THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST HIPPIE SONGS OF ALL TIME

If Mick Jagger’s hair had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.

When we mentioned to the poet Marcus Bales we were putting this list together, he immediately assumed a pejorative intent; yes, “hippie” has come to mean a term of censor, even in music—but we assured him our research was sincere.

Categories are safe, even when they dissolve into others.  We know what “hippie songs” are, even as they expand like a stain.  And what is amazing is how great and various and popular this list of hippie songs is.  In a thousand years from now, when we look back at this era, all of our popular music will be seen for what it really is: hippie music.

The 1960s, as one would expect, features prominently, a time which, artistically, happily resembled the great Romantic era in poetry: sensual, but not overly so, intellectual, but not overly so, and perhaps because indulgence was miraculously tempered by a certain unstated restraint, popular.  It sounds crazy to say the 1960s featured conservatism and restraint, but it did. Now that we’ve traveled through post-modernism, we know how conservative the lyric is, and the 60s were lyric.  Tradition had yet to be toppled.

Only a few really like chaos, and when chaos threatens, lyric structure and common sense fight back in all sorts of hidden, wonderful ways. Shelley’s spring is never far behind. Tender, conservative feelings survive in the frenzy, even as rebellion gets the headlines.  In an early interview, the Beatles made the astute observation that in England, kids hated what their parents symbolized, but not their parents, whereas in America, it was the other way around.  The cliches of the 60s are just that: cliches, and should not be used to bash what was a spectacular confluence of events and sensibilities.  There are movements which are self-consciously internationalist: one country fawns over another nation’s art, like the rich American ladies who in 1905 suddenly hankered for Japanese vases and haiku.  But in the ’60s, England and America, two great nations, both gave and took, equally, appreciably, in a healthy, natural, intense, rivalry of shouting, stomping, feeling, and sharing.

So how is it that “hippie,” a demeaned, belittled, mocked, obsolete, term, symbolized by long, unwashed hair, drug derangement, and artsy-fartsy, pie-in-the-sky ideals, translates into such significant and wonderful music, as seen in this list of undeniably great songs—greater than any similar list of popular songs one might compile?  Who knows?  But there must be a lesson here, somewhere.  Perhaps it’s this: art responds to popular focus, popular sincerity, popular desire and material accident (length of hair, for instance); art cannot be intellectualized into greatness.

Two more observations before we present the list: John Lennon wrote more good ‘hippie songs’ than anyone, and yet, in person, he was the opposite of a ‘hippie’ in so many ways: a bully as a kid who routinely made fun of ‘spastics,’ John was too sarcastic and mean to care for anything ‘hippie.’  John was recruited into the ‘hippie movement’ almost against his will by various forces, and, proving how complex and powerful the whole ‘hippie’ sensibility is, John’s extremely complex working-class/art school/inner turmoil/ life became a fountain of ‘hippie music.’

There were divisions and fears in the 60s, as well as money to be made, and this surely fueled music being made in the safety of recording studios.  The quality of songs on this list does not translate into a ‘hippie’ era that was nice.  When George Harrison first met his producer, he told him he didn’t like his tie.  George famously had a bad experience when he visited hippies in California. In the words of his sister-in-law:

We were expecting Haight-Ashbury to be special, a creative and artistic place, filled with Beautiful People, but it was horrible – full of ghastly drop-outs, bums and spotty youths, all out of their brains. Everybody looked stoned – even mothers and babies – and they were so close behind us they were treading on the backs of our heels. It got to the point where we couldn’t stop for fear of being trampled. Then somebody said, ‘Let’s go to Hippie Hill,’ and we crossed the grass, our retinue facing us, as if we were on stage. They looked as us expectantly – as if George was some kind of Messiah.

Laugh—along with John—or sneer—along with George—as you will, but all these very different songs are very much ‘hippie,’ (in feel, as well as idea) and, improbably, are many of the loveliest, most significant, and most enjoyable songs ever recorded.

1. Imagine -John Lennon
2. Here Comes the Sun  -The Beatles
3. Woodstock -Joni Mitchell
4. Going Up the Country -Canned Heat
5. I’d Love to Change the World   -Ten Years After
6. If I Had A Hammer  -The Weavers
7. Live For Today -Grass Roots
8. Suzanne  -Leonard Cohen
9. Hurdy Gurdy Man  -Donovan
10. In a gadda da vida  -Iron Butterfly
11. That’s The Way  -Led Zeppelin
12. Tiny Dancer  -Elton John
13. Heart of Gold  -Neil Young
14. All You Need Is Love  -The Beatles
15. Mr. Tambourine Man  -Bob Dylan
16. Knights in White Satin  -Moody Blues
17. Get Together -The Youngbloods
18. We Are Young  -Fun
19. Ohio  -Crosby Stills Nash & Young
20. Wild World  -Cat Stevens
21. Feelin’ Groovy  -Simon and Garfunkle
22. The Wind Cries Mary  -Jimi Hendrix
23. This Land Is Your Land  -Woody Guthrie
24. Alice’s Restaurant  -Arlo Guthrie
25. Eve of Destruction  -Barry McGuire
26. Creeque Alley  -Mamas & Papas
27. What Have They Done To My Song, Ma   -Melanie
28. Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine In   -The Fifth Dimension
29. White Rabbit   -The Jefferson Airplane
30. Walk Right In   -The Rooftop Singers
31. I Love The Flower Girl  -The Cowsills
32. Crimson and Clover   -Tommy James and the Shondells
33. Incense and Peppermints  -Strawberry Alarm Clock
34. She’s Not There  -The Zombies
35. Eight Miles High   -The Byrds
36. Light My Fire   -The Doors
37. Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?   -The Beatles
38. Mr. Bojangles  -Jerry Jeff Walker
39. Do You Believe In Magic?  -The Lovin Spoonful
40. Green Tambourine   -The Lemon Pipers
41. I’m Free (from Tommy)  -The Who
42. San Francisco   -Scott McKenzie
43. Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)  -John Prine
44. Us and Them  -Pink Floyd
45. Pleasant Valley Sunday   -The Monkees
46. We Gotta Get Out Of This Place  -The Animals
47. For What It’s Worth  -Buffalo Springfield
48. Strawberry Fields Forever  -The Beatles
49. The Sound of Silence  -Simon & Garfunkle
50. I Gave My Love A Cherry  -Doc Watson
51. Georgy Girl  -The Seekers
52. Space Oddity   -David Bowie
53. 99 Red Balloons  -Nena
54. Norwegian Wood  -The Beatles
55. When The Music’s Over  -The Doors
56. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35  -Bob Dylan
57. Instant Karma  -John Lennon
58. Hey Jude  -The Beatles
59. Truckin’   -The Grateful Dead
60. Me and Bobbi McGee  -Janis Joplin
61. Hotel California  -The Eagles
62. Sympathy for the Devil   -The Rolling Stones
63. Almost Cut My Hair   -Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
64. I Feel Just Like A Child  -Devendra Banhart
65. Fortunate Son  -Creedence Clearwater Revival
66. You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)  -White Stripes
67. American Pie  -Don McLean
68. Good Vibrations   -The Beach Boys
69. What The World Needs Now Is Love  -Jackie DeShannon
70. People Are Strange  -The Doors
71. Melissa  -The Allman Brothers Band
72. The Times They Are A Changin’  -Bob Dylan
73. Buffalo Gals  -John Hodges
74. Wonderful World  -Louis Armstrong
75. Lola  -The Kinks
76. Universal Soldier  -Buffy St. Marie
77. Freaker’s Ball  -Dr. Hook
78. I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)  -The Electric Prunes
79. Melody Fair  -The Bee Gees
80. Old Man   -Love
81. Brand New Key  -Melanie
82. Stoney End  -Laura Nyro
83. Vincent  -Don McLean
84. Indian Reservation -Paul Revere and the Raiders
85. We’re Only in It for the Money  -Frank Zappa
86. Eleanor Rigby  -The Beatles
87. Hey Ya!   -Outkast
88. Born To Be Wild  -Steppenwolf
89. Rocky Mountain High  -John Denver
90. Young Folks  -Peter Bjorn and John
91. Smells Like Teen Spirit  -Nirvana
92. I Shall Be Released -The Band
93. Lucky Man  -Emerson Lake & Palmer
94. In the Summertime  -Mungo Jerry
95. Piggies  -The Beatles
96. Sunshine of Your Love  -Cream
97. Hesitation Blues  -The Holy Modal Rounders
98. Mother Nature’s Son  -The Beatles
99. A Horse With No Name  -America
100. 21st Century Schizoid Man  -King Crimson

THE GHETTOIZATION OF POETRY

Stephen “Stephanie” Burt, Harvard professor and distinguished poetry critic

There is always an assumption that anthologies and categories of ‘poems about X’ are good for poetry and X.

Why?

Even if our anthology of ‘poems about X’ has nothing but bad poetry, the sentiment supporting X, supporting poetry, and supporting poetry on X, inevitably wins the day.

Why?

We’ve all seen the high-minded, fawning reviews and notices.  The implication is: Some of you out there selfishly write poems which are just…poems.  But here we have something worth cheering about, worth feeling good about…Poems about X!

For instance, Blog Harriet recently wrote:

Hurray! Stephen Burt reviews the TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson edited breakthrough anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics for the Los Angeles Review of Books!

Hurray?

And here’s an excerpt from Stephen “Stephanie” Burt’s review:

I was bored, occasionally, by all too straightforward verse about identities lost and found, verse I would have ignored were its subject almost anything else. But the reading also let me delight in seeing at least one femme author I’d never encountered before, both because she looked great, and because Troubling the Line turns out to be her first national appearance in print. That author is Lilith Latini, of Asheville, North Carolina, a ravishing, raven-haired studio-era femme fatale. (This is the first time I have ever written a sentence for publication about how a poet looked when she read her poems.) Those poems, raw as they could be, spoke to my twinned and antithetical desire for glamor and for solidarity, my wish to stand with others and my wish to stand out. It’s not a wish unique to LGBT people, but it sounds great when Latini finds it in the thoughts of Stonewall queens: “Don’t send me / out of the closet and into the streets alone. / Someone has to help me out of my strappy shoes before I run.”

Poetry can interact with anything, and we have nothing against that.  There’s nothing wrong with “added interest.”

But this ‘Category-first-Poetry-second’ attitude needs a hard look.

Perhaps even Stephanie might want to give a listen.

Once poetry—verse or prose—serves any category outside itself, it is diminished by the ratio of how much it gives itself over to whatever category it exists for.

This may not be apparent to those who view poetry as bi-part:

1. A non-poetic subject

2. Poetic form

At first blush, this makes perfect sense: poetry exists in (poetic) language, and no modern believes there are ‘fit’ poetic subjects, or subjects more fit for poetry than others—love, death, friendship (remember those old poetry anthologies?) are categories that claim many poems only because they are broad categories, not because poems ought to be defined by them.

Today, in high-brow circles, we have poems about queers, blacks, and women.

(It wasn’t all that long ago that the categories were death, love and friendship.)

The categories, in all cases, diminish poetry because they are subjects apart from, subjects not necessary to, poetry.

For the poetry, and the poetry, alone, should, ideally, create the subject.

Ideally, poetic language alone manifests whatever subject comes into existence (at the same moment the poem comes into existence).

If the author is inspired by the subject—or the category—the poetry is merely the means to read about the pre-existing subject, a subject which exists outside of the poem, and thus, by definition, is the “non-poetic” part of the bi-part poem mentioned above.

The poetic genius, however, finds a subject through the poetic exertion, so that the two—the subject and the poetry—arrive as, and exist as, one.   Superficially, one could work backwards and extract a kind of “subject” from the poem.  The “subject,” however, remains (and here is what the New Critics attempted to articulate) unparaphrasable, without apparent authorial intention, without apparent design on the reader, and fully immersed and integrated in the poem qua poem.

The genius begins writing a poem on no subject.  The poetry elevates/determines not only the language, but the thought, of the poet, who composes a subject suitable only to poetry.

The subject proper is not pre-existing (nor is there any pre-existing category) or identified in any way as category or subject—the poetry itself creates a new subject.

The poet may use a germ of a story, like a bit of sand to grow a pearl, or some half-formed motif, or half-conceived method, but the point is for the poetry-making faculty of the poet to discover the subject entirely on its own.

The subject suitable only for the poetry itself is the only true subject for poetry.

There are poets who attempt this and fail: they will write a poem ostensibly about “their father,” for instance, but aware that modern poetry is not bound by old-fashioned anthology categories, their poem is not really about dear old dad.  All well and good.  But here’s what happens: the poet succeeds writing a poem without their dad as the actual subject—and yet, what is the subject?  The poet has not found the “only suitable subject for the poetry,” but merely avoided a subject altogether.

The true subject for the poetry will be one with the poetry—and it will still be a subject, just one newly emerging.  It will just not be a category or subject pre-approved by the editor of a specialist magazine.

This kind of poetry, in which the subject is created by the poetry itself, is rare, because it does take a genius to write it.

So you ask: what is the subject?

One can’t really say.  One has to read the poem and therein, within the poem as a whole, is the subject.

And that subject might be: death, love, friendship, woman, queer, black.  But it could be anything.

The subject is whatever the poem says it is.

It will be a subject not only of the poem, but of the poetry of the poem.

Prime examples of this kind of poetry are “Endymion” by Keats or “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley.

These are long works, major works.

Can a minor work illustrate our point?

We think not.

As an experiment, and just to stir up debate, we’ll see what our readers think of this poem composed by Marcus Bales.

Before we close: In this poem, is it true, and in this poem’s favor, that the poetry and the subject could not possibly exist without the other?

The Free-Verse Anti-Poetry Cartel

What kind of putz would diss the villanelle
And doesn’t like refrain lines interlaced?
The free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They want to kill all other forms as well;
Whatever’s not in prose is toxic waste
To putzes who would diss the villanelle.

They wish they had the power to compel
The rest of us to write in their debased
Old free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

They think it makes them sexy to rebel
Against what great-great-great grand-dad embraced,
The putzes who would diss the villanelle.

But some of us prefer that we excel
At poems lineated prose replaced
With a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

A poet writes in meter, raises hell,
And spices up a language long disgraced
By putzes who would diss the villanelle
In a free-verse anti-poetry cartel.

—Marcus Bales

NBA FILES SUIT AGAINST SCARRIET FOR MARCH APRIL MAY MADNESS COMPETITION

wooden_trophies

Are those poetry prizes?

NBA Comish: “Scarriet is luring away our viewers during the NBA Playoffs — instead of watching LeBron choke at the free-throw line, they’re online parsing poems from the Dove anthology.”

Athletes worry their salaries will drop as fans abandon sports for poetry.

It began with concussion fears in football and hockey, and now Scarriet, stealing the March Madness trademark, has insinuated itself into basketball fandom, and like Orpheus, playing on the flute of Rita Dove’s poems, Scarriet has upset the delicate balance between nerds and jocks.

Nerdy poets hate competition.

Jocks live for it.

But now that Scarriet has said it’s OK for poets to compete with each other in a battle to the death—but in a critical atmosphere worthy of Samuel Taylor “Yo-Opium” Coleridge—all bets are off.

Jocks rush in where nerds fear to tread.

Revelry greets the midnight year of poetry.

The spear and banner of poetry is raised anew.

The Homeric cry penetrates the dusty halls of academe.

Shelley’s sighs melt the walls of scholarly modernism.

Scarriet tapes “LOSER” on the forehead, or hoists into the cheering sky, distinguished and unknown poets alike, disrupting the mouse-quiet respect of the po-biz order.

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

BUT I HAVE A NOBEL IN LITERATURE!!

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

BUT I AM A HARVARD PROFESSOR!  I HAVE WON NUMEROUS PRIZES!

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

So anyway, Scarriet’s in trouble.

The National Basketball Association is coming after us.

Meanwhile, Marcus Bales doesn’t think our site is popular, and for reasons expressed here in LA MAL TROLL SANS MERCI:

O what can ail you, moderator,
Alone and palely loitering?
The posts have withered from the site,
And crickets sing.

O what can ail you, moderator!
So haggard and so woebegone?
The spam filters all are full
And the router’s on.

A lily on your avatar —
Is that significant? Have you
Gone all seventeenth century now
It’s just we two?

“I met a troll here on my site
Who stalked us and would not abstain;
His views were libertarian
And his words profane.

I banned him and he reappeared;
I banned his ISP and he
Returned again and brought along
Sock puppetry.

I traced him through the internet
It took my nights, it took my days,
For sideways he appeared to bend
Through a maze.

I saw dark kings and princes too,
Dark as darkness in a hole;
They cried `La Mal Troll sans Merci
Is still your troll!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide;
I disconnected and found myself
Service denied.

I’d found him in a foreign land
Where money rules, and laws are few —
And wouldn’t you know, he got me banned
For trolling too.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though posts have withered from the site,
And crickets sing.”

We don’t mind trolls.   We’re all trolls in the eyes of somebody.

Scarriet has readers.  That’s important.  But we always welcome comments, too.

The NBA suit has us a little uneasy, however.

SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

All ye need to know?

1. Rita Dove—Penguin editor reviewed by Helen Vendler in the NYRB
2. Terrance Hayes—In Dove’s best-selling anthology, and young
3. Kevin Young—In Dove’s anthology, and young
4. Amiri Baraka—In Dove’s anthology
5. Billy Collins—in the anthology
6. John Ashbery—a long poem in the anthology
7. Dean Young—not in the anthology
8. Helen Vendler—hated the anthology
9. Alan CordleTime’s masked Person-of-the-Year = Foetry.com’s once-anonymous Occupy Poetry protestor?
10. Harold Bloom—you can bet he hates the anthology
11. Mary Oliver—in the anthology
12. William Logan—meanest and the funniest critic (a lesson here?)
13. Kay Ryan—our day’s e.e. cummings
14. John Barr—the Poetry Man and “the Man.”
15. Kent Johnson—O’Hara and Koch will never be the same?
16. Cole Swensen—welcome to Brown!
17. Tony Hoagland—tennis fan
18. David Lehman—fun lovin’ BAP gate-keeper
19. David Orr—the deft New York Times critic
20. Rae Armantrout—not in the anthology
21. Seamus Heaney—When Harvard eyes are smilin’
22. Dan Chiasson—new reviewer on the block
23. James Tate—guaranteed to amuse
24. Matthew Dickman—one of those bratty twins
25. Stephen Burt—the Crimson Lantern
26. Matthew Zapruder—aww, everybody loves Matthew!
27. Paul MuldoonNew Yorker Brit of goofy complexity
28. Sharon Olds—Our Lady of Slightly Uncomfortable Poetry
29. Derek Walcott—in the anthology, latest T.S. Eliot prize winner
30. Kenneth Goldsmith—recited traffic reports in the White House
31. Jorie Graham—more teaching, less judging?
32. Alice Oswald—I don’t need no stinkin’ T.S. Eliot Prize
33. Joy Harjo—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
34. Sandra Cisneros—classmate of Dove’s at Iowa Workshop (in the anthology)
35. Nikki Giovanni—for colored girls when po-biz is enuf
36. William Kulik—not in the anthology
37. Ron Silliman—no more comments on his blog, but in the anthology
38. Daisy Fried—setting the Poetry Foundation on fire
39. Eliot Weinberger—poetry, foetry, and politics
40. Carol Ann Duffy—has Tennyson’s job
41. Camille Dungy—runs in the Poetry Foundation forest…
42. Peter Gizzi—sensitive lyric poet of the hour…
43. Abigail Deutsch—stole from a Scarriet post and we’ll always love her for it…
44. Robert Archambeau—his Samizdat is one of the more visible blogs…
45. Michael Robbins—the next William Logan?
46. Carl Phillips—in the anthology
47. Charles NorthWhat It Is Like, New & Selected chosen as best of 2011 by David Orr
48. Marilyn Chin—went to Iowa, in the anthology
49. Marie Howe—a tougher version of Brock-Broido…
50. Dan Beachy-Quick—gotta love that name…
51. Marcus Bales—he’s got the Penguin blues.
52. Dana Gioia—he wants you to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so what r u waiting 4?
53. Garrison Keillor—the boil on the neck of August Kleinzahler
54. Alice Notley—Penguin’s Culture of One by this Paris-based author made a lot of 2011 lists
55. Mark McGurl—won Truman Capote Award for 2011’s The Program Era: Rise of Creative Writing
56. Daniel Nester—wrap your blog around my skin, yea-uh.
57. Yusef Komunyakaa—in the anthology
58. Adrienne Rich—in the anthology
59. Jeremy Bass— reviewed the anthology in the Nation
60. Anselm Berrigan—somebody’s kid
61. Travis Nichols—kicked us off Blog Harriet
62. Seth Abramson—poet and lawyer
63. Stephen Dunn—one of the best poets in the Iowa style
64. Philip Levine—Current laureate, poem recently in the New Yorker  Movin’ up!
65. Ben Mazer—Does anyone remember Landis Everson?
66. Reb Livingston—Her No Tells blog rocks the contemporary scene
67. Marjorie Perloff—strutting avant academic
68. John Gallaher—Kent Johnson can’t get enough punishment on Gallaher’s blog
69. Fred Viebahn—poet married to the Penguin anthologist
70. James Fenton—said after Penguin review hit, Dove should have “shut up”
71. Rodney Jones—BAP poem selected by Dove riffs on William Carlos Williams’ peccadilloes
72. Mark Doty—no. 28’s brother
73. Cate Marvin—VIDA and so much more
74. Richard Wilbur—still hasn’t run out of rhyme
75. W.S. Merwin—no punctuation, but no punk
76. Jim Behrle—the Adam Sandler of po-biz
77. Bin Ramke—still stinging from the Foetry hit
78. Thomas Sayer Ellis—not in the anthology
79. Henri Cole—poetry editor of the New Republic
80. Meghan O’Rourke—Behrle admires her work
81. Anne Waldman—the female Ginsberg?
82. Anis Shivani—get serious, poets! it’s time to change the world!
83. Robert Hass—Occupy story in Times op-ed
84. Lyn Hejinian—stuck inside a baby grand piano
85. Les Murray—greatest Australian poet ever?
86. Sherman Alexie—is this one of the 175 poets to remember?
87. Geoffrey Hill—great respect doesn’t always mean good
88. Elizabeth Alexander—Frost got Kennedy, she got Obama
89. A.E. Stallings—A rhymer wins MacArthur!
90. Frank Bidart—in the anthology
91. Robert Pinsky—in the anthology
92. Carolyn Forche—in the anthology
93. Louise Gluck—not in the anthology
94. Keith Waldrop—his Hopwood Award paid her fare from Germany
95. Rosmarie Waldrop—her Hopwood helpled launch Burning Deck
96. C.D. Wright—born in the Ozark mountains
97. Forrest Gander—married to no. 96
98. Mark Strand—translator, surrealist
99. Margaret Atwood—the best Canadian poet of all time?
100. Gary B. Fitzgerald—the poet most likely to be remembered a million years from now

SILLIMAN’S LAMENT

The following, “Silliman’s Lament,” is a bit of inspired madness by one of the most interesting scribes living—Marcus Bales:

For Ron Silliman, who posted on FB how far he’d driven.

I’m a poet and critic, a serious man —
The School of Quietude’s my famous phrase —
From right around the Chatterley ban
Til now I’ve followed my poetry plan:
To argue that poetry ought not scan.
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

There isn’t a city where I won’t go —
My revolution important and potent as Che’s –
To see that no more arts are beau
So quietudeness doesn’t grow,
And maybe make a little dough:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

I also write my famous blog
Where only I may speak, but all may gaze,
No meter, only prose’s slog
Should leave the po-biz crowd agog
And that’s the lang-po creed I flog:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

With postmodernism’s new malaise –
Not just wrong, but wrong in the wrong maze —
I must redouble my drive to raze
Your art so our art may amaze
As all that’s left us after the blaze.
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

Envoi

Armantrout! Mix your final muddle
Uninspired enough for me to praise!
Then join me in a pure Platonic cuddle:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

METRICAL SOPHISTICATION? IS IT DEAD?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my friends and I talk rhyme and meter the way others discuss fine wine.

The bouquet of a fine sequence of dactyls once caused me to faint from pure delight.   A friend once opined he could die content in a bed of trochaic tetrameter.

We scoff at those who can’t hear the difference between Swinburne’s 21 dollar Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou 2003 Sancerre, white Loire  and Poe’s 850 dollar Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, St. Julien Medoc Bordeaux red.

The best prosodists alive today, such as Marcus Bales and Annie Finch, make this common, tone-deaf mistake, re: Swinburne and Poe, but if the experts are wrong, what about the rest? Metrical taste today is at the lowest state since poetry was first written, so it is probably best we keep Bales and Finch as friends in the barren metrical landscape of our Letters.

Metrical expertise has been hijacked by two things:

First, poor training in the nuts and bolts of the science itself, so often tainted by needless pedantry.

Second, the New Critics’ injunction (Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” 1943) that “tension” between “metrical rhythm” and “speech rhythm” is the true measure of taste in judging metrical poetry.

This second obstacle is perhaps the most insidious, seducing even a poet as brilliant as Marcus Bales into error.   The most beautiful species of rhythm, combined with the most thrilling aspects of expression, are sold short by a theory that clips the wings of rhythmical flight in the name of “speech.”

Certainly, qualities such as cogency and consistency support metrical expression.  These qualities partake of all the good we mean when we refer to “speech.”  But “speech rhythm” is something else quite again.  And here is where the error resides: rhythm’s emphasis and rhythm’s surprise and rhythm’s art are all the poem needs in order to be wonderful, strange, new, and expressive, and “speech rhythm” is but an illusionary, accidental result.

For how can we really know what speech rhythm is?

This is one of those assumptions which exist only as that, an assumption, but not in reality— and all because the “real” aspect (everyday speech is real, isn’t it?) is accepted without reflection.  The metrical poem will not admit an idea merely because it is an abstract nod to something “real.”  The practice of a poem admits no hypotheticals.

We put the cart before the horse to make “speech rhythm” a notable aim or  complement to the “metrical rhythm,” because speech always implies something we’ve seen before in daily conversation, and by its very nature will drag us away from metrical excitement and novelty; the aping of “speech” will always exert inhibitory pressure on the metrical muse.  Obviously we don’t want to veer off into pure nonsense, but the speech should emerge almost accidentally from the metrical rhythm, which must be the primary focus.  Warren’s “tension” between the two implies a balancing act, but this balancing finally dilutes and weakens rhythmical  invention, which requires freedom to express, newly, terror and delight.

Let us look at some examples and see if we can detect this “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

In these lovely, poignant lines it is pointless to credit “speech” for those powerful anapests; they belong to metrical perfection.   Any “tension” added (I doubt any would be so bold to even try) would, even if organized to Warren’s exact specifications, weaken the poem in every respect.

What of this:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

What is interesting to notice here is that the ‘modern’ example is less like speech than the Romantic song.  We might observe to an intimate acquaintace, “So we’ll go no more a-roving,” but we would never say to anyone: “The winter evening settles down with smell of steaks in passageways.”  We already observed that the first example, the Byron, is a metrical tour de force, and yet, by comparison, the Byron is also more like real speech.   The “speech” of Eliot’s first stanza from his Preludes pervades like one’s own consciousness whispering despairingly into one’s own ear about the sad state of actual things.  The Byron, poem, too, addresses the sad state of reality, too.  Both poems are melancholy, but Byron’s melancholy is heroic and elegant: “Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/by the light of the moon.”  The beauty remains in the sadness.  In the Eliot example, there never was any beauty; the melancholy is depressing and inevitable: “And then the lighting of the lamps.”

Iambic pentameter is heroic for physical reasons; the tetrameter has one less beat and thus it has less weight, less gravity.   In a different context, “then the lighting of the lamps” could be a happy line, but the mechanics of the line in the context of Eliot’s unhappy realism highlights the mechanics itself as a dull, mechanical action.

It is easy to see that the Eliot, like the Byron, combines metrical rhythm with certain descriptive actions, for its effect.  There is no “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, per se.  “Then the lighting of the lamps” certainly has speech rhythm, but the point is that “Then the lighting of the lamps” exists in the poem as metrical rhythm—there is no speech rhythm and metrical rhythm existing simultaneously; the metrical rhythm is the speech rhythm in the poem.  There is no separation, and thus no comparison, and thus no “tension.”  We should not confuse the banal subject matter in the Eliot with speech itself; the speaking voice is not the same as the things described by that voice.  The “tension” is supposed to arise from the opposing rhythms, speech v. metrical.  But the metrical and speech rhythms are one.

If you think it is impossible for qualities to blend into one in poems, listen to what Eliot observes of Swinburne: “Now, in Swinburne, the meaning and the sound are one thing.”  This is quite an assertion: the meaning and the sound are one thing.   And does Eliot not describe precisely the claustrophobia of the romantics dwindling into the victorians which the moderns were hell-bent on escaping?  Eliot also: “When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.”

Poetry is always intensifying itself in what it is doing; the best poems never strike a balance, but pitch excessively forward, “annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”

As Warren says, free verse has none of this “tension.”

But the instant we journey away from free verse towards this “tension,” we come into possession of metrical rhythm which buys up all the prose in sight; there is never a chance for reconciliation and balance, for these two, speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, are like matter and anti-matter; they demolish each other.

LOOK OUT! IT’S ANOTHER SCARRIET HOT 100!

1. Billy Collins  -a poet of wit and popularity
2. Dana Gioia  -his famous essay still resonates
3. David Lehman  -BAP takes the pulse better than prizes/contests do.
4. Louise Gluck  -the new Jorie; has stepped down as Yale judge.
5. John Ashbery  -the most famous unknown person ever
6. W.S. Merwin  -emerging as the e.e. cummings of our time
7. David Orr  -elegant critical manner, writes poetry, too
8. Helen Vendler  -when the dust settles, what has she done, exactly?
9. Paul Muldoon  -as long as he’s at the new yorker, he’ll be on this list.
10. Harold Bloom  -will he ever live down his nutty hatred of Poe?
11. Glyn Maxwell  -a one-man british invasion
12. G.C. Waldrep  -he’s all the rage, and deserves it
13. Anne Carson  -managed to secure that all-important ‘classical’ rep…
14. Robert Hass  -he sort of reminds us of Paul Engle…
15. Mary Oliver  -popular ’cause she feels, rather than thinks, nature poetry.
16. James Tate  -founder of the funny/absurd/surreal/realism school
17. Dean Young  -James Tate lite?
18. Sharon Olds  -nobody does frank sexuality so morally and deftly
19. Charles Simic  -perfected the small, vivid, cinematic poem
20. Marvin Bell  -long time U. Iowan
21. Donald Hall  -our Thomas Hardy?
22. Karen Solie  -2010 Griffin Poetry prize and good poet
23. Terrance Hayes  -beautiful, black, and a National Book Award…
24. Robyn Schiff  -Jorie love-blurbed her madly, UG Iowa Wrkshp dir…
25. Adrienne Rich  -for the sisters
26. Barbara Hamby  -rides the new ‘excessive’ style
27. Lucia Perillo  -2010 BAP; rocks the newly minted ‘A.D.D. School’
28. Matt Donovan  -2010 Whiting Writers award
29. Ron Silliman  -this is his time
30. Amy Gerstler  -2010 Best American Poetry editor
31. Henry Hart  -found a poem I liked by someone on the web, damn!
32. Sandra Beasley  -this gal is worth checking out!
33. Shane McCrae  -warning: this poetry may actually be good…
34. Philip Gross  -2010 T.S. Eliot Prize
35. Simon Armitage  -the closest brit who possesseth any wit
36. L.S. Klatt  -2010 Iowa poetry prize winner
37. Margaret Atwood  -she’s never boring
38. Carolyn Forche  -that ‘bag full of ears’ poem, seems like only yesterday…
39. Matthew Yeager  -2010 BAP, “Go now, my little red balloon of misery!”
40. Stephen Burt  -one day vendler’s empire will be his
41. Barrett Watten  -selling Language Theory to British academia
42. Cole Swensen  -Iowa City/Paris gal
43. Christopher Reid  -first poetry book to win Costa since ’99 (Heaney)
44. D.A. Powell  -seems to be making all the right moves
45. Frank Bidart  -actor James Franco digs his poetry
46. Carl Phillips  -one of our most understated, thoughtful poets…
47. Rachel Hadas  -writing, judging…
48. Alan Cordle  -the david who slew goliath
49. Bin Ramke  -has that ‘Bladerunner’ fallen angel look…
50. Donald Revel  -the blue twilight school
51. Jorie Graham  -has her move to p.c. extremism doomed her?
52. Natasha Saje’  -we like her poetry
53. Paul Hoover  -tortured, philosophical poetry, but good…
54. Conor O’Callaghan  -Bess Hokin winner
55. Terri Erickson  -exploded onto Scarriet, and won Nooch’s heart…
56. George Szirtes  -Hungarian Brit
57. Abigail Deutsch  –Poetry magazine’s 2010 reviewing prize…
58. Jason Guriel  -poet/reviewer making his mark with Poetry…
59. D.H. Tracy  -fastidious, not fawning, as Poetry critic…
60. A.E. Stallings  -studied classics in Athens!
61. Dan Chiasson  -belongs to new crowd of poet/critics
62. Mark Levine  -the David Foster Wallace of workshop poetry…
63. Katherine Larson  -2010 Yale Younger, Gluck’s last pick…
64. Dara Wier  -workshop queen at Amherst & has a Selected…
65. Joseph Donahue  -“the angel’s jibe would harry the glitter from the dew”
66. Robert Casper  -poetry society of america, jubilat
67. Ben Mazer  -Man of Letters: poet, editor, critic?  He has first two…
68. Eileen Myles  -will not self-edit, thank you…
69. Derek Walcott  -his Pure Style, like buttah…
70. Bob Hicok  -the school of manly sentimentalism…
71. Janet Holmes  -‘ass hat uh’ press is how you pronounce it, I think…
72. August Kleinzahler  -he chased Garrison Keillor away…
73. John Barr  -runs the Evil Empire?  Blog Harriet: zzzzzz
74. Philip Schultz  -his 8 year-old son told him he won the Pulitzer…
75. Seamus Heaney  -his iconic Bog-status is nearly blinding…
76. Kevin Young  -curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library…
77. Charles Bernstein  -his school producing a new generation of folly?
78. Tony Hoagland  -he dares to write like Billy Collins…
79. Ilya Kaminsky  -the spirit of translation…
80. Matthea Harvey  -carries a flag for a style which others do better…
81. Mary Jo Salter  -the most respectable force in poetry ever!
82. William Logan  -if his critic ever reads his poetry, he’s done…
83. Alice Quinn  -20 years picking poems for New Yorker
84. Julianna Spahr  “MFA is under-realized, under-theorized…”
85. Rae Armantrout  -one of the greatest little poem poets…
86. Rita Dove  -Clinton was prez, she was poet laureate, Oasis was cool…
87. Seth Abramson  -ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client’s poetry…
88. Adam Kirsch  -the Harvard kid who made good…
89. Daniel Nester  -We Who Are About To Die is a funny website…
90. Meghan O’ Rourke  -poetry’s audrey hepburn
91. Jim Behrle  -funny, creative, but can’t get laid!
92. Martin Espada  -“Latino poet of his generation” says his website
93. William Kulik   -scarriet march madness final four
94. Patricia Smith   -slam queen, rattle prize winner
95. C.D Wright  -tickled by the Elliptical…
96. Philip Nikolayev  -where’s Fulcrum?
97. Carl Adamshick  -latest Walt Whitman winner
98. Dora Malech  -everything going for her but poetic talent
99. Eleanor Ross Taylor  -best 90 year old poet around
100. Valzhyna Mort  -beautiful russian-american…uh…poetry.

101. Marcus Bales  -anybody like skilled verse?

THE MARCUS BALES CHALLENGE: MONEY FOR A GREAT POET

Can Great Poetry Escape Our Detection?

This is an interesting question: can excellence fly under the radar due to sheer numbers?

Example 1: Could the greatest athlete exist somewhere without anyone knowing it, or soon knowing it? I doubt it. Even though the number of athletes dwarfs the number of poets, the objective detectability and worth of a great athlete would make it impossible for greatness in this category to go unnoticed.

If a 7 foot tall monster basketball player, for instance, existed anywhere on the planet, hiding among 7 billion humans, he would be found. If a woman who could run a mile in 3 minutes existed somewhere–anywhere–she would come to light.

Example 2: Then there’s stuff like physical beauty: rather easy to detect, but there is too much of it for all the beautiful specimens to be ‘counted.’ Super models or actors or any beauties that get national or international attention represent a millionth of a percent of all the really attractive people in the world, so here, in this case, it is due to sheer numbers that human beauty cannot possibly be accounted for, on any sort of global scale.

Is poetry closer to example 1 or example 2?

Three things must be considered: 1) the amount of objective worth displayed in the subject, 2) the number of subjects and 3) the ability to detect the objective worth in the subject.

If there is no objective worth, we can put an end to the issue at once.

If there is objective worth which can be detected, we must ask ourselves how much excellence in terms of numbers probably exist? For instance, if we take a random group of 1,000 poets or a random group of 1,000 poems, how many are likely to be excellent enough that we shouldn’t want to miss it?

And thirdly, how likely is it that a really excellent poet or poem will fly under the radar?

There are many, many people who couldn’t name one poet. These people obviously don’t count. This is another issue altogether which has nothing to do with the ‘new math’ problem, and, in fact, mitigates it.

So, of the people who care for poetry, how many of them are missing, because of numbers alone, great poetry? Numbers are one thing, but the super-sensitive system of detection and communication among like-minded people in modern, civilized society may more than make up for the large numbers. If a great poem is more like a 7 foot monster of a basketball player and less like a pretty boy or girl, then we can say with pretty good certainty that great poets and poems are not escaping our notice. There are no more Billy Collins’s hiding somewhere. Billy Collins, because he is good, was discovered. I believe that good poetry is discovered and that if it is not, it is because it is ubiquitous like human beauty, not because of the numbers which makes it invisible. My hunch is that excellent poetry is more like the 7 foot basketball player than the merely attractive person.

—Thomas Brady

The problem with saying that a great poem is more like a 7-foot monster of a basketball player is that it’s got to be written by someone who is a pretty good poet, and those people, for the most part, just stop writing poems after their encounter with the PoBiz — and if they do keep writing, they don’t bother the PoBiz with it.

More importantly, though, if there are no objective standards such as “7-foot” is in basketball (and even that is no guarantee) by which to measure any poem or poet. The subjective standards aren’t standard. I imagine that 100 judges of a 1000 poems would have only slight, if any, overlap as to which were the best poems, and the overlaps would not be dispositive — they’d be scattered all over the 1000-poem landscape. No poem would appear on the list of every judge, and no poem would appear on more than 20% of the lists, or so I suppose.

It’d be an interesting experiment. Where can we get some grant money to try it? We’ll publish all the poems that appear on 5 or more judges’ lists in — a chapbook, probably. I don’t think we could get enough for a book. I volunteer http://www.vanzenopress.com to publish the book if we can get the money together to pay the judges.

—Marcus Bales

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