ALLITERATION: A BRIEF ESSAY ON POETRY

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A poem is just an interesting person saying interesting things.

I don’t read Heine and Shakespeare and Keats for phrases of pretty alliteration.

The poets today describe Shelley’s statue—and then tell you what it means.

The image at the end of Ozymandias is not an image, per se; Shelley is saying something.

All purely imagist poetry is nothing but pathetic fallacy, or, if not, then it is pure impressionistic poetry, comprised of images only—which more properly belongs to painting and the eye.

Be a Japanese painter, if this is the kind of poetry you are interested in.

Critics complain of “statement poetry,” as if poetry were not the simple desire to say something—which is all it is.

Shakespeare is great because of what he says—as he adds in his art.

Like rhyme, which is avoided because it becomes sing-songy, if one doesn’t know how to do it, poets avoid statements, or speech, because they are deficient there, too. They have nothing to say.

When Shakespeare, the master, asks “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” he is not making that silly mistake of trying to describe a summer’s day. No poem could.

Keats, in his sonnet, “The House of Mourning,” professes the same sentiment when he rebukes Wordsworth for writing a sonnet “on Dover.”

There Dover sits, Keats is saying, and a poem about Dover is bound to fail, precisely because poets do not exist to say anything about Dover. That task is for a painter, a photographer, or a travel essayist. Nothing at all against Dover.

There are those who think song lyrics have rhyme and therefore poems should not rhyme. And they reason themselves into a corner, unfortunately: if any attempt at sound as a tool is eschewed, what is left?  Describing what we see—but pure seeing cannot be done with poetry.

We’ve seen trees, and therefore, when trees show up in a poem, we think we see them in the poem.

We don’t.

The poet has not, and never will, make us see, with certainty, trees.

The poet, every time, is saying something about trees.

But critics and readers who are sure that poetry is not someone saying something (having convinced themselves that poetry is far more subtle and attenuated) rejoice in the idea that no reader will agree with another—you do not see the same “trees” I see; correct, but instead of seeing this ambiguity as a bad thing, the ‘poetry as seeing’ error is compounded, as poetry of precise and accessible speech is rejected, and a far more insidious error arises—the one which celebrates ambiguity as a good.

Either way, the poet will go about describing Dover, naively thinking Dover (not actually depicted) really is presented—or: implicitly finding the “poetry” in the very fact that there are a million Dovers.

I have heard, countless times, readers celebrate a poem for meaning a different thing to every person, as if this obvious shortcoming were somehow a virtue. They know poetry cannot be seen. And, for this reason, are sure it cannot be understood, either.

Now poetry can see a little bit, but only in the service of poems like “Ozymandias” or “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”

These poems do not attempt to describe Dover. Yet every citizen of Dover, if they can read, will read these two poems—and agree on what they say.

 

 

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LOVE IS AN ACT: IN PRAISE OF ROMANTICISM

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It is time to be honest about love.

We are going to argue that love—truly romantic love—rejected as cheap and backwards these days, will save the world.

First, we admit that love is rare, and it dies rather quickly. Everyone experiences this. We like something if it benefits us, and all sorts of human relationships are based on practical arrangements. Love, and here we will skip a definition, since it refers to what most of us have experienced at some point: it is mad, complete, mystical, and full of desire. It is not friendship. It can strike us before puberty, but after puberty, the charisma involved largely partakes of sexuality.

It is a truism to say love requires focus. Love must be intense, have intensity—if it is what we know as love, it must be intense—and this brings us to love’s desire for beauty. It wouldn’t make sense for love to involve many things, for this would be to dilute and diminish by spreading too thin, all that love is, and we agree love must have intensity.

Love must have a physical dimension, and to have the force and importance love requires, love should be rare, but not so rare as to be beyond human possibility, and a certain social comprehension. Individual human beauty fits this criterion—human beauty is rare, invokes intensity and focus, and though rare, is accessible.

In the same manner that durable, attractive, and rare metals such as silver and gold will always signify value in terms of wealth in society, human beauty, whether we like it or not, is the coin of love.

We begin with individual human beauty.

But now we have two more elements.

These elements are based on the idea that love is an act.

Do we mean in the sense that “acting” is fake? “To be able to act” is simply what a successful person is able to do. One can say that beauty is “fake,” in the context of love; but this is to assume that the attractive, which is desired, is insincere, but how so? Acting, like beauty, might be construed as fake in “matters of the heart,” but this view, in the name of a fake “depth,” is the superficial one. If something is truly desired, and if any action, including “acting,” belongs to the category of achieving what is desired, how can it then be deemed superficial? We are forced to use acting, action, and act, and all these three words imply—since we are not talking of friendship or the spiritual, but the concentrated madness of love.

When we say “acting,” we do not include lying, or being dishonest in any way which hurts the beloved. We mean “acting” with the goal of loving one person. The “act” is for love, not for “playing around.”

After beauty, there are two layers of “acting” involved:

One: micro-acting, which refers to the natural charm of the person, an unconscious extension of physical attractiveness, and

Two: macro-acting, which involves the actual “behavior of love;” making vows and uttering words of promise, committment, passion, excitement, praise and, naturally, love.

Micro-acting is crucial. One can be physically attractive, but have very little actual charm. Physical beauty is necessary, but even necessary is micro-acting, the way a person smiles, their personality, how they “act.” We have all seen the attractive face which loses all its beauty the moment we experience that dull something in the person behind it. Beauty exists cleverly and minutely.

Macro-acting takes work.

Micro-acting is just the way the person is.

All three, personal beauty, micro-acting, and macro-acting, mutually enhance each other, and all three are present in love.

Acting, even as we are describing it here, in a heightened, non-pejorative way, is typically seen as wretched, superficial, dishonest, and unseemly.

But what we are saying here is that acting is at the heart of romantic love, and romantic love could not exist without it.

Romantic love is not necessary to marriage and children; there are many societies where marriage is arranged, or where women are second class citizens, or worse, and therefore breeding does not require love at all.

Here we notice two things. Romantic love, which may lead to marriage and children, is not necessary to these two things.

But when it is, it requires women to be free and equal to men.

If this is true, is the western tradition of romantic love directly involved in equality for women?

And if romantic love does require “acting,” is this why romantic love is easy for other societies to disparage, and why romantic love is increasingly viewed as insincere, useless, and crazy—especially with increasing contact between the west—and societies (Islam, for instance) which put more of a premium on breeding, and submissive women, than romantic love?

Recall that the major trope of romantic love as “madness” comes from Plato, who opined human breeding farms as a national ideal. (Plato redeems himself in other places, defending love, and the equality of women, but his pragmatic side had moments in his famous society blueprint, “The Republic.”)

What if romantic love is the true path to free and equal women, to a free and equal society, and love itself?

What if romantic love faces grave danger before the more practical forces of not only societies which enslave women, but groups who view romantic love as a backwards and superficial act?

Much has been made recently of the unlikely alliance between feminists and Muslims—how could these two groups possibly be allied?

Both oppose romantic love.

Islam prioritizes modesty—marriage in which the woman is subordinate.

Romantic love does not fit into this scheme.

Feminists (and many sexual progressives) dislike romantic love—since it prioritizes attractive and flirtatious females. Indicted here is the great western tradition of dead white male literature of the roaming, independent, pining male poets, and their beautiful female muses.

But the great tradition of romantic love does not feature enslaved, uneducated, subordinate women. Nor does it feature empty-headed, sexual bimbos, either.  And women can be beautiful in millions of different ways.

The Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, loved educated women.

Equals. Women who could appreciate their poetry. Women (think of Mary Shelley) who were writers, as well.

Poe’s “Ligeia” is an entrancing, mentally and spiritually powerful, woman. Poe rejected as a literary ideal the merely sexual or physically attractive female. Flirtatious women meant nothing to Poe. But the woman poet was a source of great admiration for the American.

The great tradition of Romantic love features strong women. Otherwise it is perverted Romanticism.

Two wars. One should never fight two wars.

Women do not put on uniforms and go to war against other women. Men do that.

In nations where men fight other men and keep their women veiled and subordinate, men fight two wars, one against men, and another against their women.

These societies which fight two wars tend to lose out to the countries in the west—whose women are free and educated—the result of the western romantic literary tradition.

Here’s to Romanticism—often portrayed as reactionary, but it is quite the opposite.

Our readers have noticed we have championed the poet, Ben Mazer, who is just now bringing out his Selected Poems to a great deal of acclaim.

Ben Mazer and Scarriet are leading the revival of Romantic poetry.

We must admit that romance is an act—in the superficial meaning of that word.

We must admit to love’s superficiality.

Even as we defend it.

It is through poetry that micro-acting and macro-acting become one; and the poet achieves the charm of the lover—which all desire to possess.

Romantic love may just be the answer to world peace.

If the world heeds this essay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROUND ONE IN POETRY: KEATS VERSUS BYRON

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Byron

It is fitting somehow, that Lord Bryon faces off against Keats in Scarriet’s Poetry Madness—these are the two greatest poets, in English, perhaps, and their vast differences bespeak of Man’s two extreme personalities: One, manly and mercurial, the other feminine and consistent.

Here is Byron reacting rather egotistically, and coldly, to Keats’ death, remarking that Keats was killed by a bad review, but he (Byron) wasn’t:

Is it true, what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it, though I think he took the wrong line as a poet, and was spoilt by Cockneyfying, and Suburbing, and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary. I know, by experience, that a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author; and the one on me (which produced the English Bards, etc.) knocked me down — but I got up again. Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of Claret, and began an answer, finding that there was nothing in the Article for which I could lawfully knock Jeffrey on the head, in an honourable way.

Byron was cruel and sentimental, cold and warm, by turns, a man of the world, who loved and hated, risked and lost, ranted and wept; where Keats, perhaps the slightly higher genius, was satisfied to live in a cottage and love the maiden next door; Keats was never sentimental, never cruel—but burned with a glow, everlasting.

This is not quite true.  Even Keats had his anger and his petulance.

Any good poet—as Poe pointed out—is irritable; reaching after perfection, one will naturally be annoyed at times.

And yet Keats’ bad moods must have resembled the bad moods of a flower.

The aesthetically critical mind can be argumentative, and still gentle.

Look at this sneering sonnet Keats wrote (he sounds like Byron!):

The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour —
All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! — who could write upon it?

It sneers, yes.  But it’s a sonnet.

It is one of the more interesting poems by Keats—because it reveals so much about him.  He liked coffee, etc.

“The House of Mourning” is not a well-known poem.

Nor is this line of Keats’s well-known either, “Soft went the music the soft air along.”

Connoisseurs of poetry will recognize instantly the genius and beauty of this line—chosen for the 2017 Madness.

“Soft went the music the soft air along” has no sentiment.  The line has beauty only.

The famous Byron line is beautiful—and also sentimental.

“So we’ll go no more a roving, So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright.”

Keats wins.

WHAT IS A BAD POEM?

 

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A good poem needs 2 things.

Most have the first: an anecdote, theme, or story which supports the poem.

The second is why 99% of poems fail.

It is because the anecdote, the reason for the poem, is a thousand times better than the poem.

One attempt to fix this is to write a poem which is so brief, the anecdote is the poem.

The other is to make the poem so lengthy that it forgets, for many lines, its theme. Both of these attempts fail.

99% of poetry stinks.

One might counter this with a list of exemplary qualities which every poem requires to be successful. But the problem with this is that such lists can go on forever. We believe the simple “anecdote” warning above beats every list in the world.

And further, any lengthy list of what makes a poem good can actually do harm, as striving to satisfy many elements of expression may destroy the poem’s unity. Wit lessens options; it doesn’t expand them.

Pope’s phrase is exemplary: ” what oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A poem needs but 2 things ever: ‘what people are thinking’ and the ‘better expression of it.’ The ‘better’ is the rub. And ‘what people are actually thinking’ helps, too.

Pope, the Augustan Wit, belongs to an era lost to our day—flying beyond the Romantics and the Moderns, so that Pope is hardly considered a poet at all to those who long ago bought into aesthetic statements such as the “Red Wheel Barrow.”

The fetish of the romantically tinged image of the early Modernists struck a blow against philosophical wit—to no effect, really.

Wit looking at objects is all poetry is, and has ever been.

The Romantics—who the Moderns and Post-Moderns have never quite escaped—countered the Augustan Wits with heart.

But as we examine the Romantics from our modern future, we see the Romantics were Wits, too.  Read Byron.

Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true.  It often has heart, but no wit.  Or wit, but no heart.  The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed. But modern poetry has mostly left this combination behind, in the name of (what to call it?) a modernity which considers itself too modern for any broad sense of sweetness, virtue, or virtuosity.

Modernity has replaced the Muse. Today poets write as they are taught: to write against the past, instead of adding to its glories. One criterion exists in the Post-Modern, Creative Writing Program Era: Whatever you do, avoid the Iconic Past. Write in any manner you like, just as long as you don’t sound like Byron!

A good example of how this Modern Stupidity has replaced the Muse is the following poem which every modern loves.

In this poem, the ten year old who rhymes is secret code for Keats, Poe, Byron.

And the schoolteacher (cunningly dismissed, as well) in this poem is nothing more than tradition and poetry itself, replaced by the 20th-century, business model, vanity of the Creative Writing Program—which became a kind of solution during Bunting’s lifetime to the insulting woes described in the poem. Bunting’s clever poem seems to be a defense of poetry. It’s not. It’s a defense of modern poetry. And there’s a very important difference.

~

What the Chairman Told Tom by Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

~

We almost feel sorry for Tom, the sorry-ass modern poet who writes “rot,” but still wishes his “rot” to earn him a living. Is the speaker of the poem attractive? Not exactly, though his honest approach is the entire merit of the poem—take this away, and there’s no poem. Now, it is true: wrestling with how to make a poem better than “writing advertisements” or more significant than “a hobby” are valid questions, but Bunting’s poem isn’t interested in that; it only wants us to assume the poet is honorable—simply in the face of the “unkind” chairman’s remarks. Unfortunately, the “rot” the chairman mentions, as everyone who attempts to read most poetry knows, despite the poem’s self-pity, is depressingly real.

Bunting’s poem has heart—but no wit.

Bunting’s poem is good, raw anecdote—with a dubious agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOLLYVERSES

The poet Joie Bose is also a professor. But she writes like—a poet.

The American 2016 presidential election, which, thanks to both major party candidates, is a mud wrestle, has not yet become amateur. Professionals are ever present in politics, in business, in war, and always will be.

Poetry, however, is now an amateur activity through and through.

Love poems on the internet these days give more pleasure than the obscure, indecipherable poems published in the New York Times.

The poet John Keats, a Romantic Titan, one of the ten greatest poets to write in English, once a fixture in the American college curriculum, and now growing less known every day—I imagine you could stop a thousand people on the street and none would know the name Keats—once remarked that there was something beautiful about a quarrel, and we all know what he means; you can find energy and drama alive among the homeless in the streets, such that it rivals anything got up, professionally, on the stage, in terms of body language and dialogue.

The same beauty, for me, applies to amateur love poems written by respectable women.

We recently lost the distinguished (if perhaps overrated) British poet Geoffrey Hill. The sudden demise of Hill’s Editorial Institute at Boston University, ended by a BU provost and a dean, as the Institute’s co-founder, and highly respected critic, and professor at BU, Christopher Ricks, helplessly watched, might signal, to some, the death of poetry as a professional pursuit.

But poetry lost its professional standing a long time ago.

There’s two underlying reasons for this, and it has to do with a perception of professionalism itself.

First. Professionalism has nothing to do with elitism—it is that which best allows mundane daily life to carry on: the concert in which Mozart is played well enough to make us feel warm inside; the democratic election process which defies a revolution or a coup; the smooth functioning of trains and planes; the vaccination given without too much inconvenience, or pain. Politics, the fussing about the economy and the law, is professional by default. It has to be. It defines professional, and once that’s gone, civilization is gone.

And second. There are some glorious things which were never meant to be professional, like a sudden outbreak of a passing quarrel, or a passing love affair, or a passing poem. And when they become professionalized, they die.

The glorious amateur. The mundane professional. Sometimes friends. Sometimes enemies. Always two very different things.

Poetry ceased being glorious the instant it tried to be professional.

When it became a “You Can Be A Writer! And Be Published!”course advertised in a newspaper.When it became swallowed up by the university as a creative writing program.

The greatest poetry has always been written by men and women getting in trouble, living busy lives, doing other things: climbing the Alps with Byron, sailing the Mediterranean with Shelley, dying with Keats, escaping a tyrannical father with Elizabeth Barrett, writing offensive reviews and fiction with Poe, busily hiding away with Dickinson, busily falling apart with Plath, busily falling in love with Millay.

The great 19th century poets, Barrett, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Poe, Dickinson, and Tennyson, were love poets—because poetry belongs, first and foremost, to love, and this is what makes poetry fully and gloriously amateur, and, in the most actual terms imaginable, glorious.

There is always—and we see this a great deal in the 20th century, up to our present day—the deeply earnest attempt to make poetry professional—which means making poetry a vehicle for politics (racism the new brash poetry topic)—an attempt which fails, not because of insincerity, or a lack of talent or education, but simply because poetry’s glory does not lie in the political, professional realm; the attempts to immerse poetry in frank, political rhetoric inevitably produces boring poems. The newspaper is for boring topics, frankly discussed; the poem is for something else.  Some get this.  Most don’t.

The best poem is the one which exists in the private sphere, which is written because a private citizen, contemplating their own experience, bursts forth with it, and tells a truth simultaneously private and universal, because it has to be written—not a poem which will be written, because the contemporary and the political demand it.

Politics, the professional river, unclean and unstoppable, will not have its course altered by poetry; many politicians these days are sexual predators or war predators; in the political realm these predators exist, and poetry has no chance if it attempts to invade the political realm; poetry belongs to the realm of love, and love is the atmosphere in which the sexual predator will be exposed and die. And who will speak up for love, if not poetry? Don’t expect it from speeches on racism or the economy, or from sex-joke sitcoms. Poetry is the true “policeman” of love.

We see poems published all the time which address thorny subjects, obscure subjects, political subjects, which attempt to address political wrongs, and though some of them, if they are explicitly indignant enough, elicit cheers, none of them, frankly, change anything, and, in the meantime, amateur poetry of private love and wisdom withers, and is ignored.

Well, not quite. And this is the good news.

Amateur poetry of private love and wisdom lives. It lives on the Internet.

Even as professional attempts at poetry continue with their pointy-headed, ineffective, obtuseness and obscurity.

Reading the web, I find the best poems are self-published, appearing on my feed without ceremony, and rarely the ones “linked” to an institutional, vast, cliquey, ostentatious tower.

Why is that? For the reasons given in this essay.

Here’s an example from Daipayan Nair, a short but effective poem:

I cannot smell
anything new, any longer.

It’s all me
in different places.

This short work by Nair falls under the category of insightful, self-aware, private wisdom, rather than love. Wisdom is a topic India does not fear, and private wisdom, or honesty, is very close to private love. India right now, in English, on the internet, is producing better work than England or the United States in their professional guises, which may be a remarkable claim, and all the more remarkable because it’s true. Perhaps this is because the West, in its post-modernism frenzy, simply has no belief in wisdom anymore, or a belief in love; and America, especially, has backed itself into a corner, turning its back on its relatively short history, abandoning the 19th century, in its 20th century modernist revolution—leaving itself very little that is traditional or time-honored; while India, with a much longer history, is more relaxed and assimilative, and much less historically cynical, and can still bring the accessible magic. So you have Indian poets self-publishing in English, out-performing the “professional” Americans.

What we like about Nair’s poem, beyond the fact that it is instantly comprehensible, and trades in none of this elitist, “difficulty” nonsense, and has none of the prickly, obscure language which ruins so many American poems, is that it fits the poem we described above—it feels like something written while the poet was busy doing other things; it does not feel professional and slaved over, even as it feels—somehow—necessary and important, that it had to be written. We like it. We like it very much. And we’ll put it up against the lengthier rig-a-marole of an Ashbery, for instance, any day. Perhaps this is comparing apples and oranges. But we like these apples.

Daipayan Nair is a wry, witty and highly prolific poet. He’s on the right track. The amateur one.

The women of India who write their impassioned verses on Facebook live remarkable, impassioned, beautiful lives, and their poems spring directly from their lives, not from any guarded, post-modern sensibility learned in college. These modern Elizabeth Barrett Brownings give immense pleasure from a world of timeless living put quickly and casually into poems. These are not workshop poems squeezed out into a box labeled 2016; these are poems that are poems not because of when they were written, but because they are—poems. Elizabeth Barrett made the 19th century better by her poems; the time didn’t write the poems; she did.

Joie Bose, not belonging to any school or movement or political party or university department, just puts up sonnet after sonnet on the Internet. Here’s one. Not perfectly written. Dashed off, perhaps. But God, if this isn’t an expression of genius:

Sonnet 7

Let’s count the stars, it’s dark now;
Let’s just count nothing else,
Not the lies that became thorns and pierced us,
No not that string of red pearls, glistening.
Let’s not count one by one all the alibis,
Those bouquets in those crystal vases,
Paint smiles on every eyes that look upon;
What else do we have left to give them?
The sun set on us, our work is done,
Our flaming heat gives way to the cold,
All eyes will shut, sleep shall descend,
We had been, what dreams were made of.
Know now this is eternal night, memories glitter
Let’s just count nothing else, just the stars.

18th September, 2016

And if you think this is an accident, here’s more of the sequence—which appears a couple of days later, on September 20th:

Sonnet 12

I will pray before I leave the earth
As I pray every time I leave my body,
I will leave a shadow as I leave the stage
As I leave a poem after every act.
I will pray that you will understand
As I pray every time you misunderstand,
I will leave you a shade in a bright tomorrow
As I leave you shade under this blazing sun.
You will talk of me as you do of history
You will be kind and the bitterness will be gone,
You will hold me in your tear-strewn heart
You will herald me as your guiding star.
Age will give me what my youth has sought
And I will give you then, what I now cannot.

 

Sushmita Gupta, like Joie Bose, is a mother from India, I am familiar with her only from Facebook; she is a painter, designer, and an amateur poet. Which means you probably won’t see her poetry in The New Yorker any time soon. Which also happens to mean she is very good. She writes the kind of poetry which, without any fuss or intellection, fills up your heart. Her lovely blog is called Sushness. This recent poem of hers reminds me of Goethe. Her unorthodox use of the comma slows things down even more, as the poem moves slowly over us, and into us. Almost like something God had passed along:

 

Clouds

Just when,
I was all high strung,
And impatient,
And craving speed,
And burning passion,
And electrifying drama,
And singular attention,
And affirmation,
The dark,
And sedate clouds,
Rolled in,
From afar,
Showing off,
Places and peoples,
It had already touched,
And transformed.
All at once,
I was calmed,
By the cool,
On my face,
And being.
All at once,
I dropped,
Desire,
And desperation.
I was naked.
I was bared,
Into simplicity,
Into a being,
Pure,
In formlessness,
Pure,
In not wanting.

 

Nalini Priyadarshni is also a mother, who explores love poetry as an art in itself, where love feeds poetry—and poety feeds love—in a mutual feedback loop of pure ideal experiment; the passion is willed; this may be considered naive poetry, and the topic (love poetry) might be seen as common and simple. But that is the point. A true intellectual is not afraid to be common and simple.

Your Words

Words born in the recesses of your heart, I  treasure
even before they rise in your throat
or find release from your lips
I know them from another place, another time
All that you say or leave unsaid for another day
I catch in my cupped palms and drink deep
I know its taste from another place, another time
Your silence, when it breathes heavy on my neck
I weave a song along its tendrils
I know its melody from another place, another time
There is no putting in words what can only be felt
live it and trust it will find its way to me
I know its footsteps from another place, another time

 

This poem by Priyadarshni expresses a fanatical faith in love. The sensual “throat,” “lips,” “neck” and “tendrils” are heightened in their sensuality precisely because the poem as a whole is a beautiful desert of hope—love is absent, even as it is intimately present. There is a thrill as the poet strains to transcend love in the poem—a poem remarkable in the manner it expresses love in a faithful underlying of absence/presence. Her book is Doppelgänger in my House, published by the Poetry Society of India.

So ends our brief survey of Bollyverses, available on the Internet, which lives under the radar of professional American poetry, and yet rivals, and even surpasses, American contemporary and academic/program writing, as significant and pleasurable English speaking poetry.

Daipayan Nair, Joie Bose, Sushmita Gupta, and Nalini Priyadarshni are four of the more remarkable poets who have randomly come to Scarriet’s attention—and we are very glad they have.

doppelganger-in-my-house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PODDAR AND KASISCHKE GO A LITTLE BIT MAD IN THE MADNESS

Kushal Poddar is in the 2016 Madness

It is becoming more and more apparent to Americans—who, for all their worldly clout and influence, have recently become fixated on their Writing Program careers—that, holy cow!, there is something happening on the other side of the globe, in India, where totally mad people prepare for bed just when they should be waking up—don’t these people know how crazy that is? Well, give them a little credit: in India right now they are writing poems in English in the great Romantic Tradition, and, despite not attending writing programs, and despite their odd sleeping habits, poets from India are, at this very moment, writing better poetry than Americans—with the exception of Ben Mazer, who is a living Romantic Tradition unto himself: pilgrimages should be made to Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA—near Harvard Square.

Philip Nikolayev, an American, Harvard-educated poet, originally from Russia, had the good sense to go to India, and, to make a long story short, social media has led Scarriet to a world of heartbreak and beauty in which poetry exists as sweetly and commonly as a scent of perfume or a right arm.

In America, poets study at Writing Programs.

These costly one-year or two-year programs essentially teach the student of poetry one thing: Do not write like Keats—sound, in your writing, as different from Keats as possible, and this will guarantee that you will sound contemporary, and sound like yourself, because, after all, you are not Keats, and this is a good thing, since Keats is in the ground! We cannot tell you how to sound, for that is too complicated, given that poetry can sound like absolutely anything, it being defined by nothing, and so we cannot teach that; all we can do is make sure you don’t sound like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Edna Millay. They are dead! Dead! Be a student of English literature if you want to sound like the dead. And, by the way, did we tell you the field of study at one time called the English Major is also dead? Good. Talk amongst yourselves, students, and commence writing! And just remember, I, with my degree from one of the most distinguished writing programs in the world, will be watching, to make sure you do not ever write like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Or anyone with three names! Horrors! Better to be known simply as Trudy. Or Billy. Or Sam. And write. poetry. like. this.

Laura Kasischke is a writing program graduate, and yet has still managed to distinguish herself as a poet of wonderful ability: she is known to write complete, comprehensible, sentences on comprehensible topics. This may be due to the fact, however, that she is also a successful novelist.

Her champion is Stephen Burt, a rising poetry critic star who teaches with Jorie Graham at Harvard; Burt broke into the big time with a damning piece in the Boston Globe on Foetry.com, Alan Cordle’s website which exposed systemic poetry contest cheating and reputation puffing in academic American poetry. It was fun, enlightening, painful (for people like Graham) depending on where you were on the map of poetry reputation. Everyone, due to Foetry.com’s influence, which was quite extensive, is sadder—but wiser. Wisdom has quietly turned to joy—and one can see it in Scarriet’s “To Sir With Love” exuberance.  Burt has edited an anthology of sonnets—the tacit assumption that sonnets were once written can be made with impunity once in a while, if a publisher is willing to suffer a material, if not a spiritual, loss.

Kasischke had one of the better poems in the latest (2015) Best American Poetry, Sherman Alexie, guest editor (The BAP Series has been edited by David Lehman since 1988) and we found her best line there:

but this time I was beside you…I was there.

Affection produced in prose language can, by its directness and homeliness, be extremely touching. Poetry can be iconic, but that doesn’t mean prose cannot occasionally outdo poetry by being more affectionate in its plainess. Prose may sometimes catch us off guard by smelling sweeter than poetry. This confuses the poets, who then proceed to drown themselves in the sea which the plain talkers successfully sail. Kasischke, we might entertain for a paranoid moment, might owe her success to this anti-poetry phenomenon.

Any language we do not understand sounds poetic to our helpless ears; as we come to understanding we come away from poetry, and by this formula the more purely prosaic we sound the more we understand and what we understand is the falsity of the one we once loved, dear poetry, the one who seduced us in a castle about 200 years ago in a frilly shirt—and now must die.

One solution to not sound prosaic and not sound 19th-century either, as a poet, is surrealism.

Kushal Poddar, from Calcutta, a self-taught genius, Kasischke’s opponent, writes very exciting poetry in a pyrotechnical inventiveness that fits the short, lyrical form to the unusual image—he never has a red wheel barrow in his poetic landscape unless that wheel barrow is fully on fire, and that is how he expresses his passions and his desires. Here is his line:

Your fingers are alight. Their blazing forest burns towards me.

Poddar, like a true poet, suggests as much as he presents—the shadows produced by his mind are as lovely as the flames. We think him one of the better poets in the world writing in English, and one more reason to visit Calcutta—if you can get your head out of your résumé.

So which will win? The plain-speaking or the fire?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN FEAR OF DOGGEREL

We recently attended a poetry reading in Harvard Square and we had the great pleasure to hear the world’s greatest living poet, Ben Mazer, read his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep,” a poem of about 350 lines which closes his new book, The Glass Piano.  It was a cinematic experience, the sort of poem in which you get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen in a state half-way between sleep and waking.

If cinematic poetry doesn’t start a renaissance in poetry, nothing will.

Here’s the thing: and we might as well begin with Keats’ phrase: “fine excess.”  We all know that poetry is known for concision, and this is all well and good, but we must say, we fear this idea, once having got its nose in the tent, now occupies the whole of it, crowding out everything else.

For, as the wretched Pound pointed out—and many, many writers before him—prose, as much as poetry, should not waste words; poetry has no special hold on concision.

We do not mean, “If you have nothing to say, shut up.” No, if you have nothing to say, you are probably the poet we want to hear from.  But this is neither here nor there. We are speaking from a purely technical standpoint.

To say poetry is concise is like saying painting is concise—well, of course it is; it belongs to its frame, not the world. But if this truism took root, the pinnacle of art would be the fifteen-second sketch. Notwithstanding the infinite charm of the master creating a world with a few strokes, we think it time for poetry to throw off the burden of having to say little. Once and for all, let us declare that to be concise is not necessarily to be poetic.  Poe, who said, “a long poem doesn’t exist,” also said a small one doesn’t exist either: there must be sufficient pressure on the wax to create the impression.

Without having to specify length, what this means is, the poet, and the artist in general—for art has suffered from Modernist theories as much as poetry—should use all the tools in the tool box—and why not?  The thing we don’t like about abstract painting is not abstract painting; it is the fact that we once had the pleasure of pictorial representation and all the interest of color which abstract painters revel in.  The thing we don’t like about cartooning, or the vague sketch, or the Red Wheel Barrow, is not the principle which these uphold, that suggestion is perhaps the most important thing in art there is—it is.  But too much reliance on suggestion is suggestive no more.  The paltry is finally not poetic.

This essay comes to damn the poet who goes in fear of doggerel, the poet who plays it safe, who hides behind the “experimental,” a code word for “this is not what I really can do, as an artist, I’m just thinking out loud here, don’t mind me, but if you find something that’s clever here, well, I’ll take a compliment or two, why not?”

Fear of the tight rope turns into the earth-bound, fake bravery of the “avant-garde.” Clowning around on the piano and never getting down to playing a real piece has profited many a hack since 1900.

To be cinematic in poetry is difficult, for one is firmly in that temporal mode perfected by Homer and Tennyson with the added pictorial heft.  The purely discursive, or the obscure, will not do.  Cinematic poetry requires the whole art, which does not eschew the discursive or the suggestive, or any of the other tricks of the poet, by any means—no, but it requires them all.

Poetry, like the film, has motion as its medium; it pitches forward, and does so, like film, with all sorts of markers, pauses, ends, flashbacks, jump cuts, call them what you will—but you get the idea.

Every one of these temporal tricks is enhanced by meter and rhyme.

This is not some moral or bitter argument against the “avant-garde;” again, we are speaking purely from a technical point of view.

To make the poetry that does the most, that is whole and cinematic: meter and rhyme simply help drive that engine. To go in fear of the doggerel is a fear we must abandon.

The poems which win both the popular and the critical taste are cinematic poems; we love them like films, and the truly literate know they are better than films: Prufrock, Kubla Khan, The Raven, The Cloud. But we live in times of horror, in which an appreciation of classical music and great painting and beautiful poetry is fading; there are millions, even fairly intelligent and somewhat nice people—or those who can pass as such—too thick and dense to appreciate beauty in the arts. This is the greatest tragedy of our age, a violence against beautiful feelings which points to more material suffering in the future.

(Scarriet, in the last 5 years of its existence, has produced thousands of lines of original poetry, and so what if half, if 60% is doggerel? We don’t care. For what has been achieved, it is more than worth it.)

We do not recommend Mazer lightly, nor is our argument here to be taken lightly.

It may save poetry.

And everyone’s life.

 

SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET THREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BRACKET FOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MORAL SMUT PARADOX

image

Poetry, once beautiful, has become merely eccentric; more troubling, currently, is the vast indifference, and even revulsion by the public for the art, despite valiant efforts at subsidy, chiefly the commerce and spread of university MFAs.

Some say we have a glut of poets—the MFA, a pyramid scheme when all pay for a small number who teach—poets read poets in a purely careerist context, even as real poetry hides in cracks and crevices—but “too many poets” and MFA criticism seems a small concern beside the tremendous indifference of the general public.

Why can’t poetry live outside of school (and Slam bars) and thrive in the public square, with cooking and napping and sports?

Because poetry is either

1) too easy or

2) too difficult:

1) Rhymes for imbeciles

2) Footnotes for specialists in which the content and syntax of a Newsweek essay stirs up in the reader a puzzle: why is this called poetry?

Surely there is a middle ground—between the banal pop lyric and the mangled prosy essay, between “We will, we will, rock you” and William Carlos Williams’ stupid plums, between Victorian pillow talk and academic vertigo—a middle ground of highly skilled, original poetry which pleases poet and non-poet alike—

A middle ground accessible to non-poets while alerting the poets that obscurity is over: Shelley, Keats, Byron and Dickinson are back.

This will do 3 things:

1. Make poetry better.

2. Make the pictorial and musical arts better as poetry inspires them once again

3. Revive public interest in poetry—even as the narrow creds-mongers howl in protest

The chief objection to a modern Romanticism revival (desperately needed since the pretensions of Pound and Williams mowed over the beauty of Millay) will come from the Institutional Art Theorists, who say the history of art (no matter how driven by actual folly) is more important than art, that poetry requires a “learned” context of historical change and development—as phase trumps the thing itself.

Old models—think of Greek Tragedy, cave paintings, Emerson’s doggerel, will be improved upon, yes, certainly, but the improvement comes from the original poet, not the impotent university scholar/historian who learnedly and belatedly cheers on change. The cheering in universities needs to stop and beautiful originality needs to begin.

The university historian says Keats is dead—because history is more important to them than art.

But there is an even deeper issue we need to address:

The poet, if he is worthy the name, avoids what chiefly cripples all moral expression: smutty morals, or moral smut, the heart and soul of most middle class literature.

We speak of best-selling literature in which morals are highly overt, and in order to be overt, makes smut overt as well, thus inflating even more the overt moral content, feeding and encouraging low-brow taste in the process, and dragging down in a mania of good intentions all literature into that “realism” of bad taste in which readers slum free of guilt.

The alternative: the “fantasy” genre, fares no better and is similarly in thrall, as it exploits moral smut even more overtly, using racy bad taste increasingly as its “ideal” weapon.

This earnest and vastly popular state of affairs not only makes for bad literature, it reduces the middle class population which consumes it into a species of reader entirely ill-equipped to appreciate beautiful good taste, which is the Eldorado of the Poet.

This is not to say that a certain amount of raciness and bad taste and excitement cannot drive certain types of popular literature—we are not saying there cannot be cakes and ale. Let there be cakes and ale. But when ale becomes excessive, infecting even so-called highbrow literature, and when good taste for its own sake is no longer cultivated, we reach that threshold in which the elevated feelings no longer stir, real moral beauty no longer excites, and the poor body drags along without a soul.

We also understand that lovely flowers grow in dirt, etc.  That contrast is required between low and high. Shakespeare was great at this, but his greatness—what other word is there for it?—kept the low in its place. Low is low—unless we are suckered after long exposure into admiring it.  Addicted, we continue to feed on what makes us ill; judgment atrophies, taste becomes bloated with sentimentalism, discernment wastes away, obscurity becomes robust in a pretentious miasma, and the best that’s left are sneering sophisticates with steely hearts.

The great poet resists overt morals—and the smutty bad taste which invariably feeds on it.

The prose novel, with its earthiness and scope, will sometimes benefit from this phenomenon.

But poetry is far more susceptible to the disease of which we speak.

The paradox of Moral Smut insidiously sweetens, destroying the healthy vigor of poetry, and its art, and Taste, in general.

 

 

 

WHAT DOES THE HISTORY OF POETRY LOOK LIKE?

 

Thomas Eliot set the old poetry world in order, by george, he did!

T.S. Eliot was correct to remind us that the Tradition—Works in Time that We Read Now—evolves constantly as a whole by every present addition, is a unique living creature, and is not simply a chronological collection, to be ‘got at’ in a haphazard (even if the ‘getting’ is rigorously chronological) manner; Eliot’s formula only works if we see the Tradition as a whole—not that we can really see it ‘all at once,’ because, of course, it is too big for that—which we grasp in its essence (characterized by its best examples going back to its hazy but finite beginning) as that which simultaneously enriches our present efforts as poets and is enriched by our present efforts. As Eliot points out—but it goes without saying—this is a major task: first, to read and be acquainted with the Tradition, and then to be good enough to effectively add to it. And nothing less than this is required if we take ourselves seriously as poets.

Two temptations face those who would somehow fight free of the Tradition.

It is tempting to say, here’s me, the poet, and here’s the world, and that’s enough; and the Tradition—which is over here, well, we can take it and toss it in the sea. Eliot, after all, was a conservative wretch, and making the Tradition, with all its weighty past, essential, was just his way of preventing change. We can toss the Tradition in the sea, but it will just emerge again; the Tradition is the Sea; the Tradition includes the very desire to erase itself, all for the sake of change; the temptation to destroy Tradition lives and breathes in the Tradition itself; as Eliot so pointedly observed, the past is what we are; Eliot’s is not a piece of advice—it is the primary literary fact. We are not standing on the shoulders of giants; we are the shoulders, and thus, the giants.

Another temptation is to treat more recent works in the Tradition as more essential, because they are closer to us in time. This is to fall into the chronological error: more recent works are assumed—within Eliot’s very definition—to be participating in Eliot’s formula: adding and altering the past with their novelty; but new works don’t succeed on their own; they only succeed in altering the Tradition—chronology does not exist in some worldly sense; we might read a 16th century work and the Whole Tradition grows a new limb for us; to bite off what is nearest to us in time is merely the world’s chronology, not the Tradition’s, nor ours. We are learning the Tradition, not where it “fits” in the world; to fit the Tradition “into” the world, even as we regard it with scholarly and historical respect, is to drift dangerously into the error of the First Temptation, above. The Tradition is not what we know; it is how we know, and we learn it to know both it and ourselves simultaneously—once we try and observe it objectively from afar, we are lost in that profound error of the egotistical scholar and the manic, irresponsible poet, publishing in a newspaper: the news, not poetry.

The progress of the Tradition and Us in Time is not a smooth or simple one. If this were so, it would be a lot harder to grasp. It is only possible to grasp the Tradition at all, precisely because it includes those authors who are of such primary importance that they obliterate, eclipse, swallow, subsume, assimilate, join, conquer, raze, and eat thousands of lesser scribblers, including the most advanced minds of our time: Shakespeare, for instance; once your professor has finished showing you what he or she knows of Shakespeare, your professor is eaten by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare now belongs to you, and Shakespeare of the Tradition now belongs, in a living, and ever changing sense, to you. The Tradition belongs to Shakespeare, not the other way around.

The Program Era is naturally a bit wary of the Tradition, for the Creative Writing Industry is driven by a more immediate and practical concern—training the student, for a price, to be a writer—and it naturally seeks a shortcut past the giant, devouring Tradition—which the Creative Writing student—the old “English Major,”—has neither the time, nor the inclination, to read.

There is also the matter of present politics—politics as it exists and is practiced in the present (“Current Events”)—not literally ‘present politics,’ the practice of reading, as much as possible, present works, regarding their recent existence as more important because more recent—which we already covered in the Second temptation, above, but those recent politics that puff themselves up with great importance, which of course has the advantage of appealing to contemporaneous minds embroiled in all sorts of specific moral issues of the day; but the danger is: in as much as these issues come to the foreground, poetry fades into the background, where it apparently still exists for those whose moral indignation is fed by an outside source without poetic qualities. The dynamic is a slippery and subtle one, but is sufficiently lawful to kill poetry completely. A moral skin, a moral appearance, hides the emptiness.

Poetry does not live in the abstract; it lives in poetry: “Ode On A Grecian Urn.”

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Poetry is not abstract. Even “the abstract” is not abstract. The abstract, by definition, is the boiled down essence of the forms, motions, shapes, speeds, accelerations, masses and vectors of the universe.

Useful abstraction aids the true understanding, which like Eliot’s Tradition, does not advance by accumulation of facts—which can make us dumber, loading us down with the mere puzzling plurality of the useless (the dull, wooly idiocy of the modernist gizmo school)—but rather by the shedding of facts, and so by careful elimination, the necessary necessarily enlightens the necessary.

The larger world, perceived by the mature person, has a use attached to every fact, and uses further attached to uses, in various and hierarchical ways. The best is not shied away from; transcendent inventions and breakthroughs are eagerly seized upon; poems are not treated as the learned expression of a scientist, nor as a scientific attempt at abstraction (the great error of Modernism) but rather as a great counter-expression to science and learning: otherwise the poem would drive the Tradition and not be driven by it; the poem and Tradition would not be distinct, and they must be, for either to properly exist; we study the Tradition, but not the poem—whose property is beauty, which can never be ‘got at’ by study. To miss this distinction is to miss everything.

We look at Keats’ Ode through the lens of the Tradition, and this is how we understand its greatness.

The person who does not find exquisite pleasure in reading Keats’ Ode certainly lacks those qualities that we look for not only in a poet, but in a human being; but this is not the same thing as reading the Ode through the lens of the Tradition, which we perform only in the aftermath of its beauty devouring us. The poets who attempt to reverse this process, by writing a Tradition-worthy poem before they experience the pleasure necessary to write a pleasurable poem, are barred from the glory which we find in Keats’ Ode.

The phrase “what maidens loth?” in the context of Keats’ Ode—the urn stands for the world in Keats’ poem, laid out before us, in mystery, in beautiful miniature (find another poem which replicates all existence as well)—contains a great deal: maidens pursued, maidens who resist this pursuit, the question, “what maidens?” as the misty yet clear world of the urn is gazed at, manifests greatness by saying a lot with a little.

The objective excellence belongs to the poem of the Tradition, but not to the poem—even though we feel what is objectively excellent as we experience the poem’s beauty.

Keats, feeling pure sentimental love (which the Moderns in their sophistication revile and ridicule and curse) dares to confront a great black hole of existence: maidens and the essence of maidenhood—which flashes at us quickly in the amoral, rolling-eye ecstasy of Keats’ ur-landscape, which offers sacrifice, rape, and love, and the stopping of a kiss (desire) which therefore preserves the lover’s beauty—the stoppage, ironically, driving the urn’s immortal journey through time; enabling the urn (and the poem!) to outlive us and our apparently more active life:—it is we who are stopped, while the poem/urn is that which, in an ironic reversal, moves, just as the delirious, metrical wonder that is Keats’ poem pitches forward with its music, and, in loving it, we move backward to read it again, our admiration turning the poem into an object of admiration that nonetheless constantly moves, imitating the ever-still, ever-moving universe, both beautiful/tragic in its stillness and beautiful/tragic in its moving. Did Keats consider all this before he wrote his poem? Obviously not; but surely the poet in him quickly fixed on the urn-idea for a poem; genius grasping and teasing out the many in an essential thing.

The simpleton, who sits passively in front of a film while it unpacks its frozen pictures to describe its story, finds it impossible to conceive how a poem merely sitting on a page could produce more insight and pleasure than a movie (with popcorn). Poor simpleton! The simpleton belongs to the world, not to the world and God. If we cannot appreciate a Keats poem and the Tradition, we are just like that simpleton, who may indeed feel as much pleasure as us, and in that sense, be as worthy. We cannot judge a simpleton or a poem; we bring about judgment (as we are doing here) only as we think with the self-consciousness of the Tradition.

 

NORTH CAROLINA AND POETRY CREDS

The North Carolina controversy is now familiar to all in po-biz. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory awarded the poet laureateship to Valerie Macon, a 64 year old state worker without academic creds; there was an uproar in the creds universe, and as a result, Macon resigned.

The North Carolina Arts Council—complaining vociferously—was not consulted by the governor in his choice of Macon.

The NC law says the governor appoints the laureate,  which is how it happened the first time in 1948; governor Gregg Cherry, and the first poet laureate of North Carolina, Arthur Talmage Abernethy, who never published a book of poems, were friends.

The appointment was lifetime until Governor Jim Hunt told Fred Chappell he had 5 years; when Chappell stepped down in 2002, he was only the fourth laureate in over 50 years; since 2002 there have been four, including Macon: Byer, Bowers, Bathanti—with Bowers, the appointment was sliced to 2 years.

Compared to Fred Chappell, Byer, Bowers, Bathanti, are, in terms of reputation, nobodies.

Macon is to Bathanti what Bathanti is to Chappell. 

That didn’t prevent the Council from choosing Bathanti.

Macon is not the issue.

Bad poetry is.

A quick glance at poems available on-line reveals that no North Carolina Laureate, no Arts Council member, no poet, no journalist alive today in North Carolina is a substantially better poet than Valerie Macon. So what is all the fuss about?

If the following poem was written by Louise Gluck, the gods of po-biz would swoon in appreciation.

Clicking into Vinny’s Pizza
in Jimmy Choo platform pumps,
a woman, six feet tall
and straight as a sunflower,
in high-waisted leggings
and gold cropped tee.
Her boyfriend,
a weed sprout beside her,
ambles in Old Navy flip-flops.

She holds her yellow head high
like a flower tilted towards sun,
scans the chalked daily specials,
tapping Black Truffle acrylics
in the rhythm of a gentle spring rain.

She orders vegetarian pizza.
The boyfriend, arms coiled around her,
orders the meat lover’s special.

Unfortunately for this poem, the author is Valerie Macon.

We don’t say this is a great poem—not at all.

But we know what the fuss is all about: bad poets with more creds than Macon wanted the Poet Laureate job.

The Star News story announcing Macon’s resignation quoted poet (with creds!) and journalist Chris Vitello—no doubt aching to be poet laureate—who wrote in a blog:

She’s a dabbler as a poet and a question mark as a thinker, educator and advocate.

Star News got Vitello’s name wrong—the graduate of The Naropa Institute spells his last name Vitiello, in case you want to google this genius.

Here’s a sample of the previous North Carolina Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti’s poetry:

The City Jail spiked out of Fifth Avenue
in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh.
When we drove by it, my father would pause
and signify in its direction,
never uttering a word. Riding shotgun,
my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed
our imaginary condemned prisoner
in the jail’s uppermost barred window.

In this whole ‘creds’ controversy, it seems no one has bothered to look at the actual poetry of the participants in this North Carolina drama.

The above lines ends the controversy for us.  Let Macon be the poet laureate.  No law was violated. Macon’s poetry is equal to Bathanti’s.

Let us firmly assert that there is not a shred of poetry in the above excerpt from Bathanti.

Poetry is known immediately by its passion, inspiration, sublimity, beauty, unique expression, and the above is clearly nothing more than the prosaic opening of a short short story randomly brokenly into lines.  “Fifth Avenue?”  “downtown Pittsburgh?”

Is Mr. Bathanti familiar with this sonnet by John Keats?

If not, he should acquaint himself with it, forthwith, and then, as punishment for his insolence, he should go about North Carolina reciting it.

The House of Mourning written by Mr. Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr. Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour –
All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it?

Defenders of Bathanti and his “downtown Pittsburgh” verses will say:

Look at the detail!  Bathanti avoids Hallmark cliches! He gives us ‘real life’ by evoking “downtown Pittsburgh” with phrases like “Fifth Avenue!”

Bathanti writes about what he knows; about his lived life: “my father would pause” and “my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed!”

Bathanti paints the scene! “When we drove by it” and “Riding shotgun” and “the jail’s uppermost barred window.”

Good. Let Bathanti publish fiction if he wants.

We say: take the laurel from his head, and shame on everyone who embarrassed poor Ms. Macon—who writes no worse than Mr. Bathanti.

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

WILDE VERSUS WOOLF

Virginia Woolf: a beauty with an audacious mind. A supreme opponent in Oscar.

WILDE:

 

I should have said that great artists worked unconsciously, that they were “wiser than they knew,” as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere, but it is really not so.

All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does.  A great poet sings because he chooses to sing. It is so now, and it has always been so. We are sometimes apt to think that the voices that sounded at the dawn of poetry were simpler, fresher, and more natural than ours, and that the world which the early poets looked at, and through which they walked, had a kind of poetical quality of its own, and almost without changing could pass into song. The snow lies thick now upon Olympus, and its steep, scraped sides are bleak and barren, but once, we fancy, the white feet of the Muses brushed the dew from the anemones in the morning, and at evening came Apollo to sing to the shepherds in the vale. But in this we are merely lending to other ages what we desire, or think we desire, for our own. Our historical sense is at fault. Every century that produces poetry is, so far, an artificial century, and the work that seems to us to be the most natural and simple product of its time is always the result of the most self-conscious effort. There is no fine art without self-consciousness, and self-consciousness and the critical spirit are one.

The longer one studies life and literature, the more strongly one feels that behind everything that is wonderful stands the individual, and that it is not the moment that makes the man, but the man who creates the age. Indeed, I am inclined to think that each myth and legend that seems to us to spring out of the wonder, or terror, or fancy of tribe and nation, was in its origin the invention of one single mind.

 

WOOLF:

 

It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous.

No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own. The Suffrage campaign was no doubt to blame. It must have roused in men an extraordinary desire for self-assertion; it must have made them lay an emphasis upon their own sex and its characteristics which they would not have troubled to think about had they not been challenged.

The blame for all this rests no more upon one sex than upon the other. All seducers and reformers are responsible. All who have brought about a state of sex-consciousness are to blame, and it is they who drive me, when I want to stretch my faculties on a book, to seek it in that happy age, when the writer used both sides of his mind equally. One must turn back to Shakespeare, then, for Shakespeare was androgynous; and so was Keats and Coleridge. Shelley was perhaps sexless. Milton and Ben Johnson had a dash too much of the male in them. So had Wordsworth and Tolstoy.

The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn. The writer, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans float calmly down the river. And I saw again the current which took the boat and the undergraduate and the dead leaves; and the taxi took the man and the woman who came together across the street, and the current swept them away, as I heard far off the roar of London’s traffic, into that tremendous stream.

 

Modern literature and the sexes; modern life and the sexes; life and the sexes; the sexes.  Rather inescapable, isn’t it?

The unhappy marriage is at the heart of all literature.

Literature is perhaps the invention of the unhappy marriage.

Wilde, in the Madness passage quoted, sounds like he would have admired Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” and it’s perfect, for at the top he rebukes Emerson, the anti-Poe.

Woolf strives towards some aesthetic reconciliation between man and woman: is it doomed to failure?  Is it a mere abstraction, this sexual intercourse of the spirit? We think we know what she means, this hankering after the “androgynous” mind of the genius; it’s an attempt to reconcile all unhappy marriages, and what’s so bad about that?

Woolf wants two sexes for the mind. Wilde wants one mind: the self-conscious, critical artist.  One versus two.

 

WINNER: WILDE

 

THE GHETTOIZATION OF POETRY

Stephen “Stephanie” Burt, Harvard professor and distinguished poetry critic

There is always an assumption that anthologies and categories of ‘poems about X’ are good for poetry and X.

Why?

Even if our anthology of ‘poems about X’ has nothing but bad poetry, the sentiment supporting X, supporting poetry, and supporting poetry on X, inevitably wins the day.

Why?

We’ve all seen the high-minded, fawning reviews and notices.  The implication is: Some of you out there selfishly write poems which are just…poems.  But here we have something worth cheering about, worth feeling good about…Poems about X!

For instance, Blog Harriet recently wrote:

Hurray! Stephen Burt reviews the TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson edited breakthrough anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics for the Los Angeles Review of Books!

Hurray?

And here’s an excerpt from Stephen “Stephanie” Burt’s review:

I was bored, occasionally, by all too straightforward verse about identities lost and found, verse I would have ignored were its subject almost anything else. But the reading also let me delight in seeing at least one femme author I’d never encountered before, both because she looked great, and because Troubling the Line turns out to be her first national appearance in print. That author is Lilith Latini, of Asheville, North Carolina, a ravishing, raven-haired studio-era femme fatale. (This is the first time I have ever written a sentence for publication about how a poet looked when she read her poems.) Those poems, raw as they could be, spoke to my twinned and antithetical desire for glamor and for solidarity, my wish to stand with others and my wish to stand out. It’s not a wish unique to LGBT people, but it sounds great when Latini finds it in the thoughts of Stonewall queens: “Don’t send me / out of the closet and into the streets alone. / Someone has to help me out of my strappy shoes before I run.”

Poetry can interact with anything, and we have nothing against that.  There’s nothing wrong with “added interest.”

But this ‘Category-first-Poetry-second’ attitude needs a hard look.

Perhaps even Stephanie might want to give a listen.

Once poetry—verse or prose—serves any category outside itself, it is diminished by the ratio of how much it gives itself over to whatever category it exists for.

This may not be apparent to those who view poetry as bi-part:

1. A non-poetic subject

2. Poetic form

At first blush, this makes perfect sense: poetry exists in (poetic) language, and no modern believes there are ‘fit’ poetic subjects, or subjects more fit for poetry than others—love, death, friendship (remember those old poetry anthologies?) are categories that claim many poems only because they are broad categories, not because poems ought to be defined by them.

Today, in high-brow circles, we have poems about queers, blacks, and women.

(It wasn’t all that long ago that the categories were death, love and friendship.)

The categories, in all cases, diminish poetry because they are subjects apart from, subjects not necessary to, poetry.

For the poetry, and the poetry, alone, should, ideally, create the subject.

Ideally, poetic language alone manifests whatever subject comes into existence (at the same moment the poem comes into existence).

If the author is inspired by the subject—or the category—the poetry is merely the means to read about the pre-existing subject, a subject which exists outside of the poem, and thus, by definition, is the “non-poetic” part of the bi-part poem mentioned above.

The poetic genius, however, finds a subject through the poetic exertion, so that the two—the subject and the poetry—arrive as, and exist as, one.   Superficially, one could work backwards and extract a kind of “subject” from the poem.  The “subject,” however, remains (and here is what the New Critics attempted to articulate) unparaphrasable, without apparent authorial intention, without apparent design on the reader, and fully immersed and integrated in the poem qua poem.

The genius begins writing a poem on no subject.  The poetry elevates/determines not only the language, but the thought, of the poet, who composes a subject suitable only to poetry.

The subject proper is not pre-existing (nor is there any pre-existing category) or identified in any way as category or subject—the poetry itself creates a new subject.

The poet may use a germ of a story, like a bit of sand to grow a pearl, or some half-formed motif, or half-conceived method, but the point is for the poetry-making faculty of the poet to discover the subject entirely on its own.

The subject suitable only for the poetry itself is the only true subject for poetry.

There are poets who attempt this and fail: they will write a poem ostensibly about “their father,” for instance, but aware that modern poetry is not bound by old-fashioned anthology categories, their poem is not really about dear old dad.  All well and good.  But here’s what happens: the poet succeeds writing a poem without their dad as the actual subject—and yet, what is the subject?  The poet has not found the “only suitable subject for the poetry,” but merely avoided a subject altogether.

The true subject for the poetry will be one with the poetry—and it will still be a subject, just one newly emerging.  It will just not be a category or subject pre-approved by the editor of a specialist magazine.

This kind of poetry, in which the subject is created by the poetry itself, is rare, because it does take a genius to write it.

So you ask: what is the subject?

One can’t really say.  One has to read the poem and therein, within the poem as a whole, is the subject.

And that subject might be: death, love, friendship, woman, queer, black.  But it could be anything.

The subject is whatever the poem says it is.

It will be a subject not only of the poem, but of the poetry of the poem.

Prime examples of this kind of poetry are “Endymion” by Keats or “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley.

These are long works, major works.

Can a minor work illustrate our point?

We think not.

As an experiment, and just to stir up debate, we’ll see what our readers think of this poem composed by Marcus Bales.

Before we close: In this poem, is it true, and in this poem’s favor, that the poetry and the subject could not possibly exist without the other?

The Free-Verse Anti-Poetry Cartel

What kind of putz would diss the villanelle
And doesn’t like refrain lines interlaced?
The free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They want to kill all other forms as well;
Whatever’s not in prose is toxic waste
To putzes who would diss the villanelle.

They wish they had the power to compel
The rest of us to write in their debased
Old free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They think it makes them sexy to rebel
Against what great-great-great grand-dad embraced,
The putzes who would diss the villanelle.

But some of us prefer that we excel
At poems lineated prose replaced
With a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

A poet writes in meter, raises hell,
And spices up a language long disgraced
By putzes who would diss the villanelle
In a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

—Marcus Bales

JUDITH BUTLER: COUPLETS

Who, then, is this Judith Butler?
Google her face.  Never heard of her.

Holy crap she looks like a man.
Theory does what theory can.

The couplet is an interesting device
For this poem—reproducing like mice.

It ridicules thick-necked jocks,
Brainless oafs in team-striped socks.

It notices girls with little bird faces,
Thinks of all the physical disgraces.

These are its children, the swarm
Of humanity, smelly and warm.

They say attention to looks is unkind—
And yet the body is the mind.

As a teen I had terrible skin
Which inside and outside almost did me in.

A few pimples? How can you complain?
But you do.  Ugly face means doubtful brain.

But then you find that beauty is lurking
Behind the ugliness—a poem starts working.

How did poems rescue disgrace?
Why’d you write poetry? I had pimples on my face.

But a life has phases: the beautiful child
With perfect skin, and mild

Becomes the haunted adolescent,
Ugly, hairy, angry, prescient.

Keats and Byron were my Superman.
I hated Beats, Modern, Ash Can.

So let’s unleash our ire upon
Eclectics who hate beautiful Byron.

And no, we don’t have a reason why
Beyond a truth that lives in the eye.

For truth that asserts itself in the mind
Is a light in the cave of the blind.

Everything under the sun is queer
To the liberals who hate Shakespeare

Kind of the way the subject of race
Matters to liberals of nervous grace.

Lost in Dante’s midlife-crisis wood,
Academic theory would be understood.

Academics need to express change
Far away from the shooting range.

After Sputnik made the sciences champ,
The Humanities became chilly and damp.

No one took out a loan for college
Until Sputnik caused the race for knowledge.

But now loans go for art and writing.
Billions in debt for questionable lighting.

If gender is performance, the audience is slow.
Ask Judith Butler, she ought to know!

We really wonder about Queer Theory:
Did a look in the mirror cause the query?

Butler’s a rat in the maze of her text:
“I look like a man!  Okay, what’s next?”

If one has a face that looks like a witch,
Perhaps it’s time for a gender switch.

When procreate beauty falls in disgrace
We call it the revenge of the ugly face.

God grants ladies reproduction.
Beauty is for reproduction’s end,

Since beauty inspires reproduction,
Love is our death as well as our friend.

But if ugly things reproduce,
What is beauty’s use?

Fleeting pleasure, food, attention,
A nice review, a poem’s mention?

In the higher realms, pleasure and hope
Push away the misanthrope,

The scholar, the rule, the task, obscure
Lose sight of beauty and make us poor.

Beauty, of course, can live within:
In Butler’s heart and in her kin.

WHY HAS THE PUBLIC TURNED ITS BACK ON POETRY?

Why has the public turned its back on poetry?   That’s easy to answer.

We no longer know whether poetry is fiction or non-fiction.

Bird-watching involves watching birds.  Novels are elaborate stories.  Songs are emotional outbursts from the heart.  Biographies are real.  Science books are factual.  Poetry is…?

Poetry is unable to identify itself for a mass audience—that’s the problem in a nutshell.

The public’s lack of interest was made apparent to us again this week, as many bright, educated friends of ours told us they had never heard of Seamus Heaney.

The Modernists and experimentalists, by “opening up” the genre to anything and everything, have essentially made it disappear.

The wise understand that it’s impossible to be everything.

Everyone seems to understand this.

Except poets today.

Of course there’s a perverse handful (there always is) who love “poetry” precisely because of its ill-defined nature.

A certain ugly, noxious, personality thrives on the ill-defined—for obvious reasons.

There is a half-formed intellectual nature which associates all that is profound with a detailed vagueness; unable to perfect mental or material completion, they persist in championing the unformed as a  poorly disguised way to validate their own shortcomings.

The final irony, of course, is how were the Modernist gnats, whom the public ignores, able to kill all poetry for the public?  How was traditional, mainstream poetry killed by the ill-defined, if the ill-defined is nothing?

The answer, to put it simply, is that the Modernist gnats did not kill mainstream poetry, for Edna St. Vincent Millay was selling while Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were not, well into the 20th century.  In mid-20th century America, Frost was popular, Shakespeare everywhere, liberal arts colleges taught Keats and Shelley, high schools, Poe, Dickinson, and Milton, and songwriting was witty and intelligent.

But everyone knows that fine arts need to be cultivated; good taste doesn’t fall out of the sky.  Secondly, anyone who lives in America knows what a powerful tool advertising is, and thirdly, poetry has no material value; its value lives in the minds and souls and sensibilities of those who read it and teach it and share it.

Simple neglect, then, has killed the public’s love of poetry; we err by giving Pound, Williams, and the Modernist gnats too much credit; logically, that which the public ignores cannot influence the public.

If we, as observers and critics of poetry, notice a decline in poetic interest, and attribute it to “Modern” poetry, we persist in a vast error, granting a power and an influence to that which has no power, and no influence, even as we rightly condemn “Modern” poetry as poor, faulty, and even pernicious.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” had nothing to do with the loss of interest in “Paradise Lost.”  The latter died from simple neglect; from simple lack of cultivation.

The fact of someone’s fiction is a fact.  The museum is a fact, a reality, which holds art that is neither fact, nor reality.  Art does not exist unless it is cultivated, presented, taught, and framed in fact.  A university is a fact that curates and teaches poems.  The publisher is the fact that dreams the fiction; the fiction will not dream otherwise.  The fact of “The Red Wheel Barrow” has everything and nothing to do with the fact of “Paradise Lost.”  “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “Paradise Lost” are both poems that may be converted into fact, and if so, one “poem” invariably belongs to “the present,” the other to “the past,” and this fact will ensure that poetry “in the present” no longer exists.  “The Red Wheel Barrow” cannot kill poetry.  A textbook can.  Abstract painting cannot kill painting.  A museum can.

A wheel barrow and a splatter of paint are facts, not fiction.  Modern art streams away from fiction into fact—the fact of text book and museum its only home.

Facts depend on other facts; artistic unity is unheard of in the world of facts and science.  Poe called his “Eureka” a poem only because he strove to make, by way of the universe, unity factual; unity of expression was the ultimate poetic fact for Poe.

The minute a Keats introduces fact into a poem, he is lost.  To work up a fiction into a unity is the role of the poet, for Keats.  The reader who selects Keats is selecting fiction—fiction doing what it does best, assuming that unity is not only possible, but vital.  In his “long poems, Byron played (comically) with digression; inevitably violating unity, he laughed at himself, the convention of poetic unity a standard none could safely ignore.

Poetry was once fiction.  And because it was fiction, artistic unity was paramount.

These two—poetry as strictly fictional and poetry as an expression of artistic unity—is chiefly what has fallen into neglect as Modernism invaded the vacuum, a big nothing filling a black hole: the  great public yawn in poetry’s busy face.

The temptation of the fact has triumphed; witness America’s recent obsession with “trivia.”

Facts are important when it comes to roofs and sewer pipes, and obviously in non-fiction, but who thought it was a good thing for poetry?

Listening to the poet John Yau recently, we were struck by the purely autobiographical nature of the poetry; Yau told us about his mother and his father, etc  It was charming—as factual conversations sometimes are.  Facts are seductive.

The poet Marilyn Chin’s best known poem, “How I Got That Name,” informs us that she was named for Marilyn Monroe.  This is factually interesting.  Of course it is.  We embrace with our literary bones the seductive fact.

Loose facts are seductive.  But they never cohere into a poetic unity.

The Writing Workshop mantra, “Write what you know,” does not refer to what a writer “knows” philosophically or imaginatively, but simply what a writer knows factually about their own life.  But the whole point of poetry and imaginative literature is not to express what is already subjectively known (and enhanced, perhaps, by clever research) but to learn what we can know in the imaginative writing act itself.

Interesting information, dressed up as literature, is not the same thing as what Keats, who never told us about his ma and pa in a poem, built with his imagination.

KENNETH GOLDSMITH IS NOT A CONCEPTUALIST!

Kenneth-Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith: Not one concept in his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing?  Prose or poetry.

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

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

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

How could so many have been so wrong regarding Conceptualism?

We can easily blame it on two things:

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

And secondly, confusing art and science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drink all kinds of beer.

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

HOLY ROMANTICISM! KEATS TAKES ON WORDSWORTH!

USA!  USA!  John Keats has a major task before him: slay Wordsworth!

William Wordsworth has to be a favorite to win any Romanticism tourney—the serenity of nature betokening our highest spiritual aspirations is nowhere better expressed than in the work of Wordsworth.  In the little-known poem of his that follows,  we see a perfect example.

Wordsworth’s only drawback as Romantic top dog is that in the Poetry (Romanticism) of the Child, Wordsworth always sings as a grownup, always presents himself as a rather didactic, wise old priest, and so the very identity of the poet with the type of poetry itself is lacking.  Otherwise Wordsworth is supreme, even in his plain demeanor.

In battling for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2013 Poetry Tournament, John Keats is also represented by one of his minor poems, inspired by his brother (with family) settling in America.  While Wordsworth sang of England’s trees (all the more sacred because the British Empire sought to cut down trees from other lands to feed its manufacturing might) Keats sings in a Promethean vein in the style of William Blake.

What a battle it is!

A PROPHECY: TO GEORGE KEATS IN AMERICA

‘Tis the witching hour of night,
Orbed is the moon and bright,
And the stars they glisten, glisten,
Seeming with bright eyes to listen —
For what listen they?
For a song and for a charm,
See they glisten in alarm,
And the moon is waxing warm
To hear what I shall say.
Moon! keep wide thy golden ears —
Hearken, stars! and hearken, spheres! —
Hearken, thou eternal sky!
I sing an infant’s lullaby,
A pretty lullaby.
Listen, listen, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Though the rushes that will make
Its cradle still are in the lake —
Though the linen that will be
Its swathe, is on the cotton tree —
Though the woollen that will keep
It warm, is on the silly sheep —
Listen, starlight, listen, listen,
Glisten, glisten, glisten, glisten,
And hear my lullaby!
Child, I see thee! Child, I’ve found thee
Midst of the quiet all around thee!
And thy mother sweet is nigh thee!
But a Poet evermore!
See, see, the lyre, the lyre,
In a flame of fire,
Upon the little cradle’s top
Flaring, flaring, flaring,
Past the eyesight’s bearing,
Awake it from its sleep,
And see if it can keep
Its eyes upon the blaze —
Amaze, amaze!
It stares, it stares, it stares,
It dares what no one dares!
It lifts its little hand into the flame
Unharm’d, and on the strings
Paddles a little tune, and sings,
With dumb endeavour sweetly —
Bard art thou completely!
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
Bard art thou completely!
Sweetly with dumb endeavour,
A Poet now or never,
Little child
O’ th’ western wild,
A Poet now or never!

A PARSONAGE IN OXFORDSHIRE

Where holy ground begins, unhallowed ends,
Is marked by no distinguishable line;
The turf unites, the pathways intertwine;
And, wheresoe’er the stealing footstep tends,
Garden, and that domain where kindred, friends,
And neighbours rest together, here confound
Their several features, mingled like the sound
Of many waters, or as evening blends
With shady night. Soft airs, from shrub and flower,
Waft fragrant greetings to each silent grave;
And while those lofty poplars gently wave
Their tops, between them comes and goes a sky
Bright as the glimpses of eternity,
To saints accorded in their mortal hour.

Hard to pick this one.

Which iconic Romantic poet will advance?

The boy or the man?

It’s Keats, 91-89!!

CAN POETRY APP SUCCESSFULLY CALCULATE MODERN POEMS AS PROFESSIONAL OR AMATEUR?

The Poetry Assessor claims to “determine whether a poem has the characteristics of a professional poem or, alternatively, an amateur poem.”

We at Scarriet decided to have some fun with it.

This poem, which Tom Graves, one of the Scarriet editors, wrote in 5 seconds for The Poetry Assessor scored a positive (professional) score of 2.814.

The Stuff Used

The stuff used to make amends
Cannot be relied upon so easily
When a fire in the pit flames up
With weed-like flames that penetrate
The blue and smoky air.
The semblances die along horizon’s pitch
Which gathers up the birds in its cloudy arms.

Tom Graves

“A Poison Tree” by William Blake scored a negative (amateur) score of -2.67.

Shelley’s famous “Lament” (O world! O life! O time!) received a negative (amateur) score of -3.27.

The whole idea of trying to determine whether Shelley was a “professional” or an “amateur” is simply ludicrous on the face of it.  Yes, Shelley was an “amateur,” and yet many “professionals” have determined Shelley’s poetry to be highly meritorious.  So how can we even begin to say whether Shelley’s poetry is “amateur” or “professional?”

And, what if the “professional,” Shelley, wishes to “let his hair down” and express himself in a more “amateur” manner?  Isn’t this still the work of a “professional?”

The answer, of course, is: yes, yes, it is.

We understand the idea that the Poetry Assessor considers “amateur” those who write poetry of a bygone time, so the excellence of the poetry is not being calcuated so much as contemporaneity, or, to be fair to the Poetry Assessor, excellence within that contemporaneity.  But can past excellence be jettisoned so easily?  If the acknowledged excellence of past poems does not register with the Poetry Assessor, where is the proof that the Poetry Assessor is not simply registering contemporaneity alone?

The answer is: there is no proof.

The interest of any exercise such as this must lie with how parts are integrated by the machinery of calculation; parts are paramount in any calculating process, parts which can never be quite integrated into the whole of a human judgment, and this is understood instinctively.  Further, the miscalculation of a single part’s worth or lack thereof can impact the whole more than it should, and such is how the whole often betrays partial thinking.

We can work backwards in any process which relies on the mechanical integration of parts for success.  In other words, we can make partial changes in poems and see how the Poetry Assessor reacts.

We took the Keats sonnet, “When I Have Fears” and improved its score merely by replacing the word “love” with random substitutions which hurt the overall meaning of the poem.

The Keats poem receives the following score from The Poetry Assessor:  -2.34    A thoroughly amateur poem (of course!)

Now, when we remove the word “love” in line 12 and line 14 in Keats’ poem, and replace it with a random word, “sofa,” the poem’s score improves to -1.55.

A similar thing happens with “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell.  It receives a very low score: .056, but simply changing the first line from “I love to go out in late September” to “I go out in late September” the poem gets better: .493.

Professionals don’t love.

And if they do, we all know what they are!

This, however, should make us wonder: if the Poetry Assessor, with its contemporary ideas of poetry professionalism, thinks that the more love in poetry, the less professional it is, is the Poetry Assessor leaping to the conclusion that love in a poem is the same as sex in a poem?

Is the Poetry Assessor censoring love for moral reasons, or for professional reasons?

But we shouldn’t be wondering this. Our sort of reasoning is not allowed within professional circles, obviously.  The Poetry Assessor is merely censoring crude, vague feelings even as it rewards the virtue of concrete and specific imagery.  Right?

Galway Kinnell saying, “I love to go out…” is a perfect example of this.  If the poet describes his “going out” in terms that  makes the reader understand its enjoyment for the poet, saying “I love” is superfluous; it’s empty advertisement.

But what if Kinnell wants the assonance of “love” matching “go out…among…fat, over-ripe black…blackberries…”?

Or what if Kinnell wants his “love” to contrast with the darker material the poem gets into later on and the final hint of melancholy in “late September…” (which is how the poem ends)?

Since there is a near-infinite number of ways a poem can apply “love” to a near-infinite number of shades of meaning and sound-meaning, though it might be generally true that “love” as a word is very high on the ‘cliched/empty feeling’ scale, no mechanical assessor can judge a poem based on the generalized integration of generalized partialities.

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY DANCES WITH ALEXANDER POPE

The woman is quicker to be annoyed by the slightest thing and this is a great advantage when it comes to composing poetry. The man will sweep problems under the rug or soothe all worry by announcing he will take care of it (no he won’t) or he will invent God to fix everything. Edna Millay laments death with eyes wide open like no one else.

To read Millay is like opening a door onto Great Poetry of the Past. One almost suspects it is a trick, she is so good. She is that good, for she is not writing in the Past but in her present, which to us is a default past only and no more the past than this moment is. If we read it as the past, we are confusing the great and the past, which have nothing to do with each other and are, in fact, opposites, since what is great is eternal and has no past.

AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE–Edna Millay

And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.

The whole thrust of Millay’s poem is Do you see how unfair this is?  Others may shrug in the face of death but these others are not poets—since a shrug won’t write many poems.

Millay isn’t trying to cleverly rationalize the problem of death away: she chooses to focus on two things: death and praise of the beloved who must die and the praise is so beautifully done that it makes Millay’s annoyance with death beautiful–if that is possible.

It doesn’t take Millay long to say what she needs to say, precisely because there is no solution to the problem and so the short lyric form is ideal for her in this case (as it is for her generally), since neither complaint nor beauty can work rhetorically for very long, and Millay is more than up to the template’s task, as she makes every line beautiful.

This is why Millay is such an exceptional poet. Poets can do many things, but few can make every line beautiful–and we use the word, “beautiful,” in the profoundest sense possible–we don’t mean pretty or comely or abstract, since Millay’s topic–death–is the most serious topic there is.

Beauty is not found on the highway.  There are very specific reasons for beauty, but this explanation of Millay’s poem need not diminish her, since poetry is not found on the highway, either.  ‘Highway poets’ may object.  Let them. (Millay was abused in print by Pound’s influential clique.) Millay needs no apology.

Alexander Pope belongs to that poetic tradition in which a certain amount of critical abuse reigns in the public arena—healthy and dangerous for the individuals involved (like mountain trekking)—but healthy, we think, for Letters in general. Scarriet believes in Criticism, and if Criticism is good, then Scarriet’s Poetry March Madness Tournament is good. Let the whole chorus sing out-loud in harmony.

We are sad there has to be a loser here.  Millay is 4th seeded in the West, and Pope, not thought of as a ‘Romantic,’ is only seeded 13th.  Born in the 17th century, Pope’s lyric, “Ode On Solitude” out-Wordsworths Wordsworth.  The pyramidal stanza, which reminds us of Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” is especially forceful:

ODE ON SOLITUDE–Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

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

These poems are delicious compliments to each other; not surprisingly, the game has gone into overtime, as both teams refuse to lose, clawing at each other, embracing each other like lovers, exhausted, the battle refusing to end.

Finally, it’s over: Millay 106, Pope 105

THE WEST, THE WEST…JOHNNY DRYDEN V. DYLAN THOMAS, AND YEATS BATTLES TENNYSON

A funny thing happens when poems gather for battle: the superficial aspects of song take on a new prominence; the mind cannot take in all the “nuances” of “poetry,” and so, as poems eager for a crown press upon us in the public tumult, where emotional cries punctuate the slopes of ideas, the surface-joys of music become our pleasure, almost as if we were at home with a phonograph, or at a rowdy concert, letting our minds go…

Oh if you can just get past JohnJohnny” Dryden’s “Nature underneath a heap/Of jarring atoms lay,/And could not heave her head,” knowing Nature cannot heave her head because the world has not yet arisen, and all the pre-world atoms are still in chaos…if you can not worry this idea too much, musically you’ll be better off…

To hell with Ezra Pound, already, and his grumbly precepts against the full-on joys of music.

Dryden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” tickles our senses like a brass band:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries “Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!”

The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion
For the fair disdainful dame.

But oh! what art can teach,
What human voice can reach
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race,
And trees uprooted left their place
Sequacious of the lyre:
But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her Organ vocal breath was given
An Angel heard, and straight appeared –
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great creator’s praise
To all the blessed above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Ta Da!!

Of course there is a philosophy here, but it’s such a deep one, it’s shallow: music is the cause and effect of both the world, and the world beyond.  Who cannot groove to this?  “More than dead” is how Dryden describes the cold universe before the world was made, and up the world arises—sweeter and more miraculous than any zombie movie.  Can you dig it, baby?

Dylan Thomas, the favored seed in this Western Bracket contest with Dryden, presents what has to be experienced by the crowd in the Scarriet Madness arena as music, and it creeps upon us with the same magic in the same manner that Mr. Dryden’s did:

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Dylan Thomas was a glorious, and yet a lazy, sloppy poet—he found gold with

Though lovers be lost love shall not
And Death shall have no dominion.

But we wish he had worked on “Dominion” more—even made more stanzas, because the template is so admirable; look how the third and final stanza droops with vague talk of “gulls” and “daisies”—to finish a magnificent poem so poorly!  What was Dylan thinking?  Speak the first two stanzas aloud to yourself and it will bring tears, and then stumble over the third, ruining the climax…”No more gulls cry at their ears”???

Let’s move quickly to the second contest, Marla Muse, recovered from your fainting spell…

Marla Muse (a little wearily): Thank you, Tom.

You’re welcome, Marla.  I like your green dress.

William Butler Yeats is a poet the Official modernists do not know what to do with, because Yeats—does not rhyme with Keats—sang like the Old Romantics, or at least, superficially, he did…if you really listen, Yeats is close to a doggerelist when compared to Shelley and Keats…but then analysis of any kind is barred when it comes to authors like Yeats, covered as they are with the whole Irish thing, exploited by every hypocrite that leaves his native land to make it big in London.  One simply can’t be reasonable, honest, or discerning inside that green, blathering cloud.

But this poem of Yeats’ is uncannily beautiful—everything seems right.  It probably is Yeats’ best poem, even though it lacks a lot of the fussy symbolism and foreboding pomposity of his ‘major’ poems, and it merely copies Wordsworth.  But who cares?  To read this poem is to fall under a sweet and delicate spell, each and every time.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is something about the confidence of that first line: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,” which lures one in…

And Yeats’ opponent today—Tennyson!!   Once that name—Tennyson—was equated with poetry itselfBut like Longfellow, hairy, tobacco-stained, Tennyson doesn’t thrive in post-modernity’s placid, plastic glare. Lord Tennyson, reputed as that stuffy, imperialist, Victorian, Englishman, falters, fades in the gloaming by the moat…  The memory of Lord Alfred Tennyson in poetic circles seems to moulder even as the memory of William Butler Yeats, the Irish mystic, flies on, steadily…

But now the music begins, the music arrives in the dark of our subjectivity…  Listen!  Here is the song that surely made young Emily Dickinson fear for her soul…but it freed her, for what self-pity was allowed her, the poor recluse, after this!

MARIANA—Tennyson

WITH blackest moss the flower-pots
    Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
    That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
    Unlifted was the clinking latch;
    Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
    Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
    Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
    When thickest dark did trance the sky,
    She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
    Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
    From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
    In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
    Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
        She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
    A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
    The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
    All silver-green with gnarled bark:
    For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
    And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
    She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
    And wild winds bound within their cell,
    The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
        She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
    The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
    Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
    Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
    Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call’d her from without.
        She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
            He cometh not,’ she said;
        She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
            I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
    The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
    The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
    When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
    Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
        Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
            He will not come,’ she said;
        She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
            O God, that I were dead!’

This poem, with its never-ending, melancholy gloom, reaches a peak of that kind of sad expression which seems fantastical, in the way Tennyson expresses it, but which actually is ordinary and wraps itself around us all.

“Mariana” had to be written, so that Victorianism could end, and Modernism could begin. Tennyson brought us to the top of the old heights, so the new low ground could be made ready.

But will such music ever end?

Who prevails, in the end, in the very end, the Yeats, or the Tennyson?

In our action today, we see Dryden triumph over Thomas, 72-69.

And here, in the corner of the stadium, Tennyson weeps, for by a score of 80-79, Yeats has won.

‘WE ARE CHEMICAL THROUGH AND THROUGH” SOUTH BRACKET ACTION (PLUS NORTH RESULTS)

Intoxication in Romanticism is joyful or insightful, not depressing as in this Degas painting 

Moving to Romantic Poetry Madness South action, Keats and his Nightingale, no. 1 seed, match up against Philip Nikolayev, 16th seed, and his poem, “Litmus Test.”

Nikolayev’s poem ends with an homage to a potential mate: “You had changed my chemical composition forever,” after she rescues the poet with attention and hot soup after the poet has a scary LSD debauch before a Saturday morning lecture, which he barely makes: “I took faithful notes diagonally across my notebook (which was unliftable).”  The “Litmus Test” narrator desperately has to pee in his folly at the party through most of the poem, and has typically stoned thoughts: “I realized that we are chemical through and through, so determinate and so chemical…” before crashing in his student pad: “I stepped across some literature to my solitary bed…”

Nikolayev evokes a marvelous Pushkin universe of love, philosophy, young manhood, and intoxication—and Nikolayev’s poem grabs us with the classic college party invitation—-the one that always promises more than it delivers: “my buddy insisted sangria, perfect chance to chat up Jessica and Jake, so we went at midnight.”

John “To cease upon the midnight with no pain” Keats seems to be talking about a party, too: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…” and the desire to get wasted: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen… but Keats, like the “Litmus Test” narrator, rejects wine and LSD (“I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards”).  Keats isn’t after hot soup and a nice girlfriend; Keats desires to fly with poetry—which is the performance and which is the intoxication, and here is the genius of Keats’ famous poem.

“Litmus Test” is about something; “Ode to a Nightingale” is the something.

Plath, the no. 2 seed, puts her “Lady Lazarus” against the oldest poem in the tournament, Poseidippus’ “Dorchia,” from 300 B.C.

Here is the Poseidippus in this beautiful translation by Edward Arlington Robinson:

DORCHIA

So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

The “dust” of “Dorchia” is replaced in the Plath with “ash,” as memorium in the ancient poem is transformed in its 20th century equivalent.  Plath’s horror throws down against the placid Greek!  What a contest!

Marla Muse: Tom, I am forever amazed at how every poem in these Scarriet tournaments has a similar theme to its opponent—how does Scarriet do it?  First, we have Keats’ and Nikolayev’s theme of intoxication; then Poseidippus and Plath with their “dust” and “ash,” and now look at this one: Petrarch v. Bishop.

It’s a miracle; that’s all I can say.  It’s because Scarriet is the greatest poetry site and the Muses look upon us kindly.

Yes, Marla, the Petrarch advises to leave off hunting the deer, “since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” while the Bishop says, “I caught a tremendous fish…and I let the fish go.”

WHOSE LIST TO HUNT–Petrarch (trans. Wyatt)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind;
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the Deer: but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain:
And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

The Petrarch and the Bishop are saying the same thing, but there is something sweetly mysterious and deathly serious about the Petrarch poem which moves us to a greater degree.

And for the final South battle today, Baudelaire (with translation help from Richard Wilbur) wars with Wordsworth:

L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE—BAUDELAIRE (trans Wilbur)

My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Furniture that wears
The lustre of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber,
Flowers of rarest bloom
Proffering their perfume
Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber;
Gold ceilings would there be,
Mirrors deep as the sea,
The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung–
Nothing but should address
The soul’s loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Both Baudelaire and Wordsworth address a “child” in a cosmic, comforting landscape, the Frenchman painting more ambitiously fantastical scenery, the Englishman tempering his paean with slightly more realism—though both poems express exquisite transcendent power.

SONNET–WORDSWORTH

IT is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
   The holy time is quiet as a Nun
   Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
   Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
   And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder–everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
   If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
   Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
   And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine,
   God being with thee when we know it not.

The winners are:

Wordsworth 59  Baudelaire 51

Petrarch 68 Bishop 60

Plath 80 Poseidippus 78

Keats 90 Nikolayev 84

Philip Nikolayev made it a very close game against the no. 1 Seed, John Keats!

The North Bracket is now down to 8 poets:

Goethe (d. Justice)
Frost (d. Campion)
Catullus (d. Rimbaud)
Larkin (d. Traherne)
Suckling (d. Ashbery)
Burns (d. Auden)
Herrick (d. Roethke)
Blake (d. Stevens)

THE 2013 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS BRACKETS!!

Here they are!!

Competition will start immediately!

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

Let the Road to the Final Four begin!!

ROMANTICISM: OLD AND NEW

THE NORTH

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

THE SOUTH

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

THE WEST

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

THE EAST

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

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!

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS RON SILLIMAN SANE?

The history of poetry is never the history of the best poems, but rather the history of change in poetry.  —Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman took a break from his cutting and pasting video links on his no-comments-allowed blog, recently, to explain his love for Lyn Hejinian’s new book of poems.  The paean reached heights like this:

When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.

Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So– the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:

Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story
As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’
If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say
They would resemble unwanted sympathy

They would not be like holes in a hallway

This poem, pulled at random from page 196, demonstrates how large portions of this volume proceed – lines here function as sentence equivalents, there is a story & an expository voice that is cheerful & just a little supercilious, a tone that may invoke certain characters in novels, indeed that may invoke the novel itself. But the focus here lies not on sentences so much as on the character of the adjectival as a role of language & perception, and of the underlying problem of comparison. The term that announces this is not about the pickpocket’s nor even the policeman – “robust” as he may be – but the characterization of the listeners (plural) as “my dear family” (singular).

Every line/sentence here invokes at least one problematic comparison – the wavering focus between fictive listener and factual reader in the first line is just the opening ploy (unless of course one counts that disparity between singular noun family and multiple listeners). The characterization “dear” is in this sense the very opposite of what it appears to be: ceremonial rhetoric with little real content. The second line has at least 4 such moments of characterization, five if we begin to delve into the problem of naming characters pickpockets. First there is number, then the policeman identified as robust (meaning what? comically rotund? vigorously muscular?), then a denial that these pickpockets are encumbered (one of three key terms repeated in the four lines of the story), finally a representation of this encumbrance as suspiciously. Two terms in the sentence represent representation itself –denying, suggestions – both of which imply a gap between language & the thing itself.

At this moment, the entire tenor of the poem shifts as tho it were on an axis: the three final lines invoke (without quite being) anaphor, a sequence of not-quite-parallels that give the poem a strong formal flourish as it concludes. At one level there is the humor of the clash between the denial that they would resemble kids with a lot to say just as they begin to say a lot. At a second, there is a third characterization of representation – insist – followed by the trio of they would statements.

Each statement is about resemblance is some very odd way. Kids with a lot to say unwanted sympathy holes in a hallway. Except that, grammatically, formally, they do. It’s worth considering further what each of these complex representations invokes, holes in a hallway for example – are we talking doors and windows, pocking in acoustic tile, or something stranger even?

This description barely scratches all that is going on in this little poem. What if I were to base my analysis on the meaning of that very first verb, profit? An entire discourse concerning acquisition, ownership & value looms suddenly into view. And who precisely is that speaker? It hardly sounds like the Lyn Hejinian whom I’ve known for nearly 40 years.

Here the advantage of verse formatting starts to become evident: the use of lines here as sentence equivalents is hardly incidental to the argument of the poem. They foreground the disjunct angles of the three pseudo-parallels at the end, for example, and highlight the excessiveness of that second line.

And there are over 300 other pages at least as complex & condensed as this. Often, as in the term dear in the first line, Hejinian employs a single word to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming. Reading Eyes is a lot like my imagination of standing before the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Alps, which are simply large & majestic, Eyes is also deep. Vertigo is a distinct readerly risk and I recommend going through the book slowly. If you finish it in less than six months, you’re not giving it the attention it deserves. So many of these poems don’t start to yield their secrets until the second, third or fourth readings. I found myself going over facing pages over & over – it really seems to be the best way to proceed.

Language is eyes, as somebody once claimed (invoking not only Shakespeare, but a particular character, and not just any, but one in theatrical guise, one who dreams). Might I note that if one searches Google for “bottom Shakespeare Hejinian” (sans quotation marks), one will find 19,000 responses, just 400 less than a parallel search that switches out Hejinian’s name for he-who-whose-literary-executor-shall-not-be-named? In this sense, Hejinian’s project is part of that particular American tradition that begins with Moby-Dick.

For Silliman, the Hejinian poem “yields remarkable insights” into “language, perception & the underlying problem of comparison.” The “Hejinian employs a single word [dear] to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming.”

We simply don’t believe this, and are certain no one else does either, not even Silliman. There is nothing insightful or linguistically problematic about  a policeman (robust, or not) viewing “pickpockets” as “suspiciously encumbered.” The “gap between language and the thing itself” found in the words “denying” and “suggestions” is of no interest. Silliman’s straining after significance resembles a small time party host embarrassing himself with a big speech on small beer.  “The scale here is vast” could only embarrass the host. The whispering among the invited guests need not be repeated. We can only assume Silliman likes Hejinian—in a kind of grade school crush, maybe?

Avant-garde poetry, like modern art, can be summed up in one word: Abstract.

In this one word lies the pseudo-science of the whole enterprise—for whatever attempts to be aesthetically abstract ends up being  particular, not abstract, the word merely adding an air of mystery to what is otherwise mundane. Abstract art, which ostensibly explores color, presents, in reality, the colored.  It is art that is anything but abstract. Color which vanishes in non-abstract depiction reaches what might be called abstraction.  So-called “Abstract Art” is not abstract.  Modern art cannot escape the same law which applies to everything else: the abstract cannot exist in an aesthetic vacuum, cannot exist purely.

Silliman searches for qualitative traces of poetry in Hejinian’s poem—allowing the (universal) banality of the latter to confirm the (abstract) discovery of the former.

The object takes on a doubled interest seen through the pseudo-abstract lens.  Aesthetics, which, by its very nature, grounds the flight of the false, is vulnerable to this craven, pedagogical exploitation.

Listen how lapsed poet Rob Holland, after taking a U. Penn on-line ModPo course, thrills to the “abstract” of the new poetry:

I took the course on a whim after seeing it promoted somewhere online, having been out of academia for nearly 40 years, since I finished graduate school (in English) at Emory in 1975. The only previous online “education” I had had was work-related training videos and PowerPoint sequences, so my expectations were really low. What were they going to teach, and more importantly, how were they going to teach it? I got my first clue when I started following the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, on Twitter. He was talking about Gertrude Stein. Did Gertrude Stein write poetry? Apparently, yes. And what poetry it turned out to be!

This was the beginning of what became one of the greatest intellectual and emotional adventures of my life. That sounds a little overblown, I know. I have a great marriage, children, grandchildren in increasing numbers. I have a satisfying photography hobby, and run several websites on the side. But ModPo broke something open in me that had been locked tight in a chrysalis for decades. I wrote and published poetry in small magazines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and studied with Charles Wright and Donald Justice. Eventually, though, I fell silent, both from the pressures of family life and from my inability to imagine my way out of the traps of self-expression. I grew up in the era of Lowell and Plath; confession was a synonym for poetry. The Beats, whom I admired, were also at their core romantic, self-absorbed, and often sentimental. I tired of the artistic ego, and the felt conviction that in order to write poetry I had to manifest one. Besides, what I was writing was old-fashioned, traditional, out of step. So I stopped. For twenty-five years.

Then ModPo ambushed me. It was not, as I expected it might be, a rehash of the old chestnuts of modernism (Eliot, Stevens) or a revisit to the poets of my coming of age. Instead it pointed at the heart of radical experimentation and rebellion against the poet as sage, myth-maker, prophet, tortured soul. Its selection of poets was designed to show a way, multiple ways, of using language for art largely in the absence of direct self-expression. Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers? This probably sounds dry to someone who has not experienced ModPo, but the introduction of this simple idea broke down all the barriers that had built up in me, and gave me permission to not worry about poetic fashion, or even whether what I was writing was “good,” “bad,” or even poetry. Let somebody else decide that, it said. Just write.

Holland knows he sounds “overblown.”  It is just as “overblown” as Silliman’s praise of Hejinian.  What’s going on here?  Holland naively asks: “Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers?”  These leaps into the “overblown” we suspect are due to an exaggeration of abstraction’s powers.  The avant-garde artist abstracts himself from reality (good and bad, beautiful and ugly). The “overblown” of Silliman and Holland is the natural result.

With MOMA’s new exhibit, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” it’s time we take a hard look at the concept which blocks our escape from curious Modernism each way we turn: the Abstract.

Of course no one “invented” abstraction in 1910, but since abstraction implies the scientific and the pedagogical, the avant-garde p.r. department will naturally run with the (misunderstood) term, ‘the abstract,’ in order to puff themselves up.

To abstract from any reality, there must be coherence and continuity present.  But not just in the universal sense; coherence and continuity must also exist in the found  example—abstraction must occur on both levels—specifically as well as universally, for how can consistency be perceived abstractly?  Things are necessary with which to be consistent.

With abstraction, then, the artist can steal reality’s coat but not reality’s soul. The specific will always betray itself as such, no matter how abstract we attempt to be. We wish to buy abstraction with specificity, but the deal always collapses; there is not sufficient material to purchase priceless abstraction: the abstraction can only be perceived in the exchange which fails and has to be called off, that is, in the specificity brought to the table in the failed attempt.  The abstract painter abstracts the essence of primary color with shapes of such, but the failure matches Faust’s dream of Helen.

Specificity cannot help but be beautiful or ugly, no matter what abstract property happens to be manifested through the shape of the specificity.

And the beautiful or ugly manifestation always occurs not through the specificity, but through the shape (limit) of the specificity—and here we see abstraction eclipsed not only by specificity, but by itself (the shape of the specificity).

We understand the philosophical catnip in the attempt to find consistency in what is not consistent—Silliman nobly seeking coherence and consistency in a poem by Hejinian or Ashbery; these kinds of poems are sufficiently abstract for some (“Just write,” don ‘t worry if it’s “good” or “bad”).

But our failure to be truly abstract (coherently and consistently) is not an abstract failure—it is real and final and complete; no partial victory is possible; the Ashbery poem succeeds only in our minds, minds that must give up, replicating the deal (specificity buying abstraction) which collapses—thus enjoying an Ashbery poem is only to unconsciously scratch an itch, to rub up against the sad truth that abstraction is fated to fail and is an utterly useless path, a dead-end, a suicidal errand, and thus to “enjoy an Ashbery poem,” the reader happily gives up, surrendering to specificity’s power; the Ashbery effect and the Ashbery process is a surrendering to the complete absence of abstraction.

The Negative Capability of Keats should not be confused with Ashbery’s freedom; the former limits the scope of poetry precisely because of the problem outlined above; Keats, and the Romantics generally, seek examples in nature which already possess ideal qualities.

The freedom of the Modernist, however, understood by its obsession with “the Abstract,” errs  in terminology, understanding, and  judgement, and the ultimate result is ugliness and unhappiness—which the avant-garde unfortunately accepts.  The beloved is lost to them.

RASULA AND CHASAR: HEAD BUTT OVER THE POETRY GLUT

BILLY COLLINS AND MARIE HOWE IN SWEET SIXTEEN SMACKDOWN!!We already have a glut of this ‘poetry glut’ nonsense and “Glut Reactions,”  a conversation between two author/professors, Jed Rasula and Mike Chasar in the Boston Review, highlights its nonsensical nature nicely. As in Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” the actual letter goes unread—the subject, poetry, isn’t touched, as Rasula and Chasar talk past each other in a verbose, socio-economic chest-beating act of who can sound more anti-capitalist.

Henry Gould, in the first comment to the on-line “Glut Reactions,” (The “Comments” are always the saving grace of these on-line articles: take note, Blog Harriet, Silliman.) asks: “What about aesthetics?”  You forgot about what’s important, fellas. The second comment (poet Bill Knott) blows Chasar and Rasula out of the water in its anti-capitalist paranoia, so that even a capitalist could applaud Knott’s audacity:

Too many poets?  Compared to what?  There’s too many marines, bomber pilots, priests, politicians, police, too many millionaires and billionaires. Po-Biz authorities who complain about too many poets [are making] subliminal petitions directed at the police-state officials, the FBI CIA National Guard et al, urging those agencies to raise their yearly quotas for the murder of poets.

Knott’s comment is quickly praised in a comment by aesthete Joan HoulihanKnott has stolen the show.

Now of course there is a poetry glut in the sense that we no longer have time to read all the poetry being written—it is no doubt the fact that more poetry was written yesterday than we should read in a lifetime—notice we say should, a word of more significance than the more factual can.

Humans are physically limited—what else is new? We can’t picnic on Jupiter and we can’t read every poem—so what? Neither can we blink our eyes and make Jupiter or capitalism or John Keats go away, no matter how much we don’t like these things.

John Keats is not only important because he’s good; he’s important because he’s a standard, and if a ‘poetry glut’ is a bad thing, it’s only because 1) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are crap next to Keats.

Some (Chasar, Rasula) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 2) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are as good as Keats.

Still others (Burt, Perloff) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 3) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates make Keats look like crap.

These are the three aesthetic positions which clarify where one stands in the glut debate.

The loss of standard is acute. 

Look at how Chasar and Rasula can’t agree: Rasula (classic example of myopic-doctrinaire-politically-correct-lefty-who-can’t-get-laid) posits long works (Silliman, Waldman, Hejinian, Notley) as a standard. Chasar (who seems a little sexier) greets Rasula’s suggestion of a standard with a yawn in his face: “I don’t have a lot of patience for the types of long texts you mention [Chasar writes] so I’m not the best person to ask.” (Take your Hejinian long poem and shove it.)

Both share buzz-words—“capitalism’s floating signifier,” “anthology wars,” “Derrida,” “Nietzsche,” “commodity,” “escalating pattern of consumption,” “binaries,” “prizes,” “elitism,” “consideration v. use”—but they can’t do anything but quarrel in the murk of their 1970s, socio-political rhetoric. 

Rasula, at the end of the conversation:

What’s simmering under our exchange is the tension between poetry as something approachable, welcoming multitudes, and poetry in [Laura] Riding’s sense as “the most ambitious act of the mind,” which clearly invites charges of elitism.

But it’s not even a good fight. 

The “tension” Rasula refers to doesn’t really exist, because the two men are lost in the same Marxist muck. 

Even Marx himself didn’t hate capitalism as much as these guys.

Rasula’s Adorno-ism, “flagrant uselessness of artworks as a mote in the eye of global capitalism,” which is justification for Rasula’s elite “standard” of long, tedious (some would say unreadable) poems, is countered by Chasar’s “democractic” : “Many elements of popular or vernacular culture value the uselessness, apparent uselessness, or non-instrumentality of things.”

Both Rasula and Chasar are going to punish capitalism with the useless—just in different ways.  It’s all about subverting some old-fashioned idea of capitalism. Rasula wants to kill capitalism with long, boring poems that no one reads; Chasar thinks we can kill capitalism with Knock! Knock! jokes.

It’s the cartoonish totem of capitalism which these two (and so many professors like them) dance naked around which finally renders their exchange insignificant.

Rasula, like Seth Abrahmson, despite all his research, is blind to the real circumstances of the reactionary Modernists/New Critics creation of the Program Era.  He makes the occasional good point, but doesn’t connect it to anything; he just keeps peeling the Marxist onion.

Rasula and Chasar don’t get it: the “anthology wars” was a friendly competition between Ivy-Leaguers: Creeley and Ashbery were Harvard and Ginsberg was Columbia.  The real ‘War’ of the 20th century was Modernism against Everthing Else; it was Pound against Poe.

Chasar writes at one point: “Capitalism 1, Poetry 0.”

No.

Obsession with Capitalism 1, Chasar and Rasula 0.

WHAT IS POETRY, ANYWAY?

The way to see a star is to attend to its ray.

We may be loved for our ray–our poetry, for instance–and not our star–our physique and face.

The civilized cultivates the ray.

So what is poetry? What is poetry’s ray? A ray can say a lot of different things as we analyze its spectrum.

In this spirit, observe this comparison, which has nothing to do with poetry, per se (star) but illustrates a truth about poetry (ray).

The newest airplane will be better than an airplane made fifty years ago.

The newest poem will most likely not be better than a poem made two thousand years ago.

Do we need to go further, and ask why recent airplanes improve in ways that recent poems do not?  Is it because airplanes are practical objects and poems are not?  Or, that airplanes have a measurable practical use and poems do not? 

It is good to realize that we perhaps err in pursuing this line of reasoning, for it takes us away from the ray and back to the star: the poem as object.  To compare the physical poem to the physical airplane would make us blind, would wreck ourselves upon a star.  The critic moth would die in the poem’s flame.

Can we assume poems serve no practical use?  No, we cannot.

But can we still ask the question: are poems practical—but unable to improve, or: do they not improve—precisely because they are not practical?  Since airplanes do improve, are old airplanes worthless in a way that old poems are not?  To those interested in airplanes, old airplanes do have value, just as old poems interest those who are interested in poetry; but old poems can do the work of new poems, and perhaps even better, but we cannot say this of old airplanes.

Is the practicality of something its ray?

But if the poem is not practical, does that mean it has no ray for the poem-obsessed critic; if every star has a ray, what is the poem’s ray?  Can we say the poem’s impracticality is its ray?   That is, is its ray its essential difference from airplanes?

How do we know the airplane improves?  We need to place the airplane of yesterday beside the airplane of today. Without this comparison, we could never comprehend from outside the improvement itself, and without building on the old model, the newer model could not improve.

Since poetry does not improve, is it necessary to compare new and old poems? 

It is necessary to build on old models if we are building airplanes, since we build new airplanes for practical improvements, guided by that reality; comparing old and new poems only shows us the truth that poems do not improve. 

In order to be informed of this fact—that poems do not improve—we compare old and new poems—and this does seem to be an important truth about poetry that we would be foolish to ignore. Since gaining an understanding of improvement is only possible by comparing old and new models, poems still need to be compared, in hopes that one day we will notice improvement.  So the critic compares old and new—just as the airplane builder does—only the airplane builder builds towards a different, practical result; the airplane builder receives “good news,” while the critic keeps getting “bad news;” the result for poetry up to the present time revealing that new models are not improving.

A poem becomes a poem when “it works,” to steal a phrase from the New Critics, and the poet surely is aware when the poem has gone from beginning to completion, as an object—or is this vanity?  Is the truth really that we are never sure the poem flies in someone else’s judgment—even if they praise it?  Words are elusive; even when someone hears our words and obeys, the circumstances, not the words, finally contribute to the obedient result.  The airplane builder, however, can measure the speed of an airplane, and be certain the airplane has been improved upon. 

Even on the micro-level, then, of poet and his poem-object (his “star”) the “ray,” (truth) shines forth: the poem’s worth is mysterious.

But to return to the examination of poetry’s ray; we might go so far as to state it thusly: the poem does have a practical use, and poets over time are incompetent, or: poems simply have no practical use.

Might something have a practical use, be manufactured, and yet never improve? 

But how is this possible?  Even something as simple as a ladder can be improved upon.

Or, does poetry improve, but in such a manner that steady, visible improvements over time do not occur?

Or is it possible that poetry is large and complex enough, or belongs to something so large and complex, that over time it changes what it is, so that its practical character changes? 

Human communication is practical, but its practicality is ubiquitous and vast, such that improvement is not in its nature—in order to belong across so many fields to so many, the many interacting with the many cannot suffer itself to improve as a practical reality.

If poetry belongs to the great river of human communication in a manner that is not defined, we would expect its fate to be the same as language—improvement over time simply doesn’t happen, in the way we can observe the airplane improve during a relatively brief window of time.

Poetry does not improve, and would seem to belong to the other arts in this regard, painting and music, unless we think of a film as painting (or photography) improved.

Another “ray” observation:  Painting, music and poetry can vary widely in terms of excellence and accomplishment; it is a mystery how broad differences can exist between aesthetic objects—yet improvement over time never occurs.

Is poetry like human beauty, then?  Beautiful creatures have always existed, but the quality of beauty itself never increases.  Beautiful faces have certain measurements, but beauty itself cannot be measured; aesthetics contains the substance of measure, but deflects measured results.

If we give up on the star (unknown) but study the ray (known, but indirectly) we find ourselves in accord with the following: Plato, the ancient Athenian, and the modern Athenians, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Edgar Poe.

THE OLD ROMANTICS WHOM THE MODERNS DESPISE

The old Romantics whom the Moderns despise
Operate clandestinely in our skies,
Pray to Apollo, lie in long grass,
The happiest knights, beloved of a lass
Tender, smiling, and virtuous.
They care not if they use words
“Moony” and “bloomy.”
If Keats is not, why should you be gloomy?

Keats cannot be read all day.
His gemmy joy goes a long way,
But stay awhile in Keats’ thrall—
Next to Keats, Wallace Stevens is a goof-ball.
Hear Keats’ music and be content—
Otherwise an ass in your modern apartment.

True, not everyone can appreciate Keats,
They open their lips for lower treats;
They hunger and suffer to amuse
The devil who reads the news.
Not every lad can swoon, rarefied,
Or have I lied?

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

First, the List:

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

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

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

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

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

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

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

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

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

“YOU WHO HEAR THE SOUND, IN SCATTERED RHYMES”

Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.



NEW FORMALISM’S FAILURE

Expansionist Poetry is the last gasp of the New Formalism, a late 20th movement that opposed other genres of modern poetry and gave voice to innumerable poets and readers who thought: Damn this pretentious, self-absorbed, free verse prose passed off as poetry! Enough, already!

The Expansionist Poetry produced a few anthologies, books, and conferences, got some attention, but it was largely a flop.  Why?

The desire to resurrect the craft of poetry was admirable, but something went terribly wrong: the New Formalists never heeded the examples of the greatest Formalists in the modern era: Keats, Byron, Shelley, and Poe, but instead went in a Modernist direction.

The New Formalists let life use poetry rather than the other way around.

One shouldn’t throw money out the window; one shouldn’t let the winds of relevance blow what has no relevance around.

Let me take a moment to play the devil’s advocate: why shouldn’t we expand poetry’s range of interest? How can this hurt? At the very least, it challenges the poet and pulls in more readers.  Scarriet, aren’t you being dogmatic on this issue? Poetry shouldn’t be just a hook to hang information on, true, but why limit subject matter?

Now that we’ve given voice to the inevitable objection by fans of Expansionist Poetry, let us continue:

John Keats wrote a playful sonnet (that doesn’t get much attention) in which he named things he didn’t like: an empty coffee pot at midnight with the Muse anxious to labor, is perhaps the most delightful biographical item on the list; “a greasy tear dropped on a novel,” is another interesting one, but this one is for the Modernist, Expansionist, New Formalists: Keats ends his  sonnet with perhaps his greatest dislike: Wordsworth’s sonnet on Dover.    “Dover? Who could write upon it?” Keats scoffs.

This, in a nutshell, points to the failure of the New Formalists.  They all wrote on Dover.

The genius of a Poe or a Shelley or a Keats instinctively knows that in the elevated language of metered poetry, there are subjects and themes it is best to leave alone, and there are some that are more preferable—even while the imagination cannot finally be told what all the preferable themes are. There is always room for invention, but unless we are going for parody, humor, satire, or punning (worthy modes, no doubt), some themes are better suited to the aspiration of the Muse.

The New Formalist Expansionist poets, however, fell into the Modernist trap, thinking it was a profound revolutionary advancement to have the freedom to write “scrambled eggs” instead of “Yesterday.”

The narrow, old, blind poets—so goes the, by now, old tale—were bound by pitiful convention: they could only bring themselves to write the word Yesterday, but we moderns are free to write ‘Screw today!’ or scrambled eggs or whatever we want.  And because of this modern freedom, readers of our poetry are much better enlightened and informed than a Keats or a Poe or a Shelley.

Poe, who made American Letters respectable almost from scratch (and was paid for his pains with a five minute funeral and four mourners) defended America against the charge from smug British critics that the U.S. was a practical nation and thus had no poetry.   “Just because we make locomotives,” Poe wrote,  “does not mean we do not have poetry.”  But this is not the same thing as insisting American poems should be about locomotives. Poe, a genius, was not so stupidly literal-minded.

To limit subject matter in poetry is not to limit subject matter in Letters generally. Poe, short-story writer, journalist, reviewer, inventor of detective fiction; author of scientific and critical treatises, a novel, a part of a play, a treatise on cryptography, various other works, including popular poetry, understood this.

Keats and Shelley did not publish a great deal of prose, but they did so with remarkable results: Keats’ Letters and Shelley’s Defense of Poetry give evidence that these boys ‘had something to say.’

‘Having something to say’ is a prerequisite to writing great poetry.  Poetry is the result, not the cause, of ‘having something to say.’  Expanding poetry’s range of interest is forcing 10 pounds of stuff into a 5 pound sack.  Expanding poetry’s range of interest is to confuse effect with cause.

The pedantry of the expansionist poetry is that same type which lies at the heart of so much mischief brought by Modernist manifestos.

You can write on a blackboard: Expand poetry’s field of investigation! Let’s include:  Science, gardening, industry, mechanics, janitorial supplies, etc

But the issue is not a blackboard issue.  It is one in which an actual person, through wide study, combined with a healthy, curious, temperament, acquires ‘something to say, and then looks about him for those genres in which that ‘something’ can best ‘be said’ in terms of audience, topicality, and purpose.

This is what the Modernists thought they were doing—they looked about them and invented new genres of poetry in response to the ‘changing times.’

This turned out to be a false road: they simply took stuff out of the poetry sack and put it into a prose sack, and that effort 1) turned out to be a distracting waste of time and 2) turned off the public.

The Expansionist/New Formalists make a different, but similar, error.

THE BOMBER AND THE LADY: SWEET SIXTEEN’S NEMEROV, STANTON RUMBLE

I wonder if it’s significant that so many notable poems in the APR March Madness Tournament reference famous people: Dugan: Anne Sexton, Corso: Shelley, Ginsberg: Salman Rushdie, Edward Field: Freud, O’Hara: Ashbery, etc

In this contest to advance to the Elite Eight, Nemerov’s WW II bomber poem, “IFF,” mentions Hitler, and Stanton’s “The Veiled Lady” makes a passing reference to Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

Nemerov’s sister was a famous New York photographer.

Stanton’s husband is also in this APR competition.

So many APR poems are addressed to, or revolve around the famous, or near-famous; reading these poems is almost to be immersed in a gossipy, celebrity party. It is a late-night, decadent, educated, boozy, party where if Freud, Hitler, or Sexton are not being discussed, a good fuck or a good hug is.

It must have been exciting sometime in the 20th century when poetry became grown-ups discussing Freud and affairs and smut openly.  But the problem with boozy, adult-themed poetry is that it isn’t for children; it isn’t for students.  That’s why, I think, APR poetry, and so much of 20th century poetry, is doomed to fade away.  Smutty, wise-cracking Freud isn’t going to be taught to students, because, frankly, it’s smutty, and without that market, forget it;  this type of poetry is only going to be interesting to used-bookstore-grubbing malcontents and perhaps a few social historians.  Oh, and, the few non-university poets who are left.

There’s not much to teach in these poems, anyway; it’s delicious late-night conversation, but we all know what happens when the boozy party is over.  You go home, wake up the next morning and fret about your life, and what some guy said last night about Freud, or the blow-job described in detail, are forgotten.

This may be wrong, and even mean—but it’s just one of those things we like to say around here.

I had an undergraduate (state school) college professor who was very influential on me because I was unformed and she really loved to teach, who used to say, somewhat regretfully: “We (moderns) can’t escape Romanticism.”

Maura Stanton and her poet husband can’t escape Elizabeth and Robert Browning.  No poet couple can, or would try.

But the Moderns set out trying to escape Romanticism.

Only later, after I lost touch with my professor, and after much reading, did I realize how cowardly and excessive the Moderns’ attack on Romanticism was.

Romanticism was already modern was the problem. 

Byron, for instance, was as chatty and frank as any Beat—and metrical and rhyming, to boot.

And this celebrity name-dropping which the APR poets indulge in was already done by Byron (Southey) and Shelley (George III).

The only way around Romanticism was to pretend one was “Classical,’ which the High Modernists did, but Pound wasn’t classical—that was another one of his cons.  If we want to be perfectly honest about the whole thing, Modernism was two things: more prosey and more smutty. We didn’t need Pound to pompously assert that poetry needed to be written as well as good prose—to every good writer in history this is a given, and Pound himself didn’t follow it very well.  Pound, classical?  Bah.

Billy Collins won last year’s BAP March Madness with a parody of a William Wordsworth poem, but Billy wasn’t just name-dropping; he embraced Wordsworth—or what Wordsworth means, and didn’t let go for the entirety of his poem.

Wordsworth wasn’t smutty.  And neither is Billy Collins.  Take note, you who want poetic fame, and you who understand the secret that fame, love, and poetry are the same thing.

What is it about famous names, or almost the same thing: names of beloveds, who become famous in poems: Beatrice, Laura, Stella, Lenore, Cynara, Joan Hunter Dunn?

I have a theory: the name of one’s first obsessive, chaste, exquisitely beautiful love will determine if one becomes a lover of poetry, or not.

Had my first love been Meghan Smith, I doubt I would have gone on to desire the Muse.

Mine was alliterative and suggestive: Karen Cummins.

The interest of the name, combined with the loveliness of the person, combined with the unrequited nature of ‘the crush,’ was all-encompassing, accidental (the combination of the beauty and the name) and it hurt me into poetry, but not consciously—this was money saved, not spent.

I didn’t write the name, Karen Cummins, in any of my poems.

Fanny Brawn was not in any of Keats’ best poems.

Nemerov’s description of Hitler in his poem “IFF” is audacious:

Hitler a moustache and a little curl
In the middle of his forehead, whereas these
Bastards were bastards in your daily life

How much more powerful this than W.D. Snodgrass’s documentary-like poem’s attempt in the APR anthology to capture Hitler.

The ending of Stanton’s poem completely wins me over:

Don’t you see I’m only an illusion?
You look aghast. You think I’m cynical
But when you touch me in the dark at night
You touch biology…

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

MARLA MUSE: This reminds me of last year’s Scarriet BAP March Madness Final Four poem, “The Year,” by Janet Bowdan.  Remember?  It had the same haunting quality.

But Stanton’s poem has an entirely different p.o.v.

Plus she has Elizabeth and Robert Browning.

Stanton beats Nemerov, 90-80, advancing to the North Finals.

LOSER NOWHERE MAN: HELP

He proved John Keats’ thesis: like Keats’ poet, the most unpoetical creature on earth, John Lennon was, in many ways, without star qualities, without confidence, without talent, without poetry; but he was a star’s star.  

Look at the video of the Beatles’ first American tour: confident Paul McCartney takes charge, while John looks uneasy, even scared to death; terrified, grinning, just trying to get through it.   On that first Ed Sullivan show, Paul’s singing is much stronger than John’s.  John is clearly scared.

Yesterday: Following Paul’s solo-in-the-spotlight performance in 1965, during the height of Beatlemania, of his song, that almost, by itself, transcended Beatlemania, and is still doing so, and perhaps, 100 years from now, may eclipse it entirely, John caustically said to the audience, “Thank you, Ringo, that was woon-da-ful!”   Here was John’s genius in a nutshell: insulting Ringo, Paul, “Yesterday,” rock music, and the whole idea of the Beatles in a few, off-the-cuff, words.   John’s wit demolished the expert, towering, sentiment of Paul’s two-minute pop genius in two seconds.

The quickness displayed by John’s mind is a mind easily bored, lazy and arrogant, too fully aware of its own power, and, of course, jealous.  John was a prolific songwriter when an-album-in-a-week composing deadlines made laziness impossible; as soon as the Beatles became cultural gods so that songwriting was no longer entirely necessary (Paul and George were talented and ambitious enough by 1968 that they could easily carry the Beatles themselves), John’s songwriting fell off tremendously; in the early 60s, John wrote hit after hit; from 1969 until his death, he wrote almost none, and many released after 1968 were actually written by John in 1967 and earlier.  “Imagine” sounds like it was written to order for Yoko Ono; “Imagine” sounds like a Yoko lyric, not a Beatle one.    When John was motivated to write, he was the best, but he was not a self-motivated genius.   

His competitive, love-hate relationship with Paul surely had a lot to do with his early 60s output, as well.   He soured on Paul for many reasons, but one  important result was that John became less and less a songwriter, and more and more a shrill egomaniac.

John the genius had no identity; he was absorbed by his environment; thrown in with Paul, he became a great songwriter, married to English Cynthia, he was a “fat,” meat-eating, English suburbanite, married to sophisticated, worldly Yoko, he was a skinny, tea-drinking, Big Apple-dweller.  As a rock star, he couldn’t resist women and drugs; as a cultural spokesman, he couldn’t resist shallow culture-speak.   The fat, 1965 married-to-Cynthia John scolded Allen Ginsberg for getting naked in public.  The skinny, 1969 married-to-Yoko John got naked in public.

By his own admission, John made fun of the weak—as a bullying kid, neglected his first child, and was cruel to his first wife.   Yoko was the perfect wife for the reformed John because she was picked on, and he got to defend her in front of the world.  This may be a crass way of putting it, but this is the sort of life John led, and he knew it.

There’s something cruel and jealous about a mimic, and perhaps Plato’s wariness of art has something to do with this, but John could cruelly mimic like no one else.  In recording out-takes, one can hear Lennon doing Bob Dylan, and John gets Zimmerman right—in a spot-on, cruel manner.

In the mid-60s, John struck out on a literary route, but as with everything else, he got bored of that, too.    John wrote his best lyrics in the 1966/1967 period, a brilliant, but small window of time.  “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe,” John wrote in “I Am The Walrus.”   It takes a special kind of insight to see that Edgar Poe was picked on, and John, the ex-bully, who was reading a lot at that time, saw it.

Even during the height of Beatlemania, in photographs, John could look ugly, even though, in many photographs, he looks very handsome.  Knowing John, he certainly must have noticed this.   Even John-the-Beatle’s good looks, just like Keats’ unpoetic quality of the poet, was uncertain; doubtful at its core.

Jealous, ugly, shy, depressed, cruel, self-conscious, and in need of help. 

A star.

Happy Birthday, Johnny.

MEAN PEOPLE SUCK

Especially when you are

1.  Edgar Poe— and they murder you and through elaborate machinations libel you as a drunkard and a suicide.

2.   Sylvia Plath— and your husband (Ted Hughes) who you adore cheats on you and leaves you with two small children in an ill-heated flat during the coldest winter in years.

3.  Garcia Lorca— and they shoot you and throw you in an unmarked grave.

4.  The 13 poets—and you are executed at Lubyanka Prison in Moscow in 1952.

5.   Christopher Marlowe— and you are murdered in a tavern.

 6.  John Keats— and they say your poetry sucks and you should quit poetry and go back to your drams and pills.

7.  A writer of good rhymes— and you are scorned for being a rhymer by modernists.

8.  A good poet— and you’re scorned because you do not rhyme.

9.  A bad poet— and you are scorned for it.

10  A person who has to read negative opinions on someone’s blog.

WITCH-HUNTING: IT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN IN SALEM

Byron and the Romantics (including Poe) were witches to the Moderns

“Today, many scholars see the witchcraft trials as a product of tensions in and around Salem. There was a strong divide between the town of Salem, a prosperous port town, and the village of Salem, which was a poorer farming town. The village of Salem formed its own congregation, and it was divided bitterly over the choice of minister, but eventually selected Samuel Parris, who was the choice of one prominent Salem clan, the Putnams. It was Parris’s daughter Betty and her cousin who first displayed the symptoms that were quickly labeled the result of witchcraft, and the girls were soon joined by one of the Putnam daughters, Ann. The Putnams were enthusiastic witch hunters, with Ann’s mother, also named Ann, accusing fellow townspeople as well. In general, people who were accused of witchcraft fell into two categories. Some were easy targets — they were old, social misfits, or generally unpopular. Others were upstanding citizens but their accusers had something to gain, either property or status, from the downfall of the people they accused.”  —The Writer’s Almanac, July 19, 2010

The ignorance and hostility towards the Romantics (also Poe) by Eliot and Pound are well-known, but the European Modernists’ allies in America, the influential Fugitive cum reactionary Southern Agrarians cum New Critics cum Engle/Tate/Ransom/Winters writing program industry pioneers had a royal disdain for the Romantics (sometimes with a soft spot for Wordsworth) as well.

In an essay published in 1938, poet, critic, and respected academic John Crowe Ransom, asserted that Byron, born exactly 100 years before Ransom, was an obsolete writer, as Mr. Crowe quoted Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”

“Thou,” “Ocean” in caps, and the exclamation point all prove Byron is a witch and cannot be trusted.

Ransom:

“A passage of Byron’s if sprung upon an unsuspecting modern would be immediately felt as ‘dating;’ it would be felt as something that did very well for those dark ages before the modern mind achieved its own disintegration and perfected its faculties serially.” 

Ransom could have quoted any number of Byron passages which sound strikingly modern, even today, if by ‘modern’ we mean, ‘good’ (hopefully it means something positive to Ransom) but here’s what Ransom in his essay selects for praise instead, from modern (and friendAllen Tate (beloved poet, read the world over):

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms; and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in his rotten skiff.

Allen Tate (d. 1979)

Stand back, Byron!  Here comes Allen Tate’s “rotten skiff!”

Byron, savaged by skiff-lover Ransom for being “dated,” was born 100 years before John Crowe Ransom—and 110 years before little Allen Tate.

Let’s put things in perspective: William Carlos Williams was born 127 years ago—and counting.

WC Williams is 27 % older to us now than Byron was to Ransom then.

Roll, thou Modernist Clique and your toadies, roll!

In any textbook or commentary plucked at random, one can read how the Romantics were rebels against the Enlightenment, how the Romantics rejected “ornament” and embraced “nature” and “common speech.”   

But this universal rhetoric is a lie, for Byron, Shelley, and Keats were not “nature poets.”  They did not embrace “plain speech.”  (Certainly not the “plain speech” of Allen Tate or the “nature” of John Crowe (Southern Agrarian) Ransom or the “plain idiocy” of William Carlos Williams and his friend Ezra Pound.)  The best of the Romantics saw Letters as a unity and they embraced the best of what had been written and thought before; Byron, Shelley and Keats, even when they sailed in “skiffs,” were not Manifesto-ists, defining themselves by how much they hated a previous age (Pope, for instance, who wrote some pretty nice nature poems).

But let us see…

who were the scholars who defined the Romantics as Manifesto-ists, as ‘nature poets,’ who rejected the past…

Ahh, it was the Modernists, who had everything to gain by playing by different rules—so they could concentrate study on themselves and the importance of their modernism—a trend which owed its existence to ignoring all those vices of the past, ignoring those evil Romantics.

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.

IS THERE PROGRESS IN POETRY?

Well, how do we measure this progress?  

Few believe in absolute progress.  Material progress exists, even in our scientific age, only for some, and moral progress, or increase in global happiness, is impossible to calculate.

Since poetry belongs to moral, but not material progress, it seems safe to say that progress in poetry cannot be affirmed at all.

There has been much talk, however, of modern poetry’s progress in terms of both its expressiveness and its detached scientific ability—to investigate the wider world and language itself.  Story and sermon fitted to rhyme has given way, it is said, to a deeper and more nuanced universe.

It is not the place here to dispute these ubiquitous claims, but it should be pointed out that even if these claims are not openly called “progress,” the rhetoric certainly participates in this idea; but if the progress of poetry is not real, what of this rhetoric?

Something has to give. 

Has poetry improved, or not?

Is there any scientific evidence that poetry qua poetry is responsible for scientific progress?  No.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  Beyond a certain beauty and harmony we get from a composer like Bach or a poet like Keats, the virtue of poetry operates immediately, with no mediation of any kind.

Let’s look briefly at the other arts.  In purely objective terms, has sculpture, music, painting, or the drama, as artistic, expressive modes, improved?  Anyone familiar with the riches of ancient, middle ages, renaissance, baroque or romantic art can answer ‘no’ without hesitation.  Any person answering ‘yes’ is prejudiced towards his own time.

However, can certain kinds of expressiveness improve?  Here, without pause, the answer is ‘yes.’  Progress in specific areas of art is possible.

There are perhaps pinnacles.  Music has not progressed in any qualitative manner since Bach, sculpture since the first century Rome, or possibly Michelangelo.   Painting?  New styles have emerged, but can painting be said to have improved since the renaissance?  No.  Has Shakespeare in the drama been eclipsed?  No.

When art does improve, the chief reason is technological improvements in the means of producing the art, with underlying cultural changes also a factor.

The thing about poetry, however, is that there is no technology to improve. 

We may as well admit that of all the arts, poetry is the least likely to improve,  it is the art form which has improved the least, and that a very strong argument could be made that in over two thousand years, it has not progressed at all.

“SO HAVE THE CRITICS NEARLY ALWAYS BEEN AMATEURS” -J.C. RANSOM

The professional hates the amateur. 

Poetry was for amateurs before the man in the photo above came along (John Crowe Ransom).  He put Modernism into the university and professionalized poetry at the same time. 

The Romantic artist was an amateur.  Beethoven and Keats didn’t need no credentials; their only credentials were symphonies and odes.  Modernism changed all that. 

The amateur creates commerce.  The professional controls it.

The amateur is hot Sturm and Drang.  The professional is cold New Criticism. 

The professional is passion deferred.  The amateur is passion right now. 

The amateur is “I’ll show you!”  The professional is “It has been said…” 

The professional is the person of obligation, responsibility, work, connections, and material reward.  The amateur is the irresponsible, inspired bum. 

The professional is the sly method.  The amateur is the sly method exposed.  

The professional is the explainer.  The amateur is the explained. 

It takes 100 years for the professional to absorb the amateur.* 

*Pound agrees with Stendhal that it takes 80 years.  So be it. 

One always betrays the other and they can never be friends—even in the same person.

Take Franz Wright.  His ‘professional’ side and his ‘amateur’ side are at war; the poor man has to keep apologizing for both: the amateur Franz Wright to his professional colleagues, the professional Franz Wright to his fans and friends.  My guess is that most of the time it is his professional side that does the bulk of the apologizing and feels the most guilty, so it must be a pleasurable vent when he ventures onto Scarriet to scold us for our amateur status, allowing the professional Franz Wright, who spends most of the day hiding, a chance to shine.   Same with Bill Knott, the adored amateur poet, who came on Scarriet recently to wax professionally indignant over copyright law.  Seth Abramson, another professional, came here recently to claim that the MFA/professionalization of poetry was not a game of Modernism or New Criticism, not a system created by Ransom, Tate and their friends, but was rather some kind of courageous neo-Romantic movement—against all historical evidence.  It’s easy to see why Abramson would rather his beloved MFA system be identified with amateurs and Romantics than with professionals and New Critics.  It’s for the same reason that finds Franz Wright with a divided and irritable soul.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  We want to have our cake and eat it.  We want to be both professional and amateur, but it’s impossible, for it’s the whole role of both to cut out the other.

Despite the professionalization of poetry that has occured since Ransom’s academic Modernist/New Criticism coup a couple of generations ago, the artist-as-amateur, beholden to no creds and nobody, still lingers as a Romantic ideal.  In our hearts, we all know we’re amateurs and that history will eventually judge us that way, and so professionalism is sought after by almost everyone—but still loathed.  

As  academic, anti-Romantic Ransom put it in 1937, in his now-famous essay (thanks to us): “Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.  Perhaps I use a distasteful figure, but I have the idea that what we need is Criticism, Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.”

YEATS HATES KEATS: WHY DO THE MODERNS DESPISE THE ROMANTICS?

They don’t have Yeats!  Only Keats!  The Modernists don’t sell candy. 

Yeats on Keats:

His art is happy, but who knows his mind?
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to sweet-shop window…
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper…

Here’s the whole poem which makes it quite clear this is unfortunately Yeats’ actual opinion of Keats.

Yeats, also wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstinting has been naught.”

The key here is “A line will take us hours…”

This puts Yeats (despite some Romantic impulses) squarely in the Modernist camp—he was closer to his friend Pound than he was to any Romantic.

Keats, on the other hand, said writing poetry should “come like leaves to a tree.”  He didn’t say, ‘the poet should make it look like his poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree.’  No, Keats meant the poetry should, in fact, come as naturally to the poet as leaves to a tree, and Keats added that the poetry should appear almost as a “remembrance.”

The Modern poet sees, then consciously and unsentimentally presents what he sees (“no ideas but in things”).

Keats, on the other hand, says poetry should express the poet’s “highest thoughts.”

If high thoughts, memories, prodigious natural talent, youth, luxury, desires, and passion belong to the Romantics and the neo-Romantics, what is left for the poor, bitter Moderns?

Snobbery.  Elitism.  Puritanism.  Jealousy.

We see these qualities in Yeats’ indictment of Keats.

“Who knows his mind?”  asks Yeats of the “coarse-bred” Keats.

Here is the (supposedly) conscious artist, Yeats mocking the (supposedly)unconscious one, Keats.

The modern mind mocks the romantic mind, finding it vague, sentimental, inexact and invisible.

The youth in today’s MFA, the neo-Romantics who celebrate their frenzied exstence in a luxurious world, are hated by the ‘new Modernist’ old farts, who, ostensibly of animistic zeal in their avant impulses, in reality, resent all that animism stands for: joyous Romantic frenzy.  Or so a certain current theory goes.

Those who love the best of the Romantic poetry cannot stomach most modernist poetry; the former, at its best, had philosophy, while the latter, at its best, had mere manifesto.   Keats was highly conscious, but his conscious was in dialogue with his subconscious, and we suggest that all great artists carry on this inner conversation.   We only know the existence of subconscious and conscious by this dialogue, which spills out and forms the poetry: the reader overhears the two talking.   How can the unconscious exist to us but when the unconscious makes itself known to our conscious?

The Moderns rejected this, thinking to give the conscious mind control of things (literally control of things, or things in control, which is animistic, come to think of it).  But the drab, inartistic nature of this Imagiste experiment quickly became apparent as High Modernism withered in its ‘little magazine existence,’ pretty much unread.

Who knows his mind? indeed.

The English Romantics woo’d, assimilated, and mated with  previous eras, courting the Greeks, the Enlightenment, the earlier German Romantics, the East, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, while the Moderns cut off history like a furious murderer with a knife.  One can see it in Tate and Ransom’s essays ridiculing the keepers of history in the English Departments, who, according to them, paid scant attention to objective poetic forms—but was Modernism really a formalist enterprise?   Of course it wasn’t.  Tate and Ransom’s prose has a certain steely, Sadean power.  But who reads their poetry?

To understand the Modernists, one simply has to read the New Critics, starting with perhaps the most important critical document of the 20th century, Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” (1920).

On the very first page of the introduction to that book, what does Eliot do?  What the Modernists and the New Critics made a career of doing, of course.  He attacks the Romantics.

“To anyone who is at all capable of experiencing the pleasures of justice, it is gratifying to be able to make amends to a writer whom one has vaguely depreciated for some years.”

Eliot begins as nobly as one can begin, talking of the “pleasures of justice” and reaching out to a writer from the past, the 19th century poet and critic Matthew Arnold.  But after saying he’s re-read him and is starting to appreciate him more, here’s what Eliot then quotes from Arnold:

it has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it in fact something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs.  And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient material to work with.  In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not have enough.  This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth, even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.

Eliot then adds to Arnold’s words, “This judgment of the Romantic generation has not, so far as I know, been successfully controverted…”

No “justice” for Byron and Shelley, apparently.  (Wordsworth, the dullest of the Romantics, and the most resembling a Modernist, at least is called “profound.”)

The dismissal of whole swaths of literary history, especially the Romantics, by Pound, the Moderns, Winters, and the New Critics is well known.  And here we see T.S. Eliot choosing to lead off his most important critical work by quoting Arnold calling Shelley “incoherent,” Byron “empty,” and strangely damning one of the greatest literary periods in human history.

Yeats hates Keats.

KEATS

To young love, poetry is young,
The boy, Keats, young forever,
The poetry in shadow
Leaving leaves in poetry’s hair.
Aging and aging’s knowing
Are far away;  joy
Is on the tongue—
But never quite there;
His way of saying:
Joy comes fast.  Beware.

Joy comes quickly,
Because ripe for understanding poetry,
We are ripe for joy
When imagination strikes, at last, the girl
And grips the boy.

The poetry prolongs the fit
Of love, teasing it
Into a fondness of fine, fine, fine,
Even as the hour grows late,
Understanding leaking away.
Afterwards, calm again,
Keats in a moment falls, and all
Conspires against poetry’s early dream.
Friends fall into lethargy and death,
The very boy into shadow.

What kind of poetry is this?
Not a poetry of death,
But the ills of old age,
Arthritic muse feeling sorry for itself
Beside some youth’s grave?

But I know this grave.
I saw its tenant, once, in a dream
Dreamed inside the dream I dreamed.

I will finally praise satisfaction.
There will be no irony.  It will be an easy action.

I know the name I will say
When death comes by the fallen wall
To take me into the hole,
Breathing goodbye to life’s sweets,
Saying goodbye, at last, to the fear of death,
There on the verge, when the mall
Darkens and the world goes dead.  Keats.


FILL UP YOUR RED WHEEL BARROW: HOW NEW CRITICISM DESTROYS POETRY

red w

It is impossible to tell whether the following phenomenon arose by accident or by design, but millions have fallen quietly under its spell since the Modernism-tinged Writing Program Era fell like a hood over serious poetic practice in the United States beginning in the 1940s.

The intrepid New Critics, who defined poetry pedagogy in both seminar and classroom at the crosswords of the new era when poetry took a hard, professional turn, had no method.

We assume that New Criticism 1) focused on how a text works, 2) apart from real life concerns, and 3) this is why it faded.

But 1) New Criticism hasn’t faded, because the general practice of its rhetoric remains and 2) New Criticism focused on the text only so the ‘new writing’ could crash the party.

We forget these ‘conservative’ New Critics were also, for the most part, Modernist poets looking for readers. Ransom and Tate and their European Modernist friends, such as Eliot and Pound, were poets with only a tiny, small-magazine audience in the 1920s.

By the 1930s, poets like Millay, Dorothy Parker and Frost, who actually sold books, were threatening to overshadow the Modernists completely; the whole experiment was threatening to go under; Ransom and Tate were not on Millay’s side, they were on Pound’s.   This was partly due to politics, but it also involved something even more primitive: naked ambition.

The New Critics, like their mentor, T.S. Eliot, were anti-populist, anti-Romantic and thought poetry should be especially difficult.  As they wrote their argumentative essays in the 30s and set up their Writing Programs at places like Iowa and Princeton in the early 40s, the New Critics pushed out the conservatives in the English Departments who clung to history and tradition, who worshiped Keats and Milton and Shelley; Eliot and Pound’s anti-19th century animus informed the New Critics as well.

The New Critical focus on “the text” was a means to an end: make history less relevant so the new writing could prosper as new writing.

The defensive tone of Cleanth Brooks is palpable (from Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1951): “The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men…”   Men, for instance, like Ransom and Tate, who were eager to become famous and get into print? This fact the New Critics were shrewd enough not to emphasize as they launched their attacks against English Departments of history and biography in the name of whatever text-reading tricks they were advertising—and backpedalling from at every occasion (the formalist critic knows as well as anyone…).

Where were the biographies of Ransom and Tate?  That was the issue.

The non-formalist critics knew “as well as anyone” that “men” wrote “texts.”

The New Critics’ hobby horse of focusing on the text was never really an issue.

The English Departments which the Modernists (then on the outside in ‘amateur’ status) were assailing in the 1930s and 40s  were not ignoring texts. How were the New Critics themselves going to be taught in the English Departments?  This is the point, made even now, which makes the professional uncomfortable, for ambition is only for the amateur at last.

I just re-read Scarriet’s post -Why Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” Also Doesn’t Work by Christopher Woodman and Mr. Woodman’s herculean effort in comments below: his reading of the Keats poem, his explaining the Psyche myth, providing anecdotes from his teaching experience in Thailand.  Mr. Woodman also got into his objections to Scarriet’s March Madness, which I find interesting, because Mr. Woodman objects to the Keats poem because Keats is excluding rough & tumble aspects of reality.  But Mr. Woodman is doing precisely the same thing he accuses Keats of doing when he (Woodman) abuses Scarriet’s March Madness.

Here’s where the insidiousness of New Criticism comes into play.  Mr. Woodman, like everyone born after 1920 in the U.S., has been quietly influenced by the New Criticism.  The textbook, “Understanding Poetry” (first edition, 1938) was the first big textbook for poetry in the United States when the GI Bill expanded university enrollment after World War II, the beginning of the Writing Program Era, when poetry left the public square and became a college subject.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” by William Carlos Williams—a member, by way of Pound, of Ransom’s group—gets unalloyed praise in “Understanding Poetry.”

In his post and comments, Mr. Woodman puts tremendous energy into arguing against the Keats poem—which remains absolutely beautiful in the face of all his objections.

This, finally, is what the New Critics did: they over-argued poetry; they laid down a rhetoric in which something as simply beautiful as “Ode to Psyche” couldn’t exist.

If one puts over-argument next to “Ode to Psyche,” it withers.

If one puts over-argument next to “The Red Wheel Barrow,” simply by dint of energetic over-arguing, the “Red Wheel Barrow” grows in stature.

Because the “Wheel Barrow” was nothing in the first place, it can only gain by being discussed.

In the New Critical universe, whatever gains from mad scientist argumentation is good and whatever diminishes from mad scientist argumentation is bad.  This is the powerfully simple formula which carries the day.  By New Critical logic, (which is how academics by the nature of their work operate) “Ode to Psyche” is bad and “The Red Wheel Barrow” is good.

WHY KEATS’ “ODE TO PSYCHE” ALSO DOESN’T WORK


………………………………………….Jacques-Louis David, “Cupid and Psyche” (1817)

It’s a silly painting — but delicious.

One can only wonder at what point Jacques-Louis David decided on that silly model, or did he realize the subject couldn’t be anything but delicious and silly, having looked at so many other recent failures in the great houses of Europe. Did he realize that the nakedness of Psyche was the sole interest, and that if Cupid was to be included he would either have to have a tiny wee wee as was the convention, and be a joke, or try to paint a real young man with the equipment that could satisfy her. A clever denouement in the end, in fact — a real-life adolescent Cupid smirking, embarrassed to be seen in this predicament.

“No, you can’t see what I’ve got — the art world’s not yet ready for it!”

Which in a way was the whole purpose of the original story, the myth itself, wasn’t it, that for perfect beauty to actually be anatomically in the embrace of love is never a pretty sight, that if you light a lamp and show it all you’ve just got pornography. That’s the joke here too, I think — and of course it’s brilliant. Jacques-Louis David takes a favorite theme with which to show off flesh, and in doing so makes a god a bumpkin hero!

Sex is always a bummer,  and any lover a bumpkin game-keeper in too much light — and what a ruckus was kicked up when an artist finally did decide to show it all as it really was,  although not of course in painting. Indeed, it’s actually quite hard to show it all in painting because when the embrace is all there it’s anatomically not visible. It’s only when it’s just getting started or when it’s all finished, ugh, that you can show it all, and porno stars in front of cameras trying to shoot the full monty in the middle have to be contortionists, and needless to say that’s not much pleasure for the lovers, even if they are divine!

So of course the light must not be lit — there are some things that can’t be seen, and ecstatic love is one of them. I was referring to D.H.Lawrence just before, of course, who also tried very sincerely and with considerable skill but still failed — which is all the more reason for sheltering Sharon Olds from the prurience of those who are allowed to look at her in the very arms of the god of love and just snicker!

And John Keats? What happens when you say you’re going to show it all and at the same time place Psyche on the altar? Can this be done?

It’s a remarkable poem, one of my favorites, and I’m so glad he tried, the fool — but still it’s a failure!

.

……………….ODE TO PSYCHE

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awakened eyes?
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:

‘Mid hushed, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touched not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heaped with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retired
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain dryads shall be lulled to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreathed trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

…………………………………..…...John Keats

POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

CULTURAL FASCISM


“I Want To Hold Your Land…”

The world’s intellectuals have little trouble discerning the signs of political oppression: a great gulf between rich and poor, military extremism, leaders who feed—vampire-like—upon the people, buying-and-selling for short-term gain, a high degree of domestic abuse, social intolerance, poor buildings, poor roads, poor nutrition, poor health, and science crushed by superstition.

Unfortunately, these same intellectuals are often eager to applaud and cultivate cultural fascism.  They support art which is ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

Why do they support such art?

The answer is simple.

Because it is art.

The intellectuals support this art, not because they are in favor of ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity, obviously, but because they feel they would not be true intellectuals if they did not allow art to be this way if it so chooses.

On issues of politics, the intellectuals, almost to the last, oppose, with all their might, these negative qualities; they oppose them in life, and yet, the sad fact is, political states everywhere are in thrall to these negatives: ignorance, oppression, violence, backwardness, pedantry, cynicism, horror, and stupidity.

Why, then, should we be surprised, that these qualites dominate in art?

Contemporary poetry is ignored by the masses, and for the rest of us, the highly educated who read it, poetry produces knowing smirks more than anything else.

The intellectual understands this political/art issue to be absolute: no protest can be made upon this count, for art must be free.   After all, art is not life, art is not politics, and bad politics would tell art what to do.   Therefore good politics does not tell art what to do.

Socrates, the wisest philosopher, is shown the door, is led away, down the hill, to that near meadow, to stand speechless, neglected among the buzzing of the flies, lost in thought, perhaps never to speak again.  Plato’s offerings must be opposed completely—no compromise is possible in opposing Plato’s philosophy of art, even if art itself comes to resemble the very totalitarian regimes the intellectuals oppose: ignorant, oppressive, violent, backward, pedantic, cynical, horrific, and stupid.

The intellectuals never think that maybe this is a trick the oppressive and totalitarian forces have played on us, to enforce their will not only on political regimes, but upon poetry, as well, so we never think about what poetry should be; we only use it to reflect what is.   Big fish will eat the little fish; the leisure of the college creative writing instructor will eat, with its stream-of-consciousness intelligence, all other fish in the blindness of the infinite, William James/nitrous-oxide, sea.

Most of the blame lies with other arts, those more emeshed in the machinery of crass, pornographic, violent sensationalism, but all are guilty, for instance, in the way the film Bright Star was ignorantly reviewed and received in all quarters, and in countless gestures among intellectuals, poets and artists everywhere who whore out the ideal in small ways every day.

After all, there are only, finally, two things: nature and the moral; nature provides the building materials; we build.  How we build is moral and ideal.  Confusing the two—nature (reality) and the moral (the ideal)—tends to be where all the trouble  starts.

Building a house keeps the two distinct.

Making art does not; this is why Plato famously questioned the latter activity.

Nothing shall oppose the onslaught of the ignorant, the oppressive, the violent, the backward, the pedantic, the cynical, the horrific, and the stupid.

And why should anything oppose this onslaught if our art will not?

The license to describe the thoughts inside our thoughts inside our thoughts is the one ruling principle today, and we have become a slave to it.  We have surely caught the self-justifying, William James/John Ashbery disease.  The vanity of  infinitely self-reflexive thought  is the only trump in our deck.   Stream of consciousness has drowned common sense.  “Enough of this nonsense!” we want to cry, but we dare not, because we really believe that educated nonsense is our last freedom, the last thing between our intellectual legitimacy and the absolutist wolf at the door.  We don’t mean good satire. We mean nonsense, the obscurantist crap which passes for poetry these days. We’ve confused freedom with crap.

This treatise is not a cry for any kind of censorship, but rather a discussion of how opposing censorship at all costs affects aesthetic philosophy.

And so we shall have paintings that are not paintings, poems that are not poems, music that is not music, criticism that is not criticism, and prose that is self-indulgent in its trivialities to an extreme degree; we shall have the daintily lurid, the sweetly sensational, and the brazenly corrupt.  The criminals shall have their way because to poets today criminality cannot exist in theory; wrong exists only in reality where cops and robbers are even now having a gun-fight, far from modern art’s purities.

But now the lords of cultural fascism cry, “Poems that are not poems!”  You are the fascist, trying to tell us what a poem is!   But we cannot write a poem if we don’t know what a poem is first,  just as Michelangelo doesn’t just start randomly hacking away at the block of stone.  The lords of cultural fascism will always steer the discussion back to simple-minded issues of censorship, but in reality the issue here is about pedagogy.

True, poetry has made itself so obscure that its effect on society hardly exists when we exclude the thousands of Creative Writing aspirants.

Not making good art, thanks to the license in which every kind of bad art is permissable—and thus, forever, actual—hurts millions in ways we cannot imagine.

Will the obscurantists wake up?    Will the wild and wilder drums wake them?  Or thrum them into a deeper sleep?

Roll over, Black Mountain.

Tell Ashbery the news.

WHO KILLED JOHN KEATS? ‘TWAS ONE OF MY FEATS

Pardon us as we take a fanciful page from the book of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

……………………….WHO KILLED ROBERT CREELEY?

……………………….Who killed Robert Creeley?
……………………….Twas I, Foetry. Yes. Really.
……………………….Now exiled here by the site that bans
……………………….We’ve dealt a mortal blow to Franz.
……………………….You cannot know where your reputation’s laid,
……………………….Or who pays you, at last, and who finally is paid.
……………………….Beware, you swaggerer, with cred and name
……………………….Who comes to quell: first, you lose, then, you swell our fame.

Franz Wright’s recent visit to Scarriet reminded us of the time when Robert Creeley came calling on Foetry.com shortly before he passed away in March of 2005.

John Keats was treated so rudely by the press a rumor began that a harsh criticism had killed him.   The poet is the most vulnerable to criticism since the poet and the critic both use words.   Poetry, by its very nature, has a It is so because I say it is so existence.   Words are cheap, and the poetry world is small.  Poetic reputations are fragile and can disappear overnight.

Longfellow was a wealthy titan whose poems were widely read in expensive and beautiful volumes.  Poe was a poverty-stricken, contentious critic who insulted and berated poets like Longfellow;  Poe was reviled by many literary elites of his day.   Poe, however, now towers over Longfellow and poets who are utterly forgotten.   Those who ‘go about their business’ and who are ‘above’ the sort of battles Poe indulged in usually sink into oblivion.   The trouble-makers survive.

Alan Cordle’s revolutionary Foetry.com turned po-biz on its head almost overnight with his controversial claims.  Controversy is catnip to fame.  Perhaps  Creeley and Wright knew what they were doing when they jumped in the Foetry dirt.

Flowers (and fame) need dirt to grow.

Thomas Brady of Scarriet was obviously out of his mind, temporarily, let’s hope, when he wrote the following as Monday Love on Foetry.com:

And what’s this crap about how a “librarian” [Alan Cordle] can’t express an opinion on poetry or the poetry world?  Jeez, what a lot of snobby rot. Since when did degrees and publishing creds and ‘official poet’ stamped on the forehead decide who can or cannot speak on poetry?  Did Keats have an MFA?  Philip Sidney, one of the world’s most prominent poets, never published a poem.  And what of Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler?  I can’t find any of their poems, but the world bows to their opinion.  If some twit gets an MFA and publishes a few books of obscure poetry scribbles, that twit should then have some kind of authority because of his CV?

No, poetry is naturally fitted for something more democratic and honest. R. Perlman [since discovered to be  Joan Houlihan] disgraces himself [herself] when he [she]indulges in this ‘poetry-cred’ nonsense–99% of the time such a gambit is merely an attempt to paper over stink.  I have never asked what his [her] creds are, nor do I care.  Those who come here trailing the glory of their creds in their wake tend to get slaughtered.  We don’t care who they are.  Robert Creeley came here and was treated like anyone else–in other words, a bit roughly.  We don’t care for that phony ‘respect,’ which the pompous desire.  Only the argument you make here counts.

Poetry was invented so that the learned could speak to the unlearned. Poetry is for the unlearned ear, because it had its origins, as Dante points out in his Vita Nuova, in the following circumstance: the learned fop was mad for some illiterate serving girl and therefore had to remove all that was phony and elevated in his speech to reach her heart.  The opinion which the poet craves is always the simplest and heart-felt one.  The ‘learned’ opinion is not to be trusted, finally.  Every poet in secret knows this.  This does not mean the poet writes simplistic twaddle, for the poet still must impress in a powerful manner, but that manner is not learned fops stroking each other’s learned egos, which only ruins the art.

—Monday Love, Foetry.com  2007

It is not our intent to dance on anybody’s grave.

We salute Mr. Creeley for not going gentle into that good night.

And God bless Franz Wright, too.

THE POEM OF MELANCHOLY HORROR

For the poem of melancholy horror to succeed, the reader must fall under its spell.

But just a tincture of the didactic and the effect is ruined.  Modern poets are especially prone to spoil this type of poem; they write of the horrible, but rarely combine horror with melancholy—which produces the sublime effect we have in mind.  The poem of melancholy horror peaked between 1800 and 1960.

American poetry in the last 20 years seems to be wholly absent of what we call melancholy horror.   We always seem to say, ‘That’s not melancholy, that’s depressing.’   We could assign this recent phenomenon to what we might term the scientific ego in the contemporary poet, a sort of clever hardness which will have no part of Victorian or Romantic sorrow.

Molly Peacock, Edith Sitwell, and Robert Lowell, to name some slightly older poets at random, have written poems of melancholy horror, but a determined busy-ness and verbosity, combined with a didactic intent, ensures failure.  Fred Seidel often gives us horror—and ego.  But there’s no melancholy, no shadow.

Part of the problem involves an acute misreading of Poe’s Heresy of the Didactic.  The issue is one of appearance: one must not appear to impart a moral or a lesson to the reader.

It is fine to impart a lesson; one just cannot seem to do so.

Poe made this quite explicit.

In terms of appearances, we all know that the best way to call attention to something is when we bungle the hiding of it.

This is what the modern poets do:  They know they cannot preach, but they cannot resist doing so, and because the moderns, in being good moderns, have chucked the stage devices of cheap, theatrical effects of the “old” poetry, and because the moderns suffer no hesitation in being frank and discursive in the above-board modern style, they tend to blurt out their lessons, which are poor lessons to begin with—since these moderns are not in the habit of really having anything to say, having been taught that the didactic should be avoided.

Pondering their Poe and the writings of the New Critics, with its ‘heresy of the paraphrase,’ the modern poets have come to think that one can write poetry while having nothing to say at all; if one cannot paraphrase their poem, they think, if their poem has no message or meaning, this is all the better, and perhaps, one day, they may even reach that ‘pure’ style of non-style all moderns affect,  and yet, given the modern style, in which melancholy surfaces and all sorts of cheap Victorian effects are to be eschewed, what remains is a kind of didacticism by default, sans lesson, sans moral, sans theme, just a kind of blathering that “wins” by avoiding the pitfalls Poe and the New Critics superficially laid out.

What Poe really meant—no one knows what the New Critics meant, since they never really thought the problem through—was this: The poet must not appear to be didactic; if the poet can impart a message without anyone noticing, good for the poet.  Thus a Wordsworth, who does have something to say, can succeed even in the face of Poe’s “heresy,” while a Robert Lowell, let’s say, stumbles, for Lowell imparts only the vaguest half-lessons, not because his lessons are well-hidden, but because he discursively bungles the HIDING ITSELF precisely because there is very little worth hiding in the first place.

If Lowell’s poem, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” for instance, were coherent in what it were ‘trying to say,’ the melancholy horror might work; but as it is, the poem is unfocused, flat, the transition from the stated theme to “as a small boy…” is clumsy; the poem has no emotional impact not because the theme lacks horror, but because the poet lacks wit.

Here, then are some of the best Lyric Poems of Melancholy Horror, certainly not meant to be definitive:

  1. Darkness  –Byron
  2. Because I Could Not Stop For Death  –Dickinson
  3. Mariana –Tennyson
  4. Bluebeard  –Millay
  5. La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –Keats
  6. The Truth the Dead Know  –Sexton
  7. In the Waiting Room  –Bishop
  8. In Response To A Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, W.VA Has Been Condemned   –James Wright
  9. Pike  –Ted Hughes
  10. Strange Fits of Passion –Wordsworth
  11. Lady Lazarus   –Plath
  12. A Brown Girl Dead  –Countee Cullen
  13. Mental Traveler   –Blake
  14. O Where Are You Going?  –Auden
  15. Sweeney Among the Nightingales   –Eliot
  16. The Men’s Room In the College Chapel  –Snodgrass
  17. Alone  –Poe
  18. The Phantom-Wooer  –Beddoes
  19. My Last Duchess  –Browning
  20. The Tourist From Syracuse  –Donald Justice
  21. Rime of the Ancient Mariner  –Coleridge
  22. Advice To A Raven In Russia (1812) –Barlow d. 1812
  23. Blue-Beard’s Closet  –Rose Terry Cooke
  24. Death of The Hired Man  –Frost
  25. Second Coming  –Yeats
  26. In A Dark Time  –Roethke
  27. Piazza Piece  –Ransom
  28. Nerves   –Arthur Symons
  29. Hunchback in the Park  –Dylan Thomas
  30. Suspira   –Longfellow

GOLDEN GLOBES SNUBS KEATS FILM ‘BRIGHT STAR’

Jane Campion’s gorgeous film, Bright Star, as noted here on Scarriet  [click here and here for our 2 articles], was hardly discussed on the Poetry Foundation’s Blog:Harriet  despite the well-written and timely article by Abigail Deutsch [click here] — yet another example of the failure of Harriet  to discuss anything to do with poetry after the blood-letting of September 1st.

We at Scarriet  had a feeling this sobering, sad, but breathtakingly beautiful effort on behalf of the poet John Keats and his friend Fanny Brawne, by one of the best directors in the business, would be ignored by the entertainment industry’s honoring system as well.

Avoiding every pitfall of the Hollywood bio-pic, Bright Star  features an intelligent script, extremely moving performances by Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider, and Edie Martin, (as Fanny’s little sister) and  is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The old days, when films such as Amadeus and Room With A View earned major nominations and awards, seem to be gone.

Let’s skip the rant on the increase of cultural ignorance—for such a thesis could only be a rant.

We’ll just recommend you get the CD soundtrack, or see Bright Star, with its moving depiction of Keats,  Charles Armitage Brown, Fanny Brawne and her family.

And switch from Harriet to Scarriet, of course, to stay abreast of what’s really happening in poetry!

WHAT IS “MODERN?”

When I was 18 and began to study poetry for the first time, it was obvious to me the Romantic poets were far and away the best models for me in English, as I was not a student of languages then, and contemporary poets were prosaic enough to make a study of them no study of poetry at all.

Had I traveled back 2,000 years to study Homer or Sappho, I should no doubt have become a Greek scholar, but I wished to travel back a hundred years or so and be a poet like Shelley or Byron.

I was informed by my literature professors that poets who wrote in the 19th century were “old-fashioned” and no models for me at all.   Poets who were born in the 19th century, however, were modern—to follow them was the only way to succeed.

This seemed absurd to me.  I wanted Keats for a model.   Keats was…you know…goodKeats was a poet.

The models my professors enforced on me seemed ridiculous.   T.S. Eliot was a banker—with 1920s slicked-back hair and big ears.  Allen Ginsberg was some guy with a beard and a bald spot.   Ezra Pound looked like a Satanist with his pointy beard.

But Keats as a model was out.

I had to pick “moderns.”

Banker.

Guy with bald spot.

Satanist.

The beautiful was out-of-bounds.    It was “old-fashioned.”

I had to marry the hag,  not the lady.

This was my fate if I decided to pursue poetry.

Beauty had nothing to do with it, my professors told me.

Poetry was now the property of science and pragmatic religion.  Protestant revolt and scientific specialization had supplanted the old poetry of beauty—poetry had to specialize, too—everything was breaking into specialized tasks—poetry was no longer about pleasing in a universal manner.   Poetry was now a tiny part of the branching into particulars which modernity was speedily carrying out.

My literature professors were not scientists themselves, but they somberly informed me science had grown up, and it no longer cared for poetry.

The art of poetry, in order not to fall into “amateurism,” had to leave science to the scientists and pursue its own path.

“Poetry now cannot attend science into its technical labyrinth,” as poet and English professor John Crowe Ransom put it in 1938.

Poetry had to grow up, too.

Business and religion and science were grappling with pragmatic matters of new complexity that required a coolness and flinty disposition—the poetic was no longer a help in these areas, but actually a hindrance.

We did not discuss business, religion, or science; literature professors, with a vague sociological authority, assured me these subjects had turned into technical, unfriendly pursuits for the poet; poetry as it had existed was no longer required by the scientist or the businessman or the priest—poetry must survive by turning into a labyrinth of its own.

Poetry had to be “difficult,” as T.S. Eliot (b. 1888)  put it.

Instead of being inspired by the Romantic poets directly, I had to study “moderns” like Allen Ginsberg.

William Blake had inspired Ginsberg, but I couldn’t be inspired by someone as “old-fashioned” as Blake.

I had to go to Allen Ginsberg.

I had to write like the “moderns.”

I had to listen to Ransom (b. 1888) to tell me what was “modern” and what was not—and how poetry existed as “modern.”

Only years later did I realize that “modern” wasn’t modern.  Only later did I realize that poetry and learning are not beholden to any idea of “modern” in the first place.

“Modern” wasn’t modern.    “Modern” was merely a code word for a clique of power brokers who had discovered a sophistry—“modernism”—to validate themselves.

It was a trick.

A trick of coteries and word-play.

A trick as old as the hills.

–Thomas Brady

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