LOVE WITHOUT DESIRE, DESIRE WITHOUT LOVE: 17TH CEN (SUCKLING) VERSUS 20TH (LARKIN)

In this contest between Sir John Suckling’s 400 year old poem, “If You Refuse Me Once,” and Philip Larkin’s 60 year old poem, “Talking In Bed,” the interest lies not only in looking back at two eras of poetry (English Renaissance, English Modern) but two eras of love.

It is yet fashionable to think of old poetry and modern poetry as very different; the bomb of revolutionary modernism that went off in 1910 is still showering its debris.

We like to think that very soon this is going to change, and Letters and life will truly reflect and enhance each other once again.

Modern poetry has thought to reflect life by showing everything in the mirror (poem) but with the fading of poetry’s popularity, we are finding that mere reflection does not enhance.  The moderns freed up poetry to reflect everything and anything, and nothing could be more simplistic and straightforward: the more things you can put in poetry, the better, right?

Careful.  How you answer that question could destroy you as a poet.   Because poetry is about to change.

Letters is enhanced by life, and life, by Letters, in a more unique and complex manner than previously thought.

Using Letters as a dumping ground does not make Letters reflect life better, and we should always be making Letters able to reflect life better, and not simply seeking to have it reflect as much of life as possible.

Modern poetry congratulated itself on this simple ability: poetry shall reflect as much of life as possible.  But it’s not that simple.

This is the sole reason why rhyme and meter were chucked by modern poetry.  This is modern poetry’s sole raison d’etre: reflect as much of life as possible.  “More is better,” as the dry-humored man in the A.T.T. commercials, sitting at a little table with the grade school children, currently says on TV.

The most significant change in poetry in the last 500 years has been both in form and content, but formal concerns are insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry has become prose and is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all other objections, no matter how much the formalist poet may protest.

You want rhyme?  Go to popular song.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we seek merely to look at the whole issue of old and new as truthfully as possible.  We hope our larger net will feature a catch that will in the long run please the formalist, as well as everyone else.  We argue for, not against.

The relationship between life and Letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it.

Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is how love is no longer a leading feature of poetry.

Why did poetry and love coexist for hundreds of years?

Love helps Letters and life to enhance each other for several reasons that are so obvious, we may have lost sight of them for that very reason:

1. Love is a popular topic.   Life and letters cannot enhance each other if Letters is the domain of the few, or merely a rote, academic pursuit.

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every significant aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, children, judgment, pride, spirituality, beauty, manners, and rhetoric.  It is from a practical standpoint not a ‘romantic’ one, that love is significant as a literary topic.  To reject love as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for ‘romantic sentimental’ reasons.  No other topic comes close.

3. Since so much of past poetry involves love, to make it the prime topic of poetry again will reconnect old poetry and living poets, which will add to Letters and life mutually enhancing each other.

4. Finally, popular music was once all about love, and that’s no longer true; more & more popular music is about sex.  Love needs an art form again.  Who will step in?

When it comes to love and young people, the most sophisticated thing said is, “they’re going to have sex.”   This may be true, but certainly there’s a world of nuance and interest that ought to go far beyond this.

From a purely social historical perspective, one can see differences in the two poems below, but this does not mean that Sir John’s poem is not valid either as a treatise on love or as a poem.

Nor does Larkin’s more cynical approach to love cancel out the fact that Larkin’s poem is a love poem.

Nor should the social historical approach to poetry, or any approach to poetry, which finds moral or other differences between love old and new, invalidate the love poem as poetry.

Why should modern, gizmo poetry be considered more significant?

IF YOU REFUSE ME ONCE–Sir John Suckling

If you refuse me once, and think again,
I will complain.
You are deceiv’d, love is no work of art,
It must be got and born,
Not made and worn,
By every one that hath a heart.

Or do you think they more than once can die,
Whom you deny?
Who tell you of a thousand deaths a day,
Like the old poets feign
And tell the pain
They met, but in the common way?

Or do you think it too soon to yield,
And quit the field?
Nor is that right, they yield that first entreat;
Once one may crave for love,
But more would prove
This heart too little, that too great.

Oh that I were all soul, that I might prove
For you as fit a love
As you are for an angel; for I know,
None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.

You are all ethereal; there’s in you no dross,
Nor any part that’s gross.
Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
The vestal relics for a covering drawn.

Your other parts, part of the purest fire
That ever Heaven did inspire,
Makes every thought that is refined by it
A quintessence of goodness and of wit.

Thus have your raptures reached to that degree
In love’s philosophy,
That you can figure to yourself a fire
Void of all heat, a love without desire.

Nor in divinity do you go less;
You think, and you profess,
That souls may have a plenitude of joy,
Although their bodies meet not to employ.

But I must needs confess, I do not find
The motions of my mind
So purified as yet, but at the best
My body claims in them an interest.

I hold that perfect joy makes all our parts
As joyful as our hearts.
Our senses tell us, if we please not them,
Our love is but a dotage or a dream.

How shall we then agree? you may descend,
But will not, to my end.
I fain would tune my fancy to your key,
But cannot reach to that obstructed way.

There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,
Our bodies may draw near;
And, when no more their joys they can extend,
Then let our souls begin where they did end.

TALKING IN BED—Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

This contest is too close to call…!

But someone has to win.

Suckling 99 Larkin 98

Sir John Suckling is going to the Sweet 16!

CATULLUS AND HERRICK VIE FOR SWEET SIXTEEN

Lyric poetry once had simple things to say and said them as memorably as possible.

Was that such a bad idea?

Here is Catullus, from two thousand years ago, taking on Herrick, from 500 years ago.  Catullus, the ancient Roman, requires translation (a new one from Scarriet) while Herrick’s Renaissance English is his:

HOW MANY KISSES: TO LESBIA–Catullus

Lesbia, you ask how many kisses of yours
Are enough to satisfy my desires?
As many grains of Libyan sand on Libyan shores
That lie between the oracle of Jupiter’s fires
And Battiades’ tomb among Cyrenean cedars
Where Egypt’s Jupiter is worshiped;

As many stars, when the night moves not,
That gaze on desires no one else sees;
As many of your mad kisses kissed
For mad Catullus that ever were,
Impossible to count from any spot
That might be hiding spies with evil tongues.

TO THE VIRGINS, TO MAKE MUCH OF TIME–Robert Herrick

GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
    Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
    To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
    You may forever tarry.

Catullus was naughty, and therefore his poem is dramatic.  Herrick was a life-long bachelor who spent his life writing occasional poems to please others; therefore his poem is didactic.

How to pick a winner?

Herrick had a marvelous ear; Catullus, in Latin, is lost to us in English.

Catullus survives because of a single volume of his that was discovered in an old house in Italy hundreds of years after his death.

He is not considered a major poet, and yet Catullus talks to us.

Catullus wins 87 to 83!

SWEET SIXTEEN: NORTH. BURNS AND GOETHE: CIVILIZE ME WITH LOVE

Goethe and Burns battle with poems of exquisite love.  Post-modern theories in abeyance, here is civilizing emotion, whose benefits justify these stupid sentiments.  Be stupid, be sentimental, be civilized, be happy, is the secret of the old poets.

THE VIOLET—Johann Goethe (trans. A.S. Kline)

A violet in the meadow grew,
Bowed to earth, and hid from view:
It was a dear sweet violet.
Along came a young shepherdess
Free of heart, and light of step,
Came by, came by,
Singing, through the flowers.

Oh! Thought the violet, were I,
If only for a little while,
Nature’s sweetest flower yet,
Till my Beloved picked me, pressed
Me fainting, dying to her breast!
So I might lie,

There, for but an hour!
Alas! Alas! The girl went past:
Unseen the violet in the grass,
Was crushed, poor violet.
It drooped and died, and yet it cried:
‘And though I die, yet still I die
By her, by her,
By her feet passing by.

A FOND KISS—Bobby Burns

A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu’ twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Nothing could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d say kindly,
Had we never lov’d say blindly,
Never met–or never parted–
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare thee well, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee well, thou best and dearest!
Thine be like a joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!
A fond kiss, and then we sever;
A farewell, alas, forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

The pathos of the German poet is irresistible, even though Burns’ famous words, “Had we never lov’d say kindly, Had we never lov’d say blindly, Never met–or never parted–We had ne’er been broken hearted,” sums up the pain of love memorably.

Goethe 81 Burns 78

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe advances to the Sweet 16!

THE FINAL FIRST ROUND CONTEST: LOUIS SIMPSON, GEORGE HERBERT

Louis Simpson in his last days.  The poet did not live to see himself in Scarriet 2013 March Madness: Romanticism

The final combatants in the first round of Scarriet’s Fourth Annual March Madness Poetry Tournament are both pious men, not really Romantics, and yet any sort of devotional poignancy worked out in poetry can usually sound “Romantic,” though we are still not sure these poets are the real thing, though the Committee did finally invite them to the tourney.  

George Herbert was a 17th century Anglican priest who got along well with the king, and with everyone it seems, a divine who lived a clean, generous life.

Louis Simpson, who died last September, fought hard in the Second World War, a good egg who rhymed and resisted avant-garde nonsense.

WORKING LATE—Louis Simpson

A light is on in my father’s study.
“Still up?” he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire–
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man’s head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father’s study
now shines as late in mine.

LOVE—George Herbert

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack,
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Herbert has to be thought the crowd-pleaser, here: “Taste my meat”??   Religious musings can take one anywhere!  Herbert, the Metaphysical, gets down to it, while Simpson, the Modern, seems sentimental and rambling, by comparison. 

Herbert over Simpson, 69-55.

That’s the end of the first round!  We had 64, and now we have 32 survivors, who will play for the Sweet 16!

To recap the East winners:

Coleridge d. Mazer
Poe d. Swinburne
Housman d. Marlowe
Eliot d. Nerval
Shakespeare d. Dowson
Ransom d. Drayton
Donne d. Dunn
Herbert d. Simpson

And here’s the upcoming contests for Sweet 16:

North:

Goethe v. Burns
Frost v.  Blake
Catullus v. Herrick
Larkin v. Suckling

South:

Keats v. Wordsworth
Plath v. Hoagland
Petrarch v. Barrett-Browning
Olds v. Eberhart

West:

Shelley v. Dryden
Millay v. Yeats
Vogelweide v. Lawrence
Collins v. d’ Orleans

South:

Coleridge v. Housman
Poe v. Herbert
Eliot v. Donne
Shakespeare v. Ransom

Swoon!

“LET THINGS DARKEN AS THEY WILL” DUNN BATTLES DONNE

 
Can Dunn run with Donne?
In this contest—the penultimate First Round game as we round out things in the East—we have two monumental poems expounding iconic, monumental opposite beliefs and doing it so well that, at the end—and we find this so beautiful—both poems seem to be saying the same thing, if not quite agreeing with each other, then adding to each other in such a way, that ultimately, there is agreement.
But what a delicious war this is!
The 17th century Donne, devotional supplicant to love’s singularity.
The 21st century Dunn, with a shrug, putting on some music.
Yet, 21st century Dunn, in his way, is devotional, too, for isn’t the thing he obviously wants,  “you and me…here and now from here on in,” the same thing 17th century Donne not only wants, but gives us?
And if we disagree with Donne, there is nothing more for us, if we agree with Dunn—except less possibility for poetry—for Dunn, like all moderns, essentially surrenders to “random things out there,” that have no truck with poetry, for if we believe the moderns, whatever is “out there” is indifferent to us.
Further, the sort of thinking we do in poetry about what is “out there” has no reason to take place if indifference is truly the state of things.  And, further, if description of these “things out there” is sought, poetry, in terms of pure descriptiveness, falls short of the visual arts.
In spite of Dunn’s agnostic stance, the whole power of Dunn’s poem resides in the fact that he skillfully entertains what Donne embraces—the modern begs at the ancient, devotional table; the vignette of coming darkness at the end of Dunn’s poem is dependent on Dunn’s philosophical musing in the beginning, whether or not that musing is definitive, or not.
The poem—if we take ‘the poem’ seriously, depends upon an assumed philosophy, as well as an aesthetic (painterly, musical, sculptural, architectural) reality; the latter will usually crash if the former is not in place; mere babbling or scribbling is always possible, and there are even modern philosophies that support scribbling and babbling, but Donne is no special case: poetry is actually more beholden to Donne, than Donne to poetry; Dunn is real only in relation to Donne; all poetry is.  The world (see Donne) is far smaller than we think.
If the avant-garde doesn’t get this…well, that’s precisely why they need to puff themselves up with terminology such as: avant-garde.
We maintain that poetry is always poetry.
Dunn is speaking Donne’s language; the moderns, if they live at all, live in the past—all is one; Donne is right.
Donne’s “twas but a dream of thee” anticipates Dunn’s desire, if not his philosophy—of which he has none, save as it exists in Donne.
THE GOOD MORROW—John Donne
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
 
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
 
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
HERE AND NOW—Stephen Dunn
There are words
I’ve had to save myself from,
like My Lord and Blessed Mother,
words I said and never meant,
though I admit a part of me misses
the ornamental stateliness
of High Mass, that smell        
 
       of incense. Heaven did exist,
I discovered, but was reciprocal
and momentary, like lust
felt at exactly the same time—
two mortals, say, on a resilient bed,
making a small case for themselves.        
      You and I became the words
I’d say before I’d lay me down to sleep,
and again when I’d wake—wishful
words, no belief in them yet.
It seemed you’d been put on earth
to distract me
from what was doctrinal and dry.
Electricity may start things,
but if they’re to last
I’ve come to understand
a steady, low-voltage hum        
      of affection
must be arrived at. How else to offset
the occasional slide
into neglect and ill temper?
I learned, in time, to let heaven
go its mythy way, to never again        
      be a supplicant
of any single idea. For you and me
it’s here and now from here on in.
Nothing can save us, nor do we wish
to be saved.        
        Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We’ll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will.
The “home crowd,” the “present,” clamors for the living poet, but John Donne defeats Stephen Dunn, 90-82

RENAISSANCE VERSUS MODERNISM IN A ROMANTICISM SMACK-DOWN!

Michael Drayton—a metaphysical poet never included with the Metaphysicals—takes on John Crowe Ransom

The sweet flower that was Romanticism (late 18th cent—early 19th cent, Amer Rev, French Rev, Napolean, Beethoven) has its roots in the Renaissance (and its Ancient Greek re-discovery) and throws its shade on 20th century Modernism, cooling many a tortured, modern brow. 

Michael Drayton, a courtly poet and Shakespeare contemporary, who is easily as metaphysical as Donne, drew his love-metaphysics from Dante and Petrarch by way of Plato, and indulged in it so wonderfully, he may have put this type of poetry to rest forever. 

We are not sure why Drayton—born 10 years before Donne—never gets included with the so-called “Metaphysical Poets.”  We are just stupid not to cast a wider net.  T.S. Eliot, with his friend Ezra Pound, in the name of a narrow Modernist agenda, may be to blame.  The Modernists were often not so much critics as gerrymanderers. 

If you want metaphysical paradox, read Michael Drayton.  Then you may talk to us about John Donne.

This is Drayton’s most anthologized poem, and perhaps his least metaphysical one.

THE PARTING—Michael Drayton

SINCE there ‘s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
   –Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
   From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

We have always admired this popular poem: the firm, mono-syllabic “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part—Nay, I have done, you get no more of me; and I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,” dissovling, finally in the hopeful, wavering of “yet recover” is wonderful. 

Great poems, in how they sound and in how they talk, and in how they simultaneously picture things, are like dreams, and this one resembles a dream.

Its Modernist counter is John Crowe Ransom’s, the poem we think is his best; often anthologized, “The Blue Girls.”

THE BLUE GIRLS—John Crowe Ransom
 
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
 
Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
 
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
 
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.
 
No matter what one thinks of John Crowe Ransom, this poem is a masterpiece—an array of characters is presented: “bluebirds, blue girls, teachers old and contrary,” the poet with “loud lips” who will “publish Beauty, Beauty itself that is “so frail,” and then, when the stage has been filled in a mere 12 lines, the final stanza packs a wallop and unites all in one more character: “a woman with a terrible tongue, blear eyes fallen from blue.” 
 
It is with a beautiful poignance that the poet finally celebrates the “woman” over the “blue girls,” with the magnificent final line,  “Since she was lovelier than any of you.”
 
Ransom moves on, defeating Drayton, 72-69!
 
 
 
 

MORE FIRST ROUND “ROMANTIC” MADNESS IN THE EAST: SHAKESPEARE V. DOWSON

The tragic Ernest Dowson thinking: Can I really win this thing?

Genius finds the singularity that is universally true in that which the ordinary mind thinks is a mere particular. The singularity is usually overlooked not because it is hidden, but because it is so very obvious. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 states the issue immediately with its title phrase, “Chronicle of Wasted Time.”  The all-too-obvious-truth is: All poems, all writing, all memory, is a “chronicle” or record of that which is gone, or “wasted.”  No matter how accurate or “realistic” the record, it can never be reconciled to its subject—which belongs irrevocably to “wasted time.”   And this is not a fact to be considered by the poet; it is the fact to be considered by the poet: the poem records what no longer exists.  

This is bad news and good news, for the poet, and finally, because of the way Shakespeare entertains it, good news.

It is finally good news because Shakespeare’s insight is good news: which is why we recognize Shakespeare as a genius (a genius always means good, not bad)—not to merely use the word, “genius,” because some authority tells us Shakespeare is a genius, but because we ourselves are really impressed with what we read. 

The bad news is that everything articulated belongs to “wasted time;” everything in the past is gone.  Not just partially gone.  Gone.  “Wasted.”  Time has eaten it up.  It is no more. 

The good news is that the “chronicle” is extremely important—because it’s all we’ve got.  The poem may not be much, but it is all.  The “chronicle” (poem) is everything.  The poem is the reality.   And to the poet, that’s got to be thrilling.

Here’s the sonnet, in full:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Shakespeare positions himself in the present by twice saying, “I see” (lines 2, 7). 

The poet is looking at a recorded past: “in the chronicle” at “descriptions of the fairest,” but is quick to remind the reader that the past, because it is “wasted,” does not exist as the past, but, in the poet’s words, (the “chronicle”) in the present: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme.” 

Past and present are collapsed into each other; we have two “chronicles”—the one which Shakespeare sees (the “descriptions” lost to “wasted time”) and the one which is Shakespeare’s (present) sonnet itself. 

Implied, of course, is Shakespeare’s awareness that his sonnet (“chronicle”) records (and is thus a present disappearing into a past) the past “chronicle,” and, in so doing, replaces it as a past “chronicle,” too.  And yet the present tense of line 3, “making” presents for the reader a present presence: “beauty making beautiful old rhyme” which is “beautiful” in the present, even as it refers to “old” rhyme—“rhyme” which cannot be “wasted,” since Shakespeare is rhyming now in his sonnet, and about beauty!  Shakespeare’s sonnet is literally refuting “wasted time” by keeping “beauty” alive with “rhyme” that is both “new” (in his sonnet) and “old” (the past “chronicle” he is looking into). 

Shakespeare uncouples the past from the present, suddenly, right in the middle of the sonnet, lines 7 & 8.   Note how, while introducing, for the first time, “you,” the person in the poem he is praising, Shakespeare wrenches the present from the past:

I see their antique pen would have expressed  
Even such a beauty as you master now.

And Shakespeare continues in this same vein:
 
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring
 
The “chronicle” Shakespeare sees is not merely a record of the “wasted” past;  it “prefigures” the future.
 
With the introduction of “you,” the collapse of past and present now gives way to collapse of past and future, which is a logical and natural progression:
 
First, past takes present into it (Shakespeare’s sonnet becomes the past “chronicle” to which it refers, since we, the present readers, are reading Shakespeare’s sonnet—which now belongs to the past).
Second, past takes the future into it (the past “praise” vaults into the future as “prophecy” which leap-frogs over Shakespeare’s “present” to we, the readers of the “future,” currently/in the future? reading Shakespeare’s sonnet.
 
The reason why “we” (in a present/future now forever blended) “have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise” is because “tongues to praise” would merely start the “chronicle” sequence all over again—unnecessary because Shakespeare has sketched out the whole issue already: “eyes to wonder” is the speechless fact that stands apart from all “chronicles” and the “chronicle of praise/prophecy” unites past, present, and future, which would otherwise be “wasted.”  
 
There is both a dead record of death and a dead record of life, but the best, Shakespeare, maintains, is a living record of life: which requires praise that must become prophecy.
 
If we are correct that the past/present trope in Shakesspeare’s Sonnet 56 is crucial to all poetry, we should find it to be true for any poem called on to examine.
 
We do see its importance. 
 
True, time is not Dowson’s conscious subject, as in the Shakespeare, but look how crucial it is: the poem begins, “Last night…” and the key turning is, “when the feast is finished…then falls thy shadow…”
 
NON SUM QUALIS ERAM BONAE SUB REGNO CYNARAE—Ernest Dowson
 
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
 
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
 
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
 
The Dowson poem may be sweeter, but the  Shakespeare poem is a glory.
 
Shakespeare wins, 66-63.

OLD GREAT POETRY: MARLOWE V. HOUSMAN

Instead of dismissing old great poetry as old, which is the default reaction of many a modernist and post-modernist, it might profit the next generation, and the practice and appreciation of poetry in general, if we analyze why it is great.

The following poems by Christopher Marlowe and A. E. Housman (the Marlowe, a famous excerpt from his play, Faustus) positively shine with sweetness, glory, and popularity:

WAS THIS THE FACE?  —Marlowe

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
WHEN I WAS ONE AND TWENTY  –Housman
When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
       But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
       But keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty,
       No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom
       Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
       And sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty,
       And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
This is one of those Scarriet March Madness contests in which it is a shame to have a loser—well, that’s been true of every contest this year.
Why are these two poems particularly great?
We might begin with this phrase: dramatic action.
These poems both ring with speech-action.
Sound and sense co-vibrate in the reader’s comprehension.
There is serial-interlocking action, serial-interlocking thought; the whole moves forward rapidly in its thought-action progress.
The rapidity is due not only to a wise choice of sounds, but due to the swift painting of rhetoric, rather than the inefficient rhetoric that attempts to paint. 
What you get so often in contemporary poems is a series of dry, detached statements—the interlocking quality of thought, sound, painting, and action simply does not exist, because this would carry the contemporary poet towards a style which does not sound contemporary enough.
This is the horrible truth.  Seeming stylistic choices, made in order to sound contemporary, lead the poet down a cul-de-sac of loosely-made, dull-sounding poems.
The error involves confounding style with method. 
For it isn’t about style at all, really.
The compositional method of a Shelley or a Swinburne, for instance, is thought by the brain-washed modern to be a stylistic tic of a certain time period—which, because it seems to be a style belonging to a certain time period, is automatically rejected.
Thus poetry, by a mere trick, is overthrown.
We note also a kind of moral, cause-and-effect urgency is present in both poems—is this the atmosphere great poems swim in, or is it a mere accident of what inspired the poet?  Probably the latter; we tend to think the issue is one of compositional method rather than morals, though these two might be mysteriously linked in some way.
Housman wins, 55-52, and advances to the second round.

THE TITANS OF LUXURIOUS SOUND: POE V. SWINBURNE!

Algernon Swinburne: nominated for a Nobel eight times. His aristocratic, maternal grandfather had 17 children

When the world moulders away and the ruins of the past become beautiful, falling down in their departing ruin, beautiful, art falls madly in love with the past, and all that’s new seems brutal, unpoetic, fast.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is a beautiful, red, island-wound in the middle of the 19th century, a realm in which High Romanticism found a practical home in a leafy, backwards-looking guild. The Brotherhood helped Whitman when America was neglecting him; it fostered Beautiful Socialism and kept artful, wan love alive; it is no surprise that swooning Swinburne was associated with The Brotherhood, or that Swinburne lives anew in Scarriet’s Romanticism Tourney, or that Swinburne is fated to face off in the first round against Poe.

Swinburne and Poe are “Wall-of-Sound” poets, creating waterfalls of poetic sound in their poems; their excess is logical, for poetry is not painting, nor is it philosophy; why shouldn’t poetry, then, use sound to maximum effect, since this is what distinguishes it from painting and philosophy? 

Both men were excessive, yet correct in their excess.   

Rumor of personal excess followed both men; Poe was more chaste, but both instinctively responded to false accusation in the same manner: confessing to more falsehood. Swinburne: I had sex with a monkey and ate it!  Poe: I set fire to my grandmother!

The following ballad shows Swinburne in typical rhyming fervor, but here is rigor and order, as well; a bracing, sane, beautifully built poem:

A LEAVE-TAKING

Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And ended all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as we all love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
She would not hear.

Let us rise up and part; she will not know.
Let us go seaward as the great winds go,
Full of blown sand and foam; what help is here?
There is no help, for all these things are so,
And all the world is bitter as a tear.
And how these things are, though you strove to show,
She would not know.

Let us go home and hence; she will not weep.
We gave love many dreams and days to keep,
Flowers without scent, and fruits that would not grow,
Saying, `If thou wilt, thrust in thy sickle and reap.’
All is reaped now; no grass is left to mow;
And we that sowed, though all we fell on sleep,
She would not weep.

Let us go hence and rest; she will not love.
She shall not hear us if we sing hereof,
Nor see love’s ways, how sore they are and steep.
Come hence, let be, lie still; it is enough.
Love is a barren sea, bitter and deep;
And though she saw all heaven in flower above,
She would not love.

Let us give up, go down; she will not care.
Though all the stars made gold of all the air,
And the sea moving saw before it move
One moon-flower making all the foam-flowers fair;
Though all those waves went over us, and drove
Deep down the stifling lips and drowning hair,
She would not care.

Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see.
Sing all once more together; surely she,
She too, remembering days and words that were,
Will turn a little toward us, sighing; but we,
We are hence, we are gone, as though we had not been there.
Nay, and though all men seeing had pity on me,
She would not see.

Poe’s Raven needs no introduction.   

In the work of poets like Poe and Swinburne, we see that thought and rhyme do go together.

Poe prevails, 77-73, but we cannot soon forget the Swinburne!

FIRST ROUND ACTION MOVES TO THE EAST AS WE REVIEW THE WINNERS

Last year’s Scarriet March Madness Tournament Champion, Ben Mazer: Should S.T. Coleridge be afraid?

First Round play in Scarriet’s Romanticism, Old and New, Madness Tournament East Bracket awaits: with icons Coleridge, Poe, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot, plus living poets Stephen Dunn and Ben Mazer!

First round play is finished in the North, South, and West.

So far, three living poets have managed to advance to the second round, mixing with the best Romantic poets of all time: Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, and Billy Collins.

Philip Nikolayev (“Litmus Test”) almost upset First Seed John Keats in the South.

One change to report: Algernon Swinburne has made the cut as a 15th seed in the East, replacing “The Ballad of Barbara Allen.”  The Scarriet Madness committee has an obscure rule that no Anonymous authors may compete, thus barring the folk ballad (often replete with Romantic genius).

Here’s a recap of the poets advancing:

Goethe “Holy Longing” d. Donald Justice “In Bertram’s Garden”

Frost “Stopping By Woods” d. Thomas Campion “Follow Thy Fair Sun”

Catullus “Lesbia Let’s Live Only For Love” d. Rimbaud “Lines”

Larkin “Whitsun Weddngs” d. Thomas Traherne “Eden”

Suckling “Why So Pale and Wan Fond Lover” d. Ashbery “Syringa”

Burns “Red, Red Rose” d. W.H Auden “Miss Gee”

Herrick “Delight in Disorder” d. Theodore Roethke “I Knew A Woman”

Blake “How Sweet I Roamed” d. Wallace Stevens “Peter Quince At The Clavier”

Keats “Ode To A Nightingale” d. Philip Nikolayev “Litmus Test”

Plath “Lady Lazarus” d. Poseidippus “Dorchia”

Petrarch “Whoso List To Hunt” d. Bishop “The Fish”

Wordsworth “On The Beach At Calais” d. Baudelaire “L’invitation Au Voyage”

Hoagland “A Color Of The Sky” d. Ovid “Amores I,V”

Barrett “A Musical Instrument” d. Betjemen “A Subaltern’s Love Song”

Eberhart “The Groundhog” d. Marvell “The Garden”

Olds “Primitive” d. Dante “Tanto Gentile”

Shelley “The Cloud” d. Arnold “Dover Beach”

Dryden “Song For St. Cecilia’s Day” d. Dylan Thomas “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”

Yeats “Lake Isle Of Innisfree” d. Tennyson “Mariana”

Millay “And You As Well Must Die” d. Pope “Ode On Solitude”

D.H. Lawrence “River Roses” d. Propertius “O Best Of All Nights, Return and Return Again”

Charles D’Orleans “La! Mort Qui T’A Fait Si Hardie” d. Spender “I Think Continually Of Those Who Are Truly Great”

Billy Collins “Passengers” d. Byron “Don Juan” excerpt

Walther Vogelweide “Under The LindenTree” d. Browning “Meeting At Night”

And those are the (North, South, West) winners so far!

We need 8 more from the East Bracket.

Ben Mazer, last year’s Scarriet March Madness Champion, who defeated Marilyn Chin for the title, advancing past the likes of Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery, draws a tough challenge this year: “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Coleridge, perhaps the most famous Romantic poem of all time.  Last year’s amazing run by Mazer was against living poets.

Here’s the Mazer entry:

AT THE TABUKI KABUKI

She was a hothouse flower, but she grew
to such proportions that she never knew

her brand of people, less her brand of steeple,
and saw things as they happened, from the view.

Her husband took her on his trips to Asia,
to count the factories, and meet the heads
of government and business. In her beds
were flowers, chocolates, cinctures of aphasia.

In time the path sloped upward, and the driver
relaxed a bit, began to tell his story.
It grew less clear just who was driving who,
she, the loquacious one, or he, the taciturn McGiver,

or if it was a modern sort of dory.
As she listened, she began to rue
the little fables, and the many tables,
and the entire vast illusion, too.

As we read this brief poem by Mazer, up against Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, we might think it is a lamb going to the slaughter, but not so.  We observe, for instance, Mazer’s delicate ear in the first few lines: “grew, knew, people, steeple, from the view.”  We also note the compactness of imagery and story; an undertone of despair sweetly mixed with an undertone of humor; informative density “heads of government and business” effortlessly combines with lyric surface: “flowers, chocolates, cintures of aphasia.”

If we might take a moment to define the genius of the Romantic era and poetic genius in general, as evinced by Mr. Mazer, it is this: the poet of genius, moved by that love in which desire seeks its goal by any means necessary, fires all its guns in a burst of fervor and ardor in which no poetic strategy is rejected, no rule is obeyed other than: the more rules broken, the better; no poetic school or fashion is followed; the poet shoots all the arrows available in his quiver at the sun.

Mazer is not rhyming so much as rejecting the modern rule that you shall not rhyme—there is a difference between the two; the Romantic rebel, we feel, and we know not how, is doing the latter.

Shelley, in a poem, writes of a “cloud,” and that’s all he does, and the wise elders think, “You can’t just have a poem about a cloud!”

This is what Romanticism is: it is not “about romance,” per se; it is love following its own vibrations, passionately rejecting rules and embracing whatever-it-takes to enkindle a certain profundity of delight.

You cannot mention McGiver—much less use it as a rhyme!—in a brief, melancholy lyric and make it work!   But Mazer does.  This is what impossible-to-define-genius does.

It is not what genius does that makes poetic genius genius, but how it manages to make whatever what happens to be come to life in unexpected ways.

KUBLA KHAN, a dream fragment—S.T. Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
 
 
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
   
 
A damsel with a dulcimer
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian maid
   And on her dulcimer she played,
   Singing of Mount Abora.
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight ’twould win me, 
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
 
This poem is a mess.  Yet it works, better than almost any poem ever written.   What sort of claptrap is this?  “A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw” and yet who does not delight in it?  The Romantic era reached this pinnacle: poets created Taste by violating it, a phenomenon which has largely been missing from poetry ever since.  Since the 19th century, poets, in their compositional techniques, have been prosier, more correct—and colder.
 
Coleridge 88 Mazer 79
 
Mazer fights hard, but the iconic poem carries the day.

THE GREY SEA VS. THE LINDEN TREE

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Robert Browning joins his wife in this tournament—Elizabeth Barrett advanced in her Round One contest—as a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism: one foot in each, and Barrett, a well-known poet before her husband, serves as that, too; she wrote verse drama (and corresponded with Poe) well before she wrote those famous sonnets to Browning, and in dramatic verse both she and her husband found speech in poetry, of which the honor often goes to Robert Frost.

The claim is made often: speech rhythms in poetry, etc.  But we suspect speech and poetry will always be oil and water, and the speaker will always own speaking more than the speech, and this is precisely why William Shakespeare, writing for actors, made poetry that is speech before Wordsworth, or Browning, or Frost.

“Meeting at Night” is a Browning lyric that boils with romanticism:

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed in the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

The landscape that moves, the adventure, the chiarascuro, it’s all lovely; though it feels to us that “and” begins too many lines—could we just strike some?—and “through its joys and fears” feels a little awkward.  In our experience, Browning’s verse always seems a little rough.

Browning matches up today against a 13th century (!) piece of Romanticism by a German gentleman, Walther von der Vogelweide.

This poem, like Browning’s, recalls a tryst—this time from the woman’s point of view, and the poem has the charm of speaking to exactly nobody, (where the Browning poem doesn’t really speak, it paints).  “Under the Lindentree” almost seems like an Ur-text of Bashful Romanticism. It is full of beautiful detail, even in its shame.

UNDER THE LINDENTREE (trans Michael Benedikt)

Under the lindentree
on the heather
there a bed for two was
and there too
you may find blossoms grasses
picked together
in a clearing of a wood
tandaradei!
the nightingale sang sweetly.

I came walking
over the field:
my love was already there.
Then I was received
with the words “Noble lady!”
It will always make me happy.
Did he kiss me?  He gave me thousands!
tandaradei!
O look at my red mouth.

He had made
very beautifully
a soft bed out of the flowers.
Anybody who comes by there
knowingly
may smile to himself.
For by the upset roses he may see
tandaradei!
where my head lay.

If anyone were to know
how he lay with me
(may God forbid it!), I’d feel such shame.
What we did together
may no one ever know
except us two
one small  bird excepted
tandaradei!
and it can keep a secret.

Vogelweide defeats Browning, 78-75!

And that closes out Round One in the West, as now we move onto the East…

POEMS OF SCARY DEPTH: BILLY COLLINS SEEKS TO ADVANCE PAST LORD BYRON

Byron: hated by husbands and modern poets. Can Billy Collins match up with him?

The chief objection to the poet from the typical sports watching lay person is that the poet ‘makes shit up.’

Yup, the poet does ‘make shit up’ and this is why philosophers like Plato object to them and why citizens immersed in reality have no time for them.

The world is full of shit, and shit is what most people are busily involved in—it’s the making the poets supposedly do which arouses suspicion and distaste for poets, because first of all, only God and people who work with their hands can ‘make’ something, and secondly, anyone who ‘makes’ something with words has got to be suspicious right from the start.

Common sense keeps words docile and doesn’t let words do anything tricky; poetry, on the other hand, lets words do anything they want; why should someone who maybe doubts their ability to keep all words under control, never mind all word-combinations under control, trust poetry?

It’s not surprising that poetry doesn’t have a lot of fans.

One might object by asking: what of the fabulist, the fictioneer, the novelist, the TV or movie script-writer? They get more love than the poet. Why?  Don’t they make up stuff with words, too?

Unlike the poet, the strict story-teller uses reality’s language, even if fantasy or sci-fi is the genre: words behaving themselves can talk about anything, but poet’s words do not behave. Misbehaving words afflict the mind itself, transforming the reader into something they may not recognize about themselves. This is scary.

The reader needs to feel safe: they prefer moral instruction which keeps their own mind intact as a reality construct, receiving reality’s information. Keeping a ‘made-up story’ at arm’s length is safe. Having your mind invaded by tricky words is something totally different.

The predictability of genre, reviewing, reader feedback and the ‘best seller’ phenomenon is crucial: this is why readers choose books by genre, by reviews, by recommendation, and by what’s on the ‘best-seller’ list.  The moral arc of predictable story-telling comforts the reader. The brains of most readers cannot receive beauty in language; words simply tell them what they can understand, and this is all that reading is for them.

Poets don’t cooperate with this system, because words which don’t obey a certain moral-reality-paradigm literally alter one’s brain and one’s morals.  Not all poets can do this, of course, nor could most readers have their brains altered by what they read even if they tried; but this is the perception in terms of readers generally choosing what they like or do not like.

Two poets who have more fans than most are contemporary poet Billy Collins, and 19th century poet Lord Byron, who had celebrity status from his poetry.

Collins takes great pains to not sound like a traditional poet.

Selling books is like herding bovines. Large house editors and publishers, if they really wanted to, could make Byron’s Don Juan a best-seller again: it would just require a large enough advertising budget and a movie tie-in.

It is not in the interest of publishers to do so, however, since if the industry can sell millions of books written in the plain style of King or Steele or Grisham, why raise the bar, Byron being so much a better writer?  Why build a cathedral when a wooden church will do?

Byron (beautiful, smart, funny) is dutifully kept in his place by the publishing industry; first of all, to make sure no authors feel they have to write well (like Byron) to sell, and secondly, Byron today occupies a down-trodden, sub-sub-position even within wretched poetry which, since Byron’s death, has morphed into a ‘modern’ product of plain speech and easy-to-grasp morals—as part of fiction’s publishing strategy of ‘most efficient bovine herding.’

Byron doesn’t sell today on account of being one of those tricky poets who ‘make shit up,’ barred from the lay reader’s comprehension.

Not only that, however: Byron is not even respected among poets today as a poet, rejected by them precisely because he is comprehended.

During poetry’s transformation from pretty to plain during WW I—when poets who wrote prettily (Brooke, Thomas, Owen) were literally being slaughtered in the trenches—as poems became plain-spoken to fit in with mass living, a last-minute alteration occured: seeing poetry had nothing now to distinguish it from plain speech, in a calmly calculated effort to keep poetry as the ‘elite’ art form everyone understood poetry to be, poetry labeled itself “difficult,” so that in its new plain state at least it would not completely disappear.

The anglo-american poetry industry made a Faustian bargain: poetry will continue to exist as a “difficult” genre the lay person cannot trust—and this will be poetry’s sole (but vital) distinguishing characteristic. It would attract a small following of the mad, but at least it would still exist as what the mad groupies were sure was “poetry.”

Not everyone in Modernville was happy this happened, but it did. Exceptions, of course, exist. Poets, determined to be understood, have written easily understood poems: on wheel barrows. But once an industry criterion is established, it doesn’t easily go away: a wheel barrow in a poem has deep meaning whether it really does—or not.  This is the iron law.  It has long since been established as poetry’s trade-pamphlet reality: all poems are/ought to be “difficult,” even little ones about wheel barrows. 

Poetry—whether by Byron, or not—is not popular today because not being popular became poetry’s identifying marker when poetry self-consciously became ‘modern’ and jettisoned all its previous charms.

Again, exceptions exist; elements of the public yearn to reverse the Modernist Faustian Bargain, and popular poems do peep through the cement occasionally. But obscenity-trial “Howl” was an ugly flower; the public still mistrusts poetry; “difficulty” lingers on as poetry’s identifying elitist marker.

Byron (past) and Collins (present) are good examples of populist, anti-modernist poetry; they are welcome participants in Scarriet’s 2013 Madness Tournament.

Collins writes plainly; it is the equivalent of one approaching a doe in the woods: “It’s okay! Don’t be afraid! I won’t hurt you!”

“At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats,” is the first line of Collins’ Madness Tournament entry, “Passengers.” 

There is no meter, no rhyme; just one line after another, as if it were prose—but easier.

Gently the doe is offered food: “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.”

PASSENGERS–Billy Collins

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people—
carry-on bags and paperbacks—

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of sky divers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common spot

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It’s just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter’s hair…
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below…

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Collins does not ‘make shit up,’ he merely records his quirky ruminations—the charming thing about “Passengers” is that it exists as an actual document of someone thinking about something which he cannot share.

The very people Collins could share it with are not allowed to access his thoughts—and the reason it cannot be shared is the very reason for the poem itself.

The “police” are absent censors until the poem is liberated in front of us—who become the “passengers” of Collins’ poem.

Byron is represented with a random excerpt from his long poem, Don Juan:

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Byron is self-consciously rejecting old poetry with his jokey, “Hail, Muse! et cetera.”  Byron is more modern than many moderns would like to admit. Maybe it’s time to come out and admit that “Modern” is merely a brand. 

Byron, like Collins, also conveys the forbidden: love/sex/marriage advice: highly embarrassing to the public at large, which would prefer Byron to be a character in a novel, not a free-thinking poet speaking out in a poem as a thinly-veiled version of himself.

The chief fault with the Byron is the tone of lecturing, combined with the feeling that too much sweat is spilled for the sake of wit and rhyme that attempts to mitigate that same tone.  Otherwise, it’s just brilliant.

Collins, despite his prose, does use poetic language; note the assonance of: “some spaceless, pillarless Greece.”

One might say Collins and Byron are apples and oranges, but a winner there must be.

Collins 90, Byron 88.

Lord Byron goes down!

CHARLES D’ORLEANS AND STEPHEN SPENDER, 500 YEARS APART, BATTLE IN THE WEST


Stephen Spender between Auden and Isherwood: the Truly Great?

The two poems in today’s contest are what certain petulant members of today’s avant-garde might call Quietist—in the extreme. 

The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman took the term “Quietist” from Edgar Poe (eventually they all take everything from Edgar Poe).

Poe used “Quietist” to condemn a self-satisfied, New England puritan-astuteness, a Ralph Waldo Emerson type of wisdom, which Poe felt was mostly superior-sounding rubbish.

In Silliman’s avant alteration, “Quietist” has come to mean simply, not avant-garde, so we are to think that all avant-garde poetry (wretchedly obscure, cut-and-paste, 150-year-old Duchamp’s moustache-on-a-Mona-Lisa done over and over and over again…) is somehow exciting—when nothing could be further from the truth…

If you believe with Scarriet that it is not the poet’s job to know—but to be understood, you will be less likely to fall for Silliman’s avant-garde’s flattery.

These 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament poems are “populist” poems.

Charles D’Orleans and Stephen Spender, about to clash before roaring crowds, have produced the kind of works which make avant-garde insects scatter, running for the obscurity they require, to avoid the light poems such as this produce.

Poems like this do not arise from randomly tossing poetry kit magnets onto a fridge.

The trick that makes this whole issue somewhat difficult to grasp is this: the random, fridge-magnet poem (the avant-garde poem) has a certain textual integrity that the poems which follow—Silliman’s so-called “Quietist” poems—do not.

By “textual integrity,” we refer to the fact that before the fridge-magnet poem randomly ‘comes together,’ it exists no where else; its textual integrity is all the integrity it has.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a New Critic’s dream.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a conceptual poet’s dream, as well, since the conceptual poet gets to have effortless ‘textual integrity’ paired with the ‘concept:’ I made the executive decision as a conceptual poet to throw magnets at a fridge and to employ randomness as a blow against mere Quietism.

The following “populist” poems are not necessarily difficult to write, and we all know they are not difficult to read, or understand;—the randomly generated fridge-magnet poem is difficult to read, and in some people’s minds, is better for that reason alone.

But the issue, contrary to the Modernist mantra, is not “difficulty,” for random poems and bad poems can be “difficult” as hell; to promote “difficulty” as a standard is nothing more than a Modernist, avant-garde ruse.

The poems by D’Orleans and Spender exist not just in their textuality but mostly in the truth of what was felt and thought prior to their existence as texts—a concept difficult for the New Critic and the avant-garde Modernist to wrap their minds around, but which is a concept celebrated by those who actually love poetry.

Las! Mort Qui T’a Fait Si Hardie (trans. Fred Chappell)
Charles D’ Orleans (1394-1465)

Death, you have made it your pleasure
To take the noble princess
Who was my comfort, my treasure,
And everything to bless
My life. Since my mistress
You take, take once again:
Take me, her servitor.
Better to die than bear
Such torment, sorrow, and pain.

She was beautiful past measure,
In the flower of youth she was.
May God work His displeasure
Upon your faithlessness!
My anguish would be less
If you had taken her when
Old age had burdened her;
But you hastened to show your power
With torment, sorrow, and pain.

I live imprisoned, my leisure
Lonely, companionless…
My Lady, goodbye. Now has our
Love departed. This promise
I make to you: largess
Of prayers and, until slain,
My heart, yours evermore,
Forgetting nothing in its sore
Torment, sorrow and pain.

God, Who art sovereign
Of all, in mercy ordain
That the bright spirit of her
Will only briefly endure
Torment, sorrow, and pain.

We love this poem, and it would seem to survive its translation, as well.

It goes against this chestnut from Sir Stephen Spender, who ran Horizon magazine (1940-49) with, it turns out, CIA money.  He was part of Auden’s circle, and a fine poet.

I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO WERE TRULY GREAT—Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fŠted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

We don’t know if we believe the poet when he says, “I think continually of those who were truly great,” but it is a forceful and memorable phrase.

D’Orleans wins, 88-84.

The 15th century poet advances!

THE POEM AS EROTIC DOCUMENT: SEXTUS PROPERTIUS AND D.H. LAWRENCE

Did Sextus Propertius (Rome, 55 BC) invent Western romantic love?

Properitus is one of the first to write gendered opposition poem sequences to one maddening beloved (Cynthia) a trope repeated endlessly in the Western poetic tradition: Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, are just a few examples.

One surely can’t put it down to one poet: one could say Western Romance was invented by Augustan Rome, where loose morals, personified by loose women, unraveled the Empire in a manner that made news while it was happening.  Sex became a weapon of revolt not only among women, but among competing males.

Woman’s liberation in Rome meant sex outside of marriage, which, of course, gets the poet’s juices flowing: the poem just isn’t necessary inside a stable marriage; outside the marriage, however, the writing of a poem becomes the man getting up an unofficial document, an erotic certificate, of a woman not officially his.

The Roman love elegy is not just the male celebrating love, it also represents the male in panic mode: how to control one’s beloved?

We could go so far as to say that the poem during the reign of Augustus invented Western romantic love.

RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN—SEXTUS PROPERTIUS (trans, James Laughlin)

How she let her long hair down over her shoulders, making a love cave around her face.
Return and return again.

How when the lamplight was lowered she pressed against him, twining her fingers in his.
Return and return again.

How their legs swam together like dolphins and their toes played like little tunnies.
Return and return again.

How she sat beside him cross-legged, telling him stories of her childhood.
Return and return again.

How she closed her eyes when his were wide open, how they breathed together, breathing each other.
Return and return again.

How they fell into slumber, their bodies curled together like two spoons.
Return and return again.

How they went together to Otherwhere, the fairest land they had ever seen.
Return and return again.

O best of all nights, return and return again.

If the British Empire, a male-dominated, naval empire, was the modern-day Greece, its rival Germany was Rome.

D.H. Lawrence, son of a Welsh coal miner, eloped with a German Barnoness, Frieda von Richtofen.

Romantic love is, in the simplest terms, the reverse of war: the male, instead of the brave soldier, runs to the woman to hide in/with her.

Lawrence wishes to be lost “by the Isar” (a river in Germany) where “no one knows us.”

Propertius seeks shelter in the “love cave” of his lover’s hair.

The men wish to disappear with their women.

RIVER ROSES—D.H. LAWRENCE

BY the Isar, in the twilight
We were wandering and singing,
By the Isar, in the evening
We climbed the huntsman’s ladder and sat swinging
In the fir-tree overlooking the marshes,
While river met with river, and the ringing
Of their pale-green glacier water filled the evening.

By the Isar, in the twilight
We found the dark wild roses
Hanging red at the river; and simmering
Frogs were singing, and over the river closes
Was savour of ice and of roses; and glimmering
Fear was abroad. We whispered: “No one knows us.
Let it be as the snake disposes
Here in this simmering marsh.”

We like the language of the Lawrence better—all those delightful ‘ings.’  The ancient poems are held hostage by imperfect translations.

Lawrence advances past Propertius, 75-69.

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY DANCES WITH ALEXANDER POPE

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

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

AND YOU AS WELL MUST DIE–Edna Millay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ODE ON SOLITUDE–Alexander Pope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ta Da!!

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

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

AND DEATH SHALL HAVE NO DOMINION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARIANA—Tennyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will such music ever end?

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

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

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

BOY V. PROF! SHELLEY AND MATTHEW ARNOLD CLASH IN THE WEST!

We all know “The Cloud” by Shelley, and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold are classics.

Both poems seek a redemptive consistency amidst change and fear, and it would be safe to say this is the chief role of religion, and once, the chief role of poetry.

Shelley’s poem is remarkable for its sound—no contemporary poet can match Shelley’s music without crashing and burning in sounding like Dr. Seuss.  Faith in this kind of poetry is necessary to persist in the beauty which can result—but more than beauty: the atomism of Shelley’s poem, its glittering movement, replicates the tumbling, mutating cloud-theme itself.

THE CLOUD

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,
As still as a brooding dove.

That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

How different is the Arnold poem, as it drags in sentiment and commentary, Arnold, the school teacher making assumptions about figures from the past, Arnold, the pacifist making statements against war, Arnold, the over-educated Victorian as rotting Romanticism, but with the torch still burning!

Shelley’s poem contains no human sentiment—it is not, actually, “Romantic,” but the voice of pure existence; if the God of tremulous existence could speak, Shelley would be the mouthpiece.  Romanticism is the highest concentration of human passion in art—artless human passion is legion, but the artful part belongs to the great Romantics like Shelley, and “The Cloud” is merely the result of the highest human passion inscribed artfully naturally evolving into the god-like with its purest manifestation in the sound-sense of highly skilled poetry.

Arnold’s poem begins divinely, and competes with Shelley’s genius, even surpasses it, in the opening music of that remarkable first stanza, but then it falls to human bathos, the human sentiment of pedantry and self-pity, but since Arnold is alive to the Romantic tradition we hardly notice the worm invading the corn. 

Historically, in the movement from Romanticsm to Modernism, the physics of “The Cloud” ends with Arnold’s lament that behind Shelley’s materiality is emptiness, but this is because Arnold the critic did not take Shelley to heart and chose instead to elevate Wordsworth as the Great Romantic. 

“Ah love, let us be true to one another” is a bracing sentiment in the face of Arnold’s universal despair, but this temptation needs to be resisted—we mean giving into Arnold’s despair, because if love is brought in as a last-minute rescue, as a sentiment that is the only good thing, it ends up detaching love from the universe itself—it finally gives into smallness and fear, not to mention pedantry.  Shelley’s materiality is more than that, since the poet is the god, the creative impulse is what matters, not Arnold’s subjective and highly seductive wailing.

DOVER BEACH

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The great seduction is: “ignorant armies,” because the reader, of course, pats himself on the back with Arnold…at least I’m not ignorant and war-like, as I survey with Arnold this woeful world.  

Matthew Arnold was, in fact, one of the figures T.S. Eliot, and other modernists, hitched a ride on, in order to ultimately give into self-pity and denigrate the glorious likes of Shelley.  It is against the rules of Scarriet March Madness to quote another poem by a contestant during a match, but Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples,” which resembles “Dover Beach,” has none of the latter’s over-educated justification of acute misery. 

O, violent, brawling game!

Fights are breaking out in the stands!

The game is delayed five times to clear the court!

The refs seem to want to give the game to Arnold….

Triple Overtime!

Shelley 101, Arnold 100!!!!

Marla Muse has fainted!!!!!

TONY HOAGLAND, NEO-ROMANTIC, BATTLES OVID, PRE-ROMANTIC!

 
Scene from Ovid’s Amores
 
Poet Tony Hoagland, fresh off a 2013 AWP panel in which he advocated soul, wisdom, and humanity, saying poetry today had lost its way in the halls of academia to fakery and cleverness, seemed an ideal contemporary choice to represent neo-Romanticism in this year’s Scarriet March Madness Poetry Tournament.
 
The following spazzes out in high Romantic splendor—well, Keats doing Catullus doing O’Hara, perhaps:
 
A COLOR OF THE SKY—TONY HOAGLAND
 
Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
                     when you pass through clumps of wood   
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,   
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.
  
I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?   
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing   
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.
  
Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,   
the very tint of inexperience.
  
Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,   
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written   
MEMORY LOVES TIME
in big black spraypaint letters,
  
which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.   
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,   
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.
  
What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.   
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.   
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.
  
Outside the youth center, between the liquor store   
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;
  
overflowing with blossomfoam,   
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,
 
dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,
  
so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.   
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.
 
Romantic spume.  Keats’ “fine excess” dripping everywhere.  Sexy but sad.  Ah, Romanticism.
 
It’s clever the way Hoagland mentions “police station,” youth center,” “liquor store,” which imply youthful, reckless behavior; more signs that “sexual arousal” and the “obscene” are quietly navigating through his poem in a melancholy, reflective fashion: romance recollected in tranquility.  Nature’s “wastefulness” is obscene, perhaps more so than sexual arousal is obscene.  But the question is, has  Hoagland written a poem, or just an intellectual exercise?  He seems to be walking a line between cleverness and soul; obviously he’s shooting for the latter.  Does he reach it?
 
And Hoagland, the modern, has a hard task here in the Scarriet Tourney; he’s got to get by Ovid.
 
In Sports, unlike Poetry—as seen by the New Critics—talk outside the game (text) is just as important (if not more) than what happens in the game.
 
After all, what’s more interesting, the bouncing of a ball, or the lives, the heartbreaks, and the personalities attached to that ball?
 
Hoagland teaches. 
 
Ovid, when he was Hoagland’s age, was exiled forever by the emperor for writing sexually immoral poetry which helped destroy the Roman Republic.
 
Professor Gilbert Highet, in his book, Poets In A Landscape, puts it colorfully.  Ovid encouraged
 
absolute freedom from the ties of family, personal loyalty [and] public morality. Vergil’s Aeneid is a heroic poem about a single man who surmounts enormous difficulties and temptations…Ovid’s Transformations is a huge poem, partly didactic…in which men and gods live by their passions alone….Ovid even takes up several of the stories told in the Aeneid, and retells them—always in such a way as to make them more exciting and less meaningful, shallower and more vivid, occasionally almost comic. It is as though Byron had composed, in the style of Don Juan, a poem which was designed to outdo and occasionally to mock Milton’s Paradise Lost.
 
Here’s where the whole Romanticism thing gets tricky.   No two poets could be more different than Byron and Wordsworth, who are both considered “Romantics.” 
 
We ought to distinguish between a Victorian Romanticism: Wordsworth and a Roman Romanticism: Byron.
 
Or, proper v. juicy?
 
Is that too simplistic?
 
What to make of Hoagland’s,
 

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night
 
Is that Victorian?  Or Roman?
 
Does this social record depend on the age the poet is living in?   Does the poet have any say in this at all?
 
Or what to make of Hoagland’s pathetic fallacy of
 
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind
 
Is Hoagland being merely clever, or does this powerfully invoke the ‘no-mind’ of nature?
 
Of course, no one brings juicy Romanticism like Ovid.
 
From Ovid’s Amores (trans. Derek Mahon):
 
The day being humid and my head
heavy, I stretched out on a bed.
The open window to the right
reflected woodland-watery light,
a keyed-up silence as of dawn
or dusk, the vibrant and uncertain
hour when a brave girl might undress
and caper naked on the grass.
You entered in a muslin gown,
bare-footed, your fine braids undone,
a fabled goddess with an air
as if in heat yet debonair.
Aroused, I grabbed and roughly tore
until your gown squirmed on the floor.
Oh, you resisted, but like one
who knows resistance is in vain;
and, when you stood revealed, my eyes
feasted on shoulders, breasts and thighs.
I held you hard and down you slid
beside me, as we knew you would.
Oh, come to me again as then you did!
 
 Aesthetically, Ovid’s poem has a cinematic focus, a unity of image and feeling, which the Hoagland cannot replicate, as Hoagland’s poem is more rambling, more meditative, more intellectual—though Hoagland does struggle mightily to make it all into one theme: the whole bursting and excessive, yet fragile and doubtful, aspect of sex, as experienced by an intellectual yet ordinary, American.
 
And the winner is…
 
Hoagland upsets Ovid, 81-80 in OT!!
 
Congratulations to Tony Hoagland!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DORCHIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHOSE LIST TO HUNT–Petrarch (trans. Wyatt)

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

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

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

L’INVITATION AU VOYAGE—BAUDELAIRE (trans Wilbur)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SONNET–WORDSWORTH

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

The winners are:

Wordsworth 59  Baudelaire 51

Petrarch 68 Bishop 60

Plath 80 Poseidippus 78

Keats 90 Nikolayev 84

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

The North Bracket is now down to 8 poets:

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

SEX AND ILLNESS: FREUDIAN ROMANTICISM

The beautiful Robert Burns wrote love songs.  He battles homely Auden in the North.

W.H. Auden takes on Bobby Burns as the 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament rolls on.

Auden, a 20th century “Romantic” poet, is the no. 6 seed in the North, and takes on no. 11 seed Robert Burns, the 18th century Scottish song-writer and balladeer.  Auden, who wrote opera librettos, also wrote plenty of ballads, a form we’re sure can survive all.

What is the link between romantic love and sex?  Surely there’s a fine line between them, which Freud managed to blur thoroughly.

We might say that as love is to sex, mental health is to bodily health.

One might even say that sex is where body and mind meet rather harshly, and love is where body and mind meet more delicately.

Freud, the doctor, is taken seriously as such, as Auden the poet, in this ballad, warns that childless women will get cancer.

Auden’s ballad, “Miss Gee:”

Let me tell you a little story
About Miss Edith Gee;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
At number 83.

She’d a slight squint in her left eye,
Her lips they were thin and small,
She had narrow sloping shoulders
And she had no bust at all.

She’d a velvet hat with trimmings,
And a dark grey serge costume;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
In a small bed-sitting room.

She’d a purple mac for wet days,
A green umbrella too to take,
She’d a bicycle with shopping basket
And a harsh back-pedal break.

The Church of Saint Aloysius
Was not so very far;
She did a lot of knitting,
Knitting for the Church Bazaar.

Miss Gee looked up at the starlight
And said, ‘Does anyone care
That I live on Clevedon Terrace
On one hundred pounds a year?’

She dreamed a dream one evening
That she was the Queen of France
And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
Asked Her Majesty to dance.

But a storm blew down the palace,
She was biking through a field of corn,
And a bull with the face of the Vicar
Was charging with lowered horn.

She could feel his hot breath behind her,
He was going to overtake;
And the bicycle went slower and slower
Because of that back-pedal break.

Summer made the trees a picture,
Winter made them a wreck;
She bicycled to the evening service
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She passed by the loving couples,
She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples,
And they didn’t ask her to stay.

Miss Gee sat in the side-aisle,
She heard the organ play;
And the choir sang so sweetly
At the ending of the day,

Miss Gee knelt down in the side-aisle,
She knelt down on her knees;
‘Lead me not into temptation
But make me a good girl, please.’

The days and nights went by her
Like waves round a Cornish wreck;
She bicycled down to the doctor
With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She bicycled down to the doctor,
And rang the surgery bell;
‘O, doctor, I’ve a pain inside me,
And I don’t feel very well.’

Doctor Thomas looked her over,
And then he looked some more;
Walked over to his wash-basin,
Said,’Why didn’t you come before?’

Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner,
Though his wife was waiting to ring,
Rolling his bread into pellets;
Said, ‘Cancer’s a funny thing.

‘Nobody knows what the cause is,
Though some pretend they do;
It’s like some hidden assassin
Waiting to strike at you.

‘Childless women get it.
And men when they retire;
It’s as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire.’

His wife she rang for the servant,
Said, ‘Don’t be so morbid, dear';
He said: ‘I saw Miss Gee this evening
And she’s a goner, I fear.’

They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
She lay there a total wreck,
Lay in the ward for women
With her bedclothes right up to her neck.

They lay her on the table,
The students began to laugh;
And Dr. Rose the surgeon
He cut Miss Gee in half.

Dr. Rose he turned to his students,
Said, ‘Gentlemen if you please,
We seldom see a sarcoma
As far advanced as this.’

They took her off the table,
They wheeled away Miss Gee
Down to another department
Where they study Anatomy.

They hung her from the ceiling
Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
And a couple of Oxford Groupers
Carefully dissected her knee.

Now we move from Auden’s Dr. Rose to Bobby Burns’ “Red, Red Rose,” a ballad which does not lack “creative fire”:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

There is no way to adequately explain the greatness of this little poem; it is like beauty or love itself: it has a truth beyond words.

Shakespeare, in his Sonnets, famously mocked the whole idea of simile, of metaphor, the whole notion of equating X and Y, of saying that this was “like” that.  One only has to think of Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun,” or Sonnet 18, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day,” both of which imply all comparison is odious, false, misleading, and tedious: my love’s eyes like the sun? Uh…not really. If I compare you to a summer’s day, will that work?  Nope.

Burns seems to run right into this falsehood with “my love is like a red, red rose,” but one only has to reverse the stanzas in Burns’ ballad, putting the comparison stanza last, to see how the stanzas of action “I will come again,” are more important and are properly placed at the end.  Burns’ poem moves quickly from the sight-oriented “red red rose” to the ideality of “in tune,” and “I will luve thee still,” to the final “And I will come again, tho’ it were…”    It is not ostentatious, but the poem does have a movement: the simile of the rose is the pretty introduction, not the heart of the poem.

Just as the Auden ballad explicitly warns that standing water breeds disease (childless women get cancer), the Burns ballad implicitly champions movement and action (the lover’s pledge eclipses the rose simile).

Can it be these two very different poems from different eras have the same message?

They do!

In another North battle, we have this exquisite match-up:  “Delight In Disorder” by Herrick (7th Seeded) v. “I Knew A Woman” by Roethke (10th Seeded).    Holy Cow!

Here’s “Delight in Disorder:”

A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

And “I Knew A Woman:”

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)
Like  Auden/ Burns, these two poems from different eras are very similar; although the Roethke ‘gets more into it,’ the Herrick  says the same thing: “she moved more ways than one,” as the Roethke puts it.

This is a memorability issue: the Roethke is richer, but the Herrick sticks in the mind: who can forget, “Is too precise in every part.”So who do you give it to?And to finish first round North action: Wallace Stevens faces William Blake: “Peter Quince” (8th seeded) v. “How Sweet I Roamed” (9th seeded).

William Blake’s poem, the older one, has that quotable memorableness which so often more complex modern poems lack.  It shines, this poem—it’s bright to look at:

How Sweet I Roam’d

How sweet I roam’d from field to field,
And tasted all the summer’s pride
‘Til the prince of love beheld
Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He shew’d me lilies for my hair
And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his garden fair,
Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet,
And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.

The beauty of Love contrasted with the poet’s “loss of liberty” is sweetly, swiftly and deliciously rendered; Blake’s exhuberance knocks one over.  No poet rages within formal convention like Blake—there’s a lesson in that alone.

Stevens, to our ears, gets the sound of Romanticism in places, and the sense of it in other places, but rarely gets it all at once.  This poem has the feel of a jaded jingler, a soul not quite believing in song, even as it wishes to sing.  Quince reminds us of Eliot’s Sweeney—and Eliot’s  Mrs. Porter section from The Waste Land.

PETER QUINCE AT THE CLAVIER

I
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
 
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna;
 
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
 
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
 
II
In the green water, clear and warm,
Susanna lay.
She searched
The touch of springs,
And found
Concealed imaginings.
She sighed,
For so much melody.
 
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
The dew
Of old devotions.
 
She walked upon the grass,
Still quavering.
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
Yet wavering.
 
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
She turned —
A cymbal crashed,
Amid roaring horns.
 
III
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
 
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
 
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
 
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
 
And then, the simpering Byzantines
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
 
IV
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
 
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
 
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Here are the results:
Burns defeats Auden 66-60
Herrick defeats Roethke 69-63
Blake defeats Stevens 80-72

TWO MODERNS, LARKIN, ASHBERY, IN MADNESS TANGLED

Can Ashbery go further in Scarriet’s 2013 Romanticism tourney?
Is the ancient quarrel—who is better?—between ‘ancients and moderns’ a conceit of those ancients who are gone, or a conceit of we moderns who, deluded, live?
Which is real?  Learned authority which comforts and excites the ambitious school boy who desires poetic fame?
Or, that pregnant subjectivity which rejects all ‘authority’ in its ambition for fame without sweetness, pretention or glory?
Is the historian the judge of ‘great poetry?’
Or is there such a thing as ‘timeless good?’
These questions weigh upon every shot, every rebound, every fast-break, every dunk, every steal, in March Madness.
In more Round One action, no. 4 Seed Larkin (“The Whitsun Weddings”) battles no. 13 Seed Thomas Traherne (“Eden”).
Larkin’s poem, some say, is the best poem of the 20th century; it doesn’t preach; it is immersed in experience, and yet one gets the feeling that the poet is surveying human reality in sum.  The poem is formal, though not heavy-handed in its formality.  It almost feels like this is the holy grail of a modern poem, and it doesn’t matter that a reclusive, grumpy librarian from Hull, England, wrote it.  Is it Romantic?  Surely it is.  It feels like Keats reincarnated in the 20th century.
The Whitsun Weddings
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles island,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displace the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed abroad: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots. and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
-An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl -and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The amazing thing about this 17th century poem by Thomas Traherne, “Eden,” is how much it anticipates Wordsworth, how it is all Rousseau, even though it glows with Christian purity.
Wordsworth merely filled in Traherne’s philosophy with buds and birds and trees.
Meanwhile, Larkin did the same to Wordsworth, adding even more realism (a train ride) and chucking philosophy entirely for Keatsian silent wonder.
So we see the progress of poetry, flying in the air with philosophy, and letting it go, as more and more sights appear.
Eden
A learned and a happy ignorance
          Divided me
      From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
      The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
   
I knew not that there was a serpent’s sting,
          Whose poison shed
      On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
      As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.
   
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
          Sleep, day, life, light,
      Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
      All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
   
Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
          Vain costly toys,
      Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
      So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
   
Only what Adam in his first estate,
          Did I behold;
      Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
      Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.
   
Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
          My infancy
      Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
      Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;
   
And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
          So fair and sweet,
      So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
      And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity.
 John Ashbery’s Syringa is pure meditation, closer, actually to Traherne than to the more modern Larkin; Ashbery eschews art for talk, chucking both Traherne’s philosophy and Larkin’s experience for pure, flowing ephemera—the poem itself questioned, everything is questioned, Ashbery the 100 foot child (Rousseau’s revenge?) crushing all.  Ashbery is a burbling, inarticulate, child-like questioner, afflicted with grown-up melancholy and book-learning, a Faust who never made that bargain and yet regrets it and now cannot shut up.  Ashbery is Romantic because he is always on the verge of Romanticism–even as he wades past it.
We love in the end how Ashbery gives up his meditation to settle in that “small town…one indifferent summer.”
The favorite here is Sir John Suckling, the No. 5 Seed, against Ashbery’s 12th Seed.
Suckling’s poem is memorable in a way that no Ashbery poem could be.
The difference is startling: the Suckling of so few words compared to the Ashbery!
Can Suckling’s annoyance be Romantic?
More so than Ashbery’s meditative dream?
We should pause merely to record our amazement as these two very different Romantic poems meet.

WHY SO PALE AND WAN  FOND LOVER

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when looking well can’t win her
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

Larkin, the favorite, defeats Traherne 91-72.

Suckling, the favorite, defeats Ashbery in a close one, 61-60.

TWO BATTLES IN THE NORTH: FROST V. CAMPION, CATULLUS V. RIMBAUD!

Rimbaud: Goes Against Catullus in Round One

Robert Frost is the no. 2 seed in the North—right behind Goethe’s no. 1 seed, ‘The Holy Longing,” the Romantic tour de force by the German titan.  The famous Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is much beloved for its scenic beauty (yes, a few poems in just a few words manage that feat) with its clean, practical longing: “miles to go before I sleep.”

But look at this lesser-known poem, no. 15 “‘Follow Thy Fair Sun” by Thomas Campion, a 16th century poem which does battle against a 20th century one: a classic pre-Romantic versus post-Romantic battle, brought to you by Scarriet’s March Madness:

Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow,
Though thou be black as night
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun unhappy shadow.

Follow her whose light thy light depriveth,
Though here thou liv’st disgraced,
And she in heaven is placed,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.

Follow those pure beams whose beauty burneth,
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must be,
Till Her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.

Follow her while yet her glory shineth,
There comes a luckless night,
That will dim all her light,
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.

Follow still since so thy fates ordained,
The Sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The Sun still proved, the shadow still disdained.

The trope is extremely simple: light and shade (“The Sun must have his shade”) with metaphysical, moral, romantic and metaphorical aspects attending its arc.  The whole thing is lovely to behold, even if every last nuance is not quite understood.

The advantage the Frost has is “Stopping by Woods” shows, where “Follow Thy Fair Sun” tells.  All great art, they say, shows rather than tells.  Yet the Campion tells with such charm!

In our second match-up today, the no. 3 seed “Lesbia, Let’s Live Only For Love” by the Roman poet Catullus contends with “Lines” by the decadent, 19th century French poet, Rimbaud.  If Catullus is Romanticism’s passionate root, Rimbaud is perhaps its rotten fruit.

The translation of Catullus is a Scarriet original, published for the first time on Scarriet:

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me a thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, a thousand, a hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

Old poems can get right to the point in a manner that today would feel too embarrassing.  This is because invention demands ever more novelty, ever more variety and nuance, and the more contemporary must feed this requirement more, even if it means we  never get straight to the point again.

The Rimbaud, written nearly two thousand years later, writhes in its nuances for the acute sensitivity of a jaded reader:

When the world is no more than a lone dark wood before our four astonished eyes—a beach for two faithful children–a musical house for our bright liking—I will find you.
Even if only one old man remains, peaceful and beautiful, steeped in “unbelievable luxury”—I’ll be at your feet.
Even if I create all of your memories—even if I know how to control you—I’ll suffocate you.

When we are strong—who retreats? When happy, who feels ridiculous? When cruel, what could be done with us?
Dress up, dance, laugh. —I could never toss Love out the window.

My consumption, my beggar, my monstrous girl! You care so little about these miserable women, their schemes—my discomfort. Seize us with your unearthly voice! Your voice: the only antidote to this vile despair.

We can get lost in the Rimbaud, a truly ‘modern’ poem: it does not march in a simple structure from A to B.  Rimbaud’s ‘art’ is looser, but that looseness allows so much to be added!  Yet since poetry is a temporal art, even loose poems have a beginning (A) and an end (B).  We have to think Rimbaud is concluding with “voice” for a reason—the “voice” that saves us, the “voice” that is “unearthly” does not care for “schemes;” it is the expression of something unplanned, indifferent and apart.  Heated and loose, the Rimbaud finally seeks a cold expression.

The Catullus really has a similar attitude: honest, crass, and heated as it ultimately loses itself in the coldness of mathematics.  Rimbaud and Catullus are as similar as two peas in a pod, separated by two thousand years.

Frost and Catullus advance.

Frost 67 Campion 58

Catullus 60 Rimbaud 59

GOETHE! NORTH NO.1 SEED ROUTS DONALD JUSTICE, 81-57.

Goethe’s “The Holy Longing” advances easily.

The painting scene in 19th century France, like the life of drama in ancient Athens, was heavily competitive, judged and awarded, and Criticism, even in democratic America, wears boots and medals and smells of wealth and pedigree and power.

Sports events are decided by a bad bounce, by the accident of bent bodies, by the ephemera of repeating movements dressed in various garb, enshrined and canonized  naively and enthusiastically by provincials shining in their expert-ism; art is just as prone to chance as sport: sparks which happen to shoot a certain way in the mistiness of a pedant’s brain; the hired life of temple, monument and textbook, as one wields brush or pen, the same in hope and renown as wielding moving ball in moving hand over moving feet: for sweet triumph’s sake.

“In Bertram’s Garden,” the lowly 16th seeded poem by Donald Justice, swimming in the great Romantic Sea, is a sharp, image-profound celebration of seduction, a New Critical orgy of painted circumstance and symbol, removed from the usual yammer of Romantic and Victorian Anthology-ism.  Justice, one of the first poet-knights of Workshop, wins over with dirty detail, showing not telling.  His poem appeals to the senses:

Jane looks down at her organdy skirt
As if it somehow were the thing disgraced,
For being there, on the floor, in the dirt,
And she catches it up about her waist,
Smooths it out along one hip,
And pulls it over the crumpled slip.

On the porch, green-shuttered, cool,
Asleep is Bertram that bronze boy,
Who, having wound her around a spool,
Sends her spinning like a toy
Out to the garden, all alone,
To sit and weep on a bench of stone.

Soon the purple dark must bruise
Lily and bleeding-heart and rose,
And the little cupid lose
Eyes and ears and chin and nose,
And Jane lie down with others soon,
Naked to the naked moon.

Hearken to the lovely sounds in the Justice poem!  The inventive way in which Justice has the night make “the little cupid” disappear!  The psychological cunning of “as if it somehow were the thing disgraced…!”  The hard-hitting closing couplet: “And Jane lie down with others soon,/Naked to the naked moon.”!

Marla Muse joins me now.   Marla, Justice was looking for an upset with his neo-Romantic poem, composed somewhere in Iowa in the 1950s, probably.

Marla: Yet Goethe took him apart.  Justice did so well in the paint.  The sublime imagery: “porch, green-shuttered, cool”   “the purple dark must bruise/Lily and bleeding-heart and rose”  But Goethe never let Justice establish any kind of game-plan.  Justice had the pieces, but they never fell together into what could be called consequence.

Exactly, Marla.  Bertram, Jane, the garden, the rose, the “little cupid,” the “naked moon.”  They finally feel like the ephemera of a poet’s paint-by-numbers contrivance.  And there’s something missing in the music and the cadences of the poem, as well.  It all rises, only to fall.  It isn’t just that the Justice is an artificial copy of a type—what we hear is the inability of the poet to talk to the reader.   As we read the Goethe, see how we have in this poem by the German genius a consequential arc, in which the reader’s emotional and mental life is illuminated by the poet:

THE HOLY LONGING

Tell old wisdom what you feel
Or else shut up, because it won’t seem real
To your friends. They’ll just make fun of you—
Quietly dreaming of burning to death will have to do.

In the calm sighings of the love-nights,
Where you were made, where you, too, kissed in the shade,
You now feel a powerful yearning
When you glimpse the silent candle burning.

Come on!  Older and wiser today,
Your childish obsession with the dark has faded away;
You love serene lights in the sky,
And aren’t afraid to look in an old man’s eye.

You don’t care how long you burn
Or the journey lasts, or how long you yearn;
You want the light madly, that’s blinking on—
You are the moth, and now you are gone.

Your thoughts are empty, you want to rest,
You don’t understand your own worth—
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

The Goethe poem is self-reflexive in a way that the Justice poem is not—it obeying a certain New Critical distance and inarticulateness. Goethe’s”Holy Longing”  impregnates the reader. “In Bertram’s Garden” skillfully amuses.

J. Goethe advances to the next round.

Donald Justice is going home.

HERE COMES THE MADNESS

Compared to the “Romantic” Byron, the last modern poet, the Modernists are just morose.

More Bracket news for Scarriet’s March Madness 2013

Byron’s entry is the first 6 stanzas of the third Canto of Don Juan. 

John Crowe Ransom, leading the petulant Modernist trampling of Romanticism, in one of his essays, specifically picked out Byron as not being modern enough to use as a model.  But Byron, to these ears, seem more modern than Ransom.  “Hail, Muse! et cetera,” says it all.

Perhaps it might be argued that Byron was really more 18th century, more Alexander Pope, than a classic 19th century Romantic. 

But does Bach speak a different language than Brahms

Is Auden’s language really that different from Byron’s?

Poetry, perhaps, need to relax about the “big change” that happened “around 1910.”

From Don Juan, Byron

Hail, Muse! et cetera.—We left Juan sleeping,
       Pillow’d upon a fair and happy breast,
     And watch’d by eyes that never yet knew weeping,
       And loved by a young heart, too deeply blest
     To feel the poison through her spirit creeping,
       Or know who rested there, a foe to rest,
     Had soil’d the current of her sinless years,
     And turn’d her pure heart’s purest blood to tears!

     O, Love! what is it in this world of ours
       Which makes it fatal to be loved? Ah, why
     With cypress branches hast thou Wreathed thy bowers,
       And made thy best interpreter a sigh?
     As those who dote on odours pluck the flowers,
       And place them on their breast—but place to die—
     Thus the frail beings we would fondly cherish
     Are laid within our bosoms but to perish.

     In her first passion woman loves her lover,
       In all the others all she loves is love,
     Which grows a habit she can ne’er get over,
       And fits her loosely—like an easy glove,
     As you may find, whene’er you like to prove her:
       One man alone at first her heart can move;
     She then prefers him in the plural number,
     Not finding that the additions much encumber.

     I know not if the fault be men’s or theirs;
       But one thing ‘s pretty sure; a woman planted
     (Unless at once she plunge for life in prayers)
       After a decent time must be gallanted;
     Although, no doubt, her first of love affairs
       Is that to which her heart is wholly granted;
     Yet there are some, they say, who have had none,
     But those who have ne’er end with only one.

     ‘T is melancholy, and a fearful sign
       Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
     That love and marriage rarely can combine,
       Although they both are born in the same clime;
     Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine—
       A sad, sour, sober beverage—by time
     Is sharpen’d from its high celestial flavour
     Down to a very homely household savour.

     There ‘s something of antipathy, as ‘t were,
       Between their present and their future state;
     A kind of flattery that ‘s hardly fair
       Is used until the truth arrives too late—
     Yet what can people do, except despair?
       The same things change their names at such a rate;
     For instance—passion in a lover ‘s glorious,
     But in a husband is pronounced uxorious.

Any number of poems by Shelley could bring him a championship, but we think “The Cloud” is a good choice.

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noon-day dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the Sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over Earth and Ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit Sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine äery nest,
As still as a brooding dove.

That orbed maiden with white fire laden
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof, of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her, and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanos are dim and the stars reel and swim
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof —
The mountains its columns be!
The triumphal arch, through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the Air, are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured Bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores, of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die —
For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air —
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, live a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again.

Another heavy favorite to go all the way, this by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, needs no introduction:

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

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

MORE SCARRIET MADNESS NEWS: FILLING THE 2013 BRACKETS

The Romantic brackets for this year’s tourney are filling up with haunting poems, some known, some neglected.

All the poets in this year’s hoop dreams tournament have one thing in common.

They have no problem using “O” in their poems.

These poets can shoot the moon as they go for the “O.”

The so-called Romantic poem, the poetry of 19th century Romanticism, really exists all through history, though certainly the Major Romantic poets, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Coleridge, carried the Romantic Ideal for English speakers to perfection.  That ideal includes:

1. Passion without vulgarity, 2. Taste combined with truth, 3. Formal virtuosity, and 4. Civilization Through Nature and Dream.

It would not be fair to say that Modernism, in its revolt against Romanticism, made such a severe reversal that it tossed the baby with the bathwater, losing all poetic virtues; yet something like this did happen—at least in the realm of -isms and tendencies of which the scholar is concerned, and which pervades poetic activity in general.

A poem may win 1) a lover 2) a scholar, or 3) the public.

The combination may go a long way towards influencing the final product.

High Romanticism sounds like it is was written for 1) and 3) simultaneously, not caring much for 2).   Yeats sounds “Romantic” in as much as he wrote for 1) and 3) as well.

It might be said that poetry,  in its old, time-honored sense, is characterized by having as its audience 1) and 3).

Romanticism is Default Poetry.

Who writes for the scholar?    How many poets would admit to doing so?

Modernism perhaps could not quite make up its mind whether it wanted to win 2) or 3), but it did stop writing to 1) in the attempt to broaden its appeal, which, ironically, had the opposite effect.

Scarriet is beating the bushes of world poetry throughout the ages to find gems of the Romanticism genre to compete in 2013.  The obstacles: bad translations, cultural distance, old time, are great, but here’s something we found from a German poet born in the 12th century:

Under The Lindentree (trans Michael Benedikt)
Walther von der Vogelweide (1170-1230)

Under the lindentree
on the heather
there a bed for two was
and there too
you may find blossoms grasses
picked together
in a clearing of a wood
tandaradei!
the nightingale sang sweetly.

I came walking
over the field:
my love was already there.
Then I was received
with the words “Noble lady!”
It will always make me happy.
Did he kiss me?  He gave me thousands!
tandaradei!
O look at my red mouth.

He had made
very beautifully
a soft bed out of the flowers.
Anybody who comes by there
knowingly
may smile to himself.
For by the upset roses he may see
tandaradei!
where my head lay.

If anyone were to know
how he lay with me
(may God forbid it!), I’d feel such shame.
What we did together
may no one ever know
except us two
one small  bird excepted
tandaradei!
and it can keep a secret.

What a splendid poem!  Are there poems written today which elevate the mind with a sweet thrill as this one does?  Where has that old intoxication gone?  That sweetness of yore?  Life is supposedly less brutal now.  Let’s see if this year’s March Madness Tournament cannot be a small remedy for this.

Here is another exquisite poem we found to play in the tourney:

Las! Mort Qui T’a Fait Si Hardie (trans. Fred Chappell)
Charles D’ Orleans (1394-1465)

Death, you have made it your pleasure
To take the noble princess
Who was my comfort, my treasure,
And everything to bless
My life. Since my mistress
You take, take once again:
Take me, her servitor.
Better to die than bear
Such torment, sorrow, and pain.

She was beautiful past measure,
In the flower of youth she was.
May God work His displeasure
Upon your faithlessness!
My anguish would be less
If you had taken her when
Old age had burdened her;
But you hastened to show your power
With torment, sorrow, and pain.

I live imprisoned, my leisure
Lonely, companionless…
My Lady, goodbye. Now has our
Love departed. This promise
I make to you: largess
Of prayers and, until slain,
My heart, yours evermore,
Forgetting nothing in its sore
Torment, sorrow and pain.

God, Who art sovereign
Of all, in mercy ordain
That the bright spirit of her
Will only briefly endure
Torment, sorrow, and pain.

Slammin!!

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2013: THE SOUL OF ROMANTICSM

To amuse our readers, each year, Scarriet puts together a bracket of 64 poets/poems for a “March Madness” Tournament of Criticism that figures up winners, losers, and finally one champion.

It’s crazy, we know.

One cannot reconcile the enjoyment and contemplation of a poem with a competition between that poem and another poem.

That’s nuts, right?

It’s not like we ever use the critical faculty of comparison to read poetry!

Okay, maybe we do, but comparison has nothing to do with competition, right?

Well…okay, maybe…and so March Madness for poetry was born.

There is a natural interest in Poetry March Madness for those who like poems, and it’s a good way to learn new poems, and re-think old poems, too.

There are still those purists who object…but more seem to be realizing that it’s harmless fun.

The challenge  is that each year for Scarriet March Madness we need to find new anthologies and new poems.

This year’s theme will be the Soul Of Romanticism, Old and New.

Tony Hoagland made the biggest splash at the AWP this year, striking another controversial blow against post-modern obscurity, asking for poetry of “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity.”  These virtues in poetry are associated mostly with the great Romantics, like Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hugo and Goethe. 

Poets of Hoagland’s generation studied Keats and Byron in their English classes, those modern-ish marvels of poet’s poetry, and poets such as Keats were fixtures of literary study—not electives, but the main course if you were reading poetry in school.

The Romantics were central; they looked back, self-consciously, to the Greeks, to Dante and the troubadour poets, (and Shakespeare, of course) and they also looked forward to poets like Millay, Frost, Eliot and Larkin, with the New Critics and the Beats steering an uneasy and experimental shift, in school and on the street, respectively, towards a yet unrealized future—and it still seems that way, for ‘the future’ has arrived not so much with new greatness, but with millions of specialist, experimental Writing  Program poets, the Frankenstein experiment of New Critical scientists like John Crowe Ransom—the American T.S. Eliot—who helped friends like Paul Engle, starting slowly,  back in the late 1930s, to get ‘New Writing’ professors/poets to replace Keats professors “watering their own gardens.”

So here we are, with Hoagland and his allies asking for “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity,” and those like Gallaher, Perloff, and Silliman horrified.

Scarriet has selected 64 poems, new and old, we call, loosely, The Soul of Romanticism.  Ben Mazer, who won Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness championship last year, is one of the new proponents of what might be called a new Romantic school, or perhaps in Mazer’s case, the Twighlight of Ashbery-ism.

Mazer also happens to be a scholar helping to revive interest in John Crowe Ransom, among a number of other projects. It just so happens that Ransom, and his Modernist circle of friends, felt the need to self-consciously move beyond Romanticism, which we feel was an error, since building on the past is a natural thing, and the worst thing (like cutting off the nose to spite the face) is abandoning it. Mazer, like the Romantics, is mostly a lyric poet, but with other genres and models hectically included as inspiration sees fit.

The world is where the Romantic poet does his experimentation; the Modernist confines his experiments mostly to the poem itself.   This seems a rather obvious distinction, but few seem to make it.

Perhaps the Romantic mode—experimenting in the world rather than on the poem—is a more exciting way to ‘make it new.’  And, further perhaps experiment isn’t everything when it comes to art.  Take that, Perloff.

There are four Number One Seeds in the four brackets—sixteen poems in each bracket.

The following poem will be in the 2013 Tournament.  Will it be a Number One Seed?

It has a handicap.  It requires translation.  It is by Goethe, “The Holy Longing.”

Tell old wisdom what you feel
Or else shut up, because it won’t seem real
To your friends. They’ll just make fun of you—
Quietly dreaming of burning to death will have to do.

In the calm sighings of the love-nights,
Where you were made, where you, too, kissed in the shade,
You now feel a powerful yearning
When you glimpse the silent candle burning.

Come on!  Older and wiser today,
Your childish obsession with the dark has faded away;
You love serene lights in the sky,
And aren’t afraid to look in an old man’s eye.

You don’t care how long you burn
Or the journey lasts, or how long you yearn;
You want the light madly, that’s blinking on—
You are the moth, and now you are gone.

Your thoughts are empty, you want to rest,
You don’t understand your own worth—
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

We have taken the liberty of using our own translation.

Goethe’s famous poem is the essence of Romanticism: a certain lyric modesty (merely a song) together with a human touch, and a penetrating presence of soul.

Who can bring it in this way, today?

Who did it best, then?

Find out in this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament 2013!

THE CHAMPIONSHIP: MARILYN CHIN V. BEN MAZER

mazer
A mid-summer evening as Scarriet’s March Madness finally draws to a close.
West coast poet Marilyn Chin and east coast poet Ben Mazer clash in the championship game of Scarriet March Madness 2012.
64 poets, and we are now down to two.
In 2010 and 2011 (this is our third annual tournament) a poet and his or her one chosen poem battled to the top, but this year a poet used a new poem in every contest, so it becomes a question of: well, poet, how many great poems have you got?
In our first year, using Lehman’s BAP, a Billy Collins poem won it all, a playful take on a Wordsworth trope, “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey”—the title itself sums up David Lehman, Billy Collins, and cheerfully post-modern, late 20th century poetry.  In year two, using an APR anthology, Larkin’s “Aubade” swept to the title: a dead English poet’s rueful, fearful, honest, atheistic, speculation on death.
This year we used Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry, the book with a lot of black poets and ‘traditional,’ Iowa workshop, free verse lyrics.  Marilyn Chin is in Dove’s anthology; Ben Mazer is one of a handful of poets not in the anthology—the Scarriet selection process is too complicated to explain.
Mazer has emerged as a new Ashbery, an Ashbery not ashamed of running, hat flying off, down Romanticism Lane—which is refreshing, since every last bit of Modernist poetry for at least 100 years has been a rejection of anything resembling Romantic poetry, or Tennyson, or anything Byronic.  We sometimes wonder: what do they mean when they say Writer’s Workshop poems are all the same?  They are not the same—they are clearly free, and different.  But they are the same in this: they eschew Shelley and Byron and Keats. Workshop poems might be a little like Wordsworth—because Wordsworth, well, he genuinely liked trees.  But the sublime of Keats, Byron, Shelley?  Not allowed.  The New Critics, supposedly ‘conservative,’ wrote in tremendous opposition to the Romantics, as did T.S. Eliot and Pound and Williams, and this is really what Modernism felt obligated to do—even more important than the poetry that it did write, was the poetry it didn’t.  Modernism didn’t write on modern subjects, necessarily; its ‘experiments’ were finally wan or cute, when they were not lengthy & unread; it didn’t distinguish itself in any manner at all with the public—except to retire from its notice with a shrug and a smirking apology.  The modern poems of Frost, Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Auden, Jarrell, and Larkin that did make a dent on the public all sounded like Tennyson, or maybe Tennyson’s anti-war, younger brother.
If poetry is a language, that some people speak and some do not, the only difference between English and French or Italian or Japanese or Arabic and poetry is that poetry is 1) easier to learn and 2) is characterized by sounding good. Since Tennyson sounds good, this is how we know the language known as poetry.  We speak poetry because our speech is good, not because we know the meanings of French words.  Speech is good as speech, not as individual words or isolated debating points—sustained good speech is the simplest and most accurate definition of good poetry.
This is what Keats meant when he said you dive into a lake for the sensual experience, not to ‘work out the lake.’  Poetry isn’t a banner waving; it is swimming in a lake.  It is intellectualization sensualized.  Theory walks along the edges of the lake; the water or the swimming is not for theory.  Theory needs to know its place.  ‘Conceptual’ art is art infected with the dried-up-lake of theory.
Women poets are more susceptible to theory and banner-waving these days out of an inferiority complex thrust upon them by the men, which is too bad.  Women are being led astray by modern experiments.
Marilyn Chin is somewhat immune to theory, for she has history and wit.
We offer this as her poem, and following that, Mazer’s.
Who immerses themselves in the lake?  Who gives us the lake?
The poet who gets us soaking wet will win.

THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING

 War chariots thunder, horses neigh, the barbarians are coming.
What are we waiting for, young nubile women pointing at the wall,
    the barbarians are coming.
They have heard about a weakened link in the wall.
    So, the barbarians have ears among us.
 So deceive yourself with illusions: you are only one woman,
    holding one broken brick in the wall.
So deceive yourself with illusions: as if you matter,
    that brick and that wall.

The barbarians are coming: they have red beards or beardless
with a top knot.

The barbarians are coming: they are your fathers, brothers,
    teachers, lovers; and they are clearly an other.

The barbarians are coming:
    If you call me a horse, I must be a horse.
    If you call me a bison, I am equally as guilty.

When a thing is true and is correctly described, one doubles
    the blame by not admitting it: so, Chuangtzu, himself,
    was a barbarian king!

Horse, horse, bison, bison, the barbarians are coming

and how they love to come.
The smells of the great frontier exalt in them!

 

  

Crisping the Comedian C

 
And with my sword cane I rapped the dog on its head.
To its master I said:
“The soul’s expanding to make room for you
among the piles of rusted bric a brac
that make men grimace, revile themselves in church. . .
I felt the ground beneath begin to lurch,
increased my laughter with its rolling waves
laughter increase. . .
as he lunged forward trying to save himself. . .
I was an honest man. What could I do?
I pushed him forward where the great vacuum grew
and marvelled as he fell. . .
into the silence of the pits of hell.
“That’s one less editorial to write,”
I thought, and blinkered to recall the light,
and blinkered to recall the blight. . .
the scourge of man. . .
I like to help them any way I can.
In my emotions not a thought of man. . .
but that his docile sudden-widowed wife
might serve the lord. . .
replace, with some improvements in accord
with justice and increase, a missing life. . .
I dyed my hair.
A most enticing shade of emerald green,
and knowing the precise dimensions of her lair,
(and its location)
I took me there. . .
in search of satisfaction, and a queen.
She was the best damned thing I’d ever seen.
I smiled to mechanize my spotless luck.
As we proceeded. . .
no human call we heeded. . .
I do not think that men will speak to me.
But wider, wider, like a churning sea
of foaming lavender and sapphire green
I met my match. . .
How can the blameless blame me for my snatch?
I laughed to see
that God had spread his vistas out for me,
his servant lord,
no matter how much I murdered or I whored. . .
I was quite sane.
And turned to mark my profile in a pane
of ice that served my child-bride for a heart. . .
She promised a new start. . .
and I was wondrous, seeing how I’d changed;
the souls of men were cobbled there and ranged
across the germ of my experiment. . .
But at the crack of dawn these visions went,
and I was back among the human race;
answering servants in my modern palace. . .
though one thought, ordinary, flamed and flitted
of how my research proofed that I had fitted. . .
and I was not incognizant of place. . .
answering letters in unbridled solace. . .
an evening like a fortnight had them piled
and crumpled on my desk. . .
Although I cannot, I afford a smile. . .
and set out half a mile. . .
My soul was stirred, and hungered to be reviled,
revived and furnished. . .
where the creature’s dignity was burnished
on all she touched. . .
I bowed my head. My emerald locks she brushed. . .
grew wiry and strange…
yes, in that glass I recognized a change
of heart. She wept and promised a new start. . .
But how can I begin. . .
A child sees vistas in the hammering rain,
and does not ask if everything’s the same. . .
one night I fell. . .
and nothing shall restore me to His Grace.
Yet in its infancy the new-born face
is pocked and filed. . .
and strangely familiar. Something in me smiled.
It’s hard to find a perfect spot of shade. . .
Life is the best thing that I ever made. . .
The Mazer poem is uncanny.
The Chin poem is attempting to be uncanny.  Marilyn Chin’s poem keeps waking from its dream—what did I mean by horse?  By Bison?
Mazer’s poem does not allow us to wake from its dream.
*
*
*
Mazer 90 Chin 81

BEN MAZER IS THE 2012 SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS CHAMPION!!

MARILYN CHIN AND STEPHEN DUNN LOOK TO ADVANCE TO FINAL

Marilyn Chin surprised as West champion—but it shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

The best thing a poem can do for you is make someone fall in love with you who otherwise wouldn’t.

(And you are not there when they read your poem.  You are missing.)

The poem does not know what power it has, but as G. Lessing said, poetry and painting “represent absent things as present.” 

To miss someone is to be in love with them.  There is no greater subjective test.  Art portrays the “missing,” the “absent,” and so unrequited love, or love with an obstacle, may be the greatest poetical topic.

This is to state the obvious, but we avoid the obvious at our peril.   In this contest to see who plays Ben Mazer for the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship, Stephen Dunn brings his usual reflective capacity; his poem is rueful and there.  Marilyn Chin brings absence to her poem.  

First, Stephen Dunn’s poem, “The Slow Surge,” and then Marilyn Chin’s “Unrequited Love:”

THE SLOW SURGE

How sweetly disappeared the silky distraction
of her clothes, and before that the delicacy
with which she stepped out of her shoes.

Can one ever unlearn what one knows?
In postcoital calm I was at home
in the great, minor world

of flesh, languor, and whispery talk.
Soon, I knew, the slow surge of dawn
would give way to rush hour and chores.

It would be hard to ignore the ugliness—
the already brutal century,
the cold, spireless malls—everything the mind

lets in after lovemaking has run its course,
when even a breast that excited you so
is merely companionable, a place to rest your hand.

*

*

*

UNREQUITED LOVE

Because you stared into the black lakes of her eyes,
you shall drown in them.

Because you tasted the persimmon on her lips,
you shall dig your moist grave.

Her rope of black hair does not signify a ladder of escape,
but of capture,

the warm flesh of her arms and thighs—not cradles of comfort,
but of despair.

She shall always be waiting for you in an empty room
overlooking the sea.

She shall always sit this way, her back towards you,
her shoulders bare,

her silk kimono in manifolds around her waist—
blue as the changeless sea.

You sit prostrate before her, bruise your forehead,
chant the Dharmas.

Five thousand years together in the same four-and-a-half-mat room,
and she has not learned to love you.

Dunn’s poem is a complaint, a common sense and almost a petty one, contrasting love-making with its aftermath.  We can argue with Dunn’s poem, unfortunately.  We can say: if we really had a good lovemaking session and we are really in love, even the mall will look beautiful to us!  The argument itself is not the point—the fact that we can argue with the poem is the point.  True, one cannot argue with a breast that no longer seems sexy.  But one can argue with the body of Dunn’s poem, with the premise of Dunn’s poem.  This is not a matter of picking at this or that flaw.  All poems have these little flaws, but we speak of being able to argue with the poem’s general thrust.

We cannot argue with Marilyn Chin’s poem. We cannot ‘bring it closer’ with argument.  We always miss what’s there.

Chin’s poem is—the winner.  To say anything more would be to anticipate objections which the poem itself has carefully suppressed. 

Chin 68 Dunn 66

MARILYN CHIN IS GOING TO THE FINAL!

SEMI-FINAL CHAMPIONSHIP: BEN MAZER V. DEREK WALCOTT

 

Mazer and Walcott are East and South champions—the winner goes on to the 2012 Scarriet March Madness Championship Game.  It began with 64 of the greatest English-speaking, living poets.  Soon it will be down to two.  The winner here plays the winner of Stephen Dunn/Marilyn Chin.

The ‘March Madness Tournament’ process is, as one would expect, very ‘reader response.’  All the elements of any poem must combine to produce a singular result in one reader.  One can harumph and object and theorize and pontificate all one wants, but this is a legitimate way of experiencing poetry.  How does the poem affect your heart rate?  End of story.

Here are the two poems.  Which one comforts you, which one wets your eye, which one makes you sigh—the most?

Looking back at our March Madness articles, we are proud to say that a poetry lesson was embedded in almost every one.

Enjoy these poems, will you?

Then we’ll tell you who won.

First Walcott, the Nobel Prize winner, with his “Schooner Flight,” and then Mazer’s “Cirque D’Etoiles”:

Schooner Flight

11. After the Storm

There’s a fresh light that follows a storm
while the whole sea still havoc; in its bright wake
I saw the veiled face of Maria Concepcion
marrying the ocean, then drifting away
in the widening lace of her bridal train
with white gulls her bridesmaids, till she was gone.
I wanted nothing after that day.
Across my own face, like the face of the sun,
a light rain was falling, with the sea calm.

Fall gently, rain, on the sea’s upturned face
like a girl showering; make these islands fresh
as Shabine once knew them! Let every trace,
every hot road, smell like clothes she just press
and sprinkle with drizzle. I finish dream;
whatever the rain wash and the sun iron:
the white clouds, the sea and sky with one seam,
is clothes enough for my nakedness.
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide
of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs
of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied
if my hand gave voice to one people’s grief.
Open the map. More islands there, man,
than peas on a tin plate, all different size,
one thousand in the Bahamas alone,
from mountains to low scrub with coral keys,
and from this bowsprit, I bless every town,
the blue smell of smoke in hills behind them,
and the one small road winding down them like twine
to the roofs below; I have only one theme:

The bowsprit, the arrow, the longing, the lunging heart—
the flight to a target whose aim we’ll never know,
vain search for one island that heals with its harbour
and a guiltless horizon, where the almond’s shadow
doesn’t injure the sand. There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don’t work, I study the stars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

CIRQUE D’ETOILES

And after all is made a frozen waste
of snow and ice, of boards and rags. . .
if I should see one spark of permanent,
… one chink of blue among the wind-blown slags
approaching thus, and mirroring my surmise,
one liquid frozen permanence, your eyes. . .
should meet you at the end of time
and never end. . .
for always, even past death, you are my friend. . . .
and when at last it comes, inevitable,
that you shall sit in furs at high table
(for what other fate can one expect?)
dispensing honours, correlating plans
for every cause, for education, science. . .
what will I miss? how can I not be there?
who see you sputtering wordless in despair. . .
as I do now “miss nothing, nothing”
and to know you are some other man’s
(the stupid jerk), who once had your compliance. . .
and do these things ever end? (and if so, where?)
I ask myself, and should I feel despair?
to know, to love, to know, and still not care?
in winter, spring, and summer, and in fall,
on land or sea, at any time at all,
to know that half the stars on each night shine,
the other half are in your eyes, and mine. . .
and what is there? And what, I ask, is there?
Only these hurt and wounded orbs I see
nestled against a frozen stark brick wall. . .
and there are you, and there is me,
and that is all, that is all. . .
How from this torment can I wrestle free?
I can’t. . . . for thus is my soliloquy.
And you shall sit there serving backers tea.
And running ladies circles. Think of me. . .
Think of me, when like a mountainous waste
the night’s long dreaming stretches to a farther coast
where nothing is familiar. . . two paths that may have crossed
discover what had long been past recall. . .
that nothing’s really changed at all,
that we are here!
Here among flowering lanterns of the sea,
finite, marking each vestige of the city
with trailing steps, with wonder, and with pity!
And laugh, and never say that you feel shitty,
are one whose heart is broken, like this ditty.
And think that there is nothing there to miss.
Think “I must not miss a thing. I must not miss
the wraps, the furs, the teaspoon, or the kiss.”
And end in wishes. And leave not this abyss.
For all is one, beginning as it’s done.
Never forgetting this, till I am no one.
There is no formula that can forget. . .
these eyes pierce though ten thousand suns have set,
and will keep setting. . . now tuck in your head,
the blankets folded, and lay down in your bed.
And stir the stars, long after we are dead.

*

*

*

Mazer 89 Walcott 86

MAZER WINS!

LAST FINAL FOUR SPOT: MARILYN CHIN V. SHARON OLDS

 

Finally, four months (!) after our Scarriet 2012 March Madness Tournament began, we have our Final Four: Ben Mazer, Derek Walcott, Stephen Dunn, and now, Marilyn Chin or Sharon Olds.  I don’t know about you, but we’re exhausted.   Without much ado, then, we present the wry, witty Miss Chin against the exquisitely passionate,  Ms. Olds:

TURTLE SOUP

for Ben Huang

You go home one evening tired from work,
and your mother boils you turtle soup.
Twelve hours hunched over the hearth
(who knows what else is in that cauldron).

You say, “Ma, you’ve poached the symbol of long life;
that turtle lived four thousand years, swam
the Wet, up the Yellow, over the Yangtze.
Witnessed the Bronze Age, the High Tang,
grazed on splendid sericulture.”
(So, she boils the life out of him.)

“All our ancestors have been fools.
Remember Uncle Wu who rode ten thousand miles
to kill a famous Manchu and ended up
with his head on a pole? Eat, child,
its liver will make you strong.”

“Sometimes you’re the life, sometimes the sacrifice.”
Her sobbing is inconsolable.
So, you spread that gentle napkin
over your lap in decorous Pasadena.

Baby, some high priestess has got it wrong.
The golden decal on the green underbelly
says “Made in Hong Kong.”

Is there nothing left but the shell
and humanity’s strange inscriptions,
the songs, the rites, the oracles?

—Marilyn Chin

THE UNBORN

Sometimes I can almost see, around our heads,
Like gnats around a streetlight in summer,
The children we could have,
The glimmer of them.

Sometimes I feel them waiting, dozing
In some antechamber – servants, half-
Listening for the bell.

Sometimes I see them lying like love letters
In the Dead Letter Office

And sometimes, like tonight, by some black
Second sight I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.

—Sharon Olds

It’s hard to declare a winner, here—both poems are marvelous.  The poignancy is below the surface in Chin’s poem and full-blown in the Olds.

Marilyn Chin 68, Sharon Olds 67

MARILYN CHIN UPSETS SHARON OLDS!!!

STEPHEN DUNN V. LOUISE GLUCK IN THE NORTH

Stephen Dunn belongs to the Billy Collins school.  They should go on a poetry-reading tour together.

The public needs to know: this is modern poetry which is being written for you—and here are the poets who write this kind of poetry.

It’s not just Collins and Dunn.  One thinks of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, James Tate, Matthew Dickman, and maybe Louise Gluck, who—without a poem in the Rita Dove Penguin anthology—is one win away from the Final Four.   The public really does need to know who these poets are, the poets who, in every poem, more than anything, want to please the public. 

It’s a given that the public is 1) hard to please, and 2) they need to be led by the nose.  We shouldn’t mourn this fact.  We should just accept it.  But po-biz will not.

Once the public discovered Billy Collins wrote to them and loved them, and he was a safe bet in this regard, Billy Collins and his poetry did alright.

Collins fell short of being a national phenomenon, but can you imagine if he were young and good-looking?   Who knows?  Poetry might be big again.

I asked a young writer friend of mine recently why he thought people read novels instead of poetry and what he said was: when you’re on the train and you finish a poem (which invariably makes you realize that everyone else not sharing in the beauty and wisdom of the poem you are reading is an asshole) you look up and see all the assholes on the train, but with a novel, you get to keep reading and you never have to look up at all the assholes.

If only poems could last at least as long as a train commute.

First the Louise Gluck poem, and then Stephen Dunn’s:

CELESTIAL MUSIC

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

POEM FOR PEOPLE THAT ARE UNDERSTANDABLY TOO BUSY TO READ POETRY

Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

Dunn woos the reader, outrageously.  The last line is not true—but in poetryland it is.  But the line is true, perhaps, because Dunn began by saying, “Imagine.”  Dunn is out there on a limb, like a coach, telling the reader what to do.  He has set up the relationship between writer and reader—in full confidence.

Louise Gluck never woos the reader: she talks plainly and half-hopes the reader overhears.  Which is what most poets do.  Otherwise, you risk being a jerk. The last line of her poem, “The love of form is a love of endings,” is not meant to be outrageous—and only true in poetryland—but actually true.  Therefore, she takes a much greater risk than Dunn.  We accept Dunn’s line immediately, perhaps on account that we know right away that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.  We have to think about Gluck’s last line: Is the love of form really a love of endings?   One understands conceptually what Gluck is saying, and one may even appreciate that “endings” ends her poem—with the two silent, contemplative friends sitting together as night falls.  But in baseball terminology, Dunn hits his pitch perfectly on a line out of the park for a homerun, while Gluck hits a tremendous fly ball that’s a towering pop up, taking forever to come down, for an out.  The jerk wins.

Dunn 99 Gluck 93

Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!   You are in the Final Four!

MERWIN V. WALCOTT IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

Walcott_young

W.S. Merwin, who just finished serving out his Poet Laureateship, was born in NYC.  But Scarriet put him in the South bracket because Merwin is associated with Robert Graves (early Fugitive) and with Princeton—where Southern Fugitive and Agrarian, Allen Tate, started one of the nation’s first Poetry workshop there in the early 40s.  The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry, and agrarianism, or environmentalism, for some odd reason, is tied up with the origins of the writing workshop industry: think of conservationist Wallace Stegner, the first Writing Workshop director in the west, and his student Wendell Berry, for instance.  Merwin has eco-creds and poet-creds galore, and Merwin has to be seen as part of this early agrarian movement.  When Merwin came of age as a poet in the 50s, the editor everyone worshiped was John Crowe Ransom, the leader of the agrarians/turned New Critics.  Berryman (at Princeton) and Lowell (a student of Ransom and Workshop teacher) were part of this clique, as well. Merwin’s friend Robert Graves preached psychodelic mushroom consumption when he was professor of Oxford in the 60s. American intellectual life and British hippie philosophy cohere in many ways, and Merwin is nothing if not a back-to-the-earth hippie.   The South/Midwest brackett was dominated by black poets this year, because Rita Dove put them in her Penguin anthology.  Now we have Merwin, the one white player in this division, trying to enter the Final Four and win the Midwest/South—against Derek Walcott, the Nobel poet of Caribbean lore.   If 19th century poetry featured introspection, beauty, and the sublime, 20th century poetry was mostly about nature, place and transience.

Walcott sings of the classical, but from the fringes, where his poetry bodies it as if it still exists.  The following is an excerpt from Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, and appears as it does in Dove’s anthology.  “Another River” is Merwin’s.

Good luck, gentleman.  One of you will advance to Scarriet’s 2012 Final Four.

from Omeros, Book VII

I sang of Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity—
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
Who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead, whose fist of iron

would do me a greater honour if it held on
to my casket’s oarlocks than mine lifting his own
when both anchors are lowered in the one island,

but now the idyll dies, the goblet is broken,
and rainwater trickles down the brown cheek of a jar
from the clay of Choiseul. So much left unspoken

by my chirping nib! And my earth-door lies ajar.
I lie wrapped in a flour-sack sail. The clods thud
on my rope-lowered canoe. Rasping shovels scrape

a dry rain of dirt on its hold, but turn your head
when the sea-almond rattles or the rust-leaved grape
from the shells of my unpharaonic pyramid

towards paper shredded by the wind and scattered
like white gulls that separate their names from the foam
and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog

that skitters from the wave-crash, then frown at his form
for swift second. In its earth-trough, my pirogue
with its brass-handled oarlocks is sailing. Not from

but with them, with Hector, with Maud in the rhythm
of her beds trowelled over, with a swirling log
lifting its mossed head from the swell; let the deep hymn

of the Caribbean continue my epilogue;
may waves remove their shawls as my mourners walk home
to their rusted villages, good shoes in one hand,

passing a boy who walked through the ignorant foam,
and saw a sail going out or else coming in,
and watched asterisks of rain puckering the sand.

ANOTHER RIVER

The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Both of these poems are enveloped in nature and celebrate nature, more so than even in the works of Wordsworth— who seems a man standing apart from nature, compared to the effusions of these two poets, who are washed away by the waves.

Walcott is a little more skilled in depicting nature and putting charm in his verses.  Merwin is plainer and writes almost with a hushed address, as if his voice were intentionally small and far away.

Walcott 81 Merwin 77

DEREK WALCOTT MAKES THE FINAL FOUR!

FOR THE FINAL FOUR: BEN MAZER V. FRANZ WRIGHT

Is 2012 March Madness still going on? Yes.

Ben Mazer and Franz Wright shit out their poems. (That’s just an expression.)  They have no egos.  They are like: here. a poem.

You don’t fuck with Ben Mazer or Franz Wright.  You just read their poems.

You don’t ask them what their poems mean.   You feel the poem travel up the hairs on your arm. 

Hell hath no explanation like the explanation of one of their poems.  You see their poems out of the corner of your brain.

Enough hyperbole: let’s watch this titanic struggle.   For the Final Four!!

Franz Wright:

DEDICATION

It’s true I never write, but I would gladly die with you.
Gladly lower myself down alone with you into the enormous mouth
that waits, beyond youth, beyond every instant of ecstasy, remember:
before battle we would do each other’s makeup, comb each other’s
                   hair out
saying we are unconquerable, we are terrible and splendid—
the mouth waiting, patiently waiting. And I will meet you there
                   again
beyond bleeding thorns, the endless dilation, the fire that alters
                   nothing;
I am there already past snowy clouds, balding moss, dim
swarm of stars even we can step over, it is easier this time, I promise—
I am already waiting in your personal heaven, here is my hand,
I will help you across. I would gladly die with you still,
although I never write  
from this gray institution. See
they are so busy trying to cure me,
I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no more than eight hours
                   a day.
And it’s really just about a thousand miles of cafeteria;
a large one in any event. With its miniature plastic knives,
its tuna salad and Saran-Wrapped genitalia will somebody
                   please
get me out of here, sorry. I am happy to say that
every method, massive pharmaceuticals, art therapy
and edifying films as well as others I would prefer
not to mention—I mean, every single technique
known to the mouth—sorry!—to our most kindly
compassionate science is being employed
to restore me to normal well-being
and cheerful stability. I go on vacuuming
toward a small diamond light burning
off in the distance. Remember
me. Do you
remember me?   
In the night’s windowless darkness
when I am lying cold and numb
and no one’s fiddling with the lock, or
shining flashlights in my eyes,
although I never write, secretly
I long to die with you,
does that count?
 
 
Ben Mazer:
 
THE KING  (parts 29-35)
 
XXIX
 
Why should the aged eagle spread his wing?
I’ll tell you why. Because to watch Santa bring
a billion presents from the frozen pole
all by himself is less than heartening.
He brings them door to door
with Hyperborean speed. You who are converted
are harnessed to his creed though you have skirted
the issue. Who is that dark stranger?
That sickly twisted dying frozen ranger
who captivates the grove where you, too, rove.
I think he is myself! The least sure elf
mixes these patterns and brings them to the slatterns
who place them in dust till Easter on the shelf.
They call him Stetson, I have four sure bets on.

XXX

The chair she sits in like a burnished throne
happens to be the King’s, and is my own.
Maybe I too descend into parody
but not without esoteric clarity.
The least sure elf
is pining to be made into his self,
but I have already explained myself.
Pure tragedy must needs be humourless
and poetry will not be cured unless
its certain tragedy is made refined.
I too among that Harbour Dawn have pined
for quintessential pure lucidity,
perceived the cortex of the trinity,
and each emotion to its word assigned.

XXXI

Manhattan in the rain. I couldn’t speak
when Uncle Sid drove me in from Rockaway.
What did I want? To visit the punk rock shops.
The statue of liberty seemed oxidized and locked,
too fleeting, like shops I only saw when they were closed,
left for another lifetime. What would we have said if we talked?
Head of the Vice Squad. My mind was exploding with vice.
When I came back from England I was lost,
and sat in my Aunt’s house in Far Rockaway
watching Abbott and Costello night and day,
as vacuum cleaner salesmen, rival clans,
detectives, photographers, victims of circumstance.
I pilfered the attic for Pogo and Mark Twain,
ate seven kinds of cereal (she had three sons),
and saw Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch again.

XXXII

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

XXXIII

Anne Britton. Why do my thoughts always come back to this?
How on the edge and outskirts of the city
high on a hill worthy of Disney, or Seuss, or Mr. Burns,
high on a hill overlooking
what seemed like all the world—
crags and crevices, shadows, and blinkering lights,
some corner where a cobweb spun, where
nobody entered, where in another world
of brick on brick, orphaned, without witnesses
perhaps an old lady—kindly and unobserved—
may have fed animals she talked to,
called names, her heirs—a mildewed carpet
byzantian and worn amid the high mantles
and rafters seen by the impossibly small.

XXXIV

Branches grow in all directions at once.
Their black silhouettes enclose
the opposite of the city that surrounds them—
even then the white air of orphanic pilgrimages.
They dine on spaghetti! The instruments measure gold!
And when in the longing that descends in darkness
they take their cue to motion
(all things are there!) what never happened slows
into familiar memory, and the winds whip
their thousand frames and borders (enticing as lace),
in cross purposes, symphonies of erasure,
expansions of dimension and perspective
extending outwards down every road and lane,
groaning and growing inward, cross hatched by the rain
(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).

XXXV

Spring nights in high school—some legend revealed
as far as all the laundry lines could take you
through a universe of backyards, to a distant and returning star.
Like a cock’s crow plunging beneath the planets
to the mythic origins of what we are.
Revealed! So in celebration we circled
the little town, for all lines are a circle,
coming and going the same, till you grow tall
and strong, worthy of bearing a name:
like shrouds of darkness the points we pierced
with our individual lights, passing and hailing like stars,
until all was uncovered, each one knew each one,
the circle completed, a simultaneity
of all points from A to D to Z

Franz Wright cares that he’s crazy.  And it breaks your heart.  This is why his poetry is successful.

Ben Mazer doesn’t care that he’s crazy.  Actually, he’s not crazy—you are, as you read his poetry.  But that’s the whole point—he’s taking you on a trip, so that when you walk away from his poem, you will be less crazy.  We don’t know how this will play out, yet, in terms of success.

It’s a close contest, but the winner is…

Mazer 70 Wright 67

MAZER IS OUR FIRST POET IN THE FINAL FOUR!

MARILYN CHIN AND HEATHER MCHUGH BATTLE FOR THE FINAL ELITE EIGHT SPOT

chin

Marilyn Chin, a shy kid who went to the University of Iowa, has three poems in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry.  She has a chance to advance to the Elite Eight in Scarriet’s third annual March Madness Poetry Tournament, which started with 64 of the best living English-speaking poets in the world.  Here’s that third Chin poem from the Dove anthology:

THE SURVIVOR

Don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl.
Don’t throw your teacup against the wall in anger.
Don’t suck on your long black braid and weep.
Don’t tarry around the big red sign that says “danger!”

All the tempests will render still; seas will calm,
horses will retreat, voices to surrender.

*

That you have bloomed this way and not that,
that your skin is yellow, not white, not black,
that you were born not a boychild but a girl,
that this world will be forever puce-pink are just as well.

Remember, the survivor is not the strongest or most clever;
merely, the survivor is almost always the youngest.
And you shall have to relinquish that title before long.

The wry humor here is sweet.  Chin has what most poets lack—profound yet unostentatious wit.

McHugh has two poems in the Dove.  Her “What He Thought” is one of the great little-known poems of the 20th century and it gave her a victory over Kay Ryan in Round Two.  McHugh, too, is witty:

After Su Tung P’o

ON THE BIRTH OF A SON

When a child is born, the parents say
they hope it’s healthy and intelligent. But as for me—

well, vigor and intelligence have wrecked my life. I pray
this baby we are seeing walloped, wiped and winningly anointed,

turns out dumb as oakum—and more sinister. That way
he can crown a tranquil life by being

appointed a cabinet minister.

Heather McHugh belongs to that tribe of poets who want poetry to be socially interesting and make us laugh.  Witty poems make us cry and laugh at the same time, as do Chin and McHugh with their poems here.

Chin manages to be more sweeping.

Chin 69 McHugh 65

So here is the Elite Eight—and the matchups for the Final Four!

North: Franz Wright v. Ben Mazer

South/Midwest: Derek Walcott v. W.S. Merwin

North: Louise Gluck v. Stephen Dunn

West: Sharon Olds v. Marilyn Chin

Big names have fallen: John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, but you had to be there for those contests to see it happen.

Marla Muse:  They happened.

MATTHEW DICKMAN AND SHARON OLDS ARE GROSS! AND THEY ARE FIGHTING IN THE WEST

Dickman and Olds have a popular appeal and are not afraid of gross subjects.  It seems that hiding behind every other poet these days is a gross stand-up comic who talks about stuff other people are too shy to talk about.  The poet (like the comic) who isn’t afraid to talk about the most uncomfortable stuff imaginable (just imagine!) achieves a certain fame.

So this is a battle of the gross poets.  Here we go!

First “One Year” by Olds, then “Slow Dance” by Dickman.  Here’s Olds:

ONE YEAR

When I got to his marker, I sat on it,
like sitting on the edge of someone’s bed
and I rubbed the smooth, speckled granite.
I took some tears from my jaw and neck
and started to wash a corner of his stone.
Then a black and amber ant
ran out onto the granite, and off it,
and another ant hauled a dead
ant onto the stone, leaving it, and not coming back.
Ants ran down into the grooves of his name
and dates, down into the oval track of the
first name’s O, middle name’s O,
the short O of his last name,
and down into the hyphen between
his birth and death–little trough of his life.
Soft bugs appeared on my shoes,
like grains of pollen, I let them move on me,
I rinsed a dark fleck of mica,
and down inside the engraved letters
the first dots of lichen were appearing
like stars in early evening.
I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns,
the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each
petal like that disc of matter which
swayed, on the last day, on his tongue.
Tamarack, Western hemlock,
manzanita, water birch
with its scored bark,
I put my arms around a trunk and squeezed it,
then I lay down on my father’s grave.
The sun shone down on me, the powerful
ants walked on me. When I woke,
my cheek was crumbly, yellowish
with a mustard plaster of earth. Only
at the last minute did I think of his body
actually under me, the can of
bone, ash, soft as a goosedown
pillow that bursts in bed with the lovers.
When I kissed his stone it was not enough,
when I licked it my tongue went dry a moment, I
ate his dust, I tasted my dirt host.

SLOW DANCE

More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dinning room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-cord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a shear white dress
covered in a million beads
comes toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scrapping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.

These poems are not terribly gross, we admit, but they’re not “Annabel Lee,” either.  The images are not pure. She’s got bugs everywhere and she’s licking dust, and he’s got the naked lover brushing her teeth and spitting into the sink.  No, it’s not the gross of stand-up comedy, for Dickman and Olds add heart and sweetness and care: that’s what poets do and comics don’t.  Comics are well-meaning, too, of course; the grossest comic is just trying to figure out life and express life just like the poets and the bitterest and grossest stand-up comic might be even more heart-felt and sensitive.  This is what people think.  This is why it’s always better to be gross—because the sweetness will be implied.  But if you are only sweet, the grossness is never implied.  In fact, if you are only sweet, people will think you are stupid; and they will be right, because why be one thing by being sweet when you can be two things by being gross?  Come to think of it, “Annabel Lee” is gross, too.

In this case, Olds shows the party-boy how it’s done.  Death and mourning trumps the slightly illicit slow-dance.

Olds 79 Dickman 71

WRITING AND RIDING: RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES LOUISE GLUCK

Here is the game.  The contest.  We present the two poems: first Wilbur’s, then Gluck’s:

THE WRITER

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

HORSE

What does the horse give you
That I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,
When you ride into the field behind the dairy,
Your hands buried in the mare’s
Dark mane.

Then I know what lies behind your silence:
Scorn, hatred of me, of marriage. Still,
You want me to touch you; you cry out
As brides cry, but when I look at you I see
There are no children in your body.
Then what is there?

Nothing, I think. Only haste
To die before I die.

In a dream, I watched you ride the horse
Over the dry fields and then
Dismount: you two walked together;
In the dark, you had no shadows.
But I felt them coming toward me
Since at night they go anywhere,
They are their own masters.

Look at me. You think I don’t understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?

Wilbur (his poem is from Dove’s anthology) is logical and playful—that combination of which formal properties in the verse usually result.  It is a man anxious to be reasonable and understood.  Wilbur responds to the world in visions of happy quantity: the house is a ship. The bird sails through the window.  My daughter is at the typewriter now.

Gluck (not in the Dove) is neither logical nor playful.  She is mystical and serious.  She speaks as people speak when you overhear them; when they are not speaking to you, when they are not trying to explain anything to you, because you are merely evesdropping. 

Wilbur’s poem is earnest and polite; Gluck’s is a cry in the night.

Gluck 69 Wilbur 68

Louise Gluck has upset the master!

PHIL LEVINE AND STEPHEN DUNN BATTLE IN THE NORTH

dunn

#20 Stephen Dunn: tanned, rested and ready.

Phil Levine and Stephen Dunn may be the two living poets most dedicated to the poem as a critique of life/art.   All the critics would agree, and the two poems by these two poets in today’s contest are perfect examples of the poem as critique, with formal qualities in short supply, with content completely driving the form—which hardly exists, so vital is the content itself.  What happens when the content is so important that it overwhelms the form?  We might say, ‘you get prose,’ or we might say, ‘you get the sort of excellent poem which Levine and Dunn produce.’  Take your pick.

But when we say “critique of life/art,” that duality, ‘life/art,’ is important; we don’t use it lightly.  Art is easy to critique, obviously, compared to really having something philosophically astute to say about life, and many of our half-wits pride themselves on their critique of life, when they are really saying things about art. As poets, they write—in their poetry—against a certain style of poetry—and are often mistaken as poets who write poetry which is a critque of life.  Write what you know, goes the Writing Workshop mantra; the poet simply writes (in a ‘critique of life’ style) on poetry.

Think of how easy it is too critique Romanticism, for instance; to say it is hyperbolic, take-drugs-contemplate-flower-weep-over-love poetry. And to oppose it to a certain kind of “Classicism,” to which you, though modern, belong.  This critique (of Romanticism) pretty much sums up the position of Yvor Winters, early Poetry Workshop teacher at Stanford, and briefly associated with the Fugitives.

We can trace this influence easily: from Winters to his student at Stanford, Donald Justice, and then to Stephen Dunn, who studied under Justice at Syracuse, and Phil Levine, who was a younger classmate of Justice’s at Iowa, when they studied together with Robert Lowell—who studied with Fugitive poets Ransom and Tate. Which leads us back to Winters and early ‘classical’ Modernism centered around Pound.  Here is the rather small world of  Modernism and its Winters Classicism growing out of Justice at Iowa and the world of the American Poetry Workshop, anti-Romantic to its core.  People often talk about ‘the Workshop poem’ and what its characteristics are.  It has no characteristics; it is defined by what it is not: as far away from Shelley as it is possible to be.

The following is Levine’s “Simple Truth” and the title betrays everything.  Notice how it attempts to be a critique of life, when it really is a critique of a certain kind of poetry.  It doesn’t want to be that kind of poetry (“elegance, meter or rhyme”) and it doesn’t even realize it is wholly defining itself by what it is not. For what are we to make otherwise of a poem exploiting the taste of butter in the back of one’s throat that we can’t express in words as a critique of life?  Oh the woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland!  Really?  This is schmaltz, not poetry.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

How his friend Henri “began to kill himself” is passed over quickly for the more important “a simple pinch of salt.”  To get away from “elegant” poetry, Levine skips what really involves a critique of life—not that ‘a critique of life’ is what poetry should be, necessarily, but this is certainly how poets like Levine are marketed.  “Can you taste what I’m saying?” Levine asks in his poem.  Uh, no.  This is prose rising up out of the poetry patch to ask that we join in praising the poetry patch. This is what Keats, in his letter on the primrose, said poetry should not do.  There is nothing wrong with the earth and the things Levine is praising.  It’s the statement that earth must be opposed to elegance which doesn’t belong.  It’s not a poetic sentiment—and not even a good prose one.  We know that Levine’s school of poetry needs to say whatever it needs to say in order to reach its poetic conclusion—but the individual statements, and what they imply in the poem still need to be accounted for.  It’s not polite to stop a poem in the middle, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t do it, anyway, if something is fishy—even if the poet (I’m just talking, here…) doesn’t realize it.

Here’s the thing about poetic prose, and wanting to write prose that’s poetic.  Prose that wants to be poetic is like having your cake and eating it.  You want to be poetic, but you also don’t want to be poetic.  You want to hit the ball smack in the middle of the bat with a nice loud crack! but you also want to have the ball dribble off your bat, too.  In the same swing.  So when you are talking in a less elevated fashion, as if you are just telling a story, and you throw in a few details just to set the scene—they are not that important so don’t pay too much attention to them—you are asking the reader to be of two minds, and this is a lot to ask of the reader: know when I’m being poetic and know when I’m not!  This sounds like a simple request, except that in a poem every syllable contributes to the whole effect, whereas in prose, entire words and phrases contribute to perhaps a dozen effects that are not even aware of each other, and this difficulty increases exponentially as prose proceeds.  What is seized upon by the poetic sensibility while reading poetry is meant to be quickly discarded while reading prose.  How can this be done simultaneously while reading one text?

The illusion that prose is poetry is aided by the fact that both exist in time—we proceed from one step to the next in both prose and poetry.  But temporality merely organizes prose; poetry is constantly acting on temporality to re-organize it.  To confuse these two functions is to lose the sense of poetry—while thinking one is gaining it—in perusing prose.

Back to the game.  Here is how Dunn counters Levine:

STORY

A woman’s taking her late-afternoon walk
on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists
and houses with gravel driveways
sit back among the pines. Only the house
with the vicious dog is close to the road.
An electric fence keeps him in check.
When she comes to that house, the woman
always crosses to the other side.

I’m the woman’s husband. It’s a problem
loving your protagonist too much.
Soon the dog is going to break through
that fence, teeth bared, and go for my wife.
She will be helpless. I’m out of town,
helpless too. Here comes the dog.
What kind of dog? A mad dog, a dog
like one of those teenagers who just loses it
on the playground, kills a teacher.

Something’s going to happen that can’t happen
in a good story; out of nowhere a car
comes and kills the dog. The dog flies
in the air, lands in a patch of delphiniums.
My wife is crying now. The woman who hit
the dog has gotten out of her car. She holds
both hands to her face. The woman who owns
the dog has run out of her house. Three women
crying in the street, each for different reasons.

All of this is so unlikely; it’s as if
I’ve found myself in a country of pure fact,
miles from truth’s more demanding realm.
When I listened to my wife’s story on the phone
I knew I’d take it from her, tell it
every which way until it had an order
and a deceptive period at the end. That’s what
I always do in the face of helplessness,
make some arrangements if I can.

Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
Nothing I’d be inclined to think of
would have stopped that dog.
Only the facts saved her.

It is easy—and necessary—to extract Dunn’s critique of life here: life is ruled by “facts.”  The narrator cannot save his wife.  Only the accident of “facts” can.  But Dunn is confusing the “facts” of his poem with life—more than just “facts.”  Dunn, like Levine, is confusing life and art; he thinks he is talking about life—reducing it to “facts”—but he is really talking about his poem, and its “facts.”  This “confusion” is not unusual, and as far as Dunn’s poem goes, this “confusion” is perfectly acceptable, since Dunn is telling us a real story about something that happened in his life—and putting it in “a poem.”  Dunn is conscious of this and says it explicitly: I will take what my wife says and put a period on it. But it’s a “deceptive” period, Dunn says, and here he is, again, imitating Levine (they are from the same pessimistic school) in criticizing not life, but a certain kind of poetry, a poetry “of elegance” which puts “deceptive periods” on things.

Dunn 83 Levine 82

W.S.MERWIN V. RITA DOVE

President Obama has Rita Dove going all the way in his Scarriet Poetry Tournament office pool.

Rita Dove will have to defeat M.S. Merwin in the South/Midwest Bracket’s semi-final to make it into the Elite Eight.  Her Penguin 20th Americna Poetry anthology has been the centerpiece of this year’s Scarriet March Madness Tourney—stretching its excitement and thrills into June.  Dove has three poems in her own controversial Penguin anthology and has barged into the Sweet 16 by knocking off young black poets.  Trashed by critics Helen Vendler and William Logan, Dove stands proud thanks to the success of her poems in Scarriet’s Tournament.  But she’ll have to beat the distinguished poet W.S. Merwin to advance.  Merwin brings this poem (from Dove’s anthology) to the table:

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

We always feel slightly miffed at Merwin’s lack of punctuation—for whom does it serve?  Does Merwin (like a child) feel no punctuation adds poetic mystique to his work?

The idea of Merwin’s poem is an interesting one—the unknown anniversary of one’s death—and he gives it a fairly cursory treatment.  We are not thrilled by this poem, but we don’t dislike it, except for the reason mentioned above.

Rita Dove picked the following poem of hers for inclusion in her Penguin anthology of poems of the 20th Century:

AFTER READING MICKEY IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN FOR THE THIRD TIME BEFORE BED

I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! ...I'm Mickey!

My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
hairless, this mistaken
bit of nomenclature
is what a stranger cannot touch
without her yelling. She demands
to see mine and momentarily
we’re a lopsided star
among the spilled toys,
my prodigious scallops
exposed to her neat cameo.

And yet the same glazed
tunnel, layered sequences.
She is three; that makes this
innocent. We’re pink!
she shrieks, and bounds off.

Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
and what the wrinkled string means
between my legs. This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us—
black mother, cream child.
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.

This is a lovely poem, but we have no idea what “That we’re in the pink/and the pink’s in us” is supposed to signify.  Except for the charm of a mother and young child glimpsed, we have no idea what this poem is trying to do.  Is it pleased with itself that it is somewhat risque’ in content?  We are baffled.

Sorry, Mr. President!  You lose the office pool!

Merwin 88 Dove 69

HERE WE GO: NOBEL VERSUS SLAM! DEREK WALCOTT TAKES ON PATRICIA SMITH!

Derek Walcott, Nobel prize winner, is very well represented in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology.  We go outside it, for a lyric by Walcott on oneself:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Here’s one of those poems which expresses a simple idea—loving oneself—and makes us stop and think: why hasn’t this been done before, or more often? 

Self-love, like vanity, is to be avoided, but here Walcott embraces it.  But so that self-love doesn’t seem like vanity or boorishness, he is clever to contrast it with a love affair (the “love letters” and “desperate notes”)—and so the poem doesn’t seem silly, but poignant, when it says, “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another.”

The chief problem with the poem is its imagery, which is plain.  We have trouble picturing it dramatically.  How is the person feasting at the end, exactly?  Are they feasting on the love letters?  If so, how are they escaping their old lovers, in order to focus on the self?  Or is the command to “feast on your life” meant ironically?  The idea of the poem is clear, but its dramatic realization is somewhat vague.

Patricia Smith, a four-time National Slam Poet Champion, is not represented in Dove’s anthology.

In the following poem, Smith embraces the iconography that is Aretha Franklin:

ASKING FOR A HEART ATTACK

Aretha. Deep butter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
‘neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it’s-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father’s handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don’t she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don’t she?
Now every time ‘retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin’, is religion.

Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain’t your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody’s mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin’ shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.

Smith is not shy about telling us how good a singer Aretha Franklin is (“extraordinary gospel”) nor shy about telling us what “is religion.”  Nor shy about addressing Franklin’s weight issues.  We are not terribly certain why she is not more shy on these matters, or exactly what these three issues have to do with each other.

Walcott’s poem is too shy.

Smith’s poem is not shy enough.

Walcott 60 Smith 59

DARKNESS AND LIGHT: FRANZ WRIGHT V. MARY OLIVER

We all make mistakes.  Mary Oliver has had a brilliant career as popular nature poet, but she unfortunately published “Singapore,” betraying a fatal elitism.

But Oliver advanced to the third round in the East Bracket with her poem, “Singapore,” in a controversial win over Robert Pinsky, a poet of equal parts vast, heart-felt erudition and self-indulgent, lisping bore. The Oliver poem embarrassed us highly; the Pinsky poem bored us—with a slight grating sound.  The Oliver poem won.

Franz Wright has a dark, spirtual, melancholic swagger that is irresitible, and his poetry has been nearly as successful recently as Oliver’s mystical, motherly, environmentalism.

  OLD STORY

First the telephone went,
then
the electricity.

It was cold,
and they both went to sleep
as though dressed for a journey.

Like addictions condoned
from above, evening
fell, lost

leaves waiting
to come back as leaves–
the long snowy divorce. . .

That narrow bed, a cross
between an altar
and an operating table. Voice

saying, While I was alive
I loved you.
And I love you now.

Franz Wright is the poet of love—wearing black.  

Mighty good stuff.

Mary Oliver pleases in a more far-flung manner:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Franz Wright offers comfort from the broken body of himself; Oliver comforts with the natural fabric.

Oliver says, “Look at the sunrise in your door!”

Wright says, “Love me, stumbling on your threshold.”

Oliver is quick to give New Age advice.  Wright is broken, and past that.  That’s why Wright is better.

Wright 90 Oliver 77

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

ROUND 3 BEGINS: BILLY COLLINS V. BEN MAZER

Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012

Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.

This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.

The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?”  The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore.  It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness.  What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem.  The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry.  The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.

Part of the problem is that editors  no longer know what The Famous Poem is.

The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.

And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously?  The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?

So the irony.   Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels.  Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.

Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe.  Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney.  But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact.  To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn.  Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way.   One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there?  Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground.  You can’t make someone risk their life for their art.  You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.

The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned.  Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.

What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all.  Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is.  What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?

“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw?  How can “universally admired” be anything but good?  Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.

In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book).   These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.

But back to Collins versus Mazer.  Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore.  It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.

We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!  

Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney!   Can he do it again?

MARGARET ATWOOD V. STEPHEN DUNN: THE LAST SWEET 16 SPOT!

And the final Sweet 16 spot belongs to…

Atwood is Canadian, so she’s not represented by Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry;  Dunn’s got a couple of poems in the Dove, including this one:

ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE

He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed was false.
And he was suddenly

in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero

would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out

the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.

He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.

By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source

behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.

Stephen Dunn writes poems with confidence: let’s write the allegory of modern man using the allegory of Plato’s cave: why not?  Dunn talks himself into—and then out of—great rhetorical challenges, and that, it would seem, is the secret of his compositional method.  Ballsy talking.  More poets ought to practice this method.  It’s certainly better than the aesthetic tip-toe method or the obscure to prove I’m smart method.
Margaret Atwood has a similar kind of forcefulness in her poems; it’s the voice of the ultra-confident knower, confident that a poem will be enough to cow all objection.  It’s a poem—it doesn’t have to know a lot, but sounding wise is more than half the battle in sounding poetic.

IS/NOT

Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise

sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities

you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,

nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveller

Give up this medical concern,
buttoned, attentive,

permit yourself anger
and permit me mine

which needs neither
your approval nor your surprise

which does not need to be made legal
which is not against a disease

but against you,
which does not need to be understood

or washed or cauterized,
which needs instead

to be said and said.
Permit me the present tense.

This is a love poem, but sounds, even in its wisdom, a little too hectoring.  “Love’s not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare said, and this is what Atwood is doing: chasing down love’s bad habits, trying to make love behave. You’re objecting too much, Ms. Atwood.  If your lover wants to “fill a cavity,” let them, Shakespeare would say.

The Dunn’s  a little too obvious, as is the Atwood.

Dunn 74 Atwood 71

DANA GIOIA TAKES ON LOUISE GLUCK, ROUND 2 NORTH

Dana Gioia: not Dove material

Neither Gluck nor Gioia are represented by Dove in her 20th century poetry anthology.

Looking over Dove’s book, one is struck how prevalent rhyme is in the first 25% of the book (Masters b. 1868 through Roethke b. 1908 ), and then how it dwindles (Bishop b. 1911 through Sexton b. 1928) over the next 25%, and finally disappears altogether over the last half (Rich b. 1929 to Terrance Hayes b. 1971), as if no one rhymed in the second half of the 20th century to the present.

All the more interesting is the fact that all the poems known by the public, from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to “Emperor of Ice Cream” to “Prufrock” to “Waste Land” to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to “We Real Cool” to “Her Kind” rhyme.  Has a famous American poem been written in the last 50 years?  All those Workshop poems—and nothing has caught on.  All those poems not tied down by meter and rhyme—and not one has caught on.

The public no longer exists which simply takes pleasure from poems and celebrates that fact; today publishers are the last ones who can make a poem famous—and the publishers haven’t a clue, since rhyme makes them uncomfortable for reasons  too numerous to mention.

Here is New Formalist Dana Gioia’s poem, languishing on his website, but brought out here to fight for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2012 Tournament:

THE ANGEL WITH THE BROKEN WING

I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadows up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

Louise Gluck, Yale Younger Judge 2003-2010, did not make it into Dove’s book, for whatever reason—we might point out that none of her Yale choices have made an impact (think of Auden picking Rich, Merwin, Ashbery, James Wright, Hollander, and Dickey). Here’s her poem:

A FANTASY

I’ll tell you something: every day
people are dying. And that’s just the beginning.
Every day, in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.

Then they’re in the cemetery, some of them
for the first time. They’re frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.

And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everbody,
thanks them, thanks them for coming.

In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

Both of these poems are better than the majority of poems by living poets in Dove’s anthology.  Helen Vendler tried to make Dove’s shortcomings all about Wallace Stevens, but the real issue is editors lacking the courage to forget everything else and choose the best poems.  Gluck’s poem has a formal quality: there’s a lot of empty talk about how content is form, but here’s a real example: the poignant traveling backward of the widow.

We admire the Gioia more, but the Gluck gives us an emotional jolt: the heartbreaking “Just a little, not so far back as the marriage, the first kiss.”  Bravo, Ms. Gluck.

Gluck 72 Gioia 70

RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES ALICE OSWALD IN ROUND 2 NORTH ACTION

 
Richard Wilbur—about 75 years ago.
 
According to G.E. Lessing (1729-1781), painting depicts one moment with many bodies, while poetry depicts one body in many moments, and each genre fails if they attempt to invade the other’s territory. Homer, Lessing says, did not waste energy trying to be a painter; action was paramount, description limited. Lessing goes so far as to say painters should depict soft rather than stiff clothing to better infer bodily movement in the immediate past or future. For Lessing, the poet who describes, or paints, is didactic, and the didactic is not poetic.  The poet should describe one body, or one part of a body.  Prose is better at mere description—poetry is concerned with illusion. The eye can take in many parts simultaneously—for the poet to attempt this with description is a waste of labor. Action, sequential action, is the poet’s domain. Lessing’s theory, to the moderns, must seem hopelessly narrow (as Poe, the anti-didactic critic and poet, is often viewed).

 But it can be argued that the eclectic and highly sophisticated modern temper has lost the ability to understand nature’s simple truths or grasp the common sense argument of a rigorous scientific mind such as Lessing’s.

 It cannot be denied that modern poetry has lost both the innocent public and the objective, scientific reader.  The freedom of the modern poet has led to a cul-de-sac of obscurity, the ‘everything’ of the modern poet has turned to ‘nothing’ in many eyes, and the moderns’ touted ‘difficulty,’ to hopeless looseness, even to its many sophisticated followers.

 What if Lessing’s common sense is generally correct?

Richard Wilbur may be the last living classical poet.  We don’t know if Lessing is an influence, but reading Wilbur’s poetry, one almost senses he must be.  Rhyme can be used for all sorts of things; Wilbur is known for his rhyme, but the respect he’s earned is for more than rhyme, though it might be difficult to separate that out.  It might help to read Wilbur with Lessing in mind.
 
Wilbur has three poems in Dove’s anthology, but one of our readers, Robert Bagg, pointed us to the grand “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” 
 
“Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” (in the Dove’s anthology) is always anthologized and it is not, we think, one of Wilbur’s best.  It’s good, but it has a lot of flaws.  So we are breaking our Penguin Anthology rule (a silly rule, we admit)  in honor of this still living poet born in 1921, by including a poem not in the anthology.
 
Wilbur does write  Homerically—he never describes something but there is some kind of action involved. Lessing would probably say that “Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” is not a complete action—and is thus a failure.  “Baroque Fountain” succeeds partially by Lessing’s classical rules—too meditative, too busy, Lessing would probably say.
 
Wilbur is the favorite here against Alice Oswald, who is a sentimentalist—for those kinds of poets are still given respect in Britain. (Billy Collins is a funny sentimentalist, which is not the same thing.)
 
Here is Wilbur’s poem:
 
A BAROQUE WALL FOUNTAIN IN THE VILLA SCIARRA
 
Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down
 
            Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes
 
            A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
 
            And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
      Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
 
            His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
 
            Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
      And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
 
            Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
 
            More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
 
            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed,
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
 
            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
      Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
 
            If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
 
            Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
      For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
 
            And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
 
            Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
 
            As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
 
Wilbur does not merely describe the fountain.  We follow—perhaps not always perfectly—a movement of sorts. 
 
Wilbur has not reached major poet status; he’s an embarrassment to most moderns and  post-moderns, perhaps with good reason.  There used to be a public for Wilbur, but it was killed around the time he was born. Or maybe Wilbur’s work is too ‘busy’ to appeal to a wide audience.  In poetry circles, WC Williams is mentioned 1,000 times for every mention of Wilbur. Williams’ one advantage?  He’s not as ‘busy’ as Wilbur. “The Young Housewife” has a certain Homeric quality in terms of action, clarity and emotion, but Williams doesn’t pass the Lessing test, either.
 
Alice Oswald’s poem has movement, but its delight is miles away from Wilbur’s Homeric grandeur.  “and when” propels the poem and it is sweet the way “and when” becomes “which is” at the end.  When ideas make the poem move, this only makes the poem move closer to didactic prose—at least this is what Lessing would say.  Moderns make ideas so central so often in their poems, they are probably not conscious of how unlike the old poetry, the poetry Lessing would have admired, they are. 
 
Can Oswald’s humble poem, like David, slay Goliath?
 
WEDDING
 
From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
 
Wilbur 89 Oswald 66

NORTH BRACKETT LOOKS FOR SWEET 16: PHIL LEVINE V. CORNELIUS EADY

YOU CAN HAVE IT

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labours, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

–Phil Levine

I’M A FOOL TO LOVE YOU

Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,
Some type of supernatural creature.
My mother would tell you, if she could,
About her life with my father,
A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.
She would tell you about the choices
A young black woman faces.
Is falling in with some man
A deal with the devil
In blue terms, the tongue we use
When we don’t want nuance
To get in the way,
When we need to talk straight.
My mother chooses my father
After choosing a man
Who was, as we sing it,
Of no account.
This man made my father look good,
That’s how bad it was.
He made my father seem like an island
In the middle of a stormy sea,
He made my father look like a rock.
And is the blues the moment you realize
You exist in a stacked deck,
You look in a mirror at your young face,
The face my sister carries,
And you know it’s the only leverage
You’ve got.
Does this create a hurt that whispers
How you going to do?
Is the blues the moment
You shrug your shoulders
And agree, a girl without money
Is nothing, dust
To be pushed around by any old breeze.
Compared to this,
My father seems, briefly,
To be a fire escape.
This is the way the blues works
Its sorry wonders,
Makes trouble look like
A feather bed,
Makes the wrong man’s kisses
A healing.

–C. Eady

Levine 79 Eady 75

HEATHER MCHUGH AND KAY RYAN IN SWEET 16 DUEL IN THE WEST

Kay Ryan—looking for the final spot in Sweet 16

Heather McHugh, who defeated Rae Armantrout in the first round, has two poems in Rita Dove’s anthology and we were happy to discover this one:

WHAT HE THOUGHT

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what does it mean
flat drink asked someone, what does it mean
cheap date?). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib—and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was the most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian, either, so I put the book
back into the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
“What’s poetry?”
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?” Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think—”The truth
is both, it’s both,” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statute represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things. All things
move. “If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That’s
how they burned him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
of everyone.
And poetry—
(we’d all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
softly)—
poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.

We find this profoundly moving.  It nearly brought us to tears.

Kay Ryan has two brief poems in the Dove anthology.  Ryan crushed Cole Swensen to advance to Round 2 play against Heather McHugh for Sweet 16, but she’s up against a great poem.  McHugh favors whimsy and word-play, like Ryan, but in this contest McHugh brought something entirely different.

Here is Ryan’s entry:

BESTIARY

A bestiary catalogs
bests. The mediocres
both higher and lower
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage
or clever, the spectacularly
pincered, the archest
of the arch deceivers
who press their advantage
without quarter even after
they’ve won, as of course they would.
Best is not to be confused with good
a different creature altogether,
and treated of in the goodiary–
a text alas lost now for centuries.

Ryan delivers with her usual wordy wit, but it’s not enough to overcome McHugh’s onslaught.

McHugh 90 Ryan 80

MARILYN CHIN v. GARY SNYDER: WE ALMOST HAVE OUR SWEET 16…

sourdough

The poet Gary Snyder—and mountains.

Marilyn Chin has three poems in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology and she defeated one of the Dickman twins (Michael) to get here.  She tries to knock off Gary Snyder with a late night mood piece from the Dove book:

COMPOSED NEAR THE BAY BRIDGE

(after a wild party)

1)
Amerigo has his finger on the pulse of China.
He, Amerigo, is dressed profoundly punk:
Mohawk-pate, spiked dog collar, black leather thighs.
She, China, freshly hennaed and boaed, is intrigued
with the diaspora and the sexual freedom
called bondage. “Isn’t bondage, therefore,
a kind of freedom?” she asks wanly.

2)
Thank God there was no war tonight.
Headbent, Amerigo plucks his bad guitar.
The Sleeping Giant snores with her mouth agape
while a lone nightingale trills on a tree.

Through the picture, I watch the traffic
hone down to a quiver. Loneliness. Dawn.
A few geese winging south; minor officials return home.

“Minor officials return home” is supposed to sound wistfully, yet coldly, heart-breaking in this modern Chinese American poem. We think it does.  We like it.

Gary Snyder has also been awarded three poems in the Dove.  Snyder escaped Sherman Alexie to advance to this contest with Chin.  In the world of poetry, Snyder is pretty famous, and here is the kind of poem (from Dove’s anthology) he is famous for:

MID-AUGUST AT SOURDOUGH MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Compared to Marilyn Chin’s poem, this just sounds like male bragging.  I don’t need no cities. I drink cold snow-water.  We also don’t understand the lack of punctuation.

Chin 87 Snyder 71

CROWDED PROSE: SHARON OLDS AND GARY SOTO IN A SWEET 16 BATTLE

Sharon Olds: the frankest poet ever?

Rita Dove gave Sharon Olds two poems in her anthology: Olds is easy to anthologize: pick an Olds poem and you’ve got Olds.  Some of the poets in Dove’s book feel poorly represented, but Olds’ two poems are her.  Olds’ first poem beat Li-Young Lee in a close contest.  Here’s the one she hopes will defeat Gary Soto:

THE LIFTING
Suddenly my father lifted up his nightie, I
turned my head away but he cried out
Shar!,
my nickname, so I turned and looked.
He was sitting in the high cranked-up bed with the
gown up, around his neck,
to show me the weight he had lost. I looked
where his solid ruddy stomach had been
and I saw the skin fallen into loose
soft hairy rippled folds
lying in a pool of folds
down at the base of his abdomen,
the gaunt torso of a big man
who will die soon. Right away
I saw how much his hips are like mine,
the long, white angles, and then
how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter’s,
a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
I saw the folds of skin like something
poured, a thick batter, I saw
his rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
shows me his old body, he knows
I will be interested, he knows I will find him
appealing. If anyone had ever told me
I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
and I would look at him, at his naked body,
at the thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair, look at him
in affection and uneasy wonder
I would not have believed it. But now I can still
see the tiny snowflakes, white and
night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
If art succeeds as art, there is one thing it is required to have: perspective.
It is the last thing any artist, any painter, any poet, masters.
Perspective is expressed geometrically in painting and grammatically in poetry.
The poem above relies on phrases which establish arcs of space and time, such as “lifted up…I turned my head away…he cried out…so I turned  and looked…If anyone had ever told me I would…and he would…I would not have believed it…But now I can still see…the way we were promised…would rise…would fall…would know everything.
Modern critics take for granted the way various and complex uses of grammar contribute to the physical, formal qualities of a poem—especially the modern prose poem in the Whitman tradition.  The impact of Olds’ poem relies as much on her use of “would” as on her strict content: the father’s naked, dying body which elicits a certain naked disgust.
Grammar, or intricate speech, simultaneously explains and distances any subject in powerful poetic ways.  One might call this style, or method, crowded prose.  The density of intricate grammar, the crowding  into a small vessel (“would” repeated over and over) is similar to the effect of meter and rhyme—which works (when it does work) in that similar crowding manner of “fine excess.” (Keats)
Soto has three poems in Dove’s anthology.  He battles Olds with this one:

BLACK HAIR

At eight I was brilliant with my body.
In July, that ring of heat
We all jumped through, I sat in the bleachers
Of Romain Playground, in the lengthening
Shade that rose from our dirty feet.
The game before us was more than baseball.
It was a figure–Hector Moreno
Quick and hard with turned muscles,
His crouch the one I assumed before an altar of worn baseball cards in my room.

I came here because I was Mexican, a stick
Of brown light in love with those
who could do it–the triple and hard slide,
The gloves eating balls into double plays.
What could I do with 50 pounds, my shyness,
My black torch of hair, about to go out?
Father was dead, his face no longer
Hanging over the table or our sleep
And Mother was the terror of mouths
Twisting hurt by butter knives.

In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,
Waving players in and stomping my feet,
Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.
I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank water
And bit my arm through the late innings.
When Hector lined balls into deep
Center, in my mind I rounded the bases
With him, my face flared, my hair lifting
Beautifully, because we were coming home to the arms of brown people.

Soto’s poem describes (“eight” “July” “I came here” “Father was dead”) without perspective—his poem is a flat list of items: a game is played, “bases are rounded,” “balls are lined into deep center” but we don’t really see it happening in any context; time and space do not come alive for us: the poem is mostly rhetoric.

Olds 99 Soto 83

ROBERT HASS V. MATTHEW DICKMAN FOR SWEET 16 IN THE WEST

Robert Hass has a few poems in Dove’s anthology and the following poem, with its provocative title, makes mysterious references in a strange, zen-like calm.  Hass plays the Wise Man in his poems of ‘third generation Modernist difficulty’ drifting over a California landscape.  He’s easy with sex, strong with colors, tactiles, and relationships.  He comes across as fatherly and frank in his poems, but draws a feminine mystery over them as unselfconsciously as he can.  Hass is a hippie stiffened into mandarin.  His poems are likely smarter than you are.  But here’s the poem:

THE PORNOGRAPHER

He has finished a day’s work.
Placing his pencil in a marmalade jar
which is colored the soft grey
of a crumbling Chinese wall
in a Sierra meadow, he walks
from his shed into the afternoon
where orioles rise aflame from the orchard.
He likes the sun and he is tired
of the art he has spent on the brown starfish
anus of his heroine, the wet duck’s-feather tufts
of armpit and thigh, tender and roseate enfoldings
of labia within labia, the pressure and darkness
and long sudden falls from slippery stone
in the minds of the men with anonymous tongues
in his book. When he relaxes, old images
return. He is probably in Central Asia.
Once again he is marched to the wall.
All the faces are impassive. Now
he is blinded. There is a long silence
in which he images clearly the endless sky
and the horizon, swift with cloud scuds.
Each time, in imagination, he attempts
to stand as calmly as possible
in what is sometimes morning warmth,
sometimes evening chill.

We don’t really know what to think of this poem. 

Meanwhile, Matthew Dickman (he and his brother are absent from Dove’s book and 5 years younger than the poets in them) answers with a poem about which one cannot help knowing what one thinks. 

It is as if the next generation, the poets just under 40, are finally saying, ‘you know what? Life is too short to be difficult.  The Dickmans belong to this fey, W.H. Auden, Victorian, neo-romantic, prissy punk rock, school. 

Hass writes poems that no mature judgement could call bad, even though this requires that none will ever sincerely think them good. 

Dickman writes poems without any mature judgement in mind, and doesn’t care that any one might think his poems are bad, and this frees up the possibility of once in a while his poems being good.  The following is a tour de force of pleasant freak-out:

GRIEF

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla  
         
you must count yourself lucky.

You must offer her what’s left

of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish

you must put aside

and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,

her eyes moving from the clock

to the television and back again.

I am not afraid. She has been here before

and now I can recognize her gait

as she approaches the house.

Some nights, when I know she’s coming,

I unlock the door, lie down on my back,

and count her steps

from the street to the porch.

Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,

tells me to write down

everyone I have ever known

and we separate them between the living and the dead

so she can pick each name at random.

I play her favorite Willie Nelson album

because she misses Texas

but I don’t ask why.

She hums a little,

the way my brother does when he gardens.

We sit for an hour

while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,

taking down the pictures of my family,

not writing, refusing to shower,

staring too hard at girls younger than my sister.

Eventually she puts one of her heavy

purple arms around me, leans

her head against mine,

and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.

So I tell her,

things are feeling romantic.

She pulls another name, this time

from the dead

and turns to me in that way that parents do

so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? She says,

reading the name out loud, slowly

so I am aware of each syllable,

each consonant resembling a swollen arm, the collapsed ear,

a mouth full of teeth, each vowel

wrapping around the bones like new muscle,

the sound of that person’s body

and how reckless it is,

how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

The “living and dead” pile makes the poem.  It’s a bizarre poem, but feels true.

Dickman 88 Hass 79

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