POETRY MAGAZINE’S INDIA ISSUE, JULY/AUGUST 2019

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Poetry’s India issue is not an India issue.

In the globalist introduction by editors Kazim Ali and Rajiv Mohabir, we are told countries do not exist; only colonies and far-flung sub-cultures do.

In their introduction to Poetry’s “Global Anglophone Indian Poems,” the editors wish to erase the nation of India:

“Indian” is the wrong word to encompass  and label diasporic subjectivities of South Asians that descend from a system of indenture.

This sounds like something one would hear in the British Foreign Office around 1933.

Narratives flip. History repeats. The optimism of Indian independence from the British in the middle of the 20th century has been replaced by the pessimism of learned, anti-colonialist academics, who hold that there was no “Indian” independence from the “British” after all—because, according to Ali and Mohabir, “There is no such thing as cultural purity—Indian or not.”

A nation—which gathers together differences in a happy embrace—is this possible? It was not, according to the British Empire, whose very rule depended on division, nor is it anything the editors wish to get behind, spending most of the introduction asserting India isn’t real. Because nothing “culturally pure” exists. Which we all know, but…

“Culture” is a term always used broadly, and in terms of connection—and this is the very essence of the word; and this aspect of it shouldn’t inspire fear, unless one wants to get rid of culture altogether. We all admire gardens, and gardens grow, even as they remain gardens. Nations are nations in as much as they have a culture which binds the nation as a nation together, and this is a good thing. The editors, however, see danger:

The notion of a culturally pure India is a dangerous weapon leveraged to maintain social distance, as in some cases it fans anti-Muslim and anti-Black politics.

Is “social distance” civility? What do they mean by this?

And what exactly is “Muslim politics?” And is “Muslim” or “black politics” ever “pure,” and, because of this “purity,” is it, too, “dangerous?”

Or is it only the “culturally pure India” which is “dangerous?”

Division is always good, according to the editors—since the greatest unity India ever achieved was “an India that does not exist today, except for in histories kept by elders: a pre-partition British India, a single landmass owned by white masters.”

God forbid Indians get to rule a “landmass.” Better, according to the editors, that Indians are divided—to the point where they don’t really exist.

For Ali and Mohabir, Indian unity of any kind is either non-existent, white, or bad. India as a Hindu country is something the editors cannot bring themselves to even mention, as this, perhaps to them, is the ultimate horror. They refer to Hindus once—in the first paragraph, as if the religion practiced by a billion Indians, 4 Indians in 5, were a minor anomaly:

On the one hand, “Indian” languages were always transnational, or—in more modern times—global. Regional languages encountered one another, as well as Farsi and Urdu, during Mughal conquests; the concepts of Hindi as a national language and Hindustan as a national space were both developed in response to the perceived foreign influence of the northern empire builders. Crosspollination existed between the Urdu-speaking Mughals and Farsi- and Arabic-speaking cultures, both in spoken and written literatures. Queen Elizabeth I and Emperor Akbar the Great were exchanging letters in Urdu and English through their translators before there was a British East India company.

This is their first paragraph. What does this mean?

I understand protecting minority rights—constitutions and laws cover this; but to forever and preemptively assume the majority is the devil, and to always undermine it on principle isn’t exactly the recipe for a strong and happy nation.

The editors point of view seems to be that anything which has anything to do with “indenture” and “diaspora” is the best thing of all. A kind of strange, unholy, celebration of the results of the British Empire keeps breaking out in the rhetoric of the editors. Are the “white masters” hiding in the wings? In high rises in London? In the editorial offices of Poetry? We hope not.

That British Empire was quite a thing. “Colonies” and the “indentured” and “diaspora” everywhere. Did the British make India? Yes, absolutely, according to Ali and Mohabir—exemplifying the truth that the British “Divide and Rule” Empire still lives, spilling into everything, even the rhetoric which attempts to summarize the topic in a short introduction:

The earliest Indian poetry in English, including those poems by nationalist anti-colonial poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, were poems from the British literary tradition. It would take a new generation of Indian poets, who included the Kala Goda poets Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and others, to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

Just as the British Empire both made and destroyed India, it continues to erase all sense of what anyone might say—including these editors, Ali and Mahobir—about Indian poetry in English.

The Indian “nationalist anti-colonial” poems were “poems from the British literary tradition.”

Got that?

Indian literary independence was British.

Therefore, Ali and Mohabir say,

It would take a new generation to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

But what is British influence if not “global,” thanks to its global empire? And how could poets like Tagore not have been influenced by “local traditions” back then, writing poems from “the British literary tradition?”

One can see how any attempt to extract “India” from “English” is hopeless. That is, if one ignores the content of poems and puts them into implicitly denigrated categories such as the “British literary tradition,” the only discernible aesthetic gesture made by the editors—whose introduction is otherwise lost in politics. Their aesthetic point begins with a platitude made regarding “tradition” and reasons from that nothing into more nothing. All the editors say is true—if truth is a circle starting at nowhere and ending at no place.

And now we come to the poetry selection.

As one might expect, there is no “British literary tradition” anywhere in sight.

The poems in the “Global Anglophone Indian Poems” issue of July/August Poetry, establish themselves right away as that which could not possibly belong to any tradition at all, except perhaps this one: Poems in English That May As Well Have Been Written in Urdu Since No English Speaker Can Understand Them. This will show those British white devils! And anyone who speaks their language!

The interesting thing about the 42 “Indian” poems in the Poetry Indian issue is that almost all of them sound like they could have been written by Ezra Pound—redolent of that flat, unthinking, anti-Romantic, anti-lyricism which roams the desert looking for an oasis of sweet rhyme intentionally never found, for the journey is to punish such desires.  And in this desert we rarely come across a person who speaks as a real person about some accessible thing that matters in a life really lived. It’s poetry that vaults at once past actual life, and any Romantic ideal of actual life, into some abstract library of learned reference. What we get is not Kishore Kumar as a poem (if only!) but a condescending or ironic reference to Kushore Kumar—in the abstract, attenuated, machine-like speech of the anti-lyrical, footnote, poem.

One of the better poems in the portfolio, by Arundhathi Subramaniam (it actually has a somewhat personable and lyric beauty) happens to contain the Kushore Kumar reference, a footnote gesture less annoying than usual. I also enjoyed the poems by Nabina Das, Rochelle Potkar, Sridala Swami, Jennifer Robertson, Ranjit Hoskote, Mani Rao, and Hoshang Merchant, though in most cases I’ve seen better examples of their work elsewhere. I’ve written about these poets in Scarriet. I compared Swami to Borges, praised Subramaniam as a “lullaby” poet, called Potkar a wonderful discovery, and even placed these poets into this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness. But here they are in Poetry. And of course I am happy for them.

Have I soured on the Indian poetry in this special edition of Poetry because I read the introduction first, and that soured me? Or were my expectations too high, thinking the venerable Poetry magazine would offer the best Indian Poetry selection I had ever seen?

Here’s the first poem we meet in the volume. It’s a kind of flickering, black and white, news reel of broken images, half-memories, abstracted references. Modernist to the core. What is it saying? We are not sure, exactly. India was never free, never happy? The ends of lines and the end of the poem, swoon towards their termination in an Eliotic whimper. What we do know is the poem is vaguely complaining, inglorious, and trying its best not to sound poetic (because the Romantics are not allowed).

Freedom (Nabanita Kanungo)

It would try to lisp a dumbness sometimes—
the language of welts rising slowly on the panes,
a cracked blur of riot-torn air,
confused which year it was.
.
The last time it made a sound was when
it crinkled on its way into a bin,
a great plot of justice. I wasn’t born, then;
my father was.
.
It must have been whole once,
for you could still conceive it like a dream,
a gloriously illegitimate thing, though;
until a country was torn out of its heart one day
and you saw its impaled ghost in the moon.
.
My grandfather told me we had slept so long
with a flag over us, we couldn’t run when
machetes poked us awake amidst still-dreaming heads
rolling in the streets like marbles struck in game.
.
There was nowhere to go and we went nowhere,
with its face slumped on our backs
and history books that said what had happened is the past,
.
until sixty years later, a community’s threats betraying
her voice, a poor nun requested me
to leave my month-old job in a convent
where I’d studied since childhood.
.
I keep trying to find its shape in photographs, old letters,
the wind of stories trapped in some cancerous throat, dying …
.
a tattered roof in the stars, a tent flying off
with meanings barely gathered into a heap.

One imagines a Modernist school teacher shaping this poem—and what is ironic about this, of course, is that Modernism was the period when the English were still (cruelly) ruling India. The Greeks, the Romantics, where is their influence? Why is Indian poetry ruled by a style belonging to early 20th century American Anglophiles, like Pound and Eliot? Pessimistic, anti-Romantic Pound and Eliot? Why? Poe fought for American literary independence—and was rejected, even reviled, by the Anglo-American modernist establishment (Eliot hated Poe as much as he hated Shelley).

Look how the first poem in the volume ends: “with meanings barely gathered into a heap.” Why should Indian poets linger in the tidal pools of late British Empire despondency? “Because we have troubles!” Of course you do—but why is the aspiration and promise and identity of the poetry you choose the sour, anti-Romanticsm of your British masters? The ones even British poets like Shelley found objectionable? Indians, what are you thinking?

What is the editorial mission of this Indian Poetry portfolio?

Poems not enjoyed as poetry, but deemed useful as vague, Modernist, teaching-sorts-of-things?

And as much as this may be somewhat useful, and wide-ranging, the editors have somehow managed, even in this case, to present a narrow vision of Indian poetry. Not so much Wall of Sound, as Wall of Pound. Indian poets stuck in a desultory, lost-in-time, Modernism. The editors have put Indian Poetry in a certain container, coloring what it contains. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Indian poets writing in English have access to a long tradition of poetry in English, including every sort of world historical poet translated into English. There’s no reason they must, in such large numbers, wear the stiffness of Anglo/American Modernism.

Trapped in the dullness of this anti-poetry (referencing all sorts of cultural things in a stilted manner) one dutifully marches through the gray maze of this highly learned affectation thinking: is Indian poetry today the attempt to smash the “British Literary Tradition,” in solidarity with a few dead, white, male, American poets, who killed their “British Literary Tradition” with the cudgel of Ezra Pound? (Never mind that the “British Literary Tradition”—whatever shallow idea one has of it—didn’t have to be “killed,” and why with Ezra Pound?)

I have discovered many poems by Indian poets lately, many of them poets in this Poetry issue, as well as many excellent amateurs who by dint of their academic outsider status, would never be selected for a collection like this.

I’m convinced the quality of Indian poems in English today is equal, or greater, to, the quality of poems written in the UK and America.

Yet Indian poets get scant attention.

Unfortunately (and this is nothing against the poets themselves represented here) you would not know this quality exists from Poetry’s India issue—which is a terrible shame.

It’s almost a betrayal.

When I was younger, I naturally thought poetry was everything, and editing was nothing. Now I’m beginning to think the opposite is true. I could name exciting Indian or Indian-background poets I admire, poets who don’t write like Ezra Pound, but write with honesty and vigor, and inhabit a variety of styles in a thrilling, even memorable, manner, and yet one might be moved to go find a poem by these poets and be underwhelmed—since no poet publishes poems of equal quality.

The selection matters.

Every poet—because it is finally the poems, not the poet, which matter—has bad and good poems.

It is important we find and assemble the good ones. Critics and reviewers must judge. This is all they are supposed to do.

Let me name some wonderful poets left out of this selection: Linda Ashok, Anand Thakore, Ravi Shankar, Medha Singh, Daipayan Nair, Kushal Poddar, Sharanya Manivannan, Sarukkhai Chabria, Joie Bose, Menka Shivdasani, Ranjani Murali, Akhil Katyal, Jeet Thayil, Sushmita Gupta, Urvashi Bahuguna, N Ravi Shankar, Abhijit Khandkar, Arun Sagar, Aseem Sundan, Sukrita Kumar, CP Surendran, Nalini Priyadarshni, Divya Guha, Arjun Rajendran, Aishwarya Iyer, Sophia Naz, Meera Nair, Arun Sagar, Tishani Doshi, Huzaifa Pandit, Bsm Murty, Sumana Roy, Aakriti Kuntal.

Sensual, hopeful, colorful, wise, spiritual, romantic, scientific, wry, affectionate. And yes, anti-Modernist. That’s why I love these poets.

It may seem an act of sour grapes to list a few of my favorite poets the editors missed, and there’s a danger an incomplete search of their work will disappoint. The last thing I wish to bring to Poetry’s Indian Poetry party is bitter words and no answers. Even passable Ezra Pound imitators deserve better than that.

 

ROUND ONE MARCH MADNESS 2018 ACTION

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Sentimental Poems are fighting it out for the 2018 MARCH MADNESS POETRY crown, but don’t let “sentimental” fool you.

Nothing fights harder than sentimental, for sentimental reasons. Think of a mother bear defending her cubs.

“Western Wind” is a short anonymous poem which once graced anthologies. Was it merit which made it well known? A tricky business, poetic reputation and renown. Found in a 1530 collection of songs for Lute, it’s older than Shakespeare, and apparently 16th century English composers loved writing music for it. The leather-bound Oxford Book of English Poetry reproduced “Western Wind” in the early 20th century, and the New Critics used it in Understanding Poetry, their mid-20th century textbook.

Western Wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ! That my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

The first line has interest because it’s 1. a question 2. to a non-person (wind) and is 3. onomatopeia (sounds like the wind).

How sentimental is this short poem?

Brevity can both hinder and help sentimentality; extremely powerful emotion will vanquish verbosity.  Yet brevity is the soul of wit—and wit is the opposite of sentimentality.

“Western Wind” is offensive—it breaks the third commandment, by “taking the lord’s name in vain” with its utterance of “Christ!”  In today’s terms, this is like saying “Fuck!” in polite company.  Whether this had anything to do with the song’s popularity, we are not sure. Can we be sentimental as we curse?  If sentimentality is any strong emotion, then yes.

Here is the history of the modern world in a four line poem.  They say “Western Wind” is  English because it references “rain” and the “west wind.”  True, but the break with Rome, the ravenous, secular British Empire—it’s all there in that irreverent, passionate, outburst, “Christ!”

Does sentimentality have anything to do with a passive (love) complaint?  We certainly think so.  “Western Wind” is passive (love) complaint, if nothing else.

Speaking of passivity, Milton’s “On His Blindness,” the Round One opponent of “Western Wind” in the First Bracket, might be the most famous expression of passivity in poetry: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The complaint of Milton’s poem hides behind the rhetoric of the devout believer—reading Milton’s poem, the reader feels that somehow there is a complaint which wishes to be expressed (life sucks), but which is transformed, by faith, into I dare not complain.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Milton shows us how God can be an antidote to mawkish self-pity: “God doth not need/ Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best/Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.”

Can sentimentality be stern?  Is there a sentimental setting, in which the poem, or the poet, fights completely free of sentimentality?  And can this still be called a sentimental poem?

“Western Wind” remains a complaint—and is sentimental for that reason.

“On His Blindness” fights against complaint—and is more sentimental for that reason.

Milton wins.

IN THE NORTH: MAURA STANTON AND PETER GIZZI

It is what you do not say that matters most in poetry.

But how do you not say something?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

This happens to be one of W.H. Auden’s best lines.

See?

But Auden is dead, so he’s not in this tournament.

Peter Gizzi is, and Gizzi has published haunted lyrical poems for some time now, and shows he understands the trope with this line:

No it isn’t amazing, no none of that.

Downplaying things is the modern way in poetry.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, though, was good at it, too:

Come, read to me some poem,
      Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
      And banish the thoughts of day.
 ..
Not from the grand old masters,
      Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
      Through the corridors of Time.
 ..
For, like strains of martial music,
      Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
      And to-night I long for rest.

“Corridors of Time” is weak. Poe excoriated Longfellow on many occasions for things like this.

But “The Day Is Done” by Longfellow as a whole is still a magnificent poem. Longfellow doesn’t downplay rhythm in his poem. He wants to rest, but his poem doesn’t.  Longfellow was a professor at Harvard, had married into money, was very famous, and Poe was a little bit jealous.  Yet Poe tended to be correct in all his criticisms of Longfellow. Jealous does not mean wrong.

But some say, oh they do say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Maura Stanton is Gizzi’s opponent, and her line—which is about everything because it is about nothing—is one of those lines we all wish we had written.

We didn’t, and because we didn’t, we weep that Maura Stanton did.

Who made me feel by feeling nothing.

 

 

 

 

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV AND CHANA BLOCH IN EAST TUSSLE ON GOOD FRIDAY

We might observe on this Good Friday: we have a March Madness battle in which two poets bring lines springing up with a noticeable spiritual passion.

Philip Nikolayev wins every debate with his sword of logic, his shield of Aristotle, and his slippers sewn at Harvard University.

Nikolayev has a much better sense of humor than Waldo Emerson—and thank God Emerson remained frowning.  Had Mr. E. cracked a grin, the result would have been hideous. When Nikolayev laughs, it is all over for you: there’s nothing you can do.  Most American poets of note attended Harvard, as did Nikolayev—one listens attentively to the serious ones; the humorous ones, however, awe, and even intimidate us.  When T.S. Eliot tells a dirty joke, we are vaguely uneasy; what great poets do under the radar tends to stay under the rug, since greatness just will not be found there.

Nikolayev, now in youthful middle age (doesn’t it seem the world is getting younger?) found time a few years back to write a great “undergraduate” poem, with one part druggy danger, two parts innocence, and some sentimentality, and as we read this line on this day, it does advertise a certain spiritual largess:

I wept like a whale. You had changed my chemical composition forever.

Oh God. Beautiful.

But wait, here comes Chana Bloch, translator, professor, Judaic scholar, poet, with a line from a poem which was published in the 2105 Best American Poetry.  In the poem, the poet is observing a piece of pottery. The line soars with spiritual significance—how can you deny it?

The potter may have broken the cup just so he could mend it.

There is some poetry that puts you in church; you can’t help but think, poetry is just another way of being religious.

Which came first, the poem or the psalm?

Who can walk into a poem and not believe in it?

What makes the pleasing scent of a poem rise up into the air?

Is religion a shadow of poetry, or is poetry the shadow?

Is is possible for the poems of pagans to infect the holy, if the holy needs the poem—so the divine might sigh?

STEPHEN STURGEON AND SUSAN TERRIS IN THE EAST

There is the sort of poetry which is shy and odd.  Here is no titanic novel, no Lord Byron of a thousand rhymes, no comedy, no tragedy, no autobiography, no song.

It is the sort of poetry that looks at you and says…yes?  Did you want something?  Were you looking for someone?

It is the poet who is so not cool, they are cool.  Or, so cool, they are not cool.  And so on.  And they secretly hate you—or love you.  You can’t tell.  They sit across from you for an evening and say nothing—with words, or otherwise.

Theirs is the sort of poetry that is a little bit funny without any effort at all, and for a moment they might have you thinking that to be a little bit funny with no effort at all is really the greatest thing it is possible to do.

In the 2016 March Madness East bracket, we have 12th seed Stephen Sturgeon, who is currently literature librarian at the University of Iowa, with this line:

City buses are crashing and I can’t hear Murray Perahia.

A line like this is unassailable.  One could never pronounce it bad or good.  Sturgeon’s line wears the magic coat of John Ashbery, protected forever from criticism.  It could mean something, or not, and because it baffles, it pleases sweetly and ephemerally, like a cigarette, or any trivial pleasure which pleases because of a certain sly, unhealthy, indefiniteness.  It is unhealthy to be indefinite all the time. And in our minds, small doses of the unhealthy will tend to feel like pleasure. One can be addicted to non-meaning, and actually find it to equal actual pleasure.  If they haven’t done a study of this, they should.

Boredom is separated from death by one thing: variety.  If differences ceased, boredom really would be death—to be bored with one thing endlessly is perhaps the one thing that is hell for the mind—the hell of pure boredom, without pain.

“City buses are crashing” is very high on the modern spectacle-of-interest scale and not being able to hear Murray Perahia makes perfect sense, and yet is so odd, especially if you are one of those people who say to yourself, Murray Perahia? I’ve heard that name, but who is he?  It is that tantalizing uncertainty: Buses crashing? Why? Are people dying?  Is the poet on the bus, or just witnessing the crash?  And so on.  It is all those questions, all those uncertainties, all those elements—which save us from the horror of boredom.   “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.”  Said Berryman.  Yes and yes.

Susan Terris, who was published in the latest Best American Poetry, is the 5th seed in the East, and her line is:

Cut corners  fit in  marry someone

It is what we do.  It sums up life.  After the buses crash. After Murray Perahia finishes. It is funny how a few words can capture a life in such a way that, even though we know there is so much more to life, there is a part of us that relents, and says, Oh God. This is it. This is life.

It almost as if we like the way language can put us in a little box and there we remain.

Someone has to come out of this box and be the winner.  Will it be Stephen?  Or Susan?

From the box come indefinable sounds.

 

 

JORIE GRAHAM AND JEET THAYIL MIX IT UP IN NORTH BRACKET MADNESS

There are times when lines collide and comment on each other wonderfully, like in this battle between American poet Jorie Graham (Iowa, Harvard) and Indian poet, novelist, and musician, Jeet Thayil.

Graham has been a force (and a controversy) in American poetry since the early 1980s—when this line was published:

A rooster crows all day from mist outside the walls.

The line from Thayil is more recent, but do we care when a line was written?

There are no accidents. There is only God.

These two lines strike different parts of our brains, with equal pleasure.

The inner eye of our senses registers the rooster and the mist and the walls.

Our speculative faculty ponders what it means to say there are no accidents—there is only God.

The order in which elements arrive in a line of poetry make a subtle difference in how we feel about it.

Why is there a sublime feeling of distance in the Graham line?  Because we travel in the line from the rooster—to its crowing—to its crowing all day—to the mist—to outside—to outside the walls.

Graham is not a formalist; but this, her best line, is a perfect alexandrine—6 iambics, one more than in the common iambic pentameter—and this stately meter contributes to the line’s sublimity.

The sublimity of Jorie Graham’s line is no accident. 

Let’s change the sequence of the line, keeping all its parts, all its elements the same, and see what happens.

Outside the walls,
All day, from mist,
A rooster crows.

Just by changing the order, it now sounds like a haiku, with a homely, intimate, “Eastern” feel, rather than a poignant, majestic, “Western” one.  (And it’s still iambic.)

Change the order of the other line and:

There is only God. There are no accidents.

Somehow this now sounds less certain, more dubious, and almost invites the reply: what do you mean there are no accidents?

The line make more sense when God follows accidents; for accidents can seem to exist when they happen, and then only afterwards—we feel, ahh! that was meant to be.  In order for the line to have force, it must be in the order Thayil presented it—with God at the end.

And now, Marla, let us walk outside these walls and discuss which one of these lines finally ought to win at last.

Marla Muse: It is a pleasant evening. Yes, let us go.

 

MARILYN CHIN AND CHARLES SIMIC CLASH IN THE EAST

To judge a poet by their isolated lines is, of course, totally unfair.

But to look at a part helps us to understand a whole.

The speech of a poet can be compared to the paint of a painter:

We can study a painting up close so we see only the paint itself—and we don’t comprehend ‘the picture’ during these moments at all.

Or, we can stand back, and look at isolated parts of the painting, observing coherent parts of the picture: drapery, a tree, the surface of a lake.

To judge a line of poetry could be like viewing a painting at close range—and perhaps we can learn a little from this.

Have you ever looked at Byron’s poetry extremely “up close,” then T.S. Eliot’s, and compared them? It might be a helpful, even enjoyable, thing to do.

But since all the lines in this March Madness tournament were chosen for a certain isolated beauty or interest, they are more like coherent parts of a painting, where some of the picture can be “read.”

There is no way a great painting can be comprised of parts that are not also individually great. A clumsily painted face could not coexist with an excellent piece of drapery in an excellent painting. To admire the painting as an excellent whole, every part must be excellent, too.

If we search a poet’s work and have trouble finding excellent lines, our judgment of that poet must change, must diminish. We must come to the conclusion that the poet’s poetry was not as good as we previously thought.

To read a poem is not the same as knowing it.

In reading a poem, we are caught up in the forward movement of “the read.” We move through the poem to get to the end of our “read,” but do not really experience the poem as what it really is— or is not. The poem may be “good” as a “read,” to be read once. But it does not belong to a heaven of excellence, if its parts do not distinguish themselves as parts.

One doesn’t really know a person until one lives with them.  One doesn’t really know a poem unless we inspect its lines, its parts.

Charles Simic is one of the most distinguished living American poets.

But will he be smashed in this tournament, crushed by the reality we have outlined above?

His line, from one of the best poems in the 2015 BAP volume, is:

I could have run into the streets naked, confident anyone I met would understand.

Empathy for this line—and this seems to be Simic’s fate—really requires the poem.

Marilyn Chin is an American poet, born in Hong Kong, and educated at Iowa.  Chin has a passionate lyricism which is apparent in parts of poems.

It’s not that you are rare, nor are you extraordinary, O lone wren sobbing on the bodhi tree.

What is sporting is not always fair.

We think we know the outcome of this one.

 

 

 

PODDAR AND KASISCHKE GO A LITTLE BIT MAD IN THE MADNESS

Kushal Poddar is in the 2016 Madness

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

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

In America, poets study at Writing Programs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROUND ONE COMPETITION!!! SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2016!!

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What’s in a line of poetry?

What is a line of poetry?

The drink is determined by the drinker.

A great line of poetry is like a shot of whiskey.

A poem is like a horse race. The horses are beautiful, strong, and fast, and they make the circuit in a few minutes. The race is over quickly, but everything leads up to it. Families mass. The whole ceremony which surrounds the race is delicious and slow. The horses were once colts. On the big day, there are many flowers. The poem is a beautiful blur of beauty. The crowd leans in during those exciting moments to hear what beauty has to say.

We scan the crowd, and if we should see a beautiful face, a very, very rare one, we marvel at how it has the same features as the world, but is beautiful in the extreme, and for obvious reasons that we are yet unable to comprehend, having to do with what we see of minute proportions of common objects: nose, eye, chin; and the way the elegant body carries the head, the hair that falls over the face, a small smile—these bring joy, but it is the sight of a face’s beautiful triumph in micro-inches that expands our chest in sighs, causes us to stop in the shadow of ourselves where a beam of sun in our eye has strayed.

The vast park is silent. The crowd has passed through large boulevards—or small roads that look like any quaint suburb of any large city in the world, with spring-thickened trees, the small shops with freshly painted signs. The millions have hushed themselves to hear the first poet in the 2016 March Madness Tournament utter their treasured line:

Donald Hall, author of hundreds of books on many subjects; old, regal, bearded—we once discussed Whitman with him in a bar in Iowa City—has loved and married Jane Kenyon, has watched Jane Kenyon die—Donald Hall, poet of lyrics and laments and epics and songs, anthologist, populist, pronounces with syllables solemn and slow:

To grow old is to lose everything.

Around the park, no sound.

The tournament has begun.

Now, Jennifer Moxley, respectfully and slow, moves to the podium. All eyes are on her, noting what she is wearing, a black dress—with gold designs tastefully embroidered into the fabric—her skin pale in the bright sunshine blasting the day:

How lovely it is not to go. To suddenly take ill.

The guests shift slightly in their seats as the line descends into their souls.

Donald Hall smiles.

Jennifer Moxley is motionless in the sun.

And the winner is…

 

 

 

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