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!

A POEM’S LANGUAGE IS—LANGUAGE

Tony Hoagland: A Quietist.  But always starting trouble!

A Tony Hoagland “mic-grabbing” tantrum (?) at AWP Boston in the  name of accessible poetry against obscure, academic, show-off poetry has proven to be a lightning rod on John Gallaher’s blog, which has been moving slowly for months. Peter Campion, an LA Times poetry critic, locked horns with Hoagland on that AWP panel, and made an appearance on Gallaher’s thread.

Matthew Cooperman, a Poetry MFA professor, joined the conversation and recommended an essay on accessibility by Josh Wilkinson (The Volta).  We visited, mentioning the C.Dale Young APR essay on accessibility Scarriet just reviewed.  The following is our take on the piece by Wilkinson, who cleary belongs to the Inaccessible School—which Hoagland railed against at AWP.

Wilkinson begins by taking exception to Times editor Bill Keller’s, “I prefer craft to spontaneity;” for Wilkinson, this is equivalent to “declawing” poetry and putting it in a “‘zoo.”

The trouble with this sort of rhetoric?  It’s trapped in abstract dualities.  The wag can always retort: “Can’t we have craft and spontaneity?”  The wag  beats vague every time, and the colorful “zoo” metaphor is no help. 

But now Wilkinson moves onto a 3-dimensional reality.  The following by Wilkinson is something we can sink our teeth into:

We are told, again and again, that for poetry to be digestible in a broadly appealing way, apparently it must be poetry paired up with something else. For Natasha Tretheway to be invited to Fresh Air, there must be a pitch; poetry beside a familiar topic. “Poetry plus” is what Marjorie Perloff calls this.

For Tretheway, that means poetry plus her biracialness. Which allows Terry Gross to ask, “What does [Obama’s election] mean to you?” For former poets laureate it is poetry plus the homelessness of a brother (Robert Hass) or poetry plus the death of a parent (W.S. Merwin); and really why should this surprise us? It just exploits the fact that poetry can speak to literally anything. And so long as the host sticks to the topics we are safe with (politics, death, family) then we will avoid having to talk about what animates poetry (the language itself, of course).

Nicely said, but when Wilkinson finishes up with “the language itself, of course,” it should give us pause, since language, as we all know, has both a specific and a uniting purpose, whether or not we speak of “biracialness” on one hand, or whatever non-subject Wilkinson has in mind, on the other.  We would love to see an example at this point in Wilkinson’s essay of a non-subject poem, or hear why “language” is barred from any discussion of a poem when it’s “paired up with something else.”  This is not to say a poem’s subject qua subject is not vitally important, but this is not really what Wilkinson is after; he is hunting “the language itself (of course.)”

We’ve heard this a million times: a poem is not what is said, but how it is said—but this does not mean nothing is said. 

Wilkinson, the poem’s language is—language.  Duh. 

The wag wins, again.

Now Wilkinson mentions the popularity of Billy Collins’ “accessibility,” and asks why we have to “diminish” poetry with “access?”

But isn’t this another abstract duality?  Why does Wilkinson assume that access has to equal diminishment?

We know what Wilkinson is saying, of course: Poetry shouldn’t stoop to the less educated reader, etc. 

But again, isn’t this just another truism which hinges on two vaguely opposing things: the educated enough reader versus the not-educated-enough reader?  If we can’t define these terms better, (how do we know when someone is educated enough?) the rhetoric which uses theses terms is empty.

Our readers probably can see now that we are not disagreeing with Wilkinson here; we cannot disagree with Wilkinson—we are merely indicating in a Socratic manner that his rhetoric is inconsequential.

Wilkinson then mentions how much poetry is available on-line through sites like poetry.com and asks,

Do we really believe that there is some drought of poems that we might call “accessible”?

But we fail to understand what this has to do with anything: Wilkinson doesn’t mention a single one of these poems available on-line, or to what extent these poems are “accessible,” or not.  The root question of accessibility still remains.

We then get a phrase, “immediately familiar,” which Wilkinson uses to defend critics Harold Bloom and Charles Bernstein from the “elitist” charge.  Our differences with these critics have nothing to do with whether they are “elitist” or not, but rather with errors in their judgment, but here’s the issue and we are glad Wilkinson used the phrase “immediately familiar” as a way of defending the inaccessible:

All literary works contain parts (words, chapters, stanzas, lines, etc) and no temporal work of art can be “immediately accessible,” and therefore works can be highly complex, even as each individual part is “immediately familiar.”  It might even be asked: if we do have a highly complex work with many parts, why shouldn’t we ask that each part be “immediately familiar,” to facilitate the ease of understanding the complex work, and wouldn’t the more complex work of the demanding genius be understood better if that same genius created each part fitting spectacularly together  “immediately familiar” in its identity as a part as all of those parts fit subtly into the whole?  What could possibly be gained by making the parts, in this instance, not “immediately familiar?”  And if each individual part is not “immediately familiar,” do they really exist as parts—since the poet, by creating something which is complex, is responsible for every part. (And complexity, of course, cannot exist without parts.)

This is kind of what Billy Collins is quoted as saying later in Wilkinson’s essay—and Wilkinson does concede this one (very crucial) point in favor of accessibility to Collins: “accessibility,” says Collins, is a kind of “Trojan Horse,” a “ruse,” in which he, the poet, Collins, leads the reader towards what might be called the complex and the unfamiliar. 

Speaking of parts, Wilkinson now says in his essay that a poem could be defined by “our inability to reduce it,” which makes us think of classical “unity” and New Criticism (a poem cannot be paraphrased) and all sorts of time-honored things, but as true as the whole experience of anything naturally pre-supposes “our inability to reduce it,” (it meaning our experience of it) we should never forget what we have just outlined above—the parts which must exist in anything which partakes of temporality.  And in addition, “inability to reduce” would also pre-suppose something else: clarity, accessibility: since how else could we perceive that threshold of irreducibility?

More in this vein:

Wilkinson quotes Susan Howe asking “why should things please a large audience,” but this is like asking, why should language be understood?  Obviously things don’t have to please a large audience, but what reason can we give for language not being understood, or for a large audience not understanding a thing?

Wilkinson quotes Wittgenstein: a poem is “not used in the language-game of giving information,” but “giving information” has little, or nothing to do with the accessibility of the poem’s temporal existence itself—even as it naturally flies under the radar of “giving information.”

Towards the end of his essay, Wilkinson refers to the well-known Onion piece, “Distressed Nation Turns to Poet Laureate for Solace, as if the Onion were not making fun of contemporary, inaccessible poetry, but was instead making fun of those who want poetry to be accessible; we think the former is closer to the Onion’s intent, and, similarly, Wilkinson wonders what we “lose” in a defensive response “against” inaccessible poetry, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the question could just as easily be asked the other way: what  do we lose in a defensive response for inaccessible poetry?

And so Wilkinson’s essay entertains—like a dog chasing its own tail.

ANXIETY IN POETRY LAND

Mary Ruefle: She bravely asked the right question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pitfalls of reductive earnestness on the one hand and futile superficiality on the other.

“Futile superficiality,” we presume, is code for all that “dicking around” Ashbery crap (one Ashbery is great, a thousand is a nightmare) and Ruefle’s doubt regarding trivial comparisons, while “reductive earnestness” is the other extreme: poems that express obvious, Hallmark, love-sentiments, etc.

Gallaher, as is his nature, reminds us that this is not the only duality and other options remain, etc, but as interesting as Gallaher is, he is never rigorous, because he always wants to escape through some other door, a typical contemporary-poet- escape-artist.

Here’s the danger as we see it: Robert Burns is “reductive” and John Ashbery is “superficial,” and thus good poetry for everyone is impossible, and all we can do is sit around waiting for Donnelly’s promised “over the top,” which will surely be the most superficial slop, yet.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, and Americans hunker down for their Sunday Super Bowl, Scarriet will pursue, recklessly, “reductive earnestness,” because this should be the initial goal, not superficiality, we think.

If no absolutes exist, we should at least do this.  Choose an accessible subject: love, for instance, and then let all the poets apply their philosophies and styles to it—rather than the poets following individual paths to obscurity and infinity, while promising “over the top” (over what top?) along the way.

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.

COLE SWENSEN’S LIPS ARE MOVING (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND A THING SHE SAYS)

Cole Swensen Poetry Trading Card

Cole Swensen: learning sans philosophy

Our poetry blog rival John Gallaher has duly noted poet Cole Swensen’s new book of essays from U. Michigan Press, Noise That Stays Noise.

We follow in Gallaher’s footsteps.

Gallaher, on his blog, dutifully copies the following from Swensen’s title essay with tacit praise, but we—in the Scarriet spirit, running, as usual, against the po-biz grain—bring to the table some analysis of Ms. Swenson’s assumed wisdom.  Here is the Swensen Gallaher quoted:

Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.

The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.

This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.

Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.

Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.

[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.

Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.

[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .

[T]he reader is crucial here . . .

–from Noise That Stays Noise by Cole Swensen

Swensen’s initial division between novelty and redundancy has philosophical force, but Swensen’s thinking quickly slides into that predictable modernist ploy: speaking in code to the initiated.  Noise is a metaphor for the horrible sort of poetry which the public hates; rather than defend this horrible sort of poetry directly, Swensen chooses to defend noise as  horrible poetry’s stand-in.  If we can just say enough interesting things about noise, Swensen thinks, we can satisfy ourselves that horrible poetry has a purpose.  This is exactly what Swensen is doing, and Gallaher knows it.  Well, this is how intellectuals deceive one other.

You read a poem. You can’t understand it.  You wonder why such things are given a pass.  Then you read,

noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

And then you nod, and go, I seeAs a reader, I have a responsibility to allow this noise to show me possibilities.

Swensen does understand that she better define what she means by noise, and so we get this:

This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

So time-honored strategies such as “juxtaposition” and “unusual syntax” and “neologism,” things which one might associate with the 16th century author, Shakespeare, are what she really means by “noise.”  In that case, “noise” might as well be anything, and it quickly becomes apparent that the term, “noise,” is merely code for the approval of play-pen modernism/post-modernism.

Swensen is practicing shoddy, incoherent criticism and it’s aimed precisely at folks like Gallaher, who are pre-determined not to question it.

As for Swensen’s redundancy/novelty construction, it is interesting how she says “complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s ‘man without memory,’ for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening,” and then says of “nonunderstanding,” that the “novel feeling it occasions…is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.”  Redundancy, for Swenson, is the “heat death of complete homogeneity.”  But how do we go from “incomprehensible and frightening” to “pleasure?”  Is it because “reading poetry” is such a trivial act?  Or is she unwilling to follow through on her own declarations? Is Swenson unwilling to compare the nature of the mind, or the nature of reality, to poetry?

Is this just a sophistical tease?  I am going out on a limb here, and I’ll say yes, it is.  Swensen is practicing swine-like rhetoric.

Without really bothering to discuss the subject, “nonunderstanding” takes on magical powers for Swensen.

Swensen abandons the redundancy/novelty dichotomy at once.  Nothing further needs to be said about the “redundancy” side of the scale.  She’d rather discuss the “pleasures” and “surprises” of “noise.”

But isn’t redundancy largely how we experience reality, whether it’s the movement of the sun and planets in the universe, or all those repetitions that make the world comprehensible, and the sciences, the languages, and the arts, possible?   Is Swensen interested in how things work, or is she only looking to discourse on things she likes?

We might mention Shakespeare’s Sonnet #23 for an interesting treatise on noise, or Millay’s Sonnet, “If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way” (the noise of the subway); and clarity would have no small part in the analysis of these works.  Certainly Swensen’s sophistry is not necessary to make the subject of ‘noise’ lively.

No wonder the creative mind’s ability to make great works of art has been eclipsed by academic dullness.  Swensen’s faint-hearted plays at rhetoric are now the rule.

A tip to Swensen: Learn from your (superior) ancestors, Plato of The Phaedrus, Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Though it drive you mad, strive to find the truth.

THE FORM WAR

JGwithGlobe

Newton’s discovery that the apple which fell at his feet obeyed the same law as all the spheres above only diminishes in that mind which judges post-1911 physics as so counter-intuitive and incoherent, it excuses sloppy and obscure poetry.  The universality of Newton’s laws and the universality of E=MC2 has worth beyond anything that may have fallen and broken in 1911.

Shakespeare’s “light’s flame” in Sonnet #1 is post-Newtonian—science is not the same as history, yet some shallow thoughts on poetry depend on a science which follows a perfect chronological path. The Modernist (as the name implies) replaces nuanced thinking with pure chronology.

The very latest 21st century physics approves of the Big Bang theory as laid out in 1848—by Edgar Poe.  America’s first critic also ought to get more credit for showing, in his Rationale of Verse, how the origins of quantitative poetry and language itself grew up together.

John Gallaher raves on.  We at Scarriet don’t mean to pick on Professor Gallaher (we think he is some kind of poetry professor)—it’s just that his brainwashing is, unfortunately the same as all the rest, and he makes a good example.

Free-versers (I’m quoting Marvin Bell from his Iowa days) cry indignantly, “Form, not forms!”

Gallaher repeats this hoary formula:

One can still profitably teach and study poetry as poetic forms. That’s a great way to talk about poetry up through E.A. Robinson. That’s how I learned poetry in High School and as an undergrad back in the 1980s. But what I feel like I didn’t get was a study in the most interesting things that have been going on since 1911.

The Modernist theorist has won (he thinks) by out-simplifying his formalist opponents: an open-ended interest in form trumps a pedantic interest in forms.

Out-simplifying is the usual way to win any philosophical, or scientific, or metaphysical argument. But the Modernist buffoon has only out-simplified quantitative poetry in his own mind.

An interest in quantitative poetry is not defined by an interest in poetic forms—the quaint designation used by free-versers to mask the real issue.  Every poet worth the name is interested in quantity (and its sub-genre of poetic forms) while the Modernist, free-verse crackpot, wielding the false scepter of alleged post-1911 science—which has supposedly transformed his art—is interested in nothing.

There is always a great deal of high-flown talk from the Modernist of history and science.  We quote liberally from Gallaher:

Furthering the point, I think that the hundred years since the start of Modernism (It started August 15th 1911, by the way), a century of new advances in science and the way we perceive the world around us, calls for a new approach to talking about and teaching poetry.
The intellectual practices of how we talk about and teach the poetry of the last century (and continuing into this one) have not kept up with the changes in the practice of the art. We must change. The free-verse legacy has created a literary question (or questions) that haven’t been answered.
It seems to me sometimes when I’m talking to someone who has had some experience with poetry (almost exclusively prior to the 20th Century), that it’s as difficult to talk about new poetry as if I were trying to explain some aspect of Quantum Theory to someone who has only known Newtonian Physics.
This is not to knock them. Newton is still very important to the history of physics. All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself, that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time. And time demands new approaches. Not just because of the new poetry being written, but because of the people who are studying poetry. They also change over time, as the times change.
Form is not the best opening salvo in a course on poetry, and it’s precisely the wrong one in a contemporary poetry course. It still has a place, a large place, but I don’t believe that place is primary. Contemporary poetry, or a fairly large percentage of it, is outside the conception of what poetry is that reigned before 1911, or even—or especially—the way it was conceptualized as an object of study by the New Criticism.
I think we should be using the more innovative pedagogical strategies we use in teaching theory or fiction when we teach contemporary poetry.
Most people learn poetry through a historical lens, starting with very, very old things. Wonderful things, don’t get me wrong, but old things. I think that’s backwards. Or actually, I think completely different approaches need to be taken after The Romantics, but that’s a different argument.

It is cringe-worthy to hear such thinking boast of its own pedagogy, for such thinking is not pedagogcial, but poison.  Shakespeare and Newton are all very good in their way, but now, according to Gallaher, we’ve got Quantum Physics—and Charles Olson.   Why Charles Olson or John Ashbery or Rae Armantrout are more ‘Quantum Physics’ than Shakespeare is something Gallaher hopes we’ll just take for granted, because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Rae Armantrout, Quantum Physics! They go hand-in-hand! No, they don’t.

“All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself,” Gallaher writes—and what does this mean?   A language act unique to itself. Is this the reason for poetry?  Is that what poetry strives for, or is that what poetry has been—a “unique act?”—since 1911?  Does poetry shed light on linguistics?  Or is linguistics shedding light on poetry?  And is this true only since 1911?  Because…why?  And it doesn’t help that Gallaher adds, “that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time.”  That’s all well and good, but what exactly happened that was so earth-shattering in 1911, again?  I must have missed that.  There’s a blindness, an hysteria, here.  I’d bet the farm that Gallaher really has no idea what he means by “a language act unique to itself.”

Now listen to Gallaher as he attempts to elucidate the profundity which sets Modernist poetry apart from “old things” which poets like Keats, Milton and Shakespeare used to write:

I would like to redirect the post I made last week a bit. Craft (form, etc) is important to poetry, and to my thinking about and reading poetry. What I was reacting to is the way—tonally maybe—people sometimes, often even, think of poetry as an erector set of formal machines. Poetry does have to get made, and everything made has a form, and a craft to create that form, but I’m more interested in the spirit behind it.

Part of this spirit, or my desire to talk about the spirit of the art object comes from the fact that there are a great many blanks in any art object. I prefer to hang out there. It’s one  of the major flaws of the way poetry is often taught in schools. Blanks can bring terror to teachers. Blanks aren’t testable the way non-blanks are. But the blanks are the very places we go to when we’re talking about the poems we love. The question of just what Wallace Stevens is getting at in “The Idea of Order at key West.” It’s the way things DON’T link up that are more interesting to me than the way they do.

That’s a form and craft issue too, but we tend to avoid those places, because they have the tendency to tie us up in knots, and that is a vulnerability we often don’t want to show to others, especially if we’re supposed to be experts.

Connotation and denotation, in poetry, for example, are part of a fuzzy interdependence. They are never in total control. Things happen there, that open what I’m calling blanks. This movement is an easy way to deconstruction, sure, but it also allows moments co-creation. All art is co-creation in this way, in its context, its situation.

How one handles those moments (as author or as co-creating reader) is more important, or, as important, as the form, the means of control in the poem, the art object. Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them, just as if one is bored or uncomfortable with the more usual formal issues, one still has to participate with them.

“Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them,” Gallaher urges.  But what are these “blanks,” exactly?   Is he speaking of ambiguity?  Ambiguity was not invented in 1911.  Further, Gallaher, by finding so much pleasure in those “fuzzy” and “vulnerable” and “not in control” aspects, and in the “blank,” as opposed to the “non-blank” places, is choosing not to be ambiguous at all.  What we see is a man certain that he prefers uncertainty.

And what happens when one becomes more interested in the ambiguity in poetry than the poetry itself?  We find ourselves exactly in the middle of where the art of poetry finds itself today: lost, confused, and forgotten, crying out, “1911! 1911!”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are loaded with ambiguity, a far more potent mixture of ambiguity than we find in Stevens.  But Gallaher with his post-1911 glasses on, will never see this.

Gallaher, in his modernism, is far more certain about things than any poet or philosopher was before 1911.  Gallaher prefers the “spirit behind the form.”   Gallaher is sure there is a “form” over here and a “spirit” over there.   Is this post-1911 uncertainty?  Really?

Gallaher can’t even fake the ‘ambiguity’ rhetoric well, much less make it convincing.

We begin with Plato, who invented Western Thought.  Plato defined art as measurement.   Not form, but form that can be measured.  You can simplify with, “Form, not forms!” all you want.  But form really misses the point. Poetry is form that can be measured.  Is that simple enough for you?

Gallaher cited Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” as an example of “blank” mastery.  Let’s compare this modern poem by Stevens to a 16th century chestnut,  Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”  Let’s see which poem is more unique, and has more of that mysterious “blank” quality Gallaher loves.  Let’s use actual examples to find out what 1911 hath wrought.

First, the Stevens:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Stevens begins by telling us a “she sang beyond the genius of the sea,” which sounds pretentious, and it seems we are already ‘at sea.’  Then he tell us, “the water” (that would be the sea, or perhaps part of the sea?) “never formed to mind or voice, /Like a body wholly body, fluttering /Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion /Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, /That was not ours although we understood, /Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.”  We “understood” the “cry” of “the water,” though it lacked “mind” and “voice” and “body, fluttering its empty sleeves.”  OK.

Second stanza: Neither she, nor the sea “was a mask.”  But Stevens invokes the sound of the sea in his poem.  Her song and the sea’s song are nicely tangled up.  Pretty good.

Third stanza: Repeats theme of second stanza: her singing and the “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” which just happens to be near, described.  A “we” is introduced, listening for a “spirit” that “we knew.”  The sky is described, as well.

Fourth stanza: The “she” becomes “artificer” and “maker” and the “sea” becomes her “world” and her “song.”  The “we” also “beheld her striding there alone.”

Fifth stanza: A “Ramon Fernandez” is asked “why, when the singing ended,” the sea was “arranged.”  A town and its lights are described.

Sixth stanza: The ejaculation might as well be quoted in full: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”   “To order words of the sea” might sum up the surface intent of the poem, and this phrase also might be said to represent its depth, which at times earnestly, and at times coyly, is intimated.  “There never was a world for her except the one she sang and, singing, made” sums up the “she,” a figure missing from the final two stanzas, where a “Ramon Fernandez” is addressed. (Ramon is probably a stand-in for Stevens’ influential Harvard professor, the poet and critc, George Santayana.)

The broad theme of Key West: ‘the poem is what the poem sings, the poet’s song is a world of distances and dimensions and enchantment, for an audience poised between Man’s meaning and nature’s murmurings,’ is a pleasant enough one, and Stevens does a nice job of painting his theme with sound.

The Stevens poem reminds me of this song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

When that I was a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The Twelfth Night song creates the same effect as Key West; the rain replaces Stevens’ sea; yet Stevens seems to have a palpable design upon us; Stevens tells us what his poem means: “the sea, whatever self it had, became the self that was her song,” etc  We’ve all experienced rain every day; “she sang beyond the genius of the sea” and “we beheld her striding there alone” is fantastical and strained, by comparison. The antique song, with its strange folk song simplicity, actually does what Stevens tries to do in Key West, with its “ever-hooded sea,” better.

But now, as we promised, Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, as naturally as can be, starts a simple romantic conversation by demolishing Aristotle’s idea that metaphor is the key to poetry, rejects the world, conquers death, expands the prophecy to include all mankind, and makes it all come true with a “this”—which is his poem.

Did someone say “language act unique to itself?”

Mr. Gallaher?  

You’re welcome.

Without its formal properties, the Sonnet, as magnificent as the thought that went into it is, would fall apart.  The sound-unity which makes it a “this” is both its limit and its law, and the thoughts and ideas, the cause of the sonnet, are limited by law as well.  The ‘form’ is not simply the poem’s skeleton; the form is the whole of it, its divisions and additions—all its parts—are what it is, from idea to final  product, on every level.

We have all the “blank attributes” and mystery we need in Shakespeare’s “this.”  We could ponder for hours on how Shakespeare arrives at that little word.

GET IN LINE

I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.

NARRATIVE, OR GOING TO THE GYM IN THE RAIN.

Kim Addonizio, interviewed by a former Workshop student Susan Browne, said the following:

I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that “something” remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader’s part, I end up as frustrated as you.

This got John Gallaher, the Ashbery fan, upset, and he reacted with a piece that begins like this:

As part of her line of questioning, Browne apparently wants Addonizio to talk about the “split” in American poetry. Is there “a” split? I think it’s probably more like a net of fissures. But over and over again, when I hear people talk about contemporary American poetry, they often talk about it as if it were these two creatures. One is a semi-autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding, or pseudo-autobiographical) narrative/lyric that revolves around a realistic-feeling scene with an identifiable lone speaker going through some generally domestic task. The other side of the split is usually described as something like “energetic word play.” What bothers me most about this, is that the first category is centered around content, and the second, around an attitude toward language. That sets up the question of what we’re looking for when we go to poetry. We know examples that are usually trotted out for each. For the first category, we have Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. For the second, we have John Ashbery, et al, and groups with names (LANGUAGE poets, Post-avant, experimental, etc).

The problem—well, one of the problems—with this is that it isn’t so cut and formed as that. Where does Dean Young fit, for example? Category A, we agree. But why? Where does Kay Ryan fit? Also A, but why? The lines are, in many ways, political. It’s like party affiliation. So lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of Category B, so that people can feel OK reading her work, I guess. Or something like that.

Gallaher will never forgive Dan Chiasson for his New Yorker piece on Rae Armantrout in 2010, in which Chiasson attempted to make Armantrout palatable to the masses by presenting her narrative/autobiographical side.  Chiasson is who Gallaher has in mind when Gallaher fulminates above, “lately I’ve read things by people trying to claim Rae Armantrout into Category A, from out of category B, so that people can feel OK…” 

This was no doubt triggered by my August 12 piece on Chiasson and The New Yorker—Gallaher’s rant against narrative by way of Kim Addonizio appeared on August 13.

Why do I call  Gallaher’s article on narrative a “rant?”  Gallaher, like most avants, is really a pretty simple fellow.  His thinking, no doubt, went like this: he read Scarriet’s skewering of Chiasson, not without a certain pleasure, but couldn’t help being reminded of Chiasson’s greater sin—one Gallaher himself had tirelessly pointed out—Chiasson’s attempt in the New Yorker to make avant star Armantrout into one of them—the poets who are narrative and accessible.  Nothing freaks out a fan of the avant-garde like the idea of one of their idols being eaten and digested by the insensate mainstream.  In a panic, Gallaher decided he had to turn the tables, and quickly whipped up an article of a narrative poet moving away from narrative—Kim Addonizio, a ‘column A’ poet, seeking to free herself from her chains.  When Gary B. Fitzgerald, who also visits Scarriet, showed up on Gallaher’s blog, to bash Ashbery, Gallaher snapped.  Gary B. was banned.  A piece on narrative begun in high anxiety had ended with a punishment.

Here is part of the interview excerpted by Gallaher, with his comments right afterwards.  You’ll see what I mean:

Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It’s from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren’t very many good parts. My poem was originally titled “By Way of Apology.” I had a few phrases, one of which was “a pair of big, invisible hands.” Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it’s more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a “this happened, and then that happened” kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.

Browne: I want to hear more about that.

Addonizio: Take a poem like “November 11,” from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, “The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous.” That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor’s niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it’s not about the gym. That’s the framework.

Browne: It’s interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn’t have the narrative, I don’t think I’d be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I’m thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it’s me. And I don’t care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can’t wait for her next book to come out because I think I’m going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.

+

Browne’s response is as interesting as Addonizio’s comment. It seems to me Browne is almost admonishing Addonizio to keep from straying too far from the narrative (the party line): The Narrative, the solid Category A platform. It’s quite an interesting moment. The poet, Addonizio, is expressing boredom with the party, wanting a little of that Category B mix-it-up attitude, and is being nudged back by her reader, Browne.

And why must there be this frame? This narrative frame of the person going to and then at the gym? Is it a counterpoint? Is it necessary? Life vs Death? What would the poem be like if it were to be just the stuff Addonizio seems to want to talk about (the piles of dead), rather than what she feels she needs to add? It’s a small moment, but telling, when it comes to our predispositions, our assumptions about what art needs. Browne is reminding Addonizio not to forget to add the frame. Why? Because if it weren’t there, Browne wouldn’t know how to follow it. But why does the narrative frame help? Why can’t the poem just be the web of accruing associations around the idea of death? Would it then be a Category B poem? Possibly. Might this be the line of distinction?

Gallaher celebrates a “moment” in catching out a narrative poet confessing that the personal narrative element in her poem is only a “framework,” and not the important element in her poem—what is important, evidently, are the journalistic “piles of dead”.  Gallaher is perfectly in his rights to ask: why do we need the narrative frame, if the “piles of dead” are the crucial item? 

But Gallaher is confusing means and end: as Addonizio explains to Browne in the interview, her poem is not just about ‘the deaths,’ but about the poet’s personal view of them as overwhelming—and therefore ‘going to the gym’ places the mundane activity of the overwhelmed narrator in the poem—and secondly, the rain is a metaphoric expression of the high death count (beyond the narrator’s grasp) and it’s an easy matter to have it rain while going to the gym.  

Here’s an excerpt from the Addonizio poem, “November 11”:

to say what killed him, his wife is fighting/with the Palestinians over his millions, the parking lot/ of the gym is filled with muddy puddles!/ I run 4.3 m.p.h. on the treadmill, and they’re dead/ in Baghdad and Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra and Latifiya –/ Nadia and Surayah, Nahla and Hoda and Noor,/their husbands and cousins and brothers –/ dead in their own neighborhoods! Imagine!/ Marine Staff Sgt. David G. Ries, 29, Clark, WA.: killed!/ Army Spc. Quoc Binh Tran, 26, Mission Viejo, CA: killed,/ Army Spc. Bryan L. Freeman, 31, Lumberton, NJ — same deal!

Gallaher’s hero, the Pulitzer-prize winning, Rae Armantrout, might write this poem sans narrative, and leave out the trip to the gym, and try to express the feeling of being overwhelmed by the deaths in a more concise manner, using exclamation points, a reference to puddles and rain, a shorter list of deaths; but if we agree the end of each poem is precisely the same, and the means is less narrative by Armantrout, more narrative by Addonizio, it really just becomes an issue of clarity in acheiving the end: the narrator is having these feelings, and damnit, she wants the reader to see the narrator on her way to the gym in the rain.  Addonizio said the poem was not about “the gym,” but she did not say the poem was not about her feelings or the rain present (to express the metaphor) as she went to the gym, or her thoughts interrupted by her mundane activity at the gym, and Armantrout, attempting to write the same poem, would fail or succeed on precisely this same issue: is it clear to the reader what I am saying? 

Gallaher, the clever avant, is missing the whole point, confusing “the gym” with the necessity of being clear, and he compounds his error by going off the deep end philosophically, by seeking a duality: narrative v. non-narrative, which simply does not exist.  The issue is merely one of clarity, and clarity should never be an issue, unless, like the avant, you are under the burden of some tremendous neurosis, and you neurotically strive to be unclear.

This issue is never whether or not there should be narrative, for narrative should always exist; the question is whether it is done well, or not, and in this particular case it is not done well; the self-serving, third-rate Addonizio poem is naturally vulnerable to attack by an avant critic like Gallaher, who has no trouble prying the hapless poem from its “frame,” in order to make a non-point.

Once you begin referring to your narrative or your plot, as merely a “frame,” the game is over, and transparently cretinous, avant-garde tricks, like “so much depends upon all those deaths in the news,” are probably the next step in your writing career.

The near-insanity of the avant sensibility is on full display in this comment on Gallaher’s article:

In poetry the only law is that of gravity, but here are a few things I’ve always thought about poetry, in no particular order:
The extraordinarily fertile and preternaturally lit-up imagination of a poet like Tate may need to be counterbalanced by a limiting force, either narrative or structure. (I may be echoing an essay by Gregory Orr.) Narrative seems to be the limiting force in the Tate poems most people like best. (I may prefer some of his old stuff that doesn’t work that way—poems circa Hints to Pilgrims. But I’m all over anything he writes.)
BUT. “Narrative does not dictate image; image dictates narrative.”—Charles Wright.
Eli is quite right about poetry as “the new metatropism.” Writing poetry is passivity not activity. You watch your thought grow like mould on cheese in the fridge. I is an other. You don’t write the poem; it writes you.
You should work FROM, not TOWARDS, words. Dylan Thomas said that a long time ago, but recently Elisa Gabbert said the same thing in connection with Bill Knott. Begin with words not ideas. Make poetry out of words not ideas; seek ideas for your words, not words for your ideas.—Valery? Mallarme?
“So many lousy poets/So few good ones/ What’s the problem?/No innate love of/Words, no sense of/How the thing said/Is in the words, how/The words are themselves/The thing said:…A word, that’s the poem”—James Schuyler. Mallarme said every word of “L’Azur” cost him several hours of searching. What Ted Berrigan cared about most was the startling pieces of language he overheard or read.
The language must be fresh. There must be delightfully strange combinations of words in almost every line. But the lines without startling contrasts have to be good, too. All the lines should sound cool by themselves. IT’S PERFECTLY FINE TO CHOP OUT A LOGICAL CONNECTION IF THAT’LL MAKE THE LINES SOUND COOLER. Fuck logic.
IF YOUTRY TO IMPOSE UNITY ON THE POEM, IT’LL FALL APART. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE CONNECTIONS; THEY’LL TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES. ORDER IS LIKE YOUR SHADOW: IF YOU PURSUE IT, IT’LL FLEE FROM YOU.
“A poem SHOULD remain mostly inscrutable.”—Ashbery
“What it’s about” is only one aspect of it. There are—or should be—equally important things going on. (I tend to worry about those other things and let “what it’s about” take care of itself.) “The pleasure one gets from reading poetry comes from something else than the idea or story in a poem, which is just a kind of armature for the poet to drape with many-colored rags.”–Ashbery
You don’t have to understand your poem in a way that enables you to explicate it.
There’s nothing wrong with confessional poetry but the name. Poets who expose their intimate thoughts in a painfully honest, uncensored way—e.g., Ginsberg—are doing a great thing.
Don’t sit on any arse poetica—raw or cooked, autobiographical or “energetic word play.” Keep your mind open and try the other side, like Addonizio. “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” –Emerson

The commenter, David Grove, just wants to be wild and free, and believes Charles Wright’s “image dictates narrative” and his own “a poem just grows like mould on cheese” How French!  That must be Mallarme talking…  And Ashbery’s “words, not ideas…” For Grove, “narrative” is a “restriction.”

It takes but a moment’s reflection to realize that narrative in the literary arts is not simply a “frame,” but a cause-and-effect network of vast importance and nuance.

Narrative is first and foremost, temporality. Avant poetry is feeble, by comparison, as it declines to use what might be called time’s flesh, and all subsequent imagery, harmony, melody, and thought-like music ranged upon that flesh’s movement reflects the movement of life itself; the speech of the statue, the glittering of the stream, the warming of the sigh, the deepening of the night, the steps of the traveler, the lifting of the bird, the singing of the dactyl, or the sigh-inducing advancement of the dance towards you; the lack of all this makes avant poetry a bland, or self-importantly clever, re-telling. 

Which makes avants like Gallaher feel empty.  And angry.

OUTRAGE!

John Gallaher: Another brick in the wall?

Gary B. Fitzgerald is a fine poet and a well-known figure in the on-line poetry world, opinionated, but never nasty.

Mr. Fitzgerald is self-published, which is what poets outside of academia tend to be, and if self-pity floats about him—he’s a “Quietist” who doesn’t sell—it is because he has something to say and wants people to listen: nothing pleases Gary B. more than “to be read,” and few, apparently, read him—and those tend to be readers of others’ blogs.  He’s a Romantic; a man of nature, of moral feeling, and books (he’s got a bunch out there).  He wants to start his own blog—which we think is a good idea.

We know it’s a small thing, a very small thing, and hardly worth the effort to report, except that it symbolizes something larger, which is why sometimes we concern ourselves with small things (oh, if we could ever get ourselves free of the ‘small things!’) but it seems that Gary, dear old Gary B. was banned recently from John Gallaher’s blog, for daring to have an opinion about John Ashbery.

Think on this, if you will: A poet is banned from a poetry blog for having an opinion about a poet.

One could argue that the chief problem in the world now is that people won’t let other people have opinions.

Poets behaving like spoiled children—why is this so prevalent?

SEVEN TYPES OF AM-BEARD-GUITY

John Gallaher’s look at D.H. Tracy’s “Six Types of Clarity,” a thoughtful tribute to William  Empson’s “Seven  Types of  Ambiguity,” gnaws at the paradox which says since no perfect clarity is possible, clarity, as a quality, is more ambiguous than ambiguity—since ambiguity, by its very nature, happily concedes imperfection.   This is all well and good, but we wonder how profitable it is to search for clarity on these terms.

Poetry doesn’t need to be difficult, and to be intentionally difficult is to, well, be an ass.  Perhaps this is so obvious that it gets overlooked.  If we do strive for ambiguity in Letters, we do so…why?

The pleasurable indefiniteness of a haunting melody and the poorly written essay by the college freshman: both ambiguous—one is genius, the other its opposite.  But again, with all the hazy and difficult challenges faced by us every day, why is it necessary in poetry, why would it ever be necessary, or desirable, in poetry, or in philosophy or in Letters, to seek out the ambiguous?

This is not to say that expression does not naturally and constantly fall into ambiguity on its own all the time—just ask that college freshman (whose parents are in debt for the first year’s tutition alone) attempting and failing to write a coherent sentence.  But why should poets seek ambiguity?

Poets don’t write for themselves; if they are good, if they are clear, they write for their nation, for their people, for all people (if they are truly exceptional) and that means they support that general communicative process which helps everyone be more creative, more imaginative, more refined, more competent, and more skilled at communicating with that language that binds us all.

The poet is not a scientist working in an isolated laboratory; the poet is the one who makes language attractive to everybody and so increases both the quantity and the quality of literacy in society.  Willed obscurity and ambiguity relinquishes this responsibility for a selfish idea of an ‘individual vision,’ which is nothing more than a failure to connect with others.  The crass bestseller is not bested with wooly ambiguity.  The junky bestseller should be answered with a bestseller not junky or crass.

T.S. Eliot said poetry was a “mug’s game.”  But these sorts of remarks, like “poetry makes nothing happen,” are finally not true.  They are self-pitying and defeatist; they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Leaving aside philosophical analysis for a moment, let’s put a face (or mug) on the whole “Ambiguity” question.

Speaking of Eliot, he and his High Modernism friends were infamous for disliking the Romantics.

As Pre-Raphaelite Art critic John Ruskin leapt over the marvelous Renaissance to find a new appreciation of the Middle Ages and its Gothic art, so T.S. Eliot traveled back in time to champion poetry considered dated and quaint; the Metaphysical Poets were named such by Samuel Johnson and the term stuck; we see Poe, as unmoved by these poets as Johnson was, referring to them as the Metaphysicals almost 100 years later; Poe, then America’s leading critic, pointed out how Coleridge was actually more “metaphysical” than the Metaphysical poets.

But T.S. Eliot, with Ezra Pound and the gang known as the New Critics— mostly out of Vanderbilt and trained at Oxford, managed to make the Romantics largely irrelevant as the poetry of ambiguity rushed in to take its place.

Now here is the author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” William Empson, in his own words, from the preface to the second edition of that book:

“The method of verbal analysis is of course the main point of the book, but there were two cross-currents  in my mind leading away from it.  At that time Mr. T.S. Eliot’s criticism in particular, and the Zeitgeist in general were calling for a reconsideration of the claims of the 19th century poets so as to get them into perspective with the newly discovered merits of Donne, Marvell and Dryden.”

Of course this is just silly.  Empson limps after Eliot’s hatred of imaginative writers like Shelley and Poe and Byron with the absurd claim that  it is necessary to understand Byron by reading him through the lens of Donne.  Not to mention that this lumps all 19th century poets together.  And why does “discovering” Donne mean we have to, like all the Modernists and New Critics, dislike Byron?  What is 20th century about Donne, and why must Donne be reconciled with Byron somehow, as we kill Byron, anyway?

We mentioned Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite.  Ford Madox Ford was an important cog in Pound and Eliot’s  Ambiguity-machine which reproduced itself in every English Department by the 1970s.  Ford’s grandfather was a Pre-Raphaelite painter.  The British have never cared for American Letters, and Pound and Eliot are still the biggest names in American poetry in over 100 years now, because they left America and became European.  The reputations of Emerson, Whitman, Melville and Frost got a boost in England only because these authors were narrowly American enough for John Bull’s idea of what a one-note American author should be. The New Critics all studied in England on Rhodes Scholarships.  Our best known female poet of the last half-century married an Englishman and died in London.  Auden and Huxley slummed it in America, but more for titilation than out of respect.  Eliot bred the inward-looking, hot-house plant New Criticism as he paid respectful homage to selected parts of the English past; Huxley and Auden in America were sermonizing oddballs who oozed along exotically in the pleasure-driven present.

Everyone knows what ambiguity and clarity are, until we start writing philosophical literary criticism in the mode of William Empson, who followed in Eliot’s footsteps in cleverly but un-heroically fashioning the Tradition to look like a version of himself—ambiguous, eclectic, sickly, and obscure.

Yet Eliot’s Tradition is better, at least, than any American author’s, for the American author is a bumpkin.

That, at least, is clear.

JOHN GALLAHER: NOTHING TO SAY AND UNFORTUNATELY SAYING IT

The following is transcript of John Gallaher’s Dec. 4 blog post, lyrically entitled, 20th century-Ashbery-Armantrout-My Philosophy of Life,  in its entirety, with Thomas Brady’s comments.

John,

“BEING and TOTALITY were mid-20th Century master narratives, and we’ve come away from them shaken. What is art to aspire to after that? (The same things as it always has.)”

Do you teach this in the classroom? 

What sort of pedagogy takes universals like “being” and “totality” and vaguely applies them to the “mid-20th Century?” 

“we’ve come away shaken?” 

Who is “we” in this statement?  What exactly has been “shaken?” 

“What is art to aspire to after that?” 

Is this a real question? 

“(The same things as it always has)” 

The “same things”?  Do you mean “being” and “totality?” 

Is your tautology intentional?

“If our time is ‘in the shadow of’ 20th Century art and philosophy it’s because the art and philosophy of the 20th Century were totalizing, and our time is one of contraction, of a counter movement rather than a redirection or revision.”

First,”contraction” is not necessarily “counter” to “totalizing;” secondly, I think most would find this too general to mean anything.

“The error of our age is when we treat occurrences as instances. Not all walks to the mailbox are fraught with the weight of history. Usually it’s just junk mail.”

This is grandiose: “The error of our age is when we treat occurances as intances.” 

But it’s countered with insight:  “Not all walks to the mailbox are fraught with the weight of history.”

Really?

Usually it’s just Ashbery?

“If 20th Century master narratives are cages, 21st Century competing narratives are shadowboxing. Either can yield great as well as forgettable art.”

Well, as long as “cages” and “shadowboxing” can “both yield great as well as forgettable art…”

“There are some things we do not want to say so we remain silent. We are social.”

Are you still talking about “being” and “totality?”  Or “cages” and “shadowboxing?”  Anyway, yes, we are “social” and for fear of offending, we don’t always speak…OK…

“Because in the artwork the instance must emerge, the experience of time is disrupted by attention.”

Because…?  I’m afraid I’ve lost you.  “the experience of time is disrupted by attention”?  “in the artwork the instance must emerge”?

“In art, time is less sequentially monadic and more prismatically nomadic. Obvious examples: think of the structure of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Terrantino’s Pulp Fiction. You can even find this tension in Wordsworth, if you must. It’s always been this way. But it gains currency in the early 20th Century.”

“Prismatic” time in art has been commonplace for centuries.  20th century art has no monopoly on this at all; in fact, it could easily be argued that in both high brow and popular 20th century art, (abstract art, movies, imagism, Hemingway-ism) things actually became simpler in that regard.

“It will be a long time before we’re done dealing with the early 20th Century.”

I don’t know what this means.  It’s far too general, especially in the context of what’s been said so far, to mean anything.

Now we leap to the purpose:

“And we have the idea of time layered in Ashbery”

Excuse me?

“And we have the idea of time layered…”

Instead of specifics, we continue to be put off by the vaguest sort of rhetoric, the same which characterized the whole introduction: how, exactly is “the idea of time layered…?”
“where the poem often advances by shifting horizontally, geographically, one time to another—an accretion of middles of instances culminating in a panorama, the visual representation of the previous disparate occurrences.”

But the most ordinary sort of narratives “shift horizontally, geographically,” feature more than “one time,” feature “an accretion of middles of instances culminating in a panorama, the visual representation of the previous disparate occurances.”  Terms such as “previous,” and “visual representation” and “occurances” are not unique to Ashbery.

“Armantrout, my other go-to example from our time achieves a similar effect by shifting time not across individuals and instances, but down the line of instances vertically, organized by one consciousness. Where Ashbery can appear as montage, clustered instances, Armantrout uses montaged, sequential absences.”

So Armantrout “shifts time” not using “across instances” but “down the line of instances vertically, organized by one consciousness?” 

And Ashbery’s poems are organized by more than one consciousness?  But Armantrout by only one? And Ashbery “shifts time horizontally” and Armantrout “shifts time vertically?”  And further, Armantrout writes with “sequenced absences?”  And Ashbery only uses… “instances,” and not… “absences?”  I see…

“The art object exists as an encounter its perceiver constructs alone. It is less a presence than a prompt. It is difficult, therefore, to agree to criteria for excellence, for whatever excellence one sees in art is really an encounter one is having with oneself.”

Ah, yes! “difficult to agree to criteria for excellence…” Of course…

“How can one succeed, then, in convincing someone that a poem is worthy of praise? (When all parties are being honest and not cynical, we’re like the priest, the rabbi, and the Imam on a lifeboat comparing mythologies.)”

One cannot, obviously.  Unless one is “honest and not cynical.”  And, in that case, if you are “cynical” you won’t agree with my poetic judgments, but if you are “honest,” you will.

“Arguments about art, necessary as they are (or appear to be), are necessarily beside the point.”

Right-o!

“When one is saying a poem fails, one is saying that it has failed to prompt that person into an encounter with her/him/self. The operation of that failure doesn’t necessarily reside with the poem in question just as it doesn’t necessarily reside with the perceiver. None of these are givens.”

Who, exactly, is saying the poem fails?  Is the “self” encountering the poem always the same?  Has this self-encountering “self” anything to do with “being” and “totality?”
 

“It’s always as much about form as it is about content. Form is about content.”

Well, sure.

“Art need not be a representation to be an ecstatic presence.”

Agreed.

“Art is not social. In this way, art contends that every wedding you attend is a wedding of people you don’t know. Call it a philosophy of life . . .”

What does it mean to “know” a “person?”  Again, are we talking in terms of “totality” and “being” with this example?  Do pre-20th century notions apply to this “wedding?”  Who, exactly, is at this wedding?  Poets?  Teachers?  Members of a drug cartel?  Does it matter?

Reading the Asbhery poem itself, I find the narrative easy to follow.  I don’t see any spectacular “time shifts.”

I found your entire post full of very questionable rhetoric. This is why I asked if you taught this stuff, John.  With all due respect, I hope you don’t! 

Posting rude bumper stickers and academic rants on a blog is one thing, but the classroom…now that’s different.

Thomas Brady

P.S. Here, for our readers, is the Ashbery poem, which to my mind, just reads like a slightly kidding, ruminative letter to a friend; there are no multiple points of view or time shifts.  To my mind it’s a clever, slightly drunk guy, reasonably happy, sort of bored, writing a letter to someone who knows his friend Ashbery and his sense of humor well enough, that the letter wouldn’t warrant a: “John, are you okay?  You’re not losing it, are you?”  Read the following as if you know John well, and he’s writing you a letter; I think you’ll discover that ‘a friendly, goofy letter’ is just what it is…

My Philosophy of Life
John Ashbery

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea—
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude. I wouldn’t be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I’d sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I’d stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him—not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between. He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle’s Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on. Not a single idea emerges from it. It’s enough
to disgust you with thought. But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read—it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It’s fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler. Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they’d do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again. Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought—
something’s blocking it. Something I’m
not big enough to see over. Or maybe I’m frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise—I’ll let
things be what they are, sort of. In the autumn I’ll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won’t be embarrassed by my friends’ dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that’s the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn’t even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he’s
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him—
this thing works both ways, you know. You can’t always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time. That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don’t know.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That’s what they’re made for! Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one . . .

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