Image result for da Vinci astronomy

The Left in the U.S. today has sought to justify its increasing extremism by calling whatever it disagrees with “hate speech.”

The terrifying lack of logic (the Left drips with hate for Trump—so is it censoring itself?) is easily parried.

Hate is a right.

There is no loving without hating.

Feelings of disgust (hatred) contribute, directly, or indirectly, to all valid aesthetic responses.

This aesthetic truth—that feelings of hate and disgust are requirements for appreciating art—is self-evident.

Aesthetics is based on liking certain things—and to dislike certain things belongs to the same coin.

Truth in art (since everything we mean by the word “art” is what is practiced by human beings) easily translates into truths of other social activities—such as politics.

Art influencing politics (and science) does not happen often, these days—the general public doesn’t trust art since Modern Art’s inscrutability became the rule.

The condescending platitudes of the 20th century art professor (think of John Dewey telling us “convention” gets in the way of “experience”) don’t help.

Poets (Milton) once contributed to statecraft.

Painters (da Vinci) were once scientists, and understood the connection between astronomy, geometry, and painterly perspective.

Artists and poets these days profess freedom, and that’s it—pleasant enough, but good for neither science nor statecraft.

Aesthetics cannot exist without disgust.

Love needs hate.

Hate is never a danger in itself. Violence and specific threats, yes. Hate speech is protected (by the Constitution) and should never be seen as dangerous. The free expression of hate is healthy.

If we give in to the temptation to hate hate, then hate becomes bad, and since hatred of bad things is in everyone’s heart, hate itself should never be seen as bad.

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Hybrid, collage portrait. Which has less charm? Modern poetry or modern art?


Hey y’all.

As an art school trained painter and a self inflicted poet, I find it interesting to observe the differences between visual art and literature; or more specifically, the difference between drawing and writing.

In visual art (drawing), one is challenged to “represent” what they “see” by way of marks on paper. Initial attempts are typically awful. Continued failure leads to frustration and abandonment, or else the determination to “learn” how do draw. Such learning requires one to engage in the reciprocal activity of practicing drawing “methods” while simultaneously understanding the nature of the visual forms those methods are meant to capture. It is only through this interplay of method and understanding that one can begin to draw what they see.

At which point one realizes the meta-lesson of drawing, which is that nobody draws what they see. You can only draw what you KNOW about what you see. That knowledge… visual knowledge… is not the same as vision. After all, most everyone has two eyes by which to see… but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive. And the reason is that their knowledge of visual forms and methods is (well)… primitive.

A further implication is that the drawing (as art object) is not equivalent to the visual perception of the subject matter of the drawing. In other words, a drawing of an apple is not an apple. The drawing is a representation only… a mental construct… a methodological translation of visual perception via the artistic form of a drawing.

All of this might seem terribly boring and inapplicable to the subject at hand. But if you indulge me for another minute… and lay your egos aside… then maybe I can make my point. Which is this. I have never gotten the impression that writers consider writing to be a “methodological translation” of (let’s say) interior thoughts and feelings, into the artistic form of the written word.

I think the reason for this is that we are all able to speak and write with some proficiency from an early age. I could also include the activity of contemplating ideas in our minds, and of subconscious processes… which we (kind-a) assume to be language based. These very powerful tools (thinking, reading, writing, speaking) allow us to think and imagine VERY GREAT things. Yet when we attempt to write it down… it’s not so easy. And this is no different from the artist… who might peer out into some beautiful landscape and be filled with desire to represent what he perceives and feels, yet be unable to do so. But whereas the artist is forced to reconcile his failures with the need to learn a method and to grasp the nature of visual form (as a translation between vision and representation)… I wonder if writers see their failure in these same terms.

Or does the writer simply “work harder”… or “write what they know”… or “keep plugging away”… or “writer’s write”… or “never give up”…. or a thousand other ways to say the same thing… admonishments to pound away at reality… that somehow representations will condense NOT out of understanding, but of somehow aligning the monkeys in our brains to coincidentally type out the works of Shakespeare. But just as a drawing is not the hand’s record of the light striking your retina… the written word is not a passive record of the mind’s ability to cogitate and speak out loud. But I wonder if writers know this? Or does the immediate accessibility of language mask the distinction?

Another aspect of this distinction is that in the visual arts, the impact of artistic theories are well understood, and are considered to be highly relevant. In fact, any good art school program is going to require a thorough grounding in the history of art from ancient times to the present day. This is an enormous investigation into cultural history. Artists are meant to take such things very very seriously, and are meant to understand that the nature of artistic method and form and meaning derive from such cultural moments as have occurred over time.

But I have to wonder if writers think of writing in the same way. For instance… do writers ever wonder about the writing skills of ancient Egyptians? Because artists are very aware of the art of ancient Egypt.

Visual artists are taught to understand that ancient architectural forms are rooted in archetypical associations that the human species has evolved from out of their prehistory. Are there any analogous ideas that writers possess about their own artistic heritage? Are writers schooled in the social and artistic shifts underlying the sea-change of the Late Gothic transition to the early Renaissance? Visual artists sure are. In fact, they make Pilgrimages to Rome and Florence and Venice just to lay their eyes on the art… to sit under the sun and absorb the aura of history, and thereby to connect with the meanings of these things. Do writers do such things? Or are words just words and everyone has them and all you need to do is pound away at a typewriter until it just pops out of you? Is writing like a piano… a music making machine that you only need whack at until a tune emerges? And when it does, you claim it as your own, and marvel at the mystery of your own origin… and try not to consider that it might all be happy accidents and the accommodating of the random.

I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I think that writers have no sense of these things, or of writing as an activity distinct from the basic language skills of talking and thinking and jotting stuff down. In truth, most visual artists don’t give a damn about the things I’ve waxed on about. The difference is this… that they are supposed to… whereas writers have no such presumption built into their activity.

And so it should come as no surprise that when poetry falls victim to the ravages of modernist or post- modernist theories of everything… that writers should twist in the wind and wonder what the hell is gone wrong. But such things are no surprise to visual artists, who only need look around and see all the crap contemporary art floating about the world. We see it everyday too. But at least we know what it is, and why it is. Because we are trained to know these things. Because art comes out of theories and methods… not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts. Bad theories and absent methods lead to the destruction of art. The alternative isn’t to abandon ideas, but to understand that good ideas must be asserted. In the visual arts, such advocacy is mistakenly assumed to be a return to the art of the past… to neo-classical style paintings of nudes and heroic figures in togas. Which is ridiculous. But this is no different a mistake than when some poets try to defeat bad post-modern poetry by adopting the writing styles of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The history of any art does not exist to be mindlessly rejected or mindlessly copied. What good can come out of mindlessness? It exists as a repository of ideas from which some meaningful “next thing” might emerge. Who knows what it is. I try to make this point to visual artists… but nobody seems to give a damn. So now I’m making it here in this poetry blog. And this is an uphill battle I suppose, because writers are not trained like visual artists, and they may not be aware of what they are really trying to do. So maybe writers should stop screaming about bad poems, and begin instead the difficult task of understanding the nature of the writer word at all.


One of the Scarriet editors works at a large, urban, liberal arts university (once a teacher’s college), which recently acquired an art school; Scarriet covers not only the decline of poetry, but how art, poetry and philosophy mingle, so you can imagine our excitement at finding this learned and lengthy comment on our “Why Poetry Sucks Now” post, a delightful comment which Scarriet has elevated to a post of its own.

“Art comes out of theories and methods…not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts.”

So says the “art school trained painter,” who reminds us that “nobody draws what they see…they only draw what they KNOW about what they see…visual knowledge is not the same as vision…” and “do the writers know this?” Further: artists know art is a “methodological translation” of reality, where writers, by comparison, seem to be mere “passive” (and random!) recording devices of what is universally accessible to all: language.

We agree entirely with the gist of this, and though we are a writer, not a painter, we feel no insult at all, and we are illuminated by the truth of what this painter has—written.

The truth of painting’s superiority to writing was put most forcefully by da Vinci, who said the experience of the eye is the beginning and proof of all science: discontinuous quantity (arithmetic), continuous quantity (geometry) and perspective the holy trinity of astronomy and all human knowledge—painting as the body, poetry merely its shadow. Body (substance and its measurement) trumps Blah Blah Blah. Absolutely.

However, there is a “writing method” tradition—embodied in full by Edgar Poe (unfortunately not taught in writing programs) who we never tire of quoting; the following, from the Master, reflects the thinking of our art school trained painter:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or authorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

Poe rigorously asserts the secret of all composition—and all morals: in the beginning (the intention) we discover our end (the effect)—and the myriad details, of drawing or writing, fall into place, or should fall into place, in the execution. By this method, these are eliminated: The random, the details which overwhelm, and self-indulgence.

The point our painter makes in his comment—that we draw what we know about what we see, not what we see—is, we feel, a reiteration of Poe’s method, and here an important point about ‘knowing’ should be made.

The separation between knowing and seeing does not exist because seeing needs correcting or is insufficient—the natural seeing humans do reflects nature’s efficiency: perspective which makes distant objects small, for instance, is the perfect solution to the over-crowding of the visual field: and understanding perspective is an understanding which is not distinct from seeing, but is the same as seeing: the “knowing” the artist is engaged in is nothing more than a selecting, a framing, a focusing—and not something superior to seeing; it is the very same thing Poe refers to when he says, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions…which one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”

Here is the vital point: the distinction which our art school trained painter makes between vision and visual knowledge is different than we suppose: “visual knowledge” is not something which stands above and apart from “vision;” quite the opposite: vision is the whole, visual knowledge is the part, of the whole thing. Vision is natural and perfect, visual knowledge is imperfect and contingent. Visual knowledge is the narrow “effect,” of which vision is the cause, and the connection between visual knowledge and vision is seamless. All training, all knowledge, is nothing more than focus: both the artist and the writer do not see more; they see less than the layperson; all knowledge is knowledge of what to ignore: what not to see, what not to write, what not to draw.

Modern poetry errs in making poetry subordinate to prose-ideas; modern art errs in making painting subordinate to collage-ideas.

The answer is not simply, “less is more,” but how (to what end) does the artist make less more?

Plato (and who cares if he wore a toga?) is another thinker who tells us that vision (reality) trumps visual knowledge (art), since vision is the true knowledge of which visual knowledge (art) attempts to unfairly usurp—not because knowledge should not be trusted, but because knowledge is not what we think it is: the vision IS the knowledge, the vision (reality) contains far more perfectly and ultimately the knowledge, of which art-knowledge (and writing-knowledge) slyly hides—especially if the untrustworthy student falls in love with representation, illusion, and dream passionately spun by the sophist for all sorts of partially realized reasons dripping with bad taste.

The “methodological” in our art school painter’s “methodological translation” of reality contains two simple things: first, the focus, or selection, we just discussed above (the selective nature of reality informing the selective nature of human vision) and second, the good.  We finally want to do good, to produce good, to have a good effect, and here, of course, we refer to Plato’s ‘the good,’ which has other names: justice, happiness, beauty.

Things go haywire when the hubris of human knowledge thinking itself superior to natural seeing, sensing, and feeling takes precedence. “I’m not drawing what I see!” cries the sophisticated painter, “I’m working within  specialized knowledge!” Ah, so this is why your painting is bland, trivial, confusing, with lines and colors leading nowhere, a hybrid collage of no real purpose. And the poet who writes poetry which rambles incoherently, having no coherence or lasting interest, is mistakenly certain in that human knowledge which is entirely separate from the effect the poem is actually having. This error arises from the belief that “visual knowledge” is superior to “vision.”

But the objection might come: No! The ‘good’ resides in human knowledge, in human attempts at it, not in simple vision, not in haphazard, unadorned reality, not in nature, red in tooth and claw.  You wrongly assume that “this is the best of all possible worlds” and that to merely copy the beautiful and perfect world is enough, and no ideas are necessary; you say the real method is to simply frame part of (what is called by you) “reality.” No, sorry.

But this objection misses several important points: Vision, as it operates everywhere, is efficient and remarkable, and is not the same as “nature, red in tooth and claw.” This is to confuse reality with our special feelings about it. Reality is not “unadorned” or “simple,” and copying it is never simple. “Copying” reality is a highly complex endeavor—our art school trained artist puts it succinctly: “most everyone has two eyes to see, but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive.” Exactly. Human pride believes the complexity resides in the imposition of method, when true method copies nature with da Vinci’s open eyes.

The artist and the poet are finally united by the philosophy which begins with an effect—a design guided by the morality of justice/beauty in terms of what scientifically the senses, as senses, understand, measure, and know.


In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”


It might help us to speak not only of what poetry can do, but of what it cannot do.

Seth Abramson is excited about what he calls meta-modernism:

I believe that poetry is on the cusp of something big—a sea change in which we begin to arc generatively toward other creative genres (most notably, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, music, and stand up comedy) rather than retreating farther still into the more obscure recesses of literary theory and those 1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.” 1/3/14 Facebook

Abramson’s list of “other creative genres” leaves out the visual arts, which turns out to be part of the problem (1950s conceptualist techniques).

Two things must be said at this point.

First, pre-modern, pre-Painted Word, pre-Conceptual painting can be a great help to us here in terms of how the known, physical universe is depicted scientifically.

Second, Abramson’s “sea change” of meta-modernism (growing out of Modernism and post-Modernism’s eclectic freedoms) in its multi-genre mingling, calls to mind a passage from Da Vinci’s 500 year old argument, in which painting (not respected then as much as vocalized, self-praising poetry) is found vastly superior to poetry for ostentatiously simple reasons: painting can reveal harmony instantaneously, permanently, and uniquely, even to animals, whereas poetry must laboriously and slowly show a face, for instance, part by part, so that any united proportion is hopelessly dismembered.

Poetry does not imitate nature. It imitates spoken words.

Now listen to how modern and how like Abramson! Da Vinci sounds when discussing what poetry can do:

…the poet remains far behind the painter with respect to the representation of corporeal things, and, with respect to invisible things, he remains behind the musician.

But if the poet borrows assistance from the other sciences, he may be compared to those merchants at fairs who stock varied items made by different manufacturers. The poet does this when he borrows from other sciences, such as those of the orator, philosopher, cosmographer and suchlike, whose sciences are completely separate from that of the poet. Thus the poet becomes a broker, who gathers various persons together to conclude a deal. If you wish to discover the true office of the poet, you will find that he is nothing other than an accumulator of things stolen from various sciences, with which he fabricates a deceitful composition—or we may more fairly say a fictional composition. And in that he is free to make such fictions the poet parallels the painter, although this is the weakest part of painting.

Da Vinci’s poet as broker speech, if never met before, has to give the modern reader pause–Da Vinci’s poet as “accumulator of things stolen from various sciences” recalls every modern trope from the Cantos to collage, such that claims for “the new” by moderns are perhaps more mundane than people think; Abramson’s “poetry is on the cusp of something big” with “other creative genres,” depends, too, on Da Vinci’s formula, though of course we hate to rain on a poet’s parade.

More importantly, however: when Da Vinci says things like

Poet, your pen will be worn out before you have fully described something that the painter may present to you instantaneously using his science.

he is not hiding behind what Abramson calls the “recesses of literary theory” or “1950s visual arts techniques now going by the misnomer “Conceptualism.”

The physical universe and the manner in which poetry and painting are able to imitate it does not belong to speculative theory; it belongs to science, and poets would do well to understand it.

Poets cannot escape the eye and its expectations. The comparison with painting is not something the poet can brush aside; poets, painters, and their different mediums live in the same world and imitate the same things—but how differently!

As Da Vinci advises:

The only true office of the poet is to invent words for people who talk to each other. Only these words can he represent naturally to the sense of hearing because they are in themselves the natural things that are created by the human voice. But in all other respects he is bettered by the painter.

For a poet to close his ears to this will not help the poet at all. Even if Da Vinci the painter were merely bragging, it will profit the poet to wrestle with the whole notion of strengths and weaknesses of methods of imitation.

Most poets assume that words can do anything, and poetry is immune to material laws.

But is it?


Psychology and the social sciences are too in love with their own sophisticated terminology within their own scientific-tinged aspects to recognize what most people rather crudely refer to as a “broken heart.”

The heart is the most important thing in existence, but science sees it either as an organ that pumps blood or a valentine shape of mere sentimentality.  But broken hearts do exist, and the heart that is broken is real, and the sciences “of the heart,” psychology, the social sciences, the whole of the humanities, in fact, is but a square shape of no consequence compared to—and there is no other way of saying it—the human heart.

What is the heart?

The heart can only be described as that which escapes breaking—or does not escape this fate.

There is no greater tragedy than a broken heart, and yet it often happens—because it happens to the heart—without the world noticing.

It happens to many in high school, or in college, or right after college; someone—who may not even intend to do it—breaks your heart, and the heart that never stops giving suddenly stops giving—the innocence of the child—who wonders and loves—is no more.

The heart, once broken, never really heals, and the broken-hearted soul tries, but never quite loves again.  They have an organ which pumps blood, but they no longer have a heart.  They cannot love.  They are wary of true love. They call true love impossible or naive. Lack of trust or paranoia is the symptom of the heart—which belongs to a soul—that is broken.

For the broken-hearted, belief in love fades like the stars in the face of routine day.

Can the broken-hearted write poetry?

No, they cannot.

The broken-hearted do everything to relieve their pain; they stupidly meditate, they thrill to cheap entertainment, habits become a narcotic, they drink, they laugh, they retreat from the world, they take poetry classes, they get Ph.D.s, they explain, they make money, they have affairs.  But the broken heart, even amid the laughter, hangs on like an odor. It never goes away.

And those rare few, those happy few, those poets whom the world praises?

They are the fortunate souls who miraculously managed to miss, by pure luck or innocence, the most terrible of fates—the broken heart.

There is only one thing you must resist, if you feel there is hope for your heart, for your capacity to love: when you look in the face of the rare poet who smiles serenely—who smiles from the heart, for the sole reason that it feels good to smile—do not envy them.  Smile back with your heart.  Have no thoughts but good ones. Stay in that place for minutes, for hours, for days, for years.


Stephen Burt: Doesn’t look great in a jacket.  Prefers wearing a blouse.

We were amused to read the recent piece on Stephen Burt in the New York Times with the large color photo of Burt, the cross-dresser, sitting at an outdoor table in Harvard Square.  A cross-dresser?  Really?  I had no idea.

I was also a little puzzled by the Times’ claim that Burt is a “king-maker;” how do these rumors get started?

Helen Vendler, who Burt is slated to replace, is not really a “king-maker.”  Vendler gave some help to Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, and  Burt, himself, but she’s mostly invested herself in Wallace Stevens.  The shadow of High Modernism is a very big shadow.

In the Times article, only one poet was mentioned who Burt had “made,” and she was an obscure one.

I had to laugh at the explanation of how she was “made,” when the Times writer intoned re: an award committee: “Burt was one of the jurors”—as if this had never happened before!

I also chuckled when it was pointed out that Burt was “a science fiction fan” and a member of “Facebook”—as if these were meaningful and unusual things.

Chief, perhaps, to Burt’s claim to fame, and dutifully cited by the Times, are a couple of definitional coinages of Burt’s: “Elliptical Poetry” and “The New Thing.”

There’s a problem with these, however.

Burt’s definitions of “Elliptical Poetry” and the poetry of “The New Thing” are rambling, narrowly topical, and lack epigrammatic focus.  Both definitions do little more than throw around names.  Take a half a cup of Gertrude Stein and add one tablespoon of John Ashbery… 

Even worse for Burt: “Elliptical Poetry,” with a more coherent definition, was actually a term invented by Frederick Pottle and discussed by Robert Penn Warren’s “Pure and Impure Poetry,” a lecture at Princeton and later published in Ransom’s Kenyon Review. (Wikipedia on Elliptical Poetry needs to be fixed.)

Here is Burt’s (twisted) definition of Elliptical Poetry:

Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-‘postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.

This is all very vague: “try to manifest,” “verbal gizmos,” “post-avant-gardist,” “low and high diction,” “almost-stories,” and “television.” 

Perhaps the point is to be vague—after all , we’ve come a long way since critics of poetry fretted over “learning versus pleasure” and “prose versus poetry” and “ideas versus music.” 

But is it a “long way” if you’ve run off the dock into the utterly obscure?  Should critics be vague?  For instance, what does Burt mean by “coherent speaking selves?”  Is he talking about a dramatic speaker, like the narrator in Poe’s “Raven?”  Or the speaker in “The Red Wheel Barrow?”  Or the speakers in “The Waste Land?”  Or the narrator of “Howl?”

Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” is post-modern, but it also has clarity and historic reach.  It’s possible to be topical without being attenuated, to allow Sidney’s Defense to discover things in Eliot’s Sacred Wood.  “Post-avant-gardist verbal gizmos” are not everything.

Burt gets published everywhere, but we haven’t figured out yet whether this is a good thing.   His Boston Globe piece on the Foetry website  steered me in that direction many years ago, so I guess that was good.

Unlike Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, Burt is a poet, and his poetry is similar to his criticism: meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse:


Inland, the antique milemarkers spread
themselves out into twentieth-century lanes,

jammed up this afternoon, though built for speed—
sun-harmed, old news, old toys, they bury the lead

of Prudence Crandall’s schoolroom heritage,
her kettle of cider, her wishes traced by hand.

We miss her now. We parcel out her land.
Town halls fade into greenery like spies.

New London’s keeping Groton in its sights;
its drawbridge swings, a military career.

New Haven is old scores and old concrete,
old freeways where the Great Migration stalled;

the Sound turns agate, band by frozen band.
By Haddam, there are only Linens-n-Things

and other things, great mounds, whole civilizations
still glowing in faint spits along Route Nine…

I miss the Great Society with its sense
that we could redraw maps that ailed us, gone

in a mist of real estate and demonstrations,
three or four angry years before I was born.

One is obliged to be impressed by poetry like this, but in one’s heart one is only slightly moved.

Mark Oppenheimer, the author of the Times article, writes:

Burt has few critics — or few critics who, given his influence, will be quoted. An exception is Steve Evans, who teaches at the University of Maine and says that Burt is often late to the party, putting his seal of approval on poets, like Armantrout, who have been important for years. But the more common critique is that Burt is too positive. And while Burt does write negative reviews, he writes so much, and so many of his reviews are songs of praise, that he can seem like a relentless, passionate booster — a fanboy.

The fanboy is, by his nature, an imperfect evangelist. I find Burt’s lucid, insightful explications of poems energizing: they make you want to discover more of that poet’s work. But there is something unnerving about his voracious enthusiasm. It’s the feeling you got hanging out with the kid who had every bootleg by his 100 favorite bands, or with the sci-fi junkie, or the film buff. They are obsessives, completists, and they overwhelm.

Burt is finally curatorial, not imaginative or original; he’s not an inventor.  He makes lists, but not insights.  When the Times revealed his predilection for dressing as a woman, I couldn’t help but recall these combative words by Leonardo Da Vinci as they might pertain to Stephen Burt, the cross-dressing, fan-boy of Letters:

They will say that since I do not have literary learning I cannot possibly express the things I wish to treat, but they do not grasp that my concerns are better handled through experience rather than bookishness. Though I may not know, like them, how to cite from the authors, I will cite something far more worthy, quoting experience, mistress of their masters. These very people go about inflated and pompous, clothed and adorned not with their own labours but with those of others. If they disparage me as an inventor, how much more they, who never invented anything but are trumpeters and reciters of the works of others, are open to criticism. Moreover those men who are inventors are interpreters of nature, and when those men are compared to the reciters and turmpeters of the works of others, they should be judged and appraised in relation to each other in no other way than the object in front of a mirror may be judged to surpass its reflection, for the former is actually something and the other nothing.  People who are little reliant upon nature are dressed in borrowed clothes, without which I would rank them with the herds of beasts.


Imagination is not just one thing we have—it is the only thing we have.

Imagination is how we experience the world. No other person or thing experiences it for us. Only we experience the world—which is the same thing as saying only we experience ourselves.

When someone is rude or short with us, or fails to meet our expectations, we feel pain beyond the rebuke itself because this is a glimpse into the truth that every soul is trapped in its own imagination: communication exists, but it is not communication with you. Even when someone loves you, they are not loving you—they are simply in an imaginatively loving state. None of us are capable of loving another, but some of us are able to love—by using our imaginations.

Individuality exists only so much as it feeds into a type. The imagination is able to combine types, but it cannot appreciate individuality, since imagination depends on universals, and universals depend on types.

These observations are only true of myself, and only so much as I am a universal, will they make any sense to you. The detail I invoke requires participation in a type for you to understand it.

Details are only experienced as they participate in a type. If a recognizable type is not acheived by the imagination, the detail will not be seen as useful, but will be felt as a waste or an annoyance.

This is easily demonstrated by song—a note is welcome as it contributes to the tune. One wrong note can destroy the loved and familiar musical phrase.

The imagination can re-work wrong notes into an improvisational framework or coloring—the variation on a theme relaxes this precision, yet improvisation takes skill, and notes will sound wrong if the governing spirit of the improvising musician is not doing its imaginative work. The imagination makes details disappear into a higher unity.

We can break it down morally.  Good aspires to a higher unity. Evil descends from higher unity into chaos. Stupidity has no idea of unity, or type, at all.

The imagination: there is no outside to it, and it is all we have.

An objection will arise: but the world outside is real and the world outside defines the imagination, etc

To this objection we respond: We are not defining the world, we are defining the imagination—and this is the only way to do it.

We can make a list of all the things in the world, but what can the actions of human beings possibly have to do with this list? Reality’s list is too large to have any impact. If reality is more than a word, we must acknowledge its bulk—a tiny part of it is enough to overwhelm. Reality filters into our imagination from a limited perspective in time and space—the imaginative reality is our only reality.

This is not to say that artistic consciousness is some kind of goal or ideal—it is not.  Given what has already been said, all of us are artists already. The worldly vanity of the artiste shall be safely ignored.  Poets need not prove they are poets—but that their reader is.

The poet should be involved in demonstrating imaginative skill, not attempting to convey what is real. Perspective in painting, for instance, as art history has demonstrated, is imaginative—the merely flat canvas is real.  Where should the poet’s desire lie?

Happiness belongs to our imagination.  Reality gives us food out of necessity—eating is pleasurable when it is social and imaginative, not when it is natural. Yes, sugar is a delight and is found in nature—but too much sugar makes us miserable.  The imagination, in its harmony and beauty, curbs all excess. The imagination requires no checks, as nature does, for imagination’s measure is beauty and happiness itself.

Material necessity has no claim on the imaginative.  As Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks, geometry is the basis of perspective in painting, and the point (which forms the line, etc) is the basis of geometry, and geometry’s point has no material existence.

If imagination suffers from being a mere isle in reality’s sea, it is the isle where we find all love, all harmony, all beauty, all happiness.

That, my love, is where I’ll meet you.




John Ruskin, a type like Emerson, Carlyle, and Pound when the Moderns steered art from science to blah blah blah

The poet Percy Shelley was a scientist, too.  Here is Shelley solving climate change:

The north polar star, to which the axis of the earth, in its present state of obliquity, points. It is exceedingly probable from many cosiderations, that this obliuity will gradually diminish, until the equator coincides with ecliptic: the nights and days will then become equal on the earth throughout the year, and probably the seasons also.  There is no great extravagance in presuming that the progress of the perpendicularity of the poles may be as rapid as the progress of intellect; or that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species. It is certain that wisdom is not compatible with disease, and that, in the present states of the climate of the earth, health, in the true and comprehensive  sense of the word, is out of the reach of civilised man. Astronomy teaches us that the earth is now in its progress, and that the poles are every year more and more perpendicular to the ecliptic. The strong evidence afforded by the history of mythology, and geological researches, that some event of this nature has taken place already, affords a strong presumption  that this progress is not merely an oscillation, as has been surmised by astronomers.   Bones of animals peculiar to the torrid zone have been found have been found in the north of Siberia, and on the banks of the river Ohio. Plants have been found in the fossil state in the interior of Germany, which demand the present climate of Hindustan  for their production. The researches of M. Bailly establish the existence of a people who inhabited a tract in Tartary 490 North latitude, of greater antiquity than either the Indians, the Chinese, or the Chaldeans, from whom these nations derived their sciences and theology. We find, from the testimony of ancient writers, that Britain, Germany, and France were much colder than at present, and that their great rivers were annually frozen over. Astronomy teaches us also that since this period the obliquity of the earth’s position has been considerably diminished.

Poe’s 1848 cosmogony,”Eureka,” solved the puzzle baffling scientists into the 20th century: Why is the night sky dark? Why don’t the innumerable stars eventually brighten the entire sky with their accumulated rays? “Eureka” is perhaps the most beautiful work of science ever written—and it’s all scientific, guessing at Einstein’s discoveries well before the fact.

Henry James, the failed playwright and author of teacup fiction, sneered at Poe’s scientific temperament. How silly James now looks, but how much like the modernism he helped inspire in which blah blah blah replaces thought.

Henry James derided Poe as boyish. Yes, and Ben Franklin played with kites.

Here is the Italian Renaissance talking, equating, fully, art with science:

He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature. If you scorn painting, which is the sole imitator of all the manifest works of nature, you will certainly be scorning a subtle invention, which with philosophical and subtle speculation considers all manner of forms: sea, land, trees, animals, grasses, flowers, all of which are enveloped in light and shade. Truly this is science, the legitimate daughter of nature, because painting is born of that nature, because all visible things have been brought forth by nature and it is among these that painting is born. Therefore we may justly speak of it as the granddaughter of nature and as the kin of god.

Because writers had no access to definitions of the science of painting, they were not able to describe its rank and constituent elements. Since painting does not achieve its ends through words, it is placed below the…sciences through ignorance, but it does not on this account lose its divinity.  And in truth it is not difficult to understand why it has not been accorded nobility, because it possesses nobility in itself without the help of the tongues of others—no less than do the excellent works of nature. If the painters have not described and codified their art as science, it is not the fault of painting, and it is none the less noble for that. Few painters make a profession of writing since their life is too short for its cultivation. Would we similarly deny the existence of the particular qualities of herbs, stones or plants because men were not acquainted with them? Certainly not. We should say that these herbs retained their intrinsic nobility, without the help of human language or writings.

The mental discourse that originates in first principles is termed science. Nothing can be found in nature that is not part of science, like continuous quantity, that is to say, geometry, which, commencing with the surfaces of bodies, is found to have its origins in lines, the boundary of these surfaces. Yet we do not remain satisfied with this, in that we know that line has its conclusion in a point, and nothing can be smaller than that which is a point. Therefore the point is the first principle in geometry, and no other thing can be found either in nature or in the human mind that can give rise to a point.


No human investigation may claim to be a true science if it has not passed through mathematical demonstrations, and if you say that the sciences that begin and end in the mind exhibit truth, this cannot be allowed, but must be denied for many reasons, above all because such mental discourses do not involve experience, without which nothing can be acheived with certainty.

Who wrote the above?  The renaissance painter, Leonardo—obviously loving what Poe loved—science.

Ironically, the scientists who wrote poems of three-dimensional, musical import (Plato, Shelley, Poe), as the 20th century proceeded, were deemed too Romantic, while the modernist poets, and novelists like Henry James, casting off rigorous science, bounced about aimlessly, thinking themselves gods.


I Win!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Neil Young says it:

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

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

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

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

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

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

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



Mother leans over you; want is what will surely last,
Whether it’s friendship, love, the picture, or the meal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

The game is won, with crushed hearts and bruises amassed,
Loudly in your ears, the victory bells peal—
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Long hours sought, the test is passed,
Safely in your hands, the document and seal,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Following the star that follows the mast,
You circle the earth, you run like an eel…
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Surrounded by family…goodbye, at last,
Without saying a thing you feel.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Surviving the others, burned, gassed,
Or drowned, as you cling to the shattered keel,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Facing, alone, the icy present, the feverish past—
Thought enters boldly each line you feel,
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Politics in your veins, hypocrites sassed,
Your righteousness, raw, makes you squeak and squeal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Condemned! Your day no more than love to make it last—
You remember, with tears, the last flower and meal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

Did you love him, or her?  No matter; the die is cast,
Love’s imperfect, so you made a deal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

If you want a child, get immortality, fast—
Even as lives through infinite shadows steal.
Why does sorrow seem more real?

What is it, that you never reveal?
Sorrow: is it, indeed, more real?
Is life an accidental doom?
An accident of turpitude and gloom?
The dancers!  Give them room, give them room.



“But to the critic to whom art is important, sacred, and, ultimately, coextensive with life itself, to produce bad art and to condone it—and thereby give rise to further bad art and finally drive out the good—are the two most heinously dangerous sins imaginable.”
—John Simon

A number of top critics were invited to Iowa City back in the early 80s, including John Simon and Hilton Kramer, when Iowa, already atop the academic world with its poetry and fiction workshops, was looking at the idea of a critic’s workshop.  It never took.

Creative writing has wide appeal: the ego of the writer and the writer’s life as subject are easy to come by.  Training scholars to write critical essays is more difficult.

John Crowe Ransom’s 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc,” the blueprint for what would become the future of Letters: poetry critics trained in the university,  the professor as poetry critic, was quickly expanded, post-1940, into poets trained in the university, the professor as poet.  

A detailed history of how this all happened has yet to be written, but we generally know what occured: traditionally, the subject of literature in college used language and history to teach rhetorical skill; literary criticism was a default part of this process.

Then, the pyramid was flipped: literary criticism became the mode which drove everything else; the study of languages and history faded away in the light of creative writing—new writing produced now for a new age by students and professors.

Colleges studied the past less and the present more, and studying the present meant writing it: writing the present replaced studying the past.  It also meant instant riches, instant acclaim, even instant canonization, for those living.

No wonder the whole creative writing enterprise took off, every professor from Boston to Berkeley crying, “Make it new!”

In the humanities, disinterested science was replaced by interested art.

Writing makes people happy, the way taking and preserving family photos makes people happy.  With the invention of the snapshot camera, trillions of snapshots came into existence, and with the invention of the Iowa writers workshop, millions of poems on snapshots came into existence.  The snapshot camera made taking photos easy.  The writers workshop made writing poems and stories easy.  The flood of mediocrity began.  The bad chased out the good.

The theorists in the universities also embraced the new, but instead of embracing mediocre stories and poems, they kept the tradition of difficult study alive in the humanities and literature; but unfortunately, these theorists attacked Plato’s science with Nietzsche’s art, and so generally the philosophical wing of the humanities essentially abetted the assault on science over in the history wing: all was fodder for the contemporary super man, the revolutionary writer of revolutionary new works on revolutionary new topics.

The theorists said science was oppressive and art was freeing.

The mediocre writers produced by colleges agreed.

The politicians agreed, too, all those who were actors and entertainers—not statesmen.

If only the revolution had stopped with critics trained in the university.  But it didn’t.  The creative writing rabble of expressive egos was necessary to create the blind soldiers of the new order.

Science, the beautiful and useful, became enslaved by art, the beautiful and useless.

Science is the foundation of all great art, not the other way around.   But now everything conspires to flatter art—and condemn science.

Art, we feel, is free, and harmless.  Science, by comparison, is perceived as expensive and dangerous.

How have we let ourselves be led down this superstitious path?  How have we let ourselves be dragged into this present nightmare?

Simple.  Our artsy-fartsy, slobby selves have been flattered by money-grubbing con-artists.

Smile for the camera…



The Garish School?  Yes, Matisse was a laughingstock—until Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased this painting in 1905.

Everyone knows the ‘story’ of modern painting: how brave ‘experimenters’ kept pushing the envelope of color and primitivism and hedonism, how the inevitable ‘movements’ kept moving forward, forward, forward in spite of bourgeois close-mindedness, in spite of Nazi and Soviet Realist opposition, how the cutting-edge manifestos and theories manifested themselves brilliantly in strange and original masterpieces of the new—which to this day only scientific geniuses and the very hip can comprehend.

We all know this ‘story.”  It’s been repeated so often that to question the basic premise of this story would be heresy.

Here’s the theme of the story:

1. Modern art had to develop the way it did, step by step, movement by movement.

2. Moral representation was replaced by painterly hedonism.

This is the all-important theme, and this theme, as much as modern art itself, is part of us, and, by now, even ‘the uncool’ have bought into its coolness, and the rich, based on painting price tags, have, of course, bought it, too.   The iconography has worn us down, simply on account of its being seen enough times, and the icons of modern art have become our vision and our story—whether we are pleased by it, or not.

It is almost as if we have been invaded by the iconography of modern art, and just by having been seen enough, the invaders have won, for this is all iconography asks:

‘I came, I was seen, I conquered.’

Modern art has been converted into coin—the blockbuster prices of Van Goghs and Picassos and Pollocks and Warhols, if nothing else, convince even the doubters: something is here, something is going on.   But what is going on?  What really is ‘the story?’  Is it the one we are told, over and over again?

Shakespeare is performed all the time, all over the world, and no one doubts that this is so because Shakespeare is good: there is depth and truth in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s work doesn’t cost a pretty penny; there is no coin to own.  Shakespeare belongs to the people’s hearts and minds; Shakespeare doesn’t belong to iconography in the crude sense of an invading army: the visuals of its armor gleaming in the sun.  The poetry of Shakespeare does not belong to our eyes, but to our souls.  By its very nature, Shakespeare’s poetry cannot be owned by one museum or one man, the way a modern painting, worth millions, can.

Art that we cherish as a society belongs to everyone.

Genius belongs to everyone.

Manifesto belongs to some.

Some art belongs only to a few, the few who can manipulate it and buy it.  But art that interests the few, and belongs to the few: is it really art?  Or is it agenda?  Manifesto?   How do we know what art is really worth?  Does great art really have ‘worth’ in the material sense?

Can we put a price on The Mona Lisa? If DaVinci’s painting went on the market tomorrow and were ‘sold’ for a certain price,  how much would that ‘price’ be based, not on the work itself, but on its iconographic status, on its status as a recognized icon? And how could its ‘worth as art’ possibly be separated from its status as icon?

Wouldn’t the price fetched by The Mona Lisa dwarf what a Pollock or a Warhol goes for these days?  But The Mona Lisa, as well as most old art treasures, would never go on sale, and therefore the ‘art market’ isn’t a real market—it’s very artificial and weighed towards those newer works that do not belong in the category of The Mona Lisa, a painting that will never be ‘for sale.’

It’s not that Andy Warhol could not compete with The Mona Lisa, but that no market can ever tell us what art is worth, (or not worth) to a society.  Art either belongs to society, the way Shakespeare does, or it does not; the rest is merely iconography and market manipulation: artworks facilely converted to coin by private enterprise.

One could certainly invest in works of anti-art, because anti-art does not truly belong to the people—which makes it a great deal for an investor who wants to own something that no ordinary person could, or would, own.   Money, circulated coin, belongs to people, even poor people, occasionally, but the yacht and the painting can only uniquely belong to the wealthy in their desire to display what they own.

Is modern painting anti-art? Is this the very reason why certain elites love it?

Andre Derain is a forgotten modern master, a Fauvist right there with Matisse, better known and more important than Matisse in his day.  Why is this garish colorist and primitivist painter, as garish as Matisse, forgotten by everyone today?  Because Derain doesn’t fit ‘the story.’ The Nazis loved him, and wined and dined him in Germany, in 1941.

We can’t spoil a good story, now can we?  The Nazis supposedly hated modern art.  That’s one of the pillars of ‘the story.’

The modern painters ostensibly stood for freedom, not for reaction, and this ‘story’ must be upheld, even if it makes no sense, even if freedom is only being used as a word, and art is not really free, anyway.  The important thing is how ‘the story’ plays on the street.  That’s the important thing: how it plays.

Another modern master who is never included in ‘the story’ of modern painting is James Whistler.  Why?  Because he, too, doesn’t fit ‘the story.’   Whistler is at the absolute forefront of modern painting, and yet artists like Manet and Monet and Matisse completely overshadow him when modern painting is discussed.

Look at Whistler’s modern art creds:  1. Exhibited at the Salon des Refuses with other icons of modern art, such as Manet.  2. Was involved in a highly public libel case with art critic John Ruskin in which Whistler’s “Art for Art Sake” ideals were put on trial against Ruskin’s Victorian morality.  3.  Was one of the first painters to use color and painterly interest for its own sake.  4.  Was an extremely well-known,  talented, and controversial painter.

Why, then, doesn’t Whistler ‘fit the story?’   How often do you hear  Whistler’s name when the history of Modern Painting is outlined?



Because Whistler was his own artist.  Whistler belonged to no movement and Whistler obeyed no manifesto.  He didn’t paint one way, and therefore did not fit into any pedantic directionalism.

Whistler’s painting (1874) which John Ruskin hated.  Whistler worked in many styles.

We tend to assume that every Modernist art movement and manifesto is progressive, when the truth is, Modernist art movements and manifestos are retrograde and reactionary, whirlpools of slick pedantry which kill individualism, common sense, and art.


……………………………………………….Liberation, Vendredi, 19  Janvier 1990

A small poem that dares to say what you probably meant when you came here, Franz Wright — for almost certainly such anger is the result of a divine touch in you that does not allow you to compromise with anything or anyone.

Also a poem that lectures, so it’s for Thomas Brady as well, who will hate it.

Indeed, this poem has been rejected at one time or another by most of the top poetry reviews and journals in America, the editors usually saying something like this: “…drawn to the language in ‘Leonardo Amongst Women’… find myself distanced by the more didactic second half” [BJP 2004]:



…………………………………..The bulk not the vectors
…………………………………..is what old Merlin draws,
…………………………………..the wash of his own weight
…………………………………..shot through silk in motion.

…………………………………..Thus the kneeling girl that
…………………………………..God wants even more than he,
…………………………………..sheen of eggplant fish and
…………………………………..satin light on rose paper.

…………………………………..Yet we the New Faithful
…………………………………..schooled to ask too much
…………………………………..study not the secret in the folds
…………………………………..but just the pale hands clasped
…………………………………..in prayer, the inviolable eyes
…………………………………..raised to praise everything but
…………………………………..the veiled act taking place
…………………………………..preposterously below—

…………………………………..precisely where the raw clay plug
…………………………………..cradled in that lone man’s hope
…………………………………..lingering turned, sweetly bound,
…………………………………..dignified in clinging drapes
…………………………………..and tight swaddling clouts
…………………………………..the immaculate desire to be
…………………………………..defined not by what we do but
…………………………………..like a mute maiden what she is
…………………………………..wound in her cocoon.

…………………………………..And so with unfurled wings
…………………………………..folding back like perfumed letters
…………………………………..in the dark, virgin lips signing
…………………………………..in the last low light and every
…………………………………..flute and hollow, genius spins
…………………………………..the miracle of thighs with down
…………………………………..so light it only lifts to knowledge
…………………………………..stroked the other way, leading
…………………………………..the man’s hand of God
…………………………………..to know those things
…………………………………..it never sees or ever thinks
…………………………………..but only dies to dream.

…………………………………..And if we priests and doctors
…………………………………..cannot bow our heads to live
…………………………………..draped amongst the women thus
…………………………………..we cannot hold God’s absence
…………………………………..live nor like the genius maiden
…………………………………..be the empty vessel it desires—

…………………………………..and then we only die to dream
…………………………………..no more—
…………………………………..and all our saints are fools
…………………………………..and all our gold is lead!

………………………………………………………………“Les études de draperies,”
………………………………………………………………..Musée du Louvre 1990

……………………………………………………..Christopher Woodman

This poem is based on a small Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre in 1990 called “Les études de draperies.” It consisted of a series of experimental sketches in which the artist wound damp muslin strips around small, featureless lumps of clay and then drew just the wraps — one of the most perfect demonstrations of the fullness of emptiness ever conceived in the mind of man but widely experienced, one suspects, by women.

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