SCARRIET 2015 MARCH MADNESS—THE GREATEST LINES IN POETRY COMPETE

BRACKET ONE

1. Come live with me, and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and field, And all the craggy mountains yield. (Marlowe)

2. Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.  (Blake)

3. Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; And I was desolate and sick of an old passion, Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion. (Dowson)

4. April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (Eliot)

5. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks, and stones and trees. (Wordsworth)

6. If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. (Emerson)

7. The sea is calm tonight, The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. (Arnold)

8. When I am dead and over me bright April Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, Though you should lean above me broken-hearted, I shall not care. (Teasdale)

9. The soul selects her own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority Obtrude no more. (Dickinson)

10. We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar)

11. This is the waking landscape Dream after dream walking away through it Invisible invisible invisible (Merwin)

12. I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw, And I said I do, I do. (Plath)

13. It is easy to be young. (Everybody is, at first.) It is not easy to be old. It takes time. Youth is given; age is achieved. (May Swenson)

14. There is no disorder but the heart’s. But if love goes leaking outward, if shrubs take up its monstrous stalking, all greenery is spurred, the snapping lips are overgrown, and over oaks red hearts hang like the sun. (Mona Von Duyn)

15. Long life our two resemblances devise, And for a thousand years when we have gone Posterity will find my woe, your beauty Matched, and know my loving you was wise. (Michelangelo)

16. Caesar’s double-bed is warm As an unimportant clerk Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK On a pink official form. (Auden)

BRACKET TWO

1. Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

2. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. (Coleridge)

3. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight For the ends of Being and ideal Grace. (Barrett)

4. Say to the Court, it glows And shines like rotten wood; Say to the Church, it shows What’s good, and doth no good: If Church and Court reply, Then give them both the lie. (Raleigh)

5. Helen, thy beauty is to me Like those Nicaean barks of yore, That gently o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, wayworn wanderer bore To his own native shore. (Poe)

6. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! (Omar Khayyam)

7. Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade. (Marvell)

8. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (Gray)

9. O hark, O hear! how thin and clear, And thinner, clearer, farther going! O, sweet and far from cliff and scar The horns of Elfland faintly blowing! Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying, Blow bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying. (Tennyson)

10. I have a rendezvous with Death, At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air. (Seeger)

11. I have put my days and dreams out of mind, Days that are over, dreams that are done. Though we seek life through, we shall surely find There is none of them clear to us now, not one. (Swinburne)

12. When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. (Whitman)

13. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. (Keats)

14. Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow. (Frost)

15. If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. (Stevens)

16. I was, being human, born alone; I am, being a woman, hard beset; I live by squeezing from a stone The little nourishment I get. (Wylie)

BRACKET THREE

1. The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide: They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way. (Milton)

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

3. I arise from dreams of thee In the first sweet sleep of night, When the winds are breathing low, And the stars are shining bright. (Shelley)

4. What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (Owen)

5. We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses. What more is there to do, except to stay? And that we cannot do. And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara. (Ashbery)

6. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives. (Sassoon)

7. Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose. (Parker)

8. The shopgirls leave their work quietly. Machines are still, tables and chairs darken. The silent rounds of mice and roaches begin. (Reznikoff)

9. It’s not my business to describe anything. The only report is the discharge of words called to account for their slurs. A seance of sorts—or transport into that nether that refuses measure. (Bernstein)

10. I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. (Rich)

11. When I see a couple of kids And guess he’s fucking her and she’s Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm, I know this is paradise Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives (Larkin)

12. I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. (Millay)

13. Those four black girls blown up in that Alabama church remind me of five hundred middle passage blacks in a net, under water in Charlestown harbor so redcoats wouldn’t find them. Can’t find what you can’t see can you? (Harper)

14. It’s good to be neuter. I want to have meaningless legs. There are things unbearable. One can evade them a long time. Then you die. (Carson).

15. On my way to bringing you the leotard you forgot to include in your overnight bag, the snow started coming down harder. I watched each gathering of leafy flakes melt round my footfall. I looked up into it—late afternoon but bright. Nothing true or false in itself. (Graham)

16. The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend. The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee. Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. (Lockwood)

BRACKET FOUR

1. Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy. (Homer)

2. And following its path, we took no care To rest, but climbed, he first, then I—so far, through a round aperture I saw appear Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars. (Dante)

3. With usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper, with no mountain wheat, no strong flour with usura the line grows thick with usura is no clear demarcation and no man can find site for his dwelling. Stonecutter is kept from his stone weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA (Pound)

4. I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin. Oh, how I love the resoluteness of that first person singular followed by that stalwart indicative of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g of “becoming.” Of course, the name had been changed somewhere between Angel Island and the sea. (Chin)

5.  Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. A woman like that is not a woman, quite. I have been her kind. (Sexton)

6. I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew, The jealousy, the shyness—though in vain—Made up a love so tender and so true As God may grant you to be loved again. (Pushkin)

7. We cannot know his legendary head And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze is turned down low, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. (Rilke)

8. So much depends on the red wheel barrow glazed with rain water besides the white chickens. (Williams)

9. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. (Ginsberg)

10. The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so, And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low: And all the little Oysters stood And waited in a row. (Carroll)

11. What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things; Slight is the subject, but not so the praise, If she inspire, and he approve my lays. (Pope)

12. Harpo was also, know this, Paul Revere. And Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Jane. Or would you say that I have gone insane? What would you do, then, to even the score? (Mazer)

13. Come, read to me a poem, Some simple and heartfelt lay, That shall soothe this restless feeling, And banish the thoughts of day. (Longfellow)

14. So Penelope took the hand of Odysseus, not to hold him back but to impress this peace on his memory: from this point on, the silence through which you move is my voice pursuing you. (Gluck)

15. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so: From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow. (Donne)

16. I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (Bishop)

17. Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; And I will cry with my loud lips and publish Beauty which all our power will never establish, It is so frail. (Ransom)

Advertisements

HERE’S THE SWEET 16 IN SCARRIET’S 2014 MARCH MADNESS POETRY PHILOSOPHER TOURNAMENT!

Johann Wenzel Peter , Fight of a lion with a tiger , 1809

Here are the Literary Critics worth reading: the Top 16 Who Have Prevailed So Far and Have Made It To the SWEET SIXTEEN!

Every year, Scarriet holds their version of March Madness, with 64 authors competing for the championship.

In 2010, the first year of the tournament, we used every Best American Poetry volume, David Lehman, editor, to determine the field.  Winner: Billy Collins

In 2011, Stephen Berg, David Bonnano, and Arthur Vogelsang’s Body Electric, America’s Best Poetry from the American Poetry Review. Winner: Philip Larkin

In 2012, Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry. Winner: Ben Mazer

In 2013, casting about for players, we amassed 64 Romantic poets, including modern and contemporary poets fitting the Romantic mold. Winner: Shelley

This year, Scarriet used the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey J. Williams, which has produced a true clash of giants:

Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Sidney, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Marx, Freud, Pater, De Beauvoir, Saussure, T.S. Eliot, etc.

The earth actually shook as the combatants went toe to toe in this year’s March Madness.

The critc-philosophers who made it to the Sweet 16 are:

CLASSICAL

1. PLATO d. Sidney

2. DANTE d. Aristotle

3. POPE d. Aquinas

4. ADDISON d. Maimonides

ROMANTIC

5. WORDSWORTH d. Marx

6. COLERIDGE d. Burke

7. POE d. Peacock

8. SHELLEY d. Emerson

MODERN

9. BAUDELAIRE d. Saussure

10. FREUD d. Benjamin

11. WILDE d. Pater

12. (John Crowe) RANSOM d. T.S. Eliot

POST-MODERN

13. (Edmund) WILSON d. Northrup Frye

14. (J.L.) AUSTIN d. Cixous

15. (Edward) SAID d. De Beauvoir

16. (Harold) BLOOM d. Sartre

Scarriet would ask you not to try this at home: The winners are all white men.

We are really sorry, VIDA.  But when women—or the women presented in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism—only write on women, this narrowness itself contributes to a certain amount of self-marginalizing.

This is a universal problem: if the oppressed are thrown in an intellectual hole, how do they dig themselves out—in a truly broad intellectual fashion?

Perhaps this is why there’s a certain dislike for this kind of competition: the best rises to the top, producing an historical unfairness, given what human history has been.

We see the problem.  We make no apologies, however, for our experiment.

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

THE SANE FACE OF INSANITY: THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY, PART II

Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—“realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist–ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.'”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

Yes.

If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.

BURT AND OTHERS PILE ON HARPER’S POETRY COMPLAINT

Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia

We don’t know which is more ridiculous: this fellow Edmundson in HARPER’S honoring Robert Lowell as where poetry—currently lacking public spirit and understanding—ought to be now, or gnats like Stephen Burt whining that contemporary poetry, as obscure as it is, is trying, damnit, and doesn’t Edmundson know that poems are being written today about Gettysburg? And by women about their children?

Who is more useless? Burt, the walking, talking politically correct cliche? Or Edmundson, the Robert Lowell cliche?

The problem is a simple one: everyone in the poetry wars (and yes it is a war) is defending a position in the furious blind manner of trench warfare; none of the arguments are even a little bit above the ground: they are petty and ahistorical.

Burt, for instance, writes

Complaints against contemporary poetry arise, like vampire slayers, in every generation and it’s easy to see why: when you compare your very favorite famous artists from the past with almost any quick or large or secondhand selection of contemporary work, the past will look better.

But to what “past” is Burt referring? It’s not an actual past–merely one that is jealous of the present.

But yes, alas, the poetry of Philip Larkin looks better than the poetry of Stephen Burt; the former is dead and the latter is at Harvard.

Sigh.

That is a problem, isn’t it?

And further, Larkin couldn’t care less, and Burt is sweating behind flimsy p.c—disguised as scholarship.

Burt has no argument.  But let us turn to Edmundson.

Here’s what Edmundson says.  He asserts an expression of public spirit as an ideal which poetry must follow.

Professor Edmundson could not be more wrong.

Poetry is its own idealized expression which creates its own public following.

Poetry shouldn’t have to trail after public ideals.

Edmundson has it backwards.

Ironically, it is on this very point, where Edmundson is most mistaken, that his critics pay him the most respect. Burt bends over backwards to make the case that contemporary poetry is “about” this or that important national topic,  and Burt quotes fragments from Rich and Bidart sans any particular merit amidst a pointless rant of See? We contemporary poets do watch the news! So there!

A blogger name Elisa praises Edmundson’s public service ideals:

He sets out to do something noble…a manifesto-like call for poetry that’s more engaged…I’m sort of sympathetic to the general idea here and I’ve certainly approached student poetry with this rubric…I’ve encouraged young writers to be more ambitious, to be less afraid of showing effort, of caring.

EdMundson shames the avant-garde snots into at least agreeing with his general premise: Robert Lowell wrote on the Vietnam War, you little brats!

And now for the time being Elisa and Edmundson agree. But the alliance is fleeting. We quote Elisa, at some length, again:

But the problem with setting up a rigid system that defines what poetry can be and do is that it inevitably gets used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like. Mark Edmundson uses these three vague principles (skill/craft, paraphraseable and relevant content, plus ambition) to justify the poetry he does like and scorn the stuff he doesn’t. The only working poets he does admire, as far as I can tell, are Tony Hoagland and Frederick Seidel; his agenda does not make room for John Ashbery or Anne Carson. I mean, anyone who’s still pulling “That’s not poetry” on Ashbery, how can you take that seriously? His attempted takedown of Anne Carson is so hopelessly inept I can’t believe it got past the editors at Harper’s:

I cannot do much with the lines that begin “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” (or many of her other lines, either):

It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.

The poem is, I think, an attempt to imagine a posthuman identity. And surely it is distinctive in its voice. But it is so obscure, mannered and private that one (this one, at least) cannot follow its windings.

Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure? Leaving aside the fact that it’s ridiculous to use five lines as a representative slice of contemporary poetry, these lines are far less mannered than the Lowell lines he quotes favorably on the first page (“Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone,” etc.). At this point I can only come to the conclusion that this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary, but he seems to think the quality of poems he favors (such as, improbably, Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons”) is self-evident compared to those he doesn’t – that list again random and improbable.

Elisa is ready to join Edmundson’s noble crusade, but she realizes that all crusades “inevitably get used in an agenda-driven way to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like,” but this is an embarrassing adolescent objection on Elisa’s part; she doesn’t seem to understand that it is everyone’s right to “not happen to like” this or that poem—it is her right, in fact, and she would defend that right to anyone who would listen—and the right not to like a poem is just as important as the right to like one.  Elisa is assuming that if someone doesn’t like a poem, they have an agenda, and therefore they are not allowed to not like the poem.  But whether one has an agenda or not, people are not going to like certain poems, and there’s nothing the blogger Elisa can do about it, and her attempt to connect an “agenda” to “not liking a poem” is perhaps more dubious than someone actually having an “agenda” that makes them “happen to not like a poem,” if any such nonsense can be proven.  Do “agendas” influence “personal judgment” or do “personal judgements” influence “agendas?”  And which is more dishonest?  The whole issue seems fraught with unexamined assumptions, as one individual (Elisa) denies another (Edmundson) the right “to dismiss whatever poetry you don’t happen to like.”

Edmundson claims the lines from Anne Carson, which begin, “It’s good to be neuter,” are “obscure.”  Elisa objects, “Really? How on earth is this excerpt obscure?”

Both critics are right.  The lines are obscure.  And they’re not. 

This is a mighty problem, and one of the reasons why poetry is in such a sad state of affairs these days; the whole controversy is enveloped in a trench-warfare fog.

We need to step back, here, perhaps before the blogger Elisa busts a gut, and look at our assumptions regarding poetry in general.

Stuck In The Middle With You

Rhetoric which passes as poetry today exists on two extremes: on one end of the spectrum, we have the matter-of-fact, and on the other end, philosophical ambiguity.  Intellectuals like to live on the extremes.  That’s where the party always is.  What we have in the middle is that which is neither matter-of-fact, nor philosophically ambiguous; it is merely what might be characterized as the Platonic “good” in words, what the public memory still identifies as poetry: Longfellow, or Emily Dickinson, poetry from “the Past,” but poetry which has an actual historical and rhetorical identity. Robert Lowell, the Frankenstein Monster of the Southern Agrarian New Critics, has an historical identity.  This middle ground occupies not only a rhetorical middle, but an historical one.  It is roughly equivalent to the “golden mean;”  a rhetoric with an existence between two poles.  One of the many reasons it satisfies its readers is because it is neither too matter-of-fact, nor too ambiguous.

The Carson example, as Elisa points out, is not “obscure,” but it is philosophically ambiguous—and, in keeping with self-conscious Modernism, matter-0f-fact at the same time.  The Carson excerpt has its interest, but Edmundson, as blundering as he is, is correct: the interest is not a poetic one.

The test is very simple: Carson posits the “neuter” person with “meaningless legs” as she speculates philosophically  on sexual difference, or the lack thereof.  The “poem,” at least in the excerpt, however, never comes into focus; instead we are offered vague choices—a shelf full of sexual philosophy presents itself to us—is it really good to be “neuter?”  How so?  From whose perspective? Etc, etc?— and words do have the power to do this; but this is speculative philosophy, not poetry.

The ambiguity of speculative philosophy will always trump the softer meanings of poetry—they are not the same, and those who assume (and there are many) that the ambiguity of philosophical speculation is poetry are really lost.

When the frustrated Elisa writes, “this guy’s tastes are completely arbitrary,” one can see how absolutely at sea she is, bemoaning “agendas” on one hand, and the “arbitrary” on the other.

Edmundson has blindly stirred up the blind.

LOVE WITHOUT DESIRE, DESIRE WITHOUT LOVE: 17TH CEN (SUCKLING) VERSUS 20TH (LARKIN)

In this contest between Sir John Suckling’s 400 year old poem, “If You Refuse Me Once,” and Philip Larkin’s 60 year old poem, “Talking In Bed,” the interest lies not only in looking back at two eras of poetry (English Renaissance, English Modern) but two eras of love.

It is yet fashionable to think of old poetry and modern poetry as very different; the bomb of revolutionary modernism that went off in 1910 is still showering its debris.

We like to think that very soon this is going to change, and Letters and life will truly reflect and enhance each other once again.

Modern poetry has thought to reflect life by showing everything in the mirror (poem) but with the fading of poetry’s popularity, we are finding that mere reflection does not enhance.  The moderns freed up poetry to reflect everything and anything, and nothing could be more simplistic and straightforward: the more things you can put in poetry, the better, right?

Careful.  How you answer that question could destroy you as a poet.   Because poetry is about to change.

Letters is enhanced by life, and life, by Letters, in a more unique and complex manner than previously thought.

Using Letters as a dumping ground does not make Letters reflect life better, and we should always be making Letters able to reflect life better, and not simply seeking to have it reflect as much of life as possible.

Modern poetry congratulated itself on this simple ability: poetry shall reflect as much of life as possible.  But it’s not that simple.

This is the sole reason why rhyme and meter were chucked by modern poetry.  This is modern poetry’s sole raison d’etre: reflect as much of life as possible.  “More is better,” as the dry-humored man in the A.T.T. commercials, sitting at a little table with the grade school children, currently says on TV.

The most significant change in poetry in the last 500 years has been both in form and content, but formal concerns are insignificant compared to content, simply because poetry has become prose and is still classified as poetry, and this practical truth trumps all other objections, no matter how much the formalist poet may protest.

You want rhyme?  Go to popular song.

But this is not an argument against formalism in poetry; we seek merely to look at the whole issue of old and new as truthfully as possible.  We hope our larger net will feature a catch that will in the long run please the formalist, as well as everyone else.  We argue for, not against.

The relationship between life and Letters is more complex than the ‘include everything’ modernist would have it.

Subject-wise, the most significant change in poetry is how love is no longer a leading feature of poetry.

Why did poetry and love coexist for hundreds of years?

Love helps Letters and life to enhance each other for several reasons that are so obvious, we may have lost sight of them for that very reason:

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

2. Love is of universal interest precisely because it incorporates every significant aspect of human existence: behavior, desire, morals, children, judgment, pride, spirituality, beauty, manners, and rhetoric.  It is from a practical standpoint not a ‘romantic’ one, that love is significant as a literary topic.  To reject love as ‘romantic sentimentality’ is to reject it for ‘romantic sentimental’ reasons.  No other topic comes close.

3. Since so much of past poetry involves love, to make it the prime topic of poetry again will reconnect old poetry and living poets, which will add to Letters and life mutually enhancing each other.

4. Finally, popular music was once all about love, and that’s no longer true; more & more popular music is about sex.  Love needs an art form again.  Who will step in?

When it comes to love and young people, the most sophisticated thing said is, “they’re going to have sex.”   This may be true, but certainly there’s a world of nuance and interest that ought to go far beyond this.

From a purely social historical perspective, one can see differences in the two poems below, but this does not mean that Sir John’s poem is not valid either as a treatise on love or as a poem.

Nor does Larkin’s more cynical approach to love cancel out the fact that Larkin’s poem is a love poem.

Nor should the social historical approach to poetry, or any approach to poetry, which finds moral or other differences between love old and new, invalidate the love poem as poetry.

Why should modern, gizmo poetry be considered more significant?

IF YOU REFUSE ME ONCE–Sir John Suckling

If you refuse me once, and think again,
I will complain.
You are deceiv’d, love is no work of art,
It must be got and born,
Not made and worn,
By every one that hath a heart.

Or do you think they more than once can die,
Whom you deny?
Who tell you of a thousand deaths a day,
Like the old poets feign
And tell the pain
They met, but in the common way?

Or do you think it too soon to yield,
And quit the field?
Nor is that right, they yield that first entreat;
Once one may crave for love,
But more would prove
This heart too little, that too great.

Oh that I were all soul, that I might prove
For you as fit a love
As you are for an angel; for I know,
None but pure spirits are fit loves for you.

You are all ethereal; there’s in you no dross,
Nor any part that’s gross.
Your coarsest part is like a curious lawn,
The vestal relics for a covering drawn.

Your other parts, part of the purest fire
That ever Heaven did inspire,
Makes every thought that is refined by it
A quintessence of goodness and of wit.

Thus have your raptures reached to that degree
In love’s philosophy,
That you can figure to yourself a fire
Void of all heat, a love without desire.

Nor in divinity do you go less;
You think, and you profess,
That souls may have a plenitude of joy,
Although their bodies meet not to employ.

But I must needs confess, I do not find
The motions of my mind
So purified as yet, but at the best
My body claims in them an interest.

I hold that perfect joy makes all our parts
As joyful as our hearts.
Our senses tell us, if we please not them,
Our love is but a dotage or a dream.

How shall we then agree? you may descend,
But will not, to my end.
I fain would tune my fancy to your key,
But cannot reach to that obstructed way.

There rests but this, that whilst we sorrow here,
Our bodies may draw near;
And, when no more their joys they can extend,
Then let our souls begin where they did end.

TALKING IN BED—Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

This contest is too close to call…!

But someone has to win.

Suckling 99 Larkin 98

Sir John Suckling is going to the Sweet 16!

TWO MODERNS, LARKIN, ASHBERY, IN MADNESS TANGLED

Can Ashbery go further in Scarriet’s 2013 Romanticism tourney?
Is the ancient quarrel—who is better?—between ‘ancients and moderns’ a conceit of those ancients who are gone, or a conceit of we moderns who, deluded, live?
Which is real?  Learned authority which comforts and excites the ambitious school boy who desires poetic fame?
Or, that pregnant subjectivity which rejects all ‘authority’ in its ambition for fame without sweetness, pretention or glory?
Is the historian the judge of ‘great poetry?’
Or is there such a thing as ‘timeless good?’
These questions weigh upon every shot, every rebound, every fast-break, every dunk, every steal, in March Madness.
In more Round One action, no. 4 Seed Larkin (“The Whitsun Weddings”) battles no. 13 Seed Thomas Traherne (“Eden”).
Larkin’s poem, some say, is the best poem of the 20th century; it doesn’t preach; it is immersed in experience, and yet one gets the feeling that the poet is surveying human reality in sum.  The poem is formal, though not heavy-handed in its formality.  It almost feels like this is the holy grail of a modern poem, and it doesn’t matter that a reclusive, grumpy librarian from Hull, England, wrote it.  Is it Romantic?  Surely it is.  It feels like Keats reincarnated in the 20th century.
The Whitsun Weddings
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles island,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displace the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed abroad: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots. and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
-An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl -and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The amazing thing about this 17th century poem by Thomas Traherne, “Eden,” is how much it anticipates Wordsworth, how it is all Rousseau, even though it glows with Christian purity.
Wordsworth merely filled in Traherne’s philosophy with buds and birds and trees.
Meanwhile, Larkin did the same to Wordsworth, adding even more realism (a train ride) and chucking philosophy entirely for Keatsian silent wonder.
So we see the progress of poetry, flying in the air with philosophy, and letting it go, as more and more sights appear.
Eden
A learned and a happy ignorance
          Divided me
      From all the vanity,
From all the sloth, care, pain, and sorrow that advance
      The madness and the misery
Of men. No error, no distraction I
Saw soil the earth, or overcloud the sky.
   
I knew not that there was a serpent’s sting,
          Whose poison shed
      On men, did overspread
The world; nor did I dream of such a thing
      As sin, in which mankind lay dead.
They all were brisk and living wights to me,
Yea, pure and full of immortality.
   
Joy, pleasure, beauty, kindness, glory, love,
          Sleep, day, life, light,
      Peace, melody, my sight,
My ears and heart did fill and freely move.
      All that I saw did me delight.
The Universe was then a world of treasure,
To me an universal world of pleasure.
   
Unwelcome penitence was then unknown,
          Vain costly toys,
      Swearing and roaring boys,
Shops, markets, taverns, coaches, were unshown;
      So all things were that drown’d my joys:
No thorns chok’d up my path, nor hid the face
Of bliss and beauty, nor eclips’d the place.
   
Only what Adam in his first estate,
          Did I behold;
      Hard silver and dry gold
As yet lay under ground; my blessed fate
      Was more acquainted with the old
And innocent delights which he did see
In his original simplicity.
   
Those things which first his Eden did adorn,
          My infancy
      Did crown. Simplicity
Was my protection when I first was born.
      Mine eyes those treasures first did see
Which God first made. The first effects of love
My first enjoyments upon earth did prove;
   
And were so great, and so divine, so pure;
          So fair and sweet,
      So true; when I did meet
Them here at first, they did my soul allure,
      And drew away my infant feet
Quite from the works of men; that I might see
The glorious wonders of the Deity.
 John Ashbery’s Syringa is pure meditation, closer, actually to Traherne than to the more modern Larkin; Ashbery eschews art for talk, chucking both Traherne’s philosophy and Larkin’s experience for pure, flowing ephemera—the poem itself questioned, everything is questioned, Ashbery the 100 foot child (Rousseau’s revenge?) crushing all.  Ashbery is a burbling, inarticulate, child-like questioner, afflicted with grown-up melancholy and book-learning, a Faust who never made that bargain and yet regrets it and now cannot shut up.  Ashbery is Romantic because he is always on the verge of Romanticism–even as he wades past it.
We love in the end how Ashbery gives up his meditation to settle in that “small town…one indifferent summer.”
The favorite here is Sir John Suckling, the No. 5 Seed, against Ashbery’s 12th Seed.
Suckling’s poem is memorable in a way that no Ashbery poem could be.
The difference is startling: the Suckling of so few words compared to the Ashbery!
Can Suckling’s annoyance be Romantic?
More so than Ashbery’s meditative dream?
We should pause merely to record our amazement as these two very different Romantic poems meet.

WHY SO PALE AND WAN  FOND LOVER

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when looking well can’t win her
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

Larkin, the favorite, defeats Traherne 91-72.

Suckling, the favorite, defeats Ashbery in a close one, 61-60.

STEVEN CRAMER, POET AND MFA DIRECTOR: THE CLANGINGS INTERVIEW

SCARRIET:  Poe said poetry should be a passion, not a study. In the classroom it can be both. Among professors and graduate students, we see that it can be a passion and a study. Is to study something passionately, however, precisely the opposite of what Poe meant? Have we in the U.S. become too studious in our poetry?

STEVEN CRAMER:  Philip Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from the study of Auden, Thomas and Hardy.  His intemperate outburst in response seems to me instructive:  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.”

            That’s a wonderful, bracing answer, but it begs the question, because what Larkin describes is passionate study.   Larkin recommends a specialized, utilitarian kind of study, the alert eye of the apprentice, but he’s describing study nonetheless.   Studying poetry passionately doesn’t strike me as oxymoronic, whether or not the reader is a poet or has aspirations to becoming one.

            Robert Pinsky says somewhere, If you want to learn a great deal about a fish, dissection is probably useful.  Hasn’t the act of paying close attention always been as much affective as intellectual?  Falling in love is, literally, eye-opening.  “Study” comes from a Latin root that also meant “eagerness.”

With your fifth book, Clangings, you have emerged as a major poet of the ur-trope, sound & sense. I would eventually like to ask you a few questions on this topic, but I also note that your poetry is acutely aware of all five senses; smell, for instance, is often thematic for you; how conscious are you of giving your readers a feast of the senses, and can you tell us how this writing process developed?

At times in writing Clangings I was very conscious of making sense in the way you describe—that is, appealing to the senses, sound especially, and in a manner that trumped logic but not content—or at least not emotional impulse.  Sometimes sense appeal constituted a challenge I’d deliberately pose for myself—for instance, a poem devoting each of its five stanzas to one of the five senses (“If I think in yellow, I can remember. . .”).  But mostly I proceeded intuitively—doesn’t everybody?—within the parameters of the project I’d set for myself—each of the poem’s sections had to be five quatrains rhyming (with many liberties taken) abba.

            After writing the second or third poem, I realized a voice had surfaced that wasn’t the conventional, quasi-autobiographical lyric “I,” and that opportunities for plot and character presented themselves, opportunities new to me as a poet.

            I like that you use the word “feast.”  The poem’s first detail is of dinner plates, and food imagery recurs often.  I think of this character as both literally and figuratively hungry—to make sense, to make connection.  So, in terms of the book’s psychology—and perhaps here’s a way to regard sense appeal as a “thematic”—I hope the sensory textures dramatize impediments as much as nourishments.  The speaker often laments his multivalent language—“What I meant to vent’s getting/twisted up.”   For a poet, language taking on a life of its own equals freedom.  For my invented speaker, it more often blocks connection, makes him “two rhymes snagged between rhymes,/spun puns, all my blinds up in flames.”

Your observation on the difference between language that either connects or impedes psychologically, and in other ways, is fascinating.

That’s why I used that line from “Prufrock” as the epigraph:  “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”  I was 17 when I first read that line, and it pierced me then and still does.  In some ways, Clangings pays homage to that one line.

Can you sum up Clangings’ character and plot, at least to the degree that it’s not supposed to resist that?

The book’s four parts, I hope, develop in apprehensible if indeterminate ways.  We first get a kind of “census” of the speaker’s mental life, which introduces Dickey but also evokes, prismatically, a history and a range of attitudes on religion, sex, friendship, childhood.  Dickey is the focus, of course—part alter-ego, part imaginary friend, part lover, part, uh, part.  The second section addresses the speaker’s parents (I don’t think there’s any evidence of siblings), an address that’s sometimes quite direct.  The poems in the third section recoil and try to recover from “Dickey’s death feels all over me.”  The last section, I feel, is the most located in an “outside” world, beginning as it does:  “so I left my apartment.”  Without getting too reductively explicit, I believe we can detect locations like a pickup bar; a workplace; commuting; and especially, near the end, a clinical setting where certain interventions take place.

            I’d like to think the book has, in a sense, three endings: the valedictory “Dickey my door, I’m seeing”; then the single quatrain of stripped-down statement—“I feel well, but keep hoping to get well”; and then, after the last section break, the Pessoa adaptation.  In the last four poems of the book, I wanted certain quite simple words to cluster and reverberate:  words, think, feel, well. . . 

How close is your Dickey to Berryman’s Henry?

Second cousins.  Seriously, I thought much about the book’s debt to The Dream Songs, and weclome (humbly) the comparison.  It’s interesting to me how often people misremember “Mr. Bones” as a character in The Dream Songs.  There is an unnamed voice who calls Henry Mr. Bones, but there is no “Mr. Bones” per se.   I’d also maintain that Henry, inarguably, is Berryman; in fact, the lyric “I” in the early Dream Songs often has less relation to John Berryman the poet than does the “he” of Henry.  In any case, the “I” in Clangings is not me in the slightest, at least not in any autobiographical sense.

I’d like to quote the poem “Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark” from Clangings.  

Okay, here’s what we did. Dad was a quark.
I took my shogun out. And the jerk grinned!
Toads marched him to where the marshland
meanders, where woods gave such a bark 

I still get a wince. Open fire, said Dickey.
We loaded him, black hole, in the swamp van.
It was premium cable! I aimed at his midline,
silver blanked into him. He’d been less empty, 

I’d have hit a vital. Roses twined in a scythe,
me and Dickey grieved. “Thou Shalt Not”
and all that smearwort. On the hospice lot,
weeds sprouted tips, like: get a life, take a life

We ditched the van at first intermission,
D. and me, we’d had our glister of venom.
There once was a time I’d have said scram.
This time a guilty sun gilded my stun gun. 

“Hey you, what’d you do with your Dad?”
yelled the groundskeeper mowing—yawn,
at least I’m a living—hospitable grass. Then:
“can’t dig here with that hole in your head.”

It sounds like something rather sinister is happening here.  Or is this more how a certain kind of language and a certain kind of mind interact?  Or, both?” 

I hope it comes across as a kind of phantasmagoric revenge fantasy involving the speaker’s father, with the sense of a plot that can’t be pinned down.  Dickey and the speaker do something to the Dad—shoot him?—but don’t kill him (“He’d been less empty/I’d have hit a vital”—and are in some way interrupted and told, more or less, to play elsewhere.  The tone starts out exuberant—It was premium cable!—but not so much so by the end.

Poetry has been defined by ‘the line.’ Verse is rather obvious in presenting ‘the line’ as its unit, but is poetry of a more sophisticated sort really doing anything different? Isn’t free verse’s ‘line’ still someone dancing—but just with the music taken away? Or is there something more mysterious involved?

I don’t think free verse is inherently more sophisticated than symmetrically metered verse. Nor is one more “formal” than the other.  On the one hand, metrical verse is predicated on a patterns of recurrence—say, five iambic feet per line, alternating four- and three-stress lines, or what have you—but the verse is artful only insofar as those patterns of recurrence are varied, syncopated, even disrupted.  A great example is the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

 

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust . . .

 

Say those lines emphasizing the iambic pentameter, then say them again emphasizing the rhythm—that is, the metrical variations, relative stress, enjambment,  interruptive pauses—and you can’t help hearing how sophisticated is the syncopation between recurrence (meter) and variation (rhythm).

            On the other hand, the formal first principle of free verse is variation, improvisation; but that verse is artful only insofar as those variations and improvisations deploy and benefit from patterning.  As Donald Justice points out in a brilliant essay, “The Invention of Free Verse,” Ezra Pound made up one kind of free verse in 1907, probably in Crawfordville, Indiana:

 

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not
.

 

You can scan those lines—you can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.  What you can hear, I think, is extraordinarily subtle rhythmic patterning that counterpoints free-verse improvisation.  In this case, “dancing free verse” strikes me as a very apt metaphor for how these lines behave, and the lines are ravishingly musical.  But well-made free verse—like well-made metrical verse—needn’t dance or sing; it can murmur, chant, blurt, curse, meditate, rhapsodize, gossip, coo, and so on.

            The language of poetry constitutes a compressed metaphor for how humans (usually it’s one human) speak—to one other, to many others, to a supposed other, or to him- or herself.  That’s as aphoristic as I can get.

I find in contemporary poetry a lot of crowding, and what I mean by that is there seems to be an excess of everything: meaning, language, suggestion, experiment, experience, nuance, feeling, coloring, shadowing, reference and word-play contained in a single poem. Is it possible that we have too much of a good thing? Lamenting there are no more famous poets, ‘where is our Keats?’ we perhaps ‘have no Keats’ precisely because we have ten thousand Keats’ cramming their poems with Keats x 10. In terms of simple composition—and I got this idea from Plato’s ‘Timaeus’—perhaps one needs space for the spaces, a length for one’s lengths, a room sufficient in size to fit all the furniture. Do you think in terms of pure compositional taste and technique, American poets are guilty of overwhelming the lay reader?

I’m skeptical of general descriptions about what contemporary poetry does or doesn’t do.  Some poetry does indeed crowd every rift with a landfill of poetic effects.  I love how Timothy Donnelly does that in The Cloud Corporation.  But there seem to me plenty of poets who compose as much by leaving out as adding in.  Here are a few lines by Jennifer Barber, from her wonderful book Given Away:

 

A bureau.
A night table.

An armchair
covered in a blue
itchy wool.

 Don’t think.
Don’t think a thing.

 There’s a lot going on in these lines—just now I’m noticing the elegant superimposition of symmetries in its stanzas (couplet/tercet/couplet composed of two sentences/one sentence/two sentences)—and between these lines.  But nothing in these lines strikes me as “crammed.”

            John Ashbery captured the dilemma of “compositional taste and technique” (nice phrase) in the first two sentences of Three Poems:  “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.  And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.”  That says it all, no?

            Only a few of Keats’s contemporaries knew they “had their Keats” for the brief time they had him.  Most ignored or reviled his work.   We probably have our Keats—or Dickinson or whoever—but we just don’t know it.  It’s also worth recognizing that the ways people who read and write poetry value it have become much more diverse.   I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s harder to define—much less agree upon—what makes a good poem, let alone a great poet.  Readers with different cultural and ethnic experiences read for different reasons, and are aesthetically satisfied by different attributes.  Maybe a century from now, Lord Posterity will have preserved a crowd of Keats’s, for a crowd of different audiences.  That is, if we’re reading at all in a century. 

The Jennifer Barber is a great example of a simple modern lyric, and I agree with you that ‘nothing in these lines strikes [one] as crammed,’ but since there is so much we can take away from this poem (and which might befuddle the lay reader), the rhetorical space outside its lines feels crammed to me, if that makes any sense.

            My only quibble here about the Barber poem involves the word “crammed,” which implies to me a kind of superfluity; as soon as we’re talking about “space,” the mystery seems to inhere in what’s left out, not what’s put in.  I admire that a great deal in Jennifer’s poems, and wish I were better at leaving things out.

Regarding that famous formula, sound & sense: how often do they really become one? We say one is “sacrificed” to the other and so forth, but are they, by nature, interchangeable, or are they really two very different things? Are they similar to light and darkness, where sense is light and darkness the sound that obliterates the light? Or is sound a kind of illumination, too? Is sound always a reflection of what makes the sound? Does the sound of a string of a certain length always cause us to see (or intuit) a string of a certain length? And does sense operate the same way, leading us back to its cause, or is sense (meaning) experienced only as a cause, without any effects? Can a string plucked produce meaning? Can meaning be a string?

Words obviously have sounds when spoken out loud, and those sounds are subject to the variations of pronunciation or dialect; and words obviously have denotations sufficiently stable to allow us to, more or less, communicate with each other.  Of course sound and sense are related.  If they weren’t, you wouldn’t understand this sentence:  “I am content with the content of my poem.”

            In regard to poems, I believe “meaning” describes a relationship—between reader and text—not some dynamic that’s built into a text, absent a reader.  An unread poem means nothing.  That may seem dumbly self-evident, but I’ve had the experience of discussing a poem with others (undergraduates, often)—having a rich, attentive conversation about the poem’s textures and tones and how they affect us.  Afterwards, someone will say, “well, that was fun, but what does the poem mean?” It “means” what we just did!   What that person in fact requires is a summary of some kind that will obviate the need to reread, re-discuss, or re-experience the poem and its meanings. Weirdly, the person who asks that question is often one of the most animated participants in our meaning-making conversation.

Poe said the color, orange, and the sound of a gnat produced the same sensation in him. Scientifically, we understand Poe’s experience as the result of waves or vibrations. A poem read aloud is a vibrating object. A poem read silently does not physically wiggle. Can we say the former is the hum of the gnat, the latter, the color orange? But as someone who loves to both listen and read silently, I swear that poems I love are the same thing, whether I listen to them or read them. Does this prove that sound/sense really is one reality, or the converse: sound and sense are eternally separate, and the poet merely places them side by side?

A poem read silently does not physically wiggle.  That’s terrific.  I find myself noticing simpler—maybe more simplistic—distinctions.  When we read a poem silently, we don’t push our breath against our closed lips, gently popping them open to make the plosives; or shape our mouth cavity to articulate the long and short vowels; or manipulate our tongue, teeth and breath to express the sibilants.   When we read a poem out loud, all of these and other mouth and breath acts take place.  When it’s a very good poem—written by a master orchestrator of the physical properties of words and phrases and sentences—we are “played” by the poem; our body is its instrument.  I suppose one can become a very attentive silent reader, able to “hear” these mouth sounds in the auditory imagination.   I’m not that alert as a silent reader.  To come to an understanding of a poem, I almost always have to read it out loud—not to perform it, but to allow it to perform me.  And I don’t mean listening to the poet read his or her poem out loud (although that can be a pleasure); I’m talking about reading the poem out loud oneself.  I wish I had the patience to read and reread out loud more poems that are new to me.  I’d be much better read if I did so.

Steven, I have to ask you about word-play, since your work is amazing in this regard. You have a line from your latest book, “What, you wander, do I mean?”  Here you place wonder—implied in the punning line—and wander next to each other, two trochaic words of similar sound and meaning. 

            “What do I mean,” you ask, and that’s key. To wonder about something is to wander around looking for the answer, or to behold a great palace—in wonder—is to wander about in that palace: the effect produced by your line is immediate and gratifying—both purely intellectually and in terms of the reader’s word-cognizance. The reader physically wanders through the wonder of space and meaning itself.  The question also carries self-consciousness with it, as the narrator sort of dares the reader to consider what meaning itself is.

            Yet, when we consider this practice in its general use, there is the tendency to feel the pain associated with punning, that clash of colors in clothing, that discord of two adjacent piano keys being struck. The imp who switches the ‘o’ and the ‘a’ will eventually exasperate Apollo.

Punning seems to me language at its most self-conscious, and I was (self) conscious about pushing the envelope, and that I was likely to exasperate some readers. (To exasperate Apollo seems a noble enough aspiration for poetry.  He’s certainly had his share of praise.)

            I very much want readers to experience the speaker’s word-play as, at least at times, painful for him.  He often articulates a wish to communicate simply—“I need to work on my main idea”; “I can’t tell why//I weigh so down when I get this mad.” If the puns unlock meanings he’s unaware of, but we pick up, that’s all to the good.  “Well now, you and I are words apart,” are his last words to Dickey.  I hope that the plays and puns in that simple statement come through very clearly, and that they speak to a more general human condition.

Pain–’tears of the clown (or punster)’–pertains on many levels to the speaker’s story and his attempt to communicate.  Shakespeare puns in his tragedies.  Why does a pun unsettle us/amuse us/annoy us?  How does it work, both aesthetically and dramatically?  One of the many things Clangings does is help to answer these questions.  Thank you, Steven.

Clangings has a book trailer which you can watch here, and is published by Sarabande Books.

You can learn more about Steven Cramer and his works here.

PROGRESS AND THE NEW ‘WEIRD’ LITERARY MOVEMENT

Philip Larkin: is this poet just too weird for Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/Weird?

Since the French Revolution, the radical has become the default setting of  the intellectual, especially in Arts and Letters.

The “conservative social order” has religion, but the “far more complex liberal worldview” has poetry and art.   The early 19th century Romantics were “radical” individualists,” in mid-19th century France  “radical” art and poetry were born, and then, in the early 20th century, after a Victorian detour, all hell broke loose.

The New Radical Order has been around for more than a hundred years now, and the Radical Artist institutionalized in academia since the mid-20th century and accepted as the norm, and quite frankly, the whole “Radical” thing has become tiresome—and cries out for a new definition.

No one wants to be called “reactionary” or “Far Right,” and neither do we.  God forbid we bring down the Radical edifice for any but the best and most sincere motives!

Arts & Letters has become so Left-wing these days, that American intellectuals can call “American corporate liberalism” fascist and no one blinks an eye.

It isn’t so much that art has been beaten to a pulp by radical politics, but that art and politics have become indistinguishable.  In art, a standard of beauty has been replaced by a standard of progress.  The very word “aesthetics” comes from the word, beauty, but art is no longer concerned with beauty, but with an idea that belongs to practical and moral improvements.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with progress.  But the issue for the arts and for intellectuality is more complex than that—which even members of the far left must confront.

The lion, politics, has consumed the gazelle (art).  This is going to happen when you put them in the same cage.  Politics is immense, and is constantly seeking to consolidate its gains.  The more advanced and progressive a society becomes, the more its political order consolidates and purifies its message, feeding on everything else in society, until everyone from the housewife to the college professor to the mathematician to the poet to the architecht to the supermarket manager gets swept up in the democratic ideals of progress: let’s all improve ourselves together.  This phrase may seem rather banal, but it’s a “shock of the new” idea, because it wasn’t that long ago that improvements came from afar, and citizens were morally isolated from each other.

But what are the vectors of progress?  Do they always move forward, even in the world of hard, practical reality?

We have today possibly what many might call, “reverse-racism,” but even more prevalent is what we might call reverse-progress.

The wish to “save the planet” is a new and wild frontier piece of radical group-think that has one understandable goal: to reverse Man’s previous progress in subduing nature “red in tooth and claw.”

Depending on how large an historical time-line one uses, all sorts of “progressive” points of view are actually “reverse-progressive.”

In politics: Abolishing or weakening the nation state can be seen as reverse-progressive, since the modern nation state is historically the recent vehicle of human progress from feudalism to modern democracy.

In art: Alexander Pope’s triumph in meter/rhyme was the result of progress in poetry away from prose, but a little more than a century later, “progress” assumed that poetry should travel from Pope back again to the looseness of prose—even when prose was making progress in other genres at the same time.

In the interest of novelty, fashions and taste will change, and all sorts of arguments can be made for this or that type of  “progress,” but we can see that progress does not always move forward—and yet we assume that the “progressive” left always does.

We do not know if certain desired goals of “progressive movements” in politics will amount to real improvements: universal voting does not necessarily improve government, since pandering to mass ignorance becomes the rule.   Laws of equal opportunity are vital, but groups are different within themselves and, if we are honest, impossible to define.

How, then, can we say that political progress will match up with artistic progress at all, when the progress of both are so complex and do not line up?  We radically err in assuming this relationship is simple.

Given these questions, we noted with interest a recent article in the Guardian: “The Weird Deserves Recognition As A Major Literary Movement,” especially this passage:

The weird is characterized by a willingness to play fast and loose with reality. And its emergence in the early 1900s coincides with a radical shift in our perception of what reality is. Science at the time was busy revealing not just that our universe was much, much bigger than we had guessed, but also far less certain, with the principles of quantum mechanics suggesting that God did indeed “play dice with the universe.” We were also becoming aware that many things we accepted as real—ideas of nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and many more—were in fact socially constructed. The conservative social order in which people knew their place was about to be replaced with a far more complex and less certain liberal worldview.

The weird became both a part of these radical changes, and a reaction against them. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a paean for the return of a king and a social order that was undergoing radical and irrevocable change. As becomes apparent in his racist poetry, HP Lovecraft’s stories articulated a very deep anxiety and fear of social change. The commercial genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror that commoditise the weird are often reactionary in nature. Faced with a rift in reality, they encourage the reader to dive for cover.

When it comes to the Weird genre, here is a typical strategy by the leftist intellectual: grab land for the empire of “social change.”  Call out the reactionary authors: Tolkien and Lovecraft, equate “fear of social change” with the freaky fear-factor of the genre itself, take a swipe at the “commercial” aspect of the genre.

Bingo.  The flag of “social change” is planted on Horror/Fantasy/SciFi and the Weird.

The person who is simply homosexual is different from the political homosexual; the political homosexual is opposed by an ‘other’ and the opposition and the fear of this other is at the heart of all Weird literature, if not all literature.

Yet gender and sexuality have had oppositon at their heart since before the rape of Helen.

The Guardian author, then, is not really saying anything new.  The leftist intellectual argument for progress is not wrong.  It is merely empty. The leftist is not wrong: the racist is bad. “The racist is bad,” however, does not fit neatly into p.c. formulae for literary or scientific use.

We do not wish harmony between Right and Left.  Let us leave the Right to wallow in its backwardness and prejudice. But let us recognize that the Left assumes too much by inserting one dimensional moral principles into everything.  The default setting of avant-leftism has long lost its way.  We suggest no mingling within the Right/Left oppositon.  We suggest the whole opposition’s hard shell be exploded.  Let us look for new ways (taking into account the old) of expressing the whole problem.

The Guardian author says that “God does not always play with dice,” but if this is true, how does a random universe support the idea of bedrock leftist principles?  And if “social construction” is imposed on chaos, which is more true, the chaos, or the social construction; or is the truth the competition between various social constructions?

And here we are back at primitive “opposition,” again.  “Social change” is not simple. We should always be suspicious of “new politics.”

The Guardian author says “the Weird deserves recognition as a major literary movement.”  First, this plea sounds suspiciously (ironically?) Market-driven.  Secondly, the Weird “movement” is already “major” and has always existed, though perhaps not in the narrow manner the Guardian author would like.

Fantasy/Weird author Edgar Poe, who perished mysteriously this week back in 1849, has often been called “reactionary” by agents of “social change.” Poe invented and transcended so many genres that he resists easy definitions, and the scholarly animosty towards him in many quarters may be chiefly for that reason alone.  Poe, the “reactionary,” makes the radical Language Poet, for instance, seems narrow and small.

We close with a right-wing poet’s poem which brilliantly does what Wordsworth and Coleridge separately attempted in Lyrical Ballads: make the plain fantastic and make the fantastic plain.  No horror/fantasy poem, this.  Yet the poet’s simple, honest observation makes this poem as Weird as any.  The category-busting poet is Philip Larkin. The poem is “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It’s only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can’t pretend
There’ll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they’re for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines –
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

SCARRIET’S BEST POEMS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

Here, in no particular order, are Scarriet’s best poems of the 20th century.

Why these poems?

Because they hide from nothing, and all, on some level, break your heart.  Poe was right when he said poetry appeals to the heart and not the head.  Because many heads get this wrong, and think poetry is some kind of mental exercise, the universe has been turned upside-down for the last three-quarters of a century by a certain never-resting snobbery infesting perches in the taste-making branches of higher learning.  The poems on this list don’t get lost in minutea,  have no interest in proving how smart, or intellectual, or street they are.  They all aim for that middle ground which has intercourse with the earthy and the abstract, filtering each, as they combine nature with nature to make art.

If art is what we do to become gods, if art is what we consciously do, we don’t see why art should express the suicidal, or make us miserable, or should express the ugly, or the random.  Certainly melancholy approaching pain is allowed, but misery?

The usual coteries, which have slathered their cliquish influence over American Letters, are notably absent.   Our list reflects poetic talent, whether or not it happened, or happens, to reside within machinations of puffery. Some poets may be puffed, but not all the puffed are poets.

The Vanity of the Blue Girls -John Crowe Ransom
The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
litany  -Carolyn Creedon
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost
Recuerdo  -Edna Millay
When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Galway Kinnell
Sailing To Byzantium  -William Yeats
Dirge Without Music  -Edna Millay
The Groundhog  -Richard Eberhart
Musee Des Beaux Arts  -W.H. Auden
Elegy for Jane  -Theodore Roethke
I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great  -Stephen Spender
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Dylan Thomas
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -T.S. Eliot
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Randall Jarrell
In California During the Gulf War  -Denise Levertov
Wild Peaches  -Elinor Wylie
Moriturus  -Edna Millay
Whitsun Weddings  -Philip Larkin
A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
Aubade  -Philip Larkin
Patterns  -Amy Lowell
A Supermarket in California  -Allen Ginsberg
Her Kind  -Anne Sexton
Not Waving,  But Drowning  -Stevie Smith
i stopped writing poetry  -Bernard Welt
Dream On  -James Tate
Pipefitter’s Wife  -Dorianne Laux
On the Death of Friends In Childhood  -Donald Justice
Daddy  -Sylvia Plath
Resume’  -Dorothy Parker
Time Does Not Bring Relief  -Edna Millay
If I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way  -Edna Millay
Evening in the Sanitarium  -Louise Bogan
At Mornington  -Gwen Harwood
Those Sunday Mornings  -Robert Hayden
Psalm and Lament  -Donald Justice
The Ship of Death  -D.H. Lawrence
One Train May Hide Another  -Kenneth Koch
Encounter  -Czeslaw Milosz
Anthem For Doomed Youth  -Wilfred Owen
The Little Box  -Vasko Popa
For My Daughter  -Weldon Kees
The Golden Gate  -Vikram Seth
The Grass  -Carl Sandburg
Mending Wall  -Robert Frost
Peter Quince at the Clavier  -Wallace Stevens
The Fresh Start  -Anna Wickham
Bavarian Gentians  -D.H. Lawrence
River Roses  -D.H. Lawrence
The Hill  -Rupert Brooke
La Figlia Che Piange  -T.S. Eliot
“Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments” -Archibald MacLeish
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why  -Edna Millay
What They Wanted  -Stephen Dunn
Down, Wanton, Down!  -Robert Graves
Cross  -Langston Hughes
As I Walked Out One Evening  -W.H. Auden
Love on the Farm  -D.H. Lawrence
Who’s Who  -W.H. Auden
The Waste Land  -T.S. Eliot
Snake  -D.H. Lawrence
At the Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop
And Death Shall Have No Dominion  -Dylan Thomas
Reasons for Attendance  -Philip Larkin
Fern Hill  -Dylan Thomas
Distance From Loved Ones  -James Tate
The Hospital Window  -James Dickey
An Arundel Tomb  -Philip Larkin
My Father in the Night Commanding No  -Louis Simpson
I Know A Man  -Robert Creeley
High Windows  -Philip Larkin
The Explosion  -Philip Larkin
You Can Have It  -Philip Levine
Diving Into the Wreck  -Adrienne Rich
Pike  -Ted Hughes
Pleasure Bay  -Robert Pinsky
The Colonel  -Carolyn Forche
Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  -Billy Collins
The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite  -William Kulik
The Year  -Janet Bowdan
How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin
Amphibious Crocodile  -John Crowe Ransom
The Mediterranean  -Allen Tate
To A Face In A Crowd  -Robert Penn Warren
Utterance  -Donald Davidson
The Ballad of Billie Potts  -Robert Penn Warren
Preludes  -T.S. Eliot
Sweeney among the Nightingales  -T.S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi  -T.S. Eliot
The Veiled Lady  -Maura Stanton
Prophecy  -Donald Hall
Archaic Torso of Apollo  -Rainer Maria Rilke
Of Poor B.B.  -Bertolt Brecht
Women  -Louise Bogan
Bored  –Margaret Atwood
A Happy Thought  -Franz Wright
The Idea of Ancestry -Etheridge Knight
Smiling Through  -Reed Whittemore
Histoire  -Harry Mathews
The Request  -Sharon Olds

DO WE HAVE TO PLAY THIS GAME? PHILIP LARKIN AGAINST MAURA STANTON

Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” is a 60-line, ababccdeed, iambic pentameter (penultimate line trimeter) meditation-on-death powerhouse.

What was Hull, England’s Philip Larkin even doing in the APR, Vogelsang, and Berg, eds?

Berg studied with Robert Lowell & attended the Iowa Workshop; Vogelsang has taught on the west coast, and they made APR into a journal of Iowa free verse, not British formalism.

But here’s Larkin and his “Aubade” in APR’s Body Electric anthology, and thus in the Scarriet 2011 Tournament, bullying his way to the top of the heap against poems without rhyme or meter.

“I work all day and get half drunk at night” is throwing fear into all opponents.

Is this why certain poets hang together? Among themselves, they are poets, but next to poems like Larkin’s “Aubade,” they are not?

Larkin’s poem says ‘death is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it’ and the rhymes don’t soften this message—they harden it.  Verse is soft and prose is hard, verse is ‘la la la’ and prose is pointed—at least this is what modernist aesthetics would have us believe, but Larkin proves otherwise: his verse is a cold knife, and most of these APR prose poets are waving fake magic wands, by comparison.

Maura Stanton, then, in contemplating facing Larkin’s “Aubade” with her poem, “The Veiled Lady,” must be feeling what Larkin in his poem expresses: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare” and “Unresting Larkin, a day nearer now” and “the sure extinction that I travel to” and “This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels. APR used to try” and “Courage is no good.”

Stanton’s poem features an atmosphere of 19th century seances and ends up saying our real selves are conjurer’s tricks, ending with:

That woman you say you love doesn’t exist.
Look at the way our faces have appeared
On the black glass of the picture window
Now that it’s evening, and the lights are on.
There she is, standing beside you, smiling.
Go to her. Embrace her if you can.

This is lovely, but one can safely object: The woman I love does exist, and I can embrace her.

The Larkin poem, however, imprisons you with its whole self.

One can see in this interview that Maura Stanton, a Vietnam War era Iowa Workshop student, knows many of the poets in APR’s Body Electric. It’s her world.

But Philip Larkin is a poet not for Iowa City, but for the ages.

Larkin 99, Stanton 66.

PHILIP LARKIN IS IN THE FINAL FOUR.

BEAT LARKIN? KNOTT GONNA HAPPEN

Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot

The East Bracket Sweet Sixteen contests are over, with Gillian Conoley edging Barbara Guest and Carolyn Creedon getting by Leslie Scalapino into the East Finals.

Today’s North Bracket Sweet Sixteen matchup is Philip Larkin v. Bill Knott.

Knott knocked off Alan Dugan and his “Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton” in a miraculous upset; Dugan’s poem brought celebrity, clarity, drunkenness, wistfulness, and we still have no idea what Knott’s homely sonnet is talking about:

MONODRAMA

Don’t think, I said, that because I deny
Myself in your presence I do so in mine—
But whom was I talking to? The room, empty
Beyond any standpoint I could attain,

Seemed all sill to stare off before someone’s
Full length nude, at halfmast the pubic flag
Mourned every loss of disguise, allegiance
More to the word perhaps than its image—

But predators always bite the nape first
To taste the flower on the spine-stem, so
I spoke again, which shows how unrehearsed
I failed to be. I went to the window:

Sky from your vantage of death, try to see.
Flesh drawn back for the first act of wound, it’s me.

Rhymes and half-rhymes abound, but rhythmically, the poem is all-thumbs.  It has no music to recommend it, and if its harshness is intentional, or not, we can’t really see how it matters either way.

Knott’s poem is profoundly ugly, and this no doubt is intentional, due perhaps, to the homely subject matter.   Is it a conversation between the poet and his poem? The poem won’t let the poet be seen? That’s as much as we can get from it.

R.P. Blackmur, influential Modernist and New Critic, who got John Berryman—suicidal, in debt from his education, teaching HS—a job at Princeton, wrote:

The art of poetry
is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse
by the animating presence in the poetry
of a fresh idiom: language

so twisted & posed in a form
that it not only expresses the matter in hand
but adds to the stock of available reality.

“So twisted & posed” sums up Knott’s poem—and much of modern poetry’s hubris: a belief that “twisted poetry” is far superior, by its very nature, to “manufactured verse.”  Verse does not contain “language” and does not “add to the stock of available reality.”  Whole generations which Blackmur influenced became besotted with this idea.

Who will lose to Knott? Not Larkin,
Whose poem contains more memorable
Lines than Pope; the day will darken,
Night meet day and placid on the window sill
Knott sits there still, unable to hearken
To anything but Aubade’s spell, Knott’s will
Broken bric-a-brac facing the pane; outdoors
Larkin, the storm, Monodrama meekly implores
The English poet to stop, stop, but Aubade roars.

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Larkin 98, Knott 37

 PHILIP LARKIN IS IN THE ELITE EIGHT!


CONGRATULATIONS TO THE SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS APR SWEET SIXTEEN WINNERS!

EAST BRACKET

BARBARA GUEST

LESLIE SCALAPINO

GILLIAN CONOLEY

CAROLYN CREEDON

NORTH BRACKET

PHILIP LARKIN

BILL KNOTT

HOWARD NEMEROV

MAURA STANTON

SOUTH BRACKET

TESS GALLAGHER

EILEEN MYLES

STEPHEN DOBYNS

SHARON OLDS

WEST BRACKET

ALLEN GINSBERG

JOY HARJO

CAROLYN MUSKE

STEPHEN DUNN

In the East Bracket, four relatively unknown poets emerged victorious from competition with John Ashbery, James Wright, Robert Creeley, James Tate, Stanley Kunitz, A.R. Ammons, and Jack Spicer.

Poetry tournaments are richer and more exciting with upsets than other types of competitions, and this is because reputations of clique-poets tend to be artificially inflated.  But kiss-ass and in-crowd behavior don’t help when you’re under the net and playing for a win in front of crowds!

Poems matter when it comes to winning, not poets. 

We’ve all dreamed of writing that one great poem that will ensure our place in eternity.

Poets’ names travel faster than poems, and poems these days don’t travel very fast at all.  Editors, publishers and critics need to identify the best poems; but what usually happens is poets—who are more ambitious than poems, as it turns out—fight to the top and occupy mouths and ears and anthologies.  A poet’s name is sung and the poems follow, even in the wake of the famous poet, obediently and hardly read.

Poets’ names should come attached to poems; instead we get poems meekly following poets’ names.

It give us great pleasure then, to present sixteen poems which have tangled and tussled and proven themselves.

We are proud of the poets, too, but you can be sure their place in the sun is deserved.

The 2010 March Madness Tournament used the BAP volumes (David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series) from 1988 (its founding) to 2009.  Billy Collins’ “Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” won that tournament.

These 2011 March Madness poems are from one anthology, the best of APR, (the American Poetry Review) from its founding in 1972 to 2000, and produced by the editors of APR, Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, and Arthur Vogelsang.  So these poems are seen through that lens—the editors did not include Billy Collins—but it’s an important lens, and shows basically what American poetry was doing in those years.

Two big names have survived so far: Larkin (one of a few Brits in the collection) and GinsbergSharon Olds is well-known, and Stephen Dobyns has some renown.

The poems will be examined, because they have to win more to get to the top: Elite Eight, Final Four, and the Championship.

Thanks for watching!

PHILIP LARKIN AND JACK MYERS RUMBLE

Scarriet 2011 March Madness. North Bracket, round Two. “Aubade” by Larkin v. “The Experts” by Jack Myers.

Reading Larkin’s “Aubade” is not like flying in an airplane. Larkin didn’t like to travel. Reading “Aubade” is to be crushed by the large rock of ‘we’re going to die’ and the art of it is: the emotion expressed in the poem fully belongs to ‘I’m going to die.’

Ironically, there would be something morbidly pedantic about Larkin’s poem if it were not about death; if it were about any other subject, its manner would offend with its certainty, but here it thrills. With the simplicity of a child reaching for a sweet, or a fly buzzing onto poo, Larkin chooses a topic that makes his rhetoric inescapable—and he triumphs. The inevitablilty of Larkin’s skillful rhymes pack the reader in ice and cart him on greased wheels away. The length of the poem is perfect, too; it presses down on us long enough so that we are dead. Had it been shorter, we would have been able to escape.

Because Larkin’s “Aubade” is not a typical loose APR poem—no grime, no spittle, no grandiosity, no hyperbole, no obscurity, no doubts, no pieces of the puzzle left lying about—its formalism gleams, a white towering wonder, a singing cloud above a chattering wood. In American company, even in the company of American poets, Larkin’s fierce,  fanatical atheism wounds with its Englishy swift directness, recalling Shakespeare and Shelley with its emotional blade, true because ruthless in the way it manages to perfect subjectivity with a philosophical picture framed by god-like sound. Larkin’s faithlessness is so pure that only divinity could have made it. Larkin pushes us to God just as the priest sometimes pushes us away.

Meanwhile Jack Myers operates on a more human level up in his plane with the indifferent, and later, on the ground with a waitress. It’s not sentimental; it’s good stuff Myers has going on here, but what happens is by making real life poetry and poetry real life, as Myers attempts to do, both disappear. There’s poetry in good hardboiled detective fiction, in landscapes, in ordinary things, but one can’t say, ‘look! here is the poetry.’ For poetry to be poetry it has to remain elusive. One cannot will poetry, although there’s will involved and it seems that of that kind of will there’s never enough.

If you chase two rabbits, you lose both. You cannot be poetic and real. Further, to make things even more difficult, there are objects which are poetic and objects which are not. Americans since 1945 don’t accept that there are some objects which are poetic and some objects which are not. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if Americans did not feel the need to constantly and consciously prove this truism to be an error. If we still believed it, but just didn’t think about it so much, it wouldn’t be a problem. But we’ve got to the point where we”ve become defensive about it, like Myers in the airplane.

Larkin defeats Myers, 97-85.

GINSBERG SOLE TOP SEED SURVIVOR, NO.2 SEEDS BEGIN PLAY

East-  James Wright v. William Matthews
North- Philip Larkin v. Joseph Duemer
South- Robert Penn Warren v. Jack Hirschman
West- Donald Hall v. Douglas Crase

Poems by Wright and Matthews both rueful and poignant; Wright’s has more concentrated power, but Matthews is less self-pitying and finally has more interest.

Sleep, the most cunning weapon?  Both opponents seem to think so.

Wright’s “And Yet I Know” ends thusly:

Beside the tomb in the shade of a head of a man, a living man is lying down under a pine shrub dead drunk. It
is exactly two minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon.
Then I found later that monument is the
Funeral Kiosk of the Antinore, and beside
it the tomb of the poet Lovato de’ Lorati.
I have never read Lorati’s poems.  His name is so lovely.
I have been drunk and asleep beneath a pine shrub myself.
I wonder who the sleeper is.

And Matthews‘ “Good Company” ends like this:

The conversation luffs.  The last
bottle of wine was probably too much
but God we’re happy here.
“My husband stopped the papers
and flea-bathed the dog
before he left.” One of us has a friend
whose analyst died in mid-session,
non-directive to the end.
Now we’re drifting off to our nine lives,
and more. Melodramatic wind,
bright moon, dishes to do, a last
little puddle of brandy or not,
and the cars amble home:
the door, the stairs, the sheets
aglow with reticence and moonlight,
and the bed full to its blank brim
with the violent poise of dreams.

Matthews 68, Wright 64

In North play, Larkin and Duemer both doubt the soul lives after death: Larkin, with rhyme, his own, Duemer, with prose, another time’s.

from the beginning of Larkin’s “Aubade”:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

The end of Duemer’s: “Theory of Tragedy”

Tonight, odor of skunk hanging like a philosopher’s soul
in the air, I sit beneath a xerox copy of a photograph—one of those
Greek vases called a lekythos, this one showing a daughter of Memory,

loosely draped, feet bare, sexy, her right hand indicating
a songbird on a branch sketched near her knees.
Without a definition of tragedy, we cannot understand
the dance our words and grammar pattern intersecting
the facts of the palpable world–a maple tree’s black
branches against the amber/blue stripes of sunset,

perfume of skunk and wood smoke hanging in the air.
The old man always said his wisdom was nothing but ignorance,
and at the end of his life he couldn’t prove the soul
survives the body. Perhaps it was nothing but a feeling,
like tragedy, which is only the awkward singing
of a small bird on a flimsy branch pointing toward memory.

Larkin scores at will and it’s lights out for Duemer.

Larkin  98, Duemer 84

Over in the South, Robert Penn Warren looms under the moon, as the poet observes his son walking in the moonlight.  Warren’s opponent, Jack Hirschman, asserts that in the name of working people it’s OK to censor art—especially the art of corporate museum curators.   Warren’s “Night Walking” takes on Hirshman’s “The Painting.”

Hirshman is impressive in his bold thesis but Warren’s art finally prevails.

Warren 78, Hirschman 71

In the West, Donald Hall’s hysterical “To A Waterfowl” has no trouble with Douglas Crase’s more sober rumination, “There Is No Real Peace In the World.”

Hall 66, Crase 49

Three No. 2 Seeds advance, with one upset, as James Wright falls to 15th seed William Matthews.

THE WUSSY POETS

wussy.jpg

CATULLUS (Foul-mouthed gossip)

TRISTAN CORBIERE (Sickly & sarcastic)

RALPH WALDO EMERSON (Sage, married into money)

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW (Professor, married into money)

ROBERT FROST (Teacher, Grump)

WALLACE STEVENS (Got his ass kicked in Key West)

JOHN CROWE RANSOM (Academic, his ashes reside on Kenyon campus)

ALDOUS HUXLEY (Pampered aristocrat, extremely near-sighted)

T.S ELIOT (Bank Clerk)

PAUL VALERY (Wretched Pedant)

W.H. AUDEN (Disowned a poem when someone didn’t like a line)

ALLEN GINSBERG (Slept until noon-ish)

PHILIP LARKIN (Smut addict, librarian)

FRANK O’HARA (Wrote poem about Lana Turner)

JOHN ASHBERY (Wrote poem about Daffy Duck)

WHAT’S ALL THIS FUSS ABOUT TRANSLATION?

Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.”  — Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

We caught the Adam and Ilya show over on the Poetry Foundation site: the critic and former-Seamus-Heaney-student-at-Harvard critic and the Russian-transfer-student-professor poet were debating the finer points of translation—points, thankfully, which are easily translatable.

Ilya Kaminsky was for it, Adam Kirsch was wary of it.  Ilya was climbing the tower as fast as he could while Adam was standing on the ground, looking up, saying…I don’t know…

Ilya Kaminsky was selling his book (The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry) and Adam Kirsch was selling valid notions of translation.

Then Sam Hamill commented on the discussion:  

“I’ve grown very weary of these arguments, especially when they are relentlessly Eurocentric. Not a single mention of a Chinese poet, or Japanese or Vietnamese, no poem from Tamil, from Sanskrit, from Thai; no thought of Native American languages and traditions.” 

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, reprinting a remark which followed the debate by two young titans, but grouchy Hamill helps us to see how problematic the whole issue is: Fail! no poem from Tamil.  The tower is big, baby.

The tower is big, so big, it’s probably best to stay on the ground and hang out with Philip Larkin, who, when asked about Jorge Luis Borges, retorted, “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”   Just congratulate yourself that you speak English, which practically the whole educated world speaks, and note that English is a language both Romance and Germanic, as close to an Ur-language as ancient Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit.

Fluency in English is enough.  Who needs to learn other languages when you’ve got Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Keats?   If studying Latin and Greek made those old English poets better, it was because English is fed by Latin and Greek, on a purely practical, mechanical, nuts-and-bolts level; it makes as much sense, then, to study Latin today, as it did then.  (Are MFA poetry students studying Latin, today?  Nope.)   Or, to study Pope, because he knew French, Italian, Latin and Greek.   A reader not fluent in English, unable to appreciate Pope, what can they defend?  

We think it richly, funny, then, this whole silly debate, for one either knows a language fluently, or one learns another one, but if neither the poet, nor the reader, nor the translator, is an Alexander Pope, it is a hypocritical farce, all this blather about ‘translation’ and ‘international poetry.’

Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end? 

That is the question. 

Poetry must ask this question all the time, whether it involves translation, or not.  Translation is the last of our worries, really.   Study French or Italian or German or Latin or Greek or Chinese or Shakespeare or Pope to make your English better and shut up.  Don’t tell me I need to read some comtemporary Russian poet or some contemporary Greek poet or some contemporary Vietnamese poet translated into contemporary English. 

Now, I could read the mumblings of WC Williams or the rantings of Ezra Pound, or the kickapoo of Jorie Graham.   Would that make me more internationalist, or just hopelessly pretentious?  I suppose it depends on which American academic dialect one speaks.  It doesn’t take a linguist to warp and bend my native tongue into something new and strange.  It doesn’t take a Russian to mangle English; a speaker who only knows English can do that just fine.  Neither does it take a Russian to teach me facts about Russia; the human is universal enough that I can ‘get’ Russia through English reporting.  Personalities vary enough within one language, differences are profound in one country, even within one family, that it’s not necessary to seek difference in another tongue.   What seek I in another tongue, then?   Only an advantage to myself, only an advantage to my language, or, if I were going to resettle in another land with another tongue, but now we are in a practical realm far from poetry, or, close to poetry, depending on who my new neighbors are. 

If I could snap my fingers and know all languages, of course I would.  Duh.  But poetry is any language that is good; Pope in English is better than WC Williams in 600 languages.   Let us come right out and say it: poetry is the cream of language, by its very definition, and those who peddle ‘international poetry’ because the product happens to be ‘international,’ when it turns out the poetry itself is pedestrian, are doing good work as a matter of course, but let’s be really honest: in terms of poetry and pedagogy, in terms of real interest in language, contemporary translations of contemporary international poetry is important only in terms of polite diplomacy and in nothing else; in terms of real learning and real poetry it probably does more harm than good, ultimately.   Let these MFA poets who feather their nest with ‘translation’ creds take note: before you vacation in Italy, why not spend some time learning Vietnamese?

Professor Kaminsky struck what seemed to be a mortal blow against his opponent when he said politely, responding to Adam (“wouldn’t you agree there is no such thing as an international poem?”) Kirsch’s wary approach to translation:

“I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay.”

I thought, at that point, Kirsch will never get up from that mat.  But he did.  Kirsch said that well-known examples of successful translations are really not so much translations as “reinventions.”  Kirsch delivered a knock-out blow of his own with: “the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa.”

The question then comes back to what I said earlier:  Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end?

Translation is heated lovemaking, and both lovers, in every successful case of translation, transcend ‘the heated babble’ of the ‘translation debate’ itself.  The rest is a mere lover’s spat by mediocre translators.

POETRY: COMEDY FOR PEOPLE WHO AREN’T FUNNY?

Billy Collins: So this poet walks into a poem…

To read Best American Poetry 2006, when Billy Collins was the judge, is to be struck by the ‘stand-up comedy’ style of its poetry.

Reading over the clever, flamboyant, frank poems in BAP 2006 with more care than they perhaps deserve, we notice the “voice” in these poems tends to be humorous and idiosyncratic—but not quite ‘comedy club’ humorous.  And yet, this seems to be, by default, the target audience.   There’s some success and some charm which follows from this style, but it’s also problematic, since it ultimately doesn’t work as poetry,  and yet it doesn’t work as comedy either; it flounders in a never-never land, between the two genres.

I like to laugh as much as the next person, and when I’m laughing, I don’t care whether what I’m reading is supposed to be poetry, or not.   But what if the material isn’t really funny?  What if that’s the intent, but, in reality, it’s finally just weird? There’s a desire to repeat a good joke, but the merely odd tends to be forgotten.  This is what happens to all contemporary poetry, it seems.

The following is from Billy Collins’ guest-editor BAP 2006 introduction:  Notice how Collins says that meter and rhyme in poetry have been replaced by a “voice” that the reader can “trust.”  When Collins tries to say how the “voice” feels like something he can “trust,” he gets into  trouble.   When you ask a poem—which is a fiction—to be “honest,” as Collins does, you move  into tricky territory.

Once Walt Whitman demonstrated that poetry in English could get along without standard meter and end-rhyme, poetry began to lose the familiar gait and musical jauntiness that listeners and readers had come to identify with it. But poetry also lost something more: a trust system that had bound poet and reader together through the reliable recurring of similar sounds and a steady dependable beat.  Whatever emotional or intellectual demands a poem placed on the reader, at least the reader could put trust in the poet’s implicit promise to keep up a tempo and maintain a sound pattern.  It’s the same promise that is made to the listeners of popular songs.   What has come to replace this system of trust, if anything?  However vague a substitute, the answer is probably tone of voice.  As a reader, I come to trust or distrust the authority of the poem after reading just a few lines.  Do I hear a voice that is making reasonable claims itself–usually a first person voice speaking fallibly but honestly–or does the poem begin with a grandiose pronouncement, a riddle, or an intimate confession foisted on me by a stranger?

–Billy Collins, Introduction to BAP 2006, David Lehman series editor

How does Collins expect the reader to figure out that the poem he happens to be reading is not by a “stranger?” The Collins criteria have no merit: “fallibly but honestly?”   Should we trust a poem that begins: Goo goo ga ga goo goo. Fallible?  Yes. Honest? Yes.

But Collins says:  Nothing “grandiose.”  No “riddles.”  Nothing “foisted.”

Let’s be honest, here.  Collins isn’t really talking about a ” voice” that he can “trust.”   That’s just the professor in him talking.   What he’s really looking for are comic bits.    Here, chosen at random, are the opening lines of some poems in BAP 2006:

“Into every life a little ax must fall.”   —Kim Addonizio

“I just found out that my new husband/May have never married me at all.”  —Laura Cronk

“When a sentence is composed of two independent /clauses, the second being weaker than the first/it is called One-Legged Man Standing. If it/purposefully obscures meaning, it’s called Ring/Dropped In Muddy Creek, or if elegantly composed, Wasp Fucking Orchid.”Tom Christopher

“At the Miro exhibit in the Centre Pompidou,/I hear a guy say to his girlfriend…”   —David Kirby

“I’ve been smoking so much pot lately”  —Jennifer Knox

“Nose out of joint, City Slicker?/Blown a gasket, Hot Shot?/Fit to be tied, Arty Farty?/Going through the roof, Curtain Raiser?”  —Mark Pawlak

“I’ve never loved anyone more than I love you, he said,/which meant what exactly?”   —Liz Rosenberg

“Because we know our lives will end/Let the vagina host a huge party, and let the penis come.”   —Charles Harper Webb

It’s just a hunch, but we think Collins is a better poet for not being able to articulate a thing about poetry.

“I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems,” Philip Larkin once said. “It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”

%d bloggers like this: