DELMORE SCHWARTZ AND THE MODERN COMPLAINT

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The peculiar error of the modern poets—an error so obvious as to escape attention—was the continual investigation of what it meant to be modern, a term by which these 20th century poets (our grandparents and great grandparents) felt they were somehow novel and special. If thinking about poetry has anything to do with writing it, the modern poets were the first poets forced to be something else (modern) first, and poets second.

The previous movement—Romanticism—was so named by later critics; the Romantic poets, as critically-minded as any aesthetic clique, never thought of themselves as “Romantic” poets. They wrote poetry. Modern poetry, it must have been, when they were alive.  Wordsworth, one of the so-called Romantic poets, and as different in sensibility from another Romantic poet, Byron, as one poet next to another can possibly be, was no revolutionary. Wordsworth strove to write like Milton—just less religiously; there was no “break” at all, in terms of the poetry. A poem was a poem, just as a sword was a sword, or a feeling was a feeling. Wordsworth may have felt he was writing closer to how regular folk talk—but looking back we now know that was just something his criticism said.

One will, of course, find critics who insist Wordsworth was a “break,” (Byron would have said Wordsworth—whom the author of “Don Juan” took delight in ridiculing—was “broken”) but these critics will be found to be the same ones who believe the “modern” describes poetry, if only to conveniently map out eras as a means of filling up teaching hours in the classroom, and helping their charges remember what they are studying in rough historical terms. Victorian poets wrote when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Modern poets wrote during the reign of some other queen. And so on. But we “moderns” know (because we are “modern?”) that “modern” means much more than that. It is so ripe with meaning that modern poets are only secondarily poets—in the sense that all poets who came before them were.

I don’t think one can ever go wrong as a poet to think deeply about what it means to be a poet; the modern, however—what is it?

Here’s Randall Jarrell in The Nation in 1942:

What has impressed everybody about modernist poetry is its differentness. The familiar and rather touching “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” is only another way of noticing what almost all criticism has emphasized: that modernist poetry is a revolutionary departure from the romantic poetry of the preceding century.

In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” (1938) John Crowe Ransom writes, “Modern poetry is pure poetry.” Just as the isolated skill of “statecraft” has replaced state and religion blended into one, poetry is no longer epic, religious, sweeping, but small, aesthetic, specialized. Just as Puritanism isolates morality from the old pomp of the Catholic Church and seals it up in the devotee’s heart, modern poetry isolates, as a special value, pure aesthetics from morality and everything else.

Robert Penn Warren in his lecture at Princeton in 1942, “Pure and Impure Poetry” wrestled with Ransom’s idea of modern poetry as “pure.” Context, for Warren, keeps interfering with purity, in the same way excess of feeling naturally brings on mockery—Ransom’s “purity” has porous borders; Eliot’s “objective correlative” demands Shelley’s love admit a desire for sex (loosely speaking); in order for the sex to remain hidden, however, poetry must be obscure; and so Modernist obscurity ascends the throne; Shelley and Poe’s poetry excludes the unpleasant, the ugly, the immoral; modern poetry, in its attempt to break with Romanticism (including Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare) includes these things, includes the vulgar, includes whatever was once aesthetically left out. In order for the modern contradiction of inclusive, lyric “purity” to work, however, obscurity is required, unless one is prepared to advance past Shelley by introducing sex into one’s poems, which the Moderns were not willing to do.

Eliot, in “Hamlet and his Problems” calls Hamlet a failure because Hamlet’s “disgust” with his mother (she is having sex with his uncle) isn’t handled properly.

I began this essay by referring to the modern poets’ “error,” unnoticed due to its obvious nature; and here it is.

The attachment of “modern” to poetry obscures and distracts from the poetry—in the very same manner that obscurity itself is the chief problem of modernist poetry (Jarrell’s “I like poetry—but not modern poetry” self-consciously expresses this public distaste).

And why is modern poetry obscure?

Ransom’s modernist, art for art’s sake, division of labor, puritanical evolution in the direction of “purity” ran headlong into Poe’s narrow and practical definition—the inevitable, self-conscious, progressive, boiling down of the essential nature of the poem as Critical object in Lord Bacon’s laboratory.

Trapped by the exclusionary nature of the pure lyric poem, which had been freed from its old epic duties as historian and moral story teller, the Romantic lyric is the inescapable reality facing the “revolutionary” Modern.

In the early 20th century, a desperate gambit followed—make the uneasy purity of the modern lyric a product which includes, rather than excludes, all things which are not poetic, or beautiful, or traditionally aesthetic.

But to arrive at purity by including all sorts of things is impossible. Therefore exclusion had to be practiced (the soul of all art is exclusion) in such a way as to somehow pretend inclusion (sex accompanying love, disgust accompanying restraint, confusion accompanying focus, laughter accompanying sorrow) and you have the modern poets practicing something impossible to pull off, with obscurity the natural result.  This was, and is, modern poetry.

To be lyric, clear, Romantic, beautiful is to go back. Modern meant forward, out of the trenches of Poe, into the arms of everything—which, by its inclusive nature, ruins pure poetry, the old pure poetry which excludes.

Like the beautiful English poets, who almost to a man, ran headlong into the Great War of 1914, poetry, in the same historical instant, ran into the arms of insanity, busyness, mockery, excess, obscurity, unease, the mundane, pain, ugliness, and death.

We arrive now at Delmore Schwartz and his essay “The Isolation of Modern Poetry.”

In his essay, published in John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1941, Schwartz is certain that the poet is isolated from modern society. Not because, as T.S. Eliot says, modern society is complex and therefore modern poetry needs to be complex, and therefore difficult, and therefore the modern poet is likely to be misunderstood—Schwartz finds this relationship “superficial.”

Mr. Eliot is seldom superficial in any regard; here, however, I think he is identifying the surface of our civilization with the surface of our poetry. But the complexity of modern life, the disorder of the traffic on a business street or the variety of reference in the daily newspaper is far from being the same thing as the difficulties of syntax, tone, diction, metaphor, and allusion which face the reader in the modern poem.

If only Delmore had spent the entire essay confuting Mr. Eliot!  His essay might have unlocked many anti-Modernist insights.  Those who hate Eliot for vague reasons—too English, too Anglican, too stuffy—are wrong, but those who find Eliot invincible in his judgments are dangerously wrong. Good to see Delmore wasn’t afraid of taking on the master.

But Schwartz goes on to say a similar thing: modern society doesn’t care for poetry; the poet’s isolation, therefore, is extreme.  Schwartz doesn’t blame people, but society.  Bankers and insurance salesmen cannot like poetry—the way they make their living prohibits it.

The fundamental isolation of the modern poet began not with the poet and his way of life; but rather with the whole way of life of modern society. It was not so much the poet as it was poetry, culture, sensibility, imagination, that were isolated.

After rebuking Eliot, Schwartz goes on for the rest of the essay to entirely agree with him.  Poetry, as Schwartz points out, is not the same as a busy street. Eliot is too blase, is what Schwartz is saying. Complex life, complex poetry. But Schwartz sees a much deeper problem. The complexity of modern life does not provide new material for the poet (Eliot’s rather optimistic view) but rather obliterates all connections between ordinary people caught up in that complexity and the poet who wishes to communicate with those modern readers. According to Schwartz:

There have been unsuccessful efforts on the part of able poets to write about bankers and about railroad trains, and in such examples the poet has been confronted by what seems on the surface a technical problem, the extraordinary difficulty of employing poetic diction, meter, language, and metaphor in the contexts of modern life.

Delmore then gives us the example of Wallace Stevens:

At the conclusion of his reading of his own poetry, this poet and business man remarked to one of the instructors who had welcomed him: “I wonder what the boys at the office would think of this.”

But this seems as superficial as T.S Eliot’s point about modern life forcing the modern poet to be “difficult.”  Why do we assume “the boys in the office” cannot like poetry?

Modern life impacts all persons—and a poet is a person. No matter how different life or society has become, the poet experiences society in the same ocean of experience as everyone else, no matter what kind of “poet” he is; for the materials the poet uses is under discussion when we talk about banks and trains.  The poet of ancient Greece, or the poet of any society at any point in history, has a duty to speak to other members of society—otherwise what kind of poet is he?  If he chooses to write about banks and trains, or not, he still will be understood as a poet—for when Delmore rebuked TS Eliot, this was exactly his point—poetry is not the same as banks and trains.

Schwartz is saying modern life is far more than a busy street.  It is far worse.  Modern life is not merely more complex.  It kills the soul, is really what Schwartz is saying.  But unfortunately, this is nothing but hyperbole.  The soul is forever doing battle with life—modern or not.

If the whole of society has succumbed to the not-poetic, then society is isolated from itself, and everyone is afflicted, not just the poet.

Either the poet’s modern audience is similarly affected, or not.

If not, the poet needs to bridge the gap—with poetry—that’s what poets do and why we call it poetry. (And write anguished essays about how poetry has flown and the poet is isolated.) In ancient times, or now.

And if the poet’s audience is similarly afflicted, then wherefore the “isolation?”

Is it because most of society finds insurance firms attractive and the poet does not? Of course not; we must assume a thread of humanity connecting poet and audience re: the non-poetic aspect of insurance firms. No one finds insurance firms attractive.

Schwartz also brings up money. Insurance firms make money and poetry does not, and therefore the poet is ashamed, of no worth, pitied, and therefore isolated, by society. But imagine if Keats were born to a fortune. He would not be Keats. Poetry is so valuable—as to be like money in the fortune it bestows upon its worshipers, but it is not money—does not belong to exchange—otherwise it would not be wealthy in what it is: poetry, which is not, but which rivals, the good fortune of money. What Schwartz is doing is feeling sorry for himself, and using society (which isolates him, the poet) as the excuse—and the transferring of the self-pity (in a Marxist sort of way) into a philosophy, which, in the long run, only makes the individual feel worse, because the self-pity grows in an abstract (disguised) manner.

Therefore, the “difficulty,” or the “famous obscurity” of modern poetry, as Schwartz calls it, is because the modern poet writes not from a common place shared by modern society (banks, insurance firms) but from the poet’s own peculiar, eccentric, isolated self, pushed into a corner by the massively complex (agreeing with Eliot more than he realizes) and non-poetic aspects of modern life.

Again, however: if the society lacks poetry (hasn’t it always?) it follows that poetry must be dearly desired in every quarter.

Poetry, we must assume, is good, is happiness, (since isolating it is bad) and happiness is what modern society lacks (surely the poet doesn’t wish misery on anyone in the name of poetry). The insurance salesman, lacking poetry, needs it, and no amount of enforced, self-pitying, isolationism will possibly be able to provide poetry to the insurance salesman.

Either poetry is being stamped out, and therefore is more necessary than ever, or modern society is inventing different means of delivering poetry without poets themselves being necessary (at least not the self-defeating, bad poets).

In order to prove that the poet was once fully integrated into society, Schwartz provides a few dubious examples: the ancient drama “festivals” which were the talk of the ancient town. But surely this was the ancient equivalent of Hollywood, not poetry in the modern sense. And who thinks of “festivals” as steady poetry employment which earns a living, anyway?

He claims “the Bible” was once the common picture for society at large, until it was eclipsed in the 18th and the 19th centuries by science and Darwin. But shouldn’t this be good news for the poets, who get a chance to replace the priests?

He mentions Blake as one of the first modern rebels, ushering in the new “obscurity” of poetry no longer able to rely on the Bible. But what could be less obscure than the “Tyger” or “Songs of Innocence?”

Schwartz then comes to Baudelaire, the poet who espouses the poetry of clouds, art for art’s sake, the modern poet refusing to write of heroic or “respectable” things, an orphan, cut off from family and all things universal, since with the fall of the Bible, follows the fall of Man. But here Delmore is applying rope to the “helpless” poet—when we know it is precisely poetry which unties all ropes.

Delmore thinks poetry isn’t free, since he applies “modern” to both society and poetry.

But this is a knot easily broken by anyone not ready to embrace the self-pity which insists “modernity” is our dreadful fate.

A FEW REMARKS ON POETRY, CHRISTIANITY AND NEO-ROMANTICISM— PART ONE

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The following essay is offered as nothing more than an intoxicating drink, with a few unique qualities—most of the musings here you’ve probably heard before; sometimes it’s only emphasis that matters.

Recall the scene in the Meno: Socrates proves all knowledge is recollection (which means the soul is immortal) by suggesting to an unlearned child the means to answer a difficult geometrical problem.

The Platonist poet, Shelley, agrees:

Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Knowledge involves a certain humility; humans, the Platonist knows, do not invent; “reason” is merely “recollection,” or, as Shelley puts it, “enumeration of qualities already known.” Qualities are not invented, imagined, or discovered; qualities are, as the (grounded!) Romantic understands, “already known.” And the “imagination,” according to Shelley, “is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole.” Imagination is the “perception of the value of those qualities.” Imagination doesn’t create, or invent; the whole process is far more mundane (says the Romantic!); “perception of value, with an eye to “separately and as a whole.”

This is not easy stuff, but easier, since the Platonist grasps how really modest and small human intelligence is—the “imagination” is the “agent” perceiving the “value of qualities already known,” by using “reason” as an “instrument.”

This intoxicating drink I offer, with a little help from the Romantics, should calm and relax you, if nothing else.  Complexity, discovery, labor, be gone.

This is what I intend to do.  Give you a whiff of poetry, Christianity, and Neo-Romanticism.  You can even close your eyes and find your way.

You know this stuff.

You know it’s true.

But you’ve forgotten.

This essay, “A Few Remarks on Poetry, Christianity and Neo-Romanticism,” should not be taken any more seriously than if flowery letters stating the same should be found on the side of a bottle. When we say seriously, sometimes, what we drink, and the label embellishing it, is serious indeed, but not in the manner of truth, but only of pleasure—so drink, and become intoxicated, and see what pleasures follow; nothing found in this Scarriet essay will necessarily be true; you’ll find only random observations made by a poet for the sake of poetry.

The defense of poetry is, by now, an old practice; half-wits do it; narrowing the subject of poetry to include “Christianity and Neo-Romanticism” is nothing more, really, than an attempt to peak interest in the drink. Philosophy is my beach-reading; if “A Few Remarks” is philosophical, good—think of it as amusement in a philosophical vein.

To state the Neo-Romanticism theme simply: the first criterion of poetry is beauty, in all its particular attributes, heightened by the imagination, and everything else flows from this highest category.

Beauty is advantageous for two reasons—imagination must be present to an extraordinary degree, since imagination first began as the urgent invention to create happiness when faced with sorrow, and beauty is happiness; secondly, beauty also requires harmony, and therefore a certain order and rigor is always necessary to carry off that harmony. Beauty, then, keeps poetry enthusiastic, since happiness is the best motivator for enthusiasm, and at the same time beauty requires expertise and skill to add the necessary harmony to the imaginative attempts to be beautiful.

With Neo-Romanticism, then, beauty is the top category—for the practical reasons just given, and this stricture need not be onerous; beauty was chosen precisely because beauty is not onerous—and naturally, all other elements may of course be present (so modern irritation with the flimsy idealism and ineffectual prettiness of “beauty” does not get the upper hand), just to remember that beauty is the measure and general design which prevails, even as the frightening (with its sublime attributes), the humorous (profound, or sublime wit) and other qualities contribute, in descending order, to that harmonizing effect the Romantic poet is known for, whether it is Byron laughing, Coleridge weeping, Keats gasping, Shelley sighing, Wordsworth philosophizing, Tennyson singing, Millay regretting, Eliot whispering, or Mazer dipping his dreaming toe in the dreaming springs.

Harmony is the leading trait of beauty, and while most poetry refers to things outside of itself to win favor (the poet serving as a kind of rough, honest, social messenger) harmony demands all interest reside within the poem itself (easy political sentiments, in this case, fail) and so how the parts fit is crucial. We know instinctively, but not rationally, how the parts of a beautiful face harmonize to give us pleasure—the trick surpasses our understanding; the same nose on another face is merely a beautiful nose on an ugly face; judgment of the whole is all. The poem cannot refer; its beauty must be its own, and only harmony can achieve this, for ‘a poem’ as it exists as ‘a poem’ is not beautiful; several parts harmonizing is the poem’s only chance.

The poem as a self-enclosed entity is imprisoning—harmony must be freeing, even as it forces parts together to make them fit. Parts must dwell beside each other in interesting and freeing ways, even as they harmonize as a whole—this is the key to beauty. Eyes must be able to flash like stars and be vastly different from mouth, nose, and chin—even as these eyes live on the same beautiful face as those other features: the nose—what can it possibly have to do with the eyes? It’s all a mystery, but certainly not a trivial one, since beauty and harmony are certainly not trivial.

Yet in many respects the harmony of a face is quite simple—and almost without harmony—compared to the harmony of a piece of music, or a poem. All a pretty face needs is: pretty eyes, check, pretty nose, check, pretty chin, check. How do these harmonize? It is not so much harmony, as a mere list of pleasing attributes. More profound and mysterious by far is the notion of the face itself. What is a human face, and why does it please? Then we would need to posit material considerations which have nothing to with lofty notions of beauty and harmony, and yet, these considerations are profound nonetheless: the eyes see, the mouth speaks and tastes, etc. The face is part of a living thing thriving in the world. The beauty of an eye is a poetic idea, since the eye is an instrument for seeing, and yet the seeing action of the eye-instrument is part of its beauty—practical considerations harmonize with beauty.

Harmony is an ever-widening process, even as it belongs to the limits of its action as a harmonizing whole, with a defined beginning, middle, and end.

We must ask, therefore, what practical considerations belong to the poem, as we explore its harmony and beauty. The upper idea hiding a subordinate idea is a crucial way a poem harmonizes, just as a piece of great music allows us to hear different threads simultaneously.

This brings us to Christianity, as it pertains to practical life harmonizing with beauty.

The poet makes choices, in the imagination, to allow us to perceive the more beautiful result. The poet, like the priest, must take practical matters and somehow harmonize them with beauty for the sake of imaginative fancy.

The “virgin birth” is just such an imaginative fancy, which pleases the Christian—but not the atheist, who sneers, “Virgin birth? Bah! Impossible! this absurdity brings down, like a house of cards, your entire religion.”

But the Romantic, who might be an atheist, will, as a poet, nonetheless tell the objecting atheist, “please hold that thought.”  Is religion not a series of interconnecting ideas, rather than facts?

The “virgin birth” is not a fact, but an ideaan idea which lives in a universe of other ideas; Keats’ “negative capability” defines the poet as one who can entertain doubts, who can temporarily dwell where answers are suspended, so that fancy (imagination) has a chance to build a harmonizing aspect of things, which moves us happily forward into a better reality.

Religion is a poetic, not a factual, response, to the world.

Harmony and imagination is the religious way.

The factual world (virgin births do not occur) is not a poetic one.

Or it is, if God is a poet.

Secularism is the poet (as fact-master) attempting to be God (as fact-master).

Religion posits God as the one true poet.

For virgin births do occur in the factual world.

The universe itself was a virgin birth. No scientist knows how the universe came into existence, and we doubt whether it was made by daddy light and mama darkness, or any other myth the primitive imagination might invent.

Imagination grows and matures with monotheistic religion. The immaculate conception is a profoundly scientific concept. The one universe was born, not by evolution, but in a manner absolutely mysterious and unknown. This is the fact of existence. The religious fancy, the poem, and the scientific fact, come together, in the harmonizing imagination, as one.

The harmonizing relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, in which the new obeys, and yet miraculously fulfills, and surpasses, the old, pertains to the strategies of poetry itself, and the inner harmonizing character of poems.

The parts come from the whole, and not the other way around.

God coming to earth requires a virgin birth, since there is no immortal element on earth; there is no immortal dad to impregnate the mortal mother. One needs to hold off the objection, then, to the virgin birth, in order for the God-coming-to-earth story to proceed.

The sacred story of Christ is a great poem, and so feeds poetry, if poetry harmonizes fully, and across the board, and, if we think of the trope of everyone writing the same poem, every time a poet writes a poem, as more than mere linguistic expression, not as a mere fragment of a song or a fragment of a plaint, or a fragment of a protest, or any factual observation the would-be poet might want to indulge in, we can understand a poem as a poem coming into being.  And this exists as a cloud of mystery, not as ‘writing poems for Christ,’ or anything so obvious or silly.

A virgin birth also avoids, for aesthetic reasons, sex, the messy core of messy reality. The raw fact of sex is not condemned or avoided, for sex certainly does have its harmonizing place in the world.

But what to do about sex is not a trivial matter, and has profound practical considerations. In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews must choose whether she wants to be a nun, or not.

Her choice belongs more to religious behavior, than to religious poetry. Religion is in the world, as much as the secular is.

However, we did mention earlier that good harmony keeps its parts, to a certain extent, free from each other. Harmony, which pulls together, should also be freeing. The freedom to choose to be a nun and serve the religion that way, belongs to a profoundly harmonizing challenge.

In another major religion, all women of the religion are forced to be nuns. Here the woman is free of the agonizing moral, social and religious choice which women in the Catholic faith must choose for themselves. Julie Andrews did not know what to do. The West has such a demand for choice and freedom, the whole thing for many people can be overwhelming. But the more freedom, the greater necessity there is for harmony and poetry.

Any religiosity seems horribly quaint in the face of modern, secularist advance.  I speak a little of Christianity (of which I am ignorant) just to appease the title, “A Few Remarks on Poetry, Christianity, and Neo-Romanticism.”

Quickly, before I lose all respect, I would like to examine, for pure pleasure alone, a recent sonnet by Ben Mazer, the contemporary Neo-Romantic poet.

A virgin snow remade the world that year.
Three kings had heard the rumour from afar
and wandered from the East by guiding star.
The sacred place was frosted with the sheer
anticipation of a world to come.
The shepherds and the animals were dumb
with gazing out the windows for the far
approaching kings, the radiant Hamilcar.
The old world would be disappearing fast;
the marvels that they saw they knew would last.
The wind stood patient on the bare swept sill.
Guests stood in silence on the little hill.
The three kings from a distance could be seen.
It was the most spectacular thing that’s ever been.

The Neo-Romantic aspect of this will be quickly seen.  When, against our will, there’s no escape, and we surrender to poetry’s predicament, this is love, romance, and all the helplessness implied, as expressed by again, Shelley, in his Defense of Poetry:

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away; so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.

In order for this formula, which Shelley has evoked, to work: the ‘human lyre’ which “seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause,” we must first really be a lyre, and be literally ‘played’ as a passive instrument; this passivity is the secret to human joy: settling into a dark theater and allowing images to wash over us as we sit there passively—far removed from drudgery and reason and understanding and work of any kind—one is simply a passive lyre. This is why Poe, ‘the Last Romantic,’ championed poetry which aspired to beauty and music and condemned the didactic poem—for didactic poetry slides over into the realm which belongs to labor and pain, and not thoughtless, passive, joy, the surrender necessary to experience poetry in a state of true excitement.

This is not to say poetry (words) benefits from a darkened theater, but the idea of inescapable focus is the same—poetry is different from film, but their joy is based on the same thing: trusting passivity, which frees us from the irritable ‘reaching’ we normally do, in thought or action, and we think naturally here of Keats’ Negative Capability. Sensuality (sound) in poems works like the brightened screen in the cinema—the sensual, unconscious device of passive joy, used to produce the higher version of harmony which attempts to surpass itself.

If this passive, first, step of delight is not allowed to occur, the next step: “which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of sounds or motions…” cannot occur.

To intellectualize, in the common light of day, the horrors of the world, in the spirit of a utilitarian lecturer, will deprive poetry of Shelley’s cinematic mission, and will end up on the other side of Neo-Romanticism; this is why prosaic Modernism is so hostile to Romanticism—as Scarriet has demonstrated in a number of articles over the last ten years.

In Part Two, we will examine Mazer’s poem more closely as we breathe in Neo-Romanticism.

 

 

LOVE IS AN ACT: IN PRAISE OF ROMANTICISM

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It is time to be honest about love.

We are going to argue that love—truly romantic love—rejected as cheap and backwards these days, will save the world.

First, we admit that love is rare, and it dies rather quickly. Everyone experiences this. We like something if it benefits us, and all sorts of human relationships are based on practical arrangements. Love, and here we will skip a definition, since it refers to what most of us have experienced at some point: it is mad, complete, mystical, and full of desire. It is not friendship. It can strike us before puberty, but after puberty, the charisma involved largely partakes of sexuality.

It is a truism to say love requires focus. Love must be intense, have intensity—if it is what we know as love, it must be intense—and this brings us to love’s desire for beauty. It wouldn’t make sense for love to involve many things, for this would be to dilute and diminish by spreading too thin, all that love is, and we agree love must have intensity.

Love must have a physical dimension, and to have the force and importance love requires, love should be rare, but not so rare as to be beyond human possibility, and a certain social comprehension. Individual human beauty fits this criterion—human beauty is rare, invokes intensity and focus, and though rare, is accessible.

In the same manner that durable, attractive, and rare metals such as silver and gold will always signify value in terms of wealth in society, human beauty, whether we like it or not, is the coin of love.

We begin with individual human beauty.

But now we have two more elements.

These elements are based on the idea that love is an act.

Do we mean in the sense that “acting” is fake? “To be able to act” is simply what a successful person is able to do. One can say that beauty is “fake,” in the context of love; but this is to assume that the attractive, which is desired, is insincere, but how so? Acting, like beauty, might be construed as fake in “matters of the heart,” but this view, in the name of a fake “depth,” is the superficial one. If something is truly desired, and if any action, including “acting,” belongs to the category of achieving what is desired, how can it then be deemed superficial? We are forced to use acting, action, and act, and all these three words imply—since we are not talking of friendship or the spiritual, but the concentrated madness of love.

When we say “acting,” we do not include lying, or being dishonest in any way which hurts the beloved. We mean “acting” with the goal of loving one person. The “act” is for love, not for “playing around.”

After beauty, there are two layers of “acting” involved:

One: micro-acting, which refers to the natural charm of the person, an unconscious extension of physical attractiveness, and

Two: macro-acting, which involves the actual “behavior of love;” making vows and uttering words of promise, committment, passion, excitement, praise and, naturally, love.

Micro-acting is crucial. One can be physically attractive, but have very little actual charm. Physical beauty is necessary, but even necessary is micro-acting, the way a person smiles, their personality, how they “act.” We have all seen the attractive face which loses all its beauty the moment we experience that dull something in the person behind it. Beauty exists cleverly and minutely.

Macro-acting takes work.

Micro-acting is just the way the person is.

All three, personal beauty, micro-acting, and macro-acting, mutually enhance each other, and all three are present in love.

Acting, even as we are describing it here, in a heightened, non-pejorative way, is typically seen as wretched, superficial, dishonest, and unseemly.

But what we are saying here is that acting is at the heart of romantic love, and romantic love could not exist without it.

Romantic love is not necessary to marriage and children; there are many societies where marriage is arranged, or where women are second class citizens, or worse, and therefore breeding does not require love at all.

Here we notice two things. Romantic love, which may lead to marriage and children, is not necessary to these two things.

But when it is, it requires women to be free and equal to men.

If this is true, is the western tradition of romantic love directly involved in equality for women?

And if romantic love does require “acting,” is this why romantic love is easy for other societies to disparage, and why romantic love is increasingly viewed as insincere, useless, and crazy—especially with increasing contact between the west—and societies (Islam, for instance) which put more of a premium on breeding, and submissive women, than romantic love?

Recall that the major trope of romantic love as “madness” comes from Plato, who opined human breeding farms as a national ideal. (Plato redeems himself in other places, defending love, and the equality of women, but his pragmatic side had moments in his famous society blueprint, “The Republic.”)

What if romantic love is the true path to free and equal women, to a free and equal society, and love itself?

What if romantic love faces grave danger before the more practical forces of not only societies which enslave women, but groups who view romantic love as a backwards and superficial act?

Much has been made recently of the unlikely alliance between feminists and Muslims—how could these two groups possibly be allied?

Both oppose romantic love.

Islam prioritizes modesty—marriage in which the woman is subordinate.

Romantic love does not fit into this scheme.

Feminists (and many sexual progressives) dislike romantic love—since it prioritizes attractive and flirtatious females. Indicted here is the great western tradition of dead white male literature of the roaming, independent, pining male poets, and their beautiful female muses.

But the great tradition of romantic love does not feature enslaved, uneducated, subordinate women. Nor does it feature empty-headed, sexual bimbos, either.  And women can be beautiful in millions of different ways.

The Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley, loved educated women.

Equals. Women who could appreciate their poetry. Women (think of Mary Shelley) who were writers, as well.

Poe’s “Ligeia” is an entrancing, mentally and spiritually powerful, woman. Poe rejected as a literary ideal the merely sexual or physically attractive female. Flirtatious women meant nothing to Poe. But the woman poet was a source of great admiration for the American.

The great tradition of Romantic love features strong women. Otherwise it is perverted Romanticism.

Two wars. One should never fight two wars.

Women do not put on uniforms and go to war against other women. Men do that.

In nations where men fight other men and keep their women veiled and subordinate, men fight two wars, one against men, and another against their women.

These societies which fight two wars tend to lose out to the countries in the west—whose women are free and educated—the result of the western romantic literary tradition.

Here’s to Romanticism—often portrayed as reactionary, but it is quite the opposite.

Our readers have noticed we have championed the poet, Ben Mazer, who is just now bringing out his Selected Poems to a great deal of acclaim.

Ben Mazer and Scarriet are leading the revival of Romantic poetry.

We must admit that romance is an act—in the superficial meaning of that word.

We must admit to love’s superficiality.

Even as we defend it.

It is through poetry that micro-acting and macro-acting become one; and the poet achieves the charm of the lover—which all desire to possess.

Romantic love may just be the answer to world peace.

If the world heeds this essay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOW DO YOU TEACH CREATIVE WRITING? YOU DON’T.

They are defending creative writing at the Huffpost.  But look:

1. The real work of writing is two-fold: reading and writing in solitude.

2. Good literature classes teach literature.

3. Students do creative writing beginning in grade school.

This is all you need. Note what’s missing from the above. The creative writing class. The point is not that the creative writing class for older students might not help, but the real issue is: what does the creative writing program as a ubiquitous, nation-wide phenomenon provide?

Why aren’t literature classes and the writing all students do in school starting in the early grades, and the reading and writing they do in solitude enough?

Lousy schools? Lazy writers?

So is a ‘creative writing class’ going to help a student who hasn’t read enough literature, either because he’s too lazy, or the schools have failed him or her? No way. Even creative writing teachers admit they are no substitute for reading literature.

So what exactly is going on in those ‘creative writing classes?’ No wonder the huffpost writers gave no specifics, beyond, well it’s good to put would-be writers in a room together and have a writer ‘teach’ them.

Can you imagine Shelley and Byron and Keats sitting in a classroom together as writing students? It’s laughable.

The writer has to find himself in solitude, not trying to please another writer sitting next to him in a classroom. This is just common sense.

Finally, and no one talks about this except Scarriet, the whole Creative Writing Industry was started by a handful of men—the movement has a history, and it happens that the men who started the Creative Writing Industry had a certain bias for ‘new’ poetry, and this, of course, is the trump card of the creative writing industry: You don’t write very well, but we’re going to teach you how to write like a contemporary, approved by your peers. The default ‘sameness’ of the creative writing industry is that you are not allowed to write like Shelley or Keats or Byron. Write any way you like! But if we sniff the faintest smell of ‘old’ on you, you’re gone.

But the so-called ‘old’ is where really great writing resides, and the contemporary ought to be simply who you are—you shouldn’t have to go through a brainwasing session in a creative writing class so that you can sound ‘contemporary.’

How we get from the sublimity of Shelley to the inanity of Silliman is not something the ahistorical dweebs of the MFA will ever figure out.

For this is where it all leads.  Recently on his blog Ron Silliman pretended serious analysis of the following.

I saw the corpse of the plum tree
of the camel his splattered guts
the soiled tears of the child
the sniffle of orphan light

I abandoned the pursuit of art
to sleep for eternity
under the fevered feet of my children

“It calls to mind Pound’s old dictum that poetry needs to be at least as well written as prose,” Silliman writes.  But Pound wrote bad prose which was passed off as good poetry.  Well, but Silliman can’t help it.  Nutty Pound-worship is just what these guys do.  It’s the track the train must run on.  Silliman sees into the life of this excerpt, but none of the rest of us do.  And this, too, is part of the game.

The “new” MFA thing now is the so-called “The New Sincerity” which features “sincere,” “naive,” or “childlike” poetry by poets such as Matt Hart, Tao Lin, Dorothea Lasky and Nate Pritts.  But this is a mere throw-back to Frank O’Hara.   There is not the least formal interest here.  There is more formal interest in one stanza of Shelley than in all this poetry.

Until modern poetry really comes to terms with the major Romantic poets, nothing is going to improve, or help poetry to become popular again.

Modern poetry and Creative Writing are now synomymous.  The idea is not to grow poets, but to grow paying poetry students—who are beholden to canonizing their instructors, with the possibility of being canonized, in turn.  This is precisely what the modern poets, beginning with Pound and Eliot and their lawyer, John Quinn, and continuing with their academic friends, the New Critics, did, and therefore the very idea of the “modern” in poetry is linked with the business model of Creative Writing.

This is such a self-evident fact, that Creative Writing officials are blind to it.  The difficulty here is that you can’t teach the new.  Nor can one teach the light of which poetry is the mere shadow; the cause of poetry cannot be taught, either.  Life teaches this, not Creative Writing, which is its pale substitute—poets mingling with poets, in a frenzied attempt to be “modern” or “contemporary.”   But the “contemporary” is a shadow of a shadow, and chasing it, we find poetry to be in the sorry state it is today.

The Creative Writing industry may be a successful, and nearly flawless institutional model.  But no great poet has ever written for an institution, or to flatter and be flattered by their peers.  The Creative Writing industry cannot teach itself out of this dilemma; its default setting is fashionable appearance which appeals to the contemporary spirit.

Socrates long ago identified those who charge a fee for a vague kind of ‘learning.’

Sophists.

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

MR. AUDEN AND THE SONNETS

Three wild and crazy Englishmen (Auden, Lewis, Spender) hang out in Venice

In an earlier post, “Fiction v. Poetry,” we used W.H. Auden’s Introduction to Shakespeare’s The Sonnets (Signet/Penguin 1964) and his argument against “vulgar, idle curiosity” in favor of “anonymous” William Whomever-peare and pure enjoyment of his Platonic “Vision of Eros,” to make our case for elegant poetry, and against gossipy fiction.

Critics complain that TV is killing literature, but so-called literary fiction has been killing literature long before the boob tube arrived.  I Love Lucy didn’t make us stupid.  Henry James did.

The poets of Modernism can be divided into the car-salesmen and those who really were brilliant.

E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and most of their followers, for instance, are merely car salesmen

T.S. Eliot, Chrisopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden were brilliant and talented men, and others in their circle, like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell, were consciously involved in politics and cultural change.  The British Empire, which was at its height in 1914, groomed its poets for active work; the poet as soldier has a long tradition in Britain, from Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sidney to the Cambridge Apostles and Auden’s friend, Sir Stephen Spender, member of the Communist Party and an editor for thirteen years of a magazine secretly funded by the CIA. Nothing like the British poet-spy hybrid has ever existed in America, except, perhaps, for the mysterious Mr. Poe (was he in Paris, was he in St. Petersburg, was he murdered, or not?) and the hybrid practice is hardly on the more plain and practical Americans’ radar screen.

Auden’s insistence, then, that “artists” and “men of action” are two separate creatures—is this a ploy by this world-traveling, transatlantic citizen, once rumored to be part of Kim Philby’s Soviet spy ring?  Emerson, in “The Poet,” goes a long way in establishing this distinction when he calls the Poet a “Sayer” as opposed to the “Knower” and the Doer.”  “Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men,” Emerson says sourly, establishing his pedantic categories. But these fine distinctions Auden and Emerson make are finally a bunch of hogwash: Emerson and Auden would have us believe that Hitler’s speeches had nothing to do with Hitler’s guns, that the material state of our poetry has nothing to do with the material state of our state.

Auden’s poetry was first accepted and published by T.S Eliot, at Faber.  Auden is not considered a genuine modernist; Auden’s poetry rhymes, and he has a marked sympathy for great writers of the past, so on the surface, at least, Auden seems to run counter to the Futurism of Pound, the anti-Romantic animus of Eliot, and experimental modernism, in general.

But Auden could not have been part of this influential, Modernist clique without having some share of the characteristics of that clique, and never mind that Auden chose Ashbery for the Yale Younger, and also Merwin–who attended one of the earliest Poetry Workshops at Princeton—set up by Allen Tate, the leader of the American wing of Eliot and Pound’s European Modernist clique.  Yes, in case you didn’t get it, we’re talking about a clique. 

OK, so talented people get to know each other and help each other out.  What else is new?

Associations, purely in themselves, justify an historical interest, but there’s more involved.   It’s not rocket science.  We need to know two things; first: we need to read the clique members in question, and second, we need to ask: What is Modernism?

Scarriet has already done a lot of work investigating the writings and prejudices of leading Modernists like Pound and Eliot, who were notoriously anti-Romantic and anti-populist.  But for the second question, the art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire (because Anglo-American High Modernism originated in the middle of the 19th century, and mainly in France) will be a great help.

The world—and even the world of artists—is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past two rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael—one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my Museum.’ Just as there are people who, having once read Bousset and Racine, fancy that they have mastered the history of literature.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer; and finally that however much we may love general beauty, as it is expressed by classical poets and artists, we are no less wrong to neglect particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance and the sketch of manners.

In this brief excerpt from Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), we see American Modernist poetry of the 20th century and all the steps which led to it, in total.

1) we see the spirit of the England’s pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—Baudelaire even refers to Raphael—with its narrow, cult-like, manifesto-ism, 2) the misanthropic spleen aimed at middle-class people who go to museums and are moved by great paintings of the past, 3) the appeal to the “minor poets” (for what is Modernism if not a great hierarchy of minor poets?) and their 4) “particular beauty” (as if major poets have no “particular beauty!”) and 5) “circumstance” (what is Modernism but fragments blown by the winds of circumstance?) and 6) “the sketch of manners.”  As if great artists and poets from the past do not give us “manners!”  Hogarth, anyone?  “The Rape of the Lock?”  But here is Baudelaire busily doing what Pound, Eliot, and their followers will do over the next 100, 150 years, up to our present day: 1) A blanket, or crudely selective, rejection of the glories of the past, especially the 18th century, and the early 19th century, while celebrating the ephemera of “particular beauty” among friends and minor contemporaries. 2) A manifesto-ist misanthropy, 3) A hatred of the lower classes, and their middle class tastes and aspirations.

Fortunately from time to time there come forward righters of wrong, critics, amateurs, curious enquirers, to declare that Raphael, or Racine, does not contain the whole secret, and that the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer.  The Modernists always protested too much.

One more note: 4) A crucial geopolitical fact emerged with the origins of Modernism: the alliance of former enemies Great Britain and France; these two new friends fed each other’s decadence, and discovered together a certain imperial animus towards Germany, Russia, and the United States.  The problems the U.S. had with Britain and France during their mid-19th century, Civil War-era of is a much neglected subject.

But back to Auden and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We would expect, then, that T.S. Eliot-annointed Auden, would tend to be anti-Shakespeare, as this is the calling card for every Modernist: Celebrate obscure minor artists while knocking down the great Past Masters.   Eliot’s attacks on Hamlet, Milton, Poe, and Shelley are well-known; Pound pretty much sneered at every Past Master he possibly could.

So do we find Auden, in his famous 1964 Introduction, attacking Shakespeare, or, at least damning him with faint praise?

We do.

Auden’s first major point is: “it’s good that Shakespeare was anonymous,” a New Critical point (another Modernist calling card, as Eliot and his right-wing American henchman, Ransom, popularized New Criticism).  Here, on the second page of his Introduction, is Auden, the New Critic:

Even the biography of an artist is permissable, provided that the biographer and his readers realize that such an account throws no light whatsoever upon the artist’s work.

Auden, as chummy as he was, could certainly be an ogre when laying down the Party Line: Auden will make it “permissable” to write the biography of an artist, but only if you and I “realize that such an account throws no light whatsover upon the artist’s work.”  Thank you, Mr. Auden.

He defends his crazy idea brilliantly, of course:

The relation between his life and his works is at once and the same time too self-evident to require comment—every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure—and too complicated ever to unravel.  Thus, it is self-evident that Catullus’s love for Lesbia was the experience which inspired his love poems, and that, if either of them had had a different character, the poems would have been different, but no amount of research  into their lives can tell us why Catullus wrote the actual poems he did, instead of an infinite number of similar poems he might have written instead, why, indeed, he wrote any, or why those he did are good.

This is great stuff,  isn’t it?  I’d hire this guy as a subversive for my country in a minute.  This is uncannily good reasoning.  Auden first concedes the field to  the anti-New Critical argument: “every work of art is a self-disclosure,” Auden admits, but Auden’s concession is two-sided: the anti-New Critical position is “self-evident,” but also “too complicated ever to unravel:” if Lesbia had been a little different, then Catullus’s poems to her would have been different—but how?  We don’t know.  And therefore we can’t know anything about the relation between the maker and the made.

But is this true?

And is this true for Poe, who wrote his “Raven” not because he happened to have the hots for some particular person, but because he wanted to demonstrate how a popular poem could be written?  Or, for Shakespeare, whose sonnets contain Platonist philosophy, and not just personal gossip?  We grant that connections between life and art are often tenuous and difficult to trace—but should we close the door on attempts to make connections, on micro, or macro, levels?  To do so seems arbitrary and silly.

Auden then proceeds, “Let us forget all about Shakespeare the man, leave the speculations to the foolish and idle, and consider the sonnets themselves,” and begins his discussion of “the sonnets themselves” rather weakly:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets as we have them, is tha they are not in any kind of planned sequence.  The only semblance of order is a division into two unequal heaps—Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man, assuming, which is probable but not certain, that there is only one young man addressed, and Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a dark-haired woman.  In both heaps, a triangle situation is referred to in which Shakespeare’s friend and his mistress betray him by having an affair together…

Sometimes batches of sonnets occur which clearly belong together—for example, the opening series 1-17, in which the friend is urged to marry, though, even here, 15 seems not to belong, for marriage is not mentioned in it.

In this brief summation, Auden is utterly wrong.  First, how can Auden say there is “no planned sequence” when the first 14 poems pertain to “increase?”  Auden is being obtuse when he replaces “increase” with “marriage.”  Sonnet 15 does fit, even though it doesn’t refer to “marriage,” for, as we see in its final couplet, “And, all in war with Time for love of you,/As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”  The first 14 poems celebrate “increase” of the flesh.  154 (the number of The Sonnets) is divisible by 14.  Sonnet 15 marks a shift in the theme. With Sonnet 15, immortality is bought not by having children, but by making poems.  Auden saying Sonnet 15 doesn’t fit because it doesn’t mention “marriage” is ludicrous.

Auden is also wrong to assert that every poem in the first 126 are “addressed to a young man (or men),” since the great majority of the first 126 poems are genderless.  Nor are the final 28 poems all addressed to “a dark-haired woman.”  Scolding others for being biographically “foolish,” Auden falls into the same error himself, making all sorts of biographical assumptions.  Auden does have the intelligence to say The Sonnets are not precisely carnal in nature, but that doesn’t prevent him from making all sorts of biographical, carnal speculation—flying in the very face of his own principle.

So according to Auden, the sonnets have no order.

Auden’s second point is that they are “extremely uneven in poetic value.”  Auden quotes some Wordsworth (who Auden admires) calling the Dark Lady sequence “abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless,” with Wordsworth detailing the “chief faults” of the sonnets as a whole, thus: “sameness, tediousness, quaintness, and elaborate obscurity.”  Imagine William Wordsworth accusing William Shakespeare of “sameness.”  The mind boggles.  Wordsworth is the token Romantic the Modernists tolerate, fearing to look like goons if they hate all the Romantics; Wordsworth has that certain dullness which makes him palatable to good, grey Modernism.  Then Auden lets us know what Walter Savage Landor thought: “not a single one is very admirable.”

Auden himself claims to admire only forty-nine of the sonnets, and quickly adds that Shakespeare did not want any of them published, since they are basically a sweaty-palmed, sexual “confession.”

Auden doesn’t give one shred of evidence why Shakespeare should have been embarrassed by these poems—Auden’s theory is founded on the very type of speculation he condemns as “foolish” and “idle” and “vulgar.”

Auden then makes a few scattered formal and rhetorical observations, praising Shakespeare’s skill, citing a few isolated passages, and concludes the essay by putting the Sonnets in a Platonist milieu—the beloved’s “beauty” can belong to the flesh (bad) or to character (good) and loving the beloved unconditionally is the sonnet’s most important trope.  Auden is sure the Sonnets grew out of visionary dream, in which Shakespeare fell into a kind of trance which made him somewhat mad.  Auden wants to turn Shakespeare into a puritanical, visionary, passionate, self-doubting, Catullus. None of it is very convincing, and mostly because Auden can’t stop himself from investing the Sonnets with unfounded and crude, biographical and fictional elaborations:

The story of the sonnets seems to me to be the story of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.

As outsiders, the impression we get of his friend is one of a young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially frivolous, cold-hearted, and self-centered, aware, probably, that he had some power over Shakespeare—if he thought about it at all, no doubt he gave it a cynical explanation—but with no conception of the intensity of the feelings he had, unwittingly, aroused.

In other words, according to Auden—who condemns any historical speculation regarding Pembroke or Southampton—Shakespeare was in love with Auden’s boyfriend, Chester Kallman, and had thoughts of marrying Chester, except, that is, when he was being distracted by a dark-haired woman—who also liked Chester.

Auden ends his Introduction with a long, irrelevant passage from The Two Noble Kinsmen—a passage scholars cannot even be sure was written by Shakespeare Evidently, the publishers were howling for Auden to finish his Introduction, and, drunk on Pinot Noir, he quickly did.

Reading the Sonnets with Auden’s “story” in mind, a reader will quickly be disappointed, for there’s no “story” at all in the Sonnets.  It’s a far more sophisticated document than that.

IN THE SUNLIGHT

One of the most curious episodes in Letters is T.S. Eliot’s declaration in 1920, in the wake of J.M.Robertson’s similarly-themed book in 1919, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an “artistic failure.”

In that infamous essay, Eliot attacks the Bard’s greatest work as “puzzling and disquieting…” Eliot berates Hamlet chiefly because, according to the young banker, Hamlet’s “madness” and the “delay” in killing the king are dubiously presented, and the fault is that Shakespeare sloppily complicates Thomas Kyd’s straight-forward “revenge” tragedy by relying on “the guilt of a mother” which lacks emotional correlation in Hamlet’s updating of Kyd.

Eliot’s hackneyed notion that Gertrude’s guilt and Hamlet’s torn feelings are not sufficiently developed is ludicrous, but what’s even funnier is the way the author of The Waste Land, makes his point:

“The subject [Hamlet’s delay and Gertrude’s guilt] might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these [Othello, Antony, Coriolanus], intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

The sickly hodge-podge of The Waste Land—which saw publication thanks to the efforts of Eliot’s wealthy friend, Scofield ThayerEzra Pound, and the slick, modern-art-collector-and-lawyer, John Quinn—and all the rat’s nest poetry from Pound and Pound’s insane asylum visitors which followed in its wake, are the last things anyone could, or would want to, “drag to light.”

Eliot’s “objective correlative” dagger, used to cut Milton, Pope, the Romantic poets, and whole swathes of literary eras, flashes forth for the first time in this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet.

Is the young employee of Lloyd’s Bank writing of Shakespeare when he cites poetry “full of some stuff the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art?”

Or himself?

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