THE SANE FACE OF INSANITY: THE INSANE SCHOOL OF POETRY, PART II

Robert Lowell: ‘I’m a Poem!’ versus ‘I’m a Lowell!’

The worst sort of insanity, as we all know, is insanity that wears a suit and puts on a sane, reasonable face—and wins over the public.  This is the worst insanity of all.

The New Critics were a perfect example, in poetry, of insanity masking itself as sanity, with an impotent philosophical approach; New Criticism was well-received precisely because it was impotent; it finally meant nothing even as it said a lot; New Criticism was flighty and malleable—which is the worst thing a good philosophy should be.

The New Critics made pronouncements that were nothing but truisms, such as: the proof of poetic worth is in the poem, not in the poet’s biography, not in the poet’s intent, and not in any perceived emotional impact on the reader, and these led to critical debates as to which part in the signifying chain should we look at, after all, and back and forth, and blah blah blah.  It wasn’t an argument or a philosophy that finally mattered; it was merely arguing for its own sake that mattered; the critical faculty was replaced by distractions: hair-splitting by academic suits.

The philosophy which defines poetic worth, a noble enterprise in any age, was replaced by revolutionaries of the will whose agenda was simple: explode poetic worth in the name of a sly, personal ambition.

This is why Robert Lowell,  whose claim to fame was that he was a Lowell, adorned himself with the “only the poem matters” New Critics, from the moment his shrink (Merrill Moore, one of the Fugitive/New Critics!) sent him to Vanderbilt to study with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate.

The New Critical Sybil was all Vanderbilt men, Rhodes scholars, initially self-published in their short-lived magazine, The Fugitive, briefly Far Right Southern Agrarians, Writing Program Era founders (one of the Fugitive group awarded Iowa’s Paul Engle his Yale Younger prize) textbook authors, and respectable, suit-wearing supporters of Ezra Pound’s bearded, swear-fest revolution, abetted by the Anglican version of the New Critics, tweedy T.S. Eliot, follower of insane, but primly dressed, Jules Laforgue.

Warren and Brooks’ Understanding Poetry, the successful New Critics’ textbook, blanketing high schools and colleges in multiple editions from the 1930s to the 1970s,  singled out for high praise two poems of insignificant worth, two mediocre Western imitations of haiku, Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow” and Pound’s “At A Station At the Metro,” while punishing “Ulalume” by Poe in a vicious send-up by creepy Aldous Huxley.  There is nothing more hateful to insanity than to see itself transformed into measured art.  Insanity prefers, in every instance, to be itself: nonsensical, unfinished, random, ego-ravaged, mean.   If we understand how it all goes down, it makes perfect sense that Williams and Pound, privileged members of Allen Tate’s cabal, were honored in a textbook for poems best characterized under the heading, drivel, by the “only the poem matters” New Critics.  We can hear Williams’ howls of protest—I do not abide these right-wing formalists!—as he is honored (the Dial prize, for instance) by his friends.

The test is: are you afraid of the well-made poem, or not?

We all know the protests:

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem is too much like a song!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem makes me feel too self-conscious!

Bu-bu-bu the well-made poem isn’t the language of real speech!

The protests—we’ve heard them for a hundred years—are by now well-known, and the dirty little secret, of course, is this: failures to write a well-made poem have been turned into virtues by the suits of Modernism’s haiku, finger-painting, “revolution.”

It is important to distinguish the insane poet from insane poetry.   We made a brief list, merely to amuse ourselves, in our “Insane School of Poetry” post, of sane and insane poets—and we do feel that Philip Larkin, in his poetry, is sanely, in good faith, attempting to communicate with us, while John Ashbery, in his poetry, is insanely not communicating with us, but again, this all happens, finally, in the poetry, as a matter of course, and even the insane have lucid moments, and the sane write millions of insane poems every day, and when we say something is “insanely good,” we do mean it is very, very good.

The insane poet, the Blake who saw visions, the (falsely accused) drunken Poe, the psychotically deranged Rimbaud, the stoned and smirking Ginsberg, the McLean mental hospital patient Lowell, Plath or Sexton—all these biographical issues should not distract the critic.  Let us, as the reviled by the New Critics’ Edgar Poe did, patiently and honestly review the well-made poem.

The insanity of the Robert Lowell is a subtle thing.  Forget the electroshock therapy sessions, the manic episodes. We can see it in a Paris Review interview in 1961.

The 25 year-old Frederick Seidel, who was graduating from Harvard when Lowell was stuck in McLean’s, was the interviewer. (A year later, Lowell awarded Seidel a prize for his first book, a prize rescinded by the sponsors, who deemed Seidel’s book anti-Semitic. Lowell resigned in protest.)

Seidel sets the scene back in that year of 1961: “On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound…on another wall…James Russell Lowell looked down…where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.”

As he talks to young Seidel under the big picture of Pound, Lowell sounds eminently sane.

What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course…called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction.

No surprise Lowell taught the New Critics.  But who would have a large picture of Ezra Pound in their study?

Robert Lowell, that’s who.  Here, in this interview, is Lowell on Pound:

[Pound] had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Is this ‘head in the sand’ denial, or what?  Pound was a criminal, but he was “eccentric and impractical,” so let’s excuse him.  He “had no political effect whatsoever.”  Whatsoever?  Really?  It sounds like Lowell is protesting too much.  Yet, here from the lips of Robert Lowell, is the literary establishment view of Pound: “terrible beliefs,” but they “made him more human,” “more to do with the times,” “they “served him,” “gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry.” Modernism operates like a daily rag: if you are “more to do with the times,” you are golden.

The distinguished Robert Lowell’s message is:

Stick to the poetry, which, because of Pound’s realism, merits a Bollingen Prize (which I awarded him).  Ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Get it?  Focus on (the poetry’s) “realism.”  Yet ignore the “terrible beliefs.”

Here’s the insanity in a nutshell: Modern art and poetry (such as Pound’s) because of its “realism,” exists in a realm apart and cannot be judged by the standards of—”realism!”

When “realism” is a very important thing, why then should the art of poetic form interest you?   Lowell’s opinion of Pound, the man, cannot help but influence Lowell’s aesthetics.

…I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms.  If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, [in the 50s, Lowell of the 40s was more of a formalist--ed.] a good number of the poems were started in a very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

The poem, “Commander Lowell,” is where Lowell takes potshots at his dad’s personal life.  Lowell puts his finger on why prose eclipsed poetry: “That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of the sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, ‘I’m a poem.’”  Lowell’s writing became more “raw” and less “cooked” (even as he was being “cooked” at McLean hospital) as he grew older (“disrespect for tight forms”) and Lowell’s transition was aped by the country, in the grip of the Writing Program Era, as the 20th century advanced. The horror of “I’m a poem” became more and more acute.

And the interview continues:

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

Yes.

If Lowell’s subject matter demanded a prose handling, why didn’t Lowell just write prose?  Why did Lowell make his personal issue with “tight forms” into an aesthetic decree?  Lowell’s Creative Writing students, such as Plath, (and the country in general) were excited by the taboo subjects explored by Lowell’s “confessional” manner.  But “confessing” is a funny way to teach writing.  It seems to come back to the “realism” of Pound, doesn’t it?  And again, we see the contradiction of the New Critics, and how their “The poem is what matters” was a kind of shield for Lowell, and a clever way to advance poetry into a truly psychotic realm.

First, with the help of the New Critics, establish that “the Poem” exists as a pure, separate (and sacred) thing, understood only by (Writing) professors.  Second, with the help of Robert Lowell, the New Critics’ Frankenstein monster, make “realism” and “confessing” and “telling personal secrets” really important.  What’s this going to do to poetry?  Think about it for a minute.  Combine these two elements and you will get poetry that is prosy, arrogant, difficult, tortured, and self-indulgent.  Bingo.  That’s exactly what happened.  True, “Howl” (1956) had already happened.  Lowell was following as much as leading, but the point remains the same.

John Dewey’s “experience” finally triumphs over everything.  The term “experience”—which can mean anything and everything—finally steamrolls over art.  Lowell was the perfect messenger for this madness.  Sane, yet mad himself, successful, up to a point, in writing formal poetry, but gradually going over to the other side, mentored by the New Critics, a famous superstar professor in the new Creative Writing Program era spreading across the country, Lowell was at the center of the whole ugly experiment.  Listen how sane the ‘seesawing’ Lowell sounds, asking for a  “breakthrough back into life,” a meaningless, hollow appeal:

I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say of Salinger or Saul Bellow. …I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

In Life Studies Part III, Lowell writes odes to four mentors: Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, George Santayana, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford worked for the War Propaganda Office during World War One; Ford met Pound off the boat when the latter traveled to England to make a name for himself in poetry, and Ford later joined the New Critics in America to start the Creative Writing Program Era—with Robert Lowell’s help. Santayana taught T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens at Harvard.  Lowell, with Life Studies, is clearly positioning himself within the High Modernist pedigree.

A pedigree of mediocre poetry turning off the public, madness, and cunning personal ambition.

TWO BATTLES IN THE NORTH: FROST V. CAMPION, CATULLUS V. RIMBAUD!

Rimbaud: Goes Against Catullus in Round One

Robert Frost is the no. 2 seed in the North—right behind Goethe’s no. 1 seed, ‘The Holy Longing,” the Romantic tour de force by the German titan.  The famous Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is much beloved for its scenic beauty (yes, a few poems in just a few words manage that feat) with its clean, practical longing: “miles to go before I sleep.”

But look at this lesser-known poem, no. 15 “‘Follow Thy Fair Sun” by Thomas Campion, a 16th century poem which does battle against a 20th century one: a classic pre-Romantic versus post-Romantic battle, brought to you by Scarriet’s March Madness:

Follow thy fair sun, unhappy shadow,
Though thou be black as night
And she made all of light,
Yet follow thy fair sun unhappy shadow.

Follow her whose light thy light depriveth,
Though here thou liv’st disgraced,
And she in heaven is placed,
Yet follow her whose light the world reviveth.

Follow those pure beams whose beauty burneth,
That so have scorched thee,
As thou still black must be,
Till Her kind beams thy black to brightness turneth.

Follow her while yet her glory shineth,
There comes a luckless night,
That will dim all her light,
And this the black unhappy shade divineth.

Follow still since so thy fates ordained,
The Sun must have his shade,
Till both at once do fade,
The Sun still proved, the shadow still disdained.

The trope is extremely simple: light and shade (“The Sun must have his shade”) with metaphysical, moral, romantic and metaphorical aspects attending its arc.  The whole thing is lovely to behold, even if every last nuance is not quite understood.

The advantage the Frost has is “Stopping by Woods” shows, where “Follow Thy Fair Sun” tells.  All great art, they say, shows rather than tells.  Yet the Campion tells with such charm!

In our second match-up today, the no. 3 seed “Lesbia, Let’s Live Only For Love” by the Roman poet Catullus contends with “Lines” by the decadent, 19th century French poet, Rimbaud.  If Catullus is Romanticism’s passionate root, Rimbaud is perhaps its rotten fruit.

The translation of Catullus is a Scarriet original, published for the first time on Scarriet:

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me a thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, a thousand, a hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

Old poems can get right to the point in a manner that today would feel too embarrassing.  This is because invention demands ever more novelty, ever more variety and nuance, and the more contemporary must feed this requirement more, even if it means we  never get straight to the point again.

The Rimbaud, written nearly two thousand years later, writhes in its nuances for the acute sensitivity of a jaded reader:

When the world is no more than a lone dark wood before our four astonished eyes—a beach for two faithful children–a musical house for our bright liking—I will find you.
Even if only one old man remains, peaceful and beautiful, steeped in “unbelievable luxury”—I’ll be at your feet.
Even if I create all of your memories—even if I know how to control you—I’ll suffocate you.

When we are strong—who retreats? When happy, who feels ridiculous? When cruel, what could be done with us?
Dress up, dance, laugh. —I could never toss Love out the window.

My consumption, my beggar, my monstrous girl! You care so little about these miserable women, their schemes—my discomfort. Seize us with your unearthly voice! Your voice: the only antidote to this vile despair.

We can get lost in the Rimbaud, a truly ‘modern’ poem: it does not march in a simple structure from A to B.  Rimbaud’s ‘art’ is looser, but that looseness allows so much to be added!  Yet since poetry is a temporal art, even loose poems have a beginning (A) and an end (B).  We have to think Rimbaud is concluding with “voice” for a reason—the “voice” that saves us, the “voice” that is “unearthly” does not care for “schemes;” it is the expression of something unplanned, indifferent and apart.  Heated and loose, the Rimbaud finally seeks a cold expression.

The Catullus really has a similar attitude: honest, crass, and heated as it ultimately loses itself in the coldness of mathematics.  Rimbaud and Catullus are as similar as two peas in a pod, separated by two thousand years.

Frost and Catullus advance.

Frost 67 Campion 58

Catullus 60 Rimbaud 59

THREE NEW POEMS BY THE SCARRIET EDITORS

TRANS-LA-TION

Translation is Alchemy in reverse:
O! Magic truth! She makes every poem worse.
Turning French gold into English lead—
Hypocrite! Write your own poems instead.
Easier to catch Dian than trap a French rhyme;
Babble mocks you from above—and behind.
You look silly in Rimbaud’s pants.
Don’t dance for us, when you cannot hear the dance.

SONNET

The yellow night, which began to feel sick
In the afternoon, reveals a tiny midnight moon
Because I didn’t close the curtain,
Who is pouring silver light like a laser beam
Adding guilt to the other layers of my dream.
The tears on the back of her powdery neck
Symbolize INDIFFERENCE.  Holy cow.
I am lucky to have thick curtains
To draw across my mind so that in my dreams
I almost believe nature is kind.
How can the long rows of corn, the grass,
Be unkind? Are you kidding?  To a poet?
Once I fell in love with the first line, I fell in love with all, that was it.
Help me, God,  my schoolmates snicker at me
Because I love my mother passionately.

MORTE

Have the young students been taught
The size of the universe?
The styrofoam ball that was Jupiter
Sits in a cup in the kitchen,
The project rolling languidly through the house.
Now trillions of stars appear
As the children trail to bed,
The nodding-off of the youngest
A wink in serpentine skies.
(Getting ready for school is such a chore!)
Summer clouds evaporating before a dry wind
Symbolize a pact I have with God,
Picturing myself reasonable and Christian,
Entertaining the size of galaxy after galaxy,
The unimaginable length of our world,
Not to mention the philosophical questions
Of infinity and existence in repetition,
And how we dream of the end, this end.
A motorcycle in the distance buzzes.
I get up to turn off the light.
The middle child, up in her room, with her mother,
Is about to ask the terrible question.

ASHBERY TRANSLATES RIMBAUD. YAWN.

Lydia Davis.  A failure to illuminate.

So a cushy, middle-class American academic, John Ashbery, with a sense of humor so dry it crumbles, has translated a 19th century French teenager, Rimbaud, whose poetic sensibility was largely shaped by a missing father—a situation exploited by a nasty relationship with an older French Symbolist poet, Verlaine. 

Well, isn’t that swell?

Ashbery might be summed up like this:

Moe:  Say…that’s no poem!

Curly:  Sure it is!  It rhymes, don’t it?

Larry:  But poems don’t have to rhyme no more!

Curly(with Moe): Yea!

Moe (with Curly): Yea!

Curly (exchanging a look with Moe):  Huh?

Moe (exchanging a look with Curly):  Huh?

Larry:  Huh?

Moe:  Wait a minute…what did you just say?

Curly:  He said poems don’t have to rhyme no more, and you agreed!

Moe:  I did, did I?

Larry: Fellas, here comes John Ashbery!  Scram!

Lydia Davis has given us a slavishly perfunctory ‘two-thumbs-up’ “review” of Ashbery’s review of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and Blog Harriet’s reaction is “Wow.”

True Criticism continues to die, killing literature for good, and all Blog Harriet can do is approve with girlish glee.

A true critic can see what’s going on: Lydia Davis, once married to Paul Auster,  is trying to be the Gertrude Stein of the 21st century, with that fictional style two parts laudanum and one part tedium, which wows  undergraduates who have a lot of creative urges, but don’t know how to write a proper sentence.

Lydia Davis’ fiction sells about as well as Ashbery’s poetry: not well at all, and there’s a real danger that as the years pass, they will simply be forgotten.

But riches and fame are possible if one translates a timeless work—even if knowledge of the author, time and language is spotty. There’s always plenty of English translations to consult, after all.  Tweak an existing text and voila! a “translation.”

Lydia Davis—esteemed translator of some Proust and Bovary— in her Times review, has not even one suggestion regarding Ashbery’s translation: it’s perfect, according to Davis.   The nuanced French of RimbaudAll that nuance bodily moved from one entire, vastly different language to another!  And Davis agrees with Ashbery down to the last sentence, the last article, the last punctuation mark!

Memo to Ashbery: you owe her one.

One suck-up review for man, two reputations made for mankind.

The editors of Blog Harriet, in triplicate swoon (Rimbaud, Ashbery, and Davis) practically speechless themselves, eagerly quoted the following to prove the genius of all three.  Note the sheer audacity of Davis’ suck-up:

In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions — or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.

Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.

It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.

This is what Davis selects to prove Ashbery’s translating genius?  “Of no interest” for sans intérêt? 

Is she kidding?

And let’s just randomly insert “echos of the King James” into—Rimbaud!  Shall we?

And I’m so anxious to read Rimbaud for “hued” and “clad.”  That “mildy archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” is just what Rimbaud needs!

Did Ashbery manage to slip in any references to Popeye?

Lydia Davis, in her Times review gives the standard “lice-infested” gloss on Rimbaud, the standard: ‘a ruffian, good golly, but boy, what a genius!’

Rimbaud is, well, cool.  But the hipsters, in their worship of his gin-soaked, hyperbolic poetry, tend to leave out the uncomfortable facts: Rimbaud, the Catholic, Latin-learned, strictly-brought-up boy with a soldier father who left him for good when he was 6 years-old, pitifully looking for a father-figure, was essentially kidnapped and raped at 17 by the woman-and-child-abusing, murderous, grotesque scumbag, Paul Verlaine.  We hear a lot about Verlaine “the Symbolist” (that over-used term) but little about the actual sickening human being, Rimbaud. As for Rimbaud’s France, it was shaped, among other things, by another scumbag, the aggressive, Opium War, Empire-building, Napoleon III.

Baudelaire, Poe’s translator, a generation earlier, had already done Rimbaud; Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” pretty much sums up the whole thrust of Rimbaud, except with Rimbaud we add in a lot of joyous, colorful, bad taste.

But John Ashbery has translated Rimbaud’s garish French into “mildly archaic” English, and Lydia Davis and the New York Times approves!  Hurray!

IS THE REAL MUSE DAME HISTORY?

Surely the greatest obstacle facing the poet is the sad duality of sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates creeping beneath the loud behemoths of brain-dead entertainment.

This duality exists only because we all feel it to be true, and by “we,” I refer to the sub-cultures of impotent sophisticates who would be the only ones reading this now—but even you who read this, guiltily spend much of your time with ‘brain-dead entertainment;’ so the duality to which I refer is knowable in its entirety at once, not only by you, but by everyone who wakes in the dark with hopes and fears, after the loud behemoth of brain-dead entertainment has faded—and mouse, owl or the muttering of some human wretch left on the street, is all that is left to impress the quiet ear.

We feel this duality to be true, but it is really not.  The entertainment industry is not “brain-dead” and the sub-cultures of poetry are not “sophisticated.”  This is how we have been taught to perceive it.

But let’s take a hard look and examine the differences.

If morals are lacking in the entertainment industry, we can say the same of the sub-culture of sophisticates: Rimbaud and Ezra Pound are not known for their morals.  One does not become an avant-garde artist because one has a pure heart.

But wait—if we leave morals out as a factor, doesn’t the whole truism of  this duality: ‘stupid popular’ v. ‘smart sub-culture’ fall apart?   For only in the realm of morals can one human activity be placed above another with any sort of sophisticated judgment.

The popular modes of entertainment are effective, not “stupid.”

The sub-culture of the avant-garde is isolated, not “smart.”

Art that has a wide appeal can be censored by sophisticates only if there is a moral issue; otherwise we are thrown back onto questions of individual taste.  If wide appeal is said to lack intelligence, the mavens of the popular can always reply that it is not intelligent to be intelligent when one does not have to be intelligent, that is, if mere taste will do.  And once we get into questions of taste, the avant-garde has nothing to say, for it is taste, more than anything which they have always abhorred.

And this doesn’t even take into account that it may take more sophistication or ‘smarts,’ to triumph in the popular arena.  Even if the product itself may consist of smirks, naughty jokes, glitter, and oafish beats, the competition is greater, the public is fickle and demanding, and ancillary issues of lifestyle, production issues, and so forth require a certain amount of sophistication to succeed. How is a found poem or a stream-of-consciousness poem by an avant-garde  poet more sophisticated than a popular song, anyway?—especially when the popular song is making an impact in the real world, and not merely in the mind of a avant theorist?

Another term of excuse the avant-garde sub-cultures use for not being popular is their lack “sentimentality,” but this, too, is a red herring, for popular modes of entertainment and literature—especially in our day—are far more likely to be crudely unsentimental (violent, sexually blatant, etc) than otherwise. 

We are not now making the old argument that high and low culture are really the same, for this non-distinction is as blind as the present duality is wrong.

Another trope worth mentioning in which the avant-garde sub-culture attempts to distinguish itself from popular modes: liberalism.  But again, the avant-garde is not necessarily more liberal than popular culture.  The most obvious point is that popularity is naturally more democratic.  And secondly, elitist sub-cultures of avant-garde artists have never, in practice, been more liberal than popular culture. The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman’s stubborn use of the label Quietism to bash all modes of popular poetry has never made any sense, until now.  The code, here unlocked, is simple: Silliman’s ‘quietism” really refers to the “silent majority,” a political media term from the late 60s which referred to the conservative electorate in the U.S.  Silliman, and most who occupy sub-cultural positions of the artistic avant-garde, wish to think of themselves as a progressive, underground, people’s army.  But isolated elitism isn’t democratic, and the 20th avant-garde is not even close to being democratic, and, in fact, is mostly right-wing.

The reality is the very reverse of the perception, then.  Popular modes of art are more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than the avant-garde.

Billy Collins is more sophisticated, more democratic, and less sentimental than Ezra Pound.

But where does Dame History come in?

Dame History steps in because the question of popular v. sophisticated is really true in only one sense: priority.  The sophisticated—who are really sophisticated—know history, and thus know originality, which is the heart of true creativity and imagination.

But two things have conspired to murder Dame History: Modernism, which taught several generations of students that the modern era began in 1910 (it did not—it began with Shakespeare, or, at the very latest, in the 18th century) and the Creative Writing Era, the practical brain-child of Modernism, which replaced emphasis on historical study with “creative” writing.

We have found the Muse—and she is Dame History.

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