RON SILLIMAN: CRITICAL COWARDICE.

A billion poems!  A million communities!  Help!

Ron Silliman actually spoke on his blog.

We were beginning to think linking videos was all he cared to do now.

But, in his December 21, 2011 end-of-the-year-reflection post, what the hell is Ron Silliman talking about?

The facts Silliman gives us are simple:

He’s in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (but his friend Rae Armantrout is not) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked him to pick the best poetry books of 2011.

Great.

He’s blown away by the number of works in English (from around the world) that are published each year, and how much that number has grown in the last half-century, and he points how much stress this puts on gate-keepers and critcs.

Fine.

But then Silliman enters the crackpot zone:

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

The whole premise of whittling down a “best of” list into ten or 50 or even the 175 names posed by Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is that there is some transcendent single point-of-view from which the dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that engage with poetry can be represented by some single shared set of values. That is simply not true. It is insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest, for example, that Robert Lowell represents some pinnacle of literary value while Langston Hughes does not. But it is equally insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest that Hughes represents such a pinnacle & that Lowell does not. Any professor or critic who might argue either of those positions would be manifestly guilty of malpractice and intellectual fraud. At best.

The truth is that each represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community. One might argue about the nature of these communities, their size, their relative histories and power – Lowell doesn’t represent the 1% any more than Hughes does the 99 – but it is only when viewed through the eyes of their community that we can actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface. And it is only when they are put into the far larger complex of conflicting communities that is the United States – let alone the English language – that we can begin to discover what is truly revelatory about all kinds of verse: the ways they lead us right back to real communities.

It’s ironic that Silliman calls both the Vendler and the Dove camps “insane”—because compared to them, Silliman is more so.

According to Silliman, “the rise of the world wide web” erases “national boundaries” yet expands “community boundaries.”

Silliman wants us to believe that because there is an ever-growing number of people speaking English to each other, we are separated from each other more than ever.

We all speak English in a global conversation, and this global conversation, which has dissolved national borders, this mighty homogeneity thanks to the world wide web, has produced an English conversation in which, poetically, no one can talk to each other, because this poet sitting in a Cincinnatti Starbucks with his Mac is gay and that poet sitting in a New York subway with his PC is not.

Silliman’s wants there be no heterogeneity within his various “communities,” and, at the same time complete heterogeneity within the English-speaking world at-large.

Silliman has not figured out how to apply homogeneity and heterogeneity to the world, and on what scale, and to what purpose, and yet he does so, willy-nilly, and, as he fails to see the miserable arrogance of his agenda, he is certain that any attempt to unite poetry by using any sort of judgment whatsoever is completely tainted by “racism” and “insanity.”  This from a guy who says of Robert Lowell and Langston Hughes:  “only when viewed through the eyes of their community [can we] actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface.”  Are you kidding me?  

No wonder Silliman asserts the powerlessness and uselessness of critics before the all-mighty mass of “communities.” 

He has no critical insight himself.  

This is why poetry has become a vain and trivial exercise.   Silliman’s cowardice before the rock-hard existence of Robert Lowell can be summed up thusly: Robert Lowell can only be appreciated by Robert Lowell’s “community,” hence we as critics must defer to Robert Lowell’s “community”—no matter if universality suffer as a result.  The critic is helpless before the “community” of Robert Lowell.  Robert Lowell’s “community” is what counts, not his poems.

Plato’s “Republic,” in which each part is based on its use to the greater whole, is replaced by Silliman’s tribe-war, in which any concept of the “greater good” is suspect, and Silliman believes in his model because 1) There’s just too much to read and 2) The positions of Vendler and Dove are racist, and any attempt to reconcile the positions of Vendler and Dove with any type of Criticism is automatically even more racist.

To make it even clearer: when reading poetry, the unique requires the universal, and Silliman doesn’t seem to understand that one cannot find the universal in a tribe or a country or a community.  The universal is just that: universal.

Think about this: two major poetry camps in the U.S. in the form of two distinguished authors, Rita Dove and Helen Vendler, are calling each other racist, and Ron Silliman, the ‘outsider’ third pole in the contemporary American poetry equation (yet included in Dove’s 20th century anthology) comes upon their poetry anthology quarrel and says categorically that both their positions are racist.   

Is this what happens in a highbrow art world ruled by “communities?”

We understand the local scenester wants to carve out a poetic identity and when they do, it’s laudable, for it gives poetry a local habitation and a name: the San Francisco scene, or the Detroit scene.  But these “scenes” are finally illusionary.  They have nothing to do with the place, for the “scenesters” themselves are often from other places, and the actual influences on the poetry have nothing to do with the locals—in place or time.  Critics can sniff out the local coffee shops or the local flora, but the anthropology of poetry only takes one so far.  And what happens when the writing doesn’t match “the community?”  Does that make the writing invalid?  

The New Critics focus on the poem, the Romantics, on the poet, and these both have advantages, for reasons too numerous to name; but what is this obsession with “community” all about?  It’s petty, trivial, and stupid, finally; it presupposes a whole host of things in relation to the poetry which simply don’t exist.  

Silliman’s approach to poetry is birdwatching with no birds.

THE SCARRIET 2011 FINAL FOUR

Poetic reputation: do we want to know how the sausage gets made?

Last year, the Scarriet Final Four, using David Lehman’s Best American Poetry volumes 1988 through 2009, was “That’s Not Butter” by Reb Livingston, “Composed Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” by Billy Collins, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, and “The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite” by William Kulik.

This year, using Berg and Vogelsang’s American Poetry Review’s anthology, The Body Electric, we got “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, “Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles, and “What They Wanted” by Stephen Dunn.  How the Brit Larkin slipped in, we’re not sure, but he was included in the APR, and won his games fair and square to advance to the Final Four.  Creedon, Dunn, and Myles are not exactly household words.

Last week Jeopardy! had an American Poetry category: Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Ginsberg were the five answers: Stevens‘ most famous poem, “The Emperor of Icecream,” drew a blank, as did Ginsberg and Hughes; only Frost and Nash were recognized by one of the three Jeopardy! contestants.

As we have watched a field of 64 get reduced to four, and then one, for two years now, we wonder if Scarriet’s March Madness Tourney is the only such competition in the world.

There are many who sneer at poetry and competition.  But look, when a poet wins a major prize today, when a poet wins recognition, should we really be so naive or hypocritical in convincing ourselves that the renown of someone like John Ashbery is not the result of poems and poets competing against each other?

And if not, what the hell is it?

What pushes someone like Ashbery to the top?

I ask this, because to win a March Madness Tournament, you have to have a poem entered that’s good enough to beat other poems, in match-up after match-up, and I don’t know that Ashbery has one poem that has that ‘breakthrough’ quality to win against “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, for instance.  Ashbery’s poems all read like clever jokes, and such poems don’t tend to win against the really accomplished poem of poignancy and beauty. I doubt an Ashbery poem could go very far in a March Madness Tournament, under the scrutiny of refs and rabid fans.

Ashbery defeated O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poetry Prize—one judge, Auden, played his own “March Madness Tournament,” after smoking a few hundred cigarettes, and Ashbery won that Tournament.   From a just issued review:

Wasley’s book [The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene, Princeton U. Press] vividly catalogues Auden’s social connections, friendships and influence among East Coast, Ivy League-educated, formal, emerging poets. Ginsberg and Ashbery wrote college essays on Auden; the pre-Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath adored Auden’s “burlap-textured voice”. We’re taken to parties and table talk, and to theatres where Auden explains a play’s reference to the entire mezzanine: “Shelley, my dears!” Still, must we learn who drilled the peephole to the toilet? Who looked?

This lineage study is redolent of smoking-jacket, anecdote and club. Auden dislikes the Yale Younger Poets submissions; he asks Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for manuscripts (or Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover, does); Ashbery’s poems are selected. Nowadays, if a public university manages its competitions this way, it will be exposed and condemned (as in the case of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series). Nearly everyone – poets, critics, even Wasley’s back-cover blurbers – is from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton.

Did you catch that?  Both Ashbery (Harvard) and Ginsberg (Columbia) wrote Ivy League college essays on Auden.

Iowa wasn’t the only place where the U.S. Poetry Workshop formula was being pushed in the 1940s; Allen Tate, one of the leading figures in the Anglo-American Modernist Clique—which got its ultimate marching orders from Pound and Eliot—started the ball rolling at Princeton, and Auden was Eliot’s chosen trans-Atlantic successor.

Maybe Chester Kallman ran into Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery, or Allen Ginsberg in a men’s room, and the rest is history?

Anyway, the point is, there’s always going to be competition—winners and losers—and to pretend this is not the situation, is silly.  To pretend ignorance only make the “winning” that much more dubious, and perhaps, unfair.

Note, also, how the work of Foetry.com (which exposed the U.GA Poetry Series when Alan Cordle caught Bin Ramke cheating) is now part of the normal poetry dialogue these days.  We hope you caught that, too.

Everyone in their hearts knows there are winners and losers in poetry; the question is, do we have the courage to make the process as transparent as possible?

HOW DO WE TEACH POETRY?

Is it just me, or does modernist poetics seem puerile in the extreme?

In my (2003) Norton -Third Edition- of Modern Poetry (including Contemporary vol. 2 which Scarriet will review later) there are 864 pages of poetry and 135 pages of poetics, the latter of which contain nothing that could be called iconic or indispensible, except perhaps T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Walt Whitman is the first entry.  But he had no poetics.  Whitman: “here are the roughs and beards and space…”  Etc.  With Walt we get the rhetoric of Emersonian expanse, which in its good will and windiness, finally cancels itself out.  Poetics?  Pastry.

Next we get a few of Emily Dickinson’s letters to T.W. Higginson—which not only contain no poetics, but do not even show Emily  in a very good light; her wheedling tone is not attractive.

Next, some letters by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” 

No doubt. 

“I had long had haunting my ear the echo of a new rhythm…it consists in scanning by accents or stresses alone…I do not say the idea is altogether new…”

Doh! not new at all.

Then we have W.B. Yeats, and who reads his prose?    Yeats and his friend, Arthur Symons, influenced Ezra Pound and Eliot; Yeats writes, “The Symbolist Movement in Literature [is] a subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me,” and Yeats is right: the book is so subtle that today none care what Symons had to say about “symbolism,” a word used in so many subtle ways since Symons’ day that the word has now returned to its orginal meaning: ‘this stands for that,’ and everyone is happier.

Yeats:  “A poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table,  there is always phantasmagoria.”  And Yeats, again: “Style is always unconscious.  I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.”

Well, he’s honest.

Next up, T.E. Hulme, expelled from Cambridge U. in 1904, part of Ford Madox Ford & Pound’s Imagism crew, “a critic of pacifism,” WW I casualty : “I object even to the best of the romantics.  I object to the sloppiness…”

Oh, is that what the best poets in English were?  Sloppy?

Now we get a real treat: excerpts from the magazine Blast.  Like most little modernist magazines, it lasted only a few issues, even as some now-forgotten female, an heiress or lady of title, was emptying her bank account for it, just so the world could be honored by the wisdom of Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis and E. Pound:

“BLESS ENGLAND!”

“The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius—”

“In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND, has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art.”

“Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke.”

“Fairies have disappeared from Ireland (despite foolish attempts to revive them) and the bull-ring languishes in Spain.  But mysticsm on the one hand, gladiatorial instincts, blood and asceticism on the other, will be always actual, and springs of Creation for these two peoples.”

“England is just now the most famous favourable country for the appearance of great art.”

“…our race, the most fundamentally English.”

“We assert that the art for these climates, then, must be a Northern flower.”

“It cannot be said tht the complication of the Jungle, dramatic tropical growth, the vastness of American trees, is not for us.”

“Once the consciousness towards the new possibilities of expression in present life has come, however—it will be more the legitimate property of Englishmen than of any other people in Europe…”

I wish I could say BLAST was merely English patriotism, but knowing something about the authors, I have a feeling it is something far worse…

There follows a “Feminist Manifesto” from Mina Loy, which tells women:

“To obtain results you must make sacrifices & the first & greatest sacrifice you have to make is of your “virtue” the fictitious value of woman as identified with her physical purity…”

No wonder Loy was one of the few women intellectuals invited into the Modernist men’s club…

After a two very brief prologues (Amy Lowell and Wilfred Owen) E. Pound returns with gems such as:

“Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.
   The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s ‘Drover’: his ‘O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die’: Joyce’s ‘I hear an army’; the lines of Yeats that ring in my head and in the heads of all young men of my time who care for poetry: Braseal and the Fisherman, ‘The fire that stirs about her when she stirs’; the later lines of ‘The Scholars,’ the faces of the Magi; William Carlos Williams’ ‘Postlude,’ Aldington’s version of ‘Athis,’ and ‘H.D.’s” waves like pine tops, and her verse in ‘Des Imagistes’ the first anthology; Hueffer’s [Ford M. Ford] ‘How red your lips are’ in his translation from Von der Vogelweide, his ‘Three Ten,’ the general effect of his ‘On Heaven’; his sense of the prose values or prose qualities in poetry; his ability to write poems that will sing to music…”

E. Pound names “the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head” and they are all his publishing partners and friends!  What a startling coincidence!  Joyce, Yeats, Williams, Aldington, H.D, and Ford Madox Ford!  How uncanny!  What exquisite taste!  What rare and discerning judgment! 

We are now two-thirds done with “Poetics” of the Moderns, which commenced with Whitman.

T.S. Eliot gets 10 pages. 

Next, William Carlos Williams, from the prologue to Kora In Hell:

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.  To me this is the gist of the whole matter.”

Can anyone tell me what this means.  Or this: 

“The instability of these improvisations would seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention and become particles of a wind that falters.  It would appear to the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly.  It would be these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools.”

Enough of Mr. Williams.  He is too busy fighting off  “fools…”

D.H. Lawrence (a preface to New Poems, U.S. edition) follows:

“Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds.  Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.”

Yes, by all means!

Langston Hughes makes an appearance:

“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’  And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Enough of that logic…

Next, Hart Crane defends his ‘At Melville’s Tomb’ in a letter to Poetry editor Harriet Monroe.  She found the poem obscure.  It is obscure.  Hopelessly so—Monroe was right.

Wallace Stevens’ turn:

“Poetry is not personal.”

“All poetry is experimental poetry.”

“It is the belief and not the god that counts.”

“Poetry must be irrational.”

“We live in the mind.

“Every man dies his own death.”

“Realism is a corruption of reality.”

And other gems. 

The final 25 pages of “Poetics” finds 3 pages of Robert Frost (The Figure A Poem Makes), 7 pages from a Transatlantic Interview with the crackpot Gertrude Stein, 6 pages of  Marianne Moore (6 too many) and finally, 10 pages of W. H. Auden, from The Dyer’s Hand

What is wonderful about Mr. Auden is that he is only educated modern poet who does not speak down to his audience.

It is probably  no surprise that modernist poetics is so paltry.  Modern poetry is enjoyed by the few, and with the general public out of the way, the old need to apologize for, or defend, poetry is no longer there.   Small ideas appeal to small audiences, and since the modern poets have turned their backs on the larger public, small has been the rule.

Unfortunately, however, I have the uncomfortable feeling that modern poetics is less than small.  Something about it feels downright silly and childish, or even worse, manifesto-ish.  And still worse: obscure, grumpy, condescending.

I don’t see how one would want to teach Homer without teaching Plato at the same time;  nor would I ever dream of teaching modern poetry without first teaching Homer and Plato, Dante and Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, Shelley and Poe.   I don’t see how what is typically taught as modern poetics can even be called poetics at all, when compared to what came before.

But that’s just me.

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten dass ich so traurig bin

Lyric Poetry

Sung to the lyre, it has a certain fascination. American lyrics from Irish ballads to Emily Dickinson to Annie Finch. Whitman, that lyric maelstrom. What about Heine? Could any man write these lyrics now? Is lyric poetry only written by women today? And then there’s Dylan (Bob) with the “lowest form” of lyric: the song lyric.

Most poetry is lyric, isn’t it?

W.F.Kammann

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………………………………….Harlem

………………………………….What happens to a dream deferred?

………………………………….Does it dry up
………………………………….like a raisin in the sun?
………………………………….Or fester like a sore—
………………………………….And then run?
………………………………….Does it stink like rotten meat?
………………………………….Or crust and sugar over—
………………………………….like a syrupy sweet?

………………………………….Maybe it just sags
………………………………… like a heavy load.

………………………………….Or does it explode?

………………………………………………………………..Langston Hughes

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