their favorite pupils.”  The New Critics were in this for the long haul. Like any avant-garde, Ransom and the New Critics knew what they were up against: the historically-minded English Departments.  Ironically, it wasn’t criticism that motivated the New Critics; it was “contemporary literature” that motivated them, and criticism of it, criticism that should have been given to it—i.e., their writing and the writing of their friends—the whole Modernist, little magazine, avant-garde, unpopular, crew.

In this same essay, Ransom seeks to severely limit criticism as it had been practiced up until that time.  And recall the remarks of Tate quoted above. The New Critics, as conservative as their reputation was and is, were and are, in fact, far more New than Critic.  The New Critics were the tweedy American wing of Pound’s Avant-Garde Modernism.  Listen to Ransom again, attempting to curtail criticism. Note the attack on book reviewers, as well as professors of literature.  This is the angry voice of the avant-garde, begging to be included:

What is criticism? Easier to ask, What is criticism not? It is an act now notoriously arbitrary and undefined. We feel certain that the critical act is not one of those which the professors of literature habitually perform, and cause their students to perform. And it is our melancholy impression that it is not often cleanly performed in those loose compositions, by writers of perfectly indeterminate qualifications, that appear in print as reviews of books.

Professor Crane [ally of Ransom’s at U. Chicago] excludes from criticism works of historical scholarship and of Neo-Humanism, but more exclusions are possible than that.  I should wish to exclude: 1.Personal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the art-work upon the critic as reader. …2. Synopsis and paraphrase…3. Historical studies…4. Linguistic studies…5. Moral studies…6. Any other special studies which deal with some abstract or prose content taken out of the work.

Why exclude all these things? Ransom wants to destroy humanistic, critical scholarship.  This is transparently his goal, and for the aforementioned reason: the old gasbags in the English departments are failing to give contemporary (avant-garde) literature by people like Ezra Pound and Allen Tate, a chance.  To place so many restrictions on criticism, as Ransom does, is to leave it with nothing but a false objectivity (because all its tools have been taken away from it) and so it can do nothing but react blandly and favorably to the contemporary work, such as Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At a Station in the Metro,” which are highly praised in the New Critical textbook Understanding Poetry.

Isn’t this what Creative Writing does?  It throws out critical scholarship, historical scholarship, and virtually all teachable criticism in the name of indiscriminate “creativity” in a “free” environment.  The philosophical underpinnings, as well as the practical work being done by Rhodes Scholar Paul Engle at Iowa—the Mother Ship—come right from the Rhodes Scholar crew known as the New Critics. The English contribution (Richards, Leavis, Empson, Austin) will have to wait for another day.

Seth is correct that the New Critics were not interested in bringing an MFA program to every college in the country—that had nothing to do with their personal ambitions—but this doesn’t change the fact that the New Critics, for their own personal motives, created the philosophical model—which is a kooky one, since, let’s face it, teaching “creativity” by essentially not teaching it, by essentially not having any criticism, is just a kooky idea.

Much is made of creative writing teachers “getting out of the way” of their students.  Can you imagine Edgar Poe “getting out of the way,” if he were an instructor?  Of course he would not.  Poe was the original “genius” who believed anyone could be a “genius” with the proper method. He would have something to teach.  We can read Poe’s essays and know this.  The idea of a teacher “getting out of the way” is absurd, and feeds into the idea that students can magically “learn” by not being taught anything and grooving on Deweyesque “experience.”  This is not to say that there are times the teacher should know when to shut up, but teaching either occurs or it doesn’t, and if  it doesn’t, why do we need the pretence of any sort of “program” in the first place?  “Experience” can be had anywhere.  (Of course we know the answer: it becomes all about who gets credentialed, etc)

Historically, Seth has made much of the fact that Creative Writing really began at Harvard in the 1880s. But there’s no evidence that Harvard in the 1880s was a literary renaissance, as Seth implies. And why did it take so long for MFAs to arrive after the 1880s?  Seth trumpets the accomplishments of the Harvard Monthly during that period, but as Seth quotes the rival Harvard Advocate back then, it was just the “latest literary fad” which occupied the minds of the Monthly editors.  Seth insists that “creative writing” is, by nature, “radically democratic.”  But these are finally just labels. They don’t help us.  The New Critics are labeled “conservative.” This is not even close to the truth.

To say, as Seth does, that American poetry was in a woeful state in the late 19th century and needed Walt Whitman to rescue it, is mere opinion.  Little radical uprisings here and there do not a “Renaissance” make.  Whitman was a woeful prose writer who wrote a few inspired passages of poetry which the pre-Raphaelites admired—to make Walt Whitman a key pillar in the history of American Poetry and Creative Writing is quaint, at best.

Once again, Seth, is half-right.  Harvard in the late 19th century/early 20th century is crucial in following the development of Modernism in literature.  William James, who, with the help of nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, taught Gertrude Stein there.   T.S. Eliot went to school there.  George Santayana taught Wallace Stevens there. Wallace Stevens ran in the same circles as Allen Ginsberg’s poet father; Marianne Moore, who edited “The Dial” in the 20s; and William Carlos Williams. Stevens and Ransom traded essays praising each another.  The answer is not so much what as who.

This is the same old avant-garde story which crops up every decade or two: the pretentious and insistent carping at mainstream culture and literature due to jealousy and/or loose morals.  We see it at Harvard in the 1880s, we will see it with Pound, we will see it with Ransom/Tate. 

Seth tells us that the brightest at Harvard in the 1880s hated American literature as it then existed and turned their weary eyes to Europe.  Sound familar? 

Seth quotes Santayana (who will later reside comfortably in fascist Italy) from those golden days of Harvard in the 1880s, not only attacking “the polite and conventional American mind,” but uttering this bit of wisdom: “We poets at Harvard never read anything except our own compositions.” (!!)  Here, in the 1880s at Harvard, is the solopsism of the insular creative writing workshop mentality fully on display.

So perhaps Seth is onto something.

The problem with Seth’s radical ‘creative writing’ democracy is this.  He ends up winning the argument by saying: My response to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition is: a billion trillion poems!!  This comes out of Allen Tate’s radical formula: one good poem suggest another. and another. and another. and another.

You can’t teach a billion trillion poems.

IS SHELLEY THE GREATEST POET?

If poetry is musical, yes.  If poetry is beautiful, yes.  If poetry is the expression of lone individuality, yes.  If poetry is lyricism, yes.  If poetry is heroically moral, yes.  If poetry is extremely sensitive, yes.  If poetry is an example of deep feeling, yes.  If poetry is singular, yes.  If poetry is love of sublime nature, yes.  If poetry is expert craftsmanship, yes.  If poetry is stanzaic architecture, yes.  If poetry is sweet and playful, yes.  If poetry is exquisite good taste, yes.  If poetry is a delight to the senses, yes.  If poetry is pure and without prose-dross, yes.  If poetry is haunted by a spirit beyond life, yes.

Who doesn’t love “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty?”

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
         Floats though unseen among us; visiting
         This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
                It visits with inconstant glance
                Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
                Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
                Like memory of music fled,
                Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
         With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
         Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
                Ask why the sunlight not for ever
                Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
                Why fear and dream and death and birth
                Cast on the daylight of this earth
                Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
         To sage or poet these responses given:
         Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
                From all we hear and all we see,
                Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
                Or music by the night-wind sent
                Through strings of some still instrument,
                Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
         And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
         Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
                Thou messenger of sympathies,
                That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
                Like darkness to a dying flame!
                Depart not as thy shadow came,
                Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
         Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
         And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
                I was not heard; I saw them not;
                When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
                All vital things that wake to bring
                News of birds and blossoming,
                Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
   I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
         To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
         With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
                Of studious zeal or love’s delight
                Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
                Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
                This world from its dark slavery,
                That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
         When noon is past; there is a harmony
         In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
                Thus let thy power, which like the truth
                Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
                Its calm, to one who worships thee,
                And every form containing thee,
                Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
Shelley is poetry itself.
But what of his philosophy?  His atheism got him kicked out of college and lost him his hefty inheritance.  His upper class English education was combined with outdoors roaming, and he was a Marxist before Marx.  He was adventurous, but not dissipated.
Shelley believed in love over convention, and opposed the population control of Malthus because it would deprive the poor of one of their few pleasures: sex.  His love of justice was deep and sincere.  Shelley was too moral to be a “free love” advocate,  but like Milton he advocated for easier divorce laws.  He also believed in fate—that events in the past absolutely determine events in the future—believing free will a mere superstition.  He thought life could be improved, but only indirecty, not didactically.
But let us turn our attention to Shelley’s thought.
Shelley’s thinking (in both his philosophy and his poetry) was very either/or.
Shelley was an atheist not because he was an atheist, but because he was not a believer.
Duality is at the heart of Shelley’s genius.
 Here is his typical reasoning style as he refutes religion:
Christianity, like all other religions, rests upon miracles, prophecies, and martyrdom.
Miracles resolve themselves into the following question—Whether it is more probable the laws of nature, hitherto so immutably harmonious, should have undergone violation, or that a man should have told a lie?
We have many instances of men telling lies…
Or this:
There is a passage in the Christian Scriptures: ‘Those who obey not God, and believe not the Gospel of his Son, shall be punished with everlasting destruction.’  This is the pivot upon which all religions turn: they all assume that it is in our power to believe or not to believe; whereas the mind can only believe that which it thinks true. A human being can only be supposed accountable for those actions which are influenced by his will.  But belief is utterly distinct from and unconnected with volition: it is the apprehension of the agreement or disagreement of the ideas that compose any proposition.  Belief is a passion, or involuntary operation of the mind… Volition is essential to merit or demerit.
 Shelley is a radical reasoner; he is seen as a radical person in the eyes of the world, a fanatic  who hates religion and who cares only for poetic feeling bursting in his own breast, but it is clearly his method of reasoning  which makes Shelley the extraordinary poet he is.
Whether it is correct to reason thusly: it must be either this way or that way, is not the issue; Shelley does reason this way, and reasoning in this manner does owe to the Greeks and that Socratic method which emerged with such clarity in the 5th century and informs most human activity: are you loyal to the church, or not?  are you loyal to the king, or not?  are you loyal to the guild, or not?  are you loyal to the revolution, or not?  And if so, it follows that…
Was Shelley attempting to break superstition’s grip by saying to his readers: you are either a slave (because you believe this) or you are free…?  Shelley felt that “Christian oppressors” were guilty of putting the issue to their follower/slaves in as stark an either/or fashion as possible: either you believe in the Gospel or not!  Was Shelley just fighting fire with fire?  Surely we can see Shelley’s social  mission blending nicely with his efficient, dualistic, battering-ram philosophy.  Maybe the question, which came first: his philosophy or his social radicalism? is beside the point.
Today we are more nuanced; poets err on the side of rejecting duality, certainty, and absolutes.
But arguing in terms of duality and certainty, as  Shelley, does, does not preclude nuance of philosophical purpose.   Juxtaposition gains force and creedence by that very duality which otherwise might be rejected for not being subtle enough.  Comparing two ideas often has more force than a number of ideas bouncing off each other.
Shelley rejected a human God as wildly misplaced anthropomorphism; he felt it was an error to assume the mover of the universe has human qualities and likened the fear of a tyrant to worshiping this kind of God.   Saying there is no evidence to our senses of a human God, he rejects the idea at once; in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” Shelley invokes a Spirit—grounded in sensation.
Freed of childish superstition, Shelley puts his passion into thinking itself.  A chain of reasoning proceeds by absolutes (is this true, or not?)—and the temporality of the poetic art proceeds more forcefully for it.   Shelley’s philosophy feeds Shelley’s poetry.  To think of Shelley as a poet with feelings only is to radically misread him—he is, in fact, the opposite.
Not only is Shelley badly misread, but the door was essentially shut on him and his method by the New Critics around the middle of the 20th century.  The New Critics reasoned themselves into a hatred of Shelley’s love poems—which has turned out to be a blow to reason. Shelley—the greatest English-speaking poet—no longer exists as a model.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that in a poem like “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley uses terms such as “thou,” “aught,” and “dost.”  Hence, John Crowe Ransom could write in the 1930s, that Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”  was an “anachronism” forever closed to the “modern Poet.”
Ransom was not objecting to “thou,” either, but to Byron’s “old compound poetry” which existed before modern purity brought a “specialist” perfection to all avenues of art and learning. Ransom holds aloft Wallace Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” as an example of the new, abstract art which is no longer concerned with the compound mixture of morals and aesthetics.  According to Ransom, morals are to be kept separate and perfected somewhere else, while the purely aesthetic may be brought to perfection by poets—more calm and rational than Shelley—in experimentally abstract poems.
The door is shut on the “anachronistic” and “emotional” and “compound” Shelley—essentially an accomplished “amateur” to the modern specialist.
Comedy and tragedy, the traditional modes of literary expression, both exist to recognize some ill—comedy doing so suddenly in laughter; tragedy, more gradually in contemplation and suspense.   Morality (recognition of ill) is at the heart of this process; but not so with a poem such as “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”
Yet Shelley is just as beautiful in a “surface” manner as Stevens.
Shelley can also be read for his morality—even by a Christian.
T.S. Eliot and the New Critics first put up that Modern wall that keeps out Shelley.
It’s time we took that wall down.

ELIOT WEINBERGER, ANOTHER CONVERT TO FOETRY

By the time Alan Cordle and friends closed down Foetry.com in 2007, Cordle’s now famous website had managed to enrage a good number of distinguished poets, editors, professors, and critics.  But the tide is turning; the truth is finally counting more than personal bitterness.

The following quote by Eliot Weinberger comes by way of a Spanish newspaper on “a crisis in worldwide literary criticism:”

The United States does not have the kinds of literary supplements that are common in Spain and many other countries. It has only one important frequent periodical of criticism–The New York Review of Books. There are no longer powerful American critics, as there were until the 1960s, writing in a prose that was intelligible to anyone, and inserting literature into the political, social, and moral issues of the day. So-called “serious” criticism has largely become the domain of academics, who write in a specialized jargon, under the bizarre belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences… Criticism, in the United States, has been reduced to “recommendations,” which come via reviews, blogs, and Twitter. Prizes have become the standard validation of literary merit–especially among those who are unaware how prizes are chosen. I can’t think of a single American critic to whom one now turns for ideas…

Foetry.com could not have put it better, or more bluntly: “Prizes have become the standard of validation of literary merit—especially among those who are unaware of how prizes are chosen.”  This speaks volumes.  Every sorry part contributes to the whole: “Criticism…has been reduced to ‘recommendations’ because “prizes have become the standard” and because there is a “belief that complex thought can only be presented in impenetrable sentences,” it follows “there are no longer powerful American critics,” and hence, “criticism has…become the domain of academics” and the historical record will show that the whole shameful Prize Apparatus came into existence in the 1940s, when the professor and the poet became the same animal, thanks to Paul Engle’s work at Iowa.

Engle was surely well-meaning when he said, ‘Why can’t a master’s thesis be a book of poetry?’  Unfortunately, this idea, which on the face of it, appeared to help poetry, essentially killed it.

Why?

Because unfortunately poetry reputations are made by humans, not the Muses.  The system—now in place for about 75 years—in which living poets are able to make their own reputations, has resulted in nothing but folly.  John Crowe Ransom became the most powerful editor, poet, and critic in the mid-20th century precisely because he was the leader, with a few of his Fugitive cronies, of the invasion of contemporary poetry into the academy.

Weinberger makes it clear: the public is out of the picture; poetry prizes are a fait accompli, and “recommendations” (puffing) has replaced Criticism.

Poe warned us about this, and look what happened to him.

What can you do?

Read Scarriet.

We’ll fix this.

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?

SCARRIET’S BEST POEMS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

Here, in no particular order, are Scarriet’s best poems of the 20th century.

Why these poems?

Because they hide from nothing, and all, on some level, break your heart.  Poe was right when he said poetry appeals to the heart and not the head.  Because many heads get this wrong, and think poetry is some kind of mental exercise, the universe has been turned upside-down for the last three-quarters of a century by a certain never-resting snobbery infesting perches in the taste-making branches of higher learning.  The poems on this list don’t get lost in minutea,  have no interest in proving how smart, or intellectual, or street they are.  They all aim for that middle ground which has intercourse with the earthy and the abstract, filtering each, as they combine nature with nature to make art.

If art is what we do to become gods, if art is what we consciously do, we don’t see why art should express the suicidal, or make us miserable, or should express the ugly, or the random.  Certainly melancholy approaching pain is allowed, but misery?

The usual coteries, which have slathered their cliquish influence over American Letters, are notably absent.   Our list reflects poetic talent, whether or not it happened, or happens, to reside within machinations of puffery. Some poets may be puffed, but not all the puffed are poets.

The Vanity of the Blue Girls -John Crowe Ransom
The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
litany  -Carolyn Creedon
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost
Recuerdo  -Edna Millay
When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Galway Kinnell
Sailing To Byzantium  -William Yeats
Dirge Without Music  -Edna Millay
The Groundhog  -Richard Eberhart
Musee Des Beaux Arts  -W.H. Auden
Elegy for Jane  -Theodore Roethke
I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great  -Stephen Spender
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Dylan Thomas
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -T.S. Eliot
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Randall Jarrell
In California During the Gulf War  -Denise Levertov
Wild Peaches  -Elinor Wylie
Moriturus  -Edna Millay
Whitsun Weddings  -Philip Larkin
A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
Aubade  -Philip Larkin
Patterns  -Amy Lowell
A Supermarket in California  -Allen Ginsberg
Her Kind  -Anne Sexton
Not Waving,  But Drowning  -Stevie Smith
i stopped writing poetry  -Bernard Welt
Dream On  -James Tate
Pipefitter’s Wife  -Dorianne Laux
On the Death of Friends In Childhood  -Donald Justice
Daddy  -Sylvia Plath
Resume’  -Dorothy Parker
Time Does Not Bring Relief  -Edna Millay
If I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way  -Edna Millay
Evening in the Sanitarium  -Louise Bogan
At Mornington  -Gwen Harwood
Those Sunday Mornings  -Robert Hayden
Psalm and Lament  -Donald Justice
The Ship of Death  -D.H. Lawrence
One Train May Hide Another  -Kenneth Koch
Encounter  -Czeslaw Milosz
Anthem For Doomed Youth  -Wilfred Owen
The Little Box  -Vasko Popa
For My Daughter  -Weldon Kees
The Golden Gate  -Vikram Seth
The Grass  -Carl Sandburg
Mending Wall  -Robert Frost
Peter Quince at the Clavier  -Wallace Stevens
The Fresh Start  -Anna Wickham
Bavarian Gentians  -D.H. Lawrence
River Roses  -D.H. Lawrence
The Hill  -Rupert Brooke
La Figlia Che Piange  -T.S. Eliot
“Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments” -Archibald MacLeish
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why  -Edna Millay
What They Wanted  -Stephen Dunn
Down, Wanton, Down!  -Robert Graves
Cross  -Langston Hughes
As I Walked Out One Evening  -W.H. Auden
Love on the Farm  -D.H. Lawrence
Who’s Who  -W.H. Auden
The Waste Land  -T.S. Eliot
Snake  -D.H. Lawrence
At the Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop
And Death Shall Have No Dominion  -Dylan Thomas
Reasons for Attendance  -Philip Larkin
Fern Hill  -Dylan Thomas
Distance From Loved Ones  -James Tate
The Hospital Window  -James Dickey
An Arundel Tomb  -Philip Larkin
My Father in the Night Commanding No  -Louis Simpson
I Know A Man  -Robert Creeley
High Windows  -Philip Larkin
The Explosion  -Philip Larkin
You Can Have It  -Philip Levine
Diving Into the Wreck  -Adrienne Rich
Pike  -Ted Hughes
Pleasure Bay  -Robert Pinsky
The Colonel  -Carolyn Forche
Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  -Billy Collins
The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite  -William Kulik
The Year  -Janet Bowdan
How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin
Amphibious Crocodile  -John Crowe Ransom
The Mediterranean  -Allen Tate
To A Face In A Crowd  -Robert Penn Warren
Utterance  -Donald Davidson
The Ballad of Billie Potts  -Robert Penn Warren
Preludes  -T.S. Eliot
Sweeney among the Nightingales  -T.S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi  -T.S. Eliot
The Veiled Lady  -Maura Stanton
Prophecy  -Donald Hall
Archaic Torso of Apollo  -Rainer Maria Rilke
Of Poor B.B.  -Bertolt Brecht
Women  -Louise Bogan
Bored  –Margaret Atwood
A Happy Thought  -Franz Wright
The Idea of Ancestry -Etheridge Knight
Smiling Through  -Reed Whittemore
Histoire  -Harry Mathews
The Request  -Sharon Olds

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.

A POEM IN HONOR OF WILLIAM LOGAN’S UPCOMING APPEARANCE AT THE SEWANEE WRITER’S CONFERENCE

The haunting image of Allen Tate—who is buried at Sewanee

SEWANEE

Though his poems today don’t rate,
You may see the ghost of Allen Tate,
Staring at you, with a muddy smile!
Speak Ransom’s ‘Amphibious Crocodile,’
To scare him—and if you’re still shaking,
Recite at the top of your voice, ‘Janet Waking.’
But if Pound should come around,
Begin your leave-taking.

The Southern Agrarians
Were exquisite contrarians
But Ezra Pound
Laughs underground,
Drifting through Sewanee, drifting through Sewanee.

And Edgar Allan Poe?
You don’t want to know
How Matthiessen tied him up
So long ago,
And Eliot killed him
With spear and bow.

—Scarriet Editors

JANET WAKING

Beautifully Janet slept
Till it was deeply morning. She woke then
And thought about her dainty-feathered hen,
To see how it had kept.

One kiss she gave her mother.
Only a small one gave she to her daddy
Who would have kissed each curl of his shining baby;
No kiss at all for her brother.

“Old Chucky, old Chucky!” she cried,
Running across the world upon the grass
To Chucky’s house, and listening. But alas,
Her Chucky had died.

It was transmogrifying bee
Came droning down on Chucky’s old bald head
And sat and put the poison. It scarcely bled,
But how exceedingly

And purply did the knot
Swell with the venom and communicate
Its rigor! Now the poor comb stood up straight
But Chucky did not.

So there was Janet
Kneeling on the wet grass, crying her brown hen
(Translated far beyond the daughters of men)
To rise and walk upon it.

And weeping fast as she had breath
Janet implored us, “Wake her from her sleep!”
And would not be instructed in how deep
Was the forgetful kingdom of death.

—John Crowe Ransom

THE FOUR WAVES: MODERNISM REVISTED

Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.

THE QUESTION: WHAT IS THE MODERN?

has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche.  It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?

1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I

The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, (the Japanese victory in #4 produced a ‘haiku rage’ in the West in 1905, the real reason behind the Imagiste ‘revolution’ and Williams’ ‘Wheel Barrow’) but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention.  “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One.  Well, not really.

The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.

Poetry has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to theorizing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault.  I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.

American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.

Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.

In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.”  Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.”  Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.

The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:

In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.

And then, just as boldly:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.

And, just as boldly, this as well:

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.

And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:

Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.

In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.

Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:

Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.

The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong.  All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.

If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.

But to each his own.  Poe had to be “escaped.”  And he was.

Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.

Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”

The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana.  The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933.  Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups.  Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.

Where is criticism now?  It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”

In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.

John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry.  Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”

The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.

Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones.  Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art. 

Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness.  Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.

Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:

The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England.  This is not insignificant.

Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope.  Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork.  Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:

It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.

We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”  The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War.  In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person.  Here he writes on Niagra Falls:

The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.

Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.

According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”

Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.

He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”

He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.”  He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight.  Why shouldn’t he fight?  His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.

Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”

Modernism was not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.

No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—“did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty.  They seemed perplexed and angry.

This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”

Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.

T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.

Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was as likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped.  Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.

QUANTUM POETRY

Shelley: He studied Greek.  We study to not be like him.

All poems have plain structures and superstructures. The plain structure is the repeating process of the poem’s sound.Repetition is the essence of all movement, whether it is a series of numbers, putting one foot in front of the other in the act of running or walking, the rotation of wheels, orbits, revolutions, or the reflection of the tree in the lake.

Poems do not move if they do not repeat; the plain structure makes the movement interesting or pleasurable, and on the plain level these two terms are interchangable.

Any series of words repeat and move; the meaning of the words create the superstructure. A series of zeros has a plain structure but no superstructure, and yet a series of zeros has meaning in mathematics. Repetition itself is meaningful. A series of zeros mistaken for ‘ohs’ has sound.

Nothing repeated is something.

Repetition is meaningful, since it is meaningful to repeat something three times rather than twice. Shelley and Emerson have both pointed out that a word can be poetry and this is because of repetition, since repeating letters create a word, a one-letter word such as “O” is automatically repeated as a sound, a single word repeats meanings etymologically, and so on.

Since language has its very essence from repetition, how does a poem emerge out of language, since language is already poetry?

The answer to this question is contained in the word emerge; since a poem cannot emerge out of language, the only way it can be a poem is if it is a poem before it is language. The poem must appeal to an advanced sensibility. The primitive essence, repetition, belongs to language first, so traveling in that direction (toward the primitive) will not help.

The only way to find the poem is to ask how we escape language.

How can the poem repeat in a non-linguistic manner?  How can it beat its divine drum? The answer is: rhythm.

The poem must have rhythm, since rhythm transcends mere repetition. Nature prefers simple repetition. The sun does not dance in the sky, a runner does not dance; if we saw the sun moving in a herky-jerky manner, we would know something was terribly wrong; a dancing runner wastes energy; dancing is not running.

The sun and planets do dance, but only when observed over great time and distance. The discovery that planetary orbits were not round but stretched out and Kepler’s guess at the reason is how the dance of the cosmos is observed, or when a certain chess-piece arrangement is played forward and backward in a patterned unfolding of a particular game in a player’s mind; in these examples we see how recurrance escapes itself, we see how a poem might escape its linguistic chains. The essence of language must give way to something higher even as it remains present as what it is.

How we distinguish poem from language determines what kind of poet and critic we are, and here we note the difference between poet and critic: the poet must find the difference between language and poem—the critic the difference between one poem and another. The poet works vertically, the critic, horizontally;  ideally, both work in both directions.

To speak even more broadly, Man’s comic/tragic life can be defined as a series of exceptions to nature.  We are not nature, but exceptions to it. Primitive nature, the more observed, surprises us, as it becomes more like the human, filled with exceptions to itself—and here is the essence of theology and science.

The first critics of poetry observed grammar. Students learned Greek or Latin grammar and poetry together, which seem tedious to creative writing students today, but there was a method to that madness; grammar, with its numerous exceptions, was how linguistics first escaped from its primitive repeating structure into reasoning speech. ‘Repeat here, but not here’ is how repetition itself is first transcended. Punctuation was the first wall poets built. Ancient critics and students slaved, while the glory was reserved for Homer, who covered their walls with dream.  The poet’s transcendental dreaming was directly proportional to grammatical labor on the critic/student’s part. 

The moderns have managed to reverse this process: critics don’t study grammar, but different tastes in different eras, and meanwhile the students study to be poets in the ‘new way,’ and this ‘way’ (conformist, even as it advertises itself as non-conformist) seeks to transcend not language, but grammar.

Quantum physics observes the universality of measures like mass, but also its exceptions—your weight on Mars is different from your weight on earth.

The moderns lost interest in universals; they chiefly observed differences of place and time, like weights on different planets:

Ezra Pound: “the 19th century is mannered and sentimentalistic…”

T.S. Eliot: “But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century and continued.”

John Crowe Ransom: “the modern poet could accomplish just as elegant a rumination [of Byron] but knows this would commit him to an anachronism…”

What is the quantum of poetry?

We are still discovering it.

Your move.

WHERE IS DRACULA’S CASTLE?

Yeats

William Butler Yeats: a distinguished member of the Ascendancy

Oscar Wilde, who did two years’ hard labor for sodomy—in a land where it was common—married a beautiful woman whom he loved, and had two beautiful children.  Before marrying Constance, Wilde courted Florence, (unsuccessfully) an even more beautiful woman—who had one child with her husband, Bram Stoker, an Irish theater manager for the prominent Shakespearean actor, Henry IrvingStoker was mild in his politics, a ‘home rule’ Irishman, a loyal servant to his ‘master,’ Irving, and, of course, most famously, the author of Dracula. Irving, the eccentric, melodramatic, charismatic actor, brought new respectability to the profession when he was knighted by the Queen of the Empire, Victoria, in 1895, the same day, as it happened, that Oscar Wilde with two successful plays running in London, was sentenced for the crime of buggery, to never see his children, forever persona non grata to the Empire, fleeing to France to become a beggar, following his prison term in sack-cloth breaking rocks, dying in 1900 at the age of 46.  Oscar Wilde’s mother was a poet and a proud, outspoken Irish Nationalist—Lady Jane Wilde was a leader of the Irish Literary Revival well before Yeats/Gregory created the British stereotypical myth of the Irish as an unchanging, eternal peasantry of savages and fairies, but Wildes‘ mother, Lady Jane was destroyed and thrown into poverty by scandal, like her son, and her work buried and forgotten.

The producer of Dracula as a play on Broadway was also the publisher of soon-to-be-Empire-citizen T.S. Eliot’s morbid The Waste Land in 1922, the year the German film Nosferatu was made, and subsequently sued successfully (and all copies ordered destroyed) by Florence, Bram Stoker’s widow.

A little over 100 years ago, when the anti-Semite writers T.S. Eliot and John Gould Fletcher were undergraduates at Harvard, (Fletcher’s future: Imagist in Pound’s circle, then Southern Agrarian in Ransom’s, Eliot’s: British citizenship, Modernist Godfather) the anti-semite Ezra Pound, a few years older than Eliot, and too naughty and ambitious for serious academic study, but somehow able to appear more well-read than anybody, went looking for Dracula’s castle.

Pound went to Europe to find eternal fame—the respectable route of moral literature (either Poe’s brand: scientific—a spoofer of magic, or Whitman’s: sentimental comradeship) didn’t interest Pound, who wanted real witchcraft, real magic. The fix Pound wanted was in Britian, the heart of the world’s greatest Empire, moral in deeply contradictory ways, murderer of Oscar Wilde, royally smug, ruler of Ireland and India, hater of cousin Hun, wary of America, proud, smart, prejudiced, and strong, this Island empire, and since they ruled ancient and exotic lands, why study these places? Pound went to the England that owned these places; those-in-the-know knew what England was: royal above, monstrous below.

Pound was bit by the occultist William Butler YeatsPound was Yeats’ secretary and married one of Yeats’ ex-lovers. Pound was introduced to John Quinn, the modern art collector and lawyer, who would become Pound and Eliot’s attorney, and help negotiate the special publishing deal for the The Waste Land. Quinn, an Irishman, was also, like Yeats, a double agent for the Empire, working against Irish independence; Yeats‘  target was Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. Quinn’s associate in British intelligence was Alesiter Crowley. Pound met all of Yeats’ associates in the Order of the Golden Dawn. Pound quickly became a chief vampire himself, bankrolled, as Eliot would be, by titled ladies, and so they all flocked to Pound: Joyce, (a Parnel-ite, like Yeats), the Futurists, the Cubists, the drug-addicted poets whom Pound (always the helpful Pound) helped with drugs, the underground avant-garde, the royal, the decadent, the idle, bored, landed rich, the sort that exported wheat during the Irish Famine.

Ford Madox Ford, seven years younger than Yeats and 12 years older than Pound, Imagist poet and War Propaganda Minister for the sacrificial slaughter of young men which would begin in 1914, met young Pound off the boat and showed him the way to Dracula’s castle.

Where, today, could a highly ambitious poet find Dracula’s castle? Where, today, can one sell one’s soul so convincingly? Where are figures like Yeats and Symons and Kipling, all born in 1865 and admired so much by T.SEliot, a proud member of the Kipling Society?  Pound was Yeats’ servant, and Eliot called Yeats “the greatest poet of the 20th century.” Yeats?  Who wrote lines such as:

We who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told:

After all the talk of “new” has died down, one should simply sit down and read the poetry of (in order of birth) Santayana, Yeats, Symons, Kipling, Dowson, Masters, Robinson, Binyon, Davies, Belloc, Douglas, Mew, Crane, Hodgson, Ford, De La Mare, Chesterton, Lowell, Frost, Masefield, Thomas, Sandburg, Monro, Stevens, Joyce, Wickham, Hulme, Lawrence, Pound, Sassoon, Doolittle, Jeffers, Wylie, E. Sitwell, Moore, Brooke, Seeger, Ransom, Eliot, Aiken, MacLeish, Millay, Owen, Huxley, Van Doren, Cummings, Graves, Blunden, Davison, Benet, Crane, Tate, S. Sitwell, Campbell, Lewis, Auden, MacNeice, Spender, Thomas, and Schwartz, and see how silly the whole Modernist claim to the “new” really is. Wallace Stevens sounds like the Sitwells. T.S. Eliot sounds like a petulant and subdued Byron. Pound sounds like an unmarried Victorian.

No, it wasn’t the “new” that Pound was looking for when he stopped off the boat in England.

He was looking for the very, very, very old. 

“Thousands of years, if all were told.”

WALT WHITMAN, VICTORIAN

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most Victorian of authors, the very opposite of a modernist or imagist.  His poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for instance:

Darest Thou Now O Soul

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

That we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O  joy, O  fruit of all) them to fulfill O soul.

In Whitman’s poem rhetoric is far more important than image, and the manner and the subject are utterly Victorian, and not in the least modern.  Whitman travels solo, an American vagabond, cut loose from all, and yet his yearning to connect within his profound disconnectedness is what gives him his signature attitude and emotion.

Let us look at another classic Victorian poem, this one by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), born within weeks of Whitman, but in England, and so much more connected to life than Whitman:

When All the World… (from The Water Babies)

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Now both of these poems are highly expressive and highly emotional; but Whitman’s poem is free of the world and without image of the world; Whitman is completely taken with “O Soul,” but Kingsley is immersed in “the world” and images of “the world” and memories and lessons of “the world,” dragging in trees and swans and lasses; Kingsley is grasping the world with all his might, while Whitman has let go; Whitman is transparent, invisible except for a rhetorical gesture, a desire, a wish, an expression only, an urge. 

Whitman is a Victorian looking backwards at Shelley; Kingsley is a Victorian looking forward to Yeats and 20th century Symbolism and Imagism. 

Kingsley was an early supporter of Darwin’s ideas; no “O Soul” for Kingsley; that’s more for the more sentimental Victorian, Whitman.

Here again is Whitman, and again we see the Victorian morality, the sermon, the speech, the gesture, without any need to be in the world, as such; the world is insignificant, the world is gone, and for Whitman only a  moral and mystical intuition remains:

To A Common Prostitute

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.

One thinks, of course, of Christ’s forgiveness, the instant understanding that washes away sin, for we all are sinners, all “lusty as Nature,” as Whitman says he is, and therefore as the sun shines on all, so the sun shines on this “common prostitute” and then Whitman implies he is going to come to her after she makes ready and it is intentionally ambiguous what he is going to do: rape her as a Zeus-like figure disguised, or give her wise counsel; as usual with the Victorian Whitman what is clear is the emotional wallop; he is morally equal with her and placid, but at the same time he is morally superior and even morally inferior because he wishes her to remember him almost as if he were a common wooer of her; it is a miraculous attitude as Whitman manages to be Pagan god, Old Testament father, New Testament Christ, and humble lover towards his “girl” all at once—here is the truly protean Whitman able to be/say everything by dint of his complete loving detachment. 

A human being cannot do this, only poetry can.

For the modernists, poetry will become an irony as it reaches what is apparently its limit; the dream of Shelley has invaded all aspects of life, the past, the present, the future; a pagan statue bathed in the holy light of Christ now become the mind of the poet itself and the poem literally bursts with too much soul and what is left is the hard fragments of the imagists or the elusive ironies of the moderns.

The hard ground of common-sense, which Victorian poets like Charles Kingsley walked upon, was rejected by the new poets of the 20th century; but for some reason Whitman, who represented a Romantic/Victorian end, and we can clearly see the ‘traveled as far as one can go’ in Whitman’s prostitute poem—for some reason, Whitman, the culmination of the Romantic/Victorian line, was welcomed by the moderns as a beginning, and, after some initial reluctance, hailed as a true modern.

Why?  Because Whitman used dramatic speech, unencumbered by strict meters? 

Were the moderns simply unable to write good free verse themselves (free verse being one of the modern tenets) and so Whitman, though born in 1819, had to be borrowed, so to speak, for a 20th century job? 

This may be part of it; remember, the chief poet of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, achieved his best results sliding back into retro-meters, and Pound just couldn’t pull off free verse interest like Whitman could. 

OK, Walt, you’re hired. 

But this was a deal with the devil, because you can’t give a Victorian a job in the Modernist factory, and finally the work that had to be done did not get done; ghosts cannot run a modern firm.  Think, too, of another keen modernist theorist: John Crowe Ransom—another rhyming throw-back.  Or Cummings, a Victorian love-poet if there ever was one.  Auden?  A balladeer?  He wasn’t modern enough, either. 

20th century painting looked so different from 19th century painting.  But poetry, trying so hard to be modern, either jingled too much in a 19th century manner, or looked too much like haiku, a form that looked backwards, as well.

This is why Whitman was heavily recruited for awhile, and now we think of him, with Dickinson (b. 1830) as moderns, not Victorians—which is what they are.  This had a tumultuous affect on modernist literature.  No one was supposed to be rhyming, but poets did, so Eliot went for a collage effect, burying his meters in fragments—but this was a deal with the devil, too; you just don’t sacrifice artistic unity out of weakness, and this is what Pound and Eliot did. 

Pound was also unscrupulous in another way; he and his friend Williams wrote haiku—anything to avoid looking Victorian—and re-named their haiku-writing Imagism to pretend they were moderns, doing something new.  But no one was doing anything new: they were re-naming, smashing, and recruiting 19th century poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire) and at the same time pretending they were “new”—so desperate were the would-be ‘moderns’ that previous eras were rejected whole cloth, and this made the problem even worse; sources of inspiration continued to dry up as the new writers self-consciously struck their ‘new’ poses, selectively trashing, breaking, rejecting, and recruiting. 

Luckily for the Modernists, most intellectuals just wanted to join the ‘new’ party, whatever it was, whether it was justified or not; looser morals alone was enough to get people onboard the ‘modernist train,’ and painting was doing a pretty good job of looking ‘modern,’ so if Pound wore a beret and the poets hung out with a few painters, all was fine. 

They just had to be careful not to use terms like “O soul.”

PURE AND IMPURE POETRY: THE NEW CRITICS’ LAST HURRAH

Because our loyal Scarriet readers do not have the attention span of rabbits, we thought we’d tax their intelligence and patience with further investigation of Robert Penn Warren’s monumental—but now forgotten (except, secretly, by Stephen Burt)—1943 Kenyon Review essay, Pure and Impure Poetry.

In the 1930s, Robert Penn Warren contributed a pro-segregation essay to New Critic John Crowe Ransom’s Southern Agrarian group’s  I’ll Take My Stand, co-founded The Southern Review (with New Critic Cleanth Brooks) and co-authored (with Cleanth Brooks) the textbook Understanding Poetry, which lasted 4 editions (1974), was the college textbook on poetry for two generations, including the GIs who flooded the universities after the war, and, according to Ron Silliman, was “the hegemonic poetry textbook of the period.”

In the 1940s, when Pure and Impure Poetry was published in John Crowe Ransom’s journal, Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, published his  Selected Poems, and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States.

In the 1950s, Robert Penn Warren’s daughter, the poet and professor, Rosanna Warren, was born, he recanted his segregationist views in Life magazine, and he won the Pulitzer for Poetry, becoming the only person to win the Pulitzer in both Fiction and Poetry.

Pure and Impure Poetry is a window into both the triumph and the last gasp of Modernism, as it cuts off Romanticism’s head (resembling from one angle, Poe, and another, Shelley, and from still another, Bryon) holds it aloft, and cries, “Vive le T.S. Eliot!” The essay finishes what Eliot and Pound had started, as Robert Penn Warren declares with absolute certainty: “the greatness of a poet depends upon the extent of the area of experience that he can master poetically.”

The practice of extending the area of experience that he can master poetically is the final nail in the coffin to poets like Poe who excluded all sorts of things from poetry.

Despite Pure and Impure Poetry’s long and detailed arguments, this is all that Robert Penn Warren is saying: poetry can be anything, and this is the Modernist victory.  Penn Warren sneers at Shelley’s brief lyric “The Indian Serenade,” (selected for cursory praise by Poe a hundred years earlier in his The Poetic Principle) after Penn Warren discusses how Shakespeare has the worldly Mercutio sneer at Romeo’s romantic attitude in Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s poetry, as beautiful as it sometimes was, wasn’t pure, so, Penn Warren asks, why should any poetry be pure?  Why Penn Warren clubs Shelley’s brief lyric with an entire play by Shakespeare is not to be questioned, for it is all part of the blood lust and slaughter of Romanticism, in which every dactylic gasp by Shelley is mocked with the ferocity of those who escape the anxiety of an unfaithful mate by deconstructing the problem into “dey all bitches.”

As we all know, Modernism’s little band did win in the century that saw the British Empire transform itself into an American one, (almost in the moment Pure and Impure Poetry was published—1943 a rubble-moment in Europe’s history) but it was a pyrrhic victory: for Penn Warren kills, but kills in Poe’s terms and on Poe’s turf.

Here, in the essay, Penn Warren quotes T.S. Eliot:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.

Lovely.  (Sigh)   Criticism as lovely as a poem.  Remember when that used to be a regular occurance?   Penn Warren, like a panting lover in one of Shelley’s poems, eagerly follows the trail.  But look what happens:

Here, it would seem, Mr. Eliot has simply inverted the old sugar-coated pill theory: the idea becomes the sugar-coating and the “poetry” becomes the medicine. This seems to say that the idea in a poem does not participate in the poetic effect and seems to commit Mr. Eliot to a theory of pure poetry.

Robert Penn Warren finds himself in Poe’s cul-de-sac, for listen to the language: Penn Warren talks of Poe’s “poetic effect!”

Robert Penn Warren and the Modernists expand the definition of poetry to include everything, but they keep using the word “poetry;” thus they effectively doom themselves to wander in an old-fashioned wilderness.

Everyone knows art requires focus, and Poe and Shelley wrote memorable poetry while Robert Penn Warren and his heirs did not—because of their intellectualized de-focusing.

The post-Modernists and Language Poets likewise attempt to get beyond the Modernists (Charles Bernstein would never be caught dead uttering such phrases as “poetic effect” or “pure poetry”) only to die in the same way, and, like Penn Warren, they don’t realize their dilemma.


FAKE IT NEW: BURT DID NOT COIN ELLIPTICAL POETRY

Stephen Burt’s “incoherent self:” doesn’t realize he’s a New Critic

WIKIPEDIA: Elliptical Poetry or ellipticism is a literary-critical term introduced by critic Stephen Burt in a 1998 essay in Boston Review on Susan Wheeler, and expanded upon in an eponymous essay in American Letters & Commentary.

Uh…no.   Robert Penn Warren, (with whom we trust Professor Burt is familiar) in an essay published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, “Pure and Impure Poetry,”  (Spring 1943 issue) writes:

“In a recent book, The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has discussed the question of pure poetry.  He distinguishes another type of pure poetry, in addition to the types already mentioned.  He calls it the “Elliptical,” and would include in it symbolist and metaphysical poetry (old and new) and some work by poets Collins, Blake, and Browning.”

In pobiz, new is the new stupid

The last century of American Letters has witnessed ‘the new’ as the last refuge of the scoundrel poet.  If one doesn’t know anything, trumpet ‘the new’ as much as possible, and with a few pals, equally bereft, on one’s side, anything is possible.

Not only is Burt guilty of outright theft, but the “Elliptical” of Robert Penn Warren’s essay is scientific (no irony intended) compared to Burt’s razzle-dazzle new-speak. 

Burt, unable to cook anything, merely makes a mess in the kitchen, throwing in every ingredient he can find.   Here is Burt in his infamous 1998 essay:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-‘postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”

Note professor Burt’s lack of rigor, vaguely wrapping himself around the new:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbo gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.”  —Burt

Is it the speaking or the selves which have their coherence undermined, and why do they have an undermined coherence?   Let Mr. Burt answer at once, since he obviously knows.  And how can one undermine something before it exists?  If one is not skilled enough, in a poem, to produce a coherent speaking self (is it so easy?) how do we know it has been undermined?  Anyone can point to a sociological theory which mourns the vanished self, but the poem is not a theory, unfortunately for Burt’s elliptical poets.

“Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction.  —Burt

Has Burt never read the Roman poets?  They did this constantly.  Come to think of it, the majority of poets, ancient to present, alternate between low and high diction.

“…they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”
—Burt

It’s comforting to know the poets don’t “resemble television”…

Burt’s murky, gizmo-rhetoric would have been laughed out of the pages of the Kenyon Review, when Ransom was editor, and the New Critics were contribuing articles.

In contrast to the gee-whiz rhetoric of Stephen Burt, we have the acumen of Robert Penn Warren:

“Poe would kick out the ideas because the ideas hurt the poetry, and Mr. [Max] Eastman would kick out the ideas because the poetry hurts the ideas.”

The concept is actually interchangeable—Poe also thought, like Eastman, that “poetry hurts the ideas.”  Poe was explicit on this point.  At least with Penn Warren, however, there is a concept.  Burt is babble.  He has no point.  But my point here is not to agree with Penn Warren, but to expose Burt’s blatant theft.

Robert Penn Warren from his 1943 essay again:

“Then Elliptical Poetry is not, as Mr. Pottle say it is, a pure poetry at all if we regard intention; the elliptical poet is elliptical for purposes of inclusion, not exlusion.”

This is no quibble over a word, either.  In his 1943 essay, Penn Warren’s definition of elliptical poetry is exactly the same as Burt’s 1998 review.  Here is Penn Warren:

“Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.  At least, most of them do not want to be too pure.  The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end.  Are we then to conclude that, because neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great, these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure?  No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary.  They are not even as pure as they might be in an imperfect world.  They mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, cliches, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradiction, cleverness, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.” 

And Penn Warren, again:

“Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure?  I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.”

Burt posits a return of a “person” who “speaks the poem” while  simultaneously using  “gizmos, developed over the last few decades,” of “Stein’s heirs” and “language writers:” Burt blindly stumbles back over the same ground to the New Critics, who were, as we see with Robert Penn Warren’s 70-year-old-essay, already allowing the widest possible field to the “speaking” of a “poem.”

 It’s time for Philosophy and History to kick New-Speak off its throne.

[Are we “going after Burt” or just giving Pottle and Penn Warren credit where credit is due?]

“IF THEY HAVE SINNED NOBODY KNOWS” –W.B. YEATS

Until now.

Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney-Lite, sins against good taste, and we, being in a frightfully bad mood, and deciding we don’t need the New Yorker, anyway, have decided to kick over a toadstool, or two.

It really isn’t poor little Dan Chiasson’s fault for putting Muldoon’s new book of poems on his Eleven Best Poetry Books of 2010 , published by Chiasson in the New Yorker.   Young Mr. Chiasson merely seeks to advance his career by pleasing his elders.   It’s just embarrassing that it had to be done so publically, and at the risk of  Chiasson never being trusted as a critic, again.  Muldoon, Chiasson’s senior poetry editor colleague at the revered New Yorker, should have had the good taste to nix himself from the list, whether Muldoon’s book is actually good, or not.  Perhaps as a result of this article, Chiasson (no, it would be more proper if it were Muldoon) will send us a copy so we can read it.

The bad taste shown in letting himself be included in Chiasson’s list, however, can easily be found in any old poem by Muldoon, for, like Heaney’s  poetry, which errs by being overly metaphorical,  Muldoon’s poetry is fraught by a related, but greater error: simple bad taste, where the poet cannot resist being continuously clever, despite spoiling all sense of keeping and decorum and beauty which enjoyable poetry demands.

When I say enjoyable, I mean enjoyable to others.  Unfortunately, Muldoon, in his rhapsodic solipsism, can’t tell the difference.

The garbling, the encoding, the slipping and slopping, the gestures to Joyce and Heaney, the making hay by using a dozen terms for hay, the errata that’s wrong, then right, then accidentally wrong, then accidentally right, then wrong again, is a mighty effort, the kind applauded by the type of critic who runs the show now, besotted with difficulty for difficulty’s sake: this critic would consider it heresy to ask: is it worth the reader’s effort to dig for this?

The reader?  What reader?  Po-biz, as everyone knows today, is a kleptocracy.

“You have not understood Muldoon, though, unless he perplexes you,” writes Richard Eder in a positive review in the Times of Poems 1968-1998; but since all writing that is bad—but which is taken as good— perplexes, we wonder if this is a good recommendation.  “His Mona Lisas frequently wear mustaches,” Eder tells us; but no, they always wear mustaches.

Sadly, many believe, when it comes to poetry, that the perplexing leads to a host of virtues; but this is not the case, except in the minds of poets like Paul Muldoon, who, as Poetry Professor both at Oxford and Princeton, has been in the unique position to exemplify this falsehood.   The New Critics were schooled at Oxford, and Allen Tate, Fugitive and New Critic, got one of the first Writing Programs in the country going at Princeton.   20th century Oxford is where language was shorn of ideal qualities and treated as a mundane act.  Language Poetry was born from this, as was the New Criticism, taking its lead from T.S. Eliot that poetry should be “difficult,” and from John Crowe Ransom, that poetry should not please, or spiritualize readers, but should rather be an academic study overseen by “professionals, not amateurs” and those “professionals” should be “professors.”  Gone, the Romantic poet with emotionally inspired readers.  Enter, professionalized perplexity.

Heaney pants after Eliot’s New Critical empire, and the Mossbawner makes perfectly complex New Critical poems out of country labors; Muldoon, too, funny in the tongue, is always properly bucolic in that third-world Irish way.

“Monarch and Milkweed” is one of Muldoon’s best-known poems, and often praised.   Richard Eder:

“This comes as close as Muldoon ever does to making the neck hair rise. (His tonsorial kinetics tend more to stimulative tugging and twisting.) And even here he expresses sorrow by distraction, by an inability to remember or grasp. His parents’ graves blur; he thinks of something else. Grief is its own inability; Muldoon gets us to feel both.”  —Richard Eder

And here’s the poem:

Monarch and Milkweed

As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
filled his mouth. It seemed as if he might smother.
Why should he be stricken
with grief, not for his mother and father,
but a woman slinking from the fur of a sea-otter
In Portland, Maine, or, yes, Portland, Oregon-
he could barely tell one from the other-

and why should he now savour
the tang of her, her little pickled gherkin,
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father?
He looked about. He remembered her palaver
on how both earth and sky would darken-
‘You could barely tell one from the other’-

while the Monarch butterflies passed over
in their milkweed-hunger: ‘A wing-beat, some reckon,
may trigger off the mother and father
of all storms, striking your Irish Cliffs of Moher
with the force of a hurricane.’
Then: ‘Milkweed and Monarch ‘invented’ each other.’

He looked about. Cow’s-parsley
in a samovar.
He’d mistaken his mother’s name, ‘Regan, ‘ for Anger’;
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
he could barely tell one from the other.

Paul Muldoon

But we feel the poem is spoiled when Muldoon inserts the idiomatic ‘mother of all storms’ into his ‘mother and father’ refrain.  He couldn’t resist this bit of cleverness, even in the face of a poignant elegy, and the poem, its bells and whistles of New Critical symbol and metaphor unable to save it, pays for his sin.

SECRET ADVICE TO POETS: DON’T USE METAPHOR

Coleridge.  Does anybody really know what Imagination is?

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, ruined poetry for the ages when he said, “Metaphor is the Soul of Poetry.”

Many in Aristotle’s wake have come to believe that poetry is metaphor.   The deluded are legion who say, for instance, ‘Science tells us what things are, but poetry tells us what things are like.  What things are like is closer to the truth than what things are, because we cannot know what they are.

Accordingly, they say, since Aristotle, the poets (who are metaphorical) have progressed on all levels, while the scientists (who are factual)  have gone backwards.

The fact that scientists get all the credit for the way we live our lives today, and poets get none, is due to bad p.r.   This misunderstanding is about to change, however.  Think-tanks are thinking of ways, even as we speak.

The English Romantic and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge made things even worse when he uttered his famous:

The fancy combines, but the imagination creates.

Coleridge never quite explained how imagination created, but the rise of science must have been fanciful, for chemists, botanists, astronomers, and physicists were combining for all they were worth, and changing the world as they were doing so.

Combining A and B is a lot more interesting than saying A is like B.  So much worse for the poets, then, that the scientists understood this–and the poets did not.

True, the fancy will combine in ways that produce inferior works: a unicorn, for instance, combines horse and horn to create something new; but we all know this combination is not really creation.  In fact, it’s silly.  It’s fancifulThe unicorn is nothing more than a horse with a horn.

What is the imagination, then?

No one—not even Coleridge—has been able to say.  You can take my word for it, or you can spend several years studying the Biographia Literaria.  OK, I see you’re willing to take my word for it.

Poets always do better when they copy the scientists, instead of striking out on their own.   The poet who is ashamed of poetry is usually the one who finds a way to make something scientific of it, and rescue poetry for the sake of knowledge.  We owe a great debt to these timid, shamed, sensitive souls, not for their science, nor their poetry, but for the way they make poetry slightly more respectable.

John Crowe Ransom, poet, New Critic, Modernist, father of the modern academic writing program era, (along with Paul Engle and Allen Tate,) published an essay in 1938 in which this Southern conservative gentleman came to terms with the new poetry.  He called it “pure poetry,” and in this essay (“Poets Without Laurels”) Ransom sounds like a chemist, a scientist making a discovery:

There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas.  But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land.  He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.

The traditional poets, according to Ransom, combined morals and charm; they made “virtue delicious.”  He quotes “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens to demonstrate the new order. The modern poets, like Stevens, (and the rest of Ransom’s friends,) do not give a hoot for virtue in poetry.  Now Ransom, the chemist, holds forth:

The union of beauty with goodness and truth has been common enough to be regarded as natural. It is the dissociation which is unnatural and painful. …But when we talk about simple and compound experiences, we are evidently employing a chemical mode of speech to represent something we cannot make out.  …I shall make a tentative argument from the analogy of chemistry.  Lemonade is only a mechanical mixture, not very interesting to chemists.  …Table salt, however is a true chemical compound; a molecule of it is NaCl.  Understanding this, you do not claim to know the taste either of sodium or of chlorine when you say you are acquainted with the taste of salt.
…NaCl is found in the state of nature, where it is much commoner than either of its constituents.  But suppose the chemists decided to have nothing to do with NaCl because of its compoundness, and undertook to extract from it the pure Na and Cl to serve on the table.  …Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism.  They pursue A, an aesthetic element…and will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade.   …Is the old-fashioned poetry a mechanical mixture like lemonade or a chemical compound like table salt?

Lemonade is the result of fancy; NaCl is nature’s imagination.

The best critics are chemists.

Here is Randall Jarrell from his 1942 essay, “The End of the Line,” in which he argues modernism is merely an extentsion of romanticism, and that the vector of violent experimentalism called modernism has been exhausted:

“Romanticism holds in solution contradictory tendencies which, isolated and exaggerated in modernism, look startlingly opposed both  to each other and to the earlier stages of romanticism.”

Jarrell names 13 complex qualities modernism and romanticism share, and metaphor isn’t one of them.  To the new, modern chemists of poetry, metaphor is a quaint anachronism.

Of course, critics like Ransom and Jarrell are only following in the footsteps of the master, the godfather of the New Critics, T.S. Eliot. We quote from “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920):

“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”

With this statement begins the New Criticism and its science.  To continue from “Tradition and the Individual Talent:”

“He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”

When Eliot asks the poet to comprehend the “obvious fact” of  the “material of art,” he is speaking of “material” as a scientist would.  Again, from “Tradition:”

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.  I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.  …When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid.  This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected..The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.

All that chemical “mixing” and “combining!”   And look at the famous poem which appeared shortly afterwards:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The shred of platinum is like the forgetful snow: if it caused a reaction, it doesn’t recall.  The platinum remains unaffected; Eliot’s mind prefers stasis; the breeding and mixing of April is painful to the mind of the poet.  But leaving such analysis aside, Ransom and Eliot both agree that imagination combines profoundly; the fancy, less so.  Metaphor is merely the default, background, mixing process.  Metaphor is often pursued by a lower order of poets: the rain is like my tears, the city snowfall is like a white cathedral, etc.  Combining can also be used by the fancy, as in our example above of the unicorn.  We could say the imagination is concerned with: A pluscombines to produce C, not: A is like B.   And it’s true that combination is more vital than metaphor.  But whether a poet is fanciful or imaginative depends on the poet’s skill and the effect intended; it depends on how and what is combined.

Just as Ransom had a master, so Eliot had one.  Eliot’s master was also an American with a European character, and one who wrote famous essays and famous poems.  Eliot emerged as a major talent during this post-WW I period in London when he wrote reviews, or essays that were reviews, penetratingly on: Shakespeare, Dante, Ben Johnson, and Swinburne.

We quote now from the writer who perfected the essay-review in the previous century; this is from his 1845 review of Thomas Hood’s Prose and Verse:

‘Fancy,’ says the author of Aids to Reflection (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his Genevieve—‘Fancy combines—Imagination creates.’ This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference—without even a difference of degree.  The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all.  Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations.  The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist:—if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially… It may be said—‘We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.’  Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts.  It is no more than a collation of known limbs—features—qualities.  Thus with all which claims to be new—which appears to be a creation of the intellect:—it is a re-soluble into the old.  …What we feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it.  No subject exalts it into the imagination.  When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he is.  He is fanciful in ‘Lalla Rookh,’ and had he written ‘Inferno,’ there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability to be any thing more, unless at rare intervals…
The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty.  The Imagination is the artist of the four.  From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious…The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined…

And here, from the Thomas Hood review, is the chemistry:

…as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them—or even nothing of the qualities of either.  The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited.  Its materials extend throughout the Universe.

So is Coleridge’s formula undone.  And, in another review, this one of Hawthorne, Aristotle’s wisdom is overthrown:

In defense of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said.  Its best appeals are made to the fancy—that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters improper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal; having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow.

Edgar Poe, from an 1847 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s  Twice Told Tales

 

THE WUSSY POETS

wussy.jpg

CATULLUS (Foul-mouthed gossip)

TRISTAN CORBIERE (Sickly & sarcastic)

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (Sage, married into money)

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (Professor, married into money)

ROBERT FROST (Teacher, Grump)

WALLACE STEVENS (Got his ass kicked in Key West)

JOHN CROWE RANSOM (Academic, his ashes reside on Kenyon campus)

ALDOUS HUXLEY (Pampered aristocrat, extremely near-sighted)

T.S ELIOT (Bank Clerk)

PAUL VALERY (Wretched Pedant)

W.H. AUDEN (Disowned a poem when someone didn’t like a line)

ALLEN GINSBERG (Slept until noon-ish)

PHILIP LARKIN (Smut addict, librarian)

FRANK O’HARA (Wrote poem about Lana Turner)

JOHN ASHBERY (Wrote poem about Daffy Duck)

HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity (in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anyway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

WITCH-HUNTING: IT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN IN SALEM

Byron and the Romantics (including Poe) were witches to the Moderns

“Today, many scholars see the witchcraft trials as a product of tensions in and around Salem. There was a strong divide between the town of Salem, a prosperous port town, and the village of Salem, which was a poorer farming town. The village of Salem formed its own congregation, and it was divided bitterly over the choice of minister, but eventually selected Samuel Parris, who was the choice of one prominent Salem clan, the Putnams. It was Parris’s daughter Betty and her cousin who first displayed the symptoms that were quickly labeled the result of witchcraft, and the girls were soon joined by one of the Putnam daughters, Ann. The Putnams were enthusiastic witch hunters, with Ann’s mother, also named Ann, accusing fellow townspeople as well. In general, people who were accused of witchcraft fell into two categories. Some were easy targets — they were old, social misfits, or generally unpopular. Others were upstanding citizens but their accusers had something to gain, either property or status, from the downfall of the people they accused.”  —The Writer’s Almanac, July 19, 2010

The ignorance and hostility towards the Romantics (also Poe) by Eliot and Pound are well-known, but the European Modernists’ allies in America, the influential Fugitive cum reactionary Southern Agrarians cum New Critics cum Engle/Tate/Ransom/Winters writing program industry pioneers had a royal disdain for the Romantics (sometimes with a soft spot for Wordsworth) as well.

In an essay published in 1938, poet, critic, and respected academic John Crowe Ransom, asserted that Byron, born exactly 100 years before Ransom, was an obsolete writer, as Mr. Crowe quoted Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”

“Thou,” “Ocean” in caps, and the exclamation point all prove Byron is a witch and cannot be trusted.

Ransom:

“A passage of Byron’s if sprung upon an unsuspecting modern would be immediately felt as ‘dating;’ it would be felt as something that did very well for those dark ages before the modern mind achieved its own disintegration and perfected its faculties serially.” 

Ransom could have quoted any number of Byron passages which sound strikingly modern, even today, if by ‘modern’ we mean, ‘good’ (hopefully it means something positive to Ransom) but here’s what Ransom in his essay selects for praise instead, from modern (and friendAllen Tate (beloved poet, read the world over):

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms; and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in his rotten skiff.

Allen Tate (d. 1979)

Stand back, Byron!  Here comes Allen Tate’s “rotten skiff!”

Byron, savaged by skiff-lover Ransom for being “dated,” was born 100 years before John Crowe Ransom—and 110 years before little Allen Tate.

Let’s put things in perspective: William Carlos Williams was born 127 years ago—and counting.

WC Williams is 27 % older to us now than Byron was to Ransom then.

Roll, thou Modernist Clique and your toadies, roll!

In any textbook or commentary plucked at random, one can read how the Romantics were rebels against the Enlightenment, how the Romantics rejected “ornament” and embraced “nature” and “common speech.”   

But this universal rhetoric is a lie, for Byron, Shelley, and Keats were not “nature poets.”  They did not embrace “plain speech.”  (Certainly not the “plain speech” of Allen Tate or the “nature” of John Crowe (Southern Agrarian) Ransom or the “plain idiocy” of William Carlos Williams and his friend Ezra Pound.)  The best of the Romantics saw Letters as a unity and they embraced the best of what had been written and thought before; Byron, Shelley and Keats, even when they sailed in “skiffs,” were not Manifesto-ists, defining themselves by how much they hated a previous age (Pope, for instance, who wrote some pretty nice nature poems).

But let us see…

who were the scholars who defined the Romantics as Manifesto-ists, as ‘nature poets,’ who rejected the past…

Ahh, it was the Modernists, who had everything to gain by playing by different rules—so they could concentrate study on themselves and the importance of their modernism—a trend which owed its existence to ignoring all those vices of the past, ignoring those evil Romantics.

THE REAL DIRT ON ABSTRACT PAINTING

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Modern poetry triumphed in the schools due to the work of the Fugitive/New Critics like Warren, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, their textbooks (“Understanding Poetry”) their associates (Paul Engle, I.A. Richards, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell) and their associates in turn, but modern painting did modern poetry one better: abstract painting, as hateful to working class people as modern poetry, managed to triumph in the market. 

Why? 

The answer lies not so much in aesthetics, but in the link between Modern Architecture and Modern Painting.   Modern painting’s manifesto-points merely aped those of Bauhaus architecture.  As Austrian architect Adolph Loos put it, “Ornament is a crime.”     The key was cement.   Building large modern buildings brought in corporate millions.  The commerical, practical element of modern architecture pulled modern painting along with it.   The modern architects befriended, and collected the work of, the modern painters.   The combination of pioneer-ism, coterie-ism, and huge ugly buildings drawing monumental amounts of corporate cash overwhelmed public taste and a new era of “art” was born.

The aesthetics of Modernism was created before the 20th century by artists like Turner, Whistler, Baudelaire and countless others in Africa, Asia; the Modernists themselves simply cashed in as opportunists in the wake of the new ‘cement-mixer’ architecture.

Even the most blunt, astute philistines who objected to modern painting couldn’t see the writing on the wall of the Seagrams Building (Philip Johnson, Mies Van der Rohe, designers).   No one could quite figure out modern painting’s success.

Al Capp missed, but came close, with these two quotes:

“Picasso was a sensible kid. He knew he couldn’t go any further—not along the  traditional path, where talent was measured by the classic standards of truth and beauty. So he beat out another path—a crazy, crooked one, leading nowhere; and despite the jeering of the art world, he kept at it, turning out more balmy and offensive stuff every year until the art world began wondering if it hadn’t made a mistake, if there wasn’t something secretly good in stuff that looked so bad. The answer, of course, is that they were right in the first place—and history will someday make that judgement. But I’m sure Picasso couldn’t care less. He’s loaded. And the world’s galleries are loaded with his fakery.”

“Some people dismiss abstract artists as frauds. I don’t. I think quite a few are perfectly sincere, as sincere as those mystics of another great society—those Romans, I mean, who read augurs and portents into a slit lamb’s intestines. The only difference is that our mystics splash splatter paint until they create something as distasteful as lamb’s intestines—and we read augurs and portents into their messes.”

The real answer lay in those skyscrapers designed by graduates of the Modernist Bauhaus school.

The principle was explained in Poe’s Purloined Letter; it was the size of those cement Bauhaus monstrosities, the sheer volume and obviousness of it all, which eluded the critics.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What Do You Mean, Then?

Our artist expects no elaborate thanks
For these canvases of obscure blanks;
Selected critics’ praise and money
Will make this colony’s honey.
If Rothko’s bank account does well,
Working folk who wish to understand can go to hell.
But I’m no working class swine,
I understand theosophy and wine,
And I can tell you what the painting means in the end:
Some artist was some critic’s was some banker’s friend.

MAD SCIENTIST MODERNISM AND ITS MONSTER, ROMANTICISM

cat god.jpg

When you make yourself into a god, you always have problems.

The English Romantics were anti-religious egotists.

We got the genius of beauty (Keats and Shelley) but also the quixotic anti-intellectualism of Byron (who bragged from Italy of reading no English magazines), the bucolic bathos of Wordsworth and the goth-pedantry of Coleridge.   (It can be argued that the two friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge, invented both modern and post-modern letters and culture between them.  Throw in Poe to fill in some popular and professional niches, and there you have it.)

English Romanticism was foul and fair, golden-tongued but satanic-milled, a Tory workshop-empire of mercenary, merchant, soldier and mad king, the opium-trading empire America sometimes, in its better moments, defined itself against.

Southey and Coleridge dreamt of going to America to live on a commune like Brook Farm; this noble communist impulse was strong among intellectuals and artists during the Romantic era, both in England and America.

In places like India and China, the people there were on England’ s farm whether they wanted to be, or not.

Randall Jarrell could not have been more wrong in his dyspeptic, “modernism is dead” essay, “The End of the Line” (1942) when he claimed that Modernism was not a counter to Romanticism but an extension of it.   T.S. Eliot was an extension of Shelley?  Er…I don’t think so.  Jarrell was actually giving too much credit to Modernism; Eliot seems increasingly like nothing more than a Victorian with an added drop of the sordid picked up from the 19th century French.

Thomas Mann’s early 20th century trope that the artist was a misfit and art was essentially a symptom of disease is well-known.

Modernism’s rejection (see T.S. Eliot’s essays) of overly emotional and egotistical Romanticism played into the whole notion that the once-revered Romantic artist was a clown, a fop, a seducer, a low-life, a dabbler, an amateur, not only quixotic, and deluded, but even irresponsibly vicious, and worse, a bad-dresser, bad hair, and finally, unwashed.  To Eliot, the Romantics were not in the least respectable.

It’s no surprise Mann and the Modernists were closer to the Nazis than the Communists, especially during the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s before the war.

Influential reactionary Fugitive and Writing Program founder John Crowe Ransom (a friend of Paul Engle’s), who defended the ways of the Old South with “I’ll Take My Stand” (1930), was a suit-and-tie poet who called for a new university professionalism of poetry criticism in his 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.”

The early to mid-20th century Modernist poets were suit-and-tie men.

Harvard-connected Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot were not exceptions because they were poets who wore suits and worked in offices, as many have naively pointed out, they were the rule: the Thomas Mann/Modernist and reactionary professionalism counter to Romanticism’s fevered amateur-ism.

And, it goes without saying, that mad-scientist Post-modernism and its post-war, nutty-professor manifesto-ism, is nothing more than an academic extension of reationary, professional-crackpot Modernism.

The mad scientist (Modernism) descends to the mere nutty professor (Post-modernism).  But all very professional, of course.

“SO HAVE THE CRITICS NEARLY ALWAYS BEEN AMATEURS” -J.C. RANSOM

The professional hates the amateur. 

Poetry was for amateurs before the man in the photo above came along (John Crowe Ransom).  He put Modernism into the university and professionalized poetry at the same time. 

The Romantic artist was an amateur.  Beethoven and Keats didn’t need no credentials; their only credentials were symphonies and odes.  Modernism changed all that. 

The amateur creates commerce.  The professional controls it.

The amateur is hot Sturm and Drang.  The professional is cold New Criticism. 

The professional is passion deferred.  The amateur is passion right now. 

The amateur is “I’ll show you!”  The professional is “It has been said…” 

The professional is the person of obligation, responsibility, work, connections, and material reward.  The amateur is the irresponsible, inspired bum. 

The professional is the sly method.  The amateur is the sly method exposed.  

The professional is the explainer.  The amateur is the explained. 

It takes 100 years for the professional to absorb the amateur.* 

*Pound agrees with Stendhal that it takes 80 years.  So be it. 

One always betrays the other and they can never be friends—even in the same person.

Take Franz Wright.  His ‘professional’ side and his ‘amateur’ side are at war; the poor man has to keep apologizing for both: the amateur Franz Wright to his professional colleagues, the professional Franz Wright to his fans and friends.  My guess is that most of the time it is his professional side that does the bulk of the apologizing and feels the most guilty, so it must be a pleasurable vent when he ventures onto Scarriet to scold us for our amateur status, allowing the professional Franz Wright, who spends most of the day hiding, a chance to shine.   Same with Bill Knott, the adored amateur poet, who came on Scarriet recently to wax professionally indignant over copyright law.  Seth Abramson, another professional, came here recently to claim that the MFA/professionalization of poetry was not a game of Modernism or New Criticism, not a system created by Ransom, Tate and their friends, but was rather some kind of courageous neo-Romantic movement—against all historical evidence.  It’s easy to see why Abramson would rather his beloved MFA system be identified with amateurs and Romantics than with professionals and New Critics.  It’s for the same reason that finds Franz Wright with a divided and irritable soul.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  We want to have our cake and eat it.  We want to be both professional and amateur, but it’s impossible, for it’s the whole role of both to cut out the other.

Despite the professionalization of poetry that has occured since Ransom’s academic Modernist/New Criticism coup a couple of generations ago, the artist-as-amateur, beholden to no creds and nobody, still lingers as a Romantic ideal.  In our hearts, we all know we’re amateurs and that history will eventually judge us that way, and so professionalism is sought after by almost everyone—but still loathed.  

As  academic, anti-Romantic Ransom put it in 1937, in his now-famous essay (thanks to us): “Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.  Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.”

WHEN DID SCARRIET CHANGE POETRY FOREVER?

That’s right, class!  It was March 2010.

Poetry and criticism were moribund in the modern era.

The New Critics, springing from T.S. Eliot’s Sacred Wood and the ravings of Eliot’s “master,” Ezra Pound, were nothing but a erudite smokescreen for a modernist clique who invaded the academy in the 1930s and 40s, led by Professors Tate, Crane, Ransom, and Engle.

The internet, however, made Virginia Woolf’s printing press, Ransom’s Kenyon Review, and little magazines like Poetry seem tame by comparison.

Now the whole world could experience new art and ideas overnight.

All it took was one website, Scarriet, to change everything.

Even into the 21st century, American culture was hopelessly stuck in the past of 1830s Paris.  The glamor and “danger” of Bohemia had been recycled one too many times.  21st century America was like first century Rome, remember?  When sculpture realistically depicted old, bald men?

The ideal had been replaced by the fetish.  The genius had been replaced by the crank.

Starting in the middle of the 20th century, the films of Walt Disney featured hip jazz cats overturning middle class values.  The ‘avant garde’ has long been a harmless cartoon.  Now the “Disney Channel” shapes the lives of ADD drugged adolescents.

Long before the end of the 20th century, once-threatening  rock music (by some accounts an LSD experiment by U.S. military intelligence) entertained the elderly as they shopped in brightly lit supermarkets.

The so-called avant garde has not advanced since New York in the 1890s.   All that was outrageous and avant has been assimilated, marketed, and been in repeat for decades.

Culture has been backed into a corner.

Retro late-capitalist kitsch posters screaming “Freedom” are yellowing inside the prison cells of High Culture.

The same “avant” ideas are recycled over and over.

The latest hurrah in po-biz (Flarf, Conceptualism, Language Poetry) in 2010 is the “Found Poem” from 50 years ago and Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’ from even earlier.   Yet the avant garde keeps pretending it is “new” and “dangerous.”   They naively believe they are an alternative to the “Quietists” and they will save society from “Official Verse Culture,” which, by Charles Bernstein’s own admission is T.S. Eliot—which is what Charles Bernstein in fact is: T.S. Eliot.

The spectacular Woodstock Concert and the moon landing happend in 1969.

The only new thing in 2010:  now you can read about these remarkable events on a computer.

It was as if the larger life of mankind had ended in the mid-20th century, and the only major advance in all that time was the P.C.

In the humanities departments of universites, academia has long abandonded its enlightenment role and become a for-profit babysitter, selling  psycho-babble degrees for an increasingly psycho-babble society.

Outmoded heroes of modernism adorn the minds of the intellectual curators of the age like celebrity photos of TV stars in teen bedrooms.  Modernism has gone completely unexamined and uncritiqued.   But it’s everywhere in academe, as history is increasingly forgotten.

Mid 20th century until now: Modernism is vaguely ‘avant garde’ and ‘radical,’ appealing to a certain conflicted type: the Modernist clique consists of European dead white males, like Mallarme, who can perplex the middle class—thus the Modernists are considered radical and conservative at the same time, a kind of magical formula for academics like Tate and Engle who were then taking over the English Departments and turning them into corporate supermarkets.

The radical, for decades, has been merely artsy-farsty.

A sweeping critique, a new examination of recent history, is needed.  But when?

Poetry is practically invisible outside the po-biz ghetto.

Enter Scarriet.

SCARRIET PRESENTS NATIONAL ‘POETRY BASEBALL’ MONTH

Hell, let’s play a whole season. 

Here are the teams.  They play in little bucolic ballparks.  No DH.

National League

Philadelphia Poe
New York Bryants
Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers
Cambridge Longfellows
Boston Lowells
Concord Emersons
Brooklyn Ashberys
New Jersey Ginsbergs
Tennessee Ransoms
Maine Millays

American League

Brooklyn Whitmans
New England Frost
London Eliots
Rapallo Pound
New Jersey Williams
Hartford Stevens
New York Moores
Cambridge Cummings
Amherst Emily
Iowa City Grahams

Baseball Poetry Commissioner: the honorable Harold Bloom
Player Union Rep:  Camille Paglia

There are still some hold-outs, most notably W.H. Auden from the Ashberys. 

Scouting Report Highlights:

NL

The brawling Philadelphia Poe features Lord Byron in the clean-up spot and Alexander Pope does mound duties as the ace of a pitching staff not afraid to throw inside.

The elegant New York  Bryants have Abraham Lincoln as their chief twirler and the slugging Thomas Cole hitting no. 4 in a highly distinguished lineup.

The Hartford Greenleaf Whittiers bring William Lloyd Garrison as their ace and Charles Dickens just signed up to play centerfield.

The Cambridge Longfellows have Washington Irving roaming center and Dante and Horace as mound aces.

The Boston Lowells field Mark Twain at short, Robert Browning in left, and Charles Eliot Norton and Leigh Hunt as their dominant hurlers.

Beware the Concord EmersonsWilliam James is their ace, Swedenborg bashes from the cleanup spot, and Thoreau tends centerfield.

The Brooklyn Ashberys have Frank O’Hara leading off and Andy Warhol is their ace.   Kenneth Koch and James Tate anchor the infield, while Charles Bernstein is in the bullpen.

The Ginsbergs of New Jersey have William Blake slugging from the No. 4 hole, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan as their double play combination and Mark Van Doren and William Burroughs on the mound.

The Tennessee Ransoms have Allen Tate at catcher and Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, I.A. Richards, and Paul Engle on the hill.

Rounding out the National League, we have the Maine Millays with Edmund Wilson and Philip Sidney pitching, with Sappho out in center.

AL

The Brooklyn Whitmans have Oscar Wilde and F.O. Matthiessen as no. 1 and no. 2 starters, with Lawrence Fernlinghetti, C.K. Williams and William Michael Rossetti providing up-the-middle defense at second, short, and center.

The New England Frost have William Wordsworth in the clean-up spot with Louis Untermeyer as their no. 1 hurler.

The London Eliots have Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell on the mound with Tristan Corbiere at first, Jules LaForgue at third, and Arthur Symons behind the plate.

The Rapallo Pound are stocked, with Benito Mussollini in right, Hugh Kenner on the mound and Ernest Fenollosa at shortstop.  Negotiations are continuing with Joyce, Yeats, and Duchamp.

The New Jersey Williams have Man Ray as their ace and Robert Creeley in the lead-off spot.  They also want Duchamp.

The Hartford Stevens have pitching depth with George Santayana, Helen Vendler, and  John Hollander.  James Merrill is in the clean-up spot.

The New York Moores have Elizabeth Bishop at the top of the lineup and Pater in the bullpen.  Ted Hughes is their big slugger.

The Cambridge Cummings have Picasso batting no. 3 and Scofield Thayer and T.E. Hulme anchoring the pitching staff.

The Amherst Emily has Thomas Wentworth Higginson as their pitching ace with Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett in the outfield.

Finally, the Iowa City Grahams have Bin Ramke and Peter Sacks as key pitchers and James Galvin powering the middle of the lineup.

Stay tuned for complete team rosters.

We’ll give you updates during the season…every trade, every management dispute… individual stats, stat leaders, and team standings as the season progresses.

“MUMBO JUMBO?” — “PARADOX?” “AMBIGUITY?” “IRONY?” “SYMBOL?”

March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady

.

………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash

.

The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman

MARLA MUSE, OUR ‘BEST AMERICAN POETRY MARCH MADNESS’ REPORTER


…………………Sketch by George Romney  1734-1802

She’s been covering gods, warriors, muses, and poets for centuries!

Our own Marla Muse!

She’s a child of nature.

But she did get with the program in 1932, earning her undergraduate degree at Iowa the same year Paul Engle’s Iowa Master’s Thesis won the Yale Younger Poets Competition.

She has studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford, Alan Tate at Minnesota, John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon, and Richard Howard at Columbia.

Marla also claims to have been the muse, for at least a few months, to the following: Sappho, Zhang Ji, Milton, Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Sigourney, Helen Whitman, Elizabeth Barrett, Paul Valery, Rudyard Kipling, Yone Noguchi, Philip Larkin, Syd Barrett, Tony Hoagland, and Lewis Buzbee.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Marla Muse!

“MAKE IT U.” -JOHN CROWE RANSOM’S “STUDENTS OF THE FUTURE” REVOLUTION

John Crowe Ransom.  His circle included Ford Madox Ford, Alan Tate, Ezra Pound, and Paul Engle.  Robert Lowell left Harvard to study with him at Kenyon.

“One truth about creative writing instruction seems undeniable: the kids love the stuff.  They love it suspiciously much, and on the graduate level, too, one rarely hears of a shortage of applicants to creative writing programs, most of them willing to go into debt for the privilege of attending one. This is partly why creative writing programs are a relatively easy sell to university administrators and also why—the odds of any one student making it as a professional writer being vanishingly small—they are subject to being criticized as entrepreneurial exploitations of the American Dream of perfect self-expression.  Creative writing is, in sum, as American as baseball, apple pie, and homicide.”  —Mark McGurl  “The Program Era”

 In John Crowe Ransom’s 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” the influential critic rejects poets and philosophers as true critics, arguing the job must fall to university professors—the group least likely to commit the fatal error of behaving like “amateurs.”   The mere reviewer, or journalist, is beneath contempt, not earning a mention in Ransom’s utopia.

These professors should be “scientific,” but if the professors’ science is not a real science, it doesn’t matter, Ransom says, because, after all, “psychology and sociology” are” not real sciences,” either.   True.

“I do not think we need to be afraid that criticism, trying to be a sort of science, will inevitably fail and give up in despair, or else fail without realizing it and enjoy some hollow and pretentious career.”  

A “sort of science” is the best one can hope for, surely.

“It does not matter whether we call them sciences or just systematic studies; the total effort of each to be effective must be consolidated and kept going.”

Here it is, then: a consolidated industry of poetry criticism in the university.   Ransom asked for it, and it happened, with the rise of the Workshop Era, an era accompanied by that specialized, modernist zeal to push out voices of the past.

“Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.  Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have an idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc, or Criticism, Ltd.”

An East India Company of professional opium trade?    Professionalism’s stamp is dubious enough, and to insist on it for the study and criticism of poetry is more dubious still.   But let us assume Ransom’s intentions are good, and his desire for professionalism is an ordinary good thing.

Ransom has chosen university professors as the new vanguard of criticism and there they are, an already well-established, professional class of scholars, with impressive historicist credentials.

But here’s the problem.  These professors teach literary history.   Ransom wants critics, not curators who preserve the past.   The professors of history must be purged.

Here’s the Stalinist plan:

“The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.”

In other words, take the history scholars out back and shoot them.  Every student “of the future” will become his own  critic.  

What follows, naturally, is the every-student-is-a-poet of the Creative Writing Era.   Every-student-is-a-critic was a mere brief step in Ransom’s revolution, one the University of Chicago was already putting into practice.

“At the University of  Chicago, I believe that Professor Crane, with some others, is putting the revolution into effect in his own teaching, though for the time being perhaps with a limited program, mainly the application of Aristotle’s critical views.”

Aristotle?  Plato would not work, of course, for then students would have to be critical even of things like Criticism, Inc, but we really wonder if it was Professor Crane’s teaching of Aristotle that had Ransom in such a revolutionary mood.

“It is true that the historical and ethical studies will cluster round objects which for some reason are called artistic objects.”  In this concession, Ransom admits university professors who care about history (Aristotle, etc) teach aesthetic criticism as a matter of course—to learn ‘about’ Aristotle is to study criticism as much as one can study that subject.  Ransom knows this, obviously, but he pushes on: “But the thing itself [the artistic object] the professors do not have to contemplate” and here Ransom makes up a quote of an aggrieved student and its phantom response by one of Ransom’s straw-men history professors, ripe for future slaughter: “This is a place for exact scholarship [Ransom has the professor say] and you want to do criticism.  Well, we don’t allow criticism here, because that is something which anybody can do.”  

The ‘oppressed’ student who is forced to study Aristotle and not allowed to ‘do criticism.’    Surely Ransom is joking.  No, he is very much not joking, for now arrives the reason for the entire essay, the “Make It U.” of  Ransom’s dreams, back there in 1937:

“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?  They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods.”   These foul, unweeded gardens containing Aristotle and Plato and all the ages of literature, choking the poor student who is not allowed “to do criticism.”

Here’s the rub.  These gardens are foul because, for Ransom, they are pulling attention away from “contemporary literature.”

Ransom’s essay is not really about “professionalism” at all. 

It is also not about the philosophy of Professor Crane and Aristotle. 

For who remembers Prof. Crane?  And today, in Ransom’s brave new world of English Departments and MFA poetry workshops—where every student is a poet-critic—who even remembers Aristotle?

Ransom’s dream of MAKE IT U. is here.

Where are the professors—of literature?  Ah, where are they?

The professors are watering their own gardens.

They are publishing their poems and the poems of their friends.

These professors have absorbed the great lesson of “Criticism, Inc.,” the great wisdom of Ransom, the modern poet-critic, and Ransom’s modern poet-critic friends: 

If the public won’t buy your poetry, find a professional niche and build up its significance there, within the safety of that thickly-grown niche where “amateurs” and their “simplistic ideas of good and bad” cannot penetrate. 

The “revolution” is complete.

Welcome, university students and university professors of the future!

Make it you.

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: