VIKRAM SETH’S ‘THE GOLDEN GATE’: THE 20th CENTURY’S GREATEST POEM?

Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, a novel in verse, was released in 1986; we celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.  Quoth Wikipedia: “The work is a novel in verse composed of 590 Onegin stanzas (sonnets written in iambic tetrameter, with the rhyme scheme following the unusual ababccddeffegg pattern of Eugene Onegin). It was inspired by Charles Johnston’s translation of Pushkin’s 1833 Russian classic…”  The novel, Mr. Seth’s first, was famously lauded by Gore Vidal as “The great California novel…”.  Its cast of characters includes a designer of nuclear weapons, and his nemesis, an extremely cunning and malicious feline.

We hesitated to write about The Golden Gate  in this its 25th year, because we haven’t re-read it this year, despite strongly intending to. And we wonder why.  Oh, valid enough excuses can be made: not enough time, house flooded during the hurricane, etc.  But time has been made for other books—why not this one? Could it be the novel feels dated, since a portion of it concerns itself with the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, giving the work a feel of outmodedness?  After all, there is no longer any nuclear freeze movement of consequence, for there is no longer need of one. Or is there?

The 1980s, when much of the world population was terrified of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, was perhaps, in the terror it inspired, a safer time, nuclear accident-wise, than today.  (Although perhaps not, as this lifted-from-Wiki story illustrates: “On the night of September 26, 1983, the Soviet orbital missile early warning system (SPRN), code-named Oko, reported a single intercontinental ballistic missile launch from the territory of the United States. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who was on duty during the incident, correctly dismissed the warning as a computer error when ground early warning radars did not detect any launches. Part of his reasoning was that the system was new and known to malfunction before; also, a full scale nuclear attack from the United States would involve thousands of simultaneous launches, not a single missile. Later, the system reported four more ICBM launches headed to the Soviet Union, but Petrov again dismissed the reports as false. The investigation that followed revealed that the system indeed malfunctioned and false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ orbits.”)

We believe it was Churchill who said something to the effect of stability being the stepchild of terror.  Those who are terrified of a danger are more watchful and alert, and thus more able to avert the danger from happening.  For example, pedestrians walking at night who are alert to the threats of automobiles and muggers often avoid harm because they pay close attention to their surroundings and take steps to avert danger.  In the same way, when a population is consciously terrified of a possible outcome, it applies political pressures to leaders to ensure safety. But in our time, there does not seem to be widespread fear of an inadvertent nuclear exchange, even though the United States apparently has some 6,000 nuclear weapons, and nuclear weapons are in the hands of states such as North Korea and Pakistan.  (Interestingly, in his novel 2030, Albert Brooks portrays a future in which the Taliban seizes complete control of Pakistan and drops three nuclear bombs on India, leading to India invading and annexing all of Pakistan’s territory.)

The Golden Gate, in sections 7.15 to 7.34, features a speech given by a Catholic priest at a nuclear freeze rally that illegally blocks access to Lungless Labs (for which read “Livermore Labs”):

Bespectacled, short, nervous, chubby,
With few gray hairs for sixty years,
And scruffy cassock, the priest’s tubby
And unimposing form appears
A curious temple for the oracle;
And every hint of oratorical
Expectancy is squelched when he,
Bent down on an unsteady knee,
Two fingers fumbling with this collar,
Gathers the notes his jittery hands
Dropped on the ground; but when he stands
And starts to speak, the pudgy scholar
(By nature; activist by choice)
Holds them with his soft resonant voice.

Now both blockaders and supporters
Are silent as the priest says, “Friends,
Sisters and brothers, sons and daughters,
The little time each of us spends…
Can everyone in the back hear me?
Yes? Excellent—and all those near me—
Not too loud? … Well, these few short years
We spend pursuing our careers,
Our needs, our longings, our obsessions
Upon this earth, once gone, are dead.
Of some who’ve spent their time, it’s said
They gathered manifold possessions;
Of some, they broke their lives for wealth;
Of some, their striving broke their health.

Of some it’s said they learned to master
The secret fusion of the sun,
Of some that they ran, rode, swam faster
Than till their advent man had done,
Of some, they eked life out as drudges,
Of some—but any way one judges
Their lives or ours, to dole out blame
Or praise, one attribute may claim
To cut across all our partitions
Of wealth and vigor, fame and wit:
Did they serve life? Or injure it?
These are more naked oppositions
Than can sieve truth in every case,
But we may use them when we face

Choices such as, today, we’re facing.
What is our will in life? To race
As, lemming-like, mankind is racing
To liquidation, or to face
With what small strength we have, the massive
Machine of omnicide, impassive,
Oiled by inertia and by hate
And the smooth silver of the state?
Today we meet in celebration
Of life; some have their children here;
And all of us are of good cheer.
Indeed, with our incarceration
In those yellow school buses, we
May find ourselves compelled to be

As little children. Let’s inquire
With the same childishness as they,
Should we not try to douse a fire
That threatens to consume away
Not just our home but the whole city?
Or with a worldly-wise and witty
Shrug and rejoinder should we turn
The volume up and let Rome burn?
Well, we have gathered here this morning
In disparate but harmonious voice
To show that we have made our choice;
That we have hearkened to the warning
That hate and fear kill; and are here
Confronting death and hate and fear.

Hate is a subtle weed; vagaries
Of soil and time give it new growth.
Only the food of hatred varies;
England and Germany were both
Our bitterest enemies; we hated
Each of them. Yet when we had sated
Our enmity and made them friends,
Hate found new sustenance for its ends.
The English gone, it found the Spanish.
Japan defeated, China served
To keep its lethal life preserved.
Its victim crushed, it would not vanish.
Even before we’d reached Berlin,
Moscow was our new sump of sin.

Hate shifts with diplomatic fashion.
To love is to be resolute.
By Christ’s own sacrifice and passion,
We cannot flinch, we must not mute
The strength and grace of his humanity
By acquiescing in insanity.
Neither crusading frenzy nor
The specious pleading of ‘just war’
Permits the least justification
Of that which, once used, will ensure
That God’s creation won’t endure.
Without hate, without hesitation,
Taking our freedom in our hand,
Let us each pledge that here we stand.

Though Catholic, I make no apology
For quoting someone we’ve proclaimed
The arch-monk of our demonology
These several hundred years. I aimed
To show that in this murderous weather
That threatens, we will stand together,
As now; and with our common breath
Cry out against our common death.
Catholic and Episcopalian,
Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist,
Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist,
We are all here; no one is alien
Now radiation’s common laws
Impel us into common cause.

It was once asked on Belsen’s ashes,
‘Where were you then? Where was the Church?’
If once more our high sentence clashes
With our inaction, we need search
No further for complicit stigma
Than those hands bearing the enigma
Of blood and body in the mass.
Please God, this will not come to pass.
Our bishops’ recent pastoral letter
On nuclear arms demands a freeze.
Today our own archdiocese
Of San Francisco’s an abettor
—They’ve lent us transport—in this fight
Against the law, but for the right.

I have heard some who denigrate us
Claim that we wish to abrogate
The constitutional hiatus
Between religion and the state.
Our job, they say, is to be godly
While the state goes on acting oddly.
The scripture for their vision is
‘Give unto Caesar what is his.’
Let me observe that separation
Of church and state does not exempt
The church from action, may not tempt
The state from all examination
Of conscience, and ought, lastly, not
To serve as partisan buckshot.

There are occasions when morality
And civil law are in dispute.
Granted its sole officiality,
Civil law is not absolute.
If we accept our obligation
Not to accept annihilation
Or that, in our name, bombs are hurled
At others elsewhere in the world,
The quote above needs its addenda.
Students who gloss a narrow text
Should read the passage that comes next;
It is suggested that we render
Things that are God’s to God, as well
As stocking Caesar’s citadel.

What Caesar, battling for democracy,
Unasked, relinquished his regime?
What cotton king decried slavocracy?
What cat forwent its dish of cream?
If we expect disinterested
Judgment from Congress, from our vested
Arms gluttons—from the White House down—
We’re living in cloud-cuckoo-town.
We cannot wait for legislation.
There is no shame in following
Thoreau and Anthony and King,
The old traditions of a nation
That once, two hundred years before,
In its own birth resisted law.

There is no time, when escalation
Bloats our stockpiles with overkill,
When secular proliferation
Means that a score of nations will
Soon hatch these eggs, and when with manic
Slaver we froth the world to panic,
To nourish niceties. We must pray,
Reflect, and act in any way
—Peaceful; that needs no emphasizing—
That may decelerate, reduce,
Or ban the inception, test, and use
Of weaponry so brutalizing
Its mere birth brings opprobrium down
Upon the name of Lungless Town.

Workers of Lungless Labs—when dying
Will you be proud you were midwife
To implements exemplifying
Assault against the heart of life?
You knew their purpose, yet you made them.
If you had scruples, you betrayed them.
What pastoral response acquits
Those who made ovens for Auschwitz?
Indeed, it’s said that the banality
Of evil is its greatest shock.
It jokes, it punches its time clock,
Plays with its kids. The triviality
Of slaughtering millions can’t impinge
Upon its peace, or make it cringe.

Killing is dying. This equation
Carries no mystical import.
It is the literal truth. Our nation
Has long believed war was a sport.
Unoccupied, unbombed, undying,
While ‘over there’ the shells were flying,
How could we know the Russian dread
Of war, the mountains of their dead?
We reveled in acceleration
At every level of the race;
And even now we’re face to face
With mutual extermination
We talk as blithely as before
Of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘limited war.’

There is no victory, no survival,
And no defense, no place to hide,
No limit, and indeed, no rival
In this exhaustive fratricide.
We’ll all fall down. Despite resilient
Airs of omniscience, our brilliant
Leaders, when all is said and done,
Have no solution, no, not one.
With quaint autumnal orthodoxy
They point out that America’s best:
The Russians can’t, they say, protest.
That only means we must stand proxy
For those who cannot speak, but are
As much opposed as we, to war.

Ten hostages is terrorism;
A million, and it’s strategy.
To ban books is fanaticism;
To threaten in totality
All culture and all civilization,
All humankind and all creation,
This is a task of decorous skill
And needs high statesmanship and will.
It takes a deal of moral clarity
To see that it is right to blitz
Each Russian family to bits
Because their leaders’ muscularity
—Quite like our own—on foreign soil
Threatens our vanity or ‘our’ oil.

Quo warranto?  By what authority,
I ask you in the wounds of Christ,
Does strength confer superiority
Over God’s earth? What has enticed
Mere things like us into believing
The world may be left charred and grieving
In man-made doom at the behest
Of patriotic interest?
It’s come that close. A Russian freighter
—In autumn 1962—
Halted before the line we drew
To cut off Cuba. Minutes later,
And our own manly president would
Have finished off mankind for good.

To those who with tall intellectual
Prudence sniff at our brashness and
State that our stance is ineffectual,
That with our puny sling to stand
Against this latter-day Goliath
Is not wise, let me ask, ‘How dieth
The wise man? As the fool.’ To turn
Your face from horror will not earn
You an indulgence. Help us fight it.
Two hundred years ago, indeed,
Who would have dreamed slaves would be freed?
To show how conscience, starting small,
In God’s good time, may conquer all.

From history we may learn two lessons:
How slowly—and how fast—things change.
Whether the permanent quiescence
Of fear—or life—occurs, it’s strange
Not to know how long we’ll be striving,
Or which succeeds in first arriving;
But whether we prevail or lose,
One thing is certain: we must choose.
God won’t forsake you or ignore you—
So don’t forsake him. Let me close
With Deuteronomy’s plain prose.
Here it is: ‘I have set before you
Life and death… therefore choose life.’
Or, as that sign says, ‘Strive with strife.’”

SCARRIET TURNS TWO

terrible-twos

When Thomas Brady, Alan Cordle, Christopher Woodman, and Desmond Swords were banned from Blog Harriet two years ago, there was no crying.

There was revenge.

Cordle sprang into action after the banning, creating a website called Scarriet—a well-deserved joke on the bumbling, mean-spirited site, Harriet, named after Harriet Monroe, the late 19th century blue-blood aesthete who raised enough money for a little poetry magazine, a toy in the very early 20th century of the idle rich who collected Asian art and swooned over haiku.

Monroe was fortunate to have an operator named Ezra Pound as her London editor, well-connected to the decadent ins and outs of the new art market machinations.  A great wave of calculated anti-Romantic, anti-Renaissance fervor was in the air:  Palgrave’s golden treasury was a great albatross around the neck of Progress; Plato’s measurement was being replaced by ‘blah blah blah,’ measured art was being replaced by art that said it was art, and art, like money, could now make money just for being whatever it was that someone said it had to be.

All this generated, as one might imagine, a lot of hustle and bustle.  Art that had value for the middle classes was relegated to reprints, art seeking value now became a process of the rich seeking to distance themselves from the middle class.  Imagism hopped on the back of haiku and Pound and Monroe were off and running.  Pound and Eliot threw in their lot with fascism while Monroe’s little magazine, safely ensconced in the Midwest, insinuated itself into the Modern Poetry graces of certain would-be poets, one being Ruth Lilly, who happened to have a fortune, and gave a lot of it recently to Harriet Monroe’s magazine.

Blog Harriet gave up on its great democratic experiment of allowing comments on its site about 6 months after banning the Now Famous Four.

Blog Harriet is now a dull cut-and-paste site (despite the Poetry Foundation’s millions) while the banned Brady writes the original bounty that is Scarriet, taking a true measure of poetry in all its aspects.

That’s our two cents.

BORED WITH POETRY COMMENTARY, MORE ORIGINAL POEMS

HOW DO WE KNOW?

How do we know the movie starts or the poem begins?
If we cheer the anti-bourgeois,
Do we do so because somebody sins?
If these fragments please us,
What mind or book
Shall eventually please the greedy advertisers?
Will unfaithful sex lead to good,
At least in the abstract?
Can all these vagabonds fit in this wood?
How long has my memory of Rimbaud been under attack?

ON A MODERN POEM

The first time I read it,
It blew me away—
The next time I read it,
I said, yeah, OK. 

The third time I read it,
I skimmed it quite fast—
The fourth time I read it
Was probably the last.

A SERMON ON THE BOOKS OF THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY (BAP-le)

Brother Thomas asked me to speak to the congregation today because it’s been one year since I joined the House of Scarriet….

 (“Amen”; “Thank you, Lord”)

 Now brothers and sisters, a year ago I did not even know who David Lehman was…

 (“Mmm-mm-mm”; “Lord have mercy”)

Brothers and sisters, I had not even HEARD the name of Brother Lehman…

 (“Oh Lord!”)

 But I have now seen the light….

 (“Yes he has”)

 Now I have read all the canonical books of the BAP-le — and I have come away a changed man.

 (“Hallelujah”)

 Recite with me, church, if you will, the books of the BAP by editor and date in chronological order…

 (“John Ashbery 1988”)

Very good…

 (“Donald Hall 1989”)

 Amen, keep going….

 (crowd recites up to “Richard Howard 1995”)

 Now be careful with the next one!

 (knowing laughter)

Someone want to shout it out?

 (a child’s voice: “James Tate 1997”!)

Amen.  From the mouths of babes.  That’s correct, “Adrienne Rich 1996”, along with “Harold Bloom Best of the Best”, are considered apocryphal and not accepted as canonical books. Let’s continue from there…

 (crowd recites up to “Amy Gerstler 2010”)

Amen. Brothers and sisters, in 1962, the Supreme Court banned poetry from our public schools.

 (murmuring)

 The Supreme COURT – banned the MUSE – from our SCHOOLS!

 (“Yes, it did…”)

 And the Muse said, “Alright, that’s fine — I’m going to go for a long walk where I’m appreciated” — and left us — to our own devices…

 (“Yes, She did….”)

And I don’t need to tell you, brothers and sisters — this country has gone DOWNHILL ever since!

(“Thash roit”)

 Now, don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way in that time….

 (“Yes, we have”)

 And yet I ask you — in your worldly glory, have you left the Muse behind?

(”Mm-mm-mm”; “Preach it”)

 In your materialist splendour — have you forgotten the Muse?  Have you said, “I will add houses to fields and then admire the work of my hands”! — and yet I tell you, you will die this very night….

 (“Mercy!”)

This very night, then who will take your houses and your fields and your worldly glory?

(“Preach it”)

 Go to the books of the Best American Poetry, the BAP-le, brothers and sisters.  It will quench your thirst.  It will satisfy your soul. Brothers and sisters, I feel the spirit moving upon me….  I feel the gift of tongues descending upon me……  Joriegrahamfrankbidartambertamblynhallelujah….

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SCARRIET

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

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

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

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

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

Of poetry over prose.

Happy Birthday, Scarriet.

It’s been one hell of a year.

UNITED STATES OF POETRY (PART ONE): KULIK AND KEATON: THE ART OF IMPERTURBABILITY

http://www.doctormacro.com/Images/Keaton,%20Buster/Annex/Annex%20-%20Keaton,%20Buster%20(Goat,%20The)_01.jpg

We have, now, in American poetry, a new self-consciousness manifesting itself not in schools of thought or types of poetry, but in social prickliness—the birth pains, we can only hope, of a new era where the shackles of old Modernism and incestuous Workshop-ism can at last be thrown off.

For we live in an age in which the ‘I’, central to western civilization (and Anglo-American civilization in particular — for what other language capitalizes the first person singular pronoun?), has collapsed into a mere ‘i’, a mere letter, the Self nothing more than one of the billions of ‘yous’ who cohabit the earth.  Yet it is a false proclamation, no doubt owing more to the understandable but ultimately lamentable disinclination to correctly operate the ‘shift’ key than to an epochal change of consciousness.

We have decided at last that we do want the “I,” and are even thinking of capitalizing “You”; for the experiments which have banned the human — the found poem, the deconstructed text, the well-wrought urn of pedantic New Criticism, the sordid materialism and cryptic theoretical aspects of the avants, the cunning and predatory alliances formed in academic conferences and chairs — all of these are giving way to a healthy and humorous atmosphere inhabited by actual persons. To which, hearkening back to the sanctuaries we often attended as young persons, we can only offer an exuberant and heartfelt “Selah!”

We find that emblematic of this ‘new spirit’ are the poems of William Kulik, translator of Max Jacob, master of the prose poem, and professor of a “happy band” of students at Temple University in historic Philadelphia. Kulik’s poems remind us of nothing less than the movies of silent film star Buster Keaton, for in both, the protagonist faces a malevolent world — a world deteriorating in ways that defy reason, a dreamscape of dangerous happenings – yet both Keaton and Kulik’s protagonist (each poem usually has a central character, seemingly modeled on the poet himself) never get rattled, never get flustered, but maintain a cool, good humored imperturbability in the face of events which would drive most personages clear round the bend. Keaton maintains a stone face as houses collapse on him (Steamboat Bill, Jr., 1928), as he is vamped by Fatty Arbuckle dressed as a nurse (Good Night Nurse, 1918, shockingly neglected), and as he plays cards with aged and grotesque Hollywood legends of yore (Sunset Boulevard, 1950). In the same way, the protagonist of Kulik’s poems keeps his sense of good humor even in dire situations—whether prostrate on the ground tormented by a sadistic policeman (“Flexible”), ridiculed on stage by yahoos in a theater that reminded us of the 1973 film Theatre of Blood (“This Old House”), or observing as a swinging 1970s party inexorably disintegrates into a hellish landscape (“The Triumph of Narcissus and Aphrodite”). This determination to maintain one’s good humor, to appreciate and enjoy this short life we’ve been granted, is a spirit we find most congenial, whether in our own dire age or the dire ages past and future. For is not every age dire? No walking down the street muttering in despair with shoulders slumped for Keaton or Kulik — both have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, the bomb a comely XX-chromosomed being rather than a thermonuclear device.

For is there anything better to get one through a dark night of the soul (assuming one has already settled to one’s satisfaction the most pressing metaphysical questions) than thoughts of sexual bliss? “Yes,” we hear a wag retort, “sexual bliss itself!”  Yet we beg to differ. For the realm of sexual fantasy will always satisfy more qua fantasia than any and all attempts to realize that fantasy in the harsh light of physical reality.  For the reality can never match the fantasy— unless of course one has a nigh unlimited supply of funds and leisure time to stage manage one’s most breathless imaginings. And yet — and yet — even then we suspect that the reality would not match the dream (although we must sheepishly admit that we would certainly like to try, in the manner of, say, Terry Southern, to put this idea to the test).

William Kulik made a splash in Scarriet’s March Madness, an expansive merriment which simultaneously mocked and revered a popular paradigm; we at Scarriet ‘discovered’ Kulik through March Madness, through a list-like winnowing, and lately Kulik has made ‘an appearance’ on Scarriet’s Hot 100 (part 2) a very popular essay the popularity of which proves people care about people, they love lists because let’s face it, what is all temporal art but a list?

There is no depth in temporal art, per se, and if there is depth it is only from the list (the shallow construct of popular culture and mass media, top 40, etc)— the list is the fantasy, and the so-called ‘depth’ the reality which chases after the list itself, and which is only ‘reality’ finally, to scholars who proclaim seeming truths in retrospect.

The fantasy is finally what drives all of us, what gets us up in the morning (or the afternoon), that which is the true food of poets.  The shallow list has its significance in its very shallowness, in its construct as a ladder or reaching upwards into, and within, a realm of delirious fantasy, the realm where actor and poet are one.

SCARRIET BASEBALL POETRY PLAYER REP PAGLIA INTERVIEW PART TWO

Players’ Rep Paglia on Shelley: his sublimity, his atheism, his fastball.

MM: Marla Muse here, and we’re back with Scarriet Poetry Baseball League Players’ Rep Camille Paglia.  Camille, you seem to view the current state of poetry in academia with a jaundiced eye.

CP: During the past quarter century, humanistic principles and honest practical criticism could more reliably be found among low-paid adjuncts faithfully teaching service courses at community colleges than in the vain, showy professoriat of the elite schools.

MM: Body blow!!!

CP: I don’t agree with the assessments (pro or con) of contemporary poetry by most of the leading poetry critics and reviewers. Those who turn their backs on media (or overdose on postmodernism) have no gauge for monitoring the metamorphosis of English.

MM: Poetry has perhaps become too precious, too affected?

CP: Any poetry removed from popular diction will inevitably become as esoteric as eighteenth-century satire (perfected by Alexander Pope, starting pitcher, Philadelphia Poe), whose dense allusiveness and preciosity drove the early Romantic poets into the countryside to find living speech again.

MM: Poetry has a religious dimension for you as well.

CP: I sound out poems silently, as others pray.

MM: Wow!

CP: The concentrated attention demanded by poetry is close to meditation. Reading a poem requires alert receptivity, perpetual openness, and intuition.

MM: Absolutely.

CP: The sacred remains latent in poetry, which was born in ancient ritual and cult. For Donne, (London Eliots) God is an eternal, transcendent judge and king. For Wordsworth, (New England Frost)  the divine suffuses nature and manifests itself in numinous moments of intensified consciousness. For Roethke, (starting pitcher, Cambridge Cummings) the divine is a ghostly Muse who emanates from his own psyche—a pattern seen differently in “Hamlet”, with its purgatorial stalking father.

MM: Then the religious aspect of poetry is present in secular poetry as well?

CP: Poetry’s persistent theme of the sublime—the awesome vastness of the universe—is a religious perspective, even in atheists like Shelley (starting pitcher, Philadelphia Poe). Despite the cosmic vision of the radical psychedelic 1960s, the sublime is precisely what poststructuralism, with its blindness to nature, cannot see.

MM: So you feel strongly about this religious aspect of poetry.

CP: Poets have glimpses of other realities, higher or lower, which can’t be grasped cognitively.

MM: Beyond cognition, yes.

CP: And commentary on poetry is a kind of divination, resembling the practice of oracles, sibyls, augurs, and interpreters of dreams.

MM: Wow, criticism has a spiritual aspect as well?

CP: Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing.

MM:  But Camille, poetry isn’t “just religion,” is it? What else is it?

CP:  Like philosophy, poetry is a contemplative form, but unlike philosophy, poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.

MM:  Okay, a kind of “physical philosophy.”  That’s where the baseball comes in, obviously. What else?

CP: Poetry, which began as song, is music-drama: I value emotional expressiveness, musical phrasings, and choreographic assertion, the speaker’s self-positioning toward other persons or implacable external forces.

MM: Yes, implacable external forces – “the inherent difficulty of things” – or as my kids say, “Physical reality is a b—ch!”

CP:  Marla, I’m reminded here that we live in a time increasingly indifferent to literary style, from the slack prose of once august newspapers to pedestrian translations of the Bible. The Web (which I champion and to which I have extensively contributed) has increased verbal fluency but not quality, at least in its rushed, patchy genres of e-mail and blog.

MM: So true.

CP: It’s poetry on the page—a visual construct—that lasts. The eye too is involved. The shapeliness and symmetry of the four-line ballad stanza (descending from medieval England and Scotland and carried by seventeenth-century emigres to the American South and Appalachia) once structured the best lyrics of rhythm and blues, gospel, country and western music, and rock ‘n’ roll. But with the immense commercial success of rock music, those folk roots have receded, and popular songwriting has gotten weaker and weaker.

MM:  Tell me about it! Camille, we’re almost out of time—anything else you’d like to add?

CP:  Artists are makers, not just mouthers of slippery discourse. Language, the poets’ medium, should not be privileged over the protean materials of other artists, who work in pigments, stone, metals, and fibers. Poets are fabricators and engineers, pursuing a craft analogous to cabinetry or bridge building.

MM: Beautifully said.

CP: The poem is a methodical working out of fugitive impressions. It finds or rather projects symbols into the inner and outer worlds.

MM: That external, physical reality again.

CP: Poetry is not just about itself: it does point to something “out there”, however dimly we can know it. The modernist doctrine of the work’s self-reflexiveness once empowered art but has ended by strangling it in gimmickry.

MM: Yes, so much poetry is so obscure and subjective that it is ultimately undecodable by a reader.

CP:  I maintain that the text emphatically exists as an object; it is not just a mist of ephemeral subjectivities. Every reading is partial, but that does not absolve us from the quest for meaning, which defines us as a species.

MM:  In the remaining minutes we have, can I ask you a little about the Scarriet Baseball Poetry League itself?

CP:  Sure.

MM:  Camille, what do you think of all the riots in the games (both on and off the field), pitchers plunking batters, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, manifestos pinned to outfield walls, the unusual dimensions and features of home parks (like the spreading chestnut tree in Longfellow Park, growing in rightfield)?

CP: I think it’s wonderful!

MM:  But Harold Bloom, the Commissioner’s office, has said—

 CP: Oh, Commissioner Bloom just talks for the sake of talking…he knows all of this is great for the game…players and fans need a certain amount of freedom to express themselves…

MM:  OK…thanks, Camille…but I don’t think we’ve heard the last about this from Commissioner Bloom

CP: Yea, whatever…again…love your dress!

MM:  Thanks so much, Camille, and good luck in running Scarriet poetry baseball this season alongside Commish Bloom.

CP: Thanks, Marla.

MM: And we go now to “60 Minutes” which is already in progress….

Part 1 of the interview can be found at https://scarriet.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/camille-paglia-speaks-out-as-scarriet-poetry-baseball-player-rep/

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