THE TEXTBOOK WHICH CHANGED IT ALL—UNDERSTANDING POETRY

Yale University Staff - YACOLF19 Understanding Poetry

“The subject is exceedingly simple; one tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine tenths, however, appertain to the mathematics” –The Rationale of Verse- EA Poe

If you are reading this, it is almost a certainty that your ideas on poetry have been directly or indirectly shaped by this book. If you have anything to do with American poetry, this brief essay is about you.

England produced some pretty good poets—Milton, Byron, Keats—at a time when Greek and Latin was the only literature taught in school. It wasn’t until Matthew Arnold’s advocacy in the late 19th century and the publication of the widely used school textbook Understanding Poetry (Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976) in the United States, that anything like contemporary poetry actually entered school rooms. In the wake of this crude, hysterical, pistol-shootin’, Southern boy, bombastic, textbook, the most force-fed canon in the history of Letters since the King James bible, the poetry of Longfellow, Poe, Dunbar and Millay, which the public adored, was chased from the academy forever.

The only “professional” poetry, after the appearance of Understanding Poetry, was poetry stamped with the approval of the textbook’s authors and their friends.

The term, “professional,” as used by CIA funded John Crowe Ransom in his essays on what he termed “Criticism, Inc.” or “Criticism, Ltd.,” published at this time, was not meant to elevate the vocation of poetry in general, but to pave the way for a clique’s attempt to separate themselves out as the only authority.

It is a cliché by now to say that everything is political. I will show that the textbook Understanding Poetry was nothing but an embarrassing, slipshod, power grab by a connected bunch of radical cowboys. Understanding Poetry, a nicely-sewn hardcover from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, is anti-historical, extremely judgmental, and illogical. Nothing about it is actually “professional.”

Understanding Poetry looks at only one poem by Edgar Poe—to mock it.

Here is what it says about “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem: “This poem has been very greatly admired by a large number of people. But it is a bad poem.”

Adelaide Anne Procter—one of only a few women selected for analysis by the authors (the book is at least 95% male)—is treated this way:

Even though the work of Adelaide Procter, who is known now only as the author of “The Lost Chord,” was once greatly admired by Charles Dickens, most modern readers of poetry would find this poem bad. Most readers who admire it probably do so because they approve of the pious sentiment expressed in it. Such readers go to poetry merely to have their own beliefs and feelings flattered…

The authors are anxious to create a schism in poetry.

The “Red Wheel Barrow” (which they unequivocally praise) contains nothing so obvious as a sentiment or an idea—therefore it is now, within the context of the textbook authors’ mandate, safe to like. It is the authors who sniff out a “pious sentiment” in Procter’s poem, “The Pigrims,” which as a poetry textbook subject, deserves to be treated as a poem. Procter’s poem uses a number of literary elements—rhythm, rhyme, imagery, and contrast in a perfectly competent manner. The problem the “professional” authors have with this poem is their problem: as New Critics, they cannot get beyond the simple fact that every poem under the sun will express either some kind of sentiment (which can be summarized or paraphrased) or none at all. The theme of “The Pilgrims” is: Do not despair: others with God-like stature have it worse than you. The textbook authors go on to call Procter’s poem, and anyone who might enjoy it, “stupid” because the poem, according to them, is not fresh or new.

The problem, however, is that the authors are raising the bar impossibly high. Some themes will always be popular. No completely original poem is possible—the imagination does not create; it must use old material. The complete absence of any sentiment or theme whatsoever, like we find in “The Red Wheel Barrow” or “In a Station of the Metro” (this little poem by Pound is lauded as “new and surprising”) is treated by Brooks/Warren as achieving a transcendence of sorts—nothing is preferable to something, due to the New Critics’ hostility to paraphrase. For Brooks/Warren, random imagery sans theme wins them over (especially when produced by a member of their clique) as “new” and “fresh.” Most everything else is cliché or doggerel.

Rhythm gets no close analysis from the authors, even though this element divides poetry from prose; they only express the opinion that too much of it is a bad thing (their reason for condemning “Ulalume”).

The poems they champion are those which are as close as possible to prose—and have no discernible sentiment—thus their keen interest in poems of mayhem and gore treated disinterestedly. The poetry of Poe these critics of poetry reject, while, ironically, embracing the popular trope of Poe’s fiction.

The authors bar most of the poetry canon and replace it with examples written by their friends. The safe filler of the book consists of misplaced canon-material tucked away into chapters in a way that fails to tease out what is most important about them. Poems of metrical excellence are put into chapters on “Tone” and “Descriptive Poems.”

We might conclude that by dismissing Adelaide Procter’s Christian poem, the authors felt too many Christians were reading too many bad Christian poems—one can surely understand this as a legitimate concern; the authors, however, don’t print good Christian poems in the canon by way of comparison; their sincerity extends only as far as scorning “pious sentiment” in a single poem and leaving it at that. Dante, Petrarch, and the entire “Divine Eros” tradition—and all romance, love or religious poetic traditions—are left out of the book altogether.

The question one expects a textbook to ask is: how should a poem best express a sentiment? A poetry textbook shouldn’t be involved in policing or curbing the sentiments themselves—especially those which are world historical and immensely popular. The authors, crusty, secular, and outspoken in the extreme, cannot help themselves. They plead for neutrality, as a matter of principle, but cheer for some sentiments over others throughout the book—and the problem is compounded by their failure to recognize that sentiment manifests itself in a host of unspoken ways. They seem to think poems are able to escape sentiment (which they generally believe is bad) simply by not being overtly sentimental. Thus they think depicting a red wheel barrow is not sentimental—which it horribly is. This particular error in taste infects nearly all of their judgments.

Curiously, they don’t even mention haiku—dare I assume it’s because they’re anxious to champion their friends Pound and Williams and their haiku-like poems, lavished with epithets “fresh” and “new?”

The book as a whole is not only filled with strange hit-and-miss assertions, it reeks of chummy provincialism. The advertising is deeply off—they call their text Understanding Poetry, not, as they should, Understanding the New American Poetry.

In their introduction, the authors, a couple of yahoos from the South (members of a Tennessee gang called the Fugitives, and later the New Critics) quote a Longfellow poem, and in the spirit of Poe, without mentioning the master, fault the Longfellow poem, “A Psalm of Life,” as crudely didactic. These boys, Brooks and Warren, ain’t playin’ around.

“This poem seems to give a great deal of good advice.”

Imagine this said in a bar somewhere in the deep South after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of Massachusetts has taken a seat and is looking around.

“But granting that the advice is good advice, [here Brooks and Warren look at each other and grin] we can still ask [they move closer to Longfellow] whether or not the poem is a good poem.”

After appearing on pg. 8 of this 584 page textbook (third edition) with this one poem, America’s favorite poet, Longfellow, is never seen again.

Edna Millay, Dorothy Parker, and all the women who dominated English and American poetry after Byron, out-selling the men during those decades, never quite appear in Understanding Poetry. Not so, H.D., Pound’s one-time girlfriend—she has two of her poems discussed. The Pound clique is carefully promoted, side by side, with the New Critic circle—the American wing of Pound’s Modernist operation.

“The poet is a man speaking to men.” Wordsworth, a tough son of a bitch who hiked a lot, states the central theme of the book’s introduction.

After the “message-hunting” of Longfellow readers is dismissed, the authors quickly deny the “emotion and sensation” school. The taste of an apple, or a good cry, is better in real life. Poetry can’t compete with these, the authors say. Fair enough, and so far within their introduction the authors are doing okay.

What about “fine sentiments in fine language?” Now we are in the realm of their fellow southerner, Poe. In a word, Beauty. Or as Brooks and Warren put it, “a poem as simply a bundle of melodious word-combinations and pretty pictures.”

The authors straighten their spines and lift up their chins.

No.

Brooks/Warren are sure of that. None of that pretty, elegant stuff.

The authors quote Hamlet: “whips and scorns of time…the law’s delay…To grunt and sweat under a weary life…”

For Brooks and Warren “grunt and sweat” demonstrates that “great” poetry doesn’t need to be pretty or elegant. This proves it.

No doubt the entire passage (Hamlet’s famous To Be or Not To Be speech) taken as a whole, could be called an example of “fine sentiments in fine language,” even if some parts are not absolutely beautiful; certainly the Hamlet speech meets the standard of the sublime—which Poe would gladly substitute for beauty, as would all his Romantic brothers and sisters.

But the authors are adamant: Get the pansies out of here. Poetry ain’t got no part of the ‘greeable and we have shown that to everyone’s satisfaction!

Once they have acquainted their readers with the rude depictions and harsh emotions of “drama” in the hands of Master Grunt & Sweat Will Shakespeare, there is no turning back for these gentlemen from Tennessee. The die is cast. They fire their pistols not only into the ceiling but into the gas lamps—and burn down the tavern. Official Verse Culture is leveled—thanks to Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. A genuine American poetry (something resembling the prose poems of William Carlos Williams and the newspaper clipping rants of Whitman and Pound) will be erected in its place.

Poetry, per the violence of these professors, will do violence to the old order and every sensitive mind.

Brooks/Warren go on to assert: “The relationship of the elements in a poem is what is all important,” a truism, really—a piece of pedantry intended to soften their final conclusion:

Poetry isn’t poetry. According to the authors it’s “drama.” Woo hooo! Damn straight!

The summary to their introduction over the dead bodies of Beauty, Message, and Sensation, in their own words:

“But the fundamental points, namely, that poetry has a basis in common human interests, that the poet is a man speaking to men, and that every poem is at center, a little drama, must not be forgotten at the beginning of any attempt to study poetry.”

Admittedly, at first blush, this does sound pretty sensible. Poetry as dramatic speech. Even Dana Gioia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, and lords Tennyson and Byron might agree.

The “drama” does have much to recommend it; however, the erosion of poetry begins with the assigning of elements to poetry—which exist and can be much better developed or made the object of applause—elsewhere. Can poetry compete with mediums or genres better equipped to envelop audiences in the dramatic—whether it’s videos of street fights on You Tube, popular music, TV, film, or Drama (theater) itself?

The introduction must be judged largely a failure. Yes, it does make sense that one cannot eat a poem like an apple, and a poem should belong to “common human interests” (as opposed to the interests of turtles) and speech does play a large role, obviously, in poetry.

And “drama,” if we stretch out the definition, (recall the authors praise the ‘Red Wheel Barrow’ at some length) can certainly vaguely denote the art.

But why exclude, as the authors do, emotion? Or “fine sentiments in fine language?”

Elsewhere in the book’s introduction, a close reading of Troilus and Cressida—naturally calling on Shakespeare as often as possible to prove their poetry-as-drama thesis—Brooks/Warren write:

“The images of the first five lines, as we have seen, are closely bound together to define a certain attitude.”

Notice how they are precisely imprecise. Defining poetry as “drama,”—and yet eschewing both emotion and what they call “beautiful statement of some high truth,”—they walk an insane tightrope of delicate inference: “images….which define a certain attitude” is how they manage to evade both strong feeling and truth— neither of which, apparently, is allowed.

But “drama” without “fine language or sentiment” is the trope they are going with.

Introducing the first chapter of the book, Narrative Poems, they begin in the following way—and notice the examples they provide:

“We have said that the ‘stuff of poetry’ is not something separate from the ordinary business of living, but itself inheres in that business. We hear someone say that a farm boy has suffered a fatal accident while cutting a block of wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper that a woman has shot her sweetheart; or we remember that there was once an outlaw from Missouri named Jesse James who was killed by treachery.”

Poetry instruction as Texas Chain-Saw Massacre.

Imagine millions of HS and college students introduced to poetry defined this way.

Dante compared poetry to a love letter.

The Understanding Poetry authors want poetry to compete with murder stories in newspapers.

Good luck with that.

They are determined to rid poetry, once and for all, of “fine sentiments and fine language.”

These are some scary New Critic outlaws who have rolled into town!

Robert Frost, fresh with a host of Pulitzer prizes, is all too ready to assist them.

Understanding Poetry, for the first time in Academia, makes the swimming pool safe for living poets, as friends of the authors are welcomed into the canon of their textbook, provided with free towels and bathing suits. Come on in, Wheel Barrow! The water’s fine!

If you are Edward Arlington Robinson, Joyce Kilmer, Edna Millay, Edgar Poe, or any number of classic poets from outside England or New England, careful. There’s sharks.

Frost is a perfect guest: old, respectable, a genuinely good poet, and, most importantly, still alive. Living poets (even if they are mediocre) can now be read next to the dead greats. As long as they are fortunate enough to know the textbook authors. The living Robert Frost was iconic enough to make good cover for this move. Today we take such gambits very much for granted, since “the new” is now the pragmatic norm in poetry studies.

There are 6 Chapters in Understanding Poetry; the first one, as mentioned, is Narrative Poems, (murder ballads, mostly) followed by 2. Descriptive Poems, (the silliest kind of poetry is descriptive—strange this gets its own chapter) 3. Metrics, 4. Tone (this is where Ulalume is savaged), 5. Imagery (another word for Descriptive. By now it feels the chapter categories of Understanding Poetry lack a certain sense), and finally, 6. Theme: Statement and Idea.

The theme of Understanding Poetry itself: real life horror, articulated plainly and without sentiment, steps to the fore in the first chapter—Narrative Poems.

The first poem under observation is Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—” a poem I never wish to read again; the poem concerns a Vermont village boy’s buzz-saw accident in front of his sister as she calls him into supper; the boy dies that night in the hospital; the whole thing is described in a chillingly matter-of-fact manner, for the maximum horror-effect, apparently. Frost was experimenting with something—will simple description heighten the horror of a horrible event? Whether or not it succeeds as a poem, the authors only know it is the one they want to set the tone of their book.

The last four lines of “Out, Out—“, a poem of 35 lines:

No one believed. They listened at his heart.

Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Whatever stoic virtue the poem has doesn’t save it. The poem is a monstrosity; but in their mission to define poetry as whatever lacks feeling, while cultivating general human interest with just the right combination of images, the authors consider this poem pure gold.

After “Out, Out—,” we get a bunch of anonymous murder ballads, in which the authors praise the ballad’s ability to condense a story—as it “shows” instead of “tells,” a great virtue, according to the authors, who forget they have defined poetry as “speech.” Poetry can only “show” by telling—the truism that it is better for poems to “show” is a nullity. To tell ironically is the closest a poem can come to “showing,” which it never actually does. Imagists fall into great error on this point.

The Narrative Poem chapter also includes 3 poems by A.E. Housman—the authors seem to prefer him to Longfellow because Housman is a secular Longfellow; “Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree” is a decent ballad, meeting the authors approval with plenty of tragedy, blood, and stoicism. “Hell Gate” by Housman has nothing to recommend it; the story is muddled and its music uninspired. The authors write, “We feel immediately that we are not dealing with salvation in the Christian sense.” Perhaps this is why they selected this mediocre poem? The third Housman poem, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” is praised because the authors recommend its cynical message (every soldier only fights for “pay;”). Longfellow is not allowed to articulate a theme, but apparently Housman is.

I’m not sure why the authors don’t include Poe’s ballad “Ulalume” in the “ballad” chapter; they confine themselves almost entirely to anonymous ballads, and when they briefly discuss “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” at the end of the chapter, they make the mistake of saying that Keats is “using the pretense of ballad simplicity,” as they assume that here we have a “modern poem” pretending to be an authentic ballad. Keats died in 1822. When do the authors think “Frankie and Johnny” was composed? The very essence of the subject seems to elude them.

A naval engagement from “Song of Myself” is the soaring highlight of Chapter One. There’s not much of a story told, but the authors enthuse over seemingly irrelevant “details,” and the following makes them especially happy:

“The hiss of the surgeon’s knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw,/Wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood, short wild scream, and long, dull, tapering groan…”

In the Afterwards to Chapter One the authors admit they have a problem:

“Indeed, it is not easy, except in regard to the use of verse, to make an absolute distinction between poetry and prose fiction.”

Poetry, they say, has “concentration,” “sharpness of selected detail,” “appeal to the imagination” and “intensity.”

These are too vague to mean very much.

What can be going through the minds of the students forced to read this textbook?

Chapter Two, Descriptive Poems, begins with an assault on a chestnut by Robert Browning, as the authors continue their scorched earth policy against “Official Verse Culture.” Actually, they do make an interesting observation: “mood” and “thought” are often the same. Whether Browning brought the authors into a temporary state of sanity, it is not certain. In the last comment on the Browning, the authors write: one critic felt this poem sucks. Do you agree? It’s OK. Browning will survive.

The Descriptive Poems chapter (Two) is a nod, after the “ballads” chapter (One) to poetry as a rather simple art form—resembling fiction, just more condensed.

Language does not interest our authors, nor aesthetics, nor the Socratic, nor epistemology, nor philosophies of composition, nor fancy v imagination, nor cultural or social content, nor anything beyond things like:

“A lively sense of the perceptible world with its sights, sounds, and smells, is fundamental to poetry.”

Chapter Two devolves into poems about the seasons; Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, and T.S. Eliot (“The Preludes”) go to kindergarten. Along the way, a couple of H.D. poems, Pound’s petals on a bough poem (lovingly discussed) and the following poem (quoted in full) by James Stephens, “The Main-Deep:”

The long rolling,
Steady-pouring,
Deep-trenched
Green billow;

The wide-topped,
Unbroken,
Green-glacid,
Slow-sliding,

Cold-flushing,
On—on—on—
Chill-rushing,
Hush-hushing,

Hush-hushing…

This poem fills the authors with wonder. They discuss it at length, quoting approvingly the line “Hush-hushing.” They consider the poem splendid—and write solemnly on it. The author was a close friend of Joyce.

By the time we reach page 119 and chapter 3 Metrics, it is no surprise that Brooks/Warren embrace T.S. Eliot’s strange assertion that prose scans—and therefore poetry and rhythmical language really don’t have much to do with each other.

“What is poetry?” we might ask at this point.

The authors only know what it is not. It is not iambic pentameter. The following, they say, is iambic pentameter, and this is not poetry:

A Mr. Wilkerson, a clergyman.

This pretty much sums up the metrics lesson of Chapter Three.

I’d like to end this look at Understanding Poetry with their take on Metrics, because I think their attitude towards formalism is where they do the most damage, but I’ll sum up Chapters Four, Five, and Six, first.

Chapter Four, “Tone,” is the chapter where we find things by E.E. Cummings and the textbook’s comedic poems (Ogden Nash); and this is where “Ulalume” is treated comically and slaughtered. After “Ulalume” is killed off, the authors reprint “Luke Havergal” by Edwin Arlington Robinson and “Voices” by Walter de La Mare with little comment, implying these two poems are failures as well, mostly because of their exaggerated rhythm, and then, accompanied by a great deal of earnest laudation, Brooks/Warren offer their colleague Jonh Crowe Ransom’s poem, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” a poem which revels in a child’s death—describing her in its final (rhyming with “stopped”) line: “Lying so primly propped.”

The next poem is “After the Burial” by James Russell Lowell (the 19th century is generally not favored by the authors). The end of Lowell’s poem:

That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.

Here’s what the authors say about Lowell’s poem: “Many readers have found this poem disturbing. They find it disturbing because, on one hand, they know that it was written as the expression of a deep personal grief, and on the other hand, they think it is a bad poem.”

Chapter Five (Imagery) is where they put Tennyson, Hart Crane, Marvell, Donne, Auden, and Dickinson—who seems to be the only woman poet the authors can stomach, besides H.D. and Marianne Moore—she was included in the final “Poems for Study” section—no commentary)—two women belonging to Pound’s clique.

Chapter Six—“Theme: Statement and Idea” features still another poem by Housman, George Meredith, Donne, and finishes up with heavy-hitters: 3 well-known poems by Frost, Gray’s “Elegy,” Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Blake’s “London,” Emerson’s “Brahma,” “The Force That Through the Green Fuse” by Dylan Thomas, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” (with a long, respectful, discussion), Melville, Jarrell, Yeats (and a long discussion), “Shine, Perishing Republic,” by Robinson Jeffers, “The Return” by John Peale Bishop (similar in theme to the Jeffers—no patriotic songs or poems in this book!) and finally “Kubla Kahn,” “Lycidas,” and “Nightingale” (a long discussion) and “Urn” by Keats.

Our New Critic authors do select some powerhouses of “Official Verse Culture,” (necessary if their textbook is to have any weight at all) but it’s clear their intention is to destroy it—by their omissions, their commentary, and the careful organization of their themed chapters. All in all, a very clever hit job. The book also had to make their friends, such as Ezra Pound, WC Williams, and John Crowe Ransom, very happy, indeed.

On page 151, a single line by the otherwise excluded Millay, in a onomatopoeia discussion in the Metrics chapter, is mocked by John Crowe Ransom. This must have given the boys in the office a good chuckle.

Millay’s line: “Comfort, softer than the feathers of its breast.”

Ransom: “Crumpets for the foster-fathers of the brats.”

The first purpose of Understanding Poetry is to prove the authors’ paramount notion—poetry is 95% prose meaning and 5% poetic effect. An interesting idea—like saying a person missing a face is still a person.

Their higher purpose seems to be to replace poetry of the working and middle classes and esteemed by professorial verse-expertise and inspired by a love of verse in general, with the “new” poetry written by their friends. This intent is perhaps more difficult to prove—though it coincides with the first purpose above—and reading this book, what is one to think?

“The Blindness of Samson” by Milton is quoted—the metrical variation of iambic and trochee in the first five lines is pointed out—but I still can’t help but laugh at the ‘buried alive’ (in blindness) theme—the authors, throughout the book, in their poetry selections, are uncommonly fixated on macabre fiction strategies of Poe—even as they reject Poe, the poet.

Brooks/Warren, in the Metrics chapter, fully quote another Milton poem, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont,” featuring “martyred blood” and “Mother and infant” tossed from cliffs—pointing out this poem has “precisely the same rhyme scheme” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”

Really? One has to wonder: are the authors critics or sadists?

They don’t discuss stanza forms—the pinnacle of verse mastery. They do, at least, because it is such a popular trope—thanks to poets like Shelley, Poe, and Alexander Pope—pay some attention to “sound and sense,” but why they feel compelled to compare a famous love poem with a massacre poem simply due to a similar rhyme scheme is just bizarre.

There is more torture of sorts when they discuss the metrics of Milton and Barrett in the following manner:

“To sum up, we may say that the relation of rhetorical pauses to the line pauses of a stanza provides a principle of vital vibration analogous to that provided by the relation of rhetorical accent to metrical accent.”

Got that?

There are different kinds of pauses.

Actually, no. Verse contains only one kind of pause. Speakers, yes, can interpret pauses as wildly as they choose—but this does not alter the verse as written.

“Vital vibration” sounds like something which might inspire the daft Charles Olson and the whole nutty avant school, which hears things in the ether– poetry to neither you nor I, but to them alone.

“After Long Silence” by Yeats (a rare modern who could pull off verse—Auden and Larkin the youngest poets who fit that mold) is reprinted, followed by two difficult sonnets of Shakespeare, Hardy, Ben Johnson,Cowper, Hopkins—not the greatest examples of metrical excellence, frankly, especially for a student exposed to the blurry pedagogy of the authors, but this is all in preparation, no doubt, for the final act of the Metrics chapter: a lengthy commentary on two free verse poems by William Carlos Williams. “By the road to the contagious hospital” and “The Red Wheel Barrow,” including a revisit of “Pear Tree” by H.D.

The authors’ conclusion is that “free verse” is, indeed “verse”—in every sense of the word.

Need I say more?

Thomas Graves, Salem MA

THE POEM DEFINED

George Dillon (poet) - Wikipedia
George Dillon was an editor of Poetry magazine in the 30s.

There is something about poetry which eludes definition—and therefore attracts the thoughtful person satisfied to reside in an unfinished state (Keats called this Negative Capability).

The poet’s problem is that nothing gets done; paths are persistently followed to nowhere. But the type embodies a virtue—patience in crossing the desert of thought.

If one refuses to find an answer on purpose, however, the virtue of patience is replaced by pathology; a path to nowhere becomes the whole reality.

The poet can’t earn a living from poetry directly but still makes this either the goal (often by artificial means) or the source of so much resentment that self-pity confines poetry to its noteworthy problem: a trail leading nowhere.

To be wrong about poetry is not the same thing as being in a state of negative capability about it. If one has all sorts of unrealistic expectations about poetry (why can’t I earn a living from it? It’s as important as religion, isn’t it? If I’m a poet it means I’m really special, doesn’t it?) these very expectations will prevent us from seeing what the poem—just the poem—is.

When I recently put together an overview of 100 years of the American Pulitzer prize, I discovered a few poets from the 1920s who didn’t, or couldn’t, ride the Modernist train—roaring with great but obscure purpose into the future towards the “new” (the new and the future were the same, it turned out) and roaring along to some of those elaborate expectations mentioned above which tend to confuse the public (who do things for a purpose) and setting off an apologetic fury in Modernist critics (Randall Jarrell crying, “Shakespeare is confusing, too!”).

One of the poems from the 1920s I discovered was by George Dillon (Edna Millay’s boyfriend) and I found myself forced to defend it against those who had embraced the New—and all its significant expectations. I had no idea how I was going to defend this forgotten, old-fashioned lyric of George Dillon’s, since I merely liked its rhyme and I was sure a defense of it would never please a sophisticated Modernist far advanced into all that was complex, ironic and new.

Almost absent-mindedly I thought about George’s poem (a short, simple lyric) and then it dawned on me: this neglected bauble (covered in post-war dust) was a little more sophisticated than I had first thought.

Allow me to trace how I came to this conclusion.

William Logan (enamored of High Modernism, not old, girly lyricism) had told me quickly in passing he wished the poet “Jimmy Merrill” had more “grit” (I had ranked Merrill near the top) and this threw me into reflecting on what I thought were poetry’s ideal qualities and I quickly formulated a reply in my mind to William: In poetry I want beauty and maybe philosophy; grit is more a quality which can be found in other places.

I always thought it was wrong to think poetry contained everything—this was simply no way to define something. I refused to believe “grit” belonged in poetry.

Then I thought: (it is important to critique oneself) philosophy doesn’t really belong in poetry, either—poetry isn’t philosophy.

But I knew poetry had a thoughtful aspect. Poetry doesn’t need to be “gritty.” The most popular poems, (the good ones?) however, tend to be mildly reflective.

I settled on irony. Beauty and irony, I thought might define poetry. Then I smiled and thought “beauty” is difficult to define when it comes to words.

The irony (I thought ironically) is that beauty (perhaps) won’t define poetry, either. A rose is beautiful, but words? How are words beautiful?

Maybe irony is all poetry is.

Poetry (principled receptacle of anything) contains nothing, but is a continual deferment (ah Negative Capability again).

In terms of taste, I found a certain beauty (pleasantness?) in Dillon’s poem because of its nice (skillfull? tactile? sensual? real?) rhymes (largely unnecessary to the Moderns).

Irony, however, has an intellectual complexity—and in a flash I saw, far apart from its beauty or rhyme, Dillon’s poem was strongly and explicitly ironic—now I was off to the races.

“Beauty Intolerable” posits that beauty (what we like) is more intolerable to us than death (what we revile and fear).

The poem submits completely to a startling or contradictory idea—irony defines Georgie’s poem.

The work of the poet is this. How does he invoke the “beauty” which he likes? How does he give the poem a body, and make it more than just an ironic statement?

A body has certain dimensions; by creating a rhythm of a certain duration (following certain rules of rhetoric and the lyric) the poet creates that body for us. The flesh of poetry is its metrics.

Leaving the body aside for a moment, two things which Dillon does establishes him in my eyes (as I scrutinize the poem) as a student of those simple, yet profound rules of poetic composition elaborated in a bygone day, based, roughly, on the aesthetics of the time-honored, ancient Greeks.

The two principles followed both involve limits.

Beauty cannot be experienced in its purest form; the poet George Dillon understands we are limited by how beauty appears to us: pure, ideal “beauty” (accepted by the “Romantic” or rejected by the “Modernist”) will not do.

Combination (in this case, and alluded to briefly yet starkly, flame combined with snow) is the clear means by which the poet presents the beauty which moves him. We know excellence only through the combining faculty—we cannot know excellence mystically or ideally. The poet must take care to never present the essence without identifying the parts which, as parts, identify themselves as such per the whole poem.

The combining faculty—and the necessity of identifiable parts—is the first principle.

The second limiting principle, even more strongly manifest in this particular poem, is the Effect principle: the poem (a thing of words) is highly limited in its ability to describe extreme situations or visions.

Rather than childish attempts to describe directly the thing, the poet preferably describes his limited and human reaction to the thing.

The cause of whatever is existentially important is beyond us; only through the effect can the essential thing, the essential beauty, the essential urgency, be glimpsed.

Rather than attempt to describe the beauty (a hopeless task of non-sensual, non-gritty words) the poet presents his visible reaction (for all poetry is a reaction to the ineffable) which we have no trouble seeing and understanding, since the thing, by nature of its extreme importance (why we attempt the poem in the first place) is naturally far beyond us—all poetry traffics in extremes, ideals, hopeless situations, since the extreme of what the poem tries to do defines the poem, not anything in the poem itself.

George Dillon describes a series of bodily shocks which we can easily identify with as mortals (the necessary “realism” within the excessive world of beauty) and this effect remains the “visible” aspect which fills out the poem’s irony.

Unlike a story, the lyric does not end with some specific incident; the music of its lyricism ends it, together with the expression of the irony—subordinate, in this case, to the action of sensual love being like death. (The lyric poet can certainly add story-like elements if he so chooses, as long as he remembers to make them subordinate to the lyric effort as a whole.)

It is the limited nature of the lyric (fashioned by principles based on limitation) which gives the lyric “Beauty Intolerable” its focused, laser-like, quality.

The limiting principles were abandoned by the Modernists, but irony was not.

Note the irony of the “Red Wheel Barrow” (also from the 1920s) “So much depends…” on merely “mundane” objects; we see the expression of the irony, but the Modernists forgot the other limiting principles, as well as the one which requires a measured duration of metrics or rhythm for the poem to have real flesh.

The Modernists flew too close to the sun—they thought they could manifest the thing (the Image) by simply presenting the thing, which had an added effect of taking them away from the ineffable and the human, as they fell in love with thing-ism and all that is literal (political poems, non-ironic didactic poems, poems which think out loud, as well as poems of pure description and imagery).

“Beauty Intolerable” also features two other Romantic tropes surrendered by the Modernists—the Urgency principle (poems by nature deal with extremes of vision and feeling) and the Human principle (poems by nature are made of observable human thought and behavior).

Romance is the most popular trope in all of literature (followed closely by the supernatural topic of religion) because the Extreme and the Human combine to give us, so often, the romantic. This is for reasons based on principle, not squishyness or sentimentality.

The Modernists, highly thoughtful in their rejection of romance and sentimentality, nevertheless, in their embrace of “things” or hard “images”—and even while the best of them kept and fostered all-important irony—unfortunately neglected old, underlying principles, to their general estrangement and despair.

This, too, and now we quote the poem, (which we recommend speaking aloud) features despair, but of a much different kind:

Beauty Intolerable

Finding her body woven
As if of flame and snow,
I thought: however often
My pulses cease to go,
Whipped by whatever pain
Age or disease appoint,
I shall not be again
So jarred in every joint,
So mute, amazed and taut,
And winded of my breath,

Beauty being at my throat
More savagely than death.

We quote this lovely work, not because it is a great poem but for the many principles it contains.

If a reader does not believe what this poem is expressing, the poem will certainly fail for that reader, but this failure would still not be a rebuke of anything I have said.

~~~~~

IN FEAR OF DOGGEREL

We recently attended a poetry reading in Harvard Square and we had the great pleasure to hear the world’s greatest living poet, Ben Mazer, read his magnificent poem, “An After Dinner Sleep,” a poem of about 350 lines which closes his new book, The Glass Piano.  It was a cinematic experience, the sort of poem in which you get comfortable, close your eyes, and listen in a state half-way between sleep and waking.

If cinematic poetry doesn’t start a renaissance in poetry, nothing will.

Here’s the thing: and we might as well begin with Keats’ phrase: “fine excess.”  We all know that poetry is known for concision, and this is all well and good, but we must say, we fear this idea, once having got its nose in the tent, now occupies the whole of it, crowding out everything else.

For, as the wretched Pound pointed out—and many, many writers before him—prose, as much as poetry, should not waste words; poetry has no special hold on concision.

We do not mean, “If you have nothing to say, shut up.” No, if you have nothing to say, you are probably the poet we want to hear from.  But this is neither here nor there. We are speaking from a purely technical standpoint.

To say poetry is concise is like saying painting is concise—well, of course it is; it belongs to its frame, not the world. But if this truism took root, the pinnacle of art would be the fifteen-second sketch. Notwithstanding the infinite charm of the master creating a world with a few strokes, we think it time for poetry to throw off the burden of having to say little. Once and for all, let us declare that to be concise is not necessarily to be poetic.  Poe, who said, “a long poem doesn’t exist,” also said a small one doesn’t exist either: there must be sufficient pressure on the wax to create the impression.

Without having to specify length, what this means is, the poet, and the artist in general—for art has suffered from Modernist theories as much as poetry—should use all the tools in the tool box—and why not?  The thing we don’t like about abstract painting is not abstract painting; it is the fact that we once had the pleasure of pictorial representation and all the interest of color which abstract painters revel in.  The thing we don’t like about cartooning, or the vague sketch, or the Red Wheel Barrow, is not the principle which these uphold, that suggestion is perhaps the most important thing in art there is—it is.  But too much reliance on suggestion is suggestive no more.  The paltry is finally not poetic.

This essay comes to damn the poet who goes in fear of doggerel, the poet who plays it safe, who hides behind the “experimental,” a code word for “this is not what I really can do, as an artist, I’m just thinking out loud here, don’t mind me, but if you find something that’s clever here, well, I’ll take a compliment or two, why not?”

Fear of the tight rope turns into the earth-bound, fake bravery of the “avant-garde.” Clowning around on the piano and never getting down to playing a real piece has profited many a hack since 1900.

To be cinematic in poetry is difficult, for one is firmly in that temporal mode perfected by Homer and Tennyson with the added pictorial heft.  The purely discursive, or the obscure, will not do.  Cinematic poetry requires the whole art, which does not eschew the discursive or the suggestive, or any of the other tricks of the poet, by any means—no, but it requires them all.

Poetry, like the film, has motion as its medium; it pitches forward, and does so, like film, with all sorts of markers, pauses, ends, flashbacks, jump cuts, call them what you will—but you get the idea.

Every one of these temporal tricks is enhanced by meter and rhyme.

This is not some moral or bitter argument against the “avant-garde;” again, we are speaking purely from a technical point of view.

To make the poetry that does the most, that is whole and cinematic: meter and rhyme simply help drive that engine. To go in fear of the doggerel is a fear we must abandon.

The poems which win both the popular and the critical taste are cinematic poems; we love them like films, and the truly literate know they are better than films: Prufrock, Kubla Khan, The Raven, The Cloud. But we live in times of horror, in which an appreciation of classical music and great painting and beautiful poetry is fading; there are millions, even fairly intelligent and somewhat nice people—or those who can pass as such—too thick and dense to appreciate beauty in the arts. This is the greatest tragedy of our age, a violence against beautiful feelings which points to more material suffering in the future.

(Scarriet, in the last 5 years of its existence, has produced thousands of lines of original poetry, and so what if half, if 60% is doggerel? We don’t care. For what has been achieved, it is more than worth it.)

We do not recommend Mazer lightly, nor is our argument here to be taken lightly.

It may save poetry.

And everyone’s life.

 

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