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.

 

 

THE AVANT-GARDE IS LOOKING FOR A NEW (BLACK) BOYFRIEND

Cathy Park Hong: “Fuck the avant-garde.”  But does she really mean it?

For its whole existence, Scarriet has hammered away at Modernism—and its Avant-garde identity—as nothing but a meaningless, one-dimensional joke (the found poem, basically) tossed at the public by reactionary, rich, white guys in order to make it ‘cool’ to stifle truly creative efforts accessible to the public at large.

The controversy surrounding Scarriet’s claim lies in this one simple fact: the Avant-garde (Ron Silliman, et al) identifies itself as politically Left.

In Leftist circles of the Avant-garde, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are championed for their poetry, not their politics.

We might call this Pound/Eliot phenomenon the Art-Split: Bad Poet/Good Poetry.

By accepting this “Split,” the reactionary, white, male, Avant-garde is given license to dress in Left-wing clothing.

You have to believe, of course, that Pound’s poetry is important and good, and that Hugh ” The Pound Era” Kenner’s trashing of Edna Millay, for instance, was a good and noble effort to debunk old-fashioned “quietist” poetry, and not chauvinist, jealous bullying.

Leftist Ron Silliman has no taste for Edna Millay, and the “Split” allows this to appear perfectly normal.

The embarrassing and obvious truth: 1. accessibility to the public at large is democratic, 2. befuddling the masses is reactionary, gets a yawn, too—because of the “Split.”

The reason the “Split” works as an excuse is that it appeals to both Left and Right intellectuals: the greatest ‘am I an intellectual?’ test is if one is able to grasp (and embrace) the idea that a person can be bad but still write good poetry.

We do not believe this is true; we believe the opposite: one cannot be a bad person and write good poetry. If the poet is a truly bad person, the “good” poetry was most likely stolen, or written before the soul of the poet became  rotten.

And this is why Modernists hate the Romantics—because the Romantics were poetic individuals, while the Modernists (because of skyscrapers and aeroplanes and women getting the vote and other lame excuses) were not.

The “Split,” the source of so much modernist mischief, is a red herring.  The almighty “Split” even makes one think Ezra Pound must be a good poet: one must believe this is so to have intellectual, avant-garde creds—simply for the reason that for so long now, the “Split” has ruled over Letters.  The wretched, sophistical, school-boy “And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/ we set up mast and sail on that swart ship/” is somehow good because Pound is badAnd because it is wretched, it is avant-garde, and because it is avant-garde, it is wretched, and therefore better than, “What lips my lips have kissed and where and why.”  This is how those who think themselves very good judges of poetry convince themselves that Ezra Pound is a great poet.  Yes, it is truly frightening.

Despite the “Split,” rumblings about the reactionary nature of the Avant-garde were bound to start, as Scarriet does influence the culture it observes.

Witness the explosion of Left indignation in the latest Lana Turner Journal as the “Split”-fooled Left vaguely catches on.

We have Kent Johnson, an imaginative and brilliant man, in “No Avant-Garde: Notes Toward A Left  Front of the Arts,” reduced to the most pitiful, quixotic Old Leftism it is possible to imagine. In his essay, he imagines splendidly well, and he knows a great deal, but he’s very bitter, obviously, as the ugly truth—the Avant-garde is, and has always been, reactionary—sinks in.

We have Joshua Clover, in “The Genealogical Avant-Garde,” complaining in the same vein.

The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes.

The genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose.

The “Split” is always rationalized.

The “Split” in this case, however, is not Bad Poet/Good Poetry, and in some ways it is far less problematic.

The “Split” now imploding due to common sense is: Bad Mainstream/Good Avant-garde.

The Avant-garde, as the progressive intellectuals finally understand it, is the Mainstream—and thus, bad.  Had they been able to see, 100 years ago, the nature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen, and their New Critic allies, they would not have taken so long to understand the clever reactionary agenda.

But now they are finally getting it.

Cathy Park Hong (writing in Lana Turner no. 7) definitely wants a new boyfriend.  And it ‘aint Ron Silliman.

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.

Poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document.  Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form!

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.

Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.”

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters.

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions.

The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.

Yes, “fuck the avant-garde.”  But we might just add that it is the avant-garde that has always been the problem; in this case, the tail wags the dog.

The New Critics (ex-I’ll Take My Stand Old South reactionary agrarianists) got an “in” when they launched their textbook, Understanding Poetry in the late 30s—it praised Pound and attacked Poe.

Popular poets like Edgar Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the Mainstream “good” ambushed by the clique of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics.

How blithely and unthinkingly Cathy Park Hong takes up the “quietist” definition of the avant-garde (and ostentatiously Left) Silliman.

Unfortunately, they will get fooled again.

FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER BATTLES S.T. COLERIDGE IN ROMANTIC BRACKET

Schleiermacher: Common sense alternative to the New Critics and other text-obsessed thinkers.

SCHLEIERMACHER:

As every discourse has a two-part reference, to the whole language and to the entire thought of its creator, so all understanding of speech consists of two elements—understanding the speech as it derives from the language and as it derives from the mind of the thinker.

Every discourse depends on earlier thought.

It follows that every person is on one hand a locus in which a given language is formed after an individual fashion and, on the other, a speaker who is only able to be understood within the totality of the language.

Grammatical and Psychological are completely equal: the psychological is the superior only if one views language as the means by which the individual communicates his thoughts; the grammatical is then merely a cleaning away of temporary difficulties. The grammatical is the superior if one views language as stipulating the thinking of all individuals and the individual’s discourse only as a locus at which the language manifests itself.

Only by means of such a reciprocity could one find both to be completely similar.

Exposition is an art. Every part stands by itself. Every composition is a finite certainty out of the infinite uncertainty. Language is an infinite because every element can be determined in a specific manner only through the other elements.  And this is also true for the psychological part because every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon. A composition composed of such elements cannot be defined by rules, which carry with them the security of  their applications.

Should the grammatical part be considered by itself, one would need in some cases a complete knowledge of the language, or, in others, a complete knowledge of the person. As neither can ever be complete, one must go from one to the other, and it is not possible to give any rules as to how this should be done.

The text is not always the focus of attention. Otherwise the art would only become necessary through the difference between text and discourse; that is to say, by the absence of the living voice and by the inaccessibility of other personal influences.

 

COLERIDGE:

 

The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions  to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by meter, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known  enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.” and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class  to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of meter, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If meter be superadded, all other parts must be consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.

 

Do you know why art and poetry used to be really beautiful?  Because of thinkers like the two above.  To put it as simply as possible, they understood parts, and how parts relate to the whole.

Schleiermacher (b. 1768) makes a useful distinction between two vital aspects of writing: Psychological and Grammatical. Philosophers tend to get bogged down in one or the other; they become obsessed with text, and forget the “living voice,” or they become excited by various insights of their own (think of typical modernist extravagances: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Olson, etc) which don’t translate into speech that is scientifically sound (we don’t usually think of grammar as scientific, but it is).

Coleridge offers wisdom to both sides of the verse/free verse/what is poetry? debate: poetry is not an empty shell of metrics, but neither is it truth-telling prose—the end of poetry involves three things: pleasure, unity, and the compatibility of each part with its unity in the communication of that pleasure. One can see how metrics may very much be involved in this end—or not. One can also see how the pretentious poetaster of prosey ‘truths’ will not get much of a hearing.  Poetry is difficult to define; Coleridge may have come closest.

 

WINNER: COLERIDGE

HOW THE LEFT HURTS POETRY

Uhhh…excuse me…ahem….can I ask just one more question?

As enlightened as we know ourselves to be, we may as well admit it: the Left hurts poetry.  (Doesn’t perfectionism always let us down?)

But does the Left really hurt poetry?

Let’s begin with ideology.

Ideology turns poetry into rhetoric, but this is really not the issue, for if ideology presents bias, so does love, and the lyric and love can walk hand in hand.

We might say Modernism has been unkind to romantic love and Romantic poetry, (when is the last time you heard a contemporary poet praise Byron?) that hard-headed Modernism has sought to escape the feverish, the romantic, the emotionality of bias, and this might be true, but rhetoric and ideology of all kinds has not only persisted, but expanded, in poetic expression in the modern era.

The great drawback, one might say, is that ideology requires explanation, and poetry has less time than prose for explanations.

But this, too, is a thin objection, for poetry, and art in general, is perfectly capable of explaining things; we just expect it to do so with greater art or greater concision.

If Marxism, or Leftism, is a legitimate subject, or a legitimate philosophy, for mankind, and for the poet, why shouldn’t it work as material for poetry?

Before the whole matter is settled, however, we turn back, almost nonchalantly, like Columbo, for one more small clarification.

Poetry is no longer a popular art form; it merely breathes on life support in college, and even then, in its fragile state, in forms most people no longer recognize as poetry.

And this couldn’t make the Marxist poet, or critic, any happier.

The reason for this is quite simple: The Leftist equates the good of popularity with the evil of “market forces,” and so any chance for poetry’s mass appeal is killed in the cradle by those who believe bohemian martyrdom is preferable to bourgeois triumph: obscurity is preferable even to democracy, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Marxism therefore, condemns poetry to appeal to the few.

Leftism hurts poetry, but it has nothing to do with ideology.  It has nothing to do with Leftism as a set of ideas or beliefs.

The problem lies in the Left’s tendency to apply the term “market” (a bad) to what is basically poetry’s audience (a necessity).

Poetry has been a Leftist activity ever since “make it new” (ironically popularized by a fascist).  Modernism, or as it was once called, Futurism, makes change paramount, and since the progressive (in terms of politics) also makes change paramount—for different reasons, perhaps—change, whether driven by right-wing Futurism or left-wing Progressive-ism has become the ruling animus of poetry.

Poetry has defaulted heavily to Leftism ever since WW II found the “make it new” poet disgraced, and on the losing side.  But almost as proof that change is the real issue, (not Left or Right) Pound is still worshiped as a Modernist poet—since change for its own sake is the true high god.

The market won, Pound lost, and poetry, progressive not only in politics, but in everything, forces change as the constant issue.

Desire for change inevitably finds opposition in whatever resists change, even if what resists change is democratic, or is grounded in common sense.

Poetry itself has no opinion, one way or the other, on change, nor do poetry’s origins have anything to do with change, per se.

The war for change being fought by progressives takes place outside of poetry’s walls—and this is not an anti-progressive statement, but merely a matter-of-fact one.

When the market becomes the enemy, all that is democratic and popular also, in quiet and hidden ways, then becomes the enemy, too.

Poetry can be anything it wants, and it can be a shouting match if it wants to be, and it can be a hectoring force ushering in change for all the standard and visible causes: race, women, gays, the poor, and the environment.  As we pointed out above, the issues themselves are not the issue.

But just as Marxism hinders poetry by making popular appeal a bad thing, so do all sorts of ideological issues—which feature ‘struggle for change,’ for these have the tendency to make poetry renounce pleasure, immediacy, and accessibility for things so complex that rhetoric itself breaks apart in attempting to comprehend it.

Again, it is not the issues, nor the ideology, nor the complexities themselves which are a bad thing; the damage to poetry is done indirectly by forces or circumstances which inherently foster obscurity—that makes a democratic art (whatever kind of art that might be) impossible.

There is no going back.  We don’t think poetry can simply drop these issues, or should.  Poets will just have to figure out ways to be true to their ideals while working harder to be popular.

But just to give one example of how complex the problem has become:

Eileen Myles, the lesbian poet, on twitter, attacked the film about two young lesbian lovers, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” calling it a “hate crime” against lesbians, and the resulting conversation by lesbian poets, mostly supporting Myles’ remarks, featured a great deal of graphic sexuality, along with how a lesbian relationship does or does not resemble, favorably or unfavorably, a heterosexual relationship.  Eileen Myles is politically astute, if nothing else, and one could easily call a discussion like this political, and most poets writing on this subject, no matter how sexually frank, would still think of themselves as making “progressive” contributions of a political nature to society at large.  But it was really difficult to tell, for example, what Myles’ political objections to the movie were, besides a feeling she had that it did not depict the lesbian lifestyle as a universally happy one.  But what “lifestyle” is universally happy?

The question here is not that ‘lesbian sex’ will never be a popular, or a popular topic for poetry; the only case we are making here is that we should not, on Marxist principles, or any other principles, condemn popularity for its own sake; for a democracy, after all, resides in the popular will.

But homosexuality, as a “progressive” topic, does have its pitfalls; it will lead us into obscurity and away from the popular taste, and will have a great deal of trouble in making itself accessible and meaningful, in either a political or an aesthetic manner.  Homosexuality, looked at aesthetically, inevitably becomes Rabelaisian, as any sexuality would, whether or not the topic is “progressive,” or not.

And now Columbo needs to make one more little point of clarification, if possible…

What sort of political influence does poetry have?  It has none. 

Pound’s broadcasts from Italy in support of the Axis powers during the war were of little consequence, according to Pound apologists.

The right-wing character of Eliot/Pound Modernism and Southern Agrarian/New Critic Modernism dominated poetry in the first half of the century; some like to point to Robert Lowell, who was influenced by Ransom and Tate, as an important Leftist: Lowell opposed the Vietnam War—and Lowell also, in a personal way, reconciled highbrow, “cooked” poetry with the “raw” poetry of the Beats, but this was not seriously on the nation’s radar screen, and truly, the confessional-ism of poets like Lowell and Ginsberg was more Modernism swerving back toward the excitement of Romanticism than anything political.

So there you have it.  Poetry, as a study and a practice, right now in the United States, may be Leftist, but Leftism in poetry is actually of very little consequence, except in the manner outlined above, and from that very important standpoint, Leftism has hurt poetry.

Perhaps the whole question lies closer to the issue of the sacred versus the secular, and poetry finally residing closer to the former as an art form—but that discussion is for a future time.

We point out this issue with Leftism, not as any form of censorship—but only as a warning, and a challenge.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

In the United States in 1949, every other college student had his college education paid for by the GI Bill.  Government sponsored college loans didn’t happen until 1958 (Sputnik).  During the unprecedented growth of American college education in the middle of the 20th century, one poetry textbook was beamed into the brains of two generations of college professors, teachers and students—Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren; Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976.

To know this textbook is to know how you, dear reader—and every living respected poet and critic—thinks about poetry.

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

Understanding Poetry was written by two New Critics; what was known as the New Criticism was not just an ideology, but an influential clique of Southern men with an in; New Criticism was the donnish, government-connected, academic arm of Modernism—the 20th century’s one real school of poetry, which replaced Classical and Romantic Verse with something more free, with something entirely different.

The public’s rejection of Modernism can be summed up simply:  “A very large part of human conduct and human life is loathsome, disgusting, and grotesque.  Poetry has traditionally been an antidote to this.  Poetry discovers the beauty and dignity of human life, of human expression.  Poetry, in the name of modern all-inclusiveness, however, revels in the discordant, the ugly, and the disgusting, and this is…creepy.   We don’t like it.”

We are familiar with the world of objection this elicits from the Modernist: “all-inclusiveness” is truthful; you are backwards to censure the truth.

The “truth,” however, is that there are many avenues to the “truth,” and no profession or craft is defined by the whole truth, but rather by the particular way it approaches the truth; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to define that particular craft or profession.  And this is the truth.

Understanding Poetry, influential Modernist document that it is, comes down strongly on one side of the argument outlined above: for all-inclusiveness.

Here is how poetry is clumsily and pessimistically introduced to the student in the first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, “Poetry As a Way of Saying.” The strategy seems to be: let’s concede to all the insensitive lugs why poetry may indeed suck—this “strategy” turns out, in reality, to be the soul of the book itself.

Poetry is a kind of “saying.” It is, however, a kind that many people, until they become well acquainted with it, feel is rather peculiar and even useless. They feel this way for two reasons: the “way of the saying” and the “nature of the said.” As for the “way of the saying,” the strongly marked rhythms, the frequent appearance of rhyme, and the figurative language may seem odd and distracting; and as for the “nature of the said,” it generally contains neither a good, suspenseful story nor obviously useful information. Poetry, in short, may seem both unnatural and irrelevant.

Think of all the glorious ways the editors could have led off.  Instead, we get this utter sheepishness. Of all the definitions of poetry, this is perhaps the dullest we have ever heard: Poetry is a kind of “saying.” 

In their defense, we are sure, that as text book authors, they were attempting the plainest and least adorned definition possible so as not to scare away the plain-speaking person who has no natural inclination to poetry. The danger of this position, however, is that one ends up arguing, and rallying to, the devil’s case: poetry is “useless,” especially if one is not “well acquainted” with it.  Attempting to “be democratic,” the elitist is just more elitist in the end—and this, in a nutshell, is what happened with Modernist poetry and its mass readership, as the art of poetry got lost in the shuffle: elitism was sniffed out, wearing its democratic dress.  The masses left.

The editors attempt an optimistic recovery in the second paragraph, but it’s too little, too late: “Yet poetry…has survived, in one form or another…we may…consider…it does spring from deep human impulses and does fulfill human needs.”

And in the first actual description of poetry, the editors say poetry is primarily “strongly marked by rhythm.”  Those “strongly marked rhythms” which “may seem odd and distracting” from paragraph one?  Yes, those rhythms.

But if the editors of Understanding Poetry are content to play down poetry and weakly define it, the reason is clear: poetry resists definition because to the Modernist critic, poetry, in its modern guise, is an all-inclusive sort of everything, which simultaneously rejects and converts itself into whatever it is, from the old poetry it is leaving behind.

Those “marked rhythms” that identify poetry?  According to our text book’s introduction, these include “seasons…moon…tides…migration of birds…” and those of the “human body…” a “locus of rhythms,” including “hunger and satiety.”  Rhythm includes “all life…all activity” and is “deeply involved in…emotion…”

We are reminded that “rhythm is a natural and not an artificial aspect of emotion…”

The human is at the center of their definition: in the second paragraph we got “human impulses” and “human needs” and then the human body as a “locus of rhythms” and finally, “emotion,” with the caveat that poetry’s “rhythm,” to properly express emotion must be “natural” and not “artificial.”

The real, natural human appears to be what they are after, in their long reach towards poetry.

Having made much of “rhythm,” they make a weak nod to “rhyme” as a “verbal structure” and memory aid, but they quickly re-visit their thesis: “man is a form-making animal.”

Finally, they get language and its origin in their sights.  The editors agree with Emerson (and quote Owen Barfield) in support of the notion that language is “metaphoric” and they say that “slang” is “healthy” for this reason: “Slang is simply the bastard brother of poetry.”

Understanding Poetry invests a great deal in metaphor: “metaphor represents not only the “way of saying” but also the “said.”  Metaphor might be said to be a fancy way of saying something indirectly, of deferring meaning, of creating a kind of fake synthesis, whipping up a comparative “significance” where none exists.  If I say “X is a lot like Y,” it really doesn’t matter whether X and Y resemble each other, or not.  I will find some similarity, and this will make me cleverer, or even a better poet, than you, even though no one is closer to knowing anything about “X” or “Y.”  The labor used in comparing two objects might be better used elsewhere. Comparing two things is usually not the method for knowing a thing.  We have neither the time or the space to conduct a philosophical inquiry into this subject here, but it might be enough to say that great minds have rejected metaphor, even in poetry, as all-important.

They look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Shakespeare compares himself rather elaborately to autumn.  But why, the editors ask, doesn’t he just say “I am getting old?”

Because, the editors, say, how he feels about “getting old” is also important.   Poetry, they say, is “attitudes and feelings…as they come specifically into experience…action and ideas.”

And then, by page 6 of their 16 page introduction, the editors finally reveal their hand: “poetry is concerned with the massiveness, the multidimensional quality of experience.”

Poetry is just whatever you, in natural, human terms, feel about anything, and the “verbal structure” of poetry is pretty much there to “frame” this “feeling” you have about whatever piece of the “massiveness” of “experience” triggers your feeling.

I could have just said, “I am getting old,” but in order to make you understand how “I feel” about getting old, I throw in some “yellow leaves.”

As the editors put it, “the realm of practical action and that of attitudes and feelings are not separated.”

When poetry is defined this way: as whatever we feel about whatever, we see, finally how “massive” this definition becomes, and this Modernist definition is, in fact, a definition of Modernist poetry, in its suicidal all-inclusiveness.  It sure as hell isn’t a definition of poetry as composed by the genius Shakespeare.  It is poetry reduced to the level of the lug.

The editors’ introduction briefly compares poetry to science, but reject the latter as that which is merely “precise” and “mathematical.”  Science gives us mere H2O, while poetry gives us “water” and thus “associations of drinking, bathing, boating…adventure on the high seas…” etc  Water’s metaphors do massive work.  Mathematics, which scientifically interprets nature, is told to take a hike.

The stake is driven into the heart of science by a quote from Walker Percy:

The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals, included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.

This is a stunning rebuke—by an influential text book by way of Walker Percy—of science and universal truth. Words, by definition, are universals: poetry, too, then, must live in “dead silence” to the individual reader.  This is interesting, but especially in terms of what the editors are trying to say, nonsense, nonetheless.  The “individual” is a word, which we understand only as much as it “resembles others.”  Walker Percy, and the editors of Understanding Poetry, are stuck in a paradox from which there is no escape.  Their rejection of science and a “scientific-technological society” here is nothing but a deeply crackpot protest, if we are to be honest about it.

After dismissing science, the authors keep after the importance of  subjective”feeling:”

At first glance, the field of feeling and attitudes may seem trivial when thought of in contrast to the great bustling practical business of the world or in contrast to the vast body of organized knowledge which science is and which allows man to master, to a certain degree, nature and his own fate.  The field of feeling and attitude may seem to be “merely personal” and “merely subjective,” and therefore of no general interest. But at second thought, we may realize that all the action and knowledge in the world can be valuable only as these things bring meaning to life—to our particular lives, especially.

…Poetry is concerned with the world as responded to sensorially, emotionally, and intellectually. But—and this fact constitutes another significant characteristic of poetry that cannot be overemphasized—this response always involves all three of these elements: a massive, total response—what we have called earlier the multidimensional quality of experience.

…Poetry enables us to know what it “feels like” to be alive in the world. What does it “feel like,” for instance, to be in love, to hate somebody…

Here we have a classic case of the Emersonian Exaggeration: poetry is ill-defined as something anti-scientific, and subjectively and even trivially emotional, and this very definition leads those defining it as such, to subsequently make utterly irrational and exaggerated claims for it, such as “poetry enables us to know what it feels like to be alive…”

First, the editors establish poetry as trivial, emotional, subjective, and then they heap accolades on it which it cannot possibly support.

According to Understanding Poetry, poetry does not exist objectively as an art; it has no verse-like attributes; in the Modernist spirit, it resembles something like an octopus on your face.

The editors inform us that poetry, in all its aspects, is a response to life—in all its aspects.   Poetry, then, is the same as life.  There’s no difference. That, in fact, is their definition of poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.

To prove this, they point out that, “we may have a child chess champion or musical prodigy, but not a child literary critic or dramatist.”  Well, no wonder.  I wouldn’t let a child of mine near Understanding Poetry.  But we might point out that Poe wrote extraordinary poems as a teenager.  And a child (or an adult) is all the wiser for not comprehending the New Criticism.

To keep their (definition of) poetry from drowning in the sea of life, the editors, sensing a complete loss of identity, suddenly begin singing about “vital unity:”

What is crucial to poetry is that these elements—metaphor, rhythm, and statement—are absorbed into a vital unity. The poem, in its vital unity, is a “formed” thing, a thing existing in itself, and its vital unity, its form, embodies—is—its meaning. Yet paradoxically, by the fact of its being “formed” and having its special identity, it somehow makes us more aware of life outside itself. By its own significance it awakens us to the significance of our experience and of the world.

We see, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things that are “poetic” in themselves.

…Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The total relationship among all the elements in a poem is what is all-important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the makeup of some physical object, it ought to be not a wall but to something organic like a plant.

The editors are unable to define poetry in practical, common sense, scientific terms; therefore they make it very important whether we say poetry is “like” a wall, or “like” a plant.  Feeling that “metaphor” is vital to poetry, it is perhaps no accident that they reflect this in their hazy attempt at a definition.

Since quotations always help definitions, the authors, who used Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, now turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Quoting Shakespeare is a good idea.  Instead of this text book, why not Shakespeare’s Works?  Poetry becomes less and less the more the authors write about it.

They quote Macbeth to illustrate  “a lack of…melodious effects…the broken rhythms and the tendency to harshness of sound are essential to the dramatic effect that Shakespeare wished.” When “murder” is involved, poetry becomes broken—and this is a good thing.  We are essentially told that poetry—which the editors still haven’t defined—needs to be mangled for dramatic license.

Perhaps “mangled” isn’t fair.  We’ll quote the Shakespeare passage and a specific observation they make about it:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

…The piling up of the s sounds in the second, third, and fourth lines helps to give the impression of desperate haste and breathless excitement; the effect is of a conspiratorial whisper.  The rhythm and sound effects of the passage, then, are poetic in the only sense that we have seen to be legitimate: they are poetic because they contribute to the total significance of the passage.

This is interesting—even brilliant, and we note again the persistent theme: poetry is nothing in itself except as it mimics life.  We would call this admirable, but we cannot. Are we really to believe that the “s sound” belongs to all poetry evincing “conspiratorial whisper[ing]?”  Is this a rule?  What about the words in that passage which are not sibilant? Should the actor cease to whisper when uttering the word “catch”and “blow” and “time” and “come?”  As much as we like the observation, as much as we admire Shakespeare, we do not think a marvelous hissing sound made by an actor belongs to either the cause or the effect of poetry, except in a very marginal way.

A good actor can make any script sound dramatic in any number of ways.  The truth is, poetry is not, by definition, a script with all sorts of directorial notes hidden within it.  This is to confuse poetry with the dramatic arts; and even Shakespeare is no excuse for this confusion.  The student of poetry, if they listen to Brooks and Warren, will come away believing that bad poetry is really good—because various dramatic situations turn the good to bad which is deemed good.  Not only will the student poet be convinced by his Modernist elders, Brooks and Warren, that his bad poetry is good, he will be convinced his poetry is “dramatic,” as well.

We see the New Critical rationale at work: since ‘the poem’ is considered all, let us really make it all in our definition; let us have life flow in and out of the poem so that they are almost one.  “A situation underlies every poem, and the poem is what the situation provokes.”  The poem is “a little—or sometimes a big—drama.”

The origin and effect of poetry, according to the New Criticism, are largely irrelevant.  The why of a poem’s making and the why of a poem’s impact are thus, irrelevant.

On one hand, for Brooks and Warren, poetry belongs to the “stuff of life,” (making its specific existence vague in the extreme) and at the same time, life is not permitted to ask what poetry is for, exactly, and to what good is it aimed?  Plato asked these larger questions, and is mostly considered rude and inappropriate for doing so.  Aristotle, who focused more on the art itself, influences to a much greater extent, the Modernists. Yet even Aristotle is too precise for them. The Modernist shuns categories, divisions, parts, for the generalized rant:

In an important sense, all poems are fictional, even poems that profess to be autobiographical, for the voice of the poem is inevitably a creation and not a natural and spontaneous outburst.

This contradicts what was said earlier: the authors said a poem’s emotions should be “natural” and not “artificial.”  They said a poem was like “a plant” and not something “mechanical.”  Yet here they insist a poem is never “spontaneous.”  These gentlemen grew up on Romanticism, and are trying to replace it, with all its errors, with something even more replete with error, that they, nor anyone else, understands.

They recommend the “mask” as a dramatic truth-telling device (quoting Yeats, Wilde and Emerson), and point out that Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, was named after Robert E. Lee, began his career in England, and “Yankee-fy’d” his poetic voice “to develop the character that speaks in his poems.”  New Criticism masks the truth, so why shouldn’t it be enamored of the mask?  We can’t deny they make sense when they say, “when we are making an acquaintance with a poem, we must answer these questions: 1) Who is speaking? 2) Why?”  But according to the New Critics, these questions can only be asked of the fiction.  Their brief analysis of Frost, however, would seem to indicate they know how to unmask, when necessary.  One rule for them, one rule for you.

We speak of an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry as an end to be gained. But some people assume that no preparation, no effort, no study, no thought, is necessary for that experience, and that if a poem seems to make such demands it is so much the less poetry.  This assumption is sadly erroneous…

As they wind up their introduction, they are back to asserting the craven pedantry that “an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry” is more important than learning what poetry actually is, and even questioning its very existence.  True learning names what things are, discriminates, narrows, weeds out; an “enlarged capacity” and “demands” is code for: you’ll clean out my stables before I will call you a poet—and that’s only if I like you.

By way of conclusion we must emphasize two related matters of the greatest importance: First, criticism and analysis, as modestly practiced in this book and more grandly elsewhere and by other hands, is ultimately of value only insofar as it can return to the poem itself—return them, that is, better prepared to experience it more immediately, fully, and, shall we say, innocently. The poem is an experience, yes, but it is a deeply significant experience, and criticism aims only at making the reader more aware of the depth and range of the experience. Second, there is no point at which a reader can say, “I am now ready to experience poetry.”

Why should Criticism only “return to the poem itself?”  Why should Criticism only “better prepare [us] to experience [the poem] more immediately, fully…?”

Understanding Poetry makes the amorphous “experience” of poetry the end of the whole process—a process which should be asking:  Why poetry?  What is poetry?  This influential text instead urges on us a kind of endless “experiencing” of the “experience” of a poem that is the “experience” of life’s “experience.”  Plenty of room for nuance, here, sure.  But also plenty of room for crap, pedantic bullying, emotional grandstanding, and ‘office politics’ corruption.

The introduction is reinforced by chapter one,  “Dramatic Situation,” and its foreword:

We have said that the “stuff of poetry” is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business.  We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper…

The authors want to shove horrible “accidents” in our face and make this the standard of poetry. Poetry, for Brooks and Warren, becomes journalism, or worse:

[Poetic] interest, as we have indicated, is not scientific or practical, but is simply the general curiosity we feel about people as human beings. Even though the account of a painful accident or a sordid murder seems almost as far removed as possible from poetry, it arouses the kind of interest which poetry attempts to satisfy, and comprises the “stuff of poetry.

The editors then present “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost as the first poem in the book.

IS THE OLD MATERIAL/SPIRITUAL DIVIDE LEGIT?

Painting of Boxing

Yes it is.

And here’s why.

In thinking generally about anything–and all creative thinking is general thinking–it is always better to think in dualities.

If the universe has a fundamental building block, it is a duality. The One doesn’t exist.

The universe begins with two, and whenever we ponder philosophically about anything, a duality naturally makes itself manifest.

So it isn’t the material/spiritual issue that’s so important as the duality itself.

This helps us solve the greatest mystery, by the way: why is there something and not nothing? As we notice, that question itself is a duality.  Once we’ve got a choice, we’re on the way to not having nothing. The duality, or choice, is the primitive, pre-existing thing.

So let us examine this material/spiritual duality as simply as possible, with confidence we are on the right track, in a general, creative way.

As simply as we try to look at it, however, we find the very nature of dual thinking performs the unexpected.

To keep things as simple as possible, so that our pondering does not get sidetracked, let’s call ‘material’ a thing and ‘spiritual’ the feeling about that thing.

Now look what happens: since we cannot experience a thing without having a feeling about that thing, the duality of ‘thing/feeling about thing’ collapses into ‘feeling about thing.’

One side of our duality, ‘thing,’ has vanished, and yet look: ‘feeling about a thing,’ the remaining side of the duality, is a duality, just more compressed, since thing and feeling are not divided, but attached–‘feeling about a thing’ is feeling and thing existing together apparently as one.

Or is it one?

It is a duality to ponder the One; duality is inescapable.

Why fight it then?

Love someone completely.  Obey the Two.

Increase your wisdom and understanding: empathize with the other side.  Enlightenment is the Two, not the One.

On vacation this week, and enjoying leisurely conversation with family, typical left-leaning Americans, concerned with the destruction of the planet, I had the pleasure to roam Sunapee, New Hampshire’s annual craft fare with them and observe the strange beauty of sculpture and clothing and furniture and hand-made jewelry and woodworking and ceramic and brass and glass work, the gamut of art work in general—and it happened to co-exist briefly in my mind with what is considered odious: its opposite, the burning of fossil fuels, the activity now considered villainous.

The art work is the spiritual materialized.  Energy finding its rest in the material work of art.

The work of oil and coal companies is material turned into energy.

As human beings, we are both: we are a work of art, a material manifestation of interest and beauty.

We also are burning with energy and because of this burning, we will die.

No wonder oil companies are both antithetical to art and a metaphor for death.

From oil barons to oil states, the last 200 years have burned brightly with wealth and inequity, and energy realities have made us aware of human mortality bound to a limited planet.

But to live, we must burn fuel, we must turn the fuel into energy.

And to be artists, we must do the opposite: somehow arrest energy in the art piece.

This goes a long way to explaining the great rift in our nation today between the ‘artistic liberal’ and the ‘big oil conservative.’

But this duality does not need to explain anything.  It was just a pleasant rumination as I moved among the craft pieces arranged in booths with the craftspeople forced to sell their wares (quite expensive, they were) like businessmen.

Dualistic thinking is always surprising.  As soon as a duality is established, it is in its nature to collapse, but this energy is what generates more thinking and makes the dualistic enterprise so profitable, as long as we don’t get impatient with all the collapsing.  We need to stick with it.  It is a lovely way to allow the mind to move along.

It was a beautiful day at the crafts fare, both cloudy and sunny.  I found myself looking at a ceramic piece, its shape, its color, and imagining it in my home and guests coming into my home and how would it speak to them.  I noticed that I was often attracted immediately by the unusual bright colors of a ceramic piece; but then I would examine it more closely: is this too gaudy?  Is this me?

Judgment is spiritual—the thing itself is not spiritual.

The New Critics insisted a poem worked like a clock; they would examine a poem as if it were a pure object.

The New Critics believed True Criticism should look only at ‘the poem, ignoring the biography of the poet and the poem’s effect on the reader.

The New Critics made the fatal mistake of ignoring duality as they viewed the poem as a singular, self-contained product.

But can we know a light bulb (the poem)—without studying its light source (the poet), or the light which it produces? (the reader).

The fanatic and the purist, who disdain the constantly evolving duality (Socratic dialogue) resemble the professor who resents the ‘wrong’ kinds of questions, the questions that undermine his singular belief system.

There has been some controversy in the poetry world, lately, on the topic of “Conceptualist Poetry.”  Is it just a fraud?  From what we have been saying, it is easy to notice that “Conceptualist Poetry” is not conceptualist at all.  Like any art product, it is conceptual poetry’s material result that matters: conceptualist poetry, like any art, is a thing whose spiritual (or conceptualist)  dimension depends on what an audience feels about it.

Clever enough to guess right away what a conceptualist poem is, I look at a conceptualist poem and feel nothing.

What shall I feel about Kenneth Goldsmith’s rusty bucket?

It is safe to safe to say a conceptualist poem lacks a conceptual/spiritual/intellectual element.

It is the art product which produces no feeling at all.

It may as well be burned—like a piece of coal.

FRANZ WRIGHT GOES OFF ON MEG KEARNEY, PART TWO

Meg Kearney: The Poet of Meat-Eating Squirrels?

Everyone agrees education is a powerful tool, and reading and writing is perhaps the most important educational piece of all.

My 10 year old daughter is already writing adventure stories with descriptive elements; she watches movies (Harry Potter, etc) and reads (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Nancy Drew, etc) so fictional narrative is second nature to her; it’s not entirely surprising that she enjoys filling notebooks with stories for her own amusement.  In narrative fiction, “things happen,” and the author passively reports ‘things happening.’  When, and if, my daughter asserts herself with a ‘lyric I’ and proffers opinions in essays, I’ll know she has truly arrived as a person of Letters.

The poem and the essay are the heart and the mind of the literate person—who might possibly make a difference in society’s influential conversations. 

Beyond both the illiterate and the literate is the super-literate, the one who brings philosophical force to reading and writing.  The goal of education  should be to make every student not just literate, but super-literate: philosophers, active thinkers, questioners of the status quo, and also makers of beauty, architects of taste, builders of bravery and morale.

This rambling preface is by way of saying that when we critique poems, we are doing more than that: we are peering into the mind of society itself; poetry and teaching poetry are not marginal or trivial activities; the fact is, nothing is more important.  

That is why Franz Wright’s harsh and principled refusal to participate in Meg Kearney’s Workshop is not just bad manners; it’s more like a cultural flashpoint.

We do not mean to pick on Meg Kearney, but her poem cries out for analysis; it’s the kind of poem manufactured in Writing Programs across the country: this is the format of the modern poem as developed at Iowa 50 years ago, a development based on the Modernist revolution. I’m sure millions (tens of millions?) of poems like this are cranked out each year.  Here is the poem again:

Carnal

I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,
like the one I saw today with the ass end of a mouse
jutting from its mouth. I was in the park;
I’d followed the stare of a dog, marveled
as the dog seemed to marvel that the squirrel
didn’t gag on the head, gulped so far down
that squirrel’s throat nearly all that was visible
was the grey mouse rump, its tail a string
too short to be saved. The dog and I couldn’t
stop gawking. The squirrel looked stunned himself —
the way my ex, The Big Game Hunter, looked
when I told him I was now a vegetarian.
We’d run into each other at a street fair
in Poughkeepsie. The hotdog he was eating
froze in his hand, pointed like a stubby finger,
accused me of everything I’d thought
I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.

Let’s examine it: 

Narrative:  I was in a park, with a dog, and the two of us marveled at a squirrel with a mouse stuck in its throat, the squirrel’s stunned appearance reminding me of my ex when I told him I was a vegetarian; his hotdog pointed at me like a finger accusing me of everything I’d thought I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.

Metaphor: A stunned squirrel (eating a mouse) compared to a stunned person (eating a hotdog).   A hotdog compared to a stubby finger.

Meaning: Humans, who like squirrels, apparently don’t need meat to live, will kill to get meat, and other things, they only think they want.

Form:  A six sentence paragraph, broken into 17 lines.

The poem can be edited down to 14 lines, eliminating unnecessary information (I was in the park, I saw my ex at a street fair in Poughkeepsie).

Squirrels, too, have their hungers.
I saw one today with the ass end of a mouse
Jutting from its mouth. I followed the stare of a dog—
We both marveled that the squirrel didn’t gag on the head
Gulped far down, the mouse rump and tail
All that was visible, its tail a string too short to be saved.
The dog and I couldn’t stop gawking.
The squirrel looked stunned himself—
The way my ex, the Big Game Hunter, looked
When, meeting by chance, I told him I was now a vegetarian.
The hotdog he was eating froze in his hand,
Pointing like a stubby finger, accusing me
Of everything I’d thought I’d wanted
And what I’d killed to get it.

These slight edits are not important—Kearney’s poem is prose, and hangs on what it says; tweaking its ‘poetic rhetoric’ isn’t going to save or kill the poem.

What’s wrong with this poem?

We have to ask this because that’s what Criticism is.  That’s what the human mind is for—it asks, what’s wrong?

The heart writes the poem, the heart that wants to be happy. The heart knows when it’s happy and by ratio of its happiness the heart doesn’t need the querulous mind; maybe the poet was happy when they wrote the poem, but when we at Scarriet read Kearney’s poem, it does not make us happy.  So the heart looks to the head for an explanation: why aren’t we happy?  If the head can’t tell us, we will be really unhappy.  Now is that period where we don’t know and we want to know, and we hie into the great blank.

The head is shrewd, and knows we need to do more than just read and re-read the poem—the poem has its own justification for its existence—they all do; the answer lies outside the poem, and so here’s what our critical mind does:

We make an ideal comparison; that is, we bring in other elements of the universe in order to judge the poem.  Not understand the poem—judge it; they are very different.  Some would say judgement here is wrong, and all we need is understanding.  But they err. Understanding and judging are both vital and necessary.  The former focuses, the latter compares.  The understanding revels in the infinite; the judgment seeks necessary limitation, and works on merely excelling its neighbor. The understanding is profound, but never sure; the judgement, certain, because comparison is all it requires.

We ask: is there a different means by which whatever this poem expresses could be expressed better?

Kearney’s poem is built around an image: a squirrel with a mouse half-way down its throat.  This picture is the poem’s aesthetic spirit; it animates the poem.  The poem lives or dies by this squirrel image because poetry is a temporal art—we don’t experience a poem, like a painting, immediately; we experience a poem sequentially, in pieces, as we read.  Aesthetically, then, if the squirrel-with-mouse image fails, the poem fails, no matter what follows.  Opening bars of music are enriched by subsequent bars, not rescued by them if they are flawed. Just as a painting is not looked at until it becomes good, a poem or piece of music cannot be displeasing in the beginning and then unfold until it becomes pleasing—the masterwork always pleases—even in what might be called discords. The poet herself tells us the picture of the squirrel with the mouse was “a marvel,” so  marvelous and stunning, a non-human witness marvels at it.  The poem banks on this image—described in prosaic terms. Poetry is not painting, so work has to be done to convey the image in words—in Kearney’s poem this work is not a poetic process, but a descriptive, prose one.

In our comparison: What if we had a poster which was a photo of a squirrel choking on a mouse (the precise image of the poem) and a caption beneath it: “Hungry?”

Our poster—Kearney’s poem in a different medium—more efficiently, effectively, and viscerally expresses what Kearney’s poem expresses—for the squirrel’s hunger and our human reaction to it (marvel, laughter, self-criticism, disgust) is the same in poster and poem.

This is why Kearney’s poem fails.  It does not fail, really, until the Mind Acts, until this Criticism (which is not criticism, per se, but only observation ranging away from the poem itself) is gently put beside it.  Kearney failed to take into account the potential idealized use of her rough-and-tumble image within the context of the medium (poetry) she was working in.

A Workshop close-reading of Kearney’s poem cannot unlock the mystery.  The New Critics’ insidious influence (the New Critics’ success paralleled the rise of the Creative Writing Program, and, in fact, the same gentlemen were involved) is more baleful than anyone knows. 

Franz Wright knows in his heart the reality of this.  We have just articulated it for him.

Poetry itself is not meant to be “difficult.” (T.S. Eliot, the New Critics’ godfather, was wrong on this point.)  But once we claim to teach it, the sea of judgement will come down from the heavens and the unthinking sowers of confusion will be found out.

POETRY: IT’S THE SAME OLD SONG

The Four Tops: Examined different meanings and the self-reflexive.

Oh, the heavy apparatus of learning poetry.

Lecturing for two hours on the difficult subject of poetry is easy—for the inspired professor.

“It’s the Same Old Song” was released (a hit song thrown together in a few minutes) by the Four Tops in 1965, when the avant-garde professor and Language poet Charles Bernstein was a pimply kid at Bronx High School of Science.  In 1965, New Critics Ransom, Tate and Brooks were still hotshots.  But the Four Tops were part of a popular rock music renaissance at its pure Romanticism height—it was as if Byron and Shelley were back, and the fusty New Critics were suddenly killed off.

Here’s a lyric sampling of The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song:”

It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone

A New Critic could lecture for hours and never summarize as nicely both the self-reflexive and the mutable aspect of meaning in poetry—especially since New Criticism pushed the idea that unchangeable meaning resided within the authoritative text.  But as the simple pop song attests, meaning does not reside in the mechanics of the text.  A “different meaning” can reside in a text, depending on outside circumstances.  Things outside the text are crucial, and may be so in a completely counter-intuitive manner.  The anti-Romantic New Critics got it wrong.

It’s embarrassing to admit that it’s possible for those who do not read poetry to understand it with as much nuance and precision as those who study the genre. It leads us to wonder how much teaching of poetry is a waste and a vanity, since snapping one’s fingers for two minutes can produce the same result.

But pride will interfere. Students of the muse, invested in the apparatus of education and learning, those historians and theorists, those deans and provosts, those professors and financial aid officers, even those janitors that vacuum the carpets of the long, hushed halls, will manage to see to it that the walls between the ignorant and the enlightened are secure.  The lectures and the classes and the workshops and the readings and the publications will go on. The real poet will keep vanity afloat.

It is with the gentlest remonstration that we dare to raise the topic of poetic vanity, for we realize the difficulty the professor of poetry faces: how to fill up that hour or two which the curriculum and the classroom and the credentialing policies demand?  The assembled students, who dragged themselves from their ill-heated dorm rooms at seven in the morning, facing mounting debt and an uncertain future, require teaching, and

It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you’ve been gone

is the essence of it all, which they already implicitly understand.  But you can’t just send them back to their dorms.  Expectations must be met, especially if everyone is to get paid.

So what shall the students of poetry be taught?

As soon as poetry ceases to be mere verse, it changes into something else, and whether we think of modern poetry as philosophy or prose, it will never be called that by the poets.  Going backwards—to verse—is impossible; it’s too late for that, and going forward, it cannot be called fiction or prose or philosophy; it needs to be called poetry, and this defensive posture is all that drives the poet into the uncertain future. 

Was it an accident that the 20th century revolution in English-speaking poetry was accompanied by the rise of New Criticism?  No, for the Modern Poets and the New Critics essentially belonged to the same clique: the New Critics were merely the American (and soon the American University) counterparts of Eliot and Pound.  As Romanticism faded and was replaced by Modernism, a couple of things happened: the Poet went from being a Romantic hero, an interesting human being in his own right, to something vaguely tweedy and clownish (“Prufrock”), a quoter of poetry, rather than a poet.  And then it was decided, for the sake of pride perhaps, that “close-reading” was the key to poetry, and that all outside elements, including the poet’s identity, were irrelevant.

The poets have struggled with this ever since—trapped inside the difficult text, they no longer can articulate who the poet is, who the reader of poetry is, or what virtues and advantages actually pertain to poetry.  It is no accident that during this period, the poem which existed solely for the sake of love and beauty vanished, and Eliot, Pound, and the New Critics attacked the heirs of Shakespeare: Poe and the Romantic poets.

As Shakespeare put it in a way that needs no “close-reading:”

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

JOHN ASHBERY IS BURNING ALL HIS POEMS

ashbery-7

John Ashbery: Was Plato right?  Are the best poets crazy?

You know it will happen: the inevitable revulsion: the coy poem that doesn’t mean anything, but washes over us with a million possible meanings, will, very soon, one day, make us sick, and post-modernism will become our vomitorium.

Let’s cast our eye on just part of an Ashbery poem (he won’t mind):

Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I
Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its
Grammar, though tortured, offers pavillions
At each new parting of the ways. Pastel
Ambulances scoop up the quick and hie them to hospitals.
“It’s all bits and pieces, spangles, patches, really; nothing
Stands alone. What happened to creative evolution?”
Sighed Aglavaine. Then to her Sélysette: “If his
Achievement is only to end up less boring than the others,
What’s keeping us here? Why not leave at once?
I have to stay here while they sit in there,
Laugh, drink, have fine time.

(from “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” J. Ashbery)

It is a truism that art and life are mathematical: “She Loves You” is more interesting than “I Love You” because the former contains three souls and the latter contains two.  Yet, as regards love lyrics, two might be a more popular number than three.

Love, mostly, is a number.  When poetry once had a certain amount of respect among the learned, back in the 19th century, it was sometimes referred to as numbers.  Art and measurement were practically the same thing for two thousand years. Science has stuck to measurement, but art, over the last 150 years or so, has—and there can be no doubt—consciously rebelled.

If we read this line—from the Ashbery excerpt above—in a hurry, it might sound to us like an interesting piece of mathematical love-song-manship:

“Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”

Philosophically, one needn’t argue with “everything:” in love’s world, everything rings the lover’s bells.  But in any case,”whether somebody reminds you of me” is a nice, measurable bite.  We have “you,” “me,” and “somebody else, ” the triad of love.  In the Beatles’ revolutionary parlance: I observe that she loves you.  No need to be greedy in basic love mathematics: going from two (I love you) to three is a profound enough leap.   And this is what love does to us, and one imagines Ashbery’s Romantic side knowing this, too: everything reminds us of the beloved, and if “somebody reminds you of me,” for the sake of love, that’s good for the “me.”  If love’s peril creeps in here, too: the blurring of one person for the other (“somebody” is like “me”) disturbing the lover’s unique identity—that’s OK, we all know how complicated it gets when we begin counting from “one.”

But look at what happens in Ashbery’s poem; minor complication quickly becomes major. Ashbery abandons the mathematical phrase with all its possibilities of love, for pure nonsense:

That this is a fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the soul, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.

Now we are in la-la land.  One could admire this (certainly it is more complex than “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me”) but for us it is a let-down; it points to Ashbery’s laziness; the matter of “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” is allowed to spill.  The poem is not building; it is dribbling what it had away.

It is not that Ashbery makes the phrase, “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me,” go away.  It is still there in the poem.  If the reader wants, they can pause and contemplate this delicious phrase.  As we move into the next lines, the possible meanings of Ashbery’s poem explode into the nearly infinite—and surely Ashbery is proceeding along such an arc intentionally; he is stirring up the stream on purpose; he’d rather not mine “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” for its meaning; it is allowed to do what it can on its own, which is a lot, depending on how much the reader wants to contemplate it.  But Ashbery has no intention of teasing out the meaning of this phrase for the reader. He is going to multiply his meanings with subsequent lines until there are literally billions of possibilities of meanings, just as one might simply string together random digits to produce a large enough pool of different social security numbers to fit a very large population.  Adding does not produce meaning.  Subtraction does.  Ashbery is not interested in meaning, because his poems continually add item after item in a way that is essentially random.

One could imagine a real person actually having this thought: “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.”  It could mean a number of things, but it strongly evinces an emotional attachment between a “you” and a “me,” with “somebody” playing an interesting but subservient part.  Perhaps the abstract meaning that leaps to the front of the line is: that in order for me to be memorable to you, I (paradoxically) must participate in the identity of others (“somebody.”)Ashbery’s next lines do not grow out of this phrase in any sort of logical or dramatic way; they are merely additions, which expand (loosen) the field, rather than narrowing (defining) it.   Addition is a valid way to proceed, but it is a very particular way to proceed, and one which thwarts drama and meaning.

The New Critics make much of the whole poem’s meaning as the crucial thing: whether or not a particular line has meaning is not as important as what all the layers and parts of the poem add up to.  Ashbery, then, can use “Everything depends on whether somebody reminds you of me” as one part of his addition.

Adding creates the potential for meaning, but never creates meaning itself.

Ashbery does not mean.  He adds.

Is it the reader’s job to fit every part of the poem together?  Or the poet’s?

This question is not even fair to ask, because it is not a matter of reader versus poet.  This gets us into a false argument, along the lines of the “Affective Fallacy,” another in the long line of New Critical red herrings.

The real issue is “fit every part of the poem together.”  If all we have in the poem is addition, it becomes mathematically impossible to “fit the parts of the poem together,” and this is precisely what Ashbery does: he adds without fitting.

Ashbery, belonging to his Art for Art’s Sake school, is trying to escape the poem that means—the sort of poem that lacks art because all it essentially does is convey information which one could otherwise find in an encyclopedia.  Ashbery’s escape is a noble pursuit of art, but we wonder if the escape needs to be pursued quite so desperately.  Is Ashbery perhaps tunneling into bedlam?

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.

HOW DO YOU TEACH CREATIVE WRITING? YOU DON’T.

They are defending creative writing at the Huffpost.  But look:

1. The real work of writing is two-fold: reading and writing in solitude.

2. Good literature classes teach literature.

3. Students do creative writing beginning in grade school.

This is all you need. Note what’s missing from the above. The creative writing class. The point is not that the creative writing class for older students might not help, but the real issue is: what does the creative writing program as a ubiquitous, nation-wide phenomenon provide?

Why aren’t literature classes and the writing all students do in school starting in the early grades, and the reading and writing they do in solitude enough?

Lousy schools? Lazy writers?

So is a ‘creative writing class’ going to help a student who hasn’t read enough literature, either because he’s too lazy, or the schools have failed him or her? No way. Even creative writing teachers admit they are no substitute for reading literature.

So what exactly is going on in those ‘creative writing classes?’ No wonder the huffpost writers gave no specifics, beyond, well it’s good to put would-be writers in a room together and have a writer ‘teach’ them.

Can you imagine Shelley and Byron and Keats sitting in a classroom together as writing students? It’s laughable.

The writer has to find himself in solitude, not trying to please another writer sitting next to him in a classroom. This is just common sense.

Finally, and no one talks about this except Scarriet, the whole Creative Writing Industry was started by a handful of men—the movement has a history, and it happens that the men who started the Creative Writing Industry had a certain bias for ‘new’ poetry, and this, of course, is the trump card of the creative writing industry: You don’t write very well, but we’re going to teach you how to write like a contemporary, approved by your peers. The default ‘sameness’ of the creative writing industry is that you are not allowed to write like Shelley or Keats or Byron. Write any way you like! But if we sniff the faintest smell of ‘old’ on you, you’re gone.

But the so-called ‘old’ is where really great writing resides, and the contemporary ought to be simply who you are—you shouldn’t have to go through a brainwasing session in a creative writing class so that you can sound ‘contemporary.’

How we get from the sublimity of Shelley to the inanity of Silliman is not something the ahistorical dweebs of the MFA will ever figure out.

For this is where it all leads.  Recently on his blog Ron Silliman pretended serious analysis of the following.

I saw the corpse of the plum tree
of the camel his splattered guts
the soiled tears of the child
the sniffle of orphan light

I abandoned the pursuit of art
to sleep for eternity
under the fevered feet of my children

“It calls to mind Pound’s old dictum that poetry needs to be at least as well written as prose,” Silliman writes.  But Pound wrote bad prose which was passed off as good poetry.  Well, but Silliman can’t help it.  Nutty Pound-worship is just what these guys do.  It’s the track the train must run on.  Silliman sees into the life of this excerpt, but none of the rest of us do.  And this, too, is part of the game.

The “new” MFA thing now is the so-called “The New Sincerity” which features “sincere,” “naive,” or “childlike” poetry by poets such as Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky and Nate Pritts.  But this is a mere throw-back to Frank O’Hara.   There is not the least formal interest here.  There is more formal interest in one stanza of Shelley than in all this poetry.

Until modern poetry really comes to terms with the major Romantic poets, nothing is going to improve, or help poetry to become popular again.

Modern poetry and Creative Writing are now synomymous.  The idea is not to grow poets, but to grow paying poetry students—who are beholden to canonizing their instructors, with the possibility of being canonized, in turn.  This is precisely what the modern poets, beginning with Pound and Eliot and their lawyer, John Quinn, and continuing with their academic friends, the New Critics, did, and therefore the very idea of the “modern” in poetry is linked with the business model of Creative Writing.

This is such a self-evident fact, that Creative Writing officials are blind to it.  The difficulty here is that you can’t teach the new.  Nor can one teach the light of which poetry is the mere shadow; the cause of poetry cannot be taught, either.  Life teaches this, not Creative Writing, which is its pale substitute—poets mingling with poets, in a frenzied attempt to be “modern” or “contemporary.”   But the “contemporary” is a shadow of a shadow, and chasing it, we find poetry to be in the sorry state it is today.

The Creative Writing industry may be a successful, and nearly flawless institutional model.  But no great poet has ever written for an institution, or to flatter and be flattered by their peers.  The Creative Writing industry cannot teach itself out of this dilemma; its default setting is fashionable appearance which appeals to the contemporary spirit.

Socrates long ago identified those who charge a fee for a vague kind of ‘learning.’

Sophists.

HENRY GOULD TRIES TO UNDERSTAND AMERICAN POETRY—AND THE MAZE THAT IS MAZER

Ben Mazer.  Don’t let his demeanor fool you.  He’s funnier than Ashbery.

In a review of Ben Mazer’s Poems (Pen and Anvil Press, 2010) and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Press, 2010), Henry Gould begins:

If there is, or could be, a center of American poetry — a suspect, much-derided supposition — then John Ashbery, needless to say, lives at or near it. Ashbery: presiding spirit, native genius! That courtly gent, whose arctic blue eyes, disappointed mouth, and eagle beak, convened for the camera, curiously resemble portraits of T.S. Eliot in old age. Ashbery’s parasol-like plumage spreads a kindly shade over more recent laboring; his generous blurbs brighten the back pages of scores of advancing young upstarts. The work of two of the most promising, Ben Mazer and John Beer, reveal a substantial debt to their mentor — combined with the influence of an earlier poet, lurking behind both as he does behind Ashbery: that is, yes, Eliot, old Possum himself.

Gould is correct: Eliot and Ashbery are the templates of all modern poetry; one hardly has to talk about anyone else.  Sure, one could discuss 19th century French poetry, or Elizabethan verse, or yammer on about Whitman, or go off on some insane Poundian tangent, or scream, What about women poets?   Or, talk about the modern or post-modern age.  Cars!  World War One!  Movies!  Airplanes!  TV!  The bomb!  The pill!  Parody! The internet!  But what would be the point?  E. and A. already contain these things.  Eliot has already been where you are going—in the past, and in the future.  Your one advantage over Eliot, reader, is the present—but if only we could find it.  I’m afraid we must make do with the “arctic blue eyes” and the “disappointed mouth” and the “eagle beak” of E. and A. for another century, or two.

Let’s be real simple for a moment: Shakespeare wrote about life; Keats wrote about feelings for life; since the grammaphone replaced Keats and the movies replaced Shakespeare, poets have nowhere to go but into parody, beginning with Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” and “I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and, finishing with Ashbery’s parody of parody.  Gould:

John Beer and Ben Mazer together diagram a paired dissociative offshoot from Eliot and Ashbery. Beer’s poetic stance radiates bitter, self-canceling ratiocination, whereas Mazer’s stance represents unaccountable, free-floating emotion. Beer mimes a sardonic, midwestern Baudelaire, while Mazer seems primed with Keatsian negative capability.

Beer and Mazer are offshoots; one is “bitter” and the other “unaccountable.”  Parody is not always so—Shakespeare was a parodist of Dante—but in minor poets, “bitter” or “unaccountable” are the two forms the imitation inevitably takes.  Mr. Beer and Mr. Mazer are not gardens, or even plants, but tendrils growing from a larger plant—in the garden of American Poetry where Gould, the reviewer, is an even-tempered and faithful gardener.

Gould seems more interested in Mazer.  If this passage from Beer (indeed, ‘small beer’) which Gould quotes is any indication of Beer’s ability, we can see why:

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden
I can smell the different perfumes,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France,
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell…

This is pure trash—far below Eliot.  Eliot never wrote milk-and-water phrases full of throw-away words, like: “With the smell of…”, “I can smell the different…”, “The smell whereof shall breed a plague…”  Beer is not even in Mazer’s league, much less Eliot’s, and we need not discuss Beer further.

Gould on Mazer is good:

In a jackhammer world that glorifies the transparent, the obvious, the literal, and polemical above all, the practice of this patient mode of symbolic representation is a lonely battle. Mazer reveals his discouragement: or rather, he mimes discouragement and near-despair. His heroes are sacred victims, like Hart Crane and Weldon Kees; he has an affinity for the disaffected Ashbery, to whom I believe he alludes obliquely (I could be mistaken) in these comically-botched lines (from an ambivalent fan letter?) in “Death and Minstrelsy”:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Gould doesn’t know Mazer as I know him—Gould writes that Mazermimes discouragement and near-despair,” but Mazer’s “near-despair” is genuine; there is no miming; Mazer is certainly capable of mimicry, but Mazer really does mourn Hart Crane as a tragic, long-lost brother, and there’s nothing fake about it.  Otherwise in the passage just quoted above, Gould gets Mazer down cold.  I agree with Gould—those lines he quotes from Mazer have Ashbery written all over them, and I will add that 1) Mazer is perhaps the only living poet who can do Ashbery as well as, or even better than, Ashbery, 2) the “moderate admirer” lines are screamingly, achingly funny, 3) Mazer was not being intentionally funny when he wrote those lines—in fact, he probably wrote the lines out of indignation and hurt, since Mazer genuinely loves most contemporary poets (he is not hyper-critical, in  the least—in fact, his spirit is quite the opposite) which 4) goes to show that Mazer’s genius does have a puzzling aspect that catches Gould somewhat off-guard.

Gould is one of the best critics writing today: sharp, witty, worldly.  He is a tad too much in love with own cleverness, though; he struggles admirably against his own tendency towards self-conscious hipsterism.  He is not quite as good as Logan, even though he’s much more likeable.  Logan, however, would never be tempted to write of Ashbery this way:

Ashbery emerged in the 1950s, in tandem with the ascent of U.S. hegemony on the world stage. This was an America moving toward historical apex: a coalescence of technological-ideological certitude and might, in an atmosphere fraught nevertheless with extreme stress (think Dachau; Hiroshima; Cold War). In the poetry realm, it was a golden age of criticism. The New Critics, impelled by the same Faustian drives which haunted the culture at large, saw in the figure of Eliot a model, above all, of masterful knowledge and control. Eliot’s aphorism, that “the only method is to be very intelligent”, was inverted to suggest that intelligence was, indeed, a method — the method — and the project was to methodize it further: an intellectual instauration. The well-made poem, that autotelic object, was offered as a model of perfection: of feeling perfectly objectified in art; of beauty technically refined in verse. There was something in these formulae reminiscent of the smug certainties of the Restoration, of a Dryden “smoothing out” the rough-hewn lines of Shakespeare. It was the rationalism of a time wrung dry by civil strife, more comfortable with mild truisms than with debate. Method and craft produced the polished poem, just as American know-how built the superhighway system.

Ashbery, according to Gould, is a poet who “emerged in the 1950s,” along with the might of the post-war United States, and the “Some Trees” poet is finally likened (by way of the New Critics and Eliot) to the “American know-how [that] built the superhighway system.”  The superhighway system is the efficient working thing of the New Critics, who “saw in the figure of Eliot a model;” — “intelligence” was Eliot’s ultimate guide to complex, functioning modernity, with Ashbery the road, and Eliot, the pylon.

Gould’s view is superficial and too contemporary, a sign of po-biz’s continual shrinking understanding of history.  The New Critics did not find Eliot—they were an extension of him; Eliot’s early essays were the blueprint of New Criticism, and Eliot, in turn, was influenced by the James family: Henry James advocated intelligence as the ultimate aesthetic measure (a formula, finally, of empty-headed snobbery and entitlement) long before Eliot, and William James (who taught Gertrude Stein) had transformed Harvard into a modernist citadel with his nitrous oxide pragmatism before Eliot arrived there.  W.H. Auden was writing Ashbery poems of wry obscurity in the late 1920s. Paul Engle, with his Yale Younger, his Masters Degree of his own poetry, and his Rhodes scholarship, launched the Creative Writing Program era with the help of the Rhodes Scholar New Critics, Tate, Ransom, Warren, and Brooks; Pound’s euro-frenzy and Williams‘ wheel barrow would land safely in American universities, and Englishmen like Ford Madox Ford and Auden would cross the Atlantic to teach writing in America, the latter famously delivering the Yale Younger to Ashbery.  Our MFA students today have only a Wiki-knowledge of New Criticism (if that)—they know the head, but not the feet, of the business.

Ignorant of the motives and actions of these men—first Fugitives, then racist Southern Agrarians, then New Critics, and then Creative Writing mavens, we end up saying impossibly quaint and silly things like “Ashbery emerged in the 1950s” and he resembles a “superhighway system.”   The New Critics (with Paul Engle) were far more important for what they did on a practical basis than for what they thought.  We don’t need the metaphor of a superhighway system when we have the reality of a super writing program system.

With history’s oxygen dwindling in the MFA classroom, the trapped poets with their Wiki-knowledge produce increasingly light-headed nonsense, “miming” as Gould puts it, the  “discouragement or near-despair” of an existence which fosters the inevitable human tragedies of drunken, Creative Writing profs who litter the 20th century, like Berryman, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Roethke, and Ted Hughes, or, rather,”comically-botched” lines:

Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

Mazer is an intuitive and emotional poet, not an intellectual one—which is why these lines are funny; funny in a good way.

Post-modern poetry doesn’t think.  It reacts.

(One day we will begin to see that Ashbery’s work does not spring from mirth, so much as guilt, sadness, paranoia, myopia, and depression.)

Sincere passion, made by a Byron or a Shelley or a Tennyson, is out.  And so is their music.  Mazer, in his fleeting Ashbery moods, is the best we’ve got now.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?

 

“Exciting freshness that seems to hover on the verge of revelation” –New Critics Brooks & Warren on “The Red Wheel Barrow”

One of our readers, William Kammann wrote:

Leroy Searle, in an essay on NEW CRITICISM writes:

“Accordingly, the meaning of the poem is not conveyed by any prose paraphrase and is valued as the source of an experience (for the reader) available in no other way. For this among other reasons, opponents of the New Critics have frequently charged that they ignore history, ideology, politics, philosophy, or other factors that shape literary experience. While such charges are not entirely fair, they arise because New Criticism in practice came to focus almost exclusively on problems of interpreting individual texts.”

And yes, those text could be poetry or prose, but they do not equate the two except as an object of analysis. It’s the method of “close reading” that is common.

The real distinction for them is between literary/poetic language and scientific language and this is the very thing that has since broken down. Is literary language a fine brandy and scientific (or religious) language something else?

Is there a difference in the end between the internal experience and the great wide world??

No, poetry is not brandy. 

And yes, it is brandy. 

Any song or poem can be usefully paraphrased. 

The New Critics are correct as far as that truism goes: screaming Beatle fans would be disappointed if a professor came on stage and began to intone summaries of the Beatles songs. 

So, sure, songs (and poems) are experiences. 

But that doesn’t mean that ideal and practical summaries do not exist, or cannot exist, or should not exist, for all kinds of reasons. 

Think of the poem as a room.

Rooms have integrity as rooms, but the New Critics wanted to take the door away. 

The New Critics essentially warned, “If you use the door, you violate the ‘experience’ of the room qua room.” 

Thus no one could look in the room (poem) and say that the room (poem) sucks, for this would ‘violate’ the experience of the room (poem), and so: the sucky rooms (poems) of the friends of the New Critics were safe inside the ‘locked room of experience.’ 

Inside the locked room of “The Red Wheel Barrow” reside the mad, who have been brainwashed by Modernism and the New Criticism.

Christopher Woodman’s been in that room since 1968!

We’ve all heard the “The Red Wheel Barrow” paraphrased and analyzed favorably; “Did you know the poem is actually two lines of iambic pentameter?  It’s a fresh view of the world!  It’s a microcosm inside a macrocosm inside a microcosm!” 

 “The Red Wheel Barrow” triumphs, because it is too minor to be anything but an experience.  It is too small a room to have a door—so it fits the New Critical ideal of ‘no paraphrase allowed.’ 

 Thus the New Critical commentators have nothing but good things to say about “The Red Wheel Barrow.”

Even though “paraphrase,” either good (it’s always good) or bad, is impossible.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” is the experience that can’t be paraphrased, earning plaudits as an experience— because by definition of the New Critics’ logic, experience can’t be paraphrased. 

Are you getting it yet?

Or should we ask:

Are you experienced? 

Have you ever been experienced?

The magical Red Wheel Barrow is rolling your way…

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.

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.

FILL UP YOUR RED WHEEL BARROW: HOW NEW CRITICISM DESTROYS POETRY

red w

It is impossible to tell whether the following phenomenon arose by accident or by design, but millions have fallen quietly under its spell since the Modernism-tinged Writing Program Era fell like a hood over serious poetic practice in the United States beginning in the 1940s.

The intrepid New Critics, who defined poetry pedagogy in both seminar and classroom at the crosswords of the new era when poetry took a hard, professional turn, had no method.

We assume that New Criticism 1) focused on how a text works, 2) apart from real life concerns, and 3) this is why it faded.

But 1) New Criticism hasn’t faded, because the general practice of its rhetoric remains and 2) New Criticism focused on the text only so the ‘new writing’ could crash the party.

We forget these ‘conservative’ New Critics were also, for the most part, Modernist poets looking for readers. Ransom and Tate and their European Modernist friends, such as Eliot and Pound, were poets with only a tiny, small-magazine audience in the 1920s.

By the 1930s, poets like Millay, Dorothy Parker and Frost, who actually sold books, were threatening to overshadow the Modernists completely; the whole experiment was threatening to go under; Ransom and Tate were not on Millay’s side, they were on Pound’s.   This was partly due to politics, but it also involved something even more primitive: naked ambition.

The New Critics, like their mentor, T.S. Eliot, were anti-populist, anti-Romantic and thought poetry should be especially difficult.  As they wrote their argumentative essays in the 30s and set up their Writing Programs at places like Iowa and Princeton in the early 40s, the New Critics pushed out the conservatives in the English Departments who clung to history and tradition, who worshiped Keats and Milton and Shelley; Eliot and Pound’s anti-19th century animus informed the New Critics as well.

The New Critical focus on “the text” was a means to an end: make history less relevant so the new writing could prosper as new writing.

The defensive tone of Cleanth Brooks is palpable (from Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1951): “The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men…”   Men, for instance, like Ransom and Tate, who were eager to become famous and get into print? This fact the New Critics were shrewd enough not to emphasize as they launched their attacks against English Departments of history and biography in the name of whatever text-reading tricks they were advertising—and backpedalling from at every occasion (the formalist critic knows as well as anyone…).

Where were the biographies of Ransom and Tate?  That was the issue.

The non-formalist critics knew “as well as anyone” that “men” wrote “texts.”

The New Critics’ hobby horse of focusing on the text was never really an issue.

The English Departments which the Modernists (then on the outside in ‘amateur’ status) were assailing in the 1930s and 40s  were not ignoring texts. How were the New Critics themselves going to be taught in the English Departments?  This is the point, made even now, which makes the professional uncomfortable, for ambition is only for the amateur at last.

I just re-read Scarriet’s post -Why Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” Also Doesn’t Work by Christopher Woodman and Mr. Woodman’s herculean effort in comments below: his reading of the Keats poem, his explaining the Psyche myth, providing anecdotes from his teaching experience in Thailand.  Mr. Woodman also got into his objections to Scarriet’s March Madness, which I find interesting, because Mr. Woodman objects to the Keats poem because Keats is excluding rough & tumble aspects of reality.  But Mr. Woodman is doing precisely the same thing he accuses Keats of doing when he (Woodman) abuses Scarriet’s March Madness.

Here’s where the insidiousness of New Criticism comes into play.  Mr. Woodman, like everyone born after 1920 in the U.S., has been quietly influenced by the New Criticism.  The textbook, “Understanding Poetry” (first edition, 1938) was the first big textbook for poetry in the United States when the GI Bill expanded university enrollment after World War II, the beginning of the Writing Program Era, when poetry left the public square and became a college subject.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” by William Carlos Williams—a member, by way of Pound, of Ransom’s group—gets unalloyed praise in “Understanding Poetry.”

In his post and comments, Mr. Woodman puts tremendous energy into arguing against the Keats poem—which remains absolutely beautiful in the face of all his objections.

This, finally, is what the New Critics did: they over-argued poetry; they laid down a rhetoric in which something as simply beautiful as “Ode to Psyche” couldn’t exist.

If one puts over-argument next to “Ode to Psyche,” it withers.

If one puts over-argument next to “The Red Wheel Barrow,” simply by dint of energetic over-arguing, the “Red Wheel Barrow” grows in stature.

Because the “Wheel Barrow” was nothing in the first place, it can only gain by being discussed.

In the New Critical universe, whatever gains from mad scientist argumentation is good and whatever diminishes from mad scientist argumentation is bad.  This is the powerfully simple formula which carries the day.  By New Critical logic, (which is how academics by the nature of their work operate) “Ode to Psyche” is bad and “The Red Wheel Barrow” is good.

“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

CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER: The New Critical Habit and How I Broke It.

As someone who was trained at Yale and Cambridge in the 60s, caught the bug from W.K.Wimsatt, sipped sherry with I.A.Richards and E.M. Forster on the same couch at Kings, shared a bag lunch with F.R.Leavis in a cold brick corner of some unrecorded quadrangle at Queens, and suffered a nervous breakdown when a close disciple of Wittgenstein played with his mind and wife somewhere down the Huntington Road toward Girton, mostly on a bicycle, I have the New Criticism in my blood — and it’s a rush, I tell you.

And that’s a major part of the problem for any New Critic, to resist the thrill of using the gift of the academic gab as if it were a divine right — and I had a lot of that sort of chutzpah too, which I’ve now partly outgrown and partly forgotten. Indeed, that gift has bedevilled me both as a teacher and a poet all my life — because I so loved being a Guardian of the Poetry Threshold, I got so high on it, so vatic and blissfully feathered, I was not to be trusted on the ground at all. And even in my twilight years here on another planet I can still hold forth for hours and hours on a text, and the few people that somehow find their way to my table in Chiang Mai and ask the wrong question, e.g. anything to do with poetry, are still in mortal danger.

The danger is the way we New Critics deliver the message that only specially trained people can get the full meaning out of poetry, and even worse, that poetry that’s good is difficult.

We New Critics have become heavy pushers of that line, and far from increasing the popularity of poetry, our critical ‘gifts’ have crippled those who would like to hear about it just as much as those who would like to write it. For just like heroin, the effects of the New Criticism are as irresistible as they are destructive, and we’ve all ended up hooked on a kind of poetry that simply can never deliver enough. Indeed, the habit gets bigger and bigger even as we get smaller and smaller and more and more isolated from the world of real people down below.

Enter American poetry today. Enter the New Critical Angel.

Angels? Well Kierkegaard can tell you just how dangerous “great moments” can be, and how disastrously misleading, but there’s another picture that works for me too. In the well-known Tibetan mandala,  ‘The Wheel of Life,’ the angels are at the very top either blissfully at ease or blissfully exerting power. At the very bottom are the ghosts in hell, thirsty, hungry, endlessly tormented, abject victims of their own ignorance. Human beings are exquisitely poised between the two extremes and, the Buddha says, that’s a better place to be than even among the angels — because humans are the only beings that have any real hope of seeing things as they are, and thus achieving freedom from self-serving prejudice. And why? Ghosts suffer, angels live in bliss, but only human beings know both at once. When at last the heavens begin to change after countless aeons, and the slightest crack appears in the firmament, which inevitably it does, says the Buddha, an angel is unable to adapt. An angel’s attachment to bliss, permanence and control is so insidious it falls headlong into the very deepest hell at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Even an animal, it is said, is better off at that moment than an angel.

Instructional, and the curse of all inflation.

What I did about the potential Angel in myself, the Poet written Big in my nature, was truly radical. I simply placed a moratorium upon myself as a writer, and from my teen years in the 50s until I felt at last safe enough to try again in the 90s, I just didn’t write poetry at all. I always knew I was a poet, secretly, but a poet who couldn’t be trusted to write poetry as it should be written, with restraint, patience and integrity. Like T.E.Lawrence on the road to Damascus in 1918, I realized that “all established reputations were founded, like myself, on fraud,” and in my own humble way I wanted to avoid that pitfall. Even though I was very young and not remotely anything special, just living in a special time and place, I knew I had to be careful. And in the end I did manage to stay me, and not become just another fiddling angel. I arrested my development, went into artistic hibernation, and emerged 30 years later to publish my first poem at 52 without any established reputation at all to get in the way.

Here’s a poem about all this — yes, it’s a ‘new critical’ type poem for sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it better. And there is room for this type of poem in Parnassus too, even Thomas Brady admits that. It’s just a lot harder to keep your head at such a heady level and, of course, to keep your hat off.

Christopher Woodman,
Chiang Mai

…………………………SAMSON BETWEEN THE PILLARS,
…………………………SAUL AND LAWRENCE ON THE ROAD

…………………………………There was knocking but
…………………………………no door into that heroic
…………………………………world but first
…………………………………………………..bowing out of it,
…………………………………deferring gracefully to those
…………………………………small private abstentions
…………………………………that had murmured all
…………………………………along just behind the
…………………………………uncompromising hard
…………………………………………………….god’s brilliance.

…………………………………Like all things likely shorn
…………………………………undressed ears can hear
…………………………………the faintest abdication
…………………………………………………………….knocking.

…………………………………Each white petal’s fall or
…………………………………slightest finger’s white
……………………………………………………….print in soot,
…………………………………every clean track or dry
…………………………………tear knocks too against
……………………………………………………….that solitude.

…………………………………Even the infinitesimal shock
…………………………………of a single naked
………………………………………………………….snow-flake
…………………………………slipping through some
…………………………………daedalian avenue before
…………………………………all that slicked-back tar
…………………………………can even wink at such
…………………………………quick celestial skin
………………………………………………………is knocking—
…………………………………just as veiled eyes seeing
…………………………………too many fine things done
…………………………………for the good in Damascus
…………………………………turn toward whatever
…………………………………violence or private wailing
………………………………………………………..wall closing
…………………………………even as the bluntest flint
…………………………………tapping, tapping opens.

…………………………….

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