IS RENOIR PORN?

The Large Bathers—Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir was in his mid-forties when he devoted four years on his famous “The Large Bathers” (1887), perhaps his most ambitious painting.

Will RSAP—the “Renoir Sucks At Painting” protest group—go to Philly next?  The small group of protesters, led by Max Geller, made the news this month with two anti-Renoir protests in Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and New York (The Metropolitan). Renoir’s ‘Bathers’ hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

According to Hyperallergic, RSAP demanded the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan take down its 19 Renoir paintings because Renoir’s work is “poorly rendered treacle.”

RSAP is right.  Renoir is candy.  Renoir practiced on Rubens when he started out, and, failing miserably at truly heroic painting, became a sugary postcard illustrator, part of the great aesthetic decline in the West since the late 19th century: Brahms replaced by Philip Glass; Tennyson replaced by William Carlos Williams; Goya replaced by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Corporate producers are killing music, “Creative Writing” is killing poetry, and Trash has replaced Art. The 1% not only conquers with banking and war, but with this kind of shit—turning people into sheep without taste. Poe and Shelley were correct: aesthetics, which inhabits a position, morally, between reason and passion, is vital.

To many, Renoir, seems old-fashioned and rigorous, not part of any “decline,” not guilty of painting that, in the words of RSAP, “sucks.”  Poetry sucks today, and yet those who acknowledge this will nonetheless defend William Carlos Williams as an ideal of “High Modernism,” when, in fact, William Carlos Williams does suck, despite what a guy in a textbook says.

To get back on the right track, we should go back and protest where it all went wrong; this is actually far more effective than wrangling with contemporary rot.  Once you accept the establishment of a William Carlos Williams or a Pierre-Auguste Renoir as something historically legitimate, the game is over.

Most people think RSAP is a joke; but it is actually not.

Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker has called their protest “silly,” which is how a “serious” art critic would make it known that he does not think the protest is a joke, and, even if it were a joke, it nonetheless makes him uncomfortable, and the art world uncomfortable, because of what we have just said.  And isn’t it interesting how this tiny protest, which is merely “silly,” has already gained so much traction?

The protest, in our opinion, is wonderful, and not silly—only if it gets people thinking about art again: something no one has done for a hundred years in America, given the onslaught of horrible art that we must accept if we are “cool,” and reject, if we are not.

It is the vast and clever ‘guilt scam’ (be cool or else!) of the Modern Art Salesman-Pusher, who wants to make art easy to make, easy to like, and easy to sell for big money.  It is probably the biggest scam in the history of the world.  The “art” collectors in the early 20th century hired critics and built museums to house their “collections” and became super-rich, while destroying Taste itself to seal the deal.

It began with the Salon des Refuses in 1863, a year in which America was fighting for its life in a meat-grinding Civil War which France and Great Britain, now allies, had helped to bring about. (France and Britain’s “neutrality,” which said, General Lee, kill enough Union soldiers, and we’ll recognize the Confederacy, turned what should have been a small war into a very, very big one.) The Salon des Refuses was not some kind of underground protest against the art establishment; it was mandated by the imperialist Napoleon III. The new works were greeted with howls of laughter. Exactly 50 years later, the new art was shipped to America (the Armory Art show of 1913) by John Quinn, collector of the new art and Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot’s attorney.  Again, the new art—Duchamp got most of the attention, not Picasso—was greeted with howls of laughter. (After all, Duchamp was a prankster.) But “critics” came to the rescue; A.C. Barnes (of the Barnes Foundation) collected; his friend, John Dewey, earnestly and seriously wrote. And fortunes were made.

Of course, Schjeldahl in the New Yorker does not defend Renoir as revolutionary or new—which is how junk like this was first ushered in by the con men: Art should not stagnate! Art should develop and be new! This new art is inevitable!

Schjeldahl is happy to defend Renoir as junk, for as he writes in the New Yorker of Renoir: “His art was from, for, and about an ascendant class. His exaggerated blush and sweetness makes sense as effusions of triumphal exuberance.”

Bad art—but somehow “ascendant” and “triumphal.”

He sounds more like a propaganda minister than an art critic.

Schjeldahl happily goes on: “Have the R.S.A.P. members ever truly looked at Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” (1883) in the Boston M.F.A.? …”redolent of heat, music, smells, and light sweats of exertion and desire. Cigarette butts litter the floor at their feet. This is not candy-box fantasy. It is the real life of real people in a real place, glorified. Modernity is dawning. There’s a beat to it, and a glow.”

No. That’s the point. There is no “exertion and desire.” There’s no “beat.” Okay, maybe a little one.  (Can you dance to the “Mona Lisa?”)

In “Dance at Bougival”—should we call it Boogie-ville?—the young woman has a bland, cute, pin-up countenance—the faceless man of gaudy swagger, wearing blue to her white trimmed in red, points his beard into her doll face. There is no “smell.” The painting is like a macho-flavored M& M candy.

RSAP should spread their protest to Schjeldahl’s remarks—make them a target, too.

No “revolutionary” fervor is present in Schjeldahl’s defense; Renoir is merely defended as “real people.”  But doesn’t art have to push onward?  Isn’t Renoir in the way?  No, he’s not, because the Modern Art “revolution” was never about progress—it was about turning people into sheep and junk into money.

The idea that Renoir is revolutionary in any sort of timeless sense, of course, is laughable—even Schjeldahl knows this; so he can only mumble something about “real life” and “cigarette butts.”

But still, Schjeldahl—and this never gets old—gives us the inevitable, “Modernity is dawning.”

Modernity.  Ah, word of so many meanings!

What does it mean?  Well, it means everything.

It means sex and fun.

And not only that. “Modernity,” you see, is inevitable, like the sun rising. It’s a new and crazy beat, daddy-o!  And it has to happen.  And it is always happening.

The most revolutionary act possible today in the art world—perhaps in the whole world: is to declare simply and loudly: Renoir Sucks!

No one would dare talk about Renoir today as Jan Gordon did in his Modern French Painters back in the 20s:

The first quarrel with the great public on the matter of art arose with the Impressionists. The little differences which arose previously, such as that with Corot—who was accused of giving cloud banks and columns of smoke instead of trees—and that with Millet, which was chiefly founded on amour-propre, never rose to a sufficient acerbity to include the general mass of the spectators. The critics attacked Delacroix, and accused him of giving them to corpses instead of human flesh (what did they think of Crivelli or of Piero della Francesca?), but the public passed by with, perhaps, a smiling shrug.

With the Impressionists, however, it became angry almost to madness. At the time of the Salon des Refuses many a Frenchman would gladly have murdered Monet or Renoir.

Jan Gordon goes on to say that—and notice how far away from Schjeldahl this is:

The Old Masters had noted that a material in light appeared often different in colour from that of its shadows; but they had, generally, so blended these colors that the colour of the material was never in doubt. They had gradually impressed on the public a fallacious notion of a burnt umber tree which was accepted with such faith that the green tree had to fight hard for admittance into art. When, however, a blue tree was presented to it, the public revolted. Yet, as a matter of fact, trees are often blue, and are very seldom burnt umber.

How blithely Gordon, in his defense of Renoir nearly 100 years ago, makes the highly dubious accusation that the “Old Masters” were “fallacious” on something as fundamental as light and color. This kind of pro-Modern Art argument is far more interesting, even if it’s a lie; but now, with the “revolution” long over, and wildly successful, no longer necessary.

And then we have John Dewey, a few years later, attacking the Old Masters in his LSD drug trip manner:

The fatal defect of the representative theory is that it exclusively identifies the matter of a work of art with what is objective. It passes by the fact that objective material becomes the matter of art only as it is transformed by entering into relations of doing and being undergone by an individual person with all his characteristics of temperament, special manner of vision, and unique experience.

Dewey bans the “objective.” Schjeldahl, living in a different era—after the battle has been won—can discourse endlessly on “cigarette butts.”  Modern critics are objective or subjective depending on the atrociousness of the art which they are selling—uh, sorry…critically defending.  And how softened-up—uh, sorry…receptive their audience is.

So is Renoir porn?

Study the “The Large Bathers,” for yourself.  Put all the ‘art critic’ voices aside, and make up your mind.

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARY SZYBIST HAS WON THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.

“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.”  —Thomas Brady

Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.

Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world.   Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position.  We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.

Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?

The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song.  We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem.  Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream.  Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.

There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.

The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.

Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth.  After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.

A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.”  It “happens” anew every time we read it.

Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way.  We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.

We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole.  It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.

Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it.  Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like.  There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else.  Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?

Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life.  Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art.  Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness.  It doesn’t get any better than harmony.  It doesn’t get any worse than discord.  Those are the Two.   All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord.  All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.

We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:

Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.

We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem.  How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”

Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence.  Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.

But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane:  “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”

We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.”  The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.

Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief,  sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem.  The judge asks: asleep among fruits? 

The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how?  And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name?  These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked.   But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects.  The coy poem will be found out.  Casual readers may not find them out.  Critics will.  Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases?  Let no critic be drawn in by this.  Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.

Moral admonitions aside,  the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable.  As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?”  How among fruits?  What kinds of fruits?  How much did Mary “matter?”  Is the narrator upset to the point of tears?  How is the narrator uttering these lines?  Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left?  What difference does it make to the narrator?  What exactly was Mary to the poet?  Who is Mary?  The Mother of God?  Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery?  And is this enough?  In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.

in ash, in dust, I did not

leave you

The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for?  The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows.  Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?”  The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.”  Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line?  The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not.  The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.

Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes.  The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on.  The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself.  The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.”  In “Hail,”  we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about.  The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.

“I did not leave you,” the poet announces.  Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left?  Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her?  Is the poet bitter and betrayed?  Or not?  How can we tell?  What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”

Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.

Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose.  Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.

We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder?  Where is the emotional guide?

The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”

And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”

We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes.  And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.

We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.

There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits?  Why this odious comparison? 

We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves.  We compare involuntarily.  We cannot help it.  It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us.  We have nothing to do with it.  As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism.  We know Mary Szybist will forgive us.  But it’s a fait accompli.  She must forgive us.

The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.

A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.

A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.

We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be.   Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment.  Don’t be so coy.

Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.

The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.

Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.

But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it.  Think on your favorite poem (s).  Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying?  Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common.  Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too.  We know what the good poems do.  They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious.  They have action.  Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day.  There’s no other way of putting it.

We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem.  You have to close the deal.

We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines.  We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.

And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving.   As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.

The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.

We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.

Read “Hail” one more time.

La verite’ peut vous plaire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know the protests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you teaching now?

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

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

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

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

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

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the interview continues:

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

UGLY BIRDS: THE FAILURE OF MODERN POETRY AND THE SUCCESS OF THE NOVEL

Modernism is no longer “modern.”  Duchamp was born in the 19th century and the Mona Lisa moustache artist is several generations closer in time to Byron than he is to us.

But the legacy of modernism, with its self-conscious -isms, grows apace: ungainly poetry the public ignores continues to flourish, aided by institutional subsidy.

The New English Review published an article last year, “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” by Mark Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros, and was rebuked in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey: “Beckmann’s Deposition, A Modernist Offering.”

It is nice to know these sorts of discussions are going on, for Modernism’s profound influence is taken too much for granted.  Here is Signorelli’s reply to Mullarkey.

Compare the two paintings in Mullarkey’s article:  the one by Max Beckmann (1917) and the one by Geerhaert David (1500).

The models speak for themselves.

Rhetoric of a certain religious or political bent need not distract us.   Artistic Modernism is too important an issue to be sidetracked by religious or political wrangling, and it is precisely this wrangling, which, by its very nature, is nearly always beside the point, that helps to keep the legacy of Modernism afloat.

The cry against Modernism could be any of the following:  “God has gone out of art!” or “It is as if God, if there were a God, had gone out of art!”  Or,  “Beauty has gone out of art!”   Or, “Art now sucks!”   The rhetoric may be different, but the truth is the same.

Now, we will not deny that Modernism has a certain powerful secular, scientific, open-minded, progressive perception among many intellectuals, and that complaints against Modernism tend to be construed as nothing more than a sort of superstitious “yahoo” reaction.

But Modernism lacks genuine scientific credentials: Cubism is not a “fourth dimension” or a “new reality.”  Poems cannot be measured by “breaths” or “fields of energy” or “things.”  Also, many of Modernism’s founders were fascists.  Modernism’s heady, positive, scientific “perception” is largely a p.r. gimmick.

Modernism’s p.r. perception, however, is fading, as minds secular and religious are getting fed up with what has been to a large extent, a narrow, anti-human, anti-art, con.

Why a “con?”   Real simple:  Because 20th century art was a profitable style based on cheap materials (Bauhaus cement) and hyped painting (buy Cezanne/Matisse/Picasso low, sell high) with an accompanying apparatus of critics, lawyers, speculators, art leagues, schools, and galleries, each part validating the other.

Poetry was the intellectual con that abutted the profit con (architecture, painting).  The arts tend to pull along together: think Keats and Mozart; then Pound and Picasso.  There’s an intellectual/artistic sea that catches up all swimmers.

On a more practical level, however: the modern art collector and lawyer, John Quinn, changed import law (in US Congress!) to make the modern art Armory Show (1913) happen—Quinn also negotiated Eliot and Pound’s “Waste Land” deal.  The wildly influential modern art critic John Dewey allowed wealthy modern art collector A.C. Barnes to co-write his famous Art and Experience. The poetry clique of Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, and Louis Ginsberg (Allen Ginsberg’s father) was headed up by another wealthy modern art collector, Walter Arensberg, who hosted Duchamp’s first visit to America.  Duchamp advised Peggy Guggenheim, who hung out with Ashbery and O’Hara.  William James, the nitrous oxide professor, taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard; Stein’s poetry was less important than the modern art collecting she and her brother Leo did.

Knowing the history and persons does open up our eyes, but we don’t have to waste time with shallow, abstract, ideology, or do a lot of historical second-guessing.  To repeat: the art, the models, speak for themselves.

The public is no longer interested in poetry, at least since the death of Frost 50 years ago.  Today, free verse poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver sell a little bit, but they are not critically esteemed.  Poetry is a fractured, mostly ignored enterprise.

Novels still sell, but poems do not.

In our previous post, we pointed out the crucial difference between fiction and poetry:  the public has a certain amount of patience for novels—readers will “stick with” a novel for a “pay-off;” poems are not given the same chance—and this is due to an old (and correct) expectation that poems should please us immediately.

A novel may be hard to “get into,” and even appear to be an ugly mess, at first, but readers will stay with it because they assume that the total effect will eventually please them.

Modern poets stubbornly believe readers will “give poems the same chance” they do novels.

They won’t.  Public perception of modern poems as compared to modern novels will always operate in the following way:

The consumer’s choice is simple:

Poems are no longer beautiful things which please immediately, but instead imitate the prosy nature of novels,

So what does that mean?  It means the buyer has two choices: the novel—an ugly bird who can fly a long way or, the poem—an ugly bird who can only fly a short distance.  In terms of bang for their buck, the consumer is always going to choose the bird that can fly a greater distance.

No wonder the novel out-sells the poem.

We’ve all seen the poets who try some new trick, who try to make the poem into something it isn’t: an offensive joke, a dense nugget packed with topical information, a pictogram, a revolutionary tract, a diary, but this just makes the poet look desperate: it never works.  The clever poet thinks, Look, I am not only giving them a poem, I am giving them a joke, too!  The public is not interested.  The public just thinks: if you don’t like poetry, why are you pretending to write it?  Write a novel or a joke, instead.

Poetry may be dead, but the idea of it still lives.

Modernism couldn’t kill that.

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.

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!

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.

LOOK WHAT I FOUND!

Charles Bernstein: the ‘outsider’ has finally arrived, but he’s a bit old— about as old as the Found Poem.

The big news at the AWP Conference this year was the hot lovemaking of Flarf and Conceptualism and the sweet, almost sexual, beating up of Language Poetry.

As Charles Bernstein, the heroic “outsider,” offers his “greatest hits” from Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux ($26 –get ’em while they’re hot!) just in time for National Poetry Month, and Rae Armantrout, the Southern California Language Poet, wins the Pulitzer, and Flarfist Kenneth Goldsmith waxes theoretical on Harriet, I can only think of one thing.

The Found Poem.

It makes me feel all toasty-warm inside.

Everybody remembers that quaint, quirky, artsy-fartsy device, right?

Grade school teachers who need to fill up an hour in the classroom can always rely on the Found Poem.

The Found Poem was amusing for a little while back in the 1960s.

Now, 50 years later, it’s the au courant big thing.

For, after all, what is Flarf, Conceptualism, and Language Poetry?

What do they have in common?

Hellooo, Found Poem.

Isn’t that what they are?

Yup.

Third grade.  Right after milk and cookies, and just before show-and-tell…the Found Poem.

This is not to diminish the importance of the found poem; the found poem is a heady idea.  What’s interesting, however, is that these theoretical juggernauts in contemporary po-biz, like Bernstein, never call what they do Found Poetry.

Why is that?

My guess is that ‘Found Poem’ is too quaint  a notion for Bernstein.  Professor Bernstein wants you to think he’s a little more philosophically profound than you are—you, hypocritical twin! who read those New Yorker poems and think they are ‘real,’ you ‘official verse culture’ idiot!

Professor Bernstein, the post-neo-avant-neo, will set you straight.

The publishing house of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux was so clever to release Bernstein’s book in April, National Poetry Month.  Bernstein might get more sales that way…and how about that every review of Bernstein’s book is positive!  How could it not be?  This guy’s good!  Dude!  For real! Bernstein, hater of “official verse culture” writes verse that is “hilarious” and “accessible!”

Take that, New Yorker magazine!

Look at what you “official verse culture” slaves have been missing!

How did John Dewey put it?  “In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we have to forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience we do not usually regard as aesthetic.  We must arrive at the theory of art by means of a detour.”

Bernstein’s long trek in the wilderness has been that “detour.”  At last we can stomach Charlie’s horrible punning…er…philosophy.

The forces of real culture have found Maurice Vlaminck’s African mask.  Now they are showing it to Picasso and Matisse.  Ambroise Vollard is having that African mask cast in bronze.

And here’s our Charlie, cast in bronze, next to it, on the wall.

The detour was rough…but he’s home.

PIG

Why is contemporary poetry such a vexation?

 

Poetry, one of our favorite writers once said, should be a passion, not a study.

But why shouldn’t poetry be a study?  What’s wrong with poetry and study?

Poetry and study are oil and water.

Study’s observational rigor demands factual results, not happy ones.

Poetry, contra study, seeks happy results, not factual ones.

Modern poetry, however, has turned the truism upside down.  Seduced by the apostles of modernism, William James, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Dewey, among others, our poets don’t care for poems which are happy results so much as poems whose results are in the broadest sense, true—which ought to be an improvement, and in some ways, is an improvement.

On the other hand, poetry lost its public when it began to use study rather than passion as its guide.

The public demands poetry full of whimsy, passion, froth, delight.   The public will pardon the poet when he calls a chicken a pig, as long as the poet does not appear to be great and wise while doing so, or mumble into his sleeve while doing so, or pretend to be some priest of the yellow-skinned moon while doing so; the poet must not do so while counting every feather on the chicken.

The public does not like a lot of mumbo jumbo.  A line or two of folly is fine, but pretentious stretches of more than that will not be tolerated, never mind entire landscapes of bombast like “The Four Quartets” or Canto Number One. Forced to read the entire Cantos, out will come the pitchforks and torches.  Oh, and deriding the public of pitchforks and torches will only sever relations between poet and public further.  ‘Torches and pitchforks’ is a metaphor.  The public is smarter than that—or not.   It is those who blame the public rather than the poet who are most far gone.

The public will not put up with too much fooling around; the public prefers the poem of the happy, or finished, or beautiful result.

Poets fell out of public favor when they began to engage the world for the world’s sake and lost sight of poetry as a certain instrument with certain uses for happy results.

No one consciously made poetry into a study; they merely embraced Dewey’s idea of experience as the key to aesthetics.

As far as the public goes, how could experience leave poetry so bereft?   One would think experience is the one thing the public qua public understands.  The public may not know its Sacred Wood, but the wood of experience it knows.

Dewey said two crucial things re: the public, art, and experience.  He said 1) experience was crucial and 2) the public did not associate art with experience.  (Yes, like all modern poetry theorists, he blamed the public.  Bad move.)  It’s right here in the very first paragraph of Art As Experience, first published as a book in 1934:

“In common perception, [that’s the public, by the way] the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from human experience.”

Dewey’s whole strategy, his whole philosophy of art,  is laid out in that single sentence.

Dewey’s intelligence was such that he could discuss painting and poetry at the same time, but he rode painting’s wave; the “New York School” of poetry followed in Dewey’s wake, but ironically, poetry, like a great sea, dissolved Dewey’s ideas—his wordy formulations triumphed alongside paint and clay but crashed and burned in the theoretical sky of that wordy art, poetry.

The brainy theorists of modernism pushed poetry ahead too quickly for public taste.  The fine arts are erected in the public square; museums force public taste to follow its lead, but taste in poetry dwells more privately and cannot be shaped by cultural fiat.   A Ginsberg is no match for a Warhol, a Pound is no match for a Guggenheim, in forming public taste.

Despite all its braininess, scientists pay no attention to modern poetry, just as they pay no attention to Dewey’s “experience;” after all, our experience on earth is that the sun, not the earth, is moving; science has proved the opposite; a poem describing an experience of the sun moving across the sky would not be modern, per se.   Poets can experience a poem as they write a poem—the very writing of a poem is an experience, and the reader shares in this experience, but this is not unique to moderns, nor does it signify the poem in question will be good.

The experience of language which reader and poet share is facile.  The free-association style of Ashbery, for instance, produces an experience on many levels, a complex experience which is open-ended and arbitrary, and due to the remarkable nature of language, is an experience which is actual in every sense, even if ol’ Ashbery is half-asleep and absent-mindedly laying on linguistic paint as randomly as he can.  If we grant this experience—reading stream-of-consciousness writing in a trance—is a genuine experience—and I don’t see how it is not a genuine experience—then Dewey’s “experience” becomes less than advertised.  If the act of reading meets the experience test, any experience within the reading experience (if such a thing does exist) will not actually be able to distinguish itself from its surroundings.

If the experience of poetry is the experience of reading, if mechanically these two are the same, if the reading experience is what greets all readers of poetry and no poetry would be experienced without the reading experience, it is safe to say that poetry’s unique qualities (whatever we dare say they are) cannot possibly belong to experience, per se.  Poetry cannot distinguish itself as poetry from the experience of reading, or any experience at all without having qualities which somehow set poetry apart from the experience of reading, and thus all other experience.

The more expansive poetry’s subject matter and formal properites become, the more poetry disappears into the reading experience, for it is the reading experience which is actually expanding, not poetry.

As poetry is currently defined, reading

Pig

is a reading experience precisely the same as reading poetry.

Reading Pig is fraught with ambiguity: why pig?  What does not only the word, but the fact that someone wrote pig mean?  Pig contains an infinite number of associations—once associations begin to flow, there is no end to that meandering river, and so in this sense Pig contains as much associative knowledge as a play by Shakespeare and thus generates as much experience, for associations, potentially infinite, are the key to any reading experience.

Experience has nothing to do with the happy result of a poem.  The term, as used by Dewey and the modernists, is empty.

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