THE POETRY COMMUNITY LOSES ITS MIND

Over the weekend, thanks to Reb Livingston, we became aware of a brewing scandal in the poetry community.

Scarriet feels compelled to respond to the ‘anonymous sexual abuse outing document found in AWP restroom controversy,’ not because we have any special interest in it, per se, but because we believe the scandal currently poisoning po-biz manifests aesthetic attitudes of significant pedagogical importance.

Scarriet is a boutique—a high-end, up-scale, boutique, of what might be called expensive, high-fashion poetry and poetry criticism; we produce clothing and accessories for the soul, and we make no apologies for the beauty, love, truth, good taste and wit that we produce; and nor do we apologize for appealing to an elite class of soul (which has nothing to do with advanced college degrees or any of the credentialing nonsense that characterizes the pyramid scheme of so-called “professional” poetry, with its animal grunting and network stroking). We take poetry seriously, and don’t come around here with that ‘pyramid’ nonsense please. Our readers generally know, and do not.

This controversy has nothing to do with us, of course, because we are free of the odor of po-biz, and merely roll around in poetry. But this scandal affects us because it impacts how the world sees and practices poetry.

Scarriet is a high-end boutique precisely because we live the poetry, and can respond to a controversy like this without passion or self-interest.

Our position is this: poetry, some time around the beginning of the 20th century, was, in a series of adroit political and pedagogical maneuvers by Modernist poets, wealthy individuals, and government officials, coaxed away from its public role and public use to become a playground of pretense and experiment (all in the name of public and pedagogical improvement more accurately reflecting real life, etc).  Seducing poetry away from what it had been turned out to be wildly successful, since the seduction had a democratic appeal: obscure, fragmentary prose became the ‘poet’ standard anyone could reach, and, at the same time, one could ‘learnedly be modern’ and reject the ‘fussily moral’ past. (‘Could’ is not quite accurate; one did—the two necessarily went hand in hand.)

It is important to note here that “what poetry had been” is more accurately what poetry is-–as shown with poetry—by the best poets of the past. Shakespeare set a high standard, Poe set a high standard, Keats and Shelley and Tennyson set a high standard, Whitman and Wordsworth and Barrett set a high standard, not in the sense that professors are required to make us understand their poetry—the standard is a real one, in which accessible music joins accessible rhetoric in a highly skilled manner, clearly conveying things which the public is interested in: chiefly, relations between the sexes; moral philosophy; good taste; refinement; interest in nature and science; philosophical wit; wisdom, fears, loves and hopes common to all.

This high standard—which gave pleasure to a reading public, also took its inevitable place in the schools with the rise of universal public education.

Modernism piggy-backed into the schools as it managed to standardize itself there, and, gradually replacing the ‘old’ poetry with the “Red Wheel Barrow” and “The Waste Land,” used the force of its school-validation in combination with the rise of the Creative Writing Industry (Iowa, Paul Engle and his friends, the highly government-and-think tank connected New Critics, including Robert Lowell) as poet-teachers increasingly joined the piggy-back phenomenon in an orgy of self-interest that cut out the old standards and left no room for Byron. Poetry was no longer a public enjoyment—it was something only professors could teach, and as poetry became more experimental, inaccessible and obscure, the self-interested professor became more prominent in what became essentially a pyramid scheme of teachers/wacko explainers on the inside, and everybody else (including the public) on the outside.

Which brings us back to the scandal: an ugly manifestation of the ugly things which naturally occur whenever favors replace standards.

We don’t need to take sides here; we only need to point out—as we have just done—in the simplest manner possible, a truth, which, despite the brevity, we are certain everyone immediately understands (remember when poetry was like this?).

The accusers, in the current scandal, are accused of slandering the innocent (slander: 1. an important trope in Shakespeare, 2. used to destroy the reputation of America’s great standard-bearer, Edgar Poe).

The truth has yet to come to light. Accusations themselves can murk up the light on their own. We do not know the truth and do not speak of it, obviously. The rage of the accusers does not equal the truth; but their rage could be based on a truth; we are not taking sides. As we pointed out earlier, we have the luxury of not taking sides, since we stay clear of all po-biz insanity, and care for poetry alone.

The accusers open their letter (following a list of the accused names of the men) with a profundity which needs saying and which we agree with:

It has finally come to the attention of the literary “community” that women are abused and experience gendered violence just like women in all other social spheres of the world. The humanities do not save us, the assumed “humaneness” of the poet or writer does not exist. We say “community” in scare quotes because we have no shared actual commonality or trust that forms the bedrock of self-identified communities.

Yes. Poets and poetry need no special protection or defense, and it’s the Modernist (and contemporary) poets and their fans who play this ‘poet immunity’ card the most, even as they trash the reputations of a Poe or a Shelley. The accusers are right to expose this douchebaggery. And no more hiding behind “community,” either, which is code for the Creative Writing Era favoritism douchebaggery which has cynically steamrolled the standards of old.

But the accusers don’t get it entirely right, and come close to spoiling everything, for they go on to summarize:

This is a statement against the straight male cisgender patriarchy that enables this behavior: not only bringing direct harm to women, but those who have knowingly stayed silent while your fellow writers abuse people in positions of lesser power.

So we are to believe that gay men and women cannot, and do not, abuse women? How can one be interested in justice—and be so utterly naive?

The accusers, in their wrath, are strangely divided—they expose douchebaggery and yet they are victims of it, in almost equal amounts.

The reason for this is simple, as well. Since poetry has lost its public, there has been an increasing attempt in some circles to make poetry relevant to a public again by making poetry (poetry!) simply about hot button, political issues. But there are things like the essay which already exist for this. Here, again, we see the whole thing unfolding simply and naturally, due to the original Modernist error.

And now we bring our notice to a close, secure that Scarriet is the only sane, up-scale island left in poetry today. We are happy. We are  proud.

 

 

THE SCARRIET 2011 FINAL FOUR

Poetic reputation: do we want to know how the sausage gets made?

Last year, the Scarriet Final Four, using David Lehman’s Best American Poetry volumes 1988 through 2009, was “That’s Not Butter” by Reb Livingston, “Composed Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey” by Billy Collins, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, and “The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite” by William Kulik.

This year, using Berg and Vogelsang’s American Poetry Review’s anthology, The Body Electric, we got “Aubade” by Philip Larkin, “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, “Eileen’s Vision” by Eileen Myles, and “What They Wanted” by Stephen Dunn.  How the Brit Larkin slipped in, we’re not sure, but he was included in the APR, and won his games fair and square to advance to the Final Four.  Creedon, Dunn, and Myles are not exactly household words.

Last week Jeopardy! had an American Poetry category: Ogden Nash, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Allen Ginsberg were the five answers: Stevens‘ most famous poem, “The Emperor of Icecream,” drew a blank, as did Ginsberg and Hughes; only Frost and Nash were recognized by one of the three Jeopardy! contestants.

As we have watched a field of 64 get reduced to four, and then one, for two years now, we wonder if Scarriet’s March Madness Tourney is the only such competition in the world.

There are many who sneer at poetry and competition.  But look, when a poet wins a major prize today, when a poet wins recognition, should we really be so naive or hypocritical in convincing ourselves that the renown of someone like John Ashbery is not the result of poems and poets competing against each other?

And if not, what the hell is it?

What pushes someone like Ashbery to the top?

I ask this, because to win a March Madness Tournament, you have to have a poem entered that’s good enough to beat other poems, in match-up after match-up, and I don’t know that Ashbery has one poem that has that ‘breakthrough’ quality to win against “litany” by Carolyn Creedon, for instance.  Ashbery’s poems all read like clever jokes, and such poems don’t tend to win against the really accomplished poem of poignancy and beauty. I doubt an Ashbery poem could go very far in a March Madness Tournament, under the scrutiny of refs and rabid fans.

Ashbery defeated O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poetry Prize—one judge, Auden, played his own “March Madness Tournament,” after smoking a few hundred cigarettes, and Ashbery won that Tournament.   From a just issued review:

Wasley’s book [The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene, Princeton U. Press] vividly catalogues Auden’s social connections, friendships and influence among East Coast, Ivy League-educated, formal, emerging poets. Ginsberg and Ashbery wrote college essays on Auden; the pre-Ted Hughes Sylvia Plath adored Auden’s “burlap-textured voice”. We’re taken to parties and table talk, and to theatres where Auden explains a play’s reference to the entire mezzanine: “Shelley, my dears!” Still, must we learn who drilled the peephole to the toilet? Who looked?

This lineage study is redolent of smoking-jacket, anecdote and club. Auden dislikes the Yale Younger Poets submissions; he asks Ashbery and Frank O’Hara for manuscripts (or Chester Kallman, Auden’s lover, does); Ashbery’s poems are selected. Nowadays, if a public university manages its competitions this way, it will be exposed and condemned (as in the case of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series). Nearly everyone – poets, critics, even Wasley’s back-cover blurbers – is from the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Princeton.

Did you catch that?  Both Ashbery (Harvard) and Ginsberg (Columbia) wrote Ivy League college essays on Auden.

Iowa wasn’t the only place where the U.S. Poetry Workshop formula was being pushed in the 1940s; Allen Tate, one of the leading figures in the Anglo-American Modernist Clique—which got its ultimate marching orders from Pound and Eliot—started the ball rolling at Princeton, and Auden was Eliot’s chosen trans-Atlantic successor.

Maybe Chester Kallman ran into Frank O’Hara, or John Ashbery, or Allen Ginsberg in a men’s room, and the rest is history?

Anyway, the point is, there’s always going to be competition—winners and losers—and to pretend this is not the situation, is silly.  To pretend ignorance only make the “winning” that much more dubious, and perhaps, unfair.

Note, also, how the work of Foetry.com (which exposed the U.GA Poetry Series when Alan Cordle caught Bin Ramke cheating) is now part of the normal poetry dialogue these days.  We hope you caught that, too.

Everyone in their hearts knows there are winners and losers in poetry; the question is, do we have the courage to make the process as transparent as possible?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCARRIET

From Infant to All-Too-Human: Scarriet’s First Year

Could any living creature survive the dynamic changes wrought by and upon Scarriet in its first year of existence?  We doubt it. And yet Scarriet IS a living creature, its blood and viscera made up of its manifold contributors and admirers, a roster that runs the gamut from the illustrious to the notorious, from Billy Collins down (or is it up? Let the Muse judgeth!) to horatiox. Its spark of life, however, its animating spirit, is its poetry, ranging from ABBA to Zukofsky. There is room for all, for as the children of the ‘50s were all Mouseketeers, so all those who are childlike in spirit in the noughties and tennies are all Scarrieteers. The blog is named Scarriet for a reason — no prim Harriet reciting in a stuffy drawing room, but rather a rushing birth of blood, placental fluid, and, within the mass of sodden tissue, life itself. The wail issues out of said mass: Scarriet liveth. Liveth in the offices, supermarkets, alleys, and few remaining factories, in blue jeans or ties, democratic without being demotic, and aristocratic only in matters of the spirit. Heroines most welcome, even nigh deified; heroin disdained as a soul-killing crutch. A manifesto? Let it be so, and let it be burnt.

Cut to the present: the same infant now grown to full immaturity, eager to sift and build upon the ruins of worlds past. And how much built after one short year!  A year of tumult, that witnessed the phenomenal success of March Madness, an expansive merriment that served as nothing less than a lightning rod for the poetry world. Sparks flew, sweat poured, backboards were shattered, and, in keeping with Scarriet’s primal origins, blood flowed — and out of the agony and ecstasy came a greater realization of the role poetry continues to “play” in our contemporary world(s). Scarriet’s world(s). Not all were happy, as not all can ever be, save in that Paradise in which the mass of men once put great hope. A founder of Scarriet, Christopher Woodman, departed from the masthead. The pain was felt keenly amongst those who treasure the art of poetry and discriminating criticism of same, especially with regard to the lyric bards. His voice is still heard on occasion, and his posts still extant — but as the balladeer Carly Simon has sang, “I know nothing stays the same/but if you’re willing to play the game/it’s coming around again.” And so it is. And so it always shall. Selah.

More on March Madness, for this was a threshold for Scarriet, a crossing of the Rubicon, and like all momentous undertakings, was not without peril or controversy. Was the event, which ran coeval with the NCAA basketball finals, closer in spirit to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia or FDR’s invasion of Europe?  The debate continues to rage in precincts where strong drink and stronger poetry are freely indulged. Did Scarriet lose its soul during March Madness, or did it gain it, and the world as well? Was it a “Faustian bargain” or just “fargin’ boasting”? Numbers don’t tell a whole story, certainly, but they can instruct when viewed in a spirit of equanimity and in the proper light. And Scarriet’s numbers soared during the March festivities. But was quality sacrificed to attain popular success? We doubt it, for March Madness was met with approval ranging from guarded to raucous from world-class poets such as Alan Shapiro, Lewis Buzbee, Stephen Dunn, Janet Bowdan, Reb Livingston, William Kulik, Billy Collins, Bernard Welt, Robert Pinsky and Brad Leithauser. No visit from Sharon Olds, but then she didn’t make the Sweet Sixteen.

So the numbers were there, along with approval by world class, nay, heaven class poets — where was to be found the always present snake in the garden?  Why, where it always lurks, in our hearts, in the hearts of all who draw breath. And yet the snake was tamped down for those precious moments in which great poetry was shared and exalted and glorified — not placed into a glass case for bored schoolchildren to parade past, but ricocheted off a glass backboard and hurled recklessly down a parquet floor as poets strutted their most glorious moves in all their testostrogen-fueled glory. A celebration of fertility over futility. Of passion over pedantry.

Of poetry over prose.

Happy Birthday, Scarriet.

It’s been one hell of a year.

THE ROAD ENDS HERE: BILLY COLLINS V. WILLIAM KULIK, REB LIVINGSTON V. JANET BOWDAN

Live from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts:

The distinguished Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Committee  delivers its Laurel Leaf Prize to the Best American Poetry poets who successfully traveled the road to the Final Four.

Janet Bowdan, Billy Collins, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, this high honor has no other attachments but recognition of your service to poetry, to glory, and to song.  You four began with your obscure births a journey to this moment.

In the presence of our judges, your families, your friends, Garrison Keillor, and these poets who love you, on this day, April 3, 2010, I present to each of you the Scarriet Laurel Leaf Prize.

(Applause)

All four poems feature lucid movement through a dramatic landscape, a sleek impressionism, an original beauty, a fluid design, a combined emotive and cognitive power, and clues to life, as well.

The final Order of the Poems:

4.  The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite –William Kulik

3. The Year –Janet Bowdan

2. That’s Not Butter  –Reb Livingston

1. Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  –Billy Collins

Thanks to all participants in this year’s Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness.

A final farewell to the No. 1 seeds in the tournament: Galway Kinnell (East), Louis Simpson (North), Sharon Olds (West), and Donald Justice (South).

We hope you all enjoyed the excitement during the road to the Final Four, and learned more about all these poets.

64 excellent poems, chosen from 1,500 Best American Poetry selections 1988—2009, were selected to the tournament itself and Kulik, Bowdan, Livingston and Collins were the top four.

Congratulations!

FINAL FOUR: BOWDAN, COLLINS, KULIK, LIVINGSTON!

Fantastic_FourHead.jpg

The philosopher Benjamin Paul Blood (1832-1918) wrote the following to William James:

“Philosophy is past.  It was the long endeavor to logicize what we can only realize practically or in immediate experience.”

The experiment of March Madness has been interesting.  We have examined whether or not poetry, like the philosophy portrayed in Blood’s essay, “Pluriverse: An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism,” can be known best if we become profoundly self-conscious as poets and readers in a group dynamics medium in which immediate experience and practicality are pushed to their limits within that context.

20,000 fans, spilling soda and popcorn, screaming at the top of their lungs in response to a contest between, let’s say, “The Year” by Janet Bowdan, a 16th seed! and “Sunday, Tarzan In His Hammock” by Lewis Buzbee, upset winner over Mary Oliver’s fifth seeded “Flare” in first round play in the West Bracket, experienced the poem in such an intense manner—however the partisanship might have expressed itself—that the delight based on the pure excitement itself propeled the imaginative response—which has always relied on a certain suspension of disbelief—to new heights, in which the suspension of disbelief was simultaneously extended and dismantled by the crowd.

The vision of this collective consciousness, at once critical, reflective and wholly reactive, is not meant to be defined here as a definitive vision, nor should the results of these contests fill anyone with either joy or dismay.  Combatants, were these none.  The riotous fans have been, and were, you and I; once a mob, now a critic, once weeping and hollering, now holding steadily the iron pen.  Let the tattooing begin.

How shall we describe Janet Bowdan’s “The Year?”  How shall we describe her victory?  How shall we describe the young fan, who, in a fit of ecstacy, nearly fell from the top of the stadium upon the heads of the throng below, this young worshiper of this terrible and haunting poem?  How to describe the look of Buzbee in defeat, Tarzan and Jane beside him, the barely comprehending Cheetah on Tarzan’s shoulder, looking wildly around?

We sought out Bowdan for an interview, but she was gone.  The crowd had carried her away.

Earlier, at the crack of dawn, with a youngish Wordsworth showered and shaved, Billy Collins advanced to the center of our beloved March Madness court, the polished wood of the court gleaming, the clever concession stands spread around, and dominated Stephen Dunn, making sure he couldn’t breathe for a second.  “John Donne, eh?  Are you done?’  The voice of the haughty no. 2 seed in the East resounded for eons after Dunn’s poem was read.  We have to go back years before we find a game that was like this, or, find any game.  The gods were, of course, anxious.  Rules, there were none.  The fans were not silent for a moment.  The rooting was astonishing.

Bernard Welt’s “I stopped writing poetry…” plied poetry long into the evening, almost as if to send Reb Livingston away, but she stood her guard, unblinking.  Some fans in the second half had a revelation and got the brilliance of Welt’s trope: the reasons he gave for not writing poetry were actually powerful incentives to write poetry, and this was the fuel of the poem itself, but the commotion in the second balcony as Livingston was shooting her free-throws was lost on the broadcasters—they  ignored it, thinking it was just the crowd being a crowd, a 190 line poem being a 190 line poem, and fans on the floor only saw it in separate parts.  Some Welt fans ran outside, but it was too late.  Livingston was stoic as Welt’s voltage melted.

William Kulik dazzled with a ferocity not seen yet in the tournament and Margaret Atwood froze with a searching look.  Kulik started to tick tick tick as soon as the contest started, the moss covered walls closed in, and no matter how hard Atwood looked, the drama of Kulik continued to drown.

“Bored” is sure of itself, as Atwood is; she was tranformed by Kulik into what went sadly down into the shadows.

The crowd implored those shadows.

Don’t trust crowds, they say.

We trusted this one.

Tom, this is Marla Muse, down at courtside…the crowd has seen four thrillers and they want more…this is how poetry should be…I’m being lifted by this crowd and that’s how I like it…I’m looking for my little notebook….have you seen it?

No, Marla, I haven’t.

ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR: ANALYSIS

So I’m here with Marla Muse, once again, as we are about to begin play that will bring us closer to crowning a Best American Poetry Champion in 2010.

Marla, could it be a Canadian?

It could.  Magaret Atwood’s poem from Richard Howard’s 1995 volume, “Bored.”  Atwood broke Franz Wright’s heart in triple-overtime in Sweet Sixteen.  We won’t soon forget that one!

No, we won’t.   Atwood goes against William Kulik in the North final.

What does Billy Collins have to do to advance against Stephen Dunn?  Dunn, if you remember won his game in the last second against Robert Pinsky.  Meanwhile, Collins rolled over Harry Mathews with a swarming defense as “Composed Over Three Miles From Tintern Abbey” proved too much for “Histoire” to handle.

Tom, I think Billy has to get it to Wordsworth.  That’s the guy who has taken him this far. And the lambs have to bound, Tom, the lambs really have to bound.

They’ve been bounding and bounding well.  How about the two American women left in the tournament…not well known…but they’re very tough…

They are…Reb Livingston in the South final will be facing Bernard Welt…who is nervous, we’ve already seen that…and Janet Bowdan will be defending her chance to go to the Final Four in the West against Lewis “Buzz” Buzbee, who, in contrast to Welt, seems very relaxed.

Tarzan has brought his hammock to the West bracket final…

And Jane and Cheetah, of course…

Bowdan’s poem is lovely, isn’t it?

Yes, Tom, Bowdan’s poem is from Rita Dove’s 2000 volume.   Bowdan could go all the way.

We can feel the tension in the air here as the poets and publishers pour into the arena for these four contests.  I’ve never felt such excitement, really, since Athens, and those playwrighting contests, when I was just a young girl…

Marla Muse, you don’t look a day over 2,000!

Thanks, Tom!

AND WE’RE DOWN TO EIGHT…THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY’S ELITE EIGHT

Ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Welcome poets, judges, and all you fans!

(Wild cheers)

The Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Road To The Final Four Tournament has been a whopping success.

(Applause)

Just as a play-within-a-play charms us within the context of the play precisely by a ratio of two to one, so the best of ‘the best’ cannot help but double the enjoyment of any who would enter into the spirit of climbing to the top—of what isn’t there.  Of course there’s no best.  Of course there’s no God.  But that is why our belief is so fanatical.

(Scattered clapping, hoots and hollers.)

Margaret Atwood, Janet Bowdan, Lewis Buzbee, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, and Bernard Welt…

(Terrific applause…standing ovation…)

…have climbed to the top of a mountain, a mountain as real…

(continued applause)

…as anything contained in the 1,500 poems published in the Best American Poetry’s 21 year existence.

(Mad cheering)

This is not to slight the reality of those poems…including the poems themselves which made it to the Elite Eight…

(clapping, foot stomping…)

but we all know that to write poetry is to translate doubtful thoughts on doubtful objects into a doubtful product for those who doubt, so that…

(Hoots and hollers)

…we might deliciously doubt our own doubts on what is so deliciously doubtful.

(Applause)

What could be more real than that?

(Laughter)

And now may I present to you the expert on Good Poems…

Here’s Garrison Keillor!

(Applause)

Ahem. Thank you.  You know, with all the excitement around Best American Poetry March Madness, I’m tempted to say sports is more poetical than poetry…

(Laughter, cheers)

Who thought the Muse looked like… Howard Cosell?

(Laughter)

Well, John Ashbery is out of the tournament.  He’s become the audience.  He’s becomes his admirers.  There you are…Hi, John!  You dominated BAP.  How can you be out of this tournament? Knocked out in the first round, right?   What happened?  (Pause for comic effect…)

(Laughter)

[Audience member:  “Nathan Whiting!”]

Oh, yes…14th seed.   The dog poem.  Nathan Whiting turned John Ashbery into a stag.

(Laughter)

And think of the poets who didn’t make the tournament.  August Kleinzahler?  Where is he?

(Nervous Laughter)

Ron Silliman?  Is he here?   Where is the School of…Noise?

(Groans, Laughter)

Charles Bernstein?  The School of Language.  Try to give us something more than objectivity and cleverness, fellas…

(Nervous laughter)

All kidding aside, I have a B.A. in English, so what do I know?   And not from Harvard, either.  The University of Minnesota.

(isolated cheer or two)

There’s a Golden Gopher.   That has a poetic ring to it, doesn’t it?  Golden Gopher.  Could anyone write a poem on that?   Ode to a Golden Gopher?  It would sound too strange…words are funny, aren’t they?  That’s the challenge of poetry, isn’t it?   To make words behave.   Golden Gopher ought to sound poetic, but once we hold it aloft…once we think on it…the whole thing sounds…

(Laughter)

Let’s have a great round of applause for the Scarriet Best American Poetry Elite Eight!

(Applause, Cheers)

Congratulations, Scarriet!  You’re getting more hits than ever.  You are now the 46,793rd most popular poetry website!

(Laughter)

Scarriet will never be the heroin of poetry appreciation.  Poems are not  appreciated on Scarriet so much as thrown off a building to see if they will fly.

To those who are still alive in the tournament, you’ve earned it.

Congratulatons!

KOCH ME IF YOU CAN: REB LIVINGSTON TRIES FOR ELITE EIGHT

“A Time Zone” by Kenneth Koch begins with a quote from Apollinaire, which we won’t look at, because first, it’s in French, and secondly, the French have never understood poetry as competition; they understand it as wine or as a pancake.

LivingstonReb Livingston.  Sigh.  Does she have a chance?  Marla?

She does.

It’s the semi-final in the South Bracket. OK, let’s get right to it.  The Koch poem is a little self-indulgent and at times boring and David Lehman’s interested in the New York School so you know why this poem got in there but here it is in Sweet 16 do I really like this poem I don’t know I do love the ending, though:

De Kooning’s landscapy woman is full of double-exposure perfections
Bob Goodnough is making some small flat red corrections
Jane is concentrating she’s frowning she has a look of happy distress
She’s painting her own portrait in a long-sleeved dark pink dress
I’m excited I’m writing at my typewriter it doesn’t make too much sense

What about this, Marla?  Too patchy, name-droppy and cut-out, too satisfied with its snapshot surfaces?

Tom, Kenneth Koch is unfortunate for one thing.   His name is… Kenneth.  Imagine if he had a name like John…or Frank.  He’d be huge.  He’d be unstoppable.  You can’t top that “long-sleeved dark pink dress.”  I know.  I’ve been a Muse for a long time…  Koch’s poem is witty, smart, fun…

Fun?  Did you just call a poem fun?

I’VE BEEN A MUSE TO THE STARS FOR TWO MILLENNIA.

Sorry, Marla.

Here’s another clip of Koch and his “A Time Zone:”

At a John Cage concert there’s hardly a sound
It’s the paradise of music lost and music found
I find it pure and great as if a great big flash of light were going off underground
Satie and Webern are hitting me in the head and so finally with The Cantos is Ezra Pound
Frank and I are writing very long poems

Reb Livingston looks very nervous.  “That’s Not Butter,” according to Reb, is “loosely based on Little Black Sambo, a once-popular children’s story no longer taught due to its offensive racial characterizations. Few people my age are familiar with the story or its history, although my kindergarten teacher read it to our class. As young children oblivious to British imperialism, we loved the tale because to us it was about pancakes and a little boy who outsmarted tigers.”

“Long poems” v. a story in kindergarten.  Marla, does Livingston really have a chance?

The Muse has a tender heart, Tom.  Livingston has a certain look in her eye.  Uhhh…Kenneth’s clothes are slightly unkempt.  Uhhh…anything can happen.

The opening 6 lines of “That’s Not Butter:”

Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.
No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.
The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,
mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.

Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,
like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese, and church bazaars.

Here is world of “divorce” and Chuck E. Cheese.  We all know this world: crass, yet plastic and efficient.  Unpoetic.

“That’s Not Butter” is a twist on Lewis Carroll: Alice (and her young companions) are as nasty as the Red Queen, while animal citizens of this Wonderland are normal, sane, and helpful.  Livingston shows modern children as menacing rather than innocent, but “That’s Not Butter” is more than just an anti-Rousseauian treatise.  The poet is not saying childhood is lost, so much as it is here, with a vengeance.  Capitalism’s efficiency produces a host of superficial choices and turns adults into egotistical children.  By using “Little Black Sambo” as sub-text, Livingston does two interesting things.  First, she contrasts the Victorian tale’s “beautiful little red coats” and “beautiful little blue trousers” with clothes “purchased at Sears, mass produced.”  Secondly, she sidesteps the famous racial controversy of that tale, focusing instead on “gangsta” kids in a Benneton universe of diversity and scheming opportunity.  Livingston’s social commentary is funny, spot on, and brutally honest.  Koch’s “A Time Zone” seems almost quaint by comparison.

Reb Livingston’s poem closes as follows:

“Can we smoke that?” inquired Little Speckled Sarah.
“I don’t think so, but I bet we could cook with it,” said Little Freckled Furman.
So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers
and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.

When the mothers saw the melted butter, they were pleased!
“Now we’ll all have pancakes for supper!” and the whole family
sat around a huge big plate of most lovely
pancakes, yellow and brown as little tigers.  The mothers each ate
twenty-seven pancakes, the fathers came over and each ate fifty-five,
and the children each ate a hundred and sixty-nine
because they were so hungry.

So Reb Livingston steps into a lot of themes.  Koch passes to Jane who throws it inside to Rivers back outside to Ashbery who broods with it near mid-court, then chuckles and passes to O’Hara who drives hard, puts it up, off the rim, rebound Koch…Koch to Ballanchine to Freilicher, too many players on the court, whistle.  Reb has the ball, to a tiger, another tiger, back to Reb, a pass to Little Taupe Tabitha, who smirks, then laughs, and puts it up…GOOD!  What’s this?  It’s over?  I don’t belive it!  Livingston wins!  Livingston wins!   It’s official!  Reb Livingston is in the Elite Eight!

Marla?…when you get a chance…Marla, are you there…?…show the people at  home the whole poem…the fans are going crazy!….we’re getting mobbed here…!  Help…! 

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