CINEMA AND POETRY: A REVIEW OF THE UNCOLLECTED DELMORE SCHWARTZ, BEN MAZER, EDITOR

Image result for DELMORE SCHWARTZ

I began to think about a whole lot of things as I was finishing Ben Mazer’s introduction to The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz, just published by Arrowsmith Press.

How does a poet exist in an unpublished, uncollected, or unnoticed state?

How much does the critical and editorial apparatus impact how society apprehends a poet?

Ben Mazer—and hopefully, very soon, many more—will be answering these questions as they pertain to the wonderful, but increasingly neglected writer, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966).

I was thinking about the cinema, the modern poet as movie-lover, and how this might contribute to the “uncollected” reality of Delmore Schwartz—an author editors and publishers have never known quite what to do with.

Delmore Schwartz burst upon the world in 1937, by way of the Partisan Review crowd in New York City.

Ben Mazer, born in New York City, and raised in Cambridge (Delmore attended Harvard) and a splendid poet himself, is also a daring and sleuth-like editor: Mazer’s ‘Uncollected Schwartz” is a gem.

Mazer’s well-researched work features various genres: poem, story, essay, review, symposium memoir. Which is nice, because Schwartz excelled at them all.

But is this the problem of Delmore Schwartz’s reputation?  “Various genres?”

The poets America loves generally don’t get involved in other aspects of writing.

Where are the essays of W.S Merwin, the plays of Robert Frost, the criticism of Emily Dickinson, the novels of T.S. Eliot, the short stories of Ezra Pound?  No, somehow it diminishes the poet to not be, in terms of output, a poet.  The occasional essay on poetry is allowed, but that’s it.

Schwartz, the writer of variety, is like Poe, in this regard.

But even as Poe worked in, and even invented, or furthered, a number of genres, the 19th century Virginian—limited critically by the “macabre” label—stuck mostly to short pieces—and Poe mostly finished, thankfully, what he started; the single exception, a play.

Schwartz abandoned what seems like hundreds of writing projects.  A prodigy lauded early in his career, winning praise for a short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Schwartz became bogged down in overly ambitious attempts at the long and unwieldy—a pity, for this modern talent should have followed Poe’s advice: the complexity of modernity requires brevity.

Schwartz didn’t use Poe as a guiding star. Both writers shared a certain quixotic arrogance; Poe obeyed form as a writer; Schwartz often did not, and ended up without an epidermis.

Looking back, Schwartz was best, by far, as a short story writer—as good as anyone in the 20th century—but his splendid efforts in this genre, strangely, seem to have only added to a literary reputation of promise followed by insanity, failure and waste.

No one, including Schwartz himself, wished Schwartz to be pegged as a writer of short fiction. The fiction world doesn’t always know what to do with poets, especially the ones who enter as poets first, fiction writers second. Had the order been reversed, Schwartz might have enjoyed a greater social stability.

Schwartz had two sides:

1. the doubtful, sentimental, highly emotional, poet

2. the crass, witty, profoundly wise, and pitiless, critic.

Fiction allowed these two sides to often mingle and shine.

Literary essays allowed Delmore Schwartz insights to peek out.  I’m not a big fan of High Modernism, but when Delmore writes on Stevens, Eliot, Auden, I feel a certain pride. Delmore’s intelligence as a critic is stunning.

Schwartz drowned in modernist self-pity, focused too much on the contemporary in his essays, and wasted too much time on long poems.

Otherwise, there was no stopping Mr. Delmore Schwartz.

One could argue Schwartz is a major poet. But poetry was a disturbing, and not really a friendly, medium for him.

The acerbic, joking, philosophy, the impatient, stuttering, thin-skinned, reflective, doubting, self-pity—all these things which the complex torrent of Delmore Schwartz was—freely articulated in poetry of the loose and modern manner, resulted more often than not, in opportunity by a genius missed.

The moderns who encouraged him were the “modern” moderns, the ones who turned their backs on Poe and everything before Rimbaud, and who liked the idea of residing in 1922 and nowhere else. The obscure heft of Joyce and Pound were unfortunately touchstones for New York City’s highly introspective genius, one who passionately saw through Pound, the person, and rejected him. Rimbaud began it all for the “modern” moderns, and so it’s not at all surprising Schwartz found himself, as a yet lauded and reputed poetic prodigy, hurrying into print a translation of Rimbaud, an imaginative English version of the Frenchman’s “Season in Hell”—almost universally ridiculed in the press for its translation errors; and as the bad reviews came in, the nervous prodigy’s honeymoon was over. Schwartz already had a personality that doubted. He didn’t universally like everyone, and he was not universally liked. When his reputation took a hit, it was pretty bad.

As we advance into the early middle of the 21st century, High Modernism is due for a hard look; well, at least it may help us understand and revive Delmore Schwartz.

Delmore’s survey of Wallace Stevens is the best thing, for my money, in Ben Mazer’s The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz. The mind of Delmore Schwartz is a treasure—without a doubt, this is the singular fact I have come away with in my recent acquaintance of the author who died at 52 alone, in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

Did cinema kill poetry? Schwartz’s guilty pleasure was going to the movies.

Poetry came apart, losing its lyric, leather-bound anthology, fireside, charm, somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and for Schwartz this was always a good thing, because he belonged to his time, and he sums up the existence of Stevens as an “art for art’s sake” poet—almost ruefully, almost pejoratively—as due to “industrialism.”  The Wordsworthian whine, which didn’t stop with Modernism: the machine produces sorrow.

Stevens, according to Schwartz, is an “Art-man.” The poetry of Stevens smoothly and matter-of-factly occupies the museum, the concert hall, the ivory tower seminar room, the library, the poetry reading. Stevens is for Art, as opposed to the “life” of “disorder,” “presided over by the business man and the Philistine…”

Schwartz acknowledges the danger of this attitude, claiming it inhibited poets of the “Art-man” school in the late 19th century, but Delmore allows Stevens a triumph in it, for going, with a certain amount of intelligent self-consciousness, all in with it. Down with “industrialism.” Up with Wallace Stevens.

The reason cinema is so important for Delmore Schwartz—his break-out short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” literally takes place in a cinema as the protagonist watches a “movie” of his parents prior to his birth—is manifold.

Schwartz’s youth coincided with film taking its place as a form of entertainment and art—but which was it? Poetry was losing out to other distractions, and cinema was one.

Film was a guilty, time-wasting pleasure for a poet like Schwartz, but it was a vital connection to “philistine life,” too. Schwartz was not Stevens, and cinema was one central reason: poetry for Stevens was purely aesthetic; Schwartz belongs more to the news-reel voice-over, the screen play, the drama, realistic but flickering, the movie of the peanut-crunching crowd. The hard-nosed, factual, aspect of film represented an important antidote to Schwartz’s morbid, fatalist, autobiographical nature.

The fatalism of film—a memory captured, to never be escaped—seen through his autobiographical obsession—his family divorce drama seeps into almost everything he wrote—underpins his iconic story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

Fortunately, Schwartz cared too much about people (his writing is very social) to be overly distracted by the horrors of “industrialism.”

Schwartz, who deeply admired Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, had a love-hate relationship with all the art movements around him—with a stammering, clumsy, combative, social persona, mixing uneasily with his genius, he couldn’t be as intellectually independent as he should have been; his “connections” in the intellectual circles of the John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, the Partisan Review, and Harvard, where he met Laughlin, the editor of New Directions, were all important to him, more than he realized, or wanted to admit, and so the natural, original, impetuous, lonely greatness that was Schwartz kept trailing after the divided, humiliated, tortured, social animal that was Schwartz.  He unconsciously attempted to resolve this by uncritically admiring the aesthetic writings of his contemporaries (saving his critical energy for gossip towards them as individuals) and so the poet he was meant to be was colored, like the dyer’s hand, by much of the inferior work of his time.

His genius, in the fiction and the essays, mostly won out. In his poetry, it mostly did not. He absolutely nails Stevens in a manner which is fully sympathetic, but manages to diminish him, which is only proper, since Schwartz was, it seems to me, the wisest of his circle (a judgment I am well aware will not be taken seriously because  “High” Modernism is to this day, yet overrated, and due to the reputation of “crazy” Delmore Schwartz).

“A Note on the Nature of Art,” the second essay in Mazer’s collection, is first-rate in a perfectly logical manner; it patiently explains the difference between the “expressive” and the “critical-expressive” and doesn’t allow social reality to roll over aesthetic reality, which it will do, unless the critic is familiar with Aristotle and common sense—which Delmore happily was.

The essays are 30 pages of the book; putting aside the poems, of which there are 15 pages—the best one, I think, is “Sonnet,” published in 1950 in the Kenyon Review—we have an excellent 20 page story, and a 5 page memory on his Jewishness, also good; the essays occupy the bulk of what is excellent, as well as the story and the small prose memoir, proving once again, at least for me, that we should not look to Schwartz’s poetry as the best example of his work.

For me, as way of quick example, “the worms of fear spread veined” and “but the elation and celebration of the motions/of energy everywhere,” from two different poems, reside as things scattered on the surface; these quotes don’t feel integrated wholly into their poems—too much of his poetry features interesting parts which are not quite fused; there is a unconnected quality which I don’t meet in the prose, and which curtails my enjoyment of the verse. The longer poem, “Dr. Levy,” which Mazer cites for especial praise in his introduction, has emotional sincerity, but it feels more like a short play of not-quite-realized profundity, than a truly realized poem.

True, some of the poems in this volume are high school poems—ironically, there is one on Poe.  Schwartz didn’t care for him.  In his introduction to his long, prose poem, Genesis, Schwartz says he will write like a modern; he will not write like Swinburne—which of course means Poe.

The story in the volume, “An Argument in 1934” is wonderful; the lucid presentation of three, young, intellectual friends, interacting socially, is sensitive, highly observant, and subtle, without being busy or overbearing, and the theme: realism triumphing over the intellectually abstract, is expressed through both dialogue and action in a clear and poignant manner.

This review is not meant to devalue Schwartz as a poet; I just think his fiction is superlative. Profound. Funny. Timeless.

And this is good news: Ben Mazer is set to edit more Delmore Schwartz—the Collected Poems has been green-lighted by FSG, which is very exciting, indeed.

Hopefully “The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz” will be the start of a Delmore Renaissance.

I’ll close by quoting “Under Forty” from a symposium published by the Contemporary Jewish Record:

The contrast between the authority of the public school teachers and the weakness of the Hebrew school teacher is one which makes the child wonder what reason can justify the emphasis upon Jewishness. I remember my own extreme admiration for the rabbi who spoke to us on Sundays. It seemed to me that he could prove or disprove anything, and that he could find profound meaning in any story or incident. But I took this to be a personal gift; he was a very wise man; he seemed more intelligent than any of the teachers in public school. But then I merely wondered why he limited himself to what we then called temple, and I had no way of knowing that his dialectical and interpretative skills were an inheritance.

 

*******

The Scarriet editors, Salem MA 11/14/19

 

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.

 

image

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.

%d bloggers like this: