YES! ANOTHER SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!!!

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1. Vanessa Place —The High Creator does not create.

2. Kenneth Goldsmith —Death to the “creative” once and for all.

3. Simon Armitage —Best known for 9/11 poem, wins Oxford Poetry Professorship

4. A.E. Stallings —Lost the Oxford. World is still waiting for a good New Formalist poet.

5. John Ashbery —Doesn’t need to be good. Unlike New Formalists, his content and form agree.

6. Marjorie Perloff —Must confront this question: is the “non-creative” nearly racist by default?

7. Ron Silliman —Keeps tabs on the dying. Burned by the Avant Racism scandal.

8. Stephen Burt —Stephanie goes to Harvard.

9. Rita Dove —We asked her about Perloff; she laughed. No intellectual pretense.

10. Claudia Rankine —Social confrontation as life and death.

11. Juan Felipe Herrera —New U.S. Poet Laureate. MFA from Iowa. Farm workers’ son.

12. William Logan —“Shakespeare, Pope, Milton by fifth grade.” In the Times. He’s trying.

13. Patricia Lockwood —“Rape Joke” went Awl viral.

14. Lawrence Ferlinghetti —At 96, last living Beat.

15. Richard Wilbur —At 94, last living Old Formalist.

16. Don Share —Fuddy-duddy or cutting edge? It’s impossible to tell with Poetry.

17. Valerie Macon —Good poet. Hounded from NC Laureate job for lacking creds.

18. Helen Vendler —New book of essays a New Critical tour de force. Besotted with Ashbery and Graham.

19. Cathy Park Hong —Fighting the racist Avant Garde.

20. David Lehman —As the splintering continues, his BAP seems less and less important.

21. Billy Collins —His gentle historical satire is rhetoric nicely fitted to free verse.

22. David Orr —Common sense critic at the Times.

23. Frank Bidart —Student of Lowell and Bishop, worked with James Franco. Drama. Confessionalism.

24. Kevin Coval —Co-editor of Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.

25. Philip Nikolayev —Globe-trotting translator, editor, poet.

26. Ben Mazer —Neo-Romantic. Has advanced past Hart Crane.

27. Amy KingHates mansplaining. 

28. Sharon Olds —Best living female poet?

29. Louise Gluck —Her stock is quietly rising.

30. Jorie Graham —Her Collected has landed.

31. George Bilgere —If you like Billy Collins…and what’s wrong with that?

32. Garrison Keillor —Is he retiring?

33. Kent Johnson —Is his Prize List so quickly forgotten?

34. David Biespiel —One of the villagers trying to chase Conceptualism out of town.

35. Carol Ann Duffy —The “real” Poet Laureate—she’s Brih-ish.

36. Cate Marvin —Poet who leads the VIDA hordes.

37. Lyn Hejinian —The best Language Poet?

38. Dan ChiassonNew Yorker house critic.

39. Michael Robbins —As with Logan, we vastly prefer the criticism to the poetry.

40. Joe Green —His Selected, The Loneliest Ranger, has been recently published.

41. Harold Bloom —The canonizer.

42. Dana Gioia —The best of New Formalism.

43. Seth Abramson —Meta-Modernism. That dog won’t hunt.

44. Henry Gould —Better at responding than asserting; reflecting the present state of Criticism today.

45. W.S. Merwin —Knew Robert Graves—who recommended mushroom eating (yea, that kind of mushroom) as Oxford Poetry Professor in the 60s.

46. Marilyn Chin —Passionate lyricist of “How I Got That Name.”

47. Anne Carson —“The Glass Essay” is a confessional heartbreak.

48. Terrence Hayes —Already a BAP editor.

49. Timothy Steele —Another New Formalist excellent in theorizing—but too fastidious as a poet.

50. Natasha Trethewey —Was recently U.S. Poet Laureate for two terms.

51. Tony Hoagland —Hasn’t been heard from too much since his tennis poem controversy.

52. Camille Paglia —Aesthetically, she’s too close to Harold Bloom and the New Critics.

53. William Kulik —Kind of the Baudelaire plus Hemingway of American poetry. Interesting, huh?

54. Mary Oliver —Always makes this list, and we always mumble something about “Nature.”

55. Robert Pinsky —He mentored VIDA’s Erin Belieu.

56. Alan Cordle —We will never forget how Foetry.com changed the game.

57. Cole Swensen –A difficult poet’s difficult poet.

58. Charles Bernstein —One day Language Poetry will be seen for what it is: just another clique joking around.

59. Charles Wright —Pulitzer in ’98, Poet Laureate in ’14.

60. Paul Muldoon New Yorker Nights

61. Geoffrey Hill —The very, very difficult school.

62. Derek Walcott —Our time’s Homer?

63. Janet Holmes —Program Era exemplar.

64. Matthew Dickman —The youth get old. Turning 40.

65. Kay Ryan —Are her titles—“A Ball Rolls On A Point”—better than her poems?

66. Laura Kasischke —The aesthetic equivalent of Robert Penn Warren?

67. Nikki Finney —NAACP Image Award

68. Louis Jenkins —His book of poems, Nice Fish, is a play at the American Repertory Theater this winter.

69. Kevin Young —A Stenger Fellow who studied with Brock-Broido and Heaney at Harvard

70. Timothy Donnelly —His Cloud Corporation made a big splash.

71. Heather McHugh —Her 2007 BAP guest editor volume is one of the best.

72. D.A. Powell —Stephen Burt claims he is original and accessible to an extraordinary degree.

73. Eileen Myles —We met her on the now-defunct Blog Harriet Public Form.

74. Richard Howard —Pulitzer-winning essayist, critic, translator and poet

75. Robert Hass —U.S. Poet Laureate in the 90s, a translator of haiku and Milosz.

76. Rae Armantrout —Emily Dickinson of the Avant Garde?

77. Peter Gizzi —His Selected, In Defense of Nothing, came out last year.

78. Fanny Howe —Is it wrong to think everything is sacred? An avant-garde Catholic.

79. Robert Archambeau —His blog is Samizdat. Rhymes with Scarriet.

80. X.J. Kennedy —Keeping the spirit of Frost alive.

81. Robert PolitoPoetry man.

82. David Ferry —Classical poetry translator.

83. Mark Doty —A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

84. Al Filreis  —Co-founder of PennSound

85. Frederick Seidel —Has been known to rhyme malevolence with benevolence.

86. Sherman Alexie —Is taught in high school. We wonder how many on this list are?

87. Marie Howe —Margaret Atwood selected her first book for a prize.

88. Carol Muske-Dukes —In recent Paris Review interview decried cutting and pasting of “Unoriginal Genius.”

89. Martha Ronk —In the American Hybrid anthology from Norton.

90. Juliana Spahr —Has a PhD from SUNY Buffalo. Hates “capitalism.”

91. Patricia Smith —Four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam.

92. Dean Young —His New & Selected, Bender, was published in 2012.

93. Jennifer Knox —Colloquial and brash.

94. Alicia Ostriker —“When I write a poem, I am crawling into the dark.”

95. Yusef Komunyakaa —Known for his Vietnam poems.

96. Stephen Dunn —His latest work is Lines of Defense: Poems.

97. Thomas Sayer Ellis —Poet and photographer.

98. Carolyn Forche —Lannan Chair in Poetry at Georgetown University.

99. Margaret Atwood —Poet, novelist, and environmental activist.

100. Forrest Gander —The Trace is his latest.

 

 

 

 

 

100 ESSENTIAL BOOKS OF POETRY

 

EYE Don Share

Collecting is where material pride, wisdom and love uneasily sit, an endless pursuit which moves product, an endless boon to any enterprise.  To collect is to amass, to buy, to own, to bring into one’s circle the niceties of some industry for one’s own comfort and inspection. The collectable items should be unique, if not numerous, and if not unique, at least very rare.  Collecting is to break off pieces of some whole, but the item, when found, bought, discovered, possessed, is a shining whole to the collector, and compared to it, the universe is a sad jumble—such is the profundity of collecting.

Poetry anthologies spread wealth; poetry is centrifugal; it scatters itself outward freely.  Except where it overlaps with the ‘rare book collector,’ poetry, despite its fecundity, is not collectable; collecting is centripetal; it waits in vaults and rooms crowded with unique paintings, coins, and cars.  To know coins, one must darken them in one’s palm; to know poetry, one merely glimpses what every other person glimpses.

The following list is not a rare book list; increasingly, great old poetry, important translated poetry, and all sorts of rare poetry, simply lives on the internet.

This, in many ways, is a perfectly centrifugal list, readily available to whatever soul—no matter how mysterious, no matter how centripetal, no matter how hidden, no matter how curious—happens to want it.

Poetry is against collecting.  Poetry doesn’t  hoard; you can be deeply poetic for free.

These are books you could own, or read, or memorize, or teach, or learn, and probably already have.

Good translations are necessary, but impossible.  Old poems are necessary, but impossible.  Good, new poetry is necessary, but impossible.

The list below is mundane, but necessary.  This—mostly from the top of the list—is what you read if you want to know poetry.

It is everywhere, but it still must hit you.

 

1. SHAKESPEARE SONNETS, AUDEN INTRODUCTION  Modern poetry begins here. A definite sequence: 1-14 children as immortality, 15-28 poems as immortality, etc.

2. POE: POETRY, TALES, AND SELECTED ESSAYS (LIBRARY OF AMERICA) Iconic poems, tales of poetic quality, even criticism of poetic quality

3. VIKING BOOK OF POETRY OF THE ENGLISH SPEAKING WORLD, RICHARD ALDINGTON  H.D.’s husband, got Eliot out of the bank, solid anthology by this Brit wounded in WW I who knew all the Modernists and hated most of them (375 poets)

4. PLATO: THE COLLECTED DIALOGUES, BOLLINGEN SERIES, EDITH HAMILTON, ED  Poetry being born

5. THE ARDEN SHAKESPEARE, COMPLETE WORKS  With Shakespeare the best is just to read, and forget all the notes

6. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE, JOHN D. SINCLAIR, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD U. PRESS)  Verse translation hopeless; take the prose Sinclair with Italian on the facing page

7. THE ILIAD OF HOMER TRANSLATED BY ALEXANDER POPE (PENGUIN)  The king of men his reverent priest defied/And for the king’s offense the people died

8. THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH VERSE BY ALEXANDER POPE (MACMILLAN, 1911)  The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d/Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound

9. EDNA MILLAY COLLECTED, NORMA MILLAY (HARPER)  Tragically undervalued as Modernism came into vogue, Millay’s Collected is a must

10. PHILIP LARKIN THE COMPLETE POEMS, ARCHIE BURNETT  recently published master of the short lyric

11. LYRICAL BALLADS, WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE  A shame Coleridge didn’t contribute more

12. WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS, T.S. ELIOT  The one Modernist who could really write poetry (and prose).

13. LEAVES OF GRASS, WHITMAN (1855 EDITION) The first edition, before it got too long-winded

14. THE COMPLETE POEMS OF JOHN MILTON WRITTEN IN ENGLISH (HARVARD CLASSICS) You can’t go wrong with melodious Milton

15. UNDERSTANDING POETRY, BROOKS AND WARREN Textbooks are propaganda—this most used anthology in the 20th c. attacked Poe and elevated Pound/Williams

16. SELECTED POETRY & LETTERS, BYRON, EDWARD BOSTETTER, ED  Byron was very, very unhappy

17. POCKET BOOK OF MODERN VERSE, OSCAR WILLIAMS (1954)  Okay. Some of modern verse is good

18. A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, AN INTRODUCTORY ANTHOLOGY, CZESLAW MILOSZ  International poetry collections are good things

19. SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS, WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, ROSENTHAL, ED  Yeats benefits from Selected as opposed to Collected

20. OVID, THE LOVE POEMS, A.D. MELVILLE, ED. And you can really learn something, lovers

21. THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, HAZEL FELLEMAN  Because these uncritical anthologies always have some gems

22. ROBERT BROWNING, THE POEMS, PETTIGREW, ED. 2 VOLS  Because it’s Robert Browning

23. A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN POETRY, SELDEN RODMAN (1938)   Great snapshot of poetry in the 1930s: lots of ballads of political anguish

24. 100 GREAT POEMS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, MARK STRAND, ED.  A very nice selection from a poet whose reputation is fading

25. POETRY OF WITNESS: THE TRADITION IN ENGLISH 1500-2001, CAROLYN FORCHE, DUNCAN WU, EDS   Poetry handles real horror

26. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1988, LEHMAN, SERIES ED. ASHBERY, GUEST ED. The first volume in the series may be the best

27. ARIEL, SYLVIA PLATH  A whirlwind of rhyme and rage

28. PABLO NERUDA, TWENTY LOVE SONGS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR, DUAL-LANGUAGE EDITION (PENGUIN) Neruda may get you laid

29. GREAT POEMS BY AMERICAN WOMEN: AN ANTHOLOGY, SUSAN RATTINER (DOVER) Women once had a higher standing as poets

30. OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, W.H. AUDEN, EDITOR  Who said light verse was light?

31. PALGRAVE’S GOLDEN TREASURY, FRANCIS TURNER PALGRAVE (1861) Look out! Right-wing poetry!

32. LIBRARY OF WORLD POETRY, WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT Worth a peek

33. 100 POEMS FROM THE JAPANESE, KENNETH REXROTH  blossoms and other stuff

34. BLACK POETS OF THE UNITED STATES: FROM PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR TO LANGSTON HUGHES, JEAN WAGNER  Before rap

35. THE OXFORD BOOK OF NARRATIVE VERSE, PETER OPIE  A narrative poem does not exist?

36. A BOY’S WILL, ROBERT FROST  His first book, published in England while the 40 year old poet made contacts there

37. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY 1945-1960, DONALD ALLEN   Dawn of the post-war avant-garde

38. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1990, LEHMAN SERIES EDITOR, JORIE GRAHAM, GUEST EDITOR  Has that wonderful poem by Kinnell…

39. FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY, JON SILKIN, EDITOR  While being slaughtered, they wrote

40. SPANISH POETRY: A DUAL LANGUAGE ANTHOLOGY 16TH-20TH CENTURIES, ANGEL FLORES  Dual Languages are a must, really

41. THE HERITAGE OF RUSSIAN VERSE, DIMITRI OBOLENSKY  “From The Ends To The Beginning A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse” is available on-line

42. BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2007, LEHMAN, SERIES EDITOR, MCHUGH, GUEST EDITOR   One of the best volumes in the series

43. POETS TRANSLATE POETS, A HUDSON REVIEW ANTHOLOGY, PAULA DIETZ, ED.  Nice historical sweep…

44. ART AND ARTISTS: POEMS, EMILY FRAGOS (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)    Art really meets poetry; lovely poems

45. W.H. AUDEN COLLECTED POEMS Best poet of the 20th century; slighted by anthologies

46. POEMS 1965-1975 SEAMUS HEANEY  Never quite made it to major status

47. POEMS BEWITCHED AND HAUNTED, JOHN HOLLANDER, ED (EVERYMAN’S POCKET LIBRARY)  Some really darling pieces here

48. COMPLETE POEMS OF KEATS AND SHELLEY (MODERN LIBRARY) The two best—the best, the best

49. THE 20TH CENTURY IN POETRY, HULSE, RAE, EDS (PEGASUS BOOKS)   Wonderful idea: poems in close chronology throughout the century

50. VITA NOVA, DANTE, MARK MUSA, TRANSLATOR (OXFORD) A great book for so many reasons

51. CHAUCER: THE CANTERBURY TALES (PENGUIN) father of English literature, we hear

52. HYPERION; BALLADS & OTHER POEMS, LONGFELLOW (1841)  “Hyperion” is a very modern poem…

53. THE RAG AND BONE SHOP OF THE HEART: A POETRY ANTHOLOGY, ROBERT BLY, EDITOR  A lot of Rumi and Neruda

54. WORLD POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE PRESENT, WASHBURN, MAJOR, FADIMAN, EDS  The translations are terrible, the selections are generally weak, but kudos for the attempt

55. LES FLEUR DU MAL, BAUDELAIRE  Ah…Baudelaire!

56. VICTORIAN WOMEN POETS: AN ANTHOLOGY, LEIGHTON, REYNOLDS, EDS (BLACKWELL)  That backwards era when women poets sold better than their male counterparts

57.  IMMORTAL POEMS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, OSCAR WILLIAMS   Solid overview (150 poets) without too much emphasis on annoying moderns

58. ALEXANDER POPE, SELECTED (OXFORD POETRY LIBRARY) You could do worse than his verse

59. A TREASURY OF GREAT POEMS, LOUIS UNTERMEYER   Almost 2OO poets

60. AMERICAN POETRY: THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, HOLLANDER, ED, LIBRARY OF AMERICA   A good look around at two centuries ago

61. ANEID, VIRGIL, ROBERT FITZGERALD, TRANSLATOR  Poet of the silver age…

62. THE POETICAL WORKS OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING, RUTH M. ADAMS INTRO  She was the famous poet when Robert met her

63. THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, COLEMAN BARKS, ED  Passion pushed to the limit of wisdom

64. EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN, STANLEY MITCHELL (PENGUIN) The most modern of all epics

65. DYLAN THOMAS, COLLECTED, PAUL MULDOON, INTRO Too drunk to write many poems; this may be good or bad

66. POETRY OF DEREK WALCOTT 1948-2013, SELECTED BY GLYN MAXWELL  Between obligation and pleasure, we read…

67. BRITISH POETRY SINCE 1945, EWARD LUCIE-SMITH.  The poor modern Brits, neither old nor quite modern

68. THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND, WALLACE STEVENS, SELECTED POEMS & A PLAY  Pretentious rot, but fun

69. ROBERT LOWELL, COLLECTED  Most overrated poet of the 20th century, but has his moments

70  AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, MARY OLIVER  Our little Wordsworth

71. GORGEOUS NOTHINGS, EMILY DICKINSON, WERNER, BERRIN, EDS (NEW DIRECTIONS)  A really bizarre document

72. ELIZABETH BISHOP, POEMS (FSG)  Another one of those poets who wrote few, but good, poems

73. A CHOICE OF ENGLISH ROMANTIC POETRY, STEPHEN SPENDER (DIAL PRESS)  Rare, if you can track it down…(it’s at the Grolier in Hvd Sq)

74. CHIEF MODERN POETS OF BRITAIN AND AMERICA, 5th Edition, SANDERS, NELSON, ROSENTHAL  Can’t get enough of those chief poets

75. NEW AMERICAN POETS OF THE 80s, MYERS & WEINGARTEN Look back into the recent, recent past

76. BIRTHDAY LETTERS, TED HUGHES  The poetry isn’t good, but interesting historical document

77. TRANFORMATIONS, ANNE SEXTON, FOREWARD BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR. Modernized fairy tales—very influential

78. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU, ROBERT HASS, ED (ECCO)  We forget Imagism sprang directly from haiku rage in West after Japan won Russo-Japanese War

79. THE DIVINE COMEDY, CLIVE JAMES, TRANSLATOR. This new translation is worth a read

80. PENGUIN BOOK OF FRENCH POETRY 1820-1950  Good translation anthologies are few and far between

81. ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A NEW ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS TO READ ALOUD, PINSKY, ED  Reading aloud is good

82. THE RATTLE BAG, SEAMUS HEANEY, TED HUGHES, EDS  Conservative selection: Shakespeare, Blake, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost, etc

83. MODERNIST WOMEN POETS, ROBERT HASS, PAUL EBENKAMP, EDS   Not a large number of poets

84. COLLECTED FRENCH TRANSLATIONS, JOHN ASHBERY (FSG)  Not the most trustworthy translator, but we’ll take ’em

85. VILLANELLES (EVERYMAN POCKET LIBRARY)  These editions are available and lovely—why not?

86. BRIGHT WINGS: AN ILLUSTRATED ANTHOLOGY OF POEMS ABOUT BIRDS, BILLY COLLINS, ED  All the best poems are bird poems—it’s really true

87. THE ETERNAL ONES OF THE DREAM: SELECTED POEMS 1990-2010, JAMES TATE Iowa Workshop poem par excellence, poignant, miserable, and cute

88. GOOD POEMS, GARRISON KEILLOR  As accessible as it gets

89. THE MAKING OF A SONNET, HIRSCH/BOLAND, EDS (NORTON) There’s no best sonnet anthology, but this one is good

90. MOUNTAIN HOME: THE WILDERNESS POETRY OF ANCIENT CHINA, DAVID HINTON, ED  Includes the major poets

91. SELECTED RILKE, ROBERT BLY, ED  Amazing how well Rilke sells in the U.S.

92. KING JAMES BIBLE  Yea, poetry

93. WELDON KEES, COLLECTED POEMS, DONALD JUSTICE, ED  Somewhat creepy—as modern poetry truly ought to be?

94. BILLY COLLINS, AIMLESS LOVE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (RANDOM HOUSE)  Collins is America’s modern poet—get used to it.

95. JOHN ASHBERY, SELF PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR  His tour de force

96. NORTH OF BOSTON, ROBERT FROST (1915, HENRY HOLT) Like Emerson, Whitman, and Melville before him, interest by the English was the ticket to fame

97. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, ALLEN GINSBERG  A Hieronymous Bosch nightmare

98. TALES FROM THE DECAMERON OF GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO, RICHARD ALDINGTON (1930)  this 14th century writer considered a ‘novelist’ but influenced Chaucer

99. EROSION, JORIE GRAHAM  Such promise!  Then along came Alan Cordle

100. LUNCH POEMS, FRANK O’HARA  Not repasts; snacks; the virtue of O’Hara is that he’s funny

 

 

 

PART TWO — UNDERSTANDING POETRY, IF YOU DARE

Francisco_de_Goya_-_Still_Life_with_Golden_Bream

In Part I,  we did a close reading of the influential poetry textbook Understanding Poetry’s introductory chapter.

We asserted that Understanding Poetry’s editors, New Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, claim poetry for everything it isn’t and fail to say what poetry is.

The truism that poetry is ‘how a thing is said,’ rather than ‘the thing said,’ should close the deal for many—except for the confusion attending ‘how the how precisely determines ‘what is said.’

The Modernist editors of Understanding Poetry make certain learned concessions to Old Tradition as they pedantically include gems of Pope and Keats, crowded out by the lesser works of Pound and Williams and other Modernist poems, but their corrupting mission can be best seen in the way they make the thing said obliterate the how. When the ‘what’ rolls over the ‘how,’ we no longer have poetry.

Examples abound, and we will look at four of them:

1) The editors provide a chapter called “The Breakup of Civilization” in which, for instance, Ezra Pound’s ugly and pedantic verse is held up as a model, a correct model simply because  “the breakup of civilization” is its own self-justifying rationale; Pound, however, is a part of the breakup of civilization, and furthers it.

2) The editors make “drama” (aided by Shakespearean poetry gleaned from his plays, old ballads of murder and love’s betrayal, a Frost poem of the death of a child by accident) the centerpiece of poetry, so that a kind of Jerry Springer reality becomes the default interest in poetic fiction, this curiosity-driven trope finally defining the thrust of poetry’s  existence.

3) The authors are anxious to convey their opinion that poetry, as they put it, “inheres” in the “stuff of reality.”

Understanding Poetry systematically denies poetry its ideal quality.

The real merit of the poetic is that it can exist above and beyond reality as no other quality or thing can: morality, knowledge of right and wrong, is often posited as the supreme guide to human behavior—but there is no one who wouldn’t do something if it were guaranteed  that whatever they wanted to do would go unnoticed and unknown—‘not getting caught’ will always be a consideration in the moral universe, even as we ideally view morality in everyone as a virtue: morality, for good or ill, inheres within reality—morality, even as a good, is still a practical matter. Good should have good consequences, but all that is behaviorally good is trapped in reality’s accidents and practical concerns. So even as we think of morality as an ideal virtue, we know, sadly, it is trapped—we as moral beings are trapped—in reality. Morality cannot exist outside of reality—we can only be moral (or not) within reality.

Poetry, however, can exist above and beyond reality, since poetry, unlike our behavior, is not real.  Poetry, unlike morality, can have a truly ideal and universally-based existence outside of reality.  Why, then, even in the name of reality, would we want to reject or mitigate poetry’s ideal faculty?

Poetry can potentially do much in its position outside and above reality—it can be a guiding star; it can participate in ethereal beauty that sweetly lifts us up as moral beings—who are trapped in earthly concerns. Poetry, which escapes reality’s practicality, is the only thing, that, morally, can be besides the point and the point, doing good precisely because it lives only in the ideal.

4) The editors destroy a sensible approach to metrics by making a distinction which does not exist—between what they call “accentual-syllabic verse” and “accentual meter.” They write in their “Metrics” chapter:

In accentual verse, the matter of consequence is the number of stressed syllables; the number of unstressed syllables may vary greatly and their number plays no part in a definition of meter.

There is no such thing as meter in which the “unstressed syllables…play no part in a definition of the meter.”

If we enunciate every syllable, then every syllable will participate in the total effect, whether those syllables are long or short, stressed or unstressed, accented or unaccented.

There is simply no need to distinguish between “accentual-syllabic” verse and “accentual” verse, as the authors do, and the fact that the authors—and many subsequent critics—do so, reveals a complete ignorance of the most important metrical principle: the universal law of duration of sound, the axiom of time, which applies to all music and all verse, whether one happens to be leaning one’s ear towards a metronome, or not.

In a section of their “Metrics” chapter called “The Music of Verse,” they write:

Musicality of verse does, in itself, give a pleasure, but it is a fundamental error to hold that this particular kind of pleasure (which in itself, is minimal) is the end of poetry. Poetry is not music. It involves a special use of language, and insofar as musicality is one of the potentials of language it may be involved in poetry. The basic fact is, however, that language has a primary function quite distinct from musicality, and musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as, directly, or indirectly, it is related to, or, better still, fused with, the primary function of language. By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions, and in poetry by means of a special refinement of language, we may fuse the musicality with the other dimensions of meaning.  As Alexander Pope puts it in “An Essay on Criticism:”

Tis not enough no harshness gives offense
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.

It is not enough, in fact, to say that musicality is not the end of poetry. Some very powerful poetry, we know, is quite unmusical and may even seem quite difficult or, to some readers, ugly.

The authors protest too much. When they say “musicality in poetry becomes important only insofar as…it is fused with the primary function of language…” they simply utter a tautology: poetry “becomes important” when it fuses with the important.  Alexander Pope is not saying the “musical” has nothing to do with this importance—only the authors are.

Poetry, according, to Pope, should be musical (no harshness gives offense) as it conjoins with sense.  It is only Brooks/Warren who try to cut music out entirely (“it may be involved”) and claim that “powerful poetry” can be “unmusical” and “ugly.”  The authors’ error can be seen when they claim: “By language we create symbols embodying events, ideas, and emotions…”   Music is the “embodying” function of poetry, without which it would not be poetry (sound echoing sense).  “Events, ideas, and emotions” exist abstractly, signifyingly in the poetry, not as something embodied.  This may seem a quibble, but it is crucial—if we don’t know the body of something, how can we say we  know it?  Symbols are abstract.  They do not embody anything.

If I were to go on stage and begin shouting, the only thing I would be “embodying” would be the sounds coming from my mouth; if my shouts were converted to something musical, only then would I be “embodying” poetry. My meaning is not without importance, but neither should the meaning of my words be expected to ” embody” anything, or cancel out, in any way, the musical, which is still the primary embodiment ; nor should my emotional expression be considered any part of the poetic, since when I was merely shouting I may have been displaying plenty of emotion. And if I’m shouting, “The theater’s on fire! Get out of here!” my meaning is indeed significant, but it is not poetic, and not embodied—because a non-English speaker would have no idea what I was talking about.

The authors cherry pick attributes pertaining to the “dramatic:” the “emotional,” the “real,” etc. and apply them to poetry through the back door—even quoting Pope, contra his meaning, in the process.  This is the sly agenda of the Modernist work, Understanding Poetry.

UNDERSTANDING WHAT? THE TEXTBOOK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

In the United States in 1949, every other college student had his college education paid for by the GI Bill.  Government sponsored college loans didn’t happen until 1958 (Sputnik).  During the unprecedented growth of American college education in the middle of the 20th century, one poetry textbook was beamed into the brains of two generations of college professors, teachers and students—Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren; Holt, Rinehart, Winston; 1938, 1950, 1960, 1976.

To know this textbook is to know how you, dear reader—and every living respected poet and critic—thinks about poetry.

Prepare to become acquainted with your soul.

Understanding Poetry was written by two New Critics; what was known as the New Criticism was not just an ideology, but an influential clique of Southern men with an in; New Criticism was the donnish, government-connected, academic arm of Modernism—the 20th century’s one real school of poetry, which replaced Classical and Romantic Verse with something more free, with something entirely different.

The public’s rejection of Modernism can be summed up simply:  “A very large part of human conduct and human life is loathsome, disgusting, and grotesque.  Poetry has traditionally been an antidote to this.  Poetry discovers the beauty and dignity of human life, of human expression.  Poetry, in the name of modern all-inclusiveness, however, revels in the discordant, the ugly, and the disgusting, and this is…creepy.   We don’t like it.”

We are familiar with the world of objection this elicits from the Modernist: “all-inclusiveness” is truthful; you are backwards to censure the truth.

The “truth,” however, is that there are many avenues to the “truth,” and no profession or craft is defined by the whole truth, but rather by the particular way it approaches the truth; otherwise we wouldn’t be able to define that particular craft or profession.  And this is the truth.

Understanding Poetry, influential Modernist document that it is, comes down strongly on one side of the argument outlined above: for all-inclusiveness.

Here is how poetry is clumsily and pessimistically introduced to the student in the first paragraph of the book’s first chapter, “Poetry As a Way of Saying.” The strategy seems to be: let’s concede to all the insensitive lugs why poetry may indeed suck—this “strategy” turns out, in reality, to be the soul of the book itself.

Poetry is a kind of “saying.” It is, however, a kind that many people, until they become well acquainted with it, feel is rather peculiar and even useless. They feel this way for two reasons: the “way of the saying” and the “nature of the said.” As for the “way of the saying,” the strongly marked rhythms, the frequent appearance of rhyme, and the figurative language may seem odd and distracting; and as for the “nature of the said,” it generally contains neither a good, suspenseful story nor obviously useful information. Poetry, in short, may seem both unnatural and irrelevant.

Think of all the glorious ways the editors could have led off.  Instead, we get this utter sheepishness. Of all the definitions of poetry, this is perhaps the dullest we have ever heard: Poetry is a kind of “saying.” 

In their defense, we are sure, that as text book authors, they were attempting the plainest and least adorned definition possible so as not to scare away the plain-speaking person who has no natural inclination to poetry. The danger of this position, however, is that one ends up arguing, and rallying to, the devil’s case: poetry is “useless,” especially if one is not “well acquainted” with it.  Attempting to “be democratic,” the elitist is just more elitist in the end—and this, in a nutshell, is what happened with Modernist poetry and its mass readership, as the art of poetry got lost in the shuffle: elitism was sniffed out, wearing its democratic dress.  The masses left.

The editors attempt an optimistic recovery in the second paragraph, but it’s too little, too late: “Yet poetry…has survived, in one form or another…we may…consider…it does spring from deep human impulses and does fulfill human needs.”

And in the first actual description of poetry, the editors say poetry is primarily “strongly marked by rhythm.”  Those “strongly marked rhythms” which “may seem odd and distracting” from paragraph one?  Yes, those rhythms.

But if the editors of Understanding Poetry are content to play down poetry and weakly define it, the reason is clear: poetry resists definition because to the Modernist critic, poetry, in its modern guise, is an all-inclusive sort of everything, which simultaneously rejects and converts itself into whatever it is, from the old poetry it is leaving behind.

Those “marked rhythms” that identify poetry?  According to our text book’s introduction, these include “seasons…moon…tides…migration of birds…” and those of the “human body…” a “locus of rhythms,” including “hunger and satiety.”  Rhythm includes “all life…all activity” and is “deeply involved in…emotion…”

We are reminded that “rhythm is a natural and not an artificial aspect of emotion…”

The human is at the center of their definition: in the second paragraph we got “human impulses” and “human needs” and then the human body as a “locus of rhythms” and finally, “emotion,” with the caveat that poetry’s “rhythm,” to properly express emotion must be “natural” and not “artificial.”

The real, natural human appears to be what they are after, in their long reach towards poetry.

Having made much of “rhythm,” they make a weak nod to “rhyme” as a “verbal structure” and memory aid, but they quickly re-visit their thesis: “man is a form-making animal.”

Finally, they get language and its origin in their sights.  The editors agree with Emerson (and quote Owen Barfield) in support of the notion that language is “metaphoric” and they say that “slang” is “healthy” for this reason: “Slang is simply the bastard brother of poetry.”

Understanding Poetry invests a great deal in metaphor: “metaphor represents not only the “way of saying” but also the “said.”  Metaphor might be said to be a fancy way of saying something indirectly, of deferring meaning, of creating a kind of fake synthesis, whipping up a comparative “significance” where none exists.  If I say “X is a lot like Y,” it really doesn’t matter whether X and Y resemble each other, or not.  I will find some similarity, and this will make me cleverer, or even a better poet, than you, even though no one is closer to knowing anything about “X” or “Y.”  The labor used in comparing two objects might be better used elsewhere. Comparing two things is usually not the method for knowing a thing.  We have neither the time or the space to conduct a philosophical inquiry into this subject here, but it might be enough to say that great minds have rejected metaphor, even in poetry, as all-important.

They look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang…”

Shakespeare compares himself rather elaborately to autumn.  But why, the editors ask, doesn’t he just say “I am getting old?”

Because, the editors, say, how he feels about “getting old” is also important.   Poetry, they say, is “attitudes and feelings…as they come specifically into experience…action and ideas.”

And then, by page 6 of their 16 page introduction, the editors finally reveal their hand: “poetry is concerned with the massiveness, the multidimensional quality of experience.”

Poetry is just whatever you, in natural, human terms, feel about anything, and the “verbal structure” of poetry is pretty much there to “frame” this “feeling” you have about whatever piece of the “massiveness” of “experience” triggers your feeling.

I could have just said, “I am getting old,” but in order to make you understand how “I feel” about getting old, I throw in some “yellow leaves.”

As the editors put it, “the realm of practical action and that of attitudes and feelings are not separated.”

When poetry is defined this way: as whatever we feel about whatever, we see, finally how “massive” this definition becomes, and this Modernist definition is, in fact, a definition of Modernist poetry, in its suicidal all-inclusiveness.  It sure as hell isn’t a definition of poetry as composed by the genius Shakespeare.  It is poetry reduced to the level of the lug.

The editors’ introduction briefly compares poetry to science, but reject the latter as that which is merely “precise” and “mathematical.”  Science gives us mere H2O, while poetry gives us “water” and thus “associations of drinking, bathing, boating…adventure on the high seas…” etc  Water’s metaphors do massive work.  Mathematics, which scientifically interprets nature, is told to take a hike.

The stake is driven into the heart of science by a quote from Walker Percy:

The secret is this: Science cannot utter a single word about an individual molecule, thing, or creature in so far as it is an individual but only so far as it is like other individuals. The layman thinks that only science can utter the true word about anything, individuals, included. But the layman is an individual. So science cannot say a single word to him or about him except as he resembles others. It comes to pass then that the denizen of a scientific-technological society finds himself in the strangest of predicaments: he lives in a cocoon of dead silence, in which no one can speak to him nor can he reply.

This is a stunning rebuke—by an influential text book by way of Walker Percy—of science and universal truth. Words, by definition, are universals: poetry, too, then, must live in “dead silence” to the individual reader.  This is interesting, but especially in terms of what the editors are trying to say, nonsense, nonetheless.  The “individual” is a word, which we understand only as much as it “resembles others.”  Walker Percy, and the editors of Understanding Poetry, are stuck in a paradox from which there is no escape.  Their rejection of science and a “scientific-technological society” here is nothing but a deeply crackpot protest, if we are to be honest about it.

After dismissing science, the authors keep after the importance of  subjective”feeling:”

At first glance, the field of feeling and attitudes may seem trivial when thought of in contrast to the great bustling practical business of the world or in contrast to the vast body of organized knowledge which science is and which allows man to master, to a certain degree, nature and his own fate.  The field of feeling and attitude may seem to be “merely personal” and “merely subjective,” and therefore of no general interest. But at second thought, we may realize that all the action and knowledge in the world can be valuable only as these things bring meaning to life—to our particular lives, especially.

…Poetry is concerned with the world as responded to sensorially, emotionally, and intellectually. But—and this fact constitutes another significant characteristic of poetry that cannot be overemphasized—this response always involves all three of these elements: a massive, total response—what we have called earlier the multidimensional quality of experience.

…Poetry enables us to know what it “feels like” to be alive in the world. What does it “feel like,” for instance, to be in love, to hate somebody…

Here we have a classic case of the Emersonian Exaggeration: poetry is ill-defined as something anti-scientific, and subjectively and even trivially emotional, and this very definition leads those defining it as such, to subsequently make utterly irrational and exaggerated claims for it, such as “poetry enables us to know what it feels like to be alive…”

First, the editors establish poetry as trivial, emotional, subjective, and then they heap accolades on it which it cannot possibly support.

According to Understanding Poetry, poetry does not exist objectively as an art; it has no verse-like attributes; in the Modernist spirit, it resembles something like an octopus on your face.

The editors inform us that poetry, in all its aspects, is a response to life—in all its aspects.   Poetry, then, is the same as life.  There’s no difference. That, in fact, is their definition of poetry.  Welcome to Modernism.

To prove this, they point out that, “we may have a child chess champion or musical prodigy, but not a child literary critic or dramatist.”  Well, no wonder.  I wouldn’t let a child of mine near Understanding Poetry.  But we might point out that Poe wrote extraordinary poems as a teenager.  And a child (or an adult) is all the wiser for not comprehending the New Criticism.

To keep their (definition of) poetry from drowning in the sea of life, the editors, sensing a complete loss of identity, suddenly begin singing about “vital unity:”

What is crucial to poetry is that these elements—metaphor, rhythm, and statement—are absorbed into a vital unity. The poem, in its vital unity, is a “formed” thing, a thing existing in itself, and its vital unity, its form, embodies—is—its meaning. Yet paradoxically, by the fact of its being “formed” and having its special identity, it somehow makes us more aware of life outside itself. By its own significance it awakens us to the significance of our experience and of the world.

We see, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things that are “poetic” in themselves.

…Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements—meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on—put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The total relationship among all the elements in a poem is what is all-important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the makeup of some physical object, it ought to be not a wall but to something organic like a plant.

The editors are unable to define poetry in practical, common sense, scientific terms; therefore they make it very important whether we say poetry is “like” a wall, or “like” a plant.  Feeling that “metaphor” is vital to poetry, it is perhaps no accident that they reflect this in their hazy attempt at a definition.

Since quotations always help definitions, the authors, who used Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, now turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Quoting Shakespeare is a good idea.  Instead of this text book, why not Shakespeare’s Works?  Poetry becomes less and less the more the authors write about it.

They quote Macbeth to illustrate  “a lack of…melodious effects…the broken rhythms and the tendency to harshness of sound are essential to the dramatic effect that Shakespeare wished.” When “murder” is involved, poetry becomes broken—and this is a good thing.  We are essentially told that poetry—which the editors still haven’t defined—needs to be mangled for dramatic license.

Perhaps “mangled” isn’t fair.  We’ll quote the Shakespeare passage and a specific observation they make about it:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

…The piling up of the s sounds in the second, third, and fourth lines helps to give the impression of desperate haste and breathless excitement; the effect is of a conspiratorial whisper.  The rhythm and sound effects of the passage, then, are poetic in the only sense that we have seen to be legitimate: they are poetic because they contribute to the total significance of the passage.

This is interesting—even brilliant, and we note again the persistent theme: poetry is nothing in itself except as it mimics life.  We would call this admirable, but we cannot. Are we really to believe that the “s sound” belongs to all poetry evincing “conspiratorial whisper[ing]?”  Is this a rule?  What about the words in that passage which are not sibilant? Should the actor cease to whisper when uttering the word “catch”and “blow” and “time” and “come?”  As much as we like the observation, as much as we admire Shakespeare, we do not think a marvelous hissing sound made by an actor belongs to either the cause or the effect of poetry, except in a very marginal way.

A good actor can make any script sound dramatic in any number of ways.  The truth is, poetry is not, by definition, a script with all sorts of directorial notes hidden within it.  This is to confuse poetry with the dramatic arts; and even Shakespeare is no excuse for this confusion.  The student of poetry, if they listen to Brooks and Warren, will come away believing that bad poetry is really good—because various dramatic situations turn the good to bad which is deemed good.  Not only will the student poet be convinced by his Modernist elders, Brooks and Warren, that his bad poetry is good, he will be convinced his poetry is “dramatic,” as well.

We see the New Critical rationale at work: since ‘the poem’ is considered all, let us really make it all in our definition; let us have life flow in and out of the poem so that they are almost one.  “A situation underlies every poem, and the poem is what the situation provokes.”  The poem is “a little—or sometimes a big—drama.”

The origin and effect of poetry, according to the New Criticism, are largely irrelevant.  The why of a poem’s making and the why of a poem’s impact are thus, irrelevant.

On one hand, for Brooks and Warren, poetry belongs to the “stuff of life,” (making its specific existence vague in the extreme) and at the same time, life is not permitted to ask what poetry is for, exactly, and to what good is it aimed?  Plato asked these larger questions, and is mostly considered rude and inappropriate for doing so.  Aristotle, who focused more on the art itself, influences to a much greater extent, the Modernists. Yet even Aristotle is too precise for them. The Modernist shuns categories, divisions, parts, for the generalized rant:

In an important sense, all poems are fictional, even poems that profess to be autobiographical, for the voice of the poem is inevitably a creation and not a natural and spontaneous outburst.

This contradicts what was said earlier: the authors said a poem’s emotions should be “natural” and not “artificial.”  They said a poem was like “a plant” and not something “mechanical.”  Yet here they insist a poem is never “spontaneous.”  These gentlemen grew up on Romanticism, and are trying to replace it, with all its errors, with something even more replete with error, that they, nor anyone else, understands.

They recommend the “mask” as a dramatic truth-telling device (quoting Yeats, Wilde and Emerson), and point out that Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, was named after Robert E. Lee, began his career in England, and “Yankee-fy’d” his poetic voice “to develop the character that speaks in his poems.”  New Criticism masks the truth, so why shouldn’t it be enamored of the mask?  We can’t deny they make sense when they say, “when we are making an acquaintance with a poem, we must answer these questions: 1) Who is speaking? 2) Why?”  But according to the New Critics, these questions can only be asked of the fiction.  Their brief analysis of Frost, however, would seem to indicate they know how to unmask, when necessary.  One rule for them, one rule for you.

We speak of an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry as an end to be gained. But some people assume that no preparation, no effort, no study, no thought, is necessary for that experience, and that if a poem seems to make such demands it is so much the less poetry.  This assumption is sadly erroneous…

As they wind up their introduction, they are back to asserting the craven pedantry that “an enlarged capacity for the experience of poetry” is more important than learning what poetry actually is, and even questioning its very existence.  True learning names what things are, discriminates, narrows, weeds out; an “enlarged capacity” and “demands” is code for: you’ll clean out my stables before I will call you a poet—and that’s only if I like you.

By way of conclusion we must emphasize two related matters of the greatest importance: First, criticism and analysis, as modestly practiced in this book and more grandly elsewhere and by other hands, is ultimately of value only insofar as it can return to the poem itself—return them, that is, better prepared to experience it more immediately, fully, and, shall we say, innocently. The poem is an experience, yes, but it is a deeply significant experience, and criticism aims only at making the reader more aware of the depth and range of the experience. Second, there is no point at which a reader can say, “I am now ready to experience poetry.”

Why should Criticism only “return to the poem itself?”  Why should Criticism only “better prepare [us] to experience [the poem] more immediately, fully…?”

Understanding Poetry makes the amorphous “experience” of poetry the end of the whole process—a process which should be asking:  Why poetry?  What is poetry?  This influential text instead urges on us a kind of endless “experiencing” of the “experience” of a poem that is the “experience” of life’s “experience.”  Plenty of room for nuance, here, sure.  But also plenty of room for crap, pedantic bullying, emotional grandstanding, and ‘office politics’ corruption.

The introduction is reinforced by chapter one,  “Dramatic Situation,” and its foreword:

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 wood with a buzz-saw; or we read in the newspaper…

The authors want to shove horrible “accidents” in our face and make this the standard of poetry. Poetry, for Brooks and Warren, becomes journalism, or worse:

[Poetic] interest, as we have indicated, is not scientific or practical, but is simply the general curiosity we feel about people as human beings. Even though the account of a painful accident or a sordid murder seems almost as far removed as possible from poetry, it arouses the kind of interest which poetry attempts to satisfy, and comprises the “stuff of poetry.

The editors then present “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost as the first poem in the book.

Ben Mazer’s “Poetry Mathematics” and the 30 Best Poetry Essays of All Time

First, the List:

1. REPUBLIC (BKS, 3, 10)- PLATO
A truism, but agree or not, every poet must come to terms with Plato.

2. THE FOUR AGES OF POETRY- THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK 
This essay rocks.  A genuinely great work of sweeping, historical criticism.

3. POETS WITHOUT LAURELS- JOHN CROWE RANSOM
Short essay, but historically explains Modernism…Ransom was more than just a New Critic…

4. PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION- EDGAR A. POE
Wrote a poem, then added a philosophy: cheap!  Uhh…no, that misses the point. Close writing trumps close reading…

5. POETICS- ARISTOTLE
Groundwork.

6. VITA NUOVA- DANTE
Practical document of poetry as mixture of Aristotle, romance, and religion. 

7. A DEFENSE OF POETRY- SHELLEY
Wide-ranging idealism.

8. LAOCOON: ESSAY ON THE LIMITS OF POETRY & PAINTING- G.E. LESSING
18th Century Work of Classical Rigor. A keeper.

9. AN APOLOGY FOR POETRY- SIR PHILIP SIDNEY
“Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.”

10. PHAEDRUS- PLATO
Tale of rhetoric and inspiration by the poet-hating poet.

11. PURE AND IMPURE POETRY- ROBERT PENN WARREN
Smash-mouth modernism from the 1930s—lots of Poe and Shelley-hating.

12. SYSTEM OF TRANSCENDENTAL IDEALISM- F.W. SCHELLING
“All knowledge rests on the agreement of something objective with something subjective.”

13. ON THE SUBLIME- LONGINUS
The sublime, baby!

14. TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT- T.S. ELIOT
The avant-garde reigned in by humdrum?

15. PREFACE, 2ND ED., LYRICAL BALLADS- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Speaking like real men!

16. LETTERS- KEATS
Selfless excess.

17. THE POET- EMERSON
Walt Whitman, Inc.

18. WELL-WROUGHT URN- CLEANTH BROOKS
A Defense of Close-Reading New Criticism: Poetry As Paradox and Non-Paraphrasable Ambiguity

19. THE ARCHETYPES OF LITERATURE- NORTHRUP FRYE
Jungian rebuke of the New Criticism…

20. CAN POETRY MATTER?- DANA GIOIA
Yes, believe it or not, this one belongs to the ages…

21. ESSAY ON CRITICISM- POPE
Iconic, metrical…

22. THE STUDY OF POETRY- MATTHEW ARNOLD
High seriousness, dude…

23. ON NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL POETRY- FRIEDRICH SCHILLER
Supremely Romantic criticism

24. THE ION- PLATO
A curt and elegant reminder for the poetic blowhard…

25. PREFACE TO SHAKESPEARE- SAMUEL JOHNSON
Always a place for the moral conservative…

26. CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT- KANT
“An aesthetical judgment is not an objective cognitive judgment.”

27. RATIONALE OF VERSE- POE
The best user guide for the craft of verse, period.

28. PERFORMATIVE UTTERANCES- J.L. AUSTIN
This clever-ass essay blows everything to hell, making Language Poetry possible…

29. THE ENGLISH POET AND THE BURDEN OF THE PAST- W. JACKSON BATE
Published prior to, and is more cogent than, Harold Bloom’s more famous work…

30. FOUNDATIONS OF POETRY MATHEMATICS- BEN MAZER
A useful look at what the cool kids are saying…

Tedious, unscientific, hare-brained manifesto-ism (Pound, Charles Olson, etc) did not make the list.

We found Mazer’s “Mathematics” eccentric and odd at points, yet despite its uncanny moments, sincere and earnest throughout.  The work, just recently published, seems the natural outcome of an “end of the line,” “uncertainty principle” post-modernism looping back to classical German Romantic idealism, which is exactly what we take the dual “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” (2.1 b) to mean.

We like the sly rebuff of “The classics are static. They do not change.” (2.3)  This could be censor or praise, and Mazer’s ambiguity is a good thing.  It seems to solve something.

Here is the Romantic Mazer: “A greater amount of emotion is the effect of a greater work of art.” (2.4)  “There is no poetry higher than the music of Beethoven.” (2.11)

Here is the Mazer of J.L. Austin: “Poetry differs from nonsense in being incontrovertible. It cannot be proved to be nonsense, that nothing is being said.” (2.2)

Here is the great puzzle.  We are not sure, but it seems Mazer implicitly agrees with Austin—who said (to the satisfaction of some) that “nonsense” cannot be proved to exist since language is a “performance,” not an “imitation.” 

If art is essentially imitative, reality, within the frame of the picture, is boiled down to essense, order, and beauty. If poetic language is imitative (the default belief for thousands of years) there needs to be correspondence between subject and object, between understanding and nature; this is the basis of science, society, and art.  Keats’ “Beauty is Truth” formula is that supreme correlation, which, in a mere 100 years, has fallen into its opposite—because the imitative function of art has been rejected.

In poetry, J.L. Austin provided the reason. Language, Austin said, is a “performance,” and not just performative in obvious ways (“I now pronounce you man and wife” or “Move your ass, bud!”) but in every way.  “Truth is Beauty” is not verifiable, because all language-use is an action, and acts in a specific context.

No one who is honest, however, buys Austin’s rhetoric, and we think Mazer only buys it against his better judgement.  Mazer’s example of Beethoven is telling; Mazer’s “Mathematics” has great merit in saying a lot in a few words. What says more than ‘Beethoven?’  Genius often surprises, not with its complexity, but with its simplicity, and we cannot think of another poetry critic who would casually toss Beethoven on the table—and yet why not?  What artistic work is more “incomprehensible and incontrovertible” than Beethoven’s?  Beethoven is “incomprehensible” in a very real sense: listening to Beethoven’s music, we have no idea what he is saying, or what he means.  Yet the artistic impact of Beethoven’s music is “incontrovertible.”  No one would say Beethoven’s music is “nonsense,” a word Austin specifically uses in his argument (“Performative Utterances” no. 28 above).

And since Beethoven is a Romantic era figure and belongs to the classical Romantic tradition—one which seeks correspondence between understanding and nature, it is useful to examine Beethoven (as poet) in light of Austin’s explicit attempt to invalidate correspondence, with the result that every linguistic trope is controvertible.  But even if we take every utterance to be performative, this does not mean that we as speakers and writers do not still seek correspondence between understanding and nature.  Speech (poetry, art) without correspondence is still nonsense. 

The metaphoric nature of poetry attempts to stretch correspondence; but stretching is not breaking.

The Language Poetry school, the unfortunate result of Austin’s philosophy, is what happens when anything breaks instead of stretches.

Mazer, trapped in a post-J.L. Austin universe, longs to reunite with Romanticism, a shameful act in today’s Letters—burdened by the nonsensical spasms of modernism, as the bodily correspondences come apart—but this only makes Mazer’s yearning that much more profound and leads to the success of his poetry.  As any good Romantic knows, the longing for correspondence is more important than the correspondence itself.  The Language poet is inevitably too self-pleased.

When Mazer says, “Beauty is characterized by being indefinable,” (2.9) we read between the lines and find Romantic longing.

OUR HERO

for Robert Penn Warren

Our hero escapes to the dance club downstairs
Where iambic dactylics gather in pairs.

Songs are stupid and sad,
Stories are perceptive and gay,
The maid who died in one
Works in the other for pay.

Imperfect, holy music
Lets the hero escape
Into a lyric prison
Of romantic wishes and scrape.
Fending off death
As best he can,
The old, obnoxious ritual
Climbs into the van,
Then driving for miles
As only lyric will,
Hasting towards the old styles
And then, fare ye well.

SIR GEOFFREY HILL: THE MOST OVERRATED POET, EVER?

“Can I help you?”  That annoyed, bookworm look.

For too long now, since the early 20th century, poetry has become a vessel for pedantry—everything that poetry is not: gnarly, dweeby, bitter, pretentious, digressive, unpleasant, mumbly, claptrap.

“Difficult” is the icy, vampire-breath spell that needs to be broken—with our warm Shelley and Keats.

Fight off the New Critic specters, find T.S. Eliot in his coffin, and stab him through the heart.

Then the boil known as Geoffrey Hill will burst and dribble away.

But at the present, no birds sing.

Hill, who some in tweedy academia call the “greatest living poet,” used the “difficult” approach when he went off recently on Carol Ann Duffy; the current British poet laureate innocently called poetry the original texting message: after all, poetry is known for its ability to say a lot in a few words.  No, thundered the greatest living poet; difficulty is the essence of poetry, not brevity.   But really.  Duffy’s point need not be burned to the ground, even if it is just another one of those vain attempts to make poetry seem more relevant in a world that ignores or hates it today.  Over here, we have Shelley’s Defense of Poetry. And over here…a observation that texting youth are making poems—sort of.  OK, maybe it’s pathetic.  But worse, far worse, is Geoffrey Hill’s “difficult” maneuver, which is a complete turning away from Shelley’s Defense.  Any defense of poetry that says “poetry is difficult is no defense at all, but don’t tell that to a pundit like Sir Geoffrey.  Shelley, nor any of the Romantics, ever thought of defending, or describing, poetry as “difficult.”  Shelley at 22 was more learned than Geoffrey Hill will ever be, and Shelley stretched out on the sand before the sea is difficulty enough.  “Don’t treat readers like fools,” Hill tells Duffy, but to be intentionally difficult ranks as the most foolish effort of all.  Difficult exists in poetry or elsewhere, but not as a goal—that would be, quite simply, insane.

The difficult school produces poetry which is a series of impressions that may, at best, produce a state of strange befuddlement—which we might convince ourselves has some kind of intellectual worth. 

Shelley, by contrast, is like drinking from a cold spring after one has been hiking for hours.

The experiences are quite different.

The tradition from which Hill springs can be traced back to the early 20th century British academic tradition which produced plain language philosophy and language poetry.  The Cambridge Apostles, Kim Philby, Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, Anthony Blunt, G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Guy Burgess, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Ottoline Morrell, and F.R. Leavis.  “Difficult?”  Sure.  The poetry of government spies, double agents, closeted homosexuals and language philosophers  is bound to be difficult.   The source of the “difficult” tradition has a place and a name: Bloomsbury, Oxford, Cambridge.

The New Critics, who dominated American poetry for 50 years, were all Rhodes Scholars in England.  They were Southern Agrarians (basically defending the Old South) before they became New Critics.  Figure that one out.  Difficult?  Oh, yes. 

Then there’s poetry for people, poetry in the universal, democratic tradition.  Hello, Shelley.  Hello, Poe.

The other poetry is that of the priesthood, not for those who entertain people, but for those who want to manage people—the so-called difficult school, which appeals to language philosophy professors and those trained in various types of intelligence and social engineering.  Sir Geoffrey Hill. The New Critics.  Pound, Eliot, Guy Burgess.  The difficult ones.

Those in the second group hate and fear those rare artists like Poe and Shelley—populist geniuses savvy enough to expose them for what they are. 

Here is a good example: New Critic Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” first delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942—this is where Allen Tate was seting up an early Poetry Workshop.  Warren’s lecture was later published in John Crowe Ransom’s influential Kenyon Review.  But before we look at Penn Warren, let’s quickly take a peek at another essay, a more famous one:

IN speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most definite impression. By “minor poems” I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.

In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.

That the extent of a poetical work is, cœteris [[ceteris]] paribus, the measure of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition sufficiently absurd — yet we are indebted for it to the Quarterly Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere size, abstractly considered — there can be nothing in mere bulk, so far as a volume is concerned, which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical magnitude which it conveys, does impress us with a sense of the sublime — but no man is impressed after this fashion by the material grandeur of even “The Columbiad.” Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be so impressed by it. As yet, they have not insisted on our estimating Lamartine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound — but what else are we to infer from their continual prating about “sustained effort?” If, by “sustained effort,” any little gentleman has accomplished an epic, let us frankly commend him for the effort — if this indeed be a thing commendable — but let us forbear praising the epic on the effort’s account. It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of art, rather by the impression it makes, by the effect it produces, than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing, and genius quite another; nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them. By and by, this proposition, with many which I have been just urging, will be received as self-evident. In the mean time, by being generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as truths.

On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.

A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a poem — in keeping it out of the popular view — is afforded by the following exquisite little Serenade.

I arise from dreams of thee,
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me — who knows how? —
To thy chamber-window, sweet!The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream —
The champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale’s complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on thine,
O, beloved as thou art!O, lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast:
Oh! press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last!

Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines — yet no less a poet than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination will be appreciated by all — but by none so thoroughly as by him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved, to bathe in the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.

Poe’s remarks made this little poem by Shelley one of Shelley’s more popular poems

In his essay, Robert Penn Warren sets up a staw man: pure poetry.   Pure poetry, in Warren’s view, is what poets like Poe and Shelley are after.  Pure poetry is the target which Warren, the New Critic, attempts to destroy.

Warren looks at “The Indian Serenade,” as well, and one can tell Shelley’s poem is now better known.  One can see the shift from Poe’s “Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines” to Robert Penn Warren’s introduction to Shelley’s poem in his essay:

And we know another poet and another garden. Or perhaps it is the same garden, after all:

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

We remember how, again, all nature conspires, how the wandering airs “faint,” how the Champak’s odors “pine,” how the nightingale’s complaint “dies upon her heart,” as the lover will die upon the beloved’s heart. Nature here strains out of nature, it wants to be called by another name., it wants to spiritualize itself by calling itself another name.

The ideality of Poe and Shelley are faulted by Warren as “nature” which “strains out of nature,” and “nature” that wishes to “spiritualize itself.” 

Prior to his discussion of Shelley’s “garden” from “The Indian Serenade,” Warren presents the various elements of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet so he can refute “pure poetry” in the following way: Romeo swears his love for Juliet by the moon: Juliet objects because the moon is changeable.  Warren assigns “pure poetry” to Romeo’s “purist” moon metaphor and Juliet’s objection represents, for Warren, the more sensible “impure poetry” of the moderns—who laugh at the straining, spiritual sentimentalism of purists, Poe and Shelley—and, in this case, Romeo.  Here are Warren’s exact words:

Within the garden itself, when the lover invokes nature, when he spiritualizes and innocently trusts her, and says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear,” the lady herself replies, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon/That monthly changes in her circled orb.”  The lady distrusts “pure” poems, nature spiritualized into forgetfulness. She has, as it were, a rigorous taste in metaphor, too; she brings a logical criticism to bear on the metaphor which is too easy; the metaphor must prove itself to her, must be willing to subject itself to scrutiny beyond the moment’s enthusiasm. She injects the impurity of an intellectual style into the lover’s pure poem.

Juliet, and “her rigorous taste in metaphor!”   According to Warren, the New Critic, the “logic” of Juliet “injects the impurity of an intellectual style” into the “pure poem.” 

Of course this is imbecilic.  Here is a classic case of pedantic over-thinking by a New Critic determined to push out the Shelley/Poe influence in poetry.  Juliet does not object to the “metaphor.”  She objects to the inconstant moon.   Warren is attempting to work up an intellectual case against “purity” (and Shelley’s “Indian Serenade”) by linking “pure poetry” to an inexact use of metaphor.  But the metaphor does not fail here; the moon fails.  And the moon fails for the woo’d girl because of its inconstancy.  There is nothing “impure” here—except in Warren’s reasoning.  Nothing in Juliet’s objection signals “impurity,” or a rebuke to Poe or Shelley’s poetry, or their Platonist philosophy.  The implied Shakespearean rebuke of Shelley’s “purity” is all in Warren’s New Critical head. 

Warren continues the attack on Shelley’s “purity” by “installing Mercutio in the shrubbery” of Shelley’s “Indian Serenade.”  (Mercutio is outside the garden in the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene—why not put him in the Shelley poem?)  “And we can guess what the wicked tongue would have to say in response to the last stanza,”  says Warren, rubbing his hands together in glee.

Warren then works up an elaborate trope about how all poets must come to terms with the bawdy Mercutio when writing love poems—one cannot exclude Mercutio entirely without consequences.  Warren’s point is certainly apt—if only he were not comparing a brief lyric to a play.  Poe (who was always very vigorous about metaphor) made this precise point regarding “undue brevity” one hundred years prior—which Warren seems to have completely missed.

Poe appreciates the beauty of Shelley’s poem, remarking that its brevity prevents it from being a popular poem.  Warren, however, blames the beauty that is there in Shelley’s poem—by comparing it to a Shakespeare play—and implying there is something intellectually lacking  in Shelley’s lyric.

Warren says a lot more in this essay: how there are many types of poetic purity, so many, in fact, they contradict each other; that purity implies exclusion—as when Poe says poetry should exclude truth and passion except by contrast, and strive for unity—and since there are as many types of exclusions as types of purity, the exclusionary strategy is fruitless; hence Poe is wrong, and all poems benefit from being impure.

Warren then examines two poems; first the famous four-line “Western wind, when wilt thou blow,” and then his friend John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”  We get the sort of New Critical analysis that mingles the obvious with the obscure in such an over-reaching manner that it ends up making one feel less acquainted with the poem.  No one will remember Warren’s essay—except for perhaps Harvard’s Stephen Burt, who stole the concept “Elliptical Poetry” from its pages. 

The New Critics began something wicked—even as they, themselves, now fade from our collective memories.  It is the seed planted by the New Critics that makes us declaim today that the ghastly Sir Geoffrey Hill is the “greatest living poet.”

SCARRIET’S BEST POEMS OF THE 20TH CENTURY

Here, in no particular order, are Scarriet’s best poems of the 20th century.

Why these poems?

Because they hide from nothing, and all, on some level, break your heart.  Poe was right when he said poetry appeals to the heart and not the head.  Because many heads get this wrong, and think poetry is some kind of mental exercise, the universe has been turned upside-down for the last three-quarters of a century by a certain never-resting snobbery infesting perches in the taste-making branches of higher learning.  The poems on this list don’t get lost in minutea,  have no interest in proving how smart, or intellectual, or street they are.  They all aim for that middle ground which has intercourse with the earthy and the abstract, filtering each, as they combine nature with nature to make art.

If art is what we do to become gods, if art is what we consciously do, we don’t see why art should express the suicidal, or make us miserable, or should express the ugly, or the random.  Certainly melancholy approaching pain is allowed, but misery?

The usual coteries, which have slathered their cliquish influence over American Letters, are notably absent.   Our list reflects poetic talent, whether or not it happened, or happens, to reside within machinations of puffery. Some poets may be puffed, but not all the puffed are poets.

The Vanity of the Blue Girls -John Crowe Ransom
The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
litany  -Carolyn Creedon
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost
Recuerdo  -Edna Millay
When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Galway Kinnell
Sailing To Byzantium  -William Yeats
Dirge Without Music  -Edna Millay
The Groundhog  -Richard Eberhart
Musee Des Beaux Arts  -W.H. Auden
Elegy for Jane  -Theodore Roethke
I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great  -Stephen Spender
Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Dylan Thomas
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -T.S. Eliot
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Randall Jarrell
In California During the Gulf War  -Denise Levertov
Wild Peaches  -Elinor Wylie
Moriturus  -Edna Millay
Whitsun Weddings  -Philip Larkin
A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
Aubade  -Philip Larkin
Patterns  -Amy Lowell
A Supermarket in California  -Allen Ginsberg
Her Kind  -Anne Sexton
Not Waving,  But Drowning  -Stevie Smith
i stopped writing poetry  -Bernard Welt
Dream On  -James Tate
Pipefitter’s Wife  -Dorianne Laux
On the Death of Friends In Childhood  -Donald Justice
Daddy  -Sylvia Plath
Resume’  -Dorothy Parker
Time Does Not Bring Relief  -Edna Millay
If I Should Learn, In Some Quite Casual Way  -Edna Millay
Evening in the Sanitarium  -Louise Bogan
At Mornington  -Gwen Harwood
Those Sunday Mornings  -Robert Hayden
Psalm and Lament  -Donald Justice
The Ship of Death  -D.H. Lawrence
One Train May Hide Another  -Kenneth Koch
Encounter  -Czeslaw Milosz
Anthem For Doomed Youth  -Wilfred Owen
The Little Box  -Vasko Popa
For My Daughter  -Weldon Kees
The Golden Gate  -Vikram Seth
The Grass  -Carl Sandburg
Mending Wall  -Robert Frost
Peter Quince at the Clavier  -Wallace Stevens
The Fresh Start  -Anna Wickham
Bavarian Gentians  -D.H. Lawrence
River Roses  -D.H. Lawrence
The Hill  -Rupert Brooke
La Figlia Che Piange  -T.S. Eliot
“Not Marble nor the Gilded Monuments” -Archibald MacLeish
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why  -Edna Millay
What They Wanted  -Stephen Dunn
Down, Wanton, Down!  -Robert Graves
Cross  -Langston Hughes
As I Walked Out One Evening  -W.H. Auden
Love on the Farm  -D.H. Lawrence
Who’s Who  -W.H. Auden
The Waste Land  -T.S. Eliot
Snake  -D.H. Lawrence
At the Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop
And Death Shall Have No Dominion  -Dylan Thomas
Reasons for Attendance  -Philip Larkin
Fern Hill  -Dylan Thomas
Distance From Loved Ones  -James Tate
The Hospital Window  -James Dickey
An Arundel Tomb  -Philip Larkin
My Father in the Night Commanding No  -Louis Simpson
I Know A Man  -Robert Creeley
High Windows  -Philip Larkin
The Explosion  -Philip Larkin
You Can Have It  -Philip Levine
Diving Into the Wreck  -Adrienne Rich
Pike  -Ted Hughes
Pleasure Bay  -Robert Pinsky
The Colonel  -Carolyn Forche
Composed Over Three Thousand Miles From Tintern Abbey  -Billy Collins
The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite  -William Kulik
The Year  -Janet Bowdan
How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin
Amphibious Crocodile  -John Crowe Ransom
The Mediterranean  -Allen Tate
To A Face In A Crowd  -Robert Penn Warren
Utterance  -Donald Davidson
The Ballad of Billie Potts  -Robert Penn Warren
Preludes  -T.S. Eliot
Sweeney among the Nightingales  -T.S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi  -T.S. Eliot
The Veiled Lady  -Maura Stanton
Prophecy  -Donald Hall
Archaic Torso of Apollo  -Rainer Maria Rilke
Of Poor B.B.  -Bertolt Brecht
Women  -Louise Bogan
Bored  –Margaret Atwood
A Happy Thought  -Franz Wright
The Idea of Ancestry -Etheridge Knight
Smiling Through  -Reed Whittemore
Histoire  -Harry Mathews
The Request  -Sharon Olds

THE FOUR WAVES: MODERNISM REVISTED

Rupert Brooke: Angry, perplexed, and the true face of tragic Modernism.

THE QUESTION: WHAT IS THE MODERN?

has been over-examined into platitude. The answers have hardened into unthinking cliche.  It’s so bad that not only have the answers hardened into cliche—they’re simply wrong.

Here’s a simple quiz: which of the following events shaped Modernism the most?

1. American Revolution
2. American Civil War
3. Franco-Prussian War
4. Russo-Japanese War
5. World War I

The answer, of course, is that all five are significant, (the Japanese victory in #4 produced a ‘haiku rage’ in the West in 1905, the real reason behind the Imagiste ‘revolution’ and Williams’ ‘Wheel Barrow’) but, in the usual discourse on Modernism, No. 5 gets all the attention.  “The Waste Land” was supposedly a reaction to World War One.  Well, not really.

The time has arrived to take a wider look at Anglo-American Letters (and its ancillary ethnic writings): to connect theory and practice, theory and the human, theory and the world at large.

Poetry has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of theory, and it’s time to bring her back, with all due respect to theorizing Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Pater, Eliot, the New Critics, and the various post-modernist schools of Freud, Feminism, Linguistics, Multiculturalism, and Foucault.  I have left out the New Historicism, because calling historiography “new” is just another part of the problem—modernism studied from the perspective of “the modern” only perpetuates the myopia and the platitude.

American poetry criticism, by a strange accident, is Southern.

Poe, America’s first critic, though he lived many years in Philly/NY, established his critical renown in Virginia (after attending Jefferson’s newly formed U. VA), and even as Poe rose to world eminence as a post-romantic populist, poet, short-story writer, novelist, and literary inventor, his reputation as a critic made him ‘who he was,’ a hated figure in many places: New York, London, and New England.  Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to London and wooed the English instead, bowing down before figures like Wordsworth and Carlyle—whom Poe, in good fun, had only insulted. Emerson turned his back on Poe, which established a long trend of Yankee aesthetes preferring the English to their own: T.S. Eliot and Henry James come rapidly to mind.

In his review of Poe’s complete works, Harold Bloom called Poe “inescapable.”  Poe is “inescapable,” so much so that 20th century Anglo-American Modernism almost means “kill Poe.” On one side, you’ve got Poe, as ubiquitous as the trees and the sun and boats, and, on another, a person writing a poem on their grandmother’s cancer treatment as an MFA student in one of American’s creative writing workshops. Emerson, who Bloom kept almost comically touting in his 1984 NY Review piece on Poe, is not “inescapable.”  Emerson, therefore, is allowed in the room.

The second wave of influential American poetry criticism emerged from a Southern campus: Vanderbilt University, as Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Brooks took a 20th century American-world-prominence view of wave Number one, Poe, as a battered, Romantic figure of “pure poetry.” The New Critics theorized narrowly, even as they thought they were being expansive: Robert Penn Warren’s lecture in 1942 at Princeton—where Allen Tate founded one of the first Poetry Workshops and where John Berryman learned to drink—a lecture subsequently published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, was called “Pure and Impure Poetry,” and it boldly says:

In so far as we have poetry at all, it is always pure poetry; that is, it is not non-poetry. The poetry of Shakespeare, the poetry of Pope, the poetry of Herrick, is pure, in so far as it is poetry at all.

And then, just as boldly:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems don’t.

And, just as boldly, this as well:

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing that is available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.

And by way of assertion, Warren quotes Wallace Stevens’ professor at Harvard, George Santayana, and in this delightful quote from Santayana, one can see exactly where Stevens’ method comes from, even as it advances Warren’s argument:

Philosophy, when the poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet, it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude expression; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length.

In this 1942 lecture, Warren lumps Shelley with Poe as naive examples of pure poetry (as part of the great modernist revolt against ideal Romanticism) and, at the same time Warren deftly expands the definition of pure poetry with the help of the now forgotten Frederick Pottle and his “Elliptical” poetry—poetry that is pure, yet obscure and suggestive.

Warren proves to his satisfaction that “pure poetry” cannot exist—and nicely within the terms established by the godfather of New Criticism, T.S. Elilot. Warren adds this acknowledgment:

Marvell and Eliot, by their cutting away of frame, are trying to emphasize the participation of ideas in the poetic process.

The “inescapable” Edgar Poe, and his “pure poetry,” is killed by Robert Penn Warren—in his “Pure and Impure Poetry.”

Southern Poe, according to Southern Warren, is wrong.  All sorts of ideas and things may be included in poetry.

If Poe chooses to include all sorts of things (quite successfully) in his work that is not poetry, Warren would rather not have to contemplate that.

But to each his own.  Poe had to be “escaped.”  And he was.

Warren was borrowing from Emerson, of course, who had attempted to dethrone Poe a century earlier with similarly excitable and high-sounding rhetoric:

The sign and credentials of the poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.

Only an Emerson could get away with denoting who was an “eternal man” and who wasn’t, and Poe, who must be the writer to whom Emerson refers, “a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” was being eternally damned by Emerson, the modern seer, for writing what 100 years later, the New Critics would also consider a sin—writing “pure poetry.”

The third Wave in American Criticism was Confessional Poetry, and this, too, is Southern. Robert Lowell, on the advice of family psychiatrist Merrill Moore (an original member of Ransom and Tate’s Fugitive group at Vanderbilt) left Harvard for Tennessee to stay with Tate, and to study with Ransom and room with Randall Jarrell at Kenyon, and later, as a graduate student, to study with Warren and Brooks at Louisiana.  The whole “confessional” mileau was coined by M.H. Abrams in a review of Lowell, but it was also overshadowed by Wave Number One, Poe, analyzed by one of Freud’s inner circle, Princess Marie Bonaparte, in a landmark biographical study published in French in 1933.  Another way to “escape” Poe, apparently, was to psychoanalyze him, to keep his literary achievements at arm’s length by turning him into a person with a lot of hang-ups.  Wave Number Three was essentially born out of Wave Number Two and Wave Number One.

Where is criticism now?  It ambles along with Harvard’s Helen Vendler celebrating Wallace Stevens, who was at Harvard himself, 100 years ago; Stephen Burt is set to succeed Vendler—and Burt’s chief resume item is his bogus, 10-year old claim that he coined the term “Elliptical poetry.”

In the 1940s, F.O. Matthiessen wrote Poe out of the canon in his American Renaissance, firmly establishing Emerson and Whitman in Poe’s place; Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard when Bly, Ashbery and Creeley were students there, and they are now minor poetic icons: Bly, the hippie, Creeley, the refined hippie, Ashbery, the inscrutable.

John Ashbery’s “Elliptical” type of poetry now reigns—according to the influential critic, Harold Bloom, whose Anxiety of Influence (a theft of W. Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet) supports Ashbery’s amusing “Oh fuck it all” approach to poetry.  Ashbery is the implicit answer to the ‘dead-end’ of Western culture, as well as New Criticism’s desire for purely “impure poetry.”

The only objection to Ashbery’s importance comes from the South, in what might be described as the Fourth Wave of Criticism: William Logan, born, really, from the Second Wave. Logan might be called New Criticism’s revenge, a Randall Jarrell II, who sees Modernism not as a break with Romanticism, but as a legitimate continuation of it; for Logan, post-Modernism is where the problems really begin.

Criticism has traveled, and will travel, paths other than the Four Waves described here, but these are the essential ones.  Other topics arise: Islam v. the West, for example; but topics like this will finally be more about politics and religion than art. 

Poetry Criticsm has always been found in a wilderness inside a wilderness.  Talk about the larger wilderness, and one is not really talking about poetry anymore.

Let’s make an attempt to look at the larger wilderness as it applies to Anglo-American poetry criticism:

The two most popular poets in English-speaking poetry over the last 200 years are William Wordsworth and Robert Frost.  One celebrates the English landscape, the other the landscape of New England.  This is not insignificant.

Nature, that hoary term, is used by poetry, as it is used by imperial design—Nature is a political trope.  Natural beauty appeals to everyone; camping-out doesn’t require poetry as part of the camping equipment; one might tell stories in the tent—probably ghost stories—but reading nature poetry in the wilderness is twee, and anyone bringing Wordsworth along on a camping trip would be viewed as a bit of a dork.  Wordsworth is Nature for the drawing-room and parlor. Emerson’s “wilderness:” where is it, really? Nature poetry has less to do with wilderness than with the misanthropic musings of a highly patriotic Englishman:

It is that feeling of fresh loneliness that impresses itself before any detail of the wild. The soul—or the personality—seems to have indefinite room to expand. There is no one else within reach, there never has been anyone; no one else is thinking of the lakes and hills you see before you. They have no tradition, no names even; they are only pools of water and lumps of earth, some day, perhaps, to be clothed with loves and memories and the comings and goings of men, but now dumbly waiting their Wordsworth or their Acropolis to give them individuality, and a soul.

We all know Rupert Brooke’s famous poem that goes “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”  The prose excerpt above is from Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, (prefaced by Henry James) when the young poet traveled to the U.S. and Canada right before the Great War.  In these Letters, Rupert Brooke is a typical “liberal,” a refined, literary person.  Here he writes on Niagra Falls:

The human race, apt as a child to destroy what it admires, has done its best to surround the Falls with every distraction, incongruity, and vulgarity. Hotels, powerhouses, bridges, trams, picture post-cards, sham legends, stalls, booths, rifle-galleries, and side-shows frame them about.

Here’s the remarkable thing we learn from these Letters by the 24 year old Rupert Brooke, poet, English gentleman, beloved of elder literary statesman Henry James, and sensitive recorder of his race’s sensibility before World War I: He is morose in the extreme.

According to Brooke, “America has a childlike faith in advertising. They advertise here, everywhere, and in all ways. They shout your most private and sacred wants at you.”

Buying and selling, for Brooke, is a great stain on humanity.

He believes completely in the superiority of his race and pities the other races relentlessly: “These little towns do not look to the passer-by comfortable as homes. Partly, there is the difficulty of distinguishing your village from the others. It would be as bad as being married to a Jap.”

He feels American Indians were noble, but now they’re gone, dwindling into drunken “half-breeds.” Nature is beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely, unless it’s the nature of good old, comfortable England. Population growth is a menace. English civilization is ideal. Americans are idiots. They spit all the time. They don’t wear jackets. There is some admiration for the Americans: only they could have built the Panama canal, but canals and dams are just ruining the planet, anyway, so that’s bad. Russia is a “vague evil” to him, while the Irish, French and Japanese are “very remote.”  He has a few sentimental feelings about Germany, because he had some good times in Munich once, but his love of England is so overwhelming, that at the end of the book, when war is declared, he is ready to fight.  Why shouldn’t he fight?  His pre-World War One journey through America and Canada have made him depressed as hell.

Before World War I, the young, handsome, poet Rupert Brooke’s English soul was a “waste land.”

Modernism was not the effect of World War I—it was the cause.

No wonder they gave orders for the slaughter and the English enthusiastically heeded the call; their old world was rapidly fading before overpopulation, anyway.

Everything depressed Rupert Brooke:

I travelled from Edmonton to Calgary in the company of a citizen of Edmonton and a citizen of Calgary. Hour after hour they disputed. Land in Calgary had risen from five dollars to three hundred; but in Edmonton from three to five hundred. Edmonton had grown from thirty persons to forty thousand in twenty years; but Calgary from twenty to thirty thousand in twelve…”Where”—as a respite—“did I come from?” I had to tell them, not without shame, that my own town of Grantchester, having numbered three hundred at the time of Julius Caesar’s landing, had risen rapidly to nearly four by Doomsday Book, but was now declined to three-fifty.  They seemed perplexed and angry.

This may be touching, but it’s easy to see that it’s Rupert Brooke who is “perplexed and angry.”

Here, indeed, is the tragedy of the intellectual West and the essence of “angry and perplexed” Anglo-American Modernism, on the eve of World War One.

T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” is a cry of the perplexed British soul, not a reflection of any specific events or circumstances of humanity’s soul.

Brooke was perplexed by the great department stores in New York, where “improvisations by Herr Kandinsky” were sold cheaply, and “inspired French post-Impressionist painters” were happily working in the advertising departments, and Schonberg was as likely to be heard as Victor Herbert, or Beethoven, while people shopped.  Modern art was not resisting America’s culture of buying and selling—it was part of it. There was no escape for a cultured English poet like Brooke.

Modernism had completely played itself out before World War One.

Even as the 20th century began, Modernism was already dead.

ROBERT PENN WARREN RESIGNS!

Rosanna Warren, poet and daughter of Robert Penn Warren, made a brief  statement to the press this morning

“Good morning.  After long reflecton, and with a heavy heart… my father is sick of the politics (wipes tear) and he told me to tell you, he’s finished…Hirschman can have his March Madness win…my dad just wants…the poetry…the poetry…to shine…like the moonlight in his poem….”

This was just moments ago, in Boston, Rosanna Warren announcing that Robert Penn Warren and his poem, “Night Walking” are withdrawing from the Scarriet APR March Madness Tournament after a conflict of interest came to light on Monday of this week.

Scarriet March Madness officials quickly declared “The Painting” by Jack Hirschman will move on to the next round of play.

The irony was not lost on March Madness fans:  Robert Penn Warren is a Quietist, and yet “quiet” led to “riot” as the protest by defenders of Jack Hirschman changed the course of March Madness history.

HIRSCHMAN SUPPORTERS PROTEST ROBERT PENN WARREN’S WIN AS CONTROVERSY HITS SCARRIET’S MARCH MADNESS

Hirschman’s poem “The Painting:” Progressive politics is sacred.

As APR March Madness poetry fans know, Hirschman’s poem “The Painting” fell to Robert Penn Warren’s “Night Walking” in first round play this year, but Warren’s victory is now coming under scrutiny by March Madness officials after it was pointed out that one of the contest referees was a New Critic with ties to Warren.

Hirschman bristled when asked if he intentionally courts controversy. “I court the truth!”

Robert Penn Warren may be the most honored American poet after Robert Frost, and so far there has been no comment from the poet or his camp.

Hirschman fans, however, are in take-no-prisoners mode, pointing out Warren’s membership in the far-right Southern Agrarians, the 1930s group of Southerners who eventually became the conservative New Critics who dominated the 1940s and 50s.

Animosity to the New Critics runs deep: their high-brow purity is seen as anti-democratic.  The New Critics wanted to focus on the text, and this may be a noble aim, critics concede, but New Critical purity unfortunately tends to deny the world outside the text.  Another New Critical crime: they chased music out of poetry.  In Robert Penn Warren’s influential poetry textbook, published in several editions from the 1930s to the 70s, Understanding Poetry, “The Red Wheel Barrow” is praised and “Ulalume” is condemned.

About 50 people milled around the entrance of the John Crowe Ransom Arena this morning, carrying signs that read, “The Painting” Was Robbed!”

Upsets at Scarriet’s APR March Madness—and now controversy.

THE MEANING OF MARCH MADNESS

Ma, I lost.

There’s been a lot of buzz since Jack Hirschman’s “The Painting” went down in defeat to New Critic icon Robert Penn Warren’s “Night Walking” in the first round of play.

Hirschman’s poem, “The Painting” considered a controversial work of art, the banned “painting of the late black heroic/mayor of Chicago/in woman’s underwear,” a work of art as controversial as anything shown in the Salon des Refuses, if not more so, and surely still as controversial today, as then.

So what is an icon, and how is it made?  What is sacred, and how is the sacred constructed, and who is the sacred for?  Does meaning itself require that there be something sacred?  Is the sacred something found in life, or does it pre-date the things of this world?

Some find Scarriet’s March Madness itself an iconoclasm—one that does not respect its subjects, or the art.  (We find this objection nonsensical.)

Can you have art without iconoclasm?

Can you have art without icons?

Eileen’s Vision

One night I was home alone
quite late past eleven
and my dog was whining and
moaning and I went over
to stroke her & pat
her & proclaim
her beauty &
then I returned
to my art review
but Rosie wouldn’t
stop. Something was
wrong. & then
I saw her.
It looked like a circle
a wooden mouth
in the upper third
of my bathtub
cover which
was standing
on its side
it is the Lady I thought
this perfect sphere
on the wooden
bathtub cover
incidentally separating
kitchen &
middle room
in my home
where I
live &
work. That is
all. I’m just
a simple
catholic girl
I had been
thinking, pondering
over my
review. That’s
why it’s
so hard
for me but the
Lady came &
she said, stay here
Eileen stay here
forever finding
the past
in the future
& the future
in the past
know that it’s
always so
going round &
it is with
you when
you write

& she didn’t
go, she
remains, a stain
on the bathtub
cover, along with
many other stains,
the dog’s leash &
half-scraped lesbian
invisibility stickers
and other less specific
but equally permanent
traces of paper &
holes  four of
thens and they
are round too
like the Lady
& I don’t have to
tell anyone.

Eileen Myles!  Has she got a chance against Frank O’Hara?

To John Ashbery on Szymanowski’s Birthday

Whitelight, keenair, someone
with a Polish accent: j’ai septembre,
et les milles-fois-retours d’Ashes,
like so many violins, from Paris.

The memory of seven sickening seconds
at the top of Carnegie Hall, where
the bow was pulled off its horse-hairs
and the insect suddenly started

humming, unwinding the silver cord
that binds the heart. That was
a concerto! simply-moving glacier
of northern sympathies, sliced banyans

wrapped in glistening green leaves,
lying in an enormous white freezing unit.
Did you practice the piano, John,
while you were gone? summoning thunder

as the delicate echoes of Slavic
nostalgia pretend to have defeated
Napoleon? and have, heaving into a
future of crystaline listening.

I am conducting you in his Symphonie
Concertante. Remember our successes
with the Weber Konzertstuck? It is no
repetition, when the marvelous

is like taking off your earmuffs
at the North Pole. I am writing to invite
you to the Polish Embassy for cocktails,
on this superb fall day, musicien americain.

Eileen Myles wins, 67-45 as her honest mysticism crushes O’Hara’s show-offy cuteness.

Marla, did you think Myles would have such an easy time with O’Hara?

MARLA MUSE: O’Hara shot clunkers all night, so I don’t know if the ‘real’ O’Hara showed up at all.  He had the moves, but the ball wasn’t going through the hoop.  O’Hara was like a comic who was on fire, but just not getting laughs.  Then he began to press…

Yes, Marla, and Myles just stayed within herself, played good defense, nothing fancy, but the result was an easy victory!

GINSBERG SOLE TOP SEED SURVIVOR, NO.2 SEEDS BEGIN PLAY

East-  James Wright v. William Matthews
North- Philip Larkin v. Joseph Duemer
South- Robert Penn Warren v. Jack Hirschman
West- Donald Hall v. Douglas Crase

Poems by Wright and Matthews both rueful and poignant; Wright’s has more concentrated power, but Matthews is less self-pitying and finally has more interest.

Sleep, the most cunning weapon?  Both opponents seem to think so.

Wright’s “And Yet I Know” ends thusly:

Beside the tomb in the shade of a head of a man, a living man is lying down under a pine shrub dead drunk. It
is exactly two minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon.
Then I found later that monument is the
Funeral Kiosk of the Antinore, and beside
it the tomb of the poet Lovato de’ Lorati.
I have never read Lorati’s poems.  His name is so lovely.
I have been drunk and asleep beneath a pine shrub myself.
I wonder who the sleeper is.

And Matthews‘ “Good Company” ends like this:

The conversation luffs.  The last
bottle of wine was probably too much
but God we’re happy here.
“My husband stopped the papers
and flea-bathed the dog
before he left.” One of us has a friend
whose analyst died in mid-session,
non-directive to the end.
Now we’re drifting off to our nine lives,
and more. Melodramatic wind,
bright moon, dishes to do, a last
little puddle of brandy or not,
and the cars amble home:
the door, the stairs, the sheets
aglow with reticence and moonlight,
and the bed full to its blank brim
with the violent poise of dreams.

Matthews 68, Wright 64

In North play, Larkin and Duemer both doubt the soul lives after death: Larkin, with rhyme, his own, Duemer, with prose, another time’s.

from the beginning of Larkin’s “Aubade”:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

The end of Duemer’s: “Theory of Tragedy”

Tonight, odor of skunk hanging like a philosopher’s soul
in the air, I sit beneath a xerox copy of a photograph—one of those
Greek vases called a lekythos, this one showing a daughter of Memory,

loosely draped, feet bare, sexy, her right hand indicating
a songbird on a branch sketched near her knees.
Without a definition of tragedy, we cannot understand
the dance our words and grammar pattern intersecting
the facts of the palpable world–a maple tree’s black
branches against the amber/blue stripes of sunset,

perfume of skunk and wood smoke hanging in the air.
The old man always said his wisdom was nothing but ignorance,
and at the end of his life he couldn’t prove the soul
survives the body. Perhaps it was nothing but a feeling,
like tragedy, which is only the awkward singing
of a small bird on a flimsy branch pointing toward memory.

Larkin scores at will and it’s lights out for Duemer.

Larkin  98, Duemer 84

Over in the South, Robert Penn Warren looms under the moon, as the poet observes his son walking in the moonlight.  Warren’s opponent, Jack Hirschman, asserts that in the name of working people it’s OK to censor art—especially the art of corporate museum curators.   Warren’s “Night Walking” takes on Hirshman’s “The Painting.”

Hirshman is impressive in his bold thesis but Warren’s art finally prevails.

Warren 78, Hirschman 71

In the West, Donald Hall’s hysterical “To A Waterfowl” has no trouble with Douglas Crase’s more sober rumination, “There Is No Real Peace In the World.”

Hall 66, Crase 49

Three No. 2 Seeds advance, with one upset, as James Wright falls to 15th seed William Matthews.

SEXISM RAMPANT IN PO-BIZ

Well of course it is.

Here’s why.  

The Modernist revolution was mostly male, and in terms of criticism, overwhelmingly so.    We are still in the shadow of that revolution, which featured William James, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, I.F Richards, Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Edmund Wilson, William Empson, Allen Tate, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Richard Blackmur, Robert Graves, W.S. Merwin, Yvor Winters, George Santayana, Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, John Crowe Ransom, E.E. Cummings, Paul Engle,Robert Penn Warren, W.K Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Jack Spicer, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner, M.L. Rosenthal, Robert Lowell, and Harold Bloom. 

This list is not just poets who happened to be men.   These men were not just poets; they shaped the critical outlook of our age. 

This outlook replaced the passions of the Romantic and Victorian heart with the mutterings of a priesthood, a male priesthood, thumping its chest about whatever the male talks about when he retires with his pals to smoke after dinner.  The male poets certainly didn’t agree about anything; this was no male conspiracy; they ranted and raved and chuckled and guffawed about the usual self-important male stuff, and the pomposity was almost sickening and terribly self-important: the Pounds and the Olsons hyperbolic and puffed up, the Ashberys and the O’Haras joking and sly, Thomas Eliot classical and aloof, D.H. Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg sexually vigorous, the New Critics, learned and doctrinaire, puffing on their pipes, it was all very male, 90%, even 95% male, with a few token females, H.D. and Marianne Moore enthusiastically following, just thrilled to belong to the club. 

And why should the women complain?  The general spirit of Modernism was more open and democratic than the Victorian mode had been; Edna Millay was a terrific poet, but she was a little too good in a Victorian, Romantic sort of way, so she wasn’t really allowed into the club, but in the long run, this was good for women, because Modernism, though it was run by males, really wasn’t about men lording it over women; the “parish of rich women” who bankrolled Yeats, Pound and Eliot were happy to give, and the women were right: even though women poets were far more plentiful and respected in the Victorian era than in the Modern one, eventually the general spirit of the Modern Age would prove beneficial to women.

Lady poets thrived in the 19th century, and when the lady poet was no more, a nadir was reached for women poets during the time Modernism vanquished Victorian manners: Modernist male poets and critics outnumbered Modernist female poets and critics in 1925 by 100 to 1, but today the ratio is now much closer to 50/50.

True, we find it shocking that poetry magazines feature men over women by 3-2, or 2-1 sometimes, but isn’t this better than 100-1?  If we judge by trends, historically the pendulum is swinging rapidly towards the female since the Golden Age of Modernism. 

Thanks to Modernism, men liberated women.

There were a few socio-cultural bumps along the way.  When WW II ended, the GI Bill saw millions of men newly studying liberal arts in the universities.   During the booming post-war economy women tended to be homemakers and nurses, not liberal arts college students, and as poetry became a place of grad school success, it took women a few generations to catch up in that regard.

But here’s the quesiton. 

Does the Muse care about gender? 

If all those males during the Modernist era were opening doors for women, setting the table for future women poets, even while Pound was at war with Amy Lowell and Hugh Kenner was dismissing Edna Millay, even though on the surface, male poets during the Modern era were not particularly nice to women, the sensibility of the Modern criticism and poetry, in its democratic and open impulses, was splendidly good for women.

So then: It’s not the gender of the poets that finally matters, it’s the poetry and the politics of the poetry itself.

When I hear males in po-biz now promising to include more women, I wonder: really?  Do the poems know about this?   Must the poems know the gender of their authors?   Should poems be gender-aware?  And why?  Isn’t that all very Victorian?

Should poets be bean-counters?

If twice as many men submit poems to a magazine, for instance, should editors really pick and choose just to make the numbers match up?

The Romantics, like the Moderns, were mostly male, but there was a difference.  The Romantics featured effeminate men, like Shelley, a blending of the male and the female.  One could argue that a sensitive man is better than either gender stereotypically itself. 

A sensitive man is the essence of poetry. 

A sensitive man solves everything. 

Equality of the sexes is something that is fought for outside of the poem.

The dyer’s hand is not gendered.  The poem is not male or female.  The poem is where male and female mingle in order to disappear.

Or, we could argue, instead, that women shouldn’t disappear in poetry, but assert themselves.  But how?  As women?  But again, isn’t that putting roles into the mix, and isn’t that old-fashioned and Victorian?  Isn’t that what Modernism got us away from?

It’s rather a lose-lose proposition: push for the female, and you regress, push for the genderless, and you banish the very gender you are supposed to defend.

I’m a man, and I’m baffled by the whole issue.

What else is new?

METRICAL SOPHISTICATION? IS IT DEAD?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my friends and I talk rhyme and meter the way others discuss fine wine.

The bouquet of a fine sequence of dactyls once caused me to faint from pure delight.   A friend once opined he could die content in a bed of trochaic tetrameter.

We scoff at those who can’t hear the difference between Swinburne’s 21 dollar Paul et Jean-Marc Pastou 2003 Sancerre, white Loire  and Poe’s 850 dollar Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, St. Julien Medoc Bordeaux red.

The best prosodists alive today, such as Marcus Bales and Annie Finch, make this common, tone-deaf mistake, re: Swinburne and Poe, but if the experts are wrong, what about the rest? Metrical taste today is at the lowest state since poetry was first written, so it is probably best we keep Bales and Finch as friends in the barren metrical landscape of our Letters.

Metrical expertise has been hijacked by two things:

First, poor training in the nuts and bolts of the science itself, so often tainted by needless pedantry.

Second, the New Critics’ injunction (Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry” 1943) that “tension” between “metrical rhythm” and “speech rhythm” is the true measure of taste in judging metrical poetry.

This second obstacle is perhaps the most insidious, seducing even a poet as brilliant as Marcus Bales into error.   The most beautiful species of rhythm, combined with the most thrilling aspects of expression, are sold short by a theory that clips the wings of rhythmical flight in the name of “speech.”

Certainly, qualities such as cogency and consistency support metrical expression.  These qualities partake of all the good we mean when we refer to “speech.”  But “speech rhythm” is something else quite again.  And here is where the error resides: rhythm’s emphasis and rhythm’s surprise and rhythm’s art are all the poem needs in order to be wonderful, strange, new, and expressive, and “speech rhythm” is but an illusionary, accidental result.

For how can we really know what speech rhythm is?

This is one of those assumptions which exist only as that, an assumption, but not in reality— and all because the “real” aspect (everyday speech is real, isn’t it?) is accepted without reflection.  The metrical poem will not admit an idea merely because it is an abstract nod to something “real.”  The practice of a poem admits no hypotheticals.

We put the cart before the horse to make “speech rhythm” a notable aim or  complement to the “metrical rhythm,” because speech always implies something we’ve seen before in daily conversation, and by its very nature will drag us away from metrical excitement and novelty; the aping of “speech” will always exert inhibitory pressure on the metrical muse.  Obviously we don’t want to veer off into pure nonsense, but the speech should emerge almost accidentally from the metrical rhythm, which must be the primary focus.  Warren’s “tension” between the two implies a balancing act, but this balancing finally dilutes and weakens rhythmical  invention, which requires freedom to express, newly, terror and delight.

Let us look at some examples and see if we can detect this “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

In these lovely, poignant lines it is pointless to credit “speech” for those powerful anapests; they belong to metrical perfection.   Any “tension” added (I doubt any would be so bold to even try) would, even if organized to Warren’s exact specifications, weaken the poem in every respect.

What of this:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

What is interesting to notice here is that the ‘modern’ example is less like speech than the Romantic song.  We might observe to an intimate acquaintace, “So we’ll go no more a-roving,” but we would never say to anyone: “The winter evening settles down with smell of steaks in passageways.”  We already observed that the first example, the Byron, is a metrical tour de force, and yet, by comparison, the Byron is also more like real speech.   The “speech” of Eliot’s first stanza from his Preludes pervades like one’s own consciousness whispering despairingly into one’s own ear about the sad state of actual things.  The Byron, poem, too, addresses the sad state of reality, too.  Both poems are melancholy, but Byron’s melancholy is heroic and elegant: “Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/by the light of the moon.”  The beauty remains in the sadness.  In the Eliot example, there never was any beauty; the melancholy is depressing and inevitable: “And then the lighting of the lamps.”

Iambic pentameter is heroic for physical reasons; the tetrameter has one less beat and thus it has less weight, less gravity.   In a different context, “then the lighting of the lamps” could be a happy line, but the mechanics of the line in the context of Eliot’s unhappy realism highlights the mechanics itself as a dull, mechanical action.

It is easy to see that the Eliot, like the Byron, combines metrical rhythm with certain descriptive actions, for its effect.  There is no “tension” between speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, per se.  “Then the lighting of the lamps” certainly has speech rhythm, but the point is that “Then the lighting of the lamps” exists in the poem as metrical rhythm—there is no speech rhythm and metrical rhythm existing simultaneously; the metrical rhythm is the speech rhythm in the poem.  There is no separation, and thus no comparison, and thus no “tension.”  We should not confuse the banal subject matter in the Eliot with speech itself; the speaking voice is not the same as the things described by that voice.  The “tension” is supposed to arise from the opposing rhythms, speech v. metrical.  But the metrical and speech rhythms are one.

If you think it is impossible for qualities to blend into one in poems, listen to what Eliot observes of Swinburne: “Now, in Swinburne, the meaning and the sound are one thing.”  This is quite an assertion: the meaning and the sound are one thing.   And does Eliot not describe precisely the claustrophobia of the romantics dwindling into the victorians which the moderns were hell-bent on escaping?  Eliot also: “When you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne, you find always that the object was not there—only the word.”

Poetry is always intensifying itself in what it is doing; the best poems never strike a balance, but pitch excessively forward, “annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.”

As Warren says, free verse has none of this “tension.”

But the instant we journey away from free verse towards this “tension,” we come into possession of metrical rhythm which buys up all the prose in sight; there is never a chance for reconciliation and balance, for these two, speech rhythm and metrical rhythm, are like matter and anti-matter; they demolish each other.

PURE AND IMPURE POETRY: THE NEW CRITICS’ LAST HURRAH

Because our loyal Scarriet readers do not have the attention span of rabbits, we thought we’d tax their intelligence and patience with further investigation of Robert Penn Warren’s monumental—but now forgotten (except, secretly, by Stephen Burt)—1943 Kenyon Review essay, Pure and Impure Poetry.

In the 1930s, Robert Penn Warren contributed a pro-segregation essay to New Critic John Crowe Ransom’s Southern Agrarian group’s  I’ll Take My Stand, co-founded The Southern Review (with New Critic Cleanth Brooks) and co-authored (with Cleanth Brooks) the textbook Understanding Poetry, which lasted 4 editions (1974), was the college textbook on poetry for two generations, including the GIs who flooded the universities after the war, and, according to Ron Silliman, was “the hegemonic poetry textbook of the period.”

In the 1940s, when Pure and Impure Poetry was published in John Crowe Ransom’s journal, Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, published his  Selected Poems, and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States.

In the 1950s, Robert Penn Warren’s daughter, the poet and professor, Rosanna Warren, was born, he recanted his segregationist views in Life magazine, and he won the Pulitzer for Poetry, becoming the only person to win the Pulitzer in both Fiction and Poetry.

Pure and Impure Poetry is a window into both the triumph and the last gasp of Modernism, as it cuts off Romanticism’s head (resembling from one angle, Poe, and another, Shelley, and from still another, Bryon) holds it aloft, and cries, “Vive le T.S. Eliot!” The essay finishes what Eliot and Pound had started, as Robert Penn Warren declares with absolute certainty: “the greatness of a poet depends upon the extent of the area of experience that he can master poetically.”

The practice of extending the area of experience that he can master poetically is the final nail in the coffin to poets like Poe who excluded all sorts of things from poetry.

Despite Pure and Impure Poetry’s long and detailed arguments, this is all that Robert Penn Warren is saying: poetry can be anything, and this is the Modernist victory.  Penn Warren sneers at Shelley’s brief lyric “The Indian Serenade,” (selected for cursory praise by Poe a hundred years earlier in his The Poetic Principle) after Penn Warren discusses how Shakespeare has the worldly Mercutio sneer at Romeo’s romantic attitude in Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s poetry, as beautiful as it sometimes was, wasn’t pure, so, Penn Warren asks, why should any poetry be pure?  Why Penn Warren clubs Shelley’s brief lyric with an entire play by Shakespeare is not to be questioned, for it is all part of the blood lust and slaughter of Romanticism, in which every dactylic gasp by Shelley is mocked with the ferocity of those who escape the anxiety of an unfaithful mate by deconstructing the problem into “dey all bitches.”

As we all know, Modernism’s little band did win in the century that saw the British Empire transform itself into an American one, (almost in the moment Pure and Impure Poetry was published—1943 a rubble-moment in Europe’s history) but it was a pyrrhic victory: for Penn Warren kills, but kills in Poe’s terms and on Poe’s turf.

Here, in the essay, Penn Warren quotes T.S. Eliot:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here again I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.

Lovely.  (Sigh)   Criticism as lovely as a poem.  Remember when that used to be a regular occurance?   Penn Warren, like a panting lover in one of Shelley’s poems, eagerly follows the trail.  But look what happens:

Here, it would seem, Mr. Eliot has simply inverted the old sugar-coated pill theory: the idea becomes the sugar-coating and the “poetry” becomes the medicine. This seems to say that the idea in a poem does not participate in the poetic effect and seems to commit Mr. Eliot to a theory of pure poetry.

Robert Penn Warren finds himself in Poe’s cul-de-sac, for listen to the language: Penn Warren talks of Poe’s “poetic effect!”

Robert Penn Warren and the Modernists expand the definition of poetry to include everything, but they keep using the word “poetry;” thus they effectively doom themselves to wander in an old-fashioned wilderness.

Everyone knows art requires focus, and Poe and Shelley wrote memorable poetry while Robert Penn Warren and his heirs did not—because of their intellectualized de-focusing.

The post-Modernists and Language Poets likewise attempt to get beyond the Modernists (Charles Bernstein would never be caught dead uttering such phrases as “poetic effect” or “pure poetry”) only to die in the same way, and, like Penn Warren, they don’t realize their dilemma.


FAKE IT NEW: BURT DID NOT COIN ELLIPTICAL POETRY

Stephen Burt’s “incoherent self:” doesn’t realize he’s a New Critic

WIKIPEDIA: Elliptical Poetry or ellipticism is a literary-critical term introduced by critic Stephen Burt in a 1998 essay in Boston Review on Susan Wheeler, and expanded upon in an eponymous essay in American Letters & Commentary.

Uh…no.   Robert Penn Warren, (with whom we trust Professor Burt is familiar) in an essay published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, “Pure and Impure Poetry,”  (Spring 1943 issue) writes:

“In a recent book, The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has discussed the question of pure poetry.  He distinguishes another type of pure poetry, in addition to the types already mentioned.  He calls it the “Elliptical,” and would include in it symbolist and metaphysical poetry (old and new) and some work by poets Collins, Blake, and Browning.”

In pobiz, new is the new stupid

The last century of American Letters has witnessed ‘the new’ as the last refuge of the scoundrel poet.  If one doesn’t know anything, trumpet ‘the new’ as much as possible, and with a few pals, equally bereft, on one’s side, anything is possible.

Not only is Burt guilty of outright theft, but the “Elliptical” of Robert Penn Warren’s essay is scientific (no irony intended) compared to Burt’s razzle-dazzle new-speak. 

Burt, unable to cook anything, merely makes a mess in the kitchen, throwing in every ingredient he can find.   Here is Burt in his infamous 1998 essay:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-‘postmodern’: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the ‘language writers,’ and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning ‘I am an X, I am a Y.’ Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”

Note professor Burt’s lack of rigor, vaguely wrapping himself around the new:

“Elliptical poets try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbo gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves.”  —Burt

Is it the speaking or the selves which have their coherence undermined, and why do they have an undermined coherence?   Let Mr. Burt answer at once, since he obviously knows.  And how can one undermine something before it exists?  If one is not skilled enough, in a poem, to produce a coherent speaking self (is it so easy?) how do we know it has been undermined?  Anyone can point to a sociological theory which mourns the vanished self, but the poem is not a theory, unfortunately for Burt’s elliptical poets.

“Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively ‘poetic’) diction.  —Burt

Has Burt never read the Roman poets?  They did this constantly.  Come to think of it, the majority of poets, ancient to present, alternate between low and high diction.

“…they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”
—Burt

It’s comforting to know the poets don’t “resemble television”…

Burt’s murky, gizmo-rhetoric would have been laughed out of the pages of the Kenyon Review, when Ransom was editor, and the New Critics were contribuing articles.

In contrast to the gee-whiz rhetoric of Stephen Burt, we have the acumen of Robert Penn Warren:

“Poe would kick out the ideas because the ideas hurt the poetry, and Mr. [Max] Eastman would kick out the ideas because the poetry hurts the ideas.”

The concept is actually interchangeable—Poe also thought, like Eastman, that “poetry hurts the ideas.”  Poe was explicit on this point.  At least with Penn Warren, however, there is a concept.  Burt is babble.  He has no point.  But my point here is not to agree with Penn Warren, but to expose Burt’s blatant theft.

Robert Penn Warren from his 1943 essay again:

“Then Elliptical Poetry is not, as Mr. Pottle say it is, a pure poetry at all if we regard intention; the elliptical poet is elliptical for purposes of inclusion, not exlusion.”

This is no quibble over a word, either.  In his 1943 essay, Penn Warren’s definition of elliptical poetry is exactly the same as Burt’s 1998 review.  Here is Penn Warren:

“Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.  At least, most of them do not want to be too pure.  The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end.  Are we then to conclude that, because neutral or recalcitrant elements appear in poems, even in poems called great, these elements are simply an index to human frailty, that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems which would, then, be perfectly pure?  No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary.  They are not even as pure as they might be in an imperfect world.  They mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, cliches, sterile technical terms, head work and argument, self-contradiction, cleverness, irony, realism—all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.” 

And Penn Warren, again:

“Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure?  I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry.”

Burt posits a return of a “person” who “speaks the poem” while  simultaneously using  “gizmos, developed over the last few decades,” of “Stein’s heirs” and “language writers:” Burt blindly stumbles back over the same ground to the New Critics, who were, as we see with Robert Penn Warren’s 70-year-old-essay, already allowing the widest possible field to the “speaking” of a “poem.”

 It’s time for Philosophy and History to kick New-Speak off its throne.

[Are we “going after Burt” or just giving Pottle and Penn Warren credit where credit is due?]

POETRY COMES DOWN TO ONE SENSIBILITY: ESCAPE

 

‘Ah far be it,’ said he, ‘dear dame, for me
to hinder soul from her desired rest,
Or hold sad life in long captivity

The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

Modern poetry began when poetry became imprisoning, when its function as charming story-telling fell into the cul de sac of self-conscious pedantry.

Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” was meant, in Pope’s words, “to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but their own.”   Pope’s poem “was communicated with the air of a secret” but “soon found its way into the world,” as an “imperfect copy” was “offered to a bookseller.”

Once upon a time, a poem was a secret that had to get out, and booksellers were only too happy to comply. 

Pedantry, however, banned the delicious secrets sprung entirely from the machinations of the sexes, and turned poetry from rare and extravagant gossip desired by booksellers, into the universal and moral platitudes of the learned—no wonder the public for poetry became disenchanted and gave up.   Byron said, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”   Alas, the Romantic age is over. In our modern age it takes a poet fifty years to become  famous and this is because the poet no longer has secrets the impetuous crowd clamors for—unless a Joyce, a Ginsberg or a Rushdie arrive with a book banned by self-appointed moral guardians.  Banned books, of course, are not necessarily good.  Pope and Byron gave the ladies great art.

But pedantry, telling us poetry ought to be this and ought to be that, that it was that and now must be this,  that it was this and can never be this again, that it is some mysterious project that has to do with wisdom;—pedantry, by doing this, has perverted poetry from its true purpose and made it an artificial product of academia.

It began with Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which, in the spirit of its time, contains enchanting story and rhyme, but which the pedants insisted was excellent due to Wordsworth’s dull moralizing.  The old wisdom, which said, ‘never forget delight’ was forgotten, and a new wisdom put in its place, in which scholars became guardians of trends, movements, and schools, and poetry became a school-subject with a history of change and discovery of itself, for itself and in itself, as if poetry were a science and the world at once, an ever-evolving world scientifically elaborated—instead of a source of charm, teaching in a manner apart from learning, per se.

Now pedantry covers all.  First, it was decided that poetry is really an intimate lyric of personal reflection.  Dull, sentimental and tedious examples of this, such as “Tintern Abbey”— and “The Prelude” offered by old Wordsworth, England’s poet laureate, were put in the very foreground of the canon, eclipsing even Pope and Byron (too charming and playful compared to the professor-worthy and serious Wordsworth) and thus every wag who dallies with the muse turns Wordsworth at last—believing every personal reflection made is memorable.  Even so-called modern poets, priding themselves on the fierce pedantry of trends and schools and the ‘new,’ were going up and down and up and down old Wordsworth Hill, as we see in the following by Modernist Robert Penn Warren:

At night, in the dark room, not able to sleep, you
May think of the red eyes of fire that
Are winking from blackness.  You may,
As I once did, rise up and go from the house.  But,
When I got out, the moon had emerged from cloud, and I
entered the lake.  Swam miles out,
Toward moonset.  Montionless,
Awash, metaphysically undone in that silvered and
Unbreathing medium, and beyond
Prayer or desire, saw
The moon, slow, swag down, like an old woman’s belly.

Getting back to the house, I gave the now-dark lawn a wide berth.

At night the rattlers come out from rock-fall.
They lie on the damp grass for coolness.  

***

What I remember, but do not
Know what it means

***

All I can do is offer my testimony.

–Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989)  from Rattlesnake Country

This is over 100 years after Wordsworth, and written by a poet-critic explicitly embracing the modernist  intoxication of new! new! new! but this is…pure…Wordsworth.  The pedants managed to cover up an obvious truth: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope were the seeds of Romanticism, and Wordsworth, Arnold, and TS Eliot  the sticks and stones of  Modernism.  Wordsworth took Romanticism and turned it into Victorianism; in other words, Mr. W. took joy and turned it into a moral.  Byron and Shelley and Keats were closer to Pope was than what Wordsworth became.  Byron, Shelley and Keats were not textbook-nature poets, nor did they hammer down with pedantry what poetry could be into dull lessons of Dutch-realism.

Byron was already ‘post-modern,’ and not all anxious and morbid about it:

To turn,—and to return;—the devil take it!
This story slips forever through my fingers,
Because, just as the stanza likes to make it,
It needs must be—and so it rather lingers;
This form of verse began, I can’t well break it,
But must keep time and tune like public singers;
But if I once get through my present measure,
I’ll take another when I’m next at leisure.

—Byron (1788-1824)   from Beppo

Byron can be annoying, but at least he’s never pedantic.

We think of Ashbery as a post-modern wit, but in fact Ashbery’s academic audience (he doesn’t really have a public one) admires him for anxious pedantry like this: 

You can’t say it that way any more
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing
And rest.

***

Something
Ought to be written about how this affects
You when you write poetry:
The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind
Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate
Something between breaths

***

—John Ashbery (1927-)  from And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name

The idea of escaping from old forms, old sentiments, old ways of communicating is as old as poetry itself.  Even the Father of Moral Modernism, Wordsworth, could playfully ponder the prison:

I to the muses have been bound,
These fourteen years, by strong indentures:
Oh gentle muses!  Let me tell
But half of what to him befel
For sure he met with strange adventures.

***

The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travelers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.

***

And thus to Betty’s questions, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold.’
—Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.

Wordsworth (1770-1850)  from The Idiot Boy

Moderns are besotted with the dull sticks-and-stones-ism of Wordsworth.  But even Wordsworth couldn’t have foreseen the yoke of pedantry poor poetry now bends under; we saw Ashbery pedantically alluding to Rousseau; here Elizabeth Bishop feels obligated to mention Baudelaire in a manner that might be charming to modern academics, but would probably leave Pope’s “ladies with a sense of humor” cold.

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Asorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

—Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)  from The Bight

The Wordsworth-style aside, Bishop almost had me going until she pedantically name-dropped.  She can be playfully attentive.  Her sly Baudelaire/marimba musicreference is sure to win three out of four readers, today, (just those relatively few who bother to read Bishop) but that’s only because we live in a pedantic prison—and, sadly, we know it.

“MUMBO JUMBO?” — “PARADOX?” “AMBIGUITY?” “IRONY?” “SYMBOL?”

March Madness has been a study as much as it has been an intoxication; the New Critics erred in thinking the emotive and the cognitive could not be combined; of course they can, by any astute critic (Poe is a shining example, who the New Critics, from Pound to Eliot to Warren to Winters to Brooks to Wimsatt carefully ignored or played down.). The New Critics made no satisfactory criticism; they merely introduced mumbo-jumbo, mere terms, such as paradox, ambiguity, irony and symbol and nothing about it was original or coherent, it was finally nothing but mumbo-jumbo for the self-elected priesthood.

The professional priest will lord it over the mere amateur, but such religious hierarchies do not belong in poetry, not artificially, anyway; Letters is not science, but finally morality for the many, and this is the ugly, primitive secret which the sophisticated modernist Oxford erudite fop dare not face.

……………………………………………………………..………….Thomas Brady

.

………..The Lord in His wisdom made the fly
………..And then forgot to tell us why.

……………                        ………                      …………Ogden Nash

.

The paradox here lies not in the fly or in the Lord’s wisdom but in what a poem can say that ordinary language can’t. You don’t need Pound, Eliot, Warren or Winters, or anyone from Oxford for that matter, to help you out with that, or even a High School diploma. Indeed, “The Night Before Christmas” is loaded with paradox, as is Pooh’s poetry, the Beatles, nursery rhymes, limericks and gospel. You can laugh or cry as much as you like, but still you can’t say what it  is without saying what it isn’t.

The ambiguity in this poem lies in the absurdity that gets to the very heart of what bothers human beings about life, the complexities of it – how a creature so indispensable to the health of the planet should be so small, for example, yet so insistent, fickle, and in your face, so disgusting yet impossible to swat.

The irony lies in the fact that the Lord in His wisdom forgot to tell us just about everything, and even when the scientist has done his or her very best to remedy that, and even shown us photos of the fly’s eyes and cultivated its filth in a petri dish so we could actually see the link between flies and disease, and then gone on to save lives by cleansing wounds with maggots, we still can’t decide who we are. And then along comes poetry, of all crazy stuff, and tells us!

Love hurts. Grief heals. The meek inherit the earth.

As to symbols, there are none in this poem in the usual sense. Indeed, symbols are rare in poetry worth reading because the whole idea of poetry is to rewrite the comfortable shorthands, cultural icons and codes we depend on. Indeed, when poetry is most effective even the symbols come off the rails, so to speak, and wreck our understanding of everything. For a moment we just have to stop — my God, my God, what is it?

Take the Rose in William Blake’s poem, “O Rose Thou Art Sick,” for example, or the Tiger in “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.” Only beginners talk about either as “symbols,” because the moment you think you know what they mean you’re lost. You lose the thread, you lose the argument, you lose your soul to the facts already stuck in your head. And you can’t move on.

Symbols are for simpletons, not for Ogden Nashes!

Had Ogden Nash written a whole series of poems about flies, as Yeats did about towers, for example, then we might want to consider “why” in a broader sense, and “the fly” might even be considered a symbol in the little poem above. And hey, why not? Life’s too complex not to accept what little help we can get from the way we human beings use language!

But we don’t need a Professional Priesthood for that, though sometimes we get one, boo hoo. Then abuses do follow, and yes, we do get Reformers, Counter-reformers, New Critics, Anti-new-critics, Pound-profs or Poe-profs or Flat-earthers, you name it.

Fortunately,  most of us move on with the baby still in our arms and not lying there blue on the floor with the bathwater.

Most of us also examine our lives in privacy too, I might add, even if we also love frisbee and beer. And the best poetry, of course, remains private in public.

Christopher Woodman

“UNDERSTANDING POETRY” — MODERNISM’S TROJAN HORSE


l. to r. Tate, Brooks, Warren, Ransom, Davidson.

These guys didn’t start a financial crisis, they merely robbed us of our poetry for most of a hundred years.

The college and HS textbook which introduced Ezra Pound’s brand of poetry to millions of American students, Understanding Poetry, first edition, 1938, was authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, colleagues of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, the American wing of Pound, Ford Madox Ford and T.S.Eliot’s European/Bloomsbury coterie.

Ransom, in an essay published when this ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry, first hit the shelves, asked for an expert-ism developed in the academy to teach the new ‘modern’ poetry—which had not caught on with the public in its 25 years of existence.  Allen Tate founded a poetry writing department at Princeton at this time, and R.P Blackmur, a member of the coterie, would teach there.   The launching of the textbook Understanding Poetry by two old members of Ransom’s Fugitive clique showed  that all cylinders were firing in Modernist Poetry’s  engine.  Paul Engle, Yale Younger Poets Prize winner (judge: Fugitive clique member) was  poised to make Iowa the flagship of the Writing Program Era with his phenomenal fundraising abilities.

In their preface to Understanding Poetry, Brooks & Warren define poetry as “knowledge” and a “process” of “dramatic” expression, as  opposed to a “statement” or a “message.”  “Form” is the vehicle, according to the authors, which bypasses mere “statement” or “message” and carries the poem’s “meaning.”

The problem here is the authors never define “knowledge.”

What if “message” happens to be part of what the authors refer to as “knowledge?”   The authors famoulsly wish to exclude “the paraphrasable” as the important germ of the poem in a kind of Romantic gesture against poetry of mere ornamental prose, but here we see modernism, or more specifically, New Criticism, borrowing a mystical strain which is highly dubious.  No important writer before modernism ever rejected content, or, “the paraphrasable,” as a tool.  In fact, the less ornamental and the more substantive a poem is, the more it can withstand analysis which uses the paraphrase as a descriptive tool.  Brooks and Warren, with their paternal concern that the paraphrase will spoil the poet, spoil him more, since not having the  paraphrase allows for an infinite amount of mischief, while using it is an incentive to go beyond the ornamental— without feeling the need to reject it altogether.

“The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle impact of the  poem as a whole.”   —from the Preface

The “massive” religious and pedantic fervor of the authors is felt at once.   It is nearly Wagnerian.

Only if we submit ourselves to the massive…

But why should we submit?

Here is the far less hyperbolic alternative. We peruse the poem, and if we do not immediately and involuntarily feel its pull, the poem has failed, and we need not blame and curse ourselves in a hocus-pocus manner because we did not “submit” to the poem’s “massive” scope. This is the proper and sensual standard of criticism. Brooks & Warren ask for something else; these New Critical priests demand submission to the wishes of the car salesman poet. But the “whole” will move us if the first part of the poem move us, and if the first part fails to interest us, the “whole” fails, too–no matter how “massive” and “subtle” Brooks and Warren tell us the poem is.

This is not to say that surrendering ourselves to the entire length of any particular experience is not without advantage, but such surrendering does not occur because some outside entity has demanded it; the surrender, or the submission, happens without exhortation; a true aesthetic “whole” presumes not on forcing us to wait for its entirety to be understood before part 1 of its introduction please us; any “whole” worth its name would never do so.

If one uses the analogy of the reluctant piano student struggling with his first piece of music, then, yes, we would expect submission on the part of the student in attempting to master a technique or skill in musical interpretation upon an instrument. But where pedantry in this case is expected to push itself for the good of practice in the field of rudimentary learning, the same pedantry is not expected to be used where the student is reading poems. Here there is no instrument to be learned; the poet and the reader are assumed to share whatever technique is required; the poem triumphs on familiar turf with unfamiliar combinations of things that are already grasped. By “submit,” Brooks and Warren do not mean to say, ‘Approach the poem with a large dictionary and be prepared to use it!’ Obviously “submission” is shorthand by Brooks & Warren for: pay attention in the very depth of thy soul! or something similar. I call attention to this figure of speech on their part only because it points up the general tenor of their approach, which is: at all times make thyself subservient to the awesome mysteries of the poem, a pedagogical approach I find dangerous, especially when the poems lauded with such tenacity in Understanding Poetry are untested, experimental, and written by the authors’ friends.

Brooks and Warren have the audacity to say one ought to love this or that, which, as Poe demonstrated a century earlier, is never how we should speak of poetry.

It is not surprising, then, that Poe is much abused in the textbook Understanding Poetry, while experiments in the sort of poetry that hold no delight for the public are earnestly praised in their book for vague and mystical reasons.

In the Introduction to Understanding Poetry, the authors begin by quoting a passage from a Nobel-winning scientist for the purpose of attacking science in a flurry of petulance which ends with Brooks and Warren claiming for their side Jesus Christ, in a revivalist-tent-meeting moment. The following is the passage the authors of “Understanding Poetry” single out for abuse:

For sentimental pacifism is, after all, but a return to the method of the jungle. It is in the jungle that emotionalism alone determines conduct, and wherever that is true no other than the law of the jungle is possible. For the emotion of hate is sure sooner or later to follow on the emotion of love, and then there is a spring for the throat. It is altogether obvious that the only quality which really distinguishes man from the brutes is his reason.

OK, so this passage does sound like the musings of a ‘square’ from the 50s who hasn’t got his jungle groove on. I dig. My point is not to quarrel with the statement, but with Brooks & Warren’s reaction to it. Because this is a piece of prose by a scientist, the authors are keen to point out that the passage is not scientific. They assume that science is “precise” and they know for sure this passage is not “precise” at all.

But here Brooks and Warren make a fatal mistake. They assume science is exact and bare-boned, while poetry is meatier, but this is a naïve and unfair characterization of science, which can, and does, reason in an indirect and poetic manner all the time. Science is more than just arithmos and conversely, poetry is not, as the authors assume, only dramatic, discursive and imprecise.

Brooks & Warren defend pacifism, citing the example of “the pacifism of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” and in attacking the passage by the scientist, they not only remove the issues of war and Christianity from a context we might be able to comprehend, they wind up their assault on the scientist by quoting in full Hardy’s “The Man He Killed:” “You shoot a fellow down…you’d…help to half a crown…” which is odd, because Brooks & Warren have said so far–if they have said anything–that you cannot reduce a poem to a “message,’ which they proceed to do with the Hardy (!) to win a silly argument against someone who was making a pretty simple and reasonable point that pure emotionalism is not reliable.

 Somehow the scientist’s statement offended the former Southern Agrarians’ hippie selves, and they got very emotional, gnashing their teeth and weeping over the ‘Prince of Peace” while violating their most important critical tenet: don’t reduce a poem to its “message.”

At this point, it’s pretty clear the authors are not reliable as critics (or textbook writers) and are probably drinking mint juleps (or good Southern whiskey) while they are writing their book.

As if on cue, the next poem they quote is Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” under the heading ‘message-hunting’ (message-hunting is BAD—although Brooks and Warren have just done it).

The authors posit poetry as something which is not science and then hector their students with unreasonable, emotional pleas which are full of contradictions as they seek to convince their audience of their “definition” of poetry.

Now comes the biggest gamble of their intellectual lives. With solemn demeanor Brooks and Warren now inform their readers that “It is important to remember that poetry is not a thing separate from ordinary life.”

“Ordinary life?” No wonder their meandering commentary wasn’t making a whole lot of sense. This explains it: IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT POETRY IS  NOT A THING SEPARATE FROM ORDINARY LIFE.

Their logic, of course, is irrefutable, as far as it goes: Any reader is “ordinary” in the sense that any reader’s thoughts, being familiar to the reader himself, because they are his own thoughts, will seem “ordinary,” and, since any appreciation of poetry is conveyed to the reader’s thoughts (since “knowledge” is what poetry gives us, according to the authors’ preface) it then follows that poetry needs to be “ordinary” to make an impression on this “ordinary” reader.

“Ordinary life” is finally Brooks & Warren’s trump card; just as revolutionary political theories always assure us that “ordinary folk” are the ones who will benefit. The “ordinary life” trope, at bottom, is what Brooks & Warren are selling: little work is involved, ideality and sensuality will give way to catch-all mysticism, even as it is rough-edged and plain-speaking. “The Red Wheel Barrow” captures all these qualities perfectly, a poem singled out for especial praise by the textbook: Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow” is certainly “ordinary” in what it describes, it is certainly “mystical,” (after all, who knows what the poem means) it is certainly made of “ordinary” speech, and certainly within the grasp of “ordinary” readers who might wish to become poets in this “ordinary” style themselves. And once this sort of poem is invited to the ball, the battle is won; lip service can be spoken to ‘the greats’ of the past, who by proximity serve to raise the value of “The Red Wheel Barrow,” as the authors revel in its contemporariness and ground-breaking “ordinary” qualities. The revolution is over. Brooks and Warren have pandered—and won.

Following the introduction of “Understanding Poetry” are chapters in which ballads are examined for their “suspense” and their “appeal to the reader’s feelings;” all sorts of traditional tropes are dragged out in a pedantic and perfunctory manner. We do not have the space here to examine the dull and uneventful whole of the book, but let’s look briefly at how the authors teach Poe, William Carlos Williams, and Pound.

First, Poe’s “Ulalume:”

“A man, engaged in conversation with Psyche, his soul, walks through a mysterious landscape.  He and his soul are so preoccupied that they do not notice the setting nor do they even know what month of the year it is…”   Brooks and Warren can hardly keep from yawning as they continue in this manner, paraphrasing the poem in a bored way, violating their own sacred tenet.  The Williams and the Pound poems have no content, thus allowing the authors to escape the awful dilemma: shall I paraphrase, or not?  They are only too eager to paraphrase “Ulalume,” a poem of which, they assure us, they don’t believe a word.

“dank tarns and ghoul-haunted woodlands are stage-sets, we might say, that are merely good for frightening children. We accept them only if we happen to forego our maturity…”   (?!?)   Well, sure.  All poetry and fiction are merely stage-sets, good at frightening our inner child.  Condescending in this manner to Poe only betrays an inflated sense of the critic’s own (ahem) “maturity.”

Brooks & Warren then dare to attack Poe on his own turf: “there is an emphatic beat [horrors!] that becomes monotonous…a lack of variation in the rhythmic effects…”  The authors do not understand music.  Poe’s rhythm is  more pronounced being chiefly anapestic, rather than the more common iambic; to call this rhythm “monotonous” is sheer ignorance.  Even the anapestic rhythm is varied skillfully by Poe, in lines such as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,”  so different from “It was night in the lonesome October.”
.

Williams’ “Red Wheel Barrow:”

“…the fact of its [free verse] being set off in lines has some significance.  It is signifcant, for one thing, because it pretends to be significant.  That is, we have to dwell on the line as a unit, even if, by ordinary standards, we can find no unity.”

“…it makes a special claim on our attention by the mere fact of it being set off; the words demand to be looked at freshly.”

“Now the poem itself is about that puzzling portentousness that an object, even the simplest, like a red wheelbarrow, assumes when we fix attention exclusively upon it.  Reading the poem is like peering at some ordinary object through a pin prick in a piece of carboard.  The fact that the pin prick frames it arbitrarily endows it with a puzzling, and exciting, freshness, that seems to hover on the verge of revelation.”

Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro:”

“…a new and surprising comparison.”

“The petals on a wet black bough, the white faces against the dimness—the comparison does embody a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise.  And yet, in the midst of the novelty, we sense that it, too, has a logical basis.  The poet has simply focused upon the significant quality for the comparison, discarding other qualities, more obvious qualities.  And the shock of surprise takes us to the poem’s meaning.”

What do we notice here?

The authors are besotted by “surprise,’ “shock,” “freshness” and “revelation,”  in a Zen revery of “significance.”  Even granting the “significance” of  Pound’s “white petals” and Williams’ “wheel barrow,” which Brooks & Warren enjoy “peering” at, forty years after Noguchi toured the West and made haiku popular, we must ask: How long , in terms of ongoing poetic practice, can this “freshness” from “peering at ordinary objects” last?  We can almost hear the cry of the millions: What about my poem?  Don’t you see the significance of my ordinary object?  Look, I framed it with a pin prick, too!

Can’t we see at once that no repeat of the red wheelbarrow or the white petals as “revelation” is possible?   Such “hovering on the verge of revelation” is a deal with the devil, a short-term gain in “freshness” for an eternity of wandering in obscure hell.  Poe, on the other hand, who comes under such abuse by the professorial authors, presents a recognizable and enchanting skill, there for the taking.  “Ulalume” is a model in a line of significant utterance; if a poet possesses the imagination and skill to make another “Ulalume,” much pleasure will result, since appreciation of music is universal; hundreds of thousands of red wheelbarrows have been tried, and strange to report, not once has “freshness” been used to describe the attempt!  Brooks & Warren gambled on a sun which will never rise again.  Critics who write textbooks  have a responsibility to think of the long-term health of the art, lest the poetic economy collapse.

In “Understanding Poetry,’ poems by friends of the authors—Pound, Williams, Tate, H.D.—spear-head a modernist beach-landing against a defenseless tribe—students.

The public would not come to modernism, so modernism came to the public—in a textbook.

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