LOVE IS AN ACT: IN PRAISE OF ROMANTICISM

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It is time to be honest about love.

We are going to argue that love—truly romantic love—rejected as cheap and backwards these days, will save the world.

First, we admit that love is rare, and it dies rather quickly. Everyone experiences this. We like something if it benefits us, and all sorts of human relationships are based on practical arrangements. Love, and here we will skip a definition, since it refers to what most of us have experienced at some point: it is mad, complete, mystical, and full of desire. It is not friendship. It can strike us before puberty, but after puberty, the charisma involved largely partakes of sexuality.

It is a truism to say love requires focus. Love must be intense, have intensity—if it is what we know as love, it must be intense—and this brings us to love’s desire for beauty. It wouldn’t make sense for love to involve many things, for this would be to dilute and diminish by spreading too thin, all that love is, and we agree love must have intensity.

Love must have a physical dimension, and to have the force and importance love requires, love should be rare, but not so rare as to be beyond human possibility, and a certain social comprehension. Individual human beauty fits this criterion—human beauty is rare, invokes intensity and focus, and though rare, is accessible.

In the same manner that durable, attractive, and rare metals such as silver and gold will always signify value in terms of wealth in society, human beauty, whether we like it or not, is the coin of love.

We begin with individual human beauty.

But now we have two more elements.

These elements are based on the idea that love is an act.

Do we mean in the sense that “acting” is fake? “To be able to act” is simply what a successful person is able to do. One can say that beauty is “fake,” in the context of love; but this is to assume that the attractive, which is desired, is insincere, but how so? Acting, like beauty, might be construed as fake in “matters of the heart,” but this view, in the name of a fake “depth,” is the superficial one. If something is truly desired, and if any action, including “acting,” belongs to the category of achieving what is desired, how can it then be deemed superficial? We are forced to use acting, action, and act, and all these three words imply—since we are not talking of friendship or the spiritual, but the concentrated madness of love.

When we say “acting,” we do not include lying, or being dishonest in any way which hurts the beloved. We mean “acting” with the goal of loving one person. The “act” is for love, not for “playing around.”

After beauty, there are two layers of “acting” involved:

One: micro-acting, which refers to the natural charm of the person, an unconscious extension of physical attractiveness, and

Two: macro-acting, which involves the actual “behavior of love;” making vows and uttering words of promise, committment, passion, excitement, praise and, naturally, love.

Micro-acting is crucial. One can be physically attractive, but have very little actual charm. Physical beauty is necessary, but even necessary is micro-acting, the way a person smiles, their personality, how they “act.” We have all seen the attractive face which loses all its beauty the moment we experience that dull something in the person behind it. Beauty exists cleverly and minutely.

Macro-acting takes work.

Micro-acting is just the way the person is.

All three, personal beauty, micro-acting, and macro-acting, mutually enhance each other, and all three are present in love.

Acting, even as we are describing it here, in a heightened, non-pejorative way, is typically seen as wretched, superficial, dishonest, and unseemly.

But what we are saying here is that acting is at the heart of romantic love, and romantic love could not exist without it.

Romantic love is not necessary to marriage and children; there are many societies where marriage is arranged, or where women are second class citizens, or worse, and therefore breeding does not require love at all.

Here we notice two things. Romantic love, which may lead to marriage and children, is not necessary to these two things.

But when it is, it requires women to be free and equal to men.

If this is true, is the western tradition of romantic love directly involved in equality for women?

And if romantic love does require “acting,” is this why romantic love is easy for other societies to disparage, and why romantic love is increasingly viewed as insincere, useless, and crazy—especially with increasing contact between the west—and societies (Islam, for instance) which put more of a premium on breeding, and submissive women, than romantic love?

Recall that the major trope of romantic love as “madness” comes from Plato, who opined human breeding farms as a national ideal. (Plato redeems himself in other places, defending love, and the equality of women, but his pragmatic side had moments in his famous society blueprint, “The Republic.”)

What if romantic love is the true path to free and equal women, to a free and equal society, and love itself?

What if romantic love faces grave danger before the more practical forces of not only societies which enslave women, but groups who view romantic love as a backwards and superficial act?

Much has been made recently of the unlikely alliance between feminists and Muslims—how could these two groups possibly be allied?

Both oppose romantic love.

Islam prioritizes modesty—marriage in which the woman is subordinate.

Romantic love does not fit into this scheme.

Feminists (and many sexual progressives) dislike romantic love—since it prioritizes attractive and flirtatious females. Indicted here is the great western tradition of dead white male literature of the roaming, independent, pining male poets, and their beautiful female muses.

But the great tradition of romantic love does not feature enslaved, uneducated, subordinate women. Nor does it feature empty-headed, sexual bimbos, either.  And women can be beautiful in millions of different ways.

The Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, loved educated women.

Equals. Women who could appreciate their poetry. Women (think of Mary Shelley) who were writers, as well.

Poe’s “Ligeia” is an entrancing, mentally and spiritually powerful, woman. Poe rejected as a literary ideal the merely sexual or physically attractive female. Flirtatious women meant nothing to Poe. But the woman poet was a source of great admiration for the American.

The great tradition of Romantic love features strong women. Otherwise it is perverted Romanticism.

Two wars. One should never fight two wars.

Women do not put on uniforms and go to war against other women. Men do that.

In nations where men fight other men and keep their women veiled and subordinate, men fight two wars, one against men, and another against their women.

These societies which fight two wars tend to lose out to the countries in the west—whose women are free and educated—the result of the western romantic literary tradition.

Here’s to Romanticism—often portrayed as reactionary, but it is quite the opposite.

Our readers have noticed we have championed the poet, Ben Mazer, who is just now bringing out his Selected Poems to a great deal of acclaim.

Ben Mazer and Scarriet are leading the revival of Romantic poetry.

We must admit that romance is an act—in the superficial meaning of that word.

We must admit to love’s superficiality.

Even as we defend it.

It is through poetry that micro-acting and macro-acting become one; and the poet achieves the charm of the lover—which all desire to possess.

Romantic love may just be the answer to world peace.

If the world heeds this essay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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T.S ELIOT AND ELIZABETH BARRETT—POETRY ROUND ONE IN THE MADNESS

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We know there’s something magical about Scarriet March Madness tournaments—the pairings so often feature uncanny resemblances without any conscious intent by those putting together the brackets.

Look at this one:

Two of the most famous lines in poetry.

Elizabeth Barrett’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

T.S. Eliot’s “I measure out my life with coffee spoons.”

There’s counting, or measurement, in each offering.

Poetry, of course, the poetry people love (we don’t know about that formless modern stuff) involves counting—the measurement of beats—what the professors call meter.

We might note here that Plato said “art” and “measurement” were exactly the same thing.  And even here in 2017, we kind of see what he means.

Anyway, is it any accident, then, that two of the most famous lines in poetry, one from 19th century England, and the other from 20th century America, involve counting?

T.S. Eliot’s family traces back to Massachusetts and a Unitarian grandfather who knew Emerson—Emerson and Poe were enemies, and Eliot excoriated Poe in “From Poe to Valery.”

Poe and Barrett were correspondents before Browning famously entered Barrett’s life, and Poe dedicated his Poems, 1845 to Barrett.

Do these facts “count,” when we study the poetry?

Barrett’s sentiment is an expansion of a singular love: how do I love thee? Let me count the ways is a glorious movement outward from the one.

True love is geometry.

Eliot’s moves in the opposite manner—Life (his life) is chopped up, subtracted, despairingly made smaller, even as there is an adding, a counting of the ways: coffee spoonful after coffee spoonful.

Fascinating, really, how two similar tropes work in completely opposite directions: the optimistic 19th century, the pessimistic 20th century.

We may as well throw in this quote from Eliot right here:

The essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

 We should allow Barrett to have her turn, too. She wrote the following:

If you desire faith, then you have faith enough.

Elizabeth Barrett is like a large, comfortable Victorian pillow.

T.S. Eliot is like a black-and-white horror film.

Eliot wins—only because the zeitgeist forces us to choose him.

POETRY AND FEMALE BEAUTY

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To some, probably to many, if not all, this topic of “poetry and female beauty” might seem just a silly exercise, a vain excuse to draw nonsensical and vain conclusions of the most deluded and pitiful kind.

Can anyone seriously believe that “poetry” and “female beauty” have anything to do with each other?

Haven’t we long advanced past such antiquated notions?

Well, yes.  If by “advanced,” we mean too sophisticated to be interesting to anyone.

This is why poetry is dead.  Not dead to you and me, of course.  But dead to them. The public.

But who can blame them?  They have no idea what poetry is.

And yet, let us not be disheartened.  Follow my reasoning.

There are two ways to look at poetry, and today we champion one, and discard the other.

The one we champion is: poetry is either a certain, linguistic-mathematical, thing-in-itself (a sonnet has 14 lines, etc) or it is a special way of expressing whatever the poet wants to express—some kind of meaning (or non-meaning) in some kind of emotional (or non-emotional) manner.

Lyric or avant-garde, this is the view the vast majority of serious poets and critics champion: a poem has both a “form” on one hand, and a “say whatever you want” content on the other.

The one we discard is this: Life is what creates the poem; the poem itself determines neither its form nor its content—life, as everyone knows it and lives it, does.

In as much as “female beauty” is important to life, “poetry and female beauty” is a more vivid, and more valid, description of what poetry is, or might be, than the term, “poetry.”

One can speak volumes, of course, volumes and volumes, should one choose to describe “poetry.”  And one will have the advantage of describing “poetry” with numerous examples.

This “advantage,” however, has one problem: there will be so many examples, and poetry will be defined in so many ways, that “what a poem actually is” will disappear. On account of it being everything. 

And think about it.  Isn’t this how poetry ends up being described these days?  It can jingle and rhyme. It can be prose. It can be brief. It can be long.  It can be anything.

And what does all this finally mean for “poetry?”

It has no definition. It doesn’t exist.

But once we attach “female beauty” to “poetry,” as completely foolish as this might seem, we are actually bringing poetry back to itself, restoring its definition, placing it back in reality, so that they (the public) have a chance of appreciating it and enjoying it, again.

The idea of “female beauty” is a fertile one.  It is an endlessly interesting topic and generates far more excitement than, well…. “poetry.”

Poetry has always done best for itself when it plays a minor, supporting role, when it surrenders its proud title and makes itself small.  Famous poems and poets become famous not because of the poetry—but always from something else.

Shakespeare: A great poet, maybe the greatest, but not best known for poetry.  One can go right down the line and see what we mean, whether it is Charles Bukowski (bar life) or Homer (war, adventure) or Dante (Hell, Beatrice).  Does anyone describe Bukowski by citing how he used iambic pentameter? Or how Bukowksi wrote about everything under the sun?  No.  Bukowski is completely defined in the public’s mind by the narrow content of his work.  Would anyone care about Dante if all we knew about him were his verse forms?

This, one might object, is only how the crowds see these poets.  Well, yes.  But we can’t forget that.

Secondly, Plato looked at poetry from the standpoint of his ideal Republic, from the standpoint of society: poetry is not some separately defined thing; it is an extension of what humans do, and that includes lying, propaganda, frightening people, and unnecessarily exciting people—stirring up emotions in ways they shouldn’t be stirred up. And this whole approach—which looks upon poetry warily as an aspect of life—belongs to this view that is now discarded.  Why is it discarded?  Because we think Plato was unkind to poetry, so we have discarded Plato—and his whole way of thinking about poetry.  But what have we done, in discarding how Plato felt about poetry? Plato idolized and feared poetry—he was in awe of it; it isn’t just that he didn’t trust it; he was mesmerized by it, the way some of us are mesmerized by female beauty.  By discarding Plato’s view, we are not really in favor of poetry; we are actually rejecting all that makes poetry dangerous, untrustworthy—and fascinating.

The poetry that we mistakenly put in our Republic today is defined so vaguely that it has no teeth, no interest, at all!

For here’s the thing: it isn’t that poetry should be good or bad; it is that there should be passionate feelings on whether it is good or bad.

What are the poet’s prospects today?

To teach poetry in school, which is to politely ill-define it into non-existence.

So the poets themselves are destroying poetry—while an increasingly bored public walks away.

The problem that poetry faces as a popular art form these days is that it is not bad enough to be banned by society, nor good enough to be embraced by society—and for the simple, obvious reason that no one knows what it is.

Now it is true, that we do, of course, hear of poets imprisoned, or even killed, in totalitarian regimes, but in every case we know that it was because of something that was said in the poetry, not because of the poetry.

Poets may take heart in hearing of poets banned and murdered: see! I am important! I am dangerous!

But the truth is, politics gets people killed; politics, not poetry, is always the reason; otherwise, poetry would sell, and attract large audiences and be a volatile, ecstatic essence—but it is not.

Certain kinds of politics and music are traditionally Dionysian, and often banned by society. Poetry may be cool, but, unfortunately, it is not hot.

Poets who practice poetry outside academia strive to make it “cool.” But the poetry of cool tends to finally be like the poetry of school—it is that poetry which aspires to “everything,” and which dilutes audience expectation, so that in the end, it is nothing.

People go to a comedy club to laugh. People watch the news to be informed. People go to a music club to dance.

People go to a poetry reading to…

And in that pause, in that ‘what do they go to a poetry reading for?’ is the entire problem.

And even within that fatal uncertainty of expectation, if people do have a real sense that in poetry there is, or might be, a superior entertainment, they will only be turned off all the more, since nothing makes people more uncomfortable than to be forced to experience what is vaguely superior. It is just as off-putting as a vague feeling of inferiority.

The operating word here is “vague.”

A narrow, defined, superiority is one thing, but a vague, all-inclusive superiority makes one think of a priest and solemn music and the occasional chuckle—perhaps the kind and wise priest has a sense of humor—and now, even here, religion has its attractions of a definite sort, and the key word is priest, who interprets God, and okay, we get it, we know exactly what that is. Religion is what one takes the family to, it is concerned with a philosophy of life: anyone, without feeling strange or self-conscious, can be certain in their mind what a religious ceremony is.

Thus, its popularity.

But if people are truly indifferent to anything, whether it is music or religion or poetry, it is because they are not sure what it is. If they do like a religious ceremony, they like it for a very specific reason: the music, the food, the dressing up, the solemn atmosphere, the chance for family gossip: something very specific and known.

But poetry, because it is so widely and vaguely defined, is, to both commoner and sophisticate alike, absolutely unknown. That is the whole problem.

As we have demonstrated, the poets are responsible for killing poetry, and they are doing so every single day, both inside and outside academia, with every book they publish, with every poem they write, and with every poetry reading they give, because of the scattered and ill-defined nature of poetry’s existence, dilute and invisible and depressing, and, increasingly so. This must stop.

And why are there so many bad poets? And people say they like them out of politeness! The ultimate art form of truth has been shackled to empty politeness!

The micro-issue of so many bad poets is directly related to the macro-issue of the ill-defined and utterly unknown nature of poetry. The writers of poetry are hesitant—of course!—they literally don’t know what they are writing.

But the poets should know what they are writing–in terms of pleasing a public, and a critic.

Poets are un-writing poetry, and poets are further destroying poetry because they fear the Critic, which brings us back to Plato, the greatest Critic, who the poets have fearfully tossed out, and banned. Ban criticism, however, and you ban poetry.

The Critic knows how to humble poetry, and this is crucial; for remember how we said that poetry always succeeds in actual practice when it plays a supporting role?

The solution to poetry’s vagueness is not to fanatically hyper-define a poem as a thing in-itself. We need to deftly add something to poetry, which will give it a new and grounded definition.

So poetry needs to become part of life. It needs ceremony and definition. It needs the equivalent of a flute girl, who is always, reliably there. And if the flute garners more attention than Plato, or the poet, too bad. The poet or the philosopher is simply out of luck.

The audience must absolutely know what to expect, every time. Is this possible?

And now lastly, and thirdly, we come to the whole objection many have for mentioning “female beauty” at all—but this is part of its whole interest.  One could easily object: aren’t men complete idiots in the way they swoon over superficial looks?  This causes a great deal of unhappiness. Why do you want to encourage this?

It is not that we want to encourage this shallow, but prevalent, excitement and interest in female beauty. We want to use it, and refine it in the process. For shouldn’t poetry be able to refine what is crude in life by sweetly and gently embracing it?

Religion must be moral and music must be sensual, and isn’t poetry that which occupies the perfect middle ground between the two? Pardon us if we seem too much like a Critic here, but is this not true?

And again, if the solution of “female beauty” seems silly, it is only because poetry as it is practiced today, both in and outside school, in all its solemn, many-headed seriousness, has become an empty bore to poetry’s potential public.

So in place of all this vagueness, why shouldn’t we introduce “female beauty” to “poetry,” if it will help make poetry popular, and rekindle the opportunity of sweet fame?

Why shouldn’t we introduce this principle:

Every true poet is a muse.

Why should poets remain oppressed and crushed by all that is vague? Better to be defined by what we are, and who we are, truthfully. Poetry needs to escape its abstract blackboard.

Why shouldn’t poetry be this:

Her.

Sad eyes, a humble spirit, devoted to family and friends, a brilliantly inventive but unschooled poet, writing poetry from childhood, not knowing why, with a model’s looks which could equal international renown, but looks greater than a model’s because informed by something sweeter and greater, captured and bound in a rapturous sense of poetry: an unconscious muse, a deeply conscious poet?

Poetry would be better for this.  For what is “poetry?”—word of no meaning!

Let poetry, instead, be the poetry she inspires.

And then we will know what poetry is.

 

 

 

THE END OF FORMALISM

“I would counsel Lysias not to delay, but to write another discourse, which shall prove the lover rather than the non-lover ought to be accepted.” –Socrates (The Phaedrus)

Wouldn’t you say, a thing can only be so strong when it is based on weakness?

For instance, intoxication can make us brave, but it does so because we are not brave, and so intoxication’s “bravery” exists because of weakness and so intoxication as a “good” will always be seen as a weakness and be understood as such.

Likewise, verse (poetry) adds to language a music above and beyond language’s meaning.  Since all would agree that conveying meaning is the highest purpose of language, and poetry is a good in that it makes it more entertaining to get meaning from language—the weakness announces itself to everyone: poetry feeds meaning the way intoxication feeds bravery.

The brave don’t need intoxication.

Good readers don’t need poetry—to entertain them and keep them focused in order to get meaning from a text.

We may or may not want to leave aside Socrates’ argument in the Phaedrus that the lover (mad) is a better life-partner than the friend (practical, sane). As Socrates points out, everyone (lover and non-lover) wants beauty and the lover/poet is finally better able to provide this than the practical type.

But just as Psychology has largely left behind Freud and Jung and literary invention that gave birth to Psychology itself—for psychotropic drugs and their practical effects, Plato is hardly studied any longer in school, and therefore it is safe to say that intoxication and verse are no longer seen as strengths at all.

Madness is the way we denigrate a thing, especially in our race to absolute reason in the realm of the humanities: women and earth have been dominated too long by “crazy” white males. So this is why verse has been abandoned. Its “intoxicated” aid to reading is rejected as unnecessary and insane: a weakness, a wrong, to be dispensed with.

For, yes, we should admit it—verse is a silly, entertaining thing that makes reading a greater amusement for a kind of mind easily bored by reading for meaning.

Verse exists because of a reading weakness—just as intoxication is sometimes necessary for bravery.

We dare not suggest here—but because we are crazy, we will—that bravery is nothing more than intoxication itself, or that verse enhances and elevates meaning and is closer to meaning than naked meaning itself is, at least in some select and really important instances.  But we’ll throw it out there nonetheless.

Verse is, obviously, formalism.

Today there are three ways critics and poets attempt to downgrade verse (formalism.)

One: They make sure we know that Socrates wore a toga. They make the whole question of formalism historical: form exists in forms and these forms: sonnets, heroic couplets, etc belong to certain historical periods with specific historical conditions.

And therefore we either cannot use these forms today or we must self-consciously subvert them.

An ABAB rhyme scheme is the equivalent of using “thou” and “thee.”

The stream of history in which all forms must exist carries them away.

So forms—all forms—formalism itself, in one simple (historical) step, is swept away.

Of course, despite the scholars’ opinion re: forms and history, we find formalism persists.

But where it does persist, the scholars simply point out that its persistence is not scholarly:

Rhyme belongs to hip-hop and other kinds of pop music. It doesn’t “feel right” in poems today that wish to be taken seriously, as scholarly works.

According to this anti-formalist approach, a poem cannot “work on its own terms;” it is always felt and understood in terms of historical conditions.

The “rules” for writing a sonnet are certainly legitimate, and verse does have a valid existence, but, according to the historical anti-formalist reading, only in a museum sort of way.

The “historical” downgrading of formalism is a very powerful way to downgrade formalism because it is both conservative and radical, since it simultaneously plays the “respect for history” card and the “now” card. Form is respected, but forms are obsolete, says the historical scholar.

The conservative New Critic John Crowe Ransom told his 1930s readers that writing like Byron was no longer possible. The “historical” view justifies every kind of experimentalism—even as it trumpets its tweedy respect for history.

Two: The scholars make form—not forms—the only thing that matters.  A highly abstract macro (form) kills the micro (forms).

This, too, is a very effective way to downgrade formalism:

This whole anti-formalism method can be summed up with T.S. Eliot, who wrote that even prose scans.

Even the loosest free verse has “form;” white space on the page has “form.”

This argument is far more insidious than number one above; so much so, that it resembles a CIA brainwashing tactic, and is probably the top reason for poets giving up on verse altogether—in a turn-about that courts insanity; destroying formalism in this manner argues that because white exists, snow cannot exist.

Form is what matters.  And form is such a naturally large category that the formless resides there. Formalism (the quality dismissed) merely concerns itself with various antiquated forms.

And here one notices how much this resembles the historical argument: The poet is expected to explore form itself as it applies to the present. Sonnets and Elizabethan England both belong to a formalism of the past.

So here’s a second reason not to write a sonnet.  First, the sonnet is relegated to the past. Second, form should be the focus; sonnets are merely forms.

And if that were not enough, there’s a third way.

Three: Avoid the subject altogether and make poetry all about content: form is expressed by what we say.

Just as the second reason strongly resembles the first reason—both emphasize form over forms—the third way that downgrades formalism resembles the second reason, for saying “form is nothing” is logically the same thing as saying “form is everything.”

Helen Vendler, obsessed with the “heterogeneity” and “stylistic originality” of poets like  Graham and Ashbery, is, in her essentially New Critical style, a mixture of Two and Three. She has written:  “Poetry not intelligible with respect to contemporary values of society could not be read.”

Surely, however, all critics like Vendler understand that a pure prose content purely isolated from all musical considerations cannot possibly denote anything poetical.

The poetical is prose meaning dipped in the coloring of musicality and moods. Content is always the ground from which we start, but it is not the poem itself.

Bravery (truth) is not intoxication (poetry).

To asset that ‘form is content and content is form’ is to lose both—is really to assert nothing.

Formalism is downgraded in three distinct ways, but it’s all the same pedantic strategy, a convincing but hollow set of deconstructions.

Listen in on any discussion of formalism and you get one or some combination of these three anti-formalist positions we have just presented: there is little else, except perhaps a kind of vague, well-meaning gesture towards “poems that work” in whatever manner happens to suit the historically grounded and socially acute poet. Virtues are slyly assumed to exist outside of formal properties, with the added assumption that “stylistic originality” and forms cannot co-exist.

But the truth is, there can be more “originality” in a sonnet than in all the works of Ashbery.

This is a truth which overturns all the abstract claims of heterogeneity in terms of form versus forms.

For we are always assuming that heterogeneity is going to be more original, but there is no basis for this belief at all.

New York City is a large complex place, but so long as we point to New York City in our minds as “heterogeneity,” able to stand as the ideal which transcends the petty, self-important enclosures of mere formalism, we miss the much larger point that New York City really consists of tiny neighborhoods, and all poetry, if not all reality, exists, and is accessible and knowable, in the city block, or the building, or the room: the reality is not a scholar pointing to abstract “form;” the reality is understood in what hides in a building in New York City—a sonnet, perhaps.

Yes, it actually makes more sense to look at all literature as a great string of sonnets than to wallow in pretentious abstractions (and billions of details merely elucidated for their own sake—or to fit into heterogeneity theories.)

Sonnet by sonnet is not the way to read, obviously, but the point is that this makes more sense than any of the methods advertised by the anti-formalist school.

Think of a literacy of the sonnet, rather than of the line, or the sentence, or the word, or the phrase.  What a literacy that would be!

Couldn’t the sonnet be the building block?  And wouldn’t it be a healthy mind who thinks in those terms?

Shelley’s great Ode (West Wind) is a short series of sonnets.

And one can read the Gettysburg Address—as four sonnets.

 

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Now let us ask, after exposing the ravings of the anti-formalists, this more pertinent question: what is poetry’s purpose?

Flowers are not condemned to exist under glass, as the sonnet is—and why not?

The answer is obvious: because flowers serve a purpose.

Flowers attract bees—this attractive quality helps define for us what a flower is, and, although we are not bees, so powerful and overflowing is the flowers’ attractiveness, that we, bee-like, admire the flower for its flower-like qualities.

What if poetry is a language of dissemination which, like the flower, is attractive in order to disseminate?

And what if this attractive quality is timeless and demands cultivation and protection?

The gardener is not asked to admire the flower but protect, grow, and breed the flower, for all eternity.

If the gardener merely admired the flower and did not protect, grow, and breed the flower, in terms of what we understand a flower to be, we would call her a very poor gardener.

Further, if the gardener greatly admired flowers, but assured us that flowers had long since served their purpose as flowers, and now should exist in museums only, we should not only find this great admirer of flowers a poor gardener, but, despite their learned admiration, an enemy of flowers.

Those who downgrade formalism in the three ways outlined above—condemning traditional forms of poetry to sterility and “learned” curatorial irrelevance—are like the gardener who may admire flowers, but is their enemy and destroyer.

Poetry today is being destroyed, especially by those who currently study and practice it. A museum-admiration of poetry is an evil and insidious thing.

To seek for the elusive rationale or reason or purpose or use, of poetry can be compared to the search for a loved one in a crowd.

The similarities defeat us, not the differences.

“Is this the one you seek?” ask the ignorant but well-meaning searchers, and they bring us person after person, with face and arms and legs and every particular human quality—but no, this is not our beloved!

We are not looking for a type—we are searching for a unique quality.

Just as we look for a championship baseball team, celebrated through the ages, and are deterred most in our search, not because it hides beside an object like a fire engine, but rather next to a losing team—which also has pitchers who throw at 90 mph and hitters who can hit a ball 500 feet.

The poem’s reason that we seek, to the ordinary eye, looks very similar, in the great scheme of things, to a great deal of other writing.

Poetry’s purpose, ignored by theoretical moderns—blends in.  And—because we are blind to it, it can eventually kill us.

We scan the crowd for the one we love and die if we do not find her.

We search for: not forms, not form, not content, but attractiveness.

The pedants ignore the raison ultima because they fear it will be “a type,” thinking “type” itself is defined by form, but never content. But here they wildly err.

To specify poetry with formalism alone is to take poetry over to mathematics and music—and this is not 1) a general thing nor is it 2) anything to do with content—precisely because content is never specified (the purpose of poetry is never mentioned)—since we assume whatever is said can and will be said, heightened by the formal qualities, of course, but not determined by them. Yet how can the content of speech not be determined by its formal qualities in a systematic manner? Music does determine how speech speaks and once this is conceded, the poetry’s ultimate rationale must at last be acknowledged, for how speech speaks cannot but determine what speech speaks.

Yet we never hear in discussions of formalism what poetry must say.

We can discuss stocks and bonds in verse and never mention poetry’s purpose. We can allude to Eliot’s objective correlative and never mention poetry’s hidden purpose, since Eliot’s astute formula never escaped the blackboard to actually walk about. Eliot was using this formula to attack whole historic periods of poetry when, he felt, content and form were estranged; the tweedy Modernist condemned the Romantic poets this way—Eliot was finally downgrading formalism historically, not philosophically—and so an opportunity was missed: Eliot was essentially saying what the conservative Ransom was saying when Ransom said we can’t write like Byron anymore: Modernism ignoring poetry’s true purpose by saying “form, not forms.”

We are free to say anything in poetry now, said the 20th century Anglo-American Modernists, making the reason disappear in a general loosening of form to fit more and more varieties of content. But why the Modernists hated Byron, was that Byron said more interesting things while rhyming than the Modernists did in free verse.  This is why the chief Modernists like Eliot and Ransom tried to bury Byron (and Romantics generally).  Byron didn’t fit the Modernist formula.

Sure, many ruefully viewed the Modernist agenda as a simple mistake: poetry-turning-into-prose; well, everybody did, but no one had the pedagogical reasoning to stop it. Verse was the “metronome” and poetry-as-prose, the “musical phrase” was how crazy Pound cleverly put it. (“Prose scans,” in other words.)

No one stopped to think that a metronome was a perfectly useful tool for Beethoven, as he created profound “musical phrases.” Beethoven was hidden, like poetry’s reason, in the “room” of Modernist “verse.”

Robert Penn Warren, the New Critic co-author of the influential, mid-20th century Understanding Poetry textbook, wrote an essay defending “impure poetry” against “pure poetry,” another Modernist act in the drama of hiding poetry’s purpose. Poetic content was now, according to Warren: “all and any content not determined in the least by form.” The purpose of poetry was gone. Modernism had blithely killed it.

It wasn’t that form gradually loosened due to formal considerations; form wasn’t freeing up form—content was, in the sense of ‘anything goes,’ anything can now be said: the lyrics were eliminating the music, so to speak; this, and only this, is what was meant by “impure poetry” and its triumph. (Understanding Poetry included a savage attack on the attractively musical verses of Poe, even as it championed Pound and Williams; Warren’s essay savaged Shelley; Eliot impolitely attacked Shelley, as well: Poe and Shelley were wretched examples for Modernist delectation of scorned, “narrow purity.” Remember, the New Critics were considered “conservative” in their views. But chucking formalism was universally done in the Modernist era.  This is what the Pound clique did: they also attacked Edna St. Vincent Millay. (See Hugh Kenner’s nasty remarks on her).

But if formalism, as all must concede, has what must be described as legitimate formal qualities (to define it as formalism as such) what does it mean to say, as the anti-formalists said, that content can be whatever it wants in an “impure” triumph? Here is a “room” which has certain formal qualities, identifying itself as a “room” of poetry (as opposed, to say, a dinner menu) and yet, when content enters this room, the room itself only exists to leave the content untouched and free to express itself however it chooses, and any restriction upon the content is condemned as a backwards step towards an unwanted, old, and “pure” poetic practice.

Of course defenders of the “impure” never admit the absolute disconnection of form and content outright— in each specific poem, they say, form and content do their dance: both form and content are equally valuable; the “impurity” we defend is only to say (they point out) that formalism is no longer a straitjacket; formalism no longer is severe in its restrictions, no longer blindly formal in its dictates.

Poetry’s purpose remains hidden, however. What is said in the poem is said, and afterwards, the “everything is form” explanation is bent to the content’s will—this is the anti-formalist ‘explanation number two:’ making formalism a blindly obedient (and essentially nonexistent) shadow of content. Whatever facilitates the saying (or meaning) that is not the saying (or meaning) has an existence, in the same way that “prose scans;” but nothing that can be called art need exist at all—the poem speaks; the content speaks and asserts itself, and simply by way of formalistic properties manifesting themselves in a perfectly ordinary “grammatical or anti-grammatical” manner, this then becomes the “formal triumph” which mirrors the “ordinary” content speaking in its artless cunning, free of all artificiality, fulfilling the prophecy of Modernism’s expansive and articulate poetic quest.

There is no need to make any decisions about content; all that needs to be proclaimed, proclaim the anti-formalists, is that historically we are expanding our ability to provide content as formalism drops away: jettisoning all formalistic strategy, as content becomes all (and thus, nothing!) This is what Eliot meant by formalism hiding behind the drapery of loose poetry: historical poetry’s actual existence as such, is old Polonius—and the prying pedant is soon to be stabbed and killed in T.S. Eliot’s Critical Modernism’s play.

But how can the form of poetry—if it is really form-–not predetermine content? It must. Otherwise it is not really what we mean when we speak of poetic form. How can poetry as a formal practice not have a real existence as an actual piece of form and as an actual piece of content?

If we are true poets, we do not wish to blindly kill the beloved (poetry’s reason); we wish to find them in the crowd.

How will I my true love know from another one? —Ophelia, Hamlet

We listen to Beethoven and hear an actual musical content; the music inspires specific feelings—based on its formal qualities. To say that poetry does not do the same thing is to deny poetry’s existence altogether. Which is what we said earlier is happening in fact: poetry, in academia—where it now mostly resides—has become a museum exhibit in its formalism, an inconsequential exercise in its contemporary use. It does not matter that superior poetry is being written today in obscure quarters—the public simply does not exist for it, and so it does not exist.

We said that in recent history, formalist considerations never usher in the least interest in specific categories of content, with Eliot’s objective correlative formula the one major (ineffective) exception. But before Modernism, poetry’s purpose is acknowledged; poetry is given an identity based on what it does—and what it expresses in terms of content.  The greatest example in literature, perhaps, can be found in the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus.

The modern lyric was called a “love letter” by Dante. Shakespeare made the sonnet a courting device for love and breeding—and thus was not far off from the “love letter” idea; the two greatest poets of all time (Eliot himself was explicit: “Dante and Shakespeare; there is no third”) have no trouble acknowledging the purpose of poetry which is now hidden: poetry, as much as it does exist formally, does yet have a use within, and obedient to, its purely formal existence.

The novel can be said to have originated as a series of letters (sonnets?) and the greatest fiction can be defined as an unfolding of love (or its opposite, hate: see the war-like Homer).

The sonnet—formalism—shall return.

Poetry, grown by philosophy and love, will be a living flower, once again.

 

WHAT IS POETRY? LISTEN TO ALEXANDER POPE

Pope: No awards or degrees. Self-taught. Banned from higher education in his native England for being a Catholic. World famous.

Alexander Pope was 20 when he wrote his rhymed “An Essay on Criticism.” This single essay contains more memorable poetry quotations than the entire 20th century produced.

We want to focus on one from that essay, which might save poetry from the wretched state it is currently in:

“What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

In their mania for “the new,” the modern poets (who have no public) constantly strive for what has never been thought before—and no wonder the results are sometimes pleasantly odd (at best) but mostly baffling, obscure, and unreadable.

Since thought and language are profoundly linked, any random combination of words, sentences or phrases will, in theory, produce “new thought.” If only this were true! We would all be poets, and all poetry magnet kits, Shakespeare.

It is easy to illustrate, with the help of Pope’s quote, this “new thought” folly, but this does not mean this folly has not been highly seductive.

Unfortunately, bad things seduce.

The Moderns, if anyone has any doubt, are to blame. We mean those men born in the latter part of the 19th century—Pound, Eliot, and William Carlos Williams.

Who has “thought” in white spaces on the page: how “oft” has that been thought before?  If you take this question too seriously, be careful; you might have the Modernist virus—which holds the utterly baffling “new” to be more important than common sense.

Pound’s Imagism, which led to his friend, Williams’ “no ideas but in things” further points to the insanity at issue; what sort of “thought” runs about in and between “things?” Isn’t it people (like Pope) who think?

If by “things,” the Modernists meant a sort of no-nonsense materialism (da Vinci on perspective or Poe on verse) than surely they would have said so (if they could actually bring themselves to do such a thing) but they didn’t; they really did mean things: a poem that reverently mentions a wheel barrow. This is really what it was all about. Yes, it really was crazy. A Duchamp conceptualist art joke. Ha ha.

T.S. Eliot represented the “serious/educated” fake side of Modernism, the counter-weight of gravitas in the Modernist scam.

Sexless, morbid Eliot—who hated Shelley—was like the sexless Ruskin and his “pre-Raphaelite” movement—eclectically raising certain art moments far above others: champion the Middle Ages at the expense of Raphael and the Renaissance: Ruskin—who famously and publicly attacked the great American poet, Whistler.

Eliot, when he was not whimpering about the end of his beloved British Empire in “The Waste Land,” theorized that Milton and the Romantics were saddled with a “dissociation of sensibility,” unlike the “Metaphysical poets.” It was actually taken seriously in some circles that Byron, Shelley, and Keats lacked fusion of thought and feeling, while Donne did not. Taking nonsense like this seriously was just what the Modernists did. Eliot attacked “Hamlet” and the work of Poe, for good measure. Modernism had to kill certain things before it, so it, itself, could be taken seriously. This is what it means to be “new” and “modern,” and Anglo-American, and teach in college.

The New Critics, the American ‘T.S. Eliot’ wing of Modernism, with their stern, tweedy advice that a poem was not something which could be “paraphrased,” was another weapon against “what oft was thought.”

Imagine the horror. Thousands and thousands of poets writing poems that cannot be paraphrased.

What could be paraphrased was too close to Pope’s “thought,” and the whole era of Pope and his Romantic Poet admirers had to be done away with: John Crowe Ransom (b. 1888) advised that we can’t write like Byron anymore, and the influential New Critic textbook, “Understanding Poetry,” held up as models little poems by Williams and Pound (on “things” and nothing else) and featured an attack by the Anglo-American Aldous Huxley against America’s Shakespeare, Edgar Poe.

Not only does casting aside “what has oft been thought,” cripple accessibility and thought, it also damages expression—since it leaves the poet nothing to express, a problem solved by Ashbery (given the Yale Younger by Auden, an Anglo-American friend of Eliot’s).  Ashbery—praised by the Poe-hating Harold Bloom and other academics—and his brand of refrigerator magnet poetry, is the natural result of the whole process, the decline which started when Modernism kidnapped the arts in the early 20th century—a decline from common sense to mystical snobbery.

Pope’s point: Expression should be new, not thought. This is poetry: new expression, not new thought.

The modern poet has been seduced by the idea that “If I don’t come up with new thoughts, I must be stupid!!”

But this idea is stupid.

Because here’s the secret: it really has all been thought before, and the most interesting thought is what has been running through the thoughts of everyone for centuries: you, as one poet, can’t compete with that. So don’t even try.

Don’t wreck yourself on expression trying to come up with original thoughts.

Original thoughts, which are truly that, are actual ideas which no one has ever entertained before. If one should be so fortunate to come up with one of these—if one is supremely lucky and fated to win the ‘idea lottery,’ why would one ever think that a ‘winning ticket’ like this should be inserted into a poem?  (Those things nobody reads anymore.)

Of course the reply might be: but according to you, Pope did, and you are spending this essay of yours defending Pope.

But Pope belongs to history, and here is where the picture of our essay gains its third dimension. We have spoken of 1) thought, 2) its expression—and the third, which is: ‘what has gone before,’ Pope’s “what oft was thought.”

We must assume that Pope’s advice—his thought—was “thought before”—Pope’s very idea, expressed in 1712, that what poetry really is, is whatever has been previously thought but now expressed in such a way that—what?

Had been thought before, but Pope crystallized it with his expression.

The message is this. Be humble, as the speaker for your tribe: take their thoughts and express them so that the thought is transmitted in the most efficient manner possible. Here is the essence of invention and beauty, for beauty, by definition, is that which expresses what it is immediately, and invention, in all cases, is nothing but that which takes our wants and brings them to us in less time. Beauty and invention do not create the wants, they serve them. Likewise, the poet does not create thoughts, but merely serves them.

A poem, as directly opposed to what the New Critics said, is not only that which can be paraphrased, but that which travels in that direction to an extreme degree.

Pope was—is—a crucial historical marker, and his “Essay” could not help but influence poetry that came after—not in the fake way that Modernism tried to usher in change and influence, with its influence of the thoughtless new for its own sake, sans want and sans beauty—for Pope had expressed a thought in such a way that gave that thought new currency, new force, new appreciation, for the sake of generations coming after, who need to understand anew the delicate ideas that fade away in utilitarian light.

There is a war, as Plato said, between philosophy and poetry, what is matter-of-factly good for the state and what is ecstatically good for the individual—“clean your room” (public projects) on one hand, and “what are you doing in your room?” (private desires) on the other—and this conflict is timeless, and its resolution is the secret of all human activity that can be called policy or art.

Pope’s admonition for poetry: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” is precisely a blockbuster quotation because of its efficiency in resolving the philosophy/poetry conflict for the good of humankind; poetry can err in one of two basic ways: it can be too didactic in a public-minded manner, or too creepily and anti-socially private (obscure). Poetry, because of what it is, must err in one direction or the other, always attempting and failing at a happy medium; Pope erred, as a poet, towards the didactic, and Poe and the Romantics were a correction in the other direction. Yet the greatness of Pope’s formula remains—a Platonic ideal, feeding with its ideality poets of all kinds, as they move with their poetry towards public/private gratification.

Modernism’s “progress” is merely a Shadow Movement, moving in a faulty direction, downwards, backwards, a mere reaction to the True Progress of Great Poetry—which expresses beautifully what we all in our hearts know.

MAKIN’ COPIES: ART VERSUS LITERATURE

Hybrid, collage portrait. Which has less charm? Modern poetry or modern art?

SCARRIET HAS ELEVATED THE FOLLOWING SCARRIET COMMENT (ON “WHY POETRY SUCKS NOW”) FROM ONE OF OUR READERS (‘MIKE’) TO THIS ARTICLE (WITH OUR REPLY BELOW):

Hey y’all.

As an art school trained painter and a self inflicted poet, I find it interesting to observe the differences between visual art and literature; or more specifically, the difference between drawing and writing.

In visual art (drawing), one is challenged to “represent” what they “see” by way of marks on paper. Initial attempts are typically awful. Continued failure leads to frustration and abandonment, or else the determination to “learn” how do draw. Such learning requires one to engage in the reciprocal activity of practicing drawing “methods” while simultaneously understanding the nature of the visual forms those methods are meant to capture. It is only through this interplay of method and understanding that one can begin to draw what they see.

At which point one realizes the meta-lesson of drawing, which is that nobody draws what they see. You can only draw what you KNOW about what you see. That knowledge… visual knowledge… is not the same as vision. After all, most everyone has two eyes by which to see… but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive. And the reason is that their knowledge of visual forms and methods is (well)… primitive.

A further implication is that the drawing (as art object) is not equivalent to the visual perception of the subject matter of the drawing. In other words, a drawing of an apple is not an apple. The drawing is a representation only… a mental construct… a methodological translation of visual perception via the artistic form of a drawing.

All of this might seem terribly boring and inapplicable to the subject at hand. But if you indulge me for another minute… and lay your egos aside… then maybe I can make my point. Which is this. I have never gotten the impression that writers consider writing to be a “methodological translation” of (let’s say) interior thoughts and feelings, into the artistic form of the written word.

I think the reason for this is that we are all able to speak and write with some proficiency from an early age. I could also include the activity of contemplating ideas in our minds, and of subconscious processes… which we (kind-a) assume to be language based. These very powerful tools (thinking, reading, writing, speaking) allow us to think and imagine VERY GREAT things. Yet when we attempt to write it down… it’s not so easy. And this is no different from the artist… who might peer out into some beautiful landscape and be filled with desire to represent what he perceives and feels, yet be unable to do so. But whereas the artist is forced to reconcile his failures with the need to learn a method and to grasp the nature of visual form (as a translation between vision and representation)… I wonder if writers see their failure in these same terms.

Or does the writer simply “work harder”… or “write what they know”… or “keep plugging away”… or “writer’s write”… or “never give up”…. or a thousand other ways to say the same thing… admonishments to pound away at reality… that somehow representations will condense NOT out of understanding, but of somehow aligning the monkeys in our brains to coincidentally type out the works of Shakespeare. But just as a drawing is not the hand’s record of the light striking your retina… the written word is not a passive record of the mind’s ability to cogitate and speak out loud. But I wonder if writers know this? Or does the immediate accessibility of language mask the distinction?

Another aspect of this distinction is that in the visual arts, the impact of artistic theories are well understood, and are considered to be highly relevant. In fact, any good art school program is going to require a thorough grounding in the history of art from ancient times to the present day. This is an enormous investigation into cultural history. Artists are meant to take such things very very seriously, and are meant to understand that the nature of artistic method and form and meaning derive from such cultural moments as have occurred over time.

But I have to wonder if writers think of writing in the same way. For instance… do writers ever wonder about the writing skills of ancient Egyptians? Because artists are very aware of the art of ancient Egypt.

Visual artists are taught to understand that ancient architectural forms are rooted in archetypical associations that the human species has evolved from out of their prehistory. Are there any analogous ideas that writers possess about their own artistic heritage? Are writers schooled in the social and artistic shifts underlying the sea-change of the Late Gothic transition to the early Renaissance? Visual artists sure are. In fact, they make Pilgrimages to Rome and Florence and Venice just to lay their eyes on the art… to sit under the sun and absorb the aura of history, and thereby to connect with the meanings of these things. Do writers do such things? Or are words just words and everyone has them and all you need to do is pound away at a typewriter until it just pops out of you? Is writing like a piano… a music making machine that you only need whack at until a tune emerges? And when it does, you claim it as your own, and marvel at the mystery of your own origin… and try not to consider that it might all be happy accidents and the accommodating of the random.

I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I think that writers have no sense of these things, or of writing as an activity distinct from the basic language skills of talking and thinking and jotting stuff down. In truth, most visual artists don’t give a damn about the things I’ve waxed on about. The difference is this… that they are supposed to… whereas writers have no such presumption built into their activity.

And so it should come as no surprise that when poetry falls victim to the ravages of modernist or post- modernist theories of everything… that writers should twist in the wind and wonder what the hell is gone wrong. But such things are no surprise to visual artists, who only need look around and see all the crap contemporary art floating about the world. We see it everyday too. But at least we know what it is, and why it is. Because we are trained to know these things. Because art comes out of theories and methods… not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts. Bad theories and absent methods lead to the destruction of art. The alternative isn’t to abandon ideas, but to understand that good ideas must be asserted. In the visual arts, such advocacy is mistakenly assumed to be a return to the art of the past… to neo-classical style paintings of nudes and heroic figures in togas. Which is ridiculous. But this is no different a mistake than when some poets try to defeat bad post-modern poetry by adopting the writing styles of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

The history of any art does not exist to be mindlessly rejected or mindlessly copied. What good can come out of mindlessness? It exists as a repository of ideas from which some meaningful “next thing” might emerge. Who knows what it is. I try to make this point to visual artists… but nobody seems to give a damn. So now I’m making it here in this poetry blog. And this is an uphill battle I suppose, because writers are not trained like visual artists, and they may not be aware of what they are really trying to do. So maybe writers should stop screaming about bad poems, and begin instead the difficult task of understanding the nature of the writer word at all.

SCARRIET RESPONDS

One of the Scarriet editors works at a large, urban, liberal arts university (once a teacher’s college), which recently acquired an art school; Scarriet covers not only the decline of poetry, but how art, poetry and philosophy mingle, so you can imagine our excitement at finding this learned and lengthy comment on our “Why Poetry Sucks Now” post, a delightful comment which Scarriet has elevated to a post of its own.

“Art comes out of theories and methods…not out of the naive ability to speak words and have thoughts.”

So says the “art school trained painter,” who reminds us that “nobody draws what they see…they only draw what they KNOW about what they see…visual knowledge is not the same as vision…” and “do the writers know this?” Further: artists know art is a “methodological translation” of reality, where writers, by comparison, seem to be mere “passive” (and random!) recording devices of what is universally accessible to all: language.

We agree entirely with the gist of this, and though we are a writer, not a painter, we feel no insult at all, and we are illuminated by the truth of what this painter has—written.

The truth of painting’s superiority to writing was put most forcefully by da Vinci, who said the experience of the eye is the beginning and proof of all science: discontinuous quantity (arithmetic), continuous quantity (geometry) and perspective the holy trinity of astronomy and all human knowledge—painting as the body, poetry merely its shadow. Body (substance and its measurement) trumps Blah Blah Blah. Absolutely.

However, there is a “writing method” tradition—embodied in full by Edgar Poe (unfortunately not taught in writing programs) who we never tire of quoting; the following, from the Master, reflects the thinking of our art school trained painter:

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or authorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

Poe rigorously asserts the secret of all composition—and all morals: in the beginning (the intention) we discover our end (the effect)—and the myriad details, of drawing or writing, fall into place, or should fall into place, in the execution. By this method, these are eliminated: The random, the details which overwhelm, and self-indulgence.

The point our painter makes in his comment—that we draw what we know about what we see, not what we see—is, we feel, a reiteration of Poe’s method, and here an important point about ‘knowing’ should be made.

The separation between knowing and seeing does not exist because seeing needs correcting or is insufficient—the natural seeing humans do reflects nature’s efficiency: perspective which makes distant objects small, for instance, is the perfect solution to the over-crowding of the visual field: and understanding perspective is an understanding which is not distinct from seeing, but is the same as seeing: the “knowing” the artist is engaged in is nothing more than a selecting, a framing, a focusing—and not something superior to seeing; it is the very same thing Poe refers to when he says, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions…which one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”

Here is the vital point: the distinction which our art school trained painter makes between vision and visual knowledge is different than we suppose: “visual knowledge” is not something which stands above and apart from “vision;” quite the opposite: vision is the whole, visual knowledge is the part, of the whole thing. Vision is natural and perfect, visual knowledge is imperfect and contingent. Visual knowledge is the narrow “effect,” of which vision is the cause, and the connection between visual knowledge and vision is seamless. All training, all knowledge, is nothing more than focus: both the artist and the writer do not see more; they see less than the layperson; all knowledge is knowledge of what to ignore: what not to see, what not to write, what not to draw.

Modern poetry errs in making poetry subordinate to prose-ideas; modern art errs in making painting subordinate to collage-ideas.

The answer is not simply, “less is more,” but how (to what end) does the artist make less more?

Plato (and who cares if he wore a toga?) is another thinker who tells us that vision (reality) trumps visual knowledge (art), since vision is the true knowledge of which visual knowledge (art) attempts to unfairly usurp—not because knowledge should not be trusted, but because knowledge is not what we think it is: the vision IS the knowledge, the vision (reality) contains far more perfectly and ultimately the knowledge, of which art-knowledge (and writing-knowledge) slyly hides—especially if the untrustworthy student falls in love with representation, illusion, and dream passionately spun by the sophist for all sorts of partially realized reasons dripping with bad taste.

The “methodological” in our art school painter’s “methodological translation” of reality contains two simple things: first, the focus, or selection, we just discussed above (the selective nature of reality informing the selective nature of human vision) and second, the good.  We finally want to do good, to produce good, to have a good effect, and here, of course, we refer to Plato’s ‘the good,’ which has other names: justice, happiness, beauty.

Things go haywire when the hubris of human knowledge thinking itself superior to natural seeing, sensing, and feeling takes precedence. “I’m not drawing what I see!” cries the sophisticated painter, “I’m working within  specialized knowledge!” Ah, so this is why your painting is bland, trivial, confusing, with lines and colors leading nowhere, a hybrid collage of no real purpose. And the poet who writes poetry which rambles incoherently, having no coherence or lasting interest, is mistakenly certain in that human knowledge which is entirely separate from the effect the poem is actually having. This error arises from the belief that “visual knowledge” is superior to “vision.”

But the objection might come: No! The ‘good’ resides in human knowledge, in human attempts at it, not in simple vision, not in haphazard, unadorned reality, not in nature, red in tooth and claw.  You wrongly assume that “this is the best of all possible worlds” and that to merely copy the beautiful and perfect world is enough, and no ideas are necessary; you say the real method is to simply frame part of (what is called by you) “reality.” No, sorry.

But this objection misses several important points: Vision, as it operates everywhere, is efficient and remarkable, and is not the same as “nature, red in tooth and claw.” This is to confuse reality with our special feelings about it. Reality is not “unadorned” or “simple,” and copying it is never simple. “Copying” reality is a highly complex endeavor—our art school trained artist puts it succinctly: “most everyone has two eyes to see, but most people cannot draw beyond the primitive.” Exactly. Human pride believes the complexity resides in the imposition of method, when true method copies nature with da Vinci’s open eyes.

The artist and the poet are finally united by the philosophy which begins with an effect—a design guided by the morality of justice/beauty in terms of what scientifically the senses, as senses, understand, measure, and know.

THE MENTOR/TEACHER CULT

We can think of nothing worse for poetry than the notion that obedience to a flawed personality can make, or inspire, a poet. The insidious nature of the Mentor/Teacher cult escapes detection for two obvious reasons:

Poets, artists and scholars need to teach, obviously, since this is pretty much the only way these types of creatures can make a living.

Second, poets and artists are invested in mentoring others in ways they themselves understand/write poetry/produce art/think about things, if only to create new audiences for their own work.

So when you are a student, remember: you are the hunted. You are prey.

You will, of course, have teachers who are incompetent, bored, have no philosophy, and couldn’t care less about you.

These may actually teach you something.

But the mentor? Beware.

The mentor, armed with their particular art-philosophy, and intent on the education of your soul? They will un-learn you. They will damage you and set you back, unless of course you wish to be a mere clone of them, teaching others similarly, in turn.

Most students know to avoid the teacher who is hostile to them (the student) because they have more talent than the teacher; and many students simply refuse to be mentored by an instructor’s personal bias. After all, the student usually has more than one teacher to choose from, and may already have some idea about what they want.

But this does not change the fact that mentor-relationships are common, and corrupt.

There is nothing wrong with the mentor or enthusiastic teacher, per se.

Mentors are a danger in poetry and the arts today because there is no verifiable excellence in the arts anymore. Crackpot-ism reigns and laziness has become the rule. Poets and artists are distracted by teaching and administrative duties, as well as the million trends of the whole trendy industry itself. The mentor is invariably a lazy crackpot with narrow, trendy views.

To understand the issue a little better, think of the student in a sport. As one gains competence through training in this area, anyone can witness the excellence gained in terms of verifiable quickness, speed, coordination, and so forth. Every coach can be a jerk. This does not change the fact that an aspiring player can either hit a 90 mile per hour fastball—or not.

In sport, excellence is publicly verifiable.

In the arts, today, it is not.

Does this fact make art more sophisticated and nuanced?

We should not assume so. Yet this assumption is nearly universal in the arts.

A moment’s thought will make it clear to anyone the dangerous ramifications of such an assumption.

Especially when we consider the wisdom of the Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, who named art as that which is concerned with measurement. We err when we think of measurement as a straitjacket, for no piece of music in the world is possible without it, no great painting, or poem, either.

But we can leave Greek philosophy and the idea that measurement is necessary for true art aside for the time being, and simply contemplate what it means to have lazy, crackpot mentor-ism (brainwashing) driving arts and arts education.

To stand out as a ‘mentor,’ one has to be narrow in one’s views, since without any verifiable excellence, excellence can only be perceived in terms of narrow trendiness—which opposes universally verifiable excellence as a matter of course.

Insane mixtures and inane combinations are the rule: the sensibility of the collage, in which whatever strikes one’s fancy, is thrown into the mixing pot, is the number one method, and the more clumsy and jarring the superimposition the better, in the art world today, since the more self-conscious the mixing is, the better, since a unity which seeks excellence as a unity is the ‘old way’ and the enemy.

A picture, which excels by uniting elements, demands excellence in three ways: 1. the parts, 2. the way the parts fit together, and 3. the final result. If the parts ‘stick out’ in a way that ruins the unified effect, this ruins the excellence; as does any one part not being excellent; as does any lack of excellence in the final result, even when every part is excellent. The collage, by its very nature, is an intentional violation of this formula. It is a formula itself, and is a formula itself as much as it subverts the higher order formula which we have just outlined.

Excellence and universality are intentionally subverted in the arts today, since virtually every critically praised painting or sculpture produced today falls under the category of collage.

Simple photography escapes, within the unified choice-frame of its eye, the collage, and therefore we have the largely unspoken irony that photography/video is now the chief art form in the art world, in the same way song lyrics today are carrying the old load which poetry once carried, and comic books, old pictorial art.

Clumsy parts clumsily fitted together—the collage—is the default method which is destroying art and poetry.

A public immediately recognizes excellence—and does so when it is a public, and when it is a public, in rare times in history, excellence flourishes in what are called “renaissance” periods.

But unfortunately a public can be split and fractured into various museum-going and academic and book-buying and politically indoctrinated pieces, trained to respect the fiat of decision-makers at the top of various mercantile, and faux-art credentialing, food chains.

The true mentor—the Socrates—comes along once every thousand years. The student is urged to reject both the mentor and the trend,  and to study history, ancient and modern—and to learn the difference between a trend and a truth.

There is much important work to be done, and the beautiful soul, guided by a kind of fanatical honesty which resists trends, should find a good library, and do that work alone.

 

 

 

 

SCARRIET ROCKED 2014!

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Thomas Brady: the simpleton who writes it all

In the 365 days of 2014, Scarriet brought you half that many original items: poems of lyric poignancy, articles on the popular culture, essays of Literary Criticism, the occasional humor piece, and the Literary Philosophy March Madness Tournament—in which Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Freud, Baudelaire, Woolf, De Beauvoir, Marx, Maimonides, Wilde, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth, Pope, Wollstonecraft, Butler, Rich, Frye, Mallarme, Adorno, and 44 others sought immortality against one another in an orgy of wit and game.

Without further ado, here (with publication dates) are the most notable of the past year:

1. The One Hundred Greatest Hippie Songs 2/13.  This wins based on numbers. Over 15,000 views for this post alone in 2014, and it is averaging 120 views per day for the last 3 months, with views increasing, nearly a year after its publication. It’s always nice when an article has legs like this. We’re not sure what ‘search engine magic’ has made 100 Greatest Hippie Songs so popular. Prophetically, in the piece, we wrote, “All American music is hippie music.”

2. This Novel Has More Information Than You Need 9/18.  An essay provocative and charming at once.

3. No Boobs! 11/27. Hilarious (part two) satiric commentary on the December issue of Vanity Fair

4. The Problem With Rhetoric 5/1. Pushing the intellectual envelope is perhaps what we do best. In this essay we argue that reason does not exist.

5. Integration of Poetry and Life 11/3.  Another nice essay of essential Scarrietesque provocation smoothly rendered.

6. Marjorie Perloff, Adam Kirsch & Philip Nikolayev at the Grolier 9/15. Wearing a journalist’s hat, we meet Perloff, debate her, win her over, and demolish Concrete Poetry for our readers, as well.

7. Poe and the Big Bang: “The Body and the Soul Walk Hand in Hand” 3/10. Poe does most of the lifting here; a crucial addition to Scarriet’s campaign to lift the slander-fog hiding the world’s greatest mind.

8. Badass, Funny, But Alas Not Critic-Proof 6/27.  Tough love for the poet/professor David Kirby. And for those who fret Scarriet is too rancorous, relax; ‘The Kirb’ is still a FB friend. We don’t flatter—that’s the secret.

9. Is Gay Smarter Than Straight? 2/3. Only Scarriet would dare to ask—and really answer this question.

10. Rape Joke II 6/14.  We delivered a true poem; it offended one of our loyal readers for not being feminist enough; even though our poem was true, it was somehow supposed as an insult against Lockwood. We stand by our poem which is true, if imitative. We value originality, but since when was art that imitates a bad thing? We also admit we wrote the poem to become well-known. We played it up on twitter. So what? Scarriet believes everyone deserves to be famous.

11. Poe v. Wordsworth 8/18. March Madness contests are always excuses for brilliant essays. We made use of a wonderful book: Michael Kubovy’s The Psychology of Perspective in Renaissance Art.

12. “I Still Do” 10/13 Nice poem.

13. Chin & Weaver at the Grolier 7/21. Meeting up with California-based Marilyn Chin at a reading becomes an excuse to write an essay on the laws of poetic fame.

14. Painters & Artists Need to Shut Up 6/23.  Usually we pick on the poets.

15. Rage In America 7/7.  A political corrective to Jim Sleeper’s Fourth of July essay.

16. Poetry Hot 100 10/8.  Scarriet releases these now-famous lists several times a year. Valerie Macon topped this one.

17. What Does The History of Poetry Look Like 12/2. We often bash T.S. Eliot and the Modernists; here we lay down a genuinely insightful appreciation of Eliot’s Tradition.

18. Valerie Macon! 10/6. The credentialing complex destroyed Macon. We did a radical thing. We looked at her poetry, after she graciously sent samples.  Memo to the arrogant: her poetry is good.

19. 100 Greatest Folk Songs 11/17.  Not just a list: an assessment aimed at revival. Don’t just reflect the world. Change it.

20. The Avant-Garde Is Looking For A New (Black) Boyfriend 11/8.  A popular zeitgeist post inspired by Cathy Hong, which got po-biz stirred up for a few days.

21. Religion Is More Scientific Than Science 12/15.  An interesting discussion of free-will. Yes, we take comments.

22. Poetry, Meta-Modernism, & Leonardo Da Vinci 1/6.  Da Vinci compares poetry and painting in fascinating ways.

23. De Beauvoir v. Rich 4/22.  Scarriet’s March Madness contest yields essay on Behaviorism and Feminism.

24. Sex, Sex, Sex! 10/19. An interesting essay (obviously) in typical Scarriet (Are you serious?? We are.) mode.

25. Philip Nikolayev 11/15.  An excuse to try out ideas while praising a poet and friend.

26. “Poetry Without Beauty Is Vanity” 10/17.  A lyric poem which ‘gets’ rap.

27. Harold Bloom v. Edmund Wilson 8/13. Wilson was a real force in March Madness and so is this essay.

28. Fame: Is It Really Hollow? 7/2.  An exciting essay using Scarriet standbys The Beatles and Poe.

29. 100 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time 5/9. The definitive list. Another constantly visited post.

30. 100 Essential Books of Poetry 5/21. People love lists. We get it now.

31. “Not Everyone Is Beautiful” 6/5.  A lovely little poem.

32. All Fiction Is Non-Fiction 5/19.  Scarriet makes the counter-intuitive simple.

33. The Good Economy 12/30.  We nail a simple but brain-teasing truth which rules us all.

34. Fag Hags, Cock Teases, and Richard Wagner 11/11. A bitter essay on a complex topic.

35. 100 Greatest Jazz Vocal Standards 10/14. And the Scarriet hits just keep on coming.

36. Hey Lao Tzu 10/27.  Scarriet takes down the wisest of the wise.

37. Ben Mazer At The Grolier 10/20.  The Neo-Romantic genius gets the Scarriet treatment.

38. “A Holiday Poem” 12/14.  An offensive poem written from a persona; it’s not our opinion.

39. Misanthrope’s Delight 6/11. An amusing list which makes light of misanthropy.

40. “What Could Be More Wrong Than A Poem Stolen From A Song?” A lyric gem.

And that’s our Scarriet top 40 for 2014!!

Be sure to read these if you missed them!

Scarriet thanks all our readers!

And especially the great comments! You know who you are! Always welcome and encouraged!

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV AND THE POETRY OF PERSONAL RELIGION

Radical individualism is the only dignity there is.

There are only two types of people: the conformist and the non-conformist—the drudge and the peacock—the square and the hip—the cowardly prig and the brave sensualist—the dullard and the dandy—the meddler and the artist—the ones who don’t get it, or don’t quite get it, and the ones who do.

The true artist, the truly different, the truly sublime, the smartly beautiful, the enlightened ones—these are all radical individualists, or those who deeply accept and understand and support the radical individualist; all the rest are merely drudges who fret about ‘the good of society’ in a prying, jealous, overbearing sort of way, as they overcompensate for the fact that as individuals, they lack that spark which the first group has.

This is the Ur-division in Life and Society, the template and atmosphere, the body and thought of all social and political activity, as various obstacles present themselves to the journeying soul longing ‘to get it,’ ‘to be accepted,’ and ‘to be loved.’

Not love or be happy, for this straightforward activity betrays right from the start, an ignorance of the division—which is more important than anything else. This is the great instinctual ‘leap of faith’ that the potentially ‘cool’ person, the radical individualist, must choose as their life’s philosophy or their life’s religion.

It is why people socially do things. It is everything. It makes people vote in a certain way, pick certain friends and activities, and think the thoughts they think. The loss of pure love and pure happiness is merely the cost for obedience to this powerful division which is at the heart of social ‘understanding.’

The cool is defined against the not-cool; here is where individualism itself begins, because to choose otherwise (from the very start of the soul’s journey) is to sink hopelessly into the morass of dullness and jealousy and side with the shallow, meddling, superficial drags, who worry passively, or actively into existence, all sorts of jealous rules to make a dully, oppressively and lemming-like society acceptable and functioning as a society—which by definition has a duty to curb the charismatic and pleasure-seeking individual.

It does not matter if this division is factually true or not; psychologically and linguistically it is true; factually it has no real existence except as it is manifested socially—and this, as they say in the old country, suffices. We dress and shout and dance the way we do—for this division.

At one time the charismatic individual was an ideal ruler to lead society; but with the complex, advanced evolution of society, the charismatic individual instead rules in quite the other way now: against an orderly society, against society itself—as the radical individualist.

Philip Nikolayev is largely self-made and extremely talented: has advanced degrees, is multilingual, an influential editor (Fulcrum), read in other countries, has a family which includes a wife-poet! is a published poet himself— there is no way he cannot feel himself to belong to the elitism of the radical individual—he truly is one.

Why shouldn’t he advocate, then, for the poetry of personal religion?

A successful artist talks to us as his own priest, not in the language of priests—this is no surprise.

The individual qua individual is threatened by nothing—those who do not speak the language of the individual, but who participate in the language of the tribe, of society, and those rules which govern society and make society possible, cannot possibly harm the individualist, protected by that personal religion of his own making. The individual can enter an orthodox church and enjoy its sights and sounds, visit cities and countries and observe customs and manners, and he can write freely on anything which he finds to be significant; as long as rules do not censor him, he is free.

But who is interested in reading the individualist?

Other individualists, with a view for affirmation?

Or the anti-individualist, with a motive to find fault and censor?

The audience is one of two kinds, then: the friend or the bureaucratic foe, more indifferent, in most cases, especially in the United States, than foe.

The trouble here is that it is not enough to write and publish—criticism, audience reaction, being read, and truly responded to, are crucial for the writer.

Am I really being read, the poet wonders, or just flattered?

The other individualists don’t care what you write in the following very real sense: you are simply incapable of offending them— which may be good for friendship, but is fatal to literature, since it guarantees the absence of Criticism, which is necessary to literature.

Meanwhile, the other audience (society) is indifferent critically for a separate reason—they don’t speak the language of the individualist.

There is no friction or spark in either response—the poem slides easily down the throat of the individualist and falls indifferently at the feet of  the drudge. This is not to say other individualists may not enjoy what you produce; they may acquiesce and fully comprehend and joy in recognizing what is communicated—but there is no criticism, no interesting response. As much as the individualist enjoys the uniqueness of what you produce, the drudge will be unable—as drudge—to recognize the value of the unique communication, trained as they are only to recognize good and bad recipes for society, so no helpful response comes from that quarter, either.

This is the pitfall of the poetry of personal religion—not because of what it is, but because of its failure to actually live outside its unique origins.

The non-conformist offends the conformist—but only on the conformist’s terms, only where the conformist lives. If non-conformity does not offend, it fails in its task; it is eaten alive by this failure—for this is what non-conformity implicitly lives to do: offend those drudges who are asleep, non-artistic, or cruel.

There is still hope, however, for the radical individualist: there is a third audience between the sympathetic friend and the indifferent other: the rival poet, who is neither friend nor foe, but a combination of both.

What directs all poets to profitable activity is the rival—here the poet knows what to do, how to excel, and is guided in very specific ways to be successful.

Every famous poet succeeded against a rival and only understood how to be interesting in the context of what the blessed rival was doing. Popularity, as literary historians concede, is mostly earned by writers who enjoy success for a brief time and then are forgotten. The literary canon is full of poets who were neither popular with wide audiences, nor lifted up by friends, but made their mark in ‘rival poet’ contexts.

With the rival, the (helpful, motivating) question can truly be asked as it cannot be asked elsewhere: am I cool? Am I one of the chosen?

One must ask this question to oneself as a poet: am I good?  To oneself, as a matter of course, but it also needs to be asked by others.  Friends in your clique won’t give you an answer; they will only flatter you. And the others, those uncool, non-artists, the conformists, who don’t care for poetry and would rather focus on society and its ills?  They will most likely tell you, poetry isn’t good, or it’s silly; they are incapable, even if they cared, to tell you if you are a good poet, or not.

This is where the rival comes in. The rival knows poetry like you do, but won’t flatter you, will fight you, in fact, and this is where greatness and fame is made, in this nexus of rivals.

The greatest poet of them all—Shakespeare—wrote specifically about this in his Sonnets.

The greatest Romantic poets Shelley, Keats, and Byron all attacked the Alpha Romantic of the Day, Wordsworth: mocked him, called him disappointing, ridiculed him, said he was obscure, pulled his beard.

Poe, America’s Shakespeare, attacked Wordsworth a little later in the same spirit, and turned every well-know writer of his day into a rival: chiefly Longfellow and Emerson.

Our Canon today has been shaped by these battles: and we the living unconsciously and naively pick sides in what we think is a reasonable, peaceful spirit.

Had Pound not got his Imagism ass kicked by Amy Lowell, he would have remained mired in triviality.

T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather knew  Emerson—attacked both the Romantics and Poe (for this latter, vicious attack, see “From Poe to  Valery” 1949).

The most famous rivalry of all: Homer and Plato.

We don’t have the time to elucidate these rivalries here, but most readers will be familiar with them—though many readers, even those who consider themselves avant-garde, admittedly don’t read poetry or literature this way (they are blissfully naive and do not figure into this discussion—let them remain naive).

Who is Philip Nikolayev’s rival?

Has he any?

Poetically, no.   Because Nikolayev is too good in a pure, self-deprecating, completely witty and skilled sort of way.

Also, Nikolayev has no avant-garde rivals because he writes “for the ages,” a quaint idea these days, no doubt.

There is a certain pure excellence in Nikolayev’s work which cannot be rivaled.  Philip Nikolayev is that good.

This is not to say that any small example of a writer’s work will not show the division discussed above.

Take this wonderful poem of Nikolayev’s, which can be found on The Poetry Foundation site:

Hotel

Time to recount the sparrows of the air
Seated alone on an elected stair,
I stare as they appear and disappear.

Tonight the deck supports tremendous quiet,
Although the twilight is itself a riot.
I’m glad I’m staying here, not at the Hyatt.

My pen, eye, notes, watch, whiskey glass and hell
All hang together comfortably well.
Pain is my favorite resort hotel.

 

The poet is an individualist, a non-conformist: therefore, he is not staying at “the Hyatt.”  But Hyatt is a rhyme; the individualist, self-deprecating stance is seasoned by wit.

Nikolayev uses lyric wit to rise above the division.  He is aware of it and playfully and wittily fights against it, which makes him a better poet for that reason alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE INTEGRATION OF POETRY AND LIFE

The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.

Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?

Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?

Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?

And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?

And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.

Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.

This is what Byron meant when he said:

“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”

This is what Shelley meant when he said:

“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”

According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.

The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.

In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.

Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.

Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.

Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.

The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.

As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”

Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.

In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.

Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of  what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.

The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’

We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.

Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.

The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.

Life is coming for us.

Take my hand, poet.

Let us quietly flee.

DANTE VERSUS PLATO!

This battle between Plato and Dante is not merely a war between Greece and Rome.  Because we are speaking of Plato and Dante, this contest takes place in heaven.  The laws, which govern there, are simple, but perhaps strange to the uninitiated, and so Scarriet will be a guide, for we have an understanding of these secrets, which nonetheless dwell in every eye.

That Dante was moved beyond all else by Beatrice is well known. To know how Dante’s philosophy is manifest we need only read the following poem simply, and in steps, and  not allow our amazement to dim, or contort, our knowing.

Love that makes men gentle and how that love is conveyed is Dante’s theme in the poem, or Canzone,  below.

Since Dante’s poem conveys love, and how love is conveyed is the subject, the subject of the poem is partly the poem, only for this reason.  As a mortal individual, Dante realizes he cannot express love as it should be expressed, so he elicits help not only from Beatrice, but from gentle ladies who keep her company.  The “courteous man” in the last stanza is not plural, like “ladies” for reason of modesty; Dante is not interested in a Broadway number, pairing up men with ladies; his subject is more simple serious and august than that, though Dante wishes to acknowledge that men can be gentle, like ladies.

The poem is Dante’s messenger, and we see in the Diotima section quoted from Plato’s Symposium father down, the same crucial theme:

“To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.”

The universe, Plato warns, will fall “into two separate halves,” mortal distinct from immortal, if spirits of an “intermediate nature” do not “bridge the gap.”

Everything in the universe is attached, but there are highs and lows, bright and dark, good and evil, because for the universe to exist, there must be divine will and space for that divine will.

If the space is real, and if the divine (the spark, the life, the spirit, etc) is real, the divinity will not fill equally that space; the glory of God is not everywhere, just as light shines more in some places than others. If that is the one thing we take away from Dante and Plato in this contest, that will be enough.

So with Dante and Plato, there is not a fiendish desire to invent, as much as a desire to describe the (moral) task that needs to be done; and this is the realm of poetry, a humble, yet important one, and that is what makes these aesthetic thinkers classical and conservative, as opposed to modern and progressive.

Plato’s insight is important: Love is not beautiful; Love is that which desires beauty. Beatrice is not love, but the rare thing which rarefies love or desire; the poem is the “bridge,” the transaction of love; and so the poem is not beautiful, but its object is beauty, and is beautiful only as much as its object is beauty (so intention and subject are as crucial as form or design).  Dante’s poem is the love between Beatrice and Dante; a love which is a bridge, a desire, a transaction, both message and messenger, so object, person, and action are one—the poem both belongs to, and is, this holy task.

According to Plato, what Love “wins he always loses,” and we see this is true of Dante, who “loses” Beatrice, because heaven lacks her, heaven’s “only defect,” as Dante says. Movement is crucial in Dante’s  universe, and makes all things happen: Where is Beatrice?  Will her greeting travel from her to me?  Will my poem travel from me to her? How are the stars arranged? How does sin and mortality move and fit in the world of souls?  Everything is about placement, the obsession of the ancients: poetry and astronomy and love are the same.

DANTE:

Ladies Who Have Knowledge Of Love,

I wish to speak with you about my lady,
not because I think to end her praises,
but speaking so that I can ease my mind.
I say that thinking of her worth,
Amor makes me feel such sweetness,
that if I did not then lose courage,
speaking, I would make all men in love.
And I would not speak so highly,
that I succumb to vile timidity:
but treat of the state of gentleness,
in respect of her, lightly, with you,
loving ladies and young ladies,
that is not to be spoken of to others.

An angel sings in the divine mind
and says: ‘Lord, in the world is seen
a miracle in action that proceeds
from a spirit that shines up here.’
The heavens that have no other defect
but lack of her, pray to their Lord,
and every saint cries out mercy.
Pity alone takes our part,
so that God speaks of her, and means my lady:
‘My Delights, now suffer it in peace
that at my pleasure she, your hope, remains
there, where one is who waits to lose her,
and will say in the Inferno: “Ill-born ones,
I have seen the hope of the blessed.”’

My lady is desired by highest Heaven:
now I would have you know of her virtue.
I say, you who would appear a gentle lady
go with her, since when she goes by
Love strikes a chill in evil hearts,
so that all their thoughts freeze and perish:
and any man who suffers to stay and see her
becomes a noble soul, or else he dies.
And when she finds any who might be worthy
to look at her, he proves her virtue,
which comes to him, given, in greeting
and if he is humble, erases all offense.
Still greater grace God has granted her
since he cannot end badly who speaks with her.

Amor says of her: ‘This mortal thing,
how can it be so pure and adorned?’
Then he looks at her and swears to himself
that God’s intent was to make something rare.
She has the color of pearl, in form such as
is fitting to a lady, not in excess:
she is the greatest good nature can create:
beauty is proven by her example.
From her eyes, as she moves them,
issue spirits ablaze with love,
which pierce the eyes of those who gaze on her then,
and pass within so each one finds the heart:
you will see Love pictured in her face,
there where no man may fixedly gaze.

Canzone, I know that you will go speaking
to many ladies, when I have sent you onwards.
Now I have made you, since I have raised you
to be Love’s daughter, young and simple,
to those I have sent you, say, praying:
‘Show me the way to go, since I am sent
to her of whom the praise is my adornment.’
And if you do not wish to go in vain,
do not rest where there are evil people:
try, if you can so do, to be revealed
only to ladies or some courteous man,
who will lead you there by the quickest way.
You will find Amor will be with her:
recommend me to him as you should.

PLATO:

Diotima Explains Love To Socrates

Is Love ugly and bad?

Don’t say such things; do you think that anything that is not beautiful is necessarily ugly?

Of course I do.

And that anything that is not wisdom is ignorance? Don’t you know there is a state of mind half-way between wisdom and ignorance?

What do you mean?

Having true convictions without being able to give reasons for them.  So do not maintain that what is not beautiful is ugly, and what is not good is bad.

What can Love be then? A mortal?

Far from it.

Well, what?

He is half-way between mortal and immortal.  He is a great spirit, Socrates; everything that is of the nature of a spirit is half-god and half-man.

And what is the function of such a being?

To interpret and convey messages to the gods from men and to men from the gods. Being of an intermediate nature, a spirit bridges the gap between them, and prevents the universe from falling into two separate halves. God does not deal directly with man; it is by means of spirits that all the intercourse and communication of gods with men, both in waking life and in sleep, is carried on.  Spirits are many in number and of many kinds, and one of them is Love.

Who are his parents?

Poverty, thinking to alleviate her wretched condition by bearing a child to Invention, lay with him and conceived Love.  Love was begotten on Aphrodite’s birthday and became her follower and servant. He is always poor, and, far from being sensitive and beautiful, as most people imagine, he is hard and weather-beaten, shoeless and homeless, always sleeping out for want of a bed.  He schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good; he is bold and forward and strenuous, always devising tricks like a cunning huntsman. What he wins he always loses, and is neither rich nor poor, neither wise nor ignorant.

 WINNER: PLATO

Socrates is going to the Final Four.

HAS ADDISON A CHANCE AGAINST PLATO?

Addison brought the charm to philosophy and philosophy to the life, in essays speaking from the bowels of the British Empire. Philosophy and poetry, like brains and passion, combine to civilize everything under the sun, in fields where exchange and commerce were once all. Is Addison describing here earth, or heaven?

There is no place in the town which I so much love to frequent as the Royal Exchange. It gives me great satisfaction, and, in some measure, gratifies my vanity, as I am an Englishman, to see so rich an assembly of countrymen and foreigners consulting together upon the private business of mankind, and making this metropolis a kind of emporium for the whole world. Agents in the trading world are what ambassadors are in the politic world; they negotiate affairs, conclude treaties, and maintain a good correspondence between those wealthy societies of men that are divided from one another by seas and oceans, or live on the different extremities of a continent. I have often been pleased to hear disputes adjusted between an inhabitant of Japan and an alderman of London, or to see a subject of the great Mogul of Delhi entering into a league with one of the Czar of Muscovy. I am infinitely delighted in mixing with these several ministers of commerce, as they are distinguished by their different walks and different languages; sometimes I am jostled among a body of Armenians; sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews; and sometimes make one in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede, or Frenchman at different times; or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what countryman he was, replied, that he was a citizen of the world.

This grand scene of business gives me an infinite variety of solid and substantial entertainments. As I am a great lover of mankind, my heart naturally overflows with pleasure at the sight of a prosperous and happy multitude, insomuch that at many public solemnities I cannot forbear expressing my joy with tears that have stolen down my cheeks. I am wonderfully delighted to see such a body of men thriving in their own private fortunes, and at the same time promoting the public stock; or in other words, raising estates for their own families, bringing into their country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous.

Nature seems to have taken a peculiar care to disseminate her blessings among the different regions of the world, with an eye to this mutual intercourse and traffic among mankind, that the natives of the several parts of the globe might have a kind of dependence upon one another, and be united together by their common interest. Almost every degree produces something peculiar to it. The food often grows in one country, and the sauce in another. The fruits of Portugal are corrected by the products of Barbadoes, the infusion of a China plant sweetened with the pith of an Indian cane. The Philippic Islands give a flavor to our European bowls. The single dress of a woman of quality is often the product of a hundred climates. The muff and the fan come together from the different ends of the earth. The scarf is sent from the torrid zone and the tippet from beneath the pole. The brocade petticoat rises out of the mines of Peru, and the diamond necklace out of the bowels of Indostan.

If we consider our own country in its natural prospect, without any of the benefits and adventures of commerce, what a barren uncomfortable spot of earth falls to our share! Natural historians tells us no fruit grows originally among us, besides hips and haws, acorns and pignuts, with other delicacies of the like nature; that our climate itself, and without the assistance of art, can make no further advances towards a plum than to a sloe, and carries an apple to no greater a perfection than a crab; that our melons, our peaches, our figs, our apricots, and cherries, are strangers among us, imported in different ages, and naturalized in our English gardens; and that they would all degenerate and fall away into the trash of our own country, if they were wholly neglected by the planter, and left to the mercy of our sun and soil. Nor has traffic more enriched our vegetable world, than it has improved the whole face of nature among us. Our ships are laden with the harvest of every climate, our tables are stored with spices, and oils, and wines; our rooms are filled with pyramids of China, and adorned with the workmanship of Japan; our morning’s draft comes to us from the remotest corners of the earth; we repair our bodies by the drugs of America, and repose ourselves under Indian canopies. My friend Sir Andrew calls the vineyards of France our gardens; the Spice Islands our hotbeds; the Persians our silk-weaver, and the Chinese our potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare necessaries of life, but traffic gives us a great variety of what is useful, and at the same time supplies us with everything that is convenient and ornamental. Nor is it the least part of our happiness, that whilst we enjoy the remotest products of the north and south, we are free from those extremities of weather which give them birth; that our eyes are refreshed with the green fields of Britain, at the same time that our palates are feasted with fruits that rise between the tropics.

For these reasons there are not more useful members in a commonwealth than merchants. They knit mankind together in a mutual intercourse of good offices, distribute the gifts of nature, find work for the poor, add wealth to the rich, and magnificence to the great. Our English merchant converts the tin of of his own country into gold, and exchanges his wool for rubies. The Mahometans are clothed in our British manufacture , and the inhabitants of the Frozen Zone are warmed with the fleeces of our sheep.

Addison, in this article from 1711, does not mention the slave trade. Is this a costly error? Does it the mar the beauty of his piece? Merchants are valuable, and, ironically, Salem, MA merchants during the American Revolution, operating as pirates (the Colonies had no navy and yet challenged a naval Empire) captured 450 British vessels; privateers from a little ‘witch town’ changed world history.

Now Plato:

Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

Brilliant! With one stroke, the great philosopher pins the journalist and advances to the Elite Eight!

 

WINNER: PLATO

BADASS, FUNNY, BUT ALAS, NOT CRITIC-PROOF

David Kirby: Makes a good salary. Doesn’t go to Olive Garden.

Philip Sidney, back in the 16th century, defended poetry against the charge that poetry is nothing but a pack of damn lies rather snarkily: “The poet never affirmith and therefore never lieth.”

Call this the Smart-Ass Defense: Poetry can be as naughty and lying as it wants to be because it’s only playin.

So Plato’s objection is put to rest, if we just don’t take poetry seriously.

But the rub here is that Sidney—who wasn’t “playin” when he died fighting Spain for Queen Elizabeth—was a secret Platonist.

The Shadow of Plato covers all: between science, religion, censorship and Ezra Pound, no one takes poetry seriously these days.

In the 19th century, poetry found its place as an expression of love, and this worked for awhile: you express love, but affirm nothing; love in its pure, unrequited state: OK, not bad.

But hubris struck hard in the 20th century as the poets suddenly wanted to be taken seriously again.  Poets woke up to the fact that Plato had won.  They didn’t like that, really.

Yes. Taken seriously.  Not as a way to learn Latin. Not as a way to learn to Greek. Not as a way to express love.  But seriously.  We are Modernist!  We are serious! We are interesting!  We are historically significant!

Seriously?

Ezra Pound and a few friends began an Imagiste movement.  They made a manifesto.  But no one took them seriously.  You’re just doing haiku, they said.

But haiku is pretty serious stuff.  It affirms the natural fact, anyway.

Some kind of serious progress, in the name of “serious,” was being made.

But no one read these Modernists, printing their little poems in their little magazines. Yet something was happening in the world, something weird.  Everyone was getting very serious.  The Nazis. Modern art. It was all very, very weird.  And serious.

And international.  Ah, here was something.  For Plato’s moral objection to art was based on making the state a strong, defensible entity.  Morality is defense. The good is a wall.

But Internationalism has no walls. 

Nazism was internationalist. Communism was internationalist. Modernism was internationalist.

Eliot in London, Pound in Axis Italy, Stein in Paris, Auden and Isherwood in Berlin and China, Bauhaus and Duchamp in New York.

But World War II defeated internationalism.   The USA—and nationalism—emerged as strong as ever.   Would the poets ever beat Plato?

Then came poetry—serious, international poetry’s—big chance: the university.

The Creative Writing Program model replaced the English Major model: living poets replaced dead poets.

Affirmation was back. You don’t pay tuition fees to poets unless you take them a little bit seriously.

Pedagogy in a university is nothing if not affirming and serious, and this pedagogy—we see it in Understanding Poetry, the New Critic’s textbook (the New Critics, allied with Pound and Williams)—brought Modernism into the Academy.

Game changer.

Poetry is serious again.  Poets are now professors.  They collect salaries.  And their students now choose Creative Writing over Study of the Past.

So here we are in the present, and now we turn to our sordid tale of Professor Kirby, poet and fun-loving bad-ass known affectionately to his friends as “The Kirb.”

Since poets are affirming again, they are no longer critic-proof; for critics may now call them out—and, to put it bluntly, accuse them of lying.

This is what happened to David Kirby—depicted above in a photo gracing the cover of his latest book of poems, A Wilderness of Monkeys.

In a review of A Wilderness of Monkeys, here’s what a critic said:

 

I have an issue with David Kirby’s A Wilderness of Monkeys. I have a problem with this poetry!

But first, consider this: Kirby’s poems are fun, crazy, free-fall, a tumbling of words, a stream of whatever. Is he going somewhere? Is this random? Is it okay to be random? What does it all mean? Who really was the fattest president? Is Kirby simply being funny? Can a book of poetry be a series of jokes?

In “Legion, For We are Many,” he writes:

I’m doing a couple of yoga stretches in
a quiet corner
of the Atlanta airport because my
flight’s delayed,
though having said “Atlanta airport,”
I realize
that I don’t have to say “my flight’s
delayed.”

I love that! Poetry can be so self serious! As with Alexie, it’s nice to see some humor!

“Massages by Blind Masseurs” starts off:

My tree guy and I are watching as the
man with the chipper
arrives, and I say, “Mr. Pumphrey,
every once in a while
I read that somebody gets tired of his
wife and knocks her
on the head and passes her through
one of these chippers,”
and he says, “I know, Mr. Kirby—
terrible isn’t it?” and then
he says, “And it doesn’t do the chipper
any good either.”

Hilarious. A number of the poems in this collection are just as strange and funny.

But still, I have an issue. It lies in the poem “Good Old Boys,” where David Kirby mentions people who got take-out from the Olive Garden and left their puppy nearly to die in an overheated truck cab. He derides them, saying,

Besides who gets
take-out from the Olive Garden?
You miss out on the endless
breadsticks and salad that way.

Here, here is the rub. Mr. Kirby writes about Olive Garden as if he actually goes to that restaurant. But in the author’s photo on the back of the book, Mr. David Kirby sits on a porch next to a black wrought iron fence, wearing a smart haircut and a splendid poet’s uniform of black sport coats and (I believe) dark jeans, with a Robert O. Lawton Professor of English at Florida State University annual salary of $127,080. All of which leads me to believe he has not set one foot inside an Olive Garden for the past 15 years.

If this is true, clearly it undermines his credibility as a poet who can write authentically about Olive Garden! Even if he has gone there recently, we may guess that he went with irony, with a “slumming” self-awareness that he was going someplace faux-classy like Olive Garden.

So tell us Kirby: what is the deal with Olive Garden? We want to give you a fair shake. We’d like to give you credit. Author photos and biographies can be deceiving. People are different ways. But we just don’t know. This anti-review may just have to leave off with a brocade of doubt stitched into its David Kirby section.

(Then again, that may be the point of an anti-review.)

The whole review, by Joe Hoover, which looks at a number of poets, can be found here.

Ever since Ezra Pound settled in fascist Italy, began his fascist Broadcasts, and was lauded in the influential New Critics’ textbook, Understanding Poetry, and the Program Era began in earnest, poetry is serious business.

Sure, here we have Olive Garden in this instance, as opposed to Mussolini and the Cantos in the other, but here’s the real issue: the poet now affirms, and is meant to be taken seriously.

John Ashbery is critic-proof, because no one quite knows what he is talking about.  Ashbery “never affirmith,” sly devil.  He belongs to Sidney’s world.  Poetry as a waking dream, perhaps.

Not Kirby.  He, with his professor’s six figure salary, belongs to the new poetry of affirmation. He writes truthfully of real things: Olive Garden.

Or, and perhaps this is what annoyed the reviewer: “Good Old Boys.”

Working class people from the South.  People who don’t make 127,080 a year. People like the orphaned newspaper reviewer, Edgar Poe, slammed for his “pure poetry” in the same textbook that praised Ezra Pound and his friend William Carlos Williams, poets of real things and natural facts.

Kirby, as a poet, has a great sense of humor, as Mr. Hoover—who seems like a pretty good reviewer—points out; but wit can hide a sting, and in this case, Mr. Hoover finds Kirby’s sting offensive: professor Kirby uses Olive Garden to “deride” the “good old boys” of his poem.

When your poem contains the following information, “good old boys who got take-out from Olive Garden left their puppy nearly to die in an overheated truck cab,” you are affirming. 

When you affirm, you make the mistake of not listening to Philip Sidney.  As a poet, you open yourself up to a world of hurt.

The critic, like a pickerel waiting in the reeds, strikes: “Mr. Kirby writes about Olive Garden as if he actually goes to that restaurant.”

Uh oh.

“But in the author’s photo on the back of the book, Mr. David Kirby sits on a porch next to a black wrought iron fence, wearing a smart haircut and a splendid poet’s uniform of black sport coats and (I believe) dark jeans, with a Robert O. Lawton Professor of English at Florida State University annual salary of $127,080.”

Ouch.

Does he really make that much money? 

Affirmative, captain.

“All of which leads me to believe he has not set one foot inside an Olive Garden for the past 15 years.”

The stinger has been stung.

The reviewer has strayed from the poem to the poet.

But remember that Sidney said, “the poet never affirmith.”

Once you affirm, not only is your poetry fair game for the Platonist critique, but so are you.

Rumor has it that Kirby is incensed, but the whole thing can, perhaps, be laughed off as a tempest in a teacup.

But we see Kirby v. Hoover as a significant skirmish in the endless campaign by the poets to 1) be taken seriously and 2) defeat Plato—who would never pay a poet 127,080 a year.

 

 

 

THE CLASSICAL PHILOSOPHERS DESIRE THE SWEET 16!

Plato of The Republic matches up in Round Two with Philip Sidney, poet and author of “A Defense of Poetry,” who died fighting for Queen Elizabeth against Catholic Spain.

Plato was the greatest pro-poetry philosopher, despite those who think the opposite is true.

Sidney, in his Defense, praises Plato, and well, of course. The poet never affirms, and therefore he does not lie, says the clever Sidney, and this is true of The Republic, too, an invented place. In the ideality of its invention, a poem is going to kick the poets out, for only one poet belongs to the true poem. The poet is not in the Republic. The poet authors it. And only then do we begin to understand.

As poets, we each carry around our own Republic, in which no other poet is admitted.  And this is how Plato shows the way to the true—Republic.  There are many heavens inside of heaven.

Plato defeats Sidney in Round Two. PLATO IS IN THE SWEET 16!

***

Aristotle must get past Dante to advance in the tournament: another philosopher battles his student—Dante lived in the dark ages before Plato was widely translated, when Aristotle was “the Philosopher” among scholars and poets.

Dante’s mission, like that of Thomas Aquinas, was to reconcile Aristotle’s scholarship with Christianity, and, clever Dante puts Aristotle’s moral divisions (from Aristotle’s Ethics) in hell, and Christianity reigns in heaven. Reconciliation, indeed!  It is similar to how poets like Sidney reconciled “defenses” of poetry with Plato: the Poem, the Republic, Heaven, the Ideal, is true, self-justifying, and knowledge-seeking.

Dante upsets the mighty Aristotle and advances to the Sweet 16.

***

Is it some accident of fate that places Aquinas against…Pope?  The latter is a poet of such remarkable dexterity and reasoning on all things human, poetic and divine, that what chance does a mere 13th century theologian, dividing up reality to serve Aristotle—the body—the soul—and virtue, in the name of eternal salvation, have?

Presumptuous Man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind!
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why JOVE’S Satellites are less than JOVE?
Of Systems possible, if ’tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas’ning life, ’tis plain
There must be, somewhere, such rank as Man;
And all the question (wrangle e’er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac’d him wrong?
Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
Nay, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, tho’ labour’d on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God’s, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So Man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
When the dull Ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s God:
Then shall Man’s pride and dullness comprehend
His actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;
Why doing, suff’ring, check’d, impell’d; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought;
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.

Alexander Pope

It is absolutely true that God is not a body; and this can be shown in three ways. First, because no body is in motion unless it be put in motion, as is evident from induction. Now it has been already proved (Q. 2, A. 3), that God is the First Mover, and is Himself unmoved. Therefore it is clear that God is not a body. Secondly, because the first being must of necessity be in act, and in no way in potentiality. For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality. But every body is in potentiality because the continuous, as such, is divisible to infinity; it is therefore impossible that God should be a body. Thirdly, because God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.

Thomas Aquinas

This is what invisible reason looks like: in verse, colored by a hectoring poet; in theology, manifested by a theologian logical to a fault.

Pope and Aquinas both belong to that long line of thinkers (dead white males) who justify the ways of God to Man and believe the world made by God is “the best of all possible worlds.”

This sort of thinking cannot be justified by the modern mind or the modern temper, which fixes on known imperfections and slides along with its morality based on that.  The perfection does not translate into what the moderns understand, and Pope: “Of course it’s not going to look like perfection to you, you worm!” doesn’t make the modern feel much better.

The issue is really one of: what is the universe? And how much of the universe can we trace downward to particulars and upward to abstraction at the same time?  Those who contemplate this are philosophers and worthy of the name.  Poets, and all who involve themselves in Letters, ought to pursue this question, as well.

Pope’s poetry propels him to victory.   Alexander Pope is in the Sweet 16!

***

In the last Classical Bracket contest, Addison duels Maimonides.

We shall look, very much at random, at a sample of writing, and therein determine the winner on the basis of this. Addison wrote an exemplary play and both men wrote so much; we can only look at moments.

 

I mentioned several characters which want explanation to the generality of readers: among others, I spoke of a Pretty Fellow; but I have received a kind admonition in a letter, to take care that I do not omit to show also what is meant by a Very Pretty Fellow, which is to be allowed as a character by itself, and a person exalted above the other by a peculiar sprightliness, as one who, by a distinguishing vigour, outstrips his companions, and has thereby deserved and obtained a particular appellation, or nickname of familiarity. Some have this distinction from the fair sex, who are so generous as to take into their protection those who are laughed at by the men, and place them for that reason in degrees of favour. The chief of this sort is Colonel Brunett, who is a man of fashion, because he will be so; and practices a very jaunty way of behaviour, because he is too careless to know when he offends, and too sanguine to be mortified if he did know it. Thus the colonel has met with a town ready to receive him, and cannot possibly see why he should not make use of their favour, and set himself in the first degree of conversation. Therefore he is very successfully loud among the wits, familiar among the ladies, and dissolute among the rakes. Thus he is admitted in one place, because he is so in another; and every man treats Brunett well, not out of his particular esteem for him, but in respect to the opinion of others. It is to me a solid pleasure to see the world thus mistaken on the good-natured side; for it is ten to one but the colonel mounts into a general officer, marries a fine lady, and is master of a good estate, before they come to explain upon him. What gives most delight to me in this observation, is, that all this arises from pure nature, and the colonel can account for his success no more than those by whom he succeeds. For these causes and considerations, I pronounce him a true woman’s man, and in the first degree, “a very pretty fellow.” The next to a man of this universal genius, is one who is peculiarly formed for the service of the ladies, and his merit chiefly is to be of no consequence. I am indeed a little in doubt, whether he ought not rather to be called a “very happy,” than a “very pretty” fellow? For he is admitted at all hours: all he says or does, which would offend in another, are passed over in him; and all actions and speeches which please, doubly please if they come from him: no one wonders or takes notice when he is wrong; but all admire him when he is in the right. By the way it is fit to remark, that there are people of better sense than these, who endeavour at this character; but they are out of nature; and though, with some industry, they get the characters of fools, they cannot arrive to be “very,” seldom to be merely “pretty fellows.” But where nature has formed a person for this station amongst men, he is gifted with a peculiar genius for success, and his very errors and absurdities contribute to it; this felicity attending him to his life’s end. For it being in a manner necessary that he should be of no consequence, he is as well in old age as youth; and I know a man, whose son has been some years a pretty fellow, who is himself at this hour a “very” pretty fellow.

Joseph Addison

 

Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.”

Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration. “It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power of distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfectionwhich is the peculiarity of man, viz., the power of distinguishing between good and evil-the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously. This is equivalent to saying that a certain man was rebellious and extremely wicked, wherefore his nature was changed for the better, and he was made to shine as a star in the heavens.” Such was the purport and subject of the question, though not in the exact words of the inquirer.

Now mark our reply, which was as follows:–“You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical composition. Collect your thoughts and examine the matter carefully, for it is not to be understood as you at first sight think, but as you will find after due deliberation; namely, the intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that “man was created in the form and likeness of God.” On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandments, as it is said: “And the Lord God commanded Adam” (Gen. ii. 16)–for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding. Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths, as, e.g., it is not correct to say, in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical,” it is “good” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad”: but we say of the one it is true, of the other it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tob and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Ps. viii. 6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper. Then he fully understood the magnitude of the loss he had sustained, what he had forfeited, and in what situation he was thereby placed. Hence we read, “And ye shall be likeelohim, knowing good and evil,” and not “knowing” or “discerning the true and the false”: while in necessary truths we can only apply the words “true and false,” not “good and evil.” Further observe the passage, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked” (Gen. iii. 7): it is not said, “And the eyes of both were opened, and they saw”; for what the man had seen previously and what he saw after this circumstance was precisely the same: there had been no blindness which was now removed, but he received a new faculty whereby he found things wrong which previously he had not regarded as wrong. Besides, you must know that the Hebrew word pakaḥ used in this passage is exclusively employed in the figurative sense of receiving new sources of knowledge, not in that of regaining the sense of sight. Comp., “God opened her eyes” (Gen. xxi. 19). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah xxxviii. 8). “Open ears, he heareth not” (ibid. Xlii. 20), similar in sense to the verse, “Which have eyes to see, and see not” (Ezek. xii. 2). When, however, Scripture says of Adam, “He changed his face (panav) and thou sentest him forth” Job xiv. 20), it must be understood in the following way: On account of the change of his original aim he was sent away. For panim, the Hebrew equivalent of face, is derived from the verb panah, “he turned,” and signifies also “aim,” because man generally turns his face towards the thing he desires. In accordance with this interpretation, our text suggests that Adam, as he altered his intention and directed his thoughts to the acquisition of what he was forbidden, he was banished from Paradise: this was his punishment; it was measure for measure. At first he had the privilege of tasting pleasure and happiness, and of enjoying repose and security; but as his appetites grew stronger, and he followed his desires and impulses, (as we have already stated above), and partook of the food he was forbidden to taste, he was deprived of everything, was doomed to subsist on the meanest kind of food, such as he never tasted before, and this even only after exertion and labour, as it is said, “Thorns and thistles shall grow up for thee” (Gen. iii. 18), “By the sweat of thy brow,” etc., and in explanation of this the text continues, “And the Lord God drove him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground whence he was taken.” He was now with respect to food and many other requirements brought to the level of the lower animals: comp., “Thou shalt eat the grass of the field” (Gen. iii. 18). Reflecting on his condition, the Psalmist says, “Adam unable to dwell in dignity, was brought to the level of the dumb beast. May the Almighty be praised, whose design and wisdom cannot be fathomed.”

-Moses Maimonides

Maimonides reasons like a champion when he discourses on the punishment of Adam, pointing out that truth and falsehood are not the same as (moral) good and bad—the “apparent” truths.  But we are thoroughly charmed by Addison’s “Very Pretty Fellow,” a wonderful observation of human nature—who reminds us of the Adam of Maimonides.  It is true: humans are obsessed with good and bad—with morality, to the degree they do not discern pure truth from falsehood, and this is our “curse.” It is not that morality is not important, but it is a step down from the reasoning power of the intellect.  The contestants compliment one another, even as they fight to eliminate the other, and in this case, the more modern moment of example-citing triumphs, though we hate to say goodbye to the Jewish scholar.

Joseph Addison wins, and advances to the Sweet 16!

THE 2014 MARCH MADNESS FIRST ROUND WINNERS!

CLASSICAL

Painter, Carpenter, God (3 beds) PLATO def. HUME

Tragedy is a complete action ARISTOTLE def. SAMUEL JOHNSON

In every work regard the writer’s end POPE def. HORACE

Novelty bestows charms on a monster ADDISON def. AUGUSTINE

The flaming sword which turned every way MAIMONIDES def. VICO

All our knowledge originates from sense  AQUINAS def. BEHN

The four senses of writing DANTE def. DRYDEN

Poet never affirms and so never lies  SIDNEY def. BOCCACCIO

 

ROMANTIC

Religion & Commodities = Fetishism MARX def. KANT

Taste can be measured EDMUND BURKE def. GAUTIER

A long poem does not exist POE def. LESSING

Pure and simple soul in a chaste body EMERSON def. SCHILLER

Poetry awakens and enlarges the mind SHELLEY def. WOLLSTONECRAFT

Four ages of poetry PEACOCK def. DE STAEL

Nothing pleases permanently not containing the reason COLERIDGE def. SCHLEIERMACHER

Language really used by men WORDSWORTH def. HEGEL

 

MODERN

Genius is childhood recovered BAUDELAIRE def. ADORNO

Art is not unique but caught in time BENJAMIN def. ARNOLD

Hard, gem-like flame PATER def. HEIDEGGER

Criticism, Inc RANSOM def. MALLARME

No poet has his complete meaning alone ELIOT def. NIETZSCHE

Not the moment makes the man, man creates the age WILDE def. WOOLF

The first stirrings of sexuality FREUD def. TROTSKY

In language there are only differences SAUSSURE def. JUNG

 

POST-MODERN

Leaves & Huck Finn show U.S. to be like Russia EDMUND WILSON def. JUDITH BUTLER

Beauty will no longer be forbidden CIXOUS def. KENNETH BURKE

What they can know is what they have made SAID def. LACAN

We are directors of our being, not producers SARTRE def. DERRIDA

A poem is a poet’s melancholy at his lack of priority HAROLD BLOOM def. CLEANTH BROOKS

The secret essence of femininity does not exist DE BEAUVOIR def. RICH

All speech is performance AUSTIN def. FANON

Criticism of literature is all that can be directly taught FRYE def. BARTHES

 

It was a genuine pleasure these past three months (March to June) to explore 64 of the world’s greatest philosophical literary critics; look back over the past 3 months at 32 Scarriet articles (called “March Madness”) which re-evaluates these iconic points of view—and feel the excitement!

The rest of the play will quickly follow, as we move into the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, and the greatest Aesthetic Philosopher of them all.

If we might be allowed to summarize the four Brackets:

The Classical determines WHAT POETRY IS.

The Romantic determines WHAT POETRY IS TO PEOPLE.

The Modern determines WHAT PEOPLE ARE  TO PEOPLE IN TERMS OF  POETRY

The Post-Modern determines WHAT POETRY IS TO LANGUAGE

 

Congratulations to all the winners!

BOCCACCIO BATTLES SIDNEY

Philip Sidney: loved Christ, poetry and Plato

BOCCACCIO:

They say that poetry is absolutely of no account , and the making of poetry a useless and absurd craft; that poets are tale-mongers, or, in lower terms, liars; that they live in the country among the woods and mountains because they lack manners and polish. They say, besides, that their poems are false, obscure, lewd, and replete with absurd and silly tales of pagan gods, and that they make Jove, who was in point of fact, an obscene and adulterous man, now the father of the gods, now king of heaven, now fire, or air, or man, or bull, or eagle, or similar irrelevant things. They cry out that poets are seducers of the mind, prompters of crime, and, to make their foul charge fouler, if possible, they say they are philosophers’ apes, that it is a heinous crime to read or possess the books of poets; and then, without making any distinction, they prop themselves up with Plato’s authority to the effect that poets ought to be turned out-of-doors.

Poetry proceeds from the bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; so wonderful a gift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervor of poetry is sublime in its effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-of creations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adores the whole composition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fair and fitting garment of fiction. Further, if in any case the invention so requires, it can arm kings, marshal them for war, launch whole fleets from their docks, nay, counterfeit sky, land, sea, adorn young maidens with flowery gardens, portray human character in its various phases, awake the idle, stimulate the dull, restrain the rash, subdue the criminal, and distinguish excellent men with their proper meed of praise: these, and many other such, are the effects of poetry. Yet if any man who who has received the gift of poetic fervor shall imperfectly fulfill its function here described, he is not, in my opinion, a laudable poet. For, however deeply the poetic impulse stirs the mind to which it is granted, it very rarely accomplishes anything commendable if the instruments by which its concepts are to be wrought out are wanting—I mean, for example, the precepts of grammar and rhetoric.

 

SIDNEY:

 

Now for the poet, he doesn’t affirm, and therefore never lies.

The poet never makes any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. He cites not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calls the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in truth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be.

Shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious? Poetry may not only be abused, but that being abused, by the reason of its sweet charming force it can do more hurt than any other army of words, yet shall it be so far from concluding that the abuse should give reproach to the abused.

Now Plato his name is laid upon me, whom I must confess, of all the philosophers I have ever esteemed most worthy of reverence, and with great reason, since of all philosophers he is the most poetical. Yet if he will defile the fountain out of which his flowing streams have proceeded, let us boldly examine with what reasons he did it. First, truly a man might maliciously object that Plato, being a philosopher, was a natural enemy of poets: for indeed, after the philosopher had picked out of the sweet mysteries of poetry the right discerning true points of knowledge, they forthwith putting it in method, and making a school-art of that which the poets did only teach by a divine delightfulness, beginning to spurn at their guides like ungrateful apprentices, were not content to set up shops for themselves but sought by all means to discredit their masters; which, by the force of delight being barred them, the less they could overthrow them, the more they hated them.

Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry. Plato found fault that the poets of his time filled the world with wrong opinions of the gods, making light tales of that unspotted essence, and therefore would not have the youth depraved with such opinions. The poets did not induce such opinions, but did imitate those opinions already induced. For all the Greek stories can well testify that the very religion of that time stood upon many and many-fashioned gods, not taught so by the poets, but followed according to their nature of imitation. One may read in Plutarch the discourses of Isis and Osiris, of the cause why oracles ceased, of the divine providence, and see whether the theology of that nation stood not upon such dreams, which the poets indeed superstitiously observed, and truly (since they had not the light of Christ) did much better in it than the philosophers, who shaking off superstition, brought in atheism. Plato therefore (whose authority I had much rather justly construe than unjustly resist) meant not in general of poets to misuse, but only meant to drive out those wrong opinions of the Deity (whereof now, without further law, Christianity hath taken away all the hurtful belief), perchance (as he thought) nourished by the then esteemed poets. And a man need go no further than to Plato himself to know his meaning: who, in his dialogue called Ion, gives high and rightly divine commendation to poetry. So as Plato, banishing the abuse, not the thing, not banishing it, but giving due honor unto it, shall be our patron and not our adversary.

 

We love how Sidney understands that “Plato hated the abuse, not the poetry.”  Sidney is more subtle than Boccaccio, handling the same theme: poets are bad/good. If only poetry had a monopoly on “lewd;” it would be more popular: Boccaccio is right of course, as is Sidney, poetry can be naughty or nice; it isn’t poetry that is ever the problem—the question is, who is using it and what are they using it for? Today we don’t ask this question: we merely whine that no one reads it—without defining what it is.

 

WINNER: SIDNEY

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

 

 

 

ALL FICTION IS NON-FICTION

 

For the most wild, yet homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.  –E.A. Poe, “The Black Cat”

Laura Runyan, an MFA Fiction graduate and occasional visitor to this little blog, has taken immense pleasure in reminding me every now and then that my attempt to neatly categorize much of literary fiction as “autobiographical” is terribly misguided.

When I first made this assertion, she reacted as if I had insulted not only herself, but all respectable Creative Writing Programs  and even literary fiction itself.

Oh the idea that literary fiction—the holy craft of literary imagination—would be, or could be, or would dare to be, merely thinly disguised memoir!  The sacred author reduced from architect, researcher, scientist, god of creativity to—a mere child with a diary!  How dare I make such an assertion!

Let me re-assert my point.  Laura’s objection rests on nothing but authorial vanity.

Let me go even further.  All fiction is non-fiction.

And by non-fiction we mean just this: the simple, naked truth.  And the simple, naked truth is that all discourse, whether it be labeled fiction or non-fiction, is a human talking—and this act itself is nothing if not an autobiographical act.

The truth is this: We don’t read stories.  We don’t read books.  We don’t read poems. We don’t read philosophy. We read a person.

The modernist/writing workshop agenda: “show, don’t tell” is a false belief that the person can hide behind things like “character development” and “research” and “invention,” in which discourse magically turns into reality, or heightened reality.

Characters (people) do not exist in fiction.  There is only one ‘character’ in fiction: the person who is writing the fiction.

In addition, the whole idea of “narrative” is falsified, as well, as “let’s see what happens next” is the false magic which replaces a well reasoned discourse or well-reasoned argument.

The good argument is good, whether we know the ending, or not.  In fact, the good argument finds its end in its beginning.

Narrative, however, is supposedly best when it surprises us—which is another way of saying:

A good narrative is a bad argument.

A true surprise is random, but no good argument is random; a Narrative, however, filled with true surprises, pleases as ‘exciting’ narrative, but exists thereby as a flawed and wretched Argument.

Fiction chases away Philosophy.

Plato was right: there is an ancient quarrel between the Poets and the Philosophers—and discourse of all kinds is autobiographical, and neither poetry (fiction) nor philosophy (non-fiction) can hide from the “Living Voice” by tricks of “craft,” which is just another word for the deceptions of fiction’s narrative surprises, or the tricks of “writing” which characterizes the worst modern philosophers (Derrida, etc).

Recall Derrida’s agenda: to attack Plato, while favoring Writing (Text) over (Living) Speech.

So what does it mean to say that we read, whether fiction or non-fiction, a person?

Aren’t we reading ‘craft’ that is executed well, or not?  Aren’t we reading facts that are true, or not?  Are we really reading a person?

Yes.  We are reading a person.

This is the fact, the truth, of everything we read.

A person who is either tricking us, or not.

To read Plato is not to read a pretty good book.

To read Plato is to experience the living voice of an extraordinary human being—of which there is no substitute in any other book.

Autobiographical?  Absolutely.

 

MADAME DE STAEL TANGLES WITH THOMAS PEACOCK IN THE ROMANTIC BRACKET

File:Madame de Staël en Corinne 1807.jpg

Germaine de Stael: her daddy was finance minister for Louis XVI of France

DE STAEL:

Man’s most valuable faculty is his imagination. Human life seems so little designed for happiness that we need the help of a few creations, a few images, a lucky choice of memories to muster some sparse pleasure on this earth and struggle against the pain of all our destinies—not by philosophical force, but by the more efficient force of distraction. The dangers of imagination have been discussed a good deal, but there is no point in looking up what impotent mediocrity and strict reason have said on this topic over and over again. The human race is not about to give up being stimulated, and anyone who has the gift of appealing to people’s emotions is even less likely to give up the success promised by such talent. The number of necessary and evident truths is limited; it will never be enough for the human mind or heart. The highest honor may well go to those who discover such truths, but the authors of books producing sweet emotions or illusions have also done useful work for humanity. Metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s affections and remain compatible with his nature. Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit. Virtue is actual and real, but happiness floats in space; anyone who tries to examine happiness inappropriately will destroy it, as we dissolve the brilliant images of the mist if we walk straight through them. And yet the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring. If fictions please nothing but the eye, they do nothing but amuse; but if they touch our hearts, they can have a great influence on all our moral ideas. This talent may be the most powerful way there is of controlling behavior and enlightening the mind. Man has only two distinct faculties: reason and imagination. All the others, even feeling, are simply results or combinations of these two. The realm of fiction, like that of imagination, is therefore vast. Fictions do not find obstacles in passions: they make use of them. Philosophy may be the invisible power in control of fictions, but if she is the first to show herself, she will destroy all their magic.

The morality of history only exists in bulk. History gives constant results by means of the recurrence of a certain number of chances: it’s lessons apply to nations, not individuals. Its examples always fit nations, because if one considers them in a general way they are invariable;  but it never explains the exceptions. These exceptions can seduce each man as an individual; the exceptional circumstances consecrated by history leave vast empty spaces into which the miseries and wrongs that make up most private destinies could easily fall. On the other hand,  novels can paint characters and feelings with such force and detail that they make more of an impression of hatred for vice and love for virtue than any other kind of reading.

Memoirs? If most men had the wit and good faith to give a truthful, clear account of what they had experienced in the course of their lives, novels would be useless—but even these sincere narratives would not have all the advantages of novels. We would still have to add a kind of dramatic effect to the truth; not deforming it, but condensing it to set it off. This is the art of the painter: far from distorting objects, it represents them in a way that makes them more immediately apprehended. Nature sometimes shows us things all on the same level, eliminating any contrasts; if we copy her too slavishly we become incapable of portraying her. The most truthful account is always an imitative truth: as a tableau, it demands a harmony of its own. However remarkable a true story may be for its nuances, feelings, and characters, it cannot interest us without the talent necessary for the composition of fiction.

PEACOCK:

Poetry, like the world, may be said to have four ages, but in a different order; the first age of poetry being the age of iron; the second, of gold; the third, of silver; and the fourth, of brass.

The first, or Iron Age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maximum of every form of society, “to keep what we have and to catch what we can,” is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law. The successful warrior becomes a chief; the successful chief becomes a king; his next want is an organ to disseminate the fame of his achievements and the extent of his possessions; and this organ he finds in a bard, who is always ready to celebrate the strength of his arm, being first duly inspired by that of his liquor. This is the origin of poetry, which, like all other trades, takes its rise in the demand for the commodity, and flourishes in proportion to the extent of the market. Poetry is thus in its origin panegyrical. This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

The golden age of poetry finds its materials in the age of iron. This age begins when poetry begins to be retrospective; when something like a more extended system of civil polity is established; when personal strength and courage avail less and men live more in the light of truth and within the interchange of observation. This is the age of Homer.

Then comes the silver age, or the poetry of civilized life. This poetry is of two kinds, imitative and original. The imitative consists in recasting, and giving an exquisite polish to, the poetry of the age of gold: of this Virgil is the most obvious and striking example. The original is chiefly comic, didactic, or satiric: as in Menander, Aristophanes, Horace, and Juvenal. Experience having exhausted all the varieties of modulation, the civilized poetry selects the most beautiful, and prefers the repetition of these to ranging through the variety of all. But the best expression being that into which the idea naturally falls, it requires the utmost labor and care so to reconcile the inflexibility of civilized language and the labored polish of versification with the idea intended to be expressed, that sense may not appear to be sacrificed to sound. Hence numerous efforts and rare success.

This state of poetry is however a step towards its extinction. Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations. This will be found true of all dispassionate reasoning whatever and all reasoning that requires comprehensive views and enlarged combinations. It is only the more tangible points of morality, those which command assent at once, those which have a mirror in every mind, and in which the severity of reason is warmed and rendered palatable by being mixed up with feeling and imagination, that are applicable even to what is called moral poetry: and as the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection, as they become more enlarged and comprehensive in their views, as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background and leaves them to advance alone.

Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry, as the empire of facts had been before.

It is now evident that poetry must either cease to be cultivated, or strike into a new path. The poets of the age of gold have been imitated and repeated till no new imitation will attract notice: the limited range of ethical and didactic poetry is exhausted: the associations of daily life in an advanced state of society are of very dry, methodical, unpoetical matters of fact: but there is always a multitude of listless idlers, yawning for amusement, and gaping for novelty: and the poet makes it his glory to be foremost among their purveyors.

Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry.

Thomas Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” is neglected, known by a few as the work which inspired his friend Shelley’s much better known “Defense;” its glory has eclipsed Peacock, for where is Peacock’s poetry? Poets know Shelley, even though none write like him today; ironically, Shelley belongs to ‘another age,’ we think, and we are thinking exactly like Peacock—who no one reads. Poets should come to terms with those, like Plato, who doubt poetry, but they do not not. They prefer flattery in every case. Peacock, using history in remarkably modern ways, lays waste to poetry almost as effectively as Plato himself; perhaps more so: Peacock uses facts of Time and Manners and Science against the Muse; by comparison, Socrates merely speculated on Method and Morals—overturned to every poet’s satisfaction by Aristotle, Sidney, Shelley, etc.

We may laugh at Peacock’s confidence when he writes, ” as the science of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,” knowing what befell “morals” in the 20th century, so much that we can ignore his entire thesis—but no so fast. Morals still exist, as do Peacock’s ages of poetry; does Hitler disprove Peacock? Modernism might think so, but this would actually involve making all sorts of assumptions within a very small window of history. Peacock makes an excellent, sweeping case for large, pertinent dilemmas facing poetry right now.

De Stael is the common sense alternative to Peacock’s theoretical history. We will always need “fictions,” she says, and no apology is needed, or if it is, let us keep it out of sight in order to be properly “stimulated.” Hers is the bedtime story we need, as we otherwise drift into chaotic nightmare, the science of Peacock hopefully greeting us when we wake.

Unlike so many literary philosophers, De Stael writes clearly and accessibly, and we love this: “Beginnings are all we have on this earth—there is no limit.”

This is a tough one to call. De Stael is good enough to upset Peacock, but his work is a little more necessary.  This has to disappoint women, and it disappoints us, to say goodbye to Madame de Stael.

WINNER: PEACOCK

THE PROBLEM WITH RHETORIC

The problem with any argument, whether it be by politician, philosopher, priest, or poet, is this: any argument will always be prejudiced by its conclusion.

A good argument, we think, leads to its conclusion without any pre-knowledge of its conclusion; otherwise we find ourselves rejecting the argument as being made in bad faith: a mere adornment of a foregone conclusion.

Socrates is often faulted for winning his arguments too easily against fictionalized opponents— the inevitability of the conclusion results not in Socrates’ favor, but as an indictment of Plato ‘stacking the deck.’ So runs the case against Socrates, in many critics’ minds.

The seducer has one goal: carnal conquest; the unwilling victim must be persuaded by an argument guided by a conclusion which already exists. A politician’s speech, an essay, or a piece of fiction may all fall into this same unpleasant category: the conclusion comes first; the argument, no matter how elaborate, no matter how convincing, no matter how seemingly inevitable, was fashioned second, to fit the end—arrived at, for some hidden, sordid gain, in the beginning.

The bad faith argument only seems to be: ‘if these things are true, must not this be true?’ The bad faith argument is really: ‘I desire this, and to get it, I have laid out a masterpiece of an argument before you.’

Here is the great rhetorical dilemma: what sort of argument is it, if it is not prejudiced by its conclusion? It is no argument at all. An argument without a conclusion is not an argument. Yet an argument enslaved by a foregone conclusion is not an argument, either.

How does one rationally argue towards a conclusion which is unknown?

If conclusions are wants, goals, and desires, and all good arguments depend on every goal being unknown, then what in the world are good arguments for, and how can we even say what a good argument is? What sort of argument is it, which is separated from all that human beings want?

We are always reading books and recommending books to others. Do we really believe that in the great rhetorical climate of social and political communication in which all of us swim, there exists only the purest thoughts and actions, absent of all desire and ambition?

Of course we don’t believe this. Truly, conclusions exist. Desires exist. Arguments—ideal arguments, good arguments—do not exist. They can’t.

When someone says they don’t buy your argument, they are lying. Your conclusion, your desire, happens to clash with theirs.

When there is one desire, “good” arguments abound.

Where there are two conflicting desires, wonders! no “good” argument will ever be found.

If good arguments do not exist, and desire makes everything occur, then reason does not exist, or, if reason exists, it truly exists as feeling.

Reason, we think, takes time to unfold; this is what we call a ‘reasonable argument;’ but this is what we have just proved does not exist.

Last weekend my kids and I had to decide what we wanted to do for the day, and there were limits: distance to travel, cost of the event, interest in the event by the various parties, etc.  The conclusion (what we ended up doing) was already contained in the restrictions.

Today I noticed blossoms beginning to fall off the dogwood.

What is the conclusion of the dogwood?

The blossoms?

Or their death?

Reason, perhaps, if it is the same thing as emotion, manifests itself instantaneously, as feelings do.  There is debate on which is faster, light or gravity?  Perhaps the same argument could be made for swiftness of reason versus the swiftness of emotion?

I know what I want immediately.

My argument?

That is hardly relevant at all.

THOMAS AQUINAS DUELS APHRA BEHN

Aphra Behn: worthy opponent of Thomas Aquinas

 

AQUINAS:

 

It seems that the Holy Scripture should not use metaphors. For that which is proper to the lowest science seems not to befit this science, which holds the highest place of all. But to proceed by the aid of various similitudes and figures is proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences. Therefore it is not fitting this science should make use of such similitudes.

Further, this doctrine seems to be intended to make truth clear. Hence a reward is held out to those who manifest it: They that explain me shall have life everlasting. But by such similitudes truth is obscured. Therefore to put forward divine truths by likening them to corporeal things does not befit this science.

Further, the higher creatures are, the nearer they approach to the divine likeness. If therefore any creature be taken to represent God, this representation ought chiefly to be taken from the higher creatures, and not from the lower; yet this is often found in the Scriptures.

On the contrary, It is written: I have multiplied visions, and I have used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets. But to put forward anything by means of similitudes is to use metaphors. Therefore this sacred science may use metaphors.

It is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparison with material things. For God provides for everything according to the capacity of nature. Now it is natural to Man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Writ spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of material things. This is what Dionysius says: We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except that they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils. It is also befitting Holy Writ, which is proposed to all without distinction of persons—To the wise and to the unwise I am a debtor—that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.

 

APHRA BEHN:

 

I think the Tragedies not worth a farthing; for Plays were certainly intended for the exercising of men’s passions, not their understandings, and he is infinitely far from wise, that will bestow one moments private meditation on such things: And for Comedie, the finest folks you meet there, are still unfitter for your imitation, for though within a leaf or two of the Prologue, you are told that they are people of Wit, good Humour, good Manners, and all that: yet if the Authors did not kindly add their proper names, you’d never know them by their characters; for whatsoever’s the matter, it hath happened so spitefully in several Plays, which have been pretty well received of late, that even those persons that were meant to be the ingenious Censors of the Play, have either proved the most debauched, or most witless people in the Companie: nor is this error very lamentable, since I take it Comedie was never meant, either for a converting or confirming authoratative direction: in short, I think a Play the best entertainment that wise men have; but I do also think them nothing so, who do discourse as formally about the rules of it, as if it were the grand affair of human life. This being my opinion of Plays, I studied only to make this Play as entertaining as I could, which whether I have been successful in, my gentle Reader, my Good, Sweet, Honey, Sugar-candied Reader (which I think is more than any one has called you yet) you may for your shilling judge.

 

When Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225) writes “all our knowledge originates from sense,” we are surprised to find a Church Father from the Middle Ages opining thus; Enlightenment philosophes are better known for this opinion.  Every Platonic “form” is grounded in the senses, as well; thus ideality is, especially in the modern age, greatly misunderstood.

Aphra Behn is delightful, but an Aristotle she is not.

 

WINNER: AQUINAS

 

 

 

FIRST MARCH MADNESS CONTEST: PLATO VERSUS HUME

PLATO:

The manufacture of the ITEMS OF FURNITURE involves the CRAFTSMAN looking to the TYPE and then making the beds or tables WE USE. The type itself is NOT manufactured by any craftsman. How could it be?

To get hold of A MIRROR and carry it around with you everywhere, you’ll soon be CREATING EVERYTHING.

PAINTER, CARPENTER, and GOD are responsible for THREE different kinds of beds.  God has produced only that ONE REAL BED.

The SAME goes for TRAGIC PLAYWRIGHTS.  REPRESENTATION and TRUTH are a considerable distance apart.

Does HISTORY record that there was any war fought in HOMER’S time whose success depended on his leadership or advice?  No.

HUME:

The SENTIMENTS of men often DIFFER with regard to BEAUTY, even while their general DISCOURSE is the SAME. There are certain terms in every language, which impart blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the SAME TONGUE, MUST AGREE. But when critics come to PARTICULARS, this seeming UNANIMITY VANISHES.

In SCIENCE, the case is OPPOSITE: the difference among men is there oftener found to lie in GENERALS than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance.

It is natural for us to SEEK a STANDARD OF TASTE, a rule by which various sentiments may be reconciled.

The difference, it is said, is very wide between judgement and sentiment. ALL SENTIMENT IS CORRECT; sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, whenever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the UNDERSTANDING are NOT CORRECT; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard.

One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the REAL BEAUTY, or real deformity, is as FRUITLESS an inquiry as to pretend to ascertain the REAL SWEET OR REAL BITTER.

BUT whoever would assert an equality of genius between OGILBY and MILTON would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he maintained a pond as extensive as the ocean.

It is evident that NONE of the rules of composition are fixed by reasoning a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing these habits and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, EXPERIENCE; nor are they any thing but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please all countries and in all ages.

Many of the BEAUTIES OF POETRY and even of eloquence are founded on FALSEHOOD and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meaning. To check the sallies of the imagination, and to reduce every expression to geometrical truth and EXACTNESS, would be the most contrary to the laws of criticism; because it would produce a work, which by universal experience, has been found the most insipid and DISAGREEABLE.

But though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by GENIUS or OBSERVATION.

The same HOMER who pleased at Athens and Rome, 2,000 years ago, is STILL ADMIRED at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.

Though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet FEW ARE QUALIFIED to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.

We choose our favorite AUTHOR as we do our FRIEND, from a conformity of humor and disposition.

The WANT OF HUMANITY and decency, so conspicuous in the characters drawn by several of the ancient poets, even sometimes by HOMER and the Greek tragedians, diminishes considerably the merit of their noble performances, and gives MODERN authors an advantage over them.

Team Plato decided to be iconic and brief from Book X of the Republic.

Team Hume went with a more discursive strategy from On the Standard of Taste, but we see how this backfires, as Hume, trying to play every side of each argument, ends up contradicting himself.

WINNER: PLATO

MARCH MADNESS! POETRY! THEORY! MADNESS! HOLY MADNESS! REAL, ACTUAL MADNESS!

“Philosophy is the true Muse” —Thomas Brady

THE BRACKETS

CLASSICAL

1. Plato
2. Aristotle
3. Horace
4. Augustine
5. Maimonides
6. Aquinas
7. Dante
8. Boccaccio
9. Sidney
10. Dryden
11. Aphra Behn
12. Vico
13. Addison
14. Pope
15. Johnson
16. Hume

ROMANTIC

1. Kant
2. Burke
3. Lessing
4. Schiller
5. Wollstonecraft
6. De Stael
7. Schliermacher
8. Hegel
9. Wordsworth
10. Coleridge
11. Peacock
12. Shelley
13. Emerson
14. Poe
15. Gautier
16. Marx

MODERN

1. Baudelaire
2. Arnold
3. Pater
4. Mallarme
5. Nietzsche
6. Wilde
7. Freud
8. Saussure
9. Jung
10. Trotsky
11. Woolf
12. Eliot
13. Ransom
14. Heidegger
15. Benjamin
16. Adorno

POST-MODERN

1. Wilson
2. Burke
3. Lacan
4. Sartre
5. Brooks
6. De Bouvoir
7. Austin
8. Frye
9. Barthes
10. Fanon
11. Rich
12. Bloom
13. Derrida
14. Said
15. Cixous
16. Butler

DREAMS, FALSE GODS, FAKE THEORIES, AND THE SENSUS COMMUNIS

In the beginning of J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to his book of essays, Poets on Painters, the poet and anthologist quotes Pound, and before he does so, McClatchy provides a quotation—an introduction to his introduction—from the modern art critic, Harold Rosenberg.

Let us quote the whole of McClatchy’s wonderful first page:

An artist is a person who has invented an artist. —Harold Rosenberg

It could be argued that modern poetry was invented by the painters.  Certainly when in 1913 Ezra Pound reviled the mannered blur of Victorian verse and called for the “shock and stroke” of a new poetry based on the image, he defined it with a canvas in mind: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Only such an image, such a poetry, could give us “that sense of sudden liberation: that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (By “greatest,” Pound means both oldest and newest, both Giotto and Gaudier-Brzeska.) All the paraphernalia of modernism, in fact, seem largely pictorial. The convulsive energy of high modernist poetry, its use of collage and cubist fractioning, its vers libre expressivity, its sense of the natural object as adequate symbol, of technique as content, of organic form, of dissociation and dislocation—these derive from the example of painters. When Pound demanded “direct treatment of the thing,” and William Carlos Williams urged “no ideas but in things,” the thing they had in their mind’s eye might as well have been the painter’s motif.

And so here it is once again: Painting and poetry, the “sister arts;” pictura ut poesis. (As is painting, so is poetry.) We look at, or hear of, the image. Abstractly, intellectually, it makes perfect sense.

But what does it mean to say, as McClatchy, says, that “modern poetry” was invented by the painters? Hasn’t poetry always had imagery? And what makes the image in modern poetry a “freedom from time limits and space limits?” Why do we take Pound’s rants seriously? And how is the “new poetry based on the image” different from haiku? The self-advertising, self-promoting nature of Pound’s Modernism is a machine that refuses to rest. Is “technique as content” an advance or a regression when it makes content simply disappear? It is wonderful that things are happening in Pound and Williams‘ “mind’s eye,” but what happened to the “mind’s ear?”

It was not until the Renaissance that painting got respect, trailing behind poetry as a liberal art for centuries, and da Vinci placed painting far above poetry with a vengeance, comparing eye and ear in a way impossible to argue with: sight is the superior sense.

Everyone knows the best way to know something is to put something similar next to it.

The poets of the Middle Ages understood poetry when compared to religious confession—Homer, a mural of a battle scene—the Chinese poets, a simple picture, which the early 20th century Imagists found to be an enthralling counter to Victorian verbosity—and various poets from all ages have known poems as something similar to song.

This method is not mere comparison, nor does it enhance either thing—it diminishes both, and this diminishment is knowing, for that which is too large cannot be known. The poem walks through painting’s fire and by this we see more purely what poetry is. Likewise, the poem’s fire which purifies painting also shows us what poetry is, too.  Leonardo, in favoring painting over poetry, did poets a great favor.  For the first time, after centuries of poets vaguely aspiring towards the “pictura ut poesis” of Horace, poets saw, in diminishment, what poetry really was.  This was a gift, for the simple mundane reason that smaller is easier for an artist to handle.

da Vinci really poured it on and God bless him:

If you, historians or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things through your eyes, you would be able to report them feebly in your writings.

Now, do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of all the world?  The eye is the commander of astronomy; it makes cosmography; it guides and rectifies all the human arts; it conducts man to the various regions of this world; it is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain; it has measured the height and size of the stars; it has disclosed the elements and their distributions; it has made predictions of future events by means of the course of the stars; it has generated architecture, perspective and divine painting. Oh excellent above all other things created by God! What manner of praises could match your nobility? What races, what languages would they be that could describe in full your functions…? Using the eye, human industry has discovered fire, by which means it is able to regain what darkness had previously taken away. It has graced nature with agriculture and delectable gardens.

Poetry arises in the mind and imagination of the poet, who desires to depict the same things as the painter. He wishes to parallel the painter, but in truth he is far removed… Therefore, with respect to representation, we may justly claim that the difference between the science of painting and poetry is equivalent to that between a body and its cast shadow. And yet the difference is even greater than this, because the shadow of the body at least enters the sensus communis through the eye, while the imagined form of the body does not enter through this sense, but is born in the darkness of the inner eye. Oh! what a difference there is between the imaginary quality of such light in the dark inner eye and actually seeing it outside this darkness!

We might (especially if we were a poet) say to da Vinci, a painting is just as unreal as a poem—both are illusions representing absent things. This is the key point, not what a marvelous thing the eye is. But all that aside, it’s exciting to think that Shakespeare, the Renaissance poet, is responding to da Vinci, the Renaissance painter, and da Vinci’s “darkness of the inner eye,” as one sensitive soul to another:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed;
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Shakespeare in this sonnet is saying to da Vinci: you are correct! A poem lives in darkness. A poem is a pitiful dream, lit only by one thing: praise and love and worship of an ideal “thee.”

Shakespeare makes no effort to body forth a particular image—he leaves that to the painter. Socrates said the poet who resides in his ideal republic should praise worthy persons: Shakespeare is doing precisely this: praise is at the heart of his dark dream brightened only by “thee.” This is the ideal poet in the ideal republic praising the ideal “thee” in poetry defined by da Vinci, and it easily fits into the context of Plato’s ideality as well as Aristotle’s definition of tragedy as human action portraying persons better than they are.

Praise is the torch which Shakespeare uses to survive poetic darkness. The poet, Shakespeare, agrees with the painter, da Vinci, in order to make poetry of the dark.

Shakespeare has no illusions that poetry is like painting.

It is the differences and the limits in the two arts that brings out the best in them.

Shakespeare, in his humility, got it.

Pound, in his arrogance, did not.

Harold Rosenberg’s “An artist is a person who has invented an artist” is mystical and intriguing, but perhaps, for poetry and the arts, the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of the Sly Artistic Ego.

Is it time to listen to artists like da Vinci again, who said an artist does not mystically self-invent, but “embraces the beauty of all the world?”

CAN THE MFA SAVE LITERATURE?

Can it, really?

There are so many positions one can take on education and literature—in fact, one could have a lengthy debate on which is more important, literature, or the education of literature, and that’s before we even get started.

Let’s see if we can sum up quickly the various positions regarding Creative Writing and the Academy under the umbrella: what is literature and how should we teach it?

First, the one relevant fact:  The Creative Writing degree is replacing the old English degree, not only on the graduate, but on the undergraduate level.

Now, the positions:

1. First, “The Old Man” position. We quote him in full—from a recent Scarriet comment, because we don’t think anyone could say it better:

Creative Writing, along with Today’s MFA is part of the campaign to replace canonical literature as the “jewel in the crown” of English Studies. There is a tacit alliance among the supporters of Postmodern Poetics, Queer Studies, Ethnic Studies, Womens’ Studies and Creative Writing (in all its forms and levels of instruction) to topple the traditional curriculum. Contemporary fiction and poetry overshadow the great writing of the past. Creative writng students do not have to read Milton, Pope, Keats and Yeats. Either they read their peers in the class or the “so called” free verse of the hour. As creative writing gradually eclipses literature, instructors follow suit. Soon the majority of teachers in the typical American English Department will no longer feel comfortable about grading a comprehensive literature exam in an Honors Program – – or even the typical MA English Comprehensive Exam.

This position is the Outsider, Conservative one:  Creative Writing is part of a wider modern problem which sees canonical excellence swallowed up by all sorts of things which are beside the point.

2. Second, “The Seth Abramson” position, which all who are bothering to read this, are surely familiar with by  now: the MFA is a beacon of democratic insurrection and radical experimentation, a thousand flowers blooming in the desert of academic dullness.

This position is the Insider, Radical one: Creative Writing, through its democratic open-ended, open-exchanged fertility, will lead us to the Promised Land of Democratized Freedom.

3. Third, “The Laura Runyan” position, and we take the liberty of excerpting her Scarriet comments:

Seth’s po-biz attitude doesn’t represent the vast majority of those MFA students I know who attended the better MFA programs. He certainly doesn’t speak for me (a fiction MFA grad). Unfortunately, his tendency to over-classify results in misleading oversimplification as he attempts to define and describe various poetic forms and the history of poetry.

I don’t blame writers who bypassed the MFA route for being suspicious of MFA programs now. I believe that Seth is largely responsible for making the entire enterprise appear very insular or, even worse, like some sort of scam. At the same time, I know that most of the poets in my program worked hard to produce formalist poetry; few of them were content amusing themselves with pseudo-clever experiments.

Oh, and we read books in my program. LOTS AND LOTS of books: novels and short story collections (a portion of which had been published before 1900) and books of poetry. Reading is one of the best educations a writer can find. One doesn’t need an MFA to acquire that education, but an MFA also offers good writers on the faculty (if the faculty actually consists of good writers) who will read your work and respond to it in detail. And if you get funding, this is, in the 21st century, a far cheaper alternative to living in Greenwich Village or Paris so you can meet other aspiring writers.

I couldn’t stand the prospect of majoring in English because I couldn’t stomach “critical theory,” by which art is reduced to cultural studies and very bad postmodernist “philosophizing.” So much of the reasoning behind critical theory is dreck, it’s bloated with jargon, much of the writing in the “scholarship” associated with that group of sub-disciplines is dreadful, and had it been embraced by my MFA professors, I wouldn’t have survived more than a semester there. (As an undergraduate, I majored in “analytic”–Western–philosophy.by the way.) My first semester as an MFA student, I asked one of the fiction faculty members which lit professors to avoid (we were one of those so-called “academic” MFA programs). As soon as I said that I didn’t want to take a lit-crit-style literature class, this professor knew immediately what I was talking about and advised me on which classes I would probably want to avoid. In fact, not one faculty member in my MFA program was “into” the critical theory stuff. If anything, they were contemptuous of it.

Laura Runyan’s is the Insider, Conservative position: Creative Writing, at least as practiced in the best MFA programs, is an escape from the postmodern-corrupted English MA programs. Runyan is pro-MFA, but for a very different reason than Abramson.

4. Finally, that leaves the Outsider, Radical position on Creative Writing, rejecting it altogether, either from an anti-institutional stance or an anti-canonical stance even more radical than Abramson’s, a radical political position suspicious of canon and institution, anything smelling at all like the status quo.  This final ‘catch-all’ category contains poor people, eccentric rich people, slam poets, the Ernest Hemingway/Jack Kerouac anti-intellectual, manly type of independent writer, or someone like Eileen Myles.

So the four main pedagogical threads are

1. Old Man: MFA is part of a radical, post-modern conspiracy

2. Laura Runyan: MFA is the new throw-back canonical MA

3. Seth Abramson: MFA is the crown of forward-looking, post-modern legitimacy

4. Eileen Myles: MFA is one more brick in the wall

As we can see, roughly speaking:

1 (Old Man) and 3 (Seth Abramson) are philosophical opposites, as are 2 (Laura Runyan) and 4 (Eileen Myles).

1 (Old Man) and 2 (Laura Runyan) are philosophically similar, as are 3 (Seth Abramson) and 4 (Eileen Myles), but these two pairs disagree on how the MFA works—or doesn’t.

Where do they all agree?

If one could afford to hang out in Left Bank cafes with interesting writers of all kinds, the Old Man, Laura, Seth, and Eileen might all be able to agree on this scenario.

We have ventured the opinion that ‘hanging out’ and writing really don’t go together at all, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.

Most of those in mainstream, institutional life, the Old Man and the Laura Runyan schools of thought, would probably see eye to eye on this:

Literature provides a necessary social glue: despite various political differences in any population, it is crucial that, intellectually and artistically, there is a place for all of us to be more or less on the same page, even as we work through various political differences based on class, race, sexual orientation, and philosophical opposition.

This point alone makes both the Old Man and the Laura Runyan positions attractive.  Chucking the canonical in favor of the new is counter-productive and common sense cries out against it.  Is life so radically different now that as a society we can say for certain that the best of the past should be demolished?

We can talk about political differences all day, but there is one aesthetic matter which seems to participate in these divisions more than any other: Good Storytelling. Laura Runyan captured this idea when she wrote:

A friend of mine who finished the MFA program at Iowa in the 80s, after he’d established a career as a pharmacist, told me the following about Frank Conroy, then the well-known director of the Workshop, and whom my friend had as a teacher. He said that often, Conroy–who was hardly gentle on students–would often say in workshop in response to a meandering piece of prose by a student, “Beautiful prose in the service of WHAT?” (That comment was repeated by another person I know who’s a grad of Iowa’s MFA program.)

What did he mean by that comment. Simply this–which isn’t so simple to many aspiring fiction writers: that the story, with all its musing and imagery, HAD NO STORY! No Aristotelian rise and fall, no obvious conflict, nothing that made you wonder what would happen next!

Story-telling can bring together many politics and philosophies under one roof, so much so, that this might even seal the deal for universal agreement.  Let’s rally round, with all our differences, the articulate story-teller, and let every radical impulse fit in—or not—with this mandate.

All in favor, say aye.

Just as we thought: a lot of ayes.

But not so fast.  “Wondering what happens next” is a primitive impulse and not necessarily one we should promote.  Narrative is a slippery pedagogical subject, if we are honest about it, and take the time to look at it more closely.  Scarriet recently examined this in a post titled, “Does Narrative Make Us Stupid?” (May 2013).

To truly unite literature and education, we grant narrative a high place, but not the highest place.

Our criteria, in order of importance are:

1. Philosophical Truth

It seems to us that Plato’s dialogues should be central to any advanced literary and writing education, with the Phaedrus, the Symposium, the Ion, and the Republic as must-reads.  Add to that Edgar Allan Poe, who is, if truth be told, a canon all to himself.  Both Plato and Poe are rigorous, accessible and free of both dogma and triviality.

2. Beauty

In the broadest possible terms, the beautiful encompasses good taste (which is not trivial) and all we associate with the ‘well-put-together,’ and pertains to whatever is uplifting, sublime, and brings people together in passionately fused thought and feeling.

3. Undercurrent of Meaning

This hardly needs explanation.  Without this, stories will be either trivial or flimsy pieces of moralizing.

These three are far more important than storytelling, per se, though Frank Conroy’s advice certainly has merit.

JUST RHYME PLATO WITH POTATO: THE EPIGRAM

Lyric poetry was born from graffiti of Classical Greece.

Lyric poetry was spawned by the epigram, and concision, the memorable, the august, the mournful, inhabited the lyric soul by necessity, due in large part to the physical atmosphere surrounding the funerary monuments upon which epigrams were inscribed.

Ekphrasis lives in the epigram: its meaning, ‘to write on,’ to physically inscribe, chimes with ‘to write on (about) someone or something.  The surface, as much as the subject, determines its source.

A rhyme, a couplet, is a great way to be brief and memorable:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Inscribed on a monument to the Greco-Persian wars by Simonides (b. 556 BC), this is a war poem, just as much as the Iliad is.

Let’s face it: everyone wants to write something that is remembered.  You might write an epic, and one line of it is recalled; or you might write one memorable epigram among thousands; in either case it’s an epic task.

But it doesn’t have to rhyme; brevity is all.

Pound’s “make it new,” (1934) a stupid phrase, but one, nonetheless, that became famous, is a mere 9 letters in length, and is beaten out only by the famous, “Odi et amo,” (I hate and love) by Catullus, which is only 8 letters.

Since life is short, a short poem can be successful for that very reason; think of the popular elegiac trope, ‘oh life is short! drink today!’ as symposium and mournfulness mingles.

The Romans brought satire and obscenity to the august Greek epigram, and the Roman poet Martial (40 AD) is known as the “original insult comic:”

Long poems can have unified strength,
But shit, your couplet, Cosconi, has too much length.

This critical spirit, alive to measurement and unity, lived in all eras of poetry, from Ancient to Romantic, until it died in the looseness of the modern era.

Shakespeare’s works are bursting with epigrams:

For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

One of our favorite epigrams is Pope’s

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

And William Blake has many wonderful ones:

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

The questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to reply

If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

We are led to believe a lie,
When we see not thro’ the eye

One simply cannot imagine any of these coming from the pen of a Jorie Graham or a John Ashbery.

Coleridge called the epigram a “dwarfish whole.”  The idea of the “whole” seems to be what irks the loose and open moderns.

The early 20th century had its wits—Dorothy Parker, J.V. Cunningham, Ogden Nash—but as we move closer to our era, compressed wit and wisdom seems to have eluded our poets.

John Crowe Ransom, another early 20th century writer who attempted to be witty,  wrote:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.

But like “Make it new” and Williams’ silly wheel barrow, this has no wit whatsoever: Plato was the most lifestyle-conscious, political science, ‘meat-and-potatoes’ philosopher ever, a superficial view of his ‘forms,’ notwithstanding.

Just give us, “Little strokes fell great oaks” by Benjamin Franklin.  And writing epigrams of an afternoon, we believe even Scarriet can do better:

Hart Crane was totally insane.

Robert Lowell was a broken bowl.

Sylvia Plath fell victim to wrath.

Delmore Schwartz never wore shorts.

Appearance is all, even in the depths.

Just enough hunger prevents insanity.

Beautiful women are wrong in love and right in everything else.

Boredom is the devil’s only weapon.

Feminism wants one thing: freedom from love.

A woman is pretty until she is loved; then she is beautiful.

A woman is ambitious in love; when she is loved, cautious.

A man is cautious until he is loved; then he’s ambitious.

A man is beautiful when loving; when he is loved, pretty.

We have two choices in life: sleep or poetry.

Death has this advantage: it is the only thing that’s not complex.

There are 3 types of poets: One puts emotion in poems, one leaves it out; the genius does both.

Parent to child, lover to beloved want to be friends—but cannot.

Music exists for one reason: to add body to poetry.

The right context is just a way of saying the wrong context is no context at all.

Public speaking is the art of joking while serious.

Good sex for couples is based on one thing: whether it is before or after dinner.

Desire hopes; love knows.

Love can cool desire as it increases it.

Friendship is love’s runway: smooth on takeoff, rough on landing.

Nature’s not right just because the ingredients on the box are wrong.

Nature wishes to create us and kill us: people tend to do this, too.

Why is life tragic?  Nature wants more, humanity, less.

The endless dilemma: guilty for caring too much, guilty for caring too little.

All successful endeavors—moral or not—have one thing in common: the future.

Literature is politics with the politics put tastefully out of sight.

The greatest error the mind makes is thinking truth is for it—and not the heart.

Betrayal wounds hearts, but sensation kills more.

Depth is all, even on surfaces.

KENNETH GOLDSMITH IS NOT A CONCEPTUALIST!

Kenneth-Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith: Not one concept in his head.

If you are really curious about beer, the expert will tell you there are only two kinds: ale and lager.

Likewise, there’s only two kinds of wine: red and white.

I can glance out my window right now and see the sunlight increasing as the clouds disperse, and then notice the artificial light over my desk steadily burning.

Neither the outside light nor the inside light are considered “art,” but what visual art does not take account of it?

We understand terms like the “art of beer” or the “art of wine,” even as we might say to ourselves, “Well, that’s not really art—maybe science…”

But the moment we tackle the “art of art,” we come up against that sort of learned confusion which may befuddle in a pleasant manner those seasoned and learned enough to enjoy such a thing, but which ultimately derails all true understanding.

The confusion is due largely to the great blurring between art and reality mentioned above: if the artificial light above my desk behaved more like the sun on a partly cloudy day, we might even call the constantly changing light emitted by the light bulb above my desk, “art,” just because of  the way the man-fashioned bulb above my desk cunningly copies nature’s changeable light.

This year’s Conceptualism hullabaloo, which happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show which brought modern art to America, is a debate forcing us to acknowledge what is nothing less than art’s most important idea since art began: imitation.

Both John Keats and Kenneth Goldsmith must confront this reality: Art is a pale representation of nature.

Goldsmith’s avant-garde solution is to focus entirely on “representation.”

Conceptualism, in Goldsmith’s case, or in the case of Warhol/Duchamp’s found objects, is a terrible misnomer.

Goldsmith and his Found Poetry takes Nature, or Reality and “finds” it as Poetry, and “find,” here, means purely represent.

We are free to ignore the actual work of Goldsmith’s, as many have pointed out, but this is not due to Conceptualism; it is because of its opposite: Representation.

Reality is art’s flesh, and until art lives, it is not art, but reality.  (How art lives is something we’ll get to in a moment.)

We err whenever we do not understand art as reality first, and art, second.

Plato offended (certain easily offended) artists with this practice: he saw art as reality first—what does art do within reality? was the most important question for Plato.

Found Poetry is an ineffective challenge to Plato, seeking to reverse Plato’s ‘look-at-art-as-reality’ admonition; superficially, Found Poetry is looking at reality as art, but the moment we look at reality as art, we look at art as reality-Plato’s strategy!

To look, as Plato does, at “art as reality,” is to see reality “showing through the art,” as it were; this “look” is the “harsh look of the cynical Critic,” who refuses to see the art on the artist’s terms.

This “look” is, in artistic terms, the methodical “look” which offends aesthetic passivity with its real-life action.

The “raw fact” of art, no matter how intricate, is not allowed to lie there passively; the active Platonist Critic places art in a context of reality—and does not allow it to remove itself into a pure, amoral, state where reality is walled off from the representation (the art).  Once “this wall” is allowed to go up, art is free to make rules for itself that have no connection to reality and to proclaim itself purely valid apart from reality, which, on a grand scale is similar to a person withdrawing from reality into a dream, or a wealthy person cutting themselves off from the everyday needs of others.

Art has moved in this direction, away from Plato, away from art as reality, and towards art as pure art, for over a hundred years, now.  This very movement is defined as Modernism by John Crowe Ransom, in his brilliant essay, “Poets Without Laurels.”   Impressionism in painting, Imagism in poetry, Abstract Painting, a poem like “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens, these are all attempts, along with Found Poetry, to escape Plato and his Conceptualism and to enter into a world of attenuated representation, the sensuality of partial imitation, that is sensual imitation without mind, reason, or morals.  Modernism, for Ransom, not only moves in the direction of “pure art,” or “art for art’s sake,” but it is also a movement of science dividing itself into finer and finer partitions.

The beginner learns about the science of beer or wine, starting with ‘ale or lager,’ ‘white or red,’ but this beginner’s lesson contains all that the expert knows—when it comes to science.  As science gets down to the details of its field, the broader truths must be constantly kept in view, and this should be true of art, as well.

Visual art is concerned with these two: Color or line.

Writing?  Prose or poetry.

These divisions involve the science of art, which is much easier to understand than the art of art.

Plato can be scientific about art, even while morally condemning it, and one could argue it is the scientist in him that morally condemns it, while at the same time, examining it on a purely material level—which Plato did, even though Aristotle took it a little further; Aristotle broke most famously with Plato with his “catharsis” theory, telling the lie that we can “purge” our emotions by bathing in what triggers them.

Even Tom Wolfe got it wrong, then, with his withering critique of Modern Art when he called avant-garde painting the “painted word.” This, again, errs, in the way we have just illustrated: Modern art is not conceptualist; it is merely crudely (purely) representational.   Like Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” it is so obvious, everyone has missed it.   What we call “Conceptualist” is just crudely imitative.

How could so many have been so wrong regarding Conceptualism?

We can easily blame it on two things:

First, Modernism, a movement which is all about “moving ahead, about being self-consciously “modern” while forgetting the past.

And secondly, confusing art and science.

Science tells us there are but two kinds of beer: lager and ale.

Science, too, could also sound wiser by saying: beer as beer is more essential than the distinction between larger and ale.

Science, like criticism, can say anything, can be everywhere at once.

The poor artist, however, needs to imitate and make a certain kind of imitative sense to be effective, even if it is laying on pure color as an abstract artist.

Critics are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, not poets.   Unless we call Plato a poet (which he was, according to Shelley).

One of the results of the movement known as Modernism has been the elevation of prose poetry over its cousin, verse.

Verse, in Modernism’s eyes, is crudely denotative, rather than suggestive—the key to poetic prose.

Just as every discriminating artist is concerned with both line and color, every writer should create art that both denotes and suggests.

If we look at the matter scientifically, we will find that metrics can aid both denotation and suggestion, and the same goes with prose meaning.

Modernism, with its crippling -isms, needs to be done away with at last.

Drink all kinds of beer.

Don’t call Kenneth Goldsmith a “Conceptualist” ever again.

WHAT IS POETIC VALUE?

The poet Bill Knott made 24th place on Scarriet’s latest Hot 100 List, read by poets everywhere.

Bill Knott quickly came on Scarriet making comments disparaging the worth of his own poetry; Mr. Knott claimed to be the only poet on Scarriet’s Hot 100 who was not a “legitimate” poet, since Knott makes all his poems available on-line for no charge, he has no recent book publications, and he’s not up for any prizes or awards.

Knott has published books and has been picked up by anthologies, so perhaps he was being histrionic and self-pitying.

But another commenter—a reader calling themselves Van Giggles—immediately rebuked Knott, the poet, on Scarriet, sincerely it seemed, for his very practice of giving away his poems for free, claiming the practice was lowering Knott’s reputation, continuing a “market stereotype” that poems are essentially worthless, and thus robbing poets everywhere of their labor.

Bill Knott has a brilliant and original mind, and if I were his friend, I would pick his brain all the time, looking for insights from him personally, much more than I would read his poems.

His poems are knotty, complex, obscure, just as his mind is, and his mind makes good poems up to a point, the obscurity sometimes mystifying to advantage, but often not.

The well-worn saying that poetry is “news that stays news” is not correct, because poetry is not news.  Journalism is transparent; it presents facts of immediate interest, i.e., news.  The poem is not a poem as much as it is news; the poem is intentionally opaque, dense, clotted, sensual and watery, arousing keen feelings and hinting at truths that live apart from “news.”

This is not to say that “news” does not play a major role in forming poetic reputation: it does.

This might be a good moment to point out that reputation is the coin of poetic worth, not money; for if there is money involved, money always trails after reputation, and reputation is the end-in-itself, that “sweet fame” which is the siren to every poet.

When reform-minded New England writers, such as Waldo Emerson, beat a path to the door of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, they did so because Wordsworth was “news.”  Wordsworth’s reputation was built on tender and sensitive adoration of the rural poor (combined with a deep appreciation of nature) and Wordsworth’s reputation, informed by Wordsworth’s skill as a versifier, belonged to something much greater than Wordsworth: it was nothing less than a great moment in history when the idea of material progress was radically questioned; it was news, very big news, (Wordsworth may have been the first environmentalist) and it’s why Wordsworth is one of the rare poets who inspired lengthy pilgrimages.

But again, “news” hinders poetry and is nearly always better communicated in other mediums: the newspaper, the essay, etc.   Since “news” is always popular, it will often mingle with poetry and give the poetry renown for that reason, but “news” which happens to reside in poems is parasitic.   The “news” that piggy-backs on a poem (one thinks of Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” for instance) fools us into thinking the “poem” is enhanced by “news;” but this is but a trick of perception.   The poem has weight because it refers to an important historic event in the past—but this weight belongs to the parasitic “news” and not the poem.  “A terrible beauty is born” could be a hackneyed phrase; but it’s impossible for us to say, for aesthetic judgement is suspended—as we fall into a groveling respect for the historical event.

Another poet who managed to attain the kind of newsworthy reputation which impelled a great deal of visitation was Ezra Pound, when he was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane—after he was captured in Italy for treason at the end of WW II.  If Wordsworth was a mecca because he was newsworthy in a vast, deeply emerging, moral kind of way, Pound was attractive because he represented newsworthiness in itself; Pound participated even less in the poetic and much more in the news:—as someone in the news himself and as a Modernist poet bent on turning poetry into news.

Does history age, like a person?  We feel it does.  We will never see a Wordsworth’s sort of fame again, or a Pound’s.  These were unique,  “newsy” times.  Until a flood wipes out the memory of Wordsworth in the English speaking world, a poet will not enjoy the kind of fame he did for being part of something so vast, important and new.

The truly poetic aspires to one thing and one thing, only: to cultivate an admiration for the truly beautiful and the truly good.  Plato understood this, and this is why he explicitly allowed poems of praise in his Republic.  Shelley, Romantic poet and follower of Plato (Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium) understood this principle too, when he said (in his “Defense of Poetry”) that love is the secret of morals, for when you truly love someone, you identify with them, and this identification with another is the virtue that unites imagination, poetry, morality and love.  The greatest poems of Shelley (he did write some newsy poems, attacking George III, etc) do not partake of “news;” works like “Ode to the West Wind,” “Adonais,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” are masterpieces of purely moral, imaginative beauty.

Van Giggles, in more commentary on Scarriet, said he had no interest in Shelley, and dismissed him as “just another wealthy person” who didn’t have to work.

We have a feeling that Van Giggles, who doesn’t read Shelley, is probably a fan of the Fragment/Gizmo School of Poetry spawned by Ezra Pound and his friend, William Carlos Williams. The “pound-of-flesh” sensibility that demands money for poems has that Modernist taint which surely informs Van Giggles poetic taste.

Poets like Shelley do not fit into the monetary scheme of our friend, Van Giggles, who continues to insist (on Scarriet) that poets should never give away their work for free.

Here’s the scenario.  Shelley, independently wealthy, instead of drinking himself to death, or idling away his life in madness, writes (heroically) one of the greatest poems in the English language.  But he does not sell it.  There is nothing “newsy” about it.  Friends read Shelley, praise him, and gradually, over generations, Shelley becomes a famous poet.

What can Van Giggles say?  In his crassly monetary argument, Van Giggles would have Shakespeare demand payment for the Sonnets that he passed around to his friends—which would not only be silly and vain, but rude.

THE TWO ACADEMIES

The Academy, for poet/lawyer Seth Abramson, is unfairly attacked when it comes to poetry. The MFA Creative Writing model is healthy, he insists, a hybrid of association and guidance and leisure that allows a thousand flowers to bloom.

But there are two academies, and the older one is the one Seth Abramson ignores.

We mean the Academy in which to teach the student Greek, you teach the student Homer. We mean the Academy where the best way to teach a student Greek is to teach them Homer. In the First and oldest Academy, Homer is not a piece of ‘creative writing’ or a cinematic spectacle for an idle brain—Homer is the foundation of the language for that society, and the Academy of Homer is the nation of Homer: they are one and the same.

Any genuine critique of Abramson’s academy begins with an awareness of these two academies and the tremendous gulf between them: one is national; the other is local; one is the nation, the other is Joe’s Diner.

There is nothing wrong with Joe’s Diner. It serves very good food (so says reviewer Seth Abramson) and might turn a pretty profit, too.

But let us not fool ourselves that grown men and women writing experimental poems in 21st century America so they might earn a college degree is anything more than a transaction in some actual cafe that happens to exist up the street.

This is not a real academy—this one that sells Writing Degrees—this Academy is an illusory one, a fake one, at best a diner that sells pretty good food, in comparison to the First Academy in which the Greek language, the Greek nation, and Homer were all one.

We all know that new combinations of words can make a kind of odd sense that is novel and pleasing. Even random words can sometimes produce this effect, a default ability of language itself. Poets nudge linguistic frolic in the direction of a more pleasing and human result, even as the poet is under the sway of indifferent, random machinery. Such writing does not reflect reality; the poet attempting to consciously depict an object or incident in front of them cannot go far with this method, in which the playfulness of language makes caprice the rule.

We might kid ourselves in believing this sort of ephemeral writing has real worth beyond its pure novel effect—but in fact it does have real worth, even if it’s a sad one, pathetic in the sense that punning is pathetic, or sad; for, in fact,the impulse to pun is a sad one, and punning is a sign of misery in the speaker, and here we think of the “antic disposition” of pure sport, but in this case the punning is conscious and not random, as we mentioned above; we are now in a whole different universe, one of motive—and add emotion to the mix and we have punning where it is noble, as spoken by the sad and miserable Hamlet, for instance, and now we begin to see poetry fleshed out into heroic action, into drama, into a national literature which transcends ephemera even as it utilizes it, the literature of Homer or Shakespeare which itself defines the Academy and towers over “creative writing” thumb-sucking.

This is what Seth Abramson and defenders of the current MFA model must confront—nothing less than building a national literature which includes verse drama as T.S Eliot in his wisest and most selfless Criticism cried out for in his younger and less affected days, national dramatic poetry as opposed to the lolly-pop licking hermetic lyric; a literature worthy to teach language and culture with in order to elevate the literacy of a nation, that excitement  and that Academy and that literature and that language and that poetry all gloriously one and the same, in the most diverse sense imaginable.

The pluralists might object to all this talk of one language and one nation; by “one” we mean all that is required to hold together the necessary diversity—whatever that happens to be. Pluralists need to relax. Pluralism is only truly honored in the attempt to put it somewhere. The genius knows what we mean.

We also understand that the United States is not ancient Athens, but this impacts our argument not one bit. There will always be a Joe’s Diner and there will always be a Seth Abramson working for one. Our argument could not be more relevant.

We are also keen to the complexity of Plato’s critique of Homer and what that means to a nation, to a language, to poetry, and to an Academy.

It does pose a difficulty: how seriously should poets take Plato’s critique? We think the best response to Plato is to concede Plato’s critique is inevitable and enriching—certainly the MFA student could use the challenge to hone their critical thinking.

One cannot be a creative writer without being a critical writer, after all.

Just ask Shakespeare, a treasure for English-speakers, who is Homer plus Plato.

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.

THE VERSE DRAMA: BEN MAZER

At the Grolier (L-R) Amanda Maciel Antunes; Michael Healy; Robert Chalfen; Julia Kleyman; Zachary Bos; Ben Mazer; Allison Vanouse; Jenna Dee; Philip Nikolayev

The verse drama ought to wear the crown, but as it happens so often in life with worthy things, is neglected; the verse drama’s combination of entertainment (drama) and fine art (poetry) should carry the day for all conceivable reasons except for the inconceivable reason that it does not.

To give an audience to a poet and poetry to audiences!  And for this noble purpose, to spring poetry from books so it might escape into, and live in, sound! To give entertainment the soul of art and art, the charm of entertainment! To put intricate music into story! To insert character and plot into intricate music!

These are worthy goals, and they must have excited Shakespeare, the playwright and poet, to give us the best literature in the world, etc.

The audience may boo, as it booed Henry James, so the poetry better entertain and the drama better fit the shades and hues of the words. Plays are not for the faint of heart.

T.S. Eliot, the modern who bemoaned verse drama’s fall as a popular art form,  says on the practical matters of verse drama:

Possibly the majority of attempts to confect a poetic drama have begun at the wrong end; they have aimed at the small public which wants “poetry.” (“Novices,” says Aristotle, “in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot.”) The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry; our problem should be to take a form of entertainment, and subject it to the process which would leave it a form of art. Perhaps the music-hall comedian is the best material. I am aware that this is a dangerous suggestion to make. For every person who is likely to consider it seriously there are a dozen toymakers who would leap to tickle æsthetic society into one more quiver and giggle of art debauch. Very few treat art seriously. There are those who treat it solemnly, and will continue to write poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare; and there are others who treat it as a joke.  —The Possibility of Poetic Drama, T.S. Eliot

We are happy to report that Ben Mazer, the poet, treats the task of creating verse drama, in his “A City of Angels,” neither too solemnly, nor as a joke; perhaps superficially, the scene at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop recently resembled a “small public” assembled for “poetry,” and perhaps due to the “temper of the age,” this is the only social milieu possible for verse drama, but Mazer, we feel, succeeds wildly with his 3 act play.

Mazer fulfills what Eliot, in “Rhetoric and Poetic Drama,” wanted:

A speech in a play should never appear to be intended to move us as it might conceivably move other characters in the play, for it is essential that we should preserve our position of spectators, and observe always from the outside though with complete understanding.

There is nothing worse than art that has a “palpable design” on us, and Mazer, by avoiding this common error, has a chance to give us true art.  And he does.

In more general terms, Oscar Wilde is a spokesman witty and elegant enough to convince us of the importance of poetry performed.

Wilde’s The Critic As Artist is illustrative of that great debate—is poetic language sign (writing) or sound (music)?

The 19th century was still imbued with the spirit of the Greeks and sound was the high-brow choice; but in the 20th century, Imagism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Fluxus, Visual Poetry and Language Poetry have made poetry on the page more important to scholars and academic poets.

There is no question where Wilde stands in his marvelous document, The Critic As Artist:

Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the middle and lower classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more and more to the eye, and less and less to the ear, which is really the sense which, from the standpoint of pure art, it should seek to please, and by whose canons of pleasure it should abide always. Even the work of Mr. Pater, who is, on the whole, the most perfect master of English prose now creating amongst us, is often far more like a piece of mosaic than a passage in music, and seems, here and there, to lack the true rhythmical life of words  and the fine freedom and richness of effect that such rhythmical life produces. We, in fact, have made writing a definite mode of composition, and have treated it as a form of elaborate design. The Greeks, upon the other hand, regarded writing simply as a method of chronicling. Their test was always the spoken word in its musical and metrical relations. The voice was the medium, and the ear the critic.  I have sometimes thought that the story of Homer’s blindness might be really an artistic myth, created in critical days, and serving to remind us, not merely that the great poet is always a seer, seeing less with the eyes of the body than he does with the eyes of the soul, but that he is a true singer also, building his song out of music, repeating each line over and over again to himself till he has caught the secret of its melody, chanting in darkness the words that are winged with light.  Certainly, whether this be so or not, it was to his blindness, as an occasion if not as a cause, that England’s great  poet owed much of the majestic movement and sonorous splendor of his later verse.  When Milton could no longer write, he began to sing.  …Yes: writing has done much harm to writers. We must return to the voice. That must be our test, and perhaps then we shall be able to appreciate some of the subtleties of Greek art criticism.

Wilde is writing in the late 19th century, before Modernism killed the Greek spirit which Wilde breathed as the very air.  Perhaps the death of Oscar Wilde (1900) should mark the beginning of Modernism/Post-Modernism—with its emphasis on poetry as writing, and even design, as opposed to poetry of speaking, singing, and winged thought.

The Verse Play, A City of Angels, by Ben Mazer, twice performed recently in Harvard Square, leaps over the heavy mosaic of writing into a heaven of sound.   Why ideality is better ushered into our minds by the ear is a mystery all unsolvable; the inspired poet himself is but a vessel and cannot explain it.

We might, at this point, make some self-evident observations.

The poetry of sound works in a medium more suited to poetry itself.

Enlightenment and pleasure, however misty, enter us by definite steps; this is how the material world experiences itself. Spoken language requires steps to imaginative reality, and those steps are at once accessible and elevating in the hands of the gifted poet; most poets strive for elevation but their steps are hidden, or their steps are accessible but they do not lead anywhere.

Ben Mazer’s poem is accessible and mystical at once.  We could use the word genius to describe how simply Mazer swims in the deep.

Music, or self-consciously musical language, allows us to travel to a place; both the traveling to the place and the place itself are provided by the music.

With all due respect to visual artists, we can see at once how musical poetry is superior to what the design or picture does, for the visual artist merely give us the place but not the traveling to the place—only the movement of temporal art can do that.

The poem that imitates painting and provides imagery is doing only a small part of what it can do, and even when providing imagery, the poet must ‘stretch it’ in the temporal rendering. Every tool has a self-imposed limit as well as a certain thing it can do.  Mazer understands this on many levels, and especially in this: his imagery always serves his music.

The painter will use distance for an effect, the poet, time, but the poet’s time is so much more immense and important.  So many things will mark the poet’s temporal journey: exactly what he is saying, exactly what he is painting, the rhythm of what is said, the suggestive vistas large or small, bright, dappled, or dark; the journey can be accumulative or sudden, the steps, a whole paragraph of thought, or a single arch rhyme. The skillful poet builds thought itself with mood on mood, and the Verse Drama is a form which lends itself to this and which seems to find Mazer in his element.

When it comes to temporality, Mazer does not languish in A City, but stresses movement for the sake of movement:

where much is predicated to unfold
when in the morning I unleash the thoughts
that brought me to return as if to break
the patterns of the time that came before
and sever all connections to the past
when time moves forward into a new day,
and motion stirs in the awaking town
to find that all is new, is a blank slate
where history shall properly begin
groping to find its new identity
innocently as it looks around
to find that all is moving forward now

We quote but a part of this tour-de-force, John Crick’s monologue which opens the play; is it over the top?  A lesser poet would trim the speech, fearing excess, but temporal excess is precisely how Mazer’s genius asserts itself in the medium he has chosen.

If Crick merely asserted in a briefer format, “here I am, waiting for a new day,” the whole thing would be a failure; Mazer instinctively makes onward movement the rhetorical form of Crick’s speech on mutability and novelty.

Crick’s passion for the new is soon put to the test by the friendly, small-town, skeptical Mary; she is the human lens of the play, modifying Crick’s light; she is “we the audience” who puzzle over Crick’s mystical, forward-looking, optimism.

Mary: “I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.”

Meanwhile, John questions her; John and Mary’s dialogue (Act I, Scene 2) skillfully enhances the content of Crick’s monologue in the play’s first scene.

Crick: But why were you not sleeping at this hour?

Mary: I might ask you again what are these plans you spoke of so mysteriously.

Crick: I promise that I’ll tell, but answer me.

Mary: Why am I up? I was asleep awhile
but then I had a dream I can’t recall
which stirred and shook me and I was awake.

Mary, unlike the town that is sleeping, is awake, and discovers Crick outside her window in the street (he has come to work for her father, the president of the college.)  Mary is made unique and has her dramatic presence heightened by this simple device, and the dream which she relates hints at Crick’s mysterious visit.  So as Mary questions Crick, he then questions her—and she reveals him more than he does himself.

But she continues to press him:

Mary: But more concretely, what have you in mind?
With what do you propose to fill each day?

Crick: With wonderment and with discovery.
Briefly that is the outline of my plan.
To find virginity in each new day,
a spirit of adventure not restrained.
An openness to what’s not been before.

Mary: Concretely speaking, John, what would that be?

The audience notices the self-aware nature of the play; the playwright knows Crick is not being “concrete” (even though he has put Crick in a dramatically real situation: visiting a snowy city at night for a job, etc).  But the critique of Crick’s vagueness is not a simple one; he parries Mary in such an idiot savant sort of way that one cannot help but emotionally identify with the profound visitor:

Crick: Nothing concrete at all, but something that
remains to be discovered.

Mary:  Well, we’ll see.

Crick’s logic is masterful.  The “something that remains to be discovered” is just that exciting secret which cannot be revealed, for then it would lose its allure.  This is nothing less than a dramatic evocation of the Socratic desire for not only truth—but desire itself.

And with Socrates, we return to the Greek spirit which Wilde, the wit, saw as so important (Eliot, too, lauds Plato in “The Possibility of Poetic Drama”).  And as Wilde made clear in The Critic As Artist, the Greek spirit is the critical spirit:

Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation…

Each new school…cries out against criticism, but it is to the critical faculty in man that it owes its origin. The mere creative instinct does not innovate, but reproduces.

There has never been a creative age that has not been critical also.  For it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms. The tendency of creation is to repeat itself. It is to the critical instinct that we owe each new school that springs up, each new mould that art finds ready to its hand.

Wilde was a wit, so why wouldn’t he take the side of criticism:  wit is closer to criticism than to creativity.  Some reject Plato, Socrates, the Critical impulse, in favor of a not-so-carefully-considered-creativity.

Mazer’s self-critical mastery of the medium of verse drama is nicely expressed in the Act 3, Scene 1 meeting between the thuggish Tom and Sam Cross—who belong to the the rival clan of the Cricks.  When they caustically speak of “this play,” it probably refers to a play in the play, but there’s just enough of an absurdist hint that the “play” referred to is, in fact, Mazer’s play.

They’ve got one newspaper, one magazine of any value, a literary magazine, and this is where this play will receive a favorable review, and it will be trusted and admired by intellectuals, and we’ve got one shit Crick up our ass.  (Tom Cross)

The rhetorical style of the Cross brothers scene stretches meaning even as it condenses it; the rather brief scene is entirely effective, with just the right black comic menace.  The scene is a perfect vehicle for character actors to have a delightful time, removed, and yet threatening, the romantic world of John Crick and Mary.  Mazer knows how to build, define and separate a play’s elements—we don’t need a lot of interaction to see what is essential move forward.

What “moves forward” in Mazer’s play is fairly simple—but lest we think this a fault, we should remember what T.S. Eliot says (very wisely) in his essay “The Possibility of Poetic Drama:”

The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world—a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a complete process of simplification.

And again, keeping with the whole critical tenor of creation, Mazer in “A City of Angels” is cognizant of Eliot’s profound statement (in the same essay) on the economy of great literature, which, according to Eliot, puts “into the statement enough to make reflection unnecessary.”

“To make reflection unnecessary” returns us to that accessibility we need in temporal art—as we pitch forward with that “precise statement of life” “essential to get upon the stage.”

Another issue dogging the verse drama is the “conversational” v. “oratorical” debate; doesn’t poetry automatically sound too artificial for the “direct speech” we expect from actors on the stage?  Mazer succeeds here, too.  His blank verse play, which occasionally rhymes, mostly sounds like speech.  Either the obstacle is not as great as supposed, or Mazer has found a secret key.

Verse drama has not been popular for a long time.  When is the last time someone quoted Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party?”

Ben Mazer’s A City of Angels, which we feel is better than Yeats or Eliot’s efforts in the genre, gives us hope for the form, and for poetry.

Mazer, with the help of some talented friends, has done at the Grolier what Oscar Wilde asked: returned fine literature to the voice.

RHYTHM AND POETRY

Criticism of Life?  Bah.  Rhythm! Ode to Joy! One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-and-Two!

The essence of rhythm is completely misunderstood by the modern poets.

They falsely posit two things of which there is only one.

It is similar to the error in which a simple quantity, height, for instance, is described as a duality: short and tall.  Short is not a quantity in itself, and neither is tall. Short and tall are two ways of saying the same thing: height.  Short and tall only have meaning in relation to some other height. Height itself is neither short nor tall—it is simply one measurable quantity between two points.

In the same way: the quantity, rhythm, is notrecurring pattern’ on one hand, and ‘variation of that pattern,’ on the other.

Rhythm, for that word to have any meaning, is not two things.  It is one thing.

Since variation cannot exist unless there is an established pattern from which to vary, it is ridiculous to speak of variety or variation as a separate quantity—like tall, it begs the question, taller than what? or in this case, varying from what?  This second quantity—variation—does not exist, but is contained in the first quantity, which we define as: the established pattern or rhythm which must first exist before any variation can occur, and without which no variation can occur.

T.S. Eliot, the Modernist most respected for first principles, errs, precisely in this manner, when he claims all prose scans and all prose has rhythm.

The Modernist error is defended by the tall and short trick—two quantities conjured out of the one principle: rhythm.

We see the Modernist compare iambic pentameter—which is described as a recurring pattern—to prose, which is described as a variation on a pattern, the Modernist adding that good iambic pentameter breaks the iambic expectation with variation—and prose is a variation on this sort of (good) variation—and thus, naturally, a good.

Good iambic moves away from expectation; good prose moves towards it.

The trick that is being played here is a simple one: the Modernist inserts a quality in a manner that distorts a quantity. The rhythm is the rhythm, not the variation from it—but this “not” magically becomes “the good;” the “variation” (the variation, any variation, variation that cannot exist without the original rhythm) now becomes wholly associated with “the good,” because if iambic does not vary itself, it is bad—and therefore prose, seen as wholly and organically various, and thus always varying itself, becomes in the blindness of the Modernist argument, the good.

The false Modernist argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: If iambic can vary itself as prose does, iambic will be good, and prose, which is already various, is by the same token, also good.

But obviously there can be no variation without the original rhythm—which is the actual good—and to describe variety as good is nothing but a lie, because not only is variety not a separate good, variety does not and cannot exist at all as anything materially separate.

The iambic—even as it varies itself, remains always and forever iambic in the upper part of the reader’s mind—and the more it skillfully varies itself as an iambic rhythm, the more strongly does it assert itself, in its variety, as an iambic rhythm, and this process alone—by which the iambic varies itself and by doing so, remains more strongly iambic—is the good.

Iambic is iambic because it is not prose. The iambic rhythm (ta DA) possesses an identifiable rhythm, and thus an identity in terms of rhythm which prose does not—since prose is not-prosebecause-it-isnot-iambic. Prose is also not prose because it is not trochaic—thus not being iambic alone does not define prose. But iambic is defined by not being prose—were iambic, after all, really trochaic, for instance, it would still be very much itself, since the rhythm of trochaic and iambic are almost the same (a short beside a long).

With logical precision, Criticism can prove that prose has no identifiable rhythm.

This, in fact, is what defines prose as prose.  It does not differ from iambic, it differs from all rhythm—for it has none.

The Modernist Theory of free verse is not scientific.  It is a hopeful dream—though the Modernist would insist the glory of free verse is based on “experience.”

To reject Criticism for experience, thinking the former leads us away frorm the latter, is wrong, for Criticism makes us aware of experience and is therefore vital to it. Criticism is nothing more and nothing less than an experience of experience, and therefore to reject Criticism as effete or unnecessary is foolish: a rejection of experience itself.

To insist that prose scans is to succumb to the worst sin, according to Pope’s Essay on Criticism: pride. It is also to reject what, according to Plato, is the essence of art, humility, and intelligence: measurement.

The Modernist is uncomfortable with measurement, and feels superior to it.  The Modernist is a priest without religion, a scientist without science, an artist without art, a lover without love, and indulges in experience without criticism—which is experience without experience.

Life is all the Modernist has.

Life belongs to all of us—and yes, life needs no criticism, no science, no love, no measurement.  Life is that place we, as individuals, can safely be ignorant or hyper-aware, as we sit on a train, drowse on our beds, drift sweetly in our minds, dismiss all in a bad mood, or embrace all in moments of intoxication; then, criticism of experience—which is truly what experience is—can go hang.  There is no “criticism of life,” the Arnoldian phrase loved by T.S. Eliot; it is truly an empty phrase, if we understand how vast, casual and random life really is.

Life is beyond Criticism.  Experience depends on Criticism.   Yet the Modernist confuses the two.

Life is subjective, sprawling.

Experience is limited, objective.

The Modernist comprehends neither experience (rejecting criticism of it) nor life (welcoming criticism of it).  Of course it is no wonder that Matthew Arnold’s “criticsm of life” was used by Eliot in praising Pound’s poetry [intro to Pound’s Selected Poems, Faber]. When you wish to reject experience and criticism of it, you insist, like the Modernists and their heirs, the Post-Modernists do, that your poetry reflects “life,” which of course is impossible.

Life is what finally makes poetry empty and effete.  In one of life’s bad moods, all poetry is terrible, and life laughs at our criticism and makes everything true—or not—on a whim.

A poet would be a fool, then, to think his poetry is a ‘criticism of life.’

No, life is always a criticism of poetry, and didactic pride prevents us from admitting this is always the case, and it never goes the other way; poetry is never a ‘criticism of life.’ Only a fool who believes prose scans would make such an assertion.

AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 3

Was Frost a flarfist?  We’re guessing Silliman has no idea…
Ron Silliman is at it again.  When he takes a rare break from posting talking head videos on his blog and speaks directly to his audience, he’s a wonderful conduit for the know-nothing avant-garde—which has been quietly infesting our institutions of higher learning for the last 50 years.
It’s a deliberate championing of obscurity for obscurity’s sake, propelled by the gnawing envy of the unread on one hand and that intellectual faculty on the other that strives to make being unread a merit in itself.
It’s no accident that this “merit” grows in colleges—where students are the helpless audience (in need of a grade on a transcript) that bows to the playfully sweet will of the artsy-fartsy instructor who reduces learning to a kind of kindergarten “creativity.” This, more often than not, receives praise from the prisoner-student, the student happy to believe they are being “creative,” and needing that easy A.  Standards don’t matter because the “A” and the tuition paid get the job done.
The mistake Silliman and his tribe make is they assume the poetry of John Ashbery, for instance, is metadata: defined as data that provides information about other data.  This is a grave error, and it persists, in spite of, or because of, the error involved.
Memo to the Silliman-ites: The philosophy of Plato is metadata.  The poetry of Ashbery is not.
This distinction escapes them even while they beat the ground and raise a pretentious amount of dust—the merit of obscurity becoming its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
In his review of Richard Blanco’s inauguration poem, Silliman is forced out of his avant-garde cave for a moment and betrays that gnawing envy which grips his type when they are forced to grapple with anything that betokens democracy’s wide, daylight appeal.
Silliman’s entire commentary is a sneering revilement of the whole inaugural poetry event.  Blanco’s poem itself is not given the courtesy of a look.  Blanco is the “gluten-free, lo-cal version” of a genuine avant-garde representative.  All inaugural poems, in Silliman’s eyes, are “flarf.”  Every selection of an inaugural poet, according to Silliman, involves crass geographical politics. JFK wasn’t a real intellectual. JFK’s term was “idyllic” because there was no Fox News.  Everyone carps about the choices, but none should be heeded.  It would be a mistake to think these remarks of Silliman’s are “political.” They are merely dyspeptic.  We present his remarks below and you can judge for yourself.
The only attempt at offering something we can actually chew is Silliman’s passing mention of John Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” from that poet’s 1962 book, The Tennis Court Oath. 
Silliman imagines Rush & O’Reilly close-reading Ashbery’s “Europe” had Ashbery been selected.  Really?  Who in the mainstream would bother close-reading Ashbery?  Silliman knows CNN as well as Fox News wouldn’t bother.  The gushing praise of “Europe” below insinuates—as all praise of Ashbery does—that metadata is at hand; it’s not.
Europe is perhaps the most extreme example of Ashbery’s earlier, experimental work. He used extracts from “Beryl of the Biplane”, a 1917 children’s novel by Bernard LeQueux, for some of the text and mixed in a collage of images of phrases. Some would argue that this remarkable poem is an early example of the postmodern sensibility with its rejection of ‘meaning’ and a deliberate playfulness. Others would argue that it borrows heavily from a distinctly French tradition of juxtosposition and a strong interest in cinematic montage. Either way, reading it is a dizzying experience and Ashbery’s delight in the possibilities of language shines through.
The data is all Ashbery’s, even as he imports “extracts” from other works and brings us “collage” and “postmodern sensibility” and “French tradition,” all these terms brave attempts to manifest an air of metadata—which doesn’t really exist as such.  Plato’s philosophy, which influenced so profoundly the gigantic eras of Renaissance and Romantic explosions in art and science, can be defined as metadata: light streaming outward, “data providing information about other data;” Ashbery’s snippets of collage collect; they do not create.  The “information” in an Ashbery poem remains information in terms of the poem’s random nature.  There is no philosophy throwing light on other things; things connected to things in Asbhery are trivial connections; interesting, as of course sometimes trivia is, but never rising to the definition of metadata.
And we close with Silliman’s commentary:
The next time a poet is selected to perform a poem at a presidential inauguration on strictly literary grounds will be the first. The carping after Richard Blanco’s selection tells me more about those who complain than it does about Blanco. The same was true for those who bemoaned and belittled Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, James Dickey &, I dare say, Robert Frost. One might make the case that Frost was selected for his pre-eminence as an American icon of poetry, but one should keep in mind that JFK was a president who understood the value – in his idyllic pre-Fox News single term – of positioning himself as an intellectual, garnering a Pulitzer for a ghost-written volume of pop history & preferring in his own time to read James Bond novels. Ian Fleming may qualify as a heavyweight alongside whatever the Bushies read, but when Kennedy got together with Marilyn Monroe, it wasn’t the president who was the serious reader in the room. And there never has been a white male inaugural poet who wasn’t selected at least partly as a play on the regional card to boot: New England, Georgia, Arkansas.
 
I don’t know what anyone expects from an inaugural poem – the entire premise seems utterly cringe-worthy to me – but signaling a broader inclusiveness in the American project is hardly a bad idea unless you’re one of the old white guys for whose vote Mitt Romney was campaigning.  Since the resulting poems tend toward flarf, perhaps the ideal might be some carved-up-blend of K Silem Mohammad, Judy Grahn & Simon Ortiz. In a sense, Blanco may just be the gluten-free lo-cal version of that. It might be more fun to imagine the field day Rush & O’Reilly would have had close-reading “Europe” had John Ashbery been selected, but really is it any different? With the exception of LBJ, every Democratic president for the past half century has used the occasion to signal that poetry is inside the tent, just as every Republican has spoken far louder through its absence.

SCIENCE, MATH AND POETRY

When a philosopher’s science fails to be precise, we call it poetry.

The impulse towards science in ancient times—when few scientific facts were available—ancient cosmogonies, for example, becomes, in retrospect, a kind of poetry by default.

Plato, whose cosmology was the late dialogue, the Timaeus, is often called a poet. It’s not that Plato was a poet so much as he was a scientist who had to rely on a great deal of amazing guessing.

Is poetry really the guess-work of the scientist?

The world—which is born and dies, and which resides below Plato’s eternal Forms—is God’s unique and mutable poem.

Plato’s Forms are God’s truth—or what might be called the poet’s plan.

So Plato’s great theme: The eternal Forms are real and belong to science. The world doesn’t belong to poetry, because the world is already a default poem,  but for the world and the poet to exist, the poet must think like a scientist.  

The planning impulse of the cosmogonist writes the poem to make it more than a mere reflection of the accidents of the world.

We could say it was easier, or more natural for the scientist to be a poet in Plato’s day—precisely because science required so much guess-work.  The scientist needed to be a poet, needed to have imagination, and speculate, in order to make sense of a world belonging to our ancient ancestors’ dimly primitive understanding of it.

Do we believe the world is still a mystery? In that case, guessing and dreaming—not just in poetry, but in what could be called poetic science, is still necessary.

Here, in a masterpiece of classical scholarship—Plato’s Cosmology, by Francis Cornford (1935)—we find the following, and note how Cornford describes the cosmology of Lucretius, all the rage at the moment because of Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s prize-winning bestseller, The Swerve:

The Timaeus is a poem, no less than the De rerum natura of Lucretius, and indeed more so in certain respects. Both poets are concerned, in the first instance, with our practical attitude towards the world—what we should make of our life there and how face the prospect of death. Lucretius believed that atoms and void are the ultimately real things of which everything that exists is built. Plato denied reality to what is commonly called matter; his real things are the Forms, and the bodies we touch and see are not built of Forms, nor are the Forms in them. Accordingly, for Lucretius reality is in the world of sensible things and he can offer statements about its nature which claim to be literally true; for Plato that whole world is an image, not the substance. You cannot, by taking visible things to pieces, ever arrive at any parts more real than the whole you started with. The perfection of microscopic vision can bring you no nearer to the truth, for the truth is not at the further end of your microscope. To find reality you would do better to shut your eyes and think.

There are two senses in which the Timaeus is a ‘myth’ or ‘story.’ One we have already considered: no account of the material world can ever amount to an exact and self-consistent statement of unchangeable truth. In the second place, the cosmology is cast in the form of a cosmogony, a ‘story’ of events spread out in time. Plato chooses to describe the universe, not by taking it to pieces in an analysis, but by constructing it and making it grow under our eyes. Earlier cosmogonies had been of the evolutionary type, suggesting a birth and growth of the world, due to some spontaneous force of life in Nature, or, as in Atomism, to the blind and undesigned collision of lifeless atoms. Such a story was, to Plato, very far from being like the truth. So he introduced, for the first time in Greek philosophy, the alternative scheme of creation by a divine artificer, according to which the world is like a work of art designed with a purpose.

The Atomists’ belief in innumerable worlds, some always coming into existence, others passing away, was an inference from their assertion of a strictly infinite void partly occupied by an illimitable number of atoms in motion. It was probable, they argued, that world-forming vortices would arise at any number of different places. Granted that our world is finite, that there is unlimited space outside its boundary, and that there are materials left over, from which other worlds might be formed, why should there not be any number of copies of the same model?  The world, according to Plato, is finite.

Francis Cornford rocks.  Re-discover him, people.

The poet is like God, a “divine artificer.”  And the divine focuses on one perfect, finite universe, not an imperfect bunch, based on vague limitlessness.

If we think of Plato as the ancient artificer, Dante, the artificer of the middle ages, and Poe as the great modern artificer, this might be a good time to quote from Poe’s cosmology, Eureka:

Let us begin, then, at once with the merest of words, “Infinity.” This, like “God,” “spirit,” and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in nearly all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea—but an effort at one.

And what an “effort” it is to imagine the entire universe!  Surely it makes writing a poem easier!  Or not.

Infinity is one of the important ideas for Poe, because like his great predecessor, Plato, a finite universe is the scientifically perfect universe Poe imagines; the infinite universe simply cannot work as our one unique universe of tangible lawfulness—and to read Eureka is to understand this fully, as Poe tirelessly makes crystal clear in his great theme of simplicity and oneness throughout the work.

Like Plato, Poe sees invisible creator and visible creation as two very distinct parts of the universe.  And on it goes, the parts, the number, and how they fit together and impact each other in revolutions, orbits, luminosity, and gravitation, over time; all that challenges the cosmologist cannot help but inspire the poet in the most profound manner imaginable.  Here is Poe, toward the end of his prose poem, Eureka, echoing Plato as he warns the reader not to confuse all-important “symmetry” in the world with its more important place in idea

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our propensity for the continuous—for the analogical—in the present case more particularly for the symmetrical—which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended on with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe—of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: —thus Poetry and Truth are one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth. We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave out of sight the really essential symmetry of the principles which determine and control them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, belonging to that certain tribe of thinkers who could not follow Poe’s genius in its journey beyond the country village, once said that “consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Emerson surely had a more fragile consistency in mind.

Poe was no village realist.  Poe was truly the idealist heir of Plato.  From Eureka:

The wonderfully complex laws of revolution here described, however, are not to be understood as obtaining in our system alone. They everywhere prevail where Attraction prevails. They control the Universe of Stars. Every shining speck in the firmament is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less, whose still lingering luminosity is not sufficient to render them visible to us at so vast a distance, but which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centers, in obedience to the principles just detailed—in obedience to the three omniprevalent laws of revolution—the three immortal laws guessed by the imaginative Kepler, and but subsequently demonstrated and accounted for by the patient and mathematical Newton. Among a tribe of philosophers who pride themselves excessively upon matter-of-fact, it is far too fashionable to sneer at all speculation under the comprehensive sobriquet, “guess-work.”  The point to be considered is, who guesses.  In guessing with Plato, we spend our time to better purpose, now and then, than in hearkening to a demonstration by Alcmaeon.

The poet, to broaden the definition of poetry, is, like Plato and Poe, one who speculates—in the consistent spirit of one who imagines the universe, or, like a good cook, tells you exactly how God made the pie.

LIBERALISM: AN INFINITE NUMBER OF ATOMS MOVING RANDOMLY THROUGH SPACE

How the World Became Modern—and Stephen Greenblatt Won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize

Stephen Greenblat’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) can be usefully compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka (1848).

Greenblatt celebrates modernity, and what can be called modern liberalism, in an ancient text, Lucretius’s On The Nature of Things (1st century), rediscovered by a pope’s secretary during the Renaissance—an era also celebrated by Greenblatt for its love of “beauty,” “pleasure” and “curiosity.”

The Swerve is your typical ‘science/philosophy/literature-for-the-layperson’ sort of book, the kind that wins prizes and dominates high-brow sections of bookstores; the language and message are simple:

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space. 

There is no master of plan, no divine architecht, no intelligent design.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms.

What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things  they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world.

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple.

Laid out for us in a nice, tidy package, Greenblatt informs us of the enlightened, ‘There’s no Santa Claus,’ scientific view of Lucretius which we modern, secular, intellectuals ought to call our own. 

Or should we? 

Should the modern view really be about following historical mankind’s long and winding “line” to modernity?   

If so, this begs the question: what is this holy grail of modernity, anyway?  Is it a slow waking up to atheism and pleasure?

Is Greenblatt giving us real wisdom, real science?

Or is The Swerve destined to disappear in a few years to make way for the next tome in the multi-billion dollar, science-for-the-lay-person, book industry?

The science-for-the-lay-person book is ubiquitous in our day, but we wonder whether its popularity is because it’s informative in a truly meaningful way, or rather because its food is illusionary, and it mass-feeds an increasingly empty need.

What if modernity, as Greenblatt and others use the term, is nothing but today’s prejudices?

What if what we call ‘the modern’ is merely wrong playing out now?

Are we certain that a world controlled by atheists, for instance, will be a better world than one controlled by priests? 

And what does this question have to do with whether there is an afterlife, or not, or whether one believes in an afterlife, or not? 

Or whether the universe is “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space,” or a reflection (to whom?) of an “intelligent design?”

If, as a mortal on this earth, one ‘puts one’s eggs’ in the basket of today, or the basket of next year, or the basket of a thousand years from now, does it matter, finally, whether one is an atheist, or not?  Isn’t this a more practical matter of one’s personality?

Can any of us, no matter what our science, religion, or philosophy, escape momento mori?   

And who is better equipped to escape it?  A severely depressed pessimist?  Or a happy-go-lucky optimist?  And who is to say which personality happens to be the Protestant, the Jew, the Catholic, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, or the atheist?  And which matters more?  The religion—or the personality?  We think the personality does. 

Is it the only valid, modern, scientific view, then, to think modernity, liberalism, progress, and enlightenment equal a movement through history away from all the major religions towards the holy grail of atheism, and the acceptance of “an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space?”  Can this ever be demonstrated to anyone’s satisfaction? 

Greenblatt certainly thinks so:

I marveled—I continue to marvel—that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago.  The line between this work and modernity…

Greenblatt “marvels” that what he calls “modernity” is not modern (not such a marvel if we rip the shroud from that word, modern).  Note also how Greenblatt registers with surety “the line between this work and modernity” (modernity, Greenblatt’s holy grail: a blithe “infinite number of random atoms”). 

Greenblatt continues:

The line between this work and modernity is not direct: nothing is ever so simple. There were innumerable forgettings, disappearances, recoveries, dismissals, distortions, challenges, transformations, and renewed forgettings. And yet the vital conneciton is there. Hidden behind the worldview I recognize as my own is an ancient poem, a poem once lost, apparently irrevocably, and then found.

The worldview I recognize as my own…  And why is this Greenblatt’s worldview?  Is it for all-important scientific reasons?  Or for the vaguely fashionable idea that Greenblatt considers himself, and this worldview, “modern?” 

Greenblatt traces the progress of the Lucretian, modern worldview:

When it returned to full circulation after a millennium, much of what the work said about a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void seemed absurd. But those very things that first were deemed both impious and nonsensical turned out to be the basis for the contemporary rational understanding of the entire world.

What is at stake is not only the startling recognition of key elements of modernity in antiquity, though it is certainly worth reminding ourselves that Greek and Roman classics, largely displaced from our curriculum, have in fact definitively shaped modern consciousness.

More surprising, perhaps, is the sense, driven home by every page of On The Nature of Things, that the scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. 

The Swerve is not a scientific work; Greenblatt is not interested in presenting any thing resembling a unified view of how the universe might actually work. 

Cosmogonies which rival and far surpass On The Nature of Things, most notably, Plato’s Timaeus and Poe’s Eureka, earn not a single mention in Greenblatt’s book.  The omission is glaring, since Poe’s Eureka is Lucretian to its very core (only far more accurate due to scientific advances made during two millennia) and Plato’s Timaeus is edifyingly and powerfully logical in the way it describes the underlying micro and cosmological forces of the universe in a purely scientific manner.

Greenblatt’s attempt to convey Lucretius’s wisdom in a general way fails, as well. Greenblatt has Lucretius renouncing war and rejecting “triumphing over nature.”  But nature, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ is the basis of war.  So how can one conform to nature and also be against war?  By presenting a laundry list of anti-religious points, Greenblatt is only fighting a religious war of his own, fueled by the very ignorance “modernity” supposedly exists to refute.  If “atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe” is the basis of Lucretius’ “vision,” why should this (or any other arrangement) make any difference to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?  It’s never clear how “atoms” which are “random” have anything to do with those evils (both accidental and otherwise) which Greenblatt’s “modernity” (secular, wise, liberal, etc) is supposedly equipped to overcome as we travel in history towards this Lucretian vision of “modernity.”

The point here is not to argue with Professor Greenblatt’s politics, but to ask: What does a belief in “a universe formed out of the clash of atoms in an infinite void” have to do with reason, science, or modernity?

Greenblatt uses the word “infinite” in describing the Lucretian universe, whether he is talking of an “infinite number of atoms” or an “infinite void.”  And this is indeed how Lucretius described the universe: infinite.

Poe’s Eureka, a prose poem of imaginative force, argues that no atom could move if there were an infinite number of atoms. Gravity, the force which holds the universe together, is, as Poe points out, nothing less than every atom attracting every other atom—the consolidating principle of attraction, the basis of all the orbits; all the moons, planets, suns and stars, the very spheres themselves; all entropy; all centrifugal, all centripedal, movement;  all rectilinear, all deviatory movement in the universe. Is the universe “infinite?”  Here’s what Eureka says: 

Grant the abstract tendency of any one atom to any one other as the inevitable result of diffusion from the normal Unity:–or, what is the same thing, admit any given atom as proposing to move in any given direction—it is clear that, since there is an infinity of atoms on all sides of the atom proposing to move, it never can actually move toward the satisfaction of its tendency in the direction given, on account of a precisely equal and counterbalancing tendency in the direction diametrically opposite. In other words, exactly as many tendencies to Unity are behind the hesitating atom as before it; for it is mere folly to say that one infinite line is longer or shorter than another infinite line, or that one infinite number is greater or less than another number that is infinite. Thus the atom in question must remain stationary forever. Under the impossible circumstances which we have been merely endeavoring to conceive for argument’s sake, there could have been no aggregation of Matter—no stars—no worlds—nothing but a perpetually atomic and inconsequential Universe. In fact, view it as we will, the whole idea of unlimited Matter is not only untenable, but impossible and preposterous.

One cannot step into the river of Eureka without drowning in its one idea: the original Unity—of Nothing (since the True Unity has no Relation and thus no Matter) exploding into the Many (a finite, and finally discontinued explosion, in order ‘to work’ most simply—always the m.o. of the Creator, the Deity, the Design) which leads to the Great Return Back to the Original Unity (manifested as the Ubiquitous Law of Gravity)—returning, gravitationally, not to a place but to unity itself which gives rise to the Great Counter-force: Electricity (and its various attributes: Luminosity, Electro-Magnetism, Thought)—the Force of Resistance or Repulsion which makes Gravity’s Great Return back to the Original Unity tortured, lengthy, yet inevitable.

Greenblatt’s “enlightened” enthusiasm for “infinite atoms” cannot help but strike the reader of Eureka as slack—Greenblatt’s  The Swerve is modestly attempting partial historical observations; Poe’s Eureka is focused and ambitious in the extreme and is perhaps the most remarkable essay/prose poem ever produced by an American; yet we cannot help but note that Greenblatt is anxious to celebrate the details of a cosmogony he is quick to imbue with “modern” significance for the lay reader, yet the details of which are scientifically lax, in direct ratio to the intensity of its anti-religious, anti-human, anti-design philosophy. 

Poe was no religious fanatic; Poe admired Epicurus and believed in the truism that the end of life is pleasure (happiness).  There is nothing religious, per se, about Eureka, and it did offend the church in Poe’s day, even as some secular purists in our day might blanch at Eureka’s “intelligent design.” The belief—by certain ancient Greeks and Romans—in an atomistic universe, as opposed to a universe ruled by colorful gods, would certainly have been approved by Poe, and in this spirit, Greenblatt’s cheerleading for Lucretius is indeed heart-warming. 

But Greenblatt is presenting the entirety of an ancient text, with all its scientific errors, as an easy model for what he calls “modernity,” and also a model for a certain kind of political philosophy of which he (Greenblatt) approves—a political philosophy not perfect in itself, and far from perfect in its false link to a less than perfect science.

After reading The Swerve, the swerve one needs to make is towards Eureka.

WHAT IS POETRY, ANYWAY?

The way to see a star is to attend to its ray.

We may be loved for our ray–our poetry, for instance–and not our star–our physique and face.

The civilized cultivates the ray.

So what is poetry? What is poetry’s ray? A ray can say a lot of different things as we analyze its spectrum.

In this spirit, observe this comparison, which has nothing to do with poetry, per se (star) but illustrates a truth about poetry (ray).

The newest airplane will be better than an airplane made fifty years ago.

The newest poem will most likely not be better than a poem made two thousand years ago.

Do we need to go further, and ask why recent airplanes improve in ways that recent poems do not?  Is it because airplanes are practical objects and poems are not?  Or, that airplanes have a measurable practical use and poems do not? 

It is good to realize that we perhaps err in pursuing this line of reasoning, for it takes us away from the ray and back to the star: the poem as object.  To compare the physical poem to the physical airplane would make us blind, would wreck ourselves upon a star.  The critic moth would die in the poem’s flame.

Can we assume poems serve no practical use?  No, we cannot.

But can we still ask the question: are poems practical—but unable to improve, or: do they not improve—precisely because they are not practical?  Since airplanes do improve, are old airplanes worthless in a way that old poems are not?  To those interested in airplanes, old airplanes do have value, just as old poems interest those who are interested in poetry; but old poems can do the work of new poems, and perhaps even better, but we cannot say this of old airplanes.

Is the practicality of something its ray?

But if the poem is not practical, does that mean it has no ray for the poem-obsessed critic; if every star has a ray, what is the poem’s ray?  Can we say the poem’s impracticality is its ray?   That is, is its ray its essential difference from airplanes?

How do we know the airplane improves?  We need to place the airplane of yesterday beside the airplane of today. Without this comparison, we could never comprehend from outside the improvement itself, and without building on the old model, the newer model could not improve.

Since poetry does not improve, is it necessary to compare new and old poems? 

It is necessary to build on old models if we are building airplanes, since we build new airplanes for practical improvements, guided by that reality; comparing old and new poems only shows us the truth that poems do not improve. 

In order to be informed of this fact—that poems do not improve—we compare old and new poems—and this does seem to be an important truth about poetry that we would be foolish to ignore. Since gaining an understanding of improvement is only possible by comparing old and new models, poems still need to be compared, in hopes that one day we will notice improvement.  So the critic compares old and new—just as the airplane builder does—only the airplane builder builds towards a different, practical result; the airplane builder receives “good news,” while the critic keeps getting “bad news;” the result for poetry up to the present time revealing that new models are not improving.

A poem becomes a poem when “it works,” to steal a phrase from the New Critics, and the poet surely is aware when the poem has gone from beginning to completion, as an object—or is this vanity?  Is the truth really that we are never sure the poem flies in someone else’s judgment—even if they praise it?  Words are elusive; even when someone hears our words and obeys, the circumstances, not the words, finally contribute to the obedient result.  The airplane builder, however, can measure the speed of an airplane, and be certain the airplane has been improved upon. 

Even on the micro-level, then, of poet and his poem-object (his “star”) the “ray,” (truth) shines forth: the poem’s worth is mysterious.

But to return to the examination of poetry’s ray; we might go so far as to state it thusly: the poem does have a practical use, and poets over time are incompetent, or: poems simply have no practical use.

Might something have a practical use, be manufactured, and yet never improve? 

But how is this possible?  Even something as simple as a ladder can be improved upon.

Or, does poetry improve, but in such a manner that steady, visible improvements over time do not occur?

Or is it possible that poetry is large and complex enough, or belongs to something so large and complex, that over time it changes what it is, so that its practical character changes? 

Human communication is practical, but its practicality is ubiquitous and vast, such that improvement is not in its nature—in order to belong across so many fields to so many, the many interacting with the many cannot suffer itself to improve as a practical reality.

If poetry belongs to the great river of human communication in a manner that is not defined, we would expect its fate to be the same as language—improvement over time simply doesn’t happen, in the way we can observe the airplane improve during a relatively brief window of time.

Poetry does not improve, and would seem to belong to the other arts in this regard, painting and music, unless we think of a film as painting (or photography) improved.

Another “ray” observation:  Painting, music and poetry can vary widely in terms of excellence and accomplishment; it is a mystery how broad differences can exist between aesthetic objects—yet improvement over time never occurs.

Is poetry like human beauty, then?  Beautiful creatures have always existed, but the quality of beauty itself never increases.  Beautiful faces have certain measurements, but beauty itself cannot be measured; aesthetics contains the substance of measure, but deflects measured results.

If we give up on the star (unknown) but study the ray (known, but indirectly) we find ourselves in accord with the following: Plato, the ancient Athenian, and the modern Athenians, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Edgar Poe.

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal?

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway?

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal.

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant.

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

FREE LOVE, PERCY SHELLEY AND T.S. ELIOT

Rejecting Shelley, did the Moderns suppress not only beautiful poetry, but love itself?

The poet W.H. Auden (1906-1973) once summed up best the divide brought about by “modern” thought:

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say,
Is a keen observer of life,
The word “Intellectual” suggests straight away
A man who’s untrue to his wife.

The topic—of sexual love or sexual morality or the morality of love—is a large one, and contains much that is shadowy and unseen, even as it appeals to the (yuk, yuk, wink, wink) obvious in our imaginations.

Competing religious and secular authorities throughout history have made us wonder: how forbidden should sex be?  Should it be forbidden by an outside agency or forbidden in one’s heart?  How dangerous is love?  Who decides what it is and how it should be fostered, or controlled?  How widespread should love’s influence be?  What forms should it take?   Let’s state right away a simple rule of thumb: too much “freedom” or promiscuity is bad, and too much suppression and shame is bad, and let’s pretend, for the purposes of our present discussion, that this covers the purely social aspect of our subject.

But the topic as it relates to poetry, and creativity, and ultimate happiness, surely benefits from a more rapturous and thorough examination.

Plato’s Phaedrus presents two kinds of love—one is brute and selfish; the other is a divine madness which inspires and creates.  Phaedrus shares with Socrates an essay: the non-lover is more trustworthy than the lover, it argues, because the lover, irrational, jealous, and possessive, ultimately harms the beloved. Socrates agrees, condenses and purifies the rhetoric of the essay into its simply expressed “wisdom,” but then Socrates suddenly regrets he has offended the Love deity, and expands his discourse into a paean on the second kind of mad love which is divine and creative.

The divine aspect of love is what Shelley is talking about in his Defense of Poetry:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither. By this assumption of the inferior office of interpreting the effect, in which perhaps after all he might acquit himself but imperfectly, he would resign a glory in a participation in the cause.

The strange assault on Shelley by the Modernists is perhaps best exemplified by T.S. Eliot’s 1932 Norton Lecture at Harvard; Eliot happily escaped England and his wife to tour and visit the United States in a triumphant homecoming.  The ire and visceral hatred for both Shelley’s “ideas” and his “poetry” expressed by Eliot at Harvard was profound: Old Possum admitted that he literally could not stomach the “adolescent,” Shelley.  Eliot’s attack took the same form as another sexless-American-author-turned-Brit’s attack: on Poe—by Henry James.

But was Eliot right?   We might say Eliot had maturity and Christianity on his side, and this passage by Shelley, (from “Epipsychidion”) which Eliot cites, is problematic. Here is Shelley:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.  (Epipsychidion, lines 149-159)

It is important to remember two things: Shelley did not want this view widely desseminated.  He asked his publisher in London to withdraw “Epipsychidion.”   Shelley’s imagination was uncompromising, and the “code of morals” isn’t always the best for everyone, all the time—in terms of change, or acceptance.  Shelley, though a popular author, did believe a ‘class readership’ existed, and who wouldn’t?  Poe, another highly popular author, believed the same thing.  There are things the uneducated will not, and should not understand.  (Of course wanting the uneducated to become educated is a worthy goal; but that’s a different topic.)

But the second thing is more important. Look at the next lines of the poem, and how Shelley expands his argument:

True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human fantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning. Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
Mind from its object differs most in this:
Evil from good; misery from happiness;
The baser from the nobler; the impure
And frail, from what is clear and must endure.
If you divide suffering and dross, you may
Diminish till it is consumed away;
If you divide pleasure and love and thought,
Each part exceeds the whole; and we know not
How much, while any yet remains unshared,
Of pleasure may be gained, of sorrow spared:
This truth is that deep well, whence sages draw
The unenvied light of hope; the eternal law
By which those live, to whom this world of life
Is as a garden ravaged, and whose strife
Tills for the promise of a later birth
The wilderness of this Elysian earth.

Shelley is advocating love as expansive and freeing, rather than narrowing and imprisoning.  It is interesting that Benjamin Franklin expresses the same idea in a letter:

“Madame Brillon,

What a difference, my dear friend, between you and me! You find innumerable faults with me, whereas I see only one fault in you (but perhaps that is the fault of my glasses). I mean this kind of avarice which leads you to seek monopoly on all my affection, and not allow me any for the agreeable ladies of your country.

Do you imagine that it is impossible for my affection (or my tenderness) to be divided without being diminished? You deceive yourself, and you forget the playful manner with which you stopped me. You renounce and totally exclude all that might be of the flesh in our affection, allowing me only some kisses, civil and honest, such as you might grant your little cousins. What am I receiving that is so special as to prevent me from giving the same to others, without taking from what belongs to you?

The sweet sounds brought forth from the pianoforte by your clever hand can be enjoyed by twenty people simultaneously without diminishing at all the pleasure you so obligingly mean for me, and I could, with as little reason, demand from your affection that no other ears but mine be allowed to be charmed by those sweet sounds.

Yours,

Benjamin [Franklin] 1779

When we theorize on love, it makes sense to begin with relationships between actual people—between lovers, as difficult as the evidence sometimes is to collect.  We hardly know our own hearts—how can we know the hearts of others?  And then we also realize:—how can actual people, such as Benjamin Franklin or Shelley be compared to the average, crippled, superstitious, mortal?   We can leave this aside as inconsequential, if we wish; we could worship the accomplishments of a Franklin, or not; but we should still examine the scientific evidence on the question at hand: is it true that love can divide itself and still increase?  Is this, in fact, how love operates?  And is love—that obsesses and pines over one object, or one person—love?  Which love should we, as a society, prefer?   The “genius” (Shelley, Franklin) examines love mathematically, stripped bare of all morality, and discovers a scientific truth based on the evidence of their own feelings.

Shelley finds the truth of love, a pre-moral, mathematical, truth, and brings it to the world, only to find love’s mathematical truth is morally repellent on a certain level—at least to someone like T.S. Eliot.  Shelley’s truth is vulnerable, since it is not actualized by jealous and superstitious humankind yet; Eliot’s charge of “adolescence” rings true for those who agree with Eliot: Shelley is guilty of immature over-idealizing.  But is Shelley guilty of this?  Here we are at a great philosophical and spiritual crossroads.

The modern temper is mostly on Eliot’s side.  But we take our stand with Shelley. Here is Shelley, again, and Eliot had access to this; as we see Shelley fill out his ideas on the subject of fee love, we have to ask, are these ideas “repellent” and “adolescent?”  Perhaps there is some excessive and hyperbolic Rousseau-ism at work here, but Shelley is thinking the problem through:

Prostitution is the legitimate offspring of marriage and its accompanying errors. Women, for no other crime than having followed the dictates of a natural appetite, are driven with fury from the comforts and sympathies of society. It is less venial than murder; and the punishment which is inflicted on her who destroys her child to escape reproach is lighter than the life of agony and disease to which the prostitute is irrecoverably doomed. Has a woman obeyed the impulse of unerring nature—society declares war on her, pitiless and eternal war: she must be the tame slave, she make no reprisals; theirs is the right of persecution, hers the duty of endurance. She lives a life of infamy: the loud and bitter laugh of scorn scares her from all return. She dies of long and lingering disease: yet she is in fault, she is the criminal, she the froward and untameable child—and society, forsooth, the pure and virtuous matron, who casts her as an abortion from her undefiled bosom! Society avenges herself on criminals of her own creation; she is employed in anathematising the vice of today which yesterday she was the most zealous to teach. Thus is formed one tenth of the population of London: meanwhile the evil is twofold. Young men, excluded by the fanatical idea of chastity from the society of modest and accomplished women, associate with these vicious and miserable beings, destroying thereby all those exquisite and delicate sensibilities whose existence cold-hearted worldlings have denied; anniilating all genuine passion, and debasing that to a selfish feeling which is the excess of generosity and devotedness. Their body and mind alike crumble into a hideous wreck of humanity; idiocy and disease become perpetuated in their miserable offspring, and distant generations suffer for the bigoted morality of their forefathers. Chastity is a monkish and evangelical superstition, a greater foe to natural temperance than unintellectual sensuality; it strikes at the root of all domestic happiness, and consigns more than half of the human race to misery, that some few may monopolise according to law. A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage.

I conceive that, from the abolition of marriage, the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result. I by no means assert that the intercourse would be promiscuous: on the contrary; it appears, from the relation of parent to child, that this union is generally of long duration, and marked above all others with generosity and self-devotion. But this is a subject premature to discuss. That which will result from the abolition of marriage, will be natural and right; because choice and change will be exempted from restraint.

One can disagree with this (from Shelley’s Queen Mab).  Thomas Eliot’s puritanical hanging of Shelley, however, and the modernist hatred of Shelley in general which it engendered, seems to belong to that ubiquitous tribe of thinkers who narrowly blame; they seek diminishment, purity, sterility, punishment, retrograde, and return; if someone is beautiful, they assume them shallow; if someone is hopeful, they assume them ignorant; if someone is joyful, they assume them stupid; if somone is enterprising, they assume them selfish; two can never gain in their eyes; two can never be happy—one has to suffer if another is happy, if one is happy, the other has to suffer; all gain implies a loss somewhere else and they are satisfied with all systems that reflect this; they would rather be wicked in their realism than beautiful ideally; their world-view makes envy and jealousy normal; they seek to counter all pleasure with pain, since it is a doctrine that begins in their mind and talks its way into their heart—or, some worldly affliction breeds it in their heart and it then melts their mind; they are certain the amount of joy must always equal the amount of sorrow. Life is not an adventure, but a rule to be obeyed; fear, avoidance, and accusation drive them, not love, hope, and endurance.

This is not to say all are not afflicted by the real, or that sorrow and pain do not have a real existence; Shelley’s poetry contains all sorts of reference to sorrow and pain—the loving and hopeful do not have to be naive—but love and hope are making active war against sorrow and sameness in Shelley; Shelley is the optimist, Eliot, the pessimist; Shelley’s poetry, thought, taste, and philosophy as a whole is triumphant, and to call it “adolescent” is adolescent.

Now we have to come to terms with our own era: Eliot reviled Shelley at Harvard in 1932; in 1933, Eliot made his anti-Jewish speech at the University of Virginia; as the decade went on, Eliot’s bosom-buddy Pound began broadcasting from fascist Italy; their New Critic associates continued to hit Shelley (and another genius, Poe, was a target, too)—it was a poetry establishment pile-on, as the Creative Writing business and “the new” became cynical allies in the hands of Pound’s and Eliot’s lackeys.

As WW II raged, Eliot must have thought, “my criticism has come true: the 19th century really is naive, and poets like Shelley are adolescent—compared to the grown-up horrors of the 20th century! Take that, you wimpy romantic poet bitches!”  And yes, perhaps “adolescent” Shelley could not have imagined Pound and Eliot’s 20th century.  And we have to leave off Shelley, and we can’t go back.

But when we look simply at Shelley’s skill as a poet, and the beautiful ideas behind the poetry, I’ll go back.

Edgar Poe is a chaste author, and rarely touches on sex, but Poe was more like the generous Shelley in his views on the morality of love than has previously been understood.  Look at Poe’s tale, Eleanora, which offers a beautiful alternative to Stephen King and the nerd-revenge sensibility—which has grown in the last 50 years into a giant, gory, many-layered industry of horribly bad taste.

In the three excerpts from the story below, Poe first sets up the sexual union; then Eleanora dies and the narrator makes a promise, and, finally, the narrator finds someone new.

The puritantical, Stephen King, revenge-theme never appears.

In Poe’s tale, Shelleyan love triumphs.

Hand in hand about this valley, for fifteen years, roamed I with Eleonora before Love entered within our hearts. It was one evening at the close of the third lustrum of her life, and of the fourth of my own, that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees, and looked down within the waters of the River of Silence at our images therein. We spoke no words during the rest of that sweet day; and our words even upon the morrow were tremulous and few.

***

She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die; but the terrors of the grave to her, lay solely in a consideration which she revealed to me, one evening at twilight, by the banks of the River of Silence. She grieved to think that, having entombed her in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, I would quit forever its happy recesses, transferring the love which now was so passionately her own to some maiden of the outer and every-day world. And, then and there, I threw myself hurriedly at the feet of Eleonora, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven, that I would never bind myself in marriage to any daughter of Earth — that I would in no manner prove recreant to her dear memory, or to the memory of the devout affection with which she had blessed me. And I called the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow. And the curse which I invoked of Him and of her, a saint in Helusion, should I prove traitorous to that promise, involved a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here. And the bright eyes of Eleonora grew brighter at my words; and she sighed as if a deadly burthen had been taken from her breast; and she trembled and very bitterly wept; but she made acceptance of the vow, (for what was she but a child?) and it made easy to her the bed of her death. And she said to me, not many days afterwards, tranquilly dying, that, because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed, and, if so it were permitted her return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but, if this thing were, indeed, beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would, at least, give me frequent indications of her presence; sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels. And, with these words upon her lips, she yielded up her innocent life, putting an end to the first epoch of my own.

***

Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten; for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs; and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air; and once — oh, but once only! I was awakened from a slumber, like the slumber of death, by the pressing of spiritual lips upon my own.

But the void within my heart refused, even thus, to be filled. I longed for the love which had before filled it to overflowing. At length the valley pained me through its memories of Eleonora, and I left it forever for the vanities and the turbulent triumphs of the world.

I found myself within a strange city, where all things might have served to blot from recollection the sweet dreams I had dreamed so long in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. The pomps and pageantries of a stately court, and the mad clangor of arms, and the radiant loveliness of woman, bewildered and intoxicated my brain. But as yet my soul had proved true to its vows, and the indications of the presence of Eleonora were still given me in the silent hours of the night. Suddenly, these manifestations they ceased; and the world grew dark before mine eyes; and I stood aghast at the burning thoughts which possessed — at the terrible temptations which beset me; for there came from some far, far distant and unknown land, into the gay court of the king I served, a maiden to whose beauty my whole recreant heart yielded at once — at whose footstool I bowed down without a struggle, in the most ardent, in the most abject worship of love. What indeed was my passion for the young girl of the valley in comparison with the fervor, and the delirium, and the spirit-lifting ecstasy of adoration with which I poured out my whole soul in tears at the feet of the ethereal Ermengarde? — Oh, bright was the seraph Ermengarde! and in that knowledge I had room for none other. — Oh, divine was the angel Ermengarde! and as I looked down into the depths of her memorial eyes, I thought only of them — and of her.

I wedded; — nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once — but once again in the silence of the night, there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me; and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice, saying:

“Sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”

POETRY? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE POETRY!

PLATO, the most paradoxical philosopher?

In his introduction to his Prometheus Unbound, the poet Shelley wrote:

Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.  My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the most poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness. Should I live to accomplish what I purpose, that is, produce a systematical history of what appear to me to be the genuine elements of human society, let not the advocates of injustice and superstition flatter themselves that I should take Aeschylus rather than Plato as my model.

As great a poet as Shakespeare took Plato as his model (S.’s plays are P.’s dialogues)—one can see this in Sonnet 103: Shakespeare doubts poetry; ‘Plato’s doubt’ gives poetry its very urgency and life, for the paradox of Plato, the poet who condemned poetry, the harsh judge who yet advocated dreaming, is the paradox of Sonnet 103—a poem which pronounces poetry useless. (Unlike the so-called ironies of the moderns, which are merely coy, the irony of #103 is complete—that is, as an irony it is complete, and it can be read completely non-ironically, as well.)

Alack, what poverty my muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O blame me not if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That overgoes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
  And more, much more than in my verse can sit
  Your own glass shows you, when you look in it.

The didactic lot condemn Plato and Shakespeare and Shelley’s dreams as real, and pursue their didactic reality in the face of better and nobler dreams: as Shelley says, “until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure…”

This brief essay concludes with my recently composed poem, “I Dream False,” a paradoxical effusion inspired by Shakespeare and Shelley:

I Dream False

I dream false, for I dream that I have you—
I dream false, again, for I dream that I want you—
I do not have you, so that dream isn’t true—
The dream, I want you, is false, for I do want you.
Dreams pursue all they want, how then can I
Pronounce them false? Dreams are true even when they die.
Think on me: do you see the dream that is dreaming of you?
Hear my words: they are no dream, but they will be false before they are true.
Yes, I have found all words—every one—only seem;
Words are false and I gained this insight—in a dream.

THE SKITTERY POEM

circus-clown

The skittery poem is not new, so let’s stop pretending it is.

The attempt to create movements, schools, and trends is antithetical to art and poetry—this is what the narrow critic does, and when the poet lets himself be defined as such, he is doomed.

The art itself—what its actual material existence can do most aptly and profitably in whatever circumstance it happens to find itself—should determine the poet’s path, not some narrow, blockheaded trend.

It’s not that the art-trend is bad; it’s not real.

If you want a solid, level-headed, “scholarly” analysis of The Skittery Poem, Tony Hoagland’s piece in Poetry from a few years ago is probably the best: “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.”

The key here is “fear of narrative.”

Hoagland quotes Carolyn Forche:

Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.

This is nicely said.  Yet, here is a classic case of the poet forced to surrender her craft, which happens to include “narrative,” to a vague formula: “the history of our time.”

Let us assume that this broad, critical term, “history of our time,” has meaning, and somehow does inhibit “story” and “progress,” “completion,” and “closure”—more than other historic “times.”  Should a poet’s ability to compose a poem ever be diminished by historical theory?   If so, why?  Why should a moment of history—even if we can prove this moment’s legitimacy in imposing itself on art’s ability to do what it can do—take precedence over the potential achievement of the poem?  Should poets surrender to moments of history?  Is that what art, in itself, or, over time, is meant to do?

But can we assume that the “history of our time” somehow negates “progress” or “closure?”   First of all, how can any “historic time” be more sensitive to “closure” than other “historic times?”

Or imagine, for a moment, how “progress” was viewed by countless previous ages fraught with superstition, wars, and plagues?  How many poets, in retrospect, should have given up “progress” in their poems?  Would that have been proper?  Would such a fiat have been good for poetry, or good for mankind?  So why should we put that yoke on ourselves?  To put it simply: history isn’t finished, is it?

We also have the “information overload” argument: TV!  The internet!  Technology!  How can we have “narrative,” when we are bombarded with so much trivial and vastly changing information?  But didn’t 13th century libraries have a lot of information?

Are citizens today really that informed, or not informed, as the case may be, compared to other ages, so that we can definitely say, “OK, you should write this kind of poetry?”

Who has the authority to say “our time,” or “television” validates, in any way, a certain kind of poetry?   Why should this idea ever be taken seriously?  Isn’t it finally just social science babble, the droning of a half-informed pundit enjoying the sound of their own voice?

Do you think your world is that different, poet?  Are you sure you are not just whining?

Now, to be fair: the poets of The Skittery Poem no doubt believe they are expanding poetic expression, even if they don’t buy the “history of our time” stuff—so yes, the movement could be just about the poem and what it can do.

Aesthetically, narrative can be a problematic burden, its anchor just too weighty.

But this problem is not new—every writer since the beginning of writing itself has had to ponder how much, and what kind of narrative is necessary.  It has nothing to do with the time we live in.  I wonder how many Poetry MFA students have read Plato’s Symposium, which begins by staring narrative right in the face:

Concerning the things about which you ask to be informed I believe that I am not ill-prepared with an answer. For the day before yesterday I was coming from my own home at Phalerum to the city, and one of my acquaintance, who had caught a sight of me from behind, hind, out playfully in the distance, said: Apollodorus, O thou Phalerian man, halt! So I did as I was bid; and then he said, I was looking for you, Apollodorus, only just now, that I might ask you about the speeches in praise of love, which were delivered by Socrates, Alcibiades, and others, at Agathon’s supper. Phoenix, the son of Philip, told another person who told me of them; his narrative was very indistinct, but he said that you knew, and I wish that you would give me an account of them. Who, if not you, should be the reporter of the words of your friend? And first tell me, he said, were you present at this meeting?

Your informant, Glaucon, I said, must have been very indistinct indeed, if you imagine that the occasion was recent; or that I could have been of the party.

Why, yes, he replied, I thought so.

Impossible: I said. Are you ignorant that for many years Agathon has not resided at Athens; and not three have elapsed since I became acquainted with Socrates, and have made it my daily business to know all that he says and does. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher.

Well, he said, jesting apart, tell me when the meeting occurred.
In our boyhood, I replied, when Agathon won the prize with his first tragedy, on the day after that on which he and his chorus offered the sacrifice of victory.

Then it must have been a long while ago, he said; and who told you-did Socrates?

No indeed, I replied, but the same person who told Phoenix;-he was a little fellow, who never wore any shoes Aristodemus, of the deme of Cydathenaeum. He had been at Agathon’s feast; and I think that in those days there was no one who was a more devoted admirer of Socrates. Moreover, I have asked Socrates about the truth of some parts of his narrative, and he confirmed them. Then, said Glaucon, let us have the tale over again; is not the road to Athens just made for conversation? And so we walked, and talked of the discourses on love; and therefore, as I said at first, I am not ill-prepared to comply with your request, and will have another rehearsal of them if you like. For to speak or to hear others speak of philosophy always gives me the greatest pleasure, to say nothing of the profit. But when I hear another strain, especially that of you rich men and traders, such conversation displeases me; and I pity you who are my companions…  (Jowett, trans.)

Narrative is based on memory, but all poems, even those that would discard narrative entirely in order to live in a vivid present, have memory as a poem, since they are temporal. Narrative is always in issue, then.

As Dante puts it in the very beginning of his Vita Nuova:

In that part of the book of my memory before which little can be read, there is a heading, which says: ‘Incipit vita nova: Here begins the new life’. Under that heading I find written the words that it is my intention to copy into this little book: and if not all, at least their essence.

RON SILLIMAN: CRITICAL COWARDICE.

A billion poems!  A million communities!  Help!

Ron Silliman actually spoke on his blog.

We were beginning to think linking videos was all he cared to do now.

But, in his December 21, 2011 end-of-the-year-reflection post, what the hell is Ron Silliman talking about?

The facts Silliman gives us are simple:

He’s in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (but his friend Rae Armantrout is not) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked him to pick the best poetry books of 2011.

Great.

He’s blown away by the number of works in English (from around the world) that are published each year, and how much that number has grown in the last half-century, and he points how much stress this puts on gate-keepers and critcs.

Fine.

But then Silliman enters the crackpot zone:

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

The whole premise of whittling down a “best of” list into ten or 50 or even the 175 names posed by Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is that there is some transcendent single point-of-view from which the dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that engage with poetry can be represented by some single shared set of values. That is simply not true. It is insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest, for example, that Robert Lowell represents some pinnacle of literary value while Langston Hughes does not. But it is equally insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest that Hughes represents such a pinnacle & that Lowell does not. Any professor or critic who might argue either of those positions would be manifestly guilty of malpractice and intellectual fraud. At best.

The truth is that each represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community. One might argue about the nature of these communities, their size, their relative histories and power – Lowell doesn’t represent the 1% any more than Hughes does the 99 – but it is only when viewed through the eyes of their community that we can actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface. And it is only when they are put into the far larger complex of conflicting communities that is the United States – let alone the English language – that we can begin to discover what is truly revelatory about all kinds of verse: the ways they lead us right back to real communities.

It’s ironic that Silliman calls both the Vendler and the Dove camps “insane”—because compared to them, Silliman is more so.

According to Silliman, “the rise of the world wide web” erases “national boundaries” yet expands “community boundaries.”

Silliman wants us to believe that because there is an ever-growing number of people speaking English to each other, we are separated from each other more than ever.

We all speak English in a global conversation, and this global conversation, which has dissolved national borders, this mighty homogeneity thanks to the world wide web, has produced an English conversation in which, poetically, no one can talk to each other, because this poet sitting in a Cincinnatti Starbucks with his Mac is gay and that poet sitting in a New York subway with his PC is not.

Silliman’s wants there be no heterogeneity within his various “communities,” and, at the same time complete heterogeneity within the English-speaking world at-large.

Silliman has not figured out how to apply homogeneity and heterogeneity to the world, and on what scale, and to what purpose, and yet he does so, willy-nilly, and, as he fails to see the miserable arrogance of his agenda, he is certain that any attempt to unite poetry by using any sort of judgment whatsoever is completely tainted by “racism” and “insanity.”  This from a guy who says of Robert Lowell and Langston Hughes:  “only when viewed through the eyes of their community [can we] actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface.”  Are you kidding me?  

No wonder Silliman asserts the powerlessness and uselessness of critics before the all-mighty mass of “communities.” 

He has no critical insight himself.  

This is why poetry has become a vain and trivial exercise.   Silliman’s cowardice before the rock-hard existence of Robert Lowell can be summed up thusly: Robert Lowell can only be appreciated by Robert Lowell’s “community,” hence we as critics must defer to Robert Lowell’s “community”—no matter if universality suffer as a result.  The critic is helpless before the “community” of Robert Lowell.  Robert Lowell’s “community” is what counts, not his poems.

Plato’s “Republic,” in which each part is based on its use to the greater whole, is replaced by Silliman’s tribe-war, in which any concept of the “greater good” is suspect, and Silliman believes in his model because 1) There’s just too much to read and 2) The positions of Vendler and Dove are racist, and any attempt to reconcile the positions of Vendler and Dove with any type of Criticism is automatically even more racist.

To make it even clearer: when reading poetry, the unique requires the universal, and Silliman doesn’t seem to understand that one cannot find the universal in a tribe or a country or a community.  The universal is just that: universal.

Think about this: two major poetry camps in the U.S. in the form of two distinguished authors, Rita Dove and Helen Vendler, are calling each other racist, and Ron Silliman, the ‘outsider’ third pole in the contemporary American poetry equation (yet included in Dove’s 20th century anthology) comes upon their poetry anthology quarrel and says categorically that both their positions are racist.   

Is this what happens in a highbrow art world ruled by “communities?”

We understand the local scenester wants to carve out a poetic identity and when they do, it’s laudable, for it gives poetry a local habitation and a name: the San Francisco scene, or the Detroit scene.  But these “scenes” are finally illusionary.  They have nothing to do with the place, for the “scenesters” themselves are often from other places, and the actual influences on the poetry have nothing to do with the locals—in place or time.  Critics can sniff out the local coffee shops or the local flora, but the anthropology of poetry only takes one so far.  And what happens when the writing doesn’t match “the community?”  Does that make the writing invalid?  

The New Critics focus on the poem, the Romantics, on the poet, and these both have advantages, for reasons too numerous to name; but what is this obsession with “community” all about?  It’s petty, trivial, and stupid, finally; it presupposes a whole host of things in relation to the poetry which simply don’t exist.  

Silliman’s approach to poetry is birdwatching with no birds.

ESCAPE THE DARK IN THE DARK

Alice Cary: a world of American Letters that’s forgotten.

When T.S. Eliot wrote that poetry is “an escape from emotion” and an “escape from personality” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he was defining art under advice from Socrates—who banned from his Republic “poetry that feeds and waters the passions.”  Escape is the key word.  The Socratic hero has emotions, but keeps them under control.  The human-centered world of Shakespeare’s Renaissance—another inheritance of the urban Socrates—lives anew in Eliot’s formula: poetry, more than anything else, seeks original expression—in the context of all that has come before, and as Eliot points out, his human formula is not just “historical,” but “aesthetic.”  Eliot was the product of cousins marrying cousins on his father’s side—perhaps this aided “Tradition’s” insight: the ‘short-wired’ prophecy gathering vital threads into one. 

Poetry is not revolutionary, then, but an heroic demonstration of how human emotion is conquered, and so it earns its place in Plato’s Republic.  Plato and the poets are reconciled, as art is defined by T.S. Eliot—an American with roots in New England transendentalism: poetry as the natural impulse of raw and honest emotion, but converted momentarily to Poe’s cold science.

Just as the Republic’s “guardians” escape emotion, just as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter escapes the homely passions of prose, just as Poe’s narrator calmly escapes “the pit and the “pendulum” in his famous story, so the following poem from a forgotten American woman poet of the 19th century, picked out for high praise by Edgar Poe, demonstrates that high art which Eliot in his most glorious essay was at pains to show—for just beneath the surface of this poem cries sorrow which is escaped.

Here emotion is not indulged; beauty is, even though the journey that is made is to the hades of emotion.

Pictures of Memory

Among the beautiful pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
Is one of a dim old forest,
That seems the best of all:
Not for its gnarled oaks olden,
Dark with the mistletoe;
Nor for the violets golden
That sprinkle the vale below;
Nor for the great white lilies,
That lead from the fragrant hedge,
Whispering all day with the sunbeams,
And stealing their golden edge;
Not for the vines on the upland
Where the bright red berries rest,
Nor the pinks, nor the pale, sweet cowslip,
It seems to me the best.
I once had a little brother,
With eyes that were dark and deep—
In the lap of the old dim forest
He lies in peace asleep;
Light as the down of the thistle,
Free as the winds that blow,
We roved there the beautiful summers,
The summers of long ago;
But his feet on the hills grew weary,
And, one of the autumn eves,
I made for my little brother
A bed of the yellow leaves.
Sweetly his pale arms folded
My neck in a meek embrace,
As the light of immortal beauty
Silently covered his face:
And when the arrows of sunset
Lodged in the tree-tops bright,
He fell, in his saint-like beauty,
Asleep by the gates of light.
Therefore, of all the pictures
That hang on memory’s wall,
The one of the dim old forest
Seems the best of all.

Alice Cary (1820-1871)

The following poems, one by Guiterman, two by Teasdale, and one by Parker escape emotion as well, but they all succeed more superficially and self-consciously than Cary’s somber and beautiful masterpiece.

On the Vanity of Earthly Creatures

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar’s dead on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself!

Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943)

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead an over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.

The Look

Strephon kissed me in the spring,
Robin in the fall,
But Colin only looked at me
And never kissed at all.

Strephon’s kiss was lost in jest,
Robin’s lost in play,
But the kiss in Colin’s eyes
Haunts me night and day.

—Sarah Teasdale  (1884-1933)

Bric-a-Brac

Little things that no one needs—
Little things to joke about—
Little landscapes, done in beads,
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore—little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

—Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

T.S. Eliot, before he became famous with his “Waste Land,” hit a homerun with perhaps his most important piece of writing: “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  In poetry one must escape emotion, but one must have real emotion to escape from, first.  This has been the test of art since Plato made the rules over two milennia ago. T.S. Eliot, no matter what other ‘modernist’ credentials he may have, reminded us of this ancient truth once again.

Edna Millay sought this formula, too; read those harrowing sonnets of hers that strive for beauty and cold emotion.  Her poetry is practically “Tradition and the Individual Talent” personified.  As Plato writes in The Republic, Book X, “when we listen to a passage from Homer…he represents some pitiful hero who is drawing out his sorrows…but when any sorrow happens to us, you may observe that we pride ourselves on the opposite quality…”

IF I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

ANOTHER NEW POEM FROM THE SCARRIET EDITORS

VARIATIONS

Too freedom-loving and sophisticated
To hear my plea to read Plato’s magnificent Republic,
A work they didn’t want to read, or hated,
Yes, Plato, had definite notions of healthy and sick,
Believing good and bad are the same for art and life
As health should be the aim, whether blood or verse,
All one, loved wife, love poem, picture loved of loved wife,
To be better—But, they said, you’re only making it worse
With your claims of the moral, the rational, the good—
But what do you mean? I asked, do you want bad, instead?
—One leaf on one tree is the whole of Plato’s wood,
He wants to make all difference all one, all dead,
So he can shape dead things to his ideal—
But I said: you do that; he separates false from real;
You mingle bad and good, which only the bad do,
I say good’s a word; forever the word “good” and good are two,
But all seek the good, and that’s good, isn’t that true?

SCARRIET REVEALS MYSTERY OF YOUNG MAN AND DARK LADY IN SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS

W.H. Auden spoke for many when he wrote:

The only semblance of order [in the Sonnets] is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.

Note how Auden’s skepticism regarding the first “heap” (“assuming…there is only one young man…”) does not extend to the second (“are addressed to a dark-haired woman.”)

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare sums up the common view of the ‘Dark Lady’ section:

The next sonnets, 127-152, are known as the ‘Dark Lady’ group, addressed to or concerned with an unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed, and dark-complexioned mistress. For the most part, these poems reproach her: she is a tyrant, black in deeds as well as in looks, (131) and an adultress (152); she has seduced the poet’s friend (133-4); the poet is foolish to love anyone so obviously unworthy (137, 147-152) and is clearly deceiving himself (138), asking her in one sonnet to confess her infidelity (139) and in the next to say she loves him even though this is not true (140). The poet, aware of the delusions of lust but unable to avoid its trap (129), woos his mistress regardless with a series of sexual puns on the name ‘Will’ (135-6, 143); he is torn between a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman colored ill’, suspecting they are lovers (144).  –Stanley Wells

We know all sorts of things about this ‘dark lady.’  She is “unfashionably dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-complexioned,” she’s “a tyrant,” an “adultress,” she has “seduced the poet’s friend,” and so forth.

Such is the conventional wisdom, and there is even an historical figure, Emilia Bassano Lanier, who is a much-named candidate for this ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets.

Scarriet, however, has solved the puzzle, but in order to do so, we had to 1) actually read the Sonnets and 2) trash the conventional wisdom in the process.

It wasn’t hard.

It will be hard to swallow, though, since so many scholars’ reputations are based on pure trash.

Pity the scholars, because not only is the Dark Lady going to be blown to bits, but the so-called ‘Young Man,’ as well.

There is no Dark Lady.  There is no Young Man.

How could so many have been so wrong on so famous a work for so long?

So here’s what one finds when one actually reads The Sonnets, all 154 of them, in the sequence, as published, in 1609, and read by millions since then:

The Sonnets are gender-neutral. 

119 of the first 126 sonnets (the so-called Young Man sonnets) do not specify a gender.   Sonnet #7 puns on sun/son and #13’s “You had a father, let your son say so,” but this belongs to Shakespeare’s breeding/increase theme which dominates the first 14 sonnets, a theme which Shakespeare never abandons.

The sequence is gender-neutral until #20, however:

The knotty #20 and its “master mistress” is accompanied by #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse” and “let me truly write and my child is as fair…” and “let them say more that like of hearsay well/I will not praise that purpose not to sell” referring back to #20’s “love’s use:” the commerce of love—procreation and “increase” (#1).

“So it is not with me as with that Muse…” (#21) is just one indication that Shakespeare composed the Sonnets not as a ‘person of interest’ in the scholars’ imagined soap-opera, but from a loftier perspective, as a God participating in the human, not as a human participating with the God-like, or struggling with romance, or other short-lived concerns.  The aim of the Sonnets is much higher than that.  We must not only note the gender and the content of the Sonnets themselves but get the perspective straight: Shakespeare is the Muse in these sonnets, or even the Muse of the Muse of these Sonnets.  The Sonnets are not impressionistic poetry.  Shakespeare, the philosopher, has something to say.

Sonnet #21 refers to “any mother’s child” and #22 features “as tender nurse her babe from faring ill.” The business of progeny, lines of descent, lines of verse, “eternal lines,” (#18) dominates the early sonnets. So when does the famous Young Man enter?  We have to wait until #33: “Even so my sun one early morn did shine/With all triumphant splendor on my brow;/But out alack, he was but one hour mine” to find a specific reference to what is possibly a Young Man or male friend or male lover, yet “sun” has us wondering if “sun” is not “son,” since Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. The “he was but one hour mine” far more likely refers to Shakespeare’s son than it does to a male lover, if we note the words of #33 itself and also note that the child is an important theme in the whole sequence.  Reading #33 in its entirety, the scenario of grief for a lost son jumps out at us, with the couplet stating the poet, even in his grief, will not lose faith “in heaven’s sun” even though “suns of the world may stain.”

It isn’t till sonnets #40, 41, and 42, the ‘friend and mistress betray the poet’ poems, that we finally get some sort of  ‘story’ that involves a ‘male friend’ and the poet’s mistress.  But the mistress is at play here, too, in the first definintive glimpse of the Young Man. We forget that until this point, for the first third of the so-called Young Man sequence, there is no Young Man story whatsoever. Not only that: in #42 Shakespeare informs us that, “my friend and I are one.”  Have the scholars simply made up a story which does not exist?  If we simply read the sonnets as Shakespeare wrote them, we have to say,  yes. 

In the sonnets leading up to the ‘betrayal’ triptych (40-42) we have a lot of platonist mathematics (“we two must be twain although our undivided loves are one” #36) and the parent-child theme is still going strong (“as a decrepit father takes delight to see his active child do deeds of youth”#37) so why the sudden lurid romance of the supposed young man cheating with the poet’s mistress?  Not only does it not make sense in the sequence, it also doesn’t make sense that if a ‘story’ is so vital, it would be confined to just a few poems; discerned through Shakespeare’s teasing and philosophical words, we see that the ‘love triangle’ of #42 is not even that: there are four characters: thou, her, the poet, and a friend (who gets the mistress, not the ‘thou,’) and then the triptych ends: “she loves but me alone!”  So where is this ‘young man sleeping with his mistress’ story?  It doesn’t exist.  It merely lives in the feverish imaginings of a blind pedant (or two).

#54 repeats the theme of Chapter 2 (Chapter 1, the first 14 sonnets are about procreation) in which the poet’s verse (rather than children) makes the youth immortal.

#63 finds a male pronoun again, but in terms of a mistress: “his beauty in these black lines be seen” is the precise theme of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sequence, which opens, “In the old age black was not counted fair” (#127).  The “his” is not important; Shakespeare is keeping beauty alive with his poetry, repeating the theme of #53, which looks back to #16-18. To think that a genius like Shakespeare is thinking of a brunette is absurd; he’s a bit more clever than that.  The so-called ‘Young Man’ sequence contains more examples of the ‘beauty as black’ theme than references to a young man.

If we didn’t get it the first time, Shakespeare repeats the trope in #65, without the male pronoun—as in 95% of the ‘Young Man’ sequence: “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

Not that “my love” has to be a woman. Shakespeare intentionally eludes gender and biography and real names in the Sonnets because it’s obviously not his ultimate concern. Shakespeare’s use of the phrase “my love” is tricky; we can never assume he means ‘my  (male) lover.’  He might be referring to a son, or a child.  He might be referring to himself: “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great./It is my love that keeps mine eye awake,/Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,/To play the watchman ever for thy sake.”  (#61)  No male pronoun in this sonnet, either.

In fact, after #67 and 68, which speak of a “him,” but in highly grandiose religious terms, the male pronoun is absent for the rest of the ‘Young Man’ sequence.

The only exception is two rival poet sonnets (#80,86), and the rival poet may be Shakespeare himself, who drops self-reflexive hints everywhere.  He tells the Muse what to do (#100) and explains what his Muse does (#21), for instance.

Shakespeare makes April a male, and flowers, too (#98,99).  In #93 Shakespeare calls himself “husband” and refers to “Eve’s apple.”  In #53 he compares “you” to “Adonis” and “Helen” as one of the ” millions of strange shadows” that “on you tend,” not using the male pronoun in that poem either.  Typically, the “you” is described as a God, not a mortal.

In #108 we get “sweet boy,” but this poem, like #33, sounds like it could very well be an ode to the poet’s son: “like prayers divine,/I must each day say o’er the very same;/Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,/Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.”  “Hallowed thy fair name” certainly implies a baptism, and the sun is “no old thing old” in #76: “Far as the sun is daily new and old, /So is my love still telling what is told.”  And we know Shakespeare loves to pun on son/sun.

There is no male pronoun after #108, except for that last poem (#126) in the ‘Young Man’ sequence, which clearly refers to cupid.

This brings us to the so-called ‘Dark Lady’ group (#127-152), which indulges in the happy pun of black ink, seen already in #27 (“makes black night beauteous”), #63 and #65 as already mentioned, together with the numerous references to day and light v. night and darkness, and there’s also multiple punning on dark “deeds,” documents (with black ink) and actions.

Much is made by scholars of #144, because it seems to explicitly recap the ‘betray’ triptych (#40-42).  In #144, we have a “man right fair” and a “woman colored ill” and “I guess one angel in another’s hell.”

#41, 42, and #144 make up the scholars’ trump card.  Without these three poems, the ‘Poet’s Male Friend Sleeps With Poet’s Mistress!’ story collapses.  To extrapolate a feverish autobiographical tale from The Sonnets’ metaphorically philosophical coolness is a mug’s game.  Shakespeare’s “To win me soon to hell, my female evil/Tempteth my better angel from my side” (#144) is  plainly a calculated morality play, not a sweaty confession.

Scholars err in assuming the “woman colored ill” is the Dark Lady; this is both a misreading and a dumbing down of Shakespeare, the sly master.   First, there’s no “black” in #144.  Secondly, the “hell” in #144 is the same “hell” we see in #129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame”) .  The “woman colored ill” is the same as #21’s “So it is not with me as with that Muse,/ Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse” and not the Dark Lady, for look how Shakespeare’s mistress is described in the first of the Dark Lady sonnets (#127):

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
  Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
  That every tongue says beauty should look so.

There is no “hell” of sonnets #129 and #144.  Instead, there is the “mourning” of poetry which exists because of separation and grief, the “black ink” that pathetically strives to keep beauty green—because of death.

And we also get Plato (Shakespeare’s philosophical Muse) right here: “art’s false borrowed face.”

The boy is Shakespeare’s son.

The Rival poet is Shakespeare.

The Black Lady is a pun on black ink.

The Sonnets are witty Platonist philosophy, (see “The Phaedrus”) not the soap-opera scholars make of it.

THE SCIENTIFIC NATURE OF POETRY

The ex-block of marble

The debate as to whether poetry is scientific, or not, divides along these lines: Should science tell us what poetry is?  Or, does poetry itself have scientific attributes?

The latter position has, for the time being, won out, for academics have long since been invested in the importance of poetry; the task of education has long been to assume that poetry is beneficial and scholars, tasked by their educational research, breed further categories in self-sustaining, self-reflexive projects which fertilize education’s artistic role.  Of course poetry has scientific attributes.  It has no end of them, and if it lacks them itself, it easily absorbs the language of other university departments and grows into them—if not in substance, then in name.

Poetry is the scientist, and not the object on the scientific table; otherwise poetry might fall victim to a Platonist definition—a disparagement which would ultimately consign it to a sport, to an entertainment, to a game, or, even worse: an illusion, a waste, a vanity, a deception, an evil.

One can sense at a glance the gulf between these two views.

No matter how one happens to feel about these two views, the famous Platonist formula that art (a painting of a bed) is thrice removed from the truth, is a tough nut to crack.   Art is either imitation, or the vestiges of imitation (see abstract art).  As for poetry, Socrates puts it simply in The Republic, Book X:

Do not rely, I said, on a probability derived from the analogy of painting; but let us examine further and see whether the faculty with which poetical imitation is concerned is good or bad.

By all means.

We may state the question thus: Imitation imitates the actions of men, whether voluntary or involuntary, on which, as they imagine, a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly. Is there anything more?

No, there is nothing else.

We like how Plato reduces poetry to “an imitation of the actions of men, voluntary or involuntary, on which, as they imagine, a good or bad result has ensued, and they rejoice or sorrow accordingly.”  If it is too simple, it gains a great deal from being true and simple, and giving the whole issue a great deal of healthy perspective, and forcing the hand of those who talk in great abstractions, leaving the human aspect behind.

The painful thing is, however, that once we accept one premise, Socrates has us beat, and as night follows the day, we are led down the path of declaring art too dangerous for society. Again, from Book X:

And the other principle, which inclines us to recollection of our troubles and to lamentation, and can never have enough of them, we may call irrational, useless, and cowardly?

Indeed, we may.

And does not the latter—I mean the rebellious principle—furnish a great variety of materials for imitation? Whereas the wise and calm temperament, being always nearly equable, is not easy to imitate or to appreciate when imitated, especially at a public festival when a promiscuous crowd is assembled in a theatre.

…And does not the same hold also of the ridiculous?  …and having stimulated the risible faculty at the theatre, you are betrayed unconsciously to yourself into playing the comic poet at home.  …And the same may be said of lust and anger…poetry feeds and waters the passions…

Now here we have to separate our modern indignation at Plato’s recrimination from the acknowledgement that Plato’s observations are true.  We may retort, ‘What’s wrong with lust and anger in art?”  But this does not disqualify the facts of Plato’s philosophy regarding the imitative properties of poetry.

To return to the question, Should science tell us what poetry is?

One of the knotty issues has always been the attempt to untangle form from content, or, failing that, to make half-hearted stabs at saying they are different—yet the same.  The knottiness of the issue tends to reflect badly on the ‘poetry-as-subject-of-scientific-investigation’ school, favoring the school of poetry-as-science, since mystery favors poetry as the inscrutable science over poetry as the object of scientific scrutiny.   In the spirit of the Platonist school, then, let us turn our full attention on the form/content problem, with the help of Plato’s Muse.

Let’s begin with the block of marble that becomes a statue. 

The form is a block which becomes the form of a statue.  This might be denoted as Being > Being Subtracted.

We could also see this as form = no form (the block) becoming form = form (the statue).    An opposite (form = no form) > The same (form = form)

The content is a block (of marble) which becomes the content of a statue.  This also might be denoted as Being > Being Subtracted.

We could also see this as content = no content (the block) becoming content = content (the statue).   An opposite (content = no content) > The same (content = content)

Form and Content BOTH exist in before/after states.

Form and Content do NOT exist as qualities, but as a process of a quality.

Since Form and Content equally involve the question of HOW the Block (Form and Content) becomes the Statue (Form and Content), the What (content)/How (form) duality is a FALSE ONE.

If we cannot adequately define form v. content, no statement involving them can be true; no formula which equates them, divides them, or defines them as related in any way, can be true.

Thus Robert Creeley’s formula—form is an extension of content—is bankrupt.

The transformative process of how a block becomes a statue is equal for form and content; hence it is wrong to say form is a “how” and content is a “what.”

Why should the skill of the sculptor be less significant than a mere theoretical hair-splitting between form versus content?  Clearly the opposite is the case.  How the sculptor effects the transformation is far more significant than the hair-splitting scenario.

Finally, the skill of the sculptor rests on imitation, for unless the viewer recognizes what the block becomes, how can we say skill exists at all?

Is poetry the same?  How does the analogy of ‘block transformed to statue’ work with the poem?  Is it the words the poet chooses which become ‘the statue?’  Yes.  And is language the ‘block of marble?’ How could it be otherwise?  What other ‘block,’ if not language, does the poet have?  The marble has certain properties and behaves a certain way when shaped.  So our language has grammatical, syntactical, and sound qualities particular to it, and behaves a certain way when shaped, as well.  And is it not the skill in shaping which is the real how that matters, not the mere hair-split of ‘form is how, content is what?’  Indeed.  And what of imitation? Is not this the chief concern?  Will the skill in shaping a poem be manifest if the reader fails to recognize the result? No, it will not.

This is not to say that novel and ideal considerations are left out, and cannot be created by the imitative process, but it goes without saying that the ideal, like imitation, is found in reality. For instance: the whole is made up of parts, the whole is itself counted among the parts—these sorts of things which are universal will sustain and inform the particular imitation, and so invention and orginality of course come into play.

Now that we have swept aside the whole form/content controversy, perhaps poetry can begin to be seen for what it is, and the scholars can begin to awake from their nightmares.

COLE SWENSEN’S LIPS ARE MOVING (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND A THING SHE SAYS)

Cole Swensen Poetry Trading Card

Cole Swensen: learning sans philosophy

Our poetry blog rival John Gallaher has duly noted poet Cole Swensen’s new book of essays from U. Michigan Press, Noise That Stays Noise.

We follow in Gallaher’s footsteps.

Gallaher, on his blog, dutifully copies the following from Swensen’s title essay with tacit praise, but we—in the Scarriet spirit, running, as usual, against the po-biz grain—bring to the table some analysis of Ms. Swenson’s assumed wisdom.  Here is the Swensen Gallaher quoted:

Both novelty and redundancy have a place in our interpretation of the world around us. Complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s “man without memory,” for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening; complete redundancy, on the other hand, would amount to the heat death of complete homogeneity.

The degree of nonunderstanding in a given piece changes from reader to reader and is often slight; the novel feeling it occasions is part of the pleasure of reading poetry and is the source of the simultaneous suspension and surprise that seems to bypass the cognitive faculties.

This process, which, borrowing a term from the biological sciences, I’m going to refer to as self-organization from noise, is particularly important in considering much recent American poetry, which often contains a lot of what many would consider noise.

Such an approach demands that we consider a literary text solely as an act of communication, as a completely quantifiable message passing through a channel from a sender to a receiver. Though this may strike some as cold, on the contrary, I think it is just such an approach that can elucidate the ways in which literature differs from mechanistic models of communication and can, unlike them, augment the quantifiable with irreducible qualities of human sensation and emotion.

Noise is most simply defined as any signal, interruption, or disturbance in the channel of communication that alters the quantity of quality of transmitted information.

[I]n a text, various idiosyncrasies from typographical errors to intentional ambiguities can also be considered noise if they too alter (or augment) the imparted information.

Information, in turn, can be defined in terms of the resolution of uncertainty.

[I]n literature . . . noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

Literary noise . . . is often not a degradation of the message; on the contrary, such noise is often intentional and aimed at preventing the suppression of imagination that complete certainty can cause. . . . This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

The way in which poets define noise strongly influences style . . . .

[T]he reader is crucial here . . .

–from Noise That Stays Noise by Cole Swensen

Swensen’s initial division between novelty and redundancy has philosophical force, but Swensen’s thinking quickly slides into that predictable modernist ploy: speaking in code to the initiated.  Noise is a metaphor for the horrible sort of poetry which the public hates; rather than defend this horrible sort of poetry directly, Swensen chooses to defend noise as  horrible poetry’s stand-in.  If we can just say enough interesting things about noise, Swensen thinks, we can satisfy ourselves that horrible poetry has a purpose.  This is exactly what Swensen is doing, and Gallaher knows it.  Well, this is how intellectuals deceive one other.

You read a poem. You can’t understand it.  You wonder why such things are given a pass.  Then you read,

noise is not necessarily something to be suppressed, as it constitutes the potential for increasing the complexity of the system of which it is part.

And then you nod, and go, I seeAs a reader, I have a responsibility to allow this noise to show me possibilities.

Swensen does understand that she better define what she means by noise, and so we get this:

This would include poeticity—the unquantifiable qualities of sound relationships, word associations, and innate rhythms—but also things that intentionally disrupt the smooth flow of information, such as fragmentation, unusual syntax, ambiguity, neologism, juxtaposition, alternative logics, graphic spacing, etc—in other words, any alteration to the basic linguistic code.

So time-honored strategies such as “juxtaposition” and “unusual syntax” and “neologism,” things which one might associate with the 16th century author, Shakespeare, are what she really means by “noise.”  In that case, “noise” might as well be anything, and it quickly becomes apparent that the term, “noise,” is merely code for the approval of play-pen modernism/post-modernism.

Swensen is practicing shoddy, incoherent criticism and it’s aimed precisely at folks like Gallaher, who are pre-determined not to question it.

As for Swensen’s redundancy/novelty construction, it is interesting how she says “complete novelty would give us a world like that of Oliver Sacks’s ‘man without memory,’ for whom the world was incomprehensible and frightening,” and then says of “nonunderstanding,” that the “novel feeling it occasions…is part of the pleasure of reading poetry.”  Redundancy, for Swenson, is the “heat death of complete homogeneity.”  But how do we go from “incomprehensible and frightening” to “pleasure?”  Is it because “reading poetry” is such a trivial act?  Or is she unwilling to follow through on her own declarations? Is Swenson unwilling to compare the nature of the mind, or the nature of reality, to poetry?

Is this just a sophistical tease?  I am going out on a limb here, and I’ll say yes, it is.  Swensen is practicing swine-like rhetoric.

Without really bothering to discuss the subject, “nonunderstanding” takes on magical powers for Swensen.

Swensen abandons the redundancy/novelty dichotomy at once.  Nothing further needs to be said about the “redundancy” side of the scale.  She’d rather discuss the “pleasures” and “surprises” of “noise.”

But isn’t redundancy largely how we experience reality, whether it’s the movement of the sun and planets in the universe, or all those repetitions that make the world comprehensible, and the sciences, the languages, and the arts, possible?   Is Swensen interested in how things work, or is she only looking to discourse on things she likes?

We might mention Shakespeare’s Sonnet #23 for an interesting treatise on noise, or Millay’s Sonnet, “If I Should Learn In Some Quite Casual Way” (the noise of the subway); and clarity would have no small part in the analysis of these works.  Certainly Swensen’s sophistry is not necessary to make the subject of ‘noise’ lively.

No wonder the creative mind’s ability to make great works of art has been eclipsed by academic dullness.  Swensen’s faint-hearted plays at rhetoric are now the rule.

A tip to Swensen: Learn from your (superior) ancestors, Plato of The Phaedrus, Shakespeare of the Sonnets. Though it drive you mad, strive to find the truth.

THE FORM WAR

JGwithGlobe

Newton’s discovery that the apple which fell at his feet obeyed the same law as all the spheres above only diminishes in that mind which judges post-1911 physics as so counter-intuitive and incoherent, it excuses sloppy and obscure poetry.  The universality of Newton’s laws and the universality of E=MC2 has worth beyond anything that may have fallen and broken in 1911.

Shakespeare’s “light’s flame” in Sonnet #1 is post-Newtonian—science is not the same as history, yet some shallow thoughts on poetry depend on a science which follows a perfect chronological path. The Modernist (as the name implies) replaces nuanced thinking with pure chronology.

The very latest 21st century physics approves of the Big Bang theory as laid out in 1848—by Edgar Poe.  America’s first critic also ought to get more credit for showing, in his Rationale of Verse, how the origins of quantitative poetry and language itself grew up together.

John Gallaher raves on.  We at Scarriet don’t mean to pick on Professor Gallaher (we think he is some kind of poetry professor)—it’s just that his brainwashing is, unfortunately the same as all the rest, and he makes a good example.

Free-versers (I’m quoting Marvin Bell from his Iowa days) cry indignantly, “Form, not forms!”

Gallaher repeats this hoary formula:

One can still profitably teach and study poetry as poetic forms. That’s a great way to talk about poetry up through E.A. Robinson. That’s how I learned poetry in High School and as an undergrad back in the 1980s. But what I feel like I didn’t get was a study in the most interesting things that have been going on since 1911.

The Modernist theorist has won (he thinks) by out-simplifying his formalist opponents: an open-ended interest in form trumps a pedantic interest in forms.

Out-simplifying is the usual way to win any philosophical, or scientific, or metaphysical argument. But the Modernist buffoon has only out-simplified quantitative poetry in his own mind.

An interest in quantitative poetry is not defined by an interest in poetic forms—the quaint designation used by free-versers to mask the real issue.  Every poet worth the name is interested in quantity (and its sub-genre of poetic forms) while the Modernist, free-verse crackpot, wielding the false scepter of alleged post-1911 science—which has supposedly transformed his art—is interested in nothing.

There is always a great deal of high-flown talk from the Modernist of history and science.  We quote liberally from Gallaher:

Furthering the point, I think that the hundred years since the start of Modernism (It started August 15th 1911, by the way), a century of new advances in science and the way we perceive the world around us, calls for a new approach to talking about and teaching poetry.
The intellectual practices of how we talk about and teach the poetry of the last century (and continuing into this one) have not kept up with the changes in the practice of the art. We must change. The free-verse legacy has created a literary question (or questions) that haven’t been answered.
It seems to me sometimes when I’m talking to someone who has had some experience with poetry (almost exclusively prior to the 20th Century), that it’s as difficult to talk about new poetry as if I were trying to explain some aspect of Quantum Theory to someone who has only known Newtonian Physics.
This is not to knock them. Newton is still very important to the history of physics. All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself, that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time. And time demands new approaches. Not just because of the new poetry being written, but because of the people who are studying poetry. They also change over time, as the times change.
Form is not the best opening salvo in a course on poetry, and it’s precisely the wrong one in a contemporary poetry course. It still has a place, a large place, but I don’t believe that place is primary. Contemporary poetry, or a fairly large percentage of it, is outside the conception of what poetry is that reigned before 1911, or even—or especially—the way it was conceptualized as an object of study by the New Criticism.
I think we should be using the more innovative pedagogical strategies we use in teaching theory or fiction when we teach contemporary poetry.
Most people learn poetry through a historical lens, starting with very, very old things. Wonderful things, don’t get me wrong, but old things. I think that’s backwards. Or actually, I think completely different approaches need to be taken after The Romantics, but that’s a different argument.

It is cringe-worthy to hear such thinking boast of its own pedagogy, for such thinking is not pedagogcial, but poison.  Shakespeare and Newton are all very good in their way, but now, according to Gallaher, we’ve got Quantum Physics—and Charles Olson.   Why Charles Olson or John Ashbery or Rae Armantrout are more ‘Quantum Physics’ than Shakespeare is something Gallaher hopes we’ll just take for granted, because, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Rae Armantrout, Quantum Physics! They go hand-in-hand! No, they don’t.

“All I’m saying is that, as poetry continues to bring one into the presence of a language act unique to itself,” Gallaher writes—and what does this mean?   A language act unique to itself. Is this the reason for poetry?  Is that what poetry strives for, or is that what poetry has been—a “unique act?”—since 1911?  Does poetry shed light on linguistics?  Or is linguistics shedding light on poetry?  And is this true only since 1911?  Because…why?  And it doesn’t help that Gallaher adds, “that language act, that approach to how language is, changes over time.”  That’s all well and good, but what exactly happened that was so earth-shattering in 1911, again?  I must have missed that.  There’s a blindness, an hysteria, here.  I’d bet the farm that Gallaher really has no idea what he means by “a language act unique to itself.”

Now listen to Gallaher as he attempts to elucidate the profundity which sets Modernist poetry apart from “old things” which poets like Keats, Milton and Shakespeare used to write:

I would like to redirect the post I made last week a bit. Craft (form, etc) is important to poetry, and to my thinking about and reading poetry. What I was reacting to is the way—tonally maybe—people sometimes, often even, think of poetry as an erector set of formal machines. Poetry does have to get made, and everything made has a form, and a craft to create that form, but I’m more interested in the spirit behind it.

Part of this spirit, or my desire to talk about the spirit of the art object comes from the fact that there are a great many blanks in any art object. I prefer to hang out there. It’s one  of the major flaws of the way poetry is often taught in schools. Blanks can bring terror to teachers. Blanks aren’t testable the way non-blanks are. But the blanks are the very places we go to when we’re talking about the poems we love. The question of just what Wallace Stevens is getting at in “The Idea of Order at key West.” It’s the way things DON’T link up that are more interesting to me than the way they do.

That’s a form and craft issue too, but we tend to avoid those places, because they have the tendency to tie us up in knots, and that is a vulnerability we often don’t want to show to others, especially if we’re supposed to be experts.

Connotation and denotation, in poetry, for example, are part of a fuzzy interdependence. They are never in total control. Things happen there, that open what I’m calling blanks. This movement is an easy way to deconstruction, sure, but it also allows moments co-creation. All art is co-creation in this way, in its context, its situation.

How one handles those moments (as author or as co-creating reader) is more important, or, as important, as the form, the means of control in the poem, the art object. Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them, just as if one is bored or uncomfortable with the more usual formal issues, one still has to participate with them.

“Even if one dislikes the blanks, one must deal with them,” Gallaher urges.  But what are these “blanks,” exactly?   Is he speaking of ambiguity?  Ambiguity was not invented in 1911.  Further, Gallaher, by finding so much pleasure in those “fuzzy” and “vulnerable” and “not in control” aspects, and in the “blank,” as opposed to the “non-blank” places, is choosing not to be ambiguous at all.  What we see is a man certain that he prefers uncertainty.

And what happens when one becomes more interested in the ambiguity in poetry than the poetry itself?  We find ourselves exactly in the middle of where the art of poetry finds itself today: lost, confused, and forgotten, crying out, “1911! 1911!”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are loaded with ambiguity, a far more potent mixture of ambiguity than we find in Stevens.  But Gallaher with his post-1911 glasses on, will never see this.

Gallaher, in his modernism, is far more certain about things than any poet or philosopher was before 1911.  Gallaher prefers the “spirit behind the form.”   Gallaher is sure there is a “form” over here and a “spirit” over there.   Is this post-1911 uncertainty?  Really?

Gallaher can’t even fake the ‘ambiguity’ rhetoric well, much less make it convincing.

We begin with Plato, who invented Western Thought.  Plato defined art as measurement.   Not form, but form that can be measured.  You can simplify with, “Form, not forms!” all you want.  But form really misses the point. Poetry is form that can be measured.  Is that simple enough for you?

Gallaher cited Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” as an example of “blank” mastery.  Let’s compare this modern poem by Stevens to a 16th century chestnut,  Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”  Let’s see which poem is more unique, and has more of that mysterious “blank” quality Gallaher loves.  Let’s use actual examples to find out what 1911 hath wrought.

First, the Stevens:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Stevens begins by telling us a “she sang beyond the genius of the sea,” which sounds pretentious, and it seems we are already ‘at sea.’  Then he tell us, “the water” (that would be the sea, or perhaps part of the sea?) “never formed to mind or voice, /Like a body wholly body, fluttering /Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion /Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry, /That was not ours although we understood, /Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.”  We “understood” the “cry” of “the water,” though it lacked “mind” and “voice” and “body, fluttering its empty sleeves.”  OK.

Second stanza: Neither she, nor the sea “was a mask.”  But Stevens invokes the sound of the sea in his poem.  Her song and the sea’s song are nicely tangled up.  Pretty good.

Third stanza: Repeats theme of second stanza: her singing and the “ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea,” which just happens to be near, described.  A “we” is introduced, listening for a “spirit” that “we knew.”  The sky is described, as well.

Fourth stanza: The “she” becomes “artificer” and “maker” and the “sea” becomes her “world” and her “song.”  The “we” also “beheld her striding there alone.”

Fifth stanza: A “Ramon Fernandez” is asked “why, when the singing ended,” the sea was “arranged.”  A town and its lights are described.

Sixth stanza: The ejaculation might as well be quoted in full: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”   “To order words of the sea” might sum up the surface intent of the poem, and this phrase also might be said to represent its depth, which at times earnestly, and at times coyly, is intimated.  “There never was a world for her except the one she sang and, singing, made” sums up the “she,” a figure missing from the final two stanzas, where a “Ramon Fernandez” is addressed. (Ramon is probably a stand-in for Stevens’ influential Harvard professor, the poet and critc, George Santayana.)

The broad theme of Key West: ‘the poem is what the poem sings, the poet’s song is a world of distances and dimensions and enchantment, for an audience poised between Man’s meaning and nature’s murmurings,’ is a pleasant enough one, and Stevens does a nice job of painting his theme with sound.

The Stevens poem reminds me of this song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

When that I was a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The Twelfth Night song creates the same effect as Key West; the rain replaces Stevens’ sea; yet Stevens seems to have a palpable design upon us; Stevens tells us what his poem means: “the sea, whatever self it had, became the self that was her song,” etc  We’ve all experienced rain every day; “she sang beyond the genius of the sea” and “we beheld her striding there alone” is fantastical and strained, by comparison. The antique song, with its strange folk song simplicity, actually does what Stevens tries to do in Key West, with its “ever-hooded sea,” better.

But now, as we promised, Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare, as naturally as can be, starts a simple romantic conversation by demolishing Aristotle’s idea that metaphor is the key to poetry, rejects the world, conquers death, expands the prophecy to include all mankind, and makes it all come true with a “this”—which is his poem.

Did someone say “language act unique to itself?”

Mr. Gallaher?  

You’re welcome.

Without its formal properties, the Sonnet, as magnificent as the thought that went into it is, would fall apart.  The sound-unity which makes it a “this” is both its limit and its law, and the thoughts and ideas, the cause of the sonnet, are limited by law as well.  The ‘form’ is not simply the poem’s skeleton; the form is the whole of it, its divisions and additions—all its parts—are what it is, from idea to final  product, on every level.

We have all the “blank attributes” and mystery we need in Shakespeare’s “this.”  We could ponder for hours on how Shakespeare arrives at that little word.

GET IN LINE

I Win!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Neil Young says it:

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

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

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

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

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

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

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

WHY THE AVANT-GARDE IS BAD FOR POETRY

Plato: Poetry’s greatest enemy—or greatest friend?

Poetry as an art is dead, and the poets can’t even throw it a good funeral.  Maybe that’s because there are so many poets making half-hearted attempts to convince themselves poetry is still alive.  MFA programs, even as they make a profit, haven’t given up the desperate hope; after all, don’t naive MFA students keep throwing their hard-earned money, with wishes of poetry-stardom, into the abyss?

Plato was more poetic in killing poetry than the present poetic tribe is in advocating for her:

When anyone of these pantomimic gentlemen, clever at imitating everything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. So when we have annointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city. For we mean to employ for our souls’ health the rougher and severer poet or story-teller of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed at first when we began the education of our soldiers.  BOOK III Republic

The modern, liberal, freedom-loving person rejects this typical passage at once. The censorship, the “law,” the “State,” the “soldiers” fill us with horror.  Plato is poison to our ears. 

But we reject this wise philosopher at our peril.

Poetry is only part of it—yet poetry, not law, or the State, is finally the issue.  Plato is the least fanatic, the most common-sense, philosopher of all.  He is always described as the philosopher of abstract Ideas. Quite the contrary.  He is the philosopher of the Real.  We ought to fear our own minds more than Plato’s philosophy. 

First, let us look at our own circumstances in the U.S. at present—considered by many to be the most modern, liberal, and freedom-loving State on the face of the earth.  Is America not a “State,” with “laws” and “soldiers?” Do we not censor behavior and speech, for children, and even for adults, in the workplace, and in various public spheres, ubiquitously? And are not these carefully considered laws deemed in large part to be good?

Why then, do we fear Socrates’ reasoning?

And secondly, Plato and Socrates were not politicians or tyrants actually imposing laws on anyone—they were poetical planners speculating poetically on blueprints for a poetical nation.  Plato asked that poetry be good. Don’t we want the good? Shouldn’t we strive, at least in our theoretical planning stage, to make all things virtuous?

Finally, which makes more sense: Plato’s wish to couple the words, “poetry” and “good” as part of a plan to produce a “good state,” or: the Modernist host of rebel angels who cry, We shall never permit you to force anyone’s notion of ‘the good’ into proximity with ‘poetry!’ with this de-coupling as the essence of a free State: separating ‘good’ from ‘poetry’ the best protection against all narrow-minded tryannies?

In the name of freedom, the Modernist poets hate the good, hate the common-sense marriage of poetry and the good, and in all this freedom which hates the good, poetry, as it presently exists, has come to be despised.

This is no matter of mere taste.  Material defect and excess define avant-garde poetry—whether it’s trivial lyrics too small to have an impact, or tedious epics no one reads.  Was Plato silent on the technical substance of aesthetics, poetry and art?  And was he really that censorious on the whole question of art?   The answer to both quesitons is: no.  Plato is the commonsense philosopher:

Let us begin by considering the whole nature of excess and defect…

…we must suppose that the great and small exist and are discerned in both these ways, and not, as we were saying before, only relatively to one another, but there must also be another comparison to them with the mean or ideal standards…

…if we assume the greater to exist only in relation to the less…would not this doctrine be the ruin of all the arts and their creations; would not the art of the Statesman and the aforesaid art of weaving disappear? For all these arts are on the watch against excess and defect, not as unrealities, but as real evils, which occasion a difficulty in action; and the excellence of beauty of every work of art is due to this observance of measure.

…the very existence of the arts must be held to depend on the possibility of measuring more or less, not only with one another, but also with a view to the attainment of the mean, seems to afford a grand support and satisfactory proof of the docrtine which we are maintaining; for if there are arts, there is a standard of measure, and if there is a standard of measure, there are arts; but if either is wanting there is neither.  283-285, Statesman

…the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales…

…can you imagine that God will be willing to lie, whether in word or deed, or to put forth a phantom of himself?

…musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul…

…neither we nor our guardians, whom we have to educate, can ever become musical until we and they know the essential forms, in all their combinations, and can recognize them and their images wherever they are found, not slighting them either in small things or great, but believing them all to be within the sphere of one art and study.

…there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm..

…we shall adapt the foot and the melody to words having a like spirit, not the words to the foot and melody…

…three principles of rhythm out of which  metrical systems are framed, just as in sounds there are four notes out of which all the harmonies are composed…  BOOK III The Republic

…let us assure our sweet friend and the sister arts of imitation, we shall be delighted to receive her, that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her…We may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?  BOOK X The Republic

For serious things cannot be understood without laughable things, nor opposites at all without opposites, if a man is really to have intelligence of either; but he cannot carry out both in action, if he is to have any degree of virtue. And for this very reason he should learn them both, in order he may not in ignorance do or say anything which is ridiculous and out of place…  BOOK VII The Laws

Just from these handful of excerpts, one can see how silly we have been, like children afraid of the dark, to fear Plato’s censorship, which is of the most common-sense, grounded, studious, open-minded and respectful kind, and sincerely based on love of the good—for everyone’s sake.

By fearing what could damage the welfare of everyone in society, the Platonist—Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, and Poe, the most prominent examples—educates himself in a more rounded and insightful way than the typical avant-garde artist, who fears nothing, embraces everything, and instead of putting a society in his mind as the Platonist does, merely pursues personal likes and dislikes—which is all freedom, finally, allows one to do.  The Platonist also flies above the avant-garde modeled on the puritan or socialist scold—because love of beauty animates the Platonist philosophy.

The avant-garde, in all his righteous indignation, ends up being the narrowest and dullest thinker of all.  Kindly permit us to quote one more passage of Plato’s from the Ion:

Ion: Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet, but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?
Socrates: The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art of or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole.
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: And when any one acquires any other art as a whole, the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion?
Ion: Yes, indeed, Socrates, I very much wish that you would: for I love to hear you wise men talk.
Socrates: O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so; but you rhapsodes and actors, and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise; whereas I am a common man, who only speak the truth. For consider what a very commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said—a thing which any man might say: that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same.

Ion is just like Ron Silliman, who can only talk of the same avant-garde class of poets, while dismissing great swaths of poetry as “quietist.”  The poet Rae Armantrout is Silliman’s Homer; when her name is mentioned, Silliman sits up and wags his tail—and this is because Silliman is a mere magnetized ring; Silliman and his avant friends do not comprehend poetry as a whole.  And this phenomenon is widespread: one can see it, for instance, in the rock fan who abhors classical music, the pop music fan who swears this artist is genuine, and that artist is not, and the MFA student who only studies recent work.  They all suffer from the Ion-disease.

There are few who understand the secrets of the Platonic wisdom: when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same.

The creature who least understands Plato is the Modernist poet.

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