MORE ACTION IN THE CLASSICAL BRACKET: GRAY VERSUS PLATO!

 

Image result for churchyard elegy in painting

Sixty-four contestants (the large number in any March Madness single elimination tournament) can be quite overwhelming.

As quickly as we can, let’s play the tournament and decrease the store.

We’ve looked at all the Sublime March Madness teams—their names and what they bring to the table.

So we are all judged, whether we are a person with no special abilities, or a sports team with dozens of athletes and assistant coaches and billion dollar owners and equipment managers.

In the first game of the tournament, in the Classical bracket, Homer prevailed against Edmund Burke, and the template was established: emotional poetry v. criticism skeptical of the emotions.  Emotion, or excitement, won. Homer has advanced to the second round.

In the second contest in the Classical bracket, we have Plato himself, representing the “criticism skeptical of emotions” side of the template, with his famous advice to climb from particular beauty to beauty itself, facing off against the humble and melancholy poet, born in the early 18th century, an early Romantic poet, transitioning from the Augustan, Thomas Gray.

Gray is one more example that Romanticism began much earlier than Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, and Shelley—for Romanticism, if the secret be told, is an expression of Plato, if we are not mistaken. Shakespeare’s plays are each like Platonic dialogues, a lesson for sobering us up, for fighting vanity and illusion. Shakespeare does not favor poetry and the emotions, though his plays are full of songs and feelings—Keats loved Shakespeare, the early Romantic.

Romanticism, the melancholy dream, was influenced by Plato through Milton’s “Il Penseroso.” —“Hence vain deluding joys.”

But Milton’s melancholy poem had a mirthful companion piece, “L’Allegro.”

Plato asked that we first fix on earthly beauty before we ascend towards the beauty of thought and morality, and then beauty itself.

The poets who are devotees of Plato—whether they know it, or not—can be said to be all the sweet and melancholy Romantic poets—and here’s why.

To move from an appreciation of someone who is beautiful to an appreciation of all beauty involves the following:

1. The kind of mind which can entertain different types of beauty as a way of becoming adept and flexible in moving upwards on the Platonic Ladder to True Beauty—demonstrated by the poet who can succeed in writing similar poems which partake of melancholy, on one hand, and mirth, on the other.  To appreciate equal opposites helps one to transcend.

2. Melancholy, because it is sad to say goodbye to the one we love as we venture upwards towards Love itself.

This is why the Romantic poets, who serve Plato, tend to be melancholic.  Byron was both mirthful and sad—which is fine, too.

This excerpt from Gray’s meditative “Elegy,” sounds like Keats (50 years before Keats was born):

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

This is poetry that wishes to remain amid the beauty of the earth just a little longer, before it begins the bright journey Plato requires.

Gray’ sample is so beautiful it is almost as if the journey were done.

Gray wins!

A stunning upset!

Plato, the Greek philosopher, like a ghost, vanishes.

 

MARCH MADNESS 2020—THE SUBLIME!!

Image result for goya the giant

The sublime requires size.

The small, or that which aims at the small, cannot be sublime.

It’s really that simple.  And when we can be simple, we should be.  And this very idea has in it something of the sublime itself.  The sublime is not complex.  It is large, first, or, perhaps, complex in a large manner.

A large space is required; the sublime requires a long view.

I point out the simple, even grotesquely simple, criterion of sublimity to check those runaway intellectual arguments which will naturally veer away from a properly sublime definition.  There will always be something small about any intellectual argumentation, no matter how good it is.

The sublime is a fact, and cannot be argued into, or out of, existence.

The sublime is not necessarily that which takes a lot of work on the part of the artist. It simply is—or it should at least seem that way.

Searching through many pages of literature for examples of the sublime is a depressing task, for as one skips over many passages and poems because they do not quite reach the level of the sublime, unfulfilled expectations begin to sadden one on many levels; we say to ourselves: “I seem to remember letters being better than this. The sublime, after all, is the ultimate measure.” As we pass on more and more work, deciding it’s not worthy, searching for the ultimate begins to demoralize us. We can’t argue away this gut feeling.

But we push on, and when we find the sublime, we are happy.

An argument can be thorough, or decisive, or convincing. It can never be sublime.

But if a description is an argument, and if any piece of rhetoric either describes or convinces us of anything not mundane, then haven’t we excluded poetry from the sublime, if we say an argument can never be sublime?

Can an argument have dimensions? Can words have magnitude?

Certainly words can describe, and therefore whatever is a description of the sublime falls under the category of sublime poetry.

We should remember that Edmund Burke, in his famous mid-18th century essay on the sublime, said poetry was the better vehicle for the sublime than painting. He was thinking mostly about Milton and the Bible.

Painters and architects need material resources, a vision embodied and fleshed out, constructed, built, displayed, functioning in the eye with the depths and shadows of every massive, material, fact. Terrible echoes must sound and sigh; they must be real. A true glittering must struggle with the shadow over the abyss. A heavy door to the unknown must open suddenly to the wind.

The poet needs no materials, no edifices, no walls, no howling distances, no rock, no river, no eyesight aching, no pitiless view, no shadow from stone, no darkness deepening over drafty ruins, no bleak night times of silent stars.

Poetry, then, can be small, as long as what it describes is large.

Poetry has two choices: be modest or sublime. Prose is acquainted with every subject, every nuance; this the poet knows; the poet knows the only way to move the heart is by being humble—or its opposite.

Is it true that modern poetry has no sublime tradition?

No spark, no faint shower of light falling from beyond, no echo of Homer, Dante, or Milton troubles the modern eye. What creates the sublime? What storms greet our poetry now?

But we shouldn’t be hasty.

There may be plenty of sublime poetry in our day. We just need to look for it. Perhaps it’s there, but we have forgotten how to see it.

***

Edgar Poe, who lived on the other side of the abyss from today’s colloquial, modern sensibility, loved the sublime perhaps more than anything.

Modesty and sublimity are not values we assign to poetry anymore.

It says something about our age, that when it looks at Poe, it doesn’t see the sublime, but registers “macabre.”

But Poe was sublime all the way.

Not only in his poetry and fiction—but in his non-fiction, which included criticism.

In this review of William Ellery Channing, Poe, the critic, ridicules the attempt to be sublime:

My empire is myself and I defy
The external; yes, I rule the whole or die!

It will be observed, here, that Mr. Channing’s empire is himself, (a small kingdom, however,) that he intends to defy “the external,” whatever that is — perhaps he means the infernals and that, in short, he is going to rule the whole or die; all which is very proper, indeed, and nothing more than we have to expect from Mr. C.

Again, at page 146, he is rather fierce than otherwise. He says;

We surely were not meant to ride the sea,
Skimming the wave in that so prisoned small,
Reposing our infinite faculties utterly.
Boom like a roaring sunlit waterfall.
Humming to infinite abysms: speak loud, speak free!

Here Mr. Channing not only intends to “speak loud and free” himself, but advises every body else to do likewise. For his own part, he says, he is going to “ boom” — “to hum and to boom” — to “hum like a roaring waterfall,” and “boom to an infinite abysm.” What, in the name of Belzebub, is to become of us all?

Poe didn’t think much of Channing, the child of the preacher; Channing the Younger was a poet mentored by Emerson; Poe reviled Emerson’s didactic, sermonizing circle of New England Transcendentalists. Their whole attitude can be summed up in the couplet of Channing’s quoted above: “My empire is myself and I defy/The external; yes, I rule the whole or die!”  According to Poe, there was a way to do literature and “I rule the whole or die!” just wouldn’t do.

We wouldn’t know it (because who carefully reads widely in Poe’s critical prose) but Poe, at least in his own mind, to an extreme degree, was very forward thinking.  In the first few paragraphs of his review of Drama of Exile and Other Poems by Elizabeth Barrett, Poe says quite a bit against antiquity, and in favor of plain, modern, common sense:

1) He writes that he will not treat Barrett as a woman, but as a writer, as he points out that women should no longer be treated in a patronizing way by male authors.

2) Of Elizabeth Barrett’s long poem, “Drama of Exile” is the story of Eve, inspired by Greek Tragedy, Poe writes:

The Greek tragedies had and even have high merits; but we act wisely in now substituting for the external and typified human sympathy of the antique Chorus, a direct, internal, living and moving sympathy itself; and although AEschylus might have done service as “a model,” to either Euripides or Sophocles, yet were Sophocles and Euripides in London to-day, they would, perhaps, while granting a certain formless and shadowy grandeur, indulge a quiet smile at the shallowness and uncouthness of that Art, which, in the old amphitheatres, had beguiled them into applause of the Œdipus at Colonos.”

“It would have been better for Miss Barrett if, throwing herself independently upon her own very extraordinary resources, and forgetting that a Greek had ever lived, she had involved her Eve in a series of adventures merely natural, or if not this, of adventures preternatural within the limits of at least a conceivable relation — a relation of matter to spirit and spirit to matter, that should have left room for something like palpable action and comprehensible emotion — that should not have utterly precluded the development of that womanly character which is admitted as the principal object of the poem. As the case actually stands, it is only in a few snatches of verbal intercommunication with Adam and Lucifer, that we behold her as a woman at all. For the rest, she is a mystical something or nothing, enwrapped in a fog of rhapsody about Transfiguration, and the Seed, and the Bruising of the Heel, and other talk of a nature that no man ever pretended to understand in plain prose, and which, when solar-microscoped into poetry “upon the model of the Greek drama,” is about as convincing as the Egyptian Lectures of Mr. Silk Buckingham — about as much to any purpose under the sun as the hi presto! conjurations of Signor Blitz.

3) Poe then scolds Milton—who has influenced Barrett—in the following manner:

She [Barrett in her introduction] has made allusion to Milton, and no doubt felt secure in her theme (as a theme merely) when she considered his “Paradise Lost.” But even in Milton’s own day, when men had the habit of believing all things, the more nonsensical the more readily, and of worshipping, in blind acquiescence, the most preposterous of impossibilities — even then. there were not wanting individuals who would have read the great epic with more: — , could it have been explained to their satisfaction, how ind why it was, not only that a snake quoted Aristotle’s ethics, and behaved otherwise pretty much as he pleased, but that bloody battles were continually being fought between bloodless “innumerable angels,” that found no inconvenience m losing a wing one minute and a head the next, and if pounded up into puff-paste late in the afternoon, were as good “innumerable angels” as new the next morning, in time to be at reveille roll-call: And now — at the present epoch — there are few people who do not occasionally think. This is emphatically the thinking age; — indeed it may very well be questioned whether mankind ever substantially thought before. The fact is, if the “Paradise Lost” were written to-day (assuming that it had never been written when it was), not even its eminent, although over-estimated merits, would counterbalance, either in the public view, or in the opinion of any critic at once intelligent and honest, the multitudinous incongruities which are part and parcel of its plot.

This is all by way of the sublime.  One can see that Poe has very definite opinions on how one should go about writing in the sublime manner—one still needs to have both feet on the ground, even as one takes a certain fantastic license.

Here is Poe once more, from the “Drama of Exile”review, taking Barrett to task for being sublimely annoying:

But in the plot of the drama of Miss Barrett it is something even worse than incongruity which affronts: — a continuous mystical strain of ill-fitting and exaggerated allegory — if, indeed, allegory is not much too respectable a term for it. We are called upon, for example, to sympathise in the whimsical woes of two Spirits, who, upspringing from the bowels of the earth, set immediately to bewailing their miseries in jargon such as this:

I am the spirit of the harmless earth;
God spake me softly out among the stars,
As softly as a blessing of much worth —
And then his smile did follow unawares,
That all things, fashioned, so, for use and duty,
Might shine anointed with his chrism of beauty —
Yet I wail!

I drave on with the worlds exultingly,
Obliquely down the Godlight’s gradual fall —
Individual aspect and complexity
Of gyratory orb and interval,
Lost in the fluent motion of delight
Toward the high ends of Being, beyond Sight —
Yet I wail!

Innumerable other spirits discourse successively after the same fashion, each ending every stanza of his lamentation with the “yet I wail!” When at length they have fairly made an end, Eve touches Adam upon the elbow, and hazards, also, the profound and pathetic observation — “Lo, Adam, they wail!” — which is nothing more than the simple truth — for they do — and God deliver us from any such wailing again!

But let’s look at Poe selecting a passage of Barrett for praise.

And he loves this because it’s sublime, though he doesn’t use the word:

It is not our purpose, however, to demonstrate what every reader of these volumes will have readily seen self-demonstrated — the utter indefensibility of “The Drama of Exile,” considered uniquely, as a work of art. We have none of us to be told that a medley of metaphysical recitatives sung out of tune, at Adam and Eve, by all manner of inconceivable abstractions, is not exactly the best material for a poem. Still it may very well happen that among this material there shall be individual passages of great beauty. But should any one doubt the possibility, let him be satisfied by a single extract such as follows:

On a mountain peak
Half sheathed in primal woods and glittering
In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour
A lion couched, — part raised upon his paws,
With his calm massive face turned full on shine,
And his mane listening. When the ended curse
Left silence in the world, right suddenly
He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff,
As if the new reality of death
Were dashed against his eyes, — and roared so fierce,
(Such thick carnivorous passion in his throat
Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear)
And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills
Such fast keen echoes crumbling down the vales
To distant silence, — that the forest beasts,
One after one, did mutter a response
In savage and in sorrowful complaint
Which trailed along the gorges.

There is an Homeric force here — a vivid picturesqueness in all men will appreciate and admire. It is, however, the longest quotable passage in the drama, not disfigured with blemishes of importance; — although there are many — very many passages of a far loftier order of excellence, so disfigured, and which, therefore, it would not suit our immediate e to extract. The truth is, — and it may be as well mentioned at this point as elsewhere — that we are not to look in Miss Barrett’s works for any examples of what has been occasionally termed “sustained effort;” for neither are there, in any of her poems, any long commendable paragraphs, nor are there any individual compositions which will bear the slightest examination as consistent Art-products. Her wild and magnificent genius seems to have contented itself with points — to have exhausted itself in flashes; — but it is the profusion — the unparalleled number and close propinquity of these points and flashes which render her book one flame, and justify us in calling her, unhesitatingly, the greatest — the most glorious of her sex.

 

***

The history of the sublime can be summed up this way—in the 18th century, the idea of the sublime caught fire and exploded; the sublime was the dominant aesthetic well into the 19th century; then it vanished into the human-centered realism of modernism. Longinus was translated into English in the early 18th century—Longinus defined sublimity as ecstasy for the learned; Burke, an advocate of emotion linked to thought, called it terror, at a safe distance; Kant called it more reasonable than the beautiful, since it participates in the unknown and great thoughts and ideas launch into, and participate, in the unknown. The Romantics were swept up into greatness as they contemplated and breathed the sublime. Wordsworth used the sublime to be more than a nature poet, Coleridge’s best poetry burned with it; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein spoke to the fearful heart of it; Shelley, Byron, and Keats were what they were because of it; the glorious,18th century flame finally expired in the magnificence of Poe, who is called, by the small-minded, “macabre,” instead of what he really is—sublime.

***

THIS YEAR’S MARCH MADNESS HAS THE FOLLOWING FOUR BRACKETS: CLASSICAL, ROMANTIC, MODERN, AND POST-MODERN.

HERE ARE THE 16 MARCH MADNESS 2020 CONTENDERS—IN THE CLASSICAL BRACKET:

1) Homer (iliad)

Friend! You will die—but why moan about it so?
Remember Patroclus? He was better than you.
Look! I’m handsome and stronger—
A marvelous father, my mother a deathless goddess—
But thanks to fate, I, too, will be brought low.
At midnight, maybe at noon, a mortal will kill me, too—
From a spear, by chance thrown, or a singing arrow.

2) Plato (symposium)

The mysteries of love?  Begin with examples of beauty in the world, and using them as steps to ascend, with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two and from two to all, from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge of various kinds one arrives at the supreme knowledge—whose sole object is absolute beauty, to know at last what absolute beauty is.

3) Aristotle (poetics)

Having distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot—the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

4) Sophocles (oedipus rex)

Speak not to these or me. Thou art the man,
Thou the accursed polluter of this land.

5) Ovid (art of love)

It is art to conceal art.

6) Horace (ars poetica)

There are some mistakes we forgive. The string doesn’t always give the note that the hand and the mind intended: it often returns a high note when you ask for a low. The bow won’t always hit what it threatens to hit. But when most features of a poem are brilliant, I shan’t be offended by a few blemishes thrown around by carelessness or human negligence. But what then?  If a copyist goes on making the same mistake however much he is warned, he is not forgiven; if a lyre-player always gets the same note wrong, people laugh at him. I’m even angry when Homer nods, though a doze is OK in a long work.

7) Virgil (aeneid)

I abandoned you, and caused your grieving.
I abandoned you, and caused your death.
And now those same gods compel me to search in these shadows,
Where death reigns, and gruesome night is all.

8) Dante (inferno)

“These have no longer any hope of death;
This blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envy all—even others’ final breath.

The world does not permit them any fame;
Mercy does not care for this moaning mass;
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner
Whirling, moving in a frenzied manner,
Bobbing up and down, leading the creatures,

Who thronged, piteous, in great numbers,
Filling the circle. I could not believe
Death had undone so many.

9) Petrarch (la gola e ‘l sonno et l’otiose piume)

Greed and sleep and slothful beds
Have banished every virtue from the world,
So that, overcome by habit,
Our nature has almost lost its way.

And all the benign lights of heaven,
That inform human life, are so spent,
That he who wishes to bring down the light
From Helicon is pointed out as a wonder.

Such desire for laurel, and for myrtle?
‘Poor and naked goes philosophy,’
Say the crowd intent on base profit.

You’ll have poor company on that other road:
So much more I beg you, gentle spirit,
Don’t turn away from your great undertaking.

10) da  Vinci (notebooks)

The first intention of the painter is to make
A flat surface display a body
As if modeled and separated from this plane,
And he who most surpasses others in this skill
Deserves more praise.
This accomplishment,
With which the science of painting
Is crowned, arises from light and shade—
Chiaroscuro.
Therefore, whoever fights shy of shadow
Fights shy of the glory of art
As recognized by noble intellects,
But acquires glory according to the ignorant masses,
Who require nothing of painting other than beauty of color,
Totally forgetting the beauty and wonder
Of a flat surface
Displaying relief.
The art of painting embraces and contains within itself
All visible things. It is the poverty of sculpture
That it cannot show the colors of everything
And their diminution
With distance.

11) Shakespeare (the tempest)

Be not afraid; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

12) John Donne (death be no proud)

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

13) Milton (paradise lost)

Some natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

14) G. E. Lessing (laocoon)

Objects which exist side by side, or whose parts so exist, are called bodies. Consequently bodies with their visible properties are the peculiar subjects of painting.

Objects which succeed each other, or whose parts succeed each other in time, are actions. Consequently actions are the peculiar subjects of poetry.

All bodies, however, exist not only in space, but also in time. They continue, and, at any moment of their continuance, may assume a different appearance and stand in different relations. Every one of these momentary appearances and groupings was the result of a preceding, may become the cause of a following, and is therefore the center of a present, action. Consequently painting can imitate actions, also, but only as they are suggested through forms.

Actions, on the other hand, cannot exist independently, but must also be joined to certain agents. In so far as those agents are bodies or are regarded as such, poetry describes also bodies, but only indirectly through actions.

Painting, in its coexistent compositions, can use but a single moment of an action, and must therefore choose the most pregnant one, the one most suggestive of what has gone before and what is to follow.

Poetry, in its progressive imitations, can use but a single attribute of bodies, and must choose that one which gives the most vivid picture of the body as exercised in this particular action.

Hence the rule for the employment of a single descriptive epithet, and the cause of the rare occurrence of descriptions of physical objects.

I should place less confidence in this dry chain of conclusions, did I not find them fully confirmed by Homer, or, rather, had they not been first suggested to me by Homer’s method. These principles alone furnish a key to the noble style of the Greek, and enable us to pass just judgment on the opposite method of many modern poets who insist upon emulating the artist in a point where they must of necessity remain inferior to him.

15) Thomas Gray (elegy in a country churchyard)

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.

16) Edmund Burke (introduction. on taste)

The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblance we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature. A piece of news is told me in the morning; this, merely as a piece of news, as a fact added to my stock, gives me some pleasure. In the evening I find there was nothing in it. What do I gain by this, but the dissatisfaction to find that I had been imposed upon? Hence it is, that men are much more naturally inclined to belief than to incredulity. And it is upon this principle, that the most ignorant and barbarous nations have frequently excelled in similitudes, comparisons, metaphors, and allegories, who have been weak and backward in distinguishing and sorting their ideas. And it is for a reason of this kind that Homer and the oriental writers, though very fond of similitudes, and though they often strike out such as are truly admirable, they seldom take care to have them exact; that is, they are taken with the general resemblance, they paint it strongly, and they take no notice of the difference which may be found between the things compared.

 

LET THE GAMES BEGIN!!

 

MILTON AND BYRON BATTLE FOR PLACE IN FINAL FOUR!

Byron: some nerd who wrote a few poems

Milton brings it (from Comus):

Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free;
She can teach you how to climb
Higher than the sphery climb;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.

Byron:

Remember you! Remember you!
Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream,
Remorse and shame shall cling to you,
And haunt you. Like a fever dream.

Remember you! Oh doubt it not.
Your husband, too, shall think of thee,
By neither shall you be forgot,
You false to him. You fiend to me.

 

POETRY IS A RELIGIOUS WAR, ALWAYS WAS, AND STILL IS

I heard this!

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN TRUTH of poetry is that it is and always has been a football or a sweaty microphone in the politics of religion.

Poetry has never been poetry.

Poetry has always been Gilgamesh or Homer, the Bible or the Koran. Alexander Pope, John Keats, Hitler or Gertrude Stein.

Poetry has always been news reports from mankind’s long religious war.

Shakespeare, the subversive Catholic, Milton the Protestant secretary, the pagan revolt of the Romantics, the secular intellectualism of the 20th century, it can all be traced to religious war.

Strands of poetry today represent splinter groups: nature religion, bad grammar religion, anti-religion religion (an impossibility), sex religion, the religion of humor, and it is probably this splintering, more than anything else, that has made poetry a current historical footnote.  (“Why doesn’t anyone take poetry seriously these days?”)

Just as cults are dwarfed by the major religions, poetry that is splintered and cult-like in its concerns tends to fall by the wayside.

Religion always makes big news and always resides in private and intimate spaces as well, and so when a poet does make headlines, they tend to do so from a religious point of view, and they also tend to get swallowed up if their ‘religion’ is of the shallow and cult-like variety: prominent, but obviously aping what is already out there: Ginsberg, for instance (60’s radical rebellion) or Mary Oliver (nature religion).

A poet writing today is not just competing with all the poetry of the past, but with all religion, as well.

Robert Frost is probably the last poet to succeed as ‘a poet’ rather than as some minor priest in the religious war, and this was probably due to the fact that his poetry acheived that rare balance; his poetry was not challenging religious principles at all, and yet seemed vaguely religious at the same time, in a manner that neither religious nor secular types could quite put their finger on—and thus his success.   Frost didn’t make the Church nervous, didn’t make churches nervous, didn’t make Church-haters nervous, or church-haters nervous; Frost was writing stuff in which all could say, “Poetry, OK.  I can live with this.”  Easy to formulate, but not easy to pull off.

Most of this ‘New England success’ was due to historical placement more than Frost’s blockbuster talent; Frost wrote in an age of great change, and he managed to evoke timelessness with his New England winter toughness at a time when New England could still symbolize America (now it can’t).

The heroic grandiosity of the World War Two era also created a window in which America was allowed ‘one great poet’ (Frost) for awhile.

Now we’ve entered an age of great religious and political suspicion, an age no longer distracted by something as heroic and unifying as World War Two; in this splintered religious time, poetry is naturally splintered, too.

Poetry cannot lead, it can only reflect and follow, the religious climate of its time.

The last great religious poem was probably ‘Ode To Psyche’ by Keats.  (Or anti-religious, but so completely and beautifully so, religious, for all intents and purposes).

Since Keats, poetry has, to an increasing extent, dwelled like small mammals living a hidden, furtive life, dwarfed by a world in which major religions rule, as they always have, close-to-the-ground, influential, terrifying and banal.

What is left to us? What can we write or do?

IN THE SUNLIGHT

One of the most curious episodes in Letters is T.S. Eliot’s declaration in 1920, in the wake of J.M.Robertson’s similarly-themed book in 1919, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an “artistic failure.”

In that infamous essay, Eliot attacks the Bard’s greatest work as “puzzling and disquieting…” Eliot berates Hamlet chiefly because, according to the young banker, Hamlet’s “madness” and the “delay” in killing the king are dubiously presented, and the fault is that Shakespeare sloppily complicates Thomas Kyd’s straight-forward “revenge” tragedy by relying on “the guilt of a mother” which lacks emotional correlation in Hamlet’s updating of Kyd.

Eliot’s hackneyed notion that Gertrude’s guilt and Hamlet’s torn feelings are not sufficiently developed is ludicrous, but what’s even funnier is the way the author of The Waste Land, makes his point:

“The subject [Hamlet’s delay and Gertrude’s guilt] might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these [Othello, Antony, Coriolanus], intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

The sickly hodge-podge of The Waste Land—which saw publication thanks to the efforts of Eliot’s wealthy friend, Scofield ThayerEzra Pound, and the slick, modern-art-collector-and-lawyer, John Quinn—and all the rat’s nest poetry from Pound and Pound’s insane asylum visitors which followed in its wake, are the last things anyone could, or would want to, “drag to light.”

Eliot’s “objective correlative” dagger, used to cut Milton, Pope, the Romantic poets, and whole swathes of literary eras, flashes forth for the first time in this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet.

Is the young employee of Lloyd’s Bank writing of Shakespeare when he cites poetry “full of some stuff the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art?”

Or himself?

A DEFENSE OF POETRY…SORT OF.

A great deal of 19th century verse is wretched—exposure to poorly written rhyme will naturally push the educated poetry lover from the vales of tortured song to the stairwells of sober speech.

Verse was abandoned by educated poets in the 20th century because the versifiers fell out of tune—not because poetry evolved into something higher.   

Frazzled, goaded and tuckered out by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, with no more heart for Bret Harte, audiences everywhere cried Geez! and So Long! to George Santayana and the other thousand rhyming and chiming poetasters, tossing the simpering, milk & water verse out the window.   (Santayana was T.S. Eliot’s professor at Harvard).  

Throwing off rhyme was not a revolution. 

It was a revulsion.

The yellowish face of Imagism’s moon was not a sign of mystical glory; it was a sign of illness and disgust.

Music coming from instruments only a little out of tune will soon convince hearers to give up all music.

Imagism was a retreat, not an advance. 

Poetry in the 20th century did not add image—it subtracted music. 

The great poets of verse featured imagery and music, skillfully blended into a natural, pleasing speech so that neither speech, imagery, nor music was perceived as such–the elements were blended and lost in the poetry. 

Lost so that no ‘close reading’ can get it out. 

Criticism finds the elements when they are not blended; if they are, criticism cannot see them, for the work succeeds and doesn’t require criticism

 The close reading of the New Critics was mistaken from the start, since it confused desultory, over-elaborated praise with criticism.  New Criticism finally ends in the Prozac Criticism of the Helen Vendlers and the Stephen Burts.

Too much focus on any part—image, language, irony, etc—is a sure sign poetry is in decline.

We’re not sure why–after the renaissance of verse in English from the 16th century sonnet mastery to the 17th century of Milton, Donne, Marvel, to the 18th of Pope, and then Burns, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, with writers like Poe bringing Baconic science (with a Platonic sheen) to the art, and Tennyson carrying the flame–why the whole art sickened and died sometime during the middle or latter part of the 19th century. 

It may have been for a very simple reason. 

In the 19th century more people began to write and publish poetry.

There was a glut, and gluts will destroy whatever style currently exists.   

Those who complain contemporary poetry is prosy and dull usually champion the 19th century and its rhyme.  

But the issue is not a stylistic one.  It is simpler than that.   A glut destroyed poetry as it currently existed—first in the 19th century, when poetry rhymed, and then in the 20th century, when poetry didn’t.  The Quarterly didn’t kill Keats.  Sidney Lanier did. 

Those who could not write like Keats eventually decided no one should write like Keats—or none should try, because one more Sidney Lanier would be the death of poetry itself.   William Carlos Williams—when he reached middle-age and stopped rhyming—suddenly became vastly preferable to Sidney Lanier, at least among educated readers. 

Poetry–the art–could not handle one more failed Keats.  William Carlos Williams did not conquer Keats.   He was simply a sobering balm to the intoxicating pain of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman.  The 20th century stopped rhyming, not out of evolution, but from embarrassment. 

Rather than fail at Keats, it was necessary for the pride of the poet in the 20th century to partially succeed at haiku—and the whole history of modernism is nothing but extended haiku: even modern long poems are nothing but haiku patched together and embellished with flotsam and dialogue–breaking haiku’s rules, but not the rules of poetry—in any significant way. 

Our idea is supported by the following:  From the beginnings of poetry in English to the first confirmed glut in the early 19th century, a good poem was never a theoretical specimen; it was good in a way that was socially recognized by everyone: A 16th century Shakespeare song, a 19th century Keats ballad.   Then came the glut, and millions of would-be Shakespeares and Keats’s made rhyme come to seem the playing of an out-of-tune violin.  

The public gradually fled from the poem–not because the novel took them away, but because the public ran from the art of poetry holding its ears.   The modern novel was not an improvement so much as a refuge, and fortunately for that genre, poetry, by mishandling verse, was at that very moment chasing away readers as it had never done before. 

And bad rhyme did not end after Modernism–one can find it in Richard Aldington’s 1941 anthology: Allen Tate, William Carlos Williams’ only poem represented is a rhyming poem; there’s bad rhyme galore.  

Fashions die hard, but when they die, it’s sometimes not the fashion that’s at fault, but the mediocrities practicing it.

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