DELMORE SCHWARTZ AND THE MODERN COMPLAINT

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The peculiar error of the modern poets—an error so obvious as to escape attention—was the continual investigation of what it meant to be modern, a term by which these 20th century poets (our grandparents and great grandparents) felt they were somehow novel and special. If thinking about poetry has anything to do with writing it, the modern poets were the first poets forced to be something else (modern) first, and poets second.

The previous movement—Romanticism—was so named by later critics; the Romantic poets, as critically-minded as any aesthetic clique, never thought of themselves as “Romantic” poets. They wrote poetry. Modern poetry, it must have been, when they were alive.  Wordsworth, one of the so-called Romantic poets, and as different in sensibility from another Romantic poet, Byron, as one poet next to another can possibly be, was no revolutionary. Wordsworth strove to write like Milton—just less religiously; there was no “break” at all, in terms of the poetry. A poem was a poem, just as a sword was a sword, or a feeling was a feeling. Wordsworth may have felt he was writing closer to how regular folk talk—but looking back we now know that was just something his criticism said.

One will, of course, find critics who insist Wordsworth was a “break,” (Byron would have said Wordsworth—whom the author of “Don Juan” took delight in ridiculing—was “broken”) but these critics will be found to be the same ones who believe the “modern” describes poetry, if only to conveniently map out eras as a means of filling up teaching hours in the classroom, and helping their charges remember what they are studying in rough historical terms. Victorian poets wrote when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Modern poets wrote during the reign of some other queen. And so on. But we “moderns” know (because we are “modern?”) that “modern” means much more than that. It is so ripe with meaning that modern poets are only secondarily poets—in the sense that all poets who came before them were.

I don’t think one can ever go wrong as a poet to think deeply about what it means to be a poet; the modern, however—what is it?

Here’s Randall Jarrell in The Nation in 1942:

What has impressed everybody about modernist poetry is its differentness. The familiar and rather touching “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” is only another way of noticing what almost all criticism has emphasized: that modernist poetry is a revolutionary departure from the romantic poetry of the preceding century.

In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” (1938) John Crowe Ransom writes, “Modern poetry is pure poetry.” Just as the isolated skill of “statecraft” has replaced state and religion blended into one, poetry is no longer epic, religious, sweeping, but small, aesthetic, specialized. Just as Puritanism isolates morality from the old pomp of the Catholic Church and seals it up in the devotee’s heart, modern poetry isolates, as a special value, pure aesthetics from morality and everything else.

Robert Penn Warren in his lecture at Princeton in 1942, “Pure and Impure Poetry” wrestled with Ransom’s idea of modern poetry as “pure.” Context, for Warren, keeps interfering with purity, in the same way excess of feeling naturally brings on mockery—Ransom’s “purity” has porous borders; Eliot’s “objective correlative” demands Shelley’s love admit a desire for sex (loosely speaking); in order for the sex to remain hidden, however, poetry must be obscure; and so Modernist obscurity ascends the throne; Shelley and Poe’s poetry excludes the unpleasant, the ugly, the immoral; modern poetry, in its attempt to break with Romanticism (including Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare) includes these things, includes the vulgar, includes whatever was once aesthetically left out. In order for the modern contradiction of inclusive, lyric “purity” to work, however, obscurity is required, unless one is prepared to advance past Shelley by introducing sex into one’s poems, which the Moderns were not willing to do.

Eliot, in “Hamlet and his Problems” calls Hamlet a failure because Hamlet’s “disgust” with his mother (she is having sex with his uncle) isn’t handled properly.

I began this essay by referring to the modern poets’ “error,” unnoticed due to its obvious nature; and here it is.

The attachment of “modern” to poetry obscures and distracts from the poetry—in the very same manner that obscurity itself is the chief problem of modernist poetry (Jarrell’s “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” self-consciously expresses this public distaste).

And why is modern poetry obscure?

Ransom’s modernist, art for art’s sake, division of labor, puritanical evolution in the direction of “purity” ran headlong into Poe’s narrow and practical definition—the inevitable, self-conscious, progressive, boiling down of the essential nature of the poem as Critical object in Lord Bacon’s laboratory.

Trapped by the exclusionary nature of the pure lyric poem, which had been freed from its old epic duties as historian and moral story teller, the Romantic lyric is the inescapable reality facing the “revolutionary” Modern.

In the early 20th century, a desperate gambit followed—make the uneasy purity of the modern lyric a product which includes, rather than excludes, all things which are not poetic, or beautiful, or traditionally aesthetic.

But to arrive at purity by including all sorts of things is impossible. Therefore exclusion had to be practiced (the soul of all art is exclusion) in such a way as to somehow pretend inclusion (sex accompanying love, disgust accompanying restraint, confusion accompanying focus, laughter accompanying sorrow) and you have the modern poets practicing something impossible to pull off, with obscurity the natural result.  This was, and is, modern poetry.

To be lyric, clear, Romantic, beautiful is to go back. Modern meant forward, out of the trenches of Poe, into the arms of everything—which, by its inclusive nature, ruins pure poetry, the old pure poetry which excludes.

Like the beautiful English poets, who almost to a man, ran headlong into the Great War of 1914, poetry, in the same historical instant, ran into the arms of insanity, busyness, mockery, excess, obscurity, unease, the mundane, pain, ugliness, and death.

We arrive now at Delmore Schwartz and his essay “The Isolation of Modern Poetry.”

In his essay, published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1941, Schwartz is certain that the poet is isolated from modern society. Not because, as T.S. Eliot says, modern society is complex and therefore modern poetry needs to be complex, and therefore difficult, and therefore the modern poet is likely to be misunderstood—Schwartz finds this relationship “superficial.”

Mr. Eliot is seldom superficial in any regard; here, however, I think he is identifying the surface of our civilization with the surface of our poetry. But the complexity of modern life, the disorder of the traffic on a business street or the variety of reference in the daily newspaper is far from being the same thing as the difficulties of syntax, tone, diction, metaphor, and allusion which face the reader in the modern poem.

If only Delmore had spent the entire essay confuting Mr. Eliot!  His essay might have unlocked many anti-Modernist insights.  Those who hate Eliot for vague reasons—too English, too Anglican, too stuffy—are wrong, but those who find Eliot invincible in his judgments are dangerously wrong. Good to see Delmore wasn’t afraid of taking on the master.

But Schwartz goes on to say a similar thing: modern society doesn’t care for poetry; the poet’s isolation, therefore, is extreme.  Schwartz doesn’t blame people, but society.  Bankers and insurance salesmen cannot like poetry—the way they make their living prohibits it.

The fundamental isolation of the modern poet began not with the poet and his way of life; but rather with the whole way of life of modern society. It was not so much the poet as it was poetry, culture, sensibility, imagination, that were isolated.

After rebuking Eliot, Schwartz goes on for the rest of the essay to entirely agree with him.  Poetry, as Schwartz points out, is not the same as a busy street. Eliot is too blase, is what Schwartz is saying. Complex life, complex poetry. But Schwartz sees a much deeper problem. The complexity of modern life does not provide new material for the poet (Eliot’s rather optimistic view) but rather obliterates all connections between ordinary people caught up in that complexity and the poet who wishes to communicate with those modern readers. According to Schwartz:

There have been unsuccessful efforts on the part of able poets to write about bankers and about railroad trains, and in such examples the poet has been confronted by what seems on the surface a technical problem, the extraordinary difficulty of employing poetic diction, meter, language, and metaphor in the contexts of modern life.

Delmore then gives us the example of Wallace Stevens:

At the conclusion of his reading of his own poetry, this poet and business man remarked to one of the instructors who had welcomed him: “I wonder what the boys at the office would think of this.”

But this seems as superficial as T.S Eliot’s point about modern life forcing the modern poet to be “difficult.”  Why do we assume “the boys in the office” cannot like poetry?

Modern life impacts all persons—and a poet is a person. No matter how different life or society has become, the poet experiences society in the same ocean of experience as everyone else, no matter what kind of “poet” he is; for the materials the poet uses is under discussion when we talk about banks and trains.  The poet of ancient Greece, or the poet of any society at any point in history, has a duty to speak to other members of society—otherwise what kind of poet is he?  If he chooses to write about banks and trains, or not, he still will be understood as a poet—for when Delmore rebuked TS Eliot, this was exactly his point—poetry is not the same as banks and trains.

Schwartz is saying modern life is far more than a busy street.  It is far worse.  Modern life is not merely more complex.  It kills the soul, is really what Schwartz is saying.  But unfortunately, this is nothing but hyperbole.  The soul is forever doing battle with life—modern or not.

If the whole of society has succumbed to the not-poetic, then society is isolated from itself, and everyone is afflicted, not just the poet.

Either the poet’s modern audience is similarly affected, or not.

If not, the poet needs to bridge the gap—with poetry—that’s what poets do and why we call it poetry. (And write anguished essays about how poetry has flown and the poet is isolated.) In ancient times, or now.

And if the poet’s audience is similarly afflicted, then wherefore the “isolation?”

Is it because most of society finds insurance firms attractive and the poet does not? Of course not; we must assume a thread of humanity connecting poet and audience re: the non-poetic aspect of insurance firms. No one finds insurance firms attractive.

Schwartz also brings up money. Insurance firms make money and poetry does not, and therefore the poet is ashamed, of no worth, pitied, and therefore isolated, by society. But imagine if Keats were born to a fortune. He would not be Keats. Poetry is so valuable—as to be like money in the fortune it bestows upon its worshipers, but it is not money—does not belong to exchange—otherwise it would not be wealthy in what it is: poetry, which is not, but which rivals, the good fortune of money. What Schwartz is doing is feeling sorry for himself, and using society (which isolates him, the poet) as the excuse—and the transferring of the self-pity (in a Marxist sort of way) into a philosophy, which, in the long run, only makes the individual feel worse, because the self-pity grows in an abstract (disguised) manner.

Therefore, the “difficulty,” or the “famous obscurity” of modern poetry, as Schwartz calls it, is because the modern poet writes not from a common place shared by modern society (banks, insurance firms) but from the poet’s own peculiar, eccentric, isolated self, pushed into a corner by the massively complex (agreeing with Eliot more than he realizes) and non-poetic aspects of modern life.

Again, however: if the society lacks poetry (hasn’t it always?) it follows that poetry must be dearly desired in every quarter.

Poetry, we must assume, is good, is happiness, (since isolating it is bad) and happiness is what modern society lacks (surely the poet doesn’t wish misery on anyone in the name of poetry). The insurance salesman, lacking poetry, needs it, and no amount of enforced, self-pitying, isolationism will possibly be able to provide poetry to the insurance salesman.

Either poetry is being stamped out, and therefore is more necessary than ever, or modern society is inventing different means of delivering poetry without poets themselves being necessary (at least not the self-defeating, bad poets).

In order to prove that the poet was once fully integrated into society, Schwartz provides a few dubious examples: the ancient drama “festivals” which were the talk of the ancient town. But surely this was the ancient equivalent of Hollywood, not poetry in the modern sense. And who thinks of “festivals” as steady poetry employment which earns a living, anyway?

He claims “the Bible” was once the common picture for society at large, until it was eclipsed in the 18th and the 19th centuries by science and Darwin. But shouldn’t this be good news for the poets, who get a chance to replace the priests?

He mentions Blake as one of the first modern rebels, ushering in the new “obscurity” of poetry no longer able to rely on the Bible. But what could be less obscure than the “Tyger” or “Songs of Innocence?”

Schwartz then comes to Baudelaire, the poet who espouses the poetry of clouds, art for art’s sake, the modern poet refusing to write of heroic or “respectable” things, an orphan, cut off from family and all things universal, since with the fall of the Bible, follows the fall of Man. But here Delmore is applying rope to the “helpless” poet—when we know it is precisely poetry which unties all ropes.

Delmore thinks poetry isn’t free, since he applies “modern” to both society and poetry.

But this is a knot easily broken by anyone not ready to embrace the self-pity which insists “modernity” is our dreadful fate.

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best poems in this volume are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

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

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

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

–Corbiere

to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TEN GREATEST POETRY CRITICISM TEXTS (OR, WHO NEEDS POETRY?)

We shall  proceed more or less chronologically, though it’s tempting to go the way of David Letterman and work up to: “and the Number One Poetry Criticism Text is…”

1.  The Poetics—Aristotle

The ultimate rule-book.  Learn these rules, then break them.  And learn this: Aristotle was the abstract philosopher, Plato the grounded and practical one.  If you ‘get this,’ you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion and heartache.  If you like rules, it doesn’t get any better than this:

Having thus distinguished the parts, let us now consider the proper construction of the Fable or Plot, as that is at once the first and the most important thing in Tragedy. We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude, for a whole may be of no magnitude to speak of. Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary and consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either in a very minute creature…or in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long.

No critic today could write “this must” and “this is impossible” about such fundamental things, but it is good somebody did—for now we can blame Aristotle for “Quietism” and those neanderthals who sell, and everything else. 

2. The Republic—Plato 

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Plato and Aristotle is that they weren’t German.  Both are clear. The practical nature of Plato—who dared, without a shred of sentimentality, to put poetry in the context of society—is inescapable.  Randall Jarrell, John Dewey, and Helen Vendler are pumpkins next to Socrates.  If you haven’t digested The Republic, (or the Symposium, or the Ion) you can’t have a conversation about art or literature; you’re blowing bubbles.

3.  Vita Nuova—Dante

Yes, it has a lot of poetry—good literary criticism usually does.  It also has a story and mystery and passion and zero academic pretense. Beyond all that, it’s a guide to writing intelligible verse.  Dante is the passionate combination of the soul of Aristotle and the body of Plato.

4.  The Sonnets—Shakespeare

Irked by the didactic nature of these poems?  Let your eyes be opened.  We reveal here the long-lost secret.  This famous sonnet sequence (Auden is wrong; it does have an order) is Literary Criticism at its very highest— perhaps the greatest ever written.  Study this book.

5.  Essay on Criticism—Pope

Enlightenment jewel of Literary Criticism.  A fountain of wit. It will sharpen your musical ear, too. Poetry never sounded so coldly sublime.  Criticism never sounded so warmly effusive.

6.  A Defense of Poetry—Shelley

Forget all those other defenses. This one has defensive backs who weigh 300 pounds. Romanticsm deserves a soaring document like Shelley’s—the Wordsworth School (O treason!) would clip Shelley’s wings with socialist-tinged pedantry.  Don’t let it.

7.  Philosophy of Composition—Poe

Like all great great criticsm, this document is a shadow created by divine poetry too bright to read. Lurking behind Criticism is the Poem, lurking behind the philosophy of Plato is the poem of Plato, lurking behind the created is the creator, known only in the space between them. Those who indignantly sputter (and they are legion): “B-b-but P-p-poe can’t say that!” reveal themselves as sheep. Poe is damned for being too formalist, too abstract, too mathematical, just as Plato is, when both are, in fact, the most practical critics we have. America’s Classical Restraint is demonstrated for the world by Emerson’s quiet attack on Poe in his famous essay,”The Poet.”

8.  The Sacred Wood—T.S Eliot

Pre-Raphaelite Criticism comes to fruition in this document of High-Church, Harvard-educated, Anglo-American, Arnoldian, anti-Romantic, French Decadent Modernism.  Eliot is the most concentrated and toxic drink of the literature of decay. Rimbaud’s dying Romanticism sickens us after a while with sweet excess; Eliot, however, flatters our institutional pride; Eliot is the devil as the well-dressed, soft-spoken gentleman; Rimbaud’s decadence we can finally keep at arm’s length, but Eliot worms his way into our intelligence; cunningly selective, he is a finishing school for academic slyness, a how-to guide for freezing-out the passionate past with New Criticial hypocrisy.  The undergound streams of Poe and Emerson combined to create a weird Third: a strange specimen of hostile suavity.  Eliot is the pendulum swinging from ‘the sugar of poetry hiding the medicine of learning’  to ‘the medicine of poetry hiding the sugar of learning.’  (The smart ones keep clear of this pendulum entirely.)

9.  Poets In A Landscape—Gilbert Highet

Archaeological criticism—the plain approach to Criticism is exemplified by this sweet evocation of poetry as stories of people in history, in this case, 7 ancient Roman poets. A classical scholar, professor Highet, who translates the poetic examples in this book, was born in Scotland, and was a beloved teacher at Columbia from 1937 to 1972. While his colleagues were exploiting the rise of the Creative Writing business model, or indulging in Nietzchean, Deconstructive, post-Modernist frenzy, professor Highet made an excursion to Italy and wrote this beautiful book, which treats poetry as the result of not only the structure of the Latin elegaic couplet, or the relation of Catullus to Caesar and the woman who broke his heart, but the very surrounding air.

10.  The Burden of the Past and the English Poet—W. Jackson Bate

The document of self-conscious Modernism—by an 18th century expert aware of how belated Romanticsm and Modernism really are. (Beating Harold Bloom’s far less readable Anxiety of Influence to the punch by several years, he made Bloom belated, as well.)  If the modern sensibility is a guilty evasion of the past, if Modernism is nothing but the paranoia of that evasion in the scream of a butterfly, The Burden of the Past is the reasonable antidote to this anxiety.  This little book (a collection of four lectures, in fact)  is so sane and broad in its approach, and unites so many authors and eras in its universal theme, that it will substantially increase anyone’s literary I.Q. in one or two readings.  It’s one of those books in which you’ll feel the need to pick up a highlighter, but it will be useless, because you’ll end up highlighting every line.

SECRET ADVICE TO POETS: DON’T USE METAPHOR

Coleridge.  Does anybody really know what Imagination is?

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, ruined poetry for the ages when he said, “Metaphor is the Soul of Poetry.”

Many in Aristotle’s wake have come to believe that poetry is metaphor.   The deluded are legion who say, for instance, ‘Science tells us what things are, but poetry tells us what things are like.  What things are like is closer to the truth than what things are, because we cannot know what they are.

Accordingly, they say, since Aristotle, the poets (who are metaphorical) have progressed on all levels, while the scientists (who are factual)  have gone backwards.

The fact that scientists get all the credit for the way we live our lives today, and poets get none, is due to bad p.r.   This misunderstanding is about to change, however.  Think-tanks are thinking of ways, even as we speak.

The English Romantic and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge made things even worse when he uttered his famous:

The fancy combines, but the imagination creates.

Coleridge never quite explained how imagination created, but the rise of science must have been fanciful, for chemists, botanists, astronomers, and physicists were combining for all they were worth, and changing the world as they were doing so.

Combining A and B is a lot more interesting than saying A is like B.  So much worse for the poets, then, that the scientists understood this–and the poets did not.

True, the fancy will combine in ways that produce inferior works: a unicorn, for instance, combines horse and horn to create something new; but we all know this combination is not really creation.  In fact, it’s silly.  It’s fancifulThe unicorn is nothing more than a horse with a horn.

What is the imagination, then?

No one—not even Coleridge—has been able to say.  You can take my word for it, or you can spend several years studying the Biographia Literaria.  OK, I see you’re willing to take my word for it.

Poets always do better when they copy the scientists, instead of striking out on their own.   The poet who is ashamed of poetry is usually the one who finds a way to make something scientific of it, and rescue poetry for the sake of knowledge.  We owe a great debt to these timid, shamed, sensitive souls, not for their science, nor their poetry, but for the way they make poetry slightly more respectable.

John Crowe Ransom, poet, New Critic, Modernist, father of the modern academic writing program era, (along with Paul Engle and Allen Tate,) published an essay in 1938 in which this Southern conservative gentleman came to terms with the new poetry.  He called it “pure poetry,” and in this essay (“Poets Without Laurels”) Ransom sounds like a chemist, a scientist making a discovery:

There is yet no general recognition of the possibility that an aesthetic effect may exist by itself, independent of morality or any other useful set of ideas.  But the modern poet is intensely concerned with this possibility, and he has disclaimed social responsibility in order to secure this pure aesthetic effect. He cares nothing, professionally, about morals, or God, or native land.  He has performed a work of dissociation and purified his art.

The traditional poets, according to Ransom, combined morals and charm; they made “virtue delicious.”  He quotes “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” by Wallace Stevens to demonstrate the new order. The modern poets, like Stevens, (and the rest of Ransom’s friends,) do not give a hoot for virtue in poetry.  Now Ransom, the chemist, holds forth:

The union of beauty with goodness and truth has been common enough to be regarded as natural. It is the dissociation which is unnatural and painful. …But when we talk about simple and compound experiences, we are evidently employing a chemical mode of speech to represent something we cannot make out.  …I shall make a tentative argument from the analogy of chemistry.  Lemonade is only a mechanical mixture, not very interesting to chemists.  …Table salt, however is a true chemical compound; a molecule of it is NaCl.  Understanding this, you do not claim to know the taste either of sodium or of chlorine when you say you are acquainted with the taste of salt.
…NaCl is found in the state of nature, where it is much commoner than either of its constituents.  But suppose the chemists decided to have nothing to do with NaCl because of its compoundness, and undertook to extract from it the pure Na and Cl to serve on the table.  …Poets are now under the influence of a perfectly arbitrary theory which I have called Puritanism.  They pursue A, an aesthetic element…and will not permit the presence near it of M, the moral element, because that will produce the lemonade MA, and they do not approve of lemonade.   …Is the old-fashioned poetry a mechanical mixture like lemonade or a chemical compound like table salt?

Lemonade is the result of fancy; NaCl is nature’s imagination.

The best critics are chemists.

Here is Randall Jarrell from his 1942 essay, “The End of the Line,” in which he argues modernism is merely an extentsion of romanticism, and that the vector of violent experimentalism called modernism has been exhausted:

“Romanticism holds in solution contradictory tendencies which, isolated and exaggerated in modernism, look startlingly opposed both  to each other and to the earlier stages of romanticism.”

Jarrell names 13 complex qualities modernism and romanticism share, and metaphor isn’t one of them.  To the new, modern chemists of poetry, metaphor is a quaint anachronism.

Of course, critics like Ransom and Jarrell are only following in the footsteps of the master, the godfather of the New Critics, T.S. Eliot. We quote from “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1920):

“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”

With this statement begins the New Criticism and its science.  To continue from “Tradition and the Individual Talent:”

“He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”

When Eliot asks the poet to comprehend the “obvious fact” of  the “material of art,” he is speaking of “material” as a scientist would.  Again, from “Tradition:”

It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.  I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.  …When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid.  This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected..The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.

All that chemical “mixing” and “combining!”   And look at the famous poem which appeared shortly afterwards:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The shred of platinum is like the forgetful snow: if it caused a reaction, it doesn’t recall.  The platinum remains unaffected; Eliot’s mind prefers stasis; the breeding and mixing of April is painful to the mind of the poet.  But leaving such analysis aside, Ransom and Eliot both agree that imagination combines profoundly; the fancy, less so.  Metaphor is merely the default, background, mixing process.  Metaphor is often pursued by a lower order of poets: the rain is like my tears, the city snowfall is like a white cathedral, etc.  Combining can also be used by the fancy, as in our example above of the unicorn.  We could say the imagination is concerned with: A pluscombines to produce C, not: A is like B.   And it’s true that combination is more vital than metaphor.  But whether a poet is fanciful or imaginative depends on the poet’s skill and the effect intended; it depends on how and what is combined.

Just as Ransom had a master, so Eliot had one.  Eliot’s master was also an American with a European character, and one who wrote famous essays and famous poems.  Eliot emerged as a major talent during this post-WW I period in London when he wrote reviews, or essays that were reviews, penetratingly on: Shakespeare, Dante, Ben Johnson, and Swinburne.

We quote now from the writer who perfected the essay-review in the previous century; this is from his 1845 review of Thomas Hood’s Prose and Verse:

‘Fancy,’ says the author of Aids to Reflection (who aided Reflection to much better purpose in his Genevieve—‘Fancy combines—Imagination creates.’ This was intended, and has been received, as a distinction; but it is a distinction without a difference—without even a difference of degree.  The Fancy as nearly creates as the imagination, and neither at all.  Novel conceptions are merely unusual combinations.  The mind of man can imagine nothing which does not exist:—if it could, it would create not only ideally, but substantially… It may be said—‘We imagine a griffin, yet a griffin does not exist.’  Not the griffin, certainly, but its component parts.  It is no more than a collation of known limbs—features—qualities.  Thus with all which claims to be new—which appears to be a creation of the intellect:—it is a re-soluble into the old.  …What we feel to be fancy, will be found still fanciful, whatever be the theme which engages it.  No subject exalts it into the imagination.  When Moore is termed a fanciful poet, the epithet is precisely applied; he is.  He is fanciful in ‘Lalla Rookh,’ and had he written ‘Inferno,’ there he would have been fanciful still: for not only is he essentially fanciful, but he has no ability to be any thing more, unless at rare intervals…
The fact seems to be that Imagination, Fancy, Fantasy, and Humor, have in common the elements, Combination, and Novelty.  The Imagination is the artist of the four.  From novel arrangements of old forms which present themselves to it, it selects only such as are harmonious…The pure imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined…

And here, from the Thomas Hood review, is the chemistry:

…as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them—or even nothing of the qualities of either.  The range of Imagination is therefore, unlimited.  Its materials extend throughout the Universe.

So is Coleridge’s formula undone.  And, in another review, this one of Hawthorne, Aristotle’s wisdom is overthrown:

In defense of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed,) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said.  Its best appeals are made to the fancy—that is to say, to our sense of adaptation, not of matters proper, but of matters improper for the purpose, of the real with the unreal; having never more of intelligible connection than has something with nothing, never half so much of effective affinity as has the substance for the shadow.

Edgar Poe, from an 1847 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s  Twice Told Tales

 

LATE CAPITALISM AND THE AVANT GARDE

late capitalism.jpg

Modernist and post-modernist avant movements of every stripe present themselves, in one way or another, as authentic, revolutionary attempts to smite late capitalism.

Ron Silliman, the good Leftist, revels in Modernism and Neo-Modernism, with his Leftism seemingly rising out of the very Modernism he celebrates.  Ron’s example, one of thousands, is perfectly normal and unquestioned.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that Modernism and neo-Modernism are the very essence and expression of Late Capitalism.

Capitalism and Modernism share self-indulgent caprice, the wide gap between elites and the many who don’t ‘get it,’ chic vulgarity, market excess and manipulation, control of wealth and taste by the few, and the final proof is that the artists themselves, from Ford Madox Ford to Pound to Eliot, to the Southern Agrarian new critics, were “revolutionaries” of the Right, not the Left—even when some, like William Carlos Williams, paid lip service to the latter.

Perhaps, standing where we are, in the early 21st century, with the true nature of the actual modernists themselves fading away in the mists of delusionary nostalgia, we are too far away from the truth to be aware of the truth.

Randall Jarrell, however, saw it in 1942, and wrote in his essay “The End of the Line:”

“For a long time society and poetry have been developing in the same direction, have been carrying certain tendencies to their limits: how could anyone fail to realize that the excesses of modernist poetry are the necessary concomitants of the excesses of late-capitalist society?  (An example too pure and too absurd even for allegory is Robinson Jeffers, who must prefer a hawk to a man, a stone to a hawk, because of an individualism so exaggerated that it contemptuously rejects affections, obligations, relations of any kind whatsoever, and sets up as a nostalgically awaited goal the war of all against all.  Old Rocky Face, perched on his sea crag, is the last of laissez faire; Free Economic Man at the end of his rope.)  How much the modernist poets disliked their society, and how much they resembled it!”

How well Jarrell puts it; and what he describes is much more than mere left/right politics; I certainly don’t intend this essay to be some cheap political grudge match—where I try and score points for some ideal Leftism; that I point out that the Modernists are far Right and so many of their fans, like Silliman, are far Left, is for mere amusement only; the real issue is much larger than gasbag, contemporary, cafe politics: right now it’s a simple issue of mostly pure ignorance—how ignorance reigns in Letters and what we ought to do about it.

Few know that a key Old Rocky Face supporter was T.S Eliot—which doesn’t make any sense in the way we typically read 20th century letters.   The horrors of the 20th century were, of course, inhuman, and Modernism, as Jarrell saw, was often inhuman.  The mystery of Modernism is difficult to solve, like Poe’s mystery in the Rue Morgue—because of the murderer’s nature.

Centuries hence, Modernist art and poetry will be seen as sick, not great.

Of course, most believe, without realizing it, what Thomas Mann told us: that art is sick, and therefore, yes, poetry like “The Waste Land” is a triumph.

For now.

MAD SCIENTIST MODERNISM AND ITS MONSTER, ROMANTICISM

cat god.jpg

When you make yourself into a god, you always have problems.

The English Romantics were anti-religious egotists.

We got the genius of beauty (Keats and Shelley) but also the quixotic anti-intellectualism of Byron (who bragged from Italy of reading no English magazines), the bucolic bathos of Wordsworth and the goth-pedantry of Coleridge.   (It can be argued that the two friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge, invented both modern and post-modern letters and culture between them.  Throw in Poe to fill in some popular and professional niches, and there you have it.)

English Romanticism was foul and fair, golden-tongued but satanic-milled, a Tory workshop-empire of mercenary, merchant, soldier and mad king, the opium-trading empire America sometimes, in its better moments, defined itself against.

Southey and Coleridge dreamt of going to America to live on a commune like Brook Farm; this noble communist impulse was strong among intellectuals and artists during the Romantic era, both in England and America.

In places like India and China, the people there were on England’ s farm whether they wanted to be, or not.

Randall Jarrell could not have been more wrong in his dyspeptic, “modernism is dead” essay, “The End of the Line” (1942) when he claimed that Modernism was not a counter to Romanticism but an extension of it.   T.S. Eliot was an extension of Shelley?  Er…I don’t think so.  Jarrell was actually giving too much credit to Modernism; Eliot seems increasingly like nothing more than a Victorian with an added drop of the sordid picked up from the 19th century French.

Thomas Mann’s early 20th century trope that the artist was a misfit and art was essentially a symptom of disease is well-known.

Modernism’s rejection (see T.S. Eliot’s essays) of overly emotional and egotistical Romanticism played into the whole notion that the once-revered Romantic artist was a clown, a fop, a seducer, a low-life, a dabbler, an amateur, not only quixotic, and deluded, but even irresponsibly vicious, and worse, a bad-dresser, bad hair, and finally, unwashed.  To Eliot, the Romantics were not in the least respectable.

It’s no surprise Mann and the Modernists were closer to the Nazis than the Communists, especially during the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s before the war.

Influential reactionary Fugitive and Writing Program founder John Crowe Ransom (a friend of Paul Engle’s), who defended the ways of the Old South with “I’ll Take My Stand” (1930), was a suit-and-tie poet who called for a new university professionalism of poetry criticism in his 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.”

The early to mid-20th century Modernist poets were suit-and-tie men.

Harvard-connected Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot were not exceptions because they were poets who wore suits and worked in offices, as many have naively pointed out, they were the rule: the Thomas Mann/Modernist and reactionary professionalism counter to Romanticism’s fevered amateur-ism.

And, it goes without saying, that mad-scientist Post-modernism and its post-war, nutty-professor manifesto-ism, is nothing more than an academic extension of reationary, professional-crackpot Modernism.

The mad scientist (Modernism) descends to the mere nutty professor (Post-modernism).  But all very professional, of course.

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