MARY SZYBIST HAS WON THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

The 2013 National Book Award Winner in poetry: Mary Szybist.

“The unprotected eye cannot look too long at the sun, and the unprotected poem cannot be too long looked at.”  —Thomas Brady

Scarriet has decided once again to dip into contemporary poetry that has a certain official approval and give it more than a cursory look.

Poets who are Iowa MFA graduates and presses run by Iowa MFA graduates are busy in the real world.   Lying on our couch of pleasant dreams, passing judgment idly, swooningly, philosophically, Scarriet’s introspection knows no end. Mary Szybist, having earned a writing degree at Iowa before winning the National Book Award just announced, has us sitting up in a slightly less languid position.  We wish to pass judgment on the contemporary school of nuanced difficulty in such a way that registers its intelligence and nuance, but with an eye to its future of actual worth.

Mary Szybist writes poetry which is unmistakeably good—how good?

The musical quality of any poem makes its presence felt in fits and starts: a line can be musical, a single syllable can intimate a song.  We inevitably meet poetry somewhere in the prose poem.  Like a wave breaking, a prose line will suddenly whiten with music; prose will suddenly obey an unseen metronome and change briefly into song. The sensitive prose writer tosses and turns in a poetic dream.  Poetry murmurs along a quiet ridge of prose, and nature, which lives in nature, makes a vague day of cloud and sun poetry at last.

There is something that makes a poem gain weight and live its form the more often we trace, with our reading, its temporal existence.

The experience of re-reading is like one of those brain-teasing visual tricks that ‘flips’ after we stare at it for awhile.

Re-reading makes the prose poem fall to prosaic earth.  After a trial or two, we see it really cannot fly.

A finished poem doesn’t just “happen.”  It “happens” anew every time we read it.

Mary Szybist is perhaps the millionth prose poet whose poems can be described this way.  We always like the “nice” prose poem better the first time we read it, even to admiration, but by the fourth perusal we become convinced that what we had admired the first time is now the merest trash.

We think the reason has something to do with the fact that music can exist in our mind’s ear partially at first, but that inevitably musicality demands, with our familiarity of it, that its musical identity continues to vibrate in the poem as a whole.  It is sort of like getting to know a person in which the reaches of their wit are reached in our mind, or any limit of any object is reached, so that the object’s own unity begins to judge its parts by the standards set by its whole self.

Susanne Langer and John Dewey are two twentieth century philosophers who disagreed on the fundamental question: does art belong to art (Langer), or does art belong to reality (Dewey)? Both, however, agree that art has a “rhythm” which distinguishes it.  Call it the “music of the spheres” if you like.  There is a “reality” of art that we all experience—even if we finally disagree about everything else.  Is the poem real because it happens to be situated in reality, or is a poem as real as reality?

Harmony versus discord is one sweeping way to judge both art and life.  Harmony is health, peace and beautiful art.  Discord is sickness, war, and ugliness.  It doesn’t get any better than harmony.  It doesn’t get any worse than discord.  Those are the Two.   All morals, all religious and psychological ideas, all aesthetic judgments, fit within the simple model of Harmony v. Discord.  All sophisticated nuances or gestures to “realism” and “politics” which try to bring discord into the ‘Harmony’ tent do so at a risk: harmony is discord resolved, but discord completely realized will destroy harmony, will destroy both Langer and Dewey’s “rhythm,” the musical identity that defines all art–-as art.

We loved this poem, “Hail,” from Mary Szybist’s prize-winning book, Incarnadine, the first time we saw it:

Mary who mattered to me, gone or asleep
among fruits, spilled
in ash, in dust, I did not
leave you. Even now I can’t keep from
composing you, limbs & blue cloak
& soft hands. I sleep to the sound
of your name, I say there is no Mary
except the word Mary, no trace
on the dust of my pillowslip. I only
dream of your ankles brushed by dark violets,
of honeybees above you
murmuring into a crown. Antique queen,
the night dreams on: here are the pears
I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves,
asleep by the hyacinths. Here I am,
having bathed carefully in the syllables
of your name, in the air and the sea of them, the sharp scent
of their sea foam. What is the matter with me?
Mary, what word, what dust
can I look behind? I carried you a long way
into my mirror, believing you would carry me
back out. Mary, I am still
for you, I am still a numbness for you.

We were seized by an immediate liking for this poem.  How exquisite these phrases: “ankles brushed by dark violets,” “honeybees above you murmuring into a crown,” “here are the pears I have washed for you, here the heavy-winged doves, asleep by the hyacinths.”

Apart from the lovely phrases, we also have the simple, beautiful idea, replete with mystical sweetness, that “Mary” is both a being and a mere sound; the narrator navigates between presence and absence in the poem in a delightfully teasing manner—in an earnest and serious search for essence.  Such a theme was made for a poem—Mary Szybist’s poem is more than up to the task.

But after reading the poem several times, all that is mystical and hidden and subtle dies into the utterly mundane:  “Mary, who mattered to me, gone or asleep among fruits, spilled in ash, or dust, I did not leave you.”

We realize, after re-reading the opening of the poem, for instance, just quoted, that what added to the pleasure of the poem the first time we read it was precisely that we did not know very much about Mary; we did not know what it quite means to be “gone or asleep among fruits.”  The poem entered our brain inauspiciously, which rendered the images and movements and ideas perfectly appropriate to a kind of trance-enjoyment.

Inevitably, the faculty of trance-enjoyment is replaced by the faculty of judgment, almost against our will—it is not a conscious intention to judge; the judge, like a thief,  sneaks into our mind’s purview of the poem.  The judge asks: asleep among fruits? 

The questions pile up, and these questions inevitably arise to pester the reader: “here” are the “pears” and the “heavy-winged doves,” but in what way are they “here,” and who put them “here,” and how?  And how, exactly, does one “bathe” in the “syllables” of a name?  These are those questions that we are not supposed to ask: “poetic license” bars them from being asked.   But they will be asked, if the poem expects to take its place among real objects.  The coy poem will be found out.  Casual readers may not find them out.  Critics will.  Should critics spoil the readers’ fun? Should critics allow illusion to please, if it pleases?  Let no critic be drawn in by this.  Let not the temptations of warm hell corrupt cold heaven.

Moral admonitions aside,  the aesthetic/moral turn is inevitable.  As we re-read “Hail,” the brain teaser ‘flips’ on us: the very thing that appeared as one thing now appears as another; we read, with plain dullness what we now cannot make emotional or dramatic sense of: Mary-who-mattered-to-ME-gone-or-ASLEEP-among-FRUITS and we ask why “among fruits?”  How among fruits?  What kinds of fruits?  How much did Mary “matter?”  Is the narrator upset to the point of tears?  How is the narrator uttering these lines?  Which is more important, the “gone” or the “asleep,” the way Mary left, or that she left?  What difference does it make to the narrator?  What exactly was Mary to the poet?  Who is Mary?  The Mother of God?  Are we being asked to partake in a vague religious revery?  And is this enough?  In poetry we need the rhythm of its answers manifested, not the mere idea of this difficulty.

in ash, in dust, I did not

leave you

The rhythm of that line break after “not:” what is it for?  The more the ear hears that space, the more annoyance grows.  Is it the way the phrase “leave you” leaves “I did not?”  The clever showing off of the poet saying, “Notice how I am saying this.”  Is it the attention thrown on “not” as it hangs at the end of its line?  The “break” could finally be meaningful—or not.  The “break” could be saying “I did not leave you (but I did)” or it could be saying “I did NOT leave you!!” and both could work, and that’s the problem.

Once we start using figurative language, the words come alive like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The poem comes alive and demands that it be understood in all its attributes.  The train needs to decide which track (s) it’s on.  The world of the poem needs to be able to contain itself.  The anchor holding the ship in the bay cannot suddenly be “gone.”  In “Hail,”  we thought we knew what the poem was about when we didn’t know what the poem was about.  The poem turned about, not on us, but on itself.

“I did not leave you,” the poet announces.  Was Mary in the poem expecting to be left?  Does Mary care that the poet did not leave her?  Is the poet bitter and betrayed?  Or not?  How can we tell?  What is the connection between the “ash or dust” and the “fruits?”

Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you, limbs & blue cloak and soft hands.

Mary is invoked by the poet, but we notice the introspective voice invoking her begins to unravel into prose; we lose the intensity of the voice in the fact of its prose.  Even-now-I-can’t-keep-from-composing-you… The poet is in a difficulty, but a prose difficulty.

We realize that the entirety of the poem’s music—or lack of it—is beginning to betray the poem’s piecemeal music—where is the music, we wonder?  Where is the emotional guide?

The annoyance we feel is also felt (unconsciously) by the poet: “What is the matter with me?”

And the poet acknowledges the poor rhythm of the poem (which seems more enfeebled as we read it over) with “I am…a numbness.”

We should say two things quickly here: first, the poem’s exquisite loveliness does not disappear for us—our love for the poem vanishes.  And secondly, it vanishes because the poem’s rhythm, from the first word of the poem through the last word of the poem—along the whole length of the poem—falls apart, like a ship in the throes of war.

We judge the poem—as a critic—with the weight of all that we know to be excellent in poetry—the sweet weight of all we love in poetry, and it is this comparison that finally kills Mary Szybist’s poem for us.

There is a common objection to this: why can’t you judge a poem on its own merits?  Why this odious comparison? 

We answer the following way: we cannot deny the sweet knowledge of all that is glorious in poetry that lives within us any more than we can deny ourselves.  We compare involuntarily.  We cannot help it.  It is the best that condemns in our judgement, not us.  We have nothing to do with it.  As a poet is a vessel, even more so is the critic, since poetic composition is a more active process than poetic judgment—we as critics would do a disservice to become as active as the poet in our criticism.  We know Mary Szybist will forgive us.  But it’s a fait accompli.  She must forgive us.

The best way to understand this is for the reader to do the test themselves: read over the Szybist poem several times, paying attention to its rhythm each time.

A poem can have lovely phrases, an intriguing premise, lovely images, subtle language, lyrical feeling, and these can all be of the highest order, but if the rhythm of the poem as a whole fails to cohere as a complete expression of whatever the poem is, the poem will finally tumble into fragments, and die.

A poem fails to be a poem (or turns into a conceptualist poem) if it is too precise—and Mary Szybist understands it would spoil things if she told us too much about the Mary in her poem.

We have not heard the typical complaint by the Silliman crowd against “quietism” as that which is not precise enough, or that which is too precise; Silliman’s censure belongs to other criteria; and yet, if pressed, I’m sure Silliman, if he knows his T.S. Eliot, would say that the problem with “quietist” poets like Szybist is they are precise where they should not be, and not precise where they should be.   Much is hazy, even as we see the “dark violets,” the “heavy-winged doves” and the “hyacinths.” Silliman would of course advise: Be more clear about who this Mary is; take more care to be clearer in the depiction of your subject rather than in your adornment.  Don’t be so coy.

Up to a point, we agree with Silliman; but “quietism” is mostly what poetry is, and to disagree is only to reveal you are in the wrong business.

The question is not really whether Szybist is too indirect in her poem; she is, and she isn’t.

Much can be said for the doctrine that it’s what we leave out of the art that makes it artistic, and here Szybist conquers precisely because Mary in her poem eludes us.

But again, this is not really the issue: poems are not successful for what they leave out—poems are successful for what they are, for what they do say, and how they say it.  Think on your favorite poem (s).  Are they shrouded in mystery, or do you know exactly what they are, what they are doing, and what they are saying?  Things elude us, the unclear is…everywhere—obscure poems are common.  Blatant, too-obvious poems are common, too.  We know what the good poems do.  They are uncommonly not-obscure and not-obvious.  They have action.  Imagery and action and sound conspire throughout the length of the poem in a rhythmic whole to produce an excellence that doesn’t come along every day.  There’s no other way of putting it.

We might also add that the final 10% of a poem (if the beginning 90% keeps us reading) is probably worth 90% of the value of a poem.  You have to close the deal.

We don’t think Szybist does: “I carried you a long way into my mirror, believing you would carry me back out. I am still for you, I am still a numbness for you.”

This is easily the dullest part of the poem: do not end your poem with its worst lines.  We stole this advice from Poe, and he’s right.

And finally, we must proffer the truth that most poets hate to hear: Criticism, not poetry, is the gift that keeps on giving.   As much as Criticism is true, poems—which are not true—succeed by flying through the hoops of Criticism’s truth.

The true Poetry Workshop, then, makes Criticism the guide, not the poetry of the (perhaps) talented students.

We hate ourselves for having to say this, as much as it sounds arrogant and cold.

Read “Hail” one more time.

La verite’ peut vous plaire.

HOW TO TELL THE FAKE POEMS FROM THE REAL ONES

Let the goddamn workshop begin!  (We love ya, Ron, but you’re a faker.)

How does one tell the fake poems from the real ones?

It’s really quite simple.

Poetry is that which contains its own stamp of legitimacy and does NOT require further reading in order to make it legitimate.

One would never excerpt part of a joke, and then protest, “you have to read the whole thing or it won’t be funny!”

Ideally, the entirety of any literary effort is perused, but this should not distract us from a distinct fact of poetry: its impact as poetry is immediate.

Poetry creates its own context.

We don’t need to ‘keep reading’ to determine whether the poem has done its job; a couple of lines will do.

The poem is that very thing which does not need additional things.

Judge a poem by its first line, or two.

Otherwise, you’re not reading poetry; you’re reading something else.

This is not to say that a poem cannot have a “pay off,” or cannot increase the reader’s pleasure as the reader continues to read, or that a poem cannot fail at the end—a poem is a temporal art form, after all.

But a poem is a temporal art form that, by its very nature, excels in its parts—even as those parts, as we might expect, combine to form a whole.

We always hear people say how it took them a long time to “get into” a novel—readers are patient with novels because there’s an expectation of a “pay off” if they “stick with it,”  Why so many people spend so much of their valuable time struggling with a text they so obviously do not enjoy is a mystery, but it’s a telling anecdote: this is what the public  generally perceives the novel to be: it doesn’t have to give pleasure immediately, or even in the beginning, and perhaps there’s an analogy to be made regarding a first date, which might be agony at first, and yet could lead to something very significant.

We doubt people give a poem the same chance.

Given that it’s a poem, they are correct to do so.

For a poem—and here it is different from the novel—must be a pleasure to read right away, for the poet is expected to please with effects that register immediately: if the novel is the hard-to-know person, the poem is that person’s pretty face, or that person’s pleasant voice, or any thing at all which favors the subject immediately.

Only a superficial person, of course, would then conclude that poetry is the more superficial art form.  The fact of a pretty face is anything but superficial.

There are many pretenders in poetry who, with great scholarly elaboration, attempt to stamp a poem with legitimacy using that which has nothing to do with poetry’s legitimacy at all.

Everyone, even if they are not conscious of it, knows who these pretenders are.

Their rhetoric typically sounds like this (from a Ron Silliman course syllabus):

Post-Everything Poetics: A Workshop

This is not a “writing workshop” per se, but rather a look at some recent developments in writing & how they relate to (are driven by) the world we share, with an eye to looking at how we can use our own poetry to encourage, reflect, & engage change that is more than mere fashion. Topics of discussion will include Modernism and the poetics of capitalism, world-system analysis, gender capital, writing beyond capitalism, and poetry as a post-capital (or even post-everything) venture. Participants will come to the workshop having read a variety of material and will be prepared to participate in a discussion of this material and share their own work in relation to the readings.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with whatever fun little thing this course happens to think it is.

We are only interested in the definition of poetry.

The phrase that gives the game away is “the poetics of capitalism” and “poetry as a post-capital (or even post-everything) venture.”  Note the nebulous attempt to expand the definition of “poetry” and “poetics” into a realm of exceeding topical significance and self-importance.   This puffed-up shell-game trick works the following way: attach “poetry” to “the world we share” and “change” in a dramatic fashion, so it becomes impossible to define what “poetry” is, except that expansiveness in every sense is encouraged, so that “poetry,” as traditionally defined, a composition by Shelley, for instance, will seem small and petty.  The trick is to veer away from political philosophy that looks too much like political philosophy, or poetry that looks too much like poetry—the idea is to be both vague and topical, so that whatever hip idea makes its way to the surface can be accepted as legitimate; “poetics” is the polishing rag for whatever piece of junk comes into view, and the immediate presence of students reading the latest texts provides the necessary topicality of the “poetics.”

Poetry hasn’t a chance in the face of this onslaught: the moonlit night surrenders to the thousand spotlights of “the world we share.”

We like how Silliman’s course is called a “workshop” and yet at the same time Silliman runs from the marker: “This is not a workshop, per se.”

The Creative Writing Workshop model has been in place for 50 years and in the last 20 years has become a successful academic business model: as a “Post-Everything Poetics” (whatever that is) course, we can’t expect Silliman to embrace the term, “Workshop,”which implies, at least to some degree, “a confined space in which work is done on a poem,” or “craft,” or “actual poem.”

“Poetics” does not.

Silliman must have hunted about for a term to define the course, and yet could not find anything satisfactory, and therefore he had to call his course a “workshop,” adding the caveat.  The rhetorical flourish of “world we share” is key: the poem is blown up from the inside: the poem loses all identity as it expands to include “the world.”  The poem is no longer an object to be looked at and experienced as something with its own independent existence; the gaze is no longer directed at the poem, but to what is too big to see: “the world we share,” and the notion that it is “the world” we share is a hopeless gesture towards some kind of focus.

Again, whatever haunted, post-everything, political poetics Silliman is after might turn up something interesting, but our concern is with how we are defining, or not defining, poetry.

We don’t see any purpose of watering down, to the point of non-existence, poetry, in the name of “poetics.”

Shelley, in his expansive tract, defended “poetry,” not “poetics.”  Shelley, as wildly expansive as any poetic commentator there was, in that famous essay kept his sights on tangible, historical, poetry.  It is one thing to say, “Plato was a poet.”  It is quite another to introduce a “post-everything poetics.”

One thing must be understood.  The confidence of a Shelley in defending poetry is based on what we said at the top of our brief essay here:  Poetry is its own Verifying Agent.

Poetry very much is something, and is so immediately,  more so than the novel, and much more so than the political, post-modern essay.

1) And after many a summer dies the swan.

2) So much depends.

The first above is poetry—and we know it right away.

The second is…well, you’ll have to spend good money on a “Poetics” workshop to find out whether it’s poetry—or not.

SILLIMAN’S LINKS PART 4 (go, SILLIMAN go!)

83. NY Times Sunday Book Review presents Story Coaster, a cute cartoon drawing of a standard fiction—”climax, falling action”—analysis depicted by a roller coaster. har har

84. artspace writes on Twitter as Art, quoting a few artist’s tweets. How is that “art?” ah, but when did contemporary art make any sense?  Ed Ruscha is mentioned, and he seems to be everywhere, all of a sudden; and a Yoko Ono tweet is quoted, “Walk until you feel like dancing, then dance, and you’ll sleep better,” to paraphrase the tweet.

85. BBC’s Tech page tells us how Xerox mistakes can cause legal issues when a text is altered: the number ’8′ may turn to a ’6.’ Who is liable?

86. NY Times asks a few authors to come up with hypothetical pen names.

87. The guardian publishes more speculative folly on the biographical Shakespeare, this time by Saul Frampton.  Interesting glimpse into the ‘John-Florio-was-Shakespeare‘ camp, though.

88. Legal rumblings around J.K. Rowling’s exposed pseudonym by the BBC.

89. Another slightly boring “best of” list: Martin Amis (looking haggard in his photo) tops the “10 best writers-in-novels” in the guardian.  

90. A story published in the 1980s by John Updike on the Library of America site.  Breathless, clotted descriptions of pretty women in the pretty suburbs.

91. In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Robbins tackles that endless subject, Song Lyrics v. Poetry, and like everyone who else who tackles the subject, says in a rather sweet manner, nothing.  We come away from it merely thinking, “Oh, you like that song?”  It’s not you, Michael, it’s the topic.

92. Times Times 3 features Harry Northrup’s poems.  Mediocre beatnik poetry.

93. Gossip about the English-Irish boy band, The Wanted in the Sun.

94. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who played behind Dylan when he first went electric, get some ink on the NPR website.

95. Opening chord of Hard Day’s Night is discussed by Randy Bachman on the Open Culture website video.  This is cool.

96. Audiovisual Salvage: a conversation with Phil Niblock, who films working people doing their work.

97. NY Times reports that Bob Dylan’s paintings (portraits) will open August 24 at the London National Portrait Gallery.  He paints like he sings, a little roughly.

98. artspace features a husband-and-wife team who do interior designs of apartments in Paris which include their own abstract paintings.

99. According to artspace, contemporary art is doing fine.  Higher ed art education still attracts students.  The royal family of Qatar still spends a billion dollars a year on modern art.

100. hyperallergic reports on Andy Warhol’s birthday celebration: a livestream video of visitors to his grave.

101. The NY Times tells you how to buy stock in local artists.

102-104.  NY Times, New Yorker, and Deadline Detroit on the Detroit Museum’s idea to sell off art to help bankrupt Detroit.

105. Debtfair asks readers to tell how their economic realities impact their artistic practices.

106. Scientific American explains how artworks naturally decay.  It must be the Conceptualist debate that has Silliman linking all this art news.

107. Philly.com on Nelson Shanks, a figurative artist who does portraits of famous people.

108. Auction at Christies will include Francis Bacon’s old brushes, according to hyperallergic.

109. Now this BBC story we like. Voted by the people, an “Art Everywhere” exhibit on billboards in the UK features pre-Raphaelite and mostly figurative art!

110. Glasgow School of Art threatens to expel artist for his graffiti, as reported in hyperallergic.

111. artspace does a story on a couple of old gents who have come up with a modern art collection in their apartment without spending too much.

112. “FBI-Seized Forgeries Get A Gallery Retrospective” at Fordham University, according to hyperallergic.

113. hyperallergic looks at the artist Basil King. We’d rather not.

114. BBC looks at a Dutch artist and his Calligraffiti.  Cute.  The artist is Niels Meulman.

115. A performance artist sits at a school desk outside a government building.  Some people assume he’s been punished for something.  Philly.com.

116. NYT Books looks at new book on Ballanchine.

117. In the NY Times: Paul Szilard, dancer, 100, has died.

118. “Vienna principal flute speaks out about her ‘racist, sexist’ dismissal” in arts journal.

119. Hi Fructose looks at Scott Scheidly’s Pink Frames.  Artist portrays famous criminals, tyrants and thugs in pink.

120. Artspace: Jeffrey Deitch retires from LA Museum of Art.  And a whirl of gossip in the art world…

121. continent interviews performance artist Daniel Peltz who is working on businessmen in drum circles.

122. Artspace on Doug Wheeler:  “page no longer exists.”

123. “Lone Ranger’s” failure at the boxoffice: star and director blame critics.  In the guardian.

124. New film, “Museum Hours” directed by Jem Cohen and reviewed by A.O. Scott in NY Times. Shot in a Vienna art museum.  Rave review.

125. hyperallergic reports a study in which test subjects like good art over kitschy art the more they are exposed to the two kinds of art.  Only two paintings (landscapes) are used: John Everett Millais’ “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” (1892) and Thomas Kinkade’s “A Peaceful Retreat” (2002).

126. British playwright Mark Ravenhill says artists who do not feed at the government trough will make better art.  From the BBC.  We’re not going to touch this one.  But we see Ravenhill’s point.

127. trinketization provides some Adorno/Marcuse correspondence. 

128. one more time for the blog continent: “The Media Have Become Superfluous” is worth reading for its cultural historic sweep in a brief space.  Otherwise not worth reading.  But it’s pretty impressive for that first reason.

129. A send-up of Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek on you tube to the tune of “The Great Pretender.”

130. Chicago Tribune: Poet Michael Robbins reviews a book on Karl Marx, saying Marx still matters.

131. Story in the guardian defends Edward Snowden, shouting out, wake up, people!

132. first monday blog features a very dull essay on “micro-targeting” of voters in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere.  It put us to sleep.

133. The NY Times magazine does a heartwarming story on author George Saunders’ commencement speech on “kindness.”

134. Oakland Unseen has a story on hipsters leaving Oakland: “Jack White flight.”  It seems to be a joke.  “Where are they moving?  Some say Detroit.”  Yes, it must be a joke.

134 links???  Ron Silliman, are you kidding me??   Well, thanks, Ron… until the next one…

SILLIMAN’S LINKS (WHEW!) PART 3

And the critical look at the Silliman Links of 8/12/13 continues…

61. Galleycat reports that “USA ranked 23rd in World for Time Spent Reading” which we have a feeling is one of those stats that means absolutely nothing.

62. The TYEE, British Columbia’s “Home for News, Culture and Solutions” asks “What’s Happened to Canadian Literature?”  This might sound cruel, but, who cares?

63. Janet Maslin reviews David Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, which to us sounds like the worst title for a novel, ever. But the well-written review makes this book sound pretty darn good.  The rollicking “Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the house” meter of Anaspestic Tetrameter is used to tell a largely tragic American tale of Dickensian dimensions and we say bravo to the late David Rakoff for writing it and the NY Times for noticing it.

64. Lisa Darms reviews her own book, Grrrl, Collected, ‘zines of feminist punk, the 90s Riot Grrrl era, in the Paris Review.  Women will always be women, no matter how many different styles of attractive walls they put around themselves.  Go, Riot Grrrls!

65. “America, Meet Your Poets,” says Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post.  America’s Poets, according to Abramson, are the exploding population of Writing Program graduates—and this is a good thing. The English Major is dying, Abramson points out, but no need to worry: Creative Writing is here to stay, and Abramson quotes John Ashbery saying “what first awakened him to the joys of poetry” was realizing that poetry was not something “lifeless” in a “museum,” but “must have grown out of the lives of those who wrote it.” This is not only wrong on many levels, but also a big flag with John Crowe Ransom’s name on it: the document that Abramson needs to read and the truth he needs to get can be found in Ransom’s 1930s essay, “Criticism, Inc.” The English Major who studies Shakespeare does not study something “lifeless.”  And if a living poet is a bad poet, as far as he is a poet, that he is “living” is a bad thing.  Ransom’s complaint that professors of Keats were just “watering their own gardens” and his solution: professional critics trained by the academy to understand “the new writing” is the template of the Program era.  Poets breeding in universities is not precisely what Ransom set down, but he was smart enough that we can easily blame him.  Today it is simply out of control, and so everyone is to blame.  Poets like Abramson, who are simply perpetuating the problem, are not nearly as clever as Ransom—who started the problem.

66. Scottish Review of Books presents Iain Bamforth and Rob Mackenzie.  “Crackling tower” and “roots of mountains” poetry.

67. NPR reviews Robert Pinsky’s Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters. Note the prominence of “write” over “read”—a result of the Program Era.  Also note “Masters”in the title: again, a reaction to the Program Era—Pinsky is going over the heads of contemporary poet professors in the university and conjuring up a pre-Program Era golden age when poets learned their craft, not from some obscure poet who managed to get a cooked-up writing prize and land a teaching position, but from the masters. We have only a couple of things to say re: verse and song in poetry: 1. Edgar Poe’s long essay “The Rationale of Verse” is all one needs to read on the subject.  2. The current fashion of talking about verse in terms of what your lips, teeth and saliva ought to be doing is absolutely disgusting, not to mention the inanity of “breaths” and “white spaces” and “line-breaks” and “sentences” and “cadences.”  Just shut up, all of you.  We’ll tell you what you can do with your “Singing School.”

68. “On being too old for Saul Bellow” brings us to “Slate’s Best and Worst Summer Romances.”  Wrong link.   But let’s push on…

69. Poetry Daily looks back 10 years: Bush was president, Dana Gioia was the NEA Chairman, and Laura Bush had cancelled the Poetry at the White House.  Daisy Fried’s “Snapshots at a Conference,” takes a journalistic peek at a state poet laureate pow wow in New Hampshire in April, 2003.  Fried observes, ruminates, and tries hard not to be condescending.  A good piece of writing.

70. Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks, a story in the NY Daily News.

71. Black Mountain College archive snapshots reveal the rather mundane “farm life” aspect of this storied avant-garde institution.

72. continent.  More hackneyed philosophical musings from this amusingly pretentious website. “What is a Compendium? Parataxis, Hypotaxis, and the Question of the Book” earnestly defines terms like hypotaxis until you wish you were just curled up with a good dictionary. They quote Sartre at one point, and this sums up the whole tenor of their approach: “For when one has nothing to say, one can say everything.” Right.

73. Here’s an exciting story from the NY Times: U. Texas, Austin, acquires archives of McSweeney’s.

74. Stephen King and his wife got their kids to record books-on-tape for them.  The NY Times magazine looks at the King family.

75. Public Radio East reports that Barbara Mertz, mystery novelist, dies.

76. Rob Wilson attempts to prove in his paper “Towards the Nuclear Sublime: Representations of Technological Vastness in Postmodern American Poetry” that the “nuclear sublime” dwarfs all other literary sublimes and fails—the premise is bankrupt.  It doesn’t matter how big a nuclear explosion is, or how many people are afraid of it; the literary sublime exists in words. We don’t like to state the obvious, but in the face of Wilson’s pedantry, what can we do?  Not that the paper is not without its minor interest (as Wilson quotes Robert Lowell, we catch a whiff of Mark Edmundson!) but the Post-Modernist audacity of favorably comparing the atom bomb to Niagara Falls in terms of aesthetic sublimity, is merely cute—and block-headed.

77. Here, in his infinite wisdom, Ron Silliman links Scarriet: “Poetry Will Be Dead In 15 Minutes, Or Modernists, Flarfists and Po-Mos Just A Bunch Of Assholes?”  Now that’s sublime.  Ron’s link says,
Scarriet declares itself both anti-modern and pre-modern.” Yes.  A time-traveling aesthetic is a noble thing.

78. Australian director Brian Fairbairn has made a short film on “What English Sounds Like To People Who Don’t Speak It.”

79. The LA Times calls for Op-Ed-Poems in old-fashioned forms (no foul language) for its August 25 issue.

80. The Missouri Review offers “10 Things Emerging Writers Need To Learn.” The 11th is: ignore this list.

81. The poet David Kirby heaps praise on emerging poet Adam Fitzgerald in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. To make his review more believable, Kirby goes out of his way to acknowledge how much “bad poetry” there is today as he insists that Adam Fitzgerald is a “new and welcome sound in the aviary of contemporary poetry.”  But then we get a sample of Fitzgerald’s poetry:

These stanzas from “The Map” suggest the silky luxury of the entire book:

I was shipwrecked on an island of
clouds.
The sun’s pillars bored me though, so I
set foot on a small indigo place
below orange falls and hexagonal
flowers.

I was able to stay there a fortnight,
restlessly roaming the buttered air
inside tropical rock enclosures,
caves of foliage that canopied dankness.

Humming water and fetid air felt nice.
But the gentle leisure of itching, staring,
distracted me. I frequented streets
in dreams, or in the paintings of dreams.

This is perhaps the worst poetry we have ever read.  “I was shipwrecked on an island of clouds” is not something even A.A. Milne would have Winnie-the-Pooh say.  Winnie-the-Pooh rose into the sky by a balloon with the purpose of getting honey from a nest of bees in a tree.  But the poet Adam Fitzgerald finds himself “shipwrecked on an island of clouds.” He gets “bored, though” and so “set[s] foot on a small indigo place” and is “able to stay there a fortnight,” and there “restlessly roam[s] the buttered air.”  How to imagine this: buttered air.   Restlessly roaming the buttered air.  Then it gets all the more wonderful, as the poet finds that “humming water” and “fetid air” feels “nice.” But oh no!  “The gentle leisure of itching, staring,/ distracted me, I frequented streets/in dreams…”

82. continent, in a brief July 9 post, opines that “to love literature is to be in love with the dead. Necrophilia.”  Well, I’ll be damned!

TO BE CONTINUED

SILLIMAN LINKS, PART 2

21. Scottish Poetry Library blog mourns the death of young singer-songwriter, poet Lise Sinclair. We do, too.

22. Boston Book Review interviews Maureen McLane, author of Her Poets, chapters of which first appeared in the BBR.

23-26. Culture.pl issues notices of Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Symborska, Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, and Alexsander Wat.

27. British Museum blog reports another digitized translation of Homer’s Iliad. Silliman does care about the past!

28. Small Press Distribution blog reports sales rankings for the last few years.  We’ve never read any of these books.

29. Blues.Gr blog interviews Jim McCrary, poet from Lawrence, KS, who partied with Ginsberg and Burroughs.  We’re supposed to envy the snobby/workingclass tawdriness of it all.

30. Jean Daive poems (wretched little things).

31. Denver Westword Blog interviews Anne Waldman on her new book, Grossamurmur, The Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University at Bolder, etc  She’s a good Buddhist.  And good.

32. The Economist reports Germany’s state owned railway is discouraging the use of Denglisch: German Anglicisms.  Those Germans.  Always up to no good.

33. Brooklyn Poets interviews Matthea Harvey, who feels very five minutes ago.  She thinks pets are really cool, which is just great.

34. Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the first page (typed) with his edits.  The archival humanizing of Ashbery begins.

35. Fiction Writers Review: “Why Fiction Writers Should Read Poetry” by Lucas Hunt.  Boring, trite.  “Poetry is the mud that grows the seed that becomes the forest.”  Or something.

36. The Atlantic “The Hole In Our Collective Memory”  Amazon numbers: books still under copyright (mid-20th century) lose out to very recent books and books in the public domain (19th century, early 20th cen). More research that bears out the obvious.  But nice to know.

37. Huffpost Blog piece on plagiarism by famous poets and songwriters by David Galenson, Professor of Economics at U. Chicago: Lots of big photos of the Beatles, etc.  Not one example of plagiarism.  Doh!

38. Paul Hoover cheerfully interviewed on all the reading that went into compiling his Norton Post-Modern Poetry anthology.  On UPenn.  Good for you, Paul.

39. Huffpost Detroit: Elmore Leonard in hospital.  (He’s now dead.)

40. Sesame Street parodies “Sons of Anarchy” with “Sons of Poetry” reports USA Today.

41. NYTimes on government’s victory over Apple on E-book price fixing.

42. BBC: Publishers defend Apple.

43. Web Urbanist tells us that a closed Walmart now houses the largest library in the U.S.

44. Solmaz Sharif, by way of William Carlos Williams, makes several artsy-fartsy remarks in the Kenyon Review blog on the Washington Post seeking op-ed political poems.  Apparently some poets are incensed the Post wants new opinion couched in old-fashioned poetry.

45-50. Jorie Graham’s in-laws sell Washington Post. Weighing in briefly are the Economist, HuffPost, and the New Yorker, the latter joking that Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos clicked on “Buy Post” by mistake.  Walter Isaacson says Bezos is OK; just a “customer service” guy.  According to Huffpost Business, the recent failure of Kaplan Higher Education, the for-profit college conglomerate, a revenue winner until recently, and owned by the Washington Post, was key to the Post’s financial troubles.

51. Economist looks at star journalists breaking away from their newspapers.

52. Philadelphia Business Journal looks at newspapers’ financial fall.  In a related itemThe New York Times owned The Boston Globe. That sports injustice has been revenged, as John Henry, Red Sox owner, just purchased the Globe for a song.

53. A review of Jane Yeh’s book of poems, The Ninjas.  The reviewer is excited.  We’re not.

54. continent is a new blog which sounds like undergraduate philosophy students trying to say something clever about Modernism so that it makes a kind of abstract, theoretical sense without making any sense.  In this particular link on Samuel Beckett’s “Failure to Fail,” Beckett and Gertrude Stein are quoted as producing language that “goes on” without making sense—which is pure “genius,” apparently.

55. Endgame by Becket on-line.

56. George Stanley’s book of poetry, After Desire, has a trailer on Vimeo.

57. continent on “Political Poetry” in terms of Capitalist-hating, lots of weed-smoking, self-consciously optimistic in a “negative capability,”pro-art, pro-writing kind of way.  Touchingly sincere. Predictable.

58. Flavorwire’s “23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013″  This list has been roundly attacked for being too “white.”  As for the poetry, Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” which has made something of a Facebook splash, reads like a New Yorker short story, except for the repetition of the phrase, “the rape joke,” which means “the rapist.”  “Rape Joke” has a darkly comic narrative power, which we applaud.  Unfortunately, none of the other poems linked are very good, with perhaps the exception of Ariana Reines—who just happens to write about “fucking” a lot—whose poem has a certain coherency and intelligence.  The typical poem here, the chief feature of which is “I’m a bored adolescent who can’t write in complete sentences!” doesn’t fly.  Not that neatly written prose—the poem by Thomas Sayers Ellis, for instance—automatically makes a poem better.  We see the prosaic and the non-prosaic.  But not much poetry.  O Program Era, what hast thou wrought?

59. Flavorwire’s “A List of Things to Ask Yourself When You’re Making A List of Poets” falls under the category of Duh.

60. Vincent Toro’s list on the English Kills Review, a counter to Flavorwire’s, is an indignant ethical list of 23, but it is a list, on a quick read, with more interesting poets: Natalie Diaz, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Urayoan Noel, Idra Novey, and Patrick Rosal.  6 out of 23 is a pretty good percentage these days. We especially liked “In the Faraway Suburbs” by Noel and “My Mother Will Take A Lover” by Guerrero.” Congratulations, Vincent.  You win the battle of the Lists.

SILLIMAN’S LINKS

File:Ruins of an Ancient City by John Martin, 1810s.JPG

We thought it might be amusing for Scarriet to take a full tour of Ron Silliman’s Poetry Links.

Ron provides this service every couple weeks, an internet feast of what’s happening in the poetry/art world.

So without further ado, let’s get started!  There’s 134 links!

Scarriet looks at August 12, 2013:

1. Rae Armantrout interviewed by Poetryeater blog—Worshipful, boring.   Long question re: “Section breaks.” zzzzzzz  Interviewer: “current fetish for metrics.” ???  “I wish I could write like E. Dickinson” –Rae A.  Uh…quit being so damn clever in the modernist mode and write poetry. 

2. USA Today story: Jane Austen replaces Charles Darwin on 10 Pound Note, as English women pushed for more representation after Winston Churchill replaced Elizabeth Fry on another piece of money.  Bad for Darwin, good for Darwinism?

3-6. BBC stories on twitter abuse against women campaigning for Austen; Tony Wang, Twitter UK boss, apologizes; male is arrested for the twitter crime.

7. Book Riot reports singer Kelly Clarkson cannot have the Jane Austen ring which she purchased; it belongs to England!

8. Jacket Book promotion: Boston scenester poet William Corbett (recently moved to NYC) remembers good times with his friend, the late Michael Gizzi.

9. Fanny Howe wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize, the Vineyard Gazette reports.  Shit, there is money in poetry.

10. Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets Blog features Kenneth Koch’s daughter Katherine. She has written an essay on growing up among the New York School scene, which basically highlights the fact that few New York School poets had kids, and they didn’t pay much attention to kids when they were around.

11. “33 Reasons Not To Date A Small Publisher” from Five Leaves Publications Blog’s Ross Bradshaw.  Now this link is really worthwhile!  Hilarious!  “He will be broke.”  “He might be a poet.” “He will talk non-stop about how terrible Waterstones is.”  “His office will be very untidy, spilling over with unsaleable books.”

12-13. Guardian on the 500 fairy tales recently discovered in 19th century archives of Franz Xaver von Schonwerth and one copied out: “The Turnip Princess,” which is not very impressive: cluttered, contrived, confusing.  Perhaps we have enough old fairy tales?

14. Kenneth Goldsmith in the Globe & Mail says he likes “smart dumb” and lists The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola.  But couldn’t this list go on forever?  How about Victorian poetry?  American sitcoms?  Yoko Ono.  Yoko Ono, by the way, seems conspicuously absent in all these Conceptualist discussions.  Everyone remembers her “Yes” at the top of the ladder John Lennon climbed.  Duchamp already told the joke that’s being told over and over again, but even Ono makes Goldsmith seem old hat.   Isn’t all comedy “smart dumb?” Aren’t Shakespeare’s clowns “smart dumb?”  Isn’t everything “smart dumb?”  Goldsmith is spreading himself too thin, like the Risk player taking too many countries at once.  This can’t end well.

15. And Kenneth Goldsmith, according to the News & Record of Greensboro, NC, does “Printing Out the Internet,” where about 600 people send tons and tons of printed out internet pages to a gallery in Mexico.  It’s a memorial for Aaron Swartz, somehow, the JSTOR downloading suicide, which, we suppose, makes it criticism-proof, since it’s a memorial.  But really, who has time for this?  Well, we suppose if one does have time for this, that does make one superior, somehow, in an elitist sort of way…  Just having time for something is a statement of sorts…Look, we might as well admit it…Kenneth Goldsmith is on a roll…

16. Over at Rumpus, Marjorie Perloff tries to shout down Amy King in the Comments section to Amy King’s “Beauty & the Beastly Po-Biz” piece, pointing out “Conceptualism is the only game in town” is not really what she said, but it is what she said, because her only stated alternative is “the return of the lyric” as “found poetry,” which is Conceptualism, anyway.   Perloff’s objections are hollow.   More interesting was David Need’s comment, who questioned “fighting capitalism” as the “standard  that MUST BE MET, for art to be credible.”  How about this standard, instead, he asked: “Successfully bringing up a child.”  We like that. 

17. On Blog Harriet, Robert Archambeau defends Conceptualism (while pretending not to) with his piece, “Charmless & Interesting.”  Again, the ghost of Duchamp is raised, as Archambeau says Conceptualists are not charming, but they are interesting.   Really, Bob?  We thought it was the other way around.  But more importantly, the Conceptualist joke is charming once, but not over and over again.

18.  More Conceptualist ado, this time from the ever long-winded but keen Seth Abramson on the Volta Blog: Conceptualism doesn’t exist, according to Abramson, because the concept self-negates the work and Goldsmith is wrong that anyone will be interested in discussing the concept, so that leaves nothing.  Like an enraged New Critic, Abramson points out Conceptualism makes us look at the poet rather than the poem.  Abramson defends the avant-garde, though, which makes his attack all the more interesting.  Or problematic?

19. Jeffrey Side, in his blog, also raises the ghost of Duchamp as Conceptualism’s modern founder.   A popular guy, this Duchamp, all of a sudden.  Side quotes Archambeau: “In what sense is pure conceptualism poetry?”  Side says it is not poetry.

20. Tony Lopez on his blog, discussing something called the Dublin Pound Conference, says it’s great to “go out in Dublin for drinks and dinner.”  Good thing he didn’t talk about Pound.  Thanks, Tony!

TO BE CONTINUED…

HERE WE GO AGAIN: SCARRIET’S POETRY HOT 100!!

Dark Messy Tower

1. Mark Edmundson Current Lightning Rod of Outrage

2. David Lehman BAP Editor now TV star: PBS’ Jewish Broadway

3. Rita Dove She knows Dunbar is better than Oppen

4. Matthew Hollis Profoundly researched Edward Thomas bio

5. Paul Hoover Status quo post-modern anthologist, at Norton

6. Don Share Wins coveted Poetry magazine Editorship

7. Sharon Olds Gets her Pulitzer

8. Michael Robbins The smartest guy writing on contemporary poetry now–see Hoover review

9. Marjorie Perloff Still everyone’s favorite Take-No-Prisoners Dame Avant-Garde

10. Natasha Trethewey Another Round as Laureate

11. Ron Silliman The Avant-garde King

12. Tony Hoagland The Billy Collins of Controversy

13. Billy Collins The real Billy Collins

14. Kenneth Goldsmith Court Jester of Talked-About

15. Terrance Hayes The black man’s Black Man’s Poet?

16. William Logan Favorite Bitch Critic

17. Avis Shivani Second Favorite Bitch Critic

18. John Ashbery Distinguished and Sorrowful Loon

19. Stephen Burt P.C. Throne at Harvard

20. Robert Hass  West Coast Establishment Poet

21. Harold Bloom Reminds us ours is an Age of Criticism, not Poetry

22. Helen Vendler She, in the same stultifying manner, reminds us of this, too.

23. Dana Gioia  Sane and Optimistic Beacon?

24. Bill Knott An On-line Bulldog of Poignant Common Sense

25. Franz Wright Honest Common Sense with darker tones

26. Henry Gould Another Reasonable Poet’s Voice on the blogosphere

27. Anne Carson The female academic poet we are supposed to take seriously

28. Seth Abramson Will give you a thousand reasons why MFA Poetry is great

29. Ben Mazer Poet of the Poetry! poetry! More Poetry! School who is actually good

30. Larry Witham Author, Picasso and the Chess Player (2013), exposes Modern Art/Poetry cliques

31. Mary Oliver Sells, but under Critical assault

32. Annie Finch The new, smarter Mary Oliver?

33. Robert Pinsky Consensus seems to be he had the best run as Poet Laureate

34. Mark McGurl His book, The Program Era, has quietly had an impact

35. Seamus Heaney Yeats in a minor key

36. W.S. Merwin Against Oil Spills but Ink Spill his writing method

37. George Bilgere Do we need another Billy Collins?

38. Cate Marvin VIDA will change nothing

39. Philip Nikolayev Best living translator?

40. Garrison Keillor As mainstream poetry lover, he deserves credit

41. Frank Bidart Poetry as LIFE RUBBED RAW

42. Jorie Graham The more striving to be relevant, the more she seems to fade

43. Alan Cordle Strange, how this librarian changed poetry with Foetry.com

44. Janet Holmes Ahsahta editor and MFA prof works the po-biz system like no one else

45. Paul Muldoon How easy it is to become a parody of oneself!

46. Cole Swensen Some theories always seem to be missing something

47. Matthew Dickman Was reviewed by William Logan. And lived

48. James Tate For some reason it depressed us to learn he was not a laugh riot in person.

49. Geoffrey Hill His poetry is more important than you are

50. Derek Walcott A great poet, but great poets don’t exist anymore

51. Charles Bernstein A bad poet, but bad poets don’t exist anymore, either

52. Kay Ryan Emily Dickinson she’s not. Maybe Marianne Moore when she’s slightly boring?

53. Laura Kasischke She’s published 8 novels. One became a movie starring Uma Thurman. Who the hell does she think she is?

54. Louise Gluck X-Acto!

55. Rae Armantrout “Quick, before you die, describe the exact shade of this hotel carpet.”

56. Heather McHugh “A coward and a coda share a word.”

57. D.A. Powell “Of course a child. What else might you have lost.”

58. Peter Gizzi Take your lyric and heave

59. Marilyn Chin Shy Iowa student went on to write an iconic 20th century poem: How I Got That Name

60. Eileen Myles Interprets Perloff’s avant-gardism as mourning

61. Lyn Hejinian As I sd to my friend, because I am always blah blah blah

62. Nikki Finney Civil Rights is always hot

63. K. Silem Mohammad This Flarfist Poet composes purely Anagram versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fie on it.

64. Meg Kearney Lectured in public by Franz Wright. Still standing.

65. Noah Eli Gordon Teaches at Boulder, published by Ahsahta

66. Peter Campion A poet, a critic and a scholar!

67. Simon Ortiz Second wave of the Native American Renaissance

68. Maya Angelou She continues to travel the world

69. Lyn Lifshin “Barbie watches TV alone, naked” For real?

70. Ange Mlinko Born in ’69 in Philly, writes for The Nation

71. Jim Behrle They also serve who only write bad poetry

72. Elizabeth Alexander She read in front of all those people

73. Dorothea Lasky The Witchy Romantic School

74. Virgina Bell The poet. Do not confuse with burlesque dancer

75. Fanny Howe Wreaks havoc out of Boston

76. Erin Belieu Available for VIDA interviews

77. Ariana Reines Another member of the witchy romantic school

78. Jed Rasula Old Left poetry critic

79. John Hennessy “Too bad I felt confined by public space/despite her kinky talk, black net and lace”

80. Timothy Donnelly “Driver, please. Let’s slow things down. I can’t endure/the speed you favor, here where the air’s electric”

81. Clive James His translation, in quatrains, of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published this year

82. Danielle Pafunda “We didn’t go anywhere, we went wrong/in our own backyard. We didn’t have a yard,/but we went wrong in the bedroom”

83. Michael Dickman Matthew is better, right?

84. Kit Robinson “Get it first/but first get it right/in the same way it was”

85. Dan Beachy Quick “My wife found the key I hid beneath the fern./My pens she did not touch. She did not touch/The hundred pages I left blank to fill other days”

86. Ilya Kaminsky Teaches at San Diego State, won Yinchuan International Poetry Prize

87. Robert Archambeau Son of a potter, this blog-present poet and critic protested Billy Collins’ appointment to the Poet Laureateship

88. Kent Johnson Best known as a translator

89. Frederick Seidel An extroverted Philip Larkin?

90. David Orr Poetry columnist for New York Times wrote on Foetry.com

91. Richard Wilbur Oldest Rhymer and Moliere translator

92. Kevin Young Finalist in Criticism for National Book Critics Circle

93. Carolyn Forche Human rights activist born in 1950

94. Carol Muske Dukes Former California Laureate writes about poetry for LA Times

95. William Kulik Writes paragraph poems for the masses

96. Daniel Nester The sad awakening of the MFA student to the bullshit

97. Alexandra Petri Began 2013 by calling poetry “obsolete” in Wash Post

98. John Deming Poet, told Petri, “We teach your kids.”

99. C. Dale Young “Medical students then, we had yet to learn/when we could or could not cure”

100. Clayton Eshleman Sometimes the avant-garde is just boring

JANET HOLMES AND THE SECRETS OF PO-BIZ SUCCESS

Reading over Silliman’s blog-links (he sometimes links a Scarriet article, and we’ll notice a small jump in our readership) I came across a little piece by the poet and Ahsahta press editor, Janet Holmes, in which she  reveals how po-piz actually works:

1.  Invite book submissions to your press by holding an annual poetry prize contest: almost 700 for Holmes to read this year.

2.  Have the MFA grad class students you teach be your editorial board, so you can teach a class and edit your press at the same time.

3.  Avoid teaching anything of substance: poetry is anything group experience finds it to be; poetry study is nothing more than a navigation of social agreement.

These are the three pillars of Po-Biz.

There is no other successful way.

This is it.

1 and 2 are how you do it and 3 must be the underpinning of 1 and 2. Lure with prizes. Use students as fodder. No substance except in social agreement.

Janet Holmes, and other successful members of the poetry industry will never come out and state it quite this explicitly, but this is how poetry operates in practical terms as an art form today.

Holmes is humbly and sincerely talking about herself—as she unknowingly exposes the truth of Poetry Incorporated.

First, look at how busy she is:

The month of April coincides with the time of year that I’m finishing reading entries for the annual poetry prize Ahsahta Press conducts. I have spent the past months reading somewhere between 600 and 700 books that individuals have spent months, often years, writing and organizing.

Second, she readily admits that she is always learning from others’ manuscripts in terms of her judgment, her editing, her writing, and her teaching:

It’s impossible not to appreciate the commitment that goes into this work. Every time I read a manuscript I reassess what I think differentiates the best poetry from the good,  the good from the rest, and the exercise affects my editing, my own writing, and my teaching.

Third, she is forthcoming about her judgment criteria and acknowledges  how there is such a thing, in her opinion, as hastily composed, bad work:

A friend of mine who ran a reading series in Cincinnati tells a story about her mentor telling her she thought everyone should write poetry.

“Have you ever been to an open mic?” my friend asked.

“No,” replied the older poet.

That’s the end of the story, and it always draws a laugh. We’ve all been to readings where someone gets up to read excruciatingly bad work, often for a longer time than we wish to hear it. Sometimes it’s someone who says—as if the fact vouches for the poem’s authenticity or for the poet’s true vocation—“I just wrote this last night,” and we (who would never read last night’s production!) shudder.  Surely the person who thought “everyone” should write poetry would realize the error of her ways and take that statement back!

Fourth, she is humble enough to question judgment itself:

I don’t think everyone should write poetry, any more than I think everyone should be an operatic singer. But I do think that people who write poetry get something from the experience, and that in doing that writing they (may) become more aware of the poetry others write and measure their own against it. The more poetry they read, the better their own poetry may become. So my question goes to us, to the people in the open mic audience: what makes us so sure we know what’s good?

Fifth, she illuminates that process where her teaching and publishing meet:

During the spring semesters, when the contest is running, I teach a class of MFA grad students in Small Press Production. We discuss many aspects of small press publishing, but one of the major things we do is to read submissions to the press as that year’s editorial board. Every week, the students report on what they’ve found among their assigned manuscripts. They make notes on what they’ve read and they report to us all (often showing the manuscript on a screen) what they found interesting or deficient in a particular book. The manuscript is passed along to others for closer reading. Eventually it’s sent to the “Yes” folder, where everyone in class is required to read it and make notes; other times, it’s sent to the pile that means it’s “not for us.”

During these months of reading, each student is learning something about what he or she thinks makes an excellent book of poetry, but it’s not because I’m telling the class what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” Each student has to define these parameters personally, and in defining what they want to say “Yes” to they can’t help but notice how the manuscripts they prefer are organized, how the poems are focused or oblique in their presentation, what level of diction works for them or doesn’t. There is no consensus, and all of us learn from each others’ presentations.

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for the Big Day, which is when each student presents a top-10 list of the manuscripts they think Ahsahta should publish. The board’s goal is to send from 15 to 20 of these books to our final judge, who will select a winner. I, too, have my top-10 list (actually, there are 23 books on my list!), and if this year is like others, there will be a great deal of overlap between my list and theirs. Every member of this editorial board will have manuscripts to champion to the others, and will have to have good critical reasons to try to overcome others’ reluctance to promote a book to finalist status. Usually I end up arguing for a manuscript or two myself, and sometimes I don’t prevail.

In the process of the semester, then, students come closer to trying to articulate to themselves (as well as to the rest of us) what they value in a book of poetry. While they may have been hesitant to speak out about their own poetics in a workshop or class, in this course they have no choice but to put words to the task. The next time they sit down to write, those values will be in their minds and their work will begin to take a shape that is, one hopes, closer to those values.

Sixth, she promotes an open, common sense approach to judgment:

I hesitate to talk about “good” and “bad” poetry, unlike some of my friends on the Internet. One forcefully reminds me almost weekly that to be deemed “poetry,” the work must adhere to a metrical pattern, though his own poems are almost exclusively what I’d call light verse or satirical doggerel. He’s not willing to allow anything written in free verse to be termed “poetry,” let alone “bad poetry.” But he’s successful in writing to his own standards, so who am I to stand in his way? (On the other hand, I don’t much enjoy reading any but a very small amount of his work at a time.) For students of poetry developing their own writing, I’ve found the only way to help that along is to show them many different kinds of poems and book structures that abound at this moment—what Joyelle McSweeney so memorably named “the plague field” of poetry that we all must pick through to find what keeps us alive.

Seventh, and finally, she promotes broad, grassroots recognition of the publishing process in terms of books supporting journals and journals supporting books, and once again confirms her open-minded judgment:

When undergraduate students leave my classroom, I give them a simple exercise. When they read a journal and find a poem they really love, they look to the contributor’s note and see whether that author has a book. If so, they read the book and check the acknowledgments page for other places that author has published. Then they find a journal they haven’t read before and read it, looking for other poems they love. Back and forth, acknowledgments to contributor’s notes, and before long they have an idea of what sorts of works appeal to them, and their poetry begins to take on new characteristics. We all know what’s “good,” and, if we’re honest, we know there are hundreds or thousands of ways to achieve good work for ourselves. I hope these exercises lead to a broader reading of literary work, and a greater appreciation for what our fellow poets can do.

We have quoted the entirety of her piece. What’s not to admire here?  Who can argue with: “We all know what’s ‘good,’ and, if we’re honest, we know there are hundreds or thousands of ways to achieve good work for ourselves.”

In the face of judging “600 to 700 books” of poetry for one annual Ahsahta press poetry prize, beside vague references to “best” and “good” and “the rest,” why should we expect Holmes to articulate any sort of criteria?  Holmes is wise to provide none.

And why shouldn’t Holmes use her graduate students to edit Ahsahta—editing, learning, teaching, and judgment all enhancing each other?

Judgment occurs whenever we have a “prize,” or whenever an editor decides to use one manuscript and not another, but why should this judgment be defined, once and for all?

We can use thought to arrive at social agreement, which is what the scientist does, or we can embrace social agreement to avoid thought—the default human comfort zone.

The latter is guiding poetry at the present moment.

We could call it Socialism, though political commentary is not our intent, even as it happens that poetry today is spectacularly beholden to an unspoken law of uncompromising political correctness.

But any p.c. factor is merely a secondary feature, for what is more “correct” than social agreement? Politics is not the point—the least resistance to social agreement is the point.

Poetry is a great blank, or a dust-mop that picks up anything that sticks to it.

The method here is not even ‘trial and error,’ for that implies a goal.

Holmes the Ahsahta editor and MFA professor, implies improvement, progress, a goal; but beyond a vague ‘talking cure’ to relieve private psychosis, or a vague sort of cross-word puzzle fondness for words, there is no reason to believe that poetry, the art, is improving one whit, or that it is not, in a cloud of obscurity, mental masturbation, dead phrases, and platitude, regressing.

Holmes allows herself one strong opinion: poetry that was written “just last night” is automatically and viscerally rejected.

We see immediately why this strong opinion is permitted by the otherwise non-affirmative Po-Biz mind: the poem written “just last night” and blurted out at a public reading has not had a chance to undergo the process of social agreement—and social agreement for Po-Biz is all.  Therefore, in Holmes‘ opinion, such a poem cannot be good and the very idea of a poem written “just last night” makes her “shudder.”

Holmes dallies a bit with one issue of aesthetic substance: a poet who insists on poetry with “metrical pattern.”

Poetry with something of a definition must be dismissed at once by the smooth Po-Biz operator, and of course we find that it is, regally, charitably, with just the right air of openness and nonchalance; Holmes magisterially says, “who am I to stand in the way” (of this “light verse” and”doggerel”)?

Holmes cheerfully admits that no one is steering the ship:

During these months of reading, each student is learning something about what he or she thinks makes an excellent book of poetry, but it’s not because I’m telling the class what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” Each student has to define these parameters personally.

How easy it is, then.

The product sold by Po-Biz is neither good nor bad; it is whatever the buyer believes in; it is no surprise, then, that it makes no impression on us at all when we peruse an actual poem written by Janet Holmes herself.

1862.17  (336)

I got my eye put out–

my Heart
split,

The Meadows –
The Mountains –
All Forests –

finite

The Motions of
Morning’s

news            strikes me dead –

CHARLES D’ORLEANS AND STEPHEN SPENDER, 500 YEARS APART, BATTLE IN THE WEST


Stephen Spender between Auden and Isherwood: the Truly Great?

The two poems in today’s contest are what certain petulant members of today’s avant-garde might call Quietist—in the extreme. 

The avant-garde poet Ron Silliman took the term “Quietist” from Edgar Poe (eventually they all take everything from Edgar Poe).

Poe used “Quietist” to condemn a self-satisfied, New England puritan-astuteness, a Ralph Waldo Emerson type of wisdom, which Poe felt was mostly superior-sounding rubbish.

In Silliman’s avant alteration, “Quietist” has come to mean simply, not avant-garde, so we are to think that all avant-garde poetry (wretchedly obscure, cut-and-paste, 150-year-old Duchamp’s moustache-on-a-Mona-Lisa done over and over and over again…) is somehow exciting—when nothing could be further from the truth…

If you believe with Scarriet that it is not the poet’s job to know—but to be understood, you will be less likely to fall for Silliman’s avant-garde’s flattery.

These 2013 Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament poems are “populist” poems. 

Charles D’Orleans and Stephen Spender, about to clash before roaring crowds, have produced the kind of works which make avant-garde insects scatter, running for the obscurity they require, to avoid the light poems such as this produce.

Poems like this do not arise from randomly tossing poetry kit magnets onto a fridge.

The trick that makes this whole issue somewhat difficult to grasp is this: the random, fridge-magnet poem (the avant-garde poem) has a certain textual integrity that the poems which follow—Silliman’s so-called “Quietist” poems—do not.

By “textual integrity,” we refer to the fact that before the fridge-magnet poem randomly ‘comes together,’ it exists no where else; its textual integrity is all the integrity it has.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a New Critic’s dream.

The random fridge-magnet poem is a conceptual poet’s dream, as well, since the conceptual poet gets to have effortless ‘textual integrity’ paired with the ‘concept:’ I made the executive decision as a conceptual poet to throw magnets at a fridge and to employ randomness as a blow against mere Quietism.

The following “populist” poems are not necessarily difficult to write, and we all know they are not difficult to read, or understand;—the randomly generated fridge-magnet poem is difficult to read, and in some people’s minds, is better for that reason alone.

But the issue, contrary to the Modernist mantra, is not “difficulty,” for random poems and bad poems can be “difficult” as hell; to promote “difficulty” as a standard is nothing more than a Modernist, avant-garde ruse.

The poems by D’Orleans and Spender exist not just in their textuality but mostly in the truth of what was felt and thought prior to their existence as texts—a concept difficult for the New Critic and the avant-garde Modernist to wrap their minds around, but which is a concept celebrated by those who actually love poetry. 

Las! Mort Qui T’a Fait Si Hardie (trans. Fred Chappell)
Charles D’ Orleans (1394-1465)

Death, you have made it your pleasure
To take the noble princess
Who was my comfort, my treasure,
And everything to bless
My life. Since my mistress
You take, take once again:
Take me, her servitor.
Better to die than bear
Such torment, sorrow, and pain.

She was beautiful past measure,
In the flower of youth she was.
May God work His displeasure
Upon your faithlessness!
My anguish would be less
If you had taken her when
Old age had burdened her;
But you hastened to show your power
With torment, sorrow, and pain.

I live imprisoned, my leisure
Lonely, companionless…
My Lady, goodbye. Now has our
Love departed. This promise
I make to you: largess
Of prayers and, until slain,
My heart, yours evermore,
Forgetting nothing in its sore
Torment, sorrow and pain.

God, Who art sovereign
Of all, in mercy ordain
That the bright spirit of her
Will only briefly endure
Torment, sorrow, and pain.

We love this poem, and it would seem to survive its translation, as well.

It goes against this chestnut from Sir Stephen Spender, who ran Horizon magazine (1940-49) with, it turns out, CIA money.  He was part of Auden’s circle, and a fine poet. 

I THINK CONTINUALLY OF THOSE WHO WERE TRULY GREAT—Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fŠted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

We don’t know if we believe the poet when he says, “I think continually of those who were truly great,” but it is a forceful and memorable phrase.

D’Orleans wins, 88-84.

The 15th century poet advances!

 

SCARRIET MARCH MADNESS 2013: THE SOUL OF ROMANTICSM

To amuse our readers, each year, Scarriet puts together a bracket of 64 poets/poems for a “March Madness” Tournament of Criticism that figures up winners, losers, and finally one champion. 

It’s crazy, we know. 

One cannot reconcile the enjoyment and contemplation of a poem with a competition between that poem and another poem.

That’s nuts, right? 

It’s not like we ever use the critical faculty of comparison to read poetry!

Okay, maybe we do, but comparison has nothing to do with competition, right?

Well…okay, maybe…and so March Madness for poetry was born.

There is a natural interest in Poetry March Madness for those who like poems, and it’s a good way to learn new poems, and re-think old poems, too.

There are still those purists who object…but more seem to be realizing that it’s harmless fun.

The challenge  is that each year for Scarriet March Madness we need to find new anthologies and new poems.

This year’s theme will be the Soul Of Romanticism, Old and New.

Tony Hoagland made the biggest splash at the AWP this year, striking another controversial blow against post-modern obscurity, asking for poetry of “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity.”  These virtues in poetry are associated mostly with the great Romantics, like Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hugo and Goethe. 

Poets of Hoagland’s generation studied Keats and Byron in their English classes, those modern-ish marvels of poet’s poetry, and poets such as Keats were fixtures of literary study—not electives, but the main course if you were reading poetry in school

The Romantics were central; they looked back, self-consciously, to the Greeks, to Dante and the troubadour poets, (and Shakespeare, of course) and they also looked forward to poets like Millay, Frost, Eliot and Larkin, with the New Critics and the Beats steering an uneasy and experimental shift, in school and on the street, respectively, towards a yet unrealized future—and it still seems that way, for ‘the future’ has arrived not so much with new greatness, but with millions of specialist, experimental Writing  Program poets, the Frankenstein experiment of New Critical scientists like John Crowe Ransom—the American T.S. Eliot—who helped friends like Paul Engle, starting slowly,  back in the late 1930s, to get ‘New Writing’ professors/poets to replace Keats professors “watering their own gardens.”

So here we are, with Hoagland and his allies asking for “soul,” “wisdom,” and “humanity,” and those like Gallaher, Perloff, and Silliman horrified. 

Scarriet has selected 64 poems, new and old, we call, loosely, The Soul of Romanticism.  Ben Mazer, who won Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness championship last year, is one of the new proponents of what might be called a new Romantic school, or perhaps in Mazer’s case, the Twighlight of Ashbery-ism.

Mazer also happens to be a scholar helping to revive interest in John Crowe Ransom, among a number of other projects. It just so happens that Ransom, and his Modernist circle of friends, felt the need to self-consciously move beyond Romanticism, which we feel was an error, since building on the past is a natural thing, and the worst thing (like cutting off the nose to spite the face) is abandoning it. Mazer, like the Romantics, is mostly a lyric poet, but with other genres and models hectically included as inspiration sees fit.

The world is where the Romantic poet does his experimentation; the Modernist confines his experiments mostly to the poem itself.   This seems a rather obvious distinction, but few seem to make it.

Perhaps the Romantic mode—experimenting in the world rather than on the poem—is a more exciting way to ‘make it new.’  And, further perhaps experiment isn’t everything when it comes to art.  Take that, Perloff.

There are four Number One Seeds in the four brackets—sixteen poems in each bracket. 

The following poem will be in the 2013 Tournament.  Will it be a Number One Seed?

It has a handicap.  It requires translation.  It is by Goethe, “The Holy Longing.”

Tell old wisdom what you feel
Or else shut up, because it won’t seem real
To your friends. They’ll just make fun of you—
Quietly dreaming of burning to death will have to do.

In the calm sighings of the love-nights,
Where you were made, where you, too, kissed in the shade,
You now feel a powerful yearning
When you glimpse the silent candle burning.

Come on!  Older and wiser today,
Your childish obsession with the dark has faded away;
You love serene lights in the sky,
And aren’t afraid to look in an old man’s eye.

You don’t care how long you burn
Or the journey lasts, or how long you yearn;
You want the light madly, that’s blinking on—
You are the moth, and now you are gone.

Your thoughts are empty, you want to rest,
You don’t understand your own worth—
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

We have taken the liberty of using our own translation.

Goethe’s famous poem is the essence of Romanticism: a certain lyric modesty (merely a song) together with a human touch, and a penetrating presence of soul.

Who can bring it in this way, today? 

Who did it best, then?

Find out in this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness Tournament 2013!

GLUT! PICKING (OFF) QUIETISTS AND POST-MODERNS

Ron Silliman: the poets, there are too many of them, yes?

As numbers overwhelm, the post-modern panic continues.  Marjorie Perloff began the stampede with her recent essay, “Poetry on the Brink.”  Ron Silliman is the latest to weigh in on the subject of “Too Many Poets?”  In his 2/15 blog post, Silliman mourns the fact that Paul Hoover’s Norton Anthology of American Post Moderns had to chuck 47 poets for its 2nd edition, as it added 59, and is still far short of being representative.  Even as he suggests a “wikipoets” website to include tons of contemporary poets, Silliman ruefully admits it would fail to hold interest due to its size.

How “Quietist” of the Avant-Garde!

Include-Everything-Crackpot-ism” bows to reality!

The “open” is becoming “closed!”

Silliman’s dire report makes the usual distinction between “post-moderns” and “quietists.” 

Silliman dutifully lists names, and it would seem—is it possible?—that names are all he is really interested in.

As he grappled with the logistics of “too many poets,” not once did Silliman, in trying to ascertain how we might manage the glut, not once was there the slightest suggestion that perhaps we might ask: how many representative poems belong to all of these “names?”

Perhaps that’s asking a lot.  But when Silliman, assessing the Norton anthology choices, assured his readers several times that these poets were all “totally qualified names,” how does he know this—except by knowing their poems?  When Silliman makes his distinction between poets who are “good”—opposed to mere “politics and taste,” this “good” surely is determined by the poetry?

How trustworthy is the critic who ranks poets, but is unable to rank poems?  Not very, we would say.  We will grant that Silliman knows poems as well as poets, and he focused on poets simply because of space requirements—but we may be excused if we shift the focus a little bit in our limited space here.

We know that avant-garde critics prefer poetry to poems, since the latter implies (horror!) “Quietist Anthology,” but even the wooliest of the avant-garde cannot escape the question: is this X’s poem, or is it not?

Denying a desire for canon or anthology is like denying a desire for sex.  We submit the avants have raging hard-ons as much as the “quietists” do. 

Silliman, getting all gloomy on the glut, counts 56 poets (that doesn’t seem that many to us) who are in both editions of Paul Hoover’s Norton Post-Modern anthology.

There were 47 poets removed from the second edition (Bill Corbett, Charles Bukowski, David Lehman, David Shapiro, Jack Kerouac, Jerome Rothenberg, James Laughlin, Robert Kelly, Russell Edson, Tom Clark, Barrett Watten, John Weiners) and 59 added (Bin Ramke, C.D. Wright, Cole Swensen, Don Revell, Fanny Howe, Forrest Gander, G.C. Waldrep, Noah Eli Gordon, Peter Gizzi, Susan Wheeler) so that’s  a grand total 162 “totally qualified names” of post-modern poets for Silliman, excluding about “500 Quietist Poets.”  Then Silliman provides a long list of poets—just off the top of his head—he thinks worthy of inclusion in the Norton post-modern anthology (Cid Corman, Curtis Faville, Dorothea Lasky, Joy Harjo, Juliana Spahr, Kent Johnson, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Patti Smith, Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Robin Blaser) and so we end up with roughly 300 Post-Modern and 500 Quietist “totally qualified names” for Ron Silliman.

Eight hundred (or a thousand poets) is a big book, but we don’t see how the numbers should be cause for despair.

After all, hasn’t there always been more poems published than we can read at our leisure? 

Further, shouldn’t we admit that there will always be this division: 1. Major Canon, 2. Minor Canon, 3. Anthology, 4. Critical Inventory, 5. All Published Poets, 6. All Poets?

Avants like Perloff and Silliman complaining of a “glut” are simply waging war on Anthology-ism and Quietism, while at the same time excusing their own “quietist” activity: ‘well, after all, there must be some kind of gleaning process! (psst! avants want to be famous, too).’

But let’s be clear.

1. Yes, there are many poems being published, but there is no poetry glut.

2. Critics are still responsible for assembling a canon—just like always.

3. The canon should be based on poems, not names or cliques.

4. Silliman’s “post-modern” poets are really not that different from the so-called “quietists.”  All poets write poems to be read, enjoyed and judged.

You’re welcome.

AROUND THE POETRY WEB PART 3

 
 
Was Frost a flarfist?  We’re guessing Silliman has no idea…
 
Ron Silliman is at it again.  When he takes a rare break from posting talking head videos on his blog and speaks directly to his audience, he’s a wonderful conduit for the no-nothing avant-garde—which has been quietly infesting our institutions of higher learning for the last 50 years.
 
It’s a deliberate championing of obscurity for obscurity’s sake, propelled by the gnawing envy of the unread on one hand and that intellectual faculty on the other that strives to make being unread a merit in itself.
 
It’s no accident that this “merit” grows in colleges—where students are the helpless audience (in need of a grade on a transcript) that bows to the playfully sweet will of the artsy-fartsy instructor who reduces learning to a kind of kindergarten “creativity.” This, more often than not, receives praise from the prisoner-student, the student happy to believe they are being “creative,” and needing that easy A.  Standards don’t matter because the “A” and the tuition paid get the job done.
 
The mistake Silliman and his tribe make is they assume the poetry of John Ashbery, for instance, is metadata: defined as data that provides information about other data.  This is a grave error, and it persists, in spite of, or because of, the error involved.
 
Memo to the Silliman-ites: The philosophy of Plato is metadata.  The poetry of Ashbery is not.
 
This distinction escapes them even while they beat the ground and raise a pretentious amount of dust—the merit of obscurity becoming its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
 
In his review of Richard Blanco’s inauguration poem, Silliman is forced out of his avant-garde cave for a moment and betrays that gnawing envy which grips his type when they are forced to grapple with anything that betokens democracy’s wide, daylight appeal. 
 
Silliman’s entire commentary is a sneering revilement of the whole inaugural poetry event.  Blanco’s poem itself is not given the courtesy of a look.  Blanco is the “gluten-free, lo-cal version” of a genuine avant-garde representative.  All inaugural poems, in Silliman’s eyes, are “flarf.”  Every selection of an inaugural poet, according to Silliman, involves crass geographical politics. JFK wasn’t a real intellectual. JFK’s term was “idyllic” because there was no Fox News.  Everyone carps about the choices, but none should be heeded.  It would be a mistake to think these remarks of Silliman’s are “political.” They are merely dyspeptic.  We present his remarks below and you can judge for yourself.
 
The only attempt at offering something we can actually chew is Silliman’s passing mention of John Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” from that poet’s 1962 book, The Tennis Court Oath. 
 
Silliman imagines Rush & O’Reilly close-reading Ashbery’s “Europe” had Ashbery been selected.  Really?  Who in the mainstream would bother close-reading Ashbery?  Silliman knows CNN as well as Fox News wouldn’t bother.  The gushing praise of “Europe” below insinuates—as all praise of Ashbery does—that metadata is at hand; it’s not. 
 
Europe is perhaps the most extreme example of Ashbery’s earlier, experimental work. He used extracts from “Beryl of the Biplane”, a 1917 children’s novel by Bernard LeQueux, for some of the text and mixed in a collage of images of phrases. Some would argue that this remarkable poem is an early example of the postmodern sensibility with its rejection of ‘meaning’ and a deliberate playfulness. Others would argue that it borrows heavily from a distinctly French tradition of juxtosposition and a strong interest in cinematic montage. Either way, reading it is a dizzying experience and Ashbery’s delight in the possibilities of language shines through.
 
The data is all Ashbery’s, even as he imports “extracts” from other works and brings us “collage” and “postmodern sensibility” and “French tradition,” all these terms brave attempts to manifest an air of metadata—which doesn’t really exist as such.  Plato’s philosophy, which influenced so profoundly the gigantic eras of Renaissance and Romantic explosions in art and science, can be defined as metadata: light streaming outward, “data providing information about other data;” Ashbery’s snippets of collage collect; they do not create.  The “information” in an Ashbery poem remains information in terms of the poem’s random nature.  There is no philosophy throwing light on other things; things connected to things in Asbhery are trivial connections; interesting, as of course sometimes trivia is, but never rising to the definition of metadata.
 
And we close with Silliman’s commentary:
 
The next time a poet is selected to perform a poem at a presidential inauguration on strictly literary grounds will be the first. The carping after Richard Blanco’s selection tells me more about those who complain than it does about Blanco. The same was true for those who bemoaned and belittled Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, James Dickey &, I dare say, Robert Frost. One might make the case that Frost was selected for his pre-eminence as an American icon of poetry, but one should keep in mind that JFK was a president who understood the value – in his idyllic pre-Fox News single term – of positioning himself as an intellectual, garnering a Pulitzer for a ghost-written volume of pop history & preferring in his own time to read James Bond novels. Ian Fleming may qualify as a heavyweight alongside whatever the Bushies read, but when Kennedy got together with Marilyn Monroe, it wasn’t the president who was the serious reader in the room. And there never has been a white male inaugural poet who wasn’t selected at least partly as a play on the regional card to boot: New England, Georgia, Arkansas.
 
I don’t know what anyone expects from an inaugural poem – the entire premise seems utterly cringe-worthy to me – but signaling a broader inclusiveness in the American project is hardly a bad idea unless you’re one of the old white guys for whose vote Mitt Romney was campaigning.  Since the resulting poems tend toward flarf, perhaps the ideal might be some carved-up-blend of K Silem Mohammad, Judy Grahn & Simon Ortiz. In a sense, Blanco may just be the gluten-free lo-cal version of that. It might be more fun to imagine the field day Rush & O’Reilly would have had close-reading “Europe” had John Ashbery been selected, but really is it any different? With the exception of LBJ, every Democratic president for the past half century has used the occasion to signal that poetry is inside the tent, just as every Republican has spoken far louder through its absence.

IS RON SILLIMAN SANE?

The history of poetry is never the history of the best poems, but rather the history of change in poetry.  —Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman took a break from his cutting and pasting video links on his no-comments-allowed blog, recently, to explain his love for Lyn Hejinian’s new book of poems.  The paean reached heights like this:

When, in 200 years, students are reading the poetry of Lyn Hejinian – as certainly they shall if humans are still about – those readers will undoubtedly begin with My Life (hopefully in its initial Burning Deck version, not because the earlier edition is “better,” but because that is the volume that changed the lives of so many other poets). Those who go on to read Hejinian’s finest work, however, will then turn to The Book of a Thousand Eyes, which Omnidawn brought out earlier this year.

Coming in at 333 pages, Eyes is a project on which Hejinian has been working for decades and the concentration of effort yields remarkable insights. Although 95% of the volume is in verse, Eyes is – alongside Tony Lopez’ forensic masterpiece Only More So– the deepest thinking over the role, form, history & future of the sentence I have encountered:

Perhaps my dear family can profit from my story
As it continues two pickpockets are denying a robust policeman’s suggestions that they are ‘suspiciously encumbered’
If encumbered, they insist, they would resemble kids with a lot to say
They would resemble unwanted sympathy

They would not be like holes in a hallway

This poem, pulled at random from page 196, demonstrates how large portions of this volume proceed – lines here function as sentence equivalents, there is a story & an expository voice that is cheerful & just a little supercilious, a tone that may invoke certain characters in novels, indeed that may invoke the novel itself. But the focus here lies not on sentences so much as on the character of the adjectival as a role of language & perception, and of the underlying problem of comparison. The term that announces this is not about the pickpocket’s nor even the policeman – “robust” as he may be – but the characterization of the listeners (plural) as “my dear family” (singular).

Every line/sentence here invokes at least one problematic comparison – the wavering focus between fictive listener and factual reader in the first line is just the opening ploy (unless of course one counts that disparity between singular noun family and multiple listeners). The characterization “dear” is in this sense the very opposite of what it appears to be: ceremonial rhetoric with little real content. The second line has at least 4 such moments of characterization, five if we begin to delve into the problem of naming characters pickpockets. First there is number, then the policeman identified as robust (meaning what? comically rotund? vigorously muscular?), then a denial that these pickpockets are encumbered (one of three key terms repeated in the four lines of the story), finally a representation of this encumbrance as suspiciously. Two terms in the sentence represent representation itself –denying, suggestions – both of which imply a gap between language & the thing itself.

At this moment, the entire tenor of the poem shifts as tho it were on an axis: the three final lines invoke (without quite being) anaphor, a sequence of not-quite-parallels that give the poem a strong formal flourish as it concludes. At one level there is the humor of the clash between the denial that they would resemble kids with a lot to say just as they begin to say a lot. At a second, there is a third characterization of representation – insist – followed by the trio of they would statements.

Each statement is about resemblance is some very odd way. Kids with a lot to say unwanted sympathy holes in a hallway. Except that, grammatically, formally, they do. It’s worth considering further what each of these complex representations invokes, holes in a hallway for example – are we talking doors and windows, pocking in acoustic tile, or something stranger even?

This description barely scratches all that is going on in this little poem. What if I were to base my analysis on the meaning of that very first verb, profit? An entire discourse concerning acquisition, ownership & value looms suddenly into view. And who precisely is that speaker? It hardly sounds like the Lyn Hejinian whom I’ve known for nearly 40 years.

Here the advantage of verse formatting starts to become evident: the use of lines here as sentence equivalents is hardly incidental to the argument of the poem. They foreground the disjunct angles of the three pseudo-parallels at the end, for example, and highlight the excessiveness of that second line.

And there are over 300 other pages at least as complex & condensed as this. Often, as in the term dear in the first line, Hejinian employs a single word to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming. Reading Eyes is a lot like my imagination of standing before the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Alps, which are simply large & majestic, Eyes is also deep. Vertigo is a distinct readerly risk and I recommend going through the book slowly. If you finish it in less than six months, you’re not giving it the attention it deserves. So many of these poems don’t start to yield their secrets until the second, third or fourth readings. I found myself going over facing pages over & over – it really seems to be the best way to proceed.

Language is eyes, as somebody once claimed (invoking not only Shakespeare, but a particular character, and not just any, but one in theatrical guise, one who dreams). Might I note that if one searches Google for “bottom Shakespeare Hejinian” (sans quotation marks), one will find 19,000 responses, just 400 less than a parallel search that switches out Hejinian’s name for he-who-whose-literary-executor-shall-not-be-named? In this sense, Hejinian’s project is part of that particular American tradition that begins with Moby-Dick.

For Silliman, the Hejinian poem “yields remarkable insights” into “language, perception & the underlying problem of comparison.” The “Hejinian employs a single word [dear] to invoke an entire vein of literature: the tales of the Arabian Nights, Quixote, the French novel, the Russian novel, language poetry. The scale here is vast, bordering on overwhelming.”

We simply don’t believe this, and are certain no one else does either, not even Silliman. There is nothing insightful or linguistically problematic about  a policeman (robust, or not) viewing “pickpockets” as “suspiciously encumbered.” The “gap between language and the thing itself” found in the words “denying” and “suggestions” is of no interest. Silliman’s straining after significance resembles a small time party host embarrassing himself with a big speech on small beer.  “The scale here is vast” could only embarrass the host. The whispering among the invited guests need not be repeated. We can only assume Silliman likes Hejinian—in a kind of grade school crush, maybe?

Avant-garde poetry, like modern art, can be summed up in one word: Abstract.

In this one word lies the pseudo-science of the whole enterprise—for whatever attempts to be aesthetically abstract ends up being  particular, not abstract, the word merely adding an air of mystery to what is otherwise mundane. Abstract art, which ostensibly explores color, presents, in reality, the colored.  It is art that is anything but abstract. Color which vanishes in non-abstract depiction reaches what might be called abstraction.  So-called “Abstract Art” is not abstract.  Modern art cannot escape the same law which applies to everything else: the abstract cannot exist in an aesthetic vacuum, cannot exist purely.

Silliman searches for qualitative traces of poetry in Hejinian’s poem—allowing the (universal) banality of the latter to confirm the (abstract) discovery of the former.

The object takes on a doubled interest seen through the pseudo-abstract lens.  Aesthetics, which, by its very nature, grounds the flight of the false, is vulnerable to this craven, pedagogical exploitation.

Listen how lapsed poet Rob Holland, after taking a U. Penn on-line ModPo course, thrills to the “abstract” of the new poetry:

I took the course on a whim after seeing it promoted somewhere online, having been out of academia for nearly 40 years, since I finished graduate school (in English) at Emory in 1975. The only previous online “education” I had had was work-related training videos and PowerPoint sequences, so my expectations were really low. What were they going to teach, and more importantly, how were they going to teach it? I got my first clue when I started following the instructor, University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis, on Twitter. He was talking about Gertrude Stein. Did Gertrude Stein write poetry? Apparently, yes. And what poetry it turned out to be!

This was the beginning of what became one of the greatest intellectual and emotional adventures of my life. That sounds a little overblown, I know. I have a great marriage, children, grandchildren in increasing numbers. I have a satisfying photography hobby, and run several websites on the side. But ModPo broke something open in me that had been locked tight in a chrysalis for decades. I wrote and published poetry in small magazines in the 1970s and ‘80s, and studied with Charles Wright and Donald Justice. Eventually, though, I fell silent, both from the pressures of family life and from my inability to imagine my way out of the traps of self-expression. I grew up in the era of Lowell and Plath; confession was a synonym for poetry. The Beats, whom I admired, were also at their core romantic, self-absorbed, and often sentimental. I tired of the artistic ego, and the felt conviction that in order to write poetry I had to manifest one. Besides, what I was writing was old-fashioned, traditional, out of step. So I stopped. For twenty-five years.

Then ModPo ambushed me. It was not, as I expected it might be, a rehash of the old chestnuts of modernism (Eliot, Stevens) or a revisit to the poets of my coming of age. Instead it pointed at the heart of radical experimentation and rebellion against the poet as sage, myth-maker, prophet, tortured soul. Its selection of poets was designed to show a way, multiple ways, of using language for art largely in the absence of direct self-expression. Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers? This probably sounds dry to someone who has not experienced ModPo, but the introduction of this simple idea broke down all the barriers that had built up in me, and gave me permission to not worry about poetic fashion, or even whether what I was writing was “good,” “bad,” or even poetry. Let somebody else decide that, it said. Just write.

Holland knows he sounds “overblown.”  It is just as “overblown” as Silliman’s praise of Hejinian.  What’s going on here?  Holland naively asks: “Painters had accomplished this with abstract styles, why not writers?”  These leaps into the “overblown” we suspect are due to an exaggeration of abstraction’s powers.  The avant-garde artist abstracts himself from reality (good and bad, beautiful and ugly). The “overblown” of Silliman and Holland is the natural result.

With MOMA’s new exhibit, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925,” it’s time we take a hard look at the concept which blocks our escape from curious Modernism each way we turn: the Abstract.

Of course no one “invented” abstraction in 1910, but since abstraction implies the scientific and the pedagogical, the avant-garde p.r. department will naturally run with the (misunderstood) term, ‘the abstract,’ in order to puff themselves up.

To abstract from any reality, there must be coherence and continuity present.  But not just in the universal sense; coherence and continuity must also exist in the found  example—abstraction must occur on both levels—specifically as well as universally, for how can consistency be perceived abstractly?  Things are necessary with which to be consistent.

With abstraction, then, the artist can steal reality’s coat but not reality’s soul. The specific will always betray itself as such, no matter how abstract we attempt to be. We wish to buy abstraction with specificity, but the deal always collapses; there is not sufficient material to purchase priceless abstraction: the abstraction can only be perceived in the exchange which fails and has to be called off, that is, in the specificity brought to the table in the failed attempt.  The abstract painter abstracts the essence of primary color with shapes of such, but the failure matches Faust’s dream of Helen.

Specificity cannot help but be beautiful or ugly, no matter what abstract property happens to be manifested through the shape of the specificity.

And the beautiful or ugly manifestation always occurs not through the specificity, but through the shape (limit) of the specificity—and here we see abstraction eclipsed not only by specificity, but by itself (the shape of the specificity).

We understand the philosophical catnip in the attempt to find consistency in what is not consistent—Silliman nobly seeking coherence and consistency in a poem by Hejinian or Ashbery; these kinds of poems are sufficiently abstract for some (“Just write,” don ‘t worry if it’s “good” or “bad”).

But our failure to be truly abstract (coherently and consistently) is not an abstract failure—it is real and final and complete; no partial victory is possible; the Ashbery poem succeeds only in our minds, minds that must give up, replicating the deal (specificity buying abstraction) which collapses—thus enjoying an Ashbery poem is only to unconsciously scratch an itch, to rub up against the sad truth that abstraction is fated to fail and is an utterly useless path, a dead-end, a suicidal errand, and thus to “enjoy an Ashbery poem,” the reader happily gives up, surrendering to specificity’s power; the Ashbery effect and the Ashbery process is a surrendering to the complete absence of abstraction.

The Negative Capability of Keats should not be confused with Ashbery’s freedom; the former limits the scope of poetry precisely because of the problem outlined above; Keats, and the Romantics generally, seek examples in nature which already possess ideal qualities.

The freedom of the Modernist, however, understood by its obsession with “the Abstract,” errs  in terminology, understanding, and  judgement, and the ultimate result is ugliness and unhappiness—which the avant-garde unfortunately accepts.  The beloved is lost to them.

RASULA AND CHASAR: HEAD BUTT OVER THE POETRY GLUT

BILLY COLLINS AND MARIE HOWE IN SWEET SIXTEEN SMACKDOWN!!We already have a glut of this ‘poetry glut’ nonsense and “Glut Reactions,”  a conversation between two author/professors, Jed Rasula and Mike Chasar in the Boston Review, highlights its nonsensical nature nicely. As in Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” the actual letter goes unread—the subject, poetry, isn’t touched, as Rasula and Chasar talk past each other in a verbose, socio-economic chest-beating act of who can sound more anti-capitalist.

Henry Gould, in the first comment to the on-line “Glut Reactions,” (The “Comments” are always the saving grace of these on-line articles: take note, Blog Harriet, Silliman.) asks: “What about aesthetics?”  You forgot about what’s important, fellas. The second comment (poet Bill Knott) blows Chasar and Rasula out of the water in its anti-capitalist paranoia, so that even a capitalist could applaud Knott’s audacity:

Too many poets?  Compared to what?  There’s too many marines, bomber pilots, priests, politicians, police, too many millionaires and billionaires. Po-Biz authorities who complain about too many poets [are making] subliminal petitions directed at the police-state officials, the FBI CIA National Guard et al, urging those agencies to raise their yearly quotas for the murder of poets.

Knott’s comment is quickly praised in a comment by aesthete Joan HoulihanKnott has stolen the show.

Now of course there is a poetry glut in the sense that we no longer have time to read all the poetry being written—it is no doubt the fact that more poetry was written yesterday than we should read in a lifetime—notice we say should, a word of more significance than the more factual can.

Humans are physically limited—what else is new? We can’t picnic on Jupiter and we can’t read every poem—so what? Neither can we blink our eyes and make Jupiter or capitalism or John Keats go away, no matter how much we don’t like these things.

John Keats is not only important because he’s good; he’s important because he’s a standard, and if a ‘poetry glut’ is a bad thing, it’s only because 1) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are crap next to Keats.

Some (Chasar, Rasula) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 2) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates are as good as Keats.

Still others (Burt, Perloff) are implying the ‘poetry glut’ is bad because 3) 50,000 Poetry MFA graduates make Keats look like crap.

These are the three aesthetic positions which clarify where one stands in the glut debate.

The loss of standard is acute. 

Look at how Chasar and Rasula can’t agree: Rasula (classic example of myopic-doctrinaire-politically-correct-lefty-who-can’t-get-laid) posits long works (Silliman, Waldman, Hejinian, Notley) as a standard. Chasar (who seems a little sexier) greets Rasula’s suggestion of a standard with a yawn in his face: “I don’t have a lot of patience for the types of long texts you mention [Chasar writes] so I’m not the best person to ask.” (Take your Hejinian long poem and shove it.)

Both share buzz-words—”capitalism’s floating signifier,” “anthology wars,” “Derrida,” “Nietzsche,” “commodity,” “escalating pattern of consumption,” “binaries,” “prizes,” “elitism,” “consideration v. use”—but they can’t do anything but quarrel in the murk of their 1970s, socio-political rhetoric. 

Rasula, at the end of the conversation:

What’s simmering under our exchange is the tension between poetry as something approachable, welcoming multitudes, and poetry in [Laura] Riding’s sense as “the most ambitious act of the mind,” which clearly invites charges of elitism.

But it’s not even a good fight. 

The “tension” Rasula refers to doesn’t really exist, because the two men are lost in the same Marxist muck. 

Even Marx himself didn’t hate capitalism as much as these guys.

Rasula’s Adorno-ism, “flagrant uselessness of artworks as a mote in the eye of global capitalism,” which is justification for Rasula’s elite “standard” of long, tedious (some would say unreadable) poems, is countered by Chasar’s “democractic” : “Many elements of popular or vernacular culture value the uselessness, apparent uselessness, or non-instrumentality of things.”

Both Rasula and Chasar are going to punish capitalism with the useless—just in different ways.  It’s all about subverting some old-fashioned idea of capitalism. Rasula wants to kill capitalism with long, boring poems that no one reads; Chasar thinks we can kill capitalism with Knock! Knock! jokes.

It’s the cartoonish totem of capitalism which these two (and so many professors like them) dance naked around which finally renders their exchange insignificant.

Rasula, like Seth Abrahmson, despite all his research, is blind to the real circumstances of the reactionary Modernists/New Critics creation of the Program Era.  He makes the occasional good point, but doesn’t connect it to anything; he just keeps peeling the Marxist onion.

Rasula and Chasar don’t get it: the “anthology wars” was a friendly competition between Ivy-Leaguers: Creeley and Ashbery were Harvard and Ginsberg was Columbia.  The real ‘War’ of the 20th century was Modernism against Everthing Else; it was Pound against Poe.

Chasar writes at one point: “Capitalism 1, Poetry 0.”

No.

Obsession with Capitalism 1, Chasar and Rasula 0.

ANOTHER SCARY SCARRIET POETRY HOT 100!

1. Natasha Trethewey   Beautiful! Black! Poet Laureate!
2. Billy Collins  Still sells…
3. David Lehman  Best American Poetry Series chugs along…
4. Stephen Burt  Harvard Cross-dresser takes Vendler’s mantle?
5. William Logan  Most entertaining poetry critic
6. Christian Wiman  He’s the “Poetry” man, he makes me feel alright…
7. Sharon Olds  Sock-in-the-gut, sexy frankness…
8. Tracy K. Smith Young Pulitzer winner
9. David Orr  The New York Times Poetry Critic…
10. Harold Bloom  Not sure on Naomi Wolfe; we know he abused Poe….
11. Matthew Dickman  OMG!  Is he really no. 11?
12. Anne Carson  Professor of Classics born in Toronto…
13. Dana Gioia  Famous essay still resonates & not a bad formalist poet…
14. Jorie Graham Judge not…
15. Rita Dove The Penguin Anthology really wasn’t that good…
16. Helen Vendler Almost 80!
17. John Ashbery Has he ever written a poem for no. 16?  Where’s the love?
18. David Ferry This translator is almost 90!
19. Kevin Young We hear he’s a leading poet of his generation…
20. Robert Pinsky The smartest man in the universe…
21. Cole Swenson  The Hybrid Queen, newly installed at Brown…
22. Marjorie Perloff  “Poetry on the Brink” praises cut-and-paste…
23. John Barr Financial leader of Poetry Foundation and poet worth reading?
24. Seamus Heaney  The inscrutable Irish mountain…
25. Geoffrey Hill  A mountain who is really a hill?
26. Robert Hass  West-coast cheerleader.
27. Stephen Dunn  Athlete, philosopher, poet
28. Laura Kassichke  Championed by Burt.
29. Mary Oliver  The John Clare of today…
30. Kay Ryan  Come on, she’s actually good…
31. Don Share  Riding “Poetry” gravy train…
32. W.S. Merwin  Noble, ecological, bull?
33. Dana Levin Do you know the way to Santa Fe?
34. Susan Wheeler Elliptical Poet.  At Princeton.
35. Tony Hoagland Has the racial controversy faded?
36. Mark Doty Sharon Olds’ little brother…
37. Frank Bidart The Poet as Greek Tragedian
38. Simon Armitage Tilda Swinton narrates his global warming doc
39. D.A. Powell He likes the weather in San Francisco…
40. Philip Levine Second generation Program Era poet
41. Ron Silliman Experimental to the bone, his blog is video central…
42. Mark Strand Plain-talking surrealist, studied painting with Josef Albers…
43. Dan Chiasson Influential poetry reviewer…
44. Al Filreis  On-line professor teaches modern poetry to thousands at once!
45. Paul Muldoon If you want your poem in the New Yorker, this is the guy…
46. Charles Bernstein Difficult, Inc.
47. Rae Armantrout  If John Cage wrote haiku?
48. Louise Gluck Bollingen Prize winner…
49. Ben Mazer 2012 Scarriet March Madness Champ, studied with Heaney, Ricks…
50. Carol Muske-Dukes California Laureate
51. Peter Riley His critical essay crushes the hybrid movement…
52. Lyn Hejinian California Language Poet…
53. Peter Gizzi 12 issues of O.blek made his name…
54. Franz Wright Cantankerous but blessed…
55. Nikky Finney 2011 National Book Award winner 
56. Garrison Keillor Good poems!
57. Camille Paglia  She’s baaaack!
58. Christian Bok Author of Canada’s best-selling poetry book
59. X.J. Kennedy Classy defender of rhyme…
60. Frederick Seidel Wears nice suits…
61. Henri Cole Poems “cannily wrought” –New Yorker
62. Thom Donovan Poetry is Jorie-Graham-like…
63. Marie Howe State Poet of New York

64. Michael Dickman The other twin…
65. Alice Oswald Withdrew from T.S. Eliot prize shortlist…
66. Sherman Alexie Poet/novelist/filmmaker…
67. J.D. McClatchy Anthologist and editor of Yale Review…
68. David Wagoner Edited Poetry Northwest until it went under…
69. Richard Wilbur A versifier’s dream…
70. Stephen Cramer His fifth book is called “Clangings.”
71. Galway Kinnell We scolded him on his poem in the New Yorker critical of Shelley…
72. Jim Behrle Gadfly of the BAP
73. Haruki Murakami The Weird Movement…
74. Tim Seibles Finalist for National Book Award in Poetry
75. Brenda Shaughnessy  Editor at Tin House…
76. Maurice Manning  The new Robert Penn Warren?
77. Eileen Myles We met her on the now-dead Comments feature of Blog Harriet
78. Heather McHugh Studied with Robert Lowell; translator.
79. Juliana Spahr Poetry and sit-ins
80. Alicia Ostriker Poetry makes feminist things happen…
81. William Childress His ‘Is Free Verse Killing Poetry?’ caused a stir…
82. Patricia Smith Legendary Slam Poet…
83. James Tate The Heart-felt Zany Iowa School…
84. Barrett Watten Language Poet Theorist.
85. Elizabeth Alexander Obama’s inaugural poet.
86. Alan Cordle Foetry changed poetry forever.
87. Dean Young Heart transplanted, we wish him the best…
88. Amy Beeder “You’ll never feel full”
89. Valzhyna Mort Franz Wright translated her from the Belarusian…
90. Mary Jo Salter Studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard…
91. Seth Abramson Lawyer/poet who researches MFA programs and writes cheery reviews…
92. Amy Catanzano “My aim is to become incomprehensible to the machines.”
93. Cate Marvin  VIDA co-founder and co-director
94. Jay Wright First African-American to win the Bollingen Prize (2005)
95. Albert Jack His “Dreadful Demise Of Edgar Allan Poe” builds on Scarriet’s research: Poe’s cousin may be guilty…
96. Mary Ruefle “I remember, I remember”
97. John Gallaher Selfless poet/songwriter/teacher/blogger
98. Philip Nikolayev From Fulcrum to Battersea…
99. Marcus Bales Democratic Activist and Verse Poet
100. Joe Green And Hilarity Ensued…

POETRY AND PARTISAN ZEALOTRY

Should the poet ‘take positions?’ We say, invariably not, for partisanship always implies progress or improvement and such a position can never be timeless—since improvements always involve present problems. You don’t fix a leak in the roof with philosophy, symbolism, or beauty, and to write a poem out of some political position is just like assuming this.

The other problem with partisan behavior is that it forces us to adhere to a laundry list of associations with whatever we happen to support. For instance, if you support this good, it inevitably means you support, through a network of connections, that evil–and eventually this pins you down into a position fraught with embarrassment, and to be intellectually embarrassed is the worse thing that can happen to a thinker or an artist; it mars the artist’s contemplative solitude, it stalks with social frenzy the serenity the poet needs.  The poet is naturally irritable, because he is more sensitive than others; but to be defensive in the face of social embarrassment undermines the irritable poet’s inspiration and takes the naturally private poet wholly out of himself.

Do not, then, stoop to politics if you wish to make art.  Do not be political. Politics will not fix the leak or write the poem—it will hinder fixing the roof and writing the poem, because whatever aims to triumph in the realm of advice (the default rhetorical purpose of political discourse) hinders the artist (who is, if art is properly understood, not an advice-giver). 

You must never attempt to triumph; the muse will have nothing to do with the artist who makes an attempt to win her.  The muse must already be yours. 

The artist must be victorious before the game even begins; the great artist sees the game entirely before it starts; the poetic work is simply copying out the pre-seen result.  There must be no struggle, no harangue, no attempt to convince, no argument—for then the artist will be no artist at all, but a mere Emerson, a mere sermonizer.  The art must flash upon the consciousness like a piece of music, the argument hidden in the folds of the exquisite notes. 

If the argument is key, leave it for a sermon—as I am doing now.

Oh, and even better than the sermon is the dialogue.  Allow comments on your blog. 

Do not be like Poetry’s Blog Harriet or the blogger Ron Silliman.

THE GRANDE SCHOOL OF POETRY

Ben Mazer—the new Byronism of the Grande school?

The disgrace of seeming pre-Modern is a stigma created by the Modernists themselves, the small clique which dominated poetry for most of the 20th century.

That was done then, therefore we can’t do that now is the formula, and, despite the allure of originality, it’s a dangerous formula—for the self-evident reason that society should never stigmatize so generally.

If we can reject something as immense as the past, then anything or anyone can, and will, be rejected, for just about any reason at all.

We cannot assume that a fanatical formula (yes, “Make it new,” I’m talking to you) will be tempered by caveats: ‘we really mean a blend of the old and the new!’  As human history has witnessed, human loss of reason on a mass scale can occur quickly and dangerously.

Obviously, we cannot dispense with the new in the name of the old, either.  The evils of political fundamentalism crushing the new is a danger, as well; but the point is that we are intolerant if we don’t realize intolerance uses any excuse—the new kills as easily as the old kills.  The old and new are both useful.

In poetry and art, however, the normal process has become: We don’t need this.  Let’s jettison that.  It might be rhyme, narrative, the painterly, the accessible, the moral, whatever it is; what the bourgeois want, the radical theorist inevitably decides we don’t need.  For 200 years we have witnessed the radical impulse march forward through time in an orgy of self-justification, as one limited style continually replaces another.  Re-reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe reminds one how silly this art-march can be.

Since poetry and art are so important in shaping the sensibilities of people in all walks of life: school teachers, professors, higher ed administrators, journalists, etc, this impulse does have universal importance.

It is refreshing then, to witness recently in poetry a new grande style emerging, one that wisely embraces rather than superficially jettisons.

The grande school kicks up dirt here at Scarriet.  The literary ambition embodied here is not merely lusty and wide, mocking the twaddle of pin-headed theorists who inhabit self-serving cliques of  fussy and narrow tracks of inquiry, but also holds forth in rigorous terms of good, basic common sense that rejects snap political judgments, pretense, and superfluity.

No school can escape a drawback or two; it could be said the grande school perhaps suffers from egomania.  Say what you will about Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, they are not egomaniacs.  Graham no doubt had real affection for the poets she cheated for when she was a poetry contest judge; Silliman no doubt has real affection for his woolly avant ideals and what he feels are their political virtues.

The grande school celebrates Byronic individualism. The grande school is not afraid of the word, genius.  The grande school is not afraid of embracing other arts, interests and views which may be innocently anti-poetry.  The grande school is not afraid of rebuking poetry in its own name. The grande school knows there can be a sweet Socratic method in a madness.  The grande school is not afraid of genius when it takes the form of madness.  The grande school is not afraid of Jorie Graham or Ron Silliman, nor do they fear Ron Silliman or Jorie Graham’s several hundred admirers.

Perhaps the most successful poet writing today in the manner of the grande school is Ben Mazer, recent winner of Scarriet’s March Madness contest.  The following is from part 32 of his long poem, “The King.”  The yearning, self-conscious wish for poetry to be more like the pictorial arts is a mad wish, perhaps, but it is a sign of genius to wish to escape a genre within that genre itself in a wholly child-like and uncomplicated way.  The failure is a rousing success; only melancholy genius dares embrace failure so vehemently and earnestly; this melancholy desperation shines a helpful light.

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

In this passage by Mazer we find the sensibility, the attitude and the mind of the grande school wonderfully documented.  It is wishful and hopeful and expansive, and appears to transcend the old Modern order, so often doomed by its own intricacy. Mazer questions his own art—runs (and this part is part of a longer poem) towards the limits of his craft—while aspiring to the infinite.  The poem manages to achieve a “photographic instant” as it dispenses with discursiveness and makes manifest one idea, reinforced by the fact that Mazer’s poem is nothing like a painting. A painting is not limited by a poem’s unwinding, but can flash upon us in an instant.  There is a secret knowing humor, then, in Mazer’s plea to “words”; a Byronic, satiric jollity inevitably combines with a Byronic melancholy in Mazer’s work.

Is this the new poetry?  Is Mazer the first real poet of the 21st century?

In Mazer’s poetry we see the fissure of modernism/post-modernism’s facade—the self-conscious glibness finally about to burst before a force of uncanny weight of sublime and timeless aspiration. Mazer is not a poet who longs; Mazer is a poet who makes poetry long.

The question must always be: what material thing can we do?

Two implicit questions emerge after reading the poetry of Mazer quoted above:

1. Is poetry the explaining of a painting that doesn’t exist?

2. Is painting the picture of a poem that hasn’t been written?

Poetry and painting no longer love each other.  In the 19th century, they were in love with each other.

‘The medium is the message’ signals a philosophy which signals the present gulf between them.  Is the imagination really confined to its ‘medium?’

Abstract painting, with its indulgence of flatness and color, turns its back on poetry—since no poem is depicted by colored abstraction.

Missing her illustrative twin, poetry desperately assumes various roles to make up for the loss, going abstract herself with surface linguistic effects that depict nothing a painter would be inspired by; or, going in the opposite direction, poetry attempts imagery, story and jokes in such a manner that she over-reaches, forgets who she is, slides into inferior prose, into bad taste, into over-description, into obscurity.

The painter, in turn, flounders in the machinery and mechanics of the overtly conceptual.

Poets and painters, knowing they are different types of artists, are hardly aware of the timeless importance each share with each; poetry and painting do not even understand that they are out of balance with each other, while sensual film and moral novels breed, producing all the children—the great majority brats without beauty or taste.

Mazer’s poem confronts the gulf between poetry and painting, confronts the pre-Modern stigma found in the modern formula: ‘the medium is the message,’ a formula which traps us inside of itself today.  If  ‘the truth’ of this formula traps us, this is still no reason why we shouldn’t attempt to escape from it, and Mazer seems to understand this, as only a genius can.

Nietzsche, just before he went mad, wrote that he found in Horace—an author neglected by the Moderns—what Mazer ponders in his passage from “The King”:

To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word — as sound, as place, as concept — pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs — all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular — mere sentimental blather.

We will be the first to admit that these are unsettled questions—Whither poetry? Whither painting? Whither Horace? Whither Modernism? Whither Mazer? Will poetry and painting inspire each other again?

But we like what’s shaking with the grande school.

RON SILLIMAN TAKES ON GARY SOTO IN WEST BRACKET FIRST ROUND BATTLE

A younger Gary Soto, long before his 2012 March Madness contest with Silliman

Rita Dove chose one of Ron Silliman’s poems, “Albany,” for her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.  Silliman is a crazy white poet who runs a blog—which used to have reader comments but now no longer allows them.  Gary Soto is Mexican.  He has three poems in Dove’s anthology, Silliman, just the one.

Time destroys us: we get old and die.  Time reveals truth: effects spring from prior causes.  Poetry belongs to time: it is a temporal art, and its temporality belongs to the sober truth of time the destroyer: the deception, the life, the poem must end.

The question is: does it just end, or does it end? 

This might be the chief difference between the so-called “quietist school” (old-fashioned poetry, in Silliman’s mind) and whatever Silliman deems “new.” 

Quietist poetry embraces temporality and always has the end in mind.  The Silliman poem below has no temporality; it just ends; Silliman is afraid to look into the truth of things, the life of things, the death of things, the ending of things—and why shouldn’t he be afraid of the death of things?  We are all afraid of this; even Shelley, who wrote “all that endures is mutability,” but poets like Silliman are so afraid they ignore the role of poetry itself, which is to not be afraid.  This is why poetry scares so many people; poetry is braver than we are. The poet himself is sometimes so afraid, that his poems are afraid, too, and they flee temporality and run to the safey of being round objects without end—which is precisely what Silliman’s poem is:

ALBANY

for Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

Gary Soto, like Silliman, writes of the past, and he does it this way:

ORANGES

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
About.

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Poetry is a recitation of a memory—is this what poetry, finally is?  Memories do not live in our minds in a strictly linear way, especially as we tend to forget the details—memories revolve around a theme, and go forwards and backwards in our minds.  Memories can also be a search for a theme—and again, time can get all mixed up.

But the poem, materially, must march forward—both in content and form.  This is the poem’s face, and this fact can’t be faked with excuses such as: my memories of this event are all scrambled up, so why shouldn’t my poem be scrambled up? 

This is not to say that just because a poem proceeds in one direction that it will be a good poem.  But this is the minimum of what it has to do.

The poem can be scrambled, but then your poem will not have a face.

A person does not have to have a face.  But we would prefer one.

Soto 81, Silliman 60

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.

CRITICISM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN POETRY

Most softies can’t get their heads around the idea that criticism is more important than poetry—but it’s a no-brainer: critical fervor can stimulate the writing of great poetry itself, whereas the wishy-washy mind that fears, or hates, or is afraid of, criticism will never produce great poetry. 

The trouble with most attempts at criticism is that it’s half-hearted; it doesn’t rise to that fervor of interest and curiosity that grows wings, it remains at the level of blurbing, or that sort of reviewing which recites general facts.

Good judgement requires observation, not fairness; it requires those leaps that changes the look of all the facts.  And  finally, judgement doesn’t have to be persuasive; persuasiveness is for love and the law courts; the good critic should be blunt, above all. 

The greatest poets have always excelled at criticism; the reader realizes this truth when reading side-by-side the prose and poetry of an Eliot or a Shelley; if Shakespeare is anything, he is a ferocious critic—look at those judgements in his plays and sonnets: harsh, pointed, weighty, insistent, hectoring, insane, pushy, ridiculing, weeping, bellowing, pleading, all arrayed in armies marching in the armor of intense education, and winding up vocalized in the most delicate poetry.  Which drives that Shakespeare-engine, do you think?  The windy delicacy or the  swelling judgement?   And what of Dante?  Is this a harsh, critical mind, or what?

The ambitious poet runs from criticism—in vain.

But don’t get big heads, Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom.  No poetry from you only proves your critical lack.  Yours is the example in reverse; unable to provide poetry yourself, it is no wonder your judgements are so erratic and untrustworthy—overrating Crane, Stevens and Ashbery, turning Shakespeare into a dull feast, belittling titans like Poe; ignoring past greatness to pump minor moderns.  Vendler, your overrating of Stevens will be your doom; in the long run it will destroy your reputation, and you will be forgotten.  You studied so intensely Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and yet found nothing new, only tossing more wood on the old flames of the “dark lady” and “young man” tale. 

There are two choices: make a judgement or defer judgement—for a little while.  The Silliman side, the dark side of the bright, public, Vendler moon, flees from the critic’s responsibility by finding “communities” to appreciate.  But in darkness judgement is made the same as in the light; Silliman is as tyrannical as any speaking critic, as any William Logan, for all must make judgements, and do, even in silence, and silence can be the loudest judgement of all.

Judgements are made all the time, in placing a comma or choosing a word; judgements are made in the minutest actions, in all our helpless passivity and neutrality we still judge; all of us are judgemental all the time, whether we want to be, or not.   The critical wound touches us all.  

Two major types attempt to flee  judgement: the ‘executive’ and the ‘nice chap.’  The executive (the Harold Bloom) makes grand judgements, ranking and rating, without thinking things all the way through, and the nice chap (the Silliman), attempts to defer judgement indefinitely.  The executive omits the details, while the nice chap tends to see details only.  Edgar Poe was a critic who always paid attention to small issues (the “carping grammarian,” as he was called)—which inevitably makes the executive types nervous.  But Poe was an American critic who knew when to make the large, historical judgement, too—the sorts of judgement which disconcerts the nice chap. (Big answers! Across time! Gulp!)  But the critic always needs to do both: care about the little things and make the sweeping judgments.  To quote the Phaedrus, we ask from the critic two things, first, “the comprehension of scattered particulars in one idea” and second, “division into species…”

But why does there have to be all this judgement in poetry?  Why does it matter, if poetry is not 1) life and death and 2) it’s finally a matter of private creativity?

Here’s why. Human beings are the only animals that care for things that don’t matter; caring even when it doesn’t matter is why there is poetry, (and also why there is criticism), and also why there are many other things that make life worth living, even as it sometimes confuses us. 

Animals only care when it matters—or when they think it matters.   A cat cleans itself so its prey can’t smell it, yet an indoor cat who never catches prey still grooms itself and keeps itself odorless and clean. The indoor cat in this case thinks what it does matters—even though it doesn’t.  But we, as the cat’s owner, appreciate its cleanliness, anyway. 

There are advantages to caring—even when it does not matter, or does not seem to matter.  Caring does matter, in ways we don’t always understand.  And as Kant reminded us, judging and understanding are not the same thing; understanding is a blessed state; judging is something we simply all do, all the time.  Does that look/sound right?  Why not?

The poet judges just as much as the critic does, and the good poet is more judgemental than the bad critic.

RON SILLIMAN: CRITICAL COWARDICE.

A billion poems!  A million communities!  Help!

Ron Silliman actually spoke on his blog.

We were beginning to think linking videos was all he cared to do now.

But, in his December 21, 2011 end-of-the-year-reflection post, what the hell is Ron Silliman talking about?

The facts Silliman gives us are simple:

He’s in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry (but his friend Rae Armantrout is not) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked him to pick the best poetry books of 2011.

Great.

He’s blown away by the number of works in English (from around the world) that are published each year, and how much that number has grown in the last half-century, and he points how much stress this puts on gate-keepers and critcs.

Fine.

But then Silliman enters the crackpot zone:

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

The whole premise of whittling down a “best of” list into ten or 50 or even the 175 names posed by Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is that there is some transcendent single point-of-view from which the dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that engage with poetry can be represented by some single shared set of values. That is simply not true. It is insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest, for example, that Robert Lowell represents some pinnacle of literary value while Langston Hughes does not. But it is equally insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest that Hughes represents such a pinnacle & that Lowell does not. Any professor or critic who might argue either of those positions would be manifestly guilty of malpractice and intellectual fraud. At best.

The truth is that each represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community. One might argue about the nature of these communities, their size, their relative histories and power – Lowell doesn’t represent the 1% any more than Hughes does the 99 – but it is only when viewed through the eyes of their community that we can actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface. And it is only when they are put into the far larger complex of conflicting communities that is the United States – let alone the English language – that we can begin to discover what is truly revelatory about all kinds of verse: the ways they lead us right back to real communities.

It’s ironic that Silliman calls both the Vendler and the Dove camps “insane”—because compared to them, Silliman is more so.

According to Silliman, “the rise of the world wide web” erases “national boundaries” yet expands “community boundaries.”

Silliman wants us to believe that because there is an ever-growing number of people speaking English to each other, we are separated from each other more than ever.

We all speak English in a global conversation, and this global conversation, which has dissolved national borders, this mighty homogeneity thanks to the world wide web, has produced an English conversation in which, poetically, no one can talk to each other, because this poet sitting in a Cincinnatti Starbucks with his Mac is gay and that poet sitting in a New York subway with his PC is not.

Silliman’s wants there be no heterogeneity within his various “communities,” and, at the same time complete heterogeneity within the English-speaking world at-large.

Silliman has not figured out how to apply homogeneity and heterogeneity to the world, and on what scale, and to what purpose, and yet he does so, willy-nilly, and, as he fails to see the miserable arrogance of his agenda, he is certain that any attempt to unite poetry by using any sort of judgment whatsoever is completely tainted by “racism” and “insanity.”  This from a guy who says of Robert Lowell and Langston Hughes:  “only when viewed through the eyes of their community [can we] actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface.”  Are you kidding me?  

No wonder Silliman asserts the powerlessness and uselessness of critics before the all-mighty mass of “communities.” 

He has no critical insight himself.  

This is why poetry has become a vain and trivial exercise.   Silliman’s cowardice before the rock-hard existence of Robert Lowell can be summed up thusly: Robert Lowell can only be appreciated by Robert Lowell’s “community,” hence we as critics must defer to Robert Lowell’s “community”—no matter if universality suffer as a result.  The critic is helpless before the “community” of Robert Lowell.  Robert Lowell’s “community” is what counts, not his poems.

Plato’s “Republic,” in which each part is based on its use to the greater whole, is replaced by Silliman’s tribe-war, in which any concept of the “greater good” is suspect, and Silliman believes in his model because 1) There’s just too much to read and 2) The positions of Vendler and Dove are racist, and any attempt to reconcile the positions of Vendler and Dove with any type of Criticism is automatically even more racist.

To make it even clearer: when reading poetry, the unique requires the universal, and Silliman doesn’t seem to understand that one cannot find the universal in a tribe or a country or a community.  The universal is just that: universal.

Think about this: two major poetry camps in the U.S. in the form of two distinguished authors, Rita Dove and Helen Vendler, are calling each other racist, and Ron Silliman, the ‘outsider’ third pole in the contemporary American poetry equation (yet included in Dove’s 20th century anthology) comes upon their poetry anthology quarrel and says categorically that both their positions are racist.   

Is this what happens in a highbrow art world ruled by “communities?”

We understand the local scenester wants to carve out a poetic identity and when they do, it’s laudable, for it gives poetry a local habitation and a name: the San Francisco scene, or the Detroit scene.  But these “scenes” are finally illusionary.  They have nothing to do with the place, for the “scenesters” themselves are often from other places, and the actual influences on the poetry have nothing to do with the locals—in place or time.  Critics can sniff out the local coffee shops or the local flora, but the anthropology of poetry only takes one so far.  And what happens when the writing doesn’t match “the community?”  Does that make the writing invalid?  

The New Critics focus on the poem, the Romantics, on the poet, and these both have advantages, for reasons too numerous to name; but what is this obsession with “community” all about?  It’s petty, trivial, and stupid, finally; it presupposes a whole host of things in relation to the poetry which simply don’t exist.  

Silliman’s approach to poetry is birdwatching with no birds.

GET IN LINE

I Win!

I don’t get Tomas Transtromer.  Perhaps it’s the language barrier.  Robert Bly, the translator, will get a small boost from Transtromer’s Nobel.  But I imagine it will be very small, and even resented.  Those stark, miserable poems!  Forced to read them, because of critical hearsay, and every line more depressing than the last!

But reputations and awards are far less interesting to us than the following:

In a new collections of essays, Poets On the Line, Gabriel Gudding has a potent essay touching on a theme Scarriet has enjoyed stirring up.  To quote Mr. Gudding:

The line is not a feature of poetry. The line is basically a disciplinary fiction, a fantasy of technique… The history of the line, as something ostensibly worth making distinctions about, is the history of poetry both as a fetishized cultural commodity and, since the modernist moment, as part of a broader system of belief that has helped lead to the disenchantment of everyday cultural life… So the line is, in one sense, a gendered and fascist reliquary containing the careers of Pound, Eliot, Olson, William Logan, LangPo, and the dismal tantrums of the neoformalists—groups and personalities defined by the genre of conviction and pronouncement.

The line is a vomito-aesthetic concrescence of a larger, mystifying ideology known both as “official art” and its false rival “avant-garde art” whose purposes are both to entrench administrative culture…Basically, we live in a time in which poetry has to resist itself and its own unsustainable habits in favor of facing reality. The line is one such conceptual habit; an iterative fraud. Renounce it quickly.

…And let’s maybe instead spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.

The above has been stripped of most of its rant-like elements, and here it resonates with the commonest commonsense—similar to Plato, it could be Wordsworth.

As a defender of quantity in poetry, we agree with Gudding that the line is overrated, not for Gudding’s more rant-like reasons, but because the line, from the point of view of quantity, is the chief poetic flag of Modernist and Avant pretenders.  Rhythm, and rhythm’s manifestation in stanza is more critical to the poetry of quantity than the line.  The line allows modernist and avant poets to have their cake and eat it—to revel in poetry’s historic accomplishments, while at the same time desecrating the art in the fashionable whirl of the William Carlos Williams’ Snip Snip Shop.

It is healthy to renew an art form from time to time, to climb from the pedant’s cave and get outdoors, and take a look around, and so the following is really not so naive as it sounds: “spend that time and energy in sacralizing our relationships to one another, to our Selves, to other animals, to plants, to sunlight, to rivers, to lakes, to soil, to compost, to seas, to air.”

The Ron Sillimans of the world (shall we call them Sillimites?) speeding through airports to the next conference, in search of their avant-garde holy grail among the wine-sipping urbane, will be the first to gag at Gudding’s suggestion.  Return to nature?  And give up my wordy pretensions?  Outrageous!  The intellectual atmosphere of the Sillimite, the gyrating, avant insanity which allows Jorie Graham to be appointed to a major Chair in Letters at Harvard, is steeped in the mustiness of the pedant’s cave, where antique songs are daily beaten and tortured by the line, and its henchman, the line-break.

Quantity is an amazing thing.  “Art is measurement,” Plato said, and the Renaissance, re-discovering Plato, made first-hand experience of quantity more important than authority and hearsay; science has flourished ever since. Perspective is the crucial element in painting, and connects it to astronomy—so thought da Vinci, and that other titan of the Renaissance, Shakespeare, agreed,  writing in his Sonnets: “Perspective it is best painter’s art.” Shakespeare proved prophet in those poems, as Time is stretched by generations of his readers.

In the Science of Poetry, elucidated by Poe’s Rationale of Verse, the spondee was the first foot, and its 1:1 ratio, the first ratio—as the One divides in the Big Bang of scientific creation.  A second division—into thirds, this time, instead of halves—brings us the 2:1  ratio, the ratio of the iamb and trochee, vital rhythms in the Metric Evolution in the Book of Quantity.

Without rhythm, without quantity, there is no line worth the name.  There is only the sentence, or the phrase; but this is grammar, and not poetry.

This is not to say that grammar is not vital, (“Good grammar is poetry” I sometimes say) but it is fascinating to see how my English Composition students, who may struggle with grammar and with scholarly prose, advance significantly in terms of expressiveness, mental leaps, feeling, vigor, imagination, confidence, and syntax, upon being asked to put their thoughts in a sonnet.

It is with a feeling bordering on disgust, then, that we read the following from a Sillimite professor, John Gallaher:

I’m mildly allergic to FORM and FORMAL ISSUES in poetry, so whenever I find myself reading something about craft, the formal, mechanical-sounding elements of art-making, I get all itchy. It doesn’t bother me as much as it gives me the feeling I’m on the couch in my neighbor’s house (whom I don’t know well) watching slides of their family reunions from the 1980s. In short, I’m equal parts bored and anxious.

Will I ever get out of here? Should I feign an illness?

I don’t place much value in craft issues as they’re usually presented. Instead, I place value upon the performative aspects of the art act. What I mean is I’m more inclined to the guitar solos of Neil Young than I am the guitar solos of Eddie Van Halen, though I don’t feel the need to disparage Eddie van Halen about it. I just want out of the slide show.

As Neil Young says it:

“’At a certain point, trained, accomplished musicians hit the wall. They don’t go there very often, they don’t have the tools to go through the wall, because it’s the end of notes. It’s the other side, where there’s only tone. . . . When you go through the wall, the music takes on that kind of atmosphere, and it doesn’t translate the way other music translates. When you get to the other side, you can’t go back. I don’t know too many musicians who try to go through the wall.  I love to go through the wall.”

Or maybe as John Ashbery says it:

“Poetry is mostly hunches.”

Some mix of the two, perhaps, sums up my attitude toward craft. I value improvisational openness with slight returns. I’m fascinated by the detours. Yes, there’s craft in that too, but it’s not what I would call “hard craft.” Instead, I’d name it “Managed Improvisation.”

Thelonious Monk is a great example. In poetry, Lyn Hejinian’s  My Life is a good example. Yes, it’s also a formal exercise, but the form here I would call performative rather than given. Perhaps I’m hedging. I can live with that. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is another good example. Or the poetry of John Ashbery. Dean Young talks along these lines (or within the world of these lines) as well in his excellent book The Art of Recklessness.

I was trying to get to this point in my essay in Poets On the Line, edited by Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee. It’s a wonderful, diverse collection, by the way. I didn’t quite get there, then, but that’s OK too, as there’s still plenty of time in the world for such things.

I like Neil Young, but the idea that he’s going through a wall which Chopin, for instance, cannot penetrate, is the height of pretence.  Young’s trope, cited by Gallaher, is a classic example of the game lesser lights play to make themselves feel better.  Trot out Thelonious Monk. Quote Ashbery: “Poetry is mostly hunches.”   Hunches?  This is hearsay, not quantity.

Gallaher quoted Gudding on his blog because the two have essays in the Rosko and Vander Zee collection.  I’m glad he did, because it gave us an opportunity to raise a little more hell.

SILLIMAN’S LAMENT

The following, “Silliman’s Lament,” is a bit of inspired madness by one of the most interesting scribes living—Marcus Bales:

For Ron Silliman, who posted on FB how far he’d driven. 

I’m a poet and critic, a serious man –
The School of Quietude’s my famous phrase –
From right around the Chatterley ban
Til now I’ve followed my poetry plan:
To argue that poetry ought not scan.
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

There isn’t a city where I won’t go –
My revolution important and potent as Che’s –
To see that no more arts are beau
So quietudeness doesn’t grow,
And maybe make a little dough:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

I also write my famous blog
Where only I may speak, but all may gaze,
No meter, only prose’s slog
Should leave the po-biz crowd agog
And that’s the lang-po creed I flog:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

With postmodernism’s new malaise –
Not just wrong, but wrong in the wrong maze –
I must redouble my drive to raze
Your art so our art may amaze
As all that’s left us after the blaze.
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

Envoi

Armantrout! Mix your final muddle
Uninspired enough for me to praise!
Then join me in a pure Platonic cuddle:
I’ve driven for 1200 miles in the last three days.

WHY THE AVANT-GARDE IS BAD FOR POETRY

Plato: Poetry’s greatest enemy—or greatest friend?

Poetry as an art is dead, and the poets can’t even throw it a good funeral.  Maybe that’s because there are so many poets making half-hearted attempts to convince themselves poetry is still alive.  MFA programs, even as they make a profit, haven’t given up the desperate hope; after all, don’t naive MFA students keep throwing their hard-earned money, with wishes of poetry-stardom, into the abyss?

Plato was more poetic in killing poetry than the present poetic tribe is in advocating for her:

When anyone of these pantomimic gentlemen, clever at imitating everything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. So when we have annointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city. For we mean to employ for our souls’ health the rougher and severer poet or story-teller of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed at first when we began the education of our soldiers.  BOOK III Republic

The modern, liberal, freedom-loving person rejects this typical passage at once. The censorship, the “law,” the “State,” the “soldiers” fill us with horror.  Plato is poison to our ears. 

But we reject this wise philosopher at our peril.

Poetry is only part of it—yet poetry, not law, or the State, is finally the issue.  Plato is the least fanatic, the most common-sense, philosopher of all.  He is always described as the philosopher of abstract Ideas. Quite the contrary.  He is the philosopher of the Real.  We ought to fear our own minds more than Plato’s philosophy. 

First, let us look at our own circumstances in the U.S. at present—considered by many to be the most modern, liberal, and freedom-loving State on the face of the earth.  Is America not a “State,” with “laws” and “soldiers?” Do we not censor behavior and speech, for children, and even for adults, in the workplace, and in various public spheres, ubiquitously? And are not these carefully considered laws deemed in large part to be good?

Why then, do we fear Socrates’ reasoning?

And secondly, Plato and Socrates were not politicians or tyrants actually imposing laws on anyone—they were poetical planners speculating poetically on blueprints for a poetical nation.  Plato asked that poetry be good. Don’t we want the good? Shouldn’t we strive, at least in our theoretical planning stage, to make all things virtuous?

Finally, which makes more sense: Plato’s wish to couple the words, “poetry” and “good” as part of a plan to produce a “good state,” or: the Modernist host of rebel angels who cry, We shall never permit you to force anyone’s notion of ‘the good’ into proximity with ‘poetry!’ with this de-coupling as the essence of a free State: separating ‘good’ from ‘poetry’ the best protection against all narrow-minded tryannies?

In the name of freedom, the Modernist poets hate the good, hate the common-sense marriage of poetry and the good, and in all this freedom which hates the good, poetry, as it presently exists, has come to be despised.

This is no matter of mere taste.  Material defect and excess define avant-garde poetry—whether it’s trivial lyrics too small to have an impact, or tedious epics no one reads.  Was Plato silent on the technical substance of aesthetics, poetry and art?  And was he really that censorious on the whole question of art?   The answer to both quesitons is: no.  Plato is the commonsense philosopher:

Let us begin by considering the whole nature of excess and defect…

…we must suppose that the great and small exist and are discerned in both these ways, and not, as we were saying before, only relatively to one another, but there must also be another comparison to them with the mean or ideal standards…

…if we assume the greater to exist only in relation to the less…would not this doctrine be the ruin of all the arts and their creations; would not the art of the Statesman and the aforesaid art of weaving disappear? For all these arts are on the watch against excess and defect, not as unrealities, but as real evils, which occasion a difficulty in action; and the excellence of beauty of every work of art is due to this observance of measure.

…the very existence of the arts must be held to depend on the possibility of measuring more or less, not only with one another, but also with a view to the attainment of the mean, seems to afford a grand support and satisfactory proof of the docrtine which we are maintaining; for if there are arts, there is a standard of measure, and if there is a standard of measure, there are arts; but if either is wanting there is neither.  283-285, Statesman

…the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales…

…can you imagine that God will be willing to lie, whether in word or deed, or to put forth a phantom of himself?

…musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul…

…neither we nor our guardians, whom we have to educate, can ever become musical until we and they know the essential forms, in all their combinations, and can recognize them and their images wherever they are found, not slighting them either in small things or great, but believing them all to be within the sphere of one art and study.

…there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm..

…we shall adapt the foot and the melody to words having a like spirit, not the words to the foot and melody…

…three principles of rhythm out of which  metrical systems are framed, just as in sounds there are four notes out of which all the harmonies are composed…  BOOK III The Republic

…let us assure our sweet friend and the sister arts of imitation, we shall be delighted to receive her, that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered State we shall be delighted to receive her…We may further grant to those of her defenders who are lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on her behalf: let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?  BOOK X The Republic

For serious things cannot be understood without laughable things, nor opposites at all without opposites, if a man is really to have intelligence of either; but he cannot carry out both in action, if he is to have any degree of virtue. And for this very reason he should learn them both, in order he may not in ignorance do or say anything which is ridiculous and out of place…  BOOK VII The Laws

Just from these handful of excerpts, one can see how silly we have been, like children afraid of the dark, to fear Plato’s censorship, which is of the most common-sense, grounded, studious, open-minded and respectful kind, and sincerely based on love of the good—for everyone’s sake.

By fearing what could damage the welfare of everyone in society, the Platonist—Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, and Poe, the most prominent examples—educates himself in a more rounded and insightful way than the typical avant-garde artist, who fears nothing, embraces everything, and instead of putting a society in his mind as the Platonist does, merely pursues personal likes and dislikes—which is all freedom, finally, allows one to do.  The Platonist also flies above the avant-garde modeled on the puritan or socialist scold—because love of beauty animates the Platonist philosophy.

The avant-garde, in all his righteous indignation, ends up being the narrowest and dullest thinker of all.  Kindly permit us to quote one more passage of Plato’s from the Ion:

Ion: Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet, but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?
Socrates: The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art of or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole.
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: And when any one acquires any other art as a whole, the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion?
Ion: Yes, indeed, Socrates, I very much wish that you would: for I love to hear you wise men talk.
Socrates: O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so; but you rhapsodes and actors, and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise; whereas I am a common man, who only speak the truth. For consider what a very commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said—a thing which any man might say: that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same.

Ion is just like Ron Silliman, who can only talk of the same avant-garde class of poets, while dismissing great swaths of poetry as “quietist.”  The poet Rae Armantrout is Silliman’s Homer; when her name is mentioned, Silliman sits up and wags his tail—and this is because Silliman is a mere magnetized ring; Silliman and his avant friends do not comprehend poetry as a whole.  And this phenomenon is widespread: one can see it, for instance, in the rock fan who abhors classical music, the pop music fan who swears this artist is genuine, and that artist is not, and the MFA student who only studies recent work.  They all suffer from the Ion-disease.

There are few who understand the secrets of the Platonic wisdom: when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same.

The creature who least understands Plato is the Modernist poet.

IS THE REAL MUSE DAME HISTORY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But where does Dame History come in?

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

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

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

THE TOP TEN HATREDS IN POETRY

Hate?  A strong word.   Do Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout and the rest of their friends hate Billy Collins?  In civilized, professional behavior, we keep hate hidden, but it only takes a word for it to slip out. We know it, we recognize it, we feel it; we know it’s there.  Maybe it’s not hate, exactly… we might refer to it as jealousy, disgust, dislike…but let’s just call it hate, and not beat around the bush. We prefer, most of the time, that it remain hidden, and most of us don’t like to feel hatred or be hateful or see hatred in another—that’s true…but we’d be naive if we pretended it didn’t exist in any of our hearts at all.

Scarriet had it’s best week ever last week (in terms of views).  Ron Silliman comparing Billy Collins to Edgar Guest (and us pointing it out) began the firestorm.

On Friday of last week, Billy Collins made the front page of  my local paper:

“A Poet Achieves Rock-Star Status. Meet the ‘phenomenon’ that is Billy Collins—a man who has made poetry popular (again). More than a million copies of his books are print. ‘A good poem is like a pair of flannel pajamas. Comforting’–Billy Collins”  —Dorothy Robinson dorothy.robinson@metro.us

Ron Silliman’s Quietist Nightmare!

As usual, Scarriet reflects wisely on the significance of it all, and pardon us as we do so, before giving you the Top Ten Hatreds In Poetry:

The matter here may be as simple as what should be kept and what junked.

Poetry isn’t a matter of life and death; no lives depend on poetic reputation, but if poetry as a companion to thought and civilized pleasure is important at all, then we should, at the very least, dump trash and keep the valuable (which if not done in the real world would quickly drown us in garbage and lose value so as to be the end of us all).  Such a task is no small matter—it is not for the Garrison Keillors and their Good Poems only; it is the most important task of all poets at all times; if we think on it, this is the only task of poetry: sorting good from bad, whether composing, publishing, or reviewing; in truth, all are critics all the time, and except for inspiration, divine and invisible—which belongs to a separate realm—this is the only business of poetry: sorting good from bad. All we mortals do is sort—honestly and truthfully—or not.

It used to be like this, at least more than it is today: universities taught and collected the best, and the collecting and the teaching were essentially the same enterprise: sorting out the heavens, sorting with our backpacks in the wilderness, sorting the lines and poets who went before.

This all changed right after WW II.  Colleges multiplied, and they changed. Professors in the Humanities no longer sorted.  Professors no longer pulled weeds.  Homer and Shakespeare and Keats were no longer used as sorting tools. Keats was no longer a living flower, but a dead one, and to be a flower was to be dead. Writers sprung up like weeds in the Creative Writing programs. The weeds were all different and marvelous in their variety—from the perspective of the weeds. But from a distance, from the public’s perspective, all the weeds looked the same—and they looked like weeds.  But the public is wrong, thought the weeds, and the Creative Writing programs assured the weeds that indeed the public was wrong and provided loans and money for their MFAs.

Modernism was the first era or school to trash preceding eras—no matter the quality of the individual poets from those preceding eras.  It would be far better if we talked of poets and not these damned eras and schools, but this was modern scholarship’s gift to the world. You can’t talk about Modernism without talking about the Modernists. With the Romantics, you can talk about individual poets, because the “Romantic” poets were not aware of themselves as Romantics—the Modernists called them this.

Byron loved Pope, Keats adored Shakespeare, Shelley loved Plato,  Poe scolded his contemporaries, but ours is the first era where all “Modernists” join in dismissing the best that went before.

True, the Romantics did play the ‘Melancholy Resignation’ card once too often; ‘We Shall Go No More A Roving’ threw its sonorous, sentimental shadow over poetry for a hundred years, and more—Archibald MacLeish, Amy Lowell, and thousands of others were doing ‘Romanticism’ well into the 20th century. (We forget that Byron was also the first Beat poet, as well, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Japanese art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cooled many a feverish brow with placid images; the proud West took haiku into its heart and Romantic sentimental virtuosity finally beat there no more. The icy, ‘classical’ poems of H.D. lasted hardly a day, but painting became abstract, with the Bauhaus movement architecture turned efficient and brutal; fascism and political cruelty and genocide countered the old Sentimentality of the previous century with a ferocity few could have imagined; leaflets and bombs fell from the sky, two world wars produced sentimental poetry (WW I) and a GI Bill that produced high enrollments of sentimental poets (WW II). Western sentimentality returned in the writing programs in the universities, but not of the Byron type: it was not a sentimentality of universals, but one of dizzying variety—poetry felt it could serve the classroom and the quirks of every individual and it could, and it did—and by doing so brought on its eventual destruction—but only because it forgot to sort good from bad.  Good poetry was still being written but no one knew where to look for it. Colleges produced, but did not discriminate—or they discriminated artificially and incestuously, away from the public’s eye. The factory produced and produced and refused to throw away.

In youth soccer, some  parents yell instructions from the sidelines at their children, while other parents watching from the sidelines murmur, ‘poor kids, they already have a coach, they don’t need more coaches.’ The ‘One Coach’ theory finds it sufficient to let poets find their way without criticism or instruction from anyone else. ‘The Coach’ here represents all poetry learning that is handed down to all of us. ‘The Sillimans and the Armantrouts are playing the best they can, so leave them alone.’  This is the One Coach Theory.

The ‘Multi-Coach’ theory believes that everyone is a coach, or ought to be one; that Sillimans and Armantrouts need extra encouragement.   ‘As a parent, I care.’  The Coach can’t do everything.  Scarriet believes in the Multi-Coach Theory.

Poetry needs local passions. The invention of the atom bomb made the world ‘one village,’ but poetry doesn’t thrive in a village; poetry needs a city, a town, a wilderness to thrive—poets hate situations where everybody knows everybody and news is the same for all. One village of contemporaries loving their ways together is a nice idea, but unhealthy in practice, especially when it comes to poetry.

Silliman hates because he cares. Hate on, you poets, and don’t be ashamed of your hate.

Here then, without further ado, are the Top Ten Hatreds in Poetry:

10. Byron for Robert “Bob” Southey

9. Pound for the Russians. (He  called them “Roosh-uns” and bragged that he never read them.)

8. Samuel Johnson for the ‘Metaphysical Poets.’  Johnson coined the term, and thought they were stiffs.

7. Alexander Pope for his contemporary “dunces.”

6. Ron Silliman for the “phenomenon” that is Billy Collins.

5. Harold Bloom for Edgar Poe.  Bloom’s dismissal of Poe is either stupidity or hate; we have to assume it’s hate.

4. Rufus Griswold for Walt Whitman. In a review, Griswold called “Leaves” a ” mass of stupid filth.”

3. Charles Bernstein for T.S. Eliot—the only “name named” of the “Official Verse Culture.”

2. John Crowe Ransom for Byron.  In his essay, “Poets Without Laurels,” Ransom made it clear, once and for all, that Byron must be put on the shelf.

1. T.S. Eliot for Edgar Poe.  The bullet was “From Poe to Valery.”

“BEFORE THERE WAS BILLY COLLINS & TED KOOSER, THERE WAS EDGAR GUEST” –RON SILLIMAN

 

Billy Collins: hated by the Olson-ites.

Ron Silliman knows that Billy Collins does not write like this:

And I can live my life on earth
Contented to the end,
If but a few shall know my worth
And proudly call me friend.

–Edgar Guest (1881–1959)

Every poet knows Billy Collins is nothing like Edgar Guest.

Silliman’s remark is nothing but a rankle: he and his friends are not popular, and he fears they never will be popular.   How sad, then, that Ron feels it necessary to equate a witty, free-verse writer like Billy Collins with a hack doggerelist who happened to be popular for a time.

Dorothy Parker (another popular poet like Collins) wrote of Edgar Guest:

I’d rather flunk my Wasserman test
Than read the poetry of Edgar Guest

We ought to pause here and ask a simple question: what is the popular?

The answer is simple: the popular is neither good nor bad in itself, though all want it; the popular may be vain—but it is also human.

A popular poet, as instanced by Edgar Guest, may not be original or intricate or profound and it’s true that popularity and sentimentality go hand in hand.

But if Silliman and his friends are to ever have the popularity Billy Collins enjoys, and that they so obviously want, they will need to reach out to the public.  The public is sentimental—sentimentality is the stuff of which the  public’s interest in poetry is made.  There are levels of sentimentality, of course, but the trick for the poet is to be sentimental artistically, or artful sentimentally.  The sentimental is human and the human is popular and none of this can be avoided, not even in the hearts of the Language Poets. 

Did Charles Bernstein have Edgar Guest in mind when he coined the term ‘official verse culture?’ Does Bernstein feel personally oppressed by the aesthetic failure of doggerel? Is there an official culture of doggerel? 

When Gerald Stern asked Bernstein to “name names” at a 1984 poetry conference in Alabama, Bernstein was rather tongue-tied; when pressed to name names of poets who belonged to this official verse culture of Bernstein’s, he could only name one poet: T.S. Eliot. The reasons we might entertain for such a choice are obviously complex, but Bernstein has wanted critics to be included as poets; include the theoretical, not just the pretty, is the real issue, quite obviously, for Bernstein.

But sentiment, the key to the public, to popularity, can certainly co-exist with intellectuality and theory. That’s what the genius is able to do. That defines the artistic genius.  If you asked the Language Poets to point to specific elements in their poetry that cannot be popular, would they be able to point to such elements? And if they couldn’t, the question then must be asked, ‘Why aren’t they popular?’

If the public expects certain attributes in their poetry, should the Language Poets refuse them? I shouldn’t be speaking of the Language Poets as a group, since they don’t compose as a group, except to include them in that large group of poets who have no popular poems.

It will not do to pretend that sentiment can be avoided (in poetry it can’t), or to pretend sentiment cannot be avoided except when one is making jokes at its expense—one will never be popular if one persists in either of these two approaches. Sentiment is the clay, and how it is shaped makes all the difference; but when one attempts to deny the clay itself, one will inevitably be obscure. Without sentiment, you lie under sediment.

It is not that Guest or Collins are more sentimental than the poetry of the Language poets, than the poetry of Silliman and Bernstein and Armantrout; Billy Collins shapes sentiment into more interesting shapes than the Language Poets do, and thus Collins enjoys and deserves more popularity. If repeated successes in publishing and award-giving finally push the Language poets, all pushing 70 now, onto a threshold of potential popularity, the only thing that will push them over the threshold into real popularity will be a sincere appeal to the public and its sentimental nature.  There is no other way. If the other elements in the Language poetry agenda are crucial to mankind’s well-being, all the more reason for that poetry to be popular and reach as many people as possible.

No excuses, such as I am not Edgar Guest, are allowed.  

Silliman and his Language Poet friends are a self-enclosed tribe whose secret handshake is: ‘do not write like Edgar Guest.’  They learned this from their forerunners, the Modernists. Successful, these poets all, in killing the ant, Edgar Guest, but meanwhile the real dragon, Obscurity, wounds them. The Olson-ites are pleased to have killed all the villagers of Guest-town and they are looking for thanks and applause, but the villagers of Guest-town are all who might have loved them, and now they are dead.

Silliman and his friends oppose themselves to the “Quietists.”

But they are so quiet themselves.

EYE V. EAR: THE OLDEST POETRY DEBATE

Ron Silliman recently linked this article as an “anti-modern attack on Poetry Out Loud.”

Readers expecting to see another harrowing Scarriet expose of the Modernist clique must have been disappointed; it was only a bland indictment by the conservative City Journal of an NEA program  of “recitation and memorization” of poetry in the schools which, according to the City Journal, fell victim to “egalitarian politics.”

Who would not agree the idea is a good one?   Put poems in the memories and mouths of children and let their hearts and minds be worked on by the general good of great poetry.  However, as the Silliman-linked article, pointed out, poetry’s music died in the prosaic innovation of Modernism.  The music of poetry is necessary to make poetry’s recitation and memorization imprint glory upon the soul.  But the Poetry Out Loud program missed this chance by using modern poems and poets based on race and gender—not the criterion of musical excellence.  Another right-wing, dead white male apology, right?   Only a reactionary pill would complain with the City Journal that:

Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.

Choose at random a black woman poet (a slave!) and weep that she is “ranked” equally with an Opium addict of erratic gifts who happens to be a white guy.  Gnash your teeth that a woman chosen at random has “three poems” included, and make a point to say she’s “not a major poet.”  Then tell us the whole project was a failure because it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne.

The neo-cons worship T.S. Eliot, yet Eliot pronounced Swinburne empty. Still, Eliot, and his right-wing pal, Pound, took delight in Swinburne’s music, as did a whole decadent tribe of twits anxious to forget Poe, who was always too universal and large to really appeal to the really decadent.  Because Eliot had a few nice things to say about Swinburne, it’s not in the least surprising to hear the neo-con City Journal cry out “it did not include Algernon Charles Swinburne!”  (And Louise Bogan wrote for the liberal New Yorker, which is probably why the City Journal takes a swipe at her. Three poems! How could they?)

The neo-cons are as predictable in their hero-worship (T.S. Eliot) as is the Silliman Left (Williams, Olson, Zukovsky, Ginsberg).

The Modernist clique was tiny, but appears gigantic because its members are still loved by both sides of today’s great Right/Left Culture War divide, aptly represented by the City Journal and Ron Silliman—who was quick to name the City Journal’s attack on the Poetry Out Loud program an “anti-modern” one.

Hovering behind Silliman’s heroes is the right-wing Pound; Eliot and Pound will be forever united as Modernist Masters and Partners, Williams and Pound were friends, and Pound, Eliot and Williams cannot easily be separated by the sharp knife of politics today; in fact the sharpness of City Journal v. Silliman blunts and dulls when it attempts to divide Modernist spoils.

Eliot’s Anglicanism has absolutely nothing to do, finally, with his revolutionary Modernism, and yet his Anglicanism has everything to do with his appeal to the neo-cons.  The essays and poems which Eliot is famous for are as revolutionary and modernist as anything we can find, and they are all the more effective as radical contributions because of the author’s apologies for “tradition.”  The neo-cons are impotent when it comes to all matters of poetry; they utterly misread their master.

The Left in poetry is just as bad, however;  the poetic Left grovels before the most reactionary piffle simply because it’s “modernist,” blindly equating “modernist” with “progressive.”

Both sides are wrong.  The conservatives don’t realize that Eliot was radical, and neither does the Left, who instead follow Williams, who managed to turn himself into some kind of anti-Eliot, which was easy for Williams, since all he had to do was invoke what was American and plain: he was American and he was very, very plain.   Politics sits very oddly in poetry because first, poetry isn’t supposed to be political (at least not overtly) and second, in terms of Letters, Europe is far more extremist than America, who never quite shook the idea that Huck Finn is where they’re at, and so the U.S.A may be glorious compared to Europe when it comes to science and practical matters, but when it comes to imaginative stuff like readin’ and writin’ and playin’ music, we is sincere and plain, if nothin’ else.

None of these preferences and attachments make any sense, really, or have any real significance; these matters of allegiance to Eliot or Williams are mere matters of pride and vanity, and, by their very nature, are whimsy.

Literary opinion in this country is mere buffoonery.

To make a proper judgment on the pedagogy of Poetry Out Loud it is not necessary to count how many poems by Phillis Wheatley or Algernon Charles Swinburne were included.

Here is the heart of the matter as put by the City Journal author:

Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.

It is better to understand something than to be in thrall to it, especially when we speak of education.   How can there be “musical complexity” in “fidelity to traditional rubrics of metrical order?”   Wouldn’t “metrically irregular” poetry be more “complex?”  Obviously the author is vaguely feeling along in the dark with Eliot’s “difficulty” as guide; the “monotonous” rhythms of hip-hop are rejected, as is the propagandist simplicity of slam poetry, and even though modern poetry is more “irregular,” somehow “traditional metrics” are more “complex.”   The criterion of “complexity” is too vague to have any meaning.  Whole traditions of philosophy, art, and poetry count simplicity as one of the great virtues.  The utilitarian worship of simplicity cannot be overlooked, nor the value of accessibility in simplicity.  Shakespeare extolls “simple truth” in his famous Sonnet 66 and damns those who would “miscall it simplicity.”   The haiku writer seeks simplicity as a virtue.  When we untie a complex knot, we travel through complexity in the untying, but complexity is not the end; complexity is the obstacle we overcome, even as we revel in complexity in the act of untying.

The subject is ripe with paradox, so that neither complexity nor simplicity should be blindly championed; it is easy to see that both contribute to anything that is worthwhile.

I cannot judge of the final effectiveness of Poetry Out Loud, nor does the City Journal article give any proof of the program’s failure or success.   Surely many factors make a poem succeed for popular audiences, but which factors are pedagogically significant and worthwhile?  All of them?  Some of them?  Are some aesthetic effects even harmful and not worthy of teaching?  Do harmful effects need to be ‘taught’ as warnings?

One thing can be said with certainty: poetry that relies on how it is laid out on a two-dimensional surface is weaker than poetry which pours into our ear as musical or dramatic speech.  Poetry should be heard and not seen.  Sound can carry an image, but once we begin to produce an image on the page, we move from poetry to a different art: painting.

Speech, purely as sound, can carry emotion, image, and idea, and do it musically.  That’s a remarkable thing in itself, and whether it is simple or complex is not the issue; and what is the refinement of this phenomenon (emotion, image and idea carried by musical sound) but poetry?

PURE AND IMPURE POETRY: THE NEW CRITICS’ LAST HURRAH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


POETRY: THE MORE THEY ‘MAKE IT NEW,’ THE MORE IT SUCKS

Why is this?

In light of Ron Silliman and friends’ conference in Philly on Dec. 6 “Poetry in 1960: A Symposium,” which will no doubt celebrate Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology, Scarriet would like to ponder this question.

What hath Donald Allen (1912-2004), a nice man, an editor for awhile at the cool, pretentious, smutty Evergreen Review, wrought?

Our loyal readers should have noticed two passages in Scarriet printed recently, authored by two greats, Plato and Leopardi, taking on this issue directly and honestly.  They both said that poetry, by its very nature, is an old-and-courting-the-old, art.  Of course, a great hue and cry goes up when this simple truth (in terms of two small items: all history and any measure of popularity) is broached: “Fascist!” is the shrill charge from the Pound-lovers.

It’s a truism, though, isn’t it?  How can anyone but an oaf be seriously against the new?  Have you lost it, Brady?

I’ll put Plato and Leopardi up against Pound (who confessed he never read the “Rooshins,” and worked for their extinction (and others) in the war, and then had the audacity to call the United States an “insane asylum”) any day, but I still owe my readers an argument here.

First:  The merely new is not the same thing as meritoriously novel.  They, in fact, are quite different.   But apparently, often confused, whether by ignorance or hoodwink.  The mere fact of novelty in any area is no prescription for progress, or interest, of any kind, at all.

Second: We must consider what is being changed.  Poetry exists, like the air, most intensely in our lungs, not abstractly on a blackboard.  There is nothing wrong with things written on a blackboard, with abstract fervor, with speculation and dreams.  But the air is heavy.   As light and dreamy and windy as it may seem, the atmosphere itself cannot be changed radically—its very existence has a certain amount of pressure, in pounds per square inch, throughout the sublunary realm, where all of us are universally and singularly subject to it. 

Poetry, like the air, pushes back when we try to move or change it.  Poetry, like the air, may seem insubstantial and easily moved in its local existence, but there is more substance and bulk to it than is dreamed of in the pedants’ philosophies. 

Poetry, like air, acts on us, perhaps routinely and mundanely, but still so, far more than we, as individuals, in front of a blackboard (even with lots of chalk), can hope to act on it.

If we altered only slightly the chemistry of the atmosphere, life that breathes that atmosphere would radically change; even die.  Poetry is that ubiquitious, and that correspondent with us.  It matters not whether life that breathes air or air itself first emerged in the planetary process; life and air, life and poetry are one, and cannot be separated theoretically, on a blackboard, or anywhere else.

Third: We can alter paint and stone and words, and this is what painters and sculptors and poets by definition do; but this is not the same as altering painting and sculpture and poetry, which none, by definition do, and to make the claim that human volition does do this, insults every individual painter, sculptor and poet, worthy of the name.  The alteration belongs to the poet, which the theory-mad pedant would claim for his own; the pedant’s claim collpases, however, under what he (the pedant) claims (gesticulating near his blackboard) to stand on.

Fourth:  Demolishing the cult of ‘the new’ in general terms, as we have just done, is relatively easy, but the pedants can still crawl beneath the radar of such reasoning in the dirt and mud of their pluralism; they will connect ‘the new’ poetry of 1960 to “modern jazz” and “abstract painting.”  These American art forms of the 20th century, jazz and abstract painting, do not exist “on a blackboard;” nor does Charles Olson’s typewriter, which allowed him to print his poems “on a field,” exist “only a blackboard.”   The breaking of line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, unity and elitism, is also not a theory “on a blackboard,” the ‘make it new’ pedants will cry.

“Love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.”   The alteration of poetry, the removing of “line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, and unity” (none of these items are “elitist” any more than their removal is) does alter when it alteration finds, and thus love (poetry) is not love (poetry). 

If you take away the components of love, if you take away the components of poetry, you are left with one thing: the blackboard. 

Jazz is music and abstract painting, painting, only so far as they exist in those recognizable modes; this is a truism.  The removal of traits and traces in, and of, the mode is merely narrowing in a purely aesthetic way, an aesthetic strategy within the workings of those modes, themselves.   The new-fangled destruction of an art is cogent only when the mode, or the art, survives; after the line is crossed, it is simply that: removal by the remover: destruction. 

Fifth:  Charles Olson can spatter words upon his two-dimensional “field,” but this urges the poem towards the pictorial, and one cannot gesture in that direction without conjuring the painters, who present spatial effects on a two-dimensional space, and most of them in a far more riveting fashion than  Olson, impotently imprisoned by his paltry, unexamined, and limited theoretics, on his “page.”   There is no escape for Olson.  He can’t have his cake and eat it.  He cannot invoke “field” without settling the account of all that “field” means in a wider sense, both physically, theoretically and historically, making him a new failure in an old medium.  Olson childishly demonstrated why poetry could not, and cannot, exist in the way he wanted it to, much less thrive in the way he wanted it to.   The impotence, of course, does not belong to Olson; he didn’t invent spurious spacing; anyway, how can there be an inventor of a nullity?   There is nothing but superfluity to be won here, of course; any engagement of the particulars (if they could be called that) of Olson’s delusional pontifications would aid only the aspirations of the followers and pedants themselves.

Sixth:  The pedants will always be able to find correlations; jazz and abstract painting were mentioned—but even Marjorie Perloff, an avant-garde poetry advocate if there ever was one, in her 1997 essay, “Whose New American Poetry?” scorned the idea (put forth by Allen in his  feeble introduction) that Mr. Allen’s new poetry was like “jazz or abstract painting.”  How so?  Even Perloff knows that dog won’t hunt.  

The attempt at finding correlation to other ‘new’ modes fails; what works, apparently, according to Perloff, is the correlation to older “new” poetry, the original Modernists, who had done it already, so OK, Allen’s new poets can attach themselves to Pound and Williams (born in the 19th century).  Perloff also points out that many key players in the so-called “third wave” of Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology were the same age (older, in the case of Olson) as the “second wave” of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.  Perloff also rains on the Allen parade by pointing out two more issues: the lack of women in the “new” poets and also how quickly the old distinctions faded; by the 80s, even by the 1970s, “raw v. cooked,” and “marginal v. mainstream” were gone.

What’s left, now, but nostalgia for 1960 itself?   1960 was a great year, though not for poetry

But, hey, Philly’s got great cheese steaks…

DEMOCRATIC REALITIES: THE SILENCING OF BLOGS

Two points of view dominate the potential contributor to the open discourse of the blog.

Here is the first view:

Most of you can be described thusly: (tiny, frightened voice) “I don’t want to bore anyone…I have nothing to say…God forbid, I should write something from the heart and a stranger rebukes me…”

Or, from a completely different perspective, the second view:

(Loud, stern voice) “My thoughts are not cheap…I’m not just going to put my opinions on a blog for the rabble to peruse, or, worse, for someone to steal…My thoughts are worthy of being published, of selling; they are not for free!”   

Both of these views conspire to stifle open dialogue…

A private club would unblock these inhibitions.

 The public nature of a blog, ironically, quells public discourse.   

This is the great paradox of cultural exchange.

Yet, as Silliman’s blog entry today demonstrates, poets give public readings all over the place. 

What’s to prevent someone at a public reading from stealing a poet’s thought?   Nothing.  There’s danger here, too.

But here’s the attraction:  Poets, in this case, are reading from their published books, and the poet believes their ideas are safe in a published book. 

Secondly, the poetry reading reflects a hierarchy flattering to the poet:

I, the poet, am reading my poems to listeners who have come to hear me, the poet. 

The listeners worship in a proper position of respect which the democratic blog can never hope to replicate.   

The published book is the nucleus of the atom and the electrons of public obeisance revolve around this nucleus, comprising an orderly structure of stability and peace.   

The blog which admits comments, on the other hand, permits not only electrons to jump around, but the atoms themselves to be suddenly created, and reactions and fusions to take place with great velocity and force.

This is perhaps good news, for in the above scenario we see that the book is still vital to intellectual life.

However, if the exchange of views and ideas is suppressed and not stimulated by books—as the passive reading replaces the Socratic argument—and books, instead, become mere receptacles of vanity and received opinion in a conservative manner, the complaint we are so bold in making here is perhaps a just one.

Let us, by all means, have the respected author, basking in the respect due the published author, but we should also encourage questions and conversations in which that very same respect is put aside, in a public fashion, for the truth.

Does it matter, finally, where an idea resides?  Published in a book, or unpublished, in a brain?  The former is where we’d always prefer it to be, perhaps, but should we be anxious to have legitimate ideas only reside there, simply in order to preserve the existence of a publishing status quo?

Let the truth itself matter most, at last.

So, to our experts, fearing to give up trade secrets, we say: perhaps these secrets are not as important as you think they are, as secrets, and to our timid folk: perhaps your secrets are more important than you think.

IS TIM LINCECUM BASEBALL’S SHELLEY?

The experts have told us why the Giants won their first title in San Francisco this month: 

A shortstop who hit two timely homeruns during the five-game contest, and received the Series Most-Valuable-Player, was official Major League Baseball’s opinion, and, in a completely different corner, ‘Language Poet’ and poetry blog-meister Ron Silliman opined that Dave “Rags” Righetti, former NY Yankees pitching star and the Giants’ pitching coach, deserves the MVP; though how can a coach win ‘most-valuable-player?  Only a ‘Language Poet,’ perhaps, could make such a blunder.

Not to diminish what coaches and managers do, but the players, as the cliche goes, are the ones who win the games on the field, and for every great move that works, there is a great move that fails, or, a ‘bad’ move that works, and while surprise is a tool of the coach, both execution and surprise belong to the player on the field.

My choice for the MVP is the “Freak,” Tim Lincecum, and not a surprising choice at all, but the importance of his contribution has been overlooked for many reasons: Matt Cain hurled only shutout innings, ‘The Beard,’ Brian Wilson, the closer, was perfect, and the pitching staff, as a whole, was outstanding; the hitting attack was, if not quite buzz-saw quality, clutch and persistent; fouling off pitch after pitch, even when striking out, to increase the opposing pitcher’s pitch-count; bunting with confidence and aplomb to move runners over; hitting balls hard to every field; and, what’s more, the defense was stellar in every aspect, too, from throwing out runners trying to steal, to scooping up dribblers in the infield, to turning double-plays.   No wonder the Giants rolled over the loose, confident, nothing-to-lose-first-time-in-the-world-series Texas Rangers—a team that had rolled over the AL East Champion Tampa Bay Rays and the 200 million plus payroll New York Yankees.

But the 2010 Giants’ winning ways radiated from Tim, the pitching-phenom sprite who has the inexplicable demeanor-plus-talent to make an entire team feel good about itself.  Wilson, of the black-shoe-polish-painted-beard, was cool with himself because he was on a team with a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher nick-named “Freak.”  Without Tim, Wilson stands out as the butt of jokes; with Tim, Wilson fits in.  In game one of the World Series Tim is human, does not look particularly good, but still gets the job done, still beats post-season great Cliff Lee.  This fiercely relaxes the whole team: our ace can win without his best stuff. 

When Tim is on, he’s virtually unhittable, as he was during the Game 5 Series clincher; so that veteran player and announcer Tim McCarver said it was a mistake to let Wilson pitch the ninth instead of Lincecum, (Wilson retired the side in order, striking out the final batter to win it).  The Giants’ pitching staff doesn’t feel the pressure to be perfect, the Giants’ offense doesn’t feel the pressure to score lots of runs, all because Tim is the ace of the SF Giants; he’s that rare player that makes an entire team better simply by being on the team.  

Barry Bonds was that kind of player—almost.  His Giant club came with a game of winning it all in 2002, but Barry was the butt of jokes; during the 2002 World Series the telecast miked the Angels’ pitching coach—in the ‘Sounds of the Game’ feature—who, to the amusement of his team, was caught on tape in the dugout saying, “Look at Barry…” in a mocking tone, as Bonds was sulking, following a fielding error, on the other side of the diamond, in the Giants’ dugout.   It was enough to make the Angels, player-for-player not quite as good as San Francisco, feel a certain edgy confidence.  I doubt the Rangers were feeling better about themselves by laughing at Tim Lincecum.

A team’s best player always defines that team, not just in terms of how talented a player they are, but in terms of personality, team-building, morale, and temperament.   Tim Lincecum radiates skill, confidence, serenity, and flamboyance, a certain modesty, novelty, and sense of fun, all at once. 

We see it in Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s best poetry, the kind of poetry that says: I’m good without any pretence or affectation; I obey no rules, I’m pleasing to myself and I don’t care what others think.

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

These famous lines of Shelley, from his famous “Ode to the West Wind,” express boyish physicality, joy and urgency, without a hint of intellectual pretense, self-consciousness, or morbidity.   

Tim Lincecum’s whole being drives and animates his team with a similar carefree, yet intensely focused, spirit.

AS POE AND POUND PREPARE, 18 OTHERS MUST WAIT FOR NEXT YEAR

Lefty Ron Silliman won 14 to lead the New Jersey Williams

There were three twenty-game winners in the Scarriet American League, and T.S. Eliot’s team had two of them: Betrand Russell (22-10) and James Frazier, the author of The Golden Bough (20-10).  Eliot had a remarkable staff, which included Corbiere (15-10), Winston Churchill (17-8) and Matthew Arnold (14-11).

Virgil won 21 games for Emily Dickinson.

The New England Frost had three 19 game winners, Edward Arlington Robinson, Carl Sandburg, and Bobby Burns.

George Santayana, the Harvard professor who retired to fascist Italy, logged 15 wins for the Hartford Stevens.

Team Cummings managed to sign Sigmund Freud, who wasn’t enough to bring home a title, but led the club with a 15-11 mark.

Walter Pater brought home 17 wins for Marianne Moore’s ballclub playing out of New York, Yvor Winters led the Iowa City Grahams with 15 victories, and Walt Whitman’s team saw good efforts from Swinburne (17-10) and Oscar Wilde (16-15), though Wilde faltered in the second half.

Ron Silliman led his team, the New Jersey Williams, with a 14-11 mark.

Whitman picked up Gaugin, Melville, and Aaron Copeland as starting pitchers, but all three were hard-luck hurlers.  There was an odd chemistry to the Whitman club that never clicked: Robinson Jeffers, D.H. Lawrence, William Rossetti, Edgar Lee Masters, Bronson Alcott, Lawrence Ferlinghetti were in a lineup together that never hit in the clutch, didn’t run the bases enough, failed to move runners over, and even fought in the clubhouse; it was a mess.  Whitman’s verve never carried over to his interesting mix of players.

William Carlos Williams shared last place with Whitman; the lineup of Duchamp, Creeley, Rexroth, Duncan, Snyder, Loy, Noguchi, and Spicer just didn’t provide enough punch.

Mallarme and Hollander hit for Stevens, Dos Passos and Picasso for Cummings, and Dickinson got hitting from Keats and TennysonFrost was in the race for a while, getting good offense from Hardy, Larkin, Oliver, and Wordsworth.

After his heralded signing at mid-season, Jesus Christ of the Frost proved to be human on the mound at 10-5.  Pound and Eliot could not be caught.

The Scarriet National League had no twenty-game winners; Philip Sidney won 18 for the Maine Millays, Abe Lincoln was 17-14 for the New York Bryants, Longfellow got 18 wins from Horace, Rufus Griswold led the Emersons with 16 wins, Wittgenstein and Marvell both won 17 for the Ashberys, and Robert Penn Warren was 16-13 for the Tennessee RansomsOliver Wendell Holmes was the ace for the Boston Lowells at 16-9. The 9th place Whittiers were led by William Lloyd Garrison (13-16), and the lowly Ginsbergs by Mark Van Doren’s 12-19 mark.

W.H. Auden carried the Ashbery offense with 42 homers, and Salvador Dali added 29;  Gertrude Stein and Albert Camus combined for 27 homeruns from the catcher’s spot, as John Ashbery’s club finished just 3 games back of the Poe.

The Boston Lowell had a ferocious attack with Browning, Chaucer, Henry James, Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  They missed the pennant by only 7 games.

Longfellow was blessed with a lineup of Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe, Alessandro Manzoni, Washington Irving, and Queen Victoria.  But Dante and Goethe were hurt and Michelangelo never looked comfortable at the plate.  The team was led by Manzoni’s 34 homers.  Richard Henry Dana added 24.

Bryant was in the race, too, with Homer and James Fenimore Cooper and Victor Hugo all having 25 homer/100 RBI seasons, but, like most of the other clubs, their pitching wasn’t deep enough.

The Concord Emersons expected more from Nietzsche (10-18) but the run support was not always there, with Emanuel Swedenborg, Jones Very, Margaret Fuller, and Karl Marx unable to stay healthy or hit consistently  in the middle of the lineup.

Millay signed Beethoven in the middle of the year and he went 14-6 after replacing Norma Millay (2-6).  Shakespeare provided 39 homers but Sappho and Euclid were disappointing.  The addition of Beethoven to the pitching staff was too little, too late.

Aristotle never really hit for the Ransoms (.249, 13 homers) and William Blake (.311, 32 homers) was the only player to hit for the Ginsbergs.

There will be lots of changes in the off-season.  Chemistry between writers is a delicate matter, indeed.

LATE CAPITALISM AND THE AVANT GARDE

 

Modernist and post-modernist avant movements of every stripe present themselves, in one way or another, as authentic, revolutionary attempts to smite late capitalism.

Ron Silliman, the good Leftist, revels in Modernism and Neo-Modernism, with his Leftism seemingly rising out of the very Modernism he celebrates.  Ron’s example, one of thousands, is perfectly normal and unquestioned.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that Modernism and neo-Modernism are the very essence and expression of Late Capitalism.

Capitalism and Modernism share self-indulgent caprice, the wide gap between elites and the many who don’t ‘get it,’ chic vulgarity, market excess and manipulation, control of wealth and taste by the few, and the final proof is that the artists themselves, from Ford Madox Ford to Pound to Eliot, to the Southern Agrarian new critics, were “revolutionaries” of the Right, not the Left—even when some, like William Carlos Williams, paid lip service to the latter. 

Perhaps, standing where we are, in the early 21st century, with the true nature of the actual modernists themselves fading away in the mists of delusionary nostalgia, we are too far away from the truth to be aware of the truth.

Randall Jarrell, however, saw it in 1942, and wrote in his essay “The End of the Line:”

“For a long time society and poetry have been developing in the same direction, have been carrying certain tendencies to their limits: how could anyone fail to realize that the excesses of modernist poetry are the necessary concomitants of the excesses of late-capitalist society?  (An example too pure and too absurd even for allegory is Robinson Jeffers, who must prefer a hawk to a man, a stone to a hawk, because of an individualism so exaggerated that it contemptuously rejects affections, obligations, relations of any kind whatsoever, and sets up as a nostalgically awaited goal the war of all against all.  Old Rocky Face, perched on his sea crag, is the last of laissez faire; Free Economic Man at the end of his rope.)  How much the modernist poets disliked their society, and how much they resembled it!”

How well Jarrell puts it; and what he describes is much more than mere left/right politics; I certainly don’t intend this essay to be some cheap political grudge match—where I try and score points for some ideal Leftism; that I point out that the Modernists are far Right and so many of their fans, like Silliman, are far Left, is for mere amusement only; the real issue is much larger than gasbag, contemporary, cafe politics: right now it’s a simple issue of mostly pure ignorance—how ignorance reigns in Letters and what we ought to do about it.

Few know that a key Old Rocky Face supporter was T.S Eliot—which doesn’t make any sense in the way we typically read 20th century letters.   The horrors of the 20th century were, of course, inhuman, and Modernism, as Jarrell saw, was often inhuman.  The mystery of Modernism is difficult to solve, like Poe’s mystery in the Rue Morgue—because of the murderer’s nature.

Centuries hence, Modernist art and poetry will be seen as sick, not great.

Of course, most of believe, without realizing it, what Thomas Mann told us: that art is sick, and therefore, yes, poetry like “The Waste Land” is a triumph.

For now.

DOES THE LOCAL EXIST?

In his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry, the Sierra Club poet from Kentucky, invokes Thomas Jefferson:

“In the mind of Thomas Jefferson, farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked.”

Farming and education?   Please explain.

But Berry uses Jefferson’s own words to build his case:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.  They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.  —Thomas Jefferson

This is Emersonian bullshit, from the euphemism “cultivators of the earth” for farmers, to the assertion that same farmers are the most “virtuous,” “independent,” “vigorous” and “valuable” people on the planet.   In fact, plantation owners (Jefferson was one himself) could be inserted more honestly.

Using a traditional icon (Jefferson) as a platform to build a radical thesis is a common strategy, but an inexcusable one; selective use of history is not history; it’s haranguing.

Here’s Jefferson updated (Berry riffing on Jefferson just quoted)  in modern Berry-speak:

There bonds were not merely those of economics and property, but those, at once more feeling and more practical, that come from the investment in property, but those, at once more feeling and more practical, that come from the investment in a place and a community of work, devotion, knowledge, memory, and association.    —Wendell Berry

Without getting into Jefferson’s  hypocritical politics (Berry slyly making acknowledgement of those with “not merely those of economics and property”) we are now in safer waters with a vague list of simple virtues which plantation owner Jefferson, a conservative Southern Agrarian like John Crowe Ransom, or a California Beat like Gary Snyder or Ron Silliman, can applaud: “a community of work, devotion, knowledge, memory, and association.”

“Work” and “devotion” are things the plantation owner will value. 

“Knowledge, memory, and association” can probably work for the plantation owner, too: plantation-knowledge, plantation-memory, and plantation-association, even though, with terms such as these, we are more in the realm of education and the now ubiquitous idea of local poetry and quaint regionalism—worlds away from Jefferson’s “economics and property” of plantations, colonial politics, Great Britain, and the United States.

Sure enough, Berry shifts into a discussion of education, and how Jefferson values it for discovering “genius” but how a “practical” approach relating to the “land” is better.

Berry quotes Jefferson again: “I consider the class of artificers the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are overturned.”

Now Berry adds: “[Jefferson] held manufacturers in suspicion because their values were already becoming abstract, enabling them to be ‘socially mobile’ and therefore subject pre-eminently to the motives of self-interest.”

Berry looks at land grant-colleges and how “agri-business” has corrupted the spirit of the original 1862 legislation, the Morrill Act, which set aside land for colleges of “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” and also the 1887 Hatch Act, which reads, in part: “to assure agriculture a position in research equal to that of industry…”

Here is Berry’s knock-out punch (from the same chapter of his 1977 book):

“The standard of [the land grant-college's] purpose has shifted from usefulness to careerism…The legislation calls for a system of local institutions responding to local needs and local problems. What we have is a system of institutions which more and more resemble one another, like airports and motels, made increasingly uniform by the transience or rootlessness of their career-oriented faculties and the consequent inability to respond to local conditions.  The professor lives in his career, in a ghetto of career-oriented fellow professors.  Where he may be geographically is of little interest to him.  One’s career is a vehicle, not a dwelling: one is concerned less for where it is than for where it will go.”

“The careerist professor is by definition a specialist professor.  Utterly dependent upon his institution, he blunts his critical intelligence and blurs his language so as to exist ‘harmoniously’ within it—and so serves his school with an emasculated and fragmentary intelligence, deferring ‘realistically’ to the redundant procedures and meaningless demands of an inflated administrative bureaucracy whose education purpose is written on its paychecks.”

“Education is relieved of its concern for truth in order to prepare students to live in ‘a changing world.’  As soon as educational standards begin to be directed by ‘a changing world’ (changing, of course, to a tune called by the governmental-military-academic-industrial complex,) then one is justified in teaching virtually anything in any way—for, after all, one never knows for sure what a ‘changing world’ is going to become.  The way is thus opened to run a university as a business, the main purpose of which is to sell diplomas—after a complicating but undemanding four-year ritual—and thereby give employment to professors.”

Berry could be talking of the study of literature and MFA programs.

The crucial questions, though, are these:

Why does Berry feel an “airport” is just like any other, but a “farm” or a “plantation” is unique?

Is it naive to think that among the educated, the local should exist, can exist, or even does exist?

Is Berry too easily dismissing the “abstractions” of the “socially mobile” for what he feels are the more solid aspects of life on the farm?

“PRECISIONIST?” WOW. YOU’RE KIDDING, RIGHT?

SILLIMAN IS AT IT AGAIN!

Path

Weeds
whacked to pulp
between slits
in cinder
blocks laid
in gravel.
A path
to these
porch steps,
their chipped
blue paint
–the rain-
stained wood
cracked through.

“Path” is a work that aims at perfection in all dimensions. As an act of description – [Joseph] Massey is principally a descriptive poet – the attention to the minutest detail is immediately evident. Although the title offers one focus, the two sentences that make up the poem’s body present the literal path of the occasion from two very different vantages, the first being the weeds that are not allowed through the cinder blocks, the second being the stairs at its end.

Ron Silliman on Silliman’s blog, July 26, 2010

Yea, it’s been a long, hot summer.   Not all of us are thinking clearly.   Still, we need to nip this madness in the bud.  Whatever else we may say about it, there is nothing precise or “detailed” about “Path” by Joseph Massey.  I know the humidity, combined with too much coffee, can make us a little crazy, but that’s no excuse for slipshod criticism.   American Letters is not a joke, or it is, or it is not, depending, but we think Ron Silliman is serious in what he says, and this may be cause for alarm, since summer heat can sometimes be dangerous.  We just want to make sure Ron is alright.

Ron writes: “the attention to the minutest detail is immediately evident.”

Evident to whom?

Whose “attention?”

“minutest?”  More minute than what?

Silliman uses a comparative, “minutest,” and yet “weeds” are not minute. They are quite visible.  Further, the poet, young Mr. Massey, does not distinguish one weed from another, nor does Mr. Massey examine a weed with any sort of attentive eye to detail at all.  How and why does Silliman believe that Mr. Massey earns the plaudit: “attention to the minutest detail?”  There is none.  No “attention to minute details” at all.  “Weeds,” “path” “steps” and “chipped blue paint” (oh pardon me!  “chipped/blue paint”) are observed, but there is nothing in the poem in which “attention to the minutest detail” is even faintly approached.  Where is Mr. Massey’s microscope?  Never mind the microscope, where is Mr. Massey’s knowledge of weeds?  There are many kinds of weeds, but “Path” is so bereft of detailed observation that no “weed” is identified.

I think we can all agree that Criticism, at the very least, should be accurate, even in the middle of a hot, humid summer, a hot, humid summer choked with “weeds.”

Careful, Ron, that you don’t trip on that “path.”

THE SILLIMAN CLAQUE DEFINED

Instead of defining “The School of Quietude,” which would seem to include every legitimate work of literature in the universe, it might be simpler to define its opposite:  The Silliman Claque.

1. Sprang from the School of Pound, that ill-defined sack of half-baked platitudes which happily expands the definition of poetry to include kitchen sinks (as long as the kitchen sinks are modern—or disguised as Greek artifacts).  The Pound method is something like this:  Burn all the metronomes which happen to be at hand.  (Sing and dance around the flames.  Fornicate, even, while the metronomes burn.)  Write whatever comes into your head for about an hour.   Call what you’ve written a “canto.”  Write more of these.  Call the work “The Cantos.”   You will be called either a presumptuous ass—or a genius.  Add a manifesto or two for those who believe you are a genius.  Get yourself accused of treason.  In the hospital for the criminally insane, entertain a few young poets, the ones who lack admission into writing workshops now popping up around the country.  Be yourself, but flatter these brave, ambitious visitors enough to win a few disciples.  Your legacy is assured.

2.  Push regionalism.  This has the advantage of defining your Claque in the absence of any actual common sense pertaining to it. Pretend a mimeograph closet, or a tree, or a bridge, in California is radically different from one in Massachusetts.

3.  Close-reading.   See deeper than Wordsworth, go beyond the Transcendentalists, bring more powerful microscopes than even the New Critics feigned using, as you penetrate, with your powerful acumen, in a magic spell of gravitas, every speck in (or even around and above) the poem.  Never be pedantic enough. Always strive for more pedantry and close-reading wizardry.  Show how a comma in Creeley will out-live Hamlet, or a colon in Olsen is more important than the “Paradise Lost,”or that a hypen in Duncan is more significant than all the odes of Keats (though hint at such wonders—do not assert them; make poetry an adventure, not a competition—none of Arnold’s Touchstones, only touch the wonders of the subtle and the small, in new and strange and remarkable ways…)  For example, from Creeley.  If you would escape the dread “School of Quietude,” contemplate the following until a bowel movement comes.  Think of it as more than mere poetry-analysis; think of it as a way to know the zen of your mind and your body, as everything waits for you:

It the moon did not . . .
no, if you did not
I wouldn’t either, but
what would I not

do, what prevention, what
thing so quickly stopped.
That is love yesterday
or tomorrow, not

now. . . .

THE SCHOOL OF QUIETUDE IS COMPRISED OF POEMS, NOT POETS —SETH ABRAMSON

And we can start to make a definitive list:

1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening -Frost
2. Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night  -Thomas
3. Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock  -Eliot
4. The Road Not Taken  -Frost
5. Daddy  -Plath
6. This Be The Verse  -Larkin
7. Dirge Without Music  -Millay
8. When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone  -Kinnell
9. Nostalgia -Billy Collins
10. Musee des Beaux Arts  -Auden
11. The People Next Door -Louis Simpson
12. Her Kind -Sexton
13. Those Winter Sundays  -Robert Hayden
14. Resume  -Dorothy Parker
15. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  -Jarrell
16. Bored  -Margaret Atwood
17. Wild Geese  -Mary Oliver
18. Madman’s Song  -Elinor Wylie
19. That’s Not Butter  -Reb Livingston
20. The Wellspring  -Sharon Olds
21. Question  -May Swenson
22. Patterns  -Amy Lowell
23. A Subaltern’s Love Song  -John Betjeman
24. Sailing To Byzantium  -Yeats
25. How I Got That Name  -Marilyn Chin

These 25 poems are similar to what most poets today would bring to the table if pressed to name well-known poems, or poems they know, or personally like.

I don’t think anyone would argue that most, if not all, of these poems are exceptional, pleasing to read, and fit right into ‘The School of Quietude,’ if anyone really understands this particular category at all.

Could we find 25 poems that do not fit ‘The School of  Quietude,’ and would these poems be to anyone’s liking?  Would they find favor with the mass, or, would they be either pretentious, dull experiments, too obscure, or, further, if they were found to be pleasing, fit for inclusion in ‘The School of Quietude’ list?

We have a dilemma, I think.

Abramson’s intentions are good: let’s base the whole matter in actual poems.

However, if we look at our list above, aren’t we simply left with a bunch of anthology pieces?  Is this the result?  A nice little poetry anthology of favorite poems?

Perhaps it is, and all the theorists can go hang.

But poetry that lives for tomorrow, poetry that exists outside the mere appreciation of anthology pieces, where is it, then?  It seems to be this territory is vast and it falls to Silliman-ism by default, if we use Abramson’s strategy.

Either ‘The School of Quietude” is a mirage, or we need a different way of assessing it.

COME ALONG QUIETLY

 

Edgar Poe’s take on quietude in this passage from late 1847 is almost identical with Ron Silliman’s general use of the term:

 “It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity–that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the North American Review, is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.” And this is, indeed, the one thing they should be permitted to enjoy, if only upon the Christian principle of give and take.”   —Poe (reviewing Hawthorne)

Silliman would never agree with Poe’s idea that “the popular mind most keenly feels the original” since Silliman’s avant-garde poetry stars are anything but popular.  But Silliman would appreciate Poe’s whack at the “cultivated old clergymen” and their “repose.”

Poe qualified his original praise of Hawthorne (1842) when he reviewed the Salem author again, in 1847.  It’s pretty obvious why Poe downgrades Hawthorne from an imaginative original in 1842 to a merely fanciful one in 1847:  Hawthorne was getting in too deep with the Transcendentalists.  He was renting from Mr. EmersonPoe pleads with Hawthorne at the end of his piece: mend [your] pen, [Mr. Hawthorne!] get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of “The Dial,” and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of “The North American Review.” [!!]

Should Poe have changed his mind on Hawthorne just because Hawthorne had become friends with Emerson?  The Transcendalists hurt Poe into Criticism, so I say: why not?   The genius of Poe can love while it is hating, and it’s a pleasure to observe how Poe’s mind siezes on new insights as it ruefully revises in the 1847 article.

It might be worthwhile to take a peek at what Poe has to say regarding this “Quietude” business, since Poe did in fact originate the designation Silliman has for some time leaned on, and Seth Abramson is currently taking great pains to wrestle to the ground.

According to Poe, the novelty of a work is multi-dimensional, but quietude is simpler—either a work calms or agitates.  But it is possible, Poe contends, for a work to have both “repose” and originality, and this is what he praised in Hawthorne.

Originality in fiction, according to Poe, needs to aim at a middle ground above the merely “peculiar,” and below that “metaphysical originality”—reserved for science; the ‘higher’ type of originality will merely irritate the reader of fiction—who is looking for pleasure, not instruction.

As usual, Poe divides poetry from truth.  He also makes a case for literary talent as a quality worthy by itself and in itself and to be demonstrated, first, in a “rhymed composition which can be perused in under an hour” and owes its power to “rhythm,” and, secondly, in a work of short fiction naturally unshackled by that which contributes to beauty—the artificiality of rhythm.

Most moderns consider this all too neat and tidy, of course, but Poe’s course has the advantage of leaving a wider field for invention, creativity, energy, experiment and effort—precisely because he establishes the ‘neat and tidy’ in the beginning, and gets it out of the way.  No matter how rough-edged and complex we consider ourselves, the ‘neat and tidy’ eventually comes around to bite us.  Our metaphysics longs for smoothness at last. 

For instance, look at Seth Abramson.  He doesn’t begin where Poe begins.  Abramson stakes out his analysis this way: he chops the last 100 years of poetry into two tropes: transcendent (language as signifier) and immanent (language as signified).  But why should a writer ever consistenly divide himself, or limit himself, thus, especially since language cannot be interesting unless it do both at once, pretty much all the time?  An artificial division such as this one by Abramson cannot stand, without making a mockery of poetry, and if poetry over the last 100 years is a mockery in many respects, the public having totally deserted it, so much greater the urgency to bring sanity back all clean and such, and easy to demonstrate and see. (“get a bottle of visible ink“—Poe to Hawthorne in 1847)

Poe asks only for originality in a rhymed composition (unless you want to go for the short fiction).  He doesn’t care if it is transcendent or immanent in its use of language, or what manifesto or tribe, or agenda, or school, or what theory attend it.  Rhyme, and if you can’t rhyme, you’re doing it wrong.  You start with one or two simple rules, the simpler the better, and let genius make all the rules after that.

WARNING: INCEPTION IS A BIG, UNWIELDLY PIECE OF CRAP

Don’t see this movie.  It’s 148 minutes long and threatens to be enjoyable for about 12 of those minutes.  Don’t waste your time.

Ron Silliman, who tends to go ga-ga over dreck-poetry, loved this movie.   What is it about ‘found poem’ LANGUAGE poetry, modernist, post-avants which makes them pee their pants over homages? 

Found Poem, Homage, Homage, Found Poem.     Gee, I wonder?

Here’s Ron:

“These levels of complexity are layered even further with homages – blatant ones – to a slew of other films. The fight sans gravity may remind you of The Matrix not because the antagonists are bouncing off the walls, but because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wearing the same clothes as Hugo Weaving in that earlier movie (lacking only the mirror shades). Marion Cotillard, who won her Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf…” 

Thanks, Ron.

(By the way, did anyone see that Edith Piaf film? It was awful.)

Luther Blissett (writing on Silliman’s blog) nails it:

“Really? The movie I saw built up for nearly an hour what seemed like it was going to be a psychedelic dream sequence, full of non-Euclidian geometry and Borgesian labyrinths.

Instead, what we got was a pastiche of bad adventure movies — but without the wit of classic Bond or *Ocean’s Eleven*. Even the adventure sequences themselves played more like video games than imaginatively choreographed struggles.

Not a single character had the motivation to make me care about his or her journey. Ariadne seems instantly addicted to the infinite possibilities of dream architecture — except that the dreams fail to display any imagination. And even as she’s aware that DiCaptrio is a selfish sociopath, she tries to help him. Cobb’s journey lacks anything like the emotional weight of Odysseus’ nostos; he was a self-obsessed husband and father, and there’s no sign by the end that he’ll be any better. And the tycoon’s daddy issues are like a silly re-write of *Citizen Kane*. Never mind that these issues are manufactured by others — his father really *was* disappointed in him, and his future actions are simply brainwashed determinism.

I sort of admire the sheer audacity of pastiching this many films in one. It’s like *Fantastic Voyage* without any sense that the author understands neuroscience or cognitive psychology. It’s like *Superfly* or any other “last big score” film that tries to justify sociopathic behavior as a means to an end equation: I will kill you all just to get home.

All of which would have been all right if it was at all a visually stimulating movie. It’s about dreams, for crying out loud, and as Salon’s movie critic wrote, it seems as if Nolan’s dreams are scripted by Michael Bay.”

Yea, this is definitely not an ‘actor’s movie,’ and the story is predictable as hell.  

Don’t expect another Memento. 

As another reviewer (Telegraph, U.K.) put it:

“It’s like watching a Bond film in which you know that Bond’s life is never at risk. Actually make that two Bond films because Inception’s running time is an agonising 148 minutes. That’s 148 minutes in which nothing is ever at stake.”

NORMA COLE’S GLORIOUS INVENTION

“When Ron complains about formalism, he disses the thought and technical tricks as boring and weak. That’s fine—most ambitious stabs at rationality fail.
 
But when he tries to compliment a poem filled with non sequiturs and irrational metaphors and puerile little turns, he waxes about its glorious invention.
 
–Curtis Faville, on Silliman’s blog, Norma Cole post, July 16
 
 
: WELL!
 
Je ne suis pas censé aimer ceci

The children will explain this
(we adults have given up)
you try if you like
praise for your friends
never ends, never ends
fellow: traveler
starfish foot, my summer house
what the children imagined it would be
it was

what is sheer magic for one
is precious & pretentious to another
you blubbered before
the drunk driver killer
you are not
onto something new

Oh Paris, London
Oh well

Your work is being eclipsed by my life

—Thomas Brady

: Well

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

A starfish sits on your foot, an effect of fog in London
or Paris

There is a thin film of dust on the leaves. We
eat this dust

Life is eclipsed by work, an island of fire in the
burning sea, consolation of desire

The invisibilities would live inside the well
dropping their arms

“with such grace” untimely in our summer house

“As for sleep”

the space refuses rationalization

—Norma Cole

This is a poem that will, I think, resist attempts at explication. Action is minimal: telling stories, eating dust, listening (an action so slight, at least from outward appearance, we might miss it entirely). There are the great foreign cities of Westciv, but there is an island also, a very isolate thing, related here to work & to desire. And there are moments of sheer magic: the starfish that sits on your foot, the creatures that cannot be seen but which we know (as only children can) live inside the well. There is an entire infrastructure invoked by that noun, as by island in the previous couplet, and neither have anything to do with London / or Paris. Tho they might with summer house. When I read that final line, I hear it both in a mathematical & a psychological sense.

This poem took my breath away when I first read it. Its tone reflects total confidence with the language. Cole knows how ungainly, how proselike, that truncated or Paris looks. In fact, that is precisely what she is after, something to offset the starfish magic, to lend the poem its dreamlike quality (hence, many lines later, sleep). That distance, could we but capture it, would indeed be the difference between the real & the remembered, between shitting pearls & islands of desire. Do I hear Olson here?

Offshore, by islands hidden the blood
jewels & miracles

The very first words of The Maximus Poems come very close to “: Well,” perhaps more so in spirit than as actual reference. It is only at the end of Cole’s poem that I realize both why the colon in the title as well as the absent article. This is not The Well, which it might have become in any lesser hands. Rather, the world of memory & desire, of stories, even of work, lead inevitably to it, an object or trope from childhood endowed with the powers of youthful imagination. That is why (& how) life, work & stories are entangled here, and why sleep is posed as “untimely” – this is about dream, not rest.

This is one of those poems that lets you know its writer could do / can do anything. I stand in front of it much the way I did the first time I saw the great Jackson Pollock No. 1 at the National Art Gallery in DC, tears streaming down my face just to realize that somebody could do this, that I live in a world where such grace is possible. Against all odds. Against tent cities in Haiti, fighting in Darfur or the valleys of Afghanistan, the poisoning of the entire Gulf of Mexico & the utter prevarication that inundates us the instant we turn on “the news.”

I read poetry, have read poetry my entire adult life, since I was 16 years old, precisely because from time to time I will come across something like this, which throws everything I know into relief. And I wonder if I am alone in “getting” just what a great poem this is. I hope not.

Going backward from “: Well” toward the beginning of this book, it seems apparent that Cole had been building up to such utter clarity for several years, more than I had recognized back when I lived in San Francisco & would see Norma regularly at readings & other literary occasions. And reading the remainder of Where Shadows Will, it’s evident that she has gone forward in her mastery. She has had health problems in recent years, but if there has been any diminution in her powers as an artist, it sure is not evident in this book. It makes me hungry to know what comes next.

—Ron Silliman

COME ON, RON, WHO ARE THE COOL KIDS?

These guys wanna know.  We all wanna know.

PGillespie has thrown down the gauntlet in reply to Ron Silliman’s latest “School of Quietude” essay on Silliman’s blog. (July 7, 2010)

We hope PGillespie will pardon us as we quote his comment responding to Mr. Silliman in full:

–”Well into the 1950s (and in some realms perhaps even today), men were simply the unmarked case of people….”

Beginning with this paragraph, you associate the unmarked case with bigots, racists, sexists and the like. You could have been looking for familiar examples but it seems as likely that you were trying to cast the idea of the “unmarked case” in as negative a light as possible. That’s called framing your argument and it makes it very hard for someone to disagree without being associated with the ignorance of bigots, racists, sexists, etc… Don’t believe me? Silliman drives home the comparison just in case anyone missed it:

–”…the phenomenon is invisible precisely to those who in turn are defined by it, just as the exclusionary maleness of “men” was once invisible to guys.”

In other words, those who disagree with you are like those men who are blissfully ignorant of their own prejudices.

–”One might argue that these poets just weren’t terribly good, but these were all Pulitzer winning poets…”

*If* they were awarded the Pulitzer prize *then* they must have been good poets? The unstated assumption is that the Pulitzer prize is like mercury in a thermometer. It doesn’t lie. But such an assumption borders on cultivated naivety. It’s more likely that A.) not only were these poets ‘not terribly good’ but that B.) those who awarded the Pulitzer Prize were not terribly good arbiters of poetry.

In fact, when reading posts like these, I get the impression that you have more in common with the unmarked case than those you’ve labeled. You seem blissfully unaware of your own proclivities and biases.

–”All of which suggests to me that the School of Quietude would benefit from acknowledging its own existence…”

Because, according to the manner in which you have framed the argument, those who disagree with you are like the historical racists and patriarchal sexists. And yet it’s equally possible that SOQ is an arbitrary and vacuous label. If you can compare those who don’t accept the SOQ label to racists and sexists, then there’s no reason why your own assertions shouldn’t be compared to the compulsions of a phrenologist – a poet’s phrenologist – tapping at the crania of dessicated poems and poets, measuring, weighing, cataloging, taxonomizing, all the while insisting that their remains confirm your expectations. Perhaps we should eventually expect a fine body of work entitled: The Anatomy and Physiology of Poetic Schools in General, and of Poets in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Poets and Readers, by the configuration of their Lexicon

–”If a term like School of Quietude isn’t to their liking, I’d suggest that they come up with one of their own.”

Or perhaps they would argue against the necessity for such a term?

Define your terms, Ron, and do it honestly. I google the term ‘School of Quietude’ and I read post after post after essay of confusion, uncertainty and muddiness. Wikipedia doesn’t bother defining it.

Define the term. Be explicit. Be clear. Be forthright.

Who’s in. Who’s out.

If you, yourself, can’t clearly and objectively define your own terminology (such that others can clearly and concisely argue for or against your phrenology), then there’s no reason why anyone should take you seriously. The scrap heap of history’s cemetery is wide and accommodating – especially to poets and their critics.

PGillespie’s right to ask for more definition, so we can get “School of Quietude” on Wiki already.  

It’s pretty simple: name the “School of Quietude” poets and then we’ll know where we stand.

Who is cool—and who is not?

This whole matter reminds me of the 1984 Conference in Alabama, when Gerald Stern asked Charles Bernstein to “name names” of the so-called “Official Verse Culture.”   Bernstein was trying to blame poets on holding back the advance of poetry when other panelists were blaming the critics.   Bernstein was enjoying a maverick status at the conference, claiming that poetry and criticism were basically the same thing, but when confronted by Stern re: specifics on “The Official Verse Culture,” Bernstein could only sputter forth a single name: the long dead, revolutionary modernist poet-critic, T.S. Eliot.

So much for the crimes of “Official Verse Culture.”

Is “The School of Quietude” just another blue unicorn—like “Official Verse Culture?”

CAN ANYONE STOP THE LONDON ELIOTS?

Was April T.S. Eliot’s cruelest month?

On April 30, Ron Silliman (6-4) pitched the New Jersey Williams to a 3-1 victory over London, dropping the Eliots to 12-9.  At the time, it looked like April had been good for Thomas Stearns Eliot, for 12-9 is not a shabby mark (.571).

On May 1, Matthew Arnold (who had just been signed) threw a complete game shutout against New Jersey. In May and June London is 38-13, a .745 winning percentage.   The Eliots are 11-1 against the Williams this year.

Who can stop these guys?  London leads the Scarriet AL with 50 wins and 22 losses.  The next best record in Scarriet Poetry Baseball 2010 belongs to the New England Frost, second in the AL at 42-30.  The Philadelphia Poe owns a slim lead in the NL with a 41-31 showing.

The Eliots have won 18 of their last 22 games with a microscopic team ERA of 1.73 during that span.  The Frost, who added Jesus Christ (4-0) to their pitching staff, are 15-7 in their last 22 games, with a slightly better ERA than the Eliots in those 22 games, and yet London has increased their lead over the Frost from 5 to 8 games, thanks to London’s current incredible run.

The Eliots pitching staff: Bertrand Russell 11-3, James Frazier 11-3, Tristan  Corbiere 8-3, Winston Churchill 8-2, and Matthew Arnold 5-5 (with 2 shutouts).  Sir Edward Howard Marsh is 2-0 in relief.

Lady Ottoline Morrell is batting almost .400 from the leadoff spot, while Arthur Symons, John Donne and Aldous Huxley are providing the power.

But it’s been the pitching and defense which has been miraculous.

Vivienne Haigh-Wood is playing well at second, providing excellent double-play defense with shortstop Rudyard Kipling.

“I’m proud of my team, ” Eliot said yesterday.  “It is a long summer, though, and anything can happen.”

THE TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION KILLS HARRIET

Harriet has shut down comments to its blog. 

What follows is Harriet’s explanation, with comments from Scarriet:

What’s New at Harriet

First of all, we’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who made National Poetry Month on Harriet such a great experience.  [No…Thank YOU...]

We had some of the most lively and engaging discussions over the past thirty one days, as well as profound stand-alone pieces.  True, it was a lot to take in over a quick month, but we’re confident the posts will remain touchstones for future conversations.  Thank you, writers and readers, for all your efforts.  [No…REALLY…Thank YOU.]

And now, we’d like to lay out what’s in store for Harriet[‘lay out what’s in store’  What ugly terminology.  Don’t like the sound of this…]

Asked to describe how poetry has changed over the past ten years, Ron Silliman wrote on our site that the ongoing revolution in communications technology has upended the power dynamics of the community as well as the way poets interact.  [Whatever that means…ALL BOW DOWN TO THE NEW GOD OF C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-I-O-N-S  T-E-C-H-N-O-L-O-G-Y! ]

 “Poets blogging,” Silliman wrote, “is just a symptom.”  [just a symptom.  ... a symptom’ of what?]

Over the past four years we’ve been privileged to be a part of this revolution.  [ahh, the privilege of revolution!]   

From the early long-form journals on Harriet to the group blog, the style and format have evolved to match the moment, and we’re grateful for everyone who has participated, posters and commenters alike.  [yes...eternally grateful, no doubt...]

Recently, though, we’ve noticed that the symptoms of this revolution have changed.  The blog as a form has begun to be overtaken by social media like Twitter and Facebook.  [Twitter and Facebook???  LOL]

News of the poetry world now travels fastest and furthest through Twitter (as the thousands of followers of @poetryfound, @poetrymagazine, and @poetrynews can attest), with the information often picked up from news aggregator sites rather than discursive blogs.  [“News of the poetry world:" Damn those discursive blogs!]

Also, anyone involved in the more dynamic discussions of poetry, poetics, or politics in the past year knows that more and more of the most vibrant interactions have been found on Facebook.  [Facebook.  LOL]

We saw this happening last month as our National Poetry Month posts traveled far and wide through various status updates, wall postings, and links.  [FAR AND WIDE?? golly!]

 Setting aside the troubling issues of privacy and coterie this brings up, it would be foolish to deny it as a fact of the revolution.  [The “revolution” of “coterie.”]

As Craig Santos Perez recently joked, “it’s true, facebook killed the blogger star.”  And while that’s obviously not completely true (check out our new blogroll for evidence to the contrary), we feel that the new terrain calls for a new Harriet.  [Harriet jumps into Facebook river.  See ya…]

Starting this week, then, Harriet will transition into a space we hope will better serve the various poetry communities we’ve come to know over the past four years.  [Harriet wants to “better serve” Facebook and Twiiter.  LOL]

This new version of Harriet will feature on the main page a daily news feed with links and excerpts from other outlets around the world.  [Harriet evolves into a nothing which exists only to link to something else.  Vive la Revolution!]

We hope to point to the vibrant discussions happening online, as well as vital literary journalism, essays, and criticism.  [“We hope to point to…LOL]

In addition to this news aggregation, we will spotlight poetry communities and events.  [Harriet, the Community Calendar.  Yawn]

These features, which will appear under the name “Open Door,” will use multimedia journalism to showcase unique interactions between poets and poetry readers around the world. [Multimedia journalism!  You don’t say!]

 Look for “Open Door” features on the The Interrupture performances in Seattle, poetry night in Iraq, and circle dancing in Iceland in the coming months.  Click on the side bar link for a more in-depth description of this new feature.  [Harriet's got discount plane tickets, too!]

In addition to news and these Open Door features, Harriet will begin a new life on Twitter.  Each month a new poet will take over the Harriet Twitter feed and provide daily posts about his or her life, work, and interests.  Sign up to follow this month’s writer, D.A. Powell, at @harriet_poetry. [Celeb Twitter!]

The posts and discussions of the past will all remain archived on the site, but in this new stage Harriet itself will no longer feature comments. [yea, who needs ‘em?]

This isn’t a decision we’ve come to lightly, but it has become clear over the past few months that it is time for Harriet to move on from this discussion model.  [Twitter is calling!  LOL]

The space was designed to be forward thinking and experimental, and so we look forward to continuing along that path.  [to Twitter.  LOL]

We’re grateful for everyone who has participated over the past few years, and we hope that the energy and thought that went into the best comments can be put into the wide range of other available and worthy outlets in the poetry world.  [for we, Harriet, are no longer worthy!]

We’re excited to follow Harriet on this new adventure, and we hope you are too.  [What is this ”adventure” again?  Kill discursiveness and embrace Twitter?  Gosh…thanks.]

Together we believe we can continue to highlight the new voices Harriet Monroe set out to find when she began Poetry back in 1912.  [“Together we believe…”  This never bodes well…]

Sincerely,

Catherine Halley and Travis Nichols

So here’s the question:  What happened to Harriet?

It seems Harriet is like an investor in clover leaf highways in the 1950s. 

Unable to bring substance, they are now latching onto mere technology as the answer.

The patient, poetry, has long been sick, the illness due to the obscurantism of the modernists, and Harriet believes the best cure for the patient is to block discursiveness.  Well done, Doctor!   

My hunch is that Harriet’s April (the ‘no comments’ experiment) saw hits go way down, and, disturbed, perplexed, perhaps even angered at this turn of events, Harriet decided poetry must really be dead…after all, Harriet offered all these articles from all these interesting poets…but interest was minimal and Harriet’s experiment was a failure, precisely because readers were not allowed to comment.  Harriet realized in horror that readers were not really interested in Harriet’s offerings—they just wanted to hear themselves talk.  

“We’ll show you…” has been Harriet’s reaction.  No one read Harriet in April because everyone was on Twitter!   That’s what Harriet told itself.   Blame it on the technology.  

The problem isn’t with Harriet or po-biz.  The problem is that damn ‘technology revolution.’  It’s all Twitter’s fault.

Nope. 

Everyone was reading Scarriet.

AND WE’RE DOWN TO EIGHT…THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY’S ELITE EIGHT

 

Ladies and gentlemen!  Welcome to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Welcome poets, judges, and all you fans!

(Wild cheers)

The Scarriet Best American Poetry March Madness Road To The Final Four Tournament has been a whopping success.

(Applause)

Just as a play-within-a-play charms us within the context of the play precisely by a ratio of two to one, so the best of ‘the best’ cannot help but double the enjoyment of any who would enter into the spirit of climbing to the top—of what isn’t there.  Of course there’s no best.  Of course there’s no God.  But that is why our belief is so fanatical.

(Scattered clapping, hoots and hollers.)

Margaret Atwood, Janet Bowdan, Lewis Buzbee, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, William Kulik, Reb Livingston, and Bernard Welt…

(Terrific applause…standing ovation…)

…have climbed to the top of a mountain, a mountain as real…

(continued applause)

…as anything contained in the 1,500 poems published in the Best American Poetry’s 21 year existence. 

(Mad cheering)

This is not to slight the reality of those poems…including the poems themselves which made it to the Elite Eight…

(clapping, foot stomping…)

but we all know that to write poetry is to translate doubtful thoughts on doubtful objects into a doubtful product for those who doubt, so that…

(Hoots and hollers)

…we might deliciously doubt our own doubts on what is so deliciously doubtful.

(Applause)

What could be more real than that?

(Laughter)

And now may I present to you the expert on Good Poems…

Here’s Garrison Keillor!

 (Applause)

 

Ahem. Thank you.  You know, with all the excitement around Best American Poetry March Madness, I’m tempted to say sports is more poetical than poetry…

 (Laughter, cheers)

Who thought the Muse looked like… Howard Cosell?

(Laughter)

Well, John Ashbery is out of the tournament.  He’s become the audience.  He’s becomes his admirers.  There you are…Hi, John!  You dominated BAP.  How can you be out of this tournament? Knocked out in the first round, right?   What happened?  (Pause for comic effect…)

 (Laughter)

 [Audience member:  “Nathan Whiting!”]

 Oh, yes…14th seed.   The dog poem.  Nathan Whiting turned John Ashbery into a stag.

 (Laughter)

 And think of the poets who didn’t make the tournament.  August Kleinzahler?  Where is he?

 (Nervous Laughter)

 Ron Silliman?  Is he here?   Where is the School of…Noise?  

 (Groans, Laughter)

Charles Bernstein?  The School of Language.  Try to give us something more than objectivity and cleverness, fellas…

 (Nervous laughter)

All kidding aside, I have a B.A. in English, so what do I know?   And not from Harvard, either.  The University of Minnesota.

(isolated cheer or two)

There’s a Golden Gopher.   That has a poetic ring to it, doesn’t it?  Golden Gopher.  Could anyone write a poem on that?   Ode to a Golden Gopher?  It would sound too strange…words are funny, aren’t they?  That’s the challenge of poetry, isn’t it?   To make words behave.   Golden Gopher ought to sound poetic, but once we hold it aloft…once we think on it…the whole thing sounds…

(Laughter)

Let’s have a great round of applause for the Scarriet Best American Poetry Elite Eight!

(Applause, Cheers)

Congratulations, Scarriet!  You’re getting more hits than ever.  You are now the 46,793rd most popular poetry website!

(Laughter)

Scarriet will never be the heroin of poetry appreciation.  Poems are not  appreciated on Scarriet so much as thrown off a building to see if they will fly. 

To those who are still alive in the tournament, you’ve earned it.

Congratulatons!

SORRY, RAE! MARCH MADNESS COMPETITION NOT GOOD FOR ALL POEMS

  

Rae Armantrout:  Not Worthy?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

2010 Best American Poetry March Madness memo to the heart-broken:

The competition leading up to the tourney this year was not kind to the sly, modest poem of aphoristic insight.

The Rae Armantrouts, the Charlie Bernsteins, the Robert Creeleys were thumped by poems of lean muscle and fine excess.

The insouciant observation, mixing humility and pun, the delicate flower of look-what-I-found philosophy got hurt and hurt, often. 

The playoff atmosphere isn’t kind to the little poem read silently in the corner with a bemused smile.

The well-known risk of using zen puzzles in a poem increases during March Madness: if the audience ‘gets’ the poem, digestion could mean forgetting; if the audience does not ‘get’ it, befuddlement could mean frustration. 

~  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~                                     

“Do you like the poem, or not—yes or no?” is not necessarily a fair question, even when it’s only a soft voice in the back of the reader’s mind, but it’s one that emerges, and loudly, during a fast-paced tournament.   Some types of poems are simply not up to that question. 

But it will be asked.

And it wants an answer.

In the March Madness pressure-cooker, poems with backbones, poems with force and weight, prevail. Judgment in playoffs is different from normal judgment; adrenaline tends to see through coyness that ordinarily charms.

We really ought to point out that, likewise, in the hurricane winds of playoff intensity, poems that try too hard to be funny, poems that force their points, or take too long to get to their points, get blown apart.  Not only the small, but the bloated, fail at playoff time.

We know the School of Ron Silliman will be broken-hearted when it learns Rae Armantrout failed to make the tournament.  Part of the problem is that her best work has not appeared in the Best American Poetry series.

Rae Armantrout’s “Almost” (Hejinian 2004) almost made the tournament.

Here’s the danger of using self-conscious language: what strives to be memorable may fall into the black hole of the poem’s self-effacing scientific observation.

When Armantrout ends her poem:

come find me
I stand
behind these words.

She aggressively tropes a cliched formula:  the poem’s life having an actual existence in two places: in its words and behind its words, and what better way than for the poem to speak of “these words?” 

Armantrout builds up to her assertion (that a life exists behind her words) with what sounds like a couple passages lifted from her diary, in which she reflects how words spoken between friends (or perhaps lovers) are gone, and if they were retrieved, hauled back into the light of day, out-of-context, the speakers would be embarrassed by them. 

The “tenor” of their “talk,” she writes, in the first part of the poem, is worthwhile and has been consistent and lasting—she compares “tenor” to “soul”—and then she praises their word play which deliberately “suppresses content/ in advance/ of time’s rub-out.” 

In part two, (the poem contains two parts, part one about 60 words, part two about 30) Armantrout describes a playful billboard message which reads “Size matters,” and hides its product in the corner “so we need to search for it.”   Then we get the ‘look for me behind the words’ ending.

The poem’s observations are somewhere between the scientific, on one hand, and late night dorm room bonding with just the right combination of homesickness and weed-toking on the other: these ingredients certainly can add up to a poignant poem.

Unfortunately, Armantrout’s poem founders on the rocks of its own unoriginal trope.  Too much empathy is required of the reader to rescue Armantrout’s poem by “finding” her poem behind her poem.

And so Rae Armantrout failed to make the cut. 

Few poets do.

Don’t see your favorite poet in the 2010 March Madness brackets? 

Another poet wanted it more.

Sorry, Mr. Silliman.  It’s playoff time.

RON SILLIMAN: AN APPRECIATION

Who rocks poetry on the web every day?
Over the hills and far away?
Selflessly and without pay?
For the good of poetry alway?

.

THE MYTH OF QUIETISM

The School of Quietism, a coinage Professor Silliman partially ripped from Poe, supposedly represents the smug, reactionary mainstream, what Professor Bernstein, fresh out of Harvard (philosophy) used to call “Official Verse Culture.” 

The SoQ, to these professors and their followers, is the great nemesis to all progressive “movements,” avant-garde experimentation, modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist, flights, spiraling, downward into the lower regions of Creative Writing Workshop hell, where such texts as American Hybrid (Iowa, say “hello” to Brown!) greet the sad victim.

The binary of Quietism v. Avant-garde is an outrageous falsehood that would matter if there were still a pulse on the American poetry scene—last time we checked, there was none—so Scarriet will have to step in and pretend to care, for we do take a malevolent delight in stirring things up. 

The educated person seriously interested in pedagogy and history who studies the ethical, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical issues of American poetry cannot help but laugh at the notion that the American avant garde is “progressive.”  How is the American poetry avant-garde, in any of its forms, “progressive?”   One must be a complete ass to believe this.

The history of modernist poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, is not even faintly “progressive.”  To point fingers at some of these writers as “Quietists” misses the whole point; the label is without merit; it doesn’t matter which side of the radical line one is on.  The Quietist label of Silliman’s is pure mystification. 

A literature which is incoherent, incomprehensible, and not in the least amusing or interesting to anyone, except a few professors, is not “progressive.”   One cannot be “progressive” while befuddling and confusing the downtrodden, the middle class, and 99.9 % of the highly educated.

Even admirers of  The Red Wheel Barrow, The Cantos, Finnegan’s Wake, the Maximus Poems, and LangPo admit these works are not improvements on the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; they reflect a change of taste over time.

Progress requires improvement.

Yet “progressive” is automatically linked to every inanity which flies under the banner of  “manifesto” or “movement,”  save those asserted as “new,” such as the New Formalism, a milk-and-water attempt that is retrograde on account of its weak and pedantic nature. 

But so are avant-garde movements in American poetry retrograde,  and for precisely the same reason. 

The “progressive” nomenclature is a con, for no measurable “improvement” exists.  Decreasing accessibility, coherence, beauty, popularity, excitement, and literacy in Letters cannot, in any shape, excuse, or form, be termed “progressive.” 

What sort of “progress” can be asserted?  Material?  Scientific?  Social? 

No, no, and no.

So the next time you hear some avant clown referring to themselves as “progressive,” wag your finger at them and say, “No, no, no…”

Asinus asinum fricat.

TRAVIS NICHOLS WARNS: LOUSY POETS WANT TO EXPERIMENT ON OUR BRAINS!

Beside running Blog-Harriet into the ground, Travis “The Enforcer” Nichols has another gig writing scientific articles for The Huffington Post. 

The mission: Attempt to make really bad contemporary poetry mainstream.

Step One.   Find a fairly eclectic topic covered by the mainstream press.

Take it away, Travis:

As you read this, Dr. Jacopo Annese is slicing up a brain. Not just any brain, but the brain of Henry Molaison, a man famous for his inability to form new memories after he underwent brain surgery in the early 1950s. Dr. Annese, a San Diego scientist, is digging into Molaison’s gray matter with hopes of figuring out exactly how human memory works. The NYT reports that recordings of Molaison’s brain slices will “produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created–and how they are retrieved.”

“The NYT reports…”   Good job, Travis!  That’s good. “The NYT reports…”  I like that.   OK…you’ve found something about the brain.  Good.  Someone is “slicing up a brain.”   That’ll perk their interest. 

Step Two.  While no one is looking, change the topic to poetry.

So Dr. Annese and his compatriots are, in effect, plunging into the greatest poetic mystery of all time.

Yeaaaa  “…greatest poetic mystery of all time.”   Way to go!   

Step three.  After mentioning a few dead poets in a erudite manner, politely name-drop your contemporaries as much as possible.  It might prove helpful one day.

Memory–and the wonder and terror it inspires–has generated great poems from Simonides, famous for eulogizing ancient Greek nobility, to Coleridge, who longed for his faraway friends in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” to the contemporary poets writing an “experiment in collective autobiography,” The Grand Piano. These poets–Ron Silliman,  Rae Armantrout,  Lyn Hejinian,  and Carla Harryman among them–have spent their careers using poetry to prod the brain in other areas besides just the comfortable spot where (to paraphrase Wordsworth) emotion is recollected in tranquility.

“…have spent their careers…”   Nice touch.  People will think you had no choice but to mention them in your article. 

Step Four.  Discuss the work of your contemporaries as if it’s new and important, even if it isn’t.

Poetry in this tradition–one that is less interested in telling stories and more interested in exploring how story-language works–attempts to make the emotion present in the reading experience. Tranquility can come later. They’re not re-telling memories in a poem (like the memory recounted in William Stafford’s much-anthologized “Traveling Through the Dark”, but rather using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading (Bernadette Mayer‘s writing is a great example of this kind of thing). To varying degrees, these poets have delved into what literary critic Reuven Tsur has called Cognitive Poetics, a field of study that has taken “reader-response” theory to a whole other level.

For example:  “…using word combinations, sound patterns, and different types of sentences to engage a reader’s brain while he or she is reading…”  “…different types of sentences…”  Great!

Step Five.   By now, the only readers still with you are those contemporaries you’ve name-dropped.  So you might as well name-drop some more.

Tsur makes the case that certain sound patterns have inherent properties that fire up the “poetic” parts of the brain, and that by paying attention to those patterns we can read poetry in an entirely new way. A wave of contemporary poets–the Grand Piano folks as well as Clark Coolidge, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Eric Baus,  Christian Bok,  and, in his way, Tao Lin–have taken up Tsur’s ideas about reading and used them in their writing. A “Cogntivie Poet” won’t simply say “When I first made out with so-and-so, I did the happy dance!” Rather, she will use word combinations that cause the attentive reader to feel, to create a new experience, a memory, by the act of reading. It will make the reader’s brain do the happy dance.

Step Six. It might make one or two people suspicious if you do all that name-dropping and don’t quote at least one bit of actual writing to demonstrate your thesis, so find a poem by someone hot and throw it out there.

Here’s how Bhanu Kapil handles a childhood memory in her poem “The House of Waters”:

Mud walls whose surfaces belonged to the plantar surfaces of human hands. I could see finger marks, whorls. Once, I was a living being, embellished with skin: fortunate and blighted in turns. I turned. In circles. In the adventure playground, which was concrete. When I fell, the nurse would daub me with yellow smears, that stang.

 “Mud walls.”  That’s good.   Now praise what you’ve just quoted and be sure to mention a dead poet in connection to it.

It’s heady stuff, and it follows in Gertrude Stein’s footsteps much more than Robert Frost’s.

Artsy-fartsy is the new brain science.

Step Seven. Finish up, lest a reader ask themselves what bad poetry has to do with the science of the brain.

It also can be full of messy failures that achieve nothing at all besides piles of linguistic gobbeldy-goo (it’s experimental, after all). For these reasons, only the most adventurous poetry readers have so far taken it up . This kind of poetry isn’t a comfort. Rather, it’s a challenge. It’s an experiment much like that of Dr. Annese, who, when he first sliced into H.M.’s brain uttered the quite expressive phrase, “Ah ha ha!”

“Ah ha ha!”  

Warn them, Travis, warn them!

THE PROZAC CRITIC

In a recent article, Poetry and Project Runway, on the Poetry Foundation’s Website, Stephen Burt, some guy who attended Oxford and Harvard and now is trying to be the next Helen Vendler (see Scarriet’s piece on the Dr. Phil of Criticism)  defends his rosy view that a criticism is not a criticism—that critics should ignore the bad.   Scarriet recently pointed out that this is like telling a philosopher to ignore the bad.  Put this way, Burt’s rosy view appears silly, which is proper.

In this essay, Burt uses the TV show Project Runway as a platform for his pedantry.

“Project Runway,” Burt informs us, “holds lessons for poetry critics,” but first we must learn “how the TV show works.”

Contestants design clothes.

Judges judge.

Enter Stephen Burt with ill-fitting analogy.

Ron Silliman has examined the show at length” and “a poetry blogger from New Zealand” has blogged on the idea of “Poetry Runway,”  so Burt is ready to launch. [click here]

Ruffles, buttons, ribbons, white T-shirt, striped button-down, jacket…ready.

“Poets, like clothes designers, love technical challenges.”

Design a dress made from newspaper.  Write a poem about a red wheel barrow.  OK.

I.A. Richards, Burt informs us, encouraged his students to make “snap judgments” on “unfamiliar poems” in an exercise of “Practical Criticism.”

Judging is Fun.   Alright.   So far, so good.

But now Burt wades into deeper waters.

And is quickly in over his head.

Happily reveling in the fact that TV overlapping poetry is pretty cool, Burt reaches for his drug of choice:

The happy drug, designed by the Lilly pharmaceutical company.

Prozac.

“Aspects of the TV show,” he tells us, make him “uneasy” in terms of “how we judge poems.”

The show, Burt warns, tends to highlight “contestants who flounder.”

Oh, no!

Criticism. Not good in the world of Stephen Burt.

Burt informs us what works on TV–and “rightly so” (Burt doesn’t want to appear as a scold)–are “flagrant failures” and “life stories.”

A TV show, Burt admits, “devoted wholly to winners’ techniques—how to sew this and pleat that, how to get collars right—might not even make sense to me.”

Now Burt gets down to the nitty-gritty:

“Those truths [popular appeal of negative focus and life stories] affect, not only the judging of hurriedly-assembled cocktail dresses on television, but the reading and reviewing of new poems. The broader the audience, or potential audience, the harder it is to talk about technique, and the more tempting it is to fall back on the poet’s life: Keats‘s tuberculosis, or his failed romance with Fanny Brawne; Robert Browning‘s successful romance with Elizabeth; Emily Dickinsons isolation (so often exaggerated); William Carlos Williamss medical practice, and so on.”

Burt’s reasoning is fatally flawed on two counts.

1. Does he really believe reviews of “new poems” are marred by reports of medical ills and romantic intrigues?  When is the last time a review of a new book of poems came down the pike with delicious details of the poet’s love life?  Is this really an issue, today?  Note that all of Burt’s examples are poets born in the 19th century.   Is it really true that poets born in 1980 are aesthetically challenged–because reviewers and critics keep focusing on their romances?

2. Any legitimate historical, philosophical, and cultural view of Keats that flies above mere New Criticism would obviously need to pay attention to a great deal more than Keats’ “turberculosis.”  (Though someone should tell Mr. Burt it was kind of a big deal—it killed him.)  Meet Mr. Burt’s straw man.  Mr. Burt evades the responsibility of the critic who whould investigate more than “getting collars right” by categorizing biography as “failed romance” or “TB.”  Burt, the New Critic, derides biography, and thus historical scholarship, by diminishing its scope—assuming the topic is little more than sordid gossip.

Burt is most troubled, however, by “the dangerous ease of a focus on failure.”  What does this mean?  Why isn’t he worried about a “dangerous ease of a focus on” glib praise?   The latter is far more prevalent than the former, and surely Burt’s prozac approach to poetry has a lot to do with this bland and sorry state of affairs in the first place.   Burt is like someone who complains of a bean bag’s hardness.

Mr. Burt now sheds the playful attitude he had towards the TV show completely, Silliman’s appreciation be damned:

“Project Runway gets most of its suspense by punishing failures.”

Shades of Blackwoods!   Say it ‘aint so, Professor!

Unable to face even the idea of failure, Burt, seeking out more serotonin, announces: “But it’s not good for readers and critics to treat poets this way.”

Burt demands nice—or else.

Critics must be nice to poets.

Great.  The prozac is kicking in.

Burt quotes Randall Jarrell, saying we should judge poets by good poems.  Well, sure.  Judge poets accomplished by their good poems.  Sort of obvious, isn’t it?  Pope warned against fastidiously finding fault if the poem triumphs as a whole, and this is more to the point: we should protect ourselves against the pedant—but Burt wants to protect us against the truth.

Because Wordsworth wrote dreck at times and was faulted for it, Burt proclaims, “Wordsworth would have never lasted on Project Runway.”   But he did.  He’s Wordsworth.

Now Burt brings out the heavy artillery:  “Reviewers and critics and readers of poetry should consult, first and last, ourselves.”

A noble sentiment, but what if “ourselves” is a prozac buzz?

Finally, the bow-tied New Critic steps from behind the Reality TV curtain:  What is important, Burt intones, is “whether and how poets can make it work.”

The very phrasing is right off the New Criticism rack: doctrinaire, tweedy, and square-jawed, with a whiff of the musty.

A little tip for Stephen Burt (and Helen Vendler):

1. A criticism is a criticism.

2. Criticism should consider everything–the poet’s mentors, associates, politics, in short, the life.

3. Use tact and taste (this goes without saying).

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