THE WORK OF HUNTERS IS ANOTHER THING

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

“To please the yelping dogs” ends a thought, begins an iambic pentameter line, but doesn’t finish that line, as the poet’s argument resumes in the middle: “the gaps, I mean.”

In Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall;” the poet describes the gaps in the wall which occur, strangely, because of freezing (“frozen ground-swell”) —what is ‘frozen’ moves.

The lines, as a whole, in Frost’s poem, move languidly, argumentatively, conversationally, (“The gaps, I mean”)—in case you didn’t get it, this is what I mean; the poem, flying in the face of the canon, dares to be informal, informality as slack as a poem may get: obscurity is too slack.

“I mean” is the opposite of obscurity, the poet not ashamed to add words to make himself understood better. But in pentameter!

Charm, even of the most insouciant kind, like everything else, requires context, and the canon nicely provides it. That’s what the Tradition is for: to make things more interesting as we play handball against it, not to glumly tower above us.

Pure difficulty, pure obscurity, is never charming.

I pray, before I go to bed each night, that contemporary poets understand this.

And so here is the great crossroads of Modern Poetry in this great Frost poem of the early 20th century; two types of slackness, two roads:

The informal, which bends a few rules.

And the obscure, which breaks them all.

One leads to pleasant informality, to modern charm; the other to stupid oblivion, to slack shit.

“To please the yelping dogs” is a phrase that stays in our memory and we think for a simple and mysterious reason: to us it represents that sensual, animal life which pleases those who don’t care for poetry. “Yelping dogs” perfectly describes a life without refinement, without soul, without philosophy, without poetry. Frost uses the phrase in his poem to indicate what he does not mean.

Most people are satisfied with the “yelping dog” life, and that is all they need. Everyone needs some “yelping dog” life, but those who enjoy nothing else should not stray anywhere near poetry; they will hate its simplicity, and they will spoil it. For “yelping dog” may apply to poetry, as it may apply to everything else: an eager, noisy, social, chaotic, spirited, life can, and will, invade everything, even the so-called fine arts; it can overrun them; few are able to resist the “yelping dog” life, which is why genius and truly great art is rare. How, for instance, did the wonderful poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay get trampled? Why is “yelping” poetry, rather than beautiful poetry, critically embraced today?

Dana Gioia, reviewing Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, wrote: “Keillor’s tone is obviously designed to rile anyone who holds the conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath (and the conventionally low one of Millay).”

Think on it! The “conventionally high critical opinion of Moore and Plath and the conventionally low one of Millay.”

This critical ranking is true, and it happened in a few years—Millay tumbled from her perch in the 1930s.

Except for “Daddy,”—the rhyme-song of wife-anguish which emerged from Plath as she suicidally removed herself from the world of John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, the magazine of proper Modernism (be as dull and obscure as you possibly can)—the poems of Plath and Moore do not amount to very much, while Millay’s poems rock the house down (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed and Where and Why; Dirge Without Music; And You As Well Must Die, Beloved Dust; I Being Born A Woman and Distressed; If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way); Moore and Plath present difficulty for its own sake.

Reading Marianne Moore’s poetry (“all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however…”) is like peering without understanding at the complexity of a car’s engine; reading Millay’s verse is like driving that car.

So how did this happen? How did Moore and Plath gain ascendance over Millay? It had to take a lot of “yelping dog” distraction. Moore belonged to the well-connected Dial clique of Pound, Williams, Cummings, and Eliot; Plath panted after their ascendency; Millay was rudely pushed aside by that same clique, Hugh “The Pound Era” Kenner, and a few others, providing the critical hammer blows to Millay’s reputation. The point is, it only took one well-connected clique to take Millay down, because the majority of her countrymen only cared for the “yelping dog” life. The poetry garden really has but a few gardeners (critics who set the tone).

Millay is like a supersonic jet plane—it has the potential to take a lot of people on wonderful rides, but not if it is grounded. The battle for poetry will always take place among the few, because the “yelping dogs” are so distracting, and make sure that it is only the few that care enough and focus enough on poetry to truly decide poetry’s fate. Most are simply not refined enough to fight this fight. But the fight must be fought, since poetry is a door to that which truly refines the soul.

How is the soul refined? By love, of course.

And what does poetry have to do with love?

Nothing.

Which is precisely why it takes a remarkable soul to effect the marriage; most do not see the marriage as necessary; they are like those who take for granted that light and heat permeate glass—never thinking what this common phenomenon means.

The holy marriage of poetry and love, with Beauty the priest who joins them, is a radiant truth that civilizes humanity, but tumbles into obscurity and critical censure with barely a sigh, for love is socially embarrassing, and poetry, embarrassing as well, especially in the world of the yelping dog.

Only a superhuman effort can make such a marriage accepted; the poet has to court the world, not merely describe it, and this effort makes or breaks the would-be poet. Millay wrote of love, Moore, bric-a-brac. In the fashion of the hour, bric-a-brac, while the dogs yelp, is enough for the professors’ seduction, and in the Program era, ushered in by Ransom and Moore’s Dial clique, the bric-a-brac poetry professor became all-important.

One can still see contemporary poetry critics making half-hearted, half-conscious, desultory gestures in love’s direction: for instance, see Dan Chiasson’s recent review in the New Yorker of the latest book of poems by Alaska poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, which thrills to the 51 year old poet’s “sexual power” and “romance,” going so far as to say, “authentic pining in poetry, though hard to come by, is probably necessary for any poet who wishes to become a classic.”

Here is Chiasson kind of getting it, but don’t hold your breath for a Millay revival happening any time soon.  (A few poets today following Millay confuse the vulgarity for the art.)

So many are seduced by the Marianne Moore bric-a-brac school, not because they love bric-a-brac, necessarily, but because they think ‘crunchy poetry’ will leave behind the embarrassments of heart-breaking love, and allow poetry to talk about more things, to cover more ground and more moods, pushing into areas usually confined to the political essay or the long novel. Frost, gabbing casually forever.

But the bric-a-brac wish is in vain.

Like the legendary Faust, the poet tempted by verbose worldly riches—by poetry that attempts what prose is better fitted to do—leaves behind Millay and dies beneath the heavy objects of a modern bric-a-brac poetry only the very few are canny enough to know was a terrible danger, a foolish gambit, from the start.

Even as they know of the terrible danger of love—and the pining poetry, fainting for all mankind, which dies in its arms.

POETRY: HAWKING WITHOUT WARES, OR: IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS

“Sell it for a song” —old saying

The Scarriet editors happened to be reading an old Scarriet post (we’re proud to say they hold up over time) and came upon what we think is the best underlying definition of ‘foetry’ we have ever seen—from Briggs Seekins:

If you are designing ball-bearings and you want people to believe in you, you have to actually do the physics, the testing–all those hours of rigorous intellectual slogging. You’ve obviously got to sell it to investors, but if it is a good product, the potential financial benefits will be strong enough so you can hire a completely different person who is an expert at selling.

We went on (in our old Scarriet post) to more-or-less say:

No poet has such a luxury. The poet, unlike the a maker of ball-bearings, has to be her own salesman, and work at recruiting a network of people who will also sell her–which in turn will mean selling for them. In the absence of verifiable, objective standards for what works, this is the only way anybody can be “successful” as a poet.

The irony Mr. Seekins has highlighted is that poetry is even more of a selling game than the selling game (business) itself, since there’s no ‘ball-bearings-that-work-better’ to sell.   Poetry, unlike a ball-bearing, isn’t supposed to work.  Art that works?  How gauche!

Poetry is selling and nothing more.  This is so strange that most simply cannot believe it: why would, how could there be any selling of what doesn’t exist, of what no one wants or needs?

Precisely.

All the more reason for the selling of poetry to be so intense—because it is nothing else.

We don’t mean poetry is a rhetoric which argues for itself—it has always been that, to some degree; after all, a perfectly round ball-bearing argues for itself; the ugly truth here is much worse: as Seekins says, a ball-bearing is important enough to require an expert salesman; a poem is not important enough to require an expert salesman, and therefore the poet must be a salesman by default, since a poem sells itself even less than a nicely made ball-bearing.

And Seekins is right about a crucial difference between poetry and painting, which we see here: http://www.technology.am/the-30-most-expensive-paintings-of-all-time-141346.html

The 30 most expensive paintings of all time link reveals that in 2006 a Jackson Pollock “spatter painting” sold for 140 million dollars.

By comparison, poetry is not expensive.

A first edition, signed copy of T.S. Eliot’s Poems, 1909—1925 can be had for a mere 9 thousand dollars.

A First Folio Shakespeare (1623) is 5.5 million: worth that much, no doubt because of historical twists and turns, and because Shakespeare plays are still performed on stage, and many have been turned into films.  The poetry part of Shakespeare’s Folio is probably worth in market terms about a nickel.

The most valuable auction piece so far of French literature is a signed edition of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer: $644,000.

We need not belabor the point.  The most expensive rare books are drawings: Da Vinci’s notebooks (30 million) or Audubon’s Birds of America (9 million).  If you don’t count signed editions, poetry is worth nothing compared to paintings.

There are art dealers, but there is no such thing as a poem dealer.

Only poets sell poetry—and this is why poetry is nothing more, nothing less, than selling itself.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.”  One might dismiss the cliche’, but one should not dismiss the importance of “the thought;” this “thought” is the chief catalyst of love—something we should never take lightly.

Writing a poem for someone is very charming, indeed, and just because awwwww turns our heads and hearts to mush, we owe ourselves a scientific explanation of this phenomenon.

Modernists, trying to strike a new note and rebelling against the love lyrics of the Romantics and the Brownings, fighting what they thought was the noble fight against the awwwww, wrote self-conscious poems, calling poetry “all this fiddle,”  for instance. If one is touched by a Marianne Moore poem, it will give rise to awwwww, because any poem, even a modern poem  (yea, even yours, Ezra Pound, grizzled, but secretly perfumed) fits into the eternal poetic formula: “it’s the thought that counts.”  But fighting the awwwww has its pitfalls. Does anyone really think “Poetry” by Marianne Moore is a good poem? Let us admit at once it’s a terrible poem and it owes its fame to the vain attempt by a little band of Modernists to remove the awwwww factor from poetry.  Poetry may be a great deal more than awwwww, but to try and take awwwww away from poetry is like removing a person’s heart: you kill the person.  You write terrible poems like Miss Moore’s “Poetry.”  If anyone forgets how bad this poem is, we reprint it here. See how it devolves to lecture.  See how thoroughly unpleasant and arrogant it is:

Poetry —M. Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Ugh.  Miss Moore’s poem is like a toad spitting out a toad.

This is one of the most celebrated poems of Modernism.  For this we got rid of Shelley and Keats?  We killed the nightingale so we could be lectured at by Marianne Moore?

For this we tried to do away with awwwww.

“All this fiddle,” huh?  “Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it…”  How did she know?

You can tell the poem was written for the classroom.  Moore was a teacher before she published poetry.

The classroom laboratory kills awwwww quite effectively.

But poetry, whether on the street or in the classroom, sells itself, and this selling is the content, form and criticism of the poem simultaneously.

Underneath it all lies ugly ambition, whose selling point is something like As My Bitches Indicate, Triumph is Obvious Now.

Splitting the poem into poet v. reader, content v. form, narrative v. concept, or into any of the various -isms-split of modernity and the avant-garde, we lose the unified significance of the one true formula which describes poetry: an advertisement which advertises itself as itself to itself and for itself. (Theories that protest they split only to re-unite have actually made a split they can’t take back.)  A poem is its sale, its selling, and all possible elements are in the sale, are being sold, and comprise the seller—the selling of poetry is poetry, such as would make a businessman blush.

Throw in awwwww, and just think what you’ve got.

You have a touching bit of worthlessness—which drives all worth.

And is selling a bad thing?

Only when a sale is tied to a bad product, or demeans a product.

Since poetry is the selling and contains no product, per se, poetry as selling cannot be a bad thing.

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare, in his most esoteric and hermeneutic poem (Sonnnet 21) says, “I will not praise that purpose not to sell.”

Ambition attempts to “find a product” for poetry—a prize, an award, a signed book—but in all contexts we can discover, save for a narrow personal career interest, this turns out to be largely worthless.

Shakespeare links “praise” with “purpose to sell.”

The secret ingredients of poetry are praise, love, and selling.

We shall end by quoting Shakespeare’s sonnet 21:

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

MOORE, MOORE, MOORE, HOW DO YOU LIKE IT? HOW DO YOU LIKE IT?

The reptilian Miss Moore: I had a letter from Elizabeth
a day or two ago which I am thinking of having tattooed
on me—in which she tells of Mrs. Almeyda’s identifiying
certain little specks in a white bowl, as “Them’s lizard.”

THE SAD BALLAD OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Eleven poets agreed to choose
Fifteen 20th century clippings sure to stay news—
And none picked Anne Sexton or Edna Millay.
But Moore and Bishop, they said, should stay.

Pay no attention to Edna Millay!
Richard Howard will explain: “She has to go away.”
Jorie Graham, with the Washington Post-connected name,
Thrilled by Howard’s acumen, feels exactly the same.

The fish gasp for air, but here comes Mark Strand,
Watery and handsome, takes Edna by the hand,
Leads her to a room where rock bands play,
Whispers, “No, we can’t have Edna St. Vincent Millay.”

Charles Simic concurs, balled-up in the dark:
“Miss Moore is my sparrow! Gertrude Stein is my lark!”
Donald Hall is a man, not afraid of the fray:
“I prefer Moore and Bishop to Edna Millay.”

We put up the curtains for Ashbery’s stay—
John doesn’t like St. Vincent Millay;
John prefers peas, sautéed, over rice,
After they are sprinkled with sugar, and diced.

“We have all the woman poets we need,”
Said John Hollander, indeed!
“We have Bishop, and that other one, Moore!
What the hell do we need Edna St. Vincent Millay for?”

Rita Dove’s lips! Lips of Dove!  They’ve been kissed.
And they speak: “I’m afraid Edna Millay will not be missed.”
You can ask James Tate, who chose James Wright
(“The Blessing”—worst poem ever) and Bishop! Good night.

Quick! Get the opinion of Robert Bly!
He chooses one woman: Moore. No lie.
Sure, Moore edited the clique-ish Dial,
Broke no hearts, wore a neat New Critical smile.

Moore was new, she knew…she made a friend,
And isn’t this what all this bother is, in the end?
David Lehman: “Remember, all these choices, finally, are mine!”
(He chose Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein.)

Fashion makes us all alike—another day
These sheep will die inside for Edna Millay;
But feeling and passion escaped this list,
As every hard heart wears the label modernist.

Obviously this is milk already spilt—
The 20th century goes to Vanderbilt.
I’d be rich if I had a dollar
For every choice who won a Rhodes Scholar,
Or crept on the ground in the house of Pound.

For Edna Millay, VIDA will cry no tears,
Or abstract ones; but then, they’re all bad poets,
And care only about their careers.

ARE MEN SUPERIOR TO WOMEN? CAN CAROL MUSKE-DUKES GIVE STEPHEN DUNN THE KISS OF DEATH?

The-Kiss-of-Death

Can Carol Muske-Dukes make it three out of four women in Scarriet’s 2011 March Madness APR Final Four?  Does she have what it takes to beat Stephen Dunn?  Both of their poems concern kisses, and maybe this is typical, maybe not—the man’s is a wild desire for one, the woman’s an actual dull one.

Women poets have done extremely well in the Scarriet March Madness Tournament, despite the pool being typically under-represented by women in the APR anthology, The Body Electric.  The split in the APR anthology is about 70/30 in favor of the men—yet 10 women poets reached the Scarriet Sweet Sixteen.

Vida has made headlines in American Letters recently by simply publishing some inescapable statistics: the percentages of women writers published in major literary magazines and anthologies—and the numbers are not good for women, especially in essays, criticism and poetry: women trail men in the Fine Arts of Letters—poetry and essays—by two to one.

We’re not talking about construction jobs, or all-time sports heroes, or U.S. presidents, or 19th century composers, or Italian homemakers. We’re talking about U.S. poetry and criticism in 2011: two to one in favor of men.  These numbers are staggering, and should be a wake up call to women everywhere.

The overall author split is 60/40 in favor of men, not too horrible, but in terms of reviewing (or criticism) the ratio is 4/1 in favor of men, and as Vida showed, the ratio of reviewing in The New York Review of Books is 5/1 in favor of men.  As we get more high-brow, as we get more intellectual, as we get more opinionated, as we get more philosophical, the women flounder, in terms of representation.

For every Harold Bloom, there’s a Helen Vendler or a Camille Paglia, for every Billy Collins, there’s a Mary Oliver or a Louise Gluck, for every John Ashbery, there’s a Jorie Graham or a Kay Ryan , for every Seamus Heaney, there’s a Sharon Olds or a Margaret Atwood. 

Generally, women have had great success in writing, and, in numbers of readers, women are surely equal, or very close to men, just in terms of literacy.  Women are well-placed in the readership and marketplace of Fine Letters; there is no craven, muscle-bound machismo element keeping them down.

Why, then, are the women so woeful and backwards in these key areas of poetry and essays and reviewing and criticism?

So, girls, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Criticism is the Head of Letters.  If you’re not reviewing consistently, or writing philosophical essays, or making your opinions known about writers and writing, then what do you expect?

We know you have opinions about nearly everything—why not writing?   You are nearly 50/50 in fiction, and fiction is great, but we all know most fiction is either thinly disguised diary and memoir or vampires having sex with each other. If Criticism is the Head, Fiction is the Rear.  And, in terms of opinions about writing, we don’t mean sweet, supportive blurbs for the sisters—we mean real criticism.

And here’s the thing: if you won’t write essays or reviews or philosophy or criticism, you’ll never change these numbers.

Vida, your numbers are shocking, but what do they really mean?  And how are we going to make those numbers better?

Any ideas, girls?

I recently found myself having an email dialogue, quite by chance, with one of the founders of Vida, whose stated mission is “to explore cultural and critical perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.”

The conversation came about because she, the Vida founder, wanted clarification from me concerning gossip linking her to a powerful male poet mentor.  But such talk does not belong in public.  It has that smell which consigns it to the garbage pail. Robert B__ eloping with EB is glorious. Put it on the front page. Professor B__ helping to market EB’s poems?  Eh, not so glorious.

But every consideration, glorious or not, involving men, women and Letters has an impact every day on the cold facts of Vida’s statistics.  Somewhere, between the numbers, and the sorry state of things which those numbers point to, are actual stories involving actual men and women. Do we dare speak these stories and these names? Or do we traffic forever in statistics and polite reactions to them?

We can’t run from theses numbers, but we can run from the truth—of its smelly and corrupt windings—which those numbers signify.

Or, we can follow Ariadne’s thread; we can do the patient, historical work of patiently examining the lives of actual literary men and women, and what it finally means, philosophically.

Here’s an example: Elizabeth Barrett was an extraordinary poet, and better known than the male poet who eventually eclipsed her, Robert Browning.  When Mr. Browning came courting in 1845, Elizabeth was the famous poet, not Robert, and she had already published, to much acclaim, the type of dramatic poem Robert Browning would later glory in.  This is not to diminish the remarkable Mr. Browning, but only to point out how Miss Barrett fell under Browning’s shadow.  Barrett was depicted in the modern era as a rescued recluse known for one poem penned—to Browning, which fit right into the Victorian stereotype.  Who perpetuates such stereotypes?  The critics.  And the critics are men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning fades away, and takes with her a more accurate picture of the Victorian period, a richer selection of poetry, and a powerful example of a powerful woman poet.  All the male critics had to do was refute the Victorian era.  Women are larger-than-life figures—unless they are reduced by abstract critical thinking which rejects, in the name of “modern progress,” the actual life of women in the past.  The “progressives” are then insidiously reactionary.  All ahistoricism is reactionary.  Let us have improvements, but please let’s not pre-suppose that means chucking history.

A second example: Edna Millay, who wrote sonnets as good as any in the history of literature, was abused in the press by Ezra Pound’s clique: Hugh Kenner and Horace Gregory, to name two. We all know how one well-placed review can harry and destroy. This is the sort of ugly side of Letters which might be characterized as gossip, but we demean Letters by being squemish—so that we brush the ugly side of Letters under the rug. Unfortunately, thugs and bullies exist in “polite literature.”  But the bigger problem is, that because Pound and his group was associated with a certain avant-garde progressivism, “make it new” and all that, critics are not always objective in writing literary history or making critical judgments.  Because there is this excitable and revolutionary assumption that the avant-garde is always liberal and forward-thinking, we are blind to when the opposite is true.

It’s not too late to undo these mistakes, since literature always has a past, and is always being made anew within the context of that past.  But if women are on avant train they think is going in the right direction, but is not, those Vida numbers could get even worse.

One more example: Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) is a marvelous poet, an amazing, crazy, lyrical, predecessor to Plath and Sexton, but like MillayWylie fell off the Parade Float of Modernism.  The better-known American women poets, who were quietly conservative, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, were close to Pound’s clique or Robert Lowell; actually, Moore was Bishop’s mentor, and Robert Lowell fell in quickly with Pound’s group via Tate and Ransom, so it’s all pretty cozy.  Wylie is a strong, but neglected, poet who would appeal to the same audience inspired by Sexton, and it certainly does not diminish a poet like Sexton to comprehend the significance of Wylie as her influence.  (Another neglected poet if we go back futher: Ellen Wheeler Wilcox.) Women in Letters will be hurt if women don’t celebrate good women poets right under their nose, or they only celebrate women poets annointed by men.  When it comes to literature, networking in the present can only go so far. Knowing history is invaluable.

So here’s the advice, so far.  1. Be critical, not timid and polite. 2. Be historical, intensely so; follow historical threads back to motivations, and groups who act clandestinely and corruptly.  These historical phenomena tend to be the rule, not the exception.  If the women say, “Leave the conspiracies to the men,” the women will only suffer accordingly, and the Vida numbers will get worse.

As far as The New York Review of Books, which we now know is 80% male, thanks to Vida, women, I think, would make an important statement if they boycotted that magazine, rather than pleading to be let in. The New York Review stats should not be read as an indication of failure by women, but rather as a failure by the New York Review, a scholarly failure, since the editors are infatuated with the very Modernism school that joyfully throws poets like Barrett, Millay and Wylie under the bus, and they review the same handful of canonized figures over and over again.  The researchers at Vida should analyze a few issues of the New York Review, and discover for everyone not just the numbers, but the faulty philosophy, history and scholarship.  Remember: Criticism, ladies, criticism!  Get in the face of the New York Review!  And enjoy doing it!  Letting the 5/1 ratio just sit there without comment, after the initial gasps, implies that women lack the talent to write for the New York Review and women better get cracking and improve themselves!  Is this the impression Vida wants to give?  No!  Go on the offense!

And speaking of offense, Carol Muske-Dukes, in her poem, “A Former Love, a Lover of Form,” is not particularly nice, which is not necessarily a bad thing:

When they kiss,
she feels a certain revulsion,
and as they continue to kiss

She’s trapped by a dull kiss.  She’s a victim.

The following sounds too much like all that bad confessional poetry composed in the 1970s:

Her glasses fall forward on her nose,
her mouth opens: all around
are objects that desire, suddenly, her.

Not just clothes, but open doorways,
love seats, Mother’s bright red
espadrilles kicked off in the damp grass.

The poem ends with more puzzlement and complaining:

 Is she seducer or seduced?

And which is worse,
a dull lover’s kiss or the embrace
of his terrible laundry?

She’d rather have the book
he wrote than him.

The Stephen Dunn poem features a narrator questioned by a crowd, and gender is completely hidden.  It also features a mysterious, yearning self-sacrificing love.

What They Wanted

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
for years, a spy,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

Stephen Dunn wins!  Stephen Dunn is in the Final Four!

YAWN TAKES BISHOP: ELIZABETH BISHOP AT ONE HUNDRED

Just as sitting in a train traveling 20 MPH can make us think a plane traveling 200 mph is flying backwards because of nearer objects we are passing, so a minor figure fawned over in our day can seem major.

Elizabeth Bishop is a spectacular example of near and dear fawning distorting actual merit.  She’s not even a good writer, much less a great one, but she has mattered to a clique which seems to be growing by the hour: the friendship with Miss Moore and Mr. Lowell has snowballed into a situation where all the Critics have fallen asleep.

What a ghastly creature Elizabeth Bishop was!

She understood the universe by the age of six (“In the Waiting Room”).

She had “three loved houses”—one, apparently, wasn’t enough (“One Art”).

She ridiculed what she perceived as the greaseball working class (“Filling Station”).

She overheard the conversations of regular folk riding buses with a thinly disguised, haughty scorn (“The Moose”).

Bishop feeds our inner spinster aunt who not-so-secretly hates and lords it over all (“those awful hanging breasts!”) with delicious ease.

To Elizabeth Bishop, actual human beings going about their business always elicited the faint whiff of gasoline.

Elizabeth feeds our aesthetically-hidden inner snob.

This would be fine, if her aesthetic project wasn’t also shallow and condescending.  After all, the quaint aesthetics of magical symbolism which she indulged in can lend a certain amount of pleasure; but rather than beauty, she merely proferred the current fashion of WC Williams modernism then extant, so we get ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ writ large: ordinary objects are everywhere “glazed” with something or other (oil or gasoline, mostly) and we get that patronizing tone of the Children’s Book author, constantly telling us the wheel barrow was red and the chickens, white and everything is seen not through our eyes, but hers, the over-descriptive one.   We get description, description, description and no thought, or, substituting for thought, a symbol, like a moose, or a fish, that we are supposed to ooh and aah over, never suspecting the poet has really nothing to convey but a bunch of cranky prejudices and snotty preferences. She likes beaches .  She doesn’t like filling stations.

What should one expect, after all, from someone who had the world figured out by age six, was miserable all her life, and had profitable friendships with the brittle Marianne Moore and the psychotic Robert Lowell?

Last night at an auditorium at Boston University, twenty members of po-biz sat on folding-chairs on a small stage, before a scattered audience of about 200, and mostly without fanfare, read poems and excerpts of letters and prose with varying degrees of intensity.

Two readers called what they read “perfect.”

All the readers felt rather pressed for time, since there were twenty of them, but that didn’t stop some from going on much too long.

Anything more than a page felt winding and obscure.

The delicate lyrics worked the best, but even there it was apparent we were not in the presence of a major poet; even “One Art,” her most famous rhymed work, is spoiled by that odd interjection—write it!—which doesn’t work when read aloud.

The evening was bland, except for two moments:

One female poet attempted to refute Dana Gioia’s recent remarks that Bishop was not much of an abstract thinker and she made the mistake of reading a passage of Bishop’s on the concept of time which was so befuddling and weak, it only proved Gioia’s point.

Christopher Ricks—no one introduced themselves, as one was supposed to match up the arrangement of the readers’ stage-seating with the order of the readers listed in the program—but we all know Christopher Ricks—Professor Ricks felt impelled to announce that Bishop appreciated prose as much as poetry and proceeded to point out that poetry has not, and will never, solve the problem of the prose paragraph.  Prose, Ricks, said, can quote poetry, but poetry cannot quote prose.  A pity this didn’t get discussed, and then Ricks read an exquisite one page prose excerpt from a Bishop story which quoted Keats.  At times, Bishop the aesthete emerges, which all aesthetes can love.  She just needs to be presented correctly, by thoughtful fellows like Christopher Ricks, who showed in a matter of seconds, the pure charm that is Christopher Ricks.

If all this seems demeaning and even sexist, it should be remembered how really sexist the Modernists were: not only did men, in terms of pure numbers, dominate po-biz in the 20th century, but the sexism is even deeper and more insidious than supposed: the male poets would decide what women poets would be allowed to have respectful poetic reputations.

The Bishop who loves Keats, we love.  But the Bishop we were meant to love, like the Marianne Moore we were meant to love, is the one not quite as good as Robert Lowell.

BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Robert Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as herself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

WHITHER THE FEMME FATALE POET?

Elinor Wylie.  Lyrical, with a dash of madness.

Where have they all gone?  Not only does the candle no longer burn at both ends, the one end is hardly flickering.

Great power for the poem, and for the woman, resides in the femme fatale poet.  What killed her, and why has she been allowed to die?

Even if the femme fatale is not the ideal state of things, it elicits a powerful interest in poetry.  Moral objections are moot, since femme fatales will exist and all the negative associations of that genre will exist, whether we want them to or not, and poetry’s involvement can mitigate the unfortunate aspects and also give to the world a heroic and social character for poetry which today it lacks.

In the 1920s, when school chums Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, together with Harvard friends Scofield Thayer, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, bound together in their modernist ‘Little Magazine’ coterie, which gave itself Dial Magazine Awards, published in Poetry and tooted its tin manifesto horn, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were best-selling poets, continuing a tradition from the previous century–when the poetess out-sold the poet.

Before academic solipsism, women’s poetry reflected breast-heaving life: Osgood bitterly reproaching a gossip’s judgment on her friendship with Poe in the pages of the Broadway Journal, Dickinson dreaming of hot romances, Barrett thanking the wooer who snuck her out of her father’s house, Millay hotly turning a cold eye on past sexual flings.

The brittle, sexless poetry of Marianne Moore, the wan, affected imagism of H.D. put an end to the reign of Femme Fatale poetry.

The suicides of Plath and Sexton were sacrifices on the altar of  femme fatale poetry, a reminder of what had been crushed by Pound and Eliot’s modernism.

In Eliot’s wake, Bishop has emerged as the most important female poet of the 20th century, but she’s sexless in comparison to a poet like Millay.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds present a domestic, intricately examined sexuality, a far cry from the femme fatale; Jorie Graham had an early opportunity to be a femme fatale, but transformed herself into a foet instead.  Marilyn Chin embraced ethnicity. Mary Oliver has gone the ‘fatalistic love of nature’s creatures’ route.   No femme fatale there, either.

The forgotten Elinor Wylie (d. 1928) wrote wonderful poems.  In “Now Let No Charitable Hope,” one can hear distinctly the frightening yet delicate voice of both Plath and Sexton, the confident whisper of the femme fatale:

Now Let No Charitable Hope

Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Do American poetasters love their William Carlos Williams, or what?  They dream William Carlos Williams. Their tails wag when they hear the name, “William Carlos Williams.”   At the end of their lives, with their last breath, they cry out, “William Carlos Williams!”

William Carlos Williams is both naked and covered in –isms.  He’s everything!

Here’s a typical gushing paean from Curtis Faville on Silliman’s blog— the whole sentiment expressed has become a ritual repeated ad nauseam:

“Williams began as a very traditional poet, writing rhymed poems about Spring and love and delicate ironies. But by the mid-‘Twenties he had pushed into formally challenging constructions influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary and inflections of conversational speech, he was really the first to do it well.

In addition, he managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional cliches and make little naked constructions from the raw timber of American life. They look like scaffoldings, their structure plain and unadorned like a newly framed house. “The pure products of America go crazy”–who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as Williams? Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy which the line-breaks and stanzaic pauses and settings underscore.”

Curtis Faville,  July 2008, Silliman’s blog

Among the chattering classes, sprachgefuhl will take on a mind of its own, but Williams-worship is unconsciously ingrained to the point  now where a healthy curiosity on these matters has been bottled up completely.

Faville and his somnambulant ilk are apparently too sleepy to see the contradictions here.   We count 13 in Faville’s brief post alone:

  1. Williams began as a very traditional poet.’  He did, and he was being published in ‘Poetry’ as a very traditional poet with his friend PoundAll but the very gullible will quickly assume Williams was an item not because of his groundbreaking poetry, but because of his membership in a clique.  Why would his hack rhymes be published, otherwise?
  2. ‘By the mid-‘Twenties he pushed into formally challenging constructions.’   AhemThe Dial Prize in 1926 was Williams’ first real public recognition; the editor of ‘The Dial’ in 1926 was Marianne Moore.  The content of the ‘The Dial’ was mostly European avant-garde: Picasso, Cezanne & T.S. Eliot (who won the ‘Dial Prize’ in 1922).  Williams was not ‘pushing.’  He was being pulled.  He was 43 years old and had known Pound for years—he was finally ‘getting with the program’ and doing what the clique required.  Moore won the Dial Prize in 1924—she had known then-Dial editor Scofield Thayer (T.S. Eliot’s old schoolmate at Milton Academy), as well as Pound and William Carlos Williams for years at that time.
  3. Influenced by Cubism, Surrealism and the speech of the common people.   How nifty.  ‘Cubism’ (!) and ‘Surrealism’ (!) ‘the speech of the common people.’  Yea, they go hand in hand.  Maybe in some pedant’s dream…
  4. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the simple vocabulary…’  This is utterly false.  Compare any century of poetry with Williams–his vocabulary is not simpler.
  5. Hardly anyone had thought to make poems out of the inflections of conversational speech.’  Again, falseRobert Browning is far more conversational than Williams.  Williams’ poetry is actually less ‘conversational’ than examples from the 17th century.
  6. He was really the first to do it well.’  Another whopper.
  7. He managed to throw out all the fluff and lace of traditional clichés…’  Oh-kay…   William Carlos Williams personally threw out ALL the so-called ‘fluff and lace’ which centuries of poetry is burdened with.  Every so-called ‘traditional cliché’ evaporated before Williams’ magic touch.
  8. Little naked constructions.’  What are these?  Elf robots which dance in poetaster’s dreams?
  9. raw timber of American life.’  William Carlos Williams as Paul Bunyan…
  10. They look like scaffoldings’   We are not sure what ‘they’ are.  Ideas? Poems?  Fragments of poems?   By now, of course, it doesn’t matter…
  11. their structure plain and unadorned…’   Ah, yes.  They’re ‘raw.’  They’re honest.
  12. Who else would have thought to write a line as accessible (and telling at the same time) as… “The pure products of America go crazy.”  This is accessible?  And telling?
  13. Their deceptive simplicity masks a complex kinetic energy…’  OK, we’ve heard enough.

Egad!   We can quote from this hyperbole no longer. 

What’s that?  WC Williams’ ghost is a Martian! and he’s beaming radio transmissions of kinetic energy to selected earthlings like Curtis Faville? 

Why didn’t  someone tell me?  

This explains everything!

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