THAT I CAN SIT HERE AND TURN THESE PAGES AND NOT DIE: BEN MAZER’S LANDMARK EDITION OF HARRY CROSBY’S POEMS

The arrest of Dora Marsden, 30th March, 1909

SELECTED POEMS OF HARRY CROSBY, Ben Mazer, ed, MAD HAT PRESS, 6/22/20

DECEMBER 10, 1929

That I can sit here and turn these pages and not die,
As you did, Harry Crosby, when the time was right,
Saying goodbye to Caresse, as you and Josephine turned out the light,
Every poem leading up to your death was just the way it had to have been,
Unless we don’t know that—because of freedom.

No one published your poems for 87 years, until Ben Mazer,
Who finds everything in the darkness of letters, like a laser.
I think of the Tell-Tale Heart when the old poetry had to die
And new poetry opened the door and shot light into the dark room onto the eye.

I can hear T.S. Eliot breathing low
In the stuffy rooms at Cambridge
When during the weekend Pound decided to come down.
Now, after another 27 difficult years, Robert Lowell sits there, remorseful, in his dressing gown.

The sun! give me the sun,
The true dawn, or none.
Give me the diary, Harry, give me the gun.
Was there freedom,
Too much freedom, too much—or absolutely none?

Ben Mazer, poet and editor, born in 1964, is saving poetry from its 20th century catastrophe.

He personally rescued Landis Everson, the most obscure figure of the San Francisco Renaissance, and found him publishing outlets.

He edited The Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (Harvard University Press).

He edited the Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom (The American South’s T.S. Eliot), noticed in a review by Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books.

He recently received the green light from FSG to compile the first Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz.

And now, perhaps the most exciting of all.  Harry Crosby.

Ben Mazer is seeing into publication this year, as editor, the Selected Poems of Harry Crosby, allowing the world to see this central figure for the first time since this Back Bay rich boy (nephew to J.P. Morgan) danced on the world’s stage and self-published his poetry almost 100 years ago.

Crosby belonged to poetry’s One True Circle which overlapped, as one would expect, with the worlds of High Finance, War Profits, and Modern Painting.  Crosby knew Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence, among others, and was mentored by a wealthy gentleman, Walter Berry (Crosby got his book collection when Berry died in 1927 a few days before Crosby’s 30th birthday) who knew Henry James and Marcel Proust.

Crosby, however, has been utterly forgotten.

Why?

This is what makes Mazer’s project so exciting. Crosby exemplified, perhaps more than any other poet, the One True Circle of 20th Century Anglo-American Poetry, the Who’s Who of Modern Poetry All Intellectuals Know. 

Crosby was the craziest of all.  The really embarrassing one.  He was loved.  But he was excluded—that is, written out of the canon. 

The insane, tabloid, side of the One True Circle is embarrassing, and much of it is not fit for school.

A 20th century poet, to be known, had to be taught in school.  Ezra Pound and WC Williams were as unknown as Harry Crosby, when a couple of government-connected New Critics, in the middle of the 20th Century, put Pound and Williams in a college textbook, Understanding Poetry.

License.

The license of those times, the moral looseness of the One True Circle itself, was one kind of very real license. This was widely understood.

The poems selected for especial praise by the editors of Understanding Poetry were two very brief ones—one by Williams, and one by his U Penn friend, Pound—describing plainly, a red wheel barrow, and petals on a black bough.

Poems praised—and yet poems anyone could write.

The other kind of license was the one for the public at large.

The poetry establishment, without directly saying so, was giving the public license.  The Petals-and-Wheel Barrow clique was rather priestly and private, but it’s implicit message to the reading public was loud and clear: to be a Byron was now a snap—poetry was now extremely brief and extremely easy.

Harry Crosby did not write a two-line poem on flower petals or a one-sentence poem on a wheel barrow.

Crosby went Williams and Pound one better.

Harry Crosby produced a one sentence poem:

a naked lady in a yellow hat

Crosby was too hot to handle for a college textbook in the 1930s; Crosby made the tabloids when he shot himself on December 10th 1929, in a suicide pact with his mistress.

Pound and Williams were more attractive.

First, they were alive; second, their poems were austere and moral compared to Crosby’s—who more accurately (and this was a problem in itself) reflected the unfettered, anything-goes, private-parties-of-the-rich sensibility of the One True Circle.

But now Pound and Williams are also dead.

And we can handle anything.

And as we disentangle ourselves from the selling of poetry—the selling that was very consciously done by the One True Circle in the 20th century, and view poetry and the One True Circle more discerningly—we can welcome Harry Crosby into the wider fold, and allow him his rightful place in a pantheon which may be sordid and embarrassing, but is necessary, not only for historical study, but for poetry, itself.

Mazer is also, for those who know his work, perhaps the most important American poet writing today.  His Selected Poems is recently published.

Americans don’t even speak of 21st century poetry. The whole thing is too embarrassing.  Too painful.

There isn’t one critically acclaimed, popular, anything in poetry left.

There’s merely a cool kids list which changes every few months.

There is no poetry, in terms of centralized recognition.

We now live in the Great Empty Hangover of a 1920s Gatsby party.

New Jersey poet Louis Ginsberg was a Nudist Camp member, and belonged to the One True Circle—in particular: Alfred Kreymborg/WC Williams/Ezra Pound/Wallace Stevens/Man Ray/Duchamp. His son was Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg, who gained fame, like Baudelaire and Joyce, completely from obscenity controversy, died in 1997.

Maya Angelou died in 2014.

John Ashbery, known for poetry which “makes no sense,” associated with Modern Art circles in New York City, including Peggy Guggenheim, a modern Gertrude Stein, who was awarded his Yale Younger Poets Award by W.H. Auden, died in 2017.

No one has replaced these figures.

A few replacement figures may exist, poets who knew Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, for instance, but the magnetic pull which holds pieces of inspiration together—think of Plato’s Ion—just isn’t strong enough. These figures may be on poetry lists, but the public doesn’t know them.

The total absence of poetry in the 21st century, its complete de-centered, trivial, existence is the void now faced by Mazer with his lantern.

Here’s an example. The Essential T.S. Eliot was just published (April 2020), reprinting the better-known poems and one essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

The only thing new in the Essential T.S. Eliot is the introduction by Vijay Seshadri. A nice essay.  He has the slick, academic, ‘priesthood patter’ down—Pound and Eliot are profound and wonderful in all sorts of (World War One! The Horror!) ways.

However, in this new, rather sizeable introduction, no one after the middle of the 20th century is mentioned.  

I find this very interesting. The occasion of reprinting T.S. Eliot, in 2020, is cause for not even the faintest flutter in the post-Eliot Tradition.

So what is all this fuss about the Tradition, then?

Does it stop with Eliot and Pound?

Walt Whitman makes an appearance in the introduction—Seshadri tells us Eliot and Whitman are opposites, but also informs us that both were reactionary in their politics and both were influenced by a terrible war.

The most recent figure mentioned in Seshadri’s introduction is Hugh Kenner.  Seshadri reminds us that Bertrand Russell—son of Lord Russell, Prime Minster of England when Whitman was writing—slept with Eliot’s wife. Well, what would an examination of the One True Circle be, after all, without a Harry Crosby type of anecdote?

Eliot, and especially his associate, Ezra Pound—-both unknown and hungry during World War One—as mature, middle-aged, literary figures, both bet, essentially, on the Axis Powers to win World War Two. The second half of the 20th century, therefore, saw the entire sensibility of poetry, unlike the booming, victorious-over-Hitler, United States itself, become a high brow contest to see who could best apologize for what we were told was the best of our poetry—which had lost.

The worst “loser,” the embodiment of all that was lauded in the “new” poetry, was Ezra Pound—a T.S. Eliot objection away from being hung as a traitor in Italy in 1945. Ezra Pound, the irascible, cash-handy, “Make It New” deal-maker, the flesh of the poetry that was supposed to carry us forward to new heights of insight and interest.

But a curious thing happened.

As the 20th century went on, the “new” poetry, instead of taking us forward, took us back.

Poetry kept returning to Ezra Pound, Imagiste poet of World War One; it kept going back to T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land, which will be a hundred years old in 2022; this was the narrative: Pound, Eliot, Pound, Eliot.

But what of us?  What of the next generations?  Well, you had Ashbery, the late 20th century god, chosen by Auden—who had been chosen by Eliot.  There was simply no escape.  The One True Circle, which began in William James’ mental laboratory, kept shining. The rest of us could go to hell.

The One Circle trapped us in so many ways.

The 1970s pot-smoking professors trapped us, with their unreadable doctoral theses on Finnegan’s Wake and The Cantos.

There was the poetry itself which trapped us, the poetry which now anybody could write, and they did: your professor, your classmates, all the while doing the necessary obeisance to the “new” poetry—the crappy sort of poetry so easy to write—it only had to be obscure enough, which made it possible for anyone to believe they were a poet—as long as poetry that was actually good was kept, as much as possible, out of sight.

The poetry that was actually good was anything studied, anthologized, and written, prior to the existence of the One True Circle—that is, whatever Pound and Eliot dismissed: Milton, Poe, Shakespeare.

The past had to be read selectively, based on the One True Circle’s recommendations—one couldn’t just love old poetryno, that was forbiddenVillon, yes.  The “French Symbolists.” Yes. Rimbaud was terribly, terribly cool, even in a Bob Dylan, son of Woody Guthrie, sort of way. Even though no one knew what Rimbaud was talking about. (For a while we didn’t know what Dylan was talking about.) Obscurity was always good.  So Rimbaud was good. Baudelaire was good, no, great, because he was completely wretched. It was as if Baudelaire were alive during WW I!  So he was good. And French, of course, was good. A few tortured passages by Donne. Yes. That was okay, too. Pre-Raphaelite was very good. Because it was prior to the Renaissance, you see. And the Renaissance, because it was truly good, was very, very bad. Byron, Poe, Milton, Elizabeth Barrett, Edna Millay, Sara Teasdale. No way.  Millay and Teasdale were especially annoying, because they wrote a little too much beautiful poetry that actually was good, and they also had the audacity to be contemporary. Hugh Kenner, the Pound fan, was quick to dismiss Millay. And those in the One True Circle nodded silently.

So here we are in 2020, with a big poetic nothing.

We are still talking about Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, or Pound’s friend, WC Williams.

And exactly in the way the New Critics wanted us to talk about them.  The “difficult,” academic-priestly, text-centered way, is how we appropriately baffle ourselves.

There is only one thing which can be discussed outside the text.

World War One’s horrors.

It isn’t so much that we shouldn’t be talking about Eliot.  Certainly, we should. He was a good poet, and a good critic, and the Great War did happen, after all.

But what about everybody else?  What about the big future nothing which the cloudy, morbid, obsession with Modernism has created?

We hear, over and over again, how Eliot’s entire poetic being was a casualty of WW I, (the way “mad Ireland hurt” Yeats “into poetry”—Auden) but Modernist critics never stop to think how maybe the reader is a casualty of Modernism, which came about, as every Modernist is quick to point out, in de rigueur wretched tones, because of a horrific war.  If the horrific war was real, and Modernism’s reaction to it was real, then here is the Romantic poison drunk during the French Revolution—only we can’t talk about the French Revolution, because the One True Circle needs to be historically exclusive, as we see time and time again. Go back—but only to Pound and World War One, please. Stop there. And then, and only then, perhaps, you may perhaps travel indirectly back—as long as you don’t lose the thread, and forget that it connects to Pound—to, let’s say, Rimbaud, the anti-Romantic.

And never, never say the Modernist poets were part of the same group that produced World War One.  Always portray the Modernist poets as victims of the Great War.  Even if Ford Maddox Ford worked in the War Propaganda Office. Whatever you do, don’t mention that! Modernism was a burning cauldron heated by the fires of World War One.  And it melted everything.  That is all.

We bet on the Pound clique, and lost.

After the war, Pound had to be rescued; somehow World War Two had to be forgotten; unlike WW I, there was no WW II poetry of any note.

The Bollingen Prize—the first one—in 1949, was the stamp of approval, the swift and necessary repair of Pound’s reputation. Had Pound been quickly shot as a traitor, the poetry of our age would look entirely different.

The Bollingen Prize was presented to Pound, (amid howls of protest, of course) by three judges W.H. Auden, TS Eliot, and Conrad Aiken.

The One True Circle had to defend itself; it almost imploded, as World War Two made World War One temporarily irrelevant.  Thank God for the Bollingen and 1949!

New Critic and Southerner Allen Tate, who New Englander Robert Lowell worshiped (his eyes on the One True Circle) helped start the Writing Program at Princeton—where professor RP Blackmur taught the younger Princeton creative writing professor John Berryman how to drink—ending in Berryman’s suicide at the U. of Minnesota.

Princeton eventually took over the Bolligen Prize, which was the unofficial life blood of the One True Circle, as the 20th Century progressed, and they give out the Bollignen Prize to this day, the prize itself over-shadowing poets whom no one knows.

The Bollingen continues, but it only exists because Pound had to be saved.

Bollingen, by the way, is the name of the house of Carl Jung. The Bollingen prize originally had non-poetry money attached to it (normal for how poetry grew during the 20th century). Fortunately for the One True Circle, it fell into the lap of Pound’s friend, T.S. Eliot, and the two other judges, who were both Eliot’s friends, at the Library of Congress.

Conrad Aiken and Eliot were old Harvard friends—Harvard profs William James (sometimes known as the Nitrous Oxide Philosopher) and George Santayana, a bachelor who lived the last 20 years of his life in fascist Italy, were the two greatest influences on Aiken and Eliot (as well as Wallace Stevens).

Ralph Waldo Emerson—the antithesis of Poe and friends with T.S. Eliot’s New England grandfather—was William James’ godfather—and William James was the brother of the Great, Inscrutable, Expat, Novelist Henry James. William James was the founder of the first Psychology Department in the United States, at Harvard—and it could be said that William James might be the beginning of the One True Circle, if we must trace it back. (Though it’s in the nature of any True Circle never to be understood.) William James (also known as the Stream-of-Consciousness philosopher, though of course he didn’t invent stream of consciousness) also taught Gertrude Stein (one foot in the Nonsense Poetry Business, one foot in the Modern Painting Business)—she is of course an important member of the One True Circle.  (This game is very easy, but don’t let the ease fool you.)

Eliot was very much like the trans-Atlantic Henry James. The distinguished magazine, The Atlantic, was where Henry James was first published—by William Dean Howells, the editor set up there by Emerson. Eliot’s early tea-cup poetry resembles the novels of Henry James.

The One True Circle is almost entirely made up of men—but women were extremely influential behind the scenes, just as a great deal of non-poetry money was behind the scenes.  Pound needed lots of ready money to be the influence he was, and this mostly came from Pound’s female contacts.

Eliot’s first book (it was really a “pamphlet” according to Seshardri), Prufrock and Other Observations, was subsidized by Pound’s wife and published by the Egoist, a vital Modernist magazine, (Conrad Aiken was the first to review Prufrock and Other Observations—do you see how it works?) and yet the magazine itself, prior to being the Egoist, had been a radical feminist one, The New Freewoman, run by Dora Marsden, before it became, still under her leadership—but guided increasingly by Pound—the Egoist.

Marsden was too radical for even her radical feminist cohorts; she lived the last 40 years of her life as a broken recluse.  She was a passionate believer in radical individualism, feminism, and free love. This is somewhat ironic, given the fact that the mature, “conservative” Eliot excoriated the young Shelley for advocating free love.  Eliot’s career was born on the shoulders of “free love.”  Eliot never had to apologize for his abuse of Shelley, however, because Shelley, the stunning Romantic poet, was persona non grata to Pound’s One True Circle, anyway.

Letters in the 20th century decided to make an American poetry hero out of Ezra Pound and to make College Writing Programs (‘you, too, can be a poet’) the key to success in poetry.

The result: American poetry no longer has a public.

Of course, what happened, happened.  Nothing written here is the attempt to make it all go away. Quite the contrary. We might as well go into it even deeper, if we are to come out of it, and start anew.

Harry Crosby and his Black Sun Press is an important part of that story.

It was suppressed then, and Ben Mazer is bringing it back to light, now.

Mazer’s introduction to Harry’s poems is mostly factual. He details Harry’s life as WW I soldier, poet, and lover. He praises the poetry as having that quality where every reader can see something different in it. He lauds its sincerity. The introduction ends this way:

A notable occasion in Harry’s life was when he witnessed Lindbergh’s landing in Paris on May 20, 1927. On August 1, 1929, he decided that he wanted to learn how to fly. Soon he was taking lessons, and going up with an instructor. Then, he became more and more impatient as he yearned to be allowed to fly solo, but continued to be sent up with an instructor. He was determined to fly solo before departing for America. Finally, on Armistice Day, November 11, Harry completed his first solo flight. Five days later he and Caresse sailed for New York on the Mauretania. On November 18, Harry received a radiogram from Josephine: “IMPATIENT.” On November 22, the Crosbys docked in New York. The next day, Harry visited Josephine before the Harvard-Yale football game. Harry saw much of Josephine in the next two weeks. The final entry in Harry’s diary reads:

One is not in love unless one desires to die with one’s beloved

There is only one happiness it is to love and to be loved

One can get lost in the tabloid excess of Harry’s life.  But there was a tragic Romantic figure beneath the excess—a deeply sensitive man who loved.

The poems of Harry Crosby are bright, fanciful. Here are two samples:

I am endeavoring to persuade a Chinese professor who is at work on a torpedo which he expects to shoot to the sun to allow me to live in the centre of this torpedo

And

a giraffe is gorging himself on sunflowers a Parisian doll is washing herself in a blue fingerbowl while I insist on their electrocution on the grounds of indecency

Crosby’s poetry has a quality which represents the times in which he lived better than anything else that was being published then.

T.S. Eliot thought.

Harry Crosby lived.

The following is one of the most interesting things I found in the book.

This excerpt—from a critical piece Crosby published in the summer of the year he died—proves that Harry belonged, at least in his own mind, to the One True Circle.  You can tell by his likes and dislikes. The following perhaps reveals too much. There is a cult-like worship of those in the One True Circle, which may have even unsettled the members of the One True Circle themselves.  Did Crosby hate Amy Lowell because she was against the U.S. entering World War One—which made his uncle, J.P. Morgan, rich?  Amy Lowell was dedicated to poetry. Pound, police commissioner of the One True Circle, did nothing but ridicule her. And why did Crosby reject a beautiful poet like Edna Saint Vincent Millay?  Perhaps Millay wanted nothing to do with the One True Circle? After all, not everyone liked Ezra Pound.

A well-known phenomenon in the East is the False Dawn, a transient light on the horizon an hour before the True Dawn. The False Dawn = the poets sponsored by Amy Lowell and the Imagists who flickered for a brief instant on the horizon before they dwindled into the Robert Hillyers and Humbert Wolfs, the Edna Saint Vincent Millays, the Walter de la Meres, the Benets and Untermeyers, the Auslanders and Teasdales who spot with their flytracks the bloated pages of our magazines and anthologies. Once again the general reader has been deceived by the False Dawn and has gone back to bed (who can blame him?) thus missing the True Dawn which has definitely appeared on the horizon harbingered by T.S. Eliot, heralded by the Morning Star of Joyce and heliorayed with the bright shafts of Hart Crane, E.E. Cummings, Perse and MacLeish, Gertrude Stein, Desnos, Eluard, Jolas and Kay Boyle.

—Harry Crosby, 1929

Thank you, Ben Mazer.

Harry Crosby and the True Dawn (there was some truth) will always be looking for us.

Those “bright shafts.”

~~~~~
Salem MA, May 1 2020

GINSBERG V. GINSBERG

Was Allen Ginsberg’s father, published poet, Louis Ginsberg, as good as his famous son?

Scarriet presents father and son: Louis Ginsberg (1885-1976) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).

From Louis Ginsberg’s Collected Poems Northern Lights, 1992:

Defense Against the Dark

Only two small sons and one I love
One night were growing merry there;
I know not what we prattled of,
But suddenly I was aware.

It was as if a magic spell;
It was as if a lurking might,
That hovered there invisible,
Stooped and plucked me to a height.

Below, as ‘mid an ambush spread,
One moment with our lighted room,
The four of us were islanded
In an unfathonmable gloom.

Till now at last, I could behold
What on our solitude we press:
It is our dear ones smile we fold
About our spirits’ loneliness,—

That desolate the soul must mourn;
And seeing this, I wondered why
So lonely is each being born;
And lonely does each being die.

Now light that leaped from every glance
Was gathered, as by lens are rays:
Until I saw, as in a trance,
The room had burst into a blaze.

I saw it all! I saw the room!
I saw the sudden blaze now made
Against the Dark (with lust for Doom)
A flimsy, match-box barricade.

O lips and eyes that kindle glory!
O lovely respite that I’ve won!
O protest that is transitory!
Brief refuge from oblivion!

O little room with little might!
O tiny evanescent spark!
I see you, see you, as my bright,
Final defense against the Dark!

Louis Ginsberg’s vision is both sincere and impassioned; it is equal parts brightness and horror, as the poet and his loved family strangely blaze up against the dark.  The poem’s iambic tetrameter is forceful enough to present the lyric as a dense, burning moment in time.  There is intimacy and genuine feeling, and when the poet says, “I saw it all! I saw the room!” we see it, too, if we read the poem (and hear the lyric) with sympathy.

By contrast—and this is the famous son’s best known short poem—“A Supermarket in California” rejects the vision of the small and intimate family space for a much wider vision that revels in celebrity:

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! — and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Allen Ginsberg’s vision is quite close to his father’s: we have dark and light, family, loneliness and despair.

Louis Ginsberg is alone with his vision, even though he is in the presence of his real family.

Allen Ginsberg has no family, but he is not lonely, for his “father” and companion is the dead, celebrated poet, Walt Whitman.  Ginsberg, the son, has no family and stands apart from the world of “whole families” shopping in the bounty of the California supermarket–and the son’s poem stretches out in the nonchalant pacing of homeless wandering with a much more subtle music; lacking rhyme, it relies on the similarity of multi-syllabic words: “enumerations,” “penumbras,” “families,” “bananas,” “corridors.”  But the supermarket must close, and Whitman’s death is depicted mythologically as the bookish poet (“I touch your book”) finds comfort in bookish phrases: “we will stroll dreaming of the lost America of love…”  Iconography is key to Ginsberg’s poem: Whitman, Lorca, America, Charon.  The “childless, lonely old grubber” has nothing but imagined icons and vague history attached to those icons (“lost America of love”) to comfort him.

Both poems are bursts of pathos and morose feeling, with stark contrasts of light and dark; the father’s poem is a pure lyric, a song from the heart, a vision stark and simple, while the son’s prose meditation, surpassing the father’s in subtle humor and painting, bathes in self-conscious celebrity and bookishness as a stay against the dark.

Let’s look at two more poems.  First, by Allen, the son:

An Asphodel

O dear sweet rosy
unattainable desire
…how sad, no way
to change the mad
cultivated asphodel, the
visible reality…

and skin’s appalling
petals–how inspired
to be so lying in the living
room drunk naked
and dreaming, in the absence
of electricity…
over and over eating the low root
of the asphodel,
gray fate…

rolling in generation
on the flowery couch
as on a bank in Arden–
my only rose tonite’s the treat
of my own nudity.

The poet’s “desire” is contrasted with “the cultivated,” and though “unattained,” the “desire” still finds some consolation in the poet’s “own nudity,” as he lies in the dark, plant-rooted, yet petal-soft.

Louis Ginsberg’s poem is also about flowers, and the protagonist of the poem is also lying down:

The Artist Wins Success

Thus he, whose body Beauty broke,
Possesses now a surer stroke.
His body underneath the dew
Holds brighter palettes than he knew;
For he, who lies beneath this hill,
Faultlessly tints a daffodil;
With bluest sky he painted yet,
He brushes in a violet.
And now, a perfect artist, he
Can flood with green a little tree;
And surely now at last he knows
The perfect shading of a rose.

The conceit is not entirely original, and it might have been executed with more subtlety, perhaps, but this poem has plenty of charm and grace, as the artist “wins success” in death, joining nature in shading the flowers above him.

Father and son often err in ‘telling too much’ in their poems; both poets are morosely brilliant, almost to a hurtful degree, highly passionate and sensual, and they each show the ability to find optimism in suffering.

If we are not too besotted with “the modern” and Allen Ginsberg’s fame, we really ought to appreciate these two poets together—the father, though a little awkward, has stengths that wonderfully compliment the son’s.

EDGAR LEE MASTERS AND EDNA MILLAY: THEY SUCK!

Edgar Lee Masters: Not sexy, but wrote prose poetry before WC Williams

Fads are born of flux, yet to their followers they’re as real as steel, or iron.  Tell a member of the hardcore poetry community that Edgar Lee Masters and Edna Vincent Millay are more significant than William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens and watch them gag.  Ron Silliman would gag.  Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff would gag. Harold Bloom would die.  There is a hiearchy. Flux may seem to  be the modernist mode; it’s not.  It’s iron.

The bookish Helen Vendler has made us love Wallace Stevens, the insurance agent, in his off-white suit; Stevens, like Alexander Pope, put his philosophy in verse (and somehow ended up being called modern for it), but the hardcore poetry community’s adoration of Bill Williams is based on nothing we can ascertain as very interesting.  While he lived, no one liked Williams much—WCW mourned the fact that Auden blew him away at a public reading, but celebrity has made its way through unseen byways in Bill’s favor; it perhaps had something to do with his friendship with the notorious Pound, which led to his being tagged as some kind of “American” (New Jersey?) alternative to Pound and Eliot, or that he “helped” Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg’s poet father Louis ran in the same art circles as Williams), but whatever the reason, WCW has been a bookish fad ever since the New Critics put “Red Wheel Barrow” in their poetry textbook Understanding Poetry and informed their readers his little poem was “lucid” and “fresh.”

The hardcore academic poetry community still somehow believes that sincerity and plain prose go together; perhaps they do, perhaps they are right, and perhaps I should end my essay right here on that note.  Sincerity does go a long way in many people’s eyes, and the more I think on the word sincerity, the more I do feel worthy of punishment and feel I deserve to be accused of bad faith for questioning the worth of William Carlos Williams.  If one squashes an ant, half the world will be indifferent and the other half will feel sorry for the ant; so why would any critic ever want to treat “Red Wheel Barrow” harshly?  Better not go near it; but one keeps seeing it, and that’s the secret of Williams’ fame: one cannot squash the ant.  It keeps going and going…

It is a little quixotic for Williams to complain, as he did, of T.S. Eliot’s foreign allusions: we wonder if Mr. Williams is aware that American implies foreign in its very soul?  How can one poet ever claim that he, more than others, writes for Americans, in subject matter, style, or language?  Isn’t such a claim suspect?  We wonder why Mr. Williams and his supporters get a free pass in making it.

In William Carlos Williams’ first book (Poems, 1909),  his poems are like this:

The Uses of Poetry

I’ve fond anticipation of a day
O’erfilled with pure diversion presently,
For I must read a lady poesy
The while we glide by many a leafy bay,

Hid deep in rushes, where at random play
The glossy black winged May-flies, or whence flee
Hush-throated nestlings in alarm,
Whom we have idly frighted with our boat’s long sway.

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring
To rural peace from our meek onward trend,
What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,
On poesy’s transforming giant wing,
To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

“Fruits all anguish mend??”  This is dreck—yet it was published when Williams was 26.   It was not until he was in his late 30s and joined the Kreymborg, Arensburg, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Louis Ginsberg, Marcel Duchamp “Dial” clique that the Williams of “The Red Wheel Barrow” emerged.

What most don’t realize, is that well before Williams found both himself and his coterie, Edgar Lee Masters, in his wildly popular “Spoon River Anthology,” already sounded more modern and impure than Williams:

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win — and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill” —
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

—Edgar Lee Masters

Humble Spoon River, with its poetry in plain prose, was published in 1916, when William Carlos Williams was still trying and failing at rhyme.

In his book, Innovators & Outsiders, American Poetry Since 1950, Eliot Weinberger, who writes in his introduction of the great divide in American poetry: “the ruling party” and the “innovator outsiders,” begins his anthology with WC Williams.  It’s typical Williams: mundane description plus a bit of avant-garde, modern art philosophy.  “The Desert Music” describes a trip with his wife and some friends to a poor Mexican border town while tossing in bon mots such as, “Only the poem. /Only the counted poem, to an exact measure:/to imitate, not to copy nature, not/to copy nature,” daring you to make a connection between this snatch of earnest literary criticism and a trip to a Mexican border town,  just as “The Red Wheel Barrow” dares you to connect “So much depends” with that barrow glazed with rain water.

It’s a rather bland compositional technique: the matter-of-fact imagery makes it ‘modern’ and the pasted-on lecture: only the poem—makes it seem different, mystical.  How innovative and original is this poetaster technique?  We don’t know.

As a reader you must decide between two points of view: ‘what the hell does he mean by only the poem?‘ or: ‘only the poem—of course! only the poem,‘ nodding sagely.  There’s really no in-between: you must choose for yourself: are you smart or are you dumb? It’s a sly trick the sly poets play: because you don’t want to seem dumb.  You do want to be in the crowd that knows the deep mystical zen significance of “so much depends,” don’t you?

Of course we know Williams was part of the modern art scene, and understood the direction things were going: painting was becoming flat: only paint upon the canvas! 

“Only the poem” is a slogan obviously in this spirit—and barking a slogan in a poem about what a poem should be is to “flatten” the poem. “Don’t copy nature.”  We don’t really associate Williams with the New York School, but there it is.  The modernist Paris-moving-to-New York- art clique was small—but still fit the modern poetry clique within it pretty comfortably.

The formula first emerges most forcefully with “The Red Wheel Barrow.”  Poetry, unlike painting, is difficult to flatten,  because how do you get away with “anybody can do that” in language?   The art world makes objects and once a museum owns an object, a certain legitimacy sets in, but with poetry, the stamp of radical approval is harder to get. 

Williams struck on a method, which is pretty simple: First: copy nature in the poem up to a point, presenting an imagery from real life. Second: Add to the imagery some piece of philosophical jargon which does not fit the imagery or enhance it or extend it in any way at all.   Voila!  You have  flattened the poem.   Williams is intentionally boring.  It’s a style, born of modern art.  Present a red wheel barrow.  Then flatten it with “so much depends.”  So much depends on this object which I am objectifying on the flat-surface-object of my poem.  This is the intention.

Here’s a lesser known poem by Williams, but typical; one can clearly see the flattening formula at work:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind —
But what?
On harsh weedstalks
the flock has rested —
the snow
is covered with broken
seed husks
and the wind tempered
with a shrill
piping of plenty.

The imagery is precise and cute: “small,” “cheeping,” “skimming,” and nothing much, but it gets flattened by the wordy additions, “Old age is,” and “But what?”  It’s the same strategy of “Wheel Barrow.”  1) Paint a little scene, 2) attach a declaration of some sort.  Neither one enhances the other, and thus the whole thing is intentionally de-enhanced.  We yawn, and feel mystified at the same time, as when we look at one of those modern art blank canvases at MOMA.  The absurdity is brought mystically to the fore—and we can hear it in the phlegmatic “Old age is…”  Shall I compare “cheeping birds buffeted by a dark wind” to “old age?”   Of course I shall!  It’s perfect!

Now look at this poem by silly old Edna St. Vincent Millay, which no member of the hardcore academic poetry community wants to touch:

Recuerdo

 We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
    But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
    We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
    And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

    We were very tired, we were very merry—
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
    And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
    From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
    And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
    And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

    We were very tired, we were very merry,
    We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
    We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
    And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
    And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
    And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Edna Millay’s strategy is much different.  Hers is a far more natural evocation of old age than the Williams.  Old age has life in “Recuerdo;” it merely gets a metaphorical snapshot in “To Waken An Old Lady.” The realist mode fell out of favor in the hip artistic circles Williams travelled in during his middle age, but one can see how Millay’s poem succeeds on several levels—by contrast, the Williams, with its “Old age is…,” feels flat, formulaic, and artificial.

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