THE POETRY COMMUNITY LOSES ITS MIND

Over the weekend, thanks to Reb Livingston, we became aware of a brewing scandal in the poetry community.

Scarriet feels compelled to respond to the ‘anonymous sexual abuse outing document found in AWP restroom controversy,’ not because we have any special interest in it, per se, but because we believe the scandal currently poisoning po-biz manifests aesthetic attitudes of significant pedagogical importance.

Scarriet is a boutique—a high-end, up-scale, boutique, of what might be called expensive, high-fashion poetry and poetry criticism; we produce clothing and accessories for the soul, and we make no apologies for the beauty, love, truth, good taste and wit that we produce; and nor do we apologize for appealing to an elite class of soul (which has nothing to do with advanced college degrees or any of the credentialing nonsense that characterizes the pyramid scheme of so-called “professional” poetry, with its animal grunting and network stroking). We take poetry seriously, and don’t come around here with that ‘pyramid’ nonsense please. Our readers generally know, and do not.

This controversy has nothing to do with us, of course, because we are free of the odor of po-biz, and merely roll around in poetry. But this scandal affects us because it impacts how the world sees and practices poetry.

Scarriet is a high-end boutique precisely because we live the poetry, and can respond to a controversy like this without passion or self-interest.

Our position is this: poetry, some time around the beginning of the 20th century, was, in a series of adroit political and pedagogical maneuvers by Modernist poets, wealthy individuals, and government officials, coaxed away from its public role and public use to become a playground of pretense and experiment (all in the name of public and pedagogical improvement more accurately reflecting real life, etc).  Seducing poetry away from what it had been turned out to be wildly successful, since the seduction had a democratic appeal: obscure, fragmentary prose became the ‘poet’ standard anyone could reach, and, at the same time, one could ‘learnedly be modern’ and reject the ‘fussily moral’ past. (‘Could’ is not quite accurate; one did—the two necessarily went hand in hand.)

It is important to note here that “what poetry had been” is more accurately what poetry is-–as shown with poetry—by the best poets of the past. Shakespeare set a high standard, Poe set a high standard, Keats and Shelley and Tennyson set a high standard, Whitman and Wordsworth and Barrett set a high standard, not in the sense that professors are required to make us understand their poetry—the standard is a real one, in which accessible music joins accessible rhetoric in a highly skilled manner, clearly conveying things which the public is interested in: chiefly, relations between the sexes; moral philosophy; good taste; refinement; interest in nature and science; philosophical wit; wisdom, fears, loves and hopes common to all.

This high standard—which gave pleasure to a reading public, also took its inevitable place in the schools with the rise of universal public education.

Modernism piggy-backed into the schools as it managed to standardize itself there, and, gradually replacing the ‘old’ poetry with the “Red Wheel Barrow” and “The Waste Land,” used the force of its school-validation in combination with the rise of the Creative Writing Industry (Iowa, Paul Engle and his friends, the highly government-and-think tank connected New Critics, including Robert Lowell) as poet-teachers increasingly joined the piggy-back phenomenon in an orgy of self-interest that cut out the old standards and left no room for Byron. Poetry was no longer a public enjoyment—it was something only professors could teach, and as poetry became more experimental, inaccessible and obscure, the self-interested professor became more prominent in what became essentially a pyramid scheme of teachers/wacko explainers on the inside, and everybody else (including the public) on the outside.

Which brings us back to the scandal: an ugly manifestation of the ugly things which naturally occur whenever favors replace standards.

We don’t need to take sides here; we only need to point out—as we have just done—in the simplest manner possible, a truth, which, despite the brevity, we are certain everyone immediately understands (remember when poetry was like this?).

The accusers, in the current scandal, are accused of slandering the innocent (slander: 1. an important trope in Shakespeare, 2. used to destroy the reputation of America’s great standard-bearer, Edgar Poe).

The truth has yet to come to light. Accusations themselves can murk up the light on their own. We do not know the truth and do not speak of it, obviously. The rage of the accusers does not equal the truth; but their rage could be based on a truth; we are not taking sides. As we pointed out earlier, we have the luxury of not taking sides, since we stay clear of all po-biz insanity, and care for poetry alone.

The accusers open their letter (following a list of the accused names of the men) with a profundity which needs saying and which we agree with:

It has finally come to the attention of the literary “community” that women are abused and experience gendered violence just like women in all other social spheres of the world. The humanities do not save us, the assumed “humaneness” of the poet or writer does not exist. We say “community” in scare quotes because we have no shared actual commonality or trust that forms the bedrock of self-identified communities.

Yes. Poets and poetry need no special protection or defense, and it’s the Modernist (and contemporary) poets and their fans who play this ‘poet immunity’ card the most, even as they trash the reputations of a Poe or a Shelley. The accusers are right to expose this douchebaggery. And no more hiding behind “community,” either, which is code for the Creative Writing Era favoritism douchebaggery which has cynically steamrolled the standards of old.

But the accusers don’t get it entirely right, and come close to spoiling everything, for they go on to summarize:

This is a statement against the straight male cisgender patriarchy that enables this behavior: not only bringing direct harm to women, but those who have knowingly stayed silent while your fellow writers abuse people in positions of lesser power.

So we are to believe that gay men and women cannot, and do not, abuse women? How can one be interested in justice—and be so utterly naive?

The accusers, in their wrath, are strangely divided—they expose douchebaggery and yet they are victims of it, in almost equal amounts.

The reason for this is simple, as well. Since poetry has lost its public, there has been an increasing attempt in some circles to make poetry relevant to a public again by making poetry (poetry!) simply about hot button, political issues. But there are things like the essay which already exist for this. Here, again, we see the whole thing unfolding simply and naturally, due to the original Modernist error.

And now we bring our notice to a close, secure that Scarriet is the only sane, up-scale island left in poetry today. We are happy. We are  proud.

 

 

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WE CAN STILL SAVE POETRY

sapph

The most significant change in poetry in the last 200 years has been in both form and subject matter, but formal concerns are really  insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry  has become prose and yet is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all others—no matter how much the formalist poet may protest. You want rhyme? Go to popular music.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we merely seek to look at the whole issue of old and new poetry as cunningly as possible.

The relationship between life and letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it, while the pure formalist would reduce the relationship to one of pretty smoke.

But now let us really put our philosophy to work: Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is that poetry is no longer concerned with love.

Why were poetry and love nearly the same thing for hundreds of years?

Formal excellences are many, each fit a case, and they work when they work. So much for the rhetoric on that.

Love is the third of the Great Triad which includes Letters and Life—for several reasons.

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

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, judgment,pride, children, spirituality, generosity, beauty, loyalty, attachment, manners, rhetoric, passion, urgency, delicacy, and the civilized. It is from a practical standpoint, not a romantic one, that love is significant. To reject love the subject matter as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for reasons even less substantial.

3. Since so much of old poetry is a love story, to revive the topic again will reconnect old poetry and living poets.

We told the formalists to go to popular music if they wanted rhyme; we could go to popular music for love, too.

But love is like the sea no amount of tears or poems will fill. Popular music will inevitably be about love, and what about poetry?

For the reasons we have just given, Love ought to be Poetry’s template once again.

If poetry’s loud little brother, popular music, makes love its theme, this should not affect what the poets write about.  Sure, if a plaintive singer can sing more profoundly on love than a poet can, the poet should be rightly uneasy and embarrassed to be outdone by the songbird.   But the poets should persist: the topic of love is vast and without end, with nuances abounding, and as we said, it is the only proper subject for lyric poetry.  Exceptions will arise, but even when poets write of walls, what are they really writing of but love?  Let us err in the direction of swoon.

Love is a subject which includes a great deal which seems to have nothing to do with love.  Love is a great way to talk about other things.   At least, in poetry.

If poets think Love is not political enough, well what do we think is at the bottom of the most pressing issues of our day?  Islam and the West disagree most profoundly on sexual freedom.  Love is the most important topic, wherever we look.

Why Love was chased from poetry by the Modernists is surely an interesting topic in itself.

But it is time Poetry saved itself with the one thing that can save it.

YOU’RE STUPID AND EZRA POUND IS NOT

Ezra Pound: Did a fatal error cripple the Modernist revolution?

Poetry today is in the worst state imaginable: 1) not popular, 2) not respected, and 3) not understood. 

“Not popular” would not hurt so much if poetry were respected, and “not respected” would not hurt so much if poetry were understood—by even a few! But, alas…

If something is neither popular, respected, or understood, the game is up.  It’s time to walk away. 

But hold on.  Poetry does exist and everyone knows it when they experience it, like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  But poetry now is like an act of nature: it’s a nice thing, a useful thing, it exists, but, amazingly, it eludes institutional or human knowledge. 

There are two issues:

1) isolating poetry from what resembles it (prose, fragments, ordinary speech) and

2) creating poetry from what it should resemble (beauty, intelligence, inspiration, song). 

Now, what happens when 1) and 2) are reversed? 

What happens when poetry is created from prose and isolated from beauty?

The Modernist revolution, of course.

As Pound complained of “beauties” of the “deceased” in his revolutionary 1929 New York Herald Tribune article:

Literary instruction in our “institutions of learning” was, at the beginning of this century, cumbrous and inefficient. I dare say it still is. Certain more or less mildly exceptional professors were affected by the “beauties” of various authors (usually deceased), but the system, as a whole, lacked sense and co-ordination. I dare say it still does.

One can see the Modernist advantage: poetry does resemble prose, and prose is readily available to us.  But Beauty?  That’s harder to define.  One can see superficially how the Modernist revolution would, without much effort, succeed.

But what does one notice about this revolution?   Two things.    The great reversal was 1) radical (thus it was called a revolution) and 2) practical:  poetry is now closer to prose

The advocates and beneficiaries (there are a few) of the Modernist revolution, and probably everyone else, would agree this is what essentially occured as the 20th century unfolded: the reversal of 1) and 2). 

Against all odds, Ezra Pound took on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury—and won.

The Modernist revolution apparently did something good.  Or did it?

It did not.  And why?   Because the reversal of 1) and 2) was not beneficial.  The reason is simple—so obvious that we’ve all missed it.

Formal poetry has as much prose as free verse. 

Prose is not really the issue at all.

By assuming otherwise, we “see” a “revolution” where there is really none.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Here are two examples.  The first is from “The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Poe, the second is the entirety of “The Red Wheel Barrow” (1923) by William Carlos Williams. 

Poe was an astute grammarian—and the correct use of commas helps his passage surge forward as a creative piece of prose.

Is the Williams more interesting as prose?   Does it seem more like real speech?

Neither.

When we compare Poe’s iconic 19th century poem—supposedly the fussy verse the Vers Libre Modernists were rebelling against—to an iconic piece of Modernism, “The Red Wheel Barrow,” we find something odd: the Williams poem is not moving towards ease of prose or speech; compared to the Poe, the Williams poem evinces neither interesting verse nor interesting prose

Williams presents his tiny poem (in the spread-out way we usually see it) as if it were a billboard looming over Times Square, or as if he didn’t understand how to use commas and therefore subsituted white space. 

The Poe is a far better example of good prose writing, and of good writing, period.  The singular feature of the revolutionary Modernist poem is a kind of lame ekphrasis or a lame version of Pound’s phanopoeia—jokey, superficial, childish.   Are Pound’s “institutions of learning” meant to teach good prose—or unorthodox word-arrangement? 

So where is this “reversal” between Romantic poems of verse/beauty and Modernist poems of speech/prose? 

ooops! 

It didn’t really happen at all. 

But what happens if we all go on thinking it did?

The current train wreck of contemporary poetry?

Wordsworth’s advocacy of plain speech always rang hollow; the Modernists have been guilty of the same thing.

The problem isn’t that there really wasn’t a Modernist revolution—the problem is that we believe and act as if there were a Modernist revolution.  We somehow believe that Shakespeare and Shelley and Milton and Poe wrote poetry burdened by the fact that it wasn’t prose and that the Modernist revolution freed us from this burden by putting prose into poetry.

But prose was always in poetry.

If we ask which era best turned prose into poetry, we would probably point to the “Shakespeare through Tennyson” era, but then we’d point out that the Modernists were better at turning poetry into prose.  But from our Poe/Williams example above, we see this isn’t true: the great formalists, it could be said, not only turned prose into poetry, they also turned poetry into prose—since their poems triumph as great works of prose.  In fact, there is no difference: the good poet will always do both.   The Modernists did not lead a revolution of making poetry more like prose—because the finest prose always inhabits successful formalist poetry.

And as far as “speech,” goes, Byron, the Romantic, wrote poetry closer to speech than Williams, the Modernist, and good actors can make the elevated language of Shakespeare sound like speech. A mixture of high and low will generally prevail in dramatic poetry, in any age, whether for the stage, or not.

This is surely why there was a sudden frenzy on the part of the Modernists, mid-way through their (failed) revolution to emphasize “difficulty.” The Modernists must have felt (if not known) the error of their vers libre ways, and looked about for something else to fuel the revolution that was dying a slow Imagiste death.  The institutionally-connected New Critics arose, rescuing the revolution of Pound and Williams with the New Critical smokescreen of “ironies” and “close-reading ” and “tension between prose and verse,” an attempt to win by surrendering, or hitting a target by missing it.  This distraction worked.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by two New Critics, got into all the high schools and GI Bill colleges. The revolution was saved.

THOSE WACKY NEW CRITICS AND THEIR ‘INTENTIONAL FALLACY’ FALLACY

New Critic John Crowe Ransom: the American face of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

All poets and critics do one of two things: mystify or clarify. 

The New Critics were mystics.  The mystic’s strategy is simple: “You may consider this, but not that.”   The mystic wants you to consider some interesting effect, but not the cause, not what links the cause to the effect, and not what is finally good about the whole thing. 

The clarifier will always ask: “How does the process work, from beginning to end, and whom does it benefit?” 

The mystic will say: It doesn’t matter what is good about this thing, but we shall closely examine it for the mere sake of its existence.

The mystic will be applauded for his patient and thorough scholarship; the clarifier will be rejected for being impertinent.

A typical New Critical document, “The Intentional Fallacy” (Wimsatt & Beardsley) insists that we focus on whether the poem “works” or not—and that we dismiss the authorial intention.  Let’s ignore one of the links in the chain, say the New Critics; focusing on the author, they say, belongs to psychology or history, not criticism—but why should calling something “psychology” or “history” be an excuse to reduce the tools available to the critic?  Surely, when a literary critic makes psychological or historical observations of a literary work, these observations belong to the critical examination of the literary work—how could it be otherwise? 

Categories—poem, poet, reader, history, psychology, form, content—are meant to organize, not limit

A child learning soccer is instructed to kick “through” the ball; the dynamics of any activity calls for a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

The New Critics do not get this.

Plato does.

From Plato’s “Ion:”

You are not master of any art for the illustration of Homer but it is a divine influence which moves you, like that which resides in the stone called Magnet by Euripides, and Heraclea by the people. For not only does this stone possess the power of attracting iron rings but it can communicate to them the power of attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of rings and other iron substances attached and suspended one to the other by this influence. And as the power of the stone circulates through all the links of this series and attaches each to each, so the Muse communicating through those whom she has first inspired to all others capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession. For the authors of those great poems which we admire do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own.  (translated by Percy B. Shelley)

Socrates surveys the whole field: “a long chain of [magnetic] rings.”

The New Critics had a different approach: the “chain” was rejected for one ring: the work.

It really takes very little to refute the New Critics, who spent the better part of the 20th century back-tracking, qualifying and apologizing for their famous theories—and it’s no wonder.  Poets are often marked by an individual style—recognizable in all their works; but how does a literary critic explain this by only focusing on the work?  Or, what of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition?” A poet shows what he wanted to do and how he did it.  Is this a “fallacy?” How can the “intention” here, even if flawed, be ignored?  What is a poem, if not an “intention?”  We could call the bloody things intentions instead of poems and it would more accurately describe what they are.  Surely poems are not random? 

To understand a poem, we would do quite well to work backwards from the poem to the authorial intention.  The movement along the chain of cause and effect, forwards and backwards, is the best way to explain any process.  The New Critics, however, would search for the “meaning” (their favorite word) within the poem itself, which is to ignore the arc and fall into an abyss of close-reading—especially since The New Critics believed meaning in a poem should occur indirectly.  The New Critic tends to have a mind like a swamp, not a clear, running stream—which is no surprise, given their passive focus on the poem: only one of the links in the great chain.

The New Critics would perhaps like it if we examined their Criticism in a manner similar to how they would have us examine a poem, but we intend to do no such thing; we should like to rather stand back from the process and enlighten our readers of the New Critics’ intention.   The New Critics were not interested in morals or principles; their strength and influence came from their anti-Soviet position—which favors a “chain” of command coming from the state: Here is the moral poem we, your Soviet leaders, want you to write; please write this moral poem so we might have a moral influence upon our citizens.  Thank you. 

By heroically opposing the “Soviet plan,” the New Critics belonged to a critical temper that opposed all plans, whether it was a plan by Socrates, Karl Marx or Edgar Allan Poe.  A plan has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the New Critics were only for the midde: damn the poet and damn the audience; let us say as many ironic and wacky things about “the text” as we can possibly say—thus triumphed the “Difficult School” and poets who were obscure, indirect, eccentric, learned, quirky, and downright crazy, perhaps—for only then could “the text” be “interesting” enough to open itself to fascinating “close-readings.”

But when the New Critics got down to actually doing their close-readings, the result was tedious in the extreme.  How was it they had nothing new to say about the poems of Keats and Donne?  Because the New Critics themselves existed only to oppose something: Soviet planning.  It has recently come to light that 20th century Modern Art was a C.I.A. propaganda operation by the freedom-loving, Capitalist West (and a successful one, at that) against Soviet Art.  Whether you buy this, or not, the larger point is that the New Critics ‘had a plan’ and indulged in a Criticism that ‘opposed plans,’ for as you pick through the influential New Critics’ rhetoric, it’s shocking to see how well…banal, amoral and empty it is.  And this, no doubt, was intentional.

There is a second crucial aspect to the New Critics—in addition to their l’art pour l’art, anti-Soviet planning character.  If the New Critic arguments are so easy to refute, why were they so influential, anyway?  Scarriet is just crazy enough to specialize in this kind of arcane knowledge—and we shall give you the secret.  There is more to the New Critcs than meets the eye; through their connections, they were chosen to change liberal studies programs in American higher education; in other words, their importance springs from the fact that millions of students became their “audience” almost overnight.  “Understanding Poetry,” authored by a couple of New Critics, became the poetry textbook in high schools and colleges for half-a-century.  The New Critics were not influential due to their raw talent (as brilliant as they were); they seized upon authority in Education.  

Bear with us here: The New Critics’ ‘intentional fallacy’ fallacy sprang from their anti-Soviet Sovietizing of U.S. Academia. 

The New Critic blandness was perfectly in keeping with their role as academic policy-makers.  This explains the mystery of why the New Critics were at once 1) wildly popular and 2) strangely boring. 

The Creative Writing Program Era also sprang from the New Critics: Paul Engle was indebted to the New Critics, chosen for his 1932 Yale Younger by one of their circle.  Ransom’s late 30s essay “Criticism, Inc.,” pushes strongly for two things: 1) the “new writing” and 2) academia as the proper place for literary criticism—not, for instance, independent newspaper or magazine journalism.  In Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” the enemy is the English Department professor who teaches Keats.

Despite their gin-swilling Southern charm, despite their opposition to drab Soviet political-correctness, despite their high modernism, and their sexy l’art pour l’art sensibility, the New Critics were nerds, and finally too brainy and Romantic-hating for their own good. 

It’s easy to see why the New Critics resented the sexy Romantics—who, influenced by Plato, focused on the whole chain of poetry’s existence, including the unique poet, the cause of unique poetry.  (The hatred of the Romantics and Poe by the New Critics was extreme.) The New Critics  found themselves in charge of U.S. Higher Education in Letters and decided poetry did not belong to any chain of influence, but rather it belonged to “a text,” one fit for the examination table—poetry became, for the New Critics, their godfather T.S. Eliot’s “etherized patient.”

The New Critics were conservative, not only because the New Critics opposed the Russian Revolution, along with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—Eliot and Pound hated the Russians almost as much as they hated the Romantics—not only because the New Critics were explicit defenders of Old South values in the 1930s during their “I’ll Take My Stand” phase, and not only because the New Critics were academics—the New Critics attached themselves to the Right-wing European Modernism of Pound and Eliot.  The whole thread of French 19th century avant-garde/20th century American avant-garde was, in many respects, a narrowing right-wing phenomenon, not a progressive left-wing one–and thus it makes sense that the modernist “New” Critics were reactionary.  But the paradoxical New Critics were also very American: their heirs are the professional writing programs that operate like businesses—in the name of  “open,” “progressive” art.

There is a lesson for all here: take the widest possible view. Move back and forth over the whole chain.

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.

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

IS THE AGE OF THE -ISM FINALLY OVER?

This cartoon appeared in 1912.  How did the silly old Bee Gees put it?  “I started a joke, which started the whole world crying.”

Modernism, Post-Modernism—is it time we just get rid of these pompous terms, once and for all?

Recorded history is limited, like a football field, or a room; the literary icon Homer is far enough back in time that we don’t know if that Greek epic poet is one author or many, or whether the Iliad and Odyssey were even written down—but the uncertainty of this border of origin doesn’t change the fact that students of literature are dealing with a length of string that is a mere 2800 years in length.

Recorded history, however, gets longer each year, and every year will be more modern than the last; soon Modernism, as an era, will be in the distant past, centuries old—as a literary designation it will seem more quaint and ridiculous each day.  Of course, historians will find a reason why the Moderns called themselves “modern” so long ago—they (these moderns) were caught up in great changes in technology and thought—yes, just as every era was!  You should have been there when the bronze age dawned.  And what of Post-Modernism?  As the years pass, this term is sounding even more quaint and ridiculous—a compounding of the original error.  In retrospect, post-modern as a descriptive term has a ‘fools rush in’ quality: we’re even newer!

The window is closing on publishing “modern” or “post-modern poetry” anthologies that would interest anyone at all.  Would anyone buy an anthology of bronze age poetry, in which the poets take themselves seriously and self-consciously as “modern” poets?  No reader would get the joke—even if there were a joke to get.

An anthology of Romantic poets, for instance, could sell as “love poetry,” and so Shelley will never grow old, but Ashbery, Pound and the Moderns/Post-Moderns will die as soon as the joke ripens and falls off the tree; fans of Ashbery and/or Pound will protest that Ashbery isn’t just “a joke;” Ashbery contains linguistic density and a highly self-conscious intelligence and sense of fun, and this will keep Ashbery-ism and Post-modern-ism alive forever.  But “linguistic density” is not enough—in fact, the very weight of that linguistic density will contribute to its demise, as soon as it becomes separated from its reason—a “reaction” to what is accessible and efficient and coherent.

Time saves only what is beautiful or efficient, and buries everything else.  Love, for instance, helps further the race through procreation, and relates to beauty—it has those characteristics Time likes.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets grapple precisely with this problem, and Shakespeare, acting like a grownup, accepted he was going to die, and threw his lot in with future readers, whereas the Moderns and Post-Moderns are obsessed with the present and the new in what can only be called cultural self-indulgence.   There’s a darker, Nietzschean, end-of-history aspect to all this Modern/Post Modern rhetoric, as well.  Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who was involved in 20th century British policy in the Middle East, a cynical Realpolitik thinker, coined “Post-modern” as it applied to history, and claimed Post-modern began with the First World War.  “Late Capitalism” is a related term, of course.  Utopians—and tyrants talk this talk.  The aesthetic issue, which we see in various genres (architecture most prominently) is all part of it, of course.

The modern or post-modern cultural self-consciousness that ridicules and obliterates art is really this: the unspoken revenge of Plato—art is erased, not by decree, but by ‘blank canvas,’  post-modern curators and experts. Once culture advances towards self-consciousness, it naturally comes to a Platonic awareness that what is important to society is not the sentimental or snobby delusions of a Sir Joshua Reynolds.  But because this so-called revenge is unspoken, it’s a revenge gone terribly wrong—an unselfconsious self-consiousness, which is the worst kind.

Shall we indulge in these categories before we bid them adieu at last?

Romanticism:  Culture Defined by the Best
Modernism:  Culture Defined by the Mass
Post-modernism:  Culture Defined by Itself

Romanticism: The Slave
Modernism: The Wage Slave
Post-modernism: Snoop Dog

Romanticism: Statesman
Modernism: President
Post-Modernism: Politician

Romanticism: Byron a best-seller
Modernism: H.G. Wells a best-seller
Post-Modernism: Alfred Kinsey a best-seller

Romanticism: Incomprehensible works of Coleridge
Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Joyce
Post-Modernism: Incomprehensible works of Pynchon

Romanticism: A lover gets killed in a war
Modernism: A friend gets killed in a war
Post-modernism: A stranger gets killed in a war

Romanticism: Sin and Beauty
Modernism: Sex and Ugly
Post-Modernism: Gender and Race

Hey, these are funny.  Maybe it’s too soon to get rid of these categories?

GET IN LINE

I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.

WOODY ALLEN HAS A LAUGH AT HEMINGWAY IN HIS LATEST FILM

Allen directing: 1920s Paris is a mere backdrop to the chief concern: get the pathetic lead character laid.

I found Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, to be a somewhat amusing good time, as Owen Wilson plays the lastest young stand-in for the Woody persona: schlubby romantic who charms us with a blend of humility and humor.

I couldn’t help but think that Woody Allen, filmmaker, resembles Billy Collins, poet, but Collins is relatively more successful in his field than Allen is in his right now, only because there is no blockbuster mainstream success in poetry to compete with Collins.  In poetry today, Woody Allen is the blockbuster.

Compared to Billy Collins, can we say Tennyson is real cinema? Or is Milton’s “Paradise Lost” akin to a D.W. Griffith epic? Woody Allen appeals to the same audience as Billy Collins does: their feel-good humor is the same, but, amazingly, these days Collins probably has the larger audience, though Woody Allen is more of a household word.

How much influence film has on the public at large is a debatable point, but the question begins to take on some reality as film gets a history.  Do cinephiles dare to look back and stare this question in the face?  By the time Woody Allen released Manhattan in 1979, it felt like American culture worth thinking about was Woody Allen; the zeitgeist was being shaped before our eyes by this standup comic turned movie maker. Every film of his was an intellectual must-see. Woody Allen was both intellectual and anti-intellectual, the Guru of Laughter; Allen’s films were mainstream and iconoclastic at once; Woody Allen embraced and poked fun at fashionable rebels— the voice of common-sense getting laughs in a crazy world.

The ebbing of Allen’s importance after Manhattan is probably three-fold: 1. Allen’s brand of stand-up cinema began to be eclipsed by the splashy Spielberg era which began with Jaws in 1975, 2. Who can maintain that kind of hold on a public for that long—the decline was inevitable, and 3. The Eww Factor.

I wonder if anyone remembers the two Oscar nominations the critically acclaimed Manhattan received: one was for Allen’s writing (Best Writing; Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) and the other was Best Supporting Actress for the role of Tracy, a 17-year-old girl dating Isaac, the 42-year-old, twice-divorced TV writer, played by Woody Allen.

That Manhattan nominated actress was the young and sexy Mariel Hemingway, grandaughter of the first wife of the author of Moveable Feast, a woman who co-stars in that book by then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, on 1920s Paris—where hip and sexy Modernism festered in a metropolis of timeless beauty.

Mariel Hemingway is precisely where the Eww Factor whispers started. Woody Allen reacted to the Eww Factor by rejecting it, marrying the saintly Mia Farrow—and then did what Irish wit Oscar Wilde sarcastically recommended. Middle-aged Woody Allen found the best way to resist temptation was to give in to it:  You think I’m Eww?  Well, I’ll show you Eww.  In your face, world.

Welcome to modernism.

Allen’s new film is hackneyed in many ways, but has garnered good reviews, and it’s probably because the director of “Manhattan” found a good hook for himself: A contemporary, nostalgic, regular-guy time-travels to 1920s Paris.

Gil, the Everyman, is engaged to a sexy but practical woman who shares none of his nostaglia for 1920s, writing-life, Paris.  She has an affair with a wolfish, British, history professor who is smarter and more credentialed than Gil. Like all Woody Allen leads, Gil, played simply and clumsily by Wilson, is inferior to everyone around him, but his humor and his lust keep us interested.  Cheating is always a good thing in Woody Allen films—they are always a re-shuffling of relationships, and they improve things.  This is how the brilliant Woody Trope pushes away pesky morality.

Gil has a fling with a mistress of Picasso’s, who happens to be nostalgic for 1890s Paris, and herein lies the main theme of the picture: there is no Golden Era;  be happy today with a partner who likes to walk in the rain like you do—Gil’s girlfriend who cheats on him hates even Paris in the rain.

Woody Allen’s Paris is picture- postcard-and-TV-episode 1920s Paris; the atmosphere evoked is hardly beyond what might be necessary for a TV sitcom.  The famous Modernist writers and artists who inhabit 1920s Paris are insubstantial—and so is the soundtrack, the editing, and the cinematography; the whole atmosphere is spotty, at best, and the plot is very weak.  Allen’s directing style of having characters stutter, appear awkward, or have nothing to say, in what feel like ad-libbed moments of ordinary life, are embarrassing at times, sometimes just annoying.  I understand the intention: it helps the moments of humor—and with Woody Allen it’s always the undercutting, common-sense variety.

For instance, after Gil arrives in his hotel after his first time-traveling bout (he climbs into a car at midnight and returns in the wee hours) the camera simply shows him in bed staring with a wide-eyed WTF? expression—and this is one of the funniest moments in the movie.

If Woody Allen’s film took itself too seriously, and went for serious atmospheric motifs, it would only appear to be emptier and sillier than it actually is.  Woody Allen knows his limits, and sticks to them.  He knows there’s no talent around that can really show us Hemingway in 1920s Paris, so when Hemingway looks squarely at pathetic Gil and spouts cartoonish, macho Hemingway-speak, those who have read Hemingway laugh, and that’s all Woody Allen is going for in this film.  Obviously, the cliched Woody Allen persona is going to have a laugh at the expense of the cliched Ernest Hemingway character.  You could have guessed that right from the start, and Woody Allen, and the critics apparently, are satisfied with this.

Vincent Canby (1924-2000), who ruled the roost for years as film critic at the NY Times, was perhaps the greatest ‘make-or-break’ reviewer ever, supported Woody Allen, and Canby was also a huge Hemingway fan.

Vincent Canby panned Alan Rudolph’s The Moderns (1988), a powerful film that takes a hard look at the Eww Factor of 1920s Paris and the modern art world: the sex, the fraud, the thuggishness and the despair.  Rudolph’s film de-romanticizes the Moderns with smokily atmospheric beauty and his Paris simply blows Woody Allen’s away.   The film also has a good plot and a great performance by John Lone (The Last Emperor), one of many wonderful things about The Moderns completely overlooked by Canby.

It’s strange how angry some people get when de-romanticizing Modernism is de-romanticized.  Canby’s companion of many years, Penelope Gilliat, who reviewed films for the New Yorker, died at 61 of alcoholism. Canby was perhaps offended that his beloved Hemingway was portrayed by Rudolph as a drunk; but Hemingway was a drunk, and film critics ought to be more objective; Canby belittled a great picture, and hopefully Woody Allen’s fluffy movie will get a few people to see The Moderns, a stunning, overlooked film.

WHO ARE YOU?

who are you

Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.

Not only the theory, but the social milieu.

The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.

The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers?  Etc.  Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.

Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.”  This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.

The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?”  But they never ask “who made this sausage?”  “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?”  The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself.  Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back.  You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen.  And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg?  But, who was Mark Van Doren?  Who made the sausage?  “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.

Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.

There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”

Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”

In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason?  To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.

But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.”  Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.

It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study?  Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?

Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections.  Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant.  The text is always relevant—or so we say.  But this is to be bent-over and naive.

Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”

This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this.  I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books.  But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books.  Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.

The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed.  It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.

Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word.  But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.

In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.

Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”

Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying.  Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young.  This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.

A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured.  Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.

Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became.  Social criticsm is tricky, no?

Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances.  Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text.  When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.

The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?”  That is entirely up to the investigator.  The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”

Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.

SENTIMENTALISTIC: HOW MODERNS MADE SENTIMENTAL A BAD THING

The fascist, anti-Semite Pound: Born in the 19th century, he made sure the 20th was not sentimental.

Did the whole edifice of popular poetry come crashing down in the 20th century because of one word?

Sentimental is everything the Moderns and neo-Moderns despise.  It refers to the mawkish, the muddled, the old-fashioned, the old.  It is “Official Verse Culture.”  It is “Quietism.”  It is Edgar Guest.  It is Billy Collins. It is everything every self-respecting academic poet wishes to avoid.  Better to be hopelessly obscure—like John Ashbery—than be sentimental.

Sentimental is the kiss of death.

But sentimental is also a word that implies so much that is good, so much that has been trampled on in the Modernist stampede: beauty, refinement, deep feeling, sensitivity, openness, curiosity, reflectiveness, even genius evinced by Romantic and Victorian poets—and countless poets of previous eras.

A peek into the OED tells a fascinating story.

Not long ago, sentimental did mean all those things.  It was not a pejorative, but the highest praise one could give to another.

No wonder we were always confused by the terms of Schiller’s great study, Uber Naive und Sentimentalsche Dichtung, On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (1795), an important work more Wordsworth than Wordsworth, more Coleridge than Coleridge—and appearing before Lyrical Ballads.  Today sentimentality is equated with naivety, but in Schiller’s work, and in the Romantic era, and well into the 19th century, these terms were opposites.

The  meaning of sentimental changed gradually throughout the 19th century and really only came into its current usage during the Pound era.

“As for the nineteenth century,‥I think we shall look back upon it as‥a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of a period.”  –Ezra Pound, 1912

Sentimentalistic? 

Yes, it’s in the OED.  Pound did not make it up. 

There can only be one reason why Pound, the modernist, in attacking the 19th century, used ‘sentimentalisitic:’ sentimental still had some good  meaning left in it, and Pound did not want to be misunderstood.  Pound, like his partner in Crime, Eliot, hated the sentiment and beauty of the 19th century—the Romantics.

It seems the change began with Rousseau, the first Liberal, who began attacking the “sentimental classes,” those with refined feelings—in other words, the rich.

The tragic fall of sentimental was a gradual Leftist assault on a word rich with positive and complex meaning, and the Pound clique, though mainly fascist and right-wing, was all too happy to continue the assault on a word that had very recently denoted refinement, feeling, and beauty. As we all know, in the 20th century, the far left and the far right eventually meet: Futurists, Fascists, Communists, and Modernists were all happy to destroy the 19th century meaning of sentimental.

Killers of sentiment and beauty, whether it be the anti-poet WC Williams or his colleague, Pound, don’t finally care what side of the political spectrum they are on.

Sentimentalistic, indeed.

1910: WHEN POETRY STOPPED BEING LITERATURE

wilde et al.

Oscar: Did not escape the 1890s.  A pity he missed the 20th century.

The riduculous fraud known as Modernism ended poetry as a literary art by severing the flower from its roots.

The Modernists pretended that the Victorian era was a flowery era of artificial and bombastic literature which needed to be dumped. Oh, and the Romantics? Dump them, too. They could actually write good poetry!  How old-fashioned! Pope? A ridiculous, out-dated ape! And wasn’t he deformed, or something? And he had the audacity to call other poets dunces! How can poets be dunces?  The poets are a superior race, and Ezra Pound will prove it!  The rest of  humanity—picture Victorian ladies attending the theater, picture Germans playing classical music, picture arms manufacturers and dukes and earls— are responsible for ‘the Waste Land’ of civilization, those dolts who want good poetry to read—we’ll show them!  It’s 1910 and everything is different now!  Leave things to the Modern artists and we’ll make the Waste Land a Paradise again!  Just watch us…with our wretched poems…we’ll fix things!

The suicidal V. Woolf claimed life “changed around 1910” but Ms. Woolf fit the bill of the stereotypical Victorian more than a Victorian—Woolf was leisurely and aristocratic, her spirit was crushed by males, she abused her servants, and when German bombs fell on England—England? The Huns were supposed to kill Slavs! That was the plan!—she did herself in.

The England which produced Modernism was a morally bankrupt, Empire-building, war-mongering nation and Modernism reflected this, it was not some noble, aesthetic response to it. Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Scofield Thayer, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, and Gertrude Stein were right-wing decadents, bankrolled by European aristocracy and corporate American money.

The 20th century advances of industry and science, which allowed more people than ever to live decent lives—this positive, that allowed masses of people to live longer and healthier and more enlightened lives, free of prejudice and superstition—was the one thing the Modernists deplored.  The rule of law inspired by the American Revolution in the 18th century—inspired by the Renaissance, in turn inspired by Plato’s forward-thinking Republic, the world gradually freeing itself from Aristotle’s grip, science emerging with vigor from its long Aristotelian sleep, those practical improvements in industry and science and government, marched on as the Modernists whined about their “waste lands.”

The Modernists’ Waste Land was them.

The Modernists made poetry a fetish, a calling-card of fraudulent genius.

Before Modernism, literary figures excelled in numerous fields.  Oscar Wilde, poet and wit, had two hit plays running in London when he was dragged off to prison. Poe, belittled by scores of Modernists, was a giant in many genres,  including cosmogony.   It used to be natural that poets also produced great prose.  Goethe is another example of the 19th poet who was much more than a poet.

The Romantics were more modern than the Modernists—who were really morbid Victorians inspired by haiku.  One dinner party by a few Romantic poets produced the two most popular literary tropes of the last 100 years: Frankenstein’s monster and the Vampire.  Where are the modern poets’ iconic works?

Two modern writers, both Americans who returned to Europe, tried to branch out, but Henry James, the novelist, failed miserably at the theater, and T.S. Eliot, beside his few poems, succeeded only very modestly at the theater and his essays, as they are studied more closely turn out to be very dubious indeed.  But give Eliot credit—he tried to branch out—and, there’s “Cats.”

Americans make the excuse that by “being American” they can follow the worst example of the Modernist model: Scribble only little poems.

The Republic turned to Waste Land.

ANGLOSPHERE? THE NEW CRITERION LICKS CHURCHILL’S BOOTS

winston

The neo-cons’ love affair with Winston Churchill is pretty disgusting, but The New Criterion has just taken it to new lows in their January 2011 number, with The Anglosphere & the future of liberty, a symposium of five essays with an introduction by editor Roger Kimball.

According to Kimball and the five essayists, the city of London invented the following things: civilization, fair government, law, individualilty, and freedom, and Winston Churchill, with the help of the British Empire, made sure these things took root and spread to as many people as possible.

Think I’m kidding?

Think The New Criterion is kidding?

No, and no.

Pretty creepy, huh?

This is bound to happen with a publication that considers all “modernism” absolutely good and all “post-modernism” absolutely evil.

Modernism, for The New Criterion—named after T.S. Eliot’s Criterion—is sufficiently plain to support their prudish conservative views, sufficiently urbane to support their intellectuality, and sufficiently linked to T.S. Eliot to support their anglophilia.

Post-modernism for The New Criterion, however, marks the Fall: out-of-control sexuality replaces regal order.  Loud, mad Viv is released from captivity to harrass quietly dignified Tom.  For The New Criterion, the 60s, and its cult of victimhood, drowns Emersonian self-reliance.

Keith Windschuttle begins his essay:

In Winston Churchill’s famous 1943 speech at Harvard University on the common ties of the English-speaking peoples, he defined the bond in terms of three main things: law, language, and literature.

There is no mention, finally, anywhere in this symposium of five essays, of what this “literature” consists.  You’d think the Anglospherists would want to give us some idea, but no.

The New Criterion prides itself in placing art above mere “politics,” and they are always quick to point out when overt political messages (usually the ubiquitous leftist ones) spoil pure art.  (This is why The New Criterion adores modernist abstract painting—no annoying political messages!)  But here, in defining the Anglosphere, aesthetics is not defined, but government is, and that government values the individual over the state; in other words, the conservative canard of ‘small government’ is the mantra, which is no surprise, coming from the conservative New Criterion.  

According to The New Criterion, the political is not supposed to interfere with art, unless that art is political.  Then it can.  So runs the logic of the neo-cons:  Offensive art may be removed from museums, but not in the name of politics, only in the name of art.    That makes sense, right?

Winston Churchill giving a “famous speech” on the “common-ties of the English-speaking people” at “Harvard University:” It doesn’t get any better for The New Criterion!

Here’s Roger Kimball in his introduction:

“English, Bishop Sprat thought, is conspicuously the friend of empirical truth.  It is also conspicuously the friend of liberty.”

This is the way all the essays read.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Madhav Das Nalapat, writing one of the five essays for “The Anglosphere & the future of liberty” symposium, reminds us that Winston Churchill was not exactly pro-India (Nalapat leaves out Churchill’s overt racism and Stalin-like starvation policy towards his Indian nation, however) but he makes up for this lapse in Churchill-worship by roundly abusing those evil, non-English speaking, French and Germans.  Way to go, Nalapat!

Even if one were to agree with The New Criterion’s politics and cultural conservativism, one ought to be horrified by this bumbling, ahistorical, symposium.

Everyone ought to be ashamed of this simplistic boot-licking.

EYE V. EAR: THE OLDEST POETRY DEBATE

Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose at a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud, it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?

PURE AND IMPURE POETRY: THE NEW CRITICS’ LAST HURRAH

Because our loyal Scarriet readers do not have the attention span of rabbits, we thought we’d tax their intelligence and patience with further investigation of Robert Penn Warren’s monumental—but now forgotten (except, secretly, by Stephen Burt)—1943 Kenyon Review essay, Pure and Impure Poetry.

In the 1930s, Robert Penn Warren contributed a pro-segregation essay to New Critic John Crowe Ransom’s Southern Agrarian group’s  I’ll Take My Stand, co-founded The Southern Review (with New Critic Cleanth Brooks) and co-authored (with Cleanth Brooks) the textbook Understanding Poetry, which lasted 4 editions (1974), was the college textbook on poetry for two generations, including the GIs who flooded the universities after the war, and, according to Ron Silliman, was “the hegemonic poetry textbook of the period.”

In the 1940s, when Pure and Impure Poetry was published in John Crowe Ransom’s journal, Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, published his  Selected Poems, and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States.

In the 1950s, Robert Penn Warren’s daughter, the poet and professor, Rosanna Warren, was born, he recanted his segregationist views in Life magazine, and he won the Pulitzer for Poetry, becoming the only person to win the Pulitzer in both Fiction and Poetry.

Pure and Impure Poetry is a window into both the triumph and the last gasp of Modernism, as it cuts off Romanticism’s head (resembling from one angle, Poe, and another, Shelley, and from still another, Bryon) holds it aloft, and cries, “Vive le T.S. Eliot!” The essay finishes what Eliot and Pound had started, as Robert Penn Warren declares with absolute certainty: “the greatness of a poet depends upon the extent of the area of experience that he can master poetically.”

The practice of extending the area of experience that he can master poetically is the final nail in the coffin to poets like Poe who excluded all sorts of things from poetry.

Despite Pure and Impure Poetry’s long and detailed arguments, this is all that Robert Penn Warren is saying: poetry can be anything, and this is the Modernist victory.  Penn Warren sneers at Shelley’s brief lyric “The Indian Serenade,” (selected for cursory praise by Poe a hundred years earlier in his The Poetic Principle) after Penn Warren discusses how Shakespeare has the worldly Mercutio sneer at Romeo’s romantic attitude in Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s poetry, as beautiful as it sometimes was, wasn’t pure, so, Penn Warren asks, why should any poetry be pure?  Why Penn Warren clubs Shelley’s brief lyric with an entire play by Shakespeare is not to be questioned, for it is all part of the blood lust and slaughter of Romanticism, in which every dactylic gasp by Shelley is mocked with the ferocity of those who escape the anxiety of an unfaithful mate by deconstructing the problem into “dey all bitches.”

As we all know, Modernism’s little band did win in the century that saw the British Empire transform itself into an American one, (almost in the moment Pure and Impure Poetry was published—1943 a rubble-moment in Europe’s history) but it was a pyrrhic victory: for Penn Warren kills, but kills in Poe’s terms and on Poe’s turf.

Here, in the essay, Penn Warren quotes T.S. Eliot:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.

Lovely.  (Sigh)   Criticism as lovely as a poem.  Remember when that used to be a regular occurance?   Penn Warren, like a panting lover in one of Shelley’s poems, eagerly follows the trail.  But look what happens:

Here, it would seem, Mr. Eliot has simply inverted the old sugar-coated pill theory: the idea becomes the sugar-coating and the “poetry” becomes the medicine. This seems to say that the idea in a poem does not participate in the poetic effect and seems to commit Mr. Eliot to a theory of pure poetry.

Robert Penn Warren finds himself in Poe’s cul-de-sac, for listen to the language: Penn Warren talks of Poe’s “poetic effect!”

Robert Penn Warren and the Modernists expand the definition of poetry to include everything, but they keep using the word “poetry;” thus they effectively doom themselves to wander in an old-fashioned wilderness.

Everyone knows art requires focus, and Poe and Shelley wrote memorable poetry while Robert Penn Warren and his heirs did not—because of their intellectualized de-focusing.

The post-Modernists and Language Poets likewise attempt to get beyond the Modernists (Charles Bernstein would never be caught dead uttering such phrases as “poetic effect” or “pure poetry”) only to die in the same way, and, like Penn Warren, they don’t realize their dilemma.


A CONTINUAL EXTINCTION OF PERSONALITY

Van Gogh (d. 1890) Japanese influence due to U.S. Navy’s trip to Japan in mid-19th century, thanks to Poe’s friend, Joseph P. Kennedy, sec. navy.

Tom, I dare not say.
Little review, I’m afraid you’ll go away.
A light rain might interfere with the sun
In terms that might upset you, or anyone,
Gliding past an ordinary World War One day.

I’m afraid you’ll go away.
The rain dissolves near the mist-resembling sun.
Clouds were bright last night, and I see every magazine is done.
Is it possible to be published? Will I be kissed?
Is it wise to duck the sun?

Haiku was all the rage in 1904
Due to the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japan war.
Imagism and “objective correlative”
Would soon follow.
Ezra Pound insisted, but Tom’s father wouldn’t swallow.

Perhaps aeroplane and typewriter
Made poems go
where they didn’t want to go.
Futurism was a gas—funny and slow.
Is light in the eyes of the crowd the light of night or day?
Are we closer to each other now?   Stein’s secretary,
Hemingway…

Tom, I dare not say
Why there’s no ideas but in things,
For things work better in painting,
Not in poetry, where things do not stay;
Do you remember the stars?  The wide bay…

IS BEAUTY THE NEW TABOO?

Good literature, good music, beauty of form and good rhythm all depend on goodness of character—not lack of awareness of the world which we politely call ‘goodness,’ but a mind and character well-formed.  Are not these the things which our youth must pursue?  The graphic arts are full of the same qualities and so are the related crafts, weaving and embroidery, architecture, and the manufacture of furniture, and the same for living things, animals and plants.  For in all of them we find beauty and ugliness.  And ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony are akin to poor quality of expression and character, and their opposites, good character and discipline.  –book three, The Republic

What’s the one thing which terrifies the avant-garde?

Colleges won’t touch it.

Intellectuals are afraid of it.

Artists feel dread at the mere mention of its name.

It’s far more horrifying, divisive and forbidden than violence, sex, politics or religion.

In a discussion with Christopher Woodman on the Louise Gluck thread, I put it honestly on the table:  Gluck’s lost beauty.   Gluck was not insincere when she said she “didn’t want to be a Longfellow,” because Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fame was, by its very nature, a “flaw;” yet Gluck’s grumble betrays a petulant crankiness, which, on closer examination, reveals a psychological reversal: it isn’t that she doesn’t want Longfellow’s acclaim; Gluck is resigned to the fact that she’ll never have it.  Gluck’s grumble is honest, because she believes that at one time she could have had fame—otherwise her grumbly complaint, which only makes her look like a crank, would never have been made.   It was made, however.  Why?  Louise Gluck is a distinguished (if not a wildly acclaimed) poet, and not known for personal outbursts or gaffes.  Why would she make such a grumble in public?   Regret.  What does she regret?  She would never have made the by now famous “Longfellow- acclaim-grumble” had she lacked confidence in her importance above and beyond acclaim; yet why should the ‘above and beyond’ ever fall to crankiness?  If it’s really ‘above and beyond,’ it shouldn’t.   Gluck had a cranky moment, in our opinion, for a very simple, human reason: she regrets her youthful beauty is gone and that it can no longer participate in any acclaim.

This is Gluck’s unspoken truth.  Unspoken, for her once ravishing beauty lies at the center of her complaint, and it must lie in silence, for the Modernists knocked beauty and harmony and discipline off the throne, and placed the vanity of intellectual obfuscation and difficulty there, instead.

Some will assume it then follows that there’s no such thing as inner beauty.

Of course there is.  There is inner beauty, or beauty of the mind, which is, at least according to Socrates, what we should chiefly adore.

But we love and respond to a person’s inner loveliness only when that person is honest about their desire for beauty which they do not possess.

This is what does not get taught in schools; it’s dangerous (and impolite to all the ugly people) to worship beauty as it truly exists.

But all great artists must ‘go through’ this first (honest) step to get to the next one: inner beauty which desires to be beautiful.

Beauty is attractive, and thus, it will always have a certain amount of acclaim.  This is natural, and to reject acclaim is to embrace the ugly.

The Modernist response to this problem is the sour-grapes approach; Modernist aesthetics placates the non-beautiful by renouncing beauty altogether, saying beauty is nothing but a hindrance, an obsolete illusion of an ignorant people.  This is what has become the academic, postmosternist ideal:  The heckling of beauty, the worship of non-beauty.

It’s a classic case of repression: for what is the morose, ugly intellectualism of modernism/post-modernism, if not the vengeful ghost of Platonism entering secretly through the back door?

Socrates is explicit on this point: art that moves us too well is for that very reason forbidden from his utopian republic.

The reasonable and beautiful search for harmony and good by Socrates has been chopped up and stored under the floorboards by modern intellectualism, which considers itself free of that Socratic quest for harmony and good.  Today we are embarrassed by those dialogues of Plato; and yet, what is this elite, sour, and free-ranging intellectualism which we call modernism/post-modernism, but that which has banned art from the republic, not by banning it, but by making it harsh and ugly, so that a vast majority of the republic’s citizens are unmoved by art, such that outright banning isn’t necessary?  What is modernism and postmodernism but a harsh and hidden Platonism asserting itself in an unconscious and repressed manner in the unconsciously-agreeable, avant-garde mind?

The ‘found’ poem or ‘found’ art, for instance, produces smirks among the clever avant garde artistes, and only a quizzical shrug in the populace—and the latter reaction gives the clever artistes a certain superior satisfaction; however, the clever artistes don’t realize that they (the clever artistes) are the willing slaves of plato’s ideas—for the good of that art-hating, hard-working populace.

Louise Gluck—belonging, with her colleagues and defenders, to the modernist/post-modernist/university writing program tradition, which self-consciously defines itself, explicitly, in complete opposition to artists like Longfellow, why should the once-young and beautiful Louise Gluck admit that she wants to be admired by the hard-working, art-hating masses of plato’s real and modern republic?  This would be like Gluck saying she wants to be young, again, and pretty, and invited to the ball, where Socrates—look! he’s young and handsome, too! waits, trembling with excitement, to dance with her.

MODERNISM’S HITS AND MISSES

The HITS

1. Skyscrapers Useful.  Spectacular.  Yet, like almost every aspect of Modernism, a certain irony in the success: Modernism’s brutal, in-your-face archicture is the very face of what Modernism was supposed to be protesting: big, industrial take-over.

2. T.S. Eliot  Effete, gloomy, prejudiced, but most talented writer of the lot.

3. New Criticism  A certain intellecutal elan, but at great pedantic cost.

4. Jean Cocteau   Just really cool.  It is said the news that Edith Piaf died killed him.

5. The MFA Creative Writing Workshop.  Yes, a Modernist creation of Paul Engle, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.  Great idea, commercially successful, but often reflects the crass, cheap clique-ish aspects of Modernism.

6. Gertrude Stein “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  A clown, but a savvy one.

7. William Butler Yeats Actually wrote some good poems

8. Bertolt Brecht Lucky to have Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya as partners, and not a bad poet.

9. Garcia Lorca Beautiful poetry

10. Abstract Art One complaint, though: all that lovely color should be on ugly industrial buildings and such; it’s a waste to be only in museums and private homes—where it often looks pretentious.

The MISSES

1. Manifesto-ism Pedantry, over-argument, splintering.  Makes you want to memorize a poem or two; or learn Latin or Greek or Hebrew…

2. Bauhaus The ugly factory.   Bauhaus building trade bucks enriched the modern painting con.  The puzzle of  millions chasing ugly art: solved.

3. Cubism Wins the Pretense Award in many categories.

4. James Joyce The most famous unread author.  Reinforces crass Irish stereotypes—no wonder the bluebloods love him.

5. Imagism Uh…memo to Pound and Williams: the Japanese already did it…it’s called haiku.

6. 12 Tone Music Get me out of this place.

7. John Crowe Ransom Very questionable taste, cunning essayist.

8. Apollinaire Wanted the Louvre burned down, but this iconoclast fights in WW I?  Died as a result—served him right.

9.  Charles Olson Ugh.

10. Picasso A blue period.

HOW TO FUCKING READ: POUND’S “MODERN SYLLABUS”

Flaubert: the only author after Villon (15th cen) that Pound really felt you had to read.

Ezra Pound’s essay “How To Read” was published in Vermonter  Horace Greeley’s old newspaper, the one Karl Marx wrote for, The New York Tribune, which libeled Poe hours after Poe’s death—in that obituary by Rufus Griswold (signed ‘Ludwig’).  The Trib declined after Greeley’s death in November of 1872, Greeley having just lost the U.S. presidential election to Grant, and it was a struggling paper when it bought the larger New York Herald and became the New York Herald Tribune in 1924.  The paper still wasn’t turning a profit when it lent space to Pound for his pompous essay in 1929.

Pound was in his mid-40s in 1929, living permanently in Mussolini’s Italy, and appearing in print only in minor things published by his friends.  T.S. Eliot’s fame (Eliot was one of the friends publishing him at this time) would eventually help Pound’s own, and his treasonous activity (in the eyes of the U.S. government) in World War Two would make him better known still.  Pound had won the “Dial Prize” in 1928 for some re-translating (thievery), but the Dial, Emerson and Margaret Fuller’s old mag (Emerson and Fuller wrote for Greeley’s newspaper; Fuller lived—as a friend—with Greeley for years) was just a claque of Pound’s friends, anyway.

It is doubtful the Tribune even knew who Pound was in 1929, but the paper prided itself on a certain international sophistication and when they realized the essay had a ‘London angle,’ the aging dandy was in.

Considered as a piece of straight-forward pedagogical writing, “How To Read” is the merest trash, and the question which most notably arises concerning the work is: how much actual sanity is here?   The inkhorn recommendations are full of irritable impatience, displaying the kind of prejudice and bias we usually meet in cases of a broken spirit urging upon itself winding and mazy delusions of its own self-importance.

The method to “How To Read’s” madness emerges only if we consider the general strategy of Modernism in its claque-identity; only in this regard does the movement known as Modernism make any sense at all.   Modernism is a claque-mentality; there are no individual minds in it.

If we compare ‘How To Read” with Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” for instance, we find both works displaying the same spirit: dismissing the old pedants as fools; in the latter, work, however, the alternative to the old pedantry is specifically laid out.

Pound’s little essay never leaves the realm of boilerplate; it is a long introduction that delivers no specifics beyond crude offerings of clever terminology and name-dropping.

“A man can learn more music by working on a Bach fugue until he can take it apart and put it together, than by playing through ten dozen heterogeneous albums.”

True, this is very true, and Pound shows in this quote from “How To Read” that he is not nearly as deranged as he sometimes appears, but nearly anyone can say such a thing; the problem is that Pound himself is  unfortunately an author of those “heterogeneous albums” and not a “Bach fugue.”

The Bach Fuge of Letters would be works…oh, I don’t know, Plato’s dialogues, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the poetry of Milton and Pope, the Criticism and short fiction of Poe—that American who wrote his Bach Fugues of the short story, detective fiction, science fiction, and essays of literary science just 40 years before Pound was born?

Pound, however, ignores Plato, Poe and Milton, dismisses Pope, calls Marlowe and Shakespeare “embroidery” and pushes to the fore his friends Yeats and Joyce, the minor French poets such as Corbiere who influenced his friend T.S. Eliot, Flaubert, who gained notoriety as Joyce did, by an obscenity case, praises Henry James, who belongs squarely in the transatlantic, Bloomsbury claque which traces back to Henry James the Elder’s friends Greeley and Emerson and, of course, brother William James, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Emerson’s godson, Gertrude Stein’s professor, and godfather to Deweyan artsy-fartsy Modernism.

Pound, in the guise of a teacher in “How To Read,” is, in fact, a party host.

Pound’s friend, Ford Madox Ford, was a Pre-Raphaelite painter’s grandson; the Pre-Raphaelites were models for the Modernists, and you can see it in their name: pre-Raphaelite.

Yea!  Who needs Raphael and the Renaissance?

“What the renaissance gained in direct examination of natural phenomena, in part lost in losing the feel and desire for exact descriptive terms.  I mean that the medieval mind had little but words to deal with, and it was more careful in its definitions and verbiage.”

Pound probably copied this from Ruskin while he sat half-drunk in a villa somewhere, talking economics with Yeats and Joyce.

Have your manifesto

1. Reject high points of history.

2. Elevate the primitive elements of more obscure eras in the name of a primitivist, purist futurism.

Pound, for all his supposedly “classical” gestures, is doing in “How To Read” exactly what Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom went on to do: vaguely attack the universities as pedantic (what they need is Ransom, Tate, Creative Writing and Pound!) and cast aspersions on whole eras of Letters, such as Eliot did with his loony “Dissociation of Sensibility” theory which said that literature went to hell after Donne.

“After Villon and for several centuries, poetry can be considered as fioritura, as an efflorescence, almost an effervescence, and without any new roots.”

Yea!  That’s how you fucking read!

WHO ARE THE MODERN MASTERS?

The Garish School?  Yes, Matisse was a laughingstock—until Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased this painting in 1905.

Everyone knows the ‘story’ of modern painting: how brave ‘experimenters’ kept pushing the envelope of color and primitivism and hedonism, how the inevitable ‘movements’ kept moving forward, forward, forward in spite of bourgeois close-mindedness, in spite of Nazi and Soviet Realist opposition, how the cutting-edge manifestos and theories manifested themselves brilliantly in strange and original masterpieces of the new—which to this day only scientific geniuses and the very hip can comprehend.

We all know this ‘story.”  It’s been repeated so often that to question the basic premise of this story would be heresy.

Here’s the theme of the story:

1. Modern art had to develop the way it did, step by step, movement by movement.

2. Moral representation was replaced by painterly hedonism.

This is the all-important theme, and this theme, as much as modern art itself, is part of us, and, by now, even ‘the uncool’ have bought into its coolness, and the rich, based on painting price tags, have, of course, bought it, too.   The iconography has worn us down, simply on account of its being seen enough times, and the icons of modern art have become our vision and our story—whether we are pleased by it, or not.

It is almost as if we have been invaded by the iconography of modern art, and just by having been seen enough, the invaders have won, for this is all iconography asks:

‘I came, I was seen, I conquered.’

Modern art has been converted into coin—the blockbuster prices of Van Goghs and Picassos and Pollocks and Warhols, if nothing else, convince even the doubters: something is here, something is going on.   But what is going on?  What really is ‘the story?’  Is it the one we are told, over and over again?

Shakespeare is performed all the time, all over the world, and no one doubts that this is so because Shakespeare is good: there is depth and truth in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s work doesn’t cost a pretty penny; there is no coin to own.  Shakespeare belongs to the people’s hearts and minds; Shakespeare doesn’t belong to iconography in the crude sense of an invading army: the visuals of its armor gleaming in the sun.  The poetry of Shakespeare does not belong to our eyes, but to our souls.  By its very nature, Shakespeare’s poetry cannot be owned by one museum or one man, the way a modern painting, worth millions, can.

Art that we cherish as a society belongs to everyone.

Genius belongs to everyone.

Manifesto belongs to some.

Some art belongs only to a few, the few who can manipulate it and buy it.  But art that interests the few, and belongs to the few: is it really art?  Or is it agenda?  Manifesto?   How do we know what art is really worth?  Does great art really have ‘worth’ in the material sense?

Can we put a price on The Mona Lisa? If DaVinci’s painting went on the market tomorrow and were ‘sold’ for a certain price,  how much would that ‘price’ be based, not on the work itself, but on its iconographic status, on its status as a recognized icon? And how could its ‘worth as art’ possibly be separated from its status as icon?

Wouldn’t the price fetched by The Mona Lisa dwarf what a Pollock or a Warhol goes for these days?  But The Mona Lisa, as well as most old art treasures, would never go on sale, and therefore the ‘art market’ isn’t a real market—it’s very artificial and weighed towards those newer works that do not belong in the category of The Mona Lisa, a painting that will never be ‘for sale.’

It’s not that Andy Warhol could not compete with The Mona Lisa, but that no market can ever tell us what art is worth, (or not worth) to a society.  Art either belongs to society, the way Shakespeare does, or it does not; the rest is merely iconography and market manipulation: artworks facilely converted to coin by private enterprise.

One could certainly invest in works of anti-art, because anti-art does not truly belong to the people—which makes it a great deal for an investor who wants to own something that no ordinary person could, or would, own.   Money, circulated coin, belongs to people, even poor people, occasionally, but the yacht and the painting can only uniquely belong to the wealthy in their desire to display what they own.

Is modern painting anti-art? Is this the very reason why certain elites love it?

Andre Derain is a forgotten modern master, a Fauvist right there with Matisse, better known and more important than Matisse in his day.  Why is this garish colorist and primitivist painter, as garish as Matisse, forgotten by everyone today?  Because Derain doesn’t fit ‘the story.’ The Nazis loved him, and wined and dined him in Germany, in 1941.

We can’t spoil a good story, now can we?  The Nazis supposedly hated modern art.  That’s one of the pillars of ‘the story.’

The modern painters ostensibly stood for freedom, not for reaction, and this ‘story’ must be upheld, even if it makes no sense, even if freedom is only being used as a word, and art is not really free, anyway.  The important thing is how ‘the story’ plays on the street.  That’s the important thing: how it plays.

Another modern master who is never included in ‘the story’ of modern painting is James Whistler.  Why?  Because he, too, doesn’t fit ‘the story.’   Whistler is at the absolute forefront of modern painting, and yet artists like Manet and Monet and Matisse completely overshadow him when modern painting is discussed.

Look at Whistler’s modern art creds:  1. Exhibited at the Salon des Refuses with other icons of modern art, such as Manet.  2. Was involved in a highly public libel case with art critic John Ruskin in which Whistler’s “Art for Art Sake” ideals were put on trial against Ruskin’s Victorian morality.  3.  Was one of the first painters to use color and painterly interest for its own sake.  4.  Was an extremely well-known,  talented, and controversial painter.

Why, then, doesn’t Whistler ‘fit the story?’   How often do you hear  Whistler’s name when the history of Modern Painting is outlined?

Never.

Why?

Because Whistler was his own artist.  Whistler belonged to no movement and Whistler obeyed no manifesto.  He didn’t paint one way, and therefore did not fit into any pedantic directionalism.

Whistler’s painting (1874) which John Ruskin hated.  Whistler worked in many styles.

We tend to assume that every Modernist art movement and manifesto is progressive, when the truth is, Modernist art movements and manifestos are retrograde and reactionary, whirlpools of slick pedantry which kill individualism, common sense, and art.

POETRY COMES DOWN TO ONE SENSIBILITY: ESCAPE

 

‘Ah far be it,’ said he, ‘dear dame, for me
to hinder soul from her desired rest,
Or hold sad life in long captivity

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Modern poetry began when poetry became imprisoning, when its function as charming story-telling fell into the cul de sac of self-conscious pedantry.

Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” was meant, in Pope’s words, “to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but their own.”   Pope’s poem “was communicated with the air of a secret” but “soon found its way into the world,” as an “imperfect copy” was “offered to a bookseller.”

Once upon a time, a poem was a secret that had to get out, and booksellers were only too happy to comply. 

Pedantry, however, banned the delicious secrets sprung entirely from the machinations of the sexes, and turned poetry from rare and extravagant gossip desired by booksellers, into the universal and moral platitudes of the learned—no wonder the public for poetry became disenchanted and gave up.   Byron said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”   Alas, the Romantic age is over. In our modern age it takes a poet fifty years to become  famous and this is because the poet no longer has secrets the impetuous crowd clamors for—unless a Joyce, a Ginsberg or a Rushdie arrive with a book banned by self-appointed moral guardians.  Banned books, of course, are not necessarily good.  Pope and Byron gave the ladies great art.

But pedantry, telling us poetry ought to be this and ought to be that, that it was that and now must be this,  that it was this and can never be this again, that it is some mysterious project that has to do with wisdom;—pedantry, by doing this, has perverted poetry from its true purpose and made it an artificial product of academia.

It began with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which, in the spirit of its time, contains enchanting story and rhyme, but which the pedants insisted was excellent due to Wordsworth’s dull moralizing.  The old wisdom, which said, ‘never forget delight’ was forgotten, and a new wisdom put in its place, in which scholars became guardians of trends, movements, and schools, and poetry became a school-subject with a history of change and discovery of itself, for itself and in itself, as if poetry were a science and the world at once, an ever-evolving world scientifically elaborated—instead of a source of charm, teaching in a manner apart from learning, per se.

Now pedantry covers all.  First, it was decided that poetry is really an intimate lyric of personal reflection.  Dull, sentimental and tedious examples of this, such as “Tintern Abbey”— and “The Prelude” offered by old Wordsworth, England’s poet laureate, were put in the very foreground of the canon, eclipsing even Pope and Byron (too charming and playful compared to the professor-worthy and serious Wordsworth) and thus every wag who dallies with the muse turns Wordsworth at last—believing every personal reflection made is memorable.  Even so-called modern poets, priding themselves on the fierce pedantry of trends and schools and the ‘new,’ were going up and down and up and down old Wordsworth Hill, as we see in the following by Modernist Robert Penn Warren:

At night, in the dark room, not able to sleep, you
May think of the red eyes of fire that
Are winking from blackness.  You may,
As I once did, rise up and go from the house.  But,
When I got out, the moon had emerged from cloud, and I
entered the lake.  Swam miles out,
Toward moonset.  Montionless,
Awash, metaphysically undone in that silvered and
Unbreathing medium, and beyond
Prayer or desire, saw
The moon, slow, swag down, like an old woman’s belly.

Getting back to the house, I gave the now-dark lawn a wide berth.

At night the rattlers come out from rock-fall.
They lie on the damp grass for coolness.  

***

What I remember, but do not
Know what it means

***

All I can do is offer my testimony.

–Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989)  from Rattlesnake Country

This is over 100 years after Wordsworth, and written by a poet-critic explicitly embracing the modernist  intoxication of new! new! new! but this is…pure…Wordsworth.  The pedants managed to cover up an obvious truth: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope were the seeds of Romanticism, and Wordsworth, Arnold, and TS Eliot  the sticks and stones of  Modernism.  Wordsworth took Romanticism and turned it into Victorianism; in other words, Mr. W. took joy and turned it into a moral.  Byron and Shelley and Keats were closer to Pope was than what Wordsworth became.  Byron, Shelley and Keats were not textbook-nature poets, nor did they hammer down with pedantry what poetry could be into dull lessons of Dutch-realism.

Byron was already ‘post-modern,’ and not all anxious and morbid about it:

To turn,—and to return;—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can’t well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I’ll take another when I’m next at leisure.

—Byron (1788-1824)   from Beppo

Byron can be annoying, but at least he’s never pedantic.

We think of Ashbery as a post-modern wit, but in fact Ashbery’s academic audience (he doesn’t really have a public one) admires him for anxious pedantry like this: 

You can’t say it that way any more
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing
And rest.

***

Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths

***

—John Ashbery (1927-)  from And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

The idea of escaping from old forms, old sentiments, old ways of communicating is as old as poetry itself.  Even the Father of Moral Modernism, Wordsworth, could playfully ponder the prison:

I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures:
Oh gentle muses!  Let me tell
But half of what to him befel
For sure he met with strange adventures.

***

The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travelers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.

***

And thus to Betty’s questions, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.’
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.

Wordsworth (1770-1850)  from The Idiot Boy

Moderns are besotted with the dull sticks-and-stones-ism of Wordsworth.  But even Wordsworth couldn’t have foreseen the yoke of pedantry poor poetry now bends under; we saw Ashbery pedantically alluding to Rousseau; here Elizabeth Bishop feels obligated to mention Baudelaire in a manner that might be charming to modern academics, but would probably leave Pope’s “ladies with a sense of humor” cold.

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Asorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

—Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)  from The Bight

The Wordsworth-style aside, Bishop almost had me going until she pedantically name-dropped.  She can be playfully attentive.  Her sly Baudelaire/marimba musicreference is sure to win three out of four readers, today, (just those relatively few who bother to read Bishop) but that’s only because we live in a pedantic prison—and, sadly, we know it.

THE REAL DIRT ON ABSTRACT PAINTING

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Modern poetry triumphed in the schools due to the work of the Fugitive/New Critics like Warren, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, their textbooks (“Understanding Poetry”) their associates (Paul Engle, I.A. Richards, Robert Frost, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell) and their associates in turn, but modern painting did modern poetry one better: abstract painting, as hateful to working class people as modern poetry, managed to triumph in the market. 

Why? 

The answer lies not so much in aesthetics, but in the link between Modern Architecture and Modern Painting.   Modern painting’s manifesto-points merely aped those of Bauhaus architecture.  As Austrian architect Adolph Loos put it, “Ornament is a crime.”     The key was cement.   Building large modern buildings brought in corporate millions.  The commerical, practical element of modern architecture pulled modern painting along with it.   The modern architects befriended, and collected the work of, the modern painters.   The combination of pioneer-ism, coterie-ism, and huge ugly buildings drawing monumental amounts of corporate cash overwhelmed public taste and a new era of “art” was born.

The aesthetics of Modernism was created before the 20th century by artists like Turner, Whistler, Baudelaire and countless others in Africa, Asia; the Modernists themselves simply cashed in as opportunists in the wake of the new ‘cement-mixer’ architecture.

Even the most blunt, astute philistines who objected to modern painting couldn’t see the writing on the wall of the Seagrams Building (Philip Johnson, Mies Van der Rohe, designers).   No one could quite figure out modern painting’s success.

Al Capp missed, but came close, with these two quotes:

“Picasso was a sensible kid. He knew he couldn’t go any further—not along the  traditional path, where talent was measured by the classic standards of truth and beauty. So he beat out another path—a crazy, crooked one, leading nowhere; and despite the jeering of the art world, he kept at it, turning out more balmy and offensive stuff every year until the art world began wondering if it hadn’t made a mistake, if there wasn’t something secretly good in stuff that looked so bad. The answer, of course, is that they were right in the first place—and history will someday make that judgement. But I’m sure Picasso couldn’t care less. He’s loaded. And the world’s galleries are loaded with his fakery.”

“Some people dismiss abstract artists as frauds. I don’t. I think quite a few are perfectly sincere, as sincere as those mystics of another great society—those Romans, I mean, who read augurs and portents into a slit lamb’s intestines. The only difference is that our mystics splash splatter paint until they create something as distasteful as lamb’s intestines—and we read augurs and portents into their messes.”

The real answer lay in those skyscrapers designed by graduates of the Modernist Bauhaus school.

The principle was explained in Poe’s Purloined Letter; it was the size of those cement Bauhaus monstrosities, the sheer volume and obviousness of it all, which eluded the critics.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What Do You Mean, Then?

Our artist expects no elaborate thanks
For these canvases of obscure blanks;
Selected critics’ praise and money
Will make this colony’s honey.
If Rothko’s bank account does well,
Working folk who wish to understand can go to hell.
But I’m no working class swine,
I understand theosophy and wine,
And I can tell you what the painting means in the end:
Some artist was some critic’s was some banker’s friend.

“MUMBO JUMBO?” — “PARADOX?” “AMBIGUITY?” “IRONY?” “SYMBOL?”

March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady

.

………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash

.

The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman

WHY THE ROMANCE FOR MODERNISM?

Mmmmm.  So much depends upon a good cigarette….  

20,679 physicians say William Carlos Williams is less irritating!

Take your Remington typewriter with you!  It’s portable.  Oh, and bring along your portable William Carlos Williams, too!

Hey, fellas, if you want to impress that special someone, remember to always carry your William Carlos Williams for that special moment!

Nothing makes you look smarter than a slim volume of free verse!

After a hard day on the trail, I like a hot bath, a hearty meal…and William Carlos Williams!

Taste that modern poetry!   Smooooooth.

Ahh, the smell of leather, pine soap, model airplane glue, and the musty scent of an old hardcover book by William Carlos Williams!  That’s the ticket!

Let’s travel to jazzland!  And let’s not forget our William Carlos Williams!

FOR BHANU KAPIL: ON TIME & ART DECO


The old hand-carved Goethanum in Dornach, Switzerland, destroyed by fire in 1923.

Bhanu Kapil,
Quite seriously, we do appreciate your noticing, and hope you’ll feel free to come in whenever you think either we’ve lost it or got something worthwhile on the hook. We’ve treated you harshly, for sure, but schools of poetry have never been nice to each other, and if you think about it we’re cheerleaders compared to the axe men operating in the poetry rags at the time of John Keats or E.A.Poe, or even fearful little hatchet men like Travis.

But you are making heavy going of it on Harriet, for sure, and you and your friends are emerging as not only conservative but passé!

Here’s a huge historical parallel to back up that statement.

Goethe emerged as a giant of almost everything at the beginning of the 19th Century, and changed forever the western perception of composition and color. Indeed, his seminal input altered the whole thrust of European art away from delineation, representation, and order toward a shimmering new spiritual dimension. As an example, even architecture moved away from it’s right-hand man, the right angle, an unnatural design element that had up to that point lifted human structures out of nature, up over the trees, and was preparing it for the modern skyscraper. The Goethe impulse softened up the right angle so that organic forms began to appear in every detail from the leafy scrolls on your mirror to the early round box for your radio — i.e. Art Deco.

But that came much later.

In the latter part of his own century, Goethe’s impulse reached a kind of apotheosis in the work of the Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. Initially entrusted with the formation of the Goethe Archives, a huge task, he was secretly working late hours down in the stacks as a closet-theosophist. And when he came out and published “Knowledge of Higher Worlds,” he utterly astonished everyone at the time, and his movement became the cutting edge for thinkers — recently we had occasion to link Yeats with Aleister Crowley through The Golden Dawn, for example, all part and parcel. Steiner’s own most “modern” of movements came to be called Anthroposophy, but today most people have never even heard of it.

Except for the schools, Waldorf Schuler, which still remain a viable alternative in most Germanophone communities and are right at this moment enjoying a huge new interest in the U.S. — even if the architecture is embarrassing.

And to be sure, even for contemporary followers, some aspects of this movement are intensely embarrassing because the fundamental design elements now look very much like kitsch! The aversion to the right angle in the architecture and furniture of the 30s, for example, that’s just retro. And what started out as the philosophical and religious cutting edge, Spiritual Science, now smacks of sceances, table rappings, and conjuring up previous lives — and the art just says “Art Deco.”

With all due respect, you and your friends are the same, Bhanu — like Anthroposophists you and your “post-modernist” colleagues, or whatever you call yourselves now, are convinced you’re the contemporary cats whisker whereas in reality you’re just a backwater. Yes, you’re starting to look just as dated, naive and parochial as Steiner’s most noble edifice, the Goetheanum!

Pacé Goethe and Steiner, great men who took great risks but in the long run failed to lead the revival they were so sure they were heralding, largely because of the slavish imitation of their followers. Pacé your Modernist ancestors in the same way, a few of whom were great too but who you’re now dragging down into the mire of repetition, absurdity and oblivion.

You’re movement is already a footnote, and in the poetry eyes of the world a very brief and silly one.

And with a beautiful name like you’ve got, Bhanu Kapil, you’ve likely got some models of sublime artistic endurance in your heritage. How could you opt for something so limited, as if “new” meant better?

What’s happened to your superior philosophy of the unimaginable dimensions of time?

1922: NOSFERATU & THE WASTE LAND

I was neither living nor dead.”

“One must be so careful these days.”

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden, has it begun to sprout?”

“Footsteps shuffled on the stair.”

“What is that noise?”

“Are you alive, or not?”

“bats with baby faces in the violet light”

……………………………………………………..T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

The successful Broadway version of Dracula, which opened in 1927, starring Bela Lugosi in his first English-language role, was produced by Horace Liveright, the first book publisher of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Unfortunately, Liveright couldn’t pay royalties to Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, due to the poor performance of the publishing side of his business.

Modernist writers were not big sellers.

Liveright orignally made his fortune marrying into International Paper (a marriage that didn’t last due to his philandering and drinking) and he founded Modern Library in 1917, which published cheap imprints of European modernists.

Florence, who out-lived her husband Bram Stoker by 25 years, sued the German makers of  Nosferatu (1922) for stealing Bram Stoker’s story, won, and had nearly every copy of the film destroyed.

Liveright struck an unusual deal in publishing Eliot’s scary poem.  The negotiations were led by the pointy-bearded Ezra Pound and his influential, modern art collector, lawyer, John Quinn, British spy (and friend of  ‘The Beast,’ Aleister Crowley, who also worked for British intelligence against German and Irish interests — have a look at this).

Eliot didn’t like how much his friend Scofield Thayer, who ran The Dial, was going to pay him for “The Waste Land,” so here’s what Pound and Quinn came up with for the grim banker.

Before Pound had even begun editing the poem, The Dial agreed to award Eliot its annual, $2,000 Dial Prize for “The Waste Land.”

The Dial then also agreed to purchase 350 books at a discount from Liveright—who would then use the publicity generated by The Dial Prize to help publicize “The Waste Land” and market the books at full price.

Eliot also published the poem in his magazine, The Criterion, in October 1922. The Dial version came out in the same month, and Liveright’s book a little later in December.  Eliot’s earnings from “The Waste Land” in 1922 exceeded his salary at Lloyd’s. Friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf published the poem at their press in 1923.

Bram Stoker was rumored to belong to the Golden Dawn which also housed “the wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. Bram Stoker, a Protestant Irishman and monarchist,  believed Ireland should remain with the British Empire—the greatest vampire of all?

Was it the spirit of FOETRY which hovered over the birth of “The Waste Land…?”

Definitely creepy.

THE MYTH OF QUIETISM

YOU'RE STUPID AND EZRA POUND IS NOT

The School of Quietism, a coinage Professor Silliman partially ripped from Poe, supposedly represents the smug, reactionary mainstream, what Professor Bernstein, fresh out of Harvard (philosophy) used to call “Official Verse Culture.”

The SoQ, to these professors and their followers, is the great nemesis to all progressive “movements,” avant-garde experimentation, modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist, flights, spiraling, downward into the lower regions of Creative Writing Workshop hell, where such texts as American Hybrid (Iowa, say “hello” to Brown!) greet the sad victim.

The binary of Quietism v. Avant-garde is an outrageous falsehood that would matter if there were still a pulse on the American poetry scene—last time we checked, there was none—so Scarriet will have to step in and pretend to care, for we do take a malevolent delight in stirring things up.

The educated person seriously interested in pedagogy and history who studies the ethical, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical issues of American poetry cannot help but laugh at the notion that the American avant garde is “progressive.”  How is the American poetry avant-garde, in any of its forms, “progressive?”   One must be a complete ass to believe this.

The history of modernist poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, is not even faintly “progressive.”  To point fingers at some of these writers as “Quietists” misses the whole point; the label is without merit; it doesn’t matter which side of the radical line one is on.  The Quietist label of Silliman’s is pure mystification.

A literature which is incoherent, incomprehensible, and not in the least amusing or interesting to anyone, except a few professors, is not “progressive.”   One cannot be “progressive” while befuddling and confusing the downtrodden, the middle class, and 99.9 % of the highly educated.

Even admirers of  The Red Wheel Barrow, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, the Maximus Poems, and LangPo admit these works are not improvements on the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they reflect a change of taste over time.

Progress requires improvement.

Yet “progressive” is automatically linked to every inanity which flies under the banner of  “manifesto” or “movement,”  save those asserted as “new,” such as the New Formalism, a milk-and-water attempt that is retrograde on account of its weak and pedantic nature.

But so are avant-garde movements in American poetry retrograde,  and for precisely the same reason.

The “progressive” nomenclature is a con, for no measurable “improvement” exists.  Decreasing accessibility, coherence, beauty, popularity, excitement, and literacy in Letters cannot, in any shape, excuse, or form, be termed “progressive.”

What sort of “progress” can be asserted?  Material?  Scientific?  Social?

No, no, and no.

So the next time you hear some avant clown referring to themselves as “progressive,” wag your finger at them and say, “No, no, no…”

Asinus asinum fricat.

VISIONARY VAPORS: WALT WHITMAN’S VISTAS.

 

Walt Whitman.  Prose was not his strength.

Democratic Vistas (1871) has long occupied an uncertain place in  Walt Whitman studies.  Whitman’s two greatest drawbacks are that his poetry sounds too much like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prose and that in the poetry there’s little variety of tone or approach—it takes the same leap at sublime, transcendental individualism every time.

Vistas, the only prose article by the poet that gets any attention, sounds uncomfortably like Whitman’s poetry—only worse.

Whitman’s post-Civil War essay is nothing but an embarrassing and dyspeptic slipping of the visionary poet’s mask in a voice that is unfortunately close to the poet’s, and probably should  not have been published, since its misanthropy doesn’t play well in Whitman Land.

Vistas makes most sense when seen as a link between turgid Transcendentalism and fervid, misanthropic Modernism, a rant slavish to Emerson and pointing to Pound, as it petulantly rejects “foreign” literature while trumpeting vague and hopeful novelty:

“Thus we presume to write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade, and a blank.  But the throes of birth are upon us; and we have something of this advantage in seasons of strong formations, doubts, suspense—for then the afflatus of such themes haply may fall upon us, more or less; and then, hot from surrounding war and revolutions, our speech, though without polish’d coherence, and a failure by the standard called criticism, comes forth, real at least as the lightnings.”   —Democratic Vistas

The blather here is not even high grade blather.

Whitman finds popular literature too cheap, ancient literature too old, Romantic literature belonging to “nightingales,” and Shakespeare “poison” on account of his “feudalism.”   Whitman wants nothing to do with any “foreign” stuff; he ends up condemning it all.    A flood is required, leaving Walt Whitman on a mountaintop in the west, chanting of Kosmos and “perfect Mothers” for New World breeding.

The dilemma facing the author of Vistas is the old one: you promote fresh air against the unhealthy bookworm-ism of fops, but since you are doing so in books, you prove yourself a useless and petulant bookworm at last.

There is no greater example of bookworm-ism than the inanity of DV, with its fop author trumpeting in loud tones a condemnation of fops.

Whitman’s career was picking up steam since “O Captain! My Captain!”  He was no longer 37, however; his self-help, fresh-air, vatic utterances were being out-sold by quaint, Victorian, lady authors on every hand; his reputation was rising in 1871, thanks to recognition by the Pre-Raphaelites in England, but his paralytic stroke was only 2 years away.  He must have felt, as a real Man of Letters, that he needed a worthy piece of prose to his name, but he just wasn’t up to it; he looks to sound a progressive note, but he can’t escape the pull of those “lady” authors and their “fictions,” and so he looks forward to the misogynist aspects of Modernism, which we see in the following paragraph:

“The idea of the women of America (extricated from this daze, this fossil and unhealthy air which hangs about the word lady) developed, raised to become the robust equals, workers, and it may be, even practical and political deciders with men–greater than man, we may admit, through their divine maternity, always their towering, emblematic attribute—but great, at any rate, as man, in all departments; or, rather capable of being so, soon as they realize it, and can bring themselves to give up toys and fictions, and launch forth as men do, amid real, independent, stormy life.”  —Democratic Vistas

Note the cheap radicalism, the broad political formulation of what women, according to Whitman, should be, and amidst all the hyperbolic praise, note that he manages to fully insult the female race at the same time.  Women are not part of “stormy life???”  Excuse me?

To see how the froth of Emerson becomes the crankiness of Pound, one must wade through the vomit of Democratic Vistas.

“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Allen Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

 Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction are merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
.

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.

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?

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.

A Letter To Tom about “Rhyme”


Tony Woodman and me at the Gran Prix of Czechoslovakia, Brno, 1963

Dear Tom,
My hunch is that your emphasis on “rhyme” in your previous article is going to be misunderstood. I think it will give those who don’t want to hear you at all the excuse not to read you, and may weaken your argument even for those that are willing to give what you say a try.

Let me say this first: I’m a curious critic because I’m so sophisticated yet so naive and trusting — I know so much (or at least ought to, considering the length and expense of my education) and yet am so obviously an innocent. I deliberately didn’t say ‘ill-informed’ there, because what I do know I know quite well, and my eyes are always wide-open. It’s just that I’ve only been engaged with the history of ‘modern poetry’ since I started writing it at 50, and have never sat in a modern poetry lecture and rarely attended a reading, have scarcely ever even started to read a contemporary literary-historical text, know no editors and only one poet who just happened to come to my house in Chiang Mai last Christmas. And of course I only got interested in ‘Modernism’ when I realized that the 14 precious packets I had sent to Bin Ramke over the years at Georgia probably never even got opened, and that my 8 packets to Tupelo hadn’t deterred its editor from sending me a form letter pretending to be a personal critique of my work and suggesting that just $295.00 more might make all the difference. Then Joan Houlihan scolded me in public (P&W, Nov 2006) for my limited understanding of editing and publishing poetry while praising the very editors who had abused me, and I knew modern American poetry was in deep trouble.

And of course, Joan Houlihan was right, too, in a sense, but I’m still nowhere near ready to concede that the situation she regards as normal is ethically acceptable or conducive to the development of good poetry. Indeed, for challenging just that  I’ve been banned on-line by P&W, The AoAP, and The Poetry Foundation — not a very promising start to a new career, particularly not at 70, but revealing.

So what should you call me, then, and how can my input be useful?

Hardly a “noble savage,” as my style is too perfect even if my content is analphabet. Yet I am a “peasant” in poetry when you compare me with somebody like Stephen Burt or David Lehman, for example — and indeed, one of the reasons I got put “on moderation” (aka censorship) at Blog:Harriet so early was that I annoyed the hell out of people who knew a hell of a lot more than I did. Yes, who was I to strew the nice Harriet ground with metaphors that exploded with such devastating effect, even taking out the management? [Click here for a fatal example]

What I have (and this is all about that word “rhyme,” of course, Tom) is my Rip Van Winkle status, a contemporary poet back from the dead. Because my anomaly is that I was so highly and successfully educated in literature (Columbia, Yale, King’s College, Cambridge, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, Woodrow Wilson, Kellett Fellow [a whole decade before David Lehman!], C.S.Lewis, F.R.Leavis, Fellow of Christs, you name it) yet I never got educated in modern poetry, not once. So I go straight from the 30s in which I was born and jump straight to 1992 in which I got published for the very first time by Marilyn Hacker in The Kenyon Review — sans mentor, sans prize, sans compromise.

So I can see a lot — and since I’m much too old for success, and nobody is ever going to hire me what’s more give me a prize, I’m free to burn any bridges I want behind me, which is rare.

A “noble non-starter,” I might be called, playing on Joan Hoilihan’s “loser.” Or a “noble non-shopper,” or a “noble non-whopper,” or a “noble non-accredited accomplisher” — because the irony is that my publishing credits are not bad at all, considering my age and when I started, but I have no position and no reputation to advance or defend.

So “rhyme,” then, Tom. I’m sure you know exactly what you mean by the word, and you do know the literary-historical details like the back of your hand. But what you don’t know first hand is the snobbery that lies behind the creation of modernism, the revulsion with which those early 20th century poets around Pound and Hilda Dolittle rejected the late 19th century mush so loved by those who had just emerged from the crude working class.  Because the Hallmark-type “rhyme” was not the actual hallmark of the verse they despised, but rather the feel-good sentimentality which celebrated the feeling you got when you sat down at last to ‘dinner’ together around a ‘table’ or ‘read’ together  in the ‘parlor’ — which factory workers were still not going to do in Britain or America for a long time to come (which is a huge social and educational grey area, of course, and not yet quite out of the bag like what happened to the Native Americans!).

That’s what I know about more than most of you who are reading this and interested in our struggle. Because I was brought up in the 19th century, and I was a snob and mush made me feel unclean too, so I know the feeling only too well. I spent my early years in Gladstone, New Jersey, after all, the Gold Coast, and in my American childhood never met an African-American or a Jew and very few Catholics not descendants of Diamond Jim Brady (my mother’s family in Boston in the 30s didn’t mix with the Kennedys, who were Irish like the servants, and my mother was terribly distressed when I named my second daughter Delia Orlando, the middle name also being mistaken for Italian!).

And to our great credit, but goodness knows why, we ran, my brothers and I — my younger brother westward to Wyoming, myself eastward to Cambridge, and our older brother just really really fast (he was the first American to have a big success in Gran Prix motorcycle racing in Europe until he broke his back in the Northwest 200 in Ireland in 1965.) And I ran, and I kept bees, and I fiddled around with Trungpa, and I sailed, but mostly just fell in love with my wonderfully wrong women — and little by little I sloughed off that good taste and sense of superiority which went along with the family silver (I still have a trunkful somewhere, and enough 18th century willow pattern china to serve you all at once, though goodness knows where that is as well) — and now I’m writing to you like the fool…

No, it’s not the rhyme, Tom — it’s the snobbery of a new intellectual class that is still not too secure and needs to put a lot of distance between itself and the petit bourgeois poetry that makes sense when you finally arrive on the first rungs of the new upwardly mobile America.

And should the ‘petit bourgeois poetry’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries be re-evaluated, then, should that forgotten corpus be restored to grace? Hardly, but the alternative “make it new” movement at the opposite extreme must be re-assessed as ‘petit bourgeois poetry’s’ shadow, in the Jungian sense, so that those aspects of our western poetry traditin that got debased and/or hidden by ‘Modernism’ can be brought out into the open and liberated — like feeling, like music, like value and meaning and even, when its applicable, like rhyme. Indeed, all the underpinnings of Modernism must be fearlessly re-examined, and it’s tendency to sew new clothes for the emperor ruthlessly exposed, as we’re doing — and how the courtiers do kick and howl!

That’s our theme, of course, and it’s a big one, and one for which I think  I’m well-equipped even with just a small “compatty hammer” [click here] in my hand.

Christopher

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.

MONTY MEETS A FOET AT THE DOOR

Dear Friends,
We know we’re very near the edge of copyright infringement here, but hope Jim Meddick will allow us to make a point that’s so hard to get over without getting someone like him involved. For Jim Meddick’s satire is truly rare, and his angles on our contemporary prejudices and ugly little blind spots so invaluable. We have so few allies who have the wit and courage to explore the inexplorable today, which after all used to be the province of our poets too until they took the vow to make it new!

As a frontline artist, we feel sure Jim Meddick will forgive us in the hour of our need!

MONTY HEADLINEMONTY 11.16
………………………………..copyright  Jim Meddick/dist. by NEA, Inc.

So this is who we are at Scarriet and what we stand for:

Frequently in human discourse, the tenets of faith provide a sacred style and language which survives long after the contents have ceased to make sense or to convey any comprehensible message — if indeed there ever was one. At that point all societies, even developed ones, create the myth of a golden age when the truth was recorded, and the style and language of those “scriptures” are situated beyond enquiry what is more reproach.

When Thomas Brady opens the door, this is what he hears. The Poetry Establishment, which looks and sounds just like Jim Meddick’s little Ezra Pound at the door, also speaks of “the way of truth… and self-esteem… and personal fulfillment… and Uh… um…”

But the punch line today is a little different, because we now believe in anything “new.” When Thomas Brady asks, as he does in his previous article on William Carlos Williams, for example, “You’re making all this stuff up, aren’t you?” the poetry establishment gets very angry and dismissive. “How dare you!” they shout. “Why,  this is modern scripture! This is what Ezra Pound laid down for us to make us modern! This is what we are and why we’re truly New!

Then they beat him with -32 Dislikes, and when even that doesn’t discourage him, just pull the plug.

What’s so tragic is that human beings can always talk about things, exchange ideas and brainstorm, but even at a noble not-for-profit arts organization like The Poetry Foundation, if the material has become the stuff of faith, forget it. Then the dissenting voice is drowned out by the furious congregation and censored by the priests, and only when the dust has settled can something fresh, old or new yet equally crying in the wilderness, be heard.

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!

TRAVIS NICHOLS, POETRY GLADIATOR

Travis BUS

TRAVIS Saturated_________________

Just as Thomas Brady was breathing new life into Blog:Harriet, and even being considered as a potential Contributing Writer by the Board, Harriet’s editor, Travis Nichols, published this article in Poets & Writers [click here to read the rest of the article].

Little could anyone have imagined how literally Travis Nichols envisioned himself as that “poetry gladiator fighting to the death” for his ideals, or how ruthlessly he would strike down those who did not share his vision of poetry on Blog:Harriet. It was certainly a shock to Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords, and Christopher Woodman when virtually out of nowhere a poster named ‘Nick’ popped up on Joel Brouwer’s “Keep the Spot Sore” thread to slam what he felt were people doing bad things on Blog:Harriet:

There are certain sorts of people–I will not indulge in sociological generalities about them, except to say that they are virtually always men–whose thirst for online bloodshed cannot be quenched. Such people ruined the Buffalo poetics list; ruined Silliman’s blog; etc……Michael, I imagine, knows the story. Good places for online discussion are few, and fragile. I’m out, as they say when leaving other forums/
POSTED BY: NICK ON JULY 7, 2009 AT 6:32 PM

Every blog and forum has such malcontents, but what was so different about this intrusion was that the Editor himself, Travis Nichols, actually welcomed the mole and his bile, and even went further in trashing those “certain sorts of people” — an obvious reference to Thomas Brady, Desmond Swords and Christopher Woodman (who has been known as “Cowpatty Hammer” ever since!). Indeed, Travis replied like this:

Hey Nick, I definitely hear you, but I don’t think there’s a formal solution to the problem you’re presenting. We have a couple different formatting changes in the works that I think will help people skip past commentary they have a stated distaste for, but beyond that the only way the discussion becomes valuable for people is if they participate in it. It’s a big responsibility in a lot of ways, and I completely understand using your time for other things, but I, for one, would greatly appreciate you hanging around and offering up your two cents from time to time. It can get a bit cult-like in here (let’s go ahead and talk about it like a room; it feels that way sometimes, like when you’re in a room just trying to read or write down a thought or enjoy a meal and some guy at the next table is going on and on and ON (sheesh!) about his medical experiences or his politics or how he totally almost scored on his last date, and it’s all you can do to not start yelling or making some kind of gag out of napkins and notepads and endpapers or just thinking the world is a terrible no good very bad place full of asshats and douchebags (as they say) . . . but, you know, really it’s not like that. All the time. Is it? Maybe it is. But it doesn’t have to be.), and simple one or two sentence sober thoughts can cut through the funk very nicely. As you have done upthread, I think. So a plea for you–and for others reading and thinking of chiming in but holding back for fear of the cow patty hammer or whatever: don’t leave. Your presence will help make things better. Promise. Maybe we can come up with a rewards system. Free candy for pithy on-point commentary! -Travis PS: Clearly, no candy for me this round.
POSTED BY: TRAVIS NICHOLS  ON JULY 8, 2009 AT 9:00 AM

Thomas Brady wrote a critique of this post on the recent thread called  “Harriet Sees Nothing on Harriet” which casts so much light on Blog:Harriet and the mindset of its “Poetry Gladiator” Editor, Travis Nichols, we decided to elevate it to an actual post. So here goes:

~

Nick writes, “there are certain sorts of people…”  certain sorts of people…?? And then Nick tars ‘certain sorts of people’ with his brush, and then announces he’s leaving in a huff… Travis responds:

Hey Nick,

Hey Nick –note the familiar tone…Hey Nick…

I definitely hear you, but I don’t think there’s a formal solution to the problem you’re presenting.

I definitely hear you… in other words I completely ascribe to your ‘certain sorts of people’ tone of bitchiness and disrespect…  but I don’t think there’s a formal solution… Immediately Travis jumps from the bitchy complaint to…oh how can we come up with a solution to make things better for Nick?

Why does Travis have to jump when Nick says jump? How does Nick suddenly become the authority here?

We have a couple different formatting changes in the works that I think will help people skip past commentary they have a stated distaste for, but beyond that the only way the discussion becomes valuable for people is if they participate in it.

And now Travis slips in something that’s actually an intelligent and proper response to Nick (the angry and the deluded)  “THE ONLY WAY THE DISCUSSION BECOMES VALUABLE FOR PEOPLE IS IF THEY PARTICIPATE IN IT.” Bravo, Travis! But where did that come from? If only this had been Travis’ sole reply, the world might be different…

HEY NICK, THE ONLY WAY THE DISCUSSION BECOMES VALUABLE FOR PEOPLE IS IF THEY PARTICPATE IN IT.

But alas, Travis did not respond thusly, and, to please Nick, launched into the following:

It’s a big responsibility in a lot of ways, and I completely understand using your time for other things, but I, for one, would greatly appreciate you hanging around and offering up your two cents from time to time. It can get a bit cult-like in here (let’s go ahead and talk about it like a room; it feels that way sometimes, like when you’re in a room just trying to read or write down a thought or enjoy a meal and some guy at the next table is going on and on and ON (sheesh!) about his medical experiences or his politics or how he totally almost scored on his last date, and it’s all you can do to not start yelling or making some kind of gag out of napkins and notepads and endpapers or just thinking the world is a terrible no good very bad place full of asshats and douchebags (as they say) . . . but, you know, really it’s not like that. All the time. Is it? Maybe it is. But it doesn’t have to be.), and simple one or two sentence sober thoughts can cut through the funk very nicely. As you have done upthread, I think.

Now Travis makes this weird analogyposting on a blog is compared to sitting in a restaurant and TRYING TO READ while a conversation is going on at the next table…

Huh????

Oh…so Nick WAS TRYING TO READ…and Christopher, you and I were TALKING…so he couldn’t READ… LOL

So a plea for you–and for others reading and thinking of chiming in but holding back for fear of the cow patty hammer or whatever: don’t leave.

“Holding back for fear of the cow patty hammer…?” Yea…it’s called a METAPHOR, Travis…why would someone FEAR that? What’s to fear in another’s words and opinions? [Click here for some background on that metaphor.]

ANY discussion on the web offers the SAME THREE RESPONSES, cow patty hammer or not, Travis. You 1.) agree, you 2.) disagree, or you 3.) ignore comment X, –or some combination thereof. That’s it! Simple! You can ALWAYS do this–unless you are censored.

These are ALWAYS the choices, whether Christopher Woodman and Thomas Brady are part of the discussion, or not. Travis? Nick? You know this, don’t you?

Let me say it once more. In ANY discussion, you only have 3 choices: Agree, disagree, ignore. These are ALWAYS the choices–no matter who you are having a discussion with. It doesn’t matter if Woodman or Brady are in the discussion, or not. These are the 3 choices one ALWAYS has.

Your presence will help make things better. Promise. Maybe we can come up with a rewards system. Free candy for pithy on-point commentary!
-Travis

Christopher, I think Travis owes us a lot of candy.

Tom

ONE MORE LOOK AT ALABAMA

“Stars fell on Alabama”   –Old song

As promised, here’s the Final Part 5 report on the Alabama ‘What Is Poetry?‘ conference which took place 25 years ago in October.  

What happened at that October 1984  conference, exactly? 

The old guard– Ignatow, Simpson, Levertov, Stern, and Vendler–won the battle, but lost the war.

The Language Poetry team, led by Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff,  scored almost no rhetorical points, and were even humiliated several times in the final group panel discussion.

Charles Bernstein was asked to “name names” of “policemen-poets” running “official verse culture” and could only sheepishly come up with one: T.S. Eliot.  Denise Levertov, with political guns blazing, said Bernstein’s concern for “official verse culture” was parochial and small-minded.  Unable to specify what made her outsider position important or unique, Marjorie Perloff was painted into a corner by Louis Simpson.  At one point Vendler said, to applause, “If you look at the statistics of dissertations done and M.A. theses done all across the face of America today, you will find that overwhelmingly they are done in twentieth-century studies, and the past is in danger of being forgotten altogether by the English departments.”

However, just sharing the stage with the status quo helped Bernstein and Perloff.   In a major capitulation to the barbarians, Helen Vendler conceded a huge point to Bernstein, explicitly agreeing with him that poetry makes language “opaque” and “problematic.” 

Well.

Poetry does not make language “problematic.” 

Poetry does the reverse; poetry overcomes the “problematic” aspect of language—this is why it is poetry! 

But don’t tell that to Vendler or Bernstein, champions of Art’s for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry, respectively.  

Art for Art’s Sake and Language Poetry would seem to be miles apart, but they’re not, actually.  

Both schools are more concerned with “How poetry tells us” than “What poetry tells us.” 

Vendler’s modernism really has little trouble fitting into Bernstein’s post-modernism.  

Erudition for its own sake will suffer from pedantry. 

But even worse than the old-fashioned pedantry—which once characterized the absent-minded English professor of old–is the erudition which attaches itself to a program, to a theoretical framework.  Free and open inquiry may thrive in a pedantic morass, but it never thrives when ideology stacks the deck.  Ideology turns erudition into a monster.

No one can accuse Vendler of being ideological—and this is precisely why her surrender to Bernstein is so harmful.  She did not surrender to his ideology, per se.  She generously and unconsciously abetted post-modernism because she found it intellectually pleasing to find how easily her modernism fit into Bernstein’s post-modernism.

Modernism decided to make poetry “problematic” or “difficult” (T.S. Eliot first ascribed the term “difficult” to modern poetry) in response to all sorts of issues, which, looking back, seem manufactured in light of a certain pessimism bearing down on the age, a heady manifesto-ism in general, and Eliot’s intuitive push towards the erudite and learned.  It was natural for this journey down “Problematic Lane” to lead from the opaque coyness of Wallace Stevens to the utter madness of LANGUAGE poetry.  

Bernstein’s intellectual legacy traces through Stanley Cavell, who was Bernstein’s mentor at Harvard, to J.L. Austin, a member of British Intelligence, who was Cavell’s Harvard professor.

Austin was a Moral Philosopher at Oxford who specialized in language, coining the term “speech acts” to describe speech as action–as opposed to speech as a mere passive agent of description.  Already we can see that—for this school of analytic philosophy—there is no speech which is not opaque and problematic—all speech is shot through with motive and desire, not just poetry.  Vendler, therefore, by conceding that poetry’s role was to “problematize language” was coming over to Bernstein’s turf and surrendering to him without a fight.

‘French theory’ did not only come from France.  It came from Oxford and Cambridge universities.  It came from Bloomsbury. (See G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles.)  Modernism and post-modernism have the same parent and are the same age.  Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein are puppies of the same litter.

DAVID LEHMAN TO WILLIAM LOGAN: WAAAAAHH!

David Lehman uses half his introduction to Best American Poetry 2009 to attack William Logan.

Now we know things are really out of hand.

Lehman creeps up on his prey by first alluding to negative criticism in general:

The notion that the job of the critic is to find fault with the poetry — that the aims of criticism and of poetry are opposed — is still with us or, rather, has returned after a hiatus.”

But who would argue against the idea that one of the functions of criticism is to find fault with poetry?  Lehman implies that this “hiatus” was a good thing.   No finding fault with poetry!  Ever!

Even if Lehman is speaking of criticism rather than reviewing, why shouldn’t criticism be able to find fault?

The critical essays of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are continuous with their poems and teach us that criticism is a matter not of enforcing the “laws of aesthetics” or meting out sentences as a judge might pronounce them in court. Rather, the poet as critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them. Yet today more than a few commentators seem intent on punishing the authors they review. It has grown into a phenomenon.”

Lehman has obviously never read T.S. Eliot’s criticism of Edgar Poe (From Poe to Valery, 1949) in which Eliot “punishes” Poe severely.  Poe alone has been attacked by any number of critics: Yvor Winters, Aldous Huxley, Harold Bloom, T.S Eliot, Joseph Wood Krutch, and earlier this year in the New Yorker by a history professor at Harvard.  In fact, there has been no “hiatus” when the target is America’s greatest writer.   Negative reviewing was, of course, practiced by Poe, among other things, and Poe said it very explicitly: “A criticism is just that—a criticism.”

When Lehman says, “A critic engages with works of literature and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of them” he sounds like a person who wants to eat without chewing.   When did “enjoyment” of literature preclude honest opinion about it?    Does Lehman seriously believe that being “nice” to a poem is how we “enjoy” it?   What does he think we are?   Little kids?

Lehman, like Camille Paglia, is dismissive of ‘French Theory:’

The characteristic badness of literary criticism in the 1980s was that it was heavily driven by theory and saddled with an unlovely vocabulary. T. S. Eliot, in “The Function of Criticism” (1923), says he “presumes” that “no exponent of criticism” has “ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity” — that is, an activity to be undertaken as an end in itself without connection to a work of literature. Eliot did not figure on post-structuralism and the critic’s declaration of independence from the text. If you wanted criticism “constantly to be confronted with examples of poetry,” as R. P. Blackmur recommends in “A Critic’s Job of Work,” you were in for a bad time in the 1980s.”

But even worse than critics off in a world of their own, according to Lehman, are critics who review poetry without being nice:

Every critic knows it is easier (and more fun) to write a ruthless review rather than a measured one. As a reviewer, you’re not human if you don’t give vent to your outrage once or twice — if only to get the impulse out of you. If you have too good a time writing hostile reviews, you’ll injure not only your sensibility but your soul. Frank O’Hara felt he had no responsibility to respond to a bad poem. It’ll “slip into oblivion without my help,” he would say.”

Actually, it’s not “easier” to write a “ruthless” review–erudition and patience go into “ruthless” reviews all the time.  It’s easier to be funny, perhaps, when being ruthless; this, I will grant, but ruthless without humor falls flat; ruthless and humorous is devastating–the review every poet fears.

As for O’Hara’s remark–echoed by contemporary critic Stephen Burt: Isn’t the critic a philosopher?  And when would you ever tell a philosopher: ‘only write about the good stuff?’

Now Lehman goes after his real target–William Logan.

William Logan typifies the bilious reviewer of our day. He has attacked, viciously, a great many American poets; I, too, have been the object of his scorn. Logan is the critic as O’Hara defined the species: “the assassin of my orchards.” You can rely on him to go for the most wounding gesture. Michael Palmer writes a “Baudelaire Series” of poems, for example, and Logan comments, “Baudelaire would have eaten Mr. Palmer for breakfast, with salt.” The poems of Australian poet Les Murray seem “badly translated out of Old Church Slavonic with only a Russian phrase book at hand.” Reviewing a book by Adrienne Rich is a task that Logan feels he could almost undertake in his sleep. Reading C. K. Williams is “like watching a dog eat its own vomit.”

For many years, Logan reserved his barbs for the poets of our time. More recently he has sneered at Emily Dickinson (“a bloodless recluse”) and condescended to Emerson (“a mediocre poet”).”

Oh Lehman, stop being such a big baby.  Emerson was a mediocre poet.  Logan has praised Dickinson’s work–calling her a ‘bloodless recluse’ is well…kinda…true.   Should there really be a law against giving Frank O’Hara or C.K. Williams or Hart Crane a bad review?

Far better poets have been far more vilified–and for political reasons, too.

Logan is merely expressing his taste.

Lehman, you shouldn’t take this so personally.

One person finds the weather too cold and goes indoors; another remains outside because they find the weather pleasant.

‘But,’ Lehman might reply, ‘ poets are not the weather, they create in order to please.’

All the more reason why there should be a wider divergence of opinion on poems than the weather.

Poems ask us to love them, and in ways far more nuanced than a breezy, foggy evening balanced between warm and cold.

There is nothing worse for poetry in general than telling people they have to like it.  Critics like Poe and Logan actually help the cake to rise.

Don’t you remember what Keats said about the talking primrose?  It tells us to like it.  So we don’t.

It goes without saying that I don’t agree with all of Logan’s judgments, but simple common sense impels this question:

Which statement is crazier?

I don’t like Hart Crane’s poetry.

or

Everyone has to like Hart Crane’s poetry.

“HARRIET SEES NOTHING ON HARRIET!” An Open Letter.

Here’s looking at you, Don Share — “politically, personally, and poetically!”
_________________

w
“To grasp the essence of what our species has been and still is: this is at once political, personal… and poetical.”

Dear Don Share,
I had good times with you for the whole month of June on Blog:Harriet, particularly right at the end of Martin Earl’s wonderful thread, The Fish II,  when we talked big fish! [click here] More than that, I also enjoyed a private correspondence with you behind the scenes even after I got put on “moderation”  — as I’m sure you all know, my posts on Harriet were monitored for almost 2 months, occasioning long and painful delays, and over 20 were summarily deleted. [For some details on that 1.)  click here, 2.) click here, 3.) click here, 4.) click here, and 5.) click here. And for a fuller summary elsewhere, click here and click here.]

But just to be sure there’s no suggestion of impropriety behind these revelations, Don, let me be very clear that you never compromised your position at the Foundation. You never said a word about colleagues, or the chain of command, or policy, or gave me any hope that you would intervene on my behalf– yes, you were very free with me, open and interested, but never for a second did you let your professional mask slip. You weren’t involved in any way in the management of Blog:Harriet, you insisted, and even sought my help to get Alan Cordle to remove a paragraph from his Bluehole blog that held you partly responsible for what had happened [click here] — which Alan did, and with good grace. And I was very proud of that too, because I know we are like that, always willing to admit a mistake and do something about it.

Indeed, a lot of good things happened in those early exchanges. Michael Robbins came in on Alan’s blog too, for example, and bitterly protested our interpretation of his involvement, and we responded immediately to that as well, and not only apologized to him but praised him for his openness and courage. [click here] Indeed, that moment with Michael Robbins was one of the most positive moments of our whole protest, and we are still very grateful to him for that as well as for his decision to distance himslf from Blog:Harriet — not in solidarity with us at all but because he felt badly about what the atmosphere at Harriet had done to him personally. Because, of course, it brought the worst out of everybody!

EYE Don ShareBut you did nothing whatsoever, Don Share — almost as if you didn’t see anything happening. And here you are today writing all this wise and well-informed poetry stuff about deep human issues, who we poets are, what matters, what poetry can accomplish, what art,  what passion, however foolish, what the spirit can achieve [click here], yet you didn’t engage yourself at all when you were face to face with the REAL THING — a real poetry massacre! Because we were deeply involved in these very same issues in July and August, of course,  but on a much, much deeper, more meaningful, and more tangible level than on Harriet today. And then on September 1st we had the plug pulled on us,  and we were all summarily executed. Yes, and you were right there and said nothing.

And look what’s left on Blog:Harriet today? Just look at the response to your sensitive and exceptionally well-written new article, for example? [click here] A dry board-room discussion of the niceties of copyright law combined with some fawning, some clichés, and some banter. Before you were face to face with the real censorship of actual living American poets, ones who weren’t hiding behind anything at all, and were therefore extremely vulnerable. And you watched the axe fall on them, and you did nothing whatever!

That photo above is of me in Brooklyn, New York when I was Head of the English Department at The Brooklyn Polytechnic Preparatory School in Bayridge in the 80s. A lot of my students were from John Travolta’s neighborhood too, and they loved it because I taught poetry in a fever as if it were a real Saturday-night thing, as if poetry really did dance and rumble and matter — over the top sometimes, for sure, but that’s what energy and commitment bring out, a rage to inhabit the mountain peaks with the Saturday-night gods. When I first wrote like that on Blog:Harriet, I felt the same sort of resonance that I did in Bayridge, and even the Contributing Writers got excited, and praised me for my efforts — and yes, some of them even talked to me off-line like you did…

And then I got banned!

~

Blog:Harriet is a tiny bit of The Poetry Foundation’s on-line commitment, I know, only 3% of the traffic, but it’s where the free voice of poetry really matters. Because Blog:Harriet is financially independent and doesn’t have to balance the books, satisfy institutional requirements, or mollify advertisers, corporate or even college presidents. Most important of all, it doesn’t have to take sides in the wonderful complexities that blossom when poetry rumbles as if it were, wow, Saturday night in Chicago!

W.B.Yeats is dead, and we’re still wondering, who was this ridiculous genius? How could our greatest modern poet be such an enigma, and what if anything did he accomplish beside all that inconceivably beautiful, deep and earth-moving verse he left behind? And now the intellectual conscience of the modern era,  the creator of our most modern discourse, Claude Levi-Strauss, he’s dead too — and we can celebrate his Triste Tropiques as one of the greatest modern explorations of what human expression can accomplish — in its author’s own style, and in the sacred communities he initiated us into.

Well, I’m 70, and my writing matters too, Don, particularly as I’m just as passionately committed as Claude Levi-Strauss ever was, and just as nutty, passionate and lyrical as Yeats. And that’s true, even if I have no creds, no prospects, no mentor or editor or maneuvers for tenure or a pension or even a credit card in my wallet!

And you banned Desmond Swords too with all that next-generation Irish brilliance, and Thomas Brady who put Blog:Harriet on the map with his well-informed, startling, and indefatigable genius. And Alan Cordle, perhaps the best-known and effective social critic on the contemporary poetry scene in America — summarily chopped for just being who he was!

EYE Don ShareSo what are you going to do about all that, Don Share? Just let it slip, just let all those hurt feelings and that outrage fester? Just let Harriet go down the tubes as an accident, the usual sort of bumbling and grumbling which takes people over when they refuse to talk to each other, what’s more listen? Are you trying to prove that even at The Poetry Foundation poetry doesn’t matter, that it’s all just business as usual even with the blessings of Ruth B. Lilly’s profound good-will and all her benificent millions?

So why did you bother to write  that article on Yeats and Claude Levi-Strauss then, or don’t you take any of it serioously? I mean, is that just what you do for a living, to write like that? Is that just your thing at The Foundation?

And I know that’s not it at all, dear Don, but sooner or later you’ve got to say what it is, and take action.

Sooner or later you’ve got to stand up and be counted!

Christopher Woodman

This is the first of the Personal Statements of those who were banned from Harriet on September 1st, 2009. Stay Tuned for the accounts of Desmond Swords, Alan Cordle, and Thomas Brady.

HI, COUP! THE ‘HAIKU COUP D’ETAT’ OF MODERNISM’S FANATICAL IMAGISTE CULT


Everyone knows the Poetic Modernism Revolution begain with the Imagists, but few appreciate the role of poet, fiction writer, and critic, Yone Noguchi (1875-1947) –the Japanese Ezra Pound.

Noguchi conquered the West in three steps: San Francisco, 1893-1900; New York City, 1901-1904; and England, 1903 & 1913.   He befriended William Michael Rossetti (one of the seven founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), Arthur Symons, William Butler Yeats, and Thomas Hardy. Not bad.

Noguchi got raves in Poetry magazine as a pioneering modernist, thanks to his early advocacy of free verse and association with modernist writers Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher.  (Fletcher, from Arkansas, was part of Pound’s circle, and, later, John Crowe Ransom’s Southern Agrarians.)

So Noguchi pushed all the Modernist buttons: Pre-Raphaelite, Pound’s Euro-circle, Agrarian New Critics, and Chicago’s ‘Poetry.’   Bingo.

Modernism is usually associated with WW I, but the Russo-Japanese War played a key role on more than one level.

Noguchi’s suggestion to write haiku in his “A Proposal To American Poets” had a great impact in the wake of Japan’s stunning victory (aided by Japan’s alliance with Great Britain) in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, as Japan took the world stage by storm.   Britain gained as a sea power in competition with Russia–soon rocked by revolution after its humiliating defeat by Japan.

Now, what are WC Williams‘ ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and Pound’s “In A Station Of the Metro” but haiku (and rather bad ones at that)?

The Modernists would rather not call Pound and Williams writers of haiku.   It makes the whole ‘Imagiste revolution’ seem a little quaint and second-hand.

Also, World War I is a lot sexier than the Russo-Japanese War.

So there’s a good reason why today Yone Naguchi never shows up in the history of Modernist verse.

Oh, and just to complete the Pound analogy; Noguchi gradually became more militaristic and ended fully supporting Japan’s imperial war designs in World War II.

Crush the West!  They never did get Haiku.

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