The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.

“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.”  —Thomas Brady

Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.

Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world.   Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position.  We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.

Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?

The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song.  We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem.  Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream.  Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.

There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.

The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.

Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth.  After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.

A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.”  It “happens” anew every time we read it.

Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way.  We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.

We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole.  It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.

Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it.  Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like.  There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else.  Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?

Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life.  Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art.  Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness.  It doesn’t get any better than harmony.  It doesn’t get any worse than discord.  Those are the Two.   All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord.  All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.

We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:

Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.

We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem.  How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”

Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence.  Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.

But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane:  “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”

We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.”  The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.

Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief,  sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem.  The judge asks: asleep among fruits? 

The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how?  And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name?  These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked.   But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects.  The coy poem will be found out.  Casual readers may not find them out.  Critics will.  Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases?  Let no critic be drawn in by this.  Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.

Moral admonitions aside,  the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable.  As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?”  How among fruits?  What kinds of fruits?  How much did Mary “matter?”  Is the narrator upset to the point of tears?  How is the narrator uttering these lines?  Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left?  What difference does it make to the narrator?  What exactly was Mary to the poet?  Who is Mary?  The Mother of God?  Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery?  And is this enough?  In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.

in ash, in dust, I did not

leave you

The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for?  The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows.  Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?”  The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.”  Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line?  The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not.  The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.

Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes.  The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on.  The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself.  The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.”  In “Hail,”  we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about.  The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.

“I did not leave you,” the poet announces.  Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left?  Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her?  Is the poet bitter and betrayed?  Or not?  How can we tell?  What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”

Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.

Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose.  Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.

We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder?  Where is the emotional guide?

The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”

And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”

We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes.  And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.

We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.

There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits?  Why this odious comparison? 

We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves.  We compare involuntarily.  We cannot help it.  It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us.  We have nothing to do with it.  As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism.  We know Mary Szybist will forgive us.  But it’s a fait accompli.  She must forgive us.

The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.

A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.

A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.

We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be.   Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment.  Don’t be so coy.

Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.

The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.

Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.

But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it.  Think on your favorite poem (s).  Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying?  Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common.  Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too.  We know what the good poems do.  They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious.  They have action.  Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day.  There’s no other way of putting it.

We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem.  You have to close the deal.

We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines.  We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.

And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving.   As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.

The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.

We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.

Read “Hail” one more time.

La verite’ peut vous plaire.



A younger Gary Soto, long before his 2012 March Madness contest with Silliman

Rita Dove chose one of Ron Silliman’s poems, “Albany,” for her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.  Silliman is a crazy white poet who runs a blog—which used to have reader comments but now no longer allows them.  Gary Soto is Mexican.  He has three poems in Dove’s anthology, Silliman, just the one.

Time destroys us: we get old and die.  Time reveals truth: effects spring from prior causes.  Poetry belongs to time: it is a temporal art, and its temporality belongs to the sober truth of time the destroyer: the deception, the life, the poem must end.

The question is: does it just end, or does it end? 

This might be the chief difference between the so-called “quietist school” (old-fashioned poetry, in Silliman’s mind) and whatever Silliman deems “new.” 

Quietist poetry embraces temporality and always has the end in mind.  The Silliman poem below has no temporality; it just ends; Silliman is afraid to look into the truth of things, the life of things, the death of things, the ending of things—and why shouldn’t he be afraid of the death of things?  We are all afraid of this; even Shelley, who wrote “all that endures is mutability,” but poets like Silliman are so afraid they ignore the role of poetry itself, which is to not be afraid.  This is why poetry scares so many people; poetry is braver than we are. The poet himself is sometimes so afraid, that his poems are afraid, too, and they flee temporality and run to the safey of being round objects without end—which is precisely what Silliman’s poem is:


for Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

Gary Soto, like Silliman, writes of the past, and he does it this way:


The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted –
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Poetry is a recitation of a memory—is this what poetry, finally is?  Memories do not live in our minds in a strictly linear way, especially as we tend to forget the details—memories revolve around a theme, and go forwards and backwards in our minds.  Memories can also be a search for a theme—and again, time can get all mixed up.

But the poem, materially, must march forward—both in content and form.  This is the poem’s face, and this fact can’t be faked with excuses such as: my memories of this event are all scrambled up, so why shouldn’t my poem be scrambled up? 

This is not to say that just because a poem proceeds in one direction that it will be a good poem.  But this is the minimum of what it has to do.

The poem can be scrambled, but then your poem will not have a face.

A person does not have to have a face.  But we would prefer one.

Soto 81, Silliman 60



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress requires improvement.

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

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

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

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

No, no, and no.

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

Asinus asinum fricat.

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